The Queen of New Mothers
Reading the message attached to the windshield of his car—
“Dear John, This is your last day . . .”
John ha-ha’d in big hearty snorts. Then he started up his car that would soon to be blown to smithereens. He had been warned, and the fool laughed it off. Jane crept out from her hiding place behind the hedge and hobbled after John’s car with baby Dot asleep, bobbing in a sling on her chest. One press of a button on her transmitter and . . .
Jane lay awake, plotting. The moon a big eye winked at her one last time then closed for the night. John was snoring beside her, a messy sound like a vacuum cleaner sucking up dust. As for the bomb, she heard it out there under John’s car, ticking.
“Dot can tell we love her. Her bath toys are a toaster and a radio,” Jane joked. She stretched out on the rebirther’s fold-out cot and waited for Polly’s laugh.
“Keep breathing,” said Polly. Jane took a deep, disappointed breath. “I’m going to—kill—somebody,” Jane dared to say it.
Polly pinched Jane’s puff in her cheek and wiggled it. “Keep away from legumes, I’ve told you.”
Jane considered the word “legumes” and gave it a good kick in her mind so it skidded under the cot where it made a sound like a phone ringing, a melancholy sound fluted from her ribs.
“Your diaphragm isn’t moving, Jane.”
“How’s this?” Jane let out a shivering gasp, jiggly like a Halloween skeleton, and broke wind. She opened her eyes. Polly’s smile went stiff. Jane reeled herself inward, a pain of squirming hooks between her ribs. “You used to laugh at my jokes,” she said.
Hot, moist midnight. Steam shimmied off John’s parked Honda and around the telephone wires. The sky loomed vast, pale, all otherly, clearing a path for Jane breezing down the moon-swept street, humming la-di-dah with the simple consciousness of an infant communing with Dot asleep in the baby carriage. Jane Sherwin passed duplicate Sherwins on duplicate quarter-acre lots. Jane Sherwin heard the plup-plup of the green falling and the summer going brown. She was looking sweaty, carefree, dreamy, someone who was maybe a sleepwalker.
“Tomorrow Mr. John Sherwin . . .” Jane groped for the note in her pocket. It was a song of departure, bye-bye, the end. And when she imagined everything ending, she felt free, released: what could be more beautiful than that? Passing that ill-fated corner, her fingers hooked around the handle of Dot’s baby carriage, she examined for cracks in the flawless macadam. La-di-dah, she cooed to Dot.
First, assembling a bomb . . .
And then rigging a transmitter. Another hitch. Hiding it on the street. The timing.
The Honda would heave into the air and some parts scatter messily over the neighbors’ lawns. She stood and listened to the blast, the fire sizzling. The neighbors expected Jane would bring disaster, so they wouldn’t be disappointed: people liked getting what they expected. Jane would be marched off in handcuffs, and the neighbors will say good riddance. La-di-dah. She plotted in quick bursts, humming along. She could far easily buy a gun, so why go through all the hassle of rigging a bomb? But a bomb was a real calamity, a message no one could ignore. A black woman setting off a car bomb in a white neighborhood, what could be more fitting than that? But Dot? What will happen to her? Dot’s grandmothers and cousins were living in raucous cities and had not a shred of interest in Jane’s new baby. It was just the three of them, Dot, John, Jane, the infamous nuclear family.
Circling back, she reached the real thing, John’s battered second-hand Honda. A full moon spilled all over her hands and across John’s freakishly white car, the freakish whiteness of baby Dot, the freakish whiteness of the linoleum siding on all the houses. She stuck the note under the windshield wiper.
“You’re all I’ve got, Jane,” John said it like a complaint. “I’m worried.”
Jane slumped over the bathroom sink, breathing loudly, as Polly had taught her. “Quiet. Please. I’m rebirthing.”
“What are you rebirthing? You just had a birth.”
She watched John inch his way past the heaps of diapers, receiving blankets, onesies—too much! The rapacious little monster was crowding them out.
Jane bit into the washcloth, leaned her forehead against the note she’d taped to the mirror:
Dear Dot, Now you are a dot. But you’re growing and growing and someday you’ll be a ! and if all goes right, you’ll never become a ?
And around the words, she could see her aureole of hair in the mirror and the aureoled beings floating like steam from the bathtub. She wasn’t dreaming! Those aureoles were as real as her own hair and more real than any of her dreams! Except they were gone the minute she left the bathroom.
“I’m thinking, I’m going to stop eating carbs,” she said to John over dinner. “To try and discipline whatever my urges.” She didn’t say what they had kept unspoken since days now. Threatening notes she was sticking to the windshield wipers. Which John unsuccessfully made light of every morning with that phony ha-ha-ha. They didn’t talk about her midnight strolls plotting John’s murder. What was there to say about that? At night Jane Sherwin was the infernal angel clinging to blackening walls, mornings she was the shriveled rose, and all other times she was the worm in the core of the apple. No wonder her sullen neighbors with groggy midnight vision peered suspiciously behind curtains. It was all wrong, Jane could hear the neighbors thinking, all wrong. A black mother with a white baby.
John bit into a crescent roll. “The doctor said you shouldn’t diet when you’re breastfeeding.”
John was reading a manual called “Re-Inventing Parenthood,” which, among other things, advocated immersion mothering.
Jane grabbed the bread knife. She directed the pointy tip in the air, twirling it. “Maybe we need a little renovation.”
John looked at her doubtfully. “Jane?”
“Just a few nicks?”
She made a lunge forward with the knife, and stumbled to a curtsy. “No, further,” she heard the command. “Kneel down. My dear,” said the Queen of New Mothers, “we’ve been waiting an eternity for this meeting.”
Jane knelt, her forehead touching the floor. The smell was a trifle musty, like a floor washed down with water, but not aired properly.
“Jane, please, you’re biting my leg. Get up,” said John.
She hadn’t noticed before how dirty his pants were. No one had time to do the laundry anymore.
She stood up quickly, allowing him to take the knife from her hand.
“You washed the floor again, John,” she said. “Thank you.”
John put the knife in the drawer and slammed the drawer shut. He sank into his chair. A restless panic had run its course and settled in his blinking blue eyes. Jane felt her breasts gorge with milk. There had to be a good joke in there somewhere, but she couldn’t for the life of her find it. Her sore, leaking nipples, John’s scared silence. “I don’t know what’s happening to me,” Jane said. “I wish I was a secret drinker, or I took drugs. Something that might give me a clue.”
She heard Dot ga-gaing down the hall. She heard an angel teetering on the edge of a melody, something like “Joy to the World.” She remembered John and her: every day threading their sequins and combing their wings before they stepped onto the stage as The Singing Angels. Jane and John in white glitter and powdered wigs and stiff clip-on wings. And Billy, where was he nowadays? In his moose-head cap with the rubber antlers, his baton slicing the air? The kitchen was flush with sudden bright light. A storm-roar rattled the windows. Lightning made skeletons dance on the ceiling. John, storky, alert, escaped to go check on Dot.
Jane squeezed out a spurt of blood from her cracked nipple and thought about the voice she had once. Tra-la-laing under the glockenspiel in Munich and candles unfurled their scents and every heart pumped Hallelujah. Loud shrieks from the wilderness down the hall. The aureoles, bright spirits, pranced before her, brought her to her feet, guided her wobbling down the hall.
Jane found them in the bedroom. Dot wriggling on her back in her crib.
“The itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water sprout,” John sang, making a shadow with his hand. Looky, looky, how the shadows dance between the curtains. The shadow-spider scurried up the curtain, running away from Jane.
Jane crept out of the room. And heard the mothers thrashing through deep woods. Give us air! Give us light!
“We’ve got to get a book of children’s rhymes,” she said to John. The aureoles blazing did a jig on the walls and Jane grinned dopily across the space of the carriage, the walker, the toys scattered around them. “Baaa-baaa black sheep,” she began. And then she fell. A pratfall, and pulled John with her.
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