FICTION: ISSUE #12

Still from "Substratae," an Animated Film by Margie Kelk, Mud Season Review
*Image: Still from “Substratae,” an Animated Film by Margie Kelk

Get Gregory Out

By Genevieve Plunkett

 

Patty met Gloria through one of those little paper tabs that you have to try to tear upward, so that you don’t lose part of the phone number. She had never liked introductions by phone—all those disembodied shifts in tone, the liftoff of questions that never seemed to settle—but she had taken the number, sliding the paper like a fortune cookie fortune into the slot in her wallet where she was supposed to keep pictures of her family.

She had made the call later that day from the phone on her kitchen wall. Pulling the cord around the corner to the laundry room, she sat on the floor with her back against the dryer, letting it shake her body while she listened to the ringing.

“Hello?” The voice had been velvety, expert. “This is Gloria.”

“I saw your flyer,” Patty said, picturing the stock photo of the mother cradling an infant. The look that was all soft eyelashes and filtered light. The cryptic tag line below.

“I want to… ‘make it last forever.'”

That had been two years ago, almost to the day. At Gloria’s, anniversaries and milestones of every kind were commemorated. Five months since Benny’s first tooth. Two years since the last time Donna’s ex-husband called her a freak. Everything was a reason to celebrate, if not to quit and never go back.

When Patty joined, there were ten members. Now they were down to four. Soon to be three.

Patty stuffed baby clothes into a black garbage bag—onesies, booties, and bibs that had been bought secondhand, because spit-up stains were hard to mimic. It was late afternoon in January. Waffle-like squares of sunlight lay on the carpet. The chuck-chuck of shovels in snow had been cutting into Patty’s brain all day. She found a rubber-handled spoon in the silverware drawer and dropped it into the bag. She hadn’t decided how she was going to break the news to Gloria. Maybe she wouldn’t have to. Gloria had a way of sniffing out guilt.

 

It had been snowing for five days. People around town were grumbling, threatening no one in particular to leave New England and never come back. They came into the diner where Patty worked and stomped their feet on the long rubber mat that was never long enough, because there was always a puddle of slush at the end. Stomp. Stomp. Circus elephants perching wearily on stools. When they left, there would be another puddle where their feet had been, drying to a ring of salt.

It was bobble-headed persistence that, in the end, distinguished Warren from the counter’s horizon of bald heads and winter hats.

“How nice, how awfully nice,” he remarked of the plate that Patty set before him: an egg with a bulging liquid center and bacon that must have looked like it needed to be patted with a napkin, because that’s what he had done the minute he thought Patty wasn’t looking.

Flirtation had followed, as best as it could under the circumstances. Patty knew that she was painfully mousey, likely to take a compliment as sarcasm, which would set them back a couple days every time. And Warren, Warren Dempsey, might have thought that he was smiling, but he really just looked like a mechanical dinosaur.

He had come in that morning, pulling off his hat with a wet sprinkling of snow, and sat, expressionless. They had been at it for over two months with no progress. Maybe it was the snow, the desperation that comes of being buried slowly, but it was that day that he asked her.

“My place?” he offered.

“No. Mine,” she replied, hiccuping with horror. Patty had not had a visitor for two years. Not since Gregory had arrived.

 

She should have been clearing out the apartment systematically, room by room, but instead she was nosing about like a squirrel. She was bound to overlook something—a rubber duck in the bathtub or a burp cloth shoved between the couch cushions. Warren would be at her door at eight o’clock, which meant that she had four hours to make sure that all traces of Gregory were gone.

She had left him on the bed, in the very center so that he could not roll off. To reduce the risk of suffocation, there were no pillows or blankets by his head. The elastic clip that kept his pacifier attached to his sweater was only three inches long, so he could not accidentally strangle himself while Patty wasn’t looking. Not that it would have mattered; she had plans for him anyway.

A woman named Betsey had been the first to go. Her Baby Heavenly was only three pounds five ounces and had the liquid, just-hatched grimace of a baby born too early. It was Betsey who had brought the cassette tapes. One straight hour of an infant crying, complete with that horrible choking sound they make. It was insufferable. No person of any level of sanity would choose to listen to it, but everyone took a copy home.

“I cried after five minutes, even with the volume at low,” said Donna the next day.

“I shouted at Charlie Bear,” said Tabitha. “I shouted ‘Shut up! Shut up!’”

“You’re only human,” said Maureen. “We all do things we aren’t proud of.”

That was when Betsey dropped her face into her hands, letting the infant slip from her lap, face down onto the floor. The women rubbed her heaving shoulders and pouted in sympathy. Patty had watched as Gloria scooped up the puny Baby Heavenly, as if it were the baby, after all, that needed comforting.

Betsey had left early and never returned. Next, Tabitha stopped showing up. She had buried Charlie Bear in a box of packing peanuts, and he had arrived, a week later, on Ramona’s front step.

“I had to take him,” the group’s oldest member said at the next meeting, cradling a baby in each arm, her own, Oreo Faith, and the abandoned Charlie Bear. “God doesn’t give you nothing you can’t handle.”

Everyone nodded with tough mouths; Donna hadn’t had a full night’s rest for months because little Jonah might or might not have been teething—one could never be sure. Maureen had given up her beloved cat for fear that it would sit on the baby’s face at night. Their dedication was astounding. If only Patty had not made the error of mistaking it for belief, she might have had, for the first time in her life, a chance of fitting in.

“Which reminds me,” said Gloria, breaking their silence, “it’s time to reach out of our comfort zone, ladies. Time for a field trip.”

Patty had heard of these rare trips. Gloria took the group out to restaurants, parks—the mall was the most popular destination, because it had a Toys ‘R’ Us—so that they could parade themselves in full motherhood mode. Patty had assumed that the purpose of the outings was to deceive, to continue their illusion outdoors. She thought about Gloria’s flyer, with the mother and child, smooth-skinned, gauzy, and wondered what it would be like to embody that.

“Go south,” said Gloria, sliding into the passenger seat of Patty’s car. Gregory was already in the back, strapped into his infant car seat. It had been a gift from Maureen, who noticed with concern that Patty was using a knapsack to transport Gregory to the meetings.

“I’ve upgraded to a newer model,” she had said to Patty, with the smirk of someone trying to smooth over an act of charity. They all must have assumed that Patty couldn’t afford such necessities, because the donations kept coming, every week—diapers, bottles, little toys handmade from socks.

Following Gloria’s directions brought them to a large, asymmetrical building, as structurally inviting as a children’s museum. The women exited their cars. They tightened the straps to their baby carriers, straightened hats on little heads, and adjusted the angle of their babies’ faces against their chests. Each woman had a particular way of positioning the face to look most lifelike. They made their adjustments with the deftness of women who know just how to part their hair.

Patty had followed the women through a heavy plastic curtain, which led to a dark corridor. You are Now Entering the Butterfly Conservatory, read a sign. There was a second curtain and then light.

The indoor space was like a greenhouse, moist and filled with fronds. Butterflies, some as big as six inches wide, floated eye level or higher, flapping and sinking. A stone path brought the line of women through the enclosure, past birdbaths filled with sliced fruit and sappy flowers. Lizards darted, and black quails skittered around their feet. Patty held onto Gregory and tried not to brush against anything.

The group had lingered afterwards, taking up the benches in the lobby, rummaging through diaper bags, shaking bottles of fake formula made from fabric softener. Sometimes, with the quiet suspicion of wild animals, they would let their eyes travel across the stream of visitors buying tickets. Patty stayed close but preferred to pace, rocking Gregory in her arms in front of a large, glass-covered bulletin board by the restrooms. It was cluttered with butterfly facts and calendars for kid-friendly events. She was just beginning to realize that they had not come to fool anyone. Walking through the enclosure with the babies may have been part one, but part two was more complicated. The women, in their loitering, were daring people to look, to judge, even to say something. Patty hoped that it would not come to this. She couldn’t bear to hear her own voice raised in defense.

 

The falling snow had lightened to a thin spray, mostly visible under the street lights, which were just turning on. A stray cat in Patty’s driveway shook its paws, searching for the shallowest route through the snow. Patty watched it from her kitchen window, where she had been sitting staring at her snow-covered car. In this kind of cold, the instinct to hole up, to hoard, was strong. What if she did not, in the end, have the nerve to do what she had planned? She would have to explain herself to Warren when he arrived.

“This isn’t really me,” she’d plead. “It’s just something I do.” And Warren might struggle, say something along the lines of “It’s okay; sometimes I wear socks to bed.”

The cat disappeared through an invisible hole in the neighbor’s hedge. Only two other tenants lived in Patty’s building, Mrs. Parnum, who spent her winters in Florida, and Ned, the man below, who had a revoked driver’s license and a bad hearing aid. The only reminders that Ned existed were the occasional roar of a football game on the television and the icy bicycle tracks that fanned out from the porch to the road, like the trajectories of ship voyages on a map.

 

The bicycle tracks had created little hills of slush that had refrozen, treacherously. Patty, balancing a heavy load in both hands, shuffled her way carefully around the side of the building. She held her breath to avoid an updraft of odor as the garbage bag of baby clothes whooshed into the plastic can, but it might have been too cold for that. And when, parting with the second load, she shut the door of her car, a sheet of snow slid off its window and crumbled at her feet. She could not bring herself to look inside.

 

He had arrived at Patty’s doorstep in a large cardboard box. When Patty uncovered him, she was shocked at how finely he had been painted, the thinnest brush strokes creating a web of capillaries about his eyelids, the rosy flush of life on his cheeks and the tip of his nose. When she tried to lift him, his head, weighted with glass beads, flopped backwards. In order to prevent this, he needed to be clutched in a way that brought Patty’s nose to his wispy crown, where she inhaled him—powdery, with a hint of maple and rubber—and felt that she could not let go.

She suspected that the name had been tossed around at the diner that morning and had clung to her like a burr, because it was already there, on the tip of her tongue, when they asked her.

“Gregory,” she had announced to the women sitting in Gloria’s living room, and they had all bobbed with approval.

Coming back into the apartment without Gregory felt like entering a room where all the furniture has just been rearranged, and you are faced with strange indents in the carpet and cold patches of wall. All your old problems looking at you from different angles. Patty decided to wait for Warren in the laundry room, where the dryer was rumbling, clicking with the small delinquency of a zipper. She found a spot on the floor and let her back rest against the humming door. Its pressure broke up the silence of the falling snow, the excruciating void of waiting. It had been a long time since she had been with a man. She couldn’t help but wonder, with curious apprehension, whether it was going to hurt.

In front of the big glass-covered bulletin board at the butterfly conservatory, Patty had found herself staring at a dead butterfly, pinned through the center. Above it there was a letter posted with the title, RIP BEAUTIFUL SOUL. The butterfly’s blue wings were torn and each piece had been pinned back into place making a papery archipelago.

“August 12, 1996,” read the notice, “this Ulysses butterfly was perched on a flower, when a child reached out to touch it. The child’s sudden movement startled the butterfly, and it panicked, dashing itself into a branch and breaking its wing. The butterfly died. Its death was most likely painful and slow.”

Patty had grown red, as if she herself had been the murderous child. DO NOT TOUCH THE BUTTERFLIES. There were little signs at every turn, accusing you of being just another part of the big, destructive masses. She had backed away with a reassuring bounce for Gregory and noticed Ramona moving toward her. The woman had one baby in her arms and another strapped to her chest in a padded cloth contraption with knots and buckles. She was sweating and dragging her heels.

“Would you mind taking Charlie Bear for just a minute while I catch my breath?” Ramona had asked Patty. Patty had obliged, shifting Gregory over into the crook of her elbow to make room. Charlie Bear had a port wine birthmark painted across his forehead; it seemed to leak partway down his nose. The gloss around his lips had been applied thickly, to resemble spit bubbles. And the back of his head was bald, as if he’d rubbed out all his hair on his crib sheet. Tabitha had commissioned him to be like this. Many of the women had similarly “improved” babies—some with flat heads, others with a condition called baby acne—as if ugliness were a measure of authenticity.

Ramona patted her flushed cheeks with the back of her hand.

“Thanks,” she said, and then: “I’m just glad to be out of there. Wings, little sticky feet—” She made a face. “Some things I will never understand.”

 

Warren stood in the dark stairwell, holding a bunch of grocery store carnations. He looked much larger now that there was no counter to separate them. Patty took the flowers and moved back, giving him space to enter, pull off his boots, and move his dinosaur eyes over her dark kitchen. She knew there was no vase for the flowers, but she opened the cupboards anyway, to keep moving, to avoid the flatness of her own “thank you.” There was a forgotten baby bottle on the top shelf.

She ushered Warren into the living room and made a small fuss about turning lights on. Suddenly the room was too bright, but she felt that she could not turn them down again, as if the action might be taken to mean something that she did not intend. She poured them each a glass of wine, and Warren took his in both hands, like a bear, before setting it down on the coffee table.

“Watch out for this guy,” the bald heads at the counter had said, almost shouting, as if they were angry at the prospect of their waitress becoming an object of desire. “He’s a freak,” they’d said. “One of those sex-u-al dee-vee-ants.” Warren would hush them and apologize, always thick-skinned and humble. Patty hadn’t paid much attention to the banter. She always imagined herself like a table leg or the stem of a glass, functional, slight. It made their comments seem not only inappropriate, but completely misguided, like wearing glasses on the back of your head. Warren said little but would sometimes compliment her fingers, how the knuckles were smooth and without cracks.

“Your knuckles lie,” he once told her. “About your age. About your life.”

That was all very flattering to hear from behind the counter but sitting next to him on the couch in her own, very brightly lit living room, Patty had no idea what good her lying hands could possibly do or what had really been so funny to those men at the counter.

“I’m not much of a wine drinker,” Warren said, sniffing his glass. He gulped half of it, bulging his cheeks then sucking them in and then looked at Patty, a long, questioning stare. She noticed that one of his eyes was a little bit cloudy. The wine made it possible for her to look at him as if he were a painting, covered in little hills, dots of shine and shadow, almost interesting. But then his face shifted, the paint slid into a frown, and he was suddenly much closer. His big palms jumped to life, touching her, as if there were a glitch in his wiring. Patty could smell garlic on his breath, and a few strands of her hair were caught painfully on the wristband of his watch. She closed her eyes and waited for them to snap free of her scalp, but they did not. Warren’s breath slowed.

“What—”

When Patty opened her eyes, Warren was holding one of Gregory’s diapers in front of his face, so closely that his eyes were nearly crossed. He must have pulled it out of the couch cushions, although why he had been groping around back there, Patty did not know. He slumped back. The hairs broke. The pain was small.

“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know that you had—”

“No—” Patty had prepared the lie that morning, just in case. “My niece was here. She uses them for pretend play.” She shrugged. She hoped that her voice didn’t sound too high-pitched.

Warren shook his head.

“Kids,” he said. “I went to get my son from his mother’s last week.” Here he sniffed his wine again and placed his glass down on the side table, heavily, as if the surface were unpredictably near.

“The woman is always buying him these stuffed animals—teddy bears, rabbits, you name it. Well, I go up to his room to tell him to get his things and he’s put stickers over the eyes of every one of them. They are all sitting there, on his bed, like dead cartoon characters.”

He laughed and landed on her with his foggy eye.

 

As the women were preparing to leave the butterfly conservatory, they were approached by a man in a Hawaiian shirt, trailing a young girl with downcast eyes.

“Hello?” He seemed to be addressing Ramona but held his arms open, perhaps to demonstrate that they were all accountable. The women turned—ready, Patty thought.

“Look,” the man started again. “I don’t have a problem with—” he waved his palms, “any of this. Just, could someone please explain to my daughter that…” He dropped his hands, to emphasize his point. “She thinks you are carrying around dead babies.”

Patty watched Gloria step out from the group. In her heels, she was taller than the man and took the opportunity to peer down her nose. Patty realized that she was performing for them—for Patty—and she felt a guilty affection for the strange woman.

“Sir,” Gloria said. “Your daughter may believe what she wants to believe.”

 

It was soon after the visit to the conservatory that they received the letter from Ramona.

“I can no longer take part in your cause,” Gloria read Ramona’s words aloud to the seven remaining women. “As for my babies, their suffering is over. I have sent them back to God.”

The women gasped, stuttering questions that they hoped someone else would finish. Gloria pinched her lips and folded Ramona’s letter, creasing it with all the intent in the world.

“Horrible,” she said.

 

Patty was glad that she could just let it happen, that Warren didn’t seem to require her to speak or even receive his glance. No lingering false notes, no gawking attempts at seduction, just a hand on the small of her back and the slightest pressure as he followed her to the bedroom.

When she paused to close the blinds, she noticed that the cat had left another line of tracks across the driveway. She tried not to linger, but she couldn’t help herself: the snow-covered hood, the clusters of white on the windows—all but the one to the back door, a cold black plane.

For one terrible moment, Patty was afraid she might turn and find Gregory still lying there, sprawled on the bed, with his little fists stretched over his head. She had once been told about a woman who had driven over a paper bag, assuming that it was empty, and had killed a litter of kittens hiding inside. It was the kind of story that haunted Patty, causing her to become fearful even of boxes, piles of leaves—any opacity—near the road. In the same superstitious way, she had always felt that Gregory could be harmed.

But Gregory was not there. Warren pressed his weight against her, pushing her onto the bed. The room was cold, and Patty wished that they could at least pull back the covers, but there was not time. The pain was quick, like the breaking of her hair. She let out a small sound of surprise, and Warren pushed deeper, excited by the reaction. Patty thought about what Warren had said, about his son and the stuffed animals. He must have expected her to think that it was strange, something they could share from the outside, looking in. Then, suddenly, she was thinking only about Gregory, frozen in his car seat, with his ill-fitting mittens.

Just a doll, she thought. A doll.

“Stop,” came a little voice. “Please stop.” It was her own, but she could not seem to hold it back, or to add strength to it. Her face was warm and damp, and before she could subdue it, a sob shook her. Warren stiffened. He leapt up off the bed and stood panting in the doorway, naked and soft.

“Oh, shit,” he said, a leg already in his pants. “Oh shit, I—” He fumbled with the zipper. Patty didn’t understand why he was suddenly so far away. She covered her body with a pillow.

“Please don’t go.”

Warren froze. His hands seemed to be demonstrating some thinness to the air, then his shoulders slumped, relieved, annoyed. He sat on the bed and pulled on his socks, with his back to her.

“Jesus, I thought you were going to call the cops,” he said. Patty still didn’t understand. She clutched the pillow, feeling cold and far off.

“Jesus,” Warren said again, shaking his head.

“Please,” was all Patty could say, just to keep him in the room.

 

Someone was screaming for help.

Patty opened her eyes. There was gray light behind the blinds; yesterday’s clothes were piled cold on the floor. Outside, a woman was shouting for anyone to please come, call 911.

In a rush of remorse, Patty remembered that Warren had spent the night on the couch, having submitted to her pleas for him to stay. He had refused to share her bed.

They met at the kitchen window, looking out to where people were gathered in Patty’s driveway. There was an old woman among them, clutching a small dog to her breast. The woman’s face looked like something Patty had never seen, like a ghastly painting.

A man wearing a red hunting cap walked toward the crowd from across the road, carrying something in his hand, determined. There was a loud knock on Patty’s door.

“Don’t—” She pulled at Warren’s sleeve. The knock came again, overlapped by an urgent, muffled voice. Patty turned back to the window just in time to see the man in the hunting cap break the passenger side window of her car with a hammer. The window collapsed in bits of ice and glass, which the man brushed away so that he could reach in and pull up the lock on the back door.

It would be in the paper. Patty wouldn’t have to explain anything to Gloria. There would be a brief interview with the woman who had been holding the dog, saying that the dog pulled away from her to chase after a stray cat, that the cat had darted under a car. That she had bent down to pick up the leash and, coming up, had seen something through the back window.

“I’ve never been so frightened,” she would say. It was a line that Patty would find herself going back to, again and again, as if there were something exotic about the notion.

Below, someone emerged from the back seat of the car, holding a bundle.

“Oh Jesus—” said Warren from behind her. “Oh Jesus, it’s a kid.” Patty heard him rushing to put on his boots and the clunking of his feet descending the stairs. She didn’t take her eyes from the faces below, the beautiful, terrible faces gathered so close to her home. She watched just up to the moment where an onlooker fell to her knees in the snow, covering her mouth with her mittens, to the moment where someone, with trembling hands, pulled off the little knitted cap. Then she turned away.

She wouldn’t see the expressions of stunned silence, the line of police cars, flashing blue against the white snow banks, as if there were still an emergency. Or the expressions of outrage that followed real fear.

She wouldn’t see Warren’s face, turned up toward the window, like a dog that has been cast out for the last time.

Genevieve Plunkett

Genevieve Plunkett is a writer from Vermont and a graduate of Bennington College. Her fiction has appeared in New England Review.

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