Of course the boy has been crying. Crying isn’t really the right word for it. He has been explosively weeping, maybe for a long time, and when Mather picks him up and holds him close the weeping escalates, the boy breaking down in Mather’s arms.
Mather tries to set the boy down in the dark kitchen so that he can make coffee, but as soon as the boy is released he bursts into sobs again. As usual, Mather talks to him, tries to calmly reassure him, but the boy’s crying is so loud that Mather cannot even hear his own voice. He sits on the dirty kitchen floor and gathers the boy in to try to soothe him, but the boy squirms from his grasp and goes on wailing, so Mather leaves the kitchen and shuts himself in the bathroom, triggering even higher-pitched cries from the boy.
When the doorbell rings to signal that Mather’s ride to work is here, he isn’t ready to go. The boy’s diaper was dry when he got up, which meant that he hadn’t had enough water, but Mather could not get him to drink anything. The boy twisted his head away when offered a bottle, so Mather tried to interest him in different cups, even his own coffee mug, which the boy usually tried to pry from his hands. Finally, the boy took a few greedy gulps from the mug, with most of the water running down his chest. He wouldn’t eat the egg that Mather had prepared for him, but he did steal Mather’s toast, which he clutched into a gummy mass in his fist while wandering around the living room, still half crying.
No one says hello when Mather opens the door of the car-pool vehicle. They have had to wait for him in the unlit garage, and he can tell that they’ve lost patience. There’s no car seat installed today, no space reserved for the boy, and he won’t hold still in Mather’s lap. The woman next to Mather is not amused when the boy throws himself across her legs, trying to crawl toward the window. She sits back, hands up, indicating that Mather must remove the boy himself. Mather apologizes and pulls the boy back, squeezing him tightly so that he can’t escape. This makes the boy shriek and squirm with surprising strength. But Mather does not relent. He has no real choice.
They pass the old bald hill and the spire, then get waved through at the Faraday gate, where they join the line of cars that form a single file to climb to the top. The little trees out the window are bare and the grass is colorless this time of year, but it’s a bright, clear day. Mather wishes there were a window open, but he doesn’t feel that he can ask. No doubt someone decided, before they picked him up, that they’d ride to work with the windows closed, breathing one another’s stale air.
In the parking lot, overlooking the valley, the boy wants to walk under his own power, but there are cars pulling in and it’s too dangerous. Mather finds a little patch of grass for the boy to run around in. It isn’t much, and it quickly drops off into a steep decline, so he stations himself to keep the boy from running down the cliff. For a while the boy staggers around, reaching over to clutch at little sticks, which he holds up to his father with pride.
When the work bell sounds, Mather lines up at the service entrance and waits his turn for the security check. The boy tenses in Mather’s arms as they approach the nursery, but when Mather hands him off to the caregiver the boy does not let himself cry. Even at this age, he is trying to be brave. Mather watches through the high window as the boy is quickly placed on the floor of the playroom, in front of a bucket of foam blocks. The caregiver disappears into an office, but the boy does not seem to notice. He picks something out of the bucket and puts it in his mouth. Mather gives him a last look, then heads up the ramp to the elevator.
The boy is one and a half years old and his name is Alan Mather, and already he has dense black hair on his head. To Mather, Alan is a name not for a baby but for a grown man. When they were naming him, he had let the boy’s mother choose, thinking that he should pick his battles. She had been so sure about it, and Mather had found that he could not think of a single name that didn’t make him feel uneasy when he said it out loud. Mather has tried to call the boy “honey” instead, and maybe if he keeps doing so it will come to feel more natural. The boy has a quiet, wet cough and pink-rimmed eyes, and he’s already capable of a sustained, piercing eye contact that his father can never quite match.
At his lunch hour, Mather takes his thermos and sandwich down to the nursery. The boy is in a crib, but he is not asleep. He has the same little foam object clutched in his hand, and it’s been chewed to shreds. When the boy sees Mather, he starts to cry, but softly, as if he had already cried himself hoarse. The respirator in the nursery hasn’t been turned on, and when Mather checks the log to see if the boy has received his asthma medication there are no entries for today. The boy has the kind of asthma that keeps his lungs from properly lubricating, so he has to inhale moisture through a mask every four hours or his lungs will start to dry out. It’s not serious, the doctor told Mather, but he should try not to miss a treatment. The director of the nursery seemed to be concealing a smirk when Mather first introduced him to the equipment, as if Mather had simply brought in one of Alan’s favorite toys.