His wife would have said that routine makes a person lazy and he would have told her that might be true but this isn’t that, sitting in the dark by the kitchen window, smoking among the appliance lights. Outside the streetlamps are all aglow and canted shadows lie along the block, a few window lights yet burning in the buildings, and it still amazes him, how quiet the city can get.
He hears a door open, foot creaks in the hall. He stubs out his cigarette on the sill and flicks it out into the night in a fleeting orange arc, shuts the screen, fans away the smoke with his hand. All routine, maybe so. His daughter will have seen by now his empty bed, and he waits for her to find him. When he’d done this that first night, she’d cried out for him and begun to sob hysterically in the hall between their rooms, and he’d had to rush over, stumbling through the dark, calling out her name. He’d had to haul her up from the floorboards and hold her against his shoulder to prove he’d gone nowhere, whispering into her ear that everything was all right, not to worry, and how those cooed reassurances were meant every bit as much for himself.
Now she walks sedately though the apartment, appearing at the far end of the galley kitchen in her pajamas. Her hair tells of a restless night same as his, all toss and turn, struggling against the circumstances of their new reality, and at first they simply stare at each other across the linoleum, the fridge humming softly in the corner.
Then he says, Hello again.
She answers by taking a single step into the kitchen, standing there in the half dark with a posture all too familiar. She has her mother’s strong chin and cheekbones and a few of her mannerisms, the way she scratches the tip of her nose with a single finger, the way she holds her shoulders, weary but resolute, uncomplaining.
She takes from the wall one of the metal folding chairs, cumbersome in her small arms, and shambles toward him. He knows better than to help her. Only when she reaches him does he take the chair from her and unfold it so that they can sit together by the window, the night sounds beyond drifting like thoughts. It is the beginning of September, and a cool wind sifts in through the screen. She moves some hair out of her face, her eyes, the earnest look they carry. He wants to know what she sees but doesn’t ask, and in the bluish light he understands that she will grow up to be very beautiful.
He asks her if she was able to get any sleep at all. She nods. She says, A little. Their voices are hushed, little louder than the distant drag of traffic on the avenue.
Do I have to go? she says.
It’s your first day of fifth grade. Don’t you want to see your friends?
She shrugs. She looks out the window as if she might spot them.
You’ll be fine. It won’t be any different from last year, he tells her, and immediately regrets saying this.
She looks at him and then out the window again. He notes her line of sight. She’s staring at the crushed cigarettes on the outside sill, the ones he had not chucked and have yet to be taken by the wind, but she says nothing and will say nothing. What is there to say? The cigarettes are something new but only relatively and only to the daughter. His first pack in nearly fifteen years had been an impulse purchase, a box of reds pointed out to the drugstore clerk after she’d already rung up the toilet paper and mouthwash and store-brand cookies. He’d bought a lighter as well and had lit one up on the short walk back to the apartment and he did not, does not, has never tried to keep it a secret. His clothes these days often reek of stale smoke and ash. And those things will kill you, that’s what she can say.
He says, What are you thinking about?
She shrugs. She says, Just thinking.
He thinks he knows what she means by this, that her thoughts are her own, that her silence is not an invitation for inquiry. He thinks also she is too reticent for her age.
She begins to say something but stops, and he does not press her. He knows he must be patient.
Finally, she says, Will you help me with my hair?
Help me do my hair.
He takes a phantom drag and issues a thin stream of air from between his lips. I don’t know, he says. I’m no good with that stuff.
She doesn’t say anything.
He says, What’s wrong with your hair? You just need to brush it is all.
She’s looking out the window. He watches her a moment and then looks along with her, trying to see whatever it is she sees, the things a child might notice. But there’s just the city out there, the same old bricks and wrought iron and rust. He can hear a train clattering by in the night over the elevated track. He can hear the grinding of a garbage truck’s compactor some block or two over. It is all the habits and idiosyncrasies of life during the small hours, the people at their graveyard shifts, this is what he hears, doing what they need to do.
There’s the matter of updating insurance policies and banking accounts, of sending a copy of her death certificate to the three credit bureaus. There’s the matter of closing her email and canceling her driver’s license and reviewing her 401k and stock allotments and hiring an attorney or accountant or whoever you hire to help make sense of it all—all the obscure and esoteric details that suddenly become so quotidian that you feel naive and callow and at the same time finally understand what it is like to be part of this world.
He looks up briefly at the one star unobscured by city lights. There is nothing special about this star but that it is there and he can see it, tremulous against the dark and how lonely, how far away.
After a while, he says, I miss the sound of yardwork.
She looks at him but is quiet.
Lawn mowers, he says. Leaf blowers. Is that weird?
I don’t know.
I guess you haven’t heard much of that stuff anyway. When we go to visit Nana maybe. Where we grew up though it was all like that. And the smell of grass clippings, charcoal grills. Chimney smoke in the winter. Traded all that for garbage and dog piss.
This makes her laugh a little. He smiles along.
I used to mow lawns for money, he says. When I was a kid. Fourteen, fifteen. Had a few clients. Used my pop’s old piece of junk mower. Thing was a pain to get started. One time had the ripcord snap on me.
She sits there, listening. He’s never told her this stuff before, such mundane details of his childhood.
It was pretty good money, he says. That and shoveling snow in the winter. Driveways, walkways. Driveways mostly. Your mother, she didn’t go to my school. She lived in the town over. But that was the first time I saw her, shoveling her driveway. She was coming home from somewhere, out with friends I guess. I don’t think I said anything. I remember her smiling but I don’t think I said anything. I’m trying to remember if I even smiled back.
He expects her to ask some question about her mother, what she was like back then, was she pretty, that kind of stuff. But she seems uninterested, or distracted, the way she’s fidgeting with the hem of her shirt, and he decides it must be nerves, big day tomorrow, or in a few hours.
Maybe we should get back to sleep, he says.
I’m not tired.
You will be. You should get some rest. We should get some rest. I’ll be nodding off at my desk later.
Just a little longer, she says. Maybe we could wait just a little bit longer.
He wants to ask what they’re waiting for but doesn’t. He looks down the kitchen. There’s the empty cereal box on the table among food crumbs and stains and the lone banana going brown in a bowl. There’s the stove mottled with grease and the tumbler smeared with thumbprints on the nearby counter, tinted ice melt pooled at the bottom. There’s the one chair left leaning against the wall.
He says, Are you hungry? I’m feeling a little hungry.
Maybe a grilled cheese? he says.
She seems to be thinking this over. Then she says, Maybe.
Which means yes. He gets up and walks over to the fridge. The light inside is sallow. He takes out the butter, the cheese singles. He takes down the bread from the basket atop the fridge. Then he opens the dishwasher and removes two plates, a pan, a spatula, a knife. The laziness that this alludes to is not lost on him. He just doesn’t much care. So what if the dishwasher has become a kind of cabinet, the hamper a kind of drawer? His daughter seems to enjoy this slant on life, confusing something sad and a little pathetic for an eccentricity, some quirky carefree outlook that sees no problem with the dirty plates stacked in the sink or with the pot sitting on the back burner with potato water two days old.
But there are also the flowers, whatever their kind, the purple and yellow ones gone black and shriveled in their clay planters on the fire escape.
The flame burns in a dull blue rosette. Butter crackles in the pan. He presses down with the spatula, melted cheese oozing out from between the bread. The scent is thick and rich. He fans away the rising smoke.
Maybe after this, he says, we can dance. He looks over at her just in time to catch her stifling a smile. He thinks sometimes she likes to be serious, wants to be known as someone who is serious.
What? she says.
He smiles, shrugs. He does a little butt shimmy that sets her to giggling. All right, he says. He kills the flame and plates their sandwiches, cuts them into triangles. Beyond the window a gray light is seeping out of the east, the rooftop antennas standing in stark silhouette against the dawn. He hands her one of the plates and sits beside her, telling her to be careful, maybe let it cool a minute.
But she lifts one of the halves and takes a bite. He watches her chew.
You want some milk? he says.
She shakes her head, her jaws working steadily.
He says, We used to dance, you and me. You remember that?
She contemplates her sandwich for a moment before shaking her head again. In the chair her feet hang a few inches above the cracked linoleum.
You were young, he says. His own words make him smile. You are young, he says. But you were young.
What would we dance to? she says.
Anything. Slow stuff mostly. You would stand on my feet. I didn’t know what I was doing, how to dance. But you liked it. Somehow, I think you always took the lead.
Their plates are empty now, just some crumbs, blots of congealed cheese. They sit watching the sun rise out of the ragged skyline.
How are you feeling? he says.
Fine, she says.
He takes the plate from her lap and adds it to the sink along with his own. He runs the water a moment and then cuts the tap.
He says, You can stay home today if you want. First day doesn’t really matter that much. I can call in sick, we can just watch TV all day. Maybe go out for a movie. How’s that sound?
She’s still staring out the window, a few birds out there calling on the wing. She says, Do you think birds know where they’re going?
What do you mean?
Do you think they know where they’re going, or they just fly?
He looks out the window as if for reference. I’m sure they have some general idea of where they’re headed, he says.
But you don’t know for sure?
No, he says. Not for sure. I mean they migrate, some of them. They fly south for the winter, that kind of stuff.
I mean like these birds, she says. Just if they go from one roof to another, did they know that roof?
I don’t know, he says. He nearly asks her why she’s so interested in the behavior of birds but lets it go.
She says, You know what I like to think?
He waits. He looks out the window with her and waits, watching the birds veer above the rooftops.
I like to think that they don’t know. That they don’t know where they’re going.
Why’s that? he says. Their voices are still hushed, as if any louder and they might wake the whole city.
Because it doesn’t stop them.
He looks at her, his daughter, their daughter, and can’t help but smile. He leans, draws her close, holds her head against his lips for long second, and understands that they’ll make it through this. He’ll quit smoking. He’ll do the laundry and put the plates back where they’re supposed to be.
He says, All right. He runs his fingers through her hair, gently breaking a few knots. He says, I can get the brushing part down. But you’ll have to walk me through the rest.
“ What happens in a story is often very different from what a story is about. And what a story is about can change with time, filtered through culture and current events and your own experiences. ‘Just Fly’ has meant several things to me since the time I finished writing it. When I read it now, I take it to be a reflection on uncertainty and pressing forward. How else is one to move on? ”