“I want him!” That’s all she said. In a voice that could pierce your skull and lodge in your forehead like a ball of thumb tacks. I looked down at what looked like a stuffed monkey created by Walt Disney himself. If Walt Disney had attended Woodstock and Jimi Hendrix slipped a mickey into his juice box.
Audrey was dangling the scary animal by his inordinately long, furry neon-pink arm. We were standing near the checkout counter at a truck stop in the middle of Kentucky. The whole place was filled with a distinctive scent - a delicate balance of petrified hot dogs and trucker sweat. Audrey must have missed the memo that we were only here to use the bathroom.
“We’re not buying the monkey.”
“But I want him!” Her enunciation was impeccable. And her volume more than adequate for the space.
I was shocked. This was a first for Audrey. Ever since the kids were born, Gabby and I vowed never to buy them anything while they were shopping with us. Target? We called it “the toy museum.” At the grocery store, if the kids said they wanted something, we made it a point not to buy it. Even if it was something we desperately needed at the house.
This strategy afforded us years of bliss. There was never any arguing or whining at the checkout. The kids just knew we didn’t buy stuff. But things had obviously changed. I blame the education system. Or Obama. Or George Bush.
“Honey. We’re not buying the monkey.”
Even if this wasn’t the Year Without A Purchase, I would never have this monkey in my house. Or my neighborhood. This monkey was so hideous it brings down property values.
“Well I’m not leaving without him!”
I tried intimidation.
“Audrey, it’s not happening. You’re not getting the monkey. We’re leaving, and you’re will be coming with me. You don’t have a choice. You weigh thirty-six pounds. I will carry your little behind out of here.” I rolled my sleeves to show off “the guns.”
My daughter failed to appreciate my capabilities. She punctuated her “No!” with a foot stomp and crossed arms. She held on to Scary Sammy like grim death.
I considered a tug-of war, but thought better of it. We’d probably rip the thing in half, and I’d have to plunk down $9.99 for a post-mortem monkey whose stuffing my daughter would cherish until marriage just to spite me. And I couldn’t let her win like that. So, I tried option two.
“Honey, you’re acting like you can’t be happy without this monkey.”
Audrey looked at me, “I can’t! I need him!”
She took the bait. Too easy.
“Just think of all your stuffed animals back home.” I added some names and paused for dramatic effect. “Dumbo. Piggy. Gerald. Elmer. They love you. And you’re saying they’re not enough for you. They would be so upset to hear you say that. Because they love you so much and love to play with you. Now monkey would be your favorite, and they would be lonely and sad.”
Audrey’s empathy was hooked. Her grip loosened. Her face started to morph into sadness. I glanced to my right at a woman who had been eavesdropping. She wore a pathetic, sarcastic look that seemed to say, Nice job, Dad. You better invest that ten bucks you just saved, because her future therapy bills will be outrageous!
Now feeling guilty myself, I changed my tactics.
“Audrey. I appreciate that you want this monkey. He’s wonderful! But when you whine and beg for it, it just makes me angry because you have tons of stuffed animals you don’t play with. Animals you used to love. And I think this monkey will end up just like that. Unappreciated. And it’s sad.”
She stood silent.
“So. When you see something you like, instead of saying ‘I want him’ and getting upset when we don’t buy him (which we won’t), try saying ‘I really like that monkey. He’s cute.’ He stays special that way. Even better, you can remember how great your animals are at home, too! Think about how soft Dumbo is! And how colorful Elmer is! You should tell them. And that way, when people hear you saying what you appreciate, they will know the kinds of things you like when special times do come around.”
Audrey walked away, put the radioactive monkey on the shelf, and came right back.
“I really like that monkey. He’s cute.”
“That’s better honey. He likes to hear that.”
Where did that lady go? She needs to witness my parenting genius.
Audrey interrupted my gloat-fest.
“Can I have him now?”
“No honey. But you should tell Nana all about him.”
Audrey relented and we were soon on our way. One hundred miles later we pulled into the driveway and the monkey was forgotten. When it was time for bed, Audrey grabbed some of her favorite friends. Some who hadn’t seen the light of day in a while. Piggie and Horny, the poorly-named unicorn. She hugged them tightly and kissed their heads. I was happy to see her appreciate what she had.
Gabby went into the office to take care of some bill paying and I curled up on the couch. In a proud display of manhood, I flipped channels for a full fifteen minutes before finally locking in on a show on the DIY network.
I Hate My Bath.
I had never seen this show before, but it seemed oddly like a replay of my own life. I Hate My Bath is a rapid-fire home remodeling program where people transform a humdrum room into a beautiful space in a matter of hours. On the show, the homeowners have been plucked from the Rolodex of a psychologist who specializes in treating people who have been physically abused by 80’s patterned wallpaper sometime in their childhood.
As they spoke, it sounded just like a conversation Gabby and I had, describing the horrors of shiny brass drawer pulls and Formica counter tops. We had already lived this show last year, remodeling a perfectly good bathroom that already had flushing toilets and hot water showers. The only difference between our life and the show was that the host on the DIY channel looks like a male underwear model that they kidnapped from a photo shoot and sequestered at nearby vo-tech in a plumbing class until he learned the requisite skills. Our bath, on the other hand, was redone by my dad and a guy we affectionately call “Mr. Gary”, both of whom are required to be fully clothed at all times while on the premises. Luckily, they were able to exorcise the demon that is linoleum flooring.
I Hate My Bath was followed by another show called I Hate My Kitchen. Second verse. Same as the first. As I watched, I started to hate my own fully-functional kitchen which couldn’t measure up to the shiny new one coming from my TV screen.
Good thing we have Mr. Gary on speed dial.
Tired of the programs, I turned to the computer to vegetate of Facebook. As I scrolled through the highlight reel of updates from people I hardly knew and compared them to the cutting room floor of my own life, I began to feel like something was missing. Forget the kitchen and bathroom.
I need a new wardrobe.
I need to help humanity.
I need a better vacation.
As I finally reached one of my own updates, a Just for Men hair color commercial came on TV and momentarily caught my attention. I turned back to my laptop and saw a tagged photo of me and my college buddies twenty years removed from graduation. And there before me was another sense of loss. I could see the youth escaping my body. Starting at the temples and working its way northward.
I was frustrated. It was time for bed. I turned off the TV and wandered toward the bedroom. My knee popped. My feet hurt. My joints ached from arthritis and life. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to, I thought.
Finally in the bathroom, I stared at my reflection in the mirror. An older gentleman stared back at me. The lines on his face and grey in his hairline lamented the things left undone. The book unwritten. The world unsaved.
And so we silently looked at each other.
Finally, someone spoke up. It was a still small voice. A blend of a little girl and a little God. It was right in my head, but I could barely make it out. I had to strain. I focused on the man in the mirror.
And then I heard it. Clear as day. When eyes met eyes. The voice. Finally. Saying.
“I like that monkey. He’s cute.”
And the monkey smiled.