Until the February of his eleventh year, Joseph Cohen felt an inordinate kind of sympathy for all earthly things he encountered, even—and in some moods, especially—for inanimate objects.
His parents claimed to have spotted this softness in him since infancy, in the way he tended to his Tickle-Me-Elmo with a eerie kind of bodily respect, shaking hands with and tucking under covers what most of his peers were gnawing bald and dismembering. In each automated tickle-induced cackle Joseph heard real vitality, and even if he could’ve plunged into Elmo’s innards to find a black plastic box instead of a warm beating heart, he wouldn’t have been convinced otherwise. There was a dignity in everything, he sensed—in every prong of every fork, every limb of every creature.
The Elmo tales were the stuff of parental myth, inscrutable baby behavior interpreted optimistically. But the earliest incident that might reasonably be associated with a real Joseph with agency, an actual person and not a bundle of plump limbs, was his discovery of the bluebird, sometime between ages three and four. While crawling around in search for a stray tennis ball, he found among the rotting crab apples a small broken bluebird. To the best of Joseph’s deductive abilities, which were at this point already pretty keen, it seemed to have fallen flightless from the nest perched on a branch overhead. Digging with the help of his mother’s firm hand a small grave, he then lowered the bird into it (she forced him to use the trowel, though Joseph offered first his two pious hands) and covered it with fistfuls of mint, which grew rampant along the periphery of their property, and then with a few strings of honeysuckle that he’d plucked while leaning way over the fence, its pickets embedding themselves in his belly as he plucked, and leaned more, and plucked more, until his toes finally lost contact with the grass.
If not for his mother’s aid, hoisting him off and returning his feet to the grass, he might’ve hung there forever, impaled like a martyr for his cause: to restore the dignity of a bird already in the early stages of decomposition. Possessed of a beautiful vantage point from the back patio and an irreverent attitude towards everything his child found deathly serious, Mr. Cohen immortalized that moment in Kodak disposable: young Joseph in spiritual and physical agony, clutching at distant flowers while balanced upon a white picket fulcrum. For years you could see it enshrined on the Cohen refrigerator, until Mrs. Cohen, having finally come to terms with certain irreversible changes in her son, swapped it out for his eighth grade school portrait, unwittingly replacing one spiritual agony with another.
It was not the humanoid figure of the Elmo, nor the recognizable vitality of the bird, but something much more abstract that tethered him emotionally to these things, to every existing thing. When, a few weeks after the bluebird, he peed in his pants in the hazy nightmare of an afternoon nap, he lay weeping in the bathroom for two hours and seventeen minutes (Mr. Cohen timed it), not because he was groundlessly sad in the traditional toddler fashion, or ashamed by his incontinence, but because he could still see, peeking out of the garbage can, a perfectly noble pair of underwear, with small teal and purple cars racing along the seams, polluted now by his own pale yellow cloud. What plagued Joseph was not some kind of early onset materialism, but rather a painfully elevated awareness, a way of ascribing some small glowing pitiable soul to each and every object he encountered.
And to everything with a soul he then ascribed imagined goals: foods wanted to be eaten, toys wanted to be played with, underwear wanted to be worn; they would be disappointed if treated otherwise, and he saw it as his task to tend to all of them. Unpopular foods he felt bad for, and went out of his way to eat. (He devoured even the limpest stalks of cauliflower and broccoli with saintly fervor.) Toys he handled with an unimaginable magnanimity, giving each one its due, even the misshapen leper of a Gumby figurine that his classmates loved to toss out the window of the second-floor math classroom. (Joseph dutifully retrieved it at recess, every single time.) When taken to the nursery on his fifth birthday and encouraged to whisk one cactus away from this glass house and onto their kitchen windowsill, he labored, pushing his glasses up his nose with twitchy fingers, pacing its aisles, thinking that the selection of any one thorny friend would slight every other.
He ended up picking none. His mother rubbed his left shoulder in a way that was probably meant to be meaningful and his father drove them back home in silence.
It is perhaps worth noting that theirs was not at all a religious family. Joseph’s peculiarities stemmed not from godliness, at least not in any kind of organized way, but a kind of over-love, an imbalance of the imagination. He thought everything could think and feel the way he did, and even as he begun to ascend the school science curriculum, even as his ambitious fifth grade biology teacher tried to teach them what it really was to be alive and conscious and he saw that his overactive conscience didn’t align with science, he still could not suppress his imagination. He couldn’t help but animate everything.
Whatever it was, this all made school very difficult for Joseph. Close friends eluded him; his abiding love of everything left him little time for any particular people. And he knew they didn’t understand him—though not in the archetypal self-proclaimed angst of most preteens—because they simply could not grasp his mystic motives. He wore always on his broad forehead a faint shininess, a nervous slickness, which did not help his cause. His eyes were a very pale and vulnerable green, like the inner rind of a broken sapling. He wore heavy sweaters and shorts until winter, then corduroys, always corduroys, the same pair for a week on end, rubbing his hands along their grooved knees whenever nervous, eroding their furrows with every small moral crisis. One fateful week of fifth grade his science teacher dedicated fully to endangered species and the threat of extinction. By Thursday, when they got to Bengal tigers, he had completely frayed away the last fibers and had begun to rub skin raw.
That afternoon he returned and went immediately to the refrigerator.
“Hi, Mom, hi I am back! I’m going to take the cereal out now. Going to finish it. Mom?”
He didn’t wait for a response. Wasting food, of course, was a most abominable sin. If, after a particularly ambitious dessert, he woke up and breakfast proved too much for him, the three-quarters-eaten bowl of cereal would be placed on the refrigerator’s second shelf, which Mrs. Cohen always left vacant for his leftovers, cooling there until his return from school, at which point he would spoon its contents—by now a little grayer and sludgier—into his mouth, serenely, as though repenting for the sins of the unhungry morning.
“Hello Joseph. I got you something,” she said, insinuating a surprise in that special parental way.
“Really? No. What is it? What did you get me?” Gifts worried him. But they at least spared him from the terror of making his own decisions. So he managed a smile, letting slip a blob of waterlogged cornflake from its corner.
“You’ll see. Your father is bringing it back with him after work today,” she said, and plucked from the fruit bowl a perfectly ripe banana, knowing full well that her son the martyr would later redeem the brown-black overripe ones that no one else would bother with. She went upstairs and he pored over the newspaper, slow tigers still tracking through his conscience.
When, finally, Mr. Cohen arrived, he hoisted a brown paper package, tall and rectangular, and very obviously expensive.
“Come with me, buddy,” he said, lurching through the kitchen, the package looming up to obscure his face. It was a kind of skyscraper and Joseph marveled at its size, and followed his faceless father cautiously up the stairs and into his small bedroom. Mr. Cohen heaved and let down the package with a sigh.
“Open it up,” Mrs. Cohen said, and beamed.
Joseph first diagnostically tapped the package’s surface and sides: a thin clink (glass surface), a dull clunk (wooden frame). He unwrapped it with a method, finding where the tape was fastened and peeling it back, then began tearing away the brown strips in uniform size. With each strip he revealed, behind the glass, a new row of butterflies mounted on pins, their names in delicate typeface. Some, like the monarch and the painted lady, he recognized from the garden of his books. But he was seized by a fierce urge to know them all. Knowing was a kind of love too. Before doing so, he had to clear his conscience.
“Are they—were they killed? To make this thing?”
“No, no, no. They died natural deaths. Joseph, nobody killed them. They died of old age,” said his mother, smoothing the locks over his sweaty forehead newly agleam, spending the next five minutes convincing him that they had all been found dead. Joseph, smart enough to be suspicious but desiring moral comfort over all else, imagined fields of fallen butterflies, with intrepid collectors coming to harvest them, to give them a decent resting place in some curious boy’s room. He sat cross-legged, staring.
“Look at it later. Let’s hang this thing up,” Mr. Cohen said, hammering one sound nail into the wall, and hoisting the frame up.
“No—I want it over there—”
“Over—here,” Joseph said, nudging his way in between the frame and wall, adjusting himself what his father could do better.
“But it’s crooked now make it straight fix it—”
“—it’s not stable give me a second—”
“Joe get out of the way.”
“But I want to see the—”
And from his father’s fingers the frame fell hard against a desk’s corner, shattering not only the glass surface but the conceit of Joseph’s entire life. Desk broke wood and glass, wood and glass broke butterfly bodies, leaving uncountable debris, too many things to sort out, too many to love, and despite his mother’s feverish warnings Joseph sat down in these gorgeous new ruins, picking apart the wings and antennae, the shards and shreds of paper and glass. Then he stood up and wiped his hands on his corduroys.
What he had never accounted for, what lurked always on the edges of his sunny perspective and now had finally made a strident entrance, was the notion that there just wasn’t enough care in him to go around. His love had surged in the bright vigorous phases of his early youth and then inevitably tapered off, pulled towards some slender asymptote that he would later call puberty. His resources, he realized at this very moment, were finite. To deposit a packet of love and fairly in every atom, averaged out, in the end, to a kind of apathy for each of them.
His groaning father hauled away the empty frame, his mother swept up the errant glass and thorax, and Joseph didn’t cry; he was no longer moved to.