by Philip Probasco
You promised to give blood on this date every year, and when you keep your promises, things generally go all right for you. You drive around for an hour before you find the blood donation bus in a parking lot. It looks about like you’d expect on the inside: a cramped doctor’s office with a nurse who gives you a rubber-foam Earth ball to squeeze. She pinches your arm with the needle. As the blood leaves you, you think about the routine evacuation of vital things. Of fire drills and how you’ve never been able to trust the calm faces on the men beckoning to you while an alarm insists something is wrong.
You give quite a bit of blood, perhaps too much.
“We need as much as we can get,” the nurse says as she sticks a band-aid on your arm.
You nod without speaking. The band-aid has a picture of fruits dancing on it. A cluster of grapes smiles at you. You should say something. “Thank you for taking so much of it off my hands,” you say.
You feel faint. Your work takes a lot out of you. You move money into and out of funds. As blood nourishes the body, money nourishes the world. This is how you think about your work. At your office, you prefer to ride the elevator alone.
You do not need any groceries, so you drive home. You hit traffic past the mall. The sun sets, and you move along for a while until traffic lets up. You get off the highway and begin driving through the kind of neighborhood you always hoped to live in with a family one day. You still feel faint, but then again, you gave a lot of blood.
The realization that you dozed off will come back to you later, but for now, you hear only the blare of a horn. Your car hops onto the curb, and the woman doesn’t get out of the way, so you hit her. The hood of your car crumples into a telephone pole. Your steering wheel releases an airbag it kept hidden in there for years, and everything is still. Fresh smoke rises outside the windshield.
You get out of your car. You don’t remember this part well, you will later say to a tired man with papers in front of him. Right now, you need to sit down, so you do. A policewoman crouches in front of you. She has a kind face. She looks you in the eyes with searching concern. She stands and walks away, and an ambulance arrives. A siren fills the air, shrieking It’s not your fault over and over.
A woman sits across from you. She is pregnant, maybe, and her forehead is smeared with something dark.
You ride to the hospital with the policewoman whose name you will later forget. She tells you about the wreck your carelessness caused. The woman had a flat tire. She was parked off on the side of the road, and you hit her. You ask her a question, and she tells you that whatever it is, it’s better than being dead.
You have some tests done and they give you papers to sign and release you. You sit waiting to hear about the woman you hit, though you don’t know how long it will be or if you are in the right room. A nurse comes to tell you the woman wants you to leave if you are here. She has lost a lot of blood.
“There’s a national blood shortage,” the nurse says. “People don’t give enough blood these days.” You tell her you just gave. The nurse shakes her head sadly at you and tells you to get some rest. You take a cab to the park closest to your building. It is a pretty park, the prettiest park in the whole city. You find a tree and sit under this prettiest tree, which doesn’t start talking to you, not for a while.
You open your eyes. An ambulance sits on the street with its lights on. A man advances toward you.
“You left your vehicle running.”
The driver of the ambulance doesn’t speak. The path lights are a blue thrill on his face. He drops something into the grass, then gets up close to you. “This belongs to you.” His eyes glisten with tears.
You don’t understand, but you get the feeling you should say something. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He walks off up the path.
“It wasn’t my fault!” you shout. This is the side you will always be on, this side of the conversation. You open the towel. A baby reaches a tiny hand out. It wriggles off the towel and crawls toward you.
It doesn’t seem like anything you should be a part of. You shut your eyes so tight that the blackness begins to bloom. A soft hand presses against your eye and pries it apart. A naked boy stands in front of you.
“Peek-a-boo,” he says. You don’t respond. You can’t think of a response to that. He is untroubled by your silence. With quivery precision, he opens your other eye. You get the feeling you should say something, but you can’t think of anything. He motions like he is going to run away, then stops and kisses your nose.
A faint rumble sounds in the distance. You turn around to look. When you turn back, the child has disappeared. You try to stand, but a soft weight falls onto you. “Daddy! Got you!” Your head bumps against the ground. The boy sits on top of you. His blond hair almost reaches his shoulders.
“What did you call me?”
“I climbed the tree. I got to the third branch this time.”
“Don’t call me that.” You push him off.
He falls away and stands. “Okay. What should I call you?”
The obedience throws you. You aren’t used to it. You almost fall to your knees.
And then you remember. This boy has been cast aside by his mother. You recall the details. A car struck her when she was pregnant with him. She must have given up hope. The driver, too.
“I love you,” you say. The words rush out of you.
He bites his lip, suddenly serious. He kicks you with his foot. “I love you too,” he says. You hug him. The rumble grows louder. A horn fills the air. You cover his ears, because you know what’s coming. He struggles, but you hold tight. An enormous, drunken rattle passes the park. Only when the noise and light have passed do you let him go.
Beneath the tree, you try to give him a life. Most of what you need is here. There’s a sandwich shop that delivers across the street, and an ice cream cart that comes by twice a day. You keep up with the news by asking a kind old man for his paper once he’s through with it. He pulls out the comics section and gives that to your boy. You befriend him, and he leaves his paper with you every day, when he’s done with it.
You teach your boy how money circulates through the world using red leaves as stocks and yellows as bonds. Greens are cash. The boy asks questions about your job, which you manage by phone. He can’t believe how you keep it all straight, but it’s never felt like a big deal to you. You begin to see yourself as important. Your boss calls one day and fires you.
You withhold certain deep regrets. You make him memorize the state capitals, which your father made you learn. He learns them fast. You teach him the rule of threes. A human can survive three weeks without food, three days without water, and three seconds without blood. He is skeptical about the last one. It turns out he is smarter than you.
You take out an ad in the paper and sell your condo, and use the money to hire a tutor to stop by the tree. You want to offer your boy enough answers for all the questions he has, but that is difficult. You order a tent online. You’ve worked out a deal with the sandwich shop across the street. They will receive your online orders and bring them to you if, in exchange, you buy two sandwiches every day for lunch. Your job has taught you how to make a deal or two, so it was not a complete loss.
You spend a whole day setting up the tent, getting it just right. Years later, you have to buy a second tent, so your boy can have his privacy. He makes friends in the park, and one day he meets a girl he really likes. She wants him to come out with her, but he isn’t allowed to go past the train tracks. You fight about this. You don’t want him to leave this park. Everything is nice here. He has everything. The world is full of careless people. It should be enough for anyone, shouldn’t it? One day he finds a dirty band-aid in the leaves with fruits on it. You name the fruits silly names. Once he would have found this funny, but he is too old now to laugh. You tell him you might build a treehouse one day, so you can live in a proper house. This is not practical, but young boys need to dream.
“Dad, can I ask you something?” he says one day.
“Am I different than everyone else?”
“Of course you are. You’re my boy.”
“No. I mean, are there other people who live in parks?”
“I’ve lived in this city my whole life,” you say. “There’s no place as pretty as this park.”
“But there are people who pass through here. They go places. We just stay.”
“Nothing bad has ever happened here, to my knowledge,” you say. “Other places, there are accidents. There are careless people everywhere.”
“I know,” he says.
One day he meets a group of young people his age who are playing ball in the park. They ask questions of your boy and can’t believe it when he tells them that he doesn’t leave the park. You are proud of how bold he is with them. They are wearing t-shirts with the name of a college on them, and your boy asks about college. They tell him it’s great. From this day on, he doesn’t talk of anything else. He collects brochures and magazines from the garbage and learns about college. He spends a lot of time in his tent writing. He won’t let you read it, but a week later, he pays the old man with his allowance to mail it off for him. You know what this means. You know he will get in.
Sure enough, a large envelope arrives at the sandwich shop a few months later. The owner brings it over with two sandwiches and a large grin on his face.
Your boy is going to leave. There is nothing you can do about it.
“What did they say?” you say, unwrapping your sandwich.
“I got in!” he says. They’ve sent him his own t-shirt. He puts it on.
He leaves at the end of the summer, and you make sure it is the best summer ever. But you are getting older. Your voice is getting weaker. He is becoming too much for you. “How about today we find some timber for that treehouse?” you say, but then you remember that he’s already left to make his train. You can’t wait to call him, but you want to give him his space.
The old man and the sandwich shop owner come by and get you talking about your boy. You tell them that you hope he will major in philosophy because he loves questions more than answers. You add that if he doesn’t, that will be fine, too. You want him to be happy. He is whom you hoped for but never deserved. You imagine his first visit back from college. You will leave the park with him. You will walk down the railroad tracks. You see it: the mist hanging low, his face pale in the moonlight, pure as an unpicked flower. You will finally share your regrets, the importance of keeping one’s promises. How your first girlfriend fell asleep on the tracks and was killed by a train. There was no blood, she went peacefully. You won’t tell about her arm in the undercarriage, or the beers in the ditch, or how you rolled off in the night. The world is full of careless people. You try to give back where you can. You can’t wait to call him, but you need to give him space. You hear a faint rumble in the distance, and turn to look, but you see only darkness. The pretty tree in the prettiest park finally speaks to you. It says, there was no blood loss. Give him space, you think, but you can’t wait to call him.