A couple is swimming with a baby in the pool of a Hampton Inn in Schenectady. They stretch the baby at both ends, extending him between them, like gratitude. The baby’s hair is curly blonde and he’s got a face that is sweet and chubby, like the moon. The father is slight and thin, with an almond-shaped bald spot conquering the top of his head. The mother is taller and sturdier than him. In their small group, she is like a watchtower.
“Kick kick kick,” the father says to the baby. The baby pounds the water with clenched fists and the father rubs chlorine out of his eyes. Outside is the wispy Schenectady rain and the Walgreens that closes at six on Saturdays.
“It’s late,” says the mother.
“It’s time to go, champ,” pleads the father.
Outside is also a parking lot, which leads to Clinton street, and rows of single-family houses painted in cold April residential grey, and after the houses, there is a movie theater and a burrito place, where the family will end up, and the baby will throw rice onto the floor, and the parents will browse open house listings, threatening each other with a better life.
Better life implies a future: monthly payments, daily alarms, and a job with health benefits. The father finds work at the Amtrak station. He cannot travel – his son is too young. He checks the tickets, loads and unloads the baggage car, and sweeps away the cigarette butts in the waiting area.
Passengers ask him questions, and he lies to them, because that is customer service.
Why is this train delayed? Signal malfunction at the crossing, he says. How many stops till Albany? Three, he says. On local trains, it’s four, but he doesn’t bother with that. It’s been over twenty minutes, how much longer? Just a few more minutes. My niece is getting married in Albany. My lousy sister couldn’t pick me up from the station, said to take an Uber. My niece never dated anyone seriously, struggled with her weight since high school, but there is someone for everyone, you know what I mean?
He has never been to Albany, but he’s seen it on maps. He thinks about taking the train to New York, then a cab to JFK airport, where he’d buy a ticket to Rome, Berlin, or maybe Dubai. He read an article about the elusive Arabian sand cat that lives in the desert. This cat doesn’t need to drink water because it gets its liquids from its prey. He will go to the desert and find it. He will take pictures of it, doing its thing in its natural habitat, and one picture will end up in the National Geographic magazine, maybe even on the cover. He will be tan, thinner, and the skin around his fingernails will be permanently cracked. He will show the magazine to anyone who questions that he is man with a solid, substantial past, and it will alleviate the pressure he feels to be a man with a promising future.
He suspects the train conductors look down on him, because even though it’s unlikely they’ve been to Dubai, they’ve been to places he has not. The baby is growing at home. His wife finds a part-time job at a medical office and puts the baby in daycare, for a half-day, because for fuck’s sake. She tells him the showerhead keeps falling off, the dishwasher is broken, and wi-fi doesn’t work in the living room.
When he comes home, no matter what time, he is late. There are cereal flakes on the floor and the bedroom door doesn’t fully close, because of the leaky radiator that had caused the carpet in the doorway to bulge. His wife tells him that his son bit Connor Wheeler, again, during recess. He somehow feels responsible for the biting, though he doesn’t think he was a biter as a child, and he had met Connor Wheeler’s father and thinks he is an asshole.
After his wife and son fall asleep, he watches youtube videos in the living room with spotty wi-fi. His favorites are the ones of people tumbling off ledges. He chooses ledges that are not too high; he doesn’t want anyone to be seriously hurt. But he laughs because he misses being out of control.
He tells his wife that he is working an extra shift, because the economy and the new couch, which they didn’t need. He goes to the burrito place, the one they had eaten at on their first night in Schenectady. The restaurant is called Bombers, and he hates that name, though he doesn’t know why. There is a waitress and he had imagined her without clothes. She is not young, but not old, and wears her hair in a bun, and has a nice neck. She tilts her head when she laughs and has never charged him for his second beer.
He fucks her in the sleeper car on a train that is not going anywhere until next week, maybe month. The sex is not bad, but not great, and afterwards they listen to Arcade Fire and eat tacos. The chorizo is too spicy, and it gives him heartburn. He wonders if he has any Zantac at home. She tells him about her son, who has dyslexia, and her ex, who has amnesia and doesn’t pay child support. He feels awkward knowing all this, but she is stroking the hairs around his belly button, and he assumes that is intimacy. He is not sure he likes it.
Outside the wind pounds the sleeper car with clenched fists. After the wind, there are train tracks, and a gas station that went out of business, and a small flat house where his wife and son are sleeping, then Dubai. The waitress asks him how happy his childhood was. He assures her it was normal, because that’s the shortest answer, and she seems satisfied, but wants details. He imagines her tearing into his abdomen, cracking his ribcage, and reaching for the liquids inside. He is being dramatic. He wants to tell her to find a source of water somewhere else. But he tells her that he has heartburn. No one should be forced to tell the truth, with an open abdomen.
When he comes home he sleeps on the new couch. It’s uncomfortable because the cushions keep shifting underneath him. In the morning, he tells his wife he was hungry after the extra shift and grabbed a beer and a snack at Bombers. He didn’t feel well afterwards, was up half of the night. They shouldn’t eat there, not ever, especially with the little one, he tells her. Bombers will be off limits to him now, and he feels what he knows as melancholy, because the guacamole at that place was always fresh, made in front of him from real avocados.
Schenectady is a small town, for people who make small decisions. He decides he will fix the showerhead, ask his manager for a raise, take his son to a zoo near Saratoga Springs, where they have a giant anteater from Central America, and steam clean the carpet in the living room. He studies the decisions made in front of him, and even though he hasn’t acted on them, yet, he feels what he knows as comfort. The world doesn’t slip off his shoulders, like a jacket two sizes too big.
He believes in the random acts of kindness. He will take a few extra shifts at Amtrak and send the waitress some cash, anonymously. He imagines her face when she opens the envelope. Back in the sleeper car, he had asked her what she was doing next week and promised to text, which he won’t. But he had read an article about a man in Montana, who found a goose stuck to a pole, frozen and shaking from the cold. The man took off his coat and wrapped it around the goose, and the pole, and sat there, for hours, until the goose deiced. He wants to be this kind of a man.
The conductors, who travel on trains, return to the same station. His wife, well, it’s nice to have someone. He imagines his son growing up and running a big company, like Amazon. In this future, his son wears a sports jacket over a black t-shirt. His son thanks him, his father, for the sacrifices he had made and sends him clippings from The Wall Street Journal. The articles quote his son, not Connor Wheeler, on matters of innovation, and technology, and growth. What his son’s company does, he will never fully understand. But he will print the articles and pin them to a wall in his study. He will have a study. No one knows what happiness is anyway, that’s why everyone talks about it so much.
And then it’s breakfast time, and the eggs are not overdone, and the light bounces off the toaster and warms his skin.