Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Alice

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When Leo's daughter was born he looked at her once through the viewing glass of the hospital nursery and then turned and left the hospital, relieved that it was all over at last. He walked for a few blocks, thinking about her tiny feet and about the way they had twisted and gripped each other in the plastic basinet as if involved in some great struggle -- one only she knew about. Leo regretted that he hadn't spent more time looking at her face, but he rationalized this immediately. In his limited experience all babies looked the same and, in any case, he had no plans to ever see her again.
It was a fall day and the weather had turned suddenly crisp and smelled of burning wood. Only three months ago, when he had first returned to Franklinton, summer was still running rampant through the town. Any movement on his part and his pores would leak out sweat, which was the main reason why he had not stepped forward to call out Winnie's name when he had seen her sitting on the bench by the bus stop. This was three months ago and it had seemed to him then, on that initial and disconcerting sighting that she had not changed at all since he had last seen her, so many months before.

She was reading a newspaper and the lower half of her body was covered by the opened pages and by her oversized straw bag. He would probably have stepped away from the telephone pole and spoken to her if it hadn't been such a hot, hot day and if his face hadn't felt shiny with fresh sweat. She looked good, after all--cool and slightly tanned. He was about to walk on, already scouting ahead to the next telephone pole, when the bus rounded the corner. As Winnie got up, folding the newspaper in one smooth movement and stuffing it into the straw bag, the first thing Leo noticed, with some glee, was how fat she'd grown. Then he realized she was pregnant. At first he had a good laugh about it--her bulge and the splayed way she waddled to the bus. He laughed for a good minute or two to himself and then had to sit for a bit in the shade and think about things.

Six months ago, when Leo had literally closed the front door on his relationship with Winnie, it had been an easy out for him; a way to shake himself free of a relationship that had already gone on much longer then planned. He had, after all, told Winnie early on that he had no interest in marriage--no interest in marriage, no way. Winnie had smiled in that infuriating secretive way of hers but hadn't said anything in reply to this--something that took Leo for surprise since no one he had ever dated before had taken his 'no-commitment-no-way' speech so well. He felt pleased that she had so readily accepted his ground rules and his need for freedom. He was going places, Leo had told her from day one. He was full of ambitions to strike out on his own, away from Franklinton and it was only a matter of time before he would move on. He thought at the time that Winnie's secretive smile had been a smile of agreement or, at least, of resignation. In retrospect he realized--in light of her pregnant belly and her waddle to the bus--that her smile might have had another meaning entirely.

After Leo first saw Winnie at the bus stop that day he began to notice her everywhere. She seemed to have a fairly regular routine: she went to the doctor on Thursdays, shopping on Fridays, and on Monday evenings she attended an exercise class. She always looked particularly happy when she left the clinic on Thursdays, her straw bag swinging from her shoulder, trotting along with her hands folded neatly over her belly.

The day Leo's daughter was born he called the hospital and casually asked a nurse how long new mothers generally, hypothetically, stayed before they were discharged. He had become very familiar with the hospital over the past three months since that time when he had first spotted Winnie at the bus stop. He would loiter around the hallways of the maternity ward mesmerized by the sight of those women with their heavy bellies, their weary and excited faces, walking the hallways in labor. Sometimes he got a rare glimpse of the inside of the labor rooms when the door would swing open as a nurse came in or out and he would sneak a peek through the opening and catch a glimpse of a huddled and bed-clothed figure groaning and shifting on the bed. "Not long now," the nurse would invariably say to him, and Leo would mutter something in response and flee to the cool hospital atrium where he would sit and silently yell at himself for even being there.

What perplexed Leo the most about this whole business was that he honestly couldn't remember if Winnie had ever given him any indication that she was even pregnant. The last few weeks of his relationship with Winnie were impossible for him to reconstruct clearly. They were obscured in his mind by the flurry of activity preceding the preparations for his grand exit out of Franklinton. He was fairly certain now that she had concealed her pregnancy on purpose; it was the only way he could explain Winnie's indifference when he had first told her he was leaving her, and the whole dusty, down-at-the-mouth town behind. She had seemed a little preoccupied his last few days with her--not distant in an angry or bitter way, though, merely as if she had more important things on her mind. Leo, then, happily proceeded to go about with his plans to leave Franklinton.

When he had first told Winnie about this insurance deal his friend John Allen had in the works and how it looked like it would really pay off in a year or two if only he could get out to Michigan and join up in partnership with him, Winnie had just smiled a half-smile and bent down over her cross-stitch. Leo had saved up a good piece of money. Half of it he would use to get to Grand Rapids, the other half he would give to John Allen as his investment in this soon-to-pay-off deal. Winnie made a small noise like she was clearing her throat to say something but then all she did was bend her head closer to her cross-stitch so Leo gave up and walked away.

It turned out, however, that his friend hadn't been completely level with Leo when it came down to the fundamentals of this lucrative deal. With all the money Leo had sent on to Michigan as his share he had expected to arrive there and find the money pouring in. After a few frustrating months sleeping on a couch in John Allen's apartment, then in a hotel, then in ratty motels as the money ran out, Leo gave up on him. He helped himself to whatever money he found in his wallet one night and headed back to Franklinton to regroup.

Anyway, insurance stuff didn't seem that interesting to Leo anymore. It ranked right up there with that summer he had spent cleaning gutters and the paper delivery service he had gone into with another friend, a few years back. Winnie had once tried to get him a job at the library where she worked. He had laughed it off angrily, telling her he certainly wasn't going to stamp due dates on the backs of books for the rest of his life. He didn't have time for that. Winnie put her chin forward at this and turned her back on Leo, shutting the door quietly as she left the room. He thought that was the end of the matter but when Winnie came back from work one day she left a library job application sitting on his dresser.

On Tuesday night Leo went to the hospital and asked the nurse at the information desk when Winnie was going to be released. She told him noon. Leo hadn't been sleeping very well and he was feeling tired. On his way back to his apartment from the hospital he walked by Winnie's house. A neighbor was running a lawn mower up and down Winnie's front lawn. Someone had hung a banner along the porch railings saying Welcome home Winnie and Alice. How like Winnie, Leo thought. He would have named the baby something a little more exciting like Ashley or Sandra. Now that he thought about it, though, Alice did suit her tiny feet.

He stupidly told one of his friends about the baby.

"How many does that make?" His friend said, punching Leo's shoulder and laughing.

"She's the only one."

"That you know of." His friend chuckled again and winked.

"No, no," Leo insisted irritably. "That's it." He began to wish he hadn't said anything and when his friend suggested they go out one night this week he turned him down, saying he had business to take care of.

The day Winnie was to be discharged from the hospital Leo got there early and set up position in the hospital lobby. She looked thinner than she had ever looked, Leo thought, probably because of the contrast. He watched her from behind a potted fern in the hospital lobby. Her shirt hung in an unnatural way, as if it were still trying to cover her swollen belly. She held the baby carefully, a little stiffly, until the nurse told her to keep her arms closer together. Leo followed her from the lobby, curious to see how she would get home.

Winnie walked timidly, as though she were holding a glass of water and Leo felt a twinge when he saw her hail a taxi. For a good ten minutes the taxi driver and the nurse struggled with installing the baby seat in the back of the cab, then Winnie was gone. She could at least have asked a neighbor to pick her up, Leo thought. But then again that's what she always did. She was always so damn solitary about everything.

There passed a period of about a week when Leo didn't see any sign of Winnie or the baby. Her curtains were drawn but he knew she was home, since at night the lights in the upstairs bedroom were always on. One evening, as he walked past her house, he thought he could hear the baby crying. He stood for awhile outside her front porch listening in the dark until he realized a neighbor was watching from her kitchen window. The following Wednesday, while he was standing opposite her porch considering the whole business, the front door opened and Winnie walked out.

"Leo?"

He thought about running but there she was, shading her eyes with her hand and coming down the front steps.

"Leo?"

He looked down the street and then back at her, to give the impression he was just on his way to somewhere important. "Hey there, Winnie."

"Someone told me they thought they'd seen you around here but I didn't believe them. What happened to Michigan?" She was smiling lightly.

"Oh, things just didn't work out so well."

"I'm sorry." She glanced over her shoulder. Listening for the baby, Leo thought.

"Well, you look good."

Winnie laughed nervously. "I've put on weight."

Ha, Leo thought. She'll mention the baby now. "Oh no, not at all," he said casually. "You look great."

"Thanks."

"So," Leo shifted his feet and squinted significantly up at the house.
"Anything new going on?''

She smiled blankly and shrugged. "Same old life."

Leo almost laughed out loud. She was such a liar!

Winnie put her head on one side and looked at him. "What happened to Michigan?" She asked again. Why couldn't she ever let a thing alone?

"Oh, I'm on to better things." He threw his arm out in a wild gesture. "There's so much more out there." He thought she looked sad for a moment, but then Winnie smiled.

"Well, that's nice, Leo." She looked over her shoulder again and tensed up slightly. "I better get going, I have some food on the stove."

"Okay, well, bye." He looked down the street again. "I was just on my way somewhere," he lied.

"'Bye, Leo."

Then she was gone. Just before she shut the door she turned and waved at him, as if dismissing him. There was a smell in the air after Winnie left. An after-smell, he thought, of soap and talcum powder.

On Thursday it rained. Leo stayed in bed all day, looking at his toes. He wiggled them and bumped them against each other, the way Alice had done the day she was born. It was strange to think a person could be only a day old, or two weeks old, for that matter. He wondered how Winnie was going to solve the problem of his return to Franklinton. Surely she must realize that he would bump into her one day as she wheeled Alice in the stroller. If she thought Leo would leave Franklinton she was wrong. He had as much a right to be here as she did.

When the phone rang he ignored it and the machine picked up his friend's voice inviting him out for a drink. He considered the invitation for a few minutes but he didn't feel like getting dressed. He stared at his feet for a while longer and then tucked them under the sheets and turned over to sleep.

Leo developed a plan that day--a plan to confront Winnie in her lie, forcing her to tell him about Alice. He imagined bumping into her with the baby in her arms and pictured the expression on her face while she tried to explain Alice to him. He created all kinds of intricate confrontation scenarios between the two of them, all which ended with Winnie fleeing in confusion, clutching the baby to her breast. The expression on her face in these scenarios was always one he had never seen in life: one of panic and alarm.

On Monday Leo found himself walking past Winnie's house again. When he reached the house he saw the newspaper still lying rolled up by the front door. He had come to her house meaning to tell Winnie he was on his way to work and that, since he would be passing her house each day on his way to and back from work, maybe some time they could meet for breakfast, or an early dinner. He wanted to see how she would fumble her way out of this invitation and was sure she would break down and tell him about Alice.

He picked the paper up, rang the doorbell and pressed his ear to the front door, hoping to hear the baby. As he heard Winnie clattering down the stairs he thought he could make out a faint crying sound mingled with the slap of her slippers on the parquet by the door. She opened the door and again Leo caught the faint whiff of powder.
"Winnie! I hope I didn't wake you." Did he see a flutter of concern pass across her face?

"Oh, Leo." She smiled absentmindedly. "I was asleep."

"Oh. I'm sorry--I thought maybe you would be getting ready for work and since I was on my way to work...?" He trailed off awkwardly, suddenly at a loss for words.

"Well that's nice of you, Leo. Actually, I'm taking some time off. I've been feeling a little run-down." She finally, Leo noticed with satisfaction, looked nervous.

'Well, here's your paper then," Leo said, suddenly angry. He thrust it at her and turned away. As he was going down the porch steps he heard the door close and in the few seconds before it shut he heard Alice's snatching cry.

Leo finally took his friend up on his offer of a drink. When he first entered the bar he felt an overwhelming sense of comfort and looked around at the people as if at old friends. He knew some of them by sight but the only person to raise his hand in greeting was his friend, sitting in a corner booth. He made the mistake, after four beers, of telling his friend about John Allen.

"Took your money and burned you, didn't he?"

"No," Leo swirled some beer around his mouth before he answered. "I just got tired of waiting around for things to happen."

"What a waste." His friend edged forward in his seat and reached around to his back pocket for his wallet. Leo could tell he wasn't interested in hearing about John Allen.

"Are you in a hurry?"

"I've got a date," his friend winked at Leo. "This might be the one."

'What do you mean, this might be the one," Leo mocked. "If you had a date," he said slowly, "then you should have told me before I came."

His friend laughed and tossed a ten dollar bill on the table. "Like you had someplace to go."

"Maybe."

"But you didn't," his friend said. He pushed his chair back and looked down on Leo with another wink.

"I could've though. I don't need to waste my time sitting around here."

"Bye Leo."

"I'm worth more. I don't need to sit here getting dust on my feet you know."

For the next three days it rained. Leo stayed in his apartment studying his reflection in the mirror, flipping through the newspaper, and thinking about Winnie and Alice. It had been three days since he had seen Winnie last and he racked his brains trying to come up with another excuse to see her. He wanted to ask Winnie straight out about Alice, or better yet confront her one day in the street with Alice in her arms. It was all just a matter of principle, otherwise he would gladly leave Winnie alone, but he had the feeling that what she had done was wrong, even if he couldn't quite say why. It felt illegal, or unethical, or something, but mainly it just felt wrong.

On the next sunny day Leo walked over to Winnie's house and rang her doorbell six or seven times, determined to elbow his way into her house and have it out with her about Alice. When she didn't answer Leo imagined her hiding behind the door, waiting for him to go away. He waved a fist at the door and peered through the front windows, then walked around the house looking in the downstairs windows. He almost climbed the fence into the backyard but saw that nosy neighbor again peering at him from her kitchen window.

He took the long way into the center of town and by the time he reached the main street his feet were tired. His determination had died down considerably and this irritated him, since he felt he would now need a good few days to build it up again. Leo sat on a bench across from some shops and watched the people go in and out and back and forth. Oddly enough, and as if planned just to torment him, most of the people he saw seemed to be mothers pushing strollers. He had to laugh at the irony of this until he realized he was sitting across from the Mothercare store. Then he just knew he would see Winnie, almost as soon as she stepped out from the door, pushing Alice in her stroller just as he had always imagined she would.

Leo had to refrain from rubbing his hands in anticipation of the long-imagined confrontation. There was no better moment than this: she was striding along behind the stroller, chin held high. Leo began to follow her along the opposite sidewalk. At the corner he started to cross over, at an angle, so that he was still behind her. He noticed that people parted around Winnie as she passed them and they smiled, sometimes at Winnie, always at Alice. She stopped at the corner, only a few feet in front of Leo and bent over to adjust something in carriage. She stood in a patch of sunlight and the light glanced off the bars of the stroller and made the metal glow. From where he watched Leo could make out every detail of the carriage from the white tassels which hung from the trim around the base to the shiny new plastic around the wheels. It was an expensive stroller, even Leo could see that, and it must have cost Winnie a good piece of money. He could picture her saving it, dollar by dollar, with that same secretive smile on her face that he'd seen on Thursdays when she left the clinic with her hands over her belly--a look as if she were hiding something special, something all her own.

Leo was about to step forward and call out Winnie's name when he saw that she was lifting Alice up a little, adjusting the blanket. He saw the baby's tiny feet come up in the air and one bootie was half off, exposing part of her pink heel. Winnie cupped the foot quickly in her hand and pulled up the sock, talking to Alice all the while. Only after they had moved out of the sunlight and into the shade did Leo realize he had never called her name or shouted after her as he had done in so many of those daydreams. The weight of those unspoken words and of his own dawning sense of insignificance began to settle around him now as he watched Winnie and Alice move away. He imagined those little feet kicking like a swimmer, putting more distance between himself and Winnie--between himself and Alice, who kicked and kicked and together with Winnie sent the stroller gliding smoothly over the pavement.


Alissa McElreath teaches English Literature and Composition at a small private school in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband and two children. She is currently working on her second novel. Alissa is a former senior editor and former columns editor for Literary Mama.


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