Phylogeny Recapitulates Ontogeny

phylogeny_0002Originally published in The Shore alongside such fine contributors as Pasha Malla and Jim Ruland.

One afternoon last spring Chris had to flex and twitch his groin muscles to prevent urine from spurting out as he ran home from school. He lived in a neighborhood of identical beige houses. It was difficult to tell them apart. In his urgency he charged into a house thinking it was the one he lived in.

Mrs. Kirchner was sitting on her white leather couch talking on the phone. There was no white leather couch in his living room. There was no Mrs. Kirchner in his living room. He had never been inside his neighbor’s house before. He was so shocked he peed his pants in her entryway further offing her already off-white carpet.

In his housing development Halloween served a practical purpose: The decorations helped to differentiate one beige stucco home from another. During the rest of the year Chris would walk up to his neighbor’s house thinking it was his own. But the cardboard goblin in the window allowed Chris to enter his front door with confidence. He didn’t see his mother but he heard the subterranean throb of the washing machine.

How can you describe the smell of dryer steam? It’s machined freshness like a factory in bloom or baby robots sleeping in grasses moist with morning dew. It is a fresh baked pie filled with white envelopes instead of fruit.

“How was school?” she asked while rolling the tops of two of Chris’s striped athletic socks into a pair.

School had been fine and he told her so.

Every year his mother made Chris a Halloween costume. When he was in kindergarten she had dressed him as a primordial chordate. He blew bubbles through a flap in the costume’s vinyl skin to demonstrate the pharyngeal slits that allow for gas exchange. With each passing year she had disguised him as a more complex organism. He had been a hagfish, a lungfish and a series of extinct reptiles. She had dressed him as a tree-dwelling insectivorous rat-like mammal. That was the year older boys had taken his bag of candy. The monkey suit was the first time he was dressed as anything anyone had actually heard of. She enjoyed the compliments he received last year on his caveman costume. She thought experiencing evolution first hand might encourage a desire for self-improvement in her son. He needed practice at rising to the top so that he would be inspired to seek promotions in the work place. Chris appreciated the work his mother put into his costumes but this year he didn’t want to dress up. All afternoon he had been planning to say “I don’t think I’m going to wear a costume.”

“I don’t think I’m going to wear a costume,” he said. A shiver ran along his spine as he realized his own eerie ability to predict the future.

“But Chris you always look so darling. Aren’t you going trick or treating at all?”

“I think I’m going to a party at Jason’s house.”

He tried to use his fortune telling skills to predict a scandalous game of spin the bottle at Jason’s party.

“Well, if that’s what you think is best.” She tried not to look disappointed. She handed him a folded stack of pants and Chris pounded up the stairs to his room.

After he was gone his mother bent down on one knee and opened a cabinet door. She pulled out a papier-mâché cranial frontal lobe that she had designed to emphasize the enormity of the human brain and two opposable thumbs that rotated far beyond the usual range. She tossed them into the wastebasket on top of the piles of purple lint. She abandoned her plans to strap a metal rod to Chris’s back to change his slouching shoulders into the upright posture that defines the human species. Chris had found his own way to dress up as a human without any help from her.

She would make him a costume next year. She enjoyed the sewing and gluing and painting. There would come a time later when he would want to dress up again.

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