A Bad Vase Does Not Break, by Forrest Roth

City central park opens early by his ignoring the official self-admission. Due to its sprawling size, there are no fences or gates, no security personnel keeping anyone out or detaining anyone on the premises. Nothing allows the park to indicate whether it is open or closed save a terse suggestion, posted at equidistant points around the sidewalk perimeter, that no one solicit the premises before 7:30 in the morning and all visitors vacate by midnight. He arrives by 6:45, however, so he can take his usual bench affording the best view of the playground. He reminds himself of the potential fines he’s accruing since no one else will.

Set-up is easy enough: video camera next to him on the arm rest, covered with a newspaper. Extra battery packs available in his coat. By 7:00 he is ready for visitors. He has to wait, of course. The park is still closed.

The half-hour or so before the action begins allows an occupational reflection. He had realized, when he started this project, that he would also function as the de facto security the city couldn’t be bothered to provide after a much-publicized gang shooting (they were always fond of invoking the isolated incident), and why shouldn’t he. The framework of civic code and punishment was all there on one of the wooden signs, citing some mysterious authority assembled not too long ago to caretake the welfare of the visitors as in the manner of a disapproving stepfather who held a switch behind him, gently rapping the back of his own leg with it, eager, in fact, for something untoward to happen. He believed himself to be a stand-in for this most stand-in of fathers, having been familiar with many different ones himself. And everyone appreciates video cameras, even when they don’t. It was, after all, the video camera that made him an absent father instead of a present father, and without it he wouldn’t have had his present wife give birth to his present son; and he would not be evaluating these other present parents milling about the park’s edges, waiting for the legally proscribed time to enter so they could show their video children a good time on the swings and slides and feel safe and feel rewarded for their patience, for their belief in absolute security.

The documentation is his, and his alone. Video camera, his. The park, all the families and their children who enter, his, too. The only thing not his are the circumstances which unfold before him in a depressing regularity of scene and unaware self-portrait. He is merely the person sitting on the bench on an irregular, pre-determined schedule accounting only for inclement weather, public holidays and infrequent bouts of paranoia, the latter precipitated by his dream baby the night before. And, no, he was no Artist. He would tell anyone who asks what he’s doing of fictional NEA grants, goodwill donations by philanthropists, even of Elise herself if he gets caught in a difficult spot. He would say he didn’t have a family, that his son had been a still-birth, that his marriage eventually crumbled under the strain of an unforeseen tragic event, and that he was living month-to-month at a cheap motel on the city outskirts. That would be much closer to any Art his hands could ply for a fickle public.

Only one very careful father today enters the premises before opening time. He takes what is presumably his young daughter for a survey of the swing set to beat the morning crush, his spouse or partner nowhere to be found. While he should have been happy with free and unfettered access to every playground implement before him to offer his daughter, the anxiety crossing his face, something that the video father often waited much longer for to arrive in the day, shows an awareness of being watched somehow, him with his daughter with the same unrecognizing eyes, the same abnormally large forehead that the video father recognizes immediately as Synop’s Syndrome and would make sure every moment is recorded, trained upon the present father’s reluctant shame.

*

Before his resolve to leave Elise, this absent father had many unpleasant dreams of babies with overlarge foreheads visiting him. Babies casting accusatory-yet-bored stares not far removed from those of Venetian rococo cupids. One of these visits regrettably coincided during what he believed was, while with Elise, while they were, oh lord, just so one of them could get to where it really wanted to put up stakes. Had he told Elise that. No, only thought it. Anything for levity. She had been so pleased when she knew for certain she was expecting. A thousand tasteless jokes could have kept him at home with her, but only the wrong one would spoil, like any good administrative assistant, her anticipation of pointless parental responsibility and incessant infant restlessness. Was this the product of her own dream baby. He never knew. He didn’t think so. There was, to be sure, the joy joy joy of the sonogram, followed by the calm, thoughtful penance of expectant motherhood, even after Simmonds delivered the bad news about the amnio from a tidy little dossier that, it seemed to the doctor, she should’ve been familiar with already.

This dream baby of his had continued visiting him at the motel on multiple occasions, at least three times, when he started watching the delivery video again of the nurse there while waiting for her. It skipped check-in, but it was indeed there in the room the first night she stayed with him, waiting in the shower, looking down at him from behind the shower curtain, laconic yet wanting, as though about to ask if he could spare it a cigarette. It followed him from the shower. The room wasn’t dark enough to conceal its forehead while it sat on the pay television box, looking over the porno selections. He decided it was better not waking up the nurse to point that out to her. So uncomfortable.

The second time was when he was watching hockey on cable. The third after he kicked her out for good when she said, You’ll be late for work, pervert. It had kept the sizeable forehead of its previous incarnations at home despite this change of venue. It asked no questions as well. Its eyes appeared different to him though perhaps this was because he had been used to seeing the real article: his actual baby’s, amber, diluted. Watery, but not from crying.

Somewhere I have a son with Synop’s Syndrome, he thought while the dream baby watched him, seated on a much abused dresser. But Elise has a son.

*

Simmonds had explained in summary of whatever pamphlets he exhausted before the video of Elise’s delivery: named for Rene Ferdinand-Synop, who isolated and identified the defective chromosome in the 1950’s after working long hours in an incubator wing of a French hospital and died shortly after publishing his findings. Synop was believed to be closer to his unwed mother, hence dropping the hyphenated name when his syndrome was recognized by the medical community. The absent father hung himself a few years later, supposedly convincing himself he had been entitled to some untold royalties that diagnosing babies with a certain condition brought. The present mother disappeared into Algerian obscurity upon her son being interred at a mausoleum in Lyons and the absent father dispatched to a pauper’s grave in the countryside. Not long after that, within five years, a minor immortality for Rene, courtesy of a Swiss medical journal hailing the discovery.

Ferdinand-Synop wasn’t happy after his discovery, an absent father would ask.

Some young doctors dream of a great discovery, Simmonds continued, even when that discovery involves human frailty. He corrected himself. Especially when—and then the rest of us help where we can as our careers continue.

The doctor then opened a desk drawer, looking for something.

Many developmentally disabled children reach adulthood and lead perfectly normal lives—sometimes incredibly productive ones. Are you familiar with Japan’s Nobel laureate in literature, Fuhei Tamasaburo. He has a son with Synop’s. Well-known abstract impressionist painter in his country. Exhibits and auctions. Recently commissioned to do large murals for Central Tokyo subway stations. Drives himself to work. Very productive.

A current absent father’s concerns may have fixated around work—always first—and whether work would suffice as a rationale for raising a son with Synop’s given the expense of special education, and whether special education would give him a reasonably intelligent son who could at least tell him the time.

It isn’t all about expenses, a current absent father may have tried to reason. I’m worried about what kind of life he’ll have.

The same kind of life you have, Simmonds admonished.

A future absent father may have shook his head for many reasons.

I know you don’t believe so, but I like to think I’m being fair with your son’s prognosis, the doctor continued, eyeing the clock for his rounds. And it’s better today for children with Synop’s than twenty years ago. Your wife, I keep telling you, knew what she was doing. But you still have some concerns I take it.

Without waiting for a reply the doctor dug into his desk, pulling out a copy of the aforementioned famous author’s book about his son which he handed immediately to the current absent father. The title in English translation seemed rough: The Feint of Miracle. The drawing of the son on the cover reminded the current absent father of his dream baby, though this one was much more Japanese than anything found in Venice.

Don’t bother returning it, Simmonds said as he stood up. It’s my gift.

*

He used to watch Elise as she breast-fed him, infrequent as it was since she had not swelled up as much as pregnant women normally do, as Simmonds explained, and her having to sit there and take it. This is a clue, he silently considered, it could’ve been her, not me. Something was off with her. Always off. I did my share. Yes. I might’ve said that to her. Elise drew the baby to her breast, who found the outlaying strands of her hair sooner than her milk. Yet this comforted him before the reproach to her husband left her lips. The baby’s face was drowned in it as she took him out of the room.

His camera caught that moment. He is grateful for it. Elise’s first real blow-up. An important archival moment. He keeps separate frame stills on-file to revisit on his laptop at the motel, after coming in from the balcony, waiting for his son to find his mother’s breast.

No matter what video clip he queues on his laptop it is Elise, always Elise, and this one a few pillows propped on, too. Sweating heavily grunting. Nurse finally walks in not consoling her. Dialogue back forth between them. Elise not paying attention to what nurse says. Nurse gives up. Tries conversing using simple word clusters somehow gets Elise nodding in forced affirmatives baring teeth groaning with each contraction. Ready for it. Getting ready. Not ready. Simmonds not here yet but will be soon. Nurse keeps qualifying soon. Dries her brow. Passes look to Elise. Hard-stare. There. Yes that look. Same as check-up. Same as amnio. Knowing look without a blink. Nurse knows she knows. Nurse doesn’t care. She wants this done. She really really doesn’t want to see what’s inside Elise.

*

A past absent father once took him to a park much different than the city central park, a father whose name he doesn’t want to remember or isn’t inclined to remember, a park he can’t remember, either, because he never wants to return there because it was a concrete park with no trees or paths but only benches and men and sometimes men playing chess and often men drinking and frequently men sleeping, not a park like this, like the city central. The same principle applies: sit and watch. No one should bother him. No one should stir him to action. Everyone will mind their own business because it is a park with trees and paths and benches and men, all of which are tamed by the others and will tame in turn. It’s a decent park, he thinks, assuming he understands what decent means.

When daylight grows short, his video camera is no longer useful—that is, there isn’t much reason to put the light on since families begin leaving with their children, since he can’t attract attention, since he gets tired sitting on the bench all day thinking about baby foreheads. Perhaps a few people take note that the man who had sat on the bench all day has indeed sat on the bench all day and does not appear to be moving anytime soon, the problem being that he is not drinking nor playing chess nor sleeping, though these remained threatening actions in this particular park. Someone surely would call for whatever security mentioned to be enforced on the wooden board at the entrance. But the man who has sat on the bench all day has done nothing but sit, shifting a bundle of newspapers under his hand behind him in a peculiar, concealing gesture barely worth noticing because it is late and people are leaving and it is still a decent park despite the man just sitting on the bench.

A past absent father had once approached him and said, I’d like to take you to the park, and, without waiting for an answer, he did take him, and it was late, growing very dark, though there were still men to watch on the benches, more than before when there was daylight, and this time they were returning the look.

Men, sitting and watching.

A past present father had once approached him and said, Excuse me I couldn’t help noticing you’ve been watching us is there something under your hand.

No, no there isn’t.

A past present father had once waited for clarification.

I’m just sitting here.

*

He isn’t sure whether his dream baby is indeed inflicted with Synop’s. He pretends it isn’t so he can give it a chromosomal defect of his own choosing, one based upon an amalgam of faulty children recorded on his camera. During its presumed third visit, while seated upon the dresser, it faintly regarded him instead of the more interrogative stare cast in his direction during the second night at the motel when it peered at him from inside the ice bucket as the hockey game went into double overtime. Aren’t you cold in there, he had attempted to ask it with mental telepathy, knowing it was impossible for him to speak when silent with fear. Wouldn’t you be warmer on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Or with the hot, breathy musings of the crowds at the Louvre’s Renaissance wing. It didn’t answer. It remained quite at peace in its plastic-capped abode of ice water, seeming to take reckoning of his room, perhaps remembering the more genteel comforts of his home with Elise, he thought, the cries of its kindred brother (or offspring) in the bedroom which it helped bring to conception thanks to its haunting under the illusory sighs of Elise’s fulfillment some night a year ago.

Elise, on the other side of town, likely sleeping alone with only their son to attend, could have been sharing this scene herself, though with considerable ease casting aside the memory of his presence while the home took shape. Their marriage wouldn’t be an archive, she had remonstrated. The basis of ignoring the look he had deftly recorded was also grounded upon her immunity to his dream baby, her walking past it, he had noticed once when stirred to awake, while making a bathroom trip, never noticing the baby mouth in Latin, he thought, Malum vas non frangitur. A small balloon of pride filled in his chest. The dream baby—his dream baby—knew another language—any language. But the moment passed with Elise returning to bed, her face somewhat damp from the water she routinely threw on it after her business, no more aware of the dream baby than the nurse who had remained slightly out of her peripheral view on the delivery day. Their son, meanwhile, blessed with no such pre-cognitive abilities of Romantic tongues, remained prone to the frequent, discernible fidgeting of Synop’s babies, even while sleeping peacefully without a sound.

If he misses being at home, it is only for this: the dream baby had a little more mystery to it there next to its supposed brother.

At some point, before he went to sleep, he noticed the plastic top of the ice container sink down, meaning his visitor was likely gone for rest of the evening—to where he wasn’t certain. Did it float home to visit Elise, even if it she didn’t see it. Maybe it was visiting his son instead in his still-nascent unconsciousness, teaching him all the important things that would make him the secret prodigy he was destined to become, supported firmly by a mother who had the strength to kick out an unsupportive husband and father too afraid to deal with the reality of raising a child with Synop’s. It was true enough. Home frightened him. Watching the weight of his son’s large forehead nauseated him. The vantage afforded by the motel room alleviated this, granting him a space to work, a nurse to, ah, attend to him, and the fruitless disposition of falling into himself one video at a time, a growing family album of the strangers less strange to their self-inflicted predicament of heredity inflictions.

*

Taking a day off from the city central park, he waited outside the hospital for hours just to talk to the nurse. She wouldn’t have it at first, wouldn’t have lunch, that is, until he reminded her of the Synop’s baby, I’m the one who had the Synop’s baby last year, which must sound absurd coming from a man but she asked him to wait outside all the same. Almost time for a cigarette, she explained. It helped that he smoked occasionally, too, which had been awhile since he married Elise just to make sure the baby was, as she put it, healthy. He mused over this irony with the nurse, standing, passively listening to him while anticipating any ambulances to roll up to the ER entry with something more interesting, though it never happened while he prattled on about the difficulties of raising a Synop’s baby and what, as a health services provider, he diplomatically called her, should he do. She would tell him, but only over lunch, which they had at the cafeteria there, his treat, of course; and she explained while he picked through the bruised apples and metallic-tasting gelatin parfaits that raising a baby with Synop’s was one of the most difficult and most rewarding experiences of parenthood, based on what she had been told, and that he would do well to get out now while he could.

She’s setting me up, he thought. She’ll report me to Protective Services. But she continued in all earnestness, mere feet away from the people who would have told him the exact opposite. He didn’t know whether to believe her or not, but this observation alone made him sit up attentively in his flimsy plastic molded chair and reconsider her, her ill-fitting scrubs, her frizzy hair tied back without ceremony in a frayed rubber band. Do you ever not eat here, he wanted to asked her, trying to keep the moment going.

Instead: You ever hear of Fooey Tamsburrito.

I don’t read Japanese, the nurse sighed as though she were too ashamed to admit it. Simmonds told you that. He always tells the Synop’s parents that. Every retard kid a secret prodigy—no offense, hey.

Yeah. Sure.

He could tell then she had been waiting to ask him something.

So that was that really your wife.

They finished up earlier than he anticipated.

A seasoned attendant of all bodies, living and dead, never fails to fully surmise her subject. If a meal should precede the motel, there are always further advantages to press, more ways to reanimate what she had previously held as laconic, lost between the figurative poles. She did feel sorry for him—but not in that way, she stipulated to him. She saw the desire she had planted in him just for helping a routine delivery of his wife’s defective baby without grace or a snappish rebuke to turn the damn camera off, sir. He could trust her with these things he was about to pursue, and cut through the greatest lie of her life up until now.

His only mistake that evening, as she danced back into her underwear, was answering her answering her inquiry about why he didn’t abort the baby. Why didn’t he ask Elise.

I needed something for my video album, he answered while letting her remove his wire-rim glasses on the spotted duvet. He had taken them off so he couldn’t see the dream baby disappear into the bathroom under the cover of gurgling water through a long, painful drain.

*

That was the day before, too, no less than three present fathers pointed in his direction from the playground with ever-attendant cellphones while he was sitting, after the particular visage of them biting their lower lips, of blankly regarding their own children in tandem with the perceived threat, as if to say, We have discovered the watcher who will not join us. We are afraid of his watching, rather than the watcher himself. He knows. He regards our shame well.

*

If he had told any of those present fathers about the dream baby, then they likely would’ve left the park without a word, without a sound suggesting the displeasure of a father worn to the edges. Why else were they there at the park. It was as though the idea of remaining in a house brought the dream baby—which he now knows to be untrue—and the open space of the park resisted the dream baby, or at least he thought so. He also thought a past absent father had other intentions when he brought him to the concrete park, perhaps waiting for one of the men shuffling with hands in his pockets to approach him, having recognized him and his son from previous visits, and ask, Is this your son, to which a past absent father would reply, No, he’s a friend, and the sudden wealth of elation raised in his heart, thinking it more wonderful to be a friend to a father, instead of a son. While this father and the man would then commence with banter regarding his friendliness, the man asking if there was anything he saw that he liked, it occurred to him then he didn’t need to be at home when the man said, Dunno, he don’t look so friendly not bringing a father’s righteous indignation over a stranger’s insult directed at his son, but instead remarking, Fuck off—you’re spoiling the view, and, of course, he knew there was no view to ruin, it was dark, there were benches, and men—so many damaged men of modest heredity—to watch and wonder about, and why would he stay at home, stay with the dream baby, when he could sit on this bench with this man who said he was his father, snatching him away from danger at the last moment, just by the virtue of sitting and watching. The man with his hands in his pockets shuffled off with a deep clearing of his sinuses and spitting the debris out in front of them, but not too close, close enough to see what he left. A father would’ve said something further, he thought, but not the man on the bench, who was still looking with him, out into the men, and wondering how many of them were fathers themselves leaving their homes out of fear of staying away from home forever.

*

The morning someone waits for him, wearing sunglasses despite the cloudy, overcast weather.

He almost hesitates.

He wants to tell him, You’re early. You shouldn’t be here. The park’s still closed—see the sign. You could get fined. It’s a lot of money, I hear.

He sits down anyway in his usual place though keeping the video camera in his bag. He and the other man sit across from each other, doing nothing. Saying nothing.

The families walk in with their normal children, walk into the playground. He wants to start the camera, but can’t. He watches them only instead. He watches him watching them. Being observed, now, across from him, the man doing nothing but crossing his legs, both his arms stretching out across the back of the bench. Nothing but listening to the little apparatus that resembled a transparent sea horse humping his right ear. Does that hurt, he wants to ask him. He could tell the man is bored. That he is being a boring subject. Watch them, he wants to tell him. You’re married, aren’t you. And from the corner of his eye, one or two present mothers turning attention away from their children, gesturing with their chins in the direction of the men who will be sitting on the benches for hours, observing each other observing each other observe.

He asks the man sitting across from him if he has a son. The man sitting across from says nothing, as he expects, but he continues on about how he has a son, a son with Synop’s Syndrome, whom he hasn’t seen in several months but perhaps it is time to again, even though it may not matter, that his wife wouldn’t care if he was there or not because he has a baby with Synop’s Syndrome, and he admits there is something he learned from a nurse once who delivered his son, who was the first one to see him delivered from his wife’s womb and gave her such a look, the same look he is giving him right now, he can tell, despite the sunglasses, he knows, he can tell he has a son and that he is disappointed he ever had a child when all he does is this, watching people—and the man put a finger to the active hippocampus in his ear, the gesture of which, holding his finger there, suggests, the absent father hopes, he is thoughtfully, carefully considering what the man across was saying from beyond the sea.

*

The motel employee doesn’t have much for them. Been too busy here to pay attention. Guy stayed inside usually at night, had some special company but hadn’t noticed her showing up in awhile (pretty goddamn generous that he didn’t add another guest to the charge—don’t tell his boss), but no one complained about him, didn’t hear nothing. They are very insistent for some reason. Only thing the employee can do is think hard about those odd details that lent the newfound grotesque to former occupants, except even the bathroom was immaculate. Guy folded his used towels into large triangles when he left them on the floor, he tells them, remembering quickly now. Also all the pillows lined up standing on the dresser. I ain’t ever seen that before.

After they leave his office empty-handed, he hits the switch for the neon sign out front. Grabs a light beer from under the counter. Puts his feet up and starts routine viewing of old security cam videos that caught some entertainment, all the while keeping an eye on the current non-action. Had the whole place covered for the night, he would tell his boss on the offhand chance he showed. Has himself a sweet new laptop as well, courtesy of that former occupant in lieu of payment until he shows again, too. Not gonna happen, though. Luckily the guy kept it on and plugged in when he entered the room after knocking several times. Fairly certain he had cleared out, but you never can tell. Often these suicides were quiet; and if it wasn’t a suicide, a body would be thrown into the deal anyway for good measure. Yet, to his earnest surprise, none found. Only the laptop ready to go on the table. A video already queued on the screen.

All right, he thought, his face glowing as he hunched over it. Bouncy time.

His excitement promptly cut short.

A woman enters a park—looks like the downtown one—then she stoops a bit, a weird-looking baby, something wrong with him, walking, holding her hand. She bends down asking the baby something though there’s no response, only a swing with leg harnesses which the woman selects on her own, pushing the baby, the baby rocking, oscillating, neither happy nor unhappy but staring vacantly with watery eyes. There’s no one else in the park. No one else but the woman noticing something and turning to someone’s general direction, looking concerned for a second despite the daybreak sun creeping upon her face. At ease again, her hand stays in mid-air the moment the video reaches the end, the frame keeping, ending on her touching the baby’s neck once the swing brings them back together.

He stood up as the screen went dark again. Then he spied those pillows on the dresser.

Awful cute, ain’t he.


Forrest Roth is the author of a novella, Line and Pause (BlazeVOX Books), and a chapbook, The Sullen Pages (Little Red Leaves). His work has also appeared in NOON, Denver Quarterly, Juked, Caketrain, The Collagist, and other journals. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University in West Virginia. Weblink: http://www.forrestroth.blogspot.com

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