"Small Kindness," by Leah Browning

Leah Browning

Leah Browning

Leah Browning is the author of three short nonfiction books and four chapbooks. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Coldnoon, Santa Ana River Review, Bellows American Review, First Class Literary Magazine, Waypoints, Chagrin River Review, Fiction Southeast, Nebo, Newfound, Queen’s Quarterly, Blood Orange Review, Per Contra, 300 Days of Sun, Glassworks Magazine, Mud Season Review, and elsewhere. Her work was also included on materials from Broadsided Press and Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, with audio and video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse, and in anthologies including Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence from White Pine Press.

Small Kindness

Shelley finds him lying on a twin bed in the closet of their spare room. The room is full of junk—mostly boxes they’ve never unpacked under a layer of all the things she’s thrown in every time someone was coming over and they were frantically tidying up. The bed is his, a spare from before they moved in together. The closet is barely big enough to hold it. There’s no closet door, either—just a ruffled yellow curtain left behind by the previous owners. He’s lying in there on this old mattress under a red and black plaid waterproof camping blanket from L.L. Bean. This is how much he wants to get away from her. 

She yanks the curtain aside. “What the hell are you doing?” she snaps. 

A year earlier, when she wanted to break up, he was the one who didn’t want to call it quits. But now, now that they have a mortgage and a joint car payment and a fat little baby screaming his head off in the other room, now that they’re really in the thick of things, all of the sudden, he’s sleeping in a closet. 

“What does it look like?” he snaps back. When she doesn’t answer, he rolls over onto his side with his face toward the wall. 

She can feel the heat in her cheeks and the back of her head. She wants to drag him out of bed by his hair and throw him through a window. She wants to stab him with tiny shards of window glass until blood spurts out of him in a thousand tiny blood geysers. Angry. She’s so angry. But she’s promised the couples counselor to communicate, so instead of watching him bleed out she pulls the curtain closed again and turns off the light in the spare room so that at least one of them can sleep. It’s the best she can do at the moment. 

The baby’s standing in a playpen in the living room, hanging on to the side and wailing so hard that he sounds like he’s getting a sore throat. Henry could come out of his closet bedroom and pick the kid up if he wanted to, but she’s not holding her breath about that. The only one who looks more miserable than the baby is Henry’s dog, who is also named Henry—the height of arrogance, to name his dog after himself, she thinks now, though she has to admit that when she met him, the sight of his little Jack Russell terrier made her swoon—and now they also have their son, Henry. Between the duplicate names and the sleep deprivation and the screaming, she’s never felt more strongly that she might be losing her mind. They keep trying to change the dog’s name, but nothing sticks. (Spot was Henry 1’s not-so-original contribution.) Henry 3 is just “The Baby” or, when things are really bad, “The Monster.”

“I wrote a thesis on eighteenth-century French literature,” Shelley told her sister over the phone. “Do you remember that? Now I spend all my time hosing gunk off The Monster.”

“Are you kidding?” her sister said. “I hope you’re kidding.” Shelley’s sister has three of these things, and she walks around with a serene expression all the time as if she’s Mother Earth in her baggy maternity shirts with wet spots on the nipples. 

“Are you a secret alcoholic?” Shelley asked. Her sister didn’t answer. “Valium?” Shelley said. “Xanax? Prozac? Zoloft? Am I getting warm?”

“I’m hanging up,” her sister said. “Joe thinks you’re a bad influence.” 

This time, Shelley wasn’t sure whether her sister was kidding, but she didn’t ask—she was pretty sure that she didn’t want to hear the answer. She just let her go. Saintliness aside, she doesn’t have much to offer anyway. Their other sister breeds hairless cats and is even less maternal than Shelley is, so going to her for parenting advice is out of the question.

When it comes right down to it, their mother was a not-so-secret alcoholic, so none of them have much to go on. 

Now Shelley wants to go in and calmly communicate that when Henry doesn’t get the hell up and take care of his kid, it makes her feel frustrated, but she knows he would say the same thing he always says, which is “Jesus, Shelley, give it a rest,” which is coincidentally what she wants to say to The Monster, but she knows he won’t listen either, so what’s the point? Instead she picks him up and dries his tears and takes him in the other room and rocks him for a while and sings that song he likes, and finally he settles down and goes to sleep on her shoulder. 

•     •     •

In the morning, when they get to daycare, the person who meets them at the door is Miss Jessica—Miss Jessica of the shiny hair and the big smile. She’s so young, still—barely out of high school. Young, not yet bitter and ruined by life. Shelley wants to warn her: Enjoy it now while you can. 

Miss Jessica holds out her arms and the baby—always disloyal!—practically jumps into them. He doesn’t even turn to look at Shelley as she leaves. 

Still, she leaves. She drives to work. She answers her messages. She goes out for lunch. She’s on her way back to the office when she finally sees Henry, walking down some steps, and it’s as if the whole day has been building to this moment. Claire isn’t with him, but he’s coming out of Claire’s apartment—a hundred years from now, when she doesn’t even remember her own name, Shelley will remember exactly which apartment is Claire’s—and even as she’s feeling a shot of fear deep in her stomach, Shelley is also thinking, Ah, so that’s what this is. At least things make sense now.

She drives back to work and sits at her desk, staring at her computer screen. Claire. Of course it’s Claire. 

He met her while Shelley was pregnant with Henry, and for a long time, Shelley was at the doctor’s office with a full bladder waiting for an ultrasound or with her legs up in stirrups while the doctor checked her cervix thinking about how much pain she was in. Ha. She didn’t know anything about pain.

Claire was young and pretty, and she laughed at Henry’s stupid stories that Shelley had heard ten times a year for ten years. She put her hand on his arm and looked up at him with her big cow eyes, and he felt like he was sixteen again. Or something like that. Shelley had to fill in the blanks. For some reason, he didn’t want to explain what he was doing with nude photos of Claire on his cell phone. 

But whatever. It was bad timing—that was something they could all agree on. Shelley and Henry decided to try to make it work. Claire disappeared.

And now she’s back again. Just like that.

•     •     •

One night, years later, Shelly has a dream:

She and a nurse are taking care of two babies in a hotel across the street from the hospital where she had Henry 3.

All night, she is holding one of the babies and talking to him. He’s crying, but she is able to get him to settle down. “I don’t understand why this keeps happening,” she says after a while.

The baby says, “That’s because you don’t have much discernment.” 

The nurse has left the room on an errand, but when she returns, Shelley repeats the comment to the nurse, and says, “Wow! He’s got quite the vocabulary.”

The nurse smiles but doesn’t seem as surprised as Shelley expected, saying only, “Yeah, he likes to watch the really highbrow TV.” 

They spend the rest of the night holding the babies, taking care of them, and early the next morning, before it’s even light out, they take them back across the street.

As Shelley is walking out of the hospital, a very young man—young but big—tall, with broad shoulders and dark hair—is leaving with his parents. He gets behind Shelley and puts his hands on her bare arms, running his hands down her arms almost from her shoulders to her elbows. Then, with his index finger, he pokes her in the back, just under her left shoulder blade, and she screams and the spot in her back where he touched her cracks as she wakes up. 

•     •     •

But back to Shelley and Henry and Claire. This should be the end of the story, but it isn’t. Henry’s apparently sure enough of Claire to sleep with her, but not to move in with her, and Shelley and Henry can’t afford two places. Daycare costs an arm and a leg and they’re barely making ends meet as it is.

So he goes on sleeping on his bachelor mattress in a closet under an L.L. Bean blanket for almost six months.

On his birthday, Shelley gets up early with the baby and doesn’t kick Henry in the face to wake him up. Claire surprises him with an elaborate home-cooked meal she spent three days preparing, and tickets to a basketball game, courtside seats. 

Suddenly, he feels ready to leave Shelley and move in with Claire. 

Shelley tries to be a good sport, or be the bigger person, or whatever people are saying now, but when he finally leaves she calls all her friends and her sisters and says, “They deserve each other.” It doesn’t matter, though, she adds, because it won’t last. 

She’s right, of course—Henry and Claire do split up—but it’s three years later, after an expensive wedding and even more expensive divorce.

Still, the night he packs up the last of his books and compact discs and actually leaves, she’s surprised by how spiteful she feels. She wants to be happy. They’ve been living in limbo for months. The end should be a relief, but it isn’t.

Instead, it’s a reminder of everything they’ve gone through up to this point. She’s right back on the street outside Claire’s apartment, her hands on the steering wheel, watching Henry bounce down the front steps of Claire’s building. There were so many signs—all the things she didn’t want to see, so she convinced herself that she was imagining them. She pulls over and watches him jog toward his car, flushed, beaming. 

She goes back to work in a daze, and at the end of the day, she picks Henry 3 up from daycare. He cries and pouts as she dislodges him from Miss Jessica’s arms. Maybe it’s genetic, she thinks.

Henry doesn’t come home that night. Or maybe he does, but he goes straight to his closet. Either way, Shelley takes the baby to bed with her. She lies on her side, crying, and the baby, who is sitting up next to her, reaches out his fat little hand and pats her hair.

He’s never done this before, and for a moment, at least, the cloud lifts, and she thinks that maybe they will all find a way to go on. 

Many years later, when the baby’s long grown and they no longer have even cursory meetings to pass him back and forth, Shelley runs into Henry on the street and can no longer remember why they used to get so angry at each other. What went wrong? They loved each other so much, in the beginning.

They’re different people now. They’ve both suffered; they’ve changed. Henry says hello, and they embrace, stiffly, like strangers. Shelley hardly knows what to say. This is a man she used to lie in bed with every night, and now she doesn’t know a thing about him. 

So they run into each other on the street. They say hello. They embrace and make polite inquiries, they nod and smile, and then they go their separate ways.