Small Miracles are Better Than None
After an awkward, desultory meal at a beach front restaurant in Santa Barbara, they continued driving North along Interstate 101. The boy was too big for a child's car seat though too small to see properly out the windows and Robert had bought a special booster for him to sit in.
"Look at that," Robert said, pointing to a row of oil pumps paralleling the highway. The rigs were rocking back and forth like davening Jews winnowing secrets from the heavens.
"Did you ever see a praying mantis?" Jonah asked.
"Yeah! That is what they look like!" Robert said a little too eagerly.
Jonah glanced at him, looked out the window and lapsed into another of his long silences. They were neither surly nor rebellious; rather, it seemed to Robert, the child fell into states of meditative repose, an unsettling quality in a six-year-old. Once again, Robert thought, the trip was a mistake.
When they reached San Luis Obispo, he suggested they jog left and continue north along the coast road.
"How come?" Jonah asked.
"Well. It's longer, but it's more beautiful. We'll see cows grazing right on the beach and there are tide pools with little animals in them. After that, we go up into the hills. It's slower driving because the road's twisty, but it's fun, and we'll see way out into the ocean. What do you say?" Jonah shrugged and Robert started up U.S. 1.
Later, crossing a broad stretch of grassy flatland, Jonah rose out of his seat and looked over Robert's shoulder toward the sea. "Those aren't cows. They're cattle," he observed, breaking another silence.
"And you know the difference." Robert was impressed.
"People kill the cattle and eat them, but they're nice to cows because they give us milk."
Robert smiled. "So you and mommy don't eat meat?"
"Mommy doesn't. I like Big Macs."
"And she doesn't mind?"
"Uh huh. Even when I leave some over. We bring it home for Merton."
"He licked your hand when you came to pick me up," Jonah said, a hint of disappointment in his voice. Robert wished someone had told him the dog's name was Merton.
He parked by a narrow strip of beach and they headed for a rocky outcropping. An early afternoon wind bullied the tide toward the high water mark, and above, more powerful gusts shepherded a swollen flock of black-bottomed clouds toward the mountains to the east. Rain tonight, Robert thought. He hated driving in rain and was glad they would reach their destination before it arrived.
Jonah clutched his little stuffed duck as they walked along the rocky shore searching for pockets of life in the glistening shallows. Sandpipers, pecking at the ever-changing margins of the sea, scattered before them, and gulls, like gulls everywhere, dipped and wheeled in raucous disputes that circled the earth. Robert didn't care for gulls; they stole the eggs of birds who mated for life.
Jonah found a shimmering basin of ankle-deep water and was kneeling beside it concealing his excitement as Robert came over.
"That's a sea urchin, right?" he said, pointing to a black ball of quills.
"Uh huh. I know this sounds weird, but some people, like in Japan, eat them."
"That must hurt," Jonah said, frowning.
"They don't eat the spines," he laughed, lifting the creature gingerly and exposing its underside. "It's this, the soft part, that's supposed to taste good. Almost everything gets eaten somewhere. In Asia they eat dogs and snakes and make soup out of birds' nests and shark fins. And there's a tribe in Africa, the Masai, that drinks a mixture of cow blood and...." Robert paused and grinned. "....pee pee."
"Pee pee?" Jonah, who had yet to crack a smile, roared with laughter. Robert remembered his son Eric at this age and how the mere mention of a bodily function would guarantee an outburst of hilarity. It was a cheap victory, he thought, but a victory nonetheless.
"How come you know so much?" Jonah asked after a while.
"I don't. Not really. But I find a lot of things interesting. Just like you."
"How do you know I find a lot of things interesting?" It was a question, not a challenge.
Robert looked at the boy and saw everything around them -- the ruffled sea, the hot blue sky, this very moment by the tide pool -- residing in the child's luminous, green eyes, eyes that were refracting light into memories, memories that Jonah would carry long after Robert was gone. Aching with a loss too deep to name, Robert turned and headed back toward the car.
"Because we're so much alike," he said.
"....I told him there is no Ultrasaurus, they only found some bones they think is maybe an Ultrasaurus, but they don't even know yet. But he won't believe me. Collin thinks he knows everything about dinosaurs, even when I showed him in a book that he's wrong. He said we don't read well enough to understand all the big words. Well, I do and I think what he says is dumb...."
Jonah had been talking on-stop since they left the beach as Robert, tiring, concentrated on the road, endlessly weaving among the massive, splayed fingers of the Santa Lucia Range clawing at the sea.
"Are we almost there yet?" Jonah asked.
"Another, oh, hour or so."
"Is that long?"
"Not to me. But it's probably long for you."
"Time goes more slowly for kids."
"Huh....How long is an hour?" Jonah mused.
"Hmmm. As long as it takes to watch four cartoons, including commercials."
Jonah laughed. "You're funny," he said. Then, scrutinizing Robert as though for the first time, he asked solemnly, "Are you really my father?"
Robert had met Irene at a downtown bar. He and his friend Tommy had dropped in for a drink after seeing a play at the Marc Taper. Robert had been there a few times before; it was a hangout for L.A. artists, and he liked it because it reminded him of his Village days when he was a graduate student at N.Y.U. Had he been thirty, or even forty, he would have instantly dismissed the place, seen it as a buzzing hive of artsy frauds flaunting their mediocre talents. Now, having passed fifty, his major choices behind him, he envied them their youth, their future, and their natural sense of community.
Tommy had spotted a woman he knew and had gone over to say hello when Irene slid onto an empty bar stool and introduced herself.
"Hi. I'm Irene," she said pleasantly, then nodded to the bartender who began making a tequila gimlet. Robert studied her for a moment. She had large, almond eyes set in a strong, heart-shaped face, straight, raven-black hair and a perfect olive complexion. She appeared to be around twenty-five, but Robert guessed she was in her mid-thirties and at least one American Indian had made a contribution to her genetic legacy. She's one of those women who will always look ten years younger than she is, he thought.
"A baby's ass would envy your skin," Robert said.
Irene chortled and shook her head. "It never fails," she said. "I always know when there's someone around I should meet."
"Ahh," Robert sighed, looking at her fondly. "I'm in trouble again."
Three months later Irene came over to Robert's house to tell him that she was pregnant. He pleaded with her to have an abortion.
"I'm not asking you for anything," she said.
"That's not the point," he argued. "I've just finished bringing up a kid on weekends and holidays. I don't want to go through it again, not at my age."
"I'm not asking you for anything," she repeated pointedly.
"Don't you, I dunno, take precautions or something?"
"I see. That's supposed to be my responsibility," she said.
"Goddamnit!" He felt like hitting something. "You know, I've never been accident prone before."
"Me neither. Maybe it wasn't an accident," she said.
"Please! It's bad enough. Don't lay any Freudian bullshit on me."
"Whatever." Irene shrugged. "I only came by because I thought you should know."
Nothing Robert said -- and he threatened, cajoled and begged -- could convince Irene to terminate the pregnancy. It wasn't a matter of principle, she was ardently pro-choice; she wanted to mother a child, even the child of man with whom she had slept only half a dozen times before he said they weren't destined to be a couple.
He had ended their liaison four weeks after it began. One morning over coffee at her loft, he told Irene -- rather apologetically since he had quickly grown attached to her - - that for him love required an abundant future, time spread out before it like a variegated buffet. One needed to sample the possibilities, he said. And, Robert claimed, he didn't have enough time left to learn what worked and what didn't.
"Are you ill?" Irene had asked, concerned.
"No," he replied. "But I don't think I have time to love anyone new as fully as I have in the past."
"Oh? And how 'fully' have you loved someone in the past?"
He shrugged. "Not fully enough. "Which is another reason I don't think it would work between us. I'm just no good at it."
Irene was relieved that Robert had revealed himself early on. She had no intention of knocking on a door that would never open. After suggesting he give some thought to the idea that he was terrified of women, she let him slip out of her life without a trace of remorse or grief. As he left her loft, Robert wondered whether he had made the right decision. By the time he reached his office, he decided he had.
Irene was prepared to bring up her son on her own (she knew it was going to be a boy). She wasn't asking for support or for Robert to take on the obligations of fatherhood. He could have any relationship he wanted with the child, from joint parenting to never seeing him at all. Robert chose the latter, but insisted that he assume financial responsibility for the boy. Irene was a potter who hovered just above the poverty line. Robert ran a small company that made informational videos for doctors. He lived modestly, had few expenses, and had put away enough to retire even now if he chose.
Irene wasn't sure; she needed a few days to sort out the conflict between her instinct to remain independent and the wish to give her son the things she couldn't afford. Two days later she accepted his proposal. Robert was pleased. He genuinely wanted to help a woman he liked and a son he would never know.
"Aren't you even curious to see what he's going to be like?" she asked.
"I wish you both all the best," he replied. He meant it.
Two weeks later, Robert began taking Prozac.
Actually, he did see the boy once before. It was on a Saturday morning after his weekly half-court basketball game in Roxbury Park. He was walking toward his car and had entered the parking lot when Irene, emerging from her battered, antique van, suddenly popped up in front of him, surprising them both. She was carrying her year-old son in a sling, papoose-style on her back. It was too late to avoid her, or, rather, to avoid the child; they were standing right in front of him.
"Thanks for the money," she said. "It really helps."
"Good," Robert said, helplessly beaming at the fat, flushed, bundle grinning at him from over his mother's shoulder.
"You can touch him, you know."
"No....I can't do that," he said. He hurried past her, fumbling for his car keys, afraid he might hyperventilate before reaching the safety of his car.
Irene called after him. "By the way, his name is Jonah!"
A few years later Irene sent Robert a letter thanking him for his generosity and telling him that she no longer needed his support. After a recent gallery exhibit, her work was becoming rather fashionable and she expected that soon she'd be earning enough to bring up her son by herself. Robert read the letter again and again over the next few days trying to figure out why it filled him with so much sorrow.
However, having given up Prozac a year earlier, he decided against taking it again.
"....Two reasons," she said when she telephoned Robert at his office a week ago. It was the first time they had talked since the morning in the park years ago. "One, he's my father, and since it often takes a while for people with brain tumors to die, I'm not sure how long I'll be away, and I'd like Jonah to finish the semester. And, two....well...." Her voice faded.
Though Robert knew the second reason, he couldn't bring himself to ask.
"....And two, he's been asking a lot about his father lately. I know the pros call them, excuse the expression, 'age appropriate questions,' but that doesn't mean he shouldn't get some answers from you."
"He doesn't even know me!"
"That's the point."
"And you don't have a problem leaving him with a perfect stranger?"
"Come to think of it, you are the perfect stranger, aren't you?" She laughed.
"Irene! He's not going to feel safe with me!"
"Listen. Jonah's....unusual. He's a very adaptable kid. For chrissake, Robert, it'll only be for two weeks; then I'll come and get him. And who knows? You could get lucky. My father might die in two days and I'll be back by the weekend." She sighed. "Look, this isn't a ploy, okay? If I was gonna lay shit on you, I would have done it long before now. So, c'mon. I've never asked you for anything before, and it's not for me, it's for Jonah."
Robert was unnerved by what was quickly becoming an inevitability. "What....what happens if he gets attached to me?"
"He takes after his mother....He'll deal with it."
Robert escaped into silence and Irene waited, allowing him to agree at his own pace. "Okay," he finally said. "Memorial Day's coming up. I suppose I could take some time off and we could go up to Santa Cruz. My son and his family are living there."
"That's right!" she recalled. "Eric. I'd almost forgotten. And he's married? And a father? That's great."
"Yeah....and....uh....obviously....I'm a grandfather."
"Hey! Congratulations!" There wasn't a trace of irony or derision in her voice. Then, laughing: "My God, Robert, that makes my six-year-old an uncle!" Robert laughed too.
The following morning Robert and Jonah left for Santa Cruz.
When they pulled into the driveway of his son's tiny cottage, Eric and Grace were waiting for them. Robert embraced them both. His son was a lean, muscular, twenty-seven-year old who taught drama at the university and raced ten-speeds on the weekends. He was the only person in Robert's life whom he loved unconditionally. His daughter-in-law, a sunny, spirited young dancer, also taught at the university. Until recently, he had liked her without paying much attention to who she was. He liked her mostly because his son loved her. But, on a previous visit, after she had put the baby down, he overheard her whisper to Eric, "I love my life." Since then, Robert adored her.
Jonah stood behind Robert and was staring at the ground as Eric walked over and lowered himself onto on his haunches.
"So you're my little brother," he said cheerfully.
Jonah, still looking at the ground, nodded. Eric glanced at his father, then picked Jonah up.
"Well. Welcome to the family," he said.
For a moment, Jonah looked wary and confused. Then, suddenly, he threw his arms around Eric's neck and cried without constraint.
It didn't rain that night or the next day, and they decided to go fishing. Jonah was ecstatic. He had never been deep sea fishing and, with a bit of discrete help from Eric, he landed two of the four salmon caught by their party. By late afternoon a heavy fog forced most of the day-fishing vessels and private boats to return to the Monterey docks. Finding no quarry on shore, it rolled back out to sea searching for stragglers to envelop and beguile. They drove back to Santa Cruz, their catch temporarily laid to rest in an ice chest in the rear of the Jeep.
"They really put up a fight, huh?" Jonah said.
Eric put his arm around him. "They were no match for you, mista." Robert was touched at how easily and simply the two had taken to each other. He also found it odd that while he was still certain the trip was a mistake, he no longer regretted it. Indeed, he was relieved, even comforted, which baffled him all the more, since everything he feared was undoubtedly about to happen, perhaps had already happened.
That night the weather was warm and clear and the family gathered in the yard for dinner. Robert was charcoaling the expedition's bounty while Grace fed the baby on her lap. Jonah was stretched out on a lounge chair next to Eric, utterly entranced by the brilliant array of stars. Robert wondered how often, if ever, the boy had seen a night sky like this, a sky so vast and dazzling, it dared the eyes to turn away -- so unlike the milky gruel above L.A. where stars kept their distance, hiding their radiance from the lingering blight of day.
"Are we eating my fish?" Jonah asked. "I mean, you know, one of the ones I caught."
"Absolutely," Robert reassured him. "I cooked yours first."
Jonah grinned slyly. It reminded Robert of how Eric looked when he'd made his first catch. It was the look of a boy who has glimpsed his manhood and is relishing the moment before it fades into the future.
"Can Katy have some?" Jonah asked, anxious to share his prize with the world.
"Hmmm, she doesn't have enough teeth to chew," Grace replied. "But tomorrow I'll put some in the blender for her."
"And can I feed her?"
"Well....sure." she said, surprised. The adults laughed.
"Why's that....funny?" Jonah asked, flustered and hurt. Robert moaned softly to himself, reached out and caught Jonah's hand, resisting his effort to withdraw it.
"Jonah, we laughed because what you asked was....so.... sweet. Boys your age don't usually care about feeding babies. We were surprised, that's all. Nobody was making fun of you, if that's what you're worried about." Jonah nodded, accepting the explanation, and Robert let go of his hand.
It's the first time I've touched this child, he thought. A line of Hart Crane's came to mind, something like, "Your hands in my hands are deeds."
Just before bedtime, there was a crisis: Jonah couldn't find his beloved duck. Frantic, wild-eyed, trembling, he ran from room to room rooting about everywhere, under furniture, behind curtains, in closets, even yanking off bedcovers and sheets. The adults, too, spread out and began searching the house. Convinced that he had left his duck on the boat and that it was gone forever, Jonah buried his face in a cushion and sobbed inconsolably. His grief was beyond the reach of Eric's gentle reassurances.
"Jonah," he said, recalling. "I'm sure I remember you holding your duck at the dinner table. It has to be around somewhere."
It was; Robert found it in the yard under a chair. Jonah pressed the frayed, dew- damp, one-eyed handful of stuffed fabric to his face, nuzzling and sniffing it like a she- wolf reuniting with her lost pup. His relief was as profound as his despair and for the rest of the evening he smiled radiantly at everyone. Because he refused to give up the duck long enough to bathe and change into pajamas, he got into bed suffused with the scent of the sea and salt and the salmon he'd caught.
They were sharing a large convertible sofa. After whispering something to his duck, Jonah told Robert he was too tired to listen to a story tonight. He hugged his father, said goodnight, closed his eyes, and instantly fell asleep.
Robert was bewildered, not by the child's affection, which moved him deeply, but by Jonah's breezy assumption that Robert usually told him stories. Robert had never told him a bedtime story; the only opportunity would have been on the previous night when all Robert could think of saying was that they were going to have a terrific time fishing the next day. Then they had gone to sleep without another word.
The clean, pale light of a full moon filtered through the gauzy curtains and caressed the boy's face. A sculptor polishing a masterpiece, Robert thought. Something about Jonah was unusual, unique, something beyond his intensity and directness and brooding meditations. Many children, Eric too, as a boy, possessed these qualities. It was something else, something Robert hadn't encountered before.
He lay awake rummaging his mind for clues, turning over the events of the last two days again and again until, at last, he saw it: Jonah, in the driveway, sobbing in a stranger's arms. He lives with his pain, Robert marveled. It was his gift, a talent, a treasure, the source of Jonah's special knowledge of a world from which Robert, whose misery was fueled by flight, was barred.
Of course Jonah knew there would be other stories, Robert thought, and other trips like this one, days of fishing and nights under the stars with his brother and Grace and the baby. There would be movies, picnics, ballgames and much more, all with Robert, the father he had culled from dreams and fantasies and gathered into his arms for good and forever. Jonah had made a father of his own.
A surge of wind raised the curtains, allowing the moon to feed more fully on Jonah's brightened features until, sensing the light in his sleep, he raised his arm and covered his eyes. Robert half-hoped the moon would wake him. He urgently needed, now, this very second, to speak to his son and, as Eric had, welcome him to the family. But it would have to wait until morning.
He leaned over and kissed Jonah's forehead, then closed his eyes, fell asleep and dreamed of Irene.