Jolly was the word for four-year-old Joyce.
Chubby-yet-energetic were three more.
A bright, playful male child — despite the androgyny of his name — Joyce’s fascination with the sensory perceptions of life made it all the more appropriate a reference by his literary-minded parents, Lester and Mackenzie Sullivan. Each of them had wrestled with that Modernist Irish author’s sensual, quixotic prose as students (a necessary ordeal for many an aspiring writer) – in ultimate befuddlement. This was a commonality they discovered and lamented on their third date — the one where they both knew. After a light flirtation in the improv classes where they met (Mackenzie’s response to Lester asking her out a simple, “yes, and– ”), each detected something more serious and abiding that night; not only were they both going to write the Great American Novel, they were both going to assuage deep, aching senses of aloneness in their prose.
Instead they got married.
Joyce sniffed the air as he tottered across the pinewood kitchen floor, too absorbed in his senses to notice his mother standing by the counter-top slowly flipping through yellowed pages of old family recipes, teeth sinking into a ripe pear. Nor did he notice his father, seated slightly slumped, sipping cocoa, perusing the most recent issue of Smithsonian Museum Magazine, scribbling lines of verse onto a clean blue napkin. Neither Mackenzie nor Lester — each in his/her own world — noticed Joyce’s entrance either.
He had a way of sneaking up on them, presence unannounced until he was good and ready.
For now, a comforting mélange of scents demanded the child’s attention, smells already stamped indelibly in his heart as “kitchen smells” — allspice and nutmeg, wood polish, dish soap bubbles and the faint waxy fragrance of fresh fruit. Joyce could not name the sources, but he had it in his mind to learn names. To know what each and every scent meant. To understand.
Of course, there was a time when Lester and Mackenzie sought to understand it all too.
To read every classic, visit every gallery, apprehend every bon mot in flight. Instead, they discovered the herculean task of just understanding one another. Similar reading lists and overlapping Facebook networks served them little when the academic market dried up and they found themselves in a strange city, teaching at different community colleges. Unfamiliar streets and unfamiliar slang teased out atavistic, adolescent habits. Strangeness wedged itself cozily into bed between them, into every silence. Dropped literary references fell with heavy thuds. Each other’s sentences, they could no longer—
And when they tried to write, the words would not—
Each one silently blamed himself/herself.
Joyce stopped before the refrigerator.
He looked up, running his stubby pink digits across the white surface, thinking back to the beluga whale he had seen just inches away — through glass — at the marine park. That was one month ago. He had cried bitterly when Mackenzie explained to him that he couldn’t go swimming with the beast staring back into him with a single limpid black eye. But Joyce had dreamed of the captive whale every night since, swimming by its side, caressing its stark white back — rubbery and smooth to the touch.
For a moment, rubbing the side of the refrigerator brought Joyce great sadness, though he was not yet able to identify the emotion as such. Instead, he turned to his mother, and — distracted by a new sensory perception — asked, “Mamma! Whassat in your hand?”
Mackenzie started, startled. “Oh, Joyce baby, you scared Mommy! I thought you were still watching your cartoon…” She swallowed the sweet lump of fruit in her mouth.
“Nu-uh, it’s over now… so whassat in your hand?!”
“Oh this?” said Mackenzie, as she dangled the stringy mass of pulp by its stem. “Well… this is… just a pear core, dear.” She marveled that something so mundane could elicit such curiosity.
“Oh!” said Joyce, eyes wide and luminous. “What’s a pear core?”
Suddenly, Lester looked up from his magazine, and his eyes met his wife’s. Mackenzie stared back, a dim recollection of…something… bubbling up in concert with the shy, mischievous grin on Lester’s face.
“Well you see, Joyce,” said Lester, “a pear core… that’s… that’s a special magic… thing… that brings mommies and daddies together…”
Mackenzie, a small grin creeping across her own face now — like a caterpillar — picked up the thread, “–yes, you see, when two people come together, and decide they want to share their lives… they become a pair… like a pair of shoes, or a pair of eyes– ”
“–And there is always one thing,” continued Lester, “one special thing that forms the core of their relationship… that holds the two together… like those Charlie Brown magnets on the refrigerator there…”
“And that–” said Mackenzie.
“Yes, that…” said Lester.
“–is a pear-core.”
Joyce broke into giggles, entertained by this unexpected back-and-forth by his so-often-serious parents. Then he peered closer at the eaten-up fruit in his mother’s hands, which she had lowered to eye-level. Inside of it, there was something small — hard, black, and shiny — that reminded him of something else.
Something he couldn’t quite place…
“Are there… seeds… in your pear core?” he finally asked, in a softer, more steadied voice — the inchoate voice of five-through-seven, rather than two-through-four.
Mackenzie and Lester looked at one another again, meaningfully. “Oh, this is not our pear core Joyce… this… is just a piece of fruit… but yes… I think our pear core has many seeds.”
They said this, between themselves.
“So,” said Joyce, “what’s your pear core then?”
And Lester and Mackenzie looked at this strange creature they had created together, marveling at his strange questions, questions they never could have imagined a four year old asking. And they looked at each other. And their eyes shone brightly, transmitting back and forth the same ineffable message they shared on that third date, the one where they realized they had both read Joyce, but neither of them could understand him.
And they smiled.
Benjamin A. Friedman is from Northern New Jersey, the child of a Tai Chi-loving biophysicist and a Conservative Rabbi’s daughter, his personal religion as a child was dinosaurs and space aliens. He received his BA in English and Cinema Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, and his major interests include philosophy, social justice, the history of civilization…and of course paleontology and astrobiology.