It is after midnight as I come down the outdoor stairs from my office above the garage. The moon is out, illuminating my yard in shades of pen-and-ink. I see a basketball next to the driveway. A Frisbee. Two bats, one a Chicago Tribune-sponsored giveaway from old Comiskey Park, the other an illegally weighted 16-inch softball bat, made by a former men's league teammate two decades ago, in his basement, with a lag bolt being the ingredient hidden beneath the epoxied sawdust. There is a skateboard, a Nerf football, a real football, a bike on its side, a hard plastic baby Jesus that was obviously stolen months ago from somebody's outdoor nativity scene. "I have no idea how it got here," Z said when I accosted him. "It was just here," agreed his friend Alex.
All tins stuff was supposed to have been picked up, put away. The plastic Jesus, I don't know. It rained earlier and there are puddles in the depressions on our blacktop driveway—the driveway of my childhood dreams. They are precisely where Robin parks the girls' car, the one her sister rolled several years ago on a gravel road and that has a missing fender, an ill-fitting windshield and a passenger-side door that doesn't close right. I drive the car into the garage, into the stall with the door that is permanently open. It is the stall into which a raccoon came two summers ago and craftily figured out how to scale the car, the door, and then steal the drying fishhead I had dangling from the ceiling on a string. It was the head of an eight-pound northern pike Z had caught on an Upper Peninsula lake on the very day his grandfather Hansen died back in Chicago. I cut the head off, propped the ferocious-looking mouth open with two pine sticks, let most of the stink evaporate in the Michigan sun, and then brought it home for final drying and shellacking. It would be a trophy of joy and sadness. Then it was gone, just the string remaining.
The puddles in the driveway wound me. Here in the still night, I feel myself sliding, slip-sliding, unable to slow anything down, to accomplish anything, to feel in control, to be more than a rider on a runaway bus. The growing dents in the pavement will fill with water, then with ice, then they will crack and split, and soon Z and I and his pals, and even Cary and Lauren and their boyfriends will no longer be able to dribble properly on this court of which I am so proud, the one Z and I laid out with a lane and blocks and free throw line, using blue and yellow and white spray paint, spending one afternoon getting the dimensions right, just like at the high school.
"I am not parking in the garage!" Robin had declared. "I was stung four times by bees when you were out of town, and my leg was so swollen! And you still haven't gotten the nest."
But I will get it. It's in a hole between the doors. I know I will. I just need time.
Cary has used my airline miles to fly to Hawaii this summer to visit one of her Dartmouth swim team pals, Kristin Simunovich. In L.A., Cary joined up with another swimmer, Nicole Zarba, from the Boston area. There was the trauma the three went through, with all the other Dartmouth swimmers and divers, male and female, when the swimming and diving programs were abruptly cut before Thanksgiving 2002. Cut for that old standby, budget reasons. Cary was a freshman and had been at school six weeks. Like the other swimmers, she freaked. She had been recruited by the school, wooed by the school and had worked her butt off to get in. After fund-raising, campuswide protests and total student mobilization—including putting the teams up for sale on eBay (top bid: $212,000)—the humiliated administration buckled and brought the swimmers and divers back.
But we don't talk about it much. Cary is still too hurt. Especially by the administration's now acting as though this little revolt was a joyous bonding experience, a graduate course in competitive cooperation and financial adventurism. One morning in August I looked at the refrigerator door and saw a form letter of congratulations to the swimmers for their successful campaign from the school dean, the same dean who had said the team "would never be back." Cary had taped it there. Across the page she had written, BULLS—-, in red ink.
The three girls in Hawaii are going to participate in something called the Rough-water Swim, off Waikiki, a storied 2.4-mile race through currents, surf and the odd sea animal. This sounds like as much fun to me as a flogging. But this is not my race. Swimmers are different.
"Be careful," I say to Cary, from 5,000 miles away. "O.K.?"
"I will, Dad." The girls have been climbing mountains and surfing to stay in shape.