Familiar Bones


Every night at the dinner table, he looked at her out the corners of his eyes. She was so fat that she sweated at the effort of sitting up straight in the high-backed wooden chair. She would shovel down mouthfuls of potatoes, beef and biscuits while swatting meaty fingers around her neck to cool herself, and he would squint really hard, trying to see the girl he married inside of her.

Sometimes he thought he recognized her by the tilt of her face or by a certain expression. But she was hidden, trapped and sinking fast and far into this increasing mound of fatted flesh that he called his wife.

Tonight, he was having no more success than any other night. So he lowered his eyes into his liquor and considered how many more it would take, how many more sips, nights, years before the pain went away. He gazed at the walls of the trailer that seemed to be closing, inching in further by the second. But he knew it was not their home shrinking; it was just Mabel growing.

The table, which once fit nicely onto the square of linoleum that was the kitchen, now had two legs forced onto the rug that started the den space. Mabel could no longer squeeze by it with a tight stomach and slender hips. Even with it pushed out as far as it was, she had to partially fall onto it, her breasts dragging the oilcloth covering, in order to get to her chair.

Once sitting, she would squirm around to settle herself. Her bare feet were square chubs that constantly pressed the tiles to keep her from sliding off the small seat. Those were not the feet he married. They were cases, thick pockets, fat cells imprisoning the once small and delicate toes of the woman he'd loved.

Bringing his hands to wipe his face, he smelled the alcohol and smoke on his rough fingers and thought, These are not my hands anymore than those are her feet. He knew he too was trapped, coated with a fine, slick layer of liquor and loneliness.

"Where are we, Mabel?" He wanted to ask. "And how can we get back to where we were? How can I find you?"

He dared to glance up, hoping she might be looking at him, wondering the same thing. But she was only sopping up a pool of gravy with her biscuit, her eyes glued to the TV.

She claimed she had to sit facing the den so she could watch Family Feud while they ate. But he knew better. He watched her eyes constantly flicking from the TV to the mantle, where the picture of the baby still rested.

Tonight was no different. She was shoveling, swatting and staring, and he was downing another scotch, trying not to notice the tears beginning in her eyes as they laid to rest on the picture. He shifted quickly to the right to block her view and perhaps stop the inevitable, but it was too late. Her face was sour and puckering. The mournful sob burst from her throat.

He squeezed his hands against his temples, but nothing could ever block out the shrill sound of her as she went on and on. There was nothing he could ever say to her. No way to comfort. She shook and wept, and he clenched his teeth until he finally slammed his hands flat onto the table.

"Mabel," he pleaded, "Let me put it away."

She turned maddened eyes on him and began to scream and wail:

"How can you say it? How can you? Don't you love the baby? Don't you love it?"

He dug his teeth into the sides of his mouth and curled his hands into tight fists, wanting to scream back, "It's dead! It's dead!" But his gut tightened and no words would come. Like always.

He jerked his coat from the couch and stormed out the trailer door, leaving Mabel sniffling into her hands.

He drove to the bar, took his seat in the corner, and began to pick paint chips from the table with his thumbnail. He bit back the sadness that rose inside of him as he thought of Mabel home alone, needing him. He closed his eyes and he could see Mabel in his head, thin and pretty like when he met her.

The first time he'd laid eyes on her, he'd had the feeling he'd known her before, known her always. It wasn't her face exactly that was familiar, but something beneath the surface. As if she had familiar heartbeats, familiar bones.

They were married after only six months.

It seemed impossible for him to love someone so much. To look so forward to coming home to a certain face, a certain set of hands waiting to grasp his own as he came in the door. After awhile, he could not remember who he was before Mabel. Could not imagine that he had ever been someone separate from her person. They were two parts of a whole. He didn't know how he'd survived without her.

The waiter came by.

"Another one?" he asked.


And he watched the man carry his empty glass to the bartender who filled a new one for him. With another drink in hand, he continued to think of Mabel, to miss Mabel.

He remembered the day they found out she was pregnant. How exciting and frightening it was. There was money and space and time to consider. Could they afford it? Were they ready? But these were only practiced questions. They knew they wanted the baby, wanted to have it at all costs.

"It's a part of us," he'd told Mabel. "One half of me. One half of you."

As her belly began to pout and swell, she became to him more beautiful than ever.

He would spread light fingers over her stomach and imagine he felt the baby's tiny heartbeat thumping out words in its rhythm: Love you, Mother. Love you, Father...

And they were no longer two, but three parts of a whole.

With every bit of extra money they had, they bought toys and books and clothes that they piled into the crib that sat in the corner of their small bedroom. Long after the baby had come and gone, those things remained in the house, in the same corner, empty and lifeless. No longer waiting, nor expectant, just there. Sometimes, these things seemed to him to have personality, to be disoriented, confused. As if they too could not understand why the life they had counted on to be there just wasn't.

One day, he took all those things and packed them away. Mabel never said a word, but she clung to the picture of the baby. He didn't have the heart to take it away. It was easier to just turn his back.

They sat in the emergency room
hours, slipping slowly to opposite
ends of the couch. Moving
away from each other.

He drove the truck slowly up the gravel drive and took his time turning the key and taking it from the ignition. For a long time, he sat behind the wheel, staring at the trailer.

He knew the things inside he would have to face, and he wondered what night he would finally stand up to Mabel and to himself and end this trap that had become their lives.

Inside, he found Mabel on the couch, fallen asleep with a tub of ice cream in her lap. He knew she'd been waiting up for him and he should wake her and tell her he was home safe, but he just stood there for awhile, drunk and staring at her, narrowing his eyes to find the chin he used to love kissing or the cheekbone that was once so high and smooth. Now it was all mush and flab sliding around the bones somewhere beneath.

He took a beer from the refrigerator and slugged it back, feeling the alcohol run warm into his gut. By now, his head was sore and aching from the drinking.

Sitting at the kitchen table, he remembered when he and Mabel would talk there about where they'd send the baby to school and how smart and handsome and popular the baby would be. He would kiss Mabel and touch her hair and feel his heart skip.

Mabel was so alive and alert with the baby. She'd get up every hour on the hour to check on it, and she never seemed to tire, but seemed calm and quietly thrilled.

She had always been quiet. Now, her voice was shrill and edgy. It seemed to him she'd started screaming that first night and hadn't stopped since.

The doctors said there was no one to blame.

"It happens," they said. "It happens."

They sat in the emergency room hours, slipping slowly to opposite ends of the couch. Moving away from each other.

They ate out that night, avoiding home. He ordered a strong drink, and Mabel ate more than he'd ever thought she could handle. She looked ugly to him, and dead, but she kept on eating.

Two years, he thought, It's been going on for two years. When does it go away? When do we get our life back?

He looked and saw the framed photo of the baby on the mantle and he wanted to smash it and grind it to pieces until it was nothing but a pile of dust beneath his shoe.

He moved to Mabel and took hold of her, shaking her until her thick lids slid open.

"What is it?" she said, coming slowly from sleep.

He dug his fingers deep into the plump flesh of her shoulders.

"Listen, Mabel," he told her, "tomorrow I'm going to take the picture of the baby down and put it away, you hear?"

Mabel stared up at him, helpless and innocent.

"We've go to go on, Mabel, you hear? We've got to go on."

She stared, her mouth opening and closing as if she were trying to speak, trying to find an answer, an excuse. He waited for an argument, but then he watched as her head fell into a simple nod.

He let go and stood back. He'd grown so used to the screams that he was almost shocked when they didn't come. For a second, he thought, she looked so pretty.

He took her hand, pulled her up and led her to the bedroom. In the hallway, she pulled close behind him and whispered, "It had a name, but when I think of it now, it's always just, 'our baby.'"

He turned to her and took her gently around the waist.

"We were two before we were three, Mabel. And we'll have to be again. We'll have to be."

Mabel lifted her eyes to his again and for the first time in so long, he saw her strength. He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and tugged gently on her lobe.

They got into the bed that was hardly big enough for them now and lay on their backs staring at the ceiling. He let his hand fall over Mabel's and felt her thumb squeeze his ever so slightly. He knew that at night things always seemed different, and he wondered how hard it would be tomorrow. Mabel might get up and have her six eggs and slab of bacon for breakfast, and he might take that usual shot of bourbon to loosen the knot in his gut. And maybe the pain would never go away.

But for now, he had a plan and he had hope. He had his wife beside him. And below all the meat on her fingers, he could still feel familiar bones.

Lisa Kerr has had poems published in The New Review. She studies and teaches at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she is working toward an MFA in creative writing on a Ramsaur Fellowship. She recently finished her first novel and is looking for a publisher.

© Copyright by POINT, 1997
Last modified 7/26/97