Water, Please, Daddy

Grant Segall

Something was grazing my forearm.  Something cool, drippy, gritty.  Neptune.  Of course.  Martin’s seahorse of a junior cup.  Always wet, always thirsty. 
“Just a sec."  I saved my schematic, closed my laptop, and slid it across the wrought iron for safety.  When I looked up, Martin was watching a plane angle toward the treetops.  His brow was sweaty and a little sandy, but I knew better than to wipe it off.  Instead, I said the sort of thing the therapist wanted us to: “Could you say, ‘Water, please, Daddy?’”
“Water,” he rasped, still tracking the plane past the horizon.
“Better.  Now try saying it all: ‘Water, please, Daddy?’”
As usual when pressed, he wriggled his hands like tambourines.  “Water!”
“Good enough for now, dear?” asked Andrea, who must have sat beside me sometime.
“Sure.”  I rose from the table, slipped Neptune from Martin’s fingers, and opened the sliding-glass door, erasing our reflections like doodles on his Etch A Sketch.  Drip drip drip.  The kitchen tap was mutinying again.  I unscrewed Neptune’s head, filled his belly, and put him back together.  Then I shut the tap hard and shot it a look.  Andrea could ignore the drips, but they made Martin cringe and me want to.  Autism, we’d learned, was partly genetic and mainly male, so we fathers tended to have a hint of it ourselves.  My amusing quirks — blinks, puns, and the like — were really subtler defenses than Martin’s against a world of too many stimuli.
I brought Neptune back to the patio.  Martin reached.  I prompted him: “Thanks, Daddy.”
“Thanks.”  He snatched the cup and whisked it around the reach of the swings, though they were idle, his big sister being off at a friend’s.  At the sandbox, he sprinkled a rampart and packed it tighter.
“Smart,” I said, sitting again.  “Water can help hold things together.”
“Maybe, sweetie,” Andrea called, “you’ll be an engineer, like Daddy.”
Ignoring us both, he started a new rampart out of line with the old ones.  I woke my laptop meanwhile and tested my latest design for a lab washer.  It drenched some beakers and left others dry.  I wiped my own brow.  Unlike Martin, I’d have to pull my creation together, and by morning.
Andrea opened a magazine to a shot of a turbaned rifleman guarding some far oasis.  Down our block, a drill started up.  The Szilgayi boy must have been salvaging another junker.  Here at home, Martin worked Neptune open — a new feat for him — and marched it to the table in triumph. 
“Water,” he offered, unprompted for once.
“Great start,” I replied.  “Now say ‘please,’ Martin.”
“Please, Martin,” he mumbled. 
I fought a laugh and started to explain.  But Andrea said “It’s OK,” and took Neptune to the kitchen.  Soon she brought it back with a crystal pitcher of water.
“Good idea,” I said.
She set down her load, turned back, and closed the screen door, leaving the glass open, letting the heat inside.  Martin dashed up and seized Neptune without thanks. 
"There, sweetie," she said, indulging him instead of the therapist or me. 
I heard the drip drip drips again and rose to set that much straight around here.
“Sorry, Craig,” she said.  “I could barely open it.  You don’t know your own strength.”
“I’ll fix it tomorrow.”
“You’re so busy, let’s call a plumber this once.”
“Now, you know what an engineer calls a plumber.”
When I retook my seat, the pitcher was sweating.  On the next trip, I’d get glasses for Andrea and myself.  Meanwhile, she flipped to a photo of Marines ringing dark children on a dune, either shielding or corralling them, I couldn’t tell.  Closer to home, an alarm went off, hopefully from that junker.  Martin covered his ears for a moment, then clenched his jaw and worked on.
“Maybe we autistics are on the rise,” I whispered, “because the world’s getting crazier.”
Andrea snickered.  “And vice versa.”
“Sorry, dear.”  She patted my arm and vanished in the magazine again.
The alarm finally stopped.  Martin took a breath and emptied the cup onto a rampart.  A chunk slid away.  He wriggled his hands harder than before.
“Here, drink some.”  I brought over the pitcher and poured a refill.  “Water can help people too.”  I gave Neptune back.  He flung it at the sand.  Most of the rampart fell.  Like a forsaken god, he trampled the rest.  Then he knelt and began to rebuild.
Retaking my seat, I angled the laptop from the sinking sun.  The next thing I knew, Martin was beside me again with Neptune.  I reached, but he pulled it back.  
“Want to fill it yourself?” I asked, reading a mind too like mine.  He did it without spilling a drop.  “Good job.”  He bore away his prize.
“Another do-it-yourselfer,” Andrea murmured.
“You used to like that.”
“Well, sure, before we knew.”
“Suppose you'd known sooner?"
“Lower, please,” she whispered.                                         
“Like before we married?"
“The two of you!”  She turned up her palms.  “He won’t talk, and you won’t let anything go.”
So I let my spray arms go — go wider and harder.  They shot water everywhere and nowhere.  I slapped the table.  The pitcher rattled against the wrought iron.
At Andrea’s side this time, Martin stared at his rippling reflections in the crystal.  Then he slapped the table himself.  The water sloshed to the rim.  She instinctively cupped his shoulder.  He yelped and reared.  I leaped to my feet.  He slapped the pitcher.  I caught it somehow, but water flew through my arms.  The laptop sizzled and went dark.
I thumped down the pitcher, grabbed the laptop, and wiped it against my shirt, which proved to be just as wet.  Andrea unplugged the cord from the wall and slipped inside.  Martin peeked at me for once.  I shook the laptop like I wanted to shake him, as if either of them would ever snap to.
Back already, Andrea threw me a towel and started blasting the laptop with a blow dryer.
“Lower!” I tried to call, since heat could be as deadly as water.  But my throat was too parched and the laptop probably past saving. Then something grazed my chin.  Neptune again, still cool and drippy. 
“Water,” whispered Martin from atop a chair.
“You’ve had enough!”  I grabbed the cup with my toweled hand and flung it away.  Oddly heavy, it plunged into the taxus.
Soon the blow dryer went as dead as the laptop.  Andrea sighed and set it down.  I pulled out the flash stick and dried it.  Had I saved the schematic there today?
Something grazed my cheek.  Something cooler than before, drippier, brimming, open.  I drew back and squinted: my “Dad” mug. 
“Water helps,” Martin offered.
I finally read him this time.  “Thanks,” I rasped.
He smirked.  “‘Thanks, Martin.’"
I managed to echo both words and drink.  The water raced through me unabsorbed.  A drop fell to his wrist.  I couldn’t help wiping it off.  He stiffened, then breathed.  His skin felt almost as soft and resilient as when he was a toddler, not yet fighting our touch.
Andrea reached to hug him.  He flinched, then fled to the sandbox, lost again for now.  She turned and hugged me instead, our hearts thumping different rhythms together.  Over the beats, I caught the tap once more, louder than ever. 
“Just a sec,” I tried.
“Let it drown us already!”  She clutched me harder, and I hung on, wondering which I feared more: drowning, running dry, or living the rest of our lives with the drip drip drips.



Grant Segall is a Harvard grad and a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter and columnist. He has won three national journalism prizes and many statewide ones. He has published nine short stories in college journals, zines, and an international bimonthly, with a tenth story scheduled soon. He earned honorable mention in Whiskey Island’s yearly contest at Cleveland State. 

He also wrote “John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil” (Oxford, 2001). “Rockefeller” has been published in the U.S., Korea, and China.