The crying has held through the night. They have been told to let it go on, let it run its course for a time, until the Doctor’s appointment. If they let it cry, they’ve been told, the child might stop. Might grow strong.
She looks toward the window and sees the moon, and it’s large and bright enough that it washes away the stars. On the mattress her hair piles under her head with no pillow, and she thinks of her father who never cried in front of her, and she wonders if her son is crying on his behalf. The child, Addison, is named after her father. She hears him gurgle and choke in mid-sob, and then the sobs wane and become a little softer, a little more desperate.
Her partner, Godfrey, sleeps beside her. She turns toward him, sees his drooping mouth, and wonders what is inside his head. If he were awake, he would tell her what he always tells her. The sky’s blue. A reminder to look up, because for some reason that she never asks him, up and blue are supposed to be good and have always been good. She shuts her eyes again; her world becomes as dark as outside where the sky is not blue but black, all black except for the moon.
Godfrey wears orange disposable earplugs. He offered her some last night, but she said that she couldn’t accept them, that it was better for her to hear, in case it became too violent. She is afraid of the child suffocating, maybe forgetting how to breathe.
She goes through the dark hall to Addison’s room, enters and looks down into his crib, the fountain of wailing. The baby’s hand is in his mouth. It’s not thumb sucking. He is screaming and chewing on himself at the same time, biting himself.
Godfrey bites his nails, she thinks. I bite my nails.
She reaches down and forces the child’s hand out of his mouth. The tiny fist is red and wet. A few swelling points dot the skin like a pox. She picks him up and hugs him against her chest and bounces him up and down, and he whimpers so that his breathing sounds like gas escaping from a pinched hose, a shallow and labored wheeze that there’s no way his tiny throat could produce, not of its own painful invention….
She brings the child with her to their bed and lies on her side facing Godfrey. She holds Addison. She sings a family lullaby in a whisper—the tune, at least, maybe making up the words on the spot—and it is just as much for herself.
You’ve got nowhere else to be except right here beside me.
The child quiets down and gurgles little sobs to the sound of her whisper until he falls into a shallow sleep. She doesn’t stop. Her soft singing turns to a hum. She faces Godfrey and he opens one eye, white in the dark room. Fall asleep now, and everything else will be fine. Godfrey opens his other eye.
“What time is it?” he says.
“I don’t know.” The clock is on the table that’s by her side of the bed, and she is turned away from it. He waits a second, looking at her. His smile is barely perceptible in the dark.
“Wull, can you check?” She spins over, clutching the tepidly sleeping baby, and as she reads the green numbers on the clock her voice cracks.
Godfrey rolls over and gets out of bed. He goes to the bathroom and she hears the sound of the shower water ringing like delicate drumming. A garbage truck from outside sounds its arrival with a beeping horn like an infernal herald. The baby stirs.
Once he’s showered and dressed, Godfrey kisses her on the cheek.
“What are you doing today?” she whispers.
“It’s World War II week. Today I have to teach the Holocaust.”
“All day, for seven periods.”
“What day is it?”
“Yeah.” He kisses her on the lips. It’s dry. He pulls away and she wets her lips and they kiss again. As he leaves, he tries to shut the bedroom door as quietly as he can, but the click of the metal latch makes Addison squirm against her stomach. He stirs, he moans, he starts to cry. Vana hears the garbage truck pulling away. The sky is turning to a deep and dark blue, and the moon is dimming. Onto what kind of world will the light rise from the horizon?
Can’t remember a time before it. For the first few days they tried to wait: for five minutes, for ten minutes, for fifteen, and they listened to the sound in the dark, and it only worsened.
Then they took the baby to a pediatrician. The ped checked for fever, abnormal urine, and head swelling. Not much from this first meeting—only a blur of diagnostic terms and an admonition to change the baby’s diet, hold him more, and massage him. Later they had him x-rayed. They had his spine examined, and those experts found nothing.
Their house is two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchenette. They have no garage, only a short square driveway. The bumpers rust on the cars their parents gave them a long time ago.
Godfrey sees the garbage truck far away, down the street with its row of houses built in a flurry during the mid-eighties. He knows none of his neighbors. He knows no one in the town except for Vana, the child, his students, and the other teachers and staff.
Five steps into the driveway, he already misses her.
The school stands behind the long row of a strip mall. He drives through an alley between a pizza restaurant and a sporting goods store that he’s been inside to buy Vana a winter jacket, where he remembers seeing racks of guns kept like wine bottles behind a counter. He drives over broken glass in the alley. A dog sleeps in the asphalt. As he drives past, it barks, and he thinks he can hear more of them. Barking dogs huge like wolves. The sign of the pizza restaurant is an enormous mascot slice with a few circles of cardinal salami on its face, and a unibrow painted by a blocky black chevron. It glares at him cartoonishly. Godfrey says out loud to himself, “Jesus, what did I do to you?” He rubs his eyes and turns on the radio.
The earplugs didn’t work, but now is his reprieve. This constant crying isn’t a problem that they share equally, not really. She takes care of the kid, and now while he goes to hide at school she is stuck all day….
Not that it’s your fault. You remember exactly how the first talk went. Both trying to quit smoking, sitting on an ocean ridge in Maine and passing a single cigarette back and forth as if it were a joint. The waves swept black dots of surfers in wetsuits close to the rocks of the shoreline cliff. The water looked cold as it churned white. Vana started squeezing his hand and digging in with her nails. She was nervous that one of the dots would crash against a jagged basalt tooth. She was the one who was wary.
“It seems irresponsible,” finishing the cigarette. “You know what I read today? They killed the last male Bengal tiger.”
“Jesus Christ.” He tapped a fist against his leg.
“I just don’t know how I feel about bringing someone into the world when there are no more Bengal tigers.”
At first he thought she was joking, but she went on.
“And there’s mercury in the blood of babies. Like absorbed from the air and the water.”
“Well, here’s to life.” And he took a drag on the cigarette. He laughed, and the sound reached down toward the water before it died in the foam and the mist.
“I’m serious, ‘Frey. I think it’s irresponsible. That’s not quite the right word, but it’s something like that.”
He took a moment trying to decide why he wanted a child in the first place. Ego? Was his body telling him he needed one? Was it because he loved her and wanted to make more beautiful things like her?
“He could discover an efficient method of cloning tigers,” he said after a long time.
“That’s sort of the conceit that our parents had. The next ones up will fix it.”
“We have our conceits too. Like, that things won’t get better.”
A surfer collapsed under the force of a wave and disappeared in a flurry. Vana ground her teeth. The black dot of the surfer’s head came up right in front of a rock, and she exhaled.
She leaned her head onto his shoulder and said, “I love you.”
According to their rule, she wasn’t supposed to say this. Vana and Godfrey never said I love you. They had agreed upon it from early on, made it a contract. It was Godfrey’s idea, a sort of Zen idea that he had come up with in college. He had told her that words kill everything, take something that has a life and make it an artifact. Shorthand is the death of truth.
He reminded her, “Don’t say that,” and kissed her on the temple.
They were also never married. This was sort of an extension of the earlier concept. They were determined to keep some small things stored away in a place of possibility….
As he walks toward the school building, he spits three times. On the asphalt, on the sidewalk, on a sickly green terrazzo column, flanking the door to the breezeway.
He goes into the windowless administrative offices and makes some paper copies. None of the secretaries say hello to him. The coffee hasn’t kicked in and they barely know his name. Everyone else teaching here grew up in this town and graduated from this very same institution and never left, and he is the foreigner.
He goes up to his classroom and opens the blinds. In an hour or so it will be light, and he will know if it’s going to be a cloudy day. He has a guess. He lays little slips of paper on each of the empty desks. He has written names of known Holocaust victims on them. The bell rings to start first period. As they come falling through the door, he sits with red eyes before a computer screen. Search bar. What do I do if my kid won’t stop crying? Already having done this six dozen times, he concludes again that no one online knows anything. It’s not fucking real. Then, at five minutes past the hour he realizes that his students have taken their seats, have been talking noisily amongst themselves, though he can’t hear the words in their ambient conversation as he scrolls the mouse wheel through useless articles, and he wonders if it might be a good idea to break their rule and call Vana to tell her, I love you. Maybe it won’t count if he says it with a text message.
He stands up in front of the classroom’s whiteboard. For a moment he looks out at them, a slew of strangers fidgeting and texting and picking noses and applying makeup their parents bought them, weird half-children in ignorance before the long lonely stretch of adulthood that can only be broken when they find their own people, take their sides, set themselves into the same cycle.
He rubs the corner of his eye with the back of his wrist and stands up and goes to his podium, carrying a textbook. He slams the textbook on the podium. A crash, and then all noise ceases. Too bad that doesn’t work on Addie.
He tells them to take the slips of paper from their desks. Each one has a name. He watches them read the slips. Well, he thinks, no one is crying. Why aren’t they crying? I’m a bad teacher because they’re not SAD.
Also, he still needs to learn the names of all his students.
Their house is full of stray documents. They haven’t purchased a file cabinet. They don’t own a bookshelf. And they don’t have a garage or an attic for storage. The kitchen counter is littered with random financials. Their framed college degrees rest on a coffee table.
It’s coming from their bedroom now. He’s laying like a starfish on their mattress, looking at nothing, his skin red, and she has left him there. She gets dressed with the sound still going. It’s possible to feel immense sadness while picking out a shirt. Blue, white…each one looks like it will light her on fire.
The constancy belies the idea that there can possibly be a REASON.
Once she told ‘Frey that her genes scared her. Because of Dad. Because Dad was a downer, and when Mom passed in the ’10s Dad tried to kill himself with his Army rifle. Full magazine, butt placed on the ground, barrel on the chin. Somehow, the trigger got stuck when he pressed down. And he came home from wherever he’d tried to do it, and he sat like a gargoyle on the couch until Vana asked him if he was ok, and he said, No, I’m not ok. And after a year or so he told her this story as a way of explaining that he thought God had a purpose for him, and she never believed in God again.
She drives Addison to the Doctor’s office and sits in the waiting room full of fashion magazines and stray Nat Geos with covers about coastal flooding. She pulls Addison’s hand out of his mouth and holds his sausage-like arms down. She bites a pale nail of her own and rips it off. She takes too much and her finger stings and turns bright red in the glow of spit.
The wait is excruciating. People in various states of ill health stare at her. They’re all awfully fed up with Addie’s crying. Someone coughs and she interprets it as a cough of judgment. I mean, Jesus, God—what do you want from me? You fucking people—what do you want from me?
A nurse appears at the door of the waiting room. “Vana Bell.”
She goes through the door into the medical maze, rows of computers and numbered doors. The worst moments of your life often take place in buildings that are aggressively impersonal—like church.
The baby starts gnawing on her shirt. Drool leaks through the fibers onto her skin.
It’s a small, square examination room. She sits in a stiff chair and jiggles the crying baby. The nurse in her crayon-purple uniform asks Vana questions about Addison’s short medical history and types on a keyboard.
“The Doctor will be here in a minute,” says the nurse, like she’s on TV.
While they wait Vana thinks back to her pregnancy. She remembers ‘Frey holding her hair as she vomited in their bathroom. All the tiles under her shaking knees cracked from lack of upkeep. And afterwards, “There’s no way this ends well.”
“Happens to everyone.”
“No, what if…” through long streams of crimson saliva dripping down to the bubbling toilet water, “What if, you know?”
“I really don’t. Don’t talk.”
“What if something gets fucked up?”
“Everything’s already fucked up. The whole world is fucked up with everybody in it. But the sky’s blue.”
The ceiling in the bathroom was white then, and it’s still white now. She remembers staring at the white ceiling.
“V? Come on, that was a joke. I’m sorry, I’m just talking out my ass.”
She slumped against the cupboard under the sink. She dug her fingernails into her forehead. He stood over her while she talked through chunks in her teeth.
“Every time something bad happens, I think of all the bad things that could happen.”
“That’s a good instinct for a parent. You’ll be a superstar.” And then he picked her up and carried her and set her down flat on their bed.
“Well, what if it’s just—you know?”
“Defective product?” He kissed her on the cheek and pulled her hands away from her face. He ran his fingers along her forehead and felt the crevices made by the nails.
“Lots of things could go wrong,” he says. “That’s no reason to be afraid.”
He was convinced of it always, but he never explained where this conviction came from. Perhaps it came from Nowhere. It’s part of an older, deeper thought with no genesis, the chaos before creation. For some reason, it’s better to hope than to give up—no, that’s too trite, she thinks. For some reason, it’s better if something exists than if nothing exists at all. And then there was light.
And now the child screams. Its crying fills the room so totally that it seems like it will shake the patient’s table and the chair and the sink from their places. She bounces him, coos at him, strokes his hair, and she thinks it’s working, but in truth the crying only gets more strained, more anguished, and it pierces her. She is suddenly aware that she’s starting to tear up, right as the door opens, and it’s the Doctor.
To save us, she thinks. Finally, to save us.
He is an enormous man, tall as the doorframe and as hulking as an iceberg. He seems clearly to be a former college athlete. His breathing resounds with a noise as of a train in acceleration. His expression is perturbed, like a fly has just landed on him. His skin doesn’t move on his taught, lifted face. He extends a hand, and she grasps his fingers. He goes to the sink and runs water over his huge hands. Then he sits down on a swiveling stool by the sink.
Her lips shake. She breaks down and cries along with the child. The Doctor extracts a computer tablet from his coat pocket and balances it on his knee.
“He won’t stop.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“What have you done for it?”
“Pediatrician a few times.”
“Anything else? Did you give him anything? Anything at all?”
“No! We didn’t do anything to him.”
“Is it possible that he got into something? Sometimes parents store cleaner on the shelves.”
“I don’t know how it started.” She wipes her nose and sniffs. “He doesn’t climb yet.”
The Doctor makes notes on his tablet. Then he sets it down on the counter. He asks for the baby by extending both hands. She looks down.
“Ma’am, I have to look at him.”
She puts Addison down slowly. He bawls at the ceiling and starts to bite his fist. The Doctor watches and raises his eyebrows, then forces the mouth open and extracts the fist and looks inside the mouth with a light. He places both hands on the baby’s skull and runs his hands along the dome and the temples and the face and strokes the nape of the neck checking for irregularities. He looks like some pale fortuneteller. He places a hand on the child’s chest and feels the heartbeat and checks the lungs with a stethoscope. Vana digs nails deep into her forehead.
“Alright,” says the Doctor.
“What is it?”
“Heartbeat normal. No fever. Lungs are normal.”
He washes his hands again. The child stays bawling on the patients’ bed. He looks at his tablet and his fingers bounce on the screen and his nails make a clicking noise like the feet of a giant insect on a windshield. She takes Addison from the table and holds him again.
“I’m thinking this could be a head problem,” says the Doctor.
“What does that mean?”
“I’m going to want to do some tests.”
“We’ve already done so many.”
“I’m thinking a full neurological.”
She pictures her baby hooked up to a hundred alligator clips.
“There’s an easy test. It was originally designed to identify Alzheimer’s risk. This is a better version. It tells us about inherited chemical imbalances.”
“It used to be in the old days that someone with symptoms would go into a PA, who would try to determine the appropriate medication regimen by trial and error. Pretty subjective. But with this technology we can actually look at what’s affecting the emotional center of the brain.”
Through the language of the trade she’s slowly beginning to take meaning, and her heart is rising as at the approach of some punishment.
“I’ll write a prescription for a very well-tested, very low grade tranquilizer..”
“Will it hurt him?”
“It’s very safe. It’s very common. And it would only be temporary.”
“What happens after that?”
“It’ll depend on the outcome of the scan. If it tells us he’s predisposed to something… in that case we’ll talk about long-term solutions.”
“How likely is it that he needs that?”
The Doctor shrugs. “We’ll see.”
“Is there anything else I can do?”
“You have options,” says the Doctor. He scratches his nose exactly once. “Is it just the two of you?”
“No. His dad is working today.”
“Maybe have a talk about it.”
“Talk about what?”
He writes something own on a piece of paper and gives it to her. He goes to the sink and washes his hands one more time. Then he leaves her alone with the child and the crying. She stares at the sink for ten minutes until the nurse comes in and tells her that they have to leave.
Godfrey goes through the aisles of a grocery store. He grabs a pack of cigarettes and plans to keep them a secret from Vana.
He goes to the bakery section and picks up the cake. White and sugary with a giant blue “Addison” on it. Fuck, he thinks. What’s the point? The kid can’t read.
At the front of the grocery store on a shelf behind the gumball machines and candy dispensers and the scratch tickets and temporary tattoos he sees shelves of stuffed animals. There is an almost life-sized, regally posing tiger, with an distinguished growling face that makes it look like a statue in some European capital. He takes the tiger and puts it under his arm and takes it to the checkout line. Godfrey believes that every child and every person needs something to hold onto while they sleep; ideally, it’s something bigger than you or roughly your size. He doesn’t like being the biggest person in his house.
He doesn’t have quite enough cash to pay for everything. Shouldn’t have gotten the contraband smokes. He ends up putting it on the card. The people behind him are impatient and noisy. He drops his wallet and pennies fall onto the floor and roll under the magazine rack. When he has paid and has gone out to the parking lot it begins to rain, soaking the toy’s brand new fur.
The whole weekend is cold. It’s late in the spring and the rain won’t let up. When they moved here they didn’t know how the springs are windy and wet.
Two days after the appointment they hold Addison’s birthday in the messy living room among the documents and books. Vana has cut three pieces of cake and put them on three plates, but it’s theater. She has no idea for whom they’re performing. The child won’t eat, and he’ll barely move. His head rolls like a limp mushroom plucked out of wet grass.
The crying is done now, and so is the biting. Earlier today she spooned him the crushed powder, as the Doctor suggested. It works. But it makes him look awful. His mouth hangs open and his noises are soft as seagulls out over miles of foggy sea.
Vana starts to sing Happy Birthday. Godfrey films his family with his phone, but he doesn’t sing along. When it’s over they sit and eat. The tiger sits in the corner on top of a pile of ungraded school worksheets.
Addison’s eyes roll upward into the top of his head. He drools on himself and looks like he’s on the verge of passing out. They touch his stubby hands and coo at him. Vana starts to wipe drool off his face, and Godfrey squeezes his phone in his hand and taps it against his leg.
After two slices of cake they put him in his crib and go to bed.
Almost asleep, she thinks about why they do birthdays. She supposes that it’s because birthdays have always been done. Their parents did birthdays. They have pictures of each other from when they were babies, getting their faces smeared with cake and ice cream, getting their first toys.
She turns away from Godfrey and looks out the window at the sky, sees the moon, and it has turned to a silver crescent like the smile of a neon clown.
In three days they have the Doctor’s results. There was an email to Vana, which she printed out. There have been suggestions of a range of remedies for Addison’s psychosis, all of them material.
They talk late on Monday night. Rain splashes the windows. The kid lies sedated in his crib in the other room, having drunk the ground-up pill. Godfrey sits on the floor next to the Bengal tiger with his hand on its back, scratching his stubbly jaw. He wants a cigarette. He has been smoking them in the car on the way to school, using mouthwash five times a day. Not that it matters. They haven’t kissed or even touched since the Doctor’s appointment.
She sits with her back against the wall, far from him, on the other side of the room.
“It’s my fault,” says Vana. “It’s my Dad.”
“I don’t even understand how it works. Does it skip a generation?”
“I don’t know. They said that it’s genetic. That’s all they said.”
“That can’t be right.”
“And they said that it’s chronic and pathological.”
Godfrey exhales at the harsh argot. He wants to spit at something. “That’s just Medicalese. We’ll get a different doctor.”
They sit for a long time. Vana looks at the floor between her feet and pulls her knees up and rests her elbows on them. Godfrey looks at the ceiling. The lights flicker once—he thinks it’s from the electricity in the air outside.
“Well, fuck, V,” he says.
Vana starts crying. Godfrey crosses the room and drapes an arm around her. The skin on her arm is cold. He puts his sweatshirt around her.
“I don’t think it’ll last forever.”
This issue of childcare, of medicine, of the pains that afflict the mind and always will—it all exists alongside functions, industries. The same way that therapy exists and surgery exists, likewise there exists the possibility to ward from yourself the troubles of the world with these solutions from on high, from the castle. And there’s death too. There’s also that.
“Vana. Don’t give up.”
Outside it’s raining so hard that it must be drowning everything that is even a little delicate, a little sweet, every withering white dandelion. She shakes her head and she thinks in her reams of tears that there is not an end to everything. Not everything dies. People all die, but all does not die. You have been taught since forever that you are small and insignificant and that the world is large and great—is it not possible that likewise your suffering can be larger than you are?
She imagines the crying holding through one night and a thousand others. She is moving in her mind, moving along each step of a staircase. Her breaths are labored as when she gave birth to him. She imagines him older, a tortured face and his eyes wild from years of sobbing. She pictures the upward gunshot that would have killed her father. If they don’t end this…
“I can’t. I can’t let him be like this.”
She looks at the ground between her feet. He holds her shoulders, presses his lips to her hair and speaks out of the corners of his mouth. He keeps speaking until she takes his hand.
“Vana? Do you want to get up now?”
They sit for another hour.
The sky and the rain outside are to her now the hovering consciousness of the land of the dead, watering itself—its fields and puddles and stagnant fountains—for no reason that they can say…
Some nights later the rain stops. World War II week has ended. In school they have moved on to learning about some other thing that has made the world what it is.
One night Godfrey is outside in the tiny backyard, alone and turning these things over in his mind. Vana is inside the house. Through the open window her voice carries, singing, out into the muddy yard where sparse grass grows around white dandelions and clover flowers.
He kneels in the dirt, poking a stick at a few damp logs fueling a dying fire. He is in the habit of making fires now. This one has almost gone out, and he struggles to reignite the wood from a few embers. As he pokes the center they begin to flash and spark, and the heat grows. The waves of heat are a warm embrace, and the shadows around him flicker in and out in tiny moments like memory. Every streak of shadow that flits over the wet films of his eyes—just like drops of rain that make the mud—they pass and disappear without a word. He spits into the embers and listens to them hiss and spark.