Five-year-old Josh is watching Sunday morning TV while his parents sleep in. “The Fourth R” is “Religion”, and it is also the name of a program designed in a more innocent age to introduce children to religion, or to indoctrinate young minds into a narrow Judeo-Christian perspective on things spiritual, or most likely the producers of this show have experienced no such conflict because they have not in their own investigations ventured beyond the comfortable religious views that are sanctioned in America’s most complacent decade. Kerouac is not yet on the road, and Ginsberg has yet to begin his howl. A comforting, grandfatherly war hero is in the White House, and all is copacetic.
The well-mannered child waits for Mommy and Daddy to wake up, but not a moment longer. He climbs onto the edge of the bed and “What’s a soul?” he asks.
Daddy is caught off-guard. Home for the weekend from his job as a traveling salesman, he has proudly mentored his precocious son through the wiles of Mr Wizard and the subtleties of fourth-grade mathematics, but he is utterly unprepared for the boy’s interest in metaphysics.
He gently pinches the boy’s arm. “If I pinch you here, that’s not your soul. If I pinch you there, that’s not your soul. It’s part of you, but it’s not anywhere on your body.”
The boy is abashed. He is accustomed to expect lucid explanations from his Dad, and he usually catches on quickly. But this time, he has no idea what Daddy is talking about. He doesn’t want to let on, for fear of appearing slow-witted.
“Oh” says the boy.
Secretly, he wonders, when the boys at the bus stop ask him whether he believes in Guard, what is he expected to say? What is the answer that will conceal his ineptitude in this matter and buy some time for him while he figures it out. He imagines a crossing guard who protects all the students by stopping cars in the street. He wants to be a policeman when he grows up, but he knows that the Guard on Sunday morning TV is much bigger than policemen, and he is embarrassed that Nicky Fisher and Robby Rosenthal seem to have some familiarity with this Big Guard that he lacks, and maybe that is why sometimes they don’t invite him over to play Calling All Cars or build a secret clubhouse in the woods on the other side of Stronghurst Avenue.
Already, the boy has amassed some confidence in his ability to figure stuff out, but not much confidence that other kids are going to want to play with him, especially the boys from the other side of 229th Street. He senses that this business of Souls and Guards is too important for him to betray his ignorance, so his plan is to keep his ears open, to try to hear what the other kids say, and use their clues to figure out the right answer.
Josh’s brain is what he has learned to rely upon to get him through the perils of embarrassment and ostracism. His ability to figure things out has won him the praise of his parents and teachers, and a new Erector Set from his Aunt Tillie. There are other aspects of his experience which he doesn’t talk about, and which are already half-walled off as a secret, inner world. His deepest secret has to do with the warm, tingly feeling he gets when he thinks about a blond-haired girl named Michelle who walks with a brace on one leg. He knows that it would be all over for him if boys started whispering that Josh Likes Girls.
A lesser secret has to do with a sense he has had sometimes when he is lying in bed or sitting in the bathroom. This one doesn’t seem perilous, exactly, but he has no language with which to talk about it. “I am Josh” he says to himself, and he just feels like—no, he knows—that that just isn’t true. I am these thoughts. I am the experiences and the experiencer. I am the one watching all this happening. I am the one figuring this stuff out. Josh—Josh, on the other hand, is this body that’s sitting here on the toilet seat. Josh doesn’t seem to be bound so tightly to who the boy is, who “I” is. The boy has this recurring experience, but he does not relate it to the puzzle about the soul, or the part of the body that can’t be pinched. The question of the soul is something he’s just going to have to figure out logically, by thinking. It seems hard, but it can’t be that hard, because grownups seem to know. He’s just afraid that he doesn’t have much time. He can’t afford to wait until he’s grown up to figure it out.