Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Quiet Man

22 January

It is just starting to snow. It’s the kind of snow you only see in the movies. So light and noncommittal in its meandering path to the earth, you’d think it was cotton or down. Not ice. It has only enough density to be drawn out of the atmosphere and it will rest on a tree limb or a sidewalk or the roof of a parked car.

A man stands at a window that makes up the fourth wall of the room he occupies. The window runs from floor to ceiling and from corner to corner. Steel seems bind the panes and magically seal the outside from the man’s reach so that the snow and the cars and the people display themselves, as it were, on a soundless screen. Like a muted television set. The man notices that as the snow flakes approach the energy and heat of his window, they flitter upward. Back to the heavens that made them.

The man is 29 years old. He drags his thumb nail between his two front teeth and paces casually to the right. Then back again to the left. He pauses there and buries his hands in his pockets. He’s only a little disappointed in the outfit he has on, knowing that there will be pictures taken of him later on. But how was he to know as he dressed himself this morning? He’d decided that it was fine for work, but certainly not for special occasions. But he can see himself vaguely in the window now, and he is not flattered. He chides himself for his vanity and he shifts his focal plane to the snow at infinity. It looks like fog or a fine mist.


The man calls his mother. It is clear now that he will be staying and he wants her to know where he is. He stands facing the window and looks in the direction of his mother’s house. The world has disappeared at that distance. A dim, gray sheet hangs in its place and the man reconstructs the image in his mind while his mother stutters and starts and asks if there is anything she can do. He says they are fine, and he turns again to see his wife in her mechanical bed and drab cotton gown. She doesn’t look fine. She is shivering and bracing in pain, but he doesn’t tell his mother that.


An Indian anesthesiologist is giving brisk instructions as he prepares his unnatural needles. He uses polite words but his manner is hurried and only civil. The man bristles at the tone in use with his wife and he settles into a chair near her bed to stare at the wall. He’s seen this all before and he decides he is not interested in the process anymore. He can’t watch it again. The iodine and the needles and his wife flinching under it all.

The Indian says several times that it will feel like a big mosquito bite and then some pressure, but no pain. Just a big mosquito bite. He says it a last time while he does something the man can’t see. His wife winces and bites her lip. The man imagines a six foot mosquito in green scrubs with an Indian accent. He struggles with what feels like resentment and gratitude for the service rendered. But when his wife's eyes open to reveal their whites as the final needle is driven into her spine, the man decides he hates the Indian and his instruments. And he waits impatiently for him to leave.


The man leaves the window again and goes to his wife’s side. He asks how she’s doing. He reaches for her hand but a nurse hurries in and needs something else and wants her consent for that epidural she just had. The man backs away and sits. He crosses his legs and waits. He looks at his pretty wife lying on her side, her enormous belly now concealed under several flimsy blankets. He watches her back expand and contract with her breath and he realizes that they haven’t had a chance to really talk since they arrived. He had worried himself with the paperwork and his cameras for a while, but now it seems that every occasion for conversation is interrupted by another anonymous figure in green. They swish in and swish out. They clack at the keys and fiddle with tubes. They coo their well-wishes.

But the man considers himself a reasonably private person, and he shies into the corner when other beings are present. He thinks that if it weren’t for all these people do to keep her safe and clean, he’d rather keep this experience between himself and his wife. But he is undying in his gratitude for their abilities and care. If only he felt he could talk or help.

He looks again at his pretty wife. She is peaceful. Her contractions register on a screen behind her but she feels only the announcement of them. The microphone strapped to her pelvis broadcasts the whirring beat of her infant son’s heart. It whump, whump, whumps like a propeller under water. Its steady rhythm is the frantic hope that underlines the man’s thoughts as he studies his wife’s little face. He can’t remember when he didn’t love that face. He prays to his God:

I know this is a little late, but be with my girl. Bless my Jayne.

Be with my boy.

Bless these doctors.

Grant me my son.


The man moves his chair up to the bed where he can hold his wife’s hand. It is frigid. The nurse had told her she was shaking because of her abnormal hormone levels and that she wasn’t all that cold. The man wonders if the nurse had touched her hand. What would she say then? But he doesn’t know if hormones can actually make your hands cold, so he concedes.

They watch Ellen Degeneres in silence. Ellen was on last time they were here. She was on at 10:30 two years ago. The man can’t decide which is a better time slot and what that means about the network’s confidence is Ms. Degeneres. What is her demographic, anyway? Seems a gutsy move to put her in the afternoon with Oprah so near. If Oprah ran for Queen of the World, she’d win by a landslide. Don’t know if you could say the same for Ellen, no matter how spunky she is in all her clothes supplied by Adidas and Converse.

The Jonas Brothers and playing on a rooftop in Texas for Ellen’s screaming fans, and the man and his wife are waiting. They wait. Ellen gets up to dance. She dances to the whump, whump, whump of the child’s unborn heart.


The man sits quietly in the corner away from his wife. He supposes she is asleep with her back to him. She must stay on that side as it is hard to get a read on the child’s heart if she rests on the other.

Sometime before she dropped off, his wife had mentioned how quiet he had been all day. He apologized but couldn’t promise he’d be more vocal. He doubted it was in his nature. Even at work, when his wife had called him home so they could have this baby, he had been ribbed for not showing enough excitement. He had laughed it off then, but he got to wondering about it now.

The man tries to remember what he was like the last two times he was here. Had he turned any cartwheels then? Did he carry on with the nurses and swap golf stories with the doctors?

He cried when Hazel was born. The experience was too much for him then.

He had fought for—and won—his composure with Parley. But choking down the lump in his throat had been very painful.

He decides he never talked a lot, though. Either time. He is more calm today than he had been, and he imagines he will be all the way through delivery; he is not one to jump and shout. But he is ashamed at his distrustful nature, that he can’t relax into the notion that everything will run smoothly. He is hardly caught up in images of catastrophe and tragedy, but he reserves his celebration until he feels he is in the clear. He has always done so. Even in situations of much less gravity, he will hedge his excitement out of view so that no one will know if he is disappointed. It is not indifference that protects the man, or even classic, masculine detachment. There is nothing about the man’s behavior that is “put on”. It is simply that where others will make themselves vulnerable to life and its barbs by investing their emotions nakedly, this man chooses to withdraw and secure an outcome before revealing his hand.

Because somewhere, deep in his soul—under a thousand layers of cool and a thick crust of long-tendered pride—he is doing cartwheels. Big, buoyant, juicy cartwheels. And he is crying, right out loud. Crying rivers of happy tears. And they are pooling and sloshing all over the floor of his heart.


The doctor sweeps into the room, all smiles. He sits and puts on his booties while the nurses prepare the trays and assemble the stirrups. The doctor is married to a friend of the man’s family and he exchanges brief banter about having seen him in a play when he was in eighth grade. The man apologizes for his memory. Everyone chuckles. As the man readies his cameras he notices that his hands are trembling.


The doctor sits on a stool on wheels and pulls himself into position. There is a Paramedic hovering in the background, educating himself in the case that he will have to deliver a baby in an ambulance. He is as nervous and quiet as the man in the corner with his sullen camera.


The doctor asks Jayne to push once. She does so and the child’s head appears with a healthy black mop of wavy hair. Then the face pushing angrily into space. That face that has for so long been shrouded in mystery and anticipation. Now it twists and pulls, fighting for air to fill its lungs. The man knows that face when he sees it, and he bites hard on the emotion welling in his throat. He smiles and smiles, recognizing his son. His camera hangs mute at his side.

The boy slips casually into the doctor’s able hands and his home spills out around him. He finally gets the air he needs and belts out a choked cry that is sweet music to the waiting crowd. And with that, everyone else breathes again. Jayne cries, the doctor is relieved under his mask, the nurses tell the paramedic it is not this easy all the time, and the quiet man in the corner is finally able to snap a photograph of his son. All purple and flailing and covered in muck. The man thinks he could never get tired of this moment. If it could somehow go on in perpetuity—if another dimension opened itself to him wherein this moment could have no end—he’d gladly stand by and watch until his camera rusted in his hands and his bones dried and crumbled inside him.


The boy is clean and sits peacefully in his mother’s arms. He is not crying, she is. The man watches her through the video camera. The tears roll down the viewfinder and off screen. She talks quietly to her son. The man thinks that, in his own way, the boy is listening to what he knows is his mother’s voice.

And when the man is finally given his son to hold for the first time, he doesn’t speak to him. He holds the boy close and examines his perfect tabernacle. He brings his face to his son’s—he hesitates, knowing his stubbled chin will abrade the boy’s soft cheeks. The man pulls his boy tight into his frame and closes his own eyes, wishing he could somehow absorb the child. Thinking that if he could mingle their respective elements, compel them into the same space, the boy could comprehend his father’s affection for him without language or other things of this earth.

The man sways slowly by the window clutching his precious bundle to his breast. The snow has stopped outside and the world is dusted in perfect white.


  1. Phenomenal. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I just noticed the dates as well, duh--so congratulations are in order then!

  3. Wow, thanks Jed. Congratulations to the Wells family. At first I thought the post would involve gnomes and violence but I quickly realized it was something quite touching, great writing.

  4. yeah, i should apologize for dropping something so heavy without warning. i guess these events bring out that thoughtful side that we like to keep hidden most of the time. well, speaking for myself, of course.

    i do write some cracking stories about gnomes, though. and such stories can only be violent.

  5. Jed,
    Wonderful. Congratulations. I do, however, know how to immediately bring a laugh out of the "quiet man". Air pump arm coupled with a distinct sound. Need I say more.

  6. Jed,
    Congrats on the baby. Thanks for sharing it...I quite liked the slow unfold.

  7. wow! i would love to have my own quiet man. this jane is one lucky girl.