Night Ghosts Riding Down the Pilgrim Wind

by Serge Bielanko

“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire.” 
Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Henry is a blur.

He shoots out of the doors behind a couple of other kids in his class and he's running like there's a beast at his heels. 

Pharrell's 'Happy' kicks out across the gym. There's just me and about eight or ten other parents and grandparents scattered in these vast bleachers as the music slaps off the cinder block walls and spins all up into the high lights.

I try and imagine what it's like for my boy in that moment.

It must be Pamplona.

Shuttled down darker corridors, walking single file/doubling up/tapping up against each other, young hearts pounding at the mystery of what lies ahead. The antiseptic waft of school halls, a whiff of cafeteria mac-n-cheese or meatloaf. A long drag of impatience when you're 5 and you know you're about to be given the green light to just do it, to be set free to bolt. That isn't a feeling all that common in elementary school.

It can't be.

No one would get behind it.


This is a fundraiser thing; Rams on the Run; raising money for the PTO. Collect pledges and every class runs around the gym for 15 minutes. Nothing fancy. Foolproof. We were supposed to go door-to-door, I guess, show up at dinner time and smile and ask for loot, me reminding him and his sister to say 'Thank you,' while people ducked back inside to get their pocketbooks or wallets, but it didn't work out. I fell behind with work and chaos and I let it slide.

I tucked a twenty in the envelope instead and sent it back with the names of family members as donors. 

No one cares. No one cares where the money comes from.

The history of a five-dollar bill is not something people give a shit about. It's in your hands, that's all that matters.

And then it ain't anymore and you'll never cross paths again. 


Henry runs hard, his hair flapping in his own breeze. He gives high fives to some dad standing down in the corner of the orange cone course every time he passes him. The high five dude. I wonder who he is. I won't ask him though, so I'll never know. 

I can't help myself in situations like this, man. My eyes get all fucked up. I feel my face twitching and I pinch my thigh through my pants. 

"Stop it, you fucking Emo idiot!," I tell myself.

Look at that grandfather over there, the one with the Korean War ball cap. He probably fought with a bayonet. He probably stuck his bayonet into dudes' faces on hellishly cold mornings along the frozen roads of another planet. He's probably a farm boy who had to hold his friend's guts in his hands as he tried to shove them back into a nineteen year old body.

He's looking at me, I know it.

He knows I'm on the verge of crying and for what? For what!? He knows I know he knows too, that's what so torturous here. He knows that I know that he knows that he's not tearing up watching his grandson or granddaughter run around a gym on a Tuesday afternoon even though he has eaten War with a pie fork and has all the reasons in the world to cry at freedom and love and blood hurling itself at him from his grandkid's smiling face down on the court, but here I am, Emo Dad, and he doesn't want to hear it. 

I think he wants to wrestle me.

There's heat coming off of his soldier skull, lasers beaming into the side of my fat face.



I bite my lip and wave at Henry who, so far, has not looked at me even once. I know he knows I'm here. I'm impossible to miss. But he's doing his thing and there's a certain kind of pride that comes along with not waving at your dad every time you pass him by.

It's Old Testament. Shakespeare. Hemingway. Punk rock. It hurts. It's wonderful.


I can feel the old man trying to lift me up with his stare now and things are getting out of hand. The more he glares at me the more I feel this crying trying to get out of my head. I'm overcome by something moving me and I have no clue what it is. I've been a certain kind of mess lately. I've been down on myself and scared as hell, trying to feel my legs under all this rubble of debt I'm trapped in. 


A thing I should note:

I've been reading The Road, Cormac McCarthy's tale of the deepest love between a dad and his son wandering around post-apocalyptic Tennessee. 


The old veteran is growling something at me as I try and see him out of the corner of my eye but I can't because I'm also trying to watch Henry and catch his eye at least once. What does this guy want with me? Why is he messing with me of all people? Because I'm crying a little bit? Doesn't he get it at all?

Maybe I'm a sensitive dude.

Maybe I'm blown away at how big my boy is getting.

Maybe I'm fighting tears of pride, you ever think of that you cold-blooded bayonet-thrusting grenade-chucking ancient marauder?!?!

Fuck you, I mumble under my breath. I'm still too scared to look at him though. I wish his wife would tell him to knock it off.

What's he saying anyway? I can barely make it out?

I open my ear.

"Stop crying, little baby. Be a man for once instead of a goddamn baby bunny rabbit jacking himself off to the beat of his own baby bunny rabbit heart." That's what I think I hear him rumble at me, low and slow, I swear to god. 

He's trying to hurl my body out onto the gym floor with his eyes. I know that now. I can feel myself moving, raising up a little bit and then falling back down on my ass. His powers aren't up to snuff.

But he's trying.

And that's enough to rattle me for the rest of my life.


This past week, Violet on one side of me in her purple kitten pjs, Henry on the other in his Dino Snore ones, falling asleep/thumping hearts I helped make/inches from mine/I have no answers/I need fucking answers/Korean War bayonets of action/forward motion/making shit happen/but I've been so scared and quiet and agitated until my guts double up on themselves and I'm not even a human being anymore except a little bit at night, lying here for an hour or so/watching them fall to sleep beside me. 

I read The Road as my son drifts off, his head on my legs heavy like a stone. 

I watch the words float by me and it's all breath-taking and moving and horrifying at once. Like me. Like my life. The dad in the book watches his son sleep in the very real cold dark woods while I lay here watching my son fall asleep in the very real cold dark woods of my blues.

It's entirely different, but it's exactly the same.

McCarthy knew that, I figure. He still knows it. He can't unknow it either and he tells me that in his soft southern drawl.

I run my fingers across Henry's head, feel his warm scalp, a scalp I would die to let live. I am so much more than I let myself believe.

We all are. 

Someone is trying to throw me across a gymnasium with telepathy. 


'Hit the Road Jack' starts playing. The Ray Charles version. I connect the dots. The session is over and Henry's teacher holds her hands up in the air and flaps them around and the kids stop running and line up behind her out there in the middle of the cones. 

Henry looks at me finally and he's panting from running his tiny ass off. But he smiles at me too. 

I wave at him from the bleachers while his class moves as a snake. They exit the gym. "Anddontchacomebacknomorenomorenomorenomore!" He waves the last wave, my son does.

Then he's gone.

They're all gone.

Back into their meatloaf halls. 


Fuck it.

I look at the guy.

He ain't looking at me. 

He's old. He's smiling, waving at his granddaughter. She's waving back and I watch them connect. No words. Smiles. Gestures.

His hat isn't Korean War Vet either. 

It's woodland camo with an eight-point buck leaping across the front of it. 

He and his wife stand up and move down the bleachers slow, holding onto one another for balance. 

I get up so I can beat them to the door/so I can be first/so I can hold it open for them/and I do/and they thank me/ two casual smiles/three if you include mine/the three of us moving together from the artificial gym out into the bright freezing sunshine of the world. 

I light a smoke on the school grounds because fuck it.

I might have misread the entire situation.

The wind bayonets my face as it dawns on me that I might have misread everything up until now. 


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and what do you want me to say? You want me to tell you to be thankful for what you've got? You want me to tell you that it all goes by so quick so, listen man, try and dig through the muck and see yourself clearly for a second or two every now and then, okay? 

I can't do that. That's not my job. I can't remind you to remind yourself of certain enlightening higher-consciousness shit, dude. 

I'm dying as I write this. So are you. You're dying too. We all are. 



Okay, whatever. It's Thanksgiving. 

Remind yourself. 

There, I said it.


I built a Fat Lego castle with Henry last night. It was just me and him, one of those rare nights when we're together alone. Me and him/him and me. I put on the Sinatra Christmas record on the YouTube and made him this chicken that he likes for dinner and the whole house smelled like mashed potatoes and gravy and chicken and the pumpkin pie candle I got at Walmart as we built this castle from the ground up, the whole thing teetering on the edge of collapse but never collapsing out of mercy. Or respect. For me. For him. For our night together, I guess.

Later I let him play computer games on my laptop up on the bed. I went downstairs to eat my salad and watch a little bit of The Crown on Netflix and the whole time I'm down there I keep getting blindsided by the money thing and my stomach rolls around and I ended up putting the salad in some Tupperware and fridging it for tomorrow. 

Upstairs I peek into the room at my boy and he's  all animated and talking to himself as he plays a game. Animal Jam. That's the game. I don't know what happens in it. There's no cursing from what I can tell, or bad killing or horrible shit, so I let him play it. I'm in the dark hall and I watch him for a minute or two and I swear to god I feel it all welling up inside me again.

I don't get it. But there you go. I wanna cry looking in on the kid who has no idea I'm looking in on him. 

I hear a noise behind me and I spin around and it's the old man from the gym, from the school earlier. He doesn't say a word, he just comes at me fast down the hall and before I can holler or hit him upside his old man head with my bottle of seltzer water he shoves me through the door and I forget about the tears and my heart is racing. I'm Pamplona bull before the run.  

Henry hears me/senses me, says, "Hi Dad!" without peeling his eyes from his game.

"Time for bed, dude," I tell him. 

"Awwwww! Just five more minutes! Please?! I need to finish this!"

I don't answer him as I plop my bottle down on my nightstand and throw some more blankets on the bed. Sometimes no answer is the answer. He plays on.

So I just stand there above him, like an angel, like a cloud.

Like the moon in the dark cold sky. 


“The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all.”

― Cormac McCarthy, The Road


I see The Road sitting there on the nightstand waiting for me to pick it back up. I see the box fan by the bed. I see the beat up comforter from the old married days. I see my phone charger waiting for my phone. I see the big rainbow trout pillow flopped along my son's ribs. I see my middle boy making his way down through some easygoing computer jungle, happy music bopping along. 

I see his back rise slightly with the air in his lungs. 

I see my old Vans kicking off my feet.

I see the empty crib over by the wall where Charlie still sleeps when he's here.

I see Violet's owl plushy on the floor by the wall.

I see the old man from the gym peering at me from the crack in the door.

I see the barn wood headboard I made once upon a time.

I see the bills downstairs haunting me through the ceiling.

I see the shadow of a man cast upon my wall.

I see everything.

I see all of it.

I hear the wind blasting at the panes outside.

And I smile my tired smile as the long day winds on down.