|Tastes Like Bitterbitty|
This here wasn't anything new. Teresa had always been stubborn—yes, stubborn to a fault. Gets one thing in her troublesome little mind and that's it, see you later, show's over. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to complain: it was just this same stubbornness that got her as far as she did. Got her, for one thing, the man she wanted—me—and got her the home she wanted, the one she used to walk by on her way to school as a little girl, with the stone wall and the double-hump hill, the one we bought in 1958 and live in to this day. All because of her stubbornness—determination, she liked to call it. Stubbornness, determination. Either way, it was enough to drive me straight to hell crazy. So this thing is about her, my wife, Teresa.
Our youngest was pregnant with her first. Twenty-seven years old. I'd thought she was the career-type, finish grad school, get established, all that stuff. Always had been like that, independent and driven, kind of like her mother. I was proud of her and wasn't too thrilled when she went ahead and got herself married—moved out of the downstairs in-law apartment and married Todd. And then, to top it all off, a month later pregnant. Took me nine kids before I had one that took the initiative to get herself educated. I've got three sons that work like sonsabitches, twelve hour days framing houses and installing plumbing, coming home filthy and beaten. And I've got five other daughters, all married now with kids, part-time careers as bartenders and florists and assistant managers over at the shopping mall. Then top that off with seventeen grandchildren, honest to God, seventeen grandchildren. Adorable little critters but plenty of them. No shortage of cute kids.
So Allie got pregnant with still three or four courses to go for her master's. She said she'd finish up in the next year or two, but I'll believe it when I see it. She's twenty-seven, like I said, and I think a little stressed about having kids before she gets too old. Maybe that's why she rushed around with this wedding and baby thing, I don't know, don't ask me. Female stuff. Teresa, though, couldn't have been more thrilled. Through the damn roof thrilled. Seventeen of them. Why not eighteen, right? What's one more? Keep 'em coming.
I keep my mouth shut, though. I don't say anything. Especially to Teresa, not anymore. I used to. I used to complain to her about the kids, who was getting into trouble, who was screwing up—bitching the way a dad is supposed to. But not no more. She was seventy-two years old, my wife, three years younger than I. And women live longer than men, supposed to anyway, that's what I hear. So I'd had every reason in the world to think that I'd be down in the ground before her, and, Christ, I'd spent half my damn life trying to set it up for her so she'd have everything laid out perfect—the house, the finances, all that stuff. But it wasn't going to happen that way. She'd fought it off like a tough little son-of-a-gun twice before, but this time it was in her good. Had its hooks in her good. All the chemo, radiation, and whatever all that Yoga bullshit was, weren't going to do her any good. The doctors sent her home six weeks before Allie went into labor, with a discharge slip, a pile of pills, a portable oxygen tank, and a home nurse. There wasn't much of her left.
Still, this didn't stop her from proceeding with her crazy ideas. When the phone rang at 3:30 the morning of November 2nd, I knew I was in for trouble. I'd been expecting the call for some time, of course, since Allie was already more than a week overdue. Still, I was hoping that someone along the line was going to step up and be smart enough not to bother Teresa in the middle of the night. No such luck.
"Come on there, Bruce," she said to me, her voice more awake and with more strength behind it than I had heard in months. She gave my chest a pat with a chalky palm. "Up and at 'em."
I kept my eyes closed, pretended this wasn't happening. My worst fear—one of the girls calling in the dead of night to get Teresa all riled up with this baby nonsense. I'll admit that, more than a few times during the last week or two, I've gone and switched the phone ringer off when it got to be a little too late in the night to be getting any exciting calls. Each time, though, I chickened out. Each time I climbed back out of bed, took a leak, and thumbed the phone back on. Teresa would've throttled my throat if she missed this, I knew that. Beaten down with sickness or not, she would've throttled me good.
"Bruce. Up." Another pat on the chest, a little more vigorous, more like a slap. "Allie's in labor."
She was down to a hundred pounds, hadn't been able to talk in anything but a scratchy whisper since summer, could hardly keep down solid foods, and needed help with her bathroom activities. I'd been cranking the thermostat up to about eighty-five because she was always cold. A result of all the weight loss, I suppose. Now she wanted to go out into a November night. You could hear the wind moaning.
"Teresa, you're not doing this." I dragged a corner of the bed spread over my shoulder and rolled over.
"I'm not, am I?" She tried to push herself into a sitting position. She moved the way I did whenever I threw my back out. I felt her struggling through the mattress, even felt the small vibration of her shaking arms trying to support herself. The wheels of her oxygen tank grumbled over the floor as she sat forward, dragging the tank by the tube that clamped over her nose.
"Teresa, please. Be reasonable." I hadn't moved, hadn't opened my eyes. Maybe I could will her to give up. I don't know. "Stay in bed, you'll hurt yourself."
Still she struggled. Now I was awake, not because of her movement but because of the anger that was starting to surge through me. I wanted to know who called her, who was dumb enough to call my dying wife and get her all worked up in the middle of the goddamned night. That's what I wanted to know. Probably Penelope, our oldest. She was closest to Teresa, and I'll bet it was her who helped conspire this whole half-assed idea to begin with. Had to be her.
I opened my eyes finally and peaked over at her. She was up on one elbow, grunting and trembling. "Teresa, did you hear me? You'll hurt yourself."
"I'll hurt you if you don't keep quiet."
Could've been Leah. Leah's always been a little flaky, you didn't hear it from me. A little on the flaky side, though. Could've been her. Not to mention she lives right down the street from Allie and would have been the first to know about this labor thing. Either way, someone was going to get an earful from me, that was a promise.
Once she was up and out of the bed I couldn't ignore it anymore. I was going to have to get up and do something about this before she did something stupid. Nine children we had, nine kids and seventeen grandkids, and now all of a sudden out of the blue she decides that now she wants to be there. She has to be there, she kept telling me. "I know, Bruce," she's said to me countless times these last few weeks, "I know I've had nine children but I've never seen one being born. I've never experienced that."
"Me neither," I'd said, "But I don't let it bother me."
"Well, that's what I want to do before I leave this Earth."
So that's where I was at. Following her around the house at 3:40 in the morning in my bare feet trying to inject some sense into her. She wanted to be there, in the room with Allie when she gave birth. It was her final wish, and they all knew it—Penelope, Leah, Karen, whoever else, I can't even remember. For Christ's sake I've got three sons and six daughters that I can't even hardly keep straight, and honest to God the boys haven't given me a lick of trouble, not from day one. But the girls, Lord, put them all in one room and watch out. The things they come up with. They all supported Teresa's wish, all agreed that they were going to do whatever it took to help make sure that their Ma got to witness this final "miracle". Never mind that she's lost forty-some-odd pounds in six months, never mind that the doctors all said that her immune system was down to almost nothing, never mind all that, right? Ma wants to watch the birth. Great, so where were they all now? Why was I the one tagging along behind her in the middle of the goddamn night?
"You're going to catch pneumonia, you know that?" I tried to tell her, looking for my slippers. I thought I had left them next to the new sofa. "You'll catch pneumonia for sure."
"Oh, stop it." She eased herself down onto a kitchen stool and was trying to wriggle her ankles into a pair of sneakers. One of the girls this summer had bought her a pair of tennis shoes with Velcro instead of laces.
"Okay, well what about me? I'll catch pneumonia. You hear that wind?"
"You're being a bitterbitty, Bruce." The tennis shoes were on, except that she hadn't gotten her heels in, the backs of the shoes crushed beneath her feet. She didn't care. Now she had a pale yellow scarf in her fingers and was folding it, I guess, into a triangle, the way Penelope had shown her.
"I'm not being a bitterbitty, I'm just being smart. You should try it."
She gave me a huff. "Tastes like bitterbitty to me. You want to help me with this kerchief or you want to keep on being a pain in my rump?"
"You don't need a kerchief, you need a wool hat." She didn't wear it for warmth, I knew that. She'd lost all her hair during the treatments over the summer. It had begun to grow back in a few stray places, but honestly I'd gotten used to her bald. The thin locks of grey made her look even sicker.
I watched her from the corridor, a step away from the bedroom. She sat on that stool with her back three-quarters to me, fidgeting with the kerchief. Her robe sleeves fell up and exposed her forearms, thin as sticks. She tied the back of the kerchief behind her head, but it was lumpy and uneven, not at all the way Penelope did it. "Teresa, please come back to bed." I leaned in the direction of the bedroom, hoping, I suppose, that my movement would somehow draw her into my gravitational pull. "Listen to me. Listen. Let's get some sleep for a few hours and in the morning we'll have one of the kids take us both to the hospital. Doesn't labor last a long time? Some broads, some women, are in labor for twenty-four straight hours, isn't that right? That's true, isn't it?"
She'd tuned me right out. She was up off the stool and hobbling around the house again, that oxygen tank grumbling along, probably scratching up my hardwood floors with those lousy plastic wheels. She disappeared into the breezeway but I didn't follow her. Maybe she thought I was going to chase her around wherever she went, let her dictate and lead me places I didn't want to go. I stood my ground, braced against the doorway to the bedroom. I called after her: "We're still two and a half hours away from sunlight, you realize. You know I don't drive after dark." I knew she could hear me, but I went louder anyway. "No driving after dark, right, Teresa?"
I waited a beat for a response but instead heard the porch door catch the wind and bang open against the iron railing. By the time I pushed off the wall and hurried around the corner, the whole house was twenty degrees colder. She'd left the door open and the oxygen tank standing there by itself. I tugged my jacket off its hanger and left the house with only one arm in it. "Teresa! Goddamit!"
I've got a bum knee that really sings in the cold, so I wasn't able to get myself down the walkway any faster than she. I wanted to keep calling after her, let her know just how annoyed I was with this ridiculous behavior, but the neighborhood was heavy with dark and silence. I tried a whispered shout, but even that was too loud. Besides, I wasn't all that angry. Nervous was more accurate. I knew she was going to get herself ill over this, or take a fall, or something.
She got herself into the passenger seat of our car and sat there waiting for me with her hands folded on her lap. My whole chest was thumping when I reached the car, out of breath and my mouth dry. The driver side door came open with a crackle, the thin seal of ice broken. "You can't go anywhere without your oxygen, you know that." I'd lugged the damn thing all the way down the walk and fumbled it into the back seat. Teresa, doing her best to drive me batshit, looked straight ahead with her chin high.
I wrestled the keys out of my pocket and folded myself into the car. "I can't believe you've got me doing this, you know that? I really can't believe it." I started the engine and then realized that the windshield was frosted over. I wasn't even sure where the scraper was, seeing that I hadn't had to use it since the winter before. I turned the blower on and held my palm over it. It was blowing cold. "I don't understand what the big attraction is anyway, Teresa. What is it? What do you need to go rushing off in the middle of the night to see all that gore for?"
She sighed deliberately. "Bruce—"
"I'm not trying to be course now. I just don't understand you sometimes. I think you might have radiated some of that brain away…"
"Bruce, a little less talk. Please." Then she was back to looking straight ahead. I gave her my meanest glare, which she refused to look at. Groaning, I shouldered the door open and stepped out again into the wind. I popped the trunk and fished around for the scraper, and then, finding it, started scratching the ice off the windshield.
That was eight days ago. Today, under the warm blue of an Indian summer sky, we buried her. I'd known it wouldn't be long. Even up on the maternity ward that morning, despite myself, I'd not been able to hold back. I knew at the time that I was dampening everyone's precious moment, but I couldn't help it. At least I kept it out of Allie's room. My tirade was withheld to the waiting area. "You realize your mother's immune system must be down to absolutely nothing? You realize that, don't you?" This to my oldest, Penelope, who, with that big smile on her face a beat before she sat down next to me, could not have been expecting this.
"This is what she wants, Dad…"
There wasn't anyone else in the waiting room. Other than us it was just a couple nurses down the hall at the nurses' station and a whole lot of humming fluorescent light. Somewhere down at the other end of the hall Allie was in labor, with her husband, Todd, popping in and out of the room, and Teresa. I'd helped Teresa into the room an hour or so before, said hello to Allie with a kiss on her hot cheek, and since then had been reading yesterday's coffee-stained newspaper by myself in the waiting room. The early hint of a headache had formed in my sinuses, either from not sleeping or the white lights or the stress. All three, most likely.
Even though I was talking to Penelope I kept my face in the paper, despite the fact that I couldn't see anything without my reading glasses. "Yeah I know it's what she wants, I know that, but so what."
"So what?" Penelope said, "What do you mean, so what? She doesn't have much time left, Dad. This is what she wants. Don't spoil it."
She'd dropped her hand easily onto my knee. With a slide of my heel my knee moved and her hand fell. "What am I spoiling? I'm sitting out here minding my own business." I turned the page. "I'm not spoiling a damn thing."
Leah, one of my other daughters, came hurrying down the hall with her hair pulled in a gnarled ponytail and her nose red from cold. "Here's Leah," I said.
When she approached us neither one of us were talking anymore. Leah stood for a moment glancing from Penelope to me and then back at Penelope. "Hi," she finally said.
Penelope gave her a flat smile. "Hi."
"Everything okay? What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Dad's mad."
"I'm not mad," I said.
Leah looked to her sister. "Mad about what?"
"I'm not mad," I said again.
Penelope stood up. "He doesn't think I should've called Ma tonight. He thinks I should've waited until the morning."
I huffed and turned the page. No one gave a shit what the old man thought anymore, that was for damn sure. Leah leaned down and kissed my cheek. "It's all right, Daddy. She's happy."
Penelope took her down the hall to see if they could say hi to Allie and Teresa. I folded the paper and put it down beside me, pushed my hands against my knees. I just wanted to get back into my bed, and I wanted to get Teresa back into bed, where she belonged, with her oxygen and her medicine and her bedside TV with all the shows she liked on videotape piled on the nightstand.
I might have nodded off, but picked my head up to the sounds of footsteps. Todd was coming down the hall now, all gangly and skinny in his oversized tee shirt and wrinkled pants. He had to be a foot and a half taller than Allie. I don't know why she'd want a guy that tall, with those skinny, effeminate wrists. He threw me a tentative wave. "Hey, Bruce."
I acknowledged him with a nod.
"I'm running to get the girls some sodas. You want one?"
My ass was tingling with pins and needles. I winced and tried to get up. "No, no thanks." He put his hands on my elbows to help me, and I did a good job of not knocking him away. I might be old but I can still stand up for Christ's sake. "How's it going in there?"
Todd shrugged, smiling for some reason. "Making progress. Might be a while still. You sure you don't want a Coke or something? Ginger ale?"
I shook my head. "Actually, I'm going to go home…"
"Yeah. So tell Teresa to…tell Penelope or Leah or someone to call me when the baby comes and I'll head back over here."
He stood there watching me. He didn't respond.
"All right?" I asked, fumbling with my jacket. One of the sleeves was inside-out.
Todd shrugged. "Yeah, sure. I'll tell them."
I gave up on the jacket and rolled it into a ball under my arm. "Good luck," I told him over my shoulder. "With the women, I mean. If it was me trapped in that small room with all that estrogen I'd be itching to go run some errands too."
That was eight long days ago. Seems like forever. So much has happened, with the baby coming the next morning and then Allie and Todd taking him home and stumbling into a big surprise party, and then Teresa having a relapse and ending right back in this very same hospital three days later. God, I haven't slept eight hours the whole week, I don't think. I haven't slept and I haven't had three private minutes to myself to so much as take a solitary piss.
The funeral service, of course, was no different. We've got a large family, a large circle of friends and, more accurately, acquaintances that love nothing better than a good funeral. The kids arranged most of it, thankfully. The service, the flowers, the cemetery plot. They picked out Teresa's outfit and Leah even dry-cleaned my suit for me and bought me a new tie. They also invited everyone back to our house after the service, where we had about 5,000 slices of various deli meats and half a ton of potato salad, as well as a tray of lasagna and four or five coolers of beer. It's a small house to begin with and this scene was worse than even the holidays. I forced myself to have one beer and a sandwich, sitting in my chair lost in my own living room. People I didn't even know were staggered on each of the steps going up to the second floor, sitting with a paper plate of food on their knees and cans of beer wedged between their shoes. I shook all the hands and accepted all the hugs, did all the right things. Then, retreating to the kitchen to throw out my plate and steal a second beer, I ducked away to the basement apartment.
I'd built this downstairs apartment originally for my son, Charlie, about ten years ago after he'd been laid off his job. He stayed for three years before getting married and buying a condo. Allie moved down here after that, while she was in school, and left after she met Todd. Since then, it's been open and I've gradually transformed it into my own little hideaway, much to Teresa's disapproval. I watch the game down here and read the racing form. I told the kids that if any one of them gets the boot, gets divorced, then the in-law apartment is there for the taking. I'd hate to give it up, though. The 36-inch TV won't fit upstairs.
I sat with my beer and listened to all the footsteps on my head. Sounded like the ceiling was going to give way. I turned on the TV, machine-gunned through all the channels, and then, just as abrupt, clicked it off again. It occurred to me, just as I heard the door open and someone begin to come down the steps with delicate grace, that my wife was in fact gone. Penelope came around the corner, sleek and black with her hair drawn tight. Now that she was getting a little older I saw that she looked a lot like Teresa. "Here you are," she said. She ducked her head under a heating duct and leaned in the doorway.
"Here I am," I said, looking down at my beer.
"Did you get to eat? Want me make you something?"
"No, I ate. I had a sandwich."
She nodded. "Nice service, wasn't it?"
"Very nice, yes."
"You know, Allie was just looking for you. Todd's here with the baby."
"I saw her at the church, a few rows behind us."
Penelope folded her arms, looked at me for a moment.
"What?" I asked.
"She thinks you're upset with her. She thinks this is her fault."
I looked at my beer again. Miller Lite. True pilsner beer.
"Dad, she's afraid you think that her coming out to the hospital in the middle of the night caused her to die."
All I could do was shrug. I glanced at the blank television.
"You don't think that, do you, Dad?"
I didn't like the way she was standing there with her arms folded like that. Interrogating me. Interrogating an old man who's mourning his wife. "Why do you think I was making such a fuss at the hospital?" I said, suddenly looking back at her. "No one listened to me. The poor woman used the last of her…her soul, for God's sake, to go there. No one listened to me."
Penelope looked down at her blouse, straightened a couple wrinkles with her fingers. She allowed the silence to hang between us for a long beat before saying, "I think you might be wrong about that." She turned back for the stairs. "I'm going to tell Allie you're down here."
For a few more minutes I sat there, knee bouncing, the last few drops of beer tinkling around the can when I shook it. Maybe it was time to go make another appearance upstairs, get a beer and thank people for all their help and love and whatnot. I'd been down here for twenty minutes. With a grunt and a squeeze of back pain I got up off the chair. I stepped over toward the staircase, wondering if Teresa would have agreed that I had worn the suit long enough and could safely go ahead and strip off my tie and pull a sweatshirt on. I thought maybe I should wait awhile longer, though, wait at least until everyone but my own family had left.
I was two steps up the flight when the door swung open again and light spilled down the staircase. I stopped with a hand on the railing, squinting in the light. Allie stepped through the door with a white blanket draped over her arm, stark white against her black dress. "Hey, Dad," she said, pushing a lock of brown hair off her forehead. "You coming up?"
I held the empty beer can up to show her I needed a beer, then realized my hand was empty. "I was going to get another beer."
With the door open I could hear all the commotion up there still going strong. Maybe it was too early for that appearance. "Did you, uh, want to come down?"
Allie nodded. "Yeah. I've got Devin here with me." Devin was the new baby.
"Okay, yeah. Sure." I stepped back off the stairs. "Come on down, then. Be careful. Careful on these stairs."
I backtracked to the sofa and moved a throw pillow out of the way to make room for her and the baby. It was a twenty year-old sofa, brown and black, demoted to the in-law apartment after our kids bought us a new living room set last year. I thought maybe I'd see if the boys could move it back upstairs for me after all this was over, make the upstairs a little more comfortable.
"Nice and quiet down here," Allie said at the bottom of the stairs. "And cool. It's hot up there."
She stood in the middle of the room, rolling her hips with an easy sway, soothing the baby. I patted the cushion next to me. "Get off your feet. Sit down."
"I thought Ma wanted to get rid of this couch. She know you snuck it down here?"
Teresa had hated it with a passion, it was true. Keeping this thing was one of my few small victories. "She let me hold on to it. So I'd have a place to sleep when she kicked me out of the bed."
She laughed and swatted my arm. Once she was seated next to me she leaned in and tried to pass the baby.
"No, no, hon. That's okay…"
She looked at me with a wrinkled brow. "Dad, why? You can hold him."
I hadn't held the baby yet. In fact, except for the surprise coming-home party earlier in the week, I hadn't really even seen him. Even that night, I never got close to him. Too worried again about getting Teresa back home safe. She was already feeling much weaker by that time.
"My, my hands are shaky these days. I don't think…"
"Just put your arm like this. Stick your elbow up a little. It's not even holding him, he's just going to rest on you." She didn't give me much choice, manipulating my hand and elbow and fitting the infant in the nest of my bent arm. There was almost no weight to him at all, warm and tiny, completely covered with a knit blanket except for a small window to his soft face, and one tight, angry pink fist poking the air. His eyes were closed, squeezed almost, his face folded tight and quietly pissed off. "He's cranky today," Allie told me. "Too many people, I think."
"I agree with you there, Dev." I ran my thumb over his fist. "We've almost got a whole football team now."
Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, Devin loosened. His face went soft, fist splaying into a fan of frail fingers. A dark blue eye opened and his small mouth strained into a yawn. I felt myself gasp, and took an embarrassed peek at Allie to see if she'd noticed. I couldn't tell. She was smiling and chewing her lip at the same time. I turned back down to the baby. "Handsome little devil," I said. "Devin the devil."
And somehow, just like that, I loosened too. I could feel his little lungs exhaling against my arm, and within seconds I'd synchronized my breathing with his. He smelled good, like life. His other eye slowly blinked, peeling open, and now he was peeking around with a confused frown. I was wrong. About everything. Somehow, buried under all my worrying, I had missed that. I had it all backwards, didn't I? Teresa stuck around for this. I knew it now. She was ill and weak and ready to go, she had nothing left, but she stayed with me. Stayed with me for, how long? Weeks? Probably weeks. She stayed with me for several weeks, sticking it out until she was able to meet this little devil. And I had to tell Allie this. Tell her all this. So she knew too.
I lifted my head and looked at her, even dropped my jaw to tell her. But I had no breath. She watched me with her crooked, lip-chewing smile. All I could do was blink at her a couple times and then, still with no words, looked back to the baby. Both eyes open and alert, he stared up at me with amazing interest. Like he was memorizing me. I breathed, finally and at last, pushing my nose a little closer to him. And memorized him right back.
Sean Conway is an English teacher from Massachusetts and the recipient of the 2002 Jack Kerouac Award for creative writing, given by the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His work has appeared in the Lowell, MA-based Renovation Journal. E-mail: seanconway22[at]comcast.net.