River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative 6.2 (2005) 62-68
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I am on our L-shaped deck with my two-year-old son, Oz, making bubbles for him with a little plastic wand. He chases the bubbles, then, when they pop, he runs back to me and says, "More bubbles, Poppa." Since nobody to my knowledge has ever said "poppa" to him, I find myself wondering over and over again where on earth he got the term.
The deck is what we call child-proofed, which means that he can't easily hurt himself on it—the railing is taller than he is, and my wife and I have nothing out there with which he could self-inflict bodily harm. After a few minutes I get bored of playing with him, which of course makes me feel guilty, although not guilty enough to stay and play longer. I think, as I go inside, how pathetic it is that I can easily spend an entire day staining the deck but can barely allot more than thirty minutes at a time to playing on that very same deck with my kid.
I go inside and start up the stairs toward my office, leaving him outside, playing by himself. I pause briefly and glance at the patio furniture on the deck. I make a quick calculation about how long it would take him to push a chair near the railing, climb up it, and fall over—a drop of fifteen or so feet that would certainly injure him, maybe kill him. The chairs are cast iron and probably weigh twenty pounds each. He's no more than twenty-five pounds himself. I figure the quickest he could do it is maybe six minutes, if he chose to do it at all.
Once in my office I start working. Every four to five minutes—ahead of my six-minute deadline—I pop up out of my chair, step through my office door, and peer down at the deck through a floor-to-ceiling window. If I lean over the railing and bend just the right way, I can see most of the deck. And then, if he hasn't pushed a chair nearer to the railing, the slate's wiped [End Page 62] clean, and I earn another four to five minutes to check e-mail and make calls.
I repeat this three times over about fifteen minutes. Each time I glance out at him, he's hunched over his little plastic outdoor desk, barely moving, intensely focused on his Play-Doh. It strikes me for an instant how cute he looks in his intensity over Play-Doh, but then I lose the thought in my own intense desire to get back to my desk.
I duck back into my office and get caught up in a back and forth e-mail with a friend over his opinion that FOX actually broadcasts news, not hype. Insanity. Perhaps five minutes go by—maybe six, certainly not seven—and then I hear it. A clank. The exact sound I imagine a cast-iron chair falling over and striking the redwood deck would make. It is, in fact, the exact sound I would expect to hear if Oz had pushed himself off a chair, tipping it over as he sent himself plunging over the railing.
I jump to my feet and start a mad dash downstairs toward the deck. Images and sensations, like snippets from a movie trailer, flicker through my mind. One is of a raw, almost primitive feeling of horror; another of a cold, precise, mathematical reevaluation of my six-minute theory; another of some media headline I once saw about a dad who accidentally left his son in a car in ninety-degree heat, with predictable results; and still another of total regret that whatever has just happened didn't happen on my wife's watch.
Three and a half years earlier, before Oz existed as a person or an egg or even an idea, my marriage was at a crucial...