Should Wizard Hit Mommy?


John Updike

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On Saturday afternoon, Jack is about to put his daughter Jo down for a nap. Every evening and before Saturday naptimes, Jack tells his daughter a bedtime story. The father-daughter tradition began when Jo (now four-years-old) was two and it continues despite the fact that Jo rarely falls asleep in naps anymore and Jack is quickly running out of ideas for stories. To help his task, Jack always tells his daughter a story that follows the same basic format: an animal (always named Roger, but always a different type of animal) has a problem that he needs help solving. He goes to wise owl, who suggests that Roger should see the wizard about his issue. The wizard provides a cure and asks Roger for payment that he cannot provide but also tells him where to find the extra money. Roger then pays the wizard and happily goes to play with the other animals until it is time for his father to come home from work, and that is the end of the story.

Once Jo is settled in, Jack begins the Saturday story. Jo explains that Roger should be a skunk this time, which makes Jack think that she has been studying skunks in school. Freshly inspired by Jo’s suggestion, and by memories of being bullied as a child, Jack spins a tale about Roger Skunk, who smelled so bad that none of the other animals wanted to play with him. As the story continues, however, Jo (who has memorized her father’s story form) becomes more and more intent on controlling the direction of the narrative. Jack is intent on finishing the story so that he can help his wife Clare, who is downstairs re-painting the living room. Clare is six months pregnant with their third child and should not be doing manual work or heavy lifting. Jack tells Jo to stop trying to control the plot, and to try to fall asleep instead. Jack explains to Jo that Roger goes to the Owl who in turn sends him to the wizard who performs a magic spell. Jo (who has recently begun questioning the truth of the things people tell her) asks Jack if magic spells are real. This question irks Jack, and he doubles down on making his storytelling more captivating.

Jack tells Jo that the wizard performs a spell to make Roger Skunk smell like roses. Jo seems to be enthralled by Jack’s impression of the wizard casting his spell, but Jack suspects she might be feigning interest, since her face looks the way his wife Clare’s does when she is pretending to be interested in cocktail party conversation. Indeed, as the story reaches its climax, Jo grows all the more fussy and distracted. Jack, who hates when women are not interested in what he is saying, changes the structure of his story in hopes of re-capturing his daughter’s interest. He tells her that when Roger came home from the wizard’s house, his mother was furious. Instead of being happy that he had changed his smell, she is angry. She demands that they return to the wizard so he can change Roger back and his mother can hit the wizard over the head. Jo, who does not expect this twist, is beside herself, unable to grasp why the skunk’s mother would not allow her son to change something about himself that made the other animals run away from him. She demands that Jack change the story: she wants the wizard to refuse to change Roger back, and to hit Roger’s “stupid mommy” over the head with his wand. Unprepared for his daughter’s intensity and violent wish, Jack attempts to explain that Roger was better off with his old smell because it was what his mother wanted and he loved his mother more than he cared what the other animals thought about him.

Thoroughly tired, Jack brings story time to an end and urges Jo to go to sleep. Jo, in turn, demands that, in tomorrow’s story, the wizard must hit Roger Skunk’s mother over the head instead. Jack does not answer her, and instead goes downstairs to finally help his wife. When he gets downstairs however, Jack is too weary to help, and instead sits in a chair and watches his wife repaint their living room. He sees the molding in their house as a cage surrounding him and his wife. He has no desire to work with her or even talk to her or touch her.