An Excerpt from the Novel Sammie & Budgie by Scott Semegran
I discovered that my boy, Sammie--my son, my first child, my spawn, a chip off my ol' block, my heart and my soul--could see the future, that he could tell me what was going to happen before it happened, when he was in the third grade. I discovered this by dumb luck. Now, what I'm about to tell you, I'm telling you in the strictest of confidence. I mean, I'm telling you because I feel you need to know and I just don't go around telling everyone in the goddamn world my business because, well, it's my business; but I like you and that's all that matters. My boy, Sammie, was considered special by all accounts, not just special because I learned he could see the future, but special for two reasons: 1) he went through intensive testing and was designated as a child with special education needs by the State of Texas and 2) he's special because I said he's special. A father knows what a father knows, and I knew, without a doubt, that my boy was special. It's true.
Even before Sammie Boy was born, I had a feeling he was special (I call him Sammie Boy all the time--even now--because that's what I like to call him). When he was still living in the cramped efficiency apartment that was his mother's womb, he would kick and punch all over the place in a manner that made me feel like he was communicating with me in some type of fetal Morse Code. His mother would always tell me, 'Play our baby some music because I've read that playing our baby music while it is still in utero helps its intelligence.' So, I would do that. I'd get a Walkman or iPod or whatever was around, I'd put some classical music on, and place the headphones around his mother's overgrown stomach, and play the music loud so Sammie Boy could hear it. And whenever I would start the music, he would start kicking and punching all over the goddamn place, more punching when he disliked the music and less punching when he seemed to like it. Whenever I played any pop music, good ol' Sammie Boy seemed to hate it. He'd start punching and kicking and jabbing and stomping at such a furious rate that I thought he'd bust out of his mother's stomach like one of those hideous alien babies in the Alien movies. I played him all kinds of music to see what he would like: classical music, rock music, hip-hop music, country music, and even movie soundtracks. But the type of music that I discovered that he liked the most was jazz music, particularly John Coltrane songs and albums. He loved the shit out of some John Coltrane music--all the punching and kicking and stomping and jabbing and head-butting would cease the minute this music started. It really did, especially when I played the album Blue Train.
But what really made me aware of the fact that my boy Sammie was special was the day I picked him up from elementary school and he told me his after-school counselor was going to hurt herself in a serious way. I thought that to be a very strange thing for him to say, since Sammie didn't particularly have a malicious bone in his body, but was unsettling even more since my boy wasn't known to tell lies. Outside the school, out in the back where the playground and basketball court stretched beyond the portable buildings, I watched all the kids run and play while his counselor stood alone, keeping an eye on the children. It was a warm, humid day and the kids swarmed around the counselor like excited bees circling a sunflower.
I knelt next to my boy, placing my hands on his arms, and braced him gently, when I said, "What do you mean she will hurt herself?" Now, you have to understand, my boy Sammie was the cutest kid you will ever lay your eyes on, with big, round, brown eyes and a round face, tussled brown hair that never seemed to keep the style it started with in the morning, and a smile that would make a serial killer renounce his depravity and perform cartwheels in a field of daisies. Even in this serious situation, where I would have to compose myself to find answers, I had to fight the urge to pinch his cheeks and giggle. He was just that cute. "She looks fine to me," I said.
Sammie Boy looked over where the counselor stood, his sparkling, brown eyes examining her, the lids closing slightly as he peered at her, as if making out what her next move might be, and resolute sadness appeared on his cute, little face. "Daddy, can I ask you a question?" he said.
"Of course, my boy. You can ask me a question."
"Will you be mad at me if I tell you the truth?"
"Why would I be mad at you?" I said, firmly gripping his arms, as if to let him know how strongly I felt about expressing my true feelings to him, to comfort him. That's what a parent should do, right? A parent should be like a rock, like a sturdy thing that a delicate child could count on to protect him, and that's how I felt. I was Sammie's rock. It's true. "You should always tell me the truth. Always," I said.
"I don't know how I know, but I know. My brain is telling me," he said, his head tilting toward his chest, as if heavy from guilt for knowing something I couldn't quite comprehend. He wouldn't look at me.
I turned and looked at the counselor, an occasional errant kid running toward her then around her and using her as a swinging pole, she seemed fine and not in any way in danger or in a position to be seriously hurt by anyone or anything. Sammie wouldn't look at me anymore, his head heavy on the end of his limp neck. He drew imaginary circles on the ground with the tip of his Converse sneaker. I felt really bad for him because he seemed genuinely worried. I could tell.
"I think she'll be fine. How about we go get some ice cream on the way home? Would you like that?" I stood up, releasing his arms and gently placing my hands on his shoulders. He looked at me, a bigger smile on his face than I had seen in a while, since the morning at least.
"Really? Baskin Robbins?!"
"Sure, go get your backpack and tell the counselor goodbye."
He ran across the black top toward the counselor, who stood a few feet away from a metal bench that all of the kids' backpacks sat on, lined up in a multi-colored row of bright, pastel colors of the girls' backpacks and deep, primary colors of the boys' backpacks: ponies and unicorns for the girls, Marvel and DC superheroes for the boys. Sammie Boy waved to the counselor as he ran toward her and a sweet smile slid across her face. I could tell that she liked my son, with a look of sincere affection on her face, and she hugged him when he embraced her around her waist, waving for her to bring her face towards his. She knelt down and he whispered something in her ear, something that made her smile more than giggle. She patted him on the back and aimed him toward the metal bench where his backpack sat waiting for him. He slung his Spider-Man backpack over one shoulder and ran back to me. I waved to the counselor, relieved that nothing happened that would hurt her in a serious way, as my boy Sammie said would happen. Sometimes, kids say the weirdest things at the weirdest times and there really is no rhyme or reason to why they say these things. They just do, and what they say is like an involuntary burp that escapes your mouth an hour after lunch or a silent yet stinky fart that slips out while you're in an important meeting. It leaves an impression but doesn't mean anything at all. It's true.
I held Sammie's little hand and we walked toward my parked car when, suddenly, he tugged my arm and looked up at me, his little, round face pale and gaunt, his smile gone. An uneasy feeling tugged at the bottom of my stomach when I heard all the kids on the playground scream and, when I looked back, saw the counselor on her back, on the ground in front of the metal bench. I let go of Sammie's hand and ran toward the counselor, her body still and motionless in the dirt and grass and pebbles. All the kids on the playground came closer too, but not so close, as if keeping some distance between them and her would alleviate any blame that could come their way.
On the ground next to her, I got on one knee, touched her wrist, and knew she was still alive by the strong pulse under her skin. I didn't dare touch her head, being that it was at such a bizarre angle at the end of her neck, twisted closer to one shoulder than what seemed natural. I was in a state of shock as the kids inched their way closer and closer to their unconscious counselor, but all I was worried about was Sammie. Would it hurt his feelings that his premonition about his counselor came true? I wasn't sure at the time how he felt about his power to see the future but I did know this: he felt bad about something.
"Sorry I told you the truth, Daddy," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. I was kind of sorry that I learned just how special my boy could be. Then I called 911.
Instead of buying Sammie an ice cream cone at Baskin Robbins, like I promised, I bought him a Popsicle from the cafeteria at the North Austin Medical Center, the hospital where the ambulance brought his after-school counselor. The ambulance arrived at the school pretty quick after I called 911 and I couldn't just not check on the poor counselor, leaving her outcome to just mere chance. Sammie insisted we go to the hospital too, even though I knew I would have to pick up Sammie's sister, Jessica (or Jessie, as I call her), from taekwondo. Luckily for me, Jessie could stay at taekwondo as long as her little heart desired because the instructor, Master Lu, taught late into the night and Jessie was never eager to leave practice anyway (she's a hardcore first-grader when it comes to taekwondo). So we followed the ambulance to the hospital and I promised Sammie I would buy him a snack if I could find him one, which we did, in the cafeteria.
As he ate his Popsicle while running laps around the table where I sat in the dining room of the cafeteria--brightly colored streams of sugary liquid running out of his mouth, down his cheeks and neck, and onto his striped t-shirt--I learned all kinds of unsavory things about Sammie's after-school counselor that I didn't know before (and wasn't quite sure I wanted to know). I learned that her name was Selena--pronounced say-LEE-nah--and that she still lived with her parents and she went to a bad high school on the east side of Austin and that she liked to drink beer and tequila together when she partied and often came to work quite hungover in her beat-up Nissan Sentra with lowered suspension and chrome wheels and that she had a boyfriend she called Big Papa (after the hip-hop song by Biggie Smalls aka The Notorious B.I.G.) but he didn't like to be called Big Papa because it made him feel self-conscious about his weight and he preferred to be called Stud Boy and she liked most of the kids in after-school care except for Juan and Jerome because they acted like thugs and on and on and on. Sammie could get going if I let him and, boy, was he on a roll that day while we waited to see if his counselor was OK. Sometimes, he gets a condition I like to call "diarrhea mouth" where he spews words out of his cute face at a pace that is much faster than his brain could possibly comprehend. A lot of people suffer from this condition, even adults, whether they realize it or not, what, with their bragging about the newest gadget that they just bought, or the Caribbean cruise that they just booked, or the fancy restaurant that they ate at the night before, or whatever. Adults constantly talk about the most inane shit sometimes. It's true. But Sammie Boy, he also seemed to be afflicted with diarrhea mouth quite often (I think he got this condition from his mother, my ex-wife) and he had a severe case of it that day at the hospital.
After a while listening to him, I grew curious how he knew so much about his counselor Selena, so I said, "How do you know all of this, Sammie?"
"She tells us stuff every day. She loves to tell us about her life," he said, slurping on his Popsicle until it disintegrated. He revealed the Popsicle stick to me, its soggy, wooden composition stained from red and blue food-coloring, the word 'Popsicle' etched on it. I told him to toss it in the trash can by the entrance of the cafeteria but he shoved it in his pocket instead, just in case he needed it later for something important. Kids are always doing that, stashing trash for later. "She lives a hard life. What's wrong with that?"
"What's wrong with what?" I said.
"Selena telling us about her hard life?"
"Oh, well, she seems to give you so much detail. It's kind of unprofessional, I think."
"Un-pro-fesh-un-uhl--what is that?!"
"Nevermind. Do you want to go see how she's doing?"
"Yeah! Let's go!" he said, as he sprinted at full-speed out of the cafeteria and back toward where we came, a set of elevators around the corner and down a hall that ran next to the cafeteria. The hospital was blandly decorated and sparsely furnished as to not offend any of its patients' family members, some of which would occupy the random couches or chairs or stools far away from the dismal environments of the small, diseased rooms of their wives or husbands or sons or daughters or partners or whoever or, in our case, my son's after-school counselor. If you really examined the patterns of the carpet and the upholstery of the furniture, they were somewhere between a Southwest Santa Fe-style and a Jackson Pollock spew-fest, pastel patterns intermingling with muted primary color splatter. It was a curious choice for a hospital, bland and obnoxious at the same time. Sammie seemed to like the pattern of the carpet and he chose to run along the pattern as if it was a crazy road map, designed by a psychotic interior decorator. He zigged and zagged all the way to the elevator, making noises with his mouth as if he was a race car or a train or an airplane or a UFO, sometimes all at once.
"Push the button!" I said, waving at him to stop and not actually go in the elevator. "But wait for me!" The elevator dinged and Sammie bolted inside, prompting me to run to catch him before the door closed and separated us. Once there, I held the door open with the palm of my hand then stood next to my boy. I could feel his heart pounding while I touched his shoulder. A Muzak, instrumental version of "Careless Whisper" by the band Wham! played from small speakers at the top of the elevator. "I told you to wait for me," I said, panting from being pudgy and doughy and all sorts of out of shape. I should spend more time at a gym or something, another thing to add to my lengthy to-do list.
"I did, Daddy! I did!"
"OK. OK," I said, the elevator taking us up a couple of floors. "Keep your pants on. Sheesh."
"My pants are on, Daddy," Sammie said. He peered out the glass back-side of our elevator car, his face and hands smashed against the clear glass, his breath fogging up his view. "The carpet looks like a rainbow explosion, Daddy!"
"It sure does," I said. It did look like a rainbow explosion from our vantage point, three-stories up, although my adult brain wouldn't have thought of it that way without him mentioning it. I think we lose some of that creative vision as we grow older, turning from curious children into jaded adults. Children have a way of seeing the world that is untarnished by experience or disappointment or adult's selfish bullshit. It's true.
"Daddy, can I ask you a question?"
"Sure, but you don't have to keep saying, 'Can I ask you a question?' Just ask me the question."
"OK. Daddy, can I get a pet?"
The elevator bell dinged and the door opened. Sammie grabbed my hand and we walked out of the elevator together. His little hand fit perfectly inside my hand. At some point, "Careless Whisper" morphed into a tinkly instrumental version of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper.
"A pet? What kind of pet?" I said, squeezing his little hand gently.
"What?! A bird?" We stopped and he looked up at me, his face shining with childish enthusiasm, his eyes aglow with sparkles and reflections from the fluorescent lights in the ceiling in his line of view above my head. He looked hypnotized.
"Yeah, a budgerigar! I want a budgie!"
"Birds are smelly and messy," I said, a little annoyed. We continued walking after I quickly dismissed his request.
"Budgie! Budgie! Budgie! That's what I would name it. Budgie!"
"I'll think about it."
"You always say that. And when you say, 'I'll think about it,' then that always means no."
"I'll think about it," I said, smiling.
"Daddy! Quit saying that!"
We found a reception counter that looked like the place to check-in but it wasn't stationed by anyone. So rather than continue into areas of the hospital we weren't sure we could walk into, we waited for someone to check us in. Sammie Boy didn't mind. He was full of life.
"Budgerigars are better known as parakeets. Do you know what a parakeet is?"
"Yes, Sammie, I know what a parakeet is." I looked around for a nurse or an administrative assistant or somebody but I didn't see anybody. The desk was a deserted, plywood island.
"Well, that's good," he said. "They are the third most popular pet in the world, behind dogs and cats of course."
"That's very interesting."
"I know! Very interesting, indeed." He drew imaginary circles in the rainbow-explosion carpet with the tip of his canvas sneaker. "So, can I get one?"
"I'll think about it."
He moaned a BIG sigh and threw his arms against his sides and exclaimed in an exasperated tone, "I'll never get one!" He made it seem like the world was ending, and maybe his little world was ending at that very second. Every disappointment in a child's life is always, and I mean always, monumental. Don't ask me why. It just is. Kids make a big deal about everything.
"Let's discuss it later," I said, then out of thin air a young woman sat down behind the counter. She was young and brunette and kind of slim (but kind of not) and a little irritated, apparently. The pastel cardigan she wore was a size too small; it squeezed her flesh into a succession of bulging rolls and folds, hills and valleys of overindulgence. She gave me a terse smile, part sincere and part deliberate. A name tag on her shirt said BETH.
"Can I help you?" she said. She rummaged through some papers and office supplies spread out on the desk.
"Yes, we'd like to see--what's her name, Sammie?" I said, looking at my boy. He tried to peek over the counter-top, his body stretching as high as his toes could push him, but he only could speak toward the ceiling.
"Selena! Her name is Say-LEE-nah!"
"Yes, can we see Selena?" I said, leaning on the counter-top with one elbow, smiling as sincerely as possible.
"Let me see if she's in our system." She typed furiously on the keyboard of her computer and as she typed, a serious look on her face, I couldn't help but think of the song Beth by the band Kiss, and their ridiculous music video with the band--in full-on makeup and leather outfits and high heels--sitting around a prissy brunette wearing a white, cardigan sweater, the drummer Peter Criss serenading her about how he was staying out late, playing with the boys in the band, not coming home soon, and shit like that. Maybe this Beth in the hospital was mad after her boyfriend's all-nighter, sitting at home stewing because her Peter was out late, drinking with his buddies, having too much fun, and refusing to come home to her like she wanted him to. Maybe she drank too much cheap wine from a box in the refrigerator and put herself to sleep with thoughts of a better man out there, somewhere in the world, and woke up hung-over, drank a quart of coffee before heading to work at the hospital. I bet it's true. She typed some more as we waited.
"Right, there is a Selena in our system. Are you a family member?"
I looked at Sammie Boy and he looked at me and I realized that there was a certain protocol to situations like this. We weren't family members. We weren't even close friends of Say-LEE-nah. For all practical purposes, we were just concerned acquaintances, or as some would say, nosey acquaintances. How strange.
"No, we're not family members. You see, my boy Sammie here, he's in after-school care. And Selena is a counselor at the elementary school. And we were there when she fell down and hurt herself. I was the one that called the ambulance."
"I see," Beth said, still pouty and unconcerned. Her boyfriend must have done a number on her the night before. I could tell. She was pretty annoyed. "Well, only family members and loved ones can go back and see patients. You'll just have to wait out here."
"OK," I said, looking at Sammie. "Let's go have a seat, son."
We found a seat nearby. I sat down and patted my legs for Sammie to sit on them. He flopped on my lap and wrapped his arms around my neck. He was a cute, little son-of-a-bitch, he was! And I say that with the deepest affection because it's true. I loved my boy with all my heart and his mother was an absolute bitch. But no worries, I'll get into that later. I squeezed my boy tightly.
"Is she going to be all right, Daddy?" he said, a distressed look on his face.
"I bet she'll be just fine. She's in the right place."
"All the doctors and nurses will take care of her?"
"They won't let her die or anything like that?"
"I hope not."
"Daddy," he said, perking up. "Maybe if I write Selena a note, then that grouchy lady at the desk will give it to her. Do you think she'll do that?"
"I don't know but you can try."
On a side table next to our chair was a cup filled with pens with 'VIAGRA' scrawled on their shafts as well as a pad of paper with 'PRILOSEC' emblazoned at the top. Good ol' Sammie Boy grabbed a pen and the pad of paper and earnestly wrote a quick note to his counselor--a sweet, sentimental note that said how worried he was for her and that he hoped she was all right and not hurt and how sorry he was for knowing that she was going to hurt herself. When I saw him write that, I tapped him on the shoulder and advised that he erase that part. I didn't want him incriminating himself in any way but I appreciated his thoughtfulness. He erased the 'knowing that she was going to hurt herself' part and signed the note, 'Love, Sammie.'
"Can I give this to the lady at the desk to give to Selena?"
I nodded and watched Sammie run over to Beth, her scowl turning into a sweet, closed-mouth smile. Even a sourpuss like jaded Beth couldn't resist the charms of my cute kid. Sammie gave her the note and whispered some instructions into her ear. Beth stood up and walked away while good ol' Sammie Boy returned to my lap. He was very happy and pleased with himself.
"She said she'd give it to Selena," he said, smiling, beaming with pride.
"Good. Do you feel better now?"
"Yes, I just hope she's all right."
We sat there for a few, quiet moments, Sammie swinging his legs back and forth, my arms around my little boy. He sure was special, all right, not just in the special needs way, but in a kind-spirited way. A lot of kids his age, kids that are in the third or fourth grade, their personalities were starting to curdle, starting to turn into something less kind, less child-like. They wanted to be teenagers. They wanted to be more grown-up. They liked to cuss, learned about sexy things from their siblings, and watched TV shows with violence and foul language and kids behaving badly and stuff like that. But not my Sammie. He was as innocent as could be, with a pure heart and pure intention. He was a really good kid. It's true.
"Daddy?" he said.
"Yes, my boy?"
"Can I draw on that paper while we wait?"
"Sure," I said, giving him the Viagra pen and the Prilosec pad of paper. With his tongue curling through his pursed lips, he hunched over the pad of paper and doodled a little bird flying through the air, a circle for a sun and three bumpy clouds high above the tiny avian creature. He drew what looked like a letter 'B' on the bird's chest.
"What's the 'B' stand for?" I said, curious about his letter choice, when Beth walked back toward us with a piece of paper in her hand. When she got to where we sat, she knelt down in front of us and handed Sammie the piece of paper. Her sour disposition was gone, replaced by a sweet demeanor that I didn't see there before. Maybe Beth didn't have such a bad night after all.
"I shouldn't be doing this but here's a note from Selena. You're a sweet boy!" She patted him on the head and went back to her desk.
Sammie smiled at me and said, "Can I read it, Daddy?" I nodded and this is what the note said:
Thank you for checking on me, Sammie. You're a good kid and my favorite of all the kids in after-school care! I have epilepsy and I had a seizure. I'm sorry that it scared you but it's something I have to deal with all the time. Please don't worry, Sammie. I'll probably see you back at the school next week. Take care and be good, Selena.
"She's going to be all right," Sammie said. He folded the note and put it in his pocket along with the Popsicle stick.
"That's good," I said, placing him on his feet. "We need to go pickup your sister from taekwondo."
"Do we have to?" Sammie said, whining. "Can't she just walk home?!"
"No, she can't just walk home."
"Because that would make me a bad parent."
"You're not a bad parent. You're the best daddy, EVER!"
"Ever?" I said.
"Forever and ever!"
"That's a very long time."
"I know! Daddy, can I get Budgie on the way home?"
"No, not today."
I grabbed good ol' Sammie Boy's hand and we walked over the rainbow explosion, leaving grouchy Beth and poor Selena behind, leaving the erectile-dysfunctional pens and the acid-reflux pads of paper on the table, and out of the hospital and back to our normal life. We found my car and hopped in, ready to retrieve Sammie's sister and possibly buy ice cream or hamburgers or tacos.
I couldn't help but think that this day would turn out like that, what, with Sammie's counselor hitting the deck, being rushed to the emergency room, and me and my boy spending an hour or so in a dreary hospital. Being a parent to a special kid leads to very unexpected things in very unexpected ways. It's true.