a novel by Michele Young-Stone
For my mom—
A true goddess
* Courting *
Jacob Butterfield and Gloria Ricci
Gloria Ricci worked the necktie counter at Bink’s in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Proud of her skill at matching ties to men, her manicured hands—an asset to sales—danced over rows of black and patterned fabrics as she asked wives and daughters, “What color is the suit?” “What color are his eyes?”
She was twenty-nine and living at home.
Jacob Butterfield, working construction on a new Ridgewood housing development, lived in the Burrus Motel one town over. Not particularly in need of neckties, he bought seven from Gloria before asking her on a date. He was twenty-three, lean and tan, with a Frank Sinatra fascination, happy to be dating a Northerner, an Italian even.
He liked the way Gloria’s fingers skipped and paused over the ties, as though she were doing something artistic, something greater than picking out a necktie. She wore a silver charm bracelet on her right wrist. With a single round charm, it seemed to move as one with her hand, glinting in cased lighting, illuminating the ties.
He liked her eyes, the way they widened when she made her choice and carefully lifted the accoutrement from its glass case before slipping the counter key into her pocket. He liked her mouth, naturally pink after her lunch break, and her blonde hair, “Northern Italian”, she said, how two strands, which she tucked and re-tucked behind her diamond-studded ears, fell across her eyes. The diamonds were a gift from her deceased paternal grandfather, rumored to have had Mafia connections.
For Jacob, Gloria selected pinstripe, navy, gray, brown and black. He was not a colorful man, but steadfast and deep. His eyes, more gray than blue, like rocks. She was drawn to him. He said things no other man—like her twelve prior suitors dismissed and married now, whose wives she passed in the supermarket—would dare to say. On their first date, Jacob leaned across the booth, taking her hands in his, putting her pale fingers, nearly translucent next to his, to his lips. “I fucking love you,” he said.
“Stop it.” She looked to see if anyone had heard.
“I fucking love you.”
“You’re crazy. You don’t know me.”
“Sure I do.”
“I bought seven ties from you. I spent more time with you than with my own mother.”
She laughed nervously, pulling her hands away, sipping her Coke. “But I’m older than you are.”
Thin-lipped with an angular jaw and short black hair, all six-feet of Jacob’s muscular frame was sun-drenched from working outdoors. He said, “Age is a number. I don’t believe in bullshitting and wasting time. I’m a man who knows what he wants, and I want you. I knew when I saw you. If you want me, I’m here.” He thumped his chest like Tarzan. “Just don’t mess with me.”
In imitation of him, Gloria thumped her chest. “I don’t mess with people. I help people.” She thought about her ties. Meeting new people from all walks-of-life—each with a burden and joy. She had the ability to make a stranger smile. Sometimes she imagined herself older, a spinster, with age spots and blue veined hands, her long fingers traveling over the neckties. Would she still have the gift to help people? Twenty or thirty years from now with no children and no home of her own, would she still be happy? She didn’t know.
Jacob leaned across the booth. “I can help you, Gloria.” His hands were in loose fists.
“How can you help me?” She flushed.
“Live a little.”
“I live.” She lived at Bink’s. She had her customers. Home was a different story. Her bedroom, once her nursery, was painted pink. A room for a little girl and not a woman almost thirty, with a crucifix hanging above her bed and a Bible, a confirmation gift, in her bedside-table drawer. Fifteen years ago, right after she was moon-kissed, she used white house paint to render a full moon on her bedroom wall.
“I will not have a devil worshipper under this roof,” her mother had said, down on her knees, scrubbing Gloria’s moon from the wall.
“God created the moon!”
An hour later, her mother was sweating and talking to herself: “What in the world?” “I don’t understand this!” She put her cleaning products away. No amount of scrubbing, not cleanser or Clorox would erase the painted moon.
Later that night, Gloria’s dad painted over it with the same white house paint, but a thin orange halo appeared distinguishing the moon from the other paint. He explained to Gloria’s mother, “It’s because the wall was originally pink. That’s all.” Next, he tried pink paint. When the moon shone even brighter, he used black. Within a day, the whiteness of the moon bled through. He had no explanation.
“We have to move.” Gloria’s mother said.
“We’re not moving!” Gloria’s dad slid her dresser in front of the painted moon. “That takes care of it.”
Gloria’s mother said, “I worry for her soul.”
Gloria’s dad said, “No one knows what happened, and no one ever will.”
The next day, her mother tried to take Gloria’s charm bracelet away, but when the chain felt hot on her fingertips, she dropped it and ran from their house down the street to Saint Paul’s where she knelt and prayed. She would’ve asked the priest for help, but she hadn’t confessed Gloria’s sin to Father Mark.
Nightly, Gloria heard her mother lamenting over her only child’s lost soul.
This blue-collar man who wanted her to “live a little” might be her destiny. After ten years at Bink’s necktie counter, a new life might emerge. Both terrified and curious, she tried to sense Jacob’s emotions and thoughts. This was, after all, her gift—to read people—but she couldn’t read him. She thought of a million questions to ask, asking none of them. What did she know about him? He liked Coke and fried chicken. He liked the drive-in movies and aftershave that smelled lemony—a scent she didn’t know. He liked her. He said his mother was long dead, and he didn’t know his father.
“Are you an orphan?” she asked.
“Did you grown up in an orphanage?”
“In a boxcar. I was always moving.” He lit a cigarette.
“Can I have one?” she asked. He passed her the pack of smokes.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t smoke at Bink’s.”
Jacob got up from the booth, sliding beside Gloria, his thigh against hers. Taking her right hand in his, he turned it palm-up. She shivered at his touch.
Tracing the circular scar on her wrist, he said, “What’s this? A burn?”
“Your bracelet only has one charm.”
“It’s an image of the moon.”
He kissed her wrist.
She shuddered while he held onto her hand. Feeling his energy passing through her, she pulled her wrist away. She wasn’t accustomed to being touched.
“Are you cold?”
“No.” He’d reduced her to monosyllables.
Jacob sipped from her straw. “I’m wearing a tie you picked.”
“I know my ties.” She admired it. “Does it make you happy?”
“As much as something like a noose can make a guy swoon.”
He kissed her neck. More shivers, the white hair on her arms and back standing up.
Is this my destiny?
Standing on the front porch, he tried to kiss her goodnight, but knowing her parents were watching from the living room window, she pushed him away. Even through the brick walls of the house, she could sense her mother’s hope: Please let her marry. Please let her have a normal life.
Like Gloria, her parents did not expect her to marry. They knew her fifteen year-old secret—why twelve suitors had been passed over. They knew why in addition to the gold cross she wore around her neck, she wore a silver likeness of the moon buttoned beneath her shirt cuff—the charm rubbed smooth by her thumb and forefinger, a perfect match to the scar on her inner right wrist. They were surprised, but hopeful at the prospect of Jacob Butterfield, southerner or not, Protestant or not, marrying their Gloria.
The first night that he sat with them eating roast beef and boiled potatoes, he confessed, “God has never been a part of my life. I didn’t have what you’d call a Christian upbringing, and I’ve got no interest now.”
“More potatoes?” Gloria’s mother asked. “You need to eat. You’re skin and bones.” She was overly anxious, her desperation almost palpable, scooping potatoes onto Jacob’s plate. “I made iced tea because I have friends from down south, and they say everyone drinks iced tea.”
“I doubt all people from below the Mason-Dixon Line drink iced tea,” Gloria’s dad said. He was a fair man with blonde hair and blue eyes. Gloria had neither parents’ eyes. Her hair was fair like her dad’s, but much lighter since she’d been marked.
Jacob tucked his napkin into his shirt collar like a bib. Gloria’s mother, typically reproachful of such manners, commented, “It’s a shame about you being an orphan. It’s no wonder you don’t believe in our savior Jesus Christ. You will one day, especially if you spend time with Gloria.”
Gloria couldn’t help but smile at the irony of her mother’s statement. After all, she had the doomed soul. What good would she do Jacob Butterfield?
“It’s a real shame,” Jacob agreed, shooting Gloria a sympathetic look.
Gloria added, “Jacob was raised a hobo. He ate dog food.”
Jacob said, “It’s true.”
“How awful!” Gloria’s mother pointed her fork at Gloria’s dad. “Cut him another slice of roast, honey.”
“Sure,” he said, tossing his dinner napkin on the table. The roast was on the sideboard.
Gloria reached beneath the table and squeezed Jacob’s knee. Her parents were offering her up to an atheistic southerner with no manners. It was tremendously funny but sad. Her dad, having long ago been tamed by her mother, followed orders. She could remember when she and her dad were allies—before her sin, before he fell under her mother’s tyranny. He had to pick a side. It wasn’t Gloria’s side, not with what he called, “The voodoo, hocus-pocus goings-on,” and whispering so low, it was barely audible, “and the incest.” He tried defending her. “In some states, it’s legal for cousins to marry.”
“Stop it!” Gloria remembered her mother screaming. “Is it okay to worship the moon? Is it okay to sin?” Gloria’s mother screamed until Gloria’s dad stopped with excuses. He picked his side. Now it was Gloria’s turn to pick. She could stay here in Ridgewood and sell neckties, making people happy. She could take her lunch at twelve-forty-five and correspond weekly with her only girlhood friend in Silver Springs, Maryland who already had three children and a husband “in resorts.” She could arrive home every evening at five forty-five, help her mom with dinner, read the newspaper, and watch television until nine-thirty, when she washed her face and went to bed, finding her confirmation Bible conspicuously present on her bedspread or pillow, or she could take a chance.
* Paulo and Mrs. Shu *
Her dad said, “Paulo is staying with us for the summer. Be nice to him. Introduce him to your friends. Take him to the pool.”
As dark-skinned as she was light with a sharp angular face, Paulo’s eyes were like fat brown coins. Gloria roller-skated backwards watching him hoist his duffel bag from her uncle’s convertible; awkwardly shaking his dad’s hand before the door slammed and the convertible sped away.
Gloria had overheard her dad telling her mom: “Richard’s not happy with Sophia.” Richard and Sophia were Paulo’s parents.
Gloria overheard her mother: “He took a vow. He promised to love and honor Sophia.” Her mother’s voice cracked.
Paulo stood in the narrow road, his duffel bag at his feet, looking much too serious in the sunlight. Catching his eye, Gloria spun around on her skates. Just because he was sixteen, she wouldn’t moon after him like some puppy. He could make his own friends.
“Come here, Gloria,” her dad called. She braked, turning slowly and skating back, the sun blinding, illuminating the silver pavement. Paulo held onto the green ropes from his bag. As Gloria shielded her face from the sun, he smiled at her. Wearing a pink blouse and white shorts, her knees dotted with orange freckles, she circled Paulo and her dad.
“Stay still,” her dad said, “and say hello.”
She stopped skating. “Hello.”
“After Paulo gets something to eat, show him around the neighborhood.”
“But I have plans.”
“Which now include your cousin.”
Paulo said, “That’s okay. I’m pretty tired.”
Gloria’s dad put his palm on Paulo’s back. “Wait until you taste your aunt’s lasagna. It’s the best you’ve ever had.” Gloria’s dad took Paulo’s duffel, the two of them walking up the front walk, Gloria rolling behind them.
Paulo followed Gloria into the patch of woods bordering the Ricci home, downhill to Mullins’ Creek—six acres of tall pines, dappled light, big rocks, velvety moss, and Mrs. Mary Shuman—a middle-aged woman keeping residence on the other side of the creek. Following Gloria through fallen pine needles, over grey stones, and onto a fallen tree trunk bridging the creek, Paulo said, “Where are we going?”
“I’m going to Mrs. Shu’s.”
“Do you still have imaginary friends? My mom said that you have make-believe friends.” He was sweating, still wearing his slacks and button-down shirt.
“When I was eight.” She turned to face him. “Watch out! There’s a muddy spot.”
He slipped, steadying himself, and continuing to follow Gloria. “My mom says you had to see a psychiatrist.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Do you want to go swimming later?” he asked. “It’s hot.”
“Maybe,” she said, stopping beside a rotted stump, pointing to Mrs. Shu’s, a log cabin huddled between three tall trees, one partly blocking the front door and a stained-glass transom.
“Someone lives here? You’re kidding.” By itself, the house was oddly placed. Between the trees, it was disorienting to Paulo.
“Be nice,” Gloria warned, “or you’re never coming back with me.”
Paulo sighed. “I’m always nice.” He felt the ground jostle and shift. The pine needles seemed alive, like they might slither between his shoes. He’d had a long day, he reasoned. His parents were splitting up. He’d been displaced. “I’m nice,” he repeated.
“Sure,” she said. “Listen, Mrs. Shu is an eccentric. I’ll introduce you. Don’t say anything until she speaks to you.”
“Sure,” he mimicked, wiping the sweat from his face. He was perspiring through his undershirt.
When a woman his height with shocking white hair, much like Gloria’s, but thicker, coarser, pulled into a flowering bun, swung the door open, her pale face between the brown tree trunk and door’s frame, practically crouching beneath the lintel and bright transom, Paulo stepped back, tripping over a small rock. He fell onto his back, his head cushioned by the pine needles.
She said, “Don’t lay about.” Reaching down, her face shadowed, she pulled him to his feet. “Come inside.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” he said.
“You don’t know that.” She turned from him, and ducking ever so slightly, passed back into her house.
Gloria pointed to the stained glass transom. “She made that,” she said. “They’re woodland nymphs.”
Paulo looked up at the bright glass, the little women naked and winged. “Neat.”
“She’s very neat,” Gloria said. She pushed Paulo forward. “Don’t be rude.”
He ducked through the doorway—not more than six-feet high. Like the exterior of the cabin, the interior was oddly disproportionate to its occupant. Mrs. Shu was a giant living in a dwarf’s house. “Have a seat,” she said, closing the door behind them. She hugged Gloria, adding, “There’s something strange about him. I think he’s interesting.”
“I don’t,” Gloria said.
Mrs. Shu wore a green pair of pants and a yellow blouse cuffed at the elbows.
Gloria and Paulo sat silently as Mrs. Shu poured them each a glass of lemonade. Joining them, her knees higher than the seat of her chair, she sipped her drink. Her white fingers traced the knitted shawl adorning the table, the wool knots forming blue stars.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said.
Gloria said, “He likes to go swimming. He’s on the swim team.”
“I don’t feel well,” Paulo said, staring into his lemonade.
“He’s boring,” Gloria added, “like most boys.”
“When you fell,” Mrs. Shu said, “did you hit your head?” She reached out to him, her fingers cool on his brow and cheek, squeezing his earlobes. Gloria whispered, “My uncle is having an affair. My dad says I have to be nice to Paulo and introduce him to everyone. I wasn’t going to bring him here.”
“Look at him,” Mrs. Shu said.
“What about him?”
It was as if Paulo had left the room, but he hadn’t. He was sitting here, woozy, drinking lukewarm lemonade, being talked about. Mrs. Shu said, “He’s the boy from my vision.”
“No he isn’t,” Gloria said.
Paulo felt the chair tip. He tumbled tip klack and thud to the floorboards whacking the back of his head. He heard Gloria say, “Oh shit.” He felt her and Mrs. Shu on either side of him. He heard Mrs. Shu say, “Calm down. He’s going to be fine.”
Struggling to open his eyes, Paulo gave up.
“What’s wrong with him?” Gloria asked. “I’m going to be in so much trouble.”
Mrs. Shu pressed her ear to his chest. She felt for his breath on her cheek. His eyes fluttered. “It’s probably just the heat,” she said. “Where’s he from?”
“One of those cold ‘m’ states, like Maine or Massachusetts.”
“When he’s awake, take him back to one of those cold ‘m’ states. You can’t be around him.”
Gloria’s breathing quickened. “Look, Mrs. Shu,” she began, “he’s my cousin. He’s my dad’s brother’s son. He’s nobody. He’s not going to report for being a loony Nazi or for whatever reason you live here.”
Mrs. Shu got up. Looking down at Gloria and Paulo, she said, “I’ve seen him. In the same way that I knew you before we met, I know him.” She paused. “And it’s not good. It’s not what you want. He’s not what you want.”
Gloria rolled her eyes. “I feel sick.” Her breathing quickened.
“Oh, stop that nonsense. He’s the one unconscious on the floor. There’s nothing wrong with you.” Mrs. Shu placed the glasses in the sink. “He’s part of your destiny, but you can change it. Stay away from him.”
Gloria laughed, squirting lemonade through her nose.
Neither woman spoke. Paulo moaned.
Mrs. Shu said, “I guess it was too soon for me to tell you. You don’t take anything seriously.”
Gloria laughed. Eccentricity was one thing. This woman was certifiably insane.
Mrs. Shu pulled a dish rag from the cupboard. Wringing the cloth, she said, “I knew when I saw him. He’s enchanted, and you’re tied to him.”
“He’s my cousin.”
“A long time ago, long before we met, before you were born into this world, I knew you. I wrote about you and I painted you, and I’ve lived here as a comfort and a guide. We are cosmically connected, Gloria. You and I are daughters of the moon. It’s not something we choose. It’s something chosen for us.” Her face looked pained, her brow deeply wrinkled. “Don’t mock what we are. We’re a dying breed.”
Gloria said, “We’ve been pretending! I wasn’t trying to mock you.”
“Look at you. Look at me,” Mrs. Shu continued, lifting Paulo easily and laying him on her small bed, bare but for a green sheet. “We’re like ghosts in the world of the living.” Sitting at Paulo’s side, she opened her palm to Gloria. “Look.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“Look here.” She lightly tapped her wrist. There was a small circular mark haloed in purple.
Gloria said, “I’m not like you. I’m regular. I’m normal.” She was sweating. At rest beside them, Paulo had a smile on his unconscious face. “You’re always telling me that I’m special, that we’re so much alike… Well, I don’t want to be like you. I’m my own person. I don’t have a mark.” Gloria showed Mrs. Shu both wrists. “I was born without one birthmark. Nothing anywhere.”
“Forget I said anything.” Mrs. Shu pulled the curtains closed above her bed. “Hopefully, he’ll wake soon.”
“Paulo is my stupid cousin. His dad is cheating on his mom and so they shipped him here for the summer.”
“Believe what you want,” Mrs. Shu said. “It probably doesn’t matter what steps you take. What will happen will happen anyway.”
“What are you talking about?” Gloria was angry. Mrs. Shu had been a strange friend, intriguing, sparking Gloria’s curiosity. She’d taught Gloria constellations. They’d watched the moon wax and wane, coursing in the night between the pine trees. They’d listened to the creek gurgle, the frogs croak, the owls hoot. They were kindred spirits, Gloria thought—lovers of nature, but now the old woman (an ancient thirty-five) was being cryptic with Gloria, insinuating some enchantment upon Paulo. All right, Gloria thought, he’s handsome, but he’s not enchanted. He seemed as boring as could be. What does it mean to be enchanted anyway? Like a magic kingdom? As her mom would say, Poppycock, Lady!
Gloria and Mrs. Shu stood by the bed watching Paulo sleep. The woodland breeze lifted the small rose-embroidered curtains above his head. His chest rose and fell.
Mrs. Shu said, “I won’t mention this again, but don’t bring him back into these woods.”
“I’ll go where I want.”
“When you go home tonight, look in the mirror. You’ll see me when you look there.”
“I’m me,” Gloria said. More quietly this time, “You’re crazy.”
“Is this how you want it to end?” Mrs. Shu asked. She looked very old to Gloria. Older than her years.
“I’m normal,” Gloria said. “When Paulo wakes up, we’ll get of here. I shouldn’t have brought him here. This is why I never bring anyone here. You’re nuts.”
Mrs. Shu was silent, leaving through the front door, squeezing between the trunk and the frame.
When Paulo awoke, Gloria was beside him. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You passed out from the heat.”
Sitting up, the wet cloth falling from his forehead to his lap, he said, “My dad’s not having an affair.” “It’s my mom having the affair. It just sounds better this way.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
Paulo felt for the knot on the back of his head.
Walking back through the woods, Gloria said, “I’m sorry about everything. She can be a little weird.”
“Do you think? She’s a lunatic! Completely bonkers.”
“Well, I’m sorry. We won’t go back.”
Paulo kicked the pine needles. “You look like her.”
“It’s weird,” she said.
“You’re weird,” Paulo said. He kicked pine needles towards her. “I like weirdos.”
She kicked pine needles back toward him.
“Do your parents know her?” he asked.
“No.” The light faded to a purplish gray. “You’re the only one who knows her.”
“When did you meet her?”
“When my imaginary friends disappeared.”
Paulo laughed. “I’m lucky I got out of there alive.”
He ran up behind Gloria, tugging at her white curtain of hair. She turned back. “Race me.”
“It wouldn’t be fair to you.”
Gloria zipped between the pine trees. Paulo chased, letting her win. At the Ricci’s back door, breathless and pink-faced, Gloria said, “I’m sorry about the thing with your mom.”
“You’re the only one who knows.”
“I won’t tell,” she said.
*A Normal Life*
Gloria wore her white-blonde hair in a loose bun, a few strands tickling her neck. The hairstyle was reminiscent of Mrs. Shu’s hair, but that was a long time ago, and Gloria had Jacob on her mind today.
She slid open the tie case. She felt the sadness of the young wife standing across from her as her fingers brushed one tie after another, stopping on the dullest gray tie, a misshapen silk imported from Poland. She tapped the tie, watching the wife study it through the glass. “I don’t know,” she said, her eyes meeting Gloria’s. “Let me see it.”
Gloria pulled it from the case, displaying it on the countertop. Her silver charm dangling from her wrist. “That’s pretty,” the young wife said, pointing to the charm.
“Thank you. How long have you been married?” Gloria asked.
The young wife cleared her throat, ignoring Gloria’s question. “Is this on sale?”
“Everything’s on sale.”
“It’s an unusual shape.”
Gloria nodded. “It’s cut different from all the others. It’s wider at the bottom.”
“I’m not sure.”
“It’s for your husband?”
“Yes,” she said.
“He’s very particular?”
The young wife picked up the tie. Over the loudspeaker, a giggling female voice announced a Christmas sale. Static ensued and the speaker cut off.
“What’s the return policy?”
Gloria wanted to climb up over the glass casing and embrace this woman. He’s having an affair, she thought, feeling the young wife’s misery. He calls you stupid. He’s broken your heart, but you’re still in love with him. Get out now. Go away somewhere. Don’t have babies with him. Find someone else. Gloria said, “You have fifteen days to return merchandise with your receipt.”
“I’ll take it.”
As the young wife searched awkwardly through her leather handbag, the straps hanging from her forearm, Gloria made a decision. She would marry Jacob Butterfield. She would jump into the muck that seemed to be living. She’d be good at marriage. She’d be good at motherhood. How hard could it be? Jacob would never mistreat or betray her. He would never say mean things. He wore that wild heart on his tie. Gloria folded white tissue paper over the misshapen tie, fit the box-top, and slid the package into a red-handled bag. “Have a wonderful day,” she said. She couldn’t help this young wife without insulting her first: ‘You’re in a bad marriage. It’s written all over your face.’
“I’ve been married six months,” the young wife said. As an afterthought, “I think I’m going to have a baby.”
“Congratulations,” Gloria said.
The young wife left with her package as a sharply dressed man wearing a coffee-stained tie approached. The loudspeaker crackled, a woman’s voice announcing, “Twenty-percent off all perfumes Monday.” Gloria sensed the man’s urgency. She sensed his excitement too. “You need a replacement,” she said.
“Board meeting.” Leaning over the counter like he had a secret to tell, he said, “What time do you get off?”
“I’m engaged to be married.” It was a wonderful thing to say.
She would miss the confident dapper men, so sure she’d take a chance with them. So sure she wouldn’t recognize their marriage vows stamped on their eager faces. She would miss the grandfathers and tired new fathers, the young wives and old wives and divorcees. She would miss the daughters and best friends. She would miss all of them—the happy and the sad. The little boys who saved enough pennies to buy Dad a tie for Christmas. She would miss each and every one of them. But life is like a semi-good novel, she reasoned, and this chapter at Bink’s Department Store was already too long—too complacent. Bink’s had been a fine refuge, but it was time to step firmly into the muck. She imagined her muck like strawberry Jello. Things were going to be bright.
There was a nurse on either side of her, each holding a knee. Her feet were strapped in the stirrups, and Doctor Donato was home watching television. Gloria wanted clarity, but the IV dripping beside her bed and the tubing taped and running into her arm was laden with tranquilizers and pain killers.
One of the nurses lifted Gloria’s arm, turning her wrist, pointing out the mark and bracelet. “She shouldn’t be wearing this.”
“Special request,” said the other nurse.
“That’s ridiculous.” The nurse unfastened the charm bracelet, slipping it into the pocket of her dress.
Gloria said, “No,” and tried to sit up.
The nurse said, “She’s nearly eight centimeters. Someone should phone Dr. Donato.”
“He said not to call until she was nine.”
“Eight… Nine… He needs to be here!”
The other nurse shrugged.
Despite the nurses gloved hands restraining her, Gloria raised up, bearing down before anyone had time to call Dr. Donato. “Don’t push,” a nurse said.
“Relax,” said another.
“Did you check her IV?”
After three pushes, Gloria’s first daughter Charlotte was born. Gloria would hardly remember this birth. As the nurses took her daughter away, Gloria said, “Give me back my charm.”
“My charm bracelet. I want it now.”
The nurses were changing the sheets, cleaning Gloria up, and waiting for Dr. Donato’s arrival to officially announce the birth and sign the certificate. Gloria glistened with a layer of sweat, her head resting on a green pad. “Please,” she said.
The nurse pulled the bracelet from her pocket, fastening it around Gloria’s wrist and leaving her to sleep.
At home, Jacob finished his fourth scotch. It was after seven o’clock. She couldn’t expect him to wait in the hospital all night. He was cleaning the rust off an old washtub he’d made arrangements to sell to Marlowe’s Antiques. His junkyard was rendering a small profit. He loved being self-employed, salvaging the past, saving what other people discarded. He was elbow-deep in solvents when the phone rang inside. It was the hospital. He’d had a baby girl: Charlotte Anne Butterfield, seven pounds, three ounces. Jacob didn’t hear the phone. It wasn’t malicious. When he worked, he lost track of time.
The two-story house was built in 1840. The rooms were small, the closets smaller. The walk-in pantry with its shelves and curtains and secret nooks saved Gloria from going mad. Her old home had been compact, well-maintained, and considerably newer, built in the 1930s.
This home, her married home, emitted strange smells and funny noises. Upstairs and downstairs, the floorboards were spongy, seeming to give with the littlest weight.
Connected to Jacob and Gloria’s bedroom, there was a narrow winding staircase leading up three steps to a padlocked door.
“What’s up there?” she’d asked, their first day in the house unpacking her meager possessions.
“Just an attic,” he’d said. “The floors are unsafe.”
It’s only natural that a locked door elicits curiosity. Sitting with a newborn at her breast, her left nipple burning and Charlotte crying, Gloria glanced up at the ceiling. Jacob said, “We probably have rats. I’ll pick up some rat poison.”
To Gloria, it felt like something else, but she didn’t know what. Sometimes, like now, when she felt anxious picturing a pack of rats, a wonderful smell like lavender or cooked apples would waft through the room. Today it was a citrus smell like a bag of ripe oranges. The smell reassured Gloria that everything would be all right. She’d get used to motherhood. A gang of rats wasn’t going to abscond with her baby. She’d feel better soon. She was running a fever, alternating between chills and burning up. She was sick. Even though they were poor, she was going back to the doctor. She needed to feel better, not for herself, but for her baby. It seemed like baby Charlotte was losing weight.
Gloria centered Charlotte on their bed to dress for her appointment. She pulled on an elastic-waist black skirt and oversized yellow shirt. I look like a bumble-bee, she thought. As she cinched her nonexistent waist with a red scarf, she was reminded of Mrs. Shu’s flamboyant dress. Gloria could pass for a circus clown right now. She pulled a brush through her hair, whiter since childbirth, singing to her crying baby: “Sh-sh-sh-sh, shingle, sherry, sharlotte, shellfish, shooter, Shenandoah, Charlotte, shush
Sitting on Dr. Donato’s examination table, holding Charlotte, she wondered what was taking so long. If Charlotte woke, she’d need to feed her again, and it was too painful to nurse from her left breast, and she wasn’t sure if the right breast had enough milk, and she didn’t think she should pull her breast out in the examination room without a blanket or something to conceal herself or instructions from the doctor. Modesty was ingrained in her upbringing.
She heard her chart being flipped and sat up straighter. Dr. Donato, balding, and freakishly tall, opened and quickly shut the door behind him.
He didn’t look at Gloria or her new baby. He looked at her chart. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“I’ve been running a fever. I don’t feel well.”
“How is the feeding going?”
“My left side hurts.”
“Let me take a look.”
One-handed, cradling Charlotte in her left arm, Gloria unbuttoned her shirt, and yanking at her brassiere, managed to raise the nipple into view.
“Let me get Nurse Mildred.” He slipped into the hallway again before she had time to hide the breast. Thank God Charlotte was asleep.
Dr. Donato returned with Nurse Mildred, who was heavy-set and young. She wore a neat black-striped nurse’s cap and said, “How are you?” to Gloria.
How do you think I am? I’m fat! My boob hurts. My baby’s hungry. I’m at the doctor’s office exposing myself. I’ve got chills. There’s a pack of rats in a locked attic waiting to eat my newborn, and my husband can’t seem to remember to buy rat poison… …not that I think we have rats. I really don’t think we have rats. What could they possibly be eating that would keep them around? How am I? you ask. I guess I’m dandy!
She couldn’t remember the last time someone said, ‘How are you?’
Everyone asked, ‘How’s the baby?’
“I need to show her how to bind the breasts,” Dr. Donato said to Nurse Mildred, opening one of the drawers and pulling out a roll of gauze. Gloria squirmed on the examination table. She hadn’t responded to the nurse’s question. “I’m fine.”
“Good,” Nurse Mildred said.
“Do you have children?”
“Not yet. Soon, I hope.”
Dr. Donato said to Nurse Mildred, “Turn around and hold up your arms.” He wrapped the gauze tightly around her bosom, instructing Gloria, “The tighter the better,” while Gloria, whose breasts ached, felt confused by the demonstration. Dr. Donato added, “An old bed sheet torn into strips will work just fine.”
“Maybe there’s another way,” Gloria ventured.
He said, “You have an infection of the left breast. Not to mention both breasts are badly blistered.” He suggested a number of baby formulas, preferring Similac, explaining that Similac was nutritionally superior to human milk. Gloria was suspicious: The only time Charlotte seemed to sleep was when she nursed.
“I’m only the doctor. If you think you know what’s best…”
“That’s not what I mean,” Gloria said.
Nurse Mildred said, “All the healthiest babies are formula fed. I’ll get you a free sample of Similac.”
Gloria felt rage toward them both. Her right wrist burned with disdain. In her exhausted state, she couldn’t read anyone’s thoughts—not even her own—not clearly—and she felt agitated and sleep-deprived; completely lost as she took the can of baby formula from Nurse Mildred. Dr. Donato said, “I can write you a prescription for the infection, but if you’re going to continue to nurse your baby, I guarantee you’ll have infection after infection. There’s a risk you could make your baby sick.”
Make my baby sick?
After Dr. Donato left with Gloria’s chart, Nurse Mildred said, “You’re, you know…”
Gloria didn’t know anything. Truly, she was lost, an alien visitor since the birth. Where was her guide?
“You’re…” Nurse Mildred waved her hand in front of her chest, hesitating, “…wet.”
Gloria looked down.
“I can see your… you know.”
“Nipple?” She can see my nipple, which is leaking milk down the front of my
shirt. I am a cow. How did I ever think I was a bumble bee. Bumble bees can fly.
Concealing her breast and shifting Charlotte to her other arm, Gloria said, “Are you really a nurse? Did you go to a school where you earned a diploma?” She eased down from the table.
Charlotte woke with a high-pitched yelp as Gloria’s shoes touched the floor.
She held Charlotte close, knowing she’d have to feed her now in Jacob’s car or maybe she could give her the Similac. She said, “I thought that a nurse, someone supposedly in a medical profession, could comfortably say the word ‘nipple’ and ‘wet’.”
“I’m in a medicine field, and I can say any word. To be a nurse means to be an aid, to be a helper.”
Gloria said, “You didn’t help me.” She wasn’t malicious. That was never her intent. She was desperate. Her mother had come for two days following Charlotte’s birth, but she was no help. She was having headaches. She didn’t like Jacob. She hated squalor. She held the baby for a few minutes before scrubbing every inch of the kitchen and bathrooms with bleach. “I have to go. Your poor father needs me,” she said. “He’s starving to death.”
Standing outside her taxi to Danville, she added, “You can come and stay with us if you need to… We didn’t know it would be like this.” This. She would probably never see her mother again. Her husband was a fiery drunk. Her mother was a bitch. She didn’t know about her daughter. It was too soon to tell. She didn’t know about herself. Her intuition, her soul, always her guide, had vanished, had broken into a million pieces and disbursed in fog since her baby’s birth. She didn’t know anything for sure. Maybe Jacob was a happy violet (not violent) drunk and maybe her mother was a doting wife. Anything is possible when you no longer trust yourself.
That night, Jacob licked his plate clean—literally. “Did you get your medicine?”
“What did he say? How many more weeks do I have to wait to touch you all over. You know I’m crazy about you. You know I am.” He smiled, popping the top on his beer. “I miss you so bad. I’m so proud of you for everything you do.”
He tried so hard! He was sincere.
“The doctor didn’t say anything about that today,” Gloria said. He said, “I have to stop nursing Charlotte.”
“Fuck him! What does he know? You’re that girl’s mother. He’s an imbecile.”
This was it. This was why she loved him. She took her pill and rubbed her nipple with medicated cream, and after Jacob slept, after nursing for nearly two hours, struggling with Charlotte’s grip, the latch between mother and child was settled. Each slept. She wasn’t a bad mother. She’d only needed sleep. She’d once heard that Napoleon thought anyone who needed more than four hours’ sleep a night was weak. She would tell him—I am weak!
At five o’clock, while Charlotte slept in a dresser drawer, Gloria made her way downstairs to the bare pantry, pulling the curtain back, taking a seat on the linoleum. This is a good space, she thought. She smelled pears, Bartlett pears maybe. There were no rats here.
Paulo wrapped the phone cord from his hand to his elbow, pacing the Ricci’s kitchen. Mrs. Ricci eavesdropped from the den. Gloria was reading The Great Gatsby, lying on her stomach, lolling her calves back and forth, her heels bouncing off her rear end. Her dad sat in his lounge chair smoking a cigarette, occasionally looking irritatingly at his wife. “Sit down,” he urged. She dusted the narrow bar separating the two rooms.
Gloria heard Paulo crying. It wasn’t a full-on bawling, but he was definitely crying. “Who’s he talking to?” she asked her mom. “Is it his mom or his dad?” Gloria was the only one who knew the truth—Paulo’s mother was having the affair, and not his dad.
“He’s talking to his mom,” Mrs. Ricci said. Shaking Mr. Ricci’s foot, she said, “I feel so sorry for her. Have you talked to your brother?”
“It’s not my business.”
“We were in their wedding.”
Maybe, Gloria thought, her dad knew the truth too.
They all heard Paulo shout, “I hate you!” and the phone slam down. Mrs. Ricci rushed into the kitchen to comfort Paulo, but it was too late. He was gone. Her phone cord, irrevocably stretched, hung to the linoleum. She picked up the receiver only to hear static. Marching back into the den and pointing at Mr. Ricci with her feather duster, she said, “He’s breaking my heart. I’m going to call her.”
“No, you’re not.” Mr. Ricci took a drag from his cigarette. “You’re not calling anyone.”
“Yes, I am.”
Gloria sat up, closing her book.
“You tell your brother that he belongs with his wife. All that time he was overseas, she volunteered with the USO and raised his son.” She let the duster fall to the carpet. “It makes me sick. He belongs at home.” Mrs. Ricci hurried from the room. Gloria looked down at the feather duster and back at her dad.
“She’ll get over it,” he said.
That evening, Paulo came to dinner at six o’clock. He sat down, his hands in his lap, as Mr. Ricci said the blessing. Mrs. Ricci, smiling, her lips painted bright red, piled food onto the white china in front of Paulo. She’d wanted a son. She’d suffered three miscarriages before they had Gloria. She wouldn’t have blamed Francis (Mr. Ricci) if he’d left her for a more fertile woman. He’d laughed at her suggestion, calling her “emotional” and “silly.” Now there was an invisible line down the center of their bed. She couldn’t suffer another loss.
The Ricci’s dining room was compact with a poplar table for eight. There was a crystal and brass chandelier Mrs. Ricci—fancying the weight of crystal teardrops in her hands—dusted daily. Above the brown chair railing, there was a tree-green wallpaper—special ordered, that Mrs. Ricci hung herself. Each room in their home carried her stylish yet utilitarian mark. The sideboard, drawers, and closets bore innocuous labels like spoons, post cards or yarn to remind Gloria and Mr. Ricci: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Everything has a place.”
When Gloria was a child, Mrs. Ricci flew into a tear-filled rage if toys were left on the floor. Mr. Ricci covertly put Gloria’s toys away to save everyone tears. Mrs. Ricci credited God when Mr. Ricci was labeled unfit to serve his country. He’d had polio as a boy, and his limp, which often went unnoticed by his coworkers and clients, was not overlooked by the army. She couldn’t imagine working outside the home. Throughout the war, she openly criticized those women who perceived factory work as a step forward. Don’t be ridiculous.
Now there was Paulo to help. God had brought him here (…and her brother-in-law’s convertible). Gloria never seemed to want her help, aligning herself from a young age… probably when he first started cleaning up after her… with her father.
Across the table, Mrs. Ricci watched Paulo sympathetically. She wasn’t hungry herself. She rarely was. There was something about cooking that made her dislike eating. She said, “Eat up,” to Paulo.
Paulo placed his napkin in his lap, staring at his full plate before resting his elbows on the table, his face in his hands.
Mrs. Ricci cleared her throat.
Paulo quickly returned his hands to his lap. “May I be excused?”
“You should eat something.”
“I’m not hungry. May I please be excused?”
Mr. Ricci nodded that he could go.
“I’ll keep your plate warm,” Mrs. Ricci said, “in case you’re hungry later.”
Gloria said, “I’m not hungry either.”
“Eat your dinner,” Mr. Ricci said. “Your mother made it. Clean your plate.”
“Talk about double standards.”
Mrs. Ricci said, “Be quiet.”
Paulo couldn’t sleep. He kept thinking about his mother with some man, some steel worker named Steve or Joe. He didn’t actually know the man’s name, having only seen him once, his dirty hands on his mother’s shoulders. His dirty mouth on his mother’s cheek. Her getting out of his car. Paulo sat up. He was sick—nauseous—and desperate. Where could he go?
He walked stealthily down the short hallway past his aunt and uncle’s bedroom to Gloria’s room. There was a small white label on the door reading Gloria’s Room. It seemed funny to him like a warning—this isn’t your room, but instructional too… in case Gloria was to forget which room was hers. The door was open just a crack. He pushed it with his bare toe and slipped inside.
In the summer moonlight streaming through the four-paned window, Paulo’s skin was oak-like. His hair disheveled. He leaned against the rose-print wallpaper wearing a pair of men’s pajama pants cinched at the waist. Gloria dreamed sitting up and nodding to him that it was okay for him to come closer. She was dreaming until she sat up and nodded at him. He knelt at her bedside, resting his head on her quilt. She let her right hand fall to his cheek. Her fingers ran through his black locks. They slept.
Paulo woke with the sun. It was the first good sleep he’d had since he’d been dropped at the Riccis. While Gloria slept, he tiptoed back to his own room.
As the summer days sped past, Gloria tried not to think about her friendship with Mrs. Shu. It wasn’t difficult because this was the best summer of her young teenage life. Besides, she never should’ve made friends with such an oddball. Lots of people look alike. Just because she looked like Mrs. Shu didn’t mean anything. I won’t think about her. I don’t care about her. She was part of the old me. I’m a teenager now. When Gloria’s mind did settle on Mrs. Shu, on her long white hair, on her shifting eyes, and the three trees enclosing them, she shivered. There was something wrong in all of it. How could someone know another person before they were born? She was a kook. Crazy. Nutty. Loony. Gloria decided to think about something else, switching her mind to Paulo and how he’d changed everything. Since his arrival, the popular girls from the neighborhood flocked around her at the community pool. Paulo intrigued them. They wanted to know if he was from Italy. “Does he have a girlfriend?” “How old is he?” “Where does he go to school?”
“He doesn’t date freshmen,” she told them. “He only dates girls his own age.” Gloria knew that telling them to keep their distance would do the exact opposite, fueling their interest. It seemed every girl wanted what she couldn’t have. Sometimes Gloria thought she was the same way. Well, of course! I’m normal. She checked her wrists for strange marks. Nothing. Not even a mole. She had stray freckles. I’m as normal as normal can be.
Paulo was a great friend and confidante. Only a week after they met, Gloria told him about Mrs. Shu: how she’d known things about her that no one could know; how she always said they were daughters of the moon. It seemed like fun, like make-believe. Sometimes it felt dark, like she shouldn’t be spending time with a woman twenty years older, someone mysterious, but Mrs. Shu was funny too. Gloria felt their connection. Their link was more than physical. It was something deeper, living in the pit of her gut. She felt a belonging. She shuddered at the thought. There’d been too much familiarity. It hadn’t been normal.
Paulo said, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about her. It was harmless.”
“You’re right,” she said.
“We should go back there and scare her.”
“I don’t want to do that.”
“You’re probably right. It’d be a waste of time.”
“Definitely.” There was no time to spare. It was filled with kids from the high school, and truthfully, though she wouldn’t tell Paulo, Gloria didn’t want to hurt Mrs. Shu. It felt like there was a part of Gloria still between those three trees boxing the house. The longer she stayed away from the woman and the woods, the better.
Two months into Paulo’s visit, while Mrs. Ricci attended her fifth mass for the week, praying for her brother-in-law Eddie Ricci to repent and ask God’s forgiveness, a sandy-haired button-nosed sixteen-year old, Lucy Jensen, sat across from Paulo at Bee’s Diner, smiling flirtatiously, ignoring Gloria sitting on her right. There was nothing unusual about this scenario except that Paulo was flirting back. Gloria felt a pit, the size of a date, in her stomach. She visualized the seed.
Paulo said to Lucy, “Do you want to go on a picnic Saturday? Gloria’s mom makes the best chicken-salad sandwiches you’ve ever tasted.”
“I love chicken salad.”
“I thought we were doing something,” Gloria said.
“What?” he asked.
“I can’t remember.” They always did something.
Paulo said, “We don’t have plans.”
Gloria said, “My mom might not have time to make sandwiches. She’s pretty busy.”
“I make a great chicken-salad sandwich,” Lucy offered. “My uncle owns a chicken farm.”
The pit in Gloria’s gut, grooved and hard, grew to peach size. Gloria’s face took on a bluish tint. Paulo was her best friend. She comforted him in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. She confided in him. She made him laugh. He made her laugh. What did he see in cutesy-pootsy Lucy Jensen?
When she saw him reach his hands across the table to Lucy Jensen, she felt physically ill. “I’m sick,” she said. Lucy and Paulo holding hands, their tan arms reaching out.
“Are you okay?” Lucy asked.
“I have to go.”
Paulo rose slightly as Gloria broke through their clasped hands and hurried from the diner. Seconds later, she fell to her knees, vomiting her lunch on the hot sidewalk. Down her blouse. Spittle on the back of her right hand. Fuck. It was right at this moment when the worst word she knew, aside from Jesus Christ or God damn-it took hold in her mind, that she missed, like a craving, like something she imagined a junkie would feel, Mrs. Shu. Mrs. Shu wouldn’t betray her. Mrs. Shu wouldn’t go on a picnic with Lucy Jensen. Mrs. Shu knew the value of Gloria Ricci. Fuck! She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, walking home, hoping no one had seen her, the sun stinging her eyes. The bile burning her throat.
At home, Mrs. Ricci jiggled the crystal doorknob. “I’ve brought you a bowl of soup.”
It was ninety degrees outside. “I don’t want it!”
The nearest Catholic Church was twenty miles away. With a toddler and an atheistic husband, church was difficult. After two years of church-hopping, Gloria picked the Methodist church because it was within walking distance, and unlike the Episcopalians, they made no effort to convert her. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic. (Greely, Virginia was short on everything but protestant churches.)
Nine months pregnant, she and three-year old Charlotte walked hand-in-hand through their back yard, down a wooded path and onto rural highway 68. A few feet down the highway, Charlotte yanked at the polyester dress sticking to Gloria’s thighs. “Hold me, Mommy. Pick me up. I’m the baby.” Already, she was jealous of the baby still inside Gloria. “I’m the baby! Hold me,” she shrieked as Gloria struggled with her small clinging hands.
Breathless and sweating in the August heat, the moisture expanding across the old road with the rising sun, Gloria gave in to her demanding daughter. “Fine,” she said, “but wait a minute.” She pulled a handkerchief from the crocheted bag she carried, wiping the back of her neck, under her arms, and between her thighs. Before lifting Charlotte to her right hip, she looked her up and down. She was headstrong and already angry—like her father. She was a thick little girl. Not fat, but solid, with a long torso and short limbs that made her more difficult to carry. Settling Charlotte as best she could, the little girl grasped the silver circle charm around Gloria’s wrist as they proceeded slowly to church.
Once there, Charlotte squirmed in her mother’s arms. “Let me down.” Running from Gloria to Mrs. Asperter, one of the nursery volunteers, she didn’t bother saying goodbye. Mrs. Asperter said, “Wave bye-bye to Mommy.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Say ‘I love you, Mommy’.”
“I don’t want to.”
Mrs. Asperter shrugged as if to say, ‘She’s three. What do you expect?’
More! I expect more from the daughter I carried half-a-mile here.
Gloria felt anxious about this next baby. What if this baby was even more stubborn than Charlotte? She remembered Mrs. Shu telling her, “If you have children, you’ll have daughters.” Gloria wanted a little boy, but she felt hexed or cursed by that crazy woman’s predictions.
Sitting before the unassuming wooden dais in the uncomfortable wooden pew—her hemorrhoids itching and burning, Gloria wondered if there was Preparation H in the ice box at home.
In a back classroom, Charlotte wrapped crayon-scribbled paper around a coffee can, making a ‘prayer depository’ for her mom and dad. “Boy, does her dad need it,” the volunteers joked. It was no secret that the man spent too much money on beer and useless junk. There were many young women in Greely who’d thought him a catch until he came home with this ghostly-waif-of-a wife, sitting on his lazy butt, tinkering with gadgets and what-not, what-ever people didn’t want to buy, for four years now, and his pale Northern wife was having another baby! How did they feed the first girl? By the looks of her, quite well. Probably all sugar. Certainly no meat. How could they afford meat? Maybe Gloria Butterfield had family money… Maybe there was an inheritance.
During the service, the pastor referenced an all-consuming love and joy, reading three passages from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. The congregation sang “Amazing Grace,” bringing Gloria to tears.
It’s too late for me, she thought.
Like the pastor heard her thought, he said, “How old are you?”
He spoke to a packed church. She was thirty-three.
“If you’re eighty-years old today, it’s not too late. If you’re one-hundred, it’s not too late. It’s never too late to feel God’s love.”
Maybe the pastor was right.
When the nursery and Sunday school released, Gloria rushed into the cramped room, embracing Charlotte. “I love you,” she said.
Charlotte hung limply in her arms. “I want Daddy.”
“Of course you do.” She smiled at Mrs. Asperter and the other moms and volunteers. “Let’s go, sweetheart.” She kissed Charlotte’s cheek.
Four different families offered them a ride home. Gloria would’ve accepted… it was hot… but Jacob had a way of manipulating things. She could imagine him saying, ‘I’ve seen you looking at so-and-so’s husband. This isn’t the first time he’s made a pass at you. I’ll kick his ass!’ She could imagine so many unpleasant scenarios, his ‘blood boiling,’ as it was apt to do, that she graciously and sadly declined each offer for a ride. It wasn’t every Sunday that she and Charlotte walked to church, but today Jacob had an appointment in Danville to look at a collection of bread mixers from the 30s.
“Are they free?” Gloria asked him last night. “The mixers?”
“What’s free? Is anything free? Jesus Christ!”
She wanted to ask, ‘Is it that time of the month, honey?’ but knew better. “Sorry,” she’d said. “Nothing is free.” Boy, did she know that.
Arriving home from church, exhausted from the walk and heat, she put Charlotte, who drooped in her sore arms, down for a nap. Craving peanut butter and sardines, Gloria made her way to the cool pantry where she squatted, a monotone buzzing filling her head. The noise was irritating, but she dismissed it. Everything had changed with this pregnancy. She learned to accept the bizarre. Even the house had changed; the actual structure seemed to be shifting: The center sagging somewhat. It was curious. She reached for and opened a second can of sardines. Licking peanut butter from her fingers, she traced around her belly button. Officially an “innie”, it was an “outie” this ninth month.
She said to her unborn child, boy or girl, “You’re special. I can feel it.” It was like she could see little Aimee or Aidan Butterfield already. She or he was fair like her. He or she was gentle and optimistic and would feel the world, all of it, even the bits that hurt, and revel in it. Why? Because it’s good to feel things. It’s good to be alive. Even if living means living with Jacob Butterfield in squalor in
Climbing the steps, Gloria felt a sharp pain, first in her back, and then in her groin. Something was happening. The pain increased with each step. Initially, she resisted. Feeling panicked, she held Charlotte close and cried. Jacob was still in Danville with the car. Maybe their neighbor would take her to the hospital. Sitting on Charlotte’s bed, donated by a couple at church, Gloria told Charlotte, “I think I’m going to have a baby today. You’re going to have a little brother or sister.”
“I don’t want it.”
Gloria thought, Tough. That’s how life is, but said, “Sometimes things happen that we can’t control, like when you want to go outside, but it’s raining. We can’t control when it rains.” She was used to talking with a three-year old. That was part of living too. As was pain. Gloria’s pain was thick. Rich, she thought, developing into something rhythmic and musical. Coming in with a rush, like a big wave, it peaked and disappeared until the next wave, which did the same. There was comfort in the order of it. She could see the colors it cast. Her pain was red, violet, orange, and white before it subsided and disappeared only to reappear growing more intense.
Charlotte was hungry. Between the waves, they went to the kitchen for apples and cheese. Gloria was mopping the floor when the phone rang.
“Are you doing all right?” Jacob asked.
“I’m in labor.”
He said, “Holy Shit!” and “Call Bob down the road” and “I’ll meet you at the hospital” and “Who can watch Charlotte?” as Gloria lit a cigarette, the mop sinking into the sudsy bucket.
“I’ll wait for you,” she said. “I’m fine.”
“How much time do we have?”
Like she’d know… He was a moron sometimes. “Considering last time, I have a day to wait.” She wasn’t lying. Her last labor was a drug-induced haze lasting more than twenty-four hours. Jacob was excited. She heard it in his voice. He wanted a boy desperately. She never told him about Mrs. Shu’s prediction, not that he would’ve believed it anyway, but it would’ve soured him on the pregnancy. With the slightest suggestion, he easily went from hot to cold on any topic.
“Where are you?” she asked. “Still in
“I’m leaving now.”
“Did you get the mixers?”
“No,” he said. “I’ll see you in a couple hours. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine.” The wave came. Gloria gritted her teeth.
“If you can’t wait, go to the hospital!” He sounded panicked.
“I can wait. I’m fine.” She took a drag from her cigarette before setting it in the ashtray.
“If you have to, call for an ambulance. I’m serious.”
Charlotte helped Gloria clean the floor, wiping the wet spots with a dish rag. “It looks good,” Gloria noted, as another wave sent her balled up on the wet floor. She saw their unborn daughter then. Fair, green-eyed, a tiny circle mark on her wrist…, but that couldn’t be so. Gloria had “earned” her mark. She’d been warned. She’d been punished. She’d been chosen. Still, she had a vision of the mark on their yet unborn child. Pain can make you hallucinate, she reasoned. She cleaned up the apple peel and uneaten cheese, deciding to dust the den.
She hadn’t finished wiping the coffee table when she felt the overwhelming need to sit. Strangely calm despite the pain, she asked Charlotte, “Did you have a good nap?”
“Did you have fun at Sunday school?”
“Mrs. Ass let us paint.” She called Mrs. Aspurter Mrs. Ass. It made Gloria laugh. Even now.
“Was it fun?”
“No.” Charlotte banged her right palm on the coffee tabletop. “When is the baby coming? I want it right now? If it’s not coming now, I don’t want it.”
Gloria had forgotten to telephone her parents. With difficulty, she made her way back to the kitchen. Her mother wanted a boy too. Mrs. Ricci talked incessantly about a grandson, sending Gloria tiny blue blazers and sweaters with high-priced tags conspicuously attached, like bribery could bring a boy. Mrs. Ricci, Gloria thought, couldn’t have made her disappointment—that Gloria was a girl and not a boy—more apparent.
The phone rang seven times before Gloria’s dad picked up. “You had the baby,” he ventured. “You had a boy.”
“No. No,” she said. “I’m in labor now.”
“And they’re letting you use the phone?”
“I’m at home.”
“Go to a hospital!”
“I’m waiting for Jacob.”
“How much time do you have?”
The waves rushed in and out so frequently, but she didn’t know. She clenched her teeth, situating herself on the kitchen floor once more, rocking backward and forward, riding the wave. “Plenty,” she said, trying not to scream.
Afraid of the hospital, she was waiting for Jacob—‘come Hell or high water’. Those people were mean. Jacob wouldn’t let them dismiss her or talk down to her. She wouldn’t have to worry about anything with him there. He’d make sure that Dr. Donato and those nurses treated her right. He’d promised to be with her this time.
“Just because you live in the boondocks doesn’t mean you have to give birth at home.”
“I’m not,” she said. “There’s plenty of time.”
“Where is he?”
“On his way home.” She heard Charlotte screaming in the next room. “Come here!” Gloria shouted. “Mommy needs your help.”
“Call an ambulance.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Listen.” His voice was soft and hesitant. “A friend of yours came by here today. She said you’d know her as Mrs. Shu. I don’t know. She was a little odd. She said that she knew Paulo. She said that she knew you were having a baby, and she said that your baby was marked.”
“She was here today.”
“What else did she say?” Gloria was sweating, still rocking back and forth, but with Charlotte now, three feet tall, standing in front of her, both pudgy hands covering her mouth as a puddle from between Gloria’s thighs spread across the linoleum. Charlotte said, “I want to talk to Grandpa.”
“What did Mrs. Shu want?” Gloria’s breathing was labored.
“She said, ‘Tell Gloria that this baby will bring us together.’”
What did Jacob sometimes say? “Gloria, you’re a crazy bitch. I should’ve left you with your goddamn ties.” He was right.
“Is Mrs. Shu still there?” Gloria asked.
“In the woods?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” her dad said. “What woods? You need to go to the hospital.”
Gloria said, “Did I ever tell you that I love you?”
“You’re going to be all right,” he said.
She could imagine him pacing the same kitchen floor that she’d paced… that Paulo had paced. She could imagine his comb-over. She could imagine her mother in the den, peering at him in the kitchen, biting her nails, delaying dinner, worrying, not about Gloria, but about a future grandson.
Gloria wasn’t having a boy. It was partly this epiphany that made her say, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“You’re calling the ambulance?”
It was partly this epiphany that made her think: You made your bed. You lie in it. How had she thought she could marry, have children and a normal life? How had she thought she might be anything but a recluse? What did the night want from her? Why had the moon marked her? The house began to tremble. She felt the kitchen floor rise and tilt. She and Charlotte slid toward the cabinets closest to the swinging door swinging on its own.
“Mommy!” Charlotte screamed.
Gloria dropped the phone, saying, “It’s all right, sweetheart.”
The pressure was unbearable. She burned and burned. There was blood seeping between her legs. Surely, there was time for the hospital. Certainly the house wasn’t really shifting and sinking. She’d be all right. She heard her father’s voice coming from the receiver. “Honey, are you okay? Gloria, what’s happening?” The buzzing in Gloria’s brain grew louder until she thought maybe she was dying. Pulling off her wet underwear, she felt something there—a fine fur—and screamed. Charlotte gazed down at her mother’s washed-out face. Gloria was fixed on the ceiling, on the exposed wooden slats, on the yellow and brown water marks that seemed to resemble the man-in-the-moon.
Charlotte said, “What to do? What to do?”
“Is the house still moving?” Gloria asked.
“No more,” Charlotte said.
“Go to Mr. Bob and tell him I need help. I’m having the baby.”
Unknown to Gloria, Charlotte went upstairs and hid beneath her bedspread. She didn’t want this baby.
I am the baby!
Time stopped. Gloria looked at the ceiling and at the clock inaudibly ticking (hearing only the buzzing in her head). The hands not moving. She was unaware that her father, still on the telephone, was shouting questions: “What’s happening?” “Where’s Charlotte now?” “Did she get help?” “Do you have any towels?”
The buzzing spread to Gloria’s vision, swallowing the kitchen, turning the yellow walls, the black-and-white clock, the lime cabinets, the green-swinging door, and the brown-starred linoleum a blurred beige color.
When she was positive that she and her yet-unborn baby were going to die, Gloria felt her wrist catch fire. This pain stomped the other pain. It was sharper—clearing her vision—whisking away the buzzing sound. Gloria raised her right arm to see the burning mark, but there was no fire. There was the silver circle charm. There was the violet and pink mark seared into her wrist, “earned,” as she put it. There was the memory of Paulo and Mrs. Shu. Even if Gloria were going to burn up right here on the kitchen floor, like that man she read about who caught fire for no good reason, she had these marks. She was special. Her yet-unborn daughter was special. This burning pain, this piercing fire illuminated the kitchen, the corners, the crevices and nooks where mice resided, where dust flourished. Gloria had craved clarity with Charlotte’s birth. Now she had it. It stared her down.
Birth came naturally. She got on her knees and bore down. A woman alone, she thought momentarily of Jacob, of their neighbor Bob, of that pathetic Dr. Donato. This was bigger than those men put together.
Through the kitchen window, the sky was dark now. There was a black moon, yet unseen by Gloria. Brand new and full of potential. Aimee Butterfield slid into this world on August 26, 1965 sometime around eight o’clock. Before doing anything else, Gloria counted her baby’s fingers and toes. Ten each. Even with the amniotic muck covering her, there was a shock of white hair. Next she looked at the wrist. Sure enough. What had she expected? There was a faint circle, much like her own. The moon had picked Aimee too. With dishtowels Gloria wiped her clean, putting her to the breast.
When she heard her father push open the back door, she rushed downstairs. “Daddy!” she cried, “you’re home.”
Mrs. Ricci spread a dollop of mayonnaise onto a thick slice of white bread. Mr. Ricci, passing through the kitchen, said, “Why so glum, honey?” to Gloria—who watched her mother prepare six chicken salad sandwiches.
“Nothing,” Gloria said.
“Lucy Jensen is such a nice girl,” Mrs. Ricci commented. “I’m glad Paulo’s making friends. Her uncle owns the chicken farm just outside town.”
“So I’ve heard,” Gloria said.
Mrs. Ricci wrapped each sandwich in wax paper.
“Why are you making six sandwiches?”
“Paulo’s a growing boy.”
“He’s not a hippo.”
“Why do you have to be so critical?”
You got a nice white dress and a party on your confirmation
You got a brand new soul
mmmm, And a cross of gold
But [Gloria] they didn't give you quite enough information
You didn't count on me
When you were counting on your rosary