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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Jake without Pants  


by Kathryn Burak



Jake without pants, again. He’s wearing gym shorts and I have to take him to the dentist for a cleaning, with blood streaming down his leg. He fell on the ice after he gave up looking for his stolen clothes. Just the week before, I told his teacher this seems to be happening a lot, that he seems to be a target. The teacher said they would have to be pulling the wool over his eyes for him not to see that sort of thing. He asked, "Is Jake extra sensitive?"


I tried to be careful with what I might say next. "I know what you mean." I squeezed the fingers of my left hand with the fingers of my right. I measured these words: "But what twelve-year-old wouldn’t be sensitive about having his pants stolen while he’s at gym?"


He paused patiently, as if my voice came over satellite and was on a ten-second delay. "Extra-sensitive I mean," he said.


"On January twenty-first in Massachusetts, shorts aren’t optimal," I said. I was thinking right then that I could key his fancy foreign car.


"But it’s better than no pants at all," he said. He nodded and leaned back, his fingertips touching and his hands flaring into a tent shape. "There are varying degrees of serious."


The day before his pants are stolen this time, the fifth time, I hear Jake singing a solo, only I don’t know it’s him. I’m in the hallway outside the auditorium waiting to pick him up when his drama teacher comes out and explains that I am listening to my own son’s voice.


You’ve got to pick a pocket or two, you’ve--


It’s a surprise, like the moment you see your child for the first time. You say, "Oh, of course," even though it’s shocking how unfamiliar someone so close to your heart might be. "Oh, of course that’s him."


On the day I found him walking down the street near his school, when I was on my way to pick him up to go to the dentist, I also did not recognize him at first, walking through the hard-packed snow, wearing shorts.


Oh, that’s Jake, I said.


Then, some combination of things provoked a memory from a long time ago: me on the bench at a train station. I am only nineteen in this bench memory. I have left my parents’ home and am going to my apartment where I will be alone. It will be ten times better than my parents’ house, even though if I slipped and hit my head and bled through my ears, no one would find me for a week, when roommates come back.

For some reason I am remembering the day in January I took the train back to college after Christmas, a week ahead of schedule, ran away as much as toward, toward the empty apartment in the back of the building, where my windows faced the Beller Bus lot, and the sound of hydraulic breaks woke me very late at night and in the wee hours of the morning.


I am remembering the wind on the station platform on my trip to that apartment, the platform where the bench was, remembering I was the only one waiting to board. That the train was late.


I am thinking of this day in the moments just after I see him—connecting these two un-intersecting points in time—just after I see him wearing his gym shorts in the cold. He gets into the car and slouches way down in the seat, like he’s coins that could disappear inside the crack.


He’s tired of people stealing his pants.


He gets into the car and slouches down and says, "I might just have to be someone else."


A large section of my chest shrinks and starts to pull away from all the rest of my insides. I feel how empty that place gets. The wind on the train platform could blow right through. You could hear that empty place.


I am nineteen in the flash. The train speeding to a stop looks and sounds like rushing water. There is nothing as anonymous as this moment, I am thinking.


I am lost in that feeling, hearing a song from the radio that year. There’s a train everyday leaving either way. This is my opening farewell.

That nineteen year old would be very surprised to meet you, I think, looking at my boy, connecting two improbable people. She would encourage you to use the expression go fuck yourself in regard to the thieves and the clothing. She would teach you some other choice expressions to use in regard to those boys. She would have gum for you.


His hair is wet and clinging in dark strings around his forehead. His cheeks are stained red. Jake’s been looking for his clothing in a panicked frenzy, I can tell. His face, radiant with anger, is new. It is difficult for me to look at the new face.


It is so cold--when the bench-me, the train-me, the one who is unlocking the door and going up the steps of the granite-cold and granite-still apartment enters the scene--that I will remember the feeling for my whole life. It’s as if I had never realized cold before this day when I am nineteen, one solid week before school starts up, this day when I re-enter the orbit of the planet where I have found sanctuary. It will be hours before I feel warmth. I do not put on the tv or the radio. I want to hear nothing but the clanging of the pipes expanding and absorbing the hot air from the furnace three floors below me, andthe muted sound of buses coming home. All I want to hear is that I am alone.


It’s still early, one of those days when the sunlight on the snow denies the real temperature and makes you think you’re wrong about the way you feel.


I am curled up on a couch that smells like French-fry grease. I am going to get past what has traveled with me today: chairs falling and the way people sound when their bodies slam into a wall. Eventually I will forget the sound that makes. I am going to live through being nineteen and twenty and twenty-eight, live a good long time, have a child—a boy—who sings. Or at least that’s what I want to believe will happen.


As the heat comes up in the empty apartment, slowly it seems to eat up all the daylight. It’s dark in the room way before the sky dims on the planet of Sanctuary. Elsewhere, people I know are breaking each other into shards, only to wake re-formed in the morning, like rock candy.


"Jakey," I say. "Don’t let things change you." But he’s gone, escaped, while I was looking out the window, matching up the curves and grooves of the puzzle about how I could explain a world full of pain, how I could argue that the whole universe isn’t that way.


You break but you don’t have to stay broken. You don’t, I want to tell him, have to.


He’s gone and I’m nineteen and in a room that’s all but blackness, just the remaining daylight at the curtain edge. In a slender slice of window, what’s out there, at least for one stunning moment, is brilliant orange. It doesn’t stay that way.