Blue spoon, wide milk saucers. Velvet shoes.
You like flowers? Don’t put them in your mouth.
There was ivy in the neighbor’s yard. It curled over the fence. If she washed the dishes by hand, after supper, she might look out to see the supple green convulsing in the wind. But that afternoon, Wife was not looking outside. She was preparing the roast for supper. The oven didn’t have a little window cut into the front like the models advertised on the television, so she had to open the oven door to check on the baby from time to time. She hoped the usual temperature would not burn it; a baby is more tender than pork.
I will carry you to the upstairs bedroom; you are sick. I will tuck the edge of the blue coverlet against your tear-damp cheeks. I will not let you stay up watching TV; you are too young. I tell you to sleep, but your head is too hot to rest on plush pillows. You tell me if I make you sleep, your eyeballs will melt into goo because your head is too hot. Then I will sit on the edge of the bed and chant sleeping spells. I will tell you the paper streamers on your walls are parchment plastered on. In the damp dark, I will tell you of the beach I have yet to take you to. We will walk along the dark damp, bogged fin lines and tackle box, wood pulp in fish-pestered docks. Doesn’t make any sense, I know. Listen. Swagger down sleep-lane. A louvered bedframe, a crank-cradle sends the room rocking. I leave when you’ve fallen asleep.
The baby had been mischievous since morning, and only took breaks from shrieking to kick its feet in a fitful stupor. It would not stop crying; it would not take milk. Wife had pressed the baby against herself, but it would only dribble and spit on her naked breast. She had had no time to run to the butcher’s for the meat she needed for the evening’s roast, but tonight the husband wanted one.
She bounced the baby and shhh’ed the baby and cradled the baby and it cried. Wife sat in the kitchen with the baby clutched tightly to her chest and prayed that its protestations were absorbed into her noiseless self.
Instead, she felt the high vibrations of its hoarse cries shake her behind her wet eyes. The baby’s wailing reached a fever pitch and Wife begged it to stop, stop please, and it spat and screamed back at her. She clutched the baby with both of her hands and rocked it and screamed at it. She shook it until it finally went silent. Wife stood up from the kitchen table and the baby’s head lolled back to stare open and impassively into the kitchen lights. Wife gently turned the baby’s head back to gaze up at her face with its opulent, black eyes. She pinched a tender arm and the body stayed relaxed against her. She set it on the counter and wiped her own face clean with a cool dish towel before stepping outside.
I tell you not to play with your food. The bowl is an inverted eye and the milk at the bottom is the cataract. I tell you to pick the cheerios off of your face. You kick the leg of the table and say good morning father; the coffee maker is not your father, is not a bird coxcomb to choke his mother. There’s a scarcity of spoons and our guests are in the attic, where some speaking nicety, some trinket-trolloping. Say no, blinking. Truncate my think—with your pestering hands on the hem of my blouse. I let you steal dessert from the nice china platter. Later, you may apologize for getting pastry cream on your trousers, but I tell you I’m busy so you don’t.
When they’d moved into the new house, when her stomach had already begun to show, he had bought a sickle for the tall cluster of wildflowers growing along the fence between them and the neighbors. She saw the flowers as an opportunity, but she didn’t know how to tell him. He hacked a few of the weeds down to the roots and then sat on the lawn making a tangle out of them. He called it a crown.
“There, and wear it!” He shoved it into her hands when she’d grown impatient and stood on the porch watching the untidy knots break off between his thick fingers.
“It is.” He reached up and grabbed her around the thighs and laughed.
“I-it’s lovely.” She stumbled down the steps. A cluster of orange flowers dangled just above her brow; she must’ve looked especially unseemly, standing in a floury apron and bare feet curled in the soft grass. She kept pawing gently at the flowers, to get them out of her face without snapping them off.
He laughed and picked up the sickle again. “You’re a damn picture.” She caught the idea of herself in the curved blade, a blur of white stem and bright flower head.
“We could leave a few by the fence.”
His face hardened as he stood up.
“It was only a thought.” She nervously lifted the limp flowers from her hair.
“No, you keep it on.” He pressed his free hand down on the crown of her head. “You keep those; I’m getting rid of the rest or they’ll overgrow the yard.”
“Yes, go back inside.”
“They’re tansies.” She took one flower and unraveled the rest in a glass next to the sink. She pressed the flower to her lips and was refreshed by the bitterness. The baby began kicking a month later, when the lawn had been cleaned and tidied with beds of harmless daisies.
This is how your father put his hands on me. He had nice hands. I tell you about the time he let me dip his fingers in keratin oil that was advertised in a catalogue. It softened his cuticles enough so I could scrape them off with a wooden pick and paint his nails with clear polish. He had a way of praising me without saying anything and just admiring my work with a satisfied smile. I used to like the way his name ended with an “m” that tapered into trembling lips. I tell you not to touch the girls in your class. Your teacher says you spend too much time with them, with your hands on their softer hair and your hands around their weaker wrists.
The husband left the office late again because of the hypnotic rhythm the secretary picked from the keys of her typewriter. He had come home late a few times in the past month because of the coffee the secretary would bring him and because he had lingered to finish it, out of politeness. In a few weeks, he would cheat on his wife. But the illicit attraction had not yet reached its peak, so the husband skirted the thought for now and pretended nothing had changed in the way he circled around the secretary’s desk: slower, with a starving look.
The husband strode into the house and set his briefcase by his armchair before entering the kitchen. He was greeted with the potent smell of cooking meat. He breathed deeply, indulging in the fragrance which tempered his disappointment that supper wasn’t already on the table.
You’re too old to listen to me respectfully, but I tell you anyways you shouldn’t stay out so late so often. There is a ten o’ clock curfew you ignore. Your father comes home late too. I tell you again that’s because of his work and not because he’s waiting outside the bars hoping some drunk slack will buy him cheap whiskey. If your father were to stay out drinking, it would be on his own. And still, he comes home when he should. You say something I pretend not to hear because the station wagon pulls into the driveway and you don’t want him to know what you’ve been doing. I haven’t told him yet though I always tell you I will.
He asked how her day was. Wife mentioned that the baby was crying most of the day, perhaps it was running a temperature. Perhaps? It settled down in the afternoon, after a meal and a spoonful of castor oil. She wondered if the baby was sick and if sickness would sour the meat. But she had bathed it very carefully in warm water and a rich marinade. Before the husband came home, she had opened the door to check on the roast. It would be about done after she set the table and poured the wine. Now the husband slapped both hands on his thighs and got up from the table. When would the roast be done? Soon, after the table is set and the wine is poured. Would he like to look in on the baby while he waited? The husband mutters and sits back down. He would pour himself a drink, and she would go upstairs and check on the baby.
Wife walked into the nursery. The curtains were still drawn back from the waist-high window though it was dark outside. In the dimness of the open doorway, she pulled the curtains closed, tucked an unused diaper back into the drawer and picked up a stuffed animal, bringing it to the crib. The crib was empty. She stared into its cavernous space and then at the toy gripped in her hands. Wife dropped it in and stepped away from the crib. The mobile swayed silently where the crown of her head just touched the smiling crescent moon. A shout from the kitchen cut through the half-formed feelings.
I will never tell you how I’ve stood in the doorway of your bedroom, with you unawarely sleeping with your stuffed rabbit or brooding over your dim writing desk, how I’ve stood there and hated you, hated you. Hated his mother looking at me with her watery look. A look of knowing why my father hadn’t applauded with the guests after I took my vows. After paper-promises in pulpits and foul foam flecks, spiritual spittle. You were there unformed, unknowing the flickered pauses in-memory and of teeth in-skin and of furrowed ferocity. The itching-tick of tearing touches, the tongue in mouth-honor broken open, and your father your father your father your father your father your father your father your father your father your father and I can never tell you.
The plates and utensils that the husband and Wife ate off of were still in the sink, left unwashed from that morning. The water was taking too long to run hot even with the handle bent all the way to the left. He slapped the dish towel down on the edge of the sink and shut the faucet off. Wife came into the kitchen with a sad look. Did she mess with the boiler in the basement? No, of course not. He thought the sad look on her face said she had, but the look was gone when wife repeated, again, that she had not been in the basement today. She had been taking care of the baby. How was it? It was fine now, sleeping. Husband asked how they would eat when all the dishes in the goddamn house were dirty.
Wife opened the cupboards over the stove and brought out the china set that was the wedding gift from the husband’s mother. Wife had accepted the cream and gold dishes as politely as she could, though she had not accepted the old woman’s sympathetic hands. She gave them a quick rinse in the sink; the water burnt her as she passed each plate through the steam.
The husband sat back down with a full glass in his hand. The wine made him think of a candle-lit table at a nice restaurant, with a team of waiters attentive to his hands and with his knees brushing between a woman’s thighs. The husband remembered where he was sitting now and he smiled at his wife. He regretted what he hadn’t yet done, with the secretary and maybe also with the server at the diner where he took his lunch break. He traced the outline of his wife passing under the harsh electric lights with the plates in her tender, red hands. Clean, empty plates. The thick smell of the roast could no longer fill his impatience. He remarked that he’d have come home tomorrow morning, if he’d known supper wouldn’t be ready until then. He laughed to let her know he was joking, but when he looked up into her face as she set the plates down on the table, her expression told him she knew that he was going to cheat. In enough time, he would learn to stop over-explaining his absences, letting the silence of one person percolate through the house with a lonely stench.
Wife decided the roast was ready to be eaten. She cracked open the oven door and hunched protectively over the entrance as she pulled the lip of the tray toward herself. She couldn’t remember closing its eyes, but the heat had melted the lids into a translucent film over the dark, shrunken eyes. It lay on its stomach with half-blacked nails imbedded in the fingertips of a bloated hand, fused flesh with cheek. The creamy skin had crisped and split halfway down its back to reveal the brown, mottled curves of its ribs and beneath the ridges of its softened spine its lungs bubbled with rosemary and pepper oil. She pressed a fork into the thigh; the prongs slid cleanly into the meat and light golden-pink juices dribbled out onto the savory bed of vegetables wreathing the roast.
Wife opened the oven wider but she could not take the roast out of the oven, even though it was done. Lovely, she might have said. Her shoulders were shaking. Perhaps because she said it was lovely or perhaps because she gave a little cry, the husband knelt down beside her, curious and uncertainly.
Wife can feel the hot edge of a child’s screaming and remembers the sound of you, warbling wordlessly as your tears were shaken from your face. The floor is broken tremors. Pillow-hands cradle her. She looks up into your father’s face and every pore in his nose is bleeding sweat on his upper-lip from the pungent sweetness of spoiled life. I want to kiss him. I want to love his thick expression and his hands on my shoulders, tightening.