Jav’s bare foot strikes the empty bottles of hair-thickening shampoo: one, two, three, downed like pins. He holds his shrunken scrotum in one small, wet palm. He’s bending, trying to get a good look. The shower scalds his back, fresh hot afternoon enlivening.
The doctor’s nasal voice clangs in him: “You must check yourself. It is—you know, yes?—a white man’s cancer.” These last words the doctor whispered with a gesture toward himself, then toward Jav—their pinkish solidarity. “Got to watch out for each other,” he said. Winked. What’s Jav to say to that? Nothing is what: another sin for the tally.
Jav wriggles in the choking steam. What if the pulsing heat flowed into his freckles, engorged them into caricature? Then beyond it, bursting.
There’s no need to see his balls. A feel would suffice. “All you need’s a squeeze,” the doctor said, an attempt at charm. But Jav’s aim’s not merely diagnostic. Comparative, too. Despair-ative. To hold his parts up against those of lovers, webcammers, friends. More than anything, he seeks—what? A pleasant surprise. As in what he gets three hours later, when he wakes from a nude and restless sleep to a blaring phone.
It’s Nina. “We should meet,” she says. “I mean, I’d like to see you.” In his wallet, a faded fortune reads: There will soon be a beautiful surprise for you. Goddamn, it shines, the impersonal phrasing of the line. As if a surprise is not a planned event, but a spontaneous happening. Not something that requires, say, the care of another human being, who must be cared for in turn. A surprise simply is—and is for him. He’s been waiting. But he’s been let down before, again and again, each time an interview leads to silence or Connor cancels plans, falsifying Jav’s fantasy, in which they meet and joke, make up, get this father-son business back on track.
He doesn’t even think of the fortune when he tells Nina he’ll see her in an hour—though, heart of hearts, tell it true, is he ever not thinking of it?
With every sidewalk step, Jav’s pocket rattles with Connor’s baby teeth—almost the full set. Jav was a more than satisfactory tooth fairy: he paid on time, kept the mystique alive, once even donned wings and a falsetto in the dark. Wrapped around the prescription bottle in which the teeth clatter is the folded acknowledgments page from Connor’s first book.
“It acknowledges you,” Connor told him on a static-drowned call from a Midwest airport, en route to a conference.
“Acknowledges me? For what?”
Connor laughed, mentioned a long layover, cut out. It had been a good time for them. Jav’s copy of Connor’s book arrived a week later. He was still wondering what he’d done to earn a mention when he cracked open the book—a not brief argument for, the back cover proclaimed, “the coherence of trends in the only nominally divergent and needlessly hostile fields of contemporary Continental and analytic philosophy”—and he thought of the teeth and grinned. Things soured as things by nature do. Jav bought himself copies of Connor’s next two books. Neither mentioned him at all.
Jav finds Nina at the café’s only outdoor table. Her lip curls, serpentine, foretells smile or sneer. He used to kiss that curve and forget all else. She’s looking away from his approach. Sunglasses guard her gaze. If only he could see her eyes when they see him.
“Nina,” he says when he’s right behind her. She turns, and he slides into the seat across from her. “Dang,” he says when he sees her, really sees her.
“Jav,” she says. She hasn’t called him by this name in years. A good sign. She smiles without showing teeth. “Please sit.” He already has.
“Long time no nothing,” Jav says.
“I mean it’s good to see you, is all.” He points at her mug, held halfway between the table and her lips. “Good coffee here?”
“Tea. Herbal tea. I’m off caffeine.” Not the Nina he knows, downer of five cups a day, comatose if not fidgeting. “My doctor insisted.”
“I’m off trans fats,” he says. Pure invention. He’s not sure what it even means.
“Listen,” she says. Still the mug hovers. If she lets go, will it float? “Connor’s in a bad way.”
The café door jingles. A waiter approaches. “Good afternoon,” he says. His hands are pink and clean and would feel good on Jav’s thighs. “My name’s Todd. It’s a pleasure to serve you two on this lovely afternoon.”
“Afternoon,” Jav says. He fails to receive the menu in a way that lets their fingers touch.
“Good afternoon, Todd,” Nina says, taking hers. It’s evening, but the communal delusion’s weirdly comforting, like, what can’t human beings together accomplish?
“I’ll give you guys a minute,” Todd says into the empty space where pleasantries should sound. He leaves.
“A bad way,” Jav says. “What does that mean?”
“He has a kid,” she says, “if you want to jump right into it.”
When he was young, Jav’s mom taught him the names of animals’ young. Quizzes came daily: Cow? Calf! Dog? Pup or puppy! Chicken? No-brainer—chick! When he learned the name for a baby goat—kid—he protested: “But I’m a kid.” He spoke then screamed it in the bread aisle, ripping into a bag of day-old rye and sending the surrounding patrons into a fit of whispers. His voice ascended in volume and pitch until his mother’s hand gripped his face. Her bitten-down nails dug into his cheeks. Her palm smelled of earth.
But I’m a kid, Jav almost says. “Talia’s pregnant? That. Is wonderful.” Jav knows the name of Connor’s girlfriend—a former grad student?—but hasn’t met her. As far as he knows, this is wonderful news to precisely no one.
“Talia is a dumb bitch,” Nina says. Her enunciation is crystalline. “She left him a month ago or something.”
“Oh. So will he be—?”
“Adopting. Trying to.”
Jav squints. “So when you say he has a kid—”
“Semantics. He is trying to get a kid. This kid.”
“A particular one.”
“A singular bipedal shit-maker.”
What’s so bad about this situation Jav doesn’t quite see. A grandchild—cheeks for pinching, mouth for feeding, heart for tending—could change everything for the much, much better. But if he says so, their potential’s kaput. He and Nina always needed a common enemy to keep from turning on one another. For the longest time their foes appeared is if in preordained succession: his mother back east, her father out west, their first landlord in between. When their parents all croaked and the inheritances bought them a house of their own, the marriage was toast. This child could mean something brighter to hold in common: a young, untarnished life. But if not that, at least there’s the solidarity in uniting against their own child’s decision. “Well fuck that,” Jav says unconvincingly.
Nina removes her sunglasses. Suddenly she has an expression, is readable. Her eyes are everything. The waiter returns. “Any questions about the menu, you two?”
“I’m fine with the tea,” Nina says.
Jav’s stomach churns. “A muffin, please,” he says, “and coffee.”
“Blueberry, bran, chocolate chip—”
“Bran.” No trans fats, right? Might impress Nina. “Thanks much.” When Todd’s gone, Jav says, “Where were we?”
“At fuck that.” Nina’s lip curls further: a smile.
“Oh yeah. So, you got a game plan?”
“You’ll talk to him. Knock some sense.”
“If you’ve been speaking with him, I’m sure he’s made the kind of place where he and I stand just super clear.”
Nina drains her mug and sets it upside down on the table. A solemn dome. She starts tapping out a waltz on it: one-two-three, one-two-three. “I think he might trust you with this one,” she nearly sings. “Can you give it a try, at least?” The waltz halts. “For me, Jav.”
“You know,” Mo says between herculean bong rips, “if he wants to rear some little scallop to give order to the entropic piss dribbles of Creation, just”—he coughs—“just send me on over to him. I could use some raising. Daily meals and changing. It’d get me right out of your non-hair.”
Jav strokes his near-bald skull. He considers the wiry filaments of Mo’s beard. “You’ve got a system, though, it seems,” he says. Mo spends his nights at a rotating cast of couches belonging to particularly kind or gullible members of the local Reform synagogue. Every few weeks, Jav explicitly renews the open invitation to crash at his place. Undeterred by Mo’s habitual refusal to act on the offer, Jav dusts his sofa weekly. Every time he brings up the matter, he closes one eye and squeezes his hands together as Mo looks around his home—the bare walls, the carpet stains, the galaxies of takeout boxes and half-folded laundry—and says, “Jav! Friend. I’m homeless but not insane,” or something similar.
Jav’s spent many hours scrutinizing Mo’s response and its innumerable minor variations. At first he was offended. But interpretation yields nuance. Jav noticed that, invariably, Mo begins the quip by addressing him by name and an epithet—often friend or bud, occasionally pal, once my darling goy—and Mo’s not one for terms of endearment. Jav’s come to reinterpret Mo’s refrain as a coded statement of true, deep fellow feeling. It is because of their unique bond that Mo will not spend the night on his couch. To do so would be to sully their friendship with pragmatism. Mo’s barb, then, is a shell.
“Always wanted a daughter,” Mo says. He passes the bong.
“Kids are great. Or a son, you mean.”
“I know what I mean.”
“Why a daughter?” Jav presses his lips to the rim and reaches out an open palm. Mo tosses him the lighter.
“Men? They’re terrible. Sin-pigs. Cocks and fists.”
Jav puckers his lips and sucks in the smoke. His lungs work their magic: what was outside is within; what was other is him. Jav gestures back and forth between them. “But us,” he says as he exhales.
“You know what I mean,” Mo says. “You and me, we de-cocked and de-fisted. Kosher. An anomaly you can’t count on when you come a creature into being.”
What poetry. “I should call him,” Jav says, and he takes out his phone.
“No, no, no.” Mo seizes the phone and tosses it away. “You way past serious conversation stoned two hits back. I don’t have the heart to bear witness to that.”
“So why didn’t you have one?” Jav says. He takes another hit, though it’s not his turn.
“Hey now.” Mo extends his palm. A baby bird could nest there. Jav’s imagination bifurcates: down one path, Mo lifts the fledgling to freedom. Down the other he closes his fingers, crushes bone and flesh and beak. Jav hands Mo his due. “Have one what?” Mo says. He moves the piece up—not to his chapped, full lips, but to his eyes. He blinks and squints, surveys.
“A daughter?” The resolution in Jav’s voice decays over three syllables. He’s getting that queasy uncertainty as to which of the conversation’s stoned participants is losing the thread, always accompanied by the dim suspicion that it’s him.
“Oh, I tried. Believe you me! Me and Lana, every Sabbath, three times or more. No luck, no sir.”
This is only the third or fourth time that Mo’s mentioned his ex-wife to Jav. “That why she left you?” he asks.
Mo chuckles and grimaces. “A straw. But far from the camel-breaker, my friend.”
“I always liked that phrase. You know what they call a baby camel? A calf. Like a cow.”
“Damn. I love that. Who gets to decide that stuff? I’d’ve gone with cub myself. Or something truly wild, totally left field.”
“Pup,” Jav suggests.
“So what did break its back? The camel’s.”
“She shot up a high school.”
Jav chokes on his saliva. “Is that a joke?” he says.
“Of course!” Mo belly laughs, long and loud. Jav feels suddenly too tired for this world. “What’d I say about having a son? It’s not women you’ve got to fear, man.” Mo takes his hit. “Aw man,” he says, “see your son, but let him do what he pleases. It’s a short life—and a big, baby-full world.”
Jav’s not sure what the appropriate way is of getting in touch with Connor. When he wakes alone, he rises and places a packet of pale, flaccid bacon strips in the microwave. He finds a note on his counter from Mo, with a scribbled thanks and the phone number of the place he’s crashing in case of—what, emergency? Jav folds and pockets the note. The strips of meat hiss toward crispness as the plastic wrapping inflates and fills with steam. The timer chimes, and Jav places his hand over his eyes. Email will be okay, and it won’t require him to speak spontaneously or aloud. But first: he eats the bacon with his fingers as he lies naked and supine on the kitchen floor. Its tiles are cool and kind.
He checks three obvious locations—his makeshift living room desk, his bedside table, below the couch cushions—before he finds his chipped, near-dead laptop teetering on the edge of the bathroom sink. He presses a key at random. The screen lights up. He groans from the glow. The Firefox tabs reveal a record of his night’s conclusion: Reddit, some BuzzFeed listicles, The Onion. He opens a new window, signs into Gmail, types without reflection, and sends without spellchecking.
Later that day, Jav gets the itch and sets off in the direction of Nirvana Tattoo and Piercing. The itch has lain dormant for six years, four months, and nine days—a statistic Jav knows because it corresponds to the length of his sobriety. His body’s been inkless (save the occasional Sharpie doodles done when stoned and sad) going on a decade now. Three not unattractive scars mark his long-obviated former pieces: on his left wrist, his right ankle, and over his aching heart. He’s at the door before he realizes that he has no idea what he’ll get or where and one usable credit card on which to stash the charge. No sooner does he decide to hell with it anyway than he looks up to confront the truth, written across the door: they are closed, for it’s the dumb old Lord’s Day. Which means—he checks his watch—work in an hour.
Two shifts later, he comes home to find his phone blinking. It’s an unusual sign, and it takes him a minute to work out the meaning. The voice in the message is Connor’s, scratchy with allergies or cigarette tar or time: “Dad. Hi. I guess this is still your number? I got your email, but I thought…we should talk, I guess. Face to face, and—the old fashioned way, and. You can email me a place and time, whatever works for you.”
Between missed calls and texts, they solidify their plans without ever once speaking. There’s a photo exhibition downtown that Jav suggests as a meeting place. Without an object to stare at together, they’d have to look straight at each other.
On the day they’re set to meet, Jav takes off from work early to shower the scent of coffee grounds and sweet syrups from his body. It’s October, so the aura of pumpkin’s unshakeable till Christmastime, when mint will supersede it. He tries on three outfits before he realizes that there’s no appropriate dress for the occasion and settles on what’s comfortable and clean: thrift store Levis and a faded polo. He packs his pockets with the usual suspects but leaves the bottle of teeth on his bedside table.
He arrives at the gallery half an hour before their scheduled meeting time. He orders a club soda with lime from the makeshift bar and stands in front of the nearest photo: a shot of an unpeopled playground peeking out from shadow. What it reveals he could not say.
Jav turns. Connor’s dressed professorially, elbow patches and all, and he’s both-hand gripping a plastic cup. The smell is strong: whiskey-and-something.
Connor looks down at it. “Oh, shit. Dad. I—”
“No worries,” Jav says. He’s familiar with the schematics of this exchange. He takes a sip of his own drink, like, what’s it to me?
“Let’s walk,” Connor says, so they do. “Thanks for meeting me. And for suggesting this.” He acknowledges the scene with a grand sweep of his arm.
Jav could tell him that the photographer’s a former lover. He doesn’t. “You’re adopting, for real?” Jav says.
“Straight to business?” Connor takes a gulp of whiskey-and-whatever and nods. “It’s looking that way. Sorry you had to hear that from Mom. And about Talia.”
“I thought things were going well. I’m sorry.”
Connor shrugs, gulps again. They walk to the next photo. “I like this one,” he says.
“That process is so. So expensive, I’ve heard. I’d like to. Can I help?”
Connor’s savvy enough not to sustain the pitying look but not in control enough to catch it before it spreads across his face, or kind enough to cultivate a body incapable of permitting such a display. “I mean, thanks, Dad. I can handle it. Aren’t you supposed to be urging me to give up the ghost on this whole plan? Mom implied—”
“Connor,” Jav says, the dim hope of a rekindled whatever with Nina fading in the dead light of this face-to-face. “Frankly? I’d take no pleasure in stopping you doing something you think’s right. You’ve got to do what seems good. Does this seem good?”
“More often than not.” He slurps the last traces of ice from his cup and bites down hard.
Jav just can’t bear another sip of club soda and lime. “You smoke weed, Connor?”
Mo’s at Jav’s place when they arrive, curled up sleeping in front of the door. Head resting on a cardboard pizza box, he’s still. “Dad,” Connor says, shifting his weight from foot to foot and glancing around for an explanation. “Should we—?”
“He’s my friend,” Jav snaps. He kneels and shakes Mo. Don’t be dead oh don’t be dead.
Mo stirs, snorts, and rises, limbs stiff and groping as if zombified. He clears his throat symphonically, to Connor’s poorly masked dismay. “Brought you a pizza,” he says, and he slaps Jav. It stings. “For us to share.”
“How’d you afford this?” Jav gets out his keys.
“I got ways and means. But I’m a sharer by nature, as you know. Who’s this joker?” He grins at Connor, who’s managed to contort his features into something polite.
“Mo, this is Connor,” Jav says. “My son. Connor, this is Mo.” Jav unlocks the door and pushes it open. “Shall we?”
It’s nice being the three of them: they can form a proper circle, pass the bong in one direction and receive it from the other. It’s civilized. “This is cause for celebration,” Mo says. He packs Jav’s weed into Jav’s bong. “A father-son reconciliation! The prodigal goy returns, recants. Isaac accepts dad’s so sorry on the ride back from Moriah. A bonding ritual—earth and breath and flame! You got a lighter on you, Jav?”
Connor draws one from his pocket and tosses it. “Jesus, Dad. Is this your boyfriend? Drug lord rabbi?” He smiles. “Nice beard.”
Mo snorts. “Kid’s funnier than you,” he says as he reaches over and slaps Jav’s knee. “Todah rabah,” he says to Connor. “That’s Torah-talk for thanks and don’t be a dick to dear old Dad in front of drug lord rabbi.” Flame strikes. Solid gives way to smoke.
“Mo’s a friend, that’s all,” Jav says. The fat, sad lie of the indefinite article nearly chokes him. “You been smoking a lot?” He indicates the lighter. Its frank monochrome’s hard to look at long.
Connor takes the bong and the Bic from Mo, does his thing. “Cheers to us,” he says after a graceful, cough-less exhalation. This is the last word any of them says for half an hour, maybe more.
Mo breaks the silence. “What’s this about getting yourself a baby, then?” he says—of course he does. Jav shoots his gaze up to catch Connor’s reaction. Something’s off for sure, though it’s hard to say whether that dazed look’s courtesy of the weed, the company, or the impossible thing Mo’s just said.
Connor turns on Jav. “This is a conversation for the two of you? For the three of us, right here? And now?”
“Thinking about getting another tattoo,” Jav says. It’s share time, that’s all. We’re all friends. We men: we smoke, we share. Down the solemn old patriline. And one fine day we’ll die and who can mind too much, men like these, talks like this? “Not sure what yet.”
“No shit?” Mo says. “I’m thinking of converting. Getting tired of these same old songs, same old scrolls, fattening
foods. Not sure what yet. Buddhist, maybe?”
“Do they have a conversion process?” Jav says. Or couches to offer?
“Oh, who knows. Just craving novelty. Maybe I’ll raise up a ram. Cut his horn off in the night, bring it to my mouth and blow. We call that a shofar, fair goyim.”
“Lamb,” Jav says, suddenly alert.
“Ram, I said.”
Jav clasps his hands as if to plead or pray. “Lamb’s the young! Little ram’s called a little lamb.”
“Jesus, what is this place?” Connor’s saying. He hasn’t offered the bong in a few turns. “I don’t know what’s so wrong with it,” he’s saying.
Smells all around. Connor’s skull in Jav’s lap: head cradled, arms cradling. Warmth and weight. Jav’s happier than he’s been in six years, four months and—stop it, the number’s nothing, whatever that number is.
“I just don’t know what’s what,” Connor says as Jav leads him into his bedroom.
“No one does. That’s the whole point.” He helps his son into his bed. On the nightstand: the prescription bottle brimming with teeth. Jav sweeps it off and into his pocket. The sound’s like a rattlesnake. Maybe it’s not; Jav’s never heard one. But it’s like something—the jubilation of a maraca, or the hum in his head when he seeks sleep’s calm, or maybe just a rattle, a child’s simple game. It must be like something. Otherwise it’s like nothing. “I’ll be just outside,” Jav says, “if you need anything.” He takes the fortune from his wallet, slips it into Connor’s jacket pocket. There will soon be a beautiful surprise for you. “Dang,” Jav says to no one.
He stands there until Connor doesn’t stir at his whisper. He takes his time shutting the door silently. He finds Mo idling near his one bookshelf, leafing through an illustrated book of saints, one of the few relics of Jav’s younger days. “What kind of name is Jav, anyway?” Mo says.
“What kind of name is Mo? A stooge?”
Mo grins. “Short for Moshe. That’s Moses. They found me in the motherfucking water.”
He closes the book and re-shelves it. “Mind if I crash here tonight? Won’t make a habit of it.”
Yes. Thank you. Yes. “I’ll get you a blanket. Gets cold.” Jav steps toward the closet. The teeth rattle in his pocket.
“Whoa, Jav. That’s a crazy noise. What is it?”
Jav stops, holds his breath, wills it all away. But Mo’s losing it fast. His attention’s back on the book, the stories of faith and death. He won’t remember this. Jav grips the bottle in his pocket and envisions holding it forth: this is me. The things I keep.
“Must be some pebbles in your shoe,” Mo murmurs. He flips through the pages, reading or not, believing or not. “Must be some worries in your bones.”
Nathan Goldman is a writer living in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in Literary Hub, the Kenyon Review Online, Word Riot, and other publications. He is a blog editor for Full Stop. Find him online at nathangoldman.com and @nathangoldman.