The Art of Losing
I suspect, as I hug him on the train platform, that he has oranges in his pockets—despite what they must have cost him. He’ll want to pretend like everything is normal, of course, and I’ll let him like I always do.
“Hi, Dad,” I say.
“Hey, Boots.” He’s aged significantly since the last time I saw him, but I say nothing, just lean over and kiss his face, weathered and speckled with sunspots like an old saddle. If he notices anything changed about me or the city drowning in the rising tides behind me, he doesn’t mention it.
“Long as it ends with me by your side, it’s a good trip in my book.”
This was the last time he’d be making the journey by train because it was the last trip this train was ever going to make. While the passengers are still disembarking, the repo-scavengers waiting on either side lower their green caps and set to work sawing through the steel tracks before they have a chance to cool. I’d expected it, of course, the end of train travel—the expense was too great, the risk too large; diseases traveled by train, experts said, and terrorists. All planes were grounded just a year earlier, and though I’ve had plenty of time to get used to it, there’s still something inexplicably devastating about the death of modern transportation.
A single pitted orange finds its way from Dad’s fingers into my palm. It’s probably riddled with worms or so sour it’s inedible, but in my hand right now, it feels like the most solid, wonderful thing in the world, like snowfall and fresh air and waiting in line at the grocery store with a wallet full of cash.
“Well, let’s get you home,” I say, avoiding stepping around the damp clumps of tan and white feathers peppering the platform.
“Western Wood Peewees,” Dad says, looking down and sucking on his teeth like he’s got something stuck in them. “Migratory birds. Should’ve been in Mexico by now. Probably all mixed up like the rest of us.”
I fight the urge to help him down the platform steps, to take hold of his bicep, still skinny despite his weather-proof anorak. I hope he’ll make the best of it with me instead of just giving up like so many have, letting the warm, acidic water carry their bodies away, a strange new kind of fish that float face down instead of belly up in the now-dead oceans. On the radio this morning they announced our weekly rations will be reduced again, and, like the earlier announcements about planes and trains, I said another silent goodbye to the way things used to be, the way they’ll never be again.
I had traded a promise of sex with my neighbor so he’d ferry me and my dad back home in his old fiberglass skiff. He’s nice enough, Craig, but niceness means different things these days. I’m glad he agreed in the first place, even though he made me take my shirt off and give him a handjob as means of a deposit. After I finished, I surprised myself by kissing him on the cheek. Sure I was blushing, I turned away.
“What was that for?” he asked.
Because fifteen years ago I would have thought you were cute, I wanted to say. For agreeing to let us use your boat even though there’s no point in anything anymore. For letting me give you the one thing I have left to offer. Instead, I just tucked my hair behind my ears and pulled on my shirt. “For old time’s sake,” I told him.
Now, in the boat, Craig’s eyes are heavy in his face. He seems collapsed somehow, like the thing holding him up inside has snapped. Next to him, Dad looks almost strong, capable like he used to be when I was little and he’d take me camping for weeks at a time. “Joanie,” he’d said when I was eight and crying about some minor injury, “listen close and you’ll hear the love song of the Varied Thrush.” I had stopped crying, and there, clear as anything, was the trilling single-tone whistle of a tiny orange-breasted bird who knew exactly what he wanted in the world.
Now, Dad turns to Craig and smiles. “I appreciate you giving us a ride, Craig; good to see people still looking out for one another.”
I roll the orange in my fingers and try to catch Craig’s glance, but he doesn’t look at me, just keeps his hand firm on the rudder, his eyes watching the new horizon.
Julie Cadman-Kim currently lives and works in Seattle, but she’s headed to Ann Arbor in the fall to pursue her MFA at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. Her work can be found in Black Warrior Review, The Cincinnati Review, Sonora Review, and elsewhere.