It is 3 a.m. at the Maywood Street Co-op when Eddie finds the sea anemone floating in the bathtub. He is stoned as well as drunk. As he staggers into the bathroom, he notices the shower curtain is halfway drawn. Big yellow daisies swarm before his eyes. At his feet is a colorful pile of magazines. He glances over their covers, then into the exposed end of the tub. The sea anenome is the brightest, boldest red Eddie has ever seen. It undulates gently in the water, swaying forwards and back, contracting slightly as it drifts towards the drain. Mesmerized, Eddie kneels down to get a better look. Only then does he realizes he is staring at a blood clot.
“Jesus Christ,” he says aloud. He leaps up, backing into the rim of the toilet. It is not the blood that frightens him so much as the idea that he is hallucinating. All week long, Eddie and his housemates have been eating hash cakes and drinking Rheingold, their days passed in a dreamy, violet-edged blur. Now, at age 20, his mind is suddenly shot. He has heard the stories: friends of friends who take one hit of acid and never come back. Coherence, he knows, can slip away from you. Whenever he does drugs, he imagines his mind is a big, red ball that he pitches into the ocean, trusting the waves to carry it back. But what if they don’t? Eddie checks the tub again. The blood is still there, a bright, liquid rose.
“Whoa Jesus,” he says again. He worries that these are the only words left in his vocabulary. Christ. Whoa. Jesus. Shit. He wonders if his friends downstairs will think he is crazy. Then he hears a sniffle. Someone is behind the shower curtain. He gets the urge to yank the cheap, daisy-covered vinyl from the rod. Instead he shouts, “Who’s there?”
For a moment, the bathroom is silent. He hears only his pulse and the fluorescent tube above the sink, buzzing like an insect. Then comes the thin, sweet voice of a girl.
There is a gentle sloshing. Carefully, Eddie walks over and draws back the curtain. Before him, his housemate Diana stands shivering. He is surprised to see her, and somehow a little disappointed.
Diana is wrapped in a bath towel, her wet hair matted to her forehead. She has clearly just taken a shower, and something is wrong, though Eddie can’t tell what. Without a word, Diana peels back the towel. In her arms is a squirming, mucusy infant.
“Eddie,” she says. “I’ve just had a baby. Can you drive me to the hospital?”
Me and Johnny Clamdip are sprawled out on the sofa, smoking a doob and watching “Doctor Jackhammer” on video when there’s this enormous thwamp on the ceiling overhead and plaster from the light fixture comes sprinkling down.
“What the hell was that?” Johnny says, his mouth full of cheese-corn.
“Fucked if know,” I say, staring at the television. Doctor Jackhammer is just about to start going at some chick with his drill. The special effects are so bad, you can actually tell where they cut the tape and stuck in the mannequin.
“Maybe the bookcase fell over,” I say.
We both know we should probably get up and go have a look, but we are so baked, neither of us can move. So I call in to Russell, who’s in the kitchen loading another case into the fridge, “Ay, Russell, man, did you just hear that?”
“Hear what?” he shouts.
“There was just, like, this crash upstairs,” I shout. “Like the San Francisco earthquake or something.”
Russell walks to the doorway. He’s wearing his cowboy boots and the bathrobe we found at the laundromat. His brother’s dog tags are caught in his chest hair.
“Did I hear what?” he says.
“Forget it,” Johnny Clamdip says to the television.
A second later, we hear Diana calling from upstairs, “Willie! Johnny! Somebody! Help!”
“Oh shit,” says Johnny.
“We better go up,” I say.
Somehow the three of us manage to get up the stairs. Problem is, we don’t know where the hell to go. All our bedroom doors are closed, and they’re covered with rock’n’roll posters, so the hallway’s like this funhouse full of Jimi Hendrix and U2. From somewhere we can hear Diana going, “Eddie, Eddie? Oh, Jesus.”
“Where are you?” shouts Russell.
“Where are we?” Johnny giggles.
“In the bathroom,” Diana calls.
We go to the bathroom but can’t get the door open.
“Something’s blocking the door,” Russell calls in.
“I know,” she says. “Oh, Jesus.”
For a minute, we don’t hear anything except this dull thud. Then we hear Diana gasping and something shuffling or being dragged, and then, all of a sudden comes this ear-splitting shriek that sounds just like a baby crying, and the door swings halfway open.
Inside, Eddie is sprawled out cold across the floor. His legs are flung out like scissors, and his head is somewhere between the toilet and the door. Diana is doubled over him in this splotchy pink bath towel that’s falling off—her tits are just about to pop out—and she’s clutching this bundle around her stomach. Eddie gets asthma sometimes, and for a second I think he’s had an attack. The whole place vibrates with this sound of a baby.
“What the hell’s going on?” Russell says. I can tell that he’s scared.
“Eddie fainted,” Diana says.
Eddie is a big guy, six-two or three, and a real stud. He’s always going around in these ripped-up jeans, talking shit poetry to the girls. Plus, he can put it away like no one: I’ve seen him down three six packs in a night. It’s hard to imagine him crumpling to the floor like some chick in a romance.
“I think he hit his head,” says Diana.
“Holy shit!” Johnny Clamdip shouts.
At first I think he’s reacting to Eddie’s having fainted, but then I look to where he’s looking. Diana’s towel has slipped down, showing not only her tits, but there, in her arms, is this tiny fucking baby. It’s all scrunched up and squalling its guts out. It’s so red it looks like a blood vessel ready to burst. God only knows where it came from.
“Holy shit,” Johnny says again.
Diana looks down and pulls the towel carefully up around her.
“Diana,” Russell says slowly, like he doesn’t want to upset her. “Diana, where did you get that baby?”
She straightens up and looks at us. She’s got this little glow on her face, half-smiling, half-secretive. “I just had him,” she says. Her voice stretches the words out, like she wants to be very sure we all hear and understand.
“You just had him?” Johnny cries. Diana nods. Russell sucks in his breath and for a minute, it looks like he’s going to faint, too.
“Where?” Johnny cries.
“Here,” she shrugs. “In the bathtub.”
I can’t even speak. I’m looking at Diana with this little tiny baby that looks like a sausage or piglet, and my mind gets like when too many people try to make a phone call at once and all the lines go down. I mean, Diana’s been living with us at the Co-op for three semesters, and who ever knew she was pregnant? She never said she was, and hell, she never looked it. Granted, Diana is not the skinniest girl in the world, and she’s always going around in baggy sweaters and hippy skirts and all. But, you know, if somebody’s pregnant, you can see it. I’m standing there, looking at one of my best friends who’s just passed out on the bathroom floor, and another one, who’s standing there holding this baby she supposedly just had in the fucking bathtub, and man, I don’t know what the hell to think.
Usually they are poor, which in Ludlow means black or Portuguese. Half of them don’t even know how it happens. “Lord, I thought it was sumpthin’ I ate” they tell her. One girl, no more than 14, thought she was the Virgin Mary. “It’s Jesus,” she cried, as they wheeled her into emergency for a C-section. “I’m having baby Jesus.”
Elaine Prentiss took the day off after that one. As a social worker, many of her cases have been far worse—really gruesome stuff, in fact—where the father has turned out to be the father, or the baby was born with AIDS. But something about that particular girl—with her dark, serious eyes and small hands—who sat there in the recovery room afterward, awaiting kings who never arrived, a star that never shone, insisting that her baby alone was a little piece of God. . . . Well, no matter how professional you are, Elaine knows, there’s always something that breaks you. Babies having babies. They’re all over the place.
But the first case this morning is a university student. Her paperwork says she’s from Cohasset, which is a good sign. Most likely she’s white, and comes from some money. As she’s getting her coffee in the cafeteria, Elaine studies the clipboard. NAME: McGee, Diana Shawn. AGE: 19.OCCUPATION: Student. Odds are a sheltered Catholic, she thinks, or a borderline anorexic. They’re never used to getting their periods, and when they start to show, it just confirms their self-image. One client told her, “Well, I kept dieting, but I just wouldn’t get any smaller.”
Luckily, cases like these are usually a little easier. Once any illusions are cleared up, the girls are often surprisingly level-headed. They take the papers and sign with relief. They don’t cling like the poorer mothers, who refuse to give up their children and then, only too often, reappear at the hospital months—even years—later like dissatisfied customers, their babies bruised and malnourished.
Elaine wishes she had “before” and “after” photos to show these girls, to show them the endless night shifts, the food stamp lines, the rats, the petty violence, the premature wrinkles and threadbare dresses that come from lifetimes on layaway. She wants to cordon off single motherhood with traffic cones and road blocks, with yellow lights flashing: “Stop,” “Yield,” “Go back while you can.”
Thinking of this, she gets depressed. She sits in the cafeteria, her hand curved protectively around her cup, staring bleakly at the wall. Then she takes a final swig of coffee and gets up to go see the Diana Shawn McGee, age 19, occupation student, in room 701.
Do this job long enough, she thinks, you get used to everything.
Like the other floors in the city hospital, the maternity ward is painted the color of embalming fluid. When Elaine enters the room, the girl is sitting up in bed, wearing a bright purple sweatshirt that stands out against the wall. Most teenagers, most women in general, look ravaged in the hours after childbirth, but this one thumbs through a magazine as if she were in a beauty parlor waiting for a manicure.
“Diana McGee?” Elaine extends her hand.
“Uh-huh,” the girl smiles. Though it could just be the pregnancy, she is chunky—broad shouldered, with baby fat around the chin. Her bangs fall into her eyes, her hair is a long, ropey tangle of brown. Besides that, though, her face is a tabula rasa— pale and plain, its features shy and slightly peevish. She could be anyone, the social worker thinks, a girl behind the counter of a drugstore, a lesbian activist, a debutante.
“Hello. I’m Elaine Prentiss. I’m with the Massachusetts Department of Welfare.”
“Oh,” the girl smiles.
“Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Oh, no.” The girl is so casual, Elaine half expects her to go back to her magazine.
“If you don’t mind,” she says after a moment, “there are some things I’d like to discuss with you.”
The girl stares at her blankly.
“First of all,” Elaine says brightly, “I must tell you, that’s quite a baby you had. Six pounds, eight ounces, and healthy, too. Given the circumstances, I’d say you’re extremely lucky.”
The girl beams.
“All the same, I need to ask you: Diana, do you know how you got pregnant?”
The girl looks at Elaine as if she’s insane.
“Of course,” she giggles. “Don’t you?”
“Just making sure.” This is a relief. At least no crash course in biology. “Secondly, did you receive any prenatal care?”
“Did you go to a doctor while you were pregnant?”
“But you knew that you were pregnant?”
She nods vigorously. “I did one of those at-home things,” she says, “where the strip turns purple.”
“No one looked after you?”
The girl looks down at the hospital tag around her wrist. “How do you remove this?” she asks, twisting and tugging at it. “Does it snap off?”
“Diana?” Ms. Prentiss reaches over and gently stays her hand. “Diana, I know you’re probably feeling very confused and afraid at the moment, but try and talk to me. I’m trying to help you.”
“With your situation. With your baby. The forms here say you aren’t married and are currently in school. Do you have a way of caring for your child?”
“I’ll take him home with me.”
The nonchalance with which she says this is disconcerting. Elaine exhales. “I see. Is there someone there who can take care of him?”
“Well, me. And the father. And the people at the Co-op, I guess.”
Elaine taps her pen against her clipboard. Sometimes, she thinks, she just should have joined the Peace Corps. She should have gone to some underdeveloped nation, where the women are not flip about their lives.
“I have to tell you, Diana,” she says, “from everything I’ve seen in the past, young women in your situation have quite a bit of difficulty raising a child while going to school. Do you or the baby’s father have any source of income?”
The girl looks past the social worker. Her eyes narrow, as if she is staring at something bright and faraway. Her face grows dreamy.
“Oh, we’ll manage,” she says.
This is it, I tell her. I’ve had it.
My hands shake so hard, I can barely light the cigarette.
I don’t even know what to say to you. I’m absolutely sickened.
What is it, Jerry asks. I wave him away.
You’ve gone too far this time, I say into the phone. I just, I can’t take any more of this.
Mom, she says. I’m all right. Nothing bad happened to me.
This is nonsense, Diana. Do you hear me? Nonsense. A kid? In a bathtub? How? When? How could she , ..? Jerry, I shout. Bring me a cognac.
It’s just that the social worker wants me to give him away, Mom, and I don’t want to.
Give who away? Give what?
There is no baby, Diana. Do you hear me? Why do you insist on going on about this? She’s on drugs, that’s what it is. Jerry sets the drink down in front of me. Are you okay? he asks.
She’s on drugs, I say.
Mom, I’m not on drugs! Would you listen to me? I’m at Ludlow County Hospital and I’ve just had a baby!
Diana, I say. I don’t want to be having this conversation with you.
The first time it happened, Eddie knew. They were lying on Russell’s futon in the basement. His cassette player was plugged in on the floor and a black light bulb swung overhead like a noose. They were both slightly drunk, sweating cigarettes and beer. When he pulled out of her, shreds of the rubber were stuck to his cock like cellophane.
“Oh shit,” he said. He hovered over her for a moment, feeling around between her legs for the rest. “Eddie,” she’d laughed. “What are you doing?”
Now, his head feels water-logged, and the early morning sunlight jutting through the blinds stings his eyes. He cannot believe where he is, how he got here, or why. His head is like an echo chamber, ringing: A baby? How is that possible? This is a nightmare.
They’d broken up over a year ago. Since then, they slept together maybe three times, none of them recent. Each time, he’d come up to her room after some party, wasted beyond responsibility, wasted beyond care, feeling sexy and nostalgic and weak. Who was it who said that memory was an aphrodisiac? He’d drummed on her doorframe singing, “Di-an-nah, Di-an-nah,” until she’d let him in. She’d been sleepy and uninspired. He remembers her rings kept getting caught in his hair, which annoyed him. It was clumsy sex, a lot of struggle without much payoff—without much afterthought, either. Or so he had thought.
Goddamn it, he thinks now, his head pounding. Is he still hallucinating? Was he ever? It was bad enough the first time. He’d had to hock his Walkman and his wristwatch, and there were religious fanatics outside. And now she pulls this. How the hell? She’s got to be kidding. What are the odds of it happening twice?
He tries to remember if they’d used anything, and doesn’t think that they did, or maybe he’d assumed she was on the pill. Yeah, that’s it, he thinks blearily. He’d thought she was on the pill. After everything else, he’d figured she’d have it all taken care of. Christ, she didn’t say a thing. It was only three times—four at most. The kid can’t possibly be his. What the hell is he going to do? He feels so nauseated, he doubles over on his side. If he can just get the pain to stop, he can sort this whole thing out.
Suddenly, a spasm radiates from the base of his skull, making him wince. Flashes of orange and yellow mushroom before his eyes, then recede. Then a nurse is standing over him, holding a thermometer.
“Oh good,” she says, “you’re up.”
It is scarcely six-thirty in the morning when the telephone rings. Agnes, in the fog of her sleep, reaches for the receiver and hands it to me, her arm cutting an arc in the air. There is no jerkiness to her motion, no start at the shrill of the ring. My wife is not a woman who panics unnecessarily. For as long as we have been married, she has remained serene. I have watched her sleep through New Year’s Eve with a stomach virus, through Eddie’s parties in the rec room. To my great disappointment, she has slept through electrical storms in summer that made me wish she was awake and in need of protection.
As I take the phone from her, she snuggles deeper under the blanket. Unlike Agnes, telephone cables are hooked to my nerves. One ring and I’m up.
“It’s six in the morning,” I say into the receiver. I use my lower register, my coaching voice. “This better be good,”
I teach physical education at Alexander Hamilton High School, and players on the football team are always calling to say they’re going to miss the eight o’clock practice. We’ve considered getting an unlisted number, but as Agnes reminds me, what if something serious were to happen? “We’re all part of this world, George,” she says. This is one of her favorite expressions.
From the other end of the phone, a kid’s voice feels around in the darkness: “Hello? Mr. Gupter?”
“None other. Who is this? Is this Bruno?” My star player, a total delinquent. “Tell me you’re missing practice again, Bruno.”
“Uh, no. Mr. Gupter. I’m not Bruno,” the boy says. “I’m Willie, Willie Lundtsted, Eddie’s housemate. You met me parent’s weekend?”
Parents’ weekend, Agnes and I drove up to Ludlow and found Eddie living in a commune: one big, groaning house decorated with street signs and mannequins. There were six or seven kids sitting around, talking politics and woks. One of the girls asked me about General Westmoreland. She wanted to know if that had been his name or his agenda. It made me feel old. I can’t remember if Willie was the one with the goatee or the one with a bandana wrapped around his head like a cleaning woman. They’re basically good lads, Eddie’s friends, but they all look like they never shave, including the girls.
“Oh yes,” I say. “Willie.”
“Mr. Gupter?” he says, and for the first time I sense something’s wrong. “Listen, uh, I’m calling from Ludlow County Hospital. We just brought Eddie in—”
Oh my God, his asthma.
“How bad was it? Is he all right?” I say. Across the bed, Agnes’ eyes snap open.
“I guess so, sir, he, uh—”
“Can he breathe? Is he breathing?” Agnes sits up, clutches my shoulder.
“Oh yeah, he’s breathing. That’s, uh, not the problem—”
Suddenly, the boy seems to be laughing.
“Is this a joke?” I shout. “You think this is funny? Because if you’re calling me up at six-thirty in the morning to lad around about my son, so help you God—”
“No, no, Mr. Gupter. I’m sorry. It’s just, uh, I don’t know exactly how to say this,” the boy says. “It’s not, well, bad news, exactly. I don’t know. I guess it depends. Well, part of it’s bad, but not too bad. But the other part—”
“Spit it out!” I holler. My pajamas are soaking under the arms.
“Eddie’s had a concussion, sir. Not a bad one, a light one. He fell in the bathroom. Well, he fainted. He hit his head on the toilet seat. But he’s going to be fine, the doctor says.”
“What is it?” Agnes says.
I put my hand over the mouthpiece. “Eddie’s had a concussion,” I say. “Not a bad one, though. His friends took him to the hospital.”
“Is he conscious?” she whispers.
“Is he conscious?” I say to Willie.
“Well, not at the moment,” he says. “He was for a little while, but then he went back to sleep. He was pretty out of it, but it’s not like he has, you know, like, amnesia or anything. The doctor said he’d just have to sleep it off.”
“I see. When he wakes up, tell him we’re on our way.”
“You’re on your way,” the boy parrots. Then I hear a scuffle in the background. Someone puts a hand over the receiver. There are muffled voices, then Willie gets back on.
“Uh, Mr. Gupter?” he says after a minute. “Listen, there’s something else too I guess you should know. Eddie fainted for a reason, actually. You, uh, know our housemate Diana? Well, she uh. Nobody knew she was, uh, um. Oh. I just don’t know how to put this. Mr. Gupter?”
“Willie. Speak. Clearly.”
“You’re a grandfather,” he says faintly.
“What?” I say, though I’ve heard it. Then I start shouting. I tell that sonovabitch kid pulling my leg exactly what I’m going to do to him when I find him, so help him God, and how I’m going to have the police trace his call and he’ll be locked up so goddamn fast, he won’t know which end is up. How dare he call us at this hour, I shout, and scare my wife half to death with this crap? I must have really hit the roof because Agnes reaches over and grabs the phone away from me. She shouts something but I’m too worked up to hear. The next thing I know, I’m out in the hallway, thrashing around.
“Tells me I’m a grandfather! Six o’clock in the goddamn morning!” I shout. I open and slam the closet doors until I hurt my hand on one of the knobs. Then my vision clears a little and my pulse slows down and I realize how stupid I’m being. For all I know, my kid really is in the hospital.
Back in the bedroom, Agnes is sitting in the armchair by the night table, holding her robe tight at the throat. She is still on the telephone, her face turned away.
“I see,” she’s saying softly. “Yes, it’s important we know about it. . .yes . . . I understand . . .we’re on our way . . .yes, certainly. Thank you, doctor.” Slowly, she hangs up the phone and turns to me. Her face is pale.
“It’s true,” she says. “Remember Eddie’s old girlfriend, Diana?”
I sit down dumbly on the edge of the bed.
“A boy. Six pounds, eight ounces,” she says. “Healthy as can be. Apparently, Eddie didn’t know about it until this morning.” She sits down beside me, head in her hands, and begins to weep.
There had been nothing outstanding or appalling about Diana McGee, and she herself knew this. When she was little, her older sister Josephine had come home from Bedford Elementary School with prizes in art, spelling, and math. “It’s clear that Josephine is the star in this family,” their mother said flatly. “As for you, Diana, you’d be wise to remember: plain girls need to be kind.”
While Josephine was sent to drawing classes and gymnastics at the Y, Diana was left to spend afternoons patrolling the neighborhood on Josephine’s old two-wheeler. She spent her time building birdfeeders, hooking rugs, collecting money for UNICEF. Conforming to her mother’s vision, she became known as Josephine’s little sister, Di-Di, the round girl with braids who delivered homework to her classmates and volunteered to feed the goldfish. Beneath the columns of B’s and C’s on her report cards, her teachers wrote, “thoughtful,” “cooperative,” and “shy.” The only problem, they remarked, was a tendency to day-dream.
The first thing we do when we get to the hospital is get Eddie and Diana both admitted, which is a total fucking headache because there are something like three hundred derelicts on line, and only one nurse. She moves so slowly, you know she’s been dipping into the medication. When she finally gets to us, she wants to know all this shit about Eddie, like, does he have any medical insurance and what is his social security number? Eddie is awake at this point, but totally out of it. He’s sort of swaying back and forth and holding his head on both sides like he’s afraid it’s going to fall off his neck.
I go through his pockets for him and realize he doesn’t have his wallet. I guess the nurse can tell we were partying, because she asks us did he really hit his head or is he just drunk? Johnny says no, he’s not drunk—Eddie is an upstanding citizen. When he says this, we all laugh, except for Eddie and the nurse, of course. We’re sober, by this time, but that doesn’t mean anything.
The nurse says she can’t admit Eddie without any identification, so Russell has to drive back in the van to get Eddie’s wallet. Meanwhile, this other really cute nurse comes on duty and Diana checks herself in with the baby, though she wants to stay with Eddie and make sure he’s all right. After they take Diana up to the maternity ward, Johnny goes over to the cute nurse and starts flirting with her, telling her how we all found Diana in the bathtub.
Russell comes back with the I. D. , looking pretty sick himself by this point, and then we have to fill out some more forms and sit in the waiting room. I think it’s going to take the whole goddamn morning, but all of a sudden Eddie gets this really waxy look and throws up in one of the trash cans. I guess they want to get him out of there pretty quickly after that, because a minute later some guy with a white coat and a clipboard calls, “Edward Gupter?” and they usher him into the back where the rest of us aren’t allowed to go. They tell us if we want to know how Eddie’s doing, to go wait in the chairs.
“C’mon,” Russell says. “This place is pathetic.”
Him, me and Johnny Clamdip go out to the van. The sun hasn’t risen yet, but the sky is turning that deep glass-blue, and a few sparrows and pigeons are starting up. Johnny takes out a pack of Marlboros and passes them around. For a while, we just sit there, our legs hanging over the edge of the van, smoking and not saying anything.
The lights in the parking lot start to dim and a long strip of purple appears on the horizon. I start to think about how we’re all at the hospital at five in the morning, and about Diana’s having Eddie’s baby and Eddie having a concussion. I can’t imagine either of them as parents. Diana is such a space cadet, and Eddie is such a total partier, I don’t think he could live without smoking a doob before breakfast. The more I think about it, the more I think Eddie and Diana are probably the worst two people I know to have a kid.
After a while, Russell says, “This is too fucking weird.”
“Man,” says Johnny, staring out at the overpass. “I never even knew she was pregnant.”
“I sure as hell didn’t,” says Russell. “Willie, did you?”
I shake my head.
“I can’t believe we never noticed,” say Johnny. “You’d think we were a bunch of morons.”
We all sit, watching the sky growing lighter. A couple of ambulances pull out with their sirens off.
“I mean,” Johnny continues, “I never even noticed she’d put on weight.”
“Diana’s insane,” Russell says, stamping out his cigarette. “My sister has three kids and almost died once in labor. You don’t fuck around with that kinda shit. You don’t get into a bathtub one night and go, “Oh, gee, I think I’ll have a baby.”“
“It’s hard to tell with the weight and all,” I say. “Some chicks are always putting it on and taking it off.”
“I can’t believe Eddie’s a father,” says Russell. The word “father” makes my heart jump.
“Oh, man. Is his life ever gonna be different,” I say.
A friend of mine from high school was this guy named Buck, and when he was 17, he got his girlfriend Lisa pregnant. She was religious or pro-life or something, and that was that with Lisa. Buck said no way in hell was he going to marry her, but she went and had the kid anyway. Now he’s working at the Gorham plant just outside of Worcester, paying off child support.
“If a girl did that to me,” says Russell, “I’d drag her to a clinic and fix her myself if I had to. Nobody’s ever gonna pull a stunt like that on me.” He lights another cigarette, shakes out the match, stares off somewhere.
“Maybe she’ll put it up for adoption,” I say.
“You know, the lottery should’ve tipped me off,” Johnny says. “Remember? She got the second highest number in the Co-op. Of all the rooms in the house, why did she pick the one in the back? And all those parties she never went to.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Those parties.”
“And all that peanut butter. Remember how she kept eating peanut butter?” he says.
“Yeah, man,” I say. “The peanut butter.”
Russell snorts. “All that fucking Jif.”
Then we all just sit there for a while, looking towards the highway, waiting. There doesn’t seem to be anything more to say.
When Diana was eleven, her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Mr. McGee owned two dry cleaners in Bedford, and as the disease progressed, it became impossible for him to work.
The family moved to a cluttered house in Dorchester. The rooms were small, the walls thin as plywood. With Josephine at college and her mother shuttling between work and the hospital, Diana found herself alone most evenings. She ate dinner on a tray in the living room in her father’s naugahyde recliner. It smelled of him, and had a lever on the side that made it go up and down like a hospital bed. Sometimes she pretended she was a patient. She ate ice cream out of the carton and watched television. With the sound off, she could hear the neighbors next door, talking through the walls. She could make out the voices of a man, a woman and a small child, plus the clatter of dishes. Occasionally, another woman with a strong, sing-songy voice joined them, and there was the popping sound of a wine cork. They seemed to be happy. Whenever one of them sneezed, Diana called through the wall, “God bless you.”
The drive to the hospital is difficult. Agnes sits beside me, dazed, puffy-eyed. My hands are shaking so badly, I grip the steering wheel until my knuckles blanch. I run two red lights and sideswipe a U-Haul.
“I told him so many times,” Agnes says over and over to the landscape, her forehead pressed against the glass. “Why did he do this?”
The telegraph poles flash by, tall and fast as blades.
Her father died the week before Easter, her junior year of high school. For almost a year, he had lain in the hospital, looking like someone’s science experiment. He could communicate only through stutters and spasms. If he succeeded in jerking his right shoulder forward, it made his arm convulse, then his leg, until he writhed like a fish in the bottom of a rowboat.
Whenever Diana visited him, she sat on her hands, her head tilted to one side. She longed to unhook him from all the equipment, to cut his rotted nerves away like dead branches so that maybe, perhaps, new ones could grow back. She did not understand why no one would help him. Eventually her father couldn’t speak, move, or see. Two months before he died, she began to think of him in the past tense. Later, she felt guilty about this.
I’ve explained it to Diana, and I’ll explain it to you, Ms. Prentiss, I tell her. I want nothing to do with this. It’s absolute madness.
Yes, I see, Mrs. McGee, she says. But.
It’s Mrs. Bayleen now, I say.
Mrs. Bayleen, she says.
Look. I tell her, drawing out a cigarette. You’re kind to call. You sound like you care. But Diana is 19-years-old. She’s a legal adult. If she’s old enough to get herself pregnant, and to have a baby without once consulting anyone, then I think she’s old enough to deal with it alone. Don’t you? I open the cabinet beneath the sink and throw out the match.
Well, not necessarily, Mrs. Bayleen. You see.
Now, personally, I think Diana could use some good psychiatric help, I say. If you want to talk to me about that, I might be more amenable. But otherwise, I say, I think I’ve made myself clear.
Diana had only slept with two men before she met Eddie, and had liked only one of them. Her first lover, Leonard, was 24 years old. He knew she was a virgin, and had treated her with ceremony. The act itself was grueling, but Diana liked his tenderness. The next morning, however, when they got up for breakfast, Leonard’s girlfriend was sitting in the living room, mashing out cigarettes in a big, crystal ashtray.
On the third anniversary of her father’s death, Diana got drunk with a tennis player in her dorm. He came up from behind and pinned her against the wall. Wedging his knee up between her thighs, he ran his hands up her blouse and pushed into her with a grunt. After that, he passed her in the hallway, but never spoke.
Eddie, however, Diana loved instantly. They met at a party. She was by herself in the coat room, reading titles of books stacked on a shelf. The door swung open, carrying in a gust of music from the dance floor, and Eddie barreled in. Seeming not to notice her, he began rummaging frantically through the coats, ripping them off their hangers and hurling them every which way. He was gasping and wheezing, his lungs like accordions.
“Oh shit,” he panted. “Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.”
He wore black leather jeans and a t-shirt that rose and fell with his breathing. Diana could see the light scruff of hair on his stomach, the beginnings of a beer belly.
“Help me,” he gasped.
She sprang to her feet, but before she could do anything, Eddie yanked a denim jacket out from the heap and ripped open its top pocket. Diana saw him grab a piece of plastic tubing and cup it over his mouth. He inhaled deeply once, twice, three times, four, making little whelping sounds. Then his breathing eased a little and the whelps became grunts that sounded vaguely sexual. Eddie sighed and sank down into a chair.
“Oh, thank God,” he said to the ceiling. He was still out of breath.
Diana looked at his hands. She had thought it was a pipe, but it turned out to be Primatine Mist.
“Asthma,” he said, closing his eyes. “Goddamn cats.”
Diana stood over him. He seemed to be napping. His hair was blond and spiky, and he had a rounded nose and deep-set eyes with long, gold lashes. There was a soft, pleasant fleshiness to his face, a fullness around the lips and cheeks that suggested to Diana what he had looked like as a very young boy, and also what he would look like as a very old man, when vulnerability collapsed back into innocence. She could see all his fear and pain and longing and wonder at once, darting across his brow. For a moment, she wanted to cradle him.
He arched his back and looked up at her through half-opened lids.
“Sorry if I scared you,” he said.
* * * *
After the doctor talks to us about Eddie’s concussion, we don’t know what to do, so we go down to the cafeteria to get something to eat. It’s five-thirty in the morning, though, so nothing’s open. We buy some pineapple and cherry danishes from one of the vending machines. They come wrapped in plastic with the fillings all stuck to it, but we eat them anyway. Johnny says he can’t taste anything, but to me, they’re the best fucking danishes I’ve ever had in my life. We each eat two while we’re standing there in front of the machines, then I buy a Coke and Snickers bar, and Johnny gets some Peanut Chews and a bag of ranch-flavored Doritos. Russell has gone over to one of the tables. He’s lying down on top of it, staring up at the lights, which look like giant ice cube trays turned upside-down.
“Un-be-lieve-able,” he says. Then he chants: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Diana with a baby carriage.”
Johnny and I take our breakfast and go sit down. There are a few orderlies in white uniforms, smoking and talking Portuguese by the kitchen, but besides that, the place is empty and most of the lights are off.
“I guess we should call Mr. and Mrs. Gupter and tell them,” Johnny says after a while.
“Guess so,” I say, though I hate the thought of it.
On parents’ weekend, Mr. and Mrs. Gupter drove up from Warwick and made us all a barbecue in the back of the Co-op. They looked like typical mom’n’pop types, but they drank beers and joked around a lot. You could tell they still loved each other. They were also very proud of Eddie. He’s the first one in their family ever to go to college. Mrs. Gupter kept rumpling his hair and saying, “Oh Eddie. What are we going to do with you?”
She was very pretty, actually. You could see where Eddie got his charm. My mother is about two hundred pounds and never says anything to me when I’m home except, “Ay ay ay. You’re blockin’ the television.”
Mr. Gupter was sort of a ham. After he’d had a few beers he wanted to show us all these football maneuvers and organize a game. I think he even brought his whistle along. But all in all, the Gupters were pretty cool. Thinking about them—getting out of their station wagon that day, with their bags full of hamburger rolls—there’s no way in the world I want to call them up now and tell them about Eddie.
“Maybe we should wait,” I say.
“For Eddie to wake up?”
“Don’t wanna tell ‘em, do you?”
Johnny shakes his head and reaches into his pocket. He takes out a nickel. “No way, man,” he says. “Heads or tails?”
“I want you . to think about what you’re doing very carefully,” Elaine says. She is standing at the end of the girl’s bed now, scrunching and unscrunching her toes inside her pumps.
The girl’s arms are crossed. The light from the window is flush in her face. Elaine knows she’s being pushy. If she were smart, she would engage the girl more slowly.
But instead, Elaine feels her own weariness. She has been here 40 minutes. It feels like two hours. She’s getting a headache. Maybe it’s more difficult because the stakes are higher, she tells herself. After all, this one has a chance. So what if she wants to keep the baby? That’s now. One visit from her parents, a few diapers, and the whole thing can change. Don’t push it, Elaine thinks. Then she realizes: it’s not a matter of tactics at all. She has simply lost patience with naïvete.
“If you think you can go to school, hold down a job, raise a child and support yourself, Diana, I have to tell you, you’re in for quite a shock,” she says. “I work with girls in your position all the time, and frankly, the statistics are depressing.”
The girl looks down at her hand, plays with her ring. It has a pink stone on it. The skin on her knuckles looks chapped.
“I know this sounds harsh,” Elaine continues, “but you have so much promise. I don’t think you understand the consequences of being a single mother. You shouldn’t squander your potential by taking responsibility for another human being at such an early—”
The social worker stops. She feels like a factory, words billowing out of her like noxious gas. She hates what she is saying. Every inane school teacher, every droning bureaucrat, is living in the cadence of her voice. She puts down her pen, massages her tear ducts, and sighs. Saints, parents, healers. Where do they get their stamina?
My son is lying in a semi-private room next to a young boy who has a wide bandage wrapped around his abdomen. The nurse who brings us there is a heavy, jolly-looking woman with ankles that spill over the rim of her shoes.
“He doesn’t need to be here too long,” she says as she leads us through the corridor. “All he needs is someone to keep an eye on him as he sleeps to make sure he’s okay.” Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I am grateful for her cheeriness.
Agnes leans against me. I’ve got my arm around her and she’s shivering, though the hospital is warm. Neither of us speak. Her eyes are wide and bottomless. It is a look I have seen on kids lying on the fields after getting tackled or brained. I want to tell her something, anything, but I can’t get my voice.
Eddie is lying flat on the bed, except for his head, which is propped up slightly with pillows and a compress. I had expected to see it shaved and bandaged, but it is not. He is awake, looking sleepy and swollen. Agnes hurries to his side.
“Mom?” His lashes flutter. He spies me, standing by the window. “Dad.”
“You remember us?” Agnes says.
“Of course,” he croaks. “Sure. I don’t have amnesia or anything. Just my head really hurts.”
She puts her hand to his forehead.
“He’s okay,” Agnes says to me, as if for confirmation. I suppose I nod. Words spool around in my head. First: Your son is okay. Your son is okay. Then: I’ll kill him.
She did not understand it right away, though she had felt it before. Her breasts were tender and she suddenly had to pee a lot—it felt like her bladder was being squeezed in a wine press. But that was it. She felt groggy in the mornings, too, but attributed it to drinking beer. For the first few months, she pretty much ignored it and cut back her smoking. After the third month without her period, however, she started to admit to herself what it might be. Yet even when the little white stick turned violet, she refused to think about it. Wait, she told herself, something will come along that will make it go away. Do not acknowledge it and it cannot exist.
The last time had been a nightmare. She’d felt frightened and so guilty, she’d almost told her mother. Eddie had lavished her with attention until the abortion, after which he acted like he barely knew her. This was the most unbearable. It was as if he had been there in the room while the doctor jacked her open and vacuumed her out—as if he had peered inside and watched her grimace and been revolted by everything he saw. A week later he broke up with her.
When she realized what was happening again, little thoughts darted in and out of her mind like lightening bugs, fragments of love and panic, memories of her mother standing in the kitchen, telling her she was an underachiever; of her father, mummified in an oxygen tent; of Eddie lying beside her in the mornings, as languid as sculpture, reaching for her hand and placing it over his heart, looking boyish and adoring. She heard the voices behind the livingroom wall in Dorchester, and saw the Gupters standing in the sunlight at Maywood Street, swatting each other playfully with spatulas. A thousand possibilities and implications occurred to her. But when they did, she put them from her mind.
She lived her days shyly, carefully, resistant to the future. Her clothes got tighter, her cravings stronger. Sometimes, as she was sitting in class, there was a kick against her pelvis that made her wince. But she convinced herself that if she ignored it, so would everyone else. And sure enough, they did. Drifting from room to room at the Co-op, she even wondered if people saw her at all.
As the season progressed, she lay awake in bed. The wind made the windows rattle. The trees threw lacy shadows across the ceiling. Diana would watch them, her hands absently straying over her breasts, down the thick, ripe fruit of her belly, caressing it gently, as if she were a Buddha. She liked the tightness and the smoothness of her skin, the cool circles her palms made. Often, she talked to herself and the baby in a half-whisper she usually reserved for prayer. She described her day, dispensed advice, invented conversation. For the first time in her life, she did not feel so lonely.
At 8 a. m. they let us in to see the kid. All the babies are in this one room that looks like a combination morgue/deli counter. You stand outside the glass, and inside, the babies are all wrapped up like little roastbeefs and hams in these tiny white bins. I can’t believe this is the first place they bring you after you’re born. After nine months in the womb, I would be pissed. As it is, most of them are crying.
We ask the nurse, and she tells us Diana’s baby is on the end, furthest away from the window. We want her to take it out, but she gives us some lame excuse about only the parents being able to authorize it. So we all press up to the glass, and actually, we can see it all right. And the minute we do, we all jump back. The kid looks exactly like Eddie. If you were to take Eddie’s face and shrink it down maybe 20 times and glue some dark brown hair on top, that’s exactly what this lad looks like. The eyes are stuck in deep like two raisins—just like Eddie’s—and they’ve got the same look to them, and the mouth is land of fat and goes in tight at the corners, just like Eddie’s. And it’s got this goofy smile on it’s face, just like Eddie.
“Oh man, can you believe it?” I say.
“It’s Baby Eddie!” shrieks Johnny Clamdip. “Baby Eddie! Look at those tiny hands!”
“And those tiny fingers!”
“And that tiny nose!”
“And those tiny eyes!”
“Eddie! Baby Eddie!” We bang on the glass and wave. I swear to God, the kid smiles back. “Yo! Edward!” Johnny shouts. “My man!”
Russell leans against the doorframe and looks at us. “The kid can’t understand English yet, assholes,” he says. But he’s flabbergasted, you can tell. He digs his hands deep in his pockets, exhales and laughs nervously.
“Baby Eddie!” Johnny cheers. “Hey babe! Welcome to Massachusetts! Coochie coochie coo!”
“Johnny, man,” I say, “take it easy.”
“Why?” he cries. “It’s a miracle!”
* * * *
Eddie sits up slowly and swings his feet over the side of the bed. In third grade, he’d collected small creatures—snails, katydids, starfish—and pickled them in formaldehyde. Now he imagines this is how they felt. It is early afternoon, but he does not know the time, and he is unsure of the day, except that it is April. His head hurts less; his mouth feels gluey. He glances over at the other bed. His roommate is gone, but his things are still there: Marvel comic books and a plaid flannel bathrobe. A glass of water sits on his night table. Eddie drinks it.
He looks around. His father’s windbreaker is lying on the chair. He can see only a few of the big white letters printed across the back: ALEX, HAM, HI. His mother’s pale blue sweater is folded on top. Where did they go? He vaguely remembers her face hovering over him as he slipped back to sleep. Maybe to the cafeteria. Or to see Diana and the baby. The thought makes his stomach clench. Dear Jesus, he thinks.
Maybe she’ll put it up for adoption. But in the depths of his heart, he knows she will not. Diana is a girl who does not let go. She comes up from behind and wraps her arms around your waist so you cannot unlock them. You tell her you love her, she moves into your Co-op. His parents will probably want them to marry. He is 20 years old. He doesn’t want any of this. Nobody asked him to be a father. Nobody cares how he feels. What the hell is he going to do with a kid? He wishes he could hibernate; he longs for amnesia. He would trade anything, right now, for a joint and a beer.
The first contraction came before dinnertime, while Diana was in the kitchen, slicing tomatoes. It felt like her entire belly was tensing, then releasing, an orgasm moving backwards. It startled her. She dropped the knife on the cutting board.
“You okay?” her housemate, Willie, asked.
“Fine,” she said, catching her breath. For a moment, she felt a surge of panic. But nothing else came.
Most people at the Co-op had just finished their midterms, so Willie had rented some videos. He took colored chalk and made up the blackboard in the kitchen to look like a marquee. TONITE: MOVIES AT MAYWOOD! “CANNIBALS AT THE CONVENT” AND “DOCTOR JACKHAMMER”!!!!
Halfway through dinner, Diana had another contraction. She almost dropped her fork, but this time put her hand to her stomach. Johnny noticed. “You okay?” he asked.
Her water broke when she was in bed, attempting to read. From downstairs, she could feel the bass of the stereo thumping through the floorboards. “Cannibals at the Convent” was also playing because Diana could hear a woman with an Irish brogue crying, “Mother of God!” then the sounds of howling and gnashing. Suddenly, something bore down inside her, followed by a magnificent release. Fluid gushed down her legs, soaking the bedspread.
She struggled up. She had on a gauze skirt with an elastic waist. Now that it was drenched, it weighed on her. She stepped on the hem and worked it down over her belly. Then she pulled off her panties. Suddenly, she didn’t want to be constricted by anything. She lifted off her t-shirt, unhooked her bra. Her breasts swung free, swollen and heavy as bulbs. She removed her earrings, unclasped her necklace, slid off her bracelets. She cut off the leather thong she had tied around her wrist the summer before freshman year. The only thing she kept on was the silver ring Eddie had given her while they were going out. It had a piece of rose quartz on it—a crystal, he said, for good fortune and love.
The contractions were coming now almost as fast as her breathing. They were pushing pushing pushing, like she had to go to the bathroom. She didn’t know how much time had gone by: ten minutes, three hours? For an instant, she wanted to scream but thought, “get to the bathroom.” The contractions were excruciating. Something was going to rupture—her guts, her lungs, a blood vessel in her temple. Oh God, she didn’t think she could walk. She had to stop as she got to the door knob. It was like a kick in her abdomen. It subsided for a moment, but then another one came. Oh God, she cried, this time out loud. She felt something, round, hard, starting to rip its way through. She was screaming now, keeled up against the door to the bathroom, her knees braced apart, but the television downstairs filled the house with the sound of a jackhammer and a woman shrieking—either in terror or ecstasy—and Diana could hear Russell and Eddie shouting, “Oh, man. Give it to her!”
Staggering into the bathroom, she saw tiles, a bathmat. She thought to get on the toilet, but couldn’t manage. There was one contraction, then another. She could feel its head, her own flesh tearing. She crouched in the bathtub, gripping the soap dish so hard with her hands, she was sure it would break loose from the wall. The pain grew so sharp, her breathing so fast, she began to black out. It went on and on, relentlessly as the ocean, the pain drawing itself up and back. She wanted her mother. She pushed, screamed, and there were more contractions. She realized she was sobbing. Her body throbbed like a rhythm. She pushed again and again. Porcelain and grout broke away in her fingers. She fell forward and pressed. There was a floodgate of pain, and more, and finally a singular, high-pitched cry as the baby slid into her hand. She eased back, panting, and lifted it onto her stomach. Then they both lay there, glistening, for what seemed like a very long time.
The first thing I see are little hands grasping the air, tiny red fingers flailing like the legs of a centipede, curling into fists as Diana passes the bundle to my wife. Agnes draws back the blanket to show it to me, and I go weak. It is suddenly Nov. 27, 1978.I am sitting on the arm of a chair beside Agnes at Saint Luke’s Roosevelt back in New York. Together, we are unwrapping our first and only child, a child who, 20 years later in a maternity ward, I will be ready to strangle for carelessness. His eyes, dark and deep, his smile, with his mother’s tinge of bewilderment in it—they’re all there, same as 20 years ago.
“Oh George,” Agnes whispers.
I suppose I sit down, because I’m no longer standing. Agnes kneels beside me, cradling our grandson. “Look, George, look,” she murmurs. A voice coos, Diana’s I guess: “He’s smiling, do you see that? He likes you.”
How can you go to bed one night, and wake up the next morning to find your life irreparably altered? Whenever I have imagined this happening, it has always been the result of a violent, inexplicable force: an earthquake, an act of terrorism, a car crash, the proverbial safe falling from the proverbial window. But who ever anticipates this? To suddenly hold in your arms a new being composed of your lineage, to see your eyes, the eyes that belonged to your mother and to her grandfather—eyes that came over from a village near Hamburg and were handed down through the family like heirlooms—to see them suddenly looking up at you from a tiny pink face that hadn’t existed only hours before? The son of your son?
“George?” Agnes looks at me. “Are you all right? George?” There is a spot on the floor and I stare at it.
“Diana,” she says. “Here. You better take him. George?” Then there are Agnes’ thighs, the gray legs of her slacks, and I’m pulling them towards me. Pressing my ear to her belly, nuzzling against the softness of the fabric and her flesh, my hands hold fast to the back of her legs because they are the only things in this world that I know can support me. The metal of her belt buckle digs against my forehead. Her fingers stroke my hair. I breathe in the perfume of the woman I have loved, and when I exhale, it is in a sob. At this moment in time, I don’t know who feels more utterly helpless—myself or my grandson.
Eddie stands by the window. His bed has been taken over by his friends, who are sprawled across it. They eat the lunch off his tray, and go on about the baby. It’s exquisite, they say; Johnny wants one just like it. Take it, thinks Eddie. He turns his back on them and stares out the window overlooking the parking lot. Along the highway, a thin row of saplings bend in the wind. In five weeks, Eddie figures, Phish will play Wooster. He can meet up with friends there: Raj has a van.
“Eddie?” Diana stands in the doorway. In her pale blue hospital gown, she appears to be floating. The baby is wrapped in a white blanket in her arms. She walks towards him slowly, as if in a procession. The light washes over them until they’re a vision.