A Good Husband
With the prospect of a three-day weekend ahead, John had come home and announced that they would be going on a camping trip to a patch of woods not too far off he had learned about from a colleague at work. He had already done all the necessary research and found a hospital less than ten miles away, just in case. Marian was lying in bed with a damp rag on her forehead, staring blankly at the ceiling . She sat up slightly and watched John as he bustled around, packing things, looking for things, stumbling over himself in order to get their bags together.
“This will be good for us. To get away,” he said. He stopped packing and looked at Marian, “won’t this be good for us?” He began to do an awkward dance move. He watched Marian, and when she did not attend to him, he frowned and quit dancing.
“All I know is, I’m stressed. I’ve been stressed. I want to get away for awhile,” John said, “Mike says this is the best unknown camping spot in the area- a place he takes his wife and kids sometimes after a hard week. He said I looked like I could use a break. Do I look that way? I feel like I look that way,”
“So get away then,” Marian said. She pulled the covers up tightly around her neck.
“I didn’t mean it like that. You know I didn’t,” John said. He stood at the end of the bed, watching Marian. “Is the light bothering you? I can turn the light back off.”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Marian said. She reluctantly got out of bed and went to the bathroom. She locked the door behind her. As she hovered over the toilet, she could see the shadow of John’s feet as he stood at the bathroom door. She began to vomit.
“Is there anything I can do?” John asked. Marian vomited again, and before she could ask John to bring her a glass of water, he had walked away with an audible grunt.
John had the car packed and ready to go by the time Marian got out of the shower and brushed her teeth. He helped her down the driveway, his hand resting on her fully round stomach as he negotiated her down the steep driveway. She maneuvered herself into the car and laid the seat back as far as it could go. She closed her eyes as John got in the car and quickly put it into drive.
“Camping,” John said with a sing-song voice. He grabbed Marian’s knee and squeezed it.
“You know I fucking hate that!” she growled at him as she swatted his hand. He looked at her with a smirk. She turned away from him and stared out the window. They sat in silence for a few miles.
“God damn it,” John finally said under his breath. “God damn it!” he said again, this time louder, as he slammed his palm into the steering wheel. Marian looked at him briefly. John looked at her, then back at the road. “Sometimes I think you’re already done with me,” he said, “like you gave up a long time ago.”
“I did,” she said.
The sun was setting, casting a malignant shade of pink over the tops of the trees. They were climbing higher into the mountains, and had been on the road for nearly thirty minutes. Over the side of the mountain, just past the barrier, was a steep drop off, and below that only woods for as far as the eye could see. Marian looked for the lights of a nearby city, one that would be large enough to have a hospital, and saw nothing. John had turned silent and brooding, focused on the left side of the road. He was muttering under his breath about a turnoff, and when Marian asked him what he was saying, he snapped back at her that they should be near the turnoff, where a one car trail would lead them down the side of the mountain and into the woods.
“I thought you said there was a hospital nearby,” she said. John said nothing, continuing to scan the side of the road as it got darker and darker. “Hey,” she said as she slapped his shoulder, suddenly irritable, “where’s there a hospital near here? Where is there anything near here?”
“Will you please shut the fuck up for once!” he yelled at her. Surprised, she withdrew to the corner of the vehicle. John put his hands on his head, rubbing his temples with his thumb. Marian didn’t like that he was steering with his elbows, but she didn’t say anything.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. He reached over for her hand, but Marian pulled it away from him. “I’m sorry,” he said louder, “I didn’t mean it. What more do you want me to do? I’m sorry.”
“I want to go home,” she said. “Just take me home, and I don’t care what you said to me.”
John looked down at the dash and furrowed his brow. “We’ve come this far already though, and I know we’re nearby. Let’s ride this thing out- I’m sure we’ll end up having fun, and we’ll forget all about being mean to each other.”
“I want to be near my hospital. I want to be near Dr. Reed,” Marian said. She felt disgusted with herself for sounding like she was begging. “I want to be at home,” she said angrily.
“Alright,” John said, “I’ll turn around the next place we can. I just wanted us to have a good weekend,” he remarked, defeated. Marian felt guilty, then angry for feeling guilty.
“You should have known all we’d do is fight. You know nothing ever makes me happy,” she said.
“I never said that,” John quickly commented.
Marian put her headphones in and pretended she was listening to music, since she couldn’t really listen to anything in the car without feeling sick.
Around the corner, squatting below an overhang from the rocky mountain, there was an old gas station. The sign on the side of the road that was supposed to show the price of gas was blank. Three of the four pumps were out of order and marked off with yellow caution tape strung around them lazily. A neon sign flickered in and out of commission. When it worked, it said “Bob’s Beer and Groceries”. Underneath, a sign proudly displayed they were “CLOSED ON SUNDAY” followed by the hours they were open every other day of the week in a smaller font. A rusty pickup truck took up one of the parking spaces, which really weren’t parking spaces because there was hardly any concrete left and mostly only dirt and they weren’t marked by anything.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Marian said as they pulled up. John stared at her, hesitating to smile. “Seriously,” she said, “let’s turn around and get out of here.”
“What’s the matter? Too country for you?” John said with a twang, doing his best hillbilly impersonation as he started to swing the car around.
“Stop that,” Marian said as she stifled a laugh.
“C’mon, would it be too much to laugh at me every once in awhile?” John asked.
A man opened the door to the gas station. He stood in the doorway, watching as John and Marian made their loop around. He was dirty from head to toe, with a slouching face and bloodshot eyes. He had his jeans tucked into his boots, and a knife strapped to his leg. He eyed them as they drove by, spitting a wad of tobacco into a foam cup.
John made eye contact with the man, then quickly looked away. “Jesus,” he said, “you’ve got me all worked up now.”
Just then, Marian gasped. She sat up stiff and grabbed her stomach “It’s happening,” she said. “Oh my God, oh my God, it’s happening!”
John slammed on the brakes suddenly. He looked over at Marian wide-eyed. She was panting and her forehead had broken into a heavy sweat. “You’re kidding me,” he said, “of all the possibilities.”
“I didn’t make it happen,” she said calmly. “I didn’t ask to be in this position.”
“}Fuck!” she cried suddenly, “I’m going to have this baby in the middle of a fucking holler because of you!”
“There’s a hospital nearby- somewhere,” John fumbled for his cell phone. He turned on the interior light and held the phone over next to it. “I’ve got service,” he said.
John rapidly scrolled through his contacts until he came across Mike’s name and promptly called him. Mike picked up on the second ring.
“Hey buddy, what’s happening?” he said.
“Mike…hey, I’m out here on the way to that campsite you told me about, and, listen, my wife’s water broke. We’re having a baby Mike,” John said.
“That’s incredible bud! Glad you called,” Mike said.
“That’s not the only reason I called though. You said there would be a hospital nearby, remember? Remember I asked you?” John asked frantically as he looked at his wife.
“Yeah, not but fifteen minutes or so from where you’re going. That’s the beauty of it, all tranquil woods, but you can still find an IHOP if you want to,” Mike commented and laughed. John laughed along with him.
“Give me the phone,” Marian said. She held her hand out and curled her fingers. When John did not, she reached out and took it from his ear.
“Mike. This is Marian,” she began, “my husband has us lost in the woods and I’m going into labor. I need to know right now where the hospital is so I can call my doctor and hopefully he can meet us there.”
Mike said something on the other line. Marian wiped the sweat from her brow and wiped it on her shirt. “Uh huh,” she said, listening intently. “The east side,” she said, then waited. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she shrieked after a moment. John grabbed the phone from her.
“Mike? What the hell Mike?” he said.
“You’re on the wrong side of the mountain, bud. There’s nothing where you are,” Mike said, concerned.
“I followed your directions Mike.”
Mike sighed. “You’ve made a habit of hearing about half of everything I’ve ever said to you, bud. Don’t get me wrong, you’re a pal. But, well, shit John. You did this to yourself.”
“I don’t need you to analyze me right now, I’ve got more important shit to worry about,” John mashed the end call button and threw his phone against the backseat with a growl.
He threw the car into park and threw his hands up in the air.
“You’ve got to do something!” Marian wailed at him.
“What am I supposed to do?” he yelled back. He pushed his door open so hard the hinges squealed and it almost snapped back shut on him. He walked purposefully towards the front door of the gas station. He cast a glance over his shoulder at his wife who was lying back focusing on her labored breathing, and felt a twinge of guilt.
The gas station was dimly lit. The bulbs in the freezers flickered. There was a smell of old grease permeating the air. John wrinkled his nose reflexively in disgust. The man that watched them as they pulled in was seated at a booth on the other side of the glass container of grilled and fried foods. He was talking to another man, wearing a trucker hat and a stained navy blue t shirt, who had his back turned to John.
“Hey,” John called out to them as he walked nearer. “Hey, is there a hospital around here somewhere? My wife…she’s in labor.”
The second man turned and glanced at John. The first man snapped his fingers, causing the man wearing the trucker hat to turn his attention back to the conversation. John walked straight to their table, past an older, heavy set woman, who was eying him suspiciously as she cleaned the counters. He looked the first man in the eye, noticing his name tag on his work shirt for the first time. “You know where a hospital is, Ned?” he said aggressively.
Ned leered at him. “You’re a rude son of a bitch, anyone ever told you that?”
“My wife is in labor, Ned. I’m trying to be a good husband,” he said.
“Well, good husband,” Ned said as he stood up from his booth. He was a good four inches taller than John, with much broader shoulders and a more muscular physique, “what are you doing out here if your wife is so close to having a baby?” He looked over to the second man and snickered, “Ain’t that right Dave?” Dave snickered along with him.
John stood rigid, perplexed. Ned looked him up and down and shook his head. “You’re shit out of luck on hospitals, son,” he said, “but, it just so happens my wife used to be a midwife and we ain’t too far from my house.”
John shook his head. “No, my wife won’t go for that.”
Ned shook his head harder and once again looked at Dave. “These fucking city kids,” he said, amused. He looked back at John. “What choice you got?”
John let out a deep breath. He looked around the store, then back outside to his car and his wife. The woman at the counter had stopped cleaning and was now watching him intently. “Alright- you’d do that for me, huh?” he asked Ned.
Ned nodded his head upwards once. “Maybe,” he said, “for about a hundred bucks, I’d consider it.”
It was John’s turn to scoff in amusement. “You’re going to kick me while I’m down, huh?” he looked at Ned for an answer. Ned made no reply, no movement. “Fine,” John said, getting his wallet out. He handed Ned a one hundred dollar bill. “Let’s get going then. I’ll follow you, and explain to my wife on the way.”
Ned took the bill and wadded it in his shirt pocket. He spit in his foam cup. “What’s the baby anyhow?” he asked.
“It’s a boy,” John said, as he started to exit the building. He stopped and turned to look at Ned, “what does it matter? Aren’t they born the same way?”
A grin spread out wide across Ned’s face, revealing a missing tooth. “Don’t matter a bit, just small talk. I always wanted a boy myself,” he said, then frowned as if he’d bit his tongue. “Let’s get a move on then,” he pressed past John and went to his truck.
Dave stood up and started laughing, low and hard. His face was caked with dirt and coal and particles of food. He met John’s eyes and winked, licking his lips. “Boo,” he said, then laughed again.
“Don’t mind him,” the woman behind the counter said casually, “he ain’t right.”
John snorted. “Who is around here?” he asked rhetorically as he hurried back to his car.
“The contractions are getting nearer,” Marian said as soon as John got in the car. “What took you so long?”
John looked ahead at the dingy old truck pulling out in front of him. “You aren’t going to like what we have to do,” he said.
Marian gritted her teeth as another wave of pain came and went. John slowly pulled the car out onto the road behind Ned’s truck. He checked his mirrors. “We’re too far from town now,” he said under his breath.
“Are you…” Marian stopped, horrified.
A few miles down the road, a narrow path opened up and trailed down the mountain. It was unpaved and just wide enough for one car at a time. John cautiously maneuvered the car down the mountain. At the bottom of the mountain, there was a swinging iron fence with a heavy chain and lock on it. In front of the fence was a cattle guard. Ned got out of his car and stepped carefully across the cattle guard to the lock and chain. Marian was cast in the red glow of the truck’s parking lights, and was cringing in the corner, whimpering. John gave her his hand. She squeezed it until her nails raked under his skin.
“We’re going to get through this,” he said to his wife.
Ned came up to John’s side of the car and knocked on the window. He bent down and put his elbows on the window as it rolled down.
“I’m going to pull on through and off to the side. You go on up to the house and get your miss in to see my wife. I’ll lock up and be there shortly,” he said with a nod to Marian. John rolled the window back up as Ned tromped away.
“What are we doing?” Marian asked John tensely.
“His wife is a midwife. She’s going to help you deliver our child,” John said. “We’re going to have a child.” He knew this wasn’t the answer she was looking for, but it was the only thing he knew to say.
John pulled past Ned’s truck and drove up the long, windy driveway to Ned’s house. It was a dilapidated shack, badly in need of a coat of exterior paint. There was a lean-to on the side of the house that sheltered ricks of wood. The roof was starting to sag over the front porch. Off to the side was a storage building, built in the same fashion as the house only smaller. Standing up against the side of it were two axes and a shotgun.
A woman came out with her hand to her forehead, squinting to look in John’s car. John shut off the car and his headlights and got out.
“Your husband Ned said you are a midwife,” John said.
“Were,” she corrected him with a scratchy voice.
“My wife is going into labor, and we don’t have anywhere to go out here. Will you help?” John asked.
Ned’s wife licked her lips. She eyed John, then stepped off the front porch and around to Marian’s side. She bent down and put her face close to the glass. She stood up straight and looked at John again. “Get her in the house. I’ll go get some towels.” Her face looked worn and mean, but there was a pull at her lips that resembled a smile.
John helped Marian out of the car and up the stairs. She held on to him fiercely. It’s going to be ok, he kept telling her, everything will be fine.
“I’ll never forgive you for this,” she said to him as they crossed the threshold into the home. Ned’s wife came from somewhere in the back.
“They always say that at first,” she said to John. “It’s a woman’s natural inclination. Spite.”
“You don’t know the first god damn thing about my inclinations,” Marian said as she collapsed onto the couch.
“Marian!” John said.
“Oh hush up and get out of here,” Ned’s wife said to John. “This woman is in pain and she needs to have this baby. She has the right to say anything she wants right now. Isn’t that right honey? My husband was the same way once, but he’s learned. He’s really such a good husband,” she said as she pat Marian’s head with a damp rag. Marian closed her eyes and sobbed. “I said get out!” Ned’s wife said savagely to John, waving her free hand at him.
John sat on the front porch biting at his fingernails. Ned pulled up and parked his truck beside the storage shed.
“Come over here, help me cut up some more of this wood. It’s going to be a cold winter,” Ned said as he got out of his truck. “Women got their jobs, and we got ours,” he added.
Ned picked up the two axes and tossed one to John. They walked to the side of the house where there was a pile of wood waiting to be cut by an old stump. “Go on ahead and show me that city swing,” Ned said. He took his axe to the grinding wheel a few feet out.
John placed a piece of wood on the stump and centered it. He took a clean swing and split it in one hack. Then he took another plank and did it again. He felt the singularity of the night and felt a momentous feeling of joy. Ned had begun to sharpen his axe. Sparks were flying, some landing on John’s clean shirt and leaving singe marks.
“My wife, Evie, can’t have children,” Ned said over the sound of the grinding wheel and John’s laboring chops. “A midwife who can’t have children,” he huffed as if the irony was a fresh one.
John sat the head of the axe on the ground and leaned against the handle. He studied Ned. The air was brisk. He could see his breath in front of him. “I’m sorry to hear that Ned,” he said.
“We tried to adopt once, but it didn’t turn out,” Ned continued, “and it really took a toll on my Evie. She ain’t talked about children since, but I know her well enough to know that she can’t think about much else these days, ‘cept how she feels she failed me, herself, and…God I guess.”
“I don’t believe in God. But if I did, I’d tell your wife she can’t fail Him for what He didn’t give to her,” John said solemnly, “and by the way you talk about her, I can tell you’d love her no matter what she could or couldn’t do.”
“I’d do just about anything for that woman,” Ned chuckled, holding the axe closer to the grindstone. “I’d kill to make her happy.”
Just then, there was a cry from the house. It was the wail of a newborn baby’s crisp lungs. John let go of the axe handle. In that moment, he felt his insecurities stripped away from him. The baby’s voice called to him like a siren. He knew then the answer to every question he had since learning he would be a father. He was overwhelmed with joy, and yet felt a calm spreading over his body. He opened his mouth to say something to Ned when a banging noise interrupted him. John had never personally fired a gun, but he had been around them enough to know a pistol when he heard one.
The calmness he had felt split seconds ago quickly eroded into confusion, terror. He tried to run towards the house, but his legs felt too rubbery. Ned watched him, quietly sharpening his axe against the grindstone. “I’ve got to see my wife,” John said with much effort. “I’ve got to tell my wife something.” He managed to turn and take one step towards the house before Ned hurled his axe into his back.
Ned walked over to John’s slumped figure. A pool of blood was beginning to seep into the soil. John’s eyes were fluttering, his mouth rapidly moving, whispering something. Ned squinted to watch him. He laughed. “You weren’t half as good as you thought you were, son,” he said to John just as he died.
Ned’s wife, Evie, stepped out of the house holding a bundle of blankets in her arms. She was glowing.
“Well,” Ned said.
“It’s a boy. He’s beautiful,” Evie said. She looked at the bundle in her arms and smiled. She carried the boy over to Ned and opened the blanket slightly to show him. “We can’t keep him out here in the cold too long. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to him,” she wrapped him tighter. “I hope he doesn’t grow up deaf. He was awfully close.”
“You go on in and attend to the child. I’ve got some cleaning up to do out here, then I’ll take care of the mess inside,” Ned said. He pulled the axe from John’s back.
Evie stood on her toes and kissed her husband’s cheek. “You always manage somehow, don’t you?” she said. She laughed vibrantly. “You must be the best husband a woman could have.”