Jim felt sad for the baby in a way he couldn’t talk about with his wife, because the baby wasn’t dead yet, so Miriam was still worried and not yet sad. He felt sad and sorry for the baby, who was named Thomas but whom he’d already begun thinking of the way he’d talk about him later: the baby we lost. At six months, Tommy wasn’t old enough to feel anything as complex as jealousy, but Jim felt a kind of sibling rivalry on the baby’s behalf, knowing the next child would be their real child, the one they raised and grew old with, and Tommy only a sad story.
He knew he and Miriam would have another baby, not soon, but eventually, because they’d wanted children so badly and wouldn’t have this one anymore. This knowledge was another thing he couldn’t talk about with Miriam, who was clinging to that five percent: the odds of a successful surgery.
The hospital had two of the best surgeons on the West Coast. Sometimes their names came into his head in an absurd cheer: Singh and Parker, they’re our man, if they can’t do it, no one can. Only the last part seemed true. The baby was so small that Jim didn’t see how they could cut it open without crushing it like the pocket watch he’d once found beside the streetcar tracks, hemorrhaging gears and small parts.
“They have these robot hands,” their pediatrician had said. She was a slight, elderly woman who’d sounded like she might cry when they’d called her from the hospital. “They’re so small and precise they can do just about anything.”
“Robot hands,” he’d repeated blankly, but it was a phrase Miriam said a lot, something that sounded hopeful to her.
He worried more about her than the baby. That morning, before this silent cab ride with a bag of things Tommy had a five-percent chance of living long enough to need, she’d told him about her dream.
“There was this… being,” she’d said. “I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad. And I didn’t care. I said I wanted to give Tommy a year of my life. If we could just do that…” She’d cried again, and he’d been afraid the dream was somehow about suicide. A cold, evolutionary part of him knew that, while she could give him another child, the baby they were losing could never give him another wife. He had to protect Miriam from what was happening. He squeezed her hand as he watched the traffic converge where the county was building new lanes and a barrier wall. He didn’t want to look at the bag and make another memory of the baby’s small bright clothing, his gummed stuffed toys.
The construction site seemed endless because the traffic kept them beside it so long. He watched the rhythmic rise and fall of loaded cranes and a debris chute that pulsed like a swallowing throat. It looked so improvised, like someone had stacked a bunch of trash cans and hoped they’d hold. He was aware of Miriam fidgeting in his periphery. Did it matter when they got there? It was a bad thought, but also true. Neither their presence nor their absence would make any difference, other than what they’d accuse themselves of later: We were just there and couldn’t help him or We weren’t there when he… He turned his head even further from Miriam keep her from commenting on the delay, to keep himself from saying what he was thinking.
One of the cranes had broken rhythm, a bad dancer ruining the choreography with its hoist unit swinging a little too high, a little too hard, and then all at once higher and harder, like the inevitable shrinking of a lost balloon. The precarious position of the load, the staccato twitching of the chains, reminded him of the baby in those robot hands, and he turned to tell Miriam as a tremendous noise, a thud and a tearing in one, rocked the cab and slammed his head into the window, forcing him to look at the wild swinging of the empty hook, and all the dust. He blinked away the blurring of his vision and saw Miriam holding a corrugated sheet of metal on her lap like a child, only it was too big, all the way up to her neck. The cabby was shouting something as Jim tried and failed to lift it off of her, too weak, weaker than those mothers who lifted cars off their babies, and she was shaking her head or shuddering, saying something he couldn’t hear over the approaching sirens. He put his ear to her mouth.
“Would’ve happened next year, anyway.”
The jaws of life looked just like he’d pictured the mechanical hands performing the baby’s surgery, except large, clumsy, and too late. It was only after they’d covered Miriam and ushered him into the back of the ambulance that he understood what she’d meant, and felt a fury so large and undirected he thought he’d explode.
Dr. Parker, whom he’d never met but recognized from his and Miriam’s research, was waiting in the ward with a broad smile on his face. He was taller than you could tell from the pictures, and as he took Jim’s icy hand in his large, warm grip, Jim thought again of the robot hands, so much smaller, so much more precise.
“Congratulations! It went better than we ever could’ve expected. A medical miracle. Thomas could live to be a hundred.”
A nurse came running over, careful the way children are on the slippery deck of a pool, and took Dr. Parker aside to whisper in his ear. His smile vanished as he turned back to Jim.
“I’m so sorry for your loss. What’s that you said?”
“A hundred and one,” Jim repeated.
Kat Hausler is a translator and the author of the novel Retrograde, as well as many shorter pieces. She lives in Berlin.