Liam paces the floor of his “study” which is a bedroom in the home that he and his wife Eileen are renting. The new addition screams its head off. He wishes the thing would shut up. Not the thing. That’s terrible. The girl. The baby. They cry constantly, babies. They cry because they’re infants, then they cry because they’re teething, then they cry because they’re in the ‘terrible twos.’ It seems different names for the same dreadful screeching. He has no idea why anyone would have a baby. He has no idea how he ended up with one.
A Ph.D. in mathematics is not an easy thing. Math students have all of the genius of biology students, yet somehow at the end of graduate school, physicians make three times the salary. It’s math which allows man to understand and predict behavior in the natural world. It’s math that put men on the moon. Doctors can’t do that. Hell, doctors can’t cure the common cold. They can’t cure cancer. All they can do is hand out drugs made by their friends the pharmacists. That’s no sort of genius at all.
No sort of genius at all. Liam has recently had that title applied to him. He’s been asked to leave the Department of Mathematics at the University. He’s been a graduate student, with a stipend that paid just enough. He’d fallen a bit behind in his work, but he can’t catch up with a screaming, red-faced infant keeping everyone up half the night. Didn’t anyone understand that? Apparently not, because he’s no longer in the program. Liam still leaves the house each weekday morning. He doesn’t take the bus because he can’t afford to. Instead he walks to the city. He’s currently stocking the back room of a department store. He doesn’t know how to explain this to Eileen so he hasn’t. He withdrew the last of their savings twelve days ago to pay the rent. There may be nine meals between civility and anarchy, but there is only one missed payment between home and eviction proceedings. Liam shakes his head. Why is the baby still crying? Why can’t Eileen shut it up?
It’s early Christmas morning. Eileen peers out the window. A snowy Christmas is relatively rare in Boston; winter doesn’t properly get underway until sometime January, but today is a perfect Christmas Day, with large flakes falling from the sky. The weatherman says the snow will turn to a rain in the afternoon, but it’s beautiful now. Snug in Eileen’s arms is Baby Girl. Eileen pats her back. When she stops, Baby Girl cries.
Eileen is looking for her mother’s car. Liam is recalcitrant when it comes to household duties, but he shoveled the inch or so of accumulated snow from the driveway. Finally she sees head lights, her mother’s car smoothly pulling into the driveway.
She places Baby Girl on the floor and runs out of the house, forgetting to call her husband. Outside, she flings her arms around her mother.
Mrs. Jones embraces her daughter. “Where’s that your husband of yours?” She asks. Eileen shrugs. She doesn’t mind carrying the suitcases.
Inside Baby Girl is wailing. She must have tried to pull herself up on a chair and fallen because she is on her back, arms and legs flailing. Her face is all pink and wet with drool.
Mrs. Jones, who had been the Nurse-In-Charge in the ICU at New York Presbyterian, picks Baby Girl up with a fast, fluid grace and smiles broadly at her new granddaughter.
Eileen gets her father situated in a wing-back chair.
Liam is finally here. He had wanted to help with the suitcases, but hadn’t heard the car. Now it’s too late. Instead of offering a handshake or hug he shoves his fists in the pocket of his jeans. His dark hair is disheveled as if he had been napping. He has, in fact, been thinking of ways to get Dr. Jones alone. He has been running his hands through his hair imagining a conversation that starts with the word “loan” and ends with Dr. Jones slapping him on the back and invoking the word “gift.”
Mrs. Jones hands Baby Girl to Eileen. “Liam, my dear, it is so good to see you. How is school going?” Mrs. Jones has teeth like an alligator.
“It’s been unbelievable really.” Liam smiles and scratches the back of his head. “I should say hello to your husband.” He turns to Dr. Jones who sits in his chair, mouth a pale ellipse, glassy eyes dark and beset by confusion. Liam gulps. This sliver of a man does not match the Dr. Jones he remembers from his wedding two years ago.
“Hello there, Dr. Jones.” Liam bends forward a bit as he speaks. The old man’s eyes meet his. “How’s surgery going these days?”
“He’s no longer cutting people up.” Mrs. Jones says a bit curtly. “Recently, he had a series of…” She lowers her voice. “tiny strokes. They’ve caused a bit of cognitive decline. They think there also may be a bit of…oh now what is the word?” Mrs. Jones’s eyes are the color of scotch and they search the ceiling as if someone may have glued the answer there. “Alzheimer’s disease.”
Liam pictures the wires that are Dr. Jones’ neurons covered in fuzzy plaque, like an oddly shaped angora sweater.
Eileen looks stricken. “Mother! You should’ve told me!”
Mrs. Jones shrugs. “You’ve got a family now, and really there’s nothing you can do.”
Eileen realizes it’s been months since she has spoken with her father. “He’s asleep” Mrs. Jones has said when Eileen has called. “He’s just turned on the T.V. Let him be.” Eileen sits next to her father and grasps his hand. He has long skinny fingers like certain types of frogs. He smiles at her. She squeezes his hand and he winces. She pats it instead.
Liam gives Mrs. Jones a smile. “It’s lovely to have you both.” He speaks with an Irish accent.
Mrs. Jones smiles coolly. “How’s your family?”
Liam folds himself into a chair. “They’re well.” Liam’s story is like chess. He weaves a yarn and each word is a move. His brother’s pub, right in the center of town is decorated for Christmas. His sister’s work at University College Dublin, in the Bursar’s Office goes well. She’s engaged to a postal worker now. Though he carries letter by day he writes poetry at night. Published in the local paper, he is.
Mrs. Jones cocks her head. “Didn’t you tell me your sister worked in the Registrar’s office?”
Liam doesn’t like questions because they are hooks that can unravel his yarn. “She transferred offices just two months ago.”
Mrs. Jones raises an arched eyebrow. Liam feels a wave of panic. Dr. Jones’ head bobs gently back and forth as though it is filled with helium. As Liam grasps for pieces of his story he realizes Mrs. Jones’s eyes aren’t the color of scotch, they’re the gold of a prey animal assessing it’s quarry.
He decides the questioning must reverse direction. “Will you be summering on the Vineyard?”
“I’m sorry dear, say that again.”
“Martha’s Vineyard.” Liam clears his throat. “If you’re there maybe we could visit.”
“The house is on the market.” Mrs. Jones pauses. “Dr. Jones’s condition requires constant care and that adds up.” She frowns. “Mathematicians understand things adding up better than most, isn’t that right?”
“I suppose we do.” Liam suddenly realizes his glass is as empty as Mrs. Jones’ apparent pocketbook. He needs another drink. He excuses himself and makes his way to the kitchen, feeling light-headed. Father a surgeon. Home on the Vineyard. Summer conjugated as a verb. Reality has been turned on it’s cognitively declined head.
Before Christmas brunch, Eileen, Mrs. Jones and Dr. Jones pass Baby Girl back and forth to stop her crying. It takes forty minutes, but she falls asleep.
When they sit down to eat, the topic is education which makes Liam apoplectic. He is sure Mrs. Jones knows he has been kicked out of school, knows they are broke. He goes to the kitchen and using only vodka, magically turns his orange juice into a screwdriver. He gulps it down, realizing all he can do is deny the truth. He makes himself another and heads back to the table.
“I’m pretty sure, Eileen.” Mrs. Jones says.
Liam eyes the older woman with suspicion. “Sure about what?”
Mrs. Jones clears her throat. “I’m pretty sure the university offers childcare. When I was a student they offered free care to graduate students and faculty through the Department of Education. Students teach for academic credit.” Mrs. Jones turns to her daughter. “I’m surprised you haven’t looked into it.”
Eileen gives a weary smile. “I’ve been busy, mother.”
Liam feels warmth spread through his body as the first flush of drink hits. He realizes, quite suddenly, that if his wife goes back to grad school, they can keep the house. Her stipend would be small, but added to his pay they’d be okay. He won’t have to tell her got kicked out. Maybe he’ll transfer, get the Ph.D. elsewhere. He feels a surge of excitement that’s heightened when he realizes they’re between semesters and she could start back next month. She’d have a paycheck in January! He doesn’t know anyone in the Education Department but his wife might.
Liam picks up his drink and heads to the kitchen. When the door closes he does a small and triumphant dance. He enjoys a victory shot of vodka, hoping to enhance the warmth and happiness the first two drinks have wrought. Then he makes himself another screwdriver.
He returns to the dining room with his drink.
“Who do you know in the school of education?” He gives Eileen his earnest look.
“Liam it’s Christmas Day! For heaven’s sake, it can wait.” She smiles and shakes her head at Liam. He realizes she’s excited at the prospect of returning to graduate school.
“What’s your friend Pam’s last name? Isn’t she in the Education program?”
“She’s an acquaintance.”
Liam holds a finger in the air. “I know! Eckhart. Her name is Pamela Eckhart. Call her. This could be the best Christmas gift you ever gave yourself!”
Eileen glances at her mother. Mrs. Jones’s crimson lips are pursed and unreadable. “I don’t have her number.”
“I’ll bet it’s in your address book. Why don’t you take a look? A call can’t hurt.”
Eileen goes to the kitchen. She finds the number but Pamela Eckhart does not pick up.
Liam adds Bailey’s to his coffee. The thrill of not losing his home and of finding a new graduate program makes his blood hum.
He picks up his knife and fork and bangs the table. “Call Pam! Call Pam!” His chanting wakes Baby Girl up and she cries.
“Christ on a cracker. Can’t you shut the…” He was about to say little bitch up, but he sees Mrs. Jones staring. “baby up?” He knows he’s had too much to drink, but salvation is so close that the alcohol doesn’t matter.
He picks up his butter knife and points it at Eileen. “I command you to call Pamela Eckhart.”
Eileen shakes her head but walks to the kitchen try again. Mrs. Jones takes Baby Girl to her room and closes the door. Liam listens for his wife’s voice.
“Pamela! I didn’t think you’d pick up…Merry Christmas! It’s Eileen McAllister. I’ve got a question.”
The Education Department provides free care to children over twelve months. Baby Girl is too young.
This fact cork-screws it’s way into Liam’s head. He becomes quiet and pale. Eileen is thrilled she’ll be able to return to grad school after Baby Girl’s first birthday.
Eileen and her parents dress for church. After, they will visit Mrs. Jones’s sister who’s in assisted living. Baby Girl fusses. She won’t sit quietly through Mass. Mrs. Jones folds her arms over her body. She taps her foot on the ground. Liam isn’t going and Mrs. Jones wants him to take Baby Girl and give his wife a break. Liam grinds his teeth and doesn’t notice Mrs. Jones’ gestures.
Eileen is caught between tempers, but asks Liam to watch Baby Girl. Flushing, he accepts his crying daughter, pats her as the rest of the clan climb into Mrs. Jones’s sedan. The moment they pull out the driveway he puts the screaming child in her crib and closes the door. He needs another drink. Twelve months! His life will be ruined. He’s surprised at how unsteady he is. Maybe he doesn’t need another drink, instead he’ll have a cigarette. He’s got an old pack stashed away in a desk drawer.
Much later he wakes to screaming, but not Baby Girl’s scream. It’s Eileen’s. Mrs. Jones is hollering too. His head hurts so much he thinks his skull will crack open. Why are women so damn loud? Eileen is hysterical in a way he’s never heard. He fumbles out of bed. It’s dark. His clothes are on. He turns the light on and it’s an offense to his eyes, which squint in pain. She has to stop. He’s not fully awake when she crashes through their bedroom door.
“She’s gone, she’s gone!” Eileen’s face is red and wrinkled.
“The baby!” Eileen wails loudly. Liam thinks someone should tell her how ugly she looks with her face contorted.
“Where could she have gone?” Liam feels panic rising in his chest. “She’s not mobile.”
“Paramedics are on their way. She’s blue. She’s not breathing.”
He doesn’t know what time it is. He moves towards Baby Girl’s room. Mrs. Jones is kneeling on the floor still in the red coat she wore to church. She is using her manicured fingers to do chest compressions. She puts her mouth over the infant’s nose and mouth. The chest rises but Baby Girl is remarkably blue and still.
Finally, EMTs arrive. The baby is not breathing. She has become a tiny blue replica of herself.
Eileen is yelling and crying at the same time. She is demanding to see Baby Girl, but the infant is already in the ambulance. The EMTs give Eileen valium. They are taking her to the hospital along with Baby Girl. Mrs. and Dr. Jones will go too. Liam will wait for the police. He’s sweating. He doesn’t know how Baby Girl died. He left her in her crib. He goes to the kitchen. There’s a smoked cigarette in the ash tray. Had he smoked it? He traces his movement back almost four hours. Yes, he remembers lighting the cigarette and feeling white hot anger because the baby wouldn’t shut up – this child that would cost him his home and maybe his wife. He remembers blowing smoke at the ceiling and deciding why not another shot of vodka? He would never hurt is daughter. Never in a million years. But he can’t remember what happened between the fury and the reality of the dead child. He rises from his seat and throws up in kitchen sink.
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