“Well, those are the biggest balls I’ve ever seen on a baby,” cried Audrey, her crooked fingers swiping, dabbing at Jacob as though shelling peas. “I’m gonna get you clean. Yes, I am. Gonna get you all clean from that poopie diaper you made.” Audrey stuck her fingers under the stream of water, then turned off the faucet. Not too hot; don’t want to scald him, she thought. Hot water is for dirty things like the wash, showers, enemas. “You’re so precious, I could just eat you up,” Audrey said.
Was it normal, Rose asked herself, watching over Audrey’s shoulder, for a grandmother to talk that way? Was it normal for a grandmother to comment on the size of her grandson’s testicles? Were Jacob’s testicles normal? In case something was wrong, perhaps a swelling, or a reddening she hadn’t noticed, Dr. Wilkinson should take a look. She would call him tomorrow. For her mother always made her feel—as she searched anything new with such scrutiny, pointing out this flaw or that in an urgent tone, suggesting one had made a mistake or caused her embarrassment—always made her feel inadequate, lacking, unworthy.
When did Mama’s hands get so old? wondered Rose, watching Audrey rubbing the baby oil into Jacob’s skin. She used to be able to count the brown liver spots on her mother’s hands, youth now fading, her black hair swathing with white streaks as though a painter had trailed several thin brushes down a black canvas.
The way Audrey looked at Jacob bothered Rose—it was a look as if nothing else in the world mattered. Her gaping smile and wide-spaced teeth revealed silver caps flashing like mesh in a flour sifter. “I’m gonna eat you, you’re just so sweet.” Rose imagined her mother lifting one of Jacob’s fingers to her mouth and biting off an end.
“Mama let me finish.”
“These cloth diapers ain’t easy to get on. Let me show you first.”
That brutal force of motherhood, withheld from her daughter, silently waited beneath years, and was now waking and warming to Jacob. Audrey had refused to hold Rose the first day and night she brought her home from the hospital (Audrey’s sister, Thelma, had told Rose the story) and though Audrey had denied it, and claimed Thelma was confused, she admitted she didn’t need another child after Donald. The family didn’t need a girl. Wasn’t a good idea for Klaus to have a girl around, as Audrey found out on her honeymoon.
Audrey met Klaus Ramburg working at the Florida Citrus canning plant outside Lakesville in 1941. Two years later they stood at the altar of the First Baptist Church in Holly Berry, Florida before God, smiling, vowing to be faithful, promising to stay together in health and in sickness. But neither pledged to shield the other from the vilest parts of themselves nor to protect the ones they loved from the monsters they harbored. Their pact was meant to keep secrets; to deny, and to minimize the other’s sins.
The evening of their wedding, after the reception, Klaus and Audrey arrived at The Lakesville Terrace Hotel. It was a grand hotel with deluxe suites suitable for special occasions and simple rooms, such as the one Klaus reserved—a single full bed and a bathroom would do.
A valet parked their car, and into the lobby they walked, giddy, hand in hand, heads held high. The porter brought the couple to their room overlooking a lake. Audrey inspected the room while Klaus tipped the boy. Not a flap of wallpaper was unglued. The carpet was bright and clean. She found a little dust on the dresser missed by the cleaner. If she tried, she could pick up a whiff of mold in the yellow-green afternoon air.
She started for the bathroom to freshen up. Klaus closed the door to the room and locked it.
“Lay down on the bed,” he instructed.
“I want to go—”
“I said get on the bed.” She did.
“Now turn over.”
Grinning, she peered over her shoulder as he lifted her dress, exposing her panties.
“What are you going to do?” she asked, like she was watching him tinker with a car engine.
Curiosity overpowered her fear. For Audrey was from French stock—her people were courageous, dauntless, incredulous. Hadn’t they been pioneers? The last word was never surrendered.
“Lie still,” he said.
How Klaus loved to titillate. He never wanted to reveal a woman all at once. Under the band of her panties he slipped his finger, taking his time, watching for her desire in a glance, in a giggle, in a blush. Silk slipped, exposing smooth white skin. She’s ready now, Klaus thought, her intimate things flicked from feet to floor.
Only for a moment did Audrey hesitate to display her consent. It was the pain that worried her. Mother had said men needed to have their way and if you find a good one, everything’ll be all right. Maybe he was a good one. Mother said you’ll know after he’s done. Maybe he’ll be really good.
“Look at that picture on the wall,” said Klaus. It was a portrait of one of the lakes surrounding the hotel.
“It sure is pretty. The swans are so—”
“I didn’t tell you to talk. Just look at that picture and be still.”
Audrey concentrated on the swans, a mother and her cygnets floating toward a clump of cattails. Maybe he’ll do this to me and I’ll have a baby, too.
She recalled their wedding reception just hours ago, laughing with Beatrice, her Maid of Honor, about how she never thought the day would come she’d leave Mother. She saw herself in her white gown walking among the pink and brown streamers and paper bells, slicing a piece of the tall cake; all of it seemed like a fairy tale, like make-believe. When had she grown up? Please, Lord, bless me and Klaus with a baby.
In the small room, among everyday things, the bedside table, the mirror, the vase of white and red carnations, suddenly the bed darkened with his shadow. He straddled her legs; released his belt. The mattress quivered as if in accord with Audrey’s anticipation.
It’s a firm bed, thought Audrey, not like at Mother’s. Not my bed anymore. Wonder what kind of bed he’ll get me. It don’t need to be so firm like this one.
Klaus pressed her face into the sheets. She screamed as he forced himself into her.
“Klaus, that hurts! Please honey, you’re hurting me.”
He put his rough hand over her mouth; thrusting; grunting; slapping. On and on he went, then strained deep inside her until he finished.
Crawling off, he said, “Keep looking at that picture.”
Enmity and terror were conceived in that room, and among the crumpled sheets and blood and semen and the swishing of ducks on water splashing, the nosy fly buzzing, darting, swooping, begging to know—“Do you see me?”—the horror was never interrupted nor the air of control, as if the inquiry needn’t be addressed: you don’t matter.
Audrey heard his footsteps.
She wanted to look at the source of the sound. She turned her head and felt a hard whack across her back.
“I told you to watch that picture.”
She stared at the portrait of the swans, the blue of the lake, which was the blue of robin’s eggs. This is not happening to me. She looked at the cygnets, feeling pity for them. I’m that mama swan with her babies. Please, Jesus let me—she felt pressure against her anus. Klaus teased the knob of the broomstick from one hole to the other.
“Don’t take your eyes off that picture.”
He couldn’t decide where to plunge the broomstick. Either hole would teach her. Better put it where I ain’t been yet. A swift twist and push. Audrey yelled out as the broomstick went in as far as a finger length. Klaus muffled her sounds with a pillow. During the war, he’d learned how to control squirming young French girls.
“What are you doing here, Audrey? Your honeymoon isn’t over for two more days,” asked Beatrice.
“I need to show you something. Come to the bathroom.”
“Is everything all right?” Beatrice closed the door and turned as Audrey pulled out bloody towels from between her legs.
“Sweet Lord Jesus, what happened to you, honey?”
“He did something real bad, Beatrice.
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“Don’t you bring that up or you’ll never hear from me again.”
“You’re setting something up here, Aud, something he’s going to come back to over and over.”
“Are you going to help me or not?”
“Get undressed. I’ll draw an Epsom bath.”
White tiles, white tub, white salts dissolving; bright red drops diffusing into ropy clouds and settling; a thousand things one knew about life utterly vanished.
Audrey pricked her finger on the metal safety pin. She sucked the blood before she tried again to pin the diaper. She cooed at Jacob. Of her two children, Donald pleased most, though he hadn’t given her a grandson. He’d given her another girl to worry about. But this baby boy was the best thing Rose ever did in her life, even if the father was a Catholic who led her away from the Baptist church.
And now, seeing Rose there, waiting to hold her little baby, waiting for her husband to come home from the mine, Audrey wondered what he saw in her—she must’ve lured Edwin Murtaugh sexually. That’s how girls like Rose got rich, smart, athletic boys—for she was cold, unkind, a devil. Now Edwin wasn’t the same, returned from Vietnam damaged. Rose hadn’t counted on that. But infliction one conceals by ambition.
But what had she thought? Edwin would come back a hero, and they would escape to a mansion in Tampa? Miami? Now they lived in a tiny trailer camper on a slab of concrete Daddy poured for them not forty-five feet from the house. Audrey had a keen sense, as she contemplated their future, of disappointment. She couldn’t see how Edwin could quit a good job at the mine and go back to college to get some business degree. And how could a man make a woman work to support her own family? People would surely talk. That man—Audrey’s resentment rose in her breast—would never succeed.
And for a girl concerned with people’s opinions (since she was old enough to talk), Rose always brought disgrace on the family, especially when it came to boys. Cruising in their cars, parking at the movies, running around with them by herself to do Lord knows what. It’s that bad seed from Klaus. Now she wants to work and let her man go to school. It ain’t natural. She must bring it up with Klaus so he could knock some sense into her. Indecent to leave her grandbaby motherless. Lord Jesus, don’t let this baby boy have any bad seed in him.
“Mama, I’ve got to go next door to see if Mrs. Crawley can watch Jacob tomorrow morning.”
“Now whatever for? You need to be home with that baby. Need to have a routine with him.”
“I’ve got to go pick up my unemployment check. The line starts at 7 a.m.”
When one practices the Catholic method, one must plan for any inevitability. Not Rose and Edwin. Rose lost her job after she became pregnant. Her moderate unemployment check would hold them until she could get a job, but no consideration had been given as to who would care for the child. Audrey worked for the county, Klaus the railroad. The only option was for Rose to ask a neighbor to babysit. Dr. Wilkinson told her having a short break from the baby would help with her depression.
But what if Mrs. Crawley left Jacob to cry alone in the crib? Or what if she picked him up and, having grown used to the scent of his mother’s breasts, he couldn’t stand Mrs. Crawley’s odor and turned colicky, what then? Or worse, what if Jacob began to forget her? What if he preferred Mrs. Crawley more?
“Does Edwin know you’re planning’ on runnin’ off in the mornin’ and leavin’ that baby with our neighbor?”
“We don’t have a choice, Mama. I gotta have that check.”
“Run on then. I’ll keep Jacob with me.”
“I’m bringing him so I can introduce Mrs. Crawley to him.”
“That woman’s raised three of her own. You don’t need to be taking this baby out in the air. Leave him here with me.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Rose couldn’t argue with her. Couldn’t argue and win. She would give Jacob a warm bottle in the morning before she left and maybe he’d sleep until she returned. She’d worry about it later, just like Scarlet O’Hara, God as her witness.
Audrey cuddled with Jacob, rocking away his last hold on the world before sleep. She never cuddled her granddaughter, Carol Alice. Her manner with the girl was entirely different; she was sedate, sterile, hard. A hired professional. She had always favored Donald, too.
She just likes boys better, thought Rose. Something isn’t right. Something isn’t normal. Then dread, like a gale, tore across her mind, splitting this thought from that one, like boat-shaped petals torn from a lily by a scattering wind.
“Now, I’m going to put you down, Jacob. I’ve got to clean up this filthy house before your Granddaddy gets home.”
The house was spotless. But she laid him in his bassinet and turned on the mobile. “Bye, Baby Bunting” played softly over his head. Rose walked out the back door, down the gravel road to go speak to Mrs. Crawley.