Gary and the baby sit at the Tastee Diner. Otis is only three weeks old and lies swaddled in a soft blue-striped blanket on Gary's lap. This is what Otis knows: the red leatherette seats; the soft blur of sound coming from a jukebox in back, which is usually something by Patsy Cline or Dolly Parton, something country; Gary; and for three whole days, Molly. Three days so far, Gary reminds himself. So far.
Every night Gary orders the same thing: black coffee and a cup of hot water to warm Otis's bottle. Otis is always in a new outfit. Today he's wearing blue and gray stripes with a matching hat and booties. Four changes every day because he christens each and every thing with spit-up and formula and rivers of drool. It doesn't matter. The supply of clothing is endless. Every day presents arrive in the mail, packaged in silver, laced with ribbon, tied with cards, wishing them luck, sending them prayers. Otis looks great in whatever Gary puts on him. Stripes, polka dots, and, Gary's personal favorite, a tiny red stretch jersey printed with black singing Elvis Presleys. Otis is small and creamy as a pearl and already he has the same mop of black hair that Gary does, the same huge slate eyes as Molly's. He's got lashes so long they leave faint shadows on his cheeks.
He's so brand-new, yet he has what Gary would call wise eyes, making Gary feel it is perfectly okay to talk to the baby as if he were an equal.
"So, what would you do if you were me?" he asks, bending his face down, breathing in the clean powdery scent. Otis regards him gravely and yawns deeply. Gary's neighbor, Emma Thorton, a deeply religious woman who goes to church three times a week, has already told Gary with great authority that newborns come into the world knowing everything. "Only gradually does the world take that knowledge away from them," she insisted. "It's a mysterious, sad thing."
Gary laughed when she told him. "The world probably has to take it away or they'd go insane," he said, and then he felt a vague sort of shame when Emma's face telescoped shut.
"This is not a joke," she said. "It's true. Who knows what wisdom we could learn if we could only speak the language of children? `And a little child shall lead us,' that's what Jesus said, after all. It's in the Bible. It's true."
Gary nods, but he doesn't know what is true or not true anymore. God. The universe. He looks for order and can find none. How could he when his life has no framework anymore, when nothing makes sense to him?
Gary used to have a married couple as friends, atheists who raised their daughter, Stella, not to believe in anything more radical than herself. No Santa. No Easter Bunny. And certainly no God to make sense of things. When Stella was five, a bright, pretty girl with a storm of mustardy curls, he had asked her, "So, now that you're a big girl, what do you miss most about being a baby?" All the adults had waited, smiling at Stella as she peered up at Gary, her eyes shimmering with thoughts.
"I miss talking to God," Stella said finally, nodding her head for emphasis.
"Excuse me?" said Stella's mother, startled, but Stella turned busy, plucking at the hem of her dress, twisting one damp finger into her curls. "Who do you talk with?" Stella's mother asked her again, but Stella popped her finger in the side of her mouth, making a popping sound. "Cluck, cluck, wuss a bus the duck!" she sang. At the time Gary had thought Stella's-and her mother'sresponse was hilarious. Now, though, he thinks a little differently. He thinks if he were Stella's parents, her response would have stopped him in his life, just for a moment. He would have pivoted. He would have somehow been changed. He's lapsed Jewish, but he would have been willing to try religion, to see just what might happen. You never know, he thinks, and depending on where you are in your life, that statement could either ease you or put you in torment.
Copyright Caroline Leavitt. All rights reserved. Reproduced by the permission of the author.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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