An Excerpt from Chapter Seven:
“Gumby, Cheerios and Red T-shirts”
I’m walking with Ezra in Westwood—though if I had thought the plan through even a tiny bit more, I probably wouldn't be doing this at all. It's a warm spring evening. Ezra is eight, and we’re on our way to a store called Aahs!!, a gift shop near the UCLA campus. The store's name sounds like "Oz," as in the Wizard, but it's spelled A-A-H-S, with two exclamation marks for emphasis. As in "oohs and aahs," indicating, perhaps, that it's a place one might find overwhelming, or where you might come to a realization.
For Ezra, it will be the former; for me, the latter.
Aahs!! is a gift shop in the way that Las Vegas is a town—a novelty store with psychedelic Day-Glo posters in the back and Halloween costumes year-round and shelves piled high with whoopee cushions. I should have known that for Ezra to encounter all of those doodads in one place might trigger disaster.
At this point, he has shown a not yet unhealthy fascination with "The Simpsons", a sharp contrast to the Nickelodeon and Disney fare he has generally favored….Passing notice has escalated to intrigue, fascination, and finally something like obsession... The Simpsons—simple, bright, yellow, distinctive, ubiquitous—are natural objects for Ezra’s attention. Day and night, he spouts information, data, and questions about Bart and his compadres...
As a reward for good behavior, I have offered to take Ezra on a father-son shopping quest. The goal: procuring a small Simpsons toy.
"You can buy only one small thing," I keep reminding Ezra on the fifteen-minute drive. Oddly, despite a superhuman ability to remember birthdays and addresses, he can’t seem to hang on to simple directives from his dad. I test him: "Can you get something huge?"
"Noooo!" he says from the backseat, drawing out the word.
"Are you going to run around the store?"
"No!" he promises.
"Who are you going to stay with?"
"What if you don't listen?"
"Then we have to leave."
I glance at Ezra in the rearview mirror and smile at how easily he is charmed. I envision driving him home as he delights over a five-dollar Bart Simpson pen, or maybe a key chain.
I park the Camry on a quiet side street. Ezra is running already.
I call after him: "Stop! Slow down!"
Trouble is, at eight years old, Ezra has not learned to slow down. He has only two speeds: fast and asleep. I grab his hand, clutching it as we wait at the crosswalk for the light to turn, then hold tight as we traverse the four lanes. From the sidewalk, Ezra can see into the Aahs!! windows, with their lively, brightly colored displays blending oversize cartoon characters with mannequins in frilly lingerie and novelty T-shirts. Excited, Ezra attempts to move even faster, and I struggle to slow him down, gripping his hand as we slip inside the store.
In seconds I know that this is the best and worst place possible for an eight-year-old boy who is easily overstimulated by the toy shelf at Walgreens. Every aisle is a cornucopia of schlock: pink coffee mugs with protruding breasts, snow globes and joy buzzers and fake vomit. Ezra notices none of that, breaking free of my grasp to speed toward the back of the store, where, just next to the cash register, he discovers his holy grail: an entire Simpsons island, a bulging, seven-foot-tall mountain of Simpsons. I watch my son quickly size up the display as if he has just happened upon a truckload of ice-cream sandwiches: Half of him is overcome with joy; half is paralyzed by the quandary of where to begin.
Before he takes another step, I kneel down at his level and firmly grab his shoulders.
"What did I say?" I ask. "What can you buy?"
Suddenly it's as if the conversation we shared in the car wasn't minutes ago but rather sometime in the Pleistocene era. He keeps glancing away.
"Something big?" I ask.
"What are we getting?"
"Something small," he says evenly, quietly.
"Good," I say.
By then, though, it's too late. Amid the rubber action figures, the mugs, the T-shirts and chess sets, Ezra has spotted the object of his desire. His eyes—now as fully protruding as a Simpson's—are locked on the top shelf of the display. Pointing upward, Ezra begins to yell.
"The Homer!" he calls. "I want the Homer!"