Fiction by Don Kunz
Wendy awoke in the master bedroom of the restored Victorian on Prospect Street. She lay listening to the lovebirds shredding newspaper in their cage next to the bay window and her husband making breakfast in their downstairs kitchen. She stared at the ceiling. The new light of an August morning had streamed through the stained glass to cover the cracked plaster with sky-blue and blood-red streaks resembling a child’s finger painting. She thought of a shiny white egg the size of a marble. She thought of nesting. At almost five months she was definitely showing. Beneath her flannel nightgown Wendy’s stomach was no longer flat and hard from years of abdominal crunches and five-mile runs along Blackstone Boulevard on the east side of Providence. She heard Bill breaking eggs into a ceramic bowl, whisking them with a fork, pouring them spattering into the cast iron skillet. The skillet had belonged to Wendy’s mother who had died of colon cancer on Valentine’s Day. She remembered her mother’s distended belly rising beneath the sheet of her hospital deathbed and imagined she would look like that herself before she delivered in December. Wendy found it disturbing that on the surface life and death should look so much alike. She wished her mother had lived long enough to share the mysteries of pregnancy and childbirth with her, especially because this would be a Christmas baby, a miracle. Then, Wendy smelled freshly brewed coffee and felt the familiar first wave of morning sickness.
Bill dropped four slices of whole wheat into the toaster then turned back to stir their eggs in the skillet. He sang the chorus of a top-forty tune he remembered from his younger years, “Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on.” After a miscarriage during the second month of Wendy’s first pregnancy, this had become their theme song. Bill could almost picture this second fetus adrift in amniotic fluid trying to find a grip on the uterine wall with its newly formed hands. If Sloopy could just hang on, then, what? Bill would be a father for the first time at age sixty-one. At a time when his colleagues would be looking forward to retirement, Bill would be heating formula and planning his schedule around day care. He was still not certain how to feel about that. But he was trying to stay positive. From the beginning of fertility treatments he had told himself that becoming a father would make him young again. Bill wanted to believe that at seventy-five he would have a dark tan, ropy muscles, and lungs like a Sherpa. He tried to imagine playing one-on-one basketball in the driveway, making a fade away jump shot against his taller teenage son while his retired colleagues across town shuffled about in walkers, dithering over long-term care policies and bingo schedules in nursing homes. Bill turned into the hallway, carrying two full plates toward the dining room. He paused at the foot of the stairs. “Breakfast,” he hollered. “Eggs and toast. Breakfast for Wendy and Sloopy.” No answer. From the bathroom at the top of the stairs came the sound of his wife retching. Bill walked slowly into the dining room and set the plates on the table.
Wendy rested her forehead on the forward edge of the white porcelain toilet bowl, reached up and flushed. “Coming,” she hollered. “I’m coming, for Christ’s sake!” She heaved herself up and reached for the Aquafresh on the pedestal sink. The bristles on her toothbrush were splayed out like the legs of an old dog trying to stay upright. Her voice tumbled down the stairs toward Bill. “I’m not too sure about Sloopy. I may have barfed him up. I couldn’t bear to look.”
Christmas baby or not she thought as she brushed her teeth, no one could call her the Virgin Wendy anymore; that’s for sure. At work, Joe Early had christened her with that nickname when they were dating, because she was holding out on him. She glanced into the speckled mirror over the sink. She was foaming at the mouth. Rabid bitch she thought. She remembered snapping and growling at poor Joe, formerly her would-be lover, now barely a colleague. Joe Early, one of four senior partners at Robinson, Bender, Early & Touché, Attorneys at Law had spent four months after his third divorce trying to get into her pants. Back then she was in her fifth year at the firm and had wondered if giving into sexual intimacy would be a quid pro quo for making partner in the firm. So Wendy, who hadn’t been a virgin since she was seventeen, decided to keep their relationship platonic as a test. A week after the vote which made her a partner and head of the firm’s workman’s compensation division, Wendy dumped Joe when he tried to grope her in the small kitchen off the second-floor conference room at the end of the hall. Mooning about with unrequited love was unprofessional but, nevertheless, flattering; feeling her up at work was not.
Wendy took a gulp of tap water, grimaced at the taste of chlorine, thought again about buying a filter for the tap, and rinsed her mouth but did not swallow. She recalled she had not been able to read anything but embarrassment in Joe’s face, like when he had received a Victoria’s Secret Catalog at work. She was hoping for disappointment. She would have preferred epic heart break. But Joe just blushed briefly. Then he reached past her, poured himself a coffee (no sugar) and turned away. She had been tempted to ask if he knew anything about sexual harassment statutes but decided not to rub it in. Three weeks later Wendy had tried to imagine what Joe would think about her having intercourse with an economist she had met through a dating service. At first it had amazed her, but later Wendy figured she was overdue. At age thirty-seven having committed all her energy to marathon training and a seventy-hour workweek at the law firm, she decided it was time to stop acting like a cloistered nun. What could she have told Joe if he had asked why him and not me, especially when Bill was almost twenty years older than either of them? Bill just smelled right? Wendy believed in the science of pheromones. Now she was pregnant at forty, trying to believe in miracles.
Bill ascended the stairs wearing a red T-shirt, khaki slacks, and a denim apron that read, “If you laid all the economists end to end, they still couldn’t reach a conclusion.” He shoved both hands into his front pockets beneath the apron and stared at Wendy in the bathroom mirror, admiring her brown eyes, perfectly oval face, and short auburn curls. Bill watched Wendy wipe her mouth with the green guest towel. “You were just kidding about Sloopy, right? Because I’ve got his breakfast ready. He needs to eat to hang on.”
Wendy brushed her fingertips across the dark circles beneath her eyes as if to erase them. She wondered when she would see the glow that younger women seemed to get when they were pregnant. Since marrying Bill three years earlier, she had wondered if starting a family this late was an unrealistic prospect. Now she tried to push doubt aside. She told herself it was like hitting the wall at mile eighteen in a marathon when the body had used up all its glycogen; if she kept pushing, she could do it. And so could her husband she thought; he was a tough, old bird who looked and acted younger than his years. Bill’s reflection appeared beside hers in the mirror, a square chiseled face with scar tissue around the eyes. Wendy spoke to his image. “I’ve got to believe this one’s got a grip. This baby’s a keeper.”
Bill bowed his head, rested his chin lightly on Wendy’s shoulder, and wrapped his arms around her. He wanted to hold on more tightly but feared he might break something. “It had better be. I don’t think there are many more where he came from.”
Wendy rotated inside the circle of Bill’s arms and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Thanks for fixing breakfast.” She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, God. I think I’m going to be sick again.” She pushed Bill away, put both hands on her knees, and leaned over the toilet. Her hands turned into fists as if she could fight off the nausea. “Morning sickness is supposed to go away by the third month. It’s too late for this.”
“It’s probably the damned eggs,” Bill said. I should have fixed oatmeal.”
Wendy straightened up. “Yeah, probably just the eggs. But I ought to be able to keep something as simple as an egg down. Eggs are supposed to be good for you.”
“Why don’t you save a step, leave the toilet seat up just in case?”
“Don’t be a damned pessimist!” she snapped. “I refuse to be sick any more. I’m going to take a seat at the table, and I’m going to finish everything you put on my plate.”
Wendy waited for Bill to get out of her way. But he reached out and placed both hands on her belly. His knuckles were heavy, thick, and scarred. Sloopy wasn’t kicking. Wendy reached up to brush toast crumbs from Bill’s lips.
That evening Wendy and Bill lay in bed with their heads propped up on pillows and watched a rerun of “The Best of Johnny Carson.” Wendy was nibbling on soda crackers to settle her stomach. Beneath the sheet Bill’s feet framed the screen on the twenty-one inch Sony at the foot of the bed. When he forced his toes together, Johnny disappeared; when he let them flop to the side, Johnny reappeared. Now Johnny was wearing a black velvet turban and holding an envelope to his forehead; he was playing the Great Carnac, solver of riddles. The routine reminded Bill of “Jeopardy,” but every answer was a joke. Johnny closed his eyes, furrowed his brow, and let the suspense build. “Sis boom bah,” he proclaimed. Then Johnny tore the end from the envelope and blew into it. The envelope bellied out, Johnny extracted a piece of paper, unfolded it and read: “What is the sound of a sheep exploding?”
Seated on the sofa to Johnny’s right, Ed McMahon burst into gales of hearty laughter. “Yes, oh Great Carnac, The Magnificent.”
Bill brought his toes together and erased Johnny. “Looks like we didn’t miss much the first time around. If this is the best of Carson, I wouldn’t want to see the worst.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Wendy said, “maybe that would be more entertaining. You know, less scripted, more spontaneous.”
Bill moved his feet apart. Johnny popped up on the screen again. Bill wondered if that was true about being funny. He thought it was true about sex. Now that sex was a regular part of his life, he was relieved and grateful. But it seemed less exciting. He remembered the thrill of picking up chicks in bars and bookstores down city when he was fresh out of Providence College with a graduate degree in economics. It had helped that he looked like a body builder, that he had trained in gyms from the age of thirteen, and that at seventeen he had become New England Welter-Weight Champion in the Golden Gloves. Whenever some flighty woman in a bar reached up to trace the scar tissue beneath his left eye or paused to focus on his twice broken nose or asked about the callous on his knuckles, Bill knew he had her. If he wanted her. But after hitting forty-five, suddenly all the knockout women close to his age were taken. On weekends he saw them in minivans driving their kids to the Roger Williams’ Park Zoo or swimming lessons at the Barrington Y. By the time he was fifty, Bill had gotten used to going a year or more without getting lucky. Eventually, he found the women in bars divided into two types: Young and giggly or old and desperate. They were either caught up in trivial details of undergraduate work or seething with anger about divorces. They all were obsessive about gaining weight. Inviting them out to dinner was like asking them to step into the ring.
In hindsight Bill knew his sexual exploits had been a crazy game, the worst-case scenario being AIDS. Meanwhile the sexual climate had changed. Pretending to love and to be loved by a stranger no longer seemed possible. When he had stopped scoring regularly, he told himself that he was being prudent. The newspapers were filled with cautionary tales: Sexual harassment law suits filed against CEOs; college administrations issuing strict guidelines governing relations between students and faculty; a picture in the Providence Journal of the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s Chief Justice zipping up his pants while emerging from a liaison with a prostitute at Johnston motel. At First Federal Trust, where Bill worked, sexual harassment training became mandatory, and officiously scripted dialog replaced flirting. Being a lapsed New England Catholic, Bill diagnosed these symptoms as resurgent Puritanism. Once again the culture seemed determined to take the fun out of sex by handing out scarlet “A’s, but this time around it would be to men for exploiting women in a rigged economy. So, at fifty five, William Williams, now Chief Economist at First Federal with offices throughout New England, began to talk openly of looking for a wife and perhaps starting a family. Bill’s male colleagues, who had been entertained by his earlier sexual exploits, were amused by his transformation. Privately they began to refer to him as Bill Squared.
Bill found a wife two years later through a dating service called ForPlay, which operated out of a former fitness club and karate studio on Broadway. It catered to athletes, arranging dates around workouts and sports—skiing, tennis, swimming, even swing dancing. This appealed to Bill. As a boxer, he had done a lot of roadwork and weight training. To stay youthful looking he had continued working out long after he stopped fighting. So, when Bill read a feature article on dating services in the Providence Sunday Journal, he canceled his health club membership at Gold’s Gym on Bald Hill Road and signed up with ForPlay. He liked their policy of no embarrassing interviews (“Well, after graduate school at NYU…”) or videotapes (“Hi—SMILE—my name is_______”) or newspaper ads (“SDWM loves walking on the beach, candlelit dinners, and stimulating conversation”). ForPlay was just a chance to find a healthy mate. In that way Bill met Wendy on a fun run, scrambling along Blackstone Boulevard on a Sunday afternoon in late April, passing five younger men to catch up to her because he liked what he saw from behind. He was pleased she was a marathoner. He wanted a woman who could go the distance. They began to work out together—five mile runs and resistance training. By the following January they were married. She was thirty-seven and wanted children before it was too late. Bill was fifty-eight and wanted to give Wendy anything that would make her love him. Now at sixty-one he was trying to become a father. And now Johnny Carson was razzing Doc Severson about his sportscoat looking like something a pimp would wear to an Easter egg hunt. Johnny was saying “Where’s the hat with the Peacock feather? What’s up, Doc?” Ed McMahon was hysterical. He cackled and hooted. His head snapped back, then slumped between his knees as he fought to control his joy. Finally Ed straightened up, wiped tears from his eyes and cut to a commercial for Tidy Bowl.
“Uh oh,” Wendy said. “I’m bleeding.”
Wendy closed her eyes, leaned back in the passenger seat of their Saab station wagon, and pressed a supersize maxipad between her legs. Bill drove through rain slick streets and swiped at the foggy windshield with a white towel. The defroster had died several Sundays ago on their way to the United Church of Christ on Angell, and, although the car was still under warranty, they hadn’t found the time to get it to the dealer’s in Pawtucket yet. Down Prospect and up Waterman there was almost no traffic. But as Bill passed Hope, he realized that he was going the wrong direction from habit. Accustomed to driving Wendy to the Ob-Gyn suite in Wayland Square for fertility treatments and monthly checkups, he had driven her away from the hospital not toward it. There was no traffic, so he ran the light at Brooke, doubling back toward Hope, then Wickendon and the Point Street Bridge. He checked his rearview mirror and listened for sirens. The night was very dark. Rain sluiced in the gutters and swept twigs and scraps of newspaper into storm sewers. A Basset Hound frowned wrinkles as it lapped water from a puddle on the broken sidewalk under a streetlight. The headlights cast small pale yellow pools on the pavement. They reminded Bill of broken egg yolks. As he passed beneath the freeway and approached Dudley, he could see the sickly green mercury vapor lights that marked the entrance to Women and Infant’s Hospital. They made Bill want to vomit. Hang on, Sloopy, Bill thought. Hang on.
The car felt like a cinderblock on wheels; he wondered if he was losing the steering as well as the defroster; Bill wrestled it into the space in front of the glass double doors marked EMERGENCY ROOM. The asphalt was crosshatched with yellow lines, and a red neon sign read AMBULANCE ONLY. Bill put on his hazard lights and leaned on the horn until he could see a blur of white coats and stethoscopes appear through the wavy path of the windshield wipers. The Emergency Room doors burst open, and the water cascading off the roof broke all around them as EMTs pulled Wendy from the car, put her on a gurney, and wheeled her into the hospital with a blood pressure cuff already inflating around her left arm and Wendy holding up the blood soaked pad with her right hand and an EMT pressing Wendy’s hand back down against her crotch and hollering for her to just keep the pressure right on it.
Bill lowered his head to the steering wheel. The windshield wipers thumped, thumped, thumped like an endless succession of barred doors closing. Even with his eyes shut the sign’s red glow colored his thoughts. Without this baby to keep him young, how could Wendy still love him? He thought, who am I kidding? I must have been dreaming! For the first time he could picture himself alone, toothless, hooked up to an IV drip, lying in a nursing home like the one where he had visited his father when the old man was dying of heart trouble. And like a split screen in a movie, he could see Wendy, seemingly ageless, standing in a navy blue power suit offering her summation to a jury. This image dissolved into one of their two lovebirds, Anna and Fritz, stretching their clipped wings and singing to the mirror in their cage. Tonight he knew Anna was sitting on the small white marble that he and Wendy had substituted for the real egg, which they had destroyed after reading about the mortality rate of lovebird chicks in captivity. Bill imagined Anna and Fritz together now wrapped in silence and darkness by the night curtain. Then his throat tightened and his eyes watered. Bill shifted into reverse, backed out of the restricted area, and hunted for a place where he could park the Saab.
The voice came from behind the brilliant white light above her. “Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you ever had.”
Wendy lay swaddled in a gray blanket on the sterile examination table inside the emergency-room cubicle. Her feet were in stirrups, and a doctor was probing between her legs. “Oh. Two. I think. You know. Like cramps, maybe.”
“When did the bleeding start?
“About twenty minutes ago. We were watching Johnny Carson. I felt this wetness between my legs.”
“Did you do anything strenuous today? Lift anything?”
“No, I’ve cut way back on my running. I stretched a little. My husband and I had sex this morning after breakfast. You think that could trigger it?”
“Did intercourse hurt?”
“No. To tell you the truth, it felt terrific. Better than usual.
“Good. Just what Mother Nature intended. That way, you’ll probably do it again. If sexual activity isn’t painful, and it’s not too . . .ah . . . . athletic, it can actually be beneficial up until about the eighth month. It usually keeps the parents happy, and if they’re happy. . .”
Wendy shifted on the examination table, recoiling from the pressure of the cold instruments against her pelvis. The sanitary paper crinkled under her. Her voice was suddenly husky. “I lost the first one. I don’t want to lose this one.” She cleared her throat. “I gave up biking. And I’ll give up running altogether if I have to. Just tell me. I mean, I’ve cut back to six miles a week anyway, you know, like three two-mile runs? And I swim laps when I can get to the pool at the Y.”
The doctor slipped Wendy’s feet from the stirrups and set them down gently. She pulled Wendy’s green hospital Johnny down. “It’s better to stay active if you can. But walk, don’t run. Swimming’s okay. Most women know not to overdo. However, the bleeding is a concern. It isn’t just spotting. On the other hand, it’s just about stopped now.” The doctor turned off the examination light, and pulled her mask off. “Some bleeding during early stage pregnancy is not uncommon. But you’re, what now? Four months? Five?”
Wendy tried to blink away the dark spot in her eyes left by the examination light. She could barely read the physician’s face, just making out a woman of about fifty in green scrubs, short blond hair protruding beneath a paper cap, no makeup. “Almost five.”
The doctor nodded. “Yeah, okay. So, I want an ultrasound. It won’t hurt anything, and it might tell us something.”
Wendy turned her head to follow the doctor as she edged around the foot of the examination table and held out a hand to help her sit up. Wendy felt lightheaded. “I’m not sure I want to know.”
Abruptly, the doctor crossed the cubicle, picked up a second blanket, returned, and draped it around Wendy’s shoulders. “It’s always better to know. That’s the only way we can help you have a healthy baby. I think you’d be surprised how much the medical profession does know. We’ve got so many options now.” She glanced again at Wendy’s chart. “Anyway, I’ll make sure this episode gets into your file so you can go over it with your regular Ob-Gyn, who is Dr. . . . ah . . .oh, looks you’ve got a whole team working on this. A year and a half of fertility treatments with Wayland Gynecological Associates. You’re in good hands. Those guys have childbearing down to a science.”
“We’ll I’m forty, and I guess science got me this far. But it seems more like a miracle.”
The doctor took a pen from her breast pocket and began writing on the patient chart. She glanced up. “Yeah. We see those, too. Now let’s get that ultrasound.”
Bill punched in the security code, shutting off the alarm system in their Prospect Street home. He glanced at the darkened stairwell leading up to the master bedroom as he helped Wendy out of her wet raincoat. He hung it up with his own double-breasted trench coat in the hall closet and shut the door. He threw the keys down on the dining room table, pulled out an end chair, and collapsed into it. “I’m beat,” he sighed. “And I wasn’t even the one doing the bleeding.”
Wendy slipped up behind Bill and placed a large envelope on the table. Then she bent and put her arms around his neck. She kissed him on the ear. “Oh, I don’t know. You looked pretty white in the face.” She straightened up and massaged his neck with both hands, digging her fingers in deep like a boxer’s corner man loosening him up for the next round. His muscles were rigid. Wendy sighed. “You know what?”
Bill tipped his head back against Wendy’s belly, hoping to feel movement. Instead he felt the rising and falling of her breath on the top of his head. He wondered if he was getting a little bald. The need to feel his son had become an ache too profound to be massaged away. It made him weak. He thought, give me a poke, kid. Give me a kick in the head. Your old man is out here waiting. Finally, Bill grunted, “No, what?”
“I’m starving. I wish Johnny Rockets up on Thayer Street were open. I’d get a deluxe hamburger with lots of onions, French fries, a frosty chocolate malt.”
“Yeah, but it’s closed. It’s, what?” Bill looked at his Swiss Army watch; there was a Red Cross embossed beneath the numbers. “A little after midnight. Nothing’s open. Nothing but emergency rooms and bars.” He turned and looked up at Wendy. “Is this an emergency? I could pop some corn.”
“That sounds good. Pop the good stuff, the Orville whatshisface. The kind where all the kernels pop. You know, no old maids.”
Bill heaved himself up and took Wendy’s hands in his. He pushed fatigue aside, forcing himself to speak. “There are always going to be a few lonely old maids,” he said. “But you’re not going to be one of them. I won’t let that happen.”
Wendy stood on her tiptoes and pressed her forehead against Bill’s. She thought of a lovebird staring at its own reflection in a mirror. “I know,” she said. “But it’s not entirely up to you. I don’t care how tough you are. That’s too big a responsibility for anybody. We can’t control everything.”
“So what do we do?”
“What if we lose this one, too?”
“Cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“It might be too late for me.”
“It might be too late for both of us.”
“So what do we do?”
“What we can. Let’s look at it one more time.”
Bill let go of Wendy, then, turned toward the table, and slid the grainy black and white image from its beige envelope as if he were the one giving birth. There it was on the table. Together they stood, heads bowed, staring at the 8 1/2 X 11 Polaroid enlargement of the ultrasound monitor. It seemed like a miracle, this projecting sound through flesh and blood to create a shadowy image of more flesh and blood. There was Sloopy, one hand clutching his umbilical cord, the other raised as if waving to his parents. Bill’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “I don’t know if he’s waving hello or goodbye.”
Wendy ran an index finger over the image of her son’s upraised hand, then turned to Bill. “Damnit, don’t! Don’t you dare do that to us!” She paused, fighting for control. “We’ve got to believe it’s hello. If you love me, give me that much.”
Bill placed his hand on top of hers. “Jesus, Wendy, it’s all about probabilities! When I look at the numbers, it’s hard not to be pessimistic.” He squeezed his wife’s hand. “I do love you. I love you no matter what.”
Wendy swallowed. Her voice was hoarse. “This is family were talking about now, not some abstraction. This is as personal as it can get. Both of us have got to believe we’re going to be parents. Both, okay? All I’ve seen of our son is this crummy looking Polaroid, and I already love him more than I’ve ever loved anything.”
Bill raised Wendy’s fist, unclenched it, and kissed the palm. “Me, too. I think we have to show him. Let’s give him a sign.” Slowly Bill went down on one knee at Wendy’s feet, like a boxer knocked halfway to the canvas and waiting for the count. He began to hum “Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy, Hang on,” resting his face against her belly so that their son might hear. Wendy joined in on the second chorus, singing the lyrics softly. Over the sound of their voices they could hear the lovebirds in the darkness hanging over them. Anna shredding more newspaper for the nest and Fritz pecking against the bars.
Don Kunz taught literature, creative writing, and film studies at the University of Rhode Island for 36 years. His essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in over sixty literary journals. Don has retired to Bend, Oregon, where he writes fiction and poetry, volunteers, studies Spanish, and is learning to play the Native American Flute.