Short Story • Elisha Stam
A MINUTE TO EVEN THINK
BY ELISHA STAM
Dooley the dog noses the door open from a crack when Magda is on the toilet and sits right in front of her so she has no choice but to pet him.
Dooley wants to ask her important questions that can’t wait till she gets out of the bathroom. His brown concerned eyes look at her and wonder like she does why she never fully closes the door, or what is the direction of her life and why is she only half alive until she has a coffee. Here are my plans for you,God had said to Magda one day last fall. Well, God didn’t really say that, but a surprise pregnancy is a message of sorts. She is so huge that her bones groan under her weight as she moves around. Magda digs sleep out of the corner of her eyes and fumbles in the half dark for something to wear. Downstairs she makes a half a dozen ham sandwiches like an assembly line sandwich maker, hot black coffee in her mouth. The stupid dog is always under foot until he’s fed. “Poor neglected Dooley,” Magda says to him sarcastically because she is hungry too. There are a million other things she’s got to do and not even a minute to even think, to breathe for that matter. The kids are fighting upstairs because they are supposed to be up there getting dressed. They are not capable of doing that without fighting. Jake and James come running and shoving each other, so they seem likely to fall down the stairs. Her boys are eighteen months apart but they could be twins to look at them. Each so big in their person-ness and yet such small beings still. They aren’t dressed at all, the elastics on their y-fronts are droopy because they are over washed and over worn. The fabric lies across the narrow bird-bones of their hips in such a boyish way, soft as powder, poignant. Julie comes down the stairs by jumping down each stair so slowly. She isn’t dressed either, just in socks and underwear. Her brown hair matted up in a dread in the back. “Back upstairs, until you’re all the way dressed,” Magda yells. It’s the time for yelling and sternness or the kids will miss the bus. There is so much to do just to get out the door, food in bellies, food in backpacks, shoes on feet, arms in coat sleeves. But they do get out the door.
Later, coming back from errands in town, the van wumps and she rams down hard on the brakes. She shifts to park on the side of the road and the hazard lights click and click. Magda already knows what she’ll see there on the road before she even squats down beside Dooley’s body. He lies so unnaturally on the asphalt. “Stupid dog! What were you thinking? What were you doing on the road?” She asks him all this even though he is dead, harsh words come out so gentle that Magda chokes up. Her breath catches. Why didn’t she tie him up before she left? Why was there so little blood? When things get hit there should be so much blood. She hasn’t held him like this since he was a puppy. Why hasn’t she held him more? Magda puts his little body down in the trunk beside the bags of library books. She wipes her face on her coat because she hears the bus coming and tells herself all is well. It’s going to be fine. Dooley (when he was alive) would hear the bus coming down the road and run over to greet the kids, so they notice right away that he’s not around. “I haven’t seen Dooley in a bit,” Magda lies through her teeth. The worried boys click on their bike helmets and go off down the road yelling into the fields and along the ditches for a dog that can’t hear them anymore. Julie wants a snack and it requires Magda to have composure. She cuts up cheese but forgets the crackers. Magda herself can’t eat. Instead she paces the kitchen floor, wringing her hands while Julie stares at her with wide concerned eyes. Try not to be over dramatic because Dooley was just a dog, and it was just an accident. Just a little disgusting horror of an accident that Dooley is dead, where an hour ago he’d been so full of life. His bones had crushed so easily, his spine was so vulnerable it snapped right in half. She runs to the toilet to vomit, but does so quietly so as not to alarm Julie. Brad does not lie to the kids. When Jakey was three, he asked his dad if Santa was really real and Brad said “No,” without emotion, without hesitation. Magda, on the other hand, is not exactly honest. She likes soft and easy answers that make people feel alright, make herself feel alright and that’s the truth. With her elbows on the toilet seat, trying not to look at the dust bunnies and squalor on the floor, she decides not to tell the kids that she killed Dooley. She does not want the children to see that life is short and random and that greatly loved things like Dooley can amount to nothing but bits stuck on the bumper of the family vehicle. Magda wants to tell Brad when he gets in from work. The words Magda tries to say get tangled together into something about being overwhelmed with life in general and having an unclean washroom. He is setting down his lunch bag and exhaling. Brad looks like a boy with flattened hair from the ball cap he wears all day, his movements tired. “I’ll take out the garbage,” he says, smiling weakly. Mother is on the phone later that night. Magda can picture her standing in front of the sink looking out the window, bound by the cord radius. “I know things have been hard lately,” Mother says. “You didn’t want another kid, but it’ll be alright. Soon you won’t be able to imagine life without the new baby.” When Magda checks Facebook she sees that Mother has posted a Bible verse on her wall, a verse about giving thanks in all circumstances because everything that was happening to her was God’s will. The words were written in golden script across a photo of a glistening lake. It already had thirty-two likes. Only 1 in every 1000 cases. That was the failure rate for vasectomies. When Magda told Brad nine months ago he was surprised too. “But with odds that low, it must be God’s will.” It’d been God’s will the first time she got pregnant too. Who cares if Magda was only sixteen at the time. When Magda went into labour, the midwife said to stay at home for as long as possible, where she’d be more comfortable. She went into the shower and pointed the hot water on her tight and contracting belly and gulped in big breaths because it felt possible to die inside of the blind, deaf, white pain that was labour. Curtain rings scraped across the rod and there was Brad looking wide-eyed at her, all afraid. “Oh shit. Oh shit! You need to go to the hospital.” She had her palms up flat against the cool of the tiles and when she looked down there was blood in the water at her feet. “Oh shit. Oh shit,” Brad was still saying, but everything was fine because there was no way to stop the baby from coming. And then Brad was holding this wriggling, slimy thing that was Jake, his hands covered in birth and blood. Brad wrapped Jake up in a dirty towel from the rack and there was such a relief from the pain that she laughed. Everyone must laugh after a baby is born, she thought because of the impossibility of it all. How can a new person just enter into the room so suddenly? Brad was crying, his eyes full of something beyond words and Magda understood in that moment, that the world had a wonder to it that she had only guessed at before hand. The wonder had something to do with God being in charge. God had taken the sin of premarital sex, and turned it into a family and little Jakey and that was a wonder! Magda still believes this, or at least she thinks so, but it’s hard to be aware of it all the time. It’s hard to believe it has bearing.
Magda has a midwife appointment the next day. The midwife stresses each word so earnestly while she goes over the signs of labour with her. “You need to get to the hospital in time. We don’t want this baby born on the side of the road,” she points her index finger at Magda as if she might dare to disobey. The drive to the hospital is a full thirty minutes, but when she was in labour with Julie, Brad did it in seventeen, taking all the corners too fast. Magda focussed on not giving birth in the truck, the rubber matt slipping underfoot as she strained against the floor. Her babies always come too fast. The midwife leaves the room. Magda knows this means the appointment is over but she wants to stay. There are couches here and soft voices and quiet orange lighting and women who know just what to do. On the midwife’s desk there is a plastic model of Pelvis with uterus in the ninth month of pregnancy. She picks it up and it comes apart. The model baby is born peacefully in her palms, the eyes just slits drawn on so it is asleep. When she tries to puzzle it back together the umbilical cord and the placenta keep popping back out of the pelvis. Eventually she has to lie it down and apart where she found it. In the parking lot she is crying and it must be the hormones. Or lack of sleep? She never has Kleenex when she needs them, now her sleeves are damp with her own snot. And oh how uncomfortable she is these days from the baby! She must get a grip, stop all her crying and grow up because this is what life is. Say a little prayer and try to hold onto the bigger picture. They need some groceries, she’s got to get home for supper prep, put clothes on the line, put another load into the washing machine, pay the gas bill, call Mother, pick up the kids from the bus stop, make a snack, stop the fights, cook supper, get through the night. In the grocery store, mentally and spiritually sound people fill up their carts and sail around the wide fluorescent aisles with sparks of life in their eyes. They seem full of purpose, their remembered cloth bags in front of them. Do they see her reeling around, stunned and underslept, kept up by all the lies she’s told her children? Magda stares too long at the mixed greens in cellophane and researches the fibre content in cereal. She handles vaguely penile cuts of pork loin and ponders thickness and length. Here is another spot she can add to the list of places she’s cried in public. “No, no I don’t need a tissue,” she reassures the poor cashier. He’s just this young thing, maybe sixteen or eighteen or twenty. He smiles with concern and reaches over the rubber conveyor belt on which the groceries travel and touches her shoulder. “Are you ok? Are you having a baby right now? Should I call an ambulance?” For a second she has no clue what the cashier is talking about but then touches her belly and remembers. She laughs even, because how could she have forgotten that inside her was a little person. “Oh no. I’m fine,” she wipes her nose on the inside of her shirt. She feels better after the cry without knowing why, like everything will be fine.
When she first met Brad, she liked everything about him. The way he kept his hands in his pockets like they were sewn there. He was so passionate for the Lord that she could see it when he prayed, his eyes shut up tight like he couldn’t contain the emotion behind each plea and each prayer. His conviction was solid and he had a goodness to him that was smooth like milk and honey and still somehow erotic. At church youth group they talked all about slippery slopes and chastity and waiting for marriage, but when they first kissed, Magda wasn’t thinking about those things. Instead she was thinking of her stomach churning and pushing up against her chest, like indigestion and delight simultaneously. Not that first month, or the second but soon enough after, they drove to Port Hope so that no one would recognize them. She peed into a bottle and the dipstick said yes, but they said to call in the next day just to be sure. Magda sat on the paper covered bed feeling scared but optimistic, in the beige and tan rooms of the public health clinic. She checked off the box that said Mrs because in the eyes of the Lord she already was. “Everything will be fine. We’ll just do what we have to do,” Brad said as she hopped back up into the truck. Brad started his plumbing apprenticeship with his dad and they put his parents on the mortgage and things were fine. Magda’s babies kept coming until she made a doctor’s appointment for Brad’s vasectomy. She was always tired. She used to fall asleep watching TV. They used to have sex on the livingroom floor because there was always one of the kids in their bed. Always one with a cough, or lice, or throwing up or just trouble settling. But oh how she loves baby necks, could spend a week with her nose pressed into the soft skin of a neck crease, breathing in the air of milk and warmth and love. Do three kids have a volume control? Loud and asleep were the only two. Once at the grocery store she tried to line up at the cash but the three of them were darting around, fighting. She could barely breathe because they were so loud. A lady in front of her turned and said the days were long but the years were short and it sounded true. Cut meat into small strips so they don’t choke. Keep them occupied for thirty seven minutes in the doctor’s waiting room. Remember to vaccinate according to schedule. Read quiet books on the couch when it’s raining. Sleep in a tent on the cold ground for a week and swim even if the water is freezing. Ride bikes down hills when the sun is golden and setting. Force fighting arms under car seat straps. Scratch dried snot from a clean shirt. Step on LEGOs. That’s how eight years go by, ten. She blinked and she was older and sadder. Magda blinked and then she had lost track of something important but hard to name. She didn’t even know it was gone until it left. She shouldn’t be surprised because honestly she loses everything, matching socks, important receipts, recipes online, her children’s baby teeth, her faith.
Her family has created a mythology around Dooley. “I can hear him mom,” Julie says when they are in the kitchen and doing the dishes. The coyotes in the back field are calling out to each other in the dark. Julie believes, without a shadow of a doubt that Dooley has left the family to be the leader of the coyote pack that lives in the woods behind the house. It would be a nice thought if he was actually missing. Magda keeps picturing how she put Dooley’s body into the ground and how she took care to lie him just so, his neck lined up in a natural way before she covered him with dirt. Magda feels sick when she over thinks all of this. She should stop overthinking all of this.
That night she tries to sleep but she is busy thinking. She wonders if this baby was conceived the night she and Brad shared that bottle of wine and she came twice. It was the first time that had happened, maybe it was the way he was holding her tight and right at the hips or something, Magda didn’t know. But it had been a surprise to Brad and her too! A wonder even, that they’d been bumping and slipping at each other since they were kids and after all those years it could come out feeling like that. She’d been amazed. Not by the sex, but by the surprise of it. It’s not like that night was ordained or something, just that it happened. That next day, she sends the kids on the bus and Magda knows the baby is coming soon and spends the day tidying up and pacing the floor through the small pains. Dooley still noses sadly in her thoughts. When the kids come off the bus, she takes them round the back of the shed because there are things her children have to know. “He’s dead,” she says and she feels sad but knows it will be ok. Her kids say a favorite memory about the dog while they stand at his grave. “Remember how he used to bark and bite our ankles when we ran to the trampoline?” “He loved being sprayed full force by the hose,” “He liked to lick our faces.” They have stopped crying by the time they reach the OLCO, take ages to pick out ice cream bars from the freezer. “I know it feels awful. But soon it won’t feel as awful,” Magda tells them.
Mother has come because she is going to stay the night. Brad is home early and is scarfing down a ham sandwich at the counter. Magda says goodnight and goodbye to the kids because the pain is getting bad and she has got to go. Magda remembers to breathe through any sudden panic she feels about life being inane and heartbreaking. The kids lean against her and she thinks of the weight of the bodies of the children and then of Brad’s hand on her shoulder. “Ok, we’re ready,” he says. Between the contractions, she feels the baby inside rolling around and she remembers to breathe.
Elisha Stam lives in Hamilton, ON with her husband and two kids. She has had non-fiction published in Parents Canada, urbanicity, Hammer In the News and HA&L RAVE. Elisha received a Short Works Prize for writing at the 2015 Awards Ceremony. She can be followed on Twitter @elisha_stam.