“Mommy, do trees grow up out of the ground,” Waffles says, “or do they grow from the top up?”
“I don’t know,” Isabelle says to her daughter. Then Isabelle takes a stab in the dark and says, “From the top.”
“Do you want to know what time it is?” Waffles says, smiling.
“Yes,” her mother says.
Waffles awkwardly brings her wrist up level with her eyes, like she’s blocking the sun. She squints and studies her watch. “It’s three thirty, and ten seconds, in the p.m.”
“You mean it’s half past three.”
“No,” Waffles says, “it’s three thirty, and nineteen seconds, p.m.” The tightness of the calculator-watch’s thick black plastic wristband causes her skin to bulge out of the sides.
* * *
“Daddy,” Waffles says, “do trees grow from the top up, or from the ground up?”
“From the top upwards, or from the ground upwards.”
“Upwards?” she says.
“The word is upwards. I don’t know the answer to your question, sweetums. Mmmmm. What do you think?”
“I told Mommy that they grow from the top upwards.”
The father, Ted, says, “How could we find out?”
“Wikpeedya” she says, meaning Wikipedia.
“That’s my girl.”
Waffles looks at her toenails. She doesn’t know why she’s looking at her toenails.
“Or we could experiment ourselves,” Ted says. “How could we test whether trees grow from the trunk and pu—”
“The main stem of a tree. So how could we test if trees grow from the trunk, from the main part of the tree, and push upwards? Or, how could we test if the trunk stays still and it’s only the branches that grow?”
“Trees have one circle per year, right? So if you chop a tree down and it has seven circles, it’s seven years old, right?”
“Right and right.”
She says, “Why?”
“Daddy!” She giggles excitedly. “Don’t say because!” She raises her arms straight up in the air, un-self-conscious. She says, “Where do the circles come from?”
“They come from the tree itself.”
“But where in the tree, Daddy? Where, where, where?”
“Well, where do you grow from?”
“From my head up.”
“Well, not exactly. If we go into the kitchen, you’ll see all your different heights marked on the wall for each of your birthdays.”
She shoves her hands snug under her armpits. “Yeah…I’m growing from the head up.”
He leans in closer. “But my little Raccoon, isn’t your whole body growing? Your legs are longer too, yes? Me and Mommy grew you in the beginning. But now you grow yourself.”
She says, “Yourself?”
“Myself,” she says cautiously.
“Yep,” Ted says.
“Do you want to know what time it is?”
He pretends to look for the watch that he knows he’s not wearing. “Hey! I don’t have my watch on! If I had my watch—”
“I have mine! It’s three twenty-one!”
She says, “And fourteen, fiveteen, six—”
“Raccoon, is fiveteen a word?”
“You sure it’s not fifteen?”
“You know why,” he says.
“I don’t remember.”
“Because that’s the name somebody gave the number fifteen. If Mommy and I gave you a different name, if we called you Monica or Justine, then that’d be your name. But we called you…?”
“Waffles and Raccoon.”
“But what’s your real name?”
“I don’t like it. I like Waffles, and I like Raccoon, and I like Raccoony.”
He farts a tremendous foghorn fart.
She lights up, laughs wildly. “Daddy!” She covers her ears, then her nose.
“Those low flying ducks!” he shouts.
“It wasn’t the ducks! It was you!” She chortles and slaps his shoulder.
He let’s another fart rip. This one’s an extended, high-pitched, racecar fart. “Me? That wasn’t me!” He points behind her.
Her sight follows his finger.
He says, “That was the Chinese barking spiders in the grass!”
She looks back to him. Slap, slap, slap. “You stink! You stink!” She laughs with her shoulders.
He puts his hand under his underarm and squashes out a symphony of fart sounds. Gurgles, oinks, big bangs, cellos.
She giggles uncontrollably. “Daddy! Stop it! Stop it!”
* * *
The husband and wife are eating Chinese food.
Isabelle says, “I don’t like our daughter wearing that digital watch all the time.”
“Why not? It’s her favorite,” Ted says.
“It’s a calculator-watch, for starters. I don’t like calculators and I don’t like calculator-watches.”
“She doesn’t use the calculator. She thinks the buttons look cool. She thinks it looks like she’s wearing a space rocket.”
“She only likes it because you like it.” Isabelle guns her chopsticks at him.
He nearly says: You only dislike it because she likes it.
He says, “Can we please not make this a comparison fight? Me this. You that. Waffles taking sides. Anarchy!” He does his best to laugh.
She has always resented how he enjoys being faux-melodramatic. She says, “But she takes sides. Yours.”
“Isabelle, can we please just not get into this? What can we accept? What can we let go of?”
“I don’t like her wearing that watch. She sleeps with it—I don’t want her sleeping with it. She showers with it—I don’t want her showering with it. She still hasn’t learned how to tell time on a face watch. If we don’t teach her, and she keeps wearing that goddamn thing, then she’ll never learn.”
“Then teach her how to tell time on a face clock,” he says. “Simple solution. Problem solved.”
“It’s not that easy, Ted.”
“It’s not that hard, Isabelle.”
“Chupe leche del pene,” she says, this being her favorite cuss phrase retained from their Spanish classes. Translation: Suck milk from my penis.
“Chupe mantequilla de mi culo,” he says, this being his favorite Spanish cuss phrase. Translation: Suck butter from my ass.
* * *
“What’s the rope and tire for, Daddy?”
“Raccoon, this is a swing. Well, it will be. See how I’ve tied one end of the rope to the tire? See how the tire is the seat—you’ll sit on it like this.” He lifts the tire to his butt and pretends to prop onto it. “We’re going to tie the other end of the rope to Small Sally.” He points to Small Sally, the littlest tree in their backyard, the one that Waffles hides behind when it’s breakfast-time. “What kind of tree is Sally again?”
“She’s a sickmores.”
“Yes! A sycamore.”
He swivels to the left and points to a limb on the largest sycamore tree in the yard. As thick as Ted’s arm, the limb extends perfectly horizontally out of the trunk. “See that big limb on Huge Harry? The limb that’s about three times as high as the top bunk on your bunk bed? We’re going to test how a tree grows. You see, soon, Small Sally will have big branches like Huge Harry.”
She notices him waiting. She nods.
“This is what we’re going to do,” he continues. “We’ll tie our swing to one of Sally’s limbs, then in the future we’ll be able to tell how she grows.”
She looks at her dad, at the rope swing, at Huge Harry, at Small Sally, and back to him. They walk to Sally. He ties the swing to a limb that’s as tall as him. Then he unties it. “Do you want to tie it?”
“No.” Waffles jiggles her head up and down.
“Yes or no?”
“No,” she says sternly.
“I could lift you uppies onto my shoulders and you could tie the rope like your shoelaces.”
“No Daddy. I said no.”
“Relax, Waffles,” he snaps.
She pokes her tongue at him. She jabs her finger under her watch and pulls on it like she’s trying to break it.
He hates when the beaten Ted inside him raises his voice at her. She’s asked for none of his hidden animosity, yet sometimes a pissy, pathetic part of him wins him over, and spills over onto his daughter. He ties the swing again to one of Sally Sycamore’s thin limbs. The rope is about twenty feet in length, so the majority of it remains coiled up on the grass next to the tire.
“Sorry,” he says eventually.
She doesn’t respond.
He hand-pats the branch. “See how the limb is currently as tall as I am. Well I’ve stopped growing, but the tree hasn’t. Small Sally’s like you, she’s young and still got lots more growing to grow, yeah? Yeah. So if we tie the swing here, we can see how she grows. Cool? Cool huh. And then, one day, we can swing.”
“But what if trees grow from the branches? Then the swing won’t go uppies.” Then she remembers her new word, and she adds, “The swing won’t go upwards.”
“That’s…right. How’d you figure that out? That’s smart stuff!” He taps his temple. “You’re amazing! You’re incredible! How’d you figure that out?”
Her smile could break wars. “I…don’t know. So when can we swing? Next month?” She jumps around.
“Hun, it’ll take a little longer than a month.”
“Longer,” he says.
“I haven’t got all day”—she heard her Mommy say this to him a few weeks ago when Mommy was arguing about why Daddy had so much emotional baggage.
He pig-snorts and says, “You what?”
“I haven’t got all day, Daddy.” She laughs and stomps around like when she’s being a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Then she looks at her calculator watch. “Can we use this to figure it out?”
“Absolutely. Just don’t tell Mommy about it.”
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