Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Richard Riggins, Grade Four: Revisited

Richard Riggins had a little red robot that made his bed each morning and put his sneakers in neat rows in the bedroom closet. He also had a chimpanzee that played ping-pong with him in the basement.

Richard and the monkey liked the same programs on television, and whenever Richard laughed the chimp would bounce up and down, clap his hands, and expose his yellow teeth in a wide, happy smile.

Richard had received the chimpanzee from his father, who was an astronaut and traveled all over outer space in a rocket. Because his father was so busy, he did not live with Richard and his mother.

Richard's father would, though, sometimes come for a visit, arriving on each occasion in a helicopter that he piloted and landed in the parking lot of the Mormon Church across the street from Richard's house. Besides his work as an astronaut, Richard's father was also a famous scientist and archaeologist. He had once sent Richard some dinosaur bones. A strong, handsome man with a fine singing voice, Richard's father regularly sang with a band in a nightclub near the base where he lived with the other astronauts.

Richard's mother refused to acknowledge any of these things about the man who had fathered her only child.

Richard went to school at Thomas Edison Elementary. He was shy and small for his age, and had bright red hair that his mother cut with old sewing scissors. All of his clothing had once been the clothing of a cousin who was almost 20 years older than Richard. The other kids at school picked on Richard and said things about his mother, who was known to make scenes at the Piggly Wiggly and had written checks that were taped behind the counter there and at several other stores in town as well.

Richard never told any of his classmates or teachers about his father or his robot or his monkey.

At night, Richard would sit at his bedroom window in the dark, staring out across the neighborhood of small, low houses. Far in the distance he could see the town's water tower and the big sign above the 24-hour Conoco station near the highway. For some reason the water tower reminded him of a rocket ship, which reminded him of his father. He had determined that the next time he talked with his father he would ask for a talking bird for Christmas.

Richard's father would usually call late at night. Richard would have to tiptoe through the living room where his mother was often asleep in front of the television. Sometimes one of her cigarettes would still be smoldering in the ashtray next to the recliner, and Richard would quietly stub it out before proceeding to the kitchen to answer the phone. The ringing never seemed to wake up his mother.

His father's voice always sounded like it was coming from someplace far, far away, almost as if he were calling from his spaceship. Richard liked to imagine his father in his astronaut suit, turning cartwheels in the air as he chatted with his son on the telephone. His father would ask him about school, and when Richard told him that he was having a hard time his father would say, "It's okay. Things will get better." They would talk about the monkey and the robot, and Richard's father would laugh at the stories he told.

One night after it had snowed all day Richard's father called him from a tropical island where he was on a deep sea diving expedition. Richard told him that he wanted a talking bird for Christmas and his father had been silent for a moment.

"I think I might have just the bird for you," he said. "The one potential problem is that this bird speaks only Farsi, and you will have to teach it to speak English."

Richard said that he felt confident he could teach the bird to speak English.

His father asked him what words he would teach the bird, and Richard answered without hesitation.

"I will teach the bird," he said, "to say, 'I like you.'"


  1. Oh my -- this is told in wonderful voice, by a disembodied version of Richard who writes like an angel but still thinks like a young boy.

    Good, albeit sad, work

  2. well christ, just break my heart with a story, why don't you. and what a perfect picture to go with it.