How to Love Your Child Without Your Neighbor Reporting You to Child Services

[fiction]

Til has just fallen asleep when an elderly woman bends down to the stroller and gushes, “What a putty baby. Dat a putty baby.” He’s asleep, I whisper, and could she please just fucking move along, too low for her to hear the violence in me I guess, because she’s just getting started. “Putty putty baby. Putty, putty putty baby.” I need Steve, but he’s in the haircutter’s a few shops down, getting trimmed for our appointment with child services in twenty-seven minutes. Some neighbor reported “inappropriate sexual behavior from homosexual dad” when she saw me do a raspberry on Til’s belly—his favorite thing in the world. The guy at child services laughed about it but also said he followed up on all calls. “It’s more common than you think,” he said.

Maybe I’ll dance for him; maybe I’ll howl like a dog. The one thing I won’t do is slap him till he’s sullen and ruined. I will never do this, I tell myself. I won’t do to him what my mother did to me. But I’m scared shitless that some rabid gene, some violent little protein, will make me hurt this bundle of noise.

“Putty putty baby. What a wittle worm. What a ittle bittle worm.” If Steve would get out here, he could remove Grandma kindly. As she’s reaching into the stroller to put her hands all over my child, this quiet corner screams to life. A load of scrap roars down a chute from a construction site, Cannibal Corpse blasts from a second-story window, Til wakes and wails, and Grandma walks away in a huff.

My one job was to produce a baby content as a tick for our interview. And I’ve blown it. There’s a stack of unread baby books on my bedside table—So You’ve Adopted an Ulcer! Two Million Factoids You Wish You’d Read Before Becoming a Dad! How Not to Kill Your Baby in Fifty Incomprehensible Lessons! How to Love a Little Boy! The titles all end in exclamation points to prove love is frantic. When I ask Steve what parents did before baby books, Freud and Melanie Klein, he reminds me that Victorian children were treated like bugbears and doorstops. Infant mortality, he says, was like 110%, which seems unlikely.

Death metal, construction workers, and Til are full-throttle now, so I scream too. Which feels great. Passersby grin like I’m a savvy, well-read parent who knows what to do when their child won’t stop screaming.

Maybe I’ll dance for him; maybe I’ll howl like a dog. The one thing I won’t do is slap him till he’s sullen and ruined. I will never do this, I tell myself. I won’t do to him what my mother did to me. But I’m scared shitless that some rabid gene, some violent little protein, will make me hurt this bundle of noise.

Passersby frown now, eyeing me like Do something! Do that thing on page twenty-seven of Seven Billion Ways to Love Your Child without a Neighbor Reporting You to Child Services! Advice darts holes in me. “Hold him. She’s hungry. Don’t you have a pacifier? You have to rock her. He’s bored. He wants his mother.”

I bury my face in the stroller because I’m crying, which means I’m broken, no good at this and never will be. They’ll tell me this at our appointment in thirteen minutes. Less now. I need to get Steve, but it’s soft and heady down here. Til has shit his diaper. Stinker, I say and laugh—it’s Steve’s turn—as a puff of little hand pats my cheek. “Hey,” I say. My son is all screamed out and grinning like Where’ve ya been? Do that thing you do with my belly. That loud, silly thing.

 

Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press) and Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire). His fiction has appeared in PANKIndiana ReviewJellyfish Review and others. He is a consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018 and the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. He lives somewhere in Europe with his husband and the potential of family.