by Bruce Eaton
How a seemingly typical day can become the one that can never be repeated.
|Tuesday. How he loved Tuesday. Sunday was lovely, of course, too. That was family day and Bob got to spend the day with his daughter, and his wife, Jan, would cook a marvelous Sunday dinner, a pork roast with lots of soy sauce and those little skinless potatoes cooked right in the pan with it, soaking up the juices and browning up like they had reinvented their skins, or maybe a roast chicken that they would excavate the wishbone out of. They would save it for a few days until it was good and dry, and then either he or his wife would break it with little Emily. He knew just how to hold it to make sure Emily would get the big piece when it broke, and her delight would be so acute it would make him have spasms of joy.
But that was Sunday. Tuesday. That was his other day off, and it was his. He slept in sometimes. He couldn’t do that on Sunday. Church and all. But Tuesday he could lounge, at least a little bit. There would always be a chore to do, of course. Something to do in the house, or laundry, or maybe a grocery run. He always had to atone for the sin of having a day off when his daughter was at day care. His wife had a traditional weekend off from her job as an insurance claims adjuster, so that meant she had Emily on her day off. She would usually spend the day with her parents who would have their opportunity to be with their grandchild and daughter, so it wasn’t really that bad, but she made sure there was something to do on Tuesday to serve as penance. No matter. Bob got some personal time, and he cherished it.
Sometimes he would get some exercise. Maybe a round of golf (very rare), or tennis if he could find a partner or a jog around a nearby reservoir. Sometimes he would go to Barnes and Noble and spend hours there, sampling all kinds of books and enjoying a cup of robust coffee. He would usually leave with one or two volumes, but once in awhile when he was flush after reaching a great bonus level at his job, he might just come home with a bagful. He didn’t do it often as books were a sore spot. He read a lot. It had endeared him to his wife when they met. He would read out loud to her as she fell asleep with her head on his chest, gently bobbing up and down with his breathing like a buoy on a gentle sea. Now it annoyed her. They were everywhere, bookcases in every room, and the light kept her up at night in bed. But they were important to him. When the two of them had met, he had been an artsy-fartsy actor, a large fish in a small market. He was famous and broke in their little city, so when it came time to start a family, he had entered the car business. He had ten and twelve hour days devoted to selling something he had very little interest in; none if the truth was told. But he did it well enough to move into lower management and make a decent living, though the pressure was ferocious and consistent, and the hours such that his acting career ended abruptly. The books let him get away, pretend he was still doing something with his brain other than trying to make emotionally appealing rational arguments for others to spend money they really didn’t have,
The job was a moral quandary for him, especially since having a child and beginning the predictable journey toward God that having a family so often triggers. One whole bookcase devoted to nothing other than theological ideas and arguments, both conservative and progressive, was rapidly being outgrown. Jan had no patience for such concerns. When Bob spoke of ethics, she would roll her eyes and say, “It’s just business”. That was the general state of mind at work also. He thought that since business was ten to twelve hours a day, didn’t business constitute a large proportion of life itself? He knew the correct answer, apparently, was “no”, but couldn’t formulate the argument to get there.
Compartmentalization. That was the key, and his books were the doorways into the other compartments. He would read about the civil war or WWII, or Odets or Shaw. He read Barthalme (even after he died) and Bukowski; he read books on chess and on magic. He read Kael and Ebert, Hauerwas and Lucado. No one he saw on a day to day basis knew who any of these people were, except maybe for Lucado, and even he was a long shot. E.B. White, Saroyan, Halberstam (for both history and baseball) all took their turn in bed with him.
But Emily was his one interactive interest. Since Jan had left him emotionally right after Emily’s birth, the only human he was truly close to was his little girl, and he was crazy for her. He put her to bed every night. The bedtime ritual would annoy Jan, reading the same books night after night, but he couldn’t wait to get home. By the time he did, it would be so late that the first thing he did was put her to bed. He would read her two or three books, then they would snuggle as he sang her a lullaby he had culled from the musical “The Music Man” as she drifted off to sleep. Sometimes he would, too, and Jan would have to come in and wake him to come to bed. It was all the love he knew. What a magnificent gift to be able to be a comfort to another person, to bring them peace. Emily did that for him, and he did that for her.
So on Tuesday, sometimes he would keep Emily with him. More often, he would simply pick her up a little bit early from day care. After all the chores were done and his personal time served, he would go over to the little school around four o’clock, before the parade of moms and dads began. The kids would be out on the fenced-in playground with the plastic tubes big enough to crawl through and climb on, the big sandbox, the metal arc with rungs high enough for a 3 ½ foot tall body to hang from and the seat swings with safety bars and the seesaw. After being greeted with a running projectile hug by Emily, he would push her on a swing or seesaw with her, and then play with all the kids for awhile, first chasing them a la Mary Shelly’s Monster until some brave villager would turn his torch back on the pursuer. Then the single vigilante would become a mob, and the children would become a posse, unrelenting, a cacophony of determined giggles, tireless. Bob, on the other hand, was not tireless, and sooner or later the gaggle of gigglers would hunt him down. He would drop to the ground and be swarmed under immediately with no chance of escape, and the giggles would become infectious, overwhelming Bob as well, as the kids bounced and celebrated. Emily would be thrilled that she had a silly Daddy who would play with her friends. None of the other daddies did. They always seemed to be in a hurry. Her Daddy always had time for her.
So it was a typical Tuesday, this one in mid November about two weeks before Thanksgiving would arrive in Chesapeake, Virginia. It was getting cooler now, high around 55. He had run the reservoir over in Newport News earlier in the day. It was a five mile route and he would do it in an hour. No records being set but he would work up a great sweat and feel invigorated when it was done. The dirt path took him through the woods and along the water. There had been a dense fog rolling across the lake, and about a mile into his run, he heard a loud screech but could see nothing but a wall of grey. He turned his head toward the sound and it repeated, but still he saw nothing. Gradually the form of the hawk took shape gliding motionlessly toward him, became more defined, then sharp and close. The next shriek seemed menacing it was so imminent. Just as quickly, the hawk flapped his wings and veered off, slipping back into the thick soup, a last mocking cry fading back into the fog and gone. Bob was unnerved, but another couple of hundred yards and it was just a magical interlude to cherish, a wink from the other side. He would remember it the rest of his life, no question. He couldn’t wait to tell Emily.
Back home, he drank a quart of fruit punch Gatorade and then filled the tub. Jan had wanted the jet tub when they built the house, so they had a jet tub. Enough said. Today he was glad. He made it so hot he could barely get in, and then only gradually. Once he had finally lowered himself in, he hit the button and the bubbles came to life, and he slid down and his conscious thoughts disappeared for a time. It was a meditative state where all was suspended. Nothing desired or missing, just a momentary perfection of body and spirit that could not be maintained but only cherished for the instant before it would naturally evaporate and be replaced by a physical need or a past reflection or a future projection, leaving the present to be what it normally is. Ignored.
This time it was shattered by the artificial intrusion of the doorbell. Bob could not imagine what the sound was at first as it seemed far away from his submerged ears, and then as he assimilated himself into the reality that he chose to acknowledge most often, he couldn’t imagine who could be at his door in mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. He quickly grabbed a towel and patted himself down, then wrapped his terry robe around him and went down the stairs to the two-story foyer and opened the front door. The UPS truck was already pulling away, but a substantial package about the size of two shoeboxes was on the stoop, and he picked it up and brought it into the kitchen. It was from Amazon. He knew what it was. He had ordered “My First Britannica” for Emily. He thought it might be useful, even though it wasn’t supposed to be appropriate for those under the third grade, and she had yet to attain a grade of any number, or even kindergarten for that matter. But she was so bright, he thought. He ripped open the package and took out a volume and knew immediately he had jumped the gun, that the book was far too advanced to hold her interest yet. He considered the pros and cons of keeping the set or sending it back for a refund. It had cost nearly three hundred dollars, so it was no small consideration, but he also thought it was a really cool set and a great way to start her library. He knew what Jan would say. Undecided, he went upstairs to get dressed. It was already 3:30. He threw on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt and sweatshirt and a pair of beat up old Adidas Stan Smith tennis shoes. They hadn’t changed the design in twenty years, and that’s why he liked them. The sole, when new, consisted of 3/16 inch cylinders of rubber in tightly packed rows that alternated in height to increase their grip on porous surfaces like clay or grass. At the balls of his feet, any evidence of these cylinders had completely disappeared, leaving smooth, slick rubber patches. This was his third pair, and he had told Jan he wanted a fourth for Christmas. He didn’t think she had written it down. Back downstairs, he grabbed a banana, discarded the peel, grabbed his keys, went in the garage and pushed the button on the wall to open the door, hopped in the two year old Ford Ranger and headed off to pick up his girl.
It was getting colder now, probably around 50 degrees, and he turned on the heater. He had a Red Sox cap in the truck and put it on, and it did help keep him a little bit warmer. He was proud of that cap. It was over ten years old. He had been a member of “The Red Sox Nation” for over thirty years, long before they called it “The Red Sox Nation”. He grew up just outside of Boston and went to Fenway for the first time when he was seven with his Cub Scout den. This was not casual, it was personal. The cap always made him feel warmer in one way or another. Today it was in that temperature way. The heater had just hit its stride as he pulled up in front of the school. He parked and nearly skipped inside.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Campbell.”
“Hey, there! Are the kids outside?”
“They just went out. Emily couldn’t find her jacket.” How did the receptionist always know everything it seemed?
“Did she find it?”
“Yes. It was in David’s cubby. Figures.”
“I ‘spose I’ll be paying for a wedding soon.” Emily and David were inseparable, except on the playground. Little David had manly things to do out there. Bob went down the hallway and into the classroom, which was empty but orderly. Snack time was over and everything had to be cleaned up and put away before the kids were allowed out on the playground. Bob went to the window and watched the kids for a bit, scanning the area to find his own. He loved spying on her when she didn’t know he was there, seeing her with her peers. He was so impressed with her ability to hold her own among the crowd. She wasn’t a bully but she was confident and secure in her element. He had been afraid of that first day of class, leaving her behind for her first steps into the world, but she had gotten busy with some blocks and some other kids and barely had time to say goodbye. She hadn’t had a problem all day they told Jan when she picked her up. A delight, they told her.
Emily was pushing Greta on a swing. Greta was the tiniest kid in the class, and Emily was protective of her, as Greta would get scared if things got rambunctious. Some boys were throwing leaves at each other and drifted a bit too close and Emily shooed them away so they wouldn’t spook her petite friend. Bob was touched by this. He didn’t see this selfless side of Emily at home. Not at all. She was an only child and she acted like one when in the protective confines of her home, but here in the world she had enough confidence to show caring leadership, and so he stayed at the window for a bit. But just a bit. He couldn’t wait to see her and all her little pals. He went through the door leading into the fenced confine.
“Hey, Mr. Campbell!”
“Howdy, Ms. Vick. Did she do the right thing today?”
“What do you think?” answered the enormous ruler of the roost, her deep laugh betraying gospel roots, pushing her walnut cheeks up to close her eyes. “You gonna get yourself dirty today?”
“What do you think? Does this look like a tuxedo to you?”
“She’s over on the swings.”
“I know. I was peeking through the window. Taking care of Greta.”
“Treats her like her own baby, Mr. Campbell. I’m tellin’ ya.”
He walked around the corner of the building and Emily saw him instantly and began her charge toward him, yelling “Daddy, daddy!” as she came. He knelt down and extended his arms to her, and as she crashed into him he fell backwards, landing on his back with his sweet one on top of him, the damp ground from the gray mist soaking the shoulder blades of his sweatshirt and the ass of his jeans. He lifted his knees and elevated her on his lower legs, holding her hands out so she was in full Superman flying position and she laughed and he laughed and the world turned another tick. He placed her down on her feet and she took him by the hand over to the swings and said “Push me, Daddy” and he did just that. They spent a good seven minutes at the swing just talking about her day, about the stick house she was making with popsicle sticks (she wanted to go inside and show it to him, but he told her they would look at it on the way out), about how David was her boyfriend so she put her jacket in his cubby, how smart he was and they did a puzzle together of Bert and Ernie. Greta was at the next swing over and Bob pushed her as well. Greta conceded that David was nice but that she didn’t like boys at all. During the swinging, several villagers came over and threatened the Monster, but Bob wanted a little time with Emily first and had sent them back to the town square, but now it was time.
“I’m going to be the Monster now. Is that ok, Emily?”
“Yeah, but then I want a cookie on the way home.”
“We’ll see. Those things cost a dollar, baby. Besides, we’re going to eat in a couple of hours. You want to save room.”
“We’ll see.” They always put these home made cookies by the exit door as fundraisers. Blackmail. The kids passed them every day on the way out. Bob hated them for doing this, but he also loved the cookies. He thought he had a couple of dollars in his wallet. He lifted the two girls out of their safety swings and turned toward the village people. His arms extended forward and a guttural snarl escaped him, announcing the game was on. At first the children scattered, screaming and laughing in the same breaths, not knowing what Emily’s Dad would do to them if he actually caught them, but half hoping he would just to find out. They fled in all directions, and he pursued them, climbing into the tunnel after some, which the children found next to miraculous as he was the only grown-up they ever saw in there, then crawling over it, allowing the slowest child to just escape his grasp and wiggle free. He climbed the arcing monkey bars, only to be too slow to devour the last escapee there, as well. Greta hid behind Ms. Vick every time, always afraid she would be trampled in the chaos, but the two of them would laugh and cheer on the underdog villagers.
David was the first to turn on him this day. He stood his ground at the sandbox, raised his little fist and screamed “Yeeeaaahhhh!!!” like a diminutive Howard Dean sounding his campaign death knell. Bob stopped suddenly, his eyes widened, and he turned and began his retreat, announcing to all the villagers that it was safe to advance and take the offensive against the Monster. Bob’s problem instantly changed. He didn’t have to let them escape now; he had to legitimately elude them. They seemed to suddenly multiply when the game changed from offense to defense and he knew it would not take too terribly long before the game came to a sudden halt. Today they seemed particularly intent to get him, so the Monster turned on them once more with a mighty and terrifying roar that sent most of the kids scattering again, except for David. He was on a chivalrous mission today, undaunted by any beast. Bob turned away and began to flee a second time, having bought himself just a wee bit of breathing room. He dashed through the sandbox and then halfway up the seesaw. The villagers crowded around him but he dived head first over them and did a somersault roll and escaped, eliciting shrieks of surprise from the kids and a “Be careful!” warning shout from Ms. Vick. He smiled and waved at her and then ducked into the tunnel, privately pleased he had pulled the move off. One of the girls was staring into the tube from the other end, his escape route, and he growled a Monster-like growl and she screamed and disappeared from view and he continued out of the hole, a half dozen children right behind him. As he came out, he sought the final safe harbor on top of the tube. He leapt up on top of the plastic cylinder and landed on his feet, crouched down with his hands touching as well. He intended to do a mighty leap and turn around to face his pursuers, but as his legs uncoiled to push off, the bald spot on his Stan Smith’s lost traction with the wet plastic and all semblance of control of the move was gone, and his body was hurtling off the playground toy and toward another. The tube was about five feet away from the monkey bar arc, and the back of Bob’s head came crashing down on the second rung from the bottom. A metallic “Doing” sound rung out, similar to the sonar “ping” from a submarine. Bob saw, or sensed somehow, a flash of white light and then nothing. Unconscious. His body collapsed on the wet grass, and his head bounced down to the bottom rung. He looked as though he was resting, his head propped up on the metal crossbar as if it were a pillow.
The children noticed nothing except Mr. Campbell being silly, of course, and the villagers had their prey where they wanted him now and they descended upon him. Little bodies covered him everywhere, legs, arms, torso, a blanket of pre-school giggles. Caleb was a big kid and Bob always tried to know where Caleb was going to land when he took his final fall to his demise as the monster so he could prepare himself for the impact, but this time he couldn’t guard himself, and he needed to. Caleb landed knees first across Bob’s neck which crushed the C4 vertebrae against the cold steel of the monkey bar rung, collapsing the spinal cord within. His impact pushed the carotid artery into one of the sharp edges of the shattered bone and cut it, and Bob would bleed out internally long before help arrived. Hell, they could have been standing next to him when it happened. Nothing would have saved him. He was unconscious when it happened, though. There was no pain. He was gone almost instantly. Ms. Vick had started toward him the minute she had heard the first sickening “Doing”, knowing the impact had been significant. When she saw Caleb land and Bob’s head fall back like it wasn’t attached anymore, she knew right away. She shouted to the children to get off, took one look at the lifeless Mr. Campbell and said “Everyone get inside. Now!”
“Is he ok?” said Emily, still sitting on her daddy’s right shin.
“He hit his head. I think it knocked him silly, baby. You go inside right now. Tell Miss Crissy to come outside ok?” Emily didn’t move. “It’ll be ok. Go get Miss Crissy, sweety, right now.”
Emily looked like she was about to cry but she ran off to find the girl at the reception desk. Ms. Vick was glad she had gone, as the blood had started to come out of Bob’s nose and mouth. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911. The kids had gathered by the windows and were looking out, more curious than scared. They didn’t know. They wouldn’t. They were only 4 years old. Miss Crissy came out and heard the last of the conversation between the dispatcher and Ms. Vick and had the gist. Emily was following her and Crissy spun around and said “Wait inside, Emily!” and something in her voice told Emily she meant it and she slunk back inside, confused and worried now.
“Wee Wonder World on Harrington. That’s right….that’s right. Thank you.” Ms. Vick hung up and said to Crissy “Go inside and close the blinds. Get the kids busy with something. I don’t care what. Then make sure Emily is ok. Tell her everything is fine and get her involved in something. Then look up her momma’s number and bring that to me. Can you do that? I need her work number.”
“Bring her cell number, too.”
Ms. Vick turned back to Bob. She tried to think of something she could do that would help, but one look at him and she knew it wasn’t her help he needed now. She took his hand and she prayed over him. She didn’t stop until the paramedics arrived. She cried quietly, too. She cried for him, because she had seen him as a gentle man, a loving man. She cried for Emily who would reach for him at times during her life and he would be out of reach. She cried for her own children who hadn’t had a dad. She cried for the world. She cried for Christ.
The paramedics arrived, took very little time assessing the situation and got Bob on a stretcher. Ms. Vick opened the gate so they wouldn’t have to bring Bob through the classroom. They brought him swiftly to the ambulance, the siren came on and they were gone. Crissy gave Ms. Vick the numbers for Jan and then went and comforted Emily who had become distraught with the craziness of the ambulance and all. “He bumped his head pretty hard, Em, and they are taking him to the hospital to make sure he’s ok.”
“Ok”, she sniffed back.
“It’s ok, sweety. We’re gonna call your mum, she’ll come and get you. You want a cookie?”
“I don’t have a dollar.”
“That’s ok. I do. Come on.”
Ms. Vick dialed Jan’s cell phone. It rang. Then again. And again. “Jan Campbell, claims.”
“This is Jan Campbell.”
“This is Tawna Vick over here at Wee Wonder.”
“Hey there. Is everything ok? Is Emily ok?”
“She’s fine, Ms. Campbell. There has been an accident over here. Mr. Campbell fell and hit his head on the playground and they had to take him to the hospital. You’re gonna need to pick up Emily. They took him to Chesapeake General.”
“Is he ok?”
“He’s hurt, Ms. Campbell.”
“I’m not sure. You need to come.” Not on the phone. She couldn’t do it on the phone.
“I’m leaving right away. I’m in Hampton. It’s going to take me at least a half hour, maybe more with the traffic.”
“We’ll be here.”
“What did he do?”
How much should she say? She was the only one that saw what happened. Did she have to tell about poor Caleb?
“He bumped his head on the monkey bars.”
“That goofball. He’s supposed to be one of the adults. I’ll be there as fast as I can. Thanks, Ms. Vick.”
Ms. Vick hung up the phone and took a huge breath. Then she did it again. At seven or so she could break down. In the meantime, she had to be the strength. She went inside. Miss Crissy had the kids assembled and she was reading them the book “Make Way for Ducklings” because it was one of Emily’s favorites. Bob had read it to her many times, as it told the tale of a family of ducks trying to find their way home through downtown Boston, and he would tell her personal stories about school field trips to the Swan Boats. She thought they were magical. She couldn’t believe they were real.
Ms. Vick was satisfied that things were settled with the kids. She walked to the office and started to call the administrator, but hung up. Someone was going to have to be responsible for this. It had happened on her watch. She could see the writing on the wall on this one. The parents were starting to show up now. She would get Ms. Crissy back at the front desk and make everything seem as normal as possible.
The story didn’t make it into the papers. The obituary came out on Friday. Funeral was on Monday. His sister couldn’t make it out from the west coast, but his brother came down from Massachusetts. A couple of folks came from the dealership, and a couple of friends from way back in his theater days. Mostly a quiet family affair, though. Sort of like an extra large Thanksgiving gathering. His organs were harvested, and then he was cremated. He had left no instructions as it had seemed too soon for that, so no one really knew what to do with him. His brother wanted to take him back to Massachusetts and Jan was grateful to have it handled and not left to her. His brother sprinkled the ashes over the hometown athletic fields and outdoor theaters of Bob’s youth, when it was clear the world would open up and receive Bob as a guest of honor.
Just that suddenly, he was gone.