Authors: Katrina Onstad
But he hadn’t done anything wrong, had he? This had been for James, privately, the summer of Finn. He remembered their last visit in the park: He held a miniature soccer ball and a bag of graham crackers while Finn ran in circles, over and over, until he collapsed. Finn wore a plush panda suit, his face peering out from below the ears, his wrists and ankles exposed, a pair of white sneakers on his feet. It was still hot, but according to Sarah, his panda suit obsession was nonnegotiable, and she had decided not to fight it.
Finn got up, arms out, and ran in a small circle until he collapsed again. James laughed, crouched down on the grass, irritated by the cigarette butts, the stupidity of people who
smash beer bottles where children play. A tall hipster walked by, smoking a cigarette, wearing sunglasses as big as the front window of a car. James felt a surge of hatred toward the guy’s skinny legs, his huge headphones, probably playing something electronic. He picked up an old cigarette butt and tossed it at the guy’s back, narrowly missing him as he trotted along, oblivious. Even though James still had four or five cigarettes a day, around Finn he became a virulent nonsmoker.
James and Finn had already been to the museum that week to look at the dinosaur bones. The week before, they had taken the ferry out to Toronto Island, and James had steered a paddleboat with Finn at his side. Sarah said she was thrilled to get a break, that she could finally get some time to herself to work on her photography, to sleep.
“I can’t go back to teaching,” she had told James. “But I can’t always be around him, either.” James was impressed with how efficiently Sarah sliced and packaged time. Three days a week, Finn was in day care, but only until two. Marcus often didn’t get home until seven or eight, when Finn was in bed. The daycare mornings were catch-up time for chores, household management. Sarah needed just one afternoon a week to herself, open time. James was happy to take Finn. He liked the idea of saving someone.
When James was with Finn, he felt useful again, which he hadn’t in the months since he’d been fired. He got a different response from people when he entered a store or rode the streetcar with Finn than he did when he was alone and suspiciously present during the city’s working hours. But with Finn, the world was a gigantic welcome mat. People hummed a low, inviting note that only parents could hear, that James had never known existed. It reminded him of when he would
walk with his black friend, Kyle, and Kyle would exchange a little nod with every other black person who went by. James had considered researching this phenomenon for the show, but when he took a pretty black intern to lunch to covertly test his theory, she just looked straight ahead and never glanced at anyone.
“Finny, do you want to get a croissant?” asked James.
“Oh yes please I do!” cried Finn, and he began to run toward Queen Street, a two-and-a-half-year-old who knew the way to the city’s best croissants. James wondered if he could work that into his unwritten novel.
While they sat on the bench eating croissants, James asked Finn questions.
“What did you do at daycare yesterday?”
“How’s it going with the panda suit, then?”
“I like croissant.” James pulled out his ears and made a silly face at Finn, and Finn laughed and laughed, little pieces of croissant stuck to his chin, a strange bearded panda.
Marcus was waiting on the porch when they arrived back at Finn’s house. His feet rested on a broken tricycle, and his laptop was open on his knees. His briefcase balanced on a scabby paint tin.
“There he is,” he shouted. Finn dropped James’s hand and ran up the walk toward his father. Finn curled into Marcus’s body. Marcus pushed back the head of the panda suit and kissed the boy’s hair, smiling. James shuffled back and forth, halfway up the walk, feeling found out.
“Thanks for taking him, James,” said Marcus.
“You’re home early,” said James, and the wifeliness of the comment immediately struck him.
“Such a beautiful day. I wanted to take him to the park.”
“Yeah! Park!” said Finn, as if they hadn’t just come from there.
The two men nodded at each other, caught in the silence of a meeting without women.
“Definitely a day for the park,” said James. “I’ve got to get going, so …” He began to back away.
“Do you want to come in? Grab a beer?”
“No, no,” said James, who suddenly remembered where he’d had this feeling of barging in on intimacy before: walking into his old apartment to find his roommates clothed but disheveled in the kitchen, gazing awkwardly at each other, mouths swollen. “I’ve got—stuff—I should—but thanks. See you soon, Finny, okay?”
“Hey, man,” said Marcus, rising with Finn still barnacled to his chest. “Really: Thanks for helping out. It’s hard for Sarah, being home all the time. You’re saving her sanity.”
Those were the last words James had heard him say.
Finally, a moan swelled from behind a nearby door. Mrs. Bailey rose, opened the door, and shut it immediately behind her. Ann Silvan talked on while James stared at the closed door. This was the moment, the shedding of all that came before, and he was alert to it, waiting.
When the door opened, Finn walked out slowly, one arm around Mrs. Bailey’s wide leg.
Ana watched as he let go and ran immediately to James. She saw Ann Silvan writing again, probably describing how Finn had bypassed her. She shouldn’t be hurt. She believed that at some point, she couldn’t recall when, she and Finn had agreed
to shared indifference. Sarah always had to prod him into acknowledging her: “Say hi to Ana, Finny.” And politely, in that cartoon voice: “Hi, Ana.”
James murmured: “How are you, Finny? How’s it going?”
“Good.” He looked around the room, at all the women and James.
Ann Silvan said: “The most important thing is structure, routine. Try not to disrupt his life too much.”
“Should we take him to visit”—Ana stopped, leaned in—“the hospital? Does he know about the hospital?”
“He knows his mommy is very sick, and his daddy isn’t coming back.”
James frowned. “You guys told him that? You don’t think that might have been better coming from someone who knows him?” he said. He was slumped in the chair. Ana noticed that he was often draped across furniture lately, boneless and large.
Finn had gravitated toward the books and sat with his legs like a swami, opening and closing a pop-up book. Up rose the bus; down. Up, down.
Ann Silvan’s face tightened. “He had questions. We’re trained in these matters.” She reached into her briefcase and handed Ana a sheaf of photocopies.
“There’s a wait list for counseling, but Finn’s on it,” she said. “You should get a call in four to six months.”
“Efficient,” muttered James.
Ana skimmed the pages:
Toddler can sense when a significant person is missing … Presence of new people … No understanding of death … Absorbs emotions of others around her/him … May show signs of irritability … May exhibit changes in eating, crying, and in bowel and bladder movements …
James, looking over her shoulder, whispered in Ana’s ear: “That could be a description of me.” She didn’t smile, caught on the last line:
. Ana wondered where they would put all the used diapers, the wads of wipes, if they would need to buy one of those pneumatic tube garbage cans. One time at Sarah’s there had been a perfect ball of a dirty diaper in the center of the living room for the entire duration of Ana’s visit, distracting her, crying out for disposal. Finally, when Sarah left the room for a moment, Ana grabbed it. She had stuffed the slick mass in the kitchen garbage, then scrubbed her hands at the sink like a surgeon.
“We need to stop at the store,” said Ana, suddenly, to no one.
James was putting shiny black running shoes on Finn’s feet. They looked new and cheap. Finn opened and closed the bus pop-up book, happy to let James Velcro him in.
“Finn take book home?” he asked. Mrs. Bailey crouched down and enveloped him in her arms, his body sinking into her endless chest. The word “home” rippled through every person in the room.
“Yes, sweetie. You take it.”
She stood, handing Ana a shopping bag. “A few clothes I had lying around.”
James and Ana backed out the door, murmuring thank-yous. Finn slipped between their bodies and ran down the hall quickly. Then, at the far end of the corridor where the light was dimmest, he stopped and looked back. His eyes scanned Ana, then James, taking in their nervous smiles. He looked, for a moment, as if he might back away, but he waited, puzzled and patient, until they caught up to him.
James put the car seat in the back while Finn walked around
Ana’s legs, ducking through them from time to time, not laughing but with a great sense of purpose. She looked around uneasily. A group of black teenage boys leaned on the hood of a Honda sedan, talking loudly, laughing. One tossed a basketball back and forth in his hands. A woman in a hijab with a plastic grocery bag lightly banged against Ana and mumbled, eyes on the ground.
Suddenly, Finn sprinted into the parking lot, toward the group of boys.
That car is coming too fast
, thought Ana. She looked first for James, who was bent over the backseat.
James, solve it
, she thought, but there was no time to say it before she was running, and as she ran, the tallest of the teenagers looked up, saw two things: a blond boy running toward him, and the car aloft, somehow silent and soundless, Finn too small to be seen by the driver, the exact tiny size to fit between two wheels. The teenager, the stranger, stepped out into the path of the car, put his fingers in his mouth, and whistled like a train. Others were shouting: “Stop! Man! Slow the fuck down! Fucking slow down!” And it did, the car slowed down, the sun too bright to see the eyes of the driver, just as Ana was upon Finn, had him by the shoulders, shaking him.
“Don’t do that! You can’t run away!” She was shouting. Finn looked up at her, his lips vibrating.
“Lady, you okay?” called one of the boys. She had Finn in front of her, her arms straight out, gripping his shoulders.
“Basketball,” he said, and started crying.
“Thank you,” called Ana, nodding to the boys, hoisting Finn to her hip. The boys watched her. One bounced the ball.
“I think it’s in,” announced James, uncoiling from the car, his forehead shining.
He rose to a puzzling image, Ana with the child clinging to
her neck, crossing the parking lot, shadowed by a slow-moving silver car.
“What happened?” asked James. Ana shook her head, passed him Finn, who relaxed instantly into James’s arms, ceased his sobbing, shifting into a low purr.
Ana’s hands fluttered as she buckled herself in. In the back, James was cursing, trying to connect straps.
“Do you know how this works, Finny?” he asked. “What do you say? Can you help me?”
Ana gripped the dashboard.
“Can we go, please? Can we just go?”
James clicked the final latch and patted Finn’s head.
They drove out of the parking lot, under the collective glance of the teenage boys, Ana hating herself for her judgment, her fear. She blamed her own parents, their willful ignorance about adulthood, how they chose anything else over it whenever they could. “I love you, kiddo,” said her father once when she returned from the park, eager to show him a dirty dollar bill she’d dug out of the sand. “But man, I wish I could go to India.” And so he had gone, without Ana or her mother, and he’d never really come back.
In the car, James looked at Ana, coiled in silence. He wondered how long her absence would last.
Finn yammered in the backseat, incomprehensible words that James attempted to interpret, responding in a range of theatrical voices. He could make Finn laugh easily, a sound that rang the bells of James’s own pride and moved along the knots of Ana’s spine with a tentacled, creeping dread.
At the north end of the street stood a house that Ana felt certain was a brothel. Its thin, yellow-brown curtains were always
shut, even though it was still light at night, and the front yard was dotted with cigarette butts and smeared, discarded plastic bags.
One by one, over their seven years on the street, Ana and James had watched the old Portuguese and Italian couples die off. Sometimes their children moved in, plumbers and contractors who got up before the sun rose, slammed truck doors, and sped off to rebuild houses belonging to people like Ana and James, houses like the rest of the houses on the block. But most of the time, the houses were sold and the Dumpsters arrived. Then came the couples and their children, and the mother eager to meet Ana and James, until the discovery, so soon, that no, they didn’t have kids. Yes, the schools around here were supposed to be good. Yes, it was a big house for two.
The Victorian facades remained, though often painted witty crayon box colors. But inside, walls were coming down.
Ana could see the lack of walls as they drove through the neighborhood. Through large front windows, the uniformity of these renovations revealed itself: the broad loft-like space imposed on the skinny Victorian bones, the pot lights, the marble kitchens at the back looking out onto tiny gardens kept by gardeners. The tacit, unspoken agreement about what was beautiful.
Then there was the brothel, a squatter house than the others, shutterless and plain; the only other detached house on the block besides James and Ana’s.
Last winter, when the city was sunk in snow, she had seen a young woman walk out of the house late at night wearing a gossamer T-shirt and leggings, arms wrapped around her torso, her feet hanging over the heels of her slippers. Her hair was blond and thin, a wild aureole about her head. She had spied
Ana, coming home late from work with her attaché case in her hand, the remnants of coffee in a thermos mug in the other. The girl’s eyes were scooped out, set as far back in her head as a blind person’s. She had scowled at Ana and scurried away, out of the streetlight shadow.
This was almost a year ago, in the dead cold, and Ana had seen no other sign of activity from the place.
“We’re home,” said James. “A parking space!”