“If Only This Once”

Once the storm came we started listening to the warnings on the radio. Don’t let the pipes freeze, don’t operate vehicles, don’t even blink—this is the South, goddamn it. We get kudzu. Not ice. So lock your doors, load your pistols, love your women, keep your fires burning and your whisky nearby.

Once the warnings finished the doctor came into our room and said it was time to push. The ice storm had knocked out the power so this was happening in the dark. Old-fashioned style, the doctor grinned. My wife pushed. Then the doctor got this serious look on his face. If there is one thing a father should teach his child it is this: Never trust a serious OB/GYN. Make sure he’s done stand-up comedy at least once, preferably twice. Because when the baby comes you need to be laughing too much to keep from crying.

Once the pushing finished a gush of water spilled out of my wife. It made a nice puddle on the floor. Whoa, he’s going to be a swimmer, I said. My wife was not exactly amused. The doctor was pulling on something that looked like umbilical cord. You could climb Rapunzel’s tower with all the stuff he pulled out.

“Where’s the baby?” my wife kept saying.

“There is no baby,” one of the nurses whispered.

My wife grunted and spread her legs a little wider. “Check again, assholes.”

Once they confirmed non-delivery the doctor took us aside and said it was pseudocyesis—a phantom pregnancy. Hormone levels get imbalanced and the body fools itself into believing it’s pregnant. He said not to worry—we could still have other children. Real children. My wife was not exactly amused with this diagnosis.

“So what you’re saying is I just got fat? Or my womb is a haunted house?”

I squeezed my wife’s hand once, but only once. She did not squeeze back.

Once we left the hospital and started driving the icy drizzle followed us home. It took a few trips unloading the things from the car. There was the diaper bag, the car seat, the balloons, and a duffel bag of soiled clothes. I had some difficulty with the car seat. I held it in the doorway and stared at it for a while. I wasn’t sure what might happen next. The icy drizzle was coming in through the door, making little puddles on the floor. My wife had changed clothes. She was in her leotard with her hair pinned up. She was watching an exercise video and doing squats. She had worked up a real sweat.

“You think some fake baby is going to mess up my ass? Think again,” she said.

Once I finished cleaning up the puddles in the doorway I surveyed the house for other spills. I fixed the leaky sink faucet. I wiped the drops of milk off the kitchen counter. The house was dry. Not a drop in it. But it was still icing outside—the sky dripping like an enormous faucet. What was I supposed to do? You can’t stop nature.

Once the ice tapered off we started a fire and listened to the radio. It was more of the same. A couple had gone to check on their baby and found clumps of ice and snow in the crib but no baby. An unmarried woman called in to say she left the window open overnight and woke up with icicles for hair and fourteen date requests online. A pianist lost his hand to frostbite. A husband was arrested for murdering his wife and trying to hide the corpse in a snowman his children helped him build.

“These things happen,” the voice on the radio said.

Once in a while there was a knock on the door but we didn’t answer. Then the doorbell rang. My wife was on the floor doing crunches. “No ghosts in these abs,” she grunted. I couldn’t tell what was sweat and what was tears, or if she was laughing or crying. Maybe it didn’t matter anymore.

Once I opened the door I wished I had not. It was the neighbor, Mr. Marsh. We were friendly with him. Sometimes we would see him on his roof fixing this or that. Whenever he saw us he would wave—these big, happy waves. He was standing there with a shoebox. He apologized if he had woken up the baby, but he had a gift. He handed over the shoebox. It was full of hand-carved wood blocks from when he was a baby. He had no children and his nieces and nephews weren’t interested in silly old things like blocks.

“I’ve been waiting eighty years to find these blocks a good home,” he said. His hands trembled. Water leaked out his eyes.

Once I closed the door I sat on the floor and sorted through the blocks. They were heavy and firm and expertly carved. There were little teeth marks on the edges. I tried to hide them from my wife. There is nothing quite like the crushing sadness of a slightly used child’s toy.

Once in a while we look around the house for the blocks. We find them in the attic or the spare room. Even when we can’t find them we sit on the floor side by side, as if the three of us are together if only this once, stacking blocks and imagining the shape they might take around the empty air we are holding.

About Ryan Habermeyer

Ryan Habermeyer received his MFA from the University of Massachusetts and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri where he studies contemporary transnational fiction and the cultural history of fairy tales. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and his fiction has most recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Cream City Review, Los Angeles Review, Chattahoochee Review, Cincinnati Review, Black Warrior Review, Dislocate, Mid-American Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and others. He lives with his wife and children in Missouri where is currently at work on a novel.