Chapter one of a Dirty Job.
Chapter 1- Because I could not stop for Death– He kindly stopped for me– Charlie Asher walked the earth like an ant walks on the surface of water, as if the slightest misstep might send him plummeting though the surface to be sucked to the depths below. Blessed with the Beta Male imagination, he spent much of his life squinting into the future so he might spot ways in which the world was conspiring to kill him – him, his wife Rachel, and now, newborn Sophie. But despite his attention, his paranoia, his ceaseless fretting from the moment Rachel peed a blue stripe on the pregnancy stick to the time they wheeled her into recovery at St. Francis Memorial, Death slipped in.
“She’s not breathing,” Charlie said.
“She’s breathing fine,” Rachel said, patting the baby’s back. “Do you want to hold her?”
Charlie had held baby Sophie for a few seconds earlier in the day, and had handed her quickly to a nurse insisting that someone more qualified than he do some finger and toe counting. He’d done it twice and kept coming up with twenty-one.
“They act like that’s all there is to it. Like if the kid has the minimum ten fingers and ten toes it’s all going to be fine. What if there are extras? Huh? Extra credit fingers? What if the kid has a tail?” (Charlie was sure he’d spotted a tail in the six-month sonogram. Umbilical indeed! He’d kept a hard copy.)
“She doesn’t have a tail, Mr. Asher,” the nurse explained. “And it’s ten and ten, we’ve all checked. Perhaps you should go home and get some rest.”
“I’ll still love her, even with her extra finger.”
“She’s perfectly normal.”
“We really do know what we’re doing, Mr. Asher. She’s a beautiful, healthy, baby girl.”
“Or a tail.”
The nurse sighed. She was short, wide, and had a tattoo of snake up her right calf that showed through her white nurse stockings. She spent four hours of every work day massaging preemie babies, her hands threaded through ports in a Lucite incubator, like she was handling a radioactive spark in there. She talked to them, coaxed them, told them how special they were, and felt their hearts fluttering in chests no bigger than a balled-up pair of sweat socks. She cried over every one, and believed that her tears and touch poured a bit of her own life into the tiny bodies, which was just fine with her. She could spare it. She had been a neonatal nurse for twenty years and had never so much as raised her voice to a new father.
“There’s no goddamn tail, you doofus! Look!” She pulled down the blanket and aimed baby Sophie’s bottom at him like she might unleash a fusillade of weapons-grade poopage such as the guileless Beta Male had never seen. Charlie jumped back – a lean and nimble thirty, he was — then, once he realized that the baby wasn’t loaded, he straightened the lapels on his tweed jacket in a gesture of righteous indignation. “You could have removed her tail in the delivery room and we’d never know.” He didn’t know. He’d been asked to leave the delivery room, first by the OBGYN and finally by Rachel. (“Him or me,” Rachel said. “One of us has to go.”)
In Rachel’s room, Charlie said: “If they removed her tail, I want it. She’ll want it when she gets older.”
“Sophie, your Papa isn’t really insane. He just hasn’t slept for a couple of days.”
“She’s looking at me,” Charlie said. “She’s looking at me like I blew her college money at the track and now she’s going to have to turn tricks to get her MBA.”
Rachel took his hand. “Honey, I don’t think her eyes can even focus this early, and besides, she’s a little young to start worrying about her turning tricks to get her MFA.”
“MBA,” Charlie corrected. “They start very young these days. By the time I figure out how to get to the track she could be old enough. God, your parents are going to hate me.”
“And that would be different how?”
“New reasons, that’s how. Now I’ve made their granddaughter a shiksa.”
“She’s not a shiksa, Charlie. We’ve been through this. She’s my daughter, so she’s as Jewish as I am.”
Charlie went down on one knee next to the bed and took one of Sophie’s tiny hands between his fingers. “Daddy’s sorry he made you a shiksa.” He put his head down, buried his face in the crook where the baby met Rachel’s side. Rachel traced his hairline with her fingernail, describing a tight u-turn around his narrow forehead.
“You need to go home and get some sleep.”
Charlie mumbled something into the covers. When he looked up there were tears in his eyes. “She feels warm.”
“She is warm. She’s supposed to be. It’s a mammal thing. Goes with the breast feeding. Why are you crying?”
“You guys are so beautiful.” He began arranging Rachel’s dark hair across the pillow, brought a long lock down over Sophie’s head and started styling it into a baby hair piece.
“It will be okay if she can’t grow hair. There was that angry Irish singer who didn’t have any hair and she was attractive. If we had her tail we could transplant plugs from that.”
“Charlie! Go home!”
“Your parents will blame me. Their bald shiksa granddaughter turning tricks and getting a business degree – it will be all my fault.”
Rachel grabbed the buzzer from the blanket and held it up like it was wired to a bomb. “Charlie, if you don’t go home and get some sleep right now I swear I’ll buzz the nurse and have her throw you out.”
She sounded stern, but she was smiling. Charlie liked looking at her smile, always had; it felt like approval and permission at the same time. Permission to be Charlie Asher.
“Okay, I’ll go.” He reached to feel her forehead. “Do you have a fever? You look tired. ”
“I just gave birth, you squirrel!”
“I’m just concerned about you.” He was not a squirrel. She was blaming him for Sophie’s tail, that’s why she’d said squirrel, and not doofus like everyone else.
“Sweetie, go. Now. So I can get some rest.”
Charlie fluffed her pillows, checked her water pitcher, tucked in the blankets, kissed her forehead, kissed the baby’s head, fluffed the baby, then started to rearrange the flowers that his mother had sent, moving the big stargazer lily in the front, accenting it with a spray of baby’s breath –
“I’m going. Jeeze.” He checked the room, one last time, then backed toward the door.
“Can I bring you anything from home?”
“I’ll be fine. The ready kit you packed covered everything, I think. In fact, I may not even need the fire extinguisher.”
“Better to have it and not need it, than to need it—“
“Go! I’ll get some rest, the doctor will check Sophie out, and we’ll take her home in the morning.”
“That seems soon.”
“Should I bring more propane for the camp stove?”
“We’ll try to make it last.”
Rachel held up the buzzer, as if her demands were not met, the consequences could be dire. “Love you,” she said.
“Love you too,” Charlie said. “Both of you.”
“Bye Daddy.” Rachel puppeted Sophie’s little hand in a wave.
Charlie felt a lump rising in his throat. No one had ever called him Daddy before, not even a puppet. (He had once asked Rachel, “Who’s your Daddy?” during sex, to which she had replied, “Saul Goldstein,” thus rendering him impotent for a week and raising all kinds of issues that he didn’t really like to think about.)
He backed out of the room, palming the door shut as he went, then headed down the hall and past the desk where the neonatal nurse with the snake tattoo gave him a sideways smile as he went by.
Charlie drove a six-year old mini-van that he’d inherited from his father, along with the thrift store and the building that housed it. The mini-van always smelled faintly of dust, mothballs and body-odor, despite a forest of smell-good Christmas trees that Charlie had hung from every hook, knob, and protrusion. He opened the car door and the odor of the unwanted — the wares of the thrift-store owner — washed over him.
Before he even had the key in the ignition he noticed the Sarah McLaughlin CD lying on the passenger seat. Well Rachel was going to miss that. It was her favorite CD and there she was, recovering without it, and he could not have that. Charlie grabbed the CD, locked the van, and headed back up to Rachel’s room.
To his relief, the nurse had stepped away from the desk so he didn’t have to endure her frosty stare of accusation, or what he guessed would be her frosty stare of accusation. He’d mentally prepared a short speech about how being a good husband and father included anticipating the wants and needs of his wife and that included bringing her music – well, he could use the speech on the way out if she gave him the frosty stare.
He opened the door to Rachel’s room slowly, so as not to startle her — anticipating her warm smile of disapproval, but instead she appeared to be asleep and there was a very tall Black man dressed in mint green standing next to her bed.
“What are you doing here?”
The man in mint green turned, startled. “You can see me?” He gestured to his chocolate brown tie, and Charlie was reminded, just for a second, of those thin mints they put on the pillow in nicer hotels.
“Of course I can see you. What are you doing here?”
Charlie moved to Rachel’s beside, putting himself between the stranger and his family. Baby Sophie seemed fascinated by the tall black man.
“This is not good,” said Mint Green.
“You’re in the wrong room,” Charlie said. “You get out of here.” Charlie reached behind and patted Rachel’s hand.
“This is really, really not good.”
“Sir, my wife is trying to sleep and you’re in the wrong room. Now please go before…”
“She’s not sleeping,” said Mint Green. His voice was soft, and a little Southern. “I’m sorry.”
Charlie turned to look down at Rachel, expecting to see her smile, hear her tell him to calm down, but her eyes were closed and her head had lolled off the pillow.
“Honey?” Charlie dropped the CD he was carrying and shook her gently. “Honey?”
Baby Sophie began to cry. Charlie felt Rachel’s forehead, took her by the shoulders and shook her. “Honey, wake up. Rachel.” He put his ear to her heart and heard nothing. “Nurse!”
Charlie scrambled across the bed to grab the buzzer that had slipped from Rachel’s hand and lay on the blanket. “Nurse!” He pounded the button and turned to look at the man in mint green. “What happened…”
He was gone.
Charlie ran into the hall, but no one was out there. “Nurse!”
Twenty seconds later the nurse with the snake tattoo arrived, followed in another thirty seconds by a resuscitation team with a crash cart.
There was nothing they could do.