Morning but what was happening? Where were the children and their somnolent post-sunrise protests as my wife prepared them for the halls of Oak Elementary? Had I not become accustomed to pulling the covers and drowning in a half-conscious lullaby of clinking dishes and discouraged intimidation over missed bus rides and future discipline? Why was my wife not rushing through the house with a barbaric urgency, complaining about perceived tardiness, issuing me a list of endeavors to ruin my saintly frolic with the morning? Come to think of it, why was I still in bed? Why had the previously dependable alarm clock not kept its half of our agreement? Who can you trust to rescue you from the dark hours if not your lifetime-warranty appliances?
Why did it seem I was the only one that did not understand? Where was the remote control? Why when I turned to the local news was there only a single line of text scrolling across the screen like a dwindling heartbeat, describing in insufficient detail a mysterious evacuation in effect all around me? Where was the sonorous voice of Sam Lufton, the stern newscaster and my morning copilot? Where was the Sammy who had gotten me through the micro-tornado, the lice epidemic, the hostage situation at the Safeway when the retarded Hinson boy shot himself in the leg and thankfully, Sammy reminded me with a wink, no one else? How did Sammy tell the sins without blushing, without a crackle in his magnificent voice? And how had he and the television, the 32-inch plasma, of all my revered appliances, abandoned me on a morning like this?
Why when the phone rang was it not hung in its agreed-upon coordinates beside the newly wallpapered wall, a project my wife claimed should have taken a week and actually took me six? Why when I found the phone was my wife Solvay babbling madly from the distant end? “Are you still in bed, Teddy?”
“Why is the clock on the refrigerator out?”
“Why are you still at home?”
“Where else should I be?”
“Have you packed the bottled water and the supplies?”
How could I tell her I was standing in my bathrobe, gazing into a lukewarm refrigerator, looking for the creamer? “The stuff in the garage?”
“Yes, Teddy—you’ll pick up the children? And we’ll meet where we planned?”
“Where we planned?”
“I love you, Teddy—will you tell me you love me in case we don’t see each other again?”
“Don’t you know I love you? Why is the coffee cold, Solvay?”
Where the fuck was the creamer? Why was everything suddenly so tortuous and uncertain? Had I not always had a wonderful relationship with the morning? Were not my surroundings exactly as I found them each day at this time—the dog asleep by the door awaiting his walk, my newspaper neatly folded on the couch’s arm, the children’s breakfast dishes scattered in the sink? And in the front yard, were these not the same old trees and sidewalks, driveways and minivans, white-eaved troughs on the neighbors’ houses and polyvinyl chloride siding in an array of harmonious shades? Was not morning, precious morning, just the same as always, with the exception of Edna Hayes hammering boards over her windows? And Tom Randolph loading boxes into his minivan? And my friend and former coworker Gregory Kazanski and his family wandering their front yard with precarious signs?
Were we outrunning a storm or a tsunami? Were we not far enough inland that a biblical flood should seem the least of our worries? Was that not why we all lived here—because it was safe and quiet, and because we only enjoyed floods on television? Why did I not know anything? Why were they all moving so expeditiously while I did nothing, wandering from neighbor to neighbor to see what they were packing, the latest advancements in portable food insulation, why all of their personal navigation systems were on the fritz, where they were going—or best of all, why were they going anywhere?
“Hey there, Tom—you and the family taking a little trip?”
“Think that’s funny, Stevens?” Why was Tom Randolph always so cold to me? Was it because his job required him to get up so early in the morning? Was that not the reason I had stopped working, because the mornings were trespassing on my afternoons, my afternoons on my evenings, my evenings on my mornings? “You and Solvay planning on heading north or south?”
Should I know this answer? “Does it really matter?”
Why did he look at me so curiously when I asked that? Was it my appearance—bathrobe, half-drunk coffee mug, newspaper? Or was it because my dog Wally was sniffing his front walk, preparing to sop his wife’s begonias with fresh morning turds like he occasionally did, while I less occasionally stopped him?
“Wally? What did I tell you about Tom’s begonias?”
“See poor Kazanski over there, with his signs? You think he’s finally lost it?”
“Kazanski? Why would Greg lose it?”
“How should I know? He’s your pal, isn’t he? Don’t you think with all the stress everyone’s under that maybe a few more of our neighbors will just give up?”
“Give up? Greg?”
“I don’t want to tell you your business, Stevens, but don’t you think you should talk to him? Get him back on track?”
Should I not just ask Tom Randolph what was happening? Would it be so awful if all these people, except Greg and his family, were working toward the same mode of survival when I knew nothing? “Why should I talk to him? You’re his neighbor too, aren’t you?”
“Do you know, Stevens, I’ve always thought of you as the meanest sonofabitch in the neighborhood?” Why was he offering to shake my hand if I was such a sonofabitch? “Anyway, good luck—you’ll tell Solvay and the kids I said goodbye? Try to think of them for a change, will you?”
Was I interrupting Greg and his family when I walked onto their lawn? Was that why they looked at me so savagely? Had we not all been together at a barbecue just last weekend? Why were they so distant? And why had they used crayon to draw those desperate words on their signs? Wouldn’t black magic marker have been more appropriate? Greg used to be my coworker at the advertising agency—didn’t he know the crayons were conveying an inaccurate message? And what was an accurate message on this morning?
“Greg? Marie? Is everything okay?”
“Why would you ask us something like that?” Why was Marie screaming? “Are you trying to be funny?”
“Ted, why would you ask that?”
“Why are you holding those signs?”
“What should we be doing?”
“Why aren’t you packing like the rest of the neighbors?”
“What’s the point?” Marie asked.
“What’s the point?” Greg repeated. “Do they really think they can run?”
Did not the Kazanski children look the most frightened of anyone on the block? Was the little one shaking? Or was it just her sign in the wind, cavorting back and forth in the early day, a soldier outmanned by the battle?
“What are they running from?” I asked.
“Exactly, what are they running from, Teddy?”
“What I mean to say is, what are they trying to escape?”
“There is no escape, is there?” Marie asked. Did she end with a cry or a laugh?
How could I think of nothing to say to these neighbors I had known twenty years? “Why did you use crayons?” I asked.
“What’s wrong with crayons?”
“Don’t you think it makes them look like play signs? Like, perhaps, something our daughters would stick near the sidewalk to sell lemonade? Or our sons would place on the tree house to announce a new play war?”
Why did Greg, my friend and former coworker, choose that moment to attack me with the sign? Why did he hit Wally, an innocent bystander, and order us off his property? And would it have been useful to explain the irony of beating someone with such an ominous sign? After a
ll, if there were any truth to their end-of-the-world prognostications, would there be anything left to fight about, any fight left at all?
“Why was daddy hitting Mr. Stevens?”
“Never mind—why don’t you go play on the swing set?”
“Didn’t you say it was important to hold the signs?”
“It won’t hurt if we take a little break, will it?”
Could I take back what I thought about the morning? Would it seem insincere if I said things were not the proper and ordered way I left them the night prior? Would it upset our course going forward if I suggested the morning was a deceitful stranger who had duped me into his confidence? Had I not always been a good steward for the morning—always thinking a friendly hello to neighbors if not saying it aloud, always abiding the morning rituals of coffee and newspaper, issuing a more peaceful aura than I offered the afternoon, or the evening?
Where had I left the tool kit? Where were the backup batteries and flashlights and tarps and tents and propane tanks and generators and spare tires and canned food and two-way radio and GPS system? Where was the bottled water? Where were the other supplies my wife mentioned?
How long would it take to get to Oak Elementary? Why was Wally not barking the way he always did on car trips? What of the people on the side of the road? Had they run out of gas? Had they called for help? Was it too late to pull over and inquire of one of those miserable wretches what horrible incomprehension I was running from? After all, would it not have been the same misery they were running from before the gasoline gauge hit one-half, then one-quarter, then hovered on an unthinkable empty until the red light blinked and burned brighter and on and off until they knew it was only a matter of miles then yards then feet then inches before progress halted? Could we make a barter—a ride for some idea of what the hell I was up against? Why was everyone honking? Did they think it would make a difference? Why could I not find answers on the radio? Why was that man approaching my window?
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Did he not seem appalling there on the side of the road? Did he not seem more lost or confused than the others? And how was it I recognized directly that this man, quite like me, had no idea what was occurring? How could that sole flaw cast him as a more pathetic victim than the others? Was it not as if we had all been shipwrecked, but he swam to a sandbar instead of the lush island the rest of us swam to, and in between there were crocodiles and sharks and other temperamental, oily-skilled sea serpents, and we still had food and clean water and togetherness, but all he could do was wave and all we could do was wave back and holler insincere hope for his future?
“Would you be so kind as to tell me what’s happening?”
How could I admit I had no idea? How could I admit I was one of him when I did not want to be? “You don’t know?” I asked.
Did he detect something in my voice? “You don’t know either, do you?”
How did I fake impertinence? How did I cast my eyes to let him know I was insulted? How does the voice rise just so, and the temper rumble like a doomed and mis-lubricated motor, when our personalities fake emotion? “Do you really think I loaded my car to sit in this traffic jam and I don’t know where I’m going?”
“That doesn’t make much sense I suppose, does it?”
“That would be silly of me, wouldn’t it?”
“But you’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“How could I help you now that you’ve insulted me?”
Did it not give me a sense of power over the morning to roll up my window? Did it not feel liberating to leave him alone with his ignorance? Was I not at least moving forward? Was I not making strides through this blistering and turbid cataclysm, the likes of which I had never known and in my own nescience did not seem so vile?
Should I take the next exit and follow Simmons Road west, then cut across the ball fields? Was not Simmons always the way to go, even in the worst gridlock? After Fourth of July fireworks, school plays, community events, when I went to retrieve my family and everyone rushed for the freeway—did I not always find solace in the emptiness of Simmons Road to guide me clear of traffic? And now, was the empty asphalt not proof of its preeminence among roads in our county?
Why would all those cars stay on the freeway, in perfect lines, following the instructions of the road, if this were a true catastrophe? Why didn’t anyone panic and follow me across the ball fields, if things were so dire? And why were so many cars sitting at the entrance to Oak Elementary, patiently waiting and following the carpool rules as set forth in the annual handbook? Was it possible the scare was a hoax?
Why were we all waiting here in the parking lot? Could we not just go in and retrieve our children? Would it be so bad if I walked up to someone and asked what was happening? Would it seem ignorant? Would just a few questions be odd—what are we running from, are we in danger, how did the rest of you find out?
“Excuse me, miss?”
“What do you want now?” Did she know me?
“I was just wondering—could you please inform me what the concern is?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Why are we all here? In this parking lot?”
“I’m picking up my children, why are you here?”
“What I mean is, what are we running from?”
“Excuse me? Did you just look at my breasts?”
“You were looking at my breasts, weren’t you?”
“You’re wearing a sweater—how can I look at your breasts?”
And another woman said, “What kind of a pervert looks at women’s breasts at a time like this?”
“Why are you hitting me?”
Why was she hitting me? Why were people glaring? What did she mean by that—a time like this? Why was that police officer coming toward us? Had he no other matters with which to concern himself?
“What seems to be the problem?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Aren’t you the one causing the problem, sir?”
“If anyone should, shouldn’t you be the one to tell us what the problems are?”
“The woman says you looked at her breasts—were you looking, sir?”
“Shouldn’t you be keeping us updated?”
“With all we’ve got going on, you think maybe you can keep it in your pants?”
“Won’t you please just tell me what’s happening, officer?”
“You think you can handle that, bub?”
And then later, not much later, was it not unlike a scream of joy, although it was a unanimous chortle of terror, when they opened the school doors and our progeny came rushing at us in one collective gesture? Was the image of children rushing out of school one cultural cliché that—as a postcard, or a painting, or a television advertisement—not something we could all stop whatever we were doing to appreciate? And where were my children in this ruckus? How would they find me? Wait—was that them, there, with my wife? How did she arrive before me? Was this where we had planned to meet all along?
“Where have you been, Teddy?”
How could I tell her I had made breakfast when she seemed so famished, poached eggs and turkey bacon and wheat toast and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice? How could I tell her I had hooked up the generator so I could cook, then shave and shower, then read part of the newspaper to see if I might find some mention of our situation?
“Solvay, kids, would you like coffee from the concession stand?”
“Shouldn’t we get on the road?”
“But what if it’s a long drive?”
“Did you bring the water?”
“Have you seen the traffic, Solvay?”
Why did I sudd
enly feel more secure once I got my wife and family in the van, a van I had always despised, and we headed back across the ball fields, back across the uneven outfield and dirty base paths where children spit gum and men just spit, where my own children played on certain Saturday afternoons, and we hit Simmons Road with a bump and then a comfortable smoothness that allowed us to avoid the labyrinthine traffic that snarled out of the Oak Elementary access road and, for a moment, forget that we were running from an idea that somehow had already defeated us? Why did I feel the urge to smile, or sing along to something melodious on the morning radio? And why were none of the stations coming in clearly, just a low, defined beep, and the constant mumble that the emergency broadcasting system requested we stay tuned?
“Where are you going, Teddy?”
“Where would you like to go, dear?”
“Were you thinking north?”
“You think north would be best?”
“I think south might be nice this time of year, don’t you?”
It was far too late to ask what was happening, was it not? Why we were running? How everyone knew but I did not? Why they all were so worried and hungry? If I asked now, would I not be the worst type of coward and miscreant to have gone along with the fear so long, having no idea from what I was running? Had the morning not felt different? Had the woman in the sweater not had the nicest breasts? Would my Solvay forgive me? Would my children understand? Was my wife having a breakdown in the passenger seat?
“Should I put in a CD, dear?”
“Shouldn’t we listen for instructions, Teddy?”
“Maybe some light music instead? Take everyone’s mind off things? Some Jim Croce maybe?”
“Who is Jim Croce?”
Wasn’t Jim Croce her favorite? “Perhaps some Gordon Lightfoot then?”
“Who is Gordon Lightfoot?”
“Who is the morning?” I asked.
But she heard it as, “Why are you mourning?” And did she not tell me in a snarling confession that she was mourning for everyone and everything, for the future, for all of us together, for the people to the left and right of us, the ones who chose north and south, for the history of our one another-ness, for me and the children whom she loved and wanted to continue to love? And as we coasted to the bottom of the hill to join the rest on the escape route, could I not finally understand what was at stake, what might be lost in the innocent eyes in my rearview mirror, the magnitude of what we raced against through that terrible morning?