(Editor’s note: Birthday is a short story from Oklahoma author Andy Bowen.)
It was a cold morning in December in 1953, and Jack Farley’s ’39 Ford Coupe barely had windows much less a heater. Iris, Jack’s girlfriend since sophomore year, sat in the passenger’s seat, shivering and looking distracted. Jack drove more carefully than usual; like a grown-up. He felt like a grown-up. Every few minutes he’d reach over and squeeze Iris’ fingers through her glove. She didn’t seem to notice. She was in a world all her own, her eyelids swimming with pictures of the greatest betrayals in history. Judas and Brutus and Arnold were floating in and out and around her vision like house flies in July.
God, July! What she wouldn’t give for just one July afternoon. She wondered where they were going. She’d never heard of this kind of thing before, but Jack seemed sure. He said Danny and Abby had done this just last year when they were in a similar situation. He said this lady just “took care” of this kind of thing.
“Took care of?”
What did that even mean?
Shouldn’t she be the one to take care of it? She and Jack, together. It seemed only right since they were the ones responsible. But Jack wouldn’t hear it. He said as long as they kept it quiet, and found this woman alright, nothing would have to change. He could still go off to school and she could finish her senior year here at home, instead of with her aunt in Wichita.
Before she’d really figured anything out, Jack turned the car into a drive, edged over the dirt for a quarter mile or so, and then came to a stop in front of a house that looked ready to fall over. A slat roof with holes so big you could see light coming through from the lanterns inside. A bent stove pipe sticking through the side of the house near the eaves, billowing black smoke. And one-by-four lumber nailed haphazardly across studs stuck directly into the dirt. But if this house looked broken from the outside, it looked like a $100 a night hotel on the inside. Everything was neat and swept and appeared in its place. The rug on the floor looked worn from all the bare feet that had run across it over the last 80 years. It was visibly mended in places, but it was free of dust and obviously well cared for. The only two chairs in the room were dissimilar in type and size. The rocker looked like it had seen many late nights and crying babies, but it looked just as solid as the day it was new, if not as pretty.
This picture calmed Iris down a bit. She spoke to the back of the woman standing over a bucket of steaming hot water in the sink,
“Hello? Miss?” And then Jack took over.
“Are you Miss Lersson?” And there was a pause. The stooped old woman didn’t even turn to acknowledge them. She just went on washing.
“Dan Himebaugh sent me to see you.” Another pause, but this time she glanced around and took a rag off a rack by her head to dry her hands.
“He said you could help us.”
“Is that what little Danny Himebaugh told you?” The woman spoke in a deep, clear voice that belied her bent back and gray hair.
“Help you with what, I wonder?” And she stared at Jack for a long time, right into his eyes, like his sins were written in them and she was memorizing them and weighing them.
“Well, ma’am, we’ve been a little careless and now we’re in it pretty deep and we could sure use your help.” Jack tried to cover his desperation, but he could tell she wasn’t fooled.
“Come out with it, boy,” she said not unkindly.
“Well, see Iris and me are planning on getting married someday, but we weren’t planning on it just yet except that now we’ve got a situation and we don’t really know …”
“I’m pregnant,” Iris said clearly.
“I know, dear,” replied the woman, even more kindly than she had spoken to Jack. “I can see it all over you; around you even, but why are you coming to me?”
“Because I’d rather not be,” said Iris. “Pregnant, that is,” and her eyes traveled to the carpet and then to her black Mary Jane shoes. She noted how impractical they were on a day as cold as this one. She wondered if she’d ever grow up.
“Rest yourself in that chair by the stove, child, while I make coffee. Do you drink coffee?”
Iris did not drink coffee, but she nodded that she’d like a cup all the same.
“Boy, I’ve just got the one room, so you’ll have to wait outside.”
“I will no …” began Jack, but he was cut off.
“You will if you want my help with this situation, as you called it,” and Miss Lersson’s tone could not be argued with. She went on, “You’re so much like your father that I could slap you before you gimme a reason and not feel sorry. You listen to me and you might turn out a little better than he did. Wait in the barn, out of the wind, I’ll bring you a sandwich and some coffee after while.”
Jack burned at her words, and he let it be known in a hard, half crazy stare and balled up fists, but he didn’t talk back. He looked at Iris, hoping she would interject on his behalf, and then he stormed out of the shack, slamming the door behind him to no effect.
It’s not the city. It’s you. by James Nghiem
Miss Lersson poured two cups of strong coffee, handed one to Iris, and then sat in the chair opposite her, where her tired feet would find easy access to the hot coals in the belly of the stove. She breathed deliberately for a few moments, letting the girl rest and think, while she collected her own thoughts, trying to decided how to proceed. At last, she spoke.
“Why are you here, child?”
“I told you. I’m pregnant and I don’t want to be. I was told you can take care of things like this.” Iris did not mean to sound indignant, but she couldn’t keep her frustration from stowing itself away inside of her words.
“Oh I can. And I will too, if that’s what you really want. Is that what you really think you want?” The old woman wasn’t baiting her. She wasn’t trying to trip her up or make her feel angry, but Iris felt a rush of confusion and anger and remorse and a hundred other emotions all at once that welled up into a shrill cry.
“OF COURSE THAT’S WHAT I WANT! What else could I want?” It really was a question.
“You could raise that baby. Girls have done it before. I know who your folks are, they’ll help you.”
“Can you imagine what people would say; how they’d talk?”
“Oh people are gonna talk, if not about you and your baby then about somethin’ else. Besides, babies have those big eyes and that sweet disposition for a reason. Nobody can stay mad at them or the woman raising them, except maybe a preacher. What I want to know is if you came here to talk to me, or if you came here with that boy so he could talk to me.”
Iris hadn’t considered her choice ‘til now. She was here because this is what Jack thought would be best, and she couldn’t very well raise the child herself. But Miss Lersson made it sound possible, if not easy. She could tell her parents about it, let them be angry for a month or two and then come around to helping her. She could stay with her Aunt Katy in Wichita until she had the baby. Even finish school there. But she didn’t want to do any of those things. She wanted things to go back to the way they were. She wanted to be a girl just a little longer, if she could manage it. She stood up.
“Where you goin’?” the old woman asked gently.
“To get Jack,” said Iris, almost blankly, as though she were counting out loud or reciting a Bible verse.
“Well, dear, your secret’s safe with me, but you’d better not keep it too long. I’d say you’re two months along already.”
“Oh I’m not leaving,” Iris replied, like she’d just come to. The old woman looked puzzled. “I’m just going to tell Jack to go home; not to bother waiting on me in the barn; or anywhere, I guess.”