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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"Fundamentals of Communication," by Thisbe Nissen (July 28, 1999)
"Communications is not my field. I teach Fundamentals of Acting I and II. I used to do the Dramatic Monologue, alternating semesters with Advanced Improvisation."

"Vigil," by David Gates (June 23, 1999)
"I had a fool thought -- probably due to that pill, because I could feel it coming over me pretty strong now. I thought that she'd lived a good long life and for that reason she'd been chosen to take Bonnie's place."

"Meredith Toop Evans & His Butty, Ernie the Egg," by Alex Keegan (May 26, 1999)
"The hens have been my livelihood, but this have not always been so. Once I was to be a teacher, then a collier, then dead underground, then dead from a bullet in the Great War."

"Introducing Unbound Fiction," by Katherine Guckenberger (May 26, 1999)
A note from Atlantic Unbound's fiction editor.

See an index of fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

August 25, 1999

Everyone Please Be Careful, by Lucia Nevai

He's more than a pet, my baby, less than an actual socialized man. He's an id on wheels with shaman eyes. I am the object of his desire. I carry him everywhere, and carrying him, I carry a little father-brother doll, a teacher who's only six months old, a lover who's ninety-nine percent soul, one percent testosterone.

The soles of his feet, his ears, the folds of his neck, are excellent and new, expensive-looking, like small perfect things sewn from extinct wild-animal skins. His thighs hold tight to my ribs, athletic and intelligent -- all of his cells have intelligence. It's four A.M. He looks out behind us as we walk around together. He sees like an Abstract Expressionist -- American, of course: color field, emotional repetition, surface tension. Everything is untitled.

His brain is Picasso, Shakespeare, and Mozart. My brain is a console television with one fuzzy channel. Each day he gets smarter. I stay dumb. My education, my two degrees, my social sophistication lie latent in a little white mental winter while all my cells blossom in a one-line prayer: Everyone please be careful.

His little fingers clasp and unclasp my ear. He pokes his index finger up my nose in discovery, in my mouth. I'm having fun until his nail scrapes my gum. "Ow!" I say and watch his pupils dilate in surprise as he learns a little more about me. We nestle. We cuddle, then we drink something as we rock in the rocking chair. Around me in the dark, my new furniture seems arbitrary and superficial. How could I have ever funneled actual emotion into wanting furniture? Yet I did and probably will do again. But for now, for now, all I want is for the world to be safe. Everyone please be careful.

The hours we spend this way, joined in an animal state of wisdom and isolation, go unrecorded by him, forgotten by me because I'm in a daze. We're drunk, we're high, we're constantly tripping.

Suddenly, one day, I get my sleep. I dress him up. He looks ridiculous. His shirt is too new, too stiff, too square. The denim holds its own shape in the air. Nothing fits, it can't -- he's too round, and he belongs too much to God. He looks like Gandhi in Osh Kosh B'Gosh. Still, I force us both toward that rude cut-off point, Baby's First Portrait. I lavish attention on the folding of cuffs. I cram his brain into a cute cap, though the rough plastic tag in the back scratches his beautiful skull. This strange new intention between us, this narrowing and falsifying of love, bewilders him. The eternity in him becomes Tuesday. He never fully trusts me again.

He's out in the world. I expand my prayer as I learn the statistics. I want him to survive the mumps, rubella, other common and uncommon diseases. I progress to domestic accidents, burns, cuts, and falls. Next it's kidnapping and molestation. And always, the physics of hurtling out-of-control vehicles; car-bike, car-truck, car-bus, planes. In rain and snow, in darkness and light, I pray: let there be no skidding, no smashing, no sleeping at the wheel. Let there be no drinking while driving, no crunching, no crashing, no windshear, no downdraft, no mechanical malfunction, no pilot error. Whatever freak accidents I hear about, I incorporate: let there be no buildings that collapse, no cranes that crush, no lightning, no avalanche. Everyone please ...

He's gone completely, married and living far away. He's a 5x7 color snapshot on my mantle. My prayer encompasses everything. He comes to visit with a carload of people, a family. When he gets out of the unwashed station wagon and my eyes alight on him, something bleeps in my brain. Those surreal animal eons spent together send a low hum throughout my body. Moving toward him as he unloads kids, wife, suitcases, gifts, I'm tripping again. Now I'm the genius, hearing the sacred single breath of time in his two tired words, "Hi, Mom."

Join a conversation on fiction in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Lucia Nevai's short fiction has been collected by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in
Normal (1997) and by The University of Iowa Press in Star Game.

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