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.