The Things We Know Nothing About by Margaret Malone

Editor Colin Farstad, Fiction, July 10th, 2014

I was prepared to play it up. Strangers! Having sex! By a pregnant woman’s hedges!

margaret malone fiction nailed magazine
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I went to the burrito place, like I always went to the burrito place, the one in our old neighborhood, the one with the long lines of people waiting to order and the colored bulbs strung across the patio and the upside down neon sombreros hanging from the ceiling. Our new neighborhood didn’t have a place to order a burrito. Our new neighborhood had bored kids and no sidewalks and stop signs that nobody stopped at. Our new neighborhood was two blocks from 82nd Avenue, a busy thoroughfare of big box stores and mini-malls and giant coffee chains with crappy coffee. Also there were hookers.

In the old neighborhood, it was bikes in the front yards and hellos on the sidewalks and big trees that shaded the streets. I was finding it difficult to forget. That’s why I went back to the old neighborhood and walked into the burrito place and waited in the long line to order my veggie burrito with extra sour cream. I was pregnant and depressed and I thought a burrito might do the trick. What I wanted was for everything to go back to the way it was before.

The guy who’s always there behind the counter, the one with the big eyebrows and a radish tattooed on his forearm, he still recognized me.

His smile was all teeth.

He said, “Hey, it’s been a while.”

“Yes,” I said. I was debating whether to tell him I was pregnant. I didn’t know him at all. He was just the burrito guy.

He asked what he always asked. He said, “The usual? For here?”

And without thinking, I said what I always used to say.

“Yes,” I said. “Okay.”

I paid. He gave me an order number. No. 29. I sat down at the counter and that’s when he brought me the bottle of beer.

“Cheers,” he said. He went back to the register.

He’s right. I did always order this beer with my burrito. I didn’t want to offend him by returning it because he had remembered. He’d remembered everything. I hated offending people. My inside voice said, just shut your trap and sit with the beer. No need to drink it. Bottle’s already open and paid for. Don’t make trouble.

It had been a week since I’d had any queasy morning sickness. I sat on a small wooden stool, arms on the counter, and tried to look natural sitting next to that beer. Nobody knew anything. I tried it out in my hand. Cap off, cold glass against my palm, the familiar weight of twelve ounces. A few sips couldn’t hurt. It was just one beer. It was just a brain making a decision for a body.

I brought the bottle to my lips. I waited to be struck by lightning.

“Number twenty nine,” said the burrito guy. He slid my food across the counter and took my number. “Enjoy,” he said.

It seemed like a sign. Also, I am not one to waste a drink, a habit inherited from my mother-in-law, so I drank it.

Afterwards, I drove home to the new neighborhood. The streetlights were just coming on, overlapping with the sunset in my rearview mirror. My window was down, the radio off. The only sound was the sound of the engine and the other cars as they passed me going one direction or another. I flowed with the flow of traffic. I felt right side up. Good day sunshine. At last, here was the me I’d been waiting for.

So I did it again the next week.

And again, the week after that.

And then I kept doing it.

Week after week, it was my secret indulgence. Exhilarating, private, all mine. Back to the old neighborhood, order a burrito, drink a beer while I wait. Then, cinnamon gum on the long drive home to the unstopping stop signs and the hookers and Staffy, my husband of two springs and one summer.

Staffy has a small penis but he loves me and he married me and also he supports my art. I dabble in ceramics, occasionally selling some pieces at arts and crafts fairs on the West Coast. I’m not very good. But I really love glazing. So I stick with it. I feel the same way about Staffy. I’m no fool. I know what else is out there. Staffy may have some imperfections, the anxiety, the cologne, the nail biting, but the being married part is fun to tell people. So I stick with it.

I was trying to have the same attitude about the baby. But even then I knew that when the whole thing was over, when this baby was finally born in five months, or twenty two weeks, or one hundred and fifty four days, I’d be having a lot less fun than the fun I wasn’t having already.

I’d refused the first ultrasound at the OB’s and settled instead on the Doppler-thingy that can hear the heartbeat. I wasn’t ready to see anything yet. Hearing was enough. I needed more time. Staffy, on the other hand, couldn’t contain himself about the baby. His hands always on my barely-showing belly. Palm to my navel. Sometimes I loved this, the best we ever were. Other times, I wished I could disappear until the baby was born.

That was the thing about the beer – once I made it through the first few sips, that beer made everything better. Also beer has hops. Hops are grains. And grains are healthy. Grains are good for you. Grains are recommended by the Surgeon General.

 + + +

 The hedges were tall, as tall as a person standing on another person’s shoulders. And they were wide, as wide as a city sidewalk. They separated our backyard in the new neighborhood from the street. We never trimmed them and they were out of control. Each branch was like a hand reaching out for more. The leafy hedges were so thick nobody on one side would ever see what anybody on the other side was up to. It was the perfect place to be alone.

Until I realized I wasn’t.

The first time I understood what the hookers were doing on the street side of our hedges was the Tuesday after the week after Labor Day. And Tuesday was trash night. I loved trash night because trash night was the night before burrito night. On burrito night, I could do whatever I wanted. Like a contract had been formed between me and the universe. And I was allowed to drink once a week, and the universe was allowed to let me have a normal baby. It was pretty simple. Really, it’s the least the universe could do, leaving me in this crappy neighborhood, all pregnant and married and alone.

Staffy was bending over our bins. He was militant about separating the recycling. So careful about the smallest things. He really would make a wonderful father. Or maybe not. Maybe attention to detail makes for a terrible father. What do I know.

Staffy was on the lip of our driveway, where it meets the street, where our trashcan waits on trash night, right next to the hedges. Staffy stopped sorting and pointed out the tiny beat up Honda hatchback from the 70s, white and rusted, parked a few feet from where we were standing, on the street side of the hedges. The rusted white Honda hatchback was bouncing. And even though it was overcast and night was on its way, I could see from the streetlight that there was a woman straddling a man in the driver’s seat. A woman, facing us, bouncing up and down on the driver, facing away.

I said, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

I started to walk the ten feet to the car. I had my hand on my belly, and even though it was almost impossible to tell I was pregnant then, I was prepared to play it up. Strangers! Having sex! By a pregnant woman’s hedges!

But Staffy grabbed my arm. He said, “Don’t bother them.”

The beat up little Honda bouncing.

He said, “They might have weapons.”

I said, “They’re hookers, Staffy. Not assassins.”

Still, I decided to yell instead.

I yelled the only thing I could think of. “Hey!”

The bouncing stopped.

I yelled again. “Hey!”

And then the woman climbed off the man in the driver’s seat and the man started the white rusted hatchback. They drove off, the little car weaving left and right before settling on straight. We finished putting the trash and recycling out, but I felt sort of sick. Even with the life I’ve lived and what I know, it was kind of disturbing. It made me wonder about all the things that are going on around us all the time, the things we know nothing about.

 + + +

By our house in our new neighborhood, next to the café and the sports bar and the auto body shop, there is a business called Stumptown Tub N’ Tan. It is a nondescript storefront, by which I mean it is a storefront that I drive by and never pay attention to. A person drives by and might think, there is a business where I can go to get a tub or a tan, and then that person probably keeps driving because who really does either of those things, especially both, and at the same place. And then, after living in our new neighborhood, it occurs to me: the hookers. The hookers are the ones that tub n’ tan.

When I told Staffy, he said, “Yes. You’re probably right.”

He said, “But I bet the hookers tan on their own time. And the tubs, well, I bet they’re on the clock.”

We said nothing for a moment. Mental image of a woman, naked and skinny but with stretch marks and scars, slipping a leg into a hot tub, sharp smell of chlorine, jets on high, a hairy middle-aged man in the water, staring at her sagging breasts and whacking off.

I said to Staffy, “I wonder how often they change the water.”

 + + +

At our monthly two-person, ladies-only brunch, Staffy’s mom told the waiter she wanted a Bloody Mary, and when the waiter’s big bald head turned towards me, I put my thinking face on: I thought of water, and juice, and beer, and scotch. I made eye contact, nothing to hide. I opened my mouth, and my mouth told the waiter’s big bald head I wanted the house chardonnay. Wine, after all, seemed more civilized. Because wine is only grapes, which are fruit. And fruit is natural. Fruit is good for you. Fruit is recommended by the Surgeon General.

We sat at a table on a sunny patio, ivy growing on the wall, smell of coffee and potatoes and the fresh tar a crew was using to re-pave the street in front of the restaurant. My sense of smell these days was keen. Staffy’s mom, Vicky, waved a hand in front of her face, big gold ring, long nails painted red, then she brought the straw to her mouth and sipped, removed the celery stalk and took a crunch from it.

She said, “Del, I drank plenty when I was pregnant with Staffy.”

The tar fumes and the heavy loud clatter of metal meeting rock from the street crew made it hard to pay attention.

She crunched again and sipped and said, “We didn’t know anything then.”

The stem of my glass of chardonnay was in my hand so I gulped a healthy serving of it down. I said, “My doctor said a drink or two was fine.”

And I took another sip.

We sat across from each other and I listened to Vicky choke that stalk of celery down. I ate a breadstick from the bread basket. I hated these lunches. When Vicky got up to pee I ordered a second chardonnay. Vicky always took forever in the bathroom. I had plenty of time to polish off that first glass and put my empty on the table behind me. I knew her routine, powder on her face, lipstick on her lips, brush through her hair. What was the point of it? Death was coming anyway.

She took so long I could have ordered a third but I didn’t want to seem like a hog.

My Eggs Florentine arrived at the same time Vicky came back from the bathroom. She ordered another Bloody Mary.

The big bald waiter asked if I needed another drink.

“No,” I said. “One is enough.”

After I dropped Vicky off at her condo, I went home and sat on our cement front steps, the tiny buzz from lunch hovering around me. A woman my age walked by, pushing a baby stroller in the street, since, as I said, the new neighborhood didn’t have many sidewalks. I felt sorry for her, pushing a blanketed lump in a stroller in the middle of the day. I thought about me pushing a lump around in the middle of the day. I wondered if I would love the lump. If the lady walking by loved her lump too. The big arrival was only four months away, one season in a year, and then it would just be here. All the time. Part of me. Forever. The just me days I had left were loud in my ear. I did my best to honor them. If the baby disliked the occasional beverage, it would be sure to let me know. But it never made a peep. In fact the baby didn’t move around much at all.

 + + +

Summer crept off. The arts and crafts fairs mostly over by now, and I’d done nothing this year. Already, what I loved was slipping away. Autumn snuck in and it was my birthday and Staffy made a pot pie for the occasion.

“Pot pie,” he said. “Yum.” He pointed at his plate with his fork. “From scratch.”

Between bites I nodded and mumbled approval, thinking how much better this meal would be with a nice big bottle of red wine.

Staffy wiped at the corners of his mouth with a paper napkin. He sat up straighter, shoulders back. He must have read my mind.

“I’ve decided,” he said. “That’s about enough.”

The jig was up. He knew about the booze. About me not loving the neighborhood. Me not loving the baby. He’d tell me he was angry and disappointed. Maybe he’d ask me to leave. I’d pretend to want to stay. I’d say some sorry things. And then I’d run upstairs and pack a bag and drive back to rent a room in the old neighborhood, where I could push my soon-to-be blanketed lump around on sidewalks, under a canopy of trees, on my way to buy a burrito.

He said, “I found more condoms in the gutter.”

Staffy was talking about the hookers.

“And this morning,” he said. He took a bite of pot pie. “Inside out latex gloves.”

His mouth chewed. He said, “What are those for?”

I had some ideas.

He said, “I don’t want to know.”

I watched him eat, slow, circular chews, his mouth a little bit open, his eyes on my eyes. I knew him well enough to know he was waiting for a response. I just didn’t know him well enough to know which one.

Finally I heard him swallow. I tried to think of something to say, but I thought instead of how it was my birthday and something like that only happens once a year, and that I should probably allow myself one drink tonight, because one isn’t a big deal.

Staffy sighed a heavy sigh, breath through his tight lips from deep inside, wiped at his mouth again with that napkin, pushed his chair back, and walked to the coat closet. When he walked back, he had a box in his arms, a box the size of a toaster oven covered in shiny giftwrap and a big gold bow.

He moved my plate of pot pie out of the way, even though I was not done yet, set the shiny box on my placemat next to a wet chunk of pot pie that had fallen off my plate.

“Happy birthday,” he said.

It just sat there, that wet chunk, right next to my birthday present.

A whiff of Staffy’s cologne just then made me sick to my stomach. I wiped my hands on the napkin in my lap: my thighs, I’d noticed, already getting bigger.

“Open it,” he said.

The shiny box in front of me, I thought of all the things it could be. The possibility that every present has. I thought maybe a new glaze for my pots. Bigger pants for my widening thighs. A new spatula. And then I opened it.

I said, “Thank you.” But I didn’t understand what I was seeing.

Staffy said, “It’s a Wexby Industrial Super Search Eye Spotlight.”

He said, “It’s ten million candlepower.”

I stared at the hand held portable spotlight.

He said, “It’s for the hookers.”

He said, “I charged it up yesterday.”

He said, “Let’s try it out.”

It was dark out, couldn’t find the moon, and I didn’t want to trip. So I used my new Super Search Eye Spotlight and pointed it at the ground. I thought I’d use it like a flashlight. But when I clicked it on, the beam was ferocious. That beam of light swallowed up the dark. It was a superhuman ray, a perfect straight line, a bright mobile sun I controlled. I loved it.

We waited for a while on our side of the hedges, what a birthday, but nothing happened. Staffy seemed disappointed, so I said, “Let’s do a dry run.”

“Good idea,” he said.

Staffy played the hooker. I played myself.

We did a couple drills in the backyard. Staffy kneeled on the grass and said, “Okay, I’m fellating someone now.”

Then I’d shine the bright light on his face to bust him. Poor Staffy looked pasty in that monster light, and guilty, so guilty. I guess that was the idea.

After two practice rounds, finally I said what I was really thinking. “Is there cake?” I said.

He was holding his hand up in front of his face. “Anyway,” Staffy said, “I can’t see so well right now.”

There was a cake. Chocolate, my favorite, with vanilla icing. And in the middle of the cake was a candle, one perfect birthday candle waiting to be lit. But Staffy said his pupils hurt. He was worried he’d almost gone blind.

He said, “I’m going to bed.” Staffy had his defeated voice on. I felt bad about his eyes but that voice made me crazy. It was a stomping in socked feet on a kitchen floor, that voice. It reminded me of all the mothering he needed.

I told him good night, that I’d be right up. But it was my birthday, and I wasn’t tired at all. I went to the kitchen, to the bottles of good wine Staffy kept on the bottom rung of the cheap wood wine rack. Already knew which one I wanted. The bottle had a plain white label and fancy silver writing. I held it in my hand, felt the weight of it. The bottle said, …valley in the south of France. It said, earthy and chocolate and berries. It said, According to the Surgeon General….

I imagined Staffy’s sense of hearing was heightened since his pupils were so sore. Removing the cork, I was very careful. I suffocated the sound with a green plaid dish towel. The smell of the good, aged wine was stronger than I was ready for. It launched a gulp of nausea high into my throat. But I waited it out. I stood in the kitchen and breathed my breath until the nausea passed into a familiar dull chunk inside my chest.

The lights were off and the living room window was open to catch some of the early fall air and I sat on the built-in window seat with my bottle of wine. No sense in wasting a glass. When the baby was born I’d be up nights a lot. I imagined a blanketed lump in my arms. I put my wine bottle down and held my arms out, imagining the tiny weight, cradling the invisible air. I don’t know. It just felt like holding nothing. It seemed possible that it could be born and I might not love it. It seemed possible that it could be born and I would never feel a thing.

Through the open window, there was the sound of a car driving by out front. I could tell from the rattle of the engine that it was German, and I could tell that it didn’t come to a full and complete stop at the stop sign. Assholes.

One big birthday sip, a toast to me. I thought, if I was a tree I’d have thirty-one rings. Then I heard the insistent rattle of the German engine again, this time it slowed down a lot as it passed, and then the sound slowed to a stop on the street side of our hedges.

This is it.

I almost dropped the bottle of wine, almost fell up the stairs I was running so fast to tell Staffy, this is what he’d been waiting for. But he was already asleep, open-mouthed and breathy. I put my ear up to the open bedroom window and heard the engine by the hedges still running. Hurry. Wait, what if the grass is damp with dew? Maybe I should bring a blanket. My god, it’s not a picnic, woman. Move. Get out there. Go. I said that last go out loud, too loud, and Staffy’s breathing stopped. He turned onto his side, and when he did, I took one nice big sip from the bottle and I knew that I didn’t want him to come with me anyway. I wanted to do this alone. It’s my fucking birthday.

 + + +

This is me: Delilah Seward. Pregnant. Hand around the neck of the bottle of good wine. Wexby Industrial Super Search Eye Spotlight. Crouched on my haunches behind the big green hedges, crouched down low. Except, being pregnant, I couldn’t crouch that well. I listened.

Even though the hedges were as wide as a sidewalk, they were just leaves and branches and air after all, and sound traveled through them like nothing was in sound’s way. I could hear the faraway freeway and the underneath noise of 82nd Avenue. I could hear the persistent late night tweet of bird calls and wondered which birds are the birds that are up so late.

The German car’s windows must have been rolled down because I heard Led Zeppelin singing from the other side of the hedge, and then I heard it click off. And just then, a jolt of panic went off in me: that strong loud quiet, all of us strangers, all so close. It made my heart race. And the race traveled up to my brain and back down to my heart past my stomach and then it landed in my gut. My bowels to be exact. Perfect.

Sound of the car’s old springs as bodies moved around inside.

The man’s voice was close. “Let’s go,” he said.

A woman’s voice from the other side of the hedge, an accent, Russian maybe.

She said, “You do not be nervous.”

He said, “You said fifty.” His voice sounded mean, the way mean sounds when it’s scared. “I gave you fifty.”

She said, “Shhh.”

He said, “Hurry. Oh. Good. Yes.”

And it seemed so obvious right then: it’s the men, not the women. It’s the men.

My stomach and intestines started making noises, angry gurgling, impossible to ignore. That fucking pot pie.

From the hedges, the man’s voice again. “Good,” he said. “Good, yeah.”

It was gross and intimate, and made my stomachache worse. I suddenly missed being a kid, before sidewalks and marriage and overgrown hedges. I missed being small. How Staffy must feel all the time. Like he just wants to be taken care of.

The hedges said, “Oh, God.”

The hedges said something like, “The other one too.”

I didn’t know what I thought I’d hear. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. All I could feel was the nervous in my gut. I really needed to fart, but didn’t want them to hear.

The hedges said something like, “This one?”

I looked up and there were the stars, dim pins of light in the sky. My Super Search Eye was slung over my shoulder, thanks to its handy nylon carrying belt. My Super Search Eye like a star of my own.

Another sip. Just a small sip. I could almost smell the sex through the hedges. As far as I could tell, it was just normal stuff. Just lumps of flesh bumping into each other. No wonder people have to pay for it.

The man raised his voice then. One sharp, quick cry.

Air stayed in my lungs and wouldn’t budge. Me listening, all of us quiet. That cry made me want to throw my head into the hedges, just to be near something else alive.

Air sneaked out of my lungs. The sounds of everything began to fade back in.

Then the whine of a car door that needs some oil, opening. The woman’s voice, her maybe Russian accent, said, “No, here good, fine.” And the metal chunk of the door slamming shut.

The turn of the engine and the engine driving away, and then the sound of high heels walking on asphalt, the sound of walking away.

Just me now, by the hedges. Alone, the way I like it. Still had plenty of good wine left in the bottle, still half full.

Heard another car drive by, stop at the stop sign, and keep going. It all started doing laps in my head. The wine and the sexy stuff and the listening. All of it. I felt gross. Everything was gross. I needed to lie down, so I did. Me and my belly, we lowered ourselves onto the grass by the overgrown hedges. Splayed out like an angel, the damp against my arms.

It was late, early late, and the stars were really going now. Dulled a little by the city’s light, but still, I could see them. The stars shone and winked. But nothing shot. Up there, just dust and rocks and light and darkness.

Next Monday was my 20-week appointment with the ultrasound technician, the one where we see the baby, learn the sex, where they check all its organs and brains and important parts and make sure everything’s okay.

The great big sky above me, the moon already gone. I thought of all the nights I’d be up soon shushing that baby to sleep. I thought of diapers and burp cloths and the way new baby houses smelled like sour regurgitated milk.

And then I thought of the cake, my cake, waiting on the countertop. And the candle. That one perfect candle, all mine, waiting to be wished.

+ + +

margaret malone writer fiction nailed magazineMargaret Malone’s work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Oregon Humanities, Swink, Coal City Review, latimes.com, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship and an Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship. A co-host of the artist and literary gathering SHARE, she lives in Portland with her husband and two children. You can learn more about her at her website, here.

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Colin Farstad

Colin Farstad's work has most recently appeared in Spilt Infinitive, Analekta Anthology, and Coal City Review. He is the editor of the short story anthology The Frozen Moment : Contemporary Writers on the Choices that Change Our Lives (Publication Studios, 2011). Colin has been a teacher, editor, writer, event coordinator and connoisseur of classic cocktails for years. Currently he's living in Brooklyn, hard at work writing a novel tentatively titled It's Never Over and working at the literary agency DeFiore and Company.