My wife could take your skin off with one glance, she was that excruciating. She could call you to her with one finger. She could do long division in her head. Another thing she could do really well was sob, and I envied her this, assuming it left nothing to eat at her inside. It is easy to be wrong about a person you are used to. The day she left, she gave me an American flag packed in a clear plastic bag she broke with her teeth. I said, What, you’re going to war? And she said, You always wanted something to hang from the porch. She could be sweet and scornful at the same time.
A son is the same as a wife, save this confusion. These are the things my son will do: the laundry, the lawn, the bills. He has a head for numbers, like his mom, and figures our finances on spreadsheets. Kyle is 19, and it seems like the age he’s been all his life. I can hardly remember him being anything else but lanky and bearded and morose. Periodically his girlfriend Meg lives with us. She fills the freezer with cans of Diet Dr Pepper that bulge threateningly—aluminum balloons—and burst. At night, I scrape tiny brown ice flakes from our frozen dinners. I heat the oven to 350 and arrange cardboard dishes on a metal cookie sheet.
“No au gratin potatoes, Walter.”
I don’t know when it started, but my son calls me by name. He says, Walter, there’s a call for you; Walter, wipe your face. He says my name like it’s a kelly-green suit, like it’s my botched attempt to be like other humans.
Because Kyle calls me Walter, I call him Son. “Son, the potatoes come with the meal. You get what comes.”
“The smell of them makes me sick. Why don’t you eat them for me before I sit down? Come on, Walter.”
He is standing in the doorway, his shoulders covered in a brightly woven throw. He is bare-chested, and I can see a few orange hairs flicker about his nipples. In one hand he has a five-pound dumbbell he’sbeen lugging around for weeks.
I take out the steaming dinners and spoon his potatoes into my rice. My son makes me unreasonably soft,like there’s a rotten spot in me only he knows about. I coax him to the table by setting out an open beer. When he sits down he balances the dumbbell up on one end next to his elbow.
“Can you get my work socks in tonight?” I talk into my food.
“They can go with the towels, I guess.” He eats his chicken with a spoon.
We stay until the cardboard dishes start to collapse, then stand without speaking and throw our meals in the trash. We eat bowls of cereal. Kyle shakes a box of powdered Jell-O into his wide open mouth.
• • •
For a few months after his mother left, I drove around the city on Kyle’s behalf, trying to find him a job. That was early summer, just after graduation, when the days were as long as they ever were going to get. I was afraid it looked bad to have an adult son without any plans. I brought home applications from Computer City and Walgreens, each folded in half and tucked neatly in my lunch cooler. With my best handwriting and a new felt pen, I filled out my son’s personal information: Kyle Craige-Dodgson, no previous retail experience. I passed these papers to him shyly, barely looking in his eyes, my fingers damp from gripping the pen. Nothing came of this, which was a worry at first, then a relief. My wife used to call him Lazy Ass, but there is something comforting about Kyle’s laziness, the way a lolling cat can soothe your nerves. It pleases me to find him on the floor at the end of the day. He does half-hearted sit-ups and folds sheets. Sometimes he’s just asleep, the TV shuffling its faces around, the night coming down, so slow and quiet I’d be a fool to complain. You don’t get many chances to be happy.
Of course, he can be difficult—not frightening like his mother, but frightened, which is worse. Try to see this: a six-foot man with a curly red beard who won’t come out of the basement. Kyle has respect for storms. On green summer nights, he holds a radio to his head and paces the sweating cement in his socks. I tell him, “Son, there’s no sirens. Come on upstairs.” But Kyle has a machine that calculates dew point and wind speed. He looks me in the face and says, “Fuck you, Walter.”
On a night like this, I meet Meg at the back door. She is timid and avoids me by rubbing her eyes and yawning deeply: “God, I’m tired.” Her timidity also makes her polite, so she sits down when I tell her to.
“Pears?” I hold out a squat yellow can with a foolishly beaming man on the label. “Or fruit cocktail with cherries?” I shake the other can in the air.
“Maybe a little of both?” Meg runs the roller coaster at Mall USA, so she’s deft with people she dislikes. She is 20 and hasn’t seen her parents since she left Culver in the 11th grade to get a job in the Cities. She treats everyone older than her like an employer.
Truth is, I usually regret making her eat with me. She slides her pears across her plate, leaving shiny, transparent trails. She picks the fibers from her oranges. When I ask her about her day, innocently enough, she tells me about a man who vomited out of his bumper car. “Hmm,” I say, clearing the plates. “Interesting.” I avert myeyes from her slippery fruit.
She says, “Sometimes I get sick too.”
“You coming down with something?”
“Well. I’m pregnant.”
It seems important to keep clearing our plates, to do this as long as possible. I take one fork at a time. I tend to the day-old crumbs on the table.
“Mr. Dodson?” She says my name in a rush, like she’s trying to get past it to something else. It’s probably not the time to correct her.
“Dodgson,” I say, but I hold off from spelling it out. Briefly I think about my son downstairs, listening with all his machines to changes in the atmosphere. It would seem good and correct if the wind picked up, the bars on his machine pulsing its digital heart. I believe that significant events should make some impact.
“Isn’t that what I said?”
I am generous with her. “Maybe. I think so.”
She pushes out herchair, smiling with just her mouth. I suppose her line of work requires an official face. “Thanks for the fruit.”
• • •
After my wife left, I hung her American flag from a pole on the porch and tried to summon some patriotic feeling. During Vietnam I was always hoping my number would come up. I was working at a factory that produced party balloons, doing quality control in a great shuddering room that felt like a force of nature. They made me wear earmuffs and gloves. I looked for balloons without lips, balloons with ripped skins, until I was so bored and sad that war compared favorably. Back then, I was insulted by the kind of man who wore an American flag on the butt of his jeans. I was Kyle’s age, 19, and I felt that killing someone would be less ghastly than selling sticky rubbers to kids. It wasn’t just about balloons. It was more that I wanted to die, and war seemed the kind of place you could think that without being embarrassed.
The flag is wrapped around its pole like it decided to curl up for the night. I try to unwind it, but it’s caught, so I unfasten the pole from the house and take the whole thing inside. My wife would have scolded me for this. She had rules about indoor things and out-; a flagpole in the living room would have made her distressed. She would have given me an exasperated look, a you-are-still-such-a-child-I can’t-even-yell-at-you look before taking the flag and marching it back outside. This was the best and worst thing about my wife: she felt sorry for me. When I put my work boots on the mantel or fell asleep on her side of the bed,she’d groan and clench her teeth. Then she’d kiss me long and deep, a sigh of disappointment.
A few days before she left, I found her sitting on the bedroom floor in her swimsuit. Her breasts sagged into points in the two pockets of her bikini top. “What are you doing?” I asked. It was April then, the buds barely started on thetree tips. There were goose pimples on my wife’s arms. She said,“I’m going to Tucson.”
She sighed.“There’s something wrong with me here.”
“You look good.”
“Fuck off, Walter. I don’t. I don’t care about that.” She had red lipstick and red eyes. “I feel like someone’s sitting on me. I feel like my ribs are in my throat.”
In the living room, I unwind the flag on the carpeted floor. Spread out like that, it looks like something I should lay across—a bedspread, a beach towel. It looks like somewhere I should sleep. Meg comes home late from work. I hear her fumble in the kitchen, and then she’s standing over me with a soda can against her lips.
“Mr. Dodson.” Her ponytail is cockeyed, and it makes her head look off, swollen slightly over her ear.
“Oh. So there you are.” I’m on my knees, gathering up the flag between my arms. My body feels bent up and uncooperative. “Good day at MallUSA?”
“People are stupid, you know?” Meg tugs out her binder, but her hair is greasy and stays where it was. “This guy? He tried to climb out of his seat in the middle of the ride. A grown man, and he’s up there with all these little kids hollering at the top of his lungs.”
“He was scared, right?” I drop the flag in a wad on the couch.
“Everybody’s scared. It’s a scary ride.” She runs a hand through her hair, then sniffs her fingers. “What makes him think he’s different?”
• • •
Soon Meg starts wearing shirts like hockey jerseys and eating all the best things in the house: frozen pizzas, Oreos. She watches football with me on Sunday afternoons and knows when to say “bump-and-run.” I like her better now than I did. She burps when she drinks from her soda can, popping up her eyebrows every time, and she reminds me of my grandfather. She sighs like he did and rests her small white hand against the fly of her jeans. I suspect there is something different about her body, but I can’t say what. For a long time, it’s nothing you can see, just this look on her face like she’s swallowed something without chewing it first. Like she’s waiting to see if she’ll choke. Then one day she’s big as a boat, and it startles me to walk into the living room and find her moored on the couch. I have to keep myself from staring. I have to fasten my gaze on a clump of brown hair she holds between her teeth.
Meg spits out the hair and says nothing. She is devastated by her body. She looks like a small provincial country occupied by rebel hordes. I tell her she looks nice because I’m afraid for her.
“Oh. Well.” She doesn’t give me her official face. She smiles in a way that makes me think she hasn’t considered it first.
Then Kyle comes in—barefoot, wearing black biking gloves—and she turns official again. It’s not her Mall USA self, but a girlishness she assumes just for my son. She rolls her eyes at him when he wedges his way in between the armrest and her body. She nudges him with her elbow, managing to look—as teenage girls do—simultaneously superior and deprived.
Kyle rolls a hefty dumbbell onto her lap.“ Lift it.”
Kyle is grave. “I’ve moved upto ten pounds. Walter, you try.”
I watch Kyle drag the dumbbell off Meg’s lap. She says he’s hurting her. He calls her“wimp.” When he gets the thing in his hand, he purses his lips and squints his eyes in exaggerated exertion. They’re always acting like this, like they’ve been forced to sit next to each other in class and they don’t know whether they should fight or showoff.
I say, “Let’s see you, Son,” but he sets the dumbbell on the floor and shakes out his wrist.
“Naw. I’ve done my reps already.” He pushes up his sleeve and flexes his bicep. “You can touch it; it’s real hard.”
I don’t know if he’s talking to Meg or me. We both reach out and poke at his arm, prodding the little lump that is awakened there. For a second I feel thrown off, as if Kyle is the pregnant one, and we’re feeling him for signs. Then his fist trembles and he brushes us away.
“Oh, what a strong man!” Meg grabs at his hand as he tries to tuck it under his armpit. They wrestle for a moment on the couch, Meg reaching around the dome of her belly. Kyle is giddy and confident, and so it seems he’s worked all this out: Meg’s pregnancy, her need for him, her colossal body. He tries to shirk her off, and still she snatches at his arm, holding on till he cringes with pleasure.
• • •
For a few weeks at the end of the summer Meg stays with us every night. She takes half-hour showers after work and makes Dr Pepper popsicles in the ice tray, splintery brown cubes she sucks between her fingers. When she gets too big to share Kyle’s bed, I offer her the one in the master bedroom. I stay in Kyle’s room—in a sleeping bag on his boxspring—and Kyle gets the mattress on the floor. I’m in charge of dinner (I try casseroles now and Hamburger Helper), and Meg does the dishes because she says we leave spots. Kyle makes the shopping list. None of us take out the trash; it molders under the sink—a dense,vegetable stink—until someone drags it out into the backyard. When I lose the toothpaste cap, Meg scolds me and Kyle backs her up, so I can’t tell anymore which parts we’re supposed to play: who’s the parent, who’s the wife, who’s the child. In the evenings we gather in the living room, where we watch Nova and fall asleep. First Kyle, then Meg, then me, the TV universe bending into flexible strings and vibrating softly.
The thing about the baby is she isn’t a baby at all. We see this right away. She is serious and disapproving, watching us blunder about her with bottles of formula, with nests of wet diapers. We take to hiding things from her. When we misplace her pacifier, we give her a toothbrush instead. We try to convince her that this is what babies do, suck on the bristly ends of little sticks, but the baby won’t bite. It’s not that we don’t like the baby; it’s that she doesn’t like us.
“Agg,” she says a lot, her face a grim frown of disappointment. She turns to us when we speak, listening with all her might for something she can endorse. She looks like a disgruntled old man, her ears red, her scalp bald and splotchy. Whenever I’m alone with her, she assesses my parenting with an intractable glare.
We’re out of clean spoons, and I offer her mashed peas from a fork, but she closes her lips primly.
“Come on,” I say. “It’s how everybody eats.”
She knows better. She knows that five-month-old babies have toothless mouths unsuited for metal tines. I find a wooden baking spoon, and she licks green mush from its tip grudgingly.
She’d make us feel better if she’d cry. When Kyle was a baby he used to scream in his crib all night, banging his elbows against the wooden bars. We resented him in the usual ways, his mother and I, rolling our eyes and humoring him with songs about crowded barnyards. This baby humors us. Once I found Meg bent over the crib—the baby’s jumper in a twist around her head, the baby’s naked body doing an underwater swim through Meg’s hair. Meg was crying and the baby was not. “I’m doing my best,” Meg defended herself, and the baby said, “Hmmm.”
I suspect the baby has things to say that she’s holding back. She parcels out a word at a time, polite baby talk, but her expressions are complex sentences.
For instance, she wrinkles up her nose at me, saying, Come now, wash your hands; use warm water and pat your fingers dry so when you touch my soft baby skin you won’t alarm me.
She clenches her jaw in the parking lot, saying, No sirree. If you leave me in my stroller while you pay the parking meter, who knows where I’ll be when you get back. I may consort with criminals. I may offer myself to kidnappers and feral dogs.
• • •
She is hardest on Kyle, though he doesn’t know it yet. When he holds her, he’s fond of moving her limbs up and down like levers. He cranks her arms, bending her elbows open and closed as if testing to see if she works properly. She looks at him like he’s an idiot, like he’s a very crazy man who must be indulged with the greatest of patience. When she can’t take any more, she puffs out her baby cheeks and drools on his sleeve.
“Agg,” Kyle says, using the baby’s language. He’s proud of her words and is always looking for contexts in which he can use them. “Blah.”
Kyle’s look of distaste is in fact a look of pleasure; the baby’s is real. She reminds me of my wife with this look, and I pray that the baby will never learn to talk, never wobble onto her feet so she can walk away. She disapproves of us, but for the time being there is nothing she can do. We take pictures of her, posed helplessly in our arms, while we can.
We call her “the baby” to her face to make ourselves feel better. Does the baby want upsie-upsie? Is the baby a sleepy-head?
• • •
Once, we take her to the park so she can see everything she can’t do: climb the jungle gym like the neighborhood boys, wade barefoot into the lake with the little girls. We take her rowing in a rental boat, and I make a show of pulling at the oars.Look at this, I say, rowing fast and hard, propelling that boat across the pond until I’m wet with sweat and panting heavily. Look at this, Kyle says, standing up and waving his arms. He rocks the boat under his feet so we bob and toss through the green skim of milfoil. The baby, quiet on Meg’s lap, is unimpressed. For a few minutes she watches us in her bored and haughty way, and then she’s distracted by a goose hissing nearby. Look, look! I want to say, rowing the boat in circles around the lily pads, sinking the oars into the slick fronds so they come up laden. I want to say, You’re nothing at all, you’re 18 pounds in someone’s arms, you’re a dead weight that would sink to the bottom of the pond and drift over carp and rotting cat tails. I want to say, We’re all you’ve got, but Meg talks first, saying, “I’m hot. I’m fucking dying.”
Kyle and I stare at her. We despise her for not even trying to look good in front of the baby.
Kyle says, “We still got 20 minutes with the boat.”
I say, “We’re just getting started.”
Meg rearranges the baby on her lap, heaving her up and putting her back like she’s considering her options. “Listen!” She sounds whiney. “I’m hot. I need to get the hell out.”
Kyle blinks at her. “Get out, then.”
Meg turns on him. “We’re in a lake, what do you want me to do? I’ve got the goddamn baby.”
She seems surprised to find herself yelling, and the baby does too. They glance apprehensively at each other, like old rivals who’ve been pretending to get along for the sake of decorum. They both have their hands in fists.
When we get to shore, Meg deposits the baby in my arms so she can go buy herself an iced latte. She holds the waxed cup in one hand and a plastic straw in the other, spinning fast circles in the ice. Periodically, she tilts the cup into her mouth, the ice sticking, then sliding in a swift blow against her teeth. She lags behind on the walk back, chewing the ice and the rim of the cup and the tip of the plastic straw. By the time we’re home the cup is in shreds and she won’t go in the front door. She sits for a long time on the hood of her car, jiggling her heels against the bumper.
She bends the straw into an accordion and fits it in her mouth. I know she will leave soon and not come back.
• • •
Once when Kyle was a boy, my wife bought him a puppy. At first it was just a drooling, piddling, wiggling lump—a Rottweiller mix with crooked ears—but its development was so fierce that within a week it knew to sit for its food and wet the papers by the door. Within a month it was rolling over on demand, and it seemed that its education could go on and on, that it could learn anything we chose to teach it. It seemed the puppy became a dog so fast that it might become something else after that: a circus performer, a kindergarten student.
A human is different. A human lies there in your arms, month after month, feeble, sucking her own fingers. A human baby stays a squirming lump of flesh—uncoordinated, uncooperative—and needs you to lug her around and fill her with food and scrape excrement from her thighs. A baby stays this way so long, it seems improbable that she will be something else any time soon, impossible that she will grow long and thin, her bones knobbing out from under her skin, her legs capable of carrying her. It seems unlikely that she will ever be anything but this: passive, inert, yours.
• • •
Kyle tucks the baby under his arm and carries her around the house. He sets her up on the table when he’s writing out the bills, giving her a ball-point pen that she bangs against her knee. He props her against the bathroom mirror when he brushes his teeth. He doesn’t lug around his dumbbell anymore, not since Meg left for design school in Duluth, not since he discovered that the baby works just as well for building up his muscles. He balances her little bottom on his palm and raises her high above his head. When she wobbles up there, he makes a grab at her with his other hand and brings her gracefully into his chest.
In the kitchen, Kyle slides the baby around in a laundry basket: over the crinkly linoleum and under the table, where she drapes herself in his undershirts while he finishes his lunch. He stuffs his whole sandwich in his mouth, bulging out his eyes, peering down at her in her blue plastic cage. He puffs out his cheeks and sprinkles a few crumbs on her face, trying to impress her.
“Agg,” he murmurs through his food, doting, adoring. “Agg agg, hmmm.”
“Wow,” the baby says.
The baby has never used an English word before, and Kyle regards her with alarm. He looks at her like she’s cursed him, like she’s making fun of him, like she’s a defiant puppy that learned to talk.
He swallows hard, wiping his face. “Honey, it’s me. I’m the baby’s Daddy.”
And the baby says, all sarcasm and scorn: “Wow.”
“Walter?” He looks up at me, sitting with my Velveeta sandwich across the table.
I do my best to reassure him. “It’s just another sound she makes. She has no idea what she’s saying.”
• • •
It only happens once. We lose the baby somewhere in the house. She crawls off when we’re watching Nova, and we spend 20 minutes looking in closets and under beds. She’s just a baby: she has stout, flabby arms, and legs she drags around like an amphibian sea creature. There are no pads on her feet—just soft, pink flesh—and still she manages to get away.
Kyle loses his head, rifling through the laundry basket and tossing boxer shorts across the room. He puts his face in the baby’s Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas like he’s a dog taking in her scent. He wraps the pajamas around his neck and stalks down the hall and back, too upset to look for her effectively.
I search as methodically as I can. I pluck back the curtains and check under the couch, pressing my palms into the carpet so they come up mottled. I sink my arms into the closet coats, into the wool and fleece, all those wintery fabrics closing in on me. Hangers catch against my throat. My wife could find anything lost, a can opener in a baking dish, keys in a flowerpot. She’d know exactly where a baby would be, and she’d go there as well, to that secret place where no one else could find them. I fight past hoods and sleeves to the very back of the closet, where it is dense with obsolete clothing. Children’s snowsuits, clingy cocktail dresses.
I push out of the dark and try to be practical. I ask Kyle, “Did you check in the kitchen? In the cabinets?”
“You think she’s in a soup pot?”
“How about behind the radiator, where the dog hid his balls?”
“Fuck you, Leroy.” Kyle presses the pajamas to his face. He strides up and down the hallway in his helpless way, as if the baby’s disappearance is a storm to wait out. I go into the bathroom to escape his dread.
And there she is. In the bathtub, standing behind the half-drawn curtain with its grey mildew blossoms. She has one hand on each metal faucet, tugging thoughtfully, humming to herself. She’s pulled off her diaper, and her bare ass is the same creamy white as the porcelain.
“Oh!” For an instant, she embarrasses me. I’ve an impulse to close up the shower curtains and let her go about her business. I’ve an impulse to back away and let her undress, let her draw her bath, soak her bald body in warm water, wash the dirt from her fingernails, shampoo the down on her head, dress, call a cab, and get away. I say, “I’m sorry,” and she looks up, startled, distraught. She looks at me like my apology is not enough, my presence a disappointment beyond words.
Then Kyle swoops in and lifts her up under the armpits, so her face breaks. “C’mon!” she says, and I can see her considering her options: she thinks about kicking her legs, biting his cheek, pounding his arms. She decides to reason with him instead. “C’mon,” she suggests, pleading at first, then indignant. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.”
Kyle folds her into his arms, and though she struggles to sit up, to raise her head, he holds her on her back like she’s a newborn. “C’mon!” she says, but Kyle is trembling all over, and he will never listen to her.
Meg comes by on one of the last cold days of a very cold spring. The flag flicks in the wind, and my wife’s hyacinths bulge out of the ground like bumpy green grenades. Meg, in my doorway, has her fists in her jacket pockets, her hood blown up and flattened against her cheek. She looks for all the world like a little girl who’s come to ask my son to play.
“Mr. Dodson?” she says, and I find myself nervous to see her. I hang my body in the doorframe, two palms against the cool wood, looking down at her as best I can.
“I—” She smiles in a flash. “I just wanted to see how everything’s going.”
“She’s getting really big?”
I feel defensive. “She’s still little. You know.”
“Talking a lot?”
I sigh, closing my arms over my chest. “Some. All in her own time.”
Meg peers past me into the dark of the house. She unpeels the hood from her head, and I see a smattering of acne on her chin, red and glazed in a shiny make-up. “Can I see her?”
I hold my breath for a half-second. “Well. Of course.”
Inside I tell Meg to wait by the umbrella hook. It’s where my wife used to have the UPS man stand, or the pizza boy when he came with a warm cardboard box balanced on a palm. Meg backs into the radiator and touches a zit on her chin with the tip of her pinky finger.
I slip into the baby’s room and peer into her crib. She’s sleeping with her knees curled up against her chest, several strands of orange hair plastered to her forehead. She opens her eyes when I touch her, blinking blearily. She sits up, raises a hand to her head, and carefully brushes the hair from her face. She tugs her shirt over her exposed belly. When I pick her up, her legs swing down over my hips and bump the backs of my thighs.
Back in the entryway, I pass her over to Meg. “The baby. Here.”
“Oh!” Meg looks frightened by her. The baby hangs from her arms.
The baby says, “Agg.”
“Look at you!” Meg breathes. “You’re all grown up!”
And the baby—weary, worn out—says, “Come on.”