“Hold it there, Shawn,” the tall, slender man tells his son. The tall, slender man holds the kite high above his head full of dark, curly hair and walks backward as his son, who has an identical head full of identically dark, curly hair stands as still as a lighthouse as the wind blows the the hair of both about.
“On my count, I want you to pull hard on the string and take two steps back, okay?” the tall, slender man says loudly. His voice booms across the open city park field and he holds one hand to his brow to shield his bright, green eyes from the sun.
“Mm-hmm,” the boy nods. He steadies his gaze and plants his feet firmly, shoulder width apart. His reedy, willow branch of a body stands at the ready.
“Did you hear me, Shawn?” the tall, slender man shouts against the wind.
“Yes,” the boy says. He has a thin voice that matches his build. Light, airy, delicate to the point of femininity. The tall, slender man shakes his head and the boy looks at the ground.
“This is going to be great, Shawn. You’ll see.”
The boy says nothing. He stares at his father, watching his tailored wool gray slacks and wingtip shoes make their impossibly long backward strides. He watches his father, his back erect, his hands strong and true. The boy looks down at his own.
“1-” the father says.
The boy sees skeletal, spindly fingers. “Painter’s hands,” his mother said when he was little. His classmates call them death’s. They poke him in the ribs, they laugh at how small he is and how easily he is knocked around the playground.
“2-” the father says.
The boy thinks of Elliot, the boy in his class who, at twice his size, drop kicked a soccer ball into the back of his head yesterday. That’s why, the boy assumes, his father is out with him in this field.
“3-” the father shouts, taking a hop-step backward and throwing the kite into the sky. The kite falls listlessly to the ground and the boy, realizing what has happened, feels his face light on fire.
The tall, slender man doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t yell, he doesn’t scream and he doesn’t berate his son as the boy has heard Elliot’s father do. He simply looks across the field at the boy and looks down at the kite. The boy feels as though gasoline has just been poured on his cheeks. He would’ve preferred his father just shout at him, tell him what a disappointment he is as a son. The boy looks at the ground. He feels a tug on the string in his hand and he looks up to see his father once again holding the kite above his head.
“This is going to be great, Shawn. You’ll see.”
The boy cannot for the life of him see what is so appealing about a kite. Lots of things fly. Airplanes, rockets, birds, Superman. The boy even saw a hovercraft once at the science museum. Compared to these things, a kite does not hold much weight. It’s just some purple paper, framed by some wood and tied to a string which is then wrapped around a cardboard spindle.
A kite doesn’t even fly without wind.
The tall, slender man retraces his long, sure backward steps, holding the kite above his head. His wristwatch gleams in the sun. The boy loves his father’s wristwatch- its precision, its consistency, its familiar sound. He does not ever touch the wristwatch, but he often stares at it. When he’s been caught doing so, his father asks if he’d like to hold it, to wear it. It has been offered several times, casually and easily, his father unfurling the clasp with such nonchalance and elegance that the boy becomes stunned and frozen. He cannot imagine being trusted with such a priceless treasure and indeed, would never want to be held responsible for what would, inevitably, occur to it in his hands and so, he refuses.
“On my count, Shawn. I’ll count to three and you’ll need to pull back to give the kite loft. Remember? We talked about this on the way over. You’ve got to pull to create the loft the kite needs to soar.”
The boy stares at his father. Of course he remembered what he’d been told. How could he not? Was it possible to ignore a man so surely a genius? Was it possible to ignore a man so clearly in command of himself and everyone around him? Even if it were possible- why would anyone ever want to ignore such a man?
“Remember, Shawn- loft.”
The boy watches as his father scans the field, waiting for the wind to pick up a bit more. The boy recalls the last time he saw this look- when his father came to visit his fifth grade classroom to speak to his classmates for “Bring Your Parent To School Day”. He remembers how satisfying it was, after being called a liar so often, to see the looks on their faces when his father addressed them all, professionally, though with a certain casual flair saying, “Good morning, boys and girls. I’m Shawn’s father and I’m a theoretical physicist.”
The wind picks up a bit.
“1-” the father says.
All of the students sat stunned. They looked and listened in awe as they watched the tall, slender man talk as much with his hands as with his big, booming radio voice about the laboratory in which he worked and who he worked with and the sorts of things they spent their days thinking about. The boy remembers how his father had drawn rotations of planets on the whiteboard in green- both Shawn and his father’s favorite color- and their rotations and axes in blue and how, despite the students not understanding a word of what the tall, slender man was saying to them, sat in rapt attention, hanging on every word and gesture. Even the pretty young teacher sat rapt by the boy’s father. The boy wonders how it must feel to command the attention of people so easily. He remembers visiting his father’s office one day and seeing scientist after scientist come in to see his father, to ask him questions and to listen to his answers. The boy thought it amazing to see such clearly intelligent men and women come to see his father and consult his intelligence but was terribly embarrassed when they attempted to speak to the boy himself. Each scientist came and wanted to talk to the boy, but he could think of nothing to say and thought it better not to prove to his father’s colleagues that the son paled in light of the father.
“2-” the father says.
The boy thought that his father coming to his school might make things better. That his peers, upon seeing his father and his father’s clear quality, might begin to regard he himself a bit better than they had before. But the boy was wrong. The ridicule came more frequently, if anything. And, to make matters worse, it came tinged with the venom of comparison. “Be a man like your dad, Scrawny Shawny!” came the taunts from the boys. “Your dad looks like a movie star, Shawn. What happened to you?” echoed the girls. Even the teacher had slipped one day. The lesson on long division seemed to be going so well and the boy felt in command, felt confident in his ability to handle the material and so, when the teacher asked for a volunteer, Shawn raised his spindly hand.
“Shawn!” the teacher had said. “This is quite a surprise! Please come up to the board.”
The boy had stepped lightly through the rows of desks and even managed to avoid Elliot’s stupid, big foot as it tried to trip him, arriving at the board unscathed.
“Shawn, would you please show us how many times 183 can be divided by 17?” And, if you would, please solve to four decimal places?”
The boy had nodded. He took the green marker from the teacher and felt his face go red when her hand brushed his.
“Ooooooo!” a few of the girls’ voices sang out.
The boy wrote on the board in his best penmanship and made quick work of the problem, much to his teacher and peers’ surprise. He stepped away from the board and handed the marker back to the teacher.
“183 can be divided by 17 10.764 times, miss,” he had said lightly, though confidently.
The teacher shook her head and smiled sadly.
“I’m sorry, Shawn. Very close. That is the correct answer, but you only solved to three decimal places. Imagine if your father had done such a careless thing in his work!”
The class erupted in laughter.
“3-” the father shouts, taking a hop-step backward and throwing the kite into the sky. The kite floats for a brief moment in the strong wind. It flexes like a five-year old flexing in the mirror after his bath might, before again falling listlessly to the ground.
The field of the city park is silent.
The boy does not look up. He cannot. He will not. He knows that if he does, it will be just like the time when his father tried to teach him to play catch and the boy, despite his best efforts and attempts, could not manage to get the baseball to land with a loud THWACK sound in the basket of his mitt as his father had shown him. His father had told him that he was doing wonderfully, had praised his natural ability, but the boy had grown listless after so many failed attempts to do it as his father had done. Just as it had been with hiking before baseball and the boy’s inability to skip a stone at the lake at the top of the trail. Just as it had been when his father had tried to teach him to spit sunflower seeds at the baseball game or shown him how to tie a knot.
The wind howls now and the boy continues to stare at his stupid white tennis shoes that don’t look anything like his father’s wingtips or perfectly polished grand piano black dress shoes. The boy’s shoulders drop and he feels his stupid left eye form a stupid small tear.
He sees two large wingtip shoes come alongside his own stupid white tennis shoes. The boy feels his father’s strong and true hands grasp his own stupid skeletal ones. Together, they hold the spindle of the kite that the boy can’t seem to fly. The boy feels his father’s chin rest on the top of his stupid, curly haired head. The head that can’t do long division and can’t think of anything to say when people talk to him. The boy feels his father get down on one knee and lean his long, slender body into the boy’s. The body that holds the stupid, airy, feminine voice that endlessly embarrasses him. The boy feels his chest begin to hyperventilate.
The boy doesn’t want to, but he knows that he is crying.
“Shawn,” the boy’s father whispers. “This is going to be great. I promise. You’ll see.”
No, the boy shakes his head to say. It won’t.
“Take a deep breath,” the boy can feel his father’s voice vibrating his whole body. “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do this together, okay? And you’re not going to think about anything else. You’re going to look at me the whole time. I’m going to hold the kite and then you’re going to start to run backward. You’ll have to be the one to start, though, and you can go whenever you want. When you start running, so will I-”
“But you’ll be faster than me,” the boy says, his voice quaking.
“No, I won’t. Do you know why?” the tall, slender man says.
The boy shakes his head and his dark, curly hair waves across his forehead. The father smiles. He runs his large hand through the boy’s hair, cradling the back of the boy’s head. The man wipes the tears from his son’s face.
“Because we’re going to do it together.”
The tall, slender man stands up and throws his shoulders back, walking toward the kite still fluttering on the ground in the breeze. He reaches down for the kite and as he stands up straight again, he sees in the corner of his eye, his son throwing his shoulders back, whispering to himself. The tall, slender man quickly hides his beaming smile behind the kite. He feels a slight tug on the cord and lowers the kite, his face straight, his countenance once again stone.
“Are you ready?” the man asks his son. The wind has picked up again. The boy nods, nearly imperceptibly, his countenance stone as well. The man cannot help it. He smiles. The boy cannot hide his shock and so, he turns to run. The wind begins to howl as the two pick up speed across the field. They careen and the wind whistles through their eardrums. The man cannot help but think of all of the times he laid in bed with his wife. Her touch, her breath on his neck as they fell asleep. He remembers her voice, so soft, airy and delicate. He remembers being at her bedside in the hospital as her heart gave him its final moments.
“He’s just like you,” she whispered, almost imperceptibly. “His hair, his hands. Our boy is just like you.”
“No,” he had replied, his breath being crushed by a chest that could not hold everything he wanted to say to her, his great love. “He’s just like you. His voice, his heart. He’s better than me. You’re better than me.”
She smiled. She closed her eyes.
The tall, slender man releases the kite and it erupts into the wind- sailing, soaring. It is ebullient, careening into the sun. He watches his son as the boy gives the kite more and more slack and it rises higher and higher. The tall, slender man lives in a perpetual state of shock and awe at his son’s preternatural ability in seemingly everything- math, science, sports, art and now, kite-flying. The boy has stopped running and the wind blows his curly hair about as his bright green eyes, stare into the cloudless sky.
The father and his son make eye contact and the father, his own curly hair whipping about, smiles broadly, unable to hide his joy. The son, still holding the kite string, releases one hand and waves his father over, gesturing to him to hold the kite.
The boy watches as his father comes toward him, his stride impossibly long. The tall, slender man gets down on one knee behind his son, and takes the kite and his son’s long, slender hands into his own.
“You’re doing it, Shawn,” the man’s deep voice resonating in his son’s chest.
“We’re doing it,” the boy says quietly. They both look up into the sky and watch as the kite tails from side to side. The tall, slender man breathes deeply, his son’s scent resonating in his nostrils. The boy smells just like her. Better than him, better than life itself. The royal purple kite continues to rise into the wind and the tall, slender man remembers, as his son leans backward into his chest, that it was his wife’s favorite color.
The wind whispers in their eardrums and resonates in the field.
The father begins to unwind the string from the spindle. The boy, preternaturally, understanding. Together, they reach the last wind. The father pinches the string just above the spindle and the boy lets the spindle fall to the ground. He pinches over the top of his father’s fingers.
“1-” the father says.
“2-” the boy says.
Together, they let go.