Palsied

When she was born they cried, and they all knew they would.

She came out crying too. This was normal enough; there was a baby in a hospital crying. She cried and looked skyward. Her mother, that is. Linda. A neck falls limp on its spine.

She cried and didn’t know what it all meant. The baby girl, that is. They’ll name her

Sarah.

The father cried with clenched fists, one hand clasped with his wife’s.

They cried in the room in which Sarah was born and they all cried out in the lobby.

Everyone decided to cry.

There was a baby boy, however, six months old, in his mother’s grasp a few feet removed from the crowd, Ronny, a baby, six months old. Yes. And this was the only person that day who did not cry.

*     *     *

They gave him a train birthday. They hopped on the NJ Transit and called it a birthday. And the kids caught the train coming in with serious faces, pink October cheeks and eyes transfixed on uncertainty, the impossible roar, the wolf-whistle of the iron horse coming in hard. Their faces were faces taking something loud and threateningly boisterous in for the first time in their lives. They could only half-understand that this thing would not plummet into them. They could only half-trust the train coming forward.

There was a birthday cake, but beyond this it was only the train. Out of a lake town, humming southward towards Secaucus, before the junction, towards tighter homes, gibbous pavement, double-parking; habit smokers outside corner taverns with names like “The Station,” puffing smoke in the falling light. A train birthday, kids on the brown seats eating cake.

Ronny would turn, on knees looking the wrong way, hands on the seatback, looking at children and mothers attending his party. He would turn back around and flop on his ass and then rise up again—he’s exactly three years old—and he’d look at his party and then he’d sit back down. The train’s moving into a Jersey afternoon, stopping at stations—large parking lots, small towns, men in old wooly jackets holding coffees in check.

It was a train birthday and on Monday his mother would send him into school with a box of Munchkins to pass around, two each, and some would take three, and some would tell Ronny happy birthday, and others would give him a jealous glance, puerile anger—massive and forceful anger—with jelly and powder strewn about the chin and lips.

*     *     *

He had stopped caring about his weight since the day his clenched fist fractured a bone in his wife’s hand. The woman gives birth to a child and the husband then breaks her hand. They never talked about it. They only got it fixed.

Now he’s got a gut ripping through space. He is a man who sidles into his chair at dinner; he does not sit or make his way or plop down on his chair at the head of the table; he sidles.

He sometimes has to stand and cough something out his system, some pent up conglomeration amidst entrails, padded and clouded over, dismissed or forgotten about through the fat and belly. He rises in the middle of conversations and bellows over the kitchen counter, his own personal history of dust and cigarette ash and coffee grounds spewing from sodden areas of his gut.

They’re here—Aunt Renee, Uncle Gordon, and Ronny, now ten years old—for a holiday dinner. They talk about the food, about the daily swing of agenda’d existence, about current life.

“We’re thinking about suing,” the man of the house says.

The table chews, moans, and ponders.

“The back surgery—this is a result of the spine procedure. I am sure of it.”

They are family like Italians are families, no, not as in organized crime, but in the somehow beautiful way that a man becomes a girl’s uncle, and she a niece, because it seems to make sense, there is some ineffable wavering in the air calling for them to be of relation.

Ronny’s eleventh birthday is in a month and this is all he could think about. He wears a brown bombardier jacket at the dinner table. He likes wearing it everywhere around this time of year. He feels like he blends in with the leaves.

They have dinners together, the two families, quite often. They come into each other’s homes with smiles, sometimes gifts, hugs and kisses on cheeks, in a summer languor or a wintry bustle. They enter each other’s foyers quite often.

They try finding the good. A pleasure-pulse somewhere in between something; Renee does most of the pleasure seeking, bringing up a rare positive tidbit from the papers, an engagement notice, a school grant, one of those feel-good stories of the year. But she tries keeping it removed, the pleasure announcements, nothing personal, no, nothing about Ronny or the raise she may get or Gordon doing better than ever. She brings up the stuff of the world.

They come together for dinner quite often but they are not technically family. They are family like Italians are families, no, not as in organized crime, but in the somehow beautiful way that a man becomes a girl’s uncle, and she a niece, because it seems to make sense, there is some ineffable wavering in the air calling for them to be of relation. No, they weren’t technically family, but they would call them Aunt and Uncle, they’d say to her, “Who’s coming? Auntie Renee and Uncle Gordon? Yes. That’s right.” She’d make a sound and you’d have to know her to realize it’s a sound of the deepest pleasure. “And Ronny, yes, yes, of course,” they’d tell her, “You only have eyes for Ronny.”

*     *     *

When he saw the pit bull asleep on the ground—emaciated naturally it seemed, a healthy emaciation, all rib cages, close hair and heavy breaths—he knew something would happen that night.

He was told to make his way into the basement when he arrived and he stepped hastily around the languid animal on the floor. He heard music, quite loud, approaching him on each step down. The voices of school folk, the classroom voices here on a weekend.

He had a flip in his hair, gelled up, and this meant he knew what was in.

A couple things did happen that night. That night stepping around the pit bull, the pink nose, the pinkness of the thing, this made him feel something would happen. It was an animal his family would never conceive of owning. An animal that most families would agree not to consider, but here it was, before the steps, and he knew it was a night he would spend a lot of time thinking about afterward.

It was an unfinished basement, large and incredibly unfinished, gray support columns, board games, hectic clutter, ancient rugs dotted with red spills, the girls and the boys from class, fifteen years of age and they’re drinking adamantly out of Poland Spring bottles.

When they chanted Ronny on his final steps into the basement, a few girls’ faces going blush, he felt a heat and heart-flutter somewhere deep in his soul. High-fives for the guys, cold shoulders for the girls, and there’s Vinny, already fat for life, telling him what he’s missed, sweating and smiling and laughing through a story, and Ronny half listening, wondering what the hell everyone is chugging out of those water bottles.

There was Nina, who had great breasts already, and this was exciting for everyone. They passed Ronny a water bottle with a clear-liquid dreg and he smelled it, sniffed it, pondered it, and drank it down. The heat of first things began to plow over him, nearly pummeling him to the floor, that knocking, that heat-flash and sway, the basement going lucid out the corners of your eyes.

A few things did happen that night, you can say that for sure. And there was Maggie who was two years older and had a goddamn license and how absolutely asinine that seemed, how preposterous a fact this was. And there was Nina with the breasts and cleavage right before us like how can this be.

And when he was home he felt the stereo bump and throb on his temples, alone in his room—he’s got a great room with posters, Nerf basketball, and trophies—the slam and fall of old noise heavy on his head, and he thought of the pit bull asleep on the floor, of Nina lifting her shirt up to a raucous applause, and Maggie taking his tongue into her mouth.

On his bed he couldn’t remember if he stepped around the pit bull on the way out the door, running through a cold wind into his mother’s car.

*     *     *

He is talking about suing this time for sure. No doubt about it. She has gone through enough at this point. Every subsequent surgery is a result of the previous. We are suing this time for sure, and it’s Thanksgiving 2009.

Ronny looks at Sarah, gives her a look like how much longer we have to sit through this dinner and she smiles in the tilted way she smiles and makes that noise, everyone turning to look at her, conversation stopped to watch the girl. She laughs in the wailing way she laughs and they all smile at her.

Ronny is back from college. Yes, a couple more things have happened. And it was the night of Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction that he put smokeless tobacco into his mouth for the first time, clasping the unhinged pouch in between lip and gum, but it got away from him without him knowing, the eight shots of cheap vodka fuzzy and stocky in his throat, walking to a destination with friends in the chill of Virginia’s September. He realized at some moment, though, he was in a momentless state. That the tobacco had disappeared in his mouth and the sidewalk began to bounce and spin on him with the lights of a college city remaining sharply in place. Yes, a thing or two has happened. And it was when the police officer was seemingly less than a centimeter in front of him, noses touching, like the cop’s face somehow became your own, that he knew he’d remember this moment if none other.

He woke face down the next day on his apartment couch, plush leather brown, the quiet hum of noon, only the band and cheerleaders up for school spirit preparation, all faint murmurs and croons. And there, look at that, two beer cans in his back pockets, still in these goddamn jeans. And then ten feet away his own room, his own queen-size bed where he’d take a few women, yeah, a few things have happened now, but he’s on this damn couch instead, I guess let’s call it laziness.

And the ticket in a front pocket, see you in court mid-October, on his twenty-first birthday, would you look at that, and for a second he feels the world crashing down on him. He cracks a warm beer from his pocket, hears the rustlings of roommates at the snap, a rustle somehow evoking so much meaning, yes, I like where your head is at, let’s get started. And then he remembers Michael Jordan’s induction and it’s like his whole childhood getting bronzed and statued, and he asks himself why in God’s name did he pack that lip.

The ceiling fan spins on its axis and Ronny thinks to himself, taking tepid sips of the old back-pocket can, how interesting a life like this really is.

*     *     *

He was driving into Jersey, a rented Malibu from Hertz, he’s running late and he knows it.

They decide to eat, glancing at clocks and watches, where‘s Ronny and I hope he is alright is what they’re saying.

He’s doing just fine, as long as he gets through the West Side Highway in a jiff and on over the GW without any hindrance or accident. He decides to go lower level at the last second, a second outside of decision-making, an instinctual second, and he hears one honk burp at him in his dust.

She’s making a sound and you’d have to know her to know that it was a sound of the deepest dissatisfaction.

He hums under the bridge effortlessly—silver watch, Movado, yeah, and the suit, still tight on his limbs from a hard day’s work. Did he eat today is what he wonders now, taking the minutest glances left and right. The bulby yellow-orange lights of this underworld providing a noirish element to the day, a scuffed-up and rugged interim into Jersey.

They nibble, ok, they don’t eat. Twenty-some-odd years and look at this, the kid’s got a job. He’s a young city slicker now. We can’t expect him on time anymore. “He’ll be here; he’ll be here,” the man of the house says, “these women, so worried, he’s a guy working his way up a New York City company. He should be late. If he’s not, what kind of company is he working for?”

And she makes the sound again when her father is done talking, and you’d have to know her. They look at her. She is in a tilted stupor; all wondering the same thing; can she understand us or not.

Ronny is making his way on just fine, riding through Jersey side streets now and he squints the whole way. A lightless world compared to the city. And when he pulls up in front and parks on the street he thinks about how much he’s going to eat. He’s realized he’s only had a blueberry muffin with his morning coffee.

They decide to eat as Ronny approaches the house—he’ll be here in five seconds—and they decide, ok let’s eat.

When they hear his steps smacking along the walkway they all pause and wait for him. Sarah’s got her head tilted way back, trying to get a view of the door best way she can, and her eyes just barely have it, but they’re there. And he enters and sees only Sarah from the door, a girl with a turned head, and he smiles at her and then, well you’d have to know her with the sound she makes.

And he decides to approach from this distance with opened arms, yeah, he’s going to make his way straight toward Sarah, not his chair, and he’s going to lay on her the wettest kiss he can muster, hugging her at the same time.

He’s coming at her with opened arms and a smile bigger than hers. The people on the fringes are saying, “Ronny, Ronny, Ronny.” And, let’s be honest, she’s not one hundred percent sure what this moment means, she can’t quite fathom what Ronny’s going to lay on her, and when he does it’s the most shocking volt she’s felt in her life, the wettest kiss on her forehead. His chest close to hers, and he tells her how much he’s missed her and, let’s be honest, she understands the words just fine.

He sits down in the same chair he’s been sitting on since he was a kid and he tells the table how hungry he is, only had a blueberry muffin today. His mother admonishes her baby boy about health, is it so hard to eat something every now and again.

But Sarah’s making this noise still. She’s howling and rocking back and forth. They watch her and try to pinpoint the sound, and it’s only rising. She howls and lets out intermittent sighs, rocking back and forth, back and forth, smiling in the tilted way she smiles. Nobody is saying anything; they just watch the girl. And she rises and falls, a howl from the deepest part of her gut, and her father has to take hold of her arm to keep her from jumping out of the wheelchair, holding her tight and keeping his eyes on her.

Everyone decides to watch the girl, to keep their stares in place. They all decide, nonverbally, to let this thing ride out. Let it find its downward swing; let it fall on its own. And nobody will say anything about it afterwards.

*     *     *

It was the first time he had ever heard Linda referred to as “mom.” She walked into his bedroom in tight jeans and a maroon halter top. She said to him: “Ronny, let’s go already.” And he could tell by one look at her that this was Sarah. This fact was undeniable. And it wasn’t the way sometimes in a dream someone can completely be someone else. No, this was her. The bone structure was there; the freckles on her face. That nose that runs in the family, maybe larger than most noses, but it brings such wonderful and seemingly necessary character. She’s beautiful. Of course she is. And she’s telling Ronny, “Let’s go already, before my mom gets home.” And it takes a moment before he can respond “where are we going?”

“Where are we going? The bar. C’mon. I don’t want her to know I’m drinking tonight.”

It was her and no one else. The body movements; these were hers somehow; the mouth; the hands; the skin. The way you can picture them, the way you can see them just if…

And he wakes in his old room, yeah he did have a great room, with posters, Nerf basketball, and trophies, yeah, a few things have happened now, and in a paralysis he lies there, awake but palsied, only feeling the movement in and about the eyes.

Rob Sobel graduated James Madison University (2012) where he received a degree in English Literature. He was given the Departmental Award for Creative Writing, Nonfiction, and has publications ranging from fiction to film criticism. He is currently working with special education students at Washington Elementary School in Hawthorne, New Jersey, and is—by night, weekend, holiday, and any other miscellaneous minutes he can find—writing and revising a first novel. He lives in Northern New Jersey.