Hard Candy_sizedThe summer my older son was about to turn three, I took him to the library of the college that had just given me one year’s grace to find another position. Such things were supposed to be confidential, but the librarian knew I would not return in September or, at the latest, be gone the following June. “I’m sorry to hear the news,” she said, and smiled at Derek, who followed me through fiction and poetry as if he were on a leash.

Though the library was empty except for the three of us, Derek whispered when we emerged from the stacks near the two small artificial palm trees that flanked the entrance to the periodical room. “May I touch today?” Derek said, and I said “Sure,” whispering myself and glancing back to see that the librarian seemed charmed.

Derek petted the fronds and held them for me to touch, and a minute later, when my son had behaved better, I guessed, than any other faculty child in the librarian’s memory, she offered Derek a piece of candy.

I nodded, lost in imagining a shelf of my future books in this library and a thousand others. The candy looked to be lemon flavored. A sourball. I smiled when Derek said, “Thank you” and popped it into his mouth. The librarian turned back to the rhythm of processing books returned by students eager to be rid of them as the semester ended. “It’s good,” Derek whispered, pointing at his mouth. And then, before he had crossed the lobby to where I was standing, Derek suddenly stopped and stiffened, turning mute and flushed.

I raced to where Derek was standing and pounded on his back at once, resorting to what my father had taught me at a Boy Scout meeting years before the Heimlich maneuver was printed with illustrations for a kitchen wall chart.

Nothing. Not a sound but my open palm slapping my son’s back, the tone turning deeper when I closed my hand into a fist and thumped.

“Turn him upside down,” the librarian shouted, and the advice made such enormous good sense that I grabbed Derek’s legs, lifting and flipping him. With one arm, I hugged my son’s legs against my chest and pounded again on his back, using my fist, Derek’s face slapping against my thighs until, after the third thump, the lemon candy spurted out onto the blue carpet between my black shoes.

The librarian and I looked long and hard at that candy and each other, neither of us speaking until she said, “I didn’t think.” I memorized the size and shape of the moist hardball for ten seconds before I led my son into the late spring afternoon without saying another word to the woman who had nearly killed him.

I strapped Derek into his car seat. He kicked his feet and looked past me toward the deserted parking lot. I tested the metal clasp. Though it held, something felt odd about it, and I unlocked it and hooked it a second time, tugging the strap twice. “There,” I said, touching the clasp again, examining the seatbelt strap as it crossed Derek’s body, pulling it away from his throat.

Gary Fincke‘s latest book is The History of Permanence (2011), which won the Stephen F. Austin Poetry Prize. His memoir The Canals of Mars was published by Michigan State in 2010. He is the Charles Degenstein Professor of Creative Writing at Susquehanna University.

Photo by Annie Agnone