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Excerpt from "Big Bob and Little Bob" from The Solution to the World's Problems

Saturday 4/15/23

I've mentioned the story "Big Bob and Little Bob" in these pages a number of times over the last few weeks. I've said what it is. Not what I think it is. What I know it to be. It will be completely done soon. Here is something from it. This is why they don't want me to have a level playing field, because they can't compete with things like this.


Big Bob wasn’t the same again. No one is after something like that, but he really wasn’t. People have a shell, and the shell is still recognizable after pain, loss, tragedy. So long as they’re alive that shell will likely be in some form of evidence. They’ll laugh at the same kind of joke they used to laugh at. If they regularly watched Murder, She Wrote, like Terry did, they’ll still watch an episode or two of Murder, She Wrote. They don’t just die. They’re still here.

Terry was the first woman I’d known who lost a child. What I hadn’t known was how clear it could be that someone wouldn’t be close to the same again, despite appearances, the body language they retained, the type of remarks they still favored.

Even at my age, with no notable intelligence to speak of, I knew that Terry was like all mothers who had been made to suffer that way. If there were people to be found before there were officially people who existed on account of how much their pain took them into the before times, even if they had to predate everyone else and less tormented aspects of human existence, they'd be mothers like Terry. They saw everything in the world as though it were reflected in a sandblasted mirror. Nothing looked the same, or often as it was. There were distorting, piled-up particles in the way, fractures in the glass, flat, bewitching reservoirs of shards and splinters, with every now and then an image appearing closer to true, or to what it had been, but it wasn’t.

That mirror also always had them looking over their shoulder, as if to the past, the darkened portion of a room that’s at your back and not in front of your chest. And seeking for what might have been, if only the person they most wanted to see would step into the picture so they could turn and look upon them—really look upon them—once more, for the new first time in a lot of new first times that were still to come. Once is never enough with love. Then again, love is everything, from the first.

Terry had a fondness for the word “trooper.” If you skimmed the pool and unburdened its surface of those fallen acorns and leafrollers before a summer gathering, or carried in the groceries that Terry and Big Bob had bought—lots of soon-to-be-grilled meats, veritable jugs of soda, and bags of chips the size of small pillows—she’d say, “Aren’t you a trooper,” somewhere along the line from the car in the driveway, through the garage, towards the room with the downstairs fridge adjacent to Big Bob’s study that led out to the backyard beneath a couple trees that always had a patch of shade ready to go.

You’d think given Big Bob’s lessons on service and war and how a peaceful man didn’t stop being peaceful, necessarily, just because he did his hard duty, that I would have known where the word came from, but I didn’t. Terry had coined it in my view, a special saying which wasn’t used just for anyone.

I wanted to say her compliment back to her, but it would have been cruel and slight, even if she put real stock in the trooper concept of doing that which others wouldn’t or didn’t. She was the framework for that mirror, a person who kept things in place.

Terry bustled. Refilled people’s drinks. Made herself laugh at the annual block party when a child had her face painted and kept asking her mother to look after her mother had already looked three times. Loaded a sense of enthusiasm into her voice that wasn’t truly present. She played the trooper. Rose first to start to carry the dishes into the kitchen. Placed a hand on Big Bob’s shoulder as he sat in his chair when she might not have earlier. Removed the carcasses of defeated wasps and drowned butterflies from the pool herself, those aerial representatives of mid-summer in following from the paratrooping leafrollers of June and succeeded by the thick-with-life falling acorns of late August. She was in regular back-and-forth, up-and-down motion. More than I had remembered at any time in the past, save when she was getting those hot towels ready for Debbie the day of the rescue mission in the blizzard, only I wasn’t there to see. Still—you knew how it had gone.

But I also wasn’t looking as I had before. I realized that I possessed a mirror, too, and it no longer had a perfect surface. The world didn’t look the same in its reflection. The world itself may have been the same, but not the mirror.

That was the first time I felt I ever really understood anything about how life was, and I griped less if I had to sit at the kids’ table and complained less inwardly, too, when it was necessary to show patience with my sister and do some dumb thing with her, which I tried not to think of as dumb, even if the shoe was pretty snug.

The mirror wasn’t done. It would change again, in all probability. I knew that now, just as I know that the world is viewed as a series of reflections. The surface took on scuff and grime. Streaks of memories. Smudges of grief. The blasts of pocking sand that also pitted the soul. But also the reflection of light. The images of people who modeled life well. The better and necessary parts.

But Big Bob didn’t have much of a shell to present to the world and the people in it who cared about him. He began to drink a lot and got thinner and thinner, as if he was trending towards becoming Medium-Sized Bob, which worked less well. He continued to be kind to me, and still shared tidbits about the Civil War, but the energy was gone from his voice, the passion.

If before the cannons of Antietam could be heard from more than sixty miles away, then now it was like less than thirty. You had to ask him a question about a battle for him to speak of it. There was no volunteering. Life itself was conscription. The battles he was invested in were his own, if he was invested in them at all, which appeared to be infrequently the case.

He was getting older, and aging faster than he should have been. The sloping of his shoulders and the expansion of the bags beneath his eyes weren’t on account of rules put in place by Father Time. Rules for both thee and me. The great, immersive pool of “we.” Big Bob was on a different kind of clock. A man who measured life by how much time had elapsed since it had last been as he could bear it. Or as he had wanted it at all.

Little Bob regarded Big Bob with kind eyes that always looked to be saying, “If you want to talk…” Nothing more, nothing less. They were men who were linked and a part of each other, which became more apparent now that didn’t talk and laugh as before. Little Bob’s eyes had always seemed to say as much, to everyone—his were listening eyes—but to greater degree with Big Bob. His eyes were open invitations that just so happened to blink, which suggests flinching but isn’t the same. As a stand-apart portion of nature, Big Bob and Little Bob’s shared Bobness remained, but sagged. It was not a prime era.

To see one Bob on his own had always been to wish to see the other emerge, as if he’d also been there all along, temporarily blocked out by a wall or door. The angle of a garden hedge when someone had a knee in the dirt as they helped plant a recently recommended kind of bulb. After noticing the presence of a second Bob, you'd think, “Ah, okay, that’s better,” but without actually thinking it.

That feeling held true. They were no less Big Bob and Little Bob than before. But that was also because of what they had been, and how something like whatever that is, and what that most is, can stay with other people so that they hope it has continued. Proven unconquerable, if not exactly the same.

One makes these periodic, informal restatements of what was observed and understood to exist when there’s a need for that something to remain—that’s it—to just remain—in some form or another, because it represents a part of the world gone right.

When it happens, you hold tight, believe harder, and hope harder still. Give thanks for as long as you can, until what you’re thankful for isn’t there anymore. At which point you give thanks that it ever was, because it shows what may be.


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