• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 36. Dependents

    By Sean Ennis

    Stoner stories can give rise to diminishing returns, but not Sean Ennis’s limber and heartful “Dependents.” There are so many hysterical single moments here that you might not feel its deeper undercurrents until they’ve practically swept you away, on the gentle crashing tide
    of the story’s last line.

    Janet had had the baby six weeks earlier, and we felt ourselves getting a bit evaporated in Mommy-and-Daddyness. So when Memorial Day came around, we accepted an invitation to party. Truth be told, I had disappeared many months before, like a small moon eclipsed by the majestic planet of Janet’s pregnant belly. I peaked occasionally from around that human globe, but, really, I was gone. Even when people talked to me directly—pregnant-Janet miles away—I was still nobody. I was at best, a checklist: ticking down facts, purchases, and clichéd fears.

    She had her moments of majestic beauty and great monstrosity during her pregnancy. She is back to beauty now, more and more each day. And I saw some stuff. The brutality of pitocin, and the nirvana of stadol. A bloody little head where one had not been before. The glistening rainbow of the umbilical cord. When it was over, and he was breathing and screaming and pinking up, Janet said to me, “I’ve never done anything like that before.”

    But we were getting bored with our vibrating baby chair, and our swinging baby chair. Our Technicolor rattles. Our Diaper Genie had no more wishes for us. Our son, too, was bored. Even breastfeeding had lost its thrill; the experience was painful and unsatisfying for both him and Janet. He stared at us over his bottle of powdered formula like, Is this why you brought me here? It was settled: we would leave the house.


    We were invited to this particular barbeque because we had had a baby. Everyone there did. It was a new club we were joining, and their club seemed to work like this: Discuss the kids for forty-five minutes; smoke a bowl on the back deck for fifteen. Kiss and hug the kids for half an hour, back deck for thirty more. Yell at the kids for fifteen. Light a joint in the next room. Eat a carrot; eat some celery.

    We didn’t do any of that. Janet and I sipped our beers out of cans in the living room, and the baby grunted in his car seat at our feet like, Let’s go—where we going?—let’s go! Someone put Finding Nemo on the TV. The other kids that could walk were climbing the bookshelves, falling off of coffee tables. They didn’t care about the TV. Let me tell you about some of the people that were there.

    There was one guy I recognized, Warren something. He used to run a record store in town that specialized in music people never heard of. It closed pretty quick, in the space of a hot Philadelphia summer. This holiday afternoon, under his blanket of drugs, all he could mutter was, “Fucking iPod.” He had a line across his eyeballs labeled, “debt.”

    Another guy had the nickname of “Clip.” I didn’t want to know the story behind that. Finding Nemo confused him; he truly did not know where Nemo was. He said interesting stuff like, “If I were an Indian, my name would be ‘Bear Who Hates to Dance at Gunpoint,’” and, “Where the fuck are my smokes?” His own child was twelve or thirteen, which was old for this crowd, and the boy’s name was Roger. Roger found a dark corner in the house and pounded text messages the whole time.

    There was a bunch of other weedhead gorillas around, and I wanted to take a razor to all of their goofy, dirty hair. I didn’t understand men who survived a Philadelphia summer with anything more than a crew cut. These guys with ponytails might as well be wearing powdered wigs. Plus they were barking through the movie, which was really the only redeeming thing here. My son, at six weeks, he wore a crew cut.

    But one girl was in full-on mommy-mode—no weed, no beer—just a constant mantra about her ugly two-year-old, Julian. I did not catch her name. But once, Julian called macaroni and cheese, “Matches.” Hardy-har. And once he crapped in the bathtub. I guess he thought it was a toilet. The kid said, “Blurt,” and she said, “That’s right, ‘Car.’” The kid farted and she said, “That’s right, Mommy has to go to the gastroenterologist tomorrow.”

    We young parents must think we are very important. All our kids have the names of kings and warriors and prophets. Everyone I know under five years old is named Julian, or Hector, or Ezekiel. What are we preparing them for? I met a kid the other day named Solomon and he was on a leash in Wal-Mart.

    My own son was called John. There are lots of famous people with that name. The second president, the sixth, the tenth, the thirty-fifth. Then there’s the famous bank robber. Many talented musicians. The recorder of the apocalypse, even. Janet named him for her father, a good man who died from cancer. But I think of him as John Smith, not the anonymous moniker, but that captive of Indians, the lover of Pocahontas. I guess I was preparing him for something as well.

    Eventually, everyone left the room except for me and a guy draped like a blanket across the couch opposite me. Janet went onto the back deck to talk to the girls. My son was between my legs: in his car seat, going nowhere. We were still watching Finding Nemo, and it occurred to me that Finding Nemo must be an amazing movie to watch while on drugs. The colors and the dumb jokes. The deep feelings of loss. Fish. It was all there.

    The blanket-man sat up and scanned the room behind him. The two year olds were banging metal trains together, caboose into caboose, an improbable accident. Then he looked at me. He seemed surprised I was there, frightened even.

    “I need to get out of here,” he said.

    I smiled and nodded. I thought he meant something like, This is a radical party.

    He straightened up further, and I noticed he was in better shape than I would have guessed. His biceps bulged and tightened. Cords of muscle stood out in his neck. Short hair like it should be. His eyes, though, were red as the wrong answers on a test.

    “You don’t understand,” he said.

    I didn’t. I checked my son between my legs. He was awake, but content, bobbing along the way he does. Living.

    “Don’t you have a ride?” I asked. That was stupid. Never ask someone on drugs if they need a ride. They always do.

    “I was on leave from Fort Dix,” he said. “I met these guys at a casino in Atlantic City. They got me stoned. We went for a ride. That was a week and a half ago.”

    I laughed because I thought it was supposed to be funny. He stared back at the door to the kitchen and then leaned in closer.

    “They won’t let me leave,” he said. He was whispering now. “I’ve been kidnapped!”

    I thought about the people who lived in this house, what they might be capable of doing. I doubted they could keep a military man against his will. They were too fat. They were too friendly, too hairy. It takes focus to kidnap. Planning. Style. Doesn’t it?

    “I’m AWOL now,” he said. “I’m screwed. But they drugged me.”

    I took a longer look at him. He was wearing a stained T-shirt that read, “I Busted Caesar’s Slots.” Then, cargo shorts, some flip-flops around his hairy feet. Standard fare. Nothing obviously military. No dog tags. No badass tattoos or scars.

    “You seem perfectly willing,” I said, trying not to sound like a narc. Fifteen minutes ago, I had watched him swallow what, in HIV circles, would have constituted a cocktail of pills.

    “Oh fuck,” he said. “You’re in on it.” He slumped back onto the couch, and put a pillow in front of his face. He actually screamed into it, very childish. My son just gazed, sucking on his pacifier. This guy was ruining the movie. Janet was still talking on the back deck. Nemo’s dad was dodging sharks.

    “What do you want me to do?” I said. I had an addict roommate in college who was always stumped by this question. It usually froze him in his paranoia.

    “So, what, you’re a narc?” he said. “You’re a Fed?”

    “I live across the street,” I said. “I’m no secret agent. We were just watching this movie. We’ve got to find Nemo. That’s about it.”

    “I’m court-martialed,” he said. “Great. You know, this isn’t my fault. Jail. Wonderful.”

    “We all have to take responsibility for our actions,” I said. My son looked up now and focused his eyes on me. Something he can’t always do, mind you.

    “This whole party seemed suspicious to me,” he said. “What’s it supposed to be for?”

    Memorial Day commemorates U.S. soldiers who died while in combat, I thought. Men and women of the armed services are supposed to be especially glad of this.

    “Memorial Day,” I said.

    “Have you ever been to the desert, man?” he said. “Ever seen a bomb built inside a human skull?”

    I said, “I teach English at the community college. I come home at night and watch the Food Network. I have a son. Don’t put whatever this is on me.”

    Then he started with, “At night, in the desert, you can hear the souls of the—”

    “Oh Christ,” I said. I got up. I picked up my beer and my baby and went to find Janet.

    “Call the cops, friend,” he said, now lying on his back on the couch, howling into the night like some submissive dog of the desert. “Call them. Tell them what’s going on here, Narc. Call your boys in. The choppers. The cuffs. Take me to Cuba.”

    On the TV, Nemo’s dad and his friend Dory were bouncing through the jellyfish, trying not to get stung. Dory did get stung though, and kind of stoned herself. We have the movie at home and in widescreen. I’ve seen it a hundred times anyway. Nemo basically finds himself.


    Janet was posing on the back deck, inadvertently radiant in the sun, and got more so when I brought the baby outside. Golden arms on the railing. Frizzy hair from the heat. Her body still swollen a bit from the miracle.

    “Baby boy,” she squealed when we arrived.

    “He’s getting fussy,” I said, which was not true. But we had this new way of talking to each other, describing our own states as if they were our son’s. She understood. The kid was actually snoring to beat the band, to beat the druggy, party racket. We were secret agents in this respect; we spoke in code. I meant, Let’s go.


    We said our goodbyes and marched back across the street. Our baby was enjoying the momentum in the car seat now, the wind in his ears. He stretched the new muscles in his neck and arms. He gurgled his pacifier out of his mouth, stoked as he was to leave that party.

    Back in our own kitchen, we made grown-up drinks. The veggie platter had soured our stomachs, and it was getting late. Forget dinner. Our son oinked and mooed and quacked in his swinging chair. He would not sleep now. And he would not stop watching us.

    I made a toast.

    “I don’t like those people,” I said. “Or their kids.”

    “Be nice,” she said.

    We clinked our glasses and drank.

    “Our child will not be like that,” I said. I looked at our baby and his eyes were crossed.

    “Like what?” she said. “The parents or the kids?”

    “Both,” I said. “Neither.”

    “He’ll be what he’ll be. Himself,” she said. She took a rag and wiped down the counter.

    I had hurt her feelings because some of those people at the party were her friends.

    “Clip was a nice guy,” I said. In fact, at one point in the kitchen Clip had said to me, “Cool baby.”

    She nodded as she took another drink. I liked her hair when it was ruined like this by the humidity. I liked that after the miracle she could share a drink with me, be stunning. I thought it was for the best that breastfeeding had failed.

    “And the guy that ran the record store,” I said. “I respect what he was trying to do. I bought a few discs there. Some concert tickets once.”

    “Stop,” she said. “Eric was so cute.”

    “Yes,” I said. “Eric was.” I had no idea who that dude was. Another baby, I hoped, but his name—pretty normal—was suspicious.

    “I’m glad we went,” she said. She decided to cut up a lime for her drink. The baby was napping now in his chair, swinging east to west.

    “The guy with all the muscles told me he was being held hostage,” I said, casually. Just another detail from the party.

    “What do you mean?” she said.

    “He told me he met those guys in Atlantic City. They won’t let him go home or back to base or whatever,” I said. “He told me to call the cops.”

    “The baby is crying,” she said. This was also true. He does this in split seconds. He is so genuine in his emotions; there is no lag time. His smiles crack on his face like an egg, then it’s pure misery, pure tragedy. She left the kitchen for the living room, and then took him into the bedroom. I followed them, both our drinks in hand. She put him on our bed, on my pillow. I understood the gesture. She was mad with me.

    “Should I call them?” I said.

    “Who?” she said.

    “The cops,” I said. “About that guy.”

    “If the cops show up, they’ll all go to jail,” she said. “There’s a lot of drugs in that house.”

    “You know those people better than me,” I said, “Could they kidnap someone?”

    “What would be the point?” she said. “They have plenty of friends.”

    “Ransom?” I said. “Maybe he does chores?”

    “The most logical answer is that he was on drugs,” she said. “The front door wasn’t even locked.”

    I lay down on the bed next to my son. He was fascinated by the ceiling fan, and told it to keep spinning in his own way. Or was saying something else. Who could know?

    “This is going to ruin my conscience tonight,” I said. “That poor guy.”

    Janet took off her blouse and jeans and lay down on the other side of our baby so he couldn’t roll off the bed. He kicked me in the ribs and drooled on her bare shoulder, but he wasn’t going anywhere.

    “There’s worse things,” she said. “Worry about how we’re going to pay for our son to go to college. Worry about the destruction of the reef systems. ”

    “If I was kidnapped, I’d want people to believe me,” I said. “I’d sneak notes out of the house somehow. Do Morse Code with a flashlight. He even knows Morse Code—he’s a military dude.”

    “Stop,” she said. “Watch the baby. I’m going to run a bath.”

    She got up and strutted around the house in her underwear for a minute, looking for a towel and a book. She had a battle scar or two from the miracle, but otherwise—gorgeous. They talk about a glow that pregnant women have, and she had that for a bit, but now it’s sheer power that she exudes. What was there left to prove? A man would have to survive a plane crash to earn a swagger like that.

    When she finally shut the door to the bathroom, I talked to my son a bit.

    “That man was silly,” I said. “He’s not kidnapped. He’s with his friends.” I rubbed his stomach. “He’s just with his friends and being silly.”

    He talked back, and the expressions on his face were so sincere. There was something he was trying to say. Could it only be diaper, or food, or sleep? I doubted it.

    Janet came out of the bathroom. The steam and smell of soap made her a goddess from some enchanted lake. I told her as much. She fed the baby, I changed his diaper, and then we put him down in his cradle for the night.

    We whispered a little in bed after we turned the lights off.

    “Are you still worried about that guy?” Janet said. “The ‘hostage’?”

    “Nope,” I said. “I haven’t thought about him since we stopped talking about him. We’ve got our own problems. The coral reefs, for instance.”

    “The baby’s eye is goopy,” she said. “We should call the pediatrician.”

    “Okay,” I said. “Let’s do that. What do you want for dinner tomorrow?”

    “Fish,” she said. “Salmon. Or tuna. Something fish.”

    “We can do that,” I said. “Nemo with lemon. Done.”

    Janet giggled. “You’re terrible,” she said. “That movie is cute.”

    Then the baby began to cry, and we froze. His voice, they said, was designed to make us anxious. I believed it. Janet got up and tried his pacifier. She tried rocking the cradle. She tried the fake little bubbling aquarium. He was screaming now. I took him to his vibrating seat. I took him to his swinging seat. He was angry. Little veins and muscles, little clenched fists. His face was red as the wrong answers on a test.

    We hadn’t planned on having a baby, but here he was. He hadn’t planned on us either.

    And sometimes babies are born too early and can’t fight hard enough for life. And sometimes they are snatched from grocery carts, or disappear in crowded malls, or even die, inexplicably, in their cribs. And sometimes fathers run. And sometimes mothers say I can’t do it. I’ve never done anything like this.

    I’ve thought about those things a lot.


    Two hours later, our son was still screaming. Janet and I hovered above his swinging seat as he cried. It was two in the morning, and we could still hear the party going across the street. He swung to a calm finally, but John was trying to tell us something we didn’t understand about history, or about the future, or didn’t believe. We were exhausted, but we were still just saying in his ear, You’re ours, you’re ours, you’re ours.


    © by Sean Ennis. Used by permission of the author.

    “Dependents” first appeared in Crazyhorse.

    His writing has also appeared in Swink . . .

    In storySouth . . .

    And in Tin House!

    • brockox

      My favorite paragraph: “We young parents must think we are very important. All our kids have the names of kings and warriors and prophets. Everyone I know under five years old is named Julian, or Hector, or Ezekiel. What are we preparing them for? I met a kid the other day named Solomon and he was on a leash in Wal-Mart.”

      Beautiful story, man. The ending resonated for days. Every time I saw a kid in the grocery store with his or her parents I heard the mother and father saying that last line.

      I miss Roger and Clip.

    Our Friends

  • They Come in Collections, Too

    New and Impending from Harper Perennial: