I hear them talking through the trees. They are my neighbors. On a calm night like tonight, I can hear their whole conversation.
I hear the young mother saying, “It’s our twelfth day of quarantine, Daddy, what about you?
In response, I hear the digital cellphone-voice of an old man saying, “I dunno, haven’t been keeping count.”
“GRANDPA!” shouts another young voice. A boy. Toddler age.
“Hi!” says Grandpa. “I miss you.”
Their conversation lulls back and forth. Woman, then kid, then old man, repeat. Almost like ping pong.
Speaking of ping pong, I was always a pitiful ping pong player. I don’t know what it is about me, but it’s one of those sports that I just can’t seem to get.
Tennis is even worse. I’ve played tennis only once. I borrowed my buddy’s expensive racquet. I played until I passed out. When I awoke in the hospital severely dehydrated with a slightly torn groin, I swore off the sport forever. But I digress.
“GRANDPA!” says the neighbor boy. “GUESS WHAT!”
“I’M NOT IN SCHOOL!”
“Wow,” says Grandpa’s electronic voice.
“That’s right,” says Mom. “He’s home, twenty-four seven.”
“Lucky you,” says Grandpa.
“Lucky me,” says Mama.
Lately I’ve been wondering how kid-me might have felt about school being permanently cancelled.
When I was young, springtime was intoxicating. I have golden memories of running through fields, splashing through creeks, catching crawfish, and drinking too much Coca-Cola.
But for us, there was always this twinge of sorrow during spring because, in your heart, you knew that you had to go back to school when the break was over. You’d have to write more essays, memorize more stuff about the War of 1812, and learn more about the unique bones that comprise the human nose. So spring was always a little sad.
But if someone would have said, “Hey, guess what? You don’t have to go to school for the rest of the year!” we would have freaked out. We would have been so excited that we would have started our own major world religion.
But in spite of all the fun we kids had, do you know what I had to do every spring break? My father made me read. He was strict when it came to reading. I had to read one book during spring break, and four books during summer break.
My father took it a step further and made me write spring-break book reports. And I am not exaggerating when I tell you that my old man almost successfully made me hate reading.
If I’m being honest, the last thing in the world that I wanted to be doing in springtime was reading stupid books. Especially when my friends were out catching mudbugs.
It didn’t seem fair. My father, an ironworker who spent all day dangling from 13-story buildings, living in the throngs of pure electric adventure. And here I was forced to read.
But I had no choice. So I read the dumb books, and I wrote his dumb old 500-word book reports. Back then, we actually had to do word counts with the tips of our pencils. It took forever.
I read “Black Beauty,” “Jungle Book,” “White Fang,” “Three Musketeers,” and “The Complete Unabridged Archives of Leo Tolstoy.”
When my father died, I was still a kid. And on the day of his funeral, I swore I’d never read again. It was a lie. And I’m glad that my ridiculous vow didn’t last a week. Because I have always loved reading. I think my real problem has always been that I just don’t like being told what to do. In other words, I’m a little stinker. That’s all.
It took me a hundred years to figure out that it was the little things from childhood that have echoed throughout my life. It has taken even longer to realize that my father taught me to love the English language, and he did it on purpose.
It was all him, the ironworker, who first taught me the Oxford comma, and all about the rhythm of sentences, and the right way to read poetry, and how to write even though I didn’t feel like it. I had no idea how valuable these things would become to me.
I remember when a local ironworkers newsletter asked him to write something for one issue. I don’t remember what the publication was called, but I remember my father stayed up late one night, pecking out ideas on a typewriter.
He wrote a short piece about being an ironworker. And for the life of me, I wish I still had that essay. But all I have is the memory of him reading it aloud. And I remember how much sincerity he put into reading it to me.
I don’t remember any of the words. But I remember the title. “The Dancer.” In the essay, he compared the tight-rope walk of the daredevil ironworker to the choreography of dancers. And when he finished reading, I applauded him.
The piece was published, and when the newsletter arrived in the mail he cut it out and framed it. He was so proud.
What a fool I am. I don’t know where that cutout went. But I guess you misplace things in life, and you can’t get them back once they’re gone.
I am interrupted by my neighbors.
“Hey!” I hear the neighbor woman yell into her cellphone. Her voice cuts through the woods. “I really miss seeing you. I can’t wait until we see each other again, Daddy.”
I second that.