Gayle taps ashes into a saucer as Lyle walks toward her from the living room. He looks first at the ashes and then at the cigarette that Gayle is holding near her face, a thin wire of smoke unravelling toward the ceiling. She sucks on the cigarette now as Lyle approaches. He comes into the kitchen and sits down across the table from his wife, and she moves the smoke around in her mouth then blows it out away from the two of them.
“What’s this?” says Lyle. “You smoking?”
Gayle sucks on the cigarette again. “It’s just a cigarette.”
“Okay,” he says, “but why?”
“Just once in awhile. You know I used to smoke. In high school.”
“It smells like shit,” says Lyle.
Gayle taps her ashes again. “What’s Bradley up to?”
Lyle looks back toward the living room where he can just see his son by the light of the TV, lying on his belly on the floor with his head propped into his hands. “He’s watching the Kung Fu show, but I couldn’t watch any more. I’m not crazy about that mumbo jumbo.”
“You don’t have to watch it,” says Gayle. “You could just sit with him.”
“I guess,” says Lyle. He shrugs his shoulders up and down and places his hands palm-down on the table, then tips his arms over so his hands flop up and he can see he didn’t wash them well enough after coming inside.
Gayle crushes out her cigarette and looks at the spot where she’s extinguished it. “It’s really my hairdresser’s fault,” she says. “Stephanie. She said one or two a day soothes her. Even on her worst days just one or two calms her right down.” She moves the saucer to the side so that it isn’t between her and Lyle anymore.
“I don’t like it,” says Lyle.
Gayle wipes her lips with the tips of her fingers. “I don’t think it’s working,” she says.
Kay, the aging Pomeranian, marches through the kitchen, toward her bowl beside the back door. Her toenails click lightly on the linoleum. She takes a shortcut under the table and Lyle swings his foot at her, but Kay skips easily aside—as if she was expecting this sneak-attack—then continues on toward her food.
“Don’t do that,” says Gayle. “It’s no wonder she hates you.”
“She hated me before.”
Kay eats. She drinks some water. Lyle watches her. Gayle stares absently at her husband. The dog turns her head toward Gayle as if she expects more food to be placed in the dish, but none comes.
“Stupid dog,” says Lyle. He smiles.
Gayle stares at her husband. Lyle drags one arm off the table and lays it in his lap. His other hand is still open on the table, palm up. He draws the fingers toward him into a fist, then releases them flat again.
Bradley comes into the room. He’s dressed in pajamas that are one size too big. He likes them this way, he says, because he’s growing into them. Once they fit, he’ll want a size bigger.
“It’s over,” says Bradley. “I turned off the TV.”
“Okay,” says Gayle. “Get ready for bed.”
Bradley frowns. “No,” he says.
“Bradley,” says Lyle. “Now.”
“Oh,” says Bradley. He spins around and shuffles out of the room. He watches his feet. Then he hops a little. His pajama toes fold under.
Gayle imagines that he will do what he’s supposed to, going straight to the bathroom, grabbing the toothbrush and squeezing toothpaste onto it, then awkwardly brushing the best he can. He misses most of his back teeth. He’s standing on the bathroom stool so he can see himself in the mirror. He looks into the mirror, and to him it looks as if he’s brushed every tooth. He moves the toothbrush back and forth across the front. He continues to brush so he won’t have to go immediately to bed but he’s brushing. Nobody has to go in there and make sure he’s brushing. She can just sit and he brushes his teeth harder and faster and the toothpaste foams. He spits into the sink. She doesn’t have to move.
But in reality Bradley stands in the bathroom near the door, staring at his reflection on the chrome doorknob. In the reflection he is upside-down. Kay trots into the bathroom, her nails sliding noisily on the white-tiled floor. Bradley jumps toward the dog.
“Hi-ya!” says Bradley. “Chop!” He drops his Kung Fu chop toward her. Kay barks at Bradley and skitters away toward the bathtub. She’s cornered there, not really frightened but willing to participate in their regular game. “Hi-ya!” says Bradley again. He kicks the air and the dog begins to bark and yelp and run past Bradley and out the door. She continues to bark as she runs through the house.
Bradley’s father stands in the doorway of the bathroom now.
“Okay, kiddo. Brush, then bed.”
“Hi-ya!” says Bradley, kicking toward his father.
“Let’s go, Grasshopper.” He picks Bradley up from under his arms and sets him on the stool. Every time he does this Lyle thinks his son weighs almost nothing, though it’s always more than the day before. He stands behind Bradley and watches him brush his teeth haphazardly, just the front teeth, quickly, as if the toothpaste flavor is tolerable only if you smash it against your front teeth, then spit, then smash, then spit. When he’s finished, Lyle carries him toward his bedroom. His body is limp against his father, like an armload of rope, and Lyle lays Bradley into the bed and pulls the covers up to his chin. Bradley kicks the covers off and Lyle pulls them up to his chin again. “I’ll send Mom in, okay?”
“Chop!” says Bradley.
Lyle leaves the room and goes back to the kitchen where Gayle still sits where he left her, now with her arms crossed and staring toward the refrigerator. The kitchen smells strongly of cigarette smoke. “He’s in bed,” says Lyle.
“Okay,” says Gayle. “All right.”
She pushes herself up from the table and leaves her husband with the lingering smoke and the panting dog standing near the oven and the small-motor sound of the refrigerator. Kay lets her tiny tongue hang out of her mouth and backs up toward the oven, panting. Her eyes are wide and black.
“Come here,” says Lyle, and he reaches down toward her. “Come on.” The dog does not come toward him but stands beside the oven and watches him closely. Lyle walks toward her. She cowers back toward the wall, again cornered. Lyle kneels down and strokes her long orange fur. Her tiny heart beats wildly in the palm of his hand, like a hummingbird.
“Let’s keep this between you and me,” says Lyle. He pats the dog on the forehead and stands up straight. Kay runs off toward the living room. Lyle picks up the saucer from the table and dumps the contents in the trash, then rinses it in the sink. He leaves the saucer there in the sink. He turns and sees Gayle coming out of Bradley’s bedroom. This is the longest view of the small house. From here he can see the ways into most of the rooms: living room, bathroom, and both bedrooms. Bradley’s slippers, just past the barely-open door, are lit softly by his nightlight.
Bradley’s room is full of ritual. Play with G.I. Joe until the egg timer buzzes (5 minutes), read two picture books, then lights out. But since Gayle came back from the hospital he’s been skipping both G.I. Joe and the picture books and shutting down early with his stuffed tyrannosaurus and his thumb in his mouth. When Lyle asks him about G.I. Joe, he just shrugs and says, “He’s dead.” Lyle tries to get him to play with the action figure but he won’t do it. He’s put it in a shoe box and shoved it under his bed, somewhere to the left of his slippers, as out of reach as he can make it without removing it from his room.
Lyle stands next to the oven and watches his wife walking toward him, smiling, and he tries to catch the smile on her face with one of his own, but she doesn’t notice. She stops in the living room and leans down and pats the dog, then turns on the TV. She sits down on the sofa in front of the moving light. The light on her face makes her skin look gray and Kay jumps up onto the sofa, then nestles in beside her. If he didn’t have to walk through the living room to do it, Lyle would go to Bradley’s door and peek inside, and maybe watch him until he was long asleep. Instead, he leans back against kitchen counter and watches his wife for a while. She pulls the little dog into her, against her side. She pets the dog automatically and Lyle supposes this must soothe her.
Lyle folds his arms together and tries not to breathe so loudly. The room seems bright. Too bright to go unnoticed for long. He drops his arms and walks out of the kitchen through the back door, switching off the kitchen light as he does so. Outside it is dark and raining. He wants to go to bed but he isn’t tired. In back they have a small green porch with a flower box to the side, and Lyle sits on the top step of the porch that leads down to the back yard. There aren’t any flowers in the flower box now, but a yellow toy tractor sits abandoned there, axle high in the dirt. He can’t decide if he has slammed the screen door or if he simply allowed it to glide shut too hard. Gayle will think he slammed it. He has to fix the mechanism but he’s no good at this. He has no natural ability with fixing mechanical things, which is why he spent so much time this evening changing the oil and filter in the car. Maybe he could fix the screen door or maybe he couldn’t. He’s no good with hydraulics. He thinks it’s hydraulics. Or pneumatics. Or magic. It’s a tube full of magic that prevents the door from slamming shut, but now it’s empty. It needs to be recharged. He’s probably no good with magic, either, but he’ll give it a shot. Tomorrow. This weekend. Some time during the day.
He sits with his elbows on his knees. He should have made a pot of coffee. Sometimes a little taste of coffee helps him sleep. Not like Gayle, who can’t sleep anymore, with or without coffee. It seems as if she hasn’t slept since the day, six weeks ago—while they were carefully making love, spooned and from behind because it made him nervous to lean too heavily on her stomach—that she began to bleed, heavy and black in the dark room, and they pulled on pajamas and jackets and ran to the car, careful down the steps, careful into the seat, careful buckling Bradley into the back, him saying, “What’s wrong, Mama? Where are we going?” Careful. Lyle recalls having told the doctor every detail of the evening, including a description of their lovemaking, so careful, that he hadn’t done anything like that when Bradley was in there, and he wasn’t doing it now, not tonight, not ever. The doctor said, “It wouldn’t have been the intercourse. No. Even if you had leaned on her. Babies aren’t so fragile as that. It was something else. There’s probably nothing we could have done even if you’d been here hours ago. Don’t blame yourself. It wasn’t the intercourse. There was something else going on here.”
Only they couldn’t tell them what that something else was.
The doctor’s face was tan—too tan for the season, and Lyle couldn’t help thinking that the doctor had just been on vacation and that his life would not be affected by this.
“Sometimes it just happens,” the doctor said, as if to fill the silence, as if making noise would actually help them. “You can’t blame yourself. I’m going to give you the number of a good counselor. I really recommend you see her. This isn’t your fault. Neither of you. You did nothing wrong.” Then he smiled a small pathetic smile and took a prescription pad out of his pocket and wrote a name and a number on it. “Okay?” he said. The doctor patted Lyle on the shoulder on his way out of the room.
No. Not okay. Say something else. Come back.
Lyle often thinks of the doctor’s hand on his shoulder. Sometimes Lyle wishes he would have pushed the hand away. Sometimes he wishes he could push it away even now. But the hand still seems to rest there, to pat him, to wake him in the middle of the night. You did nothing wrong. Okay?
If Lyle goes back inside the house now, nothing will have changed. There will be no fresh pot of coffee. The prescription note with the counselor’s name and number on it will still be missing, though he knows he taped it to the wall next to the phone. Gayle will be up half the night again, watching television while Kay sleeps against her leg. He should have put the coffee on before stepping out, so when he goes back inside it would be finished. It will be awkward now to go in and start one. The sound of making coffee would irritate Gayle, so he won’t do it.
Later, Bradley will wake up a few times and call for his mother. She’ll go in. She might lie down beside him until he falls back asleep. She might tell him a story that she makes up for him. She might even fall asleep there herself, but not until much later, after most of the television stations have either gone off the air or are so full of commercials that she can’t stand to watch anymore. Then she’ll go in and lie down on Bradley’s big rag rug, a cotton knit blanket covering her more for security than warmth. When Bradley stirs again she’ll move to the bed, and in the morning Lyle will find them both there, snuggled into one another like a nut in its shell.
The backyard neighbor turns on a bedroom lamp. It’s only on for a few moments before it’s off again. Lyle tries not to think of what they needed to see in the light. If he thinks about it, he’ll be awake half the night imagining their bedroom, constructing items they might have been reaching for, might have been examining: a clock, a tissue, a condom. He’ll put himself in their bed and he’ll reach out and touch one of them lightly, and they’ll make a soft and happy noise, half asleep and fuill of dreams. Instead of thinking of these things, he’ll hold his hand out far enough to see if the rain has stopped, then go back inside to make that half pot of coffee, and on his way back to the kitchen the screen door will slam shut again unless he remembers to hold it.