by Gregory J. Wolos
The pregnant woman with the pixie haircut seated across from me on the Red Line was giving me the eye while I scanned my notes in the margins of Thomas Cahill’s book, The Gifts of the Jews. I’d be delivering a lecture in half an hour. I taught Jewish Studies classes at three different colleges, though I’d earned my degrees in English Literature. The Dean of Humanities at my first job interview told me the Elizabethan Drama maternity leave post had been filled, and my first thought was to apologize for the Bell’s palsy leer twisting the left side of my face. Before I could tell him I’d been promised the paralysis would soon fade, he asked if I had a background in Jewish Studies — they had an unexpected opening there.
“I’m a lapsed Episcopalian — ” I said, which wasn’t exactly true — it was my parents who had lapsed, before I was born; I’d been raised in a religious vacuum. “ — but I’m well read.” The dean was satisfied. Jewish Studies my specialty, I became an aficionado of Cahill, a Catholic, and his book about the legacy of God’s chosen.
The young woman held her Buddha belly against the subway’s jostle. Her dark eyes, as large as Spielberg alien’s, caught mine as I peeked above the book I’d gotten used to hiding my face behind: it had been years since the doctor said my features had returned to normal, but I didn’t believe him. I was sure something was off. Uncharacteristically, I played eye tag with the expectant woman for a string of heartbeats, until her cheeks dimpled and she blushed.
The train jolted to a stop, and she pushed herself to her feet. “That’s a silly-book,” she chirped like a cartoon cricket, then handed me a business card, pink on one side, blue on the other. Maybe for a plastic surgeon, I fretted.
“Call me,” she said before waddling through the sliding doors onto the platform. The pink and blue sides were the same: “Janie Johnson, Surrogate Child Bearer — professional, experienced. Specializing in implants — What’s Yours is Yours. References provided on request.” She’d circled her phone number.
I called that night. “Why me?” I asked.
“You have a wise face,” she said. “Almost kind. There’s something else about it I can’t put my finger on . . .” The ghost of my palsy, I thought.
“What’s silly about my book?”
“It’s a God-book, which makes it as much about endings as beginnings. My business is only in beginnings. For me, it’s always spring.”
“How many times have you done — what you do?”
“This is my second time. First was on the West Coast. Listen, do you want to go to a movie or something? I’d say coffee, but I’m off caffeine. I have a whole list of things I’m ‘off’ and I’m ‘on.’ The clients are very particular, and it’s their money. Decaf is okay, I guess, or a fruit juice — we can’t really talk at a movie. But I’m antsy. Tomorrow labor’s going to be induced. The clients like to control whatever they can.”
Starbucks it was, on Commonwealth Avenue across from the university dorms, though I still didn’t like to eat or drink in front of people: what if I leaked down my chin without knowing it? I was grading papers when she toddled in, wearing a suit jacket patched at the elbows over a pink dress with yellow daisies that strained against her belly. I waved her over, and she deposited herself across from me like a sack of grain. She glanced about as if she were counting customers.
“I really shouldn’t be doing this. I’m not supposed to — I could forfeit everything — ” She tried to lean forward, and as I bent to her over the table, she gasped, then whispered in her cricket voice, “Can you believe I get horny? But I’m under contract. ‘No physical intimacy.’” She threw another look at the entrance. Whether she was after sympathy or a flirtation, I’d already succumbed to both.
“I don’t want to get you in trouble,” I said. “Economically.”
She sat back. Her hands sculpted her stomach as if her torso was made of sand. “There are gray areas.” Then she froze. She winced, welts of rouge suddenly obvious on her pale cheeks. She snatched a breath, but couldn’t blink away her pain or frustration.
“Believe it or not, I’ve got to go to the hospital,” she said. “If you could just help me get a cab — but that’s all. No noble gestures. You’re just nobody, if anybody asks.” She bit her lip and pretended to look at a wristwatch. “Induced-shminduced — it’s like a damned sitcom!”
I helped her into a cab and returned to my apartment, where I failed to distract myself with students’ answers to the day’s free-write: “Why religion?” Two students had submitted blank papers, and I slashed a minus next to their names instead of the automatic check I gave everyone else. When my face was disfigured, I worried I would accidentally see one of the sketches I was sure students were doodling during class. These blank papers were worse — as if the culprits were winking at my insecurity, daring me to imagine my own self-portrait.
* * *
I waited nearly two months before calling the number on Janie’s card, reasoning that she would need private time for recovery, but by then it was no longer in service. My life moved along — the year ended, summer flew by, and in the fall I was still an adjunct at three schools, though I’d picked up a fourth course. From time to time — when I saw a pregnant woman or a mother carrying a baby or pushing one in a stroller, I thought of Janie, and wondered if she’d taken whatever sum she’d earned for her surrogacy and found greener pastures.
Then, one evening, late, in the middle of Letterman’s top ten, my phone buzzed.
“Hey, stranger — ” A child-voice — something melted in my chest. “ — it’s Janie Johnson. You’re a hard one to find.”
“You never had my number.”
“Right. I called a lot of colleges. They don’t like to give out information. The first two wouldn’t release a thing. I told the secretary at the third I was your wife — that I was pregnant, and that it made me forgetful, and that I couldn’t remember your phone number. She gave it to me. You’ll probably get congratulations and questions. I hope I didn’t make things hard for you.”
“Are you?” It didn’t matter about my number. Adjuncts live in their own sunless universe. I knew my students and nobody else. Administrative details were handled through email.
“Am I — ?”
“Back in business,” she said. “Coffee? It’s not on the ‘off’ list, this time. Sex still is, though. But — ”
“And your last — situation?” I asked, to fill the awkward pause.
“Resolved,” she said. “Everything was fine. I’d rather not talk about it.”
* * *
She beat me to Starbucks. I thought I spied her through the window as I approached, but it was another young woman with short hair and big eyes who caught me staring and scowled. I found Janie toward the back — she’d grown out her pixie hair to shoulder length. She wore the same elbow-patched jacket and a skirt cinched around her slim waist. An over-sized mug of coffee steamed in front of her. I signaled her and she smiled and sat up straight. I ordered my coffee at the counter, then stood by our table.
“I tried you, but your service was disconnected,” I said.
“I was away. Halifax. Visiting friends.” She looked tired — but I’d never seen her thin.
“It’s nice — ”
“ — To see me with a waist? It’s only the first trimester — it’s supposed to be bad luck to tell anybody yet, but — ” she shrugged, “ — it’s not mine, right? I’ve got a guarantee clause. Fifty percent for a miscarriage in the first or second trimester, full price for a third semester stillborn — on account of my effort.” She tossed her hair. “God’s a tough one. He doesn’t give up. Things keep ending — ” She paused and took a swallow of her latte, and I watched the muscles work in her throat and the flutter of her lashes.
I stepped away to pick up my coffee, which came in a paper cup instead of the mug I’d asked for. It burned my fingers, even through the cardboard sleeve. “So, Halifax,” I said as I sat. “Never been. Nova Scotia.”
“Yes, mm-hmm.” Her eyes shone, and when mine met them, they dipped to something next to her mug. Lying on a black silk handkerchief was a tiny figure. It looked to be an infant Christ from a nativity scene. It was swaddled up to the neck in white and had a pink face and brown hair. If there were facial features, they were too small to see.
“Once.” Janie was grinning. “ ‘Eye-no,’ now.”
“You know what now?”
“No — his name is Eino. He’s the unknown Titanic baby. He stands for all the babies that were lost when the ship went down. He’s buried in Halifax, under a monument. Eino Viljami Panula. They knew the unknown baby was one of three, and they did a DNA test, and the lost baby turned out to be Eino. His family came from Finland all the way to Halifax after almost a hundred years to pay their respects. I was there. And I want you to hear something.” From her jacket pocket Janie pulled a phone, which played a scratchy melody. “Shh — ” She put a finger to her lips. “It’s called ‘Songe D’Autumne.’ This is an old gramophone recording.” She stifled something that might have been a giggle or a sob. Her head bobbed. “One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two three . . . It’s a waltz, listen.”
I nodded along, but squinted an inquiry.
“It’s what the orchestra played while the Titanic sank. I thought it meant ‘Song of Autumn,’ but it doesn’t. ‘Songe’ means ‘dream.’ ‘Dream of Autumn.’” She poked the ceramic baby with her little finger. “It would have been the last thing he heard.”
I let my head sway with the waltz rhythm, but when I cleared my throat, Janie’s eyes flashed. Had I made a face? In an instant she’d pocketed the phone and whisked the baby, wrapped in the black handkerchief, from the table.
“So — ” she began, as if I’d just arrived. Her gaze roamed the Starbucks. Halloween decorations — pumpkins, witches, ghosts — were taped on the walls. “Tell me about some of the costumes you’ve worn, you know, for Halloween parties. Okay,” she said without pause, “I’ll start. I wear the same costume every year. I have a dress — a gown — and a while ago I covered it with shellac. Then I drape some plastic wrap over my arms and legs and smear clear gel on it. I over-condition my hair, so it hangs straight down.” She fingered a curl. “It works great when it’s longer. Can you guess what I am?”
“A drowning victim! I’m that folklore prom date, you know, the one that begs for a ride home at midnight in a rainstorm, and it turns out the girl died years before. Drowned. And what are you?”
I’d never been much for costume parties even before my palsy issue, and after . . . October’s a bad month for the disfigured. The closer Halloween gets, people stop looking away — they study your face, admire it, and smile with a nod, as if to say, “Good job!” I lied to Janie. “Once, in college, I wore a suit. I made a ring out of foil and kept it in my pocket. When I was asked who I was, I said, ‘a best man.’ Where’s the groom? ‘I’m holding this for him.’ And I showed the ring.”
“Why weren’t you the groom?”
I shrugged. “A groom would have empty pockets. It wouldn’t be a costume. I would just be wearing a suit.” Then I remembered something: “That song — the Titanic one — I thought the orchestra played a hymn when the ship went down. Not a waltz. A hymn — that would have been appropriate, right?”
Janie’s brow clouded. Her chair screeched back, and she hugged herself. “Survivors gave different accounts,” she hissed. Her voice was so low I had to watch her lips. “You have to make a choice sometimes. You can’t always have it every way. You have to pick something and believe it. I have to go.” Without another word, she was out the door. The only evidence she’d shared my table was a half-empty mug.
* * *
Seven months later, on my first free day after a school year busy enough to crowd out all thoughts of Janie, she called. She was crying — her slight, quivering voice chilled me. It was about the Titanic baby. There had been more sophisticated DNA testing. Eino Viljami Panula was no longer the unknown child.
“They say now it’s Sidney, the English baby. He was on his way to Niagara Falls with his whole family, who all drowned. But I don’t believe it. Niagara Falls? That doesn’t sound true. That’s for honeymoons!” She choked, and I searched for words of comfort, but found none. More sobs. “Eino’s family came. I saw them. We honored his memory together. We stood in the rain. You wait and wait to reunite with your family, and then, it can’t just be gone, can it? Science can’t do that. What happened to faith?”
Of course I offered to drive her to Halifax. What else did I have to do? It didn’t matter that the trip would take at least fourteen hours and that Janie was only a week from her next induced delivery.
“If we don’t show Eino the respect he deserves, who will?” she asked.
She met me in front of our Starbucks, wearing sweatpants and an orange hoody that made her look like a pumpkin. As I pulled up, she wrapped her arms around her belly and loaded herself beside me.
“Once a thing is found, and you come to love it, it can’t be lost again, right?” It sounded like a Disney cartoon moral, but I agreed. She pulled her little Eino out of her hoody’s pocket and let it lie on her palm, as if she were showing the infant where he was. Then she tucked the figurine back, tenderly — it might have been a newborn marsupial burrowing for the nipple hidden deep in her pouch. Janie’s hair now swept past her shoulders in waves that collected in her hood. Grief and a full-term pregnancy had reddened her eyes and face.
While I drove us out of Boston, she produced an iPod, and nodded toward my car stereo: “Songe D’Autumne,” of course. Soon, my pulse beat along with the waltz, and we didn’t bother to speak. Our private sorrows flooded together and time seemed suspended. We drove and drove. The sun arced above the windshield visor, only to sink to my rearview mirror hours later. But the weight of the blue sky never lessened. We stopped for Janie to pee at every other service area, and we bought sandwiches and coffee and ate them in the car. “Songe D’Autumne” played over and over, and Halifax got closer and closer.
As we neared our destination, the shadows of oaks and pines pointed forward: the trees were lit by the low sun into brilliant greens. Everything in front of us glowed — the broken white lines, the double yellow ones, the blues, reds, and yellows splashed across billboards, the black lettering announcing exits and speed limits. The only muted color was the violet of the sky beyond Halifax. Far enough out, we knew, was the sea.
We entered the city limits. Janie directed me to the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, where more than two-hundred Titanic victims lay buried among three-hundred years of Halifax dead. It looked like all other cemeteries. We passed through the gates. Blue gravel crunched beneath the tires. The grass around the white and gray markers was shaggy with late spring growth.
Janie filled her lungs, her breath shallow because of the baby nestled beneath them. “You can’t see the harbor — but smell the ocean.” The briny air unsettled me. I had to remind myself we were on solid land. “It’s just ahead,” she said. “They’re all together.” She arched her back for a better view, hoisting her belly up with her hands. I pulled up behind a blue car with New Jersey plates. We’d passed other parked cars, but had yet to see anyone. When I stopped, Janie rocked herself onto the grounds, and I followed — our first walk together. She paused after a few steps, and I thought we had arrived. She pressed one hand to her belly, her other arm out to the side, either for balance or to signal me to stop. For a panicked moment, I thought her contractions had begun. But she wore a sad-sweet smile. “Do you want to feel the baby kicking? I don’t know if it’s a boy or girl. This time it was in the contract for me not to know. Did you ever try not to wonder something?”
I had never touched Janie before I lay my palm on the tight orange fabric. I had to remind myself that what I was feeling for belonged to somebody else. But before I felt anything, I saw the couple looming before us and lifted my hand.
The failing light flattened perspective, and the man and woman appeared as a tableau: he wore khakis and a red sweater over a white shirt, she a denim jumper and a yellow jacket. They were about my age, and they held champagne glasses. The bottle stood on the plinth of a blunted obelisk no taller than my shoulder. They had neat brown hair and features like catalogue models, including identically clefted chins. Brother and sister, I guessed.
“You missed most of the toast,” the man had a trace of an English accent. “And we only have a pair of flutes. You’re welcome to what’s left, if you don’t mind drinking out of the bottle.” He nodded toward the monument, and I read its inscription: “Erected to the Memory of an unknown child whose remains were recovered after the disaster to the ‘Titanic’ April 15th 1912.”
Nobody had brought flowers. I shook my head. Janie’s contract would have prohibited alcohol consumption. And who knew who or what the couple toasted, though I had a suspicion. I shielded Janie, but felt her heat behind me.
“To Sidney,” the man said, catching my eye and tipping his glass toward the monument.
“Eino,” I murmured, so Janie wouldn’t have to.
“Of course you do,” the woman said. “Everyone knows.” She dabbed her eyes with a pink tissue. The pair stood like plaster statues.
“Do you know the words to ‘Nearer My God to Thee?’” the man asked. “I can hum the tune, but I’ll be damned if I can remember anything past the first verse.”
I shook my head again, vigorously, and the woman stared at me, cocking her head: it had just dawned on her that I might be dangerous. The doctor said no, but I was sure that when I was tired my face shriveled, and I wanted to touch it, but instead reached back for Janie’s hand. I half expected to feel the little ceramic Eino, but warm fingers joined mine. The man began to hum. The melody was familiar in the way of all hymns. Maybe I was dangerous. Smashing the plaster couple would be as easy as smashing the bottle at our feet. Then my hand was empty, but I didn’t turn. The man had fallen silent and was also eyeing me uneasily. I smiled — an expression certain to exaggerate my grotesqueness.
A car door slammed, distant, as if the dwindling light couldn’t support the sound. Janie had retreated. The couple was safe — whatever emptiness they hoped to fill was their own. When I stooped to pick up their bottle, both flinched; the man spilled some of his champagne.
“Thanks,” I said. I weaved through the tombstones back toward the car, and I pictured Janie waiting inside. Maybe she’d taken out her figurine, set it on her belly, and watched it tremble with the kicks of the child she’d promised to others.
“Go forth,” Abraham heard God command, and he led the Jews to Canaan, and so, according to Cahill, launched Western religion. Why not a road trip for me? I had a champagne bottle and my car was ripe for christening. The summer lay before me, and maybe all of Canada, depending on which direction I drove. Maybe I’d have company. Maybe we’d get somewhere — at least to the other side of something.
GREGORY J. WOLOS writes about mysterious and troubling matters from his home on the Mohawk River in upstate New York. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, PANK, the anthology Surreal South ‘11, and many other journals. Visit his website at www.gregorywolos.com.