Two Years Before the Rattle

 

Dear Friend,

As I write, a group of civilized men stand outside of my cell, readying to put me in an adult-sized onesie and infantilize me back into the world. How did it come to this? In the old world, parole was the impossible dream whispered on the lips of every convict. Now it is one step closer to the womb. You recently suffered another birthday and met your fortieth year—like me. Don’t you realize what misery this is? Another year further removed from ourselves. I stopped celebrating my own when I hit my Jesus year, and Christ refused to appear to me. But I was full of myself. Being caught on tax evasion was the least of my concerns. I hear you are newly married. May this next husband give you the children I never could. What love I have remains yours, but pity me not, for I will soon have a new woman in my life to smother me in mother-love.

Your ex-husband

I begin to squeal when the guards open my cell and set upon me, with hopes of receiving high marks on my infant placement test, though I calm easily to avoid being called colicky. There’s nothing worse than being labeled as a difficult child by the parole board. I do not struggle when they fasten the Velcro snaps of my diaper, nor do I flinch when they shave my head. As the guards swaddle me in a thin muslin blanket I attempt to coo, and one of them raps his night stick against my toes. Cute isn’t always a good thing.

There’s war in the Midwest, a revolution on every street corner. The public schools were shut down and the last of the prisons went private, and the big cities had it with all the men acting like boys. When the recidivism rate reached a dangerous high, Congress asked the mothers, America’s last untapped resource in quelling male civil disobedience, to have at the problem. Pretty soon you had every talking head on TV saying that crime could be halved if each criminal had a second chance at being mothered. Infantilization took hold. It wasn’t long before you saw soccer moms pushing twenty-year-old drug dealers in strollers through the aisles of every grocery store in the country.

Oh, but what a pity it is for a white-collar type like me to have to share a mother with a violent offender—a gang-banger no less. “Is it too much to ask to be mothered alone?” I pleaded with the judge after he informed me on the conditions of my parole. “Hasn’t a man earned the right for a second chance at unobtrusive love?” Now I’ll have to fight for my turn at her teat.

Dread fills me as they wheel me before my new mother, who is haloed in cigarette smoke. Menthol, by the smell of it. “Are you circumcised?” she asks. I nod. “Good,” she says, her voice barely a wheeze, “I won’t tolerate an uncut baby in my house. Too hard to clean.” She is old and withered by time, and the weight of her motherly experience causes her turquoise pantsuit to bulge. Soon, my crib mate appears, and to my joy I discover that mother instantly dislikes him, for he is middling in age and meek seeming. “I thought I was getting a young street tough?”

“Suicide.”

What luck! The gang-banger must have chosen to hang himself rather than be infantilized. The guards replaced him with Gregory Smock, a disgraced Wall Street investment banker, who thought his connections at Yale would ease his transition back into society by sparing him the misery of parole.

Mother is displeased with this substitution. “I wanted a black, or at least a Mexican.”

“His sheet lists him as one-eighth Venezuelan, and he’s what we have at the moment.”

Mother approaches Gregory’s stroller, and I can see the terror in his eyes. “Well,” she says, “can you speak English good?”

“Can I speak English good?” Gregory says, “Ma’am, I was a Whiffenpoof.”

With one hand she reaches behind her shirt and unclasps her bra. “Let’s see if he’ll latch.”

Mother presses her desiccated nipple to his lips. A part of me languishes at the intimacy that I am denied, yet I’m grateful Gregory was first to moisten her decrepit breast.

A month into our new lives and Gregory won’t be mothered. “You think being treated like an infant is a punishment?” Mother asks. She drinks from an open Pabst. We, brothers in infancy, sit chained in wheelchairs painted like baby strollers on the porch of her countryside bungalow and watch fires from the rioting distant cites lick the night sky.

Gregory clears his throat. “Technically, the conditions of our parole—”

“No,” mother says, sloshing her can. “You don’t talk like that.” She refuses to allow an educated syllable escape his lips.

“Man,” Gregory says, speaking in the common voice, “fuck this shit, man.”

“That’s my baby.”

Ash falls softly like dirty snow across the countryside. I am grateful to be safely tucked away from it all with Mother, but not Gregory. He tosses me a crinkle book when Mother leaves the porch for another beer. Inside he’s scrawled a message in erasable marker: Our new mother is a sexual predator.

Alone in our cribs for our afternoon nap, I spit out my pacifier and coo. Gregory awakens from his slumber at this prearranged signal, and we plot our escape, though in truth my heart is not in it. “How far do you think we’ll get before Mother finds us?”

“I do not care,” says Gregory. “This woman wishes to rape us.”

“What?”

“Do you recall last evening when she took me in her room?” Indeed, I wept when I was left by myself in the playpen. “She removed her underwear and stood before me. Fur covered her pubis from her navel to her anus.”

“Anus,” I say. “Do you mean asshole?”

“You illiterate wretch. I do not mean asshole. I mean as I say and I say clearly what I mean.”

I take a pacifier into my mouth to hide my sobs. I do not blame him for this sibling abuse. Gregory cannot endure his sentence. He has a practiced dignity worthy of an honest man. He protests each day, in loud fussy rants of linguistic grace. But his word play is lost on Mother and me, for I have done my level best to forget the trappings of the adult world. Give me impish child-talk over eloquent longings and pregnant pauses of adult communication. I’ve given my fill of justified speeches.

If Gregory would just stool I’m certain his attitude would change. No man goes the first night in the diaper. Understandable. But Gregory hasn’t gone more than once in the past month. The buildup must be nearly toxic. So bad that Mother has mentioned the possibility of manual extraction.

“Sorry,” I say.

“Save me your pity. I was forced to perform cunnilingus upon the hag. And if we don’t act accordingly, you’ll be her next victim.”

“I don’t know what that is,” I confess, “but it sure sounds awful.”

“My tongue is raw. And my lips, my lips still taste of stale cigarettes and flat beer. I declare that woman’s kidneys barely function as a filter.”

Mother sharing such worldly knowledge of the mature female form with a parolee goes against the spirit of infantilization. I am gripped by a feeble homicidal rage at Gregory’s intimate description of her sex. That she chose him over me for such a private relationship is maddening.

“What else did you see?”

“Do you expect I kept my eyes open during the forcible act?”

In all my years of marriage, and long before that, as a teenager in the backseat of my father’s station wagon, I never once had the presence of mind to look. I saw, yes, but I never looked long once their panties were down. Not even once. Of the six women I have known in the course of my life, their anatomy remains mysterious. Nervous glances at a girl’s sex as a teenager gave way to apathy throughout my marriage. My prurient interest extended no lower than the level of a woman’s breast, and in the darkness it seemed too impossibly personal to ask for an extended viewing session from my wife. My ignorant nature has not served me well. Oh, if had only not taken for granted the anatomy of the finer sex, treating it as a known given of the world, like electricity or patricide.

I try to turn my thoughts to the future. “Speak to me of the sweet freedom that awaits us.”

Gregory’s eyes glisten. “Steak and bourbon. Actual beds, sleep with no fear of sexual assault or being some wretch’s ward, and tax holidays that do not end.”

“But what of love?”

“Love?”

“Yes, love.”

“Now listen,” Gregory says, his voice low and menacing, “We need to be free of this woman.”

“But we won’t be reformed. Our civic duty—”

Gregory leaps from his crib and jams his teething ring into my mouth. I know I shouldn’t squabble with my nursery brother, but I fuss and start to resist, causing him to close his fingers around my mouth. Before he can put me to sleep forever, I jam my government-issued rattle into the soft white meat of his right eye. In prison one of my fellow unfortunates taught me how to whittle down one end to make a shiv. The blow removes Gregory’s eye, and he releases me with a great inhuman howl.

Cain killed Able in a fit of jealous rage, but perhaps it was because Eve, mother of us all, did not have enough love to split between two sons.

Mother punishes Gregory, now half-blind, by tying him to a stake in the front yard. His speeches are long and delirious. They irritate the grackles buzzing around him as if he were rotted meat; the birds respond to his erudite misery with joyful chatter.

The most joyful week of my life arrives. Alone with Mother, my reformation begins. I am lavished by her attention. At least three or four hours of the day, when Mother is lucid and dry, she strokes my hair and comments on how my curls are wild, unkempt. Her doting extends to bath time, too. Gone are the harsh head-to-toe scrubs; they are replaced by soft and playful sessions of splashing delight.

Bath time comes to an end, and I whimper in protest, when Mother’s hand strokes me to arousal. “I’ve done my duty acting a mother all day.  Now I get to be your woman for minute.” I endure these awkward shifts into adult lust, for they only last mere moments, and what are a few moments pause for love making in a man-child’s life before he can return to flaccid innocence and be mothered once again?

In her bed each night I lie awake and feign sleep, for I am far too excited to be at her side to doze. My gaze is bashful still. I do not dare to look at her below the navel. I listen to the sounds of the world that rise above her ragged breathing from the sleep apnea mask encasing her face. Only Gregory’s rants, and a mocking jay’s pleas, are audible above the mechanical whirl, but I no longer fear either messenger. Nor does the news on the television from the outside frighten me. The rioters in several cities have taken many fine white men from their corporate offices and set them aflame in pyres. I am anxious about nothing next to Mother’s perfect love.

Then Mother’s boyfriend, Jim, arrives, ruining the perfection. He rides a motorcycle and has grease on his face and matted hair past his shoulders. He kicks Gregory in the yard when he calls him “James” out of practiced habit; the poor wretch cowers around his stake like a beaten animal. I am forcibly removed from my deserved place in Mother’s bed to the lonesome indignity of the playpen. Each night I have to endure their prolonged grunts and moans, like bad actors in a porn. One evening, I fuss and throw a tantrum; I even plea stranger danger as Jim punishes me, but to little avail. He puts me out in the yard, with Mother’s blessing, tying me to the same stake as my former crib mate, Gregory.

I doubt I’ll last the night. Gregory’s educated nature has taken a turn this past week. He growls and hisses over my betrayal. His longing for escape is tainted with a desire for revenge.

“I should take out your eye,” he says.

Banished from Mother’s bed, I offer little defense. “Don’t go and do something ungentlemanly,” I say. “You’re certain to regret it.”

“Regrets are for fools and Christians.”

“Oh, but even the old pagans had regrets. Give me a quick death, you enlightened Atheist,” I say. I offer him my throat to tear open with his mouth. “You’re in the right.”

“Death,” Gregory says. “What use is your death to me? Revenge is a quaint notion of the masses.”

“Then what do you want of me?”

Gregory shifts his arms up along the stake, until I can see the rope binding his wrists. “I do not want,” he says, “I demand your teeth.”

“If I could remove each tooth one at a time and hand them over to you, I would.”

“Gnaw my bounds, you idiot.”

And so I do. I chew away at his restraints until my gums are raw and stain the rope red. But I endure it all as one final act of penance. When the bounds fall away, I offer my freed brother a bloody smile. Gregory stands before me. I have not seen him stand, only crawl. He is tremendously tall, his stance elegant.

“Look at you now,” he says, hovering above me. “Not a tooth left in your head, finally a true babe. I should leave you tied here to drown in your own blood.”

“Mother will certainly come when I wail–”

“She will not come. Her bed is occupied by another.”

“It’s not fair.”

Gregory leans forward and removes my bonds, a tender act of kindness beyond the realm of my imagination. “A Christian would call this grace. But I think giving you freedom is a worse condemnation.”

“Yes,” I say, clinging to the stake with my hands.”What is freedom, but loneliness?”

“Go then and demand your smothering sentence.” He tosses me a large rock, and then flees into the night. For what destination I do not know. But I am certain he will take hold like a weed somewhere and grow monstrous in his freedom.

I take the rock in my hands, its edges hewn smooth. I move quietly into the house and into Mother’s room. My hands do not tremble as they quickly bring the rock down on Jim’s sleeping face; they do not feel like my hands at all, but the hands of some newly born creature. Mother does not stir from my act of faux patricide. Her sleeping mask remains fixed in place as I pull off the covers and bring myself to see clearly for the first time the place I’ve avoided looking at throughout adulthood. Beneath a wild tuft of hair a pair of plump lips edges a crevasse as old as the world.

The great pity of this life is that we are all born innocent. What it would be like to be born knowing the dreadful beauty that awaits us.

My hands seem impossibly large now. I bring them to my face and feel my fingers encircle my head. It does not take much force to begin crushing my skull. The bones in my face succumb to the tremendous pressure and give way, crumble. This is the agony of being reborn, and I endure it because I must make myself small as I once was if in order to return to the place from which I was forcibly evicted.      

 

Marc Watkins lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches writing at the University of Mississippi. His fiction has appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses, Boulevard, Third Coast, Texas Review, Story Quarterly, Foxing Quarterly, The Fog Horn, and elsewhere..

Marc Watkins
Marc Watkins lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches writing at the University of Mississippi. His fiction has appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses, Boulevard, Third Coast, Texas Review, Story Quarterly, Foxing Quarterly, The Fog Horn, and elsewhere.

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