Professor Paul Derbees felt he should object, in principle at least, even if he really did not mind the idea of sleeping beside his son at the campus day-care center. In fact, he took it as an opportunity to get closer to the boy. The attendants had complained that David refused to settle down at nap time, and, worse, his relentless whimpering had begun to disturb the other children. All parties finally agreed that one parent should occupy a cot beside David and hold his hand until he either slept or stopped crying. Magda could not possibly leave her office since she worked full time as a court reporter, but Paul had ample spare time between university classes.
“Sure it’s unusual,” admitted, Millie Thompson, the ebullient center director, “but we’re creative here. We take nothing for granted.”
The professor felt somewhat awkward on the first day as he lay beside an immensely comforted David. His cot seemed so massive and alien compared to the children’s. Nor did it comfort him to know that grown women, including one of his own students, sat in the glass-plated teacher lounge observing the group. “If this gets around . . . ” Paul thought. But the love gushing from his two-year-old son’s eyes as they lay facing each other compensated for any anxiety and embarrassment. He held the boy’s fingers gently and sang to him, in a whisper of course, some sad ballads by Peter, Paul and Mary.
It amazed him to recall later that both he and Paul had drifted off almost instantly. Nap time fell between one and two, and he attributed his own sleepiness to digestion. He usually took a nap around five, after classes, which kept him up all night, and was pleased that the earlier nap made retiring at midnight not only possible but pleasurable. And David seemed absolutely radiant now that he slept well. Paul sympathized with his son’s former insomnia since for years it had victimized him too–but all that was over now. Magda, who always went to bed around midnight, also liked the change. “We’re a family again,” she sighed happily,”and all because you’re in day care, Paul.”
One afternoon, when the university had cancelled classes (Paul had always streaked off after naps to meet his two o’clock course), Paul stuck around for “band.” “It revs them up again,” said Millie. About twenty kids sat around banging on every manner of toy drum, triangle, wooden block, even garbage pail lids. They loved it. Paul figured, well, what the hell, why not? He snatched a stick from the floor and began beating his attaché case. Wary at first, the children soon accepted him as one of their own. Millie humored him afterward with: “That was fun, wasn’t it?” He sensed a subtle tone of disapproval curdle in her voice.
Paul began to arrive earlier so he could share the lunch experience with his son and the other children. He sat on one of the miniature chairs with them and made funny animal sounds, as they did. Sometimes he and the kids swapped cookies or juice. He recited funny poems and stories, made goofy faces. For some reason, though, he began to have difficulty sleeping on cue, which bothered David, who slept now only when certain his father was asleep nearby. Many of the children writhed without their binkies, so Paul humbled himself and requested one from Millie. She merely blinked her eyes and passed a spare pacifier into his fingers. He curled up on the cot, arranged the blanket and stuck the binkie into his mouth. Within minutes, both he and David were out cold sucking on their binkies.
“I don’t know if I like this binkie business,” Magda complained one night when she caught him slipping it into his mouth in their bed.
“It works,” is all he mumbled and rolled over to sleep.
Pretty soon Paul and his son arrived at nine every morning so they could participate in cutting and pasting, story time, outside play and numbers and words. “I didn’t realize how little I understood about numbers and words,” he confessed to Magda, alarmed about Millie’s report that her husband had resorted to toddler babble during his hours in day care.
“He pronounces ‘yellow’ ‘leddo,'” Millie had said. “But I’m afraid to kick him out. The kids love him.”
After naps Paul started to roll out of his cot and crawl to band. All of the children could walk, but some still crawled when they chose, and the professor found it safe and easy. He crawled to Millie’s desk one day and said, “Whazzaaat?” pointing to her necklace.
Millie stared and said, “Necklace,” prouncing the word with more than usual volume and articulation. She cleared her throat and asked Paul if he were taking his role a little too seriously. Paul squinted and huffed through his nose. He reached up and tried to snatch the necklace.
“Really, Paul, stop!” Millie cried.
The professor’s eyes widened, he stared at the woman and started to howl.
“We had to literally hold him in our laps, Magda,” she reported later to Paul’s wife, “and pat his back and tell him it was ok. I even had to let him fondle my wretched necklace.”
When Magda confronted Paul later that night, he sank to the floor and began to kick his feet. “Da-da, Da-da,” he wailed. Magda found herself saying, much to her horror, “It’s ok, Paulie, your Da-da isn’t home right now. He’ll be back later. Calm down, little guy.”
She inserted a binkie into his mouth as he lay distraught on the floor, heaving his chest, his arms and legs apread wide. Tears puddled in his eyes. His speech was garbled because of the pacifier, but Magda could make out the words “kit cat,” “leddo,” and “di-pee.”
“Paul, you didn’t!” she exclaimed.
“Di-pee,” cried the professor, wailing once again. The only consolation, later, was Magda’s playing “This little piggie” with his toes. Paul squealed with delight when she got to the pinkie.
It was a turning point, of course, and from that day on Paul’s satchel always contained a few gigantic diapers, along with the Juicy Juice and Oreos and peanut-and-jelly sandwiches. He would also not leave the house without “ZZ,” a cuddly stuffed zebra he had pilfered from David’s pile of toys. Sometimes he and David fought over ZZ, but David always relented; he thought having his dad in day-care with him was wonderful.
Paul had abandoned his classes, to the dismay of an administration which the previous year had bestowed upon him a prestigious “Excellence in Teaching” award. Magda and Millie were called in for a conference and told that tenure did not protect any professor from outright negligence. “And from what I hear,” coughed a senior vice president, “Paul needs serious help.”
In this manner substantial plans were made for Paul’s future. But it seemed appropriate that he finish out the semester at day-care in order to avoid disrupting the children. As for Paul, he cared only about getting to the red snare drum before Becky Wilson. She was quick for a girl–and mean. And he loved the days when Magda packed gummy bears into his lunch pail.
Magda felt some relief when Millie informed her that Paul had made excellent progress with his alphabet. “He has trouble with M’s and W’s,” she sighed, “but who doesn’t? And the lower case totally defeats him. Give it time.”
“My lawyer thinks I should divorce and then adopt him,” Magda sighed. “Is he faking it, you think?”
“I’ve never seen a happier man . . . child, that is. Faking it? Then he deserves an Academy Award.”
“Well,” Magda shrugged, “it could be worse–he could have gotten old.”
Millie recoiled, raised her eyebrows in distaste. “But it’s perverse,” she cried. “He’s unnatural and disgusting. A grown man. You’d think—”
Magda closed her eyes and dreamed of the second child she and Paul had always wanted but could never have. “Anybody messes with my kids . . .” she declared, “I’ll hunt them down to the ends of the earth. You know how we mothers are. Lose a husband, gain a child. Who’s complaining?”
Louis Gallo’s poetry volumes include Archaeology, Scherzo Furiant and Clearing the Attic. Forthcoming volumes include Leeway & Advent and Why is there Something Rather Than Nothing. He once won a National Endowment for the Arts first-place award for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Virginia.