The train hurtles north through the Hudson River Valley, parched in August. The setting sun gilds the railroad car to unbearable brightness. By the time we pull into Rensselaer, the car is dim and nearly deserted.
I grab my bag and make my way hand over hand on padded seatbacks, as the car rocks to a stop. I crouch to peer outside.
My younger brother Ed, his wife Susan, and their four-year old daughter Laura stand on the station platform. Tall and black-bearded, Ed leans a bit, as if swayed by a wind that no one else can feel. Susan is just as tall but upright. She is wearing a print blouse she designed and blue jeans which show off her long legs. Laura is a pretty blonde who does not yet resemble either of her parents. She holds her father’s hand.
The first to see me disembark, Susan smiles in welcome and touches Ed’s free arm. He waves it like a bough. He points at me and says something to Laura. She hides behind her father’s leg—a woodsprite shielded by the trunk of a tree.
“Sorry to make you wait,” I say. “We left on time from Grand Central, but the train was slow.”
“No problem. We had nothing better to do on a Friday evening. And Laura likes to watch the excitement. Don’t you?”
Put on the spot, Laura is tongue-tied.
“You lost weight.” I pluck Ed’s baggy T-shirt.
“Doesn’t he look handsome?” Susan says, crooking her arm through his.
“That’s all you brought?” He points to my athletic bag.
“Travel light, it’s the only way.”
We bypass the station and walk through the parking lot. Around us, people are opening car doors and putting luggage in trunks. Ed stops at a red compact with plaid upholstery.
“New car?” I say.
“Used, but recent,” he says.
“The plaid makes it special.”
“It is quite the suburban runabout.”
“What happened to the Millennium Falcon?” This was the battered, faded Ford he drove all through college and afterward.
“We needed something more respectable for the family. I sold the Falcon to Sue’s brother. He has his own apartment now in Watervliet, and he needed something to drive to work. He gave me a good price, considering it isn’t worth anything on paper.”
“Where should I sit?”
“In front,” Ed says, as Sue installs Laura in back.
“Doesn’t Sue need the leg room?”
“No, I’m okay back here,” she says. “Move the seat forward if you want. It’s better if I stay with Laura.”
Laura is fascinated with the zipper on my bag, so I hand it to her to play with. She zips and unzips, zips and unzips.
I get in the front and fumble for the seat belt. After years of living in New York, I am used to riding in the back of a cab.
Emerging from the parking lot, Ed forgets to take a sharp turn uphill. A cobbled street rattles the car.
“Rensselaer is an old burg,” he says with a tremble in his voice from the shaking car, “your typical early industrial model. Schenectady, Troy—there’s a cluster of them, with Albany in the middle. Textiles and ironworking were the mainstays, all gone now.”
We are in a neighborhood of working class houses built before the First World War. We are the only moving car, which is just as well. The narrow streets twist unexpectedly and bob up and down hills. Susan and Laura remain quiet in back. Ed turns a corner.
“Ah,” he brightens. “Now I know where we are.”
This street is wider and has some traffic. We are no longer rumbling over cobblestones.
“Remember how Dad would never stop to ask for directions?” I say.
“I remember,” Ed says, “those long, summer trips in the back seat of the car, with the windows down.”
“He smoked cigarettes, and the smoke blew back in our faces.”
“We fought all the time.”
“What did we fight about?”
“Nothing. We were bored. Unlike Laura, who is never bored.”
Susan laughs quietly.
“Today was my last day at the office,” I say.
“The midtown architect who designs resorts and condos. It was the usual story, long hours and no credit. Reworking his sketches during the past year, I decided that his talent lies in talking up his game.”
“So what comes next?”
“I’m going to take a break, do freelance work, see what comes along.”
“Engineering is the same when it comes to job satisfaction. Why do you think I went back to school? We love living on campus, my research director is a warped genius, and to my surprise I enjoy teaching. They offered me a full fellowship next term.”
“My brother, the professor?”
“Maybe. The Ph. D. is a few years away, so we have time to decide.”
The car climbs a steep grade and levels off.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now entering the less than manicured grounds of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is actually in Troy. Students call it the Tute. There are many frat houses, as you see by the Greek inscriptions. The ecclesiastical-looking structure is the former chapel and current computer center.”
“Affirmative. This is the field house. Hockey is big here. When tickets go on sale, frat students line up days in advance to get the best blocks of seats. They camp out, with tents, desks, temporary power lines, all thoroughly engineered.”
The campus is vast. We are climbing again and reaching the edge. Ed pulls in beside one of several austere brick-and- concrete cubes.
“Et voilà, married student housing! Is it not chic?”
The complex is quiet, with woods on two sides. It perches on the edge of a plateau, with a magnificent view over the city on its shelf of riverbank, across the Hudson to wooded hills. To the south, the office towers of Albany twinkle in the summer night.
Susan puts Laura to bed in the master bedroom. I am assigned her bedroom, painted bright yellow and full of toys in plastic crates.
“When we go to bed, I’ll carry Laura in her sleeping bag to the living room,” Susan says. “Say goodnight to your uncle, Laura.”
Laura shakes her head, jangling her pretty, blonde curls. She has not said a word to me so far.
“It’s way past her bedtime,” Susan says. “She’s obviously tired.”
Laura throws herself on the bed, not bothering to counter this libel.
“Do you want a beer?” Ed calls from the kitchen. “Diet soda, iced tea? We make it with lemonade. I’m warning you. The pulp might put you off.”
“I can handle it.”
Susan leaves the bedroom door open a crack. The three of us sit in the living room and talk over pulpy iced tea. Ed tells me about his research experiment in compressive fluid dynamics, which may have an application to solar collector panels. I have trouble following the technical side of his work. The math is completely beyond me.
“It’s simple,” he says.
Susan smiles in agreement. She too is an engineer. She tutored Ed in math while they were in college. Then he courted her while they tested materials for an artificial heart. She
reaches beside her chair and picks up some knitting.
Ed unrolls a computer printout of equations. He is capable of going on until dawn.
“Let’s call it a night,” I say.
“We have the whole weekend ahead of us,” Susan says. She puts down her knitting and goes to fetch Laura. Ed clears away the papers he has been jotting equations on.
Laura emerges blinking, on her feet but not really awake. She crawls back in the sleeping bag on the floor.
“She loves it,” Ed says. “It’s an adventure. Do you remember when we were kids, sleeping in the backyard in a pup tent?”
“The smell of canvas soaked with dew and the noise of insects. You got scared and ran back in the house.”
“You were only four or five, the same age as Laura now.”
We all look at the little girl on the floor.
“She stays in there no matter how hot she gets,” Susan says. “She’ll go back to sleep right away. She won’t even remember this tomorrow.”
Laura’s eyes close, and she is sound asleep.
The next day, white clouds decorate a pure, blue sky, and the air is crisp. Summer with its haze slipped away overnight. I step outside on the concrete balcony to take a deep breath. Then I sit at the round kitchen table with the others.
“Breakfast is dry cereal with milk,” Susan says. “That’s all we ever eat.”
On a shelf within arm’s reach is every kind of dry cereal that is made, in the largest box it comes in.
“Try the Honey Nut Cheerios,” Susan says. “They’re Laura’s favorite.”
The back of the box introduces Care Bears, cartoon teddy bears who appear in stories, on the sides of glasses, and on greeting cards. They are relentlessly cheerful.
“Hello, little girl,” I say. “My name is Uncle Bear. I live in the big city, where everyone is neurotic and fiercely competitive.”
Laura laughs. Last night’s mood is forgotten. She talks and talks in a rapid flow. Susan interprets, but I still don’t understand.
“Never mind,” Susan says.
“What would you like to do today?” Ed asks.
“I’d be happy just to sit in the sun and relax on such a gorgeous day. What do you have in mind?”
“Several alternatives. We can drive to the Harmony Mills in Cohoes, a red brick complex like Lowell, Massachusetts. That’s the industrial archaeology tour. We can drive to Grafton Lakes State Park and take a picnic lunch . . .”
“Stop!” I say.
Laura stops playing with her spoon.
“A lake, a park, a picnic: you can’t do better than that.”
“I’ll take care of the food if you clean up around here,” Susan says. “The rug needs a good vacuuming.”
“Yes, dear,” Ed says.
“Laura, you go out and play until it’s time to get in the car.”
Laura stays in her chair and starts to fuss.
“All right,” Susan says, “go to your room instead.” She looks wide-eyed at Ed.
“Don’t ask me,” he says.
He opens a closet and talks to me over his shoulder. “It’s part of our agreement. I help with housework: dishes, cleaning, beds, etcetera. It feels good to do something non-intellectual.” He points with a vacuum cleaner attachment to a racing bicycle in the entry. “I’ve been riding up to twenty miles a day. I need exercise after sitting all day in the lab.”
I accompany Ed around the living room, moving chairs and picking up toys. He shouts over the roar of the machine.
“Running is out because of my back, the crushed disc. So I ride the bicycle and stand in the pedals to avoid bumps. I’ve been riding to Grafton on weekends while Susan drives with Laura. Today, we’ll all drive together, your typical nuclear family plus one.”
When Susan is ready, I help carry things to the red-and- plaid car: a paper bag of charcoal briquettes, a bundle of frayed towels, and a white styrofoam cooler. They remind me of a simpler life, before I knew about designer beach towels and wicker hampers with leather straps for wine glasses.
Laura plays quietly in her room, oblivious to the picnic preparations and the beautiful weather.
“She is less excited about this than I am,” I say to Susan.
“It’s a pretty small lake. But the park has a playground with a slide and jungle gym that she doesn’t have here.”
Ed inspects the trunk and pulls it shut with a thump.
“Laura!” he calls.
“This is typical,” he says. He goes into the apartment and drags her out by the arm like an oversize doll. Once in the car, she sulks, as Ed provides another travelogue.
At Grafton, we eat in the forest shade, which is almost too cool to be comfortable. In the fresh air, the hot dogs, potato chips and red grapes taste like a feast. I gorge, while Laura picks at a hotdog and fidgets on the bench.
Ed, Susan and I walk through the parking lot to the lake. Laura lingers in the playground, where she swings energetically. I hobble barefoot on the gravel.
“Do you want to wear my sandals?” Ed asks.
“Thanks, but they’re too large. They won’t stay on my feet.”
“Come, Laura!” he shouts.
Laura pumps hard with her whole body and pretends not to hear.
“She’ll be along in her own good time,” Susan says. We continue at a relaxed pace. There is a furious thrashing of dead leaves behind us, and a blonde rocket shoots ahead. Laura turns around and trots back, radiant.
“My goodness,” Ed says, “what was that?”
“I don’t know,” Susan says. “It went by too fast to tell.”
“Oh, it’s only Laura,” Ed says.
“Is that all?” Susan says.
Laura is disconcerted. She can’t always tell when they tease.
“Are you sure you got enough to eat?” Susan asks her. Mother and daughter wear matching swimsuits, sewn by Susan.
Laura nods emphatically, again and again.
“Watch out, or your head will fall off,” Ed says.
We arrive at a small, artificial beach of light brown sand, a crescent at one end of a pond that is one mile long. The water is crystal clear, spring-fed, and deep blue. It reflects the blue of the sky. Except where the beach was carved out, the shore is lined by trees—maple, poplar, ash and oak. The part of the pond nearest the beach is roped off, and children splash here. Farther out, a canoe moves placidly away from us.
We sit on a blanket, stunned from eating.
“Wait a bit before going in the water,” Susan tells Laura.
“Or you’ll get cramps,” I say. “Is that true? Or do mothers just say it?”
“You’re allowed,” Susan says, “but don’t blame me if you drown.”
From where I sit, I scoop some moist sand toward me and press it between flattened palms to form a wall.
“Would you care for a pavilion? I am known for scale models in granular quartz, otherwise known as sandcastles.”
“Whatever,” Ed says.
“Yes, please,” Susan says.
Laura hovers nearby.
“You can help with the park,” I say. “We’re going to need a lake and a canal. Dig the lake over here and push the sand toward me. I’ll need a lot. After you dig the lake, fill it with water.”
Laura is thrilled. She bends and the waist and digs with her hands, throwing sand between her legs like a dog. She grabs a plastic bucket and runs to the water.
I squat and build a scale model of a château on the Loire. As I mold the high-pitched roofs and gables, I lose track of time and the world all around.
“Timmy, Chuck, come look at this,” a boy shouts over my head. Two boys run toward me as look up.
“Excellent,” the first boy says. He talks not to me but to himself and the world, like a critic. He is skinny and tan, no more than ten years old.
Laura wants him to notice her lake, but she is too timid to say anything. The boys watch as I sculpt a gate between two towers. They drift away, and Laura erases their footprints with her hand.
“There,” I say to Ed and Susan. “It’s finished.”
“What is it?” Susan asks.
“You can’t tell? The Château de Chaumont, missing some turrets.”
“Bien sûr,” Ed says.
“Come on, Laura,” I say. “Let’s wash off the sand.” We race down to the water. The sun hangs low in the sky. The beach crowd is thinning, as people fold their towels and put on shirts. Ed and Susan follow us for the last swim of the day.
I scrub my knees in the shallow water to get sand out of the creases. Laura copies me, flailing more than washing herself. Ed swims laps at the limit of the rope, while Susan stands and swirls her hands in the water. Watching her do this gives me an idea.
I grasp Laura under the arms and drag her through the water from side to side. She likes this. I raise her above the surface and let her drop. She comes up and splutters, not sure she likes this part of the game.
“Hold your nose when you go under,” Susan says. Laura grabs her nose as if she wants to pull it off and bobs back to me.
“Do it again,” she says.
I mop her from side to side, raise my eyebrows in warning, and throw her up in the air. This time she comes up laughing.
“Do it again,” she says.
I do it again, and again. Ed finishes his laps and wades toward us. I throw Laura in his direction.
“Catch!” I shout.
Ed reaches into the water storm, grasps Laura under the arms and throws her to Susan. Susan throws her back to me. Laura wants this game never to stop.
So we stand in water up to our waists and play beanbag with a little girl who splashes without mercy and screams in our ears.
ROBERT BUCHERON is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays have appeared in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, and Poydras Review. His one-act plays were performed in 2016 in Concord, North Carolina and Detroit, Michigan.