DADS ON DECK by Garrett Stack

In the video, there is no warning. One moment smiling parents clutch a swaddled newborn like a freshly caught fish, and in the very next frame, a baby slides gooey grey and screaming from a mother in obvious anguish. The crowd of expectant fathers groans, primarily in disgust but now mingled with burgeoning empathy. After 6.5 hours of pregnancy education courses in a hospital subbasement rec room, the reason they call it “labor” is finally becoming clear to the Dads on Deck. 

But Cal doesn’t really notice the groans or the on-screen infant who, lungs finally free of amniotic fluid, is letting everyone know how pissed she is. Instead, he stares at the face of the mother, which settles slowly from contorted pain to exhaustion. With the transition comes clarity. Cal knows that face. 

The connection is like observing a buoy in rough water, visible then gone, rise and dip until he is equally convinced it’s her and not her lying there clutching her new baby, right up until the movie cuts to a post-labor scene and the new couple is Korean.

The lights come up as the tape reaches a HIT STOP segment, and Dave, the father next to Cal, leans over to whisper, “Never been happier to be born with nuts.” When Cal fails to dredge up the sympathy chuckle their three-classes-in camaraderie demands, Dave leans back to take a longer look. 

“Damn. That really got to you, huh?” Dave says. He seems proud of himself for concealing his own unease better than Cal. “Lighten up. They’ve got topnotch reconstructive surgeons these days.” He smiles and pats Cal on the shoulder. 

Cal doesn’t really hear him, but he grins and nods in the way of the freshly concussed.

“Yeah,” Cal says. “It’ll be alright.” 

===

After class, Cal lingers while the men funnel from the Dads on Deck classroom, backslapping and checking the Lions score on their phones. Last week, Cal led the charge from the subbasement, playfully suggesting a cocktail at the conveniently adjacent Crow Bar. This week, he pretends to tie his sneaker, stalling to prevent anyone thinking he is some kind of nerd with more questions for teacher. 

Once the last dad clears the door, Cal sidles up to Nurse Sharon. He is unsure what to say to her or even what he really wants, but he can’t shake the feeling of recognition and feels like he has to try something.

“Hello, Cal,” Sharon says. He wears a nametag that says Addy’s Partner, Cal, which she never looks at.

“Hey,” he says. 

“How are you enjoying the class?” she says. 

“Oh good, good.”

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look a little pale.” She gives him a motherly once over in which not a single hair shifts in her helmet-like do. Sharon has just cleared 65 and has four kids older than most of the fathers in the room. She can perfectly imitate labor noises and discuss Kegels without a shred of embarrassment. She is excellent at her job and knows it.

“Yeah, that video,” Cal says and gestures helplessly at the now blank projector screen. 

“Ah. This happens to lots of expecting fathers.” She puts a heavy hand on Cal’s shoulder. Her fingers are thicker than his. “The birth process is always jarring for the uninitiated, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“That woman—”

“Forced life into the world through sheer strength of will,” she says. “Can you imagine? Once you get over the initial shock, it’s actually very empowering.” 

Sharon’s eyes always glow when she talks about labor, reflecting the power still echoing down the years from her four unmedicated, spontaneous vaginal deliveries. The solid hand on Cal’s shoulder grips a little tighter. 

“Your wife is brave, braver than you probably realize, but she’s going to need your support. Breathing, position changes, pain coaching, that’s all on you, so we can’t have you going soft at go-time.” 

Cal is still wondering if Sharon has just made a sex joke when she lets his shoulder go and turns to eject the tape. She settles it into its plastic case and hands it over.

“Why don’t you take this home for the week?” she says. “You strike me as a man who knows his way around a sports field. Think of it like reviewing game tape.”

Cal clutches the VHS to his chest and wonders if Sharon can read his mind, if maybe labor conferred all sorts of powers. He turns to flee for the parking lot with his uncertain prize, and Sharon’s voice follows him out into the cooling evening.

“Bring it back next week. We’ve got optional birthing positions to practice!”

===

Cal’s not sure where to find a VCR. The tape had remained in his glove box for two days while he circumspectly checked the basement and attic to see if an ancient videotape player managed to follow him through the seven or so moves he’d made since the technology became outdated. But after Addy came home from work Wednesday and found him up to his elbows and swearing inside a giant tub of functionless connector cables and extension cords, he is ready to admit defeat. What he did manage to find, purely by coincidence, was a box of pictures from college. And there she was again: Veronica.

In the pictures, she looks both younger than he remembered and older than her age at the time the photo would suggest. Her smile is identical in every shot: one quarter there, three teeth and a flash of gum. He was sure he’d thrown the pictures away, and finding them stashed under a pile of sweatshirts had seemed serendipitous at first, a fresh chance to convince himself that the woman giving birth looked nothing like Veronica. But the photo he pocketed, and then stashed in the glove box, and then checked periodically anytime he was alone in his car further melded with the image from the tape until the two were indistinguishable. 

Cal scours the internet for info on Veronica Wabash and what he comes up with isn’t much. Her name is unique enough that unless she gained fifty pounds, lost four inches, and joined a Seattle-based Celtic rock band, she is probably option two. This means she may work in Austin at a hip tech start-up, according to the company directory, but there’s no picture to confirm. A scuzzy info-mining site has a Texas address and a phone number listed that Cal doesn’t recognize, but he acknowledges that phone numbers have a habit of changing after college. She also has no social media accounts, which Cal thinks is weird, but to each their own.

He’s frustrated, primarily because he can’t confirm his own suspicions about the tape, but also because he is so readily available on the internet. His old football stats, his wedding website, his profile (including a glossy headshot) on his work’s homepage, his LinkedIn, all nine keystrokes away. Cal thinks of himself as an open book. He constantly considers, in an abstract way, what Digital Cal says about him to old classmates and acquaintances. After all, what’s the point of hard work if no one knows about it? Success, like Veronica, should be Googleable.       

And still, she dances through his waking hours and stalks into his dreams. Sometimes it is the Veronica from the picture: one long arm sliding up a doorjamb in his oversized t-shirt, dark hair like parentheses framing a question on her face. Other times it’s the Veronica from the film, panting and tortured, older, staring, accusatory. And even when he isn’t dreaming about her and is instead having one of the old asinine standbys about forgetting his cleats before a game, she waits patiently for him to wake up. Cal feels like he’s being haunted.

So it was with the intention of exorcism that Cal swerves into the parking lot of the Goodwill Store off Alpine Avenue on his way home from work Friday and, hands in pockets, embodiment of insouciance, makes his way to the electronics section to peruse the dusty goods. He strolls the aisle, feigning interest in a beat-up subwoofer and prodding the buttons on an old office phone before he comes upon a row of DVD players collecting grit. Stacks of them line the wall in varying degrees of bulkiness and country of origin. But of the VCR, that forgotten forefather, there is no sign. 

There’s a tap on Cal’s right shoulder, then a young woman in a blue vest and shredded jeans slides up on his left. 

“Look at all that shit,” she says. 

Cal’s eyebrows rise in surprise, and the girl catches his eye. Cal decides she can’t be more than 15. 

“I mean crap?” she says, watching Cal’s face for a change in the weather. “Junk? Please don’t tell my manager. I need this job.”

When Cal finally smiles, the look of relief on the girl’s face makes him laugh.

“Noreen,” she says, holding out a hand with one nail—on the middle finger—painted black. 

“Cal,” he says and tries to decide what she’ll look like in a decade but can’t make up his mind. He thinks it depends on how hard she leans into the eye shadow and cigarettes. Noreen, on the other hand, seems to be trying to decide why a guy in $200 loafers is poking around the electronics section of Goodwill. 

“Cal, you look like a golden retriever in dress slacks,” she says. “No offense, but like, you straight up don’t belong here. So why don’t you tell me what brings you to my techno bone yard?”  

“I, uh,” Cal says, scratching the back of his head. “I’m actually looking for a VCR.” 

“No shit,” Noreen says.

“Yeah,” he says. “Weird, I know, but we just found a stack of old home movies, and we’ve got nothing to play them.” Cal’s pretty sure he blew the lie, and now she’s probably thinking stag films or torture porn or something equally shady he’s never even heard of.

“No shit,” Noreen says. 

“No shit,” he says. “So, got any VCRs buried round here?” 

“Lemme check in the back.”

Cal is left alone with the junk while Noreen presumably goes out back to have a cigarette by the dumpster and a good laugh at his expense. He imagines her there, sickened by the puke pink autumn sky and the rotting diaper dumpster smell, sitting in a spring-dead olive armchair alongside a bundle of ratty shirts and a lampless lamp shade and the other sad leavings from some dead old lady’s basement. 

He has just decided it’s time to cut his losses when, to his immense relief, Noreen walks out from the back room with a VCR player raised over her head like a hopeful teenage boy with a boombox on a moonlit lawn.

“You found one?” Cal says. 

“Yep,” Noreen says and, observing the naked greed on his face, does some quick math. “Rare item though, last one in stock, so it’ll be 50 bucks.”  

“Who do I check out with?” he says, reaching for the VCR and glancing around nervously. The whole enterprise is really starting to feel like too much, and Cal knows he needs to leave before he starts to flop sweat. 

“Oh, you can just pay me,” Noreen says, smiling. “Standard operating procedure.”

===

There are many things that are compared to riding a bike, and Cal assumes that VCR operation is one of them. He quickly learns that he’s not wrong, thinking of bikes, but it’s not the riding that aptly fits the comparison so much as it is the mechanics of total bicycle construction and repair. 

The VCR is a pitiful thing. The rewind button is stuck down, the cord is frayed, there are no TV connector cables, and the little door that he fondly remembers sticking his finger into and removing with a snap now flaps like an old screen door. But Cal has a free afternoon, a dark basement, and a soldering iron. He figures he’s game. 

And two hours later, he’s sucking on two burnt fingers and ignoring the chemical-sweet smell of singed plastic as BIRTHING AND YOU triumphantly lights up the basement. He wants to fast forward but fears the stability of the machine. So he does what Nurse Sharon suggested and reviews the game tape. As he watches, he is surprised to find the information comes readily to his mind. The awkward acronyms—COAT, MOON, BURP—are already part of his lexicon. The preterm labor warning signs are obvious, the cesarean risks understood, the birthing positions clear. He begins to feel as he used to feel so often before midseason games when the playbook was memorized, and his teammates’ abilities and limitations were known quantities. He is ready. 

And then, Veronica. 

He crawls to the VCR and, risking Sharon’s wrath, hits pause. Through the wavering, pixelated fog, past the crawling frame rate worms, Veronica pushes a child from her womb. He has no doubt it’s Veronica. Despite the sweat and blood, the off-hue coloration and the middle-tier production equipment, it can be no other woman. She stares at Cal, who kneels in his basement staring up at the television altar, and empowered by her labor, she holds him there in penitent supplication. Cal gazes up in adoration, face illuminated in the glow of outdated technology, and tears stream down his face. Veronica, queen of beauty. Veronica, goddess of childbirth. Veronica, the source of life and light. He is so moved that he is unable to move. He has never felt like this in his life. He is absolutely sure he is unready to be a dad.  

Then the rattling of the garage door from some distant world sets him free from the spell, and the moment has passed. He permanently stows the VCR on the back corner of the deepest closet shelf and feels lighter knowing that his ex-girlfriend has a child and has moved on. He earnestly believes the basement vigil has banished Veronica’s ghost. By the time Addy has finished unloading groceries, he has joined her in the kitchen, all smiles. 

===

Cal jolts awake when the wheels hit the hot Texas tarmac. For what he hopes is the last time, he convinces himself that this trip is necessary. The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ annual conference is being held in Austin. Though an ArmorTeck representative has never before attended, Cal felt justified in pitching it as an underserved market sector. The VP’s immediate support was mollifying to his conscience, though he was a little perturbed by the accompanying wink and I get it smile. Cal’s just here to sell some gloves.

In the next seat over, a girl in a Longhorns sweatshirt finally emerges from a book missing its cover. As she puts her thumb in between the pages to unbuckle her seat belt, Cal casually glances at the title page and sees the book is called Carnal Innocence. The shorn cover takes on new meaning, and Cal reevaluates the situation before remembering he is all business on this trip. He doesn’t even offer to help her get her bag down. 

He is all business in the cab as he reviews his talking points on the way to the convention center and hits the lobby running. He supplies business cards and handshakes to every single AASHTO attendee who gets within ten feet. The men are uniformly husky. Their names have all been trimmed to one syllable. They have firm yet surprisingly soft hands. He’s in the closing zone, which is not dissimilar to his old midgame mindset: There are sweating men, uniforms of a kind (company-branded polos, khakis), and a long view of an open field. If Ted #2—to whom he’s currently expounding the benefits of ArmorTeck Kevlar-lined knuckles—patted him on the ass, he’d probably break into a play call. In fact, hearing that dog whistle, the old boys would probably all get down in gouty three-point stances. 

All that separates Cal from the close is one good night of drinking to solidify relationships. And so, when the cautious watch glances grow more obvious and the 6th Street? whispers start making the rounds, Cal is ready. He packs Ted and Bill and Pat and Ted #2 into a van cab, passes out sweating roadies from the cash bar, and directs the driver to a saloon that Pat remembers has a mechanical bull. Everyone is feeling pretty good in the minivan, and the jokes are flowing now that they’re safely away from the seven or so women scattered throughout the conference. Cal the Closer, all business, takes a smiling swig in the front seat and ignores the cabbie’s glare by glancing out the window just in time to see Veronica’s office building slide past. They’re a half block from the conference, way too close to home. 

===

There’s a bird’s nest in the A of the Starbucks sign. Its tufted straw and sticks jut from the green plastic hollow, and Cal watches a bird—a robin, he thinks—come and go. He marvels at the tenacity of raising chicks in an A in the middle of this metropolis. Where does she find the straw? Worms? Where does she summon the will to keep flying out? To keep coming back?

The Starbucks occupies the corner next to Veronica’s office building. He spent the morning vacillating between two extremes, but now that he’s made up his mind to see her, Cal is unsure how to proceed. It is an everyday cowardice that prevents him from walking in: He doesn’t know what to say to the receptionist. So Cal spends the better part of an hour admiring his new robin friend until Ted #2 forces his hand. He spots Cal from down the block as he exits the conference hotel, waving and calling his name. Cal is pretty sure Ted #2, on behalf of the Indiana Department of Transportation, will soon be making a large investment in ArmorTeck reflective jackets, so he gives him a big wave back before pointing exaggeratedly at his wristwatch then ducks quickly into the lobby. 

“Hi, can I help you?” The voice has the same pitch and tone as an overhead door chime. 

“Hi,” Cal says. He looks hopefully at the receptionist, who gives him the bland-bemused look adopted by longstanding receptionists everywhere.

“Do you have an appointment?” she says. 

“Not as such,” he says. “I was hoping to see Veronica.” 

“Let me see if she’s free,” the receptionist says and picks up the phone. “Whom should I say is calling?”

“Cal,” he says. When she raises an eyebrow to suggest more info is required, he adds, “I’m an old friend.”

“Hi, Veronica,” she says. “I have a Mr. Cal for you in the lobby.” 

Pause. 

“He says he’s an old friend,” she says. 

Another pause, during which the receptionist gives Cal an unsubtle head-to-toe scan.

“Yes, that would be a fair description,” she says. “Okay, I’ll send him up.”

She replaces the receiver and turns to Cal. “Third floor, take a right, office at the end of the hall.” 

Lobby, elevator, hallway, everything passes surreally, elongated and brightly strange. Phosphorescent humming and hastily chosen hallway art mark his progress while his mind, sponge-like, sits sifting particles of detail from the ozone. He takes it all in and gives nothing back, not fear or panic, not excitement or anticipation, not even calm. He is just a body occupying space, ready to topple in any direction given the slightest external force. And it is in this pendulous state that he sticks his head, without hesitation, into the golden open void at the end of the hallway that is Veronica’s office. He is ready to be moved. 

===

Cal is probably the father. He marvels at the feeling, at how lightly fatherhood has rested on his shoulders for all of these years without the slightest indication. Like finding a coat, he thinks, that you shrugged off in a movie and forgot ever existed until they clean out the lost and found and call you up. Your life is unaltered by its absence, but now that you know it exists, you’re obligated to go pick it up. Except it’s not a coat, he thinks. It’s a baby. A child now. My child. Probably. 

The conversation with Veronica, which was surprisingly comfortable and warm, revealed that in the days immediately following their tumultuous breakup, she was neither cautious nor choosy with partners, so parentage remains unclear, and Cal doesn’t press. She marveled at the coincidence of Cal seeing the birthing video but does not regret allowing the film crew in, considering they covered her labor costs. She showed a few pictures of a little brunette boy who may or may not possess some of his features in the way that all children abstractly reflect whomever they’re being compared to. She never bothered with a blood test. She’s happy, successful, dating, and uncompelled to track down DNA samples. They begin and end with hugs and, in between, share reviews of their long vacations from one another. She’s happy for him. She applies no pressure. She gives him her address and tells him to swing by the house at 6:00 for dinner if he wants to meet John.   

Cal checks his watch in the backseat of the cab: 5:45. He imagines Veronica in her tasteful, gentrified ranch living room, tweaking the curtains to the side to see if he has pulled up. He can smell chili on the stove and hear John, probably his John, playing with cars on the carpet, zooming them over the rug stripes like little highways. She’s wearing an apron—because Addy never does—and she greets him with a longer hug this time, their bodies lingering, savoring the muscle memory. Texas is beautiful this time of year, and the wind through the cab’s window rustles his still-blonde hair. He thinks, with enough time, he could get used to it all. 

“Airport’s the next exit,” the cab driver says. “Should have you there in 5.”

“Thanks,” Cal says. “Got a family to get back to.”


Garrett Stack's first book is Yeoman's Work (Bottom Dog Press, 2020). His fiction was most recently published in Cheat River Review, Great Lakes Review, and MacQueen's Quinterly. He teaches at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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