Early in the morning, when the sun was just rising and Ana and Finn still lay sleeping in their separate rooms, James had walked to Sarah and Marcus’s. He had a key, and implicit permission, but a neighbor appeared immediately on her porch next door, peering at him. They had met before—James remembered that she was a teacher, like Sarah, and Marcus complained that while she was going through her divorce, she whaled on some kind of brass instrument at all hours of the night. The neighbor informed him that she was looking after the cat (
There was a cat!
thought James, stung by all he couldn’t remember) and had put a lamp on a timer. “I suppose you’ll be taking care of the rest,” she said.
James nodded weakly.
Inside, the one lamp made everything seem darker. James felt criminal. He couldn’t bear to look around. He would find the address of the daycare only and leave the rest to Ana. He tiptoed through the domestic scramble of dishes and strewnclothes. On the fridge he found a handwritten list of phone numbers: M at Work, M: cell, S: cell, Dr. Garfield, and Family Place Daycare. He took the paper, picturing himself on some future day carrying Finn, hot with fever, into the office of this Dr. Garfield.
Now, at the gate of the daycare, James looked around: So this was where Finn spent his three days a week away from Sarah.
“James open gate?” Finn called. The cheap black sneakers from the social worker looked gigantic and theoretical on his feet, an idea of sneakers sketched in a factory by someone who had never seen them.
Finn led James inside the building by the hand, toward a hook marked with the name FINN in a laminate square. Finn had already removed his red hoodie and dropped it on the floor, then his baseball hat, a breadcrumb trail behind him as he ran down the hallway in a race with a smaller black-haired girl. James was a beat behind, picking up after Finn, putting the coat and hat on the hook, walking quickly to keep up.
A woman did the same, collecting her daughter’s droppings. James glanced at her hair; it must have been a style at one point, but now it was just a shape, a rectangle. Her eyes were padded with exhaustion. James turned on a smile and tried to catch her eye, hoping to share a moment of parental chaos. But she looked straight ahead and strode away, putting distance between them.
The classroom was a whorl of sound, high-pitched. One wall was covered in paper plates painted different colors: some splattered, some entirely solid, one or two with just a brushstroke. James moved closer, scanning for Finn’s name like he would at a gallery opening.
“You must be with Finn,” said a voice next to him, a man with two gold hoops in his ears and a glowing bald head. He held out his hand: “I’m Bruce, one of the educators in the preschool room.”
“I’m James,” he said, surprised by the man’s strong grip. “Finn’s—” They looked at each other, waiting. “Guardian, I suppose.”
Bruce nodded knowingly and ushered James to the sink, out of range of the children.
“We heard what happened from the social worker, and we’re all so unbelievably, unbelievably sorry,” he said.
“Oh, I believe you’re sorry,” said James with an awkward laugh. He became glib when nervous. But Bruce was not the kind of person to be hindered by other people’s responses. He continued.
“I want you to know that I personally have taken a training seminar in children’s grief, and everyone is on alert,” said Bruce. “Sad to say, but it’s not the first time we’ve had a child lose a parent.” James glanced at the circle of kids sitting cross-legged on a blue carpet, eyes upon a young woman reading a book out loud: “Olivia likes to try on
!” Their size was incompatible with Bruce’s admission; how could these children possibly contain such sadness? Where would it go?
“Where do you take that kind of seminar?” asked James. At the