"Ew-w-w-w-w! I not eatin' anyone's ear, especially not some dirty old elephant's," exclaimed Jeffy. "Where'd they get all those ears, anyway? Must take hundreds for a place like this."
We'd just stepped from the parking lot, through the main gates, into the massive fairgrounds that held our county's fair. Jeb made the comment about us all having an elephant ear some time while we were there. It was one of his favorites. I remember vaguely having one as a child when I was allowed to go with a school friend to a fair or carnival, something which was very rare for me growing up.
So, all the adults were laughing at Jeffy's comments while the rest of the crew was wondering why we thought eating an elephant's ear was at all funny.
"Okay, something tells me this is either a joke or these elephant ears are the name of something that's popular enough that you all know the truth," Elliott said, analyzing the possibilities as he went along. He was pretty logical in his thinking most of the time.
"Really?" asked AJ. "Great Grampa, do they have ear wax in 'em?"
While all the boys groaned in horror at the thought, we all tried our best to stay on our feet as the hilarity of it took over again.
But there was one of us that was able to delve deep to find an answer that would define that delicacy for all of us.
"Elephant ear: Any of several large-leaved plants of the arum family, such as a: taro, b: any of a genus (Alocasia) of tropical Asian perennial herbs cultivated as ornamentals." Tyler spieled it off like he had Webster's in front of him.
"It's a plant?" asked Denver, scrunching up his nose, probably to do with thinking vegetables were hardly a treat.
"Um, there's one more because I've been reading a new dictionary. Is it okay if I say it too? It might help," asked Tyler, looking at several of us, optimistically, for permission.
"Of course, honey," said his mom, "We're always fascinated by your knowledge."
"Oh, thank you, Mom. Um, okay. Um, my slang dictionary defines them as fried dough that is also known as fry dough, fry bread, fried bread, doughboys, elephant ears, scones, frying saucers, or buñuelos in the case of smaller pieces."
He looked at us as though to see if we felt he was correct.
"Exactly, my boy. You nailed it, however, let me add that it is usually covered in cinnamon sugar and maybe even butter. Yummy stuff, don'tcha know. Now whaddya think, boys?"
"Now you're talkin'," piped up Jeffy.
"M-m-m, I think I'd like to try that, Dad," said Denver.
The other boys quickly added their agreement, complete with several slurping noises and grunts.
"Sounds like a lot of fatty calories to me," said Elliot. "I don't think I'd . . ."
"They're very big," interrupted Joshua. "We could split one, Elliott."
"Oh, well, in that case, okay I guess." A nice rose color appeared rather instantly on Elliot's cheeks, followed closely by some red on his arm. "OW! Hey!"
"If you want to share food with your new boyfriend, it's okay with me! There must be lots of other people that would like to be my friend," said a very indignant Enrique, slowly walking away after he'd hit Elliot in the arm.
"Oops! Someone isn't too happy," observed AJ.
"Yeah, their first lover's quarrel," spouted Jeffy.
I nixed any more negative comments with a stern look at the boy.
Elliot walked quickly to catch up with his boyfriend, while Dan asked Ralph to stay with them. His concern was all the people that could come between us and the two boys, allowing them to be lost in the mob of people.
Of course, the crowds were massive. I was pretty sure that none of my boys had come across a place or event that had so many people all in one place. I was guessing that neither of Dan's kids had the same experience, especially considering their boundary restrictions. As it was, it was really a stretch for Michael to be there if he were still under those restrictions. Evidently, either he was okayed or his limitations were different than Jacob's had been while he was living at Dan's, or Enrique's, which were past him finally.
But I wasn't as concerned about my three boys in a crowd like that of the fair, and certainly not Lewis, who couldn't seem to get enough of all the action around his stroller, as I was of Tyler.
Tyler had lived his whole life in forced seclusion, never meeting more than a handful of people until he was rescued from his captivity only weeks before, and a few of them at the same time. He was pretty wide-eyed when we parked in the massive parking lot and walked for what seemed like hours to get to the main gates. All the kids were looking every which way, the excitement of seeing so many people being foremost on their minds. And we hadn't even got into the fairgrounds where all the people were.
For a while, it looked like Tyler was a bit tense, even desperate to understand what was invading his mind. I wasn't sure he could imagine that there were so many people in the world, certainly not his world yet.
Dan hung on to Denver's hand and Michael, Ralph, Joshua, Enrique, and my boys were all pretty much together. I was pushing the stroller with a very excited little boy in it. Tyler had been walking with the boys until we got closer to the gates. Then he moved to be right next to his mom, Linda Sue, almost attached to her side. I noticed Linda Sue smile and wrap her arm around his waist gently as they walked. He seemed to calm down, as though thinking - if his mom was okay with the situation, then he was as well.
Once we made it through the main gates, we all moved over to one side to decide what we would do first, how we'd divide into groups so that everyone had someone responsible with them at all times, and what our time schedule would allow, like for lunch and snacks. We also decided on a location in case someone got really separated.
"Look, guys," said Dan, "There's a first aid station right over there, very close to the entrance. If you get lost, immediately come here and we'll find you."
"Dan, I've got a better idea, if you don't mind an old man bargin' in," said Jeb. "I'll be a sittin' right over yonder on one of those three benches, just a bit farther than the first aid station. If'n one of these po-dunks gets lost, just have 'em come find me there. Then they won't be so scared. Whaddya think on that?"
"Sounds like a plan, Jeb. Thank you. Boys, you heard Jeb. Meet him at those benches. If he isn't there, just sit tight. He'll be back, maybe with an elephant ear!"
"Yummy! I get to be lost first!" shouted AJ.
The little pipsqueak.
"Now," Dan continued, "Do I have to mention not talking to strangers? Denver, what do you do if someone tries to take you away from me or looks like they might hurt you?"
"Oh, I know that one. I scream like my life depends on it, because it does, huh?" he recited right out of the manual of Dan's defensive rules.
"Very good, young man. The important thing is to do it and to scream something like, "He's not my dad!"
Even though we talked about dividing up and when to show up in front of Jeb for lunch, we all stayed pretty much together. Between Dan, as a sheriff's deputy, and Linda Sue's job for Children's Services, both being employed by the county, we had wrist bands that would let us on almost all the rides. The exhibits of animals, crafts and foods were free.
We decided to walk through the exhibits first. Jeb wanted to do that much with us all. He would be our guide for that part at least.
"Somehow, it doesn't seem like you'd gone to a county fair unless you took in all the wonderful contributions that expressed so many people's talents," observed Linda Sue.
"I agree wholeheartedly, little lady. You haven't experienced the fair until you've smelled the barns! Ha!" Jeb was in fine form that day.
"Ew-w-w-w," said most of the boys.
I was looking for a reaction from Tyler, but he just nodded his agreement, being the only one of us, besides maybe Jeb, who might have experienced that delightful, robust aroma of farm animals.
"Oh, Mom, they look just like my friends, the goats, and sheep over there. But they are so much prettier. I guess I didn't take very good care of my friends. But I tried to."
It didn't seem like Tyler was upset with himself. I think Linda Sue expressed best what he must have been feeling.
"Oh, honey, I'm sure you took care of them as well as you could. You didn't have the knowledge or the time to do for them what these children have been able to do for their friends."
"Yes, I didn't know what to do but feed them and keep them away from the old man. I did my best, and they seemed happy enough, most of the time."
"Tyler, they had ta be happy with you takin' care of them. Anyone would have been," said AJ.
Denver came up to Tyler and gave him a hug. When he let go and stepped back, he had tear streaks down his cheeks.
"Oh, Tyler, I'm just so glad you don't have to be sad and hurt anymore. I'm glad it's all over."
"Thank you, both of you. You make me happy. Being here is a happy time, you know. Being anywhere with my good friends is one of my most happy times."
His smile was contagious as all good smiles are.
Just then we heard a sneeze coming from below us, reminding us of our littlest one in his stroller.
"Pop, he's the closest to the ground and all the hay and dust. I sure hope he doesn't have any allergies," Elliott said.
"Oh, oh, Dad, if you pick him up while we're in here, I'll keep pushin' the stroller."
"Thank you, AJ. That's a great idea."
We ambled through the farm animals that were presented by various exhibiters, like the local 4H groups and individuals showing off their prize stock. They were kept so clean that the smells weren't as pungent as they would have been in a regular setting, I'm sure. Of course, any time one of the animals took care of the call of nature at least one of the boys would have to comment in some ridiculous way. That set the others off, of course. It wasn't usually wasted on Lewis either, who was always ready to laugh with the boys, though he rarely knew the reason.
And Lewis was funny as we visited each different variety of animal, each in separate enclosures. He pushed and squirmed like he wanted to get to each animal, whether to hug them or ride them, I'm not sure. Maybe he wanted to gum their noses with kisses. From the sounds of his tantrums at times, I'm sure he was telling me. I just couldn't understand him.
Next, we went into the crafts building, lined with display after display of all kinds of items that showed off the crafts and artistic talents of young and old.
"Denver, you really need ta enter somethin' into this part next year. You're at least as good as most of them and a lot better than a lot of 'em too," AJ said to encourage the young artist.
Denver immediately grasped onto Dan's arm and looked up with questioning eyes.
"I think it's a great idea, Denver. I think we need to get you a set of paints and brushes so you can do it right. What do you think?"
"Oh, I'd really, really like that, Dad. Thank you, thank you."
He spent the next hour walking with the cutest smile that spelled how proud he was to be who he was, a member of Dan's clan and loved by all of us.
We quickly went through the food exhibits. Jeffy was disappointed that we didn't get to help ourselves to the offerings, so we could judge them for ourselves.
"Only wanna help the judges out, ya know,' he said with a slightly devious, but hungry smile.
"Well, I'm ready to set a spell. I think I'll mosey on over ta those benches and make me comfy for the rest of our stay. I suggest someone go buy up a few of them there ears to split up. I'm ready for a little somethin'. Whaddya say, boys? My treat."
"I'm ready to eat an elephant's ear," stated AJ.
"AJ," started Elliott in correction mode, "I think they're called . . . Oh, never mind."
Enrique held onto Elliot's arm and smiled at his boyfriend. I assume they'd made up.
"They really are cute together, aren't they?" mentioned Joshua to me aside.
"Yes, I think they're good for each other," I answered.
Ralph, Dan, and Joshua left to buy some of the deep fried bread. When they came back and the aroma of their booty met up with the kids' noses, there were swoons of anticipation. When the treats were divided, and we were given permission by Jeb, to dive in, all at the same time, the moans carried to the next county's fair, I'm sure. You could hear the various stages of the boys' enjoyment of their new favorite confection echoing throughout the crowd that day.
"I'll have ta say, that was the best animal I've ever eaten," said Jeffy.
"Oh, brother!" said his oldest sibling.
Of course, the boys had to see what Lewis would do when he tasted the treat. I wasn't too thrilled with giving him anything that was fried or sugary, but allowed him a small bite of one without much cinnamon sugar and butter on it. It appeared to go down okay. He much preferred his biscuits though, which was fine with me.
Rides were the next order of business. We must have hit most all of them at least once. A few times we separated so the older boys could experience the more treacherous rides, ones that Denver wasn't tall enough for. I went with him and AJ, who insisted on accompanying his friend, along with Linda Sue, while Dan, Ralph and Joshua accompanied the four older daredevils.
Denver did do one or two of the kiddy rides but declined when he realized they were too childish for the likes of AJ, so they were for him too. There were plenty of other rides for them to enjoy. They goaded me onto a few of them. I'd hand off Lewis, back in his stroller, to Linda Sue for those occasions, until the boys asked Linda Sue to ride one with them. Nothing too exciting, though.
The older boys asked Tyler to join them on their choice of rides. That lasted for one ride. It was some kind of spinning whirly-gig and he came off of it sweaty and clammy. It was not his favorite thing to do. It looked like it was all he could do to stand up; he was so dizzy. Poor guy! Dan waited with him for the next ride, then asked him if he'd like to walk around with us and the littler kids. But he was happy to experience the boys' enjoyment from solid ground as they were whisked into the air in any number of different ways.
They did convince him to follow them into a maze of mirrors. He came out totally fascinated by the experience and seemed ready to go purchase several mirrors in order to experiment with their phenomena.
When the appointed time arrived, we all met up with Jeb for lunch and walked to the food court to take in some carnival foods. They had a vast array of choices, including some popular Asian foods like yakisoba noodles and even pad Thai. Elliot, Ralph, and Joshua were quick to pick a somewhat exotic meal that they hadn't tried before, the pad Thai. Enrique and Tyler were happy with a nice juicy hamburger and fries. AJ wanted fried shrimp, but it was too expensive for what they gave you. He would have been hungry in an hour. He settled on the meal that Enrique and Tyler had and was happy with it. The other two boys, Denver and Jeffy, decided on good ole corn dogs, two each, and curly fries.
Oh, the other child, Lewis, was happy with a jar of his baby food. Linda Sue was having a ball feeding him. To her, it was quite a treat to see him enjoy his meal.
The rest of us had hoagie sandwiches containing a variety of meats and veggies.
When the boys were done, they wanted to go back on the rides. I insisted they wait at least an hour. I explained that it's not like the swimming thing and cramps. It's like the spinning thing and enjoying your lunch coming back in the other direction. That convinced them to wait.
We spent some time at the carnival games, then let the kids do a few more rides. By then we were all pretty tuckered out and decided to call it a day. Denver and AJ said they weren't ready to go, but they were practically dragging by the time we made it to the vehicles.
I told my boys to thank Dan and Linda Sue for the wrist bands, giving them all of their rides for free. They also thanked Jeb who'd paid the entrance fees for all of us and for the elephant ears. AJ won a small stuffed toy and gave it to Lewis, who tried to see if its ear tasted anything like the elephant ear, he'd had a very small taste of earlier. By the time I'd rescued it, it was dripping with little boy drool.
He cried when I took it away, but he was conked out almost as soon as we started to drive away from the boys' first county fair. We saved the toy to give him when he was a bit bigger. It said for three plus kids right on the tag.
Enrique also won a small stuffed giraffe and presented it to Elliott. Elliott blushed and looked around, but I could tell that he was very touched by his boyfriend's generosity.
I did find out that, had we stayed, they ended the evening with fireworks on several of the nights, including the day we attended, but we were too tired to stick it out and hadn't brought coats or anything more for Lewis to eat.
With the exception of Lewis, the boys settled down and were in bed earlier than they usually went in the summer. Lewis had enjoyed a nice long nap, so he and I stayed up to read several stories before he gave up with a huge yawn, which set me off too.
Everyone slept in quite late except me and one little-wet boy. Again, I awoke to a gleaming smile between the bars of his prison cell. He gurgled and then told me of his plight, that he was soaking wet and why didn't I jump up and help him. Of course, we'd never really know if that's what he said but I was pretty convinced.
When Lewis was dry again and a happier baby boy, we lay back down on my bed with him sprawled out on my tummy. He would smile at me, then get all excited and stretch out his pudgy arms and legs. When he let them fall his head also came down into the curly hair on my chest, making him sneeze. We'd both laugh and he'd do it again. Soon, though, we tired of that and, when we were done with our conversations, drifted into that sleep that just overtakes you like a gift of relaxation.
"Pop, come here. I'm kinda worried about the little twerp."
I recognized Jeffy's voice in the muddled confusion as I tried to make sense of what he was saying and me trying to awaken fully.
"It's like he's just standing there, all quiet and starin'. It's kinda freaky."
"Who's what?" I moaned, finally able to open my eyes and turn to find Jeffy staring right into my eyes.
"Sorry, Pop. I was worried about AJ. Go see."
Jeffy lifted a sleeping Lewis off of me and laid him gently into his crib. The baby jerked a couple of times then settled down.
I walked to AJ's room and found the door about halfway open. He was never concerned about closing it lately. He had nothing to hide and everything to gain by being open to everyone; I guess.
At first glance, I couldn't see him in his bed, so I moved to see the other side of his room.
AJ was standing in front of his closet just staring at something. He didn't notice us but I asked Jeffy to go watch Lewis as I lightly knocked on the little guy's door.
"Dad," he said, turning toward me with tear streaks down from his red eyes, as though this had been going on for some time, "You never have ta knock. You can just come in."
"I know, AJ, but I didn't really want to interrupt something important."
He turned back to look into his closet. He was in his usual bedtime summer attire, nothing, but he had a pair of his favorite hero's underwear hanging limply in his hand at his side, as though he'd been thinking about dressing. That in itself was rather strange for the little nudist.
"AJ, may I ask what's going through your mind? You seem like you're a million miles away."
"Nu-uh. I'm right here in my room and lookin' . . . ." His voice trailed off to silence.
"Dad, lookit," he asked me, not turning his head.
I walked beside him and looked into his closet and the clothes hanging on one side and some kind of folded on the shelves on the other side. He had about three pair of jeans, two pair of khaki slacks, one hanging on a hook at the back of the closet, and his suit slacks and matching coat. He had a couple of nice dress shirts hanging on hangers and a couple of polos that were folded on one of the shelves. Beside them was his stack of three pairs of nice shorts and three pair of play shorts. His pajamas, both pair, were strewn on the floor. He kept his socks and underwear, t-shirts and such in his dresser. His three pairs of shoes were also on the floor covered up by his PJs.
All in all, I'd say he had just enough clothes to get by. I realized quickly that we'd have to do some shopping before school started so we didn't have to do laundry every other day.
"Um, son, what exactly should I be seeing? It looks pretty good for you. Things aren't spread all over. Everything looks very neat and tidy. Did you do all that?"
"Uh-huh," he said, nodding his head.
"Well, it looks very . . ."
"But don't you see, Dad? Don't you see all of it?"
"I see pretty much everything. I guess I . . ."
"It's just that . . . I'm so rich. Look at all the clothes I have. I got more clothes than I ever had before all at once. I . . . you . . ."
He turned, hugged me and bawled into my chest. I was totally confused. Then something dawned on me.
I remembered our first trip to Walmart the day he came home with me. It hadn't been that long ago. We bought most of what was in his closet, then added a few other items as time went on, and we needed something extra, like his suit for our adoption. I thought we'd done well enough, just getting the bare essentials, really.
He slowed down and looked up at me, a smile shining at me through the tears that pretty much covered his face. He brought the undies up and wiped away most of them, then blew his nose into the wet briefs.
"Dad, I never had what I have now. It's not just all these neat clothes. But when I looked in here this morning, I thought I was the richest guy on earth. I have everything I ever wanted and so much more. It reminded me of what I didn't have. Now, I've got stuff to wear that don't have any holes in 'em, and you and Jeffy, Elliot and Lewis, and o' course, Great Grampa. I got more friends than anyone ever, I bet. Even a judge, oh, ex-judge."
He hugged me tighter and buried his head again into me.
"And it's all because you decided to love me. You did this. You made me the richest guy ever, I think, huh?"
Again, he looked up and smiled one of his nicest.
I took him by his arms and knelt down in front of him. It put me about level with his belly button. He was getting so big, so quickly.
"AJ, I can't say it enough. You are my light, my sunshine, my joy. You gave me life when all I had was lost, taken from me. You gave me hope for a life with meaning again, that turned out to be something most people only get to dream of. No, you may be rich, my son, but you have shared more of your inner wealth, your true treasure, your love with so many people, besides just our family. I can never get enough of you, nor can I ever understand how I deserved such a wonderful, beautiful, loving son to come into my life."
He actually giggled.
"I just thought, like Jeffy'd say, 'Back atcha!' Ha!"
Then he pushed me back until I fell on my butt. He waited for one second for me to straighten out my legs so I could get up, then he sat in my lap.
"Well, isn't this comfortable," I said, laughing. "For you, maybe."
He laughed too.
"Yeah. I like it."
He turned into me again and we hugged each other.
"What are you going to do now, my little pipsqueak?"
"Mm-m-m. Let's see. First, I'm gonna sit here on ya for a few minutes. Hmm. Oh, then I need to get dressed so's I can go pick blueberries. Yeah."
He lay very contented against me, high enough that his head rested on my shoulder. I knew I couldn't last very long in that position. My back would give out and I'd lose all feeling in my posterior before those minutes drug on and on. And if I got a leg cramp – well, I didn't even want to think about that.
But I had him where I wanted him, in my arms. It wouldn't happen as much anymore, not if he kept growing as he seemed to be. I wanted to enjoy him for a while longer as a little boy . . . my little boy. I just hoped he'd never tire of our cuddling, no matter what form it took, though a chair would have been nice about then.
"What are you thinkin' about, Dad?"
"About how my legs were going to atrophy in about two minutes, and I'd be ever confined to a wheelchair."
"Well, you should get a trophy, I think. You're that good a dad, ya know."
"Ha ha ha, thanks, you little po-dunk. I love you too."
"How come you're gonna need a wheelchair?"
"See, atrophy really means . . . Never mind. Let's just enjoy the moment, our moment."
About two minutes went by when I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye, in the doorway. I also heard a familiar grunt.
We both turned and saw Lewis' head and shoulders sticking out of the opening about halfway up the door, about doorknob level. He gave us a quick smile then turned to look behind him and grunted a very uncomfortable grunt. He quickly disappeared as AJ and I were both laughing at that sight, trying to imagine him levitating off the floor behind AJ's door. Then Jeffy walked into the room holding our little mite and smiling his best devious smile.
"Wow, Jeffy. It really looked like he was floatin'. That was so cool," said AJ, turning in my lap to look up at them.
More like grinding into my lap.
"AJ, you look pretty silly sittin' on Pop all naked and stuff. What was goin' on anyway?"
"Um, I just saw all those clothes in my very own closet, in my very own room, and thought about how rich I was to have all this and Dad and you and everybody. I guess I got a little weird, huh, Dad?"
I nodded a bit, then hugged him again.
Jeffy looked like he was going to make some wise-ass remark, then thought for a moment and, darned if a tear didn't roll out of one of his eyes.
"Wow, AJ, you sure know how to peg one. I never thought about it like that, well, not since the week I got out and all that."
Lewis was trying his darnedest to push away from Jeffy so he could fall into AJ's arms.
"Lewis, quit it! I'm gonna drop you!"
Grunt! Whine! Push!
"Okay, okay! Jeesh!"
He handed him down to AJ, increasing the pressure on my legs by 25 pounds. Then Lewis turned and gave Jeffy a smile like he'd won.
"Pop, are you sure he's only seven months old? He acts like he's already a little pipsqueak in the making."
"Good observation, Jeffy. He does act older and certainly stronger. I think it's due to all of you boys manhandling him all the time. You expect things out of him that a seven, or almost an eight-month-old shouldn't know how to do yet."
"Yeah, stuff we're still tryin' ta teach AJ ta do, huh?" he said, laughing.
"I'M HO-O-ME!" came the cry from the hallway. Elliott was back from his morning ride.
"We're in my ro-o-om!" shouted AJ, making the other three of us jump and Lewis reach out to Jeffy to get away from the loud noise.
"Oh, now you want me, huh? What a little poop."
"What are you guys up to?" asked Elliot coming into AJ's pink and purple sanctuary. "AJ, you look very silly sitting on Pop and naked. Are you going to spend all day in the nude?"
"Yeah! Can I, Dad?" he asked, turning to me, grinding his sharp little butt into my palsied legs.
"No! Were you thinking of going over to your great grampa's without a stitch on?"
"Uh-huh!" he said, smiling at me, hopefully.
"And we now have neighbors that can see you picking those berries, to say nothing of a sunburn on your toosh," I reminded him, poking him so he knew quickly what his toosh was.
"Oh my God, Pop, I can't believe this. Our yard is bad enough," said Elliott.
"Why are you so all of a sudden worried about him being naked?"
"Um, well, because what if I wanted to ask someone . . ."
"Hi, everyone," said Enrique, coming into the room as well.
"Hi, Enrique," greeted AJ. "I'm naked and get to stay that way all day. Elliott asked Dad already."
Need I say, AJ did not get his wish, at least for the whole day?
Thanks again to RCN for his editing wizardry. It makes for a smoother read.
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar