Mike Hanneman followed his father down a corridor in St. Joseph’s Hospital. Leading them was a prim, middle-aged man in a white jacket, who moved briskly and said little. The overhead lights reflected off the well-polished floor and the silver plates of the numbers of the doors on either side. More doctors in white coats and their aides bustled about and a droning voice issued intermittently from somewhere. None of these people smiled and all looked totally absorbed in their duties.
Mike and his father walked with the doctor through several more corridors and into a quieter hall, where the doctor stopped. Here, the droning voice was more distant and the glow of the cool antiseptic surfaces was downright eerie.
The prim doctor gestured toward one of the doors and exchanged a few words with Mr. Hanneman before walking off, dignified and brisk. The father and son stepped into the room.
It took Mike’s eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim light, and when they’d done so, he made out little more than drawn blinds, a grey cabinet, some elaborate medical equipment, and a bed. In the bed, a diminutive figure. Mike’s little brother. His body looked especially small for being somewhat emaciated.
Mr. Hanneman walked up to the bed and Mike came behind him. He hadn’t seen Matthew since before the procedure that removed the little boy’s right hand. Mike gripped the side of the bed and his father stood next to him. Matthew was propped in a sitting position, his extremely thin legs stretched out before him and a pillow pressed between his back and the head of the bed. He wore his favorite red football shirt and blue shorts. Matthew’s body, Mike knew, was probably weak, his muscles like noodles, thanks to the period of prolonged isolation and examination preceding the surgery and the absence of physical activity since.
Matthew turned to look at the visitors. He was crying softly, his countenance choked and distressed.
“Hey, Matty. We came to see how you’re doin’,” the father said, smiling widely.
Matthew only continued to cry softly. The father seemed to grope for words. The only gesture he could make was to pull a hanky from his pocket and use it to wipe away some of the tears on his son’s face. But the seven-year-old began crying harder.
“Matty. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s all right, Matty,” the father said.
Matthew looked painfully at his father, seeming to want more tangible reassurance. Mike looked on silently.
“Would you like a TV in here, Matty? Should we see about getting you one?” the father asked brightly, not addressing the issue that having a TV was the default for most patients in modern hospitals and it was odd that his boy didn’t have one.
The little boy just went on looking at his father unhappily as more tears coursed down his face.
“Look what we broughtcha, Matty,” the father said, and withdrew a slightly melted candy bar from his pocket.
Matthew glanced at the proffered candy bar and then back at his father.
“Daddy,” he said, “are they gonna put my hand back on?”
Mr. Hanneman lowered the candy bar. “What, Matty?”
“Are they gonna put my hand back on?”
The boy cried louder now.
“Now, Matty. You’re not a baby, you’re a big kid. So quit cryin’. Don’tcha want this?”
Matthew didn’t want candy just now. The tears came harder. Mike noticed that his brother’s hair looked pasted to his forehead, as if he’d been sweating. The boy cried harder and harder and his little frame seemed to tremble.
The father extended a hand but withdrew it a moment later. There was no comforting the kid.
But the father tried.
“Christ, Matty, I don’t know how to explain this to a kid. Because that’s what you are, you’re a kid. My boy. My little Matty. That’s what you are and will always be to me, even if it’s not what some people see. They see a soldier in the counter-revolution, or, what d’you call it, an embryonic soldier. A soldier-to-be.”
Mike listened with fascination, though some of this went right over his head. The father went on.
“You see, Matty, this is the age of #MeToo. It’s the time when women get payback. Not all women, but those who’ve been victims at the hands of men. The revolution has advanced far and they’ve gotten to the point where they’re not just lookin’ at philanderers and harassers, but at aggressors-to-be. Yeah, they’ve scored some minor victories in the present, they’ve locked up Weinstein and they’ve ruined Ghomeshi’s career, but that’s not enough, Matty. That’s not enough. They’ve made people everywhere hear the need to go further, to avoid problems in the future, and to do this, we’ve gotta change the culture. That means mandatory gender equality trainin’, and a ban on certain books and movies. It also means anticipatin’ how future generations of men may or may not behave.”
Matthew’s crying had died down every so slightly. Mike continued to listen with fascination.
“So, you see, Matty, when you got to be of a certain age, the new progressive government selected you for examination. It was a priority at this revolutionary moment. Although they respect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and all that crap, they had to check you out and run tests on you. And they determined you were just too high-risk, Matty. Not your brother, Mike here, whose mom is a San Francisco hippie and brought him up to be a good male feminist. But you, Matty, the child of my second failed marriage, you had a dad with primitive Archie Bunker attitudes and a lowlife alcoholic mom who never instilled progressive values, and you were growin’ up in a milieu where people have never even heard the term feminist. Or if they have, they think it’s a dirty word. You were gonna grow into a tough mean macho alpha male, and that hand of yours was gonna feel hundreds of women’s asses and was gonna slide right under their bras and feel them up and make them feel as miserable and exploited as they ever had in the pre-progressive age. And that was totally at odds with our values today. Your hand had to come off, Matty. To nip your aggression in the bud. To send a message. To let parents everywhere know they’d better get woke, they’d better get with the program.”
Matty began crying hard again as his brother looked on in bewilderment.
“Think it all over, Matty. We’ll come back later and give you your candy bar. And we’ll see about a TV,” the father said.
The boy just went on crying.
“It’s all right, Matty. It’s all right,” the father said, but the words were empty. After a final glance, the father turned and walked toward the door. Mike followed him, looking over his shoulder at his brother. Matthew looked straight ahead now as he sobbed.
In the hall, the father walked briskly and a few steps ahead of Mike, his fists clenched and his head slightly lowered. Mike had to hurry to avoid falling behind. Again he found it hard to distinguish most of the corridors from one another, but he felt the doors they passed were no longer a mystery. Behind them were people who, like Matthew, would go through their whole life with horrible injuries.
They reached the lobby. Mr. Hanneman pushed open the front doors and they walked out into the late-summer heat. No winds came, and nothing stirred but for a few pedestrians on the sidewalk and an occasional car hissing down the street. The hospital, the other buildings, the filthy pavement, everything appeared to share a dull yellow tint. It was hard to stand in the sunlight for more than a few seconds without squinting. Mike breathed heavily, uneasily. He followed his father around to the parking lot, where the light reflected off scores of glinting chassis. The father still walked a few paces ahead. When they came to their car, Mike got in reluctantly, knowing the back seat had absorbed enough heat to sting his exposed legs. They headed home through the still, yellow streets.
That night, they sat across from each other in the dining room of their small house, picking at the food on their plastic trays and gazing across the room at the football game on the TV. No one knew how many more football games people could legally see.
The room, and the rest of the house, were dark except for patches in the path of the shifting light emanating from the screen. That light was always on. When Mike grew older, he wouldn’t be able to recall a scene from the house without the TV flashing and blaring. He and his father said nothing for most of the meal. Then at the end there came a brief exchange.
“Mike,” said the father.
The son gazed at the TV and gave no appearance of having heard.
He glanced at his father.
“Yeah?” he asked, expecting a request to pass the salt or go get another beer.
“Listen, Mike. I know it’s hard for a kid your age to understand what’s gone down, or what I’m gonna do. But I’d like to have your consent. Are you willin’ to hear me out here?”
“The hospital’s gonna release Matthew in a little over a month. When that happens, we’ve moving to San Francisco. I know it’s a surprise, but I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. There’s no reason to stay here. But, above all, if we live in a real progressive city, it’s much harder for them to pin anythin’ on us or put the legal machinery of the state in motion against us. You get it?”
“You mean it? San Francisco?” Mike replied.
“That’s right. I have a few friends out there and they’ll help me find work. And you’ll like it. Long steep curving streets, nice weather, friendly folks. As for this place, we’ll have it auctioned. So this week, I want you to get your stuff together. I’ll give you a trunk and you can throw all your junk in it. All right?”
Mike already had a slew of questions on his mind, about school, about Matthew’s future, about this new destination. But he nodded and replied, “Okay.”
Then he added, “I’ll pack my brother’s stuff too.”
“No, you don’t have to do that.”
“Huh? Why not?”
The father looked at his tray with his brows knit. He had the air of a translator trying to find the words to explain a subject to someone with limited knowledge of the language. A roar issued from the TV. At last he spoke, without lifting his eyes above the table.
“Mike, when you get older, you’ll come to have a more mature understanding of things and to accept the truth of what those who are really wise and learned have laid out for the rest of us to believe. There’s no nice way to say this, but your brother never had a right to grow into a man. He just came into the world in the wrong set of circumstances. A backward, bigoted dad. A mom who didn’t see which way the wind was blowin’. Don’t think I lack sympathy for Matty. This ain’t his fault, Mike. But if we’re pragmatists, if we see things as they are, it don’t serve no one’s interest to go on encouragin’ somethin’ that’s not gonna work out.”
Mike looked at his father blankly.
“Aw, forget it. You’re just too young to understand. You don’t see the revolutionary moment for what it is, do you Mike?”
Still the boy didn’t answer. His father went on.
“All you need to know is, Matty’s not comin’ out to the West Coast with us. When he’s released, I’m gonna call up a friend in Brooklyn who knows his way around the landfills, and my friend is gonna come by in his big black limo and take Matty away and you’re not gonna see your brother again. But don’t be sad. The world needs progressive people who live in the present, not in some barbaric past. And if your brother lived and went out into the world, he’d just perpetuate ways and habits that ain’t got no place in the world today. But forget it, Mike. You’re a kid. You probably don’t get half of what I’m tellin’ you. Forget it all. Go and get started on your job.”
The father went back to his dinner, finished eating, and then without another word pulled up a chair in front of the TV and dropped into it. Mike mulled over his father’s words as he carried the empty trays into the kitchen. He tossed the trays out and retired to his room.
After studying literature and history at Grinnell College and the University of Wisconsin, Michael Washburn moved back to the East Coast to work in publishing and journalism.
His fiction has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Rosebud, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Concho River Review, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Stand, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Weirdbook, Hellfire Crossroads, and Weird Fiction Review. Michael’s story “Confessions of a Spook” won Causeway Lit’s 2018 fiction prize. Michael’s books include The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019) and Stranger, Stranger (2020).
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