Authors: Katrina Onstad
Ana turned to look at Finn, who was staring out the window, nodding lightly.
James did the unstrapping, and when he pulled Finn out of the back door, holding him to his chest, he saw that Ana had already gone up the street and into the house.
Inside, James placed Finn high up on a barstool at the island in the kitchen. He swung his feet, smiling. Ana’s back was to them both as she flipped the cheese sandwich grilling on the stove.
“Maybe we should sit in the dining room. It seems like he might fall off,” said James.
“But the rug in the—” said Ana, then withdrew. “Whatever you think.”
“Finn stay up!” he cried when James went to lift him. “No! Want to stay here!”
James set him back on the stool, where he wobbled in all directions. Finn picked up the grilled cheese sandwich Ana had cooked for him, taking mouse bites around the edges. Ana and James stood side by side, staring across the island at the boy as if he were a hostage, and any minute the authorities might bang down the door.
Ana began to unpack the groceries. Animal crackers; organic macaroni and cheese; miniature applesauces. All things she had
seen at Sarah’s, empty boxes and sticky half-filled containers for Ana to step around. Where should they go? She pulled open drawers and cupboards, finally stuffing the boxes next to the white balsamic, moving aside the olive oil from a trip last spring to Umbria.
“Finish,” said Finn, dropping his sandwich and pulling himself to standing. Within a second, he had his arms high, a diver preparing for his descent. Ana let out a yelping sound, and James rushed toward the boy. Ana breathed quickly; the danger Finn brought with him felt all-encompassing, like the three of them had been submerged together in a water tank of sharks.
She glanced at the hole in the backyard, abandoned again by the workers. The winter before last, old clay pipes had cracked in the depths beneath the back lawn, and the repairs had dragged on and on. Workmen came for a few days and then vanished. Piles of limestone wrapped in cellophane crushed the plants on the perimeter.
“Can you call the guys about the yard?” said Ana.
Finn wandered through the kitchen, opening every cupboard at his eye level.
“What’s in there?” he asked each time. Ana answered: “Oh, I don’t know. Pots …”
“What’s in there?”
“Umm … pipes, from the sink.” She found it difficult to focus on unpacking the groceries with the noise, each question punctuated by a slammed cupboard.
“What’s in there?”
She didn’t answer, macaroni in hand, trying to unravel the question in her head:
Should the macaroni and cheese box go by the oil? Really?
“What’s in there?” asked Finn, loudly. “What’s in there?”
Ana turned quickly and snapped: “Just look, Finn. Figure it out.”
“Ana—” said James, but when he saw her face, flashing fury and then trembling into fear, he didn’t say what he’d been about to. “I think it’s probably his bedtime.”
Ana placed the macaroni in the cupboard and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the clock by the garden door said 8:34.
“Is it? Is this when he goes to bed?”
James walked Finn upstairs, holding his hand. He drew the bath, his finger under the tap, trying to determine the right temperature. Finn sat on the white-tiled ground, removing his small T-shirt, then his sweatpants. Standing only in his diaper, he did a small jump.
“Ana! Is this too hot?” called James, but she couldn’t hear him over her own scrubbing and the sound of the water. “How hot should it be?” James called downstairs. Still no answer. James turned on the cold.
Finn’s plump hands gripped the edge of the tub, his toes lifting off the ground.
“Wait, wait!” The diaper looked like it was barely hanging on, sagging like a smile along his backside. James tore the fasteners and the diaper fell free, relieved, into his hand. It was full of dark shit, round and heavy as a miniature medicine ball. James was embarrassed:
Why didn’t I notice? Why did we have him for hours and never think about the diaper?
“Ana!” This time, she appeared, eyes immediately upon the diaper in his hand.
“Okay, okay,” she said. “Don’t move!” She could see Finn, his bum smeared with feces, giggling and moving like an inmate
in a Victorian asylum toward the white walls and white towels. “Don’t let him move!”
Ana raced down the stairs, while James held Finn by the hands, but far away from him. She rooted in the cloth grocery bags for wipes, the kind Sarah always had—hypoallergenic, biodegradable, chlorine-free, unscented. Ana grabbed the diapers, too, number 5s, as Mrs. Bailey had told them, and a garbage bag. She sprinted upstairs, a medic attending to the injured, dropping all the gear on the white bathroom floor. Finn and James were still locked in their strange dance, far from the walls. Finn’s toddler penis hung (uncircumcised, noted Ana; quite large, noted James, who thought, then, of Marcus and wondered), a strangely mannish thing out of place on his child’s body.
“We have a shituation here,” said James, as Ana pulled out wipe after wipe. She managed a small laugh, passing the packet to James. James wiped and cleaned, folding each used cloth into the next, then stuffing the ball into the dirty diaper, expertly. He enjoyed a moment of satisfaction, held back his shoulders at his accomplishment, and then looked at his wife, hovering in the doorframe.
“I’m not sure what to do now,” she said.
“Why don’t you get his bed ready while I give him the bath?”
Ana nodded, and James turned to the boy, lifting him gently into the tub. “Let’s get clean, right? Let’s get clean.” James wiped the washcloth with Ana’s French milled soap, then rubbed it up and down his back.
“Where toys?” asked Finn.
James looked around the bathroom. Stainless steel soap pump. A small vase with a white daisy in it. The uselessness
of the room struck him: Two years ago, they had knocked out walls and installed a sitting area in the bathroom. It contained a large black cane chair and a table holding magazines that had never been touched. James sat in the chair only once, the day it arrived, declaring it not uncomfortable.
Under the sink, James discovered an old blue plastic water cup—something of his from a long-ago apartment. With the cup, Finn began to bail the tub back into the tub; dip and pour, dip and pour, while James sang a Jonathan Richman song that had lingered, waiting for use, in the back of his head for twenty-some years: “ ’What do I now hear, hark, hark? Is it really leprechauns, and have they come back to rock ‘n’ roll?” Finn was oblivious to the song—dip and pour—but James kept going, pleased with himself, repeating the chorus: “Ba-doom ba da da da da, da da …” James reached for Ana’s shampoo, also French, with the price tag still on it.
He said to Finn: “Twenty-two dollars? Who pays twenty-two dollars for shampoo?” He made Finn’s foamy hair into a gigantic spike, still chanting. At the end of the song, Finn splashed a gentle sprinkle on James’s face and looked at him expectantly. James reached into the tub and flicked a bit at Finn, and for a moment, it looked like the boy was going to cry; his face gathered, as if preparing to come apart—
oh God no
, thought James.
. But it suddenly ceased, and Finn laughed, picking up the blue cup, dipping and pouring.
Ana returned with a green fluffy towel that she sniffed before handing it over—verbena. James lifted Finn out, and as he held his gleaming wet body up in the air, Ana saw in her mind’s eye James’s hands slipping, and Finn, falling fast, cracking his head on the bathtub, leaving the white tile veined with blood.
But then Finn was on the bath mat, grinning. Both of them scanned his body for cuts and bruises, markers of what had befallen his family. He was perfectly clear, just as the doctor at the hospital had said. Not a freckle, not a mole. No evidence.
James wrapped him in the towel.
“I’m a burrito!” cried Finn. “Tighter! Like Mama make it!” The words knocked James. He looked into the boy’s face, his little teeth far apart, all of him without mourning. James tightened the towel until Finn resembled a long green onion, blond hair spiking through the top. Finn giggled at his immobility, trying to walk and falling on his back, laughing and laughing.
James scooped him up, carried him to the guest room. Ana had made up the bed with honey-colored linens.
It isn’t a child’s room
, thought James, dropping the towel on the leather love seat. There was no whimsy anywhere in the house. They didn’t speak of this guest room as a future nursery anymore, though a nursery with a view of the garden had been a selling point, hadn’t it? He was sure it had.
“Help me,” said Ana. James looked at her and realized she meant the bed. Together, they moved it to the wall.
“Watch TV!” cried Finn, jumping on the bed, while James tried to pull a pajama top over his head. Blue, with a monster’s face: “Veddy scary!” The fabric was nubby and worn, another item from Mrs. Bailey’s. James tried not to imagine what horrors had been witnessed by all the foster children who had worn these pajamas.
“No TV. We’ll do a book,” said James, then looked at Ana, who hovered again in the doorframe. “Wait, do we have any books?”
“We left the bus book in the car,” said Ana, watching James expertly stick the diaper, pull on the monster pants.
About the absence of books, James said: “Shit.”
Finn went still. “You say shit,” he whispered.
Ana, roused to James’s defense, said: “You said it, too.”
“I know. You’re right. It’s a bad word,” said James. He turned to Ana: “Can you see if there’s anything for him to read? Maybe a graphic novel or something.”
“I don’t know if Robert Crumb is appropriate,” said Ana, but she headed toward their bedroom and the basket of magazines next to her bedside table.
Finn folded into James’s lap, letting James brush his hair, his face turning sleepy.
“Maybe the cartoons in here?” Ana asked, returning with an old
that Sarah had lent her months ago. James laughed. Ana sat down on the bed next to James, as if she, too, was awaiting story time. He flipped through the magazine, James asking Finn what animals were in the cartoons, what sounds they made; James telling him stories about vultures and dogs. Both Ana and James were acutely aware of what this looked like from a distance. James pulled up the quilt to Finn’s chin.
Ana placed throw cushions on the floor at the side of the bed, a circumference, like a ring of lye outside a village hut used to keep away the witches. James leaned down, and small hands circled his neck. Ana patted Finn’s leg, his body a tiny bump, lost on the big bed.
“Sing light,” said Finn.
“Leave the light on?” asked James.
“No! Sing it! Sing it!”
Ana raised a single finger to her temple and began to rub, as if it would help her to draw understanding out of her skull.
“Light? A song about light?” she said, feeling like she had walked into a game of charades.
“Yes! Sing it!”
“Can you sing it, Finn?”
“No, Mama sing it,” he said. James and Ana went still, wondering what would happen next. Finn looked at them, waiting.
James said, “I’m sorry, Finn, we don’t know it. Do you want to hear the leprechaun song again?”
Finn considered this, let out a very adult sigh, as if he had expected no less incompetence from these so-called caregivers.
James sang it again, and Ana looked away. But James wasn’t self-conscious, almost never was he self-conscious, and especially not now, having seen how his song rescued the boy from the edge, pulled him back from the churning waters of sadness. He smiled again, laughed even as James sang the last line: “ ‘They come back to rock ‘n’ roll.’ ”
“Good night,” said Ana, leaving James to do the final kiss and tuck. She found herself in the hallway, with her hand on the wall, closing her eyes.
“Good night,” she heard her husband say.
James was in bed first, looking from his laptop to Ana as she moved through the room in her long white nightgown. She straightened an angled jewelry box, then carefully hooked her belt on a belt rack, her blazer in the section of the closet reserved for blazers.
“I didn’t put my shoes away,” he said, as she picked up his sneakers from the middle of the floor and placed them, toes out, in the closet.
, I didn’t put my shoes away.” She moved like a machete hacking the reeds, clearing, clearing, clearing.
“Okay, sorry,” said James, just a touch of sarcasm. “It says here the ideal bedtime for a two-year-old is seven p.m.”
“Mmm,” said Ana.
“It also says we should get baby soap. He could get eczema.”
Ana was lost in her movements, saying nothing. James used to joke about the tidying. When they left her apartment to go out, James would help, putting the clean dishes in the cupboards and emptying the food trap in the sink. Then he’d stand at the door waiting and announce: “All locked down, Cappy!” In those days, Ana had smiled and laughed and, in doing so, admitted this need as eccentricity.
There’s no shame in it anymore
, thought James.
And God knows, no comedy
She finally climbed into bed next to him, propped up by pillows. James threw several to the ground. He placed his computer on the table and leaned to face Ana, but she was up much higher than he was, and he could see only fragments of her, smell the crook of her arm. The pillows made them silly.
“We didn’t brush his teeth,” said James.
Ana answered with a question. “What do we do tomorrow?”
“Daycare, I guess. They said to keep the routine, and it’s Monday.”
“God, is today Sunday?” Ana felt stuffed with questions, as if they would tumble out and fill the room if she dared open her mouth, a fisherman’s net releasing question marks. What she wanted was an explanation, but for what? She could sense James getting sentimental next to her, curling closer, trying to hold her hand, which lay limp above the covers.
She was waiting for the softness, the cool white space. Ana had invented this state of being when she was a child, lying
in bed during the loudest parties, the doors slamming and the accelerated roar of her mother’s nightlife. Or even on a quiet night, alone with her mother, watching her shape shift over the course of the evening, the ice cubes clattering in the tray, and the bottles ringing in the garbage against the other bottles—then,
. Ana could vanish. She thought of the white space as a destination, a place she had to get to in order to block the noise. Now the noise came from the social worker: “And Ana, what kind of hours do you work?” The voice hungry for judgment.