A friend we love from afar

My three year old son recently introduced us to his first imaginary friend, Julie. Julie, bless Ben's liberated little heart, is a boy. And, as near as I can figure, must weigh at least 210 and tower a good eight feet. The confusion this kid can weave is breathtaking.

He has been hanging around here for about a week now. Of course, no one has seen him except my son, but Julie is leaving a staggering list of accomplishments that indicates he may be the first preschooler behind bars. Since his arrival he has managed to load the lawnmower gas tank with sand, crack and scramble a dozen eggs on my son's mattress, and pick a wagon load of green tomatoes. That was Monday.

Tuesday Julie unloaded the mashed up green tomatoes on to the table I had just painted and then borrowed my white spray paint to do the front walk and change our neighbor's mellow black Lab into a frustrated Dalmation.

Wednesday this imaginary friend gave the cat a bath in the toilet and stripped the baby down to nothing five times. After each episode, my sweet Ben would say, ''I told him not to do it Mom!'' What a darling! At least he knew right from wrong. I hugged him. This too would pass.

As any parent, I was concerned about my son's choice of friends. I mean, this dreamed up kid had to be a cross between a werewolf and the Incredible Hulk. Who but a monster would brush the goat's teeth with my toothbrush or cut baby's hair so she looks like a doll from the Good Will? This character was making my son (who has always been described as having an ''active imagination''), look like an angel.

Saturday morning I walked into the backyard to see the wet clothes I'd just hung, scattered about the dirt driveway. ''Mom, Julie said to take these down and give them to the poor people.'' This was too much, and my voice quavered. ''Julie can't play here any more unless he behaves. I just really think I don't like him!'' Tears began streaming down my face. (Even Julie would have been touched.)

''Okay, Mom.'' Ben came over and patted me on the leg. ''But Julie didn't mean it.''

''What does Julie look like anyway?'' I fought for time to think.

''Ohhhh, he's really, really big.'' Ben's hands stretched over his head, and he looked to the sky. ''And, he's FOUR YEARS OLD!''

''What does he like to eat?''

''Ohhhh, dog food and gum.''

I cringed. ''Why does he eat that?''

''So he can bark and run up trees.''

''Does he wear clothes?'' I ventured.

''He doesn't wear diapers. He wears underwear with holes, cause he's a really , really big boy!''

''Is that all he wears?''

''Nope. He wears biiiig boots.'' His arms stretched sideways with a grunt.

Well, I was fairly certain I would recognize this exhibitionist with dog food breath, holey underwear, and ''BIG'' boots, so I delved a little further.

''Do you boys talk much?''

''No. We just play.''

''Does Julie have a family?''

''Yes. But they like ME better.'' I pulled him close, and he held my face in his chubby hands while we talked.

''Does he go to Sunday School?''

''Yup. Everyday.''

''Do you think he's a nice friend to have?''

''Yup,'' Ben said positively, and then paused. ''He sure gets silly sometimes!''

SILLY? Silly??? Surely in his vocabulary of 500 words Ben could find one more appropriate for this giant toddler than ''silly!'' ''I think he's downright naughty.''

''Yes,'' Ben agreed. ''But he's gone now.'' He looked very sad.

''Julie is gone?''

''Yes,'' Ben scrunched up his nose, starting to recover from his loss.

''You mean forever?'' I tried not to act too excited.

Later I called my friend who lives across the street. ''Guess what?'' I said, my voice trembling. ''Julie is gone!''

''Is that right?'' she said after a pause. ''Then would you mind telling me who that is hosing out the inside of your car?''

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