She puts her cup down too hard, and the coffee inside gathers up and spits onto the tabletop. He rips a paper towel from the roll, hands it to her, and sits back down.
His interlaced fingers form a knot. As he stares into the hole created by his thumbs and index fingers, she continues to speak, and he half-listens. He’s heard the gist—cheer up, damn you—and sympathizes, though he struggles to comply. He’d like to save himself as she wishes but pretends instead.
The birds are already up, and cool, damp air seeps in from the open window. It will be another warm day, bearable in the morning—pleasant even—but still and heavy with sun by mid-afternoon.
The summer he was ten, he spent days like this with neighborhood boys. They collected personnel for baseball games at the backstop down the street or played capture-the-flag or hide-and-seek. They played like soldiers, occupying maps larger than their block. Sometimes, he hid among honeysuckles—though he knew he’d be found there—just to linger in the shadow and scent. If someone begged a ride, they’d go to the pool, and he’d return home in late afternoon cool, clean, and sated by sun. After TV, after supper, after another hour of play on the block, after more TV, after a few pages of a boys’ book, he slept.
Memory is dangerous. It makes one perfect summer day into a condition, what “would” happen every day. Then it rewrites the past altogether. He tells these stories so often their gilded nostalgia wears thin and reveals gray metal beneath. These tales were once solace, but he over-handles them, relying on bright imagination that never quite saves him.
She’s right to expect more. Because she loves him and he loves her, he tries and, for long stretches, rouses himself to cut vegetables, do the dishes, change the light bulb burned out upstairs, make and follow through on intentions. It’s all intention. He wants to believe in fresh pleasures and new stories but soon leaves cabinets open and forgets to set the timer for the potatoes. He crawls in bed early, unable to do one more thing, though he’s done much less than planned. He awakes to familiar rituals and gestures.
In school he learned about entropy, the heat death of the universe. Mr. Clements spread spaghetti-thin arms and said, “Everything will average. Hot will cool and cool will heat up. The whole universe will level out.” Sitting in the third row—as he did in every class—he pictured the universe as one bucket of tepid water.
Mr. Clements sat back down beside the overhead projector and rolled the notes forward. “Copy these,” he said. His eyes dropped to the page again.
She must be exhausted with restarting. A heavy sled without dogs, he dreams of hitting a frictionless patch with favorable gravity, a place motion will take. He wants to redeem her hope. He’s not sure what hope is.
He was ambitious once. In high school, he wrote his 400 meter times on a pad in his locker, noting each tenth gained as he approached the school record. He squeezed like a spring into the blocks and, at the gun, became pure will.
She reaches across the table, places her hand over his, and calls him back. There are practical matters, tasks to accomplish, obligations to fulfill. Another day of work awaits, and his mind leaps forward to take in all the time between now and returning. He prays, “Oh Lord, get me through.”
And he smiles. Some days, the only kindness he marshals is playing this role.
The birds chatter, and today’s humidity gathers in the kitchen. He loves this time of day and wants it to pass. He remembers joy and settles on survival. He takes a deep breath of morning air and sighs.
Throwing on his backpack, he heads toward the door. “Good bye,” he says, “have a great day.”