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A Ship Made of Paperby Scott Spencer
Daniel and Hampton were paired by chance and against their wishes. They were not friends — Hampton did not particularly like Daniel, and Daniel had every reason to avoid being alone with Hampton. But Daniel's girlfriend or partner or whatever he was supposed to call her, Kate, Kate went home to relieve the baby-sitter who was minding her daughter, and Hampton's wife, there was no ambiguity there, his wife, Iris, with whom Daniel was fiercely in love, had gone home to look after their son. Daniel and Hampton stayed behind to search for a blind girl, a heartsick and self-destructive blind girl who had run away from today's cocktail party, either to get lost or to be found, no one was sure.
The searchers, fourteen in all, were each given a Roman candle — whoever found the lost girl was to fire the rocket into the sky, so the others would know — and each of the pairs was assigned a section of the property in which to look for Marie.
"Looks like you and me," Daniel said to Hampton, because he had to say something. Hampton barely responded and he continued to only minimally acknowledge Daniel's nervous chatter as they walked away from the mansion through an untended expanse of wild grass that soon led into a dense wood of pine, locust, maple, and oak. Aside from the contrast of their color — Daniel was white, Hampton black — the two men were remarkably similar in appearance. They were both in their mid-thirties, an inch or so over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, reasonably fit. They were even dressed similarly, in khaki pants, white shirts, and blue blazers, though Daniel's jacket was purchased at Macy's, and Hampton's had been sewn specially for him by a Chinese tailor in the city.
Two years after he was kicked down the stairs of his apartment building in New York City, which shattered his wrist, chipped his front tooth, and, as he himself put it, broke his heart, Daniel Emerson is back in his hometown, driving Ruby, his girlfriend's four-year-old daughter, to her day care center, called My Little Wooden Shoe. The drive is ten or fifteen minutes, depending on the weather, and though Daniel is not Ruby's father, nor her stepfather, it usually falls to him to take the little girl in. Daniel cannot understand how she can so willingly and unfailingly absent herself from the beginnings of her daughter's day; Ruby's mother, Kate Ellis, cannot bear to rise early in the morning, nor can she bear the thought of having to deal with Melody, or Tammy, Keith, Tamara, Griffin, Elijah, Avery, Stephanie, Joel, Tess, Chantal, Dylan, or any of the other Wooden Shoers, not to mention their fathers and their mothers, a few of whom Daniel knew thirty-two years ago in this very town, when he was Ruby's age.
It's fine with Daniel. He welcomes the chance to do fatherly things with the little girl, and those ten morning minutes with dear little four-year-old Ruby, with her deep soulful eyes, and the wondrous things she sees with them, and her deep soulful voice, and the precious though not entirely memorable things she says with it, and the smell of baby shampoo and breakfast cereal filling the car, that little shimmering capsule of time is like listening to cello music in the morning, or watching birds in a flutter of industry building a nest, it simply reminds you that even if God is dead, or never existed in the first place, there is, nevertheless, something tender at the center of creation, some meaning, some purpose and poetry. He believes in parental love with the fervency of a man who himself was not loved, and those ten minutes with Ruby every weekday morning, before he drops her off at My Little Wooden Shoe and then drives over to his office, where he runs a poorly paying, uneventful country law practice, in the fairly uneventful town of Leyden, one hundred miles north of New York City, those six hundred sweet seconds are his form of worship, and the temperamental eight-year-old black Saab is his church.
Or was, actually, because, unfortunately, this is no longer the case. The drive is still ten minutes, Ruby is still snugly strapped in her child safety seat in the back of the car, her sturdy little body encased in lilac overalls, her short-fingered, square hands holding a box of raisins and a box of grape juice, and today she is commenting on the familiar landmarks they pass — the big kids' school, the abandoned apple orchard where the wizened old trees wreathed in autumn morning mist are so scarily bent, the big yellow farmhouse where there is always some sort of yard sale, the massive pasture where every July the county fair assembles, with its cows and snow cones, Ferris wheels and freaks — but today it is all Daniel can do to pay the slightest bit of attention to Ruby, because his mind is seized, possessed, and utterly filled by one repeating question: Will Iris be there?
Daniel has been carrying the unwieldy weight of this desire for months now, and so far his behavior has been impeccable. When it comes to Iris the rules he has made for himself are simple: look but don't touch, long for but don't have, think but don't say. All he wants to do is be in the same room with her, see what she is wearing, see by her eyes if she has slept well, exchange a few words, make her smile, hear her say his name.
Until recently, it was a matter of chance whether their paths would cross. Iris's deliveries and pickups of Nelson were helter-skelter, one day she'd have him there at eight o'clock, and the next at nine-thirty — it all depended on her class schedule at Marlowe College...
Copyright © 2003 by Scott Spencer
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