“He Had Vigor”

Honey and I are pregnant, due come warm weather. 

    I’m ambivalent. My cat, Old Guard, is weak. He may go any day, but Honey’s pup won’t give him peace. 

    Here comes my mother aquiver with grandbaby fever, breezing through the front door without a knock. Where’s that belly? she asks. 

    Honey waddles in. Still unaccustomed to the havoc of a body with child, she tips a glass off the table with her stomach. 

    The glass shatters, and I’m already moving toward the broom as from one woman comes Babe, and from the other comes, Son. In unison the familiar chorus, Could you get that?

 

***

 

I used to live in a yellow house on a hill away from here. From there I looked down with college friends at our oyster world. We prowled our space like a pride. One of them is in science now, and another tends bar down the road. The rest are scattered. I’m a horticulturalist in a small town where everyone knows your moves. I live rent free in a small, cinder block house my parents own because it’s what we can afford. It’s painted lavender and infested in the cold months by ladybugs, enough to crush a body. Don’t you spray them, Honey says. Not with the baby on the way.

    But still she wants them out. 

    Scientist, I say over the phone, tell me what to do about it.

    He says, It sounds like a mess. Just let it happen.

 

***

 

Old Guard cries a wretched meow. His eyes are dilated, and he’s going blind, can’t see me in the full light of the kitchen. He navigates by nose and paw to a saucer of milk with medicine mixed in. I rub his bony back, count his thin ribs and thirty vertebrae until Honey’s pup gallops in wanting to toss Old Guard around. I throw open a cabinet door. It pops Pup in the nose, and he whimpers away. 

 

***

 

Ladybugs gather in the ceiling corners like smut in a woken eye. They die in the upturned cups of light fixtures, baked into desiccated piles. I tried to stay up on them this year. From the first sign I swept them from the walls, sucked at them with the vacuum. Once, I cleared every last one from the house, then sealed all the cracks with tape. But they’re something from nothing, precious and claustrophobic, wave after wave. 

    I woke that night choking on one that’d crawled across my lip and gotten sucked down my throat. Honey woke up when my flopping arm fell against her belly. 

    What is wrong with you? she asked. 

    I couldn’t breathe. She smacked my back, and the ladybug came loose and hit my teeth. I spit it into my hand. 

    She didn’t care. She said, You could have hit the baby and knocked its head in.

    I was asleep then choking

    We’re having a child. You have to be more careful. 

    I lay down, rolled over, said, Sorry.

    Even in sleep. 

 

    ***

 

The moon is full, and the sky empty but for it. Honey is asleep, and I sneak to the truck, flip open the tool box and get a cigarette. 

    Since Baby’s on the way, Yes, Honey, I’ve quit. No, those guys I work with smoke.

    But I’m grinding my teeth to nubs. 

    Lawn chair in my back yard and a cooler of beer to the left of me, glowing chemical plant quarter mile to the right of me, short and green winter wheat hemmed not by fence row till way yonder on in front of me. This is the bucolic that’s been left to me. 

    I shiver and sip my beer, wrap my arms around me and smoke my cigarette without moving it from my mouth. Ash falls on my jacket, and when I spit the filter out wind carries embers and gray flecks to my face. 

    Later on I’m drunk and rolling lonely in the soft wheat. To the moon I say, Listen up. I’m near thirty and masturbate in the shower. 

 

***

 

They used to barely speak to one another, each stuck with issues over the other’s expectations. Now you would think they’d played dolls, growing to speak of crushes then this day’s husbandian peccadilloes. They shriek over sonograms and bite their tongues over baby names. I used to be a star, only son, only husband, and golden. 

 

***

 

Honey says, God, he’s disgusting.

    A mood swing, I hope. 

    I’m cleaning up Old Guard. I wipe the muck that leaks from and dries around his left eye, run a brush and wet rag through the matted hair he can’t bathe anymore.

    Clean as a white rose when I’m done with him.

    He doesn’t depress you? she asks.

    Of course he does. 

    You should put him down. It’s selfish to keep him like this. He’s miserable.

    She hasn’t said it outright, but I know she’s got fingers crossed he’ll expire before Baby has to mingle with shed hair and dander that her Pup is genetically engineered against.

    I scratch the cat’s head, and he pushes against my hand. I tell him, No, buddy, we won’t do that.

    He lies down slow and rolls to his side so I can rub his chest. He purrs. Life in him yet. 

 

***

 

Bartender, I say, let’s have a beer down here.

    Just me and him at 3:00 PM after the rain has knocked me off work. Two old college pals, drinking and smoking, and I don’t care if I smell like the Pall Mall on fire. 

    How are you lately? I ask. Doing what you want?

    Come and go as I please, he says. 

    Are you happy? 

    Relatively, he says. How’s your girl and the bundle?

    Yeah, I tell him, Old Guard. He’s on the way out. 

    Sad news, he says. He had vigor. 

    I stare down the neck of my beer. He’d carry those twitching mice with his head high and lay them at our feet.

    Later and loose lips after a few. It was no accident, you know. I wanted to wait. Three, four more years. I started checking her pills cause she’s going on about baby this and that. She stopped taking them. Kept them on the nightstand and would act like she was swallowing one before bed.

    What’d you say?

    Nothing. I give her what she wants.

    At what cost? he asks. 

    What? I put a cigarette in my mouth and light it. You wouldn’t believe how much I was getting laid.

 

***

 

They’re worse than ever. Their numbers grow. My offense is half-hearted, and Honey stomps the floor. But a plan is hatched. I lie stock still on the couch for hours, and they come to my warmth in droves. I stand slowly, littered with ladybugs, and walk out the front door, hold my arms out to my side and when I shake my body they all leave in a tickle of wind. But in a few hours they’ll be back walking the walls, clustering on the window sills, crawling down my throat. Do it once more and again and again and again. 

 

***

 

All nursery this week—the shades, the patterns. Mother and Honey’s smiles stretched in polite disagreement. What wood hue will complement best what color walls? 

    I love them both. I always wanted a navy blue room, I say rubbing the dry wall. 

    Each turns. Their voices mix in a flurry. 

    Have you lost your mind?

    Navy?

    We don’t even know what the baby is yet.

    That’s so dark.

    Maybe light blue?

    Sure. Light blue. Who says it’s not for boys and girls?

    But not sky blue.

    Never. Maybe periwinkle.

    Periwinkle it is.

    What are you smiling at?

***

 

I dig a hole in the garden and lay him down. I sit beside him and smoke. Honey stands next to me in a robe, doesn’t mention the cigarette. She runs a hand through my hair, hugs her belly to my head, and we’re quiet for awhile. 

    She asks, Do you want to say something?

    I stand and clear my throat to get high-flown for a friend. Old Guard, I’ve loved you and what will I now do that you’ve passed? I found you once in a litter. You were proud and held your shoulders back. Today I found you in milk and medicine. Nothing new this day could have kept you till tomorrow.

    I kneel and place a handful of dirt on him. Honey kisses my head and asks that I brush my teeth when I come back in. She turns to leave. I pull her back and split her robe and hold my face to her bare stomach. Something in me, soon, will be apparent.

Ben Shields

About Ben Shields

Benjamin Shields is a high school English teacher in rural Louisiana. He graduated with an MFA in fiction from the University of New Orleans. His stories have appeared in Dead Mule and decomP.