Hung up on the ball and chain this morning before coming to Mom’s. Paul told me she’d be out. I hate hanging up like that. I know how it feels. If you’re in a good mood — busy, centered — it’s like I give a shit, right? But if you’re feeling bad, it’s like dying. It’s personal. You say hello and they hang up on you like they want to hang up on you and nobody else. Not to mention she’s not a nitwit. She’s going to wonder.
The buds are opening on some of the trees. I hate March. When you’re in the sun, it’s spring and then you walk by a building or a big doorway and winter’s waiting for you there. The buds are fools. They come out in February or March and then get sandbagged by the cold.
In the winter, I love the cold. You don’t expect as much in the winter. There’s less of everything – – light, heat, color, life. And that’s fine with me. It’s a matter of expectations. Paul’s studio seems cozy in the winter. You don’t feel cheated that you can’t open the windows, open the blinds, go for a walk. It seems just right that the whole world is in one little lovemaking room. One chunk of foam on the floor wrapped in a sheet and covered by an old comforter. The black deco standing lamp with the bonnet shade. Folding chairs. A candle. A space heater. And all the liquor you could want, and, of course, the little pipe and his stash.
And the boom box and us. He makes tapes of his favorite songs, his “latest enthusiasms” he calls them, raising his black eyebrows and winking a blue eye, and I think, am I one of them there things? How he finds time I really can’t say. A wife, a child, a mistress, a – like he always says – “high powered” job. And then he finds time to make tapes of Roy Orbison and Emmy Lou Harris. Turning on the boom box and pacing around the small floor, he explains to me how country and blues became rock ‘n’ roll or how old Ray Charles was when he went blind. Cute, like a little boy teacher.
He always does a high powered job on me, very proud of that, he is, supporting himself with his arms for so long I can see his biceps developing in the candlelight, Talking, talking, talking. Talking about me. And then when we’re finally done, and he brings the ashtray and the vodka, tiptoeing past the space heater, naked and drowsy, we lie together and he’s talking, talking, talking about him.
Johnny and Verne grab for the phone like they’re still kids, not grownups waiting for their mother to die. It’s a tie. They’re both holding the receiver down and looking at each other like arm wrestlers. I’m wondering if it’s Paul for me. He was supposed to call an hour ago. They hold on for three rings.
“Boys, boys,” Dad says quietly and they both remember where they are and let go. On the fourth ring I pick it up. It’s Paul. I can hardly hear him. So I go into the kitchen and get the phone there. But I still can’t hear him hardly. It’s his end.
“Where are you?” I say.
“In a bar. They put the phone right next to the goddamn T.V. I can’t hear you.”
“Find another phone,” I say.
“You’re right,” he says and hangs up.
I sit at the small table waiting for Paul to find another phone. I should straighten up, the kitchen’s a mess, but I don’t have the energy. Have to water the plants anyway, all four of them. And on the long, yellow table are two beautiful flower arrangements, looking beautiful against the yellow wood. Ann sent one. I don’t know who sent the other, that sexy flower Bird of Paradise.
Even with all that noise, Paul’s voice got me going. I saw him in his raincoat in the cheap bar. The charcoal raincoat. The back of his neck, his hair just cut, the line of black hair sharp against that white black-Irish skin. The strong fingers of his left hand tapping on the mahogany bar, one of them with the thick wedding ring, the other hand holding the phone, breathing into my ear.
The kitchen is full of color. Dad’s new things are up on the wall. A painting of the old house in April, the lilacs blooming in lavender smudges that seep into the white of the big front porch. That’s above the long table, blocked a little by the fake Tiffany lamp hanging from the ceiling. The wall’s filled with paintings, mostly by us. Even Mom was painting lately, before she went to bed for good — sleeping, moaning, sleeping — a couple of her crazy fruit still-lifes jumping out of the frames, limes like watermelons or watermelons like limes. An early one of Dad’s, a nude with thick black strokes for eyes and nose, looks like a Russian icon of the Madonna.
The phone rings in my hand, making me jump.
“I’ve got it!” I yell to the living room and Verne calls back, “Okay, baby.” Damn.
“Hi,” I say, “Where are you now?”
“In Government Center across from City Hall. It’s snowing.”
“I know. Isn’t it weird?”
“I miss you,” he calls into the wind.
“I miss you.”
“What are you wearing?”
I laugh, “You’re a panic.”
“When can I see you? I have tonight.”
“Tonight’s okay, I think. My shift is tomorrow night.”
He’s smart enough not to ask how Mom is.
“I hung up on your wife again today.”
“Oh, shit,” he says.
“I hate to do that.”
“What time?” I say.
“That’s late. Do we have to leave at ten?”
“I’m afraid so,” he says.
“Don’t be angry.” he says.
There actually is a copy of a Russian icon of the Madonna in the kitchen, right by the slip of wall between the window and the sink. On the other side are photographs of Verne and Tess, with Verne looking straight into the camera, holding the baby like she’s an Oscar.
“Well, what are you then?”
“Pregnant,” I say.
The phone clicks and the recording comes on . . . “or your call will automatically be terminated.”
“Damn,” he says.
“You got a quarter?”
I feel like a jerk. I know it’s an asshole way to tell him. I don’t know why I did it like that.
“Ah,” he says. The coin clicks in. “What did you say? It sounded like you said you were pregnant?”
There’s a long pause. “Get out of the snow,” I said.
Who would think I’d get to know this little section of warehouses in the butt end of Allston so well? Through the third red light on North Harvard Street, after the bridge, and then a left, and then past his building and around the corner. And usually the bag of chicken wings or roast beef subs, or take-out Chinese. Not tonight. No time for dinner tonight.
The heavy metal front door is wedged open with a brick which I hurt my toe kicking back into the dim, stone vestibule. It clangs. The whole building clangs. Inside I push the big door shut. When I turn to climb the iron stairs, I see him sitting on the first landing in his suit and socks, his shoes hanging from the fingers of one hand, his tie undone, his teeth gleaming. He gets up and starts up the stairs ahead of me.
“Come visit my tree house,” he says.
I follow on the clanging steps, circling round and round. By the fourth floor, I’ve caught up with him and we go in the apartment together. There are candles lit on the picnic table he stole from a park last summer. I can see the blue evening through the spaces between the blinds, which are pulled all the way down but tilted upward so the sky comes through. His laptop sits in the corner on the floor by the foam mattress. He stands in front of me and looks me in the eye.
“I don’t feel like talking yet,” I say.
So he goes over to the industrial-size sink.
“Can I get you a drink?” He says. “I was just making one for myself.” Then he turns in the jumping candlelight and smiles nervously. “Or are you not supposed to drink already?”
“I’ll have a martini,” I say and start to cry. No sobbing, just the tears pouring out. I swore I wouldn’t but I can’t help it, and once I’ve started I can’t stop. Now I’m going to get red and swollen, and he’s going to get all agitated and maybe start yelling because I’ve made him feel guilty. But he doesn’t yell. He comes over and holds me.
“It’s gonna be okay, baby,” he whispers in my ear. The whisper is moist and the two little bursts of air that “baby” make start to get me warmed up. God, I hate him right now.
“I can’t believe it,” I say, “I’m pregnant. My mother’s dying. Everything sucks. I’m sick of life. I’m sick of coming here to goddamn Allston once a week. I’m sick of everything.”
I back away, take off my coat and peek through the blinds at the long-haired, gray cat who sleeps in the street.
Paul’s chilling the glasses and stirring the drinks and looking in his briefcase for his little bottle of olives. It’s not until the drinks are ready and we’re sitting on opposite benches over the picnic table, after we say cheers and take our first sip of the cold vodka that he says, “Are you sure?”
“I love you,” he says.
I nod again.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he says, “that and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee.”
“That and three hundred will get me an abortion,” I say.
“Oh,” he says, like he hadn’t thought of abortion. Another goddman Catholic. I can’t believe I’m with someone like Dad. Goddamn Catholics. Revering life. Damnit. He’s already finished his drink. He gets up.
“I tink I’ll take a wee bit more,” he brogues, “And you? A freshenin’ lass?”
When he sits down again, he puts his finger under the loosened knot of his tie and slides it off as smooth as a rope trick.
After we make love he stares at me in the candlelight like he always does when we’re done. Touching me gently, turning me over.
“You’re like a scientist,” I said once, “Get out a magnifying glass, why don’t you?”
“Not a scientist,” he said, “a lover. I’m admiring you, not examining you. I’m reverent before you.”
He strokes my hip and I start to cry again, turning my head so he won’t see. But of course he senses it right away. He thinks he’s so sensitive and he is. He says, “You’re so beautiful and so full of feeling,” like my heart creaking apart is a lovely thing to watch.
I want to tell him what he’s full of but he’s all I have. And in spite of myself he’s stimulated the tiny bit of pride I have left. I’m full of feeling and that’s a good thing, I think, it’s why he likes me. That and my boobs.
“Can I get you anything?” he says, getting up and crossing the room to the whiskey, bending down over his little makeshift liquor cabinet.
“Yes,” I say and sit up on the foam mattress, propping pillows against the wall, the sheet around my waist. I look at him, knowing my tears have made my black eyes even shinier. So I’m not surprised when he turns with the glasses and says “Black Beauty.” He puts on his boxers, as white as his teeth, as his white shirts.
“Where you goin’, Red Rider?” I ask him.
“Nowhere.” But after he hands me my drink he doesn’t join me but sits on the edge of the mattress, looking off at the tiny room as if he’s sitting on the seashore.
My heart starts thumping like it’s a frog trying to leap up my chest and find its way out of my mouth. I take a big sip of the vodka. It helps. I’ll have it if he wants. I’ll have it if he leaves Gloria. I’ll want to. This is what I’m thinking as he lights two cigarettes and hands me one. The he turns again and takes a deep drag, looking out again into the distance.
“This is so weird,” he says finally.
“Not really,” I say, taking another sip, “It’s the most natural thing in the world, when you think about it. ‘The rich get richer and the poor get pregnant.’”
He sits another couple of minutes like he didn’t hear me, long enough so he lights another cigarette from the coal of the first one, then he rests it in his ashtray on the floor and stands up. He takes his shirt, which is draped over the lampshade, and puts it on, buttoning the bottom buttons, rolling the sleeves up. Then he sits back down in the same position, back at the seashore, the sun a little brighter, a little breeze kicking up. He takes another drag.
He starts sighing and I really begin to worry. Sighing heavily through his nose and mouth. Every time I feel like the air’s coming out of me.
“What is going on?” I say finally. “What’s weird?”
He sighs again and puts the cigarette out, carefully separating the coal form the tip and tidily brushing it to the side of the ashtray. Then he turns his head. Here come the baby blues, I think.
“It’s really so weird,” he says.
“What’s weird, for godsakes? What is so weird? Besides you, I mean.”
“Maybe it’s the Vitamin E I’ve been taking lately,” he says, smiling nervously. Then he looks away and says, “Gloria’s pregnant.”
My heart stops thumping. It quiets right down. No more tears, I think. I remember the ad. The toddler with its hair full of suds and smiling. Even though he’s braced for my anger, Paul pretty much flies off the bed I kick him so hard. He lands on his butt, facing me. He almost laughs but decides against it. He rubs his hip.
“That hurt,” he says.
“It is weird,” I say. “Since you and Gloria haven’t been together in how long? A year and a half? I think that’s what you said, you asshole. You goddamn pig. Is she seeing someone else? Or is it an immaculate conception?”
“Virgin birth,” he says.
“Virgin birth,” he stands up rubbing his hip. He goes to the liquor cabinet. “People always get that mixed up. The Immaculate Conception is a term which refers — the tradition says — to Mary’s being born without sin. That is, born free of sin, while every other human is born with sin. The Virgin Birth is the term for Mary conceiving and delivering the baby Jesus without sexual intercourse. Not the Immaculate Conception. People get those mixed up all the time.” He’s peering through the Stoli bottle like he sees something interesting. He pours some in my glass.
“What did you just say?”
He turns his eyes away from me and fill his glass. He sits back down on the floor.
“What did you just say to me?” I say.
He drives me to the clinic. Not quite. He drives me two blocks away to a sunny corner of treelined, bricklined Brookline.
“I’ll wait for you here,” he says. He can’t hardly look at me, the pansy. As a joke, I brought him a pair of Groucho glasses with the nose and mustache so he could come in with me, get through the busybody Christians yelling, wait in the waiting room. He wasn’t amused. “You know I would if I could,” he said, looking at the backs of his hands on the steering wheel of his new Miata, stretching his fingers.
“Yah,” I say. “I’m not in the mood to boost his ego today. “I’ll wear them,” and I put them on. He doesn’t look for a couple of minutes. I just sit there under the bushy eyebrows. Finally he turns and laughs. I’m still taking care of him, the prick. I get out of the car, wearing the Grouchos.
“You’re gonna take them off,” he calls after me. “Aren’t you?”
After I turn the corner and the morning sunshine hits me, I take off the Grouchos and put on my fake RayBans. I look around the nice, law-abiding neighborhood before I toss the joke glasses. They land on a bare bush right-side up. That will make someone laugh. When I turn the next corner, I can see the clinic halfway up the block of clean, white sidewalk. Unclinical building, an old, beautiful Brookline house with a stone foundation, white columns on the porch, nice, newly painted wood. Three floors of family planning. I scope out across the street where the hecklers usually hang and it’s empty, or almost empty. Just one person holding up a picture. I look down at my boots and jeans, and try to disappear into my big sweater. Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk on By’ pops into my head.
Across the street it’s just this one kid, like eleven years old in an unzipped raggedy looking blue parka, holding a big picture of a babylike fetus attached to a piece of wood. The picture’s nearly big as the kid. I’m surprised to see him there all alone in the bright sun behind the police tape. Maybe his mom’s gone off to get them a little something at Dunkin’ Donuts. His arms must be killing him — he’s let the sign tilt so it’s leaning on one of his shoulders.
Just as I’m passing the front of the building, a gust of wind blows up and the picture is pulled out of his hands and flies halfway across the street. He’s smart enough not to run after it, thank God.
I check out the traffic and walk out into the street, pick up the sign and go over to him. He’s a striking looking kid with green eyes and dark hair. Looks like he wants to run but doesn’t. I haul up the sign, fighting with the wind to get it straight like it’s a big umbrella. The boy reaches out his arms and I hand it to him. When he smiles and says “thanks,” I see he’s got a cleft palate.
“You remind me of the strongman at the circus,” I say and he looks a little confused like he’s never heard of the strongman at the circus. Probably hasn’t. It’s probably not a video game. I get a whiff from the Dunkin’ Donuts and all of a sudden I’m starving.
The Grouchos are already gone when I stroll back to the car forty-five minutes later, balancing a cruller on a large coffee. Paul starts to get out of the car then thinks better of it, hunkers back in and opens my door, leans out to help with the food.
“How are you, honey?” he says, managing to wait for my answer before taking a bite of the cruller.
“Tired,” I say, fastening my seat belt. “Very tired.”
“My poor baby,” he says and holds my face in one hand, the cruller in the other.
“Let’s just go,” I say.
He carefully puts the coffee in its holder and starts up his new baby, which purrs into action. I’ll show you Immaculate Conception, I think, as we get moving.
Alec Solomita has published fiction in the Southword Journal, The Mississippi Review, Southwest Review, and The Adirondack Review, among other publications. He was shortlisted by the Bridport Prize and Southword Journal, and named a finalist by the Noctua Review. His poetry has appeared in Algebra of Owls, The Galway Review, MockingHeart Review, Driftwood Press, and elsewhere. His poetry chapbook, “Do Not Forsake Me,” was published by Finishing Line Press in 2017. He lives in Somerville, Mass.