The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad’s white coat. Then requisitioned the boots he’d spray-painted white. Painting the pellet gun white had been a no. That was a gift from Aunt Chloe. Every time she came over he had to haul it out so she could make a big stink about the woodgrain.
Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived amongst the old rock wall. They were small but, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And revelled it. He would turn, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement?
They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers. They had a strange bond with him. Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds. Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled. Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.
Safe inside the rock wall, the shot one would go, Guys, look at my butt.
As a group, all would look at Gzeemon’s butt, exchanging sullen glances of: Gzeemon shall indeed be limping for the next nine million years, poor bloke.
Because yes: Nethers tended to talk like that guy in “Mary Poppins.”
Which naturally raised some mysteries as to their origin here on Earth.
Detaining him was problematic for the Nethers. He was wily. Plus could not fit through their rock-wall opening. When they tied him up and went inside to brew their special miniaturizing potion—Wham!—he would snap their antiquated rope with a move from his self-invented martial-arts system, Toi Foi, a.k.a. Deadly Forearms. And place at their doorway an implacable rock of suffocation, trapping them inside.
Later, imagining them in their death throes, taking pity on them, he would come back, move the rock.
Blimey, one of them might say from withal. Thanks, guv’nor. You are indeed a worthy adversary.
Sometimes there would be torture. They would make him lie on his back looking up at the racing clouds while they tortured him in ways he could actually take. They tended to leave his teeth alone. Which was lucky. He didn’t even like to get a cleaning. They were dunderheads in that manner. They never messed with his peen and never messed with his fingernails. He’d just abide there, infuriating them with his snow angels. Sometimes, believing it their coup de grâce, not realizing he’d heard this since time in memorial from certain in-school cretins, they’d go, Wow, we didn’t even know Robin could be a boy’s name. And chortle their Nether laughs.
Today he had a feeling that the Nethers might kidnap Suzanne Bledsoe, the new girl in homeroom. She was from Montreal. He just loved the way she talked. So, apparently, did the Nethers, who planned to use her to repopulate their depleted numbers and bake various things they did not know how to bake.
All suited up now, NASA. Turning awkwardly to go out door.
Affirmative. We have your coördinates. Be careful out there, Robin.
Whoa, cold, dang.
Duck thermometer read ten. And that was without windchill. That made it fun. That made it real. A green Nissan was parked where Poole dead-ended into the soccer field. Hopefully the owner was not some perv he would have to outwit.
Or a Nether in the human guise.
Bright, bright blue and cold. Crunch went the snow as he crossed the soccer field. Why did cold such as this give a running guy a headache? Likely it was due to Prominent Windspeed Velocity.
The path into the woods was as wide as one human. It seemed the Nether had indeed kidnapped Suzanne Bledsoe. Damn him! And his ilk. Judging by the single set of tracks, the Nether appeared to be carrying her. Foul cad. He’d better not be touching Suzanne inappropriately while carrying her. If so, Suzanne would no doubt be resisting with untamable fury.
This was concerning, this was very concerning.
When he caught up to them, he would say, Look, Suzanne, I know you don’t know my name, having misaddressed me as Roger that time you asked me to scoot over, but nevertheless I must confess I feel there is something to us. Do you feel the same?
Suzanne had the most amazing brown eyes. They were wet now, with fear and sudden reality.
Stop talking to her, mate, the Nether said.
I won’t, he said. And, Suzanne? Even if you don’t feel there is something to us, rest assured I will still slay this fellow and return you home. Where do you live again? Over in El Cirro? By the water tower? Those are some nice houses back there.
Yes, Suzanne said. We also have a pool. You should come over next summer. It’s cool if you swim with your shirt on. And also, yes to there being something to us. You are by far the most insightful boy in our class. Even when I take into consideration the boys I knew in Montreal, I am just like: no one can compare.
Well, that’s nice to hear, he said. Thank you for saying that. I know I’m not the thinnest.
The thing about girls? Suzanne said. Is we are more content-driven.
Will you two stop already? the Nether said. Because now is the time for your death. Deaths.
Well, now is certainly the time for somebody’s death, Robin said.
The twerpy thing was you never really got to save anyone. Last summer there’d been a dying raccoon out here. He’d thought of lugging it home so Mom could call the vet. But up close it was too scary. Raccoons being actually bigger than they appear in cartoons. And this one looked like a potential biter. So he ran home to get it some water at least. Upon his return, he saw where the raccoon had done some apparent last-minute thrashing. That was sad. He didn’t do well with sad. There had perchance been some pre-weeping, by him, in the woods.
That just means you have a big heart, Suzanne said.
Well, I don’t know, he said modestly.
Here was the old truck tire. Where the high-school kids partied. Inside the tire, frosted with snow, were three beer cans and a wadded-up blanket.
You probably like to party, the Nether had cracked to Suzanne moments earlier as they passed this very spot.
No, I don’t, Suzanne said. I like to play. And I like to hug.
Hoo boy, the Nether said. Sounds like Dullsville.
Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said.
He came out of the woods now to the prettiest vista he knew. The pond was a pure frozen white. It struck him as somewhat Switzerlandish. Someday he would know for sure. When the Swiss threw him a parade or whatnot.
Here the Nether’s tracks departed from the path, as if he had contemplatively taken a moment to gaze at the pond. Perhaps this Nether was not all bad. Perhaps he was having a debilitating conscience attack vis-à-vis the valiantly struggling Suzanne atop his back. At least he seemed to somewhat love nature.
Then the tracks returned to the path, wound around the pond, and headed up Lexow Hill.
What was this strange object? A coat? On the bench? The bench the Nethers used for their human sacrifices?
No accumulated snow on coat. Inside of coat still slightly warm.
Ergo: the recently discarded coat of the Nether.
This was some strange juju. This was an intriguing conundrum, if he had ever encountered one. Which he had. Once, he’d found a bra on the handlebars of a bike. Once, he’d found an entire untouched steak dinner on a plate behind Fresno’s. And hadn’t eaten it. Though it had looked pretty good.
Something was afoot.
Then he beheld, halfway up Lexow Hill, a man.
Coatless, bald-headed man. Super skinny. In what looked like pajamas. Climbing plodfully, with tortoise patience, bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt like two bare white branches sticking out of a p.j. shirt. Or grave.
What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.
Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?
Is there icing on it? he’d said.
Dad had done that thing of squinting his eyes when an answer was not quite there yet.
What was his mind telling him now?
Something was wrong here. A person needed a coat. Even if the person was a grownup. The pond was frozen. The duck thermometer said ten. If the person was mental, all the more reason to come to his aid, as had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves, but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?
He snagged the coat off the bench.
It was a rescue. A real rescue, at last, sort of.
Ten minutes earlier, Don Eber had paused at the pond to catch his breath.
He was so tired. What a thing. Holy moly. When he used to walk Sasquatch out here they’d do six times around the pond, jog up the hill, tag the boulder on top, sprint back down.
Better get moving, said one of two guys who’d been in discussion in his head all morning.
That is, if you’re still set on the boulder idea, the other said.
Which still strikes us as kind of fancy-pants.
Seemed like one guy was Dad and the other Kip Flemish.
Stupid cheaters. They’d switched spouses, abandoned the switched spouses, fled together to California. Had they been gay? Or just swingers? Gay swingers? The Dad and Kip in his head had acknowledged their sins and the three of them had struck a deal: he would forgive them for being possible gay swingers and leaving him to do Soap Box Derby alone, with just Mom, and they would consent to giving him some solid manly advice.
He wants it to be nice.
This was Dad now. It seemed Dad was somewhat on his side.
Nice? Kip said. That is not the word I would use.
A cardinal zinged across the day.
It was amazing. Amazing, really. He was young. He was fifty-three. Now he’d never deliver his major national speech on compassion. What about going down the Mississippi in a canoe? What about living in an A-frame near a shady creek with the two hippie girls he’d met in 1968 in that souvenir shop in the Ozarks, when Allen, his stepfather, wearing those crazy aviators, had bought him a bag of fossil rocks? One of the hippie girls had said that he, Eber, would be a fox when he grew up, and would he please be sure to call her at that time? Then the hippie girls had put their tawny heads together and giggled at his prospective foxiness. And that had never—
That had somehow never—
Sister Val had said, Why not shoot for being the next J.F.K.? So he had run for class president. Allen had bought him a Styrofoam straw boater. They’d sat together, decorating the hatband with Magic Markers. WIN WITH EBER! ON THE BACK: GROOVY! Allen had helped him record a tape. Of a little speech. Allen had taken that tape somewhere and come back with thirty copies, “to pass around.”
“Your message is good,” Allen had said. “And you are incredibly well spoken. You can do this thing.”
And he’d done it. He’d won. Allen had thrown him a victory party. A pizza party. All the kids had come.
Kindest man ever. Had taken him swimming. Had taken him to découpage. Had combed out his hair so patiently that time he came home with lice. Never a harsh, etc., etc.
Not so once the suffering begat. Began. God damn it. More and more his words. Askew. More and more his words were not what he would hoped.
Once the suffering began, Allen had raged. Said things no one should say. To Mom, to Eber, to the guy delivering water. Went from a shy man, always placing a reassuring hand on your back, to a diminished pale figure in a bed, shouting CUNT!
Except with some weird New England accent, so it came out KANT!
The first time Allen had shouted KANT! there followed a funny moment during which he and Mom looked at each other to see which of them was being called KANT. But then Allen amended, for clarity: KANTS!
So it was clear he meant both of them. What a relief.
They’d cracked up.
Jeez, how long had he been standing here? Daylight was waiting.
I honestly didn’t know what to do. But he made it so simple.
Took it all on himself.
So what else is new?
This was Jodi and Tommy now.
Big day today.
I mean, sure, it would have been nice to have a chance to say a proper goodbye.
But at what cost?
Exactly. And see—he knew that.
He was a father. That’s what a father does.
Eases the burdens of those he loves.
Saves the ones he loves from painful last images that might endure for a lifetime.
Soon Allen had become THAT. And no one was going to fault anybody for avoiding THAT. Sometimes he and Mom would huddle in the kitchen. Rather than risk incurring the wrath of THAT. Even THAT understood the deal. You’d trot in a glass of water, set it down, say, very politely, Anything else, Allen? And you’d see THAT thinking, All these years I was so good to you people and now I am merely THAT? Sometimes the gentle Allen would be inside there, too, indicating, with his eyes, Look, go away, please go away, I am trying so hard not to call you KANT!
Rail-thin, ribs sticking out.
Catheter taped to dick.
Waft of shit smell.
You are not Allen and Allen is not you.
So Molly had said.
As for Dr. Spivey, he couldn’t say. Wouldn’t say. Was busy drawing a daisy on a Post-it. Then finally said, Well, honestly? As these things grow, they can tend to do weird things. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be terrible. Had one guy? Just always craved him a Sprite.
And Eber had thought, Did you, dear doctor/savior/lifeline, just say craved him a Sprite?
That’s how they got you. You thought, Maybe I’ll just crave me a Sprite. Next thing you knew, you were THAT, shouting KANT!, shitting your bed, swatting at the people who were scrambling to clean you.
No sirree bob.
Wednesday he’d fallen out of the med-bed again. There on the floor in the dark it had come to him: I could spare them.
Spare us? Or spare you?
Get thee behind me.
Get thee behind me, sweetie.
A breeze sent down a sequence of linear snow puffs from somewhere above. Beautiful. Why were we made just so, to find so many things that happened every day pretty?
He took off his coat.
Took off his hat and gloves, stuffed the hat and gloves in a sleeve of the coat, left the coat on the bench.
This way they’d know. They’d find the car, walk up the path, find the coat.
It was a miracle. That he’d got this far. Well, he’d always been strong. Once, he’d run a half-marathon with a broken foot. After his vasectomy he’d cleaned the garage, no problem.
He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.
His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.
Let. Let me do it cling.
Estimated time of overtaking the Nether, handing him his coat? Approximately nine minutes. Six minutes to follow the path around the pond, an additional three minutes to fly up the hillside like a delivering wraith or mercy-angel, bearing the simple gift of a coat.
That is just an estimate, NASA. I pretty much made that up.
We know that, Robin. We know very well by now how irreverent you work.
Like that time you cut a fart on the moon.
Or the time you tricked Mel into saying, “Mr. President, what a delightful surprise it was to find an asteroid circling Uranus.”
That estimate was particularly iffy. This Nether being surprisingly brisk. Robin himself was not the fastest wicket in the stick. He had a certain girth. Which Dad prognosticated would soon triumphantly congeal into linebackerish solidity. He hoped so. For now he just had the slight man-boobs.
Robin, hurry, Suzanne said. I feel so sorry for that poor old guy.
He’s a fool, Robin said, because Suzanne was young, and did not yet understand that when a man was a fool he made hardships for the other men, who were less foolish than he.
He doesn’t have much time, Suzanne said, bordering on the hysterical.
There, there, he said, comforting her.
I’m just so frightened, she said.
And yet he is fortunate to have one such as I to hump his coat up that big-ass hill, which, due to its steepness, is not exactly my cup of tea, Robin said.
I guess that’s the definition of “hero,” Suzanne said.
I guess so, he said.
I don’t mean to continue being insolent, she said. But he seems to be pulling away.
What would you suggest? he said.
With all due respect, she said, and because I know you consider us as equals but different, with me covering the brainy angle and special inventions and whatnot?
Yes, yes, go ahead, he said.
Well, just working through the math in terms of simple geometry—
He saw where she was going with this. And she was quite right. No wonder he loved her. He must cut across the pond, thereby decreasing the ambient angle, ergo trimming valuable seconds off his catchup time.
Wait, Suzanne said. Is that dangerous?
It is not, he said. I have done it numerous times.
Please be careful, Suzanne implored.
Well, once, he said.
You have such aplomb, Suzanne demurred.
Actually never, he said softly, not wishing to alarm her.
Your bravery is irascible, Suzanne said.
He started across the pond.
It was actually pretty cool walking on water. In summer, canoes floated here. If Mom could see him, she’d have a conniption. Mom treated him like a piece of glass. Due to his alleged infant surgeries. She went on full alert if he so much as used a stapler.
But Mom was a good egg. A reliable counsellor and steady hand of guidance. She had a munificent splay of long silver hair and a raspy voice, though she didn’t smoke and was even a vegan. She’d never been a biker chick, although some of the in-school cretins claimed she resembled one.
He was actually quite fond of Mom.
He was now approximately three-quarters, or that would be sixty per cent, across.
Between him and the shore lay a grayish patch. Here in summer a stream ran in. Looked a tad iffy. At the edge of the grayish patch he gave the ice a bonk with the butt of his gun. Solid as anything.
Here he went. Ice rolled a bit underfoot. Probably it was shallow here. Anyways he hoped so. Yikes.
How’s it going? Suzanne said, trepidly.
Could be better, he said.
Maybe you should turn back, Suzanne said.
But wasn’t this feeling of fear the exact feeling all heroes had to confront early in life? Wasn’t overcoming this feeling of fear what truly distinguished the brave?
There could be no turning back.
Or could there? Maybe there could. Actually there should.
The ice gave way and the boy fell through.
Nausea had not been mentioned in “The Humbling Steppe.”
A blissful feeling overtook me as I drifted off to sleep at the base of the crevasse. No fear, no discomfort, only a vague sadness at the thought of all that remained undone. This is death? I thought. It is but nothing.
Author, whose name I cannot remember, I would like a word with you.
The shivering was insane. Like a tremor. His head was shaking on his neck. He paused to puke a bit in the snow, white-yellow against the white-blue.
This was scary. This was scary now.
Every step was a victory. He had to remember that. With every step he was fleeing father and father. Farther from father. Stepfarther. What a victory he was wresting. From the jaws of the feet.
He felt a need at the back of his throat to say it right.
From the jaws of defeat. From the jaws of defeat.
Even when you were THAT you were still Allen to me.
Please know that.
Falling, Dad said.
For some definite time he waited to see where he would land and how much it would hurt. Then there was a tree in his gut. He found himself wrapped fetally around some tree.
Ouch, ouch. This was too much. He hadn’t cried after the surgeries or during the chemo, but he felt like crying now. It wasn’t fair. It happened to everyone supposedly but now it was happening specifically to him. He’d kept waiting for some special dispensation. But no. Something/someone bigger than him kept refusing. You were told the big something/someone loved you especially but in the end you saw it was otherwise. The big something/someone was neutral. Unconcerned. When it innocently moved, it crushed people.
Years ago at “The Illuminated Body” he and Molly had seen this brain slice. Marring the brain slice had been a nickel-size brown spot. That brown spot was all it had taken to kill the guy. Guy must have had his hopes and dreams, closet full of pants, and so on, some treasured childhood memories: a mob of koi in the willow shade at Gage Park, say, Gram searching in her Wrigley’s-smelling purse for a tissue—like that. If not for that brown spot, the guy might have been one of the people walking by on the way to lunch in the atrium. But no. He was defunct now, off rotting somewhere, no brain in his head.
Looking down at the brain slice Eber had felt a sense of superiority. Poor guy. It was pretty unlucky, what had happened to him.
He and Molly had fled to the atrium, had hot scones, watched a squirrel mess with a plastic cup.
Wrapped fetally around the tree Eber traced the scar on his head. Tried to sit. No dice. Tried to use the tree to sit up. His hand wouldn’t close. Reaching around the tree with both hands, joining his hands at the wrists, he sat himself up, leaned back against the tree.
How was that?
Maybe this was it. Maybe this was as far as he got. He’d had it in mind to sit cross-legged against the boulder at the top of the hill, but really what difference did it make?
All he had to do now was stay put. Stay put by force-thinking the same thoughts he’d used to propel himself out of the med-bed and into the car and across the soccer field and through the woods: MollyTommyJodi huddling in the kitchen filled with pity/loathing, MollyTommyJodi recoiling at something cruel he’d said, Tommy hefting his thin torso up in his arms so that MollyJodi could get under there with a wash—
Then it would be done. He would have preëmpted all future debasement. All his fears about the coming months would be mute.
This was it. Was it? Not yet. Soon, though. An hour? Forty minutes? Was he doing this? Really? He was. Was he? Would he be able to make it back to the car even if he changed his mind? He thought not. Here he was. He was here. This incredible opportunity to end things with dignity was right in his hands.
All he had to do was stay put.
I will fight no more forever.
Concentrate on the beauty of the pond, the beauty of the woods, the beauty you are returning to, the beauty that is everywhere as far as you can—
Oh, for shitsake.
Oh, for crying out loud.
Some kid was on the pond.
Chubby kid in white. With a gun. Carrying Eber’s coat.
You little fart, put that coat down, get your ass home, mind your own—
Damn. Damn it.
Kid tapped the ice with the butt of his gun.
You wouldn’t want some kid finding you. That could scar a kid. Although kids found freaky things all the time. Once, he’d found a naked photo of Dad and Mrs. Flemish. That had been freaky. Of course, not as freaky as a grimacing cross-legged—
Kid was swimming.
Swimming was not allowed. That was clearly posted. No Swimming.
Kid was a bad swimmer. Real thrashfest down there. Kid was creating with his thrashing a rapidly expanding black pool. With each thrash the kid incrementally expanded the boundary of the black—
He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head as he minced. Progress was tree-to-tree. Standing there panting, you got to know a tree well. This one had three knots: eye, eye, nose. This started out as one tree and became two.
Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med-bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a classroom window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring with that little red-headed shit who wouldn’t give her a chance at the book table, the guy who used to hand-paint bird feeders in college and sell them on weekends in Boulder, wearing a jester hat and doing a little juggling routine he’d—
He started to fall again, caught himself, froze in a hunched-over position, hurtled forward, fell flat on his face, chucked his chin on a root.
You had to laugh.
You almost had to laugh.
He got up. Got doggedly up. His right hand presented as a bloody glove. Tough nuts, too bad. Once, in football, a tooth had come out. Later in the half, Eddie Blandik had found it. He’d taken it from Eddie, flung it away. That had also been him.
Here was the switchbank. It wasn’t far now. Switchback.
What to do? When he got there? Get kid out of pond. Get kid moving. Force-walk kid through woods, across soccer field, to one of the houses on Poole. If nobody home, pile kid into Nissan, crank up heater, drive to— Our Lady of Sorrows? UrgentCare? Fastest route to UrgentCare?
Fifty yards to the trailhead.
Twenty yards to the trailhead.
Thank you, God, for my strength.
In the pond, he was all animal-thought, no words, no self, blind panic. He resolved to really try. He grabbed for the edge. The edge broke away. Down he went. He hit mud and pushed up. He grabbed for the edge. The edge broke away. Down he went. It seemed like it should be easy, getting out. But he just couldn’t do it. It was like at the carnival. It should be easy to knock three sawdust dogs off a ledge. And it was easy. It just wasn’t easy with the number of balls they gave you.
He wanted the shore. He knew that was the right place for him. But the pond kept saying no.
Then it said maybe.
The ice edge broke again, but, breaking it, he pulled himself infinitesimally toward shore, so that, when he went down, his feet found mud sooner. The bank was sloped. Suddenly there was hope. He went nuts. He went total spaz. Then he was out, water streaming off him, a piece of ice like a tiny pane of glass in the cuff of his coat sleeve.
Trapezoidal, he thought.
In his mind, the pond was not finite, circular, and behind him but infinite and all around.
He felt he’d better lie still or whatever had just tried to kill him would try again. What had tried to kill him was not just in the pond but out here, too, in every natural thing, and there was no him, no Suzanne, no Mom, no nothing, just the sound of some kid crying like a terrified baby.
Eber jog-hobbled out of the woods and found: no kid. Just black water. And a green coat. His coat. His former coat, out there on the ice. The water was calming already.
Kid was only out there because of—
Down on the beach near an overturned boat was some ignoramus. Lying face down. On the job. Lying down on the job. Must have been lying there even as that poor kid—
It was the kid. Oh, thank Christ. Face down like a corpse in a Brady photo. Legs still in the pond. Like he’d lost steam crawling out. Kid was soaked through, the white coat gone gray with wet.
Eber dragged the kid out. It took four distinct pulls. He didn’t have the strength to flip him over, but, turning the head, at least got the mouth out of the snow.
Kid was in trouble.
Soaking wet, ten degrees.
Eber went down on one knee and told the kid in a grave fatherly way that he had to get up, had to get moving or he could lose his legs, he could die.
The kid looked at Eber, blinked, stayed where he was.
He grabbed the kid by the coat, rolled him over, roughly sat him up. The kid’s shivers made his shivers look like nothing. Kid seemed to be holding a jackhammer. He had to get the kid warmed up. How to do it? Hug him, lie on top of him? That would be like Popsicle-on-Popsicle.
Eber remembered his coat, out on the ice, at the edge of the black water.
Find a branch. No branches anywhere. Where the heck was a good fallen branch when you—
All right, all right, he’d do it without a branch.
He walked fifty feet downshore, stepped onto the pond, walked a wide loop on the solid stuff, turned to shore, started toward the black water. His knees were shaking. Why? He was afraid he might fall in. Ha. Dope. Poser. The coat was fifteen feet away. His legs were in revolt. His legs were revolting.
Doctor, my legs are revolting.
You’re telling me.
He tiny-stepped up. The coat was ten feet away. He went down on his knees, knee-walked slightly up. Went down on his belly. Stretched out an arm.
Slid forward on his belly.
Then had a tiny corner by two fingers. He hauled it in, slid himself back via something like a reverse breaststroke, got to his knees, stood, retreated a few steps, and was once again fifteen feet away and safe.
Then it was like the old days, getting Tommy or Jodi ready for bed when they were zonked. You said, “Arm,” the kid lifted an arm. You said, “Other arm,” the kid lifted the other arm. With the coat off, Eber could see that the boy’s shirt was turning to ice. Eber peeled the shirt off. Poor little guy. A person was just some meat on a frame. Little guy wouldn’t last long in this cold. Eber took off his pajama shirt, put it on the kid, slid the kid’s arm into the arm of the coat. In the arm were Eber’s hat and gloves. He put the hat and gloves on the kid, zipped the coat up.
The kid’s pants were frozen solid. His boots were ice sculptures of boots.
You had to do things right. Eber sat on the boat, took off his boots and socks, peeled off his pajama pants, made the kid sit on the boat, knelt before the kid, got the kid’s boots off. He loosened the pants up with little punches and soon had one leg partly out. He was stripping off a kid in ten-degree weather. Maybe this was exactly the wrong thing. Maybe he’d kill the kid. He didn’t know. He just didn’t know. Desperately, he gave the pants a few more punches. Then the kid was stepping out.
Eber put the pajama pants on him, then the socks, then the boots.
The kid was standing there in Eber’s clothes, swaying, eyes closed.
We’re going to walk now, O.K.? Eber said.
Eber gave the kid an encouraging pop in the shoulders. Like a football thing.
We’re going to walk you home, he said. Do you live near here?
He gave a harder pop.
The kid gaped at him, baffled.
Kid started walking.
Eber drove the kid out ahead of him. Like cowboy and cow. At first, fear of the popping seemed to be motivating the kid, but then good old panic kicked in and he started running. Soon Eber couldn’t keep up.
Kid was at the bench. Kid was at the trailhead.
Good boy, get home.
Kid disappeared into the woods.
Eber came back to himself.
Oh, boy. Oh, wow.
He had never known cold. Had never known tired.
He was standing in the snow in his underwear near an overturned boat.
He hobbled to the boat and sat in the snow.
Past the bench and the trailhead and into the woods on the old familiar path.
What the heck? What the heck had just happened? He’d fallen into the pond? His jeans had frozen solid? Had ceased being bluejeans. Were whitejeans. He looked down to see if his jeans were still whitejeans.
He had on pajama pants that, tucked into some tremendoid boots, looked like clown pants.
Had he been crying just now?
I think crying is healthy, Suzanne said. It means you’re in touch with your feelings.
Ugh. That was done, that was stupid, talking in your head to some girl who in real life called you Roger.
Here was a stump.
He sat. It felt good to rest. He wasn’t going to lose his legs. They didn’t even hurt. He couldn’t even feel them. He wasn’t going to die. Dying was not something he had in mind at this early an age. To rest more efficiently, he lay down. The sky was blue. The pines swayed. Not all at the same rate. He raised one gloved hand and watched it tremor.
He might close his eyes for a bit. Sometimes in life one felt a feeling of wanting to quit. Then everyone would see. Everyone would see that teasing wasn’t nice. Sometimes with all the teasing his days were subtenable. Sometimes he felt he couldn’t take even one more lunchtime of meekly eating on that rolled-up wrestling mat in the cafeteria corner near the snapped parallel bars. He did not have to sit there. But preferred to. If he sat anywhere else, there was the chance of a comment or two. Upon which he would then have the rest of the day to reflect. Sometimes comments were made on the clutter of his home. Thanks to Bryce, who had once come over. Sometimes comments were made on his manner of speaking. Sometimes comments were made on the style faux pas of Mom. Who was, it must be said, a real eighties gal.
He did not like it when they teased about Mom. Mom had no idea of his lowly school status. Mom seeing him more as the paragon or golden-boy type.
Once, he’d done a secret rendezvous of recording Mom’s phone calls, just for the reconnaissance aspect. Mostly they were dull, mundane, not about him at all.
Except for this one with her friend Liz.
I never dreamed I could love someone so much, Mom had said. I just worry I might not be able to live up to him, you know? He’s so good, so grateful. That kid deserves—that kid deserves it all. Better school, which we cannot afford, some trips, like abroad, but that is also, uh, out of our price range. I just don’t want to fail him, you know? That’s all I want from my life, you know? Liz? To feel, at the end, like I did right by that magnificent little dude.
At that point it seemed like Liz had maybe started vacuuming.
Magnificent little dude.
He should probably get going.
Magnificent Little Dude was like his Indian name.
He got to his feet and, gathering his massive amount of clothes up like some sort of encumbering royal train, started toward home.
Here was the truck tire, here the place where the trail briefly widened, here the place where the trees crossed overhead like reaching for one another. Weave-ceiling, Mom called it.
Here was the soccer field. Across the field, his house sat like a big sweet animal. It was amazing. He’d made it. He’d fallen into the pond and lived to tell the tale. He had somewhat cried, yes, but had then simply laughed off this moment of mortal weakness and made his way home, look of wry bemusement on his face, having, it must be acknowledged, benefitted from the much appreciated assistance of a certain aged—
With a shock he remembered the old guy. What the heck? An image flashed of the old guy standing bereft and blue-skinned in his tighty-whities like a P.O.W. abandoned at the barbed wire due to no room on the truck. Or a sad traumatized stork bidding farewell to its young.
He’d bolted. He’d bolted on the old guy. Hadn’t even given him a thought.
What a chickenshittish thing to do.
He had to go back. Right now. Help the old guy hobble out. But he was so tired. He wasn’t sure he could do it. Probably the old guy was fine. Probably he had some sort of old-guy plan.
But he’d bolted. He couldn’t live with that. His mind was telling him that the only way to undo the bolting was to go back now, save the day. His body was saying something else: It’s too far, you’re just a kid, get Mom, Mom will know what to do.
He stood paralyzed at the edge of the soccer field like a scarecrow in huge flowing clothes.
Eber sat slumped against the boat.
What a change in the weather. People were going around with parasols and so forth in the open part of the park. There was a merry-go-round and a band and a gazebo. People were frying food on the backs of certain merry-go-round horses. And yet, on others, kids were riding. How did they know? Which horses were hot? For now there was still snow, but snow couldn’t last long in this bomb.
If you close your eyes, that’s the end. You know that, right?
His exact voice. After all these years.
Where was he? The duck pond. So many times he’d come out here with the kids. He should go now. Goodbye, duck pond. Although hang on. He couldn’t seem to stand. Plus you couldn’t leave a couple of little kids behind. Not this close to water. They were four and six. For God’s sake. What had he been thinking? Leaving those two little dears by the pond. They were good kids, they’d wait, but wouldn’t they get bored? And swim? Without life jackets? No, no, no. It made him sick. He had to stay. Poor kids. Poor abandoned—
His kids were excellent swimmers.
His kids had never come close to being abandoned.
His kids were grown.
Tom was thirty. Tall drink of water. Tried so hard to know things. But even when he thought he knew a thing (fighting kites, breeding rabbits) Tom would soon be shown for what he was: the dearest, most agreeable young man ever, who knew no more about fighting kites/breeding rabbits than the average person could pick up from ten minutes on the Internet. Not that Tom wasn’t smart. Tom was smart. Tom was a damn quick study. Oh, Tom, Tommy, Tommikins! The heart in that kid! He just worked and worked. For the love of his dad. Oh, kid, you had it, you have it, Tom, Tommy, even now I am thinking of you, you are very much on my mind.
And Jodi, Jodi was out there in Santa Fe. She’d said she’d take off work and fly home. As needed. But there was no need. He didn’t like to impose. The kids had their own lives. Jodi-Jode. Little freckle-face. Pregnant now. Not married. Not even dating. Stupid Lars. What kind of man deserted a beautiful girl like that? A total dear. Just starting to make some progress in her job. You couldn’t take that kind of time off when you’d only just started—
Reconstructing the kids in this way was having the effect of making them real to him again. Which—you didn’t want to get that ball roiling. Jodi was having a baby. Rolling. He could have lasted long enough to see the baby. Hold the baby. It was sad, yes. That was a sacrifice he’d had to make. He’d explained it in the note. Hadn’t he? No. Hadn’t left a note. Couldn’t. There’d been some reason he couldn’t. Hadn’t there? He was pretty sure there’d been some—
Insurance. It couldn’t seem like he’d done it on purpose.
Little panic here.
He was offing himself. Offing himself, he’d involved a kid. Who was wandering the woods hypothermic. Offing himself two weeks before Christmas. Molly’s favorite holiday. Molly had a valve thing, a panic thing, this business might—
This was not—this was not him. This was not something he would have done. Not something he would ever do. Except he—he’d done it. He was doing it. It was in progress. If he didn’t get moving, it would—it would be accomplished. It would be done.
This very day you will be with me in the kingdom of—
He had to fight.
But couldn’t seem to keep his eyes open.
He tried to send some last thoughts to Molly. Sweetie, forgive me. Biggest fuckup ever. Forget this part. Forget I ended this thisly. You know me. You know I didn’t mean this.
He was at his house. He wasn’t at his house. He knew that. But could see every detail. Here was the empty med-bed, the studio portrait of HimMollyTommyJodi posed around that fake rodeo fence. Here was the little bedside table. His meds in the pillbox. The bell he rang to call Molly. What a thing. What a cruel thing. Suddenly he saw clearly how cruel it was. And selfish. Oh, God. Who was he? The front door swung open. Molly called his name. He’d hide in the sunroom. Jump out, surprise her. Somehow they’d remodelled. Their sunroom was now the sunroom of Mrs. Kendall, his childhood piano teacher. That would be fun for the kids, to take piano lessons in the same room where he’d—
Hello? Mrs. Kendall said.
What she meant was: Don’t die yet. There are many of us who wish to judge you harshly in the sunroom.
Hello, hello! she shouted.
Coming around the pond was a silver-haired woman.
All he had to do was call out.
He called out.
To keep him alive she started piling on him various things from life, things smelling of a home—coats, sweaters, a rain of flowers, a hat, socks, sneakers—and with amazing strength had him on his feet and was maneuvering him into a maze of trees, a wonderland of trees, trees hung with ice. He was piled high with clothes. He was like the bed at a party on which they pile the coats. She had all the answers: where to step, when to rest. She was strong as a bull. He was on her hip now like a baby; she had both arms around his waist, lifting him over a root.
They walked for hours, seemed like. She sang. Cajoled. She hissed at him, reminding him, with pokes in the forehead (right in his forehead), that her freaking kid was at home, near-frozen, so they had to book it.
Good God, there was so much to do. If he made it. He’d make it. This gal wouldn’t let him not make it. He’d have to try to get Molly to see—see why he’d done it. I was scared, I was scared, Mol. Maybe Molly would agree not to tell Tommy and Jodi. He didn’t like the thought of them knowing he’d been scared. Didn’t like the thought of them knowing what a fool he’d been. Oh, to hell with that! Tell everyone! He’d done it! He’d been driven to do it and he’d done it and that was it. That was him. That was part of who he was. No more lies, no more silence, it was going to be a new and different life, if only he—
They were crossing the soccer field.
Here was the Nissan.
His first thought was: Get in, drive it home.
Oh, no, you don’t, she said with that smoky laugh and guided him into a house. A house on the park. He’d seen it a million times. And now was in it. It smelled of man-sweat and spaghetti sauce and old books. Like a library where sweaty men went to cook spaghetti. She sat him in front of a woodstove, brought him a brown blanket that smelled of medicine. Didn’t talk but in directives: Drink this, let me take that, wrap up, what’s your name, what’s your number?
What a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this! Warmth, colors, antlers on the walls, an old-time crank phone like you saw in silent movies. It was something. Every second was something. He hadn’t died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn’t dead. He’d killed no one. Ha! Somehow he’d got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was—
The woman reached down, touched his scar.
Oh, wow, ouch, she said. You didn’t do that out there, did you?
At this he remembered that the brown spot was as much in his head as ever.
Oh, Lord, there was still all that to go through.
Did he still want it? Did he still want to live?
Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please.
Because, O.K., the thing was—he saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to withheld.
The kid came out of the kitchen, lost in Eber’s big coat, pajama pants pooling around his feet with the boots now off. He took Eber’s bloody hand gently. Said he was sorry. Sorry for being such a dope in the woods. Sorry for running off. He’d just been out of it. Kind of scared and all.
Listen, Eber said hoarsely. You did amazing. You did perfect. I’m here. Who did that?
There. That was something you could do. The kid maybe felt better now? He’d given the kid that? That was a reason. To stay around. Wasn’t it? Can’t console anyone if not around? Can’t do squat if gone?
When Allen was close to the end, Eber had done a presentation at school on the manatee. Got an A from Sister Eustace. Who could be quite tough. She was missing two fingers on her right hand from a lawnmower incident and sometimes used that hand to scare a kid silent.
He hadn’t thought of this in years.
She’d put that hand on his shoulder not to scare him but as a form of praise. That was just terrific. Everyone should take their work as seriously as Donald here. Donald, I hope you’ll go home and share this with your parents. He’d gone home and shared it with Mom. Who suggested he share it with Allen. Who, on that day, had been more Allen than THAT. And Allen—
Ha, wow, Allen. There was a man.
Tears sprang into his eyes as he sat by the woodstove.
Allen had—Allen had said it was great. Asked a few questions. About the manatee. What did they eat again? Did he think they could effectively communicate with one another? What a trial that must have been! In his condition. Forty minutes on the manatee? Including a poem Eber had composed? A sonnet? On the manatee?
He’d felt so happy to have Allen back.
I’ll be like him, he thought. I’ll try to be like him.
The voice in his head was shaky, hollow, unconvinced.
He heard her in the entryway. Mol, Molly, oh, boy. When they were first married they used to fight. Say the most insane things. Afterward, sometimes there would be tears. Tears in bed? Somewhere. And then they would—Molly pressing her hot wet face against his hot wet face. They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you always expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever—
She came in flustered and apologetic, a touch of anger in her face. He’d embarrassed her. He saw that. He’d embarrassed her by doing something that showed she hadn’t sufficiently noticed him needing her. She’d been too busy nursing him to notice how scared he was. She was angry at him for pulling this stunt and ashamed of herself for feeling angry at him in his hour of need, and was trying to put the shame and anger behind her now so she could do what might be needed.
All of this was in her face. He knew her so well.
Overriding everything else in that lovely face was concern.
She came to him now, stumbling a bit on a swell in the floor of this stranger’s house.