To her distress, Lanier seems destined to produce only sons. She has now officially confirmed her fourth pregnancy, as if she needed any further confirmation than her sudden inability to tolerate the smell of brewing coffee.
The obstetrician washes his hands in the tiny, triangular sink in the corner of the examining room. His ancient nurse, Edwina, summoned solely for the sake of propriety, has just left, silent as air, and Lanier pulls herself to a sitting position. She holds the paper sheet against her chest with her chin and wiggles into her underpants and bra.
“So,” he scribbles on her chart and glances up, “what’ll this be now, four?” More scribbling. “You know, if this fourth one is another boy, the chances of you ever having a girl drop on down to almost nothing. Not in the books anywhere, don’t you understand. It’s just what I’ve seen.”
“But you’re not saying that this one’s necessarily a boy. Three’s not the magic number, right?” Lanier releases the sheet and slides off the table, bending to retrieve the shorts and T-shirt she has dropped on the floor. Whatever a fourth pregnancy might produce, it is certainly not formality. “I mean, I don’t really care or anything, you know, as long as it’s, as long as he or she is healthy.” She tucks the tail of the shirt into the elastic-waisted shorts, turns sideways and checks her reflection in the glass doors of the tall white instrument cabinet, then pulls it back out. Dr. Baird is smiling at her. He looks like a giant baby himself, she thinks, round and pink, with wispy white hair floating from his head like vapor. He has delivered not only all three of Lanier’s other babies, but Lanier, her brother, and one of her sisters. Who is she trying to kid, anyway?
“Lanny, sugar, who are you trying to kid here?” He watches her flush, as she never has during a physical examination, and goes on. “We’re not talking about what you think. Remember, I’ve been duck hunting with Jakes. I know which one of you is trying to put together a team.” He crosses the room in two large steps and lays his slab of a hand on her shoulder. “You just eat right and take your vitamins, you’ll be fine.”
Lanier nods and slips out from under the heaviness by reaching for her pocketbook, hung across the back of a plastic chair by the door.
“And Jakes is gonna be fine, too. He’ll be proud of whatever you have. You know that.” He hands Lanier a prescription for the big brown capsules she learned to swallow during her first pregnancy. She stuffs the slip into her pocket and heads for the waiting room.
Pax, the five year old, and Jay, two, are sitting just where she left them, side by side at the low, red, plastic table, surrounded by an assortment of Lincoln Logs, mismatched playing cards, and fraying Little Golden Books. They are, both, yellow-haired boys, round-faced and blue-eyed, small and smaller replicas of Jakes, as surely his sons as they are brothers. Even their expressions, unsmiling and slightly squinty, are pure Jakes.
As Lanier watches from the doorway, Pax speaks to the younger boy, waits, speaks again. Then he turns and inserts a thumb and forefinger between Jay’s lips and pulls out a small, glistening object which Lanier recognizes as one of the wooden building pieces scattered around the play area. Fascinated, she hesitates, unmoving. As some part of her strains forward, drawn by the possibility of harm, the need to oversee and protect, another part keeps her firmly in place, observing. Now Pax can be heard across the room.
“That is not okay, Jay. These toys are for playing, not for eating. If you do that again, I’ll have to take them away from you.” His mouth, as he issues the warning, is set in its most serious Jakes firmness, but the words, the tone, are so absolutely Lanier’s, that she has to laugh. The sound brings both boys’ heads up and turned to where their mother stands. Pax is still holding the mouthslick wooden toy, and as he rises he drops his arm to his side, wipes the piece, almost casually, on the hem of his denim shorts, and drops it onto the table, where it is indistinguishable from its fellows. Throughout this maneuver, he and Lanier maintain unwavering eye contact.
“Boys.” Her voice is a squeak. She tries again. “Do you guys want to go for a treat? Wanna get a Freezie?” Just the name of the too-sweet concoction causes Lanier’s back teeth to ache, and Jay to tremble, already anticipating the sugary rush of the thing.
“Fweezie, fweezie, fweezie.” The chanting child hurtles across the space which separates him from his mother, and wraps himself around her bare legs, his face upturned, his chin planted, bone on bone, at the bottom of her belly. “Fwee-e-e-e-zie.” He drawls the syllables out through clenched teeth.
In a maternal plié, Lanier cups the small buttocks in one hand, and straightens, pulling the squirming beggar onto her hip. One bounce settles his weight, and he is suddenly calmed, eyes fluttering closed, nodding down. Lanier looks across at Pax and extends her free hand. His fingers circle hers, and they move to the door.
By the time she has navigated the small parking lot and arrived at her car, Lanier’s exposed skin is coated with the sticky, invisible net of humidity that floats perpetually in the air here from April until October. Her hand and Pax’s feel glued together, and when she shifts the sleeping boy, his face pulls away from her neck with a moist, sucking sound. Pax stands, arms folded, as she slides the younger boy into the quilt-covered plastic car seat, then buckles himself into the space beside his brother. It isn’t until Lanier has eased the car out into the street and catches his eye in the rearview mirror that Pax finally speaks.
“Are we still getting a Freezie?” Lanier smiles and nods and he smiles back, an odd little smile, lips together, ends just curving. “Are we getting another baby?”
He asks this in the same mild tone he used a second earlier, asking about the frozen treat, and it catches Lanier by surprise. There is no nod for this.
“Yes, we are. We are getting another baby.”
“Are we getting a girl?” His voice still doesn’t change, but now there are small furrows between his pale eyebrows.
Lanier pulls her attention to the car in front of her as it slows and signals to turn. When she shifts back to the mirror, Pax’s eyes are no longer available. He is looking at something out the side window, and, almost absently, stroking Jay’s pudgy hand where it has relaxed into a curl around the strap of the car seat. The gesture has nothing childlike in it, and Lanier is, without warning, close to tears. She wrinkles her nose against the prickling.
“Fweezie, fweezie.” Something, maybe the hum of neon, too high-pitched for the adult ear, has brought Jay fully awake. He is stretching forward against the harness, bouncing in time with the blinking red and yellow ice cream cone that shoots out at an angle from the roof of the Dairy DeeLite. He is excited almost beyond speech, and is beginning to whine.
“We’re here, aren’t we Jaysie, we’re here?” Pax’s words have an immediate effect on his brother, whose bouncing calms to an easy idle, the whine to a purr. By the time Lanier has slipped the car into the only shaded spot and stopped, Pax is out of his seat belt, and on his knees, struggling to lift the thrumming Jay.
“Let me do that, honey. He’s too big for you.” The bony wings of Pax’s shoulder blades are sharp against the fabric of his T-shirt as he pulls, and Lanier resists the urge to rest her cheek in that small valley.
At the take-out window, a teenager stands motionless, but for the rhythmic working of a piece of green gum, just visible between her slightly parted lips.
“I’d like two small cherry Freezies, please, and a large lemonade.” Lanier sees no sign of acknowledgment on the girl’s slack face as she steps away, but before she can repeat her order, the drinks have appeared. She hands a cup to each boy, and turns back to the window.
“That’s two ninety-seven.” The words come out around the wad of gum, barely disturbing the lips. Lanier slides the money across the counter, picks up her drink, and rounds the corner of the building in time to see the fuchsia eruption that is a cherry Freezie hitting the pavement. Jay stands in the middle of the spill, his eyes saucers, his mouth a puckered O, as he takes in all the air he will need to propel the sound he is going to make next.
“Oh, Jay,” Lanier starts for the child, the cup, but is intercepted by Pax, as he steps carefully around the sticky puddle and places his drink into the already raised and reaching hands.
“S’okay Jaysie. You can have mine. Don’t cry. It’s okay.” His words are lost as Jay begins to suck noisily on the straw.
With a swiftness that surprises all three of them, Lanier scoops Jay up from behind and carries him toward the car, oblivious to the runnels of melted goo leaving the bottoms of his sneakers and tracking down the fronts of her legs. As she reaches for the handle with the hand holding the lemonade, she tightens her grip around his waist with the other, squeezing a small grunt from him.
“Stop that.” She wrenches the door open and deposits him, none too gently, onto the back seat, then leans over until her face and his are separated only by the cup, which he still clutches. “Don’t move. I mean it.”
On the sidewalk, Pax pulls a handful of napkins from the metal dispenser on the counter, and squats at the edge of the mess, making great loopy swipes which are soaking up some of the liquid and smearing the rest. Lanier starts to speak, then thinks better of it, grabs another wad of paper and kneels silently to the task.
As they are stuffing the last of the sodden napkins into the trash can, Pax glances over his shoulder, frowning.
“He’s okay there. I’m watching him.” Lanier wipes her palm on her shorts, then cups it around the back of her son’s slender neck. “Let’s get you another Freezie, how ’bout it?” She feels, more than sees, the small movement that is his answer. “You know, that was awfully nice of you to give yours to Jay. You didn’t have to do that. I wouldn’t have asked you to do that, sweetie.”
They stand while the expressionless teenager snaps the top on the drink. As they reach the car, Pax turns.
“What, Pax?” She is rooting around in her pocketbook for her keys, her head down.
“If we get a girl.”
Lanier pauses, keys in hand, still.
“If we get a girl next time, what if I don’t know how?”
Lanier is bound to the spot where she stands, the gummy asphalt softening under her feet as she gazes, wordlessly, at the small, somber person who is her middle son. If he feels her eyes on him, he gives no sign, but settles into the seat beside his brother and fastens himself into his certain place.
“Getting a Girl” was a winning submission in the 2000 South Carolina Fiction Project, and appeared in the Post and Courier newspaper.