The Catholic boys’ school in New York where I work as a substitute teacher has its own holiday traditions. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which commemorates the conception of Mary, free from sin, is the only day Diet Coke is served at lunch. I fail to see the connection, though Diet Coke is nearly free from calories.
Third graders welcome the holidays with a gingerbread house project. The boys use graham crackers instead of gingerbread, and lots of sticky vanilla frosting from vats labeled Gold Star, to create their structures. Architectural choices are discussed, as are the relative merits of breadth versus height. Gingerbread stories are read aloud while holiday music fills the third-grade hallway.
The boys invite their fathers to help decorate their houses. As a fatherless daughter, I try to dodge father-child events. They happen. But I don’t want details. This year, however, I’m asked to help monitor the party. It starts at three in the afternoon, which ensures most dads can attend. In one case, a father is away and a mother agrees to come in his place. In another, a grandfather happily accepts the invitation—he’s the first to arrive. I find the event, in many ways, sweet, as I circulate the cafeteria, refilling candy dishes and taking pictures of beaming pairs.
I also keep an eye on Charlie Thorpe, whose father is the only one who hasn’t shown up.
“Charlie,” I say. “Do you think we should put extra frosting here? To support this overhang?”
“No,” says Charlie, wiping vanilla goo onto a cherry Dum Dum, still in its wrapper, and sticking it to the roof of his house.
“What if we prop this part up with pretzel sticks?”
He doesn’t answer. Just keeps adding candies. As minutes tick by on the analog clock he’s just learning to read, Charlie watches the door. His hands, on autopilot, stick another candy, and another, to the house’s steep peak.
The roof grows top-heavy. Charlie stews. My thoughts toward Mr. Thorpe, a man I’ve never met, whirl rapidly into a hostile wind. Where are you where are you where are you? My thoughts chill. You are alive. You should be here. They blacken. Are you still alive?
Finally, Charlie’s mother calls the school to say his father was held up in a critical meeting at his banking firm. He’s an executive, after all. But he cut it too close and is stuck in traffic. The way I see it, the only critical meeting this afternoon is the one about the physics of graham-cracker roofs. About how to spread the good stuff evenly.
Suddenly, Charlie’s roof—an inverted triangle now laden with Gummy Bears, Life Savers, and marshmallows—sways, then teeters to the right. I shoot my hand out to catch it but I’m too late. The roof topples, scraping along the sloped sides of the house, taking Skittles and a chocolate Twizzler with it. It lands in a twisted heap of frosting and graham cracker that will later take a whole package of snowman party napkins to clean up.
Charlie climbs off the bench and runs from the room. I follow him as he stomps down the hallway. I think he might turn into the bathroom, but Charlie strides right to the door that leads from the basement to the street. He shoves it open, climbs the steps two at a time, halts at the top (instead of running into the rainy road, thank Mary), and releases a low, long bellow, like an overburdened ox. This sound, from the slight, sad boy, surprises me. I think it should be lighter, more childlike. Elemental and impermanent. But the lament stays, coiling around the boy as he waits for the very thing that won’t come.
I think I might cry, too. I take Charlie’s bony shoulder and guide him back inside.
“I took a cab from downtown,” Mr. Thorpe tells Charlie when he finally arrives. “And not a yellow cab, so it wasn’t cheap or anything.” Charlie’s shoulders heave a few times more, then he smiles and leads his father to the gingerbread mess.
“Let’s forget this roof,” says Mr. Thorpe, smirking as he surveys the damage. Suit jacket still on, he tucks his red tie into his pressed shirt and settles his long legs under the kid-sized table. “Let’s work on a fence!”
“Yeah, Dad. I didn’t like the roof anyway,” says Charlie. They sip hot cocoa and secure the house behind a high Red Vine fence, taking great care to intertwine the sticky rope around lollipop poles.
The smell of frosting becomes nauseating. I look in the fridge for a Diet Coke.
After Charlie and his father leave, without saying a word of goodbye or Merry Christmas to the teachers, I move the roofless house to a cart where it, along with nineteen other houses, can dry safely overnight.
[Refer: “Crash” refers to the children, the recklessness, the winds, in David Romo’s short story “The Men Who Chase Storms.”
Image by Steven Depol via Flickr Creative Commons
Suzanne Farrell Smith‘s essays, memoir, and craft pieces have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, Anderbo, The Monarch Review, The Citron Review, Post Road, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches college writing in Manhattan, where she lives with her husband and son. She can be found online at suzannefarrellsmith.wordpress.com.