The father goes to the daycare to recover his child. Time ceases to move when he enters the room, which has assumed a preposterous shape and size. What, this is some sort of symbolic thing? Only he can see the boundaries of the cavernous hull in which the children are prancing like lambs. Only he can sense the metallic chill in the air, which smells like a slaughterhouse. Whose symbolism? The people haven’t ceased to move, the father realizes, just Time. The action continues, stripped of chronologic meaning. The landscape lacks depth but extends endlessly along the left-right axis, assuming different shapes while always staying the same.
A good mother sits on a blue plastic stool with three legs. She looks foolish—like the mother who wears her teenage daughter’s clothing or the father who sings along to rap songs. Across from her sits her son, also on a blue plastic three-legged stool, beating his crossed arms against his chest in an even rhythm. They sit silently, staring at one another, the beating of the son’s arms the only sound that passes between them. You can tell it’s the tail end of the staredown because trails of rerouted dirt line his face where the tears have dried. You can tell they’ve gone through coddling and coaxing and manipulating and bribing, and you can also tell she’d like to smack him. That’s something the father wishes were still socially acceptable, a smack in the face. But she’s a good mother and keeps still. Now the boy begins to bang one leg of the three-legged stool against the floor in rhythm with his arm-beating. He leans back, lifting the stool onto its two hind legs, then releases his weight and lets the front leg bang down. He’s gonna tip over and fall on his ass any minute, you just know it. She’s waiting for it to happen. For him to just fall on his goddamn ass. But she’s not a very patient mother, the good mother. That’s it, she says when her patience has run out. Enough. The boy keeps banging his arms, banging the one leg of his three-legged stool. He can’t be more than three years old. I’m serious, Wolfgang, she says, I’ve had enough. Wolfgang—oh god! This is what the father hates most about the daycare, the names. Kolya, Eulalia, Heppatah-Sue. No, that’s not true, there are many things he hates equally and some things he hates more. They’re children, for god’s sake, not boats. The mother reaches out and grabs Wolfgang’s wrist. The wrist is tiny. The front leg of the stool comes down hard with a thud and doesn’t go up again. I won’t take it, says the mother. It’s emotional blackmail, and I won’t take it. The father laughs. What does it even mean, emotional blackmail? Child’s play.
A pirate ship! Or who knows, maybe some other kind of ship. Maybe the QEII. Maybe the Bismarck. If there is a god, the Titanic. A mess of children hanging from the bow, climbing the mainmast, digging through the sandbox in which the ship stands. One kid—an older kid, maybe seven—stands on the quarter deck, hand over her eyes as though she were blocking the sun. She looks across the giant cavernous slaughterhouse daycare center. She seems to be looking beyond it, in fact, which arouses a profound sense of jealousy in the father’s heart. Let’s go to Mars, she announces to no one in particular. Mars—there’s an idea. Do they have children there? No, better question: Do they have parents? The other kids in the sandbox ignore her. She turns around and says it more assertively: Hey! Let’s go to Mars! We can’t, says one little boy. There’s no water on Mars. We’ll die. No, insists the girl, we’ll find water. We’ll find water and build houses. She’s got a certain charisma, this girl. She’s got a quality. The father can’t remember whose daughter she is. He wants to remember because she must have got this quality from somewhere, and … And what? he asks himself. You meet the mother, she has a certain quality and what? For a long period in history, married people had affairs. Real affairs, he means, not sex scandals or quickies with the au pair. This was even after they discovered cigarettes are bad for you, but before they learned to cook with obscure Asian ingredients. In books and movies, married people still have affairs. And probably in France. He looks around at the other fathers waiting to pick up their children. He can’t picture any one of them having the energy for an affair. For the occasional triathlon, maybe. A Ring Cycle in Bayreuth. But an affair? He can’t picture it. Perhaps if the children didn’t require so much attention. The children! How old is this girl anyway, this explorer of Mars? Seven? Eight? Forget the mother, just wait a few years for the daughter. Ten years is an acceptable waiting period, he thinks. Let her go to Mars and find water. Let her expand the empire of man. Look, look, she shouts now eagerly, pointing somewhere into the distance. It’s the forty moons of Jupiter. A few of the younger children scramble to her side of the ship. Their gaze follows her finger. What are you talking about? asks one little girl. I just see a bunch of moms with strollers. One of the moms approaches the ship and lifts the little girl under her armpits. Hey! says the charismatic leader of the ill-fated mission to Mars. Do you have your space suit on? The mother ignores her and speaks directly to her daughter as she straps her into the stroller. Don’t listen to that nonsense, Heppatah-Sue. Jupiter has sixty-six moons and none of them is in this room.
In the middle of the landscape, a pile of toys rises from the earth to form a tower. Children approach it in a perpetual stream, grabbing toys, as many as they can carry. They run off with their arms full, toys spilling from their tiny ravenous bodies. The pile keeps growing and growing. The father remembers seeing the President on television once, back when television was still a toy. When I grew up during the Depression, the President told the Nation, my only toy was a wood plank full of rusty nails, which I had to share with sixty-six brothers. Bullshit. What politician ever knew how to share? The father watches as a group of children forms a circle around the base of the pile, holding hands. They are wearing nothing but loincloths. They seem to be performing some kind of ritual dance, some kind of tribal prayer dance. They are hooting and wailing and hopping around like gorillas. Shit, is that racist? Is gorillas a racist thing to think in the context of tribal dances? The dance seems to work. Toys begin to rain from the heavens. The father is afraid the children might drown in them or at least be knocked unconscious by the larger ones. But this does not happen because children today have harder skulls and know where to purchase arks. The father sees his own son and calls out to him. Jack! he calls. Jack, Jack! But Jack is occupied with several toys, the exact toys, in fact, which are right now hidden in the back of the father’s closet, already wrapped, two months in advance of the holidays, because he and his wife had wanted to avoid a catastrophe like last year’s when they waited too long and everything was sold out. The toys are extremely popular; certain characters even have waiting lists. And not just the characters themselves, also their sidekicks, personal transportation devices, and athletic paraphernalia. The toys all come equipped with stories now, pre-imagined contexts, histories, and futures.
Over to the side, something catches the father’s eye. Another group of children is performing a different dance, a more sinister dance. Their dance is spastic. They are jerking their arms, hopping from one foot to the other, stomping their feet, shaking, shuddering, twitching. They are dancing so violently that the loincloths fall from their bodies, and they continue the dance naked. Brilliant. Just last month, the father was the recipient of several angry phone calls from several angry parents who did not appreciate the father’s policy of allowing children to run around naked at his son’s third birthday party. But Mrs. Matheson, the father had protested, isn’t your Millie still breast-feeding? Yes, she is, what’s your point? The father’s point is something vague about a healthy and natural relationship to the body, which apparently has very little to do with the decision to breast-feed three-year-olds. The father watches the naked children fall on top of each other and continue their dance. They are writhing on the ground in an enormous pile, rubbing and kicking and licking each other. The movement continues without interruption, and before the father knows what’s happening, the movement has become sex. He looks down—nothing yet, which is obviously a relief but also a little disappointing. When he looks back up, he sees someone break off from the group of mothers with strollers and march over to the children. It is Mrs. Matheson, and she does not look pleased. She claws through the pile of fornicating children, digging around for her Millie. But the children don’t want to let Millie go. They grab Mrs. Matheson’s arms and pull her into their pile. They tear off her clothes and begin to perform their dance on her. They fight each other for the chance to lick her and tickle her and hump her. The father notices that he is enjoying the sight of Mrs. Matheson’s forced playtime. To his surprise, he feels only mildly ashamed. A little boy runs up to him and says, High five! The father slaps his hand because he didn’t know he still had it in him. In the brief moment he takes to appreciate his virility, the scene changes. He looks up when he hears Mrs. Matheson scream. The dance has become violent. The children are tearing her apart, beating her, kicking her, stomping on her head. Stop, stop! the father yells. You’ll kill her! But the children are already dancing around her body. Dozens of children come running from all sides to join the dance. They climb onto each others’ shoulders and twirl around and slap together their bare bottoms. The latecomers pump their fists in the air and nudge the ones in front of them: What’s going on? they ask, dancing and laughing. Something good happened. What? We killed someone. Who? I don’t know, but it means we won. The chanting of the children grows louder and louder, rising to the cool ceiling of the cavernous hull.
The father places his hands over his ears. He averts his eyes and is startled to see a young girl standing a few steps away from him. Her hair is black and cut chin length. She wears an old-fashioned dress of simple black cotton, black Mary Jane pumps and a small, sophisticated watch. Who are you? the father asks. I’m Misery, says the girl. Before he can introduce himself, a woman approaches them, reaching out her hand. We’ve never met, she says to the father. I’m the Head Doula here at the daycare center. The father remembers her from the tour, a trim young Harvard rower, fluent in French, Spanish, and Mandarin. It occurs to him now that she is stunningly beautiful. He watches as she puts her hand on Misery’s shoulder. Don’t you want to join the other children in the dancing and singing? Misery laughs like the doula’s a complete idiot, which, the father suddenly realizes, she definitely is. The doula looks at him sadly and sighs as though the two of them are sharing a secret. Something clicks. Misery’s the girl whose brother hung himself. Sure, sure, she’s the one. His wife mentioned it at dinner last week. Something about cyberbullying, he remembers, which is apparently beyond the reach of even the Head Doula, though the father has been led to believe that the Internet is Under Control.
But no matter: Now that Satan is dead, all problems can be fixed. The father watches as, at the far end of the landscape, the daycare nurse approaches the waiting parents with a somber expression. I’m afraid we’re all out, she says. Of what? asks one of the mothers. Of medicine, says the nurse. There is a moment of silence as the news settles. The parents refuse to accept it. But surely there must be something, says the good mother. I’m sure we’d all be willing to reduce our own doses so there’s at least enough for the children. You misunderstand, says the nurse. We’re totally out, there’s nothing left for anyone. It’s OK, the father hears one of the men announce. I’ve got a stash of ammonia hidden in the bathroom. The group of parents scurries off after the scrubwoman’s kick—everything mended, everything under control.
The father rolls his eyes. In college, he toked a bit—nothing serious, just the occasional joint before bed. And at parties in his twenties, sure, a line of the good stuff every now and again. Not to romanticize, but at least there was something sexy about it back then. A process, a haptics. Prepare the material, tinker with the delivery mechanism, consume deliberately, specifically. Will the parents even know what to do with ammonia, he wonders. Or is it also available in the form of a pill? As if in answer to his question, a movie screen springs into existence before the father’s eyes. He sees the parents crammed into the bathroom. They are swarming the small space, jostling each other to reach the cleaning supplies, ripping ammonia-soaked washcloths out of each other’s hands, banging empty aerosol cans hysterically against the sinks. They huff desperately, sliding down the walls as the medicine goes to their heads. They smile dumb, blissful smiles, sitting with shoulders slumped, heads wagging, legs splayed out at odd angles across the tile floor. The father thinks maybe he was being falsely nostalgic, maybe there was nothing sexy about anything ever at all. He’s about to turn away in disgust when the foreground clears and he sees, with a start, that he himself is one of the sprawled-out bodies. The camera zooms in on his on-screen self, and he watches a female body slide down the wall next to him, her eyes rolling aimlessly in her head. It’s the mother of the Mars Explorer, no mistaking her. She’s in her late thirties, the father guesses, and she’s clearly taken care of herself—haven’t we all? But she’s a cut above, the father thinks, even in this state. Go on, he urges his on-screen self, give it a go. He feels a sense not so much of excitement but relief when his on-screen self clumsily places a hand on the woman’s leg, bringing enough pressure to bear that her thighs fall slightly apart. Attaboy, he thinks, beaming at his on-screen self, who begins, slowly, to run his hand up the woman’s leg. Neither she nor his on-screen self seem fully in control of their muscles, but to the father’s surprise, this only heightens his arousal. That’s it, that’s it, he murmurs out loud when his on-screen self finally reaches the goal, hand stuffed between the woman’s legs. Both of them groan, and the father shivers with delight. Maybe the children will get lost on their mission to Mars. Maybe they’ll discover a better home in outer space. Maybe the father and the mother of the Mars Explorer will make new babies, new voyagers to the unknown. Yes, yes, that’s what they’ll do! Go on, the father mentally commands his on-screen self, make a baby. His on-screen self is about to do it, too, when a phone starts to ring. The father groans in exasperation. These parents and their goddamn cell phones, he thinks angrily. The parents flop around frantically on the tiles, trying to regain command of their motor functions so they can reach for their phones. The mother of the Mars Explorer is leaning in towards the father’s on-screen self, as though she wants to kiss him. This is it, the father tells his on-screen self, go for it, seal the deal. The woman’s lips are finally close enough, but before he can make his move, she manages to speak. It’s you, she tells him. What? the father’s on-screen self asks. It’s you, she repeats, pointing tremulously to his lap. At the same time, both the father and his on-screen self look down to where she’s pointing. Between his legs, a cell phone vibrates manically, emitting loud, insistent rings. No! shouts the father to his on-screen self. Don’t do it! But he watches helplessly as his on-screen self picks up the phone in a remarkable triumph of mind over muscle. Yes? he answers, as composed as ever. The father watches his on-screen self listen to whoever’s on the other end of the call, nodding occasionally. He hangs up after a few moments and clears his throat. The other parents snap to attention, miraculously alert, fully collected. That was my wife, announces the father’s on-screen self. She found another daycare center with a full stockpile of medicine. He pauses to let the news settle, and a murmur runs through the bathroom. Naturally, we’ll all have to take a rigorous admissions exam—the kids as well. Expressions of concern cloud the parents’ faces. Don’t worry, the father’s on-screen self reassures them. I’ve taken this test before, I know the answers. The father watches in horror as the others jump from the floor and line up in submission, an endless row of fit, young parents waiting for him to lead the way.
Suddenly, the father feels someone tugging at his arm. Without looking down, he knows it’s his son. Dad, dad, I’m ready to go, says Jack, but the father can’t tear his eyes from the screen. Dad, his son says more loudly, I’m ready. The image on screen is mesmerizing. All the parents in the town are following the father’s on-screen self as he heads towards the new daycare center, which will surely be cleaner and better than this horrible slaughterhouse. Dad! his son shouts, tugging hard at his sleeve. I want togo. Suddenly, the screen goes blank. Typical, the father thinks, right at the best part. Sighing, he looks down at his son. OK, OK, Jack, we’re going. The father removes his son’s backpack from its hook and marvels at how light it is. How was it today? he asks. Anything exciting? Jack stares at him lethargically. Like what? he asks. The father doesn’t know how to elaborate. His eyes rest lazily on the far wall of the room where he imagines children’s drawings once hung. What now? he wonders and registers, with surprise, that it is a giant crayoned mural of the solar system. So they’re still allowed to use crayons, huh? Thank god for small pleasures. He holds up the backpack for Jack to slip his arms through, thinking back to other lo-fi attractions of youth. At his grandmother’s house as a child, he had been permitted to sleep in the attic, in his father’s old room, whose ceiling was covered in egg crates. Over the years, the cardboard had discolored into soothing curves of yellow and gray. The father can remember no greater pleasure than falling asleep under that mysterious sea of decaying ovals, completely unaware of the approaching agonies of the doomed.