Happy Friday, Story366! It’s been a heckuva Friday here in Springfield so far. Early this morning, I took a group of Scouts to help a disabled senior citizen move, some pretty heavy-duty community service work. The Scouts worked hard, lugging a lot of boxes and furniture from the third-story apartment and down to the van. Once we were all packed up we drove to her new apartment and unloaded. This is really soul-cleaning work, work I’m glad I get to do, but more than anything, get to experience with my son. The last thing I want him to do is take anything for granted, be it his age, his health, or just having people you know to help you. On top of that, he’s at the tail end of his break, sleeping in until 11 or 12 most days, barricading himself in his room the rest of the time. This was a nice shock to his system, reminding him it’s not all frozen pizza and Steam.
After the move, I escorted those Scouts, plus others, to the Springfield Art Museum so they could earn their Sculpture merit badge. The museum here is so great, so beyond what you think a city the size of Springfield would have, including their impressive collection, their special exhibits, and their education program. The person in charge of education is a neighborhood friend, so she was happy to set this up, and in two and a half hours, thirteen Scouts learned how to cast and sculpt, plus took an awesome guided tour of the museum. Thanks to teachers extraordinaire Rick and Brian, thirteen Sculpture merit badge are in the bank—Boom!
Before I left this morning, I placed a hefty pork butt and a bottle of barbecue sauce in my crockpot and set it to LOW. All day, the Karen has been calling me about how good the house smells. The younger boy thinks it’s hilarious that there’s a big butt cooking on our counter, and in the background, I could hear him yelling, “Dad, I can smell your butt!” and “Your butt stinks!” and the like.
I am very eager to pull that butt apart, soak it in more barbecue sauce, and eat it on sweet buns with some potato salad. Before I do, I swore I’d first make this post, so let’s get to it. Today I chose a book by two authors—What?!?!?!?—two authors I’ve featured on Story366 before, Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich. Each had their own collections out before this collaboration, Diehl with Our Dreams Might Align and Goodrich with Daughters of Monsters, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. I was pleased as pineapple punch when they sent one of the early stories from The Classroom, out last year from Gold Wake Press, to Moon City Review. I was proud to publish that story, “School Mascot,” as the lead piece in our 2019 edition. My students read that story for class each of the last two semesters. I could not wait until I got my hands on the whole collection.
And I love it. It’s easily one of the most readable and imaginitive and enjoyable books I’ve come across in a long time, full of really creative and well executed stories, stories that pushed my imagination and kept me guessing throughout. I inhaled this book. I can’t pick out a single story I don’t think is awesome, and really, I could have written about any of them and made a decent essay out of it (banana sculptures and pig butts aside). I’m settling on the lead story in the collection, “The Boy Who Arrives in a Box,” as it stuck with me, even after I read the rest of the book, a story I’ll be sharing with my students in semesters to come.
“The Boy Who Arrives in a Box” is about an unnamed woman, who, with her unnamed husband, purchases a robot/android/synthetic pre-teen boy, a boy they have to program and train to be as realistic as they can. This story takes place in a near-future—though it’s set in the early 2010s—where most people can’t have real kids anymore, and when they do, they rarely grow up. A synthetic child, then, is the safer bet, even if it comes with its own risks and pitfalls.
The purchased boy is named ALEX and he’s just a body when they get him, though they also get a shit-ton of CDs to download into him, CDs like “Balance” and “Intuition” and “Toilet Training.” They have to download these lessons over the course of months, if not years, because if they don’t, they’ll break their kid; a neighbor downloaded everything onto his boy in a week and that kid turned out to be a serial killer. The couple starts by “teaching” their boy to see and to walk and to eat, and within a couple of months, are downloading the potty stuff, along with as much vocabulary as they can. It should be noted that ALEX comes as the size of a twelve year old, so when ALEX is crying, kicking, screaming, and crapping himself, it’s a five-foot twelve year old that’s doing this—one of the downsides of having an ALEX instead of a biological kid.
Within a year, Alex is almost ready to go to school, talking and thinking mostly like a real kid his age. During his monthly checkup/diagnostic, the doctor/technician assures our narrator/protagonist/mother that she’s done a fine job and ALEX is ready for school. When the mother asks if anyone will notice if he’s not biological, the doc/techie assures her that most kids aren’t real and ALEX should fit in nicely. Jumping ahead a bit, we later find out that Alex is dating a real, live girl, but has anxiety about her finding out he’s made of gears and coils as well as blood and bone. Beats the hell out of acne. Or does it?
So, this is the type of world we’re reading about: lots of infertility and sterility mixed with an extremely cool sci-fi solution. It’s a clever idea, but they authors take it beyond world-building and facts. Our mom, as it turns out, is one of those overprotetive moms, the kind who yells out that they should homeschool as he’s heading out the door for his first day. She’s the kind of mom who sits around and watches terrifying YouTube videos about synthetic kids malfunctioning, some of them having their memories wiped completely clean by a faulty battery. It’s the kind of worry that reminds me of my mom. Mom Czyzniejewski fretted I’d get kidnapped on the way to school or catch the plague if I went outside for recess in the winter. The mom in this story worries her son will wander too close to a microwave and not recognize her any more.
To ease her anxieties, my own mom took me to the doctor every week and wouldn’t let me wander the neighborhood. ALEX’s mom logs into his brain every night and adds her memories—she wants him to be like her, so she programs him to, e.g., appreciate the beach. She ODs him with cautionary software. She’s just liberal enough, though, to want him to like foreign foods and to know the word “orgasm.” When it’s time for ALEX to hit puberty, she uploads the masturbation software, but at the same time, checks his history every time he does it to see what he’s fantasizing about. She’s not just overprotective or anxious: She’s downright controlling. And that becomes the central conflict in the story.
I won’t delve any further into the plot, but of course, like any teenager and his mom, these two butt heads, leading to turns of events and hijinx and stuff. Diehel and Goodrich show the proper amount of restraint here, making the mom cognizant, at least, of her invasions (aided by a scowling, often-at-work husband), making ALEX less of a little punk than they could have. All of it leads to an unexpected but proper and satisfying conclusion. What a story.
I felt like that at the end of all the stories in The Classroom, Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich somehow combining their impressive individual skills into a collection of substantial awesomeness. It’s one of my favorite collections ever, I think, one that’s left me beaming.