By March, the heart-freezing blasts off the lake had diminished to simple icy gusts, which native Wisconsinites interpreted as a sign of approaching spring. With it came unavoidable signs that Lynnette and I were no longer alone in bed.
She was swelling up like Violet Beauregard at the chocolate factory. Not so much from blueberryitis as a beach ball inflating behind her bellybutton—converting that lower dimple into an extra nipple, much to its owner’s alarm. (“Ain’t two titties gonna be enough?”) Add that to the list of backaches and bleeding gums and hemorrhoids and indigestion and constipation and bloated ankles and charley horses and varicose veins. None of which could be called a blessing for her or a turn-on for me.
Then there was her inside-out Oedipal use of the words baby and Babe. One night I awoke to find Lynnette deep in conversation with her beach ball: “Kick once for yayess…”
“…what the hell?”
“Poppaea sez she c’n hear me now ‘n’ I should be talkin’ tew her.”
“No—Baby! Tryin’ t’figger out whut her name is. Babe?… Hey—” (Nail-poke.)
“Ow! You talking to me?”
“Whut girl names go good with Ajahr?”
“Dora,” I said. Cementheadedly.
“Dorita—that’s it!” (To the beach ball:) “Lovely Dorita, meet yer maid; nuthin’ll come between us…” (To me:) “Dew y’mind? This is private talk.”
Excuse me for barging in on the Mother & Child Reunion.
It was the last blast of windchill needed to cool off my libido. I convinced Lynnette I was afraid further boinkage might “harm the baby,” and promptly got exempted from that
particular task. As by then it had become.
Less and less did she need makeup to look haunting. Her almonds and ivories turned ashen and pallid; baggy smudges encircled her sloes. Never a fan of the high-noon sun, she now disbelieved that it shone in the sky or that trees were in bloom and birds clamoring. I would be sent down to check the sidewalks for “black frost” before she’d dare venture out, clinging to my arm as though the street were a skating rink and every step was treacherous.
“Don’t lemme slip! Don’t lemme fall! I’ll bust wahd open, I’ll EXPLODE—”
In April she commandeered my dust mask, saying the air was choked with toxins and microbes and she wouldn’t go out unprotected against them. Yet Lynnette insisted on being driven to Nonnamou’s for her Saturday gigs, even if it meant singing through the respirator. And being so afraid of the basement stairs that Theo the bouncer had to carry her down them—and then up onto the stage, bulging and protruding and evoking a Chinese fertility goddess with very bad joss, swathed in an uncanny muumuu.
“And now my friends,” croaked Non Nonnamou as the blue spot enshrouded my Venus of Willendorf, her cello wedged between unparalleled thighs (“Hey, if fat ol’ men c’n dew it…”) and pressed against her phenomenal belly (“Dorita loves the vahbrations”). Raking the room with an aberrant glare over the consumptive mask.
Then she closed her lashes. Tilted her head. Took the bow in one hand and neck in
the other. And, once again, wrang melancholy resonance from catgut.
Please yourself was how I lived
Forgot one, didn’t I?
My heart’s no longer dry
Prowling round he caught me
And I learned to count to three—
That’s what you get from pleasing yourself.
There came a bruise from nowhere
That seeps beneath the skin
And sleeps alone within
Like a perm’nent tattoo
Of a worm I’ve bitten through—
All you have left from pleasing yourself.
The bruise from nowhere lies
Beneath my lover’s feeling
But like a ba-aby’s cries
It sheds its grace on me—
Though the blood is all you see.
Could I use some smacking down?
No one’s left for counting
Drinks I took from fountains
Now empty of shadows
That’ve vanished up ladders—
Blow the roof off of pleasing yourself.
The bruise from nowhere lies
Beneath my lover’s feeling
It makes a baby survive—
The blood is the life
The blood is the life…
“Cranky Lynnette, my friends,” grinned Non. Flakily omniscient as ever.
The month of May brought false labor contractions and Poppaea’s ordering her spit-spot into moderate bedrest. She was permitted to sit and occasionally stand, do mild isometrics, waddle to and from the bathroom, even practice the cello if she didn’t get pyrotechnic or try lifting it in and out of its case.
Her post-punk friends wanted to throw her a Gothic baby shower, but Lynnette kept putting it off. Nor would she let us install a telephone in her loft, saying its ringing would disturb Dorita. Should immediate help be needed, there was always old Stosha within earshot—if she had her hearing aid on. Aside from that, Lynnette’s only plan (that we heard tell of) was to deliver the kid on Sunday the 25th, her own twenty-sixth birthday. Any other strategy or forecast was confided to the letters she scrawled daily to Johnny Ajahr in prison. (Which I, of course, had to post for her.) None received a reply or was returned to sender; possibly they got used as “wipes.” But Lynnette went right on scrawling, confiding, romanticizing—as though she expected Johnny Dearest to pop out along with the newborn, and provide for all their needs like a yellow-eyed genie from a piss-tinted lamp.
Should that fail to happen… what about the newborn? How responsible and committed was I supposed to act? Could I picture myself helping to rock it, burp it, clean up after it? (Save me some of those “wipes.”) Would the child display any traces of its—her—paternity? Would she grow up a beauty like her mother, yet purged of all peevishness? A courteous, well-behaved little girl, yet nobody’s pushover; able from an early age to see through the sons of bitches of the world? Would she go on to be a good student, a fine artist, a born connoisseur of music and sculpture and film? And might she love me—not as a father (I vehemently hoped) but a surrogate uncle, a passable stand-in parental unit, preferred over any blood (or bloodier) father figure in her life?
But no. She—it—was bound to be a sullen, lumpish brat. A backtalker, refusing to do its chores, pilfering from groceries and lying about it, sneering at my artwork for not bringing in big bucks, too the hell precocious when it came to smoking and drinking and screwing and landing in detention and having to be picked up from juvenile hall—
—and Lynnette would think the moon and stars shone out of the kid’s backside. Never hear a word said against her baby; never allow even the lightest discipline.
No thanks, Dorita. Look to that bloodier sperm donor for your daddy.
Except that, very soon, doing so was out of the question.
Squib in the Sentinel on Friday the 23rd: Johnny Ajahr had been killed in prison. Unclear whether he was targeted as “one o’ them Eye-ranians,” or had reaped comeuppance for some drug-related ripoff.
I didn’t take the morning paper, but Tattoo Rula did. Her disembodied voice called me at my dayjob to coordinate how Lynnette would be kept in the dark about this till after the baby came. A conspiracy in which I, of course, was expected to take the lead.
“Not to forget, you are rounding the corner from her.”
Chisels and gouges danced through my head as I sought to leave work asap. But too many others had vamoosed already, turning the Memorial weekend into a four-day toot. I tried and tried again to reach Stosha at the lofts, but could not get an answer. (Hearing aid off? Cabbage on the boil? Husband Stosh hogging attention with some crisis of his own?)
Someone needed to be there to fend off bad tidings. How immediately, though? No phone, no TV, hardly any radio—she disdained commercials, played tape cassettes instead. If nobody showed her the Sentinel, we ought to be safe for the time being.
Ought to be.
When I finally managed to escape, it was into the hottest afternoon and bitchmost traffic of the year. Got home no sooner than if I’d left at 5 P.M. Not waiting for the freight elevator, I ran up ten flights of stairs and arrived at Lynnette’s loft short on wind, drenched with sweat, and stitched in both sides.
“Hey,” I respired.
“Hey yerself,” said Lynnette.
“Any… body… been… by?…”
“I don’t let jes anybody in hyar.”
Plumped on the brass bed against high-piled cushions. Legs stuck out at right angles with a teddy bear between them, holding a ball of yarn in its paws. Above her bosom-rack (now more of a bosom-prow) a few inches below her face, she wielded a pair of needles as busily and unerringly as I’d seen her manipulate chopsticks.
“Didn’t know you could knit,” I panted.
Snort-sniff from Lynnette at my unsurprising ignorance.
At least the radiator was off and the casement cranked open. As recently as Monday she’d been feeling “drafts” and “chills.” I poured us a couple of ice waters; she left hers untouched.
“No letter today?” I asked. Usually it was handed to me as soon as I entered.
“Been tidyin’,” said Lynnette. Laid out on the floor around the bed was every piece of equipment in her photographic arsenal, dusted and polished and neatly arranged.
“Didn’t tire yourself out, I hope.”
“Tidyin’, I said—not tirin’.”
“Sorry. So… what’s this thing you’re knitting?”
“Kind of lengthy, isn’t it?” Serpentining over her prow to writhe around the bed.
“That’s whut makes it a sash.”
“Oh. Er. Uh. Well… are you hungry? Want me to fix you something?”
“Had a late lunch.”
“Good—good—glad you did…”
It was like being trapped inside a Poe story. Any minute now I expected a tell-tale heart or walled-up cat to make its presence loudly known. Leaving me no choice but to spill the beans, confess the truth, divulge the secret I’d barely started keeping from her. Then I suddenly feared she could READ IT IN MY FACE—yeedge! avert it, deflect it, don’t let her look you in the eye! Pretend to examine these lenses and whatnot at your feet.
“Put that down! I jes tidied it!”
There spoke a mother-to-be. Knit knit knit went her needles; writhe writhe writhe went the sash; twitch twitch twitch went my guilty-feeling face.
“Yew,” said Lynnette, “are makin’ me nervous.”
“Sorry—sorry—it’s been a hard week.”
“Whut’s good fer Monday won’t do fer Friday,” she remarked, priggish as Mary Poppins. Adding that if getting on her nerves was the best I could do, I might as well get the hell on out of there. I objected; she insisted, and so crankily I feared the annoyance might do her harm. So I got the hell up to go and she subsided a bit, saying when she finished the sash she might practice her cello (if I’d be so good as to bring it to the bed) before turning in. No she wouldn’t overdo it; yes she’d holler if anything obstetrical happened. Gawd sakes—quit fussing, Huffman.
I fetched her the cello, then bent and pecked her cheek. “Love you, Wu.”
“So yew keep sayin’. Night now.”
And with that I left her.
The Strichleiter Lofts were quiet that evening. I went around the corner to mine and had a bit of supper. Pausing every so often in mid-chew or -gulp to hark at the silence. Waiting for the setting sun to give way to twilight, as it had that first Friday night a year or more ago. Though back then I wasn’t mentally rehearsing what to do if she announced her water’d broke or the pangs were only two minutes apart.
Dusk at last.
Up lit the airshaft. Candlepower at work, lending a vision to an agape frame of glass.
Shimmering likeness of a Chinese Okie in a deep dark muu-muu, making music. That one long song like an irregular heartbeat, tachying up and bradying down: Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.
I remained by the window for quite a long time. Knowing I should chide her about staying up so late and playing with such angst. But our old arrangement still applied: observe all you like, so long as you speak no word and break no spell. Just look on and listen. Let the undulations alleviate you, their lullaby tranquilizing you into a doze…
Bugbite on my chin.
(Some kind of bite, anyway.)
I opened my eyes and glanced down at a paper airplane on my chest. Unfolding it to
find, in bold black Magic Marker, the single monosyllable
While at the same time in the airshaft there came a FLASH.
I glanced up and out, and what I saw there turned the world to vacuum. Null and void blue shadows through which I groped for something to inhale. And by the time I could breathe again, it was all too late.
Three suspensions were reflected in the casement.
The first was Cranky Lynnette, wearing nothing but the sash. One end must have been tied to her ceiling trapdoor; the other end, stretched into a cord, was knotted around her neck.
A second cord descended between her dangling legs to something that wasn’t the teddy bear, though much the same size and just as immobile.
And the third cord hung from the trigger plunger still caught in Lynnette’s hand, leading over to the camera with which she had recorded their departure.
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