Green Hills Literary Lantern

Unusual Gifts

 

 

           

            “The kid from the paper? You didn’t tell me he was in your class,” I said, threading my way between two parked cars in the dark. “How long has he been there?”

            “Since the first day,” replied Justin.

            “Do you know him?”

            “Not really. We call him the Genius Child.”

            My son and I crossed the street and entered the school grounds, cutting through the parking lot. Most of the cars parked for Back-to-School Night were late-model sedans, station wagons, minivans and sport-utility vehicles, many bearing bumper stickers that read in the dim light: “My Child is an Honor Student at Andersen Elementary” or “American Youth Soccer Organization.” As we approached the buildings, other families emerged from the dark, all converging on the same location.

I heard my name called. A figure hailed me from twenty feet away.

“Hey, Don, good to see you,” I said, drifting over to shake hands with a fellow parent, who happened to be an executive officer at Hewlett-Packard. “How’s Christine?”

Behind this simple question, I held my breath. Two years ago, I had helped treat his seventeen-year-old daughter at Stanford Hospital, where she stayed for a month while recovering from anorexia and depression. During her recovery, I had counseled him and his wife about their daughter, their marriage. A year later he was a casual acquaintance again, a fellow community member to greet at Little League games or while pushing a cart through the aisles of Andronico’s.

“She’s doing great,” he said. “She just started at Scripps, and seems to love it down there.”

“Terrific. Tell her I said hi, will you?”

“Will do.”

We drifted apart again.

Justin and I reached the classroom buildings. Covered outdoor walkways ran through the grounds, lamps mounted under their awnings, cutting through the dark like tunnels in a coal mine. Justin led me down a long corridor and through the door of Room 14, where a series of paper letters taped to the door greeted visitors: Welcome to Mrs. McKnight’s Fifth Grade Class. Parents and students milled about the room.  Justin showed me his desk, clearly labeled Justin Drake in block print, then introduced me to his teacher. He stood back a respectful distance while I talked with her. Mrs. McKnight was pleased to inform me that Justin was doing quite well in his schoolwork, not to mention a joy to have in class.

“Hey, buddy,” I told him afterward. “Looks like you’re serious about getting the PlayStation, huh?” He grinned, saying nothing. This was to be his reward if he received straight A’s at the end of the semester.

Next we examined a group of drawings pinned to the wall. One of the most recent assignments, Justin explained, was to draw a self-portrait.

“Guess which one is mine,” he said suddenly.

I looked them over, searching for a drawing of a boy with green eyes and curly black hair. Two of them faintly resembled Justin, but to the far right I saw a crude drawing of a single enormous toe, rendered with thick strokes of crayon. Just the kind of thing my boy would do.

“That one,” I said, pointing.

“Yep,” he beamed. “She didn’t say what part to draw.”

“Clever, kiddo. Very clever.” I ruffled his hair.

As I looked around at the other parents perusing the drawings, I noticed most of them approached the wall of self-portraits in the same manner: first they studied their own child’s drawing, then they sauntered around eyeing those of the other students, as if to compare. Usually they showed no reaction, but a small clump of adults had gathered around one self-portrait tacked up on the left, gazing at it from behind crossed arms. Drawn in what looked like charcoal, it depicted the same face that had appeared last Sunday in a front-page human interest story in the San Jose Mercury News. The boy in the drawing was calm yet pensive, gazing slightly away from the viewer. His head and face were perfect in proportion and anatomy, the various forms rendered through judicious shading in the darker areas, and implied by delicate lines in the highlights. Viewed from a distance, the drawing could have been mistaken for a black-and-white photograph. In sheer draftsmanship it far exceeded anything else on the wall. The subject was a dead ringer not only for the photo in the Mercury but also for a lanky boy on the other side the room. The Genius Child, as my son had referred to him, stood with his hands in his pockets, talking to a couple of the adults.

I watched him for a moment, trying to recall bits from the article, which I had not read beyond the front page.

Having evidently entertained me long enough, Justin wandered off to mingle with his friends. With nothing else to do, I took a waxy paper cup and waited behind a group of people crowded around a bowl of red punch. When my turn came, I reached for the ladle only to discover myself face to face with the Genius Child himself. We retracted our hands simultaneously.

“Go ahead,” I said, gesturing.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I think you were here first.”

Awkward paralysis ensued. I finally took the ladle.

“Haven’t had this in awhile,” I said. “Can I serve you some?”

“Thanks. I wanted to get my share before they start watering it down.” He grinned, holding out his cup.

“It’d probably taste the same,” I said, and he laughed.

A pleasant, well-mannered kid. He introduced himself, and I pointed out Justin across the room to establish my identity. We moved off to one side as we talked.

“I think I overheard Justin saying that you teach at Stanford?” he asked.

“You heard right,” I said. “I teach psychology, and I also received my doctorate there. By the way, I read in the Mercury about your participation in the MRI study. Dr. Cassoni was the one who sponsored my doctoral thesis, about ten years ago.”

“Oh, so you know Steve, then,” said the Genius Child, brightening. “I find the whole project fascinating. Are you also involved?”

“No, actually I’m teaching two classes this year, in addition to counseling, so I’m afraid I don’t have much time for research.”

 “Which classes?”

“History of Psychology and Intro to Neurology.”

“Cool,” he said, his face brightening. “So you teach Jung, Skinner, Rodgers, Zellner—all those guys?”

“Yep. Well, not Zellner. The jury’s still out on him. A lot of his stuff has yet to be verified.”

 “And you also teach neurobiology?”

“Neurology, yes.”

The Genius Child hesitated, then leaned in as though to share a secret.

“I’d be curious to know your opinion on something,” he said. “Are you familiar with Richard Gayle?”

“I’ve heard of him,” I said. I recognized the name—Richard Gayle, a professor of philosophy at UC San Diego.

“Steve and I were discussing a recent essay of his on self-comprehension. I was wondering if you agree with his assertion that science and technology can never lead us to absolute self-comprehension or self-control, even theoretically.”

“Sounds a bit overstated to me,” I said. My gaze wandered off toward the corner, coming to rest on a table of simple multiplication problems pinned to the wall. I vaguely remembered reading some of Gayle’s stuff a few years back.

“So you disagree?”

“We look for the physical causes of neural activity that govern human behavior,” I said, reaching for the party line, where everyone in my field seemed to stop by unspoken consent before crossing into the murky realm of philosophy.

“Yes, but then what causes those causes? And how can you know them all without affecting them? Is it possible to fully understand yourself?” As he spoke, he reached out and touched me almost inadvertently on the forearm.

“I don’t know about that,” I said.

“Steve thought his underlying hypothesis was flawed, but I think he’s definitely onto something. Anyway, I recommend reading his essay if you get a chance. It’s in the summer issue of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. I think Steve still has a copy in his office.” He brushed back a lock of his bowl-cut hair and looked up at me with eyes bright and eager.

“Well, I don’t actually see Steve every day,” I said, taking a sip of punch.

“Oh. Anyway, I suppose it’s not that big a deal. Just something to speculate on.”

“No, sounds interesting.” I glanced across the room at my son. He was looking at me. “Anyway, I think I’m gonna see what Justin’s up too. Nice meeting you.”

“You too. Good luck with your classes.”

We shook hands, his grip firm. I took my cup of punch and drifted off.

Ten minutes later, Mrs. McKnight approached the front of the class and motioned for silence. She informed us that we were in for a treat. After a recent field trip to an organic farm, the students had received an assignment to write a poem based on the experience, each to be read aloud that night. The children formed an obedient line along the front of the classroom and recited their poems in turn, most speaking in a quick, choppy monotone. A typical poem went something like this:

 

The Red Tomatoes

 

The tomatoes are round like the earth,

Soft like the clouds,

Warm as a summer sunset.

They grow from the dirt to the vine to my hand.

I bite one, it bursts into red flavors,

Swimming across my tongue.

 

At the end of every poem, the audience gave the same carefully measured dose of applause. Only by listening closely could an observer detect slight variations in the vigor of the response given each poem. I clapped along with the others, one part of myself (the parent part) applauding the children’s work, and another part (the Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology part) noting that most of the poems written at their age level consisted mainly of similes, along with literal descriptions of sensory experiences.

From the middle of the procession, Justin delivered a witty poem that drew much laughter. The Genius Child came two children later. As he prepared to read, the audience leaned forward. Most of the adults gathered seemed to have read the previous Sunday’s issue of the Mercury.

The Genius Child began:

 

Meddler in the Monastery

 

Peas and pods, some intertwined,

Perched proud and high on vexing vines,

In time give way to probing tines

Of a meddler, while the aimless sun shines down.

 

His hand it stays the wind-whipped leaves,

The pollen thick upon his sleeves,

And though the verdant ocean heaves,

He charts a stiller current, serpentine in the leafy deep.

 

Plants short and tall, some spiked with flowers,

Dull-witted children of capricious powers,

And none know why the meddler scours,

What hunger drives him on, swapping spade for quill?

 

The meddler leaves the plants pristine,

His journal feasts on fruits unseen.

 

The audience applauded, this time undeniably louder. I joined in, something bothering me all the while. My mind flashed back to college courses from years before. Meddling in a monastery garden . . . the flowering peas . . . and then I remembered. The subject of the poem was probably the nineteenth-century Austrian monk (Menger? Meadle?) whose simple experiments in breeding peas had cracked open the gates to modern genetics. I stopped clapping, my hands suspended in mid-air, as my mind raced back over the stanzas with this fresh insight. The vexing vines, the fruits unseen...

I looked around at my fellow parents. Some gave themselves over to open adulation, eyes shining and mouths open wide. Others clapped half-heartedly, looking vaguely disturbed. Though all present seemed impressed by the poem, I sensed that most were applauding the imagery, the vocabulary, the sophisticated use of language; they considered it a pretty poem about some gardener who loved nature. I didn’t think many had caught the scientific or historical references. Nor did the poem stop there. It touched on Knowledge, Curiosity, Solitude. The kid was ten years old, and I was left wondering if his poem had just gone over the heads of much of his adult audience.

Turning back further, I noticed a man standing just behind my left shoulder, doubtless another father. He was not clapping. He had one arm tucked across his chest, the knuckle of the index finger on his other hand pressed against his lips. He studied the Genius Child, his mouth pursed into a strange smile. Was this the father himself? But before I could turn away, he caught my gaze. We looked at each other for several seconds after the applause had died away. An unspoken realization passed between us. No, this was not the father, only another parent; one who knew, as I did, that the two of us were among the few in the room to pick up on the poem’s references and deeper themes.

“Smart kid,” he murmured, still looking at me, that strange smile behind the knuckle never leaving his lips. I smiled back, gave a curt nod, and returned my gaze to the front.

When the poetry reading concluded, Mrs. McKnight gave all comers a final thank-you for attending. Parents gathered up coats and children, shook hands, drifted toward the door. I glanced back once at the Genius Child, hoping at least then to catch a glimpse of his parents, but only saw him at the rear of the room talking with Mrs. McKnight. In spite of the difference in age and height, the two looked like colleagues on the school faculty, discussing the events of the evening.

I corralled Justin, engaged in a rubber band fight with his friends, and we headed back to the car.

 

* * *

 

Later that night, with Justin and Ashley tucked in bed and my wife Kathy watching the ten o’clock news, I went into the garage and pulled the plastic crate of paper recyclables out from beside the garbage cans. Under the dim light of the garage door opener, I riffled through a thick stack of newspapers and ad slicks until I located Sunday’s edition of the Mercury. Straightening up, I leaned back against the Camry and resumed the article on the inside pages, where it launched into the Genius Child’s background.

His parents had not noticed anything particularly unusual about him in the first few months of his life, but that was the last of any semblance of normalcy. At eight months, he spoke his first word, and by his first birthday he could recite the alphabet—backwards. By two, the boy could perform simple addition and subtraction. His pediatricians couldn’t believe what they saw. At the toddler’s checkups they would call in their colleagues to watch. One of them asked the Genius Child’s parents for permission to write up their progeny’s abilities in a medical paper, but was politely declined.

            At the age of six he had started learning algebra, and could read literature usually taught at the junior high school level, demonstrating excellent comprehension of the material. At seven, following an introduction to geometry from the first three chapters of a high school textbook, he sat down at the kitchen table one day after lunch with a pencil and paper (little Keds-clad feet dangling above the linoleum floor, his mother recalled) and proved the SAA corollary of triangle congruency from the SAS postulate, something not done in the book until the fifth chapter. A week after his tenth birthday, he took the advanced placement calculus test and received a 5, the highest possible score. That same year, he read Don Quixote in Spanish, though the language was not spoken by either of his parents.

From the Genius Child’s tremendous gifts, the article speculated, casual observers might have guessed that he came from special stock, the progeny of Genius Parents, ones who had not only supplied exceptional genes to their offspring but also held positions of great intellect and prestige, perhaps as scientists or professors. In fact, nothing seemed extraordinary about the parents or their backgrounds. The father was from the Midwest, an all-American athlete in high school who joined the Army upon graduation. The mother came from a middle-class Korean family on the outskirts of Seoul, where they met while he was stationed there. When his tour of duty was up, the couple moved to the U.S. and settled in Los Angeles. He became a salesman for a pharmaceuticals company while she enrolled in a nursing program. They eventually bought a tract home in Glendale, no more remarkable than millions of others living in and around the Los Angeles Basin.

The Genius Child came along soon after. Within three years his mother dropped out of nursing school to devote herself entirely to her exceptional son. The more his abilities increased with age, the more her maternal role diversified so that she also became his nanny, tutor, manager, secretary and bodyguard. She fixed dinner while he studied Mandarin or practiced drawing. She ironed his clothes and scheduled his haircuts, whether to prepare him for school or the cameras of CNN and NBC Nightly News, two of the few interviews the parents had ever granted after endless inquiries from the media.

            According to the article, the Genius Child’s parents had never set out to create such an überkind. On the contrary, they spent a great deal of time and effort trying to persuade him to restrain himself, to travel through childhood at a more leisurely pace, but on the rare occasions when they succeeded, he would quickly become restless and miserable. When they invariably relented, the effect was similar to releasing a penned-up dog into the wondrous outdoors. Upon moving to Palo Alto, the family had taken a tour of Stanford’s particle accelerator within a month, not because the parents felt that this would give their son an invaluable educational experience, but because the Genius Child himself had begged to go, as other children his age might plead for a skateboard. The Genius Child, it appeared, blasted up his precocious trajectory fueled solely by his own will.

            Over his parents’ skepticism, the Genius Child had volunteered to participate in an experiment being conducted at Stanford University Medical Center, run in conjunction with the Psychology Department, which used magnetic resonance imaging to study the physical structure of the human brain in cases of phenomenal intelligence. The article listed some of the other participants: two Nobel laureates, a mathematical whiz, a musical prodigy. The group did include a couple of teenagers, but none of the other subjects matched the Genius Child in such early intellectual development.

            The article quoted Dr. Stephen Cassoni, chairman of Stanford’s Psychology Department and head of the project, saying of the Genius Child: “He’s off just about any scale I can think of. He could probably excel in my graduate courses. When speaking with him, I often have to remind myself that I’m talking to a ten-year-old boy.”

            Another quote: “MRI scanning has the potential to shed tremendous insight on the field of cognitive neuroscience, although, as is the case with all such technological advances, every discovery will probably invite further questions.” These words came from the Genius Child himself, who also remarked that he found the scan room a bit cold. “I had to ask for an extra blanket, so I wouldn’t shiver and screw up the test.”        

As the article noted, the Genius Child could have easily skipped his remaining elementary school years, vaulted over middle and high school, and gone straight into college. He had already received several offers for full-ride scholarships from various universities, though not such top-tier institutions as Stanford or Harvard. However, he and his parents had decided that a public elementary school would offer the best opportunity for life experience and social development, while his actual education would continue through home tutoring and his own outside study interests. Evidently, the top-ranked test scores and stellar reputation of Andersen Elementary never factored into their decision.

The article concluded with a peek into the Genius Child’s personal life. In addition to reading, computer programming and solving brain-teaser puzzles, he loved video games and comic books, watched every episode of The Simpsons, and played soccer. Posters and pennants covered the walls of his room, including photos of Renaldo and Beckham. “You might not think it,” he said, “but one of my biggest dreams is to play professional soccer.”

           

* * *

 

I moved down the aisle of the Peninsula Creamery, searching in vain for a free booth. Justin followed, still wearing his soccer uniform. His team had just lost the first game of the season by one goal.

The place was packed. All of the booths were filled, as well as the stools at the counter. At the farthest booth, a single boy sat with his back to us, sipping a large milkshake. As I approached, he glanced over his shoulder and saw me. It was the Genius Child.

“I didn’t see you guys come in,” he said. “Feel free to sit down.”

 “Whad’ya think, buddy?” I asked Justin.

“Sure.” He shrugged.

We slid onto the opposite bench.

“I didn’t know you played soccer, Justin,” said the Genius Child.

“Since I was seven.” Justin picked up a menu.

“We didn’t move up in time for me to register, so I’m on the waiting list,” said the Genius Child.

The waitress came over and took our orders. The Genius Child continued sipping his milkshake. I shifted my weight on the vinyl upholstery, wondering whether to mention to him that I had read the Richard Gayle essay, that I had found it quite fascinating, actually, and would he be interested in hearing my thoughts on it?

“I need to use the bathroom,” announced Justin. I got up and let him out of the booth.

“It took me a while just to find my soccer ball,” said the Genius Child as I sat back down. “We still have so many things packed up in boxes.”

“Enjoying your new home?” I asked, deciding to bring up the Gayle essay later.

“Sure.” he said.

He stabbed his milkshake with his straw, looking down at the polished table. Suddenly he set the glass down and sat up.

“Well, it’s been tough sometimes,” he went on, lowering his voice. “Since I just got here, it’s been hard to make new friends.” He sighed. “But I suppose that’s true for anyone who moves to a new place.”

“New kid in town, huh?” I asked, lowering my voice as well. I could always feel the therapist in me emerge during such conversations; in the tone of my voice, my mannerisms.

“Not just that.” He stared into his milkshake. “I was kind of hoping that with Palo Alto, things would change. After all, it’s got Stanford, it’s got high-tech companies, all these bright, well-educated people.”

“What would change?”

“The resentment.” He immediately put the straw back to his lips.

I leaned forward.

“When a kid like you has special talents, others can perceive that as a threat,” I said. “They feel insecure about themselves, so they want to compensate for it.”

“I know why they do it,” he said, looking back up at me, “but I still don’t understand it. I have this fascination with learning things, with everything. And if I’m good at certain things, I try to help others as well. I’m not trying to be selfish or show people up.”

“Even so, you have to expect that not all kids are going to take it in that light.”

“Not just kids.” He looked around the creamery.

“You know what I’d do?” I said. “Get involved in some activities. Let them get to know you. Once they see that you’re just a kid like them, then they’ll be more likely to accept you.”

He nodded.

“That’s part of the reason I wanted to get into soccer again.”

“That’s a great idea. Just go out and have a good—”

Justin returned. I cut myself short.

“Anyway, I promised my mom I’d be back soon,” the Genius Child said, his voice back at a normal volume. He stood up. “Nice to see you again, Justin.” And to me: “Thanks for listening, Dr. Drake.” A moment later, he flashed past the front windows on his bike.

The waitress returned with our drinks.

“We should have him over sometime,” I remarked, handing Justin his soda. “You guys could practice soccer together, maybe along with Gavin. You could even help him learn some of the moves I showed you.”

Justin stiffened.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Aw, dad.”

“‘Aw dad,’ what?”

“Nothing.” He sat back and put his drink down.

“He seems like a great kid,” I said. “It can’t hurt to have him over one time. Beyond that, if you don’t want to anymore, then don’t? Deal?”

He didn’t answer.

“Deal?”

“Fine.” He picked up his soda and resumed sipping.

 

* * *

 

In spite of our agreement, Justin had not invited the Genius Child over by the following Saturday, the second AYSO game of the season. Justin’s team, which played in the Under-11 division and was self-christened the Acid Rain, conducted warm-up drills as they prepared to take on the Devils. Kathy gave him a good-luck kiss before taking Ashley over to play in the nearby sandlot. I stayed to watch the game, in between grading the mid-term papers on my lap.

Kyle McClintock’s parents sat down next to me. Kyle was the best player on Justin’s team, an outstanding athlete, if also selfish and a ball hog. His father, handsome face fleshly with middle age, nodded at me and pulled a sandwich out of the cooler at his feet. Out on the field, the two teams huddled at their respective sidelines, each breaking with a cheer. As the players took up positions, I spotted the Genius Child running in from the parking lot, the green jersey of the Acid Rain baggy on his skinny frame. He jogged across the field to join his teammates.

“That’s the kid from the paper, isn’t it?” said Kyle’s father. He reminded his wife of the article.

            “He sure is thin,” she said, studying the boy with a hand over her eyes.

            “All that weight went up into his brain,” Kyle’s father chuckled. A couple of others around us smiled as well.

            The teams took the field.  Soon the early autumn air rang with noises found on any Saturday at a municipal park: the shrill yelling of children, shouts and calls from the parents, whistles from the refs, occasional cheers and groans. To my right, Kyle’s father made me jump every time he bellowed at his son, hands cupped to his mouth. (“Punch it hard, Kyle!” “Hustle to the ball, Kyle!”) At one point Justin stole the ball away from an opposing forward, (“Way to go, Justin!” I yelled,) drawing cheers, but after ten minutes neither side had scored in what looked to be a balanced game.

Eventually, Justin and two teammates were pulled for three other boys, the Genius Child among them. He took up position at left forward. A couple of minutes later, Kyle passed him the ball. As the Genius Child looked downfield, one of the bigger Devils ran him over, knocking him hard to the ground. The Genius Child got up slowly, hands to his stomach. Hunched over, he walked off the field to a round of polite applause.

            “That’s not right,” said a woman’s voice from behind. “They shouldn’t do that to the smaller boys.”

            “Gotta be able to take the hits,” said Kyle’s father. He took a jovial bite from his sandwich.

            Ten minutes later, the Genius Child was back in the game. As our team pressed an attack down the field, he ran to the mouth of the opposing net and received the ball. He angled himself toward the right corner of the net, forcing the goalie to commit, then cross-kicked the ball into the opposite corner for the first goal of the game.

            Good for him, I thought, cheering along with the rest.

            The Acid Rain coach left the Genius Child in. The Devils’ goalie served up the ball to his teammates, but in less than thirty seconds they kicked the ball out of bounds in their own zone, and the Acid Rain got the ball back. The ref handed it to the Genius Child for the corner kick.

            As he backed up, I saw the Genius Child glance over quickly at the Devil’s goalie, who had wandered out a bit far from the net. The Genius Child immediately looked down at the ball again, brow furrowed. Then he ran at the ball and drew his leg back as though to deliver a mighty forward kick. Instead, he swung the leg around and across, smashing the ball sideways toward the open goal. It flew with tremendous spin, slowed and hooked into the net.

            Acid Rain 2, Devils 0.

            In the next half-hour, the Genius Child showed all present that he was not merely a decent player, or even a good one. He dominated. Quick and graceful, he moved the ball with total control, burned defenders with hypnotic footwork, kicked crisp passes to his teammates with perfect accuracy. After a while, I thought I noticed something else. It seemed he was holding himself back, moving a bit slower or passing the ball to teammates during scoring chances. Justin received the ball twice on such occasions, but each of his shots was blocked by the goalie.   

            The Genius Child was pulled fifteen minutes before halftime. He returned briefly in the second half. This time Kyle drove up the field only to get trapped in the right corner. With two defenders closing in fast, he blasted a lateral kick at the Genius Child, who had run up alongside the goal from the left. The ball sailed in hard and fast, but too high, and the goalie had already reversed himself, lunging in the Genius Child’s direction. The Genius Child would have to knock the ball down with his chest before kicking it into the net, and the goalie would reach him in time to block the shot.

            But as the ball came hurtling in, the Genius Child sprang high into the air, bringing up his left knee while keeping the other leg pointed down. He turned his torso toward the goal, left arm out to the side, right arm in front with the forearm across his chest, like a ballet dancer. Still in mid-air, he leaned far back while twisting himself at the waist, so that as his torso rolled to the right, his pelvis snapped to the left, turning his hips and legs sideways over the field. At the same time, he whipped his skinny legs in a powerful scissoring motion, left leg back, right leg forward, and drove the ball into the net over the diving goalie.

            The crowd gasped. For an instant the Genius Child hung in space, his limbs splayed out on a plane parallel to the field, as though he were lying on his side in the grass three feet below. Then gravity took over. He dropped lightly to the ground and rolled back up on his feet.

            Acid Rain 5, Devils 0. In spite of the spectacular feat they had just witnessed, the crowd’s response to the goal was slow in coming. Perhaps they were in shock. I know I was.

            “Guess those guys better find themselves a new goalie,” Kyle’s father said, looking at the Devils.

“It’s not his fault,” I told him. “I’ve watched soccer all my life, used to play in high school. You put Gordon Banks in the goal, he couldn’t stop a shot like that.”

Kyle’s father scowled, but said nothing.

“They really need to move him up to the next age group,” said Kyle’s mother, her face pinched as she squinted in the sunlight.

“Pull him out!” came a cry from the other side of the field, faint with distance. A couple of other voices echoed the cry. Justin’s coach must have felt the pressure, although, to his credit, he had already severely limited the Genius Child’s playing time. Now he pulled the kid out for good.

Final score: 5-1, Acid Rain. A subdued crowd watched the last minutes of a game drained of all drama, giving everyone ample time to gaze at the little phenomenon sitting cross-legged on the grass.

We parents of the Acid Rain witnessed a similar performance the next week, when our team crushed the Yellowjackets, 4-0. The Genius Child, moved this time to defenseman, still managed to score one of those goals, along with two assists. Justin also picked up an assist. After the game, the Genius Child passed out invitations to his birthday party, each in a little white envelope. The following week, he did not show up at the Acid Rain game. He played instead in the Under-14 division, and the Acid Rain settled back into comfortable mediocrity for the rest of the season.

 

* * *

 

I drove slowly down the tree-lined street, craning my neck to pick off the passing addresses. Justin sat beside me, a wrapped gift in his lap, the shoulder harness of the seat belt crossing the pit of his neck. I had selected the gift myself, after asking Justin for permission to do so. He seemed happy to let me have the task.

“What’s the address again?” I asked.

“2315,” he said, looking at the dashboard.

“Do you guys play with him much?”

He shrugged.

“I dunno. Sometimes.”

“How about after school?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

Justin rolled his eyes up at the ceiling and let out a puff of air.

“He doesn’t live near us.”

“He lives about as far away as Gavin.”

“Here,” said my son, pointing at a mailbox on the right festooned with bobbing balloons and bright paper streamers. I pulled the car over at the mouth of the driveway and Justin climbed out. I fought the urge to follow. Much more appropriate to wait until after.

“I’ll pick you up at four o’clock,” I reminded him just before he slammed the door.

At three-fifty-two, I parked across the street from the decorated mailbox and walked up the path to the door. Just as I was about to ring, a woman opened the door with a boy in tow, obviously leaving the party. Startled, we flashed each other nervous smiles.

“They’re in the living room,” she told me, gesturing inside as they departed. I walked through the house. The interior looked just the same as any other in the suburbs. Non-descript art hanging in the hallway, a dining room with chairs, table and a china cabinet, a kitchen containing the usual cabinets and appliances.

Torn wrapping and tissue paper covered much of the living room floor. The boys in the room were lethargic, burned out on sugar and party games, subdued by the return of their parents. A pile of gifts lay on the coffee table in front of the couch, the oddest assortment I had ever seen at a child’s birthday party: a Wiffle-ball bat and a chemistry set, water pistols and a telescope, plastic action figures and an atlas of human anatomy. Near one corner of the table I spotted Neurobiology in a Phenomenological Construct by Richard Gayle, not two weeks off the press. I had managed to score an advance copy.

The Genius Child stood in the adjacent kitchen, talking to one of other boys’ mothers while her son rocked from foot to foot, grinding his heels into the carpet. As they talked, the Genius Child spun a yo-yo up and down without ever breaking eye contact—up and down, up and down, catching it lightly each time. I drifted near as the mother and her son turned to go.

“Thank him for inviting you, Michael,” the mother told her son.

“Thanks for the party see you Monday,” the boy droned in a single breath.

“Bye, Michael. Thanks for coming,” replied the Genius Child.

My turn.

“Nice to see you again. Happy birthday.”

“Thanks. Good to see you too.” He kept working the yo-yo as he looked up at me, other hand in his pocket.

“Eleven, huh?”

“Yeah. Doesn’t feel much different though.” He smiled. The yo-yo went down again.

“It never does.”

The yo-yo failed to catch this time at full extension. It spun around like a top, dangling from the string’s end. A large collie wandered over, toenails clicking on the floor, and sniffed at the wobbling object. The Genius Child hauled the yo-yo up manually and started winding the string back into place. It was time.

“I managed to dig up a copy of the new Gayle for you,” I said, indicating the coffee table.

The Genius Child’s eyes flicked down, then away. They returned quickly enough for both of us to pretend that nothing had changed. In that instant, I would have done anything, paid any price, to change the Gayle book into a whiffle-ball bat.

 “Yes, I saw that,” he said. “Looks good. I’ll definitely have to read it.”

“Great,” I said, big smile stuck to my face.

The dog moved over to nose my pant leg.

“Anyway, enjoy the rest of your day, huh?” I added quickly, reaching out to shake his hand.

“Thanks. And thanks again for the gift.”

It wasn’t until we were three blocks away that I realized I had never given Justin a chance to say goodbye, nor had I ever met the child’s parents. Justin gazed down at his hands, folded on his lap.

“Have a good time, buddy?” I asked.

No response. I tried again.

“What’d you guys do?”

“Stuff,” he said.

“What kind of stuff?”

“I dunno. Games.”

“Just games?”

“Yeah.”

“Like what kind of games?”

“What do you care?” he said. I glanced over sharply, just in time to see a single tear run down his cheek. He looked out the side window. I heard a sniffle. I wanted to ask what was wrong, but I already knew the answer, and moreover, I knew that I should know, that to ask would only be to feign stupidity and further the offense. My face burning, we rode the rest of the way home in silence.

 

Geoffrey Scott Davis holds a BA in literature from UC Santa Cruz, lives in San Francisco and works days in the advertising industry. He gets a lot of reading done while riding SF’s Muni. A previous story was recently published in Red Wheelbarrow.