A seventh generation Mississippian, Gerry Wilson grew up in Pontotoc, a little town nestled in the hill country, in a household with her maternal grandmother, a born storyteller. Gerry’s love of story began there. For more than twenty years, she taught English and creative writing to high school students. As she learned how to impart her love of reading and writing to her students, her yen to write fiction blossomed.
Now retired, Gerry writes short and long fiction. Her short stories have appeared in numerous journals. “Mating,” the first story in Crosscurrents and Other Stories, won the Prime Number Short Fiction Award in 2014. Gerry is a recipient of a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship. She has studied fiction writing with Antonya Nelson, Ann Hood, Jane Hamilton, Connie May Fowler, Dorothy Allison, and Ron Hansen. She is currently working on a new novel.
Gerry and her husband, Austin, live in Jackson, Mississippi, with their Siamese cat, Oliver.
Crosscurrents and Other Stories
©Gerry Wilson 2015
Excerpted from “The One to Go”
Paula went to the door on a Friday afternoon, expecting the UPS man, and there stood a scrawny teenage girl with bleached, shaggy hair, multiple piercings, and a tight tee shirt riding up over her pregnant belly. A handsome African-American kid with long dreadlocks hovered behind her. It took Paula a second to realize that the girl might be her husband Barry’s daughter. This girl bore little resemblance to the photographs that lined their front hall.
“Mallory?” Paula said.
The girl shoved her hands in her jeans pockets. “Yes. Who are you?”
“I’m Paula. I’m your dad’s wife.” Paula’s hand went to her heart. “Oh my God! Come in, come in.” She held the door open for Mallory and the boy. “Wait here. I’ll get your dad.” Barry was in his study, grading papers. Paula hurried down the hall, past the wall of photographs. “Barry! Mallory’s here. She’s home!”
“What?” Barry came out of his study and stopped, mouth open, like he’d been punched. “Mallory?” He covered the length of the hall in a few strides and took Mallory in his arms. He held her a long time. The boy stood with his arms crossed, looking on.
Mallory wriggled out of his arms. “Hi, Dad,” she said.
Paula blinked away tears. “Let’s go in here,” she said, motioning to the den. “Can I get you something? Have you eaten?”
“Karim might like a beer,” Mallory said.
“We don’t have any,” Paula said. “We have Cokes. That’s all.”
“A Coke will do,” Mallory said. She patted her stomach. “I can’t have a beer anyway.”
Barry and Mallory led the way, not touching now. Paula and the young man followed. Paula got Cokes for everybody. They sat in the den. Karim was the baby’s daddy. He was twenty-two. He worked on an offshore oilrig, three weeks on the job and one off. All this in a rush from Mallory. They were living together in an apartment on Foley Street, west of downtown. Paula knew that neighborhood, and so did Barry: run-down houses and old apartment complexes, razor wire on the fences, iron bars on windows. Not a good place to live. Paula was surprised when Barry didn’t react. Maybe he was too stunned.
Paula was stunned, too.
She had never met Mallory. The girl had run away when she was thirteen, two years before Paula and Barry married. Barry had still borne the scars when Paula met him: dealing with private detectives, hounding the police to no avail, placing ads in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Denver, Portland. All the dream places where kids ran. Paula had believed that Mallory must be dead, but she’d never said so to Barry. Now here Mallory was.
Barry took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. “Where have you been all this time?”
“Here and there,” Mallory said. “California for a while. That’s where I met Karim.” A gap of skin showed between Mallory’s tee shirt and her low-riding jeans. A tattoo snaked down her hip and disappeared.
Barry said, “You could have let us know you were all right. Do you have any idea what it was like for me—searching and searching and not finding you?”
Mallory chewed a fingernail, polished black. “I guess.”
“You guess what?”
“I guess I might have called.”
Barry struggled to light his pipe. His reaction to Mallory shocked Paula. She would have thought he would welcome the girl, no questions asked. Instead, he seemed angry. He was grilling her. He had been a wreck when Paula first knew him—harried, distracted, always a five o-clock shadow and deep circles under his dark eyes.
He took his time and drew long on the pipe before he spoke, watched the spiral of smoke. Mallory and Karim looked at each other. Paula knew it was a strategy, something Barry did when he was collecting himself, holding back. “Why did you decide to come home? Why now?”
“We wanted to settle somewhere. Because of the baby. We’re not here because we need, like, money or anything.”
“Are you married?”
“No,” Mallory said. “Marriage is nothing but a piece of paper, Dad. Look what marriage did for you.”
“The marriage to your mother wasn’t all bad, Mallory. It gave me you.” He turned to the young man. “Karim. That’s an interesting name.”
“My mother liked it,” Karim said. He touched the back of Mallory’s neck, her hair.
“Are you Muslim?” Barry gestured with his pipe. “Not that it matters.” Barry was the most liberal person Paula knew, but his face was flushed, the muscle in his jaw worked. Maybe he wasn’t so liberal when it came to his own daughter.
“What if I am?”
Paula shot Barry a look, shook her head. She said, “When’s the baby due, Mallory?”
“Do you know what it is?”
“No.” So no prenatal care, probably. They would have to get her to a doctor.
Karim stood and took Mallory’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Mallory got up off the couch and stretched her back. She was too thin except for her rounding belly.
Barry hugged her again. “I’m so glad you’re home.”
Mallory backed away. “I’m not home. I’m not your little girl anymore.”
“Well,” Barry said, glancing at her stomach. “That’s true. I’m glad you’re back.”
Mallory shrugged. “See you guys later,” she said.
“Call us,” Paula said. She opened her arms to hug Mallory, but the girl walked past her. Too soon, Paula thought. She would have to take it slow.
Paula and Barry watched the old Toyota pickup pull away. “Are you okay?” she said.
“I don’t know.” His voice broke. “It’s like she’s come back from the dead. But seeing her like this. Pregnant, by that kid? My God.”
“But she’s here,” Paula said.
Barry ran his hands through his thinning hair. “It’s unbelievable. I’m thankful. Really, I am.” He looked at Paula. “But what are we going to do?”
Paula couldn’t answer him. She didn’t know what to do, either. She hadn’t bargained for Mallory. The girl’s presence would change everything.
They didn’t hear from Mallory for a couple of weeks. When she finally called, she told Paula that everything was great. Karim was away, working.
“Have you seen a doctor? An obstetrician?” Paula asked.
“No! I know girls who had babies on the street, and they did okay.”
Paula cringed. “But you’re not on the street. You’re here. It’s important to take care of yourself and the baby. I’ll go with you, if you want me to.”
“Oh, all right.” Paula could almost hear Mallory’s shrug over the phone.
The day of the appointment, Paula picked Mallory up. Paula hated the women’s clinic, those awful little exam rooms. The instruments on the counter, the table with its paper covering, and the stirrups were enough to make her break out in a sweat.
Mallory was a little anemic, the doctor said. The baby was small for its gestational age. He gave Mallory prenatal vitamins, another appointment, and a schedule of free childbirth and labor classes at the state health department.
“That wasn’t so bad, now was it?” Paula said, her own heart racing, her hands cold. Mallory slumped against the passenger door. She looked more scared than angry, and Paula wanted to touch her. “Everything’s going to be all right, Mallory,” she said.
When she pulled up in front of the apartment complex, Mallory got out without a word and walked away. No thank you, no goodbye.
Paula leaned her head against the steering wheel. She didn’t know how to be a mother. She didn’t even know what Barry expected of her. For his sake, she supposed, she had to try. That night, she suggested that they invite Mallory and Karim for supper.
“Good idea,” Barry said.
The night that Mallory and Karim came, Paula made vegetarian chili and corn bread. Mallory wore the same shirt she’d worn that first day, but her belly had grown. Paula made a mental note to offer to take her shopping.
Over dinner, Barry said. “Tell us about yourself, Karim.”
Karim kept right on eating “There isn’t much to tell.”
“Yes, there is,” Mallory said. “Karim went to UCLA. He was going to be a film major.”
“Really?” Barry said. “You dropped out? How’d you end up working the rigs?”
Karim was on his third beer. He tapped the nearly empty bottle on the table. “It’s good money. I got tired of school.”
“Well,” Barry said. “It’s honest work. Somebody’s got to do it.”
“Dad. Don’t talk down to Karim.”
Paula scraped her chair back. “Can I get anybody anything? More chili, Karim?”
“I’m not talking down to him. I’m curious. Where’d you grow up?”
“LA projects. Just what you’d expect, Mr. Kimbrell.”
“I don’t expect anything,” Barry said.
“Mallory, tell your dad about the doctor visit,” Paula said.
Mallory rolled her eyes. “What about it?”
“The due date? Hearing the baby’s heartbeat?” She said to Barry, “The nurse let me listen. That was amazing.”
“Dad isn’t interested in all that.”
Barry leaned his elbows on the table. “I’m interested. That’s my grandchild.”
Mallory’s voice faltered. “The baby’s fine. We’re all fine. Aren’t we, Karim?”
“Sure, Mal,” he said. She rested her head on Karim’s shoulder. Her shirt rode up a little more, revealing a bruise, already fading to yellow, on her side. Paula went cold when she saw it. She looked away, then back at Mallory. She had pulled her shirt down.
Had Paula imagined it? She got up. “How about some apple pie and ice cream?”
“I’ll help,” Barry said. They left Mallory and Karim sitting at the table. When they went back to the dining room, they were gone.
“Well,” Paula said. “So much for that.” They cleared the table. Should she tell Barry what she’d seen? There could be a hundred reasons for a bruise.
Paula answered Karim’s call the day the baby came. “We had a boy. Six pounds, seven ounces. They’re both okay.” There was no need for Paula and Barry to come to the hospital. They had named the baby Ali.
When the baby was a week old, Paula and Barry carried a meal to the apartment—pot roast and vegetables, rolls, and a lemon pie. They went uninvited, which made Paula nervous, but surely Mallory needed some help. Mallory invited them in—Karim wasn’t there—and they took turns holding the baby. Paula was forty-eight years old and had never held a newborn. With his knees drawn up, Ali fit the length of her forearm. He had a nicely shaped head, a shock of black hair, mocha-colored skin like Karim’s, and Mallory’s blue eyes. He fell asleep in Paula’s arms. His mouth twitched at the corners, almost a smile. Paula was overcome with longing for what she had missed.
On the way home, Paula and Barry talked about the state of the apartment: a mattress on the floor, an old-fashioned dinette table and two folding chairs, a futon, dirty diapers on the floor, beer cans scattered about.
“At least there were the lights,” Paula said.
“You didn’t notice? They have little lights, like Christmas tree lights, strung all around the rooms. That’s kind of sweet, don’t you think?”
“It’s a sty,” Barry said. “And my daughter and grandson are living in it.”
“They need a crib,” Paula said.
“Buy one, then,” he said. The next day, she ordered a baby bed and had it delivered.
Paula and Barry argued over what to do next. “She’s seventeen years old,” Paula said. “She needs help, especially if Karim’s working off shore. I think we shouldn’t wait for her to call. I think we should go over there, like we did when we took the meal.”
“I don’t think she wants us, Paula.”
“Maybe it’s me she doesn’t want.” Paula teared up. “Think about it. She went away, and you married me. Before, there was just the two of you. It’s like I took her place. Maybe she resents me.”
Barry said, “She didn’t leave you. You had nothing to do with it.”
“I can’t believe we’re arguing over this,” Paula said. But she could believe it. Mallory’s return was taking its toll—on her, on Barry, on the marriage.
Early on a Thursday morning, Mallory called and asked them to babysit that afternoon. “It’s a good sign, don’t you think?” Barry said. “But I have a committee meeting late afternoon, after my last class.”
Paula didn’t have any classes on Thursday afternoons. “I can keep the baby,” she said.
“You don’t mind?”
“Not at all.” She remembered how it had felt to hold Ali. “I’ll enjoy it.”
She didn’t enjoy it, though. When Barry got home at five-thirty, she was pacing with the screaming child. “Mallory didn’t leave enough milk,” she said over Ali’s wailing.
Mallory didn’t show up until nine.
“Where were you?” Barry said, handing over the baby.
Mallory sat on the couch, lifted her shirt, and unhooked her nursing bra, exposing a breast. Paula wished she would cover herself. Barry looked away.
“I interviewed for a job, Dad.”
“A job? Until nine o’clock?”
“Well, no. Karim and I got a burger, and then we went to a movie.”
Paula said, “I tried to call you, Mallory. You shouldn’t turn your phone off when we have the baby. What if we—”
Mallory took away her breast. “If you don’t want to keep Ali, say so. I’ll get somebody else.” The baby screwed up his face and started to howl. Mallory pulled down her shirt without bothering to fasten the bra. The shirt clung to her nipple, a wet circle of milk spreading.
“It’s not that we don’t want him,” Paula said. “We were worried. We ran out of milk.”
“Sorry. I won’t bother you anymore.”
Mallory wrapped the crying baby in a sling, stuffed things in the diaper bag, and slammed the door on her way out.
A few days after the babysitting fiasco, Paula noticed a peculiar smell in the den, a little like condensed milk—sweet, but soured. Breast milk, Paula thought; that’s it. She had fed the baby there. She’d missed something when she cleaned up—a burp cloth, a piece of his clothing.
Barry was dozing on the couch. “Barry?” She nudged him. “Move. I need to look under the cushions.”
He stumbled up. “What’s the matter?”
“Don’t you smell it?”
He blinked, sniffed. “I don’t smell anything.”
She pulled the cushions off and looked for stains. She dug in the crevices. She got down on her hands and knees and checked under the couch.
“If you’d tell me what you’re looking for, maybe I could help.”
Barry would think she was crazy. “Never mind.” She put the cushions back. “Sorry I woke you.”