Stories 2 Spring 2019

 

DOG  DAYS

   by Bob Beach

 

That August, the dog days of summer stomped into town and settled in like they owned the place, frying the lawns and blistering the tar patches in the street. No basement was cool enough, no shadow deep enough to hide. The heat boiled the blood and addled the brain and drove normally sensible people into doing crazy things.

 Like playing basketball. I tossed the rock around halfheartedly with a couple of other guys on the blacktop court behind the school as we waited for enough kids to start a game. We moved in slow motion through the dense air, the sticky tar grabbing at our sneakers and radiating waves of heat thick enough to see.

 “Here comes Bill,” said one of the boys. “At least we got two on two.”

  I turned and watched Bill tear toward us across the schoolyard.

  “Gonna play?” I asked.

“You’re not gonna believe this, David!” He grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me around the corner into the teachers’ parking lot. He squirmed like he had to take a leak and his eyes were so big I could see the white all the way around his pupils. Lately, only one thing got him this excited—girls.

Of course, girls were mostly what we thought about, that summer. Life as we knew it had come to an annoying end in June, leaving us adrift in that no-man’s land between grade school and high school. Our old world was a closed book and our new one a mystery until fall, leaving us without responsibilities or expectations—a ticket to trouble for kids our age. Meanwhile, hormones fired like popcorn in our brains, and we lurched around like zombies at a whiff of perfume or a glimpse of bare leg. What else was there to think about?

 “You saw your sister naked in the shower again?”

  “Aw, jeez, man. That’s old news. This is way bigger!”

   “You saw your mom in the shower?”

   Bill punched me in the chest. He was a year younger than me, but bigger, so it kind of hurt. “Melinda Dawson likes you!”

I laughed out loud. “Bullshit. Melinda Dawson doesn’t know I exist.” Melinda was the walking wet dream every boy in school had fantasized about since the fifth grade, when she first sprouted knockers. She hung around with high school boys and went on dates in cars. The chances she was interested in David Abbott were about the same as the Yankees calling me up to replace Mickey Mantle in center field.

“She does, man. I swear!”

 I wiped the sweat off my forehead and looked around. “Where is everybody? You’re gonna get me to bite on this, then they’re all gonna pop out laughing, right? Leon put you up to this, didn’t he?”

“Screw Leon! I’m serious—Harry Baldwin told me.”

 I laughed again. “Harry Baldwin? That nerd? Since when does Melinda Dawson tell Harry Baldwin anything?”

 “Hey, Abbott! You gonna play or not?” One of the kids stuck his head around the corner. “We’re choosing up!”

  “Nice try, Bill,” I said. “I gotta go.”

  Bill scowled and furrowed his brows in frustration. “Wait! Meet me after lunch in front of the school. I’ll prove it!”

 “Sure you will. Don’t hold your breath—I’ve got a date with Tuesday Weld after lunch. Then I’m taking Kim Novak out to dinner."

 Tuesday Weld didn’t show after lunch, so I was free after all.

The whole thing smelled like some kind of setup, but Bill was my best friend, and I couldn’t see him screwing me over like that. And Harry Baldwin was a nerd, but a sincere one. The whole thing was ridiculous, of course—nerds and socials didn’t mix.

But what if it wasn’t?

At a quarter of one, I sat sweating in the shade of the big elm in front of the school, watching Bill and Harry Baldwin march toward me across the broad front lawn. Beyond them, cars edged slowly along Cherry Street. Even the cars were taking it easy in this heat.

Bill looked pretty much like the rest of us that summer—worn sneakers, threadbare jeans, dirty T-shirt and a wild mop of hair with some flavor of well-tanned face peeking out. Harry was plump with a mostly hairless round head and round wire-rimmed spectacles like Benjamin Franklin probably wore.

 “So, Harry, how you going to prove this shit?” I asked. “Swear on your mother’s grave?”

 He frowned. “My mother’s still alive.”

 Duh. Harry tended to come up a little short on humor and irony. A whiz at math, though. “Okay, then, maybe a little trigonometry proof? Sine over cosine minus the square root of pi?”

 “That’s just a jumble of—”

  “I know, I know, forget it. Give. What’s in the stars for Melinda and me?”

Harry seemed a bit flustered and looked at Bill for support.

Bill hopped around some more and waved his hands in excitement. “So tell him already.”

“Well, Melinda’s best friend is Candy,” said Harry. “Whose boyfriend is on the wrestling team with Myron Levin, who knows my sister.” He stared at me expectantly.

I looked back and forth at the two of them. Bill had both hands stuffed into his jeans pockets and a huge, self-satisfied grin on his face. Harry had picked up an interesting black rock and was spit-polishing it on his corduroy shorts.

“And this is proof of what?” I asked.

 “C’mon, David, get with it,” said Bill. “This is the way it’s done!”

 What the hell were they talking about? The way what was done? I discovered my mouth was hanging open and I shut it again.

 Harry finally spoke up. “Melinda told Candy she likes you. And she told Candy to tell her boyfriend, who told Myron, who told my sister who told me. And I told Bill to make sure you got the message, because he’s your best friend.”

 “C’mon, man,” said Bill. “She can’t just come out and say she likes you. Nobody does that.”

 “Oh.” I wasn’t sure why this would be. But then I wasn’t exactly captain cool—I had zero experience with girlfriends and no idea how these things worked. But however they worked, they never included me. “This is crazy—you guys know that, don’t you?”

“But what if it’s not?” said Bill. “You gonna pass up the biggest chance you ever had in your life? It’s Melinda Dawson, man!”

I stood up and walked around, trying to cool off in what little breeze I could generate. “Chance my ass! Melinda Dawson likes meMe?Get real! Anyway, just what am I supposed to do about it? What does your secret network have to say about that?” No, it was crazy. Things like this didn’t happen to kids like me.

Bill jumped up and down, laughing. Even Harry cracked a smile. “We didn’t even get to the best part, yet,” said Bill. ”Listen to this!” He gave Harry a sturdy nudge. “Tell him!”

 Harry put on his serious look, like he was Paul Revere and had to get the message right or the British would kick the shit out of us. “Well, the second part of the message was that Melinda would be hanging around Klapfish’s Market this Wednesday at two o’clock, in case you might feel like wandering by and chatting her up!”

Whoa.

Today was Monday.

* * *

At one thirty on Wednesday I was peeking out from a hedge well back of Klapfish’s Market, scouting traffic in the parking lot behind the store. The whole thing seemed just too easy, and I wasn’t taking any chances. I wasn’t about to bare my soul for Leon or anybody else to piss on.

But I couldn’t shake the question in the back of my mind: what if it was the real thing? After all, stranger things had happened. Elizabeth Taylor married that dweeb Eddie Fisher, didn’t she?

This was virgin ground I was breaking. I didn’t have any idea what to wear for a first date with a girl—or even if this was considered a date. It took me three hours to decide to wear my everyday jeans and a newish white T-shirt. I’d collected my allowance and raided my old man’s pocket for spare change in case she expected me to buy her something, like a Coke or ice cream bar.

 Now there were thirty minutes left on the clock, and I still didn’t know what to expect, much less what to do.

 There was still no Leon or his gang, no signs of a setup. I slipped down the alley and crossed to the other side of Cherry so I could scout the store from the front. From there I could keep an eye on all the approaches to the market. I crept into a shadow between two houses to escape the heat and squatted down to wait. I could see Mr. Klapfish inside fussing at the counter as the neighborhood ladies passed in and out with strollers and shopping bags.

What should I say? Hi, Melinda, what’s up? Real cool, like we’re good buddies. Right. The only eye contact we ever made, she laughed at me—that time I got busted for drawing naked women in class. I got your message, Melinda. “What message?” and I’d be screwed. You come here often? “Almost every day, David—I buy all my meat and produce here. I love their lamb cutlets!” C’mon, dork, wise up. I didn’t have to invent a pickup line—she’s the one who invited me to the party. Oh, what big, beautiful breasts you have! Yeah, that’s the ticket! Crap. Why hadn’t I thought about this sooner?

Maybe I could compliment her on her clothes—girls always liked that, didn’t they? So pay attention to what she’s wearing. She liked those real fuzzy sweaters. That’s option one.

 But what the hell would we talk about? What did I do that she’d have any interest in? Art? Chess? Baseball? How’bout them Yanks? No, she dated jocks—I’d look pretty lame next to them. I hated to admit it, but I was as big a nerd as Harry Baldwin. Why the hell did she pick on me?

What did she like? Clothes, jocks, cars, rock ‘n roll—I was screwed again. Man, we were like total opposites! Kissing—I’d bet we were both interested in… holy shit, there she was!

I glanced at my watch—it was a quarter of two. Melinda and Candy strolled down Cherry toward Klapfish’s, yacking away like nothing was up. Maybe this was going to happen after all—by the end of the day, I could be dating those knockers! My heart was beating a Latin tango and a brand new trickle of sweat that wasn’t from the heat ran down my side. I heard a buzzing in my ears and I took a couple deep breaths.

But Candy was with her. If I was going to make a fool of myself, it sure as hell wouldn’t be in front of a witness. The two girls disappeared into the store. They were inside a long time—I couldn’t blame them, it was air conditioned. When they emerged, they had sodas. I glanced at my watch. It had only been five minutes.

Melinda squatted on the stoop and unrolled a magazine. They chatted for a minute, then Candy took off again down the street. Melinda was sitting down. That was good—it wouldn’t be so obvious I was a foot shorter than her.

I edged back between the houses and raced around to Oakland Street. I slowed, tugged my jeans up a bit and walked up to the light at Cherry. Melinda had her nose buried in the magazine and didn’t look up. I crossed the street and sidled up to the stoop.

Okay, option one: compliment her clothes. Oh, no! She was wearing a plain white T-shirt—just like me! And cut-off jeans. What could I say?

Suddenly she looked up at me and I jumped. “Oh, hi, David.”

What was option two? Crap, there was no option two. I had to go with the compliment and tough it out. “Hi Melinda. I like your T-shirt. It’s so… white.”

Her eyebrows rose and she looked down at her shirt. When she looked up, her brows were furrowed in confusion. I was dead already. Then she let out a squeal and a hiccup, pointing at me and smiling. “That’s funny. I like that! Mark said you were funny.”

Apparently the squeal and hiccup was a laugh. Somehow, I’d made it to first base. “Funny ha-ha or funny odd?”

“Both.”

“Oh.”

We stared at each other. She looked me up and down; I already had her every feature memorized, from the short gold curly hair to the mile-long legs to the mole on her left ankle. I couldn’t decide what to do with my hands, alternately stuffing them in my pockets and clasping them behind my back like I was in the principal’s office awaiting sentence.

“You live around here?” she asked.

I already knew where she lived. Fourth house down on Kimball off Oakland. Her bedroom was the front left, and if I walked by at the right time in the evening, I could see her shadow passing back and forth on the curtains. I kept hoping she’d leave those curtains open some night, but she never did. I also hoped nobody would call the cops on a stalker outside her house.

“Yeah.”

She waited expectantly. I guess I was supposed to say something else. That was called conversation, wasn’t it?

“Sobecki said I was funny, huh?” Boy, what sparkling wit.

“He said you were cool, too. He told me about you guys cutting class. Did you really let the air out of the coach’s tires right there in the teachers’ parking lot?”

Mark Sobecki said I was cool? That would be a major breakthrough for my social life! Already it was paying dividends. “We put a whoopee cushion on his seat, too.”

Another shriek and hiccup. Now she was smiling again. I was on a roll.

“So what are you doing this summer?” she asked. “Hanging around with your girlfriend?”

I guess here I was supposed to confess to being girlfriendless and open the door to courtship. Which was true. As far as I knew, no girl had ever looked twice at me. But if Melinda was my girlfriend, I’d be her slave. I’d do her homework and take her to White Castle every day for lunch. I’d bring her flowers and Milky Way bars and carry her book bag back and forth to school. I’d kiss every inch of her body from the stray hairs on the nape of her neck that burned like golden fleece in the sunlight to that perfect little mole on her ankle. I’d leave a trail of love bites down her neck and shoulders so everybody would know she was mine.

She was looking at me funny, her head cocked to one side.

“What?” I stammered.

“You’re, like, taking way too long to answer—does that mean you can’t decide whether you have a girlfriend, or that you have so many it takes a while to add them all up?”

“Oh—no.”

“No what?” she asked.

“No girlfriend.”

Melinda sighed and looked off down the street. “Candy says I’m crazy,” she murmured. “All my friends do.” Short golden strands of hair were pasted to her temples and at the back of her neck. A nearly invisible layer of moist, golden peach fuzz glistened on her smooth arms. Her perfume was almost overpowering in the still, humid air—a scent which always made me think of the color purple.

“Listen, David, I told Candy I’d catch up with her in a few minutes. Here.”

She held out a scrap of paper and I took it, my fingers tingling as they brushed hers. It had some numbers on it. “What’s this?”

A little snort and a funny grin. “My phone number.”

Oh, shit, of course it was a phone number. What was I thinking?

“Just in case you want to get together some time for a Coke or something. Okay?”

Oh, very much okay. Very, very much! I couldn’t believe it—I’d made it to second base even after I’d been the biggest dork of all time.

“I thought you only liked jocks.” What? What was I saying? Shut up!

She stood up and looked at me wistfully. Up close I could see she wasn’t actually that much taller—it just always seemed that way. “Like, jocks are okay. But after a while you get tired of all their bullshit, you know? Like how many points they scored and how many pounds they can lift. And they all think they’re God’s gift! You’re different, David—you’re strange, but nice. You’re even good at art.” She winked and turned away. “So, call me,” she said over her shoulder. She walked down Cherry in the direction Candy had gone.

I wanted to race home and call her now, but I knew she wouldn’t be home yet. I followed her with my eyes, long after those slim legs of honey and cinnamon had flickered in the waves of heat radiating from the sidewalk and disappeared.

* * *

I was in a daze. The impossible had happened.

That night I told myself over and over it was too soon to call. It wouldn’t be cool if I seemed desperate. And I needed time to think—things were moving too fast.

Why me? She didn’t know me from Harry Baldwin. We’d never exchanged a word in the four years we’d been going to the same school. Maybe some jock ticked her off once too often and she needed a break for a while—somebody nice, somebody normal. More likely she wanted to make some guy jealous. Jocks went berserk when they thought their rightful property was hanging out at the bottom of the food chain.

But what kind of person lived in that breathtakingly perfect body? I didn’t know her any better than she knew me. And here I was praying I could get close enough to lick the sweat off her arm. Was it just hormones? Chemistry? Was that all love was?

The next day I woke still holding the scrap of paper with her phone. I checked to be sure the numbers hadn’t gotten smudged. But I put off calling. I thought it would be better to give it a couple more days. I avoided Bill. He’d want the news, but what could I tell him—that I was temporarily stranded on second base?

On Friday I woke up with stomach cramps. My mom kept me in bed all day eating soup and crackers. I could hardly wait to see Melinda again, but it wouldn’t be cool to give your girlfriend some bug on your first kiss! I decided to wait ‘til this blew over. I lay in bed fantasizing. Walking her home from school, hand in hand. Caressing the golden peach fuzz on her arms. Feeling my lips against hers. Would I call her Mel?

I couldn’t avoid Bill forever. Saturday morning I wandered out to the basketball court. Bill saw me coming and raced over. “So what happened? What did she say?”

“She gave me her phone number.”

“Yes!” He jumped in the air and pumped his arms. “Did you call her yet?”

I didn’t say anything.

“You didn’t call her?” His eyes bugged out. “Why the hell not?”

My eyes wandered across the playground. The gaggle of kids that usually ran screaming about was nowhere to be seen. No foursquare or battleball games—not in this heat. The blacktop was beginning to buckle from the heat in places and the weeds that usually grew three feet high along the fence were shrunken and brown. My stomach rolled over and I winced. “I thought I’d give it a little time. I don’t want her to think I’m desperate.”

“But you are desperate, you dumb shit! And she wants you to call.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll call her.”

* * *

I thought about Melinda Dawson all day and dreamed about her all night. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. But so did every other boy in town. They flocked around her, tongues dragging behind them on the sidewalk. High school boys with cars. Jocks. How would a nerd like me fit into her world? They might all freeze me out and the guys would hit on Melinda like I wasn’t even there. The jocks might pants me and stick me headfirst in a garbage can. It wouldn’t be the first time, but it wasn’t fun—especially with your girlfriend watching. Or they could skip the subtle stuff and just beat the crap out of me every time I came around.

I’d never even kissed a girl. She went through boyfriends like my old man went through cigars on poker night. I didn’t know how to make out, even how to hang around with a girl. How long would I last? A week? A day? And she’d tell Candy and then the whole world would know what a zero I was. I’d never get a date until I moved away to college.

I didn’t call her that night.

Two days later, my stomach was still giving me fits and I still hadn’t called Melinda.

Monday morning, Bill was standing on my front porch, yelling for me. I stepped out and sat on the porch swing.

He sat down on the ledge across from me. “Well?” he asked.

I looked out across the street, where Mrs. Lyons was watering her tomato plants, coaxing them into one more day of life, one more week. Trying to survive the dog days.

“You didn’t call her.”

How many boys dreamed of living a fantasy like Melinda Dawson? But a kid like me and a dream like her? That was a fiasco, not a fantasy—a short, ugly mistake neither of us would ever live down. I’d pass. At least I could still keep the fantasy.

“You’re not gonna call her, are you?” Bill slipped down off the ledge with a groan and lay flat on his back on the floor, his hands covering his face. “You’re crazy,” he moaned. “Crazy as a shit house rat. You’re never gonna have another chance like this the rest of your life!”

I pictured Melinda handing me her number and felt a little dead inside. “No.”

“You chickened out.”

I wasn’t ready. Not for Melinda Dawson. Not now, maybe not ever.

“Yeah.” I noticed my stomach had stopped hurting

***

I went cold turkey. For the next three days I stayed in my room, pleading the flu. My mind played an endless loop of those unforgettable ten minutes, and I cried into my pillow. We weren’t real to each other, I told myself. Just pale visions of something we could never have—either of us. For better or worse, I’d live my life and she’d live hers.

The following week a cool front moved in, ending our string of crazy weather, and the dog days prowled eastward to raise hell with some new unsuspecting community. The town gave a collective sigh of relief and society fell back into its customary ways. High school finally started and I was distracted by new classes and new friends.

I passed Melinda on the street one day, arm in arm with some upper classman in a green and white letter jacket. She gave no sign of recognizing me. As usual, her long, golden legs created a flutter in my groin. But my heart didn’t seize up in my chest. My breath no longer came in short ragged bursts when I caught the purple scent of perfume that lingered in her passing.

 

Bio: Bob Beach has followed his muse as a graphic designer, film director, advertising copywriter, marketing consultant, web developer, painter and printmaker, university professor, and finally an author of fiction. His stories have appeared in many publications, including, The Saturday Evening Post, The Woven Tale press, The Penmen Review and The Oddville Press.When he’s not writing, he enjoys bicycle touring, tournament chess and collecting art.  He holds BSc and MFA degrees from Bowling Green State University and currently resides in Toledo, Ohio. His website is www.bobbeach.com.

 

 

 

The True Story of a True Woman

by Amy Arutt

I used to be totally honest with my husband. For nearly 18 years I’ve been reasonably content to be Mrs. Janie Sue Sansom, wife to Jack, mother to Ann Dee, Jack Jr., Ellie and Patsy. But what a man doesn’t know, he doesn’t need to know.

Jack was my high school sweetheart. He played in the marching band. He blew his tuba like a lovesick elephant after every back flip I made from the top of the cheer pyramid. High back flips were my specialty. His bellowing tuba sure got my attention.

I asked him why he made all that noise. “I get scared every time you jump,” he said, blushing. “When you make it down safe, it’s a relief. I toot my horn for you.”

He got to me with that, and after the game we started messing around in the back seat of my mother’s car. I was pregnant with Ann Dee before we got our high school diplomas. We married right after graduation and Jack lucked into a job on the police force.

My plan to become a nurse got lost waiting tables at the Waffle House and making more babies. We bought a little house and I vowed I would start college soon as all the kids were in grade school. But it was devilishly hard to keep all six of us fed and clothed on what we earned. Jack got himself a second job at the Wal-Mart warehouse, and I made a bit more watching kids for a lady from church.

After Patsy, our fourth, was born, Jack and I made a deal. No more kids. I was on the pill, and just to be sure, I made him use condoms. We aren’t seventeen any more.

“No more “oops,” I said.

“We can’t afford an “oops,” he said.

I signed up for biology 100, my first night class at the community college. I paid for that class with money saved from babysitting, like I was still a kid. I can’t tell you how much I wanted out of slinging coffee and eggs to neighborhood cowboys and traveling salesmen. I nearly burst with frustration every time I smiled extra nice to get a bigger tip.  College classes were my only way out.

I didn’t account for the annual dinner dance at the Lodge. The punch didn’t even taste spiked, and the whisky was free. We parked and played, just like in high school. Another moment when, foolish me, I wanted.  No condom, but, I was on the pill, so it was safe, right?

My overactive ovaries didn’t cooperate. I never would have guessed I could be so unhappy to carry a child. If Jack believed in abortion, I could have told him about the pregnancy and we could have solved the problem together. Or I could have just not told Jack and quietly gone to a walk-in clinic and gotten it done. He never would have known. But to me, abortion is just wrong. I couldn’t end the life of my child with a doctor’s knife, legal murder. Besides, I’ve always shared everything important with Jack.

I took courage and told him about the baby. He made weak joke about me being his “fertile turtle,” as his face turned sad and pinched. He talked about looking for a third job. But I told him no, he’d kill himself with work, and none of us would ever see him.

“What do you suggest as an alternative?” he said.

I couldn’t look at him as I said maybe, just maybe, there is another couple, nice people, who can’t have kids and would be happy to raise the baby.

“How can you even think about giving away our child?” he said. “Are you telling me I’m a failure, that I can’t support my own family? I would never have thought…”

“You never would have thought? That I want an education, to use the brain in my head? That I am sick to death of tending to you, to the kids, and then serving pancakes for minimum wage? And it sure wouldn’t hurt if I could earn us some more money.”

He reacted like I’d told him he was worthless. Gritting his teeth, he glared as if I’d suddenly become repulsive. I had never seen that from him before.

“Since when did you become a freakin’ feminist?” he asked.

How could he have forgotten I once had the offer of a college scholarship? That my dreams for myself dissolved into sex with him and raising his babies? I walked out of the room.

It was quiet between us after that. We were polite, we were good with the kids. We acted as if everything was normal, but it wasn’t. I didn’t know what else to say. He no longer understood me at all, or he didn’t want to, and that hurt most of all. He pulled back in a thousand little ways. No more little kiss in the morning before he went to work, no more silly stories saved from the day to tell me when we were alone, no more arm around me in his sleep. He was there, but he wasn’t. I could say the same for myself.

 And still, I had heard him. I was ashamed that I wanted to put myself before this child who, yes, I’d been drunk and happy to make. But was it so terribly wrong to want something for myself, for once to put myself before my children and my husband?   Was this the very definition of being selfish?  Or was I finally ready to be my own true self?

No matter what I thought, the voice deep inside me said, “I want more.” That voice wailed louder than shame, railed louder than my belief that children are the most precious creatures in the world. This baby seemed like a random meeting of sperm and egg, an egg that might not have been ripe to be fertilized a week earlier or a week later, or if the pill had done its damned job.

My breasts swelled in the familiar way, and my appetite grew between rounds of nausea. Every little belly kick taunted, “You’re not going to college,” and “You can’t afford me.”  I never had such ugly thoughts with my four other kids, who I adore.  If I could have driven a thousand miles away to avoid this child-to-be, I would have.

The only person I trusted enough to confide in was my childhood friend Alma. We once were the oddball high school girls who loved science and math. She got a four-year full-tuition scholarship to our state university, and became a nurse-midwife. After high school graduation, when I had Ann Dee, we called her my honors science project.

We sat at Alma’s kitchen table with cups of coffee, and it was a comfort to have a sympathetic ear. Alma understands unexpected unhappiness. Her husband was changing a tire at the side of the highway on his way home from work one icy winter night, and a skidding truck killed him in an instant. She’s raising their two boys alone.

One morning near my due date, Jack and I woke to an ear-shattering crash. Two miles up the road, where train tracks cut through town, a freight train had barreled into an oil tanker, shoving freight cars onto the freeway and starting a fire. Jack threw on his uniform faster than I could say good morning, and sped off in his patrol car, sirens on.  I might not see Jack again for hours, or even a day or two. I said prayers for all involved, but especially for Jack. I was unhappy with him, but I still needed him to come home to me.

After the kids went off to school, I was wiping the kitchen counter when I found Jack’s cell phone, forgotten in the morning rush. As I picked it up, the screen flashed a text message, “Hey Jack, I guess we’re not having lunch today. Stay safe!” from “Jennifer,” complete with a kiss emoji and the picture of a pretty, much younger, blonde.

Oh Lord, is he having an affair? I thought, as the baby kicked again. You better come home, Jack, I thought, so I can smack some sense into you, or just knock you silly.

I was breathing hard, trying to take in the idea of Jack betraying me. Before I could read the message history on the phone, I had a fierce contraction and my water broke. By habit I wished he was by my side. But gripping the phone, furious and hurt, I was glad he was not. I’d been through labor before. I could manage on my own.

I drove myself to the free-standing birthing center managed by Alma and her partner Kylie. A doctor, who never did much but collect a salary, usually was on duty, to keep the state happy, but these ladies have delivered hundreds of babies. Alma was at the center that morning, thank goodness, because I couldn’t tell which was worse, the contractions bringing this disastrous baby into the world, or my distress with Jack. By giving birth, I was certain I was losing my freedom, my future and my husband.

“You really should go to the hospital. The doctor went there to help after the train wreck,” Alma said.

 “There’s no time,” I said.

This child was on an express run into the world, riding me with pains coming fast and hard. With each contraction I felt myself stretching wide as a black hole. In between, I told Alma what I’d seen on Jack’s phone. She refused to fetch his phone for me from my purse.

“You focus on getting this baby out. You can deal with Jack later,” she said.

The effort of labor shut down my yammering brain. Two hours later Alma held a long skinny infant boy with a halo of pale reddish blond hair, naked and covered in white creamy vernix, like thick skin lotion. He was a perfect, beautiful child.

“Alma, can you give him a bottle? Please don’t make me hold him. I’m not ready to fall in love with him,” I said. She swaddled him and took him away, then brought me a ham and cheese sandwich and apple juice. I ate, and fell asleep.

I dreamed I was in a hammock, under live oak trees on a narrow strip of sand next to an endless expanse of warm gulf waters, so far from my own life no one could ask anything of me. I don’t know how long I slept, but I woke slowly, feeling sluggish. As I walked to the bathroom across the hall, I heard a woman sobbing from the room next to mine. I knocked on her door, and asked if she needed company.

“I’ve failed again. I’ve had four miscarriages, and now a stillbirth,” she said. “It’s going to kill my husband, and maybe our marriage.” She was alone, her husband stranded on the far side of the freeway closed with the crash.

I studied her. Like me, she had reddish blonde hair, and was about my size and build. She said she was of English, Irish and German stock, like my people. She wanted to be mother to a newborn as badly as I did not.  I’m not sure if it was an angel or a devil who whispered in my ear. I walked out of her room and caught up with Alma.

“Do you know anything about the woman who lost her baby?” I asked.

“Her name’s Aileen. She’s a cousin of my sister-in-law’s cousin. Her husband is a contractor, remodels houses. He does all right. She’s a church preschool teacher. They live out in Weatherford County, not in town,” said Alma. Alma’s eyes grew wide.

“You’re not thinking?” she said.

“I am thinking,” I said. “Would you help us?”

“I could,” she said.

I told Aileen why my marriage might end if I brought home a newborn. I already understood why hers might end if she didn’t come home with one. 

“Would you be willing to raise my child as your very own son?” I asked.

As she thought, I saw hope and grief dance across her face like sunlight and dark shadows. We could have discussed the situation with our husbands, hired lawyers and gotten the state to approve the adoption. But Jack sure as hell wouldn’t have agreed, and Aileen said her husband was fixated on having his own biological baby. We were stuck, unless we solved the problem ourselves.  

“I would love to be mother to the child,” she said.

This was another life changing back flip off the top of the cheer pyramid, supported this time by Aileen and Alma. I was relieved to tears to be free of the child, and thrilled that Alma could go home the delighted mother of a precious newborn.  Her husband would be to the moon with happiness over his new son. The baby I could not love would be cherished.

The birth records hadn’t been turned into the state yet. Alma wrote them the way they needed to be, and clicked “submit.” I, officially, had suffered a stillbirth.  I could deal with Jack and his girlfriend, and my education without the baby.  I was certain I would land on my own two feet.  What a man doesn’t know, he doesn’t need to know.

 

Bio: Amy Arutt lives on Long Island, one mile east of the New York City border, and is excited to be an emerging fiction writer.  She was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and, later, a publicist and writer for a number of large technology companies. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion from Vassar College.  She recently resumed playing viola, a childhood passion, and performs with the Long Island Pops Symphony Orchestra.