Monday, June 25, 2007

Vegas, Baby

By Brian Turner
Home Fires:
Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life
The New York Times
June 24, 2007

It’s 4 a.m. and I’ve got the cruise control set to 85 m.p.h. I’m listening to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, my new favorite band, and swigging Dr. Pepper the way farmers down in Columbia chew on cocoa leaves to wake themselves up. Rolling the window down doesn’t help any, either — the warm breeze coming in is soft as a downy pillow. I’m crossing over the Tehachapi Pass on Highway 58 out of Bakersfield, a windy old road lit only by the headlights of my car. By dawn I’ll be passing through Joshua Tree National Forest, leaving California behind for the bright lights of Las Vegas. Of course, every one of those Vegas light bulbs will be turned off by the time I get there. The remnants of last night’s light will have left the earth’s thin atmosphere and pushed out toward Venus.

I’m supposed to be working on an article for Home Fires, but instead I find myself thinking about the King and pork chops and burlesque shows lining the strip. I’m also thinking about the baby I’m driving here to pick up from the hospital. An infant boy, only 60 hours old, and already he’s living an incredibly complicated life.

The Mother

She’s a shirttail relative who just turned 22 a couple months back. I just saw her last Sunday at a family picnic. She had a huge, round belly — so big it looked like it might have been her 14th month, as if she were being stubborn and refusing to give birth. She told me she was going to Vegas on a charter bus the following weekend with her mother and a group of 60. I gave her one of those sideways looks at the time that means that just doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. But I didn’t say anything. Like I said, I’m a shirttail relative and barely know her at all. Besides, what do I know about giving birth? She’d already had the experience of birthing her two young daughters, and was sure it was another two weeks away, that the doctors were way off the mark. Everybody else at the picnic told her she was crazy to go, including her own mother, who had planned the trip.

Here’s the hard part. Here’s the part I can’t figure out no matter how hard I try. When she steps off the Vegas bus all wobbly and pregnant, she joins her friends in exploring the bright lights of Paradise Road and Las Vegas Boulevard. She leans her head back in awe of the ship masts at Treasure Island where sirens battle renegade pirates in the summer heat, replete with explosions and cries of distress from the crow’s nest above. The head of the Sphinx beside a black pyramid of glass, the Sahara, the Mirage, the Eiffel Tower — the strip offers its intoxicating façade and she is taken in completely.

12:30 a.m. So she wobbles over to the room with her friends, kicks off her sandals and props up her swollen feet on a plush ottoman. And when the circle of friends gathers around a razor-chopped mirror, she joins them, inexplicably, with a plastic straw in hand, to snort a line of methamphetamine.

Unbelievable. Never in a million years, right? And guess what? (It just gets better and better — or worse and worse.) Taking in this drug induces labor.

That’s right. Not a false alarm. This is the real deal. Labor.

And so he is born.

Of course the doctors discover methamphetamine in the baby’s bloodstream. At 7 pounds, 8 ounces, he’s having difficulty breathing when he meets the bright lights this life offers him. Wisely, the state of Nevada doesn’t choose to release this infant to his mother. Her husband can’t leave the state of California to pick them up because he’s under parole. (She became pregnant by another man while her husband was in prison; the biological father has since reversed roles with the husband and is now serving 10 years behind bars … I promised you it would get better, right?) Her own mother can’t come to pick her up because — you guessed it — she has a documented drug history, a prison record, not to mention Child Protective Services issues in years gone by. Unbelievable, but true.

So I find myself in Vegas, not to see the showgirls or to pull the slots for a string of cherries, but to sign the paper releasing this infant boy from the hospital to me. Holy expletive.

The Temporary Father

I didn’t even know my car came fully equipped with metal locking rings to snap in the child seat I bought yesterday. It’s as if the machinery of my life knew I would one day be a temporary father. If I’d known they were there, I’d have probably used them to bungee cord ice chests down while going on camping trips in the Sierra Nevadas. What else don’t I know? Where is Dr. Spock?

The releasing nurse went over a page-long list of things not to do (and the extemporaneous additions and tangential true-life stories she added to that list were enough to make me want to drive directly to Dr. Spock’s house for backup). For example, the nurse said she has a firefighter boyfriend who — on just one routine day — had to help with two infant deaths. The first one happened when a parent rolled over in sleep and accidentally smothered the helpless baby. In the second case, a mother was sitting propped up in bed, breastfeeding her child. She feel asleep with the infant cradled in her arms and suckling from her. Tragically, the infant didn’t have the strength to break free of her breast and was smothered in her arms. I’m thinking: Is it possible to help take care of this child without breaking him somehow? I mean, look how incredibly fragile he is.

The Infant Child

It’s been a few days now. Days spent waiting to see what the California folks want this baby’s mother to do now. I remain a temporary father, a guy who holds the little papoosed infant, wrapped up like a cotton burrito, putting the tiniest of hand mittens on his little hands to help him not scratch himself (he scratched his cheek yesterday). On the bright side, his breathing has returned to normal and the nurses say he isn’t showing signs of withdrawal.

And I have to tell you — I think most infants look horrible, like little monsters brought up from the lightless depths. Most of them look like pink, angry little Lou Ferrignos with their crunched-up foreheads, minus the green tint. But this little guy? He’s amazing. Bright-eyed and — I’m not saying this just to be nice or something — beautiful. It gives me just a little hope to think that even with all of the baggage we here in the world welcome him with, he’s beautiful.

And it makes me think: what can we do now, right now, to make his life a better one.

I’m going to teach him how to play the piano this week. Don’t doubt it for a second. Play Mingus for him and listen to the little guy improv. Maybe one day, years from now, I can visit the bright lights of Vegas for real. And when I do, I’ll finally get to see the showgirls in the burlesque and hear the King croon songs of a blue Hawaii. Maybe one day I’ll get to see this boy I fathered, if only temporarily, headline the main stage, his name lit up with a thousand multi-colored bulbs on the marquee outside, the keys under his fingertips made brilliant by his touch.

Brian Turner is a poet who has served seven years in the Army, most recently in 2004 as an infantry team leader in Mosul with the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division. His book of poems, "Here, Bullet," won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award and was a New York Times Editor's Choice selection. He lives in Fresno, Calif, where he teaches poetry at Fresno State.


Blogger KathyH said...

Green, great story. I hope the author lets his readers know the little guy's fate.

4:49 PM  

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