Little Dude looks out the window as we approach Orlando International, at the wash of winking blue lights that tell the airplanes where to land.
“A story,” I suggest.
“Father,” he says, with that inmate attitude. “Would you turn on NPR?”
He’s ten. He is ten years old.
“Please,” I prompt.
“Please,” he mimics, picking his fingernails, which always means he’s stressed.
I turn on NPR. A somber gravelly voice says, “Buzzkills take Kiev.” Jazz ensues. Little Dude stops with the fingernails. “I know this one,” he says. “It mostly sucks. But there’s a sax solo at the end.”
We listen for a minute. The music starts out liquid and blue but soon rattles around us like a deranged swan. He clarifies: “The ending’s not, like, an ending? It stops right when it sounds like it’s getting started. Is what I mean.”
“Are you excited to see Mom?” I ask him. But he doesn’t answer. He’s air-soloing. His chubby fingers ride up and down an imaginary saxophone. It breaks my heart but because I’m Dad I just laugh and say, “You might have a future in that.” I say, “Yes sir, you just might.”
The airplane is late. It’s not unusual these days, what with the troposphere being so junked with toxins and drones. Travel’s a tricky prospect. The upside’s that the sky is a breathtaking kaleidoscope around sunset, a real gasper. Tonight’s entry looked like a stoner’s Dorito dreamscape, a finger painting of processed foods.
Little Dude and I sit and wait around baggage claim for nearly an hour, watching people claim their bags. Every so often somebody’s left bagless and panicking, or else a bag goes unclaimed and loops around on the conveyer. I point at one giant red Nike duffel that’s gone around three times and say, “Kev. Hey Kev. What do you think’s in that one?”
“Dad,” he says.
“Dad’s right here,” I say. “You off your rocker? Dad’s right here.”
In response, he palms the back of his lumpy shaven head.
The doctors still don’t know how The Disease works. Our own Dr. Fink had shrugged at all my questions. He looked so helpless and beaten I felt embarrassed for him, and clapped him on the back. “If it was a hernia I’d have things to say,” he informed me.
“Boy oh boy is Mom not gonna like this attitude of yours,” I say to Little Dude. This gnaws at him for a while. Again with the fingernails. Finally, he says, “A story.”
It lifts my spirits to see him correct himself like this. Tells me I raised a son self-aware enough to take criticism in the spirit that it’s intended. Plus, in terms of parenting? Telling stories is about the only tool in my toolbox I’m always jazzed to deploy.
“Wolfie,” I say.
“That guy,” Little Dude says. He likes the Wolfie stories. Wolfie’s a coworker, a fellow guard. He’s hunched and tiny, long scraggly hair, jellybean paunch, with teeth so yellow you’d think him a moonshiner. He’s always got a can of ginger ale in his hand, is always challenging inmates to pick-up jai-alai games and chuckling to himself knowingly.
“So today he asks about my number.”
“Your number?” Kevin looks at me, confused. Sometimes I forget he’s ten.
“You know,” I say. I sense a teaching moment and make the gesture: form the hole, and stick the finger in in what I hope’s a delicate wholesome way that conveys everlasting love and tender respect for the hole.
“You mean like sex and banging,” he says. I nod.
“What do you think I told him?”
Little Dude watches me, waiting.
“Wolfie says to me, ‘Son, I see your number is tragically low.’ Imagine he sounds like a southern preacher.”
“Do the voice,” he says.
I do the voice: “Truh-agically low.’ Then he says, ‘You know how you lift that number in a hurry?’”
“How?” Little Dude asks, in thrall. It’s thrilling to command his attention like this.
“What do you think?”
“Wear cologne,” he guesses.
“Be nice and smile?”
I shake my head.
“He says, ‘You find yourself some men. That’s how come my number got so high.’”
Little Dude thinks on this for a few minutes. Finally he says he wonders whether Buzzkills can, you know. Can they bang?
I have to admit I don’t know. I do not know. My gut twists from not knowing. I say, Listen: that’s a good question. I tell him we’ll ask Dr. Fink next time around.
Forty minutes later, Emily’s flight lands and docks and she appears, weeping and sprinting. I look down at Little Dude and see that he’s weeping too. When she reaches us she wraps Little Dude up inside her linebacker bulk. She rubs and rubs his bald head and tells him with genuine shock how handsome and grown he looks. Gives me a reproachful look, like it’s somehow my fault. I nearly say what do you expect when you’ve been gone a year and the only communication you’ve had with him is the occasional grainy lagged Skype date? But for Little Dude’s sake, I gulp it down.
They hug for a long time while I stand there smelling her BO. I’d forgotten how pungent she is. Right now it’s like a swimming pool with a little too much chlorine. Her smells used to do certain things to me, and now as she releases Little Dude and our eyes catch, I’m feeling angry and horny and more than a little confused and embarrassed about how mixed up it all is.
“The prodigal parent returns,” I say, and feel stupid and small when she breaks her gaze and asks Little Dude if he wouldn’t mind helping her find her bags. He’s just wiped his nose on her dress and’s now clutching her hand, looking sweetly up at her.
It’s a look that says, Mom!
Emily sobs again, which sets him off too.
The carousal comes to life. The two of them putter over like mourners flocking to a casket, clinging to each other and weeping. I hang back. I really need to pee, but I can’t look away.
It hurts to watch, this reunion, it really does.
Little Dude’s climbed up on the conveyer, and now he pretend-runs against its flow to my wife’s great delight. He hasn’t been this animated since he was diagnosed. His soft body is all ajiggle, goofily so. Two smaller kids, a boy and a girl, decked out in Disney attire, get in on the action. The girl, who looks about three, is immediately carried away, panic-stricken, to her father’s laughing amusement and her mother’s horror. We’re all watching, even Little Dude, who climbs down. Because the dad’s laughing, it’s tough to tell whether action should be taken or not. Before she disappears into the back, she’s plucked off by the shirt collar by an old man in a Tommy Bahama shirt and a fedora, who, after he’s thanked profusely by the mom, flushes and explains loud enough for all to hear that he’s about to embark on a cruise, but first he’s visiting his dyke daughter who’s just had a little boy using a surrogate, an unclaimed coma patient, isn’t it a terrific thing what they can do these days?
In the meantime, Little Dude’s wrestled Emily’s bags down off the carousal. I give him the key and say I’ll meet you at the car, I’ve got to pee. He takes it without paying attention. Emily’s explaining how, precisely, the airplane runs on vegetable oil and how the turbines are built by sentient robots with exoskeletons immune to jet blasts (synthetic chitin, a former colleague’s idea, she says), also running on vegetable oil.
The big hall is bright and open and empty as I stroll past darkened and gated storefronts and unmanned kiosks. The bathroom I find is clean and shining and smells like somebody got ambitious with the bleach. The metal stalls shimmer like flat peaceful lakes on cloudless days. Thanks to a faulty prostate, I spend five full minutes at the urinal, coaxing out a trickling. My mind wanders. I think of Emily as a teenager at the county fair, wearing a hot pink halter top with A M E R I C A emblazoned in white over her breasts and picking at the oversugared funnel cake we’d been gifted by a diabetic attendee. I think of Little Dude’s first laugh, his first unassisted poop, his first Facebook Friend Request. I’m so lost in thought I don’t notice the man standing at the mirror until I nearly bowl him over. I do knock his fedora off, and as I lean down to pick it up I tell him Holy shit am I sorry, I didn’t notice you there, are you OK, I’m as bad as a Buzzkill, ha ha.
He doesn’t respond. This is the old hero of baggage claim, I realize. He just goes on standing there, staring at the mirror, hands on countertop. I try handing back the fedora and get no response. I wave it in front of his slack face.
I realize I’m looking at a Late Stage Buzzkill.
And then, I think: in weeks, this is my son. This thought is so big and bright and terrible I shove it away before it’s got time to summon real force.
Up close the man’s expression is blank and pained at once. I place the fedora on his head and fiddle with it until it seems rakish, and then I bolt, passing a young woman with a pageboy cut on the way out, her worried face like a sentencing.
“The outbreak has caused much consternation in the scientific community,” claims the NPR host. “And because no adequate explanation has been advanced, a religious revival has taken place. The idea that The Disease is in fact a disease of the soul, is maybe soul cancer, as some fundamentalists have termed it, has taken root. It has indeed spread like gospel.”
“Wonderful observation,” another voice on the program notes sarcastically.
In the car we’re silent, listening. Emily squeezes the stress ball sun Little Dude presented to her as a homecoming gift. It wears sunglasses and sports a joyful toothy grin and says CAROLS PARADISE TAN across the back. Back in January there’d been a convention for tanning salon owners at Disney’s Polynesian Resort. We’d gone with a pale sales rep I’d met on OKCupid. She was vigorously peddling next-gen tanning beds. They worked like smartphones, or so she said. All she had was a mockup and a schematics diagram and she wanted to tote Little Dude around with her because she thought it might be better for sales. And did I tell her go jump off a bridge? No. Did I say no way you’re using my kid to bolster your sales commission? I did not. I let her drag Little Dude around the room. But I felt so queasy about it I spent the convention at the bar, consuming what the bartender called an “unholy” number of colorful fruity beverages with mountainous artificial sweetener content.
“It’s contagious, clearly,” says the sarcastic voice. “But how? We’ve got no clue. And what I’d really like to know is how these people took Ukraine, if the big thing about Buzzkills is that they’re essentially catatonic. How do you mobilize zombies?”
“Some believe it might be a hive mind kind of thing,” says the first voice.
“And how many are in our country?” the sarcastic voice continues. “And do we have a quarantine system in place?”
I say, “Doing OK back there Little Dude?” In the rearview I see he’s just staring out a window. I can tell it’s not just pouting this time. It’s in the body language. He looks deflated.
“Answer your father,” Emily says, and from her tone it’s clear she’s thinking the worst. Still, I’m touched that she backs me up. I can make-believe a second that it’s a genuine family moment we’re having, a thing I’ve hunted for ever since my dad left when I was six. Mom did the best she could but it’s tough when you’re bipolar and convinced, furthermore, that the universe is one huge elaborate Truman Show for someone else. After I taught myself to ride the bike that Dad left as a consolation prize, and then went ahead and cycled eight miles to the doctor’s office to present myself for vaccination shots, I said if I ever had a kid it wouldn’t happen. And yet: Emily decides a couple of months before Little Dude’s diagnosed that greener pastures are in order. One day she comes home and tells me everything. That she’d been corresponding with ITER. That the project director thought her designs were promising and asked if she’d like to come on out to southern France. I was not happy. She said fusion is the future. The needs of the many, she said. She said, I don’t care if you’re not happy.
She told Little Dude she was going away for a short while to help build the sun on Earth. What’s he supposed to say to that?
In the car she twists around to study our son. Quietly she asks me, “Is it just disrespect, or is he…?”
I give her a look like: You know what it is.
“You know what it is,” I go ahead and say.
She cries the rest of the way home. After a few minutes, when I realize it’s not going to stop, I turn the radio back on. I find the pop station and up the volume and jam out like a tipsy teenage girl until Little Dude’s pulled out of it and looking at me with fake-disgust which I know disguises his real disgust and saying over the music that I’ve got just zero taste, man.
Emily insists on a bedtime story despite my protests that Little Dude’s too old for it. No protestations escape the lips of our ten-year-old son, who’s tucked snugly inside his lolcat comforter. Emily says, “Methinks the Dad doth whine too much.”
“I am a man,” I say, “more whined against than whining.”
She whispers into Little Dude’s ear. He says, “To whine or not to whine.”
“Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous whining,” Emily says.
“To whine, perchance to whine: ay, there’s the rub,” adds Little Dude.
“I can haz cheezburger?” Emily says.
“I can haz cheezburger!” shouts Little Dude, ecstatic.
Whatever. I get it. She’s trying to cook up some brownie points. It just bugs me she’s doing it by putting me down. And by intruding on my turf as the storytelling parent.
I retreat to the living room and turn on HBO. There’s a dark genre-busting drama on, something with cops and poltergeists and nihilism, and so complicated I end up dozing off. I’m poked awake an hour later by Emily, who wants to know where’s the wine.
“Is he?” I ask.
“Down for the count,” she says.
She looks her age, is the nicest thing I can think to say about how she looks. She’s deodorized and changed into sweats. Looking at her, I think: we were once two people who lavished each other with love. I think about the days spent nude and sweaty on the filthy shag carpet of our first apartment. We zipped two sleeping bags together because we could not afford a mattress. Or A/C. She was in grad school and I was a security guard. I composed love songs for her that were mashups of other love songs, and she talked about the stars. About atomics. About fusion and its capabilities. She told me there’s a whole philosophy to craft from it. That fusion represented the dreams and yearnings of the human spirit, while fission reflected its realities.
That’s when I’d realized how far I’d fallen. I would listen and nod along and at the appropriate moment hazard a passionate kiss on the lips and initiate nuclear war.
In those days, when she started spending a lot of time with her physicist buddies, I went out and bought Rocket Science for Dummies, but could not advance beyond the second page. She admonished me in an endeared motherly way: It’s not rocket science, knucklehead, what I’m doing. It’s much harder.
In the kitchen she’s rummaging through the cabinets, searching for wine. She says, “I love that little guy so much. You don’t even know how tough it’s been.”
“It’s tough all around,” I say, and think: what a stupid thing to say.
She’s not yet jet-lagged, she says, and so she’s willing to have it out right now, if that’s what I’m getting at.
We have it out. “You abandoned us,” I start. How does a mom bail on her sick kid like that?
“You cunt,” she says. He wasn’t sick when she left, and I know it. She just knows I put him in a situation that got him infected.
And honestly, she continues, what was she supposed to do, turn down the offer? With the world’s oil supply all but extinct and wind and solar energy at best able to handle twenty percent of the world’s energy needs and all the other options decades upon decades away from viability?
We could have worked it out, I say. Me and Kevin could have come with.
Geopolitics played a role, she says. The Japanese were petitioning to design and build the part she’d already designed. It would have taken them two years, she tells me. The world doesn’t have two years.
We’re on the couch together. Her face is inches away and my eyes keep finding her lips. Her breath stinks of the Merlot I’d eventually dug from the pantry. We kiss. Our talk drops off a cliff. We start making out. There’s some heavy petting. We move the show to the bedroom where, on the floor, Emily positions herself on all fours and meows.
I think: huh.
I think: That’s weird.
She cries like a cat and sticks her butt in the air.
I stop thinking.
In the act she cries out, Oh, Byron! and gets emotional after because, she tells me, I’m still using
the same sheets we had when she left.
I say, “If I had a nickel for each tear.”
“It’s been a day,” she says, cuddling. “One of those.”
“Who’s Byron?” I ask.
“Don’t ask me,” she says.
“You don’t mean Lord Byron?”
“Just please,” she says.
“We need a plan, she says. “For you know what.”
I’ve got nothing. My head is utterly, blessedly, empty. For a while, we lay there, silently.
“What are we hoping for,” she asks dreamily.
For hours I toss and turn because I’m not used anymore to having someone in the bed with me, and because I’m fretting about Byron, and because I’m feeling guilty about fretting about Byron when Little Dude’s across the hall dealing with what he’s dealing with.
Eventually, I dream. Byron and Emily are cats. Long-hairs. They purr. They rub against my leg. They sit in my lap and knead at my crotch with untrimmed claws. They leap up on the counter and in French-accented English request to be fed. So I feed them. They complain about always being fed dry food. They say they want some milk and some Fancy Feast goddamn it. I say I wouldn’t even know where to get that stuff and with the NPR host’s voice Byron says Like hell you wouldn’t, maître de l’excavation de la merde. I go out to the grocery store and the cashier is Little Dude even though he doesn’t look like Little Dude and he keeps saying Sir, where’s your advantage card? Sir, where’s your advantage card? while I rummage through my wallet and the line piles up behind me and I start to get angry and accuse Little Dude of coming to my home and stealing the advantage card from my wallet while I wasn’t looking.
I wake up sweating and frustrated. Emily’s not in the bed.
I pad down the hall and check on Little Dude, who’s still asleep. No reason to wake him. I pulled him out of school when he got The Disease, and now most days he sits at home in his ergonomic desk chair in front of the desktop streaming the Kardashians and listening to NPR and collecting memes on Facebook. He posts them to his own wall. Emily’s typically the only person who likes them. I wish I could say that’s because of The Disease, but truthfully Little Dude, despite the avid consumption of US popular culture, didn’t have many friends to begin with. He seemed relieved in fact to be taken out of school.
Sometimes when I come home if I’m not too beat we’ll sit together doing interactive math exercises. When you get one wrong, a little kid’s face appears on the screen—sometimes it’s Jewish, sometimes it’s Caribbean, and sometimes it’s Japanese, but it’s always the same kid, somehow—and claps his hands to his rosy cheeks and shouts No! If you get it right, his face corkscrews into something unmistakably orgasmic and he says, Well duh.
That’s the extent of Little Dude’s homeschooling so far. Another thing I feel guilty about.
As I approach the kitchen I hear Emily’s voice, pitched at a whispery level. I creep forward. At the prison, such sneakiness has a whimsical name: Devious Dicking. Emily’s at the table, her back to me, her laptop open. I Devious Dick her phone conversation, listening to her speak to somebody I’m increasingly sure is Byron, because she giggles and mostly listens but occasionally interjects with a You’re so naughty! or Bad, bad boy! or something French that’s got the same gist but’s worse somehow for being French.
I stomp hard into the kitchen. She nearly leaps from her chair. Her neck snaps audibly when she whips around. To the phone she says, all business now, “I’ll call you back.”
We look at each other. She says, “OK.”
I say, “You are, I think, the worst sort of person.”
She says don’t hate her yet.
I tell her I’m more impressed than anything. I hadn’t ever realized, even working at a prison, that it
was possible to be as awful a human being as she was.
“It gets worse,” she says. “So please sit down.”
I sit. She asks if I’d like some coffee and I say please. She slides her mug across the table. Says she poured it and then decided she didn’t want it. I say big surprise.
“I’m in love,” she blurts.
“With Byron,” I say.
There’s a pause. She looks at the laptop screen. A thought occurs. “There was never any International Thermonuclear whatever,” I say.
“Don’t be a chauvinist,” she says.
I sip my coffee.
“How can I get you to see I’m a flawed human just like anybody else?” she says. “How could you ever accept something like that?”
I tell her that, in all honesty? if we’re being honest? I’m getting angry.
She presses on. “I never called because I was embarrassed. Because of how I left.”
“Byron,” I say, tasting it. It’s not like I didn’t think she was seeing other people. But love? We’ve known each other since we were seventeen years old. Twenty-one years. The most romantic moment I ever had was when she applied cover-up to my acne before the senior prom. And she’s telling me love?
She says, “I don’t know how to express it to you. It was like getting an unexpected package.”
I look at her.
“He just gets me,” she says. She tells me he’s a thin and somber—and very, very French—cat breeder she met at a pet store. That they walk through fields of daisies, figuratively speaking, and take cooking classes. They’ve hand-cut noodles and whipped up crème fraiche and braised various meats together. He often calls just to say hello and explain to her using colorful metaphors just how much he appreciates her companionship, which seems to be, basically, a lot.
“Fusion,” I say.
She torques her face wistfully and her eyes glass over and she says, yes, she supposes.
It’s this that does it. There’s a little click at the back of my head and before I know it I’ve slapped her hard across the face. The second time I do it I know what I’m doing. Emily fights back tears and says she’d hoped I’d be more mature about the whole thing. I deal another slap. She cries and massages her cheek and I sip at the coffee she burnt.
“Dad,” says Little Dude. Then again, this time softer: “Dad.”
He is standing in the doorway. Of course he is standing in the doorway, I think. How did I not see him come in, the Devious Dick? I think: He was always going to be standing in that freaking doorway.
Emily says, “It’s OK, sweetheart.”
Little Dude just looks at me.
It’s a look to burst the brightest neon hearts. My own is in my throat. I feel: you’ve lost it all, dickhead.
I grope, but I can find no story to tell. I can’t think of even a single thing to say.
He looks. He looks and looks and looks and looks and I think: My son! What do you see with those eyes.
On my drive to work I turn on NPR. I’m feeling crummy and figure: why not feel even crummier?
Why not go for broke?
A gaggle of schoolgirls is telling a story. It’s tough to piece together because they’re all trying to speak over each other, except for one who goes ha ha periodically and who, it eventually emerges, has a wicked case of autism. The story: a friend of theirs came down with The Disease. She went through the stages: first, she became quiet and practical, then soon her moods fluttered between inert and agitated–she took, like, a ton of selfies when she got like that—and then finally, they found her one day staring at herself in a bathroom mirror. A fly had gotten comfortable on her nose, said one of the schoolgirls.
The host says, First, let me just ask about the Ukraine situation. Thoughts? Ten or so seconds of dead air follow. One of the schoolgirls says, Um. The host clears his throat and says OK, so he understands they did something special for their Buzzkill buddy?
They did, one confirms. They took her head off.
Clean off? the host asks, with a newly lurid tone of voice.
It got a little messy, a different schoolgirl admits.
Ha ha, says the autistic one.
The correct terminology here, the phrase we’re all groping for, is mercy killing, says one.
Her mom thanked us.
There are pictures on Facebook and Instagram.
She gave us gift baskets, says the original schoolgirl.
How did it feel? the host asks. To decapitate one of your best friends?
We thought of it in terms of, this’ll be a challenge, says one. We said to each other let’s rise to and overcome this challenge, and what doesn’t kill us will just de facto make us stronger.
We beheaded somebody, one of the schoolgirls says. There’s distress in her voice. She says, What kind of world is this? She says, I vomited afterwards. I have nightmares about it. Amanda wanted to be a graphic designer. We’re just absolute monsters.
I’m gripping the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles are white and aching.
They aren’t zombies, the girl says quietly. They’re people. They’re human beings.
What makes you say that? the host asks.
It’s in the eyes, she says. Look in the eyes. Amanda was afraid.
I switch the station and recall, with the sort of clarity I was hoping against, the look on Little
Dude’s face this morning, and the dull resigned way the airport Buzzkill stared at himself. I can’t sustain it, though, these images. What will I do when The Disease runs its course? I don’t know. I don’t know. And I don’t want to. I think about anything else.
Work is a gaping maw, a senseless collection of sounds and sights and stenches: in the medical bay, for example, an inmate takes the two Oxycodone he’s allotted and swallows them down with his own piss.
In the dorm, inmates take turns bugging me about their assholes. Dirtstar is the favored term, although brown-eyed smile is a close second. Wolfie shows up with actual jai-alai gear, trash- talking various bewildered inmates, saying Today’s the day you meet your maker, son.
During routine searches, we tell the inmates to squat and pop. In the unclenching of one inmate’s dirtstar, I find a packet of mayonnaise. Another has weed in his mouth. In the pocket of another, there’s rolling paper scrolled so tight and sharp it’s weaponized, and there’s such genuine disappointment on his face when it’s confiscated that I feel pity for him and avert my eyes. I weep as I beat him with my brass knuckles, and as he curls at my feet, he seems to understand and become peaceful and submissive.
In the after-shift meeting, the daily gold star is placed with great ceremony next to my name on the Employee Eval Chart. I think partly it’s because everybody knows what I’m dealing with at home. There’s applause and back-slapping. Then it’s time to get serious. Captain tells us we’ll be doubling up in the dorms to make space.
“We’re already doubled up,” somebody shouts.
“I say we pack ’em tight,” Wolfie says to me. “Like humping crickets, you seen them things?”
“What are we making space for?”
Captain grimaces. “You won’t like it,” he says.
“Storm shelter?” somebody asks.
“Buzzkills,” he says. “Quarantine.”
Everybody shouts. Wolfie says, “Didn’t I say?” even though he’s never mentioned it before. All I can do is shut my eyes.
When I get home, Emily is in pieces. She gestures in the direction of Little Dude’s room. I go in there and find him staring at the mirror. Gently I place a hand on his shoulder. This startles him. He looks at me like he’s trying to remember.
He says, “I.” That’s it. That’s the whole sentence: I.
Now I’m feeling heartburn. Like: how is this fair? How is any of this fair?
Once I settle him into bed, I sit there with my hand on his warm chest and start a story. It’s a game we used to play. We’d take turns telling the story. Most of the time, it would get wilder and wilder until we both collapsed laughing, and Little Dude was more awake than ever.
There’s a guy, I say. He’s in bed because…
Here’s where Little Dude would normally take over. But he just stares at the ceiling. I say: He’s in bed because, let’s just say because he lost his cellphone. He’s sad about it. His friends come over to cheer him up. They say, Hey bro. Did you try calling it?
I watch Little Dude and wonder if this is it. I get the same feeling I always got when my mom, in her despairing moods after my dad left, during those days she felt least watched, refused to do anything beyond sit on the couch, watching rerun after rerun of M*A*S*H*, pausing only to occasionally peer out the window, offering a weak smile and a thumbs up to the empty street. To this day whenever I hear “Suicide is Painless” I feel like there’s a chicken bone lodged in my trachea.
This is pointless, I decide. I pat Little Dude’s chest and get up. I take one last long look at him, at my son.
When I turn to leave, he murmurs something. Or I think he murmurs something? I’m hoping he murmured something. I kneel at the bed and lean in. For a moment, there’s nothing but his little chest rising and falling. But then, he murmurs. He murmurs: The cellphone is hiding.
For a brief moment I’m too overcome to say anything. Little Dude repeats himself. Tearful, I say: it’s tired of being the guy’s slave. It wants to see the world.
Again, there’s just his breathing. But I recognize this. He’s thinking.
He says: It tried to vibrate itself out the door and on a bus to New York but instead got shoved beneath the dresser by the guy’s cat.
The cat’s dressed like Chairman Meow, I say.
There’s a dog too, he says. It’s Uncle Sam. It’s trying to help the cellphone.
The dog fights the cat. They do kung-fu.
UFC, Little Dude revises.
The cat’s sneaky but the dog is overpowering.
He gets the cat in a leg lock.
The cat taps out.
The dog takes the cellphone to New York, where it auditions for American Idol. And the guy gets a new cellphone.
Everybody wins, he says. He says: It’s a happy ending for all the good guys.
Over the next hour, we remove every mirror in the house. We’re quiet as we do this; reality’s sunk in. When all the mirrors are face down in the grass on the side of the house, we throw a tarp over them and pin it down with spare bricks.
For a little while we just stare. To Emily I say, “They’re not zombies.”
“I called Dr. Fink,” she says. “He didn’t have any suggestions.”
“He said this whole thing makes him feel inadequate.”
I head inside, go rooting around in the fridge.
“He says he’s got to report Kevin,” she says softly.
Again, what am I supposed to say?
“The thing this morning,” she says.
I stop and look. I say, “What thing this morning.” Her expression is grateful. I microwave a Hot Pocket and we then do the only thing we can think to do: we watch a Matthew McConaughey film and make out a little.
The next morning we wake to a litany of smells: maple, bacon, butter. Little Dude is in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. “Sit down, sit down,” he says, pulling out chairs for both me and Emily, setting paper towels in our laps, serving us with flourish.
“How thoughtful,” Emily says.
On the TV: CNN. Russian troops mass on the northwest border, near Belarus. Putin’s leering into cameras, saying by any means necessary. The embattled Ukrainian president, having fled to Lviv, responds with a diplomatic Go fuck yourself. Soviet-born American pundits claim regional destabilization. The graphics read World War Three? There’s footage of the Buzzkills, flocked in Kiev, looking numberless and menacing.
“Orange juice or coffee,” asks Little Dude.
Following breakfast, he rinses the dishes and sets them in the dishwasher. Then says, “What next, parents?”
I tell him today is Waterpark Day. Doesn’t he remember?
He remembers. Of course he remembers. He just thought if we’d like some time to digest, to laze around, to take a nap or read a good book, that he’s certainly amenable to changes in plans.
Emily looks to me, frightened.
“Go put your swim trunks on, Little Dude,” I say.
Off he goes, pliant and agreeable.
Emily says, “Is this a good idea?”
“Go get changed,” I tell her.
In the car, Little Dude requests NPR. Ongoing: a quiet and civil debate among an expert on the psychopathology of anxiety disorders, a prominent Presbyterian minister, and an acclaimed journalist who, poo-pooing the idea that The Disease is contagious, embedded with the Buzzkills over the weekend, as they took over Kiev.
Mass hysteria of the fifties, the psychopathologist is saying, or the malaise of the seventies. A society-wide anxiety. It’s an idea that’s gained credence in recent weeks.
They were so kind, is the thing, says the journalist. What sort of anxiety manifests as kindness?
Let me just interject here, says the host. OK they were kind. But what of the fact that they did indeed occupy Kiev?
It was bloodless, says the journalist. They just sort of walked in there and, because of their reputation, everybody bailed.
Are these people zombies? the host asks.
I’d like to say something, the minister says.
Go on, urges the host.
I’m aware this will be unpopular. But listen. We are living in the end times. This disease is an indication. I know this idea will be met with skepticism. But I do feel the need to float it.
A beat of silence.
They’re not zombies, to answer your question, says the journalist.
It’s by the book collective obsessional behavior, says the psychopathologist. Listen to this: have you ever heard of the Dancing Plague of 1518? In Strasbourg, much of the population just started dancing. It lasted for a month. Or listen to this. In the 60s, at a boarding school in Tanzania, a few students started laughing uncontrollably. It spread. The school was forced to shut down. The students were sent home, and the laughter spread throughout their villages. This lasted four or five months. I could cite you a number of others. The only notable difference about the current so called Buzzkill disease is how wide it’s spread and how long it’s been sustained.
Let’s entertain the idea that hell, maybe it’s not a disease, says the journalist.
A mark of the beast, the minister says, helpfully.
Being kind and thoughtful shouldn’t be scary to us. It shouldn’t be so outside the collective norm
that we feel threatened by it.
Let me just point out the wrench in your theory, says the psychopathologist.
The staring in mirrors and such, the host says. The weird catatonic narcissism that follows the thoughtfulness.
Right, says the psychopathologist, sounding annoyed. It’s a progression.
Well but can we interrupt that. Do we know what causes it.
You’re the Jane Goodall in this scenario, asshole, says the psychopathologist. So you tell us.
Simple. They can’t sustain the altruism. It’s exhausting them.
So how are we supposed to fix that? asks Little Dude, out loud. In the rearview it’s clear he’s
intensely engaged. Emily makes a little strangled noise.
So how are we supposed to fix that? asks the host.
Well that’s the question, isn’t it, the journalist says.
Historically? It’s called ontological incentivizing, says the psychopathologist.
I know we’re NPR, but come on now with these big words, the host admonishes.
No, listen. Ontological incentivizing. It’s something our Christian friend here knows all about.
Care to rejoin? asks the host.
I don’t even know what language he’s speaking, the minister says.
Religion. Jesus. Systems of reward and punishment on an existential scale. We’re getting into metaphysics here.
Far afield, observes the host.
I don’t see how it applies, the journalist says.
Neither do I. That’s my entire point, says the psychopathologist. Because this is collective obsessional behavior. And it does tend to peter out after a while. It’s all I came to say. Dear World: please stop overreacting.
Now, hang on, says the host. Are you saying—are you saying that everything is going to be OK?
That’s my theory, says the psychopathologist.
Collective silence, both on the air and in the car.
On the line we’ve got a neuroscientist who claims the disease is in fact a poorly understood inherent neurological condition that activates under certain intense conditions….
Emily shuts it off. We ride in silence the rest of the way.
Inside the park, families stream past us, sunned and joyful. Everywhere it smells like sunscreen and fried foods. Little Dude suggests a locker. “I don’t want you guys having to carry stuff around all day,” he says, looking concerned. “Plus, if somebody gets lost it’ll be like a home base.”
“It’s your day, bro,” I say.
“Whatever you want, sweetheart,” Emily says.
I pay for the locker. We slather on SPF 45. “Don’t forget the tops of your feet,” Little Dude says.
We do each other’s backs and tread off in the direction of the rides. Little Dude takes Emily’s hand.
I watch them feeling tender and protective and like: maybe we can make this work. Maybe the guy on the radio was right. Maybe the Disease will wear off and Little Dude will be Little Dude again, and Emily will stay, and our family will be whole.
We wait in massive lines. We plunge down the slides. Slush Gusher. Teamboat Springs. Toboggan Racers. Downhill Double Dipper. We even summon our courage for the Summit Plummet. We reapply our sunscreen every hour, as per Little Dude’s instructions. We go round and round the Cross Country Creek. Little Dude flips my tube, I flip his, and Emily snaps photos with her waterproof smartphone and uploads them to Facebook, and then periodically updates us on the Likes they garner. Eventually we pull ourselves pruned and laughing from the water and Emily says to Kevin, How about some eats? and he looks to me like: Are you hungry?
No one, I think, will take this kid away from me.
Off to Lottawatta Lodge we go. Everybody gets cheeseburgers. While we eat Little Dude’s mugging, trying to crack us up. He succeeds. He then decides he needs to go pee. I say go ahead, it’s just around the corner.
Ten minutes later he still hasn’t returned. Emily and I exchange looks.
In the bathroom, he stares at himself.
This breaks my heart. But hope, I tell myself, is refusing to look away.
I gather my son into my arms and carry him out to his mother. The boy will be OK, her heart says to mine. In my arms he’s lightless, his gaze sunward, awed.
Eric Fershtman’s work is published/forthcoming in various places, including Electric Literature, Seneca Review, The Good Men Project, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Barnstormer.