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Jan/Feb 2012 Fiction

Dave Says

by Caroline Kepnes


Shelly hated hospitals, but her mother Betsy, age fifty-four, had a new baby, a baby they called a miracle, and miracles are more important than hang-ups about germs and incessant beeping. New (old) mommy and her new (not quite as old) husband Dave made the front page of the local paper. Betsy's quote: "When God saw that I don't have a granddaughter yet, he figured he'd give me another daughter!" Shelly was identified in the following paragraph: "Single receptionist, 29."

"Was the exclamation point too much, honey?"

"No, Mom."

"Dave didn't think so, either."

Shelly wanted to say that any man who buys—and wears—a T-shirt that reads MASTER OF THE UTERUS would never object to an exclamation point, but you don't start fights the day a baby is born. Birth erases your bitterness, the jerk in the parking lot who cut you off, the fact that you're not a "receptionist," the way your own mother abandoned you in some way when she took up with Dave. None of those things matter when a new human exits an older human and breathes air for the first time.

"Shelly, make sure you've got her head."

"Oh, I've got it."

It was easy to imagine Dave at the mall, whipped from selling jalopies all day, wandering into a novelty shop, chewing a sweet fat pretzel, so American he was, blushing when he spotted the T-shirt, cracking lame jokes with the kid at the register, driving home in a soft rock haze—I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky—regaling Betsy with anecdotes just like the ones from yesterday. When Betsy first started up with Dave, Shelly thought it would peter out after a few excursions for bottomless bowls of salad. But, it turned out that Betsy had a manufactured streak; she laughed at the MASTER OF THE UTERUS t-shirt. She wasn't faking it. Amazing, someone can be your mother for twenty-nine years and you think you know her, and then she's talking to you about a talent competition on TV and howling at MASTER OF THE UTERUS. Surely you came out of some other uterus. Surely you did not come from this one. Or maybe all of it is your fault. Maybe if you'd become something other than a single receptionist with drug dependency issues your mother wouldn't have developed a taste for iceberg lettuce and Paula Abdul. Or maybe birth changed you. Maybe the mother was born again after squeezing life out of her vagina. Maybe that did something to the brain. Alas, no. Nothing would have been in that vagina if Betsy hadn't liked sending her votes for some black girl with a sob story via text on a weekly basis.

"That's a nice coat you got, Shelly. Raccoon?"

"No, Dave, it's rabbit."

They said each other's names too much, as if they had to confirm that they really were speaking to one another.

"Rabbit. Even better!"

"Actually, no. Rabbit is the cheapest fur they make. I could never afford raccoon."

And then there was nothing to say, so Shelly said something nice about the baby. Shelly's father had been the anti-Dave, a fireman prone to binge drinking who committed suicide early on. The MASTER OF HER UTERUS had been what her mother called a "dark soul, you know?" His name was Carl and he'd hung himself at the tennis racket factory where he worked sometimes. Shelly had been young, too young to know what happened, too young to understand why there were all these people around suddenly. She had been only a year old and had no memory of the suicide and the months of financial and emotional nightmare that ensued. Betsy handled it all like a trooper on meth on a suicide bombing mission; head first into the future, never saying a bad word about Carl, only touching her hand to her chest and praying for his "dark soul" and telling anecdotes about what fun they had when he was in a good place, how he liked to dance and play bridge and get really drunk. "Nobody was ever as happy or angry as your father," she'd say. "He was a man of extremes." Shelly looked at Dave and looked away and fought off a mean spirited smile. Carl would probably spit at Dave's dorky T-shirt. But he couldn't do that because he was dead, so you couldn't really say he had it all figured out. She wasn't smiling anymore.

"Okay, Shelly, say cheese."

"Cheese."

"Shoot."

Dave lowered his brand new blue digital camera and started finagling with it. Betsy suggested he consult the manual, but he shook it off. Shelly had heard a lot about this camera. Blue, because Dave had insisted that the doctors were wrong, that he was having a boy; digital, because Dave intended to share pictures of his son via every imaginable form of technological sharing. Dave was a "thing" person, always drawing the conversation toward whatever new purchase he'd made, be it a fucking blender with fourteen speeds or a hundred dollar camera. Bright side of the birth: more talk of a baby, less talk about the steps one must follow in order to take a wide angle photograph of said baby.

"Okey dokey, I think we're up."

"Cheese, Dave."

"Got it." He reached for his daughter as if Shelly's bosom were a dangerous place. She cast a glance at her mother, but her mother was oblivious to Dave's subtle insults. Shelly picked up a white bunny rabbit doll. "This is cute."

Dave beamed, "It matches your jacket, Shell bell."

Shelly looked at Betsy, who kept her eyes on her address book. "Aunt Dee and Uncle Benny brought that by. They say hello."

"Oh. That's nice."

Dave kissed the baby's head as if to say, "Stay here with me so you don't turn into your sister." Shelly knew she had to get out of there fast. If she stayed, she would remind them both that Dee and Benny never sent her birthday cards and didn't allow her in their home because of an isolated incident involving peach schnapps in ninth grade. Shitheads. She squeezed the bunny. She wished she'd stopped by the gift shop. Shithead. But maybe if Dee and Benny had been nicer. Maybe she wouldn't have gone from rehab into an apartment complex that felt more like an ATM machine for STDs. Now it seemed every place she went to she had to flee. Bars weren't safe because drugs were in bars. Rooms like this weren't safe because they made her want to change the atmosphere. Sunshine made her long for rain and rain made her want to go swimming. Sometimes her mind was like a plastic bag closing in on her and she unzipped her rabbit jacket. When she finally got to her car, she was still holding the bunny doll. Shithead thief. The new baby wing seemed far away, so she decided the bunny was hers now. Poor bunny.

A week later, her mother started sniffing around.

"You sure you didn't take the bunny, even by accident?"

"Mom, no. I told you."

"Well, it doesn't make any sense."

"I didn't take it."

"Her first gift, just gone. Makes me sad."

"You have a beautiful healthy baby girl. You should be on top of the world."

"Did you check you trunk? Sometimes I throw things in the trunk, I don't even realize."

"You should ask those nurses. Nurses steal."

"Well, this is true. But imagine if they didn't. Imagine how awful I'd seem after how nice they all were."

She wanted to atone. So the day before her mother was arriving with Adeline, she went to an outlet. She would transform her home into a place you wanted to be. She figured you start with the bedroom, her bedroom that she would offer up to mother and child. She felt almost dizzy when she spotted a bed in a bag. It was marked down to nothing. You could see why nobody wanted it; giant purple flowers that don't appear in nature covered the rough fabric, as if poor people had no nerve endings or eyes. But Shelly couldn't let go of it. She liked it because it was so odd, so defiantly ugly. To think of someone in a design studio actively dreaming up these big purple flowers, to think of someone else approving the design and sending it to a factory where little immigrants stood over machines making their dreams into physical, coarse reality. This bed in a bag proved that the world was an odd and special place. And the way it was all in this one bag, the pillowcases and the sheets and the dust ruffle. There was something soothing about a bed in a bag, all the pieces sealed together, unable to hack it in the world alone, clashing with everything but each other. When she walked to the car she held it between her arms as if it were a baby.

She cleaned the hell out of her apartment, too. She sweated over each blade of her ceiling fan, mopping the tiles one by one. She stripped her bed and plopped the bed in a bag on top with a red bow. She could imagine her mother walking in, grateful. She'd admire the reduced price tag and Shelly's unique taste and Shelly would say that a new mommy deserved new sheets and they would hug and they would have fun putting it all together as baby Adeline slept nearby, too young to know what was happening.

What actually happened was very different. When mommy and baby arrived at Shelly's building, Adeline was crying and Betsy was wiped from the drive and tired and whining that Shelly should have made the bed before they got here. She didn't say anything about the purple flowers or the price. And as Shelly tried to explain that she wanted to surprise her mother, she noticed something dark sweep over her mother's face. She followed her gaze to the nightstand, where the stolen bunny sat with that stupid fake perma-grin on its stupid bunny face. Fuck.

"That's the other surprise. I got you a new one!"

"Uh, huh."

Shelly grabbed the bunny and offered it to her mother. "See I got this for Adeline. You know because the other one got stolen."

"Mmm."

Outside, a woman started to scream at her daughter to stop peeing on the stairs. It was as if the tenants knew that Betsy found this complex depressing and scary and appeared on cue, confirming Betsy's fears.

"Mom, I swear."

But a mother knows and a daughter reveals and Adeline wouldn't take the bunny and Betsy left, softly patting one daughter, telling the other daughter that this was a bad idea, that she'd head to a hotel, didn't feel safe here anyway. There was no fight. There was no big confrontion where Shelly admitted to stealing the bunny and Betsy cried and admitted to being annoyed by Shelly's entire life. There was just an awkward embrace, scant eye contact and the used but good as new if you ask Dave car heading into the night.

Shelly couldn't sleep, not with the unopened bed in a bag and the fucking bunny just sitting there. She put her rabbit jacket on over her nightshirt and got into her boots and dragged these wretched meaningful things outside toward the dumpster. A little girl in a pee-soaked nightgown popped up from inside the garbage bin, "Hey."

Shelly screamed and the urine girl laughed. "It's not funny."

"Yes it is," said the girl, her voice calling on infected cuts and expired fruit roll-ups. "What are you doing?"

"You should get out of there."

The girl stared at Shelly. Her stare was a coyote's, starved and inhumane. She pointed at Shelly's rabbit jacket, "Can my mom have that?"

"No," Shelly said, "And you should be in bed."

"Why?"

"Because it's late."

"So?"

"So go!"

The girl grabbed the bunny and ran. Betsy was right; this place was depressing and scary. She started crying and cursed herself at being the kind of person who cries here, alone, atop a bed in a bag in the middle of the night. None of her neighbors looked to see. There was nothing special about her sadness, nothing real. She was just another recovering addict having an emotional outburst. But they were wrong. There was more. There was the fact that she had lost a baby before she went to rehab. Did they know that? No. Did they know that she hadn't even known she was pregnant? Did they know that when Dave and Betsy picked her up at rehab, they acted as if she'd been at summer camp, asking about the food, the boys, the games?

"Dave says it's one day at a time from now on."

"No, Mom, Dave didn't say that. That's a motto."

"Well, he said it to me."

"But he didn't make it up."

"You're so critical."

"No, I'm not."

"You don't have to get mad because I said Dave said something. He did. That's that."

Dave chimed in then, "I'm right here, ladies."

Betsy patted his leg, "You hungry? There's an O.G. right around the corner, I think."

Were the neighbors in the car when Betsy lowered the music after the post-rehab lunch of bottomless salads? Do they know Betsy said that she had wonderful news, that she was having a baby? No. They weren't. What hurt the most was that Betsy wasn't being crude. She had become a bright-sided woman who forged into the future, who voted for the singing black girl even more when she was in danger of being cut from the competition. She didn't think Shelly would make a connection between her glorified crack fetus and her mother's miraculous expectant condition. One was a blessing, the other a foregone conclusion, gone, spared.

Shelly realized she was sweating and she took off the rabbit jacket and watched it shed the way it always did. The bunny doll had fake fur, coarse and acrylic but eternal. This stupid jacket, it was always coming undone. Dave didn't know anything about anything. If living rabbits were weak like rabbit jackets, they would freeze to death and die en masse every winter and the only rabbits in the world would be like the doll. Fake. Can my mom have that? Shelly had said no. What a bitch, right? Maybe. But if the urine girl had brought the shedding jacket home, her mom might have been pissed. Rabbit jackets are bad. That's why they're cheap, Dave. She was doing it again, thinking too hard. The doctors said you kill bad thoughts with good actions so she tossed the jacket and went back inside.

A few days later, there was screaming and then silence and then the urine girl and her mother (crack head) were lugging the bed in a bag into their dented sedan. The mom was wearing Shelly's rabbit jacket, but they left the bunny behind. It was no surprise, the poor thing was spewing cotton, yellowed, singed, its insides coming out. The fur, however, was in tact. Shelly waved to the urine girl, "Where are you guys going?"

The urine girl looked at her like she was crazy for wanting to know, which she was. These people weren't her friends; she'd spoken to the urine girl only once before.

"You moving to a new place?"

"Yeah," the urine girl grinned. "Your anus."

And then they were gone.

On Shelly's birthday, she received a package. Inside, she found a large stiff T-shirt that read I'M 2 SEXY TO BE 30. The card was signed: "Love, your family, Betsy, Adeline and Dave"

She put on the shirt and sat on the couch doing nothing but wearing the new stiff shirt, smelling it, seeing it. She could picture Dave in the mall, how seriously he must have taken Betsy's order to pick up a present for Shelly, cruising the novelty shop, chuckling in the lonely manner of some men in malls, telling the kid at the register about his troubled step-daughter, that the apple fell very far, going mute when the kid doesn't want to know more about the middle-aged man's life. She could picture her mother cackling—HAHAHAHAH! 2 SEXY TO BE 30! HAHAHAH!—and Dave sniffing dinner—pork loins, YES!

She took the T-shirt off. Dave would be amused if she tore it in half and used it to hang herself. Imagine that—she uses a gift meant to celebrate her own life to bring on her own death. Ha! It would be so hard for him to resist sharing that detail at the wake, but eventually he would tell someone and it would get back to Betsy, who would flush in anger, death having accentuated her dark side. Adeline would find out someday and feel so many conflicting feelings, relief that she'd been spared knowing her suicidal half-sister, relief that would spawn familial blood line guilt that would wane into a morbid curiosity satiated by bi-annual rummages through what photographs remained. Adeline would probably go goth for a bit, then drop it all very suddenly. Shelly looked at the birthday card again. Love, your family.

When she called her family to say thank you, they answered on the first ring. Did she want to go out to dinner? Dave had a coupon for a restaurant where birthday girls eat free. She didn't want to go but she went and when she was there she found that she did want it. She was starving and the place smelled fucking delicious and she wanted chicken scallopini and endless salad and Adeline on a bottle, non-verbal, and candles on stiff cheesecake and stoned waiters singing in unison and a photograph of her in her I'M 2 SEXY TO BE 30 T-shirt. She wanted to live inside of Dave's blue digital camera. She imagined that she was an elf or a molecule, small enough that she could wiggle her way into the sliver of space on the lens cap and just curl up in there and pose in funky t-shirts for the rest of her life. She hadn't felt this happy in a long time and felt compelled to say it out loud. Dave took Betsy's hand and squeezed and then he searched around for the waiter and called him over, "We're just about all set here, kiddo, so whenever you can get us the check, we'll be ready for it."

She couldn't sleep that night. She couldn't stop replaying that moment in her head, when they held hands. They hadn't been celebrating her birthday. They'd been celebrating their victory. They had conquered all her bad ways and wooed her into their coupon-friendly value system of endless bowls of salad and poorly woven t-shirts. She sat up in bed and felt scammed. Seduced. She was not at all better. She was just chasing a different high.

Betsy did not cut out the article about Shelly's suicide and put it in the scrapbook the way she had done with the article about her MIRACLE MOM story. She didn't even read the article. She just shredded it in the shredder that Dave had got at Staples recently—floor model + coupon—great deal! She wasn't supposed to shred things like newspapers. She was supposed to shred bills and credit card offers, things that had contained personal information. Dave says a shredder will last you forever if you only use it to protect yourself from identity theft. You can't waste the mechanism on impersonal items like catalogues or newspapers.

"Everything will last forever if you don't push it too hard," he says. "Turn off your computer every day. Charge your camera regularly so you don't wear down the battery. Keep coffee sealed tight in the freezer and it won't go bad. We'd all be a heck of a lot richer if we took care of our things and didn't work 'em to death."

He doesn't have as much to say about Shelly's passing. He only says that some people just can't make it in this world but he hopes that up there in heaven, Shelly is doing what she couldn't seem to do here, just getting along, at peace with herself.

"I'll never understand it," he says. He shakes his head and stares into the screen on his midnight blue camera and wants Betsy to come see, to remember. "She looks so happy in the pictures from her birthday."

Betsy waits until Dave is asleep in his pajamas in his bed before she goes into the den and turns on the light and unplugs his camera and scrolls through the pictures at the Olive Garden. He's right. Shelly does look happy. She doesn't look like she's about to jump out a window. She looks like she's about to jump on a trampoline. Betsy purposefully leaves the camera on, unplugged, not charging. Dave doesn't say anything the next day. He doesn't chastise her for being careless with their possessions. He just cradles Adeline and watches her drink from her bottle.

"It was an awful thing I said."

"What thing?"

"In the newspaper when Adeline was born."

"That you were happy?"

"That God felt bad for me about not having a granddaughter and let me have another daughter because of that. Something like that."

"You were only kidding."

"No I wasn't."

"Of course you were. Gals joke about that sort of thing all the time, fed up with their kids not giving them grandkids."

"Do you think that's why she killed herself?"

"Can't say," he says.

"You always have something to say."

"Except for when I don't."

"Well, you could say 'No Betsy, of course that's not why she killed herself. You're a wonderful mother and a beautiful person and she killed herself because she always had problems and addictions and none of it is your fault. It's just nature.'"

He nods. Adeline is almost finished eating. He doesn't know what to say anymore. The woman has not been the same since the damn daughter of hers jumped out the window. And he thinks he's a bastard for being irritated by her new way, shredding newspapers, leaving the camera on, unplugged. Look at him now, he's the one feeding the baby, not her! He breathes. All women are crazy. They just are and you have to love them for it or you'll die alone. He wants his Betsy back, the fun excitable exclamation point of a woman who took joy in the simple things like organization and supper. He knows she is gone now. That fuckwit daughter of hers took her away when she jumped out the window. He can picture it, that spindly legged Shelly sneaking into the bedroom, waking up Betsy and taking her by the hand to the window.

"On the count of three, Mommy."

"Really?"

"Really."

And then they jump. Splat.

It's all of his fault. If he had better ears he would have heard Shelly come into the bedroom that night. But he always liked talking more than listening. Doesn't everyone, though?

"I'll take her."

He transfers baby Adeline into New Bitter Betsy's arms. Someday, Adeline will start talking and they'll have to think of things to say back to her and if they say the wrong things, she'll grow up and stick a needle in her arm and jump out a window. Well, he thinks, maybe I just won't say anything. He opens the newspaper to his favorite section where the restaurants all compete for his wallet with their offers, two for one specials at the paper placemat local family style restaurants, ½ price apps at the places where they're always out of hand soap in the can, buy one entrée get the second one half off at the more upscale joints. Those coupons and offers mean the world to him. They make him feel powerful and important, "large and in charge" like his high school football coach used to say. Coach Shanihan always knew what to say. He knew what to say when they won and he knew what to say when they lost and he know what to say when they were in a jam because they'd all been playing like third grade girls at recess, which he generally blamed on Dave, Dave being the quarterback and all. Back then they all called Dave "Chops."

"I'm the master of your uterus, Chops. And if you can't man up and move that ball I'll rip you another pussy in addition to the one you already got."

Dave says it to himself all the time, always has, ever since high school. He says it when he's failing at fixing the lawnmower or letting his gut get too big, which is why he was so bowled over that day in the gift shop when he found that t-shirt that said MASTER OF THE UTERUS. He was trying to say it to himself now because he knew he was failing as a husband, burying his head in his coupons, as if his grieving wife wasn't just a few feet away nuzzling their baby. Say something, you pussy. Look at your wife and say something. But he couldn't think of what there was to say. When Shelly jumped out that window, she must have taken all the words, too.

 

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