I can skip stones. Not just plinkety plinkety plonk. I can make stones skip. The size and shape hardly matters. When I am on, the stones will dance for me. I see the angle of descent against the flat face of the water as if it were diagrammed for me in color. I control the stone’s pitch so that at the point it collides with the water’s face – at what would be, for others, the point of entry – the stone’s edges are all tucked up and only the sweet flat broad expanse of stone bottom is presented and then the dance across water is all but inevitable.
And such a dance it is. The stone runs across the pool, tip tapping the top of the water, leaving footprints widening behind it on the water’s surface. The illusion that is created is that the footprints narrow as the stone proceeds, as if coming into a tighter focus as the stone advances, an illusion aided greatly by the knowledge that the distance between skips is shorter from skip to skip like the frog that jumps halfway to the wall.
I have found that there is little in life I can do as well as skip stones, and if on some days the realization is a disappointment to me, why should I complain about a thing that I can do without regret or shortfall. Would that there were others? Of course. But how fine that there is this one thing at least.
I have skipped stones everywhere but for the last several years my most regular venue has been at a bend in the Wissahickon Creek in Fairmount Park. I go with my daughter; Delia particularly likes throwing stones. Sometimes I go by myself.
My spot is just below a bridge – the water isn’t deep but the creek widens just after it comes through the bridge, almost as if it decided to spread out and relax after traversing the rocks and debris upstream. The woods open at just that point and so if you go in the morning, the creek above the bridge will be crossed with heavy and complicated shadows but below the bridge, where the water widens to the sides, there is a long wide run of a pool drenched in sunlight. The sunlight is so thorough here that it reaches into the shallow waters of the pool and reveals the limbs and rocks that pucker the muddy bottom below the surface.
There is a beach just past the bridge. You have to cross the bridge and then wind your way down to it from above. If the pool is a knee bending through the bridge, the beach is the inside of the knee.Just there, in the midst of the creek’s dogleg, is a small hard beach, covered with stones.
I pick my way down to the beach. The path has been abused by run off – the trail is slippery, eroded, root crossed. Delia still likes to be carried. I always concentrate on my footsteps on this path because I do not want to drop her. Dropping a kid has a very unpleasant meaning for me, a meaning that I sometimes confront when I walk Delia down to skip stones.
Delia and I used to play a game called ‟Flying.” I would call her and she would run at me at the full tilt her little legs could achieve. When she reached me I would lean over and grab her under her arms and then I would straighten and toss her up in the air, converting it seemed, the horizontal energy of her run into a moment of vertical flight. And from below in that instant I could see in her face the high level mixture of pure intoxicating excitement. I do not believe that I ever saw fear in the mix, for at the age of four she never for an instant thought that her father would not be there to catch her when she came kicking downward.
One day Delia and I stopped for lunch at a luncheonette in the suburbs. It was very hot outside and inside the air conditioning was roaring and the ceiling fans whirring, all without much success in combating the heat of the grill where a man in white aprons was cooking cheesesteaks. We waited in a very slow line. There was a bored young woman with her hair in a bun at the cash register taking orders on a little green pad. Her lack of interest in the task was clear. She moved at a pace that insured the cook would not be hurried. Delia wandered away . I stood in line and waited. My mind wandered.
My turn finally came. I ordered a hoagie for me and a ham and cheese sandwich for Delia. Delia was ten yards away drawing circles in the condensation on the glass case across the room that held the sodas.
‟Dealster,” I called. I extended my arms.
She turned and ran towards me at full speed.
I scooped her up as she reached me and tossed her straight up in the air. But as she left my arms I saw what I hadn’t noticed before: directly over my head there was a big brown whirling ceiling fan – and I had thrown my daughter directly into its maw.
I tried to pull her back after she left my grip. I tore handfuls of air from the widening space between her feet and my reach. I let out a cry like the cries we loose in our worst moments of loss. ‟Oh, God,” I cried, ‟No.”
The was nothing I could do but watch with the horrible clarity that life reserves for such moments.
She flew up from my arms. Her face was lit with joy. Then my cry filled the space between us and her expression changed as she saw the look on my face below.
And then she hit the open blades.
There was a small sound – a little pop – nothing dramatic and then she was falling.
I gathered her in.
‟Oh Honey,” I cried. She was wailing. ‟Are you okay?” I looked for blood, for mayhem, for gore.
She wailed and wailed.
But by then I had processed the sound I had heard when she hit the fan and realized it was the sound that plastic makes when it is struck. The fan’s blades were plastic.
I comforted her. I shooshed her with kisses and hugs. I confirmed that there were no cuts or bruises or marks. My look from below – that moment of pure unveiled terror – had scared her into tears. She hadn’t even realized that she had hit the fan.
She gradually calmed down. And as she calmed down I looked up and saw that the woman behind the cash register was looking at me. I did not like her look. It was a look that said that I was man who could throw his daughter into a whirling fan. I was a man who was careless; I was a man who could not be trusted.
When I looked around I saw that it wasn’t just her. All the sad-eyed lunchtime crowd were looking at me. They had the same look in their eyes. But it is the look of that bored waitress that I see in my most horrific dreams. And it is that look that I work to avoid.
So when I carry Delia down to skip stones, I carry her carefully. I bring her down to the rocky beach and watch her carefully as she makes ready to throw stones. I aim her arm towards the water. I try to show her how to hold the rock to send it spinning towards the water so that it doesn’t bite but rather skims gently over the surface, hardly slowing, moving on across the water, leaving a trail of circles spreading in the sunlight.
I cannot say that I am never careless. I can not say that I have learned to take care of those that I love as well as I can skip stones. But it is those footprints on water that I pursue.
Skipping Stones originally appeared in The Green Briar Review