Valerie Henderson

Fall Back

          Moira unrolls a crocheted yellow square and levels it with a steady palm, ridding it of bumps, lint, impurities. She removes the baby from its walker adorned with dangling plastic stars and lays it on its bare back. Moira is in charge of the baby. Though, it isn’t quite a baby. Moira’s sister’s daughter is old enough to piece words together like “fishy” and “good.” It is strong enough to drag a rusted saucepan out of the bottom cupboard. But, since Page still wears diapers, Moira calls her the baby.

          It is nap time and though Moira could have the baby sleep in its crib and simply listen to the monitor, she prefers it this way: the baby in sight. Moira leans against the foot of a corduroy recliner and stretches her legs out in front of her like a V.  She lifts the magnified mirror to her face and, with metal in hand, she tends to her eyebrows. Her eyebrows do not require much maintenance, minimal weeding below the meager arch. Moira’s brows are strong. Masculine. Dark. And in pictures, they are the first thing to get noticed. They add stability to the rest of her face which is otherwise delicate, breakable like porcelain. She pulls, producing reddened skin that throbs. She holds a single finger to the altered area until the pain is gone. She continues the pattern. Pull and hold.

          The baby is restless. It turns and stretches its arms out in stubbornness. When the baby can’t sleep, Moira resorts to Tubs, a wind up pig with a corkscrew tail that marches on demand. The ticking helps the baby, helps Moira.  Once when the baby was out with its parents, Moira wound up Tubs and set him atop the island in the kitchen while she sat on a bar stool eating her sister’s leftover meatloaf for dinner. His stomping feet and painted-on smile hadn’t provided company so much as a distraction—nevertheless she had taken her fingers to his knob four times before her plate was empty.

          After nap time, it is time to eat. Moira inserts the baby in its highchair. To distract it while she prepares its meal, she jingles a ring of keys in front of it before handing them off altogether. The baby lifts and drops them seemingly fascinated by the clink and in between lifting and dropping it pounds chubby fists against its plastic tray.  Moira takes a cup from the pantry and sets it in the microwave which is splattered with sauces and stickiness. It needs to be cleaned. She sets the timer for one minute. One minute should fly by, but it drags. It is the only time of day Moira is aware of seconds passing by as she watches the glowing red numbers descend. 45 seconds left. 30. Then, because she is impatient, when the clock says 1, she opens the microwave so she doesn’t have to hear the beep.

          Over a bright orange baby-proof plate, Moira spreads a scoop of tomato paste and fat pasta and last but not least: one meatball.  Moira mashes the meat with her fork, breaking it into bites for the baby. For herself, Moira splits an avocado. She recently read in a women’s magazine that an avocado a day proves for a flat stomach because of the good fat. When it comes to the mound of her stomach, she figures the good fat can’t hurt.

          The baby digs into the spaghetti. With its first bite, red has already smeared over its paunchy cheeks and chin.  Moira likes to have the baby fed and cleaned before its parents get home.

          Moira moved in with her sister, Pauline, after Pauline gave birth. Pauline and her husband, Andrew, couldn’t afford daycare and insisted on Moira moving in—an offer she couldn’t refuse. Moira had been living with a woman near Fresno State while she finished up her degree in Biology. But, before graduation, her roommate had announced she was moving in with her longtime boyfriend and after months of struggling to pay the rent by herself and find a new place, Moira opted to move in with Pauline after graduation, until she found a job. But, the job was never found. Never whole-heartedly looked for. Once Moira moved in, she fell into the routine of Pauline, Andrew, the baby. She was comfortable—a bird roosting deep in its suspended nest.

          It has just gotten dark outside and the baby’s parents are home. Pauline pushes through the swinging screen door of their one-story bearing paper grocery bags. She peeks over them to find her way. Moira offers her assistance and takes a bag from Pauline, looking inside to find stacks of lemons.

          “Why didn’t you just have me pick these up? You didn’t have to stop.”
Pauline removes her sweat jacket and hangs it over a barstool. “A woman from the restaurant brought them from her tree. They were free. We can do something with them.”

          Moira nods and begins unloading them into the fridge.

          “You know, I’m really starting to like that new cut of yours.” Pauline takes a finger to the hair that hangs just below Moira’s chin. “Maybe I should cut mine.”

          In their teens, Pauline praised Moira for her effortlessly straight hair, expressing her frustration with the inheritance of their father’s unruly locks. Pauline even purchased a chemical relaxer which after processing fully only left her with slightly smoother curls and an itchy scalp. She asked Moira how she had gotten so lucky.

          Pauline walks over to the baby. It’s plopped in front of the television with several stuffed creatures available for its entertainment as it watches enthusiastic adults dressed in neon hats singing the ABCs. Pauline joins the baby.

          Andrew enters with a loose tie over an untucked white collared shirt. He works as a manager at a car rental office and since he is manager, he has the liberty of synchronizing his schedule with Pauline’s waitressing hours since they only own one car between them. Though Moira often tried to lend them her car, they refused, acknowledging her need to run errands for them during the day, for the baby, and they insisted she have her car at constant availability in case, God forbid, there was a baby emergency.

          Andrew’s eyes are red with exhaustion but he offers a warm hello to Moira before joining the rest of his family.

          “Andrew, what do you think of Moira’s new cut? I’m thinking of chopping mine off. That way it will be so short, I won’t even be able to put it into this pony tail.”

          “I like the pony.” Andrew strokes the tail with a closed fist. “I get to see your face.”  He leans across the blanket and gives his wife a kiss.

          Moira takes this as her cue. She makes her way to her room in the back of the house to give her sister some time alone with her husband. Moira spends most nights surfing the internet. She starts out responding to emails from old college friends, passively attempting to search for jobs. Recently, she has taken a mild interest in biotechnology. She likes the idea of working with synthetic hormones and livestock. But, after scrolling over job descriptions and demands, she ends up watching video tutorials on how to potty train a baby with chocolate candies or how to organize a baby’s toys to save space. Her bed needs to me made, the lavender sheets balled at the foot of the mattress. They are the same lavender as the walls of her teenage bedroom. Once, when no one was home, Moira broke the household rule and allowed a boy into her bedroom who told her the color reminded him of an Easter egg. He said it must have felt like spring all year long.
Just as she finishes entering the word “baby” into the website’s search engine, there’s a knock at her door. She closes the screen and before she can say “come in”, Pauline’s head has popped through. Pauline scans the room as if to make sure that no one else is there, even though no one else ever is.

          Pauline shuts the door behind her.  “I need a favor.”

          “What’s wrong?”

          “Who said anything was wrong?”

          “I know you like I know the nutrition facts on a pint of Half Baked,” Moira says. “Something’s off.”

          “I’m late.”

          Moira smiles. “Really?” Her eyes move to Pauline’s stomach.

          “Why are you smiling like it’s a good thing?  Is it a good thing?”

          “They’d be two years apart, like us!”

          “Since when is it like you to instantly find the silver lining?

          Moira sighs. “What’s the favor?”

          “I need you to pick me up a test tomorrow when you do the marketing.” She hands her a ten. “Put it on a separate receipt.”

          “No wonder you reacted to my hairspray yesterday. Your smell is heightened. Just go to the store now. When you thought you might be pregnant with Page, you couldn’t take the test fast enough.”

          “There’s no rush,” Pauline says. “I don’t want to tell Andrew until I know for sure. He’s been wanting another one but it’s not the time. We can’t afford it. Besides,” Pauline says, “if I am pregnant again, you’ll never be able to leave.”

          Moira thinks about the day that the baby will be ready for Kindergarten and though Moira might still be needed for a couple hours after school, her caretaking responsibilities will change. She will no longer be in charge of the baby morning, noon and night. Instead, her duties will become less interactive and she will still spend her days organizing laundry and mopping up messes but, she will be alone.

          “I’m just saying.” Moira says. “It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

          This is the day Moira has been waiting for. The wooden trunk that used to house fashion magazines and the gel breast inserts she used to hide from her mother, now contains used onesies, stuffed elephants and bears missing eyes and limbs—almost everything yellow, unisex. Still, Moira thinks it will be a boy. That’s usually how things work: couples are blessed with one. Then the other. Every Saturday, when the baby’s parents sleep in, Moira takes the car to yard sales, only stopping when a section of pastels pops out at her, signifying baby gear, baby toys, baby furniture. Moira sifts through the clothes and toys. Is it enough? She knew she would need these one day and she is glad she put them away for safe keeping. Moira not only inherited the love of yard sales from her mother but also the need to hold onto things. When the girls were little, her mother tied each of their first shoes to her rearview mirror. She said it was a daily reminder that, at one point, each of their feet had fit in the palm of her hand. Moira followed suit keeping not only the baby’s first shoe but its first pacifier, old nasal aspirator and hospital identification bracelet.

          Moira stacks the toys and clothes back into the trunk, excited Saturday is only two days away. At her computer, she begins a new search: newborns.


          Moira straps the baby in its car seat. She gives the straps an extra two tugs to make sure the baby is secure. Once she is certain all is safe, Moira gets in the car and drives to the market.

          She heads down the produce aisle, list in hand, and wonders what new fruit she can dice up for the baby.  Recently, she discovered the baby’s intolerance to apples. She warmed them up with sprinkled cinnamon and though they smelt like fresh apple pie, the baby spit them out, leaving patches of cinnamon on its lower lip before dumping them over its tray. Moira didn’t know a baby could be so hard to please but, now, she is determined to find something to its liking, no matter how long it takes.

          Moira makes her way to the meat department. She pulls her cart alongside the counter and waits for service.  When it is her turn, Mitchell, the normal weekday butcher, says hello and asks what he can do for her. She points to the un-marinated, boned chicken and asks for three pounds. It is the cheapest and once cooked it will last their family of four a whole week.

          Mitchell pulls at the filmy, bluish poultry and rolls it into white paper. He hands her the wrap. “Is that all?”

          Mitchell is smiling and waving an enthusiastic, gloved finger up and down at the baby. The baby stretches its arm toward him.

          “You know, she’s starting to look more like you every week.”

          Moira doesn’t mind when people assume the baby is hers.  It makes her feel as though she’s doing something worthwhile. Raising her young. And so, she lets Mitchell and others alike think she has her own family instead of letting them know she is just part of someone else’s.

          Moira looks down and tucks her hair behind her ears. “Let’s hope not.”

          “I’m digging the new look. It makes you look more grown up.”

          Moira shakes her head. “It’s too short.”

          “Well, I like it.”

          Moira knows she doesn’t take compliments well and a large part of her feels embarrassed with the attention, as though he is just saying so out of rehearsed kindness and perhaps the compliment is unwarranted.

          Moira rounds her cart into the hygiene aisle. To her left are bars of soap and bottles of creams promising to make women smell like rainforests. Moira grabs a compacted stack of generic soap and tosses it into the cart. The baby’s fists cling to the handle from which she steers. She is surprised it hasn’t become fussy. Instead, it seems comforted by the soft loaf of bread Moira has positioned by the baby. To her right, Moira finds vitamins. Vitamins for hair growth. Vitamins for energy. Vitamins for health of heart. Next to the vitamins are feminine wipes and above those, the pregnancy tests. Moira looks for the store brand test. Its box is the only one that isn’t pink and though it is cheapest, it still comes with two tests. Just in case.

          According to the name tag, Moira’s cashier’s name is Brenda and she has been serving customers since 1998. Brenda wears a short perm and caked, gummy lashes. The baby has finally become squirmy. It starts to reach for jars of jam on the conveyer belt and when it can’t quite touch them, it cries out in panic. It tries again, still unsuccessful. Moira shushes the baby and strokes its hand as she continues to unload the gallons of milk at the bottom of the basket. The baby is hysterical and Brenda and patrons are starting to stare. Moira reaches for the loaf of bread but the baby clenches it furiously while tears roll down its blushed cheeks. Moira digs through her purse for her keys and shakes them in front of the baby. The baby takes them only to throw them to the ground. Moira drops to her knees to pick them up. Facing the line of customers behind her, Moira makes eye contact with an elderly woman in a jogging suit. Moira says sorry. The woman just stares and smiles a smile of irritation, insincere. Once again, the baby grabs at the conveyer belt, this time succeeding in tilting a glass jar of olives off the counter.  It smashes onto the floor. Muddy green washes over the tile. Brenda is on the loudspeaker calling for a cleanup.  Moira looks to Brenda and offers another apology. It isn’t the first time she has caused a scene and, by the looks of things, it won’t be her last. While a teenage boy sponges the spill, Moira sets the pregnancy test on the counter with a heavy bar between it and the rest of her groceries. The baby has quieted some and it struggles to catch its breath from crying with occasional hiccups.

          Moments like this don’t cause Moira embarrassment. Instead, they make her question her skills as a caretaker. She wonders why she isn’t able to keep the baby content at all times. Once, Pauline told her “Babies will cry. People will stare. It’s all part of the gig.” But Moira refused to pass these situations off as anything other than a testament to her lack of motherly instincts.

          After Moira swipes her sister’s bank card for one hundred and twenty nine dollars worth of groceries, the cashier scans the pregnancy test. Brenda looks at the test. Brenda looks at the baby. Brenda smiles a smile the same as the elderly woman’s. “I assume you want a separate bag,” Brenda says.

          Instead of handing the test to the bag boy and even though Moira asked for plastic, Brenda slides the test in a small, paper bag, seemingly for confidentiality.

          It gets dark and Moira is anxious for Pauline to come home. For now, the test resides in Moira’s sock drawer, still in the paper bag. Moira sits with the baby and Tubs, and, together, they watch the pig perform. When Tubs is done, Moira starts him up again. She is always amazed at how much Tubs, and all of the toys smell like the baby. Powder and milk. She sniffs Tubs slowly before winding him up once more. Moira had never been fond of milk, not the smell, not the texture. But now that the drink is associated with the baby, it is Moira’s favorite scent. Often, when the baby naps, Moira stares at the crusted residue between the corners of its lips. She doesn’t wipe it off but instead lets it linger so that she may take in its smell when it awakes and she is able to hold the baby close.

          The baby’s parents are home.

          Pauline and Andrew come in laughing. Andrew is telling a story about a client who returned a rental car with a wadded up note left in the cup holder. Apparently, Andrew opened it to find a list of things the girl loved and hated about her boyfriend and to Andrew’s amusement some qualities made both lists. Things like the way he woke her up for sex in the middle of the night and how he insisted on paying for everything.

          “What’s the point of the list,” Andrew says. “Why did she need it to know how she felt?”

          “Some people need to see things laid out in front of them,” Pauline says.” Without a visual, a person’s emotions can just run around in their head.”

          “I’m just saying. I wouldn’t want to read your list.”

          “I doubt you’d find anything you didn’t already know.”

          The two walk over to Moira and the baby. Pauline gives the baby a quick kiss and asks Moira if her daughter already ate.

          “Fish crackers and spaghetti rings.”

          Pauline stands and walks to the hallway, motioning with her eyes for Moira to follow.

          In Moira’s bedroom, Moira pulls the bag from her sock drawer.

          “Good. Was there any change?”

          Moira shakes her head.  “No time like the present.”

          Pauline heads to the bathroom. “Wish me luck.”

          But, Moira isn’t sure what luck Pauline is hoping for. Pauline had a habit of requesting luck for unusual things. Like the time their childhood fish died and she lost a round of rock-paper-scissors that determined who would have to flush.

          Moira thinks she wants the test to be positive.  Raising Pauline’s baby has become a part of her life. The tantrums. The milk. The routine. She doesn’t want it to end. She decides to wait for Pauline in the living room, silently hopeful that a new chapter for Pauline might begin, allowing her to maintain the recent role she’s been entrusted with.

          In the living room, Andrew is on the couch with the baby propped up on his knee.  He sips root beer. He lifts his foot up and down and the baby bounces, catching air between its diaper and dad, each time giggling wildly at the bumpy ride. Once, she saw Andrew at his nephew’s birthday party, allowing all the kids of appropriate size to play his invention of “climb the man” in which the children could grasp on to his hands and climb up his legs with their feet, starting at his knees, to his stomach until they’d succeed in reaching the top at which point he’d throw them onto his shoulders and announce them as conquerors of the climb.

          Moira pours a glass of red wine and starts flipping through a family magazine. She looks at the pictures of Halloween costumes and flower arrangements and avoids the articles. She is distracted, constantly looking up at Andrew and the baby and relishing in their interaction. She sees the baby turn toward its father and while Andrew continues bouncing and the baby continues chuckling, it now wants something more. It sits both arms strained toward Andrew, reaching, longing.  It wants to be held. It wants contact. Andrew holds the baby and swings it back and forth, now loving and tender, offering a comfort that only the baby’s actual parent can provide. And in this moment, Moira sees what exemplifies everything she’s missing.

          Even though Moira wasn’t ready to raise a child when she found out she was pregnant, she was willing to give it a shot. But, when Moira told her boyfriend, Gary, he claimed their relationship wasn’t ready for such a big step. He said whatever she decided, he’d be on board but once he referred to it as a big step with weariness, she made up her mind. They’d been together two years, since her freshmen year in college. She’d loved him and had often assumed that one day they’d start a family and perhaps it would just be accomplished sooner. Still, she could never push his reaction out of her head and she knew she couldn’t live with herself knowing a man had stayed with her solely because of a child. She cared too much to have him live like that, unwilling and bound. She’d wanted him to stay for her.

          The operation was quick and the pain was tolerable as promised, a sterile, apathetic procedure. She preferred it that way. To not have her actual self associated with the act, just her body. Afterwards, Gary had taken her for coffee and a two egg breakfast, eating and conversing as though nothing had happened.  At first, Moira was game. She laughed at appropriate moments and tried to look at him the same, tried to look at her own self the same. But, eventually, her resentment for their decision took a toll on their relationship, as resentment often does, and the two parted ways.

          Moira feels lucky to still have a baby in her life. Though it is not hers, she learns a great deal about motherhood and feels as though caring and raising Pauline’s baby, in a sense, makes up for her loss. But, when she sees this: the baby reaching out for its kin, needing, she is faced with the reality  that she could not provide that for her own, that the baby is not hers, and that she will be lucky  if she gets a second chance.

          Moira sees Andrew holding the baby close but he gets up and distances the baby from himself, the baby’s legs dangling.

          “Yup. She’s wet. We’ve got a wet diaper.”

          Moira stands up ready to help. She holds out her hands.

          “I’ve got it. Pauline must be taking a shower.”

          And just as he walks to the hallway, towards the bedroom, Pauline marches down the hall, with the same collected image. Moira can’t read her. Pauline takes the baby from Andrew and rushes to change it into a fresh diaper.

          Andrew turns back to Moira. “See? Even when I try and help, she’s on it.”

          When Pauline comes out with the baby, she sits next to Andrew on the couch, positioning the baby between them. She licks her thumb and takes it to the baby’s blanched forehead to wipe a smudge. As Moira watches her sister and waits for some kind of clue, it appears as though she has been forgotten about for the moment. The baby has Pauline’s full attention. After Moira waits long enough, Andrew goes to the kitchen and while his back is turned, Pauline makes eye contact with Moira and shakes her head no—not with disappointment but with a shrug insinuating it isn’t the right time. That is life. Moira is surprised she doesn’t feel disappointed. She feels numb.

          Andrew removes a jug of maple pecan ice cream from the freezer. He scoops a few mounds into a glass bowl with a chipped rim. He pops a jar of kosher pickles and positions them atop the dessert. He carries the dish over to Pauline.

          Pauline adopted the craving of ice-cream and pickles during her pregnancy. After the birth, her palette hadn’t changed and maple pecan and kosher slices were still her snack of preference, which Andrew supplied her with on a regular basis, happily.

          She thanks him and lets herself fall into the couch. Andrew turns on the television and hands her the remote.

          “Watch your shows.”

          Again, Pauline thanks him and navigates through her list of recorded episodes of reality shows about housewives. Andrew is again springing the baby, switching his gaze from the baby to the television. He looks content.

          Moira often observes that Pauline and Andrew rarely take advantage of their Friday nights off by dressing up and embracing the town, whether it is due to their lack of money or their homebody nature. In Moira and Pauline’s adolescence, Moira had a date planned with different boys nearly every Friday night—she had her choice. And Pauline was left home to concentrate on homework or help their mother bake. Moira wondered how she handled it, the staying in, the loneliness, but now it doesn’t matter because in moments like this, Moira realizes Pauline and Andrew’s little efforts of consideration toward one another make for a moving, genuine love that causes Moira to yearn.

          Moira pours herself another glass of wine and takes it up to her room.

          She sits at her computer and opens her browser. While waiting for it to load, she looks at a picture frame decorated with seashells. Inside is a picture of her and the baby at the beach. They are huddled together under an umbrella, both wearing hats to further shield themselves from the sun. Moira examines their features. They baby’s eyes are almond shaped and its nose is rounded at the tip, begging to be pinched. She and the baby look nothing alike. Though they are cheek to cheek in the photo and her adoration and connection to the baby is clear, it is not the same as that of a mother and daughter. The baby is not Moira’s. And, one day, if Moira is lucky, she figures she will have her own house, her own hallway with her own decorative picture frames exposing moments shared between her and a child of her own. Moira will not go to tomorrow’s yard sale. The items she’s collected will remain in the trunk until she has a real need for them, her own need for them. And, for right now, they are enough.  When the girls were in middle school, their mother dragged them to yard sales, encouraging them to consider what others no longer wanted. Normally, they found practical things like a digital alarm clock for their room or resistance bands for exercise, but at one in particular, they found a magic 8 ball. Moira reaches into her desk drawer and takes out the black ball. It is scratched and Moira is unsure if it even works anymore. She’s been unable to throw away the very article that both she and her sister obsessed over and cherished. Many nights, they sat Indian style across from one another gazing into the 8 ball, taking turns asking a well thought out question before dramatically shaking it and awaiting their fortune. Would Pauline marry a millionaire? Would Moira hit her longed for growth spurt? Try again later. Yes! Outlook Not Good. Moira rubs the ball against her chair, ridding it of dust. And with no particular question in mind, she shakes it and waits for the blurriness to focus into results.