By Chelsea Laine Wells
Jodi: seventeen and itchy hot restless, her heart revving high and hard like a machine about to rattle apart, leans in close to the mirror rolling on navy blue eyeliner thick as grease paint and her round-open-mouth fogging the glass, skirt so short the boys say you can see God Himself, escapes at a run with her mother hollering through the screen door, you will never, don’t you ever, your father and I– but she is long gone, giggling breakneck breathless hysterical as a crying jag. At the bar where the loggers drink after their endless heat-hazed days, thick with the smell of wood, sap, sweat, beer, Stetson cologne sharp and sweet, rough red-eyed men and older boys ogling her deadly slow all the way down and she can feel it on her skin like fingers trailing, the way their eyes stay open on her while they tip up their beers, and then there is CJ – he is smaller than the others, and younger, but there is a mean slant to his gaze and he makes a point of getting into and cleanly out of a scuffle while she is watching. The other man’s head cracked against the edge of a pool table, CJ’s grime-knuckled hand knotted tight in his collar, tossing him loose like he’s nothing. He comes to her then, backs her up slow into a wall with his palms braced on either side and his thigh riding high between her legs and says with his mouth against her ear, you’re coming with me. It is a cliche and God it is so good, and she is swept out.
CJ: his body compact, whip-lean, pure corded muscle, he boosts her onto the edge of the sink in the bathroom of the one room efficiency where he has been living, where there are traces of other women – bobby pins in the grimed crack between the bathtub and the wall, orange powder on the pillow, lipstick on the filters of crushed nightstand cigarettes – and fucks her so slowly, never blinking, never looking away, that she cannot catch her breath and this feels like something new, like something hypnotic that carves the world down to just the two of them, and she sees herself draped against his hip as he talks and jokes with other men, sees herself drinking beer with the wives, she the youngest and prettiest, and the husbands watching her walk, and CJ straightening them out when he needs to and the two of them fucking like teenagers, like fugitives, the kind of sex that is all clawing, ragged falling, lamps breaking against the floor, boxsprings busting, and her voice hoarse afterwards for hours. She sees it, and she falls forward into it without a second thought.
The wedding: at the backwoods church thrown together so fast and careless it hardly seems real to anyone, ham salads and white rolls from the ladies’ circle like a covered dish on any other Sunday, Jodi in a dress she got at the mall one town over and CJ in a thrift store suit and his hair combed down flat so he looks young and unfamiliar. Jodi’s parents do not attend. CJ’s mother runs the whole day grimly, sharp barking voice and put upon sighs, rubbing her temples. CJ’s father is drunk and blacks out in the closet where choir robes hang before the ceremony is over. Pictures taken with a disposable camera, starkly flashed, show Jodi uncomfortable and stiff with hairspray and CJ miserable like a child wandering among the knees of adults at a family reunion. They are surrounded by old people Jodi has never met, a few of the loggers shuffling and uncomfortable in their clean shirts and work boots, their wives clustered in gossipy knots. In the fellowship hall afterwards they eat sheet cake from Albertson’s, it was on sale, says her all of a sudden mother-in-law as Jodi’s mouth closes around the electric sweetness of an icing rose, day old and about to be thrown out. She is turned away from Jodi in her metal folding chair, thick legs crossed and jaw working. CJ says he needs a cigarette and leaves the table abruptly, yanking loose his tie as he goes. Jodi gathers up a brown-edged lily from the centerpiece and the turquoise shell purse stolen from her mother’s closet and follows him out. They drive off without a word in his truck, pull over behind a boarded up dry cleaner’s, and fuck like it’s the first time or the last time. CJ with his tie gone and his hair scrubbed back to normalcy is himself again, his eyes narrow and hot on hers, his hands rough, and Jodi pitches herself down into the friction and back towards the beginning as hard as she can, voice scraping in the canned silence of the cab, lily twisted and crushed against the gritty floor by her cheap white heel, releasing a wan perfume under the urgent salt of their bodies.
The pregnancy: a force larger than Jodi coursing through her like a river, a soporific current turning her deep inside herself, sucking down her limbs, her eyelids like undertow, her head tipping back with exhaustion. In the small house rented to them by CJ’s boss Jodi sleeps for hours, a drenched drowning sleep, eyes rolled back, mouth sour dry and heart buzzing light with panic when she wakes suddenly not knowing where she is, not understanding the flat cushions of the secondhand couch, the orange and yellow afghan pressing a honeycomb pattern into the flesh of her arm, the cheap gold band on her bloating ring finger, the dark walls and the silence of the country around her, that flash of strangeness that she’s not in school before she remembers leaving it behind in a hail of glory, halfway in CJ’s lap behind the wheel of his truck. Her growing belly pressed against the knobs of the stove, meat sizzling in the skillet, she doesn’t know how and burns everything at first or serves it bloody. Box macaroni, pork chops curled from overcooking, new potatoes in their canned water, fried chicken deadly pink inside, leathery steaks doused with ketchup, chewy Rice a Roni, cold Spam and pork and beans, she cooks in a stupor, oversalts, fumbles the plates and forgets the napkins. CJ eats and drinks and drinks and drinks Coors from the can and presses against her in bed and she rolls into him and opens her mouth against the sweat salting his hard shoulder. As she grows she is tethered more and more loosely to her own body and watches from outside herself the women in CJ’s church fussing over her, and the men shaking CJ’s hand, and the doctor leaning under the white sheet over her knees, his fingers probing inside her the way CJ’s do when he is drunk and flush-faced, and Jodi blinks at the white lit exam room ceiling swept by a confusion of feelings. In the afternoons she sometimes drinks CJ’s beer to slow her racing heart and she knows this is wrong but the baby somersaults tirelessly inside her, knocking against her spine, and she imagines that nothing can hurt it. The bigger she gets, the more powerful: people parting around her, their hands light on her back, their reverent questions, her manufactured overdone wincing and sighing draws sympathy from the women, commiseration, and embarrassed distance from the men. She is able to control CJ and what he wants, he is grudgingly awed by her body, as though she is split up the middle by a tumor and verging on death. Sometimes the need for sex is an itch up inside her and she straddles him, punishing him with her weight, and she can tell what he thinks – she is grotesque, bulging white and moving from within like an egg sac and veins swelling to the surface of her breasts like green spider webs and he gapes up at her but he holds her hips hard enough to bruise and comes when she decides to let him, and the control rushes to her head. She will not think of the baby, only of the pregnancy, the way it lights her up from inside with a supreme primordial authority. CJ doesn’t make demands, doesn’t press against her at night – instead he waits for her to take the lead. He eats what she serves and says little and gives her sex when she needs it and Jodi floats loose, turned inward, drowsing luxuriant and remote.
The birth: CJ is at work when she goes into labor so she runs to the neighbor woman’s house weeping and collapses on the porch, holding her stomach, bent double, her legs wet from her water breaking, and the neighbor hustles her into the car, curlers in her hair, demanding to know when the baby is due, is she bleeding, and Jodi sobs no, that it was like she wet herself and she was due a week ago, and the neighbor woman cuts her eyes over, well good Lord, she says, with all that carrying on for normal labor, I thought you was dying. She slows the car a touch and takes out her curlers in the rearview mirror. Jodi weeps against the dashboard and thinks of labor complications like she read in the encyclopedia at the library – breach birth, the cord strangling, there are so many things that might go wrong and she prays for them, something to take away the baby and leave her pale and thin against white hospital pillows and CJ gone scared and respectful for the rest of their lives. In the delivery room the nurse shouts instructions at her, and CJ, summoned from work, fidgets at the edge of the bed before slipping out so quietly Jodi doesn’t notice. The pain is unbearable, an animal coming alive inside her, and Jodi feels a core of calm in her heart, this is not normal, this cannot be normal, the baby is coming out wrong and killing them both, a murder suicide. She pushes with everything she possesses and the pressure is solid and unmoving as a brick wall, it is pointless. Finally the baby sheds her with a horrible give like a soft wound bursting open and she whips backwards away from it, her spine arching over the nurse’s ropey arm, screaming until she can feel it in the cords of her throat, but, it’s all over honey, says the nurse, why are you screaming? And they take the baby away, shielding it from her with broad white backs, and she falls against the bed relieved to be rid of it, not thinking much beyond the strong hand of the nurse pushing back her hair, or the negative sensation of the end of labor, or the reassuring heat in her stripped throat that she knows she will swallow against for days. But this only lasts for a moment and then they are back, the doctor saying, perfectly normal, ten fingers, ten toes, that was just about nothing – you’re made for this little lady, make sure you have a herd of ‘em, and the nurse pushes the bundle into her arms, and she looks down at it from what feels like miles away and it is red and shapeless and its head is narrow as a carrot, she cries, she drops her head back away from the thing and cries, and the nurse says, it’s a boy. And she cries harder. She wants to give it back, tries, but they won’t take it, their eyes downshifting to each other and subtle frowns, a mass turning away. She wishes she had not gone with CJ from that logger bar and let him spread her legs open on the edge of the sink and come inside her with nothing between them but sweat and her body ripe for the picking – then she would not be here, now, with the fury of God burning her insides out like a blowtorch and wrapped up in her arms this scrawny thing she does not love and will not love. Here is CJ now, his face hot and proud like he has done something beyond fucking her at the right time, like he has anything to do with this baby, like either of them do. He cannot look her in the eye. He leans awkwardly over the baby and stares at it. She asks for her mother and he clears his throat and says, she ain’t comin. I called her and she said best of luck but she ain’t comin. Jodi’s arms are numb. She stares at the ugly baby. She wishes she had stayed home with her mama and her flat stomach and the boys who flirted with her and stared at her tits but were too scared to touch instead of going with CJ, she wishes she had gone to the retired doctor who if you couldn’t afford the city clinic one county over would end your pregnancy on the kitchen table in his farmhouse out past Highway 57 – she knows a girl who did that and it was bad but she lived, and skipped town. She wishes, she wishes. Tears scald her face. She drops her head back against the pillow, dizzy, and closes her eyes and then wakes what feels like hours later to the nurse moving her arms to take back the baby, who was removed from her slack embrace at some point. CJ is gone and the windows are glossy dark. Jodi is so thirsty her mouth aches and she asks for water and the nurse says, got to tend to this little one before yourself now, get used to that, and reaches inside Jodi’s gown, takes out her breast with rough hands as though she is a cow. Feed him, says the nurse, try feeding, and Jodi tries to connect the baby’s dumb resistant mouth with her nipple, fumblingly, her eyes distorted from tears, wondering how he could already be hungry, weren’t his insides still filled with her body fluid, her blood, the clear serum that oozed out of an infected cut, wasn’t he still glutted from the last nine months? What more could he want? On the way home from the hospital, Jodi’s clothes hanging loose though her stomach is still grotesque and softly swollen and her head ringing, the baby like a red monkey strapped into a stained car seat donated by the church, Jodi sits in the back with her hands limp and blinks against the stinging daylight. Did you name it? she asks suddenly, and CJ watches her for what feels like a full minute in the rearview, his eyes slit like he is angry, but there is something else, something like disgust, or fear, and he says slowly, as though she is stupid, Christopher James. CJ. Like me, like we decided. What in the hell do you mean, did I name it? At the house he yanks the emergency brake sharply and leaves her to carry in the car seat and everything else, even though she is still bleeding, even though her entire body is aching, destroyed, like something rotten, even though he got a full night of uninterrupted sleep at home while she foundered in the headache twilight of the hospital. In the flat silence of the car the baby mewls and Jodi looks at it and feels nothing.
At home: the baby is hungry, CJ is hungry, Jodi bleeds and bleeds into the embarrassing diaper-like pads from the hospital and her eyelids swell like beestings from crying. She mixes gritty powdered formula when her breasts will not produce milk and CJ watches from a distance, muttering, in my family the women breastfeed, that’s all I’m saying, and Jodi says nothing, jams the nipple between the baby’s tender gums, stares with unfocused eyes at the floor beyond while he eats. She burns meat for CJ’s dinner and heats canned green beans and he eats and leaves to get drunk at the logger bar where they met. Days and nights slide into each other seamlessly, CJ coming and going as he pleases leaving Jodi and the baby largely alone, regarding each other with distrust and regret. The baby’s head takes on a normal shape but he is still ugly, pinched, his mouth sour and down-turning. She feeds him, paces with him, changes his diaper. His pudgy genitals are completely foreign to her, she wonders if they are possibly deformed, and once he pees while she is changing him and it hits her chest, hot and sudden, startling her so that she cries out and stumbles back and knocks something from the dresser to the floor, which scares the baby enough to start it wailing. Jodi cries too, she stands there and cries for over an hour, breathing in the buttery smell of baby urine, the baby naked and shivering and peeing again on the blanket as the room fades from dim late-afternoon sunlight to dark. CJ comes home and finds them that way, says, what the hell is wrong with you, diaper him and get started on dinner, I’m starving, I worked all Goddamn day. When Jodi calls her mother she says, well I don’t mean to say I told you so but that’s what you get for marrying backwoods trash, now you’ve gotten yourself into this, you’d better make the best of it. Jodi sits up all night and chews the side of her finger until the skin comes off. In the morning she burns CJs eggs and he grips her arm so hard it bruises and tells her to pull herself together, and quick. In church that week the preacher lifts up their family and she knows CJ told his mother how she isn’t breastfeeding, how the baby always cries and never seems healthy, how she can’t keep the house clean or have dinner waiting when he gets home, and her mother-in-law called on the preacher, and the preacher called on Jesus. And Jodi knows that she is alone.
It begins like this: The first time CJ hits her it is because of her smart mouth. He gets home after an out of town job, so late it is pitch dark outside, and Jodi is sitting in the living room with the lights off, sitting for the first time all day. The baby fussed constantly for hours and Jodi walked him back and forth, back and forth, ceaselessly, until she thought the floorboards might give way and she and the baby would crash through to the dirt cellar below, splintered wood catching and raking their skin, and she imagined the baby’s tiny soft body impaled on a shard of wood and hanging above her, and the sudden blessed silence, and the idea of the baby dying hollowed out the pit of her stomach and took her breath away. She thinks of it again and again, alone in the dark living room with the baby finally asleep. Where the hell is dinner? CJ asks, and she smells whiskey on his breath and wonders if he really was on an out of town job, and she says, flat and blind from exhaustion, Fix it yourself, and his hand cracks backwards across her mouth. The shock of it is stunning, like freezing water, adrenaline dilating her veins and she sucks in the deepest breath she has taken in days – it is a relief to feel something so completely. Then she looks up at him, backlit by the dirty yellow kitchen light, and anger seeps in from the bottom, low and dark and silent, toxic, and she stands without meeting his eyes and walks to the stove. Nothing is defrosted so she makes him a fried egg sandwich and potatoes cooked in oil that pops her skin like rubber bands. Sucking at her lips hot and swollen lush with blood. Don’t make me be like that, Jodi, you and your smart mouth, you’re gonna bring it on yourself. You gotta learn. While he eats in the kitchen the baby starts crying and she changes him on their never-made bed with numb hands, watching his mouth work stupidly, his whining cries, his weak flailing fists. Without hesitating to think Jodi lays her finger across his throat, gently, and feels the minute vibrations of his voice in the cords there. She presses down. His cries falter, sputter. She presses harder, feeling the soft structure of his throat resist her finger and his body wracks and his voice gutters. There is that white cold thrill in the pit of her stomach, that feeling somewhere between dread and elation and the sensation in her own throat, answering – something lodged there, a forearm pressing down, sharp and airless and collapsing and black coming in at the corner of the eyes. She hears CJ’s chair edge back against the linoleum like a warning, startling her, and she yanks her hand away. Breath stutters raggedly into the baby’s gulping mouth, his eyelids flutter, he arches his back. His crying breaks like a wave. At the sound of it CJ makes his escape through the front door. Jodi picks up the baby, her joints loose with release. Her heart swells and races like sex with CJ in the beginning, like the screaming fights with her mother that left her euphoric and panting, like ninety miles an hour with the headlights off down the country roads – she is awake.
This is the first time she hurts the baby.
Chelsea Laine Wells has been published in PANK, wigleaf, The Butter, Cease, Cows, and Heavy Feather Review, among others, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She is managing and fiction editor of Hypertext Magazine and founding editor of Hypernova Lit, a brand new online journal dedicated to publishing the brilliance of high school students. Currently she works as a high school librarian in Dallas, TX and leads a student writers’ club. Find out more about her at www.chelsealainewells.com and follow her on Twitter at @chelsea_l_w.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, Christmas in July