Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Flash Fiction
784 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

Old Baby

Leslie What

The newborn was wrinkled and curled like an old man.

“You look as if you’ve already lived,” said his mother.

The baby, eyes watery and butterfly blue, opened his puffy lips and popped imperfect spit bubbles with his tongue.

The husband stood beside the head of the hospital bed to massage the mother’s shoulders. “He’s like a fish,” he said. “All slimy and wet. I never knew he’d be this ugly.”

The mother thought the baby ugly, too. Her pregnancy hadn’t gone as expected. Indigestion and swollen feet. Stretch marks on her belly, thighs, breasts. An episiotomy cut à la Dr. Frankenstein.

A nurse washed waxy coating from the baby’s skin and swaddled him in a cotton cocoon. “He’s all yours,” she said, passing him like a football to the mother.

The mother’s emotions swelled, faded. She felt drained by the long labor. Was mothering supposed to feel more natural? She worried she would either strangle him with too much attention, or else make him feel abandoned because of a deliberate hands-off approach. This baby scared her. He slept, or tasted the air with his tongue, or fussed. His moods erupted and calmed. He was off in his own world and she wanted that world to expand until it was vast enough to include her. He looked wise and thoughtful and disapproving. As she watched him sleep the mother recognized something peculiar in the baby’s expression; perhaps it was the uneven arch of the eyebrows. His lips were thin and his earlobes long. His impulsive nature was familiar.

She knew this baby.

“Dad?” the mother asked, feeling silly not to have accepted him ten minutes ago.

“Holy crap,” said her husband. “It is your dad! Swell.”

The two men had never gotten along, which her husband ascribed to jealousy and a mean streak made worse by the father’s alcoholism.

The baby’s face reddened and he clenched his fists and jerked his legs and pierced the hospital quiet with an enraged cry. He was a couple of minutes old and already a master manipulator. The mother entertained second thoughts about breastfeeding. This was, after all, a man who had not seen her naked since the fourth grade.

The next day they filled out the paperwork. After a brief argument, they named him after her father and took him home. The mother and her husband were soon quietly exhausted by the work of being his parents. The baby was unreasonable, self-centered. He was up all night. He drank his dinner from a bottle. He misbehaved through diaper change. His poop smelled like chewing tobacco. He threw up just after she’d changed the bedding. He was so much her father that it made her laugh. While he was alive, she hadn’t thought her father’s antics all that funny.

The baby stayed a baby, except that he got bigger and perfected new tricks. When he learned to hold up his own head the mother felt inordinately proud. At three months he managed to push himself off the bed and a neighbor whispered only a bad mother would leave a baby alone, even for a second.

After that, she left the door open when she used the bathroom.

Her husband pestered her for sex but she fretted the baby would hear them. Neither your children nor your parents should know about your sex life. The triangle of love softened into a circle connecting baby to mother, with her husband on the outside vying to break in.

Yet there were times when her body buckled with tenderness for the infant. When his scream turned to a whimper she knew only she could calm. When she smoothed the velvet soft of his hair. When he stared into her eyes with an expression she did not recognize, but wanted to believe was adoration.

One Sunday morning, while her husband slept late, she sat in the rocking chair cradling her son. She watched him work the rubber nipple, and when the bottle was empty, watched him suckle the air in dream.

She had so many questions. Would he ever forgive her that his wife—her mother—had died giving birth to her and he’d been forced to take a job that was beneath him? Would he use this second-chance to reassure her that she was loved and would she be capable of reciprocating? Would he tell her all the things about himself he had neglected to tell her the last time, or would he die again so young that she would never have the chance to know him? She stared at the blush of his cheeks and waited, waited, wondering what he would say to her when he learned to speak.

—Previously published in Shape of a Box, Issue 7 (November 2008); reprinted here by author’s permission

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury