We went to the playground yesterday. As soon as I'd set him down, Charlie spied a small group of children squatting in the dirt and shambled off eagerly to dig with them. I followed at a respectful distance and stationed myself discreetly behind a convenient arborvitae, willing to let him make his own social overtures but ready to spring like a Merrell-wearing panther should one of the other kids attempt to shake him down for his milk money.
I didn't stay long in hiding. One of the children found me, as it turns out, creeping around the bush to tell me, "We killed a worm." I inferred they'd done so accidentally, jabbing into the dirt with their shovels, so I walked over to inspect the crime scene and reassure them that the worm felt no pain, that it had gone to a far better place, that it had not, in fact, left behind a grieving family and an unhealable wound in its subterranean community.
Sure enough, someone had neatly bifurcated an earthworm whose two halves were still independently writhing. Not wanting the children to be upset any further, I scooped up both halves with a dried leaf and walked the worm over to the fence, speaking a few solemn words over its remains as it peacefully crossed the bar.
"Let's find another one!" I heard one of the children say. When I turned back, they were industriously prospecting for another victim. It had been, I saw, no accident. (Charlie, blameless in the carnage, happily filled the back of a dump truck with dirt, teaspoon by plastic teaspoon.) "I wanna squish this one," another kid said, trying to wrest the shovel out of his friend's hand.
"Wait, wait," I said, being the only adult in the immediate vicinity. "Don't squish worms! It's not friendly."
Right. Savagely chopping up invertebrates for the pure bloodthirsty thrill of it isn't friendly. Very persuasive, Julie.
Trying to salvage some tattered scraps of moral force, I asked the chief vivisectionist, "Do you have a dog or a cat at home?"
"Yes," he said, stamping his cowboy boot in impatience to get back to business. "A dog."
"Well, how would you feel if someone squished your dog?" Here we go, I thought. Reasonable. Low-key. Appeal to his natural empathy.
"Happy," he said. And he smiled and went back to the worm.
"How old are you?" I asked him, eager both to interrupt his work and to assure myself that Charlie wasn't going to hit this phase before I'd had time to find a competent local therapist.
"Four," he said. His henchman held up four fingers to show that he, too, was four. "I'm free," said another boy, who'd been occupying himself innocently with a plastic backhoe. Charlie merely waved his spoon and said, "'Poon." For the moment, I felt safe.
But I wasn't. The second kid, the henchman, confided, "We say bad words on the bus."
"Oh, do you," I asked without a question mark, frostily, distant but polite, considering a dive back into the arborvitae.
"Yeah. We say potty words. Like pee."
His friend in the cowboy boots giggled.
"And poop," he continued, grinning widely. The free-year-old laughed, too.
"And wiener," he happily caroled.
The cowboy then piped up. "And I say fucking bitch!"
And I thought, Holy shit. And picked up Charlie, spoon and all, and headed straight for the gate. After all, there's only so much worm-killing this fucking bitch can take.