Chapter 7: Waltzing out of the monastery.

The last man I dated with any conviction before the appearance of The Troubadour in this story, over a period of a bit less than a month, called my house “the monastery,” though I’m certain he meant it as a criticism and I took it as a compliment.

I did live in a monastery, in a life in service to a state of self-reliance and the slow practice of learning to write and to make music and to keep the world in fine mechanical and administrative fettle, but that’s a life now mutating into something new and often inexplicable.

Almost from the start, she was changing everything.

“Joebie,” asked Little Miss, poised at my feet in an increasingly other home place, who’d fled the breakfast table, where her father and I alternated cutting her pancakes for her and topping off her milk, in order to change into a ridiculous red party dress, “Will please you come dance with me?”

It was early in the year that’s just now winding out the clock, and I was still in future shock.

I have to wonder if she could see from the bags under my eyes to know that I didn’t sleep well the previous night, because one of the last of my adventurous friends, who was my willing companion in pursuit of mayhem and my copilot for long bouts of roadfarming, in which we’d point my beat-up old Saab in a cardinal direction and drive for hours with no destination, just watching the world unfurl, was at that moment lying in an ICU a continent away, stitched up like a football and completely failing to trip any of the electrical signals that would let us know that he was still in there. She was so small and perfect, just as pink and fresh as buds on a tree, and was twirling like a Sufi mystic, pausing to clutch my hand and shake it, wanting me to dance.

“Honey, I need to get to work to argue with a bossy New York theater licensing agent,” I said.

It’s so easy to just go cold. This is how you learn to live with silence.

She propped her hands on her hips and furrowed her brow. Kids have no patience for silence.

“Why do you have to argue with a bossy New York…what did you say?

“Obligations, little darlin’,” I said.

“What are obligations?

And the thing is, I was already forgetting. I’d spent a week on the phone, or texting, or emailing, linking up a loose network of friends scattered across the country to join hands around our mutual friend, who’d lived much as I have, except on the road, moving and settling, moving and settling, amd moving and settling so that he was always somewhere new, or somewhere once-new, or somewhere familiar, but always on his own. Our friend in the nursing trade packed up, jumped in the car, and crossed three states to get to the hospital to be our contact on the ground.

Thing is—you can forget how to be a person, almost. You get comfortable and get settled, and silence becomes your normal, even when you fill the gaps with television and films and Twyla-Tharping around your apartment in your underpants to Sufjan Stevens while the dog huffs and goes back to sleep. You can forget that humanity, and lose yourself in your head and in your slow, mysterious projects that you wonder if, on some level, are meant to be posthumous memorials to what you were doing for all those years in the monastery. In time, you’ll even forget what it means to be lonesome, because that’s just the background radiation left from a vibrant, pulsating, thrilling universe that blew up a billion years ago, leaving you hanging in space, counting your way through the rites and rituals of sustaining your corpus in action.

Suddenly, something changes and you wake up. You wake up.

My gentleman caller and his daughter and I all climbed into my giant pickup truck, strapped her into the booster seat on the velour bench seat, picked out a cardinal direction, and set off, and I was alive and uncertain, unsure how I was suddenly doing all these strange new things at 48, so long after I’d already worked out my quiet plan for the rest of my existence. In a little town well west of Baltimore, we went from antique store to antique store, just looking, until we found a strange little “children’s museum” which called to the little one like sirens on the rocks.

We paid five dollars each and ten for her and entered the day-glo maw of two germphobes’ panickiest dreams and she ran wild, playing with all the kids also running wild in a hopped-up rendition of a daycare center.

“Joebie Joebie Joooooebie come play the fishing game with me and Daddy!”

“Joebie Joebie Joebie come sing with us!”

“Joebie Joebie Joebie you have to watch this play I’m doing with Daddy!”

I enjoyed the play immensely, despite being required to wear a too-small pair of clip-on teddy bear ears that I’m fairly certain were crawling with lice, bedbugs, scorpions, and as-yet-undiscovered influenza viruses. She played the wolf and her daddy and I were bears, a point that gave us both an attack of the smirks, and the end of the play came when she bought our baby and took it behind a rock to eat it, which made her father ask me if that seemed like a disturbing thing for her to do and made me grin like an idiot, proud as hell of a wild and exuberant kid I was just getting to know back then.

At some point, a jagged line of prismatic color started slowly crossing my vision, and, as a mild hypochondriac, I became convinced I’m having a stroke from an overexposure to the concentrated roiling kid energy in the place, but Little Miss was having a ball, so I kept on coloring with her after sneaking into the restroom to ask hundreds of Facebook friends if it sounded like I was indeed having a stroke. The phone blipped and I subtly peeked at it, despite all the signs warning parents to focus on their children and not on their phones.

It sounds like an ocular migraine, read a message, and then another, and I rooted through Wikipedia for confirmation. There was no pain, just a weird jagged line in my field of vision for a few minutes, then it faded. My fear that I’ve been freaked out by children into a life-threatening situation was aborted by incoming messages that added the corroborating point that the sinus headache I’d been having is a standard trigger for such things.

It makes me wonder, though—as I struggle to undo the social tics of a long life free of the complexity of new contact—I feel like the deeper into solitude you go, the more you adapt a defensive role into it, becoming better and better at accepting the silence until it’s all you know. I was not unhappy, not by a long shot, and yet I felt like I’d been rescued, somehow, and reminded that maybe that the last lines of Gatsby weren’t meant to make it so easy to let larger aspirations slip away.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

“Joebie! How can I wave my arms like I don’t care? I do care!”

My tiny dance partner was jitterbugging wildly on the rug while Lady Miss Kier was belting it out on the hi-fi. I was dancing, too, and I demonstrated exactly how one can wave their arms in the air like one just doesn’t care. She paused, folded her arms to watch for a moment, and then duplicated my flailing almost perfectly. The Troubadour, who was working from home that day, joined us, and I was late for work and I was dancing and it was all okay.

On the other side of the continent, my friend was dying, even as a record he and I loved back in our absurd heyday played in a place that just suddenly appeared in my life, and I was dancing with a man and a kid when I should have been at work an hour ago…and it’s all okay, because it has to be.

And every day, I have to put up with some new intrusion, some new force of change upsetting the ordered life I led for so long, and it’s just luck, really, that made it all happen.

A few hours later, I was alone in a small basement theater in a town just outside DC, where I was vacuuming the lobby and cleaning the ticket printer and doing an inventory of cleaning supplies and candy bars in the concession stands until returning to my office to work on the scheduling for the next season of plays, and my dog was snoring at my feet and everything was about how it had been for a long, long time, except that every square inch of the wall around my desk was plastered with crayon drawings from someone who won’t stand for letting me just sit and stew in peace.

I feel almost panicked, at times, at how little control I have over all this, and yet, here I am, and I think maybe this is better than always knowing what’s going to happen next.

I think maybe I learned all there was to learn in the monastery.

“Joebie?” Little Miss asked, as I was struggling to put my shoes on and get out the door.

“Yes, hon?”

“Did Daddy kiss you in the kitchen while you were making us pancakes?”

“I believe he did.”


“Because I was sad.”

“I don’t want you to be sad, Joebie,” she said, and presented me with a new drawing for my office wall.

© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall

Chapter 6: Particularly rude mechanicals.

Little Miss appeared in the library on her usual morning schedule, as I was just waking up on the couch, doing a quick morning crawl through the world news on my tablet, and unceremoniously plopped Foxy next to me. I am not fond of Foxy, a toy seemingly designed by someone with both a desire to make me unhappy and an uncanny understanding of exactly how to produce this feeling, and I turned back, still bleary from sleep, to see the threadbare robot fox perched beside me and Little Miss staring down at me.

“Good morning, Little Miss,” I said. She said nothing, but reached for the spot on the back of Foxy that spurs it into a terrifying display of dysfunction. The mechanism that once tipped a threadbare, floor-grimy head in a grim impersonation of life is long since broken, so it just grinds, horribly, and clatters as broken plastic gears clash deep in its little body. Then, firing up ancient silicon, it plays back random strings of low-fi, distorted sounds.

“Wow! Wow! Wow!” it shrills, followed by “Wocka! Wocka! Wocka! AY-ow! AY-ow!” in the kind of bad human beatboxing beloved of the kind of annoying people who believe their brand of annoying to be clever and ironic instead of, well—

“That’s nice, hon, but wouldn’t you prefer to play a game instead?”

Little Miss furrows her brow. The internal and the external are still diffuse concepts for her, so any suspicion that one does not approve of her externalized self as represented in mechanical proxy risks a frown.

“I want us to play with Foxy.”

“That’s nice, but I think I’m not entirely in the mood for Foxy.”

“What’s wrong with Foxy?” the furrow is spreading into a pout.

“I do not particularly care for the sounds Foxy makes.”

The pout turns into a jutting lower lip. Like the Kübler-Ross model of the stages of grief, conspicuous displays of youthful outrage follow fairly precise patterns.

“You don’t like Foxy?” comes the retort, with the last vowel drawn out into an eeeeeee that’s intended as the anchor for angry tears.

“Foxy is lovely. I don’t care for Foxy’s voice.”

In my head, I want to say that I hate the lame cultural appropriation of human beatboxing as a ironic form too often deployed by the kind of people who buy those giant novelty plastic margarita cups at dreary drunken beach outings, and I don’t care for sound digitized at 6-bit resolution and delivered over scratchy, screeching speakers the size of a chickpea, or for toys that make everything so literal and pre-interpreted that there’s no room for a kid to use their own imagination to give them life, but honestly, I am content enough that she’ll understand when she’s presented with the same thing by her own Little Miss or Little Mister one day. Patience is a key skill in interacting with children.

The angry tears come, briefly, but I have the Uno game out and set up before they can metastasize into a full-fledged tantrum.

I’ve been on her side of things, too.

I sat there, with my lower lip slightly out but not in a pout as much as in the signifier of earnest concentration, with a string and a tab in one hand and my filthy blue-gray Mrs. Beasley doll in the other. With perfect calm, I slow-w-w-wly released the cord, regulating its retreat as my schoolmarmish plastic pal croaked out a word as I thrust her at my father in a kind of demonstrative fervor.

“GRAAAAAAAAACIOUUUUUUUUUUUS,” she growled, in a low, saurian crackle.

I pulled the string back and let it slowly play out again.


I let it go and the rest of the sentence blipped by at high speed, like parakeet gossip. My father wrinkled his nose, looking up from the paper.

“Son, why don’t you just let your mother get that fixed?”

I pulled the string and she shrilled out another phrase, which was “Idothinkyou’rethenicestlittlefriendIeverhad,” though you’d have to be a mosquito or someone on a spaceship nearing the speed of light to understand. The newspaper came back up again, a momentary defense against the alternating sounds of squeaky voice and growly voice.

“Mom didn’t get Mrs. Beasley fixed,” I said. “She took her back to Sears Surplus and exchanged her. I like this one.”

“Well, I don’t like this one.”

With grim determination, I pulled the string again to play another phrase, regulating it as best I could this time. With proper control, it sounded almost like it was meant to, albeit with an unearthly warble.

“Lo-o-ong ago, Iwasalittle gi-i-irl, just like you,” she said.

My father huffed.

“That damn doll is broken.”

I shrugged, then slowly pulled the string again. My father folded up the paper and left the room with his coffee cup, looking for a fresh charge of caffeine.

“Do you want to hear a secret?” asked the mock-grandmotherly voice of some anonymous voice actress doing piece work at the doll factory. “I know one.”

“What’s the secret, Mrs. Beasley?”

I pulled the string, but let it out too fast.


Before it could skip to the next phrase, I pulled it back, and let it play out properly.

“If you were a little smaller,” she said, “I could rock you to sleep.”

I just smirked back at her.

“You’re silly, Mrs. Beasley,” I said, and dumped her on the couch to run outside, in search of something new.

My tiny stuffed panda talked, too, but I did the talking, in what my family refers to as “the time when Joe talked in a falsetto for a whole year.”

Of course, Teddy was fairly opinionated on seemingly every subject and had a patrician bearing that Julia Child would have thought was a bit over the top, but I could hardly silence my tiny friend when there were factual errors to correct.

“Son, do you have to talk like that?”

“Like what?”

“All high and sing-song.”

“That’s just Teddy, Dad.”

“You don’t…think he’s actually talking, do you?”

I rolled my eyes and giggled at him.

“Teddy is a stuffed animal, Dad. He’s made of mohair, wire, articulated limbs, and a genuine authentic sterling silver tab in his ear.”

“A genuine authentic sterling silver tab, you say?”

“He’s from Western Germany,” I said, with the obvious pride of someone who owned something from Western Germany, back when things were still labeled as being from Western Germany.

Ja wohl.”


“Never mind. As long as you’re clear on who’s talking.”

“The bear.”

“Of course,” he said, and went back to the Accent section of the Baltimore Evening Sun.

I tucked Teddy into my pocket and ran outside.

I play a color change card and look over at Foxy, who stands silent on the other side of the room.

“I think I’m going to change to green,” I say. Little Miss smirks, because she’s got a handful of green. I smirk, because I know.

Foxy sits, motionless, and I give him those prison-yard eyes. You can be more broken, you know.

“Four!” Little Miss says, and places a card on the stack.

“Very good, darlin’.”

“Your turn!”

© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall

Chapter 5: The snowflake in the blizzard.

“What do you want to do?” I asked Little Miss. It was our first time on our own, after a long stretch of getting to know each other in the company of The Troubadour, and it’d been a good while since I’d had a child in single-digit years in my jurisdiction, so I had a little bit of mental recalibration to do. I caught the little glint in her eye presaging an expression of interest in tiresome pre-processed media, and preemptively added “…that’s not TV.”

Little Miss made a brief harumph face, but it passed quickly.


“I think it’s a bit chilly for that.”

“Scribble drawings?”

“That sounds good.”

We retrieved the art box and set up, but after a few meandering sketches, she let out a sigh.

“I’m bored of scribbling.”

“Want to color?”

“I’m bored of coloring.”

“Want to paint?”

“I’m bored of painting.”



“Fortunately, no such device exists in this house.”

“On your computer.”

“I think not. How ’bout snowflakes? When was the last time you made snowflakes?”

“What do you mean, ‘made snowflakes’?”

“You know–folded up paper and cut them out.”

“Wha wha wha?” she said, with the particular tip of the head and exaggerated “huh?” face that she puts on when I’ve somehow momentarily astounded her.

“You know,” I said, fetching a piece of paper and scissors. I folded it in half, in quarters, cut off the extra bit, and folded it again, then cut notches into the sides, “…Like this. Open that up.”

She took the jagged triangle of folded paper in her hand, reminding me again how small those hands are, and carefully pried it open until it unfurled into a lovely starburst of paper and light, and I watched her face bloom at the same time, lit with the realization that there are, at least for a child, more miracles to find in every day.

“Mommy,” I asked my mother, after we watched Mr. Rogers methodically preparing French toast in his kitchen, stepping through the process on our old black & white television with the glacial, gentle pace that marks his work, right to the point where he added a dash of vanilla at the end, explaining that he liked to add that because that’s how his mother used to do it. “Can we make French toast?”

My mother looked up and smiled.

“Of course, Joebie.”

She gathered up the materials for breakfast—basic utensils, the milk, eggs, bread, cinnamon, sugar, and vanilla extract, arranging them so that everything fell to hand on the Formica surface of the counter next to our Harvest Gold stove, and preheated the copper-bottomed skillet that featured in most morning meals. I slowly worked my way to recipe as she’d transcribed it from TV to an index card in her precise, but airy, script, feeling like I was the architect of the first meal I’d ever propose and execute from instructions to a stack of perfectly-tanned cracked wheat bread in a cloak of egg batter.

As I added ingredients, mixed, stirred, soaked, and transferred each slice of bread to the sizzling pan, I felt like I’d done it all by myself, a delusion we allow children in the process of becoming, and a thing I realize now, as I’ve been in the adult role with Little Miss, is a delusion borne out of a great deal of gentle guidance and invisible oversight. The small hand reaches for the wrong ingredient, or begins to shake too much cinnamon into the batter and the large hand corrects without making itself known. A subtle blocking movement here, an extra hand on the bowl there, and a pair of hands reaching over the pan as a guide and a guard, and soon the ritual is complete and the child is enriched, their face blooming, lit by the realization about the joy in processes and in what can be accomplished in action.

“This is good,” I said, digging into the French toast that my mother dusted with a light snowfall of powdered sugar before settling in for her own plate and a cup of tea.

“It certainly is, Joebie. You’re a very good cook.”

I beamed back, over a forkful of perfect toast.

I figured out fairly quickly that the scissors that fit Little Miss perfectly were having a hard time, largely because my spur-of-the-moment art project hadn’t come with the anticipatory preparation of purchasing the tissue paper that makes it easier to cut through the thick layers, so I gave her a pencil and the official title of Snowflake Construction Manager, and we proceeded this way for a solid hour. I’d cut and fold squares of paper, hand them to her, then take back the marked wedges, which I’d cut, with her focused supervision, and hand them back for the unfurling.

Before long, a heavy snow fell over the breakfast nook, with a growing pile of snowflakes taking shape and no hint of youthful boredom in the air.

“Can we paint them?” asked Little Miss. My mug took on that pondering look for a moment, as I wondered if watercolors would just melt the paper right away.

“I’m not sure how it’ll turn out, but we can give it a try,” I said, and I set up the paints and a piece of cardboard salvaged from a box to soak up the stray paints. On the stove, I warmed up the big cast iron skillet, just enough, and turned it over on the stovetop to serve as our accelerated drying rack. She painted, I painted, we collaborated, and we figured out that we could get a sort of ombre spread of color by spraying the snowflakes with water in a spray bottle, and the pile drying in the warmth radiating from the upturned skillet grew.

“I want to tape these up for Daddy!” she said, and I agreed. I gave her a roll of tape, helped her when she pointed out locations above her reach, and suggested a few places that I thought might be just right, and we stirred up our pile of polychromatic snowflakes, every one unique in all the world, into a blizzard that soon filled up the kitchen, the dining room, and the downstairs windows.

When The Troubadour returned, after a long difficult meeting elsewhere, looking tired and frustrated, Little Miss greeted him at the door in a flurry of wild pride, and before he could even put his things down or kick off his shoes, she was pointing out each of what seemed like hundreds of flakes, giving her artist’s statement for each one.

“What’s this?” asked The Troubadour, pointing to a little constellation of pointed starbursts on the wall by the breakfast nook.

“That’s a family of snowflake people!”

And they’re all family, these distinct things that emerge from the moment. All distinct in form, all distinct in color and shape and texture, but all of a kind, all united by their own kinds of beauty—it’s how we all come into the world and fall into place, or get blown into new ones.

Every day, I find something else in the blizzard, in the swirling clouds of new moments.

It’s easy to tell stories about my father, and about the oversized, theatrical character that he was, a man with a hundred voices and a thousand faces, who was bright and overtly present as fireworks, but my mother was the quieter, more subtle presence. In the days when gender was more rigidly enforced, more tightly bound, and more inviolable as a prescriptive force, so many mothers’ stories faded into the background of the triumphant, self-reinforcing narratives of masculinity, in the way that Ursula Le Guin so deftly described in her “Carrier Bag Theory Of Fiction,” written in 1986, and I’m reminded by something as small and delicate as a paper snowflake of the place in which I find myself.

I watch the way we take a blank sheet of paper, fold it, simply, and let our intuition guide us, gently, and make the little nicks and cuts and changes that seem so small at the time, and so unremarkable, and yet the snowflake unfolds out of blankness into a play of light and space, instinct and intention, until it is a whole thing, as beautiful and unique in the world as a child, and I am overwhelmed by how free I am in adulthood in this particular year that I can both be as dramatic and energetic as my father, and as quietly constructive and gently masterful in the process of shaping a life as my mother. These are halcyon days, and I revel in how I can still run to my mother for help in such things, even when she has to pause to laugh as I confront, unexpectedly and well into middle age, the disasters and dilemmas that fell into order so completely in the face of her forbearance.

I am the child of all who reared me, from my family of biology and my family of love, and I am overwhelmed, sometimes, by all that’s meant. It is a blizzard of modes of upbringing, a barrage of influence, and yet every element is distinct unto itself.

“Oh my,” my mother sighed, her voice still clear on the old cassettes that we used to send back and forth between my grandmother in Georgia, back when it was easier to put a tape in the mail than pay the astonishingly high long-distance charges to talk on the phone. “Joebie has been on a tear lately. We just bought the kids a new plastic wading pool for the kids and the little stinker managed to throw big rocks into it and break the bottom out.” In the recording, you can hear the spoon in her teacup as she stirs a little sugar into her usual cup of Constant Comment.

I’ve never found the tape with my grandmother’s reply on it, but I imagine she’d have suggested I be made to cut a switch, but that was never my mother’s way. A nudge here, a quiet moment of listening there, a guiding or guarding hand there, and the narrative of origin just disappears into the long story, told over time with only the highest and lowest points clearly seen, and yet, I feel those moments in-between a bit more every day in my role in the story of Little Miss.

It is all important, from the triumphs to the tiniest little snip that brings out the light in the right places in a paper snowflake. Taken as a whole, it’s easy to lose sight of the individual in a blizzard, but focus reveals all.

If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.

—Fred Rogers

© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall

Chapter 2: The ABCs of immunity.

It’s true. I used to call kids of a certain age, even the ones I loved best, “little disease vectors.”

It was not without empirical evidence, of course. When my nieces were still at the hands-are-always-appallingly-sticky age, it wouldn’t take more than a gentle brush of an adorably tiny and pink fingertip to convey the entire biome of the elementary school around the corner, and I’d wake within days with that almost unnoticeable feeling in the back of my throat that meant I was destined for another cycle through the sore-throat-to-cough-to-head-cold circus. I’m finicky about sanitation, not a full-fledged mysophobe, but I’d grown accustomed to maintaining a no-man’s-land when it came to diplomatic relations with the wee ones.

Naturally, in the same way that cats and dogs seek out those most uncomfortable with their attention, tots would target me like a modern-day missile system, their longing for my return hug proportional to the dangling string of snot hanging from a half-clotted nostril, and in my day, I’d duck behind furniture to give them an enthusiastic wave as my family would snicker at the frantic dances of my escape attempts.

“She’s just trying to give you a kiss,” my father would say, with a low, hearty laugh as my niece that he called “Miss Sophie,” would careen my way, her snot string swinging like the more objectionable parts of a farm animal.

“Let me blow you one, hon,” I’d say, and mime the act.

“What are we having for breakfast, Joebie?”

“Processed food paste from a factory?”

Little Miss gave me the perfect Alex de Large look from the old yellow stepstool that is her throne from which to oversee the goings-on in the kitchen.

“I don’t want processed food paste from a factory!”

“So no packet of oatmeal?”


In truth, I was a little tired of pancakes, as I’m more prone to elaborate savories at daybreak, but I’d set a precedent, and continued to advance the art. Besides, how do you say no when yes is comparatively easy and comes with a smiling return that’s just…hard to describe.

“Silver dollars or face pancakes?”


I was well ahead of her, pulling out the little diner-style ketchup squirt bottle employed in such pursuits.

“I wanna help make it!”

Again, I’d assembled the dry ingredients in the big bowl, having learned that flour in the hands of a small child is a weapon of domestic destruction, and I’d assembled the wet ones into a measuring cup for her to assemble. She successfully dumped most in, then wiped up a spill with the side of her hand and shook it into the bowl.

Ohgodohgodohgod. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

I handed her the big fork for mixing, and she floppily commenced to mix. I interrupt only to show her now and then how, when you grip the fork like this and hold the edge of the bowl like this, everything goes more smoothly, always seeking that balance of allowing natural discovery in her experimental process of becoming and avoiding tragedies ending in a dog fighting you for batter as you pick up broken bits of bowl. She mixed it up, I finished it off, filled the squirt bottle, and we set up to make faces. She dragged the yellow stepstool to the stove’s edge, I gave her my standard lecture on stove safety, and she used the bottle to draw a face, framed by a heart, on the cast iron pan.

I hover, in these moments, carefully keeping my hand between her arm and anything hot on the stove while yet allowing her freedom of design, and this often gets me curious welts in the shape of an arc when her enthusiastic painting pushes the back of my against against the rim of the skillet.

“Oh, hon, you gotta hold it up a bit, so you don’t burn me,” I said, short of even uttering an “ow.” She raised her arms, sketched out a smile on the sputtering black surface of the skillet with the bottle clutched tightly in both hands.

“Is that enough?” she asked, and I grinned at her, adding only a little parenthesis of a nose to the face right as she found the perfect moment to sneeze, filling the air with a cloud of fine particulates.

“Uh, bless you, darlin’,” I said, and kept on.

And the thing is, I stopped getting sick when I found myself with kids. Maybe Little Miss was slowly acclimating me to the local biome when she’d hand me the generous gift of her last cookie, a cookie I’d seen her drop on the floor at least once, with grime under her fingernails and stand there for a moment, feeling like a kid who’d somehow ended up on the highest diving board with a line of kids waiting behind me, wondering, do I have the nerve?

“Thank you, Little Miss,” I’d say, and she would watch me until I’d take a bite.

Sometimes, it’s just time to face into the fears you’ve been subject to since you can remember, almost like you’re strapped to the mast of a ship sailing into heavy seas, and keep on.

The waitress started collecting plates from the table where The Troubadour and Little Miss and I had shared a happy meal. Little Miss focused on her well-colored man with a red crayon, and as her plate was in line to be collected, I reached for the three homemade bread-and-butter pickles on the edge of her plate with my fork.

“Hon, do you mind if I take your pickles? I’d hate to waste them while people are starving in Detroit, Michigan.”

She looked up from her coloring, shrugged, and said, “Okay, Joebie.”

I speared the pickles, smiled at the waitress as she took the last plate, and was happily crunching through a mouthful of sweet, vinegary goodness when Little Miss offered an addendum.

“Yeah, I licked ’em all over, but they were tooo sour,” she said, casually.

I stopped chewing, my eyebrows tented with panic, looking to The Troubadour, who fought a smirk for supremacy and failed. I would be told later, as I related this moment to the friends and family who have been my counselors in late-in-life quasi-parenting, that this moment of discovery is officially called “ABC,” or “already been chewed,” and is a rite of passage in parenting. Without a further beat, I finished the pickles, which were, in fact, delicious.

Vinegar is an antibiotic of sorts, right?

© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall

Chapter 1: Bad with children.

It’s a funny thing. You hit 48, well into that territory at which you can be definitively described as “pushing” fifty, and you’re gay, you’re content with an ordered, adventurous, artistic life of one new challenge after another, and suddenly—everything’s new, and different.

It was a rough start.

It wasn’t rough with Little Miss, of course, who regarded me from the first day she met me with the combination of curiosity, enthusiasm, and occasional disbelief that particularly canny children exhibit. She invited me straight into her games, into her artist’s salon where she painted a figure in extra-wet watercolors, then handed me a brush, and said “Now you scribble.”


“No. There.”

I started with the watercolor brush, but she reached over.

“No. Not that color. This color.”

I paused and looked her in the eye. This kid is something.

“What’s your favorite color?” I asked.

She pursed her lips, pondering, then said “Black.”

Oh my. Here’s a mind I can fathom.

It all caught me off guard—the new gentleman in my life, The Troubadour, was sweet and earnest and playful and man, I was warming up to that guy more quickly than I expected, and suddenly, here was his daughter, Little Miss, too. Here was Little Miss and here was her dad and here was I, a nicely settled guy with a long history of exemplary uncling skills, but a nice, comfortable separation from parenting, and soon it was an adventure, and soon we were together more and more, and—

[_] asked me, by means of trying to ascertain my fitness for being around children, “Do you have kids of your own?” We sat in her little shop, hemmed in by the few customers there for a special event, with her giving me the once-over through a pair of too-large glasses.

It was a loaded question, asked more as an opportunity to punctuate her own presumptive authority on the subject, given she already knew the answer, but I was there, meeting with her as a good faith gesture that I, at least, was prepared to be open and civil in an effort to attempt to forge a harmonious relationship with a third party who’d been demonstrating that such things are not within her spectrum of interests.

“None of my ‘own,’ no,” I said. There was no pause between my “no” and her answer, which presupposes the reply had been carefully considered in advance.

“—Oh, you don’t know, then,” she said, referencing an earlier claim in the conversation to sole authority on how things are done, the imperious look of self-satisfaction blooming on her face like a sudden outbreak of rosacea. I sensed it, and knew what to expect from the never-ending barrage of angry, bizarre texts that crossed the smartphone of The Troubadour despite my core belief that everyone, no matter how difficult, has a point at which they can be reached.

I just moved beyond it in spite of the dig, because civility in the face of assaultive, bullying personalities requires that we ignore the bait that’s dangled there like a limp, unwashed carrot in search of teeth, but I have to smirk about it even now, even after all that’s happened. Manipulative people trying to force their narratives are seldom as convincing as they think, and I’ve known my share.

I’m working with a group of autistic kids in my workplace again, as part of a school training program, and it is something that doubles my workload at times, and yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. One of the kids, in between tasks, left the seat where the student aide asked him to wait while the other kid was doing a task that required a little more supervision, and I could hear him approach with a series of verbal tics that let me locate him in my workplace like human echolocation.

He stood in the doorway of my office, swaying, one arm tucked awkwardly up in a loop of gestures, with a sound like a periodic grunt capped with a cough.

“Hello, Rodney,” I said, with a smile. “Lovely morning, isn’t it?”

He looked up, then down, then up, then down. In decades past, I probably would have been uncomfortable with this gap in language, but I’m a grown man and I’ve had a long, action-packed expense account of a life, and we are all separated by some gulf or another that requires forbearance. Rodney turned to my bookshelf and let a hand trail across the trophies there, all honors my employer earned over the years. He looked at his hand, made a little noise, looked at his hand, made a little noise, and cycled through the loop several times before holding up a dusty hand and saying “Ah, ah!”

“Yeah, they are a little dusty,” I said, with a weak smile. Rodney picked up the clear acrylic obelisk that was an industry award we’d gotten, and shook it at me.


I dug in my desk drawer for the little cloth I keep to polish the screen on the wretched computer that holds unwarranted pride of place in my small office and handed it to him. He took it, flapped it in the air sixteen times, then intently focused on the plastic obelisk, which he showed me with a grunt when he’d gotten it just-so.

“That’s beautiful.”

He carried on with the other trophies, making his way methodically through the books and knick-knacks while I carried on with the tedious work of designing a theater program on the computer. From moment to moment, he would request my attention, then pull back to his task, and I knew that the distraction would keep me at work late that day, but some things are more important.


“That’s a belt pack for a wireless microphone,” I explained, then paused to show him the whole rig, with headset and everything.

“Sing sing,” he said, in a rare flourish of complete words.

“That’s right.”

“I sing sing.”

“You should.”

His smile was brief and tempered, filtered through the gestures that are Rodney’s own, but I had to smile, too.

The branch of my genetic line in which I find myself is likely to end with me, but there’s something amazing about love and care—these things make family, and make bonds, and make it possible that the things that are good about us will carry on and add to the things that are good about other people, too.

Even so, were I quicker on my feet or more inclined to challenge the contention, I’d have told the questioning woman about my nieces, who have never lived more than a block from me since the day either was born, giving me the gift of being a part of parenting two little girls from infancy to their brilliant lives as amazing, talented, distinct young adults. Unlike my questioner, who had the sum total of four years into the project of parenting a girl child, I had six times as much experience, complete with the joy of watching them and our immediate and extended family in the glorious, exasperating, surprising, terrifying, expansive, mind-opening process of working to build lives, but we’re all still trained in the heterosexist, narrow-minded notion that only parents count, or that, in her mind, at least, only mothers count.

Still, she maintained her tightly-wound illusion of equanimity and grace, and we casually talked about my work, my history, my interests, and I presented more than enough data for any sane person to work out that I come from a place of kindness and care, and she said the kind of progressive, supportive, “oh, it’s good that [The Troubadour] is getting more comfortable with who he is” stuff that people recognize as the preferred language of grown-ups in the 21st century, even if they don’t have full faith in it. I mean—honestly, I’m a 48-year-old gay man who’s lips have literally never touched a woman in anything but cartoonish chivalry, and you’re concerned that I’m a threat to your four-year-old daughter? What’s the risk? Costumes? Engaged educational play with art supplies? The mind boggles. Can people really be this uneducated in 2016?

But we reached the end of a seemingly reasonable conversation, she proffered a hug in parting and I accepted, because a hug is always a good thing, and I left feeling like maybe, just maybe, I’d made an impression.

Of course, optimism is often dashed, and not twenty minutes had passed before [_] had gone on a wild homophobic rampage via whatever communications medium necessary, contacting neighbors, people in the community, and even The Troubadour’s former girlfriend with a bizarre narrative of abuse and danger and sleaze and even, absurdly, contacted The Troubadour’s divorce lawyer, who called up, amused, and asked him what the insane message was all about. Thing is—[_] had known about The Troubadour’s formerly worrying realization, the one that led me into his life, and had used it as a threat, as a tool of blackmail, and had frequently threatened often to call his family out in the mountains to tell them his dirty little secret.

Of course, this was a strange thing for me.

I have no dirty little secrets, other than the recipes I’ll never share, my quiet places that are quiet because they’re unknown, and my most practiced techniques of the arts. I’ve never smoked, don’t do drugs, don’t drink, and am such a meticulously cautious and law-abiding driver that my passengers will often roll their eyes and growl at me to just pass, already, and I’ve been paying taxes on freelance income I could have gotten away with leaving unreported since I’ve been doing my own taxes.

I’ve never known shame over who I am, and what I am, from those who raised me, but I was raised by giants among parents—the kind of people who taught me to love and to be honest and ethical and kind, and to value myself as what I am, what Fred Rogers best described when he looked to us from the television and said “Remember—of all the people in the whole world, there is only one person just like you.”

How the heck did I end up with [_], too?

Fortunately, despite her continuing, keening, desperate attempts to generate a narrative in which she is the victim, there are enough turncoats in her circle to let us know what the newest hysterical onslaught of nonsense is.

Such a sadness, that, but that’s out of my control. I can only be the best person that I am, and when you’re genuine and open and decent, the right people will know you by the content of your character. The rest? Well, they make trouble, because they thrive on drama, and every good adventure needs challenges to meet and overcome.

I will not be bullied. This is the 21st century.

Do I have kids of my own? Oh yes.

I have my adventurous, energetic, insightful nephew, Cleve, living just twenty minutes away after his midwestern youth, and I have my brilliant, thoughtful, playful philosopher, Rainey, living next door, and my can-do, focused, sensible and yet delightful Cora has moved south with the gentleman in her life, on her way to new adventures, but she’ll never be far from my heart. I have my niece from another bloodline, Maggie, who lives far from me now, but who will always be my lucky treasure, and I have kids from my sister’s now-ex-in-laws who call me “Uncle Joe,” and I have the kids I counseled as an LGBT peer counselor for the NCCJ and the Montgomery County Human Rights Commission, and the at-first sullen, society-beat kids I worked with in a year-long community art project for at-risk youth, and the kids I’ve taught art and music in school programs throughout Baltimore, and the list goes on and on.

So why would I ever think, even for a moment, to answer anything but “yes?”

Besides, my people have a grand tradition of dealing with a world that’s designed to give control to bigots and mean-spirited people with ugly hearts, and we are strong. The world told us that we were not good enough, or decent enough, or selfless enough, and we proved them wrong, time after time. They cried “molester” and “pervert” and made up the most vile, disgusting lies to justify their bigotry, but the tide’s turned, and the cockroaches are scattering in the daylight.

Yet there’s that old feeling, the feeling I remember from being a kid, from being bullied, and I know how bullies work, and how they pull your strings and push your buttons and work their little conversational conjuring tricks in making themselves out to be the victim, even when they’re doing the most wretched, ugly things to other people. I remember that feeling well, even after all these years, and I remember what I wanted then—just leave me alone. Just live your life the way you want, and be whatever you need to be, but leave me out of your games.

I sat with the feeling, and remembered, and practiced some tonglen meditation, taking in a breath, doing my best to pause and understand where the ugliness was coming from so that I could respond with compassion when I am faced with aggression, even as I know I will fail more than once. The prize, though, is an intact heart, even in the face of the worst kind of vindictive, senseless, obsessive pursuit of getting one over.

Each passing moment is another chance to turn things around.


“Yes, hon?”

“What’s your favorite color?”


Little Miss tilted her head.

“What else?”


“Brown? Nobody’s favorite color is brown.”

“Maybe not, but my second favorite color is brown.”

“Do you wanna scribble brown over here?”

“Yes, hon. I think that region would love to be luxuriously brown.”

“Luck sure your whaa?”

“Luxurious. Meaning lush, vibrant, and saturated with gorgeousness.”

“You are very silly, Joebie.”

Maybe a little.

© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall