Don’t Mess with Texas
“It’s huge,” the doctor said, clicking the light behind the X-ray. He put his thumb against the dark splotch inside the big blur that was my body. “You can pass it, but it’ll blow your penis out like a cannon.” He scribbled on his chart. “You know, like when Road Runner would cork the cannon right before Coyote shot out.”
“Kaboom!” the doctor said, spreading his fingers. “Just messing — we can retrieve it.” He put his thumb back to the X-ray. “It’s not going anywhere. How’s Friday look?” Kaboom.
“You’re only twenty-eight,” Julia said, dipping the pineapple slice into the frozen drink I had to order, because at thirty-seven weeks, she couldn’t. “How can you have kidney stones?”
She took a bite and dropped the fruit in the glass.
“Hereditary,” I said, after the waiter took our order and left.
“Well,” Julia said, her hand on her belly. “Hopefully, we’ll breed that out of you.”
Virginia Is for Lovers
“Why’d you stop?” Julia asked, the side of her stomach on a pillow.
“You said, ‘Stop,’” I said between breaths.
“No, I didn’t,” she said. She wiped her hair from her face. “Did I? Just keep going. Maybe I was thinking about the baby.” I rolled over. “Why are you stopping?” she said.
I limped to the kitchen and poured a glass of cranberry juice and heated up my pad. I plopped in my recliner, Julia in the doorway asking if she could do anything.
“I’m all right,” I said, turning on the television. She gave me a kiss. I’ll be fine.
Tap the Rockies
My knees buckled when I pushed, the toilet in front of me. Just a squeeze, and I’d break out in chills. I closed the door so if Julia woke, she wouldn’t see me finally sit down to pee, my elbows on my knees, my head in my hands, my pushing muscles straining. Only five days until my procedure. How bad could five days be?
The Louisiana Purchase
“We should’ve done this moths ago,” Julia said. I heaved the crib — worth as much as my last paycheque — onto the cart. “What if I went into premature labour?” Julia said, throwing Baby Learns French and Baby Learns Spanish CDs in the cart. “That would’ve been a totally avoidable disaster.”
She pointed to bassinets and gliders before I went to get a second cart.
“And this,” she said, pointing to a mobile with teddy bears. “Or this?” She pointed to a mobile with stuffed planets and stars. “I don’t want our baby to be dumb,” she said. “What if this inspires him to be an astronaut? What do teddy bears inspire? Are you all right?”
I sat on the empty bottom shelf. Between the frozen drink headache, the pain in my side and sweating something fierce, I just said, “Get the teddy bears, they’re cuter.”
Julia weighed her options, then picked the planets.
“I don’t want our baby to be dumb.”
Empire State of the South
After the fourth Babies “R” Us of the day, we still couldn’t find the onesies with the honeybees Julia saw in the ads, and had to cut our search short to meet our realtor.
“And the floors are Spanish tile,” the agent said, leading us through the four-bed, three-bath McMansion, built in a development that was supposed to be the next big thing before the crash. I wondered how we could afford to even look at a house, with my substitute teaching salary and Julia’s bank teller job, but that’s why Julia found work at a bank in the first place, because we’d never get a loan with nothing down otherwise. In the kitchen Julia opened the pantry to show me the storage, but I only saw empty shelves. The closest grocery store was twenty minutes away, the lot designated for the neighbourhood store still an empty field with overgrown grass hiding discarded appliances and car parts.
Outside, the house looked older than three years, with three years’ worth of dead leaves in the cracks where an occupant would’ve cleaned. There never was an occupant. Only a third of the subdivision was sold after construction. Down the street, two houses had their lights on.
“Well,” Julia said, reaching for my hand. “It’s quiet.”
Sweet Home Alabama
After getting shuttled from one empty development to another, our realtor dropped us off
in front of the first McMansion. A whole afternoon spent mapping where our furniture would go in different living rooms. We couldn’t afford any of this, but Julia said a baby deserved a home, not an apartment, that a baby needed a yard and dog and swing set.
“So, what’d you think?” the agent said as we clustered around our Honda.
“A lot to talk about,” Julia said. We took the flyers the agent collected and told her we’d call when we made a decision.
It’s All Relative in West Virginia
Julia took tiny, uneven steps though our complex. I carried diapers and toys, the mobile under my arm, as I walked behind her.
“So, what do you think?” I said.
“I like the first house.”
She took the mobile and tucked her hand around my elbow, but before I could respond, someone said, “Hey, hey” from the darkness of our stairway. Someone in slacks and a plaid button-down. Someone being Julia’s uncle Anthony.
Don’t Judge Ohio by Cleveland
“Why is he naming our baby?” I yelled in our apartment after Julia said her uncle requested we use Anthony since he didn’t have any sons. This was just like when he guilted us out of a thousand dollars for a Costa Rican time-share that never got built, or five hundred dollars we really didn’t have for one of his Internet ideas.
“I just want you to consider it,” Julia said.
“He’s a drunk,” I said. “Your aunt left him, your cousins don’t talk to him, and he’s homeless when he’s not on our couch.” I plopped in my recliner and put my feet up, my lower back pinching.
“He’s family,” Julia said. She stopped long ago getting angry at this argument. “That’s important.”
“He’s not important.” I leaned back, the lamp light hitting the popcorn on the ceiling and leaving low-lying shadows above us.
“Well,” Anthony said on the couch next to Julia. “I think Anthony is a fine name.”
Julia’s uncle made his only money thirty years ago, after dropping out of college and investing his student loans into the microchips. “Pulled out when they started putting the things in cars,” he said, shovelling in the beef stroganoff Julia made for dinner.
But he blew everything on up-and-coming ventures that never succeeded. A mortgage payment on a savings and loan. His kids’ college tuition on vitamin supplements. It was only after the Internet boom that he started buying domain names nobody wanted. After his divorce, a doctor at the homeless shelter diagnosed him with a gambling addiction. When he got kicked out of that shelter, we moved him to a studio a few miles away. When he got kicked out of there, we moved him to another one.
“How’s the apartment?” Julia asked, looking at me like I should have said something by then. I took another bite of stroganoff.
“Place is a dump,” Anthony said. “Moved out.”
I bit my fork. “And where do you plan on staying?”
The Oklahoma Land Rush
After dinner, I took a shower and the hot water rinsed away the short, painful squirts. An hour later I limped out of the bathroom, my body freezing because Julia lowered the thermostat to sixty-seven after she started the third trimester. In the kitchen, I got a glass from the cabinet. When I opened the refrigerator, my cranberry juice wasn’t on the shelf where it belonged.
Instead, the empty carton was in the trash. With my glass I limped into the living room, where the television was on and Anthony was in my recliner. On the coffee table was a full glass of cranberry juice next to the old bottle of Smirnoff we kept under the sink. A blanket was up to Anthony’s shoulders and his mouth hung open, shallow snores coming from him.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
At six the next morning, I got an automated call to sub seventh-grade science. It was at the junior high where I’d taught social studies before the economy tanked and the district laid me off in an email.
I had spent the night on our couch, my side cramping too much to sleep. To get through the morning, I drank a whole pot of coffee and took two painkillers. Between the two, I was totally amped as I slurred through the lesson on cell division, a topic I knew nothing about. Fifteen minutes through second period, I found a DVD in the teacher’s drawer and put it on.
Big Sky Montana
Around lunch my heart still hadn’t slowed, so I followed the kids out the door. I turned around the side of the building as they continued to the cafeteria. By the dumpsters, I nodded hello to two secretaries, who lit cigarettes and nodded remorseful hellos back.
I didn’t smoke, so I leaned against the building and let my heart race. I stared out past the basketball courts to the overgrown fields and the rooftops of the McMansion’s empty neighbourhood. Storm clouds rose in the distance.
A New York State of Mind
After I turned in my attendance sheets at the end of the day, I got stuck in the teachers’ bathroom for an hour. I stood and tried, sat and tried, and finally took off my pants and lay on the tiled floor over the drain in the middle of the room. For an hour I cried and hoped no one heard.
When I came out, everyone was gone. The lights were off. The security system was blinking. I put my hand on the lobby door breaker, wondering what would happen if I pushed. Then the principal’s door opened down the hall, and the principal came around the corner, her expensive purse over her shoulder, her long heels stabbing the blue carpet. Her face was stretched tightly around her cheeks. “What are you still doing here?”
I debated lying but didn’t know what to say. She stood at the exact spot she had stood the year before, when rumours of pink slips swept through the teachers’ lounge. Where I asked for a letter of recommendation in case I needed another job. Where she patted me on the cheek and said, “You have nothing to worry about,” even though — I found out from the math teacher — she knew my position was cut, but figured it’d be easier rehiring me, if the district came up with additional funds, than interviewing candidates during her summer off.
I didn’t dare tell her why I was there. I didn’t dare show a sign of weakness. Not to her. I hated her for her new Chrysler in the parking lot, and the new house she bought in the same neighbourhood where her spoiled students lived, while Julia and I still lived in an apartment after spending our savings on groceries and gas. I hated her for every time I had to explain to a thirteen-year-old the difference between getting fired and being laid off.
“I was in the bathroom,” I said, not able to come up with something better. My hatred mixed with something else entirely as she looked from the clock to an ex-employee, alone in the office, sweating like he was nervous.
“Hmm,” she said.
The Oregon Trail
It was raining on my way home, red taillights mixing with white headlights in the rain. I tried focusing on anything but the pain in my back, and fear. Fear of my old principal, who said substitutes don’t belong on campus after school before I could lie about how much I loved substituting. I tried focusing on the overgrown fields and rooftops, which suddenly seemed so much farther away.
What Happens in Vegas
Our living room smelled like rain and smoke and hobo when I came inside.
“Julia’s out with your mom,” Anthony yelled from the patio. He had dragged our dining chair out to watch the rain, the Arcadia door open, the stink of his cigarettes and armpits blowing inside. “Oh, and I used your computer,” he said. “Looking for jobs and stuff.”
I closed the door. I warmed up my pad and plopped in my recliner. I turned on the TV and reached for my laptop as Julia and Mom came in, diapers and toys in their hands, Dad behind them with even more bags. I must have looked as awful as I felt, because Julia asked if I was all right.
“I’m fine,” I said. I flipped open my computer and figured the story from school could wait. The computer woke up, and then moans and groans of men and women came through the laptop’s speakers.
Famous Idaho Potatoes
Our apartment was silent as we clustered around our dining table, our plates filled with meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
“Potatoes are great, Susan,” Anthony told Mom through mouthfuls.
“They’re from a box,” Mom said. She never cooked potatoes from a box, but that was all we had. Everyone chewed. “So, Julia tells me you found a house you like?” my mother said, even though I had specifically told her not to mention it while Anthony was around. I stopped chewing and she realized what she’d done.
Anthony’s chewing slowed.
“We can go check it out after dinner,” Julia said, unaware of my request.
“It’s no big deal,” I said. Anthony looked from Julia to me.
“Yeah,” Dad said, specifically to my mother. “It’s dark, Susan.”
Anthony chewed and chewed. Mom swallowed.
“You plan on leaving a forwarding address?” Anthony finally said. He took another mouthful of potatoes.
Better Than Old Mexico
Dad drove, Mom next to him, Julia and me in the back, Anthony between us.
“It’s four-bedroom,” Julia said.
“And three-and-a-half bath,” I said, our voices excited.
“And the floors are Spanish tile,” Julia said, my mother jutting her lower lip in approval. I’m not sure if any of us knew the difference between tile that was regular or Spanish, but it sounded fancy and dignified.
“Nice,” Mom said.
Hi, I’m in Delaware
“Well?” I asked, standing in the driveway lit by orange street light. Anthony walked around the side yard, his hands in his pockets.
“Are you pre-approved?” Mom said.
Anthony looked over the gate into the yard.
“We haven’t got that far,” I said. “What do you think?”
Mom smiled. Dad looked at the house like he was considering all the work he was going to have to help us with.
“It’s quiet,” Mom said.
The Keystone State
Julia slipped the maternity nightie over her swollen breasts and belly. I threw my jeans in the hamper, and sat on the bed and tried to stretch my side.
“That was fun,” Julia said, gliding her fingertips over my shoulders. My parents had dropped us off an hour earlier after we toured the other neighbourhoods we’d been shown.
“Yeah,” I said, my skin goosebumping. I lay down next to her on the sheets my parents had given us for an anniversary.
“Sorry I’ve been crabby lately,” Julia said. “It’s the hormones.”
“You haven’t,” I lied.
“And I don’t want to use the name Anthony, either,” she said. “I just wanted you to consider it, especially with him right there.”
“I know,” I said. “I should’ve played along.” I put my hand on her stomach, covered in the nightie I realized was bought with the gift card her sister gave her for the shower. I wondered if it was always going to be like this. We were supposed to be adults, and here we were, still not able to pay our way.
“I love you,” Julia said.
I kissed her belly through her nightie.
“I love you.”
Lexington and Concord
I didn’t get a sub call the next morning, which was unusual.
In my underwear, I got out of bed and unlocked my desk to get my laptop. When I tried signing on to the district website, my password was invalid. I tried calling the sub hotline, but my PIN wouldn’t work. It wasn’t until I checked my email that I saw the message from Joseph Arnold, head of the district’s HR, telling me “your services are no longer required.”
“No job today?” Julia asked, coming into the kitchen in her maternity pantsuit. She
poured a travel cup of decaf.
“Not yet,” I said on our couch, the stinging in my side making me sit straight. Anthony snored in my chair, an old Ray Combs episode of Family Feud on TV. I couldn’t tell her about the email. About what happened with the principal the day before. Not yet.
“Hopefully get a half day soon.”
Julia kissed me and left for work.
I never wanted to be a teacher. Growing up, I wanted to win Super Bowls. It was only
after I realized that no university was going to recruit the third-string quarterback that I readjusted my goals. I wanted to do sports journalism, but when I heard the School of Education didn’t require a foreign language, a teacher I became. Teaching was supposed to mean job security. And summers off.
When I got laid off, I tried figuring out what I really wanted to do. My dad had three kids when he was my age. My grandfather was killing Japanese soldiers when he was younger than me. I was playing Halo.
When Julia left, I called Joseph Arnold’s office and got put on hold. I paced our bedroom before the pain became too much and I fell on the bed. In the living room, Anthony stirred in the recliner, and another episode of Family Feud started, Steve Harvey replacing Ray Combs. “It’s nine thirty,” I said after the secretary came on and told me Joseph Arnold had left for the day, even though she’d told me he’d just arrived before putting me on hold. I hung up when she repeated how I could leave a message.
With my back killing me, I watched Anthony through the crack between the door and frame. He reached for the controller, and Steve Harvey’s voice was replaced by Estelle Getty yelling at Bea Arthur and Betty White.
I dialled my old school and asked for the principal. After a pause, the secretary came on and whispered that the principal had told her to not answer my calls, and she had to go, so bye.
Anthony was in my recliner and using our napkins as a notepad, scribbling furiously, which he does because he says napkins fit better in his pockets. I guess I went looking for a fight.
“You know we have paper?” I said, getting my carton of cranberry juice from the fridge.
“Napkins fit better,” he said, patting his shirt pocket. With carton in hand, I walked around the counter and tilted my head to read his incoherent messages.
“What’s this?” I said, picking one up from his thigh.
“They’re domain names.”
“But what’s a thumbbuner? And why would anyone want thumbbuner.com?”
“Two b’s or one in thumbbuner?” he asked while writing.
I slapped the pen from his hands. “Nobody wants this shit!” I yelled. “Nobody wants you asking for money so you can buy shit nobody wants.”
“I haven’t asked you for money,” he said, his eyes red and gunky.
“Not yet!” I yelled.
The Alaskan Frontier
Anthony slammed the door as he left. I turned on the shower and went on my computer while the water heated. On Craigslist I discovered I could be a beverage truck driver, life coach, powder coater, groundskeeper, Zamboni driver, bartender at a gay bar, and a team-oriented individual for something the post never specified.
The truck-driving place told me I didn’t have the licence or experience, and the life coach said I didn’t have the right experience. The groundskeeping place asked if I had my papers. When I said I didn’t know what he was talking about, he told me we could work around it.
In the lodge down the street from our apartment, the bartender, standing under a mounted elk head, told me they weren’t hiring. I asked for a beer.
“It’s not even noon yet,” an old man down the bar said. His lips puckered because he didn’t have many teeth. He smiled a gummy smile. Pushing the brim of his cap up with one finger, he raised his glass and leaned back. Anthony was on the other side of him.
Anthony and I didn’t say anything with Gummy between us. We drank our beers and watched Fox News, and after a while I ordered a tenderloin sandwich and Anthony ordered fried mushrooms and we both got another beer. Someone put on Bob Dylan, and someone yelled, “Who put on this shit?” and after an argument, the pool table cleared.
When our orders arrived, the bartender left a basket of fried mushrooms in front of Anthony, and my sandwich and mushrooms in front of me. I told him I didn’t order mushrooms, but he nodded past Gummy — who got up to use the bathroom — to Anthony drinking his beer.
The Grand Canyon
After lunch I asked for the billiard balls and went to the pool table. Anthony watched me from the corner of his eye.
“Anthony,” I said, chalking a cue. He looked forward. “Come play with me.”
“Play yourself,” he said. The bartender watched TV.
“I don’t know any games by myself.” On the screen, Fox & Friends complained about the rising cost of gas.
“I heard your phone call,” Anthony said. Pump prices were up forty cents. “You get fired?”
“Yep,” I said. Student loan rates were rising. Health care was more expensive then ever. Unemployment was at a high.
“I’ve been fired,” Anthony said. “You do the best you can with what you got, and even then it’s not good enough.” He tilted his glass and finished his beer.
“I know,” I said.
And for once, I think I did.
Land of Lincoln
We played three games of eight ball at a dollar a game while Anthony told me about the first job he got fired from, a hamburger joint where he had to dress like a clown.
“Hated it,” he said, missing his shot. “But you do what you got to do.” He kept losing and told me about his days in the Army right out of high school, something else I didn’t know. He lost again, and I made fun of how horrible he was. “Fine,” he said, reaching for his wallet. “Five dollars a game.”
I lost the next three games at five, ten, and double or nothing while Anthony told me about his Army days, and his son-of-a-bitch lieutenant who made him dig an outhouse in the jungle. He ended up disturbing a nest of poisonous snakes and their whole camp had to be moved.
He worked construction after coming home, something else I never knew. “Was an electrician for five minutes,” he said, splitting two balls and sinking one. Here he was, this homeless failed businessman, and he had this history I never knew about. Never thought to know. Never wanted to.
“I’ll get my stuff in the morning,” he said. “Don’t want to be your burden any longer.”
“We’ll find you a place when we find you a place.” I motioned for our tabs.
“And sorry about your napkins.” He took a stack from the bar. “I’ll replace them.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “Thanks for the mushrooms.”
“No problem,” he said. “Oh, and I put everything on your tab.”
I was still a little drunk when Julia came home, old Captain Kirk episodes of Star Trek on the tube. Anthony was passed out in the recliner.
“No job today?” Julia asked, walking in and pulling three steaks from the freezer.
“About that,” I said, turning down the volume.
“Can we talk in a bit?” she said. “This suit is miserable.” She hung her jacket over the dining chair. “You look like you’re feeling better,” she said, then went to the bathroom and turned on the shower.
Since she mentioned it, I was feeling better. I wasn’t hurting nearly as much as usual. At all. I was rubbing it, but not out of pain. More because of the memory of pain. How pain should have been there, but wasn’t.
Sleepless in Seattle
I felt really good, I realized. So good that when Julia came out of the bathroom, wet and naked except for a towel, I tackled her onto the bed — gently enough, considering the baby.
“What’s gotten into you?” she said, more annoyed than playful. “Have you been drinking?” She pulled my collar to her nose.
“My day just went better than I expected,” I said. I kissed her shoulder. “What’re you doing right now?” I pulled at her towel.
“Not you,” she said. “Go shower.”
The water was lukewarm. Halfway through, Julia came in brushing her teeth. With toothbrush in her mouth, she asked why my day had been so good. Instead of telling her what I should have told her, I talked about Anthony. I told her about his stories. I told her how I never knew anything about him, and how, in a way, I respected him more now. That I —
Julia’s face scrunched. She took the brush out of her mouth.
“What?” I said.
“Anthony was never in the Army.”
“Maybe it wasn’t the Army,” I said, shampoo on my head. “I don’t remember exactly which branch he said.”
“He wasn’t in any branch,” Julia said. “He didn’t go to Vietnam, he was too young. And Uncle Teddy worked as a clown, but he didn’t get fired.” In the living room, Anthony must have awakened, because he laughed at something on TV. “Were you betting on the pool games?”
“Get up,” I yelled, still soaking wet as I slapped the handle of the recliner and the footrest dropped. Anthony raised his Rolling Rock so he didn’t spill.
“What’s gotten into you?” he said.
“Guys,” Julia said, following me in hurried steps.
“You’re full of shit, that’s what,” I said.
“Tell Julia about your storied military career.” He turned to her like she had betrayed him.
“And all the crap about working construction and —”
“I did work construction,” he said, as if the suggestion otherwise was offensive.
“Actually, he was an electrician,” Julia said.
“Who gives a shit? He sure as hell didn’t get fired as a clown.”
“You think you’re better than me?” he said. “You couldn’t hold your job as a teacher.”
“I was laid off,” I yelled. “There’s a difference.”
“Guys,” Julia said.
“Well, excuse me,” Anthony said. “You couldn’t hold your job as a substitute teacher.”
“Listen, asshole!” I screamed, but was stopped by Julia putting her hand on my arm.
New Hampshire Primary
An hour later she was still yelling at me, our bedroom door closed, Anthony on the other side, living free and watching my TV in my recliner.
“He has to leave,” I said.
Julia sat on the bed, her cheeks wet and eyes red. “You think Anthony on our couch is our problem?” she cried, her hand on her belly. “This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. We weren’t supposed to be like this.”
When the yelling stopped, I went to the kitchen for a glass of cranberry juice. Anthony didn’t look up from the television. I didn’t take my eyes off him as I opened the refrigerator, fumbled for the carton, and took a swig. He changed the channel. He laughed at something.
“That’s it,” I said, and barrelled over and grabbed the remote. “Get up,” I said, pawing at him.
“Leave me alone,” he said.
“What are you doing?” Julia said from the bedroom. “Leave him alone.”
“Now,” I yelled, grabbing his shirt, a button popping off. “This is our house,” I said. “My recliner.” But when I went to say something else, he punched me in the stomach.
Something at my spine shot forward and pushed against my groin.
“Anthony,” I said, keeling over, but before I could yield, he punched me in the nose.
Julia pushed him away.
“Julia,” I said, my nose bleeding, my body contracting, my stomach, my groin in agony. “Please.”
Julia asked, “What was wrong? What was wrong?” Behind her, Anthony watched pensively.
“You all right?” he finally said, and when he kneeled to see if I was okay, I mustered everything I could and punched the son of a bitch in the face. With him grabbing his nose and falling backward, I dragged myself to the bathroom, Julia yelling the entire way.
I locked the door and rolled into the bathtub and I peed, but I didn’t want to pee. The pain was so great, I wanted anything but to pee. In the tub, I laid in my own filth and cried.
Small squirts released in my underwear before I could wriggle out of my clothes. When the pain receded, I used my foot to turn on the water. It rushed around me and washed away the dribbles of yellow, and after a while, clouds of red.
When I came out of the bathroom an hour later, my eye blackening, my hand at my crotch, the television was the only light on, its blue hue over Julia in the recliner.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she asked.
“Anthony?” I said. He wasn’t on the balcony. “Tony?” He wasn’t in the kitchen. On the counter were his napkins, his cursive large and bold, his letters spelling gapertooth.com?
Lighthouse Tours of Maine
“Julia,” I said, doubling over. She watched me, anger mixing with concern mixing with resentment. My procedure was in two days, but I wasn’t going to make it. I knew this was coming, whether I wanted it or not.
Julia didn’t say anything while she drove to the hospital. We passed the lodge, my face pressed against the window. She didn’t say anything as we passed the exit for the McMansion, or the school I had been fired from twice now. Silently, she just drove, but after a while, as my crying intensified, the condensation on the window heavier, she took one hand from the wheel and glided her fingers back and forth across my back.
After Julia ran into the emergency room, a nurse came out with a wheelchair. “What happened to your face?” he said when he opened the door and saw me. Despite being built like a linebacker, he had a hard time pulling me out of the car, my body rigid and stiff. Everything hurt everywhere.
“I fell,” I said. “Isn’t there another one of you that could help?”
“With the cut in benefits,” he said, “feel lucky I’m here.”
Tiny but Mighty Rhode Island
“It’s huge,” the doctor said. She studied the X-ray, her surgical cap tied tight on her head. “It’s definitely trying to pass. Who told you this could wait until Friday?” She stopped talking when she turned and saw my face.
“I fell,” I said.
The anesthesiologist came around the curtain and asked if I’d recently had anything to eat.
“Well,” he said after I told him I had. “Looks like all you’re getting is local.”
“Can I at least get enough to knock out a horse?” I said through laborious breaths. My hand clutched the metal frame of the bed while the nurse released the brake.
“Sorry, Charlie,” he said, and no, I couldn’t get drunk real quick, either.
Old Line State
“Wait!” a woman’s voice yelled down the hall as the nurse pushed my bed through a pair of double doors. “Wait!” Julia’s voice yelled after. The nurse stopped and waited for the voices to catch up. Julia and an older woman with beehive hair ran up to my bed.
“Insurance says this isn’t emergency enough to receive benefits,” the woman said, her voice like gravel. Julia held my hand. The woman told me how much this would cost, including whatever I already owed. Enough to max out our credit cards. To ding our credit and deny us a loan, regardless of Julia’s bank job. Julia rubbed my hand and mouthed, It’s okay. “Just sign here and initial here,” the woman said. Julia’s thumb went back and forth, her belly against the bed frame. “It’s okay,” she said, but I knew it wasn’t. I knew she wanted me to have the surgery, because if I didn’t, the pain would be horrible, but what choice did I really have?
“Is this life-threatening?” I asked. No one answered. Sweat covered my forehead. “Is this life-threatening?”
“It ain’t gonna be fun,” the nurse said. The anesthesiologist told me it would be extremely painful and there might be ripping. The doctor was called, and she strongly advised I let the nurse continue wheeling me into the OR, but no, it was not life-threatening. It would be painful, she said, but I would survive.
I told the nurse to take out my IV. I told him again and said I was going home.
I never went to church growing up, so I never had a relationship with God, but that night
I prayed as I put on my clothes, signed the papers releasing the hospital of liability, and crawled into the car. I prayed we’d make it home before the stone came. I prayed I wouldn’t have to pass it in the car. We couldn’t afford detailing, and I didn’t want to explain those stains for the rest of the time we owned the Honda.
Vermont Maple Syrup
I collapsed in the doorway of our apartment, the pain too much, the mass that was once in my back, then stomach, now on top of my penis, a stickiness in my pants, the pushing no longer deliberate. Julia tried pulling me up but couldn’t with her belly.
“Come on, baby,” she said. I wouldn’t move, my hands between my legs. Julia tried again, and then her voice grew quiet and her footsteps vanished, leaving me alone in our doorway.
Quality Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey
“Get up, you son of a bitch.”
Large hands grabbed me and turned me over. Through tears I saw Anthony, his eye also black, Julia behind him, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s cradled in her arms. Anthony dragged me to the bathroom. “Bottle,” he said. He pushed the bottle to my lips and filled my mouth with whiskey.
“No,” I said, not to the booze but him. I spit it out.
“Drink up,” he said. He again put the bottle to my mouth, and this time I swallowed.
The Natural State
“Help me,” Anthony told Julia as he pulled off my shoes. Julia tried getting on her knees, but couldn’t. “Forget it,” he said, peeling off my socks. “I should’ve stayed at the lodge.”
He manoeuvred my jeans past my knees. He pulled off my underwear, the crotch wet with urine and blood. He pulled my shirt over my head. He turned on the water and let it run until it was warm. “Come on,” he said, and lifted me in.
Marlon Brando Was Born in Omaha
Anthony tried to step away, his shirt soaked from the shower as he set me inside the tub, but I wouldn’t let go of his hand, the pain was so great. Julia watched from the closed toilet.
“Okay,” Anthony said, gripping back. “We’re here.” His consolation wasn’t any help as I lay naked in the tub holding the hand of the man I hated while my wife watched me push a rock out the tip of my penis.
“Breathe,” Anthony said, taking big breaths and exhaling. “Breathe.”
“I hate you,” I yelled through gritted teeth. “I hate you so much.”
“Shhhhhh,” he said. He held the bottle to my lips. “Just breathe,” he said. “Oh, and you owe the lodge fifty bucks for the bottle.”
In the end, it was a complete disaster.
I drank more and pushed more, and Julia held my hand and said she was sorry, and even through I couldn’t say it, she knew I was sorry too.
When I threw up, Anthony poured more booze down my throat until the stone collapsed inside my penis, and instead of one mass, granules dripped out like sand. Before washing away, the tiny pile took shape for an instant, the western edge big and dipping in the middle, the eastern side panhandling at the bottom. The pile, in the second before it broke apart and swirled down the drain with water and piss and blood, looked like a little America.
A miniature United States that washed around me.
Our Nation’s Capital
There weren’t any complications when our baby was born two weeks later. To Anthony’s disappointment, we named him Thomas.
“Everything all right in here?” Julia said a few weeks later, coming into the bathroom of our apartment, which we decided would do just fine for now. Thomas slept on my chest as we lay in the tub, the water warm but not hot, the temperature back to normal in our home. Everything else passed as history.
“Anthony needs to come in,” Julia said. “And it’s urgent.”
“One or two?” I asked, and a panicked “One!” answered behind her. “Just close the curtain.”
Julia slid the hooks along the bar and Anthony closed the door after she left and did what he needed to do. After he flushed I slid the curtain back and found Anthony smiling.
“How’s our little guy?” he asked, and Thomas stirred. I told him our little guy was doing just fine, then reminded him, as he reached for his great-nephew, to wash his hands first.