“I try not to remember the past,” Miguel said.
“You’ve got to remember the past,” Charles said. “There’s nothing else to remember,” and he laughed at something that wasn’t an original thought, but something he’d heard from a celebrity on a late night talk show. Charles had thick pouty lips that seemed to stick out like a duck, and a long pointy nose that stuck out further.
“That’s not what I mean,” Miguel said. “I just don’t think about it. I sure as shit haven’t thought about Clark Jones in fifteen years.”
“That’s not true,” Scott said. “Not about Jones. I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that kid in fifteen years either. But that’s not true,” and Scott pointed at Charles. “I can remember futures.” Scott too had a pointy nose, but it wasn’t as prominent as Charles’ nose. He had a lot of floppy chestnut hair, and a large chest leading to a larger belly that had steadily increased since college, leading to the purchase of new pants one size larger every couple of years.
“You remember the past. You can only remember the past. That’s what remembering means,” Charles said. He took a drink of his beer, something with a name like hopageddon or hopjestic or hopgasm. Charles had a highly developed theory regarding what you could tell about someone based on who their favorite Muppet was.
“That is what that word means,” Miguel concurred. The bar wasn’t too loud for a Friday night, but Miguel was on the edge of his chair and leaning forward across the table so he could hear Scott and Charles’ part of the conversation—he wasn’t very good with background noise. Miguel had a big round jaw and a big round nose and curly hair that, if allowed it to grow out, also would have been big and round. Miguel was dressed for much colder weather than it actually was, with a thick turtleneck sweater and a coat he’d unzipped but hadn’t taken off. It was October-warm outside, even warmer inside the bar, and tiny rounds of sweat the size of black caviar eggs appeared on his forehead.
“No, that’s bullshit,” Scott said. He’d had a few drinks and was perhaps too emphatic, like a grownup in a snowball fight zipping fastballs at children. “What did you want to be when you grew up?” he pointed at Miguel.
“First base for the Cubs.”
“You?” he asked pointing at Charles.
“That’s not the point.”
“That is the point,” Scott said. “Any time you remember what you wanted to be you’re remembering the future.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Charles said. “I’m just saying, you can only remember the past.”
“And that’s not true.”
“But that’s not what I meant,” Charles repeated. “You can only remember the past from now. You can’t remember the future from now. Definitionally. Definitionally. It’s a definition thing. I’m right. Just, by definition, I’m right. I need to go to the bathroom. But I’ll take another one of these if she comes around again,” and Charles pointed to his glass, still a third full, as he rose from his chair and began making his way to the back of the bar.
The bar was dark oak, mirrors, a tin ceiling, six or seven large-screen televisions, and low tables and chairs. It was a hive of noise, and black-clad workers carried seasonally appropriate glasses and plates from the bar or kitchen out to the customers—a lot of pumpkin, cinnamon, and maple syrup flavors made their way into the drinks and the food.
“I can’t believe you got me out here for this. I didn’t even like him in college,” Scott said, motioning his head back towards Charles in the bathroom.
“That’s not true,” Miguel said, and Scott merely raised his eyebrows and gave him a look.
“And it doesn’t help that he looks exactly like he did in college, shit eating grin and everything,” Scott said.
“I got the grays and you got a gut,” Miguel said. “But calm down, he flies out tomorrow. Besides, it’s a good excuse to get you out. I’m still surprised Mia let you out.”
“Shut up. I’ve been busy. I called you last time,” Scott said.
“I know, I know, we’re both busy. He was a good excuse, though. I had to tell Heather a long lost college buddy was coming to town. I bet you had to tell Mia the same.”
“Not really. She’s still getting adjusted to work, so come Friday she’s pretty much exhausted. As long as she didn’t have to come with, I could go anywhere.”
“Is she full time?” Miguel asked.
“Full part time,” Scott explained as Charles came back to the table. “I was just saying Mia is working full time now. Maddie just started kindergarten, so Mia’s nine to two five days a week. She was doing three days before. September, just this September, she switched over.”
“How is it?” Miguel asked.
“I think she’s glad to be back in there, and she doesn’t have to watch Maddie all day so she’d be bored if she was still home. But come Friday she’s ready to collapse.”
“I thought you had girls,” Charles said. The waitress had come with a new beer, and he gulped down the last of his previous glass before setting it aside.
“Maddie is Madeleine.”
“Oh. I thought you were saying ‘Mattie.’ Nine to two is nothing,” Charles said.
“It’s not nothing.”
“I’d love to work nine to two,” Charles smiled.
“It’s a transition, and she’s still getting used to it. And when she’s done she picks up Maddie and Jennifer for the rest of the day. The point is, Mia wanted to stay in.”
“How old is Jennifer now?” Miguel asked.
“That can’t be.”
“It can and it is.”
“Jennifer’s a girl, right?” Charles grinned.
“That’s some luck having two girls.” Charles added, still with a grin. “Nine? Well, you’ve got a few years before the high school boys come around. Good luck with that. That’s the good thing about boys. I’ve got two.”
“Me too,” Miguel said. “I mean, I’ve got one, but he’s a boy. He’s going as Ironman for Halloween.”
“I’ve got an Ironman and a Batman,” Charles said. “What do you have, princesses?”
“No,” Scott said. “Maddie hasn’t made up her mind yet. I think Mia is taking her out tomorrow. Jennifer is going as that girl from The Hunger Games.”
“Katniss Everdeen,” Charles said.
“Why do you know that?”
“They’re good books,” and Charles shrugged his shoulders and took another gulp of his beer. “Have I told you about my Muppet theory? Who’s your favorite Muppet?”
“I know your theory, and I’m not doing this,” Scott said. “I’m a grownup.”
“Alright, alright,” Miguel said, holding up his arms as if to separate middleweights. “What are you in town for?”
“Some client thing,” Charles explained. He was working hard on his beer and already had it down below the halfway mark. “The client is ours down in Dallas, but they’re looking to do some business here, and they want to make sure our Chicago office can handle it. They sent me up to kind of make introductions, explain what we do for the client, kind of be the point person for service issues, shit like that. So I flew in this morning, we had a breakfast meeting, a meeting, lunch, a couple of other meetings, and then a big steak dinner. I’m full, but I’ve got room for another round if you guys are interested?”
Miguel shook his head.
“No,” Scott said looking at his watch.
“It’s Friday and I can expense it,” Charles offered has his best argument in favor of staying out.
“You’re also just going to a hotel five minutes away,” Scott said. He shook his head, and swallowed the last gulp of his drink, and savored the burn in the back of his throat. “I’ve got to catch a train that only runs every half-hour.”
“OK, fair enough,” Charles said, still grinning.
If not for Charles, Scott probably would have stayed out a bit longer with Miguel. Scott regretted how little he saw Miguel now, and was glad Charles had a work dinner so he and Miguel could hang out and get dinner on their own beforehand. One of Scott’s coat pockets was currently stuffed with a commemorative beer coozie from a mutual friend’s wedding in Denver. Scott hadn’t been able to attend, but Miguel brought the coozie back for him. The wedding had been five months ago, and they hadn’t found a time for the hand-off before now.
“How did we get here, guys?” Charles asked. “Huh? Am I right? I mean, not too long ago we were drinking beer, hanging out with Clark Jones.”
“You’re still drinking beer,” Miguel said.
“And I wasn’t hanging out with Clark Jones,” Scott added.
“Man, shut up. I mean, look at us. I’m flying to Chicago on business. We’ve all got kids. Isn’t this crazy? It wasn’t too long ago, right, when we were just randomly assigned to the same hall freshman year. Did you picture your life turning out like this?”
“I kind of figured I’d get a job and get married,” Miguel said.
“I’m talking about the big picture,” Charles pleaded. “What a long strange trip it’s been. Right? That sort of thing. Right? What a long strange trip it’s been. Who ever thought we’d be here? Sure, we knew we’d be somewhere, but here? This is wild, right? What did you want to do?”
“First base for the Cubs, I already said that,” Miguel said.
“I mean what did you really want to do when you could have done it? What did you want to do in college? Right? And here were are. How’d we get here? Of all places, how’d we get here?”
“By plane and boy are my arms tired,” Miguel said, laughing at a joke only he found funny.
“I’m serious. I’m serious. How’d we get here, and where do we go from here? Where do you want to go?”
“I’m pretty happy, where I am,” Scott said.
“That’s not true,” Charles said.
“I mean, you’re happy, fine,” Charles said, half apologetically and half condescendingly, still smiling. “But so what if you’re happy? Not so what. Happiness is not overrated. But we’ve got to be going somewhere, right? What’s next? What do you want to be next? Those are the great questions, aren’t they? Seriously. What’s next? How did we get here? Are we happy? How do we stay happy? What a long strange trip it’s been.”
“Next for me is going home,” Scott said looking at his watch. “I won’t be home until ten-thirty at this rate, depending on the trains.”
“Me too,” Miguel added. “We should settle up. It’s sad, but I don’t remember the last time I was out this late.”
Outside, Charles hailed a cab, said goodbye to Scott and Miguel, and then was driven away towards his hotel.
“I remember why I never liked that guy,” Scott said.
“It’s that same faux psychology bullshit he learned from one intro class and too much pot. Charles at two a.m. was one of the worst things in the world. Now it looks like all it takes is an expense account. And that same dumb self-satisfied look he always has on his face. He’s been failing up all his life. I can’t think of a single thing he’s actually earned.” Miguel looked up—it was dark and he liked the lights on the tall buildings. There was a crisp breeze, and he could feel his sweaty sideburns begin to dry. He was also a bit buzzed. “Whatever, at least he got us a night on the town, right? What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Jennifer’s got a soccer game,” Scott said. “Then raking leaves.”
“Yeah, I’m just about the same. We should do this again, sooner than last time. I’ll call you,” Miguel said, and he shook Scott’s hand.
Scott took a cab to a train, and got home shortly after eleven. Madeleine was in bed but Jennifer was still up, though showered and in pajamas and past her Friday night bedtime.
Mia met Scott at the door. She looked like a second wife even though she was Scott’s first and only, like a woman in a Brooks Brothers catalogue, with carefully coiffed dark brown wavy hair, and a heavily dimpled chin. Mia had just enough lines and bags around her eyes that you could accurately guess her age if you focused just on her eyes instead of her wardrobe, which tended to skew older, or her hair, skin or body, which skewed younger. Scott loved that Mia still met him at the door every night he came home from work, which she did tonight in white bootie slippers to keep off the chill from the hardwood floors. Flatfooted, she was taller than Scott, not to mention thinner, and because of him her shoe collection was almost entirely devoid of heels. It was a point Scott noticed and regretted, but had never actually raised out loud.
“How was Charles?”
“Same as ever.”
“Good. We had dinner before Charles met us.”
“We need to get over to see him and Heather more. How’s she doing?”
“Good, I guess. I don’t know, didn’t come up.”
“Didn’t come up. No, wait, he’s going as Ironman for Halloween.”
“That’s it?” Mia asked looking at Scott with a cocked head. “I don’t see how you can spend the whole night with someone and not find out anything about his wife or kid.”
“It didn’t come up,” Scott repeated, shrugging. “That’s why we need to get together more, so you and Heather can figure that stuff out. That can be the first line of the email inviting them over.”
Jennifer came out from the tv room, in sweatpants and an oversized red nightshirt, with the image of a knight in shining armor printed on it. It was a souvenir from a Massachusetts arms and armor museum they had visited as a side-trip when they went to Mia’s college reunion. Maddie was still too young and quickly tired of the museum. She wanted to get back to campus, which Mia took as a sign of another young feminist smitten by education. Really, Maddie just wanted to get back to the games they had set up for the alum’s kids, to her newly made friends, and to the endless supply of cookies in the shape of bears, the letter “C”, or Spencer Hall. The cookies were meant to transport alums back to their college days and open checkbooks, like some sort of Proustian prompt for 501(c)(3) charitable donations. Maddie liked the frosting.
But Jennifer was fascinated by the swords, the armor, and by the large stuffed horses wearing their own specially designed armor. Her favorite, though, was the white pit-bull dog, again stuffed, who also had his own armor for battle, and a plume of red and white feathers on his head. Mia took it as a sign Jennifer would be a leader willing to stand up to gender stereotypes if just allowed to follow her passions, or a vet because of the dog and horses. Once they returned home from the reunion Mia began checking out children’s books about animals and science from the library for Jennifer.
Scott figured Jennifer liked the swords, armor, horses, and dog because swords, armor, horses, and dogs are cool. He could not look at Jennifer in her knight shirt without thinking of that trip, and she wore that shirt a lot. A boy did not seem to be in the works. Scott and Mia had decided, at least for now, to stop at two, but he couldn’t think of what would make them go for three, and even then it would be a coin toss. The odds always go back to 50-50, no matter how many girls you already have. Scott could not want anything other than his girls, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want a boy, that he didn’t have a mental list of names for boys that he’d been updating over the decades depending on what he was interested in at the time: baseball players, generals, authors, presidents, artists, traditional Gaelic or Scandinavian names. It didn’t mean he hadn’t pictured himself playing catch or going to baseball games, or explaining the 46 defense and the West Coast offense.
Jennifer was a revelation that weekend, literally running from one exhibit to the next, making the connections between how advances in weapons led to advances in armor, and how advances in armor led to advances in weapons, asking interesting questions about how things were made, and marveling at the craftsmanship and artistry. Everything seemed to click for her and in Massachusetts.
“You’re still up?”
“I’m going to bed now.”
Scott looked at the large round clock above the mantle. “OK. But you’ve got to be fresh for the soccer game tomorrow.”
“I will be.”
“Is your sister in bed?”
“What did you guys have for dinner?”
“Pizza. I’m going upstairs.”
Jennifer ran up to her room, she seemed to run everywhere, and a short time later Mia and Scott went up to kiss her goodnight and turn out the lights. In the meantime they poured stemless glasses of wine in the kitchen, and took them to the thick couch in the tv room, where Mia put on a DVRed Mad Men episode they’d already seen. They talked about their days, the kids, Charles, Miguel, and weekend plans, in a stream of conversation that flowed, pooled, branched, and churned, carrying with it the sediment of past conversations, and laying down deposits for the future. During ebbs in the conversation they turned their attention to the television, and the booze, masculinity, and mid-century modern furniture of the 1960s. A re-run, they didn’t pay much attention, and allowed the images to flow by and wash over them. Yet as a re-run, Scott felt an odd sense of déjà vu, not merely that he’d seen the episode before, but that he’d lived through the sixties before as an advertising executive in New York, never mind that he wasn’t even born until the late seventies, and had only ever been to New York for a few short trips. He felt a loss for what could have been had he lived through the sixties, a nostalgia for something he could have no memory of, a longing for an impossibility. He went to bed with a deep sense of melancholy.
Neither Scott nor Mia admired the other’s ability to wake, or not, on the weekends. Mia could continue to snooze for hours, only getting out of bed after the kids, long up and watching cartoons, pulled her out of bed to fix breakfast. Scott, even without an alarm, woke at 6:58 a.m., every day. The alarm was set for seven. His eyes opened two minutes early, and he’d lay there until he had to shut off NPR and make his way to the bathroom. He didn’t understand how or why Mia would lay there letting so much of the day get away from her.
The bedroom was to Mia’s specifications. A few items were out of order and there were a few piles, but overwhelmingly the room was ordered, painted light blue with a white ceiling and white trim, dark espresso furniture, and white sheets, pillows, and blankets, all of which were exceedingly fluffy.
Ordinarily, Scott would have walked down the hall to the bathroom, gone downstairs, put on the coffee, retrieved the paper from the front walk, poured a cup of coffee, and settled into the big leather chair in the living room corner to read his way through as much of the paper as he could before the house began to stir, his feet out in front him on an ottoman.
But Charles, and the fact that Charles looked the same has he had at graduation, had gotten to him. Mia was the fashionable one, and Scott would go shopping with her and he might as well get something for himself, something a bit looser than what he was currently wearing. His pants went up an inch, which he grew into, so they went up another inch, which he grew into, so they went up another inch . . .
The back of Scott’s closet held a pile of old clothes that were too worn to wear around town, but which were good enough for painting and yard work. The pile also had old cleats, hiking boots, sneakers, and mesh shorts. Scott grabbed the shorts and sneakers from the pile, dressed, and headed downstairs. He put on the coffee for when he got back, and went out to the front yard to stretch.
The yard was covered in leaves and it smelled like the fall, like decomposition. He’d rake them later. Under the brown, yellow, and red leaves, pockets of bright green grass were visible. Pockets of dying yellow and brown grass were also visible. As Scott stretched he thought of the bag of winter lawn feed in the garage, and he thought through his day’s schedule. He’d do the yard work after Jennifer’s soccer game, while Mia took the girls out for Halloween costumes. Starting an exercise regimen in October was foolish—it would be too cold to run in few weeks, though this day was quite pleasant for early October, even in nothing more than mesh shorts and a t-shirt. He could look into a gym membership, or maybe putting a treadmill in the basement. The last time he’d been in a gym was probably college with Clark Jones. Jones always tried to get people to work out with him, often in exchange for a beer afterwards, and Scott now realized he had thought of Clark Jones twice in the last two days, which likely topped his total for the past decade.
Scott slapped both hands on the side of his gut, and set out running. He didn’t get far, and estimated generously that it was around a mile-and-a-half before he had to stop. He walked much of the way back. The belly didn’t seem to be worth it. There were meals he wouldn’t trade, early dates with Mia, some birthdays and anniversaries, McDonalds with the girls on occasion, and he flipped through his mind’s rolodex of people and holidays and restaurants, and there were a great many he would not give up. No doubt, though, there were countless other meals he didn’t remember, and which wouldn’t have hurt to have eaten a bit lighter at. Even at the great meals he wouldn’t change, did he so often have to clean his plate, so often drink something other than water, so often have desert? Scott wondered what it would have taken to fit into his old pants, and to have avoided starting a winter exercise regimen. But Charles looked identical to how he looked at 22, and even seemed to think the same way, asking “how did we get here?” and “what did you want?” and the next day he had Scott out of the house at 7:15 for a one-mile run. Scott ran his hand through his hair to wipe away the few beads of sweat that had formed on his forehead, and as he did so he was at least thankful he wasn’t going grey, like Miguel.
Scott brought the paper inside, poured a cup of coffee, and sat down in the corner chair. He made it through the weekend section and the opinion page before Jennifer and Madeleine came downstairs, said good morning, and Jennifer went into the tv room for morning cartoons. Jennifer was still in her knight shirt, and Madeleine was wearing pajamas with some sort of Tinkerbell-like fairies on them.
“Dad, I didn’t see you yesterday,”
“You didn’t. I saw you?”
“When did you see me?”
“I saw you last night when I got home. You were asleep but I looked in on you. And I saw you in the morning before I went to work. You were sleeping then too.”
“Mom said I had to go to bed.”
“She was right.”
“Where were you?
“I was out with friends from college. We told you that.”
“Do you know what you want to be for Halloween?”
“No. I think . . . I think a princess . . . but I don’t know yet.”
“Mom’s taking you to pick something out today.”
“Start thinking about what you want to be.”
With that Maddie ran up for hug, crinkling Scott’s paper, and then just as quickly and without prompting turned and joined Jennifer in front of the TV. Jennifer was predictable. Scott was never quite sure what Maddie would do next. “Maddie” actually began as “Mad Madeleine,” only later becoming a standard nickname.
Finishing the front section, Scott heard Mia begin moving over creaking floorboards upstairs, and the water start running in the shower. He read the business section, mostly skimming the articles except for the ones about personal investments. He had ten more years to save for Jennifer’s college, thirteen for Maddie. Scott had been out of college for more time than it would take Jennifer to be in college, but it felt so far away for Jennifer and so close for him.
The business section complete, Scott went into the other room to pour milk and cereal for the kids. Tall for her age and lanky, Jennifer had Mia’s dark brown hair, but also Scott’s pointy nose. She was like a gazelle, elegant and poised, but watchful and maybe even skittish. Maddie had Mia’s green eyes and dimpled chin, but the big mop of hair she didn’t like cut was Scott’s chestnut color, and she was average height or even a touch short for her age. Stubborn, “independent minded” as Mia put it, Maddie reminded Scott of some sort of Portuguese donkey, with long ears, large expressive eyes, and a head too big for the rest of her body.
When Mia came down, in brown boots, jeans, and a long grey sweater, Scott went up for his shower and to change for the day. When he was done Jennifer was already in cleats, and Mia was dressing Maddie. A short time later they were at a soccer field.
Scott found Jennifer’s games were, finally this season, enjoyable. In previous years there was little more than pointless kicking, generally towards the goal but not always. Now they finally seemed to be putting everything together, passing, dribbling, sometimes even kicking the ball backwards to maintain control.
Most enjoyably for Scott, Jennifer had become one of the better players on the team, and the coach used her as a sort of trouble shooter. Mia’s genes made Jennifer one the taller and faster girls, and this year she understood what every position was supposed to be doing. Last year, she could have been found daydreaming on the field, standing still and looking off at the trees or dogs on the sideline, or the game on the next field over. But this year if they needed to protect a lead, the coach would make Jennifer a defender, and if they needed goals, the coach would move her forward. Normally she played midfield, generously passing when the forwards had easy goals, or sprinting back to aid the defense.
The park had four or five fields, all of which were continuously occupied from about nine a.m. to five p.m. on Saturdays with packs of kids in orange, light blue, green, and purple jerseys ceaselessly gathering and warming up before their game, running back and forth on the field, or dispersing with their parents back to the parking lot. The fields were almost perfectly level and bright green. Scott tried not to think about how much of the town’s budget went to manicured soccer fields, and instead remembered the fields he had played on before quitting youth soccer somewhere around sixth grade. His had dips and swells, rocks that hurt when you fell and which would send the ball off in odd directions, and large patches at midfield that were just brown dirt.
Scott and Mia stood on the sidelines, while Maddie was off not too far away with other younger siblings, not watching the game. It was a clear, bright, sunny morning, and Scott regretted that he had forgotten his sunglasses at home. Mia hadn’t, and she didn’t have to squint like Scott as she followed Jennifer on the field. It was windy and the air was crisp, in a way that was exhilarating and told you that somewhere college football was being played. Scott wore a thick sweater but no jacket, and when the sun’s glare overcame his squinting he’d look down, then turn for a quick check on Maddie, then slowly back as he scanned the other parents before finding Jennifer again on the field.
Mia was beautiful in the fall sun, and this was the time of year they had first started dating, and how Scott always pictured Mia when he would think of her, with thick dark hair windswept back from her face, nose and cheeks slightly pink from the cold, dimpled chin forward. And yet, when he looked at the other parents, he looked at the other mothers. Mia was about middle-age for the group. Some were fat or simply unattractive. One, the goalie’s mother though Scott didn’t know her name, was gorgeous, with black hair, pale skin, red lips, and sharp features. Most of the mothers were in a vast middle range, somewhat good looking, with some good features and some flaws. Scott thought about ranking them objectively, but couldn’t figure out an adequate point system, and instead relied on the fact that, subjectively, they were just different, not better or worse. He wondered what they were like, and where he would be with any of them if he hadn’t gone out with Miguel after a touch football game and, covered in mud, met Mia in a bar. Maybe he’d still be at this same soccer game, with a different wife and a slightly different child, looking at Mia and wondering what might have been. He wondered if he’d be in the same house with the same job, or living someplace else entirely, across the country or around the globe. He wondered if these women were funny, if they were smart, if they were worth talking to, and if they were good in bed or elsewhere. He looked again at the goalie’s black-haired mom, and thought again about what it would it would be like to have sex with her, the particular sex acts she would perform and that she would be good at, and what he would give up for that. After a few seconds he felt Mia’s eyes upon him, and he looked away and wished again he had brought his sunglasses, so he could stare without anyone noticing. Scott returned his focus to the field of play, squinted, and located Jennifer chasing down a loose ball.
After the game, which Jennifer’s team won, back at home, Scott shuffled around the front yard, raking dead brown leaves into large piles, combining the piles, and pushing the piles to the curb. Mia was out with Jennifer and Madeleine shopping for Halloween costumes, and then would run a few other errands—picking up dinner, dry cleaning, and whatever else she had written down on the pad of yellow post-it notes she carried wherever she went.
Scott liked yard work because of the mindless physical activity. There was some strategy involved in deciding where to start raking, when to combine piles, and the shortest path around the yard to spread winter feed. But those decisions had been made years ago, and he could now follow a simple path back and forth across the yard without searching for a better way. The yard work was a respite because there was no thinking or complication, and he could switch his brain off. But this time Scott’s normally empty mind was filled with thoughts of what he wanted out of life, how he ended up where he was, and what, other than raking leaves, he could have been doing had he only made a few slightly different choices, or had events worked out slightly differently. He’d catch himself thinking, and try to push it out of his mind and refocus on the leaves at his feet. That led to thoughts of how the now dead leaves were once alive and thriving, how the seasons brought change and the winter brought death, and more symbols and metaphors of loss and time and lost time. It didn’t help that the house across the street already had up its Halloween skeletons in the yard. No matter how hard Scott tried to empty his brain, Charles kept popping back in, like Dan Aykroyd thinking of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Charles was just babbling after a long expensed dinner and a few beers on top of that. Scott thought back to the multiple times in college, sometime after midnight in someone’s room, when Charles would announce, “Communism works in theory.” What a fucking idiot. Nevertheless, as Scott raked he thought about changing seasons, about how it was pointless when there were more leaves on the trees and he’d have to rake again next week, how he’d taken over the raking from his Dad, and about if Jennifer would ever take it over from him, or if raking wasn’t a girl’s chore. Scott wondered if he’d had a boy, or if he would have a boy, if he’d be able to pass the raking on to the next generation, a bad inheritance. Scott wondered who raked the leaves at his parents’ house now.
Mia was still out with the kids when Scott came into the house to clean up. He compiled a can of diet soda and a plate of cheese and crackers in the kitchen, and went into the TV room. Various college football games were on, and he flipped back and forth between the games, PBS cooking shows, and sitcom reruns.
Eventually Mia and the kids returned. Jennifer showed Scott her Katniss costume, and Maddie showed off her frog costume. He wasn’t sure if Maddie had actually picked that out herself, or if Mia had used her influence to “suggest” an animal, an amphibian, and one frequently featured in scientific matters, from high school dissections to rain forest loss of habitat. It was a cute costume, bright green and body-enveloping like a onesie, with Maddie’s face visible only through the mouth of the costume’s head. It would be warm, and easily visible to cars at night. Still, Maddie probably wasn’t old enough for night time trick-or-treating. Jennifer would be heading out with a group of friends, by themselves, this year. It was the first year for that.
The afternoon passed, and soon Mia and Scott were making dinner together, eating with the girls around the dinner table, and then taking small bowls of soy ice cream into the tv room to watch The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie the girls had picked out from the library. Scott, Mia, Jennifer, and Maddie all tended to laugh at different parts. Halfway through the bowl of ice cream Scott regretted it, and thought he’d need to go for another run tomorrow and do some sit-ups to avoid buying larger pants. After that it was time for Maddie to go to bed, and Scott read to her for a little bit. A short time later it was Jennifer’s turn, and after kissing Mia and Scott, she was allowed to go up and read on her own for a time if she wanted to.
In the tv room the marquee college game of the night was well into the third quarter. Scott sat with his feet on the coffee table, the remote in his hand resting on the arm of the couch. Mia was next to him, her feet curled up underneath her body, her shoulder leaning firmly against Scott’s. She was partially watching the football, partially playing a game on her iPad.
“How are you?” Mia asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been quiet all day. You seem distant.”
“I’m fine. Maybe one too many with Miguel. I’ve had a dull headache since this morning. Maybe it was the run.”
“Did you take any aspirin? Or advil? Whatever it is we have?”
“No, I thought I could get through it.”
“That’s foolish,” and Mia grinned and kissed his cheek.
Scott loved the way she curled against him while watching tv, warm and present. She was smart, and there was a lot they disagreed about, but she always made sense. She made sure he made sense too, because if he said anything dumb she’d call him on it. Independent and fierce, but she’d curl next to him and he’d rest a hand on her thigh. Before going to commercial the tv cut to a line of cheerleaders, smiling, in white sweaters and white skirts, with ribbons in their hair and yelling at the screen about how good they thought their team was. The cheerleaders were unbelievably young and pretty and eager. Scott hadn’t gone to a big state school, but he wondered what might have been if he had. When the game returned after the commercials the camera was focused on shirtless and painted students in the stands, and then the quarterback talking to the coach.
“They look so young,” Scott said.
“Did we look that young?”
“I think I still do.”
“I remember when I thought high school kids were so old,” Mia said.
“I remember going to see my brother’s band concerts. I was in third grade and the high school kids seemed so much older. And now look at these guys. They look like kids.”
“But they’ll get Alzheimer’s early.”
“Stop that,” Mia said.
“Jennifer said the same thing the other day.”
“What?” Scott asked.
“About the high school kids. I picked up Maddie and her and I forget where we were going. Whole Foods? Wal-Mart? I forget if it was for groceries or if the kids needed something for school. We drove by the high school and they were just getting out, and everyone was still standing around hanging out. I could see Jennifer staring at them, and I thought she was like ‘oh, I can’t wait.’ I said ‘whatcha thinkin’,’ and she said ‘they look so old.’ She was worried.”
“She’ll be fine. And she’s got years.”
“I know she’ll be fine. But I looked over and I almost laughed. It’s silly how young they looked.” Mia trailed off, and gradually shifted a greater percentage of her attention away from the football and towards the iPad. She insisted on the latest tech upgrades and easily discarded old devices. Scott liked his old phone and laptop more and more the longer each one was around. But he appreciated the fact that when his old reliables broke down, Mia not only knew how to fix them, but could recover the files Scott thought he’d lost forever. Whenever he eventually upgraded, Mia already knew what his new device could do. “Do you want the aspirin?” Mia asked.
“No, stay here,” Scott said, and he pressed down on her leg. “It’s a lesson not to go out with Charles next time he’s in town.”
“You got to see Miguel.”
“We do need to see him and Heather more. I can’t stand Charles.”
“I was going to let the first one slide, but that’s twice. What did he do?”
“He didn’t do anything. He was just annoying. And it was annoying that he was the reason I got to see Miguel. Somehow he gets the credit for that?”
“What credit?” and Mia looked at him like he was being stupid.
“Everything that was so annoying about him in college is still annoying. You didn’t know him. Luckily you still don’t. I mean, one hundred percent, he’s identical. He’s one of these armchair psychiatrists. I don’t even think he was a psych major. I think he took one class, fifteen years ago, and he just sits there talking like he knows everything, and it’s all bullshit. But he shows up, runs his mouth, and he expects everyone to think he’s a genius?”
“What did he say?”
“He was just running his mouth.”
“Are you going to be able to calm down or do we need to talk about this?” Mia asked, her expression now having changed as if she was talking to Jennifer.
“I’m fine,” Scott said, and he turned his attention back to the football players who, with their helmets on, didn’t look like college kids anymore. He wondered how many were going to use their degrees, how many would end up in the NFL, and how many would suffer an injury and never play again. Helmets off, talking to the coach on the sidelines, or the students in the stands, they all looked fifteen years old. Scott zoned out, and focused on the images on the screen as one team marched downfield, and then the other did the same—if asked the score or what had happened on the previous play, he wouldn’t have known. Underneath, he wondered what he had done wrong. The kids on the tv were kids, and he was once like them. Fifteen years was nothing, but here he was, fixed. Happy, but what future had he given up for some sort of settled station in life, the banality of pleasant? He was once like those kids, and now he wasn’t. Last weekend he had watched college football and it was fun. For a moment he felt very sad, and at the next moment he hated Charles even more than before.
When the game was over they turned off the tv, put a few plates into the dishwasher, and went upstairs. Scott brushed his teeth while looking at his reflection in the mirror above the bathroom sink. He looked like he had yesterday, and as he would tomorrow. He didn’t think he looked all that different from how he looked in college or even high school, but stepping on the scale he knew he had put on weight. He slapped his hands on either side of his belly, and looked back at his reflection. He saw sunspots around his eyes and creases he knew hadn’t always been there. Scott felt a deep sense of loss for all the futures that had slipped away, and that he could now only remember. The goalie’s black haired mom flashed across his consciousness, a shooting star. He looked again at his face in the mirror, and it sagged, sad, as color drained away.
On his way back to Mia, Scott paused momentarily before the crack in the doorway to Madeleine’s bedroom. He pushed the door open, and the light from the hall dimly spilled in. He vaguely made out Madeleine’s form underneath the puffy white comforter, and a mop of hair on the pillow. He had no idea what would become of her. He felt excited. He looked forward to finding out.
About the Author: John Power
I was born and raised in and around New York City, graduated from college in rural Virginia, lived and wrote for a year in Warsaw, Poland, and currently reside in Chicago. My short stories have been published in Cleaning Up Glitter, Hemingway Shorts Vol. 2, Thoughtful Dog Magazine, The Great Lakes Review, and the Journal of Legal Education. My most recent novel, "Participation", and an earlier "Toy With the Flame", are available on amazon.com. My first novel, "Golden Freedom", is available on lulu.com