“The Car” by Wendy Fox


When Brian’s wife Jenny was first pregnant they went house hunting, leaving their efficiency condo in the city and venturing into the spiderweb of suburban living, looking for space and yards and wide, gleaming appliances. He had been surprised by her readiness to trade in her patent boots for plush carpeting, how mesmerized she was by the size of the developments and their pastoral names: Foxglove Run, Sage Hill, The Horizons at Rock Creek.

As their child transformed from pea to lima bean to lemon, Brian ran his fingers across slabs of granite countertop that were bigger than the entire bathroom of their condo. It takes only a drop of water cycling into ice to crack rock, but the finishes were glossy and smooth. The flecks of quartz sparkled. He wandered through the houses and tried to see Jenny brushing her brown hair in the master bath, or himself shaving at the sink. He thought of the little specks of razored-off whiskers that sometimes dotted the white cream, and how he was always very careful to get it all down the drain. He thought of how they had their toiletries organized in miniature tubs under the sink, of the early days when he had woken up and she was gone. He would stare at himself in the mirror and wonder if he’d done something wrong, if she was angry.

Married now, sometimes they fought, just as he had feared. They even fought when Jenny found out she was pregnant. He was drinking a beer and she had tossed the home test casually onto the coffee table.

“Two lines,” she said. “Bingo.”

He wasn’t sure what it meant. “How many lines are there supposed to be,” he asked.

“Depends on what you’re after,” Jenny said.

“Okay,” Brian said. He thought he was being even, measured. “What are we after?”

Jenny looked at him, frowning. He heard each bubble of carbonation in his beer fizzing.

When their friends asked them if they had been trying, Jenny said they weren’t trying but they weren’t doing anything to prevent it, either.

We aren’t? Brian wanted to know.

“Well, I’m not,” Jenny said when he asked. “Have you been doing something? I was doing something, but I stopped.”

He considered this. He had never asked about Jenny’s birth control—not when they were dating, not now that they were spouses—it seemed secret and narcotic, something that wasn’t his business. He couldn’t tell if Jenny didn’t care what he thought, or if she had done what he had done and not inquired.

One day Jenny had moved into the condo, and after this had gone on for awhile, she had become his fiancée. They married in a small ceremony and her mother had gotten very drunk at the reception. It had been a nice night.

They’d only just celebrated their second anniversary and the kitchen was already a tangle of prenatal vitamins.

“I guess we need to move then,” he said.

“I think we do,” Jenny said. “Hopefully soon.”

When they looked at houses, he imagined himself slogging through miles of commuter traffic with only the company of drive-time radio, and he felt a rift forming in the marriage. Brian also thought he and Jenny were arguing more lately—was it because she was hormonal and he was terrified? He found this explanation to be extremely likely. Before the pregnancy, if they had had heated words, one of them would take a walk to a local place and meet a friend, or read the paper, or have a slow cocktail at the counter. He liked how just a little separation, just the tiniest bit of distance, cooled them both. He liked how it was accomplished very easily, without a production. With every foot added to their prospective deck, he’d be farther and farther from the place, where he could just step out for a few minutes, but then he would see himself, fuming, surrounded by the wide hallways and entryway arches of beigy new construction, trapped by rows of fake wrought-iron fencing and hedge work.

In the middle of house hunting, he called his father. They had not been close for some time.

“Don’t understand why you are renting anyway,” his father said. “Just throwing away money.”

Perhaps it was not a rift, just a little fissure.

* * *

When it came to real estate, his boss told him it was impossible to negotiate with a woman with child and so he (Brian) should skip the negotiations all together and pick some boundaries, like not moving north of Park or south of Evans, and that even if they found the perfect home just a few blocks off, he should hold his ground and refuse to offer. Better yet, he should refuse to even look at it. Brian took a softer approach, and went to every showing Jenny was interested in. As their lowball offers were consistently declined, the clacking of their real estate agent’s heels against concrete driveways faded to the smoosh of tennis shoes and pencil skirts and blazers for jeans and hoodies.

Jenny was not ill much but she was changing. Her belly was growing rapidly. She was more contemplative and more interested in cooking. For years, she hadn’t done much in the kitchen besides heat water for coffee and now she left work early and Brian came home to full meals spilling off their tiny kitchen table and mounds of dishes like debris from a war zone. She took off her wedding ring, the ring she had chosen, and placed it on her jewelry tree where Brian figured it would hang indefinitely with all of the other things she might never wear again, like heavy necklaces of bright glass beads, chandelier earrings, and silver bracelets. When he asked her about the ring, Jenny said her hands were swollen, but Brian thought her fingers looked as slim as ever, perfect, in fact, as she plucked leaves off cilantro stems or cubed potatoes.

When their real estate agent told them she didn’t want to work with them anymore, they both caved and put an acceptable offer on an acceptable three-bedroom ranch that was farther from the city than Brian liked and smaller and more used than Jenny had hoped for, and they moved in one weekend, packing up everything from their old life and watching the hired labor fill a truck.

It seemed so final to Brian. It seemed like they had so little.

He was surprised, almost, when all the boxes were unloaded into the new house that their contents were unchanged. It was almost as if by not breaking or spilling or getting lost or just vaporizing that his socks and records and thermal mugs were complicit in the move. Like they had agreed to the move and willed themselves to survive the transport, to be unpacked in a mortgaged space where neither he nor Jenny really wanted to live.

“I think this will be fine,” Jenny said, after their first night in their new bedroom. “It feels okay. I forgot how nice the tile is in the shower.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Brian said.

“I didn’t say I liked it,” Jenny said. “I said I thought it would be fine.”

* * *

On the weekend of the move, Jenny told Brian she had put in notice at work; she was already seven months pregnant and she didn’t plan on going back. Brian suggested that they could carpool for the last few weeks and she could take her leave, and then decide. She said it was already done—no taking back a resignation now. He thought she might miss her job at the law office, where she was in accounting and which he thought she liked. The women had thrown her a shower, and the partners had given her a check inside a card signed by their admins. He thought she should have consulted him. She’d worked hard and was in a mid-level position, and before she was pregnant (a fact that he enjoyed, but people were often surprised by his wife), she flashed wide smiles at parties and wore flowery, cleavage-baring shirts.

“I think it makes more sense, anyway, that we are closer together in the day. What if the baby comes and I’m stuck in traffic,” Brian said.

“I can call the ambulance,” Jenny said.

Brian thought an ambulance seemed unnecessary, but he didn’t say anything. At work—he was in sales—his boss had continued to remind him not to attempt negotiations. His boss had four children by three different wives. Brian did not aspire to be like him, but he could not deny that the man had more experience than him.

It was difficult and also ill-advised for Jenny to lift very much, so as they organized, Brian brought her boxes, opened them carefully, and then set them on a stool for easy reach. He was surprised at the quantity of packages that were directed to the baby’s room—where had these things been hiding in the condo?

Jenny had decided they should wait to find out the sex, so the nursery had been painted a smooth, wasabi green. Every day when he was finally delivered from his commute, there were more parcels on the doorstep: a crib, which needed assembly, a stroller, which looked suitable for off-road terrain.

On the weekend they went shopping, in preparation. They purchased a bedroom set for the area Brian had hoped could be his office, but under Jenny’s direction was becoming a guest room. He shrugged and swiped his Amex through the slot in the terminal. He accepted the receipt, folded it into smaller and smaller squares, and shoved it into his wallet. He arranged for delivery, and he followed his wife across the store’s parking lot and into the next store, her belly a compass leading them through shop after shop, where he pushed the cart and she calculated.  His feet hurt and he hated the plastic smell of the merchandise and he badly wanted a beer. She was frustrated with what she saw as the relative lack of gender-neutral clothing and wondered out loud why it was so impossible to make a few things in green or yellow.

“You wear blue,” Brian said. “It’s not only for men. I have a purple shirt you always say looks nice on me.” The cart had one wobbly wheel and it squeaked on the waxed floor.

“It’s not the same when they’re little,” she said. “I think I would feel weird.”

“How many clothes does a baby need for one day, though,” Brian asked. The wheel protested.

“One day?” Jenny looked at him.

He heard his boss in his head. No negotiation. No negotiar. Nich zu verhandeln. “Yeah, I mean, by day one,” Brian said, “we’ll know if it’s a boy or a girl. I’m saying how much green stuff do we really need, because pink and blue will be fine after that. Or any color.”

“I don’t think it will be fine, Brian.” Jenny said.

“I think it will be fine,” Brian said, and he wished they were not having this conversation in public.

“What if it’s not fine,” Jenny said.

Brian pushed the cart around the corner. They were standing in a tall aisle of diapers shrink-wrapped into large bricks and he questioned how these could be realistically maneuvered into the trunk of the car.

“It will be fine.” The skin around his lips felt dry. He wasn’t really sure if they were talking about onesie colors or something else, but he wanted to be right. He wanted her to believe him.

* * *

The baby coming was very alarming to Brian. For months, he had felt a knot in his belly—he speculated that maybe it was sympathy pains or indigestion, but he knew it was fear. He wondered if he should have prepared more, if he should not have fought Jenny so much on the house, because now he did not have an office. Now they had five times as much space as the condo, but they were running out of space anyway. He could admit there were some things that were nice about living out of the city center. Parking was nice. If they were going to have to do all this shopping, the proximity was nice. His commute was not nice, but it was not unbearable. On the drive home, he liked listening to a call-in radio show that offered advice to mostly women. Once he thought he heard Jenny’s voice on the line—the program used a voice disguiser in some cases.

My husband is not excited for our baby, the caller said, her voice graveled through a machine. I asked him if he wanted a boy or a girl and he said it didn’t matter.

Does it matter? the host asked.

No, said the caller. Not to me. But I am surprised it doesn’t matter to him.

* * *

As it turned out, Brian was not in traffic when the baby came. He and Jenny were sitting on their sofa—a new sofa—on a Saturday morning and she gave a little grunt.

“Are you okay?” he asked, but she was already up, maneuvering away from the upholstery as her water broke, beautifully, he thought, all over her jammy pants and house slippers.

And then it was happening. He drove carefully to their new hospital, there was valet so he used that. The attendants brought a wheelchair for Jenny and she accepted it gracefully. There was some waiting, some paperwork. Mostly, from his perspective, waiting. When he went to Jenny in the room, she was in recline, and sweating. He had a hard time understanding it. Women had been having babies for thousands of years, but somehow the process had not sped up, unlike, say, intercontinental travel or building a fire. He wondered if there were some drugs the doctor should be using or if there was something Jenny should be doing differently—or something he should have done, like driven her to yoga classes. She had talked about yoga, but after he got out of the car at the end of the day, he was incapable of getting back in. He had told her to drive herself and she had given him a sad smile.

“It’s couples yoga,” she said, and the idea scared him enough that he went straightaway to take a shower.

After some more time passed, he was hungry and the hospital vending machine offered questionable granola bars and candy. He chose a Twix that was stale and demoralizing.

He was thinking of getting a new car. For as long as he had known Jenny, she had never had a car. He wasn’t sure she should be at home all day with the baby and no car. He was also tired of running errands. As he waited, he thought about the car situation extensively. Jenny in the car, driving carefully with their baby. The child in the car, strapped in securely. The shine on the wheels, the new paneling. The gauges, glowing brightly against Jenny’s cheeks and carefully illuminating the temperatures and pressures of the vehicle, in constant, quiet confirmation that everything was functioning normally.

It was hours later when their daughter came. Jenny gripped his hand—still, her fingers did not seem swollen—and Brian’s thoughts went blank for a moment, as if he had gotten an electric shock or the wind knocked out of him, and when his head started firing again, he had a feeling like the time he successfully plunged out the garbage disposal and the pipes freed with a satisfying gurgle, and the knot in his stomach moved some.

They had a girl, tiny and new, with crumpled ears and gooey hair.

Jenny’s face when she met their daughter—he had never seen anything like it.

He had to sanitize his hands and put on a gown over his rumpled clothes, but he held her while she screamed a perfect, whole sound.

“Hello,” Brian said. “Your mother did very well, I think.” He brushed his lips across her wrinkled forehead.

Her body was warm in his arms.

He thought that things were changing.

* * *

Jenny’s mother came on the overnight flight and when she arrived she was angry at TSA and also everything else. Brian thought she had a ridiculous amount of luggage, but later recanted when he saw her packing included snacks and a large bottle of whiskey, which he would have picked up for her, and he told her so, but she said she wasn’t sure if the store would have her brand. She had to have her brand.

They called their daughter Stella, which Brian had argued was a southern-sounding name or a kind of beer, but his mother-in-law’s name was Lucy Estelle and Jenny told him it was Latin for star.

He was surprised at the baby’s lull. He had taken time off work—his boss told him not to worry if he wanted to come back early, he wouldn’t judge!—and had expected total chaos, but Jenny and her mother chatted in low voices and Lucy bleached the bathtub so Jenny could soak and, on day two, she cooked two huge pots of soup and two massive casseroles and divided everything up into labeled containers in the freezer. Stella mostly slept.

“Just in case,” Lucy said, “you have a couple nights when all you can do is reheat.” She winked and sipped from her whiskey. Brian went for a beer and clinked the neck of the bottle to the glass of rattly ice and liquor.

Brian had always thought his mother-in-law, in addition to being a drunk, was pushy, but he was grateful for her then, when Jenny was napping and Stella was fussing. She shoved his daughter into his arms and demanded that he change her or feed her from Jenny’s pumped milk or walk in a circle and bounce her.

On night four, Brian woke to Lucy leaning over him—Jenny had been up every other time and was dozing deeply. Stella was screaming.

“Get up,” something about the dark always urging a whisper, “and go to your daughter!”

“I’m up, I’m up,” Brian said.

“She needs you,” Lucy said.

Brian padded through the unlit house toward Stella, Lucy trailing with a blanket and a bottle. He knew she was training him for Jenny’s sake; Brian didn’t have younger siblings or young cousins, and his father had not been the hands-on type.

He liked that: needs.

He cradled his daughter’s head with his hands.

* * *

When he had first met Jenny, they’d been at the show of a local band and he’d spilled beer all over her shoes. She was nice about it, though her friends were not—they sneered at him and told him he would have to buy her another pair. He was excited he would get to see her again. He had left Jenny with his number and said it was up to her, and the next day she called and said, Nordstrom¸ Daddy-o, and he picked her up in front of her building and they hung out in the mall like teenagers might have.

She chose a pair of suede platforms but, when he was checking out, confessed her shoes from the other night had been from Payless.

“That’s okay,” he said. “Should we go somewhere else?”

They spent the afternoon on a coffee-shop patio until finally Jenny said that she really wanted to get going so she could try on her new shoes. When Brian said he would drop her home, she said no. Your place.

* * *

Brian did get a new car, while Lucy was still in town. He chose a cherry-red sedan and he fully admitted that his salesman training had dissolved when he thought of his daughter. He had been completely upsold on safety features. The interior was gray, and he felt it was extremely sharp. He asked for one of those large bows that he had seen on television, but the dealership told him they only had those in winter and they were extra anyway.

He told the man who was helping him that the car was for his wife, who was at home with their daughter. The man told Brian that if it were him, he would give the old car to his wife and keep the new one.

“Kids, you know,” he said. “They make a lot of messes.”

“I’d rather have her in the newer one,” Brian said. “More reliable.”

“But that upholstery will show everything, man. Just wait.”

“Okay,” Brian said. He was all right with waiting.

After the financing was sorted and the signatures collected, Brian understood he had no way to get the cars back without Lucy or Jenny, so he gave the man another $50 from his wallet to follow in the old sedan and one of the maintenance staff followed them both.

He liked his life, he decided. He liked the women: Lucy, Jenny, Stella. He kept his radio silent and he repeated their names as he drove. The car was smooth against the pavement, and the wheel responded to even the slightest touch. Brian thought they were a little like the pioneers then, the three men and his two cars, caravanning across an unfamiliar landscape, headed toward a new idea of home.

Wendy Fox received her MFA from Inland Northwest Center for Writers. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in P·M·S | poemmemoirstory, Washington Square, Painted Bride Quarterly, and others. She was included in the 2006 English-language Tales from the Expat Harem, the no. 1 bestseller in Turkey. In 2011, she was a top-five finalist in the Minnesota State University at Mankato’s Rooster Hill Press short fiction competition, and her story Ten Penny was selected as part of a series by The Emerging Writer’s Network for 2011 National Short Story Month. She currently lives in Colorado.

Read Wendy Fox’s comments on Stephen McQuiggan’s “20 Gestures.”

Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
Whether we care to acknowledge it, life is about making sacrifices and compromises, especially when we put the needs of our loved ones before our own. Often when we give so much of ourselves, the tiniest things, like having our most fundamental needs met, can fill us with renewed enthusiasm, even a profound joy, and Wendy Fox beautifully captures this soulful intoxication in “The Car,” reminding us of what it’s like to be human.

Comments on this story by Ryan Werner, author of “Trace”
In making room for the unexpected, we must adjust not our expectations—the old news of the situation—but instead adjust our outlook. In “The Car,” we see the importance of the present and near future bearing down hard on a couple who wish to master themselves separately and together. In the spirit of pioneers, their personal daily revelations turn beautifully into the possibility of success.

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