On Sunday afternoon, I go to the playground with Nathan, my two year old son. I get him out of his car seat and we run over to the plastic jungle gym which is made to look like a ship, with red and blue tunnels and slides.
“There’s poop up here,” a little boy calls from the hull, pointing to the corner. He’s about three and his right arm is bandaged from the elbow to the tips of his fingers. His arm hangs there, limp and useless. Even though I’m a family practice doctor, I don’t feel like asking what happened to him.
“I wannu be captain,” he tells Nathan, turning the wheel with his one good hand.
His parents are not far from us. They stand a few feet from the ship and laugh about something. They look young and stupid. His mother holds a newborn infant in her arms. Its limbs are reddish, like they’ve just been freshly pulled from her body. The father is smoking a cigarette. Their German Sheppard paws the grass.
I try to keep my son away from the corner of the ship where green flies buzz and hop on the shit and lick at it. The smell induces a gag reflex.
“What happened to your arm?” I try not to look into his eyes. Why am I asking him this? I already said that I wasn’t going to ask him.
He hesitates. “My mom screamed and then there was blood on my finger.” He turns the wheel. The air begins to smell like formaldehyde, like the first day of medical school when I saw a fully formed eight month old fetus floating in a jar in the laboratory of our classroom. Dr. Landis, our professor, said I could take it home “to study it” but I just put it under my bed and it stayed there the entire semester. I kept calling myself a freak for doing this, but it didn’t change anything. I’d get home, and it was the first thing that I would think about. I’d check to make sure it was still there and it always was.
“Go over there,” the boy tells Nathan, gesturing to the shit and, before I can stop him, Nathan runs over to it, squeezes it in his little hands and it gets all over his shirt and shorts, socks and shoes.
Nathan throws a fit. The boy just stands there. He turns the wheel and says, “I’m the captain.”
By the end of the semester, I had named the fetus. One night, after I failed an exam, I took the jar out from under the bed. Then, I opened it. I just wanted to hold him for a second but he was watery and cold and slipped out of my hands like fish. Formaldehyde spilled all over the covers. I panicked and threw everything-the sheets, my pillow, the bedcovers, the jar and fetus-into the dumpster behind my apartment building.
When they come over to the ship, his parents see Nathan and try to suppress their laughter. Their dog is barking and barking. I pick up my son and I’m covered in shit too.
“Let’s go, Charles,” the father snaps, throwing his cigarette into the air, and the boy climbs down from the ship, his bandaged arm seeming to trail behind the rest of his body.