The Boiler

Petrina Crockford

BIRTH

The doctor pulled the baby from the woman while she lay on the sweat-soaked hospital bed, the sweat coming from her back, her arms, her legs, because beneath that bright hospital light and with the windows shut and the curtains pulled and the strain of pushing life from the gut, all she could do was grit her teeth against the pain, and with her feet in the air—her soles held by two nurses in blue—she could only grit her teeth and sweat, in silence, the sweat sticking her dark hair to her face, her hair as dark as her eyes as dark as the moments when the contractions roll over her like heat sickness, blacking her vision and settling over her like curtains settling over the hospital windows with a view of the desert, endless brown and white and gray-blue, shadeless as the lamp in the motel room she calls home, home with a hot plate and a small refrigerator and a pink coverlet with cigarette stains that don’t belong to her, like the handprint on the wall above the bed, and she put her hand on this handprint and wondered who it belonged to, who had put it there and why, whether on purpose or by accident did this person leave evidence of themselves and where, if anywhere, were they now, she thought, as she stood up and dressed for work, stretching her uniform over her stomach—and she feels it is a he; and she knows already what she will name it—the stomach she’s careful not to bump into the edges of the counters she cleans, wiping them with bleach that strips her hands so raw she must wear Band-aids like rings, pulling at them while she rides the bus home at night, while a certain redness spreads across the sky and she thinks, in those moments, It will not last forever; she thinks, It will be better, because one cannot live forever, eating out of dented cans from the grocery store, but when she thinks of the future she thinks of the past, so different from the view out her motel window: a parking lot, but beyond it neat houses rise to the horizon, and it is towards this horizon that she walks one night, in the early evening, among these houses and the recycling bins that the people in the houses have set out for morning, and as she’s walking she hears water—not lapping, but splashing—and she walks towards the sound until, through the slats of a fence, she sees a pool, the water a kind of blue she has never seen before, blue reflecting the smooth white bottom of the pool, and there are children laughing and playing in the pool, and that night she waited behind a tree until the children had gone into the house, and when she was sure all the lights were off, she reached over the fence and unlocked the gate and then she took off her clothes and crept into the water, careful not to let it ripple too much, and she swam on the surface and dove deep to the bottom, kicked her feet beneath her—this might have been a river—before she emerged to slip past the gate and walk back home and sit on her bed in the room with the shadeless lamp, with the bulb burning bright, to wait for this moment, now, in this hospital room with the white walls and the white lights, the nurses in blue and the doctor hunched between her legs, coming up every now and then to tell her to push, to push from somewhere deep, some reservoir of strength within, though of course he doesn’t say this, but she thinks of the pool and the blue water, and the smooth-faced nurse wipes her face with a towel and says, no te preocupes, a strange kindness she will remember forever, while the doctor pulls the baby out and up and, look, it emerges screaming like a wounded animal, blood-red and purple, and she is frightened to see it looking that way because she will protect it from everything—she is frightened at her own pain, too—because she is afraid she has failed to protect it already, and the doctor pulls the baby out of her so she can swaddle it, finally, in her arms and call it what she will name it, and teach it what she will teach it—the truth, whatever truth is—and she will love it, and the doctor asks her: What will you call it, and she says, victoriously, “Victor,” and the doctor, not understanding her, leaves her in that room, beneath those lights, to pour himself a coffee at the nurse’s station, something he does even though he knows the coffee is bitter and lukewarm, and he says hello to the nurses and he writes a note on someone’s chart, and when it’s time for him to fill out the birth certificate he forgets, briefly, what the woman said, he forgets until, yes, he remembers, and so he writes, in pen, on the birth certificate: “Bitor.”

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Petrina Crockford graduated from Yale University with a BA in English Literature and received her MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Her fiction has appeared in Meridian, the Feminist Wire, and r.k.v.r.y, and she has written nonfiction for the Paris Review and Words Without Borders. She’s been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a finalist for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Literature Prize. She lives in Santa Barbara, CA.