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Late Breakfast at the Corvair
By Matt Tompkins
The baby showed up on a Wednesday, the day Evan learned about his Uncle Jim’s death. Jim died unexpectedly in his sleep; they still didn’t know the cause—maybe a heart attack, maybe a stroke. They would find out before long, and it wouldn’t change anything. The cause, Evan thought, was not nearly as important as the reality of the loss. The force of the grief—sudden, unanticipated, heart shattering—hit Evan like a satellite fallen from the sky.
On the phone, after she broke the news, Evan’s mother said something to him about arrangements and services, but he had a hard time focusing on her words. She just kept saying how sorry she was to be telling him. After a few minutes, neither of them knew what else to say, so they said goodbye.
Evan left for work that morning in a stupor, and he remained at work all that day in a fog, typing absentmindedly at his computer, daydreaming through meetings, staring at sheaves of paper, trying—and failing—to pull meaningful information from memos and PowerPoint presentations, staring at them as if they were inscrutable hieroglyphs.
Everything, everywhere, reminded Evan of his uncle. Seeing a manager pat one of his subordinates on the back, coach-like, Evan remembered Jim standing on the sidelines at hundreds of tee-ball and little league games. He could hear Jim’s voice: “Bring it home, kiddo!” Jim called Evan “kiddo” long past when Evan could rightly have been called a kid, and Evan had always liked that. A crumpled sheet of paper in a recycling bin brought to Evan’s mind the crinkly lines around Jim’s eyes, lines that never fully relaxed because Jim was nearly always grinning. Even when he was serious, his eyes seemed to be smiling compassionately. The sound of a car’s revving engine outside in the parking lot—even this made Evan think of his uncle.
The story went like this: When Evan was an infant his father disappeared suddenly, without warning or explanation. According to Evan’s mother, Evan’s father’s car was just gone from the driveway one morning and neither the car, nor the father, ever returned. For years after Evan first heard the story, his heart skipped a beat every time he heard a car engine running outside the house.
Jim, on the other hand—at least, to hear Evan’s mother tell it—never skipped a beat, never hesitated: Without any unnecessary fuss or formality, he stepped in as Evan’s father figure, like most people step into their shoes in the morning. As Evan understood it, Jim and his wife, Helen, hadn’t been able to have kids. As a result, Jim had seemed to relish the opportunity to unofficially adopt Evan. Eventually, Evan came to associate the sound of a car engine with Jim, rather than with his absent father, because Jim so frequently came to pick Evan up for weekend or afternoon excursions. Evan remembered, with a swirling mixture of fondness and sadness, some of the outings that Jim had taken him on, to ball games, parks, zoos. Jim had been there for Evan’s birthdays and graduations. He had accompanied Evan to Bring-Your-Parent-to-School Day when Evan was in third grade and his mother got called in to cover a shift at work.
Memories like this shadowed Evan through the day, cropping up at every corner, and precluding, with their persistence and omnipresence, any bit of functional, work-oriented thought. At one point, Evan walked to the copy room and made 500 copies of a blank sheet of paper, came back to his desk, and only then realized what he had done. He stood up to take the ream of paper back to the copy room, but then immediately sat back down in his swivel chair and picked up a pen from his desk. He pulled a sheet of paper off the top of the thick stack and wrote: “Breakfast with Uncle Jim. Friday. 8:00.”
This breakfast was their monthly ritual, and it was two days away. Had it not been for Jim’s death, the two would have met, as they did every month, at the Corvair Diner. They would each get two eggs, toast, a cup of coffee, and a glass of milk. They would sit and chat, catch up on each others’ lives, reminisce, or sometimes just sit in silence and watch the sidewalk traffic, watch the waitresses work, watch the sun crawl across the Formica tabletop. The last one was the last one, Evan thought, sitting at his desk in his cubicle. He thought that, had he known, he would have made sure to remember it better, would have made sure to remember Jim better, more completely. He would have made sure to absorb all of the details, even the inconsequential ones—the sounds of spoons rattling in coffee cups, the feel of the vinyl booth seats, the smell of the maple syrup and butter as plates wafted by, the way that Jim gestured with his fork and his coffee cup as he talked, the tilt of Jim’s head as he listened intently.
If Evan had known, he would have held onto all of it. If only he had, he thought, maybe he could reconstruct what he had lost—perfectly, exactly. That was what he wanted: He wanted the past, and he wanted it now, wanted it always, wanted it stashed away in a box where he could pull it out and open it up and live it, in three dimensions and five senses, like he had lived it before. Was that so much to ask? Was that so unreasonable, so unachievable? What would it take?
Evan spent the rest of the workday reading and re-reading emails that he and Jim had exchanged, and looking at the few digital photos of the two of them that Evan had on his computer. Taking in the language and the images, hungrily absorbing and assimilating them, Evan tried to recreate a sense of presence, a sense of his uncle that he could tangibly appreciate. Deep down, Evan hoped that by thoroughly consuming, digesting, and processing the words and the pictures and the memories, he could bring the reality of his uncle into his cubicle, like a medium conjuring a spirit at a séance. He left work that afternoon exhausted and disappointed.
* * *
When Evan got home from work, he found a basket in the alcove, sitting squarely on the welcome mat in front of his apartment door. Must be one of those condolence gifts, he thought: A wicker boat full of fruit and candy with a sympathy card ribbon-tied to the top. “We Are Sorry For Your Loss.” Or, “Time Heals All Wounds.” Whoever sent it, he thought, it was a nice enough gesture. However nice it was, though, a part of him wanted to drop kick it down the hallway.
Evan unlocked the door and lifted the basket to take it inside. It was covered with a powder blue cloth, and he could not see what was underneath, but whatever it was, it had some heft to it, and it shifted when he lifted it up. Once inside, with the door closed behind him, his shoes untied and removed and resting by the door, and his keys tossed on the kitchen counter, he bent down to see what the basket contained.
Evan gently peeled back the cloth, but like the 500 copies of nothing that he had made earlier in the day, it was not immediately apparent to him what he was looking at. He registered a miniature blue knit cap, and then two neat rows of eyelashes, and then a tiny nose, and then a fist about the size of a large walnut shell, and then a pair of teeny fleece boots, and then—My God, he thought, it’s a tiny little person. Baby, he thought: Baby is the word.
* * *
Evan set the baby, sound asleep in its basket, on top of his bed and paced around his apartment. He didn’t think this was something that actually happened: people leaving babies in baskets on the doorsteps of strangers. He felt like he had just stepped into an after school special. He didn’t know what to do with a baby, how to care for it, what to feed it, how to change it—none of it. Why would he? He was an only child, he’d never been a babysitter, and he had no kids of his own—he didn’t even have a steady girlfriend. And now, here he was, with a baby on his hands. What to do?
Probably, he thought, he should call Child Protective Services. Probably, though, he thought, they would have their hands full, and this baby would get shuffled around, and not get any attention, and who knows what would happen to it, and so, he thought, it wouldn’t hurt to at least take care of it for a little while before turning it over to the authorities, because really he would be doing everyone a favor, just taking care of it for a little while. Right? Why not, right? He would even be doing himself a favor: He could use the company. He could use the distraction of having something, or someone, to care for.
“I guess we’re going to the store,” he said to the baby.
He picked up the basket, and headed out the front door, down the steps, and to his car. Then he realized that he didn’t have a car seat for the baby, and he had a fleeting vision of getting into a crash on the way to the supermarket, because, after all, most accidents happen within a few miles of the home, and so he decided to walk instead. It wasn’t that far, anyway—only a few blocks.
* * *
When Evan got to the market, he grabbed a cart from the front of the store, and set the sleeping baby, still in the basket, inside. He didn’t know what he was looking for, exactly. Something to feed the baby—formula. And if he needed formula, then he also needed bottles. And diapers, he definitely needed diapers. What else? After some guessing (What size diaper do you wear, baby?), and grabbing of items (in addition to bottles, formula, and diapers, he also picked up baby powder, diaper rash ointment, and wet wipes), he reached the checkout counter, and dumped everything up on the conveyor belt, leaving the baby in its basket in the cart.
The cashier, a teenage girl, peered down at the baby and made a cooing sound.
“Is that your son? He’s adorable.”
“Oh, yeah, thanks.”
“How old is he?”
“Uh,” Evan said. “Three months.”
The cashier looked up at Evan.
“He’s really tiny for three months.”
“Did I say three months? I meant three weeks.”
The girl watched him for a moment, and he was afraid she was going to call over a manager and bust him. He wondered what the penalty would be for not immediately turning a lost-and-found baby over to CPS. He wondered whether parents generally carried around proof-of-guardianship documents for their infants, like a car registration.
“Well, he’s very cute,” she finally said.
Evan handed her his debit card and, after a moment, he headed out the door with one arm full of plastic grocery bags, and the other holding the basket by its woven wicker handle.
* * *
Back at his apartment, Evan unloaded the grocery bags while the baby lay in its basket, still sleeping silently. Evan opened a can of powdered formula, peeling off first the plastic outer lid, and then the metallic safety seal underneath. He filled a pan with water and set it on the stovetop, clicked the burner on underneath it, and waited for the water to boil.
As he began to prepare the baby’s input, Evan reflected on the fact that he hadn’t yet checked the baby’s diaper for output. He was slightly worried about what the diaper would hold. But, so far, the baby hadn’t cried, which Evan at first thought was a good sign, but now Evan started to worry about this, too. The baby had been asleep when he found it, had slept all through the grocery trip, and continued to sleep while he unpacked the groceries. He wondered if that was normal, and decided that it probably was: from what little he knew, babies were notorious for being accomplished sleepers. That was mostly what they did, right? Sleep, and eat, and poop. Right?
As Evan watched the baby, and as his concern began to grow, the baby awoke. It happened without a sound, its eyes just popped open, alert and shiny. Now, while Evan stood in the kitchen preparing a baby meal, the baby watched him with undivided baby-intensity attention, opening and closing its fists, and stuffing them alternately into its toothless mouth.
Relieved to see the baby looking alert, and even, he thought, chipper, Evan mixed some of the dense, floury formula, following the instructions on the can, blending the chalky powder with hot water until it was milky-smooth and lump-free. As Evan worked, he began asking the baby questions and making up answers.
“So, baby, where are you from?”
More staring from the baby.
“Cleveland, you say? And how old are you?”
The baby waved a fist.
“Oh, one month? I’m sorry I misspoke on your behalf earlier. It won’t happen again.”
The baby made a sound now—not a cry, just a small, exploratory-sounding syllable: “Inh.”
“Oh, you speak! Excellent. Perhaps you can tell me, then, what is your name?”
Silence again, but now the baby smiled.
“No? You won’t say? Well, you’re a baby of many secrets. Go ahead and hide behind that smile, but you won’t be able to fool me forever.”
Evan was just about finished preparing the formula, and it was then that the baby began to cry.
“If you’re telling me you’re hungry, you’ve got impeccable timing,” said Evan.
Evidently, the baby was hungry, because it drained the bottle of formula, seemingly without stopping for air. Then it burped softly, and started to cry again.
“I suppose now you need to be changed?” said Evan.
With some trepidation, he removed the baby’s miniscule fleece pants and opened the tabs on its diaper. Wincing, Evan lifted the front flap of the diaper, and noted with some surprise that there was no mess. Evan noted that the baby was, in fact, a boy, and he lifted up the little boy’s little bottom to check for evidence of soilage underneath. Nothing there at all.
“So, what is it then? Are you still hungry?”
Evan prepared another bottle, and the very hungry baby sucked the contents of that one down, as fast as the first. Promptly, the little human started to cry again.
“Come on,” said Evan. “You’re kidding. You can’t still be hungry.”
Three more times, the baby gulped down a bottle of formula, the baby cried, Evan filled another bottle, and the baby slugged it down. Evan admitted to himself that he didn’t know anything about babies, and so this might be normal.
After five bottles, the baby no longer cried. Instead, he made another baby-sound—another “Inh” sound like before, and reached his grasping little hands up toward Evan. Out of nervousness, Evan had not taken the baby out of the basket other than to check its diaper. Now, Evan took the baby’s reaching as a signal that he wanted to be held, so Evan picked him up, resting the baby’s front against his chest, and his little head on Evan’s shoulder.
Evan walked around his small apartment, patting the baby softly on the back and humming a nursery rhyme tune remembered from Evan’s own childhood. After a couple of minutes of this, the baby released an enormous belch—no petite baby-burp, but a full-bellied, grown-man-sized, thunderous belch that echoed off the apartment’s bare square walls. Evan was startled, and held the baby out in front of him with both hands, at arm’s length.
“Jesus,” Evan said. “Where did that come from?”
A little trail of spittle ran down from one corner of the baby’s mouth.
“I guess that’s what you get for eating so fast.”
The baby held Evan in his fully present, tractor-beam-style, baby gaze, not showing evidence of any particular emotion, but just pure, unwavering alertness. And then the baby started to cry again.
“Now you must need changing,” said Evan.
Again he checked the baby’s diaper, and again there was nothing to be cleaned. Evan was baffled.
“Where’d all that formula go, baby? Where’d you put it?”
The baby was still crying, so Evan continued to troubleshoot.
“I know you can’t already be hungry again.”
Evan took the baby to the window and pointed at things.
“Look, there’s a car. And there’s a tree. And there’s a woman walking a dog.”
But the baby continued to cry. Evan tried bouncing and rocking the baby in his arms, but still, the crying continued. He tried making silly faces. He tried taking the baby for a walk around the block, gently swinging the basket, moving it from hand to hand. All the while the baby cried.
When he got back to the apartment, Evan decided to see, much as he found it hard to imagine, whether the baby might actually be hungry again. He filled the bottle once again with formula, and, like before, the baby slurped down its entire contents without pause. Every last drop, gone. And then again with the crying. And so, Evan, again, filled the bottle and dispensed it to the baby, who seemed to be a bottomless reservoir.
“I suppose you are a growing boy,” said Evan. “Got to have plenty of nourishment to get big.”
It continued on like this through the night and into the following morning. The baby would not sleep, and so Evan did not sleep. The baby remained perfectly alert and observant, even as Evan became more and more fatigued. Over and over again, the baby cried, Evan made more formula, and the baby gulped it down. Once every couple of hours, Evan checked the diaper and every time there was nothing. No byproduct of any sort. The baby was apparently a perfectly efficient formula-burning machine, using absolutely everything he took in.
* * *
Thursday morning, Evan called in to say he would not be coming to work, and he committed himself to spending the day with his strange little visitor. By mid-morning, the baby had chugged through all of the formula that Evan had bought the previous evening, so the pair made another trip to the supermarket. This time, Evan filled the cart with cans of formula until it was heaping and threatened to spill over.
“You’re going to bankrupt me with that appetite of yours, do you know that?”
The baby stared silently up at Evan. Evan pushed the cart into the checkout lane and began unloading the formula. The cashier was the same girl that had been there the day before.
“Hey, I remember you,” she said. “You must have more babies at home.”
Evan paused and looked up at her, interrupting the conveyor belt parade of cans.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because,” she said, hefting a plastic bag full of formula cans into Evan’s cart. “I have a daughter about your son’s age, and the amount of formula you’ve bought, between yesterday and today, would last me for months.”
“Oh, ha,” said Evan. He ran one hand quickly through his hair. “Yeah, got a whole gang of ’em. I actually run a daycare out of my house.”
“Really?” said the girl. “I’m looking for a good daycare for my daughter.”
Evan diverted his eyes to a display of candy and tabloid magazines, uncomfortable with his lie, and even more uncomfortable having to augment it with auxiliary sub-lies.
“I’m sorry to say, we’re full right now. We’ve got all the little rug rats we can handle. Unfortunately.”
“Well, I’m sure you know that good daycare is hard to find. So if you have any spaces open up…”
“I’ll let you know. I’m sure I’ll be back in here soon.”
Evan walked quickly out through the automatic sliding door, and looked down at the baby.
“Months’ worth of formula? In two days? What kind of a baby are you?”
Evan pushed the cart full of formula back to his apartment. He didn’t like the idea of taking the cart, but there was no way he could have carried all the cans without it.
Back at his apartment, he packed a backpack with several cans of the formula, a baby bottle, and a thermos full of hot water, (along with some clean diapers, just in case). He packed himself a lunch, put the baby in his basket, and headed for the door.
“Come on, baby,” Evan said. “We’re going on a field trip.”
* * *
Evan decided that, even if the baby couldn’t fully appreciate it, being an infant, Evan was going to take the baby to some of Evan’s own favorite childhood places. They would go to the zoo, and to the lakefront park, and to the carousel by the farmers’ market, and to the fountain in the center of town. All the way, Evan spoke to the baby, pointing things out, naming them.
“There’s a lion!”
“Look at the horses going up and down!”
“Do you hear the water splashing? Go ahead, splash it.”
At each stop, the baby slurped down more formula. At each stop, Evan thought of times when he himself was small, when his Uncle Jim had taken him to these same places, how much it had meant to Evan then, and how much it still meant to him now. At the park, Evan took out his own lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, and an apple. He hadn’t meant to do so, but he had even packed the same lunch that he had eaten on outings with his uncle.
“Well, baby,” Evan said. “I know I can’t take care of you forever, but I hope you have someone to show you things, and take you places, like this.”
The baby smiled at Evan, and waved his tiny fist, opened and closed his little mouth, showed his shiny pink gums.
Even though Evan knew that it could not go on indefinitely, he was very glad to have this distraction, this sense of purpose to guide his actions and give direction to his life, however briefly, in this time that would otherwise have been so fully dominated by heart-sinking sadness and yawning expanses of grief.
At dusk, after making all of the intended stops, after witnessing all of the marvelous everyday things (colors, animals, elements, events), after consuming between the two of them all of the formula, and all of the sandwiches, and all of the hours of daylight, Evan and the baby started back toward Evan’s apartment. Evan felt lighter then, carrying the baby in the basket through the late-summer evening air.
* * *
When they got to the apartment, the baby cried again, and Evan gave him one more bottle of formula. This time, instead of crying, instead of belching, instead of staring fixedly at Evan, or at the window, or at anything at all, the baby began to drift toward sleep. His eyelids sagged and fluttered, and, for the first time since the baby had awakened in Evan’s presence, he fell sound asleep.
“Oh, thank God,” said Evan. He quickly went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, and collapsed onto his bed fully dressed, with the baby, in the basket, on the bed next to him, sleeping silently. Evan had hardly closed his eyes before he, too, was sound asleep.
* * *
Evan awoke in the pre-dawn. A haze of light was drifting into the room between the partially drawn window shades. He heard a small, soft rustling, and rolled over.
“What is it, little man?” he asked. “Do you need to eat again? Did you finally poop?”
Evan opened his eyes, and then startled and sat up straight when he noticed that the basket was empty. The next thing he noticed was the figure of a full-grown man sitting in partial shadow in a chair across the room.
“What’s going on?” said Evan.
“Hey there, buddy,” came the man’s voice. “Easy now.”
The man’s face was hidden in shadow, but his voice was familiar.
“Uncle Jim?” said Evan.
Evan squinted into the darkness. The man leaned forward, his face coming out of the shadows, and smiled. Evan immediately recognized the face as his dead uncle’s.
“Uncle Jim,” Evan said.
The grin on Jim’s face broadened.
“How you been, kiddo?”
“Shitty,” said Evan, rubbing his eyes and yawning. “Awful. I couldn’t believe it – you’ve been there for me forever, and then suddenly you’re gone, just like that. I just didn’t believe it. Don’t believe it. I haven’t been able to think. And then this baby shows up. This baby. Wait, where’s the baby?”
“Oh, I hope you don’t mind,” said Jim, as if this were an answer to Evan’s question. “I borrowed some of your clothes.”
“What?” said Evan. He looked closer, and Jim was wearing one of his T-shirts and a pair of his shorts. “Oh, that’s fine. Fine.”
“Thanks,” said Jim. “The ones I was wearing just didn’t fit anymore.”
Jim nodded toward the floor, and Evan looked down. The baby clothes, badly stretched but folded neatly, lay on the carpet next to the chair where Jim was sitting. Evan felt the truth of the moment settle warmly into his still sleep-heavy limbs, into his chest and the center of his stomach.
“Hey,” said Jim, “I’m hungry. You want to have some breakfast?”
“Yeah,” said Evan. He stretched his legs and swung them over the side of the bed, then reached down and smoothed some of the wrinkles out of his slept-in jeans. “I’m hungry, too.”
The two of them stood up and walked from Evan’s bedroom into the Corvair Diner, which stood where Evan’s kitchen would normally have been. Jim toddled awkwardly to a booth, moving tentatively, like he had just learned how to walk. He sat down and Evan slid into the seat across from him. Evan stared across the booth at Jim. He picked up a ketchup bottle and a saltshaker from the table, then set them back down. He glanced around the room full of booths and tables and chairs.
“So, then, is this where all the formula went?” said Evan.
Evan gestured broadly at their surroundings, at the cluttered interior of the Corvair, at the vinyl and chrome and laminate tile. Jim looked at Evan in such a way that Evan knew Jim would not answer the question.
A smiling waitress brought out their food on a large, oval tray. Two plates of eggs and toast, two cups of coffee, two glasses of milk. She set it all on the table and then disappeared. Evan grinned and reached his fork out to take a bite. As he did, the whole diner began to wobble like a plate spun on its edge that had begun to slow down, when the force of will from the spinner’s hands began to wear off, and the forces of friction and gravity started to kick in.
Evan began to wonder about calculations that he could not make, questions to which he had no answers: How much is required to sustain a reality that no longer exists? How much willpower, and how much milk powder, is needed to bring the dead to breakfast? And what about lunch and dinner? Can you build a diner out of sheer desire? Can you maintain it? What’s the overhead like? What would it take? How much?
The wobbling became more pronounced. The plates, glasses, saltshaker and ketchup bottle, napkins, Sweet-n-Lows, Splendas, butter and jam packets, all slid off the table. The ceramic and glass items shattered on impact with the floor and walls; the softer and more pliable items bounced and skidded away into the corners of the room. Evan felt hungrier, and more tired, than he could ever remember. He reached out toward his over-easy eggs, which were flattened to the far wall of the diner, far out of reach. He spotted his glass of milk, which lay emptied on the ceiling. He grasped fruitlessly at a packet of jam, which skittered off across the floor as the diner continued to wobble at greater and greater speed and at more and more chaotic angles. Evan stopped reaching and looked across the table at Jim.
Jim began to get younger before Evan’s eyes, the wrinkles of middle age disappearing as he became his twenty-some-year-old self that Evan had first known as a baby. The process continued and Jim became a teenager, and then a toddler, and then an infant, recognizable to Evan as the baby from the basket. Then Jim became an egg, a white oblong orb, and he spun off, wobbling, into empty space, through one of the now-disintegrating windows of the diner.
Finally, the walls, floor, and ceiling all split apart at their seams and drifted in six different directions, the red vinyl booth and the gray Formica table fell away, and Evan was left floating, watching the slow, spreading dissipation of the spattery cloud of debris that was the Corvair Diner at breakfast. Evan remained there for a while, quiet and alone, suspended amidst thick blackness and patches of light.
How much, Evan thought. How much?
Matt Tompkins has lately been a graduate student of creative writing at Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York. He also works in a library. Matt’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Transverse Journal and Gigantic Sequins. Matt also writes poetry, which has been published nowhere so far, but here’s hoping, fingers crossed. Matt lives in the adorably diminutive village of Owego, New York with his wife and their cat.