DOWN, DOWN, DOWN
Coming out of a dream, I hear the baby speaking. Mumbles and squeals, mostly. Its voice is refreshing amid the pneumatic whirs and hydraulic exhales of the body shop. I yawn and the nap is gone.
A cantaloupish head materializes, knocks against my knee. The baby plops onto my sandals, the diaper mushing softly, full of something foul.
I can see the soiled workstations, the lifts gleaming with grease, organized ratchets and waylaid cans of oil through the glass across the room, a museum of labor. Henrik’s Corvette crawls into the bay. The car doesn’t look a day older than it did in 1969 when he first steered it into my driveway. And yet it seemed to steer him, its hood letting off paparazzi flashes, igniting in the sunshine. It had been buffed for presentation but was impossible to keep your eyes on. The grille seemed to peel away into a grin, its silver teeth throwing bullets of light.
The baby obsesses over the blur of itself reflected in the floor tiles, and its smile froths with spit. Unsure of the sex, I eye the white Onesie, looking for dainty designs, maybe flowers or hearts dotting the cotton, bows dangling behind the head or on the little white booties. Nothing. Everything amuses it. The grin, toothless and shining wet, reminds me of my late husband’s. I give the Tupperware container housing Henrik’s ashes a shake, listen to him shift, and set it back on my lap. I’ve removed him from his resting place, the Corvette’s console, while they give the car a tune-up.
The Corvette still strides, shoulders its way down blacktop. The young worker at the wheel puts the wrong side of a cigarette to his lips and lights the filter with one of Henrik’s old matches. He fumbles with his mistake as it falls from his lips. A shrunken mirror of my husband.
I loved him at that age, so stubborn and sure, moronic.
The child tries to climb my legs, slips, tries again. Heavy thunder rattles the windows. If Henrik were still around and in the state he was before he went—his head nodding off to the side, mouth savoring the traces, crumbs of memories and phrases—he’d say, slowly, in a hoarse whisper, “God—God—” with a brief intermission from me, “Yes, Henrik? God? God?” before he finished, “God must be . . . moving around . . . His furniture,” laughing weakly at his rediscovered wit. Then, again. And again. The thunder could’ve tumbled from his lips forever.
How he’d speak, shrink into silence and then repeat himself. Those last months were like witnessing a birth, but backwards and impossibly slow, the world underwater.
I lean back against the window to eye the clouds like dirty flowers. The sky wrinkles with lightning, and I feel the need to iron them way. I see myself inside the laundry room, pressing shirts. I don’t want to see myself there. At times, I have sensed a tug at my ankles as I walked, like I’m chained to my life, but there’s never anything there.
Drool oozes and bubbles between my exposed toes. The sensation is faint, and I hardly notice. I’ve been covered in it all. I ran a small daycare out of the house while Henrik bagged dog food at the plant, sort of renting children, raising them through nannying. I cared and cared. In bed at night, Henrik still reeking of kibble, I prayed and hoped the kids were being read to before sleep, having their hair brushed back, their blankets drawn up to their chins. That was what I called my craft: caring overmuch. I forget I had a craft. Your fingers forget.
Now, my days are errands. Sometimes I drive to the social security office to pick up Henrik’s check, braving the smell of Aqua Velva and faint human waste. I wonder if others there are slowly going mad like Henrik did. He’d shot a bald eagle a month or so before we had to get the hospital bed. At dinner, when he slung it up from nowhere on top of the dinner table, shoving his roast beef and peas to the floor, he said he’d “tracked” it. I’m sure he’d been on the porch with his rifle in his lap, miserable over something, when he caught the majesty of that bird coming too low. He stuffed it himself, crudely, after reading a Wikipedia entry on taxidermy, and put it in the den above the fireplace. It’s the Quasimodo of fowl, frozen in a peglegged lurch. Sometimes I’ll rise early to sip my coffee—the world and house still asleep—and stare at it from different angles, like this might help me understand it.
The baby is staring up at me now, puzzling at my face, the dumb door to my daydreams.
It gropes for Henrik’s ashes. “No, no,” I say. Where could the mother be? I scan the waiting room. I want to bounce the tot on my knee but need permission, a greenlight gesture. I can’t get near some strollers without mothers clawing and hissing, when all I want is to admire, and maybe envy, what they’ve made.
A man naps with his hands twined atop his potbelly, no evidence of breathing in the gut peeking from an eye of lifted shirt. A woman around my age, maybe nearing her final quarter, mutters secrets to the ceiling and works her palms as if recalling a good fire. A pretty young woman appears from the bathroom. She sits beside the magazine rack and smiles at me. She reads a copy of Maternity Monthly and rapidly rips squares of paper out as she flips pages. She lifts a finger to her lips for a friendly, conspiratorial shush, and keeps ripping, stuffing coupons and scents into her pockets and purse.
That must be the one, I think. So young. I remember. What it’s like to be a woman. Their eyes saying so. Woman dripping from my body.
The baby reaches up to be lifted, and I oblige. I dance the darling on my lap, and the ashes join in.
“You are just precious. Aren’t you? Aren’t you? A-bugga-bugga-boo!”
Spit froths from the baby’s mouth like something overboiled. It isn’t until I lift it up that I see the child is smaller than I first thought.
“Is that your mama over there? Is it?” I say, pointing with the baby’s hands to the woman. She humors me with a wave, but seems more absorbed in sniffing her magazine.
The Corvette has been raised on a lift, is lower in the back as if preparing for takeoff. I stand the child on a knee and say, “See that there? That was my husband Henrik’s. I take it in once a month for a tune-up, just like he did.” The Corvette is lowered in the front now, as if indicating something in the ground.
I promised him on his deathbed, the Corvette’s passenger seat, that I’d keep caring for the car. I’d pushed his hospital bed into the garage—he’d begged me to—and rolled him inside his baby. In his final moments, his hand trembled past mine and he squeezed the armrest.
So I feel nothing when I think of the car. I’ve more than once considered selling the Corvette, or, on the worst days since Henrik passed, driving it fast into or off something. Seeing it aloft and unaged leaves a faint sour taste in my mouth. While making love, Henrik had, at times, grabbed my shoulders and turned them in a way, leaning into them, as if he was nailing a difficult scenic curve. Sometimes it feels like I’m driving the other woman.
“You’re a healthy wittle thing, huh?” I bounce the baby on my thighs, and it flaps its arms blissfully. “Let’s get you back to your mama. No more crawling on this dirty floor.” I rise, though it takes some effort to get up lately, like years are being stacked on my shoulders. I approach the woman and offer her the child, an arm around it and the other around the ashes.
“What a darling,” I say. “So precious.”
The baby spits up. The woman looks straight at me and the container, ignoring the child altogether. Her smile tips over and she seems uncomfortable. She tries to disappear behind her magazine.
I continue gesturing with the child as if it’s an extension of myself, a tiny, conjoined twin.
“Can I help you?” the woman says.
“Thanks for letting us play together.”
The woman looks at my hands and at me a moment and says, “You must be—mistaken, ma’am.”
“Oh. I’m so embarrassed.”
“Ok.” I’ve always found it very easy to do something right after someone tells me to. I look around the room for a prospective parent, a face of caution or unease. None.
“Is anyone missing a child?” I ask the room, holding the baby out to show them. No one moves, blinks, breathes.
I check the bathroom. I yank the cord hanging from the ceiling and see the baby smiling at itself in the mirror. The toilet runs, stuck in an everlasting slurp.
There’s a lipstick smear on the mirror, a slight red that matches the gore of Henrik’s eye.
He’d tripped on the rug and fallen face first into his trophy, left some of himself shining on a talon. He never cleaned it or let me, just left it to dry like nail polish. Henrik died less than a month after, like the claw implanted something there in his skull, a bit of retribution in the cancer. Once he was gone, I tried cleaning the claw but it wouldn’t come off. Now Henrik’s residue seems to be watching me from the foot of the bird. When I climb into the car, too, I sense him all around me. My fingers will clamp on the wheel like his hands are atop mine and tightening.
The baby seems lighter, and I find myself testing its weight. All this worrying and pacing has made my legs seem heavy and my breathing difficult. My insides are knotted up.
I feel ashamed, but I almost don’t want to look at the child anymore. All I can think of when I see the baby is Henrik, and when it was Henrik I was looking at those few months before he bit it, all I could think of was babies, life. How he clung to it, kept his fast-food boxes and other waste strung from room to room and barked when I’d get too close to his garbage, fearing I might trash them, erase him. Life had begun to deny him itself, and he refused.
I seem to be holding nothing, and yet I feel more massive than ever. This baby has become Styrofoam light. I think if I let go, it might float up like a balloon, bounce on the ceiling, and suck against the static for the rest of its life, grow old looking down at the dried puddles of urine and toilet water stuck in its perpetual swirl. I sense a hole, some sort of cavity in my stomach.
My head is full of the baby and Henrik. Isn’t time a tax collector? If you slip in the shower and no one’s there to hear you, do you make a sound?
Somewhere something is dying. But something else is always being born. Maybe it isn’t too late. I can sell the car, bury it and Henrik, anything he touched, in the cemetery of myself. I can send my world the way of my husband, burn the eagle, the whole house. I can sit on the cool, damp earth and warm my own body over the last bit of fire, the feathers turning to ash and fluttering up, like going home.
The child is a doll, too tiny to cradle. I place it in my palm. It hugs my fingers, kicks at my thumb. I feel so heavy. The cavity is growing. I can hardly move as I drag myself to the office.
A man with a long white goatee like an icicle asks if he can help me.
“I hope so,” I say. “Do you recognize this baby? I can’t find its parents.” I set my hand palm-up on the counter.
He stares at me and asks, “Ma’am, are you alright? Do you need me to call someone?” I stumble backwards and through the front door.
Outside, two men smoke and wipe oil onto their coveralls. The clouds are now a filthy gray, like pond foam.
“Excuse me. Do you recognize this child?” I hold my hand out as if begging. “Did you see who brought it in?” They say nothing, but stop smoking and look at one another.
The baby is a nickel in my palm, a toy soldier. I pinch it between two fingers and hold it close to my eye. The wind comes and carries the speck into the gravel. I drop the container as I swipe after the child, and the lid pops open on the rocks. Henrik sifts through the cracks.
“Nobody move!” I say. I kneel down and swim through the gravel, crying onto my hands and the mixture of dust and ashes.
“Please!” I yell to the men. “Help me! I’ve lost it!”
The men come near and stare dumbly at where my hands desperately part the lot. They bend a little to look close, as if searching.
One of them says, vaguely, “These things happen.”
The cavity feels as large as me, a negative person.
As I shovel down, the Corvette, a wall of steel and rubber, pulls up next to me good as new, Henrik’s equal behind the wheel. I see myself in its skin: I am an hourglass. The rims are buffed to mirrors, my body stretched to tearing in their eyes.
Chad Foret is a native of southeastern Louisiana. He completed his MA in Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he served as editor of Manchac Review. He is a third year PhD candidate in poetry at USM. Recent work is forthcoming in Nashville Review, The Double Dealer, The Tishman Review, and elsewhere.