The Story Of
In a coffee shop on Dead Elm Street, Norma arranges chicken bones on her plate, making an arrow that points to her stomach, where the chicken now resides. She once saw a picture of a hen in a science book. The hen had been split open down the breast, unzipped like a parka. Inside was a chain of eggs, rubbery as tapioca, small getting smaller until they almost disappeared. Nothing like the basket of fried chicken Norma has just finished eating, but sickening all the same.
The waitress says, “If it’s all the same to you I’ll—”
“It’s never all the same.” Norma’s thinking of the eggs. “It changes a tiny bit every time.”
But the waitress keeps talking. “— just close out your check, ’cause we’re switching shifts.”
Outside, cars slow to the stop sign. Dead Elm Street is not a dead-end street, but Norma imagines a remedy, a couple of concrete barriers that could cut Dead Elm in half, leaving behind North Dead Elm and South Dead Elm, two streets instead of one. Inconvenient for getting across town, but satisfying: Dead Elm the dead end. Procreation by division, just like the amoebae.
“Wait. Do you have any walnuts?” Norma asks.
“No. No walnuts, no pecans, no filberts. No nuts. Walnuts?” the waitress asks again.
“They get you pregnant.”
“Walnuts get you pregnant?”
“I read it on the Internet.”
The waitress curls her mouth into a half-smile like she’s saying, I doubt it. She’s a pretty waitress but all of her good looks didn’t make her a genius, so Norma wonders what the heck the waitress knows about the health benefits of walnuts.
Norma eats lunch here every day since she lost her job. She and the waitress often talk. They are used to each other the way people are used to their TV sets, a hum that keeps them warm even if they aren’t listening to the broadcast.
Norma slides out of the booth.
The stalls in the ladies’ room are made of aluminum. Norma rests her head against this coolness while she pees. In the stall wall she can see a distorted reflection of herself. The dark chestnut hair dye she tried last week makes every minor bump and blemish on her pale face bright red, raw as a goth girl. The hairs on her cheeks seem unnaturally white and furry next to her nearly black hair. While she picks at her skin she feels something familiar—a peeling, a pain. In the toilet a streamer of blood sinks to the bottom of the bowl, a dark, dead fish.
Yesterday Norma asked the waitress how long it took her to get pregnant and the waitress said, “I don’t know. Fifteen minutes?”
“No. I mean, how many times did you have to try?”
And she said, “Try? What do you mean, honey?”
The waitress has three kids. She doesn’t seem to like any of them.
Norma’s been trying to get pregnant for over two years, and each time she gets her period a small bit of strength leaks out of her. Iron and blood. Each month she thinks maybe it worked this time. She’ll walk very carefully up stairs and avoid lifting anything heavy. Just in case. But then, every month her period comes, a cellar door slamming shut. Something is not working and Norma does not want to go to the doctor to find out what. She doesn’t want medical confirmation saying she’ll never be able to have children. She’d rather keep some hope intact. But hope is very hard to do.
Norma’s shoulders have begun to slump. Her eyes often shift between what she is looking at and the ground. It’s cold comfort, but Norma imagines the deaths these non-babies would have had to die had they ever been born: car crashes, heart disease, cerebral hemorrhage. At least she has spared her non-babies all that dying.
And no one needs a baby. The survival of the species is not at risk, so Norma says nothing about all this wanting even when Ted, her own husband, acts like an asshole.
“I’m ovulating,” Norma will tell him while staring at the bedroom carpet, humiliated. And Ted groans from a place so low in his belly, a place where he stores the worst pains, as if to say any chore would be preferable, taking out the garbage, vacuuming the basement, regrouting the tub. Please. Norma stands on the sides of her feet to feel the ache all the way down in her skeleton.
In the bathroom stall, she zips her pants up, grabs her stomach, shaking it a little, poking her belly. “Hey,” she says in the empty bathroom. “Wake up, ovaries.”
There’s a message, graffiti on the wall. Give me a call. 1-800- fuckin’a . She dials the number on her cell phone.
“Hi. 1-800- FUCKIN’A?”
“No. Sorry. We’re 1-800- DUBL-INC. Doubles Incorporated, providing goods and services for the Procreation by Division Industries.”
“Procreation by division?”
“Yeah. You know. Like the amoebae.” Norma hangs up so quickly it may be possible that the phone call never even happened.
On the way home Norma walks past a number of construction sites and some old farms where the grass grows as high as her waist. Strip malls, hills, grasshoppers, people, they all multiply. Norma bites her nails and spits the bits into the rounded, ripe fields. She leaves a trail of her DNA.
A rustling speeds up behind her like an enormous snake. Norma turns. A woman is pedaling quite furiously on a tiny BMX bike with fluorescent green tires, looking like some half- mad delivery person. Her chin is stuck out in front of her like an ape. Her face is sharp. The blades of her cheekbones have been accentuated by two brutish swaths of rouge. The woman wears her dark hair feathered back with a bandana rolled and tied across her forehead as if fashions had not changed since 1981. She looks tough, dirty, terrified. Perhaps even a little bit retarded. Her eyes are watery and distracted as an addict’s.
Though they are the only two people on the road, the woman stares straight ahead. She clenches her lips around a cigarette while she pedals, one hand on the handlebars. She doesn’t blink. She glides past Norma and is gone.
Creepy, but creepy like a humongous pile of insects crawling all over one another, a pile of insects Norma would want to stare at or poke with a long stick.
A few summers back Norma and Ted moved into a development called Rancho de Caza. It was what they could afford and Ted promised they wouldn’t spend their whole lives living in a development. At the time, Rancho de Caza was not a gated community. Norma had insisted on that. But then there was a spate of burglaries, and after a thirty-eight-year-old mother from Lilac Lane was lashed to a kitchen chair with duct tape and thrown into her swimming pool, the board of Rancho de Caza changed their minds. Even though the woman lived. Now when Norma walks home she must stand in front of the guard house, wave to the man inside, and wait while he swings open two white wrought-iron gates big enough for an eighteen-wheeler. The gates make Norma feel like a mouse entering a giant’s city. They close behind her. She scurries down Day Lily Street before taking a left on Daffodil.
Rancho de Caza has certain rules, bylaws. Grass must be cut. No lawn ornaments bigger than one and one-half feet. No unapproved swing sets. No compost piles. Two trees maximum per yard. Norma and Ted got lucky. They have a nice tall sycamore that shades the Mediterranean roof tiles. All the houses in Rancho de Caza have Mediterranean roof tiles. The sycamore’s leaves are larger than Ted’s hand, so large a neighbor once complained that Ted and Norma should pay for his Guatemalan lawn guy because one of the development’s laws is: leaves must be raked, bagged, and thrown away once a week from October 1 to November 31. “They’re not my leaves,” the neighbor said. Norma and Ted stared blankly over the low fence that divided the properties, hoping if they ignored the matter it would go away.
Caza. What a bunch of idiots.
It’s not really the same old story: bored couple in suburbia. Norma loves Ted. He is very kind. He looks a bit like a news anchor, or maybe a local TV weatherman, a tennis pro. Handsome first, then well-groomed, then smart.
When Ted and Norma first met he was still living at home with his parents, growing hydroponic marijuana in the family basement. He was twenty-six at the time and made a living driving the local library’s bookmobile to the rougher parts of the city and out to the old folks’ home. Sometimes Norma would ride in the van with him. They’d get high in the bookmobile, flip through the children’s books together, and make out. Norma loved to watch Ted as he helped little redneck girls or senile old men pick out something good to read in the van where she and Ted had just been kissing. It all seemed so generous. People always left the van surprised. “You mean, I can just take this book?” And Ted would nod yes, yes, you can.
But then Ted turned twenty-seven, and two days after his birthday his father asked to have a word with Ted and his mother. Ted’s father confessed that he had another family, a whole other family, another wife, another house, and another kid, a girl, only she wasn’t a girl anymore, she was a woman. All these years, all those sales calls and business trips were lies. Even the two Christmases he’d claimed to be caught in Chicago snowstorms. He was lying. He was a few towns away at his other family’s house. Ted’s father said he was sorry. He said he wasn’t quite sure how things had gotten so out of control. Ted’s father said that the new sister was anxious to meet her sibling. Ted didn’t believe that for an instant. His father said he felt great. He’d been wanting to tell them for so long. He was relieved that the telling was over. Ted’s mother said Ted’s father was lower than the lowest species of worm and then threw him out of the house. “And if you ever think about coming back or even calling, don’t,” she said. “I’ll buy a gun and if I can’t get a gun I’ll just use a piece of broken glass to gouge your eyes out while you sleep.”
Ted woke up the following morning, went to the basement, and ripped up every single stalk of marijuana he had growing there. He took the plants out back to the leaf pile and set the whole thing on fire. Ted bought his first suit and filled out three applications for entry-level management positions, one at a wholesale imported food distributor, one at a textile company, and one at a home supply ware house. He didn’t get any of the jobs, but the next week he went and filled out three more applications. Then he asked Norma to marry him, and Norma, also shaken by the news that someone’s entire life can be a lie, said yes. She loved Ted.
Last night Norma and Ted had chicken breasts, broccoli, and couscous for dinner. Later, when the development went quiet, Ted stepped outside. Norma didn’t know what he was doing out there—surveying the property for wild beasts or burglars—but when he came back he smelled like fresh air. Ted and Norma went to bed and held each other underneath the covers.
Home from the diner, she checks the messages. “Hi, Norm, are you there? Are you there? I guess you’re not there.” Outside, an airplane passes overhead, making a shadow on her back lawn. She watches it go and the house is quiet again. Earlier she’d been surfing the Web, looking at a TTC, Trying to Conceive, chat room.
- baby@43 : thanks to clomid I tried to shove DH down the stairs yesterday.
- sterile ms. : just found out health insurance won’t pay for my two $15,000 IVFs that didn’t work
- wannabb : implantation bleeding? anyone?
- baby@43 : implantation bleeding is a myth spread by women who have no trouble conceiving. there’s no such thing, wannabb. that’s yer period
Women are mean to each other in the TTC chat rooms. Even Norma can get mean. She’ll type in, Good luck to someone, but she doesn’t mean it plainly. She means it more like Fat chance. You’re too old. Much older than me. You’re never going to have a baby.
She looks past her computer, out into the backyard. There is something in the tree. Something large and dark. It is a mass like cancer or a squirrel’s nest. She lets her eyes focus. And there it is, and she couldn’t be more surprised. It’s a beautiful hawk, a tremendous, beautiful, speckle- breasted hawk come to visit Rancho de Caza. In all the years that Norma has lived in this development she has seen goldfinches, blue jays, cardinals even, pigeons, sparrows, swallows, starlings, crows, grosbeaks, and wrens, but she has never seen a bird of prey. It’s preening its breast on a high branch. Norma can make out its bright yellow talons and beak, its long tail of secure feathers.
“What are you doing here?” Then, as certainly as if the hawk had answered her itself, she knows. “You’re here to tell me that I’m going to have a baby, aren’t you?” Norma says it out loud to confirm the bird’s meaning. She feels all the weight in her arms, all the gloom of getting her period disappear. “Thank you.” She’s sure of the sign, so she picks up the cordless phone to make it real.
“Ted Jonsen, please.
“You won’t believe it.
“No. There’s a hawk in the backyard.
“Yeah, I’m sure. It’s huge.
“Damica? They’re coming this weekend.
“I think the hawk is a good—
“Umm, I think Saturday.
“Maybe some cranberry juice.
“Okay. See you soon.
Norma hangs up and her heart snags. The sign seems less certain now. The bird is gone, and Norma wishes she’d done things differently. Take a bit of good news and Norma will always spread it out thin over the telephone lines, until all she has left is a small smudge, a quickly fading memory of the color yellow and the white-speckled feathers.
There’s a few chat strings streaming in front of her: HSGs, D&Cs, OPKs, and BBTs. There is also a box you can click to send someone who is TTC some Baby Dust. It’s a virtual gift that arrives over e- mail. Norma already sent herself some a couple of months ago. Storks, smiley faces, pink and blue bits of electronic confetti. It didn’t work. Do cancer websites have asinine toys like that? Chemo dust to sprinkle for a cure?
She looks away from her computer again and there in the backyard is a BMX bicycle with fluorescent-green tires, one wheel spinning slowly in the breeze. Norma steps out the back slider barefoot, her toes in the warm grass. No one’s there. She looks up through the branches of the sycamore tree. Nothing. Norma rights her neck.
The woman with the addict eyes stares at Norma. She’s no more than two narrow feet away. She looks like she’s hungry.
“You scared me.” Norma keeps her voice calm and friendly the way one might with a cruel dog.
Norma sees now that the woman is filthy. Tiny capillary lines of sweaty grit swoop across her neck like a tidal shore. Her fingernails are rimmed with dirt as if she crawled out of a grave. There’s a large dark birthmark on the woman’s collarbone. It could be the mother ship, the epicenter of all this dirt. The woman is missing a side tooth, a dark hole that sucks in all of Norma’s attention.
There is a power to her filth that keeps Norma from screaming or calling the cops. There’s power in the woman’s lacy black tank top, in her cutoff corduroys and oversized camouflage coat.
“You scared me,” Norma repeats herself. The woman is breathing heavily. “Can I help you with something?”
“What’s your name again?” the woman asks, as if Norma had already volunteered this information.
Hypnotized by the missing tooth, Norma answers. “Norma. What’s yours?”
“Yes. What’s your name?”
“Norma. Are you deaf?”
“That’s my name.”
“Well. It’s my name also.”
The woman cracks her knuckles. She kicks at something underfoot. A starling titters from a tree and Norma wonders why the camo coat. Norma doesn’t believe her. “I’ve never met another Norma in my life.”
“I’m an old friend of Ted’s. Can I get something to drink?” Dirty Norma asks. “I’ve been riding my bike.”
Norma considers offering her the garden hose until she remembers her manners. “Yes, of course,” Norma says. “A glass of water.”
“Got any soda?” She follows Norma inside the sliding back door.
“Okay. All right,” Norma says. “A soda.” They file into the kitchen. Norma doesn’t keep soda in the fridge but she’s got a can in the pantry. “You live around here?” Norma wonders about the guard, how she got past.
“No. You like it?”
“ There’s a lot of rules. We’re not going to stay here forever.”
“You’re not allowed to have more than two trees in your yard.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“So then why do you do it?” Dirty Norma asks. “Why don’t you just start planting lots of trees? What are they going to do? Come dig them up? Take away your trees?”
Norma has been standing in the pantry door, looking into the darkness for a can of soda. She finds one and closes the door. She crosses the kitchen and hands her the can and a glass of ice. Dirty Norma’s bare toes are filthy in their f lip-flops. They hold the remnants of some dark purple nail polish. Norma stares at these toes against the beige and cream linoleum until she hears the pop of the can. There is the hiss of the bubbles. There are the gulping breaths of air as Dirty Norma swallows the entire soda without ever putting it on ice. She hands Norma the can, the cold, unused glass. Dirty Norma belches and Norma can smell the corn syrup on her breath.
“Why don’t I give Ted a call?”
“Go right ahead.” So Norma does, taking the cordless into the dining room, out of earshot. “Hi. So, there’s a friend of yours here.
“Yeah weird, right?”
Norma lowers her voice to a dead whisper. “How do you know her?
“Fine, tell me later.”
When she hangs up, Dirty Norma is no longer standing in the kitchen. Norma hears the television in the living room. Dirty Norma has made herself at home. She’s watching the end of a talk show. The topic is bullies. Norma stands behind her, staring at the woman’s head. Her hair is matted with grease. Dirty Norma turns. “Hope you don’t mind I turned on the tube.”
“Make yourself at home,” Norma says. “Ted’ll be here soon.”
Dirty Norma points her index finger at Norma, a gun, a finger parting the hedge. You’re lonely. Just like me. “So, you want to have a baby,” she says. Dirty Norma jerks her chin toward the computer screen. The monitor’s been shaken awake, someone’s hand on the mouse.
And Norma nods her head yes. This woman does not seem to be the sort who might say, Oh, I just know it’s going to work out for you soon! So Norma decides to tell her about it. She’s trying to formulate words that explain what her life without a baby feels like, but none of the words are right. It hurts. It’s unjust. That sounds dumb. Teenagers are locking their newborns in broom closets. Also dumb. Infertility is death doled out in tiny, monthly doses. The clock on the micro wave f lashes 12:11, as if it’s counting down.
“That’s kind of like the trouble I’ve got,” Dirty Norma says.
And Norma stops wondering what this woman is doing here. The universe works in mysterious ways. First the hawk, then the other Norma. Norma’s face opens wide, her arms, her heart. “You can’t get pregnant either? Oh, Norma. Oh. It sucks, right? It’s awful. And think of all those years you tried to not have a baby, right? And the—”
“No.” Dirty Norma smiles slightly. Screech goes the world. “I need to get unpregnant.”
“Unpregnant.” Norma’s dry lips stick together.
“Yeah. I thought Ted could help me.”
“I need some money.”
“Ted’s my brother.”
The air has fled Norma’s lungs. Even this meth-head disaster of a human being can get pregnant. There is frozen, hardened steel in Norma’s veins. Unwanted cells divide and multiply in Dirty Norma’s belly. Norma backs away, fearing a fog of violence. Norma imagines blood, clawing the sides of her thighs as she leaves. “There’s more soda if you want.”
Ted ducks his head back into his car, reaching across the seat for something. He emerges and looks not at Norma but into the corner of the garage where they’ve stashed a highway yield sign stolen in Ted’s younger days. “She’s my sister, Norm.” Ted turns to face her. His eyes bug out. “My sister.”
“Your dad’s other—”
It’s not something they have often spoken of, and when he brings her up now Norma realizes how Ted has grown into being a fearful person and how she, Norma, has helped him do that.
“Have you met her before?” She gives Ted back dimensions he once had. Maybe he still has them. The possibility he might have a secret, be a secret. The possibility of kindness and depth, wonder, and maybe even grief.
“She came by my office today. Some friend of a friend of hers works there and told her that there was a Ted Jonsen in receiving. She just showed up. It freaked me out. She wants to borrow money. She scared the receptionist, so I told her to meet me here instead.”
“She rode her bike. A little boy’s BMX.”
Ted nods. “She’s my sister, Norm.”