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SECOND PLACE: "The Swallow"

One family gets a crash course in the frailty of life

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The daughter is so exquisitely angry she can barely speak of the accident. Her anger seems more precious than her life, and it is the anger itself that the father knows she is convalescing now instead of her body. She spends most of the day in bed, fuming, occasionally dragging herself into her wheelchair and cursing under her breath. The father winces at the words she whispers in her anger and pain, words he'd kick a kid out of his classroom for, so natural in her mouth it's like she's practiced them for years. She is a brittle stack of rage rolling around the house, tight-lipped and trembling when the mother helps her use the bathroom, sullen and narrow-eyed at the dinner table as the father serves the scalloped potatoes and ham.

And the house is crowded now, with son-in-law, daughter, and the mother's mother who has been living with them for the last six months. The grandmother has dementia, and daily asks, "Who are these people in my house?"

She looks offended when the father says, "It's our house. We all live here."

The grandmother says, "Who is that woman? The lame ugly one."

"That's your granddaughter," says the father. "Your granddaughter."

And the grandmother hisses, "I don't have a daughter."

The father knows he needs to calm her down, because if she gets upset she is unpredictable and prone to incidents like the one three days ago when the mother came home and found her alone in the kitchen.

"How was your day, Mom?"

"Oh, it was a great day. We've decided. It's settled."

"What's settled, Mom?"

"Why, me and him," meaning the father, "we're getting married. Didn't he tell you? We're in love."

And that night the mother cried in bed, weeping softly so only the father could hear. Shh, he said, rubbing her back. Shh, shh, shh, because he simply has no solution to this problem, no formula for sorting out the concentrated anguish that has swallowed his family whole.

In school his students strike him as astounding fools. They sit grinning behind their desks like smug clowns, eat Cheetos and chew open-mouthed, flashing their orange-stained teeth at each other. They whisper and nudge and fidget in their chairs while he tries to teach. Last week one boy, a good student, filled the momentary silence after a question with an explosive fart, and the whole class erupted into bawdy cheers and an extended chanting of the boy's name. For the first time in nearly 20 years of teaching the father did nothing to quell a class disturbance. He walked to his desk and sat down, put his head in his hands and covered his eyes until the chanting stopped and the students began a nervous shushing. They whispered and coughed as the father sat at his desk, and finally they grew completely silent until the bell rang and the father listened to them shuffle out of the room.

The father was still slumped over his desk when he heard the boy cough.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Ray."

He lifted his head and blinked at the boy. The classroom was empty but for the two of them.

"It was rude of me."

The boy's freckled face was flushed and he was holding out a piece of paper. "I did the problem," he said.

The father looked at the paper with its neat rows of penciled numbers and the solution circled at the bottom in a wide elliptical ring.

"No," he said.

"It's not right?"

"Apology not accepted," he said, and put his head back in his hands.

Forgiveness, thinks the father. He bends to run his finger across a twisted portion of a bicycle's down tube where the paint has cracked and risen like parched earth. A thing designed for giving away. It was 21 years ago that his car struck and killed a retarded girl at a bus stop early one winter morning. The roads were icy, and she had stepped off the curb, people said afterward, to check for the bus. He had not been speeding. It was not his fault, the witnesses all agreed, and yet the father had gone to her funeral desperate for forgiveness. His daughter was 2, and he had held her in his arms through both the service and the burial, refusing his wife's offers to take her even when he went to pay his respects to the girl's parents.

"I am so sorry," he said to them, taking care to look the father in the eye as he said it.

They thanked him and shook his hand as if he were just another sympathetic acquaintance. Afterward he realized he had kept his daughter in his arms as shield and security in case they attacked him, and for years afterward it was not the retarded girl's death that scalded him anew every time he recalled that winter, not the terrifying moment of impact when his car stuck her legs and she turned a sickening flip and landed on the hood, but the fact that he had hidden behind his child to avoid the threat of their anger and to bolster his chances of grace.

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