The First Day and Everything After
"After Life" by Joel Cuthbertson, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Halimah Marcus
In our Recommended Reading editorial discussions, we often ask why a first person narrator is telling this particular story. In life, when a story is meaningful to a person, you don’t have to ask why they’ve shared it with you. And why should it be any different when the story is written? A narrator should tell a story because a subterranean element of what happened remains unresolved.
The first sentence of Joel Cuthbertson’s “After Life” is freighted with purpose, a train coming down the tracks. With the last sentence, that train goes off a cliff. “This all really happened to me,” the narrator begins, before describing the birth of his first child, and the events that unfold in the hospital after. No one who reads this story will wonder why the narrator is still thinking about what happened that day.
The momentum of “After Life” is indebted not only to the plot, but also to Cutherberson’s unexpected, sometimes uncanny power of observation. When the baby is born, the parents are in awe. “Awe felt oddly like incomprehension,” Cuthbertson writes. And later, “We’d never done drugs, but we figured this was about the gist of it. Everything was irradiated and unspeakable.” The baby’s mouth searches “with small aperture movements,” and every father is called simply “Dad,” without article or pronoun, “Universal Dad,” with “a Platonic oomph.”
Cuthbertson’s story has implicit emotional urgency, and so the readers can spend their time after the last line wondering about big, impossible questions, the kind of questions fiction is meant to tackle, such as, how does one move on? How does one cope? Now that this has happened, how will the narrator live the rest of his life?
Cuthbertson has written a short story that does that rare and splendid thing. “After Life” articulates a foundational truth about living, which is that life is made up of these stories, some more painful or triumphant or interesting or humiliating or consequential—and worth telling—than others.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
The First Day and Everything After
“After Life” by Joel Cuthbertson
This all really happened to me.
My wife gave birth at exactly 0400 on a Tuesday. She noticed the clock as she pushed our daughter into the world, which should tell you everything you need to know about my wife. She is immaculate. She misses nothing. Our child was issued in confused terror as I began to cry.
“Maybe he wanted a boy,” whispered one of the scrubs.
After stitches, after clean-up, after measurements, the staff gave us one hour alone. We were in awe. Awe felt oddly like incomprehension. Pictures, a lullaby, and phone calls came of their own accord. My wife’s parents insisted via video that our baby was the image of their daughter. The new baby, they squealed, like our old baby. They assumed her, which made me jealous. They were certain of her and themselves and knew the next time they’d sleep. The jealousy increased.
Once our hour was over, the labor nurse told us to pack up, fetched a wheelchair, and escorted us from the scene of contest. The recovery floor was older, dimmer. The paintings in the gray hallways were all the same colors as each other, in the same teakwood frames. Even the faces were softer than labor and delivery, the nurses clustering at their desks socially. Their counterparts upstairs huddled too, but with an air of war.
Every RN shoved a pacifier into our daughter’s mouth with verve—stirred, moved, manipulated. Our daughter’s mouth was often open, was not always crying, was searching with small aperture movements, narrowing, widening. I couldn’t describe her to you. She was eyes and lips and nose all topped with wild, dark-brown hair. A baby. Absolutely individual.
Each recovery room contained two beds, but they tried not to double-book so that Dad could have a place to rest. And everyone said “Dad” just like that. Universal Dad, a Platonic oomph in the phrasing, Dad as a form that Moms might invoke, a wandering accessory all Moms could contain. If she was lucky. One nurse said Partner. There was a TV we didn’t expect and uncomfortable chairs, one of them wide enough we assumed it had something to do with nursing. It was too small for two people, insulting for one large person. We tried to ignore it, but it was always in the way. They’d thought in excess of the things we might need, and it annoyed us. A medium-sized, small-city hospital. What there was of downtown pressed at the drafty window.
The weight of our half-used blankets, the streetlights’ sour glow, even the splay of my wife’s hair, its vitality and near-agency—there was more I remember. But we must get to the story.
I took the baby from my wife, the morning still dark with winter clouds, and walked the cold linoleum in overused socks. Our girl, her cone head, the joints at elbows and knees loose, pliable. I still didn’t recognize her, which surprised and slightly worried me, but I was drawn by her. I could feel myself circling and circling her, our living gravity well. She’d come out crying and staring. When she closed her eyelids something seemed to shut off in the room, and still we orbited. We warped around her mentally and physically and were distended with new paradigms of self and meaning. It was that quick.
Mammals abounded as comparisons. Her mouse hands. Her marmot tummy.
As I paced, she cried more loudly. I bobbed on the balls of my feet, imitating Dad bounces and Dad noises. She’d eaten, she’d been changed. I focused on her weight in my arms. There was not a next, simply a hope she might respond favorably to my performance. There was step after step after step.
One day, I realized, I wouldn’t be here. I would die. The proof was in my arms. After a time, the proof fell asleep.
My wife jerked awake at the silence. I whispered my epiphany.
“That actually makes a lot of sense.”
“She wasn’t here before.”
“People can not be here.”
“Yes, yes. Exactly,” said my wife. We’d never done drugs, but we figured this was about the gist of it. Everything was irradiated and unspeakable. We fell asleep looking at each other across the visage of our invented, incarnate mewling. I was in the second bed parallel to hers, the baby in the rolling carrier between us. A plastic tub on a makeshift dresser, with wheels. Her first home. The sun still wasn’t up but I could see the reassuring lines on my wife’s forehead in the blue light. When the baby didn’t cry out for half an hour, I woke and stared at her chest. It rose. It fell. I drifted uncertainly.
We were roused at eight or nine o’clock in the morning by a new nurse. She was a middle-aged, middle-heavy woman with a reassuring mien. Her hair was nurse-tight, her shoes nurse-practical. She spoke nursely.
She bathed our daughter, talking the whole time. “I always give one piece of advice because parents these days are so focused on experts and opinions and all that. Oops”—to the baby—“did that surprise you? Anyway, I like to remind everyone that there is still such a thing as instinct. I had my dad living with me, and he’s older. A few years ago he gets a fever, he’s got some belly pains. So I call the doctor, right?”
My wife gripped the sheets as the nurse submerged our daughter beneath a faucet.
“We gave my dad some acetaminophen to lower his temperature, and because the temperature comes down, the doctor says give it some time. Well, I know it’s probably nothing, but I have this bad feeling. I lean into this feeling. And I swear, I don’t know what you believe, I don’t know what you think, but I heard a voice. A man’s voice spoke right to me, and said, ‘Go now.’ I got my dad in the car and we raced to the ER. What do you think? Diverticulitis, and it was bad. He probably would have died.”
“What, what did the voice sound like?” I asked.
“It saved my father’s life.”
“‘He,’ you said. ‘A man.’”
“Oh, it certainly was.”
We watched our daughter as she was enfolded by the nurse’s towel, her squirming limbs, her voice cawing with uncertainty. Ten months ago there wasn’t a baby who shared my genes and now there was. Zoom out. There wasn’t, and now there was. The nurse never told me how the voice sounded. The nurse, with one aside, began this whole tale for me. She left, and I took our daughter into my arms.
We didn’t have any family in town, but friends were expected. When they arrived we played hosts for our own comfort. Drinks? You must try the ice. Nothing like hospital ice. I pushed the ice too hard. We kept the door open for some reason. Sarah was my closest friend from college, and she’d come with her husband. As with serial killers, so with baby lovers: Sarah cataloged body parts.
“Look at her toes. Her hands. She grips so well! And those feet. They keep folding in prayer. I want to eat them.”
“And all she needs is breast milk. Can you believe that?” said Micah, her husband, who had no children or even the ability to lactate.
We made small talk and batted about innocuous predictions for our daughter’s life. I can’t remember any of them. I wish I could, but that conversation was built on somnolent good manners, and blurs into what comes next.
This, finally, is the story.
Outside our room, there was a sudden shift in the white noise, as if someone changed the channel. Pressure built in the air from unseen, frantic movements. I was alert to sounds in crescendo, one voice calling to another. An aide rushed past. Then three nurses.
“Oh my God,” said my wife.
Our daughter began to cry in Sarah’s arms. Stunned, we asked each other urgent, obvious questions. “Has something happened?”
Micah assumed the role of common sense. “It’s probably nothing. Something in the nursery maybe. A scared parent.”
“I kept waking up this morning, just to see if she was still breathing,” I said.
“Exactly. The staff is just being safe.”
Doctors appeared as well, jogging the way all doctors jog, hands clapped on their writhing stethoscopes.
A voice spoke to me. A Voice.
Go. Now. I shivered.
I didn’t, however, listen. I nodded in concert with Micah to calm myself, to ensure proper reaction. “Everything’s fine,” I told my wife. “Don’t they announce a code if something goes wrong?”
“Code Pink, I think,” said Sarah. “Like, if a baby is stolen.” I acted as if, yes, that’s exactly what I meant.
“That’s exactly what I meant,” I said. “If we even get on the wrong elevator and have her with us, they announce Code…Kidnap. They shut the hospital down.”
“And wouldn’t there be more people?” said Micah. “There weren’t that many nurses.”
Our daughter kept crying in Sarah’s arms, but with less vigor.
Someone screamed. An animal noise. Not a child.
The scream sounded a second time and my wife asked to have our daughter back and as Sarah handed her over she said, “We should see what’s going on,” and I said, “We’d get in the way,” and Micah said, “Maybe we should close the door. We don’t want to be insensitive,” and I thought, great, even Micah realizes something awful has taken place. He was balding. The Voice remained silent.
“Go see what it is,” said my wife, and the Voice, it said nothing, but I remembered the tone, it seemed embedded in her words. Careful and practical and insistent, she nodded at me again. “Go see what it is.”
Go. Now. So I went.
Other patients and their families were poking their heads from behind doors, but no one ventured forth. A conspiracy of Dads nodded me along the corridor but stayed in their rooms. I was walking in the correct direction without thinking. There was a small crowd of medical professionals at the end of the hall, instruments lifeless. An otherwise empty desk was crowded by two janitors and their carts. They must have already been on the floor. I could hear sobbing, but no more screams.
A security guard rounded the corner and stopped me before I reached the hidden spectacle. The sobbing grew distinct. The guard put his hand in the air to cease and desist me, and I agreed with him. I wanted to stop.
“Unless there’s a problem, sir, please stay in your room.” He was short and very fat. All the worst of me was bubbling to the surface. I stared past him, down the antiseptic corridor, all the heads of the other Dads behind me, and I knew I shouldn’t go any further.
“What happened?” I said.
More sobbing. The two janitors were pushing their mops back and forth, idle. The wheels on the buckets squeaked.
“Sir, please return to your room.”
There was the sound of feet walking on glass mingled with great blubs of emotion and urgent conversations in the hall. Nurses speaking to nurses speaking to doctors and the doctors shaking their heads, clueless, without any answer. The sobbing continued as I turned back toward my room. My daughter was in this hospital. A Dad.
A man named Greg pulled me to his doorway. We’d met and quickly bonded at the ice machine. He was burdened with multiple kids and wore a face that said as much, a manager at a car dealership who played music in clubs on the weekend. He guided my arm before I understood what was taking place, his six-year-old son hanging on the door beside him.
“Did you see anything?” he whispered.
“No, the guard asked me to turn back.”
“Awful. It’s awful.”
“No, it’s better not to know. You can’t control these things. Some things are better with blinders, New Dad.”
“Hey,” I told him. He was older, pudgy in a confident way, his knit polo battered but expensive. “What the hell happened?”
Greg bobbed his head, leaned closer. “A baby died.”
I swayed. Sometimes Dads sway. Sometimes they reach for the doorframe and picture their daughter’s silhouette stilled, still.
Greg kept speaking, was electrified to finish what he’d been allowed to start.
“Okay, but that’s not the worst of it.” He shooed his son back from the door. “I mean, I guess the father about bum-rushed the nurses’ desk and said their baby wasn’t breathing, I don’t have a lot of details on that, but then all these people started rushing toward the room. I went there myself. The mom’s crying, okay? The father was holding his head and the mom was crying and the father started banging his head against the wall and wailing and, well, they told him to stop. I was still in the hallway, you know. No one could have guessed what was going to happen. No one. He stopped banging his head and so I turned away.”
“He was just banging his head?”
“Yeah, but as I’m walking away I hear glass break, shatter I mean, and so I hurry back. They have the door open, you know. No HIPPA in an emergency, I guess. Nobody’s thinking. There’s a dead baby, isn’t there? That should be enough, right? But the guy jumped, apparently. I saw a lamp on the floor, that wide-ass chair turned over. I dunno. It was chaos. People were rushing around, others were kind of stunned. No one was ready for that. But yeah, somehow he broke the window and jumped. He killed himself, the coward.”
Oh, I thought. Coward. I was swallowing a lot and not speaking. Greg patted my shoulder and I hurried back to my own wife, my own child, Sarah and Micah waiting for news, police surging out of the elevator, sirens outside, but then this was a hospital, there’d been sirens all night. Coward. Greg was already summarizing, narrating, drawing moral conclusions. I saw nothing, not even the aftermath, and I was blank. I could barely remember the words. He broke the window and jumped.
“Down that way!” someone directed the police, uniforms who jingled deadly metal.
Positions in our room had remained the same. My wife clutched our daughter, Sarah sat on the windowsill, her finger clasped in our newborn’s fist, Micah in the too-wide chair at the base of the bed. I saw his serious face, his slow-blinking eyes.
“It’s not good.” I felt embarrassed but continued. “Very bad. A baby, I guess, I mean, a baby died just down the hall.”
“I knew it,” said my wife, whispering into our daughter’s back. “I knew it. I knew it.”
She moved our daughter from one shoulder to the other. Babies were transferred like that. They were carried through the world and bobbed outlook to outlook, their vantage adjusted, predetermined.
Micah became aggressively reasonable. “So why are there police?”
I didn’t know how to deflect, how to massage the information.
“The, the father jumped,” I sputtered.
“Like, out the window, jumped?” said Sarah.
“Oh my God. I knew it. I knew it.” My wife eyed our window, studied its latch.
Sarah shifted her weight, wanted to reach for my wife, our baby, me, to comfort us, I assume. She grew fidgety. Micah began pacing, filling the room with his purposeful reflection. I tried not to recall the Voice and watched my wife. She wanted to be alone, wanted to turn off the lights, probably, to simulate a cave of primordial solitude where she could hold our child in private. I wanted the same, but neither of us was capable of saying so.
“He must have already been very unstable,” said Micah. “Mentally, I mean.”
“He was banging his head against the wall, I guess, and then, yeah, he jumped.”
“And no one stopped him?”
“They tried, I think. There weren’t enough of them, maybe.”
Micah paused. “Or he just surprised them. Who expects something that bad to get worse?”
I hadn’t, and I told myself I hadn’t, and I repeated such to the doubts in my head that remembered and rehearsed the Voice’s command to Go, now. The doubts were trying to calculate the exact timing of my inaction.
Two police officers escorted a crying nurse past our room. I recognized her. The nurse whose father had almost died from diverticulitis. But he hadn’t. She’d saved him.
Time passed. Probably. Some aide asked if we needed anything. There was the back and forth of many official-looking persons, not only medical or police but business suits, probably the hospital administration, maybe its lawyers. At some point, an officer came by and Micah stepped forward, taking control, the type of civilian who nods at soldiers in uniform and the soldiers nod back. He told the officer we hadn’t seen anything, and the officer wanted me to confirm this, mentioned a security guard who’d made a note of my room number, who’d managed to describe me, as if I’d been in a lineup, as if there was something to accuse me of, and there wasn’t. I concurred with Micah and said I’d done nothing. I said, with anger for some reason, “I didn’t even see the guy jump.” Everything I told him was true and innocuous, but it felt like a lie.
“Your baby is beautiful,” said the officer. Then he left.
Sarah and Micah settled on the other hospital bed, Micah with his hand on his coat, Sarah inching away from it. Our daughter was asleep in my wife’s lap and my wife was staring out the window. She couldn’t take her eyes from the glass, her ghost in its image, her own features of soft, quiet uncertainty. My wife folded the tips of her fingers into our daughter, talon-like, fierce.
“No more police,” said Micah.
“So quiet,” said Sarah.
They’d stayed here much longer than they planned, but they didn’t know how to escape.
I suppose we heard the group before we saw them. An entourage wheeled the bereaved mother through the hallway toward the elevators. She was younger than I wanted to know and slumped in her wheelchair. Someone had to place her arm back in her lap. Drugged, I guessed. The hospital didn’t have a psych ward, but maybe she was being taken to the morgue for the father, or for the baby.
I searched for a small package, for I didn’t know what. A box. A bag. A doll’s form trailing in the grip of some orderly. There was a presence on the mother’s knees, a glimpse, and then they were gone. She, like a negative of ourselves, was also never going to sleep again. I played out strange scenarios where I wrestled the father to the ground, possibly beat him as a way to save him. I hurt him and tied him and consoled him and yelled at him to look at his wife, to witness her, and he lived, he was alive because of me. Go. Now.
Tomorrow, they were sending this baby home with us forever.