In the played-out strip mine, during our night hike, my father led us Scouts along a trail that peaked at the narrow crest of worthlessness that pitched down into darkness, and I knelt to grip the ground with my hands, certain I could fall. Every boy who noticed said nothing. My father talked me to my feet and guided me back down like a suicide, to take the long, low route through the scrub trees, walking out with my cowardice until we met the troop where the earth’s scars ended.
Remember high school physics? The formula for falling–thirty-two feet per second per second? No need to calculate. Let’s just say there’s a height after which results are always the same, advice I heard from a summer-job foreman, tutoring me with the mathematics of endings when I panicked leaning out to wash a fourth-floor window, his lesson sealed and preserved so well it comes to me in his voice and diction.
When my son tumbled from his playhouse roof, when he lay soundless, not moving, I stared from the half-painted porch of apprehension until he pedaled his legs to release me. In the darkening west, stars formed familiar shapes, blue going black near Buffalo, where schoolchildren his age were losing their balance along the land-filled Love Canal. My son stood up into my arms, and he talked and talked and followed the angle of his transformed roof toward the sky’s seven sisters. Pleiades, I said, the daughters of Atlas. My son, nearly eight, said he felt like he wasn’t inside himself. So far away, Buffalo’s lights suggested brief, but awful news.
Once, I refused my daughter’s plan to show me, from the top of the Trade Center, where she worked close by. All afternoon I hid my fear. We walked to her workplace and looked up like small children. There was time to confess, but I kept still all that Sunday, thirty-nine hours before planes-as-bombs made me seek the sound of her voice. On television, the bodies of men and women plummeted from a thousand feet, maybe more. For a moment, they were human, dressed for white-collar work, and then they became missiles, and then nothing at all. When, finally, my daughter answered, she sounded like someone I’d never heard, a voice talking me down shame’s stairs to safety.