Les can’t steer his stare away. Oh, he tries; tries his best to watch only Maura, and to imagine the bulge beneath his bride’s camisole as a fragile shivering form, but the ring piercing through another mother-to-be’s bellybutton keeps diverting him.
Focus. As if each breath is crystallizing on a cold night. Don’t clench. In for six, out for eight. In for a dime, thinks Les, in for a dollar. He feels like a Catholic in this Lamaze class, its litany recited to the word. The chants reassure Maura. But they feel less like training than rehash for Les, who’s going to be mobile in the hospital, recording her labor at any rate of breath he’d like. The lead counselor brushes Maura’s shoulder, says, “Now small breaths. Puff puff push. Puff puff push.” In the midst of a puff, the other woman’s ring—more squiggle or worm—sways as she stretches, as if the jewelry is an old wives’ gender predictor. “Next we will try small breaths, Lolo?” asks the woman’s Lamaze partner, winking her way. But wait. Didn’t this guy call his partner Kath during the last class? Kate? Beth? Definitely one syllable; definitely not Lolo. Navel jewelry makes Les squirm—the thought of pointy fangs pricking organs, making everything spill out—he would have noticed that squiggle of jewel and metal last Saturday.
The winker has brought in a different woman from the week before.
“Puff puff push,” implores the assistant counselor. “That’s you too, dad.”
Les looks down. What’s he doing? His gaze shouldn’t be flipping to a strange woman on all fours. Whose hair color pretty much looks the same, come to think of it, as last time. Shade off at most. Lights dim for the first of many birthing videos paired with springy string music and beatific smiles. Practice that smile, Les tells himself. Focus on the point of Maura’s body where your boy’s crown will emerge. That’s where she needs your head.
* * *
That night, Maura dismisses Les’s concern. “A new woman? Les, why would the guy—who has a name, by the way, his name is Saul—risk…? How could he even scheme it so…?” They pivot, pirouette: Maura unloading fistfuls of knives from the dishwasher, Les angling a razor. The landlord has owed them a new mirror for months, leaving Les to shave in the kitchen, gauging where to swipe using the microwave door. Maura eyes a mug grimly, returning it back to the rack in reverse-slow-motion: washer’s on the blink again, failing to drain dirty water. “We’re having a baby, Les. Our first. And you seriously think I care if…?”
Then Maura’s four-year-old ambles in, upturning the den. “Have you seen baby? Baby is tired.” The small girl pauses her work, to inspect blotches of white cream dotting Les’s cheeks and chin. “There are continents on your face,” she announces. Then she spots her doll, squeezed between sofa cushions. “Oh, hi, Kyla! I’ll rock you to sleep.” She calls the doll Kyla. Names everything Kyla. Is certain her brother-to-be will instantly know he’s a Kyla, just as she knew she was Gloria. Her doll’s face is blank as a barely-articulated cloud. But it contains an infant’s weight and feel, thanks to D batteries mildly heating its plastic. This brand of doll talks too, in complex phrases, to teach toddlers caring for them how to form full sentences. Gloria used to delight in any word tumbling from Kyla. Now that she knows she’s puppeteer, she yanks the string until Kyla cycles back to the desired result: “Sing me a sweet sleepy lullaby!”
Maura can relate. Post-Gloria she’d gone church- and father-shopping, yanking the string on a string of dating prospects who invariably popped snide about single moms. She wanted a man of conviction who wouldn’t convict her for her past, a man of faith, expressing this after a service to Pastor Les. Eight months later, boom! She got the man leading the men of faith. Problem was, Les’s demanding boss worked him all hours, preferred night visitations to e-mails, shrouded instructions in mystery, forcing Les to solve crises and tiffs by scrambling through His Biblical owner’s manual. Les thrives on this: he’s an introvert who doesn’t mind baring his soul to crowds, or parsing verses with clergy at post-service lunches. And though these lunches are higher-purpose hero worship, a better-angel form of Sunday football, they still get geeky. It’s not a long drive from “Feast of booths? That’s in the third chapter of Ezra,” to “Dude, Gandalf was only called that while living in Valinor!” In her best moments, Maura saw Les as more than a man seeking truth; as a midwife too, delivering truths in those who’d stopped searching. In weaker moments, she called her husband God’s bitch.
“The new girl’s shape was different,” Les insists, blade rapping the sink.
“The girl,” Maura says, sizing up leftover Yankee pot roast that would seem benign if not for the parasite inside her, “is in her third trimester. Her body’s actively changing composition.” All Maura sniffs now seems suspect. Comfort foods carry venomous specters: roughage, milk teetering toward expiration. Her body feels like it’s expiring, too, each time men smile sexlessly while holding doors. Better than the looks shot her way five years ago, when it was just her blooming teenaged belly and instincts in a foxhole. This time around, she’s got Les. His support. But it’s support she has to reason with.
“Getting something?” Les asks, when she grabs her keys.
“The herbal tea I asked for. An hour ago. And my miserable raisins. Myself.”
“Oh I, those—I have on my list. I’ll go now, or—do you at least want company?”
She hitches up her gut. “I’ve got company.”
Another pregnant teen cautiously eyes Les, asking if class has let out early. Why else would this man, twenty years her senior, be blocking her path out of the bathroom, iceberg stiff, pretending to scan the bulletin board for stroller sales? False casual: no clearer way to look exactly like what you want to appear not to be.
“No. Just wanted to catch you.” When the switcheroo artist returned to Lamaze last week with Lolo, Les doubted his instincts. But tonight, Saul toted in this one again. Kate; Kath? It’s hard to keep track. This class—the only option, Maura explained, that fit their sitter’s schedule—brims with teens. Teens who begin each lesson fidgety with self-conviction, but who by the end are locking their jaws as if to hold in each remaining scrap of resolve. All carrying babies; maybe half carrying driver’s licenses. “It’s Les; I’m with Maura. We’re having our second.” Why the white lie, Les wonders, before realizing his entire pretense for being here is a lie. What’s the hue of a lie told in the midst of a bigger white lie? Linen lie? Honeydew?
“Second? Wow. You’re vets. This must be so, like, boring for you.”
“Not at all. Actually, Maura and I are hoping to host a group party, outside of class. Secret-Santa-shower kind of thing. Really talk, you know? About how having new life around affects you? Beyond puff puff push. There’s cheer and buzz all around this time of year, good wishes of the season, but. Not all parents have a real support net.”
“No. We don’t. Now that I look like this, most of my school friends won’t look at me. Or if they do look it’s the look, right? Like shit girl, you blowing up to balloon size, and whatever life you got’s about to float off too. Anyway, yeah. Saul’s, uh, slammed with work, but I should be able to…”
“Trouble is we’re trying to personalize invites, and I can’t remember your name.”
“Oh, right. Beth. It’s Beth.”
“That’s what Maura thought! Proof I should trust all her intuition.” As Beth and Les chuckle, laughter roars from the classroom—as if the echo outperformed the sound it sprung from. Now Les sees she’s looking at him less like a principal, and more like a parent. Someone who’s been where she is, and could help her steer forward. Beaming, she explains she just picked a name for what’s inside her. While drying her hands.
Oh yes. That last, false glow of control. Les felt his own glow while cutting wood beams for his son’s crib, an act distracting him from the shabby loft surrounding the crib. She relays both girl and boy picks. Les can’t tell which name belongs to what gender. “Think I jinxed it up by telling you?” Les shakes his head. What’s this innocent girl doing with Saul? Maybe innocence brought her down in the first place.
“Anyway, Maura’d be mortified to know I asked your name directly. It’s just we haven’t seen you in a few weeks, right?” Before the “right,” Les rests a palm on Beth’s shoulder. Same way he will when asking worshippers about their welfare, when he suspects the welfare isn’t good, but the pride to avoid saying so is deep. He feels the telltale twitch in Beth as she brings up her “killer schedule.” But wasn’t Saul the one slammed at work? “School’s what’s slamming me. I’m trying to finish strong, since I gotta drop once this term’s done.” She eyes the door. “Maybe we should get back to our class? I’m way behind, and this is one exam you can’t cram for.”
Saul’s back with Week One girl, the youngest, practically a child. Les confirms the pattern. Each of the trio will attend three of nine classes. When the couples arrive, Saul stakes out unfamiliar spots in the room. Always wearing a new ball cap pulled low, alkaline grin, way too kempt. Bootlaces and string tied perfectly square; even his black jeans seem polished. He carries himself with more confidence than Les, as if he hitchhiked a ride with his hormones, and the spot he got let off at just happened to be paternity.
During massage and positioning, Les claims a church member has sent a text of concern. This shade of lie barely feels distinct from white at all: snow, or ghost. Outside the classroom, Les flags the lead counselor. Staring at registration forms she’s cradling, the moment freezes in his throat. He gets it now: the flutter in his flock’s voices when they reveal murky matters. The fear that uncorking troubles make them spill more widely. Les explains his case in a burst. The Saul kid, with the cap? He’s bringing multiple girls to Lamaze, and rotating them weekly. Girls who barely speak. Who are alarmingly remote. And Les thinks, as a man of the cloth, that they had better ask these women some discreet but direct questions, find out if…
“It’s not our place to attack,” advises the RN, completely cool. Attack? Does she mean ignore it? Ignore a guy who apparently can’t ignore a single urge? I’ve seen this kind of deadbeat-dad-in-waiting before, Les offers, meaning he’s seen pictures. Of the guy who put Gloria on this planet. Maura won’t refer to him as Gloria’s “dad,” only SS, or “Seed Supplier.” The photos are from a state fair: hair tousled by product, SS wears a shell necklace, filthy flip-flops, a shit-eating grin. Les used to get that lustful look at youth lock-ins. Unlike SS, he held his looks in check. Nearly never let urge slip into act. Les reminds the nurse how most moms-to-be can’t keep cool enough, while Saul’s women come to class covered in bulky flannel. What if bruises or welts lie beneath that flannel? “Not our place,” repeats the RN. “People, yes, have varied lifestyles, but all are bringing life to the world. And need to be propped up while doing so.”
From there, the conversation fishtails badly.
“Problem fixed?” Maura asks, as Les returns.
“She doesn’t see there is a problem,” he complains.
“The woman from church? Didn’t she call you?”
Les whitens, seeking a lie to cover himself: is beige still a form of white? “She’s…oblivious to alarm. House on fire, and she’s excited to save money on heating the place.”
* * *
Later that night, Les and Maura seemed headed for their first sex in weeks. But by one a.m. Les is banished to the den, and Maura’s cold fingers aren’t having luck pleasing herself. For some reason, the flannel Maura trudged to bed in—she meant to saunter, but a pregnant woman sauntering is as impossible as a dog showing dignity in a megaphone cone—bothered Les.
Then Gloria staggered in coughing, and Les re-zipped his pants. Maura resented his sigh. In case you didn’t notice, the thing we want to do now took so well eight months ago, I had to retire my negligee. Left me edgy, spent, slugging around a gut boulder. So maybe you look after the sick kid instead of getting your rocks off? Maura has become wise to men’s tells since SS, the carnal cardsharp who bluffed her into Gloria by swearing testicular cancer made him infertile. Les’s tell is arched lips. There was no church emergency in class. He was just pissed. But pissed, Maura thought, with the nurse, who only vaguely answered her question about when and when not to plead for pain meds.
She’d felt briefly watched over, as if she were Les’s emergency.
In the den Les fills a towel with ice, marveling at the freezer’s pure white wall of frost, the huddled cubes so solid until needed. He should shove cubes down his groin, see if they do good there. He was this close to actual coupling. Instead he’s nursing blue balls and a four-year-old curled on the couch: her radiating with illness, he with desire and gripes. Les channel-surfs cable stations in the 700s, a strobe of hymns, scripture and homilies from twelve local church services, taped the Sunday before. Watching, he wishes he were one of the chosen twelve, wonders why he isn’t. Pentecostals and Baptists have their fire-breathers. There’s a mass in Spanish, another from St. Patrick’s, which hasn’t installed a real leader since the 80s, but that’s all so political, everyone scrapes and bows to St. Patrick’s, a tourist trap masquerading as place of worship, stained glass swapped for serious spirituality. Is it God’s will Les can’t crack the rotation? Did the cable provider back off, skittish about the church’s drop in attendance once Les married Maura? Maybe his faith isn’t original enough. He needs a shtick, like the guy who preaches in short shirts, and boasts dueling ink sleeves, one of a cowering “Allah,” the other a “God” built like a pro wrestler. Or this one now, exhorting a crowd to cheat the IRS in order to pump cash into his shadowy charity (“Render nothing unto Caesar!”).
Les listens to the banked sermons; his own, due in hours, is nowhere. What did Beth say? A final exam you can’t cram for? She was talking about her baby, but you can’t plan insight either. Churchgoers think God is God, that all preaching patches the same quilt. But they’d never say that about parenting, would never willingly turn a child over to a strange home, and hope no harm was…hmm. Not half-bad. Not a sermon, but maybe a skeleton. He scribbles on a stray church program. Continues to pick at the gaudy God sampler platter, learning what to say by listening to the TV voices say what he wouldn’t: “Last vestiges of—“; “Divisions of flesh—“; “An enemy of acceptance lives within us, brothers and sisters—“
Gloria’s croupy cough barks a tired tempo. He’s pinched in her blanket corners too tight. He’d been too busy fuming at Saul to watch the film on swaddling. Before class, the punk had held one door open for Les—then let the second swing shut. Who does that? If a stranger trails you through two sets of double-doors, either pretend you don’t see him entirely, or hold both sets. Basic human nature. Les barely alligator-armed the sucker in time.
The image makes him burn.
By the time Les met Maura, even mentioning SS’s name was incendiary. She’d burned her old life to speed growth of the new. Les respected this. Respected epiphanies in general. Trouble was, arriving at insight felt cleansing; following through on it left a new, hot mess. After their wedding, Maura took a low-wage job, directed SS to stop sending support checks—checks she and Les could truly use now. Asshole! Probably wining-and-dining and jetting-and-setting more conquests with that cash, cash meant to cover Gloria’s dental visits. Fifteen years younger, the guy had already lived out more wildness than Les ever would, schussing over drifts of consequence without a scrape.
Les didn’t have to keep this envy from Maura. Flaws he felt duty-bound to fence from other congregants came bounding over in her presence. Were these simply growing conditions for love: belief the one you were drawn to wouldn’t leave once she saw how roughly you were drawn? So he worked to give her more to see, more detail, closer to her and closer to complete. Early on, he’d told Maura how he’d found God. Playing knights and wizards alone as a boy, deep in the woods, Les fell over a stump, upturning a timber rattler. Never saw its eyes; only shadow, flash of head and fang, then shadow again. Hearing Les scream, a stranger ran over, stripping his flannel shirt to serve as tourniquet. On his way to the ER Les’s blood pressure plunged, vision failing, leg tissue wasting away. Doctors ordered him not to close his eyes, but each time he did, he faded into peace. Not a peace of near-death light, but scent, coats of it like radiant paint: taffy, river effluent, watermelon highlighter. He’d never told his church this story; it felt trite to say a bite had brought him to believe, rather than a deep need to understand his role in God’s house, either the one here, or one hereafter.
It was Maura that gave Les courage to speak truth. He had no choice but to cherish her. She was open, compulsively so, about any subject: hunger urges, the sensation of milk sweeping into her breasts, social behavior of women. “When you do that long hug, with the flipper pat, on women you don’t know well, is that—?” “Stalling,” Maura responded. “We’re trying to recall what we have in common. Who should or can’t come up in conversation.” “Huh. Guys just shoot each other half-cold looks. Like we’re ignoring the connection we’re supposed to remember.” “I know,” she said. “It’s a blank white page with you guys, every time.” “Not blank white. Snow with a streak of territorial piss.” As he fell for Maura, Les got plenty of these looks from clergy colleagues. They made it clear the impulse to treat her with charity was virtuous; that impulse of his to cherish her, maybe ruinous. Talk about epiphany as mortal blow! He had no honeymoon period with Maura; barely got to know her body before it became alien. Once Gloria could steer through the apartment they were vulnerable to her night visitations. Just one month into their new life, Gloria waltzed in and Les, shooing her, felt himself slacken in the condom. One month later Maura was peeing on sticks, unpacking maternity wear she’d only recently boxed away.
This man must be stopped.
Saul’s grown brazen, stroking the youngest one’s neck, whispering in Lolo’s ear. But loathing him for his string of paraded, knocked-up women isn’t enough. Les must do something. And he no longer fears this. His instincts have been on a roll. He nursed Gloria to health, cooked three straight meals that didn’t set off Maura’s queasy trigger. His roll started while falling asleep under the TV glow, two Saturdays ago, with not one word of his sermon written. But when Sunday dawn broke, he drew a breath, donned his robe, and performed an energetic series of freestyle riffs. Where had he channeled his inspiration? Resolve? Insomnia? Fear? His sermon focused on junk mailers addressed to him specifically. Set in fonts meant to mimic handwriting, referring to the car he drove, cereal he bought, causes close to his heart. The pleas appear personal, coming from places that claim he authorized them to act on his behalf. The trimmings of Christmas, he told his church, can be like that: mass mailings professing to speak for us all. Our task during the holidays is to latch onto the direct appeal. Separate the season’s signal from its noise. Follow the signal of the star, the way those wise scholars in Bethlehem did. Afterward, more crowd than usual milled to compliment Les. An elderly couple even arranged to let Gloria sleep over next Saturday, providing a night’s relief to a weary couple who were “only going to get wearier.”
During class break, Les drifts to a corridor. Saul is on a payphone. Calling other girls? Convincing each model she’s who really matters? Les slips two bills in a vending machine’s currency conveyor, imagining Maura as a teen, strung along by SS’s own brand of idiot promises. Les selects two Mr. Pibbs. He’s heard violent men flinch when confronted physically. Staging that trial is worth a buck. “Hey Saul, got a gift. Machine screwed up, sent down two by mistake. This Pibb’s for you!”
Les chucks the ice-sweaty cola, expecting Saul’s fist to cock, eyes to twitch. But the can whizzes by Saul’s ear untouched, exploding against the wall. Clattering on the tile like gunshot.
Startled, Les dashes off to find napkins. He drops to his knees, apologizing. Wiping the floor to triage the splatter. Saul stands slack-jawed through this effort, as if still piecing together what happened. Or even that something has.
“All help you,” Saul finally offers, as if the mess has only now come to view. He says “all” in place of “I’ll.” What kind of accent is that? Les took Saul as maybe Asian, some mix, but isn’t sure now, watching him bend to the spill in a stiff but fluid motion, as if demonstrating the proper way to lift boxes. Les waves off his help—this is his fault. To drive the point home he uses a napkin corner to blot syrup on Saul’s cap which, when jostled, doesn’t fall. Les can see the cap is connected to Saul’s scalp. By wires. The thin gap between cap and head smells like dust smoldering on a lit bulb. Les peers at the wires, his ease dropping. They lead to a parallelogram hole at the back of Saul’s cranium, like a fontanel that never fused.
Inside this hole gold beams blink, in the way of failing Christmas tree lights, where a brain should be.
“Saul? Les?” Both instructors step close, tentatively. “Can we—help you clean?”
As Saul continues wiping syrup on bended knee, cap askew, Les nods, pinching the exposed wires like a state trooper who found a joint in the glove compartment. “Yeah. We’ve got a lot to clean here.”
* * *
Les is never more grateful than that night to have Maura’s body to himself. And have Gloria elsewhere. To affirm the two (now nearly three) of them, kiss Maura’s drum-tight mound, slide his lips into the valley below her abdomen. “Our night Les,” she whispers throatily after class, fingertips playing his clavicle. “Ours alone.”
Once it’s over Les can’t follow his wife to sleep, can’t entrance his eyes with her rising and falling ribs. He retreats to cold beer in the kitchen. But his body is unsatisfied; needs more Maura. If he can’t be inside her again, he needs to touch what touched her. Wrap her zephyr cloth round his palm; rub the gold ring no longer fitting her thickening fingers; spray perfume atoms beneath his ears. Stop breathing in Maura and he’ll have to start thinking about…Saul. That man who is no man at all.
Saul is actually S.A.U.L.: Simulacrum Android Utilizing Life-Skills. A robotic coach supporting single mothers-to-be. While wiping up syrup in the corridor, the lead RN described the program, a TV pitchwoman reciting the magic of a cleaning agent being poured over marinara stains. SAUL allays the anxiety many teenage mothers feel during pregnancy. SAUL eases the dread they endure, the false idea they must retain this flood of information alone. Function alone. That they are alone.
“So these women SAUL escorts know what—it—is? Lolo, Beth, and…and…”
“Lis,” SAUL said, eyes—sensors?—still squarely aimed on the spill.
Les kept posing questions, in part to prevent hyperventilating, in part to crack the instructors. Who were surely playing an absurd prank. Lipstick camera rolling, all parties would soon bust out in laughter. But the RN replied to each ask. What about SAUL’s nagging cough? Programmed: a way to emit excess heat in his system, and a ploy to keep other couples at a distance. Why did the soda wind up a splatter of syrup? SAUL can’t process rapid or violent movement. How many other SAULS are out there? When this got no answer, Les turned to the other itself. “How many more of you?”
Though surely a seam showing in the code, the laugh SAUL gave in response sounded—injured. Les wished for a flash he could take back the line. “Like you, I am one and only.” It pointed to the both of them. “Saul…Les. All help with your spill, Les.”
“My spill; right.” Les picked up the emptied Pibb, its condensation beads dried in the air. “What if I report SAUL? What happens then?”
“His cord’s yanked,” the assistant said—her first reply—between gritted teeth. “If his cover’s blown, they make it squeal like a teakettle to drive away witnesses. It splits to pieces: arms and legs discolor, turn to purplish-gray powder. Dark snow. Gruesome, huh? Well, I won’t shed no tears if it do happen.” Les turned to the assistant. Did she want him shut down, no matter what SAUL did for these girls? “Don’t care if he takes care of them and my taxes at the same time. Look at it! I’m supposed to treat this thing that didn’t come from a woman like a man? Let it give lessons on giving birth? If I’d known that was the idea here before signing on…”
The lead nurse lifted a hand to silence her partner. “Rollout of the plan depends on many hurdles. Ideally, they’ll alter future SAULs beyond ball caps and clothes.” Chiseling the prototype was pricey, requiring experts in kinesiology and behavior, along with makeup, film, and funeral industry practitioners. “Saul’s exposed wiring vents heat through the hat and three auxiliary ducts: at the feet soles, anus and ears. But other than that, Saul’s unblemished. If you look you see a human.”
Human? What did unblemished have to do with human? Without even looking, Les could see the angry assistant’s saggy upper lip, and how the RN appeared always to be blinking out dust. But when Les gazed upon SAUL, tried to view it like a mannequin, tried to be amused as if it were Gloria’s doll speaking, his knees buckled from the failure to find flaw. This must have shown, because the RN ushered Les to a seat, brought water, and asked the assistant to cover in the classroom. He barely heard what she said, something about the uncanny valley, how it throws you at first, though the women’s initial distaste something once SAUL began something something.
“Please, though: Whatever you think, or plan to reveal, wait until the moms give birth. Don’t refuse these women their small comforts, this early home we’ve worked to build.”
Now, in his den, Les wonders. Should he reveal SAUL to Maura? Announce his discovery to tomorrow’s congregation? It would get them talking. Get his sermon in the cable rotation. But Les can’t stop thinking about how Saul works. How he runs altered programs with each teen: steadily soothing Lis, pumped-up puppy dog with Lolo, determined witness by Beth’s side. Les doesn’t fear SAULs rising to control Earth. What he fears is their tending it. Taking care of its members. Giving them calmness and ease Les cannot. Drowsy from waves of cable sermons, Les’s own finally comes to him. He begins considering not Christ’s birth, but His gestation. The story in Matthew of Mary with child, before she and Joseph were wed. The scripture calls Joseph a just man, noting he was ready to divorce Mary quietly. Most see this response to her plight as kind, both to Hebrew law and Joseph’s sense of betrayal. But wasn’t it possible to conceive of Joseph not as suspicious or spurned, but humble? A man who already knew Mary’s child was not man, was divined from God? Whose fear stemmed from the belief he was miscast, unworthy of this secret, being father to God’s Son, architect of such a family?
He recounts this very view the next day for a rapt, and noticeably larger, church crowd. This message is like nothing he’s ever voiced before, but somehow he’s certain his controversial words will be well received. Sure enough the Purcells, usually last to slip in and first to slip out, glad-hand Les after, walking out of the sanctuary with what they call a new outlook. The Wrights are prompted to add extra to the collection plate.
Back at the apartment, Les transfers this new energy to the crib, drilling bolts into beams he’s already lathed and stained. Praise has melted Les’s fear, seeing the effect his words had on others. There will be a role, for him, in what lies ahead. This crib couldn’t contain a child without structure; only a human voice can touch a human soul. SAUL is spiritual shorthand, here to diagnose, mimic back the ministrations of men. Les eyes a beam, pleased at how his first true carpentry job is turning out. He’s been able to build so fast with new machines, machines he hadn’t the slightest clue before marrying Maura how to…
Maura yells from the den, and he drops the wood. “Maura? What’s wrong?”
She points at a pulpit on the TV screen. Angrily says the guy is what’s wrong. She can’t believe what she’s hearing. The man’s face strikes Les as warm. Or not warm, but a warm reminder of a childhood friend Les can’t quite place, yet knows he misses. This is a rebroadcast of a sermon that first aired last night, the newest add to the cable ecumenical lineup, the reverend who launched a church from a converted inn. Tippett. “What are you hearing?”
“Seriously? I’m hearing you. Don’t you recognize your sermon from today? How did he get hold of what you hadn’t even said?”
Finding the remote under baby doll Kyla, Les adjusts the volume. She’s right. The man may be a stranger, but his speech is a mirror of sound. “When the angel appears to Joseph,” says the reverend, “it is not to convince him of Mary’s goodness, but his own.” A perfect parroting of a line Les recited hours ago to his own service, down to the silences between points. The quick tonal quiver before convince.
Maura spots Les—or hears and smells him—pumping away on a ragtag exercise machine, bought at an estate sale. It’s pulley-based: cords yanked in stiff but smooth motions over a flywheel, as feet slide two wooden slats back and forth along rails. Maura can’t say why Les salvaged this flimsy, IKEA-reject machine, meant to ape cross-country skiing, over others. It’s improved his balance, for sure, which was comical when they met. But he hasn’t taken what he’s learned outside. Even with a healthy sheet of snow blanketing the ground, and more on the way, he never goes and gets into the stuff.
It is Wednesday: the day to collect prayer requests and settle sermon topic. Les turns in provocative titles for the program still generic enough—“Higher Plane, Thinner Oxygen,” or “What Isn’t In It for Me?”—to allow wiggle room when Saturday’s sun draws down. Wednesday is the week’s sunken dip; it is hospice visits; budget verdicts; a New Testament study group resembling a third-tier campus society (under-funded, attended, motivated) that leave Les low. But today he’s going at the machine like he plans to break it. Why do men work out this way? Less eager to build their bodies than shred them apart? It’s been ten days since he really spoke to Maura. Right after his Joseph sermon, Les complained of coming down with something. Won’t see a doctor, take anything, just stands apart from Gloria and Maura so they don’t catch it. Missed the last Lamaze class, missed his next sermon! And skipping a Christmas-season sermon is like a ballet company passing on a December production of The Nutcracker, a symphony rejecting Messiah for their Night of Handel.
What germ is he working so hard to sweat out?
“Need water?” Les grunts at the exercise machine’s basket; inside its beverage cup is a novelty, aluminum sports bottle, bought once they knew their forthcoming son was healthy, captioned: Our #1 Dad, Our #2 ‘Our Father.’ “Bourbon shot in a Pibb, then?”
He adjusts the resistance dial. “Do you know,” he asks, huffing out the words, “about the uncanny valley?” She shakes her head. Neither did he, until recently. It’s a theory of how tolerant we are to robots. The more that they take after us, the more they appeal—to a point. But if they cross a certain threshold in appearance, speech, conduct, we loathe the parallel. The likeness can go from delightful to unbearable in a snap.
“That’s why people like Siri’s clunky phrasing. The bobbled words tell us she’s more like a talking doll for adults.”
“Yeah,” he says, shifting into cool-down mode. “I suppose.”
“I’ve fallen into that valley before. A girl from Lamaze class wore the same stretchy pants I’d bought. Plum, with silver pacifier silhouettes? You didn’t notice, or maybe you did. The really young one with Saul? Anyway, I took mine back the day after I saw her in hers. Shallow? Sure. But it felt like the woman had…become my double. My echo. Seeing her in my workout suit made me feel, I don’t know, reduced. Switch?”
Les hops off, helps get her in position, easing her feet onto the platforms. Says he’s been thinking of the theory in terms of Christ. Why do we think of him as human, not some divine Frankenstein? Is it the pain He suffered? Were we not going to be able to bear His presence until and unless he was torn to pieces on a plank of wood? “Do you remember our date at the Greek place, when I told you about the snakebite,” he asks. “I left out some of the story. The stranger who heard me scream? Who made a tourniquet, like they do in westerns? It was about the worst thing he could’ve done. Kept the venom in me isolated to one spot. Swelled my leg to turkey size. Guy’s in the woods to hunt a ten-pointer out-of-season. Instead he nearly brings down a ten-year-old boy. He ripped his shirt off. Slung me on his shoulders two hundred yards to his truck. And the whole way, dragging through snow banks, I was delirious, thought we were tearing up the earth. Told him ‘Put me down. It’s not worth this.’ His help saved me—then damn near killed me a different way.”
“It’s still a good story,” Maura says. “Why won’t you tell it in church? You think they’d care what brought you to God? That it was venom instead of verses? I don’t. I think people get that something ugly is needed to build the beautiful. That that’s grace.” Les looks at the apartment, its chapped ceilings and water stains, shabby mirror of the beautiful house God fabricated. Every so often He nails signs to our door, scolding our damages and late payments. Flood, tablets, a child. The signs have solidified, have come to look more like us, but the message is the same: because we are indeterminate we must keep building, on His property, with tools we have next to no idea how to use. Keep building, even when we can’t make out what we’ve built. Especially then.
Maura touches his hand; he won’t let go of the machine cords. “Les?”
“My voice these last weeks. Wasn’t mine. I thought He was—leading me to my words. When…” In the fumble that follows, the same as when Les forgets which verse to turn to at the pulpit, Maura knows. She traces his bloodless face back to when he heard the parroted sermon on TV, shoulders slumping like a detonated tower. It’s him. He was the parrot, lifting insights from Reverend Tippett’s broadcasts, stealing the man’s verses, maybe whole stories. Minutes go by, silent but for beeps of praise when Maura passes workout benchmarks. “You haven’t had my voice either. I apologize for that. Would you want to take it over? The class? With my Christmas commitments, I couldn’t join in, but if you need a refresher…”
“Refresher? Les, has the cross even thought your mind?” Both Maura’s arms and speech are wobbling with effort. She inhales to steady herself. Free and easy, she thinks. Time it to breaths of labor. “That I already lived this class before? That I signed us up so you could get the lessons?” The resistance dial is set too high, out of Maura’s comfort zone. She wants to pause the program, but that feels like weakness. Wants to punish Les, but it’s his cross to bear. Wants to send him out of the room, but then she won’t see if her words have hit their target.
What she really wants is for him to see her. And when he turns, and she expects him to deny what she said…instead he looks. As if her eyes are threshold. Holding a scar of terror—the same one so raw and visible in the students from class? Yes, Les—terrors Maura endured alone. Her history, alive in their faces. Teen mother, two classes short of a diploma, one lapse exiling her from youth and its options, not to mention the boy who lapsed with her. Who came from a family who saw Gloria’s coming as a disease, who thought enlarging their family early would diminish their boy’s destiny. Who wouldn’t name the baby. Wouldn’t pay for an abortion. Would only pay to send away both mother and child. Didn’t ask for a way to contact Maura, just a bank routing number to send checks in security envelopes. This profane silence is what made her feel most alone, halved even while holding new life.
Les stops the machine, sops her sweat with his palms. Looks closely at Maura: host for a form not quite him, not quite her, a form driving both to build better forms of themselves—reincarnated while alive! Looks in deeper, palms on Maura’s abdomen, and sees in her eyes, their son. Not as grown man, or heap of post-partum blood and shivers, but their son now, swirling under this canopy of expanding skin, the greatest earthly home he’ll ever know, a taut, temperate universe blanched of color but also veiling him from scars, disease, doubt, while supplying a steady shower of sensations and sustenance: blurry blooms of light, lather of amniotic soup to tumble in, protected, unhungry, attached without end to another. Here. Right beneath the palms, the blueprint. How we have come to think of and hope for heaven.
Matthew Pitt’s debut story collection, Attention Please Now, won the Autumn House Prize; it later received Late Night Library’s Debut-litzer Prize and was a finalist for the Writers League of Texas Book Award. His fiction has appeared widely in Best New American Voices, Cincinnati Review, Oxford American, Conjunctions, Epoch, BOMB, and The Southern Review, among other forums, and has been cited in several Best-Of anthologies. An Assistant Professor of English at TCU, he was department Teacher of the Year, and is currently completing his first novel.