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Broken Taillight

ISSUE:  Winter 1993

Jessie always does the most impossible things in the most difficult way. It is as if he was always seeking the most difficult path, trying to write legacies in concrete when simple pen and paper would do just fine. The few times he tries to share some of his past with his wife Melanie and her children, they envision TV love-bead hippies and cartoon animals and Perils of Pauline sawmills as he describes his former life on California’s North Coast, living in communes and cutting wood. Jessie starts imitating how the goats at the commune used to butt heads, bumping Katie, the youngest at seven, in her rear-end, which causes her to squeal in delight. Katie asks if goats really eat tin cans like they do in the cartoons; Jessie responds by snarfling at her neck, blowing her blonde hair around and yelling, “They eat everything!” But most of his attempts at step-parenting are clumsy and awkward, Jessie having been out of touch with mainstream America for so long. He buys Jennifer, who is 11 but already with earings and lipstick (until her mom makes her wipe it off) a Candy land game, something more appropriate for someone even younger than Katie. He packs a lunch for Ritchie, at age 13 the oldest, and Ritchie tells him that in no uncertain terms would he ever be caught dead with a lunch bag or nerdy lunch box. The whole suburban life style is still somewhat of an alien culture to Jessie, who has lost a dozen years somewhere along the line. Melanie finds him asleep sometimes, on the living room floor in the wee hours, after waking up to find him gone after their lovemaking. She falls asleep happy just to hold him, finally finding somebody after 12 years of a bad marriage to her high school sweetheart. Sometimes Jessie wanders around the kitchen and living room, drinking too much wine. “Putting the house to bed,” he says, switching off the lights and latching the doors. She finds him at three or four o’clock, sprawled out on the rug. Sometimes he has the stereo headphones on with an Eagles’ tape playing, other times his arm is draped across his face, the crook of his arm resting across his eyes, a vision of granite heartache and past battles with dark memories, crooked partners, and cold, damp nights. There is nothing peaceful about his sleep. Once she sat in the chair and watched him roll this way and that, and she read into it that he was overwhelmed, a human Atlas whose shoulders just weren’t big enough: the weight of the world and her three children smothering him. She watched and started to cry, wondering why he even married her. That time she didn’t wake him up, preferring to return to bed alone and hide the tears.

“It’s like he doesn’t know how to be happy. . . or send a phone bill on time, or buy the right size pants, or get a driver’s license, or just how to relax. . .or anything,” she says to her sister Christine over the phone during one of their once a week conversations, even though they live fairly close.

“He’s a hell of a lot better than what you had, Melanie,” Christine says. “The whole family says that.”

Melanie thinks of how she tries to get Jessie to do more with the kids. She got him to take Ritchie once to a TV wrestling match at the local junior high school gymnasium, with all the ringside mayhem and body slamming that accompanies it. Ritchie loved it; Jessie feigned a good time. Then Melanie sent him off with the two girls, Katie and Jennifer, to see Desperately Seeking Susan, the new movie starring Madonna. Both Katie and Jennifer are big Madonna fans, and the movie had gotten good reviews. The girls were decked out in pom-pom earrings, bracelets, and lipstick when Jessie loaded them into the car on a Saturday afternoon, singing “Material Girl” and took off for the local Multiplex theatre to see the movie. He spent eight dollars at the refreshment stand on tubs of popcorn and mini-buckets of soda before the movie even started. Katie asked Jessie why he laughed so hard at Madonna drying her armpits on the handblower at the women’s public restroom in the Port Authority terminal. “Like my old friends,” he explained to her. The movie neatly set up the different life styles of the young, rebellious East Village (more Jessie’s kind of people right before he began with Melanie) and suburban New Jersey, the setting for Melanie’s first marriage and rearing place for the bulk of the children’s lives. Jennifer remained transfixed, the movie and scenes in the Village totally engrossing her as her earrings bobbed about her head, bracelets jingled and she churned in her seat to Madonna’s hit, “Get Into The Groove.” Katie asked a lot of questions at first, the complex plot involving the Personal Ads (Desperately Seeking Susan) and the unusual, exotic jacket baffling her a bit, but then she settled in after a trip to the bathroom, where Jessie awkwardly accompanied her as far as the door. She returned with her older sister’s psychedelic lipstick mildly smudged about her mouth. “Far out,” Jessie said. They got another tub of popcorn. Katie seemed content after that to mimic her sister’s reactions to the movie’s craziness. At one point the suburban New Jerseyites ordered a Rum and Tab at an East Village Club. Jessie laughed heartily, and noticed few in the theatre laughing. “What’s so funny about that?” Jennifer asked. “Yeah, Jessie—what’s so funny about that?” Katie chimed in.

“Cause that’s the sort of thing your mom’s into. Rum and Tab. That’s me and your mom alright. Gimme that popcorn, rock star,” and he grabbed the popcorn, leaving the girls bewildered. Jennifer thought a minute, then looked straight into Jessie’s eyes and said, “So-ooo, why can’t. . .she order. . .a Rum. . .and Ta-ub?”, popping her bubble-gum loudly, the rapid speech and sing-song syntax meshing with the gum pops and movie music.

Now Jessie sits in the new car, a Sentra smelling like cigarettes and crayons, driving to go see Melanie in the hospital. (“A new car? We don’t need no stinking new car!” he’d said, preferring the old familiar-friend appearance of the Chevy-six in the Nova Melanie’s father had donated to them.) In his mind were the questions, little chirping voices of desperate concern, that Katie, Jennifer, and Ritchie had all asked. “Will they know if it’s a boy or a girl? Will Mommy be back tomorrow? Will the baby be dead before it’s born? Are you and Mommy going to try again?” Jessie just kept saying, “I dunno,” frustrated that he couldn’t lash out verbally with his sarcasm at the kids. He had let Melanie’s sister Christine, who had come over to watch them, answer those questions while he went to the hospital. He worked all day, but his mind was on the whole mess: the hospital, the screwed-up pregnancy. Christine would answer them better anyway, he thought—she’s a nurse. He twiddles the car radio dial, looking for something other than Lionel Ritchie. Lionel Ritchie becomes who Jessie can get mad at, and he pounds his palm on the Sentra’s dashboard, cursing the monopolization of the air-waves by tapioca music and the whole of middle-class straight life in general. He remembers a woman named Avia who had worked as a midwife back in California, logging so many births, and then he finds himself pulling a ticket off the dispenser at the hospital parking lot.

Melanie is lying in the hospital bed, throwing up pretty periodically and running a high temperature. “Goddamn this pregnancy,” she keeps thinking, replaying its history over and over as it now reaches its final conclusion, Death/Birth in the second trimester. The medicine will make her “deliver” the fetus, or “expel” the fetus; it will make her very sick for a while, which has turned into all day.

She thinks about the first months of joy, all the fuss and the kids’ natural excitement of having a new addition. And the unspoken assumption that this would fix things, make Jessie happy, and patch the holes in the marriage. When she went with Jessie for the amnio and sonogram, it had all seemed routine, O. K. except for the menacing size of the needle and her overfull bladder. But the doctors were full of reassurance—it was all just a precaution, routine for any expectant mother more than 36 years old. Then came the horror of the phone call ten days later, the call telling Melanie it was worse than Down’s Syndrome, much worse. They advised her to schedule a trip to the hospital within a day or two. “The sooner you get it over with, the better,” the people at the doctor’s office had counseled. They made it sound like pulling a tooth. Melanie thought of medical science’s determination that the baby would not live more than six months even if it went full term. She thought about the Church’s stand on abortion, about her own health, and how the weight of the sickly fetus would just crush the marriage further.

Melanie thinks of how, the night before coming to the hospital, the parents of Ritchie’s girlfriend had come over. They were Born-Again Christians, and their daughter had told them about the pregnancy and the hospital. “Don’t go through with it. Leave it in the Lord’s hands,” Steve, the girl’s father, had told Jessie. He kept looking at Jessie, sitting next to him on the couch, the TV blaring a L. A. W. Y. E. R. S. ad. Jessie just sat there as Steve said, “The Lord has reasons which we cannot know about,” eating cookies and drinking wine. Finally, they left.

“I never want those fucking Jesus-freaks back in this house again.” Jessie got up with the empty plate and empty glass and went into the kitchen, reemerging with a full glass. “Please, Jessie. . . .” Melanie pleaded. “They’re Ritchie’s friend’s parents. Calm down. They mean well.” In the background they heard Jennifer and Katie fighting about something.

Their whole life was in turmoil. They had just moved from a neighboring town that month and had forked over the first and last month’s rent—a whopping sum. The day of the phone call, they got a letter from the bank, saying Jessie’s paycheck had bounced. “That goddamn cement-brained mobster,” Jessie cursed his boss. He went into the bedroom and stared out the window at the suburban landscape. Money, new cars, labs and science, high-tech this and that, money, money; wasn’t this why he had first sought refuge on the North Coast of California a long time ago? All the numbers swam in his head: one in 500, 000 pregnancies, 650 dollars debit from account, 18th chromosome misaligned, might live six months, seven dollar service charge. The one-two punch of the phone call and bank statement. He took out a quarter and used it like a worry-stone, and clenched his other hand in anger at. . .no one. After all the baby-sitting arrangements and phone calls to her parents had been made, Melanie went to the hospital.

Jessie is standing at Melanie’s bedside at the hospital, holding her hand and listening to the screams of another woman giving birth next door. The hospital has put Melanie on the delivery room ward; Jessie tries to ignore the noise. A nurse comes in and the door opens, allowing the screams to flood the room; the noise is like poison. It dies down as the door closes and then it climbs back in when the nurse leaves after taking Melanie’s temperature.

“The nurse says you got a hundred and three temperature, Mel—you look terrible.” Jessie manages a weak smile.

“Jessie—-just go. Go home and make the kids some dinner or go to McDonald’s or something. It doesn’t make any sense for you to stand around here, waiting for this to happen. I’ll deliver soon.” She motions for Jessie to bring the bedpan over to throw up into. Their whole glossary of terms is jumbled—medication, delivery, birth, abortion, death, fetus, baby. Communication never being a strong point in their relationship before, now it is further strained. A sharp yelp from next door stabs at the momentary quiet.

“Just go. I’ll be OK,” she tells him again.

“OK boss—anything you say.” He leans over and kisses her forehead and smells the vomit as his ears keen in on the delivery going on next door. “McDonald’s sounds good— nobody eats my cooking anyway. Remember when I made sweet and sour tuna?” Jessie finally leaves, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and curses as he looks in the parking lot for the Sentra. He has forgotten where he parked, and it looks like countless other Japanese cars to him.

While Jessie drives back, Melanie feels the first contractions; as he rounds up the troops (Katie, Jennifer, and Ritchie), Melanie delivers or expels the baby or fetus. While he orders Big Macs and fries, an autopsy is performed; and when Melanie is finally cleaned up and pushed into the Maternity Ward to spend the night, Jessie reads Katie a story. He calls the hospital afterward, and a nurse reassures him that Melanie is drugged and resting comfortably. Unable to sleep himself, Jessie stays up and watches Failsafe, a movie he likes, in black and white, which shows the president trading his wife and all New York City for an accidently nuclear-bombed Moscow. Later, he wakes up with the station’s off-the-air signal blaring like the melted phone-lines in the movie, and his glass of wine still clenched upright in his hand. He drains it and switches off the TV, sitting back down to listen to the silence, but there is still some ringing left in his ears.

The next day, Jessie starts out by calling his boss’s answering machine and cursing about the paycheck, screaming into the phone. Then he sends Jennifer and Ritchie off to school, both with lunch money. Katie is crying too much and is too upset for him to simply push her off into a school bus, so he caves in and allows her to stay home from school, and to go to the hospital with him to fetch Mommy. He calls Melanie and finds out what floor she is on. “I’m fine, Jessie. No complications,” she tells him.

“We’ll be there in a little while,” he says and tells her that he loves her. Katie then says a few words into the phone, and they get ready and walk out to the car.

Katie gets to sit in the front seat, the spot usually taken by adult or older sibling. She puts the radio on one of the Top-Forty radio stations which is playing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Jessie guns the accelerator in time with the song’s hiccups. Along the way, Katie keeps asking all the same questions she interrupted her story with last night: Jessie tries to answer responsibly, sensitively; but his patience wears thin and his answers get sarcastic. “The baby was born a drowned Aquarius, its moon is in Brooklyn,” he tells her. Katie shuts up, but after a period of silence which eats at him alive, he starts singing badly along with the radio which makes Katie start laughing.

When they get to the hospital parking lot, he asks Katie to help him remember where the car is, as they leave it and walk into the building. Jessie lets her push the third floor button on the elevator. They arrive, but the Maternity Ward forbids children. (“Makes sense,” Jessie says sarcastically to no one in particular while he shakes his head.) So Katie waits in the hall in front of a nurses’ station while Jessie bangs through the double doors. The cribs and babies behind the plexiglass and the sound of the occassional nursing baby crying assault Jessie like a police billy-club. His ears seem to ring and he turns away from the plexiglass and sees a nursing mother and infant. Finally he spies Melanie, and over what seems an eternity they get her packaged up into the wheelchair and wheeled out to where Katie waits, looking at the posters and nurses. They join into a caravan, and head towards the elevator. While they are waiting, Katie asks, “Mommy, was the baby dead?” Jessie doesn’t want to be mad at the child for asking, but he is. He clenches the wheelchair handles tight.

“I don’t know, Katie—it doesn’t matter.” Melanie snaps at her. Melanie is annoyed at all the confused terms of death and delivery and all, mad at the hospital for sticking her in the Maternity Ward, and finally disturbed by the whole complex set of issues the pregnancy has stirred up, bringing back memories of her childhood Catholic school training, morals, and beliefs. She looks at Jessie’s face and thinks of Katie’s question. “Out of the mouth of babes,” comes to her mind, and when the elevator arrives, Melanie sees that Katie is helping to push the wheelchair onto it.

At the Financial Office waiting area, they bump into Melanie’s ex sister-in-law, Katie’s Aunt Claire, who by chance is applying for a position there. Katie is elated to see a familiar face, and she proceeds to fill her aunt in on all the details she knows about the terminated pregnancy. The gossipy in-laws have already disseminated the tragic facts, but Claire listens patiently.

Jessie pops up from one of the seedy vinyl-clad waiting chairs and says, “Katie, you wanna go through the check-out counter with me? Let’s get out of this supermarket. Wait’11 you see the numbers, Kate—hundreds and hundreds of dollars.” He appeals to Katie’s fascination with math and large figures. It is his belated attempt to gloss over the many earlier evenings of argument over health insurance, which his job now fails to provide. Now he is about to be clubbed with it directly. Always the argument had revolved around his getting hurt on the job. Now the reality was so different from the imagined scenario.

The receptionist sends him in, but stops Katie, saying that the child should wait out in the waiting room. “They don’t let kids go anywhere around here, do they?” Jessie says to Katie. Katie’s face momentarily pouts over, but then she runs back to where her aunt and mother are talking a mixed conversation of insurance and husbands. “I told him. . .” Melanie is sitting in the wheelchair, leaning forward, “go find another job. First the dropped medical plan, then the check. . .he just “yesses” to death, then waltzes off to work the next day.”

“Bill was like that. I told him to leave Squibb; there were so many better opportunities out there. He never listened,” Claire says. Maybe five minutes or so later, Jessie emerges from the Financial Office smiling. “I wrote ‘em a check for 35 dollars, Mel—you’re worth it. You’re ransomed, so let’s blow this pop-stand.” His attempt at humor bites her in the wrong places; she needs more condolence, more tenderness, Jessie shows the bill to Claire, Katie, and Melanie. “Look, I told you Kate—hundreds and hundreds of dollars.” Then he faces Melanie. “Four figures ain’t bad for one night—better’n five.” And with that, he folds the bill up and pockets it like a parking ticket, one which he has no intention of paying.

Claire has no idea how to react to Melanie’s younger husband, the one with work boots instead of wing-tip shoes. She excuses herself and says goodbye.

“You can always tell a quality hospital by its parking lot, Katie.” Jessie is talking like a Tour Guide now, holding back his walking pace a little to match Melanie’s, who has risen from the wheelchair at the building’s exit and all three are walking to the car. Katie leads the way, anxious to show she has remembered the car’s location. As they walk past the rows of cars nearest the building’s Emergency Room entrance, he notices the plates all read “M. D.”—Porsches, Mercedes, and 280Z’s.

“Ooh. . a wasp,” Jessie says and quickly kicks and smashes the tailight lens of a bright red Porsche he has singled out. Then he crushes the biggest remnant that has clattered along the ground under his boot. “I’ll bet he’s got insurance,” he says, and then he says “But just maybe he’ll get a ticket— broken tailight.” He looks into Katie’s puzzled face but avoids Melanie’s. They arrive at the car, and both Katie and Melanie are crying quietly as they get in. Jessie hurriedly turns the ignition, turns on the radio, and searches for something soothing, a replacement for what he feels he should be.


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