This week, a story I wrote for a workshop in Fiction at the Newberry Library:
“Again,” he said.
The word fell somewhere between a statement and a question. As they walked toward each other, his son raised his eyes. The subterranean parking garage was all shadow, but they met and stood in particular darkness beside a cement column.
“Maybe a floor up,” Jack said, his answer—if it was an answer—also split intentions.
They’d been in LA for almost a week now, navigating the interstates, seven lanes of speeding cars always on the brink of clotting into parking lots. They’d seen five colleges, and, because you had to be twenty-one to drive a rental car, his son hadn’t been behind the wheel once. For the first two days, Christian approached the driver’s door expectantly and groused about being more comfortable as driver and, besides, who would know? Since then, he’d settled into his role as navigator, looping around to stand passenger side and wait for Jack to unlock the car, moving maps from the floor to his lap at each journey’s start. He consulted Google’s route, gave the name of the first road they’d travel and the number of miles they’d be on it. Then he returned to texting one of his distant friends until the next exit or turn.
The silences invited Jack to speak, but he wasn’t ready. Friday, a day before their flight, he’d been escorted from the building when his job was eliminated. A box of personal items still sat in the trunk of the car in the remote lot back home. He’d pushed it aside when they loaded their luggage, sidestepping Christian’s curiosity about what it was and what it was doing there.
“It’s just some stuff I’m getting rid of,” he’d said.
Now Jack’s eyes ached as they started off together toward the stairs in the corner of the parking garage. Two guesses on the car’s location had failed.
“We’ll be late,” Jack said.
“How could I—Jesus!“
“There are a million white cars,” Christian said, “but, hey, ours is extra-special. It’s a PT Cruiser.”
“There are a million PT Cruisers,” said Jack.
Three months after Christian’s mother’s death, when he was small, still in a child safety seat, they’d traveled together to see Jack’s parents 500 miles away. Armed with CDs of Christian’s favorite music, they’d blasted down empty highways. Christian was too young to sing along, but in the rear view mirror, Jack could catch his head bobbing. That was July, and Christian napped in the stupefying rhythm of seams in the road and the white noise of blowing AC. In every way un-memorable, the long drive went without incident until they hit construction just an hour from their destination. The air conditioning seemed unequal to the strain of stop and go traffic, and Christian awoke pink and sweaty, his sparse hair matted to his temples and forehead. Hoping to comfort him, Jack slipped a Raffi CD into the player.
Oh Mister Sun, Sun,
Mister Golden Sun,
Please shine down on me
Oh Mister Sun, Sun,
Mister Golden Sun,
Hiding behind a tree…
Christian wailed. Jack tried to quiet him from the front seat, saying they’d be there soon, everything was okay, even singing with Raffi and making funny faces in the rear view mirror. But Christian’s tears barely abated and, trapped as they were between exits, Jack could do little but bear it, pretend everything was fine, though his head pounded and he desperately wanted the beer he hoped his mother had chilled.
Jack barely remembered his wife now, or, rather, remembered her as anecdotes and framed images. Christian kept a few mementos in his room: a brush, a medal she’d received for winning her age group in a fun run, a fountain pen one of her professors had given her, a curled photo of her holding Christian in a hospital wheelchair. Jack wasn’t sure why he’d chosen these things. In his own bedside table, Jack kept their engagement ring. He told himself he’d saved it for Christian, thinking of the day he might give it to a girl he loved, but, on particularly tough nights, he put it on his pinky, hoping some of her warmth lingered.
On the next level of the garage, Jack realized—his recollection of the rental car’s location relied on a different context. When they arrived to park, the PT Cruiser shared the row with a beat-up Volvo like one they’d once owned and a shiny white truck eclipsing their car from the next spot. But that was hours ago, those drivers might have moved on to other destinations. Jack couldn’t hope to find their car with any other.
“Dad,” Christian walked a few paces ahead and half-turned to speak, “Which school have you liked?”
“USC was impressive. But big. I didn’t think you wanted that.”
Jack lost Christian’s reply in his own anxious search for a white form in the gloom. His attention just returned in time to hear Christian say, “… which would be cool.”
Three weeks earlier, Christian received his SAT scores. The numbers didn’t mean much to Jack, but Christian said they were good—he said, “good enough to get into most schools.” Christian was a capable student. Maybe he had a right to be ambitious. But Jack knew things Christian didn’t—some of the colleges he liked weren’t guaranteed anyone, and most cost more than Jack could hope to pay. He’d saved some money, but not enough. And when they returned home, Jack’s week off would continue indefinitely.
Jack knew something was coming. He’d participated in several meetings bemoaning company returns on marketing plans and advertising. He’d fielded questions from a vice president charged with streamlining operations. He’d heard his boss say, on several occasions, something had to give. But Jack hadn’t really expected to have to give himself. He’d decided there was no use being angry over it—many people found themselves where he was—but he couldn’t talk about it either. He knew he had to and knew he would. Of course he would. But water welled in his eyes.
The previous spring, Jack left a meeting early to drive out to a track meet in the suburbs. Christian ran the 800, his mother’s event when Jack met her all those years ago. He’d arrived at Christian’s meet late because of afternoon traffic and wouldn’t get to talk to his son before he raced but saw Christian warming up in the infield, leaping in the air, drawing his knees to his chest and throwing his arms out. Landing and leaping again, landing and leaping again. Pure nervousness, wasted energy, Jack thought, but the moment also struck him as familiar, a lithe combination of anxiety, resignation, and hope he remembered.
When Christian stepped up to starting line, his hands, which had fluttered like birds, stilled for the gun. Once underway, a taller boy on Christian’s left instantly made up the stagger, pulling himself abreast of Christian, and, by the time they cut into the first lane on the backstretch, Christian had fallen behind most of the other runners. He tucked into the pack, head and eyes slightly down, his determination balled up like his fists. At one lap, the half-way point, Christian was with them, well out of first place, but still in the same race. The pace quickened after that and so did Christian, accelerating with the rhythm of his strides. He passed three boys on the second backstretch and one passed him, but he was in fourth place by the time they reached the beginning of the last turn. In the sprint for the finish, another runner came up on Christian, but Christian’s attention was forward and drew him closer to people ahead. In the end Christian just nipped another runner for third, just a few meters away from the winner.
Only after shaking hands with the other competitors, debriefing a teammate, and checking his split times with his coach did Christian spot Jack in the stands. Another event awaited him soon, but, before he headed off for a cool down, he waved to his father, smiling, pointing to his chest, and flexing his arms like a muscle man.
After this college trip, Jack would dust off his resume and renew all those contacts he’d let lapse. He’d already peeked at the bank statement and guessed how long he could go jobless. There’d be lunches and meetings for coffee and conversations about how his experience might fit something he’d never done or dreamed of doing.
He couldn’t help being afraid. So many years had passed—most of Christian’s life—and he rarely missed his wife anymore. He felt regret. He felt a smoldering anger he could never locate exactly. He felt abandoned sometimes. But he thought her absence—his wound—had healed. Yet, occasionally an intonation or expression might bring back a forgotten moment. Then he’d be holding her hand. They’d be standing outside an apartment door, music and voices inside invading the hall, and she’d be laughing at him, urging him with her smile to just raise his fist and knock.
Christian’s senior year loomed with applications, and essays, and interviews. Jack’s mind jumped over telling Christian about losing his job. He pictured his son hunched over his work at the dining room table and imagined sitting beside him tapping on their laptop, working on his own applications or filling in spaces on financial aid forms. Perhaps one of those nights, they might begin talking about a curious eddy in history or some lost wonder of the ancient world and turn to something real—the way life raced or stopped on a whim, memories of Christian’s mother and her outsized hope for him. Then Jack might let a little out… and gather something in.
Just ahead Christian broke into a little skip as he pointed to a white PT Cruiser down the dim slope. “Ah ha,” he said, “Our Cruiser awaits, just where we left it.” Jack let a little relief take him.
Christian, doubling back to join his father, smiled and draped his arm over his shoulder.
“See Dad?” he laughed, “and plenty of time to spare.”