Rumpus Original Fiction: Forty-Six

By

Waiting to turn forty-six is like standing in the unrelenting sunshine. Everything green is wilted. Beauty is parched into nothingness.

Forty-six travels on the nose of a bee. It falls to the ground like the stinking fruit of a ginkgo tree. It sprouts legs and a tail and teeth. It snarls behind trash cans and car wheels, barely hidden from view. A feral cat. A stray dog. A cornered rat. Crooked teeth. Bloodshot eyes. Patchy fur and raw skin.

When Kate jogs, forty-six nips at her heels. Her lungs cramp as she loops the park. The walls of her heart buckle. She skips over maps of cracks and dried gum on the last leg of her run to the carousel. Leaning on her knees, she catches her breath. The painted horses, frozen in a fevered race, pull at their bits.

Forty-six grows bolder. When Kate cooks dinner, it drools, ravenous, under the kitchen table. It tears at the hem of her scrubs as she walks to the subway. When Brad kisses her goodbye and good morning and goodnight, its forty-six’s copper penny breath she tastes.

In September, on the flight back to New York after they’ve dropped Pierre off at college for his first semester, forty-six drapes over her shoulders like a rotting mink stole. Like rigor mortis. Like death filling the holes Pierre’s absence has created. He’s so far away now. California. She feels weight in his absence.

“What do you want to do for your birthday?” Brad asks.

Kate simply shakes her head no.

“It happens to the best of us.”

 

When Brad turned forty-six, Kate changed their diet. They cut down on red meat. They started going to yoga. When he slept, she listened for his breath. She held her cheek above his mouth and felt for the gentle breeze. When he was away on business or with friends, she waited for the phone to ring. Especially at times when it shouldn’t.

“You know what else happens?” She stares out the window. The plane rides just above the clouds, a view, she’s sure, humans were never meant to see. “Death. Divorce. Infidelity.”

“You sound like your sister.”

When Ingrid turned forty-six, eight years ago, Kate called her almost every day. She stopped by her apartment unannounced. If Ingrid didn’t answer the door, Kate let herself in to make sure she hadn’t suffered a stroke on her living room floor. She waited for the phone to ring. Especially at times when it shouldn’t.

When her father turned forty-six, thirty-four years ago, he died while he was visiting his family. Twelve-year-old Kate wasn’t waiting for the phone to ring, but it did.

“You know what else happens?” Brad says. “Grandchildren.”

“Not yet, please.”

“The expansion of time. Inner peace. The sense of a life well lived. It’s going to be okay.”

“Promise?”

He nods. He looks tired. The flight attendant walks the aisle, her finger brushing the tips of the headrests, tapping each tilted seat. The pilot directs the crew to prepare for landing.

Brad frowns and closes his tray. Without looking, he reaches for Kate’s hand. He always knows where it is. His knuckles are wider than they used to be. The hair on his forearm is flecked with white.

She doesn’t remember much about her father, not his voice, nor his walk, nor the jokes he told, though she remembers he told them. She does remember his dark hair. Hers is the same color. He had a wave over his forehead that Pierre now has, though his hair is dirty blonde. Pierre has Brad’s eyes, a crash of ocean blue. He has his father’s height, his smile, and soon, when he grows into manhood, he’ll have Brad’s way in the world. He was born with a shock of black hair and an old man’s features. For a few months, Kate wondered if she’d get to know her father through her son. But more and more it becomes clear that he is Brad’s boy. Kind, shy, thoughtful. Uncomplicated.

 

For the party she doesn’t want, they decorate the backyard of their Brooklyn home with streamers in discontinued Target colors—wine, mulberry, and iris. Brad mixes violet-infused cocktails garnished with brandied cherries. They serve banana pudding and empanadas on joyfully tacky children’s party plates left over from a decade of Pierre’s birthdays. For most of the gathering, Kate heats hors d’oeuvres in the kitchen and then loops the patio to clear plates. Ingrid, well on the other side of forty-six, has fallen into a joyful exuberance. Success or age—or both—have changed her. They’ve dulled her sharp edges. She’s released her hawkish concern. She no longer reads the secret language of sisters. Kate’s downward glances and forced smile and jagged shrugs go unnoticed. The last few years, Ingrid’s turned her attention to her nephew Pierre, watching him chip through the eggshell of his youth. She took his hand and led him into his soft darkness and he brought her out, pulled her with two hands and wouldn’t let go. There are days when Kate is almost jealous of them. Because Pierre’s not there and Ingrid has a flight in the morning—London—and because she always leaves parties early anyway, she says goodbye an hour after she arrives. Kate walks Ingrid outside.

“I’ll call when I’m back,” Ingrid says.

God how Kate wishes she’d stay.

Three long blocks away, a train squeals to a stop. The sound bounces down the avenue to Kate’s doorstep, chirping like the Japanese beetles that infested the lawns of her childhood every summer. Their carcasses, empty shells, piled up in the forks of the willow tree roots where Kate once held a funeral for her lucky rabbit’s foot.

Kate says, “Okay.”

 

Instead of returning to the party, Kate slips into Pierre’s bedroom, climbs the ladder of his loft bed, and lays her head on his pillow. It’s been two weeks since he left and she still hasn’t washed the sheets. They smell like him. When he was a baby, the back of his ears smelled of sweet powder. The blonde hair that replaced his matte of black was so fine, she could barely feel it when she kissed the top of his head. He slept on Brad’s chest, fat cheeks falling into the grace of gravity. Every mother carries her child one last time. An unmarked moment. A forgotten event. When was the last time he fell asleep with his head on her lap? When was the last time he ran into her belly and hugged her hips and cried over a wasp circling or a dog growling at him or missing a catch in the little league game? The last time she carried him drunk with sleep into the house? The last time she pushed him on a swing? She doesn’t remember any of those moments and she wishes she did.

“I was looking for you.” Brad leans in the doorway. “People are leaving.”

“Here I am.” She climbs down the ladder and brushes past him.

“They want to say goodbye.”

“I’m saying goodbye.”

Their backyard is mostly brick and dirt. Flowers and vegetables huddle in ports and beds along the perimeter already preparing for a retreat into fallow winter. When the last guest is gone, Brad holds open the rapacious mouth of a black garbage bag. Kate tosses in spent paper plates and plastic forks.

“I think people were happy,” he says.

“I think so.”

“Are you happy?”

She nods. Clears another plate. Pulls down a strip of streamers.

“I don’t believe you.” He sits on the bench by the picnic table.

The cats dig their claws into the screen door, one gray, one mittened black. Brad shrinks in the tired twilight. She traces her finger along his forehead, where his hair used to be before it receded, then the shadows of his creases and wrinkles.

The corners of his lips pull down. “I don’t know how to make you happy anymore. Is it me? Are you unhappy with us?”

She sits on his lap and rests her head in the well of his neck. “God, no,” she says. “It’s the night shift.” She’s agreed to six weeks of night at the hospital, starting on the third day of forty-six. Living at night, sleeping during the day. “It always throws me.” How can she explain to Brad or Ingrid or anyone what living at night is like? The molasses of midnight? The dream day becomes? The ghost of her father, forever forty-six, humming in the corners? How can she explain how nothing at night is real, though it is truer than that which is blinded by the sun? How can she describe the naked truth of night?

His arms fold around her and they fit, just like that.

“I love you,” he says. He’s crying now.

She curls deeper into the bowl of his stomach, her ear pressed to the outside of his heart. Forty-six purrs from the fire pit. Beyond the fence, the traffic sounds like waves, a cycle of lazy tide pulling sand to shore. “Are you drunk?”

“No.” He rocks her in his lap. The cats sit behind the screen door, side by side, sisters, and watch.

 

Sleep is different during the day. Dreams are different, too. They’re a confusion of waking life and morbid imagination. Stilted and paper thin. They can’t help but let the light in. She sweats beneath the covers, clammy and restless. She hears everything. The cats scratching litter. The mail carrier slipping mail into the mail box. The school bus brakes, children running down the street. Forty-six’s drowsy sighs as it sleeps, one eye open, on the corner of the bed.

Toothpaste tastes different in the middle of the day. The artificial sweetness lingers through two cups of coffee. Jogging is harder. Forty-six stumbles along, tripping over its own feet. When Kate catches her breath at the curve of the carousel, forty-six wheezes. Sometimes she sits on a park bench and waits for the frozen, breathless horses to whinny and scream. Then, she and forty-six jog back home. For a few weeks, forty-six settles in and Kate almost forgets that it’s there.

The night forty-six builds up the courage to bite, Kate rides the subway to work. Across from where she’s sitting, a fifteen-year-old girl, maybe older, sucks her thumb. She leans into her mother. The two figures melt around each other; their flesh bulges—pockets of water separated by a thin fabric called skin. They sit still as sculptures aside from the girl’s suckling cheeks and her mother’s running nose. At the far end of the car, a homeless busker pounds a lifeless children’s drum with pencil wrapped in packing tape. A man applies foundation, blue eye shadow, false eyelashes, and mascara. By the end of the tunnel, he’s become a she; she slips off her work shoes and steps into platform pumps. A woman in a business suit huffs Sharpie markers, uncapping them one at a time from a box stolen from her office’s supply cabinet. She drops the spent markers on the subway floor. Night is all these things. It’s when people peel away their masks of conformity, peel away the lies, peel back their skin and grief and pain and allow their essence to emerge. Essence becomes presence. No more pretending.

As the subway car jostles on into the station, Kate thinks about a woman yesterday who gave birth to a dying baby during the hazy hours between night and morning. The child had doll’s feet, clenched and frozen. Seizures marked his birth. The doctors forced his lips apart with their gloved hands, got him to breath. The mother wailed and reached for the child, but they didn’t give him to her. The regulators beeped, the child-sized pads for the monitors covered the infant’s chest. The child screamed, the weak cry of being dragged back from the grasp of death into the painfully lit world of life. The falling faces of nurses and doctors, Kates included, admitted that they knew the baby’s breath would stop again, if not that night, then the next. The baby wouldn’t make it more than a day or two in the world.

A crush of doctors, administrators, social workers descended into the room to beg the mother for the baby’s organs. At their hospital, a baby is waiting for a heart. In Denver, another needs a liver. Somewhere in New Mexico, a newborn is hooked up to dialysis. A baby born with damaged eyes in Utah is reaching for a mother he cannot see.

There’s more good news than bad in the maternity ward, but Kate is used to death. They all are. Maybe they’ve become numb to the searing pain of other people’s loss. Even the social worker’s nasal voice and the bend in his spine, his sugary smile and reflexive sighs seem milky and fake.

As Kate walks past the bodega by the hospital, she remembers the shadows in the room, the baby’s father and the mother’s mother. The doctors promised them they’d try to keep the baby alive and also promised that he’d die. They gave the mother an hour, as if an hour with a dying newborn is a gift to given, to decide. Papers needed to be signed. Hospitals alerted. Transport of the baby’s precious organs arranged.

While Kate slept at home the following afternoon, forty-six nestled like a pup in her hollowed stomach, the baby died.

By the time Kate jogged to and from the carousel the next afternoon, the mourning mother had checked out of the hospital, her belly still swollen with memory of birth.

While Kate drank coffee, showered, and dressed for her shift, on her fourth day of forty-six, she imagined the mourning mother trying to sleep.

 

Working third shift is like living in someone else’s dream.

Kate will soon lose night forever. She’ll watch it slip away. She’ll feel her skin being stitched to the daylight, to asphalt and concrete, to the raging painted horses at the carousel. There’s only so far day will let some people wander.

 

Sounds of the hospital at night: fluorescents hum like wasps, the orderly’s cart confesses its sticking wheel, the machines gossip, sleep murmurs, televisions whisper, sometimes outside a siren whines. The night orderlies have permanent purple circles around their eyes. And the physician assistants’ lips are always cracked. The night shift cleaner, a benevolent giant, rides his floor polisher while chewing the cap of ballpoint pen. Rebecca, the nighttime Natal ICU nurse, has button lips, wide set eyes, a heart-shaped face with a narrow chin. Her knees barely bend when she walks and her fingers are knotted lengths of twine. There are reasons she prefers the company of the tented, sleeping babies of the NICU.

All the while, new mothers fall into dreamless sleep; newborns straddle two worlds. They suck at the air and discover their hands, their feet, their muzzled limbs. In the NICU, the smallest ones, the dark horses, born sick, decide whether to stay or return home. Their mothers, if they’re still in the hospital, weep, their sobs tamed by tiredness.

Dr. Evans is the obstetrician on nights. He fades under the strain of trading day for evening. The thinning circle on the top of his head reflects stripes of the overhead lights and his lashes brush his glass frames. He is a daisy of a person, plainness personified in its most striking form. He’s why she agreed to work nights, too.

The coffee in the cafeteria comes in paper cups with playing cards printed on the sides and bottom. Kate drinks from the Jack of Spades. The Queen of Hearts lurks below. Dr. Evans has the Nine of Hearts, two rows of red kisses separated by a single, lonely kiss. There are a few others, pairs at round tables, hiding behind plastic flowers in glass vases. They are the relatives of the ill and dying, hospital employees ragged from lack of sleep, or, sometimes, a drunk who’s wandered in to sober up. All characters in the dream. Dr. Evans bites the rim of the cup. He’s stuck in last night’s dream when one mother wept with sorrow and another with joy because her baby would get the heart it needed to live.

The surgeons invited him to watch the surgery. “I held his little heart in my hand.” He turns his cupped palm over and stares into it, as if he’s still holding the baby’s heart. “A beating walnut. It was that small.” His eyes well with tears, magnified by his thick glasses. Kate feels like she can feel it, too, the bud of a flower, the seed of a soul. The fragile beauty of a spider wen that holds everything to the beating heart. “I was so tired. I am so tired. But I can’t sleep.” He rubs his eyes, then the stubble on his chin.

Over space, over time, she wonders what Pierre is doing. If, in his sleep, he feels the draw of his connection to her and to her father who exists and doesn’t, who lives and dies and lives and dies over and over again, etched in the fragile glass of memory. She searches for Ingrid, too, all the way in London. And Brad. He’s always last in her thoughts, but he’s always there. She looks at Dr. Evan’s hand, palm open on the table and, for a flash, imagines what life would’ve been like with someone else. How easy it is to destroy a good thing with one bad decision. Brad needs her, she thinks. You’d never know it from how he walks in the world, the confidence he exudes, his good looks. He’s hardly had a bad thing happen to him. He’s the most fragile of them all.

“Life is crazy,” Dr. Evans says. “You know?”

If forty-six claims her, she decides she’ll haunt Pierre like her father haunts her.

 

Thinking back on the moment, she did see the father of the dead baby in the cafeteria. He didn’t stand out among the sunken faces and shadows. How was she supposed to recognize one face amongst the blur? Faces blend together. Chins bow. Stubble softens hard angles. Eyes recede. She was deep in conversation. She was on break.

 

Kate wanders the rows of babies in the NICU sleeping in tents and incubators. The premature are at one end, vulnerable to everything including their mother’s touch. At the far end are the growing survivors, almost ready to go home. Webs of wire and tubes of oxygen are taped to the baby’s faces and bodies. Fighting for their lives before they even know what living is. The baby with her new heart is among them, swaddled in a pink blanket that protects her bandaged chest. She rests in a foam nest, held firm, unable to turn or fuss. Kate reads her chart. Chloe. Chloe’s lips suckle the air. She’s dreaming. Kate wants to see the scar.

What if Pierre had been among the struggling babies? What if he’d been born sick? What if he’d died? Who would she be having never known him? She calls to mind the feel of his new skin the first time they touched. He flattened onto her chest and latched on and learned to breathe all at once. His crown radiated warmth and smelled like light. The first time she picked him up she knew she’d never drop him. She misses her son. Misses waiting for him to reveal the secrets of her father. Misses wondering if, when his voice finally settles, she’ll hear her father speak again.

Maybe there is a sound, a rustle. A whoosh against the chirps of the monitors. The scuffle of her soft soled shoes. The beat of a boot. His eyes are bloodshot. His hair, tangled. His breath smells like burning plastic. In the light, with her tired eyes, she mistakes him for forty-six, reared on its hind legs, grown into the size of a man. She recedes between the rows of babies.

“I’m here for my son.” His voice is tender and low, like a lullaby. He’s drunk. He steps deeper into the NICU, past the first sleeping baby, three months premature, the size of a man’s hand. “My son.”

She doesn’t trust what she’s heard and points past him, towards the hallway and the hospital pharmacy, but he bounds forward and grabs Kate by her ponytail. Her hands reach back to stave off the pain. “I want what’s left of my son.”

Her neck twists, her hands shoved beneath his, she remembers his dog eyes from the night before, his stained flannel shirt, how he hid his head in his hands when he was told the news. He shoves her and she stumbles, nearly upsetting an incubator. She sees the glint of a gun. No need to point it. Its presence threat enough.

“Which one has him?”

“He’s in the morgue.” She tries to pull against him. There’s no give.

“His heart is here. I want it. It’s mine.”

“I don’t know.”

He pushes her further inside. She pulls up a chart. The letters jumble. She can’t read. She drops it, moves to the next bed, the next chart. Her hands shake. Her eyes focus on the names on printed cards outside the cribs, stickers of stars and teddy bears on the corners.

Now he raises the gun. Now he clicks off the safety. Now he points it at her. If she can find one, one she knows will not survive, won’t make it through the night—but they surprise you. The weakest become strong. The strongest sometimes fade. And only one has stitches across her chest. Kate’s knees give.

“You’re not even looking,” he yells. He cracks the butt of his pistol across her cheek.

Her hands reflexively cradle her face. It burns, but it doesn’t yet hurt. She sees Brad sitting across from her at the kitchen counter, his look of surrender as she says goodbye. She feels the fading heat of coffee through cheap paper cups and the heaviness of blanket on Pierre’s unmade bed. She hears herself breathe. The air becomes oil. Chloe gurgles in her sleep and Kate doesn’t know who to betray.

“I’ll kill all of them if I have to.” He waves his pistol over a sleeping child. “I want my fucking heart.”

Rebecca walks by the window of the NICU. Her mouth drops when Kate catches her eye. He notices. He turns. He shoots towards the wide window. The glass shatters. Kate hurls herself, all ninety-eight pounds, into his back. He stumbles. His elbow catches her cheek. He throws her to the floor.

 

A few years ago, during Christmas, she was walking down Broadway to meet her sister for coffee. A man a block away was running through the crowd towards her. She stepped aside. He changed course, plowed into her and knocked her to the ground. She scrambled for her purse. He leapt over her and ran. The thing that impressed Kate most was that she hadn’t had the chance to finish her thought before she felt the sting of the sidewalk. She managed to walk ten blocks and only discovered she’d been crying the whole way when Ingrid jumped up from the table at the café and folded her in her arms.

The bullet is the same way. The man turns towards her, a gray metal barrel at the end of his reach. Before she can finish her thought, there’s a blinding burst of noise and her shoulder is locked to the ground. Her head throbs. Her neck aches. The warmth of her blood is serene as it spreads. Her body curls into a fetal position, her good arm wrapped around her head. She hears sobbing, but doesn’t know where the sobbing is coming from. It takes her a moment to realize it’s herself. Running footsteps, too many of them, and the bruised blue of a police uniform, pass through the low hum of screaming voices. She blacks out, into a dreamless sleep.

There was nothing brave about it. There are no heroes. As far as she knows, she hasn’t saved any lives. And it isn’t lucky that she’s only been shot in the shoulder. Luck would’ve been none of it happening. Luck would’ve been one baby born healthy and the other baby born the same. Luck would’ve been any number of happy endings.

Even so, when she finally wakes from surgery, Pierre’s by her side. Ingrid sits cross-legged in a chair at the foot of the bed. Brad paces the hallway. Her shoulder hurts. Everything hurts. And she feels lucky.

“Dad. Dad. Dad. She’s awake.”

Kate’s groggy and stiff. The contusions on her cheeks smart. Her lips are dry and she’s thirsty as hell. The shades are open. She doesn’t know what time it is, but she knows it’s day.

***

Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.


Amy Neswald is a fiction writer and independent filmmaker. Her written work is forthcoming or has been published in The Normal School, Green Mountain Review, and Bat City Review, among others. She is the recipient of the Dick Shea Memorial Award for Fiction and was a 2019 Pushcart Prize finalist. Her screenplay received the Best Screenplay award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival (2008) and her short film Wilderness was awarded an Indiefest award for excellence in film making. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Maine, Farmington. More from this author →