Gary looked back toward shore, thinking about Elissa.  The boat wobbled.  I’m so happy, Elissa had said, face shining.  She was happy about the baby, now three, or four.  Gary couldn’t remember.  He loved his wife desperately, best thing in his life.  But he didn’t like the baby.  Cute, everyone said.

The baby was a showoff and smartass, and it was really good at it.  Gary wasn’t good at much of anything.  The baby didn’t think much of him.

He showed it how to use the hall thermostat, and said, You have any questions.

The baby smirked.  Oh, here’s one.  Why’re you telling me this shit? 

If it had said, Uh, where’s the ladder? Gary could’ve worked with that.  He let his eyes close, just for a moment.  He wouldn’t allow himself to feel how much he truly hated this baby.

Fish made rings at the surface.  He looked at the baby, up in the prow, in its little life jacket.

The shore was lined with crooked trees and verdant green in the fading twilight.  In twenty minutes it would be dark.  The wind was coming up and blowing the little boat sideways, complicating Gary’s rowing, but he managed to push it farther and farther out toward where the water turned a corner and opened out onto the broad expanse of the main lake.  His shoulders ached.  The baby was gurgling and giggling and lashing its head from side to side for no reason.  Gary pulled the oars back in their locks and laid them in the boat, resting as it slid on through the water.  The lake was supposed to be 100 feet out here.  Elissa would be in Natchez until at least the weekend.

In its hoodie, the baby affected a French film star look, skinny little arms, three-day growth of beard and a world-weary look.  Was it smoking a cigarette?  Gary looked again.  No, his eyes must’ve been playing tricks on him again.  In the growing dark, the growling wind and the water rippling insistently against the sides of the boat seemed louder, more pressing.

Gary sat listening.  The baby had endless tiresome opinions about practically everything, and its mind worked stunningly fast, or at least it knew how to give that impression.  Gary was a plodding thinker, at best.  And the baby was not ill informed, spending its leisurely days on the web reading Wikipedia, Al Jazeera, Mashable, The Guardian and such, arguing constantly, about everything, quoting stuff about “the Red Skull” in Iraq and the Naqshbandi Army or citing Nikolai Chernyshevsky (What Is To Be Done?).  I don’t have time for that, Gary thought.  I have to work to feed your sly little face.

He half stood, half crouched and took a step forward over the shanks of the oars.  Let’s get you out of that nasty old jacket, he said, and pulled the baby’s thin arms upward and slipped the puffy jacket up and off, dropped it in the water.  He settled back onto his seat.  The two of them watched the bright orange jacket float away, rocking on the surface.

No, he thought, I can’t.  Then the baby made one of its faces.

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Steven Barthelme

About Steven Barthelme

Steven Barthelme has worked as a taxi driver, in construction, as an editor, in advertising and public relations, and as a university professor. He has written two books of short stories, the most recent titled Hush Hush (NY: Melville House, 2012), a memoir, Double Down, co-authored with his brother Frederick, issued in 1999 by Houghton Mifflin, and an essay collection, The Early Posthumous Work, from Red Hen Press in 2010. Last summer he was bitten by a snake, which happily chose not to be a Cottonmouth.