There’s a certain way you talk to Georgie if you want results, and by results, I mean cooperation, I mean if you want to avoid a black eye, or if you don’t want him fleeing out the basement window when your back is turned, or biting your thumb off at the knuckle, or throwing one of his celebrated fits in the pizza aisle of QFC, or pushing you through a sliding glass door.
For a ten-year-old with the adipose cheeks of a cherub, speckled blue eyes and a heart-shaped mouth, Georgie can be a holy terror.
Georgie’s problem is that he knows exactly what he wants at any given moment. In this respect, you might call him lucky.
The doctors have another name for it.
Georgie likes lists. Detailed lists, lists like roadmaps, invariably leading to his desired destination. Talk to Georgie in lists, and you’ve got a chance.
“First, Georgie and John the Boss go to school and see Miss Deb. Next, Georgie and John the Boss go to library. Georgie picks out one video. One. How many videos does Georgie pick out?”
“Good. Next, Georgie and John the Boss go to the—”
“No go to! Cheese pizza!”
“No, not quite. First Georgie and —”
“No first! Cheese pizza!”
“Almost. We’re getting to that, I promise, but first—”
“No almost! Only cheese pizza!”
“Noo! First Georgie have cheese pizza!”
I said you had a chance, I didn’t say you’d succeed.
Then there’s another way I talk to Georgie, those times when he’s stationed like a mushroom in front of the television in a dead-wall reverie, entranced by Sacred Planet or Springtime with Roo, his speckled eyes wide, the crust of his pizza scattered all around him on the soiled carpet like a fairy ring, dried tomato sauce caked to his face.
Those times when he’s not wanting.
“Georgie,” I’ll say. “What if we all went about screaming and biting every time we didn’t get what we wanted? What then? What if John the Boss decided to escape out the window? Who’d buy you cheese pizza, then? Daddy Serge? What if your mommy never came home? What if Vera and Willie never came home? What if one day I just up and quit being a caretaker because, you know Georgie, I never wanted to be one in the first place, never wanted the black eyes and the bruises and the nine-hundred-and-forty-three dollars a month, never wanted all the shouting matches with Daddy Serge, never wanted to give Willie my old shoes that weren’t really old, talk to sweet humble Vera in closed quarters and wonder why she smells like fish, why everything smells like fish, never wanted to buy cans of dog food for someone else’s dog, or buy a used refrigerator for someone else’s food, never wanted Daddy Serge to accost me down at Doc’s on a Friday night and force me to shoot vodkas and look into his steely grey eyes as they cut me to ribbons, and tell him for the third and fourth time just what it is I see in Georgie, and why it’s not weird for me to take such an interest in someone else’s boy. What then, Georgie?”
Georgie’s not much of a listener, though.
Lists, maybe. Details, yes. But only on his terms.
When I talk like this, Georgie only shushes me.
I am many things to Georgie, he just doesn’t know it. To Georgie, I am only John the Boss, purveyor of cheese pizza, provider of details, chauffeur, keeper of the coveted library card.
Georgie does not know, for instance, that I am Walt Disney, or Sterling Holloway, or Shir-Kahn, when every afternoon like clockwork we phone Walt Disney Studios in Orlando, Florida (same phone number as me, go figure), and I duck down into the fetid air of the Federov basement, where Tolstoy has just finished fouling the floor, and whimpers sharply like a wooden gate on its hinges. And with my cell phone I proceed to personify Mr. Walt Disney himself (who sounds exactly like John the Boss with a slight echo), enumerating the minute details of the Federov family trip to Orlando that will never happen, because last summer became this summer. Already this summer has the look of next summer.
And in between lay a lot of cheese pizzas and a lot of yelling and biting.
But mostly a lot of lying. Because the only thing there’s not a lot of is money.
Cheese pizza costs money.
We won’t talk about library fines.
Says Daddy Serge: “Orlando, Florida! Ha! Focking bullshit! All za time, Orlando, Florida! Fucking cheese pizza! Who pay for cheese pizza? Georgie pay for cheese pizza?
But never mind Daddy Serge.
“Well, first,” Mr. Walt Disney of Orlando, Florida says, “Georgie and Mommy and Vera and Willie and Daddy Serge will come to visit me and my family at—”
“No Serge! John the Boss!”
“Very well, John the Boss. Georgie, Mommy, Vera, Willie, and John the Boss will come visit me at Walt Disney Studios in Orlando, Florida. We’ll have pizza and sodas for lunch.”
“Cheese pizza. And Pepsi cola. Icy cold, with little dew drops racing down glass.”
“The kind that’s fat on top and skinny on the bottom.”
“And after lunch, we’ll go to Universal Stu—”
“No, no Universal Studio! MGM studio!”
“MGM Studio. And then to Gatorland for—”
“No, no Gatorland! Next to Sterling Holloway’s house!”
“Yes, yes, Sterling Holloway.”
Here, Georgie produces a rendition of his own, the aged Disney announcer at the end of two dozen Winnie the Pooh tapes. “Beloved voiceover talent Sterling Holloway. Voice of Winnie the Pooh, Kaa, Amos the Mouse, Cheshire Cat, and many more of your favorite Walt Disney characters.”
As far as I know, Sterling Holloway is dead as a stump. But it might please his ghost to know that he’ll never have a bigger fan than Georgie Federov. Never. Georgie has destroyed countless Winnie the Pooh tapes in the name of Sterling Holloway. So many in fact, that his library card is on probation, a point of violent contention in recent days, which has resulted in a broken rearview mirror and some soiled underpants (his).
First, he deftly breaks out the little plastic window on the middle of the tape. Next, he stuffs the tape in the machine. Next, he forces his sticky fingers into the slot of the VCR and manipulates the little spools, accounting for five busted VCRs (all used or donated) in the past three months. But Georgie achieves his desired result. Sterling Holloway’s Winnie the Pooh arrives in a warbled underwater tenor which Georgie refers to as “slow motion camera.”
I am often forced (by virtue of Georgie’s hair-raising decree), to speak this language myself for hours on end.
No, no, Slow motion camera! John the Boss say, ‘Walt Disney Studio presents’ with slow motion camera. Again! With slow motion camera!
Some evenings I come home hoarse.
My waning moments in the Federov homestead are always the same.
First, Willie and Vera arrive home on the bus. Willie is slump-shouldered under the weight of something besides his backpack. And Vera, God bless her, always clad in some hand-me-down dress with a floral pattern or fraying beadwork that’s tired at the edges from mending. She totes three dirty book bags and a used clarinet.
She’s got a song in her heart in spite of everything.
Next, someone invariably leaves their shoes in the hallway, their book bag on the kitchen table, tracks mud in the dingy foyer, or commits some other transgression which never fails to escape my notice.
Next, Daddy Serge arrives home at dusk, his truck headlights sprocketing the treeline as he rounds the corner.
Next, the truck door slams with a little too much reverb.
Next, squishy footfalls up the muddy walkway.
Next, four clomps on the sagging steps.
Next, Daddy Serge’s grand entrance. With drywall in his hair, sounding and smelling like three beers, he issues his standard one word greeting to Georgie—Out!, before berating the offending boarder like a drill sergeant for whatever shoe, bag, or musical instrument has strayed from its station.
Next, the questions: Why your mozzer not here? Why all za time she is late?
And last, John the Boss takes flight in his dented red Suburu wagon with three hubcaps. Down and around the bumpy driveway. Into and away from the gathering darkness.
Always with a sense of relief.
At dusk Georgie likes to shut his grimy curtains with pizza crusted fingers and squat in the corner on his tired mattress under the window. He turns off the lamp and holds his transistor radio right up to his ear and tunes it in between stations so that it hisses and crackles like a theremin in hot oil. Here, in the half-light, his speckled eyes are at their widest, his little red lips are parted slightly. But when I ask him what he hears, he only shushes me.