I Can’t Write

Sand scrapes through the waist of an invisible hourglass.

The rushing sand is not seen.

Nor is it heard.

It’s felt, as it fills the inside of my skull.

Outside, scattered snowflakes cling to the windshield; fleeting moments pregnant with beauty. Prematurely, they melt away.

Packed snow moans as the car creeps forward.

With the radio off, the Volvo’s cabin is hushed. The heater hums a background lullaby. A recently repaired seat warmer helps to fight cold’s groping fingers. They reach up sleeves to scratch at exposed skin.

A shadow rushes across the road.

Alone in the car I shiver. Despite a heater setting of 78, winter’s chill holds tight. Warm air rushes over fists clenched ‘round the steering wheel.

Interrupting the heater’s lullaby I warn myself, “Do not look at the clock.”

Time is of the essence.

Angry moments tick away.

And I’m going to be late.

As if from a distance, I hear it; the sound of scraping sand.

Behind narrowed eyes sand scrapes through the waist of an invisible hourglass.

Three days a week I must arrive by 6:00PM to meet Gee, DJ, and the babysitter at a Somerville pool. It’s indoors so, upon arrival, I hope to feel warm.

To ensure a timely arrival, my 30 minute drive from office to pool requires a start time no later than 5:30PM. And considering yesterday’s snowfall, today’s commute should have started at 5:15.

But no.

Once again I fail to leave on time.

Alone in the car I bark past the echoes of scraping sand.

“Shit!”

Directly ahead, brake lights rush toward me. As if choreographed, cars and vans and trucks, lurch to a stop. Blinking red lights approach, refracted through the windshield’s snowflake graveyard.

“Fuck!”

I slam the palm of my hand against the steering wheel. The car shivers.

Once again I’ve left too late. I’m late because I do what I must do every day at work. I end the day by donning a mask of optimism and making no less than five phone calls to clients or prospects. “Hello! I’m glad I caught you at your desk. You know, I was thinking about you this afternoon and I was wondering…”

Many of the calls result in nothing more than voice mails. In the hunt for business I want to – I have to – speak with these people. And though I genuinely like most of the men and women I call, more often than not I’m relieved when given the chance to leave a voice mail.

And when I leave a voice mail I feel bad that I’m relieved to leave a voice mail.

I can’t win. Regardless of what I do, I am unable to feel good.

To feel good…

To feel good is fleeting; like melting snowflakes upon a windshield.

Today’s final call was spent persuading a teetering banking client to move forward with a $150,000 development project. My mask securely in place, I sing-song an optimistic tune, “…oh yes, I’m certain. Soon online banking will be an everyday thing. And with you in front of the curve…”

The 10 minute call kept me at the office until after 5:30.

“I had to,” I tell myself.

Brake lights alert me to the present. My grip around the steering wheel tightens. Squeezing fingers squeak against cold leather.

In the quiet of the car I justify my tardiness. The $150,000 banking project will cover two months of expenses including payroll. Presently, I have about eight weeks of expenses and payroll in the bank. I’ve told staff if my cash and AR drop below eight weeks’ worth of payroll I’ll shut the company and pay the crew for eight weeks while they spend time looking for jobs. With the economy collapsing, they won’t find jobs, but it’s better than stiffing them.

And another two months’ worth of work in the bank might just stop me from throwing up every morning.

Every fucking morning.

I nod to myself, “It might.”

Deep inside though I know it won’t. Again I slam my palm against the steering wheel. The car rocks in time to the heater’s lullaby.

Outside the car’s cocoon, the economy teeters. The one two punch of the dotcom bubble’s collapse and the attacks of 9/11 have wiped out half my competitors along with four of my clients. So today, like every day in which I’m forced to keep the wheels on the little business in which I am now the only remaining partner, I leave the office a bit too late to retrieve my children in a timely fashion.

Money joins sand to slip through the waist of the invisible hourglass. Scraping sounds pour from my skull to fill the car. Fingernails claw at my neck.

At my eyes.

Knuckles whiten as they grip tight ‘round a steering wheel subject to violence.

Breathing quickens.

Closing eyes tight I fill the cabin with a scream, “Do not look at the mother fucking clock!”

Opening my eyes I realize the car’s idling. I’m gasping. From behind, a horn sounds.

I throw my head back, slamming it into the headrest. White sparkles skip and dance before me. “Snowflakes,” I whisper.

From the shadows I hear a whisper, “Everywhere.”

I shake it off, “Focus on the drive. Just get to the pool.”

Leaning forward I peer through a slowly fogging windshield. 100 feet ahead a traffic light flips from green to yellow.

“Fuck it.”

I slam my foot onto the accelerator and swerve past slowing cars. A series of horn blasts give chase as I dart through a newborn red light. My heart skips as the Volvo momentarily slides across a patch of ice. But built for safety, the Volvo compensates for my reckless driving.

Across the intersection I am unable to resist. I peak at the dashboard clock.

5:57PM.

“Mother fucking mother fucker!”

I pull my right hand from the wheel and plow my fist into the center of the steering column. The Volvo’s horn howls in protest. The wail startles me.

Knuckles throb.

I shake it off before returning my hand to its rightful spot on the wheel.

Time slips through the hourglass as Somerville traffic slows to a crawl. The car lurches as I shift from first gear to second and back to first.

Anger fills a mobile cage.

“God damn it.”

Directly ahead, a pickup truck comes to a halt to allow a hand-holding couple to cross the street. Young lovers playfully skip over a pile of snow before scooting across the road. From a car length away I monitor their progress. Watching their footing they giggle and bump shoulders. Laughing at a lover’s joke, the woman throws her head back before offering the accommodating pickup truck a friendly wave. I frown as the woman mouths the words, ‘Thank you.’ Her skin is ivory, her lips bright red, and her teeth sparkling white.

“Move it, lady. Move it.”

Sand slips slowly, building to crescendo. The sound conspires to fill the container of a 39 year old skull. The sand gouges at the back of my eyes. Arms stiffen as I shove myself into the driver’s seat. Torquing my body I try to yank the steering wheel from its column. With my right hand I push against the wheel with all my might. With my left hand I pull the other side of the wheel toward me with the intent of snapping it from the column. The steering wheel groans in protest.

And unable to see past the moment I do not consider what I’ll do if the effort succeeds.

As I push and pull at the steering wheel, the car drifts across a snow covered yellow line. An oncoming vehicle flashes high beams. Again, horns blare. Startled at the speed of the oncoming car I jerk the Volvo back to my side of the road.

I’m gasping, short of breath.

“Jesus Christ.”

Slowing the car I slump into the driver’s seat, resigned to failure. And having failed to snap the steering wheel from the safety of its perch, fingers twist and turn around well-worn leather. The sound of protesting leather shoves aside scraping sand as I seek to rip and tear. It does not matter whether it’s skin or leather tearing; so long as something rips.

So long as something is destroyed.

Again I fail.

And again I glance at the clock.

“Mother fucker!”

Unable to leave on time, unable to drive on ice, unable to break the steering wheel from its column, and unable to tear skin or leather I cock my arm and slam my fist into the dash, striking the area above the CD-player.

The impact shakes the vehicle. And sets off a CD. Dave Mathews fills the car with a sorrowful wale. I shake my hand before leaning forward to see if I’ve broken the dash. I’ve jammed the play button under the CD-player’s plastic cover. And I’ve cracked the upper right corner of the in-dash radio.

“Shit.”

I lick a modest scrape across knuckles before spitting a small piece of skin onto a vacant passenger seat.

“Great. Now I gotta tell Liz I busted the CD-player.” My wife’s on call until 8AM tomorrow so I won’t see her for a while.

Probably for the best.

The pickup truck before me inches forward before stopping.

“Oh, what the fuck is with this guy?”

Shifting into second gear I swerve over the yellow line and dart past the pickup and a line of idling vehicles. Oncoming traffic swerves right to avoid me. I throw an uncaring wave over my shoulder. And swerving back over the yellow line I cut I front of a van waiting at a crosswalk.

“Fucking crosswalks are everywhere.”

The effort earns me yet another horn blast. And a middle finger from the driver of the van.

Jammed in front of the van, I wait for an elderly woman to cross the road.

The woman’s graceful gait and tired smile remind me of mom. Having witnessed my behavior the woman directs a frown my way. I respond with an exaggerated shrug before reminding myself to call mom after the kids go to sleep tonight.

“Mom,” I sigh.

In preparation for tomorrow’s chemo Mom will go to bed early. A call this evening will boost her spirits. And hearing her declare once again, “I am not a victim,” perhaps my spirits will be boosted as well.

Thoughts of a conversation with mom are interrupted as the van to my rear leans on the horn. And snatched away from thoughts of a woman left to fight cancer without the support of her husband I adjust the rearview mirror. Eyes narrow as I monitor the hand gestures and silent curses of the man in the vehicle behind me. Hidden by shadows, the passenger seat is filled with a blackened silhouette. The passenger remains motionless as the driver jerks his vehicle forward to ride my tail. He gets so close I spy the deep lines crisscrossing his fat face. He’s thick, missing a neck, and sporting a bulbous red nose. Wild hair spouts from under a woolen Pats hat pulled down to thick eyebrows. Thin red lips mouth the words ‘fuck you asshole’.

Traffic moves forward as he continues to ride my tail. In the rearview mirror I watch as he leans forward, pushing his chest against the steering wheel.

Again, I sigh.

“You asked for it, asshole.”

Without warning, I downshift from second gear to first. And without the benefit of brake lights my car lurches to a halt.

In the rearview mirror I watch as the driver behind me bugs out. He throws himself into his seat as he slams the brakes hard. His van stops less than a foot from the rear of the Volvo. In the mirror I watch as he places a hand over his chest.

“I don’t have time for this.”

But fuck it; I place the Volvo in neutral and unbuckle my seatbelt before turning to face the van behind me. Through the rear window I mouth the words, ‘You got a problem?’

Like the silhouette in the passenger seat the driver remains motionless.

As sand scrapes the back of my eyes, a man in a van and I stare at each other through tempered glass. And satisfied I will not have to beat the stranger into the snow I turn to face forward. Re-buckling my seatbelt I jam the car into gear and accelerate.

Behind me, the guy in the van throws on his high beams. I adjust my mirror as he keeps a respectful distance.

Just ahead traffic clears. Hoping for a lacking police presence I double the speed limit and hurtle down Elm Street toward my children. Crossing the yellow line I pass slowing cars. Downshifting, I cut into the JFK school’s parking lot and search for a space. I look at the clock.

5:59.

“Fucking A.”

At this late hour, parking pickings are slim. I grip the wheel tight. The lot’s packed. Again, fingers squeak against leather. My tardiness has cost me the ability to find an available parking space.

“Fuck it.”

I’ll make my own space.

Opportunity presents itself at the end of a line of parked cars near the rear of the lot. Between a minivan and a large pile of plowed snow rests a sliver of asphalt. Taking a wide turn, I accelerate and jam the car into the sliver of a space. Snow scrapes the car’s under belly as the right side of my car ratchets up a frozen snow bank. With the passenger side of the car tilted high in the air, the Volvo settles into hardened snow.

“Good enough.”

The clock strikes six. “Shit.”

At 6:00PM sharp I am to relieve our sitter, Katy. Inside this school with an indoor pool, I’ll find my six year old daughter swimming and DJ playing or reading or resting with Katy. With Gee swimming from 5PM to 6PM, Katy entertains my three year old son.

Katy’s a godsend. Save for her steep hourly rate, she asks for little. Though she’s made it clear she must leave by 6:00PM to make her next commitment. In addition to caring for our children, Katy pursues her nursing degree at Regis College. In addition to being a godsend she’s ambitious. And smart.

From the back seat I grab an ever-present travel bag stocked with toys, paper and markers, a change of clothes for each child, a couple of books, wipes, random napkins collected from here and there, snacks and juice boxes. The driver’s side door swings wildly when opened. Cold air rushes in as I tumble out of the car, grabbing the door before it strikes the neighboring mini-van.

“Fucking gravity.”

I move quickly across the icy parking lot toward the school’s entrance.

My rush to the school, however, is interrupted. From the other side of the minivan a heavyset man seeks to intercept me.

“Hey, you. That’s not a space.”

Without hesitation I change direction and move toward the heavyset guy. He’s younger than me. With a big belly and untied shit kicker boots. His face is speckled with salt and pepper whiskers. His eyes are dull, like the grey snow behind me.

I continue toward him, “What’d you just say to me?”

He stops and blanches, surprised at my approach. “Um, I said, that’s not a space…”

I cut him off. “Well it looks like a fucking space to me.” I step to within six feet of shit kicker boot guy. A mist drifts from his open mouth. With my left hand I remove the travel bag from my right shoulder. As I take a step toward him the bag dangles just above packed snow. I will drop it before striking him.

His cheeks redden. He takes a step back. And jutting his chin toward my tilted vehicle he stiffens his spine, “Look at your frigg’n car. I mean, it’s not safe.”

I’ll give him one chance.

With the bag dangling from my left hand I spread arms wide. “Look buddy, if it’s OK with you, I’m gonna leave my car right where it is.” I cock my thumb toward the Volvo, “You really think that thing’s gonna tip over?”

He bites his lip, looking from me to the car and back to me. He’s not ready for a fight so I give him an out. “Listen, I’m late to pick up my daughter and son at a swim lesson so I’ll be outa here in less than 20 minutes.” I take another step forward. I’m within striking distance. His mouth corkscrews. My heart pounds as I consider where to strike first.

I tilt my head, smirking. “We good?”

He nods, “Yeah, I guess. We’re good.”

“Thanks buddy. I appreciate your help on this one.”

I tip my head and fake a smile before turning toward the school.

Head down, I rush up school steps and ask my chasing shadow, “What the fuck is wrong with me?”

Entering the school I do a penguin walk over slippery linoleum floors toward the pool area. My shoes squeak. Opening the door to the pool I’m blasted with moist air. Before eyeglasses can fog I scan the deck for my daughter. The sounds of splashing water, coaches yelling, and children squealing drown out memories of scraping sand.

With my finger I wipe creeping moisture from lenses.

The air is thick with the scent of chlorine. Despite quick fingers, my glasses fog.

My nose crinkles.

Removing a Dunkin Donuts napkin from the travel bag I wipe lenses clean.

Again I scan the pool area.

And again I fail to find my daughter.

I step closer to the edge of the pool. “In the water?” I mumble.

Parents aren’t supposed to be on the deck but I don’t care.

I tip toe over wet tiles. Directly ahead, pool water roils as dozens of grade-schoolers sprint through 25 meter free styles. At the far end of the pool children waiting in line bounce with a kinetic energy. Every five seconds the swim team’s head coach hollers. “Go!” Each command sends a child diving head first into the water. Some dives are graceful. Some illicit groans from parents scattered through the bleachers behind me. Children awaiting their turn huddle and whisper and laugh and shiver as they enjoy a winter day at the pool.

Scanning the water I search for my daughter’s practiced form.

“There,” I mumble.

I watch as she completes a lap and climbs from the pool. Looking about, she spies me. Quickly, I drop my bag to the deck. Delivering our not-so-secret coded message I point to my eye, make a heart shape with my fingers and point to Gee.

Repeating my effort she returns the message. “I. Love. You.”

Smiling, she turns away to engage a friend. They bounce and bump shoulders before heading to the end of the line.

Having located my daughter I turn to search bleachers for DJ.

Four rows from the top of the bleachers I see DJ and Katy engrossed in a book. Despite the cold weather, DJ wears his favorite cargo shorts, a mini-Pats sweatshirt, and a Red Sox cap. Curly brown hair peeks from under his cap. Chin in hand he stares at the pages spread across his babysitter’s knees.

Stealthily, I sneak up steps toward my son.

Ten feet away, two heads turn. And having been discovered I rush forward.

“DJ!”

My son leaps up and runs down the row to meet me half way. He grabs at my legs. Bending low, I drop my backpack and return the little man’s hug.

“Daddy, you’re here!”

Though only three, his voice sounds like that of an adult smoker’s; rough and hardened. No matter where we go or with whom we speak, DJ’s voice and his dramatically expanding vocabulary stun parents and waiters and coaches and teachers alike. “Oh my God,” they exclaim. “How old is he? I mean, he sounds like a grownup.” In response I often shrug. “He’s three, but he’s only been smoking for a year.”

My gravelly-voiced son beams as I confirm I am in fact here.

“I am here, big guy. With you. I came all the way here to see you!”

He attempts to wriggle away from my hug but I resist. With both hands he pushes against my chest. “Daddy, I can’t …”

“Oh fine, mister independent!”

I make a show of releasing my son.

He steps back, fixes his cap and stiffens his spine. Before speaking he nods his head vigorously, as if confirming what he wishes to say.

His husky voice washes over me, “We’re reading. I’m helping with some of the words and …”

My son’s attention takes flight. Now silent, he places hands on bare knees. He leans forward and stares at a spot just behind me. I follow his gaze to the backpack. DJ stamps his foot. “Yes!”

Pushing past me he yanks on the bag’s zipper. He yells over his shoulder, “Is my Bionicle in here? I need it. I need to show my friend.”

Though I know the answer, I give my son an unseen shrug. “Heck if I know where your Bionicle is. You’ll have to look for yourself.”

He rustles through the bag in search of his Lego toy. Spare clothing, a juice box and wipes fall from the backpack. I’m about to ask DJ to tidy up when Katy steps forward to share approval of my timely arrival. She smirks, “Right on time, are we?”

I exhale, “Barely. I had to bend a few rules to make it.”

She shrugs, “Well your lad’s tired himself out running up and down the bleachers so I figured it was a good time for a book. We’re on our second go around of his favorite Droon book.”

“Awesome.” I look toward DJ as he empties the backpack. “Did he eat anything yet?”

“A whole apple and a juice box.”

Maryann collects her belongings, stuffing a water bottle, text book and a sweater into her school bag. She juts her chin toward the far end of the bleachers. Perhaps 20 feet away, at the end of our row, a young mom and her daughter – about Gee’s age – are sprawled across bleacher seats, lazily watching the swimmers below. Every now and then the girl peeks in our direction. Katy leans toward me, “Your little man’s been making a friend with the wee one over there.”

DJ stops his rummaging. Bionicle in hand he stands straight. He holds the toy high and yells, “Got it!” He pushes past me toward the ‘wee one’ over there.

The girl leaps up and meets DJ half way. They squat low, huddling over the Bionicle. I watch as they lean into each other, whispering.

Katy gives my son a holler before descending bleacher steps to exit the pool. “Bye, little man.”

He yells over his shoulder, “Bye!”

The girl’s mother – I assume it’s her mother – and I exchange smiles. 20 feet away the mom sits straight and smooths her hair. She stands and tugs at a form fitting sweater before walking past the children toward me.

She’s tall and pretty, with brown hair piled in a bun. She sports oversized eyeglasses.

She stops three feet away. Her glasses begin to fog.

Reaching down I grab a napkin from the backpack and extend my hand.

“Pretty foggy in here, huh?”

Nodding, she takes the napkin and removes her glasses. Gingerly, she dabs at the lenses. And looking up she catches me staring into blinking blue eyes. Her eyes narrow as she returns glasses to their preferred location.

She smiles. “I love your son’s voice. I mean it’s crazy; like he’s a grown up with all the words he knows and the way he sounds.”

I shrug, “He smokes.”

“Ha! Let’s hope not.”

I extend my hand and share my name. She nods, repeating my name.

“I’m Dawn.”

We shake. Her hand is warm, her grip firm. She holds my hand for just a moment longer than necessary; not so long as to be awkward, but longer than required.

“Your sitter; what’s her name again?”

“Katy,” I answer.

“She’s a doll. I see her at the pool every now and then. She’s so good with your children. We chat sometimes.” Dawn purses her lips before continuing, “And, um, today, she told me what happened to your dad. And all his friends…” Dawn stammers before continuing, “I mean. That’s so awful.” She crosses arms over her sweater. Her voice trails off, “And your mom…”

The sounds of splashing water, coaches yelling, and childhood laughter disappear.

Scraping sand returns to fill a wounded skull.

Dawn stares at me. And seeing me waiver she reaches out and squeezes my arm.

I look down, then toward the ceiling, before giving her a nod.

She tilts her head, “I’m sorry. So very sorry.”

As I turn to wipe my eye I spy a silhouette on the other side of the pool. Well north of six feet he’s featureless. And graceful. Black as night, he’s more shadow than man. In one hand he holds an hour glass, half filled with sand. In the other he carries what appears to be a spear. He hoists the long slender object over his head. Assuming a sideways stance he spreads feet wide. And cocking his arm he hurls the object across the pool.

“A javelin,” I whisper. “Like dad used to throw.”

Dawn leans forward. “Excuse me?”

Frozen in place, I watch as the spear arcs gracefully over roiling water. Its vibrating tip captivates me. Below the incoming missile, children squeal and laugh, cheering each other forward in a final sprint toward the conclusion of practice.

From all around the sound of scraping sand is joined by a mighty hiss; like air being sucked from the room.

And closing eyes tight I brace for impact. The spear finds its mark, ripping open the left side of my chest. And though unseen, the damage is immediate and savage. The wound is bloodless. Eyes drift open as Dawn steps forward. She moves her hand up my arm to rub a savaged shoulder.

“Are you ok?”

Looking across the pool, I witness the silhouette as he stands straight. Satisfied with his effort, he delivers a modest bow. His actions are fluid and practiced; like a dancer’s. In victory he stands tall, holding the hourglass high above his head. And though he’s over a hundred feet away, across a pool churning with children, I hear him whisper, “I am everywhere.”

He steps back. Carefully he places the hourglass on the pool deck. Standing behind his trophy he crosses arms and stares.

His message echoes across the water.

“Everywhere.”

Hoping to conceal the impact of the blow, I don a mask before facing Dawn, “Um, yea, I’m OK. Thank you. It’s nice of you to ask.” I shrug, “I mean, some folks don’t know what to say. So they say nothing. And that’s worse.”

DJ rushes past Dawn and yanks at my pant leg, startling me. Dawn’s daughter is right behind him.

“Daddy, can we have a play date?”

A parental smile creeps across Dawn’s face. She looks from her daughter to me and back to her daughter.

I rub the top of DJ’s head, jostling his Sox cap. He squirms as I turn to face his new friend. Bending forward I introduce myself to Dawn’s daughter. She repeats my name, as if committing it to memory. “And what’s your name?”

Rocking back and forth, she answers shyly, “Penny.”

“Well, nice to meet you Miss Penny. I really like that name.” She beams.

I extend my right hand.

Wondering what to do, Penny looks to her mom. “Shake his hand, Penny.” We shake. And apparently unaccustomed to shaking hands with a grownup the little girl giggles. Dawn rolls her eyes at her daughter’s bashfulness.

I look to DJ. “So a playdate, huh? Well, if it’s OK with Penny’s mom it’s OK with me.” Dawn nods in the affirmative.

DJ rushes to the backpack, its contents scattered about the bleachers.

He grabs a marker and pad of paper. He steps toward Penny and speaks in his grown up voice. “I know how to use the phone. I call my grandmother. So I can call you. Um, what’s your phone number?”

Dawn, places her hand over her chest as her six year old daughter is asked for a phone number by a gravelly-voiced three year old. “Oh my God, this is too cute…”

Proudly, Penny begins to recite her phone number, “617-776…

DJ squirms. His hands flail about. He interrupts his new friend, “Wait, stop!”

He shoves the marker and paper into Penny’s hands. “I can’t write!”

Penny delivers a knowing nod. My son nods as well. Two little heads bob up and down as DJ continues, “You write it. I’m too little.”

Hands on knees, DJ watches intently as the little girl takes her time to write her phone number on a pad of paper.

The room grows quiet as children exit the pool to listen to coach’s instructions.

Water ceases to roil.

And glancing across the pool I watch as the silhouette cocks his head, as if fascinated.

“Everywhere,” he repeats.

He grabs the hourglass and raises it high over his head; a trophy he’s eager to lord over me. Momentarily defeated, he slips from sight.

DJ and Penny and Dawn are too engrossed in the phone number exchange to notice the silhouette’s retreat. Nor do they witness sand as it begins to escape from my ears, my nose, my mouth, and my invisible wound.

Tumbling sand piles high, forming a mound around my feet.

The rushing sand is not seen.

Nor is it heard.

It’s felt, as it exits the inside of my skull.

Time stretches as the fleeting moment holds tight, refusing to melt away.

And in this moment, the sound of scraping sand takes flight.

In the quiet I want to scream.

And rip and tear.

And leap from bleachers onto tiles below.

And cry.

But no. I do none of that.

Instead I lean forward and, in a voice loud enough to travel far into the future, I whisper into my son’s ear.

“Thank you.”

 

 

 

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