The roads narrow. The sun begins to set. Bales of hay cast long shadows across bright green fields. A lone bull with huge horns is spotted standing near a back fence. We are in the country, on our way to a house party with two other families.
We get lost, stop to do a U-turn, and a pretty, sand-colored lab races towards us across a giant lawn, barking. For a moment he seems cheerful, but as he nears it becomes clear he is in attack mode. I peel out of the U-turn. The dog chases us down the road. A few minutes later we arrive at a long driveway. It winds through the woods. My daughter, age five, speaks for the first time in a while. “Do you think that dog is around here?” she says.
We assure her it’s far away.
Finally, a clearing. Smoke rising from the back of the house. Youth with flushed cheeks throwing a football in the cool air. We are at an elevation far above New Orleans. Pines, crisp air, autumn.
The youth contingent is comprised of Evangeline and five boys, ages five to nine. There is also J., a girl just almost four. Alexander, eighteen months, is more like a boy-in-waiting, and does not yet count. He rushes around everywhere, head jiggling, arms outstretched for balance and his wrists and fingers busily aflutter, almost like pom-poms. The boys love him. One calls him “the cutest baby.”
Even now, dressed in blue and running around, people still mistake him for a girl sometimes, and I feel he has brought out a girlish tenderness in these otherwise rambunctious boys. But I also wonder if in loving on him they are working out their complicated resentments towards Evangeline. Resentments born, in part, by the complicating force of her personality, so vivacious, physical. Willing to confront. Willing to fight. Most vexingly, she is a girl.
The boys are expansive, fun, cruel amongst themselves, a little wild, mostly nice. But eventually the inevitable transpires: they want a room of their own. They are sleeping in a room with many bunk beds. A top bunk is declared a fort. Even Alexander, who tries to climb up, is unwelcome. A “keep out” sign is posted on the door.
Meanwhile, the adults are festive. There is wine, cheese, a huge roast smoking on the grill, cheese grits made from a family recipe. Here is another trauma — mostly a positive one — which is simply being in the presence of other families. We see other families with little kids all the time. We watch them go about their business of arriving at school, playing on the playground, organizing play dates. But an overnight stay, a sleepover in the country, is another level of intimacy altogether.
Our hosts are elegant, confident, and mostly let the boys work things out among themselves. The other guests have a boy who can throw a fantastic spiral at age five, and a little girl, J. When the pop music comes on the sound system after dinner I go to the kitchen to get something and see J. by herself in the corner, dancing. She dances so wildly, so well! A little while later, the pop music still going, she moves the show to where we all sit, and does a long number that includes wild somersaults onto and off the big ottoman. She is not yet four and already knows so many moves, such tight precision to her movements.
At one point all of them, every one of them, the two nine-year-olds down to the four-year-old girl, partake in what can only be described as a break-dance contest. Do all kids dance like this now? I mean, have the videos and pop songs and hip-hop conspired to make proficiency in boogying mandatory for both genders at all ages? Or are they just in that halcyon Age of Boogy — it comes before the Age of Reason, which builds itself around this prelapsarian dance urge but does not vanquish it — to be succeeded by an adolescent refusenik period of scowling and arms folded across the chest? Or maybe it’s just New Orleans, where people like to dance. My daughter’s school day commences, each morning, with an outdoor assembly that includes live music. You can show up as the biggest grouch, in the worst mood, but when a hundred or so youth start jumping and dancing under the sky to live music, the spirit is, as though by hydraulic force, lifted.
Early the next morning some of the youth set off, on their own, into the woods on an expedition, armed with guns and swords, Evangeline among them. I emerge for a walk with Alexander who was chasing his shadow, and find a solitary boy, the kid with the great arm, in front of the house, alone. After some coaxing he agrees to walk with us. He has a gun; Alexander has a wand.
“Do you know in a forest you could die!?” he says, as we walked down a path with woods on either side.
“Only if there is snow on the ground everywhere,” I say. “And even then, only if you have been lost for days and days.”
“But you could be eaten by bears!” he says.
“There are no bears around here, I promise,” I say. Then, realizing this sounds thin, I add, “And anyway, you have a gun.”
“But it’s a toy gun,” he says.
He fires off a few rounds, click click click, and looks at it. “I suppose it could scare the bear.”
We meet the two other fathers returning from a walk. The boy runs ahead, relieved. At this point I realize Alexander’s wand holds bubbles. I blow huge bubbles that hover and glisten in the cool morning light. He stretches out his curious hand while I discuss with my host issues surrounding sentimental attachment to objects, the spirit of ancestral things. We both lost our fathers at a young age and one way or another express certain defiances in the face of this immutable fact. One of these defiances is that we like to hold onto old, ancestral things. As it happens we both married women who do not share this disposition. I suppose a household can only withstand one person who does.
Above all through the visit there is the ongoing feeling of suspense about how the kids will play together — espeically with Evangeline being the sole girl in the big-kid posse.
We head to the state fair, where I am strangely pleased to see a lean, alcoholic, Elvis fan — my guess — pause as my wife passes, turning his head and doing a lewd, if appreciative, up and down. I hold the boy, or chase him. We play whack-a-mole, my hand on his, shamelessly trying as hard as I can with no care for his little, jerking arm. I win, and from all the available prizes choose a big red monkey.
When we return everyone is scorched, overwhelmed, hungry, and something goes wrong. The boys are being mean to my daughter. I hear about it second hand, after my wife pulls her out of the forbidden room, the room with the fort she was trying to breach. The middle brother in particular, revising her name into an insult with the ingeniousness of youth. Evangeline cries and cries.
Later, in the car going back, we decide that she cried not because the boys were being mean, as we had thought, but because we had pulled her out of that room with the bunkbeds, my wife with a word of reproach for the mean boy, and this had upset the equilibrium and implied she could not take care of herself. But this epiphany arrives only in hindsight. We couldn’t grasp what was happening at the time, in the fray.
A little while after this sobbing, set loose in the wilds of the house again, Evangeline and her nemesis, the middle brother, are seen wandering the grounds together. They mount a pile of stones and throw them randomly very close to the parked cars. I have to intervene, insist they stop. I have to repeat myself. Evangeline throws one more stone. I put her in time out. The boy is left standing alone on his pile of white pebbles, grabing fistfulls and letting them trickle out. I glance back at him as I lead Evangeline, loudly protesting, to her punishment and can not decide if this image constitutes a form of saying, “to hell with you, these are my rocks,” or if little white stones trickling from hands held down at his waist was a beautiful ode to the loss of his companion.
They were reunited soon enough. My forty seconds of peace on the hammock were interrupted when he appears by my side, alone. “Can you explain this treasure hunt?” he says, and produces a complicated map drawn by Evangeline, with lots of arrows, lines and instructions. Then, to my amazement, after I offer my interpretation, he holds up another three elaborately drawn — or scribbled — maps, including one that has the letters, R, L, A, and B at key points.
“I know R is right and L is left,” he says. “But what is A and B?”
“You’ll have to ask her,” I say.
I can’t decide if I am amazed at her industry or at her guile and intuition: if you want a guy to behave, you have to write out instructions that are detailed to the point of being mysterious, and make it in the form of a map to treasure. May she never forget this wisdom.
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