“What did it mean to be a person in this world?” 3-year-old Walter asks himself somewhere in his subconscious in this weekend’s brilliant story by Sarah Tourjee. Isn’t that the question we’re all asking? As a parent, and as a person, this story seemed necessary to me, in its struggle to figure out what one’s place in the world is, or becomes, and in its insight into the human condition of being there. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
For Walter more and more the goal of life became to get from one place to the next. This had not always been the case. His life previously had been lived moment to moment—the need to end up somewhere else had never occurred to him. But now, yes, it had occurred to him. He saw quite clearly that one could not stay in one place all of one’s life, and in fact, staying in one place for one moment longer than the time he felt content there, was a disastrous waste of time and a disservice to his person. What did it mean to be a person in this world? He understood this clearer every day as his life expanded according to his desires. The trail he left behind him was proof that once he had been there and now he was here—once he had wanted to be in the kitchen and now he wanted to be in the yard, and so there he was. This pleased him.
Tina did not want him in the yard. Tina wanted him in the kitchen where she could keep an eye on him. She wanted to cook dinner early so that she could get him fed, because if dinner was finished by seven then they would be able to get to the park at a reasonable time. Last year they had been slow getting out of the house and by the time they had gotten to the park, all the decent spots were taken and they had had to sit at the far edge of the field where the grass didn’t grow in evenly, and where, because of all the trees, they had swatted mosquitos all night long and had missed most of the fireworks behind the large branches.
Walter of course did not understand that it was the 4th of July, and he had grown out of his interest in observing her as she cooked, but he was still too young, in her opinion, to be out in the yard alone. And there he was now, out in the yard getting filthy, and soon she would have to go out after him and somehow convince him to come inside without a huge time-consuming ordeal. More and more the goal of life became just getting from one place to another.
What was the purpose of other people in his own life? This concept eluded Walter daily, though at moments he saw glimpses of its paradox. Other people’s wants could sometimes interfere with his own, and then, because he was himself, it was his obligation to himself to persuade the other person that they should want something that corresponded to his own desires.
The paradox occurred in this instance. Because if he acknowledged that the other person was indeed a person (and he admitted he must acknowledge it), then it was the other person’s obligation to their own person to persuade him to shift his own desires to correspond with theirs. What to do about this was puzzling. Who should win out in the end?
His mother was angry now, was throwing up her hands and walking back in the house as if she would let him stay out there if that’s what he insisted. He had won out. He had persuaded her to shift her desires. His obligation to his person was complete. But he could not say for certain that her desires had actually shifted to correspond with his own. If this was so, she would be very pleased in the house now, propping up her feet as she sometimes did, or pouring herself a glass of wine and feeling happy that he was out in the yard. The more he thought about this, the more he wanted to know for sure. He could always return to the yard if it suited him. This was his life, after all.
He walked to the door and peered in. His mother was sitting at the table. To his dismay she did not look pleased and her feet were not propped. She looked the way he sometimes felt when she forced him to take a nap. Why should someone sleep when they wanted to be out in the yard? She was on the phone with someone saying, “I’m trying but he’s still outside so I don’t know when we’ll get there. Try to save a spot for us if you can. I know. I know, but if you can. Ok, thanks. Bye.” Save us a spot for what? he wondered. She had been talking all day about something that they couldn’t be late for, but she was always saying things like that. He had no idea what it meant because it never seemed to matter when they arrived anywhere. What did it mean to be “late” and what was the consequence? He found himself saying these words out loud.
Tina heard Walter’s little voice say, “What does late mean?” and looked up suddenly, surprised to see him there on the other side of the screen door looking in at her. This question confounded her for a moment. Had she really been warning him for three years about being late without ever explaining what it meant to be late? But now, what did it mean to be late?
“It means that you have to be where you want to be at a certain time and if you get there after that time, you’ve missed it. You don’t get to do what you wanted to do.”
This answer was as confounding to Walter as the question had been to his mother. He had just recently discovered that the goal of life was to get from the place you didn’t want to be anymore to the place you wanted to be, and now she was telling him that he might not get there in time. He might be late. He might have to stay in the place he didn’t want to be. He felt like crying. He didn’t even know what they might be late for. He didn’t even know if he wanted to be there at all. Right now he wanted to stay in the yard. But suppose he realized later that he wanted to be at this other place, after all, and by the time he realized it they were late and no one had saved them a spot?
Tina began to rearrange furniture. This was always a bad sign. The couch had been in seven different locations of the living room during Walter’s short life, none of them adequate, apparently, for the long haul of living. This act was meant to tell him something, he knew that much.
In the scheme of things that were important the fireworks weren’t that important. Tina had been over this—letting the chips fall as they may, letting go of things that were out of her control. Still, of course, Walter was her child and, at the age of 3, was very much in her control. Why did it not feel that way? Sure, she could simply go outside, pick him up, bring him in the house, wash him, feed him dinner, put him in the car, and go to the fireworks. But she did not do this. Was the ensuing screaming worth it? Today it was not. Today she could not bear to force a person to do a thing they did not wish to do, and so instead she maneuvered the legs and arms of inanimate things into new positions in her living room. This would make her feel better; with a new arrangement she would be able to relax.
Walter resumed his position in the yard. He filled the carriage of a dump truck with dirt and grass and an unfortunate plastic bystander. He drove the vehicle to a recently dug hole and dumped the contents of the carriage. The truck backed up too far and tumbled into the hole, flipping three times on the way down. But he found himself unable to enjoy it. She had ruined it for him, the one thing that gave him the most pleasure in this world. She had ruined it. He could think of nothing else but lateness, of furniture, of his mother’s thrown up arms. Never again would it be possible for him to enjoy one moment for what it was. The present, the only true reality, was forever marred. From now on whatever joy he felt in a moment would be shaded by preparations for the next. Would they be late? Where, in his life, did he ultimately want to be? Would he get there in time? He wanted to be in the yard now, but how long could he stay here before he missed his next desire completely? Why was his mother moving furniture and allowing this to happen? Walter began to cry.
The love seat sat temporarily in the middle of the room, revealing a large rectangle of dust and stray puzzle pieces where it had previously rested. Tina looked at the dust as though deciding what could be done. She pushed the armchair across the floor into the rectangle, and relocated an end table to cover what remained. This seemed better. Yes, it was a big improvement. Her thoughts shifted to Walter. He should at least eat dinner. She would try again. She walked to the screen door and saw him sitting by his sandbox, trucks buried in sand as they often were. She saw that he was crying, rubbing his face with his hands so that muddy tears ran down his swollen cheeks. She opened the door and ran to him. “What’s wrong, Walt? What happened?” she said and tried to put her arms around him, but he pushed her away.
Walter was relieved to see her running to him. He wanted to be in her arms. This would make him feel better; he would be able to relax. But as she tried to pull him to her he could not allow it. He hated her. He said this very thing. “I hate you!” His crying turned to sobs. In the pit of Tina’s stomach she felt a solidifying, she felt an object start to rise. A rock that travelled from her gut up beneath her ribcage, and then forced its way into her esophagus where it sat for a few moments before resuming its ascent. She had heard this statement before—his hatred was a common enough result of naps and baths and vegetables. But he looked at her fiercely, backed away from her, and she felt, for the first time, that he meant it. The stone reached her tonsils and she began to cry.
The sight of her tears compelled Walter to scream, “I hate you!” again, even louder. He immediately regretted it—what he had said—and yet he said it again. “I hate you!” Each of them froze, unable to approach the other, and cried.
“Why, Walt? What’s wrong?” Tina finally asked. Walter was unsure. His life hung in the balance. Didn’t she know? Was she willing to risk all the purpose of his life so that she could fulfill her own and move furniture? A great expanse lay between them, so wide that it might never be crossed. He might be alone here forever, a small soul left to get from one place to the next all by himself for the rest of his life. “You’re making me late!” he bellowed and then dropped to the ground, helpless, and wailed. Tina went over to him, put out her hands to him, and he crawled into her arms, defeated. Had he wanted to go after all? She felt horrible then for not seeing it. He was only 3. “You want to go to the fireworks?” she asked, and kissed his filthy cheek. “Yes,” he said softly—he realized this was all he wanted—and she could feel his crying begin to subside. She carried him into the house.