Chelsea dressed the part of the adoring wife, her cheap muslin dress hippyish for Cornice who loved hippyish. When hippyish girls walked by, his heart tumbled after, his vision reaching into the hollows of ankle, the dirtier the better, caressing bared shoulder or nape. Cornice loved bandanas draped over the head, the no-bra look of a skimpy top. He denied that class-consciousness had anything to do with his lust for crust, but Chelsea knew. His dad was a communist money-hoarder type who looked like Karl Marx. His mother was a conceited bitch. Cornice loved oppressed shit, was fond of quoting some stupid crap he’d read in a Protestant tract about “grinding the diamond.” That’s why he preferred shitty jobs like roofing, concrete, digging holes for palm trees, anything to put a whipping on his body; it led him to believe that he, like the homeless people, dirty children, depressed druggies and fuckups of the world, was of the earth, its salt.
What Cornice loved was sluts was what Cornice loved, girl runaways forced to sell their bodies to fat slimeballs. Cornice all-out romanticized the suffering of women, so it was natural that he would try to make Chelsea suffer too. His love of garbage and dirt and his meticulous observance of detail was him trying to displace his awful childhood experiences, his neglect by the people who were supposed to care, especially his mother who, Cornice had told her, was the only human being he’d ever been revolted by. Cornice loved cheap jewelry, ad-hoc anklets, ugly tattoos and lurid makeup—or no makeup. In short, Cornice was insufferable. He thought of himself as a poet, and poetry was his thing. What woman would put up with such a man?
Cornice slipped into skinny jeans and a long-sleeved flannel shirt, which nicely complimented Chelsea’s soft dress and sandals. They left the bungalow and Cornice took up her hand and they walked along the sandy walkway. At Junebug’s place, Cornice knocked. The door opened. There was Junebug, smiling like a horse. “He-he-hell yeah,” Junebug neighed. She seemed like a nice enough woman, but the rhythms of her speech grated Chelsea’s nerves. Junebug talked like a woman in her twenties, not late fifties. That was weird, but the quaint table with crackers and cheese on it looked delightful. Several bottles of wine and some nice glasses were expertly placed. Junebug asked Chelsea what she wanted. Chelsea replied, “White.” Cornice always said drinking white was like drinking vinegar. White wine was just another of the many things about which Cornice had no tolerance.
Junebug’s friends, Clabbert and Helga Stern, were old as the bible. Throughout dinner they spoke of their world travels, and of how great it was to be retired. They’d been married for thirty-nine years, and you might not think it, they said, but love grew stronger the longer you were together. It took on new dimensions impossible to explain to anybody who’d never experienced a true and abiding love. “It’s just a terrible shame,” Helga said, “that some people stay together even though they don’t have that special bond.”
“Now there’s a philosophy,” Cornice said.
“I’m sorry, are you mocking my wife?” Clabbert Stern said. He still wore the cowboy hat he’d worn while sunning on the beach earlier.
“The purpose of life is to love and be loved,” Cornice said.
“Hey, I think I like this guy,” Helga Stern said, and held out her wine glass to toast the notion. Cornice knocked glasses, even though his was empty.
“How long were you in Alaska, anyway?” Clabbert asked. “That’s one place Helga and I have not been.”
“Two years,” Cornice said.
“Seemed like ten,” Chelsea said.
“She got a lot of valuable experience though,” Cornice said.
“Yes, I saw pictures of children burned by cigarettes, that was real good for my general sense of health and security. I had crazy people threaten my life.”
“Oh, you worked in children’s services,” Clabbert remarked.
“All I wanted was to be a kindergarten teacher. Those jobs are guarded like gold mints.”
“But you were paid a hell of a lot more as a worker for the state,” Cornice said. “Besides, now that you have valuable experience, who knows? Maybe you can be a social worker in Florida, too.”
“No, no, I’m never doing that work again. Everybody who works those jobs are alcoholics and pill-poppers. It’s out of the question. That’s it for me. No more burned children.”
“Tell me, how long have you two been together?” Clabbert Stern asked.
“Fifteen years,” Chelsea piped.
“Fifteen wonderful years together,” Cornice said.
“How many children?” Helga Stern asked.
“Zero,” Chelsea was forced to say, but she liked Helga. Helga’s broad forehead reminded her of her grandmother, Orliana, who had made beautiful dolls for her and had sewn a Christmas stocking with her name on it. These were some of Chelsea’s prized possessions. When Orliana drowned, suddenly the only person in her life was her mother.
Cornice said, “Children are vegetables.”
Junebug laughed heartily at that. “I have three children. All three are married and have children. Frank is a computer programmer in Seattle, Mark is in realty. My youngest son Ernest is a professional atheist. They tell me about their lives on the email. Isn’t email wonderful?”
“I guess,” Cornice said.
Chelsea rolled her eyes up at the ceiling of the bungalow where a rust-colored water stain beside the chintzy chandelier caught her attention. It was her second day back from Alaska and who would ever have thought she’d be looking at that right now, or that she’d be hanging out with these old people? She and Cornice met them on the beach that afternoon, but clouds had flown in with a heap of rain. They ran back to the bungalow where Chelsea put in her diaphragm. She left the bathroom naked, and she and Cornice made love while the storm crashed down. Throughout the whole thing Cornice snapped pictures with his digital camera, of Chelsea blowing him, and he held the camera above them and to the side as they fucked on the wood floor, patches of beach sand clinging to their bodies. On her hands and knees, her eyes closed, Chelsea registered the flash each time it went off. It was great crazy spontaneous sex maybe brought in by the storm. They hadn’t made love like that since before Alaska, but even as they did it, Chelsea sort of regretted having put in her diaphragm. It was an act against nature. Somebody, some little girl or little boy, was hovering around them in the room—a soul—waiting, but she had ruined this person’s entrance into the world.
Chelsea had put the damn thing in for Cornice, everything was all for Cornice, she was a murderer for Cornice. And she was a murderer for her mother who, before she married Cornice, left a statement of her alimony receipts on the bathroom counter so that when Cornice went in to pee, he saw all the shit he would have to deal with if Chelsea ever got pregnant. There were lots of little things like that, so Chelsea took pains to prevent her good husband from thinking he’d been trapped. Chelsea still felt guilty for begging Cornice to marry her. Chelsea had begged and pleaded until finally Cornice said yes.
But how many years had they been together? Fifteen? If you hadn’t had a baby by then something was way wrong with you; and they couldn’t claim it was because they were poor anymore, for she’d spent enough on diamonds in Alaska to have had two kids. Money wasn’t the problem. The problem was that Cornice was a self-centered sonofabitch, nothing against his mother. His mother was egotistical, yes, unrelentingly regal and taken with herself, but she was equally beautiful, always sent her this great jewelry, family heirlooms, like a baked enamel pin a shade of red you’d never see, and a gold Elgin necklace-watch that didn’t tick unless she wore it, and when it ticked when she wore it, it ticked in time with the beating of her heart. A very special watch, just one of the many things Cornice could never appreciate.
The storm had blown over fast, it was a squall, but it had come down hard enough to wash their footprints off the beach, of this Chelsea was sure. As Cornice had showered, getting ready for their evening with Junebug and the Sterns, Chelsea pulled out her diaphragm and ran his junk up inside her. It was pretty fucking irresponsible, she knew, because what if the little wiggler carried a bit of sperm-killer into the egg with it? Wouldn’t it grow malformed inside her?
“Come on now, Cornice,” Junebug said, and filled his glass with Cabernet Sauvignon. She said, “A toast ain’t a toast lessen you got something to drink, boy, that’s what I say,” and once again the toast was to love.
“We haven’t done much traveling,” Cornice admitted, “but I took Chelsea to Alaska for two years. She said she wanted to live by the water, you know, so I took her to Alaska and we lived by the water. I took her to Alaska and we could see the water from our apartment.”
“The water was too cold to swim in,” Chelsea said. “It was the type of water that sent you into hypothermia and killed you after seven minutes.”
“She hated her job. She didn’t like the weather. This one time before all that, years ago, I wanted to go to Korea to teach English. Everything was set up. We had new passports. All we had to do was board the plane, but she chickened out.”
“I have no adventuresome spirit,” Chelsea said.
“Oh, there’s nothing like travel to strengthen a couple’s bond,” Helga Stern said. “Seeing new things together, meeting new people, having shared experiences, it draws you together, brings you closer. It gives you something in common, and that’s especially important if you don’t have much in common to begin with. Whenever Clabbert and I were feeling estranged, we hopped a plane to Egypt or Saigon. It was us against the world.”
“Us against the world,” Cornice said.
“Oh, Cornice, don’t be such a hard-nose,” Junebug said, and went over and set her hand on his shoulder, and squeezed.
“That feels good,” Cornice said. “You’ve got really huge hands.”
Junebug put her other hand on Cornice’s other shoulder and squeezed. “You need to lighten up on Chelsea’s limitations. You need to understand that she is like a crab in his hole, very timid.”
“Crab?” Chelsea said.
“Don’t take it to heart, sweetie,” Junebug said, really giving Cornice the treatment with her strong hands. Chelsea wished Junebug would stop that, but on she went, digging in like she and Cornice were great old pals. “If you don’t like to travel, Chelsea,” Junebug said consolingly, “there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re just afraid. What are you afraid of?”
“She’s afraid of jellyfish,” Cornice said.
“Jellyfish are slimy blobs of poison,” Helga Stern said.
“Thank you,” Chelsea said.
“Love is a frightful thing,” Helga said. “For some, love is harder to give up than life itself. If you ask yourself the question, what would I rather do, die, or be without love, if the answer is be without love, that’s proof you don’t really love the person you are with.”
Junebug laughed her horse’s laugh. That laugh was really starting to bother Chelsea. She supposed that since she’d eaten their food, she was now obligated to stick around and put up with insults. Really, she wanted to be alone now. The dinner had been mediocre. The asparagus was okay, but the eggplant in the lasagna had been sliced too thick, and there weren’t enough spices in it, and worst of all, there wasn’t any meat in it. Lasagna with no meat was not lasagna.
“Okay,” Junebug announced. “Now that we have feasted like vulgar Grecians, what say we move this party to the beach? It’s a full moon out tonight. What do you say, good friends?”
“I’d say it sounded good if not for the fact that I have no adventuresome spirit,” Chelsea said, and looked to Cornice for his response. Cornice was swirling wine around in his glass like some connoisseur.
“To the beach!” Clabbert Stern trumpeted, and slugged down the last of his wine.
Everybody slugged down the last of their wine.
Junebug grabbed two bottles of champagne out of the fridge, and five champagne flutes, which she held like a bouquet in one large hand.
Down on the beach, Helga Stern flapped out a huge blue blanket and they all laid down on it and the champagne was popped and poured and the toast this time was to loyalty. In the warm breeze blowing in off the water they watched the full moon glimmer above the ocean. It was fat and healthy, the moon. The moon looked like it wanted to give birth to another planet. If I was the moon, Chelsea thought, I would feel pretty fucking good right now. The champagne tasted bitter. Chelsea was tired of this low-octane booze. Back at their bungalow sat a full, unopened bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Chelsea tried to excuse herself to use the bathroom, but Helga Stern said, “No, girl, if you need to pee, pee in the ocean. Don’t be afraid to give a little bit of yourself. The ocean will take what you give it and bless you,” and with that, Helga hopped to her feet, pulled her dress over her head and threw it at Clabbert. Helga adjusted her one-piece bathing suit, and ran down to the water. She immersed herself, and yelled, “Come on, girl!”
“Go ahead,” Cornice said.
“Don’t be afraid, Chelsea, that’s the main thing,” Junebug said.
“I’m not. Why does everybody keep saying that?”
“Prove it,” Clabbert said. The whites of his eyeballs reflected the glow of the moon.
Cornice put his hand on her forearm. “You don’t need to prove anything to anybody.”
“I know.” She yanked her arm away.
“The ocean will devour your piss and anything else you give it,” Clabbert Stern said. His pocked nose in the moonlight, along with his cowboy hat and all, made him look lusty and greasy. Chelsea accepted the fact that she may have been a little uptight, but she didn’t care for other people chiming in with Cornice to try and make a point of it. Fuck them. They didn’t know shit about her. She peeled her dress down over her shoulders, unlatched her bra, peeled her panties down with her dress and slipped off her sandals. She walked through the sand in the direction of the water, her new friends clapping. What fools they were.
The water was cooler than the warm air. It lapped Chelsea’s ankles like a myriad small tongues, the tongues of children, and then it was up over her knees, the water, lapping at her thighs. Chelsea stepped out deeper in the direction of Helga Stern. She squatted so that only her head would be visible from the beach. Chelsea used to love walking down to the beach with her grandmother. She and Orliana would build sandcastles together, and in the water Orliana rocked Chelsea in and out of the salty wavelets sallying in from the ends of the earth, without care, without explanation. It must’ve been on a night like this that Orliana drowned herself. It was hard to believe that a woman could walk out into the water to drown herself, but that was the story.
Chelsea began to pee, letting the ocean devour her piss, but Helga Stern sidled up to her and groped for her hand.
Chelsea’s peeing stopped short.
“Tell me, don’t be afraid,” Helga said, holding Chelsea’s hand, and there was all this breathiness going on.
“My grandmother died in the ocean,” Chelsea said.
“Are you happy?’ Helga asked her.
“Do you remember what Clabbert and I were talking about at dinner?”
“I love Cornice.”
“You shouldn’t be afraid to consider the alternatives.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” Chelsea said.
“It’s not right, you and him,” Helga said, her wet old breath washing up against her eyelashes. In the moonlight Helga’s face looked twice as wrinkly as it had in the bungalow light. “We all make mistakes,” Helga went on breathily.
“Thank you for sharing your wisdom,” Chelsea said, and took back her hand and made for the shore. She saw herself through Cornice’s eyes, emerging naked from the sea, backlit by the moon, and hoped that he would be proud of her for being so bold, but Helga Stern was emerging from the sea behind her, which sort of ruined the effect, and made her feel uncomfortable. Cornice would notice, she knew, that Helga had the same proportions but exaggerated, thin from the waist up, but large around the hips, like a butternut squash with legs that any jerk might describe as beefy or short. Those were the legs of Chelsea’s mother, and as the older woman trailed behind her, Chelsea knew that Cornice the poet would make the connection of what form Chelsea would grow to fit. Though Cornice had never said it outright, Chelsea really believed that he loved skinny legs, legs that reached from the ground in graceful carrot-like harmony, refusing to touch each other in their upward journey toward the reproductive labyrinth.
Chelsea could not hold a squatting position on her feet. Chelsea’s feet were flat. Chelsea fell backwards when she tried to squat. That did not mean that Cornice didn’t love her, she knew, but she felt insufficient in their lovemaking, like what Cornice really wanted was to push her legs back so that her knees were shoved down to the sides of her shoulders. Cornice was afraid, Chelsea believed, that if they had a child, the child might come out with a body that would in later years be unwieldy, too narrow up top, or bottom heavy—that, to Cornice the poet, was scary. And God forbid their child be a boy. Cornice loved girls, he didn’t love boys. Cornice did not want to be responsible for any creation less than perfect—that was Cornice. His poetry he could revise, but the shape a child would come to inhabit was a done deal. Lately, at Chelsea’s gentle nudging, he seemed seriously to be considering the whole baby thing, despite its possible drawbacks, the main drawback being that he would not be able to protect it from her—so he’d said—but Cornice knew, as she knew, that it was time, it was past time.
Chelsea sat on the blanket next to Cornice. Clabbert Stern handed her a freshly filled champagne flute. He said, “To longevity.”
Jesus, Chelsea thought, can’t we drink without toasting? What are they trying to tell me? Chelsea drank her champagne down, and Junebug filled her back up.
“To burned children,” Chelsea said, but nobody knocked glasses. They ignored Chelsea’s toast, and Chelsea did not care that she was naked. Let them scrutinize. She was not afraid, and Cornice, she knew, was a good man. Why did they keep nudging her, trying to make her think that she had wasted her time with Cornice? Cornice knew everything, and she loved him. There was nobody in the world like him. He played chess, he played every instrument ever invented, he was a great photographer, and he danced like a devil, and cooked rice to perfection, always, without ever using measuring cups, he just dumped the stuff into the pot without hardly looking at it. If she were to be a vehicle for life, an instrument for the recycling of a soul, she wanted it to be done with Cornice’s help. Cornice’s come was earthy, wholesome, sweet but not cloying. She finished her champagne.
Junebug filled her glass, and she tossed it back in a fell swoop and flopped back onto her back on the blue blanket, the glass rolling out of her clutch into the sand. She was not drunk. She lifted her feet up and spread her legs, opening her body to the light of the moon. If Cornice didn’t want to impregnate her, maybe the moon did. She imagined a moonbeam entering her, shining its light into the emptiness. When she heard her name spoken, it came as if from far away, or from below water. “Chelsea, Chelsea,” it went. She heard waves brushing against sand. She closed her eyes. “Chelsea,” the voice called. She sensed movement around her. It was the children wanting to be born. In her mind she saw them in the air above her, a broccoli stalk and a tumbling jalapeño pepper, a tomato, and so many button mushrooms. They were hovering, waiting, wanting to be born.
They could look. She hoped they would see into her. Her nothing would bring them joy, wouldn’t it? What Junebug and the Sterns didn’t understand was that Cornice had saved her from her mother. Chelsea’s mother’s favorite thing, when she was little, was to push her between the bed and wall, and laugh when she screamed, when she felt the value of air. It was Cornice who brought her attention to the fact that the difference between Mother and Smother was a single letter.
“Chelsea, what are you doing?” It was Junebug’s voice.
“Poor thing,” Helga Stern said.
“Yes!” Chelsea cried, and moaned, and spread her legs wider, the moon’s shaft moving in and pulling out of her still wet body because it cared, really cared for her, and wanted to fill her with the nourishment needed to feed another human being.
Cornice cleared his throat. A hand touched her forehead. Chelsea rolled onto her side and heaved. Her sobs attracted more souls. Artichokes whipped down from the sky. Beets and potatoes were here for the chance to enter her, to be hers. Chelsea wanted to console them, let them know that it wasn’t her fault. She wanted to walk to the corner drugstore in cheap flip-flops and purchase a pregnancy test. In her mind she saw herself doing that, but wept as the Sterns spoke of their wonderful time swimming off the island of Elba, the cliffs, and the light that streamed down in the evening. After swimming they’d gone to a restaurant and eaten stuffed sardines, and potato and egg and onion soup, fried squid and strufoli. The Sterns had had no children. When Chelsea finally rose to a sitting position, Cornice said, “Check out the moon, Chelse,” and she lifted her eyes to a Vidalia onion thrown back into the wild deeps of space.
John Oliver Hodges is the author of War of the Crazies, a novella about zombies and commune life in upstate New York, and The Love Box, a collection of short stories published by Livingston Press in 2013. Before moving to New York City where he now lives, he studied fiction writing in Mississippi and received an MFA from Ole Miss. He currently teaches writing at Montclair State University and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.