Hellraiser

Sarah Langan grew up on Long Island and went to college in Waterville, Maine, where she published her first short story ‘Sick People’. She gained her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of the novels The Keeper and Virus (called The Missing in the US) but as well as writing she is also pursuing her Master’s in Environmental Health Science/Toxicology at New York University. You can find her website at http://sarahlangan.com/

--------------------------------------------------------------

It happened almost a year ago. I had gotten accustomed to his three am feedings, and woke up at that time to check on him. In his room I saw that he had turned over onto his back, and kicked his red quilted blanket down near his feet. I did not realize anything was wrong until I turned on the light. His face was blue.

I was still in my pajamas at the Portland Community Hospital five hours later. A flannel number with pink flowers, punctuated by a wrinkled overcoat and muddy snow boots. To break the tension Nathan looked me up and down and said, “I think I’m falling in love with you all over again.”

In the waiting room Nathan and I shared six dollars’ worth of stale Milky Ways from the only vending machine in service. Days later I would find the wrappers in my purse and have an overwhelming urge to crinkle them into little balls and swallow them.

“What do we do now?” Nathan asked after we had eaten so much sugar that I could feel my own pulse, and still, the surgery was not over.

“Nothing,” I said. In fact I wanted to stamp my feet so hard that I would create a fissure in the earth. I wanted to see the ocean at high tide. I wanted the hindsight to have left a thick climbing rope through every waking moment of my life so that I could pull on it now, and collapse past into present into future.

Our six-month-old son, we’d been told, was very sick. A problem with his lungs that had not been detected at his birth, or by his pediatrician. Looking down at the whorls of tile on the floor, our surgeon had politely told us that he did not think we should hope. The two of us had peeked behind the doctor then, convinced that a distasteful friend had signed us up for Candid Camera.

Later, we would assign blame. It would fall on my gynaecologist, who should have read the sonogram more closely. It would fall on the surgeon, who’d been called in the middle of the night and we’d decided had been drinking (“Did you notice how red his nose was?” Nathan would ask a week later). It would fall on the nurses, the pediatrician (who had boasted that Owen was a healthy boy, just a little underweight), my mother simply for talking too much, and ultimately on each other for ever having met.

When the surgery was finished, we were ushered into a small room where the glare of lamplight off surgical instruments left me temporarily blinded. In the crib-shaped bed was my son. Clear plastic wires ran along and through his chest. Dried bits of blood spotted his skin like rust.

The beeping of his heart monitor went monotone, and I looked up at the ceiling, through the ceiling, at the sky, at the heavens, are you kidding?

 

I wake up before the alarm sounds. It has been snowing without reprieve for several days and the roads, the lawns, and even the air have turned white. I’m reminded of some mass baptism or communion or wedding, the streets littered with tiny white dresses tossed down from the heavens like a rejected gift.

We live in a paper mill town called Bedford, twenty miles north of Portland. Aside from the stench of sulfur released by the pulping plant, it’s a pretty town where ice-cream stores open their doors in the summer and in the winter every chimney on our street spouts smoke. We rent our house from an old woman named Angie who thinks all young people in love are wonderful and exciting and live the lives she sees on television. Nathan and I smile at her when we see her, and pretend to live exciting lives. Occasionally, we invent them.

Last night, Nathan wanted to make love. He took off his boxers and stood naked in front of the bed, his member waving me a nervous hello. I felt like an old maid being subjected to soft-core porn. Given the circumstances it went reasonably well until I started crying, which pretty much ruined the mood. So we turned our backs to each other, listening for minutes that felt like hours to the sounds of sniffles and throats clearing and singularly unhappy frustration.

This morning is exceptionally cold and I find it difficult to get out of bed. Next to me is Nathan, sleeping soundly. A morbid compulsion forces me to place my ear on his chest and listen for a heart beat. Whenever he catches me doing this, he mistakes it for a sign of affection and thinks I’m being cute.

It’s my turn to cook breakfast, and so I go down to the kitchen as quietly as I can. I make pancakes and bacon, Nathan’s favorite. On the table I lay out maple syrup, butter, rich coffee with cream, and the morning paper. It has become very important to me that I please him with small acts. It does not pass my attention that I’m incapable of pleasing him with large acts.

Nathan comes down the stairs, groggy-eyed and dressed for the day in jeans and work boots. He walks on the tips of his toes to avoid making any unnecessary noise. He’s a good looking man, though he never believes me when I tell him so. Women in stores, on the streets, even in cars give him second looks. I do not think it would ever occur to him to look back.

“Morning,” he says to me, his dark, curly hair slightly ruffled.

“Morning.”

He lifts his arm as if to place it on my shoulder and I take a step back. It hovers in mid-air and I’m reminded of Moses parting the Red Sea. “Pancakes! Your favorite!” I say. My voice is too high, and slightly neurotic.

He drops his arm. “Thank you, Grace.”

“I made them just for you.”

“That’s terrific,” he says without a trace of irony. He serves himself two mammoth pancakes and then digs in, as if to prove how happy they have made him. Times like this I have a hard time figuring out which one of us is crazier.

“Big day?” he asks.

“It’s pretty slow, actually.”

“I was thinking we could go out to dinner, to the Bob-In if you want.”

“I don’t know. There’s always busy work. I might have to stay late,” I tell him, feeling badly as I say it, which does not prevent me from saying it.

“You sure?” he asks.

“Yeah.”

If he is disappointed, he does not show it. His finishes his last forkful of pancake and then brings his plate to the sink. “Well, thanks for breakfast. I should warm-up the Buick. Has it been giving you any trouble?”

“No, just shakes once in a while on the highway.”

He nods his head. “I’ll work on it this weekend. With all those trucks, that’s a dangerous strip of road in the winter.”

There is a neediness in the look he gives me, and I know I’m supposed to say something kind. Through an enormous effort of will, I get up and kiss his cheek. “You look nice today,” I say.

His posture stiffens and he says nothing, walking out the door as if I’ve insulted him.

 

Nyquil has become my drug of choice. At first I tried red wine, but it gave me a headache. Tylenol PM did the trick at night, but for some reason lingered in my blood stream during the day and made me weepy. Then there was the Melatonin, but I’m pretty sure it was made of sugar. There was also the string of obligatory antidepressants such as Valium, Prozac, and Xanax for those especially pesky days. During my last check-up, my doctor put away her prescription pad and suggested that nearly a year had passed since Owen’s death, and it was time I make it through the day without any medication at all. I laughed before I realized she was serious.

 

At work I listen to the CB for reports of bar fights, small fires, cases of hypothermia, and cats named Friskie lost in trees. It is my job at “The Portland Gazette” to cover breaking local news between the hours of nine and five. Generally speaking, the cold this time of year keeps people out of trouble. The last month has had six snow storms, and they’d rather stay indoors where it is warm.

“Gracie, I’m so bored I could chew my own arm off just for the excitement,” Alice calls from the cubicle next to mine. She’s only twenty-two, but she’s tough and I admire her. We’re the sole women in the department and so far she has not cried after being yelled at by the managing editor, nor succumbed to his numerous requests that she make coffee.

She does a sort of hop over to my cube, her arms wide like a plane about to take flight. Only Alice could get away with this sort of behavior. Everyone else quietly tries to look busy while counting down the minutes until five o’clock. “Nobody dies these days. It’s a moratorium on dying.”

It’s hard not to smile around Alice. I throw my Snapple cap at her knees and she giggles. “This stuff is really depressing,” she says, pointing at the articles I’ve tacked up to my cube. They are my most recent morbid curiosity: SIDS deaths located through research on the Internet during my ample free time. I’ve compiled data about the ages of the children involved, their geographical locations, and any other information I can find. The articles all concern infants who died in their sleep, complete with photos of bereaved parents.

“What did they ever do to you?” I ask her.

She shrugs her shoulders. “Let’s have cocktails for lunch. Want to have cocktails?”

It’s eleven thirty. I’ve never had a cocktail for lunch, but it seems fitting that the new girl should come up with the idea. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

We go to the cobbled streets of the old town, passing the art stores and the Marriott where Nathan proposed six years before. There’s a dive on the corner where a lot of people from work hang out, and we take our seats on a couple of stools.

“Barney’s been hitting on me again,” she blurts. Barney works in the mailroom and is mildly retarded. He hits on every woman under the age of sixty but she’s young still, and isn’t accustomed to attention from men who should know better.

“He’s harmless,” I say, “Just don’t let him hug you.”

She frowns and takes a sip of her vodka tonic. “Why do they let people like that out in the world?”

“Have you met Jim’s assistant, Clara? She hasn’t had a haircut since they invented that buzz clipper thing you can buy off late night infomercials. Half the people in our office could be committed.” Though I’ve only had half my drink, the alcohol has loosened my tongue.

“Jim?” she asks.

“Oh, you know Jim. He smokes a pack of Lucky Strikes every day in his office and then opens his windows to air the place out so it’s about five degrees over in word processing. Nathan’s convinced I’m gonna get lung cancer from the second hand smoke.”

Her eyes light up at the mention of Nathan’s name. “How did you meet your husband?” she asks.

“College. We were seniors living on the same hall. He got drunk one night in the beginning of the year and wandered into my dorm room because he thought he lived there.” He later confided that he hadn’t been that drunk, but had wanted an excuse to talk to me.

“He was really nice at the Christmas party,” she says, and I can tell this is her way of asking a question.

“Yes, he’s a nice man.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Five years and some change.”

She waits to see if I’ll say more, but I don’t. It occurs to me that she thinks I’m sophisticated, and is looking for a guide to help her navigate the glamorous adult world of love, death, marriage, infidelity, and crap jobs.

“Another round?” I ask, though I do not need one. I’m starting to feel drunk. But outside, the snow is falling harder and I’m not yet ready to brave the cold back to work.

She grins. “I knew you were fun.”

We get our drinks and watch people dressed for a blizzard scurry past the front window. January is my favorite time of year in Maine and if I could have my wish, I’d take the month off from work to curl up and read books in front of a fire, grateful for the warmth.

“Someone ate my jelly beans. I think it was that fat bastard in accounting,” Alice says. I notice that her balance on the stool is tenuous at best.

“They’re all fat bastards. It’s just that kinda town,” I say, and we laugh.

“I’m getting out of town,” she says.

“Me too. Let’s go on a road trip.”

“Road trip!” she hollers, clapping her hands in delight.

“Road trip!” I shout back, and it surprises me that I can shout. It surprises me that I can laugh. Incoherently I think to myself: I should have friends more often!

“Where should we go? I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon.”

“Sure. We’ll stop over in Sedona and do peyote with my crazy cousin.”

“You’ve got a crazy cousin?” she asks.

“Doesn’t everyone? He sent me books on grieving from some new-age cult when Owen died. The best advice I can give you Alice is this: don’t join a cult. You’ll lose all sense of the social graces.”

She laughs. “Stupid cousin. Road trip! I’ll bring the beef jerky. You bring the men.”

I smile, “Oh, no. I bring the beef jerky, you bring the men.”

“What about Nathan?”

“I’m leaving him. We’re completely miserable. It’s like living in a cemetery. We haven’t slept together in three months.” I say this like I’m making a joke.

Alice cocks her head at me, and there is a slight pause, but she plays along. “No cemeteries for Gracie. She has enough of them on the walls of her cube.”

I nod my head, and realize it’s time to go back to work.

 

My head starts pounding by the time five o’clock rolls around, but fortunately for all involved, there were no emergencies reported on the CB today, and so the article I wrote was a lifestyle piece borrowed in part by the associated press on how to stay fit during winter.

“Trouble,” Alice whispers to me on her way out, “You’re in big trouble for pouring all that booze down my throat.” Mascara has made a mask of black underneath her eyes. She leans on my desk, still drunk. It feels like the morning after with the wrong guy, and I’m ashamed by what I’ve told her about Nathan. But I smile at her, and she grins back as if to let me know that my secrets are safe.

I wait another half-hour before I leave for Conrad’s apartment. It’s a few blocks from the office near the art school. As I approach his building, I see a group of high school boys smoking cigarettes and trying to look tough while they shiver. One of them holds a snowball in his red fist, waiting to ambush some friend around the corner. They watch as I enter the building, and I feel as if I’m surrounded by a Greek chorus.

Conrad hears me down the hall and opens his door. He’s a handsome man, more handsome than Nathan. He’s got blonde hair that is not yet receding, blue eyes, and a barrel-shaped chest. Leaning against the door he strikes a nice, if self-conscious pose.

He works in accounts due. Three weeks ago I was sitting at my cube after five o’clock, thinking about driving south instead of north and never coming home, when Conrad asked me out to dinner. Dinner in fact meant going to his place and having sex, and then stopping at Subway for a turkey club on my way home.

I know very little about Conrad. For instance, I have no idea when his next birthday will be or whether he likes his mother. But these things, I’ve learned, matter very little. You know all you need to know about someone by the way he talks to you, by how he keeps his house, by the things that make him laugh, and the things that inspire his silence. He’s a nice man by every conventional standard with the exception of the glaringly obvious.

“Come in,” he says.

I’m tempted, not for the first time, to go home and confess. Better yet, to simply walk away and never come back.

“You’re late,” he says.

“I had three vodka tonics with Alice.” I pull off my shirt and sit on the bed. He takes me in with his eyes and smiles widely. There are stretch marks on my stomach, but he’s been polite enough never to point them out.

He starts to suck on my neck. It feels vaguely like the lick of a dog. “ Alice who?”

“ Alice from my department.”

“She’s cute.”

“She’s not your type.”

He smiles. He’s too unsure of himself to make a plausible lothario, though he tries his best. He’s twenty-nine and has been without a girlfriend for most of his life. There are dust bunnies in every corner of his small apartment, and more than once I've had to use napkins as toilet paper. “What’s my type?”

I’m tempted to answer: depressed and pathetic. But there’s no reason to make this relationship any uglier than it already is. “Me,” I say, because I know it’s what he wants to hear.

He grins wider, and takes off his pants. We have sex on the bed, and then on the chair, and then in the tub. He’s a good lover, considerate in every way. I’d like to say that I do not enjoy myself. That when he is inside me, I’m as numb as someone who’s had her heart surgically removed. Often I feel guilty and come close to crying, which I think he mistakes for passion. But it is not the degradation of the act that I enjoy. It is the pleasure of forgetting.

When it is over, we put our clothes back on and sit on the bed, making sure to keep a few inches of space between us. We’ve spent a total of maybe twenty hours together, and during most of those hours I’ve intentionally kept my eyes closed. “Should we order pizza?” he asks.

“No. I should get home.”

“It won’t take long. We can rent a movie, too.”

I’m surprised by this request, and wonder if he might actually be fond of me. I have no response, and so I get up and go into the bathroom where I swirl Crest toothpaste around my mouth.

At the sink, he comes up behind me and hugs my waist. “Come on. Call and say the snow’s too heavy and you have to stay here overnight.” He presses his cheek next to mine and looks in the mirror so that he is talking to a reflection of the two of us.

I squirm until he lets go. “That’s not a good idea.”

He tries again to hug my waist and I let him. There is something desperate in the act and I suddenly feel very sad. “Come on,” he says.

“I’m married,” I say.

There is a silence, and I know that the rules have changed. He wants me to tell him that I no longer love my husband. I’m confused, I’m supposed to say. Give me time. You’re such a nice guy, I just know you’ll make a wonderful husband some day. If I choose to be really honest right now I’ll tell him that I’ve seen his type before. They make themselves miserable searching for things they can never have.

But I say none of these things because the sight of this man holding my waist in the mirror is ridiculous. “I have to go,” I tell him, pushing past him and out the door.

 

At any given time my mind is full of half a dozen wishful fictions. In one, my son did not die a meaningless death, but was stolen from the Portland Medical Center by the black market baby trade. Any day now a guilt-ridden nurse will show up on my doorstep with a confession and an address. In another fantasy, this last year has all been an elaborate hoax fashioned by the Fox Network. Owen has been eating Animal Crackers in the Green Room all this time. In another, and I know this is a little creepy, Owen really is dead, but Nathan and I dig him up from his grave and the power of our love revives him.

 

The snow is still heavy on my drive home and I keep my speedometer at thirty-five along the highway, squinting my eyes against the dark. By the time I get to Bedford, it is almost nine o’clock and Nathan is waiting for me in the kitchen.

"Hi," I tell him.

"Hi," he answers, his voice strained. He lifts a beer up to his lips and I notice that he is on his fifth Budweiser, the empties lined up along the other end of the table like bowling pins. For the past month, he has taken to drinking alone. I wonder, not for the first time, which member of our shrinking family has done this to him.

I take my coat off and hang it along the back of the chair next to him. "Working on your six pack?" I ask.

"I guess so," he says, not looking back at me.

"I'm sorry I'm so late."

"Yeah, I called the office, but you weren't there." He takes a long swig of his beer, draining it.

"I guess I already left," I tell him.

He turns to me and holds my gaze, "Yeah?"

"Yeah," I say.

He exhales a deep breath, not the kind from relief, but the kind from exhaustion. "You eat dinner?"

Snow flakes. Inkblots. Bleach stains. Coffee grounds. Shadows in corners of rooms. Wrinkles in unmade beds. The cracked windshield of Conrad’s car that is shaped like a question mark. My husband’s strange curly toes. They all look like my son.

 

The next morning is Nathan’s turn to cook breakfast, so I’m surprised to discover that he hasn’t made any. I look out the window and see him sitting in the Buick as it warms up, his breath visible.

I put on my coat and mittens, jogging in place outside the door of the car to stay warm. “No coffee for the kiddies?” I ask, bending down to the open window.

“I have to go in early today. I forgot. Do you mind?” he asks. I notice, I’m not sure how I had missed this before, that these last twelve months have weathered his face. There are dark circles under his eyes and his skin has turned a strange gray.

“Of course not,” I tell him, opening the door while he slides over, making room for me in the driver’s seat.

The two-mile ride to the paper mill is quiet, and for some reason I want to break the silence. “Did you sleep okay last night?” I ask.

He shrugs.

“You were sniffling a little.”

“Was I?”

“Yeah. I think it’s all the dust from the heaters. You also snored so loud I thought I was in the middle of a tornado.”

He is quiet again, and I imagine that he’s annoyed with me until I see his body shaking, which I mistake for stifled sobs until he makes the sound of laughter. He laughs long and unnervingly loud.

“Nathan?”

He keeps laughing. “Nathan? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, honey. You told a joke and it was just so goddamned funny.”

We bore holes into the road ahead of us with our eyes for the rest of the ride.

I pull the car to a stop inside the fenced-in property of the Scott Paper Mill. The sun has not yet come out, and the only lights by which to see are those of the cars in the lot, and in the main office. It is bitterly cold outside, and though he has only to walk about twenty feet, I imagine that he would like to delay that trip. “You working late tonight?” he asks. Long ago he arranged to get his rides home from a friend near where we live, but the question is clearly an accusation.

“I don’t know,” I say.

He shakes his head and gets out of the car. “Nathan?” I call, but he slams the door in my face. I am dumbfounded by the violence of the act, and can only hold my breath as I watch him walk away.

The drive on I-95 to Portland is only five exits, but twice I forget where it is that I am going. At work I ponder embarking on a nervous breakdown within the walls of my cube. Either that, or taking down the articles about dead babies. It’s sort of a toss-up. I say this like it’s funny but it’s not.

Just when I’m about to start bawling right there in the office, Jim, the Lucky-smoking deputy editor of the “Portland Gazette,” stops by with his hands in his pockets and a pen in his mouth, through which he is able to talk without the slightest mumble. He tells me he is so pleased by my lifestyle piece as filler for local news that he’d like to make it a regular winter column. “You know,” he says, “Best ice skating in town. Where the good hot chocolate is. Which beer pubs serve winter brew, that kind of thing.” I look at him blankly. “Gracie! You don’t have to like it, I have to like it!” So I spend the morning on the phone with the tourist office, asking if anyone over there likes to skate.

Alice peeks over my cube around noon. She models her fingernails for me, which she has painted with white-out. “Want to go to lunch?”

“Yeah. But no drinks today. I’m not in the mood.”

We eat Thai food at a small restaurant with statues of the Buddha along the walls. Alice orders vegetables with green curry, I get seafood dumplings, and we share. Her enthusiasm is so vivid that she can hardly sit still in her chair and I can tell that she’s delighted to be eating Thai food, delighted to be living on her own with her first job, spending her own money with her new workplace friend. I’m tempted to say something mean and true just to deflate some of that buoyancy, but I don’t have the heart.

“You look weird today,” she says, ripping her bread in half and making a vegetable-seafood-curry-rice sandwich out of it. She must have the metabolism of a horse.

I can’t answer her because I’m busy trying not to cry.

She looks up from her massive, ersatz sandwich and her grin fades. “Bad morning?”

“Yeah,” I say, “Pretty bad.”

“What happened?”

“This hasn’t been my year, you know?”

She waits for me to explain, but I cannot imagine where to begin. I’m crying now, and the waiter is unsure whether to bring us more water like we’ve asked for, or to leave us alone, so he stands with the pitcher in his hand, half-way between the kitchen and our table.

“What is it?” she asks in a low whisper, “Is it your husband? Is he really that bad?”

I shake my head. “Sometimes you do things, Alice, that you can’t imagine doing. Sometimes things happen that should never happen.”

She nods, and I can see that she hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about.

 

My phone is winking at me when I return to the office. It is a message from Conrad, saying he is sorry for last night. He’d like to see me again soon. He misses me, and will I please call back? His voice is thick with invented tragedy.

It occurs to me that anyone in my office with the slightest interest knows what is going on. They might even imagine that Conrad and I have fallen in love. I listen to the message three times before erasing it, and taking the phone off the hook.

At five o’clock, with my article on ice skating rinks finished, I decide to leave for the day. When I stand I see Conrad making his way through the editorial department and heading for my cube. I take the back exit out of the office that leads into an alley. A black cat jumps down from a dumpster and crosses my path. I’m not the superstitious type, but it’s hard not to take this as a bad sign, and I’m tempted to kick it.

The drive home is slow. There is a jack-knifed Mac Truck that takes up two lanes, its grain spattered across the highway. Two other cars got caught in the accident, little hatchbacks, and both are crushed. Accidents during this time of year are common, and when you pass them, you cannot help but drive slowly and look out the window, nor can you help but sigh deeply, so relieved that it was not you.

Its takes me an hour to get home, and when I do, Nathan is waiting for me in the kitchen. There are three empties already lined-up at the other end of the table. All are crushed in the middle, so that they have hourglass figures.

“Nathan?” I say.

He stands up, and his eyes are red as if he has been crying. “I meant before that I’d be home early. That’s what I meant,” I tell him.

“Someone called for you.”

I know what has happened from the look on his face. Once before, I felt this bad. I did not think I could ever feel like that again.

“Your friend Conrad. I met him at the Christmas party, right?”

He’s about ten feet away and I’m leaning against the front door. I take a breath, and then another, and another. There are spots in front of my eyes. Vaguely, I have the sense of motion in my peripheral vision, and only later will I realize that my arms are flapping. I try to run to the sink but don’t make it in time. I vomit on the floor.

He pats my back until my breathing returns to normal. We stand over the mess I have made, and I sense that he is holding back on his first instinct, which is to clean it up.

“I think I’m sick,” I tell him, “Really sick.”

He buries his head in the curve of my neck. I am crying, and so is he.

We go to the bedroom and make love with our eyes open. He is gentle, too gentle, and so am I. I’d say we are like strangers, but that would be impossible.

 

The problem with Nyquil is that no matter how much water you drink, you are always dehydrated and your pee turns bright yellow. The problem with Nyquil is that it’s easy to build up a resistance. You might start out downing half a shot, but within a month you’re gulping half a bottle. The problem with Nyquil is that no matter how much you take, there are certain realities from which you cannot possibly escape.

 

Though the next morning is Saturday, I wake up early and fill my overnight bag with a toothbrush, some underwear, and a change of clothes. I do not think about what I am doing. I tell myself I am just going for a drive. Somewhere warm. I try to start the car, the engine stalls. I try again, it rattles and dies. Nathan steps outside and watches me, having heard the noise. He is in his pajamas, the heels of his sneakers crushed because he has not bothered to put them on properly.

"Where you going?" he asks.

"I don't know."

He notices the overnight bag in the seat next to me. "You leaving?" It is not a question I thought he would ever ask. It occurs to me that maybe that's exactly what I’m doing.

"No, just driving."

He sighs. "Pop the hood."

I look for the handle that will pop the hood and can’t find it. “On the right, Grace. Over the accelerator.” I pull the handle.

"OK, go," he says, after he has stuck his head inside the car. I turn the engine, nothing happens.

“Again.”

I try again, nothing happens.

“Again.”

I try again.

“Again.” He is yelling now.

“Stop it, Nathan.”

"Fuel pump's shot," he calls to me. "Looks like you're not going anywhere."

I call the tow truck while he changes. Neither of us speak or make plans for the rest of the day. When it arrives, he rides along, shotgun. I watch from the driveway.

I spend the morning cleaning. There is a layer of dust covering the tables, the chairs, and the wooden floors. I vacuum and mop, and then take an inventory of food in the pantry. On the refrigerator I tape a list of things we need to buy: crackers, cheese, ground beef, chicken cutlets, flour, sugar, eggs, cereal, baking soda, Bisquick, juice, carrots, fruit.

It is Nathan who does the shopping on the weekends, and the dry cleaning. He is also the one who collects quarters for his Sunday night trips to the Laundromat. I, on the other hand, have spent the last twelve months watching television in bed.

My last stop is Owen’s empty room, where I sit on the wooden floor with my knees tucked against my chest. We had talked about turning the second bedroom into a study, but never got around to it. Out the window I see some barren trees covered in snow, and a bird’s nest made of small sticks that looks abandoned.

Owen had just learned to smile when he died. His favorite games were peek-a-boo, and try to pee on mommy when she’s changing your diapers. Through the Walkie Talkie we left in his room at night, Nathan and I used to listen to him gurgle. Occasionally he would emit sounds such as “Ba,” “Ma,” and “Da” which Nathan considered proof that he was talking. “He says bottle, mommy, and daddy. He’s brilliant!” Nathan would exclaim to every relative who would listen.

In another life, Owen did not die. In another life he is sitting in his high chair, bellowing because he does not like broccoli while Nathan rolls his eyes and tells me, “You spoil that kid.” In another life we are lucky and we don’t even know it.

 

A few hours later, Nathan pulls up in our car, the engine humming smoothly. I wait for him at the front door as he steps inside. "It's OK now. Guess you can go wherever you were going." He looks tired, his body hunched. If I were in his place, I would probably have given up long ago.

"I wasn't really going anywhere."

"Um."

"Nathan?" I ask.

"Yeah."

“Do you visit his grave ever? Is that where you go on Sundays?"

He nods.

“I’d like to go with you sometime.”

He looks at me with a kind of self-righteous hurt, and I know there are things he deserves to hear from me, but now seems not the time for apologies or declarations. So I say nothing, and instead walk up the stairs and into Owen’s old room.

Packed away in the closet are boxes, the crib, his toys, and baby-clothes. I begin to make a pile of them, and carry what I can hold down to the kitchen. Then I rifle through the bathroom cabinets, and toss out the diapers and lotions hidden behind the towels.

I lift the crib and bring it to the stairs, where Nathan joins me, lifting the opposite end. We carry it out to the trunk, along with all the other things, and then we get in the car. “Where to?” Nathan asks quietly, behind the wheel.

“Goodwill, I guess.”

He chews on his cheek, afraid to speak, yet relieved, I can see. So relieved. “I don’t want anyone else in his things,” he says.

“All right. We’ll go to the dump.”

He starts the car and we pull out of the driveway. The roads are slick with ice. It snowed last night, and the night before that. In the distance the paper mill spouts smoke. We have lived in this town going on six years. I’m reminded of a philosopher’s definition of purgatory, when in death we repeat the important moments of our lives over and over again.

I see his arm spread out over the seat, reaching for me but afraid to touch me. Tentative. I take his hand.

(C) Sarah Langan 2007

 

 

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.