By Dominick Vogus
I squinted up at the sign and waited for parental instinct to kick in and tell me exactly what to tell him.
You didn’t answer my question.
Everything shimmered in the sweltering heat. My mind was lethargic, like a fat fly in the heat. All I could come up with was: The town put the sign up.
He bit his lip, and I stood dumbly watching the small drippings of sweat coming off his brow. I knew parenting was hard, but I had always felt inept, like I’d been assembled without some crucial part. Like always, I tried retreating, walking further down the road and hoping he’d follow and forget about the sign.
They put it up just because of me?
I don’t know. Maybe not just you…
It’s for the cars. So they know to be careful.
What do they have to be careful for?
Come on, I beckoned. I was desperate to get out of the sun and away from his blistering questions. We should get back. It’s getting dark.
What do they have to be careful for dad? Dad?
For kids like you. The words came out all wrong. Whenever things got hard, I would tell him not to cry, to be a big boy. Suck it up. Put on a brave face. I could see now he was trying his hardest to be tough. All the clouds in the sky had evaporated, and I could feel each bead of sweat form at the top of my neck and trickle down my back. I hadn’t meant to hurt him.
I’m not stupid. I can see a car coming.
I tried to soften the blow. I know you can. It’s a legal thing. They have to do it. Like when something is obviously hot but they have to put DO NOT TOUCH in big letters.
Since it’s for me, can we take it down?
No. It’s illegal to take down signs put up by the town…
No one will know it was us.
We can’t, buddy. I stepped towards him to put my hand on his shoulder. I meant for the gesture to be reassuring, but when it landed he flinched, and I felt like I had clubbed him. Come on, let’s go home.
Please, Dad. Please. Let’s take it down.
I could sense he wasn’t going to come along, and I started to lose my temper. I knew it wasn’t his fault, and that I should be patient, but I just wanted to get out of the sun. Stop being difficult. Come on, we’re going home.
He had always been such a gentle boy, afraid to displease even in the smallest ways, so it surprised me when he pushed me away. He no longer could hold back tears. Right then, a picture came together in my mind. Neighborhood boys could be cruel.
Did someone say something to you about the sign?
He shook his head harder and shrunk into himself.
Hey, it’s okay. Tell me.
They said I was retarded.
You’re not retarded.
But they kept saying I was.
I felt helpless. No one wanted to hear their son was being picked on, and I didn’t want it to be true. Are you sure that’s what they said? Sometimes one word can get confused with another…
I know what they said.
Well, they’re just jealous that you’re smarter than them. Besides, kids can be mean sometimes, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you…
Fuck them. FUCK them.
I never tolerated swearing. He caught my eye to see if I was going to punish him. I was halfway through my reprimand when I cut myself off. That instinct I had been looking for, it hit me right in the gut. I had it all ass-backwards: I wouldn’t tolerate swearing, but I would tolerate kids bullying my son? I slung my arm around his shoulder and we started walking back to the house together.
After a while he looked up at me, clearly ashamed. Dad?
I’m sorry I swore.
Don’t be sorry. He leaned into me, and I ruffled his hair. Then I smiled and signed back to him: You’re right. Fuck them.