“Play you three for King,” he said.
“I already am King,” I said.
“You won’t be for long.” He gave me a long and taunting look. He had adopted the especially dramatic delivery that seven-year-old boys have perfected. “That is, Dad, if you dare …”
He had gotten a game called Gangland for his Sony Play Station and now all he wanted to do was to race me, head to head, on skateboards through a burned-out track in East Los Angeles. It was a hard course. You had to control your skateboard as you hurtled through concrete culverts and barricaded streets. Terrors sprang at you on every block. Rats the size of small boys, braying police vehicles, gang members on motorcycles–they lived to knock you off your skateboard so that your body would plane through the air only to land with a marvelously resonant splat on the sidewalk or the roadside or the flat end of a graffiti-ridden Jersey barrier by a roadside construction site.
At the beginning of the game, you had to choose your character. Each of the characters had particular attributes–various combinations of strength and acceleration and speed and agility. I liked to be Nick LaTrick, a speedy no-nonsense skateboarder who wore a scowl and a backward baseball cap. Eli was Teddy Blades or, sometimes, the “Mechanic”, the latter a particularly loathsome youth in gang colors and black leather gloves with the fingers cut off.
“Head to head?” I said.
“Head to head,” he allowed. He was in a particularly cheerful mood today. He had developed his own laugh, an odd combination of braying, chortling, and cackling. Now he was chortling and cackling to himself.
In Gangland you raced on a split-screen; your character to the left or the right of the screen where your opponent raced. Each character had to brave the challenges of the course separately, each in their separate screen, but if the two were close together on the same part of the course, each would appear in the other’s screen. To keep matters interesting, there were another eight unaffiliated gang members in the race, so that even if you were far ahead of your direct opponent there was the added drama of battling the rest of the field.
“Prepare,” he said, “to meet your doom.”
* * *
We were waiting for the results of the amnio. Marty was pregnant and was trying not to show it but at 16 weeks that had gotten difficult even with her creative use of scarves and capes. She was, she said, the oldest first-time mother in history and if that was a great exaggeration we were still very nervous. Pregnancy had been difficult to achieve and even more difficult to sustain. Over the last year we had reached and then accepted the conclusion that the only child we would have together would not be one that had an egg from Marty and sperm from me, even with all the help that today’s ubiquitous fertility clinics could provide in combining the two.
And if we had accepted the reality that our procreation was to be complicated, we had not made our peace with the process ahead. Neither of us yearned for the forced clubbiness of fertility patients and their doctors. Neither of us looked forward to debating the issue of whether the egg’s donor would be anonymous or somebody we located. Neither of us was fully comfortable with the Internet’s extraordinary capability to serve as a large swap-meet for egg donors and desperate couples. While we accepted that these were the possibilities of today’s world–and while we fully believed that we were up to procreating under these ground rules–neither of us was much looking forward to the process.
And so it had been an overwhelming surprise when we realized that she was pregnant au Naturelle, so to speak. We were stunned. We were rapturous. But we had to restrain ourselves; in the past we had let our hopes build-up, only to find that pregnancies don’t always persist. So we touched wood whenever one of us referred–no matter how indirectly–to the possibility of a baby at the end of the process. We tried to go day-to-day. We tried to forget about the long term and just go about our lives and see if the baby grew.
And it did. And we counted our blessings and we thanked our lucky stars and we knocked wood whenever we said anything that sounded like we were assuming that all would go well for the next five months. We were nervous, very nervous. We were nervous every day of the first trimester when the risk of miscarriage was the greatest. Every ache or pain was a cramp and every cramp the sign we would not reach term.
And when the first trimester was over and things seemed okay we were still nervous. And now we were particularly nervous because we were at 16 weeks and our Doctor said we had to attend a genetic counseling session to discuss testing for Down’s Syndrome. The common test for Down’s involved inserting a needle through the belly and drawing up a trace of the amniotic fluid sloshing around the fetus. There was a risk of miscarriage from the procedure and our Doctor wanted us to discuss it with the genetic counselor. Given Marty’s history, he said we should think about whether we wanted to take the risk.
* * *
On the setup screen, it was possible to moderate the challenges of the course, but we had been playing for several weeks and now Eli only set it to the “extreme” level–one level up from “pro”– the highest degree of course difficulty. This meant that we ran the course at night when the size, speed, and general unpleasantness of the obstacles we faced were at their most extreme.
And we were off. Right from the start, he left me in the dust. There was a trick that I had not mastered where you held down the turbo button while you were accelerating, and when you did your character leaped forward. He had learned the secret and now he left me at the starting line like a loser.
I got old Nick LaTrick moving with a couple of well-coordinated kicks to the pavement. I dodged a skateboarder who had fallen ahead. I leaped over a fissure that opened in the concrete. I beautifully swiveled my way past a well-dressed, middle-aged nanny who primly pushed an incongruous pram through the squalid and burnt-out wastelands of the devastated city.
The dexterity of my movements at the controls served me well for I saw him up ahead. He had taken a header and was just getting back on his board as I came up to him. But before I could pass him he was mounted again. He kicked the ground a few times and then he was gone again.
He was getting better and better. I usually won these matches of nerve and steel, but he was getting better and better. He was particularly good at the little maneuvers you could do to help you through particular stretches of the course. He knew shortcuts and clever cutoffs and he would chortle and bray whenever he used one. He had also mastered various tricks that earned you special points; he could do handstands on his skateboards while he was moving.
My strategy was always the same. I had better hand-eye coordination and so I would get Nick going flat out and then I would dodge and duck all the obstacles the course could throw at me. That was the trick; if you got knocked from your board, you wasted precious seconds picking yourself off the broken pavement and dragging yourself over to your board. Even remounted you had the painfully slow process of kicking off to get back up to full speed. If you could stay mounted, you had a big advantage.
But it wasn’t enough today. I was sluggish no matter what I did. He was way out front. By the third lap, he was a full lap ahead of me and I suffered the ignominy of seeing him slow down and then actually stop Teddy Blades on a squalid corner of broken-down, abandoned houses where a bunch of gang members clustered.
“What do you think you are doing?”
“Hanging,” he said with a hoot and then he kicked the ground a few times and he was off again. He reached the finish line a full twenty -seven seconds ahead of Nick LaTrick.
He was in rapture. The gloating came thick and fast. He didn’t usually win and he was particularly obnoxious when he did.
I let him rub it in for a while. “Don’t get too comfortable,” I said. “You are going down.”
“Don’t you wish? ” He gave the snorting chortle that was his laugh. There was no mistaking it; he was extraordinarily pleased with himself today.
* * -end- * *
The genetic counselor was a funny, direct woman who had a nice touch with nervous expecting parents. She said she would discuss amnio with us but first, she needed to make up a little family tree for us. She smiled and she was disarmingly direct but the diagram she drew up was straight from Hell. This family tree did not have the names and defining characteristics of my Uncle Nat with his big cigars and never-ending jowls or her Uncle Thomas and the cole slaw he brought to every family dinner, this family tree was a tree of diseases. Diseases and deformities. Harelip had been married to cervical cancer and, of their three children, one was schizophrenic and another retarded.
I had to go first. I had been worried when we came in–how could you not be worried when you were assigned to see a genetic counselor–but I did not realize how much there was to be worried about. But yes, my mother had died of cancer and so had my father. Yes, my cousins had big problems. Yes, my brother had a stillborn twin and he had a heart murmur and high blood pressure to boot.
I did not watch Marty’s face as I named the diseases and defects that had to be posted on my side of this tree of knowledge. I wondered if she wasn’t reassessing the bargain she had made when she married into the choppy seas of this chromosomal chaos; Lord knows it hadn’t been that easy a choice in the first place even when the baggage was all visible. What must she think about the provenance, the pedigree of this husband?
Of course, when she added her family’s contribution to our tree I had the surprise of hearing technical names put to the oddities that I heard about over the two years of our marriage. She really had had a second set of kidneys. It sounded different in the office of a genetic counselor than it had late at night under the blankets while I was running a hand over the smooth skin of her belly.
Once we got started it was hard to stop. We kept thinking of new problems to bring forth. There was a Thalassemia trait. There was a cousin who had glaucoma. Marty particularly got carried away. Didn’t I have an aunt, she asked, who was really fat.
“I don’t think fat is quite what this is about,” I said. I looked to the genetic counselor for confirmation that this exercise was to be used to identify those genetic issues that caused true defects not to just disqualifiers for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. “I mean, there are plenty of warts and wrinkles in our families. We don’t need to list them all. Trust me, we don’t want to list them all.”
Marty looked dubious, but the genetic counselor had been through discussions of this sort many times and she had no trouble steering us back to the confines of the issues that had brought us there. But even with those limitations, the tree she had drawn had a lot of marks and arrows and lines among its foliage.
“We should just remember,” I said, “that our baby is going to join an interesting family.”
Marty rolled her eyes in the way she rolled them when I resorted to platitudes, but she let it pass. She was nervous too.
I realized that my platitude had referred to our baby being born and that was easy enough to trigger the requirement that I knock wood. But when I started looking for a place to touch wood I discovered that the damn office was almost entirely made out of hospital plastic and materials of ugly and obviously synthetic origin. I looked around the office a second time because now I really needed a place to knock wood and there just was no wood to be found. The counselor was starting to talk about risk ratios and Marty was clearly wrapped up in what was being said. I started to panic. We did not need any bad luck at this critical moment. But there was no wood. I remembered what my father always did that whenever he was wood-short in a superstitious moment; I knocked on my head. I felt better immediately. My panic subsided.
Our counselor had finished our tree and she was summing up the risks and issues and while there were risks everywhere she had the most disarmingly precise ratios at hand. You had to love her; everything was coming out one in a thousand and one in fifteen thousand and the family tree was looking like a little bush in the front yard.
She pushed away from the chart and began to talk about amnio. Given the difficulty, we had had in getting pregnant and the problem with prior miscarriages, we said we did not want to take any additional risks. She said that the usually quoted odds for the risk of miscarriage from the amnio test were about 1 in 200. She said that the risks of Down’s Syndrome rise as a woman gets past 35 and at Marty’s age the risks were about 1 in 100. Typically amnio was recommended when the odds of miscarriage from the test were the same or lower than the odds of Down’s. Though of course, this depended on what you thought you would do if you learned that the baby had Down’s.
The genetic counselor was not recommending a particular course. She was very precise about this. She was only providing us information so that we could make an informed choice. We quizzed her about the test and the Doctor who would be doing the test and the alternatives to amnio. She was used to cross-examination and it was hard to trip her up. I thought I wouldn’t mind having her as a witness.
After a good bit of back and forth, we decided that we would try to avoid amnio. The doctor would do another sonogram and take a careful look at the spine on the back of the baby’s neck; thickening at that spot was an indicator of a potential problem. If we passed that test, it would supposedly cut the risk of Down’s in half. So if the risk at Marty’s age was 1 in 100, after a good sonogram, it could be estimated to be 1 in 200, roughly the same as the risk of a miscarriage. If the sonogram went well, in a week or so we would have a “triple screen” blood test. That test was supposed to be very good at ruling out Down’s, though it was known for having a high degree of false positives. If we had a good triple screen result, the odds of Down’s would be less than miscarriage. Under those circumstances, we figured we would skip the amnio.
It seemed like a good course to be on, particularly after the doctor gave us a quick thumbs-up on the sonogram. We left the office drained but feeling much better than when arrived.
* * *
“Let’s go again,” he said.
He had the master controller and started the set up for a new game.
“Dad,” he said theatrically, “I am feeling really thirsty.” This was another part of the ritual. We played three games. Whoever won two of the three had the honor of being referred to as “King” for the rest of the day. He was not content with this as a prize. He had somehow managed to convince me that whenever he won a game I should go and get him a glass of juice.
I went to the kitchen. I looked in the refrigerator. We were out of apple juice and so I walked back to see what else he wanted. When I got to the part of the kitchen where I could see into the TV room, I could see that he was setting up the next game. I was about to interrupt him when I noticed that he had the setup screen on the TV. His back was to me and he couldn’t see I was watching. He was setting up the characters for the next match. He selected the Mechanic for himself. Then he selected Nick LaTrick for me. But instead of clicking on to choose the course and difficulty of our next contest, he clicked on a button on the lower part of the setup screen that I had never noticed before. It said, “customize.”
A “Character Screen” appeared. There was Nick LaTrick, my main man, in all his glory. He had a whole page to himself. There was his picture and a terse biography. There were his attributes, and for each of them – speed, agility, acceleration and strength–there were a set of colored bars that showed how well Nick had been endowed. As I had known, Nick was long on speed and acceleration. No doubt these gifts served him well in Gangland. But as I watched, I saw Eli customize little Nick LaTrick. With a couple of precise clicks on the controller, he ratcheted down Nick’s speed to sixty percent of the speed that he was born with. He also cut back Nick’s native accelerative powers. The skateboarding equivalent of castration. No wonder I had lost the last match so thoroughly; I had been racing a castrato. Nick NoTrick.
I slipped back into the kitchen and rummaged around loudly. I came back in with a glass of Coke. He accepted this as his due and giggled as he loudly slurped it down.
We lined up, we were off. It was just like the last game. Teddy Blades blasted off the starting line. And Nick? Nick was having problems. It was like he had gotten old. He just didn’t have any juice. You could almost see the gray hair protruding out from under the backward baseball cap that he favored. And when he tried to jump it was comical. He could hardly get off the ground. He had a brick in his shorts.
The Mechanic was on fire. He raced around the track. Eli was hooting. He began to sing “I am the King” as he raced along. The Mechanic lapped Nick. Now Eli began to taunt neck. Whenever the Mechanic would pull out of range, he would stop and saunter on the course until Nick, huffing and puffing, would pass. Then the Mechanic would blow forward, catch up to Nick, and knock him off his skateboard with a beautifully coordinated kick. And then while Nick was climbing laboriously back onto his board, the Mechanic would bait poor Nick with the derisive advice to “catch some air.” It was humiliating. Something had to be done.
I remembered the sign one of my law partners kept on his desk: “Old and crafty will beat young and energetic every time.”
“Ouch” I yelled, dropping my controller.
“What’s the matter?”
“Cut my thumb.” I made a face and put my thumb in my mouth.
He put the game on pause. He looked at me. “Hey, howja do that?”
“Caught it on the controller. Hey Eli, get me a Band-Aid, will you?”
“Come on, lad, I can’t finish without a Band-Aid.”
I could see him weigh his options. If I didn’t finish the race I might take the position that he had not won the second race and if so I might not call him King or obsequiously get him juice on demand. Reluctantly, he went off to get me a Band-Aid.
As soon as he was gone, I grabbed the controller. I found the Character Screen. I reinstalled all of Nick’s Sony-given speed and acceleration, and I gave him a little extra boost to pep him up. Then I did nasty things to the Mechanic.
* * *
“How are you feeling?” I said. It was a week after we had seen the genetic counselor. We had just gotten into bed.
“But everything feeling okay?”
“I told you, I am really tired.”
“But, you know, how are you feeling?”
“Oh everything is fine. I just have this foreboding…”
I sat up. “You have a foreboding?”
“About the blood test?”
“No,” she said, but then the phone rang and it was Jano and they launched into a conversation and, by the time she finished, something else had intervened and we never circled back to the foreboding she had.
But after that, I was not only nervous but I had forebodings. As if forebodings were infectious and I had caught them like a sore throat. They were as omnipresent as a sore throat too. I was touching wood like mad and it wasn’t helping. In the gallery of cruel tricks, the one that would be the cruelest would be to find after months of the pregnancy that the baby had Down’s. We had not really talked through what we would do if it came to that. Marty had said that she did not think that she would be able to terminate the pregnancy, but I wondered how we would confront that issue. We had a new marriage and while we were much older than most people with new marriages, I didn’t feel we had really tested out how we would cope with the misery life can deal.
She got the blood test results shortly thereafter.
She called me at work. “Well Bud, that plan didn’t work.”
“What plan?” She particularly had a lot of plans going at any time.
“The plan to avoid amnio.”
“Why? What happened?”
She seemed pretty upbeat, but I could hear the stress. “So I talked to the genetic counselor and she said that the test doesn’t test for Down’s, it tests for some elevation in some hormone and that elevated hormone can be associated with a lot of things, only one of which is Down’s.”
“It came back positive?” Foreboding was now spreading through me like the taste of a penny.
“I remember that she said we shouldn’t worry if it came back with a positive.”
“Yeah. She said that there are a huge number of false positives. She said that 99 out of hundred are false positives.”
“That’s a lot of false positives.”
“I have been trying to figure the odds. I think she said that it was now one in two hundred. But then I don’t get how the odds can be one in 200 if the test is a false positive 99 in a hundred times. And then that is everybody and we are older.”
“How are you feeling?” I said.
“I am feeling okay, I think. I mean it is still one in a hundred. ”
“Or one in two hundred.”
“But I think that now we have to do the amnio. Okay?”
* * * *
When Eli came back, it was a very different game.
I put on the Band-Aid while Eli started us back up. It was marvelous to behold the results. Now it was Nick LaTrick, the Nickster, who sneered as he flew past the Mechanic. Now it was Nick LaTrick that took off on long leaps, nearly flying as he jumped over the other skateboarders below. And the Mechanic? It was the Mechanic who had the load in his shorts.
“Hey,” he said, completely indignant, as Nick caught up the lost lap and blew by the Mechanic.
“Hey” he said again as Nick crossed the finished line. “You cheated.”
“Me? How could I cheat?”
“Lemme see that.” He grabbed my controller and clicked to the Character Screen where he found very quickly the evidence that the Mechanic had been neutered.
Now he was mad. “You cheated me. You took away my speed.”
“Naw,” I said tauntingly, “your guy just got old.”
He looked at me for a long time. His face was screwed up in anger. He badly wanted the high ground of righteous indignation but he was seven now and at seven he was old enough to remember that he had started this by doing dirt to Nick LaTrick. I saw the struggle on his face. It was wonderful to watch.
He looked at me for a very long time.
“Yes?” I said finally.
“Nick LaTrick is fat and ugly and he has a big butt.” Then he gave a hoot and a cackle. “He is going down …” And he began to set up the match for the third and final game, the game that would determine which one of us would be King.
* * *
We had been waiting for the amnio results for a week. It was going to take ten days to two weeks. In that time it had gone from barely possible to hide the pregnancy to completely impossible and so even with the test results out there, we had to tell our friends and the people that saw Marty everyday. But we told each of them that we weren’t telling other people and swore one person after another to silence. There were lots of congratulations and lots of good wishes but we both knew that the amnio test results were still being processed and it was hanging over us and whenever we were congratulated we had to touch wood. It felt like there wasn’t enough wood in the city to absorb all the knocks that we were giving.
I wondered what we would do. If it had seemed hard to think about ending this pregnancy two weeks ago, now it seemed impossible. But that didn’t make the questions go away. And at times I would be sitting at my desk at work between calls and I would find myself wondering whether we could be good parents if the baby had Down’s and how we would act and would we do the right thing, whatever that was. And I wondered how you know what the right thing is and how do two people agree on what the right thing is when they are not used to budging. Would we study about Down’s? Would we go to see kids with Down’s and then make some kind of judgment? What sort of judgment would it be? About us? About him or her? About life?
* * * *
And then there was not even a contest. Teddy Blades left me at the first and I never caught up to his dust. Eli was concentration incarnate. He gave me none of his usual backtalk. He buried down into a place of deep intensity where I had never seen his go before. His hands and eyes were perfectly aligned. I don’t think he fell more than once even though we were at Level 3 in the darkest shadows of the LA Badlands. Eli had surpassed his father. The sun had set on Nick LaTrick. It was the age of Teddy Blades. All hail Beep. All hail Beep.
* * * *
She called me at work. She said the test had come back early and the news was good. There was no sign of Down’s Syndrome.
At first I couldn’t process what she was saying and then I did and relief washed through me. We would not have to learn the answers to the questions I had been asking myself, at least at this time. We had gotten over another hurdle on the road to this baby’s birth. Not the last one, I told myself and knocked wood, but at least this hurdle was passed, already receding into the backwaters of the lives we were living.
That night, after we were done telling everyone who would listen about our news, I was thinking about how Down’s was just one of the millions of possible combinations that could result from the meeting of our chromosomes. It all seemed so chancy. Who could tell if there would be anything of the things we were most proud of; her energy, my flexibility? I thought of how Eli set up the attributes of Nick LaTrick in Gangland and I wanted to have the controls so that there would be long colored bars–very long colored bars–for this baby’s health and intelligence and speed and agility and patience and sense of humor and all the other attributes that contribute to an opportunity for an absorbing life. But I didn’t have any controller. I sent off that burst of sperm and that was all the controller I had, at least for the time being. But if all went well, knock on wood, that baby would be showing up in five months or so and then I would have a chance to tell him or her about the grandfather who knocked his head when there was no wood around in a superstitious moment. And while that wasn’t quite as precise as the controller that set the speed of Nick LaTrick, maybe it would be of some use in the long run.