“If there was an abundance of misery in the world, there was also sufficient joy, yes – as long as one knew where to look for it.”
— Rohinton Mistry
At the park last Friday, on his 8th birthday, me and Arle watch her son/ my stepson Piper play with some kids his age over by the swings. They size each other up like only kids do/ pressing their tongue to the cold flagpole of living to see if there is threat there. To see if this could work. It’s dicey, kids and their trust. Death wants to rush in, of course, but so do some other things too and some of them are more complicated than Death, with her forever darkness and your worries are finally over and all that. I’m talking weird kid characters that come out of nowhere and tattoo small fragile people with daggers and skulls out of nowhere. It’s the damage done by just being alive, you know? And it comes on hard and fast when you are in your youth/ when you are shy but hungry/ when you long for attention but want to destroy all competition.
So it’s like at the park, I mean, sure, a kid could fly off a swing and bash their head on a rock and die instantly. Or they could be attacked by 50 yellow jackets over by the old shady picnic pavilion and have a terrible allergic reaction and croak right there. Or, and this is WAY more likely, these kids/ my kids/ your kids/ your grandkids/ whatever/ they could be minding their own fucking business eating wood chips and picking their boogers and flashing their asses at each other over at the merry-go-round/ laughing/ smiling/ interacting with other kids they have never even seen before in this lifetime when some broken, hopeless bastard climbs out of their pickup truck and starts popping off shots from that well-oiled American beauty: an AR-15.
I don’t know the rhythm or the cadence or the pattern, I guess. It varies. The shooter decides. The finger, the light touch. The slow squeeze, Louise.
But we block that one out because what can we do with that? With Death, I mean. Nothing. You can stay home, maybe. Keep the kids in the yard. Keep them locked away. But you know… It’s not that easy, is it?
So we take Piper to the park on his birthday and he’s over there talking up a blue streak to a couple of sisters, it seems, their Mom hanging on a bench alone, paying attention but also not, I figure. We zone out a little at the park. We turn our backs on the traffic out on the road, on the people over at the farmer’s market selling sunflowers and crates of peaches and homemade whoopie pies and stuff. And that’s when A-Punch-in-the-Neck and I-Shit-On-Your-Feelings and Fat-Kid-Sad and all those kinds of characters always show up. And the kids, they just stand over there in it. Take it as it comes. Cry or don’t. Slap a motherfucker or don’t. It’s random, isn’t it, this life of ours?
I have no idea how any of this is happening.
It’s primal and raw and we are the art and we are the trash and I am tired from running and hurting. Sore from all the fucking. Wasted in the evenings. Doing lines of sunshine right off the farm ponds I fly by in my Honda, trying to understand this hard erratic dream of existence.
Where will these kids end up? I wonder about it as I sit there with Arle at a picnic table, each of us pounding on an Italian hoagie from the same small town deli she grew up going to. Look at those three over there. Two siblings and a stranger in town.
They might never see each other again, but here they are now/ standing in this old Indian valley/ checking each other out underneath a bald eagle that Arle spots in the sky/ turning towards the creek/ as I gawk at it and screech at it with a mouthful of salami and provolone. Fucking majestic dragon right above our heads. The kids ignore it to bits. They just don’t care.
I watch them. I drag from the bottle of Diet Pepsi and the bubbles are sparks shooting off the metal walls of my throat. They zip and spazz up against my chest cavity and it’s an old effervescence that takes me back.
Diet Pepsi at 50. I’m tired. Determined. Eager. But: meh. My blood doesn’t heat up as swiftly anymore. I feel the zing of the soda shooting down into me and it’s good and real and I like it still, but something is different now too. I don’t know what. It seems silly, I guess. Diet Pepsi. And a goddamn hoagie. I mean, everything is lies. Visions of a better me, you can have ‘em, man. I’ve been carrying them around forever. Like boxes of old baseball cards. They were worth a little once upon a time, but they ain’t worth shit now, homie.
Diet Pepsi at 12. Electric currents of Razzmatazz blowing out through my chunky body veins like candied junk/ like gummy heroin/ like a Swedish Fish covered in blow and all that promise from all that heavy-powered nitro-charged bubble drug racing through my land/ roaring through my long tiny caverns/ and introducing me to the witchy charms of momentary bliss/ tickling my little young buck jawn with a boa feather/ making me feel so alive and alert and like I know things I don’t know. Diet soda boy all hopped up on the American chemicals feeling like a home run hitter/ like a lifeguard with the tan big elephant trunk/ like Billy Idol on the TV/ staring into my eyes and punching the cameraman in the face and snarling in a way that tells me everything I need to know about the good life and where it lives and why I will likely never ever suck it’s tit from down here in my mom’s living room/ with my wet shower head smelling like lilac. Lilac Boy watching MTV.
Jesus Christ. What happened to me?
His legs are so skinny. Piper’s, I mean. His legs are long and skinny and pale and his knees look like a bird down in a snake. His hair is red and it’s short but he wants it long but his dad will never allow it, I think. Some people don’t want their boys to have long hair. Not me. I want my lads to have hair like that one motherfucker in the Oak Ridge Boys. Old Testament Backwoods Kentucky Branson Creepy Uncle Hair. I don’t care. What does it matter?
Piper lunges and flies and I watch him leave the Earth at times/ floating in the air/ unaware of it himself/ but I see it. I look at Arle out the corner of my eye to see if she is seeing it too, but I can’t tell. I’m thinking she must. She’s the one that noticed the eagle a couple minutes ago. So she must be seeing her own kid levitating like he’s doing.
He floats, at one point, at least thirty or forty feet up along an ancient oak tree/ maybe three or four feet out from its scraggy bark. I watch him looking down at the park below him and at one point I see his brown eyes shining in some random pipe of early afternoon sunshine sticking down through the canopy of branches and leaves. His face is calm and he’s not smiling but more like looking at me with a satisfied mind. Like he has always been aware that he could do this, that he could rise above all of this and take his body into the sky where no one else can.
I am speechless and I feel the soft hoagie roll slip out of my fat fingers as I stare up at him. He is shifting on ever-so-lightly, kind of the way a lost carnival balloon would if some kid let it go and it drifted up the tree only to get snagged way up there somehow. Maybe the string gets wedged in between a couple branches? I don’t know. Maybe a squirrel child reaches out of a dark rotten cavity up there by a burl and pinches the thin string as it moves upward and stops its flight, but it still bobs and weaves in the slightest shifts of the atmosphere doing her thing.
It’s almost the same as in Stranger Things when those kids are dragged up into the sky by Vecna. Except here, it all feels safe, for some reason. I don’t understand it at all. Don’t ask me, man. I have no clue.
To read the rest of this essay and more from Serge Bielanko, subscribe to his Substack feed HERE.
• • •
Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattlling around his noggin. Once in a blue Muskie Moon, he backs away from the computer, straps on a guitar and plays some rock ’n’ roll with his brother Dave and their bandmates in Marah.