"Wide load coming through. Wide load!" said my husband. He tapped the four-by-six print with his index finger, creating a strobe-like effect that intensified the blue of my favorite maternity dress and tripled the striped sailor-suit cuffs. My quadrupled weight filled the frame.
Suddenly, I felt exhausted. Shifting our sleeping baby to my hip, I leaned across the kitchen table. My heavy breasts caressed the Formica top. The lap pad fell to the floor. "Leave it," I said.
My husband raised a few inches off his stainless steel chair. The skid-free wheels squeaked against the speckled linoleum floor.
"Let it go, J.D.," I repeated.
He slid a feather pillow from under his bony rump and laid it on the table. I rested my hot cheek on the warm cushion. It smelled good. I inhaled again: overripe bananas floating in cream and a hint of talcum powder. I would kill for a fruit salad with seedless grapes. I would die for a hot bath, rough sex, and central air-conditioning. I opened my eyes.
J.D. stared at the blue Kodak moment. He wrapped excess tubing around his wrist. Once, twice, three times. Then he adjusted the plastic prong in his nose. "When I was nine years old," he drawled, "there was a little boy in my class at school who wore sailor suits all summer and handmade purple and red sweaters all winter. I think his mama permed his hair, too. She was a beautician and wanted a little girl more than anything, my mother told me. Anything in the world," he said. "And his daddy named him Cipher."
My husband sang softly,
Run for your lif-er."
The baby hiccuped. I shifted her into my arms. The oxygen tank hummed.
"Everybody teased him. He was so ..." My husband searched for the word.
"So are you, J.D."
I held the baby closer. My heart raced. J.D. was slowing down. Running out of steam. Out of breath. Out of time.
J.D. inhaled slowly. "Cipher’s father was a mathematician. I think he worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, and he was oh, twenty years older than my daddy, so he seemed a hundred to me at the time and very scary because he obviously hated children and definitely hated animals. Especially cats, Cipher told me once. And he also said that his daddy hit his mama with a soap dish but I couldn’t tell anyone, and I never did until now."
The baby whimpered. I glanced at my watch.
"Cipher whispered that to me during recess and his nose turned red -- like his hand-knit sweater -- and I loved him at that moment. I think I felt compassion for the first time." My husband swallowed hard. "Later on, Cipher’s daddy threw more than soap dishes at both Cipher and his mama, and I heard the old man left town and never came back."
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"You look a little yellow."
"I’m fine, babe."
"I mean, you look good, J.D. You’re just a little yellow."
"Cross my heart and hope to ..."
"NO! NO! NO!" I lowered my voice. "Don’t ever say that again, J.D. Ever!"
The baby began to cry. Little bleats parted her Cheerio lips. My husband shifted in his seat. His startled eyes met mine.
"Do you know what ‘Cipher’ means?" he asked.
I tried to concentrate. I tried to be kind. To be fair. To believe in God. I shook my head. "Is it a mathematical name?"
"A mathematical symbol. It means ‘nothing.’ ‘Zero.’ ‘Non-existent.’"
I rocked the baby. Again. Too hard. The inconsolable infant trembled in my arms and wailed.
My husband closed the photo album. "Like me," he said. "I’m Cipher. I’m nothing. I’m ..."
I handed him the screaming baby and walked out of the room.
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