by S. K. Berenson
The front door to the apartment had just clicked shut behind her when Sara saw it.
The newspaper. Not again. Not after last night.
Her husband sat at their table, facing her, his head and upper body hidden behind “Week in Review.” Two pudgy short legs hung below the paper. Obviously Laurie’s. His own lanky legs sprawled forward, one hooked onto the rungs of a side chair. Other sections of the Times flopped haphazardly across the table. “Book Review.” Front section. Magazine. Sports. Ads. Katie sat on the floor by his feet, drawing, humming.
Had to be Sunday’s edition. What was it running nowadays, six dollars?
Sara shot a message across the room: Tell me no, David.
The paper punched forward, followed by the baby’s giggle. “Hey, mushroom, stop that,” David said. His hand disappeared behind the paper. The newspaper punched out again.
Sara retreated into the kitchen. Her grocery sack dragged beside her. She removed the Eggland eggs from the bag and placed them on a counter. She yanked out the fry pan from the drawer under the oven before she remembered: it was Tuesday already. Maybe, just maybe, his brother gave David the paper. Please let it be.
Sara cranked the dial on the stove to medium. “Want some eggs?” she called from the kitchen. Still, her voice should carry around the half wall that separated them. She slid her hand down the side of her jeans. Her right hand stopped at her pocket and fingered the bulge from her keys.
“Did you buy a paper today?” Sara dared the words. She couldn’t confront him; he’d justify any purchase. She leaned around the corner.
David peered out. His glasses didn’t look quite in place, halfway down his nose as they were. His cowlick fanned out, as usual. “I bought a paper,” he said. “Thanks. Scrambled.”
Sara returned to the stove. “I bought a paper,” she repeated, hoping he heard her, doubting he did. The room was definitely growing warm. She cracked four eggs into a bowl. Hot this early, and the rest of the day would be treacherous. Sara touched her forehead with her fingers; the sweat was already forming. Turning on the air was not an option. Maybe she should take the children out on the porch?
David folded the paper. He lifted Laurie and placed her on the blanket on the floor, pushed up his glasses onto his forehead, and rose. One of these days, one of them would tape that stuffing back into the chair. Funny, those chairs were one of the few items she didn’t get at the resale shop.
Sarah watched as her husband padded across the floor toward the picture window. He stopped to pick up his lab coat from the back of the couch.
David visited the window most mornings, filling the windowpanes with his broad silhouette. He told her he looked out just to thank his lucky life that his little family was tucked safely into an apartment, that they weren’t down on the sidewalk with the man in the gray sweatsuit who had set up camp on the grate across from D’Ags, or the others who stayed a day or two and left. Sara wondered if he knew, really knew how close his little family was to joining the homeless. She counted out the dollars, the ones, the fives, the tens, the coins, each and every one, days before rent was due, never knowing if she’d have enough.
Acid rose in Sara’s throat. She focused on stirring the eggs. The nauseous feeling subsided. Maybe she could call Susie. Yes, her sister might tell her if she was exaggerating. Too bad Meghan lived so far away.
David stroked the Siamese, long on the sill. It raised its gray head and purred loudly, a motor warming up to go nowhere.
“Is something wrong?” David called out. His hand followed the undulating flow of the cat’s spine, down to the tip of its tail. Must give him that – he usually sensed when she was upset. Her mother could be angry for a week, and her father never seemed to notice.
This time it was Sara who did not answer.
“Ah, honey,” David said, turning toward her in the kitchen.,He tilted up his arm in the way he always did, his eyes crinkled, and Sara, as she always did, stopped what she was doing and crossed the room to slid in underneath. Sara noticed a crop of uneven whiskers poking out unevenly below his ear, missed in his morning shave.
“It’s just a paper.” He knew. “It’s my one joy. That is, except finding treasures for my girls. But I’ll do better this time.”
“And when might that be?” Her voice barbed the air. Sara lifted his arm off and turned to confront him. “That Teddy bear you got Laurie. Thirty-five dollars. That house set for Katie. Something like twenty. And a sound system for me. A sound system!” Sara’s voice shot up and Katie looked over, her eyes and mouth round. Sara quieted again. “What was all that budgeting we did last night? One of these days a store won’t take back the things you keep buying!”
She didn’t mean to explode, she never did. He was a good man – she knew it, and Meghan wouldn’t let her forget it, especially after that last husband of hers. Surely David had changed this time, surely. Last night they had planned everything on paper so that they’d get their Visa cards paid down. It might take them a few years but then worries and the collection calls would then be gone, and gone forever. Okay, he didn’t do a good job with the budget they made last year, or the time before that, but this one, this one would work. Sara had felt so close to him last night, he had come up with so many ideas himself. She was so proud of him.
David leaned over the window. A woman down on the sidewalk bent over a carriage, lifted out a crying baby, not noticing her toddler, once at her side, moving off to catch up with a fast-walking dove.
“You remember?” David asked. “No Seasons were to us / It was not Night or Morn.’” Whitman. “ ‘But Sunrise stopped upon the place/And fastened it in Dawn.’” He had courted her with Whitman.
Sara’s fury grew. “Don’t you listen?” she said, her voice thick. “We’re talking money here. I’ve told you and told you I don’t like doing that anymore. We were children back then. Silly children with dreams that never happened.” She went to rescue Laurie who now whimpered, and hoisted the baby onto her hip.
“Now we have children of our own. We can’t feed them with poems. We need chicken!”
The newspaper purchase had thrown her off-track. Sara had seen the announcement posted outside of D’Agostino’s. It was a godsend. Just what they talked about last night. A paying job for David.
“Welman’s is hiring,” Sara told him, pushing Laurie higher. She remembered the eggs. They were surely cold by now.
David fetched that little notebook from his lab coat. He flipped it open, glanced at a page, then tucked it back in the pocket. Ach, that notebook!
“I have to go,” David said. He watched Sara, eager, hopeful. “Some people will come in for an eye exam today,” he said. “I know it. They came in yesterday, said they’d be back.”
“I said Welman’s is hiring.” Sara repeated. “You did construction with your uncle. I bet you’d have a decent chance at getting hired.” Her temples pinged.
“I pay next to nothing for that office space,” David reminded her, anger now entering his voice as well. His shoulders unexpectedly squared. “Great location, great friend to give it to me. Okay, so I give up my space and I go to Welman’s. It won’t work out – you know it won’t. I’m terrible at construction and I’ve told you that, one of these days I’m really going to chop off my hand or fall off a building or something, no more last minute save – and Howie will see me gone and give away the space to some other friend. Hell, he has a huge family; one of them would take it. Anyone would want a place with a near-nothing rent.”
She knew he’d say that, of course he’d say that. But the economy was in such bad shape. They were in such bad shape. People don’t get their eyes checked when they can’t pay rent. It’s not as if she wasn’t doing her part – she spent most nights after David came home at McDonalds, coming home soaked in grease smells. Why couldn’t he read up on construction and learn?
“Look,” Sara said, her body slumped lethargic. She leaned against the back of the couch to steady herself. The couch – one of her best Goodwill bargains ever. “Think of the girls.” She knew she was begging. “Lose your office place? We don’t want to lose this place.”
She didn’t say what she really wanted to say. Her children needed a father, a breadwinner.
She did, too.
“I am an optometrist,” David said. “No more construction.” He reached forward, took Laurie from her, and threw the baby up in the air. Laurie gurgled, delighted. Katie dropped her crayons and ran over, her arms raised and ready. “‘Therefore we do life’s labor,” he recited. “Though life’s Reward – be done/With scrupulous exactness/To hold…’”
“Stop it, stop it!” Sara’s hand smashed down on the couch. The sun blazed across the room, lighting up the suspended dust. “Please! I’ve heard your poems and promises over and over. We need money. Now! Not when patients come in or the economy turns around. Now!” She leaned over, nausea full and ready. She missed her sisters. “And you need to quit spending what we have! When are you going to grow up?”
David frowned, his chin pockmarked. “It will pick up, I know it will.” He nodded at his lab coat where his notebook lay. “You know I’ve been planning. When the economy comes back, I’ll be ready.” He wiggled Laurie in the air again, over to his side, so when the drool dripped, and it did, it missed him, landing in a twist on the floor. David handed Laurie to Sara and went for napkin cleanup duty. “It wasn’t for me,” he said with finality. “I like working for myself.”
“Bye, bye, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” Katie’s voice followed her father as he cleaned her mess and readied to leave. David turned back toward Sara and raised himself on his toes. “‘I cannot dance upon my Toes.’” Dickinson now. “‘No Man instructed me / But oftentimes, among my mind.’” Sara mouthed the last line as he recited it, “‘A Glee possesseth me.’”
How like him, Sara thought. The poem speaks of wishes, not reality.
“Goodbye, my girls, my keepers of the Glee.” David lowered himself, gallantly removed an imaginary hat from his head, and bowed grandly, first to Katie who giggled, fingers in her mouth, then to Laurie, and lastly, to her. Sara remembered him as Romeo in the school play. He had been good. The romantic. The impulsive. The dreamer.
With a wave and a second bow, David turned, stepped grandly through the door. He turned. “I’ll be home early,” he said to Sara, and shut it behind him. “Give you a rest from the girls before you need to go.” The lock clicked.
Just for a moment, for the instant when the door closed, a sheet of black descended before Sara’s eyes that obliterated everything, no light, no images, no apartment, no children, just blackness. Then, almost as quickly, the sheet lifted and the lights switched on and the girls, the floor, the couch, the newspaper, the door reappeared, waiting, expectant.
Then an itch started in Sara’s fingers, but when she scratched, the itch moved, alive it was, invading the length of her arms, a frenzied whoosh of pricks. She scratched and rubbed and slapped, willing herself not to notice, impossible to ignore. Some infection? Sara moved to the kitchen sink and twisted the faucet’s handles, cold, cold, and shoved her arms underneath for the water blast. A spray of water bounced back at her. Ah, a wondrous relief, but then her legs started up, the same relentless itchiness that had her slapping her thighs, her shins.
What was wrong with her?
Sara filled up the tub, again all cold, cold, so cold, and eased herself into it. The temperature shocked and her body refused to go further. But then the water warmed, or perhaps she just got used to it, and she slipped further down. The itching stopped and Laurie cried and Katie yelled the baby made the place smell stinky. Sara slipped down until her ears went under and her knees poked up. She didn’t know how long she stayed. Her head hurt, the bone right over her right eye pounding one, two, one, two.
Out of the tub, dried and back in her jeans, Sara searched for a fresh diaper. Laurie had messed herself badly. Sara laid the baby on her bed, soaped a towel, and turning Laurie over, wiped her bottom.
“Round and round and round,” Sara chanted, moving her hands in circles, around Laurie’s rear, her back, her legs. Katie joined in with the chant, moving her own arms around in the air. Sara noticed her own hands against the baby’s, now shriveled from the bath, knuckles red. She refused to look again. Lord, it hadn’t been that long. Boys on her parents’ front porch, late night parties, whispered confidences. Happy dreams of a profession, of marriage, of success.
Sara patted the baby dry, placed her in the center of her bed, and sat next to her. The tears came. Sara swayed, maybe a few minutes, maybe a half-hour. Katie stacked blocks. Pigeons cooed outside on the ledge.
Sara willed herself up, stood, swayed a moment, sat back down, wiped her nose on her sleeve, sat down a third time, stood up, scratched her leg, sat back down.
She stood again, and stayed. Picked up an empty baby bottle, clear with water. Dropped it on the bed. Added the pound of cheddar from the frig. A row of Ritz. Katie’s bear, Laurie’s squishy frog. The pile grew. A sauce pan. Five diapers. Baby powder. Toothbrushes. Two shirts and pants for Katie, a sleeper for Laurie, her denim shirt for herself.
At the bookshelf, Sara opened the Edger Allen Poe collection. Forty-seven dollars nestled inside, money she had hoarded for months. It was to be for fall clothes for the children.
Not much, she thought, tossing the bills on the bed.
What was the pan doing there? She tossed it off the mattress. The pan landed on the floor with a clank.
“What are you doing, Mommy?” Katie asked. She picked up the pan and placed it back on the mattress.
The scissors Sara found in the Everything drawer. She ran her thumb across one of the blades. Sharp. A thin line of red bubbled across the skin. Her headache stopped. Sara found a sheet set in the closet, the last one they had bought, not even a sale, what, a year ago? She paused, began to cut, paused again, then cut off a good foot from its end. She cried again and kept working. She loosely looped the sheet diagonally across her chest and belly, around her back, and knotted it tight over her shoulder. Sara pulled on the knot, just to be sure. Their stroller had broken months ago when Katie had raced around with her bear in it.
“Up, little one,” she said, wiping her own nose against her sleeve, picking up Laurie, a bit too roughly, and tried to maneuver her daughter into the fabric. The baby, legs dangling, squeezed her face and complained. “Oh, quiet for once, would you?” Sara fought with the material until legs were where they were meant to be and arms were where they were meant to be and Laurie looked up, face fat and content. Around the baby Sara packed in the collected items. The bottle poked out. The items she couldn’t fit were squeezed into her canvas purse and into her waistband.
The mirror over the dresser caught her by surprise. The reflection had her bloated. Sara turned slightly and caught her silhouette. If she squinted her eyes, she thought she looked a bit like she did when she was pregnant for the first time and huge but pretty and pink and proud. Then her eyes climbed to her face. She grimaced and looked away.
“Come, Katie.” Sara held out her hand to her older daughter, a forefinger extended. Katie grabbed it and lifted herself off the ground, pumping her legs. Her ruddy face thrilled.
She checked once again that the money was still safe inside her purse. Maybe Susie and Bill could lend her the rest so she could get down to Megan’s. They had the room, that was for sure. But if the kids upset that new husband of hers…
Sara looked around the apartment. There was little that they had not already sold off. A pine dresser. The table. The chairs. The couch. Their bed. The windowsill.
The Siamese stared back.