My downstairs neighbor Peter caught me by the arm outside the school yard and said, smiling, “My brothers and I used to beat up on each other all the time!” He had witnessed moments before, one hundred yards to the west, the sudden and rapid breakdown of a fairly routine and even civil walk to school this morning with the boys – Carter, Bennett, Teak – as he and his two kids and we four strolled up 84th Street. The conflagration happened somewhere just as we reached Amsterdam Avenue, or perhaps as we stepped off the curb heading east. I don’t know: I was in front talking to Peter.
The tell-tale increase in volume from behind me, which comprised voices in opposition to one another and was distinguishable in intensity from the variation that exists in Group Intensity Over A Shared Video Game Conquest, caused me to pivot and spot Teak, the youngest, at 5, trying to take a swing at one or both of his older brothers. The exact location of his punch was less important to him it seemed than was hitting something Human-with-the-same-DNA. Preferably Carter or Bennett, but then I would suffice as well.
Dragging him across the street in his anger – for a 5-year-old scorned does not care about oncoming cars or about vehicles with four or more axles – I managed to stave off an attack for at least 1.5 seconds. This treaty ended as abruptly as its lifespan when Teak hauled off and kicked Carter in the butt, after which time all three boys in sequence kicked each other in buttocks and shin, punched in back and arm, and hurled verbal insults intended to inflict real and/or imagined harm using words as complicated as one can muster within the two-syllablic range of elementary school English and from what Harry Potter and Sandra Boynton books they have read or been read to from, not to mention the occasional Spider-Man movie, which ups considerably the vocabulary arsenal.
Peter and his kids had long gone ahead, he wisely curtailing our genteel discussion about Thanksgiving plans and how I enjoyed cooking – I was in the middle of a monologue on how I experiment with new stuffing recipes and detailing my favorite one of chestnuts and apricots and the time I blew up the chestnuts in the microwave – and they were well ahead of us toward the chain-link gate where kids from 1st through 4th grades enter (Kindergartners go through the front door). Somehow, we managed to traipse along without anyone drawing blood, and at the place we do every day, we stopped for our prayer. First, all three boys were told to apologize to one another, notwithstanding the objections from Carter that he hadn’t offended but one (Teak). Not interested in legalistic exactitude but rather universal love as well as expedience, as I was running late for work, I reiterated my instructions to apologize then and there. We prayed, and Carter and Bennett ran off through the gate. I cannot claim that it was precisely “delightful” group communion with the Living God.
Peter stopped me outside the gate as I held Teak’s left hand (so he could suck his right thumb) and offered his words of mutual understanding. The Fraternity of Fatherhood.
As I continued down the block towards the front entrance to take Teak in, he pulled his thumb out and said, “Dad?”
“Can you wipe my tears?”
I bent down and took the heels of both hands and rubbed them across his cheeks. I didn’t see or feel tears, but he had felt something, and he didn’t want to be seen in front of his classmates with a wet face when it wasn’t raining.