Jacob William Cox
She sat down in the shade and giggled. Oh, they were such silly people! So silly they made you giggle, and want nothing more than to run away through the first hot day of spring. Find a nice spot in the shade of a towering sycamore, and hide.
Sunlight filtered through the young leaves, mottling the roots and ground. The young girl smelled dirt. Earth. And she liked that smell, a rich living smell; the idea of bugs and worms. She dug her fingers in the dirt, moist after the rain which had fallen in the night. The pale blossoms on the trees, blown away in the winds, floated in ones and twos on the surface of the lake. Bending around the tree, hiding from nothing, she could see all this, the pond, the petals, and a mother duck with a few ducklings trailing.
She got up and walked over, dragged her dirty hands over her dress and stood watching. The ducklings were cute and awkward, she liked them most, bobbing mightily in the tiniest of wakes. She watched while the mother, communicating in measured quacks, guided her offspring to the bank and out, one by one, and all together in a line through the bushes and out of sight.
Right away there was another quacking. Her father calling. She had a feeling altogether peculiar as, from a distance, the voice grew stronger. She turned and she could see him from a long ways off, heading over the meadow toward her.
He was a man always writing in big black notebooks, or at least looking into them. He told the little girl it was very important she did not fuss with the notebooks, and that she must never hide them from him. He told her that because she had, one time on accident, taken it into her room and forgotten it, and it made him very angry. Her father smelled like tobacco. But sometimes he smelled like her mother, who smelled like perfume.
There he was. Around them in the park the world continued on as normal. The father did not remember the days when a park could be bigger than the whole world.
“So there you are,” he said, seeing in her face hazel eyes the same as he saw in the mirror. In the shade, a bit of light rimming off the pond tinged green by algae, he could really see it.
“Don’t fall in, kid. You know I’m not a very good swimmer.”
“It’s not deep, Dad. Look. I could stand.”
“Want to try?”
“No.” She shook her head, very seriously. “I don’t want to get my feet wet.”
“What about your head? I could hold you by your ankles.”
“No! That’s silly.”
“We’re a silly family, aren’t we?”
“No. You are. And mom. But I’m not.”
“What are you then, kid?”
“I don’t know that! But it’s not silly.”
“So why are you giggling?”
He reached down and picked his daughter up, tickling and swinging her while she giggled, writhed and laughed like all kids do, without memory.
While he put her to bed that night she lay against him listening to the story he read and after he got up and turned off the lamp and said good night, she could still smell him. In semi-darkness she gazed up at the ceiling, at the shadows on the ceiling. She told herself she would stay awake this time. But only a few minutes later she was sleeping.
They argued in hushed voices so as not to wake her. Of how things had changed. Of how they hadn’t changed. There was mention, again, of a vacation cancelled, and ballet practice, and bills, and groceries and the whole while in the otherwise dark living room the television droned on unheeded. Background music, elevator harmonies—something intended to be ignored.
Through the open windows not even the smallest breeze stirred. There was no scent of flowers. It was not a false spring, simply spring, though only the modifier to him carried significance.
“You know you can’t support a family like this,” she was saying. “We’re barely making it.”
He said nothing, refused to look at her. He felt the stillness, a stillness in which things had not yet been decided. To utter something was to shatter that equilibrium.
She rolled her eyes. “So typical, Nate. Just ignore it, and it will go away. That’s what you think? You think waiting will change something? You wrote a good book, Nathan. Six years ago. One, and it’s not even great, we both know that. How much did we ever make off it, anyway?”
“We?” He couldn’t help himself.
He saw her face blanch; a sort of victory, though temporary.
“Screw you, Nate. Look at you.” She said it all almost sadly. That, the tone more than the words, would be what tormented him. “I can see it,” she said. “There’s no poetry left in you. You’re dying. It’s like you don’t care anymore. You haven’t cared about anything,” she said with poison, “ever since Julia was born.”
In the silence to follow he felt a blindness, a numbness roll down through him. In a haze, a sort of delirium, he stood out of the sofa and moved toward her. She recoiled, and it was that motion, that fear he saw in her, which made him raise his hand. As if to validate it. She saw the hand and something left her. He could see it go. It went from him as well.
They stood there almost frozen, in a sort of stasis. He couldn’t speak, his thoughts wouldn’t coalesce around something to say, something to do. Almost on instinct he reached for his pants and pulled a shirt over his head and laced on shoes and the whole while she stood there, silent. The silence ate away at him but he had nothing to say. Therefore he slammed the door behind him.
Sticking her head out the open window she could see him, a minute later, step out to the street. She stood there, looking at him. This man she realized she no longer loved. A man. Nobody.
Nathan stopped and cocked his head toward her, as if he had known she would be watching. She ducked on impulse. Then saw how very foolish that seemed. But it was too late. That seemed to be the way of it. When finally she peered over the windowsill again, she saw nothing but the normal street scene. The same one which had become so mundane.
Virginia went into the bedroom and looked for Nathan’s cigarettes and found them in the desk drawer. She sat in bed smoking, trying to feel something. Studying the burning cigarette as if its logic might impart some previously unknown wisdom. But it was just another way to measure time. Funny, how it spooled out. So predictably it always caught you unaware.
Nathan went down Grove and steered right to walk under the elevated tracks of Myrtle Avenue. He knew where he was going, in a sense: away. He told himself he would never go back. Virginia wouldn’t expect him to do that; it would hurt her the most. To leave without even packing a bag. To leave with nothing, not a goodbye, not even his work. To vanish. To first walk out with sand underfoot and then lose it. Swim until it becomes impossible to swim back. Let the current take you out, let the water fill your lungs . . .
He fumbled for his cigarettes, and remembered they were in the desk drawer. So he just walked, gazing into the eyes of the occasional late-night passer-by. Because only the crazy ones would meet his eyes, he wondered if he were crazy. You are crazy, he thought. To have banked anything on poetry. To fall in love, to have listened to her and have a kid with her and it had been months since they’d made love, in a sense its own craziness, and years since they had been intimate. It was killing him. He had strayed and she could read it in him but it was because she was trying to hurt him. Therefore he had to hurt her back. Those were simply the rules.
He kept walking, moving always northwest, through the projects, through the dim alleyways of the industrial remnants between neighborhoods. Looking for something. For a time he stopped and considered a bronze statue of a young soldier with cap in hand, rifled fixed with bayonet against his shoulder. For the Ridgewood Boys who gave their lives in the great war, the plaque read. A hundred years ago, he thought. But no significance would come of it, and he kept walking. Along Bushwick place, White and Cook; he walked for more than a hour, pitying himself, rolling everything around in his mind. A great clatter, a shuffling of pots and pans, nothing.
He went back home. As always, the journey back was much shorter.
In the small hours the street where they lived was deserted. A half-moon stood suspended over the buildings, over the elevated train tracks. Not far away the train rolled by, headed towards Manhattan. Through the lit windows he saw a few heads and shoulders. And he listened, to the low grumble, almost a snarl; one of the sounds he no longer heard from having heard it so many times. You can forget anything, he thought. Until you remember it again.
Nate went inside and up the stairs to their apartment, stepping quietly. He knew she was awake in their bedroom, and that she heard him open the door. He didn’t care. He went into his daughter’s little room instead. Where once upon a time he’d had his desk and an ashtray and pens, dozens of pens and sheets of paper. And where now his daughter lay curled into a ball. From his vantage the moon nearly filled the window. It shined directly into that room and lay across his daughter. It was so quiet he could hardly bear it.
With all the innocence in the world, she opened her eyes and looked at him.
“Why are you crying, daddy?”
“Just being silly,” he said. “Go back to sleep, kid.”
Jacob William Cox was born in San Francisco and raised in Hawaii. He loves to travel. When he’s not on the road he calls New York City home. His fiction, which centers on themes of isolation, displacement and misunderstanding, has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Litbreak Magazine, Five on the Fifth, Anti-Heroin Chic, Atticus Review and The Santa Clara Review, among others.