He sat with his legs dangling over one arm of the chair, brooding through the picture window he should have washed the day before. He’d decided, instead, to watch the football game. Now, it was just too wet.
Fall had grown drab, because the rains of October had come back again. The small branches of the young elm tree near the curb glistened darkly from the light cold rain. Two brown leaves had shriveled against the bark, and were now held in place by the wetness. On another branch, two sparrows, swollen against the damp chill, complained bleakly to each other about the weather. The tree stood still under the meaningless rain.
It wasn’t even a rain, he moped. It was a mist, an exhaled sigh, the last breath of a decaying earth. It deadened the memory and echo of fall, soaking the land with remorse.
It always rained in October, he mused. Fall always goes out not with a rain but a dribble. He laughed, mocking his weak attempts at being profound.
His wife, who had been washing the breakfast dishes, came to the door between the dining room and the kitchen.
“What was the joke, Al?” she smiled.
“I was just pretending to be brilliant,” he replied, quietly.
As she waited patiently for him to share his thoughts with her, down in the basement they heard six-year old Tommy, their youngest son, start building up to a piercing scream that could shatter glass. Meanwhile, Mike—older by three years—was whispering fiercely, desperately trying to reason with his younger brother before the world collapsed around them.
Both parents prepared for the anticipated shock wave, but the blast never came. Good show, thought Al; his oldest son had come through again.
“What was the matter, boys?” Alice called.
“Nothing, Mom,” Mike shouted back.
“But Tommy almost screamed. What did he want?”
“Oh, Tommy is playing that silly game again— ”
“It is not silly! Not more than your crazy pretend baseball!”
“—and I accidentally knocked it over with a bat. But I told him I’d help him put it up again.”
“That was very nice of you. You’re being a good older brother.” She turned back to her husband.
“Maybe you can talk to Tommy,” she suggested. “Not right this minute, but sometime today.”
“What’s his problem?”
“It’s about your father. Seems to be on his mind a lot lately. About how he died, and where he is—now. And what he did and how he sounded. Things like that.”
“This game of his, is that part of it?”
“I think so, but go see for yourself.”
Two years ago. October, he mused, and a wet day like today. You should forget the dead, the rotting, the things that were. Remember the living, and how the living had been.
A bitter, mocking laugh filled his throat and stayed there like a lump. How profound he could pretend to be, and how safe it was to make believe. But brooding about sorrow was easier than letting it touch him. He could handle sorrow then; study it, dissect it, all the while hiding behind his mask. But handled too much, he thought, it would crumble into nothing, like a dead, brittle leaf.
Al peered out through the picture window. Someone was walking on the road half-hidden by trees in the scrubby field across the street. The man’s black raincoat glistened, and his hair was uncovered and silver. A small white dog bounded in and out of the trees, every once in a while wagging its way back to its companion.
A slight ravine beyond the road dropped down to a small creek. Beyond the creek was a small but heavily wooded county park, where the trees were tall and thick. There were narrow paths running along the creek and, sometimes, right down to the edge of sheer two-foot-high cliffs. And dead trees stretched across the creek for adventurous and daring crossings. One summer, Mike and Tommy had exchanged long stares with a raccoon wearing horn-rimmed glasses. For a long time after that, the boys always took their cap guns and toy rifles with them when they went looking for adventure.
In back of the house, everybody’s backyard looked into everyone else’s. And all the backyards were the same, except maybe better tended than his own. Every yard was fenced, compartmentalized. But the fences were for the adults. Kids knew that fences were for climbing.
When he was a kid, Al recalled, he knew every inch of pavement for blocks around his father’s house. Every bump, crack, and tilt—he knew them all like he knew his own body. Then he got older, went to college, to war, back to college; he drank, wrote poetry, fell in love, got married, had kids, got a job. He never saw the sidewalk again; he could never feel that same bump, crack, or tilt. And he never really came back to his father’s house.
With a heavy sign, Al decided it was time to talk to his youngest son.
“Don’t get upset with him, Al,” his wife said as he passed through the kitchen.
* * * * *
In the basement, Mike’s baseball cap was pulled low over his eyes. He leaned forward, resting his gloved hand on his left knee, while his right hand nervously played with the tennis ball he was holding behind his back. He shook off two signs from the cement wall. Finally nodding in agreement, he went into the stretch—and then fired and hurled the tennis ball. It skipped off the floor against the wall and bounced right back to him.
“Strike three! You’re out!” he called, wiping his head in relief.
“Got him, eh?” his father asked. The boy grinned at him.
“I sure did,” Mike winked. “And with the bases loaded and the count three-and-two.” Mike was a big boy. His face was open and happy, inviting people to share his joys with him. It was an uncomplicated face, free of disturbing shadows.
Tommy was playing in the secluded space behind a bookcase. He was a thin, intense little boy, with brooding eyes and a beautiful, solemn face. And he was attending a wake.
Tommy had taken a pair of pants and a shirt and some old tennis shoes, and arranged them in an empty caricature of a laid-out corpse. The head was a small beach ball, on which he placed an old, tattered hat. And he was sitting on a chair beside his creation, with bent head and clasped hands.
“How are you doing, Tommy?”
The boy looked up startled, his eyes quickly searching his father’s face to see if the question was a friendly one.
“Oh, I’m just pretending this is Grandpa’s funeral parlor.”
“Oh...I don’t know. Just to remember, I guess.”
To remember, to understand, to make it manageable so that it can be forgotten. Al stood looking down at the coffin. The pants and shirt were lying flat, just pieces of cloth. But the hat....
“Where did you get that hat?”
“By your work bench. Is it all right?”
He smiled and said it was fine, and rumpled the boy’s hair. It was his father’s hat and it remembered: looking at it, Al saw it was being worn, cocked jauntily over the beach ball, and he could see the tired, eagle eyes of his father as clearly as he ever could. And he remembered other things he’d saved: scraps of paper with writing on them, gloves that remembered his father’s hand, slippers with run down heels, a hammer with the handle worn smooth. He remembered the urgent searches through the closets, the work bench, the desk, when he never knew what the search was for, never knew what he’d found.
“Well now,” he said thickly. “Maybe you’d like to take a walk down to the creek?”
“Oh boy, yeah!”
“Me too, Dad!” Mike called. The boys looked up at the basement window; it was beaded with moisture and specked with mud. “It’s not raining hardly at all,” he added stoutly.
Hardly at all, Al agreed, and he started towards the stairs. “I’ll call you in a few minutes,” he said, hurrying upstairs.
Alice was waiting with solemn, questioning eyes. He looked at her and felt his mouth twist painfully, searching for his “aren’t-kids-the-limit” smile. But there was something wrong with the act, and he could see it in her eyes. And his flip remark strangled in his throat while his expansive arm gesture didn’t quite come off, ending in a feeble flip of his hand. They can talk later, he croaked; later. And he hurried to his chair by the window.
All the things collected, Al thought, all the scraps and bits just lying loose, unconnected clues to something. Tommy had his souvenirs, his clues. But Tommy put them together; he made things with them, wringing out the feeling, the sense. Meanwhile, the boy’s father just collected and stored and buried them, like some cold, shivering animal preparing for a long winter.
A wet sky rained down onto the earth, sinking deep into the ground. Al saw that the two sparrows had left the small elm, and all the leaves were gone. And so was the old man with his dog.