SHORT STORY CONTEST
THE CRYING WOMAN
by Barbara Boehm Miller
Jack moves around the room, tracking an industrious circuit with me at the center, picking up the plastic pitcher from beside my bed and shaking it to see if it needs to be refilled. The remaining water sloshes, and the ice cubes clunk against the sides like a dull, forgotten echo. He seems to have forgotten, or perhaps he never knew, that I dislike icy water, hate the hard tingle of it on my front teeth and the painful sharpness in my throat. Maybe he just likes the extra step, the added chore, of cracking open the ice tray from the freezer and dumping it into the pitcher, of having one more concrete task.
“It looks like it’s going to be a nice, sunny day. What do you think of that, Aggie?” Jack twirls the stick to open the slats of the blinds, sending zebra stripes of light across the floor and over my bedspread.
“Why don’t we open the whole thing and really brighten it up in here?” He tugs the cord and lifts the blinds, flooding me with the yellow-bright of the world outside the window. I squint my eyes and try to raise my hand, wishing back the gentle purple of semidarkness and to have another blanket and my hands tucked under the covers. Jack paces from the window to the foot of the bed, pauses to tuck in a sheet corner, and then back to the window where he makes a hand visor and presses against the glass. “It’s a beautiful day out there, Aggie,” he says and retraces his steps to sit in the chair alongside my bed. He grabs my foot with a gentle shake for emphasis. “Just gorgeous.”
My foot is socked and snuggled under a sheet and top cover with a second blanket folded in long accordion pleats and draped across the bottom of the bed. The heat of his hand seeps down through the soft layers; his hand is the warmest thing in the room.
I miss my grandmother, dead these many years, tucking me into bed, on the nights bleeding into weeks and years when my mother worked extra night shifts as a nursing assistant and I would wish her home with me, conjure the click of the lock when she slipped into the quiet house, and imagine her exhausted sigh as she closed the door behind her, and then the thud of first one shoe and then the other hitting the floor.
Grammy pushes the bed clothes under my back and down the sides of my legs. “There you go,” she says with each little shove until I am a giggling mummy hardly able to move my arms and legs. She presses on my nose, three times in quick succession—as if it were a button, firing off small starbursts of warmth. Her fingers are soft ridges of dishwater prune. Grammy takes off her glasses and cleans them with the flap of her cardigan. Her face looks naked and unprotected, as I shuffle down lower on my pillow. The sweet violet of pre-sleep flashes behind my eyes, and I am drifting away from Grammy and the bed and the ticking hours until my mother’s return. Grammy puts her lips to my forehead, delivering a hard-puckered kiss, adamant in her affection. Her breath fans my face, carrying an undertone of the meat she cooked for dinner. “Now, stay in bed,” she says. “You don’t want to be wandering around if the Crying Woman comes by the window.”
Her words drive a cold rod of fear through my center, followed by the giddy warmth of adrenaline. Grammy knows all about the Crying Woman: a lost, wailing lady, keening for the children she gave up on and wasted, who searches forever to replace them, eager to snatch me away if I get out of bed. My mother told me to ignore Grammy’s stories and told Grammy not to scare me, but Grammy warns me to keep me safe.
It happened like this—a woman killed her children to be with her lover, who rejected her anyway and so she forever roams the earth trying to find them or an errant human in their stead. Later, in college, after the cancer already killed Grammy, I learned about other crying women, like La Llorona, who populated foreign folklores. The myth and power of female grief and longing, the despair and the evil of it swirl through my mind to this day.
Lying here in my bed in the living room, my thoughts float higher into soft clouds, and I imagine I can hear the Crying Woman in the whir of the air conditioner. Shadows lengthen along the beige walls. Jack repainted them six months ago, or maybe it was a year. It’s hard to say—time has become both sticky and elastic. It clumps together, compressing the once-monumental into only pinpricks, and it expands, stretching and pulling the smallest moments to the point of distortion. Jack walks into the living room, back presumably from the kitchen because he is carrying a plastic cup in the careful way of someone who doesn’t want to spill a drop.
“Let’s sit you up here, so you can have some juice.” Jack’s forearms are bare, and the heat from his skin seeps into my back where the gown gaps away from its ties. The orange juice has floating bits of pulp identical to the skin flakes of my chapped lips. I cough, and a blinding iron of pain shatters my chest. The nonnegotiable solidity of Jack’s arm behind my ribs only increases the sensation.
“Oops,” he says, “easy there. I guess that was too much.” Juice slides down my chin, pooling in the crease of my neck. Jack wipes my mouth with a tissue and leaves the room, returning with my softest dishtowel, the one I use to dry our crystal glasses. The towel is damp and takes away a stickiness I didn’t even notice until it touched water. Jack is never still, always moving and devising reasons to stay in motion—a dreamy dancer in an underwater choreography. There is a rightness to his steps and gestures, a naturalness I have somehow never noticed or failed to remember.
He reminds me of the man he was when we met. Jack gave me a ride back to college after Thanksgiving break, and then the path of my life diverged, chose a tributary to follow. We hugged goodbye when he left me at my dorm, and the warm hollow at the base of his throat held the cool green of soap, some scrap of cologne, and a woodsy undertone that hinted at his unknown private life, the hidden parts of his story, his intimate rituals, and unrevealed sexual persona. The joints and muscles of his body had a hot pliancy—an easy flexibility that I liked.
In fact, in our entire marriage, Jack only insisted on one thing—that he wouldn’t raise the baby with me. He came though to pick me up from the clinic when I had no one else to call. The inside of the car on the ride home was hot from the spring sunshine beating through the windshield, and I rested my head against the closed passenger-side window. Jack had a clean, just-showered smell, and was wearing jeans and a button-down shirt I had hung in his side of the closet the night before—just another day for Jack, no clenched-fist cramps for Jack; no blood dripping from between his legs. The rainy weekend had greened the grass and pushed open the tulips; the lawns and yards we passed were impossibly vivid.
“I hate your fucking guts,” I said.
Jack jammed the gear shift down into fourth. “That’s great. That’s just great, Aggie,” he said. “Just so we’re clear: I never told you to have an abortion. I didn’t even know what you were doing until you called me for a ride.”
“Fine then. We are crystal fucking clear.” I cried though I could barely believe my aching body had the energy for it.
Jack shook his head and made a sound that was half laugh, half-forced exhale. “Yeah, well, I also never told you to fuck some other man behind my back and get pregnant by him.”
The car moved forward but held us trapped and immobile. Jack, I thought, and the drumming monotony of the tires lent a rhythm to his name. Jack, Jack, Jack. I should have never come back. Yet—I had no place else to go.
And then—therapy. The marriage counselor had a practice in the new office park overlooking the ocean. We sat in a triangle with Jack and me in facing leather arm chairs, and the good doctor off to the side. A spindly table holding only a box of tissues and a bowl of butterscotch candies stood between Jack and me. Sunlight streamed in through the window behind Jack. He was backlit like an angel coming down the corridor for my hand. It was such a beautiful, stupid fucking day.
I cried, pulling out tissue after tissue, until I had a giant wet ball of them in my hand. Jack sat with his elbows on his legs, staring at the floor. At intervals, he tapped one foot and then the other.
Dr. Orm crossed his legs. “I hear you expressing a great deal of anger, Agnes, over what you perceive as Jack’s lack of support. Jack, would you like to respond to some of what Agnes has been saying?”
I blew my nose again and waited—and waited. Jack lifted his left foot and placed it back on the ground.
“Don’t just sit there; say something.” And he just sat there and said nothing. I jumped to my feet, squeezing the soggy tissues in my closed fist. “Say something.” I screamed the last two words loud as bells ringing and re-echoing in my head.
“Agnes, I’m going to ask you to sit down, please,” Dr. Orm said.
“What the hell do you want me to say, Aggie? You’re the one who had the affair. I never said have an abortion. I said to put the baby up for adoption.”
“Agnes . . .”
I squeezed my fists tighter. Liberal Jack with his expansive ideas, his mind ticking like always—a relentless metronome of justice, and yet when all was said and done, his privileged life and intellect showed its underlay of weakness, the marbled white streaks of fat. “You are such a goddamn racist!” My voice thundered with the certainty of my assessment. “You made me choose between you and the baby just because you couldn’t stand to have a half-black child in the house.”
Jack looked at me. His lips were pulled in tight, making a puffy air pocket under his nose. He shook his head slightly—the baffled disappointment of an easygoing man while I drowned—was drowning in feeling and sickened exhaustion at the sound of my voice, my endless words always explaining everything: how to wrap up leftover food and fold clothes, the importance of saving for retirement, why he too needed to try to find something to talk about with me when we sat in a crowded restaurant where everyone lining the bar was telling a funny story and the couples sitting at tables had close-in conversations and touched each other’s hands, and where, every goddamn year, we should put the Christmas tree. Poor wronged Jack just sat there in that Danish-modern, shit-ugly chair in that pretentious counseling room.
I leapt on him; no other verb can really describe it. And I beat his face and neck. Hard. I had never been in a fight and didn’t know what the up-close sound of a fist striking flesh would be like. Even in the confusion and rage, that noise, and now the memory of it, stands out in my mind.
Jack was grabbing my wrists but I kept wrenching free my hands. “Stop it, Aggie. Stop it. Just stop it.” I was unstoppable though and stronger than I had ever felt before. In the periphery I saw Dr. Orm stand up and walk over to the small writing desk in the corner of the room.
He picked up the telephone. “This is Dr. Orm at 203 Shoreline. I have a violent patient and need police intervention immediately.” The impersonal steeliness of his voice, his cool confidence in adherence to protocol ice-washed my rage, and I froze in my movement, a fist still raised above Jack’s head.
Jack grabbed both my forearms and jerked me toward him so that our eyes were only inches apart. “Aggie, we have to get out of here.” I jumped off his lap and grabbed my purse from the chair, and we ran out of the office with Jack holding my hand as we rushed down the corridor and out through the reception area.
“I really suggest you stay until the police arrive, so we can conclude this matter appropriately,” Dr. Orm called after us.
We kept going in a full-out sprint until we reached the car down the little side street where Jack had parked. I braced one hand against the passenger door and the other on my knee as I leaned forward and struggled to swallow air into my lungs. Jack, breathless, stood next to me with his hands on his hips, slightly bent over the hood of the car. He turned to look at me, and I straightened up, and—maybe it was our high-rush escape or simply having enough togetherness still to fight against a common enemy—I touched his hand. In that awful mess, I felt a warm kernel tight against my breastbone. A looming condominium complex blocked our view of the ocean, but I could hear the waves rushing in and spreading across the beach.
“I love you,” I said. “And I’m sorry I hit you.” Jack squeezed my fingers. “I never should have had the affair.” The water pulled back from the shore, carving ridgelines on the sand, and went back into the sea, emptying the hollow ache in my body. “But . . . I wanted the baby so much. You should have loved it because it was a part of me—jwanted it because I wanted it.” Jack dropped my hand and got into the car.
And then, twelve years passed.
In dark sleep, my mind circles back to my lost baby, who is in a drawer somewhere among shelves and shelves of drawers. I am frantic as I yank them open one after another, but still I can’t find the baby, and I wake up in a cold sweat.
There is a feeling of morning, and, before I even open my eyes, I know that my mother is in the room. I can hear the soft murmur of her voice talking with Jack, and I rest a while longer, happy to have her home with me. When I open my eyes, I am surprised at how old she looks—that she is no longer young and beautiful. Her hair isn’t soft brown curls that she wears clipped back from her face and leaves hanging long down her back, and her skin isn’t soft cream with a delicate sprinkle of freckles, like flecks of cinnamon across her nose. She isn’t coming to wake me up for school. I wonder now if she always knew that I was only pretending to be asleep because I wanted her to sit on the edge of my bed and pull her fingers through my hair. “Wake up, Agnes Lynn.”
I sigh and turn my head to the side and imagine I can smell the fruity perfume she used to wear. I see her sitting in front of the cloudy vanity mirror in the late afternoon. She applies a coat of deep red lipstick and unpins her heavy hair and shakes her head like a movie star. She smiles at her reflection, and then frowns—a slight line between her eyes, an unexpected imperfection. Then she sprays a huge cloud of perfume in the air and steps through it, coming out the other side like a magician. She did that every day until the day my father left for good, and she kept her hair clipped in place and gave up on the lipstick and perfume and went back to work. After that, she only ever smelled like her own skin, her own body, and I knew it was the scent of abandonment, the stench of despair—of being a forgotten woman.
Her hair is short now, with no brown in it, and a sharp groove is etched between her eyes. Her flannel shirt hangs open over her t-shirt and flaps around her hips. I was in high school when she finally settled on this as the way she would apparently dress for the rest of her life: jeans high and snug above her waist; t-shirt—sometimes white, sometimes a solid color, and sometimes, worst of all, with some funny, I guess, saying; and a flannel, usually checked, shirt hanging almost to mid-thigh.
I turn my head back and look at her. Today her shirt says “One Tough Mother.” She is used to my kidding her about her clothes; I think of a joke, but she is distracted in her conversation with Jack and doesn’t notice that I want to tell her something.
“Jesus, Jack. I don’t know. I just don’t know,” she whispers, pressing her face into her hands. “She’s starving. They said that her body is literally eating itself at this point.” My mother is standing at the foot of my bed, and Jack walks over and wraps his arms around her, so that he is holding her against his chest. She turns and laces her fingers behind his neck, burrowing her forehead into his shoulder. I have never seen her cling to anyone—not even my father.
“There’s no point in making her suffer, Gayle. Not when I can put a stop to it.” His voice is low and steady: comforting.
My mother is crying, wetting Jack’s shirt. Her tears are rushing water in my ears that swirls in on itself, becoming what it already was: the sound of a woman crying. I feel myself slinking back into sleep, safe and sound in my bed, where no one can snatch me away.
Jack is sitting in the chair next to me. “Open up.” He squeezes on my cheeks to swab the inside of my mouth with a wad of wet cotton on a wooden stick; I taste a hint of lemon, or maybe I only imagine it. He adjusts the tubing dangling down from the bag hanging on the pole; there is a slight tugging sensation on the inside of my arm. I start to say something, but he shushes me.
“I’ll get going then,” says my mother. “Look, why don’t we just sleep on it. Okay, Jack?” Somehow it is the evening of a day I don’t remember.
“Okay. I’ll see you in the morning then.”
My mother kisses my forehead and pulls the sheet closer to my chin. “Sleep tight, Agnes Lynn,” she whispers, forgetting to warn me about the Crying Woman, weeping outside my window, her lament rising and falling with the night wind. My mother kisses Jack on the cheek.
“Get some rest, Gayle.” My mother nods her head, and I purse my lips to smile at his gentleness toward her. After she leaves, Jack takes my hand and kisses my fingertips. I want, in a way I have not wanted for many years, to sit on his lap and straddle my legs across his hips so that I can press against him and feel every groove and notch of his body against mine, to be as close to him as I can, to touch him so fully that I could be under his skin with him.
“Aggie, if you could just do it tonight on your own—that would be the easiest thing.”
And then, the thin purple light of early morning filters through the window. No one pulled the shade. Jack is asleep in the chair and hears me open my eyes. “How are you doing?” he asks, stroking my forehead. He rests his lips on my face, motionless except for his breath. He draws back. “I don’t want this to be any harder for Gayle, so I’m just going to go ahead and do it before she gets here.” Jack grabs my hand and presses it to his forehead. I can feel his tears falling on my palm and sliding down my wrist. He is probably the most reliable man my mother has ever known.
Jack places my hand back on the bed. “I know it sounds stupid, but I’ve been thinking all night about the last thing I would say to you.” I turn my head toward him because I want to tell him too what I’ve learned watching his confidence and grace—to let him know that I regret shortchanging him as a decision maker, someone on whom my mother—and one tough mother at that—could depend.
“It’s this,” whispers Jack. “I’m sorry: you should have had the baby.” And just like that, he concludes the conversation that began twelve years ago, washing the last bitter stones of my resentment out to sea.
The room is quiet: no high-pitched wailing in my ears. Jack gets up from his chair and walks out to the kitchen and suddenly I am hungry and want to eat a big meal, much like the dinners my grandmother used to cook every Sunday afternoon. I will roast a chicken with potato and turnip quarters in the bottom of the pan, and my mother will sit at the table with Jack and me.
Jack comes back from the kitchen with a glass of orange juice, which he sets on the tray beside my bed. He fumbles with some medication caplets and opens them one by one into the cup. “Shit. I hope you can drink this down. Because otherwise I don’t know how to do it.”
My mouth is dry, and I am thirsty in such a way that I can’t believe there was ever a time when I didn’t want to drink. Jack holds the glass to my mouth, and I gulp down the juice. It is delicious, and I want more.
“Just close your eyes now, Aggie, and you’ll take a nice long nap. I’ll hold your hand the entire time.” Jack is right. I am tired now, but I struggle against the sleep. I want my mother to sit beside me. I want my chicken dinner. I want to tell Jack how light and clean I feel. It will have to wait though; everything I want to say will be for another time because I can hear the Crying Woman again, louder than ever.
And I can see her now, at last. She wears a shawl around her head, covering her face, and presses her hand against the window—just like Grammy said she would. There is a gentle, persistent rapping on the glass.
“I love you,” Jack whispers, and he is holding my hand just like he said he would.
Barbara Boehm Miller is an emerging writer and recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. She is also a senior diplomatic translator of Romance languages and has published several translations, primarily in the field of children’s rights. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her inspiring husband and twin daughters.