COMFORT LETTER
Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature
 

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 15, Number 2
(Fall 2020)

Copyright © 2020
by Leah Browning, Editor.

All future rights to
material published
in the
Apple Valley
Review
are retained by
the individual authors
and artists.

www.applevalleyreview.com
Fiction by Kevin Bray

      Every hour there are over sixty thousand Americans in the sky,
floating somewhere between zero and thirty-five thousand feet above
your head; some of them will come down faster than expected and
there is a tiny chance that they will land on you.  If you break a wine
glass, the crack will move through it faster than the speed of the
airplanes above you.  When a 777 takes off it drinks four thousand
gallons of ancient carbon to escape the Earth’s grip.  Ten people will
die this year after they lose a dollar in a vending machine and try to
wrestle it out of the six-hundred pound dispenser.  Twice as many
men as women fall in love at first sight.  Over half of couples who
hate their partners still want to sleep with them.

                                                   ●
      
      The chance that a world-shattering earthquake in the next hundred
years would level his life was as likely as getting hit by lightning during
a sun shower; besides, he and his wife and their son would all be dead
within a century.  The psychic pain he might suffer worrying about an
improbable catastrophe was better spent on exiting from his marriage.
      Because the father was a statistician he was intimately familiar with
the probabilities of death or injury from a wide variety of human activities:
mountain climbing, driving a motorcycle, riding a bike, snowboarding,
flying an ultralight, BASE jumping, smoking, drinking, eating barbecued
red meat twice weekly, these were all within his grasp and he concluded
that his greatest worry was that his ex-wife would get custody of their son,
a sixty-forty chance given the judicial bias favouring mothers.  
      The mother, who’d studied philosophy and math in university and
adhered to strict humanist interpretations of chance and circumstance,
acknowledged the husband’s odds.  

                                                   ●

      Before the separation his son worried about these kinds of things.
      “Dad.  Is our house earthquake proof?  Will it fall down on top of
us?”
      The boy was in third grade and the school was preparing students
for emergencies.
      “We’re supposed to stay in a group inside the school because our
school won’t fall down.  They built it that way.  But I’m hoping I’m home
when the earthquake happens.”
      His father told him that their house—a Wright-inspired bungalow on
the mountainside that provided a heartache view of the strait and the
city—wasn’t tall enough to fall on them and they could hide in the wine
cellar if a tornado hit.
      The boy’s mother wasn’t happy about the school’s lockdown drills.  
She believed in the essential goodness of people and that a random
shooter in a suburban Vancouver school was absurd, an outlier of such
outrageous distance from their placid normality that kids shouldn’t have
to hide behind bookcases and under desks to assuage adult fears.  Her
son came home one afternoon singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
      “Honey, what is that song you’re singing?  Can you come in the
kitchen and let me hear it?”
      “Sure, Mom.”
      The boy got under the kitchen table and sang in a whisper.        
              “Lockdown, lockdown, lock the door
              Shut the lights off, say no more
              Go behind the desk and hide
              Wait until it’s safe inside
              Lockdown, lockdown, it’s all done
              Now it’s time to have some fun!”
      His mother called the school’s principal, Ms. Singh, and asked her
why this simple, comforting, childish song was being used as a delivery
vehicle for paranoia.  Ms. Singh had recently devalued the mother’s
social capital after the mother’s protest against yoga instruction in
physical education.
      “Ms. Singh, yoga is a deeply religious activity, with roots in
Hinduism,” she said.  “I am not sure that a secular school system should
incorporate religious practices into its curriculum.”
      The boy’s mother had abandoned her Catholic upbringing the day
after graduating from Madonna Collegiate and widened her schism with
God while in university after reading Bertrand Russell.  She was an
energetic atheist espousing her conviction.
      “Yes, that is true, but we have altered some of the language to align
with non-religious goals.”
      Ms. Singh thought the mother needed emotional composure, so
good for one’s health.
      “How so?”
      “For example, we don’t use ‘sun salutations,’ we spell it as ‘SON
salutations.’”
      “Huh?  That doesn’t make a difference if they sound the same.”
      The mother gave Singh a brief discourse on the implausibility of a
divine being whose words were filtered through a man, always a
wandering man, in a barren desert.  Ms. Singh listened and promised to
bring the issue to the Parent Council.  
      “We might learn other songs for an earthquake drill,” the boy told
his mother.  “Our teacher thinks we could use ‘Happy Birthday.’”
      “I hope not.  An earthquake probably won’t happen but a birthday
is guaranteed to come around every year.”

                                                   ●

      The husband first saw his wife as she walked across a busy street
against the traffic light.  Her hair was cut short, tight to the sides and a bit
shuffled at the top; the masculine cut highlighted her soft face.  He liked
watching women cross a street to meet him at a coffee shop or pub; he
hoped they’d never arrive so he could forever enjoy the anticipation of
them.  She told him that the smell of coffee was better than its taste.
      In their first months nothing they did bothered one another.  Good
and frequent sex allowed them to overlook bad and infrequent emotional
intercourse.  Within a year they married and began acquiring wealth.  
They bought things as a way to participate in life: owning a bike was a
proxy for riding one.  They filled the house and garage with skis, garden
tools, Coleman coolers and tents, croquet and badminton sets, lawn
mowers and snow blowers, and a kennel for a dog.  They had a child as
a placeholder for the marriage, a person they could love together, and
separately.   
      In the final summer of their marriage the wife came home from a
doctor’s appointment and told the husband that she had cancer.  For
weeks she’d kneaded a small lump on her arm and the family doctor
referred her to a dermatologist who referred her to an oncologist who
sliced it off and sent it to a lab.
      “B-cell lymphoma.  I have it,” she told her husband.
      “Really?  I thought it was just a mole or something.  You look okay.”
      “I don’t feel okay.  I haven’t felt well since I became a mother.”
      “You’re blaming it on the boy?”
      “No.  Correlation, not causation.  You of all people should know
the difference.”
      She started treatments, receiving a chemical cocktail every second
Thursday at a prestigious hospital affiliated with a prestigious university.  
Her husband picked her up at the end of her appointments, 3:30 sharp,
and was happy to see that her hair was not falling out and, in fact, she
looked pretty good.
      “I think your treatments are wonderful.  You have that glow you get
from drinking wine.”
      “Really?  Wonderful?”
      He capitulated.  She was sick and his son needed the father’s
strength to compensate for the mother’s diminished energy.  He took up
the lion’s share of grocery shopping, meal prep, laundry, and ferrying their
son to swim lessons.  His wife slept in the spare bedroom and assured
him that physical intimacy would “be on the table” in a few months, once
she recovered.  He was optimistic, having examined the mortality stats for
her type and stage of cancer and he expected a reasonable number of
years left to both of them.
      By Christmas she was able to take a break from the treatments and
the holiday invigorated her; she planned a party and bought gifts for their
son and baked shortbread.  She invited three couples over with stern
instructions to the husband not to talk about her illness.  “You know that
they’ve been praying for me, so let’s not let them think I’m better because
God listened to them,” she told him.  The group played poker, drank
bourbon and tequila and wine.  His wife suggested they use Lego blocks
as chips.  The husband divided the blocks equally.  An hour later they
needed more blocks; he opened one of their son’s gifts, a Lego airport
terminal, and removed fifty pieces.  By midnight when the last couple had
slid into their ride home, he was too drunk to distinguish between the new
and old Lego or count the pieces and he stuffed two handfuls back into
the box, taped it closed and wrapped it up.

                                                   ●

      When school resumed after Christmas Ms. Singh sent home a letter
to parents asking them to prepare an “emergency bag” for their child, part
of their Comprehensive Emergency Preparedness Plan.  Each child
needed a small backpack containing energy bars, Band-Aids, a stuffed
animal, socks, photos, a “comfort letter” from parents, a pack of candy,
and ear plugs.  Other items could be added at the parents’ discretion, with
final approval from Ms. Singh, as long as the bag didn’t exceed the size
of the classroom cubby assigned to each student.  The bag would only be
opened if parents couldn’t pick up their child within twenty-four hours of
an “event.”
      “I’m adding hand sanitizer and a deck of cards,” the father said.
      “He’s not even nine.  He only knows how to play Crazy Eights.  Do
you think he’ll want to play cards if he’s under a pile of rubble?” the
mother said.
      “What the hell is he going to do with a letter?”
      “I’m going to add a whistle and a flashlight,” the mother said.  “So
he can let me know where he is if I have to rescue him.”
      “How do we write the letter?  Maybe we each do a draft and
combine them together?  Like a school group project.”
      They never wrote in greeting cards, preferring to find a card with a
funny photo or witty saying on the front and leaving the white space inside
empty.  For their son they bought cards that played music or a song when
opened.
      “You write a letter and I’ll write a letter and we’ll merge them,” she
agreed.
      “When is it due?” he asked.
      “In May,” the boy told them.

                                                   ●

      More than two thousand people go missing each day in America.  
A hundred kids per year are abducted by strangers.  Sixty-seven of
those will be older than twelve but younger than seventeen.      
  
      The mother was not concerned about her son.
      “Does God look after children?” the boy asked.  “Does His light
shine?”
      “God is not the sun or the stars, and we’re just little lamps plugged
into sockets and the bulb eventually burns out.  That’s it,” she answered.

                                                   ●

      Near the end of January the husband got tangled in a mess at work
and called the hospital to leave a message that he’d be there by four.  He
spoke to someone at the third-floor nursing station.
      “She’s having chemo for a blood cancer.  It ends at 3:00.”
      The receptionist denied his facts, telling him that chemo for that
particular cancer was only done on Tuesdays.  
      “No, she’s been having it done since the fall.  I should know, I pick
her up.”
      “Maybe she has a different cancer, sir?”
      “What, the Thursday kind?”
      The husband found a way out of work and drove to the curb where
his wife waited for him.  She looked good, healthy, really.
      “Do you have the right kind of cancer for a Thursday?” he asked.
      The wife rolled down her window and poured some of the coffee
from her take-out cup onto the road.  
      “Fuck.  Why do they make it so hot and full?”  The coffee blew back
into the car and stained her white blouse.
      “The day?  Is today the right one for B-cell lymphoma?”
      “There’s never a good day for it, dummy.”
      She dumped the remaining coffee out the window.
      “Remember when you went to Cuba with your friends, for that guy’s
week, and when you came back you didn’t have a tan line on your ring
finger?”
      “I took it off so I wouldn’t lose it in the ocean.”
      “Right, but then we started getting phone calls in the night?  A
woman who spoke Spanish.”
      “Wrong numbers.”
      She confessed her deceit and he dropped her at the house and
drove back to the office.  On an envelope he did a rough accounting of
their assets and liabilities and accepted the result.  He booked into a hotel
with a window view from which he could see their house on the mountain
and phoned his son.
      “Hey buddy.  I’m on a business trip for a few days.”
      The boy said it was OK and that his mother was helping him build
airplanes from Lego.  
      “Don’t crash them.  We’ll play when I get back.”
      “I’ll keep them safe,” the boy said.
      
                                                   ●

      The instructions Ms. Singh gave parents for writing a comfort letter
were straightforward: keep it age appropriate, keep it short, use your
“authentic voice,” use details that are personal, offer reassurance, and
build on “the groundwork you established at home for just such an
emergency.”  Neither parent had created groundwork, for any kind of
disaster; everyday disasters for a child didn’t warrant a plan or a bug-out
bag; you didn’t need a backpack when the toast burned, the Lego blocks
didn’t fit into each other, or your parents separated.  
      The husband and wife wondered whose letter the boy might open
first.  Both parents predicted the likelihood of their letter being first,
calculated the weight of that letter in swaying the boy’s opinion of them,
the strength their message might have in helping the boy decide with whom
he wanted to spend more time.  The husband phoned the school and
spoke to the teacher, explained how his son needed rational support, how
the boy’s mother was erratic, capable of tectonic shifts in truth and lies.  
The mother emailed the boy’s teacher and suggested that her son was
heartbroken by his dad’s carelessness.  The teacher assured both parents
that the letters could be opened simultaneously, or decided by a coin toss.  
“Fifty-fifty seems fair,” the teacher said.  “I can donate money to your
classroom for supplies,” the father suggested.  “I’ll volunteer during
lunchtime,” the mother offered.
      “You can’t decorate the envelopes,” the boy told them.  “The
teacher said it’s not fair to the other kids.  Some parents are good
decorators.”  The boy wanted plain white envelopes.
      “Can I write your name in fancy letters?” his mom asked.
      “Can I seal the envelope with wax?” the father asked.
      The ex-couple arranged to meet the boy in front of the school at
lunch.  The boy brought out his emergency backpack and his parents
watched him stuff both letters into a side sleeve on the pack.  “I can’t
open these unless you guys don’t get me within a day.”  His mom hugged
him and his dad high-fived and each parent reminded him how much they
loved him.

                                                   ●

      The father updated his personal actuarial table he kept on his tablet.

Cause of Death                             Lifetime Odds
Heart Disease                                1-in-5
Cancer                                           1-in-7
Stroke                                            1-in-23
Accidental Injury                           1-in-36
Motor Vehicle Accident                 1-in-100
Intentional Self-harm (suicide)      1-in-121
Falling Down                                 1-in-246
Assault by Firearm                        1-in-325
Fire or Smoke                                1-in-1,116
Drowning                                       1-in-8,942
Air Travel Accident                       1-in-20,000


      He used a “marble-in-a-jar” mental construct to understand human
fate.  Every person in the world is represented by a marble.  Humans are
steelies and aggies and cat’s eyes, biggies and teenies and blue frogs, all
jammed into a jar—life—and at the bottom of the jar is a hole—death—
that is always open but varies in size, and human life is just about staying
in the jar while it shakes and rolls and spins until a marble goes through
the hole, an entirely random event, mostly, and once the marble is gone
the jar is replenished with new marbles.  Life and death is a marble in a jar.  
Sometimes a marble gets pushed past the others by random energy and is
out of the jar too soon.

                                                   ●

      In May the boy asked his mother if he could go to a summer Bible
camp and make a banjo.  
      “Ethan is going and so is Sofia,” he told his mother.  
      “Do they believe in God?” his mother asked.
      “I don’t know.  They said it’s fun.  They went last year and made a
banjo.  Every year you get to make one, or a drum.”
      “You don’t need to go to a Bible camp to do that.  We can make
one at home.  Or I’ll buy you one and you can go to a different camp.”
      “You don’t like God, do you Mom?”
      “I can’t like something that doesn’t exist.”
      The boy travelled to his father’s house on Wednesdays and ate
dinner with him at a new IKEA table.  
      “Dad, are you religious?  Mom isn’t.”
      “I believe in numbers.  God is just people wanting to always have
a parent to look after them.  They’re scared about growing up and
becoming independent, so they need a God.”
      “I guess God is a single parent.”
      “Yep.  But you still have two.”
      “Do you think you and Mom could die soon?”
      The father explained that everyone had a one-in-a million chance of
dying every day from non-natural causes, like a car crash or being
electrocuted.  “That’s called a ‘micromort.’”
      “One-in-a-million?” the son asked.
      “Yep, a micromort.  Jumping out of a plane is seven micromorts.  
Giving birth is two hundred and ten micromorts.”
      “Wow, so having me was way more dangerous for Mom than
jumping out of a plane.”
      “I guess so.”

                                                   ●

      Who knows when to expect the unexpected?  Endless irritations,
tiny and meaningless—burnt toast, unmade beds, empty toothpaste tubes,
flat tires, patchy skin and thinning hair, loveless dinners, 24/7 Disney—get
stitched together to form a life.  No one can worry about a life-ending
asteroid, a pandemic, white nationalist terrorists driving trucks into
crowds, solar storms frying the electrical grid, or wars fought by drones
and illiterate volunteers.  The father managed risk, the mother believed in
cause.  
      When the school called on a sunny June afternoon to say that they’d
gone into lockdown, neither parent derailed.  Each one checked Twitter
and once they’d confirmed that someone was shot near the school and
the gunman might be near, or might now be long gone in escape, they
drove to the school, he from his condo near the ocean and she from the
hillside, and got close to the police cruisers.  The father knew the school
yard well, having played soccer in it with his son the previous summer,
and remembered how he might cut through adjacent backyards.  The
mother told the boy’s father that he couldn’t stop her from following.  
      “Fine.  But don’t think I’d stop a bullet for you.”
      “No one is shooting me.  I can’t be killed.”
      “I guess you’re expecting a fake bullet?”
      They revived their youthful athleticism to conquer fences, azalea and
rose bushes, wobbly paving stones, and a slow-moving Corgi.  The
shortest distance to the school from a backyard required a sixty-second
dash to the boy’s classroom window.  The school had closed all the
blinds, locked the doors, hushed the rooms, emptied the hallways.  
      Inside the classroom the children had kept quiet for an hour until the
teacher told them that whatever bad thing was happening outside couldn’t
get in and they could talk and play, but with “whisper voices.”  A few kids
got nervous and scared and the teacher let them open their comfort letters,
then the other kids asked if they could read their letters and the teacher
said yes.
      The boy’s parents found a gap between the blind and the brick.  
      “You can see the whole world through one side of a small gap and
nothing of it from the other,” the father said.  They took turns, like sharing
the aperture on a telescope, looking for their son.
      “He’s opening his bug-out bag,” the father said.
      “Why?  We’re right here.  We’re on the other side of the fucking
wall.”
      “I know.  It’s been three hours, not twenty-four.”
      They saw kids reading letters, passing them to one another, probably
trading love stories, or bragging about how dumb their parents were, or
shaming one another’s immaturity.  Their son was on the outside of one
group, sitting on his open backpack, eating one of the granola bars his
mother had provided and spinning a metal top on the carpet.
      “You gave him a top?” she asked her ex.        
      “I thought it wouldn’t break, no matter what.”        
      “Why is he playing with that?  He can’t make it stay up.  I gave him
a puzzle.”
      “He chose.”
      They thought about how their words might comfort him.  She’d
started her letter with “be patient, I’m coming to get you soon” and he’d
ended his with “your dad loves you the most.”
      They took turns peering into the room through the narrow gap,
watching their son try over and over to spin the top, failing to make it
stay upright for more than five seconds.  He kept at it, as if he didn’t
care that anyone was watching him, like a gambler at a crowded
blackjack table who is convinced that, if he plays long enough, the odds
will shift in his favour.  
_________________________________________________________


Kevin Ralph Bray has formerly worked as a teacher and economist.  
He studied at the Humber School for Writers and the Vermont College
of Fine Arts.  His work has appeared in
The Healing Muse, The
Globe and Mail
, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts,
Grain, Sixfold, and How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting,
a collection of essays about loss.  Bray lives in Toronto.
   


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