January 23, 2014
[M]y first fascination with arrivals came in a state fair bumper car line.
It was a long queue. People were rowdy and big, and I was little and nervous. I could see the ruler from a distance, the vertical marker that dictated which kids could ride and which would be asked to step aside and watch from behind a chicken wire fence. It was too far away. I couldn’t tell if I would get my glittery green car or watch some other kid demolition-drive it while I watched from outside. The current round of bumper car drivers were smashing each other to bits. We all waited anxiously. Everyone wanted to smash everyone.
When the carnies cut the electricity, the drivers booed and reluctantly left the ring. My line shuffled forward, body against body, everyone bottlenecking toward that marker. Six kids away, then five—it looked like I might make it. Three, then two—I tried to tippy-toe past the ruler only to be shoved against it, some Marlboro smoke hand slicing above my head. You’re not tall enough, kid. Maybe next year.
My wife says she knew she was an adult when she watched The Incredibles
and realized she had more in common with the disheveled Mom and Dad than their superhero kids. I’ve always envied her certainty. I thought I might feel it after college, after marriage. Maybe after enough years navigating tax forms and grown-up grocery lists. I buy kale. I keep receipts.
Yet I’ve never put this nagging sense of fraudulence to rest, or the secret hope that one of these days Mom will pop up with a glass of milk and some cookies and say: It was all a mistake, honey, a clerical error. Your dad and I never meant to transfer this mantle of adulthood to you. Just lie down and take a nap. I’ve got everything under control.
Instead, she calls every few months to talk about the logistics of life now that she and Dad split up. She asks how we are doing after our own losses, too. These are arrivals we never bargained on.
When I was a kid I invented a secret philosophy in an attempt to bend time. I would stand at the edge of our neighbor’s sprawling cornfield, intent on reaching a forest of maple trees past its far edge. Before I started walking I would close my eyes and imagine Future Me standing on the other side of the field, right at the tree line. I would send a message to Future Me, a tether through time, a bottled note not to forget that Present Me was here and had yet to begin the journey.
After I walked past the cornfield I would stop at the forest’s edge and close my eyes and remember where I had been and who I had been. I would connect. It felt like magic.
And so Eight-year-old Me
used to close his eyes and imagine all the way ahead to Grown-up Me
, wonder what I would look like, what I would eat and wear. Eight-year-old Me
would lay in his bed at night and have little talks with Grown-up Me
, tell me not to forget what it was like to be a kid, or how it felt to fall asleep to an open window and a box fan while Mom and Dad talked quietly downstairs, late into the night.
Sometimes I watch the giant ore ships dock here in Upper Harbor, the slow lean of all that metal, the gigantic gentle bump of so many thousands of buoyant tons coming finally to rest. The receiving dock is a monolith of concrete and metal, with steel chutes that snap out over the ship’s hatches every twelve feet in order to fill the boats with ore. The boats get lower and lower with their loads, an inch or so every 270 tons of taconite. Then they depart. Then arrive again. Then depart. They crisscross the Great Lakes until the waters get too rough, or ice freezes them in place.
In warmer weather my son and I stop our bicycle to watch the docking. He’s always sat in a plastic seat attached to my handlebars, although he’s just crossed the threshold—thirty pounds—where he is too big for that perch. Next summer we’ll have to reinvent.
Last summer, at least, he could sit up front and watch the boats’ bright white waterlines inch closer to the lake’s surface with all that iron weight. And he would ask where the ships come from and where they are going, which are good questions. They settle into a long line of his good two-year-old questions, many of which I’m hard-pressed to answer.
The truth is they come from Duluth, or Sault St. Marie, or some other lakeside steel hub brimming with industry, which is equally where they are going. I don’t know, I told him. I think they are always en route.
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