Childhood bargains and promises



When I was young, I used to play this game with myself.  It started with walking to school.  We lived about a half-mile from my elementary and middle school, so I had to keep myself amused while I walked.  I’d watch the sidewalk in front of me, trying to avoid the cracks – not unusual, that’s why there’s always been an urban legend about stepping on sidewalk cracks. But I would also set weird, arbitrary goals for myself: Get past the tree in the middle of the Pattersons’ yard within the next 25 steps, or else. I applied this same principle to pretty much every solitary endeavor: riding my bike, walking to a friend’s house, anything.  Just for fun, to pass the time.  It was the or else that made it, possibly, a little weird, a little neurotic.

Or else could mean anything.  Sometimes it was a vague threat: or else something awful will happen.  But if I had time to think about it (which was most of the time), I might come up with more explicit punishments, usually involving potential death or misery.  Or else I’ll become an orphan.  Or else I (or someone in my family) will get a terrible disease.  Other times there might be a reward involved – do it right and I’ll be happy forever, or rich forever, or healthy forever – but mostly the reward was only vaguely conceived.  On one level I felt kind of helpless to stop these thoughts, but mostly I would forget all about it if I happened to fail at whatever task I’d set for myself.  So I don’t think it was all neurosis.  I think it was boredom.

I realized recently that I still do this, sometimes.  And it made me wonder… what if all those capricious bargains and promises I’d made with the universe really did (and do) matter, in some odd way.  (And because this is how I am, I also start to wonder if maybe they’re the only thing that actually matters.  In that same odd way. )

What if that’s really how things worked?

I picture this scene.  A character around my age.  Maybe his life has unraveled.  Maybe he just feels kind of lost, and he’s looking for an answer.  He doesn’t think he’s done anything particularly wrong to deserve his fate, but he wonders.   I see him at a kitchen table, not exactly self-pitying but suffering from some existential wear and tear.  His widowed father standing nearby.  He’s trying to explain to his father that he feels as if he’s struck some bargain with the universe that he’s totally forgotten.  Like he’s Faust, but now he doesn’t even remember what he gained in the bargain.  And the world – or something/someone else, has come to collect.

The worst thing, he tells his father, is that he feels as if his bargain, his childhood indiscretion, has somehow affected everyone, everything.  The whole world seems turned upside down.  But it can’t be so, he knows that.

He expects his father to be baffled, because he knows it makes no sense.  But: “Maybe it is,” his father tells him, after some thought.  “Who knows.  Maybe it is.”  Meaning: maybe what you think of the world, maybe the choices you’ve made since childhood, really do affect the shape of the world.  Maybe it’s wrong to think all those little things don’t matter, even if it’s crazy to believe they do.   This is of course what every crazy person believes.  But what if it were so?  What if we push aside our misgivings too quickly once we become adults?

A story here somewhere, or a piece (however small) of a bigger story.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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