Here’s a short story I wrote a long time ago. Because it’s one of my earliest attempts, I can see the dependence on form that makes this piece sort of stilted and awkward, as well as the charicatures I created that I would now soften, because of my experiences with writing. I’m not making too many changes to it, though. In honor of my newest endeavor, blogging, I’m going to reveal a younger self. A year from now, I hope I’ll view my early blog posts the same way I see this story- as innocent and ignorant children with seeds of potential.
By Joni Koehler
Mother and Grandmother are tottering down the massive concourse in the mall, discussing our heroine’s womb. “She should have gone to the doctor after the first six months. I warned her about the tilted uteri in our family, but she wouldn’t listen.” Mother rolls her eyes and shrugs her fur-shrouded shoulders. Black patent pumps “ka-lack, ka-lack” in rhythm as the women enter Saks Fifth Avenue.
“Uteri?” says Grandmother. “I’m not familiar with that term.”
“The plural form of the word uterus, mother.”
“Oh. Mine was tilted. The doctor told me when he took it out. I still gave birth to you and your brother. And yours was tilted, but you had Susan.”
“Hers is worse. She got it from her father’s side, too. I’ve told you this before.”
“They could have had such beautiful children.” Grandmother waves the perfume girl at the door of Saks away with a passion plum fingernail. “Maybe if she had had her breasts enlarged.” She sighs, and considers alternate universes, where women procreate as they’re supposed to, boobs never sag, and husbands never leave.
“It’s the uterus, mother. Harv wanted a baby. It’s that simple.” Mother sits on the high stool next to the cosmetic counter and checks her blonde double up-do in a small round mirror. “A man of his stature needs a child to carry on the family name. You know how rich and influential they are, Mother. The Benningtons came over on the Mayflower.” She motions to the nearest person behind the counter. “Excuse me, darling, can you go get our salesgirl?”
“Yes ma’am.” says the girl. She is older than she looks, but is still in her teens. The shoulder seams of her aquamarine smock reach almost to her elbows, and she has rolled the sleeves up several times. Her hair is a rich cordovan tan, but she hasn’t washed it in two days, so it has clumped into strings. One lock troubles the corner of her mouth, and she has fought the urge to suck on it all day. There is a thin sheen of sweat covering her whole body, and as she stands staring at the two women, she can feel her heart beating all the way down to her feet.
“I said excuse me. Our regular girl is Delores. I’m sure you’re nice, but she knows what we want.” Mother says. “You understand, don’t you?”
“They could have adopted. Adoption is quite common these days.” Grandmother is standing at the counter next to Mother, and places her hand on it for extra support. Her feet are getting tired.
“I never should have let you get cable, mother.” She shoots a reproachful glance at her mother as the girl disappears to fetch their salesperson.
In a high-rise office nearby, Harvard Bennington the Third is waiting for his morning coffee. He leans back in his burgundy leather office chair. His feet are propped on an ancient Japanese cherry desk. He glances out his window at the skyline of the city.
His secretary enters, bearing a silver tea service. She places the tray on the desk next to his feet and pours coffee for Mr. Bennington. “Mr. Thornton is here to see you, sir,” she says. “He doesn’t have an appointment, but he says it’s important.”
“Give me five minutes, and then show him in.”
As the secretary ushers him in, Jack Thornton crosses the room, and extends his hand to Harv, who has not taken his feet off the desk, or put his coffee down. “Hello, Harv. I have some news about the divorce settlement.”
“Good.” Harv puts down his coffee and shakes the proffered hand. “What does she want?”
“The standard. Half of the estate and alimony for a period of two years. We can schedule discovery as soon as you want. My assistant finished preparing that document yesterday. Then it’s just a matter of signing off on a couple of other matters, and you’re a free man.”
“She’s claiming emotional damages. Four million. It’s a nuisance suit. I’m sure her lawyer put her up to it. We’ll settle for half. And she wants the dogs.”
“Damn!” says Harvey Bennington the Third. He removes his feet from the two hundred- year old desk and leans forward in his designer chair. He takes two deep breaths through distended nostrils. He loosens his three hundred- dollar tie. He deposits the coffee cup on the desk with a clunk.
“Now, here’s what I want you to do, Jack. Call her attorney and offer a hundred thousand. That’s the total. If she tries to fight me on this, I’m taking her to court and I’m going to announce to the whole world that she married me under false pretenses. She knew about her infertility when we got married. I’ll sue for fraud. Tell her that!”
Jack holds his palms down and extends his arms in front of his waist. “Let’s just back up a minute here, Harvey.”
“That’s Harv, Jack! You know I haven’t been called Harvey since we were at school.”
“Sorry. I forgot. Look, as your attorney, it’s my job to point out that a lawsuit has to have merit. A tilted uterus does not mean a woman can’t have children. Besides, you refused to go with her to the fertility clinic. How do you know it’s her problem? Maybe you’re the one who’s sterile.”
“Her own mother said she was sterile, for God’s sake. And she’s frigid. Did you know that?”
Jack thinks of Susan, the day she laughed in the rain as she raced toward the door of the college library. Susan, wringing her blonde hair out with her head cocked sideways, eyes alight with a prism of emotion as she waved to him from the doorway.
“No,” he says, “I didn’t.” His mouth takes on a grim set.
“Besides,” Harv snorts. “I’m not sterile.”
“How do you know?”
“There was the woman in Atlanta a couple of years ago. I spent a lot of money to make that go away. She wasn’t the only one.”
“Let me be frank. If this case goes to trial, I don’t like your chances. Susan will be a fantastic witness. The jury will sympathize with her.”
“I don’t care. She has to pay for what she did.” Harvard Bennington’s bottom lip is stuck out, and he has a scowl on his face.
“I don’t understand. You left her, remember? What did she do?”
“She made fun of my, er , manhood.”
“Just the one.”
“I see.” says Jack.
“She said it was a ninety eight pound weakling.”
“Was this before or after she found out about the Bobbsey twins?”
“Their name is Roberts. And it was after, not that it matters. She’s going to pay.”
“Harvey, be reasonable….”
“She sang the inchworm song at me. Such a stupid, stupid, girl. When she finally gets mad, all she can do is make jokes at my expense. It’s ironic really. You remember the night we had that big Christmas party?”
“She told me she wanted a divorce, said I was a lousy lover and that I could probably never father a baby, said all that stuff about my inadequate member. Well, right before we had that argument, I had just made it with that author’s wife.”
“I don’t know. I fed her a couple of drinks, and ten minutes later I was doin’ her in the guest wing.”
Jack is still. His breath quickens. “Just some woman?”
“It’s easy, you know. Women will believe anything. I could teach you. I bet it’s been a long time since you got laid. Since before your wife got sick, I bet.”
“Don’t talk about my wife, Harvey.”
“I am your employer, Jack. I will say anything I want to you. Remember where you were when I gave you this gig.”
“That is ironic.” Jack says. His eyes narrow. He begins to clench and unclench his fists.
“Your wife saying you’re a bad lover on the same night you commit adultery in her home.”
“Yeah,” Harvey laughs, “And now, this woman can’t get enough of me. She left a hot message on my cell. You want to hear it? It might inspire you.”
Jack takes two long steps around the desk and says, “No.”
Harv stands up. “What’s with you today? I have to go, Jack. Call her lawyer. Oh, and another thing. That asset report you prepared? Let me have it. My accountant is going to shuffle some property before the discovery.”
“That’s fraud, Harvey.”
“I’m tired of you, Jack. Either do as I tell you, or I’ll find someone who will.”
“ I think that’s an excellent idea, Harvey. You go ahead and find someone else.” Jack strides out of the room, passing the wide- eyed secretary on the way out the door.
On the other side of town, Susan Pratt Bennington sits in a brown and rust plaid recliner in the middle of a cavernous room. Her father used this space as a warehouse many years ago, and is now in the process of renovating it into lofts. The opening he had available at Susan’s short notice was the one she in which she now sits. The only finished spaces in the loft are the bathroom and the kitchen. Her father has said that when she is ready for walls, she can build them to her specifications. She is not ready for walls.
Besides the recliner, the only objects in the room are a 13-inch television, ten large boxes filled with Susan’s former life, and a mattress. The mattress is covered with rumpled bedding and used tissues. Twenty minutes ago, she got off the mattress, got herself something to eat out of the refrigerator, and flopped into the chair. She thought it would make her feel less pitiful, but it didn’t. She dips her celery stick into a pint of Chunky Monkey Ice Cream. While she licks it, she watches “A Baby Story” on The Learning Channel. A mother to be is lying in a hospital bed, legs spread apart and pulled up to her chest. Every couple of minutes she grunts and groans with the struggle of pushing junior into the light.
Susan grimaces as she licks her ice cream. When she watches the next push, she groans in sympathy with the new mother. The noise, which she has made unconsciously, startles her into a new round of tears. She stands up, abandoning the idea of progress, and flops down on the mattress, leaving a perfectly good pint of Chunky Monkey Ice Cream to melt into the plaid recliner. She cries herself into a dry, dreamless sleep.
She is awakened at dusk by knocking on her door. It has been twenty-four hours since her last encounter with her Mother and Grandmother, but she is not yet in the mood to listen to another round of insipid whining about boob jobs and babies. She crawls off the mattress and mutters, “I’m coming,” and as she stumbles to the door, she wipes the slobber off her mouth with her right hand. She unbolts the door, yanks it open, and says, “What???”
“Are you Susan?” says a young girl in an ill- fitting aquamarine smock.
“Yes. I’m sorry; I thought you were my mother.”
“No,” says the girl. Her shoulders are slumped forward and a sizable lock of hair is covering her left eye. Her skin has the grayish cast of putty, a white cloud swelling with storm. Her head is down, and she is swaying with the effort of remaining upright.
“Are you all right?” says Susan. “How can I help you?”
The girl takes a deep breath and looks directly at Susan. “I hear you want a baby, and I’m going to have one I won’t be using, so I thought you might like to have it.”
Susan looks at her visitor for a long time. She turns her head, looking to her makeshift bed, makes sure she isn’t still in it. She looks at smock girl again, watches the hard breaths the girl takes, noting the girl’s quivering lower lip.
Susan exhales and says, “Would you like to come in?”
“Thank you,” says the girl.
“I’m Susan.” Susan takes a step to close the distance between them and extends her hand.
“I know,” the girl says, “I was at your Christmas party.”
“Sorry, but I don’t remember. It was a bad night. How did you….?” says Susan.
“How did I know where to find you?”
“Yes, and what were you doing at my party, and how did you know I wanted a baby?
“Your mom and grandma were in the store today, and I heard them talking, about your…”
The girl nods. “I went to your old house, because I had been to the party. The maid told me you were here.”
Susan nods. She shows the girl the raw space, and says, “I’d ask you to sit down, but, well, the cat threw up on the chair.”
“That’s okay.” The girl looks at the overturned carton of Chunky Monkey on the chair and smiles at Susan.
“The cat can open the freezer. Really.”
“Yeah, right.” The girl giggles, and when she does, Susan giggles too.
“Okay, you caught me. I’m a pig. Listen, I know you’re having a baby, and you know all about my womb, but I still don’t know your name.”
“Sorry. I’m Joy Thornton. I think you know my Dad.”
“Yes I do. He and I went to college together.”
“Yeah,” says Joy. She takes a huge breath. Her thin shoulders lift, and her eyes brim with tears.
“Your dad is my husband’s attorney. We’re getting divorced.”
The two women stand in the doorway for a moment. Susan finally says, “This is silly. Come in. Sit down.” They sit on the foot of the bed. On the television, the new mother has completed her birthing ablutions and is showing her pink bundle to a crowd of astounded relatives.
“Bummer,” says Joy.
“I’m saying.” Susan reaches over and turns off the television. “Start at the beginning. Don’t leave anything out.”
Joy says, “I don’t think I can. It’s too humiliating. I’m so stupid.”
“I think you’ll feel better after.”
“I went to this frat party, and everybody was drinking those frozen drinks that come in the tall plastic glasses. My friend said that they had hardly any alcohol.” Joy pauses, staring at the blank screen. “He was very handsome. Older. He said he was a movie producer, and he told me how beautiful I was.”
“And?” Susan urges.
“We went to this room, and I didn’t even realize what happened until the next morning.” She starts to cry. “Oh my God. My Dad is going to kill me! He already thinks I’m irresponsible. That’s why he made me take that shitty job!”
“He will not kill you. I won’t let him.”
“I’m gonna’ throw up.”
Susan helps Joy run to the bathroom. She wets a rag while Joy is vomiting, running it under warm water in the bathroom sink. When Joy is through, Susan helps her wipe her face and get up. She supports Joy’s arm while they slowly make their way back to the mattress.
“I’ve been doing that like ten times a day. God’s punishing me.”
“No. God doesn’t work that way.” They are near the bed. “Wait,” says Susan. “Sit over here for a few minutes.” She steers Joy to a packing crate. Then she finds the extra linens. She throws away the used tissues, strips the mattress and puts the clean linens on the bed. “Now. Come and lie down.”
Joy complies. “Thank you. No one’s helped me like that since my mom was alive. If she were here, she’d know what to do.”
“Yes she would. She was a wonderful person.”
“Did you know her?”
“No, but she was married to Jack. Joy?”
“Do you think he raped you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember saying no.”
“What was this boy’s name?”
“I don’t know. When I found out I was pregnant, I went to the frat house to find him, but he wasn’t there and nobody knew who he was.”
“I’ll be right back. Just lie down and rest.” says Susan. She goes into the bathroom and sits on the floor. She grabs a clean towel off the rack and pillows her face with it. She begins to cry, for Joy, yes, but mostly for herself. For all the nights when she willed herself to lay in the bed with an adulterer who never loved her, for remembering every breath and sigh, for dragging herself through it time after time after time, just to get along, just to be the person people seemed to want her to be, and just to get a baby. For staying so long. Wanting so much. Susan cries for a long time, hacking dry sobs when there is no moisture left in her barren body.
When she opens the bathroom door, she sees Joy sleeping. Joy snores softly, and her face has more color than it did when she arrived. She goes to the mattress and pulls the covers over the sleeping form. Then, she picks the telephone up and goes out the side door, where there is a tiny balcony. She hasn’t been out of the loft for three days, and the sun on her face feels like a jolt of electricity. When she warms to it, she realizes it feels good to be in the light.
She dials information and asks for Jack’s work number. She tells his secretary she wishes to speak to him about an urgent matter unrelated to her pending divorce. The secretary puts her on hold for a moment, and then Jack says, “Susan?”
“My secretary said it was urgent.”
“We, you and I, we have a situation. Your daughter is here.”
“What is she doing there?” Jack’s voice is toneless, flat.
Susan replies, “She has something to tell you, but it’s best done face to face.”
“Is she pregnant?” Jack says.
“Yes.” Susan answers. There is a long silence.
“I’ll kill the son of a bitch.” He says.
Jack hurriedly takes directions to Susan’s and says, “I’ll be there in thirty minutes.” Susan hangs up and returns to Joy. When she goes back in the house, Joy is awake, and sits up in the bed.
“Your father is on his way, Joy. When he gets here, we’ll talk to him together.” Susan sits down next to her.
“He is going to kill me.” Joy begins to cry softly. Susan folds her arms around the child, and Joy puts her head on Susan’s shoulder. As Joy sobs in Susan’s arms, she feels a power she has never known. It is a paradox, this power, fierce and tender at the same time.
In an instant, Susan knows what she wants. “Yes.” she says.
The statement catches Joy off guard, and surprises her tears away. “You’re going to take my baby?”
Susan laughs. “I don’t know. You’re the one who needs a mother right now.” Susan shakes her head and smiles. Joy hugs her again.
“I could sure use one, but I wonder what my Dad will have to say about it.”
“I didn’t mean it literally. I meant that I’m going to see you through this. Whatever I have to do, but did you know I once had a terrible…?” Susan trails off, and her face grows red.
“A terrible what?”
“Never mind. Just a little crush I had on your father when we were in college. It was nothing.” She is clearly embarrassed.
“My father? Hmmm.” Joy places her hands on Susan’s shoulders and steps back. She gives Susan an appraising look and says,”How long until he gets here?”
“Well, you’d better take a shower. I hate to say it, but you don’t smell too good.”
“But you barely know me.” says Susan. “When you find out what I’m really like, all the stupid things I’ve done, you’ll probably hate me.”
“Do you hate me?”
“No! I couldn’t. Not ever.”
“And I interrupted your nervous breakdown to ask you if you’d like to take my baby. So I could never hate you, either.” Joy looks around the loft. “I’m going to clean up around here.”
Susan watches Joy swing into action, but doesn’t move. Joy turns to Susan and says, “Hurry up! He’ll be here any minute!”
Susan turns and runs to the bathroom. She undresses and steps into the shower. She turns a knob, and somewhere, a canal opens. Water flows through the opening, surging, strengthening as the conduit grows smaller, smaller, and the need to burst more urgent. Susan looks up as the first warm drops descend. In their fall, she can see an alternate universe crowning. She sees Harv in an orange uniform, peering out of a barred window, doing fifteen months for stock fraud. She sees the rooms in her loft: a large master suite, a library, a room for Joy if she wants to visit, a deck that has perfect light all day long. She sees herself telling her mother to go to hell.
She can feel her muscles relaxing, and revels in the pops up and down her spine as it realigns itself. She soaps her hair twice and scrubs her body with soap until it is pink with new circulation. Just as she steps out of the shower, she hears a knock on the door. To Susan Pratt Bennington, the knock is a most beautiful sound. It is the sound of something coming untilted.