Not the First Time
I saw it coming. I know I wasn’t the only one either, because I heard a scream right before it happened, right before the crowd-silencing thud. And then, after that thunk, or what have you, the silence broke open and then there was a cascade of screaming that rolled over the park. I swear the wind picked up, the trees shivered. It was everywhere.
But right before that, there was a different kind of human noise. I guess you could call it a shriek. Or a targeted yell with an intended recipient. It was wordless, only air ablaze, it was a warning noise, base and primal, language’s antecedent, the lung as muscle, trying to grab and pull trajectories and alter Euclidean fate, bludgeoning another into attention and situational awareness. Trying to stop what was about to happen by force of breath. I don’t know if that ever works.
I am answering your question. Listen.
We were in the park, I remember I had just taken a shower and shaved and the fall wind chilled my bare chin. I was wearing a red sweater she bought me and accused me of never wearing. I was desperate for her forgiveness. We were speaking in very somber tones. We lowered our voices when we said certain things, as if anyone around was capable of hearing or caring. She brought the dog; we had a dumb springer spaniel at the time, and we both patted and stroked it very lovingly, buying time when we ran out of things to say to each other.
I was watching this kid. He was there with his dad. The Dad looked like he was in his thirties but he was already gray, one of those Steve Martin types. In spite of the fall air he was wearing cargo shorts and sandals with all the straps that are supposed to make the sandals “active.” He was tossing a tennis ball to the kid, and the kid could catch, and he could throw, and he couldn’t have been older than seven, eight years old. Dad was rolling him grounders and he was doing it too softly at first; they were dying in the park grass. But after the first couple he started throwing them harder, and they might take a bad hop and get by the kid, who had what looked like a green plastic baseball glove, but he got in front of most of them. And when he fielded them cleanly, he threw it back in a way that I could tell shocked and delighted Dad, who had the gray soul patch and the logoless baseball cap of a graphic designer or a high school drama coach. Whereas the Dad brought the ball back to his ear to throw it, the kid took the ball from his glove and let his arm swing through its full range of motion before turning his hips, effortlessly transferring the little weight he had underneath his GAP sweatshirt, and firing the ball back at his old man. He was a natural athlete (I think he even twirled his way into a major league crow hop during one of his longest throws). I stroked the dog and nodded, scared of my chance to reply to what was being said to me.
“Watch this kid,” I told her. “I know. Sorry. I’m listening. But seriously, just watch him. Look how graceful he is. It’s amazing.”
Then the Mom approached them. She put down a younger boy who had brown curls pooling at the base of his bike helmet, and he ran toward his older brother with the kneeless gait of a toddler. Mom kissed the Dad, and she put on a glove of her own. She had short hair and thick hips that funneled upward into a small torso.
“Maybe she’s the athlete,” I told my wife. “It’s definitely not coming from Dad.”
The younger one yelled as he ran after the ball, and it was its own kind of yell, the yell of a child announcing his presence to the world, the true example of which always seems devoid of self-consciousness, which is a quality that disappears with diapers: that ability to broadcast your presence and make everyone aware of you in a guileless way, to draw attention without stealing it from others or using it to hide from yourself. He yelled and he got the ball and I remember being disappointed. It meant fewer repetitions for the athlete I wanted to see, the future shortstop for whoever had the money to spend fifteen years from now. The younger brother stomped after the ball in yellow rain boots that were incongruent with the brittle leaves that were occasionally cycloning throughout the park.
“Throw it at me hard,” the older one yelled as he watched his brother hold the ball in a throwing position, soaking up parental encouragement, and then dropping it behind him as he pushed his wristless arm toward his parents.
“I know you love me,” she said. “But you think that’s enough.”
I watched her eyes when she said this, I focused on the black stillness of her pupils and tried to ignore the yellow flash of the ball that seemed to pass from the outside of one of her ears to the outside of the other. I wanted to give her an answer, something real, I wanted to prove it was a mistake and I regretted it, and I felt like the only way to do that was to hold her gaze like I never intended on letting go. But the ball kept flying away from her face, and the kid stopped running and I looked to see why.
Yes, I did regret it. Doesn’t mean I’m going to regret this. It’s different now. Let me finish.
Suddenly there was a third child, a little girl who was following the ball towards the park’s borders, darting between two giant oaks, one of which supported the mother’s bike, her denim capris prancing toward the ball.
“I got it,” she said, practically singing.
Then I heard the scream, the warning scream, the targeted scream, the one directed at the nexus point, trying to destroy the geometric inevitability of the girl and the Buick meeting there.
And then there were the other screams, the yells, the shrieks, the mass casualty devices, the napalm scorched sound waves, the “British are coming” alarms that sent men and women running, as if motion is the same as action. Our spaniel started barking. I was running like the rest.
An old man got out of the Buick. He had white hair and a gold watch.
“She ran right in front, I didn’t see,” he said to everyone at once. “I didn’t see. I didn’t see. I didn’t see. She ran…”
I remember hearing that as I looked at the girl on the ground. She was out cold. It was an old man, I remember thinking, they drive so slow, and by a park. I pulled a woman with dreads off the man as she battered his chest with her metal-spiraled wrists.
Then the wailing started. The howling. The kind of noise that has no object, no subject, it exists only to drown itself, the sound people make when they want to empty themselves into the world and diffuse themselves into nothing. She was the mother. She had to be.
There was a Doctor. We were told not to move her. The ambulance came quickly. I held my wife in my arms. She cried and cried. The family and the shortstop were gone. Had he seen?
“What the fuck is happening?” she sobbed. “What the fuck? What the fuck?”
You know how Eskimos have 300 words for snow? I wonder who the people are who have the most words for screaming, the people who are most adapted to the intricacies of human shock and sorrow. Who are they? How many words for howl, shriek, wail do they have?
Although maybe the people most used to suffering don’t scream at all.
We made dinner at home after that. Silent pasta from a half-empty box. And after that we made love. She was pregnant within the year.
That girl died, I remember that clearly, it was in the papers, on the news. I’m not sure we would’ve stuck it out if it weren’t for that. I don’t think she would’ve forgiven me. That girl may have saved us. She might be the reason that my daughter is here now, alive, still terrified of streets. She looks both ways when crossing a hallway. Her mother made her that way.
I wonder about the crow-hopping boy, I wonder what he saw, wonder if he feels guilty about the throw that got by him. I like to think he’s playing semi-pro ball right now, knowing his window has closed and that he will have to find a life now, put away childish things and all of that. I imagine that the team he plays for takes a bus across three states to play their final game of the season, and he knows this might be it, that he has ridden his talent as far as it will go, an old man at 23. I like to imagine the bus breaking down somewhere, nowhere, and it’s the middle of a moonless night. A few of the players rub their eyes and squint as the interior lights come on. Some keep sleeping. But the boy can’t sleep, he can’t stop thinking that this will be it, tomorrow will be last time he will hear the crowd’s noise coalesce for him, the rest of his life he will be just another instrument, a horse throat and set of chapped hands moving in and out of harmony with the greater volume. And he goes down the stairs and out of the bus, and he watches the driver investigate with his useless bit of light. After a minute or two, without a word to anyone, he goes and he stands in the middle of the black silent river of the highway, next to a sharp a curve, and he throws a ball high into the air. He loses sight of it almost immediately, but he catches as it comes down and he throws it high again. And the cars come, but their high beams and honks always arrive in time for him to get out of the way. He doesn’t think about the little girl at all.
But I know he could be doing anything, and I know it’s ridiculous that he’d be playing baseball. He’s probably digging himself out from a landslide of college debt, thinking about how to define his personal brand, spending his days in front of a computer screen, trying to string ones and zeros into attention and money, 140 characters at a time. He might even remember that day.
So to answer your question, no. You are not my first. Is that what you wanted to hear?
BIO: Josh is from Maine and currently resides in Brooklyn.