The Color of Leaves

by Jim Esch

In the afternoon he drove to his ex-wife's house and picked up his son Ronny. Then they drove to the nearest state park and walked through the leaves. "Why do the leaves change color?" his son asked. "Because..." "Because why?" the boy said.

He wasn't sure. Something had probably been said in a high school science class about the matter, but he couldn't remember little things like that from so long ago. It wasn't a detail that he had dwelled on in the decade since. The changing color of leaves left but the slightest stamp of curiosity in a life spent worrying about rent, legalities, food, and longing for love. But he had an image to keep up with his son, so he thought about it for a few seconds more and tried to be creative. He imagined that his father would have taken the religious explanation; because God willed the leaves to change. End of explanation. But he didn't believe that himself, and he didn't want to be just like Dad. Better come up with a pseudo-descriptive-scientific type explanation.

"The leaves change because the seasons change." He looked at the cloudless sky and zipped up his jacket. "When it gets colder out, the green color in the leaves dies out; it freezes up sort of. Then the other colors in the leaves like orange and red, they aren't crowded out anymore, because the the green color is the dominant one, so they appear when it gets colder out."

The boy was satisfied with the explanation; there was enough in it for him to comprehend, and more that he didn't. But he wanted to please his father and make him think he understood it all, so he didn't say anything about it. He wasn't satisfied with his own explanation though. For all he knew it could have been close to the truth according to biology. Chloroform, that was it, something to do with chloroform, something his boy wouldn't understand, and he didn't want to delve into it much more. But he thought he owed the boy more somehow.

"When you get to high school they'll explain it all. Then you'll forget most of it like your old man did just now." The boy wasn't really aware that his father was being self deprecating. He just saw it as an admitted weakness. Maybe his father wasn't that smart after all. Maybe that's why he was living with his mother. "What do you want to do today?" the boy asked. "What we're doing now. Walking in the park. Isn't that good?" "Yeah," the boy said. He thought his son looked down at the leaves. He just couldn't remember what this would be like for a boy. "I got a ball and gloves in the car, maybe we can toss a few?" the father said. "Ok. I play ball with my friends all the time." They continued walking for a minute or so in silence towards the car.

He didn't know what he could do for the boy. He just couldn't remember things. The things boys think about at that age. What did he like to do back then? He was feeling dull lately. Life was a grindstone and you bent over it working to make a living, etc. He sure wasn't thinking about that at Ronny's age. They pitched the baseball for a while, without speaking. Was the boy having a good time? He wasn't smiling, and yet the way he threw was very intent, as if he had something to prove to his father; that his boy could toss a ball like a little boy should, like his friends tossed balls to their fathers. He didn't want to throw the ball too hard at his son. Didn't want to knock him down or be too powerful. He was afraid of being so big and him so little. Then the boy sailed a pitch way over his head, unexpectedly. And he turned to chase it, and watched the ball stamp the ground with a soft thud. As he ran toward it, he tripped over the ground and fell heavily about arm's reach from the ball. The boy jogged up to him and leaned over.

"You ok, Dad?" "Yeah. That was some throw. You're gonna have a heck of an arm someday. Maybe be a star outfielder. Just don't run like your dad and you'll be fine." He stumbled up and brushed the dirt from his arm. "Maybe we better go now." He decided to take the boy home early today. He wasn't looking forward to dealing with his ex-wife again. Twice in one day was two times too much. "So do you feel like going home?" "If we have to." They kept pitching the ball back and forth.

It was one of those autumn days that makes you get out in it, and that was his plan, to spend some time in the air with his boy. That was as far as he took it. He wasn't good at planning. He hadn't planned on a child. He hadn't planned on marriage. He hadn't planned to be scraping all his life to make rent and child support payments and write increasingly higher checks for groceries. It made him long in a strange way for the allure of the army. That was a time when mundane things were taken care of for you, and though he hadn't enjoyed his time in the service (boredom was common there too), at least it was a different world. People addressed each other in different ways, either officially or lewdly. And he had been stationed in Missouri, which was far away from home in Pennsylvania. It was the most he could long for, being somewhere else doing something different. But he'd done the army already. Played that hand. And he'd lost the ability to imagine future endeavors. And then he had met his wife while in Missouri, had taken her to the Chinese restaurants outside Fort Leonard Wood on the fringe of the Ozarks. And then they had married upon his discharge and the rest flowed from there. So what was this longing for the army again? Was it a longing for the very situation that did him in? He couldn't sort it out and toss a ball to his son at the same time. When they arrived at the boy's mother's house, he noticed that her car was absent from the driveway. A small victory. He wouldn't have to deal with her. He gave the boy a kiss and asked him if he had a key and what he'd do that afternoon. "Yeah, I'll be okay Dad. I guess I'll watch cartoons."

"Okay see ya next week." "I love you. Bye." The boy's walking alone to the front door with head cocked sideways made him utterly sad so that his stomach ached. He was cheating his son from a family life. He was inadequate as a father. His boy didn't really think about him. Didn't really care or even love him. His role as father had turned into that of visitor. He didn't do Dad-type things. Didn't know how to do them. Didn't know about why leaves change or the why the sky's blue.

The boy walked through the door and didn't turn around, so that the last thing he saw was the sweep of his son's light, fine hair. And the door closed almost too rapidly, and once again he felt shut out. But he wasn't sure he even wanted in. Later in the afternoon he answered the phone. It was his ex-wife. "What do you think you're doing!" she said, less as a question than an accusation. "What do you want Marge? I paid the child support last Thursday. Shoulda been in your mail Saturday." "I'm not talking about that... I'm talking about leaving your son all alone for hours by himself with no one to take care of him. I was at the beauty parlor all afternoon having my hair permed. I thought you were keeping him all afternoon. He tells me you left him there hours ago. Hours ago!"

"Marge, wait a minute. Did you say you were going to-" "Don't you tell me wait a minute." "Is he okay?"

"Do you really care! Of course he's okay. But what if he'd put his head in the oven, or ran into the street in front of the cars. The boy's only four. Four!" "I really think, and this is just my opinion Marge, that he could take care of himself." "How in God's name would you know! Do you live with him day in and day out? Do you feed him, clothe him, wash for him, scold him. How in God's name would you know!"

She had this incisive way of striking severe guilt in his bones. Although she had never been violent during their brief marriage, her words were sharp and aimed at the heart. What could he have been thinking? He had just wanted to get away. That's all he knew. He had wanted to be somewhere else like Missouri, or when they took a vacation to New Orleans before all the trouble started. But explaining that to Marge was futile. She'd convinced him.

"You're right Marge. It was a stupid thing. Tell him I'm sorry." "Tell him you're sorry! As if he's expecting it." "Then I'll tell you I'm sorry. I'm sorry." "Don't waste your breath. Just make sure you tell me if you're bringing him home early. Don't be so Goddamn irresponsible. I never saw such a lazy, unthinking person ever. I never --" He hung up the phone and pulled the cord, so she couldn't call him back. His guilt often turned into anger with Marge. It was as if having stricken into his heart she had to either drive deeper or plunge another one in a different place. Had his gaff been so serious? Maybe he was trying in an ignorant way to teach his boy responsibility. He didn't know. He didn't even remember to pay his bills all the time. Marge was right about one thing, he couldn't think about much.

He paced his apartment nervously then went for a walk. The leaves were in their peak of color, coming to a glorious end. And the sappy reds of other trees mixed with the deep yellows blowing off branches in the wind made him think of berries and cider. By the time he returned home he had forgotten about the phone being unplugged and he tried watching a football game on television. He dozed and dreamt about bowls of fish swimming in cider water. He kept knocking in to them. The fish would spill out onto a marble floor and flail, their gills made hideous shrieking noises. Then he was on a path lined on both sides with bright orange serpents whose heads took the reptilian shapes of people he thought he recognized but could never attach a name to. And the serpents droned in a high pitch "see all, before".

At one point he awoke and tramped to the bathroom. He then climbed into bed and fell into a deeper sleep; the television was now well into the national news. In this deeper sleep his dreams were submerged below description, private to his mind's eye, soon to be forgotten by the next stage of slumber. That once glorious fall day ended fast. The light was already low when he began napping. By now it was dark as a cave. The breeze transformed as if on cue into a brisk wind. And the wind gusted in waves that blew back the branches of the trees. In his lighter moments when half awake he could hear the whistle and whoop of the wind as it screamed through trees and houses and the faint tinkle of porch bells. The wind droned and washed away the ever present sound of rushing cars in the road outside. And it mingled in his dream sleep and he too was buffeted against it and scattered in it. He was flying with other leaves careening into house walls, lifted up again as if on a magic carpet above rooftops far away into other neighborhoods. For moments he landed on an oak tree branch, wedged in the fork of its limbs. Then the wind howled again and broke him away and off he went in a tumble.

In the morning he woke early, well rested from his long, long sleep. He fished his jacket pocket for a cigarette. Having run out of matches he went to the kitchen and lit the burner on the stove and leaned into the flame with the cigarette in his mouth. He singed the ends of his brow hair in the process; little hair ashes fell on his arm. He set a pot of coffee brewing and smoked in a morning trance. He thought about calling Marge to check on the status of things, but he never called her unless it was to set up a meeting with his son, and the weight of inertia kept him from picking up the dead phone now. On the drive into work he passed through mounds of fallen leaves and tree branches scattered in the road. And when the road opened out onto the highway where he could see more of the land, the day slammed him. The wooded hillsides were bereft of color. All leaves were now littered on the ground, on the roads, on the curbsides, leaving the stalks of tree trunks standing as hollow remnants of the day before. Where once had been color was now brown and gray. What once was green grass had mysteriously in a night turned tan. Cows in the fields stood perfectly still.