The sound had a texture Aaron felt in his teeth—like shrimp, fleshy but firm. In his ears it was a rolling thump-harrumph. The radio was off, and he was alone in the car, so the sound, like meat on metal, stayed with him. A meaty rhythm. Aaron had run over a deer carcass once, on a dare, in high school. That experience came to him now. But there were no deer in Richmond’s Fan district, at evening rush hour, on a September Friday or any other day.
He drove on a half block, exhausted. He and his wife weren’t sleeping at night; so anxious was Carrie to make a baby with her ovaries marred by cysts like barnacles on a pair of buoys. The fertility doctors had praised Aaron’s sperm count, motility, and form. His was model semen. Speedily swimming sperm.
At the sound’s urging, he pulled to the curb, got out of the car, and jogged back, feeling foolish, scanning the street and sidewalk for a maimed dog, raccoon, or squirrel. Nothing. He got back in the Honda and drove, certain he hadn’t hit an animal on the well-kept street. The chassis sounded fine. There was only the thump-harrumph, thump-harrumph he still heard in his mind.
He drove. Carrie could be pregnant already. After three years of trying, tests and fertility drugs, she had five days ago jabbed a needle into the flesh of her gut to release an egg. Aaron had watched, fascinated. It almost made him wish he had shot up, just once, in art school.
Then he made love to his wife in the prescribed missionary position, his head turned away, so he couldn’t see her crying with anticipation. Their own kid. They’d wanted one for so long, Aaron had become attached to the wanting: a kind of phantom limb, growing heavier every day, though oddly, pleasurably parasitic.
Carrie told Aaron he was reading too much Poe. She said her baby-longing was like an ever-expanding light, like illustrations of the Big Bang, the promise of creation. She told him she intended to fulfill that promise. At this, Aaron had only nodded and looked away. It was hard for him to picture the end of the wanting, a tangible, tactile outcome, when even his art had become virtual.
Now the thump-harrumph—a real sound—grew louder as he drove. Thump-harrumph. And he suddenly wondered if he had seen a kid, a boy maybe, back on that well-kept street. Aaron had made a rolling stop, in a hurry to make his date with Carrie—their standing Friday meet-up at Joe’s Inn, for two heaping plates of Greek spaghetti that lasted them through the weekend.
He turned in to a gas station. The gauge had read E for two days, and he wouldn’t make it. He got out, and, knowing there wouldn’t be a dent or scratch in the Honda’s front fender, checked anyway. Nothing. The sound, the boy were figments of his imagination, stifled all day as he sat in his carpeted cubicle, art school a distant memory.
He swiped his debit card and pumped. Now, he’d be late for Carrie, who hated to sit alone in restaurants.
Carrie was a social being, so unlike Aaron, who had gone for days during college without talking to a soul; his art had flourished for it. Carrie thrived on interaction. A speech counselor, she loved language, listening for patterns to heal lisps and stutters. But Aaron thought that some she’d helped—mainly shy little boys—had sounded more interesting, natural, organic, before they were fixed.
As the gas tank filled, Aaron sat in the driver’s seat and rested his eyes. Dusk was coming on. He was tired from early morning tests and surly nurses at the lab, though he tried not to complain. Carrie bore the brunt; she was the one on drugs that made her weep without provocation. She was the one who had to work with kids every day, while he fiddled with PowerPoint and InDesign and snatched free lunch from a conference room. Had he eaten today? Had he dozed off at that corner, as he did now? Thump-harrumph.
He took his phone from his pocket, dialed and waited for Carrie to rifle through her giant purse in search of hers. She answered, sounding far away, and he stated his problem into the stale air of the Honda.
“I’m getting gas on Main, but it’s strange.”
“What is?” Her voice was smiling.
“It’s like I hit something in the street,” he said, quickly adding, “I don’t know, like some phantom kid.” His wife said nothing, and so he continued. “Like he came out of a tree on the corner.”
Still she said nothing. He knew he sounded crazy, but it was too real to keep to himself—the thump-harrumph a cadenced whisper in his ear. “It was so real, I felt the running-over.”
“Not of an actual kid?”
“Of this hallucination of yours?” She whispered like she had a hand cupped over her mouth. “Your wanting, your appendage-like apparition, is haunting you now? Is this what you’re telling me?” She laughed, a curt exhalation. Her chair screeched as she rose from their window table.
He said, “I’m on my way,” as he grabbed his receipt and hung up the nozzle.
“Give me five minutes.”
The restaurant’s door sounded her exit. “No,” she said again. She was walking. “I’m not there.”
“Where are you going?” Over the phone, he heard her car door close as he closed his.
“My mom’s.” She sighed. “I need you, but not this mess, Aaron.”
Mess. “Forget I said it.” This wasn’t how he wanted to start his maybe-blastocyst’s first weekend of existence. And he hadn’t meant to freak Carrie out, but he just couldn’t imagine eating spaghetti and joking about the soulless characters at the bank while the thump-harrumph went in and out like a far-away radio station.
“We can’t forget it,” she said, sounding not at all freaked out but firm. “We’ll talk Monday, not before.” She was setting the parameters, wresting control over her personal life, which had become a field of play for a handful of medical professionals. Aaron heard the satisfaction in his wife’s voice. “Love you,” she said and hung up.
Aaron called again, but it went straight to voicemail. He didn’t leave a message.
When Carrie was pissed—something that happened about once a year—there was nothing he could do but grant her time, time and the uncomplicated chatter that her mother’s place offered. The thump-harrumph faded as he drove around before heading west.
He took Monument Avenue, its grassy median animated with joggers, mothers and strollers. He drove past the dead rebels on horseback and the old manor houses cut up into apartments. He felt his pulse slow. He too had been granted time to ponder his child-wanting and the could-be embryo. Instead, his thoughts were consumed by this character he was fashioning—a boy of five dashing from behind a tree and off the sidewalk on one of those skinny scooters like a sword on wheels. And there was the thump-harrumph again, the scooter kid’s song, haunting Aaron as he drove farther and farther from the street where he had first heard it.
It was all the couple had wanted, a kid, though Aaron tried not to think about it too much. Vaguely planning for a family, he had gone to work after graduation as a contractor for the bank—more lucrative than hawking his paintings in coffee shops. He was supposed to be doing graphic design, robot art, but mostly he put the bells and whistles on his boss’ snore-fest presentations on brand management. There was little creativity in being a brand cop, but Aaron was good at it, so they kept extending his contract. It had been eight years now, one rolling into the next like waves.
He tried not to think about the art he’d left behind. A doodle when he wasn’t too tired from making dinner or trying to make a child—of Carrie’s folded hands or an imagining of the tree outside their bedroom window aflame—could hardly be characterized as the artist returning to his purpose. That was okay. Aaron’s purpose had changed. He was a married man. If the syringe of hormones had shaken something loose from Carrie’s faulty ovaries, he would also be a father.
If the hormones had failed, he would tell his wife what he had planned to tell her at dinner tonight: he needed a break from trying, just for a while. His hands on the steering wheel, his arms and his legs felt heavy now, like a fishing net dragged to the bottom of the ocean by a multitude of tiny lead weights.
Without realizing, he’d let up on the gas and was parking in front of the apartment he used to share with Ed. A talk—or maybe a joint—with his oldest friend could erase the scooter kid he’d created in his tired mind. “Life is for the living,” Carrie would often say, encouraging her husband to get out of his head and join in the muck of life.
He locked the car and jogged over the lawn. He opened the heavy front door, ran the two flights of stairs and knocked on Ed’s door until he was let in and greeted. Aaron looked at Ed’s open smile and dilated pupils, at the bong on the kitchen counter, smoke still curling from the funnel. Ed was in no condition to act as confidante, and it turned Aaron off the idea of getting high. He looked at the Beta fish swimming like giant sperm in the slimy tank in the hall, and the thump-harrumph returned with a vengeance, like all the water in the world crashing in.
Ed asked Aaron if he wanted to smoke. Aaron shook his head, and Ed shrugged and pulled him into his dining room art studio.
And there was Jen, the girlfriend Aaron hadn’t seen since she chose law school over him more than a decade before. She flashed Aaron a smile and held up a dime bag as explanation for her presence.
Ed pulled Aaron toward the card table in the corner and away from Jen, who still looked twenty-one, stuffing her hands into her hoodie’s pouch.
“This’ll feed your soul,” Ed said to Aaron as he gestured to the clay figurines on the table strewn with newspaper: a hundred or so two inch-tall characters for the stop-animation project he’d begun when he and Aaron were seniors. Had Ed already shown Jen his characters of clay? Had she not a soul to be fed? Or was Aaron’s brush with the scooter kid written all over his face?
There on the card table was a miniature samurai warrior, a lady hunchback, an amputee, a woman giving birth and a bodybuilder—all in twenty or more poses each. Aaron pretended to study Ed’s clay dolls, hoping that when he lifted his eyes, Jen would be gone—as quickly as she had returned.
“A motley crew with which to start the world anew,” Ed said and laughed.
“Motley alright,” said Jen, who had settled into a tattered armchair.
“My new-world menagerie still needs a backdrop, scenery: a Japanese castle, Notre Dame, Viet Nam, a giant birthing pool and the inside of a Gold’s Gym. They’ll feed your soul, these little guys. Really,” said Ed to Aaron, perhaps pleading for a renewed artistic connection between the old friends.
Aaron barely registered the thump-harrumph now, as if the sound had descended to his gut. He shook his head. “What you need is help, Ed,” Aaron said, looking once more at the never-ending study in clay while watching Jen—just sitting there—out of the corner of his eye. He thought of the baby his wife might be carrying already, a new generation. “Life is for the living,” he told Ed. “Life is for the now,” he said, stumbling over his words like one of Carrie’s stutterers. And he turned to leave the apartment where years before he’d said goodbye to Jen and to drug-induced art school projects and said hello to marriage and the real world of gainful employment in a cube like a cat condo.
Aaron raised a hand in retreat to Jen, Ed, and Ed’s new-world army of mud. He left the apartment and jogged down the hall, in a hurry to nowhere but the solitude of his car. Jen followed close behind, her footfalls light on the metal stairs. “You’re hungry,” she called to him. “Your stomach was growling in there.”
“Of all the things I’d hoped you’d say.” They stood in the building’s foyer. College was a decade ago, and Aaron wouldn’t open old wounds. “Forget it,” he said. He and Carrie were virtually perfect. Jen was no threat. He opened the heavy front door and it groaned. He watched her follow.
“Come on. Dinner,” she said, stopping him on the front lawn. She waved the air between them as if swatting at a pest—ten years casually swept away. Jen was the kind of girlfriend Aaron was glad to have left behind but could never entirely forget. She was everything Carrie wasn’t: careless, where Carrie was kind, a giver—only not this weekend, not for Aaron, whose warped mind was messing with his marriage.
“No thanks, Jen,” he said and he walked towards his car, though he didn’t feel like eating alone. And Jen had never pulled any punches. She might level with him. Tell him if he was crazy—creating a kid in his mind to hit with his car. He dug in his pocket for his keys.
“Eat with me,” she said, a lawyerly command. She took his left hand and quickly stroked his wedding band. “My dad always wanted me to marry a puti,” she said, Tagalog for white man.
It was only now that they were standing in the street that Aaron noticed that Jen’s long dark hair was thrown into a makeshift bun that made her look like some kind of casual geisha.
“Her name’s Carrie, my wife.”
“I know,” said Jen. She told him she was heading to dinner at her parents’ place on the Southside. He’d met the Villanuevas briefly a couple times—smiling foreigners, better company than his own company in an empty apartment.
Jen said they would take her ride. Ride, like she was an R&B singer now. And so they walked west on Monument towards her condo’s parking lot. The street lights came on. Aaron and Jen traded two-minute summaries of their professional advancement the last decade. His: promising art student to corporate brand cop. Hers: law student to DUI defense attorney. She was single. He was married and trying, a baby-making machine. She said, “poor you,” and the thump-harrumph returned to beat like a drum in Aaron’s ears.
He told her about the scooter kid and his haunting rhythm, but she only laughed. “You always were a space case artist,” she said, “your paint and cat hair collages.” Aaron’s study of natural mediums. Now he didn’t even know where those paintings were. But God knows he could locate a periwinkle polo shirt at a moment’s notice.
Through the parking lot to her car, Jen jogged, her hair falling down her back like a model on a beach. Was Aaron supposed to chase her? He no longer knew this woman. But he too had changed in ten years—from a Ramen-eating waif to an average professional with a receding hairline. Still, he felt like an imposter in his pseudo golf outfit.
She said the drive would reacquaint them. He felt like he was being held captive, but maybe that was what he had always liked about Jen. He didn’t have to decide much. “I know that”—she motioned to Aaron’s khakis and tan bucks—“is not you.” Aaron nodded as they pulled away in her Land Rover, happy to have someone tell him what he was like.
Richmond was nice in the fall, once the sweltering summer heat was done. Aaron lowered his window. Maybe it was the fact he didn’t have to talk to Carrie tonight about the could-be fetus. He didn’t have to talk at all, and it felt good. The movement soothed him like it would a baby. And just before dozing off, he remembered riding on a city bus a month ago to the hospital. The Honda had been in the shop. He was wearing an old backpack, and inside was nothing but a paper bag carrying a sterile cup of his semen. Aaron stood in the crowded bus, clinging to the overhead bar. At a hard stop, he nearly fell into a middle aged man with an industrial metal lunch box in his lap. The man told Aaron to watch it. Hadn’t Aaron missed his stop, the man asked, and he pointed back towards the blocks of student housing. He assumed Aaron was still a student. Carrie adored her husband’s baby face. Aaron hated it. I’m a baby-making machine, he’d wanted to tell the man, but he hadn’t.
Jen’s parents’ house was a squat rancher. Twenty minutes from downtown, she parked her SUV on the short street. Down the sidewalk in the near-dark ran a kid pulling a squealing toddler in a Radio Flyer wagon. The image of the scooter kid flashed in Aaron’s mind’s eye but the thump-harrumph had faded to a faint undertone. Jen said something in Tagalog, and the kids slowed, until they hit the next driveway. Aaron followed Jen around the house.
He hadn’t remembered the back yard from years ago. It was like a jungle in the suburbs. There was no lawn, only gardens. Exotic squash and melon varieties hung like pendulous breasts on stalks and vines. Ivy-like creepers climbed tall trellises that formed a fence separating the Villanuevas from their neighbors. Through a maze of plant life Jen and Aaron wove their way to the door.
Jen told him puti had gotten lost back there. He pretended not to see her wink at him. He thought of Carrie, settling in for an evening of sitcoms with her mother.
Jen opened the door to the kitchen. She kissed her parents, who sat at the table stacking fried eggrolls like Lincoln Logs. Aaron said “hola”—about all he could remember of the language that sounded to him like gobbling turkeys on speed. In the next room, Jen’s brothers and their friends were watching a boxing match on TV. Filipino vs. Filipino.
She motioned for Aaron to sit at the round kitchen table. And she handed him a couple eggrolls while she dished up oxtail stew from a pot on the stove. She ate hers with fermented shrimp paste, which he had eaten once on a dare. He imagined his could-be baby as a tiny pickled shrimp in a jar.
Jen told Aaron to have a beer with her dad, who wanted to catch up on what Aaron had been doing these past ten years. “They’re very impressed with your outfit; they think you look rich,” said Jen.
“No, TJ Maxx,” Aaron said as he drank his beer and ate his stew. In the background echoed the intimate sounds of the pummeling going on in the Villanueva family’s homeland and the young men’s sympathetic groans following every cut and jab. Here, only twenty minutes out of town and surrounded by strangers, strange food, strange plants, he felt good. Maybe this was the place to destroy a mask he had created to please his boss, his wife, and the child they were trying to make. Aaron whispered to Jen that he’d rather hear Villanueva news than regale them with tales of his humdrum work, marriage, and fertility drugs.
Jen told him to make up a story instead. “They think I’ve been engaged to a circuit court judge for a few months,” she whispered, while her mother critiqued her father’s egg roll-rolling form. Aaron asked Jen what would happen when there was no ring, no wedding and no kids. The kids crack seemed to knock the wind out of her like a punch to the gut. Her face dropped, but she recovered. She told him her parents watched no American TV; they worked painting houses and picking crab in a seafood market. Their collective knowledge: the village where they grew up, siding, and fish. “They don’t care to know about the wider world here,” she said. “I reinvent myself every time I visit. It’s freeing, really, creative,” she said. She threw Aaron another beer from the fridge. “Try it.”
This new Aaron had recruited several artist friends, he began his story, and they shared an apartment with high ceilings, white walls—20 feet or taller, perfect for Calder-like mobiles. Aaron stood and touched the Villaneuvas’ kitchen ceiling for emphasis, setting the scene. Their landlord said they could paint the walls any color they liked, so they did.
But, first, the artists agreed to abide by three rules of their own design: the paint must reach the ceiling; no ladders or poles would be used to get it there; and their bodies were their only tools. “No brushes or rollers,” said Mr. Villanueva, confounded by the idea. His wife only made a disgusted clucking noise and patted her husband’s hand for him to continue forming eggrolls.
The further into fantasy Aaron took his new autobiography, the more elated he felt. His rapt audience, Jen’s father, had all but forgotten his culinary chore, watching Aaron speak and pantomime as he explored his new life’s course to the edges of his imaginary canvas.
Jen stood in the hallway, halfway between the kitchen farce and the boxing bout. She motioned for him to come outside for a joint, but he couldn’t have stopped his story if he’d wanted to. He’d been removed from his art for so long, just talking about it made him kind of aroused. But was it the hallucination of the scooter kid or this exercise in fantasy that had freed him? Even the thump-harrumph was gone. While Aaron spun his tale, Mrs. Villanueva went to the stove to fry the eggrolls, and the sizzling sound was like a shower of sparks behind Aaron’s story. “Only bodies could be used in this painting,” he said to Mr. Villanueva as Aaron declined Jen’s offer of another beer. This fantastic creative high was better than any buzz.
The thump-harrumph didn’t return, nor did the image of the scooter kid. Nothing unusual had happened on the corner of Boyd and West Ave. Nothing. But everything—a flurry of brilliant lights—was exploding in his mind at this kitchen table, where a seventy-year old man hung on Aaron’s every word.
He continued. “Bodies climbing on bodies like pyramids to reach the ceiling, creating, painting the colors of clouds, blood, midnight and everything in between.” He gestured in circles with his hands.
Mrs. Villanueva called to Jen in Tagalog, and Jen translated: “She says you’re disgusting. Now you’re getting the hang of it,” she told Aaron and laughed.
In Aaron’s mind the bodies were naked, doused in paint and allowed to enjoy the texture of their drywall canvas. They experimented with their makeshift tools—the texture of a tough heel, the print of a soft buttock, the slash of color made by a pointy elbow like a knife. Mr. Villanueva motioned to Aaron to continue his story. So he told the old man that a couple of the artists used their faces as stamps instead of signing their walls of art.
For his signature, this new Aaron used his infant’s footprint—so real Aaron could almost feel the soft skin of the heel, ball and toes, see the miniscule toenails, as he sat at that kitchen table. His own kid.
Mr. Villanueva said “wonderful, wonderful” as his wife shook her head and slipped cooled eggrolls into freezer bags.
The boxing match had ended, the outcome unpleasant to the men, judging by their long faces and quick vacating of the den. A couple left the house through the kitchen and others continued down the hall to bedrooms. It was pitch black out the small window that looked onto the primitive garden of snake-like vines—too late to try Carrie at her mother’s, too late to ask stoned Jen for a ride back to the Fan. Here he was, exiled on the Southside.
When Aaron looked up from his hands, picturing them stained with paint instead of stiff from clicking a mouse all day, Mrs. Villanueva was dragging her husband down the hall to bed. Jen was the only one left. And she gave Aaron a tired golf clap for his ridiculous tale, which wasn’t at all ridiculous to him.
She retrieved a washcloth from the hall closet and showed Aaron the bathroom and the couch in the den where he could sleep. He waited his turn for the bathroom, behind Jen’s brothers and mother, like in a European hostel or a prison. As chaotic as his evening had been, he was queuing up to wash his face. Control beats chaos every time, he thought. If his warped mind had created the scooter kid to destroy his life, it had done a poor job. He hadn’t gotten high; he hadn’t so much as kissed his flirty college girlfriend. In the den, Aaron wiped Dorito crumbs from his vinyl bed before stripping to his underwear and crawling under what Carrie would have called a crazy quilt.
Minutes later, Jen entered the den wearing a long t-shirt. She closed the door behind her and ceremoniously displayed her fingertips coated with turquoise paint—the color of a birthing pool or the sky over a Samurai castle. Maybe the canvas didn’t have to be twenty feet high to feed Aaron’s new soul. He looked at Jen’s saturated fingertips as she peeled back the quilt, a dare. This was chaos, if not art, he thought. But she couldn’t keep a straight face and started laughing. He didn’t.
Aaron will push Jen away. But first, he lets her paint ten tentative straight lines from his shoulders down his chest to his Hanes waistband. As she does, he thinks of Ed’s menagerie of characters to start the world anew—odd but hardly “motley” after so many years. Time orders chaos, makes the strange sane. He thinks of boxing—civilized brutality—and of his parents’ favorite comedian, Gallagher, and his smashed-up watermelons. He thinks of his favorite painter, Kandinsky, and his chaotic black lines that are supposed to symbolize destruction, breakdown, personal apocalypse; his bright colors, buoyant bubbles, and curves that mean redemption. Maybe the scooter kid is real. Maybe this is Aaron’s Armageddon. Maybe a messy ball of baby cells is just the thing to start his world, his art, his marriage anew.
Rebecca Moon Ruark’s fiction has previously appeared in a handful of print and online literary journals, including Sou’wester and Flock. She holds an MFA from VCU in Richmond, where she lived for 11 years. An Ohio native, Rebecca is at work on a novel and a collection of stories set in the Rust Belt and blogs as Rust Belt Girl.