At the community pool of the Inverness subdivision in the desert town of Zantrum, a little basketball hoop with a beige backboard was bolted to the cool deck. This was at the three-and-a-half-foot mark of the amoeba-shaped basin, the place where parents take their pre-swimming children to teach them what it feels like to be cold and wet in public. I was holding my 16-month-old son Evan in my arms and he was kicking vigorously, apparently certain that, if I let him go, he could swim just fine. I half believed it myself.
My wife, Priscilla, tossed a yellow rubber ball into the pool. For a moment we just watched it spin beguilingly, glinting in the punishing two-o’clock sun. Then I put Evan in front of it and he plucked it up. I lifted him over my head and he lifted the ball over his and, with a bit of savage glee, he said “BAAWL!” and slammed it through the hoop. Then he laughed. I held him aloft for an extra moment while his mother and I told him how wonderful he was and he smiled his wholehearted agreement. We did this several times.
A tall man with a thick neck and a round yellow crew-cut head and a day-old, strangely reddish goatee ploshed toward us through the shallow water. He was, upon closer view, not merely tall. He was huge, shockingly big in the way that makes you wonder whether we are all descended from the same sort of primordial sludge.
I am a basketball coach, and I once was a reasonably good basketball player. There was a court and a spotlight and a loudspeaker and the words, “A 6-1 freshman out of Sagebrush High School, Tuckerrrrrr AXXXXXelrod.” The memory’s ebbing, but it’s still there, on the other side of the injury and the failed rehab and the faded will to persevere and the end of my glory before anything glorious had ever really happened.
My father, too, was a basketball coach, who, incidentally, always thought I’d given up too easily. I have been around huge people for most of my life, people so tall that they make me feel short, though I am not short. I am, if you stop to think about it, reasonably tall. Sometimes I try to remind myself of this. I have learned to accept huge people and the way they make me feel. But the huge people I’ve learned to accept are huge people on basketball courts. This man was in a swimming pool. He was not a soldier on the field of giants; he was a fellow suburban father. I am not used to being made to feel small by fellow suburban fathers.
The giant smiled and peered down at Evan and me; I could see our wavy selves in the funhouse of his wraparound mirrored glasses. Upon his shoulders he carried a curly-headed boy who was looking placidly at Evan and me and our yellow ball.
“Look, McKay,” the man said mildly, “the baby’s playing ball.”
McKay, it must be said, couldn’t have been a day older than Evan. Why, exactly, was Evan “the baby”?
“Evan,” I said, “let’s let the baby play with the ball.”
The giant looked at me seriously for just a moment, then smiled.
“Look, McKay! The baby’s going to let you play with his ball.”
Such an exchange could not possibly bode well for the prospects of mankind. As long as men with babies are offended when their babies are referred to as babies, we will continue to be, as we have been up to now, doomed. But, dammit, Evan was a toddler. Or better yet, a boy. Let’s get ol’ McKay out of that water and up on his feet for a little race and then we’ll see who the baby is.
Enough. I willed myself to be generous, or at least sane, and passed the ball across the water to the tall man and his little boy.
“Take a shot, McKay,” I said.
What greater sign of friendliness than to call a stranger’s son by his first name? These are the bridges made available to new mothers and fathers, and it’s usually a pleasure to use them, though from time to time it won’t be the child’s name you overhear, but a pet nickname, and, having expropriated it and said to the stranger’s son, “How you doing, Mookie?” you’ve pretty much crossed a forbidden threshold and can be sure that no friendship will be forthcoming. A waitress once heard Priscilla cooing at our son and approached the table with a big grin and extended index finger and started to tickle Evan’s poor chin while singing, loud enough for the neighboring booths, “Hey der lil’ Poopie!” Now, why would you think I’d name my child Poopie? It’s a good way to lose a tip. In general, if you hear a parent call a child something a little too cute—that is, anything ending in “y” or “ie” save the obvious Bobbys and Johnnys—accept it as a private moniker and, if you must use names, ask first.
In any case, McKay was clearly not a nickname. It was possible, I suppose, that it was a last name, but that would have presupposed a father addressing his son like an Army private. Not strictly out of the question, and there may be a certain charm to parading my 16-month-old around the pool with cries of “to the hoop Axelrod, to the hoop!” Myself, I’d always liked such lines, though I’d not heard them from Dad. Of course, he’d given me a last name for a first name anyway.
McKay (Bobby McKay, Johnny McKay, Poopie McKay) took the ball, then went up-up-up on his father’s construction-crane arms and pounded, just pounded, the ball through the hoop. The rim shook.
“Yaay!” I cheered, a good-natured good neighbor, and even feeling like one. “Good job, McKay!”
“Yaay!” Priscilla cheered, feeling, I suppose, just about the same. “Good job, McKay.”
Evan was for a split second (a record, I believe) motionless in my arms.
Priscilla grabbed the rebound and spun the ball across the water to us.
Evan swatted it away.
“It’s your turn, big fella,” I told him, and we waded over to the ball. He wouldn’t grab it.
Priscilla tried to close his hands over the ball. “BAAWL!” she said, just the way he does, reminding him to remember that he loved this game. He stiffened his hands and would not grab on. She let go of his hands and he waved them before him like a mad conductor. He swept that damn yellow ball right out of his sight.
It rolled over to Big Man and Thunderdunk McKay.
“Go ahead, McKay,” I said.
McKay rose on Daddy’s big arms and slammed it home again.
“Yaay!” I said.
“Yaay!” Priscilla said.
She gave the ball back to Evan, who squirmed and turned in my arms to face me, and there he clung, like a koala bear, a slightly put-out koala bear.
Then I felt it, what he felt. Or, at least what I suddenly thought he must feel, if only because I could see myself feeling it (and now, of course, I did): Rage at the very existence of competition. For a moment, it had seemed so clear, so gloriously clear, that Evan Axelrod was the only 16-month-old boy in the world who could do what he had done. To Priscilla and I, the dunk was another sign of his Evanness. To Evan himself, I presume, the dunk wasn’t really a sign, but a statement, the simplest and most magnificent of statements: I am. But then the interlopers had come along and forced him to admit a harder truth: So are you. Some McKay, some McKay with a father so much bigger than his own, had duplicated the feat of I am and yanked on the terrible thought-thread that begins with “I am not everything” and pretty often ends with “I am nothing.”
McKay So-and-So, So-and-So McKay, So-and-So, son of Kay, Scottish clansman, whatever the hell he calls himself, McKay with the big father, yanks Evan Axelrod’s string, and what do Evan Axelrod’s parents do? They cheer. Yaay, you little So-and-So, they say, Good Job, you little So-and-So! Whose side are they on? The rude awakenings just keep coming. Something must be done about it.
Once you realize that your most emphatic childhood triumphs-in-a-vacuum are easily duplicated by the neighbor kids, you catch a whiff of the terrifying wish to be better than them. The wish is scary for the annihilating fury that fuels it, and also because you don’t really know what you can do to be better than them, or feel better than them, or at least feel different from them. We long to distinguish ourselves only after we realize that we are, in so many ways, indistinguishable from others. Then comes effort, and disappointment, and another round of rage. Sometimes you just want to take yourself out of the game and fume.
Or maybe that’s just me. I’m trying to read the mind of a 16-month-old and say something about all of us, though I can no more say something about all of us than I can read the mind of a 16-month-old. The hubris is staggering. Nonetheless, these were the thoughts I thought as I waded off to the sidelines, my son in my arms, both of us beginning to shiver.