Babble by Jonathan Baumbach by Jonathan Baumbach - Read Online

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Babble - Jonathan Baumbach

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Old

1. DROOL

There is at the moment a baby with bowlegs standing on my lap. Quelle chance! He has been in the same position for hours, tilted forward like a figurehead. It is what he likes to do, and I am not, though my knees begin to ache, unappreciative of the honor. Don’t you have anything else to do? I ask him. The question slides by him like a greased pig. I was meditating when he arrived, trying to come to terms with feelings of failure and emptiness, and have lost concentration, have fallen into vagueness. Why don’t I lift him off my lap and return him to the floor? It hurts his feelings. And he is tenacious and will, if removed, find his way back.

Mostly, he just stands there, flexing his knees a bit, looking ahead. He is no trouble, not much, a good boy, self-sufficient and forward-looking. I suggest that he go to the corner and see how the weather bodes. He turns his head to see if I mean what I say, a pained quizzical look on his face.

Nothing frets as much the spirit in my business (meditating) as time wasting. I haven’t thought a thought worth thinking since he climbed on my lap.

Look, I say in desperation, I enjoy having you on my lap but I need a little time by myself and perhaps you would like some time by yourself. He takes the hint and climbs down. Bye bye, he says wistfully. Two minutes later he is back.

I am in the early middle of a thought when he returns to my lap, so ignore him briefly which is what he is used to. He digs his heels in as if getting ready for a long siege. Wipe my drool, he says, and I’ll tell you a story. It is the most words in sequential order I have heard him speak. I pretend not to be astounded so as not to upset his equilibrium, wipe his drool with a yellowing handkerchief.

For an infant, he tells an excellent story. I won’t recapitulate it all for you here, but will try to limit myself to the high points. The central figure, not unexpectedly, is a baby.

The storyteller apologizes for his choice of hero. His choice is limited, he explains, by his tender years.

At the start the baby says goodbye to his father and goes out into the world, seeking adventure. The father pleads with him to stay another year, at least until he is toilet trained, but the baby is impatient. Why postpone living? The father holds philosophically that a child should be free to make his own mistakes.

THE BABY’S ADVENTURE (a sampling)

A woman, hanging out clothes in her front yard, invites the baby in for soup. Another time, the baby says. The woman says the soup will get cold if the baby doesn’t drink it and will not accept refusal. It is a thick, nearly impenetrable pea soup the woman has to offer which in truth is not the baby’s favorite. To be polite he has one spoonful on which he gags through no fault of his own. Throwing the bowl off the table, he gets up to go. The woman, almost as wide as she is tall, imposes herself in the doorway. You can’t leave, she screams, until you finish your soup.

Meanwhile, a woodcutter chancing through the neighborhood hears the woman’s screams.

What’s the trouble, madam? he asks, breaking down the door with his axe.

This baby, the woman says, pointing, has just been horrible and won’t finish his soup.

The woodman, moved by the lady’s tale, raises his axe over the baby’s head as if to split him in half.

I beg of you, woodman, says lady, spare that baby’s life. She throws herself on her knees and weeps on the woodcutter’s shoes, which makes it slippery for him. Please. Please. Please.

The woodcutter is a simple man, he says, unused to pleas of mercy. Once his axe is raised it is harder to withdraw than to strike the necessary blow.

The lady offers her hand in marriage to the woodman in exchange for the life of the child. The woodman says he will think about the lady’s offer and return in one day with his decision.

Are you grateful? the lady asks the baby when the woodcutter is gone. She kisses his face a hundred times. The baby says that he’d like to continue his journey.

All I want is a little show of gratitude, the lady says, weeping at the humiliation of her position, and then, all things being equal, you can go.

The baby shows gratitude—he will do anything for his freedom—at which time the lady reneges on her promise. What good is gratitude, she asks herself, without the continuing presence of him who is grateful. She proposes to put the baby’s gratitude on display in the kitchen window so that the casual passer-by can see what kind of a woman she is.

The baby takes back his gratitude; the lady screams; the woodman returns with his axe, making a striking appearance.

I’ve brought you my decision, the woodman says. Baby doesn’t wait to find out what it is but runs through the woodman’s legs and out the door and out into the street. He will not be persuaded, he thinks, to stop for another bowl of soup. Then he thinks what will happen to the lady in his absence. She will bawl her heart out, no question, the poor lady. One day he will return with an axe of his own and make her proud.

In the course of his travels, the baby falls into despair, and missing the people he has left behind, considers aborting his journey. People are either the same everywhere, he decides, or not the same anywhere, merely seem the same to one whose eyes are inexperienced with distinctions.

There are certain functions the baby requires others to do for him, which cuts into his independence of action. His diaper, for example. He scours the city for someone who will change his diaper without asking in return an excess of gratitude.

He leaves a notice in the Personals column of an underground newspaper. Groovy baby, Capricorn, interested in meaning of life, seeks mature gentle couple for intimate exchange.

A gray-haired woman, a former mother, says that there is nothing in the world she would rather do than change a baby’s diaper. Her husband adds, My wife’s an angel when it comes to children. She spoils them silly.

The baby puts himself in her hands. She is a bit clumsy from being out of practice, but there are certain things, as she says, that you never forget. When she pins the diaper to his flesh he lets out a howl which causes several fire trucks to come rushing in their direction. Done (the mistake corrected), she hugs him and says, You poor baby, did you mum and dad desert you, sweetheart? She hugs him breathless.

When she releases him, the husband unplugs the baby’s thumb from his mouth. Now you look like a big boy, he says.

When he is by himself again the baby returns thumb to mouth.

The mature couple insist on buying the baby a gift, something useful yet out of the ordinary, to remember them by. What do you need, sweetheart? the woman asks the baby. Give us some idea what you want.

A cookie would be nice, says the baby.

Babies never know what they want, the husband says. You give them something and then they want it. Sometimes they don’t want it just because you give it to them.

After long discussion, the couple decide on buying the baby a giant piggy bank to teach him the value of savings. The husband removes the baby’s thumb from his mouth. With a bank like that you don’t need to suck your thumb. The baby goes off without the piggy bank—it is too heavy to carry—and the police are called, the couple heartbroken.

All we want, officer, is to give this baby this token of our affection. After that you can do what you want with the young fellow.

Who does this baby belong to? asks the officer.

The streets of the city are filled with people who have no answer to the policeman’s question. If he belongs to no one, we’ll have to run him in. There are a few who laugh; others go about their business buying Christmas presents or not buying them.

The piggy bank and baby are taken to the station for questioning. The mature man and woman come along as material witnesses.

Someone is guilty, the chief of police says. The diaper the lady changed is brought in on the end of a long stick as evidence. The odor, says the chief, does violence to the air. Everyone in turn has a sniff before the