judy budnitz

 

DID THE SUN SHINE BEFORE YOU WERE BORN?

 

 

I found him at a low point in my life.
Jonas was not his real name. 


He was one hundred per cent male, I can attest to that.
And he liked to tell me I was one hundred and ten percent female, which made me feel good, like maybe that meant he thought my breasts were bigger than the ordinary. Even though they weren’t. He called me his brood sow, his nest egg. 


We had a courtship by correspondence.
I could tell by the way he crossed his t’s that he was a good listener.
I knew he was a clean man because his letters had white stains on them that smelled like bleach. 


He could see the future but he didn’t want to share it with them so they put him away for a while. He knew what he was doing. 
They made him wait. He made me wait. He taught me patience. 


When he got out I met him at the bus station. First time I saw him in the flesh I wanted to eat him up with my eyes. 


We went to his childhood home. He gave me a tour.
This is the bed I was conceived in, he said.
This is the kitchen area.
This is the fire escape.
This is my brother Howie.
This is my brother Howie.
Well, say something. 


I don’t know how to talk to children, I said.
Don’t stare. And he’s not a child, he’s got a disease.
What happened to his legs?
Wheels are more efficient anyhow. 


We moved in; our room had a perfect view of the city framed in the window. 
He bought me a parakeet.
He ate only foods with corners: saltines, pineapple cubes, meat in a square can.
Square meal, I said. 


I only said that once. Then I learned.


He was strong, he could do anything. He was a survivor. He was protective as a father. He held my hand when I walked on the curb. He made me a special set of copper underpants. There was an opening in them that could attach to the copper pipe he wore. There’s bad air these days, he said, it’ll make you sterile if you don’t block it out.


Sometimes he went away on business trips.
I stayed home and listened to his brother creaking up and down the halls.
Sometimes I missed him so bad I went around rubbing up against the furniture. 


Boyfriend run out on you? said Beverly from next door.
He’s busy.
You’d better shut that bird up, keeps me awake all night, she said. News on the radio is bad enough, don’t need to hear that squawking on top of it.
His name is William.
And put a leash on Mr. Hell-on-Wheels. Ran over my toes the other day. Doesn’t deserve to live. 


Jonas always came back.
I would wake up in the middle of the night on my side of the mattress and wonder what he would look like with no head. 


He stuck his finger in my mouth once. I sucked the nail clean off. He didn’t do it again. 


He broke things. A lamp. The bed frame. My glasses. The doorknob, so we were locked in. The mirror. The light switch. My pinky finger. Doesn’t know his own strength. 
One morning I pulled up the shade and the city was gone.
What did you do to the window? You broke it! I screamed.
But this time it was not his fault. 


We set up lawn chairs on the roof and watched the fires, the smoke rising, buildings leaning on each other like dominoes, bridges buckling, the funny halo around the sun, helicopters, the streets boiling with people.
It’s every man for himself now, Jonas said.
What are they doing?
Smashing windows, raping and pillaging, stealing TVs probably.
Will you go get one for me? Please?
No. 


Booming sounds during the night. Whistles, crashes, flashes of light. The walls trembled.
He can sleep through anything. His arm across my stomach so heavy I thought it was cutting off my digestion, but I wouldn’t move it for the world. My seat belt.
The morning sky was obscene, streaked yellow and brown like dirty underwear. 


Why are all those people sleeping right in the middle of the street? 
They aren’t sleeping, he said. 


We went out days later, after the fires had died down. It was quiet. People hid their faces from us and scuttled away. It felt like one of those veiled Arab countries. I thought the people were just being modest.
Then I got a look and saw that they didn’t really have faces anymore. 


Everybody has to make sacrifices, Jonas said. His stomach rumbled loud.
So Billy had to go. I twisted his little neck, pulled off all the feathers, stuffed him with the last tablespoon of rice, and roasted him. He looked like a doll-house Thanksgiving turkey.
I started to carve but Jonas reached out with his bare hand and shoved the whole thing in his mouth.
But the bones, I said.
It’s okay, he said crunching. I need the cadmium.
Calcium, I said.
Whatever. 


Where’s Howie? I said. 
He knows you don’t like him so he hides from you.
Nuh-unh. Let’s knock on Beverly’s door and ask if she’s seen him.
Her apartment smells like stew. 


Nice way to keep track of your own brother. Guess he’s gone, haven’t heard him creaking around for weeks. Or maybe he’s here and someone finally bothered to oil his wheelchair for once, did you ever think of that? Beverly says and slams the door. 


How does she stay so fat?
Big-boned, I said.
What does she find to eat?
I don’t know.
I saw Howie’s shirt in there, he said.
You’re imagining things.
I swear. 
Maybe she’s pregnant.
Her? 


There’s a bad cloud. We can smell it. It advances, recedes, comes closer again. Some kind of wind current keeps it from ever reaching us. A pocket of clean air. We’re protected, we’ve been chosen, Jonas says. 
We don’t leave the apartment at all. 


We’ve seen people who have been touched by the cloud, breathed it in or felt the shadow on their backs. They try to hide the burns but you can always tell. They call up at me from the street. Got clean water? they say. Got beans? Toss down a Newsweek? Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your—-
Don’t let them in, Jonas says.
Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin. 


Jonas said, They’re goners. It’s our duty, we’ll have to replenish the human race. Procreate. 


So we tried. 


And tried. 


And tried. 


He comes to me after we bury the last one.
Honey, he says all sweetness and kind. Honey, he says, be honest. You didn’t wear your special underpants like I told you to, did you? When I was out of town, when I was asleep, the night the city fell down—you took them off, didn’t you?
They gave me a rash, I say.
But I put on ribbons and pretty lace trim and everything.
I—
It’s your own fault your ovaltines and eucharist are all messed up.
My uterus.
Did you do it on purpose? Why? 
I love you.
I love you, too, he says, but I love my country more.
What country? Look outside, what country?
The human race then. 


What’s she doing here? And isn’t that Howie’s shirt she’s wearing?
Move over, Auntie Beverly’s moving in.
Where’s she going to sleep?
In the bed, of course.
Our bed?
He says: The way I figure it, all that fat probably insulates her eggs from the radiation. She’s protected herself, she’s been responsible. Not like some people. I’m sorry, Honey, but I’ve got the future to think of. 


The patch of earth where I buried them is all stirred up. As if someone hungry dug down to get them. Or maybe as if something not quite dead burrowed its way back to the surface. 


Beverly, do you love him?
Of course. Look at him. What’s not to love?
Does he ever talk about me?
Well . . . no.
Maybe if I got fat like you, he’d love me again.
That would be good, you should do that. You’re too skinny. You look smaller than Howie, and he was all tough and stringy, no good meat on him at all.
Maybe I should just leave.
No, no, stay. Put on some weight. We need you here.
Need me?
We’ll need your help. When the babies come. We’ll need help feeding the babies. You know how babies are.