The four of us were riding in their dad's car when Donny, who was fourteen, said he was afraid of babies. His brother Benny, who was eight, had just volunteered that he was afraid of clowns. I looked around. No clowns or babies within sight.
"What's up, Benny?" I asked, turning around to look at them. The vanity mirror wouldn't do for this.
"Nothin'," he answered. Benny still sucked his thumb, and stopped just long enough to give his answer.
"There won't be any clowns around today, Benny," I said. I hoped I sounded reassuring.
"Ummhumm." He stuck his nose against the car window, an awkward position with his thumb still in his mouth. He was done with me for a while.
"Donny, I didn't know you didn't like babies." I said. Their dad wasn't saying anything.
Donny glared. "Don, OK? Don." He paused. " 'Donny' was when I was Benny's age," he said, smacking his brother on the arm. Benny didn't pay any attention, didn't even try to swat his brother away.
"I'm sorry, Don. I'll try to remember." I didn't say anything about his hitting his brother.
"Whatever," he said. In the typical fuck-you voice that Whatever's usually said in.
Before I could turn around he added, "And I didn't say I didn't like babies."
"Oh?" I said, my voice brightening.
"No. I said I was afraid of them." His voice had the tone of finality in it. And then he added, "Like Benny here's afraid of clowns."
Again when he said 'Benny' he smacked him on the arm.
This time it was hard enough for Benny to whine, "Cut it oooout, Donny." He practically spit the name. He kept his thumb at the ready, so that from a distance it looked as though he was giving the thumbs up sign.
I admired Benny's mastery of rhetoric. Protest and put down in four words.
"He's hitting me, Dad." Benny said.
"Tell him you don't like it," his father said. Now I was keeping quiet.
"He knows I don't like it," Benny said, "He's not stupid, he's just mean." He slipped his thumb back into his mouth.
"Well, then, don't pay any attention to him, and he'll stop." his father said.
Donny smacked Benny again, this time hard enough so that I could hear the slap of his open hand on Benny's arm. The suit coat must be some use in keeping it from hurting, I hoped.
"He's not stopping, Dad." Several more whacks followed this statement.
"Cut it out, Don," his father said.
"He can hit me if he wants to," Donny said. He held out his arm to his brother. His suit jacket was on the floor of the car under his feet.
"Here, hit me. Hit me as hard as you want." Donny said. Benny wasn't having any of it. He kept his thumb in his mouth and his forehead on the window.
"You can punch me in the stomach," Donny said. "Go on."
Benny turned towards Donny, took his thumb out of his mouth and said, "Just because you're an asshole doesn't mean that I have to be one, too." And he put his thumb back in his mouth.
Donny threw his arms around his brother and gave him a bear hug. "I love you, Benny."
"Get off of me," Benny shrieked. The word 'me' soared into the higher registers and he followed it with a plain screech. He does this whenever he's really irritated, which is several times a day. The military should tape that sound and use it as a non-lethal weapon. I want to slap a testosterone patch on him so that his voice will change early.
"See, I hugged him," Donny said. "I'll hug you again, Benny," he said, lunging towards him as far as the seat belt allowed.
Another shriek from Benny. This one is all-star. I put my hand on their dad's thigh, tapped it a couple of times.
"Ben. Don," he said. "Both of you. Today isn't the day."
They were quiet a moment, and I asked, "Don," careful not to call him 'Donny,' "Why are you afraid of babies?"
"Well, they just lie there and stare at you with those big eyes, you know." He looked up as though the answer were on the car dome-light. "Kinda like aliens. Only helpless."
I folded my hands over my belly. I hadn't started to show. I didn't say what I was thinking, that he must be feeling pretty helpless himself these days.
Benny nodded and said, "Clowns aren't helpless. Babies are."
"That can be scary," I said, thinking of myself and their dad, too.