James M. Chesbro’s work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine,Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies,Under the Gum Tree, The Collagist, Essay Daily,Connecticut Review, River Teeth online, The Huffington Post, AOL.com, The Good Men Project, Superstition Review,Pilgrim,Weston Magazine, The Connecticut Post, and Spiritus.
“Trains” is forthcoming in Zone 3.
His essays have been listed as notable selections in The Best American Sports Writing 2014 and The Best American Essays 2012, 2014, 2015. He is the co-editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (Welcome Table Press, 2013).
James teaches full-time at Fairfield Prep. He holds an MFA from Fairfield University, where he is an adjunct professor of English. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children.
On Sundays my father’s red brake lights flashed ahead of me as he held a newspaper out the window of his car. I took his hand-off and ran to the next house where the heavy editions of the Philadelphia Inquirer thudded onto the steps of porches and stoops. On the first day of my first job, as I ran back to my father’s white Buick, where the motor hummed and news radio played through his open window, I saw a robed woman with rollers in her hair. She stepped with caution toward the curb and waved.
Sam lived across the street from our first house. His arrival in my imagination this morning, as I woke before the three children to write, surprised me, since we moved a few years ago and now live across the street from woods. For some reason, when I was trying to decide what to write about, my eyes wanted to find him leaning against a tree, smoking a cigarette. I was debating whether to begin something new or go back to an essay I started about my father when I lived in our old house, where, between sentences, my eyes often rested on Sam washing the school bus he drove, or edging his lawn, or standing under his portico wearing black slippers, gray sweatpants, and an undershirt, exhaling smoke. I’m so often going back to drafts of material about my deceased father that perhaps this morning’s unexpected delivery of memories of my former neighbor constitutes the kind of material most worthy of essaying, as it elevates the chances for revelations.
Usually I mow vertical stripes, which make the yard appear larger from the house. Recently, though, I mowed rectangles because it was faster, and Dad was on my mind. The small yard was twelve paces long—boxed in by the side of a detached garage, a row of arborvitaes in the back, a fence, and a deck. After the first several rectangles, I had to stop, tilt the front wheels up, turn, pace, and repeat. I turned and turned and turned, mowing the middle patches of grass, pivoting around in my mind searching for my father.
Every morning I try to rise before our three young children so I can drink coffee by myself in the dark. I fell out of this practice over the holidays opting instead for the warmth under the comforter while the wind rattled the frosted windowpanes. But when we returned to our morning routine in the new year and our 8-year-old protested dressing for school, our 5-year-old could not believe it was no longer the weekend, and our 4-year-old turned her nose up at the breakfast foods we had in the house, I didn’t have any patience for them. I was a grouch.
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Over my four year-old son’s shoulders the wounded adults gazed across the room in our direction. Between their absent stares, maybe they replayed their accident and the ways they could have avoided it. What replayed in my mind was coming home from work and seeing a gash in my boy’s head. He was mimicking the downhill skier on TV, lost his balance and banged his head on a table. As I zipped his jacket over his pajamas he choked back sobs, accepting the news that instead of going to bed, we were going to the hospital. The receptionist said “Anna” into the microphone, another name that was not ours. My son’s eyes followed the movement of white fish in the large tank by the receptionist’s desk.
The first major assignment in my first-year Composition class is a literacy narrative. One of the biggest leaps I’m asking the students to make in the sentences they construct is to shift their guarded writing objective from trying to “prove” a thesis, to the more courageous attempt of trying to reveal a sense of humanity in themselves as narrators and the people they write about. They want to glorify or chastise, but I want them to consider how the writers in our curriculum create characters with some complexity, characters that are human.