Something Terrible in the Park

Puffs of white clouds scooted across the blue sky as Lili, down on her knees, dug in the hard black of her garden. April is the cruelest month: she remembered that, but not much else, from her lit course in college. It had puzzled her then—How could springtime be cruel?—but now, at the age of forty-seven, she knew what the poet had meant. The pain she could manage in any other season devastated her in the spring, its regeneration a taunt she could hardly bear. It was obscene, that juxtaposition: robins and tulips on one side, her son’s death on the other.

            She pushed impatiens into the ground, burying their tender roots in the chilly soil and tucking the dirt up around them. She marveled at impatiens—how bravely they bloomed, all season long. The first touch of frost in the fall and they were gone, but until then, so hopeful, so cheerful, so persistent. They didn’t know what was coming, she thought, feeling the damp sting of dirt on her hands, under her nails.

            Working briskly, Lili started to transplant her alyssum, packing them into the earth, more closely than she should have because she hated to think of them stranded there, lonely and cold. Beside her, a primrose grew close to the ground, cupping pale yellow flowers in its basket of green. Quickly, she turned away. They were so beautiful. So ephemeral.

            In the distance, Rick Davis’s Little League team was practicing in the park. Above the children’s voices, as thin and high-pitched as birds’, she could hear him yelling: Good swing, Nice going, Keep your eye on the ball. He made it sound simple, as if everything was basic and obvious, just a matter of staying alert. And now, this business about the parade, he was making that sound obvious too. She couldn’t understand him, how someone who had been Andy’s coach, who had been there when it happened, could treat them this way.

            Lili glanced at her watch and saw that it was almost five, time to start dinner. Wayne, her husband, insisted that a routine was helpful. It was important to get up at seven, to go to bed at ten-thirty, to eat at six, because then, after a while, you didn’t have to remember, these things just happened by themselves. But that was only an illusion, the idea that pathetic little rituals add up to a life.

            Slowly she gathered up her tools and put them in her basket. On the patio, though, she slumped into a lawn chair, unable to make herself go into the house. The chair’s wooden frame creaked resisting her weight and the cushions felt slightly damp, but Lili welcomed it. Comfort was an insult to her now.

            Sitting there, her arms, even her fingers, too heavy to lift, she could hear the commuter trains coming and going, their accompanying whistles low and sad. Vaguely, she remembered the trains they’d ridden when on vacation in Eastern Europe. There had been toothless old women standing alongside the tracks selling peach juice or hard-boiled eggs or little baskets of jewel-like berries. They had been so lovely, those berries. It bothered her that she’d never found out their name.

            As the light faded from the sky, the grass seemed to absorb it, becoming so intensely green she could hardly bear to look at it. Why is it that things are always brightest just before they disappear? she wondered. Andy had been such a happy boy—smart, eager, a champion. Wayne had seen to that with a seamless rotation of soccer, basketball, baseball. It had never occurred to her to worry about baseball. Football, yes—children sometimes broke bones playing football—but baseball? It had seemed as harmless as Sunday school.

            Once, Lili had loved those Saturday morning games: sipping from her thermos of coffee and chatting with neighbors while watching Andy out of the corner of her eye. Even now she could see him, squatting importantly behind home plate in his catcher’s regalia, bouncing up and down on his heels, watching Rick closely, an acolyte with his priest. Andy had explained the signals to her once: One finger pointing down was a knuckle ball, two, a fastball. There were other signals too, but she hadn’t paid attention.

            Andy had died last year on the opening day of the season when he was hit by a 1996 pale blue Chrysler that had careened out of nowhere into the ballpark where he was playing. It was his second year of Little League, and his team was leading six to four. Though it had been cool earlier in the day, it was warm in the sun, so warm that Lili took off her hoodie. It was then, just as she was wrapping it around her waist, that the monster-car—huge, uncontrollable—raced onto the field, tossing bodies aside as if they were rags, charging at Andy in his catcher’s position, killing him, killing four other children.

***

After the accident, the ministers from their church had arrived to comfort Wayne and Lili. The senior pastor, with his soft eyes and Santa Claus beard, had looked away, embarrassed, but the junior pastor—a much younger man in tight-fitting pants—spoke of God’s mysterious ways, as if what happened might actually have a purpose.

            When it was time for church the next day, she and Wayne went, standing in the narthex after the service as if in a trance while the congregation filed past—So sorry, A special boy, So sad for you—and all the other soft, sibilant sounds that people consider soothing. But Lili wasn’t soothed. She felt as if she were being hissed at. She knew what they were thinking: Better yours than mine. Even Rick and Sharon had been uneasy, eager to get away, to go home and hug their kids close.

            Sitting in church that Sunday morning, with the sun splashing crimson and blue through the stained glass windows, she’d heard the minister say that God was the first to cry in a tragedy like this one. She overlooked it then, but something about the statement kept working its way forward in her brain. Was it true? Did God cry? Just last week she’d read about a woman who had stuffed her newborn baby in a freezer; the paramedics had found it only by chance. And what about that gangly boy from up the street who was always nursing small animals—a bird with a broken wing, a squirrel run over in the street? Did God care about those children? And if so, why did they have to suffer?

***

From the front of the house, a car door slammed—her husband, Wayne—but she didn’t move, not even when he called her name.

            Last night he had brought home some strawberries, and they were just finishing them when he broached the subject of the opening day parade. He said Rick and the rest of the committee wanted Wayne to be the parade marshal. “Well, actually, both of us,” he said. “They want both of us to be marshals.”

            “What did you say?” she asked, staring into her coffee cup.

            “I said I’d think about it. I said we’d both think about it.”

            That night, as they lay moored on opposite sides of their big bed, Wayne rolled onto his side to look at her. She could feel a slight emanation of warmth from his body. “Rick says they thought about canceling the parade,” he said. “A lot of people even wanted to cancel the season. But that’s not fair to the kids. Why should they miss out just because something terrible happened in the park last year?” His voice was calm and reasonable.

            “All right, all right, that’s fine,” she said. “I just don’t see why we have to be involved.”

***

The first of May had been chilly last year, too chilly for opening day, but then the sun had come out, reminding everyone how lucky they were to live in a suburb that was so wholesome and safe, where the worst thing you ever heard about was a raccoon messing with somebody’s garbage.

            The parade had stepped off exactly at noon: the high school band, stiff in their blue-and-gold uniforms, little girls in white gloves and tutus doing cartwheels in the street, Mayor Kemp and his wife in the marshal’s convertible. And then there were the floats, one for each team: the Braves on a flat bed truck with a teepee; the Tigers in yellow slickers streaked with black; and the Pirates, Andy’s team, in a boat drawn by a pickup, with a pirate flag snapping in the breeze. Andy, Lili later recalled, had been leaning far off the float, tossing candy to a toddler.

            She and Debbie Perkins had stood next to the curb taking pictures as the boat drifted by, laughing a little at themselves for being so Mommy-ish. Debbie’s boy was dead too, but she had another child—a girl with strawberry blonde hair who played basketball. Lili felt guilty thinking that way—how could one child replace another?—but it was still someone to buy birthday presents for, to send to the dentist, to nag about homework. Someone, in other words, to live for. Why hadn’t she and Wayne had more children? A spare child just in case?

***

From inside the house, she could hear their landline ringing, harsh and demanding. People knew not to call when Lili was the only one home because she never answered. But Wayne always did. “What if it’s important?” he’d say and then reach for it.

            But how could it be important? Was God, still crying in heaven, going to call them and say it was all a mistake, that Andy was really alive and coming back to them? She’d asked Wayne that once, and he’d looked at her blankly, as if he must have misheard her.

            Ever since the accident, husband and wife—ex-father and ex-mother—had avoided each other politely. Occasionally, during the day, when Wayne was at work, a flicker of something—she presumed it was passion—would spike through her, but then, when he was actually there, she blockaded herself on her side of their vast king-sized bed. And he did the same.

But recently she’d sensed something new in him: an occasional gaze, or small odd gifts that puzzled her: a blue jay’s feather or a tiny tart hardly larger than a half dollar or an antique thimble that came from a house sale. Once he even brought her a small handmade book.

“The artist made the paper herself,” Wayne said as Lili turned the blank pages, which were pulpy and thick.

“But what would I do with it?” she asked, perplexed.

“You could write down your thoughts in it. You know, like you used to do when we went on trips.”

Lili kept the book, thinking that someday she might write something in it, but that day never came and now she didn’t even know where the book was.

***

They had buried Andy in his baseball jersey and cap, which were black, the Pirates’ color. It had been Wayne’s idea and she hadn’t resisted. What is an eight-year-old supposed to be buried in? But why couldn’t the color have been light blue or green, or even maroon like the other teams had? Anything would have been better than black.

            Lili could still see Andy’s pale, crumpled body on the field—lifeless, limp, but otherwise fine, with only a thin trickle of blood zigzagging out the corner of his mouth. Wayne had picked him up—you shouldn’t pick up a person who’s been injured, everybody knows that, but he’d done it anyway—and run with him to a man in the crowd wearing Bermuda shorts who seemed to shrink away, palms out, the closer Wayne got. A doctor, a dermatologist actually. But it wouldn’t have mattered, he could have been Jesus Christ himself—it wouldn’t have helped. Andy was dead. And she saw Wayne again, stumbling across the field, his shirttail flapping, the small rubbery body slipping sideways in his arms. Overhead, the sky was a bright and brutal blue.

***

 “Oh, there you are,” said Wayne, pushing his way out the back door. “Why didn’t you answer me?”

            She looked at him. His forehead was corrugated and old-looking. “I don’t know,” she said.

            He knelt in front of her and for a second she thought he might try to touch her, but the moment passed and he merely said, “Why don’t you come inside and keep me company? I’m making spaghetti.”

            Lili stared at him—at his glasses and thinning hair, at the tie he was wearing. It was a dark blue tie with small red dots that looked like currants.

***

In Hungary they had eaten berries even smaller than currants but incredibly sweet and as red as rubies. Once, craving them, Lili had gotten off their train to buy a basket of them from a shrunken old woman in a babushka. The exchange went on for long, arduous minutes, and when she turned the train had already begun to roll out of the station. Wayne leaned over the platform in back and waved to her, half on and half off, as he extended his arms. “Jump, Lili, jump,” he yelled, and she had, berries scattering like beads on the gleaming ribbons of track.

***

In the growing darkness, she turned to her husband. “Remember how he always sang?” she asked.

            Wayne dropped into the lawn chair beside her. “Sure,” he said.

            “In the bathroom? In the tub? All those little songs from school. And then things of his own that he made up.”

            “‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider,’ I remember that,” Wayne said.

            “Yes, right,” said Lili, turning toward him with a smile. “And ‘Summer in the City’—remember how he memorized it, jackhammer sounds and all?”

            Wayne nodded.

            Lili looked away. “I always thought he might grow up and be on the stage,” she said. “You know, a comedian or something. He was always such a ham.”

            Wayne looked at her. “You’re kidding?” he said. “I always thought of him as—I don’t know, Ryne Sandberg, somebody like that.”

            Baseball, she thought. “That was Rick on the phone, wasn’t it?”

            He nodded. “The parade is only a week away. He needs to know.” High above them, a jet plane crossed the pale sky like a blip on a screen, its contrail fading little by little. “If I do it,” Wayne asked, “will you do it with me?”

            She gazed at him. He was the father, but he could have been a stranger in a store, a person she’d pass on the street without noticing. “Why do you even want to?” she asked.

            “Lili, c’mon. They just want to be nice, that’s all.”

            “No. No, they don’t want to be nice. They just want us to forget, to pretend that it never happened. They want to erase him, like he never was. Our baby. Andy.”

            Wayne studied her for a moment. He seemed calm, strange, an enemy. “They want us to go on, Lili.” He paused. “I want us to go on.”

            She looked at her husband’s long familiar face and saw the train again—his body leaning away from it, his arms long and outstretched, golden in the sun, reaching, ready to scoop her up.

            “You could do it,” he was saying, and she looked at him, her heart lurching inside its basket of ribs. “I’d be there. We could do it. Together, we could do it.”

            In the growing twilight, his glasses caught a last flicker of sunlight, and for a moment she longed to give in, to yield, to take that leap, but then she sensed his hand moving toward hers. No. She shrank from him. No, not if it meant forgetting Andy. Not if it meant that.

***

And she watched, impassive, as the glimmering tracks pulled the train, and her husband’s arms, and their life together, farther and farther away, until, at last, they were tucked into the seam at the edge of the earth.

            Beneath her, cinders stung the soles of her feet. Above her, the sky curved empty and blue. She was alone now, a shrunken old woman wearing a babushka and clutching strange fruit to her bosom.

– The End –