Bedtime

As Kevin stepped out of the Charge ‘N Ride limo and shut the door, he suddenly figured out the best way to define the cashflows for his client’s internal rate of return. Then he heard Nicky shriek from the upstairs bathroom window. He moved swiftly across the front veranda into the house and bounded up the stairs. After he helped Claire settle their son down, he would have her put him to bed tonight. That way he would have time to revamp the copy of the office spreadsheet on his den computer and fax it to the junior investment bankers on his team at Brass Brothers.

Claire stormed out of the bathroom holding a wriggling Nicky at arm’s length and stopped just short of crashing into her husband.

“Here,” she said, thrusting the dripping wet child into his arms, making him drop his briefcase. “Take him.” She hung a towel over his shoulder and continued past them toward the bedroom.

“What did he do?” Kevin managed to say.

Claire did an about‑face at the bedroom door. “Spend a day with him and find out.”

“No one said it would be easy.”

Her jaw dropped. “Thanks for the sympathy.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“How about ‘I’m sorry you had a tough day, Claire.’ Do I have to put the words in your mouth?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

“Now that I told you what to say.”

Nicky leaned out away from Kevin, kicking and stretching his arms as far as he could toward Claire while whining relentlessly. She took him and, holding him upon her hip with one arm, gently tucked his head beneath her cheek, the gleaming wild strands of his gold‑blond hair touching the strawberry‑blond curtain of her own. She kissed his temple and stroked his head until he quietly rested his cheek upon her breast.

“I’m sorry if I came off a little curt,” Kevin said. “I didn’t mean to. It’s just that I can’t understand why you refuse to get an au pair.”

“Because I’ve told you: I don’t want a stranger living here. I had enough of them through our walls at the co‑op.”

“So we’ll get day help. I’ll ask people at work for references if you want.”

“That’s not the point. Most days are fine. But when they’re not, it would be a lot easier if I knew you were going to be home at a decent hour each night instead of occasionally just to put him to bed.”

“So what do you want me to do: quit my job?”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course not.”

“You take it for granted that I even make it home in time to see him during the week and that I rarely have to work on a weekend.”

She flapped a hand at him. “You’re not hearing me,” she said turning toward the door.

“I am,” Kevin insisted. “But you’re not following through on our understanding.”

“What understanding?”

“The one we came to when we had Nicky. Either you would go back to work within six months and get someone to take care of him, or you would stay home. You chose the latter. So I put in all this face time at work so we could afford to buy this house. Each choice has its consequences.”

“That’s presuming I had a choice.”

“Of course you did. You still do. You could go back to your job. You told me yourself they didn’t want you to leave.”

“They didn’t.”

“So?

She nuzzled Nicky with her cheek. “I know what I experience, Kevin.” She kissed Nicky’s lips and lowered him to stand on the hallway carpet. “Good night, sweety. Daddy’s going to put you to bed now.” Nicky wrapped his arms around her knee. She looked up at Kevin. “Please,” she said.

Kevin slung his suit jacket over the bannister and approached Nicky, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Come love,” he said.

Nicky clung to his mother more tightly.

Kevin removed the child’s arms from Claire’s leg and lifted him by the armpits.

Claire went into their bedroom, closing the door behind her.

“Mom‑mie‑e‑e‑e!” Nicky wailed, flailing the air with his little legs.

Kevin carried him into the child’s bedroom, gently closing the door behind him with his foot as he knelt and placed him on the carpet. “Mommy’s resting, love.”

He started rubbing a towel over Nicky’s head and back until the boy darted out of his hands toward the door. Finding it closed, Nicky reached up for the crystal door knob and began twisting and tugging it.

Kevin glanced at the clock on the dresser: eight‑thirty. Bedtime. He would put the child to sleep once he forgot about his mother and call his team, who were all still in the office, to inform them that they would receive the spreadsheet in an hour or so. They could then incorporate it into the pitch book for tomorrow’s 8:00 AM presentation without having to pull an all-nighter.

Nicky pounded the door with his fists.

“Hey!” Kevin said, displeased with the racket.

His son looked at him wide-eyed, tears streaming down from his reddened eyes.

Kevin had not meant to startle him. “Hey,” he repeated softly. “Are you lump‑y?” he asked in that exaggerated nasal way, the way he had found that words like “plump” and “stinky” amused him.

Nicky giggled, his jiggling cheeks coated bright with tears. He kept laughing until suddenly it was as if he remembered having been upset, and he started to cry again.

“Now what’s the use in crying,” Kevin said trying to humor him. “I mean think of all we have here tonight.” He crawled over to him on his hands and knees. With his pointer finger he gently wiped the tears off his son’s cheeks. Surveying the room, Kevin spotted the little black train track running away from them across their son’s rainbow-striped carpet to the red barn beneath the window.

Nicky grabbed his tie.

“No, no, love,” Kevin said, gently trying to extricate the silk article from his son’s fingers.

“No,” Nicky stated, giving the bright blue‑and‑red strip a tug.

“Okay, okay,” said Kevin, scooting next to him so that the tie would go slack and escape damage. Yet when he looked down at it, he sighed. The silk was sopping wet from when he had held Nicky in his arms. No point in fighting over what was already damaged, if not beyond repair. He loosened the knot, pulled the loop over his head, and placed it around Nicky’s neck. “Ah, yes, my son. You too can choose the commuter’s path.”

Nicky yanked the noose up over his head and threw it on the floor.

Kevin smiled. “I sympathize, but,” he said, reaching for the barn and taking hold of it, “they’re expecting you at the office.” He shook the barn up and down and in all directions, making a cacaphony of moos, neighs, and chicken clucks as he glanced from the barn to Nicky.

Nicky chirped with glee and rushed bow‑legged toward the little treasure chest, his penis wiggling with abandon. He stopped in front of the barn and lowered himself slowly onto his butt. Opening the barn doors, he removed each figure one at a time, turning it slowly in his fingers as if he had just discovered a rare gem, as if now were the first time he had ever admired each of his most familiar teeny companions.

Kevin reached over, opened the top dresser drawer, and pulled out a diaper and a rainbow‑colored tie‑dye tee shirt. As Nicky sat humming “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” absorbed in placing each of his little friends in the corral outside the barn, Kevin pulled the tee shirt down over his head and guided his arms through the sleeves. He noted the lean shaping of that head, the erect alignment of head, neck, and spine as Nicky concentrated on what was before him. The intensity of those dark brown eyes. Kevin’s eyes. And he wondered if his father had ever sat and wondered with him like this when he was Nicky’s age. He could recall taking trips with him when he was seven or ten or something like that, the fun‑ and fact-filled excursions to The Baseball Hall of Fame and the Amish country, but not a lingering event‑less sitting like this. Maybe he was too young to recognize it at the time, and that was why he could not remember it now. Or maybe, like he, his father would set his son up to play with toys until bedtime so that he could finish his thoughts from the day at work without being interrupted.

Nicky was tapping his arm with something. It was a tiny plastic figure of a blond woman wearing an apron, the one who accompanied the farmer that came with the barn.

“Mommy,” Nicky said, offering it to Kevin.

Kevin took it in his fingers. “Thank you,” he heard himself say.

Nicky turned and placed the farmer in his tractor and the children in the wagon that it towed.

Kevin considered the figure he now held, wondering why he could not recall a single instance of being with his own mother when he was very, very young. He remembered her being there with milk and cookies when he came home from school. He remembered her giving Going Away and Coming Back parties for the kids in the neighborhood when they attended sleep‑away camp all summer. But the memories of her in his childhood reached back no farther than the time when he began to spend most of his day away from her.

Nicky rose and went to the door, asking for his mother once again. Once again Kevin diverted him, this time to the brightly‑colored cars and trucks heaped in a white‑wicker basket by the toy highway and city business district with its multi‑story parking garage. And when a few minutes later Nicky tired of these toys and went to the door, calling for his mother a third time, Kevin persuaded him to join his father in reading picture books.

Kevin felt a masterful sort of satisfaction as he read with his son, the satisfaction of being able to steer his child clear of tantrums away from the familiar shore of Claire’s affection and to keep him on an entertaining course that would lead to sleep. Given the fact that he usually got to carry out this duty only on weekends, he felt he was performing rather well for an amateur. In fact he felt like a seasoned professional who had learned important tricks of the trade. As he put on Nicky’s diaper, he alerted him that in a few minutes it was time for bed, preparing him for the imminent arrival at their destination. He felt aglow with pride as he glanced about the room while Nicky pulled out books from a shelf to find the next one he wanted to read. It was the pride of being able to provide this world of riches for his child, this landscape of bright new clever devices from Fischer‑Price and F.A.O. Schwartz and of hand‑me‑downs he had salvaged from the dusty attics of his parents and in‑laws or the garage sales and curbside trash piles of neighbors, the ones he had rescued from disrepair and neglect with an artfully inserted screw or bolt and a devoted application of cleanser.

After a few minutes, Nicky turned away from the books. Kevin slipped his hands under the boy’s armpits, telling him to prepare for the flight into his crib. Nicky wriggled free and darted to a peach basket brimming with wood blocks by the crib.

“Mommy,” he said, pointing to the blocks.

Kevin sensed it was just a ploy to avoid having to go to bed. He was prepared to hold the line, of course, insisting that it was time for Nicky to go to sleep whether he liked it or not. A child looks for limits, Kevin’s mother had taught him. And so Kevin had let Nicky cry alone in the dark after bedtime when he was an infant so that he would learn to stop crying because no one would come and pamper him–until Claire would go into his room after a while and quiet him. Kevin was prepared to have him cry now–except having witnessed his son’s repeated invocation of his mother’s name, he felt as if he now sat on the bank of a river seeking the sea, a flow that he had been able to divert here and there, but that inexorably returned to the course it first knew. Wondering how Claire was able to get him to bed night after night, he looked around the room for a clue. Nicky tugged the peach basket toward him and dumped a mound of blocks in front of the crib. He reached into the mound and offered Kevin a large rectangular block.

Kevin took it and placed it on the ground. Nicky placed another block on top of it. Kevin did the same. Nicky led his father in establishing a broad base for the structure along the floor with the biggest blocks and then build upon them with progressively smaller ones until the whole thing sloped up as a series of steps to within a foot of the crib side’s top bar. Then he climbed up this stairway, grabbed the top bar, and pulled his stomach up onto it. Suddenly the shelf of little blocks beneath his feet crumbled away. He teetered upon the bar. Kevin reached up to catch him, but Nicky kicked his hand away. “No!” he cried as he flipped over the bar into the crib and plopped on his back upon the mattress. He farted. With that he began to giggle, letting out a singing brook of laughter that Kevin could not resist. For what must have been almost a minute they laughed, rendering Kevin incapable of speech with tears in his eyes.

“So,” Kevin managed to gasp finally, staggering like a drunk back from the crib to the dresser across the room. “What else did Mommy teach you?”

He switched off the lamp upon the dresser and returned to the crib, leaning down over the side to savor one last look for the night at his child, at the wiggling little toes, the dollops of baby fat above his knees, the delectable pillows of his cheeks. In the blue Indian summer twilight now filtering through the room, Nicky sat up and kissed his father upon the lips.

* * *

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