By Joshua Allen
The baby came out purple and unbreathing. The doctor dangled it like a fish by a fat stumpy leg and smacked the baby. Its lumpy body was covered with spermy amniotic fluid, and its head was a weird turnip shape, very fat and evenly rounded. Roy didn’t like the look of it. It looked nothing like the clean, spongey babies he had seen on television.
The doctor turned over the baby. It wasn’t moving. It was dead. He handed it to a nurse and she put it under a heating lamp. Nurses in stark green masks moved around the table, sticking tubes into its arms.
The dead baby’s skin was the color of ice on a lake. A mask was placed over its mouth. Water droplets beaded on the plastic. It had come early, a day before Independence Day.
He found the doctor washing up at a sink, scrubbing his bare arms up to his elbows, washing off Jeanne’s blood. “Is the baby supposed to look like that?” he asked.
The doctor shut off the water. “Are you the father?”
“I’m the father, yes.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that,” he said. “You’re a father now.”
“Frankly, doctor,” he said. “I was hoping that it would die.”
They were under a broad sky of flat sterile lights. All sensation condensed into a seamless foreign hum. His life was over, he could see that now. Henceforth, life would be a series of compromises that would, with gradual but unerring precision, undermine him.
A nurse hurried in. Her mask was dangling around her neck, and she was breathing heavily. “Doctor, the girl,” she said.
“It’s the girl, yes.”
After the service, his parishioners flocked around him. They were old, young, lost in their middle years, lost generally. He hadn’t wanted them to come, but, in their oppressive kindness, they had come regardless. He sat on a bench under the shade of a tree, sweating, bearing their presence.
“A good woman, she was.”
“A pillar of the community.”
“She really was.”
“We prayed for you two. Prayed and prayed.”
“So young. But, then again, maybe not young enough.”
“Both of you were there for us so many times, we never thought—”
“That the consoler would become the consoled?”
“Well said. Well said.”
“This is not meant to diminish the magnitude of your loss, but Pete and I made you something.”
Somebody handed him a pie. It was cold and stale-smelling. “It’s apple. Your favorite.”
He set the pie beside him on the bench. He searched for something to say. “Jeanne’s surely watching us right now, admiring your goodness.”
“You’re going to make us cry.”
But nobody was crying.
Eventually, they went away, chattering like geese, and a woman named Francine came over from the grave and took his hand and looked into his face. She was about Jeanne’s age. Years ago, when her father passed, his mind degraded and screaming hurtful nonsense, he had talked her down from the hospital balcony. After that, he met with her a few times over tea, and maybe there was something latent, scarcely moving, between them, but neither acknowledged it.
Now, it was obvious that she was projecting strength and fortitude for his sake. He was grateful for the effort.
“How’s your son?” she asked.
“Recovering,” he said. “Complications.”
“When will you be able to bring him home?”
She was still holding his hand. “If you need anything,” she said. “Call me. Any time of day. I’m a good listener.”
She wrote down her number, folded it, and pressed it into his palm.
Soon, they all left in their cars, and he was alone under the tree. The sky was eyeblue, and a light, pleasant wind came over the hill. An arrow of birds winged above him. Soon, he’d have to return home, where the landline was ringing endlessly—the hospital, calling and calling. There hadn’t been silence in his house for three days.
For a few hours, he drove around the town, looking at everything familiar, everything changing. He had no clear sense of who he was anymore. He turned aimlessly down tree-shaded lanes and watched kids run along the sidewalk. He longed to be drunk. Then, before he knew it, he was parking in front of Steamy Jim’s, which had $4 Margarita Mondays, and ducking inside.
Hours later, when he emerged into the night, stinking, damp with unfamiliar fluids, everything was lucid. The world was stark and clear, everything apparent. A stray dog crept along the street, nosing burnt-out cigarette butts, once looking at him standing there, and then slinking off. If Jeanne were here now and saw him like this, that’s much how she’d react.
If asked the question, he’d say that she had guilted him into believing that God, if there was one, had any interest whatsoever in what they did or did not do.
Unsteadily, he made his way home, and before he even got there, he could hear the ringing, quiet at first, like the whine of tinnitus, then growing. Turning into his subdivision, escalating . . . Turning into his driveway, roaring like a waterfall in his ears . . . By the time he opened the door, he couldn’t bear it. He took the thing and smashed it, but the roaring barreled along like a train, without source or feeling. Pretending to be drunker than he was, he drove out to the pond near the back of the subdivision, where they were still developing.
The night was late. Mountains of dirt and huge lurking machines surrounded him. The pond was curdled like expired milk, a filthy corona, reeking. Flies swarmed his eyes suicidally, and all around was this huge unending tone.
He took the screaming thing and lofted it thirty-five, forty feet into the center of the pond.
Ripples spread out. Frogs slid smoothly into the murk. Oblong fish breached the water’s surface and, flicking silver, disappeared. The crickets resumed. He hadn’t noticed the resounding silence.
Suddenly, he felt small and utterly alone. He found Francine’s number crumpled in his pocket. But his only phone was in the pond.
Francine wasn’t asleep. When she had put on her pajamas, the sleepless night had stretched out before her like a long road that needed to be traveled. She hadn’t fought it. Ben was snoring in their room, preparing for his six-a.m. shift. To avoid disturbing him, she was in the living room, watching a real-life murder series, though she wasn’t really watching it. She was thinking about Jeanne. How strange she was.
Jeanne had been an odd bird, a minor curiosity, short and painfully thin, with probing, restless eyes. Once, before her father passed on and she finally decided to stop going to New Harmony, Francine had come in late one Sunday, during the singing, and sat in the back.
Between hymns, Jeanne slid silently into the pew beside her. They had never talked before then.
She said, “I’d very much appreciate it if you’d treat this occasion with the proper respect.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “What occasion is it?”
“The day the walls of Jericho fell.” Jeanne looked at the band. “That’s why we have the trumpets.”
“The trumpets are a nice addition,” Francine said, wanting to be agreeable.
“They were my idea,” she said.
After the next hymn ended, Francine asked, “Do we know the date the walls fell?”
“Yes,” Jeanne said. “Today, a long time ago.”
She left before the next hymn began.
The only other time she saw Jeanne before that strange visit was when she visited Pastor Roy at his home. Usually, Pastor Roy visited her at her house, but something interfered. She was grateful for the chance to leave. Gone was the stranger with the diseased mind screaming at her, calling her all sorts of names—names she never imagined he knew—but in the newfound silence was a thought lurking. A thought that could prove decisive.
She and Pastor Roy talked in his living room, about God and rising up like a phoenix from the ashes of the past. “Have you read Calvin?” he asked.
“I haven’t,” she admitted.
“Don’t,” he said. “He’s miserable. Predestination? Nonsense. Can you imagine? You’re damned or not damned, and in the scheme of things, you’re more likely damned than not. What hope is there for sinners like us? That’s not a God that I can believe in,” he said. “But maybe I’m meritocratic because I’m an American.”
She laughed, but it was fake. After sitting in silence, she asked, “Can I tell you something?”
“I don’t think I’m enough of a participant in daily affairs to be a sinner.”
“You don’t sin?”
“I don’t do anything,” she said. “You know Russian nesting dolls?”
“Sometimes I think I’m the smallest doll, the one inside all of them, and I don’t know anything because there are five people between me and the world. I can’t even imagine the world.”
“Is one your father?”
“You’d assume,” she said.
Later, she asked Pastor Roy where the bathroom was, and, as she turned down the hallway, she heard footsteps and saw Jeanne disappearing into a room at the far end of the hall. She felt nothing at the possibility of Jeanne eavesdropping. She didn’t care enough about what she was saying. She didn’t have the energy.
Then, just three months ago, her doorbell rang, and Francine found Jeanne, uncomfortably pregnant, standing on her doorstep.
Without thinking about what she was doing, she made Jeanne a pot of herbal tea and set out a tray of crackers. They sat at the kitchen table for a while, not speaking.
“I heard about your father,” Jeanne finally said, “about the things he called you.”
“You must’ve heard a lot of awful things then?”
“I have an awful thing to say,” Jeanne said.
Francine suddenly felt very weary, like something heavy and soporific had fallen across her. She wanted to sleep for a very long time.
“I hate this baby,” Jeanne said, her voice hoarse. “I hate it. I’ve been waiting for the love to grow, like it happens for all these other mothers, but nothing’s growing. In fact, what’s growing is disgust. Like what did Roy and I do to deserve. . . ? I thought I couldn’t have one, then I started feeling sick, and maybe I was carried away by the potential, and it was months before…” she stopped abruptly. Then, in an atonal voice, she said, “I didn’t even enjoy the sex.”
Francine took a cracker and chewed on it very slowly, trying not to make a sound. The cracker was tasteless and stale.
“I guess I’m looking for a way out,” Jeanne said, looking at her hands, “though there is no way out for people like us.”
“Not for people like us,” she repeated tonelessly.
Francine could hear the house shifting around them, the aches and pains of all this history. Outside, distantly, the keen of a train carrying freight. The wind pressing itself against the glass. She longed for a friend, or anyone really.
She found herself speaking. “You hate it, but you must love it. You must love it because you hate it. It’s not about you. You must pretend you’re not there. You must take the part of you that protests and strangle it. Because that’s how you survive. You forget yourself and wait for the day it all comes down.”
There was a knock at the front door. She turned off the television and listened. The knocking came again, furious, urgent. Slowly, she rose from the couch. She went over to the door and, through the peephole, she saw the huge, distorted, ruddy face of Pastor Roy.
She opened the door. He was swaying slightly, like a tire swing in a wind.
“I’m drunk,” he said, a bit helplessly.
“I know you know. I very much wish I wasn’t drunk,” he said. “It’s been so long, it didn’t take much, honestly.”
“Do you want to come in?”
“God, what time is it?”
“I couldn’t sleep anyways.”
He came inside and she led him to the kitchen table. He looked around, seeing other things. Francine opened a window for air. His hair was messed up, unwashed, streaked with gray. He looked as old and confused as her father did, though Roy couldn’t be older than fifty.
“I would’ve called,” he said, “but I lost my phone.”
“You lost your phone?”
“Deliberately. I deliberately lost it,” he said. He found a hairline crack in her table and dug his nail into it. She watched his face cycle through a dozen expressions she’d never seen before. She didn’t have the words to describe them.
“Francine,” he said slowly. “I haven’t picked up the child yet.”
“Is he not sick?” she asked carefully.
“Healthy as a lumberjack,” he said. “I’ll probably be arrested within a few days. Maybe even tomorrow. I don’t know the law.”
“What would they arrest you for?”
“Dereliction of duty. Supreme child abandonment. Being a cretin. Take your pick.” He shrugged carelessly. “If they arrested people for hypocrisy, I’d be the guy.”
“You’d have a bounty on your head,” she said.
He stood up unsteadily, leaning against the table. “Is Ben here?”
“Yes, Ben the worker, Ben who wakes up at the crack of dawn, sleeping like a babe,” he said. “You know, I haven’t woken up before eight in years. I regret that. Imagine how much I could’ve done if I got up one, two hours earlier.”
“What would you have done?”
“I don’t know. But I think I would be a different kind of man.” He moved around, looking at the pictures on the walls: pictures of her with Ben, of her alone, in the woods, wearing a bright red raincoat. “You don’t have pictures of your father anymore,” he observed.
“I made a decision, stuck to it.”
“I think it’s good. It’s good to make decisions.” He sat down at the table again. It struck her, suddenly, what he looked like—like a person who had just emerged from a forest by a road, after being lost for weeks.
“I think I’m going to run away,” he said.
“Somewhere else,” he said. “A foreign country.”
“As a missionary?”
“As a tourist. As a bum,” he said. “Whatever it turns out I really am.”
Francine took his hand. She had clear image of herself taking his hand. She was a long way away from herself. She thought she should be saying something, but she didn’t. They sat there, not speaking.
A precarious balance. The moment was heavy with significance. Speaking would tip it one way or another. Which way would it fall?
“Come with me,” he said quietly.
But, even as he said it, she knew that wasn’t what she wanted, and he drew back his hand, seeming to sense that. He looked away. She felt her body trembling, coursing with an unfamiliar feeling. She could barely contain herself.
“I want to adopt your son,” she said.
He looked at her. “What?”
“I want to adopt your son.”
“Because children shouldn’t have parents like you.”
Slowly, he nodded. He looked toward the hallway. “And Ben?”
“This is what I want,” she answered.
The sun was creeping over the horizon, turning the sky febrile pink with the thin twisted figures of clouds. The light fell dimly upon the hunched-over and scraggily plants of her garden and upon the trowel that she had used, bent over and sweating, to messily dig out the rows for the seeds—rows that had come out crooked and zigzagging across the rectangle of dirt. She remembered looking over the garden in despair, then looking out over her yard and beyond the fences to this small lifeless neighborhood, shrinking day by day, and realizing, finally, what it meant to carve out your existence from your traumas and guard it with your life.
In the other room, Ben’s alarm rang. They had stayed up all night.
Roy looked at her, with a ghost of a smile. “Would you look at that?” he said. “Maybe I can be the kind of man who is up before eight.”