by Maria Brandt
Frances had skipped two periods before she realized what was going on. “I’m lucky,” she bragged to Sarah over milkshakes at the corner store. “I haven’t had my period in eight weeks, no tampons for me, I beat the system.” Sarah’s mouth dropped, and that’s when Frances became aware of the extent of her self-deceit. Now, she sits cross-legged on the floor in Jack’s bedroom shuffling a deck of cards while Jack moves laundry from the washer to the dryer in the basement, his parents in the city at a hospital benefit.
She remembers decorating the basement in her own home two years earlier for her sixteenth birthday party. Her mother had been in one of her moods, so her father had picked up Sarah and taken the two of them to CVS to buy twenty-seven feet of multi-colored streamers and a bag of medium-sized balloons. “I think we should make a giant stethoscope,” Frances said to Sarah while climbing an old step-ladder, “like the one my grandmother has.” “Why not a heart?” Sarah replied. She remembers thinking Sarah lacked ambition.
Still in Jack’s bedroom, Frances puts down the cards and lies on her back on the floor. Spreading her fingers so her palms press into the wood, she can hear Jack banging around the basement and wonders whether or not he uses fabric softener. She knows fabric softener contains toxic chemicals like ethanol and camphor that deteriorate a person’s neuropathways, and others that cause pancreatic cancer or fatal edema, and she berates herself for knowing this but not putting two and two together about her missing periods.
She thinks again about that night two years earlier, about trying to make that stethoscope, wrapping her fingers around the streamers, twisting them into lines and curves, then asking Sarah for her opinion. “It looks like a glazed doughnut,” Sarah said. Later, at the party, Jack gave Frances a present wrapped in old newspaper. She had invited him because he offered unusual anecdotes about medical breakthroughs in Mr. Elwise’s Biology class. “Did Elwise ever get back to you about that monkey neurogenesis study?” she asked when he handed her the present, the overhead lights making his nose look slightly larger than it was. “Nah, he’s useless,” Jack replied. After ripping open the newspaper and finding a used copy of Gray’s Anatomy like the one her grandmother had on the bookshelf in her living room, Frances felt her stomach flutter. That night, right before the ambulance came, she kissed Jack for the first time while Sarah cheered them on from the corner.
“Hey,” Jack says, laundry basket in his arms, Frances lying on his bedroom floor. “What are you thinking about?”
“Do you use fabric softener?”
“Of course not, fabric softener contains neurotoxins,” Jack replies. He watches while Frances sits cross-legged again and while she picks up the deck of cards. “You wanna play Strip Poker?” he asks.
“Then what?” He sits next to her on the floor, his hand resting casually on her bare knee.
“I thought maybe we could tell fortunes,” Frances says. “Sarah taught me last week.”
“Sure, and then we can drive to the beach.”
Frances pushes his hand off her knee, but she misses him when he crosses the room to open a window. She finds the four Queens and turns them face-up on the floor. “Okay,” she says, “now you have to ask a question.”
“How bad will traffic be on the bridge?”
“It has to be a yes/no question.”
“Will traffic be bad on the bridge?”
She’s impressed that he doesn’t miss a beat, that he can rephrase his question so expertly. She wants to tell him this but instead asks him to concentrate and to choose a card from the deck, so he chooses the Three of Diamonds, and she places his card above the matching Queen of Diamonds. “Diamonds mean maybe,” she explains. “Traffic might be bad, might not.”
“That’s playing it kind of safe, don’t you think?”
“My turn,” Frances says. She squeezes her eyes tight until small tears begin to form, then chooses a card. It’s the Nine of Diamonds.
The night of her party, two years earlier, her father collapsed while making homemade popcorn over the stove. Frances heard the crash, then her mother’s screams. She rushed upstairs and saw her father lying stiff on the floor. She flung herself across his torso and felt her mother pulling her shoulders, trying to get her off him, but she knew blood wasn’t moving through his body, which meant no oxygen was getting to his heart, which meant his heart’s cells were dying rapidly and she didn’t know what kind of monkey tests had been done to shed light on the regeneration of a left ventricle.
She places the Nine of Diamonds above Jack’s Three of Diamonds and remembers thinking months after the funeral that her father would never have a conversation with Jack, would never know that Jack’s nose in fact was lovely, would never know that two days after the party, when she was sick with grief, Jack had quizzed her on the cellular make-up of bone marrow, would never know that she didn’t mind when Jack found out she used to think Gray’s Anatomy had been named after the television drama and not the other way around, would never know that Jack had figured out the streamers at her party were supposed to look like a stethoscope and not like a glazed doughnut or unambitious heart.
“No fair,” Jack says. “You need to ask your question out loud, that’s what I did.” His hand rests on her knee again.
“Well? What did you ask?”
“Give me a minute,” Frances says and breathes more heavily than she would like. “Will you and I have a baby?”
Jack squeezes her knee and sort of lies on top of her. “I hope so, Frannie girl,” he whispers while shifting his weight, “I hope so.”
“No,” Frances says, “I meant will we have a baby now.”
“Well, in seven months,” she says with finality.
Years ago, Frances’s parents took her and Sarah to the beach. They drove over the bridge, then parked the old station wagon in Field Three and carried chairs and a cooler up wooden stairs and over dunes to a spot near the lifeguard. Her parents spread a blanket over the sand and Frances watched while her mother touched the back of her father’s neck and whispered something in his ear. “What’s up?” Frances asked, but her mother took out a magazine and leaned into her chair. Later, Frances watched while her mother offered her father a sandwich. “Can I have one?” she asked, but her mother closed the cooler and looked to the waves. In the silence following her proclamation in Jack’s bedroom, Frances wonders if her mother wished that day that Frances would get sucked into those waves, or discreetly swallow enough neurotoxin to reduce her brain-energy metabolism, or do anything to disappear so her mother could make popcorn alone with her father every night before climbing into their great big bed.
“A baby in seven months,” Jack repeats. “Teeth are forming right now, an inner ear, even sex organs.” He pauses, then moves his hand to her belly. “May I?”
“You’re being awfully formal,” Frances says, but she lets his fingers make small circles on the skin under her t-shirt.
“What now?” Jack asks.
“What do you mean?”
His fingers linger on her belly and he slides closer so her head can rest against his shoulder. “My grandmother left me her ring,” he says. “Frannie girl, that ring is yours.”
Earlier that week, when Frances was doing her own laundry, her mother and grandmother were making grilled-cheese sandwiches upstairs in the kitchen. “I miss him,” she heard her mother say. “You need to take care of Frances,” her grandmother replied. “You always think of her, never of me,” her mother said. Frances opened a new box of fabric softener and thought about putting a sheet in with her mother’s underwear. Instead, she closed the box and hid it behind some old pipes.
“That ring is yours,” Jack repeats. She holds his hand and looks into his eyes, which remind her of her father’s eyes, brown like dirt overturned to dig a hole deep enough for a coffin. She remembers that shortly after she watched that coffin go into the ground, her grandmother pushed her stethoscope across the kitchen table. “It’s yours now,” she said to Frances, “I was alone, but I used this every day in my practice, it kept me company.” Frances remembers thinking her grandmother wasn’t alone, not really, because she had Frances’s mother, just like Frances’s mother wasn’t alone because she had Frances.
“Your eyes are like dirt,” she says to Jack, then regrets it, but he smiles.
“Freshly-turned dirt,” he says, “earthworms expanding and contracting their bodies to burrow and make things grow.”
Frances wonders how she got so lucky, how she found someone who understands her so well. “Yes,” she says.
“Yes to earthworms?”
“Yes to the ring.”
Later that afternoon Sarah braids her hair. “You really said yes?” Sarah asks while placing her hands firmly on Frances’ scalp. “What about college? What about med school? Why didn’t you use the cards, do more fortunes, don’t you think that would have been wise?”
“I’m serious. Diamonds mean maybe, Hearts mean yes, Spades mean no, Clubs mean probably, you just match your cards, they make the decision for you, it’s easy, you can’t go wrong.”
“I said yes.”
“Did you mean it?”
Frances looks down at her hands. “I don’t know,” she says. A year after her father died, she overhead her mother talking on the phone with her grandmother. “It’s hard for me, it’s hard for all women,” she heard her mother say. “Not you, you became a doctor, you beat the system, but—” Her mother stopped talking, and Frances wondered what system she might have meant, or what she might have realized that shut her up. Later that night, Frances decided to beat the system herself. She took off Jack’s jeans for the first time, let him take off her underwear, told him she loved him and that she wanted to experience penetrative sexual intercourse.
“I think I meant yes,” Frances continues while Sarah still braids her hair, “but I don’t know.”
“Why not?” Sarah asks.
“What if I’m like my grandma?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if I become a doctor and stop loving Jack, or care so much about being a doctor that I don’t pay attention to it? Or if I’m like my mom and love my husband but don’t ever really love it?”
Sarah’s eyes get all misty. “That’s a baby, Frannie,” she says, “not an it.”
“It’s a fetus, maybe even an embryo, but not a baby, and I can get an abortion.” Sarah pulls hard on Frances’s newly-braided hair and Frances welcomes the pain.
The next day, she sits at her grandmother’s kitchen table and looks out the window while her grandmother boils water. She watches a squirrel circle up a black locust and thinks about the locust’s trunk, wide and sturdy, almost threatening with its weight. By the time her grandmother brews two cups of chamomile, Frances is kneeling outside on the patio studying a pile of dirt. “Frannie,” her grandmother says, “what’s wrong?”
“It’s these earthworms,” Frances says through tears, the black locust looming over her head. “I think they’re copulating.”
“No, look, they’re lined up with their backs against each other, facing different directions, that means they’re copulating,” Frances continues. “Did you know earthworms are hermaphrodites? Did you know they have both male and female sex organs?”
“I know, Frannie.”
“And they make this thing called a slime tube, kind of like mucous, and they each ejaculate into the slime tube, sending sperm into the other earthworm’s sperm receptacle?”
“Frannie, what’s wrong?” Frannie leans back into her heels and starts making small noises. Her grandmother puts down the tea cups and kneels beside her, holding Frances’s damp face and rubbing her cool fingers into the back of Frances’s shoulder. “What is it?”
“Why did you have mom?”
“Is she at you again?”
“No, I want to know why you had her, you didn’t want her, you know you didn’t want her, that she would get in your way, but you had her anyway, why?”
Her grandmother pulls back and brushes some of Frances’s hair from her face. “Frannie, I did want your mother, I love your mother, what’s this all about?”
“Do you remember when I was younger and used to work with you?” Frances says. “You used to let me take your patients’ blood pressure, you taught me how to find their pulses and how to hold the stethoscope over their arteries, the same stethoscope you gave me after Dad died?”
“I’d listen until I could hear the first pulse beat and then listen until I couldn’t hear anything at all, that’s how I read their systolic and their diastolic pressures, how I read the way their blood moved through their bodies, everything was so precise, everything was so clear.”
“That’s when I realized, even though I didn’t have the words,” Frances says, then looks again at the black locust, and at the maple just beyond, its branches fanning out from its trunk.
“That I wanted to be a doctor, like you.” Her grandmother rises and carries a steaming cup of chamomile to where Frances still sits huddled on the patio. “Why can’t we be like earthworms?” Frances says. “Why can’t we share slime tubes so everyone has eggs and everyone’s eggs get fertilized?”
That night, Frances and Sarah make popcorn over the stove. Sarah rambles on about the Ten of Clubs she drew after asking if some boy in their U.S. History class last year would break her heart, about how thin the card was, its paper face already bent with time, while Frances thinks about her father and his heart, cracked open like paper, like a broken kernel of corn. “It’s not fair,” Frances whispers.
“No kidding it’s not fair, why can’t boys step up? I don’t mean Jack, he’s one in a million, I mean normal boys, boys who don’t know how many bones are in their feet.”
While Frances melts butter for the popcorn, she wonders if her mother only had room to love her father, and if her grandmother only had room to love her work, and if traits like the capacity to love a child have a genetic component. She puts the popcorn bowl on the coffee table and goes into the bathroom to throw up.
In the morning, she notices the veins in her breasts and that she has gained two pounds. She takes out a deck of cards and pulls a Six of Spades which means abortion is no longer an option, which means she needs a new idea. Her grandmother’s car isn’t in the driveway when she arrives, so she sneaks around back. In the yard, she touches the black locust as if listening for that first pulse, that first marker of systolic pressure, but she keeps her eyes focused on the maple and its outstretched branches.
Getting to the first branch is easy. From there, she holds onto the trunk with one hand and feels for the next branch with the other, then pulls her body up again, then again, then again, until she’s sixteen-and-a-half feet from the ground, three times her body height. She makes sure soft grass is below before pressing her back into the trunk. Eyes closed, she pretends she’s an earthworm sending sperm into her mate’s receptacle, sending her uterus into her mate’s receptacle, sending her embryo, her fetus, her baby into her mate’s receptacle. She imagines the dirt and the slime and the release. Then, positioning her body so she doesn’t land on her neck or head, she jumps.
When Jack finds her, ten minutes after she texts him, she’s lying on her side in the grass, unable to move. “The cards didn’t work so I needed to figure out another way to beat the system,” she says, “and I might have killed our baby.” Jack moves to cradle her in his arms. “No,” she says, “lie next to me, but behind me, and face the other direction.”
“Like earthworms?” he asks. “When they copulate?”
Her back pressed against his back, she takes his hand and pulls it around to her slightly swelled belly while the locust, tall and forbidding, reaches for the sky.
Maria Brandt has published plays, fiction, and nonfiction in several literary magazines, including InDigest, Rock & Sling, Arts & Letters, Prime Number Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, VIDA, and upstreet. Most recently, her collection New York Plays was produced by Out of Pocket Productions and published by Heartland Plays, and her novella All the Words won the Grassic Short Novel Prize. Maria teaches Creative Writing at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY and is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers. She lives just outside Highland Park with her son William.
Image credit: Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash