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FICTION / Paternity Test / Peter Barlow

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A woman in white who I’d not met before and wouldn’t see again afterwards visited my son’s bassinet to administer the Vitamin K shot. I had been awake for twenty-eight hours. It took me a second to focus through the slight delirium and remember why this was necessary:  so that sometime the next day the pediatrician could safely trim the tip off my newborn son’s newborn penis without him bleeding out. I nodded. She admired the baby for a moment, administered the shot, and then left. Possibly she’d been an apparition, but then I was still trying to wrap my head around the idea that I was now a first-time last-time father and that the new little life lying there in the bassinet next to me was now my responsibility, mine and my wife’s. I did not know then that I would not have another good night’s sleep for three days owing to a combination of furniture and circumstance, nor that while I would have a few nights worth once we got home, those wouldn’t last. I was new at the parenting gig, freshly minted. What I didn’t know could fill several volumes.

My son cried after the shot. I could certainly understand that. His first real view of the outside world was of a knife being thrust in his general direction, then being yanked out of his warm, wet lair into a cold room, stuck under a warmer, and wrapped in blankets. On top of that, now somebody was sticking him with a needle. His crying lasted for a few moments and then subsided as he drifted back to sleep. I watched him as he laid there, still wrapped up, still under the salamander, and wondered, briefly, what he was dreaming about, how much of the outside world he’d really absorbed in the womb—all the things that every parent wonders about every newborn that will never be definitively answered.

Another few minutes went by before another nurse came over and told me that the pediatrician would be along in a bit to have the first look at my son. I thanked her, and after she left I wondered if I would be able to get any sleep anytime soon. Apparently not; before hardly any time had passed another baby, this one swaddled in pink, was wheeled into the nursery by her father, who looked if not completely refreshed then better rested than I. He parked the bassinet next to my son’s and propped himself up against a support pillar a couple of feet away. “You look better than I feel,” I said, trying to sound funny and probably failing.

He snorted. “Thanks.” He closed his eyes for a second, then opened them again and looked back and forth between the two bassinets. “How old’s yours?”

“Hour and a half. However long ago eight thirty was. Yours?”

“Twelve hours.”

I looked at the two bassinets. Both babies were either sleeping or didn’t like the bright lights of the nursery; it was impossible to tell the difference. “You know, in about fifty percent of the world, we’d already be talking about marrying our children off to each other.”

He snorted again. “Over my dead body.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t believe in that sort of thing anyway.”

A nurse came over then and said the pediatrician had been delayed, and in the meantime my son and I could go and wait with my wife, who had already been wheeled into a room. “See you around,” I said, and pushed my son down the hall and into our room.

Maternity ward rooms are pretty much like any other hospital room—sterile, featureless, and inhospitable to everyone but the patients (and sometimes even them)—except all of them are private. Where the other bed would have been was a recliner in yellow that aspired to be split pea soup green and failed. After parking our son’s bassinet next to the hospital bed where my wife was still out cold, I sat in the recliner. It was stiff and had no give, like somebody had covered the padding with the same sort of plastic molding that booster seats are made with, without the benefits of being shaped to fit the contours of my body. I reclined the seat with a great clunk—amazingly, neither baby nor mother woke up from the noise of it—and leaned all the way back. My feet stuck off of the end of the pop-up footrest by eight or ten inches. Obviously comfort of the father rated somewhere on their considerations below whether or not there was soap in the attached bathroom. As it transpired, there wasn’t.

I sat there in the recliner for another half hour, reading the book I’d thought to pack, when my wife woke up. “Mmmph,” she said, still working her way out from under the drugs. “How’s baby?”
“Asleep. He’s right there next to you.”

She lifted her head a bit. “They give him his shot?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” She reclined, and no sooner had her head hit the pillow than the ward nurse came in to do a check-up. “You can go eat, honey,” my wife said. “I’ll be okay for a bit.”

I nodded and stood up. Two of my lower vertebrae cracked. I looked from nurse to wife to son, smiled, and left the room.

Most hospital cafeterias are decent. Given how people talk about the food that’s given to patients, that statement can be a bit difficult to swallow, but from personal experience it’s true. The quality is about what you’d get at the average food court or corporate lunchroom, and since it isn’t really a profit center for the hospital the cost is about half of what you’d pay out in the world. The one in this hospital had the added benefit of being across the hall and down a bit from the front entrance to the maternity ward, so I didn’t get lost looking for it.

I took a tray and grabbed two hot dogs and a large cola from the fountain and went to the cashier. The woman punched a few buttons on her register and told me the total in a half-hearted tone that said she was making minimum wage. I paid her and took a seat in the massive and mostly empty dining room. A TV on the wall was tuned to a news channel, but as apparently little of consequence was going on in the world the commentators was commenting on the lack of news, filling air time and spending Lord knows how much broadcasting money to talk about absolutely nothing. It fascinated me for five seconds, and then it didn’t.

Two or three minutes later the father who I’d encountered in the nursery came in with a tray of food of his own. He looked around for a moment and then, almost by default, took a seat at the table next to mine, also facing the television. “Hey,” I said as he plopped into his seat.

“Hey,” he said, and then nodded at my tray. “How is it?”

I shrugged. “Perfectly acceptable cafeteria fare. Good enough for what I paid.”

“Yeah, the foods alright for the cost. After a while, though, it tends to be— kind of average. It’s not food, you know? Just sustenance.”

I scratched my chin. “I take it you’ve had a few meals here.”

“Got here day before yesterday.”

“Long labor?”

His eyes glazed over, and then a second later hardened. “Yeah. Long labor.”

I opted not to press. “Well,” I said, gesturing vaguely at the television, “at least we have entertainment. If you can call it that.”

That brought a laugh, and then he said a silent prayer, crossed himself, and tucked into his food. He ate as if he’d had nothing to eat since the same time yesterday if not before then. A few minutes later he was done, fast enough that I wondered if he’d bothered to chew. “I have to be getting back,” he said. “Probably see you around.”

“Oh,” I said, taken slightly aback. “Yeah.” I leaned in his direction and extended a hand and told him my name.

He put his tray down and shook my hand. “Dave.”

— ◊ —

My wife came all the way out of the anesthesia in early afternoon and went onto general pain meds that made her every bit as loopy. She had to get up once or twice to use the bathroom, and moving was not only a painful experience—she walked a bit like Quasimodo, but slower—but a bloody one. The gauze-like panties she was wearing to help keep the bandages in place may have been doing that, but there was still some blood coming from between the stitches, the final effect being some small pools of blood and coagulant every couple of feet between the bed and the bathroom. I mopped up after her in both directions, doing my damnedest to keep my lunch down.
My son was oblivious to all of this. He cried a few times and nursed a few times, but spent the balance of the day in the bassinet, getting used to the temperature of the world outside the womb. I found myself staring at him more than once, out of fascination as much as boredom; we’d opted not to pay to have the TV turned on. I hadn’t realized yet that this was the quietest he would be until he became moody and secretive in his middle-teen years. I should have relished it. Instead I was trying to take it all in. This time the day before he hadn’t been here, not directly. He’d been alive but very much a fringe element of my life, something that I could plan only so much for—and had—but was really just a problem for another day and another time. Now that the day and time was here, the thought that I had no idea what to do next was overpowering. The first diaper change was an adventure in and of itself, trying to make sure everything was wiped and then repackaged just so, but even with the Velcro fasteners it took me three tries to get the damn thing on correctly. My wife was laughing so hard she nearly undid her stitches. I knew, somewhere in the back of my head, that I would get better at it as time went by, but just then I was ready to chuck the whole thing and find the nearest bar.

Somewhere in mid-afternoon I fell asleep in the recliner. The discomfort of the chair was no match for my exhaustion. When I was woke up next the sun was already down. the only light in the room was filtering in from the hallway. My wife and son were both asleep. I got up and stretched. The recliner had not been kind to my already bad back and the two vertebrae popped again. I decided to stroll down the hallway, see what there was or was not to see, and I pushed my son’s bassinet in front of me to give myself something to hold on to.

The maternity ward was quiet; a clock hanging out from the wall told me it was half past two. No babies were crying; somehow I found that surprising. I didn’t think babies really knew night from day, or cared. While I didn’t expect a bustling of activity given the hour, I expected a little something. Instead there was a nurse at the duty station who barely even acknowledged me passing by. She must have drawn the short stick, I thought.

The only rooms in the hallway that were lit were the waiting area, which was empty—whoever was waiting was waiting in the comfort of their own bed—and one hospital room. As I approached I could hear voices, and I softened my footfall a little.

“Can we give her any more morphine?” That was Dave’s voice.

“Not tonight. Not for a little while yet.” That had to be a nurse. “Chart says she’s maxed out for the time being.”

“But she’s— is there anything else we can do?”

A slight pause and some paper rustling. “I’m afraid not. Doctor’s instructions.”

A low moan came then, not from either one of them; it almost had to be Dave’s wife. “Please,” Dave said. The note of slight panic in his voice was impossible to miss.

“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, and a moment later she came out of the room and turned in the opposite direction from where I was standing. I doubt she even knew I was there.

“Darn,” Dave said. “She said she couldn’t do it, honey.”

“It’s alright,” his wife said. “I just— so tired— oh Lord, help me—”

Their baby girl coughed and cried a little then, and I moved back down the hall toward our own room, embarrassed by what I’d heard. I rolled the bassinet back into our room. My wife was still asleep. I parked my son next to her and settled down into the stiff recliner as best I could.

— ◊ —

My son was carted back to the nursery at mid-morning the next day for his circumcision. It would be the first time that he was out of either one of our sights since being born. I was nervous, not because I thought he’d come back with shot scars and tribal markings, but because my wife expected me to be. “I don’t want them injecting him with anything,” she said. “You should go.”
“There’s no space for me in the room where it’s being done.” Which was true. I’d taken a quick glance into the little area surgeries like that were done. It opened off of the nursery, and had I not known better I would have mistaken it for a janitor’s closet. With the bassinet and doctor there wouldn’t be space for another person. “I can follow him, stand outside. That’s about it.”

“Well, do that then.”

I did, somewhat unhappily. For whatever reason, the babies in the nursery this morning were a lot louder. It took me a minute or so to work out why. The half dozen bassinets in there were all boys. Apparently they’d all just had their willies trimmed. I couldn’t blame them for crying. Something they’d had all their lives was just whacked off without a second thought, and never mind that “all their lives” was only a day or two. That didn’t matter. They were in pain, and probably cold.
After my son’s was finished—he took it well, only cried for two minutes—I wheeled him back to our room and was summarily dismissed again so I could eat. Instead of taking a right out of the maternity ward toward the cafeteria I turned left and just started roaming, happy for the few minutes of freedom. The hospital was not small by any measure. The floor I was on seemed to stretch over a few city blocks. I walked through a couple of different general wards, which ones I have no real idea. The nursing staff mostly ignored me, or when they smiled and made eye contact probably assumed I was there to see someone, or just lost. Nobody tried to stop me and find out where I was going.

I found myself in front of the hospital chapel. I’d been in a few during my time. They were all generally low-key affairs, tucked into stray corners of the hospital with a preacher available on part-part-part-time hours. One actually billed itself as an Interdisciplinary Worship Center and had as a primary amenity a room for Muslims to pray in, complete with shoe rack and a marking on the wall indicating which way Mecca was. The one in this hospital had all the markings of an afterthought:  two small rows of pews that could seat a combined eight people and a closet office for a minister with a placard on the front indicating the office hours were from one to three on Thursday afternoons. As it was Monday, I felt somewhat lucky that I wasn’t in need of spiritual counsel. The wait would have been interminable.

As it happened, and much to my surprise, I was not alone. Dave was kneeling in front of the altar (which looked like a repurposed podium; they’d spared no expense, this place) and whispering a prayer. I thought about backing out slowly without even bothering to mutter an apology but instead I slid into a pew as silently as I could. If he’d gotten so down as to come and pray in the hospital chapel, Dave needed all the support he could get.

We were in near silence for a few minutes, the only sound being his whispered pleas for divine intervention. When he was done, he stood up and sat in the other end of the pew from me. Another minute went by before he spoke. “Fancy meeting you here.”

I gave his words a few seconds and then, trying to be funny, I said. “How long has it been since your last confession?”

He shifted slightly in the pew. “You a priest?”

“No. Preacher’s son.”

“Catholic?”

“Methodist.” I gave a slight smile that he wasn’t ever going to see. “But we’re good listeners too.”
He shifted again. “Six months. It’s been six months.”

I leaned back in the pew and stayed silent. It was more comfortable than the recliner.

“I don’t like to see my wife suffer. I don’t know any husband that does. And it frustrates me that I can’t make her better, can’t help her suffer any less. I wish I could end it, wish I could make her pain go away. It will soon, I know that, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

“You have compassion. That’s not a sin.”

“Is that what it is to wish your wife—” He didn’t finish the sentence, instead opting for a gesture of flipping his hands to the air.

I knew, or I thought I knew, what he was going to say next. I thought briefly of finishing his thought for him, but that would have involved telling him what I’d overheard the night before, which didn’t seem like all that solid of an idea.

Dave put his hands back in his lap and shook his head slightly. “Never mind,” he said, and then stood up. “I’ll see you around, yeah?”

I looked up at him. “Sure.”

A moment later he was gone. The Lord and I were alone. I gave Dave a minute or so to lose himself in the myriad of the hospital’s hallways and then I left the Lord to himself.

I lunched in the cafeteria again. The second time around—third if you counted the one-day birthing seminar my wife and I attended a few months prior—the selection began to lose its appeal. The portion sizes at the hot food station were either lacking or healthy depending on how you framed it, and as the salad bar didn’t have any appeal for me either I took a cheeseburger and fries from the warming station where they’d been sitting for who knew how long.

The dining room, even though it was getting on for lunchtime, was empty save for two nurses who were chattering away in one corner. I took a seat next to a window with a magnificent view of one of the other towers of the hospital and tucked in. For the first time I felt like I wasn’t really eating so much as I was taking in food to keep myself going, so I could have the power to go and do what needed to be done, take care of my wife today, take care of my growing son in the future. Dave’s words from the day before started to rattle then. It felt like I’d lost something, some little corner of my life that had provided a measure of enjoyment, and had moved from living to surviving. I wondered how many other small things would start to disappear from my life, and how I would feel about those once I figured out that I lost them.

When I got back to the room, I tried expressing some of this to my wife. She nodded. “That’s a lot of what it is, just holding on, getting from one moment to the next, trying to stay in one piece so you can take care of your child.” She had a daughter from a previous marriage who was at home, old enough to mind herself for the next few days, so she’d been through this before.
“I don’t know that I can live like that for very long,” I said.

“You don’t have a choice,” she said. “This baby isn’t going away, like the plague or a toothache. He’s going to want your love one moment and want you to go away the next. And it’s your job to be there for him, take care of him when he wants you, wait for him to come back to you when he doesn’t. Whether you like it or not, it’s part of what being a parent is.”

I waited a few seconds before bridging a harder topic. “I’m more worried about something happening to one or the other of us, and how we’d—”

“Don’t think that,” my wife said. The look on her face wasn’t angry but it was definitely in her voice. “Listen, if it did, we’d take care of him as best we could. We’d raise him, tell him about the parent that isn’t around anymore. There’d be an awful lot of difficult discussions, but again, that’s part of parenting.”

“I’d want you to find somebody else, somebody to help you with him, act as a father figure, and somebody for you to love.”

“Shut up, dear,” she said, “or I’m going to smack you one.”

I looked at my son then. As he lay there in his bassinet, I thought of Dave and his wife down the hall, if they’d had a discussion like this one, how it had resolved itself. It they had, Dave wasn’t pulling any comfort from it, or possibly it was all buried beneath the grief. I felt a little luckier, then, that both my wife and I were in relatively good health but I, too, pulled no comfort from that.

— ◊ —

It was dark. Loud voices passing by the door woke me again. My wife was enjoying her first real uninterrupted sleep in three days. My son was— well, just being in his bassinet, really. But the voices didn’t wake either of them. I felt like I’d come in on the middle of whatever it was. There was a hint of panic in the voices, something about someone not responding to medication or any attempts to communicate. They drifted off down the hall and out of audibility. I got up and followed, wondering what the fuss was about.

Dave was standing outside his room, holding his infant daughter to his chest, her bassinet forgotten against the wall. The daughter cried a little and Dave looked like he was about to. The loud voices were in his room now, saying urgent things to each other that made sense to doctors and nurses and people who watched medical shows. The daughter squirmed slightly against Dave’s chest; his grip, even from three rooms down the hall, was too tight. Had I existed a little farther outside myself, I would have been stunned that I was the only person that was woken up accidentally by the noise.

I walked up to Dave. “She’s—” he said, shaking now. “She’s—”

I reached out and gently pried his daughter out of his arms. “You’re hurting her,” I said.

He sobbed.

I put his daughter in her bassinet. “I’ll take care of her. Your wife needs you.”

He nodded the nod of somebody thankful for someone telling them what to do, and I pushed the bassinet away. Tonight, as the night before, the waiting room was empty and lifeless. A flat-screen was mounted to the wall, its remote control on a side table beneath it. I turned the TV on and found the channel that played non-stop classical music. They had Mozart on just then, which was ideal. The baby girl—Eleanor, according to her bracelet—twitched a little and went back to sleep. I took a seat on the sofa that was even less comfortable than the recliner and began rolling the bassinet back and forth gently with one foot. Eleanor didn’t seem to mind too much, and it gave me something to do. I envied her in that moment, her obliviousness. She wouldn’t remember this night or anything about this experience. Her world for the next little while consisted of diaper changes, receiving blankets, and random fits of crying. She wasn’t quite an island unto herself but she was very much helpless, in every practical sense of the word. I flashed forward then to moments like this that were bound to happen with my son, when my wife was as close as the bathroom and as far away as wherever she was that night; the distance didn’t matter. I hoped I could handle those times with as much grace as this one. “Oh, you sweet little girl,” I said. “Oh, you poor sweet little girl.”

A minute later a hospital bed went rolling by the door, three nurses and a doctor striding along behind it, and behind them Dave. He didn’t look into the waiting room but even from the side he looked like he was in even worse shape than earlier. There was some noise from them, and then there wasn’t. I gave the Mozart another couple of minutes and then pushed the bassinet out to the nurse’s station.

“Do you—” I said. I didn’t quite know which question to ask first. The nurse looked at me with polite confusion. “Where was she taken?Do you know?The woman just now.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t release—”

“This is their daughter.”

A very long pause. “Give me just one minute, okay?” She picked up a phone and dialed— well, somebody. Security, probably. I looked down at Eleanor. I wondered, then, what would happen if I placed her bassinet next to my son’s. Would they communicate?How?How could they possibly understand each other?She opened her eyes then, looked at me for a second, then smacked her lips and closed her eyes again.

“Sir?” The nurse speaking brought me out of my reverie, and I looked at her. “I’m to tell you that she’s been taken to ICU for the time being, and Mr. Hammond”—or something like that, but she had to have meant Dave—“would like you to mind his daughter for an hour or so. Until— his wife is stable. Said he trusted you. It’s hospital policy that she has to stay in the nursery. We have a recliner in there, so—”

I nodded. “That’s fine.” I paused, looked down at Eleanor for a moment, and said, “She’s going to die, isn’t she?”

The nurse took in a long breath. “Stage four small-cell lung cancer. She shouldn’t have even carried to term. But you didn’t hear that from me.”

I thanked her and pushed Eleanor into the nursery. As I sat in the recliner I looked at Eleanor’s bassinet and the child sleeping within. I had no idea how Dave was feeling, couldn’t fathom it in the slightest. Eight or so months ago when he’d gotten the word he would be a father, he must have been over the moon. At the very least he thought he’d have his wife there to help raise their child. Now he wouldn’t, and any joy he might have had over the birth of their daughter would be forever overshadowed. Would he see his wife every time he looked at Eleanor?If he did, would it be painful?I didn’t have those answers any more than he did, and were the situations reversed I didn’t know that looking at my son would or wouldn’t make me think of my wife. I just didn’t know, and I didn’t want to think about it. With those unhappy thoughts in my head, I drifted off to sleep again, unsure of myself more than ever.

— ◊ —

I was only asleep for a few hours when a cry woke me up. It was Eleanor, twitching in her crib. She cried again; I made a guess that she was hungry. There was a bottle already prepared on the tray under her bassinet, so I gave it to her, holding it at a gentle angle. I guessed correctly; she stopped squirming and gave the bottle her all. It didn’t register until later—much later—how easy that had come. When she finished a couple of minutes later, I pushed the bassinet into the hall and went to see if Dave was back.

I found him in his room. He had half of the drawers open, and when I walked in he was folding a small pile of shirts and putting them into a large suitcase he had set up on the table. His eyes were red and puffy. I suspected the worst, and I waited a few seconds before clearing my throat
.
“Oh,” he said. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

He nodded toward the bassinet. “She alright?”

“Yeah. No problems. Just gave her a bottle a minute ago.”

He nodded. “Thanks.”

Neither one of us spoke for a minute. I had no idea what to say and Dave went back to folding his shirts. Then he said:

“We found out three months ago that she was sick. She’d been nauseous for a while. We both thought it was just from the pregnancy—morning sickness, you know. But it kept going and going. She felt a lump somewhere. That’s when they found it. Three months. That’s all the longer she got. Three months.”

I remained silent. If only to give myself something to do, I started pushing Eleanor’s bassinet back and forth again.

“I want answers,” he said.

“I don’t— I don’t know that I have any. I don’t know that anybody does.”

“We couldn’t—she couldn’t take anything. She didn’t want to give up the baby. Wasn’t much we could do but pray. Fat lot of good that did. Spent all my life believing in God, being told that He would provide, that He hears every prayer, that He would show his followers mercy and compassion.” He closed the suitcase with a snap and zipped it up before turning to look at me. “Do you think that’s true?That God hears all prayers?”

I exhaled at length and dropped my head. I had absolutely nothing that would bring him any comfort, so I went with what I believed. “Yes,” I said. “But sometimes the answer is no.”
He nodded, and then pulled the suitcase off of the table. “Thanks for taking care of Eleanor.”
“Of course. Where— uh—?”

“Down to ICU. For at least the next little while. From there—” He shrugged and approached with an outstretched hand.

I shook it. “Take care of them both. They still need you.”

His jaw hardened, or tried to, and he pushed Eleanor’s bassinet out of the room, pulling the suitcase behind him.

I went back to our room. My son was in his bassinet and my wife sitting up in bed reading a magazine. She looked up at me as I came in and frowned. Something of what had just happened must have been playing across my face. “What is it?” she said. “What’s going on?What’s wrong?”
I pulled a chair over next to her bed, sat down, and held her hand. The full story could wait. “Nothing. Everything’s fine.”

We left the hospital the next day. As it was Wednesday, we had the remainder of the week and the whole weekend to figure out how this small miracle of life was going to affect things. Come Monday, I went back to work, not only my own child on my mind but Eleanor as well. The next weekend I was out by the hospital again; the grocery is out that way. As I drove by I had a fleeting impulse to stop the car and go up to the maternity ward and ask what had happened at last, how was Dave, did he need someone to talk to? But it occurred to me then that I didn’t even know his surname, and even if I did the nurses would probably call security before telling me thing one about him and Eleanor. So I did no such thing. I drove home to my wife, and my son, and all of what they meant now.


Peter Barlow is the author of Little Black Dots (Chatter House Press, 2017). His work has appeared in Rosebud, The MacGuffin, The Homestead Review, Red Rock Review, Underground Voices, and Per Contra. He is an adjunct professor of English at University of Detroit-Mercy.