He comes to me. Big, brown eyes. Smiling.
“Daddy, let’s pick night crawlers.”
He does a little jump. Claps his hands.
My boy. Five years old. Tickled with the notion of traipsing through puddles, picking slimy worms.
“But we can’t go fishing today,” I say. “Mom will be here soon.”
Undefeated. Still brimming with smile. Another jump. More clapping hands.
“We can go next weekend!” he cheers.
“Okay, buddy. Let’s get something to put them in.”
It doesn’t take long. He runs to the kitchen sink, reaches way up high and takes a cereal bowl from atop the stack of dirty dishes.
“We’ll use this!”
He grabs his baseball cap from the table and runs out the door. Barefoot.
Dark is coming on and I know Anna is already on her way. She’ll arrive shortly. In her boyfriend’s car. A sleek, sporty deal that’s always shined up and spotless. Today, I’m sure she’s dreading the drive down my muddy dead-end road.
She’ll be here within minutes. I know this because it is Sunday. And she always comes early on Sundays. It’s so they can go for ice cream. A little family tradition that we had together, but that they now have on their own.
I walk barefoot through the wet grass. Searching the yard. Under rocks. Near the sidewalk. But there aren’t any worms anywhere. When I get to the flower garden, the one Anna had labored over every spring and summer, I stop.
Two sunflowers have found a way through the tangled weeds. Their big, colorful heads droop. Water drips from the yellow petals. Slips off the leaves.
Kneeling in the driveway. Cereal bowl in one hand. The other fishing around in a puddle. My boy pulls worms from the water. Holds them up to the sky. Lets them stretch out. Looks at each one as if it’s the first he’s ever seen.
“This is a big one!” he says, putting it in the bowl, running toward me.
And it is a big one. Twice as fat and twice as long as any of the others he has. In all, I count five.
“How many have you got in there?” I ask, crouching down.
He sets the bowl on the ground. Takes them out one by one. They twist and writhe in the gravel and sand, all of it sticking to them. My son picks up each one, brushes it off and counts as he places them back into the bowl.
“Five!” He beams. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five!”
“You sure can count well.”
“Dan has me count everything,” he says.
My heart plummets. But I smile. Tussle his hair. Pull him near. He smells as beautiful as he did the first day I held him. Five years ago. Like yesterday. Sitting on the edge of the hospital bed. Looking at his little pink face. Anna’s hand on my back. Her head on my shoulder.
Dan is the new man in my son’s life. He wakes early. Makes pancakes and smoky links. Squeezes oranges for fresh juice. On the way out the door to his six-figure career, he kisses Anna’s cheek. Gives my boy a big hug.
“That’s good,” I say. “Count all you can.”
It’s all I can muster.
Thunder booms. He looks into the sky. Smiles wide.
“No lightning?” he asks.
I want to look up, to watch for the burst of light in the dark sky, but I can’t because I hear Anna coming. She has turned onto my road. Is taking it slow. Making sure to avoid puddles and soft spots.
“You can’t always see it,” I say.
“What?” he asks.
“The lightning. You can’t always see it.”
We stand up. Anna pulls into the driveway. She looks radiant. Better than I ever remember. She smiles at him. Toots the horn. Waves.
He is all smiles. Waving back. Jumping. Clapping those little hands.
“Ice cream!” he yells. “Ice cream!”
I pick him up and hold him toward the sky. Swing him in big circles. He giggles. And it’s the best sound in the world.
“Come with us, Dad!”
I stop the circles. Bring him down. And I hold him. Breathe in as much of him as I can. Because I know that these days will not last.
“Maybe another time, buddy.”
He wraps his arms around my neck. Kisses my cheek.
I let him go. Onto his little bare feet. He runs away into the house.
There is a short moment while he’s gone and it’s just me and Anna again. Our eyes meet in the raindrops. She gives me a little smile. Flashes the headlights two times. Our little sign. Hello and goodbye.
He runs out of the house. Still barefoot. Carrying his shoes in hand.
“Bye Dad!” he shouts, “Love you!”
I wave. Watch him get in and kiss his Mom on the cheek. She hugs him. Kisses his forehead. He buckles up. They back out of the driveway. Pull onto the road. And then, they are gone.
Above me, the sky lets loose. Lightning flashes. Raindrops fall. And I stand in the driveway. Holding the bowl of worms. Counting the seconds until thunder booms.