Little Genius

My son’s two and loves to read. He’s into books with paper pages and chapters, recurring characters and narrative arcs. There have to be pictures but not loads of them. The stories we like best these days are from the I Can Read! line, which includes classics like Frog and Toad Are Friends and Little Bear, titles I remember from growing up. Of course Alfred, my son, can’t read. He’s only two. I’m not suggesting he can. He just likes longer books with paper pages and ladders of text and plot. He’ll sit alone with them for hours.

I don’t mean to sound defensive. It’s just that I realize that talking this way about Alfred, saying he loves to read, makes me sound like a typical my-kid’s-a-genius kind of mom. There are already too many of those in Brooklyn.

I have one friend who drives me nuts with this stuff. She’s sure her daughter, Dolly, who’s twenty months old, is the great mind of her generation, deposited into my friend’s family by some stroke of luck. No, I take that back. Maira deserves a little genius. She would never deign to admit that there’s an element of chance in all this, that there’s wiggle room for luck. I mean, Maira did buy the expensive prenatal vitamins. She did spend her pregnancy on the sofa with headphones on her belly, playing Mozart for the fetus. And now she works in an office job that, after a couple glasses of wine, she’ll tell you is tedious. But they need the money to send Dolly to Saint Ann’s, or Brooklyn Friends, or Montessori. The kind of school where Dolly won’t be bored.

We saw Maira and Dolly today on the playground. As always, preschool came up. In New York you have to apply a year ahead of time, there’s a rush for spots on school tours, your two-year-old may or may not get invited for an “interview,” parents camp out on sidewalks the night before deposit day to make sure they get the teacher and classroom they want. We’re not entered in a lot of the fiercest competitions because, frankly, we can’t afford twenty thousand dollars a year for preschool. We can’t even afford eight. Aside from one adjunct course I picked up at Parsons called Math for Fashion Designers I’m out of work. I did mail in checks and applications to two perfectly acceptable programs. One’s a hippyish cooperative school with a dozen or so kids, run out of a loft in an old Tootsie Roll factory, and the other’s technically a daycare, but a daycare with a curriculum. The woman who runs it speaks Spanish. It’s called Carousel Academy. We’re waiting to hear.

On the playground today there were perfect fall leaves. Bright yellow and orange, brown. They were crisp still, not pulpy from rain, not ground to bits. There was a mound of them around the perimeter of the park, up against the chain link, kind of like a moat. These were the sort of leaves you see in movies or books. Absolutely perfect leaves. Actually there’s a Frog and Toad story about leaves. Frog and Toad rake each other’s yards on the sly, to surprise one another, then, as they’re walking home, the wind whips the leaves back into place. The friends fall asleep feeling good about their deeds, but we readers know they were a waste of time.

Anyway, these leaves. I don’t mean to overplay them, but they were unusual, they weren’t typical of New York. These were country leaves all earthy and innocent. They were a gift from some bank of trees I’d neglected to appreciate or even notice. I felt fine letting Alfred and Dolly kick around in them.

Maira did too, I guess. We were sitting beside each other on a bench. I was drinking coffee. Maira, water. Maira was telling me about Dolly’s interview at St. Ann’s.

“Well, I don’t know exactly how she did it,” Maira said, “but apparently Dolly gave the principal a synopsis of The Little Mermaid. Can you believe it? I’m kind of embarrassed. I mean, we really don’t watch TV.”

Maira shook her head and laughed without opening her mouth. Instead she puffed air out of her nose.

I looked down at our two sets of legs beside each other on the bench. I wasn’t feeling great about myself today. I’m down to one pair of pants that aren’t uncomfortable to button, my orange cords. Of course my thighs would look wide next to Maira’s any day. Maira’s tiny, not more than five feet, with long brown hair she pulls back in a ponytail and tiny, pinched features. Lately, whenever I see her, she’s wearing a blue jean miniskirt and knee-high gray boots. Maybe she’s noticed that I’m always wearing orange cords. For some reason, Maira reminds me of the Winnie-the-Pooh character, Piglet.

I glanced up to check on the kids. They were fine. Dolly, in a purple beret, was leading Alfred, hatless, on a march through the leaves, stopping every few steps to name playground features: “Slide.” “Pole.” “Bouncy bridge.” “Balance beam.” I will say of Dolly that she has incredible articulation. She was also feeding Alfred raisins. Alfred, who typically refuses raisins, was completely delighted with the arrangement. He was following Dolly like a dopey assistant, nodding and grinning. When Dolly turned to offer raisins he would open wide like a baby bird.

I asked Maira if she’d been in the room with Dolly when she did the whole Little Mermaid thing, and Maira said, “Oh, no no. Oh, parents aren’t allowed in the room during the interview. At least not at schools like St. Ann’s.” Then she said, “But Patrick and I were waiting right outside the office, and when the interview was over, Dolly came out holding the principal’s hand. We don’t want to get our hopes up, but it seems like a good sign, right?”

I imagined Dolly in her jaunty little beret, shoulders back, a toothy smile, holding some relic of a woman’s hand. The relic was smiling too.

I said, “Yeah, definitely.”

The kids at this point had started a new game. Dolly’s call, I’m sure. They were in a corner of the playground, where the exterior fence meets an interior fence and the leaves were especially thick, up to the kids’ waists. Dolly and Alfred were bent over digging, tossing leaves behind them like wrapping paper. They were doing this sound and repeat thing that’s really just a lot of screaming.

I was taking a sip of coffee, which was just about finished, when I felt Maira’s hand on my arm. I turned to face her. She looked genuinely worried, eyebrows low, brow wrinkled.

She said, “I’d heard this whole preschool thing was rough, but it’s so much worse than I thought. Some nights I can’t sleep. When I do, I wake up thinking about preschool, where Dolly will get in, what kindergartens we’ll apply to.”

Maira’s hand was on my arm.

She said, “I just want this girl to have every opportunity, you know? I mean, I feel like I can say this to you, Kim, because you’re a math professor. Having a bright child really does come with its own set of challenges.”

Maira squeezed a little.

She said, “What I didn’t expect though was this feeling. I just feel such a sense of responsibility.”

Maira stopped. She tilted her head forward like she’d said too much and was suddenly bashful.

Now it was my turn to talk and what was I supposed to say? Yes, Maira, you should feel responsible. It’s a tremendous responsibility. You’re absolutely right to take yourself so seriously. Oh, I mean it, Maira. I do. Please, on behalf of the world. We all so desperately need Dolly.

Dolly. What a stupid name.

Anyway, as it turns out I didn’t get a chance to say anything because Dolly herself, Dolly in the flesh was in front of us. She was tilting her head back to see from beneath her beret. She was holding something, cradling it, like you would a doll.

She said, “Mama, Mama. Why this bird no head?”

Maira and I looked down then and saw what it was Dolly was holding: a headless chicken or rooster. There was no way to tell. Its feathers were orangish-black and messy. They were all out of order. Its toes were curled, its feet, tied together with twine. Jutting from its neck, where a head should have been, was a jagged piece of bone that was white, bright white, and long, an inch or so. At the base of the bone the skin was folded over like a turtleneck and dark. With dirt, I think. I don’t think it was blood.

Maira jumped up and started to scream, “Drop it, Dolly! Drop it!”

She pushed Dolly, a mistake of course, and Dolly fell backwards, onto her butt, hugging the chicken. Maira started to cry. Dolly started to cry.

Maira had her water open and was pouring it on Dolly, screaming, “Oh my god! Oh my god!”

Dolly was crying, screaming, “My bird, Mama! Mine!”

I turned to find Alfred, my son, and there he was, beside the leaves, pink hands hanging by his sides. I kneeled down so I was eye-level and I asked him if he’d touched the bird. I said it was a “dirty birdy” and I needed to know if he’d touched it–“Did you touch it, Alfred?”–but Alfred just stood there, silent as a statue, eyes fixed on Dolly.

“No matter,” I said, pulling wipes from my bag. I scrubbed his hands. Then I picked him up and hugged him. I kissed his neck. Alfred, my boy. He was perfect. He’s perfectly fine.

I jostled Alfred a little and said, “Let’s get out of here, OK?”

I guess I could have been a friend and stayed to help Maira, offered her my wipes, tried to pry the chicken from Dolly, but I didn’t. Instead I left the playground. A moral failing, I suppose. I did look back as I walked out. I could see Maira kneeling on the ground, her blue jean miniskirt, but just barely. She wasn’t alone. There was a crowd. So I tossed my cup in the garbage and headed to the deli for bananas.



Amy Day Wilkinson teaches writing in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies program. Recent fiction has appeared in Jabberwock Review, and recent essays about books and authors have appeared in The Missouri Review and online at Bloom.