The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad’s white coat. Then requisitioned the boots he’d spray-painted white. Painting the pellet gun white had been a no. That was a gift from Aunt Chloe. Every time she came over he had to haul it out so she could make a big stink about the woodgrain.
Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived amongst the old rock wall. They were small but, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And revelled it. He would turn, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement?
They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers. They had a strange bond with him. Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds. Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled. Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.
Safe inside the rock wall, the shot one would go, Guys, look at my butt.
As a group, all would look at Gzeemon’s butt, exchanging sullen glances of: Gzeemon shall indeed be limping for the next nine million years, poor bloke.
Because yes: Nethers tended to talk like that guy in “Mary Poppins.”
Which naturally raised some mysteries as to their origin here on Earth.
Detaining him was problematic for the Nethers. He was wily. Plus could not fit through their rock-wall opening. When they tied him up and went inside to brew their special miniaturizing potion—Wham!—he would snap their antiquated rope with a move from his self-invented martial-arts system, Toi Foi, a.k.a. Deadly Forearms. And place at their doorway an implacable rock of suffocation, trapping them inside.
Later, imagining them in their death throes, taking pity on them, he would come back, move the rock.
Blimey, one of them might say from withal. Thanks, guv’nor. You are indeed a worthy adversary.
Sometimes there would be torture. They would make him lie on his back looking up at the racing clouds while they tortured him in ways he could actually take. They tended to leave his teeth alone. Which was lucky. He didn’t even like to get a cleaning. They were dunderheads in that manner. They never messed with his peen and never messed with his fingernails. He’d just abide there, infuriating them with his snow angels. Sometimes, believing it their coup de grâce, not realizing he’d heard this since time in memorial from certain in-school cretins, they’d go, Wow, we didn’t even know Robin could be a boy’s name. And chortle their Nether laughs.
Today he had a feeling that the Nethers might kidnap Suzanne Bledsoe, the new girl in homeroom. She was from Montreal. He just loved the way she talked. So, apparently, did the Nethers, who planned to use her to repopulate their depleted numbers and bake various things they did not know how to bake.
All suited up now, NASA. Turning awkwardly to go out door.
Affirmative. We have your coördinates. Be careful out there, Robin.
Whoa, cold, dang.
Duck thermometer read ten. And that was without windchill. That made it fun. That made it real. A green Nissan was parked where Poole dead-ended into the soccer field. Hopefully the owner was not some perv he would have to outwit.
Or a Nether in the human guise.
Bright, bright blue and cold. Crunch went the snow as he crossed the soccer field. Why did cold such as this give a running guy a headache? Likely it was due to Prominent Windspeed Velocity.
The path into the woods was as wide as one human. It seemed the Nether had indeed kidnapped Suzanne Bledsoe. Damn him! And his ilk. Judging by the single set of tracks, the Nether appeared to be carrying her. Foul cad. He’d better not be touching Suzanne inappropriately while carrying her. If so, Suzanne would no doubt be resisting with untamable fury.
This was concerning, this was very concerning.
When he caught up to them, he would say, Look, Suzanne, I know you don’t know my name, having misaddressed me as Roger that time you asked me to scoot over, but nevertheless I must confess I feel there is something to us. Do you feel the same?
Suzanne had the most amazing brown eyes. They were wet now, with fear and sudden reality.
Stop talking to her, mate, the Nether said.
I won’t, he said. And, Suzanne? Even if you don’t feel there is something to us, rest assured I will still slay this fellow and return you home. Where do you live again? Over in El Cirro? By the water tower? Those are some nice houses back there.
Yes, Suzanne said. We also have a pool. You should come over next summer. It’s cool if you swim with your shirt on. And also, yes to there being something to us. You are by far the most insightful boy in our class. Even when I take into consideration the boys I knew in Montreal, I am just like: no one can compare.
Well, that’s nice to hear, he said. Thank you for saying that. I know I’m not the thinnest.
The thing about girls? Suzanne said. Is we are more content-driven.
Will you two stop already? the Nether said. Because now is the time for your death. Deaths.
Well, now is certainly the time for somebody’s death, Robin said.
The twerpy thing was you never really got to save anyone. Last summer there’d been a dying raccoon out here. He’d thought of lugging it home so Mom could call the vet. But up close it was too scary. Raccoons being actually bigger than they appear in cartoons. And this one looked like a potential biter. So he ran home to get it some water at least. Upon his return, he saw where the raccoon had done some apparent last-minute thrashing. That was sad. He didn’t do well with sad. There had perchance been some pre-weeping, by him, in the woods.
That just means you have a big heart, Suzanne said.
Well, I don’t know, he said modestly.
Here was the old truck tire. Where the high-school kids partied. Inside the tire, frosted with snow, were three beer cans and a wadded-up blanket.
You probably like to party, the Nether had cracked to Suzanne moments earlier as they passed this very spot.
No, I don’t, Suzanne said. I like to play. And I like to hug.
Hoo boy, the Nether said. Sounds like Dullsville.
Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said.
He came out of the woods now to the prettiest vista he knew. The pond was a pure frozen white. It struck him as somewhat Switzerlandish. Someday he would know for sure. When the Swiss threw him a parade or whatnot.
Here the Nether’s tracks departed from the path, as if he had contemplatively taken a moment to gaze at the pond. Perhaps this Nether was not all bad. Perhaps he was having a debilitating conscience attack vis-à-vis the valiantly struggling Suzanne atop his back. At least he seemed to somewhat love nature.
Then the tracks returned to the path, wound around the pond, and headed up Lexow Hill.
What was this strange object? A coat? On the bench? The bench the Nethers used for their human sacrifices?
No accumulated snow on coat. Inside of coat still slightly warm.
Ergo: the recently discarded coat of the Nether.
This was some strange juju. This was an intriguing conundrum, if he had ever encountered one. Which he had. Once, he’d found a bra on the handlebars of a bike. Once, he’d found an entire untouched steak dinner on a plate behind Fresno’s. And hadn’t eaten it. Though it had looked pretty good.
Something was afoot.
Then he beheld, halfway up Lexow Hill, a man.
Coatless, bald-headed man. Super skinny. In what looked like pajamas. Climbing plodfully, with tortoise patience, bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt like two bare white branches sticking out of a p.j. shirt. Or grave.
What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.
Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?
Is there icing on it? he’d said.
Dad had done that thing of squinting his eyes when an answer was not quite there yet.
What was his mind telling him now?
Something was wrong here. A person needed a coat. Even if the person was a grownup. The pond was frozen. The duck thermometer said ten. If the person was mental, all the more reason to come to his aid, as had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves, but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?
He snagged the coat off the bench.
It was a rescue. A real rescue, at last, sort of.
Ten minutes earlier, Don Eber had paused at the pond to catch his breath.
He was so tired. What a thing. Holy moly. When he used to walk Sasquatch out here they’d do six times around the pond, jog up the hill, tag the boulder on top, sprint back down.
Better get moving, said one of two guys who’d been in discussion in his head all morning.
That is, if you’re still set on the boulder idea, the other said.
Which still strikes us as kind of fancy-pants.
Seemed like one guy was Dad and the other Kip Flemish.
Stupid cheaters. They’d switched spouses, abandoned the switched spouses, fled together to California. Had they been gay? Or just swingers? Gay swingers? The Dad and Kip in his head had acknowledged their sins and the three of them had struck a deal: he would forgive them for being possible gay swingers and leaving him to do Soap Box Derby alone, with just Mom, and they would consent to giving him some solid manly advice.
He wants it to be nice.
This was Dad now. It seemed Dad was somewhat on his side.
Nice? Kip said. That is not the word I would use.
A cardinal zinged across the day.
It was amazing. Amazing, really. He was young. He was fifty-three. Now he’d never deliver his major national speech on compassion. What about going down the Mississippi in a canoe? What about living in an A-frame near a shady creek with the two hippie girls he’d met in 1968 in that souvenir shop in the Ozarks, when Allen, his stepfather, wearing those crazy aviators, had bought him a bag of fossil rocks? One of the hippie girls had said that he, Eber, would be a fox when he grew up, and would he please be sure to call her at that time? Then the hippie girls had put their tawny heads together and giggled at his prospective foxiness. And that had never—
That had somehow never—
Sister Val had said, Why not shoot for being the next J.F.K.? So he had run for class president. Allen had bought him a Styrofoam straw boater. They’d sat together, decorating the hatband with Magic Markers. WIN WITH EBER! ON THE BACK: GROOVY! Allen had helped him record a tape. Of a little speech. Allen had taken that tape somewhere and come back with thirty copies, “to pass around.”
“Your message is good,” Allen had said. “And you are incredibly well spoken. You can do this thing.”
And he’d done it. He’d won. Allen had thrown him a victory party. A pizza party. All the kids had come.
Kindest man ever. Had taken him swimming. Had taken him to découpage. Had combed out his hair so patiently that time he came home with lice. Never a harsh, etc., etc.
Not so once the suffering begat. Began. God damn it. More and more his words. Askew. More and more his words were not what he would hoped.
Once the suffering began, Allen had raged. Said things no one should say. To Mom, to Eber, to the guy delivering water. Went from a shy man, always placing a reassuring hand on your back, to a diminished pale figure in a bed, shouting CUNT!
Except with some weird New England accent, so it came out KANT!
The first time Allen had shouted KANT! there followed a funny moment during which he and Mom looked at each other to see which of them was being called KANT. But then Allen amended, for clarity: KANTS!
“You are breaking so many laws right now I don’t even know where to begin.
So it was clear he meant both of them. What a relief.
They’d cracked up.
Jeez, how long had he been standing here? Daylight was waiting.
I honestly didn’t know what to do. But he made it so simple.
Took it all on himself.
So what else is new?
This was Jodi and Tommy now.
Big day today.
I mean, sure, it would have been nice to have a chance to say a proper goodbye.
But at what cost?
Exactly. And see—he knew that.
He was a father. That’s what a father does.
Eases the burdens of those he loves.
Saves the ones he loves from painful last images that might endure for a lifetime.
Soon Allen had become THAT. And no one was going to fault anybody for avoiding THAT. Sometimes he and Mom would huddle in the kitchen. Rather than risk incurring the wrath of THAT. Even THAT understood the deal. You’d trot in a glass of water, set it down, say, very politely, Anything else, Allen? And you’d see THAT thinking, All these years I was so good to you people and now I am merely THAT? Sometimes the gentle Allen would be inside there, too, indicating, with his eyes, Look, go away, please go away, I am trying so hard not to call you KANT!
Rail-thin, ribs sticking out.
Catheter taped to dick.
Waft of shit smell.
You are not Allen and Allen is not you.
So Molly had said.
As for Dr. Spivey, he couldn’t say. Wouldn’t say. Was busy drawing a daisy on a Post-it. Then finally said, Well, honestly? As these things grow, they can tend to do weird things. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be terrible. Had one guy? Just always craved him a Sprite.
And Eber had thought, Did you, dear doctor/savior/lifeline, just say craved him a Sprite?
That’s how they got you. You thought, Maybe I’ll just crave me a Sprite. Next thing you knew, you were THAT, shouting KANT!, shitting your bed, swatting at the people who were scrambling to clean you.
No sirree bob.
Wednesday he’d fallen out of the med-bed again. There on the floor in the dark it had come to him: I could spare them.
Spare us? Or spare you?
Get thee behind me.
Get thee behind me, sweetie.
A breeze sent down a sequence of linear snow puffs from somewhere above. Beautiful. Why were we made just so, to find so many things that happened every day pretty?
He took off his coat.
Took off his hat and gloves, stuffed the hat and gloves in a sleeve of the coat, left the coat on the bench.
This way they’d know. They’d find the car, walk up the path, find the coat.
It was a miracle. That he’d got this far. Well, he’d always been strong. Once, he’d run a half-marathon with a broken foot. After his vasectomy he’d cleaned the garage, no problem.
He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.
His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.
Let. Let me do it cling.
Cleanly…. (Read “Tenth of December” at The New Yorker)
George Saunders has published over twenty short stories and numerous Shouts & Murmurs in The New Yorker since first appearing in the magazine, in 1992. His work includes the short-story collections “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” (a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award), “Pastoralia,” “In Persuasion Nation” (a finalist for the Story Prize), “Tenth of December” (a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of the Folio Prize), “Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness,” and “Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel.” Saunders has won prizes for his best-selling children’s book, “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip,” and for a book of essays entitled “The Braindead Megaphone,” and he has been featured in the “O. Henry Prize Stories,” “Best American Short Stories,” “Best American Nonrequired Reading,” “Best American Travel Writing,” and “Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy” anthologies. Named by The New Yorker one of the best American writers under the age of forty in 1999, Saunders has received fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.