The doctors had delivered Beth and Tex’s only child stillborn, in breach, and the child had come apart. Their voices seemed to travel to her from a great distance and then open up quietly, beside her ear. She felt the strength leave Tex’s grip on her hand as if his heart had stopped, the blood in his body going still. She looked up at him, but he turned away. Then the drugs took over, what they’d given her after so much reluctant labor, and she drifted off.
They’d allowed the funeral home to take their child, and to fix her, though they’d never had any intention of opening the casket or even having a public service. And neither did they view the man’s work at all, despite his professional disappointment. He understood they wouldn’t want others to view her, but seemed to think they’d want to see her themselves. He was a soft and pale supplicant, Mr. Pond, who kind of looked like a sad baby himself, with wet lips and lost eyes. They explained, as best they could, that they’d wanted only to have her as whole again as she could possibly be, never having been whole and out in the world. But Beth couldn’t bear to see it, to see her looking like some kind of ghoulish doll. They’d named her Sarah, after Beth’s mother, who’d died the year before. Beth found a fading black-and-white photograph of her mother as an infant on a blanket beside a flowering gardenia bush. She placed it in her pocketbook’s secret compartment. This was what her Sarah would have looked like.
They’d made him decide what to do, and he’d decided to save her more risk. She made him tell her about it, next day. He stood beside her hospital bed, hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans, hair lopsided from sleep.
“It was getting a little dangerous for you,” he said. “It was either pull her out somehow or cut you, and they asked me what we wanted to do. You were kind of out of it.
“I understood what they meant,” he said. “You were having some problems. It was dangerous. I said to go ahead and pull her out, to get it over with as quickly as they could.
“I was afraid for you,” he said. “Something in the doctors’ voices made me afraid. I told them to get it over with and to hurry. So they did.”
What he was saying moved through her like settling, spreading fluid.
“I don’t want to dwell on it,” Tex said after a moment. He sounded angry, as if he were angry at her for wanting to know. “There wasn’t anything they could do. She was already gone and it was an emergency. There was nothing anyone could do about that.”
He stood there looking at the sheet beside her as if determined to see something in it, words printed there in invisible ink.
“She broke,” she whispered. Her throat swollen and too tight to speak.
He looked at her, unfocused. She understood he could not comprehend what he’d seen.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “She was already gone.”
“It means something,” she said. “It means the world is a horrible place, where things like that can happen.”
They went home. They arranged the funeral and attended it with his parents and her father, who came with her two sisters. No one had very much to say and everyone went home that afternoon.
In the house over the next few weeks they seemed to walk through one another like shadows. One night she woke up from a dream so far from her own life she couldn’t shake it and didn’t know herself or who slept beside her. A long moment of terror before she returned to herself with dizzying speed. She lay awake watching him as calm was restored to her bloodstream, quiet to her inner ear. Her heartbeat made an aspirant sound in her chest. She gently tugged the covers from beneath his arms. Their skins were a pale, granular gray in the bedroom’s dim moonlight, which failed in silent moments as if an opaque eyelid were being lowered over its surface. She gathered his image to her mind swiftly, as if to save it from oblivion. But he seemed a collection of parts linked by shadows in the creases of his joints, pieces of a man put together in a dream, escaping her memory more swiftly than she could gather it in. In a moment he would be gone.
Julie Verner and May Miller had lost theirs, too, at about the same time. Miscarriages. They were all in their middle to late thirties, friends for close to ten years now, ever since they were young and happily childless.
It was May’s first, but Julie and Beth had each lost two, so they were like a club, with a certain cursed and morbid exclusivity. Their friends with children drew away, or they drew away from the friends. They speculated about what it was they may have done that made them all prone to lose babies, and came up with nothing much. They hadn’t smoked or drunk alcohol or even fought with their husbands much while pregnant. They’d had good obstetricians. They hadn’t even drunk the local water, just in case. It seemed like plain bad luck, or bad genes.
On Friday nights the three of them went out to drink at the student bars near the college. They smoked, what the hell. Julie smoked now anyway but Beth and May smoked only on Fridays, in the bars. They smoked self-consciously, like people in the movies. Saturdays, they slept in and their husbands went golfing or fishing or hunting. Tex was purely the fisherman, and he would rise before dawn and go to the quiet, still lakes in the piney woods, where he tossed fluke-tailed artificial worms toward largemouth bass. When he returned in the afternoons he cleaned his catch on a little table beneath the pecan tree out back. He kept only those yearlings the perfect size for panfrying in butter and garlic. On days he didn’t fish he sometimes practiced his casting in the backyard, tossing lures with the barbs removed from their hooks toward an orthopedic donut pillow Beth had bought and used for postpartum hemorrhoids.
On the mornings he went fishing Beth rose late into a house as empty and quiet as a tomb. Despite the quiet she sometimes put in earplugs and moved around the house listening to nothing but the inner sounds of her own breathing and pulse. It was like being a ghost. She liked the idea of the houses we live in becoming our tombs. She said to the others, out at the bar:
“When we died they could just seal it off.”
Julie and May liked the idea.
“Like the pharaohs,” May said.
“Except I wouldn’t want to build a special house for it,” Beth said. “Just seal off the old one, it’ll be paid for.”
“Not mine,” May said. She tried to insert the end of a new cigarette into a cheap amber holder she’d bought at the convenience store, but dropped the cigarette onto the floor. She looked at the cigarette for a moment, then set the holder down on the table and pushed her hands into her hair and held her head there like that.
“And they shut up all your money in there, too,” Beth said. “Put it all in a sack or something, so you’ll have plenty in the afterlife, and they’d have to put some sandwiches in there. Egg salad.”
“And your car,” Julie said, “and rubbers, big ones. Nothing but the big hogs for me in the afterlife.”
“Is it heaven,” May said, “if you still have to use rubbers?”
“Camel,” Beth said.
“Lucky,” May said.
Julie doled them out. When they were in the bars, when they smoked, it was nonfiltered Camels and Luckies.
They went to the Chukker and listened to a samba band, the one with the high-voiced French singer. Beth danced with a student whose stiff hair stood like brown pampas grass above a headband, shaved below. Then a tall, lithe woman she knew only as Gazella cut in and held her about the waist as they danced, staring into her eyes.
“What’s your name?”
Gazella said nothing else, but gazed frankly at her without flirtation or any other emotion Beth could identify, just gazing at her. Beth, unable to avert her own gaze, felt as exposed and transparent as a glass jar of emotional turmoil, as if the roil and color of it were being divined by this strange woman. Then the song stopped. Gazella kissed her on the cheek, and went back to the bar. Watching her, Beth knew only one thing: she wished she looked like Gazella, a nickname bestowed because the woman was so lithe, with a long neck and an animal’s dispassionate intelligence in her eyes. Powerful slim hips that rolled when she moved across the room. And like an animal, she seemed entirely self-reliant. Didn’t need anyone but herself.
She looked around. The pampas grass boy was dancing with someone else now, a girl wearing a crew cut and black-rimmed eyeglasses with lenses the size and shape of almonds. Beth went back to the table. Julie and May raised their eyebrows, moved them like a comedy team, in sync, toward Gazella. May had the cigarette holder, a Lucky burning at its end, clamped in her bared teeth. Then the two of them said the name, Gazella, in unison, and grabbed each other by the arm, laughing.
Beth said, “I was just wondering when was the last time y’all fucked your husbands?” May and Julie frowned in mock thought. May pulled her checkbook from her purse and they consulted the little calendars on the back of the register. “There, then,” Julie said, circling a date with her pen.
May spat a mouthful of beer onto the floor and shouted, “That’s 1997! A fucking year!”
“I’m not going home now,” Julie said. “Let’s go where there’s real dancing.”
Because she’d been drinking the least, Beth drove them in the new Toyota wagon she and Tex had bought for parenthood. They went to Seventies, a retro disco joint out by the interstate. There they viewed the spectrum of those with terminal disco fever, from middle-aged guys in tight white suits to young Baptist types straight from the Northend Laundry’s steam press, all cotton creases and hairparts pale and luminous as moonbeams. Beth watched one couple, a young man with pointed waspish features and his date, a plumpish big-boned girl with shoulder-length hair curled out at her shoulders. They seemed somehow designed for raucous, comic reproduction. The man twirled the woman. She was graceful, like those big girls who were always so good at modern dance in high school, their big thick legs that rose like zeppelins when they leapt. Beth indulged herself with a Manhattan, eating the cherry and taking little sips from the drink.
May now drooped onto the table in the corner of their booth before the pitcher of beer she and Julie had bought. Julie whirled in off the dance floor as if the brutish, moussed investment banker type she’d been dancing with had set her spinning all the way across the room. She plopped in opposite Beth and said, breathless, “Okay, I think I’m satisfied.”
“Not me,” May intoned.
“Words from a corpse,” Julie said. “Arouse thyself and let’s go home.”
“Oh,” May said then, and spread her arms as she sat up, then slumped back against the seat. She was crying. Too late, Beth thought, she’s hit the wall.
“Better gather her in,” she said to Julie.
“No, no,” May said, shucking their hands off her arms. “I can get out by myself. Stop it.”
“All right, but we’d better go home, honey.”
“I just keep thinking something’s wrong with me.”
“Come on, none of that,” Beth said.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” May said. “I know! It’s not as bad as what happened to you. Shit. I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” Beth said.
“ ’Cause, like, no one had it worse than Beth.”
“May, shut up,” Julie said.
“I have to shut up, I know that,” May said, and let them guide her out to the car. They managed to tumble her into the backseat. Julie, drunker than Beth had realized, tossed a match from the flaming end of her Lucky Strike, spat tobacco flecks off the tip of her tongue, and said, “Let her sleep, let’s go over to the L&N and sip some Irish whiskey. Leave a note in her ear, she can wake up and follow us inside if she wants to.”
“She’ll throw up in the car,” Beth said.
They reached in and rolled May onto her belly.
“Okay, I’m all right,” May mumbled.
“Good enough,” Julie said. “She won’t choke.”
They drove to the L&N and plowed into the deep pea gravel covering the parking lot. The streetlights cast a dim, foggy light onto the building, an old train station that stood on the bluff above the river like a ruined cathedral. May’s voice came as if disembodied from the backseat, “I’m sorry, Beth, goddamn I really am sorry for that,” and Beth was about to say, That’s okay, but May said, “I need to talk about all that. But y’all won’t talk about it. Y’all won’t say shit about all that. Tough guys.” She laughed. “Tough gals.”
Julie said, “May, I don’t want to hear it.”
“See, like that,” May said, trying to sit up. “The strong, silent type. John Wayne in a dress. No, who wears a dress anymore? Why, only John Wayne. John Wayne with a big fat ass. John Wayne with a vagina and tits. John Wayne says, ‘Rock, I’m havin’ your baby—but there’s complications.’” She got out of the car and fell into the pea gravel, laughing. “It’s so soft!” she said, rolling onto her back. “Like a feather bed! Look, it just molds to your body!”
Julie said something in a low voice to May but Beth had gotten out of the car, leaving the door open, and started down the road. She called back, “I’m going to take a walk,” and headed down the hill toward the river, the sound of Julie now speaking in an angry tone to May and May’s high-pitched protests pinging off the assault becoming distant, the beeping sound of Beth’s keys still in the ignition behind it all.
At the boat landing behind the Chevrolet dealer’s lot the river was broad and flat and black beneath a sky gauzy with the moon’s veiled light. Like old location Westerns where they’d shot night scenes during the day using something like smoked glass over the lens. She stood there listening to the faint gurgling of the current near the bank, seeing ripples from the stronger current out in the middle.
She waded in to her waist, feeling her way with her old sneakers, and stood feeling the current pull gently at her jeans and the water soaking up into her faded purple T-shirt. The river was warm like bathwater late in the bath. She leaned forward and pushed out, swimming with her head above the water, and turned back to look at the bank now twenty feet behind her. She felt the need to be submerged for a moment, to shut out the upper world. She dunked her head in and pushed the sneakers off with her toes, then swam a few strokes underwater before coming up again, where she heard a shout, “There she is!”
She threw a hand up. “Here I am!”
It was Julie shouting again. “Beth, that’s too dangerous! Come back to the goddamn bank, you idiot!”
“Beth!” May shouted. “I’m sorry! Come back!”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Beth said to herself. Farther out the water was still warm, though she passed here and there through columns of cool. She called out to them, “I’m just going to float along here for a while!”
More shouted protests, but she was farther out now, and moving downstream. She saw them start trotting along the bank, then came a crashing of leaves and branches, a jumble of cussing and some shouting, and then she couldn’t see them anymore. She was maybe thirty yards off the bank, mostly floating or treading water, moving with the current. The moon was beautiful overhead, its light on the water and the trees on either bank silver and weightless. The river was almost silent, giving up an occasional soft gurgling burp, and she could feel a breeze funneling through the riverbed, cooling her forehead when she turned her face back upstream. Nothing out there but her. There could be barges. This thought came to her. But she was lucky, none of that just then. Some large bird, a massive shadow, swooped down and whooshed just over her head, then flapped back up and away toward the opposite bank. “My God,” she shouted. “An owl!”
“Beth!” she heard from the near bank again, and she saw them, jogging along in a clearing atop a little bluff no more than a few feet above the water level.
“Here I am!”
“Beth, please!” May struggled to keep up with Julie’s long strides, and Beth heard them both, between shouting, panting, Shit…Shit…Shit. “Fucking cigarettes,” she heard Julie say. They disappeared into a copse of thick pines. There must be a trail, Beth thought. From the pines she heard Julie’s voice come up again, “Goddammit, Beth! Are you still floating?”
Their voices carried beautifully across the water, with the clarity of words transported whole and discrete across the surface, delivered to her in little pockets of sound.
“Still floating!” she called back. Then, “I’m not going to be able to hear you for a while. I’m going to float on my back. Ears in the water!” And then she turned over onto her back and floated, the water up over her ears to the corners of her eye sockets. Wispy clouds skimmed along beneath the moon, or was she moving that swiftly down the river? There was a soft roaring of white noise from the water beneath her. So much water! You couldn’t even imagine it from the bank. You couldn’t imagine it even here, in it, unless maybe you were a fish and it was your whole world. She heard a clanking, a moaning like whale soundings that could’ve been giant catfish she’d heard about, catfish big enough to come up and take her in one sucking gulp. Some huge, sleek, bewhiskered monster to swallow her whole, her body encased within its own, traveling the slow and murky river bottom for ages, her brain growing around the fish’s brain, its stem lodged in her cerebellum.
Half ancient fish, half woman with strange, submerged memories. She senses Tex on this river, in the early morning before first light, casting his line out into the waters. She follows some familiar current to where she hears the thin line hum past trailing the little worm, fluke tail squibbling by. It’s an easy thing to take it in, feel the hook set, sit there awhile feeling the determined pull on the line, giving way just enough to keep him from snapping it. Rising beside the little boat and looking walleyed into his astonished face, wouldn’t she see him then as she never had?
She remembered Tex fucking her the night she knew Sarah was conceived, their bodies bowed into one another, movements fluid as waves. Watching his face.
Tex saying two weeks after it happened, We could try again, Beth. But it was almost as if he hadn’t meant to say it, as if the words had been spoken into his own brain some other time, recorded, and now tripped accidentally out. He sat on the sofa, long legs crossed, looking very tired, the skin beneath his eyes bruised, though she marveled at how otherwise youthful he was, his thick blond hair and unlined face, a tall and lanky boy with pale blue eyes. Though younger, she was surpassing his age.
“I had this dream,” he said, “the other night.”
In his dream he was talking to one of the doctors, though it wasn’t one of the doctors who’d been there in real life. The doctor said that if they had operated and taken Sarah out carefully, they could have brought her back to life. But she was dead, Tex said in the dream. Well, we have amazing technology these days, the doctor said.
Tex’s long, tapered fingers fluttered against his knee. He blinked, gazing out the living room window at the pecan tree in the backyard.
“I woke up sobbing like a child,” he said. “I was afraid I’d wake you up, but you were as still as a stone.”
“I’m sorry,” Beth said.
Tex shrugged. “It was just a dream.”
In a minute, she said, “I just don’t think I could do it all again.” Her voice quavered and she stopped, frustrated at how hard it was to speak of it at all.
“We’re not too old,” he said. “It’s not too late.”
But she hadn’t said just that.
“I didn’t mean that,” she said.
She turned herself over in the water and came up again into the air, and her knees dragged bottom, and she saw the current had taken her into the shallows along the bank. She floated there and then sat on the muddy bottom, the water lapping the point of her chin. She wished she could push from herself everything that she felt. To be light as a sack of dried sticks floating on the river. She heard the thudding weary footsteps of the others approaching through the clearing at this landing, breath ragged, and they came and stood on the bank near her, hands on knees, heads bent low, dragging in gulps of air. “Oh, fuck, I’m dying,” Julie gasped. “Are you all right?” Beth raised a hand from the water in reply. May fell to her knees and began to throw up, one arm held flat-handed generally toward them. They were quiet except for the sound of May being sick, and when she was finished she rolled over onto her back in the grass and lay there.
Beth and Julie carried May, fortunately tiny, with one of her arms across each of their shoulders, back along the river to the downtown landing and then back up the hill to Beth’s car. They left her in the backseat and struggled to walk through the deep pea gravel of the lot into the bar and borrowed some bar towels for Beth and then sat at a table drinking Jameson’s neat and not talking for a while. May dragged herself in and sat with them and the bartender brought her a cup of coffee. She lay her head beside the steaming cup and went to sleep again.
Julie reached out and took Beth’s hand for a second and squeezed it.
Beth squeezed back, and then they let go. Julie looked down at the floor and held out one of her feet, clad in a ragged dirty Keds.
“Pretty soon I’ll need a new pair of honky-tonk shoes,” she said sadly.
“I like them,” Beth said. “My mother had a pair just like that. She wore them to work in the yard.”
“I didn’t cut these holes out, baby, I wore ’em out. I got a big old toe on me”—she slipped her toe through a frayed hole and wiggled it—“like the head of a ball-peen hammer.”
“My God,” Beth said. “Put it up.”
“Billy says I could fuck a woman with that toe.”
“Put it back in the shoe.”
“I’m’on put it up his ass one day,” Julie said.
Somehow they’d become the only patrons left in the place. The bartender leaned on an elbow and watched sports news on a nearly silent TV above the bar. Julie looked at the sleeping May and said to Beth, “Don’t worry about all that, that shit May was saying. She’s just drunk. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“No,” Beth said. “I know what she’s talking about. She’s right.”
Julie stared at her blankly, then sat up and sighed.
“I can’t even remember what all she was saying. Forget it. You should forget it.”
“I don’t want to forget it,” Beth said, and set her shot glass down on the table harder than she’d meant to. “What do you mean?”
Julie didn’t answer.
“It changes you,” Beth said. “It’s changed me. It’s different,” she said. “It is worse, Julie. It’s not like the other time. It is worse. A real child.”
So then she’d said it. Julie had started to say something, then turned her head away, toward the wall. Neither said any more after that. The bartender roused himself, flicked off the TV, and his heels clicked through the tall-ceilinged old station as he went from table to table, wiping them down.
They drank up, paid, and left, hefting May’s arms again onto their shoulders, and put her into the car. Beth drove them to May’s house, and they helped her to the front door, got her keys from her pocket, and let themselves in. Her husband, Calvin, was at the hunting camp building stands. They took her to the bed and undressed her, tucked her in, put a glass of water beside the bed and a couple of ibuprofen beside it, and left. They pulled into Julie’s driveway. Julie started to get out.
“You okay to drive home?” She sat with one leg out the open door, in the car’s bleak interior light.
“Sure, I’m fine,” Beth said. She caught herself nodding like a trained horse and stopped. Julie looked at her a long moment and then said, “Okay,” and got out. Beth watched her till she got inside and waved from the window beside the door. And then she drove home through the streets where wisps of fog rose from cracks in the asphalt as if from rumbling, muffled engines down in the bedrock, leaking steam.
She was prone these days to wake in the middle of the night as if someone had called to her while she’d slept. A kind of fear held her heart with an intimate and gentle suppression, a strange hand inside her chest. She was terrified. Soft and narrow strips of light slipped through the blinds and lay on the floor. Their silence was chilling.
Just after 4 a.m. she woke and Tex was already gone. He hadn’t moved when she’d come in, his face like a sleeping child’s. She’d lowered her ear to his nostrils, felt his warm breath. He slept with arms crisscrossed on his chest, eyebrows lifted above closed lids, ears attuned to the voices speaking to him in his other world. She hadn’t heard him rise and leave.
The covers on his side were laid back neatly as a folded flag. One crumpled dent marked the center of his pillow. He had risen, she knew, without the aid of an alarm, his internal clock rousing him at three so that he would be out on the lake at four, casting when he couldn’t even see where his bait plopped into the water, playing it all by ear and touch. He knew what was out there in the water. If a voice truly whispered to him as he slept she hoped it spoke of bass alert and silent in their cold, quiet havens, awaiting him. She hoped it was his divining vision, in the way some people envisioned the idea of God.
For her the worst had been prior to the delivery, after she’d learned what she feared, that the child had died inside her and she would have to carry her until they could attempt a natural delivery, and that would be at least a month, maybe two. That had been worse than the delivery, because sometimes in her distraction she almost thought the delivery had not really happened, it had been only a nightmare that would momentarily well into her consciousness and then recede. This was not so with Tex, because he’d seen it all happen, it was imprinted in his memory as surely as Sarah had been implanted in her womb. It was what his mind worked to obscure, awake and asleep, in its different ways.
She lay in bed as dawn suffused the linen curtains with slow and muted particles of gray light. The room softened with this light, and she slept.
It was noon. The front that had kept them under clouds and in light fog was moving, the same clouds she’d seen beneath the river moon scudding rapidly, diagonally, to the northeast, and occasional rafts of yellow light passed through the bright green leaves and over the weed-grown lawn.
From the living room picture window she could see Tex in the backyard cleaning his catch in the shade of the splayed pecan tree. He worked on the plain wooden table he had built for that. His rod and reel leaned against the table’s end, his tackle box on the ground beside it. A stringer of other fish lay on the ground beside the box, and Beth could see, every few seconds or so, a fish tail rise slowly from the mess—as if the tail had an eye with which to look around, stunned—and then relax. Tex wore a baseball cap and a gauzy-thin, ragged T-shirt. The muscles on his neck and shoulders bunched as he worked away at one of the fish, his back to the house. He left them gutted but whole, heads on. He hadn’t always. When he slit their undersides to gut them, he did it carefully with just the tip of his sharp fillet knife. He gently lifted out the bright entrails with a finger, the button-sized heart sometimes still beating. Then he pulled them free of the body with a casual tug, as if distracted, an after-action.
She watched now from the picture window as he almost reverently palmed a cleaned fish into the pail of water. He rinsed his hand before sliding another one off the stringer. The shadows of patchy clouds moved across the yard and over him with the slow gravity of large beasts floating by. She still felt the effects of sleep, of the drinking and smoking, and a mild vertigo, as if she’d stood up too quickly. That hungover sense of having waked into a life and body that were not her own. She reached out to the window and steadied herself.
As if he’d heard her, Tex turned to look, fish and knife poised in his hands, interrupted so deeply into his task he seemed lost, either not seeing or not recognizing her image behind the windowpane.
She had dreamed, reentering the waking dream she’d had of the catfish in the river. Her sight in the dream through the eyes of the fish. Tex had lifted her into the boat, taken her home, lain her on the old plyboard table, and carefully slit the fish skin covering the length of her belly, worked it away from her own true form. But he was unable to detach the fish’s brain from her own. Her words, some gurgly attempt to say she loved him, bubbled out and then she died.
It was a whole world, the way dreams can be.
He buried her in the yard, with a stone on top to keep the cats from digging her up to sniff at the bones. But over time she drifted in the soil. The grass grew from her own cells into the light and air. She watched him when he passed over with the lawn mower. The times between mowings were ages.