They could never quite tell if he was sleeping or dead. And so they’d nudge him. And that pose that the very new take in sleep – with their arms sprawling above their oversized heads – would be disrupted as he started out of sleep into a lip-quivering wail.
He was a tired baby because of it.
But he didn’t remember that now. That was 95 years ago. If anyone told him about that (which they wouldn’t because everyone who knew about that is long dead and cold), he’d hack a laugh and say, What, me a newborn?
And so he didn’t remember any of that. None of the hungry times or cold times or frightful times when a mother just had superstition sitting like a shadow in the corner telling her that the baby was on the way to death. He didn’t remember any of that, at least not in the way that we think of remembering. Maybe just his cells remember it. Or maybe just the sleep-needing part of his brain remembered it as it fell into a few unexplained fitful starts when his head lay heavily on a fresh pillow.
He didn’t remember the fuss of his mother, the neurosis of waking every two hours to make sure the little bundled boy was breathing, that he wasn’t overcome with the smoke from the stove’s leaky flu or beaten down finally with the cold in the early part of that year.
He didn’t remember the Fear that his siblings carried with them, carried on their shoulders unknowingly so that Mama wasn’t the only one hunched under the Fear’s crushing weight. The way they carried that Fear was perhaps similar to the way Simon had carried the man’s cross for him. Similar, but not entirely the same. His siblings were older, sure. But the oldest was still no more than nine in that year – the Year of the Hard Time. And so, what does a nine-year-old know about helping with the deathly weight of the Fear? All he knows is that when Mama is short, he’s got to zip his trap, he’s got to nurse his own skinned knees, he’s got to keep his hunger pangs to himself until Mama’s finally able to bundle the troupe out into the wind to the corner soup kitchen. Simon carried a rough-hewn cross. A man doing man’s work. Would a man do that kind of work with the body of a boy, knobby knees, narrow shoulders, and all?
But Cy didn’t remember any of that. At least not in the typical way of remembering. He was 95 now and his memory of it all was less visceral but somehow more profound. When the end of the month drew close and the Hot Pockets dwindled to a couple dozen in the freezer, when the gas bill came due on the 27th of the month and he still had eight or nine days until the next Social Security check came in, when the local Scout Troop came knocking for popcorn sales, his mouth drew tight at the corners, his saliva dried, and he would have trouble passing his bowels for a couple days at a time. When the evenings came and the shadows huddled around the corners of the old lace curtains, when the furnace started its chatter of ticks and clicks and sudden combustion and the radiators creaked to life, when the dark came gathering across the stilled treetops and burnt-out store fronts of old Cedar Mills, Wisconsin, he would hunch a little lower in his old armchair, lean a little farther forward as if his old bones were somehow readying to spring up if and when the Fear ever turned from shadow into flesh on a deep, frigid night. He would sit there, with his tight frown, his pent-up bowels, his shoulders narrow again like a boy’s, his paper-thin skin shaking and he’d wait. And sometimes Martha would come. And sometimes she’d sing to him. And sometimes she’d laugh with him and sometimes she’d just stare. But she wouldn’t stay long. Inevitably, the first street light would buzz into electric wakefulness and shine dully off of the urn that Cy kept sitting above the TV. And he’d remember. And whoever that woman really was would disappear.
But, inevitably, the fifth of the month would roll around. And on that bright dawn (or gray, Wisconsin dawn), he knew the SSA check would be in the mail, he could send Sophie out for more Hot Pockets and Hershey bars. And he would eat a bowl of Shredded Wheat, remember how Stanley told him they were actually bales of hay that the farmers had marketed for people. That Stanley, he was a cracker jack! God rest his soul. He would wipe his mouth, hobble to the water closet to pass his bowels, wipe his ass, and then sit down again to watch the cold light that was dawning over the dead corner of the end of this year. He had all day in that far, far corner of the year to sit and flip through the channels, enjoy the heat ticking out of the radiators. And by next month, by jingo, by gosh, by gee, by golly, there would be a whole new year to see!
And Sophie would maybe call Rick to bring the kids over – the baby should be strong enough by then to be bundled up out through the cold. Cy had seen pictures of the kid – round cheeks, not smiling yet, but new, fresh, and warm with the smell of milk yawns. A brave young child in this far corner of the year!
By jingo, by gee, by gosh, by golly, Cy thought, that was next month already! And he would see about asking Sophie to see the new baby. Baby John! Oh John, John, John, John! John-John! So new! So untouched by fear, Cy thought.
But what did Cy know of fear? It came with the dark? Not always. It promised pain? Maybe, but what of it?
Sophie’s husband, a Division Manager with the DNR, once told him not to worry too much about hooking the worms he used for bait since their nervous systems were so basic, they couldn’t feel what we know of as pain.
But they still wriggle when the hook punctures the paper-thin skin. Their basic nerves are rent asunder and their guts are thrust aside by a barbed shaft of steel and they wriggle. Boy do they knot themselves up.
What did Cy know of fear?
He would sit on that fine day towards the far corner of his end of years and feast on a Hot Pocket, turn from the news to a Colombo rerun, and drift off to a sleep soothed by the sounds of electronic life and the food dissipating in his full belly. Soon, the timer would click the tube off and the food would be gone and his flesh would tighten imperceptibly and he would straighten up in the old armchair, looking for the source of the footsteps. And there would be Martha, forgetting about her small home on the shelf above the TV. There she would be, staring at him, dumb and wanting.
And Cy’s mouth would turn down. And his paper-thin skin would shiver with a chill. And the sun would draw down on the far side of the world.
Cy would frown and think about asking Sophie to see the baby. But it’s too cold to bring him, she would say.
And so he sat there with nothing left to hope for but for Martha to go back to sleep. And the Fear settled again in bruised shadows around the curtains. And the weight of the Fear would be there on his shoulders, on his narrow, narrow shoulders.
And it was the same fear that already on quiet nights wrapped itself around the wordless void of Baby John’s dreams.