The Near-Son

I killed a near-son today. Naturally I did not tell my lover about it. But when I was at the clinic his ex-girlfriend was there and she recognized me, and when that snitch got home she called my lover on the phone and told him what I’d done. She probably snuck it in as if she didn’t mean to let it slip. “Oh I saw Mona today at the clinic,” she would have said. “You knew she was there, right? We chatted a bit . . .” and so forth. We hadn’t even chatted a bit.

She walked out of the clinic as I walked in. She was wearing a silver sheath and looked glamorous. In the exit she paused and I did too because she’d blocked my way. She took her sunglasses off and bobbed her chin at me. I guessed she had an idea who I was but wasn’t sure, and I knew I should not bob back. But part of me thought: Maybe it means, We’re friends. I bobbed back. Her lip curled. She stepped aside and I said, Thanks! and went in and got it done.

When I got home I was thinking, Scot-free, scot-free! I tried to walk normally even though it hurt. My lover was lying down on the couch with a compress on his head. The TV was on the sports channel, but he wasn’t watching TV.

How was the mall? he said. But he said it in a dull, sarcastic voice, like he was dead.

I should have known then, but I didn’t.

The mall was great! I said. I held up some pretend shopping bags, as if I’d almost bought a million things. Pretty expensive though, I said.

My lover looked at me with his narrow blue eyes, the ones that first convinced me we should really have sex.

My near-son died today, he said. I felt a tingle when you did it.

I knew I was in trouble then. So I hung my head to show I wanted to be forgiven. Even though he was making the tingle up. He got the tingle from his friends, because they all had stories about the tingles they’d felt when their near-sons were dead. Also, ever since his friends had found out they had even one near-son, they’d decided they each had a few dozen. To find out their real number, they multiplied each girlfriend they’d had by four, five, or six. The number came from a formula that involved a woman’s height-to-weight ratio, how much money her parents made, and the width of her hips. My lover’s friends liked to get together and drink French roast and reminisce, as in, “I almost met my near-son today.” They were all great friends. According to them, the way you met your near-son was, you felt the tingle and knew his spirit was close. Or if you were sensitive, you might see him full-blown, about 17 or 18 and about to wave before he vaporized—the only way to know it was him, besides being sensitive, was that he looked like you knew he would, which was a lot like yourself in your prime. The other way to see him was to see a real guy who resembled him, in which case you might confuse the guy for a spirit and say, “Hey near-son, wanna toss a few back?” and the guy would say, “Go screw.”

I don’t know why you did it, my lover said, or how you could. He adjusted the compress on his head.

I don’t know either, I said.

But I had reasons. For one thing, I knew a son would cry all day. For another, I was low on cash. I worked hard as a waitress to support my lover and myself. My lover was an out-of-work fiscal analyst. But what he wanted to analyze, I wasn’t sure, and neither was he. The economy was pretty bad. Sometimes my lover spent whole days sitting with his friends, also out-of-work analysts, eating potato chips and drinking beer and discussing how in these dark times no one appreciated analysts. Mostly I didn’t care though because his eyes were so blue and he made me forget myself in bed. I forgot myself a lot. But I made enough money to pay the taxes and buy us a lot of ham and bread. I think we both felt if we waited long enough, things would turn good. Everyone we knew felt that way. As in former times, people were waiting for a king to be born. It was said he would be a near-son who’d slip past the forceps, come out alive, and swim for a week in the vat. On the eighth day a nurse would find him. She’d marvel at his perfect toes and powerful legs, then stick him in her purse and bring him home. At home she’d feed him clam chowder and he’d grow strong. By age 4 he’d grow a faint mustache. By 6 he’d start to do little miracles, like turn plain toast into garlic bread. The nurse, who was poor and had once been slutty, would think greedy thoughts at night. Soon she’d ask the boy to do better miracles, like help her and her friends get bigger apartments, and the boy would reprimand her, then explain that he couldn’t do real miracles until he became a man and dealt with his mother. After that, he’d say, his work would start. No one was sure what his work was, but everyone agreed that once he started it, the economy would be great. I thought this story was silly. But everyone talked about it all the time and when they did we felt rich, even if we were eating ham and bread.

Now my lover was not looking at me. He’d put the compress back over his head. That afternoon we had to go to a wedding. I was supposed to buy the present. I was supposed to get it at the mall. But obviously I had not. The wedding was for his best friend.

One sec, I said, as if he were still paying attention to me. Then I got dressed in my red silk frock.

Ready! I said. I thought if I was in a good mood he’d get in one too. Let’s go get the present, I said.

Do you really think I feel like going to a wedding? he said. But he followed me out to the car.

We went to the mall, and at the mall we went to Whitman’s, our favorite store. It had nice silverware and a very fancy line of coffeemakers and dishes, and it was where his best friend had registered. My lover was his best friend’s best man, and he’d practiced his toast all week, so he wanted to buy an expensive gift. We walked up to the registron. She wore her black hair in a tight black bun and a shiny black dress that was tight everywhere except at the ankles, where it poofed out into an umbrella skirt. We told her what party we were with and she looked up the list.

We want to buy something expensive, my lover said. It’s for my best friend. He took my wallet out of my purse.

I knew it was practically empty so I hummed a song about how key chains make pretty good gifts.

The registron lifted her glasses. They have signed on for the titanium pepper mill, she said. It is yet unbought. Will that do?

My lover must have looked skeptical, because she said, It prepares fresh pepper at a verbal command, with a choice from among five grades: very coarse, medium coarse, coarse, not coarse, and regular. It was designed in France. It is yet unbought. Will it do?

Oh yes, my lover said.

It is $500, the registron said, and her eyes turned from brown to black.

No problem, my lover said.

He opened my wallet. He found a five-dollar bill and a ten.

He looked at me. Then he looked at the wallet. Where’s the money? he said.

What money? I said.

This morning you had $500, he said.

I smiled a silly smile. But he did not smile back. I turned to the registron. Do you have anything cheaper? I said.

Then my lover started to cry. He’d realized where the money went.

The registron’s eyes teared over with pity. What’s wrong? she said.

I opened my mouth but didn’t speak. I hoped he wouldn’t tell her what I’d done.

Nothing, he said.

I sighed in relief. He was going to be discreet.

My near-son died today, he said.

I’m so sorry, the registron said. Her name was Alberta. It said so on her tag. You have Alberta’s sympathy, she said. Was he many weeks?

I could see my lover mentally counting. At least twelve, he said.

Terrible, Alberta said. What a loss.

He might have had toes, my lover said.

No toes, I said.

I couldn’t help that. I knew I shouldn’t have said it. I should have let him grieve. But the thing looked more like cheese than a near-son and I was getting defensive. Plus he’d lied about the twelve weeks. It was more like six or seven.

Toes or no toes, my lover said. He was still my near-son to me.

Who did it? Alberta said. If I may ask.

I looked around the store. I’ll just look around the store, I said.

She did it, my lover said.

Oh, no, Alberta said. She looked at me. I’m sorry to hear that.

Yeah well, I said. Me too. Because it hurt like a motherfucker, I’ll tell you that.

I was trying to be funny but no one laughed.

How can you say that? my lover said angrily. You’re walking and talking. Think about how it hurt him!

I made a point of checking my watch. It was 2:48. The wedding was at three. I wanted us to get there and to have a good time. I felt bad about the near-son myself. If it had grown up it might have been cute. But as I said, we were broke, and I don’t like kids. Usually my lover and I got along well. I loved him. When he became unemployed, I told him I’d support him as long as he needed and that if an analyst was really what he was meant to be, he shouldn’t feel pressured to do other work, like wash dishes at a restaurant or paint government tenement houses. And I was keeping that promise. My lover was an analyst and nothing else.

I turned to Alberta. What’s your cheapest thing? I said.

The key chain was $14.99 and we couldn’t afford the silver-sky gift wrap, but I thought it looked nice in the blue tissue paper that Alberta gave us for free.

My lover perked up on the way to the wedding. He even practiced his speech, and every time he read it I clapped. We arrived late, but we saw my lover’s best friend and his best friend’s fiancée make their vows, and we watched all the parents and relatives cry, and then my lover started crying too and I thought, Oh no, now he’ll blab it to everyone, but he stopped when everyone else stopped, so I figured it was normal wedding crying.

At the dinner I was starving, because I’d been told not to eat for two days before the operation. I put three salmon steaks and two partridges on my plate.

Control yourself, my lover said. So I put one of the partridges on his plate for me to eat later. The place where they had the dinner was the banquet hall of an old church. There were tall stained-glass windows and walls made of huge limestone blocks. The food was delicious, especially the partridges, and even though my lover said he couldn’t eat, I hoped it was because he was nervous about his speech. I held his hand under the table, and for a while he let me. Then he shook it off. We were sitting with some people I didn’t know. I’d been hoping he’d introduce me, but he didn’t. I said something about it and he shrugged. Then he pointed to two people far across the room and said, That’s Bobby. That’s Joe.

They didn’t look up so I said, Now I know, and ate my fish.

When the forks hit the glasses, my lover stood up.

He walked to the podium, which stood atop a granite platform at the front of the room. Everyone stopped talking. My lover adjusted the microphone. He brushed a hand through his hair. He grinned in the way that showed his teeth and meant he was out of sorts. Benny, he said. That was the groom’s name. Benny, how long have we been friends?

There was silence.

I don’t know, Benny said.

There was silence again.

Well, a long time, my lover said. And all that time we’ve been friends.

Benny smiled.

This is a good wedding, my lover said. People nodded. My lover said, To your happiness! and everyone drank, and then he said, Many happy returns! and we all drank again. My lover wiped sweat off his nose with a finger.

I’ve known Benny since I was 12, he said. We had a group of friends. We were very close. Benny was the first to grab a boob.

People laughed. But I was worried because none of this was part of his speech.

Benny, my lover said. Remember when we were teenagers, and we went hiking in the national park, and you pooped on the sacred Indian monuments?

My lover waited, but nobody laughed.

Right then the drugs they’d given me at the clinic wore off. I felt a sharp pain like forks poking my insides. I crossed my legs but it didn’t stop. So I made my face normal and under the table I held my hand over my crotch. When I looked back at my lover, he was frowning at me.

Actually, he said. This is not my speech. I’ve been extemporizing. I had a speech. But I can’t give it because something sad happened today.

What happened? Benny said.

My lover’s blue eyes narrowed. The thing that happened is sad, he said. If I tell you it’ll dampen your wedding.

I was thinking: Crap. Also: Ow. I shoved my fist into my crotch.

Tell me, Benny said. Tell us all.

My lover glanced at me. It’s all right, he said. Let’s have the next speech.

We want to hear, Benny said. Throughout the audience were murmurs of agreement.

The forks poked my crotch hard and without thinking I opened my mouth. NEXT SPEECH, I said.

I was sorry as soon as I said it. I looked around like “Who said it?” so someone else might think they had. But people glanced in my direction.

My lover’s chin lifted. I had a near-son today, he said.

On a wedding day, someone said.

Yes, my lover said. Then he pointed at me. She did it, he said. All around the room were large circular wooden tables and each one was full of people and all the people at each table glared at me.

My lover leaned toward Benny.

Psssssst, he said.

People leaned forward to listen.

Benny, my lover said. I wanted to get a good gift. But I had to get you a key chain because she spent the gift money.

Benny frowned. I have a key chain.

I know, my lover said. She spent the money.

Oh, Benny said.

My lover adjusted his tie. Actually, he said, in a happier voice, addressing the crowd, I do have a speech, a totally different one I made up at eleven-oh-five today when I felt the tingle.

My lover looked up. He had nothing in his hands. He must have memorized it. I was impressed because he’s not good at memorization. He held his head high and said:

Benny. You are married today. Congratulations. But you should also congratulate me. I had a near-son today.

A few people clapped.

He weighed a pound, my lover said. He was blond, like all the Mintch men. His age was fourteen weeks.

Six weeks, I said quietly. Half an ounce. Looked like cheese. But no one heard.

Eighteen weeks, my lover said, making it up as he went. The surgeons said that, remarkably, he sang a song as he died. If he lived, he would have been a jazz musician. You like jazz music yourself, Benny.

Benny nodded.

What do you say to the death of a musician? my lover said.

I love jazz, Benny said.

Yes I know, my lover said. But what do you say to a death?

There was silence. Someone said, Boo hiss. Then a lot of other people said it, Boo hiss. The guests at my table pushed their chairs back. I wanted to say, “Why are you standing up?” but I didn’t. A minute later the guests at the tables near mine got up and walked off too. The ones who couldn’t find seats leaned against the limestone walls.

What do we do, Benny? my lover said. What do we do about this?

At that point I knew that kiss he’d given me when I’d eaten the second partridge was a real trick kiss. I’d heard about other times like this and none of them were good. But I knew the thing to do was not to seem afraid. I’d heard from the other waitresses at the restaurant that you had a chance of getting forgiven if you pretended to be sorry. I stood up and faced the crowd.

I cleared my throat. What can I do? I said. How can I make it up?

You can’t, my lover said. It’s too late.

Maybe it’s not, I said. I’ll go check!

But the exit was far away. And it was a door that led to another room, not to the outside, and some people were standing in front of it.

I felt desperate then and said the first thing that came to my head. I guess that I made a mistake, I said. However, I think you should know that in this case, the near-son was very small. It only weighed half an ounce. And even though it was precious to me, it didn’t know the alphabet.

No one laughed.

It was smaller than a tonsil, I said.

Boo hiss, someone said. Boo hiss.

And furthermore, I said, a bit mad now, this bit about the tingle is bullstuff. Nothing happened at eleven-oh-five. That is just way off.

I thought you’d say that, my lover said. In fact I knew you would. Because I made that part up, about eleven-oh-five, as a test. So let me guess. Was it one-fifteen?

No, I said.

I didn’t think so, he said. Because I didn’t feel a tingle right then. Was it noon?

No, I said.

He paused. Ow! he said. Ow! He grabbed his own neck and squeezed it, then punched himself in the gut. He was acting out what he thought his near-son must have felt. Ow, ow! he said. Does it look like it hurts?

No one spoke. Then several people said, Yes.

Because you know what I really felt, my lover said, addressing the crowd, was a slow steady tingle all day. And do you know why?

Why? everyone said.

Because, my lover said, today was the day that my near-son was dead!

Everyone cheered then, and I knew that my speech had not been good enough.

You assassinate an assassin, my lover said. And you punch a bully. But what do you do when a near-son is dead?

Quickly I prepared a speech in my head. I knew that whatever I said had to be full of pathos and had to convince everyone in the room that as a person I had many facets. I thought of my good qualities. There weren’t many. Several times in the last month, I had helped an old lady cross the street. But it was the same old lady, she lived nearby. As for my interests, I liked walking through the woods, reading books in the bathtub, and having sex. But everybody liked those things. I knew there must be something momentous about me. But I couldn’t think of what it was. So I decided to make something up.

I see auras, I said.

No one paid any attention. All the people who had been seated in the red room and the green room of the church were now in our room, the blue one, and they’d gathered along the walls.

I looked at my lover. I love you, I said.

My lover glanced at me. I love you too, he said. Then he looked back at Benny.

I ask you as a friend, my lover said. As my best friend and a handsome guy. What do we do about this?

The crowd moved forward.

I stretched to my full height, five-three.

I’m not sorry, I said.

They were almost to me so I got up on my chair. I’m a waitress, I said. I serve mostly dinners. Sometimes I do breakfast buffet. For the last three years I paid my lover’s rent. I pay the gas bill and sometimes I take him to movies. I do it because he’s an analyst, and if I’m not around then who will support him?

Hands yanked my dress.

There’s no such thing as a near-son, I said. It’s just a story. Please don’t touch me. But that was all I got to say.

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