the cabal

How to Write While a Toddler Drives an ATV Through Your Living Room


You wouldn’t think an electric “ATV” powered by a 6-volt battery and designed for a toddler would generate a lot of noise pollution, but you are wrong.

The same way you were wrong when you and your wife of less-than-a-year thought her menstrual cycle was near the end, when in reality, it was half-way through, and she was ovulating, and you accidentally created a human being. Three years later, the human being weighs 35 pounds, looks exactly like you, and is driving an electric ATV back and forth between the front door and the kitchen.

The sound of the red, plastic vehicle is not unlike a Cuisinart blender struggling to liquefy an apple—shrill and strident, wavering just enough that you can’t tune it out. He is looking at you. He wants you to notice how fast he is going and how he turns the steering wheel to avoid various objects in the house. But you don’t look, because if you look, he will laugh, and then he will amplify his stagecraft to win even more of your attention. You will lose the battle of the sentence you are currently struggling to complete.

“He dumped more air from his BC, piercing the green abyss . . .”

“He released more air . . .

“Piercing the green abyss with . . .”

Piercing your temporal lobe with the sound of a shrill motor. The ATV smashes into the footstool on its next pass, and you decide that’s been enough. Play with something else, you tell him. Play with something else because Daddy is trying to work (!). Even saying this, you are conscious of the stereotype you might resemble—the workaholic father who never plays with his son—but you are not a workaholic, just mildly obsessed with certain things like finishing sentences, and you do make time to play with you son, at least after you’ve clocked an hour or two of productivity.

Play with something else, you tell him a second time while he stares at you in confusion, frozen in time on top of his favorite noise machine. If he pouts or moans, you will leap from the couch and swat him like a crazed tribal chieftain.

He moans, but you do not move. If you spank him, he will scream and throw a fit and perform violent seizures in the time-out spot, which is much worse than the sound of a shrill motor. This is always the choice with three-year-olds: enjoy a middling state of quietude, or enforce the rules of your house and enjoy an emotional breakdown.

Instead of a spanking, you decide to glare at him over the top of the laptop monitor. Put. Your car. Away.

He laughs, and you say it again. He laughs again, and you say it again with more urgency and a juke toward the footstool, which (miraculously) works. He obeys only on the precipice of physical assault. Is that bad? That is bad. This morning, he urinated on a Dr. Seuss book for no reason. That was also bad.


Back to your sentence. Oh, yes. There it is.

“He dumped more air from his BC . . .”

You are trying to write about a boy who is scuba-diving in a lake, a boy you secretly wish was you. The boy will drown to death at the end of the story, but that is okay. At least death would bring silence . . . unless you went to hell, and hell was a windowless room full of three-year-old children. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth,” as they say. That would be the perfect hell. Maybe you’re in it now and just don’t know.

“At least death would bring silence . . . unless you went to hell, and hell was a windowless room full of three-year-old children.”

Your wife wants to have another child. This would seem irrational if it weren’t for the fact that you also secretly want one. Why? It’s hard to say. Maybe because you don’t enjoy being happy. You haven’t lived a good enough life to deserve peace and freedom. Or maybe because of the feeling you get when the two of you are watching cartoons together on Saturday mornings and he rests his head on your lap and sticks one arm up in the air and makes weird signs with his fingers, and one of his fingers has a booger on it, but he looks so damned much like you that the booger doesn’t matter.

Now you start to feel guilty about doing what you’re doing—immersing yourself in a world of syntax and fantasy while your real, flesh-and-blood child is growing older right here in the room. And really, there’s no reason your work can’t wait until later, when the boy is asleep. But you shouldn’t be lazy. You will finish this sentence—no, this paragraph—and then close the laptop for the day.

“He dumped more air from his BC, piercing the green abyss with the manic cone of his dive light.”

Nice. Excellent, in fact. The word manic is the best part. The sound of your fingers accelerating on the chiclet keys is the sound of progress, the sound of a serious man and a bright future. You are almost ready to play with the boy. Next sentence.

Maybe it was simple mathematics, a function of time and distance. The further you traveled into a relationship, the weaker your love became . . .” Brilliant. Wow. “. . . and then, one day, it was no longer love, but hate.”

You pause and reread the last two sentences to test the weight of their profundity. Hadn’t planned on making that connection, but there it is, an unexpected stroke of genius. This is the part where readers will pause and marvel at the intricacies of the story, observing them for the first time like tourists gazing into the cockpit of a stealth fighter. Two more sentences. Three max, and you will be ready.

The toilet in the downstairs bathroom flushes, and a soft plea, “Daddy, ca you hup me,” echoes from behind the door. Your fingers hover above the keys, but one hand retracts and closes into a fist. You can do it yourself, you tell him. Pull your pants up and wash your hands.

Of course, this does not work. And of course, he repeats himself forty times until you fling down your Macbook and storm into the bathroom. And naturally, there is poop everywhere (on the wall near the toilet paper dispenser, on the toilet seat, on the back of his pants), because even with the best intentions, no toddler can truly master the craft of ass-wiping.

After the cleanup job, he wants a snack, and you are the miserable messenger of the tragic news that it isn’t time for snack, which means you become the target of the boy’s wrath. He is very needy when it comes to food. Just kidding. He is needy about everything. Now he stomps in place. Now he sprints to the front door and whacks it with both hands and voices his desire over and over.

“. . . he wants a snack, and you are the miserable messenger of the tragic news that it isn’t time for snack.”

Then there is time-out, with its paroxysms and weeping and snotting into puddles on the laminate floor. You try to don earbuds, but he is louder. Then you are yelling. Then you spank him, twice. Then more crying, but choked and staccato this time, syncopated with grunts and soft moans and the burbling of his lips. Then he is calm, and you tell him to play with his blocks, and you are writing again. Why? Because you feel you deserve it. After such a colorful episode, and after the yearlong episode of yowling and diaper blowouts that was his infanthood, and after the terrible-twos and the agony of potty training, you have won the right to ignore.

If you cave in now to the pressure of distraction, you fear you might stop forever. So you will press on just far enough to plant one toe beyond the cusp of victory. It’s the little battles that must be won. As Thoreau suggested, “Surely the writer is to address a world of laborers, and such therefore must be his own discipline.” Hands poised, you begin to type the next sentence—something about the bottom of the lake bed and the haziness of the water.

Nothing comes out.

All you can think of is your little boy rolled up in a hospital blanket like a burrito—sleeping, innocent.

Despite your crusade for novelty in storytelling and the hundreds of eccentric narratives you have prized and devised through the years, it is this simple generic image lifted straight from a stock photo that now commands your affection.

The boy waddles in from the kitchen carrying a glass of water, intently focused on avoiding a spill. You almost tell him to put it back (he isn’t supposed to be handling dishes), but he seems so industrious in this secret mission. He brings the glass to the couch and presents it to you and says, “He go. He some water.” In an instant, your heart turns to wax. This humble act of servitude resonates with just the right frequency to shatter all of the glass around the protective pod of your work. Some day he will understand, but for now . . . you take the water and say thank you. You drink it with gratitude and a smile, and the boy watches every sip. He flaps his arms in merriment, having finally won your attention.

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