Cheryl Drake (M.F.A., Vermont College) teaches writing at Southern Maine Technical College. Her fiction has appeared in The North American Review.
Earlene McKechney stood outside her son's second grade classroom, talking with Miss Donovan, his teacher. The dim corridor smelled of mucilage, and waxy milk cartons, and generations of kids with the stink of iron monkey bars on their fingers and palms. "Edward will not pay attention." Miss Donovan enunciated each word, as if Earlene were incapable of understanding English. "He gets completely immersed in his scribbling."
Earlene looked beyond Miss Donovan's nest of hair, teased and sprayed into an elaborate beehive. She saw Edward Junior seated alphabetically in front of his sister. They'd kept him back, in part because he drew pictures on everything: his math worksheets, his writing practice paper, even the top of his desk and the inside covers of his books.
Earlene lifted her hands to her mouth and steepled her fingertips in an attempt to hide bad teeth. She hated herself for letting this cold officious woman make her feel stupid.
She took a deep breath under her fingers and hauled her plastic raincoat over her pregnant belly. "Edward Junior misses his daddy, is all."
"And where is Mr. McKechney?" Miss Donovan moved closer, scrutinizing Earlene. Earlene saw the spidery red blood vessels that mapped the teacher's face.
"He's away working," Earlene lied, feeling the awful rush of blood heating up her neck, face and ears, making her look down at the worn oak floorboards.
Miss Donovan clutched the white nylon cardigan she wore, stretching it over her bosom. "I suggest you talk to Edward about his behavior. He has got to learn to pay attention; he cannot be allowed to scribble on everything."
Despite her rotund belly, Earlene attempted to stand taller. "I will talk to Edward Junior, Miss Donovan, but please go easy on him, he's really missing his daddy."
* * *
Earlene looked out the window, sealed at the edges with masking tape to keep out the draft, and stared across Highbank Street at a gray triple decker apartment house. It was a mirror image of the house she lived in, same loose-railinged stairways, sloping porches and slack clotheslines. She imagined Edward Senior pulling up in the old black and white Chevrolet sedan, as easy as you please, acting as if everything were honky-dory; she would swallow the angry words swarming behind the straight line of her mouth and feel the terror of being alone drizzle away, like gray bath water swirling down the dark hole of a drain.
Edward Senior had left her almost a year before, on a brilliant leafless Veterans' day, returning once for his rubber packs and Craftsman toolbox, leaving her pregnant for a third time, a couple of crumpled five dollar bills her only compensation.
She was afraid for the baby growing inside of her. She had all she could do to take care of Mimi and Edward Junior. Sick with headaches that made her throw up, she'd nevertheless gone to work—second shift at the cotton mill; cut horizontal slits in her cheap leather flats with a razor blade, to accommodate swollen feet and ankles; she spent most of her time in the bathroom reeling above a rust-stained toilet; they sacked her when she was well into her sixth month: "Mrs. McKechney you were hired to sew Sateen trim on blankets. You can't very well do that in the bathroom, can you?"
Now she was forced to go to city hall every Thursday for her state assistance check. "My husband's down South," she always told them, "looking for a job."
"Promise me you won't scribble on anything," she said that morning, before Edward Junior left for school. He looked down at the floor and pushed his hands into his pockets. "I promise," he said. Earlene pulled a small rainbow-colored tablet from the junk drawer next to the sink and flurried it with her fingers. "You can draw pictures everyday after school for Mama," she said. "I'll leave this right here on the table for you."
"Can I make pictures for daddy too?" Edward Junior looked straight at her while his fingers bunched and squirmed in the depths of his pockets.
She lifted his chin with two fingers and with her other hand smoothed his cowlicky hair. "You can make all the pictures you want for daddy; we'll save every one of them till her comes home. Now sit down and eat your breakfast." Through the clink of spoons against bowls and teeth, Earlene read the school lunch menu aloud.
* * *
Sometimes on damp days like this, though she'd cleaned until her fingers peeled, the smells of past tenants seemed to seep from the pitted linoleum and crumbling plaster walls; the smells, her closest human connection, other than her own children, made her feel as if she were living with strangers. She half expected to get up some morning to a woman sitting at the table, eating eggs fried in bacon fat, her bare-chested husband sitting across from her, sopping up runny yolk with a limp triangle of toast.
After rinsing the cereal bowls, Earlene pushed a vinyl-seated chair out of the way and grazed her belly on the table as she eased herself out of the narrow kitchen into the hall that led to the bathroom and bedrooms. She moved like a sleepwalker, eyes open but not really seeing, fixing on the general vicinity of the bed, lowering herself clumsily till her fingertips touched tufts of chenille. When the baby shifted in her, she imagined it was like a seal, swimming in dark water under ice.
As she lay on her back, staring at the hard dome of a belly that dwarfed her arms and legs, she felt a pain, like the dull grip of a period cramp; it doubled her momentarily, forcing her to hug her belly with pale arms. When it passed she thought of Mimi, how she'd eyed her mother and asked, and how Earlene said, "No, it's not time for the baby," all the while backing away from Mimi, so that she couldn't touch her father's khaki workshirt, which Earlene wore tail out, buttons gaping.
She closed her eyes and saw Mimi's face, pretty and small, like many other little girls' faces, except for the eyes, hazel-gold, thick-lashed, like her mother's, they showed fear, not unlike children in wartime, Earlene supposed. A war fought against the closed eyes of teachers and caseworkers and people who drove daily to homes in the suburbs.
The first hours of second grade had been a battle: Edward Junior came home with Mimi in tow, her eyelids swollen from crying; "I'm not going back," she said, kicking off the laced brown oxfords her mother had found at Goodwill.
"Baby shoes. They said I was wearing baby shoes."
Earlene had persuaded Mimi to wear the shoes one more time. Mimi didn't speak for nearly a week after that. She wore her old sneakers, faded blue canvas lace-ups, separated from the rubber at the toe. The brown oxfords disappeared without a trace.
Earlene held her breath and squeezed her eyes tight. She felt the baby thump and roll in her, with more force this time.
She sat up hugely on the side of the bed, stood, splayed her fingers out against the small of her back and arched. She looked around the room, the blue wallpaper smattered with brown diamonds, the yellow curtains she'd brought from the old apartment in Portland, green squares of carpeting laid wrong, so that they lifted at the corners.
Before Mimi was born, Earlene had told Edward Junior as he toddled around her legs, that they would call the baby Pauline if it was a girl. Her husband had insisted on Mimi, after a clerk he'd met at the neighborhood store. This time, if it was a girl, it would be Pauline Frances, after Earlene's mother.
Earlene had refused to look at her growing bulk in the mirror, ignored the pressure under her ribs and the sensation that her bladder was being squeezed in a vise of flesh and bone. But she couldn't ignore the pain.
She wanted to take stock of her life before this baby was born, make herself remember, even the worst: Edward Junior had been like Mimi, his eyes fearfully alive.
He fought too, though with fists and teeth, not words. He told her how at school they made fun of his hair, chewed at the ends by her dull scissors. He came home and rammed rusted Tonka trucks together till she stopped him: "What's the matter with you?" She held his rigid body in her lap. Smelled the red dirt he ran his trucks through on his clothes and in his hair. He knocked his head against her chest over and over again, asking, "Where's Daddy? Where's Daddy? Where's Daddy?" Finally, she turned on him, lifting him up and shaking him until his voice grew smaller and smaller and ultimately disappeared.
Another pain came; it made her dig her fingers into the taut skin of her stomach and hold her breath. She slid to the floor and lay on her side, her cheek pressed against the rough nap of a carpet square, curled on all four sides. She looked out over the moldy-smelling floor through eyes slitted with pain.
Pulls and snags on the carpet created a miniature landscape: mountains, hills, valleys and plains. The pain made her feel almost as if she were drunk. After it had passed, she pulled her knees up to her belly and put her thumb in her mouth. She sucked half-heartedly and ran her index finger over the soft skin above the bow of her lip.
For a long time she lay silent, unmoving, her mouth slack around her thumb, trying to ignore the feeling of pressure between her legs. When the water gushed through her thighs, she got up on her knees and teetered for a moment, watching steam rise from her sopping dungarees; then slowly she rose, pulling her bathrobe from the end of the bed and stuffing it between her legs.
It was happening. She felt sick with sadness and anger; she was a prisoner; the baby her ball and chain. She remembered her own mother, pregnant with her fifth child; how she'd done clothes in the wringer washer while she was in labor—feeding threadbare towels, frothy with gray suds, between the rollers, not stopping for the pains. Even now Earlene can see the flattened towels flopping into a galvanized tub, under the wringer.
That baby, five years younger than Earlene, grew up not speaking a word—mute. Earlene believed it was her mother doing the wash that caused itnot stopping for the pain, stuffing those towels through that wringer until bloody water ran down her legs.
Earlene made her way down the hall and shouldered the bathroom door open. She ran hot water in the tub and dropped the robe in. Her sodden faded dungarees pulled against the skin of her thighs as she peeled them down; she sat on the side of the tub, swiveled slightly and dumped the dungarees in. The feel of cool porcelain against her bare buttocks seemed to ease the pressure. She focused on her feet, planted flat on the gray linoleum.
Steam rose from the tub. She watched it billowing up, filling the air. It frosted the medicine cabinet mirror and the panes of a small window that looked like it had been an afterthought, built in at a cock-eyed angle in the eaves.
Clouds of steam seemed to soften everything, the corners of the sink and the bowl of the toilet. She was glad to be muffled and hidden by it. Only when the water threatened to spill over on the floor did she turn it off.
The pain came once more, slicing through the steam. Earlene slid to the floor and lay flat on her back, her legs spread so wide that her hip joints felt as if they would break. The urge to push overwhelmed her. She propped herself up on her elbows, grimaced and bore down. She held her breath as the pain peaked and then eased off. Without warning it throttled her again.
She went with it, pushing so hard that she thought she heard the crackle of blood vessels in her head. She felt a tremendous pressure between her legs and reached down with shaky fingers to touch the bulge of the baby's head flattening and thinning the lips of her vagina.
Again she bore down, riding the pain, squeezing her eyelids tight and holding her breath. When it passed she touched, for a second time, the top of the baby's head, its fine hair matted against a curved skull. For a few seconds she lay back, the tips of her fingers lightly caressing the warm wetness.
The urge swept her gain; she propped herself higher on her elbows and was able to just see the head widening her until it was finally free. The shoulders, like a narrow shelf, seemed to catch between the bones of her pelvis.
She panted hard and fast, knowing it was irresistible, the pain; and she climbed it, pushing harder and harder, feeling every cell of her body become part of a downward thrust. And then one great heave and she felt it let go and hurl forward on the waves of her muscles.
She lay back for a moment to catch her breath and feel her insides come together. Then, with shaky hands, she reached down between her legs and lifted the baby's wet body up onto the mushy flesh of her belly. Pauline. It was Pauline Frances. Earlene rubbed a cheesy film from the baby's cheeks and eyelids. Watched its eyes flutter open. Saw its life.
The silky cord attached to its navel snaked across Earlene's belly and disappeared between her legs. She closed her eyes and felt the tiny fingers knead the skin of her breasts. She listened to the faint and fitful sounds it made, like the whimpering of a puppy.
The smell of blood roused her. She opened her eyes and stared at the red smears painted across her inner thighs and up over her belly. She watched her nipples harden as the baby nuzzled close. Before it could find its way, she slid it from her belly to the floor beside her. It gasped and jerked its arms and legs wildly as its bare skin touched the cold linoleum.
The cord was pulled taut; she turned on her side toward the baby; the cord slackened. She managed to get on her hands and knees over the baby, so that she could reach the drawer under the sink. She felt around till she found the scissors, the same scissors she'd used to cut Edward Junior's hair.
The cord resisted the dull blades. Only after using a sawing motion with one blade did it separate. Blood seeped from both ends.
The baby's legs worked like small pistons, in and out. The whimpering sounds grew rattlely as if its lungs were filling with fluid instead of air.
Earlene pulled a towel from a wooden drying rack propped next to the sink, lifted the baby and wrapped it in the swaddling of thin, flowered terry cloth. With great effort she stood.
Clutching the baby to her breasts, she stepped into the lukewarm bath. She bent and cupped water, splashing her belly and thighs, over and over, until the water pinkened. Her dungarees and robe floated on the surface, air trapped in sleeves and legs.
* * *
She walked clumsily from the bulk between her legs, strips of towel folded into a thick pad, held in place by the crotch of her clean underwear. She wore a pair of old gabardine slacks, the zipper wide open, and a khaki workshirt, the tail of which hung to the back of her knees.
She'd propped her pillow against the baby's back, covered her with a sheet, blanket, and the bedspread she'd found at Goodwill, the same day she'd found Mimi's brown oxfords. She could still smell blood, though she'd cleaned the bathroom carefully, wrapping the afterbirth in a brown paper bag and hiding it under kitchen trash in the metal can she kept on the porch outside the door.
The baby's gurgley fussing grew faint, then stopped altogether.
She crossed the room. Stood at the side of the bed. Gazed at the small face wrapped in a bonnet of white sheet. A perfect baby, its tender mouth slightly open, pale lashes fanned against the curves of eye sockets, veiled in delicate blue. She pulled the blankets back, lifted it gently. Held it close, touching her chin to the crown of its head.
She became vaguely aware of a noise at the door—glass rattling in its loose frame. She held Pauline to her breasts and made her way to the bathroom, where she stood in front of the sink, breathing the faint smell of blood.
"Mama—Mama you here?"
Earlene slid quietly to the floor, the baby cradled in her arms. She couldn't seem to bring herself to answer Mimi.
When she heard the plastic tips of Mimi's laces snapping on the hall linoleum, she leaned forward and ever so gently laid the baby on the floor.
"Mama, where are you?"
Earlene said nothing, just rocked slowly back and forth, as if seeking peace through the simple motion.
She watched the baby's small dusky face.
Mimi must have stood in the doorway for a few seconds before she spoke: "The baby," she whispered hoarsely, "our baby." Then she tiptoed across the dull gray floor in, what seemed to Earlene, slow motion, the plastic tips of her laces dragging.
She squatted next to the baby to get a closer look. As she stared she twisted a finger in her hair, making a tawny coil. Earlene heard her raspy mouth-breathing; something she did when she was concentrating.
Gingerly, Mimi reached for a tiny hand; slid a finger into the loosely coiled fist.
"No, Mimi, not now," Earlene leaned forward and pulled Mimi into her lap and hugged her. "Too late, Mimi, too late."