Telling Tails

The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: they are boring, a consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer.

By Tim O’Brien.

My sons, Timmy and Tad—both fans of Winnie the Pooh—have taken lately to wearing tails. At our local Wal-Mart, and occasionally at church, the boys sport lengths of clothesline dangling from their trousers. They prowl the neighborhood trailing an assortment of ribbons, coat hangers, telephone cords, fishing line, belts, blankets, drapery tassels, and electrical extension cords. People notice. Things have gotten out of hand. Alas, we have become a family of tails, and, though I’m embarrassed to make this confession, even my wife and I have been persuaded to spruce up our fashion acts. Meredith jogs in a tail. I write in a tail. Yesterday, in a most undignified moment, I answered the doorbell having forgotten the Slinky jiggling restlessly at my buttocks. Imagine the judgments taking shape in the eyes of the UPS man.

Our household seems caught up in a kind of reverse evolution, tumbling backward through the millennia, alighting in an age in which the ancestral tail was both common and quietly useful. Like our tree-dwelling relatives, the O’Brien tribe has grown comfortable with its tails. We groom them. We miss them at bath time. We view their absence in our fellow man with pity and suspicion.

Now, as I sit here with my coffee at the kitchen table, I find myself wondering if something about this tail business might smack of the unwholesome, even of the aberrant and fanatical.

Imagination, of course, is a precious human gift. Yet, even so, I worry about the future. I entertain visions of little Tad, who has just turned 3, awaiting his bride at the marriage altar with a large powdered tail quivering aloft. And I am not alone in such irrational fears. Meredith won’t admit to it, but over the past several weeks she has been stealing into the boys’ bedroom at night, secretly pulling back the sheets to check for the first hairy sproutings of the real McCoy.

The shadows of childhood can darken our adult lives—that much I know as a certainty—and what parent would not be concerned that present fantasy might somehow influence distant fact? Already the imaginary has embedded itself in the real world. At youth-league soccer games, young Timmy is impeded by the awkward mechanics of his “Tigger hop”—four strides and a bounce. Spectators gawk. Coaches squint at me. I feel the chill of a silent accusation: What kind of father are you?

I’ve tried, God knows, to reason with the boys. I’ve used guile and bribery and shameless deceit. (Santa Claus hates tails). Last night I tried again. “Pretending can be a good thing,” I told the boys at bedtime, “but sometimes it can get you in trouble. It can be dangerous.”

Tad had already drifted off, but Timmy looked up at me with suspicion. “Is this one of your silly stories?”

“Not silly at all,” I said, and then I launched into a hastily improvised tale about a little boy who couldn’t stop pretending—always talking to a make-believe dog, eating make-believe pancakes. After a while, I said, the little boy couldn’t separate what was real from what wasn’t. It landed him in all kinds of trouble.

“But I thought make-believe was supposed to be fun,” Timmy said.

“Yes, of course it is,” I told him, and then a crucial question occurred to me. “Do you know what pretending is?”

For what seemed a long while, I listened to the whir of a 5-year-old’s mind in motion. “Well, actually,” Timmy finally said, using his favorite (and only) four-syllable word, “actually I guess it’s like when you go away on trips. Sometimes I dream about you. I dream about how you’ll come home from the airport and bring me surprises and play with me. I get sad when you go away, and so I pretend you’re not gone. Is that bad?”

I told him no, it wasn’t bad.

“When you go away,” Timmy said, “sometimes I write your name in the sandbox. I pretend you’re pushing me on a swing or making funny faces at me.”

I nodded.

The whole issue of tails suddenly seemed pale and trivial. The thought struck me that I should begin cutting back on the travel. Fewer airports, more conversations like this one. I kissed the boys good night.

“What about your story?” Timmy said. “What happened to that little boy who couldn’t stop pretending?”

“Nothing bad,” I said. “He grew up.”

I left the bedroom and went off in search of Xanax… Read More>>

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