Winner of the First Horizon Award for superior work by a debut author.


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Day 42

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So you get the point, I hope. My life consists of a series of overlapping days where people are coming and going; some random, some constant, some sporadic. All in all, I’ve established somewhat of a routine along the ground. Routine. The word is actually a little comforting right now, I’ll admit.

So let me explain why things begin to change for me at the brick wall. Oh, you thought it would be like this the whole time? All randomness and adorable little anecdotes on life and its wonderful snowflakes? Absolutely not. Snowflakes hardly sell these days anyway.

Things started to change for me on a bad day. A very bad day, in fact. It was a four-emailed-rejections-addressed-to- “DEAR APPLICANT” kind of day. Let me add, four rejections that I was sure I’d get interviews, at the very least. It was a bad day for self-esteem. And Jenny turned the corner just as rejection number four came through on my email account.

“Hey Jack!”

“Hey Jenny.” I say, staring into the atmosphere without looking her way. The ground was still a little damp from a light rain this morning and a chill held itself in the air around Avenue A.

“You look cold.” She says with concern. “Want me to go get you a scarf?”

“Na, I’m fine. Thanks.” I try to engage her, but my heart’s just not in it. My heart’s just not anywhere important today. “How was your day?” I ask, flatly.

“Great. Just got back from ballet class. I learned this real serious move and did it right the first time!”

“You should be very proud.”

“I think I’m gonna make it.” She says with a smile.

There was something about that smile. That hopeful, sparkling smile, I don’t know what happened to me. I really wish I hadn’t, but I just unraveled all the stress of my day on her.

“Let me tell you something Jenny, don’t bother with these dreams.”

She finally sits next to me and turns, perplexed, “What?”

“Don’t bother. Live a practical life. Take some business courses at school. Does your school offer business courses?”

She stares at me blankly.

“You should find out. And take math and science. Learn some marketable skills. Don’t believe the bullshit that you can do anything. It’s not true. Look at me. Does it look like my dream panned out?”

She shakes her head.

“You’re right. It didn’t.” I look out onto the busy street as the M15 bus passes loudly. It’s one of those old diesel buses this time, not the new Hybrids that are quieter than bicycles passing, so I had some time to let that statement soak in. I finally exhale a little and I could not have felt worse.

“What’s a marketable skill?” She asks.

I think about it a little more and realize that I don’t even know for sure. “Something that will make someone interested in giving you a job, I guess.”

“Oh…I like art, is art a marketable skill?”

“Art?”

She nods enthusiastically. “Art’s my favorite subject. Is it marketable?”

“They still have art in your school?”

“Yes.”

Down the street toward the corner there’s an explosion of, “Hey UMMMMMMM.” Their voices trail over a thick layer of passersby, but this sea of strangers seems to part for Mattie and his crew walking toward the park after school.

“Good to see you again, UMMMM.” Mattie continues bouncing his basketball.

“Quick question, Mattie.” He raises an eyebrow as I ask, perpetually skeptical of the world around him, it seems, “Do you guys have art in your school anymore?”

“Art? Like drawing and shit?”

“Basically, but it could be something like photography or painting.”

“Yeah, here’s our photography club. Smile, UMMM!” One of the girls replies as she takes another picture for her UMM Album. She continues, though I’m only half-listening, “I got three-thousand followers on my UMM feed. People are lovin’ you.”

“That’s great to hear. So do you guys have art at school? Jenny and I are talking about art in schools.”

They look down at Jenny, only now seeming to notice there’s a child sitting next to me.

“Hell no we don’t have art.” One of them says through the juicy smacking of a massive piece of gum.

“Jenny’s still got an art class at her school.”

“I wish we still had those blow-off classes. They make us take Math and Science and shit.”

I turn to Jenny, while responding to Mattie, “It’s not a blow-off.”

I have at least five pairs of rolled eyes facing me as Mattie continues, “We gotta get going. Wanna play some ball, UMMM?”

“No, thanks.”

“Not like you’re busy, UMM. I’m curious if you got skills.”

“If I had skills I wouldn’t be here.”

“Oh…” He doesn’t seem to follow me. “Maybe some other time, then.”

As they walk away, I turn back toward Jenny. “See, you’re a lucky girl. Most kids in school don’t even have art anymore.” She nods, but doesn’t seem to fully grasp the concept of “lucky” as it pertains to art in schools. I decide to continue anyway. “My advice to you, use those skills and take a web design class when you get the chance. Then, you’ll be set. You’ll have a handful of marketable skills and you might stand a chance. At least you’ll have something if ballet doesn’t pan out.” I’m surprised that she doesn’t respond more severely. After all, I just spoke a bit too bluntly to a nine year old about her dreams. “I’m sorry, I should’ve said that.”

“It’s ok.  I think you just had a bad day.”

“More than a bad day…I just don’t want you in my position down the road.”

“I wouldn’t like sitting here all day, Jack. It’s not my style.”

I smile, but try to stay serious. Remember, I’m in a bad mood today and that’s that. Jenny can’t stop me, even though she’s doing a damn good job. “Just make sure you have a back-up plan.”

“What’s a back-up plan?”

“Sort of like another option if your dream doesn’t come true.”

“Why wouldn’t it come true?”

“Sometimes dreams don’t come true.”

“Oh.” She considers this. “Do you have a dream?”

“I used to.”

“What happened to it?”

“I can’t remember.”

“What was your dream?”

“I honestly can’t remember that either.”

And let me tell you, she does the most adorable thing; her hand reaches for mine and sits on top of it for while the M15 bus moves uptown along Avenue A. And for a split second, her soft little hand reminds me of a better time in my life. I know that sounds weird because I’m only twenty-two, but there does seem to be a better time that I can remember in the back of my mind. A time in summer camp when this girl I had a crush on, Lauren, set her hand on top of mine just like Jenny just did, as the two of us sat on the wooden pier that overlooked  this shining lake somewhere upstate New York. Lauren and I were late for dinner that night, I remember, and we didn’t care. The whole world moved just a little bit slower that night like the lazy ripples along that lake and somehow Jenny reminded me of that moment; reminded me of something buried a long time ago. A carefree moment in my life that somehow got lost in the shuffle.

And I know I won’t say this to Jay later, or my mom if she calls, or even Herm tomorrow afternoon when I see him, but my eyes teared up a little at the feeling of her soft little hand on top of mine for that brief moment.

 

So I guess it’s no surprise that Jenny’s mother would show up the next day. I was sending out a few more resumes and didn’t notice her storm around the corner.

“Are you the one who’s been telling my nine year old she needs to find some marketable skills?”

I’m a little afraid to look at her because she sounds pissed, so I just keep my head down and respond, “I am.”

“And why is that?”

“Why does she need marketable skills?”

“No.” She says with disgust. “Why is it that you feel the need to tell my nine year-old she needs marketable skills?”

“I wish someone had told me when I was her age.”

“I see. So this is all about you?” I hesitate for a minute as I consider this. I guess it’s not entirely off-base. She continues, “Thanks for not arguing with that.”

I nod.

“Because I think it’s true.” She says, a little less sternly, “I do. You’re throwing your bullshit onto my kid.”

I finally look up at her and ask, “Wanna sit down?” spreading my suit jacket flat on the pavement next to me.

She opens her mouth to respond, pointing to the corner of the street and raising her eyebrows, but ultimately sitting down on top of my suit jacket without a word.

“Jenny’s a great kid.” I say. “I just wish someone would’ve told me the truth. Maybe I’d be better prepared.”

“Prepared for what?”

“For this shit storm. This total blockade in my life. I’m going nowhere. And the isolation, it’s…” She nods, gentle and motherly in a way that makes me relax a little more. “It’s not so bad when I’m here at the wall, but before…I don’t know, I just couldn’t stand all the silence.”

“Get a job asshole!”

I nod to my not-so-silent friend, then continue once he turns the corner. “It was everywhere. Not just in Jay’s living room, but everywhere. I send at least fifty S.O.S’s everyday without even a “thank you for your resume” reply. Nothing.” I look over at her and she seems to understand.  “It’s like being invisible but I’m screaming as loud as I can, and…” I look up and realize what I should’ve realized earlier with Jenny. I shouldn’t be unloading this on anyone. Problem is, it felt good to get it out.

“And you think someone could’ve prepared you for this?”

“I don’t know, maybe someone could’ve pushed me to do something more tangible when I was a kid. All I remember was recess and a pat on the back with a good report card.”

“And you think it was someone’s job to push you to do something?”

“Maybe.”

“Who’s job?”

Don’t judge my response. I warned you, it’s been a bad couple of days. “Well, I don’t know, what else are parent’s for?”

She throws her hands in the air with a sarcastic exhale, “Uh, I don’t know. Putting food on the table. Keeping a house out of foreclosure. Paying bills…Clearly, you have no idea what it takes to be a parent. You’re just lucky if the kids don’t break their arms or go hungry. And every day you face the same risks. Do you have any idea how hard it is just to make sure those things don’t happen? It never ends.” Her voice has gotten louder, to the point where it seems she’s thinking about more than just broken arms and hunger. Much more. And passersby are starting to look down, but I’ve gotten used to that.

“You okay?” I ask.

She wipes her eyes with the tips of her coat sleeves before any tears fell. “Fine. Just under a lot of pressure, that’ all.”

“Pressure at home?”

She nods. “Home. Work. Everywhere.”

And, it seems, I’ve finally found the right moment to repeat some of the bullshit things people say to me that sometimes make me feel better. “These are tough times.”

“That’s the understatement of the year.” She looks at me. “Is that what people say to you?”

I nod. “Doesn’t help, though, does it?”

“Doesn’t change anything, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help.” She smiles, finally, and I suddenly notice how her face resembles Jenny’s. Almost hopeful, youthful in her smile in a way you can’t recognize without her smile. She looks out onto Avenue A and continues, “Jenny just admitted today that she’s been coming here. She’s been telling us she’s at her friend’s place next door, but…looking at you sitting here I’m not surprised she lied. Probably would’ve forbid her from sitting here on the sidewalk with you….” She laughs and adds, “She seems to like being here for some reason though.”

“I enjoy her company–”

“She trusts you…I don’t know why but she does.”

“Look at me. Honestly. Does it look like I can’t be trusted?” I smile wider than necessary, to let her know I’m being facetious.

“It is a little weird, what you’re doing, Jack, and quite honestly, I’m a little worried that she’s been spending so much time here, but…doesn’t mean it’s not somehow painfully honest what you’re doing. Brave, almost.”

“Well, thank you. If I might say so, I enjoy your company almost as much as your daughter’s.”

She rises along the brick wall and I can see my suit jacket didn’t completely protect her from getting dirty. Brushing some dirt off her jeans she says, “I guess I’ll stop by again sometime, just to see how that search is going.”

“My search and yours.” I reply.

“Mine?”

“Your search for sanity.”

She swats her hand in the air, dismissively. “Better not discuss it. Less of a search than a total suicide mission.”

“Good point.” I look down at the pavement. “Look, I should’ve said what I did to Jenny.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry.”

She stares at me for a moment. “The kid should have dreams.” She pauses, it seems debating her words. “It feels good to dream.”

“I know.”

“And if we’re wrong…” She says, turning the corner toward home, “Let her figure out on her own.”

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