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Well Baby by Kristin Matly Dennis | Word Riot
Short Stories

April 15, 2012      

Well Baby by Kristin Matly Dennis

When I was hungry, a monkey climbed down a rope ladder and gave me a juice box and a peanut butter sandwich. The sandwich tasted like dirt. I had never eaten peanut butter before because my mom was afraid of me choking or having an allergy fit. And yet, she let me play in the yard with a hole so deep it could swallow me up forever.
     When I crush my head against the wall, when I am buried in pillows, I could be there again.


     I used to drink until I was blind, crashing around like a large animal with a spear embedded in its side. But there are more efficient ways to be erased. The pain is a fire that shoots through the center of me; my body clinches and tries to squeeze the flame out.
     The rehab center is like an elementary school. There are bulletin boards with construction paper cut into motivational messages. There are workbooks and classrooms. A lunch line with plastic trays and little bowls of tater tots and miniature cartons of chocolate milk and recess on the basketball court. Without drugs, it is easy to make children out of us.
     But while everybody else shrinks under the weight of their helplessness, I am filled with fire. I can incinerate the soothing attempts of a counselor with the burn of my eyes. I can scorch another addict with the blaze of my body. Soon, I will ignite like kindling; I will burn until I am smoke.

     I don’t remember falling. My first memory, I’m already underground. It’s as if I didn’t exist before that. I look at baby pictures of myself disbelieving. It could be any baby that my mother cradles. She could have borrowed the neighbor’s and posed for pictures. It could be different babies that she’s holding in front of the Christmas tree or at a cousin’s wedding. In these pictures, my mother has blond, feathered hair and enough blue eye shadow to drown her eyes. It makes just as much sense that I was born from a hole in the ground than from her.
     My ear was crushed against rock, torn and bleeding. When they pulled me out of the hole, there was blood all down the side of my face. It made for a very dramatic picture, almost every newspaper in the country printed it.

     Rehab is never completely quiet or dark. The heart monitor beeps a soft lullaby, but I can’t sleep. My tongue is a slab of chalky steak too big for my mouth. My whole body feels like meat, bruised and tender, too big for the narrow hospital bed.
     My roommate talks nonsense through the haze of her neuroleptics. Word Salad is as thin and pale as a piece of paper. All day long, she staggers down the halls like a zombie only stopping long enough to drool puddles on the linoleum. Quiet all day long, her words are saved for when she’s sleeping—no particular order, just a steady stream of incoherence.
     “Driving sandwich Mommy,” Word Salad says.
     I push my head against the wall until it throbs and I hold a pillow down onto my bad ear until it muffles all sound, even the sound of my whispering heartbeat.

     In the hole, I dug my hands into the clay until my right hand found a rock. It dug up the baby flesh of my palm. I was pressed against rock, but I held onto that sharp fragment fiercely until my hand tingled asleep, until it went quiet.
     I smelled the monkey before I saw him, a powerful animal smell like living manure. His eyes were tarnished coins. His hands were perfect human hands in neat leather gloves and I watched while he unhooked his harness to unlock the peanut butter sandwich and the juice box.
     He held these things out to me and chattered under his breath. I took first the sandwich, then the juice box. He waited and watched me until I was finished. There was hardly any room and he was so close. But I wasn’t afraid.
     When I was rescued, I was still holding the rock and when the doctor pried my hand open to remove it, to clean the wound, it was only then that I started to cry.

     I am allowed to use the phone every afternoon after drug class and before dinner. This is called free time. I wait in the line, standing too close to the person in front of me. I breathe down her neck. It’s Fugly, the redhead with no eyebrows. She always wears long sleeves, but I saw her arms once and they are sliced with thin red lines. I know Fugly doesn’t really want to talk on the phone, and she seems relieved when she hangs up and walks back to the couches.
     I dial up my sister Gretchen.
     “Hey, I need some stuff. Get a piece of paper and make a list.”
     “I’m at work,” Gretchen stage whispers into the phone.
     “I know that, didn’t I call you there?”
     Gretchen says louder, “You can’t just call me up anytime you want and demand things. I’m at work right now. Call me later.”
     “I don’t know how many times I have to explain this to you,” I explain. “I can’t call you up anytime I want. I can only make calls during free time.”
     “Well I don’t get free time,” Gretchen says. She’s pouting. I wonder what the other people in her office think of her.
     “Bullshit, Gretchen. You work two days a week in a piece of cake office and your kids have a sitter. Don’t tell me you don’t have free time.”
     “I work three days a week and being a mother—Wait. Why am I even fighting with you about this? You’ve never had a real job and you’re in rehab.”
     “Way to be supportive,” I say. “Could you please just get some stuff for me? I need tooth paste and some DVDs that are at mom’s house and another sweatshirt and some candy. Something sour, like Sour Patch Kids. But make sure that the tooth paste and the Sour Patch Kids aren’t open so nobody thinks you’re trying to smuggle drugs to me.”
     “I would never try to give you drugs!”
     I ignore her. “Just drop the stuff off tonight at the front desk. Visiting hours aren’t until this weekend, so you don’t even have to see me.”
     I hang up the phone. There is a preppie boy standing behind me who looks like Blue’s Clues, wearing his purple polo shirt. I glare at him and he looks down. I have already trained everybody to avoid eye contact with me and it’s only Monday.

     I may not remember, but I can see it happening like a movie in my head. My mom walks around the yard, yelling my name. She sounds increasingly mad, like I’m going to be spanked on the thick plastic of my diaper for running away. “Where is your sister?” Mom yells. Gretchen, who is four and supposed to be keeping an eye on me, just points to the ground. Covered by the unmowed grass is the shadow of a hole.
     “Call the police!” Mom screams over and over again. She doesn’t want to leave the hole in the ground, even though it will only take a minute to make the call. Mom is on her hands and knees, screaming into the hole. It’s as if she’s asking me to call the police.
     Gretchen, who is old enough to use the phone, but only if somebody else presses the buttons, sits on the edge of the sand box and cries.
     A neighbor hears the yelling and calls the police, who show up like magic, as if my mom summoned them out of her own shrill will.

     During group, we have to sit in a circle. The metal chairs are already in place, but they are so close together that you have to pick up your chair to get inside the circle to sit down. I push the chairs on either side of me away.
“Pauline, please don’t disrupt the circle,” Carmen Electra says. The first time I was here, five years ago, I told her that she was too hot to be a therapist. I wasn’t sure if she thought I was hitting on her or not. I’m usually not attracted to women, but stuck in this place, my options are limited.
     “These chairs are too close together. I’m just moving them for the convenience of the group.”
     Carmen Electra looks older than she used to. Her face is wrinkled and her eyebrows are grown out and her body is hidden under an ugly orange sweater. She seems exhausted. “The chairs have been placed close together to promote the group dynamic.” Her voice is quiet and calm. Therapists are the opposite of real people. When they get angry, instead of yelling, their voices get small in an effort to calm the other person down. But I hear her yelling loud and clear.
     “God damn it!” I push my chair to the floor, but the plastic hardly makes any sounds against the carpeting.
     “Pauline, this is an inappropriate display of anger. Either use your words to express your feelings or you can’t participate today.”
     I take a deep breath. “I am a big woman that needs room to maneuver and I am just frustrated because you have set the chairs up for smaller people and it feels like you are discriminating.”
     Carmen Electra allows everybody to move their chairs one step back. I move to the other side so I am sitting right next to her.
     “See? The chairs aren’t that far apart,” I say and I touch the top of her thigh. I don’t know why I am still hitting on this woman. She’s not nearly as hot as she used to be. But I can still remember when she was, and that seems like as good a reason as any.
     We have to listen to Crazy Bus Driver Lady talk about her boring life. She’s got grandma hair, so tight and gray it looks like a wig, and her eyes bug out like they can’t see past her face. Her husband doesn’t care about her. Her children don’t either because they all moved away. She drinks a lot and it makes her depressed.
     If this were on TV, I would change the channel. I pretend I have a remote in my hand and I press the button to the guy sitting next to her. He’s really young, like eighteen last week young. He’s wearing an oversized jersey and ball cap pulled down over his eyes. Young Wannabe Thug probably got busted for selling Oxycotin but his parents knew the judge so he got rehab instead of time. I click over. Another depressed old lady. This one doesn’t look like a bus driver. Her nails are done nicely and her wedding ring is a rock. Probably in here for pain killers. Bored House Wife. Click. Suicide Attempt. Click. Heroin. Click. Meth Addict. Click. Meth Addict from the Country. It’s so predictable. I just want to eat a bag of Sour Patch Kids and sleep for the rest of the day.
     “Pauline, please respond to Margaret,” Carmen Electra says. Everybody is looking at me.
     I look around. “Which one is Margaret?” I ask.
     She points to the redhead with no eyebrows.
     “Pauline, that’s disrespectful. Please use her real name.”
     I shake my head. I can’t even find the energy to argue about Higher Powers or free time privileges. I don’t even want to look up to see how easily everyone else will look away.
     At least it’s winter. Last time I was here, it was July. It was mild, so we spent a lot of time outside. We would have group out in the courtyard, the ground worn and littered with cigarette butts, surrounded on three sides by chain link fences ten feet high. We sat scattered on faded plastic picnic tables, and the smokers were finally happy. Carmen Electra wore short athletic shorts and stretched her tan legs out in front of her. They were so round and shiny, I wondered if they would be hard like rubber or soft with lotion, and wanted to touch them to find out. The sun was blinding bright, and it would take me the rest of the day for my sight to recover. I tried wearing my sunglasses, but Carmen Electra told me that people weren’t as responsive when somebody’s eyes were hidden.

     The media called me Polly, the Well Baby. Nobody had ever called me Polly before. I was named after my great-grandmother who died right before I was born. I was a hot pink toddler, with chubby cheeks that begged for pinches and curly corkscrew blond hair. The media couldn’t sell me as a Pauline, an old lady’s name. Once the first reporter called me Polly, the rest followed.
     “But her name is Pauline!” my mom said. “And isn’t it a sinkhole? Why are they calling it a well?” It was as if every detail was connected to my recovery. One false move and I could be buried alive.
     “It’s just a nick name,” a producer explained. “People want to feel connected to this experience.”
     Dozens of reporters stood on our front lawn for the second half of the sixty one hours that I was in the hole. Experts were excavated who claimed that our sink hole might be connected to the Mammoth Cave system, hundreds of miles away. As if the worst that could happen was that I would fall down further.
     As the hours passed, the reporters kept showing up and my mom kept letting them inside. “My baby,” my sleepless, helpless mom cried into yet another microphone. “Please help her!”
     My father and sister sat silent on the sofa, eating the casserole neighbors had brought in exchange for admittance.
     After I was rescued, I was all over TV. Gretchen went to go stay with my grandparents while we travelled around being interviewed. My blond curls were pinned down carefully to cover the flattened ear. I sat on my mother’s lap and the interviewer asked questions over my head. Everybody felt good about saving me.
     I was blinded and drowned in the bright flood of stage light and I squirmed to get away. My mom gripped me so tight I could feel her fingernails cutting into my arms. I was only two years old, but I wondered if I would ever be saved.

     When I can keep it down again, I complain about the food. The cafeteria guy looks me right in the eyes. He is Middle Eastern maybe, dark with a shaggy black beard. Even his fingers are covered with thick hair.
     “Here,” Osama says, reaching over the glass.
     I know what it is before I have it in my hands, before I open it.
     A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, wrapped in wax paper. I know he’s just trying to get me to shut up and sit down, but it’s like the kindness of the monkey all over again.

     Every five years or so, there would be a news story about me, the kind of thing that reminds people about the passage of time. On the tenth anniversary, the local newspaper sent a photographer. My mom made me wear a dress. We had to buy a new one because none of last year’s clothes fit me anymore; none of this year’s clothes fit me either. Mom refused to take me to the plus size section, so I poured myself into a woman’s 14. The dress was long and floral with a lace collar. My hair was still curly at the ends, but it was darkening. I looked like one of those young Mormon wives they rescue from compounds. The photographer tried to be professional. He took a couple of halfhearted pictures, and left quickly. They ended up reprinting the picture of my dramatic rescue.
     I don’t know what happened to those pictures. By the time I was in the news again, they just used my mug shot. My hair is always short now, dark like dirt and never long enough to cover my damaged ear.
     I’ve never looked more like myself, standing against the cinder brick wall.

     “Pauline, you’ve got a visitor,” somebody yells into my room. Nobody is brave enough to shake me awake.
     I stumble down to the cafeteria, my sleeping bag still wrapped around my shoulders. Gretchen is sitting by the window.
     “You didn’t have to come,” I say.
     “Hello to you, too.” She sits there, staring up at me until she decides to get up and give me a stiff hug.
     Gretchen and I don’t have much to say to each other, so I look around at the other people.
     Crazy Bus Driver has so much family visiting that they have to push five tables together. I don’t know which fat guy is her husband. Toddlers chase each other along the perimeters of the wall.
     “Where are your kids?” I ask.
     “I am not going to bring them here,” Gretchen whispers.
     “That’s not what I meant. I mean, is Greg watching them?”
     “Of course,” she says. “He’s their father.”
     “So? It’s not like our father watched us all that much.”
     Gretchen sighs and looks up. “Is it going to be like this, Pauline?” she asks the ceiling.
     “Fine,” I say. “Do you have a dollar? I want to get a Mountain Dew.”
     “Those are so bad for you,” Gretchen says. “You really shouldn’t drink them.”
     She’s flabby all over, her gut hanging over the sides of her pants, her hair a ratted mess.
     “Whatever,” I say. I dig a dollar out of my pocket and walk over to the vending machine and get my own Mountain Dew.
     Gretchen gives me the evil eye while I gulp my beverage. “Are you trying to tell me that you had money? That you didn’t want to spend your own dollar to buy a soda?”
     “I only have like three dollars left. It’s not that big of a deal.”
     “Maybe not for you. But some of us didn’t get trust funds that we put up our noses!”
     I take a deep breath and do my best imitation. “Is it going to be like this, Gretchen?”
     One of the Crazy Bus Driver’s toddlers runs over to our table. She is out of breath, her face smeared with something purple. She stares at us.
     “Hello, honey!” Gretchen says in a baby voice.
     The child gives her a look and runs away.
     I was probably that size when I fell into the hole. I can’t believe I was ever so small.

     The story of my addiction is boring. All addiction is the same. Drugs are beautiful. I can take a handful of pills and fall deep inside myself. It is the ultimate craving of self, to be tight and snug in your own place. Other people make noise beyond, trying to save you. What you want to tell them is that you are already safe. It is the wide bright world that has the danger.
     After I was rescued, well-wishers sent my family money. We were also paid to be interviewed, so many times. My trust fund was supposed to be for college, but what eighteen year old would go to college if they had half a million dollars in the bank? I moved to LA. Two years later, I was hospitalized after an overdose. My stomach was pumped and I was pushed back through the hole for the second time.
     There was enough money left in my account to cover six months of rehab. What a waste. I had to go back a year later after my DUI. And again and again and again. I have walked up and down the Twelve Steps so many times they could be the stairs in front of my apartment.

     I finally get in touch with my mom. She’s in Florida with her new husband.
     “When I fell into the sinkhole,” I say into the phone.
     “Oh, Lord, honey, don’t bring that up. I’m on vacation!”
     My teeth press together so hard it makes them feel soft. “Do you remember how they fed me when I was down there?
     “Beau, that’s only 25. You need the 50 SPF on your back or it won’t do any good.”
     “I’m listening, honey. You’re asking me about the sinkhole when we’ve already been over it a thousand times.”
     “The monkey brought me a peanut butter sandwich,” I insist. “And a juice box.”
     “And I told you before, I don’t remember there being a monkey. You had to be rehydrated because you’d lost five pounds of water weight.” She laughs. “But you sure made up for it after that.”
     “I remember that monkey!” I scream into the phone.
     Mom giggles in that way that sounds like she’s just reading laughing sounds. “Ha. Ha. Ha. Maybe there was a monkey. Heck, I don’t know. I was pre-occupied. My baby had fallen into a hole in the ground and all those people in my house. They could have sent elephants down that hole to give you birthday cake, and I would have had no idea.
     “Now, listen, honey. We’re about to go down to the beach. Just call up Gretchen if you need anything. If you’re still in that place next month when we get back, I’ll come visit you.”
     I hang up the phone without saying good bye, so I don’t know if my mom hung up without saying good bye either.

     After I was rescued, the city came and put a concrete lid on top of the sink hole. I would sit outside for hours, watching the ants and the lizards, sticking my fingers into the crease where cement met grass, licking my fingers to taste the darkness.
     “What are you doing?” Gretchen would ask from the periphery.
     “Get away from there!” my mom would yell through the screen door.
     I could see it out of my window at night. In the moonlight, the concrete lid looked like a tombstone without writing.

     I fight like I fuck. I pound my fists into Fugly’s face seemingly without provocation, but she’s been asking for it all week. It isn’t personal—it could just as easily be Word Salad or Carmen Electra underneath me—but I give my whole self over to it. My flesh burns where it touches hers; blood bursts warm on my knuckles, I’ve never felt closer to anyone than I do in that moment.
     It takes five people to pull me off because I am that big. I am strong, but my body is soft, particularly between the folds, the skin is as soft as a baby’s. They get on top of me to restrain me, and I feel the Thorazine shot like a bee sting and a hot bath. Even in the slow motion of the tranquilizer, I know I can take them all. I can pound them down to powder that I will snort off the back of my hand. I know that I can take anything and that it will never be enough. I grow bigger with my need, with the taking. I unravel out of my clothes and there is still more of me, stretching beyond reach. I am infinite.
     Now I am too big to fall into holes. I am the hole that swallows everything.

About the author:

Kristin Matly Dennis has an MFA from Spalding University. She lives in Louisville, KY with her husband and daughter. “Well Baby” is her first published short story.

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