Way out in the nosebleed section of the universe, big gray Merkin Hospital was drilled, screwed and hammered into the bedrock of planet Earth. Merkin was a horrible hospital run by ignoble nincompoops of the highest order, but it was a highly profitable business, modeled, to the extent it could be, after an unremarkable 19th-century Wisconsin slaughterhouse. The nincompoops had money, offshore accounts, weapons of friends in high places, and they advertised thickly across ClearChannel Consolidated Worldwide Multimedia Networks entire spectrum, which determined 80 percent of everything.
A very, very small part of this 80 percent was Jackson Andrew Gravity. Jackson was born in Merkin Hospital on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of June.
Ouch, said Jacksons mother.
Aaaaa, said Jackson.
After a brisk wipe-down and a brief hug, someone severed the umbilical cord, fashioned it into a knot with a blue plastic tab, and placed Jackson softly inside a tiny glass box where he could spend 72 hours alone having a good long cry over the whole ordeal.
For their trouble, the Gravitys received a miniature artificial bear from China and a complimentary 20-page instructional pamphlet titled Enjoy Your Baby! from Merkin Human Resources Outreach Division Four.
Three days later, Jackson was given a clean bill of health and handed over to his parents. Upon inspection, the Gravitys detected a bizarrely inorganic rash on Jacksons swollen left shoulder and an uncanny resemblance to Don Rickles on his face. They complained and were brought to the hospital administrators office, where the administrators assistant referred them to Section 5: Troubleshooting, on Page 19 of Enjoy Your Baby!:
After your child has been removed from the chamber, you may observe that he or she has developed a bizarrely inorganic, 1-inch-square fluorescent pink or violet rash on his or her shoulder, and a resemblance to the Jewish comedian Don Rickles. Not to worry! Your ClearChannel Consolidated Worldwide Multimedia Network affiliated health-care provider guarantees that your babys exterior will revert to like-new within eight weeks or return him or her for a full refund.
Satisfied, the Gravitys drove Jackson home from Merkin Hospital in the SUV theyd bought for just this purpose. Seymour drove, Nathalie navigated, and Jacksons 4-year-old brother, Steven, sat silently in the back seat.
Nathalie Gravity held Jackson snugly to her chest, so he could listen to her heart. Hi, Jackson, she whispered to the bundle, lightly touching his cheek. Jackson opened his eyes and slowly flopped his head backward, to focus, upside down, on his father. Seymour Gravity punched buttons on the radio, chuckled with relatives on the phone, slurped Starbucks coffee from the ClearChannel commuter mug hed won last year in a listener call-in contest, all while slapping out wild rhythms on the steering wheel and dash and swiveling his head back and forth between road and offspring.
Good baby! Seymour Gravity shouted over his sport-utility life. A very good baby! A fine baby! A very good, fine, fine baby!
Yes, Mrs. Gravity agreed. Jackson is the best possible baby in the whole wide world.
An advertisement came on the radio, an ad for the same make and model of vehicle in which they were heading, for the first time as a family, home. Seymour Gravity stopped playing bongos, returned the commuter mug to the minibar and hung up the phone so he could devote more attention to the ad.
We got a hell of a deal, he said after a moment, then changed to another clear channel and retrieved his coffee.
Jackson smiled slightly and passed out.
Eight weeks passed, and, just as the pamphlet had promised, Jackson looked more or less like a Gravity again. And the skin on his shoulder had healed, at least a little bit. At least enough that Seymour and Nathalie figured a lawsuit would be frivolous. Besides, theyd already bought the clothes, fixed the old crib, remodeled the room. Nathalie had eventually chosen ClearChannel/DowChem Blue15 for the walls, and Halliburton/DuPont Antron Blue42 carpet. Seymour had even considered installing an AOL Time Warner/G.E. Blue127 party bulb in the overhead fixture, but settled for the more traditional (and much cheaper) ClearChannel/Westinghouse Extreme Soft Yellow19 after Nathalie threatened suicide.
The Gravitys cared for Jackson exactly as Enjoy Your Baby! advised, feeding him the quantities and brands of nutrients recommended by ClearChannel Consolidated Worldwide Multimedia Networks impartial health-care research affiliates. And while Jacksons physical health seemed fine, he was an undeniably grumpy baby, so his parents invited friends and relatives over to cheer him up.
Shh. Hes not sleeping.
Shh, yourself. That son of a bitch is sleeping.
No, hes not. His eyes are open. Settle down.
Those arent his eyes.
Of course they are. Hi, little Jackson!
Are not. If those were his eyes, then wheres the nose? The nose would be right . . . right there.
That is a nose.
No, its not.
Shh! Someone might hear you!
You know, he does still look a little like Don Rickles.
Shut the fuck up! Respect! The little buggers trying get some sleep on!
After the guests left and Jackson at last fell asleep, Steven, Jacksons 4-year-old brother, entered quietly, tiptoed to the crib, pressed his face between the bars and watched his little brother sleep.
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Steven tried to remember back to when he himself mustve looked like Don Rickles, but couldnt. He didnt even know who Don Rickles was, but his parents had shown him pictures, and now he couldnt get the image out of his mind. Didnt all babies look more or less like Don Rickles?
Stretching out the collar of his T-shirt and pushing his left shoulder up and through, Steven searched for scars of a 1-inch fluorescent pink square. Nothing. But maybe, Steven reasoned, hospitals were making different kinds of babies now.