by Chris Dungey
Ladd Callender has the apartment to himself after the spring midterm in Poly-Sci 320. Comparative Ideologies. When he comes in, he collapses straight onto the couch, his designated sleeping place. He doesn't even take off his coat. He is stuck with the couch because Tim Fidler and Rob Nagel found the place first. He was the last roommate in, near the end of fall term. The others hadn't calculated their budget closely enough. The early worms share the one bed in the one bedroom. Though Ladd tossed and turned on the lumpy couch, it was altogether a better deal than the dorms and dining at Port Huron College. A pillow gripped around his head worked pretty well whenever there were late-night social gatherings in the apartment.
He sighs into the worn cushions, spreads his quilt over himself, coat and all. He hasn’t heard a single clank from the radiator since arriving home. Nagel will have to chase down the landlord again. It will take Ladd a few heavy sighs and maybe a leg spasm to finally relax. He enjoyed an hour of sleep before the exam, after two pots of black coffee. The fresh shouting upstairs is pretty muted. No need to wrap the pillow on just yet.
Fid and Rob are leaving tomorrow for Spring Break in Daytona, Rob's Camaro Z28 already packed with luggage and coolers. He could probably go with but the trip would have to be made on a shoestring. To just stay in Port Huron would be the appropriately frugal move. He’d have that bed to himself. Have to do his own cooking, though. Hey, that’s why the can opener and the sandwich had been invented. Nor would there be anyone left in town interested in buying beer for him. No wonder Nagel seemed to consider himself essential to their family unit at times. And it wasn’t about volumes of soup-can skillet meals. Ladd must remember to send them shopping. Notions of all that oiled co-ed flesh on the beach and lounging around the pool though, started an empty, implacable longing in his rib cage. But even having Fidler nearby wouldn't help to get Ladd laid. History has shown. Better to stay here, get ahead on his reading. Sleep for days. In an actual bed.
His situation would be no different if he went home. He'd be alone and miserable and still emotionally crushed like a bug. He certainly could not run into Doris in Celeryville. He never should have started up with a high school girl. An exclusive relationship had no chance with seventy miles of separation. Fid and Rob will bring home a sack of beer in the preferred quart bottles when their tests are done. No level of fatigue can blunt the euphoria of midterms when they’re finished. Ahhhh, yeah now. He drifts. The Camaro hurdles through Knoxville, Ladd wedged into the back seat. Expansion strips in the pavement count backward into deeper sleep.
The thumping around in the ceiling and then through the wall could be anything, even hot water moving toward the radiators through ancient pipes. That has been known to almost every hour. And the stairwell is just outside the wall behind his couch. But Ladd knows an angry stampede when he’s being awakened by one. Then comes a panicked rapping at the door, rattling the half dozen glass windows. The grubby curtain flutters. Fuck. What now? He kicks out from under the quilt.
Fid? Somebody? Can we use your phone?
Pound, pound, pound. It's the teenage wife from the apartment above. Ladd flashes on what that must look like, her well-endowed bounce and jiggle descending the stairs two at a time.
The sailor husband is right behind her, a two-headed silhouette outside the flimsy lace. Ladd staggers to the door without his glasses but can determine that that is absolutely blood. It is spilling (but not spurting, he notes) from her right hand onto a teddy-and-boxers ensemble, which could easily be the much younger sister of the curtain.
Just be still for a second, baby. I know what to do.
The husband has been home from an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea for nearly a month. Yesterday the guy was clean shaven, the haircut a fresh burr under the white gob cap. So maybe the fighting, interrupted only by a coitus nearly as loud, will soon end. He's trying to get ahold of her forearm with a dripping hand towel. Ladd beckons them in.
It needs a cold compress. Right now!
Her name is Janice. Ladd wonders why they still don't have a phone. More fun to bobble down the stairs to flirt with Fidler.
She's gonna need stitches. It's really deep, at the base of her thumb. Can you help us out?
Sure. If I possibly can.
I can't drive and keep the pressure on this.
What is this guy's name? All Ladd can remember is Petty Officer 3rd something. Is it Todd? Yeah, Ladd nearly laughed when the girl introduced him a few weeks ago. Petty Officer Todd was like saying Sergeant Todd. It just didn't work.
What about the baby?
Janice begins weeping. The pain must be overwhelming the initial shock. The weeping comes with hiccups. The Petty Officer 3rd now has a vice-grip on the towel around her hand. Maybe the students won't lose their security deposit for a ruined carpet.
Of course, you forgot Lilly! Dumbass!
Don’t blame me! When you throw an ashtray at the wall, you have to let go of it. I'll get her.
Petty Officer 3rd Todd guides his wife's bundled hand into Ladd's hands.
Firm pressure, kid. It looked like it went clear to the fuckin' bone.
Ladd puts the squeeze on the towel as Todd gallops back up the stairs. The towel drips onto the welcome mat just inside the door. Diluted cherry Kool-Aid. That is not coming out.
Ow, ow, ooo.
He can't help a furtive glance. The nightie is threadbare cotton. There is one small coffee stain and now the drops of blood. Her cleavage is right there, the wobble apparent with each wince and sniffle of her toast-and-jelly breath. If Todd's thirty days leave are running short, maybe she'll come down to visit with her complaints.
You're Ladd, right? You joined late, the new one.
Well that’s more of an impression than he normally makes. Fidler is the chick magnet and Nagel can buy alcohol. Ladd believes that he may be a better listener, though this has not yet paid any dividends.
Yup. Ladd with two ds.
You just drank one beer with us then curled up on the couch.
The couple had come down for one small party when the Petty Officer arrived home, Janice showing him off.
Ladd eases his grip. The baby squalls and slobbers back down the stairs on Todd's shoulder. The carrier and a diaper bag hang in his other hand.
You probably thought I was asleep.
The small gathering was not very loud at all after Ladd gripped the pillow around his head. But he hates it when a party drowns out Johnny Carson.
Petty Officer 3rd Todd puts the baby into her carrier and arranges her in the back seat of the old Ford Galaxy. Ladd leads jiggling Janice, both hands squeezing the towel. She has no coat on but Ladd has draped the quilt over her. A low groan of pain continues to hum as he helps her in, next to Lilly.
This fucker better start today. I'm gonna leave you some cash for a tune-up.
The starter whines painfully, but the engine finally growls to life. The hospital is only a mile away. A winter sun climbs, blinding, to coax a low fog from the surface of St. Clair River. Here and there, dazed students make their way home along crookedly cleared sidewalks, over filthy drifts. Rooms and flats, trashed by overnight cram sessions and study groups, await their exhausted return. Focused on the towel, averting his eyes from the swollen feast right in front of his face, Ladd observes none of this scenery. Janice's free hand strokes the baby somewhere inside a cocoon of bedding. Both have calmed down by the time Todd has drag raced to the emergency entrance. The little girl may even be back asleep.
Walking sideways, Ladd again leads Janice by her forearm. The Petty Officer lugs Lilly in her carrier. Before they trade burdens at the admissions desk, he produces a bottle of formula from the diaper bag. It looks like there are a few diapers in there, too.
This isn't warm. Just do your best if she starts to fuss. There's a pacifier in there somewhere.
They apparently have arrived on a slow morning. The couple disappears quickly when Janice starts to look asterisk eyed. The towel leaks onto the counter where she slumps. One of the ER staff hurries to catch her with a wheelchair.
Baby Lilly is quiet between Ladd's feet. He dares to reach down and rock her, ever so slowly, resisting his own craving to doze. She breathes through a gap in the folds of receiving blankets. He can see only her mouth and nose. He digs out the binky, then tucks the bottle under his armpit, hoping to warm it somewhat. The plan is to stick one or the other into those moochy lips at the first sign of restlessness. She appears to be old enough to grip the bottle. Lilly makes a cute, contagious yawn. How many stitches will it take?
When the baby whimpers, Ladd is quick with the formula before she can open her eyes. Christ, don't want her to see who's got her. He's only done anything like this once, babysitting an infant cousin for two hours. There was just one diaper change and the kid was only wet. Lift the legs up by the ankles, wipe, put on too much Desitin, careful with those big-ass pins. His last resistance to closing his eyes is gone.
When the carrier is lifted from between his feet, Ladd jumps awake. He sits up straight, removes his glasses, rubs his crusty eyes.
Poor sleepyhead. We owe you big time.
Janice slurs as she pats him on the shoulder with her good hand. The other is wrapped in about three different directions with brown elastic bands, wires, and a metal splint protruding. The touch turns into a languorous, drugged massage.
Got one li'l gif’ for ya when we get home, though. God, this is the good stuff.
Darvon, kid. But she'll need every one of those bad boys. I'll get you a case, though, your choice before I ship out.
The ride home is much less frantic. The car lurches over the sidewalk into a parking space beside their ramshackle three-story. It is now the only beater left in the frost-rutted lot. Other residents must have jobs. Fid and Rob must have gone to breakfast.
She's actually running pretty good now. Probably had some old gas and condensation. I put two cans of dry gas in her last week.
You can leave some...a few bucks, anyways, baby. Th' heater sucks ass.
They climb the stairs slowly after more profuse gratitude and a firm handshake from Todd. He's behind her, ready to brace up any stumble or fall. Ladd unlocks, finally sheds his coat into a chair. That couch is going to be his home for the next twelve hours. If he drinks any beer when the fellows come home, they'll have to carry it to him and pour it down a funnel. At least the poly-sci was a cinch. He wrote everything he knew for the essays. And then some. From each according to his ability, to each according to his… That Lilly sure was a cute little booger. Slept pretty good for him. Maybe he has a knack.
There isn't enough residual adrenalin or caffeine to keep his eyes open any longer. His thoughts rise and settle. The back cushions of the couch, and the wall behind that, conduct the low, gentle swells of a harbor. He is, or is in, a small craft moored loosely against fenders made of old tires. This wharf is not maintained very well. There is a soft and steady bump vibrating through the tarred pilings, the cry of gulls, hungry and demanding as they wheel overhead.
Chris Dungey is a retired auto worker in MI. He rides a mountain bike, feeds two wood-stoves, follows Detroit City FC and Flint City Bucks soccer, and spends beau coup time in Starbucks. He has more than 67 stories published. His forthcoming collection, We Won't be Kissing, will be available from Amazon and Amazon Kindle.