I didn’t invite him.
He coiled himself around the banister, or, sometimes, stretched out fat and woolly. And he wouldn’t leave.
I didn’t have the means to accommodate an itchy son. He smelled like rot and his skin was flaky and he shed it directly into the toilet bowl. In the morning I would think, Oh! a stray tissue in the toilet bowl, and then realize, Nope, just a grim load of my son’s wafery skin.
There wasn’t even anywhere for him to sleep. So he built a nesty thing in the kitchen, out of shredded newspaper and strips torn from the couch fabric. At night, when I came downstairs to fill a glass of water or pick at the fridge, his olive-green eye-stalks protruded from a heap of fluff and detritus. They drifted back and forth in time to his silent breathing.
To tell you the truth, my son creeped me out.
But he had pluck, I’ll give him that. My son rose to the occasion, even if, inevitably, the occasion slapped him straight back down.
Example: I asked him, Which of these four is the odd one out?
A) The Broad-faced Potoroo
Which was a ratlike marsupial endemic to the arid Australian interior. The last known individual was captured circa 1875, and preserved in formaldehyde.
B) The Yangtze River Dolphin
Which was a freshwater cetacean confined to its namesake river in eastern China. A technologically advanced 2006 survey failed to find any surviving individuals.
C) The Mauritius Blue Pigeon
Which was a forest-dwelling variant of the Alectroenas superspecies—the blue pigeons of the western Indian Ocean. The last individual was shot in 1826.
Or is it
D) The Greeble
Which is an intransigent omnipod, aspirational around its protrusions but spumulous when cornered.
“That’s easy,” said my son. “The answer is D) The Greeble.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I screamed. “Are you some sort of spumulous cretin? The answer is obviously B) The Yangtze River Dolphin. The only aquatic species.”
“Oh,” said my son.
“Yeah,” I said. “Humiliating.”
My son was never going to become a great researcher, like me. Pluck alone was not enough. Whenever he failed one of my little tests he crept back to his nest, sullen, his talons squealing against the floor tiles, his mane limp and lusterless.
After a while I forgot about him. Then came the first day of some bright spring. Reorganizing the shed, I stumbled upon my son hunkered down in a wooden box packed with straw. When I lifted the lid he craned a wrinkled neck out from under his shell.
“Hello,” he said.
“Yuck,” I replied. “It’s just you. I thought it might be someone who wasn’t a grotesque disappointment.”
He gave me that beaky, toothless grin of his so I slammed the lid down. I ran inside and locked myself in the bathroom to cower. I hadn’t even managed to put away all my depleted research-tubes.
My son creeped me out, but to tell you the truth, I had missed him. I am not immune to loneliness. It would be a relief to have someone else around the house again, as when my own father was in residence.
Oh boy, how the old guy used to talk about death. My father was a much hairier man than myself. His face was lined, expressive, large as a cutting board. My own is tight, narrow, and sans follicles from cranium to throat. Even when I stretch my mouth wide, or furrow my brow, wrinkles barely disturb it.
But then, splashing myself with cold water, I turned my head in the bathroom mirror and recognized the way my father turned his own. Unmistakable. A hereditary riff that electrified my forearms. A shock like finding your exact name used in a novel.
Anyway, I decided to burn down the shed. I should have done it ages ago. It was a clear day, the air just sharp enough for a fire to smell good.
I stepped back after dousing the shed in petroleum, rummaged around in my dressing gown for matches, and began to scrat-scratch at the matchbox. At that moment I felt a tug at my calf.
“What are you doing?” asked my son, peering up at me from a diaphanous amphitheater of tentacles.
“Inconvenient,” I muttered.
My son looked over to the evaporating fuel, which distorted the shed as aquarium water throbs a waiting-room wall. Then he noticed the match.
“Why are you rolling your eyes?” he asked.
“People roll their eyes,” I snapped. “Just because all you have is a loose constellation of photo-sensitive pigment cells doesn’t give you the right to cast aspersions on my three-dimensional, telescopic supervision.”
“Okay okay,” said my son. “Jeez.” He turned away, only to slam his head into a watering can. It looked quite painful.
“Now look what you’ve done!” I said. “If that steel is in some way corroded by your bilious secretions . . .”
My son pawed at his snout, and a truly miserable wobble played about his lips. Who could stay mad at that? I gathered up his fluffy body ball and cradled him gently, splattering his forehead with moist kisses as I carried him inside.
“Just this once,” I cooed, when I placed him on my bed.
His calcified appendages tore into the duvet; goose feathers plumed and geysered.
Are you positive your own son is not a greeble? People would ask.
That’s a lie. People never asked me anything.
Didn’t bother me. I took everything in stride. Back then I was a patient man. A reasonable man. A man so chock-full of rationality I awoke cold every night, drenched in the surplus.
One morning, I opened my eyes to my son, who was sat on my chest, holding a butcher’s knife to my throat.
“Dull,” I said with a yawn, and in the process nicked my Adam’s apple. “Are you that hopelessly adolescent already? Fine.”
I arched my back to give him a clear stab at my jugular.
“What are you talking about?” asked my son. “Stop bleeding. Someone’s trying to break in. We’re being robbed. Sort it out.”
I hurled his squawking form into the wastepaper basket as I flailed from the bed. Then I stole downstairs, gripping the blade’s hilt tightly. On the landing above me, my son chirruped and trembled. I sighed. He was a coward in the great family tradition, and likewise, mistaken about a great many things. The “robber” turned out to be the mailman.
There was a package on the doorstop.
“You saved me!” trilled my son as I carried it into the kitchen. He ricocheted around me like a cartoon bullet.
And there you have it. I had answered the people who never asked.
Do I think my own son is a greeble? Please. I would know. What did I do all day except research? Greebles are arid and numerous. They are a crisis; they rasp and multiply. My son was singular, and he wanted to live. He had all the squash of a marsh.
We had hot and cold running water. The bread bin overflowed with doughnuts. Every bulb confirmed the electrical supply was reliable and paid for. Just once: happiness.
Plus, I’d received a beautiful package. The heavy-duty brown paper that leaves tiny fibers against your skin. Seaweed-green garden twine. Exotic stamps. Corners responsibly, enticingly taped. But my son wouldn’t stop screeching that I was his hero, and I wanted to open it with fitting reverence.
“You proved yourself today,” I said, and set my son on the windowsill.
He looked doubtful. His chubby flippers dangled.
“I mean it. You’re more than lethal enough. It’s time for you to leave home.”
“See the world?”
“No need to call,” I said, and pushed him out of the window. I waited for the white sun to absorb his flapping silhouette before I returned to my package.
It was what I had hoped for. Goodbye research-tubes, you useless hunks of crap! This researcher was moving on up. From now on, the mysteries of the universe would be revealed by research-prisms.
Slowly, I unfolded the crepe paper.
Two of them were broken, and I’d only ordered three. That stupid mailman. The minimum wage should be slashed to a stale crust and an ice cube once a fortnight.
Just then, someone began to beat at the door. I picked up the knife again, just in case it was the mailman.
But it was my prodigal “son.”
He had discovered, on his travels, the true nature of the crisis.
“So what did you see?” I inquired. “Out there in the world?”
“Not a huge amount, to be honest,” he said. “I didn’t plan to stay away for so long, but I had been expecting so much, so I kept looking. Everywhere turned out to be totally boring and lame. Nothing like the ruckus you described. Where did it all go wrong?
“Greebles,” I said, and waved my hand. “Everyone knows how spumulously they treat everything. There ought to be a law against greebles.”
“Dad, there is.”
My son didn’t think I understood him, but I bellowed that I understood perfectly. I understood that he could not be my son.
The interloper remained calm and asked what I meant. I explained to him that my daring experiments had conclusively proven that certain acts were a necessary precursor to fatherhood.
“Certain grimy nasty nasty awful acts,” I said, as I tried to scrunch up my face. “Unforgivable acts such that you wouldn’t find noble me participating in for all the research-prisms in the wide world.”
“Research-prisms?” said my son. “What are you talking about? No one’s trusted those for years. Research-prisms? Are you serious?”
“Don’t take that tone with me,” I screamed.
I ran to fetch the broom. I wanted to poke my “son” down from the kitchen ceiling, where he had spun himself a sticky cocoon. But I was spooked. Younger generations always have a firmer grasp of technology. And now that I really thought about it, of course research-prisms were a false lead. I gave my son a few desultory prods and didn’t even light the gas when his writhing, pupoid body fell with a plop onto the stove.
“Revolting,” I said. “I guess you are my son.”
“Of course I am.”
With his wide, moist tongue he licked crumbs from his eyes.
I supposed he could have his old nest back. It was still in the corner. I don’t know why I hadn’t soaked it in bleach. My son looked a bit huffy about the arrangement, but once he’d padded around a bit he settled down and even seemed quite content.
I watched him as I sat the kitchen table, among the shrapnel of my useless prisms. The sun shone indifferently through the curtains, even though it was very late. When I looked into his eyes I wanted to change the future.
According to my father, we had become far too optimistic for death. These days, it always came as a shock. Death was . . . inappropriate. What we needed was a vigorous little plague.
“When a plague kills,” he would begin, narrowing his eyes and smiling the same smile he deployed when confronted by large meals. “When a plague kills, it’s the law.”
But if he were to stuff me in the microwave, apparently, that would be an act of violence: against the law. That’s what we had confused.
“A muscular pestilence would set everybody straight. Something democratic. Thorough. Kings and paupers, you understand me.”
My father usually wore a tatty jumper over some cheap shirt. His trousers never fit his waist, let alone matched his shoes: a pair of polyester loafers. It’s not that he was deliberately slovenly or disdainful of fashion. He just didn’t see his clothes; they never appeared to him as objects to be appreciated. He didn’t have that filter.
Long after he left, it came to me that I’d rebelled against my father’s shabby wardrobe. I chose a clean-lined style: the blank of a lab coat. I’m proud I made the decision, but I often wonder if that particular blindness of his wasn’t more advantage than affliction. He was, after all, spared the greeble crisis.
There’s a moral to all this.
Charge your children rent. They’ll take advantage otherwise.
My son took afternoon-long baths. He kept them hot by taking the plug out and running the tap at full blast. He said creating the equilibrium was important to the experience. And more hygienic. Much more appealing than sitting around in a congealing tub of your own filth.
The water bills were skyrocketing, but I was inclined to agree. Quite dirty, my son.
The problem, he explained without my asking, were the deep folds lining his flank. They trapped matter. They were horny and inflexible. Great strata of grime built up in an instant.
“I am essentially semi-aquatic,” he complained once, as he lounged in the tub. “But I don’t see any other solution.”
“I think I have a carpet-beater somewhere,” I said, hopefully.
His baths were becoming an issue. The earth around the outdoor drain had liquefied to a depth of six feet. Subsidence was inevitable. A great crack jabbered across the kitchen wall.
“Any more smart ideas?” roared my son.
“Yeah!” I yelled over my shoulder as I retreated downstairs, taking them three at a time. “Get a job!”
A little joke we had. The joke was I paid for everything and he took afternoon-long baths, ate all my food, and destroyed the house.
There comes a time in every researcher’s life when he realizes the baton has been passed. No longer a member of the vanguard, his task is to transition with grace to the role of elder statesman. Collect pupils. Use the platform responsibly. Secure his legacy.
“Do you think I’m at that stage yet?” I asked my son one afternoon.
He was lying motionless on the couch.
“I have been researching non-stop for decades now. I’m worn out. Hang on, why aren’t you in the tub?”
“Full of greebles,” he answered, without redirecting his gaze from a vase of daffodils on the bookshelf.
He was sprawled over my last unsoiled throw. I made a funny little noise.
“Don’t worry,” he said, his eyes on the vase. “I’ve been clean for months, I just liked watching the water spiral.”
He extended a wing for inspection. I complimented him and ran the smooth white filaments between forefinger and thumb, as one tests cloth. Extraordinarily clean.
“So, about the water damage—”
“About your professional status,” said my son. “It’s not that you’re not old enough, it’s just . . . look, I’m not exactly sure what you want secured?” Perched now on the cabinet, he chewed on the daffodils and twirled a hoof in contemplation. “Um, no offense . . .” he swallowed. “. . . But what exactly have you amassed?”
I was indignant.
“Well, this house for starters . . .”
“. . . There’s all my equipment . . .”
“. . . And then there’s you!”
“I’m lazy and useless. A crushing failure. You must know that by now.”
I told him he wasn’t a failure, and I meant it. I scratched the top of his head, where the skin was so thin you could see the skull. He smiled, but I wasn’t convinced.
“Truly you’re not,” I continued. “And I’m forgetting my legacy’s chief pillar. My research.”
My son snorted. “Right. How’s that going?”
I told him to see for himself, and presented him with another of my little tests. Which of these four is the odd one out?
A) The Ruby Grapefruit
Which is a commercial citrus variant, most likely a hybrid of the Barbados sweet orange and the pomelo. First patented in 1929.
B) The Guide Dog
Which is a helpful canine companion, whose training lasts between eight and fourteen months. First alluded to in the mid-sixteenth century.
C) The Sudden-Death Mosquito
Which is a bio-engineered take on the Aedes aegypti mosquito, genetically programmed to drop dead before it reaches maturity. First announced in 2013.
Or is it:
D) The Greeble
Which is an insistent pleomorph, confident of its inevitability and unresponsive to threats.
“Tricky,” said my son. “But I think the answer is A) The Ruby Grapefruit.”
“The only juiceable species,” I whispered, and smiled. So finally he understood.
This was an age ago. My son left again shortly after we proved his potential. He could be a researcher after all, but he needed to seek out his own territory.
I received a package today. My first since those humiliating research-prisms. It was from my son. He had broken explicit orders never to contact or even think about me.
He argued a bit when I detailed these instructions. But he was an adult. He could handle it. We both cried at the door, though I cried a lot more. I really hurt my foot booting him down the front steps.
“At least let me send you crisis reports?” he whined.
Please. Like I needed to hear any more about greebles. My son left around the time I began to find them on the regular, under the sink. A year later I was shooing them daily from the garden. It was only a matter of time before they colonized the ground floor, though I continued to use the kitchen until they reached knee-height, at which point they became a nuisance to wade through.
So began my upstairs life. Armed with an old cricket bat I had dug out of the eaves, I kept a constant watch. When the sun was brightest, the bolder greebles tried to spring onto the landing. Exhausted and sweating, I whacked them back down. Only if I was up very early, or stayed awake very late, did their swarming bristles remind me of my son.
I came to appreciate those moments of recognition. Often, I would sit on the top stair, hypnotized by the mass of greebles below me, their weightless black porcelain wriggle, and try to recall his face.
In fact, I was sitting like that when across the sea of quills floated my son’s delivery.
To tell you the truth, I was thrilled. Nothing much floats my way these days. But when I reached for the package, it shook, and began to emit strange mewing sounds. I watched it for a few seconds. Then I picked it up and climbed the stepladder to the attic. From there, through the skylight onto the roof.
Spread before me, spread so far that they distorted the horizon with their seething: nothing but greebles. All the safe zones had been engulfed. Here and there you could see the spires of religious buildings, or the crowns of ancient oaks. Otherwise there was nothing but greebles, greebles, greebles. They gave off a quiet, fascinating rustle, like tinsel on tile.
There were no clouds in the sky. There hadn’t been for a long time. The only odor I could detect, a faint mingling of licorice and loam, came from the box I’d lugged up there.
It was heavier now. Distracted by the greeble swarm, I didn’t notice until the package slipped from my grasp. The noises had changed, too. Instead of high warbles came the deep rumble of a mouth-breather with a serious set of lungs.
What the hell had my son sent me? That reckless oaf. I was too tired for so much variability in so little space.
A thicket of scratches. Whatever was trying to claw free was doing so with such force that the package began to tumble around in a crooked little circle. I wondered if it might be a cool new type of prism.
But then it came to me suddenly. Of course! Whatever my son had sent me, it would solve, finally, the greeble crisis. He, a great researcher!
I scrabbled at tape and cardboard. What did I have to lose? Even the topmost leaves of the tallest trees had vanished beneath the rising greebles. The swarm was an uninterrupted 360-degree continuum. A never-changing, ever-shifting whole.
In that moment, I faced the totality of my son. Which is to say, I didn’t contemplate the fact of love, but confronted its full, water-cannon current.
A small section of the box tore. Whatever lurked inside, given air, paused in its own efforts. Through the hole I saw a gelatinous eye, crimson around the pupil, capillaried and pterodactylid and furious.
A little unexpected. Still, I felt forgiven.
And so I let the box unfold itself. I gave in to my own exhaustion and let the bottled-up smell of old licorice roll out over the roof and into the swarm. Now that I knew what would emerge I simply stood back. Yet for the first few seconds her particulars were obscured, and it was in silhouette that I watched her stretch. Delicate, pocket-crumpled, like a newly-emerged butterfly—but at least twelve feet tall, with thick limbs, stiff and muscular.
I’m no expert, but I’m confident we’ll all be forgiven.