Fiction · 02/22/2017

Arden

Snow is falling in our bedroom and Arden is crying. I’m kneeling naked at the foot of the mattress, pointing a flashlight at the ceiling. “Well?” my wife says. She’s sitting up in bed, propped with pillows, cradling our month-old daughter. “I’ll get up,” I say. I stand on the bed with my head bent back and my arm extended, holding the flashlight as close to the ceiling as I can; the snow is coming down in front of our bed; the flakes are many and thick and I cannot clearly see the ceiling, or even the rest of our bedroom, beyond them. The kind of hole that would let this much snow in should easily be found. My body shivers and I cough. “Don’t get sick,” my wife says. “Maybe you should put some clothes on?” “I just want to find where it’s coming in,” I say. I raise myself on the tips of my toes to look more closely at the ceiling. “Well?” my wife says. “Maybe call the neighbors?” I say. We live in the middle apartment of a three-floor building. “Maybe they have a leak and can stop it?” I say. “That man upstairs stomps his feet whenever he hears the baby cry, and I think his wife does too,” my wife says, and then she begins shushing Arden. It’s useless to wish we had a second bedroom but I can’t help imagining how easy it’d be if I could just close the door to this room and step into another with my family. I cannot conceive how we’ll ever afford to rent a two bedroom, when I keep getting lost in the station and missing my train to work; I don’t think I can miss another day and keep my job, and the prospect of that happening again, in a few hours, causes me to cry out to my wife: “Help me in the station. Come with me.” “Yes,” she says; and she sustains the “s” in yes and turns it into “Shh, shh, shh.”

The snow drops through the flashlight’s beam. I extend my hand. Cold flakes fall on my palm. I draw it back. Arden is still crying; I must do something…. “Keep her warm,” I say and jump off the bed; my bare soles land in a thin layer of snow and I draw in a quick breath. I run through falling snow on my way out of the bedroom. There’s snow coming down in the hallway. There’s snow coming down in the kitchen, too. I turn on the light and look up: there’s no hole there, either. I have to do something. I grab three garbage bags from under the sink, dart to the linen closet and snatch two towels, then go back to the kitchen to get the masking tape from the cluttered catch-all-drawer. I nearly cut my hand on a pair of scissors as I reach for the roll of tape beneath them. I stuff everything into a single garbage bag and run back to the bedroom; the bulging bag bounces against my back. I jump onto our bed and land on my knees; I don’t want to touch the mattress with my wet feet. The orange glow from the streetlight outside our window shines through the thin, white, plastic blinds. My wife is sitting up and our down blanket covers all but her head. I can’t see Arden and I don’t hear her. My wife whispers, “I’m breastfeeding her under the blanket. She’s not crying. Maybe she’ll go back to sleep?” Her cries had woken us, and when we opened our eyes snow was falling in our room. I take the garbage bag from over my shoulder and turn it upside down, dumping out everything before me. It is only then, as I’m staring at the tape, towels, and garbage bags that I realize I forgot a chair. Again I run through the falling snow. I dash into our small living room, snow crunches beneath my feet, and I take a chair from the dining room table.

I put the chair directly beneath the falling snow, step onto it, shine the flashlight, and stare up. Now, as close to the ceiling as possible, I see that it’s absolutely solid; the paint on it isn’t even chipped. “Well?” my wife says. I ignore her question and start taping a garbage bag to the ceiling where a leak, a hole, a crack, a tear, a split should be. Snow falls on my face as I look up. Flakes drop into my mouth and melt on my tongue and I squint to keep them from getting in my eyes; I hold the garbage bag with one hand I and tape it to the ceiling with the other. I tape a towel over that; I’m working as fast as I can. I tape a second garbage bag, covering the towel, and Arden begins to cry; the flakes grow larger and I can hardly see my hands in the falling snow overhead; my shoulders ache from keeping my arms raised. I force myself to finish the job and I tape the last garbage bag to the ceiling. The snow has stopped.

I’m standing on the chair, hugging myself, rubbing my hands up and down my arms, staring at the patch I’ve put on the ceiling. I shine the flashlight through our open bedroom door: there’s no snow falling in the hallway. I cannot make sense of the snow falling or stopping. “She was alright until a moment ago,” my wife says. She’s rocking Arden in her arms. A loud thump sounds above us and I crouch on the chair, covering my head with my hands. Pounding begins on the ceiling and there’s a muffled, deep-voiced, angry yell. “Did you understand that?” I ask my wife. “It didn’t even sound like words,” she says. The balding, bearded, heavyset man upstairs must be lying on his stomach, kicking his legs and arms, hitting the floor with his fists and feet, yelling. Arden was crying under the blanket; I don’t understand how a person in the apartment above us could’ve even heard her. I step down from the chair. There’s snow on the floor and the bottoms of my bare feet begin stinging from the cold. “Maybe she’s cold?” I say. “Maybe she’s scared?” my wife says, looking up at the ceiling and shaking her head. “Maybe she’s tired,” I say. “Maybe she needs to be burped,” my wife says. “Maybe her diaper is dirty?” I say. “How are we going to change her?” my wife says. “It’s freezing in here,” she says. “I think my feet might be frostbitten from standing in the snow on the floor,” I say. “Please don’t get sick,” my wife says. “There’ll be ice on our floor, if I don’t clean it up,” I say. Arden begins to cry louder and the neighbor starts pounding harder on our ceiling. I stand in the snow and look up at the patch; he could bring it down with his pounding and then the snow could start falling again. “Please,” my wife says to me. “Help us.” My wife holds Arden up against her chest, shushing and patting her back, trying to burp her. But this doesn’t calm her. I go to my side of the bed, take the pillowcase off my pillow and begin using it as a towel to dry my body.

We decide to check the diaper. My wife and I crouch under the blanket and I’ve got the flashlight; Arden lies between us, crying and kicking her legs; she clenches her hands and thrusts them out, one after the other; I’m shushing her while my wife calmly repeats her name, but she won’t stop crying; my wife takes off the diaper and it’s completely dry; my wife holds Arden’s two feet in one hand and raises her legs. “Shine the flashlight on her. Maybe she has diaper rash?” my wife says. Her skin is perfect; there’s no patch, blemish, bump, or irritation. “Maybe that diaper was bothering her somehow?” my wife says. My wife puts a new diaper on Arden. We wait to see if she’ll stop crying; she doesn’t. “Maybe she’s sick?” I say. “Maybe her stomach hurts?” my wife says. “Maybe she has gas?” I say. “Maybe she’s constipated?” my wife says. “Maybe she’s still hungry?” I say. “Maybe she didn’t have a good latch?” my wife says. “Maybe she’s thirsty? I read somewhere that babies get thirsty from crying,” I say. “Maybe I ate something I shouldn’t have, and it’s going into her through the breast milk?” my wife says. “Maybe?” I say. “Maybe she’s cold?” my wife says. “Maybe she has a fever?” I say. My wife touches two fingers to Arden’s cheek. She places a finger on Arden’s fist. “She feels normal, “ my wife says. “Maybe the best place is under the blanket?” I say. Arden cries louder and my wife picks her up, cradles her, and gently sways her. This doesn’t help. The neighbor stops pounding and starts yelling, again. I peek my head out from the blanket and check to see that the patch is still attached. It is. I cannot make out what the man upstairs is screaming; I stand up, bend my head to one side and point my ear at the ceiling; I even cup my hands around my ear to try and better hear, but I can’t decipher a word. I glance at the patch one more time, before hurrying back under the blanket. My wife is hunched over, sitting cross-legged, holding Arden and shushing her; she cries with her mouth wide open and her tongue drawn back and quivering behind her toothless gums. “I felt the cold air when you picked up the blanket,” my wife says. “I should get rid of the snow on our floor,” I say. “Before it freezes and one of us slips on it, while holding the baby…” “Stop, please,” my wife says. “You’ll give me a nightmare, if I ever get to sleep.” “Sorry,” I say. “We’re still coming to the station with you in the morning,” my wife says. “Maybe you’ll be able to help me?” I say. I turn around under the blanket and begin crawling toward the foot of the bed, thinking about how I used to be able to walk through the station and onto the train without once looking up from my phone. Now, I can’t even find the platform. Everything changes after you have a child. Who said that to me? How many people said that to me? I stick my head out of the blanket and peer over the edge of the mattress at the floor. A single track of footprints leads from the chair to the bed. The snowfall must’ve covered up the tracks I had cut when I ran in and out of the room. My footprints remind me of the circles I’ve run around the station, searching for the train, and once I begin thinking about my trouble at the station, I cannot help but think about how I’ve missed nearly a month of work, and once I think about that I cannot help but think that Mr. Wellman has been generous with me, giving me one week paid parental leave, counting the two weeks I missed after that as vacation, and then even considering the most recent week I missed as sick leave, but once I think about that I cannot help but think that there are no other ways that my absence can be excused and that I somehow must manage to get on the train in a few hours. The last time I rode the train was coming home from work and later that evening my wife’s water broke. We were sleeping. She said the warm liquid leaking out of her woke her. We covered the wet spot on the sheet with a towel. We lay in bed together, waiting for her contractions to start. That was a month ago. Now, Arden is crying. The neighbor has again begun pounding. I watch the patch, expecting it to fall from the ceiling and for the snow to return…. It’s still holding up. I pull the blanket over my head and crawl beneath it, toward my wife. She’s sitting crossed legged, hunched over, shushing and swaying Arden. “I don’t know how to help her,” my wife says. She passes Arden to me. “I’m afraid I don’t either,” I say. I cradle Arden in my arms; she cries and cries and cries; I speak into her ear, so she can hear me above her crying; “It’s all right. Shh, shh. Arden. Arden. Everything is okay,” I say. “Arden, Arden, everything is okay,” I say. “Everything is okay.” I keep repeating that everything is okay, because those words help me speak calmly and I don’t know what else to say to my baby daughter, but then, in the midst of repeating it, I realize that what I’m saying has lost meaning and become a mere sound that seems no different to me than my daughter’s cry; I pass Arden back to my wife. She begins rocking and shushing her…. Arden cries; the neighbor pounds…. Light filters through the blanket, turning the air gray and then light blue. It’s morning; already I hear the train leaving the station; the whistle cries; Arden is crying; the engine chugs; the neighbor is pounding. “She’s crying in her sleep?” my wife says. She stops swaying her. Arden’s eyes are closed. “Maybe she’s having a bad dream? If that’s possible?” I say. “Maybe we should wake her?” my wife says. “Maybe it’ll just make her more upset to get woken?” I say. “Maybe she’s hungry,” my wife says. “Maybe the snow froze and the floor is under ice?” I say. “She hasn’t eaten in a while,” my wife says. “Maybe the patch came undone from the ceiling and it’s snowing again?” “What if all this time she was hungry and I didn’t feed her?” my wife says. “No, no you tried to feed her, remember?” I say. “But if she’s starving?” my wife says. “Maybe I won’t catch the train today?” I say. “And this whole time she was crying because of that?” my wife says. “Everything changes when you have a child,” I say. My wife rubs her finger on Arden’s cheek and calls her name. Arden opens her eyes and keeps crying. I tell myself, get out from under the blanket, check the patch and the floor, get dressed and go to the station. My wife loops her thumb under her bra strap and pulls down one side of the bra; she places Arden’s mouth on her nipple. Arden begins feeding but whimpers while she eats and starts gagging; my wife pulls her off her breast. Arden’s mouth is open but no sound comes out; she’s choking; my wife lifts Arden up to her shoulder and she’s about to strike her to bring back her breath, but just before she does I close my eyes and focus on the silence: without my daughter crying, I’m not worried about missing the train or the patch holding back the snow.

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Craig Chanin teaches in the Writing Program at Rutgers University, Newark, and he is a writing tutor at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.