I’m riding shotgun on one of a thousand trips across rural Indiana with my dad and we see a boy about my age—eight, nine, ten—on all fours at the edge of the road. A man who can only be his father hovers over him, helpless, a hand on the boy’s back. The father wears a T-shirt and coveralls, a grease-stained DeKalb ballcap. Daylilies shake in the breeze. Down a gravel drive a farmhouse stands sentinel, beyond it an old barn and a John Deere tractor, endless cornfields blurring to the horizon. Something in the father’s countenance reminds me of baptisms I’ve seen at church. He could be praying over the boy, blessing him.
“Why that boy’s sick,” my dad says, gawking from behind the wheel of our wood-paneled Oldsmobile station wagon.
The boy’s shoulders tense and he retches in the weeds. We’re doing 60 and it’s already too late to wonder if he’s OK or if they need our help. The whole tableau shrinks to a speck in the side mirror. My dad turns up the radio.
The boy could have been a cousin of mine, his father an uncle. The people in every farmhouse on this stretch of road had lives I recognized. At some 4th of July picnic the talk would have been easy and familiar, how many acres put up in corn, attendance at vacation Bible school, whose ball team took state, how the fish were biting and on what bait, and somebody’s mother’s health—bless her—slowly failing. Or at least it seemed easy. We passed that boy and his father at the side of the road and suddenly they weren’t family or neighbors. They were strangers. What were my dad and I to them but one more anonymous car? What were that father and son to us but a moment’s glimpse into lives we would never really know? And even if we could have stood around at a picnic shooting the breeze, how deeply could we have penetrated one another’s mysteries? Does anyone ever really know anyone else or are we all just blasting by each other at 60 mph down some chip-n-seal county road? Looking out at farms and fields, which only moments earlier seemed so familiar to me, I felt indelibly alone and out of place.
For many years—decades, really—I forgot about the boy and his father at the side of the road. The revelation about how we’re all strangers to each other was but one of a thousand childhood throws down like seed-pods helicoptering off a big maple. How many take root, find sun, and sprout? How many does the wind send skidding down the sidewalk only to dry up and flake apart?
How many lie dormant still?
My son was born with a rare gastrointestinal issue that for two years went undiagnosed. Night after night in the wee morning hours, spelling my wife so she could sleep, I held him and rocked him and sang to him in a whisper.
Nothing eased his pain or brought comfort. In the darkness of our struggle, we were the only two people in the world.
One night I stood over his crib after having wrapped him in a blanket and given him a pacifier. I pleaded with him to go to sleep: Please, go to sleep. In a parenting book I’d read that sometimes the weight of a hand on a baby’s back could help them relax, and when I laid my hand on his back, everything returned to me: the boy on all fours retching in the weeds, his father hovering over him as though praying. The farmhouse, the tractor, the barn, the endless cornfields. Daylilies shaking in the breeze. My dad turning up the radio and tapping time on the steering wheel. The way we burned down the road home, strangers even to ourselves.
Steve Edwards is author of the memoir BREAKING INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY, the story of his seven months as caretaker of a backcountry homestead along the Rogue River in Oregon. His writing can be found in Longreads, Literary Hub, Orion Magazine, The Rumpus, Electric Literature and elsewhere. He lives in Massachusetts.
Artwork by: Dominika Roseclay