Updated: Oct 17
A short story about money.
It was always about money. They did not make enough and had little savings, and when she came home each week and the money was already gone he stewed for a while until he lost the ability to control himself.
“Again?” she said. “How many times a week do we have to go through this?”
He stared at her with those eyes, that expression. “Where’s the money you make? You work and work, but there’s never any money left.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s spent. It’s gone. Jewelry probably. Who knows?”
“Do you have a savings account somewhere? Is that it? Because if it is, just let me know and I’ll lay off. But if you don’t, I’m just curious where the fuck it’s going. I don’t give a shit anymore—it’s the curiosity. That’s what’s getting me. Not that it isn’t in the bank, I don’t even care. Now it’s just I’m curious what you do with it.”
“I buy food. Gas. Pay the water. It goes to everything in this house that you eat. To our daughter’s diapers. That’s where it’s going. Where do you think it’s going? Where could it possibly go?” She wasn’t crying, but he knew it could go that way quick. His temper, when it got going, it was like a runaway train going a hundred.
“I put goddamn money away with each paycheck. For me. For us. I pay for the mortgage, the health insurance, the car insurance, her college thing. Everything. Now let me ask you again. Where the fuck is the money going to? Tell me where and I’ll drop it. I won’t say peep.”
She started crying but caught herself; crying did nothing for her, just egged him on, drove him crazy. He couldn’t stand the weakness of it, the crying. It drove him nuts. Not because she was weak, but because of how he responded to it. The anger made him heartless, made him seem like he was heartless. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t heartless at all. That’s how it made him feel though, getting mad about it. It made him crazy crazy.
“You make a lot more than me,” she said. “You don’t realize that. You think I make more than what I make and I don’t. I don’t make anywhere near whatever you’re thinking I make. Not to cover what we have to cover.” Her face was flushed and her lip was quivering.
“I do realize,” he said. “I realize it perfectly. I made—don’t forget—I made what you make now for a long time. But I still had money left over. I always had money left over.”
“You didn’t have a baby. You didn’t have a house. You didn’t have the bills we have. You didn’t have any of it but yourself.”
“I had you, didn’t I? I had an apartment that cost what our goddamned mortgage payment costs now. So don’t tell me I don’t know. I know. I know perfectly. I know goddamned well.”
The baby was crying. They ran to the stairs, but when he saw her going too he stopped, watched her go up. They could hear the baby crying just behind the door now; recently she learned to scoot down from the bed, walk over to just behind the door and stand there. Sometimes she knocked, which she learned to do from a book they had where the duck has to go potty. But she could not yet open the door. They left the door closed because of the stairs; if they’d had the money, they’d have bought a gate. But they didn’t have money for a lot of things. He took a breath and listened to her say something to their daughter, took the dog outside and sat with the dog in the shade of a walnut tree and tried to cool down so he didn’t upset the baby when he went back inside.
Now that they were both unemployed the little savings he’d put away was going fast. They had saved enough for the down payment on the house, and for a while things went well. They had health insurance, and every so often they went out to nice restaurants when her mother was around and could watch their little girl. Then she’d lost her job with the layoffs at her company, and he’d lost his once it was clear to his employer that he was no good at his job. He had never been good at any of his jobs; he wanted to write and read good books and working every day and often into the evenings destroyed his ability to write. He couldn’t do it. So he wrote at work instead of working. Which meant the work he was supposed to be doing wasn’t coming out so good. So here they were again, both of them unemployed, only now with a kid that needed health insurance and the stability of a home and all those things you were supposed to have when you were grown.
The fighting started soon after. They took a couple of road trips to take advantage of the free time, but after that, they couldn’t get insurance and he got worried about it the first time their daughter caught a cold. She was good about it; he wasn’t. Don’t worry, she said. I’ll get a job and then you can get one and we’ll be fine. But he wasn’t so sure they’d be fine. If they spent money on the health insurance, it cut into other things. If they didn’t spend it on insurance and something happened, he knew he couldn’t handle the aftermath. It would be his fault. If it was his fault, if something bad happened, he’d hate himself, probably do something worse than hate himself. When their daughter caught the cold and they were declined by the first insurance they’d found that they could afford, he got nervous. And once he got nervous, it meant he had trouble writing, and it meant one of them would have to find a job sooner than later. It was not a good time for thinking about writing. He was not real happy about being declined either; he thought insurance companies were giant scams that took your money and gave you nothing, so getting turned down by them, he wanted to shove it down their throats. He wanted to do worse than shove it down their throats, the bastards.
In the evening, they cooked dinner. They had a full cabinet, but everything in there was stuff that had been in there for a while. Stuff you didn’t need to refrigerate. Stuff they wouldn’t have normally looked at if the money was coming in. But now that the money wasn’t coming in, they looked at it, picking through it like you picked at records at an old record shop or like you browsed iron lamps and metal lunchboxes at antique shops.
The baby cried for a while; her eyes were puffy and her nose ran, and she did not want to drink anything. To hear her cry, it killed him inside, and he tried to hide that it killed him inside by holding his breath. But it was no good, holding his breath. He felt like a fool, and it did nothing for him, and instead he thought about drinking, which he’d given up. Promised himself he’d not have a sip until he got something published. Even though he was not a drunk. Even though he’d convinced himself he was not a drunk. But he thought about it often, drinking. One vodka tonic with a lime. Maybe a Cuba Libre or a glass of wine, red or white, didn’t matter. Something just to wet his lips, remember how he could escape for a little while, not worry about anything. But he didn’t want to break that promise, that he’d not have a single drink, nothing, no alcohol at all really, not even a plate of chicken Marsala if it meant breaking that promise. Not a sip of anything.
They fed the baby plain fettuccine cut into pieces and cooked spinach. For dessert they cut up the strawberries they washed in the sink while the baby said berry berry berry until they put the quartered strawberries on her little plastic dish. The dish had lines in it from where they’d cut the strawberries with the knife, and he wondered if the chemicals in the plastic were bad for the baby, and he wondered if sometimes they’d not noticed the plastic scrapings mixing with the food and her eating it, maybe getting a little sick from ingesting the plastic and they’d not noticed because of how little affected their daughter was by it, how minute the poison she was ingesting was. He’d read about people getting sick over time, people near oil, near nuclear plants, getting cancer, their kids having high rates of birth defects. It wasn’t the same, but sick was sick. He’d kill a million men just so she wouldn’t ever hurt any. He told himself this, anyway, however preposterous.
For a while she seemed content. She ate the strawberries and they watched cartoons with her and she seemed happy watching the cartoons and then drinking her milk before they changed her diaper and tucked her into bed. But once their daughter was in bed and crying his wife got hot at the baby’s crying and he told her to go, to just relax, he’d tuck her in because the baby was just getting more agitated by her obvious agitation at the baby getting agitated. It went like that: him getting mad, pushing her over some invisible line, and then her getting mad too. Then the house was hard to live in. Then it would hit him that there was too much anger for the baby to be around and he would back down a bit, but by then it was too late.
He lay there with his baby and got agitated himself with the baby’s fussing, but he loved his child more than anything in the world and told himself no matter how much that baby cried it was his beautiful baby girl who loved him and just didn’t know how to respond to her nose being stuffed and her little chest hurting and her eyes watering and just feeling miserable all around. Before he knew it, somewhere in the haze of trying to get her to sleep and trying not to fall asleep himself, she was sleeping and he soon fell asleep and his wife fell asleep in the other room. But he did not know this until the next morning when the baby woke up and walked to the door and knocked on it and said knock knock knock and asked for her mama. He rose from bed and urinated, the whole time listening to his daughter knocking on the door and then the dog barking because the dog thought someone was at the front door. He washed his hands and they went out looking for her mother and when they found her she was sleeping in the other room and said, Hey, baby, and their daughter rushed to the bed and into her arms and pulled her hand until she got out of bed, and they all went downstairs to pet the dog and eat breakfast and watch cartoons and stare out the window at the dew shimmering on the grass.
“I need to write today,” he said. “Then one of us has to get a job.” He couldn’t control himself, but you couldn’t hide from it, either. You couldn’t pretend they didn’t have bills to pay when they had bills to pay.
“I thought we were taking a couple months off?”
“We need insurance. One of us needs to get insurance for all of us.”
“Can’t we get Cobra from your job?”
“My old job,” he said. “And no. It’s expensive. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know who could pay it it’s so ridiculous.”
“I still can’t believe they declined our application. I thought they couldn’t do that anymore.”
“They can do it until 2014. They can do whatever the fuck they want, if you haven’t figured that out.”
“Stop cursing already. Don’t curse in front of her. It’s ugly. I don’t want her cursing.”
“Fuck,” the baby said. She said “fuck” two more times and then shoved small pieces of bacon into her mouth and drank her milk and said bacot bacot bacot. Then she turned the sippy cup upside down and shook it and spilled the milk, and when she saw him get up from his chair to stop her from spilling the milk she threw the cup to the floor where it hit the dog. The dog took a lot of abuse from her.
“Great,” his wife said. “Just great.”
He finished his breakfast and told her he was going to go write. When he said that she said okay, but I need to go shopping later.
“Give me a few hours. Give me until lunch.”
“She needs diapers.”
He looked at her. “Can’t you just take her with you? I need to write. I don’t have free time when I’m working, and apparently, because only one of us saved a goddamned penny, I need to go get a job sooner. I need to write. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“She’s sick,” his wife said. “I can’t take her outside. There’s pollen everywhere. It’s on the cars, and it’s in the air. She steps outside she’s going to get sicker than she already is.”
“Fine,” he said. “Fine. Let me be until you’re ready to go then. And I mean ready to walk out the door ready.”
“Go,” she said. “Just go already.”
She was good, always had been good for him, but they still argued like that about little things, insignificant things. He knew he could be a son of a bitch, but he’d been writing for twenty years before they’d met and he hadn’t published a single book. He’d published a few short stories and a book review that wasn’t worth a shit, and now he was feeling mortal and even more mortal without health insurance, because the pharmacy had called a few days ago about his medicine. They said they were having trouble filling the prescription, the insurance was not going through because they said it had expired, and what did he want to do? He asked the lady on the phone how much it would be to fill the prescription without the insurance. Told her he was in the process of applying for insurance, but that it hadn’t gone through yet. Oh baby, she’d said. It’s real expensive. Four hundred dollars for thirty days expensive. She’d actually said “oh baby.” He couldn’t believe she’d said that, and he couldn’t believe it was four hundred for one month. When he’d had insurance, he’d gotten ninety days for something like thirty dollars, although he couldn’t remember exactly how much it really was. But it wasn’t more than forty dollars.
He turned the computer on and couldn’t write because he heard the television, and he couldn’t write if he heard the television. He put the ear plugs he’d bought to block out the noise, but he could still hear the television going, and after a few minutes of false starts, he opened the door and asked her to please lower the television, he couldn’t concentrate on what he was doing.
“Can’t you go to another room? You’re right there above the TV,” she said.
“I’m in the goddamned office. Where should I go?”
“Go to her room,” she said, meaning the baby’s room. He looked at her but instead of arguing made a scene of getting his laptop, pulling the plug from the wall, and walking over to his daughter’s bedroom where he would have to either sit on the bed with the laptop on his lap or in the rocking chair, which was not the most comfortable way to write. He kicked the door closed with his heel, sat on the bed and pulled a coffee table from one corner over and plugged the laptop in and started typing a short story he thought might have legs. The story was about a woman in her early twenties who had three children, two boys and one girl, whose husband was killed in Iraq during a raid in some small town far from the main fighting. The woman was going to try to figure out how to raise the children without their father. But the story was no good, or at least the premise wasn’t, because he didn’t know any of the towns in Iraq where such a thing could be possible, or at least a little believable. So he thought, What if I make it in the late sixties, early seventies? What if I make the war Vietnam? Or conflict? Was it a conflict? He thought it was, but now he couldn’t remember. He could look on the internet, but he didn’t want to look at the internet while he wrote. He was pretty sure it was a conflict and not a war, but he couldn’t be positive about it. He put the computer down and picked up a pad and pencil. The pencil had the name of some baby formula company on it. The pad was from the hospital where their daughter was born. It was a nice pad and a nice pencil. He started writing, thinking maybe the act of writing would spark something, get him going. Maybe writing instead of typing would help. But then the baby started crying and wouldn’t stop and he could hear it as if she were right there next to him, crying in his ear. The ear plugs were worthless. They were a complete waste of money.
“Can you just shut her up for just a little while?” he yelled. “Can you?”
“Don’t talk like that about her,” she yelled back. She was right. So he stopped. He stopped yelling and looked at the pad and pencil and then at the computer, and at the window. He got up and looked out the window at the neighbor mowing the lawn. He wondered if the neighbor was also unemployed, because what would he be doing at ten in the morning mowing the lawn. Then he remembered it was Sunday. And then he wondered why he was cutting the lawn on Sunday, since they lived in Georgia and pretty much everyone went to church on Sunday, so what was the matter with this guy? Was he an atheist? Was he a heathen, like they were heathens? What was the matter with this guy?
He sat back down and wrote until twelve on the dot, when he heard his wife carrying their daughter up the stairs. She was sleeping. It was her nap time and he knew by how slowly his wife was ascending the stairs that she was carrying their sleeping daughter. He was at a good spot now, in the first third or so of a story about a man mowing a lawn who had lost his religion and was waiting for his wife to return from church because she had always been a believer and what would that mean, his wife being a believer and he being an atheist, or maybe just an agnostic? He stopped writing mid-sentence, because that was something he read Hemingway or someone did—stopped writing when the writing was good, or going well, or something like that, and he walked over quickly to catch his wife halfway up the stairs with their daughter in her arms.
“She just fell asleep,” she said. He didn’t mind when she whispered if the baby was sleeping, but without the baby around he found her whispering as bad as someone scratching a chalkboard with their nails. “I’ll only be an hour,” she said. He looked at her and she looked at him but looked away. “Okay,” he said. It was tough not to tell her to hurry up, he had to get back to his writing, but he did it. He felt good about it, too, not telling her he needed to write; she knew he needed to write. She always knew it.
He really did want to ask her what the hell would take an hour, but the baby would sleep for more than that anyway, so he didn’t say a thing to her about it. He took his daughter in his arms, took her the rest of the way up the stairs. He looked down at his wife gathering her things to go off, and he saw their dog, a Belgian Malinois, staring up at him. The dog was his dog, loved him more than anything, and always sat by the stairs waiting for him to come down. “Sit,” he told the dog, and his wife said, “Sit” to the dog, and the dog sat and then lay down on its pillow. He went into the bedroom and closed the door and a few minutes later he heard the alarm ding as his wife went out the front door and his dog’s nails clipping along the hardwood floor as he walked around, looking for someplace else to lie down. He thought about telling his wife to cancel the alarm, it was a waste of money with the dog. But he remembered the phone and television were connected to the alarm in some way, so they’d have to get rid of that too. Which would lead to all sorts of problems and arguments, he was sure.
He put his daughter down on the bed, in her spot, which was a spot near the window on the twin bed they’d pulled up next to their bed. They thought about buying a California King, which was the largest bed you could get, as far as they knew, but they couldn’t afford the brand they’d seen and liked, so they’d bought nothing. He remembered lying on that bed, the cushion sinking in, everything easing up. Such a good bed, that bed. He could jump up off that bed in the morning while they slept, and they’d never know he’d even woken up, that’s how good that bed was. He could sneak off and go write and they’d never know it. He lay down beside his daughter, leaning on his side, making sure she didn’t roll onto her face, get buried somehow in the pillows whenever she rolled over. It was a fear of his, her suffocating. He knew she wouldn’t; she wasn’t a newborn anymore. But still. He couldn’t get over that fear. He listened to her breathe. He listened for a while and fell asleep. He woke up an hour later. Or just under an hour later, because when he looked at the clock by the bed he remembered it hadn’t been yet quite one.
He called his wife at two, asked her when she would be home. He tried to sound rested. Calm. Like he’d eased off of the asshole bit, was back to his normal self. His rational self. The not-angry-about-the-world-crashing-down-on-them, self. On my way, she said.
He closed the door to the bedroom. Peeked over the stairwell banister at the dog. The dog was lying on its side. When it heard him on the stairs, it flopped on its side like a fish and looked up at him. He was getting old, that dog. When he reached the bottom of the stairwell, the dog was sitting there, wagging his tail. The dog, Kane, followed him around the house. Sat with him on the couch while he watched television. He put on a program about people fixing a house. DIY something or other. Two men were pulling drywall and PVC piping, wires, rolls and rolls of pink insulation out of a basement. The house was an older house, but looked okay the more stuff the two men threw away. The more they took out, the cleaner the basement looked, and so on. After thirty minutes he got anxious again. He looked at the clock. He thought about writing a story about people building a house, maybe the subplot would be one of the men is fulfilling his dream of using his hands because somewhere along the way maybe he didn’t think that was something that was going to be possible. Like maybe something happened to one of his hands, say, like part of it was crushed by some type of machine, he was born with a deformity, something like that that was not so good for building houses. A handicap, say. A hurdle. He wrote the idea for the story down on a notepad sitting on the kitchen counter. He called his wife. She didn’t answer. He left a message. Twenty minutes later he called again, but hung up when he heard his daughter’s footsteps above him.
He walked quickly to the stairs. He heard her trying to turn the doorknob. He laughed. He was angry because his wife should have been home already, taking care of their daughter so that he could be writing. He could be working right now on that story about the guys building the house. Or writing dialogue for the story about the kid that got killed in the small town in Iraq, even if he didn’t know much about any of it. That he could find later, the details. Or he could be writing about a million other things. Maybe about a guy with a wife and a kid and a dog living a pretty great life except that the guy had problems focusing, that he thought the world was a place made up of two types of people, the doers and the people that followed what the doers wanted them to do, and that he was stuck somewhere in the middle, like a bug in a spider web, and didn’t know how to climb out of that hole no matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried to get out of it. Like he was the little guy in the spider web in that movie that the spider is coming to kill and he’s yelling “Help me, help me” over and over again but you knew he was going to get killed, he wasn’t getting out.
Before he got to the top his daughter was there, standing, waiting. The bedroom door was open. She knew about the stairs, so she didn’t move, but she looked like she might. She saw him and smiled, brushed the long dark curls from her eyes and yawning one of those innocent, all-in yawns only kids were able to do. He scooped her up, took her downstairs. They sat at the kitchen table. He warmed milk in the microwave, gave it to his daughter with some goldfish crackers in a little cup with a plastic top that she had to stick her hand into to get at the goldfish. His daughter ate the crackers and drank the milk. She dropped crackers on top of the dog, who always sat next to her when she was in the kitchen, waiting on moments like that to happen.
He called her again. This time the phone went straight to voicemail without ringing. She did that sometimes, forgot to recharge her phone. It drove him crazy. He wondered what her excuse would be when she got home, why it took her so long to do whatever it was she had to do. Long lines at the supermarket. She forgot she needed to stop at some store, the post office, to pick something up so she wouldn’t have to bother him later when he was writing, because sometimes that’s how she thought. Sometimes she thought two, three steps ahead of him. He called her again a little while later. His daughter wanted to play outside, so he took her and he took Kane, and they went outside and played in the grass and Kane chased squirrels he never caught, and his daughter raised her arms and said, “Kiss…kiss…” until he walked up to her and then she ran off like it was the funniest thing in the world. Like she’d tricked him and could keep tricking him and he would never get the wiser. Like maybe he would chase her for his whole life and she would run and run, and never be caught.
This story was originally published in the St. Petersburg Review, in print (not online)
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