Tracy Miller Geary
When I told my wife, Laurie, I’d signed up to mentor a single teenage dad with a baby, her first reaction was to laugh.
“No offense, Jack,” she said, “but you know squat about babies.”
Some men might take offense at a comment like that, especially men like me who have two kids of their own. But while I think of myself as a good dad, I knew she was right. I didn’t feel like a hands-on dad until my oldest daughter was around two, when she was able to leave her mother’s side without hysterics. Before then, I often felt like some guy who just happened to be in the room.
“Seriously,” Laurie continued. “Wasn’t there a dad with older kids you could be paired with?”
I told her the mentoring dads didn’t have a say in who they got partnered with, which wasn’t exactly true. Doug, the head of the Dads helping Dads program, matched me initially with a widower with twin girls, age six. Since my own girls are seven and nine, Doug thought we’d be a good fit. I insisted I wanted to work with someone with a baby. Later, when he was looking for someone to lead a collection drive for new parents, I told him I’d do that, too. Our garage currently resembled a warehouse stuffed full of diapers and boxes of baby wipes and formula.
The dad I was paired with—Scott—is a good kid who got his girlfriend pregnant during the fall of their senior year of high school. They’d already broken up before she found out she was going to have a baby, but then he went and decided to raise the kid on his own. The best I could figure is that his parents didn’t want to give up their grandchild and pressured him to step up. Scott and the baby lived in his parents’ house, a situation unlikely to change any time soon. I would have spent all my energy trying to talk Scott out of keeping the baby, but by the time I met him, it was a done deal and Joey was two months old. Scott’s mom does a lot of the work, but when Scott started goofing off and staying out late with his friends, they called Doug. That’s when I came into the picture.
Scott and I always meet without Joey. That’s another thing Laurie couldn’t understand at first.
“Why isn’t the baby with you when you meet?” she’d wanted to know. “Wouldn’t you do a better job teaching him how to be a dad if his son was around?”
I explained that Scott didn’t need me to show him how to change a diaper or give the baby a bottle. He needed to talk about what it means to be a dad, so that’s what we do. Scott hadn’t come right out and said it, but I could tell he and his own dad weren’t close. He told me his dad worked eighty hours a week at the restaurant he owns. It’s a well-known place, on the East Side of Providence. Too expensive for my budget.
Scott is interested in nature, like me, so our meetings usually take place outdoors. I’m a wildlife biologist at the Department of Environmental Management, and we talk a lot about my job. You’d be surprised how often something in nature correlates to parenting. I came home from one of our meetings feeling particularly pleased at the way I’d turned the idea of gardening into a metaphor for raising a kid.
I poured myself a glass of water and sat down across from Laurie at the kitchen table where she was cutting out coupons.
“I told him,” I said, “‘if you don’t look after a garden, it ends up with weeds. But if you provide fertilizer, sunshine and water, your garden will grow strong and healthy.’”
Laurie paused in her clipping and looked at me.
“You know,” I said in the voice I use when I explain something to our girls. “Kids need to be tended and nurtured. Like a garden.”
“Subtle, Jack,” she said, smiling. “Real subtle.”
* * *
Joey was seven months old when Scott came by the house and showed him off to Laurie and me for the first time. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Jenny and Natalie were next door playing with our neighbor’s new golden retriever puppy.
I was anxious about Scott bringing Joey to the house. Laurie had a miscarriage two years ago, in the fourth month, and it had sunk her down into a depression I was afraid might not lift. When Laurie had first told me she was pregnant, my thoughts had been logistical: how could we afford a third child? Natalie and Jenny already shared a room, so where would the baby sleep? We hadn’t planned on another child and we’d given away all our baby paraphernalia. People made jokes that another kid meant Laurie and I would be outnumbered, and I’d laughed along with them. At that fourth month , the baby still felt more like a complicated math problem I needed to solve than an actual child.
In the months following the miscarriage, it seemed that babies were everywhere. If Laurie and I came upon a baby in a stroller while out on a walk, she’d turn and hurry away in the opposite direction, while I’d feel an almost magnetic pull towards the baby. At the grocery store, I’d play peekaboo with a baby sitting in a shopping cart after Laurie fled to another aisle. When my office held a baby shower for a pregnant co-worker of mine, I went alone, waving off Laurie’s absence with a story about a migraine.
Finally seeing Scott and Joey together made me wish I’d thought of it sooner, because for all the show Scott put on about how his son wasn’t going to cramp his style, it was plain to see how crazy Scott was about him. He had Joey in one of those front packs so Joey could face out, and he kept reaching out and tickling Joey’s feet so Joey would squeal with pleasure. Laurie asked to hold Joey, and you could see Scott having to think about it, like he hated to let go of his kid. The whole time Laurie held Joey, Scott was right on top of her, making sure she wasn’t holding him too tightly or bouncing him too hard. While he was watching Joey, I had my eye on Laurie, making sure she was okay. She held her face close to Joey’s head and took a deep breath, then looked up and smiled at me, and I felt myself relax.
Scott had to practically pry Joey out of her hands when it was time for them to leave. I helped him buckle Joey into his car seat, and then Laurie and I watched them drive away. I was already turning back to the house when I realized she was still standing in the driveway.
“He’s a good dad,” she said, like it was something that surprised her.
“He’s getting there,” I said. I put my arm around her shoulder and we stared down the road in the direction they’d gone even though there was nothing left to see.
* * *
Adam Bartlett’s death was just a paragraph in the city section of The Providence Journal, but it made the front page of our town newspaper. Neither Laurie nor I knew the Bartletts, but it was still hard news to take. A baby in a park, dead from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Still, I was surprised by the depth of emotion this baby’s death brought out in Laurie. She pulled me aside as soon as I got in the door from work to insist that we didn’t mention it to the girls.
“We do not put the news on tonight,” she insisted. Her eyes were red like she’d been crying hard.
“They’re going to hear about it,” I said. “It’s a very small town.”
“I don’t want them to freak out,” she said. “Remember what happened with that moose?”
Last fall, a baby moose had wandered into a neighborhood in New Hampshire and ended up on a livestream news channel. We were watching it meander around someone’s backyard—oohing and ahhing over how cute the damn thing was—when some idiot showed up and shot the thing dead. Right on live TV. The girls were too distraught to eat dinner, and if I remembered correctly, Natalie stayed home from school the next day because she was still too upset. I agreed to not tell the girls about Adam.
* * *
I surprised Jenny and Natalie at their bus stop after school the next day.
“What are you doing home?” Natalie asked. “Where’s Mom?”
“She was tired so she’s taking a nap,” I said. Neither one of us had slept much the night before. I couldn’t stop from thinking about how Adam Bartlett’s parents were feeling, how I doubted they’d ever have a good night’s sleep again.
“And besides,” I added, “I wanted to spend some time with you two.”
“That’s nice, Daddy,” Jenny said, reaching up to give me a kiss.
I love first grade, when girls aren’t embarrassed to kiss their dads in front of the whole school bus. I can’t put my finger on the exact moment when Natalie started to pull back from me in front of her friends, just like I can’t remember the last time she called me Daddy, not Dad. It was a gradual thing. I don’t take it personally.
I swung Jenny up onto my shoulders and the three of us began the walk home when Natalie brought up Adam.
“My teacher lives next door to him. She told us he got stung by a bee and died, and then she started crying. Principal Berlin came and told her she could go home,” she said.
“Did we know the baby?” Jenny asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“I’ve been stung by a bee,” Jenny said. “Why didn’t I die?”
“The baby must have been allergic to bees,” I said.
“You work outside a lot,” Natalie said. “Are you allergic to bees?”
“Not that I know of,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. I thought about the joke we have at the office whenever we have to make a trip out through woods or anywhere there might be bees. There’s always an argument about who will go third in line. The first person irritates the bees, the second gets them riled up, and the third gets stung.
Jenny’s grip around my neck tightened. I put my arms behind my back and swung her over my head, back down to the ground. I knelt down and looked at both girls.
“What happened to that baby is very sad,” I said, “but it’s also very unusual. It’s not going to happen to either of you or me or Mommy. Okay?”
Jenny studied me for a minute and shrugged.
Natalie looked less sure. When Laurie lost the baby, we sat them down and explained what had happened in the simplest of terms. Jenny, who was five at the time, burst into tears and then asked if this meant we could get a puppy. Natalie didn’t cry right away, but she wouldn’t leave Laurie’s side for weeks and her nightmares were so bad that she ended up sleeping with a light on for a good two months.
* * *
Spring is always a hectic time at work, and the days following Adam Bartlett’s death were no exception. We’d been busy lately thanks to an aggressive coyote that’d been venturing into people’s backyards in one of those new developments where the houses look more like museums than a place you’d want to live, and the owners can’t seem to grasp the idea that they’re the ones doing the infringing. A baby’s death in a state as small as Rhode Island gets a lot of attention, much of it delivered to my department. It wasn’t long before we started getting complaints about wasps’ nests and questions about killer bees. Worried parents, all wanting to know what insect repellents were particularly useful. I wanted to tell them to relax about the bees, that they should be much more concerned about mosquitoes or Lyme disease, but bees were the fear du jour and that wouldn’t change until some other tragedy hit.
* * *
Scott and I had a set time to meet each week, Saturday afternoons at 3:00 p.m.. Saturday mornings are crazy with Natalie and Jenny’s soccer games, but by the afternoon, they’ve usually settled in to play together or at a friend’s house. Laurie likes to have the time to herself. But the day after Adam Bartlett’s funeral, Scott showed up at my office. It was a Friday. Laurie had gone to the funeral, despite the fact that she’d never even met the Bartletts. When she’d told me she was going, I felt my body tighten, waiting for her to bring up her miscarriage and say that she knew what they were going through. She didn’t suggest the connection, so I didn’t press her.
“I know you’re probably busy,” Scott said, “but I really need to talk to you.” He was dressed in his waiter’s outfit, black pants and white shirt. He had on crazy red suspenders and a red bow tie that made him look like a kid playing dress up. Not for the first time, it hit me that there was something inherently sad about a kid with acne having a kid of his own.
“I was just about to leave the office, but it’s not a problem,” I said. “We can talk on the drive.”
I was heading out to do one of my least favorite jobs, addling swan eggs, and I was distracted. There are two ways to addle eggs: either you cover the eggs with vegetable oil so the embryos inside suffocate, or you just shake the eggs. I prefer shaking the eggs. It’s quicker. There are reasons for addling swan eggs—the birds aren’t native, and they chase away the ducks and geese that actually belong there, plus they eat all the pond vegetation—but it’s depressing knowing the mother swan will continue to sit on eggs that are never going to hatch. It’s a part of my job I’ll never mention to Jenny or Natalie.
Most of the time we find swans’ locations from aerial surveys, but this time, we’d gotten a call from a guy who’d come upon the pair while walking. He said they’d chased him all the way back to his car, which I knew was an exaggeration, but probably not too far off from the truth. Nesting swans are notoriously mean-tempered.
“How’s Joey?” I asked as I pulled the car into the parking lot for the beach. The lot was empty, too early in the season for any beach goers.
“He’s okay,” Scott said, but he didn’t smile. He looked nervous, preoccupied.
We both stepped out of the car. I began down the narrow path that led to the pond and motioned for Scott to follow me. Usually Scott begins peppering me immediately with questions about my job, but this time he was quiet as we walked.
“We’re looking for a swan nest,” I said. “It’ll be on the edge of the water and will look almost like a big grassy bowl.”
“My parents went to that funeral yesterday,” he said. “You know, the baby.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Laurie went too.”
“They said the church was packed, and that the mother just kept staring ahead the whole time, but the dad couldn’t stop crying.” Scott stopped walking and looked at me.
I wasn’t sure what to say. My mind was on the job I had to do.
Scott looked down at the ground. “I got into University of Maine,” he said. “I found out a few months ago.”
I was a little surprised he hadn’t mentioned it to me before, but, I figured there hadn’t been any point in me knowing.
He was still staring down at the ground, kicking the dirt with the toe of his shoe. I’ve gotten good at knowing when Scott isn’t ready to talk, so I said, “Listen. Let me do my work, and when you’re ready, you can tell me what’s going on.”
He followed me as I continued down the path. We didn’t have to go too far to see two swans, paddling in the brackish water close to shore. In the reedy marsh near the water’s edge, I could make out the nest of dried grass holding a grouping of eggs. I motioned for Scott to squat down so we were hidden by the cat o’ nine tails that grew everywhere.
“Do you see that?” I said quietly, pointing to the nest. “There are at least four eggs in there.”
“Is that why we’re here?” Scott asked. “To count eggs?”
I’d have to move fast, before the swans realized what was happening, but I’m the kind of person who likes to explain things. I told him why swans weren’t good for this particular lake, and that the last thing we needed was more of them.
“I shake the eggs,” I said. “That way, they won’t hatch.”
“Won’t the mother swan just lay more eggs?” Scott said.
I shook my head. “She’ll just keep sitting on these.”
Scott looked at me and I shrugged. I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t a shitty thing I was doing.
“Follow me,” I said, slowly standing up. “If they charge, raise your arms and make yourself larger. I’ve got to do this real quick.”
Scott made a sound, almost like he was choking. I turned back to look at him. Tears ran down his face, and for a second, I thought it was about the eggs. I dropped down to his level again.
He took a deep breath.
“When I applied to Maine, I knew it was a pipe dream. But I wanted to see if I could get in. That night, when I found out, I had a beer with my dad after we closed the restaurant. I’d never done that before, had a drink, I mean, in front of my dad. He said something like, ‘Hey, what are we celebrating?’
I looked back towards the nest. It was dumb luck the swans hadn’t noticed us yet.
“Did you tell him you got into college?”
“No, I just said I felt old enough to have a beer with him. I put the whole college thing out of my head. I threw the letter away,” he said. “But then Adam Bartlett died.”
“What’s he got to do with anything?” I asked.
Scott looked at me and I could see the anguish in his eyes. He looked about fifty years old right then.
“When I heard that this baby had died,” Scott said, “my first thought wasn’t, oh, man, those poor parents. I was thinking, why that baby? Why did their baby die, when I’ve still got Joey? And it wasn’t like I was feeling lucky about it.”
“Scott,” I began.
“No, let me finish. I came home from work and went into our room and sat on my bed. Joey’s crib is right there and I just sat there and looked at him. He was sleeping so nice and I thought how I’d never sleep like that again. I’d never look or feel that peaceful again in my whole life. I’d be stuck bussing tables and filling water glasses and kissing my old man’s ass for the rest of my life.” He slammed the palm of his hand against his forehead and then he was crying, no holding back. I was frozen to the spot.
“I thought, if something happened to Joey, I could go to college,” he continued. “I could go on a fucking date and stay out all night and not have to answer to anyone. I could have a future.” He wasn’t crying anymore but it was like he was having trouble breathing.
“What did you do?” I was surprised I could speak; it felt like a bag of concrete had landed on my chest.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said. “I went to bed.”
I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath until I felt it releasing. The relief was huge, a physical thing. Scott looked at me and said, “I’m the worse fucking father in the world.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. My mind was racing and I needed time to figure out what to say to him. What Scott told me was bad, and I knew he’d feel terrible about it for a long time, probably forever. It couldn’t have been easy for him to admit to me what he’d been thinking.
Scott stood up slowly, but he seemed relieved. Maybe he’d thought I was going to punch him out, or tell him I never wanted to see him again. We started walking back towards my car.
Scott stopped and turned back to the swan’s nest.
“What about them?” he said.
I followed his eyes and saw the female swan rise out of the water and begin the climb up onto the shore. Right then, I didn’t care about the loss of vegetation she and her mate caused, or the fact that they were probably keeping native ducks away from the lake. I wanted to be home, telling my girls about the eggs, promising them that in a month or so, I’d take them to the pond to see the cygnets I’d saved. I could hear Laurie’s voice in my head, telling me that not killing something wasn’t the same as saving it, but maybe if I told the story just right, it would be close enough.
Tracy Geary received a Master’s degree in creative writing from Harvard University and lives near Boston. The heartbreaking image of a swan continuing to sit on her ruined eggs inspired this story. “Addled” is part of a short story collection about a beekeeper and his community in the aftermath of a tragedy.