A Rusty Chain
I set my alarm for five o’clock on a Saturday morning. Groggy, my ritualistic shower skipped for fear of waking my wife and son, I shuffled through our house’s predawn hush. My office is a converted porch, a chilled space that still retains the heavy wooden door that once sealed out the elements. The latch clicked a gentle goodbye when I shut the door behind me.
Waiting upon my desk was a story that had been vexing me for weeks. I blew steam from my coffee cup, slurped a tentative, tongue-burning sip. I dog-eared pages, scribbled ideas across the margins, layered the second scene in post-it notes. My highlighter squeaked as it painted the more-deserving passages in glowing pink. The story had started with promise, a seemingly coherent linking of images and events and characters, the dominos falling just as I’d imagined, but somewhere along the line, the calling voices had abandoned me. My vision blurred, and my faith evaporated with each new dead end. Still, the story pulled at me, a mysterious gravity buried deep in my gut.
Hours passed. The stark February sun reached into my office, and the view outside my window rose from the morning’s murky grays. My closed door could only muffle the house’s stirring activity for so long. The radio played the weak-signaled jazz station. My son jerked the unplugged vacuum over the hardwood floors, the plastic wheels clattering, the end tables’ lamps shivering with each bump. I clamped my hands over my ears and, in a dry whisper, I read my story again. I was desperate to hear the passages anew, but I couldn’t. Branded by familiarity, the words leapt into my thoughts before they passed my lips, and my head swam with nonsensical echoes. Ironic – that my absorption in my own fictional landscape also exiled me from it.
Frustrated, I rose from my desk and left my office. I needed a change of scenery, a setting not hemmed in by familiar walls. Ours is a family of few steadfast rules, but one is the necessity for a daily dose of fresh air. With the dual goal of clearing my head and getting my son out for a bit on what promised to be a rammy, indoor day, I decided the two of us would venture out for a hike on a nearby trail.
As I dressed my boy, I recounted our favorite trailside shenanigans. When his head popped through his sweater’s neckhole, I wove stories of rumbling though leafless thickets. As I wrangled him into his boots and puff-tasseled cap, I helped him envision the bobbing of hurled twigs on the creek waters, which today would run swift with snowmelt; helped him hear the shivering notes made when our rocks broke the bank’s clinging ice. On the ride, I reminded him of our visit just last weekend, how he’d run so fast I had to jog to keep up, retold the story of the slushy snowballs we’d packed and splattered against a sycamore’s bark-speckled trunk.
I pulled into the trailhead’s dirt lot. The previous week’s thaw had passed and now winter had returned. A cutting breeze whisked off the creek. The cloudless sky ached a scintillating blue, and the cold and unforgiving light made all that surrounded me seem somehow brittle and just a breath shy of snapping. A thirty-yard path led to the woods. Unruly brambles bothered one side of the trail, the other guarded by a split-rail fence that separated the path from a scrub field. My boy and I moved slowly, our process hampered by our bundled layers, by the unobstructed, eye-tearing wind I hadn’t counted on when I stepped out of the house, and perhaps it was this shuffling pace which allowed my son to fixate on a fence gap blocked off by a sagging length of chain. We’d passed this spot dozens of times without a thought or complaint, yet today my boy latched onto the chain with hands that had already shed their mittens. He shook the chain and smiled at the wood-clanking ripples he produced.
I picked up his mittens. The trees’ bare branches clattered in the wind, and I worried about my son’s winter-chapped skin. Come on, bud, I urged, but he ignored me. I took his hand, and on our walk into the woods, I trumpeted the treasures awaiting us. There would be squirrels to chase and sticks to snap. Perhaps we’d catch sight of the molting ducks who gathered on the debris-littered island halfway across the creek, their nests secreted away amid the upstream shore’s collection of shopping carts and driftwood and bald tires. Pausing, I pulled his mittens from my pocket, an opportunity my boy seized to make an about-face dash back to the chain. Latching on with both hands, he swung the chain with a mischievous passion I had yet to fully recognize in him.
My boots crunching over the trail’s snow patches and frozen mud, I joined my son. The chain clanked ferociously under his assault, a mesmerizing, humpbacked sway. I humored him, asked unanswered questions about the chain’s chill and the coppery residue it left on his palms. An icy gust brought tears to my eyes. I nudged my boy’s shoulder, and when he didn’t budge, I gently yet firmly grabbed a fistful of his coat.
With the touch, my boy sank into his jacket, that toddler-unique posture of every muscle in his body going simultaneously limp and rigid. Guilt found me; guilt for subjecting him to the brutal cold; guilt for denying him such a simple pleasure. I knelt by his side, insisting only he put back on his mittens. How strange his surroundings must have seemed to him sometimes, how immense, a universe waiting to be understood and so much towering overhead, so much out of reach, his mother and I the only bridges to the great, bustling mysteries that formed the backdrop of his days.
He resumed his shaking. Fearful that the writhing links would smack his chin, I held a protective hand near his face. A rail in the neighboring section of fence tumbled to the ground, and a glazed sense of pride filled his eyes. I studied him and the blurred chain, an exile once again in the realm of understanding and connection.
During my wife’s pregnancy we discussed purchasing a video camera. I did my research but was daunted by the cameras’ slew of perplexing options, widescreen ratios and megapixels, the paramount question of High-8 or digital. Thanks to my feet-shuffling, my boy’s birth and homecoming went unrecorded. Two more months passed before my internal dawdling reached its own sort of critical mass and, in an uncharacteristic rush, I drove to the nearest electronics store and returned home with a camcorder that offered a reassuring middling of features.
We started with two cassettes. One was for regular shots, spur-of-the-moment bursts of cuteness, visits from relatives. The other was devoted to clips intended to be taken at monthly intervals. Someday we would watch this tape, and surely its images would come back to us like echoes of a lost yet wonderful era. All I had to do was study the elementary school kids waiting for the bus on my corner to understand the fleeting nature of these first years, a time I knew was special yet was already blurred by the day-to-day changes in my schedule, the night awakenings, the doctors’ appointments, and the weekend visits from grandparents and aunts and cousins anxious to nuzzle the family’s newest arrival.
The first ten minutes on this tape consist of our boy doing little more than lying on his back. He wears his most darling outfits, the protracted scenes lingering due in part to our camera-wielding naiveté and, to a greater extent, our tardy epiphany – a realization fostered by the viewfinder’s oddly detached perspective – that we now shared our days with this helpless yet completely autonomous creature. In these initial shots, our son spits and gurgles and kicks, his face glowing with saucer-eyed intentness. In the background, we coo and urge, our hands sometimes reaching into frame to dab his chin or to indulge ourselves in another caress of his pudgy cheek.
In the months to come, we would coax him to perform his tricks. Captured on that tape were his early efforts to sit up and roll over, to stack blocks and cruise around his crib. We recorded unsteady steps and the uttered syllables only a hopeful parent could decipher. And here, the tape underwent a distinct metamorphosis, for our staged events began to crumble beneath our son’s unleashed sense of play and free will. See the boy run. See the boy fall. Hear our gasps and his daredevil’s laughter. Somewhere around his second birthday, he discovered the wonders of the camera, and our tapes experienced yet another transformation, for now we couldn’t unscrew the lens cap without being bumrushed, our shots fraught with images of us batting aside the hands that deposited peanut butter smudges across the lens. Look out!
Bedtime, and behind us were stories and snacks, roughhousing antics and nuzzling goodnight kisses. My fingers carried the flowery scent of the moisturizer I’d rubbed on his chapped cheeks. The unlaced hiking boots he’d worn that morning to the trail rested by his bed. At my boy’s request, I sat in the chair in the corner of his room, my presence a comforting link between the day’s bustle and evening’s wind-down lull. My boy lay in bed, fighting the heaviness that pulled on his eyelids, his rump hoisted in a final, protesting posture. An inch from his nose, he pushed a tiny car, nudging it one way, then the other, the wheels turning in a hypnotist’s back-and-forth sway.
I turned my attention back to the story that had so perplexed me that morning. Perspective had found me, and one by one, the jigsaw pieces of my rewrite fell into place. I jotted notes in a furious scrawl, and when I was done, I gathered the marked pages that lay fanned out around me. How easily manipulated, this fictional world, its spectrums of emotions and reactions molded by my desires alone. How false and how pretty and neat, these silent lives. An hour had slipped past, and while I’d been engaged, my son had drifted off, his fingertip resting on the car’s trunk. Before leaving, I sat on his bed and pulled up the covers. I laid a hand upon his head, wondering if perhaps he’d dream that night of the trail’s rusty chain.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by my son’s attraction to a rusty chain for his days were full of unintended playthings. There was the vacuum. The kitchen pots with their clanging lids. Our clock radios, which had a knack for going off at insane hours, the crackling volume pegged at full blast, the tuner set to static-garbled frequencies at the dials’ ends. And add to this list of unexpected fun the boxy Polaroid he discovered one afternoon in the rear of our bedroom closet. We showed him how to squint with one eye and use the other to peek through the viewfinder. A few shots remained in the cartridge, and with a flash and a whir, out shimmied his first portraits. Smile, he echoed.
Buying him his own roll of film for our 35-mm was my wife’s idea. His dawning excitement grew as we loaded the roll, his hand squeezing my knee as the automatic advance purred. He discovered the viewfinder on his own, and we guided his finger to the shutter button. Within the next five minutes, he snapped a dozen shots, my eyes swimming with the flash’s burning afterimages. Smile, Daddy. Smile, Mommy.
With no warning, he set the camera down and rejoined the object of his morning play, a cardboard box delivered by the UPS man, its surfaces scribbled with markers and crayons, its sides perforated by a jabbing pen. Poke, he cried with each piercing. A week passed before I held the camera again. Unnoticed by either of us, our boy had finished snapping the roll’s pictures.
My son had reached the cusp of a new brand of play. Much of his day was still occupied by frenzies of sprinting and leaping and box-stabbing mayhem, but now these bursts were interspersed with calmer, more intense interludes. Stretched out across the floor or kneeling beside the coffee table, he’d hunker down at eye level with his trains or cars or plastic animals. With a surprising delicacy, he positioned these toys, and as he maneuvered them, his perspective shifting as he framed the scenes in alternating points of view, he mumbled scenarios, serious-toned narratives that made me realize I wasn’t the only one weaving stories under our roof.
With him thus engaged, I became free to settle near him, a witness to his initial forays into the realms of projection and reaction, the playacting of fictional landscapes and future relationships. These were the kinds of moments I wished I could capture on video, his first teetering steps in a lifelong crusade of trying to make sense of his world. And if he’d let me, I’d glide my fingertip across the flyaway strands of his curls, content to sit still and silent and tether my ramshackle, somewhat inelegant existence to such a beautifully fragile moment.
Another Saturday at the creekside trail. A new layer of snow coated the ground. The windshield intensified what little warmth the sun offered. I turned off the engine and cracked the window to listen to the water’s rush. In the backseat, my boy was preoccupied with the ice scraper. He ran the bristles across his palm then under his chin, and I used this moment of repose to open the stiff photo envelope I’d just picked up from the drugstore.
There was a nice shot of his mother and me. A skewed picture of our steps that made them seem absolutely mountainous. Distorted close-ups of his trains. And then there were the confusing ones, blurry images I held one way, then another
. . . close . . . then back . . . all in an effort to decipher what I was looking at.
I returned the pictures to the envelope and gathered the video camera I’d set on the passenger seat. With the carrying case slung over my shoulder, I helped my boy climb from the car. It’s cold, he observed as I pulled his cap snug over his ears. When we reached the gravel trail, I let go of my boy’s mittened hand and readied the camera. These days of simple wonders would soon fade, and I felt compelled to capture part of them, to steal them away from a past that disappeared quicker than the sticks we threw into the creek’s deceptively swift waters.
My son trundled ahead, and I hustled to capture him in the viewfinder, the shadow of the split-rail fence like a mask across his eyes. It’s cold, he repeated, only now he was smiling. The viewfinder’s image jerked as I hustled to keep pace, but the trail’s ruts and the split perspective of my eyes and the viewfinder’s captured scene robbed my steps of any grace.
I crouched on the other side of the chain and framed my son. He latched on, but gone was the previous week’s do-or-die intensity, his clanging today delivered more out of duty than glee. He released the chain and considered me, his breath pluming before his face. He picked up a nearby stick and walked down the path, whacking tree trunks and mowing down a swath of tan, scraggly weeds.
He stopped when I called his name. I held the camera, the scene witnessed from three unique angles. Unlike my writing or my son’s playtime scenarios, there were no easily culled absolutes lingering beneath the surface, no tidy resolutions waiting to be plucked from the frigid air, yet I sensed a hint of truth – however vague and elusive – lay triangulated between our separate takes of this shared moment. As I approached, I encouraged him to wave. Goodbye, he said. With a button push, the viewfinder faded to black. My son turned and ran, his stick leaving a trail through the snow. Come Daddy! he cried. I zipped the camera back into its case and set out after him. How lovely, to have nor want any other choice than to follow in his wake.
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