Marty couldn’t hear my father. Historically, all the men in my family seem to have a difficult time relating to some children. Nobody has ever quite figured it out, either. Some say it’s the baritone voice, others say it’s because we tend to talk to children like adults, rarely raising the pitch of our voice, and never dumbing things down. Marty, the younger brother of my best friend, Reed, was just such a child; it’s like he didn’t even know my father was in the room. We were on this dual family trip at our desert lake-house on Lake Mead, Reed’s family and my own, and one morning, before we all loaded up and headed out on the lake, my father tried to get Marty’s attention. It became the biggest inside joke of our two families, that everyone heard my father except for Marty.
I don’t know if it’s entirely relevant, but I can’t describe the scene without wanting to explain that Marty was something of a different child. Don’t get me wrong, he was not at all retarded, not even autistic, just different. I’ll try to sum him up with a few images: As a toddler, though, oddly, only as a toddler, Marty spoke fluent Spanish, having spent, we presumed, a good deal of time more with the Mexican nanny than the rest of his family. In kindergarten, his parents were often called in for teacher conferences because he kept trying to take his clothes off, usually succeeding. He was prone to tantrums, and we, the older kids, exploited this, as mean little kids do, by taunting him as often as possible. Finally, I feel it is, if not important, at least colorful to note that, as a teenager, years after this episode at the lake-house, Marty was in the habit of creating and maintaining a prolific collection of potions and their accompanying bottles. His room was full of of blue vials. He was a special kid, and even that weekend, at just six years old, we all knew it.
Marty, Marty’s parents, my friend, Reed, and I were all in the living room, the parents reading, Reed and I playing Monopoly and Marty playing on his own, in the middle of the floor with some cowboy and Indian toys. My father came in wearing his usual boating gear of corduroy short-shorts, old tennis shoes and safari hat, and Reed and I looked up, eager for news that the boat was ready to go. “Reed, Thomas, do you two want to ride in the boat to the Marina?” my father asked us both. It was the coolest way to get there, and we both nodded with big grins. While everyone else would be in the car, the boat in tow, we would get to ride up in the boat, taking turns to control the steering wheel and pretending we were driving it down the highway. We had just turned nine, and riding in the boat on our own was a new testament to how old were were, practically young men it seemed. We were very excited. “Okay then, why don’t you two help me finish loading the coolers up in the boat,” my father said, glancing over at the coolers on the kitchen table.
My father thought Marty was weird – we all did, except for his parents, of course, though I’m not even certain about them – and I think he must have become quite self-conscious about it, as though Marty’s parents might start thinking that he was just as guilty as we two boys in all of our juvenile meanness. So he had taken special effort all weekend to try to get Marty to do things, join a hike, notice a particularly interesting rock, or go snorkeling. We hadn’t noticed it at the time, but Marty just never seemed to pay any attention to my father.
Now, in the living room, my father earnestly tried again. “Marty, do you want to ride with the boys up in the boat?” He couldn’t have been standing more than four feet from Marty, but Marty just sat there, making little gun noises with his tongue against the inside of his cheek, smashing this Indian into that cowboy. Reed and I hadn’t moved, both of us anxious to see if Marty would get to go, and we sat there, ourselves, waiting for Marty to respond. He didn’t.
My father tried again. “Marty? The boys are going to ride up in the boat on their own today. Would you like to go with them?” He stood there, looking down at the little boy. If he were the sort to take off his hat and scratch his head, he would have at this point, but he just stood there. I caught his eye, and couldn’t help but smirk, not quite giggle, but smirk. He almost smiled back, but kept his attention on little Marty, who was now in control of a mighty raid of Indians against one lone cowboy. “You know, we haven’t had enough ice cream for breakfast, have we Marty? I’d better put you in charge of all of the ice cream today.” At this, Marty’s Parent’s looked up from their respective books. They didn’t say anything, they just looked, brows furrowed in fresh confusion over the situation, and it seemed we could all feel the silence in the room as my father stared down attentively, trying to break through whatever magic kept this child from hearing him.
My mother, who had been busy throwing towels and shirts and whatever else into the duffel bags for the boat, came stomping up the hallway with a pair of walkie-talkies and addressed my father. “Fred, do we have batteries for these things, I don’t want them going out like last-” She stopped, apparently sensing the preoccupation in the room, and noticed my father looming over Marty. The Indians, at this point, had surrounded the lone cowboy, and one of them was throwing big marbles into the walls of a domino fortress he had escaped to.
“Marty…” my father whispered, this time leaning in, drawing out the name. Nothing… By now, none of us could believe it. Clearly the child was right there, able to hear all of this. He must be able to, right? But none of us spoke. Nobody wanted to break the moment, everyone too entranced by this oddity of physics and child psychology. I started to get up, thinking I ought to get his attention or something, but my father motioned with his hand to wait a moment, and I did. “Marty, maybe today I’ll let you wear my favorite hat.” He leaned over to the hat rack by the door, eyes still fixed on the boy, and pulled off a stiff, white-mesh, safari hat that had a little solar panel on the top of it with wires that ran down to a small, electric fan at the brim. It wasn’t just my father’s favorite hat; it was everyone’s favorite hat. It was the most marvelous of hats, so absurdly practical, so brashly unattractive, that it held a kind of chieftain wonderment, as though the bearer of such a hat must be, ostensibly, the most important person in the room.
The cowboy stuck just the tip of his gun out from behind the massive domino wall and fired a single, deadly shot, killing one of the many Indian raiders. The Indians let out a holler, while the little boy made quiet, persistent, “lu, lu, lu, lu…” noises, both scaring the cowboy back behind his fort’s wall.
My father started waving a little, first a hand, then an arm, then both arms, still holding the marvelous hat. The boy didn’t stir. Then my father marched in place. Nothing. Then he started singing, not loudly like in a parade, but like a kid’s tune with some made up melody. “Marty, Marty, marty, marty, marteeee!”
Reed and I started laughing with our mouthes shut, hands covering our faces, trying, oh, trying so hard, to keep the laughter in. Marty’s parents sat there, wide eyed, looking down at their quiet son, up at my mascaraing father, and at each other, waiting for a cue.
Marty sat, scratched his own head for a moment, and leaned in to the action before him. Two of the Indians made a rush, smashing against the less protected eastern wall of the domino fort. My father, now more cartoon than man, turned with a disciplined about-face, paused, pulled open the sliding glass door, and marched outside onto the stairway. Another about-face, hand upon door, and he pulled the sliding door shut. “Marty!” He seemed to shout, his big voice rattling the door. At this point, both of us boys were actively giggling. My mother couldn’t believe her eyes, and she was laughing too. Marty’s mother, neck craned over to see my father’s antics behind her, she lets out a nose-laugh that sounded like steam from a valve, and Marty’s father just shakes his head, smiling.
Finally, my father stopped. Whatever this was, it was serious, or, at least, it was real. Something kept that boy from hearing him. It couldn’t just be his voice, because everyone heard that, unless there was some specific tone or frequency that this boy’s ears couldn’t receive. And it couldn’t just be that Marty was distracted, because he was never that distracted, and even now his head popped up and he looked around incuriously to see everyone laughing, never once noticing my father moving wildly behind the glass door.
Head a little lower, my father came in, quietly, with no singing, and no marching, and gently shut the sliding door. He put his favorite hat back up on the hat rack. “Okay Marty, well, I’m going to get the boat loaded now.” Held firmly in Marty’s hand, the Cowboy hopped on his horse and started fleeing. The Indians hadn’t counted on him having a horse.
Marty’s father leaned in a bit from his chair. He raised an eyebrow. “Marty,” he cooed, gentle as the breeze. “Fred is talking to you.”
“Who?” Marty’s head popped up, as bright and as eager as a squirrel’s.
Laughter. Oh my goodness the laughter. Laughter from everyone, from Reed and me, so that we both rolled back onto the floor. Laughter from my mother who leaned in against a chair by her side, chest heaving, eyes squinted. Laughter from Marty’s parents who both fell back against their chairs, mouthes open, knees up in the air and feet stomping back down again. Laughter from my father, who gave a satisfied, if not ironic chuckle, as he reached over to support my mother. “Huh?” Marty repeated, his face red with embarrassment but his eyes unsure why. He dropped the fleeing cowboy. The Indians fell silent.
The rest of the day was spent reliving the moment, mostly by the observers. Marty’s parents thought it was a real gag, just the cutest damned phenomenon, and egged on my father to say all kinds of things to their little son, some of which he heard, much, to our enjoyment, that he didn’t. Reed and I kept trying to lower our voices, calling out “Marty, Marty, come to me…” like a mixture of my father and Count Dracula. Marty, in his usual way, would throw a tantrum and storm off. Things went back to their usual routine, and the joke, as jokes do, wore old and nostalgic within hours. In the late afternoon, my father led us boys on hikes, and took us snorkeling, and pointed out particular rocks, and Marty would eventually come out of his huff, and tag along, never quite hearing anything my father had to say.