First, One Child…
When the bus pulled up, exhaust stirred candy wrappers, bits of yellowed leaves, and empty cigarette packages in the gutter. Annette pushed Jane’s small face into her own jacket to escape the smell. Jane insisted on taking the three tall steps into the bus herself, gripping Annette as she swayed with the effort of stretching her legs high. While the bus pulled into traffic, they endured her high-pitched wail after Annette had slipped the nickels into the change box. She’d promised Jane she could do it.
She swept Jane up with one arm, hooked her shoulder bag and the push-rail of the collapsed stroller onto her other arm, and took an open spot at the end of the first long seat that ran lengthwise on either side in the front of the bus. The rest of the seats, separated by a center aisle all the way to the back emergency exit, faced the front. In this first front-facing seat, and perpendicular to them, sat a man in a gray raincoat.
With her feet, Annette held the stroller halfway in the aisle. She adjusted the loose bobby pins that kept Jane’s navy beret on her head, a beret that matched her navy knee socks and the navy blue collar and cuffs of her red corduroy dress. Annette’s heart was full up with love at the adorable sight Jane made as she sat sucking on her bottom lip.
When her daughter smacked the soles of her red patent leather shoes together, the man in the raincoat smiled and said, “Hello.” His hair was black and grainy, as if it had been shoe-polished, while his sideburns bushed gray along his jowls. A sweaty odor wafted from him on this comfortably cool fall day.
“Hi,” Jane said, chewing at the inside of her cheek, a nervous habit she’d just recently started.
The man’s smile nagged at Annette. Something not quite right about it, but to get up and move would admit her discomfort. She gently lay her hand on Jane’s skirt, a reminder to stop knocking her shoes. “You’ll get scuffed up.”
Jane sat still, continued staring at the man. Their seats were so close she could have climbed into his lap without touching the floor of the bus.
“You’re mighty pretty,” he said.
Jane tried out the manners Annette had practiced with her. “Sank you.” She looked up for approval.
The man grinned. He had no teeth. His blank gums reached smoothly to where that pink thing hung down at the opening to his throat. What did they call it? Annette used to know.
Jane tried to climb up onto her lap. Annette already had trouble balancing the stroller with the braking and accelerating of the bus. She placed Jane firmly in her own spot. “You sit here until it’s time to get off.” She smoothed the wrinkles of Jane’s dress.
Annette blushed as Jane mentioned the man’s deficiency.
He laughed and opened his mouth wide. Annette checked the stroller’s wheels. Were they too far in the aisle?
“I ain’t got any in there, honey.” He put his face next to Jane so she could take a close horrible look. He expelled his sour breath on them.
Jane hid her face in Annette’s side and the beret fell from her hair.
“They’re here,” the man said. Out of his raincoat pocket he brought a jar, the size that might have held peanut butter. A set of false teeth floated in the clear liquid.
Jane took a peek, her hands still clutching Annette’s jacket. The jar reminded Annette of high school biology, vague ideas of organs and half-formed animals in formaldehyde. She bit down on the nausea, recalling her possible pregnancy.
“You can hold it.” The man offered Jane the jar of teeth.
“Me?” she said, reaching for it.
Annette began to object, but Jane was asking his permission, not hers. Jane held the man’s teeth in her lap, where they swished back and forth, first full at one side of the jar, then the other.
“Just hold on tight and don’t drop it,” Annette said.
When the bus braked, the man stood, then sat again. “Not my stop.” He smiled his toothless grin.
Annette averted her eyes, concentrated on Jane, who watched the teeth in the jar as if they were alive, but in peril, like the goldfish Curt had won for her at the church festival last summer. She had sat alone in the car’s back seat, exclaiming over the fish and their frenzied swimming, two of them captured in a plastic bag of water with a twist-tie. One corner leaked and Jane screamed over the water dribbling on her lap. They only lived a mile from the church, but even as fast as Curt drove, by the time they pulled into the driveway there wasn’t a tablespoon of water left in the bag. The fish had flopped on each other and suffocated.
An overhead bus placard announced registration for the School of Court Reporting. Annette thought maybe she’d like to walk into a court of law as her daily job, once her babies grew up and moved away. The idea of her babies gone, all those that had not yet even been born, stoppered her throat. She had trouble swallowing. Jane still attended the jar of teeth.
The bus pulled into the Hill and Valley Plaza parking lot, and strangers bumped shoulders with one another.
“I’ll take those now,” the man said.
As the bus stopped, Annette stood to adjust her hold on the stroller and her purse.
“In my lap,” he said.
She glanced to make sure Jane had obeyed. With her two hands clasping the sides of the jar, Jane leaned over the seat and put the teeth in the man’s lap. The man patted her on her head. Jane had lost her beret.
While the man in the gray raincoat touched her daughter’s hair, Annette saw his penis next to the jar where his raincoat flap had been drawn aside. It sat there alongside his hairy inner thigh.
She grabbed Jane and pulled her from the seat where she’d made her sit so quiet and obedient. At the bus door the stroller got away and clattered down the three tall steps to the sidewalk. Jane cried from being wrenched so roughly, and oh the commotion once she realized her beret was lost. Annette recoiled from the exhaust fumes of the bus, vomiting into the curb, getting a good look at the dented bottle caps, crushed cigarette butts, and tattered leaves the color of blood.
The first nights home from the hospital, Annette would stand at the edge of Susan’s crib, watching her sleep. She turned her head in the dark to reassure herself with the rise and fall of the baby’s back under the thin sheet. She’d always had to endure Jane’s screams between her feedings to give her body the chance to produce more milk. At only one week old, Susan slept through her first night home seven continuous hours, until Annette wound up three music boxes and the musical mobile of the stars, the moon, and the planets to gently wake her. She worried about starvation, but Susan slept seven to eight hours every night, and nursed a good half hour six times through the day, on a schedule so regular Annette swore she could set the clocks by her. Her strong appetite brought Annette’s milk in full and constant.
Through the night her breasts grew lumpy and tender. By the medicine chest light in the bathroom, she wanted to express some milk into the sink, but without the baby’s cries to spur the let-down reflex it was hopeless. She tried to massage as Mama had taught her. With Jane there’d never been a question that she was ready to suck. Now Annette’s breasts were so engorged that she couldn’t stand the smallest touch. The flimsy weight of her summer nightgown pained her. She undid the front laces that kept it closed.
The bedside clock read four-thirty. She turned her head and lay bare-breasted in bed, listening for Susan, awaiting the milky light of morning that would bleed through the Venetian blinds and reveal the bedroom furnishings. She smelled the diluted scent of Prell from her own pillow, the sweet aroma Curt carried with him, and the musky scent of his unwashed body.
He rolled over in his sleep and flung his arm to her side of the bed. The back of his hand, all rough knuckles and hair, skimmed her right breast. Her whimper hung there in the bedroom dark.
Curt awoke and leaned on an elbow, facing her. “What’s wrong?” He kept his words soft.
“Nothing.” Her voice matched his.
She couldn’t speak.
He brushed his fingers along her cheek and brought them away wet. “Is it the baby?”
She shook her head. The mattress shuddered with her.
“What?” he insisted.
Swallowing twice, three times, she wiped her face with the sheet’s edge. Her voice was stuck. It might float away if she let herself cry out loud.
“The baby hasn’t nursed since last night,” she said. “And I’m full up.” She paused. “It hurts.”
Curt drew closer to her, reached out to touch, ever so lightly, the side of her breast. The mew sound of a kitten escaped her mouth.
“Should we wake her up?”
Again she shook the bed. “I checked her. She’s sleeping soundly. I hate to break that.”
She heard his long exhale as he shifted his body, pulled the covers more closely over them both.
“Well, what can we do?”
She shrugged and the act made her wince.
Curt, curled alongside her, began stroking her thigh where the leg of her panties arced up her hip. His voice snuck past the range of whisper, into the baritone that was his daily speech, part growl. “I could suck them for you.”
Her blood left her feet, hands, and head, as if her heart had expanded to rise right out of her body.
His fingers drew wider circles, reaching from her hip to her inner thigh. She knew what he had in mind, and her womb cramped.
“I can’t,” she whispered. “The stitches…”
“I know,” he told her. “But I could suck them. So you’d be more comfortable. Just until the baby wakes up.”
She’d been his wife almost four years. It wasn’t as if he’d never taken her breasts into his mouth, had never run his tongue and the blunt edges of his teeth over the dark brown nipples. But it sickened her, the idea of him swallowing what was meant for the baby.
“No. I just can’t.” She turned away so his hand slid off her body and lay on the mattress between them, a ghostly thing on the gray bedsheet.
She rolled slowly from bed to check on the girls. Jane spoke something garbled from her dream. Susan slept quiet in the crib beside her.
Mr. Sheeter, the landlord, had installed a shower in their bath while she’d been in the hospital, and now Annette undressed in the morning dark, regulated the water from the tub faucet. First birds chirruped outside.
She felt grit under her feet on the bathroom linoleum. Maybe she’d wash the floor later if the weather didn’t turn too humid. Nothing more disgusting than scrubbing a bathroom, the air of the day wet on her skin and mixed with her own sweat, the odor of Pine-Sol hanging like the smell of a raincoat.
She flipped the metal latch to direct the tub water through the shower nozzle. Under the tiny separated streams, she shut off nearly all the cold so hot water pulsed down her breasts. Her tears mixed in with the shower, making her think, absurdly, about washing with her own body fluids. She saw the weak, blue-white liquid leaking from her nipples, two slow rivers in the gush of the shower. It all slipped over her still-swollen abdomen, down her thighs and shins, over the bones in her feet. The tub filled with water up to her ankles.