Fruitful

Patricia coasts through her suburban streets. She waves to pigtailed neighbor children who stand in front of daffodils and golden retrievers, who stomp on dandelions and blow bubbles.

She’s in the middle of a wave when she sees the tip of the truck’s bed, and her heart starts racing—almost like it used to when they first started going together.

Danny’s home. Her mind churns, and she flicks the volume nob on the Chevy’s radio, muting the Beatles’ latest single. Her foot lifts from the gas and she holds her breath, the sloped driveway coming into full view.

His white truck parked. The back crammed with woven wires and glittering saws, loose nails rattling in dented Folgers cans. He should be hammering and piecing together drywall and carving hallways for other houses.

But he’s here. And her heart beat sounds like marching or percussions, and she wonders if the blood in her face looks how it did when she’d laid on the leather seats of his car when he told her he wanted to marry her. He said he wanted to do it better than his parents had done it.

Patricia parks behind the truck, slowly stepping out of her car.

Blinding light ricochets from his truck’s side mirrors, leaving technicolor circles behind her eyelids. Jennifer’s awake, her fat arms reaching up and her puckered mouth chanting, ”Mama. Mama.” Patricia grabs the baby before looping grocery bags around her wrists, the paper straps weighted and digging into her flesh.

Danny stands at the dining table. His shirt speckled with dirt and grease and his fingernails dusted black. Between his rough hands, he passes a lavender plastic hexagon. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Patricia’s heels sink into the floor. Dirt pollutes the pale carpet, ruining the steaming she had done before the sun rose.

“What’s this?” Danny asks.

Patricia stays quiet, thinking and hoping he hasn’t opened the plastic. That he hasn’t seen the bitter, alluvial pills inside. She sets Jennifer on the ground and hands her a pink crocheted blanket.

“Get over here and answer me.”

Patricia slips out of her shoes, picking them up and setting them against the wall. Jennifer squeezes the blanket between her fingers. She knows when to be quiet.

“What are you doing with these?” Danny asks again.
“They’re from my doctor.”
“What kind of doctor gives these out?”

She shakes her head.

“Why are you taking them?”
“I don’t know.”
“I told you I wanted a big family. I thought that was what you wanted.”

His voice shakes a little. For the tiniest moment, he is almost sympathetic. Almost like a recalcitrant child who can’t help but lash out. He’s almost fragile like he used to be.

Danny taps the pills against the dining room table. A papery, staccato slap.

Patricia looks to the living room—at the opened turntable, where she left the Lesley Gore record floating beneath the needle. To the television with the clicking knob and gray screen. At Jennifer’s fingers woven into the blanket’s geometric knit. If she looks at these things, maybe she won’t hear him hitting the pills against the table. Maybe she’ll be able to think.

“My wife isn’t taking these,” he says, in a low voice.

He walks to the bathroom. Patricia follows. Jennifer gurgles softly. Patricia worries. What if she covers her face with the blanket? What if she can’t breathe?

She doesn’t look behind her to check.

Danny pops a pill from the plastic wrapping. He pulverizes it between his hardened fingers. Pharmaceutical silt cakes his fingerprints. The rest of the pills tumble into the toilet water. Patricia winces when he flushes.

***

Nobody warned Patricia about motherhood. How exhausting and draining it would be. She would fall asleep, only to have a jarring wail wake her in the cruelest way. Her eyes were raw and sore and dry. The clock was only an hour ahead of when she’d looked at it last. How could Jennifer be up again?

She saw her face in various mirrors around the house, the concave darkness beneath her eyes and the dry patches on each side of her nose. Her ears pricked with animalistic hearing abilities. Sometimes it was just the phantom crying. Jennifer was in her arms, silent, but still, she heard the grating wails.

Patricia called her best friend, Denise, whose daughter was born a month before. Denise told her to sleep when Jennifer slept. Patricia didn’t know how to nap on cue. She would lay on the bed, fully-clothed, her eyes wide open, while Jennifer slept in sprints, swaddled in her woven bassinet.

Patricia read to occupy her mind, to distract herself from the bad thoughts. The thoughts where she wished she had become a teacher and not a mother. When she wished she hadn’t peeked around the metal trashcans to see, who had been crying. It was a scrawny boy with bleeding knuckles who sucked on a cigarette and spit when he talked. She’d brought him a frozen steak from Denise’s ice box. He’d let her press it to his swollen eye.

“What happened?” she’d asked, her voice silvery and adolescent.

First, he had told her his dad drank whiskey and hit his mom. Then he had kissed her. Snot had dribbled between their lips, and Patricia knew she was in love. When he asked her to go steady, she interrupted him and said yes. She never told him about her momma disappearing with strange men and hating everything to do with weddings and families.

Patricia thought too much when Jennifer was a newborn, so she picked up newspaper scraps left by Danny when he went to work or a Reader’s Digest that Mrs. Smith shoved in her mailbox. She talked to Denise on the telephone. Denise told Patricia about this article Ray read to her—that reading to babies raised their IQ. Made them geniuses! Patricia hung up the phone and looked for something child-appropriate.

She chose the white bible her devout grandparents gave to her when she entered grammar school. Her maiden initials engraved into the white leather. Patricia traced each letter until the second one started to fade and wear and darken at the edges.

When Jennifer was awake, Patricia showed her the watercolor illustrations. Delicate brushstrokes built the foliage of Eden, the slaughtered body of Abel, a bleeding Jesus, and a cindered apocalypse. Patricia read from the book like a fairy tale, with cheerful intonation. Damnation sounded like Mother Goose.

“Look—there’s Moses. He’s a baby, just like you.”

***

Danny props himself up in the bed. He’s wearing his underwear, nothing else. Patricia slowly presses cold cream into her made-up face, dragging the cotton balls down her cheeks. Danny’s rank bar smell floats to the bathroom, turning her stomach.

He works, then goes to the bar. Her days are spent soaking diapers, scrubbing dishes, dusting wooden furniture, mopping, sweeping, scooping up toys, and fighting to keep her eyes open while she reads Ferdinand to Jennifer a dozen times in a row.

Danny smacks an unopened pack of cigarettes on the nightstand before peeling away the plastic. He slips a cigarette into his mouth. Paper recedes and sizzles between his teeth, silken ash frozen in the air.

“Patricia?”

She squeezes toothpaste onto her toothbrush. Spreading it onto the smashed bristles.

“Yes?”
“Let’s go to that Italian place for dinner tomorrow. The one you like.”

She scrubs the bristles against her teeth. Ferric blood seeps into the minty Colgate. Patricia wraps herself in her robe, the terry rubbed raw. The cloth is itchy and thin now. Danny smirks.

“Why are you wearing that?” he asks.
“I’m cold.”

Danny kicks off the blanket and sheets.

“I’ll keep you warm.”
“Please. I’m tired.”

Danny sighs and clenches his teeth together. Patricia’s hands flap at her sides.

“Please. Maybe tomorrow. I’m just really tired.”

Her voice sounds helpless.

Danny lights another cigarette. Patricia sits beside him, the smoke burning her eyes.

“Fine. Just do it,” Patricia whispers.

She lays on the bed, pulling her nightgown over her knees and thighs. She squeezes her eyes shut, tears trickling into her combed hair. He sighs, grabbing her legs hard.

“Not like this,” he says.

His breath spritzes, still tangy with sour booze. Patricia sits up, massaging her thighs. He pulls down his underwear. Patricia cringes at his erection.

“Do it,” he says.

He reaches out and fits his hand around the back of her skull. He holds himself with one hand and pushes her head down with the other.

***

Patricia meets Denise on Wednesday. She pulls into the driveway, where Denise stands poised with her stroller, sunglasses, and scarf curled around her pinned hair. She taps alternating heels while Patricia places Jennifer into the stroller.

Their stroller wheels roll along the polished gravel and jerk in the park’s cut grass. Denise’s daughter, Amy, and Jennifer waddle concentrically, their mothers as their nucleus. Their stubby arms stretched out at each side. The mothers coo to them and stroke their cheeks. Denise and Patricia look up and watch the other children spinning on the merry-go-round or dangling from the monkey bars. Denise says she doesn’t want the girls to grow up. She likes sitting in the grass, on the quilt, sometimes finding a four-leaf clover.

“Guess what I heard yesterday?” Denise asks.
“What?”
“Agnes is getting a divorce.”

Patricia stops Jennifer from shoveling grass shards between her lips.

“Can you believe it?”

Denise goes on,

“She left him. She told him she didn’t need him anymore, that she has her own job and her own money. Remember when she got that job?”

Patricia nods. Agnes started cashiering at the grocers, to get a little more spending money. She had joined Denise and Patricia for home-mixed daiquiris.

“I just want new clothes,” she’d giggled, chewing on a plastic straw.
“I think it’s a stupid idea,” Denise had scoffed.

Patricia said nothing but had been envious.

“She got a promotion there, so she’s getting a divorce. Ray told me last night. Oscar told him. I called Agnes myself last night, you know, to hear her side.”

“What did she say?” Patricia asks.

“She told me she couldn’t do it anymore. Not when she hated him and hated being married and didn’t feel like a person anymore. Isn’t that a strange thing to say?”

Denise digs in her clutch, pulling out a tube of lipstick. Patricia picks us Jennifer and hugs her tight.

“Denise?”
“Yes?”

She plucks the tube’s top off.

“Do you ever hate your husband?”

Denise presses the sweating red stick to her pursed lips, spreading it around. She smacks her lips together, sticks a finger in her mouth, and pulls it out with a red ring. Her teeth are white and naked.

“Who doesn’t hate their husband sometimes? Doesn’t mean I’ll divorce him.”

***

Patricia sits on the toilet, her heels raised and her toes digging into the beige linoleum. Balled toilet paper cradled inside her palm, pressed between her legs.

“Come on. Come on,” she whispers.

It’s still dark outside, and she doesn’t want to wake Danny. His curdled breathing is loud, even with the bathroom door closed. Patricia removes the tissue. No blood. Just flecks of red, raw skin where she pushed or rubbed too hard. Wishing for blood, for the clots she usually dreaded because they could stain her underwear or the sheets.

Danny hates female fluids. He first told her that while he pulled up his pants after consummating their marriage when Patricia pulled the thin hotel sheet over herself and bit her lip so she wouldn’t cry. At the wedding Danny had been himself, kissing her cheek and squeezing her hand. Gently placing white cake on her tongue.

At the hotel he hated the mess she’d made—he told her to get new clean sheets from the maid. He zipped up his pants and buttoned his shirt, stuck a cigarette in his mouth.

“Where are you going?” she had asked, blinking and wiping her eyes when he turned away.

She wanted to know what she had done wrong—why wasn’t he acting like the husband he swore he would be?

“I’m going to go get a drink, is that all right with you? Can’t a man celebrate his marriage?” he had snapped.

His hair had untangled itself from the stiff hold pomade, the loose strands frayed like a palm tree.

In the hotel he had changed—he stopped being the awkward teenager who wrote sloppy, sappy love letters. In the hotel, he was just another husband.

The tissue mangles in the toilet’s water, tearing and floating to the surface. Wet, fluttering tissue that looks like peeled skin. Patricia flushes it away.

She crawls back into the clean bed. Danny gags on a snore.
Patricia rolls away from him.
She tried to be careful.

***

Patricia remembers pregnancy as solitary. What a peculiar way to remember, when she was never alone. Jennifer spun around her womb, sprouting limbs and developing senses and growing little tufts of hair. Patricia would splay her hands over her rounded middle, trying to feel life vibrating inside.

At night she would wait for Danny to come home. He was always late, but she still waited. She waited while she dipped Q-tips in vinegar and dragged them down the windowsills and under the rounded keys of her Underwood typewriter. She waited while holding her breath so she wouldn’t breathe in the silverware polish soaking the rag in her hand.

Patricia examined her distorted reflection in the shining spoon, her face blown up like her stomach and her features rearranged like her organs that shifted to make room for an expanding fetus. Patricia sat in the rocking chair positioning her arms to cradle the air. She wondered what her baby would be like, how they would look at each other.

The clock’s bronze hands crossed over the twelve. The sound that followed was morose and metallic and much too long. She hated that clock’s bell. She stood up and saw it—the petaled red stain on the white cushion. Viscous clear liquid gushed from her. It felt like water but looked like egg whites. Danny walked through the door, staggering and smelling sweet and tangy. He smelled like another woman. Red lipstick smeared his neck.

“The baby,” she said, her arms helpless and hanging at her sides.

She motioned with her head.

Danny drove them to the hospital. He swerved and missed stop signs. He stopped at the hospital entrance to let her out.

“You’re going to park?” she asked, her hand on the silver handle.
“Yeah.”

Patricia heaved herself up, scrunching her face as another clenching contraction washed over her. When it faded, she was still in the car with the door open. Danny held the steering wheel.

“This wasn’t how I imagined my life,” she said.
“Didn’t you know I’d end up just like him? How could you ever see it any differently?” he asked, shaking his head before yanking the door shut.

***

Denise comes over on Saturday, with Ray. The husbands smoke in the yard, holding the Old Fashioneds their wives fill for them in the kitchen. After pouring the husbands’ drinks, they go back to making lunch. They dismember vegetables for a casserole. The babies sit in the playpen, holding wooden puzzle pieces in their doughy hands.

Patricia peels potatoes over the trashcan. Denise grates a block of rubbery cheese.

“You don’t look well,” Denise murmurs.

She arranges the cheese slivers in a mounded pile.

“I’m late.”
“Oh? That’s good, though, isn’t it? Doesn’t Danny want a big family?”
“He does.”

Patricia searches for an onion to slice—to have an excuse.
Denise’s heels click over the tile. Her thin arms wrap around Patricia.

“Pregnancy is hard, I know. It makes us feel so funny, and they don’t understand. You can always talk to me,” she coos into Patricia’s ear.

Light floral perfume sticks to Patricia’s cheek. Patricia wipes her eyes. Inky splotches run down the sides of her hands.

“I better go fix my makeup,” she says.

Denise smiles, filling a pot with rushing water from the sink.

Patricia stands in the bathroom, the round lightbulbs bright and unflattering. Mascara blots beneath her eyes; her nose is inflamed. She slides her hands across the cool laminate countertop.

Danny built the counter. He built most of their house. He gave Patricia her own sink, hollowing out the yellow formica.

“There’s a lot of space for you,” he said.When he was building it, when he smelled sour, and sawdust sifted through his hair, his eyebrows, the sparse hairs on his chest. Perspiration pearled his sneering lip. Patricia had held orange wallpaper samples above the counter, and he had come behind her, pressing his hot lips to her neck and saying she would reward him when he was done.

He filled the counter with perfumes when he was sorry. Telling her, they were from European cities that he would take her to one day. Slimy dirt now glues the glass bottles to the counter.

Patricia kneels on the mustard-colored mat, pulling on the bottom drawer. Rolling between a bottle of hairspray and plastic headbands is the copper hanger, stretched lengthwise with a curled hook at the end.

Danny’s voice growls through the vents. He tells Denise and Ray what a dutiful, good wife he has. He tells them he will have several children. He tells them he loves his wife. They congratulate him.

Patricia imagines herself knotted on the floor, gushing blood. Imagines herself dying. She sighs and shoves the hanger back in the drawer, submerging it in foam rollers. She powders her face and walks back downstairs.

Patricia brings out a paisley tray, topped with a ceramic pot of coffee and smaller dishes of cream and shimmering sugar.

“You’re not having coffee?” Denise asks.

Red lipstick rims her white mug.

The tea kettle whistles. Patricia shakes her head. She goes into the kitchen and fills her mug with the turbid water, darkened from brittle tea leaves.

Patricia met a girl at her last appointment who told her about the tea. A girl wearing a pillbox hat and reading Mademoiselle, sitting cross-legged in the waiting room. That girl had whispered to Patricia, saying the tea was much better than a hanger. There’s less blood with the tea, she promised.

Photo Credit: ~King Smith Arts~ Flickr via Compfight cc

Ashley N. Roth

Ashley N. Roth is a writer, mother, and animal activist living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has been featured in decomP magazine, 100 Word Story, Moonsick Magazine, Literary Orphans, Molotov Cocktail, and others.

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