Inertia for Dummies
During the previous twenty four hours, Neil Grayson had lost his job, blown the clutch in his old sports car, and been asked by his wife to move out of their house. Neil didn’t know it, but at this moment in time, his future couldn’t have been brighter. His journey had begun.
Neil stood in the upstairs hallway of the house he had shared with Julie for the last seven years. They had scrimped and saved for two years to make the down payment on the place, the whole time living in the tiny garage apartment next door to Neil’s parents.
“Those were simpler times,” Neil thought. “Full of hope and promise.” Where had he heard that line? Or had he just thought of it? He didn’t know. It just sounded right.
Thinking of the little apartment where he and Julie had lived when they were first married always made Neil think of an infomercial that was on television during the time they lived there. He smiled as he heard that TV guy’s voice in his head, enthusiastically cajoling, “I started out in a four hundred square foot studio apartment, and now I’m making millions, and so can you. IT’S JUST SO EASY! By placing hundreds of tiny ads in tiny newspapers in tiny towns across the country, you can make...”
“TINY AMOUNTS OF MONEY!” Neil would scream at the TV screen. Then he and Julie would laugh and come up with a few more lines of their own. “Making claims like that, you might end up in a forty square foot jail cell...where you can trade the tiny amounts of money you have left, after paying your lawyers, for tiny amounts of cigarettes and tiny amounts of protection from those prison gangs.”
They hadn’t joked and laughed like that in a long time. Neil guessed he should have seen Julie’s ultimatum coming. Then, of course, losing his job at the appliance store had probably pushed her over the edge. He couldn’t blame her, really. They had been married nine years, her biological clock was ticking, and he still couldn’t commit to having kids.
“It’s not like I’m the one going through the weight gain, the labor, the pain, the sleepless nights. What is my problem?” Neil thought. But he knew the answer. It was rooted in a tragic and traumatic experience he had suffered as a child. He preferred not to think about it right now. Neil pushed the memory to the back of his mind.
He had to get moving. Neil had the dismal job ahead of him of packing and moving his things. He finally began walking toward the little used door at the end of the upstairs hallway, the one that led to the attic stairs. Neil opened the door and slowly made his way up the narrow steps to the door that would take him into the attic.
Julie had talked about converting this room into a nursery or even a studio for her interior design business, but for now it was just an old musty attic. And like most attics, it was a catch-all for belongings, cast-offs, and mementos from times past, some remembered, many forgotten. About a third of the attic still held belongings the previous homeowner had left behind.
Neil had always planned to clean out the attic, but had never quite gotten around to it. He guessed he had inherited his procrastinating ways from his parents, who never seemed to throw anything away. If his parents liked a particular column in a newspaper, instead of clipping it out, which they always intended to do at some future unspecified time, they’d save the whole paper. Neil’s parents had enough newspapers, magazines, and books squirreled away to make the curators of the Library of Congress drool with envy. And clothes. Their clothing collection rivaled even their Library of Congress-sized stacks of literary material. They could open their own History of Fashion museum, from prehistoric to polyester.
Neil’s dad still had a whole closet full of 1970's era suits, with which he refused to part. Disco might be dead, but not in his dad’s closet. Neil’s brother, Jack, who was two years older than Neil, used to joke that when K.C. and the Sunshine Band made their comeback tour their dad could supply all their wardrobe needs. Jack also used to say that he hated to admit that he came from a family of procrastinators, but the snooze button on the smoke alarm was pretty much a dead giveaway.
Neil reached out and turned the knob on the attic door. It had been a long time since he had been up here. As the attic door slowly creaked open on rusty hinges, Neil was hit by a rush of oppressive heat mingled with the smell of old newspapers and faded photographs. He entered the room slowly to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim light within. A single ray of sunlight sliced through the solitary window across the room, making its way through cobwebs and dancing dust particles, rising from jumbled stacks of books, mildewed suitcases, and an old dressmaker’s dummy with a fedora perched on top.
Neil moved as if in a dream. He wished it was a dream, one from which he could wake up and look over to find Julie cuddled next to him in their bed, her auburn curls framing her serene and softly sleeping face. But it was not to be. This was no dream and Neil wouldn’t be waking up next to Julie anymore. At least not for a while. If ever.
Neil resigned himself to the task at hand. Packing. He hated packing. But he figured he wasn’t the only one who despised packing. It was kind of a universally shared aversion. Everyone hated packing. Everyone hated packing just like everyone had a kitchen junk drawer, which, of course, was the easiest thing to pack. You simply pulled the drawer out of the cabinet it rested in, dumped it upside down into a box, and voila, it was packed. Then all you had to do was reverse the procedure at your new place. Or, better yet, leave the junk drawer contents in the box, because you probably hadn’t used all that stuff since you put it in the first junk drawer, anyway.
Actually there was really nothing for Neil to pack in the attic. He’d just come up there for some empty boxes. But Neil soon realized there were probably none to be found. Most of the boxes up here were full, full of the things that brought back memories. Memories of long walks on warm June evenings, past screen doors framed in the soft blue glow of television screens, and open windows through which came the sound of dinner dishes being cleared, amid the low murmur of after dinner conversations. Past old men sitting silently on darkened front stoops, smoking cigars, wreathed in ethereal wisps of smoke, like silent sentinels staring into the starry skies beyond.
Neil bent down to pick up a photograph he had spotted on the attic floor. He recognized Julie and himself sitting on a bench, smiling, near the lake on the edge of town. He and Julie must have sat on that bench a hundred times as the warm evening breeze whispered through the tall grass along the shore, carrying the faraway sound of someone playing a piano in one of those big houses across the water.
Neil closed his eyes and tried to picture the house from which he used to hear the tinkling of a piano on those long ago summer nights. It was a majestic Victorian home, with a wraparound screened porch and wide wooden front steps leading to double front doors. During the day, through the front entryway could be seen shining hardwood floors, illuminated by rays of sunlight streaming through massive windows, through which could be seen a cluster of white triangles against a background of shimmering blue, as sailboats skimmed the surface of the lake beyond. Neil imagined that whoever was lucky enough to live in such a house would almost certainly have a perfect life.
As he gazed at the photograph in his hand, Neil adjusted his glasses, which were always sliding down the bridge of his nose. One of these days, he’d get around to finding a pair of glasses that fit his face better. Then he wouldn’t constantly have to keep moving them back up where they belonged, in front of his eyes, instead of on the end of his nose, where they often ended up. Neil hated wearing glasses. In his mind, it was his body’s first concession in its plodding procession towards middle age. Julie had suggested contacts when Neil received what was to him devastating news from the optometrist that he needed, as the doctor’s condescending receptionist so politically correctly put it, “vision enhancement.”
But contacts were definitely out of the question. Neil couldn’t understand how anyone could put anything in his eyes. The thought made him shudder. He couldn’t even put drops in his eyes. His eyelids would involuntarily clamp shut whenever Neil attempted to use eye drops. He had to put them near one end of the closed eyelid and kind of rub them into his eye with his finger. Forget about contacts. Both of his parents were the same way. He could still remember when his family had the bout with conjunctivitis when he was ten. His brother, Jack, had to line Neil and his parents up on the couch with their heads tilted back onto the rear cushions, so he could try (it usually took two or three attempts per person) to apply their eye drops. Jack’s parents said he was like the guy who would periodically appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, spinning plates balanced on a series of long poles, running back and forth to keep them all going simultaneously. Except that Jack’s job was more difficult. He couldn’t cut to a commercial when things went wrong. Although he would have liked to have the chance.
Ever since Neil could remember, his brother had been a steadying force in their family. Neil and his parents, John and Belle, had various quirks, eccentricities, and neuroses, but Jack, as his father put it, was “solid as a rock.” No problem was insurmountable to Jack. Neil always looked up to his older brother, and often wished he could be more like him. Whenever there was a family crisis, Jack would always find a way to solve it. It wasn’t as though Neil and his parents were helpless. It was just that most of the time, Jack proved to be the voice of reason, and as they all grew older, they came to rely on Jack more and more.
It was Jack who finally convinced his parents to go to the eye doctor. Both parents had been reading the newspaper at arm’s length and enlisting Neil and Jack’s help in reading the fine print on everything from medicine bottles to credit card offers for what seemed like years. John finally began carrying a magnifying glass and his sons started referring to him as Sherlock, after the famous sleuth. Belle began wearing a huge pair of thick, black-rimmed dime store reading glasses, which Neil and Jack swore came from the “Henry Kissinger Coke Bottle” eye wear collection. After much prodding, John and Belle finally consented to eye exams and were fitted with the appropriate glasses.
Neil thought it ironic that Julie had as much trouble getting him to the eye doctor. Neil had even tried to quickly memorize the eye chart on the wall of the doctor’s office while waiting to be examined, as the doctor consulted a patient in another room. He imagined being sent away and told that a man with 20/20 vision didn’t need glasses. Much to Neil’s chagrin, the doctor told him the eye chart was a wall decoration, and instead had Neil look into a machine with a binocular-like eye piece and read a series of letters which varied in size and, unfortunately for Neil, clarity, as well. Instead of leaving the doctor’s office a man free of the encumbrances of ocular aides, Neil left with a prescription for a new pair of glasses, much to his dismay.
“I guess no one likes to admit they’re getting older,” Neil thought to himself. Neil hated growing older. Although he was only thirty-eight, he sometimes felt as if he were in his twilight years. Working at a job he disliked, from which he had just been laid off, and being in a marriage that had been slowly going sour only served to magnify Neil’s feelings of hopelessness. He was beginning to think, however, that maybe the job loss and separation from Julie could become something positive, allowing him to somehow jumpstart his life and make some needed changes. One thing was for sure. He was through with selling for a living.
Neil, like his father, had been a salesman all his life. But Neil hated selling, and always felt uncomfortable around salespeople. He didn’t like being talked into purchasing products he probably didn’t need or couldn’t really afford, and hated trying to talk others into the same thing. But it was really the only occupation Neil had ever known, ever since his first paper route, when he was twelve years old. He had dreaded knocking on neighbor’s doors, trying to convince them to purchase a newspaper subscription from him. He felt like he was somehow begging or asking for charity. Neil knew it didn’t make sense, since he had a product to offer, but he was just uncomfortable with the “cold calling” aspect of door-to-door sales. He was sure that had soured his view on sales jobs in general.
Neil also harbored feelings of resentment because instead of choosing his occupation, he felt as if it had been chosen for him. His brother, Jack, at age fourteen, had decided it was no longer cool to deliver newspapers. He also had a crush on a girl in the neighborhood and felt self-conscious riding his bike, overloaded with newspapers, past her and her girlfriends while they giggled and whispered to each other. So, reluctantly, Neil became the heir apparent.
Trying to encourage Neil, his father told him that it would be a good experience, and that it was time Neil developed a sense of responsibility and began to save for his future. Neil knew he didn’t have much chance of turning down this “opportunity of a lifetime” paper route once his father launched into his Recollections of the Great Depression speech, a speech John dragged out and dusted off when he needed to convince his sons how good they had it. Both Jack and Neil knew their father had been, at best, an infant during the Depression, but that never stood in the way of his “first hand” memories of that era.
The real reason for the paper route being foisted upon Neil was much simpler than his father would admit. It was not to attain some mystical and elusive sense of responsibility. John Grayson was between sales jobs and could no longer afford Neil’s allowance, but was too proud to admit it. And besides, Jack could find no one else to take over the paper route, so Neil was pressed into service. This would also allow Neil’s parents to avoid an awkward situation which could have resulted in major embarrassment, since they had cajoled numerous friends and relatives into subscribing to The Daily Sentinel in the first place, and didn’t wish to leave these people high and dry. And so it was that Neil, in bailing out both his parents and his brother, began his career in sales.
Neil didn’t actually dislike all salespeople, just the pushy ones. He admired his dad because he was able to sell without being overbearing. People genuinely liked and respected Neil’s dad. John Grayson would sell only products he believed in and he had once told Neil, “You don’t work for the commission. You work for the customer.”
When John was selling cars, Neil had seen his father steer a young couple away from their “dream car,” which he knew would strap them financially, to a much less expensive model, well within their budget. When Neil later remarked how small John’s commission would be on the lesser sale, his father said, “Many people try to buy respect, but only a few are lucky enough to earn it. Given a choice between earning money and earning respect, I hope you’ll choose respect, because it sticks around a lot longer.” John went on to add, “Your mother and I may not have the biggest house or the fanciest cars on the block, but we’ve been blessed with two wonderful sons and some great friends, and, of course, with each other...and that’s what’s important in life.”
Praise always made Neil fidget and laugh nervously. “Aw, Dad,” he’d say, and John would interrupt with, “Did I say ‘wonderful?’ What I really meant was, uh, adequate. I guess I got carried away.” As he tousled his son’s hair, John would say, “Gee, I can’t believe I confused wonderful with adequate. What was I thinking, kiddo? I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” And then, seeing the look on Neil’s face, he’d burst out laughing.
Nowadays, Neil’s dad was around seventy. Neil wasn’t sure exactly how old, since his dad never really told him. When Neil was seven years old, after he had repeatedly asked his mom about her age, she told him, with a straight face, that she was ninety-nine, news which Neil related at show-and-tell the next day at school. He soon became known to the school psychologist as a boy living in a fantasy world, after earnestly relating the exciting news of his mother’s age to her.
School personnel soon made such a big deal out of Neil’s show-and-tell story that their attention to the story quickly became even more ridiculous than the story itself. It was the opinion of Neil’s parents that even if Neil did live in a fantasy world, so what? He was only seven years old, for God’s sake! If ever there was a time it was okay to live in a fantasy world, the age of seven would be it. That was what Neil’s mother had told the school psychologist on the phone, when the woman had called Belle to express her concern about Neil’s claims concerning his mother’s age.
Belle explained to the school psychologist that she had told Neil a white lie, in order to end his questioning about her age. She never dreamed her son would believe her and share her “age” with the whole school. Before hanging up the phone with the school psychologist, Belle told the woman that she wanted to set the record straight. She wasn’t ninety-nine years old. She had told her son that she was ninety-nine to hide her real age, which was 103. And then she slammed the phone down.
Shortly after that incident, John Grayson lost his sales job for missing his quota, the Grayson’s moved to a new town, and Neil and Jack were enrolled in a new school. Belle finally revealed her true age, twenty-nine, an age which was to remain the same for years to come, and a revelation which effectively ended Neil’s chronological queries.
“No wonder I’m so afraid of aging,” thought Neil, as he pushed his glasses further up on the bridge of his nose. He suddenly realized he had been sitting on the attic floor, staring at the picture of the lake where he’d spent so much of his youth, and the memories had flooded back.
Neil, for the most part, had good memories of his youth, despite the fact that his parents’ financial status was not always stable. Although the family was sometimes short on money, there was never a lack of love or support for each other. Neil felt grateful to have such happy childhood memories because, in a way, he was about to return to his childhood.
Now that he and Julie were separating, Neil was temporarily (he hoped) moving back in with his parents. Neil hadn’t planned to move back with Belle and John, but he had been so upset when Julie announced her intent to separate, Neil had called his father for advice, something he rarely did. One thing led to another and before the conversation was over, Neil had accepted his parents’ invitation and agreed to move in with them.
Julie would stay in the house where she and Neil had lived the last seven years, at least for now. It made sense. She ran her interior design business from the room over the garage. No sense in moving that. Besides, her things were everywhere. Neil’s belongings seemed to be relegated to the attic and garage. He could do without most of those things for now. Julie’s belongings, mainly clothing, seemed to fill every closet.
Neil remembered how his friends had joked when he told them he was getting married. Even his brother had kidded him, declaring, “Everyone says that when you get married, the first thing you lose is your independence. The truth is, the first thing you lose is your closet space. Your wife lets you know how outdated your clothes are, how this thing doesn’t look good on you, that old rag doesn’t fit you, and pretty soon all your clothes are gone. The closets are full of her stuff, you’re down to a solitary hook on the bathroom door, and, oh yeah, she’s the one complaining that she’s got nothing to wear.”
Neil smiled to himself at the memory and adjusted his glasses. Maybe by allowing Julie to fill the house with her things and bringing his belongings along almost as an afterthought, Neil had subconsciously avoided committing himself completely to their relationship. Maybe Julie was right. Maybe Neil did have to grow up and commit. Commit to having a child.
He had never pictured himself as a father. All of his friends had talked about the kids they planned on having. The truth was, Neil sometimes thought about having a son or a daughter, but when it came right down to it, he was afraid of failing–as a father, as a husband, and as a protector.
“Neil?” The sound of his father’s voice downstairs shook Neil from his reverie. He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts.
“Up here, Dad,” Neil yelled from the top of the stairs. “Just looking for something to put my clothes in.”
“Don’t you have a suitcase, son?” his father asked. John Grayson tried to remember the last time he had seen his son pack a suitcase. Was it on one of his return trips to college after visiting for the holidays, or after summer break? He couldn’t remember. John made his way slowly up the attic stairs.
“Well, actually the luggage set belongs to Julie, but I’ve got some boxes up here, somewhere,” came Neil’s answer from inside the attic.
“Umm, look, Neil, I’ve brought some boxes I picked up from behind the liquor store. How many you think you’ll need?”
“I don’t know, Dad. I’m just having trouble getting started. It’s just kind of, uh, a little overwhelming right now,” Neil replied in a subdued, melancholy voice.
“I know, son,” his father murmured in soothing tones. “Situations like this are never easy. But a separation’s not the end of the world. Hell, your mother and I even separated once, before you boys were born.” Neil gave his father a surprised look. He had never heard this before. John continued, “Don’t even remember what it was about. Something stupid, I’m sure. Your mother went to stay with her mom, your grandmother. Lasted about twenty-four hours. Your mom had forgotten how easily she and her mother butted heads. Two most headstrong women in North America, I’ve always said. Don’t get me wrong. They loved each other dearly. Just couldn’t live under the same roof.” John paused for a moment, as if gathering his thoughts. “And I’ll tell you something, Neil. Your grandma wasn’t too thrilled with me as a son-in-law, but she insisted that your mother go back and work things out with me. And after spending a day with your grandmother, whatever silly argument caused your mom to leave me in the first place didn’t seem so important, after all. We made up and never discussed it again. That is, until this thing with you and Julie came up. We both love you very much, son.” In a comforting gesture, John rested his hand on Neil’s shoulder.
“You too, Dad,” Neil quickly shot back. He always felt a little uncomfortable when his parents told him they loved him. He didn’t know why. After all, their generation, particularly the males, was supposed to be the stoic, unemotional one, not his. Truth was, Neil had always had difficulty expressing his emotions, so he felt self-conscious when others expressed theirs.
Neil was shocked to hear about his parents’ brief separation. He couldn’t imagine them apart. Even though he was a grown man, he was still their son, their child. And like all children, Neil hated to think about a rift, albeit one that was decades old, in his parents’ relationship. He was just glad his parents had managed to work things out, because if they had gone their separate ways all those years ago, he wouldn’t be here now.
Neil’s father continued, “We love Julie, too, but you’re our son, Neil. And we want you to stay with us until you two work this thing out.”
Neil didn’t know if it could ever be worked out, but he just smiled at his father and pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
A silence hung in the air, as Neil and John both began moving around the attic as if to look for items to pack, but really to give each other time to contemplate what had just been said.
Neil was still thinking about his father’s revelation of his parents’ brief separation over forty years ago. He knew his dad was just trying to give him some comfort and hope by relating what he had seen as a similar situation that was quickly brought to a happy conclusion. But Neil’s separation was different than his parents’. He knew it better than anyone. His marriage had been slowly disintegrating for months, probably years, and Neil had just kept plugging along, not really paying close attention to Julie’s signals. Neil had grown adept at mixing just the right amount of denial with an equal portion of procrastination in order to avoid the growing problems in his marriage. And it had finally come to a head. Come crashing down on him. And now it was time to face reality.
“C’mon, Neil,” John Grayson bellowed with mock forcefulness. “Let’s get these boxes packed and loaded before your mother gets here.” John began descending the attic stairs as he headed toward his small pickup truck to retrieve the boxes he had brought.
“Okay, Dad, I’ll be down in just a minute,” Neil replied. “Man, it’s hot up here,” he remarked to himself. Here it was, early November, and the temperature outside must have been a balmy eighty degrees, making it at least ten degrees warmer in the attic. Neil had expected the day he moved out to be a dark and blustery day, with threatening blue-black cumulus clouds spitting out intermittent showers, as powerful gusts of wind spread autumn leaves like confetti through the sky. But the weather rarely matched your mood or the events unfolding around you. That only happened in the movies, and Neil’s life wasn’t a movie. If it had been, maybe he and Julie would be back together in no time, problem solved. “Not much chance of that,” Neil thought.
Neil took one last look around the stifling attic room, hoping to see something he could take with him, a memento of happier times in his marriage. A glint of sunlight reflecting off an object on the windowsill caught Neil’s eye. As he moved closer, Neil saw that it was a snow globe with a tiny Norman Rockwell-inspired wintry scene encased within its glass dome. Neil picked up the snow globe and impulsively shook it. He watched with rapt attention as tiny snowflakes gently cascaded over a sleepy New England village scene, one that evoked both good memories and bad. Neil slipped the snow globe into his pocket while glancing at the oval imprint it had left in the dust that covered the attic windowsill.
Julie had bought the snow globe on a whim, while she and Neil were browsing their way through a curio shop on one of those lazy autumn Sunday afternoons they used to spend together, taking rides through the country, exploring little towns along the way, when they were first married. While Neil was at one end of the store, Julie had secretly purchased the snow globe and hidden it in her coat pocket until they got back inside the car. She had made him close his eyes and hold out his hand and, with a childlike laugh, had placed her gift to him into his outstretched palm. Before she would let Neil open his eyes, Julie made him shake the object up and down, and only then was he allowed to see what she had given him. When he opened his eyes, Neil was genuinely surprised to see the idyllic wintry scene inside the tiny glass globe, and delighted at Julie’s impulsive gesture. She sometimes showed a side of herself which was almost childlike, and Neil loved the sense of spontaneity which accompanied these moods.
Neil remembered that when he had placed the snow globe on the dashboard, Julie had said, with a sly smile, “This is the kind of town I want our kids to grow up in.” Neil had smiled back and lightly kissed Julie on the lips. He had never really seriously discussed having children with her, although Julie had begun to bring up the subject more and more as time went on, eliciting mostly nods and “uh-huhs” from Neil in return. Neil’s resistance to the discussion of having children was the primary reason for their separation, but it wasn’t the only one.
His career path had pretty much reached a dead end, while Julie’s had flourished, as she had built quite a reputation for herself as an interior designer. She had started out designing for individual homeowners, but had soon graduated to landing corporate accounts. The ever increasing workload for Julie had resulted in an ever increasing amount of late night client meetings, occasional overnight out of town stays, and an ever decreasing amount of time spent with Neil. Neil even began to suspect that perhaps Julie had met someone else, like that smarmy guy, Bob, (who Neil referred to as “Blob”) the one who was always finding clients for Julie among his vast network of corporate buddies. But Neil had brushed that thought away, mainly because he hated to entertain the idea, and also because he had a real talent for denial.
Neil reached inside his pocket for the snow globe and shook it once more. As he stared at the wintry landscape inside the tiny globe, the memory it evoked this time was very different than the scene he had remembered earlier with Julie in the curio shop. This memory was the key to Neil’s fear of bringing a child into the world, a memory that had haunted him since childhood. This time he didn’t fight it. He let it all come flooding back. As he stared at the snowy scene before him, he felt himself transported back to that terrible day when he was nine years old, a day which began much like the one depicted in the snow globe, but one which ended quite differently.
As Neil recalled, the snow had crept in the night before, hidden in a thick shroud of tan and gray clouds. Working in silence, the snow had covered everything in a great homogenous blanket of white, transforming decaying buildings and abandoned automobiles into works of art, highlighting barren tree branches, bringing attention to every curve and twist, its soft downiness changing even the most mundane objects into things of beauty.
Neil’s best friend, Trevor, also nine years old, woke him up that morning by throwing snowballs at his bedroom window. Neil was so excited he wanted to run out into the snow immediately, but his mother insisted he eat breakfast first, and invited Trevor inside to warm up and have some hot chocolate. Neil wolfed down his breakfast and was soon outside with his friend, trudging through nearly a foot of newly fallen snow. Soon the two boys had wandered over a mile into the thick woods behind Neil’s house, pelting each other with snowballs, laughing and yelling excitedly. Neil hid behind a huge fir tree, and when Trevor approached, Neil jumped out and threw a snowball which glanced off of Trevor’s head, knocking his hat sideways as it made contact. Trevor’s shocked expression quickly turned to one of pain, and as he clutched his head in both hands, he stumbled and fell backwards into the snow, landing flat on his back, eyes closed and arms outstretched.
Neil was sure that Trevor was feigning injury or playing dead; as both boys often did when engaged in whatever game they happened to dream up on the spur of the moment. Neil imitated Trevor, falling on his back into the snow beside his friend. After playing dead for about a minute, Neil cried out, “Okay, you win, Trevor. Hey, why don’t we make snow angels?” Neil began moving his arms in a wide arc, along with his legs. When he jumped up to survey his work, he saw that Trevor hadn’t moved. Neil yelled, “I said you win, Trevor.” He then reached down and moved his friend’s legs in an arc in the snow, pleading, “C’mon, Trev, we’re making angels. C’mon, move your arms.” Neil straddled Trevor’s chest, hoping against hope that his friend would open his eyes and burst out laughing. Nothing. Neil frantically moved the other boy’s arms up and down in the snow, his voice shaking, but trying to sound forceful, “I said, we’re making snow angels.” Nothing. Feeling weak and disoriented, Neil got up and slowly backed away from Trevor. He looked at his friend’s nose and mouth, searching for the tiny telltale cloud that betrays every breath taken on a wintry day. Nothing.
And then Neil knew in his heart what he could never forget. He had killed his best friend. They would never again play hide-n-seek, chase fireflies on summer nights; go fishing in their favorite spot. Because even at nine years old, Neil knew that death was forever. Death didn’t care about best friends. Death took whoever it wanted, whenever it wanted, and it never, ever gave anything back. Tears streaming down his face, Neil dropped to his knees and shook the motionless boy beneath him, as if to wake him.
“Trevor, don’t die, wake up, wake up, WAKE UP! Please, please, please, Trevor, don’t be dead. Please don’t die...”
And then Neil was running, slipping, falling, sprinting towards his house, blinded by tears, lungs burning as he gulped great breaths of the frigid morning air. And in the silent, snowy woods beyond lay a nine-year-old boy, once full of hopes and dreams and innocence, now cold and lifeless and silent, wrapped in a funeral shroud of pure white in the form of an angel.
The coroner determined that the death was caused by an aneurism, a ruptured blood vessel in Trevor’s brain caused by a defect in the vessel wall, which had existed, undetected, in the boy’s brain since birth. Despite assurances that the snowball had not caused Trevor’s death, Neil couldn’t believe he wasn’t somehow responsible. If Trevor could’ve died at any time, as Neil’s parents told him, why did it have to be after Neil hit him with a snowball? Maybe nine-year-olds didn’t understand “coincidence,” but they sure understood “cause and effect.” And even as Neil grew older he could never quite shake his feelings of guilt over his friend’s death.
For months after his best friend’s death, Neil would lie in his bed at night, reliving the scene in the snow covered woods, fighting to hold back tears, trying to figure out what he could’ve done differently to save his friend, and feeling the guilt that the survivors of such ordeals often have. And every night, his mother would enter his room, lie down next to him, and cradle Neil in her arms, telling him, “Trevor’s okay, now, honey. He’s with God. And he doesn’t want you to be sad for him anymore, because he’s an angel now, with beautiful gossamer wings.”
Logically, Neil knew he wasn’t responsible for Trevor’s death, yet he still felt enormous guilt. He knew it wasn’t rational to feel this way, but feelings and emotions rarely followed a rational path. Neil also knew this was the reason he couldn’t commit to having children. Sure, he felt he might fail them in some way, but Neil’s greatest fear was that he might lose a child, might outlive his child, or might witness some terrible tragedy which would spare him, but take his child away. Just such a tragedy had visited the parents of Trevor, and taken their only child on that wintry day decades earlier, as nine-year-old Neil watched helplessly while his best friend’s life drained away, leaving Neil feeling small, helpless, and alone in the cold and desolate winter woods.
Neil’s feelings of guilt extended to Trevor’s parents, who became emotionally hollow after their son’s death. Their demeanor reminded Neil of the “pod people” from the fifties sci-fi flick, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, aliens, in human form, who walked the earth devoid of all emotion, as if in a hypnotic state. Trevor’s parents didn’t blame Neil. No one blamed Neil but Neil, himself. At age eleven, just when Neil was beginning to forgive himself for failing to save his friend’s life, he sank back into his feelings of guilt. That was when Trevor’s mother died, after ingesting half a bottle of sleeping pills and washing it down with a fifth of whiskey. Neil guessed that maybe she now had gossamer wings, but some of his friends said that when you take your own life, you can’t go to heaven. He tried to remember if Clarence, Jimmy Stewart’s guardian angel in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, had mentioned anything about that when he appeared just as Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, was contemplating suicide. Neil’s was not a very religious family, so he had to find religious and biblical information where he could.
As far as anyone could tell, Trevor’s dad never left the house after his wife’s death and never returned to work. He eked out an agoraphobic existence on what he had left in savings, his wife’s life insurance settlement, and government assistance. Not even the delivery boy, who left groceries on the reclusive man’s front porch once a week, caught more than a fleeting glance of his shadowy figure inhabiting the dark and empty house beyond the heavily curtained front windows.
“Neil?” John Grayson’s voice shook Neil from his thoughts. “Are you coming down?” His father’s voice drifted up the attic stairs.
“Uhh, yeah, Dad, I’m on my way,” Neil replied, and he once again shoved the snow globe into his pocket. As he turned towards the attic door, Neil saw a cardboard file box that had once been white, but was now yellowed and bowed on the sides. It was labeled “Neil’s College Stuff” across the top, and although Neil would have liked to look through its contents right then and there, he knew his father was growing impatient, so he picked up the box and carried it with him as he descended the attic stairs.
“Well, at least you’ve got one box packed,” John said as Neil emerged from the house carrying the slightly tattered box.
“Actually, I packed this one about ten years ago,” Neil admitted with a sheepish grin.
“Let’s just hope it doesn’t take you a decade to pack the rest of these boxes, son,” his father joked.
“Well, it’ll definitely take some time to pack, but we should be finished by this afternoon. I don’t think I’ve really got all that much to take with me,” Neil said.
“I’ve got all the time in the world, Neil, but right now it’s time to get these empty boxes in the house, load ‘em up, and move ‘em out,” said John. “Just like they used to do with the cattle on those cattle drives on Rawhide.” A second later, John and Neil spontaneously began singing the theme song from the old television western. “Rollin,’ rollin,’ rollin,’ keep those doggies rollin.’ Rollin,’ rollin,’ rollin,’ raw-hide...RAWHIDE! At this point, whenever they sang this song, which had been much more frequent when Neil was a boy, his father would imitate the sound of a cracking bullwhip. But before John could make the noise, he was interrupted by another sound, the voice of Belle Grayson, who had parked her car in the alley behind the house, and come through the back door just as her son and husband were breaking into song on the front porch.
“If anyone’s going to do any whip crackin’ around here, it’s gonna be me. By the looks of things, that’s the only thing that’s going to get you two to finish up this packing job you’ve barely started,” exclaimed Belle with mock sternness.
“Oh, sure, you show up an hour late, and right away you’re bossin’ us around, woman,” chided John, laughing.
“I guess this makes up for all the times I showed up an hour early,” came Belle’s retort. She usually did show up an hour early, particularly between the months of October and April, when most of the country observed standard time by setting clocks back one hour from daylight savings time. Belle, ever since deciding to become twenty-nine again, also vowed never to set her watch back one hour every October, which allowed her to achieve two elusive goals. She was almost always early for appointments at which she otherwise would have arrived late, and she kept that extra hour of daylight she so enjoyed.
“That’s right, I forgot. You’re the only person in the state who refuses to set her watch back one hour to standard time. So you should’ve gotten here an hour early, instead of an hour late. But don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything. Neil’s only brought one box out of the house, and he claims that’s been packed for ten years. So, you’re here just in time for all the fun.” John was on a roll, but Belle quickly cut in.
“If you must know, I was getting Neil’s room ready. I just wanted everything to be perfect.”
“Well, if everything was perfect, I guess we wouldn’t be here, but let’s make the best of it,” replied John.
Neil thought he detected a slight edginess to his parents’ exchange, and wasn’t sure if it was good-natured or not. He knew his father was mildly annoyed at his mother’s insistence upon observing daylight savings time year round, but Neil saw no harm in it. Both of his parents had their individual eccentricities, more so now that they were retired, and if it made his mom happy, so be it. So what if his mother’s watch said 8:00 when everyone else’s said 7:00? None of Belle’s friends seemed to care. And they all attended her annual “Spring Ahead Party” when daylight savings time began each year, a day on which Belle celebrated the fact that everyone else was catching up to her schedule.
Time and its measurement was really just an arbitrary assignment of order, anyway. How old would we be, or at least think we were, if we had never been told our age or our birth date? Neil liked to entertain such thoughts because when people guessed his age they usually thought he was younger than his thirty-eight years.
Neil knew he was no world-class athlete, but he kept himself in pretty good shape, and he knew he was in better physical condition than many men ten years younger. Yes, he now wore glasses, but lots of people did, many since childhood. At this point, Neil was beginning to feel better about himself. He was even more convinced that time and its measurement, along with people’s busy schedules, which were dictated by time, should take a back seat to the enjoyment of life and the people who mattered to you in your life.
Neil suddenly remembered a poignant segment he had seen in a 9/11 documentary, which had underscored his thoughts on the delicate balance between busy schedules and time spent with loved ones. The woman speaking during this particular scene was an emergency worker, either a policewoman or firefighter in New York City, Neil couldn’t remember which.
The woman had helped rescue people from the World Trade Center after the planes had hit the twin towers, and by sheer luck, was outside of the buildings when first one and then the other collapsed. She had seen and experienced in a matter of minutes, as did thousands of others that day, what no one should have to witness in a lifetime.
One minute she was valiantly trying to rescue people she had never met, and the next minute she was overcome with a sense of helplessness, horror, and grief as she watched the innocent victims she could not reach, people high above her, jumping to their deaths to escape the burning jet fuel. When the buildings collapsed, the woman was not only trying to rescue people she would never know, but also friends and co-workers, those who would have put their lives on the line for her and had done so in the past. The experience changed her forever.
She came to realize over the days and weeks and months that followed, during which the search and rescue effort became a clean-up and recovery operation, that her job, her career, her selfless giving of herself day after day in the face of danger, no longer held for her the importance it once had. Something else was much more important.
She believed she knew the one universal thought that flashed through the minds of everyone who died that day, from the passengers on the four ill-fated jets to the workers in the twin towers and the Pentagon. Because she also had that thought. She was sure that they all wished they could have more time with their loved ones, even if it was only for a few minutes.
The woman knew those people had lost their chance to make that wish come true, but she was determined not to lose hers. She took early retirement, leaving her job to spend as much time as she could with her family. From that point forward, no wristwatch, time clock, or calendar would dictate mandatory shifts spent away from her loved ones. The only time that would hold any significance for her would be that which she would spend with her husband and children.
At the end of her last day of work, as the woman approached the entrance to the subway, she noticed a homeless woman huddled in the doorway of a nearby building. She approached the disheveled figure in the doorway, removed the wristwatch she had worn ever since she could remember, and placed it in the homeless woman’s outstretched hand. She smiled and headed down the stairs to the subway below, feeling more hopeful than she had in a long time.
Like the woman in the documentary, Neil wished he had more time with his loved ones, specifically his wife. But it seemed it was too late for Neil and Julie. Neil feared their trial separation would lead inevitably to divorce. He would get part of his wish, though. Neil would soon be spending more time with his friends and loved ones, some of whom he would soon meet for the first time. Danger and mystery lay ahead for Neil Grayson, as well as redemption and epiphany. His life was about to change in ways he had never imagined.