issue twenty-eight

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(3050 words)
Andrew Gretes

       We needed a song. In Disney movies, characters sing a song when they're stuck. And we were stuck. For my daughter and I had no idea why Rumpelstiltskin tore himself into pieces. We had read the fairy tale earlier that night and had become thoroughly confused. What we knew was that the miller's daughter had guessed Rumpelstiltskin's true name. What we knew was that the dwarf, upon hearing his true name, exploded. A tad excessive, I admitted. "Bonkers!" Yael concluded. What we didn't know was where the question would take us:

My daughter's sudden fear of spontaneous combustion.

My first midlife crisis.
Putting our five-year-old daughter to bed was an event. My wife, who was partial to making transitions as smooth as possible, had begun the tradition of "lights-out decompression." Thresholds, she was convinced, were where things went wrong. And that's why midnight was such a spooky thing. And why Sandra distrusted froglets, puberty, cocoons, and the winter solstice.

When she first learned she was pregnant, Sandra had wanted two things: a water birth and a doula. The fetus being an aquatic creature, it's apparently a more gentle transition for the baby to be birthed in a bath tub. The metaphor my wife used was that it was like being sucked out of a pond and siphoned into a lake. It was a time of unfortunate metaphors.

"Lights-out decompression" was fueled by a similar logic. The goal was to fall asleep in a serene state of mind. While tucking Yael in, we would ask her about her day. And then we would read to her. And then we would ramble. The mass production of parental white noise. Filibusters aimed at inducing comas.

"Papi," Yael said, standing atop her mattress, dressed in her Princess Jasmine pajamas. "We need to sing a song. We'll know everything after we sing a song."

And so we did. We sang a song. And then there was a long pause. And Yael asked, "Papi, now what?"

I shrugged. I felt stupid. More so, after the song. I spotted Yael's stuffed kangaroo on the floor and picked it up. Mr. K, the kangaroo, was missing an arm. His eyes were glassy fatalism. He had no illusions. He was an animal. Worse, he was a fake animal. It's okay, he seemed to say. You can take your frustration out on me. I'm a toy kangaroo. I got a pouch. I stuff all the bad shit there and churn it into plush.

I nodded and strangled the kangaroo.

There was no denying it. We were stuck. Still no closer to finding the answer as to why Rumpelstiltskin dismembered himself upon hearing the simple utterance of his own name. Not that I thought names were nothing. Or that they were all balmy and bright. I knew better. Naming our daughter was like drawing up the Treaty of Versailles.

Article 1. Sandra's paternal grandparents were German-Jewish concentration camp survivors who had immigrated to Venezuela after the war. Their surname -- Rosenstock -- had survived Dachau and wasn't about to be exterminated by a gringo gentile. 

Article 2. I was willing to make a feminist gesture and retire my surname, until Dad called me up one morning, calmly threatening to disown me and move to the mountains if his granddaughter wasn't a Bancroft by name. 

Article 3. Sandra was adamant about a strong female name.

Article 4. Sandra's father, Zami, wanted a strong Jewish name. 

Guilt clause. Mom died six months into Sandra's pregnancy. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. One day, Mom's heart was working. And then it wasn't. I slipped Mom into the mess, sandwiching her memory somewhere between a Hebrew heroine and the holocaust.

The result was "Yael Roseanne Rosenstock-Bancroft."

No one was happy.

"Twenty years," my dad predicted. "The name will last for twenty years."


       Yael and I didn't solve the mystery that night. I explained to my daughter that the author of the fairy tale collection was from the 19th century, and that a lot of things in the 19th century don't make sense. I then kissed her goodnight and turned off the light, dragging myself downstairs and grabbing a jar of peanut butter from the fridge before stopping in the living room -- spoon in mouth -- to linger between Sandra and the TV.

My wife stirred on the couch. Lime nursing scrubs. Round face. Slept-in eyeliner.

Sandra cleared her throat and slipped into her National Geographic voice: "In captivity, the husband is a sad specimen. Once proud and full of purpose, he becomes a shadow of his former self. His diet is a mix of scavenged items: canned legumes and the mashed leftovers of his young offspring. Spending an increasing amount of time in the bathroom, he begins asking questions of his new habitat. 'What am I doing here?' 'Why do I always cry after watching Frozen?' 'Are vasectomy's painful?'"

Until Sandra got tired, and her voice shifted: "¡Carne de burro no es transparente!"

Translation: Donkey meat isn't transparent. 

Translation: You're blocking the TV; move the fuck out of the way.

Sandra had started working twelve hour shifts at the hospital. Eight-thirty to eight-thirty. It wasn't sustainable. But Sandra was Sandra. She was muddling through. Each night, my wife would come home and collapse on the couch. Yael would dash over to Sandra's side and look down, her curly black hair tickling Sandra's nose, dangling in Rapunzel vines, enticing her mother to take hold and climb up to a different world.

I lifted my wife's feet and sat down. Spoon still in my mouth, I mumbled: "We're weading Wumpelstiltskin."


       The next night, Yael didn't miss a beat. After I tucked her in and picked up Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book, she dimmed her eyes: "What about Rumpelstiltskin?"

This is the problem with genetic inheritance. You run the risk of inflicting yourself on yourself. As a child, I was obsessed with unraveling things; I was one of those annoying kids who corners every question mark and tortures a confession out of it. Mom thought I was autistic.

"Papi, what's wrong with Rumpelstiltskin's name?"

I know myself. I was ready for this. I took a wad of paper out of my pocket and said: "Mi vida, I did some research at work and found out exactly why Rumpelstiltskin was so upset about his name -- "

"You weren't working?"

I rubbed my eyes.

Yael repeated: "You weren't working?"

I wondered how Mom never took off her hair tie and throttled me.

"You weren't wor -- "

"I was working. I'm always working. Mami's always working. Everyone's always working."

That morning, I had commuted to IPSI (Integrated Programming Solutions Incorporated) for our daily meeting. Or, as the product development lingo goes: "The Scrum Meeting." I think it's a rugby allusion. Something about hunkering down, passing the ball back and forth, and going the distance. We used big words like "Booleans" and "conditionals." We stretched. We visualized our day: sitting in a cubicle-farm for eight hours and punching in code. Latecomers were greeted with shame: "Scrumbags!" "Scrumbutts!"

Yael was about to cry.

Hoping to prevent a meltdown, I quickly pretended to read from the crumpled paper in my hands: "According to a recent study performed by German scholars with big pointy hats -- "

"You're not reading."

"How do you know?"

"You're not looking at the paper."

"I'm summarizing."

"Does it really say they have big pointy hats?"

"That's why people go to school in Germany: to earn big pointy hats."

"What does it say about Rumpelstiltskin?"

"That he was a witch baby."

Yael's eyes lit up. "What's a witch baby?"

"A baby made by a witch."
"How is it made?"

"In a pot. Like a stew."

I continued. Slowly. Lowering my voice to something smooth and soporific. Describing how Rumpelstiltskin was made by melting and stirring three ingredients in a pot. First, I explained, the witch stirred a "rump" into the cauldron. The rump was a butt severed from a flatulent donkey. Next, I explained, the witch stirred a "stilt" into the cauldron. To be more precise, the stilt ("el stilt"). There was only one stilt at that time. It was a long time ago. Poles were a novelty. And lastly, I noted, the witch stirred some "skin" into the pot. Skin from the witch's own thumb. Skin riddled with big hairy warts. And then the witch gave the stew one last stir and out popped a dwarf. Rumpelstiltskin, to be exact. Now, understandably, Rumpelstiltskin was terribly ashamed of the ingredients of his birth, and so he never told anyone his real name. He got used to never hearing it. Instead, he went -- depending on the occasion -- by Jeff or Miles or Balthazar or Bomber. But never Rumpelstiltskin. And so when the miller's daughter guessed his real name, Rumpelstiltskin couldn't bear the sound of it, for it was like staring into a mirror for the first time in a hundred years. The dwarf, hearing his name, recalled who he really was: a towering wart-infested ass. And he couldn't stand it. So he tore himself to pieces. Or exploded from shame. There's disagreement about the details.

"Papi," Yael said, eyes closed.

"Mi vida?"

"Is that why Mami says your whole name when she's angry?"


       That night, I found Sandra lying on the couch. Face plunged into her pillow. Somewhere between snoring and snorkeling.

When Yael was born, my wife and I started confessing things to each other. Indirectly. I never meant to tell my wife that I was a bed-wetter. That my mom -- until I was seven -- would wake me up at two in the morning and drag me to the toilet so I didn't piss on the sheets. But then Yael betrayed me and began wetting her bed at three.

Sandra never meant to confess that she got kicked out of kindergarten for biting other children. But when Yael bit someone on her first day of preschool, Sandra felt obligated to mention it.

Sandra still thinks I had a princess phase. I don't recall a princess phase. Besides, if I had one, Mom would've told Sandra all about it. One night, after dinner -- most likely the first dinner, the "introducing the girlfriend to the parents" dinner -- Mom would've dropped a box labeled "Galen's dolls and ponies" on Sandra's placemat.

Truthfully, we have no idea where Yael's princess phase came from. Maybe it goes back to that old story about Achilles. The one where he's dressed up as a maiden by his mother and forced to conceal himself in a crowd of girls so he won't have to march off to war and get killed -- as was his fate. But in the story, Odysseus shows up and empties a bag of gifts at the girls' feet: rings, necklaces, armbands, brooches, and a rusty sword. Achilles, seeing the weapon, leaps after it and betrays himself.

So maybe it was just fate.

Or commercials.

I don't know.

I sat down on the couch and rubbed my hands down Sandra's spine. She stirred from her pillow. She asked how "lights-out decompression" went.

"Good," I said.

Sandra would take over next week. We alternated weeks of putting Yael to bed.

"We're done with Rumpelstiltskin."


       Yael creaked open our bedroom door at three that morning. She peeked in, holding her stuffed kangaroo Mr. K with both hands, her eyes as wide as saucers. Sandra switched on the lamp and asked Yael what was wrong. Yael screamed. She told Sandra not to say her name. If anyone said her name, she explained, she might explode. "Like Rumpelstiltskin. Like Papi said."

Yael climbed into our bed and squeezed between us.
Sandra glared at me before turning off the lamp. "Coño de tu madre…"

Translation: Your mother's cunt.

Translation: I have to wake up in a few hours, and you're giving our daughter nightmares about exploding dwarves.

In the dark, I could feel Mr. K's ears tickling my nose. He was still awake. He had no eyelids.


       I spent the next night explaining to Yael that her name -- unlike Rumpelstiltskin's -- was nothing to be scared of. We repeated the words "Yael Roseanne Rosenstock-Bancroft" like a mantra. With each utterance, Yael became less anxious. More accepting of not exploding. I told Yael a story about each of her different names. We began with her first name. I described how, long ago, a woman named Yael had defeated a bad man.
"Did she tear him to pieces?"

"Not exactly."

"Then how did she defeat him, Papi?"

I explained. Careful to mumble some of the details. I told Yael how the woman invited the bad man into her tent. And gave him a glass of warm milk. And let him rest his head on her lap. And waited for him to fall asleep. And then hammered a tent peg into his skull.

We moved on to Yael's middle name.

I explained how Yael's grandmother, Roseanne, raised chickens long ago. Back when Papi was just a boy. Yael's grandmother protected these chickens from bad animals with a homemade cage of PVC pipes and orange netting. But then, one day, a hawk found a hole through Roseanne's netting and devoured one of the chickens. Unfortunately for the hawk though, it couldn't find its way out of the netting. This gave Roseanne time to enter the chicken pen with a 2X4 and bludgeon the intruder to death. All while Papi (who was not much older than Yael at the time) watched through the window in the pump house.

And then the "Rosenstocks."

I talked about how, long ago, Yael's great grandfather and great great grandfather were imprisoned in a bad place for being "different." And how her great great grandmother sent a friend -- who was less "different" -- to come to this bad place and haggle for her son's and husband's lives. And how this friend was able to free the son but not the husband. And how the two self-loathing survivors spent a year in a basement before sailing halfway across the world to a better place.

Yael was asleep.

Our daughter had Sandra's hair. My father-in-law's nose. My paleness. Mom's eyes.

The coding, so much of it's been plugged in by the time you see your child in color, outside the ultrasound. As parents, you get jealous. Creative. Desperate. You make up one last chain of code. You fill out a worksheet, give your child a name, and hope the algorithm works out.

That night, on Yael's face, I could see the four functions we had crammed into our daughter:

Yael with her bloody tent peg.

Mom with her splintered 2X4.

The eyes of Sandra's grandfather and great grandmother, peering through the slats of a Switzerland basement.

And all the Bancrofts too.

All dropped into our daughter. Huddled. Peering.

I had lied to Yael. Her name was terrifying.


       Sandra knocked on the bathroom door. "Are you talking to yourself?" she asked.

I pretended not to hear.

"Galen, I'm your wife, I know when you're talking to yourself."

"How do you know I'm not on the phone?"

"Is it your hemorrhoids? I told you not to sit on the toilet for so long. Puts too much pressure on the veins of the anal canal."

Sandra opened the door.

After you've waded with your wife in an inflatable pool, marinating in afterbirth as the doula hovers over you and cuts the umbilical cord of your newborn, you stop locking the bathroom door.

"¿Galindo, qué coño?"

I was lying in our empty bathtub, wearing headphones, holding Mr. K under my chin and watching True Grit on Sandra's tablet.

I paused the movie. Took off the headphones. Asked Sandra if she ever thought about her name.

"Weirdo." She sat down on the tile floor and leaned over my shoulder.

My name, Galen, it comes from one of the Bancrofts. A combat medic during the Civil War. He apparently rode into enemy fire on a daily basis, smelling of morphine and chloroform. Legend has it that he was always spattered in blood and that he dressed so many wounds by the end of the war that he was dubbed "Galen" by the Army of Northern Virginia, after the Roman physician.

Sandra grabbed her tablet from my lap. "John Wayne?" she commented. "And… he's wearing an eye patch."

My middle name is Duke. John Wayne's nickname. Mom was a big fan.

Sandra un-paused the tablet and started watching the movie.

"I'm named after a Civil War hero," I said, "and my middle name is taken from the most famous gunslinger in cinematic history."

"And -- "

"I sit at a computer for eight hours a day."

"And -- "

"When I get home, I feed my daughter and play with stuffed kangaroos."

"I don't follow."

"I'm going to explode."


"Just to be clear, I'll explode for the opposite reason. That is, Rumpelstiltskin exploded because he was ashamed he fit his name, while -- "

"Are you seriously talking about Rumpelstiltskin right now?"


"You think John Wayne was really a gunslinger?"

"He -- "

"Jesus Christ, Galen." Sandra set the tablet down on the floor. "It wasn't a question." She grabbed the towel rack and stood up. "What's that saying of your mom's?"
I lifted my chin. Mr. K tumbled to the bottom of the tub, the kangaroo's eyes making a cracking sound against the drain. "It takes red toes to make a dance."

"That's the one."


"You going to dance with your family, Galen, or mope in the tub and watch old westerns for the rest of your life?"

Sandra took a piss and left.

I grabbed Mr. K's arm -- the one that wasn't chewed off by the cat.

I thought of my ancestor, Galen, sawing off some soldier's arm. And then "The Duke," with his eye patch, spelunking into a snake pit. And Mom. All those times Mom said: "Just wait till you have children." She couldn't wait to rub it in and see how her son handled the domestic grind. She didn't. She didn't wait.

I asked Mr. K if he was ready.

He seemed to nod.

"Galen Duke Rosenstock-Bancroft," I whispered.

We listened for the sound of a fuse.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Andrew Gretes. All rights reserved.