The babysitter was unalarmed at the impulse to somehow bite off the baby’s head. His mouth was too small, and sometimes he wanted to do this to puppies and seals, so the sensation was familiar. Also, one morning, a while back, a girl the babysitter knew for a short time had said she wanted to eat the babysitter’s head, and he knew it was because she was fond of him. He had wanted to eat her head then, too.
You wanted to eat the heads of perfect things.
Bobby, the baby, was made of apple cheeks and blueberry eyes. He had wiry curls of orange hair. He had ketchup on his face and pieces of hot-dog on his plate. He sat in a booster chair. He was two years and four months old.
Glen, the babysitter, rinsed Bobby’s plate, wiped his face, and threw his bib down the laundry chute. He wiped the table and did other things to ensure the kitchen was cleaner than the Bakers had left it. Through a window over the sink he saw a wooden fence, and beyond it, a girl’s head appearing and disappearing. The girl smiled at people he could not see. A single, fat, brown braid flapped in the air like a flying snake.
He sat at the table, across from the child. He contorted his face into an expression of ecstasy, knowing Bobby would mimic him with sincere glee. That was so amazing, how the shape of his face alone could convince the boy that there was something to be joyful about. Bobby smiled, open-mouthed, long after the muscles in Glen’s face slackened. Glen rested his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands.
Oh, Bobby. So happy. Bouncing on a cotton-candy cloud.
Another phenomenon existed that Glen was less comfortable with, but which he believed he took part in without choice. He enjoyed kicking through dunes of untouched snow, obliterating the flawless shapes of the wind. He felt great satisfaction from opening a brand new jar of peanutbutter and stabbing the shit out of the unblemished, brown surface beneath the seal.
Things that were perfect, Glen understood, would inevitably be fucked up by Glen.
“Bobby, do you want a cookie?”
“Do you remember the new magic words?”
“That’s right, shit. And what else?”
Glen patted him on the head. “Shit, fuck. Let’s get you a cookie.”
“Ship, fug.” The child clapped and laughed, repeating the mantra. His allegiance endeared him to Glen even more, so the desire to bite his head off intensified, as did the urge to destroy his blind euphoria, to contaminate his spirit—fresh as the skin on his baby face. Glen carried a plate of sugar cookies to the table, set it down in front of the child. Bobby reached but Glen grabbed his arm.
“Just let me test one first to make sure they’re okay.” He winked and put a cookie in his mouth.
The babysitter spit the cookie across the table and screamed the way he would were someone stabbing him in an alley. He ran around the kitchen, arms flailing. Bobby clutched tiny fistfuls of his wispy hair and gasped at the plate before him. Glen reached for another cookie, withdrew his hand as if he had touched a hot stove, fell to the ground.
“Cookies burn, Bobby. Cookies burn!”
Watching his small shoes hang underneath the table, Glen listened to the baby choke, sputter, and shriek. Glen curled up into the fetal position, his cheeks cold against the hardwood floor.
The baby had been crying for almost two hours. Glen had exhausted the list of calming tactics included in the four-page instruction manual Dr. Baker had left: he held Bobby, changed his diaper, sang to him, slow danced, tried to walk on his hands, made farting noises with his armpit. Though Glen had no children of his own, it seemed odd, the particular and possibly counterproductive methods Dr. Baker had outlined. Locke would reason with the child; Rousseau would leave him to cry it out, to let him know that, by nature, his tears gave him no authority.
Glen supposed Dr. Baker had offered him the job because he had raised his hand frequently the semester before, was a few years older than most of the students in Philosophy of Desire, spoke to him outside of class, and never confessed how much he secretly hated Rousseau, how much he loathed turning the pages of a book about raising a well-mannered child written by a man who had placed all five of his own children in an orphanage. He lay Bobby in his crib and ignored him, only because it was the only thing left to do. He hoped that Rousseau was on fire, in hell.
Outside the crying was almost inaudible. More distracting was the clamor of college students down the block, or up the block, or somewhere across the street, or everywhere. He sat on the porch swing, lit a cigarette, and heard, intermittently, the sound of matter colliding with matter, a hoarse voice roaring the approval of a male, and the high-pitched titter of a female counterpart. He could imagine nothing happening in the neighborhood that should warrant such enthusiasm. Maybe a rock hitting something. A thing falling over. Each guess depressed him.
The sun had just set. The smell of charcoal and burning meat lingered. Occasionally, groups of what he considered well-dressed people walked by. He had no name for the girls he saw, but they were all a certain kind, the kind that looked at him the way children looked at pushers in anti-drug commercials.
Users are losers, he reckoned.
Bobby was quiet.
With one hand, Glen played an atonal waltz on the piano. He opened the refrigerator for slices of American cheese, never taking more than one at a time. He went through no drawers in Dr. Baker’s desk, nor any drawers in the house that looked important.
And then Bobby started to cry again.
It was really something, once he blocked out the sound, the vibration of a child crying over his shoulder, against his chest, in his arms. He held him near the window in his pastel wallpapered baby bedroom.
“Bobby,” he whispered. “Bobby. It’s just a nightmare. Nothing happened.” From there, on the second floor, he saw a few students standing around a trampoline in a backyard several houses over, but no one jumping.
Bobby rode Glen’s shoulders downstairs, and sat in his lap in the living room, pacifier in his mouth. They watched a half-hour infomercial about a device that makes a person’s abdomens look like the abdomens of the people featured on the infomercial. Bobby was attentive, and the back and forth of men and women gliding on the Abulous™ calmed him.
Glen put him in the playpen.
Fishing his pockets for his lighter, he looked out from the porch and saw a young woman lying on the front lawn, barefoot, on her side, yellow hair in a fan, skirt of her red sundress bunched between her legs. Glen left the porch and hovered over her, in a squat, for a while, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. He chucked it and shook her, gently at first, then fiercely, to no avail. He took her pulse. Not dead, just drunk.
He walked in the direction of a noisy house to find someone to claim her. The further he walked, the more he had to turn his head to make sure she was still there, make sure that no one was doing anything unmentionable. And then he walked back, walked by her, walked in the other direction toward another noisy house, kept turning his head, and just sat down next to her on the lawn again.
Her eyes were closed, so he did not look like a pusher to her.
If all the girls would keep their eyes closed.
What if a girl with open eyes came looking for her, and here he was, a drug-dealer look-alike, a man in black clothes, hovering? There might be screams, and boys with ironed clothes running, holding rocks. Action of any kind—for instance, rolling her onto her back, easing a hand between her shoulder blades, an arm under her legs, and carrying her into the house—was crucial.
He dumped her at one end of the couch, without adjusting her posture or propping up her head, and sat as far away as he could on the other end. Though she was unconscious, he looked at her only out of the corners of his eyes. The crack of his knuckles was loud in the silent room. Bobby was sleeping; the passed out girl was passed out. Glen paced for some time, and again, left through the front door.
“Baby, I’m home,” he shouted, slamming the back door behind him. They were in the living room. He sat next to her on the couch, put his arms around her, squeezed, tucked her hair behind her ears, and kissed her temple. “The day is so long. How’s my boy?”
He stood up, leaned over the playpen, sat down again. “He’s asleep. The house is quiet.” He took her hand, eyed her coyly. “What do you say we run upstairs, before he wakes up?” He told her all things he wanted to do for her, how he would take care of her and the boy while he was home. They made weekend plans for the beach. Suntan lotion and egg salad sandwiches.
“And sandcastles,” he said aloud.
A perfect castle, with a moat, the kind you make with small plastic buckets and Tupperware. Wet sand hardened into precise domes and ridges, patching up cracks with handfuls of water, running your hands over smooth damp slopes. Forgetting sunburn for the perfect geometry of a perfect sandcastle.
And then her hand slipped out of his and her fingernails made a sound against the upholstery. He removed his sunglasses from the pocket of his black shirt and put them on her face. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said, shaking his head. “You know what I’m talking about. We both know, even if we never say anything.” He leaned against a bookshelf and rubbed his forehead. “It wouldn’t be fair to either of us to wait around and pretend things are okay while I figure out how to get it together.” He sat on Dr. Baker’s desk. “If I were more selfish than I already am, I’d take him with me. But I don’t want him to grow up to be a fucked up weirdo.” Through the mesh sides of the playpen, he said to the baby, “I’ll come back.”
The girl was hunched forward, head hanging over her knees. Glen knelt at her feet, took off the sunglasses, and lifted her chin with a finger. His lips moved so close to hers, without touching them, and though it wasn’t a kiss, it made him fall backward. Sprawled on the carpet even, he kept falling down, staring into the ceiling lamp. The bulbs burned on the backs of his eyelids.
When his eyes opened, he thought he should carry the girl upstairs, so he did, through a hallway of baby pictures and other pictures of Mrs. and Dr. Baker with more hair and bigger collars, into their bedroom, where he dropped her in an antique rocking chair, pulled back the comforter and blankets, threw her on the bed and tucked her in. He cranked the window air-conditioner.
Bobby drooled as Glen dressed him in yellow pajamas. The babysitter shifted the girl onto her back, placed Bobby in her chest, wrapped her arms around the child, and rolled her onto her side. He slipped off his shoes, and slipped under the sheets, behind her. He held the girl who held the baby.
Breath rippled back and forth between them, his chin on her head, her chin on the baby’s head, a totem pole. He imagined a thunderstorm outside raging so he could protect them, as they protected him with their warm sleep. He was six arms and six legs, and he wanted to eat his own head.
Light burst through the bedroom window; squares of light moved across the ceiling and slid down the walls. Glen heard a car turn into the driveway. He squeezed his eyes hard, hoping to crush them, but they remained intact, and he leaped out of bed and stood at the window, heart pounding. It was a blue sedan; the Bakers drove a red one. Behind the wheel an old man folded a map.
Glen looked at the clock. There was always plenty of short time. He looked at his fake family asleep on the bed. He was never sure how many choices he had.