Previously published in Underground Voices
Amber asked me to walk with them this morning, which surprised me because she never has before. If it’s warm or a good kind of cold, I might sit on the front step and study them through the steam rising from my coffee. But most mornings I just sit in the big stuffed chair by the window and watch them when they don’t know they’re being watched. Seeing how they play with the neighborhood kids. How carefully they do or don’t look before crossing the street. But walking with them seemed to matter to Amber today, so I put on my shoes and grabbed my jacket.
As we approach the bus stop, Amber and Ben race ahead of me to meet their friends who are all already there. Like always, Ben tosses his backpack onto the pile of others already lying there and Amber sets hers upright against the stop sign. Allison would have done it the same way if only that sign had been there back then.
Brian Anderson is already at the corner directing kid traffic. Brian walks his sons down every morning and he’s back there every afternoon to pick them up. That’s probably small comfort to twin boys whose mom left the three years ago and now parents by post-card from Branson. Each one coming from a new address and with an old promise – fame, riches, and reconciliation.
Jordan Keen’s mom is also there every morning, which is an unfortunate thing for the undersized and bespectacled Jordan. The kid has enough to overcome without having his mommy there wetting down his cowlick with her spit-slimed thumb and harping at him to stand up straight.
Along with Brian and Mrs. Keen are the other regulars and I greet them all with a nod and a “Mornin’”, as I make my almost groundhog-rare appearance on this crisp October mornings. They look at me with something like reverence, but I am not as old as they think me. Not as old has life has made me. I want to explain to them that I am someone else’s father, too, but I don’t.
“Dad! Watch me! Watch me, Dad!” It’s Ben who has already jumped into the morning game of touch football. He gets the hand-off and is a circular blur of knees and elbows until four Anderson-hands land on him simultaneously.
“Stay out of the street.” I say it to Ben, but it is Allison I am thinking of. It is Allison that I often think of.
“Did you see that, Dad? That was a pretty good run, wasn’t it?”
“Awesome,” I say and give him the double thumbs-up.
Behind me, Jordan Keen is pleading with his mother to let him go play with the other kids, but she’s spit-shining a stain out of his jacket and won’t let go. I step away from the awkward and sloppy Keen conversation and look around for Amber. I find her jumping rope in the Hanover’s driveway with her friends. She’s twirling one end of the rope and chanting some rhyme, but her eyes are honed in on me – watching me when I don’t know I’m being watched. She is an observer, this one. Like me in this way, but few others. She smiles when I catch her spying on me and then waves at me with her free hand. And in this little gesture I can see her sister. Whether this is something that Allison once did or something I’ve just imagined, I cannot say and do not care. Because either way I get to see her.
Jump rope songs, battle cries from the football players, laughs and shouts from everywhere – it is a carnival of noise and activity. Until, that is, some disembodied child voice shouts “BUUUUSSSSSS!”
Footballs are dropped. Jump ropes are collected. Jordan Keen slaps his mother’s hand away disgustedly and races to the boarding line without giving her a kiss.
Amber and Ben are the first two in line when the bus rolls to its squeaky-wheeled stop. Backpacks slung over their shoulders, they both turn and smile a good-bye to me from the first step before ascending the rest of the way up.
One by one, all the children follow. Little Gracie Nall is the last one on. Once she and her Hello Kitty backpack have turned down the aisle to find a seat, the bus driver reaches for the lever to pull the door shut. I catch his eye before he does, though, and for some reason it stops him. He pulls his arm back in and leans back in his seat. He puts both hands in his lap and stares down at me in an almost tender fashion. It frightens me, this look he gives. With our eyes locked in a battle for what I do not know, he reaches forward again for the lever and I lurch forward involuntarily before catching myself. Like some gentle monster, some prisoner of providence, he tenders a smile that brings a shiver out of me. And then he shuts the door and with it, all noise from the children stops. Slowly, the bus begins to roll forward and still his eyes hold mine.
And then he releases me.
I watch the long yellow wagon drive up the street and around the corner out of sight. Once it is gone, I became aware of the tears that have been streaming down my face. Awakened, I wipe my cheeks dry and look around for the other parents, but they have all gone. Alone, I stand there in the death of my morning and in the birth of my day. It’s so quiet in this place. So quiet I can’t stand it.
It’s so goddamn quiet.