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Unpublished Draft

 

NEEDS MAJOR REVISION:  Premise, character and plot . . .

 

God’s Underpants

She was going on five and like any kid her age quite curious about all things. She saw and heard just about everything around her. Her parents did not know she was sitting on top of the staircase listening to every word they said and knew they were angry at each other again. She could tell by the hushed tones they used when they wanted to yell. She heard the furious words locked in their throats seeping out in whispers. This time they argued about cleaning chores. Mop the kitchen floor, fold the laundry. But she knew cleaning was not the issue at all. It was about the decision.

Flora retreated to her bedroom and checked under her mattress to make certain Vronsky was safe. No one must know about Vronsky. Her parents had secrets and so did she. When she could hear the argument was over she skipped downstairs to eat her usual dinner of macaroni and cheese from the purple box cooked to the exacting gooey specifications that Vronsky demanded. She gazed through the sliding-door window into the dusk and saw a little twilight bird flitting around the bougainvillea and regretted she had no name to call it. She saw many bird species on public television but not this one. It had a pointy beak and light gray feathers under its wings.

“Hey Sweetie, want some ice cream?” her father said across the marble top counter that divided the kitchen from the dinette. He already knew the answer but she nodded just to be polite, never taking her eyes off the little nameless bird.

Her parents called her a “special child” in conversations with other adults, as though that explained everything. She was not a naughty girl nor a stupid girl but just very, very quiet, a special child who was not ready to share her thoughts and feelings. Her teachers and therapist agreed with them then talked to her in private with insulting condensation, as though she were a mere child. She chafed at all the phony words and idiotic ideas. Only Vronsky understood her. But she played along anyway, largely to please her parents. She loved her parents but could not find a way to express it. She did not know the name for love yet.

“She’s shy. She’s very, very quiet and she just wants to left             alone.” Her father told the therapist on their first session. “She’s, ah . . . ”

“Why don’t you just say it like it is, darling,” Flora’s mother broke in. “She doesn’t talk. Flora never laughs and hardly ever smiles and she doesn’t whine or cry which really scares me. And she refuses to play with other children. I’m afraid to say it, but I worry she’s retarded.”

“No, no. In cases like this we’ve found that the child is by no means unintelligent,” said he therapist, a chubby woman who barely fit into her yellow blazer. “In fact, based on my brief intake assessment, I think she’s in the lower range of normal intelligence but with a profound learning disability. Sooner or later I believe she will start expressing herself and perhaps talking.”

Flora was in the other room listening and looking at the pile of Lego pieces she was supposed to play with. Another stupid test, she thought. How could they know she did not need to touch the pieces to construct towers and palaces. She could do it in her mind.

Robert and Jane were at odds with each other over how to deal with their special child’s disposition. Robbert tended to indulge Flora. When she pointed to the freezer he knew she was asking for ice cream and he fed her as much as she wanted, even before he made dinner. She refused to eat anything but macaroni and cheese, which was one of her many irritating obsessions, but he knew feeding a child is a gesture of love. Ice cream was their sacred bond. He kept the freezer stocked, mint chocolate chip for her, mocha for him. They ate it in silence. Flora did not like to be picked up and turned her face away whenever Robert kissed her on the cheek. She shrank away from intimacy as though shee did not understand what it was. Her beautiful brown eyes were deep and knowing and she used them to soak up the entire universes. It was lovely, lonely and sad.

Robert could see, however, that something was changing. The other day when, Flora led him on their daily afternoon walk in the nearby forest preserve, a deer emerged from the brush and froze. Flora reached up to hold her father’s hand and studied the creature in amazement. Flora’s and the doe’s eyes locked in a mystical gaze until the deer, startled by the honk of a distant car, pranced away into the trees. Robert was ecstatic. Flora had not held his hand in two years. He kept the moment secret from Jane.

A few day’s later they were sitting on the Persian carpet in the living room watching cartoons on television and eating their ice cream when Flora climbed into her father’s lap for the first time. It was a huge breakthrough and he felt like squeezing her and shouting for joy, but he stopped himself, for fear that a sudden display of emotion might scare her away. Flora grabbed the remote control from his hands and before her had a chance to say you cwazy wabbit she switched channels from Looney Toons to a PBS documentary about wildlife in the African Savanna. She liked real animals better than cartoons.

When he told Jane about the incident that night after Flora went to bed she scolded him. “You are spoiling that child, feeding her ice cream and letting her watch television all the time,” she said. “You are trying to buy her affections and undermining our efforts to coax her out of her shell. You know what Dr. Cravitz said, we have to engage that child rather plunking her in front of TV. No wonder she does not talk. She’s not motivated to interact with the real world.”

Robert detected jealousy in her voice. He was far more involved in Flora’s life because he worked at home writing software and she slaved away trying to prove herself at a law firm that was particularly unfriendly to mothers. Robert suspected she spent so much time at work to avoid the frustration of handling Flora. Jane thought Robert was a dolt who did not know the first thing about child rearing.

“She needs time, Janie, time to get gain some confidence on her own on her own terms,” he said, raising his voice and violating the angry-whisper rule. “Ice cream is love, you see, like maybe because she was never breast fed. TV is her window on the world. The problem is that she is afraid of the real world and trying to drag her out of her comfortable sanctuary is the wrong thing to do. And I will say it again, shipping her off to that special school for deaf and dumb kids would be a terrible mistake.”

“You have no idea what you are talking about you ignorant geek. And that was a cheap shot about breast-feeding, asshole. Who was supposed to pay the mortgage when you’re making a pittance as a data entry clerk,” she said. She clenched her teeth and whisper-shouted: “So fuck you!”

Flora heard the entire conversation from her bedroom down the hallway through a crack in her door. She learned an interesting new word, “asshole,” and wondered what it meant. She was familiar with the command “fuck you” and guessed it was like her mother’s angry way of saying “sit in the corner” or “go to bed!” She would have to consult with Vronsky about the word asshole before she went to sleep. He was pretty smart and well informed for a puppet.

Jane loved her daughter so intensely she was frantic and blinded by worry. She was a proud and determined woman who did not want to waste her Harvard law degree as a homemaker, but she also was wracked with guilt over her decision to work. She told herself the best way to take care of Flora’s needs was to earn the kind of money to get the best help. Sometimes she hated herself and cried at her mahogany desk, terrified that a senior attorney might be passing her door within earshot. She was crestfallen when Flora did not seem to recognize her or did not let her hug her like a mother must do.

Jane’s instinct was to do what she was best at. She threw herself into a massive research project, using her skills a lawyer to learn everything one could possibly know about Flora’s condition. She read all the books, combed through the Internet for clues, and downloaded medical journal reports from NCBI. She phoned and interviewed every expert in the field she could find. It was Jane – not Robert – who took the lead on working with doctors and therapists, using up all of her sick leave and vacation days. Robert was passive. He did not read the books she gave him, but he allowed Jane to drag him to the parent support groups. He was outspoken about the need to let the special kids develop naturally without being barraging by the latest theories and best practices.

“Normal is what you define it to be,” he told the other distressed parents. “My daughter is very smart and completely normal because she is who she is!” The group members thought Robert was a fool.

The next day Jane and Robert dismissed last night’s animosity and held tender hands when they attended the weekly conference with Flora’s teacher at the Montessori pre-school.

Mrs. Lacy – “call me Ruthie, please” – said Flora was still obsessed with making puppets. “She has made dozens of them using whatever material she can find, old socks out of the bin, leftover pieces of felt and construction paper. She is a very creative little girl.”

Flora’s puppets mystified her parents. Her second therapist used puppets to try to coax her into speaking. She regarded the puppets with disinterest and shifted her eyes to the neon tetras in the fish tank. She made some fish puppets after the session and then turned into a prolific puppet maker creating a menagerie of humans, animals, rocks and trees.

“The problem is that she will not let the other children make puppets with her or even touch the ones she made,” Ruthie said. “We were hoping the puppets might allow her to develop her social skills. Before the puppets Flora showed no interest in any of our activities, so I would call that progress.”

Jane brought up the decision.

“Flora will be kindergarten age in the fall,” she said. “Robert is quite adamant that we should mainstream her into public schools to expose her to other children on normal terms while getting help from special education aides.” She turned her head to her husband. “Did I get that right honey?” He nodded his head with a sigh. “Well, I think that isn’t a good idea at all. I found a highly regarded private school not too far away that specializes in childhood language development and leaning disabilities.”

Robert broke in. “Not too far away but far enough so she can’t live at home. I don’t my child warehoused at some slick facility in the woods.”

“Stop!” Ruthie said just as Jane was about to defend her plan. The teacher’s command took them both by surprise.

“It is not my job to get involved in parental disputes. You two have to work this on your own terms” she said. Ruthie was the oldest and most experienced teacher at the school and her voice resonated with authority. “It’s too bad Flora can’t speak for herself. But you need to try to find out what she’s thinking and feeling inside.”

That afternoon after they finished their ice cream ritual, Flora crawled into her father’s lap again. This time was different. She was relaxed, almost cuddly. She made eye contact with him, flashing her beautiful brown eyes sending chills down Robert’s spine.

“Daddy, does God wear underpants?” Vronsky said, cocking his head inquisitively on Flora’s fingers. “The other kids were talking about it.”

Flora reached up to touch the tears rolling down her father’s face. What a curious sensation, she thought. She saw people cry on television but never imagined it would be like this, warm and raw with daggers under her ribs that hurt at the same they felt comforting. She put a tear on her lips and tasted the salt, wondered why her father was behaving this way.

“Yes, most certainly,” he said, wiping his face on his denim sleeve “He wears boxer shorts under his toga and changes them every night before brushing his teeth and going to bed on his cloud.”

Flora nodded her head, seeming satisfied with the answer. But Robert saw her shrink away into silence as though using the little talking puppet exhausted her.

“And he wears flannel pajamas too,” he said. “Yellow ones that Mrs. God gave him eons ago to celebrate his birthday, which as you know is the beginning of time.”

Robert studied the puppet in amazement. Flora made Vronsky out of purple fabric and brown felt in the image of a Russian aristocrat. He wore a furry Russian hat. Was it the deer? What did their eyes say to each other in the forest preserve, he wondered.

Vronksy did not speak at diner or during Flora’s bath and he kept silence when Robert read her Good Night Moon and Everybody Poops. It was Jane’s task to tuck Flora into bed every night and before she switched off the bedside light Vronsky, still attached to Flora’s hand, whispered “Good night Mommy.”

In an instant Jane changed mind about the special school. She hugged Flora and Flora hugged back. Jane went to the master bedroom and wailed into her pillow until she fell asleep.

The next day Flora brought all her puppets home from the Montessori school. It was obvious Vronsky was in charge with his swagger and dramatic gestures. A lady puppet in period costume with glitter at the neckline appeared to be Vronsky’s consort. He addressed her as “my sweet Anna.” Like the other puppets Anna did not talk. Vronsky was the spokesman when Flora conversed with her parents. He said things like ‘Hmm, I love ice cream” or “Daddy, let’s watch Moyers & Company,”

It wasn’t before Flora hosted puppet shows for her parents. Vronsky was the narrator and described the action while Anna and the other puppets, still mute, bowed to each other before dancing a waltz. Misha, the black bear wearing he traditional Russian fur hat, was angry with his wife Natasha, a Persian cat in a beautiful gown, because he suspected she had a boyfriend, Vronsky explained. “But it’s not true,” he said. “Natasha was just taking piano lessons at night.”

Flora’s parents applauded but they were stunned and confused.

“Where on earth does she get these charters?” Jane asked after Flora went to sleep with Vronsky safely tucked under his mattress. “What’s all this Russian stuff all about? Does she get this from TV while you’re ignoring her behind your computer?”

Robert unplugged the television and built an impromptu stage out of cardboard boxes boxes and old sheets. Late he would ask his carpenter fried, Larry, to construct a proper stage out of vertical grain fir. Vronsky was delighted when Flora came home from school. He jumped on the cardboard and started sing the ABC song and taking bows. Flora thought the ABC song was for babies. She was reading books from the shelves for older kids at Montessori, easily at the third grade level. She crawled under tables and kept it secret so no one would bother her.

 

           

LOST SEGWAY, FORMATTING            

 

 

was the spokesman when Flora conversed with her parents. He said things like ‘Hmm, I

love ice cream” or “Daddy, let’s watch Moyers & Company,”

 

It wasn’t before Flora hosted puppet shows for her parents. Vronsky was the narrator and described the action while Anna and the other puppets, still mute, bowed to each other before dancing a waltz. Misha, the black bear wearing he traditional Russian fur hat, was angry with his wife Natasha, a Persian cat in a beautiful gown, because he suspected she had a boyfriend, Vronsky explained. “But it’s not true,” he said. “Natasha was just taking piano lessons at night.”

Flora’s parents applauded but they were stunned and confused.

 

“Where on earth did she get these charters?” Jane asked after Flora went to sleep with Vronsky safely tucked under her mattress. “What’s all this Russian stuff all about? Does she get it from TV while you’re ignoring her behind your computer?”

Robert unplugged the television and built an jmpromptu stage out of cardboard boxes and old sheets. Later he would ask his carpenter fried Larry to construct a proper stage out of vertical grain fir. Vronsky was delighted when Flora came home from school. He jumped on the cardboard stage and started singing the ABC song and taking

bows. Flora thought the ABC song was for babies, but Vronsky was still struggling with

 

his English. She was reading books from the shelves for older kids at Montessori, easily

at the third grade level. She crawled under tables and kept it secret so no one would bother her.

 

 

 

At home she worked in stealth in her room on the funny pages in the newspaper, sounding out the letters of big words she did not know and trying to guess what they meant. Jane read her the usual four-year-old bedtime stories every night but Flora was bored silly because she had memorized them all was ready to go beyond the picture books. But she pretended to listen attentively just to hear her mother’s soothing honeyed voice as she drifted off. At school her favorite book was Winnie the Pooh. She could read it,with the aid of the drawings, just enough to get the gist of the story. She imagined the forest preserve was the hundred acre woods and wished there were a bridge over the stream so she and her father could play stick. You did not need to speak to play stick.

After thinking it over during several days of random puppeteering on the cardboard stage for her flabbergasted parents, she decided it was time to speak without the puppets. Vronsky thought it was a very good idea. “First you must make a puppet for the deer,” he said. “Let him announce the news. Let’s start slowly then pick up the pace. We don’t want to shock anyone.”

“Mommy” she said when Jane was preparing dinner that night. “Vronsky says he · wants the macaroni a little less gooey. You’re the best cook. You make it delicious, but Vronsky has his ways.” Flora remembered an interesting phrase she learned watching a documentary on Alice Waters titled The Queen of Organic Cuisine and wanted to try it out. “He has a discriminating palate.”

Jane glanced at Flora and dropped the ceramic bowl she was holding. Flora watched it hover in midair before it crashed to the tile floor and shattered into pieces.

 

stood and gave the cast hearty applause. Robert was beaming with delight. “Brava,” he said., “Brava!” Jane was all smiles, but at the same time she a was aghast. “Where the fuck did she learn that word,” she shout-whispered into Robert’s ear. “You’re exposing to trash-talk in the cable channel movies on TV. They don’t say that word in preschool.”

“You lost the point Janie,” he said. “She’s talking, she’s coming out of her shell. I’d rather hear her say asshole a thousand time than not hear her at all.”

“You’re right,” she said. “This a joyous moment. She’s speaking for the first time in her life and that’s absolutely a miracle. And she’s putting on puppet shows and making up characters and a plot for her show. It’s amazing how creative she is all of sudden. I

just wish I knew how she got all this Russian stuff into her head. It’s bizarre.”

 

“It’s a mystery to me too. It’s like something implanted in her head by aliens.” The next morning Robert’s friend Larry brought over the lumber and the two men

built a very fine stage and puppet booth with shelves in the rear to hold Flora’s Russian aristocrats and her company of puppets. On his way to pick up Flora from pre-school Richard stopped off at a fabric store to by a yard of plush purple velvet for the curtains.

“I’ve got a secret for you, little Florie. You’re going to be quite surprised when we get home,” he said. “Vronsky is going like it too.” Flora chanted, “What is it? What is it?” all the way home. Robert made her shut her eyes on the way to the living room and when she opened them Flora jumped and danced in the air screaming in delight. Who is this girl, Robert wondered. The girl who wouldn’t laugh or make eye contact or hold his hand until a week ago. Did he have Vronsky to thank? The deer?

The puppet show became more and more animated on Flora’s new stage. Much to her parent’s chagrin, the cast was populated by Russian puppets acting out a story of romance and betrayal, intrigue and infidelity. Jane accused Robert of exposing their daughter to too much adult-oriented television progr ng.

they limit her to Bambi and the Disney channel at the beginning. The psychologist said repetition was critical in a child’s cognitive development and Jane, more than Robert, who tolerated Flora’s obsession with the Disney canon of cloying films when she was three-years-old. She sat in rapture with her eyes glued to the screen watching Mickey and Snow White all afternoon. Bambi, it seemed, was her very favorite.

Then, all of sudden, she closed her eyes and yawned when Robert rewound the tapes to reshow the films. “This is a major set back,” Jane said in alarm. “Not necessarily,” Robert said. “Maybe she’s just tired of Disney and ready to move on to

more challenging stuff.” Jane protested that it–;as too soon to expose her to stories that would confuse her and discourager her from learning. “The last thing we want to do is force her back into her shell.”

Flora’s parents could not have known that their silent child had memorized every line in every movie and instinctively understood the characters and the plots and their larger me ng jp Disney’s sugar-coated mythology. R obert            awitched on the cabland after a period showing interest in soap operas andOprah and grazing over daytime news shows Robert could see she was fascinated by documentaries. It started when he showed her Hoop Dreams and her interests progressed to series like Ken Burns’s Baseball. She’d Watch a few a few episodes then revert to her favorite subject, wild animals.

“Tonight we will bring you an exciting new act,” Eartha sang out when the velvet curtains were drawn aside. “All the scenes we’ve performed up to now lead us to Anna’s secret.” Earth takes a bow. The curtain closed and reopened to reveal the Anna puppet, big red lips and long black hair, sniffling in the comer of the stage.

“Oh my, what have I done!” she said. “Count Vronsky has invited me to visit his dacha outside Saint Peters this weekend and he kissed me on the gazebo last night. Stiva is in Siberia on a tiger hunt and the count wants to take me away to do a lot kissing. Oh no, I am a wicked girl but I love him so. He’s strong and dashing and handsome and he’s really good at doing puzzles. The count is like ice cream. I can’t resis_t him. He’s my naughty passion. The servants don’t have to know. I’ll tell theml’m going on a vacation with Dolly.”

Anna’s soliloquy was interrupted by Vronsky dashing to front and center from stage left. The puppet wiggled his behind and bowed to his paramour. “We depart early in the morning, my little chickadee,” Vronsky said. “My golden carriage will pick you up before the cock crows. It’s a long way to St Peters from here. I have packed cheetos and root beer for the ride. Oh my darling, I am so pleased you’re coming to my dacha. No one can spy on us there. We can kiss all we want.”

“I don’t know, my dear Alexei Kirillovich” she said. “I might backsy on this. I

 

have darling children and weak lily-livered husband I wish not to betray. Maybe we can take a rain check.”

“Ah, sweet Anna, you’re so shy. You are so silly,” he said. “I will have to kidnap you then,” he said. “You will like it and will hide out like bandits.”

During the intermission Jane ran outside and crouched in the front seat ofher car. “She knows,” Jane whimpered in fear, rocking back and forth. “How could she possibly know.” She took every precaution, hiring a baby sitter to help Robert and calling from the cabin at bedtime. Horace made arrangements with a colleague to cover them should anyone to try to contact them at the family law conference in LA. Why had she given in

. to him? She was weak and miserable and distraught about her daughter. The senior partner in the law firm took advantage of me, he abused me, she told herself to assuage the horror of her guilt. It took six months to cut it off, but it was too late. Flora knew. She could hear it in her mother’s voice when she told Robert she worked late at night on an important brief. She saw her hands shake when she answered her cell phone and retreated to another room. She smelled a strange man’s cologne.

After feeding Flora a dinner of macaroni and cheese from the purple box, spoiling her wirt and an extra scoop of ice cream, bathing her and reading her Good Night Moon, Jane hugged her daughter like she’d never done before. Flora hugged back.

She went out for a walk so Robert wouldn’t know she was smoking again. How, she thought, swallowing in a dry throat, am I going to tell Robrert I’m pregnant? Flora knew already.

 

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Copyright © 2015 Karl Schoenberger

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