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Unread 12-01-2019, 12:41 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 4,117
Default Baby


When the nurse handed him the baby it was wrapped in a thick, pale blue paper sealed with white tape. He cupped his hand beneath the baby's head like the nurses in the delivery ward had taught him and the soft skull shifted in his palm like warm, not quite-formed gelatin. As he turned to leave the room the attending nurse nodded toward a utility cart and hissed, “Roll it out.” The woman on the bed was howling. Thick, wet ribbons of black hair clung to her face. The husband stood beside the bed. He clung to her fingers as though afraid she would slip away.

This happened many years ago and today he is thinking about it. The memory of the stillborn baby came while he lay in bed in the early hours of the morning with his eyes shut against the wave he knew was coming. The memory had been the first lap of the wave and would be with him the rest of the day. He had only just resigned himself to this when the wave came and caught him unprepared despite his attempt to steel himself.

The day has progressed. He is in his office and through the window the sky is washed blue from the storms of the day before and the light is soft enough to excite an artist. It is spring again and the shifting of the weather from sudden showers to high, dark winds to bright days would mock him if he allowed it. He had intended to be an artist and the night job in the hospital was planned to leave him time to paint during the day. He lived in a basement apartment one row of dunes back from the ocean with a woman who was a nurse. She had arranged the job. “Now you will have time to pursue your dream,” she said one night in bed, and he had tried but the days had gyrated out of his head in a jagged sequence impossible to pattern. Some mornings he could not wake up and other nights he could not sleep and the drinking started and that was all she saw and less than six months after he began the job she was gone. He stayed on in the apartment until the night he realized he could not sleep anymore while living beside the ocean in an apartment below sea level. The next day he packed his van and returned to the town he had never thought of as home.

He was still living with the nurse the night he rolled the baby to the morgue and when he told her what he had experienced she reminded him he worked in a hospital. “Toughen up,” she said. “It's part of the job.” He didn't respond to her because he was convinced silence was what the world demanded of him. A few years after the nurse left he loved someone who refused to be silent. She would say, “Trees don't always grow in the right place,” or “Sometimes the swamp shifts.” The two of them did conventional things, drank wine, took walks, slept too little and talked too much. The wine would rush out of the glasses and she would laugh and kiss him and say, “We're lucky, don't you see? We know that no one gives a fuck about us and we don't give a fuck about them. I don't give a fuck about you and you don't give a fuck about me. We think we do but it's impossible.” The woman who was not a nurse went away one day. Now he tries to not remember her, but he always does on days like today, when what she convinced him they were lucky to know does not feel like luck.

Instead of eating lunch he leaves his office and takes a walk. It is not a day that will make claims on him. It is the type of bright day he should find easier to slip through. He walks across the campus of the university he had managed to earn a degree from. Walking by the infirmary he remembers the doctor, no doubt dead now, who had prescribed him the blue pills, and how he spent the next two months walking the city day and night. It had been spring then too and the city seemed quieter somehow. At night the light from the windows of the houses had a thick, gold tinge he could stare at for hours. The pills had been insisted on by the school counselor who was assigned to him after the incident. It had been a minor breach, comical really, a futile attempt to kick in the door of his dorm room, but at the time it had threatened to end his education. For two months he had walked, his hands clasping involuntarily, anxiety gnawing about the classes that were impossible for him to sit through. Finally, they allowed him to stop taking the pills. He decides to not think more about that today, or of how he had flirted with being mad when he was young. It had seemed a glorious idea, to be blessed with a derangement of senses. He was a foolish boy who lived in a dream until the blue pills mocked him. Afterward, he was left to envy the boy who had been blessed with foolishness. The rest of his life passed down hallways and through doors and he has wished the entire time he could be that foolish again.

After lunch, the day slips slowly toward its end. The people he sees and talk to and smile at, live behind a thick film. His office is quiet and there is nothing for him to do but pretend to work and wait. The window faces east and he watches a shadow melt across the floor. While he waits for the clock he can feel the soft head of the baby in his hand. The invisible softness sways in a soft rhythm that almost reassures him with its regularity.
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Unread 12-15-2019, 01:15 PM
Rob Wright Rob Wright is offline
Join Date: Sep 2007
Location: Philadelphia PA, U.S.A.
Posts: 820

Right off I’ll say that not only is this the best piece I’ve seen from you on this board, it’s the best piece here by anyone in a long time.

There is so much to admire: the opening for one. The strangeness of the situation of the unnamed main character holding a child that is not his with such tenderness, when the parents, constrained by grief and disappointment can draw back into their own worlds. The detail of him holding the head as he was taught was poignant and a wonderful way of showing his tenderness – not at all touch as his nurse-girlfriend insisted he must become. And the wrapping of the baby in paper with tape is also startling and convincing.

I admired the line: It is spring again and the shifting of the weather from sudden showers to high, dark winds to bright days would mock him if he allowed it. The idea of his allowing a mood shows a fragility, but also a resilience in him. He is experienced in the management of moods.

I like him loving a partner because she refused to be silent. To me that implied that she filled a part of him that he could no longer had. He needed to be silent, so she spoke instead.

The blue pill motif was interesting, but I on the first reading I was confused about how the doctor who prescribed the blue pills and the infirmary were linked. The infirmary, as I understand it is not where this doctor had his practice, but at his school. It’s a minor point, but it did slow me down a bit.

I like the walks though the city under the pills influence. Art is supposed to do this, but for the failed artist, there are always the blue pills.

Once more, thanks so much for posting this. Good luck with it and your revisions.
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Unread 12-22-2019, 02:39 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 4,117

Thanks, Rob, for reading and commenting. I'm happy you find things to like. I'll take a look at the infirmary bit.

Much appreciated
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Unread 12-23-2019, 04:56 AM
Matt Q Matt Q is online now
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 3,489

Hi John,

Some of the ingredients here seem familiar to me, and I'm pretty sure I remember them from a poem of yours (the dead baby, the incinerator, a lover by the ocean), not that this detracted in the slightest when I read this. I'm with Rob here. This is an excellent piece of writing, the best of yours I've seen, and the best I've seen on this forum. It's a shame that the fiction section gets such little traffic, or I've no doubt there'd be other people saying the same.

It's difficult to single out anything in particular for praise, and likewise I really don't see any weak spots. Structurally, it's very well constructed. The opening is arresting, the way the still-birth isn't explicitly mentioned until the second paragraph is very effective, as the way the man holds the baby tenderly as if it were alive had left me unsure. The story returns to the dead baby in the middle and at the close. There are paired elements: The two references to light (one daytime light, the other light at night). The two women, one with whom he is silent, one who isn't silent.

All the details seem to work to evoke something, and with its use of flashbacks/memories the story is very effective at painting a picture of this man's adult life, from university to present, as a struggle with some sort of mental/spiritual health issue. Also his sense of isolation at least on some days: the woman who tells him no one cares about anyone and "he tries to not remember her, but he always does on days like today, when what she convinced him they were lucky to know does not feel like luck", and the world and other people appearing as if behind a thick film. His inability to live near the ocean below sea-level was a great detail too: anxiety about drowning, or the risk of being underwater as a metaphor for his mental state. Also being underwater as a metaphor for that sense of slow-motion-moving and disconnection.

Throughout the story, we (or I do anyway) get a real sense the past remains present for him: the memory of the stillborn child, the drinking, the campus, the blue pills, the lost lovers. The romanticisation of mental illness / madness versus its actuality is also works well for me. I can certainly relate to that. I really liked this: "The rest of his life passed down hallways and through doors and he has wished the entire time he could be that foolish again."

The title seems to be doing double work. The direct reference to the stillborn child is clear, but as I've reread I've come to see it as a form of self-accusation. It's echoed in the first lover's admonition for him to grow up. And I can see it as the man being critical of himself, his own 'weakness' and struggles in the face of the world.

So, given the above, it's difficult to find much to quibble with here.

One small thing that stuck out for me was the use of "half-formed" as a modifier of "warmed gelatin". I wonder if half-formed refers to the process by which gelatin is made (and being half-way through that), or just to the fact that it weakens and starts to separate when heated. If the latter it seems redundant; if the former, I wonder how many people are familiar enough with that process. It seems to me that "warm gelatin" would be enough.

In para 2, I wonder if the second sentence is wholly necessary in its entirely. The first half of the second sentence seems to simply reprise what's said in the first sentence, albeit expanding slightly on the image. You could maybe lose the phrase "that memory had been the first lap of the wave" and join "and would be with him for the rest of the day" to the end of the first sentence. Also, I'm not sure this is how waves work (I may well be wrong here), and so the image doesn't seem to add much. Do waves lap the shore multiple times before they arrive? Or if they're lapping the shore, isn't this part of the wave itself?

Here: "The people he sees and talk to and smile at, live behind a thick film." I'm reminded of the gelatin (a gelatinous film). If that's your intention, I did wonder if you could make that more explicit, hint at it in some way. But maybe that'd be overdoing things.

Anyway, these are very small things. This is great piece of writing that's had me coming back to reread it a number of times.



Last edited by Matt Q; 12-23-2019 at 05:02 AM.
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Unread 12-26-2019, 05:04 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 4,117

Matt, I apologize for the delay responding. Your comment made me proud. I think I may have used some of this stuff before. I’m a constant recycler. Your suggestions regarding the hang ups are spot on. I wanted to slip in about a half a lifetime.

I am truly pleased at your response.

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