by Joseph Mills

Even after Dale reaches the bleachers and Jackie has started stretching on the field, Sally and the boys are still in the van. Doing something. God knows what. It’s why Dale hates it when she drives. She get in and sits there, adjusting her seat, getting out her sunglasses, unwrapping her gum, moving the mirrors and moving them back. She then goes through a similar routine when they arrive, fiddling with her purse, checking her phone. Dale likes to get in and go, and when he arrives, he gets out.

Until he got married, Dale never had a problem with being on-time. At school, the army, work. But once his schedule was tied to another’s, and especially after the kids arrived, it felt like if he wasn’t late, he was constantly on the verge. He still manages to be on time, but only barely, and then with his family trailing behind. He will simply leave them in the van, walking into the store or restaurant or movie theater. They catch up, eventually, and although this makes him feel like a jerk, it’s better than sitting there, seething.

He tries commands, like “We’re leaving. Now!” and imperatives, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” but these are never effective since they know once they are in the van there will be no returning to the house for a forgotten lunch box or shin guards or a critical toy. And even when he can get them moving towards the door, something always happens. Jesus, how many times can a bag catch on a knob or hook and spill open? How many times can Paul or Ryan drop their Pokémon or Magic cards, so they scatter?

Dale insists that he’s teaching them lessons in being prepared, in not expecting others to wait for them, in courtesy, in time management, in making commitments. He is teaching responsibility. He is teaching… something. That’s how he justifies his behavior, but he knows it isn’t true. He just hates to wait. For anyone. Even people he loves. Especially the people he loves. Because if they loved him, they wouldn’t make him wait. They know it upsets him, and why upset him if they can do something — like be ready to go — that would solve the problem. Jackie doesn’t like peas. They don’t make her eat them. Paul doesn’t like loud noises; they try to be considerate of that. Ryan is, well, Ryan is a mess, and they work with him as best they can. Why isn’t this similar? It’s simple. If Daddy wants to go at eight, they should be ready at eight. Except when he says eight, he really means a little before eight, so it would be best if they’re ready by 7:45, especially since he starts to get antsy at 7:30. Simple.

Because it isn’t just that Dale doesn’t want to be late, he wants to be early. He wants to get to the theater before the previews start and to the fields before the drills. He likes the anticipation and build-up. It makes for a richer experience for him. Often it is the best part, especially on a day like this, the first game of the season where there is so much hope and eagerness, and everything feels fresh. He likes to watch people arrive, making their way across the grass, looking for their teammates and fields. Today, for the city’s U11 rec league, the one Jackie is in, the Pirates play United on Field A, and the Broncos play the Cannons on Field B, and Dale can tell those who know this — they stride straight up —and those who are unsure, swiveling and hesitating. He is a straight strider. He double-checked the schedule last night on the league website and also Googled the park’s layout. In fact, he’s printed maps for all the town’s fields and stored them in the glove box, just in case.

From the top of the bleachers, Dale watches adults pull portable chairs out of car trunks and sling them across their backs like military equipment. Some load up wagons or heft coolers. He watches a woman in a wheelchair roll herself to the edge of the sidewalk. She seems his age, and he wonders what happened to her. The pavement stops thirty yards from the field and the bleachers. Does she want to stay there or go farther on to the dew-slick grass? He is about to go over when someone else comes up, talks to the woman, and pushes her to the sidelines. When she gets there, she reaches behind for a sun umbrella that is in the chair’s back netting. Dale remembers how useful the stroller had been when the kids were still young. It was like having a big purse or duffle that he could pitch things into: lunches, water bottles, toys, books. Maybe a wheelchair ends up being used similarly. A hybrid transportation-piece of luggage. The circle will come around. Stroller to stroller. Once when Jackie had seen a woman in a motorized cart at the grocery, she had pointed and said, “She’s lucky.” Being early gives Dale a chance to remember, to reflect, to connect.

If he could, Dale would get to the park at dawn and watch the light cross the grass. He would see how it all comes together. It’s why he likes to be the first to a party and to see plants grown from seed. He drinks local beer, not out of snobbery but because he likes seeing it made in the vats. Open kitchens. Donut shops with the fryer and conveyor right there. U-Pick-It fruit stands. He loves seeing the process. Being there from the start. He had been in the delivery room for the birth of their children, and each time he had tried to get Sally to the hospital early. She had resisted, insisting even when the contractions came that they didn’t need to go yet, knowing these were times he couldn’t leave without her or threaten to take two cars.

Their friends sometimes talk about living through their children, as if kids are some kind of claim to immortality. That isn’t Dale. He always had heard the clock ticking, but with Jackie’s arrival and then the boys, it had become that much louder. Look how much they changed in a year. Two years. Five. At the hospital, the staff should say, handing over a newborn, “Here’s your child who is going to remind you every single day that you are going to die and how quickly time is passing.” They only have such a brief time together, and he doesn’t want to miss any of it. He knows he will, but still he can try to see as much as possible.

Dale looks at Jackie on the field, easily running down a teammate. She has such a beautiful stride. He remembers how excited he and Sally were when Jackie had started walking and how immediately afterward came the realization that her mobility meant their lives would change. She was mobile; she was gone. They could no longer sit and casually read the paper. He looks at Paul and Ryan setting up their cards by the bleachers, the brothers who argue constantly, but are inseparable. He watches Sally climb the bleachers and sit next to him.

“Anyone score yet?”

He gives her a look, and she laughs. The game isn’t going to start for a while. What does he expect her to do? Watch the drills? She is there right on-time, as always. Not his time, but on-time. He can’t explain that there is so much to miss.

Sally puts a hand on Dale’s leg. He covers it with his. He couldn’t get here early enough, and he doesn’t want it to end.


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing