FAR TO FALL
by Joshua Isard
His mom asked for pictures.
“OK,” Hewitt said, keeping his eyes on the road.
He knew he wasn’t going to take any, and saw himself showing Owen’s Facebook page to his mother the next time he saw her. Hewitt had seven or so pictures on his phone, mostly of bizarre signs he’d seen. His favorite was in front of a church: Need a lifeguard? Ours walks on water. He had none of his girlfriend, his family, his friends—and certainly not his friend’s toddler.
Issue #57 soundtrack: Bern & the Brights "Thieves, Creeps, and Automatons"
“I can’t believe you’re going to Maddie’s third birthday party. I remember taking you to Owen’s third birthday… it just makes me…”
“I know, Mom. You have to stop the tears.”
“It was so cute! You were close with him even then.”
“We were three years old. I wouldn’t read too much into it. Look, I have to go. I’m still on I-95.”
“Pictures, Hewitt, lots of them.”
“You got it, Mom.” He hung up and tossed the phone on the passenger seat.
He didn’t get along with Maddie, mostly because he didn’t know how to act around a kid who couldn’t articulate more than being hungry, happy, or tired. He never did kiddie talk. When Hewett got his dog from the shelter, a four pound runt of a lab-collie mix, he talked to her like she was a person with a house and a job. “Can you believe the potholes in these roads?” he asked the dog. “Try not to fall out of that box, OK? Trust me, it’ll hurt.” The puppy could barely open its eyes.
Talking like that when it’s just you and your dog is fine, but at a third birthday party with who knows how many parents around… it could be strange.
While he drove in the left lane down I-95, Hewitt thought about how long he’d known Owen, and how he only got along with him a little better than he did with Maddie. They were friends by inertia. They’d grown up together, gone through elementary school, middle school, and high school together, visited each other at college, backpacked through Europe together after graduation. But a decade after all that, with jobs and mortgages, Hewett thought that if they met for the first time today, they wouldn’t be friends.
He took the exit off 95 and merged onto Route 1 which took him into suburban Delaware. He saw Wilmington’s mini-skyline fade in his rear view, and then the developments appeared on each side of the road with their exotic, rural sounding names: Caledonian Woods, Normandy Hunt, Brandenburg Estates. He turned off Route 1 and in less than a mile pulled into Owen’s development, Lapland Run. Hewitt wondered if anyone living there knew just how inhospitable Lapland was.
“Why are you sweating, Hewitt?”
“I had to park about ten doors down,” he said. It was the first spot he’d found and as he walked over, Maddie’s present under his arm, he noticed how little shade there was on the sidewalk despite all the trees in the neighborhood. “How many people are here?”
“The Longs are also having a party today.” Janel said. “They live over there.” She pointed down the street, but he had no idea at which house.
Hewitt never liked Janel. She was too honest, refused to polish her freshly quarried thoughts before speaking, which gave him the idea that she didn’t like him either.
“You probably want to see Owen,” she said. “He’s in the kitchen.”
“Yeah,” Hewitt said. “And Maddie, too, you know.”
“She’s also inside.”
“Maybe wash up a little in the bathroom.”
“Right,” he said. “OK.”
He went into the house and found himself among people he’d never met, half of whom were kids. He had to weave and bob around three year-olds running in straight lines as if they’d bounced off something and were unable to avoid obstacles, like Hewitt’s shins. He imagined a full-on impact with his leg and his gift crashing to the floor. Or on a kid’s head. He gripped the package tightly.
Hewitt made it to the kitchen and saw Owen at the island, manning what appeared to be a juice station for the toddlers.
Owen saw him, got another parent to take over drink duties, then walked to his friend.
They shook hands. “You really didn’t have to come,” Owen said. “You might be a little over age.”
“I’m not going to blow off your daughter’s birthday party when I get an invite.”
“Well, thanks for coming.”
Owen looked down at the gift Hewitt still held under his arm.
“Is that for Maddie?”
“Yeah,” Hewitt said. “Do I give it to you? I’m not really sure how this works.”
“Yeah, I’ll bring it upstairs so no one runs over it.” He took it and looked back up at Hewitt. “Did you jog here all the way from Philly?”
Hewitt tried to laugh a little. “No, I had to park pretty far away, and it’s kind of hot out.”
“OK, well, you know where the bathrooms are if you want to wash up.”
Then Owen went upstairs and Hewitt went to the bathroom, but he found it locked. Suddenly a woman wearing a floral print dress and Birkenstocks stood next to him. Her hair looked like it hadn’t been brushed in a week, and Hewitt thought that the heat couldn’t have helped that. She announced, “My son is in there.”
“Oh,” Hewitt said, “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t recognize you,” she said. “Whose father are you?”
“I don’t have kids, I’m an old friend of Owen’s.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed and Hewitt noticed that she had a serious uni-brow.
“This is Maddie’s party,” she said.
“I know,” Hewitt said. “I’ve met Maddie once or twice, too.”
The handle on the bathroom door started to move back and forth, but the door didn’t open. Hewitt decided to let the woman help her son. He wondered if there was something about having a kid that prevented her from properly grooming herself.
He went upstairs, but the door was locked again. He didn’t want to go back downstairs until he’d had a minute to make sure he didn’t look ridiculous.
He saw that Owen and Janel’s bedroom door was closed, but figured they just didn’t want anyone in there during the party. Hewitt opened the door a crack and looked in. No one there, just a few gifts on the bed, including his. He closed the door behind him and went into their bathroom.
Hewitt’s face was glazed, but he didn’t see any stains on his shirt. He splashed cold water on his face and felt himself cooling down, then dried himself with one of their monogrammed towels and made sure to fold it exactly as he found it before he put it back. He noticed their matching electric toothbrushes, the wicker basket of potpourri on the back of the toilet, and the copies of the Delaware Bar Association newsletter in the magazine rack.
He thought, “They’re boring even when no one’s looking.”
When Hewitt returned to the party he went to the refrigerator to look for a beer, but decided against grabbing a Yuengling. He hadn’t seen anyone else with a beer, and already felt like everyone there, kids included, felt like he shouldn’t have come.
He saw some bottles of water out on the back patio and went out to get one.
A half dozen kids kicked a rubber ball around the back yard with seemingly no aim, and no parental supervision. Lots of parents were out there, but none looked to be paying attention to the children. Hewitt thought that maybe when you have one, it gets easy enough to watch them and have a conversation at the same time.
The water bottles were warm, just placed on the table next to bowls of pretzels and Doritos. No cooler, no bucket of ice.
He stood back and looked at the parents. They wore jeans, t-shirts, polos, flip flops…and white sneakers. That’s what Hewitt focused on, the dads with white sneakers. Almost all of them. The ones wearing shorts had socks pulled up, some as far as the middle of their calves.
Hewitt saw that as a sign of failure—a man with white sneakers and white socks pulled up on his pale shins, his straggly leg hair out in the harsh light of day. To Hewitt it meant that a guy no longer cared if he’d made the world a little more awful.
Don’t shop at Armani. Just cover up, man.
He drank the bottle of water in three gulps and felt not the least bit refreshed, then went back inside to the air conditioning. In every room he heard the din of conversation between mothers and fathers, punctuated by the yelps of their children who all still ran in straight lines and nearly into Hewitt. It sounded as if the kids might be hurt or something when he heard those yells, but no one reacted. The adults and children could have been at two separate parties, at different houses.
He weaved around clusters of parents and dodged the projectile-like children, then went out into the front yard. No one else was there. He took out his phone and called Elena, who was working at the vet that afternoon.
“Hi,” she said, “how’s the birthday party?”
“Not for me,” he said. “No one’s drinking, Owen’s got to play host, and the other parents think I’m just a pedophile or something.”
“Didn’t you tell them you’re Owen’s friend?”
“Yeah. Doesn’t sound too legitimate to them.”
“I’m sorry, Hew.”
“I don’t even know why he invited me.”
“Because you’ve been close since the two of you were toddlers.”
“My mom brought that up this afternoon.”
“What did she say?”
“She reminded me about how I went to Owen’s third birthday party. He had this Spider-Man birthday cake, and his mom gave him the first piece, but then he slid it over to me. Apparently we’ve been friends ever since then.”
“That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever heard. I love how you guys have been loyal to each other for so long.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Want to show me how much you love it tonight?”
“Oh god…” she said, “you’re around children.”
“I’m outside,” he said. “No one’s near me.”
“Well, I’m around some sick kittens I have to take care of, so how about we talk about it later?”
“Sure. I’ll be home by eight. That too late for dinner?”
“No, it’s fine. Enjoy the rest of the party.”
Hewitt spent the next hour trying not to look too creepy, which he found difficult without a wife or kids. At one point he found himself in the kitchen, standing next to a father.
“How do you know Owen?” Hewitt asked.
“Oh, right,” the guy said. “I just met him today. My wife knows Janel. Our kids are in the same school.”
“Cool,” Hewitt said, then asked, “Which one’s yours?”
“Oh,” the guy said, and then gave a quick look around. “I don’t see her, probably running around the backyard or something. Do yours go to Fitzwater too?”
“Your kids, do they go to the Fitzwater School with Maddie?”
“Oh, I don’t have kids. I’m Owen’s friend.”
“I see,” the guy said. Then they both paused, tried to think of something else to say. “Well, I have to find my wife, it was nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, you too.”
A little later, Owen and Janel brought out a cake decorated with the faces of cartoon-ish animals, a zoo scene airbrushed on the icing. Maddie took three tries to blow out three candles, and then Janel cut the first square of the cake from the corner, one of the pieces with the most icing flowers. She put it on a little paper plate and gave it to Maddie.
Hewitt watched her carefully.
She took her fork and dug into the cake, getting some on her cheeks with every bite. The other parents laughed and whispered how cute she looked. Owen cut the rest of the cake and Janel brought pieces to all the kids, then the parents, then Hewitt.
After everyone ate, the kids had one last sugar rush and ran around even faster than before. Hewitt tried to break into a conversation between Owen and a few other dads, but he ended up just standing near them and listening to their discussion about the neighborhood’s property values.
At one point a kid finally did thump straight into Hewitt’s shin and fell backwards. It was Maddie. He squatted down and helped her back on her feet. She smiled, like Hewitt’s leg was just part of a kids’ obstacle course. He thought that everything’s more fun when you don’t have far to fall.
“Hey kiddo,” he said. Even squatting, he wasn’t at eye level with her.
“Hi, uncle Hoo-et.”
“You having fun today?”
“Ya!” she said, and then ran off into the traffic of the other kids.
Hewitt looked up at Owen, who laughed.
Within a half hour of eating their cake all the kids crashed, and their parents, as if a telepathic alarm went off through all their minds, stopped talking and rounded up the children to leave.
While Janel stood by the front door and said goodbye to everyone as they left, Hewitt brought in some of the trash from the patio and Owen loaded the dishwasher. Hewitt and Owen found themselves alone in the kitchen. It was late afternoon, but at this point in the summer the sun still shone high overhead and flooded through the windows.
“Thanks for helping out,” Owen said.
“Sure,” Hewitt said. “You want to take a break and have one of those beers in the fridge?”
“You go ahead, but I’m good.”
“Come on, man, one outside. It’s summer time. Janel’s with Maddie. Humor your guest.”
Owen put down the dishes he was rinsing off in the sink. “OK,” he said, “sure.”
Hewitt grabbed the bottles from the fridge and they walked outside. Owen slid two chairs near each other while Hewitt twisted off the caps, then they sat down. Hewitt took a gulp of his beer, Owen took a sip.
“My mom called me while I was on the way over here,” Hewitt said after the fizz from the beer no longer tickled the back of his throat. “She reminded me about your third birthday party.”
“The Spiderman cake?”
“My mom tells me about that all the time. Do you even remember it?”
They each tipped their bottles back again. Hewitt had gulped nearly half his beer already. Owen hadn’t drank down to the label.
“I’m sorry Elena couldn’t come,” Owen said.
“Me too. But work’s work.”
“You two have been together for a year now, right?”
“Not even,” Hewitt said.
“Is it serious?”
“I don’t know,” Hewitt said. “What does that even mean anymore?”
“It means: do you want to marry her?”
“I’m not really thinking about that.”
“Guess it’s not serious, then.”
Hewitt hated when Owen said things like that. He took another drink from the bottle, nearly finishing it. He wondered if he’d had enough cake to soak up the beer and keep him from feeling a little buzzed.
“Anything new with work?” Owen asked. “Find the next huge band?”
“I don’t find the bands, really, I just produce their albums.”
“Yeah, but, you had a lot to do with Lucy 54, and even I hear about them all the time.”
“It was good to get hooked up with those guys, yeah.”
“So everything’s still going well?”
“Very well, actually. I just got offered a job in London.”
“Wow, when did that happen?”
“I got the offer last week, but I was out there all of May to work on Blaylock’s new album.”
“Yeah,” Hewitt said, “I texted you a picture from the top of the London Eye.”
“Anyway, this label wants to take me on as their staff producer.”
“That’s great. Are you going to take it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve got the condo here, the dog, and a pretty good client base.”
“But you still love all the travel and adventure,” Owen said, “this seems like a great job for you.”
“I get plenty of travel with my job as it is now.”
“I know, I’m surprised you don’t get sick more often, the places you go.”
Hewitt couldn’t believe he had a friend who thought that every city outside the U.S. was somehow third world. He’d been to Stockholm and Tokyo in the last year, not Mogadishu and Calcutta.
“It’s a big deal to move overseas,” Hewitt said. “I’m going to take a while to think about it.”
“What does Elena think?”
“I haven’t talked about it with her yet. I mean, if I decide I don’t want to go, then why have the discussion at all?”
“Sure,” Owen said.
Hewitt finished his beer. Owen wasn’t half way done. They both put their bottles down between their chairs.
“How are things with you?” Hewitt asked. “Everything good at the firm? You a partner yet?”
“A couple years more, I think.”
“Nice. And Maddie’s good?”
“Yeah, well, you saw her today. Bouncing around, talking up a storm. I swear that kid remembers everything anyone says. A few weeks ago my dad was over and we had the Phillies game on. He said something about how Ryan Howard can’t lay off the inside curve ball. Then yesterday, I’m reading the sports page and Maddie asks me why Ryan Howard can’t hit an inside curve ball.”
“Kids are pretty amazing sometimes.”
“That’s funny, I was thinking that everyone seemed kind of removed from their kids. The little ones run around, parents talk.”
“I guess that happens at these parties,” Owen said, “but that’s not how it is most of the time. I don’t know, I never get so deadly focused as when I’m doing something for Maddie. I see the best parts of myself in her. Well, so far it’s the best parts.”
“What happens when it’s not?”
“I don’t know. I’ll find out.”
Hewitt looked down at his empty bottle. “So,” he said, “I got her a present.”
“I know. Thanks.”
“I should kind of set it up for her. It looks a little weird.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe it’s best if I show you.”
They went inside, leaving the bottles by the chairs, Owen’s still half-full, Hewitt’s lying on its side. As they climbed the stairs they heard Maddie’s muffled crying from the bathroom and Janel trying to calm her.
“Everything OK?” Hewitt asked.
“Sure, she probably just doesn’t want to take a bath or something.”
“This happen often?”
Owen went into his bedroom and brought out the package for Maddie. He motioned them both into her bedroom. The walls were painted sky blue, and the molding was pink. Hewitt saw stuffed animals on every flat surface.
They unwrapped a cardboard box, then cut open the flaps and found a pink speaker surrounded with crumpled tissue paper, and a little rectangle wrapped separately next to it.
Owen pulled out the speaker, but its cord caught in all the paper. When he yanked on it several balls of paper flew out of the box.
“Where are we going to put this?” Hewitt asked.
“Over here in the corner’s fine.”
Owen moved a stuffed toys off of a small square table and put the speaker down. “This is cool.” Owen said, “What can we hook it up to?”
“What? No, you missed it.” Hewitt reached into the box and pulled out the wrapped rectangle. “This is the important part.”
Owen unwrapped the matching pink iPod, then noticed the little dock on the front of the speaker.
“I just wanted to set it up because I’d already taken it all out of the original boxes. Didn’t want you to think it fell off a truck or something.”
Hewitt took the iPod from his friend and turned it on. “See,” he said, “I loaded it with, well, everything I thought Maddie might want.”
Owen looked as Hewitt scrolled through the bands.
“Aimee Mann, Jeff Buckley, Beth Orton…”
“The Breeders?” Owen asked.
“There’s also some stuff on there for when she gets older.”
Owen said, “Thanks, that’s really thoughtful,” but Hewitt saw in his eyes that that Owen was wondering what he was going to do with this pink box.
Hewitt scrolled down to The Who and put on one of their earlier singles, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere.”
“Speaker sounds good,” Hewitt said. “Remember this concert?”
They’d seen The Who on tour right after John Entwistle died.
“Who is this?” Owen asked.
“Right. We sat on the lawn for that concert, right?”
“Yeah. At Camden.”
“Man, I’ll never do that again,” Owen said.
“Go to Camden?”
“No, sit on the lawn at a concert.”
Then they heard the bathroom door fly open, and Maddie run out screaming. She was wearing her pajamas, and her hair was soaking wet. Janel followed her out of the bathroom with the towel she was using to dry off her daughter. Maddie ran into the bedroom, jumped on her bed, and curled up in a little ball where she continued crying.
“What happened?” Owen asked Janel.
“She got shampoo in her eyes. Or that’s what she says.”
“I thought that was supposed to be no tears shampoo.”
“Yeah, well, here we are,” Janel said. “What’s all this?”
“Hewitt got this iPod and speakers for Maddie,” Owen said.
“No,” she said, “the mess, all this tissue paper.”
“It was in the box.”
Janel said, “I’m not in the mood for this—” She stopped before swearing in front of her daughter and her guest.
Hewitt, kneeling by the speakers, looked at both of them and then Maddie. He was confused, and a little embarrassed to be there. “Maybe I ought to go,” he said.
“That might be a good idea,” Janel said as she sat next to Maddie and tried to calm her by rubbing her back and shoulders.
Hewitt stood up and said to Owen, “You’ll show them everything, right?”
“Yeah,” he said and led his friend out of the room.
When they were about to go down the stairs they heard, “What is this?”
It was Maddie.
“What is this?” she asked again, no longer crying or even sniffling.
Owen and Hewitt went back into the room and saw Maddie and Janel sitting on the side of the bed, looking at the speaker and iPod. “Happy Jack” by The Who had just started playing, with its soft bass hook and Roger Daltrey’s young and unblemished voice. Maddie started bopping her head back and forth to the music.
Janel looked at her daughter kicking her bare little feet in rhythm with the song, incredulous at what she saw.
“She only likes music when it’s on TV,” Owen said. “We just thought she was more spacial-visual.”
Hewitt watched Maddie let the chords and rhythms control her limbs like they did for him at concerts and even around his condo. Elena always teased him for working with such cool music without being able to dance well.
He looked at Maddie as the song wound down and got a feeling like when he nailed the perfect mix on a single, but that wasn’t quite it. This was something else.
When Hewitt got home to this condo he found a pizza box on his coffee table, along with two bottles of his favorite Yards ale, both sweating condensation into a little pool on the coasters. Elena stood up from the couch and gave him a hug.
“You ready to eat?” she said.
They ate and drank while watching episodes of Nurse Jacky they’d recorded over the last few weeks. Once the beer began making them drowsy they took the dog for a walk around the block, came home, and got into bed.
Hewitt lay on his back and Elena on her side. She put her arm around his chest, pulled herself towards him and kissed him.
“You’ve gotten to like Maddie, haven’t you?”
“Before, you came home and complained about having to see her, but not this time.”
“Yeah. I guess she’s more of a person now.”
“That’s great, hun.”
She kissed him again, kept kissing him, put her bare leg over him, then got on top of him. Hewitt kept his arms at his sides.
“Not really into it tonight?” she said, looking down at him, her hair tickling his chin.
“No,” he said. “I mean, we should talk.”
“Oh.” She slid back over next to him, sat cross legged and pulled the duvet up to cover herself.
“I got offered a job in London. A good job as a house producer.”
“You’re moving to London?”
“I got offered a job, I didn’t make a decision yet.”
Elena looked over to the window. Since it was dark outside, only their distorted reflections stared back.
“I want to talk.” he said.
“Yes. I don’t want to make a decision without you.”
Hewitt lay on his back, his head on the pillow. Elena sat next to him. Neither of them moved for a long time, but eventually they started talking about jobs, and London, and what came next.
Joshua Isard grew up in the Philadelphia area, earned his BA in English at Temple University, and then went on to study creative writing at the University of Edinburgh and literature at University College London. His short stories have appeared in Northwind Magazine, The Broadkill Review, Press 1, and Inscribed, and his first novel is forthcoming from Cinco Puntos Press in 2013. He is currently the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania.
Sarah Certa is a poet pursuing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She uses photography as a way to get out of her head when she's spent all weekend reading and writing in her room. She lives in central Minnesota with her daughter, Evelyn. Find her online at sarahcerta.tumblr.com.
Bern & the Brights formed in 2008 in Montclair, New Jersey, and have since been sharing their brand of danceable, romantic nerd-rock. "Thieves, Creeps, and Automatons" is a track from Bern & the Brights’ latest EP, "Work." For more, visit the band online at bernandthebrights.com.