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 !  Hobson's Choice

Short Story

by

David E. Booker


I

          As long as the baby didn't touch me, I ignored him. His screams were one with those of the ninety-odd thousand people around me. I also ignored the drunk behind me with his slurred badgering, his what-the-hell-was-my-reason-for-bringing-my-baby-to-his-college-football-game, his "I paid good goddamn money . . . ."

         I ignored him poking me and breathing onto me a heavy blend of cheap whiskey and cheaper cigars that stank like sulfur and sauerkraut, and felt like dragon's breath.

         I ignored it all and concentrated on the night game, on the lights and the bugs that swarmed toward them: the moths, the fireflies, the gnats, the beetles, and even one lost bumblebee that danced and bobbed and for a while tormented me.

         I concentrated on the crowd reaction to a typical first football game on a hot September evening. Tennessee was supposed to run all over its weak college opponent. Instead they were making it a white-knuckle, jump-up-out-of-your-seat, gnash-your-teeth affair.

         I concentrated on the adolescents, mouths drooping, cheeks flushed, lumbering up and down the aisles, hawking soft drinks and foodstuffs from trays that jutted from their guts, their breaths smelling of onions and mustard as they passed. Sweat beaded on their foreheads like crowns, glistening in the dozens and dozens of artificial suns glaring down on an artificial surface where twenty-two young players and five refs danced "the fate of the world" until the ebb and flow of the game was over.

              I ignored one thing by concentrating on another. Then the baby reached out. It was only my finger he grasped in his tiny fist, and not even all of that. He was not my baby. He was not my son. I didn't know him and I didn't know what to do with him. I only knew that the hand of touch was also the hand of capture and he wasn't about to let go.

         

II

         Baby and mother arrived just before kickoff. He was in a wicker basket. She was no more than sixteen, carrying him in her arms, wearing a cherry-red blouse and bright pink pants. Her hair was blond with streaks of brown and she had a clumsy-willowy way about her as if life wasn't sure about her and she wasn't sure about it. There were smudges on her pants and white canvas tennis shoes, one on a blouse sleeve, and a long, damp one down her back as if she'd moved through a narrow passage on her back, baby balanced on her stomach, unable to see ahead.

         I thought about Stadium Hall, an old building tucked under the east wing of Neyland Stadium and literally overshadowed by the stadium's expansiveness. There were stories about students squeezing through the ductwork, sneaking in to sold-out games. I wondered if she had come in that way.

         When I first saw them, I wondered what a teenager - a child - with a baby was doing at a football game, how they even got in. Surely there was a rule against having a baby at a football game. Or an unescorted teenager. I glanced around for their parents; no one was interested in the job. Then I wondered if the relationship was something other than siblings, if she was a mother and this was her baby.

         She looked over at me and smiled, nervously, her thin lips quivering. I smiled back, then glanced away: I had come for the game.

#

         She sat down in one place, then another and another, moving to an empty spot in the first three rows across the aisle whenever someone with a ticket told her she was in the wrong seat. Finally, all those seats were filled and she picked up her baby, stepped across the aisle, and stopped in front of me. By then it was the middle of the first quarter. Third down and twenty for Tennessee. She stood in front of me until I looked up at her. She smiled, again. The lipstick was slightly misaligned.

         I stared. She stared back, eyes open, even afraid, but not kind. Her face looked as if it had already been toughened by an experience that had overtaken her long before it should have. We both broke contact before it became intimate. I glanced at the baby. She took the empty seat beside me. "Boy," she said. It was all she said. I turned my attention to the game.

 

III

         The tiny hand was moist against my finger. The baby's fingernails were long and untrimmed. The sharp edge on his smallest finger cut my flesh. I glanced at the baby and for a second expected to see an even younger baby boy, my baby boy. There was a thin pink scratch on this child's cheek. He tried dragging my finger toward him. I jerked away and shoved my finger in my mouth. The taste of blood was sharp, warm, and slightly metallic. There was redness around several of the baby's fingernails.

#

         Ouch! I said. His fingernails are sharp.

         Some are, the nurse had said, taking Jerome away. We'll have to keep an eye on him. He could hurt himself.

         He's already hurt me, I said. My finger was red.

         The nurse laughed.

         I stuck my finger in my mouth. Sarah laughed. Her only laugh.

         I stepped to the hospital window and stared back across the lake at the campus, toward the stadium, my finger still in my mouth. It was Saturday and the game had already begun. We had tickets.

#

         The baby wailed, then put his fist in his mouth and began sucking. In a moment, he was quiet.

         "Finally," the dragon-breathed drunk said, sounding almost consonant with the real world.

         Fourth down and the punter took the field. I tried focusing on him, then the ball, concentrating only on it as it began tumbling end over end through the thick, hazy air. The crowd cheered, then held its breath.

         I glanced around, wondering where the hell the teenage mother was. She had left a few moments ago, saying "bathroom." Before I could respond she was gone.

         I wondered if she was gone for good, if she had found her way back out through Stadium Hall. It was a stupid thought. All she had to do was walk out through the gate.

         Again, the baby cried.

 

IV

         From the ground the punt would have looked as if it were soaring; but from up in the upper deck - way up - it looked hapless, almost flaccid, a sparrow trying to escape on one wing.

         The ball dropped from the sky and the player who caught it was immediately tackled.

         "See that!" the dragon-man bellowed. "See that. He kicked that sonofabitchin' thing fifty-five yards!" He jumped to his feet and bellowed even louder: "Way to kick that pigskin, boy! Way to kick!"

         A chorus of boos echoed through the crowd, followed by a counterpoint of applause. A referee had thrown a flag, but then he conferred with his fellow refs and waved it off. I looked at the other team's return man. He was wandering around, shaking his head, and then straightening his helmet.

         The dragon-man jumped to his feet and yelled. "Kill the bum! Kill the bum!" He stomped his feet. A small choir of his buddies joined in, but they never got their chanting in sync. They kept it up until the baby screamed. Then the dragon-man poked me in the shoulder and ordered me to shut my kid up. Or else.

 

V

         I got up to get something to drink. I couldn't take the crying any more and I couldn't wait any longer for the child-mother to return. I hadn't said a word since she sat down beside me, but my throat was as dry and tight as if I had been screaming at the dragon-man. Or the mother. Or even at the baby. 

         The child wasn't mine: not this one.

         Part of me loathed mother and child in a way that filled me with shame. Part of me wanted to embrace them and take them away, to do what I hadn't done before. And part of me still wasn't sure what was happening. My skin felt like pins were raining on it. My stomach kept contracting and expanding as if trying to beat in sympathetic rhythm to my heart.

         She'll be back, I told myself as I stepped away. I just know she will.

         As I passed him, I glanced at the dragon-man. He was happy of face, oblivious to my leaving. He was holding a picture of somebody, showing it to his compatriots. I envied him.

         I bought a large drink and walked around the concrete ramp, looking for a breeze to push back a claustrophobic feeling and help me concentrate, a breeze to help me cool down. My palms were clammy. Sweat from my forehead stung my eyes. I should go back to baby. But he's not mine. She'll be back in a minute; she wouldn't abandon him. Then, just for a second, I saw her eyes clearly. It was the moment she had stopped in front of me, the weight in the basket pulling her shoulders down, and I knew I was wrong. She wasn't coming back.

         Go back then, I said, but I didn't.

         Instead, I found a breeze, but I couldn't find comfort. I leaned on the railing, looked out over Fort Loudon Lake and watched the night deepen its shape around the city lights, a night framed in the scents of lake water and ragweed. Just as I began to lose myself in the murmur of a distant tugboat, the breeze died. I retreated to the rest room, my past with Sarah and Jerome swirling like an oblique phantom.

         I ducked into the first stall I came to and found out why it was unoccupied. There is nothing like the pungency of urine and feces in a clogged toilet to bring you special and certain knowledge of the "real world." I finished quickly and left. I washed, rubbing my hands over and over. I splashed water on my face. Then I found out there were no paper towels. I shook water from my hands and wiped my face as if removing mud. I stepped back outside, around the corner, and into the path of the dragon-man.

         "That's him! That's the father! That's him, officer!" The dragon-man pointed at me, his face red. Beside him stood a female police officer, the baby cradled in her arms. The wicker basket was gone.

         The officer looked at me, then at the dragon-man. "You can go now," she said.

         "You dirty bastard." He spat at me, turned around, and stumbled away, his head cocked back, chest thrust out, proud of himself, pompous. I envied the dragon-man his drunken certainty.

         

VI

         "Your child?" She leaned over me and tried being firm, then tried being tough.

         I hesitated, then said, "No."

         "You don't sound sure," the policewoman said.

         "I am." I crossed my arms and leaned back in the chair, away from her. We were in the back of a long, thin room somewhere within the labyrinth of Stadium Hall. The room was dimly lit by one half-hearted bulb in a table lamp. Outside the small window at the other end of room stood scaffolding, criss-crossing supports holding up the maze of ramps and upper tiers of stadium seats. Darkness obscured much of what could be seen and very little light filtered in.

         "That's not what the man back there said." She spoke slightly through her nose and out the right side of her mouth. She tried snarling out the left side. It was almost too comical not to laugh at.

         She moved away, taking with her the oppressive feel of her body heat and the oppressive odor of her body. The September humidity had not been kind to her. Only the dark blue of her uniform helped hide the effects - until she was upon you. Even her breath had been sharp and unpleasant, caustic, like cigarettes.

           She stepped behind the oversized metal desk. It was the only desk and it made the room feel even smaller and the desk look even larger. She had brought me down here, "to ask me a few questions.' She turned on a portable radio that groaned and crackled and hissed before it emitted voices. Then it died into static. She fiddled with the volume and the tuning, then turned it off and slapped it to the back of the desk. It tottered on the edge.

         I reached out, trying to catch it, but it didn't fall. Bent over, I waited to be sure. There was a barely audible, almost ominous rumble above, behind, below - all around us.

         I leaned back in my chair again and the policewoman leaned forward. Our chairs chirped and squealed and crackled, talking to each other though we weren't. She had badgered me out of my driver's license, my name, where I worked, and what I was doing here. I gave up the information only under her threat of making the detention "official." She had given my license to a fellow off-duty officer and asked him to check it out. He had looked none too happy with the request. I had not given her my "wife's" name, or where the authorities could find her. I couldn't give them what I didn't know. I almost found out the officer's last name by trying to read the tag above her left shirt pocket. The baby lay comfortably asleep in a nearby chair, or so the officer had said. I hadn't bothered to look.

         The policewoman leaned back in her chair, even slumped a little, and steepled her fingers. I barely saw her lips begin moving. "Okay, Mr. Kerres. You can make it hard or easy. I'm not a hard woman to live with. Got a couple kids of my own. I know how it is. Believe me, crying kids can be an anchor around your neck. You want to get away for a few minutes. Get a drink. Wife does too. You didn't mean to leave the kid alone for that long. Time just got away from you. Know what I'm saying?"

         I didn't say anything. I didn't look at her. I didn't look at the baby. I looked at the wall, barely within reach of the lamplight.

         I heard the officer sigh, almost ha-rumph, then I heard her leather and metal pop and jingle. The noise caused the baby to gurgle.

         "Mr. Kerres?"

         After a moment, I said, "Yes."

         "Mr. Kerres, look at me."

         I hesitated, then turned my head toward her. My eyes moved to her face, but not to her eyes. I fixed on her full lips, then her nose. It bent slightly to the left, as if it'd been altered in a fight, a domestic dispute maybe, one at a home, maybe her home. Two kids after all. I could almost see it. Then she leaned forward until we were eye to eye.

         "Mr. Kerres, I just have one question. Why did you and your wife bring the baby to a football game?"

#

         I have just one question, the judge had said. Do you willingly give up all legal rights to this child?

         Yes, sir, I said.

         Do you understand what this means?

         Yes, sir.

         Sign here. The judge had not looked at me the entire time, signing the paper, then sliding it over to me as he spoke of this child, my son, who would soon have a new name and family. Sarah was out in the tiny waiting room crying. She had been crying when she came out of this room, his chambers. There was no reason to think she wasn't crying now. I signed the paper, and a few minutes later the judge's secretary gave us each a copy. It felt warm, fresh from the photocopier. It was legal size and had the slight dusty-acrid smell, as if the words and signatures had been printed on the page with ashes.

         The lady from human services who had guided us through the process, from the hospital to outside the judge's chambers, was there when we reached the bottom of the stairs. She reassured us that Jerome was going to a good home, a doctor's home (even then I had smiled at the irony) "in the area." She shook our hands and was gone. Her job was done. Two unmarried college students would no longer be sidetracked from their educations, from their careers, from their lives. I felt relieved, but relieved without absolution.

         That, I guessed, I would have to do myself.

         That, I figured out even later, I still didn't know how to do.

#

         There was a burning scent, dry ashes on the air, and smoke. The officer had lit a cigarette. She had walked to the baby and was leaning over him, the cigarette stuck out behind her, between her fingers, like a short fuse or a stubby, smoldering tail. They were saying things to each other in a language neither spoke well but both understood. She leaned up, turning her head away as she took another drag, then she leaned over again, her lungs full.

         "Hey! That's not good for the baby."

         She turned her head toward me and blew the smoke out. It was a blue-gray cloud. It grew in size in all directions and smudged even more the tenuous light between us. How much was in her lungs? "So you do care."

         I couldn't read her expression. "I never said I didn't."

         "You may make a decent dad yet."

         The phone rang before I could say anything. She stepped by me and answered it. The noise startled the baby. He squealed once, then began crying.

         The policewoman said "un-huh" several times into the receiver. She motioned me over to the baby.

         I stepped over and stopped above him. The cigarette smoke, thin through the humid air, almost made me cough. I looked down; he looked up. His eyes were little and red and bright with tears. His chest was heaving and his arms and legs jerked as if they were moved at the shoulders and hips by gears with teeth. His mouth, pink and dark, started to curl open. "Lose your basket?"

         He took in air, but did not cry. He then sneezed and coughed.

         "My sentiments exactly."

         "Pick him up."

         "Huh?" I hadn't heard her hang up.

         "Bring him here." She motioned me to her.

         I picked up the baby and stepped toward the woman. She reached inside the baby''s clothes. "Just as I thought." She took the baby from me and laid him on the desk. The baby started to cry again. She tried to calm him, but couldn't. She looked at me. "You try."

         I stepped over and reached out with my finger. He took it and put it in his mouth. The room was quiet: even the rumble from the game outside was gone. Quiet and silent and veiled in humid smoke.

         "Shame," the woman said. "Shame."

 

VII

         I tried to explain Hobson's Choice to the policewoman: no choice. You ride the horse assigned to you in its proper turn: no exceptions. It's how the late 16th century entrepreneur Thomas Hobson kept his horses fresh when you came to rent one; that way the favorite horses weren't always worn out. It was a term I'd learned ten years ago as an undergraduate, in an English history class where I met Sarah. I tried explaining that maybe the young girl had felt she was exercising Hobson's Choice. Sarah and I used to joke that it applied to our love for each other.

         "You mean if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride."

         "Not exactly," I said.

         The policewoman laughed and said that was all "New Wave hogwash," that you played the hand you were dealt and you didn't cheat, and that the young girl abandoning the baby was cheating.

         The phone call had been the other officer, who confirmed my name, my job, my marital status, and the reason I had come to game: I had a free ticket and nothing better to do. I was not offered any apologies for being detained. "Why you defending her? She almost stuck you with a baby."

         I was quiet. I didn't answer the question.

         The policewoman smiled not a friendly smile, but an indulgent one. "What'd she look like?"

         I shrugged. "Short, stocky, red headed."

 

VIII

         When the other police officer returned with my driver's license, I was free to go. He had been delayed, fighting the exiting crowd. Before I left, the woman officer felt obliged to lecture me on abandoning a baby - even if he wasn't mine.

         A diaper, from an old, somewhat suspect rag, had been rigged around the baby's lower half. The ingenuity revealed that officer was, indeed, a mother. I'd had my doubts. Luckily, the baby was asleep when I turned to go. I hesitated, looking at him, and for an instant saw him at ten years old. Or maybe it was Jerome I saw.

         In the years that had passed, at times I had seen myself, in melodramatic self-flagellation, as a fool astride his spavined stead, bedecked in tarnished armor two sizes too large, an esquire too soon trying to be a knight, charging after answers to intractable questions. Surely, the answers would bow to me.

         "You could pick him up and take him with you," the policewoman said. "Just say he's yours. It's that simple."

         I laughed, once: I didn't want to wake the baby. I whispered, "You don't give up, do you?"

         "The kid'll get bounced from foster home to foster home while we search for the mother. Then maybe adoption." She turned her palms up. "Who'd know?"

         "You, for one. And then there'd be all those records to forge." I thought of the birth certificate, the social security card, the medical records, the insurance forms - and all the other items of record a baby had to have to "officially" be. Love, if it ever was, was no longer enough.

         I looked at the woman officer.

         She shrugged her shoulders.

         Some people do play their cards differently.

 

IX

         Outside the narrow office the night was still humid. The few remaining faces had the same pleasantly oblivious cast to them: the look of a surrogate winner: immortal and impervious to change.

         Part of my face was wet, but it wasn't from the humidity. When she had asked, I had lied to the woman officer about what the young mother looked like. If they ever did find her, of if she ever did come back for her son, and if they ever did come back to me, I could always claim faulty memory. Right or wrong, it was all I could do for the mother. Right or wrong, it was the only thing I could do for the son.

         I turned to the weak breeze. Thomas, I thought, would be a good first name for him.

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Young baby

Eugene Kerres thought he was only attending a college football game. But a young woman, an abandoned baby, and a drunken fan force him to deal with memories of choices made, of whether he made the right decision then and if he will make the right decision now.


David E. Booker struggles to learn about web site building, writing, and fatherhood. He lives in a 100-year-old house where pieces of congealed coal dust can be heard caroming through the whole-house vacuum hose as they are sucked up from between the slats in the heart pine floor.
To learn a little more about him, go to David E. Booker >>

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