Every night Lynn cooks onions for supper: liver and onions, onion soup, onion rings, hot sausage grinders. Every night, amidst the smell of onions, Jerry removes pieces of the kitchen’s blue-flowered wallpaper, exposing patches of green paint and gray paste. He is meticulous about his work, dividing the task into small squares in his mind, making each section perfect before proceeding to the next. Then, after Lynn goes to sleep, he stays up late reading in the kitchen, looking at the crack of night that seeps in through the open window, the window neither of them ever washes — as if they need to hide behind its crusted film, behind the comfort of dirt, even after so much time has passed.
Tonight, as she prepares potatoes and onions for a stew, the October wind hisses through the crack in the window, chilling the brand-new coleus and philodendron, which already seem to be dying. Lynn fingers the dirt. It would be easy to stop what she’s doing and water the plants. She touches a browning coleus leaf, then, unconsciously, a soft spot on her stomach. I was seven months pregnant last year at this time, she thinks, and turns back to the onion.
Juice and pulp make their way beneath her fingernails. She will wash and trim them later, when it’s time to take the guitar out of the closet and play songs for Richard. “Richard,” Lynn says under her breath, softly, so Jerry cannot hear. She rinses her hands above the mound of dishes in the sink, tears filling her eyes. She has insisted to Jerry that she is OK now. She will not go to the cemetery to dig in the dirt. She will not beat her breast on the roof, or break any more heads off her antique dolls, or deface their china blue eyes with Magic Markers — all the things she might like to do, has done in another life, but that life is finally over.
Lynn drops the potato peels into the compost. If Richard had lived, he would be ten months, almost a year old by now, old enough to delight in mashed potatoes. She would have let him play with them and feel the softness between his fingers. Together they would have made mashed-potato faces with raisins for eyes and a piece of spaghetti for a smile. They would have built potato cities: white, pure, palpable, perfect.
Lynn found out the baby would probably die the same day she bought the lottery ticket. She rarely bought lottery tickets, but that November morning she’d had a hunch. She was almost eight months pregnant when she walked into Teddy’s Snack Bar, and her stomach stuck out between the top and bottom buttons of her winter coat. The graying man behind the counter looked at her strangely. He knew all the lottery regulars, and she wasn’t one of them.
“Planning for the future?” he asked, smiling.
Lynn smiled back, finally used to strangers casually making her body the center of attention. Ticket in hand, she went back to the car to drive to Springfield for her ultrasound. It was just routine, the doctor had assured her, to see if her placenta had moved up. Jerry had offered to go with her, but she didn’t think it was necessary. He had been at the first one, at twelve weeks, and they had both been awestruck by the little, wavy worm on the computer screen — their baby, finally, after a year and a half of trying. The technician couldn’t tell whether it was a boy or a girl, but they didn’t care. They carried a snapshot of the image in their wallets and made a copy for the photo album.
This time the technician saw a penis clearly and pointed it out to Lynn with the little arrow on the screen. However, when he examined the lung cavity, he grew silent. He said he would send the pictures to the doctor right away and she would be notified as soon as possible.
Lynn went to the bathroom to pee, and as the urine streamed into the toilet she imagined the baby falling away from her. She flushed, picturing the baby — a boy now, she knew it was a boy — swirling down through the hard porcelain passage. What would she tell Jerry, her mother, the man at Teddy’s Snack Bar, all the people who had waited for this child? “Richard,” she said out loud. If it was a boy they were going to name him Richard. She stood over the gurgling toilet and watched the water ease up the white, smooth sides, then she buttoned her coat and walked out into the gray wind and drizzle. She felt the baby twitch inside her. The cold air chilled her hands, and she put them in her pockets and felt the lottery ticket. “I have a chance,” she thought, “a small chance.”
“There’s no diaphragm.” Dr. Wilson’s voice was as matter-of-fact as if she were saying, “There’s no pencil.” Lynn suddenly felt small in the brown leather chair despite her extra forty-five pounds. “What does that mean?” she asked.
“It’s hard to tell from the ultrasound. These shadows are intestines crowding the lungs. I can’t tell how far the respiratory system has developed. We’ll do a surgical procedure to separate the lungs from the intestines when the baby is born, if it has lungs that are viable.”
“He. It’s a boy, Richard.”
“Richard.” Dr. Wilson looked from the ultrasound picture to Lynn’s face to her bulging stomach. “Of course this means you’ll probably have to deliver in Springfield. I’m going to consult with some specialists and let you know. But you may want to prepare for a stillbirth. It’s a rare defect. I’m sorry to say I don’t think the chances of survival are very good.”
She won a free game with her lottery ticket but never went to pick up another one. She dropped out of childbirth class. She stopped swimming at the Y. She tried not to do anything that might lead her into the company of another pregnant woman. The Christmas lights draped across the trees downtown seemed like a cruel joke. When the baby moved inside her, she felt him only feebly. He no longer kept her up at night. She slept as much as she could, craving the space where her thoughts were only inexplicable images that she could forget during her short periods of wakefulness. She did not want to think or feel ever again.
“I want drugs for the labor,” she told Dr. Wilson. “Put me to sleep and tell me when it’s over. If the baby’s dead I don’t want to see it.”
“I’ll do what you want, but it’s been shown that parents who can hold their children have an easier time in the long run.”
“I don’t want to see it if it’s dead,” Lynn repeated more firmly.
They brought the baby to Jerry. He sat with him on a high, hard cot in the hallway with the curtains pulled around them. Richard’s body was still warm when they brought him, and his face was perfect and peaceful, his long, black hair like wet silk.
Jerry held the body until it began to cool, running his finger along the baby’s closed half-moon eyes and across the fingers and toes that were long and thin, like his own. My son, he thought. This is my son — was my son.
The curtain rustled and a nurse appeared. “Your wife is awake. She said she’d like to see you — by yourself.”
Jerry handed Richard to the nurse, not stopping to think that the next time he would see him, Richard would be in a coffin. As he followed the nurse down the hall to the recovery room, he wondered what he could say.
As Jerry tackles the stubborn spots that refuse to peel, he still wonders what to say. The layers of wallpaper make him think of the black coral necklace he’d bought Lynn on their honeymoon trip to Jamaica, how guilty he felt when he later found out the coral was a piece of the island’s eroding foundation. He pictures water sloughing off sand, dirt receding from potato roots, the earth shifting as vegetables poke their shaved, brown scalps through the crust. He watches as Lynn chops onions as finely as she can, trying once and for all to disprove the stubborn truth that half of a half of a half will always leave something.
They had spent many years discussing whether they wanted a child at all. Jerry had to talk Lynn into it; they couldn’t be a real family without one, he had said. Now neither of them dares to bring up the question of having another child, even though Lynn is out of bed and cooking again, talking of going back to work.
He remembers last winter and early spring, the months immediately after the birth — or the death. Each night he’d come home from work to find Lynn on the couch watching children’s videos, a faint, husky “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” taking over the room. He’d open a can of tuna and make sandwiches, dicing the onion meticulously while the Kansas tornado lifted Dorothy’s house up into the air, twisted the legs off furniture, and shattered windowpanes. He’d mix in the mayonnaise to the tune of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” and spread it on the bread as the mayor of Munchkinland began to make his proclamation. Then he’d put four triangular sandwiches on the silver serving tray engraved with their initials and carry it into the living room.
One night Lynn had turned off the video while Jerry was still making the sandwiches, startling him with the charged silence of the Munchkins’ disappearance. “Couldn’t stand the idea of seeing the Tin Man again,” she explained as he came in with their dinner. “Do you think Richard would have been afraid of him?”
“He would have been scared of the witch, like normal kids.”
For several days after that they did not speak at all.
So much about the baby had been perfect, Lynn remembers Jerry telling her countless times: ten fingers, ten toes, all the limbs perfect. She remembers so little of that day because of all the drugs they gave her during labor. But eventually she had to wake up and ask the inevitable question, feeling the blood and pain ooze out of her, the reverberations of the uterus returning to normal size. She is still oozing, scraped down to the roughened core.
On Wednesday, Lynn will be thirty-four. She has a job interview that day for a bookkeeping position at a small insurance company in West Springfield. Jerry will meet her later for a special lunch. She wonders what it would be like to spend her days trying to make columns of numbers balance. The repetition would be comforting. She doesn’t know anyone in West Springfield, and if they ask whether she has children, she will simply smile and say no, firmly, closing the door on any more questions.
“What do you think we should do with these walls?” Jerry frowns in anticipation of Lynn’s silence. He has reconciled himself to losing the baby, but not to losing his wife. “Don’t you think yellow would be nice? It would be sunny all the time.” He imagines a yellow kitchen in full sunlight, imagines himself on an early June evening looking out the kitchen window at potato plants and rows of peas climbing the fence.
When Lynn still does not answer, Jerry impulsively climbs off the ladder and takes her in his arms. He closes his eyes, trying to feel what lies below her skin, the blood pulsing relentlessly, the mysterious organs that function regardless of tragedy. Her ribs are firm against his chest, and he feels her heart beating rhythmically. He remembers listening for the baby’s heartbeat during their prenatal visits, how for days he’d anticipate that wonderful sound of galloping horses that told him his baby lived and breathed in its own watery world. When the baby was born, Jerry had held Richard’s chest up to his ear to check one more time for some hidden spark of life that could turn his skin from blue to pink. He wanted to sit there forever on that cot, just his son and himself, enclosed by the green hospital curtains. He did not want to walk the halls and hear new babies crying, or start the ritual of finding the right box, the right place for the service, the right mound of dirt in which to dig the small hole that would hide the baby. He didn’t want to talk to all those people who would say the wrong things.
They sit down to dinner at opposite ends of the old oak table, the walls around them now almost fully exposed. As always before eating, they close their eyes and sit for a moment in silence. Jerry suddenly sees Richard sitting with them in a highchair across the table, an older version of the baby he had held — with dark, curly hair, Lynn’s round, brown eyes and broad face, his own large birthmark under the right side of his chin, a mark that would have given him character until he grew a beard to hide it the way Jerry had done. The image is so vivid he has to open his eyes to bring himself back to the present. He sees Lynn looking at the same spot. Their eyes meet.
“Are you looking at Richard?” Jerry asks.
Lynn nods. “I see him there every night.”
They gaze at each other for a moment, then look down at their plates. The stew is slightly overcooked; edges of potato have turned into mush in the gravy, and the onions are soft, malleable.
“I don’t think Richard would like eating all these onions. Would you, Richard?” Jerry gestures at the spot. “Goo goo, goo goo. He says, ‘Enough onions! Yucky onions! Yucky.’ He’s going to throw them all over the floor!” Before Lynn can stop him, Jerry takes clumps of gravy, meat, and vegetables and sends them sliding down the pink tablecloth. The grease forms a thick, hot film over his cuffs, but the burning feels right.
“Jerry!” He hears Lynn’s voice distantly. He stops and looks at her, trying to bring her face into focus, a face that once stopped him in his tracks but is now familiar and worn. The tears running down her cheeks have become part of its landscape, but underneath he sees something new — a slight upturning at the corners of her mouth.
He does not speak as she gathers the edges of the tablecloth and folds them up, letting the stains soak in. But his fingers do not release hers after she wraps her napkin around his hand. They continue to hold on to each other, their arms forming a bridge across the table.