“Do you want to hold your new brother?” asked Hiram’s mother.
Hiram’s father said, “Go ahead, son, take him. Hold out your arms. Be gentle. Support his head.”
Hiram stood by his mother’s hospital bed wearing a white gown over his clothes. The family was alone in the room. Hiram extended his arms toward his mother as she sat up and carefully placed Terrence into Hiram’s care. Terrence, one day old, was asleep. Hiram studied Terrence’s tiny, scrunched, reddish features and said, “Shhh, Terrence, I’m your older-“
But before he could finish his introduction and for no clear reason, Hiram dropped Terrence on the floor. Hiram’s mother and father both screamed and a moment later, Terrence started screaming too. Hiram’s father dropped to his knees and scooped Terrence into his arms, trying to console him, but the baby’s screams only intensified.
“Call the nurse!” shouted Hiram’s mother. “Call the doctors!”
“I think there’s something wrong with his arm,” said Hiram’s father. His voice cracked with emotion.
“It was an accident,” said Hiram. “I didn’t mean to drop Terrence!”
Nurses rushed into the room and whisked Terrence away. In the horrible calm that followed, Hiram’s mother sobbed.
“What happened?” asked Hiram’s father. “Didn’t I tell you to be careful?”
Hiram said nothing. He was helpless to explain. He had no idea how it had happened. Everything had felt fine but then, well, somehow he’d dropped the baby. Maybe he’d been shifting his arms to a slightly different position and lost control? He didn’t remember. He had been as surprised as anyone when Terrence hit the floor. “I’m sorry,” said Hiram. He started to cry. “I didn’t want to hurt Terrence. I wanted to hold him.”
“Hiram,” said his mother. She took a deep, shuddering breath to collect herself. “I know it wasn’t on purpose.”
“I won’t drop him again,” said Hiram. “I’ll be careful.”
Hiram’s parents looked at each other and then his father said, “I’m sorry, Hiram, but you’re not allowed to hold Terrence anymore. We know it was an accident, but you can’t be trusted. We have to keep Terrence safe. He’s very fragile. What if you were to drop him on his head? He could get brain damage or die. We just can’t risk that.”
“But I won’t ever drop him!” said Hiram.
“How can you be sure?” asked his mother. “How can you make us sure? We’re Terrence’s parents. We’re responsible for keeping him safe.”
Hiram had no response. He couldn’t be sure. He hadn’t thought there was any way he’d drop Terrence the first time, but he had. Maybe he would drop Terrence again if he tried to hold him.
“Don’t worry,” said Hiram’s father, resting his hand on Hiram’s shoulder. “You can still be a good big brother without holding Terrence.”
“Like teaching him how to play baseball?” asked Hiram.
“Exactly,” said his father, smiling. Hiram’s mother smiled. Hiram smiled too. Elsewhere in the hospital, newborn Terrence cried for his mother, cried out in fright, and cried from the pain of his broken arm.
Hiram’s parents had two more kids after Terrence: a girl named Imogene and another boy named Herschel. Hiram didn’t get to hold either of them. Terrence, at age six, was allowed to hold baby Herschel and he did a masterful job of not dropping him. Hiram, now fourteen, looked on as his younger brother held his youngest brother while his younger sister stroked his youngest brother’s silky black hair.
“Do you want to touch him too?” asked Terrence. Hiram did not want to touch Herschel. He wanted to hold him. But he would never dare to attempt or even suggest such a thing. He couldn’t be trusted and he knew it. He extended his hand and stroked Herschel’s hair with two fingers.
“You can’t hold him, Hiram,” said Imogene. She was only three, but even she knew the rules.
Time passed and soon there were no more babies in the family for anyone to hold. Hiram was an excellent older brother for all of his siblings. He was protective, but not too protective. He explained the ways of the world to them, but never too graphically or too cynically. He was the best man in all of their weddings including Imogene’s because her husband didn’t have a brother and could barely tolerate any of his friends. Then Hiram’s siblings started to have babies of their own, none of which Hiram was allowed to hold, but all of which he was welcome to express his love for in any other reasonable way. He was all of his nieces’ and nephews’ favorite uncle. Hiram worked twice as hard to form meaningful relationships with his nieces and nephews in order to compensate for the fact that he had never been able to hold them. Hiram’s nieces and nephews knew he’d never held them, but they didn’t care. They didn’t remember being held by anyone as babies anyway, and uncle Hiram was great now, in the present day, which was the time period that mattered most to them.
Hiram got a job setting up displays at the Multioak Cultural Center, lived by himself in a nice house that he rented from a rich friend, and on the rare occasions when someone outside of his family offered him a baby to hold, he politely declined. Most people understood. It’s not uncommon for certain people, especially men, to be uncomfortable holding babies.
Hiram’s nieces and nephews grew up. They got married, they had babies, and Hiram loved and didn’t hold those babies too. It was a good system. Why change it? Hiram hadn’t dropped a baby since he was eight years old. What further proof would anyone need that the system worked? He spent his days balancing blown glass artwork and fragile Native American pottery on pedestals, he spent his nights exercising and pursuing a series of solitary hobbies, and he spent his weekends with his siblings and their families. In a way, it was a relief to Hiram that he’d never married and had children. Not being able to hold his own son or daughter would have been too painful. Everything was better how it was. Everything had turned out how it should have.
Hiram’s youngest nephew was Herschel’s son Travis. He married a girl from Heavenburg named Haylie and they had a baby boy who they named Lucas. After Lucas had been home from the hospital for a week, the whole family came over to Travis and Haylie’s house to meet the baby. All of Hiram’s siblings were there along with most of their kids and their kids’ kids. It was a packed house and the mood was jovial and celebratory. Haylie, beaming, took Lucas from person to person, letting each member of the family hold him for a few minutes. Hiram looked on, smiling and agreeing with those who said Lucas looked like his mother and with those who said he looked like his father.
Then Haylie brought Lucas over to Hiram and said, “Your turn, Hiram.” Her smile was innocent, but the party fell suddenly, uncomfortably silent.
“He’s beautiful,” said Hiram. “But no, thanks, let someone else have a chance.”
“But I want you to hold him,” said Haylie. She didn’t seem to have noticed the rising tension in the atmosphere in the living room.
Hiram could tell Haylie thought he was just one of those men who isn’t comfortable holding babies. Travis apparently hadn’t yet told her about Hiram’s tragic baby-holding history, about how he wasn’t capable of holding babies without dropping them. “I’d love to,” said Hiram. “But just not right now.” That would give the family time to fill Haylie in and then she wouldn’t offer again and everything would be fine. Hiram wished they could just be forthright about it, that he or someone else would be brave enough to openly explain the situation to Haylie, but he knew that would never happen. Haylie would have to get all of her information later and far removed from his presence.
“Now’s the perfect time, though,” said Haylie. “Look how relaxed he is. He wants you to hold him Hiram.”
Travis appeared by Haylie’s side and, giving Hiram a sympathetic look said, “I’m sure he has his reasons, Haylie.” He rested his hand on Haylie’s arm. Haylie searched her husband’s face, then looked back at Hiram. She was clearly confused. And hurt.
Hiram reached out and touched the baby’s head. Lucas’s skin was warm and smooth. “He’s perfect,” said Hiram. “He looks very healthy. He looks like his mom.” But Hiram could tell Haylie hadn’t heard him. All she knew was that her husband’s uncle Hiram — everyone’s favorite uncle — refused to hold her baby. That was her one takeaway.
Two evenings later, while Hiram was baking a potato and watching reruns of 30-year-old game shows, he heard a knock at the door and found Haylie there on his front porch with Lucas in her arms. Travis was not with her. Hiram, surprised, invited her inside.
“Travis told me about you dropping Terrence,” said Haylie. She hadn’t even removed her jacket yet. “He told me how no one lets you hold babies. How you won’t do it ‘cause you don’t think you’re capable.”
Hiram felt ashamed. He couldn’t meet Haylie’s eyes. This wasn’t something to discuss. Hiram glanced down at Lucas, at peace and sleeping in his mother’s arms. Hiram knew where this was headed and he didn’t like it.
“I can’t believe the whole family’s in on it,” said Haylie. “It’s cruel. You’re everyone’s favorite, Hiram, and you’re the only one who doesn’t get to hold the babies. Honestly, it makes me angry. I argued with Travis about it for over an hour last night and he just kept saying that you don’t even want to hold babies, but I can tell that isn’t true.”
“It is true,” said Hiram.
“No, it isn’t,” said Haylie. “You want to hold babies. You just don’t want to drop babies, and the family has somehow convinced you that you can’t hold them without dropping them.”
“You don’t know how it was,” said Hiram. “I dropped Terrence for no reason. I remember it clearly. I was holding him so secure and then he was just on the ground. Did you know that his arm still hurts him? That’s my fault.”
“This is so stupid!” said Haylie. “Why don’t you just hold a baby while you’re sitting down on a couch? Or on the floor?”
“Something would happen,” said Hiram. “I’d drop him and he’d roll off the couch. Or if I was on the floor, I’d drop him and then maybe while I was fumbling around trying not to drop him, I’d accidentally propel him higher into the air and-”
“I’ll hand you Lucas right now,” said Haylie. “I won’t tell anyone. Even if you drop him, I’ll tell everyone it was me. But you’re not going to drop him.”
Hiram backed away from Haylie with his hands upraised. “No, no, no. I can’t hold babies.”
“Don’t you understand how sad this makes me?” asked Haylie.
“It’s for his own good,” said Hiram. “It’s for his safety. That’s the most important thing.”
“No it isn’t!” said Haylie. “If safety was the most important thing, no parent would ever teach a kid to ride a bike or ever let a kid play a sport or climb a tree or ride in a car!”
“I won’t hold your baby,” said Hiram. “Or any baby.” He paused. “Can I get you something to drink? I have ginger ale or water.”
Haylie scowled, turned, and left without answering, holding Lucas with his face pointed back at Hiram over her shoulder. Hiram waved but Lucas didn’t wave back because he lacked the motor skills to do so, didn’t yet understand the concept of a wave, and in general seemed to have no idea where he was or what was going on.
Two days later, Hiram’s rich friend who owned the house he lived in showed up with a pest control inspector. They checked the basement and determined that the house was infested with termites and would need to be fumigated so Hiram would need to find somewhere else to stay for three days and two nights.
Travis and Haylie insisted that Hiram stay with them. Hiram tried to argue that it was ridiculous for him to intrude since they had a new baby, but they were so insistent that no one else in the family stepped up to offer since it seemed to mean so much to them, especially Haylie. She called Hiram late at night after he’d gone to bed to assure him that she wouldn’t try to force him to hold Lucas, that if he wanted to hold Lucas, he certainly could, but she wouldn’t mention it, she wouldn’t even bring it up, that had nothing to do with why they wanted him to stay with them, they had plenty of room, a nice guest room, they always enjoyed his company, he was the favorite uncle, and they just really, really wanted him to stay with them while his house got fumigated. Hiram finally agreed just so Haylie could stop talking and catch her breath. It wouldn’t be so bad. Hiram genuinely enjoyed Travis and Haylie’s company and he looked forward to seeing more of Lucas. As long as Haylie kept her promise and didn’t bring up the subject of him holding the baby, Hiram didn’t foresee there being any problems beyond some initial awkwardness lingering from his and Haylie’s recent confrontation.
The first evening at Travis and Haylie’s house was pleasant. Hiram arrived straight from work with his suitcase and got situated in the upstairs guest room, just down the hall from the master bedroom. Lucas was still staying in a crib in his parents’ room since he woke up so often during the night. Travis apologized ahead of time for any crying Hiram might hear during the night, but Hiram assured him that he was a deep sleeper, which was sort of true.
Then they ate a delicious steak dinner, talked, and watched a basketball game together. By the end of the game, Travis and Haylie were clearly fading fast as a result of their many consecutive nights of interrupted sleep, so Hiram announced that he was exhausted and went to bed. He stayed up reading a badly-written self-published book about Multioak’s early history written by a local author for almost an hour as, down the hall, Travis, Haylie, and Lucas settled in for the night and the house eased into stillness. Then Hiram marked his place in the book, turned off the bedside lamp, and went to sleep.
He woke up to the sound of a blaring fire alarm and the smell of smoke. He stumbled out of bed and opened the guest room door. Smoke poured into the room. He heard coughing and shouting and Lucas crying down the hall. Hiram couldn’t see anything but he dropped to his hands and knees to get beneath the smoke and crawled in the direction of the noise coming from the master bedroom. As he got closer to the stairs, Hiram saw a terrible orange glow coming from the ground floor of the house. The door to the master bedroom was open. Hiram saw the silhouettes of Travis and Haylie standing in front of their open window. Haylie held Lucas, who was screaming. Travis wore only a pair of boxer shorts. Haylie wore a white, knee-length nightgown.
“I’m here!” said Hiram, scrambling to his feet and hurrying over to the window. He could feel a touch of fresh air on his face as the smoke billowed past him and out into the night.
“Hiram!” said Haylie. “Hiram, we totally forgot you were here! Thank God you found us!”
“We have to jump,” said Travis. “I called 911, but we can’t wait! There’s too much smoke, especially for Lucas! I’m going to jump down and then you have to throw Lucas down to me, OK, Haylie? And then you and Hiram will jump down too! OK? OK?”
Haylie tried to speak but broke into a severe coughing fit. She nodded her head to show she understood and Travis didn’t hesitate. He climbed onto the open window sill, sat down on the edge with his legs hanging down, and then slid off, dropping down into the yard and landing with a clumsy thud. Then he stood up, favoring his left leg, and turned around, raising his arms and calling, “OK, Haylie! Throw Lucas down to me! Hurry!”
Haylie stood at the window, Lucas clutched to her chest. “Throw him?”
“Yes!” shouted Travis.
“Throw, drop, whatever. Haylie, quick, he’s breathing in smoke and so are you and Hiram!” There were sirens in the distance, now, but Hiram didn’t know how much longer they had. He coughed continually and was beginning to feel light-headed.
Haylie leaned out the window, held Lucas out away from her body and froze. Lucas cried and squirmed and coughed.
“Drop him!” shouted Travis. “I’ll catch him, I promise!”
“I can’t do it,” said Haylie, weeping. “I can’t drop him, I can’t make myself drop him.” She pulled Lucas back to her breast and sobbed.
“Here,” said Hiram, between coughs. “Give him to me.”
Haylie looked at him in confusion. “Give him to me!” said Hiram, and he reached out and wrapped his hands around Lucas, pulling him away from his mother. Haylie resisted for a moment, but dazed and dizzy from smoke inhalation and wracked by another coughing fit, she had to relent. “What…what are you doing?” She asked. “What are you doing?”
Hiram held Lucas securely with both hands. He made certain to support Lucas’s head. He was gentle.
“What are you doing?” asked Haylie, falling to her knees.
“I’m dropping the baby,” said Hiram. “This I can do.” And he stepped to the window, held Lucas out at arm’s length, made sure that Travis was in place below, and he dropped the baby.
“He’s fine,” shouted Hiram. “Travis caught him, he’s fine! Now you go! Go to him!” He helped Haylie to her feet. The sirens were getting closer. Or farther away. Hiram couldn’t tell. He guided Haylie to the window, helped her crawl up onto the windowsill, practically pushed her out, heard the thump of her landing on the dewy lawn.
“Now you!” someone shouted from below. Hiram tried to lift a leg up to the window, but he was too dizzy. It took all of his energy just to keep coughing. He tried to lift his leg up to the windowsill again and toppled backwards into the smoke. Lying on his back, he couldn’t see anything, but he could breathe better. A little better. The coughing was easier down here, at least. He rolled onto his stomach with the intention of getting back onto his feet, but that didn’t happen. Two voices yelled his name, one after the other and not near enough to matter.
Hiram sat on a hospital bed with his back against the headboard and his legs crossed at the ankles. He wore a hospital gown over his clothes. There were two empty chairs next to the bed and the television in the corner of the room was switched off. Five feet from the foot of the bed, facing Hiram, was a closed door. Hiram fumbled around on the bed for something to eat, like maybe chips and mild salsa, but there weren’t any chips or salsa or anything else. He was about to get up when the door opened and his sister Imogene came into the room and stood at the foot of the bed. “I dropped my daughter Sophia when she was three months old. No one saw.” As soon as she said this, a small, pale blue crescent appeared on her right cheek.
“Wait,” said Hiram. “Imogene, what? You dropped Sophia?”
Imogene turned and exited the room, closing the door behind her. As soon as the door clicked shut, it opened again and Hiram’s nephew Andrew entered the room and stood at the foot of the bed. “I dropped my son Teddy when he was two weeks old. He was fine, but still. I didn’t tell anyone.” A blue crescent appeared on his cheek too.
“Hold on,” said Hiram. “You dropped a baby too?”
Teddy left the room and Hiram’s 17-year-old great-nephew Alex entered and stood at the foot of the bed. “I dropped my cousin Virginia’s baby. She’s my cousin on the other side. She saw but the baby was OK so she said she wouldn’t tell anyone.” A blue crescent appeared on Alex’s cheek.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Hiram. “You too?”
Alex left and Hiram’s brother Terrence entered.
“No way,” said Hiram. “No way.”
“I was trying to carry my grandkids James and Kylie at the same time and I dropped them both.” Two crescents appeared on Terrence’s cheek, one inside of the other, as he turned and left the room.
More family members came and went, all confessing to the time or times in which they had dropped babies. Distant family members Hiram hadn’t seen in years came into the room to confess. Then family friends, acquaintances, coworkers, people whose names Hiram didn’t even know, who he’d only seen in passing, then strangers, then people who didn’t even speak English. The visitors stopped using the door. They simply appeared, confessed, the crescent mark appeared on their cheeks, and they disappeared, replaced by the next person. The door faded away. The people began to appear in groups of two, three, ten, twenty, all speaking at once. Hiram wondered how long it could go on. Then the visitors stopped appearing and he only heard the jumbled roar of their voices confessing in unison. Then everything was quiet, the door re-appeared, and Hiram’s father, who had been dead for decades, stepped into the room and stood at the foot of the bed. “I dropped my son Hiram when he was 9 weeks old. He hit his head on the floor. We called an ambulance. He was in the hospital for two days, but then we took him home and everything seemed fine. But I don’t know.” The crescent appeared on Hiram’s father’s cheek and he turned and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Hiram woke to a world of smoke and heat, a sustained, ravenous roar, shouts. Someone was carrying him, cradling him in powerful arms. He looked up and saw a gas mask, a helmet. He started coughing.
“Hold on, sir!” shouted the firefighter, his voice muffled by his mask. “We’re almost to the front door! Hold on just a few more-”
Then Hiram was in empty space. He was falling. He hit the floor hard and lay there stunned, wincing from a stab of pain in his tailbone.
“I’m so sorry,” said the firefighter, kneeling next to Hiram and scooping him up again. “I don’t even know how that happened. One second I had you and then the next second I didn’t.”
Hiram tried to tell him it was fine, that he totally understood, but it just came out as a prolonged coughing fit and then he blacked out again.
On his second day in the hospital, the whole family came to see Hiram, even distant relatives from downstate. They all packed into his room and gathered around his bed, beaming at him, asking him how he felt, what he remembered, telling him he looked rough, laughing, tell him that no, actually, he looked pretty good all things considered.
Hiram felt weak and tired, but he smiled as he looked from familiar face to familiar face. “Is Haylie here? Did she bring Lucas?”
“We’re here,” said Haylie, edging her way to the front of the group, Lucas in her arms.
“I want to hold him,” said Hiram.
“Whoa, whoa,” said Terrence. “Do you really think that’s the best idea, Hiram?”
Hiram turned his gaze to his brother, the two blue crescents clearly visible on Terrence’s cheek. Hiram understood that only he could see the marks, but he did not doubt that they were really there. Then Hiram sought out Imogene and Andrew and Alex and all the others with blue crescents on their cheeks, all the secret baby-droppers in the room, and when their eyes met Hiram’s, they saw that he knew and they were abashed, ashamed, afraid. An uneasy hush fell over the room but Haylie, as usual, was oblivious.
“Here,” she said, handing Lucas to Hiram. “Just support-
“Support his head,” said Hiram. “I know.”