George craves the syringe with an addict’s distress. I have one thumb on the plunger. I put the other in his mouth. The plastic syringe tip curves along my crooked thumb between George’s lips. I press the plunger carefully and let the milk flow.
The ruddy face of Senator Teflon–that’s my name for him–fills the television. He speaks aggressively, his head jerking up and down. The TV is muted. For all I know, Teflon’s gobbling like a turkey. Both hands occupied, I have no way to change the channel.
“What’s that thing called?” I ask George’s mother. “Hangs off a turkey’s chin?”
“Turn that off.” She glances over her shoulder at the TV. She sits upright on the straight-backed chair holding plastic cones over her breasts.
“Why is it even on?”
“Where’s the remote?”
Her antipathy towards the television began a month ago, with George’s new diet. Before that she would have begged me not to turn it off, not to change Teflon’s face as I flipped past News in search of Baseball. A month ago, she would have seen Teflon’s presence as an opportunity to insist on change.
“He represents Nobody but himself and those other barnyard animals up there.”
To see old Senator Teflon gobbling away, that loose piece of flesh flapping beneath his chin, I would have had to agree.
“Senators and Representatives vote their own raises. It’s an abuse!”
But ever since George stopped gaining weight, his mother is focused on our domestic woes.
“You’re sitting on it,” George’s mother scolds. But her hands are tied, just like mine. She can’t reach the remote where it’s wedged between my thigh and the loveseat cushion. She lifts a bare foot.
“Don’t disturb,” I say. Even looking at Teflon’s big, turkey face is better than having the television turned off for me by George’s mother. “Don’t disturb George. He’s drinking.”
“He shouldn’t be watching television.”
“He isn’t watching television.”
“Don’t spill my milk.”
My reply is silence. She pumps the milk from her breasts with a wheezing contraption built into an attaché case, as much a component of this science project as its administrator. The pump churns and drops of milk emerge from the cones at her breasts. On a good day the milk flows into the bottles in jets and sprays. Lately it looks as if she’ll be lucky to get an ounce from each breast.
I turn my concentration from Teflon’s muted hearing room to the plunger. Plunger, syringe tip, milk flow. Ordered not to waste a drop, I concentrate on keeping the milk from gushing out of George’s mouth as he sucks my thumb. I cradle his head between my knees. At five months he still has no neck. His sudden, forceful kicks against my abdomen threaten to spill all ten pounds of him from my lap.
George attacks my thumb like a junkie. This is what I’m training him to do. The midwife diagnosed George as a “lazy drinker”. When he’s at the nipple he doesn’t suck hard enough. My job is to distinguish a nibble from a hard suck. I reward the hard suck by pushing the plunger. My thumb has become the very barometer of a nipple. I’ve made the transition from admiring the bosom to administering its contents.
The Senator harangues a large, somber man in a metallic-shiny thousand-dollar suit. The silver-haired Senator wears a stern look. The lights reflect off his rimless glasses. He has no chin at all and a flopping gizzard or giblet or gibbet, just like the six other senators beside him.
“Humans are the only animals who drink the milk of another species,” George’s mother tells me over the wheeze of her pump. “No other animal does that.”
“Camel urine is good for human hair,” I say.
The syringe soothes George, quiets his nerves, takes the monkey off his back. The syringe brings Peace. George sucks my misshapen left thumb, my curveball thumb, my All-American deformity.
The scarred and crooked digit is the product of a fleeting courage that arose within me one Fourth of July. Alan Cheeks and Edward Mingle wanted me to join them in their hunt for Big League Chew and Laffy Taffy across the footbridge at Laughing Brook Park: half a dozen baseball fields laid out across acres of well-tended grass and thick stands of pine.
“To see if the snack bar’s open,” Mingle said. He wore a misshapen hat. He had a skinny, angular body, and he spent his summers memorizing Major League Baseball stats.
“It’s not open.”
“Cheeks says it is.”
Cheeks, a younger, weaker version of Mingle, wore thick, black glasses. He was too fragile to tease. Nobody even bothered calling him the Strike Out King. Cheeks and Mingle. These were my sixth grade friends.
“It’s the Fourth of July,” I said. “Everybody’s on this side of the park.” Everybody meant my father, waiting to bat, and the rest of the guys from the depot emptying the keg on the sidelines of the softball game.
“Let’s go see,” said Mingle.
By not going I stood to lose out on some Big League Chew. By staying I stood to endure watching men like my father, with droopy handlebar mustaches and flabby paunches, run the bases and swat at pitches lofted high in the air. We crossed the brook and found the snack bar closed. We also found, behind the snack bar, beneath the tarp that covered the dirt used to repair the fields, the supply of fireworks stashed for the evening’s entertainment. Black Cats, Superchargers, M-80’s, mortars, rockets, Spinners, Morning Glories, all the paraphernalia that promised to light up Ebbington’s Fourth of July.
Mingle said, “Should we-”
“-No,” I said. “Let’s go back.”
But Dickey Harbinger, two years older and many sizes larger, turned the corner on his BMX, followed Mike Turfle.
“What’s this?” Harbinger asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing my ass. Looks like fireworks.”
“So they’re fireworks.”
“So what’re you afraid of?”
“Where you going?”
“We don’t have a lighter.”
Harbinger brought out his Zippo. “Dare you,” he said.
Across the parking lot the adults swatted and hooted and ran the bases amid shouts and hollers. Don’t Fear the Reaper blared in the distance, the song floating along just above the shouts and cheers. A loud roar went up from around the keg. The smell of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers filled the afternoon up to the high, clear sky.
“I’ll do it,” I said. I gathered a few Butterflies and some Roman Candles and shot them off at the edge of the woods. The fireworks made a loud, smoky display, then I handed back Harbinger’s lighter, silver and black and engraved with the Harley-Davidson bar and shield. When he saw that the adults were too busy with softball to care about a couple of kids making noise at the edge of the pines, Harbinger took up a quiver of bottle rockets and began firing them at us. Mingle and I ran until we saw that Turfle had tackled Cheeks and held him face down in the dirt. He’d broken the plastic frames of Cheeks’ glasses and was throttling his neck. Harbinger moved towards Cheeks with a battery of Black Cats and a roll of bat-handle tape. I hesitated, then forced myself closer.
“Watch this,” I shouted. The boys looked up from their torture. I pushed an M-80 down the neck of a Coke bottle. Harbinger and Turfle, their faces streaked with sweat and dirt, let go of the panting, terrified Cheeks.
“Do it,” Harbinger said.
“Gimme the lighter.”
He handed the lighter over and I didn’t want to do it. I felt terror. Then I clicked the wheel of the Zippo and before gravity could take the bottle from my hand the flame had burnt down to the casing and the M-80 exploded in the lip of the bottle.
I didn’t feel a thing. Blood streaked my shirt. My ears rang. I dropped Harbinger’s lighter while he and Turfle jumped on their bikes and rode the hell away. Cheeks was shrieking and rolling on the ground, hands and forearms around his ears. Mingle just kept on walking, crossing the little footbridge to seek comfort among the adults.
Blood gushed from my hand and covered my shirt, splashing to the ground in giant, fast running drops. I took the abandoned bat-handle tape and wrapped the bloody thumb in my shirt, tightening it with tape to stop the bleeding. Comfortably Numb drifted from the car park across the merry babble of Laughing Brook.
I hid the burnt, painful thing for a week before my father noticed me wince, my hand on my lap beneath the table. I told him it was nothing. He made me show him the nothing. By the time a doctor looked at it, the burns were no longer the issue. “Tendon is severed,” the doctor said. “I can re-attach it, but even with physical therapy you won’t straighten that thumb again.”
The pumping is a bizarre act. I can imagine no other animal doing this. In the beginning George’s mother tolerated my Discovery Channel narration of the process: “The mother human plugs in her pump, itself hidden in an attaché case against the day she rejoins the herd and returns to professional life. She attaches a tube to each cone, presses a cone to each breast. Both hands are occupied; in this posture, the female human is defenseless. The male human looks on.”
I no longer narrate the process; George’s mother disliked the way the ending evolved: “Marveling at the efforts the mother makes to feed her young.” Then, “Stupefied by the whole thing.” Finally, “Perhaps awaiting his turn.”
“Not producing enough,” she says, fretting at the bottles.
She has all kinds of tricks for making more milk come. Massages. Hot compresses. The midwife recommends a feeding position that has George on the floor on his back, his mother bridging over him. Dr. Spock, whose books and pamphlets litter our family room, our living room, our bedroom, offers further advice. Dr. Spock, Dr. Seuss.
“I’ve got clogged ducts,” George’s mother says.
“Mallards from Holland,” I say.
And before me, in all his turkey-strutting pride, Senator Teflon and his colleagues grill the Major League Baseball player in the cheap-looking metallic suit. I have no opinion about any of it. I just stock the shelves at Super Food Mart in the middle of the night and play at father by day. Plunger, syringe tip, milk flow, Dr. Seuss.
“It isn’t meant to be a career,” she says, craning her neck from the straight-backed chair. “It’s public service. One term. Two tops. Turn that off.”
“I’d like to have turkey for Thanksgiving this year. Not toe food.”
“Tofu,” says George’s mother, vegetarian.
“They’re no better than the people they interrogate.”
“That’s Roger Clemens.”
“Don’t spill my milk! Is this all they have to do? This isn’t governing!”
She says this with conviction. Her conviction goes beyond what she learned at Georgetown. Her conviction includes the belief that she can solve the problem. Her desire to repair that venerable institution is strong; as strong as her desire to stay at home and be a mother. A well-placed word from her father and she was hired as a staffer for the Distinguished Gentleman from Somewhere. Recently elected. It’s not clear if her conviction will extend past a second term. For now she’s working to solve the problem from the inside.
I do pretty good with the syringe. I know when George wants an appetizer and when he’s down to the main course. His eyes, wide and brown, meet mine: not a greeting, not fear, not sorrow, or worry. The look confirms his commitment. We are engaged in a contract. “I suck hard, I get milk,” his look tells me. “Do not disappoint me.”
“Your old man may disappoint you.”
“What’s Daddy got to do with it?” George’s mother asks.
“This is between me and the boy.”
“The boy has a name.”
I concentrate on the plunger. Unlike the problems of the nation, of Senator Teflon and Roger Clemens, George’s troubles are something for which I feel at least a little responsibility. Senator Teflon’s problems are the concern of people like George’s mother.
“Nothing a good turkey shoot can’t fix.”
“What is it with you and turkeys today? Turn that off.”
That sweet curving thumb of mine put a wild spin on every ball I threw. Curveballs, sliders, pitches that dropped four inches just before the plate. Northern Leaguers called it “the plunger”. Batters coiled up, twisted backs, pulled muscles, quit the game in frustration. Those who caught a piece of my fastball felt it in their teeth. Lefties, righties, the umps called them out one after another.
Stonebriar College offered a scholarship. I wasn’t interested in school, self-improvement, baseball, any of it, but the sad twinkle in my father’s eyes prompted me to accept. He was a lonely man on a pallet jack filling orders from the nation’s grocery chains at the Sweetlife Food Depot, a man of no ambition who instilled no ambition in me. I saw that fleeting glimmer of hope and pride and for once had the courage to achieve.
Twenty batters reached base during my first season. Ten the next. My third season opened with back-to-back no-hitters, all of it thanks to the plunging pitches that rolled off my twisted thumb. All of it thanks to Turfle and Harbinger and that middle school courage to defend Alan Cheeks. Nine after nine I climbed the mound. I didn’t even see the batters. I read Hemp’s signals and threw exactly what he asked for. Nine after nine I dealt strike after strike. I was a sure thing for the Majors, if.
“If you were a little bigger.”
“So I’m not cut out for the Majors.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You can tell me, Doc.”
“Ever hear of-?”
“-Never heard of it.” The quarrelsome guys on the team, quarrelsome, irascible, the Dickey Harbingers and Mike Turfles full of aggressive talk and big ambitions, they used performance enhancing drugs like HGH. They didn’t fit into their bodies. They were bigger than their bodies and bigger than their uniforms and their aluminum bats made hollow pinging sounds in the cold twilight of early spring baseball.
I calculated my chances of making it without steroids and left school. Why put my body through all that–break down, rebuild, pool, sauna, weight room, mound, bus, bench, sprints, squats–just to wind up at a dead end? I could dictate my own dead end and no more break down, rebuild, pool, sauna, weight room, mound, bus, bench, sprints, squats.
I returned home and went to work at the easiest thing I could find: stocking shelves at the Super Food Mart. Game over. No more striving. No more anxiety. My biggest dilemma was whether or not to open a box with 12 cans of Manwich when the shelf would hold only seven. Simple problem. Simple solution. Nothing in the world was going to change because of it. I saw all the days of my future rolling out before me next to Laughing Brook Park, and the nights at the Super Food Mart putting cans on the shelves.
Until the morning I met George’s mother. Her first words to me: “It was my fault.”
“Are you ok?”
“It was my fault.”
“My daddy… My daddy…”
“Is there someone else in the car?”
“I’m sorry, I-”
“Doesn’t look like you’re bleeding. Do you want an ambulance?”
“I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m…”
She insisted on making it right. Insurance gave me a bit of money for the pickup. But insurance wasn’t enough. It was a fatal collision–we were married inside the year.
The pumping and the plunging are synchronized. George drains the bottle at the same time as his mother shuts off the pump. She holds up the bottles and squints closely at the contents like a scientist recording measurements in a beaker. She clucks, dissatisfied.
I lift George, set him bent-backed on my thigh, and beat him softly with the open palm of my hand. His bald head bounces with each gentle pat. He stares downwards with glazed eyes, his useless little hands balled into fists.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” George’s mother says.
“Not enough milk.”
“Why is Teflon grilling Clemens, anyway?”
George burps a second time, a longer burp. I stop the beating and George realizes he isn’t satisfied. He begins to whimper, then squall.
“He doesn’t even play anymore.”
“He’s still hungry,” she says. “Turn that off.” She gathers up her dirty pump parts, the cones and the bottles. The milk she transfers into bags for the freezer. When I reach into the freezer for ice cream, I’m confronted by an army of plastic bags and Medela bottles wearing yellow caps. This polar army stands at attention in neatly ordered columns and rows, each dated with George’s mother’s impeccable script. I have to reach around them for the Breyer’s.
Before she leaves the family room George’s mother takes the remote and zaps Teflon into oblivion. “I’ll get the formula.”
We disagree about formula. She’s very scientific, measures it just so, two exact scoops, not packed tight, not heaping, exactly level. She pours in bottled water, filling to the three ounce line. I’m less cautious. She reproaches me for over-filling, for under-filling, for packing the scoops or heaping or being anything other than 100% accurate. Feeding George is a science project. His mother’s the control. I’m the experiment.
“It all comes out the same in the end,” I say.
“This isn’t putting chips on PB&J.”
“It all comes out in the end.”
“There are instructions. It’s unsafe not to follow.”
“It all comes out the end.”
She leaves the room and I check in with Senator Teflon. Clemens is being questioned about his use of Human Growth Hormone. George stops crying to watch the television. I wonder if Enfamil Nutramigen Lipil iron-fortified formula can be called a performance-enhancing drug. I turn off the television and George starts to cry. George’s mother returns with a bottle filled to the three ounce line and I begin the two-handed feed all over again. Plunger, syringe tip, formula. George’s mother sits beside me to read Super Baby Foods.
“They just popularize steroid use,” I say.
“He’ll get his first solids next month.”
“It shows young athletes that if they want to be the next Roger Clemens, they’ll have to use steroids.”
“He’ll start with brown rice. After five days, we can introduce a vegetable.”
George sucks hard. I push the plunger. “What would they say if Clemens had a bent thumb?”
“Performance-enhancing physical injury?”
Her every thought is bent on making George better. She confronts the problem the way she confronts all problems: emotion is fleeting, the solution permanent. It’s how she approaches her professional labors at the Senate, improving that institution with the same careful precision that she uses to plan George’s menu, a full month before solids.
Her job came about through the intervention of her father, a square-jawed, black-suited bureaucrat. No chance he ever stuck his big, soft thumb in his daughter’s mouth. The silver-haired gentleman of vast connections and comfortable wealth is good enough to nod at me when he visits, but his sharp, unforgiving eyes express disdain for me, sunken into the couch with my thumb in his grandson’s mouth. “My daughter is too good for a wreck like you,” his eyes remind me, much as George’s eyes remind me of the contract between us–he sucks, I plunge.
Her all-provident father secured our appointment with Dr. McCormack, pediatrician to the grandchildren of the Washington elite. On an early January morning darkened by the low gray weight of heavy storm-clouds, we made our way along the slick wet sidewalk of Foggy Bottom to the hospital, like Londoners making their dreary way to work on Great Portland Street. George, small enough to ride in his sling zipped up inside my jacket, peered out into the chilly damp, a watch cap pressed low over his ears. George’s mother, wrapped in hat and scarf and gloves and coat, carried the umbrella, diaper bag, and folders containing George’s complete medical history since the time of his unexpected discovery just over a year ago. We waited long enough to remove our coats and fill out paperwork before consulting with Dr. McCormack himself, who asked George’s mother a series of questions to which she had ready and detailed answers.
“The first bloody stool was three days ago, Doctor. Yes, there was mucus. We have photographs. We have samples.”
George’s mother asked questions and took copious notes. The Doc examined George tenderly. He ordered tests from the lab downstairs, and George screamed when they pushed the needles into his feet. Afterwards I soothed him with my syringe tip, plunger, milk flow and he slept in his sling inside my jacket all the way home.
The diagnosis–failure to thrive–was ascribed to George’s inability to break down milk-and-dairy-based proteins. George’s mother, vegetarian, set her chin against staple pleasures: cheese, yogurt, butter. No more bread. No creamy desserts. Forget the Breyer’s ice cream behind her army of Medela bottles. Forget the milk pumped into the bottles, product of the complicated milk protein. She’s given it all up so that George will get the least complicated form of milk from her breast. She’s been experimenting on herself with this diet for over a month.
She’s right to be irritable.
I push the plunger against the scientific reality that his small body can’t break down milk protein. The already tiny miracle, born six weeks ahead of schedule, now barely five months old, has fallen off the chart that tracks his growth. He hasn’t got the requisite skills to suck properly at the breast. Doesn’t absorb even the small amounts he sucks. I push the plunger to emit a super-charged dose of high calorie formula. George’s mother has a plan to make him right and by default to make us right.
George’s mother believes she can fix both our lives, hers and mine, if we can fix George.
I push the syringe against his malnourishment. His tiny fists beat without will or consciousness or passion, his eyes shut tight. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, or why he’s doing it. All the problems boil down to this. I refuse to think or worry about the other parts of the problem.
I see Teflon on the television and know that George’s mother will improve that, too. She may not fix the institution, but she’ll improve it after she’s fixed this institution. George will be ok. He’s already gaining weight. He may not be the next Roger Clemens, but he won’t be the next Alan Cheeks. I know the most intimate details of his power to perform. I am attuned to his most primal abilities–sucking; drinking; taking in sustenance. This strong, willful creature may even give me the courage to do better than stock Manwich on the shelves of the Super Food Mart.
Photo by timlewisnm on Flickr