Women Aren't Funny
Mona used to kill it, slay it, crush it. She’d launch perfect zingers at the dinner table or the house party or the back of the classroom where the shop guys and petty hoods, ace wisecrackers all, mocked their teachers. She would wrench guts and split sides and when her victims caught their breaths, the shop guys and the hoods would gasp that she should do stand-up. She’d still been just a kid and didn’t realize a woman’s entire act was a never-ending improv.
She’d been funny once, all right. Consistently hysterical, and it was this consistency that had made her so deadly.
So why couldn’t she come up with a snappy comeback to the knife Bo had just thrust to her throat?
The blade’s tip was just tickling the skin sagging from her neck’s hollow. Another joke, the frilly gobble pregnancy had made of her throat. Their commitment to horsing around meant that Bo was funnier than ever. The knife gag made them both double over with laughter, although she had to be careful not to actually double over onto the knife.
Mona tipped her head back and laughed. Bo’s hand stayed firm at her throat, steady as she goes. “I’ll give youz a rough chop,” he threatened in the gangster voice he’d perfected.
What could she say to one up that? Tears streamed down her face, it was all so funny. Earlier that evening, Bo had started a water fight when the dishwasher flooded. They were both still drying out in the cool night’s breeze, huddled around a newborn fire in the Weber kettle. While Bo’s horsing around never seemed forced, these days her antics fell flat and dangerous. When he’d flicked water at her, the droplets had beaded gently on her arms, sprinkled her hair like a cap of lace. When she’d snatched up a Pyrex measurer to lob a real splash, she’d lost her grip and sent the cup sailing into his crotch. He’d laughed, sort of, and rubbed his jeans. She’d said something about not shooting until she could see the whites of his balls. Neither laughed at that.
Perhaps women stop being funny when they start trying to be, Mona had thought.
Then they’d moved to the deck to work on dinner. Bo had been chopping veggies; she’d been knuckle deep in chilly ground beef, shaping patties. She’d made the usual comment about the motley nuggets his rough chop created, make ‘em uniform, she reminded him, or they won’t cook evenly, which had led to his joke about chef’ing from the bottom. Just watch me hit the sack later, she’d joked, the dominatrix one-liner she’d trotted out a million tired times, forgetting for the moment that she’d just hit him squarely in the balls with a heavy glass cup; and he’d pulled his knife gag, pantomimed a rough and tumble wise guy who might do anything to her and get away with it. Now she stood with her head tipped back, laughing as hard and as loud and as gingerly as she could. Her hands, still buried in the meat, felt cold and slimy. From next door came the swoosh of the slider door yawning open.
Or was the sound a whisper, are you ok?
The neighbors’ dog, a hound twice as sturdy and playful as the house he’d just bounded from, shot out onto the deck and leapt yowling to the grass. Startled, Mona quit laughing and turned. Pain tugged her throat like a gnat bite. Bo jumped back. The knife clattered to the cedar planks.
“Crap. Let me see.” Bo cupped Mona’s cheeks gently and tipped her head so she was staring at the orderly trio of stars on Orion’s belt.
“Did you cut me?” she asked.
Her tone hadn’t included panic, anger, or even much interest at being wounded, but Bo gasped. “Jesus, Mona, I wouldn’t cut you. You’d get cut.” His breath warmed her throat for a moment before he hustled her towards the light streaming from the kitchen. “Can’t see anything. Does it hurt?”
“More like a sting.”
He touched her, right where she stung, right where he said he couldn’t see anything. “No blood,” he announced.
From the neighbor’s back door floated a command. Mona twisted away from Bo’s grasp. The neighbors’ eldest kid was standing in the patio’s light, clapping her hands and calling here, boy. He ran back home as eagerly as he’d catapulted away a few minutes before. The patio door whisked shut. Bo fetched the knife from the deck planking and went back to whacking the veggies. Mona would have liked to touch her throat, check for blood herself, but her hands were covered with raw beef. He concentrated on a uniform chop. She grilled the burgers a hair past rare, the way he preferred. Dinner was already too late to enjoy. Bo had arrived home late from stopping in at his parents’ after work, and then the dishwasher had flooded. She’d still be washing the towels from the plumbing accident until late tonight, and anyway, the sting had evaporated.
What had first been funny about the knife gag, anyway? The incongruity, she supposed, that the gentlest man she knew could whisk a knife to her throat as if, this time, he meant business.
But what was funny about that?
Not that her reaction mattered; only the joke did. This time around, they’d pledged to keep things light. Steven’s death last year had steamrolled into a separation Mona and Bo both quickly realized was another unbearable loss. When they reconciled, they’d agreed that grief was the real joke, lacking borders or reason. Funny waxed and waned; laughter could be provoked, and then cut off. Sadness was a poor sport, a sore loser, a real party pooper. Sorrow never played by the rules and rarely accepted defeat, so they set out to become the most-winningest slayers of grief in marriage history. After months of punning and punch-lining, anecdotes and knock-knock jokes, they’d even found the heart for riddles. If an accidental death isn’t an accident, how can it be ruled accidental? If a careless mistake results from care carefully planned, can the mistake be careless, or even a mistake?
The riddle that could never be funny was the one they never said aloud: If no one is blaming you, but you are solely to blame, how can you be blameless?
They ate their burgers outside at the round glass table near the deck railing. Their clothes had dried, itchy on the skin. The June breeze might send them inside for light jackets before the meal was through. Bo joked about her red meat tantalizing the base. Mona laughed. The base teemed in the rural patches twenty minutes from their front door. They hoped Bo’s folks, who lived out there, hadn’t joined the wingnut ranks by installing a bunker under their home. Bo and Mona preferred to think of the addition as an embrace of lifestyle, not ideology. They’d also understood bunker to be an exaggeration, until Ted had shown off the plans, bona fide prints drawn up by a local architectural firm Mona recognized as having won awards for historical preservation. Apparently, a rational blueprint for irrational fears could be purchased from reputable professionals if one had the means.
Bo and Mona were expected to keep the bunker project a family secret, to deter any rush of short-sighted neighbors demanding sanctuary from the end times, were the end times ever to reach Southeast Michigan. Who would they want to tell? Bo had joked. Ted and Betty had laughed amiably, as if in on the joke. They had to treat the bunker as the latest installment of a running gag. The alternative meant posing unpleasant questions about Bo’s parents neither felt up to asking. Ted always had embraced deep penetrations and geological disturbance. His job involved opaque financing for the oil and gas industry. If he’d grown a bit eccentric over the years, Bo told Mona, who wouldn’t, given the long hours, the rich salary, the God’s eye on non-renewable resources and their laborious extraction? Wasn’t the bunker just a playroom, an indulgence, his home version of a producing well? Their bunker’s purpose had nothing in common with the revolutionary fantasies the base promoted, Bo reminded her, hectic and violent scenarios involving armed raids on smug liberal communities like Bo and Mona’s.
Although they were frequently the butt of jokes, the members of the base, all could agree, were not funny; but then, as the presidential election that had swept a celebrity blowhard into office had proven, many of them had turned out to be women.
Mona watched the bloody juice ooze from Bo’s burger. The bun was pale pink, sopping wet. Bread clumps drooled onto Bo’s plate when he picked up the sandwich. He stuck out his tongue to lasso one; pulled a face, funny and endearing. She laughed, although no way was she going to eat the undressed patty on her own plate, slouched in a thin, pale red pool.
“How are your folks? Are you missing out on rabbit burgers?” she asked. Ted had bought a hunting rifle last year to shoot squirrel and pheasant. In the old country, Ted had reminded Bo, small game had filled the family table every night.
“Squirrel stew.” Mona assumed he was kidding. “They just hooked up a big screen in the bunker. Eighty-eight inches. Takes up the entire cinder block wall in the den. You wouldn’t believe it.”
Mona would have to believe it. She hadn’t visited Bo’s parents in weeks. It wasn’t that she wasn’t welcome at her in-laws, or that she feared they’d guess she and Bo hadn’t told them the entire truth about Steven’s death, a compassionate evasion, Bo and Mona had decided without saying who exactly needed this compassion and evasion. She was just, for now, avoiding the hackles on grief’s neck her presence raised. Underneath their careful behavior, the finely chiseled politeness they maintained for their son’s sake, rage surged; she could feel this too, as if she’d been slapped and told never to tell or else. Of course they nursed anger. In their position, she would. Besides, they had no sense of humor. Bo’s lightness earned weak chuckles from his father that sounded like a surrender, but the wrong joke could wrench Betty’s good sport expression to tears.
Mona picked at the onions and peppers also swimming in beef juice. “What will we watch after the world ends? Bonanza episodes from the secure NBC vault?”
A crappy joke, wasted breath. Bo’s laugh revealed a sticky wad of bun. “That’s if you’re lucky and Daniel Boone gets incinerated.”
There had been a time when he would have said we. Mona couldn’t remember when he’d downgraded to the singular. Until he’d stopped, she’d taken we for granted, the way couples did. Her mother used to say, never let him take you for granted, it’s the death of love. Her mother couldn’t have been more wrong. Taking each other, taking Steven, for granted was the strongest love Mona had ever known. Flimsy jokes, lonely pronouns, a sting on the throat, an entire nursery stashed in the attic. How could love ever again be assumed, a foregone conclusion, no joking matter?
A popping sound from the street, a muffler’s hiccup or a blown tire, pinged between the houses. “Did you hear me, Mona?” Bo was saying.
If you’re lucky. She’d heard him, all right. “Yep,” she said. “Don’t chew with your mouth open, Hoss.”
Bo pursed his lips. His cheeks puffed out, tinted red like they’d gone the distance with this joke. And it was hilarious, Bo’s handsome face scrambled up, pushmi-pullyu, zany zoinks, crumbs and juice leaking from his mouth because he’d taken too big a bite, and Mona laughed, and then caught her breath until he swallowed. What if he choked, screwing around like that? Who would believe her, that a joke had taken his life while she sat, and watched, and did nothing to save him because she hadn’t realized which breath would be his last?
After dinner, Mona walked to the hall to check her throat in the mirror hanging by the front door. A red spot dotted her neck’s fold, as precise and purposeful as a needle’s poke. If a close call landed but hadn’t caused pain, could it still be called close, or called a call at all? What we have here is a close shave, Smoky. She almost returned to the kitchen to tell her joke, but Bo was tossing his wrenches and screws into his steel toolbox. She’d have to shout over the clanging, which would mess up her delivery.
Anyway, nothing about a close shave was really very funny, especially when they hadn’t been blessed with tragedy’s dry run, a searing reminder that the worst could happen but could also be avoided with luck and God’s good grace.
Her yearly gyn physical loomed the next afternoon, Mona’s first with a new doctor who hadn’t steered her pregnancy, who hadn’t delivered Steven. She’d been wondering whether severing yet another link to her baby would be a relief or a terrible blow. When the gynecologist pressed her thyroid, Mona winced and told herself she’d need to arm herself with some heavy jokes to make it through the exam.
Dr. McKenna peered at her throat. “That’s an unusual place for a cut.”
“Nicked myself shaving,” Mona joked, and winced again at the pale rerun of the previous night’s unspoken gag.
The doctor did not find this funny. Mona didn’t yet know her well enough to gauge her sense of humor. Her regular ob/gyn had retired last year. She’d hoped to feel relief, that her exams would now be free from historical context, from the kind concern Dr. Meyer cast on Mona’s bright, resolute smile that might shine upon another baby someday; her breasts, perfectly capable of nourishing another; her still resilient vagina all in for the team, raring to roar off the sidelines of grief. No good reason not to put her body to use again, his professional sadness seemed to say. But updating her records just now in the waiting room, surrounded by potted ferns thriving because they were fake and women thriving because they were pregnant, had squelched any hope for a fresh start on the medical front. How many times had she been pregnant? Two. How many live births had she experienced? One. No follow up question on whether the live birth was still alive. Do you think you might be pregnant now? A real knee slapper, given the precious few times in the past year horseplay with Bo had led to, well, horseplay. Mona X’d the no box.
Dr. McKenna moved on to the breast exam, asked a pointed question or two about how she and Bo were getting along. This, too, struck Mona as funny. How was a woman to answer any question about intimacy when her breast was being kneaded like dough that had failed to proof? Dr. McKenna prodded her nipple, waited for her answer. She of the thick, flowing hair Mona had once boasted, the knock-out figure too perfect to imagine had ever endured birthing, the slender, if a bit too vigorous at the moment, hands. Dr. McKenna wasn’t funny. But then, how could a gynecologist be funny, poking at birth canals and boobs all day? There must be a rule against cracking jokes to women in stirrups. Mona tried to remember if kind old Dr. Meyer had ever said anything funny, but then, Mona hadn’t exactly given him the right venue.
“He’s the smile on the Mona Lisa. I'm a worthless check, a total wreck.”
“Excuse me?” Dr. McKenna moved between Mona’s legs, brandishing the least amusing tool this exam demanded.
“We’re the tops,” Mona assured her.
Dr. McKenna touched her thigh lightly, traced a jagged ambit. “How did you get this bruise?”
Well, she’d come by that wound honestly. A few days back, Mona had tripped coming down the stairs, and the laundry basket she was carrying gouged her leg. But the doctor had made up her mind about what she was seeing on Mona’s body. “I always knew those stairs were up to something.” She lobbed this oldie between the goalposts of her knees, but missed her mark. Dr. McKenna was already telling her to expect to feel pressure.
The exam commenced, punctuated by enthusiastic ratcheting. Like the neighbor’s dog, the speculum always bolted eagerly from the gate. As she worked, Dr. McKenna offered a humorless recommendation for a baseline colonoscopy in the next twelve months. Good thing, because it’ll take eleven and half months to work up the nerve, Mona could have joked if she weren’t focused on breathing through what doctors hilariously called pressure in her vagina that was raising a prickly sweat.
“Do you think you could be pregnant?”
Mona lifted her head and stared at Dr. McKenna’s crown, bowed between her legs. The doctor drew the exam light closer, like she was giving the third degree to Mona’s labia. The flesh down there meant to remain light-starved started to feel uncomfortably hot. “Excuse me?”
“Your cervix looks like you might be.”
“Does is? I mean, that’s not possible.”
Dr. McKenna slid the speculum out and leaned in for the manual exam. “Why is it not possible?” Her stern gaze suggested Mona had missed the easiest question on the whole test out there in the lobby when she’d checked the no box.
Mona laughed. “Well. You know.” Then she stopped laughing, to do the math. It wasn’t like she and Bo never made love. It just seemed like it.
“We’ll order a blood draw to confirm. But I can feel the fetal sac.” The doctor pressed her belly and probed, as if thrumming Mona’s womb would convince her that a new life was indeed happily clinging to her uterine wall. “I’d say about four weeks along, so it’s not surprising you didn’t know yet.”
Mona burst into tears.
Dr. McKenna finished the exam and told her, gently, to sit up. Mona scooched upright and tucked the paper privacy cover between her legs. Her legs felt jellied, her lubed vagina slick and hot. Her sobs numbed up after a few harsh swallows. Dr. McKenna handed her a Kleenex. “Your file says you lost a child. It’s normal to experience grief at another pregnancy. Do you have a support system? I can recommend a mental health professional, if you’d like.”
Lost a child. As if she or Bo could ever lose Steven. “I saw a therapist. After.” She dangled silence after the after, as she always did. After Steven died. After Bo left, and then came back to her. After they’d pledged to be funny in the present and optimistic about the future, a future they’d never once thought, much less discussed, might hold another child.
Dr. McKenna’s gaze dropped to her thigh. “Do you feel your husband will be supportive?”
The way Mona was clutching the paper cover to her legs might look like she was hiding that bruise. She relaxed her grip. The paper fluttered to the tile. The cotton gown, gaping open at the chest and hips, left much to be desired on the privacy front, and heat was scorching her body like this baby had set her on fire. Mona folded the gown closed, careful not to cover up the bruise this time; but now the doctor’s gaze was trained on the scrape on her throat Mona was now concealing. “My husband’s a champ,” she assured the doctor, which maybe wasn’t answering the question but was no joke, either.
“Good to hear.” Dr. McKenna picked up the pad and wadded it up to throw in the bin. She made some notes, advised Mona to make an appointment for an ultrasound in eight weeks. “And don’t hesitate to check in with your therapist about how you—and your partner—feel about this pregnancy.”
“Ten-four.” Mona’s teetering grin was no laughing matter. The doctor stepped out of the room. Mona hurried to dress, cursing Bo’s knife gag, the laundry hamper, her own quick to bruise skin, spermicide. Beware the cides. Pesticide. Suicide. Homicide. Genocide. Matri- and patri- and fratricide.
What was the one about what you called couples who relied upon half-assed contraception?
Parents, that’s what.
She zipped up her jeans over a belly still slack with the pouch Steven had made; rested her hand on the spot the doctor had pressed. How was Mona supposed to believe that another cluster of cells had implanted and was fast replicating into a ravenous mouth and brilliant eyes and an innocent heart eager to love and be loved? The laws of biology might march on to make this baby, but those same laws could take it away. Aided and abetted by a baby’s own mother, as it turned out, whose body also had no choice but to obey biology; succumb to exhaustion, let her guard down, sleep so soundly someone was bound never again to awaken.
How old would this child be before she saw right through Mona’s wacky lovey-dovey act, the silly smiles, the wet, honking raspberries on the tummy and toes, the dippy songs; that the danger Mona posed to babies was not at all funny?
When the nurse brought in her paperwork, a domestic violence brochure was tucked in with the blood draw requisition and a prescription for prenatal vitamins. What joke of fate would she tell Bo first—that she was wrenchingly, joyously pregnant? Or that her doctor assumed she was being abused by gentle Bo, the man anyone would vote least likely to hurt a woman, the man most women would kill to have for a husband, the man who’d not only forgiven her for the worst crime a woman could commit, but had lied to his own mother to protect her?
Bo arrived home that evening doused in a light rain. Earlier, Mona had been on the deck, cutting peppers and onions into flat squares to skewer. She’d just begun cubing the pork loin when a drizzle misted her hair. She’d kept working until the cutting board was drenched and then moved indoors to finish the prep. The blood draw requisition lay on the counter. The rain clinging to her hair dripped onto the medical code that designated to test the new life Mona had decided to delay confirming. She blotted the form dry with a towel. The prenatal vitamin prescription was tucked away in her wallet. When she grabbed a dry cutting board and a sharper knife from the oak block on the counter above the dishwasher, water from her hair pooled on the tile floor.
Bo walked in as she was tossing a piece of fatty meat into the trash can by the kitchen doorway. His sudden appearance messed up her aim. She hadn’t heard the front door open or close, his keys jingle on the foyer side table, his stocking feet shuffle down the hall. The meat bounced off his arm and landed in the can. Pork blood spattered his suit sleeve like a flattened raspberry.
“Nice bank shot.” Bo’s comeback sounded rehearsed. Nothing she did ever startled him anymore. On his way home every night, he must prepare himself for anything she might throw at him. Well, she had something besides dinner to lob at him now, but just as she’d sped past the medical lab in a cold sweat without getting her blood drawn, she had no intention of telling Bo the happy news. She couldn’t think of a single punch line she could trot out in the event he tried to mask his horror of Mona becoming a mother again with false joy. Or worse, if he didn’t try to mask his horror.
“It’s raining cats and pigs in here,” she offered up instead.
“Why are you cooking?” He seemed genuinely puzzled.
“Why are you hungry?”
Bo frowned, not the usual reaction to her lame jokes. He was looking past her to the pool on the tile under the dishwasher. He moved to inspect, forgetting or avoiding the greeting kiss they exchanged each evening.
“Sorry about the mess. I’m such a drip.”
Bo dropped to his knees and ran a finger along the appliance’s seal. The water she’d assumed she’d dripped was instead trickling from the dishwasher’s door. Another evening dedicated to keeping things light was about to be swallowed up in plastic tubing and wrenches.
“Break out the crazy glue,” Bo said.
She thought he was serious. She wiped her hands and headed to the supply closet in the laundry room, but Bo called her back. “Hey, I was kidding. Can you grab some towels?” He’d launched into the cupboard under the sink. Water flowed steadily onto the tile. How had Mona missed this flood in the cabinet, lying in wait until Bo opened the doors? His suit would be ruined. Feeling like she’d set Bo up on purpose for a miserable night, she fetched an armload of the towels she’d just folded that afternoon and a bucket. By then he was flat on his back, re-arranging tubes, flashlight between his lips, mouth too full to wisecrack. Mona sopped up the water and then returned to the dinner prep. The pork had warmed to room temperature, felt spongy to her touch, reeked like she’d given it just enough time to spoil.
Bo slid from the cabinet. His navy suit coat was soaked black. The drops of meat juice on the sleeve had vanished, submerged in the new water stains. “I’m sorry,” Mona said, but what wisecrack could she come up with to lighten the version of her husband standing before her now, sodden, steadfast, so damn good-natured, refusing to blame, or to grieve? She almost told him, then. We’ve got ourselves a brand new convoy, good buddy. This time around I’ll stay steady in the stirrups, Hoss.
Bo grinned at her. “What for? Did you sabotage the hook-up?”
“Makes you wonder what else I’ve booby-trapped.” Mona dumped the meat in a bowl and took up a skewer. Bo removed his coat and draped it on the counter. “Hey, watch the papers.”
Bo took up his coat. He picked up the requisition and fanned it dry. Receipts and the domestic abuse brochure fluttered to the floor. Bo bent to pick them up. “Whoa. Telling your doctor now how I push you around?”
“Didn’t have to say a word.” Mona speared meat, peppers and pearl onions in turn. Outside, rain was pounding the grill. She should jumble everything up in a skillet and fry the heck out of it. “The proof was all over my pudding.”
Bo set the papers down without glancing at the order. “Hey, seriously. How’s your cut? Did I really hurt you?” He moved to fold her turtleneck down. His hands brushed her throat.
She pulled away before he could see the nick and rolled the collar up. “They give that brochure to everyone.” A lie, since she’d never received one before, and why had they tucked it discreetly between papers as if the promise of help had to remain a secret?
Their merciless dedication to keeping things light meant the joke was always on Mona, but at least she’d been honest when a plausible, even merciful lie had been within such easy reach on the other side of the nursery. She often wondered if, in being honorable, Mona hadn’t hurt Bo more than the lie would have haunted her. In the first moments after she’d awoken in the daybed and seen Steven lying next to her, button nose pressed to the mattress, a fist curled at his mouth as if he’d fallen asleep before his thumb could slip between his lips, she’d thought he was alive. Why would she think he wasn’t? She’d lifted him up to place him in his crib. She’d tripped over the Easter Bunny book she’d been showing him to calm him down; the cradle cap was causing him to fuss again. She’d been up with him for three nights in a row, nursing, murmuring, rocking. Only the Easter Bunny book soothed him.
She never would remember falling asleep in the daybed. She was being honest when the cops questioned her about whether she’d rolled on top of Steven, and she’d insisted she couldn’t remember. But she could recall—how could she ever forget?—that she’d picked the baby up and was half-way across the room before she understood Steven’s body wasn’t acting the way it should. Too limp, no instinctual cuddling into her hands, and the silence was, she sensed as if finally waking up herself, dreadful. No faint moans or sighs at being born aloft, or sudden fussing as he surfaced, for a moment, from sleep. She was holding death gently, securely, as if even now Steven could still be hurt if she weren’t careful.
She remembered this, too; that, after knowing he was dead, instead of trying to breathe life back into him or call for help, she’d laid him in his crib, on his belly, in exactly the position she’d been told was dangerous. Back to Sleep! was the slogan mothers memorized to keep their babies safe. Mona had tucked his fist to his mouth as if his thumb might still wriggle in to comfort him. He wasn’t quite yet big enough for the three-month onesie he was wearing. The snaps between his legs sagged on the mattress. The brown snails and puppy dog tails on the white cotton fabric sprinkled his back like she’d spilled cinnamon on him. Flakes from the cradle cap dotted his silky brown hair. She backed away from the crib. She recalled a logical thought process, chillingly rational, that afterwards she hoped was a freakish clarity brought on by pure shock. She could leave him be, return to this room in a few minutes, tell Bo she’d found Steven unresponsive in the crib. She remembered how the word felt as she rehearsed it, unresponsive, detached from the profound horror that had befallen her son. Perhaps when she returned, she’d find she was wrong. Perhaps Steven would have rolled over on his back, bright eyed and laughing as if he’d pulled off the biggest gag ever. Wasn’t it worth a try? Didn’t she owe it to Steven to give him a chance to recover from this sleep? In the moment, such calculations, such doubt, such wonder, seemed perfectly natural. She’d made it all the way to the nursery door, her hand on the knob, under this calm and generous spell.
Then she’d come to her senses. She’d never understood the truth in this expression until the cold knob on her palm jolted the delayed sensation of her son’s unresponsive skin in her hands. The clarity vanished. The last peace she would ever know dissolved in uncontrollable tremors. The dreadful silence filled with harsh wails ripped from hidden pockets deep in her throat, terrible, thrashing chords her memory would later disown. Through the din came the knowledge that she had one more unbearable task; to lift the body once more, gently, carefully, and return her son to the daybed.
Mona remembered every detail of her attempted deception, but had no memory at all of what had actually happened to Steven. Had they remained side by side as they slept in that narrow bed, or had she rolled, or stretched, or settled unconsciously on top of him? A few months later, when Steven was stronger, they might have awoken locked in a sleepy hug. Her crime, if she’d committed one, came down to timing. And exhaustion. Bo had been on deadline at his coding job, dead on his feet. She had chosen to be the stay-at-home, which meant she was the stay-awake, the primary caregiver, the gritty PR professional who had this baby project under control. It never occurred to her to ask Bo, or even his parents, to give her a break.
If she’d kept Steven in the crib, pretended she’d found him after a nap, erased the evidence that she might have smothered her own child; would this lie have at least allowed Bo to keep loving her without binding them forever to this heartless pact with humor? Had he suggested they tell Bo’s folks Steven had died in his crib because he wished to believe this himself? Admitting what she’d done had driven Bo to leave her. Forgiving her enough to conceal what she’d done had brought him back.
Now Bo stepped away as she covered her throat, stumped, for once. “I’d better call my folks. We’re way late.”
“Late for what?”
She was expecting a punch line, for a very important date, not the reminder, which Bo offered with an offsides grin that might be masking concern over her forgetfulness, that she’d promised last night to have dinner tonight with his folks.
“I didn’t promise anything last night.”
“I asked whether you heard me. You said yes.”
If you’re lucky. That’s what Mona had heard. Had something distracted her? She couldn’t remember. “I said, don’t chew with your mouth open. Hoss.”
“You said, ‘yep’. Look, my folks are wondering why you refuse to see them.”
“I’m not refusing to see them.”
“That’s what I told them, when you said you’d come.”
“Can’t have them getting suspicious,” Mona muttered.
Bo frowned. “Suspicious of what?”
Mona stared at the half-strung kebab in her hands. Which was trembling.
“Oh.” Bo’s delayed dawning made her wonder if he’d actually forgotten their deception. “I wouldn’t call that a lie. I’d call it a kindness.”
Thank God she hadn’t told him she was pregnant. She hadn’t yet considered how Bo’s parents would react. Convince Bo to leave her and take the baby with him? Snatch the baby themselves and hunker down in the bunker? Either extreme scenario might beat what they were most likely to do—hate and mistrust her openly now. “I’m not eating squirrel,” Mona warned.
Bo picked up his suit coat. “Me neither. That would be nuts.”
When Mona walked into their kitchen, Bo’s folks served up their strangled expressions on the usual plate of glossy, unshed tears and bodies frozen in their last pose—Ted pouring gin into glimmering tumblers, Betty slicing medallions of a gray sort of meat. Mona huddled near the range, smiled, offered a weak wave as if she’d just spotted them from across a street. A riddle: if they never mentioned Steven in her presence, did this mean they’d forgiven, or forgotten?
Bo’s folks promptly airbrushed their dismay with smiles too broad, greetings too loud, embraces too snug. The body contact, especially with Betty’s vast, spongy boobs and muscular arms, felt like a strapping Mona knew she had coming.
“You look wonderful, dear,” Betty said tightly, as if Mona had no business looking wonderful. Anyway, she didn’t look wonderful. Her hair was still flat from the rain. Her make-up had already been an afterthought by seven that morning. Bo had rushed her out the door before she could change the damp jeans and Michigan jersey she’d been wearing to cook the dinner they’d abandoned. Mona tried to ignore the gamey aroma on Betty’s hands that told of a deadly shot and a good skinning. “Doesn’t she, Ted?”
“Marvelous,” Ted drawled in a Slavic accent he’d never quite shed. He winked over Bo’s head. Bo was just then burying his face in his dad’s shoulder, as if he hadn’t just seen him the evening before. Ted hugged Bo back so tightly Mona felt her own breath squeeze. “Thanks for coming, Mona.”
“Yes. Thanks so much!” Betty agreed.
“You’re welcome!” Mona eyed the tumblers sadly, wondered if her refusal to drink would raise Bo’s suspicion. She always used to throw back the gin whenever she visited Betty and Ted.
“It’s been too long,” Betty persisted, as if ready and willing to accept the excuse Mona would now offer for avoiding them.
“Well.” Mona slid next to Bo, just to be near him. She felt like burying her face in his shoulder. Or in the gin.
“You’re so welcome here. Of course!” Ted said.
“Mom even vacuumed the welcome mat to the bunker.” Bo put his arm around Mona’s waist.
“Oh, Bo,” his folks pealed.
Mona pressed her hip to his, wished there was a part of him she could unzip and duck inside. Ted reached for a g and t.
“What’s for dinner?” Bo asked. He handed Mona a tumbler. She took it.
Betty took up the knife. “Squirrel with wild mushrooms in cream. Your father harvested the morels this afternoon.”
No need to mention he’d also harvested the squirrel. Bo wrinkled his nose. Mona grinned at him. “Don’t tell us. Tastes like chicken, right?” she joked.
“It tastes nothing like chicken.” Ted frowned.
“Think pork.” Betty sliced through the log of flesh that, in fact, did resemble a skinny tenderloin.
Mona waited for Bo to say, “That’s nuts.” Instead he moved to his mother’s side to chop an onion. Without his hip supporting her, Mona felt she might topple over. She set the tumbler down. She should offer to dice the fat, helpless carrots waiting their turn on the cutting mat, whale on them madly like she was fully committed to this dinner. She should mine some light topic to chat up with Ted, who was hovering near her, smiling desperately like the future of this evening was all up to her. But what, exactly, could be construed as light to new converts to an ancient paranoia? Even the kitchen looked designed to repel: the dishwasher and fridge with buffed steel finishes the luster of armor; black granite countertops, as tough and featureless as rubber; the surfaces painted the same bland shade of gray, as if the walls were meant to camouflage the cabinets. Emboldened by the new president no one Mona knew had voted for, except maybe Betty and Ted—she’d never asked, she didn’t want to know if her mother-in-law was one of those now notorious white, college educated women who’d chosen the unqualified prick over one of their own—the base was making plenty of folks nervous these days. Mona wondered what exactly Bo’s parents feared might happen out here in the sticks, miles from the state’s liberal stronghold. In fact, Ted’s unapologetic harvesting of the earth’s precious reserves and small game should make him a darling of the base. The new president was a big fan of the scorched earth approach to building wealth and fame. Betty’s earnest, conscience-easing service on greenbelts and conservation boards would easily be overlooked in favor of Ted’s bona fides in extractive industries. If it ever came to that.
The steady thud of Bo’s knife against the cutting board felt like grinding teeth. Betty carried the meat to the sink, washed her hands, opened the top cupboard to her right. The gray shelves were nearly empty. Cannisters of hot pepper flakes, dry mustard, and Old Bay clustered together on the middle shelf like befuddled refugees. “Where’s the cream of mushroom, dear?” Betty turned to Ted.
“Canned goods day. Got them all organized downstairs first thing this morning.” Ted sipped his drink.
“Okay, well done! But we do need some food up here.”
“I thought you went shopping today. Figured you’d restock.”
“I did restock. You took the stock and the restock.”
“Lock, stock, and barrel,” Bo said.
“Oh Bo!” his folks pealed.
“Lock and load,” Mona added cheerfully. Bo’s parents stopped laughing.
“Say.” Ted emptied his tumbler. “Let’s all go down to grab the soup. The grand tour. You in?”
Bo put the knife down. “I don’t think Mona’s comfortable with the whole bunker thing.”
“Hey,” Mona said. “Who says?”
His mouth formed devious angles that warned Mona he might actually say, you said, when they’d both rolled their eyes over the bunker.
Betty stashed the squirrel medallions in the fridge. The double doors sealed with a whoosh that matched the hollow pit in Mona’s gut. “Mona, I need you to understand. We don’t fault anyone for the way things are. The situation is way past blame. We don’t take sides. We just want to secure our...” she paused. Looked at her hands still gripping the fridge’s sleek chrome handles, and then at Ted. Either she didn’t want to say what they wanted, Mona thought, or she didn’t know.
“Secure your security?” Bo grinned.
Ted laughed. Betty clasped her hands and joined in. “Secure our ways,” Ted corrected.
“It’s “way of life”, dear,” Betty reminded him.
“Or, set in our ways,” Mona said.
Betty shot her a confused look, as if Mona was missing the point of the tour they were about to take.
They left the kitchen single file, although they wouldn’t need to adopt this formation until they clambered one by one through the bunker’s hatch. Betty and Ted’s perfectly appointed home always set Mona on edge. Every room gleamed with the riches Ted had extracted from what the liberal side called late-stage capitalism and what the base called opportunity. Plush beige wool carpeting lined the hallway. In the living room, prim, angled couches and chairs confused modernism with chronic back pain. The vast, empty gazes of enormous flat screens hovered high on walls painted the neutral color of earthworms. On the Italian desk in Ted’s study, a stack of architectural plans lay sprawled under lamplight, as if the dinner visit had interrupted Ted’s latest tweaks to the bunker’s design.
In the laundry room, between the broad-consoled washer and dryer that looked to be stalwarts from the Kennedy administration, Ted opened a steel door hidden under a plain white panel next to the dryer hose. Betty insisted Mona follow Ted down the ladder, once he’d flicked the light switch below ground. Mona emerged into a cinder block room painted maize and blue, like she’d just dropped into the locker room of the liberal stronghold’s football team. Metal shelves lined the walls, filled with ham radio equipment, tubes and wires and consoles with knobs, relics of the previous century’s communication that might become the next’s surviving tech. Through a doorway straight ahead, other rooms unfolded one after the other in symmetrical galleries. The walls were painted in garish reds, yellows, and greens, colors Bo’s folks would never splash above ground. When Bo and Betty appeared, Ted guided the family though a green bathroom, pointing out the latest sanitation perks: the battery powered toilet, the solutions to disintegrate waste, the cylinders with dense filters to cleanse urine, just in case water supplies ran low. Beyond the bathroom, a new washer and dryer took shelter in a nook. Betty herded the family briskly to the den Bo had mentioned. Two shiny leather chairs that looked too heavy to have made the journey down the ladder hunkered against blood red walls. Bo asked, “Have they built out the back entrance?” He moved past Mona to exchange earnest terms with Ted like egress and fill, as if the bunker project were an ordinary home renovation.
Betty said to Mona, “We would love to get one more chair down here. It’s a shame a third one just won’t fit.”
Mona studied the space. “You could, though. If you moved these two to the same wall, another would fit against the far wall.” Now she was sounding like an ordinary interior decorator.
“You could fit two more that way, Mom,” Bo interrupted Ted to point out. “When the world ends, we’ll all four of us need a safe place to plant our butts, right?”
Betty and Ted exchanged glances. “Well, that’s right!” Betty agreed. “But how would we watch TV with chairs pointed every which way?” She nodded at the opposite wall. Empty, Mona noticed for the first time. “We thought the TV would hang there.”
“Gotta have the right set up to watch those Bonanza reruns in style.”
Mona didn’t hear Bo’s quip, or see the wink he tossed her way. The eighty-eight inch flat screen was still in the box, propped up against the wall Bo had told her the screen practically swallowed. When she turned to stare at him, he was pushing his dad towards the back of the bunker. Was he avoiding her? “I told you to build a second way out, Dad,” Bo was saying. “One that doesn’t involve a ladder. You might need it in an emergency.”
“The more ways there are to get out, the more ways they can get in, son.”
“You might want them to get in.” Bo and Ted disappeared into the next room, a kitchen and pantry combo painted a songbird blue. Mona moved to follow him. Why had Bo lied? She expected his answer would be some gag she hadn’t seen coming, which had led to her being dragged down into this smug hideaway.
Maybe he’d lied, too, about her agreeing to come. Maybe he hadn’t asked her at all last night, just taken advantage of her lapses in attention and memory to make her believe she’d wanted to come. She remembered, now, what had distracted her. Those popping sounds drifting from their silent street. Maybe, like her, he’d been listening, too, making certain they weren’t hearing gunshots, the opening rounds of a revolution they hadn’t seen coming and certainly hadn’t voted for.
Betty laid a hand on Mona’s arm before she could join Bo. “Don’t you just love these quilts?” She drew Mona to the left, into a tiny bedroom painted a flaming orange straight out of a smithy’s fire. The space was just big enough for a double bed and a dresser. Beyond this room was another, smaller room, with a single bed crammed against a canary yellow wall. Enormous stars stitched of neat, diamond-shaped calico prints dominated the quilts on both beds. “You wouldn’t know to look at them that they double as emergency warmers. Like they give out during disasters. I found them on the Doom and Bloom website.”
Mona thought the quilts looked just like her grandmother’s heirlooms. Betty flipped up a corner to reveal a silver insulated backing. “Wow. Super useful. Betty, your paint choices are so… vivid. Very different from the walls upstairs.”
“Thank you!” Betty’s sudden smile seemed startled, as if surprised Mona would offer up a compliment. “I had a heck of a time matching them with the originals. But then, the originals can’t be matched, can they?”
“The sun. That’s the yellow there. Or sugar maple leaves in autumn. That’s the orange, which doubles as a sunset. Or a sunrise, for that matter. So versatile. The bathroom wall, you probably guessed, is as close to grass as I could find. Nature colors, you know? All the things we’ll miss when we can’t see them anymore.”
“So what part of nature is the maize and blue in the equipment room? Wolverine?” The remark sprang from Mona before she could check her tart tone.
Betty dropped her gaze to Mona’s Michigan jersey. “You’re so funny, Mona!” she laughed brightly. “But we’ll miss football, too, down here.” She squeezed Mona’s arm. Mona realized, then, that Betty hadn’t let her go. Her eyes had turned moist, as they always did when Mona tried to joke. “Dear, I wanted to ask you for something. I know Bo would agree, but I wanted…well, it feels right to ask you directly. May we have Steven’s little bed? I think it would just fit in the yellow bedroom there.”
The shock of hearing Steven’s name jolted Mona, especially from her mother-in-law, who had acted as if his name had been buried with his body. And why would Betty want the crib?
Betty’s grip on her softened, felt almost like a caress. Her mother-in-law had never touched her so tenderly, not even before Steven’s death. Of course she would want the crib, Mona thought. If we all end up stuck down here, she’s thinking Bo and I will have more kids. Mona felt an unexpected rush of gratitude. When one world ended, Betty wanted Mona to have exactly what she needed to begin another. She’d been wrong, heartless! to interpret Betty and Ted’s forced cheer as blame instead of a long, rocky, but ultimately healthy, recovery. Perhaps their sadness was just that, independent of her, free of judgment. Perhaps their smiles hadn’t been perfunctory when she’d first walked in their door this evening, but nervous. Maybe they genuinely hoped she was as happy to see them as they were to see her.
And why exactly had she assumed Betty and Ted wouldn’t be thrilled to be grandparents again? Mona covered Betty’s hand with her own and squeezed. The impulse to share the news with Betty the way she might have once confided in her own mother overwhelmed her for a moment. She wouldn’t have dreamed she could ever feel such love for her mother-in-law, so fierce, so secure.
But she couldn’t tell Bo’s mother she was pregnant before she’d summoned the courage to tell Bo. “I’ll have to talk with Bo. There may come a time when we need the crib again. Assuming we’re all still above ground.” Mona’s last remark wasn’t meant as a snarky joke. She meant with all her heart to prove she was meeting Betty half-way with the good news that Mona might be willing to trust Betty’s beliefs about their future. Perhaps, just as the world would be learning how much grief and fear it could survive underground, their baby would be proof she and Bo had survived theirs.
“Oh, I didn’t mean the crib. I meant Steven’s little bed.” Betty slipped her hand out from under Mona’s. She’d breathed little bed like such fragile words might shatter if they were spoken too loudly.
Mona whispered, “You mean, the daybed?”
“Yes, that one.” Betty’s pupils had shrunken to tiny dots, as if the wall’s piercing orange had sent them scuttling, just as the sinking sun would. “Steven just loved being cuddled on that little bed. Didn’t he?”
Mona drew back, but Betty held on to her arm. She knew. Had Bo told his folks the truth, perhaps during their separation? Was that why his folks persisted in treating her so coldly?
Mona realized her mouth was hanging open. She forced herself to speak. “I don’t think I can give it up, Betty. I did love cuddling Steven in that bed.”
Betty let her go. “We know you did. That’s why there’s no room for you here.”
Mona blinked. Three armchairs. A double bed plus a twin. Betty and Ted and Bo. This bunker wasn’t designed to shut out the base. It was designed to shut out Mona.
Betty’s lids were rimmed red. In nature, her gray irises would be the ocean cleaving with the sky on a bleak day, the color of a fast-vanishing horizon. Mona said, “Let me sleep on that one, Betty.”
“I would tell you my mind on the daybed, but it hasn’t been made up yet.”
Betty narrowed her eyes. “Are you trying to be funny, Mona?”
Bo and Ted emerged from the kitchen. Ted was carrying a fifth of gin. Mona thought the gin bottle upstairs was at least half full. Bo was cradling two cans of cream of mushroom soup and a pocketknife. “Look, sweetie. My old Boy Scout knife. Thought I’d lost it years ago.”
Ted said, “Had it in my collection, son. Thought you knew.”
Betty said, “We’ve kept everything of yours safe and sound, dear.”
“Is it the sharpest one in the drawer?” Mona said.
“It’s a cut above the rest.” Bo grinned and handed her the knife. The banged-up case had survived frigid northern campouts, crude duty as a can opener and bush whacker, grim but useful lessons on blood circles and cutting away from the body.
“That’s so on point,” Mona said.
Ted surrendered to his usual helpless laughter and hefted the gin. “Now that we have the goods, maybe we should cut and run,” he suggested.
“And cut our losses,” Mona added.
Betty’s eyes filled with tears. “It’s not funny,” she whispered.
Mona picked at the blade. It wouldn’t budge. Probably rusted fast. “I knew you couldn’t hack that,” Bo said.
“Let me take another stab at it.” Mona tugged. The blade came free, still shiny, polished and well cared for. Mimicking Bo’s gangster mug—had the bug eyes and sinister leer ever really been funny?—she thrust the knife in the general direction of Bo’s throat just as he was stepping towards her, grinning, on the verge of another sharp remark or cutting retort or maybe just a dull observation on the need for another way out of this bunker, or another way in, depending on how you sliced it; and the jagged path the shiny knife forged across their son’s neck, and the necklace of blood that pimpled up, and the thud of soup cans hitting the impenetrable slab flooring, and the long, frantic journey they would make through these vivid rooms, up the dark ladder, through the narrow, hidden hatch and into the waiting ambulance that would wail and screech all the way to the hospital, sure put Bo’s folks on edge.
Laura Hulthen Thomas’s short fiction and essays have appeared in Witness, Epiphany, The Cimarron Review, Summerset Review, failbetter, and others. Her short story collection, STATES OF MOTION (Wayne State University Press, 2017) was a finalist for a Foreword Reviews Indie Award. The collection was also named a Notable Debut by Poets & Writers (July/August 2017). She currently heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction.