Heat flared out of the driveway pavement. It wrapped around Rodney’s knees, held on, turned his gait sluggish. It made breathing a laborious affair. Rodney’s grandfather sat on the porch, smoking and staring. Every day, his grandfather smoked and stared on the porch, burning through five packs at least, and he kept an empty carton in his breast pocket into which he periodically hacked up thick, yellow mucous. He wondered how his grandfather could breathe in this heat with all that smoke, and with all that mucous in his lungs.
Rodney and his brother couldn’t understand their grandfather, nor he them, and therefore he never said much, apart from when he needed something and yelled at their mother to bring it. As he passed, he avoided his grandfather’s eyes and secretly held his breath.
His mother and brother were in the den watching TV. He went upstairs and dropped his bookbag on the floor in his room. Then he came back down to see what they were watching. They stood in front of the couch, blankly, absentmindedly. His mother had one arm crossed and the other resting on it, her hand feeding her necklace into her mouth. Her eyes were still with concern.
“This is absolutely crazy,” she said flatly, and to nobody in particular.
He looked at the screen. Two pillars of smoke threatened collapse. This was why they were let out early. His brother was let out even earlier, and his eyes were stuck on the screen, too, his mouth subconsciously suspended.
Rodney watched with them. There were no real updates on what was happening. Nobody seemed to know anything. But he knew that someone, somewhere, knew something. And he knew that this sort of thing happened all the time, in other parts of the world. He knew the kind of people it happened to most. He knew how they reacted to these things, and how they were shaped by them. He knew that nobody he knew cared to know about those people.
There was a sick futility about watching it unfold. It wasn’t necessary, or helpful. Everything would be recorded and played over and over again, probably for the rest of their lives. There was nothing to gain from staring at the screen now.
He went back upstairs and rummaged through his closet for his pads and helmet. Then he ran out the door to the garage. He dragged out a foot-high, three-foot by three-foot wooden box, placed it in the middle of the driveway, and returned for his board. The sun, subtle and relentless, gripped his neck. He began with some warm up runs down to the curb and back, stretching out a few ollies and tuning his focus with a kickflip or two. Then he set on the box.
His grandfather eyed his every move. His eyes were dark and deep, embedded in weathered skin and watered by smoke. They followed him with intrigue as he pushed up a head of steam, quickly set his feet, and threw his body forward, just edging the wheels over the lip of the box, riding out the surface, and popping off for an even landing. Immediately he turned and reset for the opposite direction. After a few more successes, he gained confidence. He felt the need to step up a level. He pushed up a head of steam again and set his feet. As he approached the box, he popped the tail hard and lifted the board, keeping his weight back to manual, but before he got the chance the back truck caught on the lip and his body went flying. His stomach snapped tight. He smelled smoke. His back raked the far edge of the box and his helmet rammed into the pavement shortly after.
Everything brightened and vibrated for a little while. With much effort, he lifted himself to his knees and waited for the pain to come rushing in.
His grandfather cackled and coughed. “Yish!” he barked. “Yesh! Yesh-yish!” He cackled and coughed and hacked into his spit box.
Rodney stared at the pavement. He could feel his grandfather’s eyes on him. He sensed their darkness, their opaqueness, their obduracy. He sensed them observing him and mocking him in equal measure, questioning his motives, his desires, his purpose, his existence. Behind those dark, opaque eyes there was an entire history, a tradition to which his connection was tenuous at best. A history and tradition to which his determined deviation and frequent failures threatened extinction. Behind those eyes was a witness of impending extinction.
He managed to stand up. The ringing in his ears slowly faded, and the soreness in his back solidified. His arm was streaked with blood, and he figured his back was, too. Painfully, he dragged the box into the garage, kicked his board after it, and labored to the porch. His grandfather’s wheezy chuckle greeted his return, followed by mimed concern in the form of a low moan and clicking tongue. He felt embarrassed.
His mother was walking up from the den just as he entered. She panicked at the sight of him.
“What happened?” she cried.
She ushered him to the bathroom hastily. As she tended to the scrapes and bruises, she scolded him and lamented his choice of pastime. Why should he waste so much time and energy doing something that accomplished nothing? And it wasn’t safe, clearly.
Later, as he lay in his bed before dinner staring at the ceiling, his back and arm quietly throbbing, his mother’s concern sank in. It made him question himself. Skateboarding was a filter through which he defined the world around him. Of that there was no doubt. There was something about the form that appealed to him: the physical motions, the rhythm, the dance with gravity, the freedom of ideas, the possibility for invention. He was enthralled by films of globetrotting skateboarders, some of them no older than himself: haphazard bands of roving explorers traveling to exotic locales, claiming territory with flips, grinds, and jumps, unifying cultures with the thread of movement. Every object and structure he encountered, then, every landscape he entered into, his brain surveyed and analyzed in terms of its ability to be interacted with via board and wheels, to be ridden. Surroundings were excavated in his mind by hypothetical runs; solid objects were made fluid by hypothesized movement. In this way, to him, the world was one large medium for physical expression. But should it have been? It suddenly occurred to him that maybe he had chosen a pointless way of seeing things, based too much on vague desires, emotions, and sentimentality. His mother’s admonition now swayed him towards this conclusion. He had never considered usefulness. And he had never considered that he might have a choice in how he viewed the world, let alone the consequences of choosing wrongly. How did everyone else choose to see the world around them? What were the filters they used? What was it like to buy shoes without factoring in how the fabric would fare against grip tape? What was it like to see stairs and rails as utilities rather than blank canvases?
What did his grandfather make of him jumping back and forth over a wooden box?
Rodney realized that, in shaping his worldview, he had been relying on existing structures. He wondered if this was inherently a good or bad thing, and if there was a way around it.
At dinner, nothing much was said. His father was working late, so they started without him. His grandfather sat at the head of the table. His mother went about making his grandfather a plate. It was clear the news was on her mind, but it was also clear that she didn’t want to talk about it, or at least didn’t know how to broach the subject. Neither did Rodney or his brother. He followed his brother’s lead in heaping helpings of everything onto his plate and letting the food fill the silence.
He wasn’t sure if his grandfather even knew about it. But he was sure that if he had, it wouldn’t have caused him any surprise.
After dinner, he and his brother loaded the dishwasher untidily. He was nervous that his father might want to discuss things when he got home, for whatever reason, so he was quick to his room when they finished.
The next morning, he came down to the kitchen for breakfast before getting ready for school. His brother was in the shower, his mother was already gone, and his father was still in bed. His grandfather was on the porch. He grabbed some cookies from the pantry. Then he got the milk out of the fridge and poured himself a glass. It took him a couple sips to realize that it had gone sour.
At school, all of his teachers took time to try to explain things, each in their own way. Most of them didn’t know how. The only thing that surprised Rodney was everyone else’s surprise.
Though the taste of sour milk lingered in his mucous, and suddenly he was struck by the notion that everything was sour.
Magen Mintz is an American author who grew up in New Jersey. He is currently working on a novel about identity, existence, and Gary Neville.