by Little Red
"Mommy, I don't believe in hell," said my four year old daughter, legs outstretched on the dirty kitchen floor, as she ran her McDonalds' Happy Meal toy cars around a cyllindrical city composed of pots and pans. The floor wasn't dirty for lack of scrubbing but, rather, because whoever had lived in 412 King Street, Apartment 4D, before us had ground the grime and stains from dirt and drunkenness so deeply into the tile that no amount of bleach could remove it. The whole apartment had smelled like soured whiskey and bile for weeks when we first moved in, until me and my daughter and Karen and the baby had begun to replace it with our own smells -- Lysol, bologna, diapers, and baby formula.
"Why is that, honey?" I asked, sponging sandwich crumbs off the counter. I kept my eyes consciously averted from the stack of copy on the table which required my attention. I had been spared the morning's deadline by my boss's sudden illness, but he would not stay sick forever.
Nelle, my daughter, blinked up at me, sticking her tongue out in concentration. "I just don't," she finally decided. "It's stupid-sounding." She started humming, breaking the tune every time the car she was maneuvering needed to turn a corner around a double-boiler or a salad spoon. Humming was Nelle's newest trick, and it required her full attention.
I wasn't even entirely sure where she'd heard about hell in the first place. It wasn't like my mouth was the cleanest of things -- I'd done my best to curb my language once Nelle was born, but it was next to impossible. Still, from my endless string of epiteths over the dishes, the sluggish heating system, illiterate copy writers and Karen's forever howling infant, I wasn't positive how she had garnered that hell was a place that could be believed in one way or the other.
"You're right. It is stupid-sounding," I acknowledged, and weaved my way around her stainless steel city to the looming files. I had three hours before dinner. We ate early, around four, so as to mostly finish before the baby started in yelling. I drank up the comparative silence of the afternoons and forced my mind into pretending our kitchen table was an office.
I felt Nelle's eyes on me as I made bored pen marks on advertising copy for an impending New Years Resolution special at a gym downtown. I planned to steal a few complementary passes donated to the advertising firm I was temping for to give to Karen -- not only would it help her stop feeling so rotten about losing her pre-baby shape but it might also force her to get out of the apartment once or twice.
I honestly doubted she would do that until the baby stopped crying.
I looked down at Nelle, who was kneeling in front the open fridge, empty except for pickles, bottles, and various take-out containers, her toy cars forgotten. "We're going to have dinner in a few hours, sweetie. I'm going to pick up something from Wendy's."
She looked at me like that wasn't what she was going to ask, and shrugged. "Never mind."
It had gotten to the point where she stopped even asking whether we could go to the playground or the store or really anywhere outside of 412 King Street in the afternoons. The week before, when it had really snowed for the first time, I had abandoned my work and forcibly bundled her and Karen and the baby up -- the baby in a snowsuit handed down from Nelle and reinforced with a blanket to keep the chill from sneaking in through the holes -- and dragged everyone outside to play. The baby had started crying and Karen blamed me and my lamebrained idea of going outside, although the baby's crying had very little to do with anybody.
Nelle had a name. The baby did not. He did really, of course, his name was Daniel and more often than not Karen called him Danny when he needed to be called by name at all, which wasn't very often. Mostly we just called him "the baby" because it was easier to treat him as an object, as a problem, rather than as a person who could be in enough pain to make him scream like that.
Karen blamed Daniel's illigitemacy, and his father's genes, and his father in general. She may have blamed Edmonton, as well, where she moved to get away from Daniel's father, and I moved because I couldn't let her go alone. My parents had offered to pick up the things we had left in Toronto when we had vacated our apartments so quickly and fly them out to us, because they missed me and Nelle and believed that Karen and I were starving in a garrett somewhere.
We weren't starving.
But the baby would not stop crying.
I explained about colic to Karen, and promised that it would pass. She would only look at me accusingly and say how Nelle had never cried like this; yes, she had cried, but not for days at a time without stopping for breath. I took Daniel to the doctor and then rode busses up and down with the kids for a few hours to give Karen adequate time to shower and sleep, but I doubt she did either. I returned with a verdict: The baby was fine. Colic. Not because of his circumstances of conception or because his mother was so unsure of herself, but for the same unexplainable reasons as any other colicky child.
Nelle set the pots and pans in the large cardboard box under the window without being told to -- we didn't have cupboards in our apartment yet, although I had promised one day to put them in. She started humming the theme songs to various recognizable commercials, interjecting random words in place of the usual slogans.
"Why don't you go watch TV?" I suggested once the pots were away.
"Will you come too?" she asked, standing in the doorway. She looked ridiculous wearing one of my old sweaters, which hung almost to the floor and had the sleeves rolled up so many times that she looked vaguely like a tiny, female version of the michelin man. I made a mental note to harrass the landlord again about the heat.
Karen breezed into the kitchen a few minutes later, her face exhausted, and I set her up with our last remaining yogurt cup and sent her to watch TV with my daughter to make sure she wasn't tuned into anything violent. Karen never slept, even when Daniel did, not until the exhaustion drove her to throwing up and then she would collapse on the washroom floor for hours at a time, remaining unconscious through me tucking blankets around her and Nelle poking her occasionally to make sure she was still alive. Nelle lived in perpetual fear of death. I wasn't sure where she had even come across the concept, but I would catch her at all hours standing over Daniel's crib whenever he slept, watching intently to make sure he was still breathing.
For my part, I moved commas around methodically and adjusted margins, lost in my own abridged version of creation, feeling that in removing redundancies from copy about membership programs and special offers I was making art. I felt pride every time I saw one of those releases on glossy paper and brought home stacks of the finished pamphlets I had pilfered from the office for Nelle to cut up and glue together again.
I tried to send Karen out for the Wendy's but she refused to leave the house looking like she did, so Nelle and I went. On the way, Nelle chattered from alongside me in a sing-song voice. "Nelle's going to hell," she sang, or, alternately, "Hell's going to Nelle."
"If you don't believe in hell," I asked her. "Do you believe in heaven?"
Nelle just stared at me and kept singing, splashing the slush as she walked through it. It was starting to snow again.
By the time we returned to the apartment, the fries had gotten cold from being outside, and Daniel was already screaming.
I sat in stony silence in front of the muted television. A shudder went through me every time the neighbors banged on the wall. I assumed they were still yelling at us to shut up the baby, but I had long stopped listening. The baby's wails seemed a perfect background soundtrack to the softcore porno flicks that always played late at night on one of the local city channels.
"I can't believe you watch those," Karen said, pacing furiously up and down the length of the room with the baby in her arms. The baby was wrapped in one of Karen's old university sweatshirts to ward off the late November chill that managed to blow in through every cracked pane of glass and misaligned door in the apartment.
"You can put him down for a few minutes," I told her. "It won't damage him to cry on his own for a little while. Then you'll be a little calmer." I had already offered my assistance, my earplugs and my secret liquor stash, but she had declined all three, believing that if she could not quiet her infant all on her own she would have failed him completely as a mother before he was even into his third month of life.
"I can't," she insisted.
I stared at her for a few minutes, colouring in her pale skin with my thoughts, erasing the exhausted lines from her eyes, washing and styling her hair in my mind, mentally repairing her like I repaired text all day long.
"I just can't," she said again.
I turned back to the TV. She came closer and watched with me, an expression of distaste on her face.
"This could be the closest to sex we get for a few years," I said with forced humour. My mother suspected that Karen and I were lovers -- it was the only way she could conceive that I would rip my child and myself away from everything we knew after I had worked so hard to get us stabilized.
We weren't lovers.
The baby's screams seemed to fall into rhythm with the thrusting on TV. Without the traditional soundtrack or the forced encouragements the damsel was surely uttering on-screen, it looked more like she was being raped than seduced.
"He looks a lot like Nelle's father," I said. Nelle had fallen asleep despite the racket in a pile of clean laundry on the couch and sucked furiously on her thumb as she unconsciously rubbed a sock against her nose.
Karen glanced from the TV to the howling infant in her lap. Tears fell down her cheeks but I was used to her crying and felt no need to call attention to it. If anything, I did my best to ignore it to keep from collapsing into a fit of hysterics myself.
"Virginia..." Karen started. It sounded like she was going to pose a question, and I held my breath. I wondered if she was going to ask about Nelle's father, if he could be called that. She could have asked about Toronto, and whether I thought we were all ready to move back there, to face the winter in the warmth of my parents' house. She could have asked about me, about why I had taken Nelle and followed her into this, our own loud, freezing circle of damnation, and whether I still thought she was the most beautiful person I had ever met, and whether I still felt that unexplainable need to be close to her, after all of this.
Karen abandoned her question and said instead, "Nelle asked me what hell looked like this morning." She spoke slowly, trying to keep her voice level, as though she would be able to fool me into thinking she was as calm and collected as she had been when I first met her, before she fell in and out of love and got pregnant and turned into what she was now.
"What did you say?"
Daniel's screams had started to lessen in intensity, and I glanced at the clock. Three a.m. That was usually when he gave up crying and fell asleep. I took him from Karen wordlessly and walked over to the crib beside the couch to set him down. The silence, punctured only by an occasional muffled sob from the baby or his mother, rang unnaturally in my ears.
"You know, hell fire and brimstone," she answered. "Sinners, good intentions, and so forth." Even though Daniel was asleep, Karen was staying awake. I steeled myself against another long night, adjusted the laundry over my daughter to keep her warm, and sat down on the floor next to Karen again.
"No wonder Nelle doesn't believe in hell," I said with a disgusted laugh. "You made it sound like this place, only warmer."
Karen looked at me, her eyes filled with tears. "What did we do to end up here?" she asked.
For the first time in the whole past year, I got angry at Karen for being so pathetic. It was my fault that my life was where it was, just like she had to be responsible for hers. Daniel's father didn't put her here, and I was pretty damned sure that God hadn't consciously shuffled us off to winter in Edmonton when we had fallen off the path of the righteous, when she had fallen in love with a married bastard of a man and I had fallen in something else entirely with her. "Maybe we didn't do anything except get on the plane," I said.
Nelle stirred in the laundry at the silence and sat up.
"You okay, honey?" I asked her.
She didn't even bother nodding in response, but crawled over the clothes to her nightly position next to Daniel's crib, staring at him in the light of the flickering television to make sure he wasn't dead or dying. I had the strange thought that perhaps Nelle was, in fact, waiting for him to to stop breathing, so that the crying would go away and we could all move back to Toronto, like it would be that easy and we could get out of this mess just as easily as we had gotten into it. I resolved to keep a closer watch on Nelle's behaviour around the baby, to make sure she wouldn't smother him with a pillow once she figured out how.
We sat like that most of the night, watching each other watch the baby, and ruminating on how hell was pretty stupid-sounding indeed inside of that Edmonton apartment in the winter.
~ end! ~
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