The fact was, the boy didn’t wash his crotch. And when he played with himself the smell got on his hands. And since he hardly ever washed his hands he got that same smell on all the doorknobs in the house, and all the light switches, and everything else. And since these things were things we all had to share, we all knew about it.
One day he came to us and said, “The other kids make fun of me!”
We told him that those kids simply weren’t his friends.
“I know they’re not my friends; why can’t I make friends with them?!” he wanted to know.
We decided to try something.
We told him to close his eyes, held a half-full ashtray under his nose, and asked him to guess what it was.
“Cigarettes,” he said.
We put the ashtray down and opened the leftover salad from the night before.
“Vinegar,” he said.
Then we held a very old shoe of his under his nose.
“This one’s a trick,” he said, opening his eyes.
“Are you washing yourself, Son?” I asked him.
“Sure I wash,” he said.
“But do you wash it all? I mean … do you get … right up the zipper?”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“I mean these. And this,” I said, pointing in a circle. “Do you wash them? Do you scrub all around, like this, the way you would with anything else?”
“I do … kind of,” he said.
And then, “I don’t want to get the washcloth all dirty …”
I described to the boy the kind of washing I had in mind; I emphasized how thorough and unsparing it would be.
He asked me if I did it that way myself, and I said yes.
He looked a little shaken by that.
I told him now would be a good time to practice washing; there wouldn’t be anyone in the shower for the rest of the afternoon.
As he closed the bathroom door, we exchanged a brief look.
The door opened and he came out of the bathroom looking sad, then angry.
“Hey,” I said. “That wasn’t even long enough to piss! Get back in there!”
“Were you sitting out here waiting on me?” he asked.
“Look! You embarrassed him!” his mother shouted from down the hall.
“Oh really? Well he OUGHT to be embarrassed!” I shouted back. “This boy’s a mess, hygiene-wise! I think you know it, I think he knows it … the whole goddamn town
My wife just shook her head at me.
The boy turned and closed his bedroom door behind him.
In a few weeks, however, something tipped; the kids at school must have gotten a good deal worse, or some other piece of sound advice must have landed in him somehow.
We noticed it on a regular afternoon; I had just finished wiping down the doorknobs when I couldn’t pick up any oily fingerprints on the light switches; they were mysteriously no longer smeared with their usual material.
I gave them a once-over anyway, not nearly as thoroughly as was my habit, because I felt cautiously gladdened at the possibility that the boy had started cleaning himself in secret.
Soon, I hoped, we could even laugh about it.
In fact it wasn’t long before my son was able to smell himself on his old clothes, and without explaining why, he told us he wanted new ones.
And we were happy to get them.
We asked him if he wanted to move his room, and he did, so we gave him ours, and the two of us had a lot of fun teamed up as heavy lifters while his mother worked on her hands and knees scrubbing everything down.
Living in his old room was disgusting and crowded for us, and though he soon made a similar animal mess of his new space, as long as he kept his adolescence confined to that room, and not in the shared rooms, we happily kept quiet in an effort to reinforce his positive choices
“It smells so clean in here!” my wife would say.
She said it all over the house, but especially when she entered his new room—even months after the boy started washing.
He’d sit at her old desk watching her while she stripped his bedclothes, gathering his top sheet up to her heart.
One day, not long after that, he came home ecstatic.
“I’m taking you on a trip, Mom!” he said. “I earned it at school!”
“Oh my God,” she said, “I need a vacation so bad!”
The boy and his mother sipped grape juice from wooden cups and looked out at the islands.
“You know, I have a few friends now, but things aren’t so different for me,” the boy said.
“Are you still sad?” she asked him.
“Yeah, I think I still am …” said the boy.
“That must be hard to say, in a beautiful, awesome place like this.”
“I guess it is,” he said.
“But it’s better than before, I’m sure …” said his mother.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I’m missing something.”
When we spoke on the phone later that night my wife reported all of this to me.
“How does he smell?” I asked.
“Dirty. But … we’re all dirty; it’s the islands.”
I wanted her to wake him up and try to find out more; I had a very strange feeling about things, and I wanted to ask him myself, but she claimed it already felt like too much.
We talked ourselves back and forth over what to do next.
Finally, in no uncertain terms I asked to speak directly with my son.
My wife paused.
The moment stretched out in time, until I realized the call was lost.
I paced around the house, opening and closing doors.
At the sideboard I poured myself a drink.
I went upstairs and got undressed, and nearly took a shower, then stopped myself at the last second. I left the water running and walked down the back hall.
I checked the switches and the handles. They remained unsoiled.
I stood there naked at the door to my son’s room.
I kept hearing a voice say, “You have four short days and nights to yourself, you have the whole house to yourself—please don’t waste time worrying …”
Then, it was already too late; the door was open.
A moment later I would be inside—helpless.