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Just the Thing For a Day Like This by Cyn Nooney


Cyn Nooney’s “Just the Thing for a Day Like This” is the third-place winner of the 2021 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Kirstin Valdez Quade.


In “Just the Thing for a Day Like This,” the newlywed young mother of a vulnerable premature newborn finds herself haunted by her husband’s first wife, resented by their teenage son, and an outsider in their family home. The author is precisely attuned to the subtly shifting moods among the characters, to the stinging barbs that wound each of them, and to the tiny, valiant acts of love. The story transports the reader utterly to the claustrophobic pressured interior of this house in the hot desert outskirts of Los Angeles, and every scene is tightly coiled and ready to spring.  —Kirstin Valdez Quade


 

Marshall is in his office, and he says to please get the wretched dogs to stop barking. He’s preparing for a call, an important call. It’s hot, above ninety, margarita-with-salt weather but I’m nursing so you know what that means, no tequila for mama. The hill behind our house is dry and yellow and I feel pitiful that our pooches are outside, but the pediatrician says pet hair is bad for immature immune systems, which is what Lily has due to being born so early, so they can’t come in. Lily has spent most of her days in the hospital—my womb was one faulty host—but now she’s home.

“Kaitlyn?” Marshall calls again down the hall—on Fridays he avoids the hassle of commuting. “Make them stop. I can’t concentrate.” We have two dogs. Nabby’s mine, a German shepherd mix, and Marshall has a portly black lab named Webster. Poor Webster is half-blind, half-deaf, shuffles around like the senior he is.

“I’m trying,” I call back, which means I glance outside—our kitchen windows face the backyard—and return to mixing the egg salad and cutting up watermelon into manageable chunks. We live amidst wildlife, the dogs always bark, Marshall can learn to tune them out. Lily already has. She’s sleeping in the infant carrier right next to me on the counter. I lift her tiny hand, marvel at its patchwork of veins and wish away the shadows of jacaranda beneath her eyes. If you saw her, you wouldn’t call her pretty, you’d probably stifle a gasp. How alien and translucent you might think, how alarmingly thin, will the purple sheen disappear? She’s three months old but looks no more than a day.

Through the window I see the dogs by the patio table, the only area of our yard with shade. Nabby is humping Webster’s head, which appears to make the old fellow glow. Gotta hand it to Nabby, I admire her generosity. My gesture of generosity today is lunch. Men are happier when fed so I slip down the hall and slide a note on Marshall’s desk, Ready when you are. When he looks up, I wink and slither away. With any luck we’ll have a bit of time together before Cole comes home. His junior year of high school has just started, and his schedule is surprisingly flexible, filled with lots of half days. Cole lives with us. His mom is in Tucson. She and Marshall were married fifteen years and then one day she announced she was through with husband-and-kid-care, the whole enchilada, including the house. That was three years ago. The kitchen still contains many items she left behind—Marshall isn’t one to reorganize—including the cake mixer in the drawer and the dinner plates patterned with leaves. I arrived with chipped crockery and so we use hers. Sometimes I have to remind myself, It’s not like you’re walking around in the ex’s negligee, you’re just laying out her plates. One of these days I hope to replace them.

Like Cole, I miss my mother, but I keep that to myself. I’m aware the topic of mothers is off-limits, plus why would he care about mine? Our only common ground is Marshall. When it comes to my stepson, I step ever so carefully. He’s a blend of James Dean and Johnny Depp, with the latter’s temper and hair, the kind that falls into place with a rake of the fingertips. I’ve ruined his life, or so I’ve overheard him say to his father a number of times. All day long I study Lily, looking for a hint of grand old Dot. If my mother were here, she’d say, Deal with what’s in front of you. No pressure, no diamonds. Lily is named after my mother’s favorite flower. Originally, I wanted to call her Calla but then I realized her initials would be the same as Cole’s. Plus, Marshall hated it. I look upward and brandish a smile. See us down here, Mom? I fool myself into thinking she can.

“Hey, Stretch,” Marshall says when he comes around the corner and although he means it as a compliment—he’s always claimed to love my gawkish height—I picture myself as one long cord of worry, two knots for milk. He smells like coffee and damp earth and our lips meet above our baby.

“You hanging in there?” he asks and I nod, picturing a noose. “And how’s our little princess?” he says.

“Never better,” I answer, which is true. Lily can breathe on her own now, and suck and swallow, no more oxygen or feeding tubes, no more IVs. Marshall reaches for Lily’s toes, and I think, No, don’t touch, don’t wake her up, but I’m glad he’s no longer afraid. The hospital was a lot for him, some days he couldn’t bear to watch her in the incubator struggling for breath, so he’d leave right after arriving. Marshall’s better with robust. I went every day to the hospital soon as I woke up, stayed until midnight. Lily was there for ten weeks.

At the table we discuss the heat (steadily rising) and what we might have for dinner (maybe fish). Marshall’s a civil engineer, a structured yet unhandy type out here on the prairie. It’s not really the prairie, just a patch of land at the top of a flag lot in a suburb forty miles north of Los Angeles. You wouldn’t know you were in the burbs for the way the coyotes scream at night.

“This is good, Kaitlyn,” Marshall says about the egg salad. “Just the thing for a day like this.” Flecks of yolk crumble from his mouth. “We’re doing okay, right? You and me?” he says, leaning forward. “I know this is hard.” He doesn’t just mean Lily or that I had to give up my job. “It’s hard on all of us, on Cole too.”

This is his way of letting me know he spoke with Cole earlier. Cole showers in our bathroom each morning and night, instead of his own, and I’ve been requesting a change. It was one thing when I was pregnant—I disliked it then, too, but was keener on keeping the peace—quite another now. After Cole finishes in our bathroom, we have a wet floor, sopping towels, water spots across the mirror. Occasionally, used boxers rolled into balls.

“But he’s always showered in there, even before his mom left,” Marshall said the first time I brought it up. “Our shower’s bigger than his and he likes the jets.” The master bathroom is where I wash my bras and rinse the valves and shields of the breast pump. My husband is skilled at wishing things away. It’s like I can almost hear him thinking, Maybe she won’t bring it up again, maybe she’ll keep going along, sweet little wife. And if Cole hadn’t knocked over the baby bottles that I’d left on the bathroom counter after pumping last night— Lily required changing and, in my haste, I’d forgotten the seals—I may have refrained a bit longer.

But upon seeing my breast milk dumped over and drizzling down the counter onto a squat navy rug, I yelled for Marshall. “Cole can’t use our bathroom anymore. I can’t take it. You’ve got to talk to him,” I said, close to tears. I flapped a plastic baby bottle near his face. “Do you see this?” The bottle was cloudy but otherwise empty, precious residue of my hard-pumped milk slickening the sides. “He didn’t even bother to wipe anything up.”

“Okay, calm down,” Marshall said. “I’ll talk to Cole in the morning.” It was around ten-thirty when this happened. Lily was wrapped tightly in her fuzzy yellow duck-patterned blanket, fidgeting in the bassinette next to our bed. Marshall’s voice turned soft. “Don’t be mad at him—I’m sure he didn’t notice what he did. You know how teenagers are.”

“I’m beginning to, I guess,” I said, still angry, then told myself to dial it back. “Look, I’m not trying to be mean or unreasonable, I just need a bit of privacy, some space of my own.” Under my breath I muttered, “How about growing a pair and setting a boundary for once?”

“What did you say?” he asked.

“I love you,” I said. “I love you so very much.”

Now at the lunch table Marshall spreads his palms. “I tried to talk to him, but he got pretty upset…the baby stuff is tough, you know? This…” and he makes a sweeping gesture through the air. “This isn’t easy for him.”

“This?”

“You know what I mean. All the change,” Marshall says. “All the…well, would you have wanted a baby in the house at sixteen? Cole’s embarrassed to have his friends over. Says he feels like his life’s been invaded, you know? Ambushed?”

“I know it’s not ideal,” I say, because in actuality I’m sensitive to Cole’s situation but I’m also thinking, Grow up. My parents didn’t stay together either—they split up when I was eleven. Marshall and I had only been married a month before I got pregnant, far sooner than we’d planned, and while my stepson subscribes to the theory that I trapped his father with my wiry, wily ways, none of this is what I pictured either. One day I hope to tell Cole that moving to their house in the dry snaky hills was never high on my list, but it made the most sense. He wouldn’t believe that now, he just wishes I were back in my condo on Sunset Boulevard. Sometimes I wish that too.

“Sixteen is a tough age for a boy,” Marshall continues. “This is the only home he remembers.” We’ve talked about this ad infinitum, and I’ve always concurred. When it comes to kids, consistency is important. I’m not asking to move, much as I’m desperate to, I remember our compromise: we’ll live here until Cole graduates then find a new spot of our own. This is the house where Cole’s parents lived, the house they picked out as a family. Every day I’m reminded. Catalogs still arrive in his mother’s name. A pair of women’s size-four ski pants hang in the coat closet. I’ve encountered bobby pins and barrettes, a single pearl earring, half-used lipstick tubes the shade of a robin’s breast, blue knitted baby booties coming unraveled, each item requiring me to consider my place.

As we continue eating, Lily keeps sleeping, no small miracle, but for once I want her to wake up. Until she came to be I didn’t know you could physically ache for someone. I’d heard it but had never believed.

“Cole will come around,” Marshall says. “He just needs time, we all do. Everyone’s still adjusting.”

Still adjusting, that we are, a permanent state of mind. “It’s a lot to take in,” I say agreeably. Defending one’s children, I’ve begun to understand, comes from a deep primal urge.

The dogs are barking again but Marshall doesn’t appear to notice, he’s waxing on about the difficulties of youth. I’m impressed with this gallant side of Marshall—his fatherliness is one of the first things I fell in love with. I nod and murmur and pretend I’m listening. Right, yes, change is hard, a boy needs his father. I know this, I do. We believe in the same. But still. The familiar nag returns and now I’m peeved again about the bathroom. How is it possible to feel mature in one second and in the very next like a douche? I have an urge to pound the table, make the silverware shake.

Nabby must’ve spotted a squirrel for all the frenzy she’s in and Lily’s squirming now. Her eyes are still closed but her lips are searching. Milk surges from my nipples, splattering the front of my blouse but I remain seated, I’ll get up in a second. My husband is a priority. I want him to know this. I squeeze his fingers, tell myself, Bite your tongue, B-Y-T.

But then a part of me speaks up unbidden, “You have two children now.”

Marshall bounces his leg under the table. “You think I don’t know that?” he finally says with an edge.

“I wouldn’t call it obvious,” I answer. “This is Lily’s home too.”

The barking has reached an unpleasant pitch and with a burst Marshall pushes away from the table. “Those stupid-ass dogs!” He clamors over to the sink, carrying his plate, a consideration for which I’m secretly pleased.

Nabby sounds as if she’s in a fury and I think we should see what’s going on, but I rush to get Lily and bring her to my breast. “It’s okay,” I shush although she’s not making a fuss. Latch on, I think. Please, just latch on and drink up. Grow big and strong.

When Lily was born, she went straight to intensive care before I barely got a peek, and it was another eight days before she was strong enough to be held. She had no reserves, couldn’t tolerate touch.

“Positive thoughts only,” said the nurse who lifted my tender baby girl from the incubator when holding-day came. Lily was laced with wires and tubes and hooked up to all kinds of machines. I was afraid I’d accidentally unhook something that would cause her to die. She was diapered in a mini pad, weighed less than two pounds. I wore a smock that opened in front. “Let her sniff,” instructed the nurse, gently pressing Lily against my skin. “And be brave, otherwise she’ll smell your fear.”

Marshall is over at the sink, wielding the spray nozzle with such force it might break and Lily is twitching and begins to wail, squirms away from my aching, spitting breast. It’s then that I see why Nabby is barking—she’s warning away a snake, defending her territory with ferocious snarls. At first, I can’t tell what kind of snake, just that it’s grayish brown and slithering through the grass toward the sunbaked concrete. It’s too thick to be a garter or gopher but it could be a king. That’s what I tell myself. A king, not a rattler.

“Marshall,” I hiss but he can’t hear me. I hustle over to the sink with Lily and point out the window. The snake has made its way onto the concrete, about seven feet from our sliding glass door, extending its long leathery body as if on a luxurious stroll. Nabby’s standing to the left of it, a yard or so away, barking her fool head off. Where is Webster? I briefly wonder.

“Shit,” says Marshall. “This is no good.” By now we both know it’s a rattlesnake, we can tell from the triangular head. Marshall walks rapidly toward the shovel that he left inside the patio door—putting things back is not in his nature.

“I’ll kill it,” he pronounces, and stabs the linoleum. “I’ll chop off its head.”

“I don’t think so,” I say. To my knowledge he’s never chopped wood.

“Mother of Christ,” he says and then he’s pacing, juicing himself up.

“What about the fire department or Animal Control? Can’t we call them? Isn’t this something they handle?” Lily’s crying and I’m rocking her in my arms, swaying back and forth.

“You think I can’t kill it,” Marshall glares at me, and moves toward the sliding glass door.

I shake my head. “I don’t want you to get hurt. I don’t want anyone to get hurt. What if you miss?”

“You really think I can’t do it,” Marshall says again.

For a moment we’re halted in place. My milk won’t stop coming but Lily refuses to meet the faucet, keeps struggling away. Behind us we hear a door open and in strides Cole. Hastily, I refasten my nursing bra and button my blouse. At the sight of his lathery father, Cole scans the situation. He’s six-four, dressed in a Lakers ball cap, black nylon basketball shorts, and Nike high tops, which he kicks off in seconds. He leaves shoes all over the house.

“What’s going on here?” he demands. He waves an oversized white envelope that looks similar to the one I’d tossed in the trash earlier this morning before dragging our bins to the curb for collection.

I nod toward the patio doors. Lily’s stretching her lungs at full throttle, healthy scream she’s got now.

“Jesus,” Cole says, looking outside, seeing the snake. “Holy fuck.”

Marshall reaches for the handle on the door. “I’m going out there. I can do this.”

Cole walks toward his father and takes his arm. “No way—that’d be crazy.” A sliver of relief crosses Marshall’s face.

“Give it here, Dad,” Cole says, holding out his other hand for the shovel. The envelope flutters to the floor.

Nabby’s barking so furiously her muzzle’s frothy with foam. I glance outside. The snake is now coiled and ready to strike. “Here,” I say to Marshall, “take her for a sec.” Before he can object, I thrust Lily in his arms and swipe the shovel from Cole. Then I jam my bare feet into his basketball shoes.

I’m outside before anyone can stop me, adrenalin surging along with my milk. I’ve never killed a snake, but the summer I turned ten, I saw my father do it. You have to approach them from the behind, he told me right after spotting one, and keep your distance. He used a pole from our camping equipment lying on the ground. We hadn’t yet set up our tent. My mother was still unloading the car but then suddenly she was there, screaming, No Jerry! and covering my eyes with her hands. Seconds later, my father let out a whoop of victory. Afterward my mother said, We’re not camping here, and for once my father didn’t disagree. Quietly, we reloaded the car.

I feel clownish and uncoordinated in Cole’s shoes—he wears size thirteen—but damn if I’m going to fight a rattlesnake in bare feet. Nabby catches sight of me and whimpers, a sound not unlike the ones I made next to Lily’s incubator. “She looks like my grandmother on her death bed,” Marshall said once and while I didn’t appreciate that, he wasn’t wrong. Some days were manageable, but many were heinous—more rounds of tests and restricted feedings, more jabs and X-rays, more stiff-limbed, startled expressions, and all of it accompanied by a level of peril I couldn’t overcome. After arriving each morning at the NICU, I’d pull up a chair next to Lily’s incubator, that fake plastic womb, and open the tiny round window on the side so she could hear my voice. Her skin was loose as a chicken’s, her wrist no wider than my thumb.

Gingerly, I hold the shovel horizontally out in front of me and inch forward, my palms slippery against the wood, grateful for once for my gangly wingspan. The snake is thick as a fire house hose. Diamond markings glisten in the sun. I tell myself to keep moving, to ignore the electric-sounding sizzle of the rattles. But if I hear it for much longer, I know I’ll come completely undone, all the undisclosed terror I’ve buried over the last several months will erupt in a in a pitch no one can stand. Suddenly I’m bashing the snake’s head, hacking and smashing hard as I can, over and over. It feels like someone else is doing it, not me.

I have a vague sense of hollering and blubbering while shooing Nabby away, and I keep swinging and chopping, my arms strong as Ali’s. But the whole time I’m thinking, What now? I keep beating the snake until my shirt is soaked through with sweat, the milk splattered earlier now crusty and dry. I don’t know when I should stop. Even if a rattlesnake’s head detaches it can still strike. And then Marshall’s next to me. He eases the shovel away, lets it clatter to the ground. “It’s all over,” he says, and clutches me feverishly against him. I feel the rapid beating of his heart. “Everything’s okay now. I put Nabby in the garage with Webster. Found him conked out by the side of the house.”

We stand there like that for a minute or two, holding on, swaying slightly, and then he leads me back inside, where Lily’s sucking on a lime-green pacifier in her carrier. Cole’s sitting at the table, staring at glossy photos of his mother spread before him. I recognize her poses, her smooth lovely face.

“Did you throw these out?” Cole asks without lifting his head. That question is for me. His mother is fetching. She wears a saffron beret near the Arc de Triomphe in one picture, a formal black dress in another, peeks out from behind a rosebush in a third. Her complexion I envy, her hair shines like mine never has. When I first discovered the pictures at the back of a dresser drawer, I wondered what they meant to Marshall, how often he might look at them, or whether one day he’d think, Damn, how’d I let her get away? Did they stir up emotions he didn’t have for me? Not once did I think about Cole.

“Did you see what Kaitlyn did?” Marshall says, before I can answer. He nudges Cole’s shoulder, points out the window. “She killed that snake, saved Nabby. Pretty impressive, don’t you think?”

“Uh-huh, sure,” says Cole. He turns his head for a second and glances outside. I make the mistake of looking too. The limp body reminds me of the times in the hospital when Lily was lethargic, when the alarms from her machines beeped loudly and repeatedly, and an attendant would come over and flick the bottom of her feet, jostle her spindly legs. “Sometimes she forgets to breathe,” a nurse explained one day. “Gotta jumpstart her heart.” Her heart, it was recently confirmed, needs surgery soon.

For a moment it appears Cole might get up and go examine the dead rattler but then he picks up a photo of his mom, the one in the beret. “Did she throw these out, is what I’m asking?”

Marshall moves beside me, takes my hand. “I did it,” he says. His voice is crisp, confident, and I’m stunned he’s taking the fall. If I were a better person, I’d object and come clean, and I’d like to think that one day I will, but right now all I want to do is let this day pass. Somehow, everything feels too big and too small all at the same time.

“Did she make you do it?” Cole asks his dad. He still hasn’t lifted his head. Oh, God. Have I made this boy cry?

“I said it was me,” Marshall says.

“I don’t believe you,” says Cole.

“Yeah, well, we all need a breather. We’ve had enough excitement for one day. I’m really sorry son, I should’ve given them to you.”

Marshall claps Cole on the back and sinks into the sofa. Our kitchen and den comprise a single room. Some call it a great room. I do not. The TV’s always going, or Cole’s video games. My most fervent fantasy contains walls. I half-expect Cole to lunge upstairs but he remains at the table, studying his mother. That perfect tilt of her chin, those deep brown eyes she passed on to him. For a moment I imagine a teenaged Lily poring over pictures of me, and I shudder with shame.

From down the hall I can hear the dogs whining and scratching on the back of the door that leads to the garage. I feel the need to do something, anything, so I hustle around gathering items for Nabby and Webster, remembering quotes my mom used to say. Fall seven times, get up eight. Calmness is the cradle of power. I want Lily to grow up to be like Dot—kind, honest, self-assured—all the things I haven’t been lately. And I want to figure out how to stitch this blended family together in this house, where we’re each jostling for space.

A little while later I plop a mound of blankets, chew toys, and two rawhide sticks at the end of the sofa where Marshall’s relaxing. I sense Cole looking at me a few feet away from beneath his bangs. “How about you two take these out to the garage? Get them settled in?” As if on cue, Nabby and Webster perform another manic toenail-dance behind the door.

Marshall makes to get up and Cole pushes past him, storms out to the yard and nudges the rattlesnake a few times with his foot before bending down and lifting it by the tail. For a moment I watch Cole through the window watching me. I wonder what he sees. Can he smell my fear? He holds the snake high above his head, the corpse dangles like a rope.

“I think he needs you,” I tell Marshall. “Go on outside.” The dogs can wait.

Then I turn away and patter back to Lily. Is her chest still rising? Is her skin turning blue? Her lips? I conduct investigations of this manner around the clock. I thump the bottom of her feet so often I fear they’ll blister, and most nights I place her in the carrier rather than in the bassinette, figuring it’s easier for her to breathe in an upright position. I stretch out next to her on the carpet near the foot of our bed and rock the little seat back and forth. Occasionally I reach up and stroke her hair, her nose, her cheeks and then her small, dented belly and sometimes when I do that, like I’m doing right now, she wraps her delicate feathery hand close around my finger, which always makes me hold my own breath, always makes me wonder how a heart so faulty can salvage my own.

 


CYNTHIA (CYN) NOONEY’s stories and essays have appeared in Chestnut Review, Ursa MinorFractured LitNew Flash Fiction ReviewThe New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere, including fiction anthologies. She is the recipient of the 2020 Stubborn Writers First Prize for Flash Fiction from Chestnut Review, and her work has been shortlisted for contests sponsored by Split Lip Magazine and The Masters Review. She holds an MFA from Pacific University, and her writing has been supported by Iowa Writers’ Summer Workshop, Community of Writers, and Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is working on a collection of short stories.

 

Featured image by Pexels courtesy of Pixabay

 

Author’s Note

During my MFA thesis semester in 2018, a good friend mentioned the short story “Stay Down and Take It” by Ben Marcus because she figured it was something I’d want to read. She was right. The story is told in present tense by a first-person narrator, and I was so gripped by the immediacy of Marcus’s prose that I wanted right then to try and create something similarly urgent. All I had in mind at the time was a main character, a woman who feels out of her element, as new mothers often do. In addition to her being a new mother, I visualized her as a new stepmom navigating a new marriage and living in a house once occupied by her husband’s ex-wife. With that, I began the story. The first page came easily. The rest did not.

What I’d heard once during a craft lecture turned out to be true: it can be difficult to sustain momentum when writing in present tense. I experienced several stops and starts and sputtered my way toward an unsatisfactory end, ultimately shelving the story after graduation. Then early in 2021, I reread it, recalling something a member on my review committee had suggested: give Kaitlyn more agency—she should kill the snake (in my original version it slithers away on its own). After several rounds of revision, I submitted a new draft to a critique group as well as a few trusted writer friends. Along the way, I added new scenes, particularly those involving the ex-wife’s photographs. Even though this is Kaitlyn’s story, my aim was to create a nuanced portrayal of a blended family where the characters are complex and struggling in different ways, hopeful that readers might understand each of them—possibly even before Kaitlyn realizes she’s culpable too, and capable of behaving poorly. The only innocent character is Lily, yet she too is struggling, quite mightily and literally, to survive. In earlier drafts, she doesn’t reappear at the end, but during a discussion with another writer about throughlines, it became clear that Lily is the “floss,” as Kurt Vonnegut would say, and she deserved her due.

It’s immeasurably helpful to have others respond to my work. I’m indebted to many. If there were space to list them all here, I would!

 


CYNTHIA (CYN) NOONEY’s stories and essays have appeared in Chestnut Review, Ursa MinorFractured LitNew Flash Fiction ReviewThe New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere, including fiction anthologies. She is the recipient of the 2020 Stubborn Writers First Prize for Flash Fiction from Chestnut Review, and her work has been shortlisted for contests sponsored by Split Lip Magazine and The Masters Review. She holds an MFA from Pacific University, and her writing has been supported by Iowa Writers’ Summer Workshop, Community of Writers, and Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is working on a collection of short stories.