I fashioned a sailboat out of book pages, driftwood, rope and a ripped shirt. I found a puddle that held lots of light. And there I played, at the edge of the puddle. A child approached with some pebbles and we put them into the boat, just enough to wet the boat’s side higher. The child wanted to name the pebbles and the one she named Windy capsized (with the help of her fingers) into the puddle, and drowned. The child’s mom came along and tried to play—she wanted to know all about making child’s toys such as the boat using materials that were safe and sustainable. She admired the sentiment of the sail, but then the crease in the space between her eyebrows darkened. She was worried the tips of the child’s shoes were going to get wet, and that puddle was probably polluted. She thought the child might be cold. She thought the child might be hungry. She thought the child might be tired.
After they left I kept the pebbles in the boat. I remembered all their names. I moved to my stomach and pushed the boat around a little with a stick, until the wind came up and took over. I was admiring how the boat seemed to leave ruts behind it in the water, even though it had no wheels, when a pair of green canvas sneakers appeared beside the puddle. I had to squint and then shield my eyes to see it was a man. He looked either handsome or familiar, I couldn’t tell which. Does your boat need a propellor? He asked. I can’t really give it an engine, he added, But a propellor would make it look like it has one.
He sat down in the dirt beside me, holding a pinecone. I watched as he carefully plucked out the four largest teeth of the pinecone, and we debated whether to call them teeth, when there was no mouth really and when they looked more like fingernails. He began soldering four of them them together with the sap at the pinecone’s base, and we talked about the things right there, in the puddle. It was strange how the silver gum wrapper at the bottom of the puddle and the reflections of the clouds racing on its top seemed to be of the same ghostly weight and substance, for example. Also It was hard to tell the reflection of leaves from the real floating leaves, and so he said that aside from being a boat captain and marina manager I was also an operator of a funhouse. It takes a lot of responsibility, he said with a smile, to run a hall-of-mirrors. I joked that it also took a lot of Windex. A tiny sparrow landed at the edge of the water, testing it with a foot before taking a drink. And we played with that too, imagining a whole row of people lifting their feet up to the bar, dipping their shoelaces into pints and wine glasses.
The propeller didn’t have an engine, and it didn’t spin around. It was just an accessory he attached with fishing wire. But it looked neat on the back of the boat, like it had been carved by hand from fine wood. And I knew whenever I looked at it I would see too the man’s hands, which were also fine. I was about to remark that the tips of his fingers seemed particularly square—squared I guess is the word—when he got up suddenly and said he had to go. He stood looking at his watch, and then his phone rang, and he said the word busy. But you’re so good at this! I said. I meant playing. I meant looking at things. Maybe I meant caring. About the puddle and the boat and the moment, which to me felt as nice as caring about me. But there’s no money in it, he said. There’s no future in it.
I stayed put, but the space around the puddle had a hollowness to it, an emptiness that hadn’t been there before his green shoes appeared. I tracked the boat carefully with my eyes, trying to care about it again until I did. How could I make money off of this? I wondered. If the boat produced energy, I thought. If dollar bills were tiny enough bugs could hold them, and wanted across. If I painted masterful renditions of the boat. Or I could make an art film about it, maybe attach a feather-weight camera to the boat itself. Was there a future in this puddle? I wondered. I decided whether there was or not I would stay there and make boats—even ferries and riverboats with spinning paddles—and then I would launch them. Children might appear, and leave their mark on the boats, and say cool things that would make we wonder what kind of grown-ups they would be. The kind who wanted to play, or the kind who were too busy? I thought if I waited long enough a dog might trot up to me. And when the dog saw how I was right inside the moment—how I also just wanted to play and explore—he would sit solidly at my side, proclaiming himself mine. It had happened before. I knew we’d be pretty happy, though at times I would wish the dog could talk, or had hands. I would wish he wouldn’t tromp through our puddle, or chase away all the birds.
So then I’d have a dog, and a puddle, and a boat or six, and the sky. We’d all be connected. The dog would drink from the puddle, for example, and the puddle would hold the sky. The boats would gently thump against each other and sometimes against the dog’s nose, even when the course of the wind dictated otherwise. As for human company, I figure occasionally an adult who didn’t worry or plan or complain or summarize or advise or scold would come and sit beside me and the dog. And then time would seem to stop. Though the light on the water would shift, though the puddle would change from white to orange to midnight blue. And when the person stood up to leave—always suddenly, it seemed—I would try not to wince or crumple to the ground. Instead I would think of how the dog did it, when the dog he was playing with got whistled away. How he stopped mid-dash with his paw in the air, as though the abandonment had turned him to stone. All but the stump of his tail, which slowed from fast-wagging to medium to slow. Two last oozing tilts to either side, before it stopped altogether, melding into the statue of himself. And when he moved again he would do it slowly, with his face to the ground. Each step would be a stiff, reluctant jutting, as though all four legs at once were questioning the how and the why of getting anywhere. But here’s how the dog did it. In seconds—mere seconds!—his body would shift from sadness to interest, from despondency to curiosity. His slump, as it turned out, had been just a launching pad. From which he would spring up with perked ears, asking, What’s that? And: What is that? And: What. Is. That?! Even if I couldn’t quite master saying my goodbyes like the dog did, turning them into hellos—it would be something I’d aspire to, on the edge of a puddle. Because certainly there was a future—there were so many different futures—in What is that?