Justine Tal Goldberg
He wanted to love someone so much that he would die from it. Just seize up, roll over, go stiff and die. Beloved son for thirty-nine years, husband for three, and father for one, he wished for nothing more. Daniel bore this thought, wore it heavy, every day.
Daniel bears this thought even now. He trots along, his house a ways behind him and getting further by the minute, carrying The Boy who is not used to being carried. Daniel refuses to hold The Boy's hand and swats The Boy's wrist when he tries to suck his third thumb. The Boy looks surprised, as if he does not know that he has a third thumb, that eleven fingers is one too many, and that sucking on a birth defect is disgusting.
“I don't hate you,” Daniel says. “I don't. I may even love you.” The words sound nothing like they had in the bathroom mirror rehearsal, shower running in case Nora came home. The message, between now and then, had hollowed. The Boy—not knowing any better, poor creature—smiles wide, finger fish hook at the side of his mouth. He clucks at his father, pre-speech speak, who catches a whiff of his son's baby breath and denies that in it he recognizes his own. “Love,” Daniel says, shaking away some demon, “is not the point.”
Daniel stops walking long enough to hoist The Boy higher on his hip. Although The Boy cannot ask, his eyes are wide with questions. He wants to know where they are going and when they will get there, why his father hardly ever holds him, avoids touching him always, and why with ick faces and reluctant hands he has chosen to do so now. Daniel imagines all this and does not want to look at The Boy anymore.
Daniel keeps his eyes fixed on the pavement in front of him. The Boy arches his back in discomfort, stretching to reach for something far behind him, the way little boys do.
The group members wore “Resilient Father” pins, all except Daniel and Scott. They were two outcasts together—pinless, hopeless, depraved—but they did not look alike. Scott was dark and shaggy and un-suburban. He had a habit, Daniel noticed after a few brief exchanges, of arching his brow and twisting his upper lip, that made his face appear contorted and tragically fixed that way. Daniel had avoided him until he accepted that Scott, father of a boy with a hideous skin defect, was at heart a Daniel too.
My son can't walk, said one nervous-looking man with jowls that jiggled.
My daughter can't breathe, from a fidgety father, pacing the floor, ringing the life out of a paper napkin.
Walk, talk, eat, breathe, from another father and another.
Daniel and Scott stood aside and watched as the Resilient Fathers asked each other what they could do, wondered what they had done to make their children suffer so. There was something about these people that made Daniel feel like an ugly, ridiculous man. So, at the coffee machine, when Scott told Daniel that guys like them had to stick together, look out for one another, a you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours kind of arrangement, Daniel said he thought so too.
“There are these people I know,” Scott said. “These people I'm in contact with. They do a good thing, a good thing for guys like us.” Then, Scott told him about Mr. S. and the good work he does in the community. “Here's my number if you're interested,” Scott said, handing Daniel an inked tissue. “I'll make a call,” he said. “Send the stork your way.”
Daniel made sure to lose the number in his pants pocket for a week. The following Tuesday, Scott came into group looking like a poker player with a card up his sleeve and Daniel decided to join the game.
Daniel tugs on The Boy's shirt collar. He wants The Boy to hold still.
“Stop,” Daniel says, half to The Boy and half to himself. The Boy is squirming and will not stop looking towards home, now out of sight. Daniel keeps moving, fearful of being late, disrespectful, rude, of mucking up this opportunity, this inspired stab at life.
Can't The Boy understand? This is for his own good. The best for all of them: The Boy, Nora, and himself last of all, of course. He was always last of all. There's only so much a man can take, only so much abnormality a man can stomach. Sometimes a man needs to take matters into his own hands. Put his foot down and say, Boy, Nora, that's the way it is and that's final. Things will be much better now, she'll see. And really, she left him no choice. She would have to see that.
The Boy finger paints, for crying out loud. He draws pictures, insists on tracing his disfigured hand in chunky red crayon. Nora mounts them on the fridge, calls them his “hand-iwork” and chuckles. The Boy drops his plastic dish, splatters his meal on the floor. “That kid's all thumbs,” Daniel says, but for him, Nora never laughs. The Boy does, though, happy in his not knowing. Nora used to call ten times a day, couldn't wait for Daniel to come home. Now, Mommy Nora puts her all into knitting those hideous double-thumbed mittens. Now, she shuffles around in her sensible shoes and floral apron, looking old, as undesirable as a grandmother.
Daniel had tried. Hadn't he tried? He had gone to group, in secret of course, and when he met Scott there, in the Child Disability Support Group in the next town over, he had resisted his advice, quite adamantly at first. He had approached the problem from every angle, with a scientist's precision, considered every option, every possible solution. For goodness' sake, he's tired. He's run out of ideas. He's flat out. What in the world more can he do?
Daniel needed to fall deeply and madly in love with someone until his heart gave out, his lungs collapsed, and he finally ceased to be. A year to decide, but now he knew for sure: The Boy would not be that someone.
The Boy, Nora's beautiful fragile one-of-a-kind almost perfect son, who had been born with two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth, one belly button, two arms, two legs, one penis, two hands, two feet, ten toes and eleven fingers. The birth defect is very common, the medical professionals had said. The birth defect is called hexadactyly, they said. The choice to amputate is yours, they said, but there are some slights risks involved, better to leave well enough alone. Pay no attention to the “defect,” they advised the new parents. They themselves, the doctors, disapproved of the terminology. This means there's more of him to love, they said, that's all.
A blue Pontiac had come into view and now it's less than a block up. Daniel can see Jersey plates and a smashed-in tail light, just like Scott said. The guy is leaning against the driver's side door, his weight resting on one leg because the other is kicked up behind him. Daniel stalks towards him and imagines The Boy clinging tighter, his extra finger digging into his back like a punishment, like a thorn in his side. For a second, he considers turning back.
“You him?” the guy says, studying Daniel with beady, black eyes. Daniel nods because his mouth is very dry and he feels he may choke. He feels like he is already choking.
The guy is all lean, no fat, and unshaven, maybe hasn't seen a razor in weeks. He gnaws on a toothpick, looking bored; it dances beneath his pointed beak nose. The Boy studies him and squirms, reaching out for a tug on his beard.
“He likes me,” the guy says and smiles a young smile.
“You're just a kid,” Daniel says.
“I'm no kid. That's a kid,” the guy says, gesturing to The Boy. “I'm almost eighteen already.”
“I didn't know,” Daniel says. He takes a few steps backwards and hugs The Boy in a new way. “You're a child. I didn't know. Who runs this operation? I need to speak to Mr. S. Put me in touch with Mr. S.”
The guy doesn't answer, just rolls his eyes. He looks as if he's seen this last minute guilt rag a hundred times before. Perhaps he thinks it pitiful. The guy pushes off the car with one foot and opens the back door.
Daniel makes no move. Daniel made a decision and now, this is really happening and he cannot move. The guy is reaching for The Boy and The Boy is reaching back for him, and weights are being lifted and replaced, and a voice is saying, Say bye-bye. Say bye-bye, daddy, and doors are slamming, and engines are starting, and Daniel is standing there like a dummy. This kid is taking his kid. But what does this kid know? He's just a kid, for crying out loud. What does he know about good homes, good parents, good food, good morals, good deals? What does this kid know, about love, about life, about anything?
And as the blue Pontiac pulls away and Daniel is left holding a stranger in his arms where his six-fingered son used to be, he almost yells out to the almost eighteen- year-old kid to bring back his baby. There is a voice inside of Daniel's head, screaming louder than anything he's ever heard. Give me my baby! Bring back my boy! But Daniel is not speaking. He is standing in the middle of a deserted street, in a neighborhood he doesn't recognize, with a brand new son who is gurgling and looking mildly confused.
Daniel and his new son walk home together, hand-in-hand.
Nora is on the phone, chewing on a cuticle and sitting very close to the edge of the couch when Daniel walks in the door.
“—I hear him. Yes, they just walked in. Good, thanks. Bye, now.” Nora hangs up the phone. She starts to speak, then stops. She knows immediately, by instinct, the same way some animals know when to eat their young. Nora's lips pucker and she looks as if she may cry or faint or kill or die or sink through the floor or propel through the ceiling. She looks as if she might do anything.
“It's our boy,” Daniel says, dwelling in yet-to-come memories of time made for this boy, thumb wars and tickle torture and baseball gloves that fit. He dreams, catching a side glimpse of his new son in the hallway mirror. But what is that? What is that thing? A lump, a growth, just behind the boy's left ear: a thin, pink chewing gum bubble, stretched tight as if threatening to pop. And beneath it, another. And another. Daniel takes the boy's chin in his hand roughly, so that the boy, tolerant thus far—perhaps only now realizing what has happened, where he is and where he is not—begins to cry. When Daniel turns the boy's head, he finds a reddish cluster on the other side and, on the back of his neck, an angry cauliflower bump already in bloom. That man, that devil! Just who does he think he is?
The boy makes a familiar face with his forehead and his lip and Daniel is drowning.
Daniel wanted to love his new son so much that he would die from it.
When Nora finally speaks, there is fear in her eyes.
“Monster,” she says.
Justine Tal Goldberg is a professional writer and editor of both fiction and non-fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Meeting House, Fringe Magazine, and Whiskey Island. Her features and columns have appeared in The Weekly Dig, The Review Review, and The Texas Observer, among others. Justine owns and operates WriteByNight, a writing center and writers' service headquartered in Austin, Texas.