Story — From the July 2019 issue

Marmalade Sky

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On a November Saturday in 1990, Pam went over to Joe’s place to listen to records. It was raining in sheets that whipped around the corners of buildings and blowing so hard that women in heels were taking men’s arms to cross the street. Cars were plowing bow waves through puddles of scum.

As Joe was letting Pam into the apartment, a man emerged from the bedroom with a square sheet of black plastic in his hand and said, “Hey, man, you have the Sassy Sonic Youth flexi!”

“I subscribed to that magazine the second I heard of it,” Joe said.

“It’s not long for this world,” Pam said, hanging up her coat. “What’s the demographic supposed to be—thirteen-­year-­old girls who fuck? Advertisers really go for that.”

“Nice to meet you,” the stranger said, stepping forward and holding out his hand. “Daniel Svoboda.”

“Pam Diaphragm,” she said. “Sassy is the dying gasp of straight mainstream pedophilia.”

“I read it for the political coverage,” Daniel said.

“I first heard of it from a bald guy who does in-­flight programming at Eastern,” Pam said. “So can we listen to this flexi?”

“I’m a Sonic Youth completist,” Joe said, taking the single from Daniel and arranging it on the turntable. “The only record I don’t have is the Forced Exposure subscribers-­only single ‘I Killed Christgau with My Big Fuckin’ Dick.’ ”

“That’s not a real record,” Daniel said. “Byron Coley made that up.”

Byron Coley was the editor of Forced Exposure and Robert Christgau was the chief music critic of the Village Voice, as Daniel did not feel called upon to explain to Pam.

Illustration by Dante Terzigni

Illustration by Dante Terzigni

She found herself attracted to Daniel. He had not asked her real name. His sophistication and knowledge seemed to resemble her own. She commenced phrasing a friendly remark. She put the brakes on. They say that you truly know a man only after you’ve seen him with his male friends, but this friend was Joe, who might not count. Furthermore, it had been demonstrated in empirical trials that a woman gravitates to the sexiest man in the room. Here, again, Joe was setting the bar low. She said instead, “It’s Christgau who’s a big fucking dick.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Daniel replied. “But you can’t grade music on a bell curve. Mediocrity is not the norm. Most records either rock or they suck.”

“I’m kind of over grades myself. Did you just get out of college?”

“Yeah. You should see my awesome transcript and G.R.E.s. That’s how I qualified to work as a proofreader.”

“I’m a programmer, but I never finished high school.”

“Silence, lovebirds,” Joe said, dropping the needle. “Prepare to rock.”

Daniel worked nights, proofreading documents for a big law office in Midtown. The job required an eye for detail. He had trained his visual perspicacity for four years, at taxpayer expense, while acquiring a B.A. in art history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He knew there was such a thing as a job in his major, but unless he counted the college faculty, he’d never met anybody who had one. His superfluous college career could be traced to—or blamed on—a sexy substitute teacher who rambled on about art and revolution for two days in eleventh grade when the world history teacher had the flu. At any moment, he could have improvised a touching essay about how he was first inspired by Mrs. Ellis to believe in a power higher than Jesus Christ.

But eleventh grade was too late to adopt the praxis of art and create a portfolio adequate to gain admission to some kind of secular-­humanist academy. He could play an instrument—the clarinet—but stiltedly, because of a lack of instruction and role models, and it had never seemed potentially useful to him for purposes of art music, which he naïvely understood to include progressive rock. He gave it up when he got to college, because he loathed spending his free time at parades and football games. Also he feared it was giving him buckteeth. He wasn’t vain, but—here, again, inspired by Mrs. Ellis—he sensed that he should hang on to what little beauty he had.

His good physical features were, in order of scarcity in the general population: broad shoulders and narrow hips; an attractive mouth (full lips, straight teeth, odorless); thick curly hair (dark brown). Not-­so-­good features: moderate acne scarring; incipient jowls; hairy feet; hairy back; hairy face (he had to shave all the way up to his eyes). Ambiguous feature: five feet eleven inches tall, a towering and uncomfortable giant among Asian immigrants in Chinatown, inconspicuous by the standards of Midtown or the financial district.

He never got his dream job at his favorite record store in Madison, but he regularly met musicians through his shifts at a Subway sandwich shop. By neglecting his studies, he was able to soldier his way upward through the hierarchy of the university radio station until he had a two-­hour show on Monday mornings, shocking people awake with the Residents and Halo of Flies.

He had come to New York with eight hundred dollars in savings expressly dedicated to the release of the seven-­inch single that would put Daniel Svoboda on the map. Not as a musician. He wanted to found a rec­ord label.

By dint of his radio experience and strategic mail ordering from ads in Forced Exposure and Maximum Rocknroll, he knew his single didn’t have to be so great musically. What it needed was reverb on the vocals, chorus on the guitar, and compression on everything else. The sound would be “warm” and “punchy.” The au courant Midwestern sound was grunge with vocals lowered by an octave. The band posters showed nitrogen funny cars shooting flames. What he had in mind was something different: breathy female vocals over propulsive guitar drones, like My Bloody Valentine, only faster. The key element was the woman-­girl-­child singer—a delicate, tight-­throated slip of a thing, aspirating her lines like Jane Birkin on “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” but buried under a mass of guitar noise. In terms of artistic lineage, she would be somewhere between Goethe’s Mignon and André Breton’s Nadja.

Daniel was eager to know whether Pam could sing.

At Daniel’s suggestion, Pam and Joe met him at noon on a Saturday in front of the Music Palace, a large cinema on Bowery. It was getting close to Christmas. The streets were full of shoppers looking for bargains on the latest Chinese-­made goods, such as dish towels and those little plastic rakes and buckets kids take to the beach in summer. They bought a six of Michelob at the grocery store next door and hid it in Pam’s backpack. The theater was almost empty. A few men were sleeping toward the back or milling around the bathrooms behind the screen, recent Asian arrivals with nowhere else to go.

The double feature paired an action movie set in Mexico with a kung fu fantasy about medieval China. It ran all day and night. The action movie had already started, so they didn’t get to talking until the intermission. Pam, hoping to arouse Daniel’s curiosity, mentioned how much she was dreading practice.

He said, “What kind of practice?”

Joe said, “She’s in this hard-­sucking power duo that has no songs.”

“Like I always say, if you gotta suck, suck loud,” Pam said. “The Diaphragms have rehearsal space, a drum machine, and no pride. I’d make a speech tomorrow at practice and say it’s all over, but the keyboard player happens to be my roommate.”

“Ooh,” Daniel said.

“It’s hellish. And the worst part is we really do suck. I use so much distortion that all I have to do is look at the guitar and it feeds back. I loop it through a delay and play along with myself. Does it sound dumb yet?”

“Potentially. Can you play barre chords?”

“Are you asking can I play guitar? Yeah, sure. I can even sing. But there’s something about this band. I don’t want it to be good. I want it to suck, so Simon’s band will suck. It’s the most self-­destructive thing I’ve ever done, and that’s saying a lot. I need to quit.”

Daniel hesitated.

“I don’t want to be in a band,” he ventured, not sure he would be believed. “I truly don’t. You could say I’m more the camp-­follower type. I like a certain kind of music, and I want to get people listening to it. I had a radio show in college. I want to start a label.”

“What kind of stuff?”

Joe interrupted them, saying, “Let’s have a band! We’ll call it Marmalade Sky. It’s me on bass, Pam on guitar, and you on keyboards. We all sing. We have three-­part harmonies. We practice at your house. I write the songs. Prepare to rock!”

Daniel said, “You’re barking up the wrong tree, man. I can’t play keyboards. Maybe I could fake drums.”

“There’s too much drums in songs all the time,” Joe said. “You play keyboards.”

“I’m in,” Pam said. “Next stop, Marmalade Sky.”

“So what’s my label called?” Daniel asked Joe.

“Lion’s Den, because of Daniel in the lion’s den.”

“That sounds like reggae, when ‘Marmalade Sky’ sounds like bad British psychedelia.”

“Together they fit how we’re going to sound, which is free dub-­rock ­fusion.”

“He could be right,” Pam said. “He did without an amp for so long, he’s the Charlie Haden of punk rock. I mean, relatively speaking.”

“Pam’s the worst lead guitar player in the universe,” Joe said. “Her fingers move like it’s freezing out and she lost her mittens. But in Marmalade Sky, she plays massive power chords she knows how to play, and I play the tunes.”

“I play like I’m wearing the mittens,” she corrected. “It’s the evil influence of Simon. He wants everything to sound like it’s been dragged through candied heroin.”

“He’s your roommate and in your band?” Daniel asked. “You must be close friends.”

“We’re extremely intimate.” She rolled her eyes.

“It sounds to me like you should cut him off and never look back. I mean, as a disinterested third party.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that he’s on drugs. There are more things at the bottom of the barrel than drugs.”

“Can you please play keyboards?” Joe asked Daniel.

“You truly don’t want to hear me try.”

“You have to,” Joe insisted. “We can’t have a band unless we’re all in it!”

“I want to put out the band on my label, not play in it.”

“It will be absolutely no fun being rock stars and getting laid and everything like that if you aren’t in the band. You have to play something!”

“It’s better money,” Pam pointed out. “A manager gets twenty percent, but as a band member you’d get a third.”

“Twenty off the top plus a third puts me at forty-­seven percent,” Daniel said.

“And we make it all back from record sales and touring!” Joe said.

“I have a day job already,” Pam said.

“Me too,” Joe said. “I mean touring in the city.”

“What I have is more like a night job,” Daniel said. “But fine, let’s talk about how I’m going to hang it up because I’m raking it in with art for art’s sake.”

“We’re going to be rolling in it,” Joe said, as though reminding him of an established fact, “because I’m writing the songs.”

Daniel and Pam exchanged a look that said the band would fail no matter what, if only because Joe was writing the songs. There was a shared bemused affection for him in the look already.

“You’re going to be the next Neil Diamond,” Daniel said.

“Hasil Adkins,” Pam said.

“Roy Orbison!” Joe said.

The next morning, Pam told Simon that she was going to the practice space without him because she could afford it on her own. Ten dollars an hour isn’t much for a programmer. She said she was done with the Diaphragms. The band had never worked. She had a new project that might. To forestall any hopes on his side, she said he wasn’t welcome in the new project.

The whole routine made her nervous. She stood by the door, guitar on her back and effects bag in her hand, making this insulting speech as if expecting immediate capitulation, knowing better than to expect it.

Simon said, “That’s my practice space, not yours. I already advertised for a new guitar player.”

“So why aren’t you going there now?”

“I don’t have one yet. But I will.”

She set her things down and said, “Simon, I know our love was beautiful, but we need to break up.”

“I’m not moving out. I can’t even afford to practice by myself. You’re the one who just said ten dollars isn’t a lot of money. You move out. You can afford a place of your own. Just go.”

He turned sulkily toward the cereal box on the table and sprinkled a few more squares of Chex into his slowly warming milk.

Late Wednesday night, Pam was among the first to buy the Village Voice and turn to the real estate classifieds. She strode to a streetlamp to read. What she saw made her guts clench. Since her last move, her budgeted residential zone had shifted far away from Manhattan, past Brooklyn Heights. The studios she could afford were in places like Greenpoint and Astoria. Even Park Slope had apparently turned into a bourgeois hell of first-­time home buyers bent on pretending their townhomes were brownstones on the Upper East Side.

She regarded Brooklyn as a cultural wasteland. A summertime stroll up Flatbush with the devoted Brooklyn fan Joe hadn’t changed her mind. In a shop window she’d seen a dead branch spray-­painted gold in a silver-­painted vase priced at eighty dollars. She had attended an art opening in Williamsburg once, down near the water, and it still stuck with her, as though it might recur as a final image of vacuity before she died. She had narrowly missed the era when Alphabet City was controlled by Latino crime syndicates and inhabited by the living dead—honest-­to-­goodness cannibals—but Williamsburg was creepier, because there was nobody around. No buildings standing open with dim-­eyed figures guarding holes leading to cellars; just walls and chain-­link on all sides, and she and Joe the only pedestrians for miles. Cannibals could have eaten them right there on the street, without taking the trouble to drag them inside a building. When they got to the opening, the artworks turned out to be site-­specific installations made of found objects. None of the so-­called artists could afford supplies or a studio. It was literal arte povera. Then she sliced open the top of her right ear on a splinter of broken mirror some wannabe had hung from the ceiling with twine.

She read the ads for Lower Manhattan again. Her hands and feet turned cold from the adrenaline, as if she’d been caught in a trap. To all appearances she was not leaving her lease on Bleecker Street. If Simon wasn’t either, she would have to put up with him.

The winter settled in like a poisonous fog around the redundant American people. The war ramped up. Yellow ribbons appeared. Pam often wished aloud that the Selective Service System would draft Simon into the battle for Kuwait.

Daniel had talked about the draft so much that she didn’t realize there was no draft. He was in touch with the American Friends Service Committee, on Joe’s behalf as well as his own, preparing for them to become conscientious objectors. He even took Joe to a Quaker meeting, but only once.

The streets were dark at four o’clock. The wind whistled and rattled the signage. Pam and her co-­workers sat idle in the conference room, watching a lot of TV. In mid-January, things got interesting. A CNN correspondent was trapped in Baghdad. He described his fear in great detail, conveying a sense that war was ultra-­scary. The battlefields looked like barbecue grills—not arrangements of discrete wrecks and craters, but greasy charcoal melted to the pavement. America the Beautiful was taking no prisoners.

Pam went to visit Daniel after work and found him downstairs in Video Hut, huddled up in his coat, watching CBS with his landlord, Victor. He pointed at the TV and said, “They’re landing Scuds on Tel Aviv. It’s Armageddon.”

Daniel was not remotely Jewish, and he didn’t know any Israelis, but he had been raised in the kind of Christian household that promotes respect for the defense capabilities of Israel and belief in the apocalyptic consequences of putting the country’s back against the wall. Not that Israel couldn’t defend itself. Plucky little Israel had fended off repeated Arab invasions, and not through the power of prayer. It had fought valiantly and had developed—with French assistance, though Daniel couldn’t imagine why that was—a nuclear deterrent. Those who aided the enemies of Israel died. That’s what they did. For example, the Canadian engineer who decided to help Saddam build a cannon big enough to put two tons into orbit. He just up and died of gunshot wounds in Brussels.

The respect was possibly overgenerous and the eschatological expectation overblown, but it was hard for Daniel to imagine Tel Aviv taking a Scud missile lying down. To make sure Pam knew what he meant, he added, “This is World War Three!”

“Are they with nerve gas?”

“They don’t know yet. Nobody wants to be first to take off the gas mask and find out. But it can’t be nerve gas, right? Israel would so totally nuke Baghdad. They want to draw Israel into the war, but they don’t want to die. If Israel sends even one plane into Iraqi airspace, it could draw the whole Arab world into the war.”

“What do you think, Victor?” she asked.

“Americans supply Israel with many things. Israel won’t interfere in our war.”

“I think Israel goes its own way,” Daniel said. “They play all sides off against each other. They get less American support than you think.”

“Israel and Iraq are nothing,” Victor said. “If they nuke each other, it’s not World War Three. It’s jackals fighting over a desert.”

“Whoa,” Pam said, unused to hearing anything that could possibly have been construed as anti-­Semitic.

“Any war that goes nuclear is World War Three,” Daniel said. “And nuclear war involving Israel is Armageddon, any way you cut it up. So this is potential nuclear Armageddon. Babylon the great is fallen—is fallen . . . she who hath made all the other nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication!”

He shouted the last bit because it was part of a Tragic Mulatto song.

“Let’s wait first and see whether they use nerve gas,” Pam said.

Victor offered to open a bottle of vodka to celebrate the coming American win. Daniel’s response was to proclaim, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Victor reached under the counter, and Pam expressed admiration at his stocking bootleg vodka, which counted as her agreement to help them drink. They watched TV until eleven o’clock. Pam said she was too drunk to go straight home on foot. She went upstairs with Daniel to have some herbal tea. There they had sex for the first time. His doubts, hesitations, and regrets were as nothing in the face of the coming apocalypse. She felt none of the above. She wished she’d had the idea of sleeping with him long before.

Band practice was interesting after that. Joe sang his songs while playing counterpoint melodies on the bass. Pam looked straight down at her left hand, and Daniel focused on the brushes with which he played a warped floor tom and broken snare. Every so often, the couple raised their eyes and nodded almost imperceptibly in greeting.

In his function as manager and label executive, Daniel bought the self-­­help manual Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life. It was a punk-­rock venue guide produced by an anarchist collective in Minneapolis. He observed that meaningful implementation of the book was predicated on the possession of a vehicle.

He was financially committed to Marmalade Sky to the tune of the eight hundred dollars the first single was going to cost him. There was nothing in his plans about thousands of dollars for transportation. The thought of trying to store a van in Lower Manhattan made his insides droop. Whether or not the street-sweeping machines came, you had to move your car every day. (Official car-theft rates were kept low by the inconvenience of reporting crimes, but a car parked on the street still had annual insurance premiums roughly equal to its value. A worthless car could be relied on to stay put if you removed some vital part such as the alternator every night and took it upstairs.)

He broached the necessity of renting a van some weekend to play Trenton or Philly, traditional springboards for ambitious and creative bands that had trouble cracking the mercantile culture of NYC rock.

Pam said, “What’s next, Passaic? This city not big enough for you?”

Joe elucidated his view that New York was the industry’s one and only mecca. Bands from other places dreamed all their lives of playing there, paying serious money—like fifty bucks—for the privilege of presenting short sets in exploitative clubs such as Downtown Beirut. Marmalade Sky, an endemic growth, could play New York anytime it wanted, by setting up on the sidewalk or next to the fountain in Washington Square. He had seen a rig with a Peavey and a car battery. They could play wearing fun costumes. He had seen a girl dressed as broccoli.

“No, no, no,” Daniel said. “I’m not busking for quarters! I have a job!”

He noted inwardly that Marmalade Sky’s need for a label and a manager was not urgent and possibly not even real. The band itself might not be real. He felt it might be helpful to know relevant people who could confirm the band’s reality. If, say, he were on speaking terms with someone who booked clubs, or a music journalist . . . he didn’t know how or where to start, but he did have the idea. He resolved to acquire a kick drum and high hat.

He wasn’t thinking straight. Pam worked days, and he worked nights. On weekdays they saw each other in the evenings, when she got home from work and he hadn’t left yet—generally from about seven to ten—which was enough time to cook or get takeout, fool around, get cleaned up, and go home to sleep and uptown to work, respectively. On weekends they went to shows. He was losing sleep.

When he finally asked her, Pam proffered her habitual disinterested analysis. Of all the factors in their success, she said, there was only one under his control: the debut single, which he should urgently bring to fruition. After it came out, other bands would hound him with demo tapes. For the sake of buttering up a label owner, they would offer Marmalade Sky choice opening gigs.

He replied, “I have the money to put out a single, but no band to put on it. Maybe you can tell me when Marmalade Sky is going to start being non-­heinous.”

“Put up a flyer at Kim’s,” she said. “Or an ad in the Voice. Find some band that has a decent cassette and offer them a seven-­inch. Or record Joe as a solo project and let him sell it to his three hundred best friends.”

Daniel turned her suggestion over and over in his mind. Joe could play more instruments, and play them better, than all three of them put together. He had no shortage of material. The missing element was the multitrack studio to produce the master tape.

Daniel thought briefly of buying microphones and a four-­track and learning to use them—or, more realistically, letting Pam figure them out—but the equipment would cost almost as much as pressing the single, and he’d still have to rent a soundproof room to record it in, free from garbage trucks, car stereos, car alarms, and honking, and hire a real producer to oversee the recording and mix it down. Inadvertent technical errors might commit to vinyl the excruciating sound of tape hiss or sixty-­cycle hum, making the single too lame to distribute.

He said to himself, “Fuck it,” as people often do when deciding to spend money they don’t have. Joe instantly agreed to record a seven-­inch with two three-­minute songs in a single afternoon. Daniel booked a studio with an engineer in Hoboken, about three months into the future, and paid a deposit of $200.

Pam’s period was late. She didn’t want to tell anyone just how late. She and Daniel had had unsafe sex more than once, but it didn’t feel like it counted, because it was such a small fraction of the total sex they’d had. Okay, she admitted to herself: five weeks late. If her period skipped another week, it would be an open-­and-­shut case. She would need an abortion.

She knew that if she told Daniel, he’d offer to pay, and there would go Lion’s Den Records. She had plenty of money. The only way to get an abortion and keep the single was to tell Daniel nothing. He was already in over his head, buying studio time for a friend when he could have pressed a clean master provided for free by strangers. In any case it might already be too late for a black-­market poison-­­pill-­style abortion with smuggled RU-­486. It would make her sick all weekend, cramping and bleeding until she swore off sex for life, but at least she wouldn’t have to make time for a clinic. She needed to hurry. She’d have to explain being sick to Daniel. Food poisoning, maybe? She would have to come up with what she ate and where. She didn’t feel like rushing into being sick. Besides, the pregnancy might resolve itself unobtrusively. If she skipped the poison pill and stuck to an old-­fashioned abortion clinic, she had months left until the third trimester.

All she needed was to keep the information away from Daniel until she got organized and found out where they do second-­trimester abortions. She was a programmer and a punk, versed in the mortification of the flesh, accustomed to treating her body as a sink and a tool. She was young and inexperienced, not in tune with her own biology and nature. She was not thinking straight. She was not thinking at all. In the corner of D.C. where she grew up, abortions came from Mom. You told your mom you’d been stupid, and she made the relevant appointments. You handed off the thinking to someone else, like a user, not a programmer. Pam didn’t make the appointments.

Right around week ten, she grabbed herself by the scruff of the neck, set herself on her feet, and confronted Daniel. She said, “Daniel, I do not feel good.”

“Is something wrong?”

“I’m pregnant.”

“From me? Hey, I don’t know what you get up to after I go to work! Maybe you turn tricks under the viaduct.”

“It has your eyes.”

“When did you find out?”

“I haven’t found out yet. I keep putting it off. I need to get on the stick and do something about it.”

“Do you not want a baby?” Seeing her shake her head, he asked, “Is it because of the Art Strike?”

“A baby is not creative work!”

“Are you sure you don’t want a baby ever in your life? Most people want one sooner or later. Like me. I always assumed I’d have kids someday.”

“What are you saying?”

“I know we never talked about it, but right now I’m thinking, ‘If not now, when?’ You’d be a total bottom-­­shelf mother.” (“Bottom-­shelf” was positive, since in Midwestern refrigerators the top shelf was where you put the cheap beer for guests to notice when they were making themselves at home.)

“And, ‘If not me, then whom?’ ” Pam said.

“Random unwed parenting is standard practice back where I come from! We Christians welcome every new Christian soul.”

“It’s standard everywhere,” she said, “but not for me. And the reason we never talked about it is that we’ve been dating for maybe four months.”

“Obviously,” he said firmly, “abortion makes sense on paper. But I don’t live my life on paper. I would have been happy to know you were pregnant with my child the first time I saw you.”

“You’re just weird,” she said.

“If we have a kid now, we can be out of the woods at forty. I implore you!” He clasped his hands together pleadingly. “Besides, scheduling an abortion is work, but if you just let it ride, you don’t have to do anything. Which I guess is what you’ve been doing. How far along are you?”

“That’s so not true! There’s prenatal care. I have to get sonograms and do Lamaze and La Leche League and turn into my mom. You’re going to love that. Not to mention giving birth and the next eighteen years.”

“It’ll be easy. We’re young and healthy.”

“I should get a pregnancy test,” she said. “Maybe it’s just ovarian cancer.”

In the morning, Daniel called Joe to say he couldn’t afford to record any songs, because he would be needing every cent he had to finance his baby. He would lose the $200 deposit on the recording studio, but that was better than paying the balance.

Joe said, “I guess she didn’t tell her parents yet.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you’re worried about money!”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re so rich, they live in a house with a yard and trees!”

As a native of Wisconsin, Daniel didn’t consider a yard and trees proof of affluence. But that night in bed, resting up before work, he did go so far as to ask Pam to explain Joe’s insinuation. He had always assumed she came from a working-­class background similar to his own, if only because she hadn’t finished high school. The news about her pregnancy had prompted him to subordinate his artistic ego to the expense of raising a child. Now he wasn’t so sure. Was it conceivable that fatherhood might improve his finances instead of bankrupting him?

She said her dad was a career civil servant with a desk job who planned to retire at sixty. At that point he would commence a second career as a “double dipper,” exploiting his contacts as a defense consultant while drawing half of his former salary. He wasn’t rich, far from it. He made a little under a hundred thousand. In Washington that meant he could have a decent house in a safe part of town, with a wife who didn’t work, living like it was the Sixties. He also had—she said this was the problematic part, for her—a clean conscience, though she knew, or could guess, what he’d been involved in during the Vietnam War. She hadn’t talked to him since she’d left home and had hardly talked to him before that; he was a distant, authoritarian father.

“I know you can do math,” Daniel said. “Do you have any idea what a normal person would have to save to retire on fifty thousand dollars a year for life?”

“They’re not rich. They’re, like, slow-­drip rich. They’re middle class.”

“Your parents have zero worries!”

“Oh no. I gave them plenty of wrinkles and gray hair.” It sounded like a boast, so she added, “Or maybe it was napalming old people and kids that gave Dad wrinkles and gray hair. I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

“What’s your mom like?”

“I don’t know. The last time I saw her, she was a stingy, controlling bitch.”

“When was that?”

“Nineteen eighty-­six.”

“So call her and find out.”

“Call yours first.”

“There’s no danger mine will offer us money. More like secondhand baby clothes from the church basement. Mom will start crocheting a layette set and be done by the time it’s ten months old.”

“Racine’s a safe distance. You can tell them. Though I guess they might want us to be married.”

“I’ll lie. If there’s one thing evangelical Christianity teaches you how to do, it’s lie.”

“You can lie? I can’t say I noticed.”

“It’s not a skill I get much use out of anymore. Christians unearth the innate lying talent of little kids and hone it like a razor. Like when they ask you to raise your hand in youth group if you’ve ever touched yourself, and then raise your hand if you’ve ever touched a girl.”

“So does everybody pick door number two?”

“Hell, no! You’d be getting some girl in trouble. The point is to make you feel guilty and trapped. That’s all. It makes you bond with the other Christians, because you’re all telling the same lies together all the time and everybody knows it. It’s like your platoon did a war crime, so now you’re blood brothers.”

“Did you raise your hand?”

“One time I did raise my hand and say I touched myself, and they acted like I’d come out of the closet. I guess it’s the same thing. My hand touched dick.”

“Can’t have that,” Pam said, touching his dick.

The initial plan was for Pam somehow to get rid of Simon, so that she and Daniel and the baby could share the one-­­and-­­a-­half-­bedroom apartment in the doorman building. The size was perfect. They might never have to move again. Daniel’s share would be double his current rent, but that would still leave it in manageable territory.

It was such an elegant solution that Pam presumed Simon would instantly see their side of the question and vanish from her life, if he had any utilitarian model of ethics whatsoever. He refused to budge. He liked his half-­bedroom, which allowed him to live in a fancy apartment in an enviable location without paying Manhattan-­style rent. Little Jersey—what the gentrifiers farther east called their part of the West Village—wasn’t chichi; it wasn’t SoHo or TriBeCa; he couldn’t brag that he lived there. It was more of a drinking theme park with shoe stores. But at least it wasn’t a bridge-­and-tunnel neighborhood where finding an affordable apartment required reading knowledge of Greek or Polish.

He said he’d be happy to look for a new roommate. With that location, so close to the bars, he could basically run auditions and keep interviewing until he found somebody who’d fuck him. The new roommate was guaranteed, he assured Pam, to be a better fuck than her, because she had never been anything special—too cerebral. He advised her to grow some hair, because it’s sensual for men when women have some hair to grab on to.

He got what he was aiming for. She left in high distress. She couldn’t imagine spending another night under the same roof with him. In effect, she evicted herself.

They rented a U-­Haul to do the move a few days later.

“Never share an apartment with one person,” Pam told Daniel as he drove. “Always live in a group situation where the total is an odd number, so you can have majority rule.”

“That’s a discouraging thing to say to somebody you’re about to move in with,” he said.

She reminded him that she was two people.

They got married. Of course they got married. The possibility lay there, inducing vertigo, until they did it to get it over with—Daniel for reasons that were primarily romantic, and Pam because marriage made her an ex-­Bailey. So they got married, a minor bureaucratic procedure in city hall, downtown, with no special outfits and no party.

Joe waited for them outside the building with a bouquet of wilting rosebuds he had bought at a newsstand and warm champagne that got all over his pants when he opened it. He sang a new song to their happiness, sucked the foam from the bottle, and passed it to Pam. Daniel said, “The bride never drinks at a shotgun wedding,” and drank most of it himself.

“Kill, kill, kill,” Pam breathed. Daniel thought she was referring in her delirium to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but she was attempting a Unix shutdown of the birthing process. Sometimes you have to send the kill command a good number of times.

It didn’t work. She kept giving birth.

He didn’t leave the room right away. But he had his limits, and one of them was how much pain he could watch her suffer. He tried to stay and even took part in the conversation about attaching a suction cup to the baby’s head. Then he felt dizzy and left to sit down in the lobby. A nurse came out to tell him it was over.

He called his parents collect. They congratulated him sincerely. But as much as they treasured the birth of a new soul predestined for heaven or hell, they couldn’t see it as a special occasion. It was routine, in the circles in which they moved, to welcome babies. They’d been wondering where his babies were since around the time he turned twenty. Flora was their ninth grandchild. They promised to send a check for fifty dollars. They invited him to come home sometime and bring his wife and daughter.

Pam didn’t call her parents. She didn’t want to hear her mother’s opinion on anything—not on Daniel, not on her decision-­making skills, not on her choice of hospital.

She’d picked one with a low rate of caesarean sections, and she was regretting it. She’d gotten a touch of fever right toward the end, and her ob-­gyn suggested she let them induce labor. She ended up with one giant cramp that went on for seven hours, until they hauled the baby out with the vacuum extraction. It looked as though its birth had involved being thrown from a passing truck, the same figurative truck that had run over her pelvis. Its head was blue from the ears up, crowned with a puffy skin yarmulke for which the technical term was “chignon.”

Looking at the baby filled her soul with the fear of death. Within a week she believed that without Daniel, it would not have lived. Without him, she’d be lying facedown drunk on the bed, headphones blasting Black Sabbath. He kept it warm and dry and loved it and brought it to her to feed.

After two weeks, to her astonishment, she bounced back. The trauma faded. She regained her appetite. She saw that the baby was cuter than she’d remembered. It looked to her less like a scrap of meat torn from her insides and more like a warm, dry, fluffy little human.

She asked Daniel to take a look at her vagina and see whether it too was recognizable as human. She was afraid to use a hand mirror, because it felt like it was in shreds. He said, “Babe, it’s literally identical. Nothing’s changed.”

She looked at it herself and found that he was right. She cherished the hope that she might one day be herself again.

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is the author of five books, including the forthcoming novel Doxology, from which this story is adapted.

More from Nell Zink:

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