A gentle rain was falling, but he hadn’t noticed until he rose with the baby. But then he could hear it, could see it dripping over the leaf-clogged gutters outside the window.
Mostly, though, he saw the black night outside. No light at that unholy hour.
“You’re wearing out your mother, kid!” His words just above a whisper. “She can’t keep getting up, so you’re stuck with me.” And I’m stuck with you, he would have added if he dared.
He was in the last place he ever thought he’d be. Or ever wanted to be. Deeply in it. Irrevocably in it. Nearly forty years old, and suddenly with a kid! A sick kid.
But the little house where they had landed was warm enough for now. He stood in his boxers, an old flannel shirt thrown on, the baby in his arms. The bottle the boy didn’t want set aside on the table. The child would whimper and then go silent, but never long enough to dump him back in his crib so everyone could get some sleep. He’d carried the boy into the kitchen so the crying wouldn’t wake his mother again.
“We all have our pain, kid. You just gotta learn to deal with it.” The extent of his fatherly advice, the one big lesson he had learned from his own father.
He didn’t look down at his son. Never more than he had to. All the boy did was sleep and cry anyway, and he couldn’t do a thing about either of those.
He didn’t even know the color of his son’s eyes.
“Are you hot? Cold?” He could never tell. Margaret could hold her boy against her cheek and know. Another blanket then. Or time for a bath. Quickly, quickly. He needs his diaper changed. He’s hungry. Soothe him. Rock him. Talk to him. Touch him.
How did he get himself into this nightmare?
He knew how, of course. It has been a delirious summer. But after so long why did this suddenly have to happen? Why did the universe throw this at him? Life was good before. Free. Aimless. Now he had a ring on his finger. (Quickly, quickly.) Had to join the union for health insurance. Quit smoking. He cut his hair. A tiny house in Kansas City where his wife had grown up, inherited along with a little wad of money and a hundred acres of woods down in the Ozarks. What did they need a bunch of trees for anyway? But the money was being blown on the kid’s sickness. If that money ran out they’d have to sell her piece of property that he hadn’t even seen yet. And then what if the boy died anyway?
“You’re breaking your mother’s heart.”
In his arms he felt the boy’s tiny body shiver, and he mewled. He could feel a draft from the window and pulled the thin blanket tighter around the boy – was that what he needed to do? – but one of the boy’s arms escaped. “Need to caulk that,” he murmured. Words in the dark, spoken to no one. “And clean those damned gutters. Shit, I’m a homeowner now.”
The boy fussed.
“Just stop crying. How about that? I don’t know what to do for you, kid. I don’t know anything about being a father.” True confession, one he could make because no one was listening. “Your damned weakness gives you power over me!” No one but his son heard Joe’s words.
As he considered, though, he realized that at least he knew how not to be a father. That hard lesson had come easy. Just don’t be like his own father. It was an option, fading with every moment, but not altogether run off. “See what you made me do, kid?” he would say if it came to that. “But better for everyone this way,” he would say. “You’ll thank me eventually. Like I thanked my old man.”
Except everyone was praising him. Envious even, which he really couldn’t understand. “Who’d ever guess you’d be a dad?” The common refrain. Not him, that’s for sure. Dad. The name didn’t fit. Didn’t sound right. Sounded like a word from another language that wouldn’t translate well. He smiled and shook hands and accepted all of the good words, the gifts, the advice, the winks and nudges. And all the while no one noticed him looking out the window, down the road, across his remaining years. Not even his wife.
And then, so soon, some of those words hadn’t been good.
“Why’d you have to catch this fever, kid? We might have to put you in the hospital again if you keep spitting up your medicine. The doc said you could even get brain damage.” He spoke to the black outside the window. And to his reflection. Each man holding a sick, maybe a doomed kid in his arms. “Not just stuck with a kid but maybe a retarded kid. Cleaning drool off your face for the rest of my life.”
The boy cried. Weakly, but with the little force his fevered body had in it.
Joe glanced down. “I didn’t make you cry, kid. I did not do that. You can’t blame me.”
He started swaying, unconsciously, as he saw his wife do. The floorboards beneath his bare feet creaked in gentle sympathy.
“It’s your fever, kid. That’s why you’re crying. I didn’t make you cry. Quiet now.”
The boy in his arms still fussed.
“Stop your damned crying, will you?” he growled. “What do you want? To make me more miserable? I don’t have anything you need!”
As though in obedience, the boy went silent and still, and the man looked down to confirm the child was breathing, alarmed by the unexpected authority of his sudden words. Was this what being a father meant?
“Look, I’m sorry I said that. It’s your fever. You’re sick and we can’t do much about it. Except keep pouring medicine down your throat that you mostly spit up. You have to do it. You have to fight this battle yourself. That’s how it works in this world, kid. Sorry about that, too.”
What am I doing apologizing to a baby?
A new thought came into his head then, one that left no space for anything else. A cold, dark-of-the-night thought. “What if I catch it from you? What if I catch your fever and you’re left without a father? Then what, kid?” What if this squalling thing in his arms, that couldn’t do a thing for itself, that could barely even hold its head up, could kill him? Or worse. “What if you give it to Margaret? I would hate you forever.”
A bitter-tasting thought he had given himself to chew on in the darkness. What if that happened? She died and left him with this kid? The possibility of these twin horrors twisted his stomach.
Another confession. “I never wanted you. Your mother wanted you. Not me. It was just supposed to be me and her. But you came along. You weren’t part of anybody’s plan.” Another bitter thought. “I knew some people. If it was up to me, you never would’ve been born!”
The boy cried out. Not a whimper but an actual stab-of-pain cry. The man was alarmed by the authority in his son’s voice. The boy grabbed his father’s flannel shirt in his free fist and looked at his father’s face, his eyes wide with the shock of pain, liquid with tears.
Joe could look nowhere else. He stared into his boy’s eyes, the beseeching, terrified, blue, blue eyes of his son. The boy’s grip on his shirt was unbreakable.
He realized that he was his son’s one hold on life at that moment.
And then he understood, in a deep way that was beyond words and could only be sounded with feelings. He understood.
“I am so sorry I said that, Davey.” It was Joe who whimpered now, making his confession to the one person who could forgive him. “I’m not a monster, Davey. I’m not.” He touched David’s face. His cheek. His lips. “Forgive me, Son. Let me take it back.”
Joe kissed his sick little Davey on the forehead and held him close, understanding for the first time that this was who he was now, who he was supposed to be.
Paul Lamb is the pen name of an author whose short story, The Most Natural Thing in the World, appeared in the May 2014 issue of The MOON. The father character in that story is the infant in this story. Both pieces are part of a cycle he is writing about relationships between fathers and sons. His fiction has also appeared in Aethlon, The Adroit Journal, Magnolia Review, THEMA Literary Review, and many others. One of his stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year.
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