Here we are, me and the boy, walking to the library. It’s not far. “How long until we get there?” About 10 minutes. “Not 15?” No. Only 10. “Not 30-20-50-hundred?” No. Much less than that.
Look at the yellow flowers. Here are some blue ones. Aren’t they pretty in the sunshine? “But how much lonnnngggggeeerrrrrr?” About 9 minutes.
Here we are, me and the boy, walking home. It’s all downhill. “My legs are sore! When will we be there?” Two days. “No way! Not two days! You’re joking!” We’ll get home two days from now. “Is that Tuesday?” Tuesday was yesterday. “When will it be yesterday again?” Never. Yesterday will never be here again. “How come?” We can only move forward.
Here we are, me and the boy, day in and day out, trapped in a stoner’s understanding of the peculiarities of time. How many tomorrows until the weekend, and why does yesterday disappear? How many minutes is 10, and why does it go faster when it’s fun? Two plus two is four, but two plus Wednesday is Friday. How many birthdays until Christmas? Will it be in summer then? How many seconds-minutes-hours? How long until dance day? When is story time? Now? Later? Next week? Eat your grapes.
It’s a Wednesday. The boy doesn’t know that even though he knows yesterday was Tuesday. To him, time floats around like a small boat in a harbor. It creaks and rocks and sometimes bumps into something called LunchTime or TimeToGoToSchool or TimeForMamaToComeHome. The boat travels nowhere. It meanders around, wobbling through a pattern that never pulls into focus.
Saying it better: the boy sees time the way I see everything without my glasses. The blob across the room stirs from the couch, slinks along the floor to my feet, resolves itself into something with fur. It’s brushing against me before I know for sure. Cat. That’s how Wednesday approaches the boy. A murky thing with no meaning until it’s right next to him. Right there in the moment.
The grapes are gone. The Next Thing hovers in the air, someplace before Friday, circling in the sky, pauses, folds its wings into a dive, perches on his shoulder. “I’m still still still hungry!” The Next Thing must be LunchTime.
Later he emerges from his room with a red rubbery watch on his wrist. A prize in a meal from Subway. “My watch says it’s 90-12.” Good news. That means we’re on time. “When are we late?” At two o’clock. Eyes on the watch, peering at the Rosetta Stone, willing meaning to jump from the numbers. “Is that in 10 minutes?”
I know the answer. Of course I do. I’ve never not known when The Next Thing will happen. I know tomorrow and 10-minute walks and two-hour drives. I know later tonight. Next week. In the fall. After your birthday. Before Halloween. Four years from now.
I’m the key, the oracle.
But even the oracle can be stumped. “When am I gonna die?” I don’t know, sweetheart.
His face says that’s bananas and crazy talk. If Easter is as far away as 20 minutes and two weeks from now, then clearly all events exist upon a schedule that I understand even though he does not. Calendar days cross off, notches in the wall climb tall, rain then snowthen sun then rain again. If I know the secret code of the passing of days, then I must know when they end.
So the boy takes control of the one mystery time hides from his father. He delivers death at will. Squash the ants, stomp the snails, pick the flowers. Time for you to die, daisies. But squeal away from Mr. Bee and his pals, those fuzzy and unpredictable warriors ready to throw daggers. Remember, they got you once down by the pond in the place we used to live. “Was I four or two or three or one then?” Two. “Bees are bad guys, right?” Bees are good. Without bees, no strawberries. “Bees make strawberries?” Kinda. They just want to be left alone to work. Like Mama. Don’t hurt them and they won’t hurt you. “What about ants?” Squash ‘em. They steal sandwiches! “I’m gonna kill the ants!”
About that Wednesday. Does it matter? Maybe not. Mama needs to know it’s Wednesday because she has a meeting. Wednesday is any other day in another galaxy, in a wolf pack, in a school of fish, for me at home. Time to: cook breakfast, make coffee, do dishes, pack lunches, clean litter boxes, shower, shave, brush teeth, dress, drive to school, back home to start laundry, write a bit, eat lunch, do dishes, drive to school, drive to lessons-practices-errands, back home to laundry, cook dinner, backyard play, bathtime, dishes, Twitter timeline despair, brush teeth, collapse in bed, awake again to cook breakfast.
Another day. Far from home, in the forest, bursting with life. “Does everything die?” Everything. The man on the bus, the lady at the grocery store, horses, rabbits, crabs, trees, flowers, fish, bushes. Even Mama’s phone. They’re all going to die. Every last one of them. We don’t know when. Except the phone. It’s about to.
Kneeling down, looking into pale blue eyes, the whites so clear. Hair tousled over a smooth forehead, fat little cheeks puffed out. Even you. You will die too. “When?” 30-20-50-hundred years from now I hope.
Answer it another way: here’s the boy, scampering along the cliff edge of a mountain trail, splashing too far into the lagoon, jumping headfirst off the couch onto the floor. “When will I be five?” Never, if I turn my back on you for more than eight seconds you nutty little monster.
Here we are, me and the boy, standing amongst the tallest trees in the world. This one has been growing for two thousand years. “How much is that?” A lot. “More than 30-20-50-hundred?” Way more. Longer than any person has ever lived. Longer than cars and airplanes and Thomas the train. “Before T-Rex?” Not that long. Here’s another tree. It fell over. It’s not tall anymore. Now it’s long, laying on its side. Pushed over by the wind. “When?” Before you were born. “Did it die?” Yes. But it’s still here. And there’s a little one next to it. Big someday.