Ravi Mangla

Five days past due, a cesarean scheduled, and the contractions finally start. The next morning my father calls from the hospital, elated and relieved in equal parts. “Guess what? It’s a boy,” he says, a secret my parents had been keeping to themselves. (They wouldn’t spill the beans, despite my best efforts to prise the truth loose.) “A head-first slide for the game-winning run. Wish you could have seen it.” He promises that once the doctor performs the necessary tests on the new bundle, and once my mother can rustle up a few hours of beauty rest (“which she is badly in need of,” he adds), we – all four of us – will be going home. He asks how I am holding up at Aunt Lydia’s condo. I tell him it smells like cabbage. “Well, hang in there, kiddo,” he says, and then, adopting a more serious tone, through a peppering of phone static, delivers a long-winded sermon on new responsibilities, expectations, changes that will come to pass. Can I step up to the plate? Am I ready? He says I’ll need to take the new baby under my wing and speaks remorsefully of his own siblingless childhood, as if it was a punishment he brought on himself.

Aunt Lydia rushes to the door to greet them. She shrieks like a squeeze toy, pressing her lips to the baby’s cheek, tickling his oversized belly. His laugh – jarringly loud and prematurely deep – disrupts the conversation he is having with my father on the Jets’ chances of making the playoffs. Height-wise, he is at least a head taller than my dad. “Say hi to your new brother, sweetie,” my mother says, misty-eyed and beaming. He kneels down, leather jacket straining, a powder blue blanket around his shoulders. I ruffle his platinum blond curls. Hair goop sticks to my hand. “Come on. Let’s go home, slugger,” my father says.

The baby stares curiously out the window, his nose pushed up against the glass. Fields of wheat and sunflower roll by, acre after acre. Later, we come upon ranch-style houses, arranged in neat rows, each unique in some tasteless way – a pink flamingo or a garden gnome. My mother checks on the baby every few minutes, to make sure he is buckled in properly. The car seat rides on his back like an outgrown carapace. He doesn’t seem to mind.

Until the crib situation is sorted, the baby is dispatched to my room. I clear the books piled on the top bunk, the balled clothes on the floor. I rearrange the belongings on my desk – Gingersnap’s cage and the chemistry set I got for my birthday – to make room for his toys: a watch, a Swiss army knife, a flask, a lighter, and a pack of reds. We get ready for bed. My pajamas are blue and spotted with the bust of a winking Bugs Bunny. The baby’s pajamas consist of silk pants and a velvet smoking jacket with a sachet of shredded tobacco in its breast pocket for his corncob pipe. He opens the window and shakes out the pipe, almost like a rattle, the loose embers winking away into the night. I say I’m going to the bathroom, but instead I tiptoe downstairs and tell my father that the baby’s been smoking. “Is that so?” He takes away the baby’s corncob pipe, his tobacco, and his reds. The baby glowers at me while my father tucks him in.

The baby sleeps with his legs dangling from the top bunk. His snoring keeps me up deep into the morning.

At school I am groggy. I tell the teacher about the new baby. “That’s no excuse,” she says. The D on my math quiz stays.

The baby comes out of the bathroom with a rolled back issue of my mom’s Vogue. He pops me teasingly on the shoulder and goes off to tinker with his lighter in my room, coiled in the window frame, flipping it open and shut, open and shut, quicker and quicker.

The baby is a voracious eater. After his third helping of rhubarb pie, he finishes the entire pint of triple fudge brownie ice cream. My parents are impressed.

Already the kids in the neighborhood have taken a shining to my brother. When picking teams he is unanimously the first player selected, no matter the game. I am last.

I’m supposed to be hiding, but instead I lie on the dew-softened grass and wonder what is wrong with me.

My parents love to tell their friends, acquaintances as well, how precocious their baby is (so precocious!). They carry pictures of him around in their wallet and purse, sitting on Daddy’s lap, pretending to steer the car: a little listless but playing along. Emails are sent out in bulk.

The priest arrives late one evening (cheaper than a doctor, my parents said). He lays out clean towels, examines his knife, rotating the blade in front of a narrowed eye. The baby squirms and kicks, overturns a coffee table. We attempt to pin him down – the four of us – but he isn’t having it. The priest agrees to stop in and try again next month.

In my makeshift lab, I mix vials of baking soda and vinegar, praying for uncharted reactions, miracle discoveries – a potion which will make me spawn a third arm, or a pair of wings, or grow twice as tall and three times as strong, or light up in the dark, brighter than any star in our galaxy.

The baby takes the hose to the ant farm by the swing set. The ants come streaming down, as dark and still as watermelon seeds.

Sometime around midnight I wake to find my mother sitting in my desk chair, slumped and drowsy, while the baby, curled in her lap, neck crooked, feeds ravenously at her left breast.

School doesn’t go any better in the days following.

I am afraid the baby has gotten in with a bad crowd. I catch him in the woods with some of the older boys, chewing tobacco and trading dirty jokes . I see my chance to be the big brother. I tell the baby off. No. Bad baby. He glances vaguely, eyes sparked red, and shoulders past me toward the house.

The baby hawks a wad of snuff on my shirt. My mother says it’s his way of expressing his love. Somehow I have a hard time believing her.

My father and the baby are throwing the ball around the backyard. “You’re going to be the next Nolan Ryan, kid. Maybe I already told you this, but your old man used to play a little ball at State. Nothing too serious, of course.” I ask my father if I can play. “Sorry, sport, only two gloves. Hey, see what your mother’s doing in the kitchen.” He whips a hard grounder at the baby. “Get under it, get under it.”

In the kitchen, my mother is having tea with Aunt Lydia. She is complaining about breast tenderness, teeth imprints stitched around her nipple the size of dimes.

At his first medical check-up since being discharged from the hospital, the doctor notes healthy growth. As far as height and weight are concerned, he is ahead of the curve. His cholesterol is a little high, but that isn’t anything to be worried about, he says. The doctor gives him an extra lollypop. My parents couldn’t be more pleased.

The baby and I are playing outside. He is sitting at the base of the slide, sucking at the dregs of tobacco from a flattened cigarette he found in the grass. I climb the slide, the smooth metal whirrs under me, static crackling. For reasons I don’t understand, I kick him as hard as I can in the back. “Jesus. What’d you do that for?”

My mother is reclining on the back porch, the shimmer of sun glinting off her designer shades. Her legs are stretched out, arms and neck white with lotion. “I got an owie,” he says dryly. “Oh, no! Tell mommy where it hurts.” He points to his back. She lifts his shirt and kisses every inch of his skin. A smile unfolds across his face.

My father and the baby are shooting hoops in the driveway. The baby drives, shakes left, and dunks the ball. “Yes, yes, yes!” my father exclaims, as if a divine truth has just occurred to him. “Your turn, champ.” He hoists me onto his shoulders, aligning my body with the net. I shoot. The ball takes a quick lap around the rim and skitters down the driveway.

“Watch this,” he says. He lifts Gingersnap from her cage, wrings her down a conical flask. “Are you watching?” He flips open his lighter and holds it underneath the flask. The glass grays. Gingersnap scrabbles at the walls; her eyes are startled wide, unblinking. She squeals in an elevated pitch that would make a dog cringe. Stop it! Alarmed, he empties Gingersnap back into her cage. She scampers to the corner and burrows under a mound of shredded newspaper.

The christening gown is tailored and still only reaches to his knees; the hem is stretched to its breaking point. I take one of his feet, my father grips the other, and six more of us support the baby while the priest sparges his forehead with holy water.

At dinner the baby says he isn’t hungry and lets me have the rest of his dessert.

My mother and I are playing High Eights, our own fifty-two card concoction. The game is a hodgepodge of several other games (Crazy Eights meets Gin Rummy meets Go Fish meets Old Maid). By the third hand I figure out that she is letting me win. So I start letting her win before she can let me win. Both of us lose interest and check to see what’s on the TV.

They took the baby’s nose! My father dangles it in front of him. My mother gives it a quick flip in the frying pan, says she’s making sloppy nose. She passes it to me to hide. I hide the nose in my room, underneath my desk. I ask the baby if he wants it back. “Maybe later,” he says.

At night I wake to quiet: the wheezing of springs bearing too heavy of a load, the insufferable snoring, both, strangely absent. I look out the window. The baby is sitting on the lowest branch of the oak tree, in his robe, gazing up at the star-freckled sky.

My father is driving me to the dentist. He apologizes for the time he and my mother have had to devote to the new baby and reminds me that they both love me, so much. I start crying. I say that it’s because I’m afraid of the dentist. He hesitates, unsure of what to say or do. He tousles my hair and tells me the visit is going to be a piece of cake.

Sitting in the dentist’s chair, thin silver instruments prodding my gums, I wish I hadn’t told him I was scared. I wish I had told him something else, anything, that I was allergic to the air freshener in the car, or that there was a hair in my eye.

The baby lugs a black suitcase to the front door, the morning newspaper folded neatly under his arm. “I have to go,” he says, and offers no other explanation. Upstairs, my mother is running him a hot bath, searching the cabinets for the plastic pirate ship to play his favorite game, Boat and Buoy. In the backyard, my father is trying to assemble a playhouse, without any luck, having thrown away the instructions upon opening the box. The baby sets the tricycle in the driveway upright and wheels it onto the lawn. Near the bottom of the staircase his powder blue blanket is sprawled across the steps. I chase after him, calling his name, holding the blanket above my head. He stops short of the mailbox. “Don’t take your eye off that ball. Once it’s past the plate, it’s gone.” He tosses the blanket over his shoulder and walks off, a cigarette hanging loosely from the corner of his lips, humming a nursery rhyme I’ve forgotten the words to.

Ravi Mangla lives in Fairport, NY. His stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, American Short Fiction, Los Angeles Review, SmokeLong Quarterly and Wigleaf. A collection of humor pieces, Blurb, was recently published as an ebook by Artistically Declined Press. Follow him on Twitter: @ravi_mangla.