The Cleanness of Violence by Pat Wakeley
It’s not as if I ever pretended to like kids but Drake said marry me, which had certain advantages, so I did that and now I’m stuck. Right now he’s backing out of the driveway, gets the car straightened out and waves to me, one of those cheery waves that get on my nerves. He’s happy because he likes his job, where he talks to real people and breathes fresh air. I wonder how he’d like to spend the day cooped up with a cranky baby who’s fussing from the get-go. Well, it can just wait.
The rain spatters on the window—one of those foggy, drizzly mornings I can’t stand, so the minute Drake’s out of sight I yank down the shades to shut out the weather. He always yells at me to turn off the lights, save electricity, but this morning I don’t care. It’s party time. I boogie from room to room snapping on the overhead fluorescent in the kitchen, the bedside lamp in the bedroom, the overhead and floor lamps in the living room, anything to brighten the place up. Even the bathroom light. Then I put on an old Mogwai album, not too loud, but I guess the baby doesn’t like the music, because it keeps on squalling. I only finished feeding it ten minutes ago, but I pick it up again, bits of blue flannel blanket trailing away. “Everything’s all right,” I croon, the way mamas are supposed to. “Everything’s fine.”
I wish it was true. This baby cries an awful lot. “See the pretty lights?” I ask, turning its face toward the floor lamp. Its eyes grow round, and it’s quiet for a minute. “Nothing like a happy home, right?” I say to the baby and dance around the living room to the music, the baby in my arms, but now it’s crying again with little hiccups, its face red and splotchy. I’ve done everything I can think of. Checked the diaper, fed it, stroked its fat little belly. Honest, I’m trying. No one’s going to say I don’t do the right thing.
Finally the baby wears itself out and falls into a feverish sleep, its lips moving as it dreams, little bubbles of spit at the corners of its mouth. Pink lips and a wisp of cornsilk on its head. A pretty baby. I lay it carefully on the couch so it doesn’t wake up.
Once when I was fifteen I had this babysitting job. That baby was pretty, too, older than this one, maybe a year old. For a game, I held it by the heels and circled round and round so the baby laughed. As I spun faster, the baby’s body lifted almost straight out, because of the centrifugal force. I had learned about that in school. And then I thought—I remember how the thought came to me—how easy it would be to let go of the baby, just let it go, let it fly out and crack its head against the wall and spill its brains out everywhere. The thought scared me, it would be too easy, and I set the baby back down on the floor. It wanted to play the game again, but I wouldn’t do it any more, not even when it pawed at my legs and said, “Up, up.” That was the last time I babysat.
A few minutes later, Drake’s baby wakes up and begins to fuss again, so I pull up my shirt and give it my breast. That’s what the nurse said at the hospital. “Breastfeed your baby the first few months,” she told me, sounding like a book, “and you’ll have a happier, healthier child.” She even showed me how to do it, and told me about the special bra I was supposed to get. But I haven’t bothered with that, since it will only be for a few months and we don’t have that much money. Besides, I have nice breasts and don’t need a bra, same as Marilyn Monroe.
At first, breastfeeding seemed kind of icky, and I was embarrassed to do it in front of anyone, even Drake. But he said, “Hell, if it’s good for the kid, then do it.” Besides, he was fascinated and liked to watch, sitting across from me in the living room, ready for the show to begin. After a while I got used to him watching.
He was the one who really wanted the kid. When I came up pregnant and asked him to pay for the abortion, it was him who wanted to get married. “Quit your job,” he said. I’d only been at Dirty Dan’s a few weeks, an exotic dancer, which if I do say so I’m good at. But except for the tips it wasn’t a very good job. And Drake said he’d been afraid he was sterile after the mumps and this might be the only chance he’d get. So I said okay. We got along all right. Get married and let someone else worry about the rent was the way I saw it, and Drake would have the kid he wanted.
Now the baby makes a little gasping sound before it latches on to my breast. Every time the baby starts sucking on me, I have to admit it feels good, with a little tingle in my abdomen for extra. And the way the baby’s mouth completely covers the nipple makes nursing seem less embarrassing, the way I felt more dressed as a dancer because of the pasties. I like the weight of the baby’s head on my arm, too. It’s something solid, something mine. Well, mine and Drake’s.
When the doorbell rings, I pull the baby off my nipple, put it down on the couch, and go to the door. Probably the visiting nurse for the six-week check-up. Thank God the baby isn’t screaming. But my nipple is leaking onto my shirt, spreading out into a dark stain.
The hospital calls it a courtesy call, though I would rather go to the doctor’s office. A nurse in the house will only snoop around looking for things to criticize. This one is fortyish and skinny, like the “after” picture in a diet ad. She looks like a witch except her hair is streaked blond instead of gray. And she has a sharp scent that prickles the inside of my nose. Patchouli or something. I’d rather smell baby poop.
She says her name is Dora from Mercy General but otherwise doesn’t waste any time being sociable, which is okay by me. She goes right over to the couch to inspect the baby. “Well,” she says as she unwraps him and starts to check him over, “he looks healthy.”
“Eight pounds two at birth,” I say. Mothers are supposed to brag about things like that.
“What’s his name again?” she asks. You’d think she’d know.
“Justin. A family name.” It was the middle name of Drake’s grandfather.
“Hello, Justin.” She tickled the baby’s belly. “How are you and mommy getting along?”
“To tell the truth,” I say to her, “he cries a lot. I’m not getting near enough sleep. Maybe a couple of hours at a time.”
“Is that so, Justin?” She’s loosens his diaper to look inside. Nosy bitch. “You won’t let mommy get any sleep?”
“He can’t talk yet,” I remind her. “And my name is Ashley, not Mommy.”
She makes a face, as if a mosquito were chasing her, but does condescend to speak to me. “Are you breastfeeding him? Oh, I see you are.” She nods at the stain on my shirt. “Good thing you have plenty of milk.”
I want her to leave, but I do have one question first. “Do you think he’s colicky?” I ask, moving in on her cloud of sharp scent. “I’d hate to have a colicky baby.” Some babies, I’ve heard, never stop crying for months on end. Their mothers go crazy.
Dora hardly bothers to glance at me. “Too soon to tell, really. How is he after you burp him?” She’s looking at his fingernails, which I cut last week.
“Burp him?” I squint at her. “So far as I know, babies burp theirselves. That’s something they have to grow out of, isn’t it, like messing in their diapers?”
“Here, I’ll show you.” Dora turns the baby over on her knee and rubs its back. When an enormous belch erupts from its mouth, I jerk in surprise. The nurse picks the baby up again and cradles it on her shoulder. The baby seems almost to smile. “Do that after you nurse him, every time.”
It’s yet another thing I don’t know, but how could anyone expect me to? I was the youngest of seven kids. And while I want to do a good job taking care of this kid, so no one will blame me, I hate it when people boss me around. Which is exactly what Dora starts doing now.
“Let’s see your diaper-changing center,” she says, as if I’m supposed to have a special place for doing that. “And show me how you bathe the baby.” As if there was much choice. Both times I did it, I put a plastic pan in the sink and filled it half full of warm water. Then I laid the baby in it, being careful not to let its head knock against the hard porcelain. It was either that or carry the baby into the shower with me, which I thought might be slippery.
Now Dora is rummaging around in the kitchen cupboards, talking away, giving advice, but I’m not listening any more. She pokes into the bedroom, where an oversized laundry basket holds a nest for the baby. I would keep the baby in bed with me and Drake, handy for middle-of-the-night feedings, but that was something the hospital nurse had warned me against. There was more, but always too much to remember, and now I wish Dora would shut up and go away. The baby is quiet. Maybe I can take a nap.
“Goddamn it, why are all the lights on?”
Drake’s voice. I start up out of a sound sleep to hear Mogwai still playing on an endless loop, Drake kicking around in the living room, and the baby squalling in its basket. From the thin, tired sound of it, he’s been at it for a while.
My eyes are gritty, and I ache to fall back on the bed, put the pillow over my head, keep on sleeping. Instead, I struggle to my feet, stretching my eyes to keep them open. Drake has turned off the lights, except in the kitchen, and now he’s silhouetted in the doorway, a huge figure. He’s a tall, rangy man with high cheekbones that I used to think made him look like an Indian, but now all I think is, they go with his nasty, cutting comments. Until the baby was born he was nice. He never yelled at me to clean the place up or iron his shirts. Lady of leisure. Pregnant. Bearing his child and all that. But since the baby came, he expects more of me. Pretty soon, I know the sex will start up again, even though I’m still sore.
“Why the hell are all the lights on? You know we haven’t paid last month’s bill. You want them to turn off the juice?” He advances into the room and stoops to pick up the baby, which is wailing as if it’s given up on ever getting what it wants. “Why do you let him cry all the time?”
“I don’t let him. It just started.”
“Don’t give me that shit. Here,” he says and pushes me back on the bed, his big hand on my shoulder, and shoves the baby at me. “Feed him, for god’s sake. He’s hungry.”
I stare at Drake as I pull up my shirt and let the baby suckle. Drake folds his arms and leans back against the dresser. “It isn’t as if you have a lot to do around here,” he says in a sharp voice. “Three little rooms and a baby to feed. That’s not asking too goddamn much, is it?” The skin beside his left eye is jumping, a sure sign he’s about to lose it. He’s never hit me, but when I see that angry tic, it scares me.
After I finish nursing the baby, I turn it over and rub its back the way the nurse showed me. A thin spill of whitish milk drools out of its mouth.
“Damn it, you let it get all over the bed,” Drake says. He leaves the room and comes back with a wad of paper towels. I mop up the mess and use a clean corner of the paper towel to wipe off the baby. I’m never sure what to do or when to do it. Am I supposed to wait a while before burping the baby, perhaps until it starts fussing? I rub its belly a little, but what does that do?
The minute I lay the baby down, on its back, it starts to fuss again. I turn it over, with a washcloth under its mouth, and this time when I rub its back, a loud satisfying burp comes out. I’ve done something right.
Feeling pleased with myself, I tuck in my shirt, hang the baby over my shoulder, and go to find Drake pulling things out of the refrigerator. “This sour cream smells off,” he says. “And this chicken’s been in here for two weeks. Isn’t there anything decent to eat in this house?”
Big guy. Thinks he can lay it all on me. “You ought to know,” I tell him. “You’re the one’s been buying the food these last few weeks.” Bringing home milk and bags of salad instead of the chips and Coke I like. Trying to force me into a proper diet, though I would buy milk and carrots anyway because of the baby. I’m not a complete idiot. But he always complains no matter what I do or don’t do. “Bunch of shit,” I mumble.
“What? Who says I’m shit?” He glares at me, the package of dripping old chicken in his hand. A vein in his forehead is pulsing.
“I didn’t say that. I never called you shit.”
“Never did, huh? I guess you’d like to.”
“Back off, Drake. I didn’t do anything.”
“That’s the truth. Didn’t turn off the lights, didn’t cook dinner, didn’t even wake up to feed the baby.” Drake is yelling at me now. He always has to be right. “You neglect him. You neglect my son and call me shit.”
“I never called you shit, and I take good care of your son.” I’m screaming back at him, clutching the baby. My whole body is shaking. “Who says I neglect it? I’m doing the best I can.”
“Which doesn’t amount to much, does it?”
“You don’t know what all happens around here.”
Drake hurls the chicken back in the refrigerator and slams the door. “I could do the job a hell of a lot better than you ever do.”
“All right then,” I scream, tipping the baby and letting it slip though my hands till it’s dangling head down by the ankles, but right away I’m raising it up again and hollering, “If you’re so goddamned smart, you can have it.” With the full weight of my body, I swing the baby like a bat.
While it’s still in midair, before it even hits Drake, I know this is a bad idea. For a long moment I see the baby turning, twisting in its blanket, its mouth open in an endless wail that seems to go on forever. I try to snatch it back, redirect its arc so it doesn’t really hit Drake, but it’s moving too fast, a blur of red skin and baby blanket that I cannot stop. Then comes the stunned look on Drake’s face as the baby’s skull slams into the side of his head with a hollow thunk. I let go.
Drake lurches back and manages to catch the bundle before it hits the floor. Then he stares as if he doesn’t know me, looks at me, through me. At first I think he’s going to come after me, but he doesn’t. Then I’m scared I’ve broken the baby’s neck, but no, it moves a bit, its little arm jerking. Its eyes are closed. Maybe I knocked it out. That would be so funny. Suddenly the whole episode seems very funny, comical really, and I start to laugh—knocking out the baby to make it shut up. Or to shut Drake up. That totally surprised look when the baby hit his head—I’m laughing so hard I start to choke.
Drake cradles the baby with one arm like a football and stumbles into the living room. I hear him pick up the phone and punch three numbers. Only three. “What are you doing?” I scream at him. He doesn’t have to tell people.
“There’s been an accident here,” he reports. “My son . . . four weeks old.” Then he goes and sits in the chair by the window, I guess so he can watch for the ambulance. He looks tired. The baby’s narrow chest moves up and down, breathing.
“You didn’t have to go public,” I mutter, hugging myself on the couch. Though calling 9-1-1 doesn’t really matter. What’s done is done, and telling or not telling won’t change what happened, it will only change what they do to me.
After a while, I start to laugh again. That expression on Drake’s face when I hit him. And his expression now when I laugh. But he doesn’t say anything.
Even if the baby is okay, they won’t let me take care of it any more. They can’t make me. They might put me in jail, prison even, I don’t care.
The baby whimpers, and my breasts start leaking again. But there are drugs to stop that. I’m just glad it’s over.
The odd thing, odder than that the Mogwai music keeps on playing all this time, odder than that my milk flows on signal, is this great, flooding sense of relief, of lightness. Everything starting new. I take a deep, deep breath.
The wail of the ambulance comes nearer and stops in front of the house. Drake stands to carry the baby outside, but he still doesn’t say anything to me.
“Goodbye, Drake,” I say, smiling up at him.
He doesn’t look back. I don’t care.
Pat Wakeley lives and works in North Carolina, where she ponders the peculiarities of family life.