The man and woman didn’t want him, but the baby came anyway. They didn’t like the idea of abortion – so low class – and once the boy was born, adoption wasn’t possible: They loved his sour-smelling vomit and the way his lips pursed as he filled his diaper. The mommy held him up for photos. The daddy tossed him to the ceiling, laughing. The mommy quit her job at the advertisement firm, and the daddy worked sixty hours a week at the five-star restaurant where he was head chef, so they could paint the nursery and get a nice oak crib and lots of educational toys.
When two years had passed, the boy, who knew all of his letters by sight and could sing three verses of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” began to consume strange objects. He ate dirt, soap, paper, and crayons. The pediatrician said it would pass. It got worse. Pencils, aluminum cans, staples, credit cards. Not a spoonful of the daddy’s gourmet macaroni and cheese passed the boy’s lips. After swallowing his own socks, though, the boy would announce, That’s good!, giggling gleefully, not understanding why his parents stared so darkly at the table.
When the boy was three, the mommy awoke from a nap to find him gnawing on her leg. She screamed.
It became clear that the boy wanted to eat the mommy so badly that he couldn’t concentrate on anything else. He stopped caring about letters and numbers. He stopped singing. He refused breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No glue piles, no bowls of buttons, no cardboard nuggets – none of the old meals satisfied him. He regressed linguistically, reverting to grunts, growls, and shrieks. He forgot his potty training and soiled his pants.
The mommy had a long talk with the daddy. This was just a temporary regression, they decided, nothing to be alarmed about. A little boy needed to know that his mommy was still going to sacrifice for him as she had when he was a newborn. Once he believed his mommy was attending to all his needs, he would break free, move on, and become independent.
It was agreed: She would give up her right foot. Seeing his mommy limp through hallways and struggle to master short flights of stairs – all for him, only for him – would allow the boy to return to being smart and normal.
It took an entire afternoon – two sheets, ten towels, ruined – but the daddy severed the foot. The boy seemed happy for more than a week.
But truthfully, the boy had a difficult time. His jaw wasn’t strong, and his teeth weren’t sharp. The daddy had boiled it to soften the meat, even tenderized it with a mallet, but still, it was tough and fatty. The boy walked around the house carrying the foot like a toy. He kept it with him most hours of the day, even clutched it to his chest while he sat on the potty. It pleased him, but it was a source of frustration; he wanted to eat it. Now and then he bit a toe, wiggled his head, and tore off what he could. What he rent was impossible to swallow.
No, no, no, he said. He wiped his lips in disgust and licked at the air, trying to get the gristle from his mouth. He threw the foot on the floor and went to his bedroom to eat Play-Doh.
From her crutches, the mommy watched her boy and felt sad. Wasn’t her foot good enough? Ten days had passed, she realized, and even if he did manage to get it into his mouth now, it wouldn’t taste like her. It smelled rancid, and the skin was gray.
Where is the justice? the parents wondered as they stuffed the rotting appendage under a pile of towels on the bottom shelf of the linen closet.
They’d grown to care about this boy, this boy they’d never wanted. They’d made an enormous sacrifice for him, and he had treated it like a teddy bear. Or worse, actually, since he did manage to eat teddy bears on occasion.
The daddy was enraged and sickened. At first, he wanted to fuck and make a new baby, a baby with more forceful incisors. But while he discussed the dilemma with the mommy night after night, nodding solemnly and kissing the rim of his cognac glass, his mind wandered to his restaurant, where he envisioned his staff of robust, well-groomed youngsters, kids who respected and learned from him and who ate his culinary creations with gusto.
The daddy sipped his cognac and decided to simply ignore his son until the boy’s shortcomings stopped inducing an unpleasant emotional reaction. Then he would be free. The process, he realized, was already underway.
The mommy, meanwhile, pitied the boy. He’s just too young, she said. Maybe we need to wait a few years, until he’s bigger.
And then cut off your other foot? the daddy said. So he can not eat that one, too? I don’t think so.
The daddy had been raised by a firm-handed father, one who gave few second chances. The daddy didn’t hesitate to apply the same tough love to his own child.
He convinced his wife to cut off the boy’s foot in order to show the boy what a sacrifice felt like.
The boy didn’t like it – hated it, in fact – when he woke up tied to the bed. Mommy went to work with the hacksaw. The boy screamed so violently that the daddy ran to the living room to crank Aida so the neighbors wouldn’t hear.
In the end, the boy accepted it. He sat in the corner of his room, pouring puddles of motor oil into his hand and slurping them up. He hallucinated that he was a sick, beautiful bird, floating upward through the clouds, lighter than the sky, his abdomen buzzing and filled with love. When he opened his mouth, great waves rushed forth to blacken the world.
The mommy carried his small foot. It made her happy. She snuggled with it at night while the daddy was out playing poker or softball or cooking for VIPs. But when the mommy tried to eat the foot, it was too tough. Alone, she boiled it and tenderized it, to no avail. The daddy had been gone for six days.
Without any discussion – for she had no one to discuss it with – into the linen closet it went.
Maybe, the mommy thought, Maybe when the boy’s a little older…