Aaron would not come out.
Nestled inside his mother, blind and wrinkled and warm, he defied the doctors. Charlotte's screams skimmed along the hospital corridors, but Aaron, lodged at his peculiar angle, was mindless of them. Charlotte vomited and shrieked and wanted to die. As that possibility became less and less remote, the doctors hurriedly decided to operate and, deftly cutting through the wall of Charlotte's abdomen, they slit the uterus and reached inside.
Pink and white like a candy stick, Aaron entered the world.
It seemed to be a great place to visit. His father could not have been gladder to see him. Henry Firestone, universally known as Hank, was a big man, confident, with a quick smile and a loud, rough voice. Aaron never forgot that voice; years later he would still spin suddenly around—on the street, in a restaurant, a theater lobby—whenever he heard a voice remotely similar.
Hank was a lawyer, for Simmons and Sloane, the Wall Street firm, and when he was thirty-one Mr. Sloane himself made Hank a full partner, Mr. Simmons being bed-ridden that day with gout, a disease to which he noisily succumbed some months later. The week he became a partner, Hank was sent to Roanoke, Virginia, for a three-day business trip.
He stayed two weeks and came back married.
Her name was Charlotte Crowell, of the Roanoke Crowells, or what once had been the Roanoke Crowells, the family having been comfortably poor since shortly before the turn of the century. Charlotte was tiny, barely five feet tall, with a sweet face and a voice as soft as her husband's was harsh. Her hair was black and she wore it long and straight, down her back; even when it began turning cruelly white (she was not yet thirty) she wore it that way.
Hank and Charlotte lived in New York for a few months but then, the summer after they were married, they moved to a large white colonial on Library Place, a gently curving tree-lined street in the best section of Princeton, New Jersey. Mr. Sloane himself lived in Princeton, on Battle Road, of course, and when he saw that the house on Library Place was up for sale he mentioned it casually to Hank, who immediately took Charlotte for a look-see. Charlotte loved it—it reminded her so of Roanoke—so Hank bought it for her. He couldn't afford it but he bought it anyway, partially because Charlotte loved it and partially because she was pregnant and everybody told them New York was no place to bring up children. They moved into the house the week after Deborah was born, all waxy and red, the only time she was ever unattractive. The wax soon washed away, the red softened into pink, and she became a beautiful baby, fat, spoiled and sassy. Charlotte adored her and Hank liked her well enough—he cooed at her and carried her around on his big shoulders and gently poked her soft flesh till she giggled—Hank liked her fine, but he was waiting for his son.
The wait took over two years. Hank worked hard at the office, making more money than he ever had before in spite of the depression, and Charlotte hired a full-time maid and then a gardener to tend the lawn on summer mornings. They entertained a good deal and they entertained well; Charlotte had the gift. Hank gave up tennis for golf, which bored him, but it was better for business. A lot of things bored Hank until the evening Aaron emerged.
Before the boy was a month old his room was crammed with toys and dolls and music boxes, and a menagerie of stuffed animals pyramided against the foot of his canopied bed. Almost every afternoon Hank journeyed north to F. A. O. Schwarz's for more and more presents, and when Charlotte warned he was in danger of buying out the store he only nodded happily and told her she had guessed exactly his last remaining ambition. Nights Hank spent in the boy's room, rocking him to sleep, singing soft lullabies in his big rough voice. Whenever the boy was sick—and he was sick a good deal—Hank would go to work late and return early, calling in constantly from New York, always asking the same question: "Aaron? How is Aaron? How is my son?"
Hank loved Aaron; Charlotte loved Deborah. There were no troubles on Library Place.
For Aaron's third birthday Hank bought him a jungle gym. They set it up together, the two of them, in the back yard. It was a marvelous structure, more than six feet high, and Hank used to take Aaron and lift him, setting him on the very top rung. "Hold tight now," Hank would say. "Hold tight and stay up there all by yourself." So Aaron would hold tight, sitting on the top rung, his tiny fists gripping the bars for balance. Hank would back away from him then, calling out "Scared?" and Aaron would yell "No, no," even though he was.
One Saturday afternoon the maid was out and Charlotte was watching Deborah perform at ballet class, so Hank and Aaron played cops and robbers for a while, shooting each other, falling, suddenly up again, running pell-mell across the lawn. After that it was time to play on the jungle gym. Hank lifted Aaron, carried him on his big shoulders, carefully placed him on the very top rung. Hank started backing away. "Hold tight now," he said. Aaron held tight. "Are you scared?" he said. "No," Aaron cried; "no." Hank stood a distance from the jungle gym and smiled his quick smile. Then, thoughtlessly, he paled, falling to his knees. He gasped for a moment, then slipped to the grass. Gasping louder, he crawled forward, crawled toward the jungle gym, saying, "Aaron. Aaron." He raised one big arm, then dropped it. Reaching for his son, he died, sprawled full length, white on the green lawn.
Aaron giggled. "That was good, Daddy," he said. He did not know the name of the game, but whatever it was it was obviously still on—his father, after all, had not answered—so he giggled again and stared down at the dead man. It was a fine summer day, windy and warm, and Aaron stared up at the clouds a moment, watching them skid across the sky. Grabbing on to the bars with all his strength, he looked down again—it frightened him to look down, it was so far—but his father still had not moved. "That's good, Daddy," Aaron said. He giggled once more, lifting his head, staring at the clouds. His fists were beginning to get sore from holding the bars, but he did not dare loosen his grip. "Down, Daddy," Aaron said, looking up. "I wanna come down." The game was still on; his father did not move. Aaron gazed at the clouds and started to sing. "How sweet to be a cloud floating in the blue. It makes you very proud to be a little cloud." It was a song from Winnie the Pooh—Aaron knew all the songs from Winnie the Pooh—and Pooh sang it when he was floating up after the honey on the tail of the balloon. But he never got the honey because the bees found him out and Pooh fell all the way down. Pooh fell. Aaron's hands ached terribly. "Daddy," he said louder. "Take me down, Daddy. Please take me down."
His father made no move to do so.
"Daddy," Aaron said, frightened now. "I'll drink my milk I will I will I promise but take me down." He hated to cry—his father never cried—but suddenly he was crying, the tears stinging his eyes. "Take me down, Daddy." He began to shake and his hands were numb and the tears would not stop. "Take me down dah-dee." His chest burned and the clouds were monsters diving at him so he closed his eyes but he thought he might fall so he opened them, alternating his stare, up to the diving monsters, down to the still figure, up and down, up and down. Aaron began to scream. "Dah-dee dah-dee dah-dee take me down dah-dee take me down take me down...