What Feels Like the World

VERY EARLY IN THE MORNING, TOO EARLY, HE HEARS her trying to jump rope out on the sidewalk below his bedroom window. He wakes to the sound of her shoes on the concrete, her breathless counting as she jumps—never more than three times in succession—and fails again to find the right rhythm, the proper spring in her legs to achieve the thing, to be a girl jumping rope. He gets up and moves to the window and, parting the curtain only slightly, peers out at her. For some reason he feels he must be stealthy, must not let her see him gazing at her from this window. He thinks about the heartless way children tease the imperfect among them, and then he closes the curtain.

She is his only granddaughter, the unfortunate inheritor of his big-boned genes, his tendency toward bulk, and she is on a self-induced program of exercise and dieting, to lose weight. This is in preparation for the last meeting of the PTA, during which children from the fifth and sixth grades will put on a gymnastics demonstration. There will be a vaulting horse and a mini-trampoline, and everyone is to participate. She wants to be able to do at least as well as the other children in her class, and so she has been trying exercises to improve her coordination and lose the weight that keeps her rooted to the ground. For the past two weeks she has been eating only one meal a day, usually lunch, since that’s the meal she eats at school, and swallowing cans of juice at other mealtimes. He’s afraid of anorexia but trusts her calm determination to get ready for the event. There seems no desperation, none of the classic symptoms of the disease. Indeed, this project she has set for herself seems quite sane: to lose ten pounds, and to be able to get over the vaulting horse—in fact, she hopes that she will be able to do a handstand on it and, curling her head and shoulders, flip over to stand upright on the other side. This, she has told him, is the outside hope. And in two weeks of very grown-up discipline and single-minded effort, that hope has mostly disappeared; she is still the only child in the fifth grade who has not even been able to propel herself over the horse, and this is the day of the event. She will have one last chance to practice at school today, and so she is up this early, out on the lawn, straining, pushing herself.

He dresses quickly and heads downstairs. The ritual in the mornings is simplified by the fact that neither of them is eating breakfast. He makes orange juice, puts vitamins on a saucer for them both. When he glances out the livingroom window, he sees that she is now doing somersaults in the dewy grass. She does three of them while he watches, and he is not stealthy this time but stands in the window with what he hopes is an approving, unworried look on his face. After each somersault she pulls her sweat shirt down, takes a deep breath, and begins again, the arms coming down slowly, the head ducking slowly under: it is as if she falls on her back, sits up, and then stands up. Her cheeks are ruddy with effort. The moistness of the grass is on the sweat suit, and in the ends of her hair. It will rain this morning—there’s thunder beyond the trees at the end of the street. He taps on the window, gestures, smiling, for her to come in. She waves at him, indicates that she wants him to watch her, so he watches her. He applauds when she’s finished—three hard, slow tumbles. She claps her hands together as if to remove dust from them and comes trotting to the door. As she moves by him, he tells her she’s asking for a bad cold, letting herself get wet so early in the morning. It’s his place to nag. Her glance at him acknowledges this.

“I can’t get the rest of me to follow my head,” she says about the somersaults.

They go into the kitchen, and she sits down, pops a vitamin into her mouth, and takes a swallow of the orange juice. “I guess I’m not going to make it over that vaulting horse after all,” she says suddenly.

“Sure you will.”

“I don’t care.” She seems to pout. This is the first sign of true discouragement she’s shown.

He’s been waiting for it. “Brenda—honey, sometimes people aren’t good at these things. I mean, I was never any good at it.”

“I bet you were,” she says. “I bet you’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

“No,” he says, “really.”

He’s been keeping to the diet with her, though there have been times during the day when he has cheated. He no longer has a job, and the days are long: he’s hungry all the time. He pretends to her that he’s still going on to work in the mornings after he walks her to school, because he wants to keep her sense of the daily balance of things, of a predictable and orderly routine, intact. He believes this is the best way to deal with grief—simply to go on with things, to keep them as much as possible as they have always been. Being out of work doesn’t worry him, really: he has enough money in savings to last a while. At sixty-one, he’s almost eligible for Social Security, and he gets monthly checks from the girl’s father, who lives with another woman and other children, in Oregon. The father has been very good about keeping up with the payments, though he never visits or calls. Probably he thinks the money buys him the privilege of remaining aloof, now that Brenda’s mother is gone. Brenda’s mother used to say he was the type of man who learned early that there was nothing of substance anywhere in his soul, and spent the rest of his life trying to hide this fact from himself. No one was more upright, she would say, no one more honorable, and God help you if you ever had to live with him. Brenda’s father was the subject of bitter sarcasm and scorn, and yet, perhaps not so surprisingly, Brenda’s mother would call him in those months just after the divorce, when Brenda was still only a toddler, and she would try to get the baby to say things to him over the phone; she would sit there with Brenda on her lap and cry after she had hung up.

“I had a doughnut yesterday at school,” Brenda says now.

“That’s lunch. You’re supposed to eat lunch.”

“I had spaghetti, too. And three pieces of garlic bread. And pie. And a big salad.”

“What’s one doughnut.”

“Well, and I didn’t eat anything the rest of the day.”

“I know,” her grandfather says. “See?”

They sit quiet for a little while. Sometimes they’re shy with each other—more so lately. They’re used to the absence of her mother by now—it’s been more than a year— but they still find themselves missing a beat now and then, like a heart with a valve almost closed. She swallows the last of her juice and then gets up and moves to the living room, to stand gazing out at the yard. Big drops have begun to fall. It’s a storm, with rising wind and, now, very loud thunder. Lightning branches across the sky, and the trees in the yard disappear in sheets of rain. He has come to her side, and he pretends an interest in the details of the weather, remarking on the heaviness of the rain, the strength of the wind. “Some storm,” he says finally. “I’m glad we’re not out in it.” He wishes he could tell what she’s thinking, where the pain is; he wishes he could be certain of the harmlessness of his every word. “Honey,” he ventures, “we could play hooky today. If you want to.”

“Don’t you think I can do it?” she says.

“I know you can.”

She stares at him a moment and then looks away, out at the storm.

“It’s terrible out there, isn’t it?” he says. “Look at that lightning.”

“You don’t think I can do it,” she says.

“No, I know you can. Really.”

“Well, I probably can’t.”

“Even if you can’t. Lots of people—lots of people never do anything like that.”

“I’m the only one who can’t that I know.”

“Well, there’s lots of people. The whole thing is silly, Brenda. A year from now it won’t mean anything at all— you’ll see.”

She says nothing.

“Is there some pressure at school to do it?”

“No.” She answers simply, looking directly at him.

“You’re sure.”

She’s sure. And of course, he realizes, there is pressure: there’s the pressure of being one among other children, and being the only one among them who can’t do a thing.

“Honey,” he says lamely, “it’s not that important.”

When she looks at him this time, he sees something scarily unchildlike in her expression, some perplexity that she seems to pull down into herself. “It is too important,” she says.

HE DRIVES HER TO SCHOOL. THE RAIN IS STILL BEING blown along the street and above the low roofs of the houses. By the time they arrive, no more than five minutes from the house, it has begun to let up.

“If it’s completely stopped after school,” she says, “can we walk home?”

“Of course,” he says. “Why wouldn’t we?”

She gives him a quick wet kiss on the cheek. “Bye, Pops.”

He knows she doesn’t like it when he waits for her to get inside, and still he hesitates. There’s always the apprehension that he’ll turn away or drive off just as she thinks of something she needs from him, or that she’ll turn to wave and he won’t see her. So he sits here with the car engine idling, and she walks quickly up the sidewalk and into the building. In the few seconds before the door swings shut, she turns and gives him a wave, and he waves back. The door is closed now. Slowly he lets the car glide forward, still watching the door. Then he’s down the drivewaY, and he heads back to the house.

IT’S HARD TO DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH HIS TIME. Mostly he stays in the house, watches television, reads the newspapers. There are household tasks, but he can’t do anything she might notice, since he’s supposed to be at work during these hours. Sometimes, just to please himself, he drives over to the bank and visits with his old co-workers, though there doesn’t seem to be much to talk about anymore and he senses that he makes them all uneasy. Today he lies down on the sofa in the living room and rests a while. At the windows the sun begins to show, and he thinks of driving into town, perhaps stopping somewhere to eat a light breakfast. He accuses himself with the thought and then gets up and turns the television on. There isn’t anything of interest to watch, but he watches anyway. The sun is bright now out on the lawn, and the wind is the same, gusting now and again and shaking the window frames. On the television he sees feasts of incredible sumptuousness, almost nauseating in the impossible brightness and succulence of the food: advertisements from cheese companies, dairy associations, the makers of cookies and pizza, the sellers of seafood and steaks. He’s angry with himself for wanting to cheat on the diet. He thinks of Brenda at school, thinks of crowds of children, and it comes to him more painfully than ever that he can’t protect her. Not any more than he could ever protect her mother.

He goes outside and walks up the drying sidewalk to the end of the block. The sun has already dried most of the morning’s rain, and the wind is warm. In the sky are great stormy Matterhorns of cumulus and wide patches of the deepest blue. It’s a beautiful day, and he decides to walk over to the school. Nothing in him voices this decision: he simply begins to walk. He knows without having to think about it that he can’t allow her to see him, Yet he feels compelled to take the risk that she might; he feels a helpless wish to watch over her, and, beyond this, he entertains the vague notion that by seeing her in her world he might be better able to be what she needs in his.

So he walks the four blocks to the school and stands just beyond the playground, in a group of shading maples that whisper and sigh in the wind. The playground is emptY. A bell rings somewhere in the building, but no one comes out. It’s not even eleven o’clock in the morning. He’s too late for morning recess and too early for the afternoon one. He feels as though she watches him make his way back down the street.

HIS NEIGHBOR, MRS. EBERHARD, COMES OVER FOR lunch. It’s a thing they planned, and he’s forgotten about it. She knocks on the door, and when he opens it she smiles and says, “I knew you ‘d forget.”She’s on a diet too, and is carrying what they’ll eat: two apples, some celery and carrots. It’s all in a clear plastic bag, and she holds it toward him in the palms of her hands as though it were piping hot from an oven. Jane Eberhard is relatively new in the neighborhood. When Brenda’s mother died, Jane offered to cook meals and regulate things, and for a while she was like another member of the family. She’s moved into their lives now, and sometimes they all forget the circumstances under which the friendship began. She’s a solid, large-hipped woman of fifty-two, with bright young green eyes and a wide, expressive mouth. The thing she’s good at is sympathy; there’s something oddly unspecific about it, as if it’s a beam she simply radiates.

“You look so worried,’she says now. “I think you should be proud of her.”

They’re sitting in the living room, with the plastic bag on the coffee table before them. She’s eating a stick of celery.

“I’ve never seen a child that age put such demands on herself,” she says.

“I don’t know’ what it’s going to do to her if she doesn’t make it over the damn thing,”he says.

“It’ll disappoint her. But she’ll get over it.”

“I don’t guess you can make it tonight.”

“Can’t,” she says. “Really. I promised my mother I’d take her to the ocean this weekend.”

“I walked over to the school a little while ago.

“Are you sure you’re not putting more into this than she is?”

“She was up before dawn this morning, Jane. Didn’t you see her?”

Mrs. Eberhard nods. “I saw her.”

“Well?” he says.

She pats his wrist. “I’m sure it won’t matter a month from now.”

“No,” he says, “that’s not true. I mean, I wish I could believe you. But I’ve never seen a kid work so hard.”“Maybe she’ll make it.”

“Yes,” he says. “Maybe.”

Mrs. Eberhard sits considering for a moment, tapping the stick of celery against her lower lip. “You think it’s tied to the accident in some way, don’t you?”

“I don’t know,” he says, standing, moving across the room. “I can’t get through somehow. It’s been all this time and I still don’t know. She keeps it all to herself—all of it. All I can do is try to be there when she wants me to be there. I don’t know—I don’t even know what to say to her.”

“You’re doing all you can do, then.”

“Her mother and I . . .” he begins. “She—we never got along that well.”

“You can’t worry about that now.”

Mrs. Eberhard’s advice is always the kind of practical good advice that’s impossible to follow.

He comes back to the sofa and tries to eat one of the apples, but his appetite is gone. This seems ironic to him. “I’m not hungry now,” he says.

“Sometimes worry is the best thing for a diet.

“I’ve always worried. It never did me any good, but I worried.”

“I’ll tell you,” Mrs. Eberhard says. “It’s a terrific misfortune to have to be raised by a human being.”

He doesn’t feel like listening to this sort of thing, so he asks her about her husband, who is with the government in some capacity that requires him to be both secretive and mobile. He’s always off to one country or another, and this week he’s in India. It’s strange to think of someone traveling as much as he does without getting hurt or killed. Mrs. Eberhard says that she’s so used to his being gone all the time that next year, when lie retires, it will take a while to get used to having him underfoot. In fact, he’s not a very likable man; there’s something murky and unpleasant about him. The one time Mrs. Eberhard brought him to visit, he sat in the living room and seemed to regard everyone with detached curiosity, as if they were all specimens on a dish under a lens. When he spoke, his voice was cultivated and quiet, full of self-satisfaction and haughtiness. Thev had been speaking in low tones about how Jane Eberhard had moved in to take over after the accident, and Mrs. Eberhard’s husband cleared his throat, held his fist gingerly to his mouth, pursed his lips, and began a softspoken, lecture-like monologue about his belief that there’s no such thing as an accident. His considered opinion was that there are subconscious explanations for everything. Apparently, he thought he was entertaining everyone. He sat with one leg crossed over the other and held forth in his calm, magisterial voice, explaining how everything can be reduced to a matter of conscious or subconscious will. Finally, his wife asked him to let it alone, please, drop the subject.

“For example,” he went on, “there are many collisions on the highway in which no one appears to have applied brakes before impact, as if something in the victims had decided on death. And of course there are the well-known cases of people stopped on railroad tracks, with plenty of time to get off, who simply do not move. Perhaps it isn t being frozen bv the perception of one ‘s fate but a matter of decision-making, of will. The victim decides on his fate.”

“I think we’ve had enough now,” Jane Eberhard said.

The inappropriateness of what he had said seemed to dawn on him then. He shifted in his seat and grew very quiet, and when the evening was over he took Brenda’s grandfather by the elbow and apologized. But even in the apology there seemed to be a species of condescension, as if he were really only sorry for the harsh truth of what he had wrongly deemed it necessary to say. When they were gone, Brenda said, “I don’t like that man.”

“Is it because of what he said about accidents?” her grandfather asked.

She shook her head. “I just don’t like him.”

It’s not true, what he said, honey. An accident is an accident.”

She said, “I know.”But she would not return his gaze.

“Your mother wasn’t very happy here, but she didn’t want to leave us. Not even—you know, without . . . without knowing it or anything.”

“He wears perfume,” she said, still not looking at him.

“It’s cologne. Yes, he does—too much of it.”

“It smells,” she said.

IN THE AFTERNOON HE WALKS OVER TO THE SCHOOL. The sidewalks are crowded with children, and they all seem to recognize him. They carry their books and papers and their hair is windblown and they run and wrestle with each other in the yards. The sun’s high and very hot, and most of the clouds have broken apart and scattered. There’s still a fairly steady wind, but it’s gentler now, and there’s no coolness in it.

Brenda is standing at the first crossing street down the hill from the school; she’s surrounded by other children yet seems separate from them somehow. She sees him and smiles. He waits on his side of the intersection for her to cross, and when she reaches him he’s careful not to show any obvious affection, knowing it embarrasses her.

“How was your day?” he begins.

“Mr. Clayton tried to get me to quit today.”

He waits.

“I didn’t get over,” she says. “I didn’t even get close.”

“What did Mr. Clayton say?”

“Oh—you know. That it’s not important. That kind of stuff.”

“Well,” he says gently, “is it so important?”

“I don’t know.” She kicks at something in the grass along the edge of the sidewalk—a piece of a pencil someone else has discarded. She bends, picks it up, examines it, and then drops it. They walk on. She’s concentrating on the sidewalk before them, and they walk almost in step.

“I’m sure I never could do a thing like that when I was in school,” he says.

“Did they have that when you were in school?”

He smiles. “It was hard getting everything into the caves. But sure, we had that sort of thing. We were an advanced tribe. We had fire, too.”

“Okay,” she says. “Okay.”

“Actually, with me, it was pull-ups. We all had to do pull-ups. And I just couldn’t do them. I don’t think I ever accomplished a single one in my life.”

“I can’t do pull-ups,” she says.

“They’re hard to do.”

“Everybody in the fifth and sixth grades can get over the vaulting horse,” she says.

HOW MUCH SHE REMINDS HIM OF HER MOTHER: there’s a certain mobility in her face, a certain willingness to assert herself in the smallest gesture of the eyes and mouth. She has her mother’s green eyes, and now he tells her this. He’s decided to try this. He’s standing, quite shy, in her doorway, feeling like an intruder. She’s sitting on the floor, one leg outstretched, the other bent at the knee. She tries to touch her forehead to the knee of the outstretched leg, straining, and he looks away.

“You know?” he says. “They’re just the same color— just that shade of green.”

“What was my grandmother like?” she asks, still straining.

“She was a lot like your mother.”

“I’m never going to get married.”

“Of course you will. Well, I mean—if you want to, you will.”

“How come you didn’t ever get married again?”

“Oh,” he says, “I had a daughter to raise, you know.”

She changes position, tries to touch her forehead to the other knee.

“I’ll tell you, that mother of yours was enough to keep me busy. I mean, I called her double trouble, you know, because I always said she was double the trouble a son would have been. That was a regular joke between us.”

“Am I double trouble?”

“No,” he says, smiling at her.

“Is that really why you didn’t get married again?”

“Well, no one would have me, either.”

“Mom said you liked it.”

“Liked what?”

“Being a widow.”

“Yes, well,” he says.

“Did you?”

“All these questions,” he says.

“Do you think about Grandmom a lot?”

“Yes,” he says. “That’s—you know, we remember our loved ones.”

She stands and tries to touch her toes without bending her legs. “Sometimes I dream that Mom’s yelling at me.

“Oh, well,” he says, hearing himself say it, feeling himself back down from something. “ That’s—that s just a dream. You know, it’s nothing to think about at all. And I’ll bet these exercises are going to do the trick.”

“I’m very smart, aren’t I?”

He feels sick, very deep down. “You’re the smartest little girl I ever saw.”

“You don’t have to come tonight if you don’t want to, she says. “You can drop me off it you want, and come get me when it’s over.”

“Why would I do that?”

She mutters, “I would.”

“Then why don’t we skip it?”

“Lot of good that would do,” she says.

FOR DINNER THEY DRINK APPLE JUICE, AND HE GETS her to eat two slices of dry toast. The apple juice is for energy. She drinks it slowly and then goes into her room to lie down, to conserve her strength. She uses the word conserve, and he tells her he’s so proud of her vocabulary. She thanks him. While she rests, he does a few household chores, trying really just to keep busy. The week’s newspapers have been piling up on the coffee table in the living room, the carpets need to be vacuumed, and the whole house needs dusting. None of it takes long enough; none of it quite distracts him. For a while he sits in the living room with a newspaper in his lap and pretends to be reading it. She’s restless too. She comes back through to the kitchen, drinks another glass of apple juice, and then joins him in the living room, turns the television on. The news is full of traffic deaths, and she turns to one of the local stations that shows reruns of old situation comedies. They both watch M*A*S*H without really taking it in. She bites the cuticles of her nails, and her eyes wander around the room. He knows he could speak to her now, could make his way through to her grief—and he knows, too, that he will do no such thing; he can ‘t even bring himself to speak at all. There are regions of his own sorrow that he simply lacks the strength to explore. And so he sits there watching her restlessness, and at last it’s time to go over to the school. Jane Eberhard makes a surprise visit, bearing a handsome good-luck card she’s fashioned herself. She kisses Brenda, behaves exactly as if Brenda is going off to some dangerous, faraway place. She stands in the street and waves at them as they pull away, and Brenda leans out the window to shout good-bye. A moment later, sitting back and staring out at the dusky light, she says she feels a surge of energy, and he tells her she ‘s way ahead of all the others in her class, knowing words like conserve and surge.

“I’ve always known them,” she says.

It’s beginning to rain again. Clouds have been rolling in from the east, and the wind shakes the trees. Lightning flickers on the other side of the clouds. Everything seems threatening, relentless. He slows down. There are many cars parked along both sides of the street. “Quite a turnout,” he manages.

“Don’t worry,” she tells him brightly. “I still feel my surge of energy.”

It begins to rain as they get out of the car, and he holds his sport coat like a cape to shield her from it. By the time they get to the open front doors, it’s raining very hard. People are crowding into the cafeteria, which has been transformed into an arena for the event—chairs set up on four sides of the room as though for a wrestling match. In the center, at the end of the long, bright-red mat, are the vaulting horse and the mini-trampoline. The physicaleducation teacher, Mr. Clayton, stands at the entrance. He’s tall, thin, scraggly looking, a boy really, no older than twenty-five.

“There’s Mr. Clayton,” Brenda says.

“I see him.”

“Hello, Mr. Clayton.”

Mr. Clavton is quite distracted, and he nods quickly, leans toward Brenda, and points to a doorway across the hall. “Go on ahead,” he says. Then he nods at her grandfather.

“This is it,”Brenda says.

Her grandfather squeezes her shoulder, means to find the best thing to tell her, but in the next confusing minute he’s lost her; she’s gone among the others and he’s being swept along with the crowd entering the cafeteria. He makes his way along the walls behind the chairs, where a few other people have already gathered and are standing. At the other end of the room a man is speaking from a lectern about old business, new officers for the fall. Brenda’s grandfather recognizes some of the people in the crowd. A woman looks at him and nods, a familiar face he can t quite place. She is holding a baby; the baby is staring at him over her small shoulder. She turns to him now and steps back a little to stand next to him.

“What a crowd,” she says.

He nods.

The baby protests, and he touches the miniature fingers of one hand.

“How is—Brenda?” she says.

“Oh,” he says, “fine.”And he remembers that she was Brenda’s first-grade teacher. She’s heavier than she was then, and her hair is darker. She has a baby now.

“I don’t remember all my students,” she says, shifting the baby to the other shoulder. “I’ve been home now for eighteen months, and I’ll tell you, being at the PTA meeting makes me see how much I don’t miss it.”

He smiles at her and nods. He’s beginning to feel awkward. The man is still speaking from the lectern, a meeting is going on, and this woman’s voice is carrying beyond them, though she speaks out of the side of her mouth.

“I remember the way you used to walk Brenda to school every morning. Do you still walk her to school?”


“I always thought that was so nice to see.” She turns and seems to watch the speaker for a moment, and then speaks to him again, this time in a near whisper. “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way or anything, but I just wanted to say how sorry I was about your daughter. I saw it in the paper when Brenda’s mother. . . You know. I just wanted to tell you how sorry. When I saw it in the paper, I thought of Brenda, and how you used to walk her to school. I lost my sister in an automobile accident. I know how you feel—it’s a terrible thing to have happen. I mean it’s much too sudden a thing. I’m afraid now every time I get into a car.”

“You’re very kind,” he says.

“It seems so senseless,” she murmurs. “There’s something so senseless about it when it happens. My sister went through a stop sign. She just didn’t see it, I guess. But it wasn’t a busy road or anything. If she’d come along one second later or sooner nothing would’ve happened. So senseless. Two drivers coming along two roads on a sunny day and they come together like that. I mean—what’re the chances, really?”

He says nothing.

“How’s Brenda handling it?”

“She’s strong,” he says.

“I remember when she first came into my class. She told everyone in the first minute that she’d come from Oregon. That she was living with her grandfather, and her mother was divorced.”

“She was a baby when the divorce—when she moved here from Oregon.”

This seems to surprise the woman. “Really,” she says, low. “I got the impression it was recent for her. I mean, you know, that she had just come from it all. It was all very vivid for her, I remember that.”

“She was a baby,” he says. It’s almost as if he’s insisting on it. He’s heard this in his voice, and he wonders if she has too.

“Well,” she says, “I always had a special place for Brenda. I always thought she was very special. A very special little girl.”

The PTA meeting is over, and Mr. Clayton is now standing at the far door with the first of his charges. They’re all lining up outside the door, and Mr. Clayton walks to the microphone to announce the program. The demonstration will commence with the mini-trampoline and the vaulting horse: a performance by the fifth and sixth graders. There will also be a break-dancing demonstration by the fourth-grade classes.

“Here we go,” the woman says. “My nephew’s afraid of the mini-tramp.”

“They shouldn’t make them do these things,” Brenda’s grandfather says, with a passion that surprises him. He draws in a breath. “It’s too hard,” he says, loudly. He can’t believe himself. “They shouldn’t have to go through a thing like this.”

“I don’t know,” she says vaguely, turning from him a little. He has drawn attention to himself. Others in the crowd are regarding him now—one, a man with a scraggly beard and a V-necked shirt, looking at him with something he takes for agreement.

“It’s too much,” he says, still louder. “Too much to put on a child. There’s just so much a child can take.”

Someone asks gently for quiet.

The first child is running down the long mat to the minitrampoline; it’s a girl, and she times her jump perfectly, soars over the horse. One by one, other children follow. Mr. Clayton and another man stand on either side of the horse and help those who go over on their hands. Two or three go over without any assistance at all, with remarkable effortlessness and grace.

“Well,”Brenda’s first-grade teacher says, “there’s my nephew.”

The boy hits the mini-tramp and does a perfect forward flip in the air over the horse, landing upright and then rolling forward in a somersault.

“Yea, Jack,” she cheers. “No sweat. Yea, Jackie boy.”

The boy trots to the other end of the room and stands with the others; the crowd is applauding. The last of the sixth graders goes over the horse, and Mr. Clayton says into the microphone that the fifth graders are next. It’s Brenda who’s next. She stands in the doorway, her cheeks flushed, her legs looking too heavy in the tights. She’s rotking back and forth on the balls of her feet, getting ready. It grows quiet. Her arms swing slightly, back and forth, and now, just for a moment, she is looking at the crowd, her face hiding whatever she’s feeling. It’s as if she’s merely curious as to who is out there, but he knows she’s looking for him, searching the crowd for her grandfather, who stands on his toes, unseen against the far wall, stands there thinking his heart might break, lifting his hand to wave. □