My Old Man Didn’t Sing
When we bought the house up in Castledowns, I took out the rosebushes and planted lilacs. Some of my buddies made fun of me for being so choosey about flowers, but they’ve let it go now because my yard is fucking awesome. Felix even said he liked the greenery when we were on the deck drinking beers and barbecuing rib-eye and chicken wings the other week. Dad hates it though. When Chalene and I invited Mom and Dad to see the new place, Dad said I should just leave the yard the way it was. But that’s just Dad, he doesn’t do anything he doesn’t have to do.
When I tell my buddies that I’m going to stay home and take care of the baby, they bust my balls for that, too.
Felix says, “Is there something wrong with Chalene?”
“No, there’s nothing fucking wrong with my wife,” I say. But my friends all look at me in a way that says they think there’s something wrong with me. If it wasn’t for my brother George, who tells me it’s a great idea, I might believe everyone else.
Chalene and I wanted a baby for a long time. Chalene’s a lecturer and researcher in environmental sustainability at the university. She’s been busy, wanting to get things done and eventually get tenure. We tried for two years timing it so we would have a baby in May, June, or July, because there’s less teaching then and Chalene didn’t want to take much time off work. And why should she when I’m more than willing to not sell cars at AutoFun Car Resales?
The truth is this: I want to be a gardener, or a landscaper, which is pretty damn far from car sales, but there are things you do for money and things you do because they make life less a piece of shit. So, Chalene and I talked about it and I’m going to take the thirty-seven weeks. I’m going to stay home and be a stay-at-home-dad. I’m already an expert on baby bottles. We’re only going to use glass, none of that plastic crap for us. This baby is going to get the best of everything.
I’ve only ever drank beer from glass bottles, and I figure my kid can be raised to do the same. Would I drink beer out of plastic? Never. No way. I don’t even accept those dinky red cups people hand out at parties that not only look dumb but are bad for the environment. But at Christmas, we go to my parents’ and Mom bought beer in cans. I wish it was glass but at least it’s not plastic.
“You must be excited to have a year of maternity leave, Chalene,” Mom says. She pushes the plate of turkey to my wife, who is just showing with a round ball below her breasts. I read that carrying high can mean a boy. But I don’t care which way it goes. I just want a kid that will tell me cute kid stories.
I swallow a glug of beer as Chalene gives me a look from across the table that says, “Just tell them already.”
On my right is my sister, Josephine. She looks at me and I can feel her smirk. Chalene told Jo the news last week—she’s been waiting for this all night.
I smile. “Actually, Mom. I’m going to stay home with the baby.” I grip my beer tightly, and the can crinkles. That’s why I like glass, it doesn’t show emotion.
The gravy boat almost slips out of Mom’s hand. Three drops of gravy splash on to the lacy, white tablecloth. “Whatever for?” she asks. “Did you get laid off or doesn’t the university want to give Chalene the leave?” Mom stares at me, looks at the gravy in her hand, and passes it left, to Dad. Dad’s a big guy like me, plaid shirt and burly brown beard streaked with grey. He stares at me, oblivious to the gravy.
Chalene laughs, clatters her silverware against the plate. “Elliot’s going to be such a great dad, don’t you think?”
“At least he’s not like George,” Dad mutters and everyone goes still for a moment. My brother wasn’t invited for the holidays.
“I think George would be a great dad,” Jo says, noting her opening and seizing it. She takes every opportunity she finds to knock Dad from the tracks.
“But is that even allowed?” Mom says, her eyes round. So round that she finally notices the spilt gravy on the table and she sets the boat down so she can get a cloth.
“Of course it’s allowed,” Chalene says. “Elliot will get the benefits for thirty-seven weeks. It will be a great opportunity for him to bond with the baby.” Chalene rubs a delicate hand over her belly. I can see how happy this pregnancy has made her. Even Dad’s glowering at the opposite end of the table doesn’t temper her shine.
My parent’s eyes move toward my wife. Mom clears her throat. “Well, Elliot, I hope your sense of smell isn’t as strong as your father’s.”
It’s no secret that even though Mom had three children in five years, Dad never changed a single diaper. Dad’s a big guy and worked almost his whole life at an oil refinery, mostly so he can go hunting on the weekends. I remember growing up, waiting for Dad to come home with a deer or a moose and running out to see the carcass without its skin. I’d watch him cut up the meat, packing it away so we could eat it all winter. I couldn’t wait to start hunting with Dad. He never let my older sister, Josephine, go with him. She used to ask, but Dad said hunting was no sport for a girl. For a whole year she resented me for going hunting with Dad and leaving her behind. She even went so far as to leave a dead mouse on my pillow once, courtesy of our cat, Skinny. She put the mouse in a recycled sour cream container first, but it was still awful. I know she felt bad about it after, though, because she stopped bugging me and just stopped talking to Dad in any way that wasn’t antagonizing. And then she found Nic, an avid outdoorsman that she goes hunting with all the time. Jo’s a natural with a gun. Dad refuses to talk to her about it, even though she could give him a few tips.
“So, are you going to wear one of those baby carrying things?” Felix asks me. We both work at AutoFun, though Felix works here because he likes cars and I work here because I failed to thrive. The only thing I like about AutoFun is working with Felix, especially when the Edmonton Oilers play on a Friday and we leave early to have some beers and watch the game.
“I don’t know,” I say, but I do know. I ordered one in black last week. I only plan on wearing it when I want to work in the garden and the baby won’t sleep. I read that sometimes babies sleep better if they’re touching a parent. Mom or Dad, research seems to show it doesn’t much matter.
“Do they even make them in your size?” Felix is small, and sometimes I want to crush him in my armpit. Other than our love of hockey and hunting, we’re different: he would never stay home with a baby, he told me that. Felix elbows me in the arm. He seems to forget that I can bench over four-hundred pounds.
“Yes, they do. They have those adjustable straps and things. Parenting isn’t just for women anymore.”
“Fuck that. My old man didn’t do a thing when I grew up except watch hockey and tell me to get another beer. I mean, I suppose he taught me to mow the lawn and make a mean spaghetti, but I can’t imagine him teaching me itsy-bitsy spider. Are you going to do that? Go around singing all those girly songs all day?”
“They’re kid songs, dick-face, not girl songs.”
“You’re such a fucking panty-ass,” Felix scoffs and raises an eyebrow. “I know your old man, I know he didn’t sing.”
“Still doesn’t,” I say, “But that doesn’t mean I can’t stay home with a baby and read it stories about dinosaurs or sports or whatever.”
Felix snickers. “You know there’s no hockey on during the day, right? It’s all women’s talk shows, and soap operas, and ‘how should I dress’ type stuff. I mean, I guess if you’re really into wearing lacy underwear it might be your style.”
“Sounds like you’re a bit of a panty-ass yourself, if you know that much about daytime television.”
“I only know because when I have a day off, Jessica never lets me pick what we watch. I have to listen to vagina-hour all day, unless I leave the house. Maybe you just want to stay home with the baby because you have a vagina, or is it a crush on Dr. Phil?”
“Oh just shut your dick hole,” I say. But Felix doesn’t let it go, and when a new customer walks in, he says, “Why don’t you get Dr. Phil to help you today?”
Chalene delivers our daughter on June 2nd and she’s perfect. They both are. We name her Brielle, and she squeaks when I hold her. She’s small and warm and has a tuft of soft, angelic, light-brown hair on her head. I don’t mind changing her diaper, though it isn’t my favourite part of the day, not anywhere close.
Chalene takes the first thirteen weeks off to recover and because the government says the first thirteen weeks are only for the one who gave birth and I can’t do that part. And honestly, after watching Chalene I’m not sure I’d want to even if I could. By August, Chalene’s feeling good enough and Brielle is sleeping well enough that we take the RV up to the lake for the weekend so I can fish and because Mom and Dad invited us.
When we arrive, Mom, Dad, Josephine and her boyfriend, Nic are sitting around the fire in the late afternoon sun. I get Brielle out of the truck and tuck her into the crook of my elbow. I pull out a camp chair with one hand and set it next to Mom at the fire.
Mom looks puzzled for a moment. “Where’s your wife?” she asks.
“She had to go to the washroom,” I tell her. “She’ll be back.”
“She takes a lot of breaks. I didn’t get a break until all three of my children moved out.” Mom glances over at Dad, who’s trying to stuff more logs into the fire pit than will fit. “And sometimes I still don’t feel like I get a break.” She tells Dad to let the fire be and then turns to me. “Come on, let me hold my granddaughter.”
I hand Brielle over and Mom coos at her. Dad asks Mom, “Don’t you think it’s time to make supper?”
Mom looks at Josephine and Josephine looks at Nic. He looks up like a startled deer, then he stands up. “Alright,” he says. “I get the hint.”
That’s why we all like Nic: he’s a good cook, and he’s not afraid of the kitchen.
For a long time Mom worried that Josephine was a lesbian because Jo had no interest in getting married and having babies. It turned out that Josephine was straight and my younger brother George is gay, but Mom and Dad aren’t sure what to think of that yet—even though it’s been five years—and that’s why he’s not camping. Also, he hates fish.
George came over after Brielle was born and held her for a few minutes. I could see from the way he looked at her that he wants to have kids one day, but he’s only twenty-five so there’s plenty of time for that.
George asked how Mom and Dad were doing and we laughed in a sad way about how Dad reacted to my being a stay-at-home-dad. Or SAHD, as George and I joked—even though I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Except maybe for that one summer when I camped out in the bush by myself for a week after spending most of the summer working for a local greenhouse. I know George misses our parents, but he just wants to be himself. He’s not like Josephine, he doesn’t want to throw his life in their faces like a broken jar of pasta sauce, so he’s determined to wait it out.
Mom was relieved when Josephine brought Nic home, but now she’s begun wondering why Nic doesn’t hurry up and propose. Whenever Mom asks Jo about this, she tells Mom that it’s none of her business. She’s her kid, she says, Mom just needs to love her how she is. There are no returns. That’s one of Josephine’s favourite lines. For me, it’s true. I wouldn’t trade Brielle in no matter what. I’d probably even lie for her in a court of law if I had to.
Dad, Jo and I go out fishing in the morning, around five, when the sun’s just up. The light is weak and easy on the eyes, which is good since I’ve been up with Brielle since three-thirty. She fell asleep again just before we left, and I took a picture of her and Chalene, asleep together on the cot, before I put Brielle back in the travel crib.
Dad notices I’m tired when I fumble the knot on my fishing line. “Looks like you didn’t get any sleep last night.”
“I got enough. I had coffee. I’m fine.”
“Why didn’t Chalene keep the baby from waking you? She knew you were going fishing.”
“I like getting up,” I say.
Dad grunts. Chalene did get up, but I sent her back to bed after Brielle finished feeding and wouldn’t settle. I wrapped Brielle in a blanket and took her outside. I showed her the night sky and all the stars; the big dipper and the little one and the north star. She didn’t make a peep, just stared up with her gorgeous dark eyes, the stars glittering in her irises.
I pick out my lure and cast out into the lake. The surface is smooth and glassy and slightly orange as the sun rises. The jack pines at the lake’s edge are reflected perfectly in the water. The reflection looks like another world, so real that this one could be its mirror image.
Josephine catches the first fish and it’s the biggest one of the day. Dad gets more and more grumpy the more fish he loses. After a few hours, we take our catch to the fish shack. Josephine preps her jackfish with precision, never wavering with her knife, sure of every line. Dad asks her where she learned, and she tells him Nic taught her. Dad only grunts. He’s never said more than five words to Nic, and I don’t expect him to start now.
The week after fishing, Chalene goes back to work. She doesn’t say she’s excited, she says, “Am I doing the right thing?” I tell her I know she loves Brielle and I know our daughter loves her too, so it’s okay. Chalene will still have plenty of time to spend with our child.
Staying home with Brielle is a different kind of busy, and it takes me a few weeks to get better at multi-tasking, but after that it becomes routine. I even find time as the snow begins to fall to plan our garden for the spring. I decide to redo the front and back yards. I take some on-line training and read a lot of books at the library before and after Baby Rhyme Time, where I take Brielle to sing songs.
I’m the only man in the room, and generally the size of three moms all squished together. At first, none of the moms talk to me but after a couple weeks they realize that I’m like them and we start talking about the best diapers and bottles and pooping habits and such. I try not to talk about poop because I don’t want to be the poop guy, but when you spend so much time worrying about it, it’s just natural.
I think, Fuck, if Felix saw me he’d never stop calling me names, and I can think of all sorts of good ones, which I remind myself never to share with him. Dr. Phil is bad enough, but I’m pretty sure if caught me singing “I had a Tiny Turtle”, he’d start calling me Raffi or Mr. Dress-up, or possibly diaper dick, which has a nice alliteration to it.
One week Mom decides she wants to come with me to the library. I take her and I think she wonders if I’m having affairs with all the mothers because she says, “Some of them sure look good for just having had a baby.”
I don’t respond because I’m sure she’s trying to trap me. Find another angle to tell me that what I’m doing is wrong. But she lets it drop and just sings the songs with everyone else. She tells me Dad’s going hunting on the weekend, but he won’t ask me to go. He got two deer tags, which we usually split. I don’t find this out until after he’s brought back two, good-sized mule-deer and Mom brings over a load of sausage.
When I ask Dad about it, he says. “You can’t have a baby near a shotgun.” I’m not sure if he’s talking about me or Brielle.
Mom starts coming by more. She doesn’t help or tell me I’m doing things wrong. She just watches and occasionally asks me if I could make her a coffee. “How are things with Dad?” I ask her.
“Oh, you know your father,” she says.
One day she’s sitting on my couch, having her second cup of java when George stops by. He was in Mexico and he brought back a shirt for Brielle that starts, ‘My Uncle was in Mexico…’ It means a lot to George to have a niece. Mom and George haven’t seen each other in a couple years. Dad said he wasn’t going to talk to George until he straightened things out, and Mom said she was just fine with George being single all his life—in other words, she just didn’t want to know.
Mom watches George holding Brielle. He’s lifting her up and making her smile and laugh. She’s getting so big so fast and it makes me tight in the chest to know that this won’t last forever. Mom asks George who he went to Mexico with. He tells her the truth. Mom doesn’t flinch.
She keeps watching George, then she asks him where he stayed and where he’s living, and she gets all the details that she said she never wanted.
By Easter, Josephine is pregnant and not married but Mom doesn’t even care. Dad’s having a hard time with it though, so he sits in his chair and doesn’t talk to anyone. We all laugh in the kitchen. Dad turns up the volume on the television. He’s into watching the history channel, documentaries that have all the old black and white footage that was originally filmed with no sound, so now they just do voiceovers so you don’t know the difference. Sometimes the sound was recorded separately and then they had to match the two together. All that old film is new again.
Josephine’s new baby will be here soon enough. And then Chalene and I think we might have another one. Maybe even one more after all that but we’ll see how things go. I’m letting the plants in my new garden take root. George and I have started a new business, and we can’t wait for the warm weather to come. We can feel the good things coming. They’re just around the corner, buried under the snow, but they’ll be blooming soon enough.
Jennie Hunter lives and writes in Saskatoon, Canada. Her literary work has previously appeared in publications including Prairie Fire, The Anti-Languorous Project, and Blank Spaces among others. Jennie was previously awarded an Independent Artists Grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board. Jennie also works in the field of environmental engineering and is currently working on a novel that explores the intersection of personal and professional lives.