December 22, 2016
“How old were you when your sister was born?” I asked.
“That’s a tough time to find out you’re not an only child.”
“No,” I said. “Two-years-old is the worst time. You start to wake up to the idea that you’re something special and at just that instant you’re pushed off the stage by a gooey little bruise who can’t do anything but poop and squall.”
The boy smiled at that. “You might be right.”
“I did it to my sister, twenty-months-old and so precocious. And then there I was, snapping at her heels and robbing her of all the attention. It warped her for life, I’m sure of it.” I was smiling, too, but I really do feel that way.
I was talking to Jean Valjean – the second time as farce – from my station at the choo-choo train kiosk at the Arrowhead Mall. I didn’t actually know to call him ‘Jean Valjean’ until we got around to the end of this story, and what I’ve called him all along, for the whole little while I’ve known him, is simply ‘Caballerito’ – little gentleman.
He’s an Hispanic tweenager – second- or third-generation Peoria Mexican would be my guess, but that’s just a guess. He’s a demi-immigrant, much like my mother’s father was at his age, one foot in the old world, one foot in the new.
He was dressed like a schlub like every other schlub at the mall, but like a MexiKid schlub: Scuffed Chuck Taylor hi-tops on his feet, a faded navy-blue polo shirt that may have made more than one trip through the thrift store and sturdy Wrangler blue jeans that are still too big after four months of school – but will be all-but-too-small by Memorial Day.
It’s not rare to see bigger MexiKids leading their younger siblings around at the mall – and not just at Christmas. But I’ve never seen Jean Valjean and his sister any other way. I see them at the playground, and she rides the train once a month or so – on his money, not mom’s or grandma’s – but I’ve never once seen them with their mother. I am sure there is no father at home, and I’ll triple down and bet that the boy and the girl have different fathers, both vamoosed.
Mom could have three jobs or zero, for all I know, but what she doesn’t have is spare time for her kids. Food, shelter, clothing, all adequate – or I would be looking at two very different children. But the day-to-day burden of taking care of the little girl – we might as well call her Little Cosette – falls to Jean Valjean. Welcome to the evermore compassionate modern world, where we gamely undertake everything we can throw together to make up for the fathers we insist we don’t need.
And Jean Valjean was dithering, to say the truth, on the Thursday night before Christmas Sunday morning. He had money burning a hole in his pocket. He didn’t have to tell me that. I was his age, once, too.
Little Cosette was playing on a bulky brown ottoman in the little lounge behind the train. She had the tiny pocket toys that tell the tale on kids who commute: Car-pooled to day-care, vanned home, walked to the mall, schlepped home by grandma – rinse and repeat, with variations, every day. She has by now learned to hoard her treasures on her person, in her pockets, like the vagabonds of old.
The boy was hovering between her and the kiosk, and I was driving most of that time. Christmas this year was weak for the mall – for all malls, for all brick-’n’-mortar retail – but the Thursday before Christmas rocks regardless. I hadn’t had a lot of riders – the hordes were there to shop – but threading the train through those throngs was proving to be an extreme sport. It’s not just not-hitting-anyone, it’s not-hitting-anyone while smiling and waving and getting everyone to smile and wave back as you put a fifty-foot, fifteen-second obstacle in their paths – often several times, for some people, over the course of an hour or two – at the worst possible time and in the most difficult of circumstances.
He was reading and re-reading the price-and-terms sign, from what I could see. I hate that sign, so you know. When people lean forward and read it word-by-word, it means they’re fishing for a loophole, for some tricky way of getting more than they’ve earned. Doubt me? I’ve heard this one more times than I can count: “Three children on the military discount, please.” Really? When did they enlist?
Here’s what he wanted, so you know: He wanted to spend five dollars on a train ride for his sister, but at the end of the ride, he still wanted to have that five dollars in his pocket. He had exactly five bucks, or that plus a little more, and he had another use in mind for that money – something he wanted for himself. He was dithering – and angling – to avoid having to make that final, irrevocable choice.
How do I know all that? I’m a carney, chump. I know how much money you have in your pocket, too – and I know just how much of it I can take before you’ll get frisky on me. I don’t do any of that – and I try to talk children out of spending their own money on the train. But a benevolent dragon is still a dragon, and I was a carney-in-all-but-fact long before I was a loco engineer. If you want to hide from me, you’re going to have to learn how to hide better.
And then there is this much more: The Case of the Missing Pig. I had found a cheap little wind-up plastic pig in one of the train cars, the kind of crap they sell on the toy aisle of drug stores, supermarkets and dollar stores. My guess: The pig had been left behind by a kid who is simultaneously cheated of everything he needs and spoiled with everything he doesn’t – provided it’s cheap. But: Whatever. If he wants it, he’ll come back for it, so I had set it out on the counter.
If someone forgets a phone or a wallet, I’ll get a Yellow Jacket to take it to Lost-and-Found. But I put the lesser trinkets – toys, hair brushes, sunglasses – out on the counter. The owner can claim his property even if I’m away on the train – or the item can be put to a new use by Lockean larceny, for all I know. Meanwhile, it is there on the counter for me to use as an everyday object lesson. Like this:
Willie: “Is that your toy truck?”
Willie: “Then why did you grab it?”
Toddler: “Unhunoouh.” That’s toddler for “I don’t know,” which in turn is toddler for this basic political position: I may or may not be in trouble, so doing nothing while feigning ignorance is the safe bet for now. This would be how children habituate the state of being transfixed – simultaneously mesmerized and paralyzed with fear – that is so useful for shopping in a screened-in world.
Willie: “Would you like it if some other kid took your toy?”
Willie: “So you know what to do, don’t you?”
And the kid will put the toy back where he found it, and then Loco Willie will say, “Well done, son! It takes a tough man to make the tough choice. I admire your integrity.” That’s carney, too: Foghorn Leghorn – the second time as pomo farce. But I’m also catching your kid getting something right – and that’s loco engineering.
And the little pink plastic pig only matters because it was missing when I had come back from my latest snaking safari though the entangling hordes. My little Caballerito MexiKid friend was still standing there – pacing, really, and too much in the train’s way – when I returned. And while I’m not accusing anyone of anything, he had a lump the size of a walnut – or a plastic wind-up pig – in the pocket of his polo shirt.
And that, at last, having chugged our way slowly and carefully through everything, gets us back to where we started.
“I’ll give you this,” I said, “If two is the worst age to stop being the only child, five is definitely second-worst. You just woke up as a thinking human being – like a butterfly with brand new wings – and you’re forced into all kinds of baby-sitter chores.” Pure visibility games – carney games – on my part. I could ghost-write this kid’s autobiography. He was eating that up, so I shifted gears on him: “Can you think what might be the third worst age to gain or lose a bother or sister?”
He shrugged. He wanted to talk to me – it’s man-practice, and he had some man-work to work out in his pocket – but I was no longer cataloging his pain.
“How old are you now?”
“I’m gonna be eleven.”
“I like that answer! Spin is telling the truth to your own best advantage. But you’re ten, your sister is five. When you’re twenty – gone from home, out on your own – she’ll be fifteen. She upended your life when she arrived, but you’ll be upending hers, too, when you leave.”
He was wet at the eyes, and I’m proud of him for that. “I never though of that.”
“None of us ever does. And you have to think of it more than most of us, because you’re most of what she has.”
“I’m all she has,” he declaimed.
I shook my head, smiling gently. “Not all, just most – and what she would miss most enduringly, if she lost you. But you’re not her father, even if she treats you too much like you are. You are in loco parentis, Caballerito – and that makes you a loco engineer, by default, like it or don’t.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You’re a de facto step-dad, dude, the man who does the man things when there’s no one else around to do them. The role was thrust on you – no choice on your part – when you were too young to make an informed choice, anyway. But you embraced it when you could have shunned it, and you’ve stepped up for your sister again and again. I admire that without limits, so you know. No kid gets anywhere in this world without someone who gives a damn, and here you are, giving a damn for two kids – for her, but for yourself, too. That’s a lot of responsibility you’ve taken on.”
“Everybody says stuff like that.”
I grinned. “Sure they do. They praise you to the skies, but they don’t actually pitch in to help, do they?”
He grinned back. There is nothing quite so praiseworthy – to the other guy – as letting him push his burdens onto your back.
“Here’s the deal: As this little girl’s last-ditch step-dad, you owe her your love and your affectionate guidance – to lead her to good choices and away from poor ones. You owe her your time, as much as you want to give her, and you’re always very generous that way.”
“You know what?” he said. “She’s just more fun. My abuela makes me go to other kid’s houses, sometimes, but all they want to do is play video games and watch TV. The mall is way better.”
“You see? That’s perfect. Families work when they work, no matter how strange they might look to other people. You don’t have to live the way everyone else lives. But you do have to live in a way that you can live with yourself afterward.”
To this observation he answered nothing.
“What you don’t owe to your sister is your whole life. Someday you are going to move away; it would be tragic if you didn’t. And some days, you’re going to want to spend your hard-earned money on yourself, instead of buying another train ride for her.”
Again nothing. His mouth was fixed in a tight little line, the expression worn by underfathered little boys of all ages when they want to seem to have passively defied masculine authority – that is to say, when they want to seem to have rebelled without risk, in brave acts of imaginary insurgency.
“But what you owe her the most – what each one of us owes to all of the others simply by virtue of our having been alive, completely devoid of anyone’s choice in the matter – is a good example. She will do as you say, for now, but she will always do as you do. If you don’t want to see her telling lies, don’t lie. If you don’t want to see her cheating, don’t cheat. If you want to see her marry a good man, marry a good woman and be a good husband and father. If you want for her to grow up to be a sister you can be proud of – proud to have as aunt to your kids and proud to be uncle to hers – you have to be a brother she can be proud of. For her sake, always, just as you’ve always done, but even before that, for your sake – to be the man you will admire most in the world.”
Still nothing, but – tick, tick, tick – I could practically hear him thinking. Finally, to change the subject, he blurted, “What’s that about a loco engineer? I get to drive the train?”
I shrugged, like John Galt – the second time as farce. “A loco engineer is anyone who is crazy enough to think he can change things. I love that kind of crazy. It’s the only thing that ever really does change anything. Anyway, I think your sister is lucky to have such an admirable man to look up to – but not as lucky as you are. I hope both of you feel that admiration forever. Merry Christmas!”
He shook my hand like a grown-up man, a Caballero, no mere Caballerito. He said, “Merry Christmas!”
And when I came back from my next trip, Jean Valjean and Little Cosette were gone – and the plastic pig was back on the counter.