In September, Pritch and his wife decided he should be the one who quit work and stayed home with the baby. Pritch's wife made a lot more money and, besides, Pritch seemed like daddy material. So, on the day Pritch's wife headed back to her firm—suited and pretending not to be tearful—Pritch loaded up the stroller with formula and burp cloths and a floppy, plush frog, and he took the baby on a nice, long walk. All the way down Eighteenth Street to the center of Dupont Circle, where he stopped at the fountain and smoked for the first time since the baby was born.
You could suffocate your baby that way, said a man who was muscled lean. You might as well just drown him.
What are you, a doctor? Pritch said.
The man smiled. No. But I used to lobby for Phillip Morris.
Pritch put the cigarette out on the concrete step and looked at the baby's toes. The man walked away and Pritch lit another. It was already too late, he knew. He stunk of it. Before his wife came home he'd have to take a shower and change his clothes and wash the baby, too.
In October, Pritch took the baby to the National Museum of American History. The guards searched the stroller; they shook the plush frog; they made Pritch peel open the baby's diaper as mothers and children streamed through the other security line.
Where's his mother? the guard asked, fingers in the baby bag.
My wife? Pritch said.
I'm sorry to hear that.
She's not really dead.
You think this is helping?
Pritch looked at the baby in his stroller. I promised him he could see Lincoln's hat.
The guard let out a grunt, signaling Pritch to hold out his arms for a final pat down. It's really for me, Pritch said. I used to come here all the time.
The guard waved him on and said, Then you should've left the baby with his mother.
In November, Pritch took a road trip with the baby up through the last of fall lingering orange in the sassafras. Rolling land. Civil War battlefields buried under corn. He told the baby about the weeks he'd spent in Gettysburg, digging out knapsack hooks and eagle buttons and percussion caps. Littered, he said of the fields and hillocks. You wouldn't believe what there is to find.
In Frederick, they stopped for lunch at a brewpub: Pritch with a roast beef sandwich and a fine amber, the baby with crackers that he crumbled across his highchair and over the long limbs of the little frog. On Pritch's second beer, the waitress asked if the baby was his. He told her, no, he'd just found the boy lying around.
People are so careless with their babies, she said and winked as she walked away.
She was short and full and Pritch thought she'd feel good against his chest. He imagined them in her home, not one of the old brick numbers lining the streets but a place back away from all that, a clapboard house with a porch just big enough for two small chairs. They'd listen to Tom Petty and they'd drink beer from her fridge. The waitress would say something like, I think it's beautiful that you take care of your son. And he'd say, Can't just leave him lying around. Then she'd touch his leg and tilt her head and they'd both forget all about the baby.
In December, Pritch's in-laws came for Christmas and stayed in a hotel with bellhops and monument views. They took the baby for a few hours on a Saturday night and Pritch and his wife went to dinner: oysters and lamb and crisp strips of fries. Two more glasses, his wife said to the waiter after they'd finished their wine. We never get to go out.
Her phone vibrated and she ducked to talk. Pritch heard names of congressmen, a stew of legalese. When she hung up, she trailed her fork through the sauce on her plate. Four white lines appeared, then reabsorbed. Henry's doing okay, she said of the baby. Don't you think?
Pritch nodded and his wife turned to look for their wine. She was wearing a black dress, scooped wide at the neck so that Pritch could see the delicate arch of her collarbones, the kiss of freckles across her shoulders. I had a dream the other night, he said. We were in a place like this. You went under the table.
Did I? she said, looking at him now and smiling with just the corners of her mouth. How bold of me.
The wine arrived. Then drained. Pritch and his wife sat with a dessert menu propped between them. Pritch mentioned the crème brûlée. He mentioned the mousse. When his wife didn't answer, he looked up and saw she had shifted in her seat. He felt her toes brush naked against his calf. They trailed upwards to his knee. Then to his thigh. Pritch closed his eyes and ran a finger along the arch of her foot. He thought he heard her sigh.
In January, Buck called. College friend. Unmarried.
Vegas, he said as if he'd just invented the place.
Seven-month old, Pritch said. He was sitting in the radiator heat of the living room and watching Henry roll back and forth on his motley-colored mat.
Dude, Buck said. An admonition.
Dude, Pritch said. A plea.
They agreed to talk later and Pritch went back to the computer: reading news, checking emails. Sometimes he sent an email from one account to another just to see if they both still worked. Sometimes he played chess or Scrabble or checkers with strangers. Often, while Henry napped, he paid for a woman to talk to him. He watched the woman undress in some room far away. Sometimes she was too thin. Sometimes she was enjoyably heavy. He asked her to describe what she'd do to him if they were alone. The woman always obliged.
In February, Pritch went to Vegas. Buck gripped him around the shoulders the moment they met. Fuck, shit, godamnit, balls, he said. Now say it, Pritch. Say it like you mean it.
Fuck you, Pritch said.
Buck slugged him on the arm and stepped back. He was clean-cut and no bigger than Pritch, but he carried himself like a brawler. Gotta get you going, man, he said, slugging Pritch again. You've been released.
They walked down the strip, stopping at an outdoor bar to grab Coronas before continuing on their way. They passed men in suits and men muscled lean; they passed women in jeans that bulged at the hips and women whose breasts swelled from their shirts. When they came to a stop at a light, they exhaled into the desert chill and looked across at a massive swath of construction. It was incomplete, its final form indecipherable. It seemed as much like something grandly ruined as something majestically rising. Man, Buck said as they waited for the light to change. You ever think we've reached the high point? That we're living right before it ends?
Pritch watched a crane lift a steel beam up until it passed through the sun and became a shadowy line. Can't live thinking like that, he said.
For a long moment, Buck stared towards the same steel beam. Then the traffic light changed and the crowd surged and they moved together down the street.
That evening, they spent three hours playing poker: Buck at a table with no limits and a frenzy of young men, Pritch at the cheapest table in the room. By nine, they were at dinner with square slices of toro on their plates, ten dollars apiece. You ever think this would be us? Buck said. He was drunk and pushing his sushi around with a fork.
Pritch was drunk, too. He could win thousands that night if he found the right table. He could win everything he'd ever need.
Eating sushi? he asked.
Yeah, Buck said. Sushi. In a desert. Does Monica eat sushi?
Sometimes, Pritch said. They hadn't had sushi since his wife had become pregnant.
Monica should've come, Buck said. Why didn't she come?
Pritch lifted the toro to his mouth and placed it on his tongue. The flavor was buttery and briny and he let it linger as he tipped the sake towards his glass. Nothing came out.
We're going to need more, he said.
Yeah, Buck said, staring at the bottle. Get it while we can.
In March, April, May and June, Pritch moved in straight lines. He took Henry to see the cherry blossoms, pink and snowy. He took Henry to bookstores. He sat Henry in a bouncy chair and let him watch as he hauled the air conditioning units out of the closet and shoved them into the windows. He was sure this would be the year when his hands slipped and he killed someone below. But he got them in as securely as always and later he stood with Henry on the sidewalk, gazing up, considering the physics of it all, the probabilities of catastrophe.
He emailed himself. He watched women he didn't know, small on his screen. He took a lot of walks down to the fountain and around and back up again. He smoked. He told his son, Look, I'm a dragon. Then he'd blow the smoke out of his nose and wait to see if Henry laughed.
One day in June—when he'd had five cigarettes and had watched two different women while Henry screamed in his crib—he did none of his usual tasks before Monica came home. He washed no dishes. He left the trash full. He cleaned neither himself nor Henry so that his clothes smelled of smoke and his fingers smelled of smoke and even Henry's little frog smelled of smoke. When Monica came home, he waited for her to notice it all. But she just ate her order-in sandwich and sipped a beer and seemed to think the world was exactly as she'd left it.
So Pritch placed both hands on the table and said, I want to go back to work.
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