My son stares at the mazes of rusted, graffiti-scrawled pipes. He asks what they’re for. The real answer is boring, so I say, “Scientific experiments on aliens.”
“Someday I’m going to live here,” he says.
The structure is actually a skeleton of an old gasworks factory that the city kept intact, for character, when they rezoned the area as a park. But my son’s at that age where anything can happen, and I love borrowing that perspective when I’m with him. It’s all the more special because I’m only allowed to be with him one weekend a month.
“I’m going to ask the aliens to build me a ship,” he says.
“Space,” he says, like I’m stupid.
We climb the steep grass bank towards the top of the hill in the middle of the park. The hill we’re climbing is carved with clusters of weird brass and stone markings, and at the top is a sundial. Like the pipes on the old factory, its design looks alien.
My son sees the sundial and I can tell he’s imagining something wonderful. Then he looks back at me–and what’s balanced on my shoulders–and remembers why we’ve come.
My neck is numb from carrying the block of ice all the way from the car. I’m glad to finally set it down and unwrap it from the plastic.
“So we slide on the ice?” he asks again.
He has already asked this five times in the last hour. He can’t seem to understand when I explain it. “You’ll see,” I tell him.
Beyond our hill and the park are Lake Union and then the skyscrapers of downtown Seattle. Low floating clouds obscure the tops of a few of the taller ones.
“Twenty-thousand years ago,” I tell him, “this whole place was covered in a block of ice one mile thick.”
“Why did it melt?” he asks, unfazed by the implications of the ice age. He’s often excited about what I find mundane and bored with what I find fascinating. I think some of that’s because he doesn’t understand time well enough. Who really does, until too much has been spent? For my son, twenty thousand years is nothing, just three words representing a period that couldn’t possibly be longer than his time-out this morning for dropping my cell phone into the fish tank. Whereas for me, twenty thousand years is awe-inspiring, a cold reminder of how little time we have.
“The ice all melted when the temperature warmed,” I say.
He looks down at our block of ice. “Could it happen again?”
I prop my foot up on the block of ice. “Sure. We better hurry.”
We take turns sliding. We scream through each descent. Then we run back up the hill and do it again. We do this over and over, sometimes together, sometimes alone, burning all the joy we can before the ice melts beneath us.
Afternoon slips into dusk. Rain clouds gather above us and spill. We look down; our ice block is now shaped like a comet. We both lean over, hands on our knees, trying to catch our breath, each waiting for the other to take the lead, neither wanting to continue but neither wanting to stop.
After a quick moment catching his breath, my son asks, “How much would it cost to live here?”
I want this question to imply that he wishes we could be together all the time, but another part of me wonders how and when he started worrying about cost. This is new. It’s probably irrational, but I begin think about his mother and hope my payments are doing their job.
From there, I start to mull over if there’s a way to breach the subject with his mother without offending her, which is its own sort of magical thinking. My stray words have already flooded most of the common ground we used to share.
“This neighborhood’s pretty affordable,” I lie.
“Good,” he says. “Because we’ll probably have to buy fuel for the spaceship.”
“Can I come with you on the voyage?” I ask.
He thinks for a moment. “If mom lets you,” he says.
I look the other way, back towards Queen Anne hill, trying to hide my face from his eyes. He’s said a mouthful; he has no idea how right he is about his mom. He has no idea why it’s this way, and I plan on preserving his ignorance as long as possible. His ears will burn when he hears all I’ve put her through.
My son nudges me in the ribs with his elbow. “Look,” he says.
And it starts. First there is just a glow coming from one of the old factory buildings. Then orange light begins to bleed and peel from the cracks and slivers between the pipes. Slowly the entire building begins to split apart, like enormous jaws opening. We hear the whir of fans, the whistles of steam, the grinding of gears. The orange light–deep, like that of embers from a hearth–begins to pulse inside.
Then a huge, dull-grey pod, shaped like the comet our ice block has become, begins to rise. The whistling and grinding and whirring stops and we’re left with just the hum of the hovering spacecraft and the sound of rain pinging against its frame.
Neither of us speaks. It’s beautiful. I want to stay here forever.
But with a flash it’s gone: the spaceship, the glow–everything.
We wait for a while in silence, but my son begins to shiver, so I pull him to his feet. I put my arm around his shoulder and we walk back down the hill. We leave what’s left of the ice block to melt in the rain. There’s no one else around; the park emptied when the showers arrived. The only sound now is rain smacking the grass and concrete.
The silence between us continues the whole way back through the park to my car, and the rest of the ride home to his mother’s house. He won’t say a word. Neither will I. It’s like this every month; the last hour is the worst. To speak during that last stretch of time together feels like an offense. It’s as though each second deserves a sacred attention, recognition, savoring, and to fill it with words might speed the loss of time.
When I pull up to his mother’s house and turn off the car, he unbuckles his seatbelt and reaches over with both arms and gives me a hug. I try not to think about how soon he will be too old to hold on to me like this. Already he won’t look me in the eyes when I drop him off. And he’s long since stopped asking if I’m coming inside.
I bet in his imagination, I never left. I know I didn’t in mine.
ROSS MCMEEKIN’s fiction has appeared online recently in publications such as Tin House, Pank, Hobart, and the Portland Review, and his essays have appeared in The Rumpus and Hunger Mountain. He received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He edits the literary journal Spartan.