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  • Mary Ellen Swee

Buddy

By the time their son was eight months old, Edie and Tom Nolan had changed his name  more than once. After an uneventful home birth, the new parents were vaguely surprised to find a  boy, screeching and bloody, dangling from the midwife’s large hands. They had wanted a girl.

“Steve,” Tom said as he watched the midwife lay the boy on Edie’s deflated middle.

Edie closed her eyes. “Absolutely not.”


Tom saw the midwife wince. She thought the new mother was rejecting the baby, but  Tom tried to reassure her. 


“She doesn’t like the name—Steve. My dad was Steve.”


“Oh.” The midwife nodded her round head and her short, tight curls bounced against the  sides of her face.


“Edie?” Tom edged near the large bed. “Honey?” He tapped his wife’s shoulder. “How  about Steven? Could you live with that?”


Edie wanted to roll over on her side, but the weight of the baby pinned her down on the  waterproof sheet.


“No,” she muttered. “Definitely not.” Then she fell asleep. 


For two weeks Edie Nolan called her son Stefano. Tom, who thought Stefano was not a  good match for the baby, insisted on calling him “Stevie” instead.


The child did not respond to either name. He slept soundly in the daytime and cried  periodically during the night. 


***

When the infant was a couple of weeks old, Tom and Edie decided to take him on a  picnic near the bottom of the ravine that abutted their property line. Edie filled up a laundry  basket with pasta salad, beef bologna, and Portuguese bread that she had bought at the local deli.  She also included a half-empty bottle of Chardonnay from a nearby vineyard. Tom rolled an  herbal cigarette and strapped his new son to his chest in a red corduroy pack. 


On their way down the ravine trial, Tom watched his wife, who was ten years younger  than he was, walk several feet ahead of him. Edie bobbed with each step she took. She was  wearing blue jeans that looked only a little tighter than before the pregnancy and a loose green  sweater given to her by a college boyfriend. 


Tom felt a surge of affection for Edie. Her reddish hair hung in a single braid down her  back. It was so thick that Tom’s hand could barely fit around it. Tom was proud of Edie’s hair.  

“Go close to the creek,” Tom called to his wife. “The baby will like the water sounds.” 


Edie nodded and her braid slid up and down against her neck. She spotted a grassy patch  next to the rushing water at the bottom of the ravine and put the woven basket on the ground.


“How about here?” she asked as she started to unpack the lunch.


Tom felt relaxed. “Great spot,” he said. The baby was warm against his body. “The  walking makes him sleepy,” he told Edie.


“Uh, huh,” she said.


Edie knelt down on the grass and lifted the dome-shaped loaf out of their basket. She  pulled off an edge of the crust and tossed it to a small brown bird that had boldly trotted up to  her. She had a distant look in her eyes. 


“Maybe we should stop the nursing thing,” Edie said, not turning towards Tom. “I need  to shrink back down to normal before auditions.” Edie acted in the community theater and the  other troupe members depended on her participation.


“But we decided to go six months. And the pediatrician—"


“I don’t care about the pediatrician, Tom. He doesn’t have to walk around with two  boulders strapped to his chest.”


Tom did not want to spoil their afternoon. “Okay,” he said. 


He spread out a quilt on the grass for the baby and unhinged the carrier. The little boy  was breathing softly. His eyelids fluttered as his father laid him down in the middle of the coverlet. Letters of the alphabet were appliqued to its surface. But the top border where the baby’s name was supposed to be stitched was still blank.


“Maybe he won’t wake up.” Tom backed off. “And then we can give him a bottle of  formula at home.” 


While Edie pulled plastic forks and paper plates from the basket, Tom lit up the cigarette  he had rolled at home. He didn’t offer any to his wife, just in case she had a change of heart and  decided to nurse later that day. He did not want to contribute to unhealthy chemicals in the  baby’s milk.


Edie poured a glass of the faintly yellow wine. She offered it to Tom after taking a sip for  herself. 


“I’ve been thinking about the name,” Edie said. 


“The name?” Tom asked.


“The baby’s name.” She folded a slice of bologna into quarters.


“We can’t go around forever calling him by two different versions of Steven.” Edie raised the pink meat to her mouth.


Tom turned his head away from the baby and blew out a puff of smoke. It wasn’t typical of Edie to care about uniformity. That quality appealed to him when they met.  “I like Stefano.” she continued. “It’s lyrical.”


Tom cleared his throat. He dropped the lit cigarette on the ground and stubbed it out with  the ball of his foot.


“Okay,” he answered.


Then Tom knelt down next to his wife. He bent over to kiss her on the head. The smell of  lavender oil on her skin was soothing.


But Edie had not finished. “And I think we should have a christening. A real one. With  champagne and lots of people.” Edie handed Tom the paper container which had the salad in it.  Tom picked out a fat, orange piece of pasta. “If that’s what you want,” he told his wife.  Then Tom popped the soggy noodle into his mouth.


***


The San Miguel Community Theater had a reputation, since the early 2010’s, for staging  the county’s most progressive productions. Edie Nolan’s biggest accomplishment in her three  years with the ensemble had been the starring role in Stop Fighting by a young playwright named  Durong. In the one-act play, Edie played a withered grandmother who delivers a gripping  monologue about world peace while suspended over a makeshift rice paddy on invisible wires. 


The multiple curtain calls Edie received on closing night made her eyes water. But Edie cared less about the applause than she did about the admiration of her fellow performers. One  nod of approval from Ethico Patreon, her leading man in Stop Fighting, mattered more to her  than a five-star review in the village news.


Two months after her son was born, Edie tried out for a part in San Miguel’s upcoming  tragedy called Shut Up. It was based on the true story of a divorced San Francisco doctor, Noah Lasso, who developed a debilitating disease shortly after selling his dermatology practice and  retiring from medicine. Edie auditioned for the role of the doctor’s sympathetic younger sister,  Seraphim. 


On the night that the casting decisions were announced at the theater, the playwright  cornered Edie backstage. He wanted to explain the play’s title.


“Noah is, of course, shut up in his Aston Avenue loft after the diagnosis,” he told Edie. “Physically and mentally, the man becomes an invalid, a recluse, a social reject.”  


The author’s voice grew loud. “Before he gets too sick to even think, he also wants to  yell ‘Shut up!’ at the acquaintances whose pity keeps reminding him how slow and ugly his  demise will be.”


Staring intently into Edie’s round eyes, the dramatist flailed his thin arms. “It’s terrible. I

mean who wouldn’t rather go quickly and quietly?”


Edie listened, blinking, and occasionally running her fingers through her long hair. Later  that evening, it was revealed that she would play Seraphim opposite Ethico’s Noah. Edie exhaled  with delight. 


Then she ran to the lobby to call Tom. She punched in her husband’s number on her  phone with excited fingers.


“We’ll have to postpone the christening,” she told Tom as soon as he answered. “A few  months or so.” Edie lowered her voice to conceal her enthusiasm. “I got the part.”

***


The Nolans owned a large mid-century modern home and they spent time each weekend looking at furniture with the intention of filling it up. But neither was interested enough in  decorating to make the usual purchases so the house gave off a spacious but empty feeling. 


In the main bedroom were wide unshaded windows. The huge futon mattress spread itself  out on a homemade wood and cinder block platform. The baby’s white wicker bassinet with a  frilly skirt was pushed into a far corner. The other bedrooms were bare except for beige blinds  and tall, dusty rubber plants. In the dining room, instead of a table and chairs, there was an  antique pool table. Cue sticks hung from an oak rack affixed to the wall. The vaulted ceiling in  the living room crowned a media center that spanned an entire side of the room. And a black  leather couch stood in the middle of the expanse, facing a massive flat screen embedded in the media center.


The only place in the house that Tom and Edie occupied regularly during weekdays was  the kitchen. Tom had designed a desk for the space between the microwave and refrigerator that supported a monitor on a curved silver stand. The shallow drawer he built under the long desktop was for protecting his keyboard when it was not in use. Tom sat at the desk in the kitchen if he  was working from home so he could listen to what Edie and the baby were doing.


Trunks full of old costumes and leaky makeup tubes were stacked on the floor not far  from Tom’s work station. Sometimes, when they invited people to a weekend brunch, Edie  dragged the trunks into the center of the kitchen to use them as tables. Guests ate frittatas while  sitting cross-legged, Moroccan-style, on pillows filled with buckwheat hulls. Usually, though,  the Nolan family ate outside of the kitchen on their back deck, at the redwood picnic table they  had received as a wedding present. 

***

 

On the morning of her son’s christening, Edie sponge-mopped the kitchen floor. Because  invitees included the cast of Shut Up, which had recently finished a successful run, Edie also  brushed off the pool table’s felt cover. When he wasn’t performing, Ethico Patreon played  pool—for money.


After the guests began to arrive, Tom woke the baby from his nap. He dressed the boy in  a pair of disposable diapers and a miniature Hawaiian t-shirt that had Kauai printed on the front.


“This is it, Stevie,” Tom told his son as they made their way past a heated pool match in  the dining room. “After today, it’s Stefano all the way.”

The name Stefano hadn’t grown on Tom the way he had hoped. It seemed long and  formal. For weeks he tried to avoid the issue by calling the baby Buddy, a nickname his father had used for Tom when he was growing up. After the christening, though, he knew there would  be no turning back. Edie was definite. 


“Hey Tom,” the partygoers lined up on the living room couch slurred as Tom walked  between them and the media center with his son cradled in his arms. The boy was still tired and  the number of new faces perplexed him. 


“Hey,” Tom said back to the guests. He did not want to introduce the child right now. It  was Sunday afternoon and people inside the house were looking at the expansive screen that  showed a skinny quarterback in a throwback uniform hurl an intercepted pass. 


An ashtray full of cigar butts and a container of tiny white pills slowly circulated around  the group. Tom’s old video cassettes from his Three Stooges collection were scattered  haphazardly on the floor. A black vinyl copy of Surrealistic Pillow was playing, too loudly, on  the surrounding tower speakers. 


In the background Tom heard Ethico Patreon shout, “Put your money where your mouth  is!” Ethico was not a large man, but his voice was strong. The baby grabbed at Tom’s olive green t-shirt. 


Transporting his son away from the adult noises, Tom walked through the kitchen’s  sliding glass doors and then out onto the back deck where he stopped next to the picnic table.  Edie had covered it with a purple paper cloth. Because she had not given the caterer enough  advance warning, Edie had to turn the christening brunch into a potluck. So the table held a hodgepodge of sweets, salads, dips, crackers, and wines. Unheated store-bought cherry pie,  chopped up fruits, a plastic tub of guacamole, partially frozen cheesecake, and a platter of  slightly wilted red lettuce leaves drizzled with a pungent garlic dressing were laid out in an  arbitrary manner. No one had used an oven for cooking. 


Tom reached for a ceramic bowl filled with chopped up bananas and apples that were just  starting to turn brown. He picked out a piece of the fruit with his fingers and offered it to the  baby. Tom was thinking they might need to have a tray of cold cuts delivered from the grocery  store. 


After surveying the crowded yard, he called out to his wife. “Edie!”


“Aah!” A delighted scream and a forceful splash greeted him from a distance.  Tom rolled his eyes. He mumbled, “Oh no.” Shifting the baby to an over-the-shoulder  position, he hurried down the deck stairs. 


The afternoon sun was glaring and Tom had left his sunglasses on a counter in the  kitchen. He squinted hard and looked towards the kidney-shaped swimming pool. In it, with all  her clothes on, was Edie. Her wet hair streaked across her face and wrapped around her neck.  Swinging her silver-bangled arms, she pretended to be drowning. 


“Help! Gurgle, gurgle! Help!” she half-shrieked, half-laughed to the guests who lounged around the water on bamboo beach mats. 


When the baby heard his mother’s voice, he started to whimper. He let go of his father’s  shoulder and reached his chubby arms in the direction of the swimming pool.  


“I’ll save you!” an eager party-goer called to Edie. He hurled himself into the water near  her.


“Me, too!” chorused two or three others. Tom recognized their faces from a playbill for Shut Up.

***


At the far end of the backyard, a half dozen young children played quietly near the  chicken coop Tom had assembled and stocked for his son. One boy with uncombed hair poked the smaller of two honey-colored hens with a curled fragment of eucalyptus bark. The frightened bird screeched and scrambled away from her tormenter. 


Then a thin yellow-haired girl who wore a long multi-colored sweater as a dress, looked  like she was scolding the boy. Waving a thin index finger in his face, she scowled.


Tom went quickly to the fenced-in area where the children were congregating near the  chickens. He crouched down next to the girl who was clearly the oldest of the group.


“Would you watch my little boy for a minute?” he asked. “If I leave him sitting here on  the ground next to you?” Tom set the infant down, propping him up against a taut wire fence.  


“If Mummy says it’s okay.” She tucked her wispy hair behind her ears.  


“Great,” Tom replied. “Where’s Mummy?”


“In New Zealand, sir.” 


“New Zealand?” Tom did not expect her answer. 


“Yes, sir.” The girl was unusually polite. The boy with the messy hair tugged on the  girl’s sweater dress and she tried to brush him away. “New Zealand.”


“Then where’s your daddy?”


The girl pointed in the direction of the adults. “He’s in the pool over there. He’s the one  with no hair.” The girl nodded as if to confirm who her father was. “And he’s wearing the Spiderman t-shirt.” 


Tom recognized the father. He was the playwright from Shut Up whose talent Edie had  praised.


“How about if I go ask him instead? Instead of your mummy?”


“Okay, sir.”


The ends of the girl’s mouth turned upwards in a smile. Tom patted her on the head. He  started to walk away. But the little girl hadn’t finished. “Sir,” she asked, “what’s his name?”  Tom stopped to look back over his shoulder. “His name?”


“The baby. What is he called?” 


Tom was not sure how to answer. He paused.


“Buddy,” he finally said. “Call him Buddy. He likes that one.”


Tom was relieved to have the conversation over with. He took long strides towards the  swimming pool which, by now, was filled with partygoers, a smattering of whom looked half his  age. 

***


After emerging from the water, Edie had stretched out on the diving board, her soaking  wet sarong clinging to her legs. A plastic champagne flute was tipped over on the concrete below  her. 


With her eyes closed, Edie hummed a verse of her favorite song from The Phantom of the Opera. She had once played Christine in a local revival. 


“Edie,” Tom said flatly as he approached his wife. 


“Tom.” She stated his name like a stubborn fact. Then she pushed herself up on her  elbows and raised her tanned eyelids. 


“Edie, honey,” Tom’s tone softened. “I thought we were having a christening. A  christening for the baby.”


“We are, Tom, we are,” gushed Edie. She was inebriated. “But you can’t have a  christening without plenty of water. You need water more than anything for a proper christening,  Tom.” 


Edie’s voice grew more animated. “We have to say the bay’s name and dunk him in the  water and then it’s all done.” 


Edie tried to focus her eyes on the yard. “Where is he anyway? Where’s my little Noah?”  she cooed. 


Tom did not understand. “Noah?”


“Yes,” Edie hiccupped, “Noah.” She patted her lips to excuse herself. “I thought we  could christen the baby Noah.”


“But Edie,” Tom tensed his right hand and pushed it into the side of his thigh. “You’ve  been calling him Stefano for a long time. He’ll be completely mixed up.”  


“I’ve been thinking, though, Tom, that Noah has so much more meaning than Stefano.”


Edie looked down towards the pool while she spoke. “Take Noah Lasso. Just for example. He  was a really noble human being. He had that horrible disease, Tom, and he fought it.” 


Edie got emotional. “He fought it.”


Tom was quiet. He squatted by the side of the diving board and gingerly picked up the  plastic glass from the ground.


“But Noah doesn’t sound right,” Tom said with a low voice.


Edie watched Tom stand up with the glass in his hand. “I won’t even get mad if you call  him by that nickname. Buddy. Or Bud. You can call him by that nickname if you want to, Tom.” 


The bald-headed playwright shouted at Edie from the middle of the pool. “Edie! I’ll race  you!” He appeared awkward doing the dog paddle with the sun reflecting off his scalp. Edie

laughed. 


Tom looked across the yard at the chicken coop. His eyes picked out the yellow-haired  girl sitting down on the ground next to his son who was still pressed against the wire fence. She  was trying to teach the little boy how to play pat-a-cake. Tom watched as she held his tiny hands  in her own and swung them, slowly, back and forth, through the air.


E N D

 

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