LIKE THE LAST ONE
Four years later, and the father still wanted to preserve the room: the long maple dresser and crib, the wooden pull-toys on the shelves, the soft clown mobile bobbing from the ceiling.
The mother refused to restore these relics. “I believe in a healthy new start that doesn’t involve the cleaning of old toys.”
“Healthy,” the father said. “You say that about everything.”
“There’s life and there’s death.”
“It’s a matter of shading,” the father mumbled.
Meanwhile, the new baby slept in the living room in a purple playpen between two couches. The mother bent over the side; she cupped her hand around his hand or stroked his head or held the inside of her wrist near his nose, checking for breath.
The father was hesitant. “You’re a good baby.” He tapped the baby’s knee. “Just like the last one.”
The mother phoned her friends; they were mothers themselves. Some of them agreed with the father for reasons of thrift; some agreed for reasons of faith. “Dust off those old things,” they said.
“No,” she said. “This is a brand new baby.”
One day when the father left for work, the mother went into the nursery with a roll of garbage bags in one hand and the baby monitor in the other. Everything in the room, the dog-bone lamp and monkey radio, the toy chest rescued from the father’s parents, looked faded and unfamiliar. She listened to the new baby gurgle while she threw away piles of picture books and dusty animals and carted the crib to the curb for same-day pickup. She kept the nursery door closed when the father came home.
The next day, armed with cans of paint, the mother opened the nursery door and found the dresser had returned to the corner. Stacks of diapers lined the changing table; the clown mobile bobbed maniacally in the breeze from the door. All items had returned, except they were altered. The stuffed animals were gray and weathered; some of their eyes and noses were missing. Several bars had fallen from the crib, and the wood, when touched, felt soggy.
She cleared the room again and painted the yellow walls green. After the first coat, yellow showed through in thin places, so she spread on a couple more coats until the walls shone all in one shade. The mother had plans for this baby. He would grow up a lawyer or something equally heroic. He would lift heavy bookshelves and keep a secret journal and send his mother letters detailing his good health.
The mother laid the baby in the center of the nursery and acted like the room belonged to him. “Don’t you like your new room?” she asked. “Isn’t green your favorite color?” When he didn’t answer, she poked his stomach until he gurgled affirmatively.
She worried about the father’s reaction to the crib and garbage bags and paint cans on the curb. But he didn’t mention them. “The hallway smells like chemicals,” the father said. “I’m not sure that’s a healthy smell.”
The next day, the walls in the nursery had turned a muddy yellow, and all the old baby’s things had returned in worse shape than before. Chunks of books fell to the floor and crumbled; gray cotton poured from slits in animals’ chests and necks; the crib lay in a cracked-wood heap.
The mother cleared out the nursery and re-cluttered the curb; she painted the walls green and had new items delivered from boutiques around town: the furniture white, the stuffed animals so well-groomed not a stray string hung loose.
“You are a room,” she told the room. It was bright and clean and beautiful.
When the father came home, he visited the playpen between the couches. He tapped the baby’s elbow. “You’re a good baby,” he said. “But it’s not hard to be good when you’re a baby.”
The next morning, the mother awoke so agitated she forgot to check on the baby. She rushed to the nursery and found the father and the new baby on the floor, their skin and clothes decorated with thick gray smears. The walls had turned a muddy shade of green. The baby’s white dresser and bear mobile were covered in dust; two mountains of ash filled the crib. New toys had grown gray beards and mustaches, and the room smelled of soaked foliage.
In the middle of the floor, the father made a dust angel. The baby lifted ash in his pudgy palm and released it in the direction of the mother. Gray specks fluttered through the air. The baby gurgled pleasantly.
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