After the third failed pregnancy, Harriet’s sisters started to call her the self-cleaning oven. Henry already had one kid with Doris, the bitch who kept calling them in the middle of the night to complain about the water temperature in Henry’s old house. She still expected him to maintain the property even after receiving full custody of their mewling little boy Jamie. Henry began sleeping through the phone calls, and so it was Harriet who had to answer the phone.
“Stop. Just stop, Doris. Call a plumber. Just look it up online.”
Three years with Henry and the calls still continued. Three years and three miscarriages.
Harriet’s sisters asked her if she had read the books they gave her. The one’s about sleeping on your back for all nine months and eating only cucumbers or avocados. They asked if she was smoking cigarettes when no one else was looking. They checked her cabinets for secret stashes of whiskey. They even questioned Henry. Was her beating her? Did he have a history of malformed sperm? Harriet just wanted them to go away, but they had nothing else to distract them.
Theresa, the oldest sister, had her tubes tied after the third kid came out in one swift motion in a bus station bathroom, and Deidra already had two kids, though she never bothered finding another man after Bob was hit with two heart attacks in a row while cutting the lawn. It was Harriet, the youngest, who was lagging behind. Their mother would not have been impressed. Harriet’s sisters visited the graveyard once a week to talk to their mother’s marble gravestone and Harriet was pretty sure all they did was discuss how the youngest Donoghue had failed the family. They even brought letters to read about her. Harriet discovered them when she showed up with flowers on her mother’s birthday. Pieces of paper fluttering around the cemetery, listing all her faults and failures chronologically with footnotes and everything. It was a long list.
* * *
The phone rings again and Harriet picks it up. Doris is on the other end again.
“Do you think I have the money for a plumber? Do you realize how expensive this dump is to heat once October hits? It ain’t cheap, I can tell you that much. And if you hang up on me again, I swear to God—”
Harriet leaves the phone off the hook and rolls over to go back to sleep. Henry does not move. He has become impervious to noise. Harriet closes her eyes and tries to dream of a plant that will never die. All she can find are cactuses that stretch up into the clouds.
* * *
In the morning, she drives by the old house Henry surrendered to Doris during the divorce. The windows are covered in dust and half the trim has begun to rot away. Henry is still only allowed to see the boy on weekend visits with a social worker present. A minor sex offender conviction when he was 18 has become a ghost, a 15 year-old girl floating over every conversation; her parents demanded an officer press the charges.
This ghost appears at random, unraveling the many lives Henry’s tried to build since he and his high school girlfriend were caught in her parents’ basement without pants or excuses. It pokes holes in resumes and drive away investors from his growing hot tub empire. It sulks in corners and lashes out in courtrooms and custodial battles. Henry tells Harriet she would like his son, but he’s not allowed to bring anyone to the visits. Doris has filed a petition about corrupting influences.
She isn’t wrong exactly. Harriet is the one who broke up their marriage, the one who slowly pulled Henry away from a life of baseball games and barbecues and cold bed sheets. Harriet is the one who diagnosed their marriage, the one who reached inside and pulled out a heart crusted in bile. She does not regret any of it, but sometimes she does regret there was a child. Doris holds him up like a trophy and the doctor says Henry’s sperm are still energetic, still thriving. Harriet wants to blame it all on the hot tubs, but the doctor says that isn’t the case. She tries to avoid thinking about other options. She focuses on Doris and what she would look like floating face down in a hot tub.
The boy is sitting on the porch with a deflated basketball. He tries to bounce it off the concrete steps, but it barely reacts. Harriet pulls over and watches him try to blow air into the tiny hole. The kid’s face turns red and then purple before he surrenders and tosses the ball away into the overgrown grass. Harriet rolls down the window and yells out into the street.
“You’re Henry’s kid, right?”
The boy is only six. He doesn’t say anything at first. He stands on the steps and looks toward the front door, but doesn’t move. Harriet climbs out of the car. She remembers all those public service announcements about strangers in cars. No matter what her sisters say, Harriet knows she is not a monster. She just doesn’t always think things through. Henry says it wasn’t her fault that they fired her from the cereal factory, but he doesn’t know about the lift she dropped on Debbie Anderson or the medical bills her family has to pay. Harriet doesn’t think he’d want to know. She bought a hot tub from him with some of the severance money. After all, nobody could prove Harriet was definitely the one who dropped that lift on Debbie. Debbie didn’t have a lot of friends on the inside of that place. She liked to take naps in the bathroom and smoke in the loading bay, leaving her butts behind for security to find on the midnight shift. She had it coming, Harriet told her sisters. They asked if it was an accident. “Of course it was,” Harriet had said.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’m just your Dad’s friend,” Harriet says. The kid looks for his basketball in the grass. He won’t look her in the eye as she steps toward him.
“You’re Jamie, right? Don’t worry; your Dad and I are close. Where is your Mom?”
The boy nods, but doesn’t say anything.
“Is she at work? Is she still working at the mall?”
“Yeah,” Jamie says. He’s still looking for his ball in the grass.
“And she just leaves you here all day?”
He nods again. The driveway is cracked and filled with weeds. Crabgrass and dandelions border its edges. Harriet wants to pluck them up, but she resists. Doris might notice. She seems to keep a record of everything. She probably has a photo of every single plant out here.
“Well, isn’t there like a babysitter or someone?”
Jamie stares up at her. He looks like a chubbier Henry.
“Sometimes. At night, yeah. But the sun is out.”
Harriet knows she should call Henry. Some proof of neglect, a way to get the courts to take his side against Doris. All Doris has to do is summon up his high school ghost, but now they have something substantial on their side. There is no guardian in sight. No one to watch the kid.
“The sun is out, yeah. Your Mom says that’s alright?”
Jamie nods again and tries to bounce the ball. It doesn’t even bother hopping away this time.
“How about you come with me for the day? We can do whatever we want. How does that sound to you? You want to go somewhere for lunch or something?”
Doris gets the kid and the house. Doris seems to get everything but Henry. And all Henry seems to do these days is sleep. He is slowly falling apart in front of her, no matter what the doctor says. Maybe her sisters are right. Maybe there is something wrong with him, something she just can’t see yet. Harriet grabs Jamie by the hand and they walk toward her car. She is tired of trying for a kid like Jamie. She just wants someone to hand her one already, fully formed.
“Okay, but we have to come back soon or she will be mad.”
Harriet knows she can handle the pain.
* * *
The restaurant is one of those off-brand waffle house places that sprout up like fungus along highway exit ramps. Jamie has five Belgian waffles in front him, piled with bananas, strawberries and whipped cream. Harriet only has a coffee. Her sisters say the caffeine is going to destroy her heart eventually. The restaurant is close to empty and everything is sticky.
“I don’t think I can eat all of this, Harriet.”
“You can do your best, that’s all anyone can ask for, Jamie.”
Harriet feels bad lying to the kid. Her best is rarely ever acceptable. Henry seems to tolerate her attempts at least. He was there at the hospital every time her body had turned against her, poisoning itself against the future she was trying to create. He brought her food from outside the hospital, sneaking in chocolates and real egg salad sandwiches. The hospital used powder eggs. Harriet refused to swallow any institution’s food. She didn’t trust the nurses. They all looked too much like her mother, knowing eyes and cooing voices hiding their contempt.
“You want some of my waffles?”
“I think you can handle it,” Harriet says. The kid is well-behaved. He didn’t even try to change the radio station on the way over. They talk about basketball and stepping on a Lego brick in the dark. Jamie asks her what she did for a job and Harriet says it’s none of his business. He doesn’t seem to mind. His Mom cuts hair at the mall and brings home a lot of coins inside her purse. Harriet smiles. Maybe it could be this easy. If only she could get her body to agree for once, to lend her a pass. Jamie tries to pour syrup on his waffles and misses the plate entirely. Harriet sops it up in one motion and throws the napkin on the floor. Let the waiter clean it up.
“I think I need to sleep, Harriet.”
“We will take you home in a bit, okay? I’m sure your Mom will be looking for you.”
Doris won’t be able to explain this. She just needs to draw it out a bit longer. And Harriet likes Jamie. He might not be a clean eater, but he hasn’t crapped himself or done anything stupid yet. All the awful years have already passed, including the terrible twos. When he gets into his teens there will be problems, but Henry can handle that. Henry is good with those kinds of situations. He is the one who handles Harriet’s sisters when they come by to ask about her stomach, her health, her future plans. Henry is very good at slamming doors.
“When my Dad comes over, he and my Mom talk about you sometimes.”
Harriet stops drinking her coffee. She pours more sugar into the grainy remains.
“What do you mean, Jamie? Is your Mom still mad at me? You know, you can’t always trust everything a grown up says. You have to learn what to believe. It’s hard to know sometimes.”
“I know,” Jamie says. His eyes are drooping and he misses his mouth with a fork of waffle.
“Well, what do they say Jamie? Is your Mom upset about something?”
Jamie stabs at his food again, but can’t bother to raise the fork.
“They say they just want you to go away. I wanna lie down. Can I lie down?”
Harriet doesn’t answer. She places both hands on the sticky table and closes her eyes. Henry said the visits with Doris always devolved into some screaming match about the drapes or the water heater. Harriet never asked why they took so long. She never asked about the social worker or the supervised visitations. There were messages Henry deleted from the answering machine before Harriet could listen. There were long car drives and strange clothes in the trunk. Harriet always wrote it off as part of the business—selling hot tubs wasn’t like selling pens or hair clippers. Harriet pulls her sticky hands off the table. Jamie has curled up in the booth with whipped cream in his hair. She wants to reach over and wipe it away, but her hand won’t let her.
With every attempt she and Henry made for a child, Harriet had tried to erase the malformed image of the last one—the twisted hands and half-formed faces. She pushed Debbie Anderson’s crushed legs from her mind, the screams echoing up the delivery shaft at the factory. She clenched Henry’s body between her legs and drowned out her prying sisters with moans to rattle the bedroom. Henry’s grunts helped hide the fear humming inside her diaphragm, rattling her organs. She could almost negate her mother’s voice from beyond the grave, the one tapping at the window, begging to ask about her grandchildren, her legacy. She had left so much behind. Harriet had filled her mind with one desire, for a wriggling thing made of flesh and blood to take up a space inside her, to call itself her own. She just wanted something new, something no one had used yet. Henry didn’t fit the bill—he never really had. Doris wasn’t finished with him yet.
Jamie is still asleep when Harriet stands up from the table. The waiter is flirting with some hostess near the back. There are no other customers. She clenches her hands around her purse and takes a few steps away from the sticky table. Jamie does not move; he only snores as she turns and walks toward the door. Harriet does not want Doris’ child. She does not want Henry’s leftovers.
Harriet steps outside into the parking lot. No one has followed her outside. The sun is out and, somewhere, Doris is still at work, cutting hair, talking shit, talking about Harriet and her poisoned womb. Too much time in those hot tubs, she will say. Too much time in that putrid, tacky hot tub Henry purchased as their honeymoon gift. It was bright pink, you know—such an ugly looking thing. Harriet climbs into her car and slams the door. Jamie sleeps alone inside the restaurant, surrounded by waffles with eyes and mouths mounted on the walls.
Harriet starts the car and pulls onto the highway. She tosses soiled tissues out the window and tries not to look back. She waits for the police to pull her over as the miles turn into hours.
Harriet is driving until she finds a desert. Any one will do.