Not quite half an hour since Gwen left the obstetrician’s office, and she’s already ordered her second Jack and Coke. Basic drink menu, but she doesn’t complain. This is the first restaurant she wandered upon and is just grateful to sit somewhere where no one knows her or expects anything of her besides a good tip. And they have fried pickles.
Post-lunch, the only other patrons are a middle-aged couple drinking banana milkshakes a few tables over. The ceiling fan spins a lazy spiral but fails to do more than circulate muggy air. Gwen plucks the waistband of her skirt, the material damp and clinging to her skin from obstetric gel. Should have worn jeans or tights, something she can spread her legs comfortably in. She stares at the black ballet flats she settled on and wishes for combat boots.
Her appetizer arrives, as does the next drink. No need to avoid alcohol now. Gwen toasts all the mothers of the world including herself, because for a little while she could claim to be one. She pops one of the fryer-hot pickles into her mouth and nearly spits it out. “Who the fuck likes sweet pickles?”
The older woman stares at her. Gwen offers the basket in apology, but the woman’s expression settles into something like disapproval before she turns to her husband, probably telling him what a disgrace Gwen is. Baptists, Gwen bets. Likely with half a dozen children and two dozen grandkids and another on the way. “Fucking Baptists,” she mumbles, sucking an ice cube. She wants to go to the restroom and adjust her skirt but wouldn’t be surprised if there’s only one stall and a door that doesn’t lock.
“I’ll take ’em.”
A boy sits across from her. Gwen didn’t notice him until he spoke, occupied as she was with peeling the batter off a pickle. Seven, maybe eight years old, with hair in need of cutting and wearing ill-fitting overalls. His clothes aren’t that strange but remind Gwen of something from American Gothic or a Steinbeck novel. The child links his fingers together and waits until she slides the basket to him.
“Sweet pickles are the best,” he says and digs in with both hands.
A look under the table shows a pair of bare feet chalked in dirt. “You must be pretty hungry,” she says, faintly amazed by how he manages to gobble up the food without pause. It could be that Gwen’s tired or because of the poor lighting in the restaurant or because she hasn’t had alcohol in months and is already feeling it, but the boy has a smudgy look to him—more insubstantial than grubby, like a photograph faded through years of handling. Gwen fiddles with the ring on her middle finger and considers how best to handle the situation. For all she’s told herself she wants children, Gwen doesn’t know how to talk to them. She can almost hear her mom asking whether she’s thought this over, if she’s sure about having a baby. At your age, the risks just go up so much. You’re not even dating anyone.
Gwen hasn’t told her mother yet. She hasn’t told anyone.
“Are you alone?” she asks. The husband’s watching her now, looking between Gwen and the drink she’s nursing. She tosses a nasty smile his way that sends him ducking. Gwen turns back to the child and tries again. “Where’s your mom, your dad?”
Around a mouthful of food, he asks, “Are you alone?”
Gwen falters when faced with the words being so bluntly flung back at her. Condensation
from the glass slicks her palms and puddles on the table. “I guess,” she says. Her mother moved some time ago to a swamp thick with mud and mosquitoes that leave painful knots whenever Gwen visits, which isn’t often. There are work friends and friends from school she keeps up with, but she’s never been good at putting in the effort needed to maintain those connections. And Marco. Their relationship’s nothing more than lust but nothing less than friendship, so Gwen assumed they were good when he agreed to help her get pregnant. A headful of dark hair, good teeth, no immediate drawbacks other than nearsightedness—he seemed like her best option. Marco only came to the first doctor’s appointment though and hasn’t returned her calls. She should feel bad for not trying to contact him today but doesn’t. “Yeah, I guess I am,” Gwen says again. Tears press at her throat—for no other reason than the alcohol. If she starts crying now, she may never stop. Concentrate on something else.
Like this kid: There’s no way anyone can think he’s hers, right? Gwen should figure out where his parents are or inform the manager about the situation but does not on the off chance that he’s something her brain conjured: belated shock or grief trying to gnaw through her slipshod barriers, so desperate for a child she’s made one up.
The boy sifts through the remaining pickles before tossing them all into his mouth. Gwen winces at the bits of food flecking his lips and landing on the table. Throat bobbing as he swallows, he collapses back into his seat. “Man, that was good!”
“You need anything else? Water, soda?”
He looks to the man and woman rising from their table, the empty glasses they’ve left, and smiles shyly at Gwen. Dimples flash, one in each cheek and deep enough for Gwen to fit her thumbs into. She flags down the waiter. “Can he get a milkshake? What flavor?” she asks the boy.
“Chocolate. No nuts.”
Gwen repeats the order to the bemused waiter, who repeats it back to her, his eyes darting to the seat across from her. The boy waves at him. He doesn’t wave back. Not a bad looking guy: a bit young, cute in that hipsterish way with those chunky glasses. Could at least acknowledge the kid though.
Even after the waiter has dipped through the door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY, Gwen suspects she’d find him popping up in the window watching her if she checked. She tries to ignore the unwanted attention and props her elbows on the table while the boy licks his knuckles clean.
“You haven’t told me your name,” she says.
“You could guess, but I bet you’ll get it wrong.” He shoves his hair back, does so again when it tumbles into his face. Gwen’s never been one to notice eyes straightaway, but his are striking: somewhere between green and gray and fringed in the thick lashes all children and babies have. It’s an inconsequential thing to notice, yet Gwen’s stomach goes warm in a way that has nothing to do with the alcohol.
“I’m a pretty good guesser,” she says.
A halfway grin. “Alright, three guesses.”
“You’re not a genie.”
“Let’s see.” She crosses her legs, the chair’s vinyl unsticking from her thighs. “John.”
Laughter pushes out of her. “Come on, give me some help. One clue.”
The boy rolls his eyes. It should be obnoxious, would be in any other circumstance. On him it has an unexpected charm. “That’s cheating! You can’t cheat, Gwen.”
The use of her name hits Gwen like a dive into water cold enough to scald, lungs crushed in on themselves. She’s jerked from whatever fever dream she has stumbled into and back to herself, to this day and her life, and everything once again becomes less charming, less funny. The boy watches her, all beguiling dimples and lakewater eyes. It’s a look that unsettles Gwen more than the naming.
“Names are important,” he says and crosses his arms over the tabletop, head pillowed on them.
“Some more than others.”
“Well, yours.” Another smile, a glint of gleaming teeth. His lashes feather the tender skin beneath his eyes. “But dead names matter the most to me. They’re super important then, especially for the little ones because they can get lost.”
Gwen drinks her Jack and Coke and winces at the burn, begins fidgeting with the glass, wanting the waiter to come back so she can order another or say something about the kid, make him someone else’s problem. Perhaps he can’t pick up on the anxiety vibrating through her; probably he’s just ignoring it. There’s an expectancy in the way he watches her. Gwen swallows until she can speak without having to clear her throat. “So many children die though,” she says and imagines sickly babies and toddlers with distended bellies, mouths gone cracked from dehydration. Children die every day: a simple fact and one Gwen never gave much thought to. Not when a college friend posted about her five-month-old dying from SIDS or when Marco told her about his younger sister falling out the back of a truck, not when she thinks of how her grandfather’s brother inhaled a peanut and died from pneumonia the next evening, the family unable to afford a hospital.
The boy wets one finger and presses it to the checkered white-and-red paper lining the basket, licks the crumbs into his mouth. “Everyone’s always dying, we just feel worse when it’s a kid. Sickness, accidents, other people. You wouldn’t believe how many parents decide they don’t want their children.”
Maybe she should have expected this—the insinuation that it’s her fault—despite what the doctor said: it just happens sometimes, there’s not always a way to explain it, you are not to blame. How many women have been told the same thing and found assurance? Doctors only speak in clichés, offer empty condolences. Gwen stared at her obstetrician’s stomach the whole time knowing she has two healthy girls and wanted to crack the other woman open to see what made her different, better.
The boy’s barbed words dig at Gwen until she feels scorched, hot with shame and anger because she feels ashamed. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
He doesn’t even blink. Gwen breaks eye contact and twists the material of her skirt until her hands go pain-pinched. The boy tells her, “I never said you did.”
Children die every day. You think it should always matter. But this time it matters to Gwen because this time, it’s her baby. Women in their thirties have healthy pregnancies every day. She did everything right: proper diet, prenatal vitamins, no strenuous exercise. Not a doctor’s appointment missed, no cigarettes or alcohol until now. She did everything right, everything except maybe not want it enough. “I can’t imagine keeping up with all those names,” Gwen eventually says. “There’s no way.”
A shrugged response. Gwen can’t determine what sort of expression the boy wears, only that it looks too heavy for such a small face. “I don’t know every name, just the ones that need me. They’ll stay stuck unless someone finds them.”
“And that’s what you do.”
“Not for everyone.”
Their waiter returns carrying the milkshake she forgot about ordering. It practically overflows the glass, a cherry bleeding pink into the whipped cream and the caramel making Gwen briefly nauseous. Hopefully her sense of smell will go back to normal soon. The waiter goes to place the milkshake in front of her but stops, then sets it before the boy. A wink at Gwen, and he’s slipping away. Probably thinks she’s drunk. For all she knows, she might be. The boy tucks his knees beneath himself and digs in with the spoon. A whined complaint: “They put the nuts on it.”
Gwen summons a smile. “Peanuts?”
“They’re the worst.”
What feels like hours later, he’s draining the last bit through a straw and making these awful slurping sounds that don’t help Gwen’s nausea. Multicolored sprinkles dot his nose. “Thanks.”
“Sure thing,” she says and watches him hop up without pushing the chair back. He looks smaller now that he’s standing. Gwen suppresses the urge to straighten his shirt, adjust the straps of his overalls.
“What was your baby’s name?” he asks.
“I hadn’t gotten that far.”
“But she needs a name. Or I won’t be able to find her as easily.”
“Why didn’t you give her a name?”
Because choosing a name would have made things too real. Because it was a commitment she wasn’t ready to face. Because because because. Gwen could give him plenty of reasons. “Here,” he says and leans toward her. She can almost feel the little boy heat of his body. “Whisper it to me.”
And she does, after she’s allowed herself time to choose. “It’s a family name.”
The boy smiles, flashing those dimples and a mishmash of milk and adult teeth. “I know. Thank you.”
Gwen looks at the way his hair kicks up on the right and how his hands carry baby fat, those sprinkles still stuck to his nose. She reaches out to brush them away but hits the milkshake glass and knocks it over with a sound like a shotgun misfiring, jarring inside the dining area. It was just empty but somehow it’s full again, more than should be possible pouring out: whipped cream and cherry and chocolate and nuts trickle across the table in a pool of soupy ice cream.
The waiter materializes beside her, pulls a rag from his apron and brushes aside Gwen’s apologies as he scoops the mess onto his tray. Gwen could swear the glass broke, but there aren’t even any cracks.
She turns to ask the boy what happened and finds he’s gone.
“Will there be anything else?” The waiter’s still there, impatiently waiting for her response as he tries not to drip anything on the floor.
“No. No, just the check.”
Outside the restaurant isn’t much better than inside, humid to the point where Gwen feels
like she can smell her own sweat, but she hovers near the door and breathes in the jasmine-scented air from the planter nearby. She’s a bit woozy with booze but more than anything, there’s this achy exhaustion pooling in her belly; it’s not a completely bad feeling, but it is more than she can bear alone. Gwen should call home. She’ll leave her one-bedroom apartment with its desiccated succulents and baby magazines and stay with her mother for the weekend, let her feed Gwen soup that doesn’t come from a can. She won’t complain about the heat or the bugs. She’ll lie with her head pillowed on her mom’s stomach and imagine existing inside that small, dark space, wonder what it’s like to carry such a weight past four months. Gwen might ask her mom about that great-uncle if she doesn’t forget to, dead before he could grow into himself, now nothing more than a name and a date of birth and death in the back pages of their family’s Bible.
Corley Longmire is a second-year master’s student in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her fiction is forthcoming in Stoneboat Literary Journal.