WARMTH OF STOVE, coffee, oatmeal, morning pee, warmth in the kitchen colliding with what’s sweltering at the screen door and coating the back steps, gray wood slabs hot on her soles, six steps down to the hot grey flagstone, dancing hot, hot until her feet touch grass with the warm soft brush of blades already dark green. Odorous heat, old dog and baked earth, dry and brambly. She settles a pale blue blanket by the old maple and arranges it, it’s almost funny how thorough she now has to be, with bag and towel and another smaller be-careful blanket, this one frayed plaid edged with pink piping, tucked in the moist cradle of her thighs as she lowers, lowers, and not without pain, onto a raggedy foam-rubber pad that usually cushions her desk chair. The plaid blanket stirs and she stares into a pinched and pointed face that looks back with solemn blue eyes. She folds and re-folds the blanket to re-frame the plump face. She shifts the baby’s weight to her other knee and feels the scratch of grass fronds poking through the bottom blanket. Her forehead, under the incomplete shade of a floppy straw hat, feels heavy. A door slams somewhere. A car radio trills and recedes.
“. . . Been lookin’ all over! What’re you doing outside?” The older woman emerges carrying a pair of ceramic mugs, edges through the screen door and descends the steps in a halting shuffle, shum-shump, shum-shump. “Hot out here. Don’tcha even want a chair?” The older woman’s face and forearms are doughy. She seizes the top of a lawn chair and drags it into the maple’s shade. “I’d sit down there with you but my knees won’t take it. Surprised you want to sit like that. I was sore for a week, you came along. Your Uncle Ken, he came over, wouldn’t even let him in the room I was so sore. Him and your father!” The older woman shakes her head. “You want this tea? Gone all cold. Now, Ruth – Ken’s wife, you met her – your cousin Bobby was born, she had it awful. That doctor, the one who did it to her, he got kicked out of medicine a few years later.”
The baby’s noises – they’ve been a continuous burble – intensify. The woman on the blanket parts her blouse and unhooks a triangular flap to reveal her left breast. The nipple is deep red, swollen. The baby seizes it with fingers and mouth and quiets into a rhythmic hum.
“Your sister, you know, she tried to do that,” the older woman says. She grunts as she bends to place the mugs on the grass beside her chair. She wears a faded blue blouse and a large denim skirt. She wears sunglasses. “Claire wouldn’t take it, though. Wouldn’t take it. Went right to the bottle. Nurse at the hospital said she sees that a lot. They say you do what you’re doing, though, you won’t have as many ear infections. Or the baby won’t. One of you won’t. Doctor said, you know, he said Claire was the most beautiful little baby he’d ever seen. That’s that new Doctor Osterly they got over in that clinic. Everybody says he’s so good with babies.”
White-blonde tufts rise like new grass from the baby’s head. They feel like cotton candy, melting under her warm hand. She feels droplets breaking at her forehead, rolling alongside her nose. She’s raining.
“That clinic they put in, it’s by the Wal-Mart. They say you can make an appointment right away, same day if you have to. I rode out there with your sister once. I know how to get there.” The older woman removes her hat and fans herself. She grunts again as she reaches for a mug. “Getting dehydrated. Woke up last night, tongue like sandpaper. You need to get a humidifier. One of those cool mist ones, shoots a cool mist into the air. Like your sister has in her bedroom. Larry says he sleeps better now because of the noise. White noise, he calls it.”
Studying the endless blue overhead, the worm shadows are back. She shifts the sleeping baby back to her lap and re-fastens the bra-flap and gathers her blouse. Imperfections in the aqueous humor. Floaters. She refocuses her eyes to follow the arc of a hawk.
“Your sister said she wanted to come up with me, but you know how she gets. Claire needs to do this and that and Larry’s never around to take her. Also, I think she was a little disappointed. She wasn’t expecting you were going to do what you did. Nobody was.”
By angling her legs apart, she lets the slumbering baby slip gently to the blanket. She stretches her legs – how good that feels in the heat! – and lies on her side, throwing her shadow over the baby like a blanket.
“She’ll get up here, though. You know how much she wants to see the baby.”
A halting breeze brushes the ground, rearranging the heat. She takes off her hat and feels instantly cooler. She reaches for her hair, an instinct, and smiles as she finds only the shag that remains from last week’s cut. It’s damp. Her forearm used to sport more freckles. A lawn mower spits into life a few houses away. Wait until the weekend. Nothing has to be done right now, but it feels like there’s everything to do. But it stopped mattering as much. The baby’s face is a mirror. Last night they dreamed the same dream, and there’s no way to explain this.
“She said she called you last night. Said you were angry with her, all she was trying to do was say nice things about the baby. She might have done what you did, you know. She told me that, but she just doesn’t have big hips like you do. Besides, if she hadn’t gone to the hospital, who knows if they’d’a been able to do the section in time. She says she’s just thankful to have her beautiful baby, whatever it took.”
A stockade fence in need of paint encloses three sides of the small yard. Boxelder shoots twine bright green up the face of the fence, surging from stumps left for dead last fall. They can cling to anything. They grow thick and ugly even when you think you’ve gotten rid of them, cut one back and five more appear. The hawk dips low and rises quickly, harried by two smaller birds but still looking majestic, dignified. The baby lifts an arm, a sleepy gesture that doesn’t interrupt his slumber. Only once since she showed up last night did she hold the infant, and she hasn’t said a word to him. Last year’s fat sawn-off boxelder limbs lie pushed against the fence. It would be possible and possibly pleasant to heft one of them, bring it down from far overhead into the woman’s face, smack away her silly pasty smile and once and for all shut that horrible rictus of a mouth.
A pair of low-to-the horizon cumulus clouds follow one another, one overtaking the other, like the slow stroll of old friends meeting for the umpteenth time. They seem to puff higher from the encounter. The only clouds in the sky so far and the light already has changed to something sharper, hotter. Time to go back inside.
“She’ll come up tomorrow. She’ll leave Claire with Larry and come up tomorrow. I still have to call Ken and Ruth. I haven’t done that yet. Bobby, you know, he’s getting married this summer, and they already have that baby girl.” The older woman finds the other mug, drains its contents. “Hot here today. Be the same tomorrow.”
Stare at the sky long enough and you can imagine that it’s below you, that you’re on the bottom of the Earth and reverse gravity holds you up. And it’s you can make yourself just the tiniest bit dizzy as you consider the never-ending fall should that force let go.
“I better get going now. Have to go home and feed my dogs.”
He struggles and murmurs and she picks him up and holds his face tight against hers, her tears mixing with the perspiration they share and that strong maple scent of his skin raining all over her. In a moment she’ll put him down and find a bland face to display while murmuring pleasantries, but right now she needs to drink in his warmth for a while longer.