It’s the hour before sunset, when the light starts to get all hazy. Brae brings Jonathan to the park then, because there are likely to be less people around. This is a time for families at home with their suppers. These past few days, it’s been so hot, there hasn’t been much worry of running into anyone. Tonight, the only other person in sight is an older man on a bench across the way. Dressed in different shades of blue, his ears stick out from beneath his cap. He does not look up from his book, even as Jonathan runs back and forth across the plastic swinging bridge. It’s a relief to not have to be so mindful of the other children, the ones who like to push the smaller ones down.
Brae wipes the sweat from her forehead and dries her hand on her shorts. She’s forgotten the water bottle, again. Jonathan’s face will turn red, she’ll have to drag him over to the water fountain. He’ll cry. There’s something about the water coming out of the spout, straight at his face, that frightens him. In nearly three years, she’s learned all about the strange things that frighten him. The sound the kettle makes, having his arms under the blanket at night, radio static, cat litter.
Now, though, he’s happy, jumping up and down, making the bridge dance, no one to bother him at all. Every once in a while, he’ll pause to make sure Brae is still there. She’ll give him a little smile, and he’ll keep on.
The crickets start up, and Brae settles on a bench. The heat rests on her like the still surface of water. It is quiet, save for the cricket’s buzz. There is so much still to do before she can go to sleep—getting Jonathan to eat something, a bath, the long process of bedtime, laundry to fold, the assignment for her online writing course due by midnight. She’d signed up for the class on a whim—the possibility of what a new opportunity could mean for her, and for Jonathan. Instead, it is tedious and she is so tired all the time and barely holding a passing grade.
Jonathan tires of the bridge and finds a patch of dandelions near Brae to sit in. He picks two, and they talk to each other. “Just me,” one says to the other. “No!” the other says. “Yes, just me,” the first one says. Jonathan looks up and grins.
“Flowers,” he says. “I know,” she says, “I know. Flowers.” She goes to him and sits down in the grass. She feels his cheeks with her cheeks. They are warm.
She takes him by the hand, but he pulls away. She reaches for his hand again, but he’s slippery, running. She catches him easily, but he screams, kicks.
This small body has such fight. As she carries him to the water fountain, she passes the elderly man, with his trim white beard, cane propped up against the bench. She wonders if he is aware of her struggle with her son, what he thinks of her. But he doesn’t look up at her as she passes. She takes that as a kindness.
Brae has to lift Jonathan to the water fountain. He spits the water out, but she holds him there until he’s willing to drink at least a small amount. This is done grudgingly. She rubs the small of his back, and whispers “There, that’s it. That’s good.”
When she puts him down, Jonathan is dazed for a moment. He shakes his head, spraying droplets of water. He smiles and starts to run back to the playground. “No,” Brae says, “Home.” But he gives her the most pitiful look, and today, it works. “A few minutes more.”
As she follows him back, she notices a book left behind where the man had been sitting. A purple softcover with the corners frayed. They are wholly alone now; even the crickets have quieted. Brae picks up Summer, its front cover offering a painting of a woman, holding a scarf close to her neck, eyes cast down, alone in a dense forest, the only light from a clearing behind her. Brae opens the book, hoping to find some identifying information inside, but there is only this handwritten note: K—You know that I’m sorry. You know that if there was anything to be done, I’d do it. You know.
K. She imagines K is the man on the bench. He is in a gray linen suit, waiting for his lover—he will be E. E is married, of course, and they write love letters to each other in the front pages of books that mean something more to only the two of them. Over the years—this is a love affair that stretches on and on—the letters are shorter, more desperate. Perhaps this was the last one. E has been dead for years now, and K rereads the letters in the books he’s kept, for he’s kept them all. They line the fireplace mantle, the windowsills, the whole perimeter of a spare room. How else can you measure love?
And today is the day K is finished. He cannot take the book back home with him. It fills up his whole house. Even the cat won’t be in the same room as it.
Jonathan is rubbing his eyes, and Brae takes him by the hand for the short walk home. For once, he does not argue. In the other hand, she carries the book. She will tell him about K and E one day. About love, about how it’s unrelenting, and mostly inconvenient. How she hopes it won’t be so for him, yet imagines it will be still.
© Beckie Dashiell
[This piece was selected by Amelia Loulli. Read Beckie’s interview]