Maybe You Should Stick to the Spread Eagle

Maybe You Should Stick to the Spread Eagle

The baby squalls in her crib, balled up fists on either side of her red face, legs kicking at some invisible offense below her.  When she cries in anger, no tears come; Jess learned that the first week.  She’s angry now, wants her bottle, but she gave her the last scoop of formula in the house three hours ago. Daddy promised he’d get some when his shift ends, but that won’t be for another couple hours.

Her brother bangs on the other side of the flimsy wall between their bedrooms. “Can’t you make her quieten down?” He’s on the phone with his girlfriend. His voice gets softer when he’s talking to her. He leaves for Basic next week and Carla’s all torn up about it.

“What you think I’m doing over here?” Jess fires back.  She turns her attention back to the baby, who’s kicked herself sideways in the crib with all her fussing, her soft spot pressing right up against the slats, that tiny, round head like an apple with a mushy, rotten place.

Jess gets on her knees and searches under the crib for the green pacifier that came from the hospital, the only one the baby will take. When her fingers brush across it, she pulls it out, wipes it off with the hem of her tee shirt, puts it in the baby’s mouth. She takes a few sucks, but when no milk comes through the nipple, she spits it out and shrieks even more desperately than before.

Dorsey bangs again on the wall, and this time she slams her palm against the faux wood paneling in response until she can no longer stand the sting that rips through her hand with each slap. She leans her head back, slides down the wall until she’s sitting on her heels, gnawing at her lips to keep from screaming herself. The baby’s damn near purple now, and bawling so hard, a few seconds tick by where she makes no sound at all. But then she gets her breath back and spews that awful wail again from some deep reserve.

All those days and nights she lay on the sofa with cold compresses on her chest, the skin stretched so tight over her milk-heavy breasts, she could barely breathe. All those soaked through bras and tee shirts, the sweet-sour odor that the baby could smell even across the room. She’d strain against Mama, that little mouth rooting desperately for a taste of the milk scent. “Ain’t going to hurt to try it,” her mama said, extending the baby toward her, but she’d flip to face the wall, ignoring the aching wave of heat the movement caused. Now, the milk is all dried up, and the baby no longer forages for the nectar she could never find.  Truth be told, the baby prefers Mama, and that suits Jess just fine. But after Daddy got Mama fired at Granny’s Kitchen when he put Hugh Griffin, one of her daily customers, in the hospital for slipping his hand under her skirt, she’s been working third shift at NEPTCO and Jess is saddled with the baby all the time.

And Me-maw won’t help her. Mama’s first night at NEPTCO, she walked over to Me-Maw’s house, the baby writhing through a crying fit in the carrier.  Me-Maw met her in the yard, her dyed black hair rolled up tight in curlers and covered with a shower cap.  “Don’t you bring that young’un to me,” she said, smacking flat a mosquito on her arm.  You done had your fun doing the devil’s dance, now you got to settle up for your sins.”

But Jess doesn’t remember any of the times she did what got her a baby being fun. She remembers it being sticky and cramped when it was in the back of a car. Smelly and rough against the brick wall by the dumpster at the Roller Palace. Itchy and dirty in the woods at Lake Rhodhiss. She’s never done it in a bed. Never done it with any boy she had feelings for. The baby’s taking deep, shuddering gulps between cries, one tiny hand, fingers splayed, reaching up for Jess. She sees a rattle with a teddy bear head at the foot of the crib and presses that into the baby’s palm. The baby lobs it away and launches into a new set of howls.

“You got to pick her up and hold her when she cries,” Daddy keeps telling her. Like this.” And then, he demonstrates for her, cradling the baby between his neck and chin. The baby eats it up, nuzzling her little face deeper into him, like she can’t get close enough.  She quits all that wailing and starts cooing. At least, she thinks it’s the baby making those ridiculous noises. It could be her daddy. She’s never seen him so foolish over anything in his life. She never knew he even liked babies.  He sure wasn’t happy when, at five months along, she finally told him and her mama about the baby. He’d taken his belt to her, the slap of the leather leaving hot red stripes on her legs and backside.  For weeks after, he would barely even look at her. But that all changed the night that bald, red-faced, five and a half pound, four-week premature being was born. Daddy’s the one who named her when Jess refused. “Angel,” he said. “Don’t that suit her?” Sounded like a stripper name to Jess, although she didn’t offer any alternatives.  “Now you take her,” Daddy says, after he gets her all calmed down and she’s quiet, but Jess never does. “Naw, you keep her,” she always says. “She don’t like me good as she does you.”

            There’s a tap on the window, and Chauncey Brown’s grin is there, the gap between his front teeth wide as a hollar, bottom lip poked out from the snuff he’s packed under it.

            “You got a death wish?” she hisses at him when she gets the window raised, but he doesn’t even bristle.

            “Shit,” he says. “Old asshole ain’t even here. I checked the driveway.” The last time Chauncey paid her a visit, she snuck out to go down to the old train tracks with him, but they didn’t even get out of Green Pines MHP before Daddy came roaring down the road in his Nova, pointing a .45 out the window. He threatened to dismember Chauncey if he ever saw him around Jess again, swore he’d sprinkle his body parts all over Caldwell County.  Chauncey seems to have forgotten all about that, though. He ducks his head into her room for a kiss, but Jess pushes him away.

            “I don’t want no dip breath kiss!” she says. “And Dorsey’s here!”

            Chauncey scoffs, but he fishes the clump of tobacco out with his finger and tosses it into the gardenias. “Dorsey’s stuck too far up Carla’s ass to know what you’re doing.”

            Chauncey’s probably right, but she still glances over her shoulder at her bedroom door, almost wishing her brother would come barreling through, tell Chauncey to get lost. But Jess and Dorsey aren’t close like when they were little, and since the baby, he mostly just ignores her.

            “Damn,” Chauncey says, folding a piece of Big Red into his mouth, “She cry like that all the time?”

            Jess shrugs. “Not all the time.”

            Chauncey grins again, and this time when he pushes up on the ledge, leans into her room, she lets their lips collide. Chauncey takes his time moving his mouth over hers, not like the others, who just wanted to get right to it. Some of them she never even kissed.

            The baby chokes in the middle of a cry, and Chauncey breaks away, casting an uneasy glance at the crib. “You need to go get her or something?”

             “Uh-uh.  She just sucks in her spit sometimes.” 

            “Well, that don’t sound good,” Chauncey says. “Sounds like she’s strangling.”

            Jess rolls her eyes. “Did you come here for her or for me?”

            “What kind of a damn question is that?” he says, hurt in his voice. “I want to marry you.”

            She shoves his head playfully. “Don’t start talking crazy again.” Last time they were together, he started that nonsense. Said they could live in the detached garage behind his parents’ house.  He was making good money now that he was a stock handler at the Thomasville plant. Soon enough, they’d be able to get their own place; she could finish school if she wanted…

            “It ain’t crazy talk. I mean it, Jess.  I got my daddy’s truck this time.” He points down the road, and sure enough, there’s his father’s pickup, parked in front of Brenda Harmon’s trailer. “We could be in Gatlinburg in 3 hours, married before morning.”

            It’s true, they could. Plenty of wedding chapels in Gatlinburg stay open 24 hours. Silas Montgomery and Josie Bennett went up there and got hitched last month. They were back in time for his shift at Sunnyside Textiles the next morning.

            Jess retreats to her bed, picks at the scab on her knee from the spill she took at Roller Palace last week. Jeff Hopkins laughed his ass off when she wiped out attempting a Salchow. “Maybe you should stick to the Spread Eagle, Jess. Whole county knows you got that one down pat.” First time back on the rink since the baby was born, and that shitbird wasn’t going to ruin it. She took a break, got a Coke, hung out in the sound room with Bud, the owner, for a while, long enough to make Jeff forget she was even there.  Then, during a slow skate, when the lights were dimmed and he was too busy holding hands and stealing kisses off Sabrina Trivette’s cheek to notice, she skated up and Salchowed right into him, taking him out at the knee. She even almost landed it.

            “Come on, sugar. Make me a happy man,” Chauncey’s saying. He’s got his arms stacked on the windowsill, his chin resting on top. He’s more boy than man. Like Dorsey, he’s barely 18. She doesn’t even know what he wants with her. Not even 16 yet and a mother, a reputation that spans at least 3 counties. Maybe it’s just curiosity because he hasn’t had her yet; maybe he wouldn’t be so eager to make her his wife if they’d made it to the train tracks before her daddy stopped them.  But maybe it’s because he’s been looking at her the way he’s looking at her now since she was in the 7th grade. Like he sees something in her nobody else knows is there.

            The baby’s worked through her choking episode, but she’s too worn out to cry with any real conviction. Only sounds coming out of her now are dejected hiccups and a few gulping sobs.

            “What about the baby?” Jess says.

He lifts his ball cap and scratches the sweat-matted hair underneath. “Well, I just figured you was going to leave her with your folks, seeing as how you don’t much like being a mama.”

She tried so hard to lose the baby. She imagined it as a little germ that had taken root in her body, swelling into a sickness that would destroy her if she didn’t remove it. She punched her belly, smacked as hard as she could into the half wall every time she left the rink. She’d heard Gertie Newsome got rid of her pregnancy by drinking Black Draught, but all that did to Jess was give her the runs for a week. The disease continued to grow, despite its hostile host. No, she didn’t much like being a mama.

“At least, in the beginning, I mean,” Chauncey keeps on when she doesn’t say anything. “We could bring her to live with us after we get our own place. When we’re fixing to have young’un’s of our own.”

Jess doesn’t tell him that she doesn’t want any of his babies, either. That she’s never even held the baby that she has. That deep within her, she knows she’s not cut out to be a mother. 

She stands up, hands on her hips. “If I leave here tonight with you, I ain’t going to live in your mama and daddy’s garage. After Gatlinburg, I want to keep going.”

Chauncey laughs. “Oh yeah? Where you want to go, honey?” he asks, a smirk lingering. He’s humoring her.

“California,” she says. “But I ain’t picky.”

“California?” Chauncey whistles. “You don’t want much, do you?”

Jess digs her toe into a thin spot in the carpet. “I don’t care where we go,” she says quietly. “Long as it ain’t here.”

Chauncey slips his Copenhagen out of his back pocket. “How we going to make money, huh? I just got that damn promotion at the mill!” He packs the can hard against the heel of his hand. “I only got a couple hundred bucks! That ain’t going to get us very far.”

Jess watches him line his gum with snuff, flick the residue from his fingers. “We could work for a little bit every place we stop. You know, for gas and food and stuff. We could sleep in the truck bed. I can make it real cozy back there,” she says. She bites her lip, lets it slide out from her teeth real slow.

“God…damn, don’t do that thing with your lip,” he groans, and turns toward the road. She can see him drumming his fingers against the patchy beard covering his jaw, and her pulse quickens. “I got a cousin up in Maine does lobstering,” he finally says, facing her again. “I could probably get on with him. That far enough?”

She puts a few pieces of clothes in a trash bag along with her toothbrush and the wad of cash she found rolled up in a drawer in the kitchen. The trophy on her dresser from last summer’s Roller Palace Royal catches her eye, the plated gold somehow glinting in the dim overhead light. It’s a roller skate atop a plank: a lightning bolt between it and the marble base where “1st Place” is etched on. It’s the only thing she’s ever won, the cash prize wasted on a calculator for a math class she never finished, money she knew she should’ve saved for diapers and formula before the first quarter was even over.  Bud decided not to have the Royal this year. Jess believes it’s because he wants her to continue her reign as Queen until she’s ready to defend her title. And for that, she needs to stick the Salchow. The Spread Eagle won’t win it for her again.

“Jess, let’s go!” Chauncey hisses.

The baby’s cried herself to sleep; she’s lying on one side with her knees pulled up to her chest, her dark blond hair damp and curling around her ear. Her breath fans against the back of Jess’ hand when she puts it under her nose to check for life.  Jess learned that trick the third week, when the baby finally started sleeping more than 30 minutes at a time.  It would be so easy to leave her hand there a little too long, put it a little too close to those tiny nostrils.  The baby throws an arm over her head and Jess jerks away.

 “What’d you bring that thing for?” Chauncey eyes the trophy as he hoists her down from the window.

Jess doesn’t tell him that she likes how the weight of it feels in her hands.

“Just wanted it with me is all,” she says.

            The moon is flush with the hills as they run through the slick grass, the din of the cicadas’ chirp covering up the sounds of their footfalls. Even the old pickup’s engine rumbles quietly to life, as if it, too, wants them to just slip away. Jess holds her breath until they’re out of Green Pines, and then until she sees the approaching sign for I-40, the chance of anything stopping them lessening with each mile. Chauncey accelerates down the ramp toward the intestate, the metal doors of the truck shuddering so loud, Jess is afraid they might tear off. She clutches tightly to the trophy in her lap, cradling it between her knees like a baby.

Beth Garland

Beth Garland holds an MFA in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in O-Dark-Thirty, Germ Magazine, and Military Spouse. She was recently awarded an Author’s Fellowship at Martha’s Vineyard Creative Writing Institute and will be a Writer-in-Residence at Weymouth Center this fall. She lives with her husband and three young children in coastal North Carolina. 

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