The Dumbass Detector
Dinner, as with most things in the Jordan household, was a haphazard affair. And that was before the eating even started. Jay Jordan, Binny and Cassie’s father, was calling his three boisterous and bickering children to the table. It usually took at least two tries, and often three or four to eventually get all of the Jordan offspring in one spot. This evening was no exception.
“Kids. Dinner. Now. I won’t ask again.” Jay yelled, his eyes flashing behind wire-framed glasses, his shiny head poking through the kitchen doorway. Of course though, he would do just that. He often laughed at his own jokes, and the growing personal catalog of his less than effective parenting efforts was a never-ending source of humor. But despite an ability to laugh at his own futility, Jay still tried to sound convincing.
Zach Jordan, Jay’s oldest, was already sitting at the table during this latest plea. A skinny twelve-year-old with a mop of brown hair, a healthy smattering of freckles across his cheeks, and a seemingly endless collection of sarcastic t-shirts, Zach seemed to think his job was to point out inconsistencies and errors in other people’s thinking. “I’m already here. Why are you yelling at me to come to dinner?” Zach smiled his toothy, jaunty, sarcastic smile.
Jay’s brow furrowed with annoyance as he tended the grilled cheese sandwiches. “Zach, must you? You know I wasn’t talking to you.”
“How would I know that? You just yelled to ‘kids’, and last time I checked, I’m one of the kids.” Zach either didn’t notice his father’s growing annoyance or more likely was thoroughly enjoying it. Zach loved demonstrating his intellect by coming up with new and inventive ways to annoy those around him.
“As usual, you know what I meant. And also as usual, stop being a pain.”
Jay again made his way to the doorway to yell for the kids and just as he let out the first bellow, Binny rounded the corner into the kitchen.
Whether Binny was still irritated over Cassie’s theft of her mirror or annoyed at being yelled at by her father wasn’t clear. Needless to say, her sour mood had hardened and showed no signs of leaving anytime soon. “GEEEEEEEEZZZZZZZ!!!! I KNOW! I HEARD YOU!”
“Don’t yell at me, Binah Jordan.” Her father cautioned her. Using a child’s given name instead of their nickname was a tradition that parents all over the planet had adopted to demonstrate seriousness to their children. “I have no way of knowing you’re coming if you don’t respond the first three times I call you.”
“I was washing my hands,” Binny offered with a smug look on her face, her eye roll serving as punctuation to her excuse. But Jay missed it as he’d already moved on to his dinner ministrations.
As Jay brought a bowl of steamed cauliflower to the table, Cassie finally made her appearance, striding in as if there were no chance dinner would start until she made her grand entrance.
This inexcusable lateness wasn’t lost on Binny. “Where have you been?” Binny asked.
Cassie looked up at her sister and shrugged. “Dunno.”
“Well, I know what you were doing. You were in my room going through my stuff.” Binny said.
“No I wasn’t!” Cassie screeched. Cassie’s anger escalated especially quickly when confronted with criticism from her older siblings.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve done it either. I’ve been keeping track.” Binny raised her voice.
“I didn’t touch your stupid mirror!”
“You left it on the sidewalk. Someone could have stepped on it. YOU’RE! SO! RUDE!” Binny was yelling.
“Girls, stop the bickering. And eat your cauliflower.” Jay tried to end the argument.
“She took my mirror.” Binny complained.
“Binny, I mean it. I’m not interested. Eat your vegetables so I can give you your grilled cheese.” Jay said.
The kids served themselves. Binny took a bite. “It’s cold.”
“Ah shoot,” Jay collected the vegetables back into the serving bowl. “Sorry. Give me a second.” Jay put the serving dish filled with cauliflower into the microwave and added “you know kids, I could heat up your meal with my heat vision if I wanted to. I just choose not to.”
“You don’t have super powers.” Binny chided.
“Yes he does,” Cassie disagreed.
“Don’t be dumb.” Binny snapped.
“SHUT UP!” Cassie yelled.
“Binny, stop calling your sister dumb. And Cassie is absolutely correct. I do have super powers. I’m not sure why you don’t believe me. But I suppose it’s better that way, since I’m not supposed to use them unless I’m doing my job fighting crime.”
Zach piped up, “I thought you were an illustrator, not a super hero. Am I confused?” Zach’s eyebrows were raised as far as they would go in mock surprise.
Jay continued pedantically, “It’s true, I do draw for a living, but when called upon, I also fight crime. Where do you think I get my inspiration for drawing crimefighters? It’s hard leading a double life, but someone has to take on the responsibility of making the world a better place.”
Binny’s eyes rolled furiously.
BEEP. The cauliflower was hot again.
“While my responsibility is fighting crime,” he looked at Binny as if to emphasize his next words, “and keeping the peace,” Jay placed the serving bowl filled with steaming vegetables on the table, “your responsibility is to eat your vegetables.”
“I’m thirsty.” Cassie blurted through a mouthful of cauliflower. Her lips glistened with melted butter. Little white bits of cauliflower flew indiscriminately from her mouth.
Zach poured the last of the apple juice into his glass, looked at his thirsty youngest sister and gave her a half shrug and smile.
Cassie was about to about to explode at Zach ensuring a hailstorm of cauliflower confetti when Jay interceded, “We have more juice in the basement. If you can manage to chew your food with your mouth closed, I’ll go down and get some.”
“Hey Binny,” Zach offered at the exact moment his father disappeared from the kitchen.
“What?” she responded, pre-annoyed, knowing that whatever was coming next would be unpleasant.
“You’re a dumbass. And I can prove it scientifically.” Zach asserted.
“I can prove that you smell terrible.” Binny didn’t miss a beat.
“No seriously. I’ve been working on some dumbass detection equipment. It lights up whenever there’s a dumbass in the vicinity. And when you walk by it lights up like a Christmas tree.”
Binny thought for a second. “You’re too stupid to invent anything. Shut up.”
“Look, I’ve even tested the equipment on a group of dumbasses and a group of non-dumbasses. You always have to have a control group so that you know the machine isn’t getting false positives,” Zach explained condescendingly. “It was right one hundred percent of the time. So you see, I have incontrovertible proof that you are, in fact, a dumbass.”
Binny found Zach’s smile insufferable. “I HATE YOU!” Binny screamed just as Jay rounded the corner holding a big unopened jug of apple juice.
“Binny, stop yelling,” Jay snapped. “I cannot take even one more minute of this fighting.”
“The machine never lies.” Zach whispered to Binny with a look of sympathy on his face so fake Binny thought her head might actually explode, spreading bits of brain and bone and frustration all over the kitchen ceiling.
“He is being a total and complete jerk. I hate him. I hate him. My head is going to explode from how much I hate him! ” Binny screeched.
“The machine… never… lies…” Zach repeated, his head slowly shaking back and forth in false pity.
“You’re the one screaming, Binny, and my head is about to explode from that. Enough! The grilled cheese is ready. Did you guys finish your vegetables?” Jay asked no one in particular as he brought the sandwiches to the table.
Cassie immediately insisted, “Me first, me first, me first.” She grabbed a sandwich off the plate not waiting for Jay to give it to her.
“She always just takes whatever she wants.” Binny complained.
“Binny, I meant what I said. Enough.” Her father warned.
“She took my mirror.” Binny said.
“To be clear, Binny Jordan, it’s not your mirror. It’s a mirror I gave to your mother that you have made your own.”
Jay tried to change the subject as he distributed the rest of the sandwiches. “Did you finish your homework yet?” Jay asked Zach.
Through a mouthful of toasted bread and melted cheese, Zach responded with a muffled grunt that sounded somewhat affirmative.
Jay took it as a yes, and said, “I still honestly don’t understand how you get it done. You don’t appear to spend all that much time on it.”
The kids ignored their father’s comment and wolfed down their dinner.
“Where’s Mom?” Cassie asked.
Before Jay could answer Zach and Binny responded in unison “at work” accompanied by some pretty significant eye rolling.
Cassie added mopily, “She’s always at work.”
Jay frowned, distracted for a moment by the comment, and wearily sat down in an empty seat. That subject apparently was closed for now. The eating continued in silence. Briefly.
“Zach and Cassie are being jerks. Cassie keeps going in my room and stealing stuff. And Zach told me he invented a dumbass detector and that it proves that I’m a dumbass.”
Jay sighed with resignation, “Are you a dumbass, Binny?”
“No.” Binny said, her voice mostly confident.
“Then why do you care in the least what he says?”
Sensing he should offer an explanation, Zach said, “I didn’t say she was a dumbass, I just said that the detector went off.”
Binny exploded. “He’s lying! He did say those things. And he’s a huge jerk.”
“I’m not lying.” Zach insisted. Now he too was starting to get upset.
“Yes you are.” Binny insisted. Binny yearned for a world in which people followed the rules, and nothing made her angrier than lying.
“Binny please.” Jay begged her to calm down.
“I’m not lying, Binny,” and then after a pause and in a more conciliatory voice, “And the machine never lies.”
“I HATE YOU!” Binny screamed and stormed out of the kitchen.
“I’m done, can I be excused?” Zach asked, already out of his chair, shoving the last of his sandwich into his face.
Jay, resigned to the disaster the meal had turned into, shook his head in disbelief. Zach took that as a yes and escaped from the kitchen.
Jay rested his forehead on the table.
Cassie, seemingly oblivious, was munching her sandwich happily when she spied someone in the doorway. “Mommeeeee.”
Jay looked up at Julie Jordan, who had just arrived on the scene. Her sharply put together business clothes were in an almost identical state to when she’d left 12 hours earlier for the office. “Where is everyone?” Julie asked.
Jay put his head back down on the table with a groan.
Cassie punctuated the silence between her parents. “More grilled cheese please.”
Julie’s dark brown wavy hair framed her face with a more adult and more professional version of Cassie’s bouncy curls. She looked tired. The few tiny lines that had recently started to appear at the corners of her eyes were in full bloom this evening. The chaos of the house had subsided, but the toll of her endless day of meetings as a Vice President at a large local technology company was visible on her face.
Sometimes she thought that managing a team of 300 adults was roughly equal to the complexity and demands of raising 1/100th the number of children. But if there were a competition between her employees and her kids to see who could tire her out more quickly, her money was on the kids. At least the people that worked for her seemed generally satisfied with the attention they got. The kids never seemed to get enough.
Julie had adapted to getting pleasure from the tiniest moments and rituals that would fit into her cramped schedule. Each night it that ritual was a cup of Uji green tea. She’d discovered the tea on a business trip to Japan a few years earlier. The caffeine it contained was an exception to her generally caffeine-free existence. She never failed to fix herself a cup when she arrived home from work, and most nights her cup of tea made up the majority of her dinner.
Sipping from her mug, feeling fidgety, Julie wandered around the first floor of the Jordan house. Dinner had mercifully ended. Zach and Binny were upstairs in their rooms. Cassie and Jay were snuggled together watching E.T. in the family room with the lights lowered. Julie liked movies just fine, but the two hour commitment wasn’t often a possibility for her these days.
Jay’s responsibilities as a freelance illustrator left him plenty of time to introduce the kids to the canon of his childhood – super hero comic books, science fiction and fantasy TV shows, and of course – movies. Right now, the movie was getting intense. The government agents had taken over and E.T. was dying. Julie hadn’t seen the movie in over 30 years, but her memory was sharp. She peeked into the family room to share in the moment.
“Thanks for bothering to come home.” Binny’s sarcasm interrupted Julie’s brief moment of peace.
Julie spun around to face her daughter, wondering how long Binny had been standing behind her. “Of course I came home. How could I stay away from you sweetie?”
Binny wasn’t done. “Yeah sure. You seem to stay away from me just fine every day.” It wasn’t just Cassie’s misdeeds that Binny was writing down in her journal.
“I always come home when work is over baby. Can I have a hug?”
Julie felt the chill coming from her daughter. “What’s wrong honey?”
“What’ wrong? What’s wrong?” Binny was starting to bubble over in frustration. “Let’s see. How about the fact that Cassie is a thief and Zach is a liar? Is that a good start?” Binny’s arms were now firmly crossed in front of her chest. Binny stuck out her chin defiantly waiting for Julie’s response.
“It sucks being the middle kid. Doesn’t it.” Julie’s response was more of a statement than a question. “What happened? Tell me everything.”
Binny’s arms uncrossed and the stories of the afternoon and evening came spilling out. “And Daddy just ignored it all. Cassie didn’t get in trouble, and Zach just sat there with a stupid smile on his face. Dad acted like it was all my fault, but I didn’t do anything. They were being jerks!”
Julie’s face softened in sympathy for her daughter. “You’re father is doing his best honey. It’s hard to get dinner ready for you guys and keep track of who’s being a jerk to whom.”
“I’ve been keeping track – in my journal.” Binny answered.
“Binny, maybe instead of spending all that time writing down what your family has done wrong, you should spend time writing down all the times people show you how much they love you. I bet that would make your life a lot happier.”
“What would make my life happier is if you were there to help Dad when Cassie and Zach are being mean to me.” Binny raised her eyebrows and continued. “But you weren’t here to defend me.”
Binny’s words stung. Julie did her best not to show her daughter just how much. “Honey, don’t be so angry. They don’t give us a handbook, or a fairness scale, or mind-reading abilities when we become parents. They don’t really give us any tools at all. We’re just expected to figure it out.”
Binny wasn’t thrilled with this response and settled into a familiar gray sulk.
Julie continued, musing almost to herself. “Well, I suppose there is one tool they give us.”
“What’s that?” Binny asked, already knowing the answer would be deeply unsatisfying.
“Ice cream.” Julie answered with a bittersweet smile.
Slightly less angry now, Binny said almost to herself, “Well… but ice cream can’t solve every problem.”
“I know honey. I know.”
“They’re just gonna cut him all up.” Elliot said to the man from the government agency. The man responded “Would you like to spend some time alone with him?” The lines from the movie that Jay and Cassie were watching floated over to where Binny and Julie were standing in silence. Just listening.
Cassie turned to Jay on the couch and asked “Is he dead?”
Elliot, the boy from the movie responded. “Look at what they’ve done to you. I’m so sorry. You must be dead, ’cause I don’t know how to feel. I can’t feel anything anymore. You’ve gone someplace else now. I’ll believe in you all my life, every day. E.T., I love you.”
“I don’t understand. Why would they cut up E.T.?” Cassie asked.
Jay paused the movie, “For science honey. In the movie, the government wants to learn how E.T.’s body works.”
“So they can figure out his super powers? How he makes things fly?” Cassie wondered.
“Yeah,” Jay nodded slowly and seriously.
“But won’t that kill E.T.?”, Cassie worried, her eyes widening.
“Well, it looks like he’s already dead, darling.” Jay said, and then added as an afterthought, “But to be honest, the government would probably cut him all up even if he was alive. People aren’t often as gentle as they need to be with living things that are different and special.”
“Oh.” Cassie seemed to be thinking.
Jay unpaused the movie.
E.T.’s heart started beating and Cassie got excited. “He’s alive Daddy. E.T.’s alive.”
“I know baby. But that only happens in the movies. In real life, when the bad guys kill you trying to figure out what makes you tick, you don’t come back to life.”