Return to poughkeepsie, p.5
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       Return to Poughkeepsie, p.5

           Debra Anastasia

  “Whoever the fuck they are,” he mumbled as he walked the apartment to note what else she’d left him. She’d had the good sense to leave his expensive Sleep Number bed and his huge flat screen TV, but pretty much everything else one insane woman could carry by herself was gone. He’d have to get his stuff back from her, maybe threaten to file a theft report…though his work buddies would make his life hell the minute he put in the paperwork.

  He undressed and disarmed. He’d been looking forward to cuddling up with Trish, er, the psycho bitch tonight. It’d been a vicious one. Another domestic, which had to be his least favorite. The haunted eyes of the kids as they absorbed the conflict like a sponge always chilled him. He desperately wanted a shower, but she’d taken all the towels. He was due for a trip to Walmart in the morning.

  He lay down, then immediately sat up and adjusted his sleep number, which she’d set absurdly high, making his mattress like a slab of cement. He closed his eyes and made the best of his one limp pillow.

  He was a few hours into not sleeping when he indulged. He tried not to let his memories sneak up on him, tried not to wallow in them, but his fish was dead so he figured he deserved it. A little refueling was due anyway.

  Just closing his eyes brought back the day, even though it had been seven years. His uncles had always been everything he wanted to be. They were tall and seemed to know exactly what they were doing. As a kid, he’d felt like he was in the presence of kings. When they showed up his mother was always flustered, thrilled to see her brothers. She’d fussed over them, made the most of their time together, because then they’d disappear for weeks.

  Nikko and Wade had loved to roughhouse with him when he was little. It was almost like they were trying to mega-dose him with male attention because most of the time it was just him and his mom. “So he comes at you, right? This is what you do.” Wade would make Nikko hold still so he could show Ryan how to do the moves. And when it was time for Ryan to practice? They were both ready: willing and dramatic victims. He’d loved being with them. He could still hear their laughter if he tried. They’d thought he was hilarious. Every joke and story he told about middle school, Wade and Nikko seemed to love. They’d hung on his every word.

  It still hurt to replay these memories, especially because back in the day their presence had meant relief for his mother. When they weren’t around, his mom struggled to pay bills and concoct enough meals. When Nikko and Wade returned, their cars were always different—and full of clothes, electronics, and frivolous stuff like dancing stuffed animals. He never quite understood where they’d been, and no one ever answered his questions. “Workin’, kid,” they’d tell him. “We’ve been workin’.”

  His uncles had liked to drive him and his mom to the grocery store and treat her to a restriction-free shopping trip. She could get the expensive cuts of meat, the name brand paper towels, and there was usually a stop to get him a new pair of sneakers as part of the deal. As he got older, he would haunt his mom, always asking when they’d be back. And he cringed now as he recalled the times his asshole teenaged self had criticized her for not providing the way they did. But the older he got, the less Nikko and Wade came around. They made it to his high school graduation, and that was really the last good day with them Ryan could recall. They’d all gone out for a fancy dinner, and his mom had glowed with happiness.

  After that he’d gone off to SUNY New Paltz to study political science, and he was ashamed to admit he hadn’t thought much about his uncles at all. He barely kept up with his classes and checking in on his mother. The day she found out Nikko was dead, Ryan had been packing up his laundry in the living room, headed back to school for the second half of his junior year. Her screaming made him cry by reflex. The policewoman who delivered the news tried to comfort her, but Nikko wasn’t just gone, he’d been murdered. And Wade couldn’t be found.

  He was still missing, though Ryan now knew he was dead. He’d known that first day, if he was honest. He’d had a cop’s intuition even then. He realized his mother had really considered her brothers to be her children, not to mention her saviors and providers of the male influence she felt Ryan needed. The three had only had each other for a long time, as Ryan’s grandmother had succumbed to cancer before Ryan was born, and his grandfather had left years before that.

  Ryan had been pretty good at cheering his mom up in those early days of her debilitating depression—of course he hadn’t gone back to school—but she suffered a break the day she learned Nikko had bled out. She began to have conversations with Ryan about her theories on what happened. She didn’t believe the man who’d killed Nikko was innocent like he claimed. “Beckett Taylor never defends himself,” she used to say. “He’s just a murderer.”

  They’d gone to court the day Taylor was released—not guilty on account of self-defense. When she came home, she spent her time drawing the tattoo she’d seen on his arm. “This is the sign, Ryan,” she’d told him, over and over. “Watch for this sign. If a man wears this, run. Run fast and far. He’s the devil.”

  Joining the force had finally been the only thing Ryan could think to do to offer her hope. “I’ll find him, Mama. I’m going to get a badge and gun, and I’ll make him tell me what happened, where Wade is. I promise.” His mother had patted his cheek. He’d turned his back on political science and college and gone to the police academy so he could pack some heat and get his hands on folders that contained information about his uncles. He had to give her some peace and closure.

  Ryan sat up in bed and really wished he could shower. Stupid Trish. A man has a right to wash his ass at the end of the damn day. He stretched and went into the bathroom. Under the cabinet he found a bottle of body wash Trish said was too harsh for her skin. He smiled at his find, and as he set the water temp, a floating bit in the toilet caught his eye. Poseidon had been kicked back by the crapper. He cursed as steam filled the bathroom. He grabbed the plunger and prepared to do the dirty deed when the fish flopped.

  “Poseidon?” Ryan reached into the bowl and cupped the fish in his hands. It flopped again. “Shit!” He ran into the kitchen and awkwardly filled a bowl with tap water while clutching his pet in one hand. Once the fish was in water again he pulsed a few times before starting to swim.

  “You’re alive, motherfucker! No way!” Ryan’s exuberance was dimmed by the lady downstairs banging on her ceiling with a broom. “Well, Mrs. Clarke might think this Lazarus shit is too much, but I’m damned glad to see you, buddy.” He sprinkled in some fish food, which Poseidon greedily ate. “Now that’s something.”

  He went back into the bathroom and stepped into the shower, savoring the steam as well as the water. He was glad Trish was gone—saved him the trouble of breaking up with her. She’d been pressing for a wedding, leaving little hints about diamond rings and tuxedoes. And he didn’t have time for it. He was closer than ever to finding out more about his uncles’ deaths. The tattoo his mother had been so obsessed with had made an appearance in a case at work.

  Ryan turned off the water and sighed at his sopping wet body. He wasn’t looking forward to drip-drying. He wandered over to the fogged mirror and drew the tattoo, his go-to doodle. The water beaded up around the lines left by his finger. The knife, cross, and music clef was actually a pretty sweet tat. He’d recognized it as if it were his name when he saw it on a colleague’s report. With a little prodding, he found out an undercover officer had sent a warning to the Poughkeepsie PD about escalating crime and potential efforts at organization in their town.

  As he left the bathroom in a puff of steam and looked for a sweatshirt to sacrifice on behalf of his stolen towels, Ryan recalled the conversation he’d overheard between the prosecutor and another beat cop: “Man, I thought we were done with this. Once Taylor was history, things got small time. Last thing we want is another infestation of crap.” Taylor’s name was a gift Ryan didn’t need. He already knew the tat was related to the man he’d joined the force to catch.

  After he was as dry as he
was going to get using his sweatshirt, he slipped on boxers and went back to bed. His girlfriend was gone, his fish was alive, and he’d recently gotten his first lead on Taylor since strapping on a gun. Things might just be looking up after all.


  I’d Do Anything

  RED. KYLE NEVER THOUGHT she would hate a color. Until now she’d only worried about whether the hue went nicely with her skin. But red and white ruled her moods now. The toilet paper was either stained with failure, or its pristine surface gave her soaring hope.

  How many times had she abused this part of her body? So many. She’d treated it like a piece of equipment—her trump card in the game of sex. Now she wanted it to perform, create, and believe.

  But this morning there was red again. Her period was back. Every month her dreams took flight and crashed, like a kite on a short gust of wind. It had been nearly four years now. The days piled on top of one another, making permanent her punishment of being barren.

  Cole had learned not to ask. She knew her crippling, crying depression must be impossible for him to bear. They just left the gaping hole unspoken in the middle of their lives. She had been to the doctor. Cole had submitted to a thorough examination. They were both healthy and young. Stress was the pretend disease the specialist offered her, though they both knew it was just so Kyle didn’t leave completely empty handed.

  Kyle crammed a tampon roughly inside her. She let the water run after she washed her hands. She’d perfected sobbing quietly. If she clenched her teeth and refused to take a deep breath, she could get away with it. Cole wouldn’t know she was dying inside.

  Little did she know her efforts were for naught, as her husband often fought his own quiet battle on the opposite side of the bathroom door. He would keep one hand resting on the door, the other clenched in a fist at his side. Cole wanted to fix it, or hold her hard until something in her healed, but he couldn’t. Instead he prayed, his reflex for pain. He cursed, his response to helplessness.

  Kyle would pat her face until it was no longer pink and puffy. Cole would step softly away from the door on the carpeted floor, careful to avoid the squeaky spot. He didn’t want her to know he’d been hoping with her, for her. Then they’d greet each other in the kitchen as if the crack in their foundation didn’t exist at all.

  Kyle wished her husband a good day with his students and kissed him goodbye at the door, even though she’d called in sick at work. She was dedicated to the new store’s success, and lying about her health didn’t sit well, but this had been the last time she was prepared to face an empty womb. It was too much. She needed something. She needed anything.

  She dressed warmly and drove her car a ways before parking it at the very edge of a wooded lot. As she walked in the direction of the church, the crisp air kicked her monthly cramps into high gear. She moved with purpose, like she had an appointment, but she didn’t. She was in a hurry to go nowhere.

  There was more to life than babies. She knew that. Intellectually, she knew. But her heart kept trying to wrestle her head to the ground. When she and Cole had decided to have children, it was the bow on the gift that was their love. A baby. Kyle had happily flushed her birth control pills, and for the first few months, it was fun just trying. Then she became a scientist of intercourse, spending time on the Internet and stocking her bathroom with various tools to tell her exactly when to pounce on Cole. Lately she had been a like a junkie, jonesing for ovulation.

  And him. God, Cole was everything he should be and more. She knew she was being a bitch. She knew she had turned their sex life into a science experiment. But the baby clothes were so tiny. And wherever she turned, there was a mother with a perfect child propped on her hip. Did they even know what they had? If she could only taste that moment…holding her very own child.

  She drew closer to the church. Maybe coming back to the beginning was good luck. She wasn’t beyond trying weird things—potions, positions, and strange-tasting foods. Soon it would get medical. She knew she would press Cole into helping her with fertility treatments: injecting her, navigating her mood swings, comforting her as she packed on the pounds. Cole would do whatever she asked, over and over. That thought made her want to hug him—but worse, it made her hope for twins.

  She opened the huge front door. There was no Mass today, and what she thought an empty church could solve, she didn’t know. But the surroundings felt nourishing. Cole had left this place for her. He’d loved it so much, and now she’d reduced him to just an ingredient for what she wanted. She wasn’t adequately grateful for the gift of him right now, but her hungry soul was unrepentant. A baby.

  “Mrs. Bridge, to what do I owe this pleasure?”

  Kyle spun quickly, wrenching herself out of her pain and gasping as Father Callahan’s voice filled the church.

  “Sorry, Father, you startled me.” She stepped into his comforting arms, and he gave her a fatherly pat.

  “Have a seat, dear girl. My old bones need a rest today.” They settled next to each other in a pew, facing the tableau of religion at the front of the sanctuary. “This isn’t a social call,” he ventured after a moment. “Tell me why you’re here instead of at work.”

  Kyle let her hands follow the wood grain of the pew. “I need to think. Here is where it started, you know? I met him, and everything fell into place.”

  The priest settled in to listen.

  Kyle felt her worries spill over and splash onto the church floor. “I can’t get pregnant. We’ve done it every which way. We’re having sex all the time. It’s not even fun anymore. It hasn’t been fun in a while.” She clasped her hands in her lap. Talking to an old, celibate man about her vagina suddenly seemed like a horrible idea.

  “Kyle, so many times have I heard the lament of a lady—prayers from the wanting, cursing the unwanted. Women are responsible for bringing life into the world. I’ve often thought it a tough row to sow.” He made no move to get up.

  Kyle focused on one of the stained glass windows. Each piece of glass held the sun like a lover. “I just want my body to do what it was built for. I don’t know why that’s too much to ask.”

  Father Callahan let the silence sit in their laps like a cat for a while before he disturbed it. “You know, God asks too much from us. Really, He does. All these trials, tribulations, He knows it won’t be easy. I’ve often heard before ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.’” The old priest snorted. “He does, Kyle. At least more than any of us wants to handle. You will face pain—that’s a given. Do any of us need it? I don’t think so…But maybe it’s just the age talking.”

  She had stolen this church’s future, their lifeblood, in the young Cole. She had no right to seek solace in this building. She looked at the tall, vaulted ceiling. She wondered if hopes rose like hot hair. Were there millions of wishes and prayers bouncing around up there, trapped like balloons?

  “I want a baby so bad, Father. I feel like that’s all there is. It’s eating me. I can’t…” She started tapping her feet, unfulfilled, unsatisfied.

  “Sweet girl, I don’t have answers, but I do sympathize. Here’s what I’ve learned, and only time can teach this lesson: sometimes the hard times are preparing you to handle the next important thing. Pray, my child. Hold on to the love you do have.” Father Callahan patted her hand. “Look for a sign. He will tell you what might be on the horizon. Keep your heart open.”

  The priest stood. Kyle followed suit. She didn’t feel better. She knew nothing but a positive pregnancy test would silence her need. But a sign was something maybe she could hold on to. Father Callahan opened his arms for another hug, and this time Kyle was surprised at how slight he felt.

  “Another thing, young lady, don’t push Cole away. It’s these times when you have to respect your vows the most.”

  Kyle thanked him and turned to leave. She passed the spot where Cole had knelt before her so long ago. He would take anything she doled out to him, whips or feathers. Suddenly she wanted to be in his arms, listening to
his heartbeat. She opened the door knowing she had to let him hold this burden with her. Together.

  The drive back home seemed endless, but when she finally arrived the house was still waiting, perfect and exactly as she’d left it. She kicked off her shoes and headed up to the bedroom, where she found a letter propped on her pillow. Only one mailman had access to this room. She left her jacket on as she tore the envelope away, ripping and pulling until the letter was revealed.

  It took a while to get through it because her eyes kept blurring. She sobbed out loud a few times, crumpling the edge of her jacket in a tight fist.

  Dear Kyle,

  I see you crying when you don’t think I notice. I do. I see your eyes—red and glassy with the tears you swallowed because I came in the room.

  I can’t give you the baby we want. Our love should be enough, but I feel it too. There’s a hole in between us when we hold hands. We’re feeling the loss of someone who has yet to even exist. Your smiles are getting smaller. When you look at me, I want to give you more, I just don’t know how.

  I remember when I first found your eyes, when I first realized you existed. I could hardly make my tongue work. My words were fuzzy, wrapped in cotton. When you were taken from me, I had so much rage. I would have killed a million men to get to you, just to rest my hands on your face. Kissing your lips, remembering you safe in that hospital bed is a waterfall of relief for me still. And our wedding? Everything blue makes me want to touch you, taste your lips, see your skin wet in the shower.

  How can something that isn’t happening come between us? When you’re reluctant to walk past a stroller, when you change the channel to save your heart the sight of a chubby baby, I know you’re aching. You’re building a wall, and only you fit behind it. How can I show you I love you so much anyway? Will you ever understand that you’re just as important as a woman who can have a child? I’ll make love to you whenever you demand it. I’ll hold you tightly when you cry.

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