James Valvis is the author of HOW TO SAY GOODBYE (Aortic Books, 2011). He has published hundreds of poems in places like Anderbo, Arts & Letters, Confrontation, Crab Creek Review, Gargoyle, Hanging Loose, New York Quarterly, Poetry East, Rattle, River Styx, Skidrow Penthouse, and Verse Daily. His fiction is also widely published in places like Concisely, Los Angeles Review, Night Train, Pedestal Magazine, Potomac Review, storySouth, and Washington Pastime. His poetry has been featured on the Best American Poetry website and his fiction has twice been a Notable Story in the Million Writers Award. He lives near Seattle.
What we got was a large kinderwagon, a stroller Katrina and I dragged all the way from Germany, and it's nicer than any vehicle I've ever owned. Seated within it, my daughter, Sophie, looks like a tiny pearl set inside an immense blue and green ocean. I take her for walks in the kinderwagon daily—Sophie needs constant stimulation to keep the blues at bay and, in that manner, and most other manners, she's just like her daddy—and today we are taking our longest walk ever, to the park and back.
We start our trek by passing the blackberry bushes, across our apartment, and we stop for a moment to consider them. They grow like weeds here, these blackberries, just like the salmonberries my wife loves so much, and after a while, if you're not careful, you forget that they're there. I try not to. I try to point out everything to Sophie so that she will grow up knowing the names of things. “Names are important,” I tell my daughter. She's only four months old but we have an agreement. I don't talk to her like she's an imbecile child and she doesn't talk to me like I'm an imbecile adult. “Names give things their dignity.” I say. “You wouldn't call daddy 'that man,' so don't call blackberries 'that bush.'”
Sophie bobs her head. She seems to understand what I say, and I'm always surprised by how much she already knows, even without anyone telling her. I bend down and look at her closely. She has red hair and my distinct pug nose. She has flat ears and a dimpled chin. She has dark blue eyes set inside a round baby's face. Sometimes, especially when she's in the kinderwagon, she looks like a little Winston Churchill, lower lip pushed out, face set, eyes locked forward. Determination is already her defining characteristic.
“Names,” I continue. “If you don't know the name, make one up. I didn't know your name, so your mommy and I made it up. Everything and everybody has its own name—use it when you can—but they also have a secret name, a special name, a name you give things in your heart. Like your special name is Bundle of Boo. Remember to use special names also. A special name means you have a special relationship—so don't use generic names. Like, don't call your husband 'honey'. Honey is a common name. You want your special names to be special. Now, come on, let's go see George.”
Sophie gives one of her sudden arm jerks, tiny fists knotted, like she's beating down on an invisible drum set with invisible drum sticks, and we push forward the twenty feet to our mailbox, which I named George a year before Sophie was born. George is also the name of my Greek grandfather, Sophie's great-grandfather, a man I met only once and who Sophie will never meet. I kick the kinderwagon's front wheels up and over the curb so it won't roll down the hill and into the street, then jab my key into George, hoping for good news.
“Let's see what George has to say today.” I believe Sophie knows how important George is to me. George is where her daddy does his business, where his dreams and failures are realized, more failures realized than dreams. George might send her to college one day or spit up nothing but bulk mail and bills for years. George might hand up a check or vomit a story rejection. George is the gypsy palm reader, the guru at the top of the hill, the oracle at Delphi. Sophie's face becomes contemplative, almost anxious, two red eyebrows raised in anticipation, as I swing the door open and discover nothing, not even junk mail trying to sell us bananas at Safeway. We're too early. For some reason, mail around here is slowly and inconsistently delivered. Sophie looks up at me disappointed. “Good news!” I exclaim, putting my face close to Sophie's, an act that always makes her smile. “We get to visit George again later!”
I tickle her a few moments until her face bubbles. I take my job as daddy seriously, and one of the most serious beliefs is that, in order to have a productive life, Sophie is going to have to learn not to take much of anything very seriously. I rank her need to laugh as important, maybe even more important, as her need to eat. If she eats ten times a day, she must laugh twenty. Teaching her to laugh is the best education I can give her. In time, she'll learn how to be serious too. In fact, it can't be avoided, try as you might. It's my belief this is why our schools are failing. We're teaching kids the wrong stuff first. We teach them to be serious and disciplined and we're shocked when they become serious and disciplined criminals, or serious and disciplined wife beaters, or serious and disciplined alcoholics. That's one reason why daddy's mailbox is named George. You just can't take a mailbox named George too seriously, no matter how harshly the rejections are worded inside.
Once she is laughing again, I push on. We truck down the hill to where our complex intersects with the road. Across the street sits a large weeping willow tree. A couple of weeks ago, while we were standing before it and considering, Sophie named it Unk—which I assumed was short for uncle. Unk's green leaf tapestry cascades from it like the sparks from a Fourth of July fireworks. We wave to Unk and I check the road. The street has little traffic, just some slow moving cars coming from the north. Normally the road is pretty busy, but there's construction going on. One of the workers, a guy dressed in a neon orange vest and faded jeans, weary from too many hours of holding and turning the “Proceed with Caution” sign, stands across the street. I get Sophie to wave at him too and it's all the man can do to keep his smile from leaping off his mouth. Everybody loves the Bundle of Boo. I even have a song for it. It's her favorite song (sung to the Kit Kat jingle that begins “Give me a break, Give me a break…”) and it goes like this:
It's the Bundle of Boo, Bundle of Boo,
Everybody loves the Bundle of Boo,
What're gonna do when you are the Boo?
You say Agah, gah, gah,
And Agoo, goo, goo,
And then you go poo poo
'Cause you're the Bundle of Boo!
The smiling construction worker makes sure the traffic is stopped and we cross the street with no problem. After waving my thanks, the Bundle of Boo and I strike south. To get to the park we have to cross two major roads. We just crossed one, but the other is much harder and possibly even dangerous. Even now, there's no sidewalk where we're walking, just a thin shoulder, and I put the kinderwagon to my right and steer it along with one hand. This way, should some fool decide to swerve, he'll take me out and not Sophie. Or maybe both of us. Hell, I don't want to think about it. They ought to build sidewalks around here. If the rich folks who live by Lake Sammamish ever did anything besides work and sail on their boats, we'd have decent roads and a closer library.
Safely on our way, or as safe as I can make it, I put on my walk-man earphones and start listening to my tapes. Some days I listen to music, other days I listen to recorded novels, but today I am listening to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. I'm trying to improve myself, yet again, which has been a lifelong pursuit in futility. Over the last year, I've checked out hundreds of books from the library—and I'm still on hold for the maximum. My love of books is legendary, but my love is tempered and inconsistent. I know books don't have all the answers and sometimes I wonder if they have any at all.
Dale Carnegie tells me how stupid it is to criticize people. He tells me how important it is to be appreciative. He tells me not to kick over the beehive if I want to harvest honey. I check on Sophie and see in her face everything Carnegie knows and then some. It's all right there, before she's half a year old. A smile for everyone. A good listening ear. Don't stab your best friends. Reward every pleasure with a beaming appreciation. What baby can't make a benefactor out of the bitterest sourpuss in thirty seconds or less? This isn't new stuff. Dale Carnegie himself will make the comparison himself a chapter or two later. Zen masters say the same thing: become a child.
Everybody loves the Bundle of Boo.
We walk along silently with the cars speeding by like metal thoughts. Around a bend, Lewis Creek intersects perpendicularly with the road, runs underneath the road, then disappears into a wooded stretch. Somewhere to the east the creek meets with the lake, but I don't know where. Sophie and I pause a moment to consider the water. It gurgles forward with an absent determination. Years ago, in a different season, this stream might have been pink with salmon. Now the stream is black with murky bacteria. The houses down by the lake are responsible. When they wash their cars or let their dogs defecate in the yard or spray pesticides to grow their exotic plants, the run off finds its way into the lake, into the rain, into the very faces of the people who live here. Lake Sammamish hasn't had a red tide yet, but it's edging closer to that all the time. It's the saddest kind of irony. People spend millions of their carefully earned dollars to buy lakefront property, then carelessly pollute its beauty. “They've worked so hard and have made us all poorer,” I tell Sophie as Dale Carnegie hums in my ears. “When you become All Knowing Empress of the Universe, the first thing we'll do is give Lake Sam back to the Snoqualmie tribe.”
I wipe some drool off the chin of the future All Knowing Empress of the Universe, then we start again. The shoulder shrinks all the while until the cars and trucks blast along no more than two feet from where we walk. I've taken position behind the kinderwagon now. A blonde woman in jeans and a flannel vest stands across the street and talks on her cell phone. We push past her quickly because I know people who talk on cell phones are stupid and selfish people. They never say hello when you pass. They never stop to talk. They have their people and are closed off to everyone else. “Cell phones are evil,” I tell Sophie, stopping my progress and Dale Carnegie's lecture. “A walkman is all right. You can shut off a walkman and not be rude to the speaker, but a cell phone traps you into being dead to what's happening around you.You have to be dead because you're not where you are. You're where the other person is. If you become dead to the people and things around you, it becomes easier to die. Remember the tao. 'If you have no room for death, you will not die.' So don't become dead to things. Not even a leaf. Okay?”
“Ah yah,” Sophie says, and she pounds on her invisible drums.
“That's right,” I answer. “Kill the cell phones. That's edict two. Give Lake Sam back to the Snoqualmies. That's edict one. And cars. We have to do something about all these cars.”
I tickle her some, still worried about the passing traffic, then retake my place behind Sophie. The kinderwagon rolls on, powered by my momentum, and I know just over this hill is a steep decline. I'll have to hold on tight or a nice day walking will turn suddenly into disaster. We come to an intersection, where the main road meets with a private road, on which there used to be a bunch of llamas. Now the llamas are gone and I don't know why. Across the street, however, I see the entrance to another park, one I had been to once before but had forgotten about. If memory serves, it leads down to the lake. I decide this park is much safer and twice as fun as the one I was heading towards. “Good news, Sophie.” I look down at her. “We're saved!”
Sophie is thrilled about being saved and she beats down on her drums once, twice, three times. I put Dale Carnegie away for now. I'll learn how to make friends and influence people some more later.
We head into a wooded area. The road is gravel, rather wide, and cuts straight through, one decline after another, which, of course, will become an incline on the way home. I wonder if I am biting off more than I can chew. Years of smoking and poor diet and nonexistent exercise have ushered me into an early middle age. The jelly pot around my gut is substantial and not at all jolly. What used to be a simple walk around the block has become a test of my will, complete with heart palpitations and shortness of breath, made more difficult by the weight of Sophie's stroller. What bothers me isn't that I might die climbing back up this hill, but that the kinderwagon will roll down the road to a terrible crash as I stare helplessly, my chest locked and seizing. Or just as awful, if I manage to step on the break before biting it, Sophie will be left on this road until someone finds us. I tell myself how unlikely all this is—and how much more likely it will become if I don't right the ship presently—but the feeling nags me all the while.
We head down. The going is easy, too easy. Pines and oaks line either side of the road and the sun has trouble breaking through. The private road is to our right, behind the trees, and almost no one uses it. So the further down we get, the quieter it becomes. I get lost in thought again, thinking about friends and influencing people, why I would want friends and what influence I would like to have on people. I can't say I value either much. I'm content having few friends and I have no great desire to influence anyone, except my daughter, and, of course, myself. I begin to plan a book called, “How to Lose Friends and Influence No One.” Then I start thinking I should go to Washington to complain about cell phones, especially people who use them when driving, which one study said was as dangerous as driving drunk. I think of the walk home and how Sophie and I will probably get run over by a cell-phone-talking guy in a Jaguar. I think that's the way it would happen in one of my cheesy pulp story, which would be returned to me with a form rejection, spit up by George.
The road gets steeper as it nears Lake Sammamish. There are one or two benches, wooden and weather worn, but I don't sit on them, even though I'm tired. Sweat is in my eyes, though it's a cool day, and I'm beginning to waver. I peek down at Sophie and she has on her Winston Churchill face again. I stop the kinderwagon and bend down and, after catching my breath, I say in a flamboyantly and Brittish accent, “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing strength and confidence in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills: we will never surrender!”
Sophie likes that, the never surrendering part. Now I start pushing the kinderwagon again, down passed the grassy parts, down passed the fallen orange logs, half eaten by termites, down alongside the picnic table and bench, and finally through the opening that leads to the small beach and the widening expanse of gray water called Lake Sammamish. The sky opens up here and the water stinks of something scaly and dead. A family of ducks bobs in the water, near the shoreline, almost motionless except the bobbing, like a hunter's decoys. The sand is soft and difficult to push Sophie through, but I let gravity do the work, and we park near the lip of the lake.
The sky looms above us, and, whereas the path was moral and intimate, the beach is lawless and philosophical. We stand there a long time, so long I start thinking about smoking a cigarette, which I can't because I (wisely) didn't bring them. The ducks, seeing us, waddle our way, hoping for a free meal. We haven't anything to give and before long they head back into the water. “Remember this, Sophie,” I say. “You won't find this in the books. This is something only daddy knows. So listen closely." I bend down and whisper, “If you want to win friends and influence ducks, always bring along some crackers.”
The Bundle of Boo thinks daddy's a hoot.
Smiling, we start back. This is the hard part, all uphill, like paying back debts on a good time. I trudge head down, not so much pushing the kinderwagon as leaning on it. The weight of fatherhood. It can roll over you and crush you or it can be a rock upon which you stand. I am shooting for the latter, but know the possibility of the former is there, will always be there. It's a damn hard climb, full of sweat, aching feet, back pain. But I've got a Winston Churchill face, too, and I will not fail or flag. I shall go on to the end. I shall fight in France, I shall fight on the seas and oceans, I shall fight with growing strength and confidence in the air, I shall defend our island, whatever the cost, I shall fight on the beaches, I shall fight on the landing grounds, I shall fight in the fields and in the streets, I shall fight in the hills, pushing this fancy stroller: I will never surrender.”
I survive, unlike a character in a cheesy Jim Valvis story, who would have expired somewhere along the way. I make it back to George, saturated with perspiration, and twist the key in. I'm breathing hard when I pull out the mail. Sophie's eyes look at me and then at George and then back to me, like shaking her head, no, no, no. Such pessimism must be hereditary. I smile at her before leafing through the mail. Lots of junk, some coupons, a few bills, and one letter for me, a self-addressed envelope stamped with my “Stop Prostate Cancer” stamps. I throw all the trash into the basket under the kinderwagon and knife the SASE open with my finger, and try not to whisper my secret name, the one my father gave me, which is and has always been—Not Good Enough.
Only this time I am. They'll take the story. They love the story. They'll pay me for the story, they love it so much. And for a moment I am alone, far away from the din of the city, the hum of cars and trucks and business people eating stale lunches, the drone of people winning friends and influencing people, the buzz of cell phones and the wired beeps of pagers and the stinky noise of polluters getting theirs, always getting theirs. I look down at my daughter, shaken, and just for this brief moment, I know what she has always known, what has been in her eyes since she was born, what she says every time I hold her, talk to her, laugh with her. Just this once I'm a great friend to man, an influence to people, a child again, and everybody, mostly everybody anyway, loves the Daddy of Boo.