|Illustration by Calef Brown|
On his second birthday, Jackson Gravity was placed in the Baby Butler, a portable feeding-table on wheels. With its recessed, strap-in vinyl seat and 576-square-inch surface, the Baby Butler gave Jackson the isolation necessary to experiment with the medium of food without hurting his family. Cold, boiled beets were his favorite. He’d shout, mush beets in his fists and rub them all over his head and face. Historically, beets make fine magenta paint, and Jackson’s head proved to be a convenient canvas for this, his first series of monochrome paintings. His parents, Nathalie and Seymour Gravity, thought it was healthier to allow Jackson to express himself than to stifle his impulses; and his older brother, Steven, thought it was real, real fun to watch.
After dinner, Nathalie Gravity cleaned the dishes and Jackson’s head, and Seymour Gravity retired to his office to sit in a chair at a desk. He licked the flap of a tiny rectangle and applied it to the back of a postage stamp, then licked the other side of the hinge and pasted it firmly and evenly onto the page of an album. The album was a three-ring notebook, three inches thick and comprising almost 200 pages of similarly prepared stamps, with anywhere from six to 30 stamps per page. Dr. Gravity currently had 62 such albums, alphabetized, on the bookshelf across from his desk.
“Stamping,” Nathalie called it, this time grimacing from the doorway. “You’re always stamping.”
“I am not always stamping,” Seymour replied. “And besides, it’s the only way I can relax. If I can’t relax, I’ll get stressed out and drop dead.”
Seymour’d been using variations of the phrase when I drop dead a lot recently — at least once a day — and Nathalie was getting tired of it. “You’ll still drop how-you-say dead,” she said evenly. “It’ll just take a bit longer.”
“Exactly. But this way, after I drop dead you can sell my collection, which right now’s worth close to a hundred grand.”
Early the next morning, around 4 a.m., Jackson coughed, and then proceeded to cough straight through until noon, when Nathalie and Seymour drove him to the office of Dr. Oatsen White-Kelso, M.D., a pediatrician with clammy hands just so terrifically immense that Jackson imagined tiny animals jumping back and forth between the fingerprint ridges. Fevered and fragile, Jackson sat naked on the white paper towel spread over the examination table, too exhausted to cry.
Dr. White-Kelso poked at and mushed around Jackson’s tiny tummy with a big, cold, pink sausage index finger. Listened to Jackson’s lungs through two black rubber hoses attached to a round metal ice cube. Shined light in Jackson’s eyes, ears, nose and throat, where he used a small piece of wood to keep Jackson’s tongue from obstructing his view.
“Can you say ‘aaah’?” he asked Jackson.
“Aaah,” said Jackson.
A few feet away, Mrs. Gravity stood crinkling her brow and nose, clutching her purse like a shield across her chest. Dr. Gravity stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders, frowning at each of Dr. White-Kelso’s six framed Norman Rockwell prints.
“Yes,” said Dr. White-Kelso at last, standing and shaking his head no. “Definitely the tonsils. Both of them. I’ll call Merkin and set something up for first thing in the morning.”
“Thank you, Dr. White-Kelso,” said Nathalie, picking up Jackson as the men shook hands.
“You remember my boy Emery?” asked Dr. White-Kelso, who was also a neighbor. “Emery joined the Marines. He’s leaving for Vietnam next week.”
“I’m . . . sorry to hear that,” said Dr. Gravity.
“Yes, indeed,” said Dr. White-Kelso. “Still has both his tonsils, though.”
After dinner, the Gravitys checked Jackson into Merkin Hospital. Jackson was allergic to hospitals, and not without reason. The last time he’d been here, the skin at the end of his penis had been removed. He assumed that this time they’d be taking more, or perhaps the whole thing, or some other part that he hadn’t even thought of.
Worries turned to nightmares, and when at last he awoke, his bed was rolling down a bustling hallway and everything he could see or feel seemed terribly important. The corridors echoed with menacing murmurs, crisp, steady footsteps and wobbling gurney wheels; harsh and buzzing fluorescent light fell like sleet from every ceiling as the bed rolled on and on.
At last he stopped in the middle of a bright turquoise room. Shiny machines beeped, clicked and howled. Arms lifted him onto a new bed surrounded by five men or women. Everyone but Jackson wore eyeglasses and pale blue veils and bonnets and gloves and gowns. The arms pushed him gently onto his back, and someone pressed a cold, hissing, black rubber mask over his nose and mouth and the beeps grew faster and louder and the clicks and howls whirled in a spasmodic hurricane and the black mask roared, injecting the icy licorice mint of its ether into his lungs, until Jackson was gone.
Until Jackson was back. Back home again, strapped into the Baby Butler, safe. His throat still hurt, but in a different way, and without the fever, so it didn’t seem to matter as much. And he still had his entire penis.
It was morning, too early for beets. Beets were for dinner projects. For breakfast, Jackson liked hard-boiled eggs, because he could remove the yolkballs and roll them into Supernutritious Magic Egg Yolk Energy Pellets that, when swallowed, gave him the superpower necessary to squash the egg whites in his hands and launch them, defeated, into the next county.
Jackson sat in the Baby Butler, rolling and eating magic pellets, watching as his mother wiped up the last of the strewn egg whites and removed two fresh eggs from the refrigerator.
Returning to Jackson’s side, Mrs. Gravity smiled and handed him one of the eggs. It was a small egg; Jackson could hold the whole thing in one hand. Mrs. Gravity made a fist around the other egg and, smiling and nodding, held it up for Jackson to observe.
“Squeeze,” said Mrs. Gravity.
Jackson took her cue and squeezed the egg in his fist as hard as he could, and for a moment mother and son stood and sat eggsqueezing until their fists shook and their mouths twisted. But the shells wouldn’t break.
Jackson was speechless. Handed the egg back to his mother.
“Protection,” Mrs. Gravity said, smiling, giving Jackson’s nose a friendly poke. Then she turned around and cracked both eggs into a frying pan.