Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tim Anderson, "My Hubris Lives Next Door"

"Yeeeeaaaaaahhhh!" He runs past us with an insane smile, his arms waving over his head.

"I suppose he's our new neighbor," I say to Janet, feeling suddenly dubious about our new home. This is our first visit to the house, and before we have left the yard, he has violently hugged me, roughly pulled at Janet's sleeves, and tried to sell us a handful of rotting plums. He is no more than five years old.

On our next visit to our new neighborhood we don't get out of the car, but see him again, playing with his father. The man has long reddish hair and a wild beard. He wears black jeans, a white T-shirt, and heavy black boots.

After moving in, it becomes apparent that this boy, Mitchell, comes and goes as he pleases, from first thing in the morning until nine or ten at night. We do not see his mother for the first few months, and then just once, when she hurls open a upstairs window and shouts his name furiously. She leans out the window, her limp hair blowing across her face, and the shrillness of her voice makes her seem wild, uncontrolled.

Mitchell hardly seems to live indoors. He wraps himself in an old blanket and lies on his driveway like an accident victim. Once we go outdoors he is ever-present. He reminds me of those waifs who appear in public parks just as you open the picnic
basket. They stand in dirty t-shirts and sneakers, breathing through their mouths and watching your every move, like hungry dogs with no better hope for dinner. You cannot enjoy any of the things you have brought to eat, but must try to not be overtly
hostile to them, as that would not be the right thing to do. Ignored, they do not leave, give them attention and they settle in, and there you are.

Little Mitchell is not easy on the eyes, either. He wears the worn-out and ill-fitting clothes of other children. His footwear is remarkable in its scope. In the course of a single day, you will see him wear soiled runners, women's summer sandals of cheap vinyl, winter boots, black dance pumps, one with a broken heel. His hair pokes at his eyes and his face is alway dirty. Grit lies under every fingernail.

And then there are the things he does.

He turns on the garden hose and floods his back yard, laughing.

He rides his bike carelessly across lawns, driveways and the lane, never looking for traffic. Sometimes he does this with an old blanket dragging behind him, like a pauper prince.

His toys lie like dead insects all over his yard, and too often, they litter ours as well.

And he always asks why.

"Why are you getting in your car?"

"We're going to the store."


"Because there are some things we need to buy."


"Because we ran out and we need more."


One day Mitchell is visiting at our house and finds Janet cleaning the bathroom. He stands, mesmerized.

"What are you doing?"

"Cleaning the bathroom, Mitchell."


"Because we like it to be clean."


"Don't you like your house to be clean?"

Mitchell ponders this.


We learn that Mitchell's dad is actually his step-dad, and that his mother does not feel able to get out of bed for lengthy periods of time. His intelligence may also have suffered because he has had a brain tumor, which had to be removed.

Our patience redoubles.

"Mitchell, please don't tell Emily to play with you in the front yard," Janet asks for the umpteenth time with extraordinary calmness.


"Because our kids aren't allowed to play on their own in the front yard."


"Because we don't want them near the busy street."


"Because I don't want them hurt. I love them."

"My mom doesn't love me."

"I'm sure she does."

"No. She says if she had money, she'd just go - phhht! - like that."

And then he's off, wailing like a Banshee, or murderous commando, or ape, if apes wear women's shoes and torn winter jackets.

"Poor Mitchell," Janet says one afternoon as she watches him from the kitchen window.

"An infernal pest, that's what he is," I say. But that feeling comes over me, like I'm being watched at a picnic.

On a warm Saturday, we are enjoying a cup of tea after putting the kids down for a nap. I hear a meowing sound, no - a moan.

I look outside. Mitchell is lying face down in the lane, his legs tangled in his fallen bike.


He doesn't move.

We're down the stairs and at his side in seconds. His eyes are half-open, unseeing, and spittle drips from his mouth to the pavement. As I start to pick him up, my heart skips a beat. There is blood welling from a scraped lip and worse, a bad patch
at his right temple where his head has struck the pavement. I pick him up and he hangs limp in my arms, still moaning. He is wearing his father's enormous rubber boots, one of which has beencaught in the bike chain. As I lift him, the boot falls off his dangling leg. Janet picks it up. We leave his bike in the lane and carry him to his house.

Janet knocks at the door. The sun shines down, a bird sings, Mitchell's body is hot against me. We wait a full minute. Janet knocks again, more insistently. Mitchell continues to moan.

The door opens. It's Mitchell's stepfather.

"Mitchell has fallen," I say.

"Thank you," he says, and takes him from me. "Thank you so much." His eyes are the picture of tenderness, and I realize I've never been close enough to really see him.

Several days pass, and Mitchell and his step-father come to our door. Mitchell is not himself - he stands to one side, not making eye contact. His father is ill at ease as well, as if he owes us an explanation.

"Mitchell's getting better now. He just hit his head where they operated before, and that made him get a seizure. So we took him in to Children's Hospital for a night. They know him there. We got him Smarties, right Mitchell?"

Mitchell looks at us blankly.

"He'll be back to normal soon," says his dad.

I ponder the many implications of this. Mitchell is back in true form in a few days.

"Mitchell, that is not yours."

"Mitchell, please don't teach Emily to scream like that."

"Mitchell, please, please, move your bike so I can park my car."

Oh the wisdom we can learn from annoyances. One day as I dig out a garden hose, I work at getting wisdom, seeing how Mitchell has already provided the annoyance. Why does this kid get to me? Perhaps his presence in my life is like the hubris of old heroes, I think. Hubris, that one character flaw in an otherwise noble man. The small character trait that provides the fulcrum for great tragedies. Maybe that's it, just as Mitchell fell and struck himself directly at his point of his weakness, he does the
same to me just by annoying me. On the other hand, maybe I'm just trying to give a noble appearance to my fallen nature.

I'm starting to get somewhere, both with my philosophical musings and my tugs on the garden hose, when Mitchell appears.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm taking out a garden hose."


"Because I want to wash my car."


"Don't you ever wash your car?"


Mitchell cannot be persuaded to move from the driveway. I only barely resist the temptation to let the stream of water wander momentarily in his direction. This seems to me to be quite a moral act in itself, until God begins to speak to me.

"Who is that over there?" he asks.

"Oh, you know him," I answer. "That's Mitchell, my little hubris."

"No, he's not that."

"Okay, he just activates my hubris."

"Who is he, then?" God asks.

I mull that as I scrub my car.

"I haven't figured that out yet," I mutter.

God moves in close. I can feel him. The sun shines down, like it did the day I carried Mitchell home. Cold water runs over the pavement. The neighborhood kids are jumping over the stream, and Mitchell is trying to keep up with them.

"I'll tell you who he is," God says confidentially. "He's my child."

Contact me to get in touch with the author. Image: "Where The Wild Things Are"