By Jay Duret
I can skip stones. Not just plinkety-plinkety-plonk. I make stones skip. The size and shape hardly matter. I see the angle of descent against the flat face of the water as if it were diagrammed for me in color. I control the stone’s pitch so that at the point it collides with the water’s face - at what would be, for others, the point of entry - the stone’s edges are all tucked up and only the sweet flat broad expanse of stone bottom is presented and then the dance across the water is all but inevitable.
The stone runs across the pool, tip tapping the top of the water, leaving footprints widening behind it on the water’s surface. The illusion that is created is that the footprints narrow as the stone proceeds, as if coming into a tighter focus as the stone advances, an illusion aided greatly by the knowledge that the distance between skips is shorter from skip to skip like the frog that jumps halfway to the wall.
There is little in life I can do as well as skip stones, and if on some days the realization is a disappointment to me, why should I complain about a thing that I can do without regret or shortfall? Would that there were others? Of course. But how fine that there is at least this one thing.
For the last several years my most regular venue has been at a bend in the creek in the park by my house. I go in the late afternoon with my daughter, Delia; Delia particularly likes throwing stones.
When we go we have to pick our way down to the creek bed. The path has been abused by run off - the trail is slippery, eroded, root crossed. Delia is five but she still likes to be carried over this rough stretch. I always concentrate on my footsteps on this path because I do not want to drop her.
Delia and I used to play a game called ‟Flying.” I would call her and she would run at me at the full tilt her little legs could achieve. When she reached me I would lean over and grab her under her arms and then straighten and toss her up in the air, converting, it seemed, the horizontal energy of her run into a moment of vertical flight. And from below, in that instant, I could see in her face pure intoxicating excitement. I do not believe that I ever saw fear, for at the age of four she never thought that her father would not be there to catch her when she came kicking downward.
One day we stopped for lunch at a luncheonette in the suburbs. It was hot outside and inside the air conditioning was roaring and the ceiling fans whirring, all without much success in combating the heat of the grill, where a man in a white apron was cooking cheesesteaks. We waited in a slow line. There was a bored young woman with her hair in a bun at the cash register taking orders on a green pad. Her lack of interest in the task was clear. She moved at a pace that ensured the cook would not be hurried. Delia wandered away. I stood in line and waited. My mind wandered.
My turn finally came. I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich for Delia. Delia was ten yards away drawing circles in the condensation on the glass case across the room that held the sodas.
‟Dealster,” I called, extending my arms.
She turned and ran towards me at full speed.
I scooped her up as she reached me and I tossed her straight up in the air. But as she left my arms I saw what I hadn’t noticed before: directly over my head there was a big brown whirling ceiling fan - and I had thrown my daughter directly into its maw.
I tried to pull her back after she left my grip. I tore handfuls of air from the widening space between her feet and my reach. I let out a cry like the cries we let loose in our worst moments of loss. ‟Oh, God,” I cried, ‟No.”
There was nothing I could do but watch with the horrible clarity that life reserves for such moments.
She flew up from my arms. Her face was lit with joy. Then my cry filled the space between us and her expression changed as she saw the look on my face below.
And then she hit the open blades.
There was a small sound - a little pop - nothing dramatic and then she was falling.
I gathered her in.
‟Oh Honey,” I cried. She was wailing. ‟Are you okay?” I looked for blood, for mayhem, for gore.
She wailed and wailed.
But by then I had processed the sound I had heard when she hit the fan and realized it was the sound that plastic makes when it is struck. The fan’s blades were plastic.
I comforted her. I shooshed her with kisses and hugs. I confirmed that there were no cuts or bruises or marks. My look from below - that moment of pure unveiled terror - had scared her into tears. She hadn’t even realized that she had hit the fan.
She gradually calmed down. And as she calmed I looked up and saw that the woman behind the cash register was looking at me. I did not like her look. It was a look that said that I was man who could throw his daughter into a whirling fan. I looked around and I saw that it wasn’t just her. The whole sad-eyed lunchtime crowd was looking at me. They had the same look in their eyes. I was a man who was careless, a man who could not be trusted. I left the restaurant in hot shame.
When I carry Delia down to the creek to skip stones, I often see the look of that bored waitress. And so I carry Delia carefully. I bring her down to the rocky beach and watch her carefully as she gets ready to throw. I aim her arm towards the water. I show her how to hold the rock. I show her how to send it spinning so that it doesn’t bite but skims across the surface, hardly slowing, shedding circle after circle in the slanted afternoon light.