Prologue and Chapter One from JOE THE SALAMANDER
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- Published: Monday, 23 May 2022 18:35
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Multiply your age times 365, then add the days from your last birthday until today, and those are the exact odds that the next day will be worse than the worst day of your life. Here was mine: I was at the dining room table working on advanced high school algebra when the police came. I was only 12 at the time. Numbers were my friends. My parents were dead, the police said, and then, to gather my stuff.
I never spoke much to the first foster parents. If I focused on my real parents, I imagined the foster ones might feel slighted. They might not keep me. It was awkward, because all I felt was sad. They bought me new glasses. They bought white button down shirts. Shoes. Books. Toothpaste. Everything is temporary, the man from the foster care agency said.
The next three sets of parents were permanent placements. They didn’t work out, said the same man, who said the exact same thing every time he picked me up from a failed pairing. No bond was formed.
I shrugged at him. I never spoke to the man about the times I received black eyes and had my glasses broken. I was moved all over Arizona in the last six years. Not exactly a tour. I couldn’t wait to get out on my own.
My final foster parents asked me to plant grass in the desert. The father’s name was Walter. I never called him dad. The mother’s name I never learned. I called her Mrs. Walter, just to feel I had something on them. I dug the dirt for hours. The seeds didn’t take all that much. I knew nothing about growth. The grass that started looked like the random hairs on the top of Walter’s head. I watered the yard looking for a miracle. In those days, I pushed my glasses up often because of the sweat, or picked them off the ground after they were slapped off my face. I was a good worker but the goal of work is to produce. Walter told me this while I was pressing a tissue against my puffed out lip.
At Boston University, when I tell Millie this, in her high-rise dormitory on Commonwealth Avenue, she starts to cry. She gives me the confidence to talk and be heard, so she has a role in all this. I decide right there that she is the only one I’ll ever tell my story to. I was invited to this dormitory tower last night because I hated the cold, but, really, she wanted me to stay. It’s too cold in Boston, but Millie’s dorm room is as warm as the sun in Tempe.
When Millie returns from composing herself, I say, “It is too late for any more new parents, and since I’m over eighteen, I’m legally on my own.” Millie looks baffled, pauses enough for me to fill the silence. “Look,” I say, I’ve worked hard to get here, applying on my own; and I selected the one as far away as possible from where I lived, on a full scholarship. This is the reason we met. I did this all myself. I plan to go back to Arizona as soon as I graduate, and I hope you come with me. It’s warm, and it’s what I’m used to.” This is what I tell her. I’m not sure if I’m saying the right things.
Joe was born into the searing bright light, and when the doctor slapped him, he didn’t cry or do much of anything. When he slapped him again, and Joe still did not cry, the delivery team went ahead and ran all the tests for newborns. Joe had a perfectly logical reason to not cry, but no one would ever know it.
Joe’s coloring was perfect, a bright healthy red, and he was breathing well enough, even with a small amount of amniotic fluid in his lungs. All combined, the doctors were not worried about his well-being. His APGAR scale rating was a six, recording two points each for the appearance, pulse, and respiration categories, but it had zeros in the categories for grimace and activity. Joe was measured to have zero reaction to outside stimulus. As his mother, Millie, cradled him in the hospital bed, Joe lay there like a lump, almost afraid to ask for anything, as if a newborn would need anything more than a cuddle or perhaps the dampening of lights, sounds, or chaos.
Joe’s father, Adrian, currently was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t because he was an absentee father, or avoiding the happenings of Joe’s birth, but rather because he was completely overwhelmed. So instead, he passed out candy cigars to strangers on the street. There was a certain beauty in such a basic interaction: here have a cigar made from candy, and you will never have to see me again. Much less beautiful was that right before Adrian passed out a cigar, he had to push his inexpensive glasses back up against the bridge of his nose, even more than he usually did. Sweat will do that.
Millie wasn’t concerned with Adrian’s disappearance. She knew he was odd, unable to properly read social cues, logical, inflexible, and miserably anxious most of the time. He was a freak, but he was her freak. His parents had died in a car accident when he was twelve, and because of this, she knew, he would never leave her. He’d even said, when we go, we must go at the same time.
Millie knew her husband was the kind of person who would simmer in an emotion until the affect dissipated, almost the way that the horn of an approaching train builds in sound, peaks into a crescendo, and then disappears into thin air. It was like a bell curve, and Adrian, like all good accountants, understood how measurements ebbed and flowed. During Millie’s pregnancy, he had earned her trust about being a hands-on parent, something that his foster care placements had tended to be clueless about.
Meanwhile, Joe, at this point, was making no sound at all. He is going to be a good baby, Millie thought, he is going to be no trouble at all. The nursing staff was very troubled though.
“Isn’t he a darling?” was all they’d say, before moving on to the next patient in the maternity ward, where their babies were all said to be beautiful, gorgeous, and handsome. There were other darlings too, all within Millie’s earshot, because no matter how unique a baby is, there are only so many adjectives one could think up during a twelve hour shift. Out of Millie’s hearing, the words, possibly brain damaged, had been spoken between some of them.
But Millie didn’t know that. She only knew that every baby couldn’t be darling, beautiful, gorgeous, and handsome, just like adults couldn’t all be good things. Even if someone called her beautiful, she would shape the words into the reality of her understanding. She knew she was only just tall enough, or attractive enough, to get by. She knew she blended in. This is why Millie was cynical when it came to compliments. She knew the nurses were just doing their jobs, and Joe wasn’t darling at all. The nurses obviously had to say positive things, the same way car salesmen would trumpet the only outstanding quality of a shitty car. The engine might not feel powerful, but it gets excellent gas mileage. She thought the nurses were trained to be this way, or rather, wouldn’t have jobs if they told the honest truth. Maybe Joe was the opposite of darling, but she thought he was just about perfect anyhow, so what did their opinions matter? All of these thoughts, after just having given birth, exhausted her, and she was asleep immediately after closing her eyes, and then immediately after she was assigned a hospital room.