“Luggage” by Erin Jamieson

08 February 2019 on Fiction   Tags: ,

August Compton entered the world a handsome baby: flushed, chubby cheeks; lively hazel eyes; wisps of chestnut hair. He cooed while the nurse swaddled and cleaned him, sighed as he was laid on his mother's breast.

"He's so tiny," his mother whispered, pushing back sweaty strands of hair from her eyes.

"He's healthy. The nurse said so."

"You sure?"

Chester Compton bent over the hospital bed, kissed his wife's head. "I'm sure."

"Mrs. Compton?" A tiny nurse peeked in. "I'm going to borrow your baby for a minute."

"I haven't fed him yet," she protested.

"Only for a minute," the nurse insisted. "I'll have his diaper changed too."

"Already?"

The nurse laughed. "That's how babies are. First one?"

"Yes," she answered faintly.

"You'll be fine. It's hardest with the first but you get the hang of it."

"Do you have children?"

"Four," the nurse answered. "Three boys and a girl."

Four. Denise Compton let her eyes flutter shut. Just being responsible for this one tiny life felt like an impossible weight to carry.

Her husband squeezed her hand. "You’re going to have let her take him."

Reluctantly she allowed the nurse to scoop up her son. He peered at her as he was taken from the room, and though his wrinkled hands tightened into fists, he didn't cry. His mouth opened and closed like a gutted fish, as if he wanted to ask her to come with him.

She turned away and buried her face in her husband's chest.

"It's all right," he said. "She'll be back with him soon."

She nodded, pretending that was why she was upset, when the real reason was too hard to admit to herself.

*

It was a month before Denise and Chester noticed their son wasn't gaining weight like he should. Thirty-two days after his birthday, August was still tiny as a newborn, his skin creased as the pages of a well loved book, his grip weak as he fed on his mother's swollen breasts. He was always hungry, always screaming, always content to suck his mother dry. It was as if nothing satisfied him.

Denise, worn from nights of next to no sleep, from staying in her house and intermittently cleaning and napping, wondered if something was wrong with her milk. "Should we see if we can out him on canned milk?"

Chester, who was sprawled across the bed, his eyes still heavy with sleep and his breath sour, looked up from his crossword. "Why would we do that?"

"He's not gaining enough weight."

Chester laid his crossword down. "And you think giving him some trash is going to make him healthier?"

"I know a lot of people that use evaporated milk. Angela Carrington does. And that way she doesn't have to breastfeed all the time."

"So this is what this is about," Chester said softly. "You don't want to breastfeed."

"That's not what I said."

"You didn't have to." Chester shrugged the covers off. The sunlight streamed in from the high bay window on the opposite wall, bathing his study shoulders in a golden mist. "I know you're tired. But it's going to be all right." He walked over to Denise's side of the bed, cupped her shin with his hands. "It's going to be fine. We'll see a doctor. I'll make an appointment and go with you. All right?"

She nodded but her body felt like wood, as if someone had taken her intestines, strewn them out, replaced them with abrasive rubber bands that, pulled taught, and more taught, were bound to snap. Chester kissed her forehead, told her he was going to make breakfast for both of them. It was a Saturday, the sun already high in the sky, the skies a placid grey-blue, the sort of summer day that made you feel as if you'd swallowed your heart.

Denise dressed slowly, slipping off her lavender nightgown in front of the  full-length mirror Chester had inherited from his grandmother. It was handsome, with a simple silver trim and tiny flowers at the corners, but Denise had always hated it, hated how its presence swallowed up nearly an entire wall of their otherwise sunny bedroom. She always had hated how it felt like a pair of eyes bearing witness to every moment in their marriage: their first night together; their first fight; the nights they shared their dreams and the nights when they did not talk at all. All of this, the mirror saw.

And it saw Denise now, saw how pregnancy had stretched her body into something she no longer recognized. Denise had always been tiny-boned and petite, and she still was. She found that the weight she'd gained with August had been minimal, and the little she had, had nearly disappeared, due to her diminishing appetite ever since she'd been released from the hospital, as her son's continued to increase.

But her body was different. Her skin had absorbed the pallor of hospital sheets and smelled always of  stale urine and nurse's scrubs and institutional strawberry gelatin. It had lost its firmness, sagging under her armpits like a loaded bag, stretch marks lining her stomach like demarcations on a map. Her face was drawn, and while anyone might insist it was from lack of sleep, Denise sensed this change too was permanent.

"Denise?" Chester called. She could smell eggs frying, could hear her son squealing, juice being poured. "Breakfast's ready."

Denise's stomach clenched, a fist forming and releasing. Releasing, the way she'd learned to do everything in her twenty-six years alive. She turned her back to the mirror and pulled on a simple gray plaid skirt with a shapeless cream-colored blouse that made her matronly, invisible.

By the time she entered the kitchen, the table was already set with their chinaware, the forks and spoons they'd used at their wedding gleaming from the streaming sunlight.

"What's this for?" she asked, waving her hand at the dishware, at the cinnamon buns he must have woken early to bake.

"I thought we could celebrate." When she stared at him blankly, he handed her their son. "For August. We never really did get around to doing that."

Denise tried to eat but the eggs felt like rubber in her mouth, and August constantly cried. After ten minutes she abandoned her plate to nurse their son, telling Chester she'd eat later. But after Chester had finished his breakfast and announced he was going to get dressed, August fell asleep in her arms, and she didn't have the heart to set him back in his crib. It looked so lonely in that crib, with its plain white bars, a prison in disguise.

*

Sailboats nestled against the shore like a flock of seagulls, American flags flapping in the wind, a symphony of wings slicing the cloudless skies. Denise sat on the muddy banks holding August, her feet dipping into the cool water's caress, merciful against the blistering heat of high noon in July. She wore a hat, as her husband had suggested, a wide-brimmed sun hat made of straw and adorned with a lace overlay; it made her feel as frivolous as the other women, the women she'd been forced to be friendly with since they'd moved here, since Chester had finished his training and become the only dentist for nearly thirty miles. They were the sort of women whose skin always smelled of expensive perfume, who wore rose-tinted lipstick and had perms and never forgot their umbrellas on sunny days. They were the sort of women who played bridge and tuned into weekly broadcasts of Palmolive Hour, humming to a Frank Munn and Virginia Rea duet at the same time they condemned the "devil blues" growing in thickets of cities across the country.

"Denise! I haven't seen you since you were—" Kara Hunter stopped, having the grace to flush. Her chestnut hair was swept up into a loose bun, a few tendrils falling against her high cheekbones, framing her liquid hazel eyes. She was dressed impeccably as always: a rose satin sheath hugged her legs, carefully fitted without being provocative, the hem of the skirt hitting just below her knees, her shoes flesh-colored and heeled—a short heel that was both sensible and attractive. The pearls around her neck were draped precisely across her prominent collarbone, her slight but muscular shoulders. Her five-year-old boy, Jacob, held her hand with one hand and held a miniature flag in the other. He was the mirror image of his mother, with the same hair and eyes, the same confident gait.

"It's been a while," Denise managed, aware of how her skirt clung to her changed midsection.

"Oh my! I didn't expect to see him," she nodded at August. "I couldn't imagine taking a little boy out in this heat."

Denise smiled tightly. "Well, what was I going to do, leave him by himself? He isn't exactly independent."

Mrs. Hunter laughed humorlessly. "I just meant. Well, you only just had him."

"Thought a little sun would do us both good." Denise glanced over Mrs. Hunter's shoulders, where her husband was at the shore of the murky lake, his khaki pants rolled up as he waded and steered a slender boat alongside two other men. He laughed at something they said, and in that moment, his forehead slick with perspiration, his collared shirt slightly unbuttoned, Denise both loved and hated her husband. Loved how happy he looked, hated how happy he looked. Envied him so much her stomach burned. Or maybe it was the bites of eggs she'd managed that morning, or the acidic orange juice he'd forced her to drink, insisting she needed to keep up her strength, that since the pregnancy she hadn't seemed herself.

At least, finally, he'd noticed.

"Can I hold him?" Mrs. Hunter was asking. She'd been talking and Denise hadn't heard a word she'd said.

"I guess," Denise said uncertainly, but the minute she tried to pry her son off her shoulders he began to wail, a cry that echoed across the still water, a cry that made her chest pound. She felt the stares of couples young and old as she patted her son's back, set him against her chest in an attempt to silence him or at least muffle his crying.

His chubby fingers curled around the collar of her blouse. "I think he's hungry," she muttered.

"Oh, do what you need to do," Mrs. Hunter said. "I'm sure I'll get a chance to hold him soon enough. What's his name again?"

Mrs. Hunter knew perfectly well what his name was. "August," she managed.

"Oh. Not a Biblical name."

"No," Denise said, still patting her son's wailing back. "We named him after Chester's grandfather."

"Ah," she said.

"I need to get going. I'm sorry for being abrupt." Denise bent over and picked up the lunch tin that she'd packed for her and Chester to share: cold-cut roast beef on pumpernickel; wilted cabbage; two striped anise candy sticks she'd bought at the store a week before going into labor.

"Well, it was nice to see you."

"It was nice to see you, too," Denise lied. If it weren't for Chester, if it weren't for the fact she was now both a married woman and a mother, she would have smacked Mrs. Hunter's smug face.

*

Denise did not go out again, instead peeking between the closed blinds of her kitchen, able to see the cusp of the lake's edge. She watched her husband board the boat with Mr. Hunter—a handsome red-haired man, carefully dressed but not to the noxious point of his wife—and Mr. Overlay, thirty-five and already balding, ugly in the traditional sense with a mottled, hooked nose and wide feet, but with an easy smile that made him impossible to hate. They'd both grown up with Chester. Mr. Hunter had been his best friend, his classmate in grade school and in the summers when they returned during their college years. Mr. Hunter had been one of the “big” boys whom Chester had always looked up to as a boy. "Would you believe," he'd told Denise shortly after they settled into their house in Lafayette, "that the girls all fell in love with him once because of his hair? He had thick curls that Anne and Gwen always wanted to play with."

Her husband had never planned to move back here. He'd wanted, as a young man, to get as far away as possible. They'd met during Chester's sophomore year of college, at an outdoor market. Denise, who had been attending a women's teaching school, had dropped an apple, ran to get it as it rolled into the street. A careless adolescent boy had nearly collided his bicycle into her, but Chester had managed to push her out of the way. "Lucky I was here," he'd joked, to which she'd answered, "Or lucky I was stupid enough to chase after an apple."

But life didn't work that way, Denise mused, as her son sucked her tired breasts. It wasn't luck or fate. She had grown up American Baptist, believed in God, but she also had trouble crediting even her faith with how her life had turned out. Life to her felt random, a hundred pixel frames that mashed together in unexpected ways, that sometimes formed nothing significant and other times created the very image you'd been trying so desperately to distance yourself from.

August had fallen asleep at her breast, his cheeks no longer full but sunken, a tiny wisp of hair sprouting from his head. If not for his size, he might have looked like Chester's stooped-back, white-haired grandfather. It always amazed Denise how closely the aging and infants resembled one another.

The front door swung open and Chester entered, stomping his feet on the welcome mat, smelling like the salty lake water, his cheeks flushed from the wind, his scalp already pink, an impending sunburn. "I wondered where you were."

Denise nodded at the sleeping infant. "He got hungry again."

Chester pulled the milk jug out, glass clinking against the counter as he set it down and poured himself a tall cup. "Did you see the parade at all?"

"I watched from the window." It had been the same as it had been last Fourth of July: a stream of boats coasting the lake, American flags rippling in the wind, families picnicking beside the shore, exchanging homemade snickerdoodles and boasting about their new jobs, their new kitchen table, their freshly painted homes. Truth be told, she was glad August had gotten hungry. She had been looking for an excuse not to be there, to watch from within the safety of the house.

"Shame. I'm sorry. I should have thought of that. We could have hired a sitter."

It was the first time he'd suggested something like that. If he was so opposed to formula, why, then, was he willing to allow a stranger to take care of their one-month-old?

"I was getting hot anyway."

Chester frowned, put the milk away. "Is something wrong?"

"Why do you say that?"

"Because you haven't been yourself. You know that. You don't . . . you don't smile like you used to."

But Denise hadn't been herself since they'd settled in this tidy, charming Tudor home. She hadn't been herself since she'd moved to this town. Chester hadn't noticed, and she'd pretended not to.

"If taking care of the baby is too much—"

"It's not," Denise snapped, conjuring an image of a simpering Mrs. Hunter. From outside the window, she could hear a radio broadcasting an advertisement for Clisterine cigarettes. Somewhere farther down the lake Louis Armstrong was being played.

"I just wanted to say—if you needed help—"

"Why would I need help? I don't have anything else to do."

Chester stared at her for a minute, wordless, before turning to stare out the window, watching as the last boats were navigated to their respective docks, as families began to fold up their blankets and pack leftover picnics.

"I better put him back in his crib," Denise said finally. "Before we wakes."

"Yes," Chester said.

Only after she set August back in his crib did Denise realize her blouse was still unbuttoned, and that neither she nor her husband had noticed.

*

Chester and Denise had done everything the doctors had told them. They'd switched to formula, purchasing Borden's evaporated milk, feeding August several times a day, even when he didn't ask for it. Some infants, the doctor explained, do better on that sort of thing instead of breast milk. When Denise asked if there was something wrong with her milk, the doctor had looked her in the eye and said there was no way to tell whose fault it was. If it was anyone's fault at all.

They took him out in his stroller, making sure he was protected from the sun's glare, from the rain on cloudy days. While Chester was working, Denise did everything she could to keep her son busy, tickling him, playing with the toys Chester had bought, reading him newspaper articles because there was nothing else to read in the house. Denise had once loved reading, had devoured books the way her son devoured milk. She'd dreamed of teaching students to read, of watching them form their own ideas, their own love for knowing about the world, about themselves. But she'd taught only two years before she'd become pregnant with August, two years of a job she had accepted simply because she could not find another one, at a simple two-room school for children of all ages. Classroom management had been a nightmare; teaching was impossible because one half of the students would be reading A Tale of Two Cities, and others just beginning, staring blankly at early reading primers. She'd loved some of the students but had felt utterly hopeless to help them, to make up for the lack of teachers and the textbooks with cracking spines.

Ackley had a nicer school, the sort of school she'd envisioned herself teaching at, with classrooms divided by grade, with an abundance of newly-printed textbooks and teachers versed in the latest teaching pedagogy, janitors to mop the floors, and desks that had been purchased recently, the walls plastered with inspirational sayings. But when she'd interviewed for the open position, she'd stuttered, unable to remember her education or previous teaching experience or any good qualities about herself. It hadn't mattered, anyway: a month later she'd learned she was pregnant with her first child and she'd been about to send a note stating she would not be able to immediately take the position when she'd been informed, in a painfully polite manner, that the position had already been filled.

Now, everything she was doing was just as ineffective as her teaching career had been. She did all these things, day in and day out, and she watched August get thinner, became horrified as she saw his spine protrude, his chest become more and more prominent. It was as if her son was being erased bit by bit, and there was nothing they could do.

A week and a half of this, and Chester suggested they go see a specialist. "There's a doctor in Des Moines."

"Des Moines?" Denise repeated, looking up from her cream of wheat. She'd had to feed August and had only managed a bite. Now it lay cold, starting to congeal at the sides of the bowl. "Isn't there somewhere closer?"

He shook his head grimly. "No one I trust. I don't want to take a chance on someone I haven't heard anything about."

No, they couldn’t take any chances. Chester and Denise both glanced over at the crib, where their son was napping, his eyelashes very long against his tiny cheeks, his whisper of a chin. He looked less and less like either of them every day. Every day, his skin grew paler. His eyes had started to dim, as if he understood that he was dying, and how it was tearing his family apart.

"It's going to be all right," Chester was saying. "We'll go tomorrow. They'll tell us what's wrong with our son."

Since the day they'd met, Denise had never doubted Chester. She'd taken his advice when applying for her first teaching position, had adopted his preference for Adam's Black Jack gum and Kellogg’s Pep Wheat Flakes cereal. She'd agreed to move to his childhood home, to buy a house that felt more like a museum, with its handsome cherry wood floors and carved china cabinet and Hotpoint electric waffle iron. But this was her son, her son whom she intermittently loved and hated, who'd sucked away her milk, her joy, her energy. Chester had told her the first doctors would fix this. That this was normal. And their son was dying.

"Are you sure this is a good doctor?"

"He's the best in Iowa. So they say."

Denise didn't ask who "they" meant. She bent over the crib, brushing her lips against her son's forehead. "If they don't have an answer—"

"They will."

She lifted her head, met her husband's eyes. "If they don't?"

"Denise. I told you. It's going to be fine." He reached for her hand but she pulled away, wishing it was not a weekend, wishing he was in his office, bending over patients, scraping off plaque.

"When do we leave?"

"Appointment is at noon."

He hadn't answered her question. Denise had no sense of where Ackley was, where Des Moines was. Locations in Iowa meant nothing to her. This still was not her home, and she wasn't certain, in that moment, that it ever would be. "Why didn't you ask me?"

Chester turned to her, surprised. There was a piece of honeydew melon on his shirt; his mouth was red from the grape juice he'd been drinking. "What?"

"Why didn't you ask me what I wanted to do?"

He stared at her. "I guess I didn't . . . I thought you'd want me to."

But that wasn't what she'd asked and they both knew it. "I'm going to pack."

"Pack?"

"We might be there a few days," Denise said.

"It's just an appointment. Don't be silly."

She didn't want to fight. Her head ached and her body felt heavy as it had in her last trimester. Instead she waited. Evening fell, and after a dinner of chicken and dumplings and sage biscuits, Chester excused himself, saying he wanted to go to bed early, telling her not to stay up too late. She swallowed a derisive laugh: don’t stay up? Don’t stay up? Who was supposed to feed their son? Who was supposed to clean him when he pooped or peed? He never thought that, perhaps, Denise needed sleep just as much or more than Chester did.

After Denise crept past their bedroom and heard Chester snoring faintly, she started to pack. She packed everything she could find: Weston's biscuits and canned peaches; cloth napkins; two sets of slacks and shirts for Chester; a slate gray dress and a matching checkered skirt and blouse for her. She packed Ivory soap and pads of paper. She packed everything they'd ever bought for August and extra blankets; a quilt her mother had sewn as a wedding gift, a month before her heart finally gave out. She packed these things tightly but with care, as if everything required concentration and tenderness, as if packing in haste might prove fatal.

---

Erin Jamieson holds an MFA in creative writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in After the Pause, Into the Void, Flash Frontier, Mount Analogue, Blue River, The Airgonaut, Evansville Review, Canary, Shelia-Na-Gig, and Foliate Oak Literary, among others. She currently teaches English Composition at the University of Cincinnati–Blue Ash College and also works as a freelance writer.

“Late Winter House,” oil on canvas, by Sarah Gayle Carter. A designer by training, Sarah paints with an eye toward the color and structure hiding beneath the surface of things. Sarah’s movement between mid-coast Maine and Virginia's Shenandoah Valley where she now lives has inspired her work. Her paintings of layered fields and old blue mountains appear in Virginia and Texas galleries, and online at sarahgaylecarterpaintings.com and @sarahgaylecarter.

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