| Maybe Baby |
By Lani Diane Rich
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Amazing - there is no sound during conception. No chimes. No fizzing. No horns along the uterine turnpike honking as one swift cell drives headlong into another. Life begins in total silence, a microscopic He or She forming instantaneously, quick as a stereotype, even in its spiritlike simplicity. It dances in limbo. It hugs the shore, developing quietly. It is, first and foremost, its own secret, the date and time of its first trembling completely unknown, an indeterminable factor. What a phantom beginning. What a glorious moment to become Occupant X and nothing more. A ghost pulse, a comma amid the silence. And yet.
Rusty opened the front door and stood for a moment in his wet loafers, eyeing the dark foyer. He sensed something in the air had changed. He paused, glove on the knob, and peered down the familiar hall, following the lines of the yellowed walls to where the evening light had gathered in the kitchen doorway. Where was the hum of the fridge? The routine clank of the furnace? The house felt too quiet. It seemed almost unnatural, stillness itself muted, as if all the furniture lay under snowfall.
"Judy?" he called, pushing back the sleeve of his gray overcoat to check his watch. "Hello?"
He cocked his head toward the basement, thinking he heard voices, then touched his ear to make sure his new hearing aid was on. From the kitchen came the sound of the northern oriole. The singing bird clock above the sink struck six, sending off its percolating forest call. It was followed by the sound of the furnace, the fridge joining. And so Rusty did what he always did after a long day at work. Too tired to plod down the hall to his closet, he hung his pants on the hook by the front door, dropped his suit coat and gold tie on the chair. Loafers squeaking, he padded into the kitchen, where he opened the fridge and stood wearing nothing but his shirt and underwear before a heavenly host of condiments and soda. There he raised his arms and let the cool air dry his sweat stains.
Had he flipped on the stove light, had his eyes swept across the braided rug before the sink, he might have noticed a pair of snowy boot prints slowly melting, the last of a trail that wound through the house, leaving wet marks on top of the wine-colored carpet. Had he given thought to the canister where his wife kept coffee-flavored candies next to the blender, he might have noticed the lid was slightly askew, a wrapper left in its shadow - something his wife, a tidy and thorough woman, would never do. It might have raised his suspicions then that he was not alone in the house, that something was about to happen.
In the basement, in a room below the kitchen, two beings huddled together on top of a ruffled bedspread for warmth, Rusty's adult daughter, Gretchen, and her boyfriend, Ray. They cocked their ears, held their breath. "Beer," whispered Gretchen, lying next to Ray on her old bed, their hands clasped through orange mittens, the last glimmer of daylight shining through the blue curtains. "Now he'll take it to his chair and flip on PBS." Upstairs, Rusty shuffled across the living room, set the six-pack on the coffee table, and flipped open the red cooler he kept next to his recliner. Inside, the snow from yesterday was slushy yet still firm enough to hold the cans upright. He popped the tab on one and planted the rest firmly in the slush, burying their tops with a ginger sweep of his hand as if they were flower bulbs he'd planted in real earth. He liked his MGD just shy of frozen, and he relished the moment of lifting an ice-covered can out of the cooler, just like in the commercials.
When Judy came through the door, depositing her faux beaver coat on the banister, she could hear the distinct voice of David Attenborough coming from the living room, followed by the squawk of migrating birds. She kicked off her rubber boots, tiptoed toward the kitchen in her stockings, and knelt down to open the cupboard under the sink, only to step in a puddle of something cold and wet.
She frowned, pursing her red lips fiercely together. "Rusty!" she called. "Did you track snow into the kitchen?"
No answer. She closed her eyes, gave a quick sigh, and pulled out a pair of mauve heels she kept in their original box under the sink by the cat food. She liked the sound of lifting the shoes out of rustling tissue paper as if they were brand new, and since she had been reassigned to teach gym class instead of home economics at Fort Cloud Middle School, she missed the power and pride she had once felt while storming down the hall in a good pair of heels.
"Cocktail," Gretchen whispered to Ray as the two stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. Thousands of them that Gretchen and her two brothers had put there - and planets, too - Jupiter and Saturn and tiny Pluto, a personal favorite, her ATM password. Ray, silent in his bulky snowmobile suit - so silent he might have been sleeping or meditating - squeezed her hand. The little ring he'd placed on her finger at breakfast that morning pinched her skin, and she squealed, then quickly clapped a hand over her mouth. The ring was made from a nail that Ray himself had hammered into a circle.
Upstairs, Judy - reaching for the butterscotch schnapps she kept behind the Crock-Pot -cocked her ears. "Rusty?" she called. Then louder, "Rusty, did you say something?"
Rusty, who hated hearing his named yelled, especially after a long day on the lot, picked up the remote and increased the volume of the television by two notches. Rusty sold cars. All day he practiced being friendly, driving little old ladies around in Caprices, only to have them say, "That was such a nice ride, Mr. Glide. Let me think about it." There was one for whom he'd bought numerous cups of coffee as she labored over the financing, pushing manicured nails into her powdery temples. Could she afford it? she kept asking. Of course she could, Rusty thought, and he would have told her flat out that anyone who bought her dead husband a stone vault could certainly afford to drive an '82 white Cadillac Coupe De Ville. But she was a member of their church and a friend of Judy's besides, and he couldn't risk showing his temper.
Judy peered over the shutters that separated the living room from the kitchen and clucked her tongue. He was already on his third beer, watching a flock of geese fly in formation across the screen. It was bad enough that she had to listen to seventh graders shriek for six straight hours of dodgeball - did she have to come home to geese honking at near concert volume? If not geese, then whales. Last night, hyenas. Couldn't she, for once, just come home to some quiet, stretch out on the couch, and watch the sun set beyond the yard?
She crossed the linoleum, heels clicking, and flipped on the little black-and-white TV she kept next to the coffeemaker. Laughter flooded the room as Lucille Ball ran around, fanning her burning apron strings. A few seconds later, as Judy was giving her schnapps and water a stir with her little finger, the birds came louder from the living room.
But why bother migrating? boomed David Attenborough. It costs most birds half their total population in casualties. Judy uncrossed her legs, fluffed the hair by her ear with a vague sense of drama, and turned the little TV to full volume so that Lucy and Ricky buzzed and crackled.
Above the sink, the mourning dove struck seven, its somber cry muffled by a distorted laugh track. "Cuckoo, cuckoo," warbled Judy as she raised her heavily penciled eyes and took a swig.
Below, Gretchen -the quietest and most sensitive of the Glide children - furrowed her brow, while Ray, who had a performance art degree from the University of Massachusetts, said simply, "Wow," as the universe above them trembled and shook, sending a few crusty stars raining down on their hooded shadows. "Let's make love," Ray said, swinging a leg over her bundled torso. He tossed his mittens onto the floor and sat up on one elbow to kiss the side of her cheek. He could tell that she was biting her lip, and, sensing her resistance, he unzipped his brown snowsuit down to his shins. Underneath, he had on a leotard and tube socks.
"I don't know. This seems so weird," Gretchen said. She took her scarf off just as Handel's Messiah emanated from the upstairs.
Handel was followed by the vacuum cleaner and, soon after, a stomping, which sounded vaguely like someone trying to tap-dance in high-heeled shoes. The basement was dank and cold, with a faint mushroomy smell that suggested hairline cracks in the cement, damp carpet pads. Gretchen wondered, as Ray unbuttoned her shirt, how she and her brothers had survived the winter nights down here, though that had been part of their rebellion as, one by one, they vacated their warm, happy rooms on the first floor for the privacy and grit of the basement, with its thin, paneled walls and cold cement floors, its cobwebby corners and crickets that lived under the stairs.
Her oldest brother, Henry, had been the first to leave his bedroom, at age fourteen. He began with his record player and Ramones posters. He wanted to create a listening lounge, he told their mother, starting with two lawn chairs and a turntable propped on a wicker hamper. Soon the hamper was full of cracker crumbs and empty soda cans, and before long, a sleeping bag was found behind the dryer, along with some stuffed animals and a pillow.
"Fine," Rusty said. "You want to live like a rat, sleep next to the sump pump, I don't care, but don't leave any more Ho Ho wrappers on the ironing board."
"You have such a nice room," Judy tried to insist. "What about your airplane wallpaper?"
Henry shrugged, pushing past her with paper sacks of markers and comic books.
"Aren't you going to take your Golden Books? Or your toothfairy box? Don't you want your baby teeth?" asked Judy, wringing her hands in the hall outside his old bedroom door.
Henry scowled and closed one eye, his way of saying no. Downstairs, by candlelight, he ripped his jeans - a slow, methodical process involving a dull steak knife and a comb - then safety-pinned them back together. Though his parents would not let him wear the pants to school, he wore them around the house, along with a pair of green elf shoes he'd found in the ravine across the road.
By fifteen, he was stealing Playboy from Little's Drugstore and rolling his own cigarettes. He blew the smoke into a roll of pink insulation propped behind the water heater and stored the Playboys in an old cello case that had Judy's name stenciled on it in faded yellow block letters - it was from back when she was Judy Wolfe. She found the stash one afternoon when she was looking for her Christmas wreaths, and that ended it. No more living in the basement. Judy stood at the bottom of the stairs with a ruler while Henry toted all his belongings back up to his old room. For three days, over the first weekend of Advent, Henry sat up in his room with the door closed, howling like a wolf. He'd been named by his father, after the late Henry Ford, and when he put his mind to it, he knew how to invent new forms of subtle domination.
At last - at the risk of fleeing to the basement for good herself - Judy agreed to let him return to his dark grotto, but she insisted that Rusty and Henry lay down carpet (orange shag) and make the place livable (wood paneling). They sectioned off the basement into three rooms, making a laundry area, a storage room for Rusty's hunting gear, and a bedroom for Henry.
It was only a matter of time before Carson, the middle child, followed his brother's example and vacated his room. He appeared at his mother's door one morning with his belongings packed in a suitcase. It was either downstairs, he proffered, or out the door. Judy knew better than to argue with Carson, who had shown himself to be fearless by hitchhiking to school on several occasions, while her other children waited for the bus.
"But you have such a nice room. Isn't it cozy?" Judy protested. "It's painted in camouflage," Carson said flatly, his neck looped with beads, his tennis shoes covered in peace signs and slogans. "Your dad worked so hard to make it nice for you." Judy held out her palms, remembering how eager Rusty had been to fix up the nursery for their second child.
"I'm against hunting," Carson said. "Plus, I'm thinking about becoming a vegetarian."
And so Judy let him take over the storage room in the basement as long as he promised to keep eating ham sandwiches and Sunday-night pot roast for the rest of his life. Downstairs, away from the camouflage, which he would later claim stunted his artistic side, Carson discovered he had a beautiful falsetto voice.
He spent his free time harmonizing with the Beach Boys and working on latch hook, hour upon hour, until blocks of fuzzy yarn images covered the walls, soundproofing his room completely and allowing him to wake up at dawn singing like a little bird.
He was the star of the Fort Cloud Lutheran Church Choir and of the show choir at St. Bernadette's. When his voice changed at the late age of fifteen, it was a crushing blow. He stripped the room of his latch-hook rugs and sold them on the side of the road to raise money to attend a performing arts camp at NYU. There, mocked by kids who could flawlessly sing everything from Hair to Wagner, he skipped out of his classes and spent his remaining days with the Hare Krishna, singing all afternoon in Washington Square Park and peddling small paperback vegetarian cookbooks.
He came back to Fort Cloud a vegetarian, wearing a bedsheet dyed cinnamon orange.
Disgusted, Rusty forced him to resume sleeping under camo in the upstairs bedroom, and a few weeks later, Carson - who was named after the famous late-night television talk show host Rusty so admired - was gone without a word. He took only his robe and his mother's good handbag, her favorite: black patent leather with a rhinestone clasp.
Rusty dearly lamented losing his youngest son, who, of all his children, showed the most business savvy. He'd observed the way Carson had wheeled and dealed with the old ladies for his latch hooks, and Rusty had already entertained a series of daydreams in which his little used car lot blazed with a great neon sign that read carson's cars. He'd pictured sitting in the back room, wearing a white suit and fedora, filling out paperwork from to time while Carson hovered around the lot and cut the deals. Rusty had already set aside a '67 Malibu convertible for his sixteenth birthday.
Though Carson sent an occasional message to his parents, saying he would stop through Fort Cloud again, he never returned. Several times a year, his mother made mysterious trips to Milwaukee, where she claimed to be taking cello lessons, though some believed she was visiting Carson, stealing off with her old cello case stuffed full of clothes and dry goods and money. Rusty eventually took Carson's photo down off the wall and buried it in the yard.
That left an empty room in the basement. At age twelve, Gretchen claimed it as her scientific laboratory, and because she held promise as a young astrophysicist (her teachers said her understanding of the big bang and her ensuing diorama were unprecedented by anyone her age), her parents finally agreed. They spent the weekend she was away at science camp in Ogden decorating it for her thirteenth birthday. Judy painted the walls pink and hung blue daisy-patterned curtains while Rusty built her a study carrel with a special display case for her collection of moon rocks and micro scopes.
"I wanted a black room," Gretchen had moaned upon her return. Across the hall, Henry's space-age lair was lit up with red lava lamps that played off dark walls. He had started a rock band by that time, the Brother of Carson Glide, much to his mother's chagrin, but because of Carson's widely publicized disappearance, the band enjoyed quite a following, at least regionally in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
"You're a little girl," Judy had said, throwing up her arms, as if that explained everything. Gretchen, who by then had developed a healthy skepticism toward cheerleaders and ballerinas, scratched her head. Later that night, she scrounged around in the laundry room until she came upon some black Rit dye with which she planned to adjust her bedroom's color scheme. But just as she was preparing to mash her bedspread and curtains into the washing machine's gaping mouth, the toilet flushed upstairs and her father appeared at the top of the stairwell in his underwear, demanding to know why the lights were still on. When her subversive plan was discovered, there was a family intervention.
Gretchen and Ray lay tangled in their many limbs, some real, some just hollow sleeves made of padded nylon, and gazed at each other in wonderment. They had made love in nothing but their earmuffs, which only vaguely muffled the cacophony coming from above. They had made love undetected and unprotected, Gretchen gasping in the middle of it as she caught sight of the saucer-shaped smoke detector on the ceiling above her, similar in shape to the diaphragm she had left on the dresser of their apartment back in Chicago.
Upstairs, all was now silent. Ray scratched at his chest hair and uncurled himself from Gretchen's warm body to take stock of her old bedroom. "Wow," he said, stretching. Feeling newly aware of his surroundings, he began to make out small oddities on the shelves around him, his eyes having finally adjusted to the dark.
Was that really a row of Barbies on the dresser? Was that saran wrap sealing the pink bookshelves from dust? Was that face opposite him on the wall really Strawberry Shortcake, in latch hook? And the ruffly pillow shams, covered with small raised dots-had these things really once belonged to Gretchen, the same Gretchen whose hair he'd neatly shaved that morning while sitting on the back of the toilet?
"Don't," Gretchen said as she saw him craning to make out an inspirational saying at the top of a florid poster. Ray had spent much of his childhood in an intentional community outside of Viroqua, Wisconsin, where his parents, who were anarchists, had homeschooled him in a wing off the abandoned post office where they lived. Later, his mother had developed an experiential high school curriculum for him by dragging him from commune to commune in an ongoing attempt to find herself.
"Ray," Gretchen said quietly, placing a hand on his shoulder blade. She moved toward him, her chin bearing down on the soft tissue between his neck and shoulder. She ran a hand down his back and let it rest on his hip. "It's cold down here. Let's leave."
"What about them?" he whispered, pushing a finger up toward the ceiling. He rolled over to face her, the part in his hair appearing like a white line drawn down the center of a dark road.
"Now may not be a good time for introductions." Gretchen studied Ray's face, tracing his square jaw with a finger. His hair, which was dark and waist length, was out of its braid, falling in waves along his temples and down over his muscular shoulders and upper arms. His mustache and thick beard concealed any expression she might have read on his lips.
"What do you think about babies, Ray?" She leaned in close, tucked her nose up by his ear, and before he could answer, drew back, clenching her teeth. She drew in a breath so fast it whistled. "We may have just-" Her voice rose and then broke off.
Ray studied her small breasts, ran a hand down the length of her body, then let his eyes survey the other side of the room. Moonlight coming in through the window lent Gretchen's old pink desk a sickly glow. "You're right," he said, sitting up. "Let's go."
Dancing around on the cold floor, they struggled back into their clothes, Ray into his leotard, Gretchen into overalls. While Ray fluffed the pillows, Gretchen got up on her desk chair and peeled Pluto off the ceiling. They left as quietly as they had come, using the basement door, which brought them up by the side of the house.
When they entered the dark yard, they saw that a fresh layer of snow had fallen. The air, windless and still, seemed to encapsulate the neighboring houses, all pastel in color - like bits of fruit set in blue gelatin. Arms linked, they skirted the side of the house toward the back, hugging their bodies close to the yellow siding, until they came upon the kitchen window, through which they could see Judy framed by fruit-patterned curtains, legs crossed at a barstool by the counter, eyes glued to the television. In one hand, she held a can of green beans with a fork in it, in the other, a liter of 50/50.
She sat motionless against the olive cupboards, like a wax figurine - made only slightly more realistic by the gray roots of her neatly combed golden hair, which stood out like a shelf mushroom just above her neck and ears. Her face was pale with powder, her dull red lips parted in a partial frown. Ray stood close enough by the sill to reach in and touch her elbow had the window been open.
"She doesn't look a thing like you," he marveled, surveying Judy's maroon sweaterdress, which tied at the waist and had a huge cowl neck that billowed down over her chest like hoops of hoary skin. She was thin-boned but softly padded, with nubby features and small, girlish hands that looked as if they probably practiced perfect penmanship. When she sipped from a plastic cup on the counter, she shuddered a little.
Gretchen shook her head and rubbed her mittens together. "That's her," she said. "The womb." She stepped back and gave a little laugh at her own sense of disconnect. Lately, she'd been thinking about bodies, particularly mothering bodies, how easy it was for them to develop something inside of them, something that might grow up to become unrecognizable. Did birds, kangaroos, badgers, ever experience such alienation from their young? she wondered. Did a mother titmouse ever look at her brood and think, Who are you?
Maybe, Gretchen thought, it was a purely human phenomenon for parents to push their children to become mirror images, and a purely human phenomenon for parents to become estranged from their children when they don't comply. Did a mother ostrich, for example, ever scold her female chicks: "Cross your legs!" "Watch your weight!" "Hush your mouth!"?
"Come on," Ray whispered, turning away and thrusting his arm over Gretchen's dark form. As they stepped around the side of the house, making for Ray's truck parked on the next block, the double glass door on the back of the living room slid open. Ray and Gretchen drew back as a man in cotton briefs emerged and hobbled around in the snow wearing loafers, dragging what looked to be a red cooler with wheels and a short handle. He drew it up by the woodpile, where there was a gaggle of cement ducklings, and tipped his head back to study the sky.
He stood for a moment, legs slightly bent at the knees, his arms positioned stiffly away from his body, fingers spread. He looked as if he might lift off the ground, take to the sky. Gretchen and Ray hunkered down in the shadows of meatball-shaped shrubs along the back of the house. Slowly, Rusty began to spin. He stopped to lift one leg and scratch briefly at his calf, his eyes still raised to the sky. Cold air flared from his nostrils. His silvery hair, usually neatly swept back with pomade, stuck up around his ears like spines. After a few moments, he resumed spinning, the soles of his shoes scraping against the snow. His arms were almost entirely extended now, positioned slightly back. They flapped a slow, arrhythmic pattern.
Ray pressed his face into his sleeve to conceal his amusement. Gretchen tucked her head behind the bushes, drawing her arms in against her chest. "Drunk," she said frostily. There was a clomping sound, then a muffled thump as Rusty, whose shoe must have hit the side of the cooler, toppled to the ground.
It was Ray who jumped up, despite Gretchen's whimper of protest. He waded out into the snow, then paused a few feet away. Rusty lay faceup, immobile.
"Ray!" Gretchen called in a hoarse whisper.
Ray crept closer, digging around in his pockets for his mittens, and was soon peering into the face of Gretchen's father, a face he had never seen but which bore a slight resemblance to the woman he planned to spend his life with. Something about the heavy eyebrows, the hard line of the nose. Rusty's mouth was slack, his eyes closed.
Ray swept his hair back into a ponytail, securing it with his right hand, so he could press a clear ear to Rusty's heart. He listened for a motion behind the damp T-shirt, then heard it, the slow but sure thump-thump, distant and heavy-sounding, like a lone fish flopping in a tub.
Rusty gave a little snort. Ray sat back on his heels, then rejoined Gretchen by the house. A good minute passed before Rusty's body stirred. Then his tan loafers began to spread, and his arms rose slowly from his sides, swooshing snow up around his head in great arcs. He was making a snow angel.
Excerpted from Maybe Baby , by Lani Diane Rich . Copyright (c) 2004 by Tenaya Darlington. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top