Prose
Pass/Fail
by Patrick Vail
Sheila and I read the instructions carefully in the kitchen, hunched over the counter. Neither of us had done this before, so we analyzed and intellectualized everything. We’d never had to do this. With the decision to have a child behind us–not to mention a few dozen rounds of baby-making–we figured then to be a good a time as any to learn how to use a pregnancy test. It seemed simple, but, at once, complex, though the complexities seemed to rely more on things like temperature and the potency of urine than on any real mistakes we could make. At least, I hoped this was an accurate perception; if we we’re so inept that we couldn’t even figure out the test, what made us think we ought to pass? I related this to Sheila, who offered me a wry smile and smacked me with the empty box.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Go for it.”

I walked her to the bathroom, kissed her on the mouth, and sat on the couch to wait as she shut the door.


I closed the bathroom door and followed the instructions exactly. I was supposed to wait. Should I wait with him? He’d taken the whole thing so lightly, joking his way through the sex and discussion on names and gender–we both were leaning towards a boy–that I wondered if he was actually serious about this, or if he was just placating me. Should we wait together, in the tiny bathroom, one of us sitting on the toilet, the other on the edge of the tub? Or would such a scrutinized pot boil over? Should we be nervous? Was he nervous?

He knocked on the bathroom door.

I knocked on the bathroom door and Sheila opened it.
“I couldn’t not be in here. Can I stay in here with you?”
“Yes,” she said.


He's eleven, but he looks just like his father, standing out in right field with his cap askew, lazily swatting at a cloud of gnats with his glove, which he has taken off his left hand and now holds, as a weapon. His sun bleached brown hair is pasted to his forehead, and his limbs look exceptionally thin in the cheap, clingy polyester uniform. Not the best player on the team by any stretch, he's been relegated to the position, that, as his Bruce tells me, is for kids who are a liability in the field; there are very few left handed hitters in little league, and no right handed hitters with any power to the "opposite field." Because he's not deft with the glove which he is now throwing to himself he has been mentally focused on his hitting. Bruce says the boy, who usually finds his own body cumbersome and uncooperative, has a beautiful, graceful swing, and just needs to keep his eye on the ball and minimize the sometimes wild movement of his head. A contraption in our backyard, bought off some commercial on ESPN, is supposed to do just that, with a complicated brace of nylon straps and plastic buckles for a child's skull . . . I just want him to have fun, and learn just as much, if not more, about competing in life as competing in the game of baseball.


What are you watching? I crane my neck from the couch as he comes bounding down the stairs. It’s called The Mechanic, I tell him. It’s a classic. What’s it about? That guy there, with the dark hair and the moustache? That’s Charles Bronson. He’s a hitman. The young guy is a hotshot learning the business. On screen, Bronson is taking snapping photographs with a pair of binoculars. This is a great movie, I say, as he sits down across from me, in the overstuffed. Sheila is out, running errands. He’s largely uninterested until he asks, is this rated R? I nod. Suddenly, he can’t get enough of it. At a pause in the action, I say, Hey. Don’t tell your mother. He smiles and nods, looking me quickly in the eye before diving back into the film. While there’s nothing in it that he shouldn’t already know about at eight, and nothing that Sheila would particularly object to, I want this to be something that we share, something we can wink about later on.

He's five and he's afraid to get on the school bus and I'm afraid to let him go. He's giving me the look that Bruce gives me sometimes, when I ask him to do something that we both know he does want to do, but will, begrudgingly. His brow furrows, and his mouth, which is usually curled into the perpetual, curious smile of a five year old, flatlines. His eyes do the pleading, earnestly. I crouch down so that we're of roughly equal height and I say something like, Kiddo, I know you don't want to go; I don't want you to go either. But it's something you have to do. And it's only for a couple of hours. And I'll be right here waiting for you when you get back. He holds my gaze, still unsure; I put my arms around him and his little body falls against me. He throws his arms around my neck. Over his shoulder, I can see the bus driver becoming politely annoyed; this is nothing new to her, as she sees this saccharine every September, so she let's it go without a word. It still throws off her schedule. Go on, I say. You're going to make everyone late. He turns on the first step of the bus, says, You'll be right here when I get back? He points to the sidewalk. I promise him again that I will.

I’ve been dreading it since my Dad told me that, someday, I would have to do it, I’d have to talk about sex with my kid. That’s not true. I haven’t always dreaded it. In fact, I once thought I’d be the kind of Dad who’d be open and forthcoming, easy to talk to, laid back. Funny how quickly optimism turns to dread. Sheila is in the other room, and she’s waiting for us to finish, waiting to quiz him to make sure I didn’t miss anything. He’s staring at me, blankly. I’ve called him into his room, made him sit down, have sat down myself. And the words are out there in the ether, maniacally laughing and making fun of me as they dart just out of my reach. This is a touchy subject. This is a big deal. This could be the difference between becoming a grandfather at 40 and becoming one at 50. I breathe. This will lay a good, solid foundation, let him know that its OK to talk to you about the big deals. OK, I say. I pause. How much did I know when I was eleven, before my father ever said a word to me? I had a vague knowledge of most of what he told me, plus a few things he failed to mention. I make several false starts before I say simply, Sex? He laughs nervously and nods. Dad. They’ve been teaching us about it in school since the fifth grade. Really? The fifth grade? Yeah. I had to bring home a form and everything. It was kind of a big deal, he says.


At seventeen, he's a man. Or, at least, the difference between what he is and what constitutes a man is negligible. He's dressed in a black tuxedo that boasts a simple onyx oval set in white gold in lieu of a bowtie, and a Nehru jacket with big satin buttons. He is gently pinning a white corsage onto a girl's dress. She is very pretty, though her dress makes her look more like a sad bridesmaid than a prom date. She is clumsily pinning a boutonniere to his jacket, unsure of where it should go. I am snapping pictures. Bruce is in the other room, waiting in front of the television for the Preakness Stakes to start. I ask them to stand together in front of the fireplace. Put your arm around her, for Pete's sake, I tell him. Now smile. That first picture will forever show both of them in a kind of half motion as they start, looking to their left at the sound—off camera—of Bruce hollering at the television through a mouthful of Mint Julep.

Here, I tell him, let me show you how to hit someone. He looks at me from behind his facemask, his eyes twinkling in the shadow there, ready. You want to hit him low. You hit him high and you’ll bounce right off. You don’t want to go too low, though, or he could easily kick free. Pretend I’m the running back. Hit me. I come at him at 3/4 speed, and he slowly puts his shoulder into my solar plexis, wrapping his arm around my waist. Not bad, I say, but keep your head up. If you look at the ground you’ll be on the ground. Here’s what I want you to do: Square your shoulders, start low, wrap up. I pantomime what I mean. I show him, in slow motion, coming at him squarely, crouching, rising slightly, putting my arms up and around. I pull back quickly. You see? Yeah, he says, I think so. At the same speed, he wraps me up in the same manner. I pat him on the top of the helmet. This is good, I think, this is progress. Dad? Yeah? Why’d you quit playing football? This is a tough question to answer. I could tell him that I hurt my leg, which is true. I could tell him that I wasn’t all that good to begin with. Ah, I said, your mother didn’t like football. She thought it was dangerous. Like how she’s not too hot on you playing, either. Mom says it’s because you got hurt. Damn, he’s sharp. And before I can think of how to respond, he says, you should have gone into coaching. You’re a good teacher. He’s ten. And he makes me want to cry. Instead, I show him how to come up out of a three-point stance.

At nine, he asks me why Dad doesn't come to church with us, and why we can't talk about church around him. I tell him that there are some things that Dad and I don't agree on, like church, or last Saturday when we discussed where to go to dinner. He remembers that. Does Dad believe in God? I don't really know, anymore. You'll have to ask him that question. Can I pray for him? I do. Not long after this he decides that he doesn't want to go to church anymore. He says that if Dad doesn't have to go, then neither does he. Damn it, Bruce, I think, I can't argue with this logic. What are you going to do with yourself on Sunday morning? I won't have you sleeping until all hours of the day. I don't know. But I'm not sure I believe in God, and until I am, I'm not comfortable going to church. God isn't Santa Claus. He doesn't just go away because you're not sure if you believe in him. He glares at me, those expressive dark eyes of his father sparkling. Well, he says, maybe He should. We stand that way for a long time, until I throw my hands up and sigh exhaustedly. OK, I say. Have it your way. I close the door to his bedroom and lurch down the hall into the bathroom. He’s only a kid, and already he’s slipping away from me.


In the delivery room, I feel useless. I’m the only one not actively doing something. I’m holding Sheila’s left hand in my left hand, as though we’re arm wrestling. Our wedding rings are touching. She’s making concentrated faces and fat, purple veins have surfaced on her neck and forehead. Covered in sweat and shaking and pushing and clenching, she seems off hin her own little world. Distant, focused. I keep spitting things into her ear. Things about hear breathing, words of encouragement and love. But this is not enough. I need to be active, scurrying about like the nurse or crouching, ready for action, at the foot of the bed. I need to get in there, to help. And then it happens all at once, a quick, ear-splitting climax that begins when the doctor yells out and ends when Sheila takes a heavy, exhausted breath. He is plump, purple, something exotic and organic, an eggplant, maybe, and covered in a thick film. His eyes are blue and I mention this absently and the nurse tells me they’re all born that way, that the pigment isn’t distributed to the eyes until after they’ve been birthed. They will change soon, she says, if they’re going to. He’s stout. With strong legs and arms. He looks strikingly like his mother, with that elegant, sloping nose, that graceful neck, the thin, striking face. After they clean him off and wrap him and offer him to her I stand with my arms at my sides and I watch them looking at one another until Sheila motions me to come over. She’s never looked more beautiful and I tell her so. He is sleeping peacefully.

Fuck, he says at seven when he falls down and skins his knee on the indoor/outdoor carpet which is really more like Astroturf that covers the floor of the screened in porch. I look up from my book and stare at him in what can only be described as abject horror. My innocent child has just uttered what is arguably the worst swear word. I want to smack him, but then I see the patch on his leg where the flesh appears to have been shaved off and I figure that it deserves a fuck, and I gather him up into my arms as her cries quietly. I carry him into the bathroom to disinfect and dress the wound. We pass Bruce on our way through the kitchen. What happened? He skinned his knee, I say. Don't baby him, Sheila, Bruce says. In the bathroom, I hold his hand while I douse his leg with hydrogen peroxide. He cries out, and I run my hand through his thin, brown hair. The pain subsides, I blot dry the area. You're not supposed to say that word. What word, he asks genuinely. The F word. Oh, he says, nodding. But then his face clouds over and he says, But you and Dad say it all the time. Would you ever use the word . . . mortgage, I ask him. He considers this for a moment and then shakes his head slowly, no. Well, your dad and I use that word all the time. There's just some words that we use and some word you don't. Why? Because, I say, we're adults. We're allowed. End of discussion.

I run into the auditorium just in time to see him walk across the stage and accept his diploma. He’s so tall now, like me, but he still looks the world like Sheila, with that thick, gorgeous, reddish-brown hair and that thin face. The door, on a hydraulic hinge, slams behind me, and he hears it, all the way up there, and he looks right at me. We both thought this was going to be another big moment that I’d miss because of work, because I had to be somewhere else, because I had to run. He smiles broadly and offers me an ever-so slight tip of his cap. I smile back and I wave and there’s something carefree in it, some different energy. He’s pointing at his friends, some of whom have already received their diplomas, in the audience. But he’s still looking at me, smiling, his tongue poking out between his teeth. I make my way up the aisle quickly. On the end of the stage, he shakes hands with his principal, who grips his shoulder and leans in to whisper something congratulatory in his ear. On my left, I pass Sheila, embedded deeply in one of the rows. She does a double take, then smiles, mimicking our son, minus the protruding tongue. Their smiles are almost identical. When he steps off the stage, I am there to shake his hand, and, after a few pumps, I pull him into a strong embrace. Somewhere behind us, I’m sure, Sheila is snapping pictures.

“Negative,” we say in unison.

Bruce put his arm around my shoulder, wrapped his fingers around my upper arm, gave me an affectionate squeeze. And I felt a genuine tenderness in his grip, a weight, that I’d missed over the last couple of weeks. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll come.”

I understood that, while he felt the need to comfort me, he was reassuring himself. And that gave me comfort.
Posted by: Patrick Vail

Prose (August 9th, 2006)