“I’m telling you straight out, Dad. I’m coming home because me and Bobby are having a baby. I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s what I want and it’s what’ll make me happy.” Debbie’s thrusting voice pushed through the fiber optics, copper telephone wires, and magnetic spheres of the phone receiver he held.
“What are you going to do? How are you going to college with a baby?” Zachary’s mind did not function well when he was overwhelmed with surprise. He had just stepped into the house after riding an hour on a commuter train. He got little sleep on the train and now he stood with his coat half off and his briefcase laying part way between him and the door.
“I think it’s best I came home until Bobby graduates next May. But, aren’t you excited?” Debbie’s voice ascends spurned on by youthful energy. “This is so new for me and Bobby. I’m excited. I can’t believe it’s really happening. Don’t you think it’s exciting?”
“I thought you were taking summer courses so you could finish school early and hike the Appalachian trail next year.” Zachary envisioned his daughter’s dreams in diapers. He wondered if he had a son whether he would have been so quick to make life altering decisions.
“There will be time for that later. I can’t very well be trouncing around in the mountains with an infant. Besides, Bobby and I are married, remember?” Debbie sounded irritated.
“I remember.” They called him at three in the morning the day they got married. He thought his daughter was drunk, but she was only high on her endless roller coaster life. “When are you coming home?”
“Day after tomorrow. I’ve cleaned out my course schedule and refunded my books. I know this wasn’t planned, but I’ll go back to college one day, I promise.”
How will you ever go back with a baby, Zachary thinks. He realized his hand hurt from clenching the phone receiver too tightly. With his other hand, Zachary rubbed the graying hairs on his chest with an open palm. He thought about the breast cancer that consumed his wife two years ago. Nowadays, he faced too many challenges alone.
“I’ll have your room fixed up and cleaned. I’ve kept that set of dolls you got when you were ten.”
“I didn’t know you still had them. They could be worth money.”
“Don’t worry about money. We’ll do fine.”
“Bobby will get a job right after he graduates. He already has some serious prospects. Then I’ll go back to school and one day we can all hike the Appalachian trail.”
I’m already too old, Zachary believes. After their voices end the conversation, he found himself preparing for his daughter’s return home. First, he unlocked the door to a room with furniture and a bed unchanged since the two women in his life left.
Eight days later she drove up in a twelve year old Ford compact with the nameplate missing and the type forgotten. She has had her previous long brown hair trimmed razor like up the sides and back of her head leaving bristled stubs. Longer remnants were softly curled on top to fall gracefully across her forehead. Zachary’s saw a woman wearing a loose pink blouse that hung over her unbuttoned jeans. He had pulled up behind her after driving the short distance from the train station.
“I didn’t realize you were so far along,” Zachary said while pulling colorful bright satchels and brown paper bags from the trunk. He maneuvered his thin frame away from a broken tail light to avoid the sharp edges. His legs felt like he was standing on a moving train car as it thumped along the railroad tracks.
“It’s hard to think I’m only three months and showing. Was Mom this big with me?”
“I don’t remember.” Pregnancies were alien to him and remembering his wife was getting more distant. He brushed his fingers through thinning hair and heard the hoot-hoot of a train whistle in the distance as it pulled away from a station.
The next day Debbie transitioned to a new lifestyle as Zachary left for work. He rode his usual train car and sat in one of his three normal vinyl seats on his way to work. The base board heater at his feet pillowed waves of heat up his body until the hot air blew away each time the train stopped and exit doors opened. Soon the heat would not be needed to chase away chilled air.
Zachary worked in an office with mismanagement, turmoil, and gossip that he avoided as best he could. He left his work place without accomplishing any constructive achievements or completing any useful purpose. On his train ride home, he placed the imprint of his body into his favorite front row seat with plenty of leg room to stretch out and no back of the seat in front to stop him. Yet, by the time he drifted off to sleep, the train slowed toward his stop. As he drove home, Zachary wondered what his daughter did that day.
“I sold my car. Bobby and I can use the money to help you out some. I don’t want to be freeloading,” Debbie was enthusiastic while spooning up dinner as soon as Zachary walked in the doorway. He used to wait awhile and adjust to an empty home before eating.
“You didn’t have to sell your car. I’ve got enough money. And, daughters don’t freeload on fathers. Besides, you’ll need something to drive after the baby is born.”
“Bobby still has his car at school and I don’t need a car while I’m home. Anyway, I didn’t get much money, but that doesn’t matter. It’s progress. Now, eat dinner.”
Looking down at the swirls of reddened pasta, Zachary thought things were fleeing pass him in a rush. His daughter adjusted too quickly, he thought. “I guess we need to get the upstairs ready for the baby,” Zachary said.
“But, that’s what I’ve been doing all day. I called some of my friends and they’re rounding up a lot of baby things. Some of them have kids already, you know. I’ll probably need to borrow the car on Saturday because Sarah wants me at her house. I think they’re giving me a baby shower.”
On TV that evening they watched a program on sterilization. During the vasectomy each vas deferens was snipped unceremoniously by a faceless, masked doctor. Later, during a tubal, a woman’s fallopian tubes were clamped in dry, medical fashion. Another show had a construction site where two people contracted out to build a house to enclose their soon-to-be family. The woman’s pink blouse hung over her protruding stomach as she explained the complicated tile pattern that would be on her kitchen floor. Zachary thought he could be dizzy in the morning if he looked for coffee and saw swirling lines at his feet.
The days sped quickly down arrows of time. Zachary left home each day always surprised by Debbie’s changes. When he came back home after bouncing around on a commuter train, Zachary walked through the door way at night and found the furniture rearranged, fabric draped over the windows in some fashion, or the kitchen dishes put where they were not normally kept. At least the train schedule stayed reliable and the same.
Zachary did not understand anyone enough to talk to them on his train ride, yet at least they were there in case he did. Instead of conversations, his head worried about what he would be doing a year after the baby was born. He wondered if, when the baby became an adult, would the person ride the same commuter train he did and sit in his same seat when he was gone. On Halloween, Zachary found himself sitting with Bobby’s parents in a hospital lounge waiting for announcement of the birth.
Bobby was with Debbie somewhere amid the branching corridors that meandered like tree limbs through the monolith hospital. While waiting, Zachary read a family magazine about a male child born in a truck on the way to the hospital. A stretch of interstate would represent the child’s origin into this world.
Looking outside, Zachary watched the moon hold back the darkness by illuminating everything. The moonlight let him watch a falling leaf touch the window’s glass on its downward, haphazard course from the branch to the ground. Zachary wondered about the uncontrolled life courses he was carried on and how the child born on the interstate and a falling leaf can lose their origin so easily. He wondered what course he was on.
“It’s going to be a well provided child,” spoke Bobby’s father. He was tall, muscular, and a few years younger with broad shoulders and a square jaw. In this man, paternal instincts were in motion. Zachary wondered which grandfather the child would favor.
Bobby’s mother sat quietly crocheting a wool afghan for the baby. The colors were too subtle and pastel for Zachary to understand. Having her around was uncomfortable for him and Zachary wished he was nowhere.
When the baby girl, Alysson, was announced Zachary lost himself in the expected excitement. In the next few days future roles were assigned to the new and old parents. Responsibilities were paired and traditional foundations laid.
Throughout these days Zachary saw the new parent’s growing realization and fear. He heard the run-or-stay decision in their discussions even as they realized there was only one decision. Meanwhile, Bobby’s parents looked at immortality and continuity to their species and blood line. Their decisions had been made.
On a sunny day a week and a half after the birth, Zachary listened for a baby’s cry as he looked outside a smudged window pane of the house. Debbie was saying goodbye to Bobby. Bobby’s parents had left two days ago and now their son was leaving responsibility behind, also.
Each day for over three weeks, Zachary saw Debbie struggled with the new born as if it was an alien just landed from another planet. Finally, one morning at 3 a.m., she entered his bedroom.
“Can you get up with Alysson? You don’t have work tomorrow and you can sleep as long as you like in the morning.” Debbie pleaded while standing in the doorway cradling Alysson in tired arms. “I’ve been up with her twice already tonight. I don’t know how Mom did it. All Alysson wants is her bottle.”
Struggling to reach an awakened state, Zachary sat up in bed as the baby was placed in his arms. As Debbie left responsibility with Zachary, he woke to the warm bottle in his hand and Alysson suckling down the pale white liquid. After she finished, he laid the child across his shoulder and tuned into a Washington Dulles airport frequency on the multi-band radio he had since childhood.
Zachary listened to the pilots and control tower banter back and forth maintaining control of the airways. He thought of who the people were on those planes, where they were going, where they had been, and if they ever thought someone else listened to them at three in the morning. Zachary looked out his bedroom window and watched the constellation Orion rise in the sky. The baby burped. He liked to think that sometimes before the confusion of the day begins there was order, routine, and predictability.
Winter arrived by creeping into the weather patterns and forecasts on TV and radio. Cold weather doldrums enveloped Zachary’s consciousness and he believed his internal clock was slowing down too soon.
“Bobby may go to graduate school here in town,” Debbie told her father unexpectedly as he walked in late from work one night. His dependable commuter train had been held up by a fast moving Amtrak followed by a freight train. For Debbie, it had been another day of feeding, bowel eruptions, and cleaning. Christmas decorations littered the living room floor to await organization around relocated furniture. “We’ll pay rent to live in the basement. And, don’t worry. There’ll come a time when we’re all out of your way.”
“You’re not in my way and you and your family can stay as long as you need to.” Zachary said while thinking about guilt.
“Bobby will be home for Christmas break after finals next week. Can you watch Alysson sometime so we can go off by ourselves?”
“Sure. Do you think you and Bobby will live here in town after graduate school?”
“Probably not. We want to move somewhere different. Don’t you think the couch can be put up against that wall and can’t that chair go in the storage shed outside?” Debbie said as she cradled Alysson on her protruding hip. Zachary maneuvered around the dull and frayed ornaments and worn furniture.
“You’re mother upholstered that chair and I don’t want it outside where it can get moldy.” Zachary said decidedly. “I’ll put it upstairs in my bedroom.”
“Mom did a lot of things around here, but she’s gone and I’ve got a family to be concerned with now.”
“You’re too much like your mother, throwing away the past because it’s not needed anymore.”
“Here, take Alysson. I can move the couch.”
“Do you have to be so independent about everything?”
“I want this Christmas stuff up. I’ve been fooling around with it all day and I don’t like being around so much memorabilia. Bobby, Alysson, and I will build our own memories one day.”
“I hoped you would want some of these things for yourself.”
Debbie thrust the couch upward a few inches before dropping it with a thud two steps away. “Yes, I’ll take things if that’s what you want. There, the couch can stay here. I can’t move it any further. Now, let’s go buy the tree before supper and get this over with. Why don’t you just get an artificial tree when they go on sale after the holidays? That’s what I’m going to do.”
Zachary hated plastic trees. He remembered his mother having a silver, artificial tree when he was growing up while other families living in warmer houses had real ones.
During the Christmas holidays, Debbie spent time with Bobby to soothe her fears about separation. Zachary and Alysson became use to getting up at three in the morning and seeing what the world looked like at that time. Each morning, Zachary comforted his granddaughter during the coldest time of this twenty four hour circle people lived in.
They listened to the conversations of pilots and controllers try to maneuver planes through heavy traffic. While listening, Zachary told Alysson about his train rides and how some of the people were getting fatter every day while others were getting thinner. Then again, some like himself just stayed the same.
After the hectic holiday commotion, Zachary pulled an already awake Alysson from her crib. The hurry of the holidays had gone and Bobby had returned to finish his last semester.
Alysson was not drinking her bottle and Zachary realized something was wrong. Unable to soothe the whimpering child who began to squirm uncomfortably, he carried her to Debbie’s bedside. “I think she has a fever,” Zachary said.
Debbie was quickly alert and she checked Alysson’s forehead with the back of her hand, then her wrist. “I can’t feel anything. There was too much excitement for her over the holidays. I hate it that people were going in and out. I still can’t feel where she’s warm. Are you sure?”
“Here,” Zachary said bending down. He places his cheek to the infant’s cheek. “You can tell like that.”
Debbie immediately complied. “Yes, she is warm. Oh, my god. What’ll we do?” Debbie stood up holding her baby close to her breasts. Her stance was the posture of action waiting for direction.
“Let’s give her something cool to drink and call the doctor.”
Debbie was already on the move toward the living room. Her long night dress flowed after her releasing a ghost like image as she passed through the shadowed rooms. She focused on reaching a phone in the living room. Zachary followed behind, taller than his daughter.
“I’ll talk to the doctor. She’s my baby. I don’t know how I could have let this happen. What’s the number? Never mind, it’s in memory. What number did you make it?”
“One. You didn’t do anything to make her sick.”
“Shhh! It’s ringing.”
Debbie spoke hurriedly into the phone as she rocked Alysson in her arms. Zachary went to find the thermometer in the bathroom cabinet.
“All, right,” Debbie commanded while marching back to her bedroom. “I think I know what to do.” Zachary followed behind with a drink and the thermometer.
They complied with the doctor’s wishes, then sat silently and tensely in Alysson’s room waiting for results that Alysson would not give immediately. The darkness and the situation held a silence between them. Slowly, Alysson’s whimpers became rhythmic breathing. Eventually, the sun’s orange glow peered through the pane glass windows and thin curtains to thrust away the night’s darkness. Alysson slept peacefully in Debbie’s lap absent of any flush look. In the child’s quiet room, the crisis seemed over.
“Mom died so young. I don’t want Alysson to lose me. I want to be there when she has children. Suppose I die and Alysson forgets who I am? What if I’m not there to help her take care of her sick child like this? Where is Bobby when I need him?” The remnants of her long hair went unstyled and drooped haphazardly across her head to touch the bristled ends on the sides.
A flash of high school memory brought the face of a boy to Zachary’s mind who was Zachary’s protector from childhood challenges. He saw the face brighten once into a smile, then he read the name on the Vietnam Memorial. He thought his brother would be there for him, but life bent in a different direction.
“There are too many turns of life to think about them all. You haven’t forgotten your mother, I won’t forget you and Alysson won’t forget us. That’s immortality.”
“I don’t know if I can handle all this. I mean, there’s too much to worry about. Suppose I forget something or do the wrong thing or just not know what to do?”
“Your mother wouldn’t like you talking like that. Remember when she got you those mirror sunglasses and you thought you looked great?”
“Yeah, people couldn’t see where I was looking and Mom didn’t like that. I think she regretted buying them.”
“I always told you where you were looking and you got angry and finally wouldn’t wear them. But, it was your mother who told me where you looked.”
“I never knew that. So, you two teamed up on me. But, both of you were always a team. I want to be a team. I want to be a family and there’s so much I don’t know. I’m glad Alysson is better. Thanks for your help.”
“You’ll learn what to do.”
“I want to fix up the basement for Bobby and I to live in after he graduates. You’ll have to help me.”
“We can carpet the garage and put in heat. It’ll give you more room.” A more permanent place, Zachary thought.
The day Bobby came home after graduation, he and Zachary worked on halving the home. The basement evolved and Zachary welcomed the change because it meant completion and acceptance of his daughter’s new identity.
“The toilet has hung up again,” Debbie shouted from upstairs.
“I replaced all the inside guts, but it still hangs up,” Zachary told Bobby.
“The toilet is old,” the Bobby said.
“That has nothing to do with the inside.”
“If the outside is old, then any new parts inside will never work right. You can’t put something new on the inside with the outside still old.”
Bobby embarrassed Zachary sometimes.
The next day, Debbie had a party for Bobby’s graduation. Almost everyone were friends from their college days. The abounding youthful energy belied the tremor in each one that reality would soon mean looking for a job. Zachary watched this generation feed off each other searching for comfort and support. Too soon, changes in their lives would consume their energy.
On the fringes of this youthfulness, Debbie contentedly held Alysson in her lap while talking to her friends about responsibility. Bobby’s dark blue graduation cap sat in her lap, too. Zachary watched his granddaughter try to put Bobby’s tassel in her mouth. The scenery made Zachary move outside to the porch to get away from young strangers populating his house.
The fresh air filled his face like an oxygen mask filled an asthmatic lung. Zachary opened his eyes wide letting the air bringing tears to his sight. He turned to look through a pane glass window and saw Debbie washing her baby’s bottle at the kitchen sink. The image was fractured by wooden strips which sectioned off the glass. In the right corner of the view, a vase of flowers sprouted blue, thin stems of plant life that reached upward.
Published September 15, 1997, by Short Stories Bi-Monthly and on December 1999, by Breakfast All Day