The children went to their rooms more often now, their parents noticed, without really noticing either. The parents had things to do, after all. “Like what?” the children would have asked, in their pre-room phase. “Adult things,” the mother would have said, returning to her tablet, where bright and glittering candy awaited her clever swapping. “Grown up things,” the father would have said, frowning into his new cell phone. Why had he gotten this new cell phone anyway? True, his old phone didn’t have as much data or memory, but it did fit easily into his pocket, while this new one was a real bear to carry around.
“A real bear,” the mother sighed. “You say the same things, over and over.”
“What were you saying?” the father asked. He was trying to recall his new passcode, which had two extra cockamamie digits in it.
“I said why don’t you go upstairs and check on the children?”
“That’s more like it,” the father said. It was 5-8, his old high school football number.
Upstairs, the father found his son in his bedroom, watching videos on his laptop. He had headphones on, which made him look either like a child playing with headphones, or an adult wearing headphones, the father couldn’t tell. His son gave him a pitying smile. Probably watching something he wasn’t supposed to, the little sneak.
“You spend all day in this room,” the father said.
His son removed the headphones. “Did you say something?”
“I said since when did you put a TV in this room?” A giant flat-screen TV hung from the far wall.
“Let me get you some water,” his son said.
The father said, “You should see yourself, wearing those.”
His daughter was in her room, drawing butterflies or designing houses or doing taxes or making those little plastic headbands with the sequins the father could never figure out how to glue on right. And then to find them in the carpet, months later—well, he’d about had it up to here with those sequins.
But when he knocked on his daughter’s door, she said she was on a conference call; could he give her fifteen minutes?
“You’d better not be starting up again with those sequins,” the father said, loud enough that the mother came upstairs and told him to pipe down.
“Pipe down!” she said.
Their daughter opened her door, a phone held to her ear. Just one minute, she mouthed, but the parents couldn’t tell if she’d actually mouthed, See my room?
They did. A home office fitted out with a desk, computer, and printer. Shelves of important looking binders with thick black spines. Someone had switched out their daughter’s bright jumpers for a dark pantsuit. Her hair was streaked with gray.
“I’m not picking up those sequins,” the father said.
“Over and over,” the mother sighed.
“Here,” their son said, and handed them each a glass of water. “Let’s get you two back to your room.”
THE WHOLE WORLD
The summer I turned thirteen, my mother invited Jerry to live with us. Jerry was a line cook at the restaurant where my mother worked who had fallen on hard times, she explained. When my mother said this, she gave me a hopeful look that was meant to imply that I should not question Jerry’s presence in our home.
The day Jerry moved in, I was watching TV and eating cereal. That’s what I did most of that summer: watch TV and eat cereal. Another thing I did was judge people immediately upon their looks, secretly dividing the world into Attractive or Ugly. It took me maybe half a nanosecond to place Jerry in the latter camp. Jerry was one of the ugliest people I’d ever met. His hair was stringy and wild, his cheeks pocked with acne. His glasses were preposterously large for his face, with thick bifocal lenses that caught the light in unsettling ways, as they did the moment he turned to me and said, “Is TV really that interesting?”
“Sometimes,” I said.
“Sometimes never,” Jerry said, then laughed, as if he’d said something profound. He carried in a half-dozen bags of clothes, although I never saw him wear anything besides what he wore that day: khaki shorts, closed toe sandals, and an employee T-shirt from the restaurant where he and my mother worked, Luke’s Place. TV was one of Jerry’s pet peeves, I was soon to learn, along with high-fructose corn syrup, local politics, drivers who yielded right of way, period dramas, all of the Beatles’ solo albums, and his stupid boss, who overvalued efficiency at quality’s expense.
One day, when I was watching TV and eating cereal, Jerry asked me if I wanted to see something. Something he’d only shown to like, two or three people in his entire life. Jerry was standing in the kitchen, wearing his employee T-shirt, his hands clasped carefully together, as if cradling a baby bird. “Do you want to see?” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
“Okay,” Jerry said. “But you have to promise to keep it a secret.”
“From my mom?”
“No,” Jerry said. “She’s already seen it.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sure thing then.”
Jerry unclasped his hands. There, on his right palm, was a ball of soap impaled with a toothpick.
“Is that a ball of soap?” I said.
Jerry smiled. He explained that this was prototype of a sculpture he was planning to erect in Times Square, New York. I’d heard of that, right, Times Square? Anyway, the sculpture would be one hundred and twenty feet tall and eighty feet wide.
“What’s it supposed to be?”
“Why, it’s the whole world,” Jerry said, as if this were the most obvious thing. I looked again. He done some elaborate scrimshaw thing across the soap. The images and details were incredible, so elaborate, so precise. Suddenly, the toothpick made a kind of sensible nonsense. I drew closer. It really was the whole world.
“Just don’t tell anyone,” Jerry said.