The three of them were in the car headed eastbound I-90, on their way to Tiny’s Farm, when Millard thought of his first name of the day.
“Abraham,” he said. “That’s got to be the name.”
“Sorry,” Kaitlin, who was sitting in the passenger’s side, said.
“Too Old Testament.”
Millard drove a couple more miles. Sometime, along the way, the baby in the back seat had fallen asleep.
“How about you?” Millard said.
“They’re not promising,” Kaitlin said.
“Let’s hear them,” Millard said.
“That’s not helpful!”
Millard pulled the volume knob off the old car stereo, held it against Kaitlin’s shoulder, and tried to turn her down.
“Don’t wake Little Fella up before we get to see the animals,” Millard said. He put the dial back.
Little Fella just turned fourteen months old. They were off to celebrate.
“Are you sure this place is safe for infants?” Kaitlin said.
“We’ll all be fine,” Millard said. “Here we go.”
Millard turned off the exit. In a couple of minutes they saw the banner in the distance that topped the gateway.
“You’re going to love this farm,” Millard said. “These animals are mostly circus retirees. It’s been around since my parents brought me.”
“It’s more of a ranch than a farm.”
“A farm grows plants. A ranch raises animals.”
Little Fella yawned as they drove through the open gate. Kaitlin saw the yawn and wondered if he was aware of the fact that he was tired. She wondered if he was aware of a lot of things. The sign on the top of the gate read: Tiny’s Farm—come feed the animals.
“What kind of place is this?” Kaitlin said.
Before they were married, they had a name picked out. This was when picking out names for future kids was both a fun game and a serious test, a first toe in the water.
“What if it were a boy?” Kaitlin asked.
“I like Matthew,” Millard said. “It’s solid. We could call him Matt.”
Kaitlin liked his reasoning, liked the fact that he had thought of a defense for a name of a child of theirs that did not yet exist. It did feel solid.
It wasn’t until she slept with Matt, a man who she knew from work, during her engagement that the name lost meaning to her. The affair itself was humorless: a final investigation of recklessness and self-destruction, and in the end, Kaitlin decided that it was a mistake. She ended it with Matt two weeks before the wedding. She knew she loved Millard and wanted to marry him, so she didn’t tell him anything.
At the drive-thru ticket office, a man in a green uniform stood expectant. Millard handed the man ten dollars for admission.
“Put this in the corner of your windshield,” he said, handing Millard a ticket. He made a quick look-over of the car. “And make sure you don’t open the back windows. Just to be careful with the baby. Yes, they are former circus animals, but that doesn’t mean you can do anything you want.”
“Don’t worry,” Millard said. “We’re grooming him to join the circus.” He pointed a thumb to the back seat.
“What do you have for food?” the ranger asked, ignoring Millard’s joke.
“Twizzlers, marshmallows, juju bees, some bananas and a few sprigs of broccoli.”
“Good. Everything but the broccoli. It upsets their stomachs.”
“Nice to know.”
Millard looked at the ranger’s nametag.
“Brady,” Millard said to himself.
“That’s a good name.”
“Stay in your car and enjoy your time.”
Millard rolled his window up and they drove down the dusty road to where the animals grazed.
“How about Brady?” Millard said.
“Crowns,” Kaitlin said.
“Broccoli comes in crowns, not sprigs.”
“And we already talked about Brady. Sounds great for a baby, but once you grow up...”
Millard stopped the car for a second, turned around waited to make eye contact with the baby and said, “Brady.” He looked for a reaction.
“Stop that!” Kaitlin said. “You’re going to do some real damage.”
When she found out she was pregnant a month into her marriage, Kaitlin was seventy-five percent sure Millard, not Matt, was Little Fella’s father. She tried not to think about the math. When he was born, Kaitlin couldn’t tell who he looked like. Without a name, it was possible that he could be anyone or anything: any transgressions that he would commit, no matter how small, would be anonymous.
“Welcome, Matt,” Millard said, holding his newborn son.
“Don’t say that,” Kaitlin said. “He’s not a Matt.”
“I thought we talked about this.”
“Don’t ever use that name with him.”
Two days after Little Fella was born, when they arrived at home, Millard scribbled a list, his first of many to come. Kaitlin held Little Fella as she looked the list over. She ran scenarios in her head:
A Leonard will live with his parents and remain a virgin until he’s 43.
A Brad is destined for middle-management.
A Quincy won’t grow into his name until he’s 67.
A Sammy will sell someone a car, knowing it has a faulty carburetor.
Every name diagnosed a disease; every name made Kaitlin culpable.
“Is he one of these, then?” Millard said, looking over her shoulder.
“We should wait,” Kaitlin said. “He’s too perfect right now.”
“He’ll be perfect with a name.”
“You give him a name, he’s liable.”
When Kaitlin didn’t answer, Millard said, “We have to give him a name.”
Millard parked the car in the middle of the field and reached for the food. The animals took notice. A brown bear approached the car.
The bear stood on his hind legs and leaned his front paws against the window.
“Millard!” Kaitlin said.
“It’s ok. They won’t hurt anyone. Watch this.”
Millard pulled out a marshmallow. The bear readied for his trick.
“Look at this, Little Fella,” Millard said. He held up the marshmallow so that the bear could see it on the other side of the window. The bear then stretched his arms out to either side, palms to the sky. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Did you see that?” Millard said. He cracked his window and stuffed the marshmallow through to the outside. The bear snatched the marshmallow from the ground.
“It’s like he’s saying, ‘I don’t know’. Isn’t that something else?”
He taunted the bear with another marshmallow.
“Maybe he’s got some suggestions,” he said to Kaitlin. He turned to the bear: “What do you think buddy?” he said, pasting the marshmallow against the window. “What should we call Little Fella?”
“That’s not funny,” Kaitlin said.
The bear shrugged again.
Little Fella laughed and clapped his hands. Hand-clapping was something he hadn’t done before. Millard and Kaitlin both turned around, knowing that they had crossed another threshold—one more accomplishment without a name. The last of Little Fella’s teeth were coming in and he was already starting to form sentences. They knew his little brain was putting together thoughts, building pictures, creating larger chunks of the world around him. They were running out of time. Little Fella pulled at his shoelaces.
“I’m sorry,” Millard said.
“It’s just not a funny joke,” Kaitlin said.
“No,” Millard said. “I’m sorry for something else.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”
“What do you mean?” Kaitlin said. She felt immediate cold. Millard turned to Little Fella, who was still pulling at his shoelaces.
“Ma-tthew,” he said.
Little Fella stopped with the shoelaces and cocked his head in recognition.
“I couldn’t help it,” Millard said. “I’ve been calling him Matthew for a while now. I should’ve told you. I don’t know why I didn’t.”
The bear outside was waiting, paws against Kaitlin’s side of the car. She grabbed a handful of marshmallows, rolled down the window and threw them at the bear.
“You couldn’t give us a better answer?” she said.
“Easy, roll you’re window up!” Millard said. She obeyed.
“It’s not his fault,” Millard said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t.”
Matthew got his shoelace untied, his first trick. He clapped his hands, joining the circus with the rest of us.