“Andrew, stop digging for gold and eat your lunch, pal,” my son takes his little finger from his little nostril, pulls his shoulders to his ears and smiles as only a four-year old who’s been caught red handed can. He’s demanded to sit at the “big boy” chair and eyes a plate that is level with his nose. I wonder how large and looming the corn and hot dog slices and baby carrots and apple pieces I’ve put in front of him look. The midday light pours in through the window by the kitchen table. A runner passes by on the sidewalk and then a cyclist. I sip my tea across from him at the table and he reaches for a carrot with the nose picking hand.
“Dude,” I say, stopping his hand in midair. “Napkin.”
He smiles, grabs for the napkin and wipes one hand with the other clumsily. He rumples the napkin a few times and then holds his hand over the table to the side of his plate. He open his palm and it drifts down.
He grabs a carrot and chomps it in half with his little white teeth. I go back to reading. He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill…
“Can I give Bill a hot dog?” My son points at the dog lying on the floor. Hearing his name, the golden retriever thumps his tail on the wood floor.
“No, but thanks for asking.”
“Sorry, Bill,” he leans his head back and drops the hot dog slice into his mouth. The dog huffs his disappointment.
“Daddy!” he looks up, his eyes wide. “Ambulance!” We listen to the siren headed to the hospital a few blocks from our house. It’s startling how accustomed a person can become to a noise if it occurs frequently enough. My son was an infant when we first moved in and I used to curse the ambulances that would startle him awake in the middle of the night. He’d shriek and cry and it would take a full hour to get him calmed down enough to go back to sleep. More than once, I’d just be laying him back into the crib when another ambulance would whistle by and the process would have to start all over again.
“Hmm?” I lick my forefinger, rub it against my thumb and turn the page.
“Think they’re gonna be okay?”
“Who’s that, pal?”
“The people in’a ambulance.”
“Are you worried about it?”
“Well, what if they have cancer?!”
“I guess they could-“
“Yeah and what if the cancer blew up their head!”
“Blew up their head?” My head cocks to the side and I stare at this strange little half me.
“Yeah!” My son puts his little fists to his temples. “Yeah, what if the cancer got in the person’s head and it got to be too big and their head just ‘sploded!” He punctuates the last word by shooting his fists off from his temples and flailing his fingers.
“Pssshhh!!!” He is overjoyed because he’s made me laugh. His eyes are wide and his grin is cavernous and he’s leaned forward over the table watching as I chuckle to myself.
“Daddy,” he says.
“PSSSSSSSSHHHHHH!!!” He flails his arms this time but stops suddenly. “Ew! Gross!” His shirt sleeve quickly goes to his mouth. “I spit all over the everything!”
“Yeah you did,” I wipe my eye. “What, do I smell or something? You think I need a shower?”
He considers this and a grin overwhelms his bright little face.
“Yeah! You smell!”
There is an electronic ping from the next room. We both freeze and he looks at me intently.
“Yep,” I put Hemingway down like a bird on the table.
“‘Zit the editor?” my son asks. He pops an apple piece in his mouth with a forefinger follow through that points to the back of his throat. It’s bizarre to recognize your own movement in someone else.
“Gonna be in’a mag’zine?” My son asks. He chews the apple with the side of his mouth and grabs a handful of corn that squirts between his fingers.
“Gross, dude,” I laugh and tousle his hot little head.
My son cackles his delight. As I stand from the table, the dog lifts his head, prepared to go on a walk just as soon as I say the word.
“Stay,” I hold a palm up facing the dog. “Andrew, hang out for a second, eh? I want that corn gone.”
“Corn, corn, corn,” he rocks his head from shoulder to shoulder in time with the word.
The floor of the adjacent room is covered with his toys, but it’s a small price to pay to keep him entertained as I work. I’ve learned to always wear shoes, though. Legos under bare feet kill.
I’m trying not to twitch as I wake the screen and it flashes to life. Please let them pick it up, please let them pick it up. It’s not a prayer so much as an ache. I’ve been waiting for this email for a month and a half and there hasn’t been an hour that’s gone by that I haven’t worried about whether I got it all down and right- whether the character was good enough and the arc was compelling and, God, let there be no egregious errors.
There also hasn’t been an hour in which I haven’t emailed my agent about whether or not he’s heard anything. He threatened to drop me if I email him one more time.
Will, you can now officially stop haranguing me. My stomach flips and my throat catches. The blood flows to my face and my smile touches my ears. Congrats, man. The New Yorker picked up your story. The contract is attached. Oh, and I deserve a raise, too.
“OH!” I dance. My arms flail in the air and my knees bend and my hips twist and I couldn’t care less who sees. I kick a pile of blocks and send them careening into the kitchen. The dog’s paws skitter on the floor as he moves out of their way.
“Hang on, pal, I’m dancing.”
“Daddy, I ca-“
There is a thud in the next room. Wet and heavy and solid. A chair falls over with a hollow clap against the wood floor.
The dog whimpers.
“Andrew?” I race around the corner. The dog is standing over my son who is crumpled on his side on the floor. The chair he had been sitting in lies on its back. My home is a vacuum. There is no sound anywhere. “Andrew?” I fall to my knees beside him and slowly turn him over. His head full of thick hair lolls back and his arm drops to the floor at his side. I put a hand to his forehead. It’s clammy. Something is wrong. Something is wrong. Something is-
He’s not breathing.
An ambulance sounds a few blocks away. Ambulance. Hospital.
Folding his arms over his chest, I lift him up, one hand cradling his head and one cradling him at the crook of his knees. There is nothing to him. He might as well be air. I pull him in as close as I can get, lift from my knees and push off with my back foot. The dog thinks we’re going for a walk. He is up and panicked and leaping at my feet, completely unsure of what to do. I trip over him and he yips in pain.
“Bill, goddamnit, stay!” I push him back with my foot, lean into the front door with my back and slam it in the dog’s nose.
I pull his little body in tight to me and peel off the stoop across the lawn. The grass crunches beneath my feet and I swear to G-d, I can hear everything all at once. The little girls that Andrew thinks are gross are squeaking in shrill delight across the street and the old man three doors up from us is watering the lawn and humming “Summertime” even though it is the fucking spring. And who hums “Summertime” when they can whistle?
The lawn ends and my woefully overmatched loafers slap across the sidewalk. Thap, thap, thap. My mouth hangs open. Breathe through your nose. Nice and easy. 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3. Thap, thap, thap.
He is so small. My big boy is so very, very small.
It is three blocks from our house to the hospital. Andrew and I have walked there many times. I have run past it many times, too- but not while clutching my breathless son to my chest. We veer left at the end of our block. Houses careen by on my left side in my peripheral vision. Pleasant plaster and unassuming brick in rank and file and order and row. Some kids play out front. A few bicyclists pedal by.
Thap, thap, thap.
Trees and shrubs and manicured laws. I veer right, cutting across a four way intersection and hop onto the opposite sidewalk. No cars, thank G-d. Come on, pal. We can do this. You can do this.
His haunches slip a little in my grip and I stumble trying to right him. His weight shifts against my own with each step. Come on, pal. Come on. A few middle school-aged boys hang out on the end of the block. One of them is smoking, one of them holds a skateboard. He’ll get to be that old at least, won’t he? The prospect of yelling at him for being a delinquent suddenly appeals to me.
I run up and around them, cutting across a lawn and leaping over a scooter that’s been laid on its side.
“Run, Forest! Run!” one of the boys shouts and the rest of his idiot cronies laugh.
Hitting the sidewalk of the next block, I can see the visage of the hospital loom. We didn’t really consider its proximity as a major selling point to the house- though it didn’t hurt. Hospitals were where other people took their kids. Ours would surely be fine.
He is hot. It’s like hugging a space heater. How long can a person go without breathing? How long can a person go before they suffer some kind of brain damage? Some kind of permanent and irreconcilable alteration of who they were before? Is my boy going to lose his facilities?
Thap, thap, thap.
The hospital is on the far corner of the adjacent block. I stutter step down from the curb and cut across the street.
I didn’t see the car coming.
“Motherfucker!” I can hear the man scream through the screeching brakes. The sedan fishtails, but avoids us by a good ten feet. He lays into his horn as he spews profanities.
“Those aren’t words to use, pal,” I cup my son’s ears and my voice shakes a little.
“Move! Out of the way, please!” I tuck his head in closer to me and weave between nurses on smoking breaks and people wheeling out loved ones and cars to pick them up and doctors who are giving last bits of advice or care or concern. I turn in stride and pound my back against the solid glass door. At some point, I’m sure that I will feel the effects of the stainless steel handle in the side of my back, but I do not now. I arc my torso over his so that he feels nothing- if indeed, he can feel anything at all.
Even in the bustle of the foyer of the hospital, the woman behind the half moon counter hears me. The sound of my back hitting the door, the sound of my loafers squeaking in long strides across the smooth floor. She looks up from some form and sees me holding him- sees me clutching my boy tightly to me.
“He’s- he’s- I-” I can’t get the words out. I’m breathing too hard. “He’s- we-“
“Sir, calm down. What’s happened? Breathe.”
“Breathe!- He ca- he can’t breathe. He’s not breathing.”
“Assist! CPR!” Her voice fills the foyer and she races around the counter. “Lay him down here on the floor,” she points just in front of her to a spot on the floor beside the half moon.
I get him down as quickly as I’m able while still cradling his head from the hard floor. I’m on my knees beside him, the woman likewise, is on his other side and we survey him. His arms flop down to the cold floor, but nothing else moves. His mouth hangs open slightly and his lips have become an alien color that I don’t recognize. She bends over and puts her face next to his mouth. Two men rush up with a red nylon bag and begin bustling around my son, the woman and me.
“Sir, step back please,” one of them takes me by the shoulders.
“No, I-” I am still catching my breath as he puts his hands under my arms and tries to lift me up. “No! I-“
“Sir, please step back. We can’t have you in the way,” the other man is more forceful than the first and joins him grabbing my arms.
“Sir,” the woman says. “Move up to his head there. Keep it cradled for me and when I tell you to move, move.”
“Okay.” The men leave me to do as she asked.
“When did he stop breathing?” She is not looking at me. She feels his throat, running two fingers in a V up and down it.
“A- a few minutes ago.”
“Why didn’t you call 911?” She feels for a pulse and opens his mouth. “Airway,” she says to one of the men.
“We live just around the corner. I picked him up and ran here.”
“You ran here?” She gets close to his mouth and then tilts his head back. “Gimme a flashlight, Bo,” one of the men hands her his pencil light. She points it up his nostril. “Here we go,” she says and throws the light aside. She rises to a knee and lifts his limp and pallid body up swiftly. Turning him so that his back is against her, she hits him between his shoulder blades three times with an open palm and then grabs him around the abdomen and gives it a solid thrust.
“There’s- something-” she grimaces and thrusts again. He gives a sputtered cough and something spews from his mouth. “Down there.” He gasps in a breath as she holds him upright. He takes another and another. It is as though someone has pulled the stopper from the bathtub of my body and everything is draining out from my toes. I fall back into a sitting position and my head spins. Everything is quiet and still and I watch her as she steadies him a moment before laying him back down. He’s in some state of shock, staring up at the ceiling.
“What’s his name?” She is looking at me.
“Andrew,” she says to him in a loud, clear voice. “Andy, can you hear me?”
“Don’t- don’t call him Andy,” I say from somewhere outside myself. “His mother called him that and he doesn’t like it.”
“Andrew, can you hear me?” She says again.
His voice rolls in like ripples on a pond. “Yeah, I can hear you.”
“Good. That’s really good, Andrew.” Her expression turns sweet, her voice becomes silky. “Can you see my fingers?” She holds up a peace sign in front of his face. “How many fingers do you see?”
“One, two,” he points and touches them in turn.
“Good,” She smiles. “Good job.” She looks up at me with a triumphant expression that falls suddenly. “Sir- sir are you alright?”
My head rolls back on my neck and throws the world into violent and swift motion. Bo and the other guy move toward me as the shot begins to fade and the camera pans swiftly up to the ceiling and our protagonist makes his exit.
“Sir?” she shakes me. Everything is dark. There is a sort of din, but all the world is dark.
“Daddy?” He says my name. My boy says my name.
“Sir? Can you sit up?” She is leaning over me, my son standing just over her shoulder. They are out of focus when I open my eyes, so I close them again. “Come on, sit up here.” She puts a slender hand behind my shoulder and pulls me gently forward. My hands collect like rainwater in my lap. My chin is in my collarbone.
“Daddy?” he says.
“Sir? You took an awfully hard fall. Can you look at me, please?”
Everything rushes back to me. Andrew, the run, the woman behind the counter. My eyes pop open and my spine straightens and where is my boy? Where is Andrew?
“Easy, sir. Easy.” She holds a hand out and touches my chest to steady me.
“Daddy? Are you okay?”
“Buddy, are you okay?!” She takes her hand off of my chest and my son hangs his arms around my neck, collapsing into my lap. He starts to tear up.
“Yeah, Daddy,” his little voice is trembling. “I’m okay. But you fell over and I got really worried.”
“I’m okay, pal,” I run my hand through the back of his hair and pull him in a little tighter. “I was really worried about you, though. You fell from the chair and weren’t breathing.”
“Really?” He looks up at me wide eyed.
“Yeah man,” I wipe a tear with my thumb. “Out cold. No breathing. I was terrified.”
“How did we get here?” He looks around the hospital and then gasps. “Did we ride in the ambulance?!”
“Afraid not, pal,” I smooth his hair where I’ve mussed it up. He sighs in disappointment. “We ran.”
“We ran?! How?! Did I run in my not-breathing?”
“No, buddy,” My shoulders shudder as I chuckle. “I ran. I carried you and I ran.”
“Oh. Well, can we do it again?”
“No, pal.” I stand up with Andrew still hanging from my neck and turn to the woman. She is smiling and holding a napkin.
“I’ve found what was blocking his nasal passages,” He buries his head in my shoulder. “It would seem our little friend was trying to dig for gold.”