Bumping slowly up the dirt driveway toward Clare’s house, dust swirling behind him into the blue air despite his caution, Buddy knew what Clare would say as soon as he got out of the car.
“You’re late, Buddy, fifty minutes late.” She would say his name like that, italicized, as if having to pronounce it might give her a yeast infection, and then she’d go on. “You said 9:45. Don’t try to add this time on the end of the visit.” And if she was really angry, she’d accuse him of going too fast on the driveway and stirring up the dust on purpose. His foot itched on the gas pedal, but he ignored it.
They were all waiting for him on the porch, and when he got to within twenty yards of the house the kids came boiling down the stairs, or the boys did, their blond hair bobbing in the sunlight; Bernice, always sensitive to her mother’s feelings, held back. Buddy barely had the door open before the boys were jumping and pawing at him like puppies, the two of them yelling about what they wanted to do first: Simpler’s Market to buy gum, the sporting goods store for new baseball gloves, the Gazebo for lunch and ice cream; he’d promised.
“Now hold on, guys,” he said, wrapping them both up and spinning around on the grass. They were heavy, they had their heads thrown back and their eyes closed and their mouths open, they were clutching at his clothes. He spun faster and faster and tucked his head between theirs; their hair smelled of shampoo and their small white teeth shone as they giggled. At last he slowed and released them and they wobbled and tumbled over one another, still giggling, and he stooped and put his hands on his knees to overcome his dizziness. The boys were watching him from a tangle on the ground.
“Daddy’s got the day planned,” he said.
The heat was damp and clinging, and by the afternoon it would be murderous; the crickets sounded like machinery. He pulled his shirt away from his chest as he stood and walked to the bottom of the stairs. “Give your mother a kiss and then get in the car, and I’ll tell you what’s up while we’re driving.” He certainly wasn’t going to tell them in front of Clare.
Finally he looked at Clare, who was squinting and holding an apron to her face until the dust had settled; a long plume of it was still drifting by the house. She was in her Grandma Moses mode, Buddy thought, wearing an old flower-print house dress and black lace-up ankle boots, and though it didn’t surprise Buddy it continued to puzzle him; for a woman who made so much money at work, she dressed like a pauper. He couldn’t understand it, but of course she’d told him that was his problem: The things he worried about didn’t matter, and the things that did he couldn’t be bothered with.
Satisfied that the air was fit to breathe again, Clare snapped out the apron and rested one arm across Bernice’s bony shoulders.
“You’re late, Buddy,” she said. “Don’t try to add this time on to the end of the visit.”
Buddy sucked his teeth and stared at the field of oats across the driveway — blue-green and still in the wavering heat — trying not to smile. No sense angering Clare by laughing: next time, she might not let them go at all. Divorce had taught him the value of ordering his desires in a way that marriage never had.
In the field a swallow swooped low and folded its wings and dropped onto an oat stalk, the stalk bobbing under the bird’s weight and then springing back up again, and a yellow moth fluttered uncertainly across the long serrated rows of grain. The two contrary motions looked like some kind of child’s game, and watching them brought on more dizziness. He turned back to the porch and cleared his throat.
“I won’t, Clare. Seven o’clock, right?”
“Six-thirty,” she said. “Too many drunks out driving on Saturday nights; I want them home well before dark. I know, Buddy. I work in hospital administration. I see the reports.”
As if I didn’t know, he thought. It was only after she’d gone to work at the hospital that things had turned sour, Clare suddenly ambitious in a way she’d never been before, bringing home reports to read and mark up every night, spending hours in front of her computer researching other hospitals’ web sites, urging him to go back to school and make something of himself, too.
“I’m already something,” he’d finally told her after months of sloughing it off. He was in the kitchen, leaning against the counter, and outside in the indigo sky the first stars glowed, silver and green. It was something that in the past she would have remarked upon. He put his coffee cup in the sink and faced her. “I’m a landscaper.”
“You’re not a landscaper. You cut people’s lawns.”
“I’m a landscaper, and I know things.”
“You know things?”
“I know things. There’s four types of soil. I’ll bet you didn’t know that. Or why Sumacs are the first trees to grow on swampy ground.”
“Those are facts, Buddy, not knowledge. You’re always confusing the two.” Then she left the room and that was that.
At last Clare gave Bernice’s shoulders a squeeze, releasing her, and she skipped down the stairs to greet Buddy, offering her cheek for a kiss.
He gave her a brief hug and said, “You ready for a good day?”
“I sure am, daddy.”
“Good girl,” he said, and hugged her harder. Her bones felt as delicate as a bird’s.
After Bernice climbed into the car, he said, “Six-thirty’s fine by me.”
The boys kissed their mother and sprung off the porch; the car rocked under their tumbling weight.
“I’ve got a lot planned,” Buddy said to Clare. He shut the door and walked around the car. “But I don’t have a number you can reach us at.”
Clare moved to the edge of porch, shaking her head and holding up both hands, palms out. “Oh no, Buddy, that’s quite all right. Don’t tell me more. I’m always better off not knowing what your plans are.”
“Well.” He tossed the keys and caught them. “Love to stay and chat, but the meter’s ticking.”
Without waving, he climbed in and drove off, faster than he had too, kicking up pebbles against the undercarriage and a cloud of dust behind the car. In no time, the cloud had obscured his view of Clare, who was standing by one of the white pillars in her limp yellow dress, watching them, and when they turned onto the road and he looked back, she was gone.
They were going fishing, to a favorite spot of Buddy’s, from long ago. Fields of wild grass surrounded the stream, hills that the kids could roll down, a forest of glinting birch and somber pine. There were train tracks, too, and if a train went by they’d lay nickels on the rails for the wheels to flatten; he’d brought along a dozen.
Bernice was happy, but the boys sounded disappointed.
“There’ll be something there you like, I guarantee it.”
“What?” Zach said. Of the three, he was the quickest to suspicion, often announcing that he didn’t like new things — shoes, cereal, amusement park rides — and refusing to try them until after a long battle, a battle which Buddy hoped to forestall.
“If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise.”
“I don’t like surprises.”
“You will this one.”
Zach frowned, and Buddy decided to try another tack, asking about school and friends and the farm.
“How’s mom doing, not yelling too much?”
“Don’t even try, dad,” Bernice said, looking up from her book, a history of dinosaurs he’d given her once they reached the highway. “And don’t you answer either,” she said to her brothers. “He just wants to know so he can start a fight with mom, and if that happens, we’re the ones who’ll get in trouble.”
“I don’t want to fight with mom, Bernice. I just want to know how you’re doing.”
“We’re doing fine, dad. And we’re with you.” She smiled at him in the mirror and moved aside a strand of hair which had blown over her eyes, and the habitual gesture pleased him: He missed most the contrarian minutiae of the family’s daily life, routines for breakfast and bed, long-standing arguments about chores, the sound of children breathing in the night. Who would have guessed? But without it, most nights he slept poorly.
Still, he was glad Bernice had told him to stop poking around the edges of their life; Clare could be bossy, yet Bernice wasn’t going to have any trouble standing up to her, or to him. Good for her.
A few minutes later they turned off the highway to a county road, which smelled of freshly mown hay, and after two miles they came upon a woman out running. Twenty, Buddy guessed, maybe twenty-two, a leggy red-head. He’d always had a thing for red hair. At one point, early on, Clare had dyed her hair to please him, but then later, after the fights began, she’d told him that his pleasure in it was just one more sign of his immaturity. That had seemed doubly unfair, bringing up the past in order to wound him, and in doing so transforming a pleasant memory into a weapon, and he realized now that right then he should have seen it: If their shared past was becoming treacherous, the future could only be worse.
He slowed because they were going to pass the runner near a turn and he didn’t want to crowd her if a car swung wide coming in the other direction; she’d have only the rock-lined drainage ditch to jump into. She was wearing a black jogging bra and fluorescent green shorts, and as he was watching the distance shrink between her and the hood of the car, Ted started talking about school. He was learning math.
“One times ten is ten,” he said.
“That’s right,” Buddy said. “Good for you. You really are learning it.”
They were in the curve now, and no other cars were coming. Buddy gave the woman plenty of room and then she was behind him. In the rearview mirror he couldn’t see much of her, just her shoulders and the bobbing hair, but in the side view mirror he could make out the smooth skin of her thighs, shiny with sweat and a summer tan, and the black bra. A small silver necklace bounced as she ran, flashing in the sun.
“And two times ten is ten. And three times ten is ten.”
“Dad.” Bernice slapped her book closed. “Pay attention.”
He flushed and caught her eye in the mirror. “I am.”
“To the road.”
When he looked ahead, he was startled to see that he’d drifted into the other lane.
* * *
“This is the surprise?” Zach said. “A boat?” He kicked at the white gravel beside the aluminum fisher, the clicking sound of stone on stone briefly drowning out the hum of crickets.
“Not just any boat, a fishing boat,” Bernice said. She ran her fingers along the polished gunwale. “Cool.”
“No it’s not,” Zach said. “It’s a boat.”
“But it’s not the surprise,” Buddy said. “This is.” He produced some cardboard cut-outs and three palm-sized cans of spray paint.
“We’re going to paint the boat?” Ted said.
“Great,” Zach said, sitting on a log. “We get to work all day.”
“Not the boat,” Buddy said. “Just its name. I want you guys to help me paint its name on.”
He unfolded the stencils, which he’d made that morning, on one of the boat seats. Readying the stencils and driving the boat here were the reasons he’d been late. Unhitching the trailer took surprisingly long, but he’d kept at it, even while knowing his tardiness would inspire a tongue-lashing from Clare, because he wanted the day’s events to be a surprise, and showing up with the trailer would have ruined that. The children had had enough bad surprises recently; he wanted to give them a good one to balance things out.
Bernice bent to read the stencils.
“The S-S-Irr-e-spon-sible. Dad!” she said, twirling to face him, her voice disapproving. But he could see she was trying not to smile. “You can’t name a boat that!”
“Come on,” he said, and nudged her. “Even your mother would have to laugh at that; it’s what she always calls me.”
But she wouldn’t laugh, he knew that. She’d be galled that he’d made a joke of it, which was of course the larger part of the pleasure he took in it.
As Buddy shook the paint cans upside down, making the marbles inside rattle, he told the boys they could each paint an S; Bernice would get to do the Irresponsible.
“That’s not fair,” Ted said. “She gets a lot more letters than we do.”
“He’s right,” Bernice said. “Let’s count them up and split them.”
In the end they each got five. It made a mess; their hands we’re unsteady holding the stencils and the paint ran, and Zach didn’t like it when Ted painted some of his R while doing his own.
“Do his over, and then do yours,” Buddy said.
“No. It won’t work. He’ll still have more. He already did his, and some of mine.”
“Do mine, then,” Bernice said. “I don’t care.”
Zach took both of their suggestions on his next turn, painting his brother’s letters, his own, and some of Bernice’s.
When they were done, most of their cans were left, though Buddy’d bought the smallest size.
“Can we use these?” Zach said, squatting by the creek. He watched a cricket hop from the shore to a damp gray rock in the water and then sprayed it with the paint.
“Hey! Stop that!” Buddy said, and grabbed the can from him. The cricket tried to spread its painted wings, then toppled into the water and spun away, legs working frantically.
“Da-ad, it’s fun.”
Bernice sprayed her can into the air. The blue mist smelled like banana oil and drifted down like fireworks.
He could see her point. Why have paint cans if they couldn’t use them? He handed the can back to Zach. “All right,” he said. “But one place only, those timbers.” He pointed out the railroad bridge under which the creek flowed, narrowing like the waist of an hourglass.
“There’s lots of nasty words on them you can cover up. Anywhere else would just be making a mess.”
“But I can’t read!” Ted and Zach said in unison.
As they were walking off, he said, “Nothing else, understand? Don’t paint the grass. I don’t want something I have to clean up.” He stood back to inspect the boat.
* * *
Each of them ended up with one blue hand, but Buddy counted the painting a success, as did the children. He’d known they would, just as he’d known that if he told Clare she’d have called him a fool. “A waste of time,” she would have said.
But it wasn’t. Painting the silly name on the boat, the heat, the song of the crickets and the smell of the pungent grass, these were things they’d remember for the rest of their lives. He’d swum here often as a teenager, cooling off in the deep pools after days spent working on neighboring farms or for his uncle’s landscaping business, and he’d planned this day after recalling his own. Ahead were a picnic, and fishing from the boat, and sugar cubes and carrots to feed a swayback horse that sometimes wandered down from the surrounding fields for a drink; the memories they’d take away would be great ones. Blue hands. Who could ever forget that?
“Hey guys,” he said. They were upending rocks and shouting out their finds, salamanders and crayfish, a colony of potato bugs. “Let’s take the boat out on its inaugural cruise.”
They sprinted back along the shore, Ted splashing through the water, and when they got to the boat Buddy handed out lifejackets.
“Do we have to?” Zach said, dropping the bulky orange bib to the grass. “I’m hot, daddy, and they make me look goofy.”
“That’s why you have a dad,” Buddy said, “to embarrass you. Go on now, put it on. I’ll show you how we’re going to cool off.”
Once they were all in the boat he pushed off, the bottom scraping over the gravel, and jumped aboard himself, the gunwale rocking to within inches of the water from his weight. Bernice giggled at the motion, but Zach’s face paled; he looked as though he might get sick.
“What’s the matter, Zach?” Buddy said, rocking the boat again as he sat. “I thought you liked rides.”
“I do,” he said. “But I’ve never been on a boat before.”
“Use the oars, dad,” Bernice said. “Make us go fast.”
“Oars?” He shifted his legs and looked beneath them. “No oars on this trip.”
“But how will we go?”
The boat was drifting over the brilliant water, spinning, the bow turning from east to west in the slow current.
“First time a boat hits the water it’s not supposed to go.”
“What?” Zach said. “It’s supposed to sink?”
“No. Flip. Like this.”
Buddy grabbed the gunwales and began throwing his weight rapidly back and forth, trying to flip it. “Come on,” he said, “help me.”
After a surprised few seconds, when they weren’t quite sure he meant it, all three children started moving, too, out of sync at first, and the boat rocked less than it had initially, but after a few tries they got the boat to truly sway. Up went one side, the far gunwale touched the water, everything hung in the balance, and then giggling they shifted their weight and the boat tilted back and slapped down on the water and splashed them and began to tip up the other way.
At last they overbalanced, and with the boys screaming with delight and Buddy bellowing and Bernice wide-eyed and oddly silent, the boat flipped over on top of them, and when Buddy surfaced, laughing, Bernice was standing in knee deep water, shouting. He mistook the sound for laughter and tried to hug her, to share her joy, but she slapped his hand away and screamed even louder.
“Daddy! That hurt!” Now he could see she was crying. “You could have hurt the boys!” The boys were fine, kneeling a bit stunned in the shallows, looking from him and Bernice to the overturned boat, but he was sure that if Bernice hadn’t been angry, they’d be laughing, too.
“Bernice,” he said. “Come on. We needed to cool off, and it was a joke. No one was going to get hurt. I left the oars out on purpose, and why do you think I had you wear the life jackets?”
“I got hurt, daddy. My head.” She placed her palm flat on top of it. “The boat hit me when we flipped over, and I stubbed my wrist on a stone.”
“You stubbed your wrist?” he said, thinking a joke might still turn her anger around.
“At least you didn’t sprain your nose.”
“Daddy.” She tried to stomp her foot but succeeded only in splashing herself. “You know what I mean.”
He leaned on the overturned hull, his shoulders sagging. “I’m sorry,” he said, torn between wanting to tell her to lighten up and genuinely feeling foolish. “Can you forgive me?”
“I will,” Ted said.
“Me too,” said Zach. He was squeezing water from his hair. “Let’s do it again.”
“No,” Bernice said. “And mummy won’t forgive you, either. You’re the adult. You’re supposed to know better.” When she pulled her hand from her head, blood spotted the palm. “See,” she said holding it up to show him. “I told you it was a stupid thing to do.”
“Oh sweetie,” he said, slogging through the water toward her. “Let me help you.”
“No thank you,” she said, unsnapping the lifejacket and flinging it to the muddy shore. “You’ve helped enough.”
When she was out of the water, she twisted water from her shorts and began to walk. “If we weren’t so far away, I’d walk home and leave you three fools alone.”
“God,” Ted said. “We should change her name to mom, junior.”
* * *
He gave them Crackerjacks and let them explore on their own. Bernice would come around, she always did. It was simply a matter of waiting until she brought him some trophy she discovered, a fossilized bug or leaf, a stone with a vein of mica. Her cut had been nothing, no more than a scratch, really, but righting the boat was harder work than he’d expected; he had to hold it steady in the current and the water trapped beneath the seats was enormously heavy, and he had to lift the boat a few inches at a time and let the water drain out without setting it down for a rest. If he did, all the water flowed back in.
Done, he beached the boat and sat on it to catch his breath. His wet clothes smelled swampy. He’d have to shower the kids before bringing them back, but that would be all right; they liked his apartment, and he could throw their clothes in the washer and dryer while they bathed, let them eat popcorn and watch a movie.
He lay down on the warm gravel to dry himself after sifting out the sharpest pieces, and it was surprisingly comfortable, but the sun was blinding. Still, he decided against switching to the shady side of the boat — if he did, his clothes wouldn’t dry — and he pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes instead. He could hear the children, talking, laughing, moving away from him toward the railroad bridge, Bernice’s voice the loudest. Perhaps he should be worried, but they were miles from nowhere; what could happen to them? The water at its deepest rose only to the boys’ waist and Bernice’s hips, and they all knew how to swim. He settled back and listened to Bernice tell the boys what to look for, the rounded stones she wanted, and then a little later, after a silence, he heard her say her head felt fine, really she’d just been scared, and she shouldn’t have yelled at Daddy like that.
Like what? Zach said. His voice was a little higher and even from a distance Buddy could always distinguish it from his brother’s, which gladdened him, and then Bernice was screaming. Buddy shifted on the gravel, waiting for her demonstration to stop, and when it didn’t her screams began to sound ominous. He sat up sweating and realized from the sun’s position, directly overhead now, that he’d drifted off, and then he heard two of them screaming at least, and he stood and started running.
“What is it?” he yelled. “Tell me who’s hurt!” He thought it must be a snake that had bitten them, and he tried to remember if he’d ever seen any rattlers or copperheads nearby, or even heard of them being in the area. One leg was asleep and he couldn’t move fast enough on the slippery rocks, and he hoped they weren’t near the water. Why hadn’t he made them keep their life jackets on? Clare would cut his balls off.
But no one was hurt. The three of them were running down a hill on the other side of the bridge through the long green grass toward the water, stopping at its edge, screaming, giggling, playing tag, their faces bright red with joy. When his breathing calmed down, when his anger did, Buddy joined the game. A trio of white butterflies, startled by their passage, floated up behind them.
Next came the picnic. Buddy persuaded them to rejoin him in the boat, after swearing solemnly and repeatedly that he wouldn’t tip it over again, and they pushed off with the picnic basket on the middle seat between them. When they were far enough out in the creek to escape the mosquitoes, he dropped the steel anchor and waited for the boat to swing round before handing out the food. Smoked ham and Genoa salami for everybody, pastrami and artichoke hearts for Ted, fresh rolls and bags of chips and cooled bottles of lemonade. It was a grand success.
“What about you, daddy?” Zach asked, after Buddy had served them all. “What are you going to drink?”
“No more lemonade in the cooler?” he asked.
Bernice checked. “Three bottles, daddy.” She tried to hand him one.
Buddy waved her off. “Those are yours, I’m afraid.”
“No, daddy. Have one.”
“Absolutely not. I brought two for each of you, and two you’ll have.” He picked up a fishing rod that had been laying beside him, the line out and disappearing into the water, and began to reel it in. “Let’s see what the river gods have left us.” The pole bent immediately, as under a great weight.
All three children stopped eating to watch. “Ah,” he said, reaching into the cool water to grasp something. “They’ve been kind.” He pulled up a quart bottle of root beer, water coursing down its brown smooth glass. “Enough for me and for you.”
“Dad,” Bernice said. “Mom’s against that.”
“Against what?” Zach said.
“You mean other than the entire twentieth century?” Buddy said.
It always amazed him how she could italicize her words just like her mother.
“I’m kidding, Bernice, and I’m not going to let you drink this. I know mom doesn’t give you soda. It’s to christen the boat.”
But he hadn’t been kidding. After getting her degree in Health Administration and starting to work at the hospital, Clare had been transformed into one of her grim Scottish ancestors, working ridiculous hours and banning television and radio from the house. The funbuster, he’d taken to calling her. She kept her computer — she needed it for work — but everything else that smacked of modernity had to go. Evidently sex had been part of that package, and then he himself was.
He sluiced the water from the bottle with his hand and gripped it by the neck.
“Ready?” he said.
Head averted, he clinked it gently against the bow, and then again, harder, when it didn’t break. After a third time, he sighed and brought the bottle back on board.
“Let me try,” Zach said, scrambling over the seat toward him, one hand held out for the bottle.
“No.” Buddy put his hand on Zach’s shoulder and gently pushed him down. “It might break in your hand and cut you.”
He studied the bottle. A small plane passed high overhead, its engine note as faint as an insect’s call. “Speaking of cuts,” he said, “it’s probably not a good idea to break this and have glass lying around. People wade in this stream, fishermen. I guess we’ll have to drink it after all.”
Bernice scowled and shook her head but didn’t say anything, so Buddy waited until she was busy eating her lunch before unscrewing the cap and starting to drink, and when she wasn’t looking, he poured some into the boys’ empty lemonade bottles.
* * *
After dessert — cupcakes, fresh from the Sweetheart Bakery — they began to fish. They weren’t catching anything, but that was all right; mostly it was time for teasing and telling jokes. They finished the root beer, the heat settled, a white rim appeared at the edges of the sky. Eventually, after half an hour or so, the children grew silent, and then, one by one, they lay down their rods and climbed out of the boat and waded to shore, with Bernice being the last to go. Buddy decided to keep fishing, wanting to catch something for dinner, a sunfish, a trout, whatever might be around, but he knew it was time to let them go. “Stay close,” he called out to them. “And stay close together.” This time he made them keep on their life jackets.
From the heat and the lack of sleep he began to lose himself in reverie as the boat eddied in the current, remembering — though he tried not to — coming here with Clare on their first date, and how he’d chosen the spot because the night was steaming and the water would be hard to resist. There was a full moon. She’d been wearing too much perfume, something flowery, and he’d loved it. They’d talked, laughed, walked over the tarry railroad bridge holding hands, and to impress her he’d climbed out onto where the ties extended into space and hopped from one to another, eyes closed, arms held out for balance, and then maneuvered her into betting him he wouldn’t jump into the water below, swollen by summer storms, and finally said he’d do it only if she did, too. He’d leaped and she’d followed right after, and when she climbed out her soaked blouse had clung to her breasts and water dripped from her hair down her glistening throat. At the thought of it, he felt himself stiffening with desire, which made him remember other trips here with Clare, how during the following months they made love on the hot dusty rocks under the railroad bridge with the train pounding by overhead, the way the struts creaked and shivered, the shifting of the timbers. His memory was so vivid he heard the whistle of an approaching train.
Then the whistle sounded again, puzzling him, until he realized it was a real train, heading their way.
“Hear that, kids?” he said, setting down the fishing pole. “Time to put the nickels on the tracks.” He reached into his damp front pocket for them.
The children didn’t respond, and the whistle blew again and then again right after. The train was making noise now, too, getting closer, an electric humming and the wheels clicking over spacers and some kind of odd, mechanical squealing that sounded like brakes, and it caused him to turn his head up toward the tracks. The children were on the trestle, running, their orange life jackets like kites in front of them, pulling them on but slowing them up, and the train was rounding the bend on the berm, bearing down on them. He felt the water move beneath him from the train shaking the ground, and the train was so big it looked impossibly close. The whistle now wasn’t stopping.
He was in the water and then he was on the shore. Jump, he screamed, good God run, and he was running too, sodden feet slipping on the shale, moving in the same direction the children were, screaming over and over for them to jump. The water was deep enough they had their life jackets they’d be fine if only they jumped. They didn’t jump, they seemed not to hear him. They were running straight ahead, they had thirty-five yards to go to the end of the bridge, thirty maybe, the train a quarter-mile. In the heat waves rising from the steel tracks, they shimmered as they ran, as if they were ghosts.
The whistle wouldn’t stop and he wouldn’t take his eyes off them, not allowing the train into his field of vision as if that might protect them, and then he was doing calculations: they were going to make it, they weren’t going to make it, they were going to make it with seconds to spare. Finally, he had no choice, he had to look at the train. Sparks and smoke were coming from the wheels, he hadn’t known steel could do that, and the engineer was leaning so far out the window that he seemed in danger of falling, waving something blue. His mouth was open wider than a cave and he must have been screaming, too, but Buddy couldn’t hear him over the noise of the squealing wheels; the train had reached the bridge. The first timbers shivered from the weight and then he watched the shiver move down the timbers in front of the train like a wave, and then he looked back at his children, and he knew, knew in a way that turned his bones liquid, dropping him to his knees on the sharp stones where he began to cry, knew that they were going to make it.
Ten yards he guessed, two or three seconds they’d have after they leaped to safety and the oncoming train obliterated the space they’d just vacated, passing close enough to slice through their shadows but far, far away from touching their corporeal bodies. The tears, the hugging, the terrified children, the admission to Clare and her blistering response, everything that would transpire from this moment on, he saw it all, knew what it was going to be like, and for the punishments that he would have to endure, he was grateful.
Hours later, when he pulled into the driveway to Clare’s house, his house, he reminded himself, he’d never insisted she pay him for his half though he could have, a few lights were on. He stopped fifty yards away and cut his headlights and worked through them. The kitchen, the front hallway, Bernice’s room upstairs. That one he looked at the longest. He knew them all, the yellow squares against the dark, but what good did knowing do? He’d known the house was his when he signed the papers on it with Clare, known that he and Clare would grow old there, watching their kids grow up and play in the surrounding fields, had even known how the three of them would look bundled up in their snowsuits as they rolled down the snowy woodpile on the coldest, clearest days of winter, while he watched from behind the window by the sink, a cup of steaming coffee in his hand. But he’d never seen anything like that. In June they’d moved in, and by August Clare had asked for a divorce, and when he’d suggested counseling, she told him to get as much as he wanted, but said he’d have to do it living somewhere else, and after they were divorced. Knowing something didn’t make it true.
He got back in and gunned the engine, loud enough for Clare to hear, and turned on the lights. She’d know some things, too. That it was his car coming up the drive, that he was hours late, that her ex-husband was a fool and that she was a lucky woman to be rid of him. But there were other things she wouldn’t know.
She wouldn’t know that at the last instant one of the boys had stumbled and fallen, Ted, he thought, though he’d never be sure, and that the other two had kept going and made it to safety, Bernice in the lead, her usual spot, her brother only a step behind. Or that he’d found himself still screaming even though he knew she couldn’t hear him over the approaching roar of the train and the train’s shrill whistle and the fear and blood which must have been thundering in her own head as it was in his, screaming because he knew she could read his lips, Jump please jump for God’s sake jump, just for even one of his kids to live, that’s all he wanted, don’t do the right thing, he was begging her even as he knew she wouldn’t listen because she’d always been Clare’s daughter and not his, or that she leaned over the edge and peered down at him for no more than a second, watching his lips move, her face pale and round over the orange bib of the life jacket, or that she’d straightened then and turned away, back toward her brother, back toward the oncoming train, pulling her other brother by the hand.
Or that even then, once they’d grabbed their other brother, it had seemed they might still have a chance, and that his heart had lifted to see the three of them up and running again for the end of the bridge, running, running, running, their hair streaming and their legs pumping and their mouths open, until he had realized it was far too slowly and much too late, or that the train had caught them, all of them, as one, in a single, sickeningly swift instant.
Or that when the police had come, and the firemen, and later the cameraman from a local news station, that he had told them all that the children’s mother was dead, because it was news she should get not from a stranger, but from him, and that along with the officials he’d spent a horrifying and fruitless two hours searching for a last, blue hand.
No, she wouldn’t know any of that, and that was all right. He wanted her to hold on to her ignorance and to her anger, sure of her anger’s righteousness as she rose from her chair and strode down the hallway and threw open the door and let light spill out over the porch to guide him in from the darkness, before other emotions took over which had nothing to do with him, because he knew now that knowing things was worthless, and that she was about to discover that what she’d known all along was true. He slowed up. For a few seconds more, he wanted to spare her that knowledge.