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Walks like a toddler, talks like a man

Man of the House by Chris Erskine

But Dad's not worried about the baby's tiny vocabulary. How many words does a guy need?

October 28, 2004|Chris Erskine | Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

He only knows a couple of words -- "Mom" and "cat" -- yet his sentences seem to run on for days, starting on Tuesday and ending, say, on the following Thursday. He punctuates them with sighs and sneezes, foot-stomping and a form of toddler charades that reminds me of the way people run when their clothes are afire. The baby's favorite story, or at least the one he tells most often, is of falling off the chair and hurting his drinking hand. The story is like something Tolstoy might've penned, epic but at times endlessly indulgent. Not bad for a guy who knows only two words.

"Say 'Daddy,' " I prompt him.

"Cat," he says.

"Say 'Daddy,' " I try again.

"Cat."

"Good," I say. "Now say 'Cat.' "

"Cat," he says, then spins around proudly, like he just invented pride.

Verbally, he is all thumbs. His father, me, learned the language while growing up in Chicago and listening to the original Mayor Daley deny allegations of corruption on TV, using lots of "das" and "disses." The baby, in turn, learns the language from me. And you thought Latin was in trouble?

"Say 'dog,' " I say.

"Cat," he says.

"Perfect," I say.

His mother is concerned about his limited language skills, yet I remind her that some men lead long and successful lives by never talking more than the baby does right now. With some guys, all you can hope for is one or two words occasionally. Eventually, they grow up to be middle managers. And fathers-in-law.

"Some men are grossly uncommunicative," I tell her.

"You're kidding," she says.

"But sometimes that's good," I say.

The baby, of course, knows the word "Mom," and uses it liberally, stringing the word together like pearls, as in "Mom-mom-mom-mom-mom." He spouts it when she changes him, gently stripping him of his overalls with her soft, undertaker hands. "Mom-mom-mom-mom-mom," he yodels, her one-man cheering section, her Michigan Marching Band.

He will also shout it when she locks herself in the bathroom, seeking shelter and a moment's respite. The baby will stand outside the door and shout her name at decibels normally heard only at political rallies. He has no worries in the world, other than his mother being out of sight for more than a minute.

"Can you watch him awhile?" she asks after their 30th consecutive hour together.

"Sure," I say, grabbing him like a guitar.

"Say 'Dad.' "

"Cat," he says.

"Good," I say.

"Say 'Mom.' "

"Mom-mom-mom-mom-mom."

"You know, once would be enough," I say. "You only need to say her name once."

"Cat," he says.

"Gotcha."

The best is when the baby's teenage brother emerges from his bedroom. Talk about talkers. Having slept for three months and not eaten, he heads immediately for the cereal cupboard. He burps and pours a bowl roughly the size of St. Louis.

"What are you doing today?" I ask.

Grunt.

"Did you have fun last night?"

Grunt. Slurp.

"How's the cereal?"

Slurp. Grunt. Slurp.

Like Shakespeare, this kid. Shut up, will you, I can't get a word in edgewise. (Parents take note: For all the times teenagers test your sanity, there are moments like this that make it completely worthwhile. Slurp. Grunt. Slurp. Grunt. Burp.)

"Apparently, your big brother only knows two words," I tell the baby. "Maybe you could work with him a little."

"Cat," the baby says.

"No, not the cat," I say, "your brother. Your brother might benefit from hearing you speak."

"Mom-mom-mom-mom-mom."

He really only needs to say it once.

Moments later, the baby and the boy dig through boxes of musty Halloween costumes, looking for something that pushes the envelope, costumewise, and attracts lots and lots of women.

"How's this?" the older boy asks.

"Cat," says the baby.

"Actually, it's a giraffe," the older boy explains.

The costume was once worn by the older boy, 100 years ago when he was this same age. He dresses his younger brother in the giraffe costume, then pronounces it perfect by high-fiving the little guy and throwing him squealing to the couch.

"What are you going to be?" I ask the teenager.

Grunt.

"Sounds great," I say.

And great it is. The older boy develops a costume from a blue shirt decorated with big wads of cotton. He fills a squirt gun and tests it on the kitchen sink.

"Who are you supposed to be?"

He pauses, like the answer should be obvious from the blue and white outfit and the squirt gun. I wait. He waits.

"I give up," I finally say.

"Partly cloudy, chance of rain," he grunts, then squirts the cat.

"Not bad," I say.

"I found it on the Internet," he says.

Count 'em, six words in a row, from the mouth of a teenager. Strung together like pearls.

*

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