My 9-year-old son is a storyteller. Not the "Once upon a time" variety, but rather a preambler, a prose stylist, someone who consistently misses the forest because of his devotion to counting each and every tree.
Let me explain by way of example. I recently bought Anton a yellow pullover rain jacket. Two days later he came home from school without it. When I asked him where it was, he took a breath, gazed off into the distance, and began his tale: "Well, after I left the house this morning I got on the school bus and said hi to Jacob. Then it started to rain, and so we decided to play with our Pokémon cards ..."
At this point I heaved a sigh, looked heavenward, gently shook my head, and settled in for the long haul. After listening to the recitation of the (uneventful) bus ride, Anton's day in school, his recess on the playground, and finally the ride home, this was the story's climax: "Actually, I don't know where the jacket is."
As an admirer of both Hemingway and E.B. White, I have learned to disdain the unnecessary word. With Anton, though, I have had to accept Faulkner into my home, and I often stand in awe of my son's capacity to construct back-to-back dependent clauses while managing to bear in mind my initial question.
I don't know where his propensity for the scenic route in speech came from. I certainly didn't detect it almost four years ago when I traveled to a Ukrainian orphanage to adopt him. I distinctly recall my first impressions: Anton was tiny, wan, timid, and very, very quiet. So quiet that I asked the orphanage director this pointed question: "Does he ever speak?"
Oh, yes, she assured me, just wait.
My modest investment in patience produced a wholesale return of narrative. Once Anton got his grounding in English (he spoke only Russian at first), he seemed to draw upon it the way a hummingbird imbibes nectar. He hasn't stopped talking since.
The thing is, he really does have something to say. But there have been times of urgency when I just had to know - immediately - the answer to my question. This happened in spades one Christmas holiday when we were driving to New Jersey to visit family. A few miles before exiting the New Jersey Turnpike, Anton asked me if he could hold the toll ticket. For some reason that still mystifies me, I forked it over. "Now, don't lose it," I counseled.
As we maneuvered into a toll lane - a hair-raising experience for those who know the helter-skelter of the Jersey Turnpike - I asked Anton for the ticket. His response: "Well, the window was open, and there was a lot of traffic outside ..."
"Anton," I said, gently, as the line of cars before me inched ahead. "The ticket. Where's the ticket?"
"Actually," he continued, "it wasn't as windy as I thought it would be. And there was this other kid in a black car who waved at me ..."
"Anton!" I interrupted again, by now able to see the visage of the toll taker, a large, impatient-looking man. "The ticket! The ticket!"
"I had it here," he said. "But then I held it up to the crack in the window ..."
Only one car in front of me now, as I moved into the dark maw of the toll booth. "Anton," I said, quietly and clearly. "If I don't give this man the ticket, he'll charge us the maximum price. Now, where's the ticket?"
Anton's response: "What does 'maximum' mean?"
We were alongside the toll window. The man was looking at me, his palms turned upward. I turned around. "Anton, did you lose the ticket out the window?"
"No," he said. "That's what I wanted to say. I held it up, but it didn't fly out." Having said this, he calmly handed it to me.
The toll collector was still looking at me. Then he smiled as I paid my toll. "It's OK," he said. "I got a kid, too."
Grateful for his understanding, I glanced back at Anton. He beamed at me as if to say, "See? All's well that ends well."
Despite the occasional trials Anton's love of narration puts me through, I have never - except in the case of the toll ticket - sought to abridge his speech. Instead, as an outlet for all that he has to say, I encouraged him to write. He took to the art with alacrity and creates sheaves of written work so thick that he calls them his "books."
I considered that writing might take some of the wind out of his oral sails (why did I ever think this?), but it has only shored up his affection for language. The show goes on, sometimes with gratifying results: Yesterday, when he came home from school, I asked him about his day. "Well," he began, "remember how it was rainy when I got up? Actually, we could still go to recess, and ..."
I went into my mode of half-listening restraint, and was rewarded for my forbearance when, four minutes later, the plot took a wondrous turn, offering up a surprise ending. "And here," said Anton as he reached into his backpack and pulled out its contents, "is my rain jacket!"
And we lived happily ever after.