Spotlight: The Least You Can Do

[fiction]

Since it happened, Beverly has been able to talk and think only in imprecise terms. She’s said there was an accident and the baby is gone, but on the third day she wakes up and the first thing in her head is the baby is dead, and this, finally, is something real she can taste in the back of her throat.

Days ago, when she was backing out of the driveway on her way to get a gallon of milk, Beverly heard the crack—a wet sound, a watermelon splitting on concrete—and wondered what she’d backed over. She was angry when she opened the car door. She was ready to yell at her husband for leaving something—a tool, maybe—in the middle of the driveway where anyone could drive over it. But when she rounded the car, she saw a great leaking mess spreading out from underneath the tire. There was blood everywhere, and everything was red, but that wasn’t all—there was so much green, so much grey, so much color that Beverly was sure she was wrong, that it couldn’t be what she was thinking, that it couldn’t be the baby’s tiny head crushed under the tread of her tire.

And then her husband came around the corner of the house, whistling. “Do you have the baby?” he asked.

On the third day after the baby was zipped into a small black bag and driven to the funeral home, where his head would be reconstructed so it did not appear deflated, empty of brain and blood, Beverly stays in bed until noon and comes downstairs only when she feels a tug in her center and remembers she hasn’t eaten anything in forty-eight hours. She goes to the kitchen, and that is where she finds her husband. He is frying bacon and drinking bourbon. The radio is on, and it’s playing something low and sad.

“What is this?” Beverly asks.

Robert shrugs. “College radio, I think,” he says. “I don’t know.”

Hanging in the arch between the living and dining rooms is her husband’s favorite suit. It is charcoal gray—appropriate for somber occasions. It has just come from the dry-cleaner and is still wrapped in plastic.

“Your mother called an hour ago,” Robert says. “She demanded I wake you up, and I told her to fuck herself.” He pokes the bacon with a fork. “I said, ‘No, Joyce, I don’t think I will. Go fuck yourself.’”

In moments of crisis, Beverly’s mother cannot be counted on to do much more than instruct a person on what to wear. She has already left three messages asking what Beverly plans to put on for the funeral. “You better not be wearing a pantsuit,” she told the machine. “And wear something gray. Black is too harsh for your coloring.”

“She’ll be over at three,” Robert says. “I’m just giving you a heads-up.”

Beverly sits down at the table.  It shines and smells of bleach. Robert has cleaned the entire house even though Beverly has told him there will be no funeral dinner. She doesn’t want a single casserole in her house.

“Is my mother driving us?” Beverly asks. “I think we need a plan.”

“What do you mean we need a plan?” Robert says, “I’m driving us. Of course I’m driving us.”

Beverly looks at his bourbon.

“This is my last drink,” he says. He holds the glass up and stares through the crystal. “Not just for tonight, either. I mean forever.”

“Why?” Beverly asks. “What good is it possibly going to do?”

He shrugs. “It’s just something I can do,” he says. “It’s the least I can do.”

“The least you can do,” Beverly repeats. She almost used that phrase after the accident, when everyone had gone and it was just the two of them sitting on the front steps. She’d wanted to say, The least you could’ve done is watch him while I ran for some milk. But, in the end, she didn’t say it. She didn’t say anything.

And the whole situation was so completely like him, too. The first week the baby was home from the hospital, Robert had taken him on a walk to the park down the street, and when he came home he didn’t have the stroller or the baby.  He’d gotten distracted—he was an architect and always had blueprints sketching in his head—and walked the whole way home figuring measurements.

Beverly’s mother had delighted in that one. “Both of you are rotten parents,” she told Beverly when Beverly, who was cradling a crying baby while crying herself, called to tell her what Robert had done. “I told you you weren’t ready. Didn’t I tell you that?”

And now it’s true. They were awful parents. They were not fit. They will lay their son out tonight underneath the dim lighting of the funeral home, and they will watch their friends and family coo sweet things into an ear that has been stitched back on with flesh-colored thread.

Robert finishes his bacon. He turns off the burner and piles the strips onto a plate before sitting across from Beverly. He swallows each piece with bourbon. He doesn’t offer any to Beverly, but she isn’t hungry anymore. Watching him, she realizes that what she’d like most is to find some way to blame this all on him. She’d like there to be some kind of hard evidence, some fact that makes him the sole guilty party. She wishes moments before she’d gotten into the car he had come into the room with the baby in his arms and said, “We’re going to play in the sandbox.”

But there is nothing like that, and Beverly was the one who ended up on the concrete, trying to push the baby’s blood back into his body. There is no one to blame but herself.

*     *     *

Beverly’s mother arrives early. She comes through the door at two-thirty, carrying a fruit basket and a suitcase. Beverly leans around the corner from the kitchen where she’s brewing coffee and sees her mother face Robert, who, moments before, had been sleeping off his bourbon on the couch.

“I’ll wait,” she says to him.

Robert yawns and stretches. “For what?” he asks.

Beverly’s mother sets down the suitcase. She balances the fruit basket on top of it. “For an apology,” she says. “You swore at me this morning, Robert, and I did not appreciate it.”

Robert looks at her for a long minute, then fluffs the couch pillow and lies back down to sleep.

Beverly’s mother tugs at the hem of her jacket. She steps out of her shoes. “Unbelievable,” she says, and she leans down to push the suitcase and basket toward the kitchen. “BEVERLY!” she shouts, loud enough to startle Robert back into a sitting position.

Beverly steps fully into the room to block her mother’s way into the kitchen. She doesn’t like the looks of the suitcase—it implies a length of stay Beverly is not comfortable with—and if she can keep her out of the important rooms, then maybe she’ll get the hint and reconsider staying in a house with two awful parents, two awful people—people who tell mothers to fuck themselves and don’t apologize for it.

Beverly hasn’t smiled for seventy-two hours, and she didn’t think she would for years, but Robert’s sudden distaste for her mother makes her bite the tender flesh on the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling.

“Right here, Mother,” she says.

Beverly’s mother stops and lifts the fruit basket, transferring it to her daughter’s arms. “From Mrs. Wilkinson. She sends her sympathies, but she has a wedding to attend tonight.”

“Fruit,” Beverly says. “Just what we need.”

“Don’t be flip,” Beverly’s mother says. “You and your husband—both of you are so damned flip.”

“Yes.”

“It’s inappropriate,” her mother says. “This is no time to be clever.”

“Of course you’re right,” Beverly says.

“Or sarcastic,” her mother continues. “Don’t test me, Beverly.”

Beverly’s mother lays her suitcase out on the floor. She unzips it and shakes out two skirts and a few blouses from her wardrobe, “I brought these for you,” she says. “There are a few other choices in here, too.”

Beverly’s mother is three or four sizes bigger than Beverly is, and the clothes—already frumpy and ugly—would look even worse hanging off Beverly’s bones. “Mother,” she says, “no. I have my own clothes. I can dress myself.”

“You don’t have a single thing that’s appropriate for this occasion,” her mother says. She presses a skirt to Beverly’s waist, and its polyester folds unfurl down to her ankles. “You can’t show knees or décolletage at a funeral.”

“It would be a lot more festive if you could,” Robert says from the couch.

Beverly hasn’t smiled for seventy-two hours, and she didn’t think she would for years, but Robert’s sudden distaste for her mother makes her bite the tender flesh on the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling.

Her mother notices, and her own cheeks burn bright red. Before Beverly can stop it, her mother is sobbing. She melts to the floor and sits next to the heap of clothes she’s packed for herself and Beverly.

“You’re cruel!” she says. “How could you do this? How could you?”

She cries into her suitcase. She buries her face deep in the clothes, and Beverly, now so tired she can barely hold herself up, walks over to the couch opposite Robert and lies down. She faces him, and the two of them stare at each other, listening to Beverly’s mother until she cries herself to sleep. When her crying turns into a series of small snores, Beverly and Robert close their eyes and fall asleep, too, their breathing matched even if they are separated by a wide ocean of room.

*     *     *

They wake only half an hour before the ceremony is set to begin. Beverly’s mother bolts up from her suitcase and pats at her hair, which has been flattened.

“What time is it?” she asks quietly, but then, panicked at hearing no response, she raises her voice. “WHAT TIME IS IT?” she yells.

Beverly gasps awake. She had been dreaming the baby was still alive, that he was still a baby—bald, shirtless, diapered—but adult-size and sitting in a chair at the dining room table, smoking a cigar and reading the real-estate section of the newspaper. When she walked in the room to serve dinner, he set aside the paper and cigar and said, “Thank you, Mother,” in a British accent.

“We’re going to be late!” her mother says, and pushes up to her feet. She grabs a handful of the clothes in her suitcase and takes off for the first floor bathroom.

Robert sits up and rubs his chin. He needs to shave. “What if I skipped it?” he asks, plucking at his stubble.

In the other room, Beverly’s mother is running a blow dryer—probably at fingers she has hastily painted—and yelling out to them over the noise. “Late to my own grandson’s funeral!” she says. “There’s probably a special place in hell for people who are late to their own grandsons’ funerals!” The blow dryer shuts off and she leans out the door. “Robert,” she says, “you get upstairs and start shaving. You can’t go to your son’s funeral looking like a homeless man.”

Robert touches his chin again.

“Don’t shave,” Beverly whispers.

Robert looks at her.

“Don’t shave,” Beverly says, louder this time. “If you don’t want to shave, don’t shave.”

Robert nods, slowly, like he’s hearing the words but having a hard time comprehending them, like maybe there’s a loud noise inside his head, something he’s having trouble hearing through. “I’d rather not,” he says finally.

“Then don’t,” Beverly says. She stands and smoothes down her shirt. “I’m going to get dressed upstairs. Do you want me to bring you some socks?”

“Socks,” Robert says, not affirming or denying a want for them. He stares down at the pillow. “I think,” he says, “I am going to have another bourbon.”

Beverly’s mother swings the bathroom door wide. “You will not have one more ounce of liquor!” she says. “It’s one thing to take the edge off in private, at home, when you’re not doing anything of importance, but it’s a whole other thing to go to your son’s funeral three sheets to the wind.”

“This will be my second bourbon,” Robert says.

“Right,” Beverly says. “He’ll only be two sheets to the wind.” She ticks them off on her hand. One bourbon, two bourbon.

Beverly’s mother’s lip trembles again, and, before she can dissolve into another mess of tears, she slams the bathroom door and starts the blow dryer again. Robert goes into the kitchen to get his suit, and Beverly climbs the stairs to the second floor, goes into their room, and sits on the edge of their bed. The room is cloudy with gray light that has made its way through the curtains. Beverly can see every bit of dust in the light, and she stops breathing. She’s never before stopped to consider it, but most of what she breathes in every day is dirt. She holds her breath as long as she can. She is already black inside, already as filthy as she can get.

When Beverly finally runs out of held breath, she gasps for air, sucks in all the silt that is always, every second, falling down on her. She gets up and pulls things out of her closet—things that don’t even match. It’s not that she isn’t capable of finding a matching outfit; now it’s about doing things to displease her mother, who is in the kitchen telling Robert to put down that bourbon and put it down fast. Then, weeping, she says, “You couldn’t have watched him for ten minutes? Ten lousy minutes? You’re a waste, Robert, a real waste of flesh and blood.” She raises her voice so it will carry up the stairs. “And so is my daughter! A waste!”

Beverly says nothing. She slips into a red pencil skirt and navy heels. She ties one of Robert’s white dress shirts at her waist the way that was fashionable when she was in middle school.

When they walk into the funeral home, her husband will be drunk and unshaven; she will be an American flag. The sight of them will repulse her mother, and she will no doubt be forced to circle the room, telling their guests that everything has been hard, just so hard on Robert and Beverly, and that’s why they look so hopeless, so unkempt, so much like just the type of people you’d expect to kill a baby.

That her mother will be so uncomfortable and busy cheers Beverly. With other people to worry over, her mother will spend very little time with her and Robert, and they will be able to sit in the front of the service, silent, with everything that is left of them bleeding out their mouths, their noses, their ears.

Beverly leaves the bedroom without a pair of socks for Robert, and the three of them get into Beverly’s mother’s car without noticing. It is only when they are parked in the lot at the funeral home that Beverly looks down and sees the white knot of ankle poking out from under the hem of her husband’s pants. In that moment she realizes she has never loved him as much as she does now, and that she will never love him this much again. It isn’t a thought that lasts long because now there are more pressing issues at hand, but the thought is still there, Beverly recognizes it, and it doesn’t sadden her; instead, as she stands there on the sun-warmed asphalt she feels a rush of gratitude that she was able to find that kind of feeling in the middle of so much sadness.

*     *     *

The service goes exactly like people might’ve expected it to. Beverly’s mother cries in a polite, reserved way, and produces an antique handkerchief, which she presses into the moist corners of her eyes.

Robert, sockless and disoriented from the bourbon he swallowed before walking out the door, lurches to his feet in the middle of the service, just when the funeral director is launching into a poem about angels being called to heaven. Robert walks up to the raised platform where the baby, who has been done up to be pink-cheeked and waxen, is resting in a silk-lined box. Robert’s ankles flap out from under the hem of his trousers as he lowers himself and rests his head against the casket. In that position, there is no hiding it. Everyone in the room can now see that Robert has slipped his bare feet into expensive Italian shoes.

Behind them, everyone stops breathing. Robert is crying and touching the side of the baby’s face, which has been hitched up tight. The baby looks like he went in for plastic surgery, a little nip and tuck.

When Beverly first saw him like this—when her mother marched her up the aisle to stand in front of the narrow casket—she’d recoiled so visibly that her mother had to put a hand on her back to keep her from running.

Beverly could hardly stand to be near him, much less touch him. That her husband is doing so stuns her. And it stuns her mother, too, and she reaches over to take Beverly’s hand in her own. She squeezes it. “Go get him,” she says, but Beverly doesn’t move. Her mother gives her a shove toward Robert.

Beverly turns to face the room and for the first time sees their faces, which are unbearably sad. She can’t stand to look at them for long, so she puts her hands on Robert’s shoulders and guides him back to the seat. Once they are settled, she nods to the funeral director, and he picks back up with the reading like nothing had ever happened, like no scene had ever been made, and the rest of the service passes without incident.

*     *     *

Afterward, when everyone is milling about, unsure what to do—after all, there is usually a church dinner or coffee and donuts, some sort of gathering—Beverly’s mother puts her hand in Robert’s armpit and hauls him to his feet. “No more sitting,” she says. “People can see that you’re not wearing socks when you’re sitting.”

Robert is sweating, and his sweat smells sour and dark, like bourbon mash. “I think,” he says, “the cat is out of the bag.”

“Just stand very still,” her mother insists, and then reaches out a hand to greet some friends. She steps in front of Beverly and Robert, blocking them, taking the sympathy and well-wishes for her own.

“I’m sorry,” Robert whispers to Beverly as her mother leans her head into her friends’ shoulders. “I don’t know what came over me.”

Beverly’s mother’s friends move on and head toward the door without saying a single word to Robert or Beverly. Her mother receives the next people in line: old neighbors.

“It’s okay,” Beverly says. “You’re okay.”

In front of them, Beverly’s mother is saying, “They’re beside themselves. They’re absolutely mad with grief.”

The old neighbors peek around Beverly’s mother’s shoulders. They lower their eyes to Robert’s ankles.

“Best not to say anything,” Beverly’s mother tells them. “I’ll pass along your well-wishes.”

The old neighbors leave as quickly as they have come. They, like most of the other guests, having overheard Beverly’s mother’s command, slip toward the door. A few stay on, talking in quiet voices while they inch toward the front, toward Robert and Beverly and Beverly’s mother. But each group that makes it to the platform gets diverted by Beverly’s mother, who says things like, They appreciate your being here or They’re really not themselves right now or They’re not at their best.

“What is she doing?” Robert asks.

Beverly knows what she’s up to. This is about capitalizing on a moment. This is about seeing a chance to soak up warm pools of pity and sympathy and pretending to do something for the good of a daughter and a son-in-law.

Beverly turns to look behind them. She examines the corners of the room and sees a small placard that announces the path to the emergency exit. When she turns back around, she sees her mother’s purse, and in it her keys, sitting on the high-backed couch.

“Do you want to go?” Beverly whispers.

Robert has a hand over his face. He looks like he is smelling his palm. “What?” he asks.

“Do you want to go?” She gestures to her mother’s purse and the emergency exit.

Robert nods. He takes a small step forward and hooks a finger into the purse’s handle. It’s off the couch and passed to Beverly before anyone is the wiser, and she and Robert duck behind the burgundy velvet curtains that hide the fire door. They step outside and suck their first breath of air that isn’t stale, that isn’t saturated with the smell of whatever makeup they flaked over the baby’s body, and they don’t even care when the emergency bell sounds—ringing and ringing and ringing as they run to Beverly’s mother’s car.

Beverly has the car in gear and out the driveway before anyone can see where they’ve gone.

*     *     *

They don’t hide. They don’t drive around town. They just go home.

Beverly parks her mother’s car at the end of the driveway, as close to the road as she can get it: a hint. She and Robert go inside and take off their clothes and sit in their underwear on the living room floor. They put the bottle of bourbon between them. They are drunk in half an hour.

“I’m a really rotten father,” Robert says. “I said I was going to do one thing for him—the least I could do—and here I am going back on that promise.”

“He wouldn’t have cared one way or the other about your drinking,” Beverly says. “He was ten months old.”

“I’m glad my parents are dead,” Robert says. “They would never speak to me again.” He drinks and wipes his mouth on his bare arm. “I didn’t think you would ever speak to me again, either. Once the cops left, you went upstairs and that was it for a long time.”

Beverly nods.

“You blame this all on me?”

When Beverly doesn’t say anything, he passes her the bottle. He pantomimes drinking, tipping his head back. “I think this is a good time for honesty,” he says.

“I wanted to,” she says finally, taking a swallow and holding it in the back of her throat, where it warms her. “I really wanted to,” she says. “I wanted to hold it over your head for the rest of our lives. I wanted to be able to point to you and say, ‘This is who ruined my life.’”

Robert stares down at the carpet and drags his fingers through its thick braid. The carpet parts for his fingers and stays that way, combed into shallow moats, as Beverly goes on.

“But that wasn’t fair,” Beverly says. “We’re both to blame. We both did this.”

Robert stops combing the carpet. He looks up. “The worst parents ever,” he says. “Half that room thought we should go straight to hell. I saw it in their eyes.”

Beverly hadn’t, and she doesn’t think Robert had, either. She thinks that when he turned his face on the crowd of their friends and neighbors and coworkers, his own eyes got reflected in everyone else’s, and he saw what he really thought he was: nothing good. In that moment, it was probably easy to misinterpret, easy to think that everyone felt he deserved a punishment worse than grief.

But what the two of them had done wasn’t malicious. What they’d done was careless. They were stupid to have the baby in the first place. They were young and self-involved and unsure of how to be good people. Beverly had grown up hearing that she was nothing, that she would never do anything right, and so she went on believing it. It was not the best foundation on which to base her own ideas of motherhood.

She is about to explain this to Robert, but the front door swings open and there, framed by the arch, is her mother. Out at the curb a taxi is idling.

Beverly’s mother has two floral arrangements tucked under her arms. She is sprouting lilies and tulips. She sets them down on the floor and wipes her forehead. She looks battered. She looks like she has walked the distance between the funeral home and the house instead of just the length of the driveway. “Someone better get up and get me some money for the cab,” she says.

Neither Robert nor Beverly move, even though Beverly’s mother looks pitiful. It’s clear she’s been crying again, and this time she hasn’t bothered to clean up the mascara on her cheeks. She breathes heavily. She looks like a woman who has just unbuttoned her skin and peeled it back to reveal something horribly real.

“You’re drunk,” she says.

“Your purse is in the kitchen,” Beverly says.

Beverly’s mother goes to find it. Once she is in the other room, she starts crying again.

Beverly gets up and goes to her husband. She helps him comb the carpet to find hidden pieces of glass. They work for a long time.

“Your mother needs a drink,” Robert says. “I think I’m going to pour her a little something.”

Robert gets up and moves unsteadily toward the bar. He looks ridiculous standing there in only his boxer shorts, but he approaches his task with diligence. He selects a crystal glass and cracks a few ice cubes into its bottom before filling it with gin, which is Beverly’s mother’s drink of choice, the liquor she rolls out in bulk at the holidays.

When Beverly’s mother comes back into the living room, clutching a pair of twenties to her chest, Robert thrusts the drink in her direction. “Here,” he says, too loudly.

Beverly’s mother hides the twenties behind her back, as if she thinks Robert might rob her. “What is that?” she asks.

Robert tips it toward her nose so she can smell. “Gin,” he says.

Beverly’s mother swats it away, and the gin and the glass and the ice cubes fall from Robert’s unsteady hand and crack onto the carpet. They hit with just enough force that not even the thick carpeting can save the crystal, and it opens into a bloom of shards at their feet.

“Jesus,” she says. “Who are you people?”

She shuts the door behind her, and she runs back down to the curb flapping the twenties in the air.

Robert starts crying. “I broke it,” he says. He sinks to his knees and starts gathering the shards into a pile. He cuts his hands on the smallest slivers of glass, which make him bleed. He pats the floor around him. He is desperate to find every last piece of glass, to get everything back together, and the blood from his palms presses into the beige carpet. If someone looked at those stains quickly enough, she might think a person standing at the bar had unleashed a handful of confetti, let it fly into the air and back down again.

Beverly gets up and goes to her husband. She helps him comb the carpet to find hidden pieces of glass. They work for a long time. It becomes evident that Beverly’s mother is not coming back.

“This isn’t healthy,” Robert says. He holds his palms up to the light, examines all the gashes, then wipes his bloodied hands on the carpet.

Beverly isn’t sure what he means. It could be their drunkenness, their nudity, their irreverence on the night of their son’s wake. It could be the way they spoke to Beverly’s mother or they way they ran from the funeral home like spooked children in a fairytale. It could be the broken glass and the blood.

She shakes her head but says nothing. She stands, finds an old towel behind the bar, and brings it to Robert. She wraps his hands tightly together—it looks like he is praying—and then presses her own hands over the wrapped fingers. Now it seems as though they are both praying, praying together, but they aren’t and they won’t, never.

Beverly wonders briefly about her mother, wonders where she’s gone and how she’s making her way across the edges of this sadness now that she is far from the people who have caused it. She can see her mother—tired, wet, crying into a handkerchief stitched with flowers—and in that moment Beverly feels the smallest bit sorry for the way things have gone, and it occurs to her that this, this right here—this moment when she’s holding her husband’s bloody hands in her own, this moment when she’s wondering about her mother, this moment when she’s missing something she had so briefly it now feels like a trick of light and memory—this is the most maternal moment of her life.

Jessica Smith

Jessica Smith grew up just outside of Buffalo, New York (which explains her eternal love for chicken wings and bleu cheese), and has lived and taught in Minnesota and Maine. She currently teaches writing and literature at Central Maine Community College and has had work published in Ruminate, The Louisville Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, The Portland Review, and Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place.