The baby is by itself on a blanket. Expanse of grass, expanse of gray sky. The man flinches, and the flinch becomes a little shiver, a shiver of disgust almost. He stops walking. Baby on a blanket in a tiny park.
The man had been picking his exhausted, miserable way back to the car from the hospital, but now this: the baby turns its head. On the blanket are a few toys.
The man looks behind him on the sidewalk, across the street, but sees no other pedestrians. Cars thrum by along the avenue toward the hospital entrance and the highway on the other side. Gray day, breezy, clouds thickening. The man’s name is William Harper, although everyone calls him Billy; he is a white man with dark eyes and thinning hair; and six days ago he was told that he has stage four prostate cancer, metastasized to liver and bone. Each step, he moves around himself, around that tender central part of himself where legs and torso join. He oscillates between weepiness and hot, ludicrous rage. He can’t find a comfortable angle at which to hold his arms.
The baby makes a sound, a sort of coughing sound, a little hack, and it gives a tentative cry, orienting its body toward Billy, face mashing up, the pacifier dropping from its mouth to the blanket. Billy turns one full circle, looking in all directions, but sees only the cars on their oblivious way. When his daughters were babies, he would chew at their cheeks, fake-snarling, gum at them, and the girls would squeal in delight. His daughters: Jennifer, Rose.
The baby stiffens its little body, throws its head back, punches both arms and shouts once, mouth open. The mouth seems too large for the head somehow, out of proportion. For a moment, Billy sees the baby’s tongue, and then the baby takes a breath, shouts again, pitch rising, the face reddening, and Billy hesitates, unsure—a long moment—before he steps onto the grass toward the baby, of course he does, what’s he going to do, keep walking? Go to the car? A volunteer from the Cancer Society had called to offer him a ride, and he’d never called her back. He feels dizzy, nauseous. This morning the oncologist had said something about “quality of life.” Once they start talking about quality of life, Billy had thought, reeling, gripping his hands together in his lap, trying not to scream or to sob, well, that sure tells you a lot. He didn’t really hear anything else the oncologist said.
The baby’s cries are like a bandsaw.
When Jennifer, when Rose, kicked and wailed. When they wanted. When they hurt, when they raged. All those years of getting out of bed at their call, swinging his feet to the floor and standing before he was even fully awake, of working weekends to pay for the nanny and the piano lessons and the braces and the vacations in Hawaii. Since he left their mom, they’ve changed with him, his daughters, closed ranks. The women of his family, shoulder to shoulder. Women now.
With a rush of shame, he kneels painfully down at the edge of the blanket, makes a hello-sound, tries to smile. The blanket alternates dark- and light-green stripes. The baby’s shriek lasts impossibly long, then a gasp for air, then again: poor terrible little animal. It’s wearing a brown onesie with a giraffe on it. Hard to tell if it’s a boy or a girl, even this close. Round red face, wisps of hair, mouth all the way open. No teeth.
“Hey hey hey,” he says, wiggling his fingers, reaching for the child.
“Hey hey hey,” patting the soft side of the body. The baby writhes on its back, screaming.
On the blanket there’s a stuffed snail and a plastic contraption: a ball within a framework of plastic, honeycombing parts. He’s seen them before. When you pick it up, it rattles. He picks it up with his nonpatting hand, and it rattles.
“Hey hey hey,” rattling. The baby cries out, stops for a huge gulp of air, shouts again. There are so many kinds of cries—he remembers now. He feels tears in a sudden rush behind his eyes and curses, shudders, grunts the tears away. He has yet to tell his family of his diagnosis, to tell anyone at all. The facts don’t fit anywhere into the shape of his life. There’s no room for them, no angle at which they can enter. How can a person talk about something like that? There isn’t a way.
“Hey, hey, hey.”
This baby has eyelashes, dozens of them in a row. This baby has giant brown eyes, tears on the sides of its red cheeks. It cries out at the situation in which it finds itself, alone on a blanket in a park. Its cries heave up, using the entire little body. Its arms and legs kick out in fury. Billy is trying to remember the songs. There was one about a bus. He is still fighting his own tears, his helpless, overwhelming guilt. “The itsy bitsy spider,” he croaks, but the key’s wrong, coughs, starts again. “The itsy bitsy spider.” There were hand gestures, too, weren’t there, that went with it? He keeps rattling the ball. “Went up the water spout.” The baby thrashes, howls.
And his pride in them. Oh God, the pride. It was uncontainable. At their sassiness, their opinions. The way they crawled, walked, strutted, these daughters, Jennifer nine years old shooting baskets in the driveway, shouting “boom” at each swish. When he left, he left in an eruption. “Your mom and I used to like each other,” he told Rose, trying to explain. Hearing the bitterness in his own words, hearing his own cynicism. How could he possibly explain? “But now we just don’t.” Which was true.
“And down came the rain and washed the spider out.”
A long breath now, a whimper, a new sound. The song retains its magical powers, even after all these years; he animates his face, widens his eyes, minces the words, “up came the sun and dried out all the rain.” Is it dried out or dried up? Rose’s bicycle, Rose’s braces, Rosie slamming the door. He left, he left, he left for someone else; her name was Amanda, for the way he felt alive with her, embodied, and she turned around and left him less than three months later and the symmetrical devastating irony of it lodged in his groin and turned right into cancer, and now it’s going to kill him. He should have never gone near his body, the alive and roaring feeling of his middle-aged body. His body wants to murder him. His body wants to burn him up, disappear him. He feels dizzy. His mouth tastes sour.
“And the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.”
The baby continues to whimper, but it’s interested, changing registers. “It went up the spout,” Billy hears himself cry out again—the repeated ending he always added with his own kids. “What did it want up there?” The baby makes a sound that’s more like a coo, a little gasp-coo, and the man reaches a hand to touch the side of the baby’s face. It’s warm, firm, flushed. He puts down the rattly toy and picks up the pacifier, presents it solemnly to the baby, who grasps it in its own little hand, then brings it to its mouth in a rush and begins to slurp.
“Yeah,” he says.
“That’s right,” he says. He feels now an incredible tenderness, looking at this baby, and the tenderness reminds him of the unacceptability of this situation—of a baby left by itself on a blanket in a park—and he rises to his knees to look around. He is indignant on this baby’s behalf. Who leaves a baby out in the world? Even if it’s just to pee or something, who? There is no bathroom, though, no public bathroom in sight: maybe in one of the buildings of the hospital? He has a sudden image of himself confronting a parent, some dopey young mother in baggy clothes and a vague, hippy manner. He imagines himself poking a finger in her face.
The baby takes the pacifier out of its mouth and waves it around in the air. After a snort, it begins again to cry.
Billy scoops the baby up, stands with a long grunt: a heaving awkward squat his body remembers, how one of the girls would drop a pacifier while he walked her back and forth and he’d have to crouch down to pick it up without tipping her out of her precise balance in the crook of his arm. The baby is still sobbing. He moves the head into the curve of his neck, encourages a pillowing, a safety. “The itsy bitsy spider,” he starts again. The hot little body kicks against his, and he hears the song he’s singing, really hears it: that spider didn’t quit. Washed down, climbed up, forever. A hot rush in his throat. That spider didn’t let them get away with it.
The cries modulate one more time, shift a key. He’d forgotten how complicated the sounds were, and how loud, the long songs of crashing emotion, their ups and downs, the operatic, overwhelming noise. The kid’s right in his ear. The pacifier is back on the ground again somehow, and again he squats, tips over just a hair before he rebalances and stands. He’s lost his place, starts over. “The itsy bitsy spider.” He smells shit in the diaper and again looks around. No one. “Went up the water spout.” He could change the diaper, he thinks, and suddenly he wants to: wants to know if this is a boy or a girl; it matters, matters a lot, it’s knowledge he needs, knowledge that changes the whole situation one way or another. Jennifer, Rose, his daughters.
The woman Amanda, the one that he left them all for, she was hilarious and reckless and drove too fast. She was fifteen years younger than him and she dyed her hair jet-black, and the whole thing was over in a matter of months. There’s a rage in him he can barely contain. “You’re creeping me out,” she’d told him, exasperated one night when he wouldn’t leave her apartment in his shame and fury and lust, and he hadn’t had a thing to say, not a word, staring at her, stunned, sweating.
He sways his body back and forth, eyeing the bag on the ground. With his foot, he tries to open it, look inside. If there are diapers in there, he thinks. He’s humming now, tunelessly, a little out of breath, the song left behind, and his humming and the baby’s shrieks are harmonizing, finding their relationship. The baby gives a little gasp, carries on. There are diapers in the bag, he can see them, and a plastic container of wipes. Again he looks around the empty park.
He is in an altered state. He has that realization. He recognizes that fact. The cancer, the queasy sky, his life in shambles, this stranger’s child weeping in his arms.
He lays the baby down, gently, pillowing the head. The baby kicks its legs, squirms, the cries ramping up again. It bucks up against his hand, and he pushes harder, holding the baby down with his right hand while his left fumbles in the bag for a diaper and a bag of wipes. He is alive and this baby is alive, wrestling against him on this blanket, and he is going to change this baby so that it is clean and warm. He is going to identify if this is a son or a daughter and that fact will alter the meaning of this experience in some profound way. He wonders what gender he’s hoping for, and he really can’t tell. The baby flings the pacifier away. Billy starts to sob.
Through his tears he scoops up the pacifier, holds it out again to the baby, who grabs for it and pulls it desperately to its mouth. Sucking, its eyes soften and it takes a deep breath. “That’s right,” Billy says. He is on his knees. He pats the baby’s side. He pulls the little socks off, slides the pants down. Those feet are pudgy and small. They are the feet of a living baby, of a person with a future. Billy’s tears stop as abruptly as they began.
The diaper has tabs that pull open. He pulls the tabs open. The baby eyes him in an interested fashion around the pacifier. Billy Harper opens the diaper and gently, gently cleans the shit off the little boy’s penis and thighs, folding each wipe and tossing it aside, lifting the boy’s ankles to wipe the buttocks, cleaning under and around the scrotum with great care.
The boy is in his lap, diaper changed, onesie back on. They are sitting together on a blanket in the park. The boy has the pacifier in a tight fist. I haven’t had a good life, Billy thinks, I haven’t been happy, and almost instantly he changes his mind. That’s not right, that’s not right at all. Even if it had been a better life, a good life, a perfect life: it still wouldn’t have been enough, it wouldn’t have been enough. No life is enough. And it was a good life anyway, wasn’t it, in its own way? Good and bad aren’t the relevant categories. Not enough isn’t a relevant category. What are the relevant categories? He can’t find them anywhere. The baby murmurs and moves.
When Billy was a young man, his first year in college, he remembers a pool table on a lower level in his dormitory, and a heavyset older guy who used to shoot the balls slowly, glacially—they’d roll and kiss against each other and drop precisely into the pockets—and he thought that was so cool, so beautiful, the skill of it, and the confidence. The guy shot once, chalked his cue, and moved slowly, formally, around the table to shoot again. It was gorgeous.
Earlier in the week, he had gone to have coffee with Rose in her new apartment, and she’d been stiff with him and wounded and closed-off, and he hadn’t known how to even begin to share his news. “Classes are good?” he had asked, and she had talked about econ and about her poetry workshop, and he had let her talk, let her talk, nodding.
“So I went to the doctor,” he could have said. Outside her third-floor window, a squirrel ran on a bare branch, paused, continued. Rose’s fingernails were painted dark blue. She picked her phone up from the table, turned it over in her hands, placed it back down. The words were there in his throat, thick, viscous.
“I remember the day you were born,” he could have said. Just blurted it out. He was so exhausted. He was so brittle and exhausted and overwhelmed, sitting with his beautiful hurt daughter, the whole universe tilting and veering. “I remember your entire life,” he could have said.
The squirrel darted down the trunk and disappeared.
“Sweetheart,” he could have begun, and then just said whatever came out next. But he hadn’t. He’d known his voice would break, could feel it in his throat, right there.
Rose had affected surprise when she looked at her phone for the time. “God, Dad,” she’d said.
“Oh,” he said, and swallowed. “Sure.”
She wasn’t looking at him. “You know,” she said.
“Sure,” he said again.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, standing.
There were other songs, too, Billy thinks now, weren’t there? He can’t remember any of them. The baby’s skin is so soft. The baby’s eyes are alert. Billy looks hard at the baby’s face, and as he looks the face seems to shift in some fashion, to reconstitute itself within his gaze, and Billy has the feeling that he is looking at the face of an old man, a tiny old man, no teeth. It’s a funny feeling, a reversal. Billy is older than this baby, but this old man is older than Billy, and Billy wonders if there’s an old man inside his face that is even older than the old man staring at him from inside the baby, and he almost sees, or almost feels, the succession of old men in each of them. His father is there, and his grandfather, and the father and grandfather of the baby.
“Hi,” he says, to the old men in the baby, and the baby murmurs something that he takes to be the old men in the baby returning the greeting to the old men in him, the long line.
The old men in him look at the old men in this baby, and at the very young man the baby is. Not just any old men, Billy reminds himself suddenly: old men with cancer, and the succession of old men that are Billy Harper, of men of all ages that are Billy Harper, look from within their cancerous bodies at the cancer-free body of the baby and the cancer-free men of different ages in the baby, but that isn’t right either. It’s just cancer of different ages. The baby is an early version of something like Billy Harper, just as Billy Harper is an older version of something like this baby—so the cancer in him is just a later version of the cancer-pattern in this baby, the latent cancer, the cancer not yet developed. The series of men in him greet the series of men in the baby, and the cancers in him, the succession of various cancers in him, greet the cancers in the baby.
Cancer is just a pattern, too, isn’t it? A particular organization of cells. From within his body, to the older cancers of the older men within his body, does the cancer swelling in him feel like a baby? A baby cancer.
A mother and father cancer and a baby cancer. They go for a walk. Or two baby cancers, maybe, two baby girl cancers. God, Dad, one of the daughter cancers says, looking at her phone, I’m so sorry, and the father nods, swallows. The mother and father, their life together—it’s just patterns, he thinks.
Something in him thinks, it’s just patterns, and all the different men of different ages, and the women, too, the women of different ages, his daughters there, and his mother and grandmother, his aunts and unknown great-aunts and all the different cancers that each of them carries inside, or might carry inside, past and present and future twining around each other, all of them think it, too, simultaneously, it’s just patterns. The baby moves in his arms.
The cancer family. They made a life. They came together and they came apart, and that’s all cancer itself is, when you get down to it, cells coming together and coming apart. Like pool balls, billiard balls, slowly clicking against each other and rolling apart. A guy from college chalked his cue with an easy gesture and moved around the table, and a dozen other guys of other ages within that guy moved with him, and a hundred cancers moved along as well, chalking their cues.
The father and the mother. They met at a dance. They were introduced by friends. The mother had long, straight hair; she wore a flowered dress. Her name was Emily. She carried a succession of young and old women inside of her, all wearing that flowered dress. The band played “Bridge over Troubled Water.” It must have been thousands of flowered dresses.
Thousands of men of different ages and thousands of cancers inside of them stand and move across thousands of dance floors to thousands of women and cancers, and they dance, all of them, the whole crowd. The scale of everything is different now. Even this baby. Even this baby is dancing, the cells inside him moving in patterns that organize themselves into older babies, into toddlers and young men and adults and old men, or into cancers and more cancers. This baby dances by moving its hands, making a noise that sounds like “oh.” “Oh,” this baby says.
This baby has the face of Billy Harper’s mother and father and of Billy Harper’s grandparents. It’s clear as day. It’s hard to believe he hadn’t seen it before, this baby with his ancestors’ faces within its face, the cancer baby there wearing the faces of the cancer ancestors, all the way back. Cancer with the ancestors’ one face, rearranging itself into each particular face down the line through the generations, patterns that shift and rotate, that do what we want or don’t do what we want.
“What do we want?” old chant, call and response—a young man turns and asks an older man, inside of Billy Harper, “What do we want?” and simultaneously the mouths move of all the other men, of all the generations, each of them asking, “What do we want?”
The father turns to the mother on a dance floor, and he asks her “What do we want?” and as he moves his mouth, the generations of other men and other cancers move their mouths and ask the generations of other women and other cancers, “What do we want?” A roar of voices, and all of the women and the cancers answer with their own roar, “What do we want?” Patterns of mouths moving. Mouths that are themselves patterns moving in patterns, “What do we want?” A bird flies up from a tree, and as it flies it asks “What do we want?” and it metastasizes into other birds, thousands of birds in thousands of trees, beaks and mouths asking, and then a woman stands up, one of the women in the flowered dress, a woman with the blood drained out of her face, Billy Harper’s wife, his wife, Emily, and she looks him squarely in the eyes and she asks, “What do you want, Billy?” Changing one word, shifting the emphasis, but not accusing, not angry, just stunned: stunned and empty and sad, changing the emphasis again, “Billy, what do you want?” Squeezing her hands together.
The middle-aged man and the baby are sitting on a green-striped blanket. The question hangs in the air between them and between the many men there in the baby and the babies in the man. It’s a real question. It’s the only question that matters. Everyone’s waiting for an answer.
“Not this,” Billy Harper says. He says it out loud. He says it with his mouth, but it isn’t his answer, or not only his answer, it’s the answer of the others as well, the answer of the men and the women, the parents, the daughters, the babies, the cancers. It’s the answer of the pattern itself. “Not this,” says the pattern itself.
“God, Dad,” one of the cancer daughters says to the cancer father, looking at her phone, and the father stands and says, “Not this.” “Not this,” he says, and the daughter opens her mouth wide, thousands of daughters open their mouths wide, “Not this.” Women calling out to women, men to men, cancers to cancers, “Not this.” The birds crying to each other in a thousand skies, the babies shrieking on a thousand blankets in a thousand empty parks, “Not this.”
Anything but this.
A young woman stands from a baby on a blanket. The baby is wearing a brown onesie with a giraffe on it; he moves his hands and says “oh.” She hears him say “oh,” and she turns and starts to run and inside of her is a terrible hot roar, a hurricane swirl with no letup, women of all ages inside of her, watching helplessly and waving their arms: she is leaving her baby in a park.
Her life has come to a place where it has required her—to where she thinks it has required her, to where it seems to her that her life has required her—to leave her baby in a park. Billy can see her life require this of her, can see her turn and start to run. It’s all happening in front of him, somehow, right where he can see it: the woman running, the women inside of her waving their arms, the baby lying on the blanket, blinking at the sky.
“Oh, honey,” Billy calls, calls after her and the women inside of her who are waving their arms and themselves calling after her. The men inside of Billy joined now by the women inside of Billy, the babies, the cancers, all joining their voices to the voices inside of the running woman, the babies left on blankets inside of the running woman. “Oh, honey,” he calls, they all call together, the whole crowd calling, pleading, the woman his daughter’s age maybe, his own daughter. “Oh, honey,” they call. “Please not this.”
Cancers calling, babies calling, birds and cancers and babies calling, “Not this.” If he could just catch up to her, he thinks, they think, the men and women and cancers think, they all think together, if they could just catch up to her, but they can’t: it is too late.
Billy Harper understands her perfectly.
“Oh, honey, no” he tries again, but she is already gone.