By the time Clara Mae opened the driver’s side door, she expected the smell of death.
Instead she was greeted with a loud snore.
“Gerald! Gerald!” Clara Mae took her husband by the shoulders and shook him. “Are you okay? Wake up, Gerald. Talk to me.”
Gerald’s eyes fluttered open, but they were bloodshot and unfocused. He had a bruise on his forehead, but Clara didn’t see any blood, just some drool welling at the corner of his mouth.
The pungent smell of urine-soaked upholstery mixed with the beer on his breath to make the car smelled yeasty and sharp, a scent that would have been unbearably unpleasant to any other olfactory gland, but a combination of familiarity, compassion and adrenaline made it hardly noticeable to Clara as she leaned over him to give him an instinctive, but angry, embrace.
“Oh, shit,” Gerald said, then vomited, spraying the front of Clara’s coat with sick. He rubbed the knot on his head that was turning purple. “I’m so sorry.” Clara wasn’t sure if he was saying it to her, to himself, or about himself.
She thought she should probably call an ambulance, but they would just turn around and call the cops. Pissed though she was, she didn’t want him hauled off to jail. And with no insurance, ambulance and hospital charges would be rough, and she didn’t want to pay for her husband’s stupidity any more than she already had to.
Still, with that bump on his head, she felt a little guilty draping his arm around her shoulder and pulling him out of the car herself. The car was far enough off the road that it wouldn’t be an easy tow job, and far enough off the road that it wouldn’t arouse attention.
Call for the tow later. Get us home for now.
But before she abandoned their car, she noticed The Doll in the backseat. Her mother’s Doll. Shriveled head looking back at her. He was sitting upright, the only thing in the car not askew, the junk mail she had piled on him now on the floor, ripped, soiled, even singed? Mouth open, the scream/cry face looking more like a cocky laugh to Clara Mae this time. She felt an anger
at The Doll, like it He had done this and not her husband, and she picked Him up with the thought to just
Rub his little face in the mud.
But once he was in her hands she felt warmth—
Like he loves me—
and she quickly tucked him inside her coat before she walked off. She felt happy with The Doll so close to her. She could have sworn she felt him breathing there, his belly against her belly, secure in the coat-womb.
Gerald was starting to sober up as the muddy shoulder turned to their gravel drive, and she was relieved to feel him support his own weight and walk a little more steady as they neared their house.
They didn’t fight that night. Clara Mae made excuses to herself about why: tired from working, tired from walking, wanting him to sober up before she yelled at him, just being tired of yelling at him. Tired of him.
But really she was excited to be home, alone with The Doll.
She made hot dogs for dinner (the red kind with the skins that pop against your teeth) and gave him blankets as he settled in on the couch, and Clara Mae knew she might as well have “slipped him a Mickie” or a “roofie” or whatever-you-call-it these days. And sure enough while she washed up she heard him snoring as ESPN 2 went to commercial, and she tiptoed back to her room, lifting The Doll from inside the damp wool swaddling of her coat.
She pulled her sweater off and lay back on the bed, resting the doll on her chest so it could smell her, hear her heartbeat, cradling it like a newborn. She had held Dan this way—advised by a hippie on the art of natural childbirth—his gummy, grey body still tethered by umbilical cord. She stroked the thick age-ashen skin of The Doll’s cheek with the outer edge of her knuckle. Then, once she knew it was time, she lifted her limp fold of a breast, clamping her thumb and index finger against the areola, holding it firm, sliding down with pressure, pinching against dry ducts toward the nipple where she had placed his mouth. She waited to see the white droplets gather there, but when they did not, she felt her cheeks flush with familiar self-humiliation. The baby didn’t latch. Why didn’t the baby latch? She knew it was hungry. And she knew this was what she was supposed to do. What good mothers do. The hippie had said so.
And just like with Dan she tried and tried to draw the milk out, and though it had been at least twenty five years since she nursed she could swear she felt that pins-and-needles tingling behind the skin. She rubbed and rubbed, dragging pads of fingers along sagging flesh, against map-like white lines of faded stretch marks, past the untweezed fine dark hairs rimming her areola, piercing the flat of the nipple, until finally raw and cracked it gave in and droplets of blood began to pool and drip into his awaiting open mouth. When she felt that this had satisfied him, she nestled him against her bosom and they drifted into sleep.
She gets up in the middle of the night, to check the baby. It’s what they always tell you before you have your first: you’re always checking to see if they are still breathing. Hand in front of face, feeling for the exhale. Not enough to wake them—not wanting to invoke their ire—but wanting to make sure.
But this night, the crib is empty.
Outside she could hear shuffling, running, like yard animals chasing in the night, wind whipping leaves against the windows, wind that is fast and straight and strong and destructive.
Where is he?
Did someone get him?
Did he crawl off?
She feels like she screamed, but can’t be sure, everything feels muffled by the shifting air. Flashes of looking, first one room, then the next, then the next. Consumed with looking, and then forgetting what is missing, then panicking again in waves: fever and chills. In the distance, whimpering, injury—agony—dimly clawing its way through to her ears, and she tries to get there but she can’t, can’t place the sound, can’t tell where it is coming from.
Then, FLASH, there she is. The dog is looking up at her, her family dog, the one she suddenly remembers has been there for years, through thick and thin, since he was a pup, and this time after being there for her all of these years, unconditionally, it is he that needs something. Wood, the size of an arm—maybe a large branch, maybe a small tree—splintered, slipping between winding curvature of spooling guts and protruding out the other side. The outer rim of the injury pulses, she can see his heartbeat against the impalement, a rhythmic glistening of fluid, and she isn’t sure that the tortured wheezing of the wind isn’t his last labored breaths. The baby is there, too, of course (she’s known that all along), lounging against the dog’s rump, seeming unphased by the force of the weather. He seems to find comfort there—maybe new life comforting old friend in last moments? But maybe not. She slips the baby in through the back door and goes to the dog, takes the other side of the branch to
PUT HIM OUT OF HIS MISERY.
She looks away while she strikes, because she knows he is still looking up at her, still at this moment trusting, and as she looks away, all the time swinging, she moves her gaze to the window of the house where she sees the infant, his eyes behind the pane, tiny smile, toothless mouth curving up and out, rolls of chunky baby arm held up to parting gums as he licks himself, licks and licks, a grooming feline, pleased, content, cleaning the dog blood off of his skin, watching.
Clara Mae awoke drenched in sweat, her back clinging to the sheets. Her nipple was covered in fresh, loose scab, and it was SO SORE she noticed as she leaned to turn off the alarm clock.
5:00, 5:00, 5:00, it blinked at her, bleating.
She covered herself with a t-shirt off the floor, ashamed. The doll was thrown in the top of the closet with her QVC boxes and doors closed firmly behind it. Her dream had been so vivid, but it was fading now. Had a baby? She’d heard somewhere that dreaming of having babies was about creating, an idea or a work of art being nurtured deep within subconscious. But this baby—the blood, the death—what did that mean she was nurturing inside?
She was snapped out of her train of thought as the smell of sizzle drifted down the stairs, and she realized Gerald was not asleep. Did he see her? Topless? Crazed?
Her humiliation mixed with anger over the previous day’s incident, compounding in her heart like toxic fumes, freezing her into paralysis. She didn’t want to go up the stairs. She didn’t want his olive branch of omelet. She didn’t want to listen to his promises over coffee at dawn that would dissolve by the crack of noon.
She locked the door and lay back in the bed. She knew he’d heard her. She couldn’t avoid him forever.
But not now. I just can’t do it now.
She heard footsteps across the floor. Stopping at top of the stair: “Clara? I made breakfast for you.”
The footsteps paused, then returned to the kitchen. Pacing. Then back.
“Clara. Are you awake? Time for breakfast.” The footsteps came down the stairs now, one after the other, a slow, shifting, waddling footfall.
The footsteps reach her door, stop. “Clara?” The knob rattled. His realization, She’s pissed. She could hear his face fall behind the door, and the breath went out of him. She knew the defeat would be quickly replaced by fury, but didn’t know how to stop it. Didn’t know how to stop herself, wanting him to suffer, wanting someone to join in her pain, but knowing it would play out like usual, with the both of them feeling more alone.
The footsteps, more of stomps now, back up the stairs, across to the kitchen, then back again.
“I know you’re down there. Come on up to eat already!” Gerald hollered down the stairs.
She told herself she didn’t care for confrontation, but in reality, she was stubborn.
“Clara, Jesus Christ, I’m sorry! Please come eat before you have to go to work!”
“Well, if you won’t eat with me, I will find somebody who will!”
Footsteps tracked back to kitchen, opened the back door, and then slammed. What could he mean by that? A drinking buddy? A neighbor?
There was clattering upstairs followed by a few thumps that made the ceiling rattle. Curiosity got the better of her, and she unlocked the door to hear her husband’s voice.
“You’ll eat with me, won’t you goat? Look, I made you breakfast.”
“You eat every other goddamn thing under the sun, but you won’t eat my goddamn eggs? EAT MY GODDAMN EGGS, GOAT.”
Goat? Did he have their goat up there?
“Dammit, eat. If you know what’s good for you.”
Clara Mae crested the stairs in time to see the goat, back legs kicking, chairs overturned, trash bin spilled on the floor. The goat was turning his nose up to all of it, enjoying the spite more than the possibility of food. Gerald took a rifle off the wall and pointed it right at the goat’s eye.
“Eat the goddamn eggs. For Christsakes, goat, just eat the eggs,” this time, his voice was pleading. And as the goat stared back at him, the goat parted his lips only to clamp them together again—defiant. The goat started to turn his head away, but before he could, Gerald pulled the trigger.