My youngest son and I have a joke we share. Before I leave for work, I tell him he is the man of the house while I am gone. This started last spring when his kindergarten class was quarantined and his older brother still got to go to school. Now I say he’s the man of the house whether his brother is there or not. The little boy seems to delight in this.
I’ve qualified this statement by telling him that being the man of the house means doing whatever mom says. Like cleaning the bathrooms, for instance.
But he just shakes his head like he knows better. He’s the man of the house.
My boys are such boys. Miles, who is eleven, likes to hammer together bicycle ramps and other contraptions with scrap wood that he finds in alleys. I let him use my cordless power drill, but he saws everything by hand. He mows the lawn for me and does all the shoveling in winter. My back couldn’t be more grateful. Yesterday, while I was at work, he replaced the damaged bearings in the bottom bracket of his dirt bike with ones from another bike someone had thrown away. He’s one hell of a smart kid despite any struggles he may have in school.
His younger brother is obsessed with football. He watches highlights every morning on YouTube. His favorite team is the Packers, the nemesis to my Vikings. He was rather despondent over the summer about the possibility of Aaron Rogers abandoning the team. Theo thinks he’s bound for NFL glory. That would be fine with me, but I tell him he needs to learn to read better. I work around University of Minnesota athletes. They tower over me, seemingly superhuman in size, strength and speed. An infinitesimal percentage of them will ever go professional. Still, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s dreams, certainly not my son’s. He’ll have to work hard. Maybe Miles can build a weight room for him in our basement.
I’ve never thought of myself as all that macho. It always seemed like a kind of stupidity. But despite that, I’ve managed to be a role model for their development. I’ve always worked on the house, thrown the ball, taken them camping and other typical dad activities. They’ll be bigger than me before long. I turn fifty next year which calculates to my being sixty when Theo graduates from high school. Those are midlife crisis-inspiring numbers. I’m getting frailer as they get stronger. It’s one of the reasons I’m so nice to them. I still want to be the man of the house when I’m the one they can pick up.
I missed out on having a daughter, so I can’t say how I would parent a girl any differently. I probably wouldn’t tell her she was the woman or lady of the house. I’d still play catch with her though and take her fishing. Maybe one day I’ll have a granddaughter. That would be special. It’s a reason to take better care of myself.
I like to play basketball with the boys, although nowadays its mostly Theo. Miles is getting to be a furtive almost-teenager who only has time for his friends. Theo and I play poker and chess at the dining room table sometimes. He’s lucky with the cards but can’t quite figure out how those knights move yet.
I’m careful not to compete with the boys by dominating or belittling them. My father had his own dad joke: “You’re getting too big! We’re going to have to put a board over your head and pound you back down!”
He thought this was absolutely hilarious and he’d laugh like a jackal after saying it. I can’t tell you how much I despised the joke even though he probably meant well, maybe repeating something his own father had said to him. I’m always reminded of it when I observe how tall my oldest son is getting, but it’s something I keep to myself. It’s a bittersweet thing watching them grow up.
All jokes aside, one thing I will never do as a parent is leave my kids unsupervised with a loaded gun. When I was about fourteen, my parent’s shifts changed so my brother and I were left alone for several hours each night. To provide himself some peace of mind, my father had me keep the 20-gauge shotgun I used for hunting under my bed loaded and ready to blow away any intruder who dared break into the house. He gave me the “man-of-the-house” speech in his security guard uniform. I thought he was being customarily paranoid, but not wishing to anger him, I went along with it.
“Sure, Dad,” I said solemnly, looking straight into his maniacal face.
The odds of a home invasion occurring in Sioux Falls, SD in 1986 must have been about equal to a asteroid destroying our trailer. The city of 190,000 has had, to date, three homicides in 2021. Minneapolis, meanwhile, has recorded 70 this year along with over 500 shootings. I pass two memorials to unsolved murder victims each and every day. I’ve considered moving back, but I’m afraid I’d die of boredom. The only time I saw the police as a child were the times they were inside our trailer because my father had been assaulting my mother. My fears were never of strangers.
One night at two in the morning there was a furious pounding at our front door. I jumped out of bed, my adrenaline-charged heart racing. Who could it be I wondered? I felt the eyes of my absent father upon me and his judgement guided me as I reached under my bed for the loaded shotgun.
I tiptoed into the living room holding the gun tightly as the knocking became more intense. The whole house was dark. I parted the curtains to see that the trailer across the street was engulfed in flames. I hastily stowed the shotgun under the couch and opened the door.
A man demanded to use our phone and I allowed him inside. He quickly called 911 and left. I felt an immediate sense of relief and was unconcerned about the fire because I knew the trailer to be vacant. It was the middle of the night and I was very tired. I dead-bolted the door, placed my gun under my bed where it belonged, and went back to sleep.
In the morning, my father questioned me about the fire. It all seemed to me like a dream. But the blackened wreckage of the trailer across the street confirmed the reality of what had happened. My father knew that the 911 call had been made from our house. The fire department must have questioned him. I carefully related the night’s events, a bit nervous that he would disapprove of my allowing the stranger inside our house. But he beamed with pride as I described my mature decision-making. I had guarded the homestead and protected my younger brother. In short, I had fulfilled my duties as the man of the house.
These days, I’m perpetually dissatisfied with myself. I just don’t feel like the man of the house. Maybe it’s the simple fact that I’m getting older coupled with a lack of free time. The hangover of the pandemic doesn’t help matters and this political storm over defunding the police has half the city sleeping with guns under their beds.
Labor Day weekend, I come home and the asshole neighbor two houses down has a bonfire going. I see a thick plume rising over the privacy fence like he has a coal plant in his backyard. The black smoke stings my eyes and gags my throat. You can’t stand to be outside which means the children can’t even play outside. The wildfire smoke from Canada had just enveloped the city in a noxious, gray shroud for two weeks. Now this! Everyone hates this guy. His yard looks like a landfill, he guns his truck down the alley at reckless speeds, and the police are always coming by because of fights with his girlfriend. She keeps a ladder propped up by her bedroom window to escape from him. One assumes they’re both crazy and addicted to meth. That sort of behavior—domestic violence towards women—is emotionally triggering to me. Realizing this, I check myself. I tell my wife, as I unbutton my postal uniform, that I’m going to have a chat with the individual. He and I have never actually exchanged words. We’ve always kept a respectful distance from one another.
I’m on my second beer, before I take my shower, when she comes back down.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, you talking to him. Maybe, I’m just going to call the fire department back and see if they can handle it.”
I inhale and exhale through my nostrils. She has a point. I don’t exactly know what will come out of my mouth when I talk to this person. She brings up that he owns a handgun.
“Who doesn’t own a gun, these days?” I ask rather sardonically.
I don’t, of course, but that doesn’t make me afraid of him. I certainly wouldn’t wander over strapped if I did.
“No harm in that,” I say to her.
She’s not letting me be the man of the house, but I’m all right with that, mostly because it lets me off the hook. In addition to being a scrap collector, I’ve figured out this guy works demolition and doesn’t dispose of the refuse properly. He’s a brawny guy–shorter and younger than me. The more I think about it, the more I’m annoyed at my wife for participating in this feud. Whatever she starts, I’m going to have to finish. God knows the cops and the city aren’t going to do anything.
When I emerge from the basement, I see her hosing down the fence of our immediate neighbors who happen to be out of town. The pyromaniac has a deer camera mounted to a trampoline that flashes as it takes a picture of my wife with the hose, which has to be a pretty good tip-off that she is the one who called the fire department. Now, if he says anything to her, I’m going to have to say something to him. And, if he does anything to her, I’m going to have to do something to him. I’m the man of the house and she’s my wife.
Yet, why am I entertaining these scenarios? And why would escalating a conflict ever resolve it?
The fire department comes out a second time, and the flames are extinguished for good. The system of public safety, beleaguered and damaged as it is, still functions.
One morning, just three days later, I notice a plastic bag in our front yard. After the kids have ventured off to school and the kitchen has been cleaned, I go out to investigate. The grocery bag is filled with shit. A lot of shit. Certainly, more than even a St. Bernard could produce at one squat. I am not a scatological expert, but the feces has a look of fibrous wetness one would expect to see from a carnivorous species that doesn’t eat canned food. Holding the five pounds of shit at arm’s length, I think immediately of my neighbor to the south with all the strange garbage in his yard. Could this be his revenge for the 911 call? Mother fucker! If it happens again, I’ll have to mount one of those cameras to my house they sell on Amazon. I get tired of those things staring at me when I deliver mail. Where is the world taking me and where do I get off!? I show the stinky trophy to my wife on my way to the trash can. This is what I do. I take care of shit. I’m the man of the house.