Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all –
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
~~ TS Eliot, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”
Damn, he did it again. David Gilbert. Just like in the last TNY story I read by him, “Member/Guest. I wander through his stories for six pages, mildly interested but not terribly excited about anything, and then bang, in the last column of the last page, somehow everything converges on me at once and my jaw drops. It’s not the same as a trick ending, where the last sentence is a punch line; it’s more like watching a slow-blooming tree after a year of promise suddenly flower and bear bitter-sweet, juicy fruit in a single July weekend.
We lose bits of ourselves as we grow older. Those promises we made, on lonely afternoons when our parents trudged wearily on a treadmill we couldn’t even see while the whole world begged to be savored; when they didn’t get why something simple was so desperately important to us. Sometime around 1970 I told my stepmother I didn’t need money, I was going to travel the country and “live on love.” That was the kind of dream we had in 1970. Do kids still dream like that today? Or do they dream of a good job and a house full of electronics and a solid stock portfolio? Those are excellent plans – but that’s what they are, plans, not dreams. Dreams keep the soul alive inside while plans are carried out. Dreams are the reasons for the plans.
Robert Childress had dreams when he was a kid. He rescued birds with broken wings, dreamed of nursing them back to health in a shoebox, until his father took them out in the back yard and wrung their necks: “There is mercy, and then there is mercy. Understand?” He had a wooden box stuffed full of baseball cards until he gave them to his kids:
…who spent a weekend cataloguing them and checking their values online before sliding them into a binder – 1975 – 1980. They would have tossed the box. And God bless the boys’ lack of nostalgia. They would never miss things the way Robert missed things, memory sometimes taking his breath away.
And as an adult he dreamed of having a screening room, with an old-fashioned popcorn machine and Surround Sound. Of course, it was about more than watching movies. So, with money that should’ve gone towards reshingling the roof, he got his screening room, and found that sometimes the dream is better as a dream:
Of course, Becka complained about the surround sound being too loud, and the kids cared only about their handheld devices, which left Robert alone with the old favorites, like “The Towering Inferno” or “A Bridge Too Far,” feeling ridiculous and friendless and wondering how he had become so ridiculous and friendless, and if he told this to Becka, like really told her, she would say go pick up the phone and call someone, you have to make an effort, Robert, and he would mutter something about being tired and retreat back to Anthony Hopkins and Arnhem. What a bloody mess.
And you know, I haven’t even mentioned the vomit-baby yet.
He wondered if he should try to explain things to Stearns, but where to start, and what to say, and, once the inkling was given weight, when would the madness set in? Um, there’s a chance I vomited up a baby last night, a severely deformed baby but a baby nonetheless. A boy, I think.
While the story goes into detail about the care and feeding of a vomit-baby (applesauce, tiny diapers, and a hilarious scene in a grocery store; I wish someone still did half-hour teleplay adaptations of short stories, this would make a great one) the vomit-baby is, of course, only as important as what it represents: You can swallow your soul, but you’ll vomit it up one day. You can bury it, but it’ll cry out to you from the ground.
There is an omission in this story, to me a glaring one: why is this happening now, right now, on this weekend? Narratively, it’s necessary that the wife and kids be away for the weekend, of course, but they must’ve been away on other occasions; what is it in Robert’s life at this moment that allows the conception and delivery of a vomit-baby? The title comes from Prufrock, quoted above; how is it that on this particular weekend, Robert hears the music from a farther room? Is it Stearn’s mention of his own dying father that brings Robert back to his dad? It doesn’t seem like a strong-enough stimulus, not for such a momentous occurrence.
Something didn’t occur to me until I read Cliff Garstang‘s comments on the story: is the vomit baby even real? Robert is the only one who actually sees it. The cab driver asks him what’s in the box, but that could be because Robert keeps peeking in the box. No one at the supermarket notices, though he seems to think it’s making some noise at the register. The only other person who has any perception of the baby is Stearns, his drinking partner the night before, and he only hears something through the phone like a pterodactyl cawing, which of course could be anything, even the birds Robert excuses it with. Birds are a persistent symbol throughout the story. And boxes. Birds and boxes.
I also must give a shout-out to the amazing Betsy at The Mookse and the Gripes for her research into the name Childress: “apparently a very old Anglo-Saxon name that may be related to ‘cild hus’ – or orphanage.” How interesting. Most of us are technically orphans at some point, but for Robert, it goes deeper – and now he has an orphan vomit-baby.
One more shout-out: to Scott Musgrove, who did the illustration above. I remembered him immediately from an earlier TNY illustration, and again, artist and writer have been perfectly matched. Musgrove’s website is well worth a visit, if not to see the Walktopus sculptures or the Dwarf Basket Horse painting, to just read his About page.
In the end, Robert does what must be done with dreams when our spouses and children return from the weekend at Gram’s and life goes on.
… Robert found himself sort of falling through the floor, and the floor below that, all the way down to the basement and the far corner, where his old stereo and speakers remained stacked, the crates of records and tapes, the bygone music waiting, along with You who never made a sound. You were being brave. You need to be quiet, you were told, and you seemed to understand, but maybe you were just cold and frightened and those nods were yet another misunderstanding. You should know that there were fantasies of stealing you away and moving to northern Michigan, to the woods, to a hand-hewn cabin in the middle of those woods, to see what you might grow into, if you might settle into a viable existence, but you must’ve heard the sorries raining down and had some sense of what lay behind that word, the suffering and the failure. There was work tomorrow. And there was this family upstairs.
The shift into a quasi-second-person gave me goosebumps; well, of course it did, I’m a big fan of second-person. And yes, the ending is ambiguous: Just what happened to the vomit-baby? I can see several possibilities, all equally defensible.
But the vomit-baby isn’t the point, at least not for me. This story lives and breathes in the question Robert’s wife asks him in the very last sentence – and in his unknown answer. Will his marriage continue to be a zero-sum game? Maybe we do need to put our dreams away and go on with life. But maybe we can put them away and still grow, still dance, perhaps even with our loved ones if we’re very lucky, to the music from a farther room.