J. M. Jones works as a writer and editor in Philadelphia. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Barrelhouse, The Normal School, and Potomac Review, among others. He also has a short story forthcoming from Puerto del Sol.
When their year-old son fell down the stairs and fractured his spine, the husband blamed the boy’s socks. He’d mentioned the socks to the wife before. The stairs were hardwood, steep, and easy to lose one’s footing on, even for adults, and blaming the boy’s socks was an indirect way of blaming her. Of course, she blamed him for picking the boy up. The wife had screamed from the top of the stairs. He’d heard thuds and rushed to the living room to find their son sprawled unconscious against the safety gate, the gate they’d placed there to protect him.
If he hadn’t touched the boy, would it have made a difference?
It was something he’d heard: don’t move a person with a neck injury. Only their son had been lying there, limp, like laundry, and it was impossible not to.
What was most startling was that their son didn’t cry, and that’s how they’d known something was wrong. Not the lack of consciousness but the lack of crying, the way his head wobbled on his shoulders. The boy had been walking up the stairs by himself for months. Usually the husband or wife hovered to catch him if he fell. And the boy never had trouble. He’d grip the railing in a fist and take the stairs one at a time, and the husband liked to hang back and watch. Only this time something went wrong. The child had slipped and couldn’t catch hold. And the wife wasn’t behind him. She wasn’t there, and the husband blamed the boy’s socks because he couldn’t blame her.
The husband and wife had been having problems before this. They were slight problems, minor but accumulating, hardly enough to sever ties, but enough to induce a stony silence in one or the other of them. Theirs was a modern marriage. They both worked at offices, both raised the kids. They had two—the boy and a girl, two years older. And the husband wanted to believe their problems had begun with the wife’s surgery, though he knew they began with the birth of the girl. Neither would admit this, but a wedge had worked its way between them, and the wedge was their children. They loved their children and now that the children were here couldn’t imagine their lives without them, but they didn’t want any more, and that’s where the surgery came in. The wife had had an IUD implanted to prevent another. The device was small, t-shaped, with strings like tendrils. It was supposed to lodge in her uterus and prevent conception, but it migrated and lodged in her left hip. Removing it required surgery, and on the day of her appointment, she woke with a fever and had to postpone. This only lengthened the stress of the situation, and a month later, after the rescheduled procedure was successful, the tension didn’t abate.
The husband had considered vasectomy, but he hadn’t been able to commit to it. It seemed so permanent, the IUD less so. If she didn’t want it, they could take it out—in most cases, without surgery—and it cost less money. The chances of migration had been 2%, but when it happened, rather than chalk it up to misfortune, he blamed himself. He thought that if only he’d sucked it up and had the vasectomy, she wouldn’t have had to suffer. He’d tried to explain the reasons he hadn’t wanted to do it. But none of them seemed good enough now. And he assumed, as she recovered, that she blamed him, that she’d started to hate him. She’d never said anything to make him think this—in fact, she didn’t hold him accountable; he’d been there for her, taken care of her afterward—but because they didn’t talk about it and because he thought she blamed him, he was equal parts contrite and resentful. He became quiet. He was hesitant to hold her, thinking she didn’t want to be held and risk having another baby.
One night, between the scheduled and rescheduled surgeries, she’d been running late at work. Her company was like that—irregular hours, demanding clients—while his schedule was more flexible. Most nights it didn’t matter. It was half an hour, maybe. An hour, at most. But the kids had been hyper. The girl complained she was hungry. She’d wanted to go outside and play, but she couldn’t play outside by herself, and the husband couldn’t watch her and cook, and she cried when he said no. The boy kept coming up to the counter where the husband was chopping vegetables and whining, and when that happened, he’d have to put down the knife and comfort him. The boy would stop whining, and the husband would put him down and the boy would go away, but a few moments later, he was back. It had been a long, wearying day. He wanted to yell: “Stop! Just stop! You’re driving me insane!” Instead, he’d sent the wife a message that read: I can’t do this. I can’t make dinner until you’re home.
By the time the wife arrived, he’d given the children bowls of rice and cheese, but no vegetables. She thought he hadn’t given them anything, and this pissed her off.
“I can’t believe you haven’t fed them! They can’t eat this late!”
He was tired—tired of making dinner every night, tired of having to pick up the children from daycare, tired of having to navigate rush hour traffic, tired of the moods he was met with, tired of being blamed for making choices she didn’t agree with. But he wouldn’t have said anything if she hadn’t started in on him.
“I gave them rice, cheese…”
She cut him off with a hand, palm out. She was tired, too. Tired of her commute, tired of having to stay late for inane reasons, tired of not being with her family. And his excuses didn’t matter as much as his silence did. He wanted to tell her his day had been tough, that the boy had been cranky, the girl full of complaints. But she couldn’t deal with that.
“My hip has been twinging the whole way home,” she said.
And this was how they left it. They’d both gone on that night, in silence, both slept until the morning without speaking, and when they left the next morning, they held that silence still.
Their first question after the boy falls is, will he live?
The next is, if he lives, will he walk again? Will he be the same?
What’s left unspoken is, can they go on? Husband and wife?
They have odd thoughts, guilty thoughts, thoughts that come and go. If he dies, we could have another, they both think separately, without sharing. Yet, they don’t want another. They want the boy in that bed, the one hooked up to those machines, the boy before he fell.
What they know is accidents happen. The husband knows, and the wife does, too. What the husband thinks is, it could have been him walking the son upstairs when he fell. He wouldn’t have looked at the boy’s feet either. But no, he thinks, he would have stood behind the boy, he would have hovered. The wife had been careless. She took too much for granted. With the kids. With him. Or maybe not with the kids, but with him. This was part of the pain, the way it happened without either knowing, the slow shift from loving to apathy. They’d had an argument Christmas day, six months ago. It was about the fact he hadn’t bought her stocking stuffers. He’d spent a lot on her, bought her things she liked, things she’d asked for, things she’d wanted, but he hadn’t stuffed her stocking. She’d expected a surprise, she said. She’d expected him to think outside the box. And this made him mad. Who had time for thinking outside the box with two kids? Had she always been this hard to please? And why was she always telling him things like this after the fact, when he’d already failed?
The husband tried to explain his side, but she wasn’t having it. The hand again, palm out, silenced him. She wanted to be heard, for him to take this in, to understand her. But he didn’t understand her. His own stocking was stuffed with a wooden bookmark, a hollow plastic candy cane with M&Ms inside, a box of mint green tea. If that was what she wanted, he could have delivered, but it never occurred to him because she didn’t say. He needed her to say, and she didn’t want to have to.
Putting up a gate at the stairs.
Putting up another at the entrance to the kitchen to block the kids from coming in when they were cooking.
Plugging the electrical outlets with those prophylactic plastic prongs to prevent shocks.
These were measures they took to ensure their children’s safety.
There’s a swelling in the skull. The swelling hasn’t gone down, but it’s early. The doctors are working, treating him. It seems they’ve been here forever, though. The husband and wife can hardly remember what home feels like.
For a while the husband wondered if they could find their way back to love. The wife wondered, too. If he didn’t express things, there was plenty she didn’t express either. She rarely sat down with him anymore. She didn’t want to hear his excuses, dissembling. She wanted things done. He needed to hear her ask for things, needed to feel useful, but he couldn’t tell her this. He didn’t know how. There was too much they couldn’t say, a damming up of words, a sequence of miscues, misinterpretations.
The dangerous floors hadn’t always been so dangerous. The husband had knelt on one six years before and proposed, the day they’d closed on the house. She hadn’t been expecting it, though they’d shopped for the ring together. She’d stepped up on the radiator to fix a shade, and when she turned around, he was down on the floor with the ring out. She’d wept, tears of joy. She never dreamed she could be so happy. But the floors needed refinishing. They were dinged and scuffed, and she’d decided before they moved in to refinish them. She rented a machine, like a lawnmower, that stripped the old finish. She sanded the floors down. They bought stain from a hardware store, and she applied it with care, him helping out. The wife was particular about things, so she’d had to instruct him. Together, they’d applied a finish, a gloss; then painted the walls. They’d made the house theirs, and the floors were dark, beautiful. They shone in the bright sun that came through the windows.
He was proud of her. During the housewarming party, they’d given tours, each taking a group of friends around. She’d heard him showing the floors, bragging about how skilled she was, how she could do anything. He did this so the guests could compliment her. He did this because he admired her. He never said that he helped her, never took the minor credit that could have been his. Instead, he’d heaped it upon her, and she’d glowed at this, the recognition, his appreciation.
At the time, they’d agreed on what to do next—a wedding, since they weren’t yet married. They were going to avoid the pitfalls of other married couples, the bickering and petty resentments. There were examples everywhere of what they didn’t want to be, and they were certain they could avoid it. So how had it happened? They didn’t know. They’d remained who they wanted to be for eight years, five before marriage, three after. But then it crept up on them, though what it was, they didn’t know. They became different. They thought their hearts were big enough to love each other and their children, but maybe they weren’t. It was one or the other maybe. And they naturally chose the children. She could be mean. But he could be mean, too. The course of a marriage. They weren’t always like this: mean and stressed. There were fights more and more. And the fights had set them up for this: blame instead of unity; resentment rather than love.
“You need to keep him closer,” he’d said to her one time.
The husband had been staring out the window. It looked like the boy was running for the street. A moment passed, and the wife appeared, but to him, she should have been closer. The boy had paused at the sidewalk and turned, but if he’d run for the street, she couldn’t have stopped him.
“You worry too much,” the wife had told him.
Instead of restraining the boy, she’d called out to make him stop. It had worked just as well, she thought. But would it always?
Two different philosophies: the husband lived as though something bad was around every corner, and it was his job to protect the kids. The wife lived like the world was a marvelous place she was gifting to them. The truth was probably in between, but since they’re suffering now, with the boy in that bed, his way seems right.
It was an accident, the wife thinks, a loss of footing.
It was preventable, the husband thinks.
But neither speaks their mind.
Instead, the husband thinks of a night the month before, a night he’d asked her to be more careful, a night when they’d been giving the children a bath. The husband had cleaned the boy and passed him to the wife to dress. She’d dressed him in pajamas and socks and put him down, and as he washed their daughter, the husband could hear the boy padding around in the hall. The man went to the hall, and as the boy came toward him, the husband made ready to catch him. But the boy dashed away and halted at the top step, his feet dangling over the edge. The boy didn’t slip, but the man had an image of him tumbling down the stairs, and it shook him.
The wife came out of the boy’s room.
“What is it?” she asked.
The husband explained, and she thought he was making too much of it.
“It’s all right. He’ll be fine,” she said.
What the husband wanted to say then was, how do you know?
What he wants to say now but doesn’t is, you should have listened. Because he’d told her. He’d said it that night on the stairs. It was the last thing he’d said to her that had any meaning: “The socks make it dangerous. You have to watch or he’ll slip.” What he’d asked her then was, “Could we wait to put them on? If he needs them overnight to keep his feet warm, can we wait until we put him in his crib?” And she’d been unresponsive, thinking he was paranoid, asking why his mind always went to the worst case scenario. And he’d continued: “Can we please just try to be more careful?” But what the husband had meant by this was, for once in our lives, can you please do this one thing I ask?