We were sitting in the den, my wife and I, winding down at the end of the day. We were both exhausted, but her maternal instincts were still sharp enough to detect a faint sound of sniffling from upstairs that escaped my ears, like a high-pitched whine only a dog can hear.
“Somebody’s crying,” she said.
“Is one of the kids sick?”
“No–they’re just getting too whooped up about Christmas. They’ve been at each other all day.”
“I’ll take care of it,” I said. “I know you want to watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’”
“There’s no way the patient can survive another denture adhesive commercial!”
“Thanks,” she said as I kissed her forehead.
I trudged upstairs and stuck my head in the boys’ room.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“No,” snapped Scooter, my 12 year-old.
“He’s being a jerk!” said Skipper, my 10 year-old.
“You’re just a big baby,” Scooter snapped back at him.
“And you’re a stupid doody-head,” Skipper said through tears.
“What’s this all about?” I asked in my most mature and concerned tone of voice. Probably something really important, like a Hot Wheels car.
Skipper and Scooter, in happier times.
“Scooter says we’re not gonna have a Merry Christmas!” Skipper said.
“Scoots–is that true?” I asked.
“That’s what my social studies teacher told us.”
“The one with the big loopy earrings who’s had a Hillary for President bumper sticker on her Prius since you were in kindergarten?” I asked.
“Right–Ms. Mangel-Wurzel,” Skipper said. A hyphen–figures.
“Why does she say that?”
“She says now that Donald Trump’s president lots of people will lose their jobs and be thrown out of their homes.”
“Well, she may be right about that,” I said.
“And she says it’s going to go on for a long time!”
I sat down on his bed, put my arm around his shoulders, and looked him squarely in the eye. He was young, but I had to level with him. “I certainly hope so,” I said.
They were both silent for a moment, then Skipper spoke. “You do?”
“Sure,” I said. “Do you know what a moderately famous economist once said?”
“What’s an economist?” Skip asked.
“An economist is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” I replied. “Anyway, Herbert Stein once said that all economic news is good for some people, and bad for others. Your father . . .”
“I thought you were our father,” Scooter interjected.
“I am–I was just talking in the third person. Your father’s a bankruptcy lawyer. Do you know what bankruptcy is?”
They both shook their heads. “Well,” I continued, “when a company runs out of money, it can’t pay other companies. So it goes to court, and the judge tells everybody that they’re not going to get all their money back.”
“So if you and mom go bankrupt, we don’t get our allowance?” Skipper asked.
“That’s how it would work, but we’re not going bankrupt. As a matter of fact, Dad–that’s me again–is going to have a pretty good year. Take a look at this bodaciously tricked-out watch I bought myself today!”
“Cool!” Scooter exclaimed. “What are all those dials?”
“Well,” I said as I held the watch up to their night light, “this dial tells me what time it is here, and the other one shows what time it is in Singapore.”
“Why do you care what time it is there?” Skip asked.
“I don’t, but it came standard.”
“What’s that little counter in the middle?” Scooter asked.
“That keeps track of all the babies my favorite pro athletes have by their girlfriends,” I said. “See–it has five-figure capability.”
“How much did that cost?” Skipper asked in amazement.
“You don’t need to know,” I said, “but it was a lot. I got a big retainer today from a company that’s going into bankruptcy.”
“A retainer?” Scooter asked. “You mean like the one I had to wear last year?”
“No, Scoots. A different kind of retainer. It’s a big chunk of money I get when a company goes into bankruptcy.”
The boys looked puzzled. “I thought bankruptcy was for people who didn’t have any money.” Skipper said.
“Well, not exactly. It takes a lot of money to go broke,” I said, hoping to teach them an important lesson about thrift. “You wouldn’t want daddy to work for free, would you?”
Scooter thought about this for a minute. “You make us rake leaves for free.”
“Yes, but you get the benefit of jumping in the pile when you’re through!” That seemed to satisfy him. “Now that I have that big retainer, it should be a Merry Christmas after all!”
“Gosh,” Skipper said with a serious tone that seemed out of place coming from someone wearing SpongeBob SquarePants pajamas. “So does that mean we’re not going to have”–he hesitated a minute, as if trying to recollect a difficult concept–“fascism in America?”
“Where did you get that idea?” I asked gravely.
“Ms. Mangel-Wurzel said that when you have a big depression next you might get fascism.”
His face took on an overcast aspect, like a winter sunset. “Skip, I’m not sure fascism means what she thinks it means.”
“For a lot of people, ‘fascism’ just means something they disagree with or don’t like. The word comes from a story about sticks.”
“Tell it to us!” Scooter said. Anything to delay bedtime.
“Okay. Once upon a time there was father in Italy who had five sons. And the sons were always fighting, like you two. So one day he’d had enough, just as one day I’ll crack down on you knuckleheads.” As I said this, I gave Skipper a noogie, or noogia, in Italian.
“Stop it!” he screamed, a bit excessively I thought.
“So what did the father do?” Scooter asked.
“He said to his sons ‘I want each one of you to go get me a stick and bring it back here.’ The sons obeyed, and brought their sticks back to their father. The father says ‘Okay, somebody give me his stick,’ and one of the boys gave his father his stick. The father took the stick and easily broke it in two.”
“So is he ‘out’ after his stick is broken?” Skipper asked.
“Not quite,” I said. “Then the father says ‘Okay, everybody else give me your sticks.’ They obeyed, and he took the four sticks and tied them together into what is known as a ‘fasces.’ Then the father said, ‘Okay, you mooks–let’s see one of you break that.‘ And they all took a turn, and none of them could break it. ‘What’s the lesson?’ the father asked them.’ Any idea?”
“That you can break one stick easier than four?” Scooter said tentatively.
“Right. If you ‘stick’ together, then you’re stronger than just one of you alone. So stop fighting, okay? Just remember–‘Stronger Together!’”
They were silent for a moment, then Scooter spoke. “But that’s the bumper sticker Ms. Mangel-Wurzel has on her car.”
“And that’s what makes this country great. Anybody can be a fascist–all you have to do is get together with your friends!”
They looked over my shoulder towards the doorway. I got the sense–don’t ask me how I know these things–that their mother had arrived on the scene to inject a note of revisionism into my little history lesson. Me–who got a 730 on his SAT History Achievement Test!
“Mom, we’re not going to fight anymore!” Scooter said with a level of energy he typically displays only after he’s consumed chocolate cereal for breakfast.
“Yeah–we’re going to tell Ms. Mangel-Wurzel that fascists are cool and if she bands together with her friends Donald Trump can’t break her!” Skipper added.
My wife gave me the gimlet eye. “You realize,” she said, “they don’t get their report cards for another week, don’t you?”