By John Brantingham
By the time Eddie and Shonda have gotten out of the car and gone around the back for the picnic basket, the blanket and some extra jackets, their son Billy has made friends with some other kids in the park who are throwing pine cones at each other. One yells, “Die you mother” in a squeaky preteen scream and falls on Billy who is laughing and chases after him.
“That didn’t take long,” Eddie says. It’s one of those days when the breeze is blowing hard enough that the rushing sound of leaves slapping leaves seems to suck his words into the earth.
Shonda says, “What?”
Eddie points to his son, “William made a friend.”
“Why don’t you go over and bring him back?”
Eddie waves a dismissive hand at his boy. “Let him have some fun.” Eddie doesn’t know how it happened, but somehow, Shonda has become one of those mothers, the kind that takes her son to violin practice at 3 and karate at 4:30. She’s become the kind of mother who sighs when her boy doesn’t rinse off his dishes before putting them in the dishwasher and then lectures him for a half hour. This woman who dared him into shoplifting on their first date. This woman who told him that she would never marry anyone because of the responsibility. This woman who used to bartend and come home at four in the morning drunk nearly every night. This woman who now is wearing a cardigan and has her hair up and is doing a pretty good impression of an adult.
They sit on the blanket and watch the park around them, parents with kids and trees, the whole nine, Eddie thinks. The kind of place he used to come as a child, all of them yelling and laughing and chasing after one another in a scene full of the rich rustling silence of this windy day, and Eddie’s thinking about a time when he and Shonda were right here in this park in high school making love in the dark when she says, “Billy’s been gone a while.”
Eddie’s going to dismiss this too, but he checks his watch, and it has been twenty minutes or so. “Did you see where he ran off?”
“I don’t know.” She points. “There?”
And it’s Eddie’s responsibility to check. He’s the one who told her to let the boy play, so he drags himself off the ground and groans himself into a standing position. He shoves his hands into his windbreaker’s pockets and trudges in the direction that his boy might have gone, down a little hill where the trees are thicker, the kind of place Billy is always disappearing into, down around a little November pool that has formed since the rains last week, over to the wooden bridge that crosses a creek the maps of the park call a river.
Billy is there on the bridge, standing still, looking down. Eddie calls his name, but Billy doesn’t hear over the wind, or he doesn’t care. “Billy, Bill!” Billy doesn’t move until Eddie is on the bridge. When he notices his father, he points down to the shape of the little boy lying at the edge of the water.
When Eddie has imagined of himself in a crisis, it has always been in terms of him saving someone, and he has dreamed of saving children ever since he has become a father, but here and now, what he thinks of first is his good life with Shonda and the boy. He thinks of Sunday dinners and baseball games and all of those fantasies they pass out when you buy a house in the suburbs. And he thinks about future court dates and lawsuits, and he grabs his son by the shoulder and asks, “What happened?”
“We were throwing pinecones at each other, and he hit me in the head and laughed so I started to throw them at his head, and then he picked up a rock . . .” and his voice trails off but Eddie can imagine the scene, all of it, the rock hitting the child on the side of his head and him tumbling over the railing, and maybe Billy laughed once before he got scared.
“It’s going to be all right.”
“All right?” Billy turns to the boy.
“Look at me. No, not at him look at me.” Billy must be coming out of his shock or numbness or whatever it is because he’s beginning to breathe hard. “I said look at me.” When he does, Eddie says, “I can fix this. I can make it all go away.”
“You can fix him?”
Eddie can feel his hands tightening on the boy’s shoulders. He has to will himself to loosen his grip. “Yes, but I need you to go to your mother.”
You can fix him?”
“Yes, but you need to go. Now.”
At the “now,” Billy runs off through the trees, up the hill in the shuffling run that has kept him from being any good at baseball. Eddie watch his son, not bothering to get up from his crouch until he’s out of sight, and then he jogs down to the boy.
It’s strange, but it’s not until he’s standing above the child that he wonders if maybe he isn’t dead. Eddie reaches down to feel for a pulse, but before he can find the carotid artery on the neck, he hears Shonda’s voice coming across the field. “Eddie,” she screams, her voice fighting against the wind and the leaves and winning. She must have met their son in his run. She must have gotten tired of waiting and come looking for him. “Eddie?”
Eddie takes deep breath in, all the way to the bottom of his lungs, and lets it go. He puts one hand on the child’s shoulder and the other on the small of his back and is about to push him into the creek when his wife’s yell stops his hand.
This is a man’s job, Eddie decides. It’s a man’s decision. This is the moment his adult life has been building toward. Shonda won’t be able to do it, even if she wants to, so he has to push this child into the creek if he has the strength and courage, if he is a man, and he’s about to push, but he can’t, so maybe he isn’t a man after all. He hesitates long enough that Shonda yells, “Eddie?” But there is recognition in her voice. She is standing on the bridge.
“This child is hurt,” he calls to her. “Call 911.”
Now he places a hand on the boy’s chest, and there is a heartbeat, strong and steady. He thinks about picking the boy up, cradling him in his arms, emerging the hero, but he knows enough about injury not to move him, so he lets him lie, waits for the EMT and their dramatic red lights and vocabulary of pain and healing.
In the years to come, when Eddie fantasizes about saving children, he is brought back to this moment. He reminds himself of his weakness and promises that he will never give into it again. He goes to CPR classes with his son even after Shonda divorces him, and Billy grows cold toward him. It is the one tradition that lasts with his son through his second wife and third. It stays with him even until he has grandchildren, and he brings them every two years to these classes as well. When he sees Shonda at weddings or funerals, he asks her about Allen, the little boy he came so close to drowning. She’s kept contact. He has not.
“He’s good,” she always says. “He’s become a good man.” Eddie always smiles and nods and says he knew that he would.
Copyright 2020 Brantingham