I don't recall the precise moment I realized, as a child, that adults weren't invincible, but could be fragile, unsure, even frightened. I doubt there is an exact moment, a Gestalt if you will, when innocent eyes are opened, but rather a diffusion of anxious wonderment and dread. For me, I suppose it began around the time my parents divorced; I was seven. They separated gradually, my father leaving on business more frequently, then moving into an apartment across town, then to a different city, and finally to another state. The illusion of the solid family was broken for me in those weeks and months. I realize now that they had married young, were both stubborn and headstrong, too alike to be together for the long haul.
My wife and I are happy. We have one child, Emily -- now seven herself -- and I suspect she's learning the same things I did at her age, but, thankfully, not in the same way. It's as though this magic number is a time of disturbing discoveries, of shattered notions; and although I've neither researched this nor sought patterns or trends, I'd guess most people have a seven-year-old story, one in which they become less sure of the world.
The Saturday we left for vacation in Bermuda last month, I stopped by the office in the morning with Emily. It was early May -- still chilly in Bridgeport -- and she was the first to reach the elevator so she could breathe on the button. The elevators in my office have heat-sensitive buttons that you don't have to push; barely touch them and they light up. She cupped her hands around one and exhaled. Behind the fog of her breath glowed an amber arrow pointing up. I rarely work on Saturdays, so the button phenomenon is a big deal for her.
Ten minutes, I told her. Twenty, tops. I had forgotten to finalize a quote -- it'd take no time at all to do, just transfer figures from one form to another and drop it in Henderson's inbox. No big deal, we had an afternoon flight.
We stepped off at the darkened sixth floor and walked past reception to my desk in the center of the room.
"Can I make copies on the machine?" Emily said.
"Not too many. You remember where Accounting is?"
She said yes and strode off, an efficient tourist in her new outfit: squeaky white Keds, lime green capris and matching tropical print blouse under a bulky old gray sweater clinging to her like some doleful, furry creature afraid to let go of winter. I looked up across the room and saw Lawton Swann sitting in his office, staring at some papers under the light of a single desklamp. He glanced up and waved to me. I'd noticed his dark blue sedan in the lot, as practical and nondescript as an unmarked police car.
A rather humorless man in his early 50s, Lawton is the sales manager for a region outside my territory, so he's not my boss; this is fortunate for me because I've never cared much for him. It's not that I don't like him, I simply dislike being near the man. In the three years I've worked with him he's always been brutally good at his job -- all work, all the time -- but with a vague undercurrent of melancholy, as if selling restaurant equipment held a brave and sublime meaning beyond its obvious purpose, unknown and unknowable to the rest of us in the office. When we heard he and his wife of 20 years had separated three months ago, we were shocked. They were a perfect match, Lawton and Jane. She was a housewife who volunteered, and took her work just as seriously as he took his. We suspected a loveless marriage prolonged and endured for their son, an only child.
I slid the quote into an envelope and sealed it. Across the room I could see Emily in Lawton's office, her little blonde ponytail bouncing up and down as she nodded while he talked. I scribbled a note to Henderson reiterating pertinent phone numbers, then locked my desk and went to rescue her.
I knocked on his office door frame. "Morning, Lawton. You been here all night?"
"William?" He seemed surprised to see me, which I found odd because he was, after all, talking to my daughter. "Since around three. I couldn't sleep."
"I'm helping Mr. Swann with a problem," Emily said. She was sitting in the side chair next to his desk, her hands in her lap.
Lawton smiled at Emily, then at me. He looked exhausted, and the sweet, pungent odor of whisky hung in the room.
"I hope you don't mind, but I told her about Janey." His measured voice was sedate and graveled, but he didn't sound drunk.
"She's leaving," Emily said softly, "and he doesn't want her to go."
Lawton stared at the papers before him, nudging them around with his fingertips. "She wants to break it off for good now. I expected as much, but it's so tough. All these years . . . ."
He'd caught me totally off guard and I was at once angry and ashamed -- faced with a man in pain at a pivotal moment in his life, and I only wanted to reach over the desk and grab him by the collar and say How dare you drag my daughter into your world of misery. Who tells such things to someone else's child? I was also unprepared for the childhood vision he brought forth: my father kneeling before me in our living room, holding my face in his hands, his voice strange and high saying You'll be fine, Will. Everything will work out, you'll see, and then leaving, walking out the front door with the last of his things in a box tucked under his arm. I remember loving and hating him equally. Years later I realized it takes two people to ruin a marriage, and it was not all my father's fault; my mother deserved some of the blame, but he just happened to be the one who left. I thought I had overcome this irrational, childish anger years ago; after all, we'd kept in touch, and my parents and I enjoyed a good adult relationship. But still, there it was.
For Lawton Swann, I could think of nothing but innocuous comments, like so many sympathy cards designed to soothe -- well-intentioned, yet ultimately empty, bereft of real emotion: you'll get through this, things will get better with time, this is the beginning of a new chapter in your lives, hang in there.
He wiped his eyes and sighed heavily. "She called last night from her sister's in New Haven. She's been looking at the university, considering going back to school . . . she said she hasn't been happy in years."
I wondered when things had turned for them; surely they must have been happy at one time. Had they wanted something more and been reluctant to bother the other about it, stoically pushing aside their dreams?
Emily nodded. "His son will be okay, he's big. He's in college."
"Everything will work out, you'll see," I said, my voice hollow and unfamiliar. I imagined his wife taking the last of her things in a box out the front door as well. "You'll be fine."
He smiled weakly, the three of us rooted in awkward silence for a moment.
"Well, kiddo, we should shove off now." I reached out to Emily. She hopped up, patted Lawton's arm and said goodbye.
"You all enjoy your vacation," he said.
"Guaranteed. Go home and get some sleep, Lawton," I said. Emily grasped my hand and we started toward the elevators.
"He was crying, Daddy. He's so sad," she said. "Maybe he could come over for dinner some time and bring his wife, and we could eat outside at the picnic table. That's always fun. Maybe she wouldn't want to leave then."
"At this point, honey, I don't think dinner at our house will fix things."
"Let's go ask him. He's never been to our house before. He'd like it."
"Some other time."
"But he's right back there."
I tapped the elevator button and the doors opened. We got in and Emily stared at me, one corner of her mouth turned down slightly as she chewed the inside of her cheek. The light above us flickered, almost seemed to shimmer, and in that instant Emily's eyes fell deep into shadow -- perhaps just a trick within the car's brushed steel walls, and with such quickness that I wasn't sure it had actually happened. And then she was eyeing me again; thinking, wrapping her mind around it all. Every bit of it.
She tugged the sweater tighter around her and said "Do you want to try it, Daddy?" pointing to the buttons.
"Thanks, but you go ahead."
She leaned over and breathed out long and slow until the amber 1 blinked on and we descended, closer to our destination with each passing floor.
About the author:
James Simpson is a metaphorical Georgia bricklayer and Pushcart Prize-nominated writer. His fiction has appeared in print and on-line in Literary Potpourri, Big City Lit, Word Riot, Flashquake, StorySouth, and other journals. He was also a finalist in Night Train Magazine's 2002 Firebox Fiction contest, judged by Pamela Painter. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two daughters, and is currently compiling stories for a collection, tentatively titled Gone Daddy Gone.