BY A.S. COOMER
I set my heaping plate on the table.
"No. Not there," Jackson squeaked.
I picked it back up and moved the two spots down to the placemat my five-year-old nephew indicated with his gravy coated hand. I watched some glob down and shake once on the decorative cotton.
"Right here, huh?"
"Uh huh. That’s where you sit, Drew."
His little voice sounded so adult it was comical. I couldn’t help but smile.
We were the first two through the Thanksgiving line: Jackson because his parents had to keep him occupied; me because I’m always on the fringe of social gatherings.
The din of the serving line in the other room was only a muffled roar here in the dining room. I picked up my fork and watched Jackson eat his ham, using his fingers to pick a hole out of the center, slowly working his way towards the edges.
"That’s an interesting way to go about the ham."
"Uh huh," he didn’t even look up.
I shoveled a mouthful of dumplings into my mouth, watching his little mouth work. His face was rigid, his cheeks still a smidge red from the most recent sickness my young nephews were perpetually just getting over or just coming down with. His eyes darted from one thing on his plate to another but his fingers continued working on the ham. He glanced up, saw me watching him and smiled an unabashed smile of the joy of an adult’s attention.
It’s a family joke that Jackson is going to grow up to be our family’s first actor. He’s constantly working on a new character; from Disney to distant relatives to people he’s only met in passing at the grocery store, the kid is constantly play-acting. He’s got a trunkful of voices and phrases that fly out at no discernible interval that I can predict. He’s particularly attracted to emulating villains and women.
With a sweep of his hand, which suddenly possessed a fork, he switched to his grand announcing voice: a child’s trumpet’s call.
"Why are we even alive though?"
The dumpling nearly lodged itself in my throat.
I half-coughed then washed the buttery mass down with two large swallows of some white wine I could never afford. I focused on returning the glass to its spot, searching sidelong and desperately for help in the empty room. At that moment, I could’ve thrown my plate at his parents (and you have no idea how good Grandma Sherrard’s dumplings are).
"Where’d that come from?" I stammered.
How long does it take to fill a plate, Aaron? Jesus fucking Christ, Melissa, a little help here.
"I don’t know."
I felt Jackson’s inquisitive, trusting eyes lighting crimson fires on the side of my face and returned the glass to my lips.
What the fuck?
I set the glass down and turned to him.
How do you answer the existential questions of a five-year-old?
Why’d he ask me? The definite black sheep of the family: a heavily tattooed atheist, a long-haired writer of mostly fiction and poetry in a family of suit and tie professionals, bankers, real estate company owners, physical therapists, lawyers, doctors. Of the entire family—in the entire family’s collective opinion—I’m probably the most least qualified to answer this kid’s question. Or, at the very least, the one most members of the family don’t want answering this question or any in its field.
Thoughts, tangents, possible stock replies, brief images of me slapping the kid’s father, all kaleidoscoped through my mind. I thought about the universe, a brief glimpse of the unencumbered time of celestial bodies, the rise and fall of galaxies vastly different than the Milky Way, the stretch and pull of all that is, visible and unseen, expansion and collapse, the first single-celled organism twitching and bobbing, shucking and jiving the inanimate about its recent doings, the slinking out of primordial sludge by the soon-to-be first land-dweller, the Romans, Pangea, the binding of books, landing on the moon. I thought of Dostoyevsky, Norman Mailer and John Prine. I saw and heard the portraits of Picasso and Bob Dylan, the sonatas of Brahms and Chopin and Elliott Smith, the vibrating hum of a Basinski obscured on Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.
I distinctly saw one candle burning in a vacuum of blank, claustrophobic matte blackness. I watched it flicker in some unseen wind. I felt tears, real, definite and unasked for, well up in my eyes knowing it could go out at any time, that existence was not something promised, not something to be taken lightly, passed over and wasted. That it was something importune but given nonetheless. I watched the flame dance the fire’s sad, triumphant waltz, alone but shining, a slow-dance in motion only and couldn’t breathe.
I opened my mouth to respond. My nephew’s little eyes found mine and I couldn’t speak. I looked away.
"I don’t know, Jackson," I said. "You should ask your father."
A.S. Coomer is a writer and musician. His work has appeared in over thirty literary journals, magazines, anthologies and the like. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times in 2016. His debut novel, Rush’s Deal (Hammer & Anvil Books), came out December 11th, 2016. You can find him at www.ascoomer.com. He also runs Lost, Long Gone, Forgotten Records, a "record label" exclusively for poetry.