Two Hybrid Pieces
I pulled the receipt out of the ATM and held it face down in my lap for a moment. I knew my account was low, but I wasn’t sure how low, and part of me didn’t want to know. I had to find out, though. We needed groceries, and I had to know how much I could afford to spend. I took a deep breath, turned the receipt over in my hand, and peeked down. It was worse than I’d thought: one hundred and thirty-seven dollars. Two hundred and thirty-seven counting the money I’d just withdrawn. That was all I had left in the world. That was all that separated me and my little girl from destitution.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?” called Suzie from the backseat.
I realized I was crying. I wiped my eyes on the sleeve of my coat. “Nothing’s wrong, baby,” I said. “I’m okay.”
As we drove to Target, I thought about how I could make the money stretch until my next paycheck arrived in seven days. A hundred dollars would go to groceries today. That should be enough to get seven dinners, a couple gallons of milk, and a couple boxes of cereal. Another hundred would have to go to the heating and water bills. I was already way behind on my payments, and I couldn’t have them shutting the heat or the water off on us now that the weather was getting cold. The remaining thirty-odd dollars would have to go to gas. I had to get to work each day, and it was too far to walk or bike. The rent would have to wait, but that wasn’t a big deal. My landlady never minded if I was a few days late.
Target was hopping. It was the day after Black Friday—Broke Saturday I jokingly called it—and there were still a bunch of cheap LED TVs and iPhones on the shelves. I hadn’t even thought about what I was going to get Suzie for Christmas yet. She wouldn’t ask for anything. She was only six, but she was sharp. She knew we were struggling. Whenever we went to Target, she walked right past the toy section.
I pushed the red cart up and down the aisles, and Suzie loaded it. We were an efficient team. We got more or less the same stuff every time we came here, and we could get it all in less than twenty minutes. As the groceries piled up, I did the math in my head: two family size boxes of Cheerios, eight dollars, two gallons of skim milk, six dollars, four boxes of off-brand mac and cheese, four dollars. When we got up around ninety, I called the grocery shopping to a halt. I didn’t want to go over a hundred and have to take stuff back or have the cashier void the order and start over again.
The line at the register was long. Right in front of us was a couple with a daughter about Suzie’s age. She was wearing a white North Face jacket with a fur-trimmed hood. In her arms was an enormous pink box with the words “Little Princess Palace Play Set” written on the side. When she turned around, I recognized her immediately. She went to the school where I worked in the cafeteria—the elite all-girls school that I couldn’t afford to send my own daughter to. The other day, during lunch, I’d been sweeping the floor near the table where she and her friends were sitting. She turned to me and held out an empty pudding cup with the foil lid still partially attached. “Could you throw that away?” she said. The way she said it, I could tell it wasn’t a request. It was a command. I was the help. Already she knew she was above me. I wasn’t even worth a “please.”
I felt my body grow taut with anger. If that entitled brat got to have a Little Princess Palace Play Set, my Suzie sure as hell better get to have one, too. She was the sweetest, kindest, best little girl in the world. She deserved that play set. My cash would be gone after I bought the groceries, but I still had that hundred and thirty-seven dollars in my checking account, and I had my debit card. There was no way the toy cost more than a hundred and thirty-seven dollars. I didn’t know what I was going to do about my bills and my gas, but I didn’t really care about that right now. I would figure it out.
I looked at Suzie. She was staring at the floor, her hands in the pockets of her thinly insulated thrift store coat.
“Hey kiddo,” I said.
She looked up at me.
I pointed at the extravagant toy in Little Miss Pudding Cup’s hands. “Want me to get you one of those?” I said.
She gaped. “Can we afford it?” she asked. She was so damn smart.
“We can afford it,” I said. “Do you want one?”
I turned the cart around and headed to the toy section, Suzie scuttling along behind me in a haze of disbelief. We stopped at the end of an aisle full of girl toys: Barbie dolls, My Little Pony figurines, and Disney Princess paraphernalia. The Palace Play Set was right there on the end cap. It was only $89.99. I grabbed it and put it in the cart. Suzie beamed. It was the first time in a long time I’d seen her smile with such genuine delight. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
“Get something else,” I said to her. “Get a few things.”
Her smile disappeared. “I don’t think we should spend any more money,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We’re fine.”
“Are you sure?” she said.
“Sure I’m sure,” I said. And I was. I’d never been so sure about anything.
The day after we found out we were having a boy, we went to Home Depot to pick out a wall color for the nursery. We spent about twenty minutes looking at different paint swatches. All of the swatches Marta plucked off the shelf were shades of green. She had recently seen some show on HGTV that said green was the best color to paint a nursery because it soothed babies and improved their concentration. I found a shade of blue I liked called “Gentle Stream,” but Marta wouldn’t go for it. She said blue made babies sad and lethargic. I didn’t put up a fight. Far be it from me to challenge the wisdom of HGTV. We ended up picking a light green called “Spring Cucumber.” It was the only color Marta loved, and I could live with it, so that was that.
We devoted the rest of the afternoon to painting. Painting was actually fun. We hooked up Marta’s iPod to a set of small speakers and listened to her Motown playlist on repeat as we trimmed and rolled the walls. When we were done with the second coat, we laid our brushes and rollers in their trays, stripped off our overalls, and made love right there on the hardwood floor in the empty nursery. The sex was my idea. I thought we better have as much as we could over the next few months. As soon as the baby came along, we probably wouldn’t have the time or energy.
A week after we painted the nursery, we started furnishing it. We got a large upholstered glider and a sturdy-looking wooden crib with thick, fencelike slats. We got a squat gray dresser and a small black bookcase with two shelves. We made multiple trips to the bookstore to stock up on classic kid titles: Pat the Bunny, Where the Wild Things Are, and Goodnight Moon. We could have ordered the books online, of course, but we both enjoyed going to the bookstore, perusing the kids section, talking about the books we had enjoyed as children and wondering aloud whether or not our son would like them, too. Reading to my son was the thing I looked forward to most. I would daydream about it at work. One minute I would be in a meeting, listening to my boss drone on about stock portfolios, the next I would be sitting in the glider with my boy, reading about Max’s primal romp with the fearsome, fanged wild things.
I daydreamed about doing other things with my son, too—taking him out for ice cream and singing to him at bedtime and helping him take his first steps. When he got a bit older, I would show him The Goonies and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he would love those movies as much as I did. I would introduce him to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and teach him how to put a record on a turntable and drop the needle in the right place. He would be a cool kid, with far better taste in music and movies than most of his friends. And I would be a great dad. I had no doubt about that.
When Marta hit the third trimester, we started talking about names. We both compiled lists of favorites and compared notes. Marta’s top three names were Everett, Dashiell, and Sam. Mine were Benjamin, Timothy, and William. Marta vetoed Ben because she had known too many assholes named Ben and that ruined the name for her. Plus, our last name was Simmons, and if we named our son Ben, his initials would be BS. She also rejected William because, she said, it was too popular. Our son would end up being Will S. to distinguish him from the other seven Williams in his class. I said no to Sam because I didn’t like alliterative names, and I nixed Dashiell and Everett because people would think we were trying too hard to be different. After a week of back and forth, Marta relented and said Timothy was okay as long as we could call him Timmy, and that settled it.
I was at the office when Marta’s water broke. She sent me a text that said GET HOME NOW!!! I floored it all the way home, got her in the Subaru, and floored it all the way to the hospital. I wasn’t worried about the cops. If they pulled us over, they’d take one look at Marta howling in the passenger seat and let us go. They might even give us an escort.
As soon as we got to the emergency room, two orderlies lifted Marta onto a gurney and rushed her to labor and delivery. I rushed after them and got to the delivery room just in time to see them pull off Marta’s soaked yoga pants and hoist her onto the bed. The doctor popped out from behind a curtain. She looked about my age, thirty or thirty-one, which struck me as odd and slightly unsettling. Up to this point in my life, all the doctors I had dealt with had been significantly older than me. How much experience could someone my own age really have delivering a child? She had probably only been out of med school a couple years.
Marta screamed for an epidural, but the doctor said it was too late. Timmy was crowning. Two nurses put Marta’s feet in the stirrups and held down her arms. Blood and amniotic fluid sloshed onto the floor. The doctor yelled, “Push, push, push!” Matted black hair came into view, then a forehead, and then a face, pinched and purple, a shriveled eggplant. When they said he wasn’t breathing, Marta started sobbing, but I didn’t do anything. I just stood there, watching the still body on the warming table, thinking about the green nursery and how we should have painted it blue.
About the Author: Jack Somers’s work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Prick of the Spindle, DecomP, Litro, Flash Fiction Magazine, Sick Lit Magazine, Rum Punch, Fewer Than 500, and The Atticus Review and is forthcoming in Literary Orphans, Firefly Magazine, and Jellyfish Review. He lives in Cleveland with his wife and their three children. You can find him on Twitter here or visit him here.