Neither dying hope nor dwindling beauty occupied the attention of the boy sitting on a bench across the pond from the Palace of Fine Arts. He didn’t waste a worry on these things, partly due to his age, but mostly because on this day, he was not alone. Somehow, unexpectedly, he had managed to convince his dad to bring him along when he’d left the apartment that morning.
“Hey Dad!” he shouted at the pale, thin man who stood next to the shore of the pond. There was a long pause while the boy’s father stared absently at the rippling reflection of the Palace in the water.
Then, as if he’d heard him several seconds late, “What?” turning his sullen expression toward the boy.
“Why are we here? I mean, is this all we’re going to do today?”
The man forced a crooked smile and for a moment, the boy saw a sort of deep melancholy flash across his father’s face, betraying a well of emotions he was obviously struggling to keep in check. “No. There is something else we are going to do.”
He then walked over, holding his hand out toward his son, who shrugged off his puzzlement over his dad’s mood and hastily grabbed an extended hand while jumping from the bench. They exited the palace grounds and walked toward a bus stop, arriving just as an orange and white public bus arrived. The boy shielded his eyes from the sun’s gleam off the side of the bus. This was the time of year and in a part of the city where buses actually stayed clean. The boy knew this because they used to live near here, at the top of The Hill. Then something happened with Dad’s job – his mother reminded him repeatedly not to ask him about it, no matter how much he wanted to because his dad always seemed so sad, and in a lot of ways he seemed to never be there, even though he was actually around a lot more than he was when he worked at the bank, but he never smiled, even if he played with the boy or would actually watch him when he was showing him something new he could do, like turn a cartwheel or climb a tree; he never seemed to be there – and then they moved out of their house on The Hill, Dad’s car got taken away; now they rode the buses instead.
They found a seat next to each other as the bus made its way to Highway 101. “This is just the best day!” the boy beamed. He said this in spite of not knowing where they were going or what they’d be doing. To him, it didn’t much matter. It wasn’t often he got to spend a day with his father, and he’d had to shed a few tears to get out with him that morning. But he was here with him now, and he wondered what sort of adventure they may be on. Peering over, he watched as the man absently smoothed the fronts of his worn slacks, which he always did because he’d told the boy that he hated creases in his pants, so he was always smoothing the fronts of them to keep the creases away. Of course, the creases of those pants had been gone for years, and it was hard to imagine they could ever come back, but his dad was smoothing them anyway, so he decided to smooth his own pants as well, just in case they needed it.
For several minutes, the bus rolled west along 101 before screeching to a stop. The boy covered his ears, wincing at the high pitched brake squeel, while looking over at his dad, whose expression remained unchanged. “Why do these things all have such squeaky brakes?” he remarked, laughing. No response from Dad.
“Presidio.” the bus driver spoke over the loudspeaker, and a trendily dressed Asian man walked from the back of the bus and exited. The boy watched out the window as the man walked toward a street corner and was suddenly struck by a barrage of water from a nearby sprinkler head that popped just as he was approaching. The man stopped cold for a moment, holding his arms up, which looked ridiculous to the boy because there was no way holding his arms out was going to keep him dry. He quickly gave up trying to shield himself and resorted to a hilarious sort of tap dance toward the street, away from the water’s onslaught. The boy laughed out loud at the display and was surprised when he saw that his dad was not amused. He wasn’t even looking.
As the bus pulled away, carrying them further toward an unknown destination, the boy began to think (because the Asian man’s tap dance reminded him) of time a couple years earlier when Dad took him to the zoo, and it started raining really hard there. It was a flash rain, and as quickly as it started, everybody started running for someplace dry. People were crowding into the food places and huddling under the little overhangs by the bathrooms, but Dad just stood there in the rain, laughing at all the people scrambling for shelter. “Come on! It’s just a little sprinkle!” he’d shouted, and he just kept walking. And then it started raining harder; it was one of those rains that thoroughly soaked your clothes in minutes and managed to get water right through to your underwear. It was raining about as hard as the boy had ever seen in his life, and he remembered being glad his mom wasn’t there because she never would have let him stay out in that sort of rain. When the walkways were completely clear of people, that’s when Dad picked him up (Dad was stronger back then, it seemed) and began to swing him around and around in the rain, saying, “You’re gonna get wet boy! You’re gonna get wet!” And the boy had laughed so hard. So hard his tears mixed with the rain and made his mouth taste salty. And Dad laughed too. That may have been the last time the boy had seen him laugh.
“Dad, maybe we can go to the…”
“Golden Gate Bridge” spoke the bus driver over the intercom. Dad stood up to exit the bus, and the boy followed, not understanding why they were getting off here. There was a bit of a walk to get from the bus stop to the front of the bridge, and the boy’s father did not pause to look back, make sure the boy was following; he just moved steadily in the direction of the bridge, no pause to check out the historic fort at the entryway; he continued his pace onto the pedestrian walkway before he finally stopped and turned to look back at the city’s skyline. At first the boy thought he was turning to look at him, but he could tell that his gaze was fixed beyond the place he was standing. He was looking at the city, the buildings, and he had a look on his face that seemed familiar. His eyes were narrowed and watering a bit, like he was trying to keep from crying, and he was biting his lower lip in a way that looked like it could have hurt.
The boy remembered seeing the same look when his mom came home one day after they’d moved onto Post Street and told his dad that she’d found a job. She’d thought the news would make Dad happy, but instead he got that same expression where he bit his lip, and he didn’t say a word the rest of the night, just sat and watched TV, just sat there smoothing the invisible creases from his pants. Mom had told him later that his dad was upset because he’d been looking for a job for a long time – that he felt bad since she had found a job first, and he felt even worse because of the fact that she had to get a job at all.
That was the look his dad had as he was peering over the city from the bridge’s walkway. And although he had really been hoping to talk to him about going to the zoo – perhaps he could convince him to just stop there for a bit; maybe it would remind him of that time when he still smiled, when he laughed – maybe it would rain again, but that expression on Dad’s face made him think it wasn’t a good time to ask about the zoo. In fact, there was something in his face that was making the boy extremely nervous.
Then a wind started to kick up. It was always windy here, but now it started to gust hard, and it seemed to be blowing right into Dad’s face, making his thin brown hair blow straight back, and he seemed so frail in the face of that wind. He turned his back to the city, turned his back to the boy, and started to cross the bridge.
“Dad!” shouted the boy, but his voice was stifled by the wind, so he started running, trying to catch up, trying to get sight of his dad, and as he was stepping onto the walkway, the Golden Gate Bridge started to creak. The wind was whipping across, straining the cabling, and all the tourists were running past the boy, trying to get off the bridge because the whole thing felt like it was going to collapse; the cars stopped moving altogether, drivers too afraid to move, and Dad was walking across, right into something that looked like a beast. To the boy, it looked as though the bridge itself was transformed by that terrible gale into something horrible, something impossible. He tried to shout again for his dad, but the wind was so loud he couldn’t even hear himself.
He fought the temptation to run back through the wind, to run from the beast, and he chose instead to run as fast as he could to try and catch his dad. So he did, and within seconds, he was next to him. He had stopped partway across and was staring out at the water. The boy tried to speak, but there was the wind, so he took hold of his hand instead. Dad looked down at him; his forehead was creased and there were tears in his eyes, maybe from crying or maybe from the wind, and the boy could read his lips as he spoke, “son.”
Dad let go of his hand and climbed over the fence of the walkway. The boy couldn’t help but feel like he was dreaming all of this as he saw his dad look toward the skies, which were still sunny despite the bizarre weather, and he uttered a few words which were caught by the air and carried to the boy’s ears. And he watched as he stepped off the bridge.