The day our son walked across a field and disappeared into a swamp thick with cypress knees, wire grass, yellow flies, and snakes, we considered ourselves good parents. The local sheriff, members of the search party, and spokespersons for children with disabilities advocacy groups have all said otherwise on the national news reports. You used to see me on the morning shows arguing against them until my lawyer advised me to quit it, make the story go away. We were the family framed by dusty peanut fields and a trailer sunk to the axles in red clay. The cameraman always made sure to shoot us wide so all of America could see my denim work shirt and the dirty athletic sock rolled over the stub of my right arm. They especially wanted a look at my wife, Miriam, who leaned on my shoulder, her face puffy and eyes cloudy from the pills the doctors fed her, and the bump of our second child wrapped in a dumpy maternity dress.
Why I quit talking like my lawyer recommended was because those goddamn chipper morning anchors treated me like some brown-lung mill worker who’d lost an arm to the cotton press. All they had to do was check a few facts and they would’ve known that a saw bound up on me as a twenty-year old construction worker long before I’d built the most respected (though, admittedly, not the biggest) contracting business in Nash County, North Carolina. They weren’t interested in the facts, though, because they always edited out the part of the news program where I said I’d bought that house trailer to give the deputies and the search party a place to get organized, drink coffee, and maybe even rest their feet a little bit in front of a ballgame. What bothered me most of all was the way they made my wife out as the cruel, neglectful mother of a mentally disabled boy who was possibly cooking another retarded bun in the oven. When the truth is Miriam’s a beautiful mother.
I remember thinking just that on the day of the disappearance. We were staying at a hotel on the outskirts of Greenville, about forty-five miles from our hometown, which lacked the latest high-tech medical equipment, waiting on our second round of doctor’s visits to begin in the morning. I sat by the hotel pool and watched Miriam—my son, BJ, tethered by rope and harness to the foot of my chair, playing with his set of oversized wooden blocks. She floated on a raft in the center of the pool wearing a white bikini, her skin a deep brown except for a splotch of glassy redness on her belly. She never burned, and I wondered if the residue of ultrasound gel from her morning’s amniocentesis had attracted the sun.
I loved the way my wife refused to hide her body even at the tail end of her first trimester. She always had a beautiful figure, but this pregnancy had quickly swollen her breasts and spread her hips and thighs, almost changing her in a few months’ time into another woman. Already her stomach had grown to the size and firmness of a mini-basketball. I liked to imagine the inside of her that way, an empty sac of air that would deflate if pricked by a pin. I knew this not to be true. That morning I’d watched as her obstetrician shined her belly up with gel and slipped a needle past our peach-sized baby into a pocket of amniotic fluid. The way the long, hollow needle had pinched my wife’s skin just below the pucker of her bellybutton before disappearing deep inside her and then reappearing on the ultrasound monitor struck me as magical.
It reminded me of a time when I was my son’s age, maybe a little older, and a magician visited my elementary school. He wore a white shirt, a sparkly vest, a black cape, and carried a garbage bag full of red balloons. Come to think of it, he probably wasn’t a magician at all, but an awkward junior high schooler trying his act out on an audience that wouldn’t beat him up afterwards. He pressed play on a boom box, pranced around the stage to a pop song even us kids knew was out of fashion, waved his magic wand and with a flick of his wrist turned it into a fencing foil. One by one, then in twos and threes, he tossed the balloons up into the air and stabbed them as they fell. The thin blade slipped in and out of the balloons, never popping them. For the grand finale, he skewered half a dozen on the end of his wand and told us we could show our parents a version of the trick by placing a piece of scotch tape on a balloon and pushing a pin through. After school, I followed his instructions and pierced mine with one of my mother’s knitting needles. It didn’t pop, but by dinner most of the air had run out and the shriveled thing danced against an air conditioner vent.
I looked down at BJ, crouched behind what had become a curved wall of blocks between us, and wondered if they ever brought folks like that to his class. Probably all the damned time, I thought, remembering his white-haired special ed. teacher who assigned macaroni art projects and educational trips to the lunchroom to wipe down the tables and sweep the floors. Still, I considered teaching BJ the balloon trick when we went home the next afternoon as a kind of reward. It’d been a tough two days for him in Greenville, sitting in waiting rooms while his mother underwent a series of tests and his parents talked odds with genetic counselors about his unborn brother or sister. The boy would probably figure the trick out, though, and get insulted.
He had what his developmental pediatrician called “superb spatial intelligence” and was gifted at solving problems and building things. I liked to think he got that from me, and I considered his block construction projects as proof. The curved wall he’d built around himself came up to my knees and was almost perfectly symmetrical with a series of holes for windows evenly spaced around the fortification. The boy pressed an eye to one of those windows and said, “Hey Bubba. Hey Bubba. Hey Bubba.”
I leaned forward and peeked in at my son, who always called me by my first name, and said, “Hey, BJ.”
Then, I called to Miriam, “Look at what our boy built.”
She lifted her head from the raft and shaded her eyes from the afternoon sun. “Good, BJ.”
I ran my hand across the lip of the wall and fingered the angled blocks that hid the joints of the curve. “Not too many other kids out there who could put this together.”
“Seven years old,” Miriam said. “Too young for contracting.”
“I’m thinking about renaming the business,” I said. “Bubba and Son’s Contracting.”
“I’m thinking you ought to shut up and wait until after he’s done with high school,” she said, dropping her head back down on the raft and yawning. “Mainly, shut up.”
The boy giggled from behind his wall, and I leaned back in my chair and smiled. I looked forward to the day my son would graduate; Miriam and I were giving the school system hell to make sure it happened on our terms. Our latest fight with BJ’s elementary school was over pulling him from his special ed. class for part of the day and including him in some regular math and language arts classes. This would serve as a precedent for later grades and get him off the vocational track so many disabled children are forced to follow. The school principal had refused, claiming insufficient resources. The next step after we got back from Greenville was to go to the district superintendent with a highlighted copy of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. To keep things friendly, I planned to volunteer my time to build the required test-taking carrel for BJ. We’d shared this part of the plan with our Internet support group, and everyone agreed it was the right move.
I looked off across the peanut field that edged up to the hotel pool’s chain-link fence, and let myself imagine BJ coming home from school with a load of third-grade math homework. The boy would struggle—probably a lot of late nights together at the kitchen table counting on our fingers, practicing multiplication—but I knew something about working against a disability. I’d lived without my right arm from the elbow down for almost eight years. I had been cutting two-by-fours for framing and tried to nudge a circular saw back on track through a bowed piece of lumber. The blade bound up, jumped out from under my hand, and tore through my forearm like wet paper. Since then I’ve learned to draw plans left-handed, shift gears with my stump, and cut my own steak with a fork and a knife. The boy’s problems were different from mine, of course, and he wouldn’t be able to do it all. I planned to be there, though, and help him without saying a word. The same way Miriam had helped me when I struggled.
“Miriam,” I said. “What do you say we let him off the leash?”
“I don’t know, Bubba.”
We always kept BJ on a leash in public places. The boy tended to wander away in crowds, one of his many tics and habits. I glanced over my shoulder at the empty pool deck. The hotel might as well have been vacant.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” I said. “I mean, goddamn, the boy’s been cooped up in hotels and hospitals for two straight days.”
“I don’t want him getting hurt, falling in the pool or something,” she said, and then raised her hands to her mouth and made a sobbing sound.
“Mama?” The boy pushed himself to his feet, the leash catching the corner of the block wall, causing it to wobble. “Mama? Mama?”
“It’s okay, BJ,” she said, the sound of tears not altogether out of her voice.
The boy didn’t understand that his mother was pregnant, even though we’d explained it to him several times. Miriam would lift her shirt, hold his hand against her bare stomach, and ask him if he wanted a baby brother or sister. This felt a little strange to me, but the doctor said it was important in our son’s circumstances for him to feel like a part of the pregnancy. BJ would squeal, shout baby, baby, baby,and then after a few minutes ask what was wrong with his mother’s tummy. All the boy knew for sure was that something was different about his mother, and he’d been sensitive to her for the past few weeks.
“Mama?” he said again, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
I said, “He’s getting worked up, Mim.”
“Damn it, Bubba. Let him off the leash.”
I crouched behind my son and reached over his wall to work at the harness’s snaps and locks. He rocked back and forth, making it hard for my thumb and forefinger to unfasten the clasps. I slipped my stump around his center, hooked his bare chest in the crook of my elbow, and whispered for him to calm down, “Hey, BJ.”
“Hey Bubba. Hey Bubba. Hey Bubba.”
I unhooked the leash from the harness’s eye ring and let my stump drop back to my side. It swung into the blocks like a wrecking ball, tearing through the middle of the curve.
“Shit,” I said, massaging the pins and needles that spread through the rounded-over skin.
The boy spun around, the orange harness loose on his thin shoulders, his tongue protruding from his too-small mouth, his pale blue eyes narrowed, and he let out with his own particular brand of scream, meant to express everything his mind wouldn’t let him put into words. The best way I know how to describe it is to say it was like something deep inside of him had failed and his body had sounded an alarm.
“BJ,” I said.
The boy ran to the far end of the pool, gripped the chain link gate, and shook it as hard as he could.
“It was an accident, buddy,” I said and started to go after him.
“Sit down, Bubba,” Miriam said. “He needs to learn to work things out on his own.”
“The doctor say that?”
“No,” Miriam said. She sat up on the raft and let her legs dangle on either side in the water. “I said that.”
I eased back down into my chair, the blue plastic slats hot against the backs of my thighs, and looked over at my boy. He rocked back and forth against the fencing, his fingers pulling and tugging at the pool gate’s child-safety latch.
“Don’t even look at him,” Miriam said.
She lay back down on the raft, and I found that, if I leaned back in my chair at just the right angle, the remains of the wall hid her from my view. I tried to ignore my son’s crying by looking out across the peanut field. It was late August—the air heavy and wet—but a gentle breeze blew across the field, carrying dust and a hint of dampness that filled my mouth with a stale taste. I followed the mounded rows of dirt that seemed to curve together with the roundness of the earth until they met at a distant stand of timber. I guessed the mustiness came from the stagnant water of a swamp hidden behind the rows of hardwoods.
Today, that same peanut field lies roped off by thousands of feet of yellow police tape. I wake up to it every morning, and after a cup of coffee in the house trailer, I cross it, surrounded by sheriff’s deputies, friends, and strangers alike, all wearing brush pants and knee-high rubber boots, all afraid to meet my eye. I’ve learned full well the size and extent of the shallow swamp that floods the forest beyond the tree line, and I’ve listened to the whispers of the search party wondering what my role may have been in all of this. I keep my eyes straight ahead, unsure of how I would answer if asked directly, but still hoping against reason to catch a glimpse of my boy.
The other day we found the remains of a shack perched on stilts in a dark corner of the swamp. A deputy explained that in the early nineteenth century, loggers worked and lived back in there, cutting junipers for shingles. I pictured my son stumbling across one of these abandoned huts and using his special kind of intelligence to survive off the plants and the murky water until we discovered him sitting cross-legged under a juniper roof, calling out my name.
I’ve come to hate the swamp, what it’s done to me. I remember, though, that day at the pool—the strange pink light of the late summer sky creeping up above the distant trees and spreading back over the peanut field toward the hotel—thinking that this was a land I loved, that it was Eden to me. And with Miriam still hidden from my view behind the wall, I said, “You’re a good parent, Mim.”
“We’re both good parents, Bubba.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And everyone knows it. Our friends, our support groups, our doctors.”
She said nothing for a while. The breeze from the field blew her raft in a small circle, and her thighs peeked out from behind the wall.
“I know it.”
“That’s what upset me a little while ago,” she said, the wind pushing her entire body into view. I glanced at her stomach and thought again about the little baby floating around inside. I wondered if it could somehow sense that its mother was floating, too—a kind of unexpected equilibrium. I should have known—all the talk about development over the past couple of days—but I was glad I didn’t. Miriam said, “All those people tell us the right thing to do and then congratulate us for it when we do it.”
“They want to help us out.”
“No,” she said. “I asked. I couldn’t find anyone to keep BJ this week.”
“The doctor said it was fine for him to be here. Good, even.”
“That’s what I mean,” she said. “I’m not sure I believe that. I’m not sure I want him here.”
All of a sudden the pool seemed quiet. It took me a long moment to realize I no longer heard the jostling of the child-safety latch.
“Where’s BJ?” I said to Miriam.
“Hey Bubba,” the boy said from the other side of the fence. “Hey Bubba. Hey Bubba.”
“Unbelievable,” I said. “Stay where you are, BJ.”
The boy giggled and ran into the peanut field. He stopped fifteen yards out, plopped down between two rows, and shoved his fingers in his mouth.
I realized then that I hadn’t moved from my chair. “Shouldn’t I?”
“Won’t he get hurt?”
I thought about pesticides, broken bits of plow, and snakes. I thought about a show I saw on cable about hogs that escape from farms, turn wild, and grow thick snouts, sharp teeth, and tusks. I thought about the mysteries of genetics, strips of karyotype paper, and extra chromosomes. I thought about the unknown, the ways we try to prepare ourselves for it, and the turns a life can take that hurt us most.
“I think his legs will give out before he gets very far,” I said.
“He has been cooped up for two straight days.”
“Sometimes we have to make our own decisions.”
“We know what’s best for our baby,” Miriam said.
I readjusted my chair to keep an eye on BJ. It felt good to have some unexpected time alone with Miriam, and it seemed like the right moment to talk. I watched her raft blow around in another circle instead and then leaned forward to rebuild the section of wall my stump had breached.
Miriam said, “I wish he wouldn’t do that to himself.”
I looked up from the wall out into the peanut field. The boy sat facing us with his back arched, his head tilted back, one hand in his mouth and the other working up and down inside his swim trunks.
“Did I tell you he’s got a blister?” she said. “Right on the tip.”
I reached for a block that had scattered beneath my chair. “I’m sure the front desk has some ointment.”
“You need to talk to him,” she said. “Before puberty.”
“Hey, BJ!” I said.
“Hey Bubba. Hey Bubba. Hey Bubba.” He pushed himself up off the ground, walked farther into the field, and sat down with his back to us, his hand still crammed down the front of his trunks.
“Where do you think he got that from?” Miriam asked.
I put the block I was holding on top of the wall and then leaned back in my chair until I couldn’t see Miriam. “I have an idea,” I said.
“School? Were you doing that in third grade?”
“No,” I said. “Maybe.”
“Maybe? You’re sick, Bubba.”
“I don’t really remember when that all started,” I said. “It gets sicker, though.”
I asked her if she remembered six months ago when we were having trouble with the boy wetting his pants. The special ed. teacher had said she didn’t care how many extra pairs of jeans or corduroys we sent wrapped inside plastic bags, that we’d have to keep him home until he knew how to use a toilet. I talked to some of the folks on our Internet support group and they said it was common for boys with his condition to lapse on the potty training, common even for normal boys his age. They suggested letting BJ watch me take leaks to help him remember his routine.
Miriam said, “I remember how strange you were about letting him watch you go.”
“I think I confused him.”
Miriam laughed. “How?”
“I was washing dishes one night after dinner and had that little television on under the cabinet for company,” I said. “A commercial came on that got me feeling sexy.”
“Which one?” Miriam asked, and I could tell even with the curved block wall between us that she was trying not to smile. “Which one got you feeling sexy?”
“There’s the one I like,” I said, “with the girl in tights and a jean jacket. Real curly hair.”
“What were they advertising?”
I suddenly craved a drink. The two of us had given it up soon after BJ was born. Miriam had gotten drunk a few times during her pregnancy—once on her birthday, another time during our country club’s member-guest golf tournament, and then she’d gotten loaded during a hurricane party I threw for my construction crew after our town flooded and my firm won most of the reconstruction bids. The drinking didn’t have anything to do with our son’s condition. Three rather than two copies of chromosome 21 determined that. There’s a little bit of an unknown there, though, and in the long run it’s easier to blame yourself for your sins than God.
“Kotex,” I said.
“The heavy flow girl?” she said and sat up on her raft.
“You’re going to need to lay down if you want me to finish this story.”
Miriam fell back out of sight and tried to stop herself from laughing.
“I started feeling sexy,” I said again and waited for the tremors behind the wall to die down. “And you were in the other room watching reality television, so I jerked off in the trash compactor. When I looked up, the boy was watching me.”
Miriam cleared her throat. “That explains why he’s been peeing in the compactor.”
“All right,” I said. “You’ve made your joke. I’ll talk to him about rubbing on himself, set him straight.”
“I thought you said jacking off never was the same after you lost your arm,” she said and laughed so hard little waves rocked across the pool’s surface. Out in the field, the boy imitated his mother’s laughter, another one of his tics. I noticed that he’d moved deeper into the field and that the pink had started to fade from the sky. She said, “Something about never getting used to your left hand.”
“That’s enough, Miriam,” I said, my arm starting to itch below the stump the way it did when I first lost it. “This was when we were scared to have sex, back when we didn’t want to gamble on another pregnancy.”
She laughed a hard laugh, full of anger and sadness, and after a while I wasn’t sure if it hadn’t changed to tears. I stared at my son’s wall, the near perfect curve, the symmetrical windows letting in flashes of my wife’s half-naked body. The itch spread to my missing hand, my missing fingers. I imagined making a fist, squeezing my nails into my palm, my knuckles turning white, and I drove my stump into the blocks until the itching disappeared and the wall lay flat.
“Bubba,” Miriam said, wiping her face and then covering her stomach with both hands.
I pushed myself out of my chair, kicked a path through the fallen blocks, and walked to the pool gate. “It’ll be dark soon, we need to go.” I pinched my thumb and middle finger between my lips and whistled after my son. “Come on, BJ.”
The boy stood with his back to the hotel, unaware of the collapsed wall. He glanced over his shoulder. I waved. He raised his arm, and in the coming dusk his pale skin looked almost translucent. Then, he gripped the orange straps of his harness and marched down a row.
“I’m going after him,” I said, fumbling with the child-safety latch. “Damn it, Miriam, I need another hand.”
“Wait,” she said.
“He’s about halfway to the woods.”
“Has he gone so far you can’t get to him?”
“No,” I said. “I can get to him.”
“Then let him have some more time,” she said. “We’re good parents, remember. Nothing will happen.”
“Maybe I’m not such a good father,” I said, thinking about the night washing dishes. “I should get him.”
Miriam looked over at me for a long time, the ends of her brown hair black from the water. Then she said, “Maybe I’m not such a good mother.”
“You’re a beautiful mother, Mim,” I said, crossing the concrete decking. I sat down on the pool edge and let my legs dangle underwater. “I was just talking.”
“There’s something I haven’t told you.” She dipped her hands into the water and swam the raft over until she could rest her fingertips on my thigh. The raft danced on the small waves she’d stirred up, and I saw that the skin on her hands, feet, and even her stomach had shriveled from being in the water for so long. I wished then that I hadn’t knocked the wall over, and while my wife talked, I watched my son move farther away.
“You remember when we first found out we were pregnant with BJ?” she asked.
“What about it?” I said.
“Remember how we waited three months to let people know because we worried I might miscarry.”
“Right,” I said, though I actually had no recollection of this.
“I chanced people finding out one afternoon and went baby shopping at Montgomery Ward,” she said. “It was when you lost your arm for good, after the last of the reattachment surgeries, when your muscle and nerve tissue failed to grow back. I went and bought you that little television that’s in the kitchen now to give you something to look at while you were laid up.”
Miriam gripped the end of my stump and massaged the skin. “Do you still feel pain when I talk about it?”
“It tingles from time to time,” I said and mentally tried to relax my missing arm to help ease the tension from earlier.
She shifted her weight on the raft to get a better hold. “They used to keep the electronics next to the baby department,” she said. “I couldn’t look away from the cribs, the carriers, the car seats, the baby toys. I needed something to look forward to because all we could think about were the things we were losing. I decided to get excited about the baby, and I walked into the department and bought a yellow onesie with a bear on front.”
“That’s your big secret?” I asked. The boy continued to head for the woods, and in the fading light he was visible only because of the orange straps of his harness. I called, “Hey, BJ!”
He turned toward the hotel and sat down. “Hey Bubba,” he said, my name faint on the wind. “Hey Bubba. Hey Bubba.”
“I’m going after him,” I said, taking my stump back.
“Just wait,” Miriam said. “I need to tell you this right now while we’re alone.”
As I think over it now in my mind, I know it’s inexplicable. Why did I stay and listen to her story? I want to say it was something in her voice, the urgency in her fingertips that squeezed my leg. It wasn’t. It may have been that I needed to hear her story to understand where our life had been and where it was headed. It wasn’t that either. Maybe, it was as simple as our need to enjoy a rare moment alone together. I don’t know. It frustrates me that this isn’t something I understand or can even explain away.
It doesn’t matter, though. I turned away from my son.
Miriam said, “In the parking lot, I saw an old friend from high school getting out of her car. I felt so certain about everything after buying the onesie that I decided to tell her our good news. I started walking toward her but stopped when I saw her reach into the backseat and unstrap a baby from its car seat. It was a little girl, Bubba. She had the finest brown hair tied into two lopsided pigtails, and the prettiest blue eyes behind pink-rimmed eyeglasses. Her mouth, though, was so tiny, and her tongue poked out from it like a wad of chewing gum. I recognized, without knowing what it was exactly, that something was wrong with her, and I turned around and ran to my car. Bubba, from then on I knew that something was terribly wrong with the baby I was carrying.”
“You couldn’t have possibly known that,” I said.
“I waited until she came back out of the mall and drove away,” she said. “Then I went back inside and returned the onesie.”
“You never said anything about this before.”
“I only had thirty minutes, maybe forty-five, of being excited about becoming a mother.”
“Aren’t you excited about this baby?”
“About the test results or the baby?”
“It’s the same thing,” she said and then laughed. “Isn’t it awful how we used to think a miscarriage was the worst that could happen?”
I wasn’t sure if I understood what she meant by that, and for a moment I had the feeling I was watching two people I didn’t know talk in a way to keep me from understanding. I remembered, then, those uncertain days in the hospital after our boy was born. Miriam and I had asked my mother if she noticed the extra fold of skin in the corner of our baby’s eyes, the deep creases in his palms and the soles of his feet. She said, “The two of you share the same shade of pale blue eyes, Bubba. I remember that color from when you were born. I thought you might be blind and asked the nurse. It’s natural to worry about your baby.” Then, the doctors had diagnosed Bubba Junior with Down syndrome. It was Miriam who embraced our son, faced the doctors with all the right questions, and accepted our family’s future. I found myself standing in front of mirrors, pulling my hair back to study the slope of my forehead, the shape of my ears, shaving my beard to better see the size of my mouth, the contour of my cheeks, just looking for a clue to the boy’s condition hidden in my features. I realized then, sitting beside the hotel pool, our son, now seven years old, that everything I’d done for him—the specialists, the support groups, the fights with his school—was me searching for what else we might share.
I looked up from Miriam out into the field. The sunlight had all but disappeared behind the timberline, and the early evening seemed wrapped in fine gauze. I marveled at how peaceful and still the world looked until I was struck by what was missing. I ran across the pool deck, scaled the chain-link fence, and collapsed into the field. The dusty soil clung to my legs as I sprinted toward the woods where the rows of dirt seemed to curve. I didn’t stop until I’d pounded deep into the field, calling my son’s name, and the world was beaten flat.