I used to have a baby, Nat recalled, sounding elegiac.
I remember. That was back around the time he first met Nat, playing a wedding at that Naturfreunde club up on Joaquin Miller. Archy, just back from the Gulf, came in at the last minute, filling in for Nats regular bassist at the time. Now the former Baby Julius was fifteen and, to Archy at least, more or less the same sweet freakazoid as always. Hearing secret harmonies, writing poetry in Klingon, painting his fingernails with Jack Skellington faces. Used to go off to nursery school in a leotard and a tutu, come home, watch Color Me Barbra. Even at three, four years old, prone like his father to holding forth. Telling you how french fries didnt come from France or German chocolate from Germany. Same tendency to get caught up in the niceties of a question. Lately, though, he seemed to spend a lot of time transmitting in some secret teenager code, decipherable only by parents, designed to drive them out of their minds.
Babies are cool, Nat said. They can do Eskimo kisses. Nat and Rolando went at it, nose to nose, the baby hanging there, putting up with it. Yeah, Rolandos all right.
Thats what I thought.
Got good head control.
Doesnt he, though? Archy said.
Thats why they call him Head-Control Harry. Right? Sure it is. Head-Control Harry. You want to eat him.
I guess. I dont really eat babies all that much.
Nat studied Archy the way Archy had studied the A-side of the late Bob Benezras copy of Kulu Sé Mama (Impulse!, 1967), looking for reasons to grade it down.
So, what, you practicing? That the idea?
That was the idea.
And hows it working out?
Archy shrugged, giving it that air of modest heroism, the way you might shrug after you had been asked how in Gods name you managed to save a hundred orphans trapped in a flaming cargo plane from collision with an asteroid. As he played it off to Nat, Archy knewfelt, like the baby-shaped ache in his left armthat neither his ability nor his willingness to care for Rolando English for an hour, a day, a week, had anything whatsoever to do with his willingness or ability to be a father to the forthcoming child now putting the finishing touches on its respiratory and endocrine systems in the dark laboratory of his wifes womb. Wiping a butt, squeezing some Carnation through a nipple, mopping up the milk puke with a dishrag, all that was mere tasks and procedures, a series of steps, the same as the rest of life. Duties to pull, slow parts to get through, shifts to endure. Put your thought processes to work on teasing out a tricky time signature from On the Corner (Columbia, 1972) or one of the more obscure passages from The Meditations (Archy was currently reading Marcus Aurelius for the ninety-third time), sort your way one-handed through a box of interesting records, and before you knew it, nap time had arrived, Mommy had come home, and you were free to go about your business again. It was like the army: Be careful, find a cool dry place to stash your mind, and hang on until it was over. Except, of course (he realized, experiencing the full-court press of a panic that had been flirting with him for months, mostly at three oclock in the morning when his wifes restless pregnant tossing disturbed his sleep, a panic that the practice session with Rolando English had been intended, vainly, he saw, to alleviate), it never would be over. You never would get through to the end of being a father, no matter where you stored your mind or how many steps in the series you followed. Not even if you died. Alive or dead or a thousand miles distant, you were always going to be on the hook for work that was neither a procedure nor a series of steps but, rather, something that demanded your full, constant attention without necessarily calling on you to do, perform, or say anything at all. Archys own father had walked out on him and his mother when Archy was not much older than Rolando English, and even though, for a few years afterward, as his star briefly ascended, Luther Stallings still came around, paid his child support on time, took Archy to As games, to Marriotts Great America and whatnot, there was something further required of old Luther that never materialized, some part of him that never showed up, even when he was standing right beside Archy. Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.
Excerpted from Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Chabon. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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