A NEW BABY IN THE HOUSE
“Aunt Martha’s here. Go help her and Freddie into the house.”
Thelma realized her mother blamed Martha’s husband, Henry Tate, for her sister’s illness, but as a sixteen-year-old girl, Thelma avoided him for other reasons. “Henry scares me.” Neither she nor her brothers ever called their aunt’s husband uncle. “Let him do it.”
“He embarrassed me at the hospital and insulted Martha. I don’t want him in my house.”
Thelma stepped out to the porch and glanced through the window as Henry brought the Model A Ford to an abrupt stop but continued to hold on to the steering wheel as if it were the reins of a team of horses. He stared straight ahead and showed no concern for his wife or his infant son. Thelma’s father suggested she overlook Henry’s annoying habits like everyone in the family did with Arnie, her other uncle. But Arnie lived with them and was her father’s brother, a blood relative. She took a deep breath and pranced out the door, through the gate and up to the car. She waved at the driver, stepped to the passenger side and opened the door.
“Hi, Aunt Martha. Can I carry Freddie?” She had no intention of offering to help her aunt walk to the house as her mother seemed to think was necessary. She’d been back from the hospital a week, time enough to recover from having a baby.
Martha extended her arm marred with black and blue streaks between wrappings of gauze around her wrist and elbow. The bundle pressed to her chest and eyes peering from sunken sockets, her hand quivered, dropped and dangled over the edge of the seat like a piece of loose clothing. She slid a foot onto the running board but the other wouldn’t follow.
Her aunt’s legs splayed and face distorted from pain, Thelma couldn’t recognize the woman whose facial features everyone said she and her aunt shared. “Two times ugly”, Henry had said during one of his ornery moods at a monthly family dinner Liz hosted and he resented. Thelma averted her eyes.
The weak voice from the once strong woman stirred Thelma’s compassion. She lifted Martha’s other foot, turned her body toward the door and pulled on the hem of the faded housedress in an effort to cover her knees. She slid the limp arm around her neck, reached around her aunt’s waist and lifted her from the car. They struggled to the house where Liz waited.
“I’m so sorry, Martha. I hadn’t realized how weak you’ve become.”
“Don’t worry, Liz. Your daughter has the strength of both of us. We’re doing just fine.”
The arm holding Freddie began so slacken, and Liz grabbed for the baby. “I’ll take him.”
Martha began to sob. “I guess, that’s why I came.”
To leave her baby? Thelma suspected something strange when the crib she once used to put her dolly to sleep appeared in the kitchen between the wood box and the cook stove, where her mother said each of her five children spent their first few months of life, Thelma her last baby. Until now? What she overheard her father tell her mother—that a woman can’t take another mother’s baby like it was a stray calf—began to make sense. But Pa was out in the field cutting corn for the silo with her brothers. Should she remind her mother of what Pa had said?
Arnie, the uncle with strange habits but a nicer man than Henry, came from upstairs holding up his overalls. He stopped to glare at the women, pulled the straps over his shoulders and hooked them to buttons on the bib. Thelma knew what he needed, but her mother seemed in no mood to help him tighten his truss. He trudged into the kitchen and out through the porch.
Henry didn’t release the steering wheel until Martha and her brat of a niece disappeared in the house. He envied his brother-in-law for having a strong daughter and a healthy wife. Svez don’t ever have to eat cold leftovers after slaving out in the field all day. And he’s got four grown boys to do most of his work. Henry fought back a thought that had been haunting him. Some little fieldwork during haying season ain’t what made Martha sick. Doctor said cancer runs in some families. How was he to know she was pregnant? Her smart-ass sister better not blame him.
Henry wiped at the moisture on the windshield from steam escaping the radiator, but it was on the outside. He got out and leaned against the hood to capture some of the heat radiating off the engine. He studied the length of his shadow and then checked the level of the sun above the horizon. Days were getting short. Frost last night put an end to the growing season. He pinched the peak of his felt hat, lifted it above the suntan line on his forehead and brushed back a shag of hair the color of year-old cobs. Gotta get the corn into the silo before the snow flies.
He spied the chopper, its snake-like neck reaching up and into the rusted dome on the top of the silo and listened for the chug and whirl of the gasoline engine. He couldn’t have heard it over the noise of dogs barking, chickens cackling and a gander extending his neck and trumpeting at him. On a distant hill behind the barn, he spied Svez and one of his boys, probably Iggy, loading corn stalks. The boy weren’t quite right, but Svez got a lotta work outta him. Ain’t fair, him getting his work done while Martha’s using up daylight visiting her sister.
He glanced toward the house hoping his wife would come right back as she promised. He shielded his eyes from the low-lying sun and recognized the figure ambling across the yard. Svez’s bachelor brother, Arnie, lumbered toward the barn. Liz musta tightened his truss ’cause he walked like he’s got a corncob up his ass. Why Svez put up with the old bastard all them years made no sense.
“The Missus gotta talk to her sister.” Henry rehearsed aloud what he might say when Arnie stopped and squinted back with his one good eye. He muttered, “Keep movin’. Me and you don’t got nuthin’ to talk ’bout. Bad ’nuff makin’ conversation when the wife drags me here for Sunday dinner.”
Arnie fidgeted with the visor on his cap and then rubbed his hands on the sides of his buckskin jacket already shiny as glass from manure, milk splatter and calf slobber.
Henry sent a spray of tobacco juice toward a gander and muttered, “Can’t tell the difference if it’s summer or winter by the coat he wears all the time. They’s goin’ to bury him in it.” He glanced toward the field and then the house. “I gotta get out of here.” Suddenly, he regretted allowing his wife to give up his son. He married her to get more children and to raise his other two school-age boys after their ma died.
“Now she’s gonna die on me too.” He slapped his hand against the hood of his car. He and the boys coulda raised the kid. Or, he would find another old maid who’d be needing a husband. Afraid someone heard him, he scanned the yard and barn. The louvers in the cupola flapped, and he suspected Arnie was watching him.
Liz had just placed the baby in the crib when the noise outside distracted her. She went to the porch to see if Svez and the boys had returned from the field, but the silage chopper sat idle alongside the silo. She was glad. Maybe Henry and Martha would be gone before they got back. She reckoned Svez would accept her decision to take Freddie, but he hadn’t agreed to it. When they talked about Martha dying and wondered what would happen to her baby, Liz hinted that she might take him. Filling the silo and getting the farm ready for winter kept everyone busy, and she didn’t have an opportunity to convince him there was no other option. Maybe the doctor was wrong, and she’d just keep Freddie until Martha got better.
She glanced toward the car where Henry stood rubbing the palm of one hand with the other. His cursing wasn’t audible, but his expression left little doubt he was angry.
Martha appeared in the doorway, grabbed the wall and clung until Thelma rushed to grab her. Their faces now cheek-to-cheek, a repeat of family traits Liz and her boys escaped, small gray eyes shielded by caterpillar-like brows and wide noses underlined with thin lips. Too homely to marry anyway, Martha’s father said of the daughter who remained home to care for her dying mother and later to run his household. Until he found a young bride and no longer needed a second housekeeper. Henry Tate, left with two boys to raise, had been in no position to be fussy.
Liz shook off her anger with her father, held her sister and told Thelma to look after the baby in the Kitchen. Martha grasped the pump handle at the washstand and stared out into the yard. “He said he approved but I know he don’t. Said he’d find another wife to raise Freddie. I wouldn’t want that.” She touched one of her emaciated breasts. “I got no milk.”
“It’s okay. We’ll love Freddie, and when you get better . . .”
“It’s not going to happen,” Martha sobbed. “I have to go.” She glanced toward her husband and then back into the kitchen. “If Thelma will . . .”
“Did you call me?” Thelma carried Freddie, his blanket dragging on the floor. Liz covered him.
“Yes, please.” Martha touched a tear tracking a line etched in her face. “I need help.” Liz reached for Freddie, held him against her shoulder and patted his back. Martha released her hand from the washstand, touched the blanket covering Freddie’s head and then clung to her niece. “I can’t do this alone.”
Martha’s legs buckled as Thelma helped her back to the car, lowered her to the seat and lifted her feet onto the floorboard.
Thelma ran back to the house and stood alongside her mother. Liz waved with her free hand. Martha lifted her arm but it fell back out of sight. Henry got into the car, slammed the door and started the engine. He held the steering wheel with both hands and faced straight ahead. Martha braced herself against the dashboard as the car lunged forward, maneuvered out the driveway and onto the dirt road. Liz waited to see her sister glance back but a cloud of dust obscured her vision. She stopped waving and pulled her daughter close. She held her arms around what were now her two youngest children.
Arnie’s head poked through the hayloft door and then melted back into the dark interior. A team of horses trotted from the field toward the barn. Svez leaned on a pitchfork atop the wagon loaded with corn stalks, and Iggy snapped the reins.
“The rest of the boys won’t be far behind.” Liz peeked into the blanket. “They’ll be wanting their supper soon, and we got a lot of work ahead with a new baby in the house.”
Iggy kicked at a chicken as he strolled across the yard. He yelled, “Whatcha got, Ma?”