When the baby began crying, everyone fluttered around it. The baby was dimly aware of this, but it cried because things were bright and loose instead of dark and tight. It had been that way for a while but the baby just couldn’t get used to it.
So the mother fed the baby from her plummy breast, rocking on the shiny white rocker built by Moses Peterscheim who got the order for the rocker on his farm’s only phone, located at the back of his workshop, sawdusty-sweet with planks and lathes and one enormous crossbow cabinet, a custom order from Mr. Fazul, who got out of Iraq with most of his wealth just before things fell apart. Moses Peterscheim had never made a crossbow cabinet before and Mr. Fazul kept changing his mind about the details, calling him five, six times a day with yet another change (since Moses had neither internet nor fax) so when the baby’s mother’s best friend, Elizabeth Taylor (that really was her name though she looked nothing like you-know-who and had been married to the same man for twenty years) called to order the white rocker, Moses almost didn’t pick up the phone, which would have meant that Liz would have to call the next name on the handwritten list of craftsmen (yes, “men,” they were all men) pinned up on the community bulletin board at the Hagerstown Cheese Shop. The next name was Daniel Stolzfus and “Stolzfus” made her think of something small and wormy. In fact, had Moses not answered the phone, she would have dropped the white rocker idea altogether and gone on to Plan B, which was hiring Green Abandon, a caterer in Wilksboro, North Carolina, to come to the baby’s mother’s house every Sunday night and make dinner. The problem was that Liz could only afford four weeks’ worth—a month of Sundays—since Green Abandon used only local, non-GMO, organic, seasonal, macrobiotic, vegan ingredients and therefore was prohibitively expensive. As it was, the shiny white rocker made by Moses Peterscheim in his sawdusty-sweet workshop located across a gravel yard from his clapboard house and parked black buggy that looked like it had just rolled in from 1873 except for the fluorescent orange triangle on the rear, was the very best possible gift because, although rhythmic rocking didn’t do anything for the crying baby, it made its mother feel slightly better than if she was sitting on the ultra-suede sectional that the baby’s father had bought for just fifty bucks at a garage sale he’d happened to pass by last month, on his way to his very first (adult) horse riding lesson, way over in Drummondsville, North Carolina. The riding lesson had been a thirtieth birthday gift from his mother, Gentilly Scorese, who had never been able to forget the sight of her only son atop a scrappy Paint at the State Fair, where pony rides were a mere fifty cents, where her son blew his entire five dollars spending money, just riding that Paint around and around.
The baby kept crying. The mother’s sister took the baby and walked out onto the deck that overlooked the yard sloping weedily down to a moonbeam lake. The wet from the baby’s eyes and mouth soaked through her t-shirt to her shoulder but it was a honeyed wetness, a newly alive wetness that she didn’t mind. She was ten years older than the mother, had never been married and, in fact, was still a virgin. So now she jostled the baby gently, her hip pressed up against the unpainted wooden railing of the deck, gazing outward to the moonbeam lake, where two barn swallows darted and dove, catching insects on the wing, forgetting Rafael Mendigez’s donkey stall on the edge of Kukalaya where they had wintered on a splintery open ceiling beam, making swallow love and gorging on swirls of mosquitoes rising from countless abandoned tires. Mendigez’s wife had been after him for months to sell the tires to a scrap dealer so they could buy a pink ball gown for their daughter’s quince anos. Mendigez’s wife herself was betrothed as a quinceanera to Mendigez. Not that she anticipated their daughter to be engaged at fifteen. No. Instead, Mendigez’s wife was anticipating cordobas-stuffed envelopes pressed into their daughter’s hand by three hundred invited guests, which would be hidden amongst the family’s ten Bibles for the daughter’s tuition at university, so she could become a pediatrician, emigrate to Miami, establish her practice in a shiny highrise on Biscayne Blvd. and send many, many American dollars back home to Kukalaya. This was Mendigez’s wife’s plan. Amazingly, this is exactly what happened years later, though neither Mendigez or his wife would ever get used to their daughter’s marbled condo or the smartphone app that controlled lights, appliances, door locks, window shades—everything—or the complicated, yet babyish mix of Spanish and American English that their daughter would use to speak to them.
Still the baby cried. Its primitive thoughts kaleidoscoped into patterns of red and corrosive green, radiating disturbances through its small chubby body, since its lower esophageal sphincter was a tiny bit open, enough to let a few drops of stomach acid through. The baby had no way of explaining, so it just cried, flinging its fists and rubbing its tiny, hot face against the shoulder of its mother’s sister, who walked up and down on the deck, the baby’s onesie soft against her rough palm. As she walked, she imagined dipping her hands into hot wax, which would cool and harden to her chapped skin. A kind, heavyset manicurist would then peel it off, removing dead skin to reveal a hidden, baby-soft layer. The peel would be followed by a massage, starting with her forearms and working downward, to the tips of her fingers. She had only ever once had a manicure, a gift from her boss, an attorney for whom she worked as a secretary or rather, her new title was administrative specialist, which she considered ostentatious and practically meaningless. No pay raise or other benefits came with the new title, bestowed three months earlier, only a creamy envelope containing a gift certificate for a manicure which, she learned later, cost just twenty bucks anyway, representing what the lawyer charged for exactly six minutes of his time. Six minutes! But the manicure had been wonderful and now, as her rough skin snagged against the soft cotton of the baby’s onesie she decided that, when she returned home, she would buy herself another manicure, as a gift to herself. This was the kind of comfort left to her, at this point.
At the dining room table, the baby’s mother, father, grandmother and grandfather played gin rummy with sticky cards that they’d found at the back of the pantry. The cards had been left in the house by the previous occupant, a retired plumber who, on a whim, had lifted the cards from a customer’s drawer. The baby’s crying penetrated the sliding glass doors, even though they were closed and the air conditioning was blasting, a noisy apparatus installed two years earlier by the baby’s grandfather’s crony, who’d borrowed five hundred bucks from him to start a multi-level marketing fiasco selling products made from a miraculous fungus from Bhutan, Chaeme scapus, reputed to have both antibacterial and healing qualities, so that you could clear up skin problems as you disinfected your toilet. The marketing materials, in fact, pictured a pretty young woman in a traditional kira, smiling happily, toilet brush in one hand and wine glass in the other. The logic was blurry but visually, it was whizbang. The grandfather’s crony had had his doubts but the authority of the premium, glossy tri-fold won him over. Nevertheless, the first door at which he offered the brochure of the Bhutanese toilet scene was slammed in his face and it was downhill from there.
The baby’s grandmother won the first five hands, cheating slyly, which caused the baby’s father to remember that he had a phone call to make and he leapt to his feet, pushing back his chair so that it hit the floor, causing an oval milk glass platter, a wedding gift from a friend in the baby’s mother’s playwriting group, to slip off the shelf and fall to the tile floor. Smashed to smithereens, as the baby’s grandmother said later. For just a second, the pitch, timbre and intensity of the milk glass platter disintegrating against the tile exactly matched the baby’s cries, so that they blended into one showery, splintery matrix encompassing each person—the baby’s aunt, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, even the baby itself—aligning them in an amber gum of sound that slowed time to a standstill, so that they were bound not just to each other, but to the rhythmic perfection of the white rocker, the beat of the barn swallows across the moonbeam lake, the frustration of Mr. Fazul, the arc of pain in Elizabeth Taylor’s wrist as she opened a new jar of non-GMO peanut butter, the poverty of the young Bhutanese who’d been paid just twenty American bucks for posing with a toilet bush, the clatter of the a/c unit that had only a pinch of life left, the sudden joy of Mendigez’s wife as she looked up from sweeping to see the sun redden behind dark hills, even the disappointment of the baby’s mother’s friend who spent her life writing useless, avant garde plays and for whom the gifting of the oval milk glass platter would be her most original creative act.
You might think that such a matrix of alignment would be suffocating but it wasn’t. It was the most peaceful thing ever, and it only lasted for an infinitesimal moment. And then the milk glass platter fell to pieces and the baby’s mother went out onto the deck and the baby’s grandmother began sweeping up the shards and the a/c unit died and Mr. Fazul hugged his daughter, Esmeralda, for whom the crossbow cabinet was intended and the nameless Bhutanese walked barefoot to the village library to check her email and Elizabeth Taylor began planning an equally splendid yet different gift for another pregnant friend and the baby’s mother’s playwright friend broke the seal on a new printer cartridge and Mendigez’s wife beat the donkey for chewing through a sack of sorghum and the barn swallows finished their nest of mud pellets and feathers under the boathouse eaves beside the moonbeam lake and, far away, in Indiana, Moses Peterscheim hung up the phone, left his workshop and went into the house for supper.
© Tanya Perkins
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan]