Story — From the June 2016 issue

Let’s Go to the Videotape

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The finalists were him and some other people, but really there was just him. Him filming his boy, who was riding a bike for the first time. A red-and-blue Spider-Man one-speed with plastic webbing and Spidey graphics arrayed along the frame. The bike had been this year’s Christmas surprise because Gus was five and not so much depressed as departed from faith that the universe doled out her favors equitably. He was, in this way, easy to impress but hard to parent, which often felt to Nick like trying to grow a happy boy in the soil of their misfortune.

Who doesn’t film his kid experiencing a threshold moment? It was bittersweet, really. Of course it was. Gus pedaling away on his own, newly aware of his autonomy, which contravened everything Nick had taught him by force of grief, the bond between them fortified by the loss of Nick’s wife — Gus’s mom — three years ago in a car accident that was still being litigated today.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

And so, the film. Possibly the winner of America’s Funniest Home Videos, on which was: Gus wobbling along on his bike, insisting his father not let go, as Nick gripped an iPhone that actually corrected for the tremble in his hand as he did let go, despite the screaming woman who’d taken up residence in his heart the instant his wife died — her name was Dread — and Gus, whose fear turned to joy when he realized he wasn’t falling, on the contrary he was flying. There was, also, a hint of the disconnect that afflicts people who are filming an event instead of participating in it, so that even as Gus’s tire snagged on a rock and he vaulted over the handlebars; as his helmet, which was too big, came down over his eyes like the curtain at show’s end; as he popped out of the bush where he had landed and turned around several times because he could not see; as he cried out to his father, Nick beheld this spectacle at a distance, and continued to film.

Later, when they watched the clip at home, they agreed Gus had been pretty scared but also that it was pretty funny. He looked like one of those animals with its head trapped in a bag. Cue the circus music and probably Nick’s friends would be amused.

They were. The next morning, six emailed back saying: Hilarious. Also: That kid. And: I forwarded this to my sister who teaches kindergarten, and even she thought it was a riot. By day’s end, it had been posted online, subtitled humorously, and had more than 5,000 views.

The studio was warm. Sweat dribbled down the host’s neck, which someone kept blotting with a paper towel. He two-stepped across the room and worked his face into expressions of mirth. When he smiled, you could see his molars and caps. The audience sat on padded bleachers arranged as if someone had tossed them there. Ten grand, the host was saying, because that was the top prize for the night.

“Shoo-in,” Nick whispered, and poked Gus in the ribs.

“Too tight,” Gus said, and yanked at his chinos. The audience had been told to dress business casual, which had Nick stuffing Gus into last year’s pants and polo, looking at the result and thinking: big picture. He would leave the superlative fashion sense to double-parent families and focus, instead, on celebrating his son with 5 million other Americans.

He pointed at the screen. The first finalist had a walrus rolled on its back like spilled pudding and an animal trainer nudging it in the gut with her foot. The voice-over said, “Yeah? Then you do ten sit-ups for a lousy piece of fish.” The audience clapped. Second finalist: an older woman making popcorn who took a kernel in the eye. The voice-over said, “Glasses, Granny. The better to seeeeee you with.” The audience clapped. The man sitting next to Gus let out a hacking laugh, and said, “So true.”

“We’re up,” Nick said.

Gus pulled at his collar. This morning he had asked Nick if the show was really a good idea because one of the kids at school had seen the video online and called him a tard, but Nick, who’d been bullied for stuff like poorly apportioned facial hair in high school, knew that kids who wanted to harass his son would find a way, video or not.

“You’re my special guy,” he’d said. “And after tonight, everyone will know it.” Which probably had not mollified Gus, but which had filled Nick with the kind of anticipation he hadn’t felt since his second date with his wife. Before she’d been his wife, though already he could predict their future. Or some of it, anyway: They got married; they had Gus. And after, when Nick took stock of things, he found himself happy to a degree of hubris that attracts wrath the way an especially bright flower attracts a bee.

Subdural hematoma is what the doctors had said. Blunt-force trauma. Nick had been rear-ended by a car doing forty. His seat had lurched forward, then back, which slammed his head into his wife’s, who’d been sitting behind him to coddle Gus because Gus got carsick. Weak seats, the industry had said. Regulated poorly. Under the speed limit, the other driver had said. It wasn’t clear who had been to blame, but the blame was out there waiting for the law to assign it.

Not long after the accident, Gus had developed a speech impediment. A kind of nasal approach to language Nick barely even noticed anymore, but which the producers thought might ruin their film’s big moment. So at 10.4 seconds in, when Gus rose up from the bush, pumping his arms like a newborn bird, and saying, almost yelling, “Daddy, am I okay?” the question was printed at the bottom of the screen in a cartoon font. The voice-over said, “Ahhh, the big questions.”

Nick snickered and clapped Gus on the back. And when the audience laughed with more vigor than before, Nick said, “See?” and he beamed — less with pride than relief. Because the hardest part of being a single parent wasn’t the logistics or even the exhaustion, but just the solitude of having no one to share his son’s life with. The day after his wife died, Gus picked up a pink crayon and drew a circle for the first time. Nick had been so proud, though there was nothing sui generis about the circle or the precocious timing of its drawing. But who could he tell besides his wife? Who would care beyond his friends, whose care was dutiful at best? My boy just used a fork! Used the potty! Zipped his jacket! All these moments relished, extolled, and filed away in a vault of memories no one else would open. When Nick was feeling extra grim, he wondered if these memories were even safe with him as their only safeguard. He was bad with names and faces and recently had a meeting with several lawyers, one of whom he mistook for opposing counsel because he hadn’t remembered spending a half hour with the man just two months earlier. So it was possible all the milestones Gus had jumped would actually be forgotten and in this way erased from the human script being written every second by every person on earth.

The show was almost over, time for the host to announce the results. Third place: “The Lazy Walrus.” No surprise there. First place (Nick crossed his fingers in his lap, embarrassed that he should care so much): “The Existential Biker”! Sent in by Nick and Gus Slocombe from Providence, Rhode Island. Nick threw up his arms. Gus put his palms together, but if he’d meant to part them again, no one could say because the host was on them in seconds, shaking Gus’s hand and saying congratulations. And, “How’s the bike riding going?” Nick went a little pale. He hadn’t known they’d be interviewed, and certainly not that the questions would be directed at Gus.

“I didn’t catch that,” the host said.

“Haven’t tried,” Gus mumbled.

“Well then!” the host said. “What are you going to do with the money?”

Nick shrugged. He hadn’t really thought about the money. “Pay down some lawyer bills, I guess.”

“Well then!” the host said. “How about this father-and-son team.”

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is the author of the novels Last Last Chance and Woke Up Lonely. Her new novel, A Little More Human, will be published next year by Graywolf Press.

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