The Kid Machine
By Paul Silverman
Janet’s girlfriend Molly said this as an aside, not an accusation. She had read about it in one of those Brangelina-type stories in a fanzine. But Janet looked accused. She couldn’t even open the Pinot Grigio, which Molly had brought over to juice her up and calm her down. So Molly grabbed the corkscrew from her and finished the job. But it wasn’t her kind of corkscrew. They would eat a lot of cork.
Janet, in that way she had of looking smitten, said, “We’re schoolteachers, just schoolteachers, Molly. Just like you and Damon. Nobody ever told us about dog prenups.”
The Pinot Grigio session, beginning around 4 p.m., was Molly’s idea - designed to get Janet battle-ready for her 5:30 p.m. with Justin. Molly loved Pinot Grigio as an action lubricant. “Just enough alcohol,” she said.
“And no taste at all,” Janet said, in a tone that was less than grateful. She picked a fleck of cork off her tongue, and continued picking flecks while Molly conducted the little ceremony she had cooked up. Molly pulled out a bronze badge, an exact replica of a Band-Aid, and endeavored to pin it on Janet’s top, left side. She said it was a “bandage for the heart,” a kind of medal of honor created by some cool designer she’d found online. “Its purpose is to honor those who are getting killed or wounded in the love wars,” Molly said. “I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.”
As Molly said this she actually choked up—and just watching this, Janet wanted to throw up. She also felt she didn’t have the strength to resist, and she stood passively while Janet clicked the little pin in place.
Justin was coming to haul Parker the Lab, dog toys and all, away for the night. Their trio of little kids was at Janet’s mom’s. The kids had seen—and heard—enough for a lifetime. “I’m here so he won’t walk over you,” Molly said with a swig.
“He’s already walked over me but I’m still functioning. A sidewalk does it all the time.” She put the glass to her lips, but sniffed instead of swigged. “Dog prenups, Jeez. Who do you think we are—were?”
At 5:40 a hulking pair of shoulders darkened the doorway, but they weren’t Justin’s. It was Damon who stood there, with that looming Frankenstein way of his, and his ever-present computer bag, which told the world he was the IT teacher—not chained to a classroom like Molly and Janet. Molly greeted him and Parker commenced soft-mouthing Damon’s free hand, which was meaty as a roast. It took a three-slice bologna bribe to get him to cease.
At about 5:50, from Pinot Grigio headquarters back in the kitchen, the three of them, Janet, Molly and Damon, rose as they heard the front door swing open. Not a knock, not a doorbell buzz, just a swing. “You haven’t changed the locks yet?” Molly cried. “Are you insane?”
Justin didn’t just cross the threshold. He had this way of bouncing over it—and there they were, just like old times. A familiar thought occurred to Janet, popping right through the fear and rage: Were she to be casting a medieval movie, she’d make Justin the freckle-faced prince, ever young, ever cocky, and, for certain, thick as a post. Even though he’d tossed her like a stale beer she’d do this. But Damon, she’d make him the black-masked executioner. A man whose body was born for the part. The way he looked now, fat arms folded and glowering—looming and fuming over Justin—he could easily have a black hood on his big bald head. And Justin was no midget; he still had his linebacker’s build. The cruel irony was that Damon could never begin to do to Molly what Justin had done to her. He was her Marshmallow Fluff since high school. “My bitch,” she said, when the Pinot Grigio flowed.
As usual, Justin wore jock clothes, his Phys-Ed teacher uniform. Another special “educator”—no classroom drudgery for him. He had that glow, a kind of revved-up, earnest sappiness that told her he had come straight from the weight room.
Damon, the pussy of an executioner, jumped right in with an axe-swipe at Justin’s head. “Look, you fucker. This has to stop. She wants the dog, give her the dog. You’ve already taken away everything she…”
When Damon finished, he passed the axe to Molly, whose happy-hour arms couldn’t lift it all that convincingly. She still managed to get in some nice shots about the horrors and humiliations Justin had wreaked on his wife and family. How his taking up with the Empress of the PTA—now showing—had torn the school to pieces, not to mention two formerly sane spouses and two households filled with very young children.
The problem was, everything Damon and Molly were saying had been said for three weeks, ad nauseam. As Janet listened and watched, all she could feel was that great process of cosmic excretion seizing her once more. She saw it as a sequence in which she started out as a green clump of grass in an open field, sprouting in full view of countless bypassers and bystanders, a happy, random clump suddenly pulled up by her roots, then chewed, swallowed, etched to death by gastric acid, and finally dumped out on the ground as a brown piece of shit.
Characteristically, the more Damon and Molly lambasted Justin, the more that all-American, choir-boy smile of his grew and grew. Just like Pinocchio’s nose, except a lengthening nose will always look evil and deceitful. But Justin’s exploding smile kept shooting out those rays of nuclear-strength decency.
The smile hit its radiant, Eagle Scout peak when Molly accused him point blank of cruelty to children.
“Three of them, lost and abandoned,” she said, slurring the “s” in lost. Actually saying losht.
“Don’t talk to me about kids, “Justin said. “ I love kids, and Janet knows it. Daria and I want to have lots of kids. And we hope in time our two families can be close. Yours, and ours.”
Damon went off like a bomb. “The kid machine,” he yelled, “that’s what they’re calling you, you dumb, miserable fuck. You should move to Saudi Arabia and get three more Darias.” His executioner’s eyes burned like white-hot spikes. But all Justin did was grin like a freckle-faced farmboy, a grown-up version of the Howdy Doody doll Janet’s mom had in her house. With a finger-snap he summoned Parker, who bounded to his side in a flash.
“Notice how he never barks,” Justin said. “Never with me, at any rate. We started out calling him Barker, but then we had to change it to Parker.” Man and dog gazed at each other adoringly—“isn’t that right, boy, isn’t that right?”—each gaze, each wag, each word, was like a cigarette ash dropping on Janet’s skin.
What finally made her crack like an egg was a single sound. The snap of Justin hooking the leash on Parker’s collar.
“He’s not going with you,” she screamed. “He’s not. Not, not, not.”
Both Parker and Justin reacted identically. Heads high. Eyes bright. Two pups ready to chase sticks.
“The dog is MINE.”
“Not for two days a week he isn’t,” Justin said, in the tone of a good-natured Nautilus instructor gently correcting some novice’s machine posture. “You agreed to this. Can you honestly say you didn’t agree? Would you swear it on a bible?”
At this one moment in the great sea of time, Janet and her friend Molly could have been on opposite ends of the universe.
“He’s just a dog,” Molly said, touching Janet’s shoulder. “It’s only for a night. Save your ammunition for the children. It’s the children who count.”
The executioner glowered at the freckle-faced prince. “You’re a hell of a one to talk about bibles, you bastard.”
But glower was all he did. Justin, with Parker heeling flawlessly, turned and headed out. They trotted in perfect synchronicity. Janet sprang across the threshold and followed all the way down the walkway, shouting “I love you, Parker. Parker I love you. You be good now.”
Parker turned his head only once, showing the whites of his eyes. But this time Janet saw something different in them. Something that wasn’t bright, wasn’t happy, wasn’t just goofy to play. All things considered, it was a miraculous flash. And though it had come out of nowhere and lasted only a split second, she knew what she’d just seen would stay in her brain the rest of the night, flashing and flashing. She also knew the best thing Molly and Damon could do for her would be to shut up and get out of the house. Now. Right now.
The “right now” took a good hour, but at last Janet found herself alone. And not thinking of the kids, either, who at this moment were in good enough hands. All her focus was on Parker, only Parker. She walked through the empty house, missing everything about him. The way he curled on his L.L. Bean bed. The way he sat for treats, suddenly so solemn and angelic, exactly as he had sat when he was a tiny furball of a puppy. Molly would be horrified, no doubt. The idea of Justin sharing the children—having visitation rights at least—Janet could almost accept that. But to share Parker seemed like cutting off a limb.
As evening fell, Janet slowly climbed the stairs to the unlit master bedroom, stopping on her way to the medicine cabinet. She lingered beside the bed, in no particular hurry to flip the light switch. The scent of Parker was all over the room, and the shadows seemed to intensify it. Finally, she turned on the light and let her eyes fall on the white comforter. It was covered, absolutely covered with black hairs. The thought that tonight she would not be holding Parker in her arms, hugging him like a great black Teddy bear, this was a situation that seemed beyond cruel and unusual, beyond inhumane. Daria had Justin—why couldn’t Janet have Parker? How much pounding could a sidewalk take?
Back down in the kitchen she confronted the three empties. Empty table, empty wine bottle, empty L.L Bean bed. The latter was all that really counted. As the night wore on, the thing she had seen in Parker’s eyes—a longing was what she was calling it now—became so intense she could almost hear it as well see it. It was a kind of cry, from way down deep. Of regret, that kind of cry. Regret for the shattered family, the pack that once was and never will be. It staggered her that this cry, this regret, was more visible in the eyes of an animal than in Justin’s entire being. The thought, the horror of it, began to stalk her like an apparition every time she randomly glanced over at the dog bed. And, after a while, it was everywhere her eyes darted.
It was even in the kitchen cabinet where Janet went rummaging for a sugar rush at around eleven. All she wanted was a little late something to put off the duty of sleep, the inevitable trek to the comforter. There was also the thing from the medicine cabinet, the stick she could pee on. But why rush the night? All over the house were items Justin left behind. His souvenirs—would they ever stop turning up? Cast-off sneakers hiding in a basement closet. A bar of male-smelling soap started three weeks ago. Pitted-out tee shirts and rusted bike wrenches.
She fished around the cabinet and bumped into a few more of them. Tall jars of male energy junk, expired and never thrown out, his powders and granules and capsules. She opened another door and hauled down the Dunkin’ Donuts box, and then the glass-necked vessel from way back, the Captain Morgan’s. From these she assembled her set of possibles. Two double-chocolate frosteds, three sprinkles, and a glazed. Then she pondered. And poured.
The glazed she chose to eat first, because she liked the way it named the occasion: a glazed night if ever there was one. Each bite she took slowly, letting the Captain Morgan swish its rummy island lushness all around her mouth and into every last crumb, transforming the greased cake into drenched bits of Caribbean bliss. After three donuts and half the bottle she had to take a royal pee. Time for the stick. She made her way into the half-bath off the kitchen, already thinking of names. It occurred to her, before she even had a color on the stick, why not just name the offspring Morgan, after the Captain himself, a true swashbuckling buccaneer. There was also Pinot Grigio, of course, but it sounded like a circus clown. Pinot Grigio, what a joke…
As fate would have it, next day they all sat next to each other, close as four bugs in a rug, in the teachers’ meeting room, where the principal went ape for a half hour about the new fire drill regs. Janet thought about when she would drop the news on Justin, and what he would do, but of course she knew what he would do—just smile that Pinocchio smile of his, wider and wider. Then something occurred to her, just a glimmer, a kind of a trade she might make, and trade was a word that gave her a shiver of disgust, but there was just no other word for trade but trade. Besides, simply having something to trade, a bargaining chip, it was such a leap forward—or up—it felt utterly new and huge, like winning a fortune or finding an overhead branch to grab and use to pull yourself up out of a raging river. Morgan for Parker. As simple as that: an even swap. You take one, I take the other. Molly would be horrified, everyone would be horrified. Tomorrow even she, Janet, would be horrified for considering it longer than two seconds. But today, as the principal droned on and Justin sat there with his shit-eating smile, it took the hangover right out of her head.
Paul Silverman's stories have appeared in The South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Minnetonka Review, VerbSap, Hobart Online, Pindeldyboz, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon, Alimentum, Smokelong Quarterly, The Pedestal Magazine, The Jabberwock Review, The Adirondack Review, Dogmatika, Tryst, The Summerset Review, and many others. He's been a Spotlight Author in Eclectica, which nominated his story, "The Home Front," for Best of the Net, 2008. His work is on the 2006 and 2008 Million Writers Award shortlist of Notable Online Stories. He has three Pushcart nominations for stories in Byline, Lily, and The Worcester Review.
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