Sometimes you control them, sometimes you can’t

By Brian Doyle | August 1, 2014


I am nine years old and in fourth grade. I am the youngest kid in the class, as usual. This is my parents’ fault, as an older boy explains gently. If your parents had timed their urges properly you would be 10 years old.

I think about my parents’ urges for a while. Their foremost urges are to read so many magazines and newspapers that we younger kids have to shovel paths through them on Saturdays, occasionally forgetting to clear a path for our youngest brother Tommy, so that he has sometimes been trapped for days at a time, eating grubs and drinking rainwater he collects in bottle caps, for we are not allowed to shovel paths on Sunday, and from Monday through Friday we are busy with school, unless you hear a plaintive cry that for a while you think is a squirrel with rickets, but then realize is Tommy, and we shovel him out, checking his pockets for grubs.

Our oldest brother has the urge for higher mathematics, which is why he is so thin, says our dad; mathematics is an attenuating pursuit, unlike theology, which is voluminous—ever see a painting of Thomas Aquinas? Trust me, there are no small paintings of Thomas Aquinas.

This is how our dad talks, with a new and riveting idea in every sentence.

Our sister has the urge to listen to folk music, which our dad says has to do with roundelay singing, which is disturbing, like Calvinism. She also has the urge to be a professional clown, but the main political parties are not hiring this year, says our dad, so she will have to wait on that one, or go to San Francisco, and work on her game in the minor leagues there.

I say to the older boy who explained about urges, How did your parents time their urges? And he says, Do you want a punch in the nose? And I say, No, thank you, as I was brought up to say by my parents, and he then goes on at great length about punching people, and I realize that he has a powerful urge to punch someone, and it probably will not matter much to him who it is, so I wait for a lull in the flow of his talk, and disengage politely, as I was taught to do in moments of public idiocy, and I make my way home, and start in on my theology homework, for I wish to gain a few pounds and no longer look like an exclamation point with spectacles, as our dad says, but then I hear a faint plaintive warble, as if a cricket was singing Hank Williams, and I recruit a brother to join me in digging a path for Tommy, who says he has been up there since Easter, but that he is okay, because he ate a praying mantis, which is a species of animal in which the female eats the head of the male after their urges are satisfied, which is a powerful metaphor for something we do not understand, says our dad, which is an excellent definition of the word theology.

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