New Baby

Jon Lee

Image of Jon Lee

Jon Lee

Late August, and those of us who'd burned our necks helping
our fathers move sprinkler pipes from one field to the next, or
who'd held the pan to catch the milk, or cried at the newness
of a slaughtered pig, or even the lucky ones who'd escaped
for a time to somewhere larger and exchange cowshit for hot
asphalt and rush hour congestion had to remember the shape
of letters and the brittleness of pencil lead. We blinked at
columns of fractured dust, eighteen pairs of legs dangling
from desks still carved with our parents' initials, the ghosts
of last year's knowledge on the chalkboard, the teacher's same
brown loafers tapping yellowed linoleum.
                                                       Then: Pay attention
everyone. A new student is joining you. New, would you like
to introduce yourself? & we laughed, thinking the teacher
had forgotten the name, said "New" by mistake and the student
would have to correct it and so join us. Then we saw him, and
knew it instantly, though we didn't know what we saw: knew it
by the slope of his shoulder, how his hands hung from brown
plaid cuffs like dead birds, the thickness of leg inside corduroy,
the overfat neck and the Coke bottle glasses in their thick rims.
And if not then, then when the words tumbled like cracked and
greasy asphalt over a tongue too thick to deal with the lightness
of an l or an r, or how an s came not from the tip, but shushed
around the sides and through the cheeks. We knew all we needed,
so at recess cornered him in part of the yard the teachers couldn't
see to call him a word we did not understand, said it again and
again, and watched the gravel kick up as he ran back.

That was before our fathers came back from the fields and pig
pens, convenience stores and holding cells, and told over
rewarmed dinners what they'd heard; and before our mothers
whispered what they'd learned from long days at the school
and laundromat, secrets told as the day's last light tinged
the brown fields a better color, and drove away the grayness
that had settled on the dirt roads and the red brick church house:
that the boy's family had moved here after the father was kicked
out of somewhere else, had settled into the beat-down house near
the dead animal pit, fixed up the roof with nailed-down sheets of
tin. That the boy's middle name was Baby, because that's what
the doctor wrote on the sheet when the mother hadn't thought up
a name, and when she heard it and thought it a sign from God,
thought her church had decreed it, took it as gospel, so made it
official. More, how there was a younger brother born with
a clubfoot and hips that moved opposite the way they should,
and at four still mewled like a newborn calf; and younger, a
sister who would probably spend what was left of life strapped
in a chair and spoonfed, never able to hold a sippy cup or be
trusted with a fork. And how, even then, the mother looked
like she was carrying. How everyone blamed it on the father,
who had driven them down from elsewhere in his rusted honey
pot, had spent years emptying port-a-johns and septic tanks,
joked about all the undigested pills he'd seen in everyone's waste,
said he could tell by smell the last time you were sick. How
all the fumes he'd breathed must have done something
to his insides, rotted them until not even his babies turned out
right. How the ambulance arrived for the mother late one night,
and she returned with a box she planted in the back yard.

At some point, something always breaks. So one father, after
the second year of drought and the bank calling to repossess
his combine harvester, sells what's left and becomes a cop. Or
one mother takes out a second mortgage and goes to nursing
school. Or some children learn there's always someone lower,
and it's only luck it's not you. But there's always some who
need it pointed out a little more, and so keep calling names,
throwing rocks, finding ways to sneak spitballs. Until one day,
maybe a year or two later, when we're at recess and the sun
glares off the December snow, we hear a holler, and turn
to see one boy face down in a bank and another on top, clump
of hair tight in a fist and a face shoved over and over in the snow,
and the one on top screams in a thick and tumbling voice, stop
it stop it stop it stop it stop it stop it. And though the words blur
with screams from the boy whose mouth fills with cold, even
the teachers pause just long enough for us to notice before
they step in and break them up, send one to the nurse and
the other to the principal, but only hold one hand.
                                                                      But eventually
we remembered we were playing games, so someone grabbed
the ball, another the bat, and the first swing chipped it foul
over the fence into a field where the cows were just turning
home, except for one that got down in the snow and birthed
an out-of-season calf we all knew wouldn't see spring.

New Baby was selected as part of MSU Library Short Edition's call for submissions on the theme of "Home," in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum's exhibition "Where We Dwell."

Jon D. Lee is the author of four books, including IN/DESIDERATO and An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease. His poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Atlantic, Sugar House Review, Sierra Nevada Review, The Writer's Chronicle, One, The Laurel Review, and The Inflectionist Review. He has an MFA in Poetry from Lesley University, and a PhD in Folklore. Lee teaches at Suffolk University.

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