Down and Out at the Breast-feeding School 

Second place

Page 3 of 4

Inside, the auditorium was vast and awkward, a steep slope with worn cinema chairs. The stage was heavily shellacked and crowded with big-breasted mannequins. There was a podium and swan-neck microphone. Behind it all stretched a wide white screen. They found an aisle seat and Johnson watched the women pass. Against the screen they were wobbling silhouettes, penguins smuggling basketballs. The husbands bore facial expressions suggestive of lumbar pain.

"There could be a mutiny," Johnson said.

"What?"

"If they aren't satisfied with the show, don't you get a feeling these women might revolt?"

"This isn't a show, you dumbass."

Johnson grit his teeth and drew sanitized oxygen into his chest. "You know what Oprah says about parenthood?" he said. "You hear about this? She says children should be sacrificed."

"Look at me," Gilder said, squeezing his arm. "What's wrong with your pupils? Tell me what you took."

"Baby, look," he said, and then paused. He could hear a thousand areolas darkening. "Keep asking me this shit, in a place like this, and I'm liable to spontaneously combust."

"Just shut up," she said. "OK? Not another word. Take notes."

Johnson focused on the virgin paper of his notebook, the blue lines waving like Maui swells. The auditorium had reached capacity. A video flashed on the screen, showing a petite but hard-stepping lady walking a hospital corridor, healing people. She stared into the camera, into the darkened auditorium, and smiled: "Welcome to the Breast-feeding School!"

Johnson whispered: "The Grand Empress cometh."

In the flesh, the Grand Empress arose from stage left, and the room's lights fell dim. This was really happening. She was dainty but direct, clad in a red business suit, her feet pounding in black heels. She tossed grandmotherly smiles to the crowd. Johnson was sure he could see through the façade, that she was really the wicked headmaster of a Third World orphanage. Behind her the screen transformed into a gargantuan breast diagram, a paisley flower of milk ducts and fatty tissue. She took the microphone and introduced herself, to Johnson's ears, as Doctor Carole Something.

"Babies are born suckers," Doctor Something said. "Let's get that straight, right off the bat."

Johnson leaned back into his seat, wishing he might evaporate, or fall into a secret corridor. He studied the other men and decided it best to not evaporate, but to be a damn man. The doctor spoke of nurturing bonds, skin-to-skin benefits, and — worst — Montgomery glands, the bumpy outposts around the nipple's hollow tower. This required an illustration, then a real breast photo, which consumed the entire screen. It was the least erotic thing Johnson had ever seen, a brown-eyed Cyclops lunging at the crowd.

Johnson leaned over: "She stole our money."

"Write down what she was saying," Gilder said. "The bit about bloody nipples."

"Jesus."

Next up was a sketch of twins suckling their mother, one breast each. Johnson thought of puppies. Then he thought he saw puppies in the aisles. "OK," he said, "break time. I'll be in the hall."

Johnson exited the auditorium and beelined to the nearest window, for proof the hospital hadn't sunk to a lunatic netherworld. He wandered into the men's restroom, where two husbands near the sinks were discussing college football.

"I only ate one slice," Johnson told them.

The men looked at each other. The taller one, who wore a sport coat and leather driving shoes, smiled. The shorter one donned a pinkie ring. Johnson knew this was no time for men with pinkie rings.

"I think we all ate the slice," the tall man said. "Or else we wouldn't be here, listening to this mumbo jumbo about inverted nipples."

All three laughed. Johnson was convinced he'd found kindred voyagers on the psychedelic crazy train.

"You guys afraid of Oprah?"

The tall one tossed a wadded paper towel in a countertop hole. "She scares the hell out of me," he said.

Johnson extended his knuckles for bumping, first to the tall man and then the short one, but neither obliged. They didn't seem to know what Johnson wanted; his fist hung lonely in the air. Their cordial acceptance of him shifted to cold analysis.

"You doing OK, man?" the short guy said. "Look a little wound up."

"Oh," Johnson said, "peachy."

Said the tall one, "It'll be over soon."

"How do you know?"

"Program says so."

"Who's fucking program?" Johnson snapped. "Tell me what you mean."

The men gave up on Johnson and walked toward the door. As Johnson lifted his arms and gasped, the tall man turned around. "You know, you should get back in there," he said. "This isn't about you. It's about your kid."

Johnson broke into a drenching sweat. He knew what had to be done: retrieve his wife, take her to a park with a wide green field, and tell her everything. He calmly exited the bathroom but took a wrong turn; instead of auditorium doors he came to an art deco mezzanine. It was a vast, silent space. Beneath the entryway was a bench, upon which sat a figure Johnson mistook for a sculpture at first, but determined via her sniffling nose to be an actual woman, and a very pregnant one at that. She faced the exit, even leaned toward it, but she didn't stand, anchored by an unseen weight. Johnson wanted to confide in her, to cleanse his angst in her motherly aura.

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