“Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this story,” Jack says from the driver’s side of the tow truck.
We have the windows rolled down, and crisp October air cycles through the cab. The wind has turned so that the smell from the sewage treatment facility is absent for what seems like the first time in many months. Of all things, Jack and I are discussing baby care. When he had clamped a cable to my fuel-pump-defective Honda and winched it onto the tilted bed of his tow truck, he spotted the just-purchased, economy-size diaper pack, 186-count, riding shotgun in my car.
At 38, I have just recently become a father for the first time. While many of the tropes about first-time parents are well-covered and demonstrably true — from the sleepless nights, to the spit-up-upon wardrobe, to the joy and change a new child brings — there are also many unanticipated interactions that accompany the arrival of a new child, one of which is the abundance of unsolicited childcare advice and personal anecdotes a new parent receives. My usual response is to shrug and smile and say, “Thanks,” but as a writer as well as a parent, I am always on board to ferret out a good story, which brings me to Jack in the tow truck.
I know Jack’s name because, not only is it stitched to his breast pocket, but each letter is tattooed at the base of the knuckles on his right hand which taps a pack of cigarettes against the steering wheel. Jack wears a bandana pulled down to his eyebrows. Hollows of missing teeth are revealed when he speaks.
As Jack extends his hand, palm forward, out his window to stand down a Subaru as we make a left turn, he tongues an absent bicuspid and continues:
“Like I said, I probably shouldn’t tell you this story, but what the hell. Look, I’m a gearhead. That’s probably the best place to begin. That’s what I do.That’s who I am. Babies just aren’t my thing. I come from a long line of gearheads. But one time I was dating this girl who had a baby, and I really liked this girl. The girl and I had only been dating a few weeks when I ended up being alone with the baby. The mother was passed out in the other room. She was sick. It wasn’t drugs or anything. She was just completely out, and all of a sudden I got a whiff of this baby, and I could tell it had a dirty diaper. The baby was standing there in his crib, and he was just smiling at me like he did this on purpose.
This was way beyond my pay grade, man, but like I said, I really liked this girl, and I needed a plan of attack. So I lowered the baby back down in the crib, and I headed out to my truck to see what I had that could help.”
“I didn’t want to touch that diaper, so I removed a pair of needle-nose pliers and laid the baby down on his back….”
As Jack speaks, I inspect my phone for any new messages from my wife. When I called her from the grocery store parking lot to explain about my car, I told her that the only perishable item I had to throw out as I waited was the frozen Brussels sprouts. She agreed that she and Sibley Rose (our two-month-old daughter) would meet me at the service station. After sending them a message that I am en route, I return my phone to my pocket as Jack continues:
“So I had a toolbox in the bed of my truck, and the first thing I did was put on these rubber gloves that went up to my elbows. I carried the toolbox inside and sat it next to the crib. I knew for certain that, even with the gloves on, I didn’t want to touch that diaper, so I removed a pair of needle-nose pliers and laid the baby down on his back. He was just smiling up at me, and I kind of picked at the diaper with the pliers. Have you ever seen those birds on the nature channels pick at things? That’s what I felt like, but I couldn’t get the diaper to budge. So I put the pliers back in the toolbox and got out my box cutter.”
When Jack says this, my stomach tightens as I think of the spasmodic gestures Sibley makes on her changing table. (The movements, according to a parenting documentary my wife and I recently watched, are a function of the brain mapping its neural pathways). Tentatively, I offer Jack the following observation: “I’m no expert here, but I don’t think most mothers like it if you use box cutters around their babies.”
“No kidding,” he says, “but what else was I supposed to do? Don’t worry. The baby wasn’t hurt. I was real careful, and I was able to cut the diaper in a couple of places so that I could remove it.”
“You know they have those sticky tabs, right?” I ask.
“Obviously, I didn’t know that. Haven’t you been listening?” he asks. “When I removed the baby’s diaper, I didn’t know what to do next, so I figured the best thing for me to do was call my dad. My dad wasn’t much help, though, because he’s also a gearhead. He’s the original gearhead. I asked him his thoughts on what I should do, and he suggested I look for a hose.”
The tow truck jostles as Jack changes lanes. Around us, other drivers pull into and out of traffic. Some are frantic (the Ninja motorcyclist whizzing past, his knee almost touching the ground as he leans into a turn), while others are staid (the Corolla full of nuns, their turn signal prosaically blinking a full mile before their exit). Though all of these individuals obviously started as babies, the thought of them as infants is hard to imagine.
“Come celebrate/ with me,” the poet Lucile Clifton wrote, “that everyday/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.” When I first read the poem in college, I focused on the celebration of survival. As a new parent, I worry more about the malicious “something”— the amorphous executioner behind every door.
I carried the baby into the bathroom. I sat the baby, Jacuzzi-style, on his rear end in the commode and, while holding him with both hands, I pushed the toilet handle down with my elbow.
“She didn’t have a hose, though,” Jack says. “The girl had only been in the townhouse a few months, and she didn’t even have a lot of furniture, much less yard equipment. So I came back in the house and checked the girl’s room to find her still asleep. I don’t know if you have ever seen that trick where people will line a truck bed with some sort of tarp and fill it up with water so they can drive around town with a portable pool? Well, I’ve done that once or twice, and when you drop the tailgate, the water comes rushing out in a big whoosh, and it can knock you off your feet if you’re not prepared.”
He continued: “I don’t know why I thought of this, but it gave me an idea, and I carried the baby into the bathroom. I sat the baby, Jacuzzi-style, on his rear end in the commode and, while holding him with both hands, I pushed the toilet handle down with my elbow. As the water swirled around the little guy’s butt, he actually laughed. Have you ever heard a baby laugh? I’m not exactly sure what I expected it to sound like, but this guy had a huh-huh-huh laugh, a real low voice. When I lifted him up, I couldn’t believe that it worked. For good measure, I gave him a second round in the mini-Jacuzzi, and this time he squealed and made these kinds of happy grunting sounds like a piglet.”
So as not to interrupt Jack, I point toward the exit ramp, and his bandana nods in response. “The last step was to get a new diaper on the little guy,” Jack says. “I went and got one from the hamper and laid the varmint on the couch. I lifted his rear end by holding his feet in one hand and slid the diaper under him to get it positioned. The problem was that I still didn’t know about the sticky tabs, and when I tried to pick the baby up, the diaper kept falling off. To remedy this, I wedged a pillow like a shim under his side so that he wouldn’t roll off the couch, and I went and retrieved the duct tape from my toolbox.”
“I secured the duct tape like a belt on the diaper,” he continued, “and then kind of wrapped the tape back and around for good measure. When I lifted the baby up, the diaper held, and he made a cooing sound like a dove. This was the exact moment when the baby’s mother walked into the room from where she had been sleeping in the bedroom. I thought she was going to be happy, man. I thought she was going to appreciate my resourcefulness, my industrialness.”
“I secured the duct tape like a belt on the diaper,” he continued, “and then kind of wrapped the tape back and around for good measure. When I lifted the baby up, the diaper held, and he made a cooing sound like a dove.
I assume he means to say “industriousness,” but perhaps he really does mean, “industrial”? He says, “But the thing is, she looked around the room and saw the toolbox and the box cutter and the duct tape, and she saw me holding the baby up at eye level as if this were some weird version of The Lion King, and she just started screaming. She was like, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ I tried to tell her about how I was just trying to help, but she wouldn’t listen. She just started yelling, ‘Get out! Get out! Get out!’ She broke up with me on the spot, man. I never saw her again — no, ‘I brought over a bag of your stuff,’ or ‘Let’s have lunch and talk about this.’ By ‘never,’ I mean absolutely never.”
When Jack says this, he kills the engine in front of the service station, and the whole truck shudders then stills like a giant bird. My wife’s car is parked out front, and she is standing by the curb. Sibley Rose is attached to my wife’s chest in this sort of papoose contraption where Sibley’s head peeps out of the top. When my wife sees me in the cab of the tow truck, she lifts Sibley’s hand from the folds of the papoose and waves. She then presses her lips to our daughter’s palm and blows me a kiss.
“You tell me what I was supposed to do,” Jack says as he releases my car and lowers it in one long, conclusive, hydraulic sigh. “What could I possibly have done that was better?”
Jonathan Fink teaches at the University of West Florida. Additional information about his writing is available at jonathanfink.com