Before and After

That was the winter the baby was born sick, Dan dropped dead, and Ian smashed the station wagon into a tree. We'd been married five years, Ian and I; Dan and Marta only two. The baby was our first. The house Ian and I bought on the Cape was a wreck compared to Dan and Marta's brick colonial in Cambridge.

Ian broke sixteen bones; eight ribs, a femur, a wrist, a clavicle, three fingers, and two toes in that accident. The car was totaled. The tree came through unscathed except for a narrow horizontal gash. It healed quickly. By spring it was almost impossible for passersby, jogging or walking down the beach road, to tell where the bark had been disturbed.

The rest of us were slower to recover.

The baby spent most of the winter in a plastic box in Boston. By spring I brought her home to the Cape, but it was summer before I finally saw a glimmer of a person in her eyes, such a relief after so many hours shuttling from one hospital to another, from one doctor to another, after being so angry at Ian I wanted to suck the life out of him and breathe it into her. When she was well enough for me to feel safe giving her a name, I named her Cara Lucia. Dear light. She deserved it.

Dan died in the cold after the baby was born, before Ian hit the tree. Eighteen degrees. Wind chill factor minus five. Jogging down Massachusetts Avenue when his pulmonary artery blew. The call came at six a.m.

"Don't come," Marta said, her voice eerie, calm.

At six thirty she called again. A mourning dove sat cooing on an electric wire outside my kitchen window. Talk about a cliché.

"Will you come? Will you come right now?"

- - -

Dan was a short man; powerfully built, a doctor, a singer, a sailor, a small man with a big heart. It blew up, running. Dead on the street in Cambridge. In the cold. In the early morning. My baby girl still in a box in a hospital in Boston. Ian, asleep, sleeping off a drunk, in front of the blue glow of the TV in our tumble-down bedroom on the Cape.

- - -

"I'm pregnant," Marta said.

She ripped open the plastic bag. Dan's blue and white running shoes fell to the floor. The navy blue sweat shirt and pants the nurses scissored off him in the ER fell open at the cuts. Marta laid them out on the bed and threw herself on top of them.

Months later Ian lay in a hospital bed on the Cape, his right leg hung like a haunch of beef, skewered through, to keep his splintered thighbone immobile.

"Get me out of here," he said. "Get me more drugs. Get me a beer."

I sat in a chair in a corner of the room, my knees pulled tight to my chest, my dress pulled over my legs. It was cold in that room. Marta came in. The bulge in her belly was beginning to show. She was smiling.

- - -

I remembered then. Marta in Tucson, before Ian, before Dan, standing in the backyard with a boa constrictor draped around her shoulders like a shawl. I remembered the sun, the big orange ball burning the tops of our heads.

- - -

"If I had a gun I'd shoot you," Marta told Ian, still smiling.

"Get me more Demerol. No. Forget that. That stuff doesn't work for shit. Get me some morphine. Dan's a doctor. Call Dan. Dan can get me some."

I started to say, "Dan's dead."

Marta grabbed my hand, pulled me out of the chair, out of the room.

Before, months before Ian hit the tree, we were on a boat in Chatham Harbor. Dan's bitch ex-wife, after all the wrangling, let the kids go out on the boat to dump their father overboard. As soon as we motored out, the wind picked up. The box lid stuck. The youngest son, one of two from Dan's first marriage, tried and tried. When the kid banged the box against the boat rail the top shot off. Lumps of ash hit the deck and broke apart. The wind lifted them, spreading them out, blowing them back, into our faces, our eyes, our mouths.

"He would have loved this," Ian said, picking pieces of something - I didn't want to know what - out of his hair.

- - -

I remembered my mother then.

"They'll be just fine," my mother had said when I told her they were lost at sea, that the Coast Guard refused to look for them because of the storm, because the swells were too big. I smiled to myself. Ian and Dan. Gone so unceremoniously. Eleven a.m. the next morning, the call came. They were in the Chatham Squire having a beer, Dan doing the talking. Ian laughing in the background.

"We rode it out. What a night. Hallucinated chariots galloping the waves."

"See," my mother said, "What did I tell you. They're just fine. I knew they would be. Dan's a doctor."

That was years ago, years before Dan dropped dead, long before Ian hit the tree, long before the baby was born - my sweet baby.

- - -

Chop, chop, chop. A mirror. A razor blade. Row upon row of lines. Dan and Ian chopping away. Before. Long before.

"Freud did it," Dan said, "Promise me Janie. You won't tell Marta."

- - -

Marta's baby was still in her belly. My baby was healthy and big, a big glowing girl, my Cara Lucia. Dan was dead. Ian had hit the tree. We sat in the backyard of my house on the Cape scanning books, looking for baby names.

The boy in Marta's belly did a flip.

"You know," she said. "Dan went to see her every day."

"Where? Who?"

"To the hospital. To see Cara. He went every day, just to check."

"I didn't know."

"That was Dan."

"Dan the man."

I turned toward the back of the house. Inside Ian, pencil thin, hobbled past the window.

"Leave him," Marta said.

A red squirrel skittered along a bough above our heads. A pinecone fell and hit my foot.

"Did I ever tell you the story about the time some guy brought a parrot to our Fourth of July party and left it perched in that tree, and the next day it pelted the yard with pinecones until Ian found the guy and he came and took the damned bird away?"

"Only about a million times," she said.

Marta put down the book and rubbed her belly with both hands. The air smelled of pine and low tide on the bay at the end of the street.

"Just leave him, Janie. Nothing is going to change. Nothing."

Inside the house the baby began to cry.

"Naptime's over," I said. "Want a soda? Some coffee? How about a cup of tea?"

Do it for Dan. That's what I told myself. A CPR course, one night only. Cardiac pulmonary resuscitation and the Heimlich maneuver, two for the price of one. Marta had had her baby by then, a big healthy boy. She'd moved back to Tucson. My baby had taken a few shaky steps. It was winter, another winter. So cold. Too cold. I called my friend Annie.

"I'll go," she said. "But you'll have to drive."

The room upstairs in the Town Hall had high ceilings, tall windows, a view of the parking lot below. The instructor's voice echoed. We sat in folding chairs. Outside it started to snow. There was a trunk on the floor, dark brown with metal corners like the trunk I took to summer camp when I was a kid.

"Meet Maxine," the instructor said.

He whipped the resuscitation dummy out of the trunk, up into view. It was dressed in a dark blue sweatsuit, and blue and white running shoes.

I stood up, leaned over, and threw up all over the dirt colored floor.

"What's the matter with you?" Annie said.

But that was after; long after the baby was born, long after Ian hit the tree, long after Dan died, so long after Dan died.

About the author:

Joan Wilking's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications including The Mississippi Review, In Posse, The Salt River Review, The Harvard Summer Review and Atlantic Unbound. She lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts.