by PAUL MURRAYA short story on the end of summer, and the beginning of an education.
TA-DA! My wife comes out of the bedroom, shunting Tim along in front of her. What do you think? she says.
I look the boy up and down. Iíve been expecting this, obviously. The boxes have been lurking at the back of the wardrobe all summer. Still the transformation comes as a shock. An hour ago he was half-naked, tracking the deer through the long grass of the park. Now, in his uniform, he looks like a different person. Itís unsettling. Heís never looked like a different person before. Heís always just looked like himself.
Honestly? I say. Itís weird.
Weird? my wife repeats.
Tim gazes up at her anxiously. I look weird?
You donít look weird, I say. Seeing you wear the uniform is weird. Thatís all.
Daddyís just being funny, my wife tells him. You look very handsome. Now go and take it off before it gets dirty.
Tim, still confused, goes back into his room. My wife rounds the couch, picks up the remote and mutes the television. What? I say.
I want you to be positive about this, she says.
What are you talking about? I say.
I mean it, she says. I know this has been a difficult time for you. But itís his first day of school. He needs to know youíre behind him.
Of course Iím behind him, I tell her. All I meant was, itís strange to see him in that. You know? Itís strange seeing him being clothed by a third party.
They all wear it, she says.
Thatís just my point, I say. Itís like heís being drafted into something. Press-ganged.
Itís Junior Infants, not the army, my wife says. We do get him back at the end of the day.
Thatís fine for her ó she only ever sees him at the end of the day. Iíve got used to having him around.
Well, he canít run around the park with you for the rest of his life, she says tartly, and goes to perform some brisk organizational task in the kitchen. I sprawl on the armchair, gazing at the muted TV, listening to the clink of dishes and cutlery.
Itís vast, our park, acres and acres. Centuries ago it belonged to some duke ó he was the one who imported the deer, so he could hunt them. Now there are hundreds of them, living there wild. Theyíre fallow deer, you can tell by their palmate antlers, their chestnut summer coats. In June the fawns were born; all summer Tim and I have watched them grow, trailed the families through fields and glades, forests of oak and sycamore.
My wife doesnít like to go to the park. She is a lawyer, a very successful one; she has an almost diabolical power to turn your own words against you. Iím not complaining; if she werenít so talented weíd probably be out on the street. And sheís right. I should be more supportive. So far sheís taken care of everything. She took Tim shopping for the preposterous uniform, the required books; she met the schoolís endless demands for documentation.
It wasnít that I didnít have the time to help. Right now I have nothing but time. I just canít seem to get enthused about it. Starting school ó people act as if thereís something inherently virtuous to it. Setting your shoulder to the wheel, your nose to the grindstone, putting away childish things. Knuckling down ó they canít wait to get you knuckling down, as if you become a real person only when you start doing things you donít want to do. God forbid you should spend your life running around the park. What if everyone did that? Who would poison the rats? Who would sue the government?
Tonight is sultry and I canít sleep. As I toss in the sheets, it seems I can feel some great change occurring in the darkness around me ó something huge and slow and remorseless, like a ship turning around in a harbor. Time pivoting, as at some metaphysical bell; summer becoming winter, park becoming school, deer becoming traffic. And Tim, what is he becoming? What am I?
Next morning at breakfast my wife is abuzz with excitement. She keeps bouncing out of her chair to take pictures of Tim. Her parents call, my parents call, they tell me how proud I must be. Maybe I am proud; itís just been so long that Iíve forgotten what pride feels like. Mostly what I seem to feel is afraid. To me, Tim does not look like a big boy, in spite of what they say. Today in his uniform he appears reduced, more a child than ever.
A glance at the clock, and my wife rises. Well! she says. Weíd better get our skates on, hadnít we? Donít want to be late on our first day!
I sit there as she clears the dishes away, jingles the car keys from her handbag. And then I hear myself say, Let me.
What? my wife says.
Let me take him.
Itís fine, my wife says. Iíll drop him off on the way to work. Itís fine, she repeats.
I want to, I say.
Itís all planned, she says.
But the schoolís the opposite direction to work. And the traffic will be horrible.
Why donít you come with us in the car?
Iíll walk with him, I say. Itíll take 10 minutes.
My wife looks alarmed. Itís understandable. This is the first interest Iíve shown in Timís school career. She probably thinks Iím going to run away to the park with him. She imagines us wearing loincloths, lazing by the river. She envisions Tim 20 years from now, under a bridge, living on beer and welfare. What if it rains? she says.
He has his new coat, I tell her, though sunshine is streaming through the window, as it always does on the first day of school.
She gazes at me unhappily. There is a problem here, she is thinking, there is a serious problem that we will very soon have to address. But she is not quite ready for that; and so, reluctantly, she yields.
O.K.! I say with false cheer, before she can change her mind. Letís get this party started!
Yay! Tim jumps up and dashes out to the hall, where his enormous satchel waits.
Youíll bring him straight there? my wife says to me, not bothering to mask her displeasure. I pretend I havenít heard, lift his coat from the chair, heavy and gray like the rest of his uniform. She presses her lips together, then turns them into a kiss for Tim. Youíre going to have the best time! she tells him. Youíre going to make lots of friends!
Then, with a final warning look for me, she closes the door.
Outside the road is clogged with cars, small anxious faces peering out of the back windows, but we have the footpath entirely to ourselves. The September light turns everything golden; the ground is studded with the first fallen leaves, autumnís outriders. So what is school, Dad? Tim asks me.
Thatís a good question, I say.
Is it like Little Acorns?
Little Acorns was Timís play school. It was run by a beautiful Irish girl and a beautiful Spanish girl ó I spent many happy hours arguing with myself over which was more beautiful. They loved the children. They sang songs with them, played games. When Tim started eating crayons, they talked about it as if heíd discovered penicillin.
Not really, I say.
We are passing the park now; I ready a kindly paternal hand to redirect him should habit steer him through the gates. But he walks right by without even noticing. Instead he says, Why do people go to school?
Didnít your mother tell you?
She just said everyone went.
Well ... they go to learn. Thatís why.
To learn what?
About the world.
I hesitate. I am remembering what my wife said about being positive. I want to be positive. So they can work, I say. So when they grow up they can get a job and they can work. Thereís nothing necessarily negative about that, I think. If I stop there, I wonít have said anything wrong.
Tim ponders this a moment, and then says ó
Did you go to school, Dad?
But you donít work.
Iím taking a break, I say.
You used to draw buildings for people to build.
Then you stopped.
Just for a little while. And it was good, because it meant that I could spend the summer with you, and we could go and watch the deer, right?
Tim is not thrown by this. So now Iím in school, will you get a new job?
Thatís the plan.
There are already lots of buildings, Dad.
I know that, I say.
Thereíre buildings everywhere.
So why would they want new ones?
Because ... those buildings will get old.
When will they get old? Soon?
He has his motherís gift for cross-examination. I laugh. What are you worrying about this stuff for? I say, ruffling his hair. And then it comes to me. Is it something Mom talks about?
Does she say things about me not working? Itís O.K., buddy, youíre not in trouble. Iím just wondering, thatís all. Does she?
Tim stares down at his shiny new shoes.
O.K., I say, it doesnít matter anyway. I smile at him, but he wonít look up.
We walk on silently, him staring at his shoes, me wearing the fake smile, imagining all the things she might have said about me. To my own son! The more I think about it, the angrier I get: it takes the form of an overwhelming urge to spite her, to deny her, to turn to the boy and propose that as the sunís shining we leave school for one more day, go to the park where the deer will be waiting, still in their summer coats, the buck with the split antler, the fawn with the white-tipped ears. We know them well by now, and they know us and let us come close ....
But now weíve arrived at the school gates, and this little fantasy is lost in the wider drama. Cars rumble as they discharge their small passengers; cameras zip and whirr; men and women stoop to kiss stubby infants goodbye, and remain there kneeling on the vacated gravel, as if genuflecting at the altar of some cruel god of departure.
Why are all the people crying? Tim asks, suddenly worried.
Sometimes people like to cry, I say unconvincingly, and then, to distract him, Got your lunch?
He does. Then youíre all set! I say. Iíll be back at two to pick you up. Have fun!
He eyes without enthusiasm the other children as they are hoovered through the gates. I think again about my park idea, but before I can say anything more he breaks away from me. I watch him march sternly over the gravel; I watch him cross the threshold and disappear inside. I stay there watching until at last the school door is closed by a disembodied arm. The remaining parents stop waving, turn to each other with humorously grief-laden faces, as though theyíve been caught crying at a Disney movie. Then they wipe their tears and climb into their cars.
In an instant, the streets are deserted. Itís as if all the life has escaped from the world; even the sunshine seems limp and sterile, the wan fluorescence of the nursing home. There is nothing for it but to return home. I start back down the road, then something catches my eye. I stop; I retrace my steps. From a distance, I observe. I observe for some time.
Then I cross the schoolyard and tap on the car window.
My wife gasps, then relaxes, blows her nose into a handkerchief.
Going my way? I say.
She opens the door, and I slide into the passenger seat. Her cheeks are smudged with mascara, like the daubs of tiny fingers. I got halfway to work, she says in a broken voice, and then ....
He was good, I tell her. He didnít cry. He was about the only person who didnít.
This only sets her own tears off again. I should have been there, she says. She looks out the window. I feel like Iím missing his whole life.
Youíve been so busy, I say. I intend it sympathetically, but she turns to me with an expression of accusation. Whatís that supposed to mean? she says.
What does it mean...? I ask.
Why do you keep wanting to punish me?
You keep punishing me, you keep using Tim to punish me.
What are you talking about? I say.
I mean, you bring him up to the park till all hours, then when youíre home you treat me like Iím some sort of hideous ... bureaucrat. Do you think Iím happy to be at work all day? Do you not think Iíd rather stay home and spend the day goofing around with the two of you? Is that not clear to you?
I donít understand where this is coming from, I say.
You act like Iím glad about whatís happened to you, she says.
I donít know what to tell her. This is all in your head, I say.
She turns back to the school, stares at the opaque windows, and though the tears are falling her jaw is set.
Iíd like to reach across and take her hand; Iíd like to tell her to skip work, walk with me instead through the park down the secret trails Tim and I have followed all summer. When we first moved into the area, just after Tim was born, the three of us used to go there all the time together. Then one morning there was a cull. We came through the gates to find warning signs everywhere and the paths cordoned off.
We do it every couple of years, the warden told us, otherwise the deer would run riot. I didnít understand what he meant; then in the distance we saw the herd on one of the soccer fields. It was the first time weíd seen them all together, out in the open, hundreds of them gathered in one tight restive group, all in their dark gray winter coats. The bucks tossed their heads, fawns pressed into their mothersí flanks. A jeep crawled slowly over the grass toward them.
My wife cried all the way home. Whatís the point in having them, if theyíre just going to be killed? she asked. She was emotional at that time, after having the baby; I worried about her. As we walked, I tried to explain it to her: that it was something that had to be done, to keep the herd sustainable. I thought by showing the principles at work I could comfort her. She looked at me in horror, as if I was pulling the trigger myself.
I could feel the sky towering behind us, like a great gray lake that had been set on its edge and was about to come crashing down. I wished sheíd say something, but she wouldnít, or couldnít. We were both waiting for the first shot to ring out, the first bullet in the first slender head: we began to crave it, just to put an end to the silence. But the shots did not come, and the silence only grew; and in his buggy the baby smiled to himself, already lost in dreams we could never begin to know.Paul Murray, who lives in Dublin, is the author of ďSkippy Dies.Ēhttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/opinion/05murray.html