Flickr photo “Dream House” by Marie Kare
If you’re a reader of Stories are the Wildest Things, you know I have an energetic four-year-old who doesn’t like to nap, especially when I want him to.
This often means that I have to grab writing time in between shouts of, “Look at me! I’m wearing nothing but Play-doh for clothing!” and “Daddy, watch me jump off this six-foot tall bookshelf and land in this pile of Matchbox cars!” and “See how I can fit my wet finger inside this electrical outlet? It looks like a surprise face.”
Sometimes, just to get some writing done, I have to pack up my little stuntman-in-training and head out to a safe and padded place where he can find wee ones his own size and energy level to play with. That way he can spend some of that energy and I can keep my head from exploding like in that movie, Scanners. (WARNING: Graphic Head Explosion)
As you know, I’m not a big fan of their food, but McDonald’s often has a playground and free WiFi. Sometimes I’ll take him there so he can run around and around in the Habitrail-like maze with children whose parents often looked as exhausted as I do. Although it can sometimes be chaotic in Mickey D’s, I’ve often gotten a bit of writing done there, especially if the children are about the same age as or younger than the four-year-old.
Yesterday we went to the mall, however.
There is almost no writing to be done at the mall. The mall is not a good writing place. No one, to my knowledge, has ever said, “I had a great writing day at the mall.” (If you have, please leave me your secret in the comments section. Please.) The mall is a place where ghouls harvest the wails of little children crying to be given the shiny, blinking, furry objects displayed there.
We go there because there is this Bouncy House Place the four-year-old loves where the children can run around and scream and jump on giant blow-up sliding boards and castles and, well, bouncy houses. It’s also has free WiFi.
Now, McDonald’s and the Bouncy House Place at the mall might seem like similar kinds of places, but there are some crucial differences.
In a McDonald’s you can see your child in the Habitrail happily scampering about. There is only one room and you are in the room with them. The children are contained and they can really get inventive with the way they play in the Habitrail.
But at the Bouncy House Place their energy gets all ramped up by the noise and the giant bouncy places and…they disappear.
The bouncy houses are so big and dark you can’t see inside the things. A lot of them are as tall as two-story buildings. There are also two sections in the Bouncy House Place, one for the younger children and one for the…braver children. My son likes to flit between both.
So, after he took off his shoes, he bolted and disappeared into the bowels of a bouncy house. I wasn’t too concerned. We’ve been here before. I placed myself strategically near the exit gate so he couldn’t make a run for the mall when I wasn’t looking.
I opened my beat-up Mac and tried to concentrate on writing a sentence or two in Scrivener, my favorite writing app (get a free trial HERE), but as I tried to write I was distracted by the droning whine of the air blowers and the piercing screams of other children coming from deep inside the inflatable structures.
At least I thought they were the screams of other children. But when a chorus of children is screaming at the same pitch as an industrial air blower, it’s really hard to distinguish which child is yours.
I immediately got up and started searching the bouncy houses for his little blond head to see if he was the one who was hurt (or if he was hurting someone else). I think I catch a glimpse of his shorts disappearing into the no-access upper regions of a two-story tall sliding board and I yell, “Get down from there! You’re not allowed up there. You’re going to fall!”
Just then, a child-who-is-not-mine (but wearing similar shorts to mine) jumps down and looks at me with his little scrunched up face like, “You’re not the boss of me.”
He slides down the slide, arms in the air, then gives me the finger and steps on my toes as he runs gleefully to the next bouncy apparatus.
I call the four-year-old’s name. No answer.
I run from bouncy castle to bouncy race car to bouncy farm-house. He’s not there. I run to the younger children’s section. There he is, crouching low inside a playhouse with a little girl whose hair is the exact shade and length as his. I can’t tell them apart at first.
They stop me with fingers to their lips. “Shhh, we’re spying on those mean kids over there, Daddy.”
The mean kids he’s referring to are standing in a circle about three feet away and can both hear and see them pointing at them and calling them mean kids. They’re pummeling each other with every sharp toy they can reach and laughing wildly as the toys ricochet off their heads and arms and bodies in spinning, dangerous arcs.
The four-year-old seems content to be playing spy, but now I’m wondering if it was smart to have left my Mac unattended in the other room. I don’t know anyone here, so it could be gone.
I run back to the braver kid’s section and it is still sitting there whirring loudly, like a plane about to head down the runway. The other parents are much too busy trying to find and/or control their children to worry about taking my beat-up old 747/Mac. This is a relief, but as soon as I sit down and start to type, I hear another wail.
I step into the room just in time to hear a parent asking my son not to throw objects at her daughter’s face. Great. He’s now a mean kid and needs to be spied on.
He apologizes. We have a little talk about not being mean and how play can include everyone. He says, “I’m itchy” and wiggles and wiggles until I let him go play with his spy friend. He runs away, smiling.
I’m just about to start writing again when I hear another wail.
The girl he was playing with is now leaving. I’m informed that he has no friends here now and that this is boring. He is also itchy.
I direct him to the jumpy castle in the braver kids’ section of the Bouncy House Place.
He runs over eagerly and dives through the door of a bouncy race car. He disappears. Bounce, bounce, bounce. Wail. Screams of pain. He rolls out of the door he just dove through and lies in a crumpled heap on the floor.
I rush over.
“I jumped into someone and their body was hard and it hurt my foot. Owie! Ow! Owwww.”
The tears make little river beds through the dirt on his face.
“It’s time for lunch,” I say, wiping his face with a tissue. He squirms.
“We have to le-eave?” he asks with more wailing.
“We can come back later. You’re getting hangry.”
“You mean hungry?” he asks.
I explain how the wordbo (or portmanteau) “hangry” is a combination of hungry and angry and he laughs.
“I’m hangry!” he yells.
I pack up the computer and the cord and my phone and my paper notebook and pen and we find his shoes and slip them on and head to the food court. Pizza is the only thing he’ll really eat in a food court, so I order some. I ask the bored teenagers behind the counter to please make sure the cheese slice is not too hot, I have a four-year-old who is very hungry. (I don’t say hangry to them. I don’t want them to scoff at me.)
They nod their heads and say, “Of course,” but ignore me completely.
When the pizza comes, it’s so hot you can see it steaming in the air-conditioning of the mall and there seems to be burn marks on the paper plate.
I warily give my hangry little man the slice of pizza with the warning, “It’s too hot.”
“But I’m HUNGRY NOW!” he yells, too hangry to remember to say hangry. He puts his tongue on the molten cheese. More wailing.
“Blow on it to cool it off,” I say. It’s something I’ve told him 100 times.
“I don’t know how,” he whines and instead of blowing on it, he punches it with his fist. Several times. Hard.
Oil and cheese and tomato sauce fly through the air, staining my t-shirt.
“That won’t cool it off. That will just smoosh it.” I say, the veins in my temples throbbing. I start thinking of Scanners again.
More hangry wailing. I make him drink his water. He coughs and it comes out his nose.
I touch the pizza to my lips and say, “It’s cool enough now, please eat it.”
He takes a few tentative nibbles, then shoves about a third of it into his mouth in one giant bite. His cheeks puff out and his lips and shirt and nose and even his eyes instantly have tomato sauce on them.
“Use a napkin to clean your face, little guy,” I say.
He nods, then wipes his face with the shirt he’s wearing, saving the pristine white napkins for the garbage can.
He finishes his pizza and we head back to the Bouncy House Place. He is dancing in circles around me and singing his own lyrics to Do You Want to Build a Snowman? as loudly as he can. I ask him to stop dancing around me in a circle. I’m afraid he’s going to trip and fall. As he grabs me around the waist from behind, I tell him so.
“Please stop dancing around me, you’re going to trip and…”
A sound like a pumpkin hitting the side of a refrigerator lets me know that he has, indeed, tripped and fallen and bounced his head off the granite floor of the mall.
A siren wail of searing pain alerts everyone in our wing of the mall that a small child is in distress. I scoop him up and hold him close. This wailing is real and drawn out. His tiny chest is heaving. Copious tears wet my punched-pizza-stained t-shirt. I check him for a bump or a bruise. I worry that he has a concussion.
I hug him tightly and kiss his head. I want to say, “I told you so,” but I don’t.
People passing by are looking at me as if I’ve done something to make him cry. They ask if he’ll be alright. One little girl looks at me wide-eyed like, “I’m glad he’s not MY daddy” and moves on. Her parents cluck disapprovingly under their breath as they yank her deeper into the mall.
The crying subsides and I suggest we go to the Chocolate Store to get a treat. Chocolate heals all.
I buy us some chocolate-covered potato chips and we gobble them up while sitting under a fake Ficus tree on an uncomfortable mall bench.
Melted chocolate instantly covers his mouth, his arms, his hair and yes, even his eyes. I tell him to wait to wipe his mouth until I get a napkin. He nods and uses his shirt again. He now looks like Ed Norton in Fight Club at the end of this clip. (WARNING: Graphic)
We go to the bathroom and clean up. I check one more time for bruises and bumps and cuts. I’m relieved nothing is bleeding or swelling or turning strange colors.
“You doing alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, Dada.”
He puts his head under the full-force hurricane wind of the “Xcelerator” hand dryer and screams while shaking his head back and forth.
I figure I can still get some writing time in until mom comes back from her errands to pick us up. She’s out with her intern casting a movie and this was our way of getting out of the house.
As we head back to the Bouncy House Place, my phone rings.
It’s mom, she’s here, it’s time to go home.
I tell the little man and he whines a little, but he’s all wailed out and tired. I pick him up and we head back to the Food Court to meet mom. His head rests gently on my shoulder and his body relaxes in my arms. Energy has definitely been spent.
My laptop bag feels a lot heavier for some reason on the way back. My word count for the day has definitely suffered. Needless to say, I got no quality writing done yesterday.
But today we might go to McDonald’s instead.
Flickr photo by Mike Mozart