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Aftercare

Wil Burrow says it’s alright, me being the way I am. He says that laying on top of me or coming in from behind is like getting lost in a cloud. “You’re not all that fat.” It’s sweet the way he tells me and swears, “If anything, it’s good to have more meat to pound.”

Wil usually comes over right after work. Sometimes he’ll show up later in the evening – for a quick dip in the ocean he calls it – or real early when I’m just getting out of bed and not in the mood, wanting nothing more than coffee and a cigarette if I can find one. He says he doesn’t care how I look and that it’s not about my being pretty, but he needs to touch me and do me hard, “Before I burst!” He puts a hand on my back when he says this, moves his fingers into my flesh the way I imagine worms grind themselves deep into the ground. I can feel the strength of him as he guides me back to bed.

My apartment is two rooms – not counting the bath – though there’s no wall between the kitchen and the rest so everything is really just an open square. Wil calls my place a studio and I like that. (The word has class.) He’s good with language and insists when I discuss our work that I call myself a custodian and not a janitor. He says our job at Ceebrooke Open School deserves a proper title – Wil is Senior Custodial Engineer – and that our duties are as important as the teachers’ if not more. “Without us, where would they be?” he makes this point with pride.

There are 350 students at Ceebrooke, in grades kindergarten to eighth. I like how the children help me feel connected to something larger than myself, and I’ve gotten good at recognizing their faces and know more than half by name. When cleaning classrooms, I look at the children’s projects – models of the Great Wall of China and Pilgrims greeting the Indians – check assignment folders and the grade book kept in the teacher’s top drawer. Sometimes I change a grade for those kids I like, the ones I sense are struggling a bit as I did, thinking how everyone could use a guardian angel now and then. I’m good at this sort of thing and have never once been caught converting a plus from a minus or a score of seventy to ninety or eighty-three to eighty-eight.

Wil says it’s a waste of time, my having any interest in these kids. He says my priorities are twisted and that my focus should be on the school first, on Ceebrooke herself, which Wil Burrow dotes on as if he loves the old building more than me.

Before I moved to Newark, I lived in Pittsburgh and worked at the Wal-Mart on the lower east side. That’s where I met Artie. “Is it hot in here or is that just you?” Artie used to say and made me laugh. He was a Gulf War vet, ten years older than me, a little crazy. He would do stupid things like put toy rifles in the hands of mannequins and set porn to run in the video machines. I have Artie’s car now, a red two-door 1995 Ford Taurus I bought from him before I left. I say bought though I didn’t actually pay Artie anything more for the pink slip than what he already owed me. “Fair’s fair,” Artie in a sober moment agreed, but after we closed the deal and I packed to leave he got angry and swore I cheated him and tried to cash in one last time. I drove all night from Pittsburgh, the smell of Artie still on me, the sting as he climbed off and called me a fat bitch and told me to, “Go then!,” that he never loved me anyway and would easily find another pig before I hit the interstate.

Wil Burrow is different. In the three years I’ve known him, he rarely shouts or curses or slaps me more than in a tender way. Not even when he’s had too much to drink and I ask about his wife and the question makes him sad and crazy in his eyes, does he do anything but frown at me and look away.

The first time Wil Burrow kissed me, I’d only been at Ceebrooke two days. School was out and the aftercare kids were on the playground. Wil wanted me to vacuum the library and showed me where the equipment was kept. He had on a flannel shirt with the tail untucked, old jeans more white than blue, a large chain of keys attached to his hip and thick dark boots tied up and over his ankles. The closet was deep and lit by a single bulb. Wil came in after me and closed the door. Instead of grabbing for me, however, or gently touching my hair and telling me how pretty I was, he stood behind me and waited for my reaction. I wondered if I should scream or laugh, and unable to decide, I turned and faced him. His eyes – I remember – were soft green, his gaze holding steady, not drifting over my body but showing restraint. I leaned forward after a few seconds, just the slightest bit and that was enough.

“We’re the maw and paw of Ceebrooke Open School,” Wil Burrow likes to joke whenever he gets me alone in some safe corner and puts his hands up under my shirt and feels my heavy breasts and pinches my nipples hard. He likes to have me work with him replacing windows, fixing leaks in the bathrooms, tending to the furnace, cleaning the vents and mending bricks beginning to wear. There are two other custodians on staff. Avi Shaffe comes in after school and helps with the daily cleaning, the trash and floors and such. She’s a tall black girl with dark, curly hair always hidden beneath a scarf. Avi has two children who tag along with her sometimes and behave well for the most part. They like to push the mop and bucket, make a game of tying up the plastic bags of trash and carrying them together to the bin out back. Earnest Holcum is the Ancient Mariner – Wil says – stooped through the shoulders with grey hair set in patches around his head, a dry red skin cracked and lined like a sheet of crumpled paper. Ernie wears blue overalls and grey t-shirts. He has a smoker’s cough, a sad widower’s laugh and a slow, deliberate shuffle which glides along the floor with unexpected rhythm.

In three years I’ve never had a problem with either Avi and Ernie, and am as likely to take a cigarette break with one as the other. Standing outside, we chat easily, though whatever Avi and Ernie think of Wil Burrow and me they keep to themselves. I suppose this is because Wil is their boss, though as we work hard and our affair has never created an inconvenience or given them reason to complain, the subject doesn’t come up.

Wil says he’ll leave his wife eventually, but that for now, “You have to understand.” He expects as much from me and doesn’t say anything more. I’ve seen his wife as she drops by the school now and then, if she needs something from Wil or happens to be passing at the right time of day. They have a daughter, Terise, who’s three years old and very pretty – if you ignore the patch she wears to strengthen a lazy eye. She has her mother’s brown hair and pale complexion, her father’s chin and mischievous smile. Aliston – Wil’s wife – works four days a week at Marshal’s Nursery and Crafts, and leaves Terise with her grandmother. I would like to have a child of my own someday and imagine if I did that the baby would make it easier for Wil to leave Aliston. I think of this more and more of late, am tempted to forget my diaphragm once and see what happens, and if I could get pregnant just like that wouldn’t it mean something?

Weekends are the hardest part as I rarely see Wil at all. He says he can’t get away and I tell him that’s alright, though it occurs to me he could just as easily make excuses on a Saturday and Sunday as he can during the week. I go to movies in the afternoon, then get something to eat at an In ’N Out burger and climb into bed early, pretending I’m tired though I know I’m not. Sometimes I’ll go to a bar but there’s nothing for me to do there except drink and smoke and miss Wil that much more. If I stay long enough there are men who’ll press me hard, and if I’m inclined it’s only out of frustration and being lonely; the feel of someone touching my leg or rubbing my arm stirring me until I want to call Wil and make him decide once and for all. The idea seems sensible when I’m drunk and a stranger in a Yankees t-shirt and black Nike shoes says he’d like to rock my world, but I never do anything either way, always sleeping alone, waking hungover and mad at myself, feeling the tightness of my skin like a scar that’s yet to stretch.

A month ago, two weeks after my birthday, as Wil gave me a digital watch with a pink band and a face where you can also get the date if you press the right button, I told him I was late. I’d left my diaphragm out more than once and waited then to see what Wil would do. We were in my apartment, Wil reaching for me the second we got in the door, hurrying himself as he had to be home in less than an hour. “What do you mean?” he asked when I told him, as if he really didn’t understand. “How?” He has a large head and straight chestnut hair clipped short and worn combed forward so that the ends barely reach the border of his brow. “What about your thing?”

“I was using it. I always use it. Diaphragms aren’t one-hundred percent, Wil.”

He sat beside me on the bed, taking everything in before saying, “Shit,” and “Shit,” again. He told me not to worry, and wiped his face with his beefy hands still dirty from work though he washed them with the disinfectant soap that smelled like old liniment and lime. “You’re sure?”

“I took a test.”

“Alright, alright. Don’t worry,” he kept repeating. “It’ll be okay.”

I promised him I wasn’t worried, that the baby would make things wonderful and perfect but he wasn’t listening, his face tense and turned away from me. “I’ll take care of it,” he said, and then he was staring at me, clear and hard, as if he’d never seen me before. The look was strange, and in response I leaned over to kiss him, wanting him then, hoping he’d come inside me once more, only he pushed me off, for the first time ever, not violent but enough to let me know. I watched him stand, his face still pinched, like a small boy caught by some unimaginable surprise. I said his name, said “Wil Burrow,” in such a way as to invite him back to the bed, but he was standing far off, telling me again not to worry. “You have to give it up, you know. We can’t be having a baby. Jesus.”

“Why not?” my desire made me more sad than surprised.

“Because, because,” he was straining to keep calm. “Aliston will make trouble if she thinks you and I are running around. I can’t make a clean break if you’re waiting here knocked up. It complicates things, do you understand?”

“But this is our child.”

“There’ll be time,” he assured me. “We can’t do it this way. Not now. Not like this. Shit. You see?” It took all his strength to come and touch me lightly on the shoulder, grateful that I wasn’t crying and making demands. I sat on the bed alone for several hours after Wil left, trying to decide what to do next, hoping to convince myself Wil’s reaction was actually quite wonderful and sweet, the way he said he’d take care of everything and not wanting me to worry. I should have been pleased and not wished for anything else. Three days later, Wil drove me to the clinic. He paid for everything, came back after work and drove me home. The blood between my legs on the thick gauze pads slowed after a while, and each time I changed the compress Wil took it out with the trash.

We couldn’t have sex for more than two weeks and during this time Wil was patient enough and avoided all talk he thought would upset me. I made a point to let him find me at work in places we wouldn’t be spotted, and when his hands roamed over me – uncertainly at first and then with a familiar aggression – I backed myself against him and promised him relief in the very near future. (Twice I did even better, and taking him into my mouth after school, in the closet where everything started, I gave him a gift and laughed when he said, “Oooh-wee!”) The next time Wil came to my apartment, he sat on the bed and watched me undress. Less frantic, he didn’t whoop and holler as he typically did, his hands didn’t grip me with sheer force as if taking from me something I was otherwise eager to offer, but was more tender, trying to apologize – it seemed – for what happened the last time he pushed himself inside me.

I took his mood as a good omen. Where he usually enjoyed fucking me from behind, or pinning me to the bed with my hands above my head and entering me like a long pipe drilling for oil, he had me get on top of him this time, my weight open and shifting down as Wil lay there all passive and warm and watching. A man can’t do such a thing, I was sure, without having real feelings for a woman. A man like Wil couldn’t change the way he had sex unless he loved me. I was convinced of this though Avi laughed when I told her. (I’d never discussed Wil with Avi, but excited, I had to tell someone.) She stood outside with me, puffing on her cigarette, making a clucking sound that came from behind her large yellow teeth like a bird cawing with ill-humor. “It may be,” she said when I insisted Wil loved me, then shook her head slowly in order to show there was another side for me to consider.

“The thing is, you can’t ever tell much from the way a man sexes you. You may want to think different, that his touch and technique all mean something, but take it from me,” she looked away, then back again as if making up her mind to pass on a secret, “there’s nothing a man does in bed that you can put the least bit of stock in.”

I decided what Avi said was her own experience, not mine, and even as I tried to argue and Avi crushed out her cigarette and shot back, “You see I have two kids, don’t you? You ever hear me talk about a man? What you think, I didn’t let myself believe? And here neither one of my babies’ fathers was married.” I told myself that things between Wil and me were different. After three years I knew a man like Wil Burrow did not turn all suddenly soft and tender unless he meant something by it. And now that I’d done everything he asked of me, how long could it be before he left Aliston and we were together?

I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning the toilets at Ceebrooke, the smell of piss and shit and ammonia making me dizzy as I thought of the babies Wil and I would soon have – there would be at least three – and what we would name them. (Wil Jr. for certain, James or JayJay for the other boy and Michelle after my grandmother for our girl.) Later, I went down to the boiler room where Wil, Ernie, Avi and I had lockers and waited for Wil so we could go back to my place. Ernie was there, sitting in a wood chair, his body bent forward with his back near the furnace taking the chill off. I spent some time in front of my locker, rooting about as if searching for something though all I had was my jacket, an extra sweater and a pair of dirty cloth tennis shoes. Ernie didn’t say a word, and only as I continued to muck about the room, checking fuses and valves that hardly needed my attention, did he tell me, “He’s gone.”

I pretended I didn’t understand. “Who?”

He answered as if I’d asked a different question. “Some twenty minutes ago, in case you were wondering.”

I drove to Able Burger where I ordered a combo, then went to Devlon Drugs where I bought cigarettes and a bottle of red wine which I drank in front of my television, watching one sitcom after another. By ten o’clock I was drunk enough to consider calling Wil, though I knew better. I thought about the sex we had yesterday and how much I wanted to see him and looked forward to being with him all day. He hardly spoke to me at work, though this was how he was sometimes, so fully concentrated on his job as Senior Custodial Engineer that he couldn’t focus on anything else. (He liked to make lists of the projects we had to get done, assigning and checking them off as we went.) It wasn’t unusual for him to seem distant in the morning, only to find me later, coming up behind me and squeezing me hard, drawing me around and kissing me with his tongue flicking inside my mouth as if counting my teeth, his hands everywhere on my clothes and under.

I finished the rest of the wine, then fell asleep in front of a Seinfeld rerun, waking when the screen changed over to the news and a man with a microphone reporting a train wreck at the Anaka Station. I stared at the set as if the picture should mean something to me but it didn’t. My mouth had dried and tasted of stale grapes, old hamburger and salt. I sat up and turned off the TV, already thinking again of Wil, debating whether or not to call him even though it was after one in the morning, when I heard a sound in the hall, the jangle of keys on a chain followed by a knock at my door.

The last time Wil came by my apartment this late was the night he got back early from a conference the school district paid him to attend in Westchester. (He brought me a t-shirt, white with red letters on the front spelling out, ’I’m A West Chester Girl’.) As Aliston didn’t expect him until tomorrow, we were able to sleep together in my small bed, Wil’s heavy arm hung over my side, his left leg wrapped between mine. I missed the feeling of that night, and hearing Wil’s keys in the hall, got up quickly and opened the door.

“Kids,” he said and came inside.

I was still a bit drunk, sleep having filling my head with sand, and turning around after closing the door I saw that Wil was wearing the same jeans and shirt he had on at work, his black cap stuffed inside the pocket of his green parka which was darkened by melted snow. He smelled of smoke and chilled air. I went to the sink and filled a glass with cool water, hoping to chase the stale taste from my mouth and maybe clear my head. “Kids, yes,” I said as if answering a question, waiting for Wil to move toward me, wanting him to confess how much he missed me, to say that he spent the night telling Aliston everything about us and that he asked for a divorce. I was eager to feel his hands on my hips, guiding me to the bed where I’d let him take me any way he wanted, tender as the other night or more as we were used to.

Wil pulled off his coat and tossed it over the back of the chair. His brown flannel shirt was untucked, his boots wet on the bottom leaving a trace of water on my floor. “The cops called,” he took a cigarette from the pack by my bed. “Some kids broke out a window at the school.”

“Shit.” Disappointed, I asked nonetheless, “Bad?”

“It’s broke.”

“I mean did they vandalize anything inside?”

Wil shook his head. “I was going to wait until Monday.”

“To fix it?”

“No,” he fished about in his pockets for a match. “To come and see you.” The way he said this, with his head moving like a boxer doing a bob and weave, avoiding my face while not allowing me to look at his eyes as I turned from the sink and set my glass of water down, caused me to alter my stare. “I’ve been drinking,” I confided for some reason then. “I fell asleep. That’s why I’m still dressed. I had some wine. I thought you and I,” I bit my lip, went past where Wil was standing in the center of the room, toward the bed where I got a cigarette for myself. There was a lighter on my nightstand, a blue plastic disposable kind they sold for a dollar at the drugstore, but I wanted Wil to offer me his matches, to come closer so whatever he had to say would have to be done near enough where he could touch me if he wanted. “I couldn’t,” he answered, and tossed the matches toward the bed.

“That’s alright,” I ignored the urge to say otherwise, to let him know I’d waited for him at work until Ernie told me he was gone. “You’re here now. You want me to help you with the window?”

“No. I took care of it.”

“Then?” I moved a step closer, ready to undo his belt and prove whatever had him looking so troubled I could take care of, but for each step I took Wil backed off. His green eyes appeared silver behind the smoke of his cigarette as he told me, “Aliston’s pregnant. She’s going to have another baby.”

The news caught me in mid-stride and stopped me dead. Wil waved his free hand back and forth, drew on his cigarette and looked for a place to flick his ash. “All this shit between us,” he said.

I stood three feet away, the drunkenness I felt before gone, my head clear, I reacted to his second statement first. “All this shit?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Shit, Wil?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I want you to tell me you’re going to take care of it.”

“Jesus.”

“What?”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I just told you.”

“No you didn’t. You said she’s pregnant,” I was beginning to panic. “Make her do what you had me do.”

“I can’t,” he said again.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s different.”

“How?”

“Jesus, how do you think?”

“Bullshit,” I went back toward the sink and threw my water glass down on the floor, letting it shatter near my feet. “I don’t care if she’s your wife. You love me.”

“I love fucking you,” Wil stopped moving his head and stared at me hard, his face darkening against any further argument I could make. I wanted to curse him and tell him to get out, but knew if I did he’d leave and what would I do then? I pulled smoke from my cigarette deep into my lungs and held it there until the grey cloud inside of me demanded release. “You told me everything was going to be alright,” I wanted to sound convincing, but came off as pleading.

“It is alright,” Wil seemed restless.

“For who?”

“I just thought you should know,” he moved past me and dropped his cigarette down into the empty bottle of wine. “I’m being up front,” he said. “Some guys wouldn’t even think it was your business.”

“You and Aliston.”

“That’s right.”

“Two kids.”

“It doesn’t mean you and I can’t, you know.”

“What?”

“I just thought I should tell you.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want trouble,” he said this as a warning.

I was fighting against the fear of losing all hope as I asked Wil, “What about last night?”

“What about it?”

“Us!” I thought of everything Avi said, imagined the child in me grown, the one Wil insisted I had to get rid of, the way he kept saying there would be time for us to have kids later and how he looked at me yesterday, how certain I was that he loved me but understood now that was nothing more than relief for my being such a cooperative fuck. “You love me!” I shouted just the same, too loud I knew, the neighbors waking and banging on their walls, but I didn’t care and couldn’t stop.

Wil tossed up his hands, grabbed for his coat which I tried to prevent him from doing but he easily pulled free, mocking me now by spitting back the word, “Love?” and when I screamed, “Yes!” he cursed me, his face red and angry as he called me a, “Fat, crazy bitch! What is this? What did you think? What business is it of yours how many kids Aliston and I have? You and I fuck, that’s it. Jesus, what’s so hard to understand?” he roared me down, stood over me until I thought I might claw at his face as he hit me in the heart.

I slept most of Saturday, going out only after dark, driving in Artie’s old car past Wil’s house though I didn’t stop. I hadn’t eaten anything and when I got to the Purple Moon just before 9:30, I drank two quick whiskeys while sitting at the bar. The music was standard dance tunes and several people were on the floor. Sometime after eleven, with more drinks and a half pack of Lucky Strikes in me, I wound up talking with a guy I couldn’t remember meeting, and by midnight I was letting him fuck me, following him in my car to his place, undressing him and tossing him down.

Sunday I didn’t leave my apartment, spent the afternoon straightening up and packing what I needed to take with me. I got to Ceebrooke early Monday morning and pulled out the supplies for waxing the gym floor. I worked until Wil came to check on me – he didn’t say a word as he peeked through the door – and left around ten. No one noticed as I drove off. I went first to my bank where I closed my account – I had nearly $800 saved – then drove north across town.

Aliston’s mother lived on Pembroke. (Her name is Muriel Hempel, a large woman with tiny bird black eyes and yellow-white hair.) I pulled up in front of the address and walked to the front door, introduced myself and showed my school ID. “Wil had an accident,” I told her. “He’s at St. Joseph’s Hospital. I don’t know how bad,” I said. “He fell through glass and wanted me to come and watch Terisa so you could be with Aliston.” There were holes in my story, I knew, things which if taken at a slower pace would not have seemed quite right, but the urgency made Muriel believe me. She got her coat and keys, gave her granddaughter a hug and said, “This nice lady is going to stay with you while grandma runs out. You two have fun now.” She hurried in black boots through the snow to her car.

Terisa is a happy child. She doesn’t cry and has a way of taking what comes and making the most of it. Her lazy eye is no longer a problem, the muscles having grown strong from regular use. (Her new teachers call her Michelle.) Leaving the city that first morning, I headed toward Buffalo and crossed into Canada where the guards at the tunnel didn’t have too many questions and let us go without asking for Terisa’s ID. I rarely think about Wil anymore, am happy with my new life, the exchange I made which only seems fair. I also have a new name and job at the Calgary Fishery. I’ve lost weight and recently started dating a guy named Jones who works at Terisa’s school and last month separated from his wife.

about the author <$author?>

Steven Gillis is the author of the novel The Weight of Nothing (Brook Street Press, January 28, 2005) Steve’s first novel, Walter Falls, was published in May 2003 and went on to be named a finalist for both the 2003 Book of the Year for Literary Fiction by ForeWord Magazine and also a finalist for the Independent Publishers Association 2004Book of the Year; the only novel to be named a finalist for both awards. (Walter Falls was recently released in paperback.) Currently at work on a new novel, Temporary People, Steve’s stories, articles and book reviews have appeared in many journals, including: The Beat, FriGG, Arriviste Press, Gargoyle, The Paumanok Review, The Cellar Door, Rain Taxi, Facets Magazine, DJN, Detroit Free Press and The Ann Arbor Paper. Steve teaches writing and literature at Eastern Michigan University and is the founder of 826 Michigan, a nonprofit mentoring and tutoring organization for public school students specializing in reading and writing and a chapter of Dave Egger’s 826 Valencia. All author proceeds from Steve’s novels go to his 826 Michigan foundation. Steve lives in Ann Arbor with his wife Mary, and children Anna and Zach.