When I was twenty years old, I left a kitchen knife in the baby’s crib. It was a good knife, that meat cleaver. I miss it. Nice and sharp. It would cut right through flesh and fat or gristle and bone without a lot of sawing.
Movie night with the girls was the next day. Suddenly, Last Summer had just opened at Lake Cinema, but I missed it because George, my husband, drove me straight to St. Adrian’s Mental Institute in Chicago. He took the baby. He left no forwarding address.
I had just had another miscarriage. God took my precious little baby, and if He took away one baby, and George took away the other baby, maybe I wasn’t meant to have any at all. There is the doctor again, looking down at me in the cutting room, bright light round his head like an angel in a blue surgical mask. We have to do this because you are a bad mother, he says, calmly. No more babies for you. No more babies for you, Kay. Then I go under and wake up with my insides sewn closed, or maybe gone forever.
Two years of electroshock treatment later, I was all better, one hundred percent. The morning I left St. Adrian’s, I washed my plastic cup and left it upside down to dry. Goodbye cup, I thought. Goodbye bed. I had no clothes other than the thin cotton smock I wore. I sat and waited until Nurse Young came to get me. She was my age. We all envied the keys that jingled on her hip. This was someone who was going places.
Nurse Young smiled. She carried candy for the residents like some people carry sugar for horses. She escorted me through the pale green hallways, hand barely on my elbow, and I felt her fingertips, fingernails. I wanted long fingernails. A perm. High heels. Shaved underarms. A bathroom with a door that closed. A color television.
“Good luck, Kay,” she said, and handed me a peppermint. Donnie was supposed to come get me. Baby brother Donnie, bless his big heart. Daddy and Mama were dead, and everyone else was parents. I would be right back at St. Adrian’s if I got anywhere near a child. No more babies for you. No more babies for you, Kay.
A man leaned against the curved front desk, reading a copy of Hunting Life. The nurse behind the desk had a little white nurse hat that looked like the little white hats of men who flip hamburgers. She said something to Beard Man. He came at me.
“I don’t know this man,” I thought, and then I realized it was Donnie. A thicket beard had taken over his pudgy face. It hid his mouth from me. I smiled and waved, and his beard quivered and dropped, maybe because I had half of my hair shaved off.
“You look like you fell in a thresher, Kay.” He took off his jacket and swung it over my shoulders. Even though my bag held only a toothbrush and some coin purses I had sewed at craft time, he carried it for me.
I still held the candy, hot and sticky. We stopped at Marshall Fields for two new dresses and some underdrawers. In the bathroom, I peeled the peppermint off my palm and threw it down the toilet and washed my hands until the smell—mint and fresh and green, green like hospital corridors—went away, until they were red and puffy. Clean.
At the restaurant, Donnie said I could have whatever I wanted, that we were celebrating my freedom, but I just wanted a hamburger. I showed Donnie one of my coin purses. He turned it all over, frowning.
“Like this, silly,” I said, but realized that I had sewn all four sides shut.
“Can’t you just cut it open again?” he asked. You can’t, though. You just can’t. I put it back in the paper bag, which I left in the booth after lunch, scrunching it deep into the far corner while Donnie was paying.
Sometimes I forget to put sugar in my pies.
A couple of times, I have forgotten to put corn syrup in my pecan pie while I was reading the pecan pie recipe from the back of the corn syrup bottle. Before Donnie disappeared, I baked pie every Tuesday night for his union meeting. Usually it was apple, but sometimes I made blueberry, or lemon meringue, or pecan. Most of the time the pie was fine. Sometimes, though, Donnie got the sugar bowl from the sideboard, and Rick or Pete or Jones would sprinkle sugar over the pie without comment, bite by bite. The spoon was tiny and shiny in their big hands.
They talked about Roy Chester. Roy Chester was a man in big trouble. He worked with them all at the Tomahawk Paper Products, and they said if he couldn’t keep his fool mouth shut, he’d get fired for unprofessional conduct. Only they didn’t say “fired,” they said “terminated.”
Astonishingly, Donnie said he hoped he’d do it. If Roy Chester got fired for the wrong reason, they would take the company to court. They would win. Roy Chester would get his job backand other people would be safe from getting fired for the same reason.
I was sitting in the living room, sewing. Not eavesdropping, just catching snippets while watching Mary Tyler Moore.
“We need to tell Roy Chester not to push it,” said Rick, pouring coffee from the carafe in his mug. “Tell him to watch his damn mouth, stop pushing Bartlett’s buttons.”
“If it’s not this case, it might be another—one we couldn’t fight,” said Donnie.
“He has a wife and kids,” said Rick. “The job pays decent and gives him two weeks off every year so he can go see his mother up in Deerfield.”
“You sound like one of them,” said Donnie. Rick said in a low voice that maybe Donnie wanted to see Roy Chester squirm a little bit. Suffer. That didn’t sound like Donnie. I got up and checked the carafe. It was almost empty, so I refilled it in the kitchen.
When I set it on the table, Donnie and Rick both had their arms crossed, and they were glaring at each other. Pete’s ears were red. He was writing down the minutes of the meeting on a piece of lined paper. I asked how the pie was. Pete said it was good and winked at me. I was still pretty back then. In high school, I had short hair. All the boys said I looked like Liz Taylor. Every term I starred in a play. After graduation, I was going to go to New York to be an actress, but while I was working in the dime store, saving my pennies, George got me in trouble. Never trust a man who says he’ll take care of you unless you know what he means by that.
One night, the week before Christmas, we heard a knock on the door at dinnertime. Donnie put his napkin on the table and went to see who it was. I tidied my lipstick, put the milk in the cupboard so it wouldn’t go sour, and trailed behind him.
It was a middle-aged man, handsome, cradling a frozen turkey in his arms. He smiled when he saw me. He and the man with the camera behind him had big clouds of white breath coming from them in the cold night air like word bubbles in the funny papers.
“Why Donnie,” he said. “Who is this beautiful lady?” I think he meant it too. My hair had grown back long enough to look like it was short on purpose.
“My sister, Kay,” said Donnie. “This is Mr. Bartlett.”
Mr. Bartlett. That was his boss. Bartlett owned Tomahawk Paper Products. According to Donnie, Mr. Bartlett was bad. Donnie called him the f-word and the s-word and all of the b-words. I held my hand out to shake, but Bartlett kissed it instead. His lips were very warm and soft. His hand was cold from the turkey.
“Enchante, Kay,” he said. He was a dreamboat. “What are you looking for, Donnie? What do you think’s in that car?”
Donnie came walking back. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe someone with a gun.”
“Your brother is quite the joker,” said Mr. Bartlett, and tossed the turkey to Donnie, who caught it. The man with the camera took photos quickly. Donnie put the turkey down on the step and said we had to get back to dinner.
“You’re welcome, Donnie. And Merry Christmas to you, Miss Kay.” I was still smiling at him when Donnie kicked the door shut. The next day, he installed a security system and called an emergency union meeting because Roy Chester had gotten fired. When I asked what for, they got upset. Rick said it was because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Donnie said it was because the company was evil.
“I think it’s what you wanted,” said Rick. “Just because he beat your ass in high school a couple times and stole your girlfriend.”
“No, because we’re going to take Tomahawk to court, and we’re gonna win,” said Donnie. His fist was the size and shape of a canned ham, and he banged it on the table. “We’re going to set a precedent that workers can’t be fired because a manager hears them saying in the breakroom, off the clock that the boss’s mother looks like a pink porker.”
“Cross-eyed fat pink porker,” said Pete. I said that wasn’t very nice. They said, in unison, that it was true and asked if there were any cookies or beer. We had both.
“You looked pretty in your photo,” Pete said to me.
I looked at Donnie. Pete told me I had been on the cover of the Tomahawk Times, the company newsletter, smiling at Mr. Bartlett while Donnie held the turkey. The Union’s Christmas Spirit! said the headline. No one had taken my photo in years and years and years. I asked my brother to bring me a copy, but he kept forgetting to.
“Either way, we need to talk about the wage increase,” said Donnie. Pete said he’d make better money at the burger stand; did I think he should work at the burger stand? I said I liked the burger stand. They laughed. Donnie folded a little white paper hat for Pete and put it on his head. I kissed Pete’s cheek just to show them.
For Christmas that year, Donnie enrolled me in an acting class. He drove me there on Thursday nights. Things didn’t go so well. I couldn’t remember my lines. My high school drama teacher said once that my memorizing skills were only exceeded by my distinctively exceptional enunciation, so I must have been too old to learn how to really act by the time Donnie signed me up for that class. It was taught by a man named Paul who always had on tight trousers and dark sunglasses, whether he was inside or out.
“He looks just like a movie star in those!” said Becky, the class floozy. I thought he looked like a hop head.
Right around mid-January, we got some terribly tragic news. Roy Chester had smothered his two little babies to death. Then he shot his wife in the front yard, and just as the police cars came screaming around the corner, he shot himself in the head and lived.
“If he’d just held on,” said Donnie, sitting on the davenport with his head between his knees. “We had the company by the balls. Most of us pooled our holiday bonuses to help him out. But he said no, he had savings. He was lying; he just didn’t want to take charity, and they were behind on the mortgage anyway—”
I put my hand on his back.
“He killed Jessie,” Donnie said. “You knew Jessie.”
He told me all about her. They’d dated in high school. I asked Donnie, just out of curiosity, if the doctor was going to fix Roy Chester so he couldn’t have any more babies.
“They don’t do that, Kay,” said Donnie. I told him that they’d done it to me, and I hadn’t even hurt my baby. I’d just misplaced a knife. Donnie looked up at me with watery red eyes.
The next night was Thursday. While I was on the stage rehearsing, Donnie sat in the back of the auditorium reading Hunting Life. We were working on The Tempest. There weren’t enough men in the class, so I had to be Caliban. I had note cards. The man playing Alonso had yellow armpit stains and kept his hands shoved in his pants pockets, and who knows what they were up to in there.
“Your cue, Becky,” Paul said. Becky shook her head, and I shouted, because I couldn’t believe she had forgotten, that I’d forgotten, and I said:
“O wonder!” is what I said, stretching my pale arms to the fluorescent lights. Everyone looked at me, as I lifted my face upwards, upwards, falling into the pose. “How many goodly creatures are there here!”
I smiled at them as if I truly meant it, even though most of the people in the class were more creaturely than goodly to me. I threw away my notecards and they scattered on the stage.
“How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!”
Stand like a Greek statue, my high school drama teacher had told me, stand like you are the new world, just born into the sunshine. He said that when I was seventeen on the stage, when I was a real live person, just beginning.
“Very nice,” said Paul. “But please remember that you are Caliban, Kay. Maybe you should work on his lines rather than Becky’s.”
I am Miranda, I thought. Not Caliban. Icky Mike Rogers was Caliban in high school, Icky Mike Rogers with pickle breath. Donnie closed his magazine and stood up. We left.
Outside, in the parking lot, it was cold, and Donnie started the car. He began scraping the ice off the windshield in big white curls while I huddled inside. The scraping got slower until it stopped, and he got in the car. I realized he was crying.
“Say it again, Kay,” he said, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
But I couldn’t remember. I wanted to for Donnie, but it was lost somewhere far away.
One night, in April, the security system began to go off. Donnie had been gone since the morning before without saying anything to me about leaving. I was alone in the house, so I huddled under the blanket until I heard Donnie’s voice, and then got up. I asked him where he’d been, and he said he’d been hunting. He had on his red-checked shirt. It had leaves stuck to it, and twigs. The clock on the wall said 2 a.m. I put the kettle on for tea.
Donnie wanted me to go back to bed, but he looked shook up, so I lit the stove and went to get my woolen dressing gown. When I came back to the kitchen, he was holding a black plastic bag with something in it the size of a small pumpkin.
“What’s in the bag?” I asked.
“A deer head,” he said, twisting the empty part of the bag and tying it.
“Is that all you got, the head? Where’s the venison?”
“Jones is cutting it up for us.”
“Where’s the antlers?” I asked, readying the tea.
“It’s a female deer.” The kettle began to shriek and shriek and shriek.
“It’s sort of small,” I said. Donnie stared at the bag as the screaming kettle spilled its steam out. It shrieked and shrieked and shrieked until I thought he was going to yell or cry or hit me. I took it off the heat. He cleared his throat and said I asked an awful lot of questions. There was a space near the back of the freezer, and he put the bag in there with the ice cream box and a big container of frozen blueberries in front of it.
“Don’t open the bag,” he said. “It’ll get freezer burn.”
Donnie’s gone; we don’t know where. He went missing right after Mr. Bartlett went missing. The police came to our house and searched but didn’t find Donnie or Mr. Bartlett.
“Try to remember,” said the first detective. He had spinach between his teeth. “Did he tell you at all where he was going?”
I said: “Pete says Donnie’s in heaven with Hoffa.”
“Organizing the angels,” said the other detective. “Leave it to that man to strike against God himself.”
“Should we check out the kitchen?” asked the first detective, scratching his tummy.
His friend checked his watch. “Nah. What, you think he’s hiding in the cornflakes?”
They found out about my stint in St. Adrian’s and ran a competency test. They said there might be brain damage from the electroshock. I’m not overly worried about this, however. We only ever use a bitty part of our brain anyway. The doctor agreed. He said I was fine living on my own as long as I was kept away from babies and children. I didn’t get Donnie’s life insurance policy because he was missing, not dead. There was the house, though, and his savings.
Pete was sweet on me. We probably would have gotten married, except he wanted kids, and I couldn’t have kids. No more babies for you, Kay. He started seeing a nice lady named Doreen, and they got married and moved to California. I made them a quilt. They still send me Christmas cards.
About five months after Donnie disappeared, I was clearing out the freezer and found the deer head. It made me sad to think that he had never gotten a chance to mount it, and right there I decided to open the bag and take it to Jones.
I put it on the kitchen table and tried to unknot the bag, but the knot was frozen shut. I hesitated. Maybe I should have just taken it to Jones wrapped, I didn’t even like gutting fish much. I’ll do it for Donnie, I thought, and slit the bag open with an apple peeler.
It was Mr. Bartlett. He had a frosty little mustache.
Oh, I thought about calling the police. I put the head in a new bag and put the bag back in the freezer. It was late, so I just decided to call them in the morning. Then I forgot. Then I decided not to at all. I didn’t like the detectives. Besides, I thought, Donnie might still come home and want it. Otherwise, he would have left it out in the woods somewhere.
Roy Chester died. It took him long enough. The policemen, different ones this time, came and questioned me about Donnie right after it happened. They asked me if I knew that Roy Chester had died. That was how I found out. They left. They did not search the house.
A poem I wrote:
Has brown eyes
He lives in the freezer
Behind the blueberries
It was almost Christmas again. I wondered where Donnie was. I wondered where George was, where my son was. Where had everyone gone? The wind rattled the windows. It made the metal garbage cans tap against each other.
I went to the freezer and got out Mr. Bartlett. This we do on Wednesdays. I put him on a pie plate, so he wouldn’t make a mess. He rested on his ear since his neck wasn’t flat on the bottom. We went into the living room. I put a dishtowel down on my lap, and then the pie plate.
On the television, Perry Mason talked to a suspect. In the next scene, a small girl practiced French. I had tried to be an actress, and that didn’t work out. I had tried to be a mother, and that hadn’t worked either. But there’s always something. There’s always something new.
Perry Mason entered the classroom. The little girl said, “Bonjour.”
“Enchante,” I said, delighted to remember. I stroked Mr. Bartlett’s damp hair. I pressed him to my bosom. It is so nice to meet you. We have such bright things ahead of us, together.
Eva Fitzsimons has an MFA from Pacific University, and has been published in The Dirty Goat as well as various zines. She is currently finishing her first novel.