By Ryan Pollard-
Jay walked out of the store and zipped his jacket against the autumn chill swirling through the suburban box canyon of the outlet mall. It was not yet dusk. Parents loitered about the play area attending to whatever thread pulled with most exigence at the moment: an email from work, their child’s wobbly endeavor, observing the gradual meanderings of others nearby. He skirted the colorful rubber surface on his way to the parking lot, fingering two plastic security tags in his pocket that he had found inside the last store.
On his way home he stopped at Chick-fil-A to pick up dinner. Standard order his wife had texted him as he drove home before his detour to the mall and the stores he had prospected. The drive-through girl smiled kindly while handing him a bag that seemed too light but wasn’t. It was all there.
“Thank you,” he offered, then pulled away.
He turned onto their street just as two young children on bikes crossed carelessly in front of him. One of them, Max from up the street, a dizzying scramble of a child with a perpetually hoarse voice, at least looked up and met his eyes before he sped off. He watched them both recede along the street as he opened the garage door. As he walked in, his wife, Maggie, glanced up. She was lying on the couch playing a new matching puzzle game on her phone, their three-year-old daughter next to her on an iPad.
“I forgot to text you to get Claire the fruit,” Maggie said, “not the applesauce. She doesn’t like applesauce now, apparently.”
Jay deposited the bag on the kitchen island, began emptying it, and then responded. “I know. I thought the fruit was her usual anyway.” He eyed the back of his daughter’s head. “Claire, dinner time. Pause it, please.”
Claire didn’t obey immediately or acknowledge him. Maggie, rising, used a slightly more imperative tone and said, “Daddy told you it’s time to eat. I’ll count to three and then I’m taking it.”
“No!” Claire said. “Count to ten!” she bargained.
“Fine. One, two, three, four, five—” she stopped as Claire put the iPad to the side and headed for the kitchen table.
After the meal, Maggie took Claire upstairs for her bath while Jay cleared the table. He put what could be recycled into the bin under the counter and dropped the rest into the trash can. He glanced at the sink out of habit to see if any dishes needed attending to, but it was barren except for his wife’s coffee cup and his cereal bowl from this morning. He fed the cat a heaping cup of his diet food, then stared at the kitchen floor for a while, mentally tracing a track around the island and hearing the high-pitched clamor of post-dinner play. Registering the silence downstairs, he quickly left the room, dropping the two security tags into a little-used drawer under the built-in bookcase near the stairs before going upstairs to join his wife and daughter.
Maggie awoke early the following morning. Claire’s oneiric kicks to her side didn’t help, but she was a light sleeper and wouldn’t have made it to dawn anyhow. She was grateful for the few hours of dreamless sleep she did get. She showered with only the bathroom light on, the door partly opened so as not to wake the other two, dressed herself silently, then carried her blow dryer and toiletry bag downstairs to finish the routine.
Some time later, Jay came down carrying Claire, still in her pajamas. He sat her down on the couch and asked what she wanted for breakfast.
“Hot pretzel,” Claire said, placing her middle two fingers in her mouth with her index finger just below her eye. “Like Emmy eats.”
They looked at each other simultaneously for a second and frowned. Jay passed by Maggie on his way to the freezer. “I’m driving her today, right?”
“Yes. And I can’t leave until 3:45, so you need to pick her up, too. I have that training this afternoon.” She couldn’t remember if she had told him about it.
She had packed Claire’s lunch and prepared her backpack already, well before it was time to leave, so she played the new game on her phone while eating a bowl of Cheerios in the kitchen to kill the time. Jay sat next to Claire on the couch as she watched her iPad. He took a couple mechanical bites of her pretzel. “Daddy, no,” Claire half protested. Maggie watched them. His nibbles reminded her that she had noticed he’d lost weight, and also that she had not said anything to him about it, just as he hadn’t mentioned her sleep. When the time came, she buckled Claire into her car seat, kissed her goodbye and spoke clearly into her ear, “I love you, sweet girl. I love you.” She blew her baby kisses as they pulled away, which Claire happily grabbed from the air and pretended to eat, then reentered the house to make sure she had not forgotten anything. She left unhurriedly with time to stop at Starbucks before finally arriving at her school.
She walked through the parking lot and into the building with her eyes sweeping the ground. She had always preferred to follow the faces of others, to study them, but lately her gaze had dropped and become more like her husband’s; he always missed the potholes and sunken manhole covers when driving, and never missed a silver coin when walking. Just before arriving at the resource room, she saw a small red grosgrain hair bow near the wall. She picked it up, opened and closed the curved alligator clip, and put it in her purse.
For the rest of the morning she worked with the mild/moderate kids on literacy skills. Toward lunch a second grader named Allison arrived for her session. A gregarious and hyperactive girl in a rainbow skirt and peach shirt with a flamingo on the front, her faux emerald earrings caught the light occasionally in the brightly lit room and shimmered. The flashes of light distracted Maggie as she drilled sight words and taught spelling patterns to the girl. Shiny things, she thought. Treasures. Allison fidgeted continually with a magenta half heart dangling from a looped link bracelet, biting it sporadically with her teeth.
“Allison, do you need me to hold that so you can focus?” she asked.
“I’ll just put it over here.” The girl removed the charm and placed it on top of a book.
Allison left to use the restroom toward the end of their time but didn’t return to the room because the lunch bell rang. Maggie cleared off the table where they had been working and the glossy half heart charm unexpectedly slid off the book. She held it in her palm and considered it for a moment. It was quite a find. She pictured it on her. She understood what she should do, but decided to keep it all the same. She could always feign ignorance and sympathy if Allison came looking for it later on or, better yet, tomorrow. She slipped it along with the bow from earlier into a small plastic storage bin she now kept inside her desk drawer.
After dropping Claire off at preschool, Jay drove across town to campus. For several years he’d listened to NPR on his daily commute, but now he preferred the radio off with the windows down. Or, more precisely, he cracked the passenger and driver’s side rear window a few inches to let air in and avoid any buffeting resonance. He heard only the sounds of driving that way, without voices or music or the wide world with its continuing procession of events. He had to admit that he didn’t miss following the news these last months. That was one small, good thing. He wondered if it was ok for anything other than Claire to bring him relief now. He wasn’t sure.
There were two students waiting for him outside his office as he approached. He met with them individually, answered their questions, then walked across campus to teach his first class. The leaves were beginning to turn and fall. The early dead ones were still damp and slick from a late night drizzle. Close to the classroom there was a faintly declining avenue lined on one side with oak trees. Most of the fallen acorns had been scavenged by birds and small animals, while some lay crushed and mangled on the ground. A few had been skidded across the concrete by the hard wheels of a skateboard or razor scooter and bled rust brown streaks on the sidewalk. At last Jay came across a perfect one, inviolate, and bent down to retrieve it. While stooped, he spotted another pristine one on the grass and grabbed it too, seeking for her joy in the discovery, communing with all he had. He pocketed the pair and continued on.
Back in his office after class, he restarted an article on protein synthesis in the labile phase of memory consolidation, but again stopped midway through and opened the Pictures folder on his laptop. He moved his cursor slowly over the options before settling on the 5-year-old folder, then put it on Slide Show. She danced in front of him like a carousel, immutable and fugitive at once. He understood how it all worked, down to the specialized hippocampal neurons. He knew that there is no forgetting, only reshuffling and the risk of nonfidelity—something lost or distorted—and that each and every revival destabilizes a memory, like dried concrete becoming briefly wet again and pliable. But he didn’t care. After a while, he opened the Videos folder and played one after another. He stared down the barrage—the laughing, splashing, jumping, swinging, bursting, aching scenes—daring them to change.
That night the family arrived home at nearly the same time. Claire wanted to ride her balance bike out front, so her parents sat on portable camping chairs in the driveway while she coasted down the slope onto the sidewalk, turned around, propelled herself back up the driveway, and did it again. “Look, Mommy!” she said. “Look how fast I go!”
“Good job, bug,” Maggie smiled. “Stay on the sidewalk, ok?”
The parents watched their child have fun playing by herself. Jay glanced at the For Sale sign a couple houses up across the street.
“What did that end up going for?” he motioned with his head.
“She said five-sixty. Twenty less than they listed it.”
“Hmm. Guess the market’s slowing down finally.”
He demurred slightly. “They have more bedrooms than us, though, right?”
“No, same number. And the same layout. But a newer kitchen than ours. I saw it on Zillow.”
“Hmm, so we’d probably get even less.”
Maggie didn’t respond immediately. She followed Claire’s kinetic little body perched atop her miniature bicycle as she curved away from the street and up the sidewalk. “I don’t know,” she said as her eyes began to well up. Jay took her hand and continued looking at the ground silently. “I know you’re right. I just don’t have it in me yet.” Her voice shrank to a frail susurration. “I thought this would be our forever house,” and she would have let it all spill out but for her daughter, her baby, returning right then with something in her hand.
“It’s a snail,” Claire proudly displayed it to both of them.
“Looks like just the shell,” her father observed. “Maybe an animal ate the snail out?”
“Oh, poor little snail. Hold it, Daddy,” she offered it to him and he took it. Then she noticed her mother’s face. “What’s wrong, Mommy? Are you sad? Are you sad ‘cause of Emmy?”
“Yes, baby,” Maggie sucked in a staccato breath. “Mommy’s sad because of Emmy.” She took Claire’s hand, enclosing it tightly in her fist without realizing.
Claire’s face expanded quickly. “Ow, Mommy!” She pulled away.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Maggie recoiled. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.” She got on one knee to hug Claire, her shoulders trembling slightly from stifled sobs. Claire sniffled a little from within the embrace. Jay reached over from his seat to put his hand on the curved slope of his wife’s neck. He squeezed softly and let go, keeping his hand there. Seeing his family prostrate before him like this was too much; he set his jaw, his eyes awash, and began to get up to walk inside the house.
“Wait,” Maggie said. She looked at him directly, entreatingly, gathering Claire in her arms as she rose. “Don’t leave.”
His eyes met hers squarely for the first time in months and all he could give her was a word: “Sorry.” He swallowed. “I’m sorry, honey.” Brushing his thumb delicately over Claire’s cheek, he took Maggie’s hand and led them to the house. “I have something to show you.” Once inside, he asked Claire if she wanted to watch a show while they got dinner ready. With the TV turned on and their daughter in front of it, the two of them left the room. Jay picked out the contents of the drawer by the stairs—at least two weeks’ worth—and showed them to Maggie. He dropped the snail shell in with the rest. “I’ve been doing it for months,” he explained.
Maggie watched him, scrutinizing his face. At length, she said, “Stay here,” and walked to the living room. She went to the end table next to the nice couch no one ever used. From the back of a drawer she withdrew a plastic bowl filled with colorful trinkets, returning to Jay with her cache. He smiled at her tenderly. With the votiveness of a strange, spontaneous cortège, they both walked silently up the stairs to her old room. They took what they had and dropped it into the decorated valentine box on top of her desk that she’d made in preschool. They each let a hand knead and turn the little objects over. “Almost forgot,” Jay grinned and added the acorns from his pocket to the ones already there, sitting among pieces of colored and smoothed glass, bent earrings, marbles, white plastic size markers for hangers, clothing security tags, his old running medals, a fluorescent pink zipper pull tab, a glittery blue ring, several particularly smooth or otherwise remarkable rocks, interesting looking plastic candy containers, polyester flowers, screws, beads, broken or forever closed mini padlocks, erasers of all sizes and colors: the treasured flotsam of a brief lifetime, falling through their fingers as they touched it.
They stood as humble supplicants before the tiny alter, arms slung around the other. “You found some nice ones,” she said, squeezing his side.
She considered for a while and then spoke. “Maybe that’s enough, though. You know?”
A long moment drew itself out.
“Yeah,” he said. “You’re probably right.”
They stood together for a bit longer, then she kissed him on his cheek. “I’m gonna go check on Claire. Come down when you’re ready, ok?”
He gazed into the box for a minute or two more and at last collected himself for his daughter’s sake—although who could say which one?—put the lid back on, and left the room.
When he walked back downstairs, Claire was helping her mother with dinner. “She wanted a breakfast meal,” Maggie explained.
“Sounds great,” Jay said cheerfully. “Are you gonna help Mommy mix up pancakes?”
Claire beamed. “Uh-huh. We’re using honey and not sugar. Who likes honey? Like animals like honey. Bees do and wasps do.”
They both smiled. Claire reached for an egg. “I can crack the egg, right, Mommy?”
“You bet, love. But Mommy will help you ‘cause it’s kinda tricky.”
“I broke the egg one day, remember? That’s when I was little. When I was growing up. ‘Cause I’m still little,” Claire conceded. “But I’m growing.”
Jay and Maggie smiled at each other and at their wonderful, carefree little girl. “Yes, you are, little bug. You are growing. You’re gonna be so big.”
Ryan Pollard is a clinical professor and speech therapist at the University of Colorado Boulder. His debut publication was recently nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize and his fiction has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, South Shore Review, Litro Magazine, and Twelve Winters. He’s currently working on his first novel.