Lee Klein: Baby Colossus
(from Issue Three)
IT WAS SO hot the summer before you were born, all I could do was play marathon sessions of video baseball. Day after day I played, amazed how the players looked like real players on real teams. But unlike with real players, I could modify the career potentials of these players so unimpressive rookies posted numbers worthy of Willie Mays. I made some trades, modified some career potentials, then led the perennially hapless Royals to 12 consecutive World Series victories. How much fun to simulate a season, win the big game, then take digital photos as the team pumped fists and a stadium exploded in fireworks and cheers.
I was not solely responsible for the Royals’ success, however. A shortstop I created knocked 377 homers in 2009 alone. He looked like a cartoon superhero. Waist no wider than his skull. Chest like the chrome grill of an SUV. I named him after the imaginary son Girlfriend and I have, a virtual son so much more virile than me, especially after someone stepped on my big toe in a pickup basketball game. The nail cracked, so I couldn’t run. Instead, I became obsessed with this extraordinary game, which Girlfriend welcomed because it meant I’d leave her alone. Your mother would have made me film the game, then doctor the playback so batters stepped to the plate swinging enormous erections. But instead all I did was hit homers with the übersuperstar I created, shortstop extraordinaire Thorstein Mohr—whose life ended when I destroyed the game disc after Girlfriend failed to sympathize when I lost to Boston in the 2017 American League Championship Series. Our imaginary son lived on, however, trapped in the big rock in the backyard.
It was around this time that your mother emailed her response to my manuscript. Easy reading, she wrote, nothing too difficult, but dark, and oddly—definitely oddly—autoerotic. Not heavy. Worthwhile. Fun. She added that she didn’t think it was shit. Which I took to mean that in all the time she spent reading, she’d learned one lesson very well: Never ask to see anyone’s unpublishable novel. It’s not like a video. You can’t just hit “play” on its pages and see into another world.
Three weeks later, your mother, my Ex-Girlfriend, emailed again from Madrid, this time to say she’d won a grant to film her pregnancy in slow-motion video.
Wonderful news, she added. Very excited. But not quite the reason I emailed.
She then mentioned that her husband was infertile, and since it’d be hard to film her pregnancy if she weren’t pregnant, she was wondering if I’d agree to provide “the biological matter” for a child.
If you’re interested, I’ll send a contract and some vials. Think before you respond. Serious business.
I ASKED GIRLFRIEND to stand with me by the big rock in the backyard. Its presence would help us through this. We leaned against the rock. I related to Girlfriend the gist of the email. “I’d like to have a real child,” I said, “even if it isn’t mine.”
She rested her head against the rock as though listening for a heartbeat. I expected her to say, Sounds great!
“Seems wack,” she said, “especially in my house.”
“I could try elsewhere.”
This now reminded me of petitioning my parents for a pet, except I wouldn’t have to feed or walk the child. “You could help with it,” I said.
We leaned against the big rock as I imagined making my first deposit in a vial. “It does sound good, right?” I said. Yet as I sensed her interest rise, my spirit dropped. (Intense times with your mother would help me fill the vials! Oh, that lovely freckledness!)
“As long as you let me help,” she said. And there was something so charged about her wanting to help that I asked if she’d like to practice right then.
She wasn’t much interested, so I walked in circles around the rock, black toenail not yet fallen off, but no longer sore, then I slipped inside just after eight o’clock to email Madrid to say, We’re on.
Moments later, I received a reply from your mother saying she hadn’t wanted to worry me when she sent the initial request, but she’d like to reward my generosity with a generous sum of money.
An honor to provide the biological matter, I began to reply. Consideration is reward enough. Keep your money!
But then I thought: Wait a sec! Hold up! What about travel? What about buying time to write something more plausible than a sensationalist spiel about an autofellator and a woman with Immaculate Conception Syndrome? Maybe something about a Michael Jackson impersonator this time? But if I traveled and wrote about a Michael Jackson impersonator, would Girlfriend and I stay together and bring Thorstein to life?
Consider the plunge into Girlfriend that conceives Thorstein. Compare it to the dribble into a vial that creates a child I can’t consider my own. She’s getting older. Window open wide since 13 is now a narrow slit. Why bring a new life into this world? That’s her main complaint. To which I respond: It’s life, darkness and light, equal parts good and not-so-good, equal difficulty and ease, concentrate on the good and it’s easier to deal with decisions to bring a life into the world. My skin tightens when I talk like this, my eyes widen as all the life in me argues in favor of more life.
I deleted what I’d typed, started a new message: I was about to refuse your offer, but if it still stands, I’d like to make this happen and use the money to pay for a child I can claim a legitimate right to.
Lingering resentment then resurfaced. In the summer of 2001, your mother decided to spend her life with the man she said she’d always loved, the one she knew long before she knew me, the one from her country who spoke her native language. I deleted this message, too, before I sent it.
Amazing that a man who thinks a little too often about a child who doesn’t exist named after Thorstein Veblen—the economist who coined the term conspicuous consumption—might be able to afford his own child (a real one), thanks to your mother’s purchase of his seed, which she’ll administer to herself while filming. After all the work she’s done about death and decay, what a conspicuous hit she’ll have with this pregnancy video! How many videos, DVDs, books, postcards, and wall-size posters will she sell? How many more awards will she win? Her most famous work had been a slow-motion triptych of a bull goring a matador, an extreme close-up of Hitler delivering a speech, and thousands of freaks achieving an evil sort of air-guitar ecstasy at an Austrian heavy metal concert.
Yes, we’ll do it, thank you, thanks, I typed. Let me know if you have second thoughts.
If you have second thoughts, I thought, about who’s really the love of your life, forget the money, I’ll forget the big rock in the backyard, Girlfriend, even Thorstein. If you want my biological matter, maybe you really want the man himself.
GIRLFRIEND SLEPT ON the couch out back. Citronella candles singed every winged beast that made it through the porch screens. Xmas lights. A beautiful world. Thirty feet out in the yard a big rock, one that now had a chance to hatch a Thorstein. I nudged her.
“Got some news about Thorstein.”
“Yeah?” She sounded like a napping seven-year-old.
“Yeah,” I said. “About Thorstein. Good news.”
“Yeah?” High-pitched, ethereal, still asleep.
I said we could afford a baby if she’d like to have one, but she wasn’t hearing any of it, so I put on my sneakers and went running and sweated out of my system the worry that Girlfriend would reject Thorstein and me. My god, poor unborn Thorstein.
After the run, Girlfriend was in bed and my big black toenail had fallen off in my sock.
THE EMAIL I received in the morning said, Expect a package any day now and a check when the baby is born. No package came on Friday. Saturday. Sunday. On Monday afternoon, a delivery man handed over a fancy hat box covered in Don Quixote stamps. I took the box to the back porch. Within the box was a black box that seemed sleek and sturdy, and within it were three glass vials sealed by rubber stoppers. There was a sheet of paper in the box, too, on which your mother’s precise cursive read, Please fill and return, and try to think good thoughts. I have included 60 American dollars for the best possible air service. (Don’t miss the camera!)
Three American twenties were taped to the back of the note. But a camera? I dug through the packing popcorn in the larger box and discovered a narrow box from which I extracted a telescope-like thing with a display screen that flipped off its side, as well as a booklet of instructions.
Think good thoughts appeared again on the instructions. So simple. Think good thoughts when you fill the vials. I found no explicit request to film it, though I did think good thoughts about seeing in some stuffy museum slow-motion loads of my love being shot into a vial.
The contract stated that I entered into this agreement in good faith, that in exchange for my help I would receive a certain amount of money, and that I was not to claim the child as my own or tell anyone. A simple contract your mother drew up, signed, and sent to me, a simple man who sensed things complicate after he agreed to help.
Your mother always said the man she married was the only man she’d ever love completely. Which meant she loved me partially. (I’d loved her all the way.) And that incomplete space in her let us create a human being, even if my parents couldn’t claim the kid as their grandchild. My parents couldn’t even know about you, since they’d tell their friends who all the time show off photos of grandchildren when celebrating the birth of another damn grandchild, while I fail to reproduce, fail to even send to my mother a photograph of Thorstein, my nonexistent child. How wonderful to send my parents a picture of the big rock in the backyard and say something like, Show that around, there’s your grandchild, an ornamental boulder I bought for the woman I live with who is neither my wife nor the mother of my only child who does not exist, the woman who will not have a child with me because she’s not sure she wants either of us in her life forever. Not sure she’s mature enough to have a child. Not sure about anything at all.
OPENING MY PANTS and aiming the camera at my anatomy did not exactly excite my anatomy. The contract did not require I return the camera loaded, like the vials, with creative material, but the suggestion was clear: Make a movie as you make a life.
It wasn’t just a child she wanted. She also wanted art. Art that would outlive the child. Art that would outlive us all.
Your mother knew that I would find similarities between the story I’d written about the autofellator and the one she and I would film about your conception. The autofellator I wrote about, for example, autofellated at first as a means of mourning his wife’s death, then he exposed the world to his palliative technique, minimizing masturbatory aspects in favor of the creative and connective when he webcasted it. Autofellatio is a physical exaggeration of solipsism, of course, but the talented fellow I wrote about sucked himself to connect with others, living and dead.
Your mother knew I’d understand that (1) masturbating to create another life, (2) filming this masturbation, and (3) one day writing about this masturbation transcended simple masturbation to become something creative in text, video, and human life. Compare these three (text, video, human life) to your everyday ejaculate. And don’t forget the Egyptian mythological precedent of Atum-Ra, who created the world by eating his semen.
Too much straight talk about such things is troublesome, I realize, especially in a letter from one’s biological father, and so I will describe how performing for the camera reopened moments of history with your mother, who required so much of my life back in early 2001, when I quit a good job to work on the autofellator novel. But instead of working on the autofellator novel I was shot through the head by your mother, who called to say she and the Austrian she’d always loved had consummated their friendship in Vienna. That spring, we’d talked about renting a shack for the summer along the Catalonian coast. But instead I was alone in Brooklyn, sweating, trying to write about autofellatio. Impossible.
Then one morning, once head and heart began to heal, I saw a crowd at the corner looking toward distant black smoke, and after turmoil and terrible television and too many drinks, I dreamed of candy cane–colored lipsticks spiraling through the air, out-of-control ballistic missiles, and woke to the sound of F-14s and Black Hawk helicopters and the sight of flags everywhere. Always bad to see so many flags. A tyranny of blue skies and flags. The wind shifted and from the rooftop I saw the amputated skyline for the first time, then ran downstairs and closed the windows as the smoke seeped like the Angel of Death and stunk of burned plastic and (everyone presumed) bodies.
GIRLFRIEND CAME HOME and asked about my day.
“How was yours?” I said, and she said “Same old,” and I said “Same here,” then I added “except I filled one of those vials.”
“I see,” she said. “Two left then?”
“That’s right,” I said, remembering she said she’d help fill one. I asked if she had any plans. She said, Later we’ll see.
I ran for an hour as she decompressed from work, then we grilled yellow squash and purple onions and ate them with iced white wine. Kisses, caresses. Camera on, clothes off. On top of the bed, on top of each other. Bodies mustering experience best they could. Giving it up for your mother’s art. Damn how this turned Girlfriend on. If only I’d known it’d take a video camera to remove her from herself, made her think about what we might look like on a widescreen monitor. Something good was going on as the camera removed us from our bodies, helped us make a child other than Thorstein. Oh, how things had once been good. In and out of bed. Living together was a terrible idea, if only because Girlfriend took her selfishness out on me. Cursed me with words best reserved for self-critique: weak, disappointing, unimpressive.
Her terribleness sucked my spirit, the same spirit she restored in the winter of 2002. Two years later, I moved in with her in Austin, and soon after, good turned bad. There’d been joy, comfort, warmth, the interminable cuteness of intimacy! We balanced each other out. Her upbringing and temperament had been unpredictable, so she focused on control. My upbringing and temperament had been steady, so I focused on disruption. In lieu of a wedding ring, I bought a big rock for the backyard. So much better! Not that it mattered. Not that it matters. She controlled my disruption. I disrupted her control. But my god. Veins in her neck. The heat of it, so much heat, and how much hotter it’d have been if we hadn’t been so weak, disappointing, and unimpressive. But still! What if I let one loose and—surprise!—Thorstein! We did it! Hurray!
She must have had the same idea: “Don’t spill any,” she said.
I capped the vial, and we settled almost asleep under the eye of the camera until we remembered we must refrigerate.
THE NEXT DAY, she came home for lunch, intending to help with the last vial, but by then I’d had some time with the camera, some time alone thinking about sitting with the woman who would soon become your mother, sitting with her for an hour in the Prado as we gawked at Goya’s Black Paintings. On the walls of his country home, he painted a monstrous naked man devouring one of his children who, with its brothers and sisters, broke their way out of their father to become the gods of Mount Olympus, a painting now displayed in a separate room of the museum where your mother and I sat for more than an hour. The guard surely wondered if we’d spend the night there. That’s the image that does it. Sitting there then stumbling away as though tiny airborne needles had etched into our skin whatever it was that controlled Goya so completely, he painted such terrors on his walls. And out of that same skin, which years later seems clear on its surface, I coaxed something for your mother to make a life her art would devour.
Nine months later, upon hearing of your birth, I wrote this letter, something I’ll send to you when you’re my age so you’ll have an idea about your real father, who, if he had raised you, would have devoured you in the best possible way, then let you break free to hurl lightning at the world.
Lee Klein received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His writing has appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2007 (among many other locations), and he has edited the literary website Eyeshot.net.