At one point, the father of Nile
gently runs the blade of a kitchen knife across his index finger.
There are several things to think about, and the motion of the
blade along his finger is good for thinking. But then he turns
the knife on the celery, the garlic, the onions, sautés
them in butter until they caramelize, pours a can of veggie stock
into a pot, a can of white beans. He sets the heat high. At one
point, before it boils, he steps out onto the porch, turns his
back to the wind coming down main street, lights a cigarette,
faces the wind, exhales. The wind forces itself down his throat,
the smoke trails behind him. Wind chimes, garbage cans almost
roll into the street – the next moment, all sound and sight
is covered in steel wool. It dissipates as he steps ahead, no
more than a tangibly thick fog. He had heard of this happening
before. From the man-made lake across town, he’d heard of
this sort of fog. Not for a long time, ten years, no one’s
seen it. Last time it crept out, they dragged the lake, only found
At one point, earlier in the day,
he hears it coming. He hears it scouring the asphalt. Tree limbs
breaking. It should be here soon, he thinks. He looks down the
street, imagines the vanishing point coming closer. His daughter
is out again. He ran into her earlier, she made him feel like
an intruder in his own home. She sat on the pull-out sofa in the
living room, comforters and pillows in a mass besides her, drinking
“What’s going on?”
“Trying to get pregnant so
I can have an abortion,” she answers. “I was with
some friends, staying up all night talking shit, watched a movie,
had a few drinks, decided to stay up, see the sunrise. Once it
got light, we went for breakfast.”
Nile watches herself reflected
in a turned-off television screen, never looks at him. “I’ve
been trying to get pregnant so I can have an abortion,”
“How’s it coming,” asks her father.
“There’s no opportunity, no one’s willing –
all the boys are so cautious. Not always the easiest thing to
convince a kid to knock you up. They’re so well trained.”
He wonders if he should offer reassurance.
She continues: “I want to see if I can get pregnant and
then I want to have an abortion. I want to learn about abortion.”
She stares at her coffee, then smiles at him.
He named her Nile, although his
wife insisted on another name: Samantha, Sarah, Leah, something
befitting a girl. He argued for one like his. “Let’s
start a tradition of androgynous names,” he said. Nile,
the navigable river, flowing north through Africa into the Mediterranean;
a pale green. Now he sees how his daughter let the name’s
other meanings grow: nihilism, nil, nilly-willy, as he
liked to call her before she taught herself to reject everything
The father of Nile has tried to
purge corrosive thought since his wife disappeared. (He realizes
he prefers to use disappeared; it implies passive action
– he knows he’s trying to lead himself to believe
that forces acted on her, taking her; he could just as well say
she was abducted, which implies body snatching, but there
was more to it than a beam of light, or a more enthusiastic lover,
pulling her into the sky – she left, but better to have
disappeared; if she disappeared she can just as easily reappear:
there’s no such regenerative volley for abduction.) And
now the only impurity he allows himself is cigarette smoke. He
admires the addiction, the manageable control that his son has
within him, a tyrant at once coming to him from the far side of
town, from the tops of trees, from within him, pouring out, seen
in the smoke he exhales into the wintertime air.
At one point, before he begins
making soup, as he runs the blade of the kitchen knife along his
finger, he thinks he should take down a tree or a telephone pole,
start whacking one or the other until it falls across the road
and blocks traffic. Nile is out again. These are his choices.
Either to make soup or take an ax and tear into the tall oak and
the telephone pole that occupy the thin strip between the street
and sidewalk. When he stands in front of his rented duplex along
main street, where the speed limit increases to 40 MPH a half-mile
from the strip of stores, rubbing out a cigarette on the asphalt,
he stares down to where the sidewalks converge on nothing. Perspective
couples a string of traffic lights one within the other, when
he stands in the middle of the street for no reason except to
see how far he can see.
At one point, he thinks chopping
is his only alternative for the evening, but then he reconsiders,
decides to cook something for his daughter who has returned for
winter break with an unlikely agenda. He decides to cook for her
although she’s rarely home. He hears her return in the middle
of the night, early morning; he waits, half asleep, dreaming of
her brother inside him. Can’t make anything he makes well
because she won’t eat it. Political reasons, reasons of
taste, too many reasons to reject a steaming bowl of chicken soup.
He’s uncomfortable making a soup of legumes. He would make
chicken soup, whip all his feelings into a strong broth for her,
something curative that she wouldn’t eat.
At one point, the neighbors are
playing chess on their screened-in porch, screaming. It’s
Mr. Thomas and his son drinking together a few days after New
Year’s; their ritual: the son returns for a few days each
year to battle it out on the chessboard. The father of Nile hears
playful taunting after even the most introductory moves. He stands
behind a ratty-skinned maple in his short yard. They can’t
see him. Bishop takes knight. Knight takes bishop. Hah!
The father of Nile had planned to see his son born, but his wife
disappeared before conception. His son would now be ten. In an
awkward stage, growing inside him, beyond his sight. Last seen
coming to the house from beyond the town’s strip of storefronts,
toward which his wife had disappeared. The son keeps to himself,
replies in distances, in height, rustles the tree tops until the
father becomes heavy with the son within him. With each breath
he can see his son breathing, although the father of Nile doesn’t
really believe this. In fact, at many points, on many nights,
he realizes his son is not within him, is not coming, was never
born. His wife has left him, he knows, she hasn’t disappeared.
Nile is not a wreck, after all, she has his humor, a taste for
herself as she develops, as he had a taste for himself until she
was born. His wife gave birth to Nile and he gave himself up for
his daughter. Now Nile is a wreck (or not a wreck) who’s
taking up where her father left off, his wife has disappeared
(or left), his son grows within him and causes his body to shake,
his jaw to tighten, his shoulders to clench, his skin to twitch,
whenever the son (or nicotine addiction) needs to breathe.
The father of Nile has never grown,
his wife would say. She would joke that he teaches English to
newly immigrated children at an intermediate school because he’s
never learned much else to teach than the language he spoke as
a toddler. He leads choruses of rhyming songs to reinforce idioms
and irregular conjugations. Oversees innumerable games of hangman
in which his students try to lynch the stick-figures they create.
Rather than having his students stare passively at the blackboard,
chanting phrases in which meaning is immediately presented and
never arrived at, he tries to help his students negotiate an active
process of trial and error. He hopes for his students to arrive
at meaning, using their failed attempts as a vehicle. He believes
that he gravitates to children, not because he has never grown,
but because his son has not yet matured within him.
Outside in the fog, smoking. No
sound from Mr. Thomas or his son. Then the father of Nile hears
Mr. Thomas announce that he is castling. They must not notice
the phenomenon – the intense fog – on their screened-in
porch. At one point, the father of Nile begins to think that there’s
no way for him to get back into the house. He turns to where his
house should be, realizes he’s wandered out into the street.
If he swims his arms through the fog at his knees, he can see
through to the asphalt. He puts his cigarette out, the weave of
steel wool loosens. He picks his way through the crisscrossing
fibers back to his porch. He shuts the door on what’s happening.
Returns to the kitchen to check the soup.
It boils: a boy is in the kitchen,
seated at the table. The father of Nile has never seen him before.
In perfect English, the boy says, “I am a new student, from
the school.” The father knows he is not there, this boy,
there is no way, just as he knows there is no steel wool.
“This boy is not anything,” says the father of Nile.
And yet he addresses him: “You are not my son, my student,
And so the boy stands, asks to taste the soup. The father consents.
The boy pulls a spoon from a drawer, sips.
“This is excellent soup,” the boy says. The boy stares
into the steam.
“I made it for your sister,” says the father.
At one point, it seems the boy will say something more, admit
to something, but the next moment, he’s gone.
The father finds an ax in the basement,
steps outside again into the steel wool. He starts chopping the
air. With one sweep of the ax, he cuts a swath to drive a truck
through. A few more cuts with the ax and he’s opened a tunnel
to the street. He sees two dark columns. The telephone pole is
there. The oak. As he begins to whack the tree, he exhales steel
wool. With each cut through the air, he breaths harder, exhaling
more. His breath fills in the tunnel he dug.
At one point, he stops and looks
around. The fibers of the wool are tighter now, impenetrable,
with each breath they become more tightly knit. He exhales, then
pushes his accumulated breath away with the head of his ax.
At one point, he thinks this is
it. This is how it will end.
The next moment, he is back in
his kitchen, gently running the blade of a kitchen knife across
an index finger, steam from the simmering soup in his eyes. At
one point he begins to just barely cut into his finger. The next
moment his daughter is there, ladling a serving into a bowl for
herself, cooling it with her breath: everything is fine, they
will go outside afterwards, maybe share a cigarette, come back
in, and play a game of chess.
Trial and error. A night at home.
They’ll see to it things go fine.