Reggie’s first self-portrait belonged nowhere near the Louvre, let alone a small town’s art museum. He had drawn a large, wobbly circle two inches to the left of the paper’s center. With uncoordinated fingers, he sketched out a smiley face that looked as though the lips were made of a single strip of bacon. Four stick-thin limbs protruded out from the circle’s edge like stretched-out wire hangers. Despite his lack of any discernable artistic talent, Reggie’s parents cooed over the work their three-year-old rendered.
Five crayons in hand, Reggie scribbled a mess of goldenrod, emerald, red-violet, violet-red, and gray all over the portrait. His surreal self-representation bore little resemblance to himself, but he did not have the wherewithal to assess this failing. His mother framed the scrawled image in an aluminum frame.
“We’ll hang it right on the refrigerator,” she said. The frame’s magnet clicked against the appliance as she hummed. She imagined her son’s future, seeing patrons beg to support his work. In her mind, Reggie’s creations would be so evocative as to leap from the canvas.
In the following months, Reggie produced many works covering the silvery exterior of the fridge. With practice, most children demonstrate a modicum of improvement, but the child’s cats, dogs, cows, rabbits, and trees all looked about the same. His insistence upon scribbling unrealistic colors all over the parchments did little to help distinguish what Reggie drew. Days after creating anything, even he could not identify what the picture was meant to be.
In the ensuing months between Reggie’s fourth birthday and his preschool debut, Reggie continued his sloppy production of an ark’s worth of animals. By this time, the family’s refrigerator had few available spaces for new works. His mother wrinkled her brow at her husband’s suggestion to throw out a few.
“He won’t even notice.” He ripped off a picture that could have been a rock with arms and legs or an okapi. “He made this one two months ago. Why do we need to keep it?”
“Don’t you love your son?” The mother’s counter-argument and tears stunned the father into a guilty silence. “He’s going to be great one day. You’ll see. You’ll see!”
A few days into preschool, Reggie busied himself pressing playdough through a mold to make inedible pasta. When Miss Margie tried to stop him from dropping one of his manufactured noodles into his mouth, he screamed and kicked his teacher. The attack would not have been worth mentioning, except Reggie landed the blow at just the wrong time, causing Miss Margie to topple right onto him. Reggie’s head struck the floor hard, lodging the playdough in his throat.
Reggie gasped for air and thrashed about. Miss Margie scrambled to position herself to clear his airway. Her hands shook over his mouth. The pre-k teacher had to force herself to take a calming breath before she could pry his jaws open. No longer trembling, Miss Margie reached in with deft thumb and forefinger and pulled the playdough noodle free. She flicked away the soggy bit of clay and watched for her student’s chest to rise and fall.
Miss Margie bellowed an epithet when she realized Reggie had stopped breathing. She yelled out to a classroom aide to call 9-1-1. As she proceeded through the steps CPR training had taught her, two of her other students screamed. The other four began chanting their newly learned four-letter word as they bounced around the room. They did not know what the word meant, but they liked the way it sounded.
Half a minute later, Reggie coughed. His face regained its color, banishing the bluish tint that had begun to emerge. Miss Margie sighed and collapsed onto her back even as four toddlers chanted a word that would soon cause several parents to file a complaint against her. Reggie spent three days in the hospital following the incident with the playdough.
* * * *
Two years passed. In the intervening time, Mom grew troubled over the way her son’s behavior lacked consideration for safety. She had to hide anything that might harm the boy, stealing them from sight with practiced snatches. On one recent occasion, she had to stash a lighter in her purse before Reggie could ignite himself. She did not stop to think that her son might not be able to flick on the flame. The mere possibility mandated quick action. On the other hand, freaking out over cracked Easter Eggs might have been going a bit far.
Two days into first grade, he drew a new picture. If anything, the quality of his skills with a crayon had diminished so that each line appeared jagged as a cracked windshield. He had never held writing utensils with proper form, but now the implements seemed to rebel against Reggie’s every intent.
“What’s this sweetie?” Reggie’s mom spoke with a calm voice that conflicted with her frown and furrowed brow.
“It’s Crazy the Clown!” Reggie held up his picture of a mutilated circle containing a manic smiley face. He had chosen to smear the page with a scribbled mixture of burgundy, sepia, orange-red, and mahogany. “Isn’t it great?”
“Yes dear. Real great.” She patted her son on the head as she sighed. No longer enthusiastic about Reggie’s artistic endeavors, her mind raced through worst-case scenarios. She feared Miss Margie had allowed her son to suffer irreparable damage and pondered what that might mean for her boy’s future. “Would you like a juice box?”
“Yeah! I want a fruit punch, Mommy!”
“Is that how we ask for things?”
Reggie looked up at his mom with a blank stare. “I’m thirst, Mommy. Want a fruit punch.”
His mom let out a long breath. She carried his surreal rendering, the paper warbling in her unsteady grip. After hanging the picture on the fridge with a green clip magnet, she retrieved her son’s beverage and inserted the red-and-white striped bendy straw.
Ripping the fruit punch juice box from his mother’s hand, Reggie squirted the living room’s beige carpet with the sugary red liquid. The affected area stained like a blood-soaked crime scene.
“Reggie! Look what you just did!”
The boy blinked up at the ceiling rather than where his mother pointed. He giggled as he squeezed another ounce of juice out through the bendy straw. The liquid dribbled onto his hands.
Gnashing her teeth, Reggie’s mom stalked back into the kitchen and snatched up a handful of wet wipes. Reggie noticed what his mother clutched in her fist and dashed away. He dropped his juice box on the floor, leaving it to spill another puddle on the carpet.
“Don’t you dare touch that—” Reggie’s mother growled. “And you touched it.”
By the time Reggie’s internal engine ran low on fuel, he had laid sticky fingers on almost every surface in the house. Traces of sugary residue shown in child handprints all over the place, a tempting lure for ants. Reggie’s mom gripped her son by the wrist and scrubbed his hands with the wipes. She grunted and wrinkled her nose as she thought of the mess.
“Why do you have to be so obstinate?” Mom shook her head. “You just enjoy making everything difficult, don’t you?”
Reggie’s mom reached into her purse and withdrew her secret weapon for keeping her son preoccupied. The boy took the tablet with a smile as if he had not just burned off all available energy. With no other distractions to worry about, she began to disinfect the house and eradicate all evidence of the afternoon’s pandemonium. She could not figure out how Reggie had managed to smudge the windows and walls so high up considering he still needed some assistance climbing into cars. By the time Reggie’s dad came home from a day of fishing on his friend’s boat, Mom had only managed to revert a small fraction of the home back to its pristine state.
“Hey, Hun. Do we have any beers?” Dad often asked questions he could have answered with a little investigative work on his part.
“Didn’t you drink enough already?” Mom snarled the words as if preparing to hunt down her husband.
Reggie’s dad either missed the aggravation in his wife’s voice or hoped it would dissipate on its own. “No. Davy stocked up on some weird IPA that tasted like silage. Smelled even worse. Kept all the fish away too.”
“Whatever. Check the fridge.” Not caring a whit for her spouse’s sob story, she did not bother to look up from her work with removing carpet stains.
Dad considered the abruptness, blinked, and reached into the fridge. He appreciated the appliance’s chill far more than that emanating from his wife. After pulling out a bottle of Brewster’s Winter Ale, he slammed the door, twisted off the cap, and gulped down a third of the bitter beer. Lowering the bottle to waist-level, he stared at the fridge door and tilted his head to the side.
“What’s this supposed to be?”
Mom, busy with scrubbing the carpet with a bristle brush, thought her husband had been referring to the massive cleanup underway. “Reggie decided to juice our house.”
“Huh?” Dad could not take his eyes off the new paper hanging on the refrigerator. “No. I meant this.”
Mom at last took her eyes off her task and comprehended. “New picture from our burgeoning artist.”
“But what is it supposed to be? A snow hare blinking in a blizzard?” He lifted his beer to his mouth and downed a mouthful.
“Snow hare?” Wondering where that obscure guess had come from, Mom set the brush aside and marched over to her husband’s side. Her eyes bugged out. Every wax marking on the page had disappeared. If she had not known better, she might have thought someone had posted an unused sheet of copy paper. “What happened to Crazy?”
“He’s gone!” Mom ran fingers through her hair.
“Crazy!” Rubbing her forehead, Mom explained how Reggie had drawn a clown that afternoon before rampaging through the house like a spooked cat.
Dad gripped the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. “Are you sure you put up the right paper?”
Mom stared down her nose at him. “What kind of moron do you think I am?”
Dad shrugged, his palms facing up. “I mean…I’m just saying…” He scratched his scalp as he glanced away from his wife’s increasingly lethal death glare.
“I know the difference between a blank page and one Reggie’s scribbled over.” Mom whispered the words through her teeth.
“Then how do you explain this?”
“I don’t know. How do you explain spending all day on a boat when you could’ve been home spending quality time with your son for once?”
Dad groaned and stalked away, still hefting his beer. “You’re not allowed to make me feel guilty for making plans with friends. I’ve barely spent any time with Davy since—” He stopped himself from finishing the thought when he set eyes on his son. “How long has Reggie been on that tablet?”
Mom growled. “Did you miss the part where I said I had to clean up after his mess?
Their argument lasted all through dinner. Thanks to their preference for sarcasm over raised voices, Reggie took no notice of the dispute. Instead, he flicked peas on the ground with his spoon.
* * * *
On the following day, Reggie colored three new pictures. Although the only visible deviation from portrait to portrait was the color, the drawings portrayed an elephant, a tiger, and a lion tamer. Mom wondered where the circus motif had come from as she hanged each one on the refrigerator with floral magnets.
Minutes later, Dad called attention to Reggie’s new artwork. “Ridiculous. Why do you keep doing this? You can’t tell me you didn’t realize you put up three blank pages.”
“What?” Mom insisted she had done nothing of the kind and described each creature down to its mismatched eyes. “I know what I saw!”
“Look, I get that you’re feeling stressed.” Dad placed a hand on her shoulder, but she flinched away. He frowned. “Why don’t I take Reggie with me to the park? It’ll give you a chance to—”
“I’m not making this up!” As much as Mom liked the idea of a few moments of peace, she could not stand the thought of her husband doubting her sanity. “I watched Reggie draw on all three of these papers. Why can’t you believe me?”
Dad sighed and shook his head. “Hey, Reg! Come get your shoes and jacket. It’s a bit chilly out there. Only in the 60s.”
Sniffling, Mom watched her son scamper through the kitchen to the shoe rack by the laundry room. Dad and Reggie trooped out through the garage. At the sound of a car engine revving, she sighed.
Mom opened the kitchen cabinet over the microwave and felt around for a means of calming her mind. Unable to see what she grabbed, she pulled out a PAM spray can at first, which she returned to its place with a frustrated grunt. At last, she took out a rosé bottle with a calligraphed aardvark inked into the label. The wine from “Goode Grapecious Vineyards” may have been a cheap buy, but quality did not seem to matter much now.
The cap unscrewed, a scent of fermented grapes and fresh daisies wafted through the air. The wine trickled into her glass until it stood an inch below the brim. Little bubbles rose to the surface for a few seconds after Mom stopped pouring. She turned around and leaned against the counter, her purse to her back. As she brought the glass to her lips, the alcohol’s abrasive odor almost prevented her from taking a sip. She smacked her lips as the sweet, dry taste flowed across her taste buds.
Within minutes, Mom readied herself for a refill. Something like a squeaky trumpet blared right behind her. Her hand slipped on the wine glass’s stem. Shards scattered across the tile floor. Making use of Miss Margie’s infamous four-letter word, she stooped to pick up the largest fragments, careful not to cut herself on the sharp edges. She frowned at her wasteful carelessness and deposited the glass into the trash.
The second bugle blast started a ringing in Mom’s ears. She spun around and clapped a hand over her mouth, stifling her scream by ten percent. A seven-foot figure towered over her. Standing on two stick-thin legs, the thing’s frame looked like a squiggled circle slashed with random, unharmonious color. Small patches were transparent. Though it lacked a head, unfocused eyes beamed from the middle of its body.
“How is this possible?” Mom had never known of drawings coming to life, but arguing against undeniable evidence when it came close to staring her in the face never occurred to her.
Reggie’s “elephant” roared again, sounding more like a brass instrument than an actual pachyderm. Mom shrank away and gasped in pain as her bare right heel landed on two shards of glass. She lifted her leg and attempted to dislodge the splinters, but another voice caused her to drop her foot back onto the tiles. A smear of red painted the floor.
“Hey! Wanna hear a riddle?” A four-foot figure identical to the elephant in all but hues had appeared out of nowhere. It spoke in an exaggerated, cartoonish voice as if every word led to a punchline. “What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back to you?”
Mom rolled her eyes, having heard her husband tell this same dad joke at least five times since winter began. “A stick.”
“No! It’s a boom-away-ng! Get it? ‘Cause it goes away-ng!” Crazy the Clown giggled at his “cunning” answer and capered back and forth on his two unbending legs. A bike horn squawked, though Mom could not identify what had produced the sound. “How about another riddle? What do you call a fake noodle?”
Mom knew the answer to that one as well, but she had no intention of playing along with this drawn clown’s games. Especially if she would have to use the non-word “impasta.”
“Do you give up? It’s playdough!” Crazy said, dancing his jig again and sounding his invisible bike horn. Recalling her son’s near-death experience flashed through Mom’s mind, making her gasp. “One more strike and we feed you to the tiger!”
“What?” Mom’s voice squeaked. Her foot throbbed and her mind marathoned. “Lion tamer! Where are you?”
“Tiger thought he tasted good!” Crazy hooted a laugh that more than suited his name. The sound churned Mom’s blood. “Last riddle! What did the ocean say to the sailboat?”
Mom wracked her brain for the answer. Her husband had earned a groan or three from her the last time he had invited her onto Davy’s boat. After a solid minute of anxious thought and temple massaging, she had it. “Nothing. It just waved.”
“Incorrect!” Crazy’s gleeful guffawing brought out goosebumps. “The ocean said, ‘Don’t rock the boat!’ Get it?”
“No! That makes no sense!”
The clown lifted his curved arms in a shrug. “Oh, well. Time to make like tiger chow and feed our kitten!”
The elephant trumpeted a “Wah! Wah! Waaaah!” It kicked open the pantry door, bringing into view a third figure as grotesque as the first two. Snarling, it tottered toward her on two legs, flailing its upper extremities like a car’s antenna in a strong wind.
Whipping her head from side to side, Mom scanned for a means of defense. She grasped the only conceivable weapon within reach. The tiger’s large, potato-shaped body and slow steps made it an easy target. Mom hurled the Goode Grapecious Vineyards bottle, which struck the monstrous tiger between its disproportionate eyes. The bottle exploded on impact, releasing the remaining rosé to splash all over the crayon-rendered tiger.
At first, Mom thought her plan had failed, dooming her. The beast kept waddling like a penguin, inching closer and growling every second. But then she noticed how the scribbly colors began to bleed into one another. The tiger let out a curious roar as if wondering why it had started to wash away. Before long, the faux feline had transformed into a pile of waxy sludge.
The clown tittered. “Didn’t see that coming. Too bad you don’t have any more of that sour grape juice!”
Her triumph had been brief enough, and Crazy’s accurate observation proved she could not rely on one success guaranteeing anything. Mom thought through her options. She could outrun these animate drawings without too much difficulty, but that would leave anyone who came home at the psychotic clown’s mercy. Allowing any threats to her son to go unaddressed would not do. Plus, running with two pieces of glass poking through her foot would make every stride painful.
Then she remembered where she stood. The kitchen contained so many ways to eliminate creatures such as these. Baring her teeth in a determined grin, she formed her plan. All she needed was for the clown to come a little closer.
“Hey, Crazy? Want to hear a riddle?”
Crazy leapt into the air. “Do I ever? Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!”
“Why can you never trust a cloud with money?” Mom hoped this would work. She held her breath until the answer came.
“Because they don’t have pockets?” Crazy, for the first time, sounded unsure of himself. His bacon-shaped grin flattened.
“Nope. Because they like to make it rain!” She had to force herself to laugh at the joke. “That’s strike one! Take five giant steps forward.”
To her surprise, the clown complied. It stood just the right distance away.
“Second riddle. What do you call a pachyderm that never cleans its room?”
The clown giggled, his pitch rising with his anxiety. “A…um…umm…a dinosaur?”
Mom scoffed at the ludicrous response. “No. It’s a Mess-tadon. Strike two! I’m getting out the PAM!” She pulled out the non-stick spray can from a nearby cabinet. “Last chance, Crazy. What do you and a compost pile have in common?”
Crazy moaned and mumbled about how it could not figure out the answer. Mom reached into her purse on the counter and reached inside. Beginning a countdown at ten, she unnerved the clown as she rummaged around for her prize. At “two,” she had it.
“Give up? Answer is…you’re both on fire!”
“Huh?” Crazy’s eyes widened.
Mom pulled the lighter from her purse, flicked it on, and sprayed the PAM at the clown from behind the small spark. Her makeshift flamethrower felt hot in her hand, but she would not relent. Crazy the Clown shrieked as the fire melted it to a liquid pulp. The stench of smoke and charred paper filled the room. Her spray can emptied just as the lighter burnt out. What remained of her opponent resembled hardening lava.
The last thing to take care of was the elephant in the room. Since the beast did not present as an imminent danger, she at last had time to remove the glass thorns in the flesh. With those afflictions gone, a new flow of blood dripped down the underside of her foot until the wound clotted. Cautious not to step on anything else, she approached the last of Reggie’s renderings. It produced a burst of mournful notes. Mom reached out and patted the beast. It felt smooth and gummy, and it left a green and fuchsia residue on her palm.
A sustained humming announced the garage opening. Moments later, Dad and Reggie entered the house chuckling over something one of them must have said in the car. Whatever the joke had been, the laughter stopped when Dad took stock of the alterations to his family’s kitchen.
“What’s all—” Dad grunted and pointed. He raked his hair with quaking fingers. “Broken glass…and wine…all over the place…a mess…like a tornado.” He sniffed. “Blech! What’s that smell? Burnt rubber?”
Reggie cared less about the house’s disarray, paying more attention to the strange creature standing a few feet away. Gasping, he hid behind his mother. “What is that?”
“It’s your elephant that went missing.” Mom ruffled his head and urged him forward.
“But that not look like a elepant!” Reggie dug in his heels to resist his mom’s push. He squinted at the enormous creature as it bellowed the beginning of The 1812 Overture.
“No kidding.” Mom rubbed her hands together. “So you can take care of your new pet. No need to get a puppy now, right? And in the morning, we’re signing you up for art lessons. Honey? Clean up our son’s mess, please. I’m done with that for today.”