by Adrienne Gunn

After the breakfast where Luke buttered his wheat toast and cut it into precise squares and ate it with a fork and knife while she sipped coffee and watched, Mallory, who was glad to be away from his morning pleasantries but also irritated by the empty, small sounds of the house, wandered into the living room. She longed to get away from the house and was exhausted by the smile she’d held across her face as he’d talked and kissed her goodbye. She stared now at the worn, yet valuable, furniture as if looking for a clue. The wing-back chair whose leather had begun to crack; the silk brocade couch with its sagging cushions and springs that had sunk; the mahogany bookcases filled with important books that she had not chosen or read. And there, by the windows, the one object that was hers: the grand piano, which needed to be tuned. The sun shone down on the piano’s empty bench then as if inviting her to sit, to play, and for a moment Mallory envisioned herself there, playing one of her memorized Mozarts for the visiting neighbors while they sipped white wine and vodka tonics, until the vision provoked in her such a nagging uncertainty that she looked away. 

Her eyes then rested on the swing and the baby that swayed back and forth under a sun-streaked window. An image sprang into her mind: mother and child out for a leisurely stroll on a sunny, midsummer’s day, and Mallory smiled, warmed by the certainty of what to do next.

The baby appeared indifferent as Mallory lifted him from the swing and carried him outside to the stroller. He was a small baby, and Mallory worried about his weight, his fragility, in a sort of remote way, the way one would forget and then remember and then forget again to schedule a dental cleaning. He was also a quiet baby. During these past six weeks he had rarely cried, his noises were more like simple mews or yips than cries, and at his first sound Mallory would sweep him up and latch him to her breast, which comforted them both greatly. Typically she watched him while he ate, the two of them rocking in the antique rocker, his small lips opening and closing around her like a drowsy fish, and while she was usually too exhausted from the daily work and repetitions of motherhood to feel much at all, occasionally during these quiet moments together she felt a love for him so great that she was sure she would die instantly if he were ever hurt. Yet other times she would stare at him and feel nothing, as if he were a changeling – someone else’s child that she had agreed to watch today, and possibly again tomorrow.

With the sun pleasantly warm on her skin, Mallory buckled the baby into the stroller and pushed it down the driveway, past her station wagon that held the baby’s car seat and had enough room for bulk purchases of toilet paper and diapers, and past the spot where after a long day of accounting, Luke would park his black convertible, and onto Primrose Street. On Primrose Street the oak trees were abundant and mature, and their limbs draped over the street in a series of protective archways. The large, ornate homes built along the border of the river, the blooming flowers, and the aging residents that mingled under patches of sunlight that wound through the trees onto manicured lawns, Cadillacs, and garbage bins, became dreadfully familiar to Mallory as she walked.

She’d been terribly impressed when Luke brought her here for the first time. As she’d stood before what fulfilled the picture in her mind of what life should look like after college, she’d grasped Luke’s hand and smiled a smile that was filled with gratefulness and fidelity, a big toothy grin, unselfconscious and goofy, a smile that made her feel absolutely happy and silly enough to wed herself to both him and the idea of him, right in that moment. But then she had been just a twenty-two year old girl studying to be a music teacher – what did she know? Not that years of city growth had left Primrose Street on the wrong side of the river; too close to the dying downtown and too far from the subdivision, shopping, and restaurant developments. Or that like all the homes on Primrose Street, their house – which they had inherited, furnishings and all, soon after their wedding when Luke’s starchy Episcopalian parents retired to Sarasota – was drafty and cold, it’s twelve-foot ceilings and un-insulated walls impossible to heat, its plumbing in constant disrepair, both the foundation and roof leaking with either river water that snaked up through the ground, or rainwater that seeped down through the mildewed ceilings. And certainly not that Luke would get up every morning, toast two slices of wheat bread, cut them up into precise squares, and eat them with a fork and knife.

No, then Mallory couldn’t believe her good luck. Luke had given her exactly what she wanted: a husband, a house, a life filled with prescriptive daily activities – breakfast, work, dinner, television, bed – weekends filled with grocery shopping, home improvement projects, dinner and the latest movie at the mall. These were activities that Mallory understood and she’d embraced them willingly, earning them plates of holiday cookies, frequent invitations to barbeques and birthday parties, and long conversations about bunions, back pain, and persistent bronchitis from the residents of Primrose Street. He’d even bought her the piano.

Who could say when it all started to feel less like what made up a happy life and more like what they did to fill up the emptiness around them? Last year the glue loosened from behind the paisley wallpaper in the dining room and the edges had begun to curl. Mallory considered purchasing the supplies to repair it, or the tools to remove it completely, but since the house had ceased to provide a satisfying reflection of who she was or what gave her life meaning, she’d let it all peel away. And so they did what married people did next – they had a baby.

Mallory continued walking. She felt like the picture she’d seen in her mind: serene mother and child strolling down a tree-lined street. She ignored what displeased her – the buckled portions of sidewalk and crumbling curb, the cat that sat licking himself on the intersection’s roundabout – and instead focused on the beautiful day, the sun, the trees, and the impressive houses situated in front of the river, and thought that even though she was tired, wasn’t she very fortunate to have a home, a husband, a healthy baby, and the sun warm on her back?

“How are you today, Mallory?”

Mallory startled. She hadn’t noticed the overweight and aging woman sitting on the ground among the flushed pink begonias. “Hello, Mrs. Sheldon,” she said.

“I’ve told you and told you, it’s Dorothy.”


“Now let me get a look at that baby.” With great effort Mrs. Sheldon worked her legs underneath her, placed a hand on the grass, and began to push herself up. She struggled a moment, wobbling side to side, and Mallory made a move to assist her, but Mrs. Sheldon waved her away. Once up, she brushed off her behind and leaned into the stroller. “Look at this boy! He looks so much like his father did at that age. Such a strapping young man!”

Mallory looked down at the baby. He had patches of blond hair, most of which was falling out, and a gelatinous drool dripped onto his shirt. While they watched, he valiantly lifted an arm, then dropped it heavily. Again. Again. How odd, Mallory thought, to have placed this being into a cart, and with no real destination in mind, roll him up Primrose Street like a paralytic. And how strange these last weeks had been; the constant repetition of simple acts, every day the same, the minutes spent alone with the baby passing slowly like light clicks of the metronome. She looked again at the trees. The branches dipped towards the earth under the weight of fluttering leaves.

Mrs. Sheldon coughed. Mallory remembered herself and smiled. “Yes, everyone says he looks just like his father. I suppose he looks like me a bit too though, around the nose?”

“Oh, of course. I see just what you mean.” Mrs. Sheldon removed her gardening gloves and pinched the baby’s cheek. He smiled. “You must be so proud to have such a handsome young man, and so alert! Just look at him watching you. He loves his mama. You love your mama, don’t you, Toby?”

Mallory smiled brightly at Mrs. Sheldon and looked into the stroller. The baby did seem to be watching Mallory, and for a split-second she thought she saw something in his eyes. It was as if he knew her intimately, as if during the hours they’d spent together in the deep of the night he had come to understand her, to form a deep affection for her. His need for her then seemed so earnest and sweet that all at once Mallory felt a fierce rush of love for this baby and was compelled to touch him. She reached into the stroller to smooth his hair, drawing her fingers lightly across his forehead. His skin was warm.

Mrs. Sheldon pulled herself upright and patted Mallory on the back. “Cherish this time with your little blessing. It all goes by so quickly. Just yesterday my boys were running around this yard. Now they’re all grown up.”

People were always saying these sorts of things to Mallory now – now that she was a mother and no longer herself. She had once been a person with choices and freedoms. Life’s milestones had stretched out in front of her, had given her a path and plan – marriage, house, baby – but so much of it had paled against her imaginings, and she wasn’t sure what one did after these goals had been met – just live it now? Just watch this baby grow up? She desperately wanted to feel as though that would be enough. She knew she should feel like it was enough.

In her final uncomfortable weeks of pregnancy, Mallory had lulled herself to sleep at night with thoughts of the baby’s birth. She’d pictured herself with a light beading of sweat across her brow, Luke’s face close to hers, their hands clasped tightly together. Images of him kissing her, holding her, his eyes shining with pride at what she’d produced – their son. Then the three of them squeezed together on her hospital bed, both of them staring at the baby, and then at each other with great love, something renewed between them, and every picture in her mind seemed to mirror how it was supposed to be, the way family was represented on television or in the movies or on advertisements, even how it was told to her by friends, women who said things like, you’ve never experienced love until you’ve had a baby. 

But on the day of the baby’s birth, this was not what Mallory saw. Luke was so caught up in the baby, in the baby’s striking similarity to him, that he barely looked at Mallory. The baby fascinated him and he spoke to every visitor about their resemblance, and Mallory had the disturbing feeling she was seeing who Luke really was, a man who was fascinated mostly with himself, and now by this extension of himself, and not much by her at all. This aroused in her such a frantic stream of thoughts that though she was exhausted, she’d had to turn on the TV to stamp them down and drift into a short, restless sleep, before being awoken again to feed the baby.

A cloud covered the sky and everything went gray. Mrs. Sheldon stood there, overweight with grown children who had left her and a muddy trowel in her hand, and for the first time Mallory felt a deep empathy for her, this woman who she’d never much considered before. Mrs. Sheldon had survived. Mallory looked down at the baby again, searched his face for the love she’d just felt, but now he didn’t seem to be looking at her in any special way. In fact, he stared at her in the same manner that he stared at bright light – with a mild, detached interest. His presence there in the cart seemed to expose the choices she had made because she’d thought she didn’t really have anything greater to offer or pursue, and that now left her feeling impossibly tethered to the house on Primrose Street.

The cloud passed and he began to whimper.

“I think the sun is in his eyes, dear,” Mrs. Sheldon said after a moment.

“Of course,” Mallory said, adjusting the stroller’s shade – just a simple marionette whose strings were pulled and maneuvered by him, the puppeteer in the cart, making her look foolish to this know-it-all woman, dancing her all over the sidewalk.

“You look very tired, dear. Are you alright?” Mrs. Sheldon said, patting Mallory’s arm again. “You must remember to take time for yourself. Play that beautiful music of yours.”

Mallory nodded and said goodbye. Mrs. Sheldon slowly re-settled herself next to the begonias.

Mallory continued onto the public path that ran by the river. The sun was bright, but the air here was cool. She was glad to be off Primrose Street, away from the trees and houses and neighbors she’d thought she’d understood, but whose existence now seemed peculiar and meaningless. Tedious people who’d lived their lives as they should, done what they should, only to end up in crumbling houses alongside a river, their children grown and gone, with no real purpose, a blooming patch of pink begonias masquerading as a life. When she tried to picture herself back with those people again, back under the caging arches of the oak trees, or in her house playing the piano at a dinner party, she couldn’t. And what about the laundry? And Luke’s dinner? The piles of laundry and dishes and diapers and peeling wallpaper and Luke’s dinner and the ever-present, mindless work of a housewife, work that she made complicated (the table is set like this, the Oriental rugs must be vacuumed like this) just to make it somehow important. For a moment Mallory thought she’d rather die than go back.

The baby began to cry. Not soft whimpers of slight dissatisfaction, but real cries, loud sobs that wrenched from him in sporadic gusts followed by moments of complete pause where he seemed to almost choke on silent, deep pulls of air. This shocking wave of sound, the screeching and the silence, seemed to speed the world up for Mallory, the river running very quickly, the water lap lap lapping over the rocks, but then now, unbearably slow, long, drawn out moments in which she stared down at him and again at her surroundings, her eyes registering the quick brushstroke of grayish blue, the sharp slices of green, but her mind inexplicably slow in identifying the referents: river, tree.

She frantically looked for a place to stop, half running towards a bench that faced the river (a bench meant for simpler times, for sweethearts holding hands and exchanging tender kisses). Mallory pulled the crying baby from the stroller and sat down, rubbing his back in small circles, soothing him in the way she remembered her mother soothing her when she was sick or helpless or hopeless, and suddenly she felt as if she understood something, something about generations of women repeating the same rituals over and over again, giving them meaning. This baby’s cries were not an attack on her, they were not a reprimand or a criticism, but instead they were a call to her as his mother. He wanted her in the same way that she wanted her own mother right now. And for a moment she thought she could forgive him for all of it, but then he let out a piercing howl as if he’d been stung. She felt a great surge of anger towards Luke and then the deep, restless unhappiness that she tried to keep banished began to swirl. It was illogical that her role in life was to prevent this child from crying. But he had to stop crying.

His crying seemed to intensify and come more quickly as she struggled with the buttons on her blouse. His arms pulled at her as she worked the clasp at the shoulder of her bra. “Shh, shh,” she whispered as she fumbled with her breast, trying to lead his mouth to it, but he refused to latch, turning his face from side to side, away from the nipple. He continued to cry and Mallory began to sweat. Frustration bubbled through her body until it seemed to pop right out of her fingertips and the exhaustion settled in, a deep sort of tired that left her aware of herself looking out at the world in an odd, disconnected sort of way. The baby felt enormously heavy in her arms, and his legs repeatedly kicked at her. “Please,” she whispered to him, “please.”

Finally he settled, joining their bodies together and she had a moment of relief. A slow exhale of breath. She looked at the water again, which now appeared calm with little starships of light reflecting across its surface, as if inviting her in, but Mallory had never learned to swim. When she was four, her uncle, a man with dirt-stained hands who smelled of oil and tequila, threw her into a pond and watched while she flailed and choked on the murky water. This was the way children were taught to swim. But her mother – her mother – dove in and retrieved her.

Mallory looked down at the baby then and thought that although he did look mostly like his father, maybe he looked like her a bit too, around the nose? Wasn’t he adorable and sweet? Weren’t they a picture there together? Wasn’t she just tired and not thinking clearly?

“You outta put socks on that baby.”

The hairs along the back of her neck rose and she had an acute awareness of the sudden absence of sun across her face, of sitting in a cold shadow, of being watched. Mallory squinted up at the man standing on the path and tried to make out his figure, the edges of which appeared soldered against the sky. A dog barked.

“Don’t worry, Captain here, he loves babies,” the man said as he and the dog stepped off the path and closer to the bench. Out of the direct sunlight the man and dog both appeared worn, shaggy. The dog was large, a mixture of some kind, black with ribs that protruded against its coat as it moved, a long snout, pointed ears, and dark eyes. In its urgency to reach her, the dog pulled against the twine tied around its neck, and from the pressure against its windpipe, released dry hacks of air and drool.

The man held the rope in his dirt-stained hands. He wore jeans covered in patches of filth – brown, black, and red splotches and stains smeared across the calf, knee, and thigh. His worn tennis shoes were ill-fitting and bulbous ridges appeared across the top where his toes pressed against the fabric. He was shirtless and his thin but muscular chest was also dirty.  Lank hair fell around his face and he wore a pair of woman’s sunglasses, purple and curved out at the ends like cats’ eyes.

Mallory looked up and down the path but saw no one.

“People think babies lose heat through their heads, but I always thought it were the feet.”

Mallory pushed the baby closer to her. The dog was so close that she felt his hot breath against her knee. Mallory curled her free hand around the baby’s small foot, which did feel slightly cool to the touch, and was ashamed that this man could see her inadequacy. “Every time I put socks on him, he just kicks them off,” Mallory heard herself say. She knew instinct should’ve taken over by now and she should’ve risen and run straight back to Primrose Street, to safety – just as her mother had flung herself in the pond to save her – but it was as if the words themselves, hanging in the air around them, had exposed a deep failing in her, perhaps even a want of something to happen that would change everything, and so she continued to sit. Nothing seemed real.

The dog strained against the twine and pushed its nose to the baby’s feet. Stench reached her nostrils: cigarettes, alcohol, and a musty, yeasty odor, that mingled against the sweet, powdery smell of the baby.

“Captain just loves babies,” the shirtless man said again.

She looked down at the baby who was still nursing and recognized in him then not the unpolluted possibilities of a life not yet led, but instead a blissful unawareness of himself, or of responsibility, which allowed him a serene acceptance of all that was around him. The baby did not feel hungry for she kept him fed, he did not feel cold for she swaddled him, he did not feel wet for she kept him clean and dry, and when he was startled or unsure, she offered him her nipple, which he held tightly in his mouth before drifting off to sleep, where she imagined he dreamt of her, because she was all that he knew, all that he wanted, endlessly and relentlessly into the future.

“Captain! Don’t be licking that baby’s foot now, boy!” the man said, jerking the rope back.

And while the dog hung in mid-air, its weight suspended by the twine leash and collar, Mallory realized that as long as she was this baby’s everything, she would be nothing. The picture she’d held in her mind of serene mother and child out for a stroll on a sunny, midsummer’s day vanished and new images came to her in a rush. Mallory could suddenly see herself putting her finger in the baby’s mouth to break the seal, pulling him from her breast, and handing him over, this creature that her body had grown and that was hers. An offering, a plea bargain. Then she’d fasten her bra, adjust her blouse, and walk north along the path, far away from the house on Primrose Street. She could see herself somewhere, starting over, simply eating pancakes at a country diner; or crossing a busy New York intersection at night, her neck pulled into her jacket to guard against the cold and her body illuminated by the headlights of waiting cars; or lying under the stars at some campsite with a lover, just quietly sleeping, with no reason to get up.

A jogger appeared on the path, his heavy footfalls approaching, and the dog settled again at the man’s side. The man stared at her from behind the purple cats’ eye glasses for a long moment before saying, “You have a nice day, miss,” and he turned to walk north along the path, the dog leading the way.

Mallory sat with the sun warm on her skin once more. She did not want to look down at the baby. When she finally did, he was no longer nursing. He stared up at her, a knowing smile stretched across his sweetly implacable face.

Jody Plant

Copyright © 2016, Otis Nebula Press. All rights reserved.