About the Feature

Photo by Kevin Seibel on Unsplash


The summer I was pregnant, I watched with growing detachment as my breasts asserted themselves and my spreading hips echoed my mother’s. I had the urge to nest—procuring diapers and wet wipes, obsessively dusting, developing a sudden, unexpected interest in scrapbooking—and became, for a short while, someone I was not. That’s not true. I was that person just as surely as I am this person, bald and bearded, typing at a dining room table. Unless that’s not true either. If you asked me then, when I was nineteen, if I ever thought I’d be a man, I would have said it was impossible, but the truth shifts, and I suppose the space you’re in shapes the person you are as much as you shape it.


When I had taken the Clearblue Easy pregnancy test five months earlier, I danced around the couch while my boyfriend, Tracy, sat on the bed with the test instructions in his hand. I’d thought that all the partying and all the infrequent and unpredictable periods and all the stress from not eating well had rendered me incapable of pregnancy. We hadn’t tried for this, and I hadn’t even thought of getting pregnant, but for the first few minutes, I was so happy to know I wasn’t defective. Then the reality of being a parent with this man who didn’t ask for any of this set in. I stopped smiling.
      “I’m not trying to trap you,” I said. “It’s okay if you want to bail. I won’t be mad.” He got up from the bed and walked toward me. “Seriously. I can move in with Jo or something.” He put his arms around me.
      “I’m in,” he said. It felt vaguely like a door closing.
      Tracy and I lived in an old two-car garage in Vera, Illinois, a rough collection of houses just down the road from the Vandalia Correctional Center. He had converted it into a single paneled room, outfitted on one side with a sink, stove, and refrigerator. On the other side, a crib sat against the wall between the bed and the wood stove. A small window vent lurked at the back of the building by the bathroom. Tracy had installed one small window when he closed up the wall where the garage door had been. Another window was tucked into a storage closet that was now filled with amps, guitars, and a stool where he practiced Randy Rhoads solos and where I used to play my bass. I hadn’t picked that up in a long time.
      The old house that the garage belonged to still stood next to it. It was a destroyed monument to Tracy’s old life. The roof and ceiling were collapsing. Huge blankets of insulation sagged onto the furniture that Tracy had never moved out. A lot of his old records and toys were still in his childhood bedroom, decomposing in the open air. Frames holding soggy pictures still populated the end tables, and broken plates and cups and moldering shoes littered the floors. In places, the carpet had turned to dust.
      My teddy bear still sits next to my bed decades after I got him. If he were trapped in a collapsing house, I don’t know if I could calmly sleep in the garage while it all fell down in slow motion, but Tracy didn’t really ever look at the house after the tornado hit it. Or maybe he just told me it was a tornado, and what had really happened was that after his mom had been gone for twenty years, after his sisters had moved away and gotten married, and after his dad finally died of lung cancer, Tracy found himself alone with that house and its ghosts; maybe he kicked out the windows, tore off the front door, and left holes in the walls, then walked across the driveway to the garage and went inside. Maybe if it had been that way, he would have moved heavy equipment across the lawn, knocked down the whole thing, and made room for something new. We’d have parked a trailer on the concrete pad and maybe grown some tomatoes. Instead, the old house and the collapsed septic tank, buried under the burn pile in the back yard, rotted a few yards away from the garage-house, where I was now desperately cleaning.
      The vacuum cleaner rattled and smelled like it was burning. A thread from the carpet had wound itself around the brushes a few weeks before, and I had tried to untangle it during commercial breaks with a pair of pinking shears I’d found in the old house. The baby’s head felt like it had divided into four and was pressing on every internal organ at the same time. The effort to curl around my belly, with the heavy end of the vacuum propped between my knees, had done me in, and I gave up. So I just vacuumed in five-minute increments and rested between them to let the smell dissipate.
      A year before, I would have been able to pry the thread loose. From the age of sixteen, I had vacuumed, washed the sheets, and cleaned the funk from over-the-road truckers off the bathtubs of hundreds of motel rooms. My body could slip between the linen cart and the door while I knocked and called out, “Housekeeping,” before pushing the master key into the lock and barging in. I had been tipped with beer and cocaine. I had ridden my motorcycle to work and chewed on the guest mints for lunch.
      I was the bass player in my then-boyfriend Kevin’s band, but they called me temporary—only a placeholder until they found a guy who could keep up with Kevin’s lead guitar and Rich’s drums. We all lived together in an apartment next to the train tracks. There were holes in the floor, and the plumbing was connected backward. If you flushed the toilet before you sat down, you could feel heat. I met Tracy that year. I was lying on the living room floor with a bottle of Maalox in my hand, my head propped on the edge of a couch and my feet wedged against a drum set.
      Tracy had answered an ad for a rhythm guitar player, but nobody remembered that he was supposed to audition that day, which is why I was startled when he appeared in the living room: twenty-four years old, skinny, shaggy blond hair, thick glasses, bad teeth that he hid behind a closed-mouth smile, shy. I was in love before I could put out my cigarette and stand up.
      “Where do you live?” Kevin asked after a few minutes.
      “I got a little place outside of Vandalia,” Tracy said. “By the prison.”
      At nineteen I would find myself sober and seven and a half months pregnant, trying to clean up rat droppings and wood chips off the carpet with a paper towel. At the time, it was hard to say whether or not I had made a good trade, but every time I think about the years after that—all that would be, all the mistakes we would make—I think about him standing there in that cigarette smoke amongst the amps and empty beer bottles, trying not to have an asthma attack, hoping he could join us. And every time I’m glad I went with him instead.
      In the first months we were together, we impulsively adopted Trekah, a Siberian husky puppy from a pet store in the mall, and brought him home in Tracy’s two-seat ’87 Fiero, trying out names as we drove. Now, a year later, he was fifty-five pounds of fur and sinew bouncing around the pen we’d built around the well enclosure attached to the old house.
      Tracy doted on Trekah. He sent off for sled dog racing boots with little rubber grips on the bottoms for traction that were supposed to prevent snowballs from forming in Trekah’s paws and keep his paw pads safe from ice shards. One day, the ups truck passed our house and stopped in the road just past the farm. I could see the driver looking at the package and then looking at the mailbox as he inched backward to our driveway. He slowly walked the box up the driveway, looking between the destroyed house and the garage, and dropped it when Trekah ran to him and put his paws on the driver’s shoulders. I pulled the dog off of him and nudged the box toward the garage-house. I recognized the packaging. It was the sled harness Tracy had ordered. Over the summer, he had run up and down the road, past the cornfields, with the dog until his asthma stopped him. Then he took scrap metal from work, welded together a dogsled on wheels, and charged the harness to his Discover card. Driving away, the ups driver didn’t wave back when our next-door neighbor, Earl, tossed his hand up.
      We still had the Fiero, but we didn’t have a name for the baby yet. Tracy was lobbying for Randon Wolfgang, a combo of Randy Rhoads for him and Mozart for me, but Randon and Tracy’s last name, Denton, rhymed in a way that made me secretly judge him for advocating for it, and I only aspired to like classical music. My knowledge of Mozart was mostly based on the movie Amadeus, and not even so much from that as from the Falco song “Rock Me Amadeus” that came out after that, and that song actually sort of annoyed me. By the end of the summer, we had mostly let the subject of naming the baby drop.

“Don’t goooo . . . ,” I whined one morning. I said it playfully but meant it. Tracy flopped back onto the bed and lifted both feet into the air. The laces from his steel-toe boots dangled against his work pants, and he wrestled them into tight knots. I tried to entice him to stay in bed, to call in and have a lazy day with me. “I’ll make pork chops.” That was a cruel carrot. We couldn’t afford them until payday.
      “I got to,” he said. He rested his head and looked up at the ceiling. His thick glasses rested on his nose, and his hair fell straight back off his high forehead. His shirt had burn marks and the name patch was dingy. It smelled, no matter how many times I washed it, like metal shavings and heat. Sometimes he reminded me of my dad.
      We repeated this routine nearly every weekday morning, and I knew it was tedious. I knew I was tedious. I knew he would leave every day, and even though he was leaving to bring home a paycheck, I resented it. I missed being able to climb into the low-slung seat of his little Fiero with one pop-up headlight stuck in the up position. I missed starting it in second gear, because first gear stopped working before I met him. I even missed climbing out of that car when the engine smoked to hold the flashlight while he refilled the oil. One in 508 of those cars exploded before the massive recall in 1987, but he coaxed it into service every day. I wanted to get into that car and drive. Maybe nowhere very far, maybe just an hour or so on the highway to the big catsup bottle water tower in Collinsville, or maybe to hunt mushrooms on his sister’s property—just somewhere.
      He sat up and put his hand on my belly. “Take care of the foofer,” he said. Since we hadn’t decided on a name, we made up a placeholder. He put his face down by his hand. “Take care of the mama,” he said. Foofer had become a sort of imaginary being, a presence to which we had assigned a voice. “C’mon buddy,” he called to the dog. Trekah ran to the door and looked back before trotting out to the yard. Tracy walked out the door and pulled it closed. I heard the gate on the pen latch, then the car door open, pause, then close. The unmuffled roar of his car crescendoed, waned, and was then overtaken by the kshe95 morning show turned up even louder than the engine.
      Hey hey mama said the way you move
      Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove
      Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” faded as he pulled out of the driveway and drove away.
      The truth was that it was getting harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning. It felt like my body was a foreign mass of tonnage that I dragged around with me, and sometimes after he left for work at six a.m., I pulled the covers back over my head until ten, maybe even eleven, or until the sound of tiny jaws gnawing at the ceiling became too much to bear and I got up to make noise.
      I stared at the window. Dust danced around in the sunlight that made its way inside.
      While Tracy welded metal racks and skids thirty-seven miles away, I propped the front door open and listened to Earl cut firewood to sell. Sometimes the sunlight and sound lured me outside so I could drag my swollen self up and down the road with Trekah.
      Tracy’s sister had given me some maternity clothes, which replaced the surgery scrubs I’d found in the locker room my sophomore year of high school. I’d had to tie the pants and roll the waistband down to get a good enough cinch to wear them for P.E. in lieu of the red shorts and white T-shirt I didn’t have. The legs dragged the floor, though, so I tucked them into knee socks and pretended they were baseball pants while I played field hockey with the rest of the class. But now I was heavier than I’d ever been, and the waistband on the scrub pants didn’t even fit below my belly anymore, so I resorted to the pink overalls that made me look like a balloon animal. It didn’t matter much, since the only person I saw each day was Earl, and he mostly just waved his hand with the missing index finger on his way to his outhouse.
      Whenever I got too precious about our living situation, I looked at the toilet and bathtub that Tracy had installed on a sort of stage, two steps up from the concrete so the plumbing would drain through the back wall and into the field, and think he was a damn genius. He had even enclosed it in a proper bathroom, and as gross as it sounds to have your clean shirts and pants hanging on a lead pipe between the water heater and toilet, it worked. The wood stove produced a good, dry heat in the winter. He had made one of those drop ceilings like you see in offices—an aluminum grid that holds white vinyl panels and fluorescent lights. Ours was made of Styrofoam and held two bare lightbulbs where the garage door opener might have once hung. Sometimes I liked to imagine that, above the ceiling, the rafters still held lumber or maybe an old bicycle or sled, waiting for the space to be a garage again. What I’m saying is that it was enough, at least for the moment. Until the rats came.
      At first we could only hear faint scraping, which was easy to ignore and assume was a raccoon gnawing on the siding or some little mouse getting into the cabinets, but soon we couldn’t ignore it. The sounds of tiny little feet tittered in the dark, and the angry squeaks were too loud to be mice.
      I was concerned that the crib Tracy’s sister gave us was sitting right under a hole that had been chewed through the Styrofoam panel. The rats scurrying each night made me worry that one of them would fall on the baby, though the prospect of that seemed remote. Still, as my due date crept slowly near, I was desperate to think about something, anything else, which is why I found myself standing in a garage-house armed with a broom.
      I poked the ceiling with it a few times, and then tried to maneuver the panel out of its square so I could swap it with another panel somewhere else. Somewhere else proved to be a problem too. I lumbered around with nearly five pounds of baby, plus whatever a placenta weighs, pressing into my pelvis, looking for a good tile to swap out. The muted TV sat on milk crates a few feet away from the wood stove. I just couldn’t tolerate Sally Jessy Raphael anymore.
      The source of the rats wasn’t hard to find. In addition to the destroyed house habitat that sat fifteen feet away from the garage-house, Tracy’s cousin Terry had taken over the farm down the road and erected a clubhouse for his motorcycle gang, the Mad Dogs. The feed and crops disappeared and were replaced by bike parts and rottweilers. We were the next best place for food and shelter.
      Terry kept the dogs outside and bred the female, Piranha, over and over. She barked and snarled from her pen and foamed at the wire fence when anyone approached.
      Tracy and I had walked over to look at her puppies once. Terry kneed Piranha out of his way before pulling one of the puppies up by the scruff of its neck to show it to us and then tossing back into the dirt with its litter mates. Piranha growled from the corner of the pen. A few other dogs roamed around the yard but kept a skeptical distance. So did I.
      I turned off the TV and looked around the room. It felt like any step I took would lead me back to this exact spot. My stomach growled, and I wondered if it was me or the baby who felt hungry. I brushed the flaking nonstick coating off the skillet and held the lighter against the burner. Two eggs, over medium, two pieces of brown bread, mayonnaise, a little mustard, a ton of salt, and a shake or two of pepper. I scraped the egg crumbs from the skillet into the trash and took the bag into the bathroom. I dumped the wads of dirty toilet paper onto the top of the kitchen trash and knocked the empty toilet paper roll onto the floor. Even propped on the toilet seat, I couldn’t bend over far enough to get it. My fingers hovered a half inch away no matter what angle I tried. I sat on the edge of the tub with the trash bag between my feet. It felt like we were staring at each other waiting for someone to do something about it.
      The front door popped open and swung slowly around. The dog was barking in his enclosure. I took two tries and heaved myself up. Now the baby’s foot appeared to be lodged against my lung.
      I was tired of being pregnant.
      My phone rang as I made my way to the front door to push it closed.
      “There’s no freaking Betty Rubble in my Flintstones vitamins.”
      While I was contemplating fried eggs and rat droppings, my sister was back in Effingham in Dad’s old apartment sorting Flintstones vitamins onto the kitchen table. Jo was seventeen and pregnant with Rich’s baby.
      “Are you serious?” I pushed the front door closed again. It bounced off the jamb and swung open slowly. I turned around.
      “Fred, Wilma, Barney, Pebbles, Bamm-Bamm . . . but no Betty.”
      “How do you know this?”
      “I was counting them to make sure I got all hundred and fifty, because you just never know, and I paid good money . . .” and I knew she did. Illinois public aid took care of the basics, but prenatal vitamins were extra. Flintstones were cheaper. I stretched the phone cord to the couch and held it with one hand while reaching for my plate. I couldn’t reach it. I left it there and eyed the hole in the ceiling. Black pebbles of rodent shit fell onto the carpet. Fuck this, I thought, and I resolved to be angry about it when Tracy came home from work. I would demand a ceiling repair. He would agree. We would watch a m*a*s*h rerun and ignore the ceiling until the day after payday and resolve to think about it again later.
      “You’re out of your mind,” I said.
      “I’m going to write a letter.”
      You know that feeling when you realize you’re smiling and it feels foreign? Like your face had to remember a sequence of moves to get you there? Yeah, that.

I figured a good jog up the road would send me into labor, or at least make me feel less guilty for not loving the dog as much as Tracy did. I wondered if there was something intrinsically wrong with me and if I was capable of love the way I was supposed to love. What if I didn’t love the baby enough? I mean, why couldn’t I think of a name? What if I was supposed to feel more excited about cleaning and organizing the garage-house? What if all of this wasn’t absurd? What if this was, in fact, my life—outfitting a dog for the Iditarod in an Illinois summer, packing the laundry for trips to town, sifting through the graveyard of the time before the storm and not recognizing a single thing—just making it up as I go along?
      “Hey, buddy, wanna go for a run?” I snapped the leash on Trekah’s collar and held on while he pulled me, wheezing and slow, behind him. We paused, and I put my hands on my knees to catch my breath. I caught a glimpse of my pink maternity overalls and high-top shoes left over from high school. The Sharpie graffiti was still visible—OZZY, METALLICA.
      “Fuck!” I yelled across the cornfield. We made our way back home. Earl waved. I put Trekah back in his pen and filled his water dish under the well spigot. “Fuck,” I whispered. I went back into the garage-house and closed the door. It bounced open again. I slammed it closed.
      I turned up the TV and sank into the couch. When I heard barking, I thought Trekah was harassing the mail carrier or scolding Earl for tending his pig. I leaned forward on the couch and strained to hear the dialogue on Days of Our Lives. The door popped open, but this time it swung hard on its hinges and slammed into the wall behind it. Piranha moved slowly into the room and stopped, startled to see me. We stared at each other as Trekah barked, safely tucked away in his pen. She sniffed at the air, and I looked slowly away from her and to the poker by the wood stove—my only weapon. Then I looked into the kitchen, where the plate sat on the stove with lacy remnants of eggs and mayonnaise stuck to it.
      “Heeeyyy, Piranha. Puppy dog. Good girl.” My voice gently shook, disembodied from the rest of my panicked self, which was trying to find a way past her to the door. “Are you hungry?”
      She looked back at me and took a step forward.
      “What a good girl . . .” I knew I had to launch myself off of the couch without startling her. “I bet you want a snack, don’t you?” Trekah ran back and forth along the length of his enclosure outside. I twisted myself off the couch and walked slowly behind it. I hoped that if she jumped, the couch would give me a second’s head start. “I’ve got a few crumbs for you, girlie.” I made my way to the stove. Her wide jaw hovered at waist height, just below my belly. I turned to the side, so I could see her and keep the baby out of the way if she attacked me, and fished out a few pieces of egg. I tossed them behind her. “Go get it!” I encouraged her. She stared at me and licked her lips.
      “How about a cookie?” I remembered the plastic bag of Rural King dog biscuits we kept for Trekah. I reached behind me to open the cabinet and hoped a rat wouldn’t jump out. I broke a bone-shaped biscuit, held it in front of her, and dropped it on the floor. She sniffed at it and ate it.
      “Good girl!” I said. “Here’s another one . . .” I broke bits of cookie and led her out the door, shut it, and wedged my shoe under it.
      “Your fucking cousin’s dog just opened the fucking door and fucking came in!” I yelled into the phone. I leaned on the kitchen counter. “Holy shit.”
      “You mean Piranha?”
      “Yes, I mean Piranha.” I looked out the window, but she was gone. “Tell Terry to keep her in his yard,” I said. “And fix the door!”
I thought about that reflex to turn myself away so the dog wouldn’t hurt the baby. Maybe I wasn’t as broken as I thought. Even if I couldn’t live in my body and didn’t yet know why, even if I didn’t feel like a mother and didn’t yet know who I was or who would love me if I figured it out, I still loved the person resting there under my racing heart.
      “It’s okay, Mama,” he said. “I’ll stop by Terry’s shop on the way home.” His voice already sounded like a memory.

At first we set mousetraps, and when we found the sprung traps empty, with pebbles of shit around them, we went to Rural King and got bigger traps.
      “I don’t like it,” I said. Tracy was reading the directions on the back of the d-CON package. “I mean, I don’t want rats, but you know what that poison does to them, right?” I had read the literature. I knew rat poison was a terrible way to go, essentially drowning in your own blood, but we were getting desperate. It seemed like an entire colony had set up residence since Terry moved Piranha and the other dogs onto the farm, and I had already gone to the hospital once with Braxton Hicks contractions. It was only a matter of time.
      Tracy opened the tray of pellets and sniffed them. “I’m more worried about Trekah gettin’ into it.” He rubbed Trekah’s ears. “Not for you, buddy.”
      I was worried about the dog too, but I was even more creeped out by the thought of dozens of rodents stumbling around and dying in the ceiling. The sound of the rats was intolerable, but the silence would feel like a sin. I decided to change the subject.
      “The baby book says to take pictures of the baby every week next to the same thing every time so you can see how much he grows.” I picked up the giant teddy bear we’d found at Goodwill. “This would be pretty cool.”
      Tracy peeled open another tray and walked into the bathroom.
      “Yeah, that’ll be fun,” he called through the door.
      I put the teddy bear in the crib. Its head flopped against the side. I looked up at the hole in the ceiling tile. “Maybe we can get some film for the camera.”
      “Just be sure to keep an eye on the dog. Don’t let him get into the poison,” he said.
      “I will,” I said. The dog looked at me from his spot in front of the wood stove. “C’mere, buddy.” I went into the kitchen and reached into the cabinet for the five-pound plastic bag of dog cookies. I looked back into the dark cabinet and saw an empty plastic bag.
      “You’re fucking kidding me,” I said. I pulled out the empty bag and held it up. The bottom had been chewed open, and all that was left was a dusting of crumbs.
      A few hours after Tracy left for work, I had finished another egg sandwich and stood at the kitchen sink, washing my plate. I heard an angry squeak and felt something brush against my foot. I didn’t see the rat as much as the movement of the rat, a shadow rushing past me. I screamed and jumped out of the way. Trekah jumped around me and snapped its neck. I pulled the dead rat from his mouth before he could chew it.
      “Good boy,” I said into his fur. I looked back at the rat. It all seemed impossible. I tied Trekah outside, put the rat on the burn pile, and went inside to cry.

Jo and Rich had decided to name their baby Knighton.
      “I don’t know. It’s some name from Rich’s family or something,” Jo said. I had driven to Effingham to help her clean out the closet in Dad’s apartment, where she and Rich lived. It was only a half hour away from our place, but it felt like more. Way more.
      Her belly stretched and sagged over her stirrup pants, and mine was slimmer by only an inch or two. Neither of us had thought about stretch marks when we first got pregnant, and they looked foreign on our bodies. She passed me a black garbage bag. “Keep these. They’re Grandma’s afghans.” I pulled at the knot and saw the folds of brown and orange yarn.
      “Knighton’s pretty cool for a name. I still don’t know what we’re gonna name ours,” I said. The apartment was the same as it was when Dad moved out to live with our older sister, Terrie. Every piece of furniture remained. Even the big console TV with rabbit ears and the closet full of things like Grandma’s afghans and the Barbie-head makeup kit that we’d thrown to the back of Dad’s closet when we decided, after a sleepover in our friend Christy’s basement, that the Barbie head was possessed by the devil.
      “I’m not touching it,” Jo said. She poked at the Barbie head with the broom handle.
      “Leave it alone,” I said. “You’ll anger it.”
      Being in that apartment with her felt like we were still in the basement of the house on Fifth Street when we were in grade school. We used to hang sheets from the floor joists as partitions and pretend we were in apartments. Jo’s friend Jennifer would pretend to be her roommate, and I was always the guy next door who came over from time to time to help move a couch or something. My sister has always known who I am.
      As we unpacked our old blankets and toys out of the closet and made room for Knighton’s car seat, first package of diapers, and maybe a playpen, I kept half expecting Mom to show up and tell us it was time to stop playing house and come upstairs to set the table.
      We decided to leave the Barbie head where it was and take a break. Jo’s kitchen table was covered with newspapers. Each garage sale in the classifieds was circled and coded according to what kind of baby stuff they were selling, cross-referenced with the distance she’d have to drive her ’79 Impala with an eighth of a tank of gas.
      “I’m doing all that in the morning,” she said. I opened her refrigerator, looked in, and then closed it, a reflex more than a search for food. I planned to drive through KFC on my way home and get two Chicken Littles with extra mayonnaise. I had discovered them after work in the warehouse when I was a few months along, and every time I had eighty-three cents in my pocket and no witnesses, I bought two of them and ate them in the parking lot before I left for home. I quit that job when I got too pregnant to lift boxes on and off the conveyor belt, and I really missed that drive to town in the morning and back home after work, like I had a place to be.
      “I plan to get up at the ass crack of dawn,” she said. “And if you knew Dawn . . .”
      “You’d be offended,” I said, finishing one of the many dozens of jokes that had lost all context but were the mortar of the history between us—coded reference points that anchored one year to the next and established a topographical map of our lives so that we never lost our way. Not really.
      Put me in any overly serious, tense situation where I’m not sure how to respond, and I guarantee that, in my mind, Jo’s long, loud belch is my first answer because it was her answer at some point, and it’s nearly always the best first answer.
      Jo’s due date was six weeks before mine, and she had been the first to tell Dad. She lured him to Hardee’s and told him there, and I called Mom. She and Jo hadn’t spoken since Jo moved in with Dad and me the year before, and even though we could get up and walk across the parking lot to the office next door where Mom worked, we didn’t. Her car sat in a space near the back door every day for three years after I moved in with Dad, and each day until I moved out of Dad’s apartment, I looked for her license plate. Each day I saw it and walked past it without going in, and I’m sure Dad did too. I imagined her walking out to her car every day and looking at the apartment building, doing the same thing.
      “Did I tell you about Piranha opening the front door and coming in?” I asked.
      “Who’s Piranha?”
      “You know, the freaking rottweiler from next door.” I knew the story would land, and I knew that Jo would find the dog guilty of trespassing and wouldn’t mention how at that very moment, the front door of the garage-house was probably open again.
      It felt good to be in Jo’s kitchen. From Dad’s old seat at the table, I could see into the bathroom, where Jo’s bath towel was draped over the side of the tub to dry. It was hard to find any evidence of Rich in the apartment. When Jo first got pregnant, she drove around at night looking for him, and usually found him, but since she’d entered her third trimester, the trips to the Orchard Inn and Ichabod’s Bar & Grill were more and more humiliating, so she stopped. His voice was on their answering machine, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually been in the same room with him.
      Jo poured glasses of ice tea, and we sat at the table looking at the classifieds. Salt and pepper shakers and a bottle of 150 Flintstone Vitamins without any Betty Rubbles in it held down the corners of the newspapers. She let out a long, loud belch.

Since the sink incident, I was afraid Trekah would poison himself on a rat, so he spent his days outside in the shade of the old house, and I spent mine in the glow of the TV, which is where I was again when I heard scratching on the door. It popped open and slammed into the wall. Piranha lumbered in and stood in front of me. Mud from her paws streaked down the door and was caked on her elbows. Her teats swung below her belly, and a couple of flies followed her in.
      I led her out with a trail of cookies, closed the door, and turned back into the dark room.
      Three days in a row.
      I was prepared the fourth day. When the door swung open, I had the cookies in my hand.
      “Back again?” I asked. She sat down and looked at me. “I can’t say I blame you,” I said. I tossed a cookie to her. She ate it. I tossed another one closer to me. She crept forward in two resigned, weary steps and lifted her eyes to meet mine.
      “The thing is, you need a bath.” She sat down in front of me and panted. “And a Tic Tac.”
      I heaved myself off the couch and got one of the bottles of baby shampoo I had been hoarding from the bathroom. Piranha followed me out the door and lay down between the driveway and Trekah’s enclosure while I dragged out the hose.
      “We’re not gonna have any trouble here, are we?” She flinched when the water hit her paws, but stayed there and let me lather her up. I leaned on the stack of firewood and caught my breath as I rinsed her. Inside, the phone rang. I shut off the hose and answered.
      “What’cha doooin’?” Jo asked. I watched Piranha shake herself dry and then roll in the grass.
      “You’ll never guess.”
      Each day, Piranha came to my door, pushed it open, and watched Days of Our Lives with me, leaving just before Tracy came home. I would watch her walk wearily back to her pen and lie down next to it waiting to be locked in. Then I would walk back into the garage-house, close the door behind me, and lie down to wait until I heard the rumble of the Fiero on the gravel.

The sound of the rats started to quiet, and the baby settled lethargically in the lowest portion of my pelvis in the last weeks of that summer, but everything shifted when Jo had her baby.
      The veins on her head bulged with strain, and Jo was not someone who cried, but she had been sobbing. It felt like a thread connected Jo to me, and I could feel her pain and panic in the delivery room, where she lay on a table. I pushed my way past the nurses and caught Jo’s eye.
      “Let her in,” she said. “He can go.” She glared at Rich, who sat in a chair at the foot of her bed, yawning. After a brief pause, he got up and stretched as he walked out to the waiting room.
      “He keeps saying he’s too tired. too tired.” A contraction contorted her face. “Fucker.” Rich hadn’t come home the night before and had been at work when Jo’s water broke. She stuffed a diaper in her pants and drove the Impala to pick him up. “I leaked all over the car,” she said. “I don’t even care. He can sit in it.” She finally focused on me. “What is that outfit?” she asked. I looked down at the pink maternity overalls.
      “Shut up,” I said.
      Jo was in labor for eight and a half hours before her doctor decided to deliver the baby by C-section. When it was time for her to take the baby home a couple of days later, I drove her Impala with a towel on the seat to get her. On the way home from the hospital, we stopped at Aldi for groceries. I lumbered along next to her as she leaned on the cart and staggered behind it. Knighton slept in his carrier as we pushed boxes of macaroni and cheese, lunch meat, and bread into the cart. We both knew Rich wouldn’t be there when we got back, and Jo would be taking Knighton home to an empty apartment.
      In my mind I was still the guy next door in the pretend apartments. I was the person who drew murals on my high school crush’s bedroom wall. I played Cliff Burton bass solos better than any of the other guys. But my body was too pregnant to be that person anymore. I looked down at my own swollen belly, and for the first time it looked like mine. It looked like me. For the very first time in almost nine months, I was in my body. I wasn’t watching someone else be a pregnant woman; I was actually pregnant, and soon—very soon—I was going to be a mom. And I was terrified.
      As we made our way down the aisles, an old school friend saw us.
      “Oh my gosh, a baby!” Vicki smiled down at Knighton. She looked back up at Jo, nearly doubled over, holding the cart and trying not to rupture her stitches, and then at me, wearing a grossly feminine maternity costume that barely fit my very pregnant body. Her smile faded. “Congratulations.” It came out as a question. We walked to the checkout.
      “Tentenpenguin,” Jo said. It was Vicki’s old address when we were in school. We sometimes substituted it for her name and couldn’t really remember why.
      You know when you have to laugh, but it hurts to do it? Yeah, that.

It’s hard to say when the contractions started. They were gradual and almost seemed like my imagination. The pain presented itself, disappeared throughout the day, and hinted at what was to come, but you never know what’s coming next or who you will be when it does. All you know is what’s in front of you. What I knew was the image of Piranha lying in her cage next to her water bowl. The family of rats in the ceiling. The poison that was slowly silencing them. Trekah pacing the yard, the floor, the roads. The Fiero crunching the gravel. A love that would eclipse all of it. I didn’t have a name for it. But I soon would.
      “Sorry, girl.” Piranha looked at me curiously from her place on the couch. “I gotta go.”

About the Author

Jarek Steele (he/him) writes creative nonfiction with themes of family, queerness, gender, nature, and whatever else is happening around him. His work has appeared in HuffPost, Fourth Genre, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife, Barbara.