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He Will Speak to Us Photograph by Daniel Ehrenworth.

He Will Speak to Us

The three of us took the show on the road, with me as the ringleader, and the bobcat would do tricks.

THE GIRLS are screaming, like always. There’s thousands of them and they are loud, in that way that only teenage girls can be loud.

And—Jesus—he’s not even on the screen yet.

His music’s playing in advance of the big speech, though, so the girls are all dancing in ways that teenage girls really shouldn’t be dancing. Rubbing up against each other and shoving their hands into their crazy hair.

Some of them stay posed like that for a while, up to their wrists in spikes and curls and feathers and lace, with their pointy elbows splayed out and the super-soft skin of their inner arms exposed. Like their hands are stuck and there’s an animal in there, biting. It must be a new sort of dance because a bunch of them are doing it.

I go to the bar and order a couple of beers. The bartender smiles wide and tells me I look familiar. I get this a lot. I could lay on the suspense, but I don’t because I’m not a dick that way. I tell him who I am, and wait for him to tell me the beers are on the house.

“Dude, I knew it!” He takes two cans out of the fridge and pops them open. They hiss as foam pushes out and slides down the sides. “That’ll be twelve bucks.”

I wink at the guy. “Come on.”

“Sorry, bud.” He shrugs, then grins over at the huge blank screen at the front of the concert hall. “So I’d ask if you were all proud and shit, but then, you know ... ”

People are like this. They want you to just come out and say what they want to hear. Like you owe them some sort of explanation. Like it’s my fault he turned out the way he did. They want it all up front for free, my rotten guts exposed to the harsh rays of their holier-than-thou judgement. I don’t say a word.

“So he’s giving the big speech tonight. You help him with that? Coach him or whatever?”

“Not me,” I say. “Excuses are his mother’s department.”

“That’s funny.” He drums his hands against the sides of his cash register. “That’s a good one. So’s he going to sing for us after?”

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” I take some bills out of my wallet and flash him my son’s picture while I’m at it, because I’m the kind of dad who keeps a photo of his son in his wallet. Which is something most people don’t know about me.

HE SENT ME A POSTCARD a few months ago. He was filming a music video in Philly, and the only thing he wrote on the card was, “Remember how you used to spread cream cheese on my bagel?” Like he was giving me a pop quiz.

This was his way of replying to my poem, which I’d mailed to him in all sincerity. The poem first came to me in a forward from my buddy Terry’s wife Stephanie. Usually I hate forwards and the people who send them. But Stephanie always packs leftovers for Terry to bring me when he comes over, so I can’t hate her, even though at the bottom of her emails there’s a cartoon squirrel with a speech bubble that says, “The whole world’s gone nuts!!!”

Anyway, this particular forward from Stephanie was so supremely positive that I printed it out right away, squirrel and all, and mailed it to my son. The poem was about how it’s actually hurting other people if you don’t let your own inner light shine as brightly as possible. If you dull your luminosity, which was previously helping to guide the way for others who are going along their own mediocre paths in life, then those other people will be plunged into a terrifying blackness, and may even be harmed or killed by snakes or lizards or predatory giant cats, and it will be your fault because you turned out your own light and let the darkness in.

Of course I remembered the cream cheese. I used to spread it extra-thick, so much that the cheese layer was almost the thickness of the bagel half. Meanwhile he didn’t even mention the raisins, and that bugged me.

I used to drop a few raisins on top of the cream cheese, and I’d give him the bagel and go, “Oh no—a bunny crapped on your breakfast!” Which always made him laugh. Or most times, anyway. He was a hard kid to make laugh. He went around looking serious all the time, like he had this special purpose in life or something. Which, hey, I guess he did.

So he remembers the cream cheese part, but not the raisins, which was the comedy-gold element of the whole exchange. Or maybe this is more of a selective memory issue we’re dealing with here. Because, to me, it was like he deliberately left that part out.

There is no possible way he could’ve forgotten about the raisins. Give me a break.

I TAKE THE BEERS OVER TO TERRY, who’s chatting up some girl who looks about twelve under all the goop that’s supposed to make her look older and more experienced. I hand Terry his can and introduce myself to her, and she squeals, like I was expecting.

She grabs my arm and I feel her fingers squeezing like a grabby fish. “Oh my God!” she says. “Did you, like, help him write his speech for tonight and everything?”

“I might’ve had a hand in it.” I flex my bicep, which is pretty decent, under her skinny fingers. “And maybe my hand was holding a pen, is all I’m going to speak to that subject.”

She trembles like a baby raccoon when you shine a flashlight in its face. “Oh, I love him, he’s so nice!” she says, and her eyes roll back in her head a bit, showing the whites. “He is such a nice person!”

Terry is hopping from one foot to another, kind of weirdly dancing in place and eyeing this girl up.

I shoot him a look like, Come on, guy, she probably hasn’t even had her period yet. I grab his beer to wake him up, and take a big slug and he goes, “Hey!”

The girl giggles. “I’m too young to drink beer, see?” And she holds out her bony little wrist, that either one of us could take and snap clean in half with barely any effort. She shows us the yellow band that the powers-that-be made her wear, and all the other girls too, so the moron bartender knows not to serve them.

I reflect that one of the perks of being a VIP is they let you in through a special back door, and instead of patting you down they say, “Good evening, sir.” I hand my beer to Terry and take out my pocket knife.

The girl’s eyes go wide and I snip the band off her. I kick it away into the shuffling rainbow of sneakers encircling us, and say to her, “We don’t need people telling us what we can and can’t do around here, do we?” She laughs in a fast, high burst, and throws back her head so I can see right inside her pretty pink mouth, with all her teeth lined up perfectly white, not a bit of silver in any of them. But then I guess fillings are clear nowadays, so maybe she has a whole mouthful of cavities. Maybe she’s been gobbling candy her whole short life like the bad little girl she is.

ANOTHER LITTLE-KNOWN FACT about me is that, after his mom and I broke up, I was the one who had custody of him first. His mom went and screwed off to Tahiti—she got a cruise-ship job that she thought would make her an international star, because she would be performing in various parts of the world and people from different countries were going to see her onstage. But she was just one member of this giant cast that sang cover songs of hits from the seventies, when she wasn’t even born yet, so what, really, did she think was going to happen?

He and I had our own thing going. I purchased this discounted medium- tame bobcat from an exotic pet dealer who was going out of business. The cat was really old and had arthritis pretty bad, but it was still very impressive, wild-animal-wise.

The three of us took the show on the road, with me as the ringleader, and the bobcat would do tricks. And my son would sing—just covers at first, but then it was songs he invented on his own. People fucking loved us.

I SAY, “Terry, go get us more beers, will you?”

He frowns at me but goes to the bar. Because he knows he wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me, with so many body piercings on display sparkling at us.

The girl is staring at the screen all intense and fixated, like she’s psychically willing my son to appear. Her fists are clenching open and closed and I want to stick my finger in there, see how strong her grip is.

I say, “What did you think when you heard about what he did?”

“Who, me?” She giggles. “I don’t know.”

“What about your friends?” 

“They’re over there somewhere.” 

Thousands of young female heads are facing the screen, like sunflowers swiveling towards the sun. This is an interesting fact that he and I learned together years ago, in a field of them. Sunflowers literally turn their stalks around in the dirt. Or maybe that’s not even true, who knows. But it’s neat to think about. We had a shared curiosity about the natural world, the two of us.

HE USED TO ASK ME stupid questions all the time. He always tried to see how far he could push me. He’d say, “Do you love me?” And I’d say, “Of course I love you. I’m your dad.”

“But what if we were strangers and we saw each other across a crowded room? Would you walk over to my side and introduce yourself? Would you want to meet me? And what if Christo- pher was in the room too—would you go over to him first, or me?”

Christopher was my name for the bobcat because it was what I wanted to call him when he was born, but his mother had her own ideas, and that was back when I could still be charmed by her feminine wiliness, so, suffice it to say, she won that war.

This was way before anybody knew who he was. He was just a boy with a nice voice. And when we got booked for the birthday parties and bachelorettes and bar mitzvahs, lots of times the host would say to me, “The kid doesn’t have to sing, it’s okay, we just want to pet the bobcat.” So everybody would swarm around Christopher and get their picture taken at an additional cost, and meanwhile my son would be standing around doing nothing.

Eventually he’d get bored and bat his eyelashes at the lady of the house, tell her stories about how he was going to be famous some day. Then he’d ask her to make him a sandwich, giving off the appearance that I didn’t feed him, like he was starving or something, from abuse or neglect or whatever. He was a little liar even back then.

I SAY TO THE GIRL, “Do your parents know about this, or is it a secret?” And I give her little bejewelled belly ring the lightest tap, barely even touching it at all, but feeling some skin still. Her face goes pale under the makeup, and she winces. “Don’t do that.”

“Shit, sorry,” I say, and put my hands in my pockets.

“I wouldn’t mind, normally.” She sticks a chunk of glittery hair in her mouth, sucks on it hard. “Only because it’s infected.”

I bend down for a closer look. The flesh around the ring is puffed up, devil-red. It must hurt like a bitch.

SO THEN HIS MOTHER suddenly wants him back in her life. She’s all saved and reborn after she met this evangelist on the cruise ship. She said the evangelist told her she had more talent in the tiny nail on her baby toe than the rest of the cast had in their whole bodies. Now that’s a line if ever I heard one, because she was just up there kicking her legs and shaking her ass with all the other similar legs and asses. How could she possibly stand out from the crowd like he said she did?

But she went back to the evangelist’s stateroom with an ocean view, and apparently it was magical. And then presto, they’re together in his huge RV with a bunch of animals, but domesticated, not like our amazing bobcat. Which was dead by this point anyway, died in its sleep. The next morning my son comes running into my room, shaking and crying hysteri- cally, “Christopher is hard like a stone, he’s not moving, he’s not breathing.” He had a flair for performance from the very beginning.

TERRY COMES BACK with three beers. I say, “What do you think you’re doing?”

He says, “You’re the one who cut her tag off.” 

The girl eyes the silver can he’s dangling, then eyes me. “Please?”

I look around. Shrieking underage girls are cocooning us in from all sides. We’re the only adults in sight.

She says, “I won’t tell anybody.”

HIS MOTHER CALLS ME UP one day from the evangelist’s motor home, which was her motor home now too, and she says, “We want him back.” And I go, “Who is ‘we’?” Then she proceeds to tell me the story about the cruise ship and her talented toe and the magical night, and what, so now they’re a family and all they need to complete the picture is a kid?

She said our son’s God-given musical gift was languishing under my guardianship. She said she and her evangelist boyfriend were uniquely positioned to bestow upon him the brightest possible future, what with their combined backgrounds in the entertainment and religious industries.

I said, “Whoa, big words for a small-time cover-tune dancer.”

But, to be honest, I didn’t put up much of a fight because by that point I was tired, I was worn out from Christopher’s death. Truth be told, I was ready to start dating again myself, but it was hard to meet anybody because I couldn’t get out to the bars. Or at least I couldn’t stay at them very late because I didn’t want to leave him alone in the motel room for very long by himself; even though I’d pay the front-desk guy a few bucks to check in on him every half hour, make sure he was still breathing and hadn’t been snatched up by some pervert.

TERRY GOES TO TAKE A PISS, and when he’s gone, the music cuts out and the crowd quiets right down. Except they’re still whispering to each other or going, “Shhh!”—so this massive room is filled with an ear-splintering hush.

The screen stays blank, though. Then the announcer’s voice booms out of the speakers, “Ladies! Your favourite pop star in the whole entire universe will be with us momentarily. Only a few more minutes now!” And the crowd sucks in a breath all at once, and lets it out in one giant scream.

Because it’s so loud, the girl stands up on her tiptoes and presses her mouth against my ear. She says, “Tell me something about him.” Then she takes a step back and does a slow, shimmying dance, just for me.

I don’t hesitate. “His favourite food is chocolate chip banana bread.”

She squishes up her face like somebody let one rip. “I already know that! It’s on his website, silly.”

I’ve been tossing around this idea lately for my own website, involving the displaying and selling of his memorabilia, stuff I kept from when he was a kid. But I didn’t keep very much, so I probably won’t bother.

The girl grabs my arm again, her nails digging in. “Tell me something about him that only his family knows. Tell me something personal.”

WHEN THE LASER TAG INCIDENT happened, it’s important to note that he was in her custody. I thought about calling her up and asking, What happened to discipline, what happened to manners? But I didn’t really give a shit. She and the evangelist might have cooked up the whole thing for all I knew, just another publicity stunt that in theory would’ve catapulted him to even more super-stardom but in practice ended up going shittily for every- one involved.

The story is that he assaulted the non-famous kid in the special combat room at SensorDome. He told the papers, “It was really dark in there, even with the lasers. And he was coming at me with what appeared to be pure malice, so I had to defend myself.”

From the hospital, the non-famous kid kept saying to the reporters what a treat it had been to meet his musical hero, and how tall and commanding he was in person, as in an actual one- on-one, face-to-face exchange.

But then the non-famous kid went and died from internal injuries, and suddenly I’m getting calls for interviews all over the place, and I’m booked up with speaking engagements at elementary schools because apparently now I’m the resident expert on parenting a troubled preteen. They want to know what they can do better than me, is basically it. And then I get a personal VIP invitation-with- guest-optional for tonight. Terry was all, “Take me, take me!” I said to him, “Who else do I have, idiot?”

To top it off, some asshole reporter stopped me on the street last week and asked me did I think raising my son alongside a wild jungle feline somehow contributed to his delinquency, his lack of empathy, his complete disregard for his fellow human beings? 

I said, first off, bobcats live in forests, and second, maybe it did play a factor in his upbringing, but all I could say with full and absolute certainty was that in my custodial care, he was fed and clothed and housed. And even though we moved around a lot, he and Christopher were like brothers, and he would rub his face in Christopher’s whiskers and that cat would purr and purr. And if anything, I learned a thing or two from the kid and his gen- erosity of spirit, his angelic voice from straight out of heaven.

I said as far as I was concerned, the laser tag killing was manslaughter, if anything. It was definitely not a premeditated act. It couldn’t be, because he didn’t have the soul of a mur- derer inside of him. Otherwise I, as his father who knows him, would’ve seen it curling out of his nose and ears like a spiteful grey spectre of badness. And okay, maybe there was that time when he took my toenail clippers and snipped off the end of Christopher’s tail, which I hear is the most sensitive part. And occasionally he would punch Christopher in the head just to make him yowl. Okay, there was that.

But ultimately—and I think though the real-life jury may be out on this, the figurative jury would be in absolute total agreement—he was put on this green Earth to entertain, to teach us all about our better natures, and at no time did he ever express to me the desire to enact a bloodlust upon his fellow men, women or children.

TERRY’S HEAD is coming at us through the crowd. Him and me are both taller than everybody else here, so I spot him easy. He’s maybe ten minutes away, though, because of how packed-in the audience is. I’ve still got time.

I wrap my arm around the girl’s waist and pull her close. I tell her, “We used to rake the leaves together.

“We rounded them up into neat, multi-coloured piles, as subdued and graceful as his mother was when she came outside in the crisp autumn air and brought us snacks on a plate dec- orated with a paper doily. Then we turned our backs for a few seconds, satisfied with our labours. We clapped each other on the shoulders for being such an unstoppable father-and- son team. We let our rakes fall and they nearly sliced off our feet, but we jumped back just in time and congratulated each other on our dexterity.

“But when we turned back around to admire our handiwork, things had changed. The leaf piles pulsed, and the colour had bled out of them so now they were a muddy grey-brown. And still we wanted to jump in. We wanted to so badly—we were desperate with the need to ruin everything we had accomplished. Roll all over it, bulldoze it, make those leaves fly and then crush them.

“When we couldn’t resist any longer, we held our breath and bent our knees and leaped, and we were in! But things were not what we had expected.

“We were surrounded on all sides. Instead of succumbing to our combined brute force, the rotting leaves were closing in, smothering us. It was dark in there, and wet, or else damp in the areas that hadn’t yet fully committed to being wet. Not a good place to be. But we had only ourselves to blame. We had gone about the chore diligently, and the leaves had followed our instructions, lining up with heads bowed. But they were only biding their time, waiting for the right moment.

“We became unsure of ourselves and the path we wanted to take. We’d known it a split second ago—were absolutely and unshakably sure. But now we didn’t know which end was up, where the sky was or where the ground was. And we lost each other.”

The screen flickers then and the music stops, and the noise goes out of the crowd, whoosh.

The girl shakes my arm loose and backs away from me, disappears into the hot press of moist smoothness and ripped tights and dollar-store tiaras and clattering strings of Mardi Gras-type beads, which these young ladies don’t even understand the true meaning of.

I look around for Terry but don’t see his head anymore, and I figure that means either he’s fallen or he’s lying down somewhere on purpose.

Everybody is jostling hard—a dose of the scary strength and sharpness of endless prepubescent female knees and elbows. Girls shove past me from every possible angle, shove each other too and pull hair, surging forward and blocking each other out. Wanting him all to themselves.

I move to the back and stand my ground, and stare with everybody else as the giant screen fills with my son’s beautiful face. And wait with everybody else to hear him say he’s sorry.