The panic turned out to be nothing more than Claudia passing her cervical mucus plug (or operculum), a mass that fills and seals the cervical canal during pregnancy and deters the passage of bacteria to the uterus. As is perfectly normal, it came out over several days and was tinged with brown, pink and red blood, unflatteringly referred to in layman’s terms as the “bloody show”. Although the event did not imply that labor was imminent, it still served as an unwelcome reminder that the days before I would be called upon to deliver Claudia’s baby were numbered.
The dreary month of November had arrived and with it a relentless, driving rain that pummeled the last of the leaves from the trees which looked more and more bereft and forlorn, their bare branches etched out across the gray sky like complex arteries of dying men. The cold humidity leached into the bones in a far more insidious and unpleasant way than the dry, frigid air that blew down from the arctic during the winter months. The winter season was, in fact, significantly cheerier due to the thick snow that blanketed the region almost continuously from mid-December through to early-March.
The wretched weather and the short days caused me to be more housebound and increased the sting of loneliness over Leah’s loss. As a result, in the evenings, I found myself going out far more often to my local. It was a fairly non-descript tavern with a pool table, a couple of dart boards and a half decent variety of beers on tap. Although it was luridly named ‘The Harlot’s Bed’, it was frequented almost exclusively by men, of varying ages, who sought refuge from female company for whatever temporary or more protracted reason.
On one of these evenings, not long after the false alarm with Claudia, I was about to put out the lights and make my way over to the tavern with Ben when my doorbell chimed merrily, probably for the first time since Leah’s wake.
“Hi!” said Marylyn Paige, brightly, after I had opened my front door a crack and peered out suspiciously into the gloom.
“Oh!” I said, surprised. “Hi.” I was quite relieved to see that it was a familiar, friendly face. Marylyn was an attractive thirty-something who I was quite familiar with in two very different contexts. First, she worked at the post office and handled all of my regular correspondence with the labs and hospital facilities in the city. Second, as her physician, I had treated her on a number of occasions after she had sustained sometimes quite brutal beatings at the hands of her then-husband, Paul Fowler, a hard-bitten logger with a cut-diamond body who was as mean as vinegar when sober and a monstrous degenerate when drunk, which was most of the time. The last time I had treated Marylyn, I had cupped her swollen face in my hand and, staring into her stormy blue eyes, said: “This can’t go on any longer. You simply must press charges this time.” She had been too distraught to respond but, with quivering lips, lightly kissed the palm of my hand, nodded, and left my office. Two days later, Paul was at the receiving end of a pointblank shotgun blast that had literally blown his head clean off of his shoulders and re-decorated the inside of his pickup truck with a slosh of brain matter and skull fragments. I had testified at Marylyn’s murder trial, with a passion that had made Leah uneasy, and she was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Marylyn said, shyly, blinking away some strands of black hair that had fallen across her forehead. “There was a bake sale today and I have some blueberry pie left over. I thought… Well, I thought maybe you might like to have some with me. I know you’re all alone here now.”
“Well, okay. Sure,” I said awkwardly. “Come in.”
We ate the pie sitting on the living room couch and chatted in a casual but careful manner. Not a word was exchanged about either Leah or Paul and, after a while, I realized I was quite enjoying the unexpected company. I also could not help but notice that Marylyn was wearing a tastefully revealing, short-cut black dress. A silver, oval-shaped locket hung from her throat and she had a fresh lavender scent about her. Just as it finally dawned on me what was happening, she placed her hand on top of my leg, between my knee and my groin, and whispered in my ear: “a good man like you doesn’t deserve to be alone.”
I gazed down at the elegantly sculpted features of her pale face that had once weathered the blind fury of Paul’s fists. Her eyes moistened slightly and she lifted her full red lips up to mine. Forty-five minutes later, with half of the furniture in my living room knocked over or upended altogether, I lay on my back in the middle of the floor, panting. Marylyn slowly got dressed, I realized guiltily, right underneath the ceiling fan from which Leah had hung herself. Ben watched impassively from an easy chair that he had claimed as his own some time ago.
“I better be going,” she said, kneeling beside me and kissing my cheek.
“Really?” I asked, irritating myself with the cloying tone in my voice. I did not want her to go.
“You’re still mourning,” she said. “You’re anxious and jittery. Everyone can see that. It’s okay.”
“What I’m anxious about is Claudia’s baby,” I blurted out, irritating myself again.
“Why’s that?” she asked, softly, her hand stiffening in mine. “Do you know?”
“Know what?” I asked, sitting up abruptly and shaking the fog from my head.
“A month or so ago, Brody went nuts and accused Claudia of cheating on him. Said the baby isn’t really his and punched her in the stomach. After, she started bleeding. I guess you know about that part though…”
“Jesus Christ,” I swore under my breath.
“Listen,” said Marylyn, firmly. “You didn’t hear anything from me, okay? I’ve got to go. I’ve… I’ve got to go.”
A few minutes later, I was putting my living room back together. My head was swimming. I felt so overwhelmed, I simply could not stand up any longer and collapsed into the easy chair beside Ben, who grunted in protest but then rested his head on my lap and dozed off. I stroked his ears and envied his obliviousness to anything beyond his loyalty to me and his own comfort. I searched my feelings and all I could feel was anger. But what was so confusing and disorienting was my inability to identify to what, or to whom, my anger was directed. I was reminded, not for the first time, of watching the Sex Pistols in a dingy London club in 1977 when I was slothing around one summer, much to my father’s displeasure, in my early twenties. Their volcanic display of visceral rage, which spat savagely upon something indefinable, but palpably there, had left a lasting impression on me.
My thoughts of Johnny Rotten’s contorted mask of hatred were banished by the sound of a door snapping shut upstairs. Ben opened his eyes and looked plaintively upwards. He knew the unmistakable sound as well as I did: although seldom, it had always been Leah’s signal to me when she was angry. I went cold. Pulling Ben closer to me, all I could see through the bay window was the whirling tapestry of intergalactic light blasted out, like the contents of Paul Fowler’s head, from stars extinguished so many hundreds of millions of years ago.
To be continued…
Part I is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/06/30/deep-freeze-part-i/
Part II is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/11/deep-freeze-part-ii/
Part III is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/21/deep-freeze-part-iii/
Part IV is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/23/deep-freeze-part-iv/
Part V is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/08/06/deep-freeze-part-v/
Part VI is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/08/14/deep-freeze-part-vi/