Elias paced beside his father on the long grey promenade, the slate-colored river on one side, and bare, frosted trees on the other. The walkway was nearly deserted. Only a few people scattered about. Several squat boats glided through the water, like a family of giant ducks. Between the walkway and the river was a railing that receded into the foggy distance. It was made of two long, thin metal bars with spiral rods that stood vertically between, like soldiers at attention.
“Coldest day of the year so far,” Elias’s father laughed. “Sure you’re up for a walk?”
“Sure I’m sure,” Elias said. It felt good to be with his father.
A tall, skinny teenager leaned over the barrier, examining the water’s surface as though in search of something. Then he flicked the lit cigarette that was stuck between his fingers. It made a glowing arc as it fell towards the river.
“What do you call those boats?” Elias said.
“Tugboats,” his father said. “Don’t let their looks deceive you. They’re powerful machines.”
Hidden inside his coat sleeves, Elias squeezed his biceps to make two muscles. He liked that the ships were strong—just like his father. Elias could see the power in his father’s wiry frame even when he was walking. His father used to box and was tough in the Navy and had so much energy he could probably walk forever.
Up ahead, a big man approached. His long heavy gray coat gave him even more bulk. His hands were in his pockets, and vapor came from his mouth as he breathed.
“Nice and cold,” Elias’s father said as the man passed. Then his father laughed because to him the cold was just cold like a chair was just a chair. He wore a thin jacket and didn’t need gloves. The large man smiled briefly and continued on his bundled way. Elias loved that his father could laugh even when others would frown.
“Is that the bridge?” Elias could see a long bridge, half-hidden in white mist.
“That’s the bridge,” his father smiled.
Once his father drove over that bridge with Elias in the passenger seat. As they approached from the highway, his father said, “Hold on to your hats.” Then he maneuvered the stick, the wheel, and the pedals, weaving in and out of traffic, leaving the stodgy cars behind.
Another boat came into view. It sliced through the water. It was gray and sleek, and had giant cannons on either side.
“Let’s say hello to the sailors,” his father said as he rushed to the rail.
Elias had to run to keep up and got to the edge just as his father shouted, “Navy here!”
The men on the boat saluted.
“Were you on a boat like that?” Elias asked.
“Like that?” his father laughed. “A lot bigger than that.”
“Planes took off and landed on it.”
“Planes?” Elias asked. “Airplanes?”
“Airplanes,” his father said. Elias stretched out his arms as though they were wings. But his father didn’t notice. He was looking beyond the boat and the river, beyond the bridge even. He gazed as though his eyes were traveling through time.
“You would take off from the runway, soar into the sky, and land back on the flight deck. Even at night.”
“What you did?” Elias asked. But his father was already jogging ahead of him, then turned around and crouched.
“Stay still,” his father said, and Elias froze. His father pointed a little black camera at him. Then he snapped a button and a flash went off.
“Can I move now?” Elias said. His father smiled, and approached him, picked him up in his arms.
“Can you move now?” his father said, his face just inches away. He lowered Elias to the ground. “Of course you can move.” Then his father looked at the back of the camera, and stared.
“Time to go to the car,” his father said. Elias looked up. He wanted to say, “Do we have to?” But nothing came out.
When they pulled up in front of Elias’s house, his father turned, and put his hand on Elias’s head. “See you soon kid,” he said.
Elias bit down on his lip and opened the door of the car. He got out, too shy to look back. Instead, he regarded the stairway in front of the house, a window on either side like two giant eyes. He pictured the day his mother was helped down the steps by a woman on one side and a man on the other. And because his mother wavered, they let her rest on the landing.
“Nice time?” his grandmother said.
“Sure he had a nice time,” his grandfather said in his gravelly voice as he sucked on the end of his pipe. He blew out a dark cloud of smoke. Elias waved his hand to chase the fumes away.
“Let me see you,” the woman said, which was funny because she was blind. Elias walked closer and his grandmother put her hands on his face.
“That’s your nose. And that’s your mouth, and that’s your ear.” She said it like it was a game, a game Elias didn’t like to play.
His grandfather tapped the bowl of the pipe against the orange ashtray. The tapping was a signal the game was over.
That night, Elias dreamed of a big Ferris wheel. Instead of laughing families, the seats were filled with lifeless dolls. He woke with his heart beating hard and fast. He thought of his mother wavering on the steps, his grandmother groping with her fingers, and his grandfather talking in his bitter voice.
He got up and peered out the window, beyond the patch of garden, and onto the street, where his father had left him. A streetlamp lit the spot. The space was empty. Just making believe his father was waiting made Elias happy, so he’d pretend until his father came back.
Alan J. Gerstle has a Ph.D. from New York University. He has published widely; most recent published fiction has appeared in Fiction on the Web, Chicago Literati, literally stories, St. Anne’s Review, and LitroNY. He is also a former fiction editor of an online journal. His work has been translated and published in Spanish. A number of his writings have been so long listed for literary prizes that some editors have had to organize local volunteers and recruit specially trained rescue dogs in an effort to find the originals.
© 2017, Alan J. Gerstle