Breakfast in the sunroom. Babs on the warpath.
“It’s time,” she says. She glowers at the egg in her porcelain jigger. She is in a mood.
“Time?” I say.
“To put him down,” she says.
She punctures the egg’s fontanel with the serrated tip of a grapefruit spoon.
Beneath the breakfast table, he shivers atop my slippers.
I drink juice. Take cool stock of the situation. Eyeball, through the windows, my world.
The mistake would be to argue: His crimes, after all, are unpardonable. Ancestral linen closets invaded. Rubber gardening clogs persecuted. Heirloom Persians eroded by toxic showers of urine.
Last night at dinner, however, the thin skin of a town councillor was breached. Blood drawn. Our physician neighbor summoned. Babs mortified.
A line crossed.
(It did not help that this physician neighbor, while attending to our hysterical dinner guest, had left his loafers undefended in the mudroom. Or that he and his wife, whose heritage rose garden had recently been uprooted in a search for some imaginary bone, behave toward us in a manner one can only describe as forced.)
On the bay I watch the little descendants, not ours, jibe their sailing dinghies around a mooring ball.
I could offer, in his defense, his relative youth, his as-yet-unfulfilled promise. But this would prove a futile parry. Babs, lacking a certain maternal instinct, at best can muster public pity for small, weak creatures whose smallness and weakness cannot, in any direct way, be traced back to us; that a nearby children’s hospital wing is named for her is a thundering irony our actual children have thrilled at, not least because, after the irony fades, the naming strikes them as entirely apt.
Instead I remark to Babs on the unique gloriousness of the day. After so much rain, I suggest, we should take a picnic somewhere.
Babs ladles yolk into her mouth with fatal concentration. Does not respond.
Beneath the table, his shivering quickens.
Babs calls for more coffee by clearing her throat, that phlegmy cathedral. A capable hired someone replaces old toast; Babs touches her hand, inquires about a sick sister. In the presence of strangers, she reverts to a neutered, geriatric queenliness—our plump, bighearted Mum with her new aortic valve.
Alone again, I remind Babs that a certain crucial putter-downer, Dr. Bisbee, is mackerel fishing.
“Maybe Dr. Bisbee could use him as bait,” quips Babs. “Maybe he could use him as a drag anchor.”
I understand what is not being said.
“To think of the money we wasted on schooling,” Babs sighs. “Best to cut our losses.”
Babs precision jams her toast. Her cobra neck de-bellows. I have agreed to nothing and yet. The threat of my insurgency, such as it ever existed, apparently has passed.
The sun crests the stone-and-mortar seawall of our home, what the happy haters in town have taken to calling Compound W (“If you can find the humor,” Babs counsels, “the joke is no longer at your expense”). My feet sweat but I do not kick him off. To him, no matter the weather, the world has always been experienced as a cold place.
“A burial at sea,” I suggest to Babs, who, like me, favors the emotional cover of a ceremony. I do not offer, because I know that she would want it: As proof, I will bring you back his heart.
In the boathouse I choose a shellback named Dunderchief (“If you can see the humor”), a dinghy built as a father-son bonding project by a father who was not me and a son who was not mine.
He stalks me around the boathouse, hews hotly to the back of my knee.
“Shall we,” I say, “pack a fishing rod?” He likes, not to eat the mackerel I catch, but to play with them on the floor of the dinghy until they perish of fun.
I wave the rod. He cowers in the shadow of a defunct generator.
I wave the rod again. He pees on the floor.
This makes me angry. Not because he still, despite the pricey advanced graduate degree he’s received in bladder control, cannot control his bladder. I am angered by his unfounded fear of me. I state it now: I have not once in his handful of spastic years on this Earth struck him. Rarely have I raised my voice, save those few times when we were in the field together, when I called his name and he failed to respond, and I grew worried that he’d been outsmarted, yet again, by a lesser creature that caught his fancy, a retarded woodchuck maybe, or a three-legged vole. Always I have protected him from Babs, who smelled the cowardice in him early.
A capable hired someone wheels Dunderchief to the boat launch. I load our gear (fishing rod, concrete block, rope). I slot my oarlocks and glide us past the dock, pretending this is any old day. He sits proudly in the stern and tries to eat the wind. I am forced to reflect on the time that he jumped out of Dunderchief, mistaking water for a surface you can walk upon and how, in my efforts to drag him back into the boat, we both nearly drowned. I am forced to reflect how, despite these blunders, his misapprehension of the most elemental things has always struck me as endearing. I am forced to reflect how it is possible that he, as Babs would contend, is all my fault.
Tiring of misapprehension, he retrieves from beneath the thwart a little American flag, a leftover from the Fourth of July parade, a synthetic rectangle of fabric stapled to a dowel. He holds the dowel in his mouth and the wind whips the fabric against his face, covering his eyes.
I pull us through the channel, rainbow-pocked with lobster buoys.
“What say we visit our island?” I say. The island is our foxhole. From its protective interior apocalyptic sunsets have been safely observed, enemy cocktail parties evaded, the ticking time bomb behavior of certain upsetting family members temporarily deactivated.
Why not give him one last taste of fun? I reason …
After all, concrete blocks do not melt, not even in the new kind of heat for which I’m, to varying direct and indirect degrees, presumably to blame. If I decree it, we have time to kill first.
I struggle against the current at the cove’s narrow mouth—it threatens to yank us out to sea—and glide us aground. He serpents past, waits panting on the beach for me to throw something. But there’s been a full-moon tide and the beach’s rock pate has been sucked bald of hurlables. I grab his abandoned chew toy, detach the flag from the dowel and drape the fabric over an oar.
I bounce the dowel in my palm, take a measure of its heft. First, a few fake tosses to inflame his desire. Then I commence what amounts to a countdown. Throw and return. Throw and return. Gradually, space and time widen. He runs further from me, he takes longer to reappear. I am forced to reflect upon the strongest memory I possess these days of my own fatherhood. He and I toss a football on our front lawn in Midland, a tetchy back-and-forth that passes for the conversation we’d both prefer not to have. Babs has tasked me to perform a dressing-down, his sixth-grade performance diagnosed as terminally shabby. I throw the ball harder and harder, edging him toward the street he’s known, since walking came to him late, never to cross. My attention wanders; I’m thinking about drilling holes in the skull of a certain adversarial oil-wildcatter who won’t buckle to my advances, and I over-muscle the ball. Into the street it goes, and him after it, his inflamed desire to catch my every toss rendering him oblivious to the speeding Cadillac.
That he was not struck and killed: a miracle. That Babs forgave me: also miraculous. So many miracles, and yet I wonder sometimes, if a certain fate—I won’t describe it as better—wasn’t thwarted.
Finally he drops the dowel at my feet and runs into the ocean to cool off. I watch with amazement as he swallows enthusiastic gulps of seawater. How many years, I do not say to him, have we been drinking seawater unsuccessfully? But if he has failed to learn, so have I; I do not move quickly enough when he returns whiningly to my side, vomiting a hot, briny gush onto my Top-Siders.
We stand there, the vomiter and the vomitee. It is no pure accident that Babs slips on occasion, calls him by my name. Such as the time we were waiting on the yacht-club dock with a foreign dignitary from a country that once considered me a friend, but now, as communicated by his wife’s crisp formality, viewed me as an accomplice to certain actions with which I had nothing to do. Ever the enthusiast for two-faced strangers, he hurled himself at the foreign dignitary’s kneecaps, knocking him into the harbor.
George, Babs yelled at him.
Or the time he very publicly peed on the already-filthy espadrille of an overweight woman in the Fourth of July parade, who marched with a sign that read, “Impeach that Son of a Bush.”
George, Babs yelled at him.
Unlike the foreign dignitary, the overweight woman with the peed-on espadrille laughed. Babs, always resourceful in a tight social spot, laughed too, and touched the woman on the elbow. If you can find the humor. But I knew Babs didn’t find the humor, not remotely did she find it.
The wind has died, the water a smooth pudding except where the current dimples the surface in the near distance. I think: The most expedient way to solve an unsolvable problem is to force a resolution. In my retirement, I have not forgotten my sleights of moral faultlessness.
“Fetch,” I command, and throw the dowel into the cove. He swims like he runs; head akimbo, tongue awag, a creature undone by normal motion. Each time I throw the dowel a little closer to the current. The trick, I think, chalkboarding the challenge as a way to sever all ethical ties to it, is to land the dowel near, but not in, the current. Finally the dowel splashes alongside the current’s shirred fringe. He snatches the dowel just as the current snatches him.
He does not struggle because he does not know to struggle. For him this is the best kind of fun, the fun in which you inadvertently kill or are, yourself, killed. The last I see of him, he is dutifully swimming toward me, unaware that he is being pulled out to sea.
I sit on the beach and throw broken shells into the water, sinkable objects, nothing worth retrieving. I allow myself to resent Babs her callous request, while also understanding that she was merely, as is her lot, obeying my unspoken order. She is my hired capable someone. It is not a lesser manner of being loved.
Julavits’s novel The Uses of Enchantment was published in 2006. She is co-editor of The Believer.