Knothole

The boy whose gloved hand I hold as we cross the busy street on the way to his elementary school is my ex-wife’s son. To him I’m Uncle Tim, his emergency babysitter. He’s no blood of mine. I don’t think Austin knows how sick his father is, that the man’s knocking at death’s door, that he’s on a ventilator, that he’s probably never going to return from the hospital where Janet keeps vigil. Austin, odds are, will never see Robert alive again. I’m taking the boy to school because his father had signed up as the “volunteer helper” months ago, when the thing that’s killing him seemed only a minor discomfort in his groin, the kind of pain anyone would laugh off in the gym.

Trees lining the street suffer from splintered branches and raw amputations, the results of Superstorm Sandy and the power company’s line repairs. There’s an atmosphere of loss I’m familiar with—but this neighborhood regained its power after a day. It’s believed that new leaves will hide the tree damage in the spring.

Austin’s half- brother Jesse, the son Janet and I raised together before she announced her decade-long love for her co-worker and divorced me, is in his third year of law school in Boston. He’s engaged to a lovely Swiss girl who’s studying veterinary medicine in the same city. Jesse was twenty when the little boy keeping pace beside me was born. Both boys inherited my ex-wife’s heart shaped face. Jesse has my height and his mother’s black curls. Austin’s hair is blond like his father’s, nearly white at the neck-nape his ski cap doesn’t cover. I’m a dozen years older than Janet. Somehow, she and I now belong to different generations.

*****

“Robert and I are in love,” Janet had announced on the ride home after we’d dropped our son off for his freshman year of college, “and, now that Jesse’s out of the house . . .” She loved me still, she reassured while my tightening hands on the steering wheel seemed to compact everything in my chest into a ball of ice—but she was no longer in love with me. During their ten years together at work, she explained, the easy familiarity she and Robert shared had blossomed into feelings there was no longer any rational reason to suppress.

Jesse now splits his vacations between households: his mother, half-brother, and Robert get him for holiday meals; I get his study time, during which he works in his old bedroom, while I show myself a good father by turning down the volume on the TV.  I wonder if Jesse’s memories feel as hollow as mine often do. His mother’s simmering passion for Robert didn’t necessarily overshadow her maternal love. But Jesse must have sensed a shifting dynamic that I missed. He seems to think I need healing, and, as if I were the son and he the father, he’s tried to explain the world to me.

“‘Reality’ is bigger than we think,” he told me last semester break. “Imagine if you’d never seen a baseball game, and you were watching one through a knothole in a fence—but you could only see third base. What would you be looking at? The fielder’s feet? Dirt kicked up by a runner? Maybe, if you were lucky, a ball. You wouldn’t have a clue about other bases or players or what the crowd was cheering about. You wouldn’t get the game at all. That’s life, Dad. We only get a glimpse of things, and we have to infer the rest. We invented religion and philosophy and science to fill the gaps.”

“Hmm,” I nodded. “Very smart.” But I was thinking, and I’m thinking now, that Jesse’s got things backward. I’m not looking at third base, I’m standing on it. I’m anchored there on the field, and everything that “baseball” has to offer I see perfectly well. But there is a knothole—it’s far away in the outfield fence, beyond the players; it looks like a pinprick from where I’m stuck. That knothole’s the only “gap” I’m interested in— if I could free myself from third base and peek through it, maybe I’d see that there’s more to the world than “baseball.”

*****

 I’m a large man, and I fill the doorway of Austin’s classroom, where his teacher Ms. Gunderman meets me. She props the door open with a low-heeled foot while she thanks me for coming. Her dark hair is pulled back in a pony tail, and she’s tweezed her eyebrows into sympathetic angles. Austin trots by us to hang up his coat and hat and join his classmates. Ms. Gunderman glances up at my white hair and down at my big belly as if they might answer the question she doesn’t ask about my relationship to the boy. Janet has informed her that “Uncle Tim” would be standing in for Austin’s father, whom Ms. Gunderman knows is gravely ill. But who, I’m sure she wonders, is Uncle Tim?  Am I intimate with the family’s circumstances, or am I only hired help?

 *****

Before I knew of Janet’s feelings for him, I’d been friendly enough toward Robert. At company picnics we’d done horse shoes and shared burgers, beer, and potato salad. I’d even invited him to play golf, twice, and beaten him once. He’d never been married, he told me over nineteenth-hole drinks. He wasn’t yet forty then, and wouldn’t be much past it now. Regarding family, I told him he didn’t know what he was missing. “There’s nothing like it,” I said, and Robert’s cheeks dimpled thoughtfully as he stared into the beer mug cupped in his hands. It’s not difficult to believe Janet fell in love with those dimples. But what might he have been thinking? What plans had he and Janet already made? Was our golf date intended to throw me off the scent? Or was it a failed attempt to come clean?

I haven’t visited Robert in the hospital. He’s lost fifty pounds, my ex-wife says. Nothing but skin and bones. I don’t know the impact wasting away has on dimples. A mummy has sunken cheeks, but never dimples.

 *****

“You Austin’s grandpop?” asks a brown-eyed girl with braids like a nest of shoestrings. I’m passing out crayons and construction paper, glue sticks and snubbed scissors. The children are making cards. At first I think they might be Get Well cards for their classmate’s father, then I think Thanksgiving cards, but Ms. Gunderman explains they’re Congratulations cards for the newly elected President: “Maybe he’ll pay us a visit,” she says with a wink. “Or at least send us a thank you note. On White House stationery. We’re also letting him know of our donation to the victims of Sandy!”

“I’m Austin’s Uncle Tim,” I say to the girl with braids. When she said “grandpop” I pictured my own father. Jesse and my brothers’ kids were his only grandchildren. Austin is no relation to him at all.

“I’m Pria, and I love Bobama,” she says as I pass, her attention devoted to the giant red heart she’s crayoned onto her blue paper.

Austin is busy on his card. I can’t see what he’s drawing from my vantage point in front of the classroom’s long bookcase, but he finishes each stroke with a flourish.  I’m to read the children a story. I slide an old Dr. Seuss, McElligott’s Pool, from one of the shelves. It was a favorite from my own childhood, and I read it probably a hundred times to Jesse. After Austin was born, Janet took all the children’s books stored for years in Rubbermaid tubs in our basement. McElligott’s Pool is a hymn to the imagination: the story’s young fisher-boy, his line cast into the tiniest of puddles, hypothesizes an array of wondrous fish, all eager to take his bait. “They might be there” is the story’s moral.

 *****

There’s no guarantee that Austin knows exactly how we’re related. Or un-related.  He should be aware that I’m the father of his very much older brother Jesse, but I know how such facts can run parallel to one’s life without actually intersecting it: when I was a teen, I’d been shocked to discover that my mother’s father—my Grandpa George— was actually her step-father. Mom’s father had been killed in a factory fire when she was two. “We thought you knew. It wasn’t a secret. Your grandpa adopted me. He’s the only father I’ve known,” Mom said. “Of course you knew,” my older brothers insisted. Grandpa George never knew of my ignorance, but I felt awkward in his company for the rest of his life; it was a relief when he passed away.

 *****

Austin wasn’t yet four when Janet called me as a last resort to ask “a tremendous favor.”  She knew the kind of solitary life I’d been leading, but she and Robert were desperate. It seems that they’d been about to leave on a two week vacation to Paris when their trusted nanny had come down with adult chicken pox. “She has to be quarantined,” Janet said. “We stand to lose a lot of money. There’s no one else we trust. We never had a honeymoon.”  I didn’t bring up the honeymoon she and I shared; I’ve blotted out most of that memory, except for an argument in a restaurant parking lot. Of course I would take care of their little boy, I said. Have I mentioned that, since beginning her second-chance life, Janet looks younger every time I see her? Even now, with the burden of a dying husband.

 *****

“What do you do?” demands a small boy wearing a striped polo shirt. He’s coiled into himself like a cobra among the twenty students who’ve gathered in front of me on the story-telling carpet. McElligott’s Pool rests on my belly like a shield. The boy in the striped shirt seems to forget his question the second after asking it, but Austin, seated nearby, tilts his blond head, as if ambushed by the fact of my existence, and his mouth gapes with interest.

“What do I do?” I repeat. “Austin knows—” The other children look at him, and he squints, grinning slightly.  “I uncle,” I say. I’m a professional uncle-er!”

“You wha-aat? You’re a wha-aat?” a dozen voices demand. It’s a belligerent chorus, and Austin withers. His gaze drops to the carpet. His cheeks flame. We’re both paralyzed by his sudden consciousness of what he doesn’t know: who’s the old man in front of my class? What’s his claim on me?  When is my father coming home?

 *****

While his parents enjoyed Europe, Austin and I passed our time together quietly. We held to the letter of the routine Janet had prescribed: meals, TV, baths, bedtime.  I half-closed my mind’s eye for the duration of my stay and pretended that Austin was a blue-eyed, fair-haired version of Jesse. At night I read to him from the books that connected me to my own childhood and my son’s: in my extended dream-memory, Austin was a ghost child—a placeholder. When his parents returned, the smiles we passed around like souvenirs confirmed a successful mission and stamped me as an official emergency babysitter. Robert shook my hand; Janet hugged me in a way that felt both familiar and distant. Austin grasped one of my fingers and murmured the “Thank you” his parents encouraged.  I politely declined the Thanksgiving dinner invitation they extended.

 *****

Ms. Gunderman arrives to save the day and explain to everyone who I am. “He means he’s Austin’s uncle,” she smiles to the children. She’s placed a hand on my shoulder to both comfort and guide me. “The boys and girls would like to know what kind of work you do,” she stage-whispers. “How you’re employed. That’s what the parents usually share.”

“Of course,” I say.  I squint over the children’s accusing eyes at the dusty, sunlit windows. “I’m a consultant. I work with numbers on a computer. I can do it at home. I help people with questions they have about money and investments and taxes.”

Faces go blank. Mouths open and nostrils flare with yawns. But when Austin bites his lip I see his father’s dimple. I clear my throat, open McElligott’s Pool outward to show the pictures, and I narrate from memory. I’m soothed by my own voice as I reveal fish after miraculous fish.

Ms. Gunderman is still at my side. Her hand leaves my shoulder like a bird taking flight. I’m sharing a story about fish, but my thoughts drift to a different Dr. Seuss book, one about a zoo full of fantastical animals. Then I drift further and see myself at an actual zoo with my family. Jesse is Austin’s age. I’m slimmer. Janet has yet to meet Robert. There are no animals visible, but there’s no mistaking we’re at a zoo. Other families stroll along paved walkways past fences and obscure buildings. Boys and girls hold balloons or ice cream cones. Parents hold bags of food pellets or the hands of their children.

Jesse pulls free of my grip and rushes to a steel fence with yellow caution tape threaded through its links. His fingers lock in the fence wire, and he lifts himself onto his sneakered toes, craning his neck. A uniformed guard approaches and lays his hand on my son’s shoulder, and the gesture reminds me of Ms. Gunderman. Janet and I join Jesse at the fence. “The African wild dogs,” the guard says in an accent I don’t recognize. “A baby fell in last week. The dogs got him. Exhibit closed. It was on TV. All over the papers.”

I scoop up Jesse, and he wraps his arms around my neck. His skin is cool, his scent blue cotton candy. Janet and I lock horrified gazes—how did we miss this? We look at the other families milling about—did they all know?

“They shot the dogs,” the guard says, as if he’d held the gun himself.

 *****

 “And that’s why I think that I’m not such a fool, when I sit here and fish in McElligott’s Pool,” the young narrator of Seuss’s story admonishes a skeptical farmer. I’m hoarse from reciting and fuzzy-headed from remembering. The children are expressionless.

“Are there any questions for Austin’s uncle?” Ms. Gunderman asks. She stands beside me. Soon it will be time for me to leave. I’ll have lunch in the diner down the block from the school and wait for a call from Janet to see if she’ll need me to walk Austin home.

“I thought there’d be a shark, and it would eat everybody,” the polo-shirted boy says, and growls. I start to flip through the book, revisiting the amazing fish.

“Don’t you know a story with monsters?” another child asks, and I lift my head.

“Austin fell into a pit of African wild dogs at the zoo once,” I hear myself say. Austin’s eyes bug. His classmates gasp.  “Did your mom and dad ever tell you about that?” I ask him. “You were just a baby. They were probably waiting to tell you until you got older.” I pretend Ms. Gunderman isn’t in the room, but I’m waiting for her touch. “You fell in, and the dogs, there must have been six or seven, went for you, growling and barking. And you know what?  Your dad jumped in and fought them off. He punched and kicked until zookeepers with stun guns shot them all. It was all over the news!”

Austin’s eyes bore into mine as if we’re staring at each other through opposite ends of magical binoculars that somehow make both of us bigger.

“Your dad’s shirt and pants were torn to shreds, but you didn’t have a mark on you. He still has scars on his arms and legs. Some of them have faded.” Ms. Gunderman’s hand finally arrives. I resist shrugging it off; I’ve gone too far not to finish. “But never ever ask about those scars! I shouldn’t have said anything—if your parents had wanted you to know, they’d have told you. So—you have to keep what I’ve said a secret, okay? Between us. Between us.”  I make a circle with my arms as if to embrace Austin and all of his classmates. They shift in their places on the reading rug. “And act surprised when Mom and Dad finally decide to tell you, if they ever do,” I warn. “You don’t want to give me away.”

 

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