Baby Steps
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Descend"
Originally featured on 12-25-2006
As part of our series "Fall Stories"

His parents were divorced, though Slips and his two sisters didn’t find out until a full year after the fact. Caroline, his mother, had been too embarrassed to tell them that their father, Richard, had been having multiple affairs.

“He’s like that woman in that Chekhov story—he thinks he’s just the prettiest thing around,” she told Slips. This all came out in the CVS parking lot, where they had gone to pick up a box of Crayola crayons for Samantha, Slips’ niece. Her mother and Slips’ older sister, Mary Ellen, had been getting ready for work when they left, he hadn’t understood why his mother insisted he go.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Slips had interrupted, “so dad isn’t in Nashua because he got a promotion?” Caroline shook her head.

“And you’re not having problems selling the house?” he asked.

“It’s not even on the market,” she said. He should’ve been mad, would have been if he were younger and still needed his parents to provide stability. Instead he had leaned over the console and hugged her. They stayed like that for ten minutes or so with the car running, windshield wipers and radio going, headlights shining on the people running by, umbrellas bobbing up and down as they ran to their cars.

Samantha had been in the kitchen doing jumping jacks when they returned, her socked feet slipping on the floor. Caroline’s eyes had been swollen, bloodshot.

“What’s wrong with grandma?” Samantha asked as she accepted the box of crayons. The words were whispered into Slip’s ear but her eyes were set imploringly on Caroline.

“She was in a fight with her friend,” Slips said, crouching down.

 

 

“I can’t believe she didn’t tell me first,” Opal, Slip’s younger sister said weeks after the cat had been let out of the bag. He, his wife Maggie, Opal, Mary Ellen and Samantha were driving to Nashua to have Thanksgiving dinner at their fathers apartment, at his insistence, and in fact he had begged Slips over the phone, in a hissing, desperate way, to get the family down there. He was lonely, guilty, he needed to get things off his chest, set things right—the conversation had been fraught with such, as Slips saw it, egotistical phrases.

Slips was driving, as Maggie was seven months pregnant, Opal couldn’t drive a standard and Mary Ellen had lost her license due to a DWI. The car she had been driving was totaled. It was also uninsured. The whole ordeal had forced her into bankruptcy, and she was now living with her mother. The Gap, where Mary Ellen worked full time, did not have a daycare. Luckily the New York Social Services Office in Albany, where Caroline worked, did. Everyone knew that Mary Ellen’s life was falling apart, but Samantha loved her mother unconditionally. Slips said she was wise beyond her four years. Opal said she was in denial.

Opal had just cut her curly blond hair to her ears, which she alternately held now in between her thumb and forefinger as she applied mascara with the help of the visor mirror, switching her hands as necessary.

“I can’t believe mom is coming,” Opal said, using both of her hands now to press her ears against her head.

“Is this a competition?” she continued, “to see who can take the most pain or something?” She took some hair spray from a black Prada bag, which, everyone knew, she had spent three entire paychecks on. She began pushing locks to where she wanted them and spraying them down. Slips felt a spray land upon his cheek, the finer hairs of his three day old beard tighten up. Opal was a real estate broker. She was twenty seven, and a voracious dater. She was a beautiful woman, but in her efforts to thrust it upon whomever she met it had became a burden. By cutting her hair she meant to prove it meant nothing to her, though soon after she was caught on Pearl Street by Caroline with a Tiffany’s bag. In the car now she clipped her hair back using two platinum barrettes encased with rubies, her birth stone.

Maggie eyed Opal from the backseat. That morning she had cornered Slips in the kitchen while he was cutting up carrots for the trip and demanded to know why Opal could spend two hundred dollars on barrettes and then have the gall to give them a Starbucks card for the baby shower.

“The baby is not going to drink coffee Slips,” Maggie had said, her face only inches from his.

“She thinks no one pays attention to her,” Slips explained, “everything’s just business to her…she forgets that we can see into her personal life.”

“She’s selfish, Slips,” Maggie had countered, now rubbing his back a little bit, biting into a carrot, “like your father.”

“Maybe she was thinking you would take the baby with you, you know, after she’s born,”

“You think it’ll be a girl?” Maggie asked, ignoring his defense of Opal. She looked at him, her wide icy blue eyes caught in her own thoughts, far away.

 

Mary Ellen and Maggie discussed the new fall line of sweaters at The Gap, Slips relieved that it was Maggie, who was sensitive and kind, and not Opal, in the backseat with Mary Ellen. Opal could be cruel, and often was, in the case of her sister, whom she thought had wasted her life drinking and running around with guys who couldn’t hold a job for more than a month. It was Opal who had run out of the house with a rolling pin when Jeff, an on again off again coke dealer with a publicized violent streak, had come to pick up Mary Ellen. Years of softball had prepared her to launch the pin at his Cherokee as he peeled out of the driveway. It shattered his back window.

Mary Ellen and Maggie were both asleep when the car pulled into the parking garage of the apartment building. Opal drummed her garnet colored nails against her leg, Samantha pushed forward in her seat, tried to make out the surroundings.

“When is mom’s flight getting in tomorrow?” Opal asked, reapplying her lipstick.

“Nine forty-five. Why are you doing that? It’s just dad we’re going to see.” She rubbed her lips together.

“You’re not a woman, you don’t understand. It’s habit, like putting on deodorant.”

“I don’t put on deodorant ten times a day,” Slips said, undoing his seatbelt and turning around to rub Maggie’s knee.

“Well, Slips, there are people in this family with far more serious addictions than lipstick.”

If Mary Ellen had heard the comment, she hadn’t responded. She helped Maggie and then Samantha from the car, took Samantha’s hand, their bags weighing down her opposite shoulder so that she seemed to be at a diagonal. Her hair hung straight down in thick unruly waves, looked almost oppressive sometimes the ways its weight fell against her, covering her shoulder blades, her bangs half covering her eyes, hiding her from the world, or the world from her. Her smile was uneasy and short, though when she laughed it was deep and dark, honest. As it

sometimes happened, she had seemed to acquire none of the traits of her parents. As she stood now by the elevator, Slips wondered if he would ever understand her like he did the rest of the family, if she would ever enter their orbit. He loved her, he knew this when he had spent the night crying at her bedside in the final hours of a three day coma brought on by prematurely giving birth to Samantha, born at six pounds three ounces. At the time he and Maggie had been dating for less than six months and was concerned she would consider him weak, but his sensitivity had the opposite effect on her, and the sex that night had been incredible. The concept of mortality, she had told him, often made people crave intimacy, as that was what led to reproduction. Slips thought, thought he didn’t say it at the time, that it was driven by the desire to be connected to someone, to be close, to drive off the fear of being alone.

“Where is your mother?” was the first thing Richard had said. His gray hair was long around his ears, sideburns bushy.

“She had to work in Manhattan, she’s flying in tomorrow morning,” Slips told him.

“Jesus dad,” Opal said, dropping her bags down inside the doorway, “did you divorce your barber too?” She smiled, and Richard ran his fingers through his hair, laughed.

Maggie kissed Richard on the cheek, “I was sorry to hear it, Richard,” she said, shaking her head slightly, “I don’t know what the hell you were thinking.”

The room filled up with conversation, some friendly, some critical, Richard eyeing Slips the whole time. While Slips was crouched in front of the lazy susan looking for cinnamon, Richard appeared beside him.

“Is your mother coming?” he whispered, his eyes seeming to pulse out of his head.

“Do you have any chai tea?” Slips asked, “preferably decaf…Maggie is trying to be good about that.” Richard rummaged around in a cabinet next to the stove, handed him a box.

“I don’t have a kettle, you’ll have to use a saucepan, under there,” he motioned across the room.

“Is she?” he asked again, now pulling down mugs. He paused, holding the mugs, his shoulders drawn up. Slips took the mugs from his hands.

“Yes, she is.” Samantha approached them, sliding one foot on front of the other. Richard broke into a smile and swooped Samantha up into his arms, began to waltz around the kitchen.

He sang a bit of an old song that Slips could remember from trips in the car as a kid, seeing his father from the backseat, the way his chin sank to chest when singing low and jutted out when singing high. Now the song seemed sad, and when Richard saw everyone watching he suddenly looked very embarrassed, as if he had been drunk and instantaneously sobered up.

“I’m going to go have a cigarette,” Mary Ellen said, looking at Slips. He nodded. Slips fixed the tea, searching around for sugar, finding no milk in the fridge.

“There’s non-dairy creamer,” Richard said, “I think.” He began looking.

 

Slips joined Mary Ellen on the small deck, the ash tray already filled. As she exhaled, the cold air made it seem to go on forever.

“How’s rehab going?” he asked, kicking a bit of snow dust of the concrete, watching it sprinkle down. Mary Ellen sighed, her back rounded.

“It’s okay. I really appreciate you babysitting and everything, it makes it so much easier. So many people there have no one to depend on. I consider myself lucky.”

She looked up at him, her dark eyes emphasized by the grayness of the day.

“The thing is, I hate smoking,” she said, a smile flashing across her face, “but it reminds me of drinking, and that’s somehow soothing for me. Weird, right?” Slips shook his head. Inside he could see Maggie in the kitchen, barefoot now, a hand on Samantha’s head, and she was nodding as Richard spoke, his hands flailing. Opal leaned against the stove, glared at her father.

“I can’t wait till mom gets here,” Mary Ellen said, stubbing out her cigarette, “she’s the only one who can handle this.”

 

That night Slips and Maggie slept on a pull-out couch that he recognized from his grandfathers house, covered in the same green flannel sheets, soaked in the smell of pipe smoke. He watched as Maggie’s body fell into sleep, rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. He tried thinking of his parents as individual people, etching them from defined roles, but it proved just as difficult as imagining himself as a father. The child he would raise would know nothing of this time, of the way these sheets smelled. He thought it odd, as he watched the shadows pushing and pulling on the ceiling, that anyone should consider themselves alone when each person is so tightly wrapped in the lives of others.

At the same time Caroline lied in her bed at the house she’d lived in for twenty-five years, having gotten used to the strange freedom of being alone in a bed, feeling the heavy air of an empty house and watching the clock, it’s red numbers blurring as she stared.

Mary Ellen was in the kitchen, wiping down the counters and trying to prepare a breakfast with the modest supplies. Her hair was pulled up in a bun, loose strands curling around her hair like cresting ocean waves.

“We need to go to Hannafords,” she said, hearing Slips approach.

“We can go when dad is picking up mom” he said, pulling mismatched plates down from the a shelf.

“That was his idea right?” Opal says from behind the New York Times.

“It’ll be better this way, Opal…they can have a few minutes alone before having to act all awkward around us. And dad won’t be able to buy any rutabaga.”

“Thank god,” Mary Ellen said, smiling a bit, “go get the girls up, breakfast will be ready in a few minutes.”

Over breakfast they discussed the size of the turkey they would need, how many potatoes, whether or not to get eggnog. Richard sat silently, Samantha on her lap, picking out the asparagus and sun dried tomatoes from her eggs and placing the in a pile next to her plate.

At nine Richard left the apartment, his hair unruly but face clean shaven. He gave them all a look Slips imagined similar to that of a man going into battle.

The rest of the family piled back into Slips’ Volkswagen, navigating the way through icy streets. Maggie took charge of the list and sent each person off in various directions with orders, to meet at register 6, regardless of the line. While they picked out vegetables, stuffing makings and piecrusts, each concocted a scenario in their mind of what would happen when Caroline saw Richard, with his silly looking hair and too long scarf, coming at her with pathetic eyes. Opal imagined her throwing a punch, breaking his nose, Mary Ellen imagined her heart breaking, moving her to tears, Maggie imagined them walking together silently out of the airport, moving to hold hands out of habit, taking them back, Slips imagined they would stop for coffee, look at each other as adults, and discuss the situation frankly.

Richard had been on time, was wiping off bits of dandruff and dust from his overcoat when he saw Caroline approaching, pulling a little black bag on wheels behind her, toting a brown paper bag in her hand. She smiled when she came to be in front of him, to him this seemed more painful than a slap across the face.

“I brought some cookies from Bella Napoli,” she said, holding up the bag, “those fudge fancies that you and Samantha like.”

At once Richard burst into tears, immediately feeling the shame of doing so while other men his age walked hurriedly by and he read the looks of disgust of their faces. He took the bag, turned and began walking towards the exit. He cold hear Caroline’s heels clicking behind him, and then the feel of her arm around his waist.

“Richard,” she began, in a voice neither placating nor demanding, “everything is going to be okay, we’ll make it through this.” She felt the strength of her son as she spoke the same words he had to her in the car outside CVS. Richard reached down and took her hand, pressed it tightly in his own.

“I feel so alone,” he said, sighing out a wave of emotion that seemed caught in his throat.

“So do I Richard, but that’s part of life.” She looked at him with the same set, hard eyes as Opal, the furrowed brow of Slips, the elegance of Mary Ellen, he squeezed back. Richard knew, as he felt the pressure on his hand, that his was no longer the touch of his wife, but rather that of a person who felt responsibility for him. He thought of his children, how well they cared for each other, for him.

“Mary Ellen is doing really well,” he said, holding his face tight so as to restrain the tears.

“Yes, she is.” Caroline said. She let go of his hand.

Read More By Liz Varley

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

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