This faint noise I can’t place sounds in the back yard. Chy-shyun, goes the sound. When I go out I find my son digging a hole. The sun shines down on him, his torso bare and shining with sweat. Sand caked with perspiration into mud covers his hands and spots his back and chest. The rest is smooth in its ten-year-old newness.
The earth in our yard is more sand than dirt. This place must have been under water at some point back in time. I step lightly down the gravely path on the side of the house, trying to stay quiet, afraid to startle him, as if he were a wild animal. I inch off the walkway onto the sand, and my sandal kicks over a tiny sliver of worn-smooth shell, possibly a clam or some ancient bivalve.
I just watch him for a while, then close my eyes and listen, with his chy-shyun into the earth, followed by a gentle swish of tossed sand. The yard is three lots wide—all the homes in the neighborhood are like that. His hole is only a half-foot deep, but it’s getting pretty wide, already around six feet in diameter, give or take.
I ask Ilya what he’s doing.
“Swimming pool,” he says, not stopping his shovel, no hitch or hesitation in his movements as he speaks.
I breathe and take it in as the sand swishes against my feet, tiny granules climb into my sandals sliding between my bare toes. I should have known it was the pool. He’d been asking and I said no; I can’t afford a swimming pool. This isn’t my yard or my house. If I owned a house his mother would have gotten it. But he’s ten, still young enough—naïve enough—to believe he can build one, or so it now seems.
The heat has grown more intense in the moments since I’ve been standing under the sun, and I don’t really want to argue with him for the few weeks of summer that he’s with me, or even try to explain why building a pool won’t work, so I just say okay and turn to go back inside.
Halfway to the house, I turn back and ask, “Do you need anything?”
Ilya says, “I’m all good unless you got another shovel and want to help.”
Thankfully I don’t have a second because I don’t want to help him; that would be the wrong kind of encouragement. I tell him I’ll be inside, that I’ll bring iced tea out later. Gravel crunches under my rubber sandals on the way back to the house.
Once inside, I peek outside through the blinds, half believing I might see something else and not Ilya slowly descending into the ground, but he is, and the shovel goes chy-shyun and the sand goes swish.
His mother doesn’t have a pool. It’s not as though Yelena and I were well off when we were married. Professors barely earn enough for the newspapers that line our cages. I know he doesn’t expect a pool—he knows enough to see what we’re capable of, which may not be very much. She’s a researcher in psychology, I’m in anthropology, and we couldn’t stop being the professions. The little ticks, the idiosyncrasies, the stuff that gets on nerves after eleven years took on a greater scope with the manic academic professors in our brains unable to turn off. A toothpaste tube squeezed from the middle wasn’t careless, it was a sign of neediness, a demand to be taken care of. The sink of dirty dishes wasn’t just lazy or sloppy, it was a fundamental rejection of the construction of a feminine archetypal paradigm. Sure, those little household things were the impetus for fallout, but the underground subconscious, the failings, the truth was visible for us to read on the surface. All Yelena and I could do was pick each other apart.
We should have been strangers. It would have tasted better, less like a tire fire. We didn’t want Ilya to see our damage, to hear our battle, our constant mission to deconstruct each other. We didn’t want to break him along the way. We couldn’t allow that. We had to stop mattering. For his sake.
I couldn’t tell how he would take it. I didn’t know if he was like me or not. The one thing I knew was that I couldn’t bear to think of him growing up as awkward as I was, afraid of everything. A few years have passed since the divorce, and while he has seemed okay for the most part, the digging is clearly an adaptive behavior responding to a lingering unarticulated anxiety over the dissolution of a standard family unit.
I’m off work all summer, done with teaching my four sections of Anthropology 101 at the community McCollege the next town over. The job is stable—I’m not going anywhere, so I’ve pretty much abandoned research and hopes of raising my standing. The July heat only serves to add to my lethargy. I have nothing to do but observe Ilya.
Claire-Marie gets home in the evening. It’s still bright and warm, the rented house a sauna. Ilya has come in, taken a shower, and is sitting in front of two oscillating fans that cool him every three and seven seconds. He stares into the space between the two fans. Claire-Marie wanders around the house for a while, going from room to room, not really doing anything. She has an office job at the college, filing and the like. Despite her abundant passions, her omnivorous education with a BA in English, BS in biology, BFA in Dance, half an MFA in Sculpture, and half an MA in Education, secretarial work is all she’s qualified for. She eventually sits down next to me on the couch.
I regularly can’t believe that I’m forty-four and have a girlfriend. A girlfriend is something a teenager or college student has. Claire-Marie is thirty-one, which seems like a baby. I really don’t have any idea what I’m doing with her. If we broke up and she moved out I would not be able to afford to rent this little house. Maybe I could get a roommate or boarder until I found another girlfriend. The idea that our cohabitation is based on financing housing makes me shiver.
She pats me on the head, ruffling my hair and walks toward the other room. The gesture is playful, and I love it and wish I could let anxieties fall away and linger in her touch. As she reaches the hall I see paint under her fingernails, though I can’t tell if it’s still there or there again. Claire-Marie is a bad artist, but only because she plays clarinet all the time. She’s actually incredibly talented at the clarinet—good enough to perform even—but she can’t stand in front of people, so she just plays at home.
I hear the clarinet tone from the kitchen. Ilya spins with a start, then quickly recognizes the sound and refocuses on focusing on nothing. His body reclines onto a squishy pillow; his eyelids slide halfway down. I wonder if Claire-Marie ran the clarinet through the dishwasher again. Last time it came out with tomato seeds stuck to it. I can’t tell what Ilya thinks of her. The second oscillating fan finds me for a moment, but then turns away.
Claire-Marie tries to talk to Ilya at dinner—about school, about books. Did he find the copy of The Phantom Tollbooth that she left with his clean laundry this morning? Has he given any more thought to playing soccer this fall? He doesn’t say much in response, just one or two-word answers. He stays relatively quiet throughout the meal, but he’s interested in her, looking up to her, then quickly away and back again. She’s a curiosity—Claire-Marie is older than any kid, but not old, and yet she’s younger than any other adult he knows.
After dinner I clear the table. I scrape some leftover rice and veggies into a Tupperware for Claire-Marie’s lunch and stack the plates in the dishwasher. From the other room I hear Claire-Marie telling Ilya about her clarinet. By the time I’ve loaded in the cups and silverware, she’s playing. A long level tone. A D, I think. The water whooshes and the hose slurps as the dishwasher fills.
I slide into the living room and plant myself on the couch. Ilya holds the clarinet. Claire-Marie points as she tells him which keys to hold. His breath flows into it. A pterodactyl screech, and he pulls it away. She tells him to maintain a seal with his lips over the reed—to exhale patiently. Not much sound comes out. He continues to try. A half hour later he’s fashioned a clear C.
Later that night, I’m sitting up in bed, looking in at Claire-Marie in the bathroom, as she dries off after her shower. She has an interconnected tattoo of flame and thorny vines across most of her upper body, from just below her neck, over her breasts and belly, weaving down to roots just above her pubic hair. Instead of leaves, the vines lead to music notes. My eyes wander through the maze of thorns. It always looks a little different. Is that her body or the artistic illusion? I remind myself that it would be impossible for the tattoo to change. She’s never said anything about it. I wonder if that image is something I could get tired of looking at if it’s always changing. She throws the towel over the shower door and crosses into the bedroom. Does she want me to get burned or prick my finger? Should I be afraid to touch her? She climbs onto the bed, staying above the sheets. Her hair is still wet. Water droplets darken the pillow with tiny spots. The spots look almost black, the same as her short hair. She rolls on her side and says, “He’s so like you.”
I’m not so sure. He seems more like his mother than like me.
Claire-Marie closes her eyes and nuzzles her face against my side. She takes in a slow breath and hums, the sound she makes when she’s ready to go to sleep.
I slide my hand into the curve of her waist and ask, “Tonight?”
“I told you,” she said, putting her hand on top of mine, not pushing me away but not pulling me closer either. She doesn’t want to have sex when Ilya is in the house. We had that fight his first night here. I said dumb idea, she said she wasn’t dumb, I said not you—the idea, she said it’s the same, I said it’s not. That kind of nonsense. She can’t bear the idea of him hearing us, the walls being the tissue paper that they are. That night, I argued to change her mind but simultaneously agreed with her. I didn’t say so, buy I eventually gave in and let the fight pass. He must already know something happens in here, whether he’s visiting or not. Would anything change if he lived here? Surely, we’d have to make love at some point.
The next day he’s back out in the sand with his shovel. The sun’s not as bright, concealed by the rolling fog. The muggy air hangs, sealing in the heat. Everything looks gray under the veil of fog, shade waffling back and forth as clouds wander by. Chy-shyun and swish.
I always figured one day he’d beat me at basketball. It’s the natural transitional stage in father-son relationships. I knew one day he would find out I’m flawed, imperfect, but I didn’t expect this hole in the ground. Now he’s out there trying to provide, trying to be an adult, trying to be the adult. I can’t provide a pool, so he will. He keeps getting deeper. Soon I’ll barely be able to see him.
Claire-Marie asks what he’s doing.
I say, “Sinking.”
The day goes by. Fog burns off, more creeps up, over the hills, from the sea to take its place. Claire-Marie goes out to the cement driveway at the side of the house to smoke. She looks down the gravel pathway at the backyard and watches Ilya a little more closely. Smoke trickles from the end of her cigarette. She holds each puff as though she’s trying to save it. She shrugs and comes back inside. “He’s still out there,” she says.
The next day I want to keep him out of the dirt, so I ask him to come shoot baskets with me. He nods consent and follows. We walk up the front driveway, a low incline, across the flat, gravelly street, up a forty-five degree driveway to the house across the street from ours. It’s been vacant as long as we’ve lived here, at least twice as big as our house. The court is short and wide. The edge of the driveway flattens at no more than a free-throw line, but the sides are wider than the double garage door, at least a pro three-pointer.
He doesn’t know how to shoot. I wince when he tries, realizing I’ve neglected too much. I show him where to put his hands, how to use his whole body in a fluid motion, that it’s a push more than a throw. His eyes focus, and he doesn’t blink much. He’s not bad at dribbling—he takes to it quickly, doesn’t even have to look down much when bouncing the ball with his right hand.
A few hours later, Claire-Marie gets home. Her brakes screech as she inches down the driveway. I tell Ilya I’m going to head in. He stays and plays longer.
The next day, before I really notice, Ilya goes out alone to shoot. I observe him for a while through the blinds of the living-room window. The block is so barren, even a falling leaf seems like a raucous parade. After an hour or so I notice a neighbor kid wander out from his house, two down from us. He goes over to Ilya. I see the two kids in profile. Immediately, I see that this other boy is large, almost a foot taller than Ilya. He has to be older, at least thirteen or fourteen. The two boys talk; I can’t hear the conversation.
They start to play. The game goes on for an hour, they develop rules—winners and losers go to Ilya, so he takes the ball out after every basket, some sort of attempt to level the playing field. The big kid doesn’t get possession of the ball unless he causes Ilya to miss and he gets a rebound. Ilya complains when the kid blocks his shot; after that, they big kid only puts his hands straight up, but doesn’t block the ball. That’s a fair compromise. But what’s wrong with this kid? Why doesn’t he play with kids his own age?
Later, after both boys have gone in, I see a car pull into the big kid’s driveway. A woman gets out and walks in the house. Something compels me. I walk down the street. I pass the house next door, the one between ours and the one the big kid and the woman went into. The Waddels. That was their name. What happened to them? One day they lived there. The next day they didn’t. Now that house is empty too. I can’t remember how long ago that was. Low-lying shrubs cover the Waddels’ entire yard, this kind of blue green leaf covering the rounded toadstool shape. The branches of the bush look dry, almost dead.
I ring the bell, still not exactly sure what I’m going to say. The woman answers the door. A tall woman, she has pink skin and wavy gold hair. I tell her our boys were playing.
Her eyes sharpen and her jaw clenches. She says, “Oh, god, what did he do?”
“Thank god,” she says.
I ask what she means.
She sighs, her face slacking. “I’m expecting a call one of these days,” she says. She steps onto the porch and shuts the door. Nodding her head a little, she says, “I’m going to be that parent on TV, with reporters circling the yard, asking what went wrong.” She sighs again, “I can feel it.”
My chest clenches a little. I suddenly regret letting them play together. Saying so is the wrong approach. I ask what she notices.
She says, “It’s probably nothing, you know? Maybe it’s just paranoia over all the reports. He’s never actually done anything or been in trouble at school.”
I relax a bit, too. To cut off the potential friendship without any reasons that I can explain to Ilya might be worse. I can watch them. I have the time.
She adds, “I just…I worry. I’m not home much.”
“Anyway, it seemed okay. My only concern is that Ilya—that’s my son—is a little younger than your son, and quite a bit smaller. I just want to be sure they’re careful. Everything looked fine when I popped my head out the window for a second, but, well, I don’t see Ilya as much as I would like, and I’m not sure how he handles himself with older kids—I’m not…” I struggle to find words.
“Single parent too?” she asks with a close-lipped smile.
“Divorced. Yes,” I say.
She asks how long.
“A little over two years,” I say. “Seems like longer, though.”
“Six, here,” she says. “Sometimes it seems longer, though sometimes it seems like yesterday. Depends, really.”
She tells me a little about her life. Her name is Susan. She and her ex-husband owned a video store. I probably went in there a few times, now that I think about it. She tells me about the VHS to DVD conversion, how it nearly destroyed their business, that it took three times as long for them to switch over than the chain stores. They took a big loan to make the switch. By the time they’d replaced the tapes with discs, everyone was renting movies through the mail or playing them on computers. “Video killed the rad-i-o star,” she says with a shrug.
“The divorce was hard on Lethem,” she says. “That’s my son. I mean, of course it was. That’s all you ever hear: it’s hard on the children. Lethem, though, he didn’t really get along with his father. I don’t think my husband really liked Lethem, to tell the truth. The kid has always had a sense of entitlement.” She paused and stared into the street. “I’m sure that’s our fault. Maybe the videos? ” She shrugs. “That he could watch anything at any time.”
I don’t say much about Yelena. She doesn’t ask about her or Ilya, and seems to take my nods and sympathetic hums as my contribution to the conversation.
For the next few days I hang out in front of the house to watch the boys play.
When Susan gets off work, she comes out the street and we chat. Lethem is only twelve, as it turns out, just a giant sixth grader, with is a slight relief that he doesn’t have access to the toxic middle school manners. She tells about her job at the bank; it’s a small town, so she sees all the finances of people. She tells me how she knows so much about the people in town, how much money they have, how much they put in and take out. “It’s a strange thing to drive past someone’s house and know they can’t afford the car in their driveway, or see someone at the supermarket buying off-brand spaghetti sauce when they have more money in savings than I will have in my life.”
I nod repeatedly. These individual spending habits follow systemic tendencies in our culture. I decide not to try to explain Thorsten Veblen. No one wants to hear historic economic patterns.
Later that evening, Ilya and Claire-Marie continue to practice the clarinet. He’s now playing “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.” He plays carefully, rarely missing a note, but so slow that it’s almost a dirge. Clair Marie squeezes her hands together and smiles as she watches him play. She’s never been a teacher since she fizzled on her education degree, but she seems delighted to have a pupil.
My cell rings that night. It’s Yelena. I want to let it go to message, but feel uncertain whether that would make things worse. When I finally respond she’ll reprimand me for keeping her in the dark, for hiding things. I answer. Her Russian accent has almost disappeared. I wonder if that was a conscious change. She reminds me of the exchange date, which is still two weeks away—when I will return Ilya—I feel her imply—to his rightful owner. I tell her I remember, that I won’t forget. Her new partner is a practicing psychiatrist. How that works for her I will never understand. Does he analyze why her accent has fallen away since they moved in together, why she hides it? Does he tell her that she doesn’t need to hide it? I loved her accent. I never questioned it. The accent gave even mundane communication a new kind of gravitas or, occasionally, humor.
There was a time when we were happy. I can’t have imagined it all. Those years were real. Yelena and I would wake up early and watch Ilya sleep. I’d wipe the drool off his face with a cloth. She’d laugh and whisper, “The son is like the father, yes?”
The next day I’m thinking about Yelena’s call. I won’t have Ilya much longer. I continue to meet Susan in the driveway to talk while the boys play. It’s nice to have someone to talk to. When I mention Yelena is now working out of the university hospital, Susan quips, “This woman has to be gotten to a hospital. –A hospital? What is it?—It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.”
I haven’t seen Airplane! in a while, but it always brings a smile. She’s probably trying to soften the mood, get away from talk of divorce.
I realize when Ilya goes I won’t be able to have these chats with Susan any longer. Watching the boys is our excuse for friendship. Without the act of observing the children while they play in the yard of a vacant house our friendship would be a violation of something. Our talks haven’t exactly been a secret. On several days, Claire-Marie has come home while I’m in the street talking to Susan. Claire-Marie never so much as asks who the woman was. I can’t tell if she cares or not. That evening I go inside a little earlier.
At dinner, helping himself to a second piece of chicken, Ilya says, “I saw Lethem throw a rock at a crow.”
Claire-Marie reacts before I do. “Why did he do that?”
He shrugs. Still chewing, Ilya says, “It was kind of weird.”
“Did he say anything about doing it?” I ask.
“He doesn’t like crows, I guess,” Ilya says. “I didn’t say anything about it. Then he told me he killed a cat once. I didn’t believe him. I think he was making it up.” Ilya laughs a little, and bites into a steamed carrot.
Claire-Marie looks at me. Her mouth is squeezed tight, her lips pursed like a sea anemone.
The next day I go out with Ilya and stay at the court the entire time he plays. He doesn’t ask me about staying. When Lethem comes out I don’t move off the court.
Lethem asks Ilya if he wants a game.
I say we’re just shooting around today.
Ilya says he’s bored and goes back down the driveway, crosses the street, and goes into the house.
I stay in the court, bounce the ball onto the smooth white cement of the neighbor’s driveway. Lethem is a weird looking kid. His head looks like a puffer fish with dirty blonde hair. I take a shot. The ball bounces off the back rim with a ting sound and flies down the driveway, across the street, then down my driveway, hitting the garage door of my house at the bottom of the slopes.
Lethem looks at me. “Are you going to get it?”
I just stare at the kid. His skin looks like the grill at a greasy spoon.
Lethem smirks. “You’re trying to bang my mom, aren’t you?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say. I cross my arms in front of my chest, as if in a defensive position.
“I know what it’s like,” he says. “Are you into choking?” His oily grin gets bigger. “Last guy was.” He laughs. “So there’s that to do deal with.” He looks down the driveways at the ball. “And the overnight terrorists. You know about those, right?”
I have an almost overwhelming urge to punch the kid, to break his nose. Then a car drives by. It’s Susan. She slows down and waves. Lethem waves back. I make a slight nod.
Lethem follows after the car, in a sprint. He almost runs into the back of the car when she stops in her driveway. He quickly jumps around it and races into the house before she steps out.
I wait at the basket. Susan waves again and walks over to the court. She says, “The boys done for the day?”
“Seems that way,” I say.
I feel like I’m holding back a flood, and I have to stop it up somehow. “Lethem was saying something about the last person you dated.”
Susan twitches, then shakes it off. “I’m sorry?”
I shake my head too, then look up at the basket. The fog is beginning to roll in. “I don’t know how to talk about this.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” she says. She turns back toward her own house. “I’m just chatting. I didn’t mean to give you the wrong idea.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I say.
“I know you’re dating that little girl,” she says. “My husband did the same thing once we divorced.” Her tone lowered. There’s a scratch in her voice.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I was trying to find out more about your son. I’m concerned.”
“I’ll handle it,” she says. “Anyway. I have to make dinner.”
“All right,” I say.
She goes home. The fog continues to drift in.
Claire-Marie has brought home a second clarinet. She says she borrowed it from a friend in the music department. Ilya’s eyes open a little wider when he sees it. He races through dinner.
Later that night, in the living room, they’re playing a duet. Ilya very slowly plays “When the Saints go Marching in,” as Claire-Marie follows with the harmony. She echoes his notes, modulating the pace; he continues on, tiptoeing through each note.
I wake up late the next day. It’s Saturday. Claire-Marie is home. I hear her in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher. I wander out, and sit at the table. Toast crumbs form a circle around where a plate must have been.
Claire-Marie says, “I don’t know what happened yesterday.”
I don’t respond right away. “Nothing happened,” I eventually say.
“Not about that,” she says, setting down a scrub brush. “I’m not trying to control anything. That’s not who I am, and I think you know that, or you should,” she says. “I’m ready to trust you until you tell me I shouldn’t. I have no games here.” She’s looking out the window above the sink into the back yard. “It’s Ilya. He’s back in the dirt.”
There’s a crack sound and I tilt my head trying to wrap my mind around the noise. Nothing follows. All seems well. Ilya’s shovel must have hit a tree root or rock or something. A few moments later I hear a cry. Panic pulls at my stomach. I react slowly, like in a dream where you can’t move. Claire-Marie is out the door before I stand. I follow her out, trying to project calm. If something has happened I have to be in control, I have to appear confident and safe, I have to assuage fear and make the universe feel safe.
A box sits in the sand just outside of the hole. It’s shabbily constructed, little more than plywood and cheap nails. Cracked gray wood lays in pieces, the top broken off.
Ilya looks down into the box. His arms waver at his sides, his hands shake. Claire-Marie has stepped in front of him, between him and the box. She pulls his face to her chest, covering him, shielding him, and wraps him up in arms. He shakes. She softly whispers, “Ssshh.”
I’ve reached the box and stand above it, gazing down. A clear plastic bag inside. Sand has seeped into everything, but I can still make it out. “Canine,” I say. The teeth make it easy to identify. It’s withered, part mummified maybe. Still a few tufts of fur. No bigger than a human baby.
Ilya is teary. He sniffles. Tears and snot have started to bleed into Claire-Marie’s shirt. She clenches him tightly. Ilya’s legs wobble, and she squeezes a little tighter. He says, “I don’t want it here.”
I look down at the dog. With a small stick, I hold back the plastic. Everything is dry. “Decomposition dates it at least six years.” It’s from before Lethem would have been old enough to figure out how to do this. “Aside from the cheap wood, the burial was done lovingly, wrapped gently in the plastic, like a blanket. Someone cared about this animal. This pet.”