Joe loves the perfect son the moment he enters the world.
“I will raise him as if he is my own,” he proclaims, and Maryanne glows in the warm morning sun filling the hospital room.
They raise their perfect son, Joe ceaselessly marveling over their perfect son’s, well, perfection, and Maryanne always remembering, eyelids heavy.
Their perfect son grows into a perfect boy.
He disappears for hours some days, quietly sitting down to watch Jeopardy when he slips back home, startling Maryanne, as pork chops bake in the oven or pasta water boils, until one day Joe and Maryanne follow him to the town’s senior center and stare like gaping baby birds as their perfect son dons a hairnet and serves Chicken a la King and canned peaches to the vets and widowers.
Joe and Maryanne feel unworthy of their perfect son.
Let’s try for another child.
Joe nods his head, yes.
The average son arrives during the biggest thunderstorm their town has seen in decades, one for the record books, the newspaper will report. Maryanne hadn’t even known she was pregnant until she’d felt the unmistakable pressure of impending birth.
“This one we will be worthy of,” Joe proclaims as he cradles the average son in his arms, sweat still rolling off of Maryanne’s exhausted body.
The average son grows strong, all fearless, rambunctious boy, and their perfect son quietly watches over him, a small smile at the corners of his mouth.
Joe and Maryanne gently remind the average son to help with chores. Checks are written each time errant baseballs and footballs land in neighbors’ living rooms with a startling crash. He’s everything the parenting books told them to expect.
Joe sees the first snake after a downpour blows past and the sun shines back hotter than before. The average son reaches into holes around the flower garden, pulling out handfuls of mud and snakes that twist and roll and wrap around his wrists like bracelets. Their perfect son lies in the wet grass as the snakes slide over his bare feet, and his finger traces a cloud shaped like a sorrowful boy.
Joe hacks the snakes as fast as he can grab them and tosses the pieces behind the shed. Maryanne steps into the shade of their mulberry tree, tucks her hands under her arms. She doesn’t have to tell their perfect son to lead the average son inside to clean up.
Their perfect son and the average son stand in front of the bathroom mirror, shoulders touching, the average son laughing and pointing at how similar they look. Maryanne catches them in the corner of her eye as she passes by carrying a load of folded laundry. Her perfect son, the average son—melding into one large haze of blond hair and blue t-shirts and jeans.
Maryanne whispers, Joe, the light, my God, the light.
The average son lifts up on his toes. Pushes through the unlatched window. Floats past the roofs and the trees like a carnival balloon untethered from a child’s grasp.
They shout We’ll miss you! as the average son grows smaller and smaller, as he disappears.
Joe and Maryanne turn to their perfect son standing in the doorway. So, birthday boy, where do you want to go for dinner?