Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence
Virtual

 
I.
 
Well after the death of his child, abandoned by his wife and sunk into a despair lasting the better part of a year, Rudy discovered the album. His wife had hidden it on the third shelf of the linen closet, under a pile of sheets. A note tucked inside the front cover wished him a good life, just to remind you by God here is all you've lost.

The note he left shelved, between sheets. The album he made the mistake of taking out, carrying to the table, opening.

Inside, a series of photographs: himself, his wife. There were baby clothes too in many of the pictures, spread over his arm or smoothed across his wife's shoulder. In one picture, his wife held a tightly rolled blanket. Beside it, a picture of he himself holding the same blanket and peering down the end of it, smiling. There he was, sitting at a picnic table, arms around empty air, and there again, crowded into the right half of the photograph, squatting, arm propped out, hand kneading empty air.

 
This is the version he initially told himself, the version he was comfortable with but also the version which, as he told it over, he began increasingly to doubt:

One October, the child was born stillborn, five months early, less a birth than a spontaneous expulsion of blood. By December, his wife was imagining life back into the child. She began patting her stomach, waddling about as if her belly were still distended.

Rudy didn't know what to say. He understood that there was something seriously amiss, the world had slipped out of joint. Yet there was a glow to his wife again, her skin, her eyes. Watching her, despite himself, Rudy was tempted to join in.

In January, she asked him to speak to the baby, to rest his throat against her belly and talk to the fetus. Absolutely not, he said.

She wept for what struck him as an interminable length of time. He didn't love her, she informed him, let alone the baby. This apparently rendered him heartless. When he declared there was no baby, she grew hysterical. She broke plates as long as there were plates to be broken, then stopped cold. When he asked her if she was all right, Why shouldn't I be? she claimed. Where did this come from? she asked, staring at the shards scattering the kitchen floor.

When, a day later, she asked him to address her belly, Rudy suggested she seek counseling. She accused him of not loving the baby. When he said there was no baby to love, she had a go at clawing off his face. He dragged her out to the car by the hair, forcing her down onto the floorboards and pushing down hard on the back of her neck with his hand. He drove bent over, just able to see over the dashboard. By the time he reached the hospital, she was calm. He hauled her out, an old lollipop and fluffs of lint in her hair. He took her through the doors and checked her in, sat with her in the waiting room until they finally dredged up an intern to speak with her.

The intern palpated her stomach. "Why do you think you're having a baby?" he asked.

Rudy's wife looked at him carefully and seriously. "But I think nothing of the sort."

"Your husband suggested - "

"We had a misunderstanding," she said. "My husband brought me here over a misunderstanding."

Rudy could not keep from breaking in, trying to explain the situation, how she was. He had no intention of committing anyone, he said, he just wanted advice. The intern regarded him fiercely, then turned to Rudy's wife.

"Do you need shelter?" he asked her.

Rudy shut up. He was glad when she said no, that he was not abusive, that it was just a misunderstanding. He remained silent, listened to her as she answered the intern's questions impeccably, as if she were actually sane. Eventually, the intern asked him to wait in the hall. When she came out her eyes were red. There was nothing to do but put her back in the car. She spoke about the baby all the way home, rubbing her belly.

 
After the third trip to the emergency room, Rudy stopped taking her. There was still a glow to her, he exhaustedly conceded, almost as if she actually were having a child. She had tremendous energy. She painted the spare bedroom sky blue, applying puffs of cloud to the walls with a sponge. She came home with brightly colored and simple toys, a mobile, a second-hand crib, small pastel outfits, a changing table, two sheaves of disposable diapers. She spoke constantly about the baby, speculating about which one of them it would resemble. Names: she said, I prefer Corey myself, but what will they call him when he's grown up? Corey's hardly a name a man can bear all his life.

He let her speak. There was little he could do, at least that he was willing to do, to stop her. She expected no response even when she framed a question to him. The only moments he still had difficulty with were when she asked him to speak to the baby, to place his throat against her belly so as to let the baby feel the vibration of his voice. That, she did expect of him. If you don't speak to him, how will he know you when he's born? she asked. She kept asking, begging him to speak to the baby, until finally he was obliged to say something. It won't be born, he would say, or there is no baby. Then came a fit, until at last he shut himself into the bathroom with a book, turned on the fan, tried to read while she banged and frothed outside the door.

They were having trouble, she said to him the last time he came out of the bathroom. She needed to talk frankly for once. Their marriage was collapsing. Didn't he want this baby? It happened to a lot of couples, she confided, she had read about it. A baby changed everything; it took some getting used to. The one thing he couldn't do, though, was stay in denial. If he couldn't face up to the fact of the baby now, before the birth, how would he face the actual baby?

I am living with a crazy person, he had thought. But later, after she was gone, flipping through the album, he wasn't certain about this either.

She understood it was difficult, she said. She wasn't the perfect spouse. She had her own set of problems, true, but she'd been good to him, no? A marriage was something that involved two people - probably something she'd heard on TV earlier that week - and both people had to give a little if the marriage was to succeed. That was particularly true now, she said, in a time fraught with changes due to the baby's imminent arrival. She lifted her shirt, thrust her flat belly at him. If you won't for Baby, she said, do for me.

Despite himself, he did.

 
The birth occurred while Rudy was at work. He came in to find his wife smiling. When he pulled up her shirt to speak to her belly, she tugged the shirt back down again.

"Don't be silly," she laughed.

He was glad for the respite, thought for a bare moment that she had swung back to her senses. He poured himself vodka and tonic, sat down. She returned to stirring a pot on the stove, steam rising from it.

"What's for dinner?" he asked.

"Nothing much," she said.

He rose and went to her, pressed his chest against her back. Over her shoulder he could see the pot was full of bottle nipples.

"What are those?"

"What, these?"

"In the pot," he said.

She giggled. "Don't be silly," she said. "You know what those are. They're for the baby."

"The baby?"

She walked into the spare bedroom, returned with a swaddled blanket carefully tucked into the crook of her arm.

His first thought was that she had stolen a baby. He held still so as not to startle her. He let her come close, watched her hold the swaddled form out to him.

"See?" she said. "Spitting image of his father."

He poked the blanket. His finger met no resistance. There was nothing there - a fold of blanket, a crease where a baby's face might ride athwart the blankets, nothing else.

"Careful," she said. "There, now you've made him cry."

But he could hear only his wife's crying, her solitary sound. She walked about the room, shaking the pile of blankets softly, cooing at it. "We'll be up all night now," she said, voice tight, brisk. "Fix up a bottle."

"Darling," he said. "Listen. There isn't any baby."

"We'll name him after you," she said, quickly. She was holding the blanket oddly cradled, as if it were bigger than it was. "Rudy Junior," she said.

He turned about in a circle away from her and toward her and away from her again. "Stop," he said. "For God's sake, stop."

"Stop what?" He took hold of the blanket. He began to tug at it softly. She began to keen, low at first and then high and desperate as the fabric slipped bit by bit from her hands. Then the blanket rested in his hands alone and her hands cupped air, her breath coming and going in gasps.

"He nearly fell," she said.

"There's nothing there," he said. He shook out the blanket, dropped it to the floor.

She was still making a cradle of her arms. He stepped toward her and she turned cringing from him, hiding the absence behind her body. "Come any closer, I call the police,” she said. "You're crazy," she said.

"But," he said, "there's nothing there."

"I want a divorce," she said, tugging at her dress with her free hand.

He stared at her, moving his jaws slightly. "You what?"

"You heard me," she said. "You heard."

"No," he said. "Not, I don't, but - "

"You heard," she said. “Leave."

 
Looking back, Rudy felt that that was the decisive moment in the relationship. Leave, she had said, and he had left the house. He walked the neighborhood, slowly and methodically examining cedar and picket and chain-link fences. Several houses down, a retarded girl sat on her parents' porch, wearing a walkman, pretending to listen to a cordless phone through the Walkman's headphones. He looked at the facades of houses. He walked up to the next corner and stayed watching the cars pass, the motel's sign flickering a half mile distant. Then, having nowhere to go, he turned around, returned home.

His wife stood at the stove, stirring a pot, steam rising from it. Holding the door open, he regarded her back.

She took the spoon from the pot, knocking it twice against the pot's lip, then set it beside the burner. She turned her cheek toward him for a kiss. Her face was untroubled as glass.

"How was work?" she asked. He nodded slightly, regarding the spoon. He put his arms against her.

"It's nice to see you," she said.

He cleared his throat. He patted her on the back. Then she was out of his arms, head cocked to one side.

"Did you hear something?" she asked.

"No," he said.

"I'm sure I did," she said. "Put together a bottle for him, will you darling?"

He opened his mouth, but did not speak. He watched her go through the door, into the room with sky blue walls. He stood awkwardly, then slowly made his way to the stove, fished a bottle nipple out of the pot with the spoon. Holding it balanced on the spoon's curve, he awaited her return.

 
II.
 
And then in the album came a different period. In those photos, he could see the child. There, a photo of Rudy surrounded by gifts, the child in his arms. He saw the child in that photo and the photos that followed, just a baby at first, perhaps three months old, then a toddler, then older still. It was this that made the version he first told himself seem false. Perhaps whatever had been wrong with him was wrong with him still. If the baby was in these photographs, he told himself, it must be in the earlier pictures as well. Yet when he turned back the stiff cardboard pages to the earlier photographs, he saw no child.

By his own birthday, he had begun to see the baby. He was sick, he felt, something gone amiss with him. He didn't care. At first it was intermittent. He would see the baby only in the presence of his wife, only when the two of them were alone. The child was transparent, hallucinatory, the image fading and rising. He could never fully gather its face, though his wife claimed it resembled him. Taking the baby in his arms, he could see it but not feel it. He watched it float against his chest, legs kicking slightly, then silently handed it back.

Seeing the baby marked the beginning of a period where he seemed to live two lives at once, one compressed and rapid, the other slowed, stretched. In the first were his wife and child, the baby growing at what seemed a remarkable rate. The growth was always announced by his wife and not seen by him at first, but then quickly there. The baby crawled today, she would say, and then he would see it, the baby no longer laying on its back with its legs quickening the air, but scooting madly all about the house.

The baby seemed to grow faster than he expected, crawling in what seemed to him little more than a few weeks. This, his wife assured him, was the normal time, perhaps even a little slow. He watched her face as she said it, but learned nothing.

Indeed, it struck him that he and the baby were growing at different rates, on two separate tracks of time. Or, rather, he stepped back and forth between the track of time found only within the house and the track outside, constantly slowing and speeding, perpetually off balance.

In the second life, the slower track, was the rest of his life, all that he did not touch. His work, time spent with colleagues, seemed interminable. His sleep, too, was on the slow track, and often he awoke with the impression that his wife and child had slept four or five nights for every night of his. Colleagues and coworkers noticed a change in him, accused him of looking beleaguered. He was distracted at work, mistrusted his experience outside the house. His supervisor called him in, called attention to his numbers. He had done Rudy the kindness of displaying his numbers on a tricolor graph. On the top was written "Roy's Numbers.” Rudy had to admit they were appalling. He wracked his brain, trying to determine if there was a person employed by the company named Roy. The supervisor gave him a copy of the graph to keep, along with a tricolor "goal graph,” then asked,

"How are things at home, Roy?"

"Rudy," said Rudy.

"Ruddy, you mean?" said the supervisor. "In what sense are things at home ruddy? You're not using the word in a way I understand, Roy."

Had he become Roy in this life? He wanted to get out his wallet, look at his driver's license, assure himself of his name.

"It's the baby," said Rudy.

"Ah," said the supervisor. "I hadn't even realized your wife was expecting."

Rudy nodded. "It's more work than I realized."

He was given an informal reprimand. I'm not even going to write you up, Roy. He felt guilty about having used the baby as an excuse, but when he went home he found the baby ruddy, color to it, body, more substantial than before. For the first time, muffled, as if from a distance, he heard its voice.

 
For the next few weeks, his coworkers congratulated him on the happy arrival - they were surprised, they said, to know he had a baby. Why had he said nothing? There were handshakes, small inconsequential gifts, several candied and one actual cigar.

"So, when are we going to see the bundle of joy?" one of them wanted to know, a short dumpy woman from accounting.

Rudy looked around at the things on his desk. He couldn't come up with anything to say.

"You'll bring him in?"

"Sure," said Rudy. "Sometime."

"How about later in the week?"

"Sure," he said.

But how could he join two tracks of time? Was it even possible?

That evening, in darkness, he told his wife that people wanted to see the baby. "No,” she said. "I don't think so. The workplace is a haven for germs."

He nodded slightly. He got up from bed, went to the sky blue room, looked into the crib. The child was there, lying in the crib, unmoving, eyes wide open. It did not blink. He picked it up and immediately it began to blink and stretch, mumbling softly. It seemed to be looking at his face. He put the child back down. Instantly it was static again.

"How's the baby?" he heard his wife say behind him. "Everything all right?"

"I don't know," he said, somewhat puzzled.

She leaned against the crib rail, one breast pressing flat. "Look," she said, "he's sleeping." When he looked again there was the baby, eyes wandering slightly beneath the lids, chest falling up and down, the most natural thing in the world.

 
He put them off at the office for well over a year, until they began to question whether he really had a baby at all. At least bring pictures, the girl from accounting insisted, but his wife would not allow even this, though she would not say why. He found he had some anxiety about the pictures as well, but could not make sense of it until later, well after his wife had left him, when he spent several days without eating or sleeping, on the couch, staring at the album.
It had been almost a year and a half since the birth. The baby was growing, bigger and more coordinated than he thought a baby should be at that age. Indeed, he remembered having held three birthdays for the child. It was something he couldn't sort out, life somehow moving at a different pace inside his house. He knew it would not be wise to inquire into it too closely. He went to work, operating in a sort of daze, keeping the accuracy of his numbers just above the minimum the supervisor demanded. Then he would go home, listen to his wife speak about what the baby had done, the child changing shape and size and coloration before his eyes. He could see it, he could perceive it. It was there. Perhaps he had been wrong before. It was an odd baby, admittedly, its motions jerky, but perhaps that was not the baby but he himself, shreds of denial. It was his perception that was flawed. He could see and hear the child; what point was there in trying to claim it did not exist? He could think such thoughts around his wife, around the home, but then he stepped out the door, drove to the office, sat in a cubicle with others chattering and muttering around him. There, he didn't know what to believe.

His child, he realized, had never been out of the house. He bought a pup tent and two fishing rods, threatened to take the boy fishing. His wife would not allow it. Too young, she said. He tried to take the child with him to the grocery store, but his wife stopped that as well. When he put on a baseball glove and took a ball into the yard, the child stood in the doorway but would come no further. He could see his wife standing behind it, arms crossed. Rudy tossed the ball back and forth against the side of the house, pocking the wood.

 
Once, trying to force the two lives together, he invited two coworkers home: the dumpy woman and a brown-haired salesman who often told jokes, chin resting on the top of his cubicle's wall. His wife met them at the door, barred their way. "The baby's ill," she whispered. "Contagious." Rudy took them instead to a bar a few blocks distant, paid for a few drinks, sent them on their way.

 
III.
 
The final photographs, the ones he found most disturbing and pondered the longest, were a series of nine images, all exterior, bright sunlight. There was a lake, the light bright off it. There was a picnic basket sitting atop a blanket. There were clumps of his coworkers brandishing cans of beer, wearing shorts and polo shirts. A dog nearly catching a Frisbee, a narrow expanse of mud on the edge of the lake, a stand of sickly pines, the blanket and basket again, his supervisor wearing a chef's hat and turning burgers on a grill, a cracked and mud-slathered shoe.

He had arrived at the company picnic late, without his wife, but, for once, with the child. His wife had not wanted him to go and when he insisted on going forbade him to take the child. It was dangerous, she said; the child might drown, there were mosquitoes, the child was not used to the sun. People were demanding to see the child, he said. He had to bring him. No, she said, impossible. Why? he asked, and she gave the same reasons, and he asked again why. It went on for several hours, the child standing there for the whole of it, staring and hardly moving.

For accuracy's sake, he thought, leafing through those last pages, there should be a picture of the closet he had pushed his wife into, a picture of the plain wood door, the key turned to engage the lock. While she battered against the inside of the door with her fists, he had gathered the blanket and picnic basket, filling the latter with things taken hurriedly from pantry and fridge. Taking the child's hand, he left.

He thought at first that the child had released his hand at the door. In looking back he could see the child in the doorframe, grown pale and thin of flesh, but there, looking down, was the child beside him as well, equally ephemeral. He kept walking toward the car though he could not feel the hand, glancing down from time to time to see the child still there. As they drove, nearing the lake, Rudy spoke to the child, almost frantically, about the lake and the picnic and what fun they would have. The child looked neither at him nor out the window, stared at the glovebox latch. When they reached the lake the boy struck him as little more than a flux in the air, a disturbance difficult to perceive. It's me, he told himself. There's nothing wrong with the child, just with me. There'll be swimming, Rudy told it. I don’t have a swimming suit for you but it's all right, no one will mind. He stopped the car under shade, took the blanket and the picnic basket out of the trunk, opened the passenger door. He greeted his supervisor, members of his development team. He forced a smile. He saw the woman from accounting in another group not far off, consciously ambled in the other direction. But it was too late. He could hear her calling his name as he walked the other way. Finally, he stopped, turned.

"Rudy," she said. "You came."

"Of course," he said.

"Did you bring your baby?" she asked, straight to the point.

"Of course," he said, and pushed his child out in front of him.

The child took one step forward, collapsed at his feet.

"Well," the woman said. "Where is he? It's a he, no?"

"Here," he said.

She laughed, oddly. "You already said you brought him. Where, here? With your wife?"

He crouched down, picked the child up, set it back on its feet, watching her eyes as he did so.

"What is it?" she asked. "Are you doing mime?" "The child's around here somewhere," he finally said. She continued to stare. "He must be with his mother," he offered.

 
Setting up the blanket, he put out the lunch. The child was still there, hardly visible, its eyes moving jerkily. He put food in front of it. The child did not react.

He sat on the blanket. From time to time someone would notice him, come over to chat briefly, too enthusiastically. They left quickly, without addressing the child.

He tried to stare the child into tangibility but it remained, flickering and static, in a kind of stuttered and half-seen existence. He tried to imagine his coworkers out of existence, narrowing his eyes until they blurred, but when he opened his eyes again, they were substantial as ever.

He looked at the child, helpless and languid. He reached out and poked it, watched it list to one side. There was nothing to the child, he told himself. It was a figment, an infection of his wife's which he, somehow, had contracted as well. Yet, even when he phrased it as directly as that, the child did not disappear. He tried again to move the other direction. He told himself the child was there, present, and it was he who was deluded. He willed the child to swell into full existence, grow ruddy, run about. But the child remained as it was, a creature mostly of air and shadow, present yet not present.

He called his supervisor over.

"Tell me," he said. "On this blanket, what do you see?"

"Raymond," the supervisor said, tucking his spatula under one arm and tightening his apron, "is this some sort of game?"

"No," said Rudy. "This is important."

"Don't toy with me," he said. "Toy with me and I'll write you up."

"Of course," said Rudy. "Please."

The supervisor sighed. "I see you," he said. He squinted, stared at the child. "I see a picnic. Some food. A blanket."

"That's all?"

"That does it," said the supervisor.

"Nobody else?"

"Are you ill?" the supervisor asked.

But still, even after the supervisor had left, Rudy could not will the child away.

 
He stayed until the others had left and the lakeside was all but deserted. The sun had sunk low in the sky. The child had become slightly less defined, its edges grown blurred, but it was still there.

He packed the picnic things, folded the blanket. He took them to the car, came back for the child. Yet, when he had the child in his arms he walked not toward the car but toward the lake. His heart beat furiously. Kicking his shoes off, he left them in the mud, entered the water in his thin dress socks. He waded in until the water lapped his hips.

Bending down, he let the child slip out of his arms. He watched it kick a few times then breathe in water, its face contorting, features reacting at last. It was awful to watch. Then the face sunk deeper, a pale fishbelly in the muddy water. He was tempted to reach out for it. And then it sank deeper still and was gone.

 
He took off his wet pants in the carport. Wringing them out, he put them on top of the garbage cans.

His wife was at the sink, washing dishes. The closet door, he saw, had been kicked off its hingework, had fallen to block the hall.

"How was the picnic, darling?" she asked, voice bright.

"He's dead," he said.

She turned to face him. "Who died?" she asked.

"The boy," he said. "Drowned."

"Whose boy?"

"Ours."

"Our son?" she said. "Little Rudy? Don't be ridiculous - he's been here with me all afternoon."

"I killed him," he said. "I carried him out and drowned him."

"Don't even joke about that," she said. And then, calling: "Rudy? Little Rudy?"

She smiled wide, bent down to pat empty air.

"You see?" she said. "Here he is. Safe and sound."

 
But he couldn't see, not at all. The child wasn't there, was dead, if it had existed at all. He waited that day and the next and into the next but still there was no child that revealed itself to him, and at last he said so.

She looked him over with slitted eyes. "There's something wrong with you," she said.

"Maybe," he said.

"You can see him," she said. "Right here," she said, pointing to the empty couch. "There he is."

"He's not there," he said.

"Goddam you to hell," she said. "Little Rudy," she called. "Come on here and give your father a hug."

He stood idly, his hands loose at his sides. He even squatted down when his wife cued him. He stayed squatted a dozen seconds, until he could feel the blood pulse in his knees, then he stood up.

She was looking at him, her face grown dark.

"No," he said. "There's nothing there."

She turned and stood leaning against the sink, her arms straight so that the skin at her elbows bunched. Her back shivered. He watched her elbows, not saying a thing.

And then her back stopped shivering and she wiped her face. She turned to look at him.

"What?" he said.

He tried to keep his eyes on her but could not. He looked all about the room, saw nothing.

"Get out," she said. "Leave."

 
Leave, she had said, and he left the house. For a brief moment there was utter elation, and then he didn't know what he felt. He walked the neighborhood slowly, methodically examining the state of his neighbor's fences. The retarded girl was on her porch again, watering the screen door with a hose. The houses, he saw, looked nearly exactly alike. He would pass a house and then, coming abreast the next one, would feel he had not passed the first house at all. Everything was moving too slowly, himself included.

He walked up to Center, sat on a bus bench. He stayed watching the cars pass, the traffic coming in spurts. Down the street he could see the red neon of the motel's sign. He could stay there, he thought. He looked at it a while longer, then got up to go toward it, but instead turned, went home.

He came in, went into the kitchen. It was empty. He went into the bedroom, empty as well. When he opened the closets, he saw only rows of empty hangers. Beside the bed was an envelope addressed to him. He opened his mouth, closed it. He picked up the envelope, tore it crosswise, dropped the halves into the trash.

 
He closed the album, held it in his lap as he looked about the room. He hoped to see his son again, static before him, or the floor coated with repetitions of his son's face. He hoped for something dramatic and significant. He wanted to be haunted. But even when he squinted there was nothing.

He went into the bathroom, filled the tub with water, stared, tried to make out the swirl of his son's hair as he sank. There was only water, a ripple of shadow through it.

He wandered like that, through the house, all through that night and into the next, seeing nothing, wandering as if he were the ghost and there had never been anyone to haunt him save for he himself. And then he took out the album and turned through it again, beginning to render a new version of his life, one he could bear to live.