“The Wanderers,” Original Fiction by M.S. Coe
by M.S. Coe, recommended by Electric Literature
AN INTRODUCTION BY JAKE ZUCKER
Hospitals — more so even than cemeteries and army barracks — are story factories. Even under undire circumstances, they force us to confront the twin tensions of life and narrative: the place and the self. Set your hospital in Las Vegas and you ratchet your drama even higher; choose as your main characters a group of Alzheimer-sufferers and a nursery populated by unusually ugly newborns — as M.S. Coe chooses in “The Wanderers” — and you’ve drawn the curtain on a remarkable stage.
But supporting all of the drama in this story is a craft that privileges calm tenderness over the sensational, and the value of earned truisms over shock. Coe introduces her protagonist, Magnus, a construction worker who volunteers with elderly hospital patients only for the chance to handle babies, through a present-tense, workaday prose — “Wednesdays are the hardest, the low point of his week, bookended by the heights of volunteer shifts” — lulling the reader into considering, falsely, that perhaps the events one reads of in these pages are of the routine. But what we discover of Magnus’s schedule (“Every day, he sleeps in a patch of sun on his bed to trick his subconscious into believing it’s near someone’s body heat”) reveals more than just the occasional oddity. The discoveries integrate, like the hospital itself, themes of body and place. In Coe’s world, infancy and old age are part of the same continuum. A man’s “guts twist as if colicky,” grown-ups speak dialogue like, “I will expect you in the womb, promptly,” and pee infrequently, due to “June in the desert.” The clear yet twisting voice so thoroughly seduces the reader that one finds oneself before long swaddled in the story’s odd conclusions (“The death of the old, with their long lives to extinguish feels more substantial than the death of babies”).
A story, we hope, has many aims, and none are more noble than to question reader’s lived experience. “The Wanderers” takes in its scope the full arc of human life, where even hopeful gestures like a hand-holding session with your dream girl evoke “the enormous chore of the future.” Don’t we know it — just ask anyone who’s ever been born or died.
– Jake Zucker
Assistant Editor, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading
“The Wanderers,” Original Fiction by M.S. Coe
by M.S. Coe
Even though the desert sun has dipped far below the mountaintops, a leftover burn snakes up through the asphalt of Saint Mary’s parking lot. The automatic entrance wheezes open to admit Magnus. In the hallways, he makes one wrong turn, then another, before he finds the elevator.
The doors part; a woman presses against the back corner.
“Going up?” Magnus asks.
She says, “I’m a star.” A flannel nightgown sags past her slippers. “I’m going to shoot right down out of this place.”
“I like your hair.” Thick synthetic strands pouf around her head. Perhaps she will be one of Magnus’s charges.
“Just wait,” she says. “On my third trip to France, the virtuoso composed a — pretty — about me. It was my theme song.” She executes a stiff curtsey. “When can we begin?”
The elevator dings and they step out.
A nurse seated behind a computer says, “I’m Annie. You can only be Magnus. I see you’ve met our Mrs. Brandey — looks like I’ll have to change the elevator code again.”
Magnus nods and takes the seat Annie offers.
“She’s one of our wanderers.” While Annie shuffles papers, Magnus glances at her. She is big-boned with long, thick, dark hair secured in a ponytail. She wears bubblegum lipstick too light for her complexion. “Your background checked out fine. I’m pleased to find a volunteer. We never get takers for the twelve-to-three shift.”
“I go to work at four in the morning,” Magnus says. “I don’t sleep at night.”
“And you’re interested in volunteering with the elderly?”
“Yes.” Magnus fidgets. He hopes that Saint Mary will be the outlet he has been searching for, the place where he can interact with people when he is at his most alert and needy: the middle of the night. Tentatively, he tells Annie, “But I’d also love to work with babies. Infants, I mean.”
“Really?” she says. “A man like you? How surprising. A man who loves cute babies.”
Magnus shrugs and doesn’t tell her that he prefers the ugly babies, their squished faces and unnaturally colored skin, their hair sprouting in strange places. Such tiny homeliness stirs his affection. They are brand-new, but flawed, an endearing contradiction.
“Not that I don’t adore babies myself,” she says. “Not that a man can’t… Well.” She clears her throat. “Would you like to see the newborns?”
Magnus follows her up one floor and down a hallway. They stand side by side in front of the glass and stare into the dim room filled with miniature beds.
“I wish we could have a volunteer for the babies,” Annie says. “Sensory stimulation is so important in the first few weeks. They can only see thirty or so inches in front of their nose, so you have to get right up close.”
“I could stay with them,” says Magnus, imagining a baby wriggling in his swaddling.
“That would be nice,” says Annie, “but we can’t. New parents are… protective. If only they knew the infinite good a volunteer could do, especially when we are so short-staffed.” She doesn’t move, though. “Do you know how to properly hold a baby?”
“I think so. Not really.”
Annie opens the door and they enter the cheddar soup-smelling nursery. She hands him a baby. The power of holding a person only hours old makes him long for the influence of fatherhood, of his presence in a life from its very inception. Annie says that he’s a natural.
Tuesdays and Thursdays at midnight, Magnus steps into the air-conditioned hospital from the neon glow of Las Vegas, retrieves his volunteer nametag from the unmanned reception desk, and heads to geriatrics.
Alone in the stainless steel kitchen, he slices sugar-free banana bread and brews decaffeinated coffee. Then he searches for the wanderers, those patients with dementia or insomnia who wake suddenly — or never fall asleep in the first place — and spend their night hours perambulating the hallways. Annie explained the many benefits of a midnight snack. The routine calms the patients, helps them remember where they are, even induces them into sleep. They’re less likely to hallucinate or fall or wander away lost if they keep busy, and eating is as good an activity as any. The term for his charges’ nighttime restlessness is “sundowning,” as if one of their symptoms is to become nocturnal, like the desert life that surrounds them.
Tonight, Mrs. Brandey drapes herself over the television in the entertainment room. Her cheek presses against the top of the dark box. “Don’t you ever leave me again!” she says shrilly, then lowers her voice to a croaking old baritone. “But I love your twin sister.” Her voice rises. “But I am the mother of your children! The godmother! The grandmother!”
Mrs. Brandey is reminiscing about her days on a seventies soap opera. Magnus tried to look up her acting career, but she often changes the name of the soap and his internet search turned up blank. Maybe she worked under a forgotten pseudonym. The nurses know nothing.
Magnus guides Mrs. B. away from the television and finds Mr. and Mrs. Herrera at opposite ends of a room, their backs to each other. Annie told him that one spouse’s diagnosis increases the other’s risk sixfold: a startling influence of proximity, like the one Magnus imagines a father might have over his son. Though the Herreras rarely acknowledge each other, they stay in a close orbit.
His charges settle around the table, and Magnus lights a centerpiece candle. He likes them to feel attended to.
Mrs. Brandey says, “Today I went to the zoo in a beautiful black boat of a car.” A bit of plum skin sticks to her bottom lip. “I wanted to see the lioness because she is devastated; her mate died of confinement, and she must raise the cub on her own.”
After snack time, Magnus leads the patients to their bedrooms — the Herreras’ rooms adjoin and he delivers them last in case they remember to say goodnight.
Mr. Herrera watches his wife disappear inside and says, “Who is that dirty girl? Maybe she’ll buy me a… the drink. With ice cream. Ice cream and… a milk shiver.”
Over Mr. Herrera’s window hangs a painting of a pond, mother duck in its center. Three ducklings trail behind. The movement of the sun, its shadows and nightly disappearance, agitates Mr. Herrera; the painting covering the window is an attempt to make his world more static. He says, “Do you think she likes strawberry?”
Magnus shrugs. “You should ask her in the morning. Now it’s time to sleep.”
In the empty corridors, Magnus tries to shut off his brain, to forget that he lives alone, that his greatest wish in life is to become a father, that he ate cold pizza for breakfast at eight in the evening — but he can’t forget himself.
One thing he had forgotten, that Mr. Herrera’s painting returns to him: a book, The Ugly Duckling, read by his mother, and his intense disappointment when the ugly one grew beautiful. Each night the same story, but he never accepted the transformation.
Magnus finds Annie the nurse counting pills. She has started to wear blush and eye shadow. He wonders if she paints herself always, or only when he’s on the schedule.
She snaps a bottle shut. “Do you want to go?”
“Yes,” he says. “Thank you.”
She brushes lightly against his upper arm and leads him down the hall, up one story. At week fourteen, she says, in preparation for birth, a baby pretends to breathe.
When they reach the door, she swipes the key-card dangling from her lanyard and a light flashes green. Her zebra-striped bra shows through the white uniform.
“Have fun,” Annie says. “I’ll be back for you later.”
This is their arrangement: Magnus gets twenty-seven minutes to hold, coo at, and tickle the babies in the half-hour gap between shifts. For these thirty minutes, Annie is the hospital staff. No visitors are allowed and the new parents are passed out. If questioned, he will say that he’s a doctor. Magnus knows how to handle a baby, to sanitize his hands. He’s careful. His presence comforts the infants when everyone else is too busy. Annie told Magnus that it was obvious he shares her commitment to the patients’ wellbeing, and then she proposed, a surprise to him, these unofficial visits. They will benefit everyone, she said as he nodded along, grateful that she had unwittingly absorbed his silent desires.
Magnus’s eyes adjust to the dim nightlights that glow every few feet along the nursery; the fluorescents turn off at nine o’clock as a form of sleep training. The room is a white-tiled square, one wall a window into the hallway, with not much inside besides five rows of tiny beds, usually only half or a third filled, and a couple metal-and-corduroy chairs. Everything feels quiet, though the air rustles with breath. Soon, his eyes make out a tiny arm, a round head, a cocooned body. He smells warm cheese. The babies.
Finally, among these new and most lonesome of souls, he feels at home.
The nameplate affixed to the closest wheely-bassinet reads “Leslie Lars Hunter.” Little Leslie Lars’s eyes aren’t closed all the way, but his lips purse and saliva trails to his blanket: deep sleep.
Magnus searches for the ugliest baby. Beneath a pink blanket, he finds Vanessa D’migi, her name a handsome hum of syllables. She smells of parmesan.
Vanessa’s bony bottom fits in Magnus’s one palm and her lumpy head fits in his other. Her long, thin body rejects all the fat, happy babies from commercials. Reddish freckles spot her yellow skin. A patch of dark hair grows over her left ear and her eyes are very close together, even for a baby. Such a unique form can only produce a unique person, and Magnus thrills at the possibilities concentrated in her six pounds. He adores her, homely Vanessa D’migi.
At four in the morning, Magnus arrives for work in a part of the Las Vegas Valley that everyone calls Water Wasters. Green Acres, the development’s official name, is where all the rich people build houses with custom bathrooms and custom billiards rooms and extra-large bedrooms so that no one has to spend any time in the living room together. All the houses have lush green lawns, as required by the homeowners association, and jungle-inspired pools. The construction workers could never afford a Water Waster, which Magnus assumes is the reason everyone else hates this job. Magnus hates it because fake beauty is the only aesthetic allowed in Green Acres’ man-made desert oasis.
At lunch, he holds a peaches-and-cream jellybean between his thumb and pointer finger: the size of a two-month-old fetus. He places the bean back in its baggie.
Magnus, a roofer, works above the other men, on a platform for the sun, which burns into his back as soon as it rises. Though he sucks down water, he only has to piss once. It’s June in the desert.
The midnight snacks are ready, but the only person Magnus can find is Mrs. Brandey. They sit side by side at the round table. The absent wanderers are hopefully asleep, but he isn’t supposed to enter their dark bedrooms without reason. Not that he wants to: the cold black of the rooms reminds him that the person beneath the sheet might be only a body, a cold object itself. The death of the old, with their long lives to extinguish, feels more substantial than the death of babies. An infant is a clean slate, reproducible in another nine months, but the old have been shaped so precisely that not even a clone would be their replica.
“Mrs. B.,” he asks, “where are the others?”
“God fuck them!” Her hand slams against her plate. Bits of cake smash up through her fingers and crumbs scattershot around her place setting. She runs through an angry slew of curses, then moans, “I hate… I hate… I hate… the block. Inside of me.” Her dirty hands fold calmly in her lap. “They’re jealous. Bright green, in fact.”
The most disconcerting part of his job is this: accepting the patients’ outbursts tranquilly, as though nothing is wrong. His nonchalant reaction should soothe them, but he doesn’t understand why he must pretend that Mrs. B. is perfectly fine when, in fact, her brain is boiling over, melting away the neuron connections that once made her herself.
“Mrs. B.,” he says, a shiver running through his spine, “would you like some yogurt?”
She leans her face towards him, the wig low on her forehead. Her denture-less mouth collapses over her gums and her bottom eyelids droop, though the top ones are taut, making her eyes strangely round. “You know, Magnus,” she says. She has never called him by his name before, though he’s introduced himself twenty times and wears a nametag in large print. “Nurse Annie is in love with you.” The candlelight flickers over the wet spot her tongue leaves on her lips.
Magnus blushes and ducks his head. “No.”
“I’ve been on this earth for ninety years.” Her records list her as seventy-nine, but Magnus nods. “Nurse Annie loves you, true and deep, with the sort of love Amos and I shared on episode one hundred forty-two.”
“Who told you this?” Magnus asks.
“Told me what?”
“Who told you Annie, Nurse Annie… that she…” Magnus cannot say the rest. Every day, he sleeps in the patch of sun on his bed to trick his subconscious into believing it’s near someone’s body heat. Even in Las Vegas, a city of night, where most days the sun burns mean and harsh, it is difficult to find a woman willing to sleep all afternoon and into evening. Annie, the night nurse, might. They could coordinate their lives as sundowners.
“Stop mumbling,” Mrs. Brandey says. “Now let me tell you about Amos. He owned a… the place with horses. Like salad dressing. A suave man, Amos! He wanted to whisk me away so we could raise a family of seven, but I was a city girl, through and through.”
After snack time, Annie finds him. “At thirteen weeks,” she says, “a baby develops a unique set of fingerprints.”
Magnus trails her down the hallway. Mrs. B.’s love idea makes him a bit afraid of Annie. She doesn’t love him, she doesn’t know him, but Magnus can’t slip the thought. He is forty-two and he’d guess that Annie is three or so years younger. She looks motherly, soft and sure of herself on a corporeal level. She’s almost as tall as Magnus — he’s tall — which means he wouldn’t need to lean far to kiss her.
When they reach the nursery, Annie stops in front of the viewing window, where she stood on the night they met.
“They’re cute, aren’t they?” she says. “Babies are so cute.”
“Most of them.”
“They’re cute. If I ever had a baby…”
He asks quickly, “You don’t have any kids?”
She holds up her unadorned left hand. Magnus feels an unexpected wash of relief: he would not need to inherit her children; they could make their own. Annie is likely nearing the end of her childbearing days, encouragement to work quickly. “We’d better let you in,” she says, “before time’s up.”
He wonders if he and Annie, both reasonably attractive, could produce an ugly baby, or if their offspring would turn out like everyone else’s, plump and button-nosed. Maybe their baby would wind up with Magnus’s big chin and Annie’s abbreviated forehead and all his features would squish to the center of his face. Maybe he’d come out with a cleft palate.
Before Magnus’s shift ends, he finds Mrs. Brandey, wigless, in the hallway, her nails digging into her forearm. Continents of scabs show through her sparse hair.
“You’re out of bed,” he says, “let me help you.” He pries her thumb away from her arm’s thin flesh.
“I hate you!” she says.
Her hand flies up and slaps him across the face. The blow is soft, like a thrown pillow, but he trembles with shock. “I want to help,” he says.
“You never make me happy. You never do. I hate this.” Her hands flutter through the air around her body. “Isn’t it time to begin?”
Though Magnus suspects that Mrs. B. knows he cannot help her, not really, she allows him to lead her to bed. She pulls her wig, left on the quilt, over her eyes.
Wednesdays are hardest, the low point of his week, bookended by the highs of volunteer shifts. Wednesday night, he drives away from the city, away from the noise and people, the constant blush of neon. The truck winds up humming across Death Valley on a road illuminated only by his headlights. He tries to lose his mind to the air rushing through the window and resonating in his ears, but instead, his body dissolves. Somehow, his hands stay on the steering wheel, his foot presses on pedals, his spine fits along the seat, but he is only a brilliant collision of synapses. These are the sparks that the wanderers are losing, the sparks he worries are extinguishing, already, from his own brain. He needs redefinition, wholeness, a replica — himself, outside himself, where he can observe. He must begin, again.
But for now, he pulls the wheel hard left, turning the truck back the way it came. He cannot be late for Water Wasters.
Skylights are Magnus’s specialty. He not only knows how to install all shapes, sizes, and types, but he also knows where to install them. The movement of the sun plays so often across his back as he works that he can predict where and when, with what intensity, the sun will enter an envisioned skylight, where the light will move inside a room.
Magnus is so good at his job that it bores him. Sometimes, he counteracts this boredom by imagining what his skylights will illuminate. For a bedroom, he pictures the couple who will wake up below him. Kitchen skylights must brighten the spots people will stand in most often: before the stove or the sink. If there’s a dining nook, he’ll place the skylight to spotlight it at breakfast. At the completion of each skylight, he etches his initials into its frame: a pitiful way to leave a legacy.
As dawn overtakes the workers, one of the plumbers boasts about the strength of his sperm and how it impregnated his girlfriend for the second time.
“The first one was enough,” he says, “but now we gonna have two on our hands.”
“Is it a boy or girl?” Magnus asks, entering the conversation against his better judgment. It burns, knowing that this indifferent man will be a father twice over before Magnus has his first chance.
“Man, I got no idea,” says the father-to-be. “When can you even know that shit?”
An ultrasound at eighteen to twenty weeks, thinks Magnus. The girlfriend might be that far along; she hasn’t come to the site for a couple of months. Magnus thinks of her as a woman who spends more money on acrylics than groceries. An embryo grows fingernails at nine weeks and at thirty-two weeks the nails extend beyond the tips of the fingers, long enough for the enwombed baby to scratch itself or its mother.
When Magnus reaches Saint Mary, he heads to the television room, Mrs. B.’s favorite spot.
“Hello, Charles,” she says. “Can we begin? Isn’t it time?”
When lost in her fantasy world, she has addressed him as “the postman” and “Señor Hondurez,” but never before as “Charles.” He asks her if she’s hungry.
She shuts her eyes and turns her head away, as though he scares her. “You look suspicious,” she says. “What have you done to me?”
“It’s all right. This is snack time. We’re going to have cookies.” He realizes that he’s altered his voice to talk with her, the way he babbles to the infants.
Her eyes still closed, she holds out her hand. “Take me away, Charles, if you must.”
He leads her, trembling, to the dining room.
A few other wanderers are out. Mr. Herrera strokes the leaves of a potted plant while Mrs. Herrera stares at her reflection in a darkened window. Magnus seats them around Mrs. B. He tries to set a good example with his own sugar-free cookies and the caffeinated coffee he made just for himself, wiping his mouth and patting up the drops that plop onto the table. His charges forget simple things like what a napkin is for and that coffee is sometimes too hot to drink. Magnus has learned to set the mugs out to cool before passing them around.
“Charles,” says Mrs. Brandey, “may I have another pastry? I used to bake pastries like this when you were a little boy.”
Magnus’s curiosity piques: Charles might occupy Mrs. B.’s real, not her television, life. “Oh, yes,” he says, “they were delicious. How did you make them, again?”
Mrs. B. wiggles more firmly into her chair. “Well, they were difficult. First I’d grow the blueberries.” The cookies on their plates are chocolate chip. “Then to the mill for flour, the farmer Jonson for eggs.” This sounds complicated, but perhaps she lived in the country between the soap’s tapings — if there were tapings. “I churned the butter myself, of course.”
“Didn’t I help you?”
Mrs. B. ignores his question in favor of eating another cookie. He wonders what she was like as a baby, whose guidance brought her to this place.
Mr. Herrera keeps reaching for his cup, but his quavering hand won’t cooperate. Mrs. Herrera is sorting her crumbs, large to small. Magnus wonders if an infant, a fresh life to focus on, might bring them back to themselves, or bring them together, just for a moment or two.
When Magnus walks Mrs. Brandey to her room, she says, “You stay out! I know about you.” Then, thoughtfully, she asks, “Do you own the meaning of the word ‘ravish’?”
He wonders about the world inside her mind, flip-flopping from the present to the past to the fictional. Does he sometimes look like her son, or does he look like himself and she attaches her son’s name to him, or does she even have a son? Maybe her entire life has become a derivative of the soap opera.
Annie is typing on her computer when Magnus approaches. “Only a few babies tonight,” she says, smiling. She walks him to the nursery; her toes point outward, a quirk that Magnus had not before noticed, and he feels a stab of jealousy for all the peculiarities that might pass through her genes, that would have nothing to do with him.
When she stoops to open the door with the card attached to her lanyard, Magnus stretches his arms to either side of the doorframe, trapping her in front of his chest. If she wants, she can retreat into the nursery.
But she turns as one of the babies begins to cry, a high note that gradually drops lower. Another baby joins in with a mewl, and soon all the newborns are fussing.
The baby sounds make Magnus feel protected, as though he and Annie are in a warm, loud bubble where they can demand the things they need. Magnus tilts his chin enough to kiss her closed lips. She tastes like milk and he puts his hands on her shoulders, then kisses her again next to her ear. He can’t tell if she approves, so he pushes his eyes open to search for a clue in her face. Her eyes are closed.
“I’m going to go in,” he says.
“Oh,” she says, “go. Medical companies are working on a new drug that releases these same hormones in depressed patients. Dopamine.”
He releases her shoulders and she presses against the door for him to pass.
He is grateful to be alone with the babies, who will be gone tomorrow or the next day or the next, and whose entreaties are small and straightforward. One baby is still mewling and Magnus picks him up. His shiny dark skin and big eyes will win him love. When the baby quiets, Magnus begins the search.
A raspberry birthmark covers the eye of Bill Joseph Bush, but otherwise his features are well-proportioned. Only six other babies — all male and blue-swaddled — fill the bassinets. The ugliest sleeps on the end of the row, his little hands stuck over his face as though he knows that no one — no one but Magnus — wants to look at him. Magnus pries the hands away and the ten fingers all grip his index.
The boy, Hank Applebranton, has a nose like a fat slug crawling diagonally across his face. Maybe it broke during the struggle out of his mother. His eyes are tiny, beady things hidden beneath his already-massive eyebrows. Hair arcs from his one ear around to the other, like an old man’s, and his wrinkled red skin smells of charred Swiss cheese. He may be the ugliest baby ever. Magnus holds Hank close to his chest. This baby needs him. The others will be doted on by parents and strangers alike, but to little Hank, Magnus’s concentrated affection will be remarkable. Magnus carries Hank to the observation window, within reach of the fluorescent hallway lights.
Illuminated, Hank looks even uglier. His dark pupils float behind the yellow skin of the lids, his nose looks raw and fleshy, his face squinches up like a dried prune. The little body gurgles and sighs, its newly working insides acclimating to the world. A well of pride opens inside Magnus’s chest. He is Hank’s father, he can feel it, he can believe it, he was the one above Hank’s mother when he was conceived, the one who massaged her feet and held his ear over her navel. The one who watched Hank wrench himself into reality.
A rap on the window startles Magnus from his fantasy.
“Charles!” Mrs. Brandey says from the other side of the glass. She clutches a few peacock feathers and silk ties, items from the shrine of her television days that she maintains atop her dresser. “Join the others. I need you for my audience.”
Magnus’s guts twist as if colicky. He should be watching the old people, not the babies. Anything could happen to Mrs. B. on this, an unfamiliar floor. She shuffles away and he hurries after her, out of the nursery — though he pauses to place a pen from his pocket in the jamb of the self-locking door.
When Magnus catches up with Mrs. B., she thrusts her face into the bundle still held in his arms.
“What, may I ask, are you doing with that baby?”
Hank and Mrs. B.’s proximity has filled Magnus with a realization: they have the same potential, the infants and the wanderers, to become absolutely anything, because they have no idea who they are. Those stuck in the middle of life, like him, are the only ones resigned to single, straightforward identities: construction worker, volunteer. Father, maybe, someday. He says, “This is my baby. Charles Junior.”
“You never had a baby. There is no baby!” Mrs. Brandey’s voice is loud, hysterical. “You never made me a grandmother!”
Hank starts to cry and that’s when Magnus panics. No, he shouldn’t have a baby. He’s not allowed to remove Hank from the nursery. Technically, he’s not even allowed to see Hank in the nursery. Annie has warned him about horrible germs; maybe peacock feathers can transmit bird flu. “All right, Mrs. B.,” he says, “this isn’t a baby. I’m going to put it back and then we’ll go down to your room.” Magnus wonders if part of the reason he brought Hank along was because he wanted Mrs. B. to meet the infant. Hank is a magic charm, shiny-new, with endless possibility. Magnus hoped, foolishly, that Hank might have some effect on her.
“Charles, you had better get rid of that baby right now! I am fraught with grief. Oh my, oh my,” she says and flings her hand across her brow, “now you might miss the show. It will be a grand show. Everyone awaits.” She shakes her fist of ties and feathers at Magnus. “I will expect you in the womb, promptly, with all the others.”
“Good,” he says, chastised. He escorts her to a nearby chair, promises to return for her soon, then hurries the baby back towards the nursery.
Just as he is about to place Hank in his bassinet, Annie returns.
“I thought I heard a noise,” she says. “Is everything all right? Was someone shouting?” She takes the whimpering Hank from Magnus’s arms. “Oh, god. This one is terrible. He looks like he was dropped on the head. Did you drop him on his head? What’s wrong with his nose?”
Magnus shrugs. “It’s always been diagonal like that.”
Annie checks the baby over. After she re-swaddles, she moves Hank’s blanket across his face. Magnus can see that the blanket isn’t suffocating him, but he worries about how Hank feels, having his face hidden like that, just because he’s not pleasant to look at. Annie is ruining his self-esteem at age two days.
As Magnus pushes Hank’s blanket down, a scream leaks through the wall: Mrs. B.
“What was that?” Annie bites her lower lip as she hurries from the nursery.
In his last moments with Hank, Magnus kisses the top of his head, the leathery, orangey scalp. Hank remains peaceful while most of the babies are crying in gasps, in sobs, in hiccups and snorts, snot smelling of soapy mozzarella, their negligible identities dissolving. The wails blend and Magnus wouldn’t be able to tell their sounds apart even if he spent days curled up on the nursery floor, listening. The cries enter his ears as the same lament: love me, care for me, find me beautiful no matter what please please please don’t leave. A sense of regret overtakes him as he realizes that he’s found the ugliest infant; his search is over. No one will appreciate Hank as much as he does.
When he becomes a father, he’ll stand on the outsiders’ side of the glass, possibly years from now; someone will likely own a newborn uglier than his, but Magnus will only be allowed to hold, to give love to, his own baby. He won’t be able to predetermine if it’s ugly or not, boy or girl, crier or napper. This seems a tragedy.
The nursery door locks behind him and he heads down the hall to check on Mrs. B. She’s with the others in the television room, a peacock feather in each hand and a few more stuffed down the front of her dress, their tops tickling her chin.
“Charles!” she says. “You are just in time for the show. Do you plan to watch peacefully” — she thumps the dead television — “or will I have to truss you up, too?”
“I’ll watch,” says Magnus.
“This dirty girl wanted to be trussed!” cries Mr. Herrera. He and his wife sit along the back wall. Annie, trying to unknot a silk tie that binds the couple’s wrists together, kneels before them. “I wanted to be! Trussed!” His hand jiggles, throwing off Annie’s working fingers.
“This is one of her worst episodes.” Annie speaks in staccato. “They come every few weeks. She gets the others involved.”
“Watch the episode!” Mrs. Brandey flaps the feathers, slowly at first, then harder and harder, but she doesn’t ascend. “I might have blamed you,” she says, staring into Magnus’s eyes, “but I don’t. It’s your fault you’ll never begin.”
A knot forms in Magnus’s stomach, a knot that grows and grows.
“Help me!” says Annie. “Get over here and help me.” She’s red-faced, standing now, hands fisted on her hips. “I don’t see how our Mrs. Brandey tied these two together so tight.”
The way Annie says “our Mrs. Brandey,” as if she and Magnus own another person, together, floors him.
“When can we begin?” Mrs. B. jigs. “Begin! Begin!”
“This is what can happen when you’re gone for only twenty-seven minutes,” Annie says. “Too much can happen.”
He nods. He is not a father; he didn’t know.
“Why are you doing this?” says Mrs. B., pointing a feather at Annie. “He’s a good boy. Happily ever after. You all need to watch. It’s a fucking lie.” She stamps her foot three times.
“I understand,” Magnus says. He reaches out to touch Annie and she flops the tie into his hand.
“Mother of god!” Mrs. Brandey shrieks. She walks in agitated circles. “We need to begin!” On the ground beneath her, a yellow puddle forms. It smells of her medication.
The knot inside Magnus tightens. At the start of life, a person should belong to his parents; at the end, to his children; but both stages are ceded to the hospital. He and Annie, not young or old, belong nowhere but to each other, their proper place in Saint Mary a limbo between floors.
Together, Annie and Magnus escort the patients back to their rooms. Magnus wishes that he was through sundowning, that he’d already fulfilled his own long years. In the elevator, neither here nor there, Annie slips her hand into his, and Magnus feels the enormous chore of the future. It is time for him to stop wandering. How strange, he thinks, that the hospital keeps babies on one story, the elderly on the story below, as though with time a body grows enough to sink through the ceiling and finish off life in a place scarcely different.