A few days after Chessie disappeared, I went out pretending to look for jobs. That’s something I do sometimes. Makes me feel like I’m still in it somehow, like things are about to improve. I ended up at the library with the idea of searching online, but spent most of my time browsing the dollar cart instead. The library keeps the dollar cart outside, even when it rains, mostly old computer manuals, tax guides, and romances that even people who read romances won’t touch. I know; I’ve seen those people snub the romances on the dollar cart.
I nearly bought a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front. An old paperback with some kid’s name inked on the flyleaf: Duane R. Templeton. Flipping through, I could see that Duane had stopped underlining passages after page 50 or so. That’s about how far I remember getting, back when we’d been assigned All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. I didn’t finish many of the assigned books in high school.
My wife and I had been arguing about me getting a job. That’s what sent me off to the library, along with Joshua, who got this terrible cold the day after Chessie disappeared, an awful, wrenching cold that made him cough deep wet coughs and left him in a sweat on the family room sofa. We let him camp out on the sofa. He liked to watch videos there, neglecting the tall glass of orange juice I’d left for him. I always wanted him to drink more orange juice, because of the cold. But he only took tiny sips every now and then. Mostly he wouldn’t even touch the glass.
My high school English teacher was named Mr. Whitney. Mr. Whitney was the one who assigned All Quiet on the Western Front. I remember him passing around copies to us—the same paperback edition I found on the dollar cart—while telling us about the book, about the First World War. Mr. Whitney got pretty worked up about it, walking the front of the classroom with a wooden pointer he liked to carry around, sometimes crouching like a batter awaiting a pitch or a golfer lining up a long drive. “Can you imagine,” he said, “what it would be like to go off to war tomorrow?” Mr. Whitney paused with the stick held behind his back. “What would that even mean to you?”
My wife and I always argued about me getting a job. I’ve worked plenty in my life, but never anything steady. Construction, retail, landscaping, food service, that sort of thing. I know I’ve never been ambitious, but I’ve always managed to get by. That’s what I’d been trying to explain to her when I lost my last job, but she felt doubtful, she said.
“Doubtful,” I said. “About what?”
She didn’t answer, but I knew what she’d say. About you. That’s what she’d say, and then I’d ask why, but she wouldn’t say anything. She’d just go back to watching TV or reading a magazine without even looking at me. If Joshua were home, they’d play a board game together or make banana bread. Chessie would follow, watching my wife use the mixer. Chessie always got excited about the mixer. He’d crouch himself down on the countertop, something I told my wife I wish she wouldn’t allow, and watch the mixer do its thing. Joshua would pet him.
I read the opening page of All Quiet on the Western Front, just to have something to do. Normally I wouldn’t do that kind of thing, read a book in public, but I was trying to kill time and remember Mr. Whitney and forget about my son and Chessie and the orange juice and the argument with my wife. The opening page was pretty good. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of those books that pulls you in on the first page. The first page makes you feel like you’re going to finish this book, even when you know you probably won’t. That must be why they assign All Quiet on the Western Front in so many high schools.
Doubtful. Who doesn’t feel doubtful about something at least every once in a while?
I still don’t know how I’d answer Mr. Whitney’s question. I have no idea how I’d feel about going off to war, besides the obvious. Scared. Terrified. I remember Mr. Whitney walking the room with the stick behind his back, looking at us, daring us to answer. But it’s not the kind of question you can answer, really. We just watched him as he paced back and forth. Eventually he sat down on the edge of his desk and spun the stick in his hands. Mr. Whitney had remarkably small hands. People used to make fun.
I carried Duane R. Templeton’s copy of All Quiet on the Western Front inside the library. I was planning on buying it, but then I started searching online and that took something out of me somehow. It’s the loneliest thing, looking for work online. At least with a newspaper you can circle things. There, you think, making your little mark. Maybe. But searching online feels hopeless. I ended up going to Yahoo Sports. I always end up going to Yahoo Sports. I placed Duane R. Templeton’s copy of All Quiet on the Western Front next to the computer and read box scores, scouting reports.
I had done something before I left the house, something I’d rather not admit. It was when I brought Joshua his third glass of orange juice. He was sitting on the couch the way he’d been doing ever since Chessie disappeared, just watching TV in this absent sort of way, the way everyone looks when they feel lousy and can’t do much besides stare at TV. I knew that, but I couldn’t help feeling angry at Joshua anyway. Like it was his fault he was so sick. It was the strangest feeling. I set the orange juice beside him and asked him if he wanted to try a little. He shook his head.
“Come on,” I said, “try trying.” I raised the glass to Joshua’s lips. He gave me a surprised look. “Try trying,” I repeated, and then I pushed the glass to his lips and tipped it back. But I tipped it so far back that juice spilled over the sides of his mouth. I let it spill. “Try trying,” I said again. Joshua looked at me like I was someone he no longer knew. His eyes were wide. When my wife came into the room and asked me why our son was crying, I said I didn’t know. Later the two of them sat on the family room floor and drew MISSING CAT posters together. In the posters, Chessie looked sort of happy, pleased. Like he’d escaped. Joshua drew the eyes; my wife added the whiskers. I watched them do that for a while, then left for the library.