A WOMAN SHOULD HAVE LEGS
The problem with Nancy’s suicide attempts was that nobody knew about them, which defeated the purpose. Even Nancy had trouble remembering one day to the next whether she had taken pills or attempted to club herself with Bob Jr.’s baby monitor. She figured the less hoopla the better—the act of death was inherently loaded with drama. That was not her way; she’d rather pass quietly and forever be remembered as the “woman who never called attention to herself,” but upon death, her genius for living was discovered. The genius, she felt, was an understanding that no one else seemed to get that her painting of a barn wasn’t just a picture of a barn, but the barn itself. That’s why Nancy had bought the painting in the first place. It was a perfect example of what she’d been trying to say for the last fifteen years. A painting, like a person, was a living, breathing thing, not to be dismissed as art. It was real. Yes, she would even go as far as saying the only real people out there were the dead ones—the rest of the population was merely a representation at best—a barn, for instance. Nancy’s problem was that she thought about things too much. Things made her earthbound. Nothing she’d tried had worked. That’s why she chose to jump off the woodshed this time with only five pills to help her make the decision. She had, with great shame, wondered how she would look splayed in the snow bank, her legs snapped in two like kindling. She thought about wearing her new Alpine coat with the stitching her mother-in-law had sent last week for Christmas, but that gesture might be taken in the wrong spirit. She wasn’t even supposed to have opened it yet, but did because she had eight minutes before Bob Jr. woke up crying and that just wasn’t enough time to get anything else done in the house.
Her first suicide attempt was half-hearted. By the time she’d steamed carrots for Bob Jr.’s snack, made three bottles of formula, changed his diaper, and put him down for his nap (if you could call fifteen minutes a nap), there was hardly any time to get the ladder out of the garage, climb on top of the woodshed and jump. In the end, she’d worn a yellow windbreaker because its origins were unknown and she didn’t think it was fair killing herself in an article of clothing anyone could identify. As she stood on top of the woodshed contemplating jumping, Sam Levenson, her next-door neighbor, was out shoveling the walk. Nancy hoped he’d try to talk her out of it, but all he did was raise an ungloved hand in greeting—as if a woman standing on top of a shed was the most natural thing in the world. By the time she’d gathered up her courage, it was time for Bob Jr. to get up from his nap. She’d have to put it on hold, or forget about it for awhile, or bake a cake; she couldn’t remember which. Her subtle cries for help were so subtle, they went unnoticed by everyone including herself. Nobody took her ponytail seriously. The note she left on the counter weeks before read like a grocery list: alone, lonely, la, la, la, la, la, Salvation Army bells, Hanna Andersen catalogues, Chinese restaurant bars, shiny things, nutcrackers, things supposed to make me cry but are only sad because they’re supposed to be sad—she hadn’t even the energy to finish the note. Her husband, Bob, had taken to using it as a coaster for his coffee. Every morning he glanced down onto the scrap of paper with the scribblings, and wiped the ring off. Further complicating the matter was that she really didn’t want to die, just make Bob have an epiphany similar to the one he’d had when the assistant head coach of the Game Cocks checked out mid season. He felt betrayed, but eventually that feeling turned into regret that he had failed to notice the quiet heroism of the number two man. It was hard to say when Nancy decided that suicide was the only way out of the snow globe. She was a nurse—proof positive that God had the best sense of humor of all. Precision was important to her. She spent hours thinking about the barn being a barn, not just a picture of a barn. How could she write that in a note? In the meantime, it was 11:45 A.M., time for the woman with no legs to ride by in her wheelchair.
Nancy stood at her kitchen window gazing out at the street, while Bob Jr. wreaked havoc in his bouncy seat. A bouncy seat seems so ebullient, but the whole premise depressed her. Her life had been one big bouncy seat—always moving but never really getting anywhere. The woman with no legs was running late. Nancy dashed to the microwave to heat up her coffee. This was a sign. The woman was never late. Nancy connected the dots of her morning—9:45 the Mormons came by again, but Bob Jr. was fussy, and it was time for his applesauce, and the phone was ringing. Yes, she wanted to know about her salvation. Yes, she wanted to know what Mormonism meant to her. Yes, she wanted them to come back. Yes. Yes. Yes. She couldn’t be distracted. The young men with their efficient haircuts and pink ears understood. She was on their route. They would come back again at 12:30 while Bob Jr. took his nap. Nancy ran back to the window. Bob Jr. threw his Sassy toy across the room. What if she didn’t come? That was the worst thought of all. They had never exchanged a word, just a simple nod of understanding that a picture of a barn is not just a barn, but the barn itself. That’s all she needed. That’s all Nancy needed from anyone. If someone would just admit for once what was real. Finally, Nancy could see the dogs coming down the block. The woman with no legs held four sturdy leashes pressed tight against her chest while the English Sheep dogs pulled the chair forward. Her command of the animals was complete. She clucked once, and they changed course. Where her legs should have been was a carpet bag. It was snowing outside, but the woman with no legs didn’t put on her goggles. She wore an aviator hat low on her forehead, her long, gray hair bouncing behind her like an empty cartoon balloon. Her shoulders were wrapped in an afghan with snowflakes as big as stars. She stopped in front of Nancy’s house long enough for their eyes to meet. And then she was off. Bob Jr. was crying. It was time for his nap.
The baby. The baby always wanted something even when he was sleeping. A lot like his father. Had an opinion on everything, especially Nancy. They both were light sleepers. Noisy sleepers. Lived on twenty minutes. Refreshed, always refreshed, but close to agitation. Other than that, he was a dream.
Nancy’s life could best be described by the state of her ponytail. It started out high and taut, all sass and cheerleader. Over the last 455 days (roughly around the time she’d moved to Virginia and her mother had died?) the ponytail had been beaten into submission. Her tangle of blonde curls objected to such optimism, but liked the idea of no pressure. That’s what she’d have—a no-pressure ponytail. No pressure turned into no brushing. After the baby, Bob Sr. pronounced the perfect weight for a woman was 115 lbs, no matter her height. He loved blanket statements, didn’t like the nit picky nature of precision. One size fits all for Bob. He insisted he hated that skin and bones look all the models were going for—he liked some substance. Nancy heard the italics in his voice. She heard the implication of “dog sledding thighs.” He said all this in that affable way he has, so it didn’t really count unless you glommed onto the word substance—a throwaway, she felt. She hated how that word paraded as the real thing. Substance was in the details. What was a woman of substance? After the 115lb comment, Nancy stood naked in front of her bathroom mirror. She wanted to assess her whole body. She barely knew what she looked like anymore. She stared at her reflection, determined to really see what was there. She could always count on her skin—at least until she’d started using the Mary Kay cosmetics her neighbors sold. Her skin had been smooth as a dinner plate, but was now given to break outs. As for her weight, she gave four pounds to the no-pressure ponytail, minus three for the breasts. The moccasin slippers were at least two. She observed herself as if she weren’t there— encouraging the body to grab hold of a car fender and run across the country, run forever. These were big legs, hearty legs, peasant legs. They were her undoing. She could live without these legs.
The Mormons were prompt. This was the time of day Nancy often applied her lipsticks, one of the seventeen samples her sales rep Mary Kay, who coincidentally also sold Mary Kay, had given her. The Elder boys sat at her kitchen table admiring Bob Jr.’s highchair. They were sweet boys—boys that could, if they were not careful, be put in a snow globe. Nancy poured herself a large cup of coffee and sat down. Finally. Hallelujah! She kept a can of whipped dairy topping on the table so she could add it to her coffee as necessary.
“Ok,” she said. “Tell me about salvation.” The baby monitor was behind her on the kitchen countertop. She leaned forward, so terrified, she was that Bob Jr. would wake up. He was always doing that, just like his father. How could anyone relax under those conditions? Somehow the baby monitor was picking up Pam Gelissen’s phone conversation with the pediatrician’s office about head lice. The Mormons had a pamphlet they wanted to discuss with her. Focus. Stay calm. Don’t get overly excited. The Mormons promised their presentation took a full hour. Nancy took a deep breath and leaned forward. She tried to focus, to forget, to laugh at appropriate times, not before.
“Do you know, Mrs. Baker, why there are no crosses in the Mormon church?”
“You’re kidding?” Nancy said, reaching for the whipped cream. “I didn’t know that.”
“The origins of the cross are pagan. They symbolize Christ’s torture and death—not the resurrection.”
“Really,” Nancy said. It was fascinating. It was all fascinating. She noticed the elder with the misshapen ear had a broken blood vessel under his eye.
“In our churches you will see the angel Morani. The angel Morani usually carries a bugle. He is calling out to God, announcing our coming. He looks forward. Now there’s forward and there’s backwards. Which way do you want to be going?”
Nancy’s whole body froze. Hear that? Nobody breathe. Don’t even think of breathing. And don’t think of the baby because he senses it and that wakes him up more and he needs to sleep. We all need to sleep. I’m telling you, he does that when he knows I’m trying not to think. Nobody think. Nobody do anything. There he goes. He’s breathing. He’s breathing. He’s breathing.
“Shoo, that was close,” Nancy said. “Did you happen to notice the mechanical reindeer across the street, Elder Fulbright?”
“The one in my neighbor’s yard. See how it does that? The one with the antlers grazes in the same spot all day long, and the other one leaps, but doesn’t get anywhere. What do you think that means in the Mormon Church?”
“It’s a Christmas decoration.”
Nancy pulled on her turtleneck, which suddenly felt restrictive around her neck. “Every time I look out my kitchen window, I see a reindeer leaping, but going nowhere. It’s the saddest thing, isn’t it?”
“We want to talk to you about God, Mrs. Baker.”
Nancy stared out the window past the elders. Was it just her? Was she the only one bothered by it?
“Here’s the thing, boys” she said. “There is no God, there is only Bob.”
Nancy had married affable with good looks. You can live with affable—affable in the beginning sounds a lot like cheerful. The homecoming princess marries affable, the football star with a bum knee. Naturally, Bob went into sales. Naturally, Bob was a success—give Bob an eggnog and he ruled the world. And he could tell a story—could tell it so well he managed to tell the same one twelve times a night. He’d told the story so many times, she hardly recognized it anymore. It was just a stand-in for the original story which, in truth, was much better. The original story didn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end, no arcs, just three middles—a boy, a fish, and a priest. That’s all. It didn’t need anything else. The beauty had been in its simplicity. Now the story was a polished stone Bob whipped out of his pocket at parties. But this was also the man who spent his Saturday afternoon assembling those mechanical reindeers for Cindy, the divorced mother of two, who lived across the street. He was helpful, appreciative of the smallest things. Swore she made the best scrambled eggs he’d ever eaten. He was always dragging out pictures, remarking on Bob Jr.’s likeness to himself. She hated affable. She had fallen in love with affable and paid for it through the nose. She loved Bob Sr., she guessed. And his only complaint was that she stop thinking so hard—after all, sometimes a cigar was just a cigar. Exactly!
Nancy’s heart was racing. There was so little time. She had to go to work in four hours. Bob Jr. would be waking up soon. She stood up and pointed at the canvas on the wall. There was an urgency to her gesture.
“What is that?” she asked. “What do you see?”
For a moment, she believed Elder Fulbright would be able to see what she saw. He was the older of the two boys, and had used the word ‘discerning’ in a sentence. Discerning. She was holding onto that word with both hands. Elder Fulbright stood up, walked over to the painting, and considered the work. He was discerning—she could tell. He wasn’t just going to shout out an answer.
“It’s not a reindeer,” Nancy joked, though, in truth, the leaping reindeer was unrelenting in her mind. Focus. He’s a Mormon. He will know the truth.
“It’s a barn,” he finally said.
Nancy felt the disappointment in her body. “Is it a picture, or is it the barn itself? Is it alive or dead?” There. She’d done it, given him the answer because she needed to hear it so badly herself.
“It’s just a picture,” he said.
That was it. Bob Jr. was up, talking the moment his eyes opened. Just like his father. The elders shook her hand.
“You should look for the angel,” he said. “Remember the only choice is to look forward.”
Nancy worked three nights a week in the UrgentCare as a triage nurse. She’d been there a year and a half but continued to wear a button on her scrubs that said, “I’m new. I’m trying. I care.” The button gave her a little leeway, she figured—expectations were lowered. Nancy had slipped in under the wire; a month after she’d been hired the buttons were done away with. It was December. Flu season. Three days before Christmas. Expected snow showers. An elderly man with his arm in a sling, smelling like dirty socks and whiskey came in complaining of chest pains. Nancy took his vitals. She went through the motions of competence, almost believed it herself. When she could find nothing wrong, she asked him if he wanted to chat for awhile while she finished her coffee. It was the dinner hour; the rush wouldn’t start until about 8:30 P.M. Ambrose was from the Dominican Republic. His story was a series of arcs, but they were unpolished as gravel, hardworking rocks, not much to look at it. He missed his family. Liked the drink. Loved the women. Hated the snow. Sometimes chewed his fingernails. Didn’t like the chicken nuggets at Burger King. Thought white people had missed the point of it all. Nancy told him about the painting. Was it a picture, or was it a barn? She left the reindeer out because the reindeer was superfluous. Ambrose got quiet. Nancy felt her heart beating wildly. She reminded herself she was safe; Bob Jr. was asleep in his crib miles away in the hands of a competent babysitter. Ambrose put his finger to his lip.
“I can understand why this might stump some folks,” he said. “But the answer’s simple—it depends on who’s looking at it. To some folks, it’s a picture of a barn, to others it’s the barn itself. If it were me, I’d say whoever built it—knew what he was doing.”
Nancy broke down and cried. “I’m sorry,” she said, putting her hand on Ambrose’s shoulder. “It’s just that you remind me so much of my mother.”
After Nancy got off from work, she didn’t go home, but drove around the neighborhood. Every house looked perfect in the snow like a strand of Christmas lights: icing, and gingerbread, and snowmen, and candles, and wreaths, and ribbons. Happy. This was happy. This was the barn, not the painting of the barn. This was real. If she could believe this, she would survive. She drove past her own house, slowing, then speeding up when she saw the nursery light on. It must be time for Bob Jr.’s midnight feeding. Bless his heart. What a sweet baby. She turned on the radio to the station that played “all carols, all the time.” It was a fine backdrop to the snow. She left the neighborhood, circling the back roads, singing “Jingle Bells.” She drove down a country road that had yet to be plowed or sanded. “All was calm, all was bright,” until the wheels of her truck slid on the ice and she landed in a ditch on the side of the road. She flashed her lights, and was attempting to back out when she saw the barn. It was dark, and the roof was two finger-thin lines of silver. A lonely dog barked from somewhere in a field. Was it even a dog? She looked down at her legs, but they were hidden in the shadows.
It hardly seemed possible that the neighborhood could have two Mary Kays and they both sold Mary Kay, but it was true. This was an endless source of amazement to Bob. He liked to ask them which came first—the name, the name, or the career? Everybody thought that was the funniest thing. Both of the Mary Kays were nice and had beautiful hairstyles. Mary Kay (as Nancy called her) once told Nancy a secret as to how she determined she needed a haircut: When there’s enough of it to gather into a ponytail, I know it’s time to see the beautician! Nancy didn’t bother trying to tell her about the no pressure ponytail. She had other things to worry about—namely, the Amish Friendship Bread. At first it had been a lovely welcoming gesture—a simple loaf of bread left on her doorstep along with a baggie filled with “starter mix.” She was to divide the baggie into eight portions, let it ferment and leave it on the doorsteps of ten of her closest friends. This took hours to complete, and endless amounts of sugar. No sooner would she deliver the bread, when a new loaf would appear on her porch. It was relentless, this cycle of friendship bread. This was her life for the next eighteen years. There was no way out. She couldn’t keep up. She needed distance, boundaries, a break from bread baking. Maybe what she was needed was friends. Last October, Bob and Nancy went to the Schaefer’s Octoberfest Party. Everybody seemed to be having such a good time—all those Germans in one place! Nancy poured a Heneiken into a beer stein. She smiled at Carol and Jim Gosnell, who were sharing a sausage off Carol’s plate. Smile. Smile. Smile.
“How are you?” Nancy had asked.
“Great! Everything’s great!” Carol said, touching a napkin to her red lips. “It’s our anniversary.”
“Eight years today,” Jim added.
“Happy ones, I hope,” Nancy said.
“The best,” Carol said. Jim gave Carol’s shoulders a squeeze and headed for the food table.
“But how do you know you’re happily married?”
“What do you mean?” Carol asked. “I can’t live without Jim. I mean I wouldn’t want to.”
“Is it Jim, or the idea of Jim? Please tell me, I have to know.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Carol asked.
“I’m sorry,” Nancy said with tears coming to her eyes. “It’s just that you remind me so much of my mother.”
Nancy didn’t see Carol again.
It was Christmas Eve. Bob called from work. He was going to have some drinks after his last sales call with clients, but would be home in time to help Nancy get ready for their party. Nancy had been baking all morning. She had done the grocery shopping at 7:00A.M. so she would be home when the woman with no legs rode by her house. Bob Jr. had had another one of his nights—nonstop crying, no sleep. He’d thrown everything out of the grocery cart that morning, including her credit card, which was now missing, which of course meant she had to put Bob Jr. back in his car seat and go back to the store. Bob Jr. currently was in his Exersaucer, chewing on a frozen bagel. Nancy made three batches of brownies and two Red Velvet cakes. She didn’t know why in the hell she made two of those—maybe because she had seen it that morning on the cover of Southern Living Christmas Classics cookbook. She was exhausted. She turned the radio on to the country music station to soothe her nerves. Bob Jr. wanted to be held, but she had flour on her hands and still needed to vacuum the family room. It had started to snow again, and Nancy figured she’d better shovel the walk before things got too heavy. Her ponytail holder had worked its way down to the bottom of her hair. Bob Jr. still wanted to be held, as his earth shattering screams attested. Nancy put the beer in the garage, and made another batch of ice. It was 11:35, not quite time for the woman with no legs to come by, but almost time for Bob Jr.’s nap. She’d planned it out perfectly—Bob Jr. would nap for forty-five minutes, just long enough to take the edge off, but not long enough to interfere with him sleeping through the night. That’s all she needed was a plan. All living things need a plan. But first she had to clean the powder room. Bob Jr. was bouncing up and down while he screamed, his Exersaucer threatening to capsize.
“Hold on,” Nancy cried. “Mama’s coming. Just let her clean this toilet.” She grabbed the wand from its holder, dumped some Comet inside the bowl and scrubbed. She had to scrub fast, because it was almost time for the woman with no legs to come by. Nancy washed her hands, and picked up the baby.
“It’s alright. It’s alright. Don’t cry. Mama loves you.”
Nancy went over to the window and waited. Bob Jr. continued to cry and bat at her face. “It’s alright. Everything is alright. Mama’s here.”
The red velvet cakes continued to burn in the oven, as she hadn’t set the timer and the oven had a tendency to cook things fast. “We’ll take a nap soon,” Nancy cooed. “As soon as the woman with no legs comes by.” They waited and waited. Bob Jr. cried but then would suddenly stop, as if he too were waiting. At 12:15, Nancy smelled the cake, but didn’t want to leave the window. She was starting to breathe heavily. Where was the woman? Why hadn’t she come? Bob Jr. had gas, then crapped in his diaper. Nancy put the baby in the bouncy seat, ran to the laundry room and tripped on a ball. She put her hands out in front of her to break the fall. She heard a snap, and then a hot searing pain in the middle of her arm. Tears sprang to her eyes. Bob Jr.’s screams reached new heights. Even in that pain, she worried about missing the woman with no legs. She got up, pulled a onesie out of the dryer and dashed back into the kitchen. The cakes were burned. Bob Jr. was fit to be tied. She picked him up again with her good arm, and ran over to the window. It was 1:30 and she still wasn’t there. Bob called and left a message on the machine saying that he wouldn’t have time to go to the liquor store, would she mind? Nancy waited. Bob Jr. put his fingers in her hair and clapped at her ear. She waited until 3:00, alternating glances between the painting, the clock and the window. Around 4:00, she gave up on the idea that the woman with no legs was coming. She cried. The house was still a mess, and her guests were arriving in less than five hours. She put Bob Jr. in his bouncy seat while she made a sling for her arm out of a pillow case. The rest of the afternoon she devoted to keeping Bob Jr. awake. She put him on the floor in front of the Christmas tree and held colored bulbs in front of his eyes. She played peek-a-boo, engine choo-choo, make-like-a-birdie, and eye spy. The snow was falling hard now, and all the Christmas lights in the world were being turned on. She took the baby upstairs to her bedroom. Every time his little head plopped down on his shoulder, she woke him up. They were both miserable.
Bob Sr. was ripe for a party. He came home wearing a Santa’s hat, all aglow from the two Grand Marnier’s he’d enjoyed with his clients. He was affable. Perhaps exuberant. The baby smiled, his hands waving wildly in his bouncy seat. Nancy stood up and put her good arm around Bob’s neck.
“Great,” he said, kissing her cheek. “I was hoping you wouldn’t be dressed for the party yet.”
“I have to ask you something,” Nancy said, starting to cry, but stopped.
“What happened to you?” Bob asked, touching her pillow case.
“I fell,” she said.
“I was wondering why this place was such a mess. But don’t worry, a little booze and nobody will give a damn.” Bob adjusted his Santa hat in the mirror. “What do you think? Is it me, or is it Mary Kay?”
Nancy sat down on the bed. “I have to ask you something.”
“What? Hey look!” Bob said, pointing at the bouncy seat. The baby was sound asleep.
“Wake him up!” Nancy shouted. “He’ll be up all night!”
“Calm down. I’ve got other ideas that don’t involve a witness.” Bob pushed her back onto the pillow and kissed her. Nancy turned her head to the side and looked out at the streetlight. The snow was falling steadily. It was so beautiful.
“Bob, I have to ask you something.”
“Nancy, you always have to ask someone something. The baby’s sleeping. Let’s make love.” He undressed her, carefully caressing every part of her body, even the parts that didn’t weigh 115 pounds. He kissed her chin, her neck, the inside of her arm. She felt nothing. Or maybe it was just the idea of nothing, not nothing itself. Outside, people walked their dogs, scraping off their windshields, and making last minute trips to the grocery. Next door, a group of carolers were finishing their last verse of “Silent Night” before they went to the Bakers’ house. Nancy watched the snow fall, while her husband made gentle, tender, careful love to her. She was dying, she was certain of that. It was only a matter of the right moment before she knew it was the right moment. Bob Jr. was sleeping peacefully in his bouncy seat. St. Nicolas was straddling her and carolers were at the door singing, “Hark The Herald Angels Sing!”
The guests would be arriving any minute. Bob Sr. was having a glorious shower. His mood was top notch, the baby was precious in his precious onesie. Nancy slipped into her 100 percent white cotton nightie, the one with the million tiny buttons that fastened at her neck. She walked out the front door in her bare feet, numbed to the cold, numbed to everything. Snowflakes fell down on her head and shoulders and into her eyes. She crossed the street and stood in front of the mechanical reindeer—the one with the antlers that was still busy grazing, while the other one leapt two or three inches into the air, only to land in the very same spot. She knew what she had to do. She ripped the prancing reindeer from its plug, and tucked it under her good arm. It had been a long time coming, and she felt no remorse; a woman should have legs. A reindeer should be able to leap and get somewhere. She crossed the street again, the snow clinging to her dressing gown, making her knees shake. She walked around to the back of her house where the ladder was still leaning against the woodshed. It was hard climbing on to the roof with a broken arm and a reindeer. Once on top, the wind whipped up again, making the snowflakes swirl around her head and feet, as if someone was shaking her snow globe world. A wind whipped up, her hair came loose from its elastic band, and lifted it off her shoulders. It was long now, and blonde as the snow below her feet. She looked up at the sky, the patches of moon and stars and cloud cover. She raised the reindeer into the air. For a moment, she doubted if she would leap. Her skin reflected blue, then white and finally gray, all the colors that made up the night. If she could see herself she’d see an angel—legs encased in white, broken wings, a face so transparent you could put a hand through it. Everything was moving forward, all that was real and unreal—the barn and the picture, all things mechanical, the story Bob would tell ten minutes from now punctuated by a I don’t know where she’s run off to, husbands and wives and sleeping babies. Everything was unfolding as it should—everything was announcing itself to God.