The world raced by in the opposite direction, a dazzling blur of sun-kissed blues and greens and browns. The sound was an ever-crashing wave. The driver’s eyes darted back and forth between the road and the rearview mirror. “I’m curious,” he said, his voice raised against the wind. “You got kids?”
The passenger glanced over his shoulder at the staccato flash of blue light. “I’m sorry?”
“Kids. Do you have any?” The driver rolled his head around his shoulders. “Come on, spill it—schmooze me a little.”
“One,” the passenger confessed. He cleared his throat to summon more volume. “A son.”
The driver’s teeth shot sparks in the sunshine. “A son, that’s good,” he said. “Good for you. You’re blessed. How old?”
“He’ll be thirty-one next month.” The passenger took a long look at the man behind the wheel when he was struck by the strangest thought. Had the driver somehow shrunk over the last hour? Perhaps it was merely a slouch in his posture, but the driver’s stature now appeared notably diminished. The wheel looked large in his hands. The shoulder seams on his button down had slipped down his arms, and there was slight fraying along the collar points. The cuffs of his slacks pooled in folds around his ankles. The passenger pushed away these thoughts and tapped a hand on the dash. “What say we pull over up here,” he suggested, pointing ahead to an opening in the trees where a squat stonewall was set in from the road. “I’ll straighten this out.”
“Don’t tell me—” The driver held up a hand. “He’s in the family business.”
Suddenly the passenger’s mouth felt dry, his tongue like low-grit sandpaper against his teeth. “No,” he said, trying to manage a smile worthy of trust. “He’s a teacher, actually. Earns an honest living.”
The pursuing cruiser’s siren sounded.
“Get outta here,” the driver said. “Really?” He gave the engine more gas. “What’s he teach?”
The passenger eyed the speedometer. Cool patches of sweat were blooming on his lower back beneath his belt. He thought of his wife. By now she’d be warmed up and working on her kick serve. After a long pause he heard his voice say, “Science.” The word was muffled by the rush of wind, but he’d said it—even repeated it for good measure. “My son teaches science.”
“Now, that’s too bad.” The driver snapped his head back and forth several times. “That’s a shame,” he said. “A goddamned shame.”
Marvin Baird was staring through narrowed lashes, beyond the showroom floor and through the glass front wall. One one thousand. Something was moving out there. Two one thousand. He willed a figure to appear, to reveal its particulars. Three one thou—Marvin spotted a mark.
A woman’s voice said, “Hartford Jaguar, Hannah speaking.”
Outside, the mark was now approaching the dealership doors. Marvin saw that he was tall and well proportioned. The face was indiscernible but the hair was inexorable—unnaturally black and slicked back. It reminded Marvin of a wet swim cap. When the mark took hold of the door handle, sunlight ricocheted off his wrist. The glass door swung open, much too quickly, as if a new upper-body regimen had—in that instant—decided to pay dividends. The mark’s eyes went wide. A grin disclosed dozens of straight white teeth.
Marvin came around his desk, combing his salt and pepper hair into place. He smiled at the pretty young receptionist behind her counter, partially obscured by a silk ficus potted in real soil. Hannah smiled back, directed the call to Parts & Service, and hung up.
Marvin tapped his comb on her counter. “Order us sushi.”
Hannah frowned. “I brought a salad.”
Marvin held up a hand. “My treat,” he said. Then he nodded at the mark in the wet swim cap and lowered his voice. “Just let me scare off the tourist.”
Hannah’s huge hazel eyes tumbled.
It was the first Friday in June and the midday sun was practically humming through the glass showroom. As Marvin crossed the polished stone floor, Chopin meandered down from speakers concealed in the ceiling.
Marvin extended a hand. “Good afternoon,” he said. “Welcome to Hartford Jaguar.”
The mark, dressed in walnut wing tips, gray suit pants, and a pale blue button-down, stood with his hands in his pockets. He was puzzled by the sound of Marvin’s voice. “You’re kidding me,” he said.
Marvin’s hand hung limp in space.
“Jesus,” the mark said. He shook a watch from his left sleeve. “Would you look at that! Guess the morning got away from me.”
Marvin nodded. “They have a way of doing that.” His eyes lingered on the timepiece. It was a Rolex Datejust with a champagne dial. A real classic. The warmth of the gold told Marvin it was no doubt older than the man wearing it. He mused over the million-dollar question: family heirloom, or the discerning acquisition of a serious collector?
The mark shook Marvin’s hand firmly, startling him. “You know the expression,” he said. “Time flies and whatnot.”
“And whatnot,” Marvin agreed. “Absolutely.” In his mind he’d already pushed his chip stack to the table’s center. All in on “family heirloom.” He began to picture the mark with a Kodak Instamatic slung around his neck and a folded map jutting from his breast pocket. In a tone devoid of optimism, Marvin forced himself to ask: “So, what brings you in today?”
“The long and the short of it?” The mark thumbed his chest. “I’m rich, and I just so happen to be in the market for a new set of wheels.”
Marvin’s brain hiccupped. He tilted his head from side to side, reshuffling his thoughts. “Right,” he said, composing himself. “Yes. Yes, of course. Marvin—Marvin Baird. It’s a pleasure, Rich.”
Rich nodded. “Likewise, Marvin,” he said.
By force of habit Marvin slipped his hands behind his back and went to work. “Get me up to speed, Rich,” he said. “What’s parked outside?”
Rich hesitated, as if the question were a riddle, some kind of trick.
Marvin waited. Then he nodded at the showroom doors. “What got you here?”
Rich folded his arms. “Right now? I’m an Audi guy.”
“An Audi guy.” Marvin’s eyes fluttered at the phrase, as if it were chopped onion. “An Audi guy toying with an upgrade,” he said. “Marvelous.”
Rich shrugged, resolute. “I figure I’m due.”
To this point Marvin had every intention of speeding Rich along—No flash photography, please—but there was something intriguing about the man’s casual demeanor, his seemingly unapologetic artlessness. Marvin wondered if Rich might surprise him. “Well, in that case,” he said, bowing slightly. “Welcome to the candy store.”
They were now consciously trying not to keep track. Even though, at first, it had been part of the excitement: counting the days. But, month after month, when the Barns of New England calendar on the pantry door hit the mid-twenties, Sharon would cross off another day, anxious and expectant, and Rich would pray this time they’d gotten it right. This time it would work. Nature had begun its course.
But month after month, it hadn’t.
And the ovulation kits weren’t cheap. Neither were the prenatal vitamins and the herbal supplements. Over time it all quietly added up to a sizeable sum.
After the first year, there was a long heartfelt talk over dinner and drinks at Apricots. They were still young. There was still time. They just needed to relax—no more kits, no more counting, no more scheduling their intimacy. But talk was all it was. Wishful thinking by candlelight. Privately, they both still spent the end of every cycle holding their collective breath each time Sharon used the bathroom. Of course, without fail, on the twenty-eighth, or the twenty-ninth, or—when the universe felt particularly vindictive—on the thirty-third day, she’d wipe pink.
Once, on day thirty-nine, an over-the-counter pregnancy test had promptly dispelled all gathering hope.
All they could do was flip to another rustic barn in another quiet town—some far-off leafy hamlet where men and women made babies with little thought as to why or when or how——and begin again.
Rich began routinely checking the wastebaskets in both bathrooms, as well as the one under the kitchen sink. Bright pastel paper wrappers—pink, purple, and yellow (color-coded to differentiate levels of protection)—these were what he was after. Each morning he returned home from work and didn’t find one of these little wrappers, it was a blessing. It meant another day where hope and wonder were still allowed. What’s more, it meant another day’s reprieve from the grief. After all it was the grief, he was convinced, that was slowly culling days off the backend of his life. Threatening to drive a wedge the size of Long Island through the middle of his marriage.
It was like a little death each month.
And although he was loath to admit it, Rich was growing callous to the mourning, weary of the consoling. How many ways could he say the same thing over and over and over? There were only so many bright-sides and half-full glasses. By the middle of their second year of trying, Rich felt as if a subtle darkness had begun to infest every corner of their lives. Each disappointment hit Sharon harder than the last. Yet, strangely, Rich found himself a little less devastated each time—developing immunity. He wondered if his wife could sense it, with her uncanny ability to feel. An ever-open wound, Sharon was becoming.
After two full years of trying and failing on their own, Rich walked in from his overnight at the West Hartford Water & Sewer to find Sharon lingering in the kitchen. She was dressed for work, keys in hand. It was a cold, damp Tuesday morning in late April.
“I think we ought to see someone,” she said, catching tears with her forefingers before they could ruin her make-up. “Something’s not right.”
As far as prospects go, Rich showed flashes of promise, but Marvin dealt in high-end automobiles for a living. As Hartford Jaguar’s most decorated associate, and the 2007 recipient of the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association’s Annual Sales Award, he had a knack for eyeing the legitimate buyer amid the hordes of looky-loos and tire-kickers. He was adroit at detecting the subtle differences between those who retail the finer things in life, and those who consume them. The illusion of prosperity by proximity was Marvin’s milieu. After all, while his charm and tenacity earned him a respectable living, neither was likely to elevate him into the stratosphere of the Pembroke elite. And this quiet fact—to Marvin—was a bona fide tragedy. Around the dealership it was a foregone conclusion that Marvin would be made manager once Felix Chase—now showing the tread-wear of seventy-two trips around the sun—finally hung up his pinstripes. But the past few years had been especially lean. And Marvin knew that year-end bonuses and eventual promotions were a lot like commissions: relative. Fact was people weren’t buying luxury cars like they used to. A decade of war, of corporate bailouts, of subprime mortgages—all of it—had done a number on the country’s bottom line. Last summer, Marvin could only look on while his son and daughter-in-law struggled to secure a loan for their first home. It was an overwhelming feeling of helplessness, this being reduced to a spectator. There he was, an established man in the final laps of middle age, with nothing to offer but advice. The money he’d intended to gift the newlyweds for a down payment had been in stock. And then one day, it wasn’t. The recession had forced Marvin and Linda to scale back, too. Fewer shows at the Bushnell, fewer meals at Carbone’s and Max Downtown, fewer long weekends in Maine. Pembroke Swim and Tennis Club—the social hub where Linda competed in doubles, where Marvin religiously swam his morning laps, where their son had learned to tread water—was the next expenditure on the chopping block. A member nearly his entire adult life, Marvin was now consumed with managing the club’s steep annual fee, let alone the monthly dues. He knew his physical health and mental wellbeing depended upon his membership. He needed his daily swim to keep his joints limber and his mind clear. Above all, the Bairds needed Pembroke for the people there—the clientele. If Marvin believed one thing with certainty, it was that folks who swam at the Y didn’t buy Jaguars.
Marvin scrutinized Rich as he perused the showroom, pulled in all directions by glossy new automobiles posed at odd angles, the sculptures in a modern art exhibit. Hoods like hungry mouths were propped open to reveal raw horsepower. The dealership’s centerpiece, a black two-door convertible, had its frontend elevated on ramps to simulate its grace while ascending mountainous terrain. Rich took his time admiring it. He stepped closer. Close enough to indulge in those new-car smells oozing through the open roof. Twin-stitched leather. Burnished walnut. The tires still had rubber stubble on them. This car was so pristine it had to have been assembled right here, by white-gloved hands, in the middle of the showroom floor.
“Right now,” said Marvin, joining Rich by the black convertible, “you’re surrounded by the finest automobiles on the road.” Again, he slipped his hands behind his back. “But this one here,” he added. “This one’s queen of the jungle.”
The car, reared up on its hindquarters, appeared ready to pounce.
“So, talk to me,” said Marvin. “Do you have a model in mind?”
“Not really,” Rich said. “What I mean is, at this point I’m not married to one.”
Marvin brushed a speck of lint from the shoulder of his suit jacket. “Is it fair to say you’re familiar with our line?”
“Not intimately,” Rich confessed. “But I have you for that, right?”
“Oh, sure. Absolutely.” Marvin eyed the clock behind Hannah’s counter, devouring fresh tuna maki in his mind. As reluctant as he was to admit it, Rich was becoming less intriguing by the moment. “Right. Well, first, what can you see yourself in?” Marvin folded his arms. “Coupe? Sedan? Convertible?”
Rich grinned. “My wife thinks it’s nuts to buy a drop top in New England.”
Marvin let out a half-hearted sigh. “Wives,” he mused. “Such willing bastions of sage advice.”
Out front, a car pulled in and idled briefly, before using the lot to turn around. As it sped off, Marvin’s eyes followed it out of view. A momentary welling in his chest collapsed down into his belly.
“All the same,” Rich said. “I think I deserve one.”
Reflexively, Marvin zeroed in on Rich’s ring finger. Empty. Jesus. Even rookie associates knew soon-to-be-ex-husbands were notorious for bucket listing before a judge could put their accounts on ice. Marvin renewed his focus. “If you’re after the total luxury convertible experience,” he said, “look no further.”
Rich regarded the convertible with a hunger unquantifiable.
Marvin bared his teeth.
“Allow me to introduce you: This is the XKR Super-Charged V8. She’s got five-hundred-and-ten ponies tucked under her skirt—we’re talking zero-to-sixty in four seconds. And this beauty’s totally decked out—Keyless entry. 20-inch wheels. Thermal controlled seats. Satellite navigation. A 14-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio system. She’s dressed in our Ultimate Black Metallic finish with Caramel Softgrain Leather interior. What else can I say? She’s got it all—Bells. Whistles. Extra whipped cream and a cherry on top.”
Rich let out a quiet laugh. His eyes remained fixed upon the car. “How much?”
“They start at a shade over one.” Marvin’s tone was even. He could have been offering the time. “For her, you’re at one and a quarter. Out the door.” He smiled, scrutinizing Rich’s face for even the slightest reaction. The largo movement of Vivaldi’s “Winter” drifted down from the dealership’s hidden sound system. The strings seemed to lend weight to the moment. If Marvin could move this model, Pembroke was practically paid for.
Rich made quite a show of his contemplation. He was all bottom lip, nodding to himself. Lines emerged from his brow. Finally, he said, “Can I take her for a spin?”
“Absolutely!” Marvin slapped him on the back. “I’ll have one brought around.”
“No, no, no.” Rich shook his head. “This one. This one right here.”
Marvin hesitated. “Rich,” he said. “This is our floor model.”
“It’s not for sale?”
“No. Well, yes.” Marvin gave the question some thought. Then he said, “Hold on. Let me see what I can do.”
At this Rich grinned. “Work your magic, Marvin.”
When the door opened, motion-detecting fluorescents snapped on. The private bathroom was a tight gray tiled box with a small sink and tank-less toilet. A used seat cover dangled over the rim down into the bowl.
“Sorry,” said the nurse, stepping past Rich. With the reluctance of one operating outside the normal parameters of one’s job description, she hastily flushed the toilet, dangling seat cover and all.
Rich inspected the small clear plastic cup in his hand. He checked to see if the bright orange lid was screwed on tight. It was something to do.
“Make sure the name and date of birth on the label are correct,” the nurse told him.
For some reason, the surname Mayhew always appeared foreign when printed on the side of what Rich had come to call a jizz cup.
“Looks good,” he said.
The nurse spun to face him but her eyes avoided his. She pointed to a small stainless steel door in the wall marked Specimen Collection. “Leave the sample in there when you’re finished,” she said. “On your way out, just let someone know at the nurse’s station. We’ll call with results in two to three days.”
“Sure thing,” said Rich. He knew the routine. Across Connecticut, he’d followed other nurses into other small rooms to sit for the same test.
This particular nurse smelled of earthy perfume and hand sanitizer. She wore diamond stud earrings and make-up to accent high cheekbones and Mediterranean eyes. Rich put her in her mid-forties. And even beyond her physical appearance, he found her remarkably attractive. She possessed an undeniable allure impossible to articulate. It had something to do with pity.
When the nurse stepped out into the hallway she turned and pointed. “There are some, ah, books in there,” she said. “If you need them.”
Rich’s eyes followed her finger to a small compartment beside the toilet paper dispenser. In it were a few curled back-issues of Penthouse. His eyes fell to the tiled floor.
“Got it,” he said.
As she turned to leave, Rich closed the door and gently pressed his forehead against it.
Marvin hurried across the showroom floor toward Hannah’s counter. She was sorting mail, nibbling on her bottom lip. She tucked a blonde curl behind her ear and the sight brought Marvin right back to bright November morning, five years earlier. He’d been out on a test drive when Linda popped in with their porkie, Gladys, en route to the groomers. Upon her husband’s return, Linda wasted no time lending her two cents.
“I see Felix hasn’t lost his eyesight,” she said. “We have child labor laws in Connecticut, dear. Someone really ought to remind him.”
Marvin took off his jacket, kissed his wife’s waiting cheek, and gave Gladys a scratch behind her ears. Linda looked casually stunning in her camel hair coat and designer jeans—the ones that celebrated her countless hours on the court. “Her name’s Hannah,” he said. “And Hannah’s a good egg.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt she is,” said Linda. “I wonder, which parent handles pick-up and drop-off?”
Marvin had to smile. “Interesting fact?” he said. “She’s the same age as your son.”
“Well, knock me over with a feather. Has my Marvin made a new friend?” Linda laid hands over her heart. “Now, just remember, dear,” she said. “It’s important to be nice. And it’s nice to be important. But don’t get ahead of yourself. You wouldn’t know what to do with this year’s model.”
Marvin recalled the exchange with a sense of seasoned pride. Linda had been jealous—if only in principle—as a means of expressing her affection. It was no wonder that even after thirty-seven years, Marvin still felt himself a humble and grateful recipient of the many nourishments marriage provided. The days fell away as the years piled up, yet he persisted, totally at peace with being “out of commission,” as his divorced and never married Pembroke pals put it. Just this morning he’d found a Sunglasses Hut bag on the kitchen table with a note that read: The future looks bright! Love, Linda. Inside was a boxed pair of Ray-Bans. Tortoise shell Wayfarers. A similar pair, which he’d cherished for fifteen years, had only the week before gone missing. Marvin was certain they’d been stolen, plucked from his locker during his morning laps. He was convinced that Dr. Hoffman’s youngest boy was the culprit. Trevor Hoffman was a fifth-former on the Devonwood swim team. Unlike his four elder brothers, he’d been cursed with curly orange hair and skin like spalled concrete. Last Monday after work Marvin was halfway to Pembroke when Linda’s words resounded in his mind. “Honey,” she said. “They’re only sunglasses. Easily replaced. But, you show up to the club with a lit torch, and we’ll be on government cheese by Christmas.”
Marvin ran a hand over the shape of his new Ray-Bans under his lapel. Then he softly knocked a knuckle on Hannah’s counter.
She looked up.
He said, “I need Julio and Tony to take the XKR outside. Pronto.”
“Okay.” Hannah pinched her bottom lip. “What about lunch?”
“Have to pass, kiddo. But a promise is a promise.” Marvin took forty dollars from his wallet and set it on the counter.
Hannah sized up the man beside the black convertible. “Seriously?”
She lowered her voice. “I thought you smelled tourist?”
Marvin mouthed the word divorce.
Hannah reached for the phone.
From the doorway, a cartoonishly high voice said, “Remind me, do we know what you’re having?”
“No, not yet,” Sharon answered. “Insurance wouldn’t cover testing.” Then she looked at Rich. “But this one wants a boy.”
The ultrasound technician tossed her head back as she stepped into the room. “Now, there’s a real shocker.”
Rich straightened himself in his chair, momentarily admiring the optimism in his wife’s smiling mouth, her hopeful eyes. Together they formed the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. “I want healthy,” he said. “A healthy whatever’s fine by me.”
“Good answer, honey.” Sharon reached over and patted his hand. “Rich says all the right things, but I’m on to him.”
“Ah, the famous Rich,” the technician said. “Congrats! I’m Ginger. I’ve been doing most of your wife’s ultrasounds.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure,” Rich said. He looked at Sharon and then at Ginger. “Finally, faces to go with names.”
“I know, right?” Ginger laughed and booted her machine from sleep mode. Seconds later her monitor came to life, followed by a large flat-screen mounted on the wall. Covering a smooth plastic probe with thick clear lubricating jelly, she said, “I’ll take some measurements and snap a few pictures first. Then we’ll see if we can’t find the flicker of a heartbeat. Sound good?”
“Sounds great.” Sharon leaned back against the elevated exam table, slipping her socked feet into stirrups.
“Now,” Ginger said. “Just relax. You know the drill.” Her right hand and the probe disappeared under Sharon’s gown. Once the instrument was inserted, Ginger made a few calibrations, and began taking pictures.
Seated next to Sharon, staring up at the flat-screen on the wall, Rich was distracted by his own heartbeats. He could hear them booming in his eardrums. Feel them in his temples. Soon, he felt warm all over.
“So, can we please talk about American Idol?” Ginger was snapping one fuzzy screenshot after another. “ ‘Cause I’m convinced it’s coming down to the two Davids.”
Rich nodded, thoughtfully. He had no idea what this woman with the helium voice was talking about. Glancing down at eight pale knuckles, he was surprised to discover his hands balled into fists.
“Ask my son, Cook’s got it in the bag,” Ginger went on. “But my daughter and me, we’re rootin’ for Archuleta. I mean, seriously, how cute is he?”
Sharon slid her tongue between her teeth and grinned. “Rich works nights,” she said. “He’s actually never seen an episode.”
Ginger looked up from her monitor at both of them, stunned. “You’re kidding me.”
“Nope.” Sharon shook her head, her ponytail rustling the table paper. “And I think I have to side with your son on this one, Ginger. Sorry.”
“Really?” Ginger shrugged. “Well, we’ll see. Who knows?” She was looking intently at her monitor, alternately clicking buttons and spinning the machine’s trackball with her left hand. “So… Here’s a yoke sac…” The flat-screen on the wall showed her zoom in on what looked like a tiny black hole in a glowing lampshade of otherworldly bluish gray. “Let me take some measurements,” she said. “How many weeks are you?”
“Technically,” said Sharon. “Six. It was a day 5 transfer.”
“And this is your first cycle, right?”
“Okey-dokey.” Ginger recalibrated her instrument several times. She traced lines on the screen across the black hole for scale and snapped more pictures.
Rich studied the flat-screen as though he knew what he was looking at. Nearly two minutes passed before it occurred to him that Ginger had stopped talking. She did, however, continue to operate the probe under Sharon’s gown. She zoomed in and zoomed out, snapping picture after picture, without uttering a word.
When she was finished, Ginger extracted the probe and switched off both monitors. “All set,” she said, handing Sharon a small stack of paper towels. “I’ll let you clean up and get dressed.”
“Wait,” Sharon said, sounding confused. “That’s it?”
Rich moved his mouth in the silent shapes of words. For one very long moment the awesome pounding in his ears eclipsed all sound. He was suddenly overcome with a sickening awareness of his own blood—too much of it—pressuring its hot surfeit through miles of vein and artery and vessel. He felt faint, nauseated. Swollen.
“The doctor’ll look over your images,” Ginger said from the doorway. She offered a weak smile. “Sit tight. Someone’ll come get you.”
While a small team navigated the convertible through the showroom, Rich stepped outside to take a call. Marvin was lingering by Hannah’s counter. He stroked a silk ficus leaf, humming the first few lines of “Let It Be.” While he waited, Marvin observed Rich from a distance. Just beyond the dealership doors he was pacing back and forth with purpose, his face angled toward the heavens, a cell phone pressed to his ear. When he spoke, he used his free hand to punctuate the air. His enthusiasm was palpable. Marvin let out a long satisfied breath, and waited.
When she returned, Hannah was beaming. She propped both elbows up on the counter. “I’m impressed,” she said, dangling Richard Mayhew’s driver’s license like a doggy treat. “Figured I be staring at that car till Christmas.”
Marvin rubbed his hands together. “Let’s start a purchase agreement.”
“Already on it,” she said. “Now go seal the deal—and don’t dilly-dally. I ordered you a Sushi Deluxe.”
“You’re an angel.” Marvin patted his hair and set his jaw. “How do I look?”
“Like a headliner.” Hannah winked. “Ready to close the show.”
Marvin blew her a kiss. On his way to the door he stopped. “Let’s text Michael,” he said. “Tell him to keep his eyes peeled for a black convertible on Mountain Road.”
Hannah shook her head. “I swear,” she said. “You two are incorrigible.”
Marvin flashed his palms. “Hey, sometimes fast cars go fast.” He gave her a sly grin and left to join Rich outside.
Hannah called after him. “By the way,” she said. “What’s the menu for Sunday?”
Marvin paused. “Thought I’d do rosemary chicken on the grill,” he said. “And Linda’s agreed to make her famous baby red potato salad.”
“Mm, that sounds delicious,” Hannah said. “What about us? Can we bring anything?”
Marvin considered the question for a moment.
“Have Michael pick up some wine,” he said. “The pinot grigio his mother likes.”
Rich was waiting in a beige room with one blue accent wall. He found himself studying his surroundings, cataloguing the room’s contents in an effort to occupy his mind with minutia.
Square grey linoleum floor tiles.
Rectangular white acoustic ceiling tiles.
A Lumex rolling chair.
A WelchAllyn blood pressure machine.
A Covidien biohazard receptacle mounted above the sink for needle disposal.
An under sink cabinet with drawers labeled for ice packs, towelettes, pads, gowns, and drape sheets.
A wall mounted Purell dispenser.
A wall mounted baby blue clock.
Laminated color fliers taped to the wall: Who needs a flu vaccine? Can you prevent cervical cancer? Genital HPV Infection CDC Fact Sheet.
In one corner a small desk housed a sleeping Compaq computer and piles of periodicals.
People Magazine headlined that a missing baby had been found after two decades!
US Weekly announced which Reality TV stars had recently given birth!
In Touch Weekly confirmed which celebrities were expecting! Also in this issue: Celebrity couples embroiled in custody battles! Plus: Why are so many older divorced celebrities having babies with new young partners?
The room’s only narrow window, sliced by half-turned vertical blinds, hinted at the snowy morning outside, as the city of Hartford went about its business with no concern for what was happening in here.
A squat grey-haired nurse wheeled Sharon back into the beige room with one blue accent wall. She was still woozy from the anesthesia. Rich softly kissed his wife’s forehead, careful not to tangle himself in her IV tubes and wires. The doctor who’d performed the D & E procedure this time came in shortly after. His name was Hoffman. Rich thought he looked like frat boy wearing his father’s scrubs to a costume party. The youthful Dr. Hoffman spoke slowly, mostly to Rich. His words, though vaguely familiar, were little more than sounds.
Dilation. Evacuation. Vacuum aspiration. Fetal tissue.
Today: No big decisions. No big purchases. No driving. Stay off social media.
Moving forward: Potential uterine scarring. Possible heavy bleeding. Nothing in the vagina for at least two weeks.
It took fifteen minutes and two mechanics to maneuver the black convertible down off its ramps and through the showroom. Four other floor models had to be removed or repositioned in the process. Once outside, parked under a broiling midday sun, its black paint glittered like a squamous skin. Rich was standing with his hands by his sides, face to face with the car’s frontend. His expression was serene, focused. Like a platform diver prior to takeoff.
His head turned at the sound of Marvin’s voice.
“We’re all set.” Marvin returned Rich’s license. “Sorry for the wait. Formality—insurance purposes, you understand.”
“Sure, I get it.” Rich popped the chrome handle and the door glided open. He carefully lowered himself behind the wheel and checked his mirrors.
Marvin slid into shotgun and fastened his seatbelt. “Click it or ticket,” he said.
Rich complied. “Ready?”
“Absolutely.” Marvin’s lungs felt like they were filling with helium. “Take us away.”
When Rich pushed the ignition button, the engine roared to life. “Man,” he said. “She really does purr.”
Marvin slid his replacement Ray-Bans up his nose. “Just wait till we let her off the leash,” he said, tilting his head back and smiling in the sunshine, feeling lighter than he had in weeks. It was as if a giant burden had just been set down, diffused into the plush leather seat now cradling him. His whole body experienced a sensation akin to floating in the shallow end of the Pembroke pool, moments after a long invigorating swim. Thus, as the black convertible crossed the lot it never occurred to Marvin to scan the customer parking spaces for an Audi. When they pulled out onto Jennings Road he was still smiling. “Take a right at the next light,” he said. “I know just the place to open her up.”
Across town, a police cruiser headed north toward Mountain Road.
Blue lights flashed in every mirror. One one thousand. Marvin didn’t bother looking over his shoulder. Two one thousand. A siren sounded—a brief howl, only a warning shot. Three one thousand. Marvin turned to Rich. “Looks like we may have an admirer.”
Rich checked his rearview, nodded.
They were doing forty-two in a thirty-five.
“Oh, Jesus.” Rich patted his gelled black swim cap. “I can’t catch a break today.”
“The shoulder widens up ahead,” Marvin assured him, noticing how the sun had begun to pull beads of sweat from Rich’s brow. “Scoot over a bit. He might just need to get around us.”
Old-growth maple and black birch lined the narrow road, so close they chopped the Jaguar’s draft.
“I gotta be honest,” Rich said. “I’m gettin’ a little sick of eatin’ shit with a spoon and a smile.” He shrugged. “You know what I mean?”
For a moment Marvin imagined Trevor Hoffman’s zit-covered face. The smug little prick was smiling so wide his cheeks kissed the rims of Marvin’s stolen Wayfarers.
“Sure, I do,” said Marvin. “I know what you mean.”
Rich gazed up at the sky, or where the sky would be if the Toyota had a goddamned sunroof. Instead, he was staring up at the same mushroom brown cloth that covered every inch of the ’98 Corolla’s upholstered interior.
“We’ve been over this, Sharon. A thousand times.”
“I just don’t see the harm in getting it appraised.”
“I know you don’t.”
She waited. “So?”
“Jesus,” Sharon said. “Come on. It’s not like it was a graduation present.”
He looked right at her. “Are you finished?”
She wasn’t. “You had to collect it from a friggin’ police station,” she said. “Remember?”
“All right, all right. Knock it off,” he said. “That’s enough.”
Sharon let out a long frustrated breath. “We’re not done talking about this.”
“Yes,” Rich said. “Right now, we are.”
They were parked outside Sharon’s sister’s house. Their youngest niece was turning four. Rich could see pink and purple balloons tied to the front porch railings. The day was sticky, painfully bright. The only cloud on the horizon resembled a toppled Christmas tree. He killed the Toyota’s engine.
Sharon folded her arms and sat back against the passenger seat. “Be honest with me,” she said. “Do you still want this?”
Rich didn’t answer right away. The truth was, he didn’t know.
Here’s what he did know: right now, all he wanted was to get through this birthday party. He wanted nobody inside to announce they were expecting. He wanted no questions about when he and Sharon would finally have one of their own. He wanted a few cold beers, a hotdog or a hamburger, and a quick out. Oh. Hi. Yeah. Nice. Yeah. Bye. See you later. Much.
Sharon looked at him, tilting her head.
Rich immediately understood that she was experiencing some sort of revelation—seeing a side of her husband for the first time. It didn’t feel good, and Rich wanted it to stop. He came right out with it.
“We used up our insurance,” he said. “Burned through our savings!” He began to speak with his hands. “Four miscarriages, and you’d sell everything we own just to spin the wheel again—”
At this Rich caught himself and lowered his head, certain his words had leveled her.
Sharon silently stared out her window for a nearly a minute. Then she whispered something that seemed to surprise them both.
“All I want,” she said, “is to have your baby.”
Rich couldn’t look at her. His mind was drowning in the thoughts he’d been pushing aside, one by one, day after day, for the past the forty-eight months. The due dates they’d been given for babies that never arrived. The friends and relatives who’d grown their families to completion in the years since they’d started trying. The upstairs hall closet, brimming with stockpiled secrets—pristine baby quilts, unread children’s books, unworn sleepers, miniature outfits with the tags still on them.
It was enough to make him scream.
Sure, he’d had his testicles ultrasounded. Certainly, he’d had enough blood drawn to fill a bathtub. It was true he’d deposited his shame in more than a few jizz cups. Testosterone levels were measured. Sperm was counted in millions per milliliter and tested for motility and morphology. There were medications and supplements. There was increased exercise and limited alcohol intake. But these were all just mild indignities and inconveniences. They paled in comparison to the deprivation and physical torment his wife had willingly endured, over and over and over. For years.
And now, Sharon—desperate to be poked, prodded, injected, and (God forbid) scraped one more time—asked only that Rich consider selling a dead man’s watch.
But the very thought terrified him.
For whatever reason, he was afraid he’d never be able to bring himself to do it.
“A real goddamned shame,” Rich said again, practically spitting the words. “Science. Christ. You wanna know what I think, Marvin? I think science tries to stand in for God.”
The Jaguar growled, nudging the needle into higher numbers.
“Listen,” Marvin said, his voice raised against the wind. “Slow down. You need to pull over.”
Rich made no reply. The Jaguar reached seventy miles per hour.
Marvin looked carefully at the man behind the wheel. There was something new in the space around his irises. It wasn’t anger. It wasn’t grief, or even vacancy. It was a faint glimmer of resignation. Acceptance. The pleasant sensation of floating in the shallow end of the Pembroke pool was now a distant memory. Marvin could feel the swelling weight of his current situation in his molars.
Then Rich broke in, projecting over the sustained din of rushing air. “Sharon wanted a house full of kids. We both did. Total chaos. Twenty-four seven.”
Marvin tried to sound firm. “Slow it down, Rich” he said. “Stop the damn car!”
“Unexplained infertility,” Rich went on. “The hell is that, anyway? They knew we were desperate.” He gripped the wheel with both hands. “Made us fuckin’ guinea pigs, Marvin. Bled us dry.” Rich lowered his head but kept his eyes on the road. “They ruined us.”
The tachometer’s needle jumped as the Jaguar hit eighty miles per hour.
Never in his life had Marvin Baird been touched by such panic.
“Rich, Stop the car! Honestly—it’s none of my business!”
But Rich continued, “Memorial Day weekend she goes ahead and drinks her weight in box wine and says she’s done. Tells me, “Sorry, honey, but I don’t give a shit what Hollywood says—it’s not normal for our pets to have their own bedrooms!” Rich laughed but there was no humor in it. “Married twelve years—smash cut to this morning. Served on my way into work. Can you believe it?”
“Rich, please,” Marvin begged. “Stop the car!”
“So that’s that,” Rich confessed. “Guess I’m the problem.”
The Jaguar topped ninety, still climbing.
Rich shrugged. “Can you blame her? Tick, tock, you know? Time flies and—”
“—Please!” Marvin screamed. “Don’t!”
But Rich kept his eyes straight ahead. Then he unbuckled his seatbelt and let the strap slide off his left shoulder.
And despite the trailing blare of siren, despite the rushing battery of air, Marvin’s ears zero in on the pleasant chiming of the Jaguar’s seatbelt alarm. His eyes focus on the approaching intersection. The stoplight suspended overhead begins to swell until its throbbing red glow occupies his entire field of vision. There is nothing beyond it. Only emptiness. And then, slowly, the void begins to shrink inward from its corners, and some semblance of the world is restored, inhabited by the shapes and colors of memory. And once again Marvin is a spectator, standing beside Michael, damp Pembroke towels slung over their tanned shoulders. The sun on their bare skin feels warm and welcome. The sky above is a clear, rich blue. Like still wet paint. Michael’s tiny hand is wrapped around Marvin’s thumb. Together they look on as Linda bounces on the balls of her feet beyond the baseline, volleying for serve, her pleated whites absolutely electric against the dark green hard court.
And although the Hartford Courant covers the crash extensively, and runs Marvin’s obituary above the fold—complete with his photo—he’s laid to rest with little audience. In Hollywood terms: numbers sure to disappoint the studio. Only two Pembroke members show. Michael sits between Linda and Hannah, their three heads bowed in the balmy morning air. A few yards away, in the shade of a beech tree, a large mound of turned over soil waits, poorly disguised by a green tarp. The priest from St. Mark’s, draped in stifling robes, crosses himself and speaks of ashes, dust, and eternal life. When he finishes, he slowly lowers his head over Marvin’s casket—a real beauty, sparkled ivory with gold hardware—and says, Amen. The burial at Cedar Hill Cemetery concludes with dark cloudbanks gathering overhead. The first few rolls of thunder rumble off in the distance. Tiny jagged flashes explode soundlessly on the horizon. It’s what Marvin would call “dangerous swimming weather.”
The following autumn, Linda lets the Bairds’ Pembroke membership lapse.
“Spectators” by Ryan Spellman Vautour appeared in Issue 39 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Ryan Spellman Vautour was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut and educated all over New England. When he’s not writing, or teaching, he spends his time restoring the 200-year-old home he shares with his beautiful (and extremely patient) wife, and their son, in North Andover, Massachusetts.