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Layoffs (Good to See You)

Huge lay-offs today at work. I walked across the park midday, firstly just to walk, but also to see some people I figured I needed to see, or at least touch on the shoulder in consolation. I saw some of my favorite co-workers on the way—the Vet team, the Photographer, my friend Kylene—and it was the kind of day where you’d make eye-contact and brighten slightly.
“Hey! Good to see you!” ‘Good to see you’ meaning: glad you weren’t cut. Glad you’re still here. At the back of our minds we harbor some survivor’s guilt, but glad is glad.
I had to work closing shift today, and closing shift is the shift you don’t want on the worst of days. But, as the brilliant people let go today know (their hall of fame pictures to soon be hung), passion for the animals–the job–demands you clock in and straighten up. Your bosses don’t always wear suits and ties; for those of us with twenty-plus years in the profession, fuck the suits. Our bosses wear feathers and fur and most likely don’t have the opposable thumbs needed to manage a double-Windsor.
You take care of the animals. You think about them when you wake up, you worry about them when you go to bed.
“You have to work holidays?”
“Well—yeah. The penguins still need to be fed.”
Come 6 p.m. tonight, I was last man standing in the Bird Dept., everyone gone for the day, everyone rightly drained. There were still penguin chicks to be fed, though, and a few hours left on my shift. I texted my wife: ‘So done, but gotta push through.’
I sat for a time in an empty plaza just outside the Penguin Encounter, just getting away from the building for a second before closing the exhibit out. All the Christmas lights were still on and in full display. Music was cut for the night, save for Burl Ives still randomly playing from within just one cavernous restroom.
Christmas arrives on the coattails of third financial quarter decisions. Ho-ho-ho. The weather outside is frightful.
I returned inside to pass out the evening medications, syringe-feed the new chicks. You look at the clock, but take the proper time. Stupid me: I always check on eggs I know are hatching. Penguins have this amazing biological imperative to protect their eggs, but sometimes too excitedly, and I know things can go wrong. I coaxed a brooding sire to stand and—dammit, Maraschino to the day—I found a crushed egg.
You need some stability to push out of any situation—right?—and chicks need an intact egg to plant their feet and cap their egg with all the neck muscle they can muster. The egg was crushed. Think of how the glaze can crack on a piece of porcelain—you get this mosaic of fractures and a bunch of broken fragments while all still remains counter-intuitively intact. That was the egg, broken but intact.
The chick was still alive, just wrapped in membrane. Her beak was already begging for food, not sure of her situation and whether she was outside the egg just yet or not. One flipper flapped dumbly, free of its confines.
“Shit.”
I pulled the egg downstairs and laid out a towel on the counter. I dumped a canister of instruments looking for a pair of tweezers. Chick was vocalizing, pumping its legs against a broken shell, searching for footing. Piece by piece, I parsed away the shell, held my breath and started peeling off the membrane.
“Please don’t bleed, please don’t bleed, please don’t bleed.”
I freed the chick into my cupped hand, curled and still embryonic, wet and in the shape of its shell. There would have to be hours before it stretched out and lifted its head. You can’t greet the world right away with open eyes and at salute, not always.
The chick bled, but I stopped the bleeding and tucked her into an incubator for the night. In a few hours she was dry and resting peacefully. She was the last thing I checked on tonight before leaving.
I did what all the brilliant people that were let go at SeaWorld today have done, what I learned from them. I checked my animals, I checked my locks, I checked my temps. I closed the door and began worrying.
On the way out, there were all these flashing lights and trucks parked around manholes. Workmen with reels of galvanized cables and blueprints spread out on tables. They’re working on the pipes, I guess, construction vehicles up and down Mission Bay. A SeaWorld truck pulls up, and this guy I thought of randomly—I don’t know his name, but I thought of him randomly because I figure there are night-shift guys being laid off, too, and how is it I’ve worked alongside them for 21 years but don’t know their names—he stopped as I was walking out. He leaned his head out the window.
“Good to see you,” he said.
I stopped and smiled, waved.
“Hey—good to see you, too.”

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Fifteen Flowers Later

I made plans to meet with my friend Jason tonight up in Normal Heights. At the end of yesterday’s text thread, I signed off: “See you Thursday, then, in NH!”

“NH?” he queried.

“NH=Normal Heights.”

“Oh you goddam hipsters and your language,” he responded, “Get off my lawn.”

Jason has an unruly goatee, and I reminded him of the fact. Like something Layne Staley might’ve sported had he lived long enough to have gray hair.

“Get off your own damn lawn,” I wrote back. “Your beard is twice as lumberjack.”

Met Jason for coffee and he told me: ‘Hey! Having that fourth kid!’ This came at the tail end of our conversation about getting older, both of us recently with lessening capacity to drive at night. He wears these little James Joyce glasses, and I’m surprised he can even see past the nosepiece.

I gave him a hug. Inside, I felt a slight twinge. I’m working on a decade as a dad, and though Finn’s not yet five, I sometimes feel: ‘Ok, when are the next eight kids coming?’ They won’t be on their way soon..

Jason’s having a second boy, which he and his wife wanted; they wanted that roundness of two girls and two boys, the somewhat Life-game neatness of having an equal number of blue pegs and pink pegs in the little Bradley car. Jason blames his now son for orchestrating everything.

.“He’s been yelling at my wife’s belly and calling the baby a ‘he.’”

“Well, shit—nature operates in weird ways. Maybe he flipped the chromosomes on you—you’ll never know. Zygotes have ears and all.”

“Yeah, but now he’s gonna be super arrogant. Like it was all his doing.” Jason smirks. “Kid’s gonna punch me in the arm later and say: ‘See? See?! I made a brother.”

Driving home, I thought how much I wanted a girl, that pink peg, too. But I’ve got two boys, and I never expressly told my wife’s belly to do any sort of alchemy to prevent this. I’ve got my two boys, and the door may be closed on any more, but I’m happy. The fact of Finn—the diagnoses and heart surgeries and reelsome unexpectedness—threw me for a loop a few years back. My biggest regret is having been so ambivalent after Finn was born. Were I somewhat of Jason’s kid back then, knowing what I know now, I would’ve shouted at Jenn’s pregnant belly: ‘Grow that extra chromosome!’ Because I have Finn today, and were the door indeed closed on any more kids, I’m ecstatic Finn was born the way he currently is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kids decide the parents, in a way; parents decide the kids. You make each other at least. Driving home, a bouquet of carnations settled in the backseat, paper wrap settling. I had initially bought some purple chrysanthemums, but they weren’t what I had wanted. I explained to the florist that I’d been looking for carnations. They were my mother-in-law’s favorite. All the assorted five-gallon buckets of flowers still available at nighttime (and in front of the florist’s stand) were all fancier, or prettier maybe.

“Oh—you want carnations? I have some in back in the fridge.” The florist wrested a bundle from their corner, and turned away from his otherwise task of snipping spent petals and thorns off some un-bought roses.

“12, or 18?”

And I said: ’15? If I could.”

My mother-in-law passed away fifteen years ago today. Jenn and I had spent the night with my father-in-law in a hospital waiting room while Carole underwent surgery, her brain bleeding. The room was scented with bouquets of lilies and superfluous Glade plug-ins–too much perfume, really—in overcompensation for the hospital’s otherwise iodine-scent. Jenn’s brothers joined us in the early morning, in time for the beleaguered surgeon to arrive with his latest and worst news. Jenn’s dad pulled us all into a huddle, and asked, “What should we do?” He looked at each one of us in turn, said, “I love you. I love you. I love you, and I love you. What do we decide?”

At a stoplight on Florida St., two blocks from home, Jenn and I both erupted crying. It was a brilliantly lit day, with these clouds under-girded in silver, sign a storm had passed.

“She’s not gonna be at our wedding.”

“She won’t know our kids.”

Tonight, I walked through the back door with my clumsy bundle of flowers to find Jenn and the boys huddled on the couch, and in tears. Cayde had weathered a bad week already, finding trouble when he could. He’s young—his tears are still less salty than they will be later on, and once he knows more exactly the nature of regret or sadness. And Finn—he was inexplicably gripping a football on the couch, crying at the fact of there being crying.

I placed the flowers on the end table, started cleaning the house of its hastily discarded shoes and backpacks and plastic toys. Jenn had photo albums out, open envelopes with long-ago letters, a spread of relics that she’d been showing Cayde.

“I wish I’d known her.”

“What was her personality like?”

“I wouldn’t have been bad today if I knew you were having such a bad day. I’m sorry.”

Prior to me coming home, Cayde had asked probing questions, lending his particular scalpel to the long-ago and failed surgery. I could see it in Jenn’s face, with her brow knit and reddened eyes, Cayden pressed up against her shoulder in nine-year old devastation. Cayden wore a silly top-knot of tied-together bangs: ‘Why, Mama?’ He meant the surgery, meaning why there had to be a decision made in the first place. In his understanding, surgeries have always been successful. Finn is living proof.

“Why did you have to decide?”

“What would it be like if she were still here?”

Jenn pauses. “It would be different,” she says.

Although Cayde focuses on what there was to decide—what he knows about difference simply being, ‘She could be here, she could be not’—Jenn and I know, being there in that room that night, that there was no decision. ‘She could be here’ was really ‘She isn’t here. Not any longer.’ But we posed the question anyway in our waiting-room huddle.

“What do we decide?” More important to that moment, was Jenn’s dad making the pretend-question an affirmation of love, and saying it to each one of us in turn.

Cayde will figure it out. Just like Jason’s kid yelling at his mom’s belly, believing he could actually sprout a brother by sheer matter of will, Cayde still has a certain naivete about him. It’s fading though. We agree to take the bouquet to the water on Saturday, to take those fifteen flowers and place them in the bay, and to watch them drift away, however which way the currents decide.