What He Has Learned to Do
“It’s all pink, Daddy,” his son says about the winter sky, which has again dawned with extravagant pale pastels. It’s January. They’re driving to morning kindergarten. Snow has fallen on farmhouses and fence posts, the ochre heads of roadside sumac, the banks of the Concord River. His son sees dog tracks down there and asks if he sees them. He says yes, he does, even though he doesn’t.
He is thinking about how it might feel to slip the belt from around his waist and use it to hang himself.
There is a library a block from his son’s school where on Mondays, when he doesn’t have to work, he spends the day reading and writing and playing chess online. He could do it there. In the bathroom.
The thought is its own pink sky, ordinary and wondrous. It shines down through bare oak limbs and glints the windshields of passing cars. It sets fire to rolling wisps of steam on the river. And like any sky — the way it’s everywhere all at once, how it hovers and looms — it should be frightening but isn’t. What he has learned to do is keep driving. He scans for deer in surrounding fields, great blue herons in their nests of sticks in the marsh. When his son asks for the radio, he turns it on. How far away that second sky seems against the nearness of his son’s voice in back.
At morning drop off, he greets his son’s teachers with smiles and small talk and the pretense that this is just another day. He hugs his son, tells him to be good. Then he’s off to the library, blowing on his hands to keep them warm, looking both ways before he crosses the street. The library is big and bright. Inside he takes a minute to wander the stacks for books to thumb through. He grabs Walden. Robert Frank’s The Americans. An old woman pushing a cart of returns limps by, mumbling to herself, re-shelving books. He breathes an “Excuse me,” and slides past her to the study carrels on the second floor where he pulls his laptop from his backpack. Last week from this perch he’d watched one woman approach another at the computer printing station.
“Will you be long?” the woman said.
“Maybe ten minutes.”
“What I’ve got will only take thirty seconds.” The woman was holding a sheet of paper. “Maybe not that long.”
The woman at the computer said again that she’d be done in ten minutes and turned around. Meanwhile the other woman waited. After ten minutes, the woman at the computer finished and left without a word.
He looks for them today but the printer station is empty. Maybe the snow has kept people home. He opens his laptop, checks work email. He plays several games of chess. Between moves he looks outside where it’s snowing again, the flakes fat and feather soft, sticking to the window screen in clumps. When he has to go to the bathroom, he gets up and goes. He studies the door and its coat hook. The door is a door. The coat hook is a coat hook. He isn’t afraid of doors or coat hooks or the belt around his waist.
At noon hunger pulls him to the Chinese buffet down the street. He fills a plate with sesame chicken and lo mein. He eats alone, thumbing through The Americans. The photo he likes best is of a black woman in a field in South Carolina. She’s wearing a dress and sitting in a chair in the sun. Her head is turned. She’s smiling. It’s a lovely sight — that smile, that green field — on this snowy day.
For a few minutes he forgets all about himself. For a few minutes he smiles as easily as the woman in the field.
Waiting in the hallway outside the kindergarten’s double doors with the other parents at afternoon pickup he tries to affect that easy smile but everyone is studiously ignoring each other. The radiator hisses and clunks. There is dust on the tiled floor. In a minute the children come spilling out in puffy coats and sock caps, singing little songs, chatting, running up and hugging their parents, thrusting scribbled drawings into their faces. His son is happy to see him. He has drawn a bear with jagged black fur and teeth. On the way to the car, he calls goodbye to his friends: “Goodbye, Emile! Goodbye, Lucy!” He is a good boy. Impossibly sweet. Lulled by the hum of the engine and the heater working full blast, he falls asleep on the ride home. His father glances at him in the rearview, thinking about how exhausting it must be to be five years old. Scissors through construction paper. Spilled milk on a table. A teacher’s bad breath. A bully calling names. He doesn’t know. Dancing, too. Laughing. It isn’t all heaviness. He thinks about tonight, and making pancakes for dinner. They’ll watch TV while they wait for his wife — his son’s mom — to come home from work. He’ll help his son get into his pajamas and brush teeth, read him a bedtime story, fetch him a glass of water. If in the dark his son asks him if he remembers the dog tracks he saw in the snow along the river that morning — and how the sky was all pink — he’ll say yes, yes, he does.
Steve Edwards is author of the memoir BREAKING INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY, and his fiction and nonfiction appears in Orion Magazine, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He lives in Massachusetts.
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Image (cropped): Charles Knowles CC2.0