The purple heart
We tried to get pregnant for three years. Nothing. The room in my body was empty. Yet shortly after Marty and I moved to Long Beach into the Craftsman, the house gave birth to a thousand brown scuttling bugs.
It was a solid little California house. We refinished the wood floors a deep cherry and gave the inside a few coats of brightening paint. Put small palm trees in pots in the backyard. We couldn’t afford new furniture yet. The couch sagged and the three, uneven, kitchen table legs were propped up with three cans of tuna.
A tilted uterus is not uncommon. It’s as natural as a double-jointed thumb, but it makes the environment volatile.
The earthquake happened the week before we moved in. It left tiny splits in the kitchen wall. Soon after, we discovered we had the visitors: flat, shiny and amber. They squeezed out of a tiny crack in the space between the kitchen cabinet and wall. We filled that crack in with caulking paste, but that seemed to bring them out tenfold, from other places, like plugging a hole in a hose to force another to spring open further down the line. We started noticing holes and cracks in places we hadn’t seen before.
Meanwhile, my belly remained silent. In the silence I noticed how fast the bugs were. They worked with purpose and meaning.
Upstairs, the tiny empty nursery. I had painted it a light blue. A hopeful sky. We put up Winnie the Pooh curtains and laid down a soft faux sheepskin rug. But no furniture filled it yet. Furniture was solid. We didn’t want to make plans like that.
When I told my Dad over the phone about the bug problem, he insisted on coming out here all the way from upstate New York and battling the little fellows himself. That’s what he called them anyway: “little fellows.”
In her senior years, Mom had taken up country line dancing at the community lodge and joined an experimental book group. She hiked in the woods on weekends and learned to cook Thai. Dad just collected stamps and played with his war medals.
Once he was in Vietnam as a sergeant. One night his bunker exploded into a giant star of flame and light as he tells it. He got the men out alive. Most of them, at least. He was a hero all right with his war injury: a piece of mortar shell embedded in his right tibia. He was sent home with a pair of beige crutches and a purple medal that I had witnessed him mention in conversation about three dozen times.
Dad broke his hip last fall and had to have it replaced. He claimed it occurred during a fishing accident while lunging for the big one, a huge wide-mouth bass. As wide as the back of a car as he tells it. He whacked his hip against the dock at the bay, but he got that bass all right. That wide-mouthed fish. Mom told me that he slipped on a patch of oil in the garage.
I can’t say my body was always empty. I got pregnant once a year ago, but it came back out again. My womb spit it out like a bad walnut. Marty said it couldn’t wait nine months to get into that tiny blue room. When he said it I sat on the couch and stared at my bare feet resting on the red wood floor. He brought me tea. Sitting there, I thought that maybe it didn’t like my crooked womb. The slant curved its shrimp-like body back around too far into itself until it hardened and decided to die. I waited until Marty went to sleep and stared at my knees and waited for the sound of the bugs, listened for the tiny busy feet in the dark.
It was Saturday morning when I heard the knock on our screen door. Dad was standing there, duffel bag in hand. “Hello, Tina.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked him, surprised. I wasn’t expecting him to show up so soon. It had been less than forty-eight hours since we’d spoken.
“I told you I’d come.”
“But I thought--” I stopped and watched him. He had already stepped inside, placed his army green bag on the floor and was looking around. To his wide back I said, “Never mind.”
“Where are the little fellows?” he asked, scanning the ceiling moldings, his eyes alight like he was watching for birds. I looked up with him almost expecting them to take sudden flight in a swarm across the ceiling.
“You can’t see them, but they are there.”
Dad picked up his bag again and nodded. “Sneaky. Sneaky.”
As we stood in the hall, a small roach clicked across the floor. The sergeant strode over, ceremoniously lifted his boot and stamped it. The bug lay, flattened. “I’ve already gotten a little fellow,” he said, nodding triumphantly over the hallway roadkill. He looked up. “They don’t know who’s in town now, do they?”
The next day Marty and I were sitting at the kitchen table with heavy mugs of coffee. The sunlight streaked the walls. “How long is he staying?” he asked, a sensible question.
“For a few days,” I lied. The truth was, I didn’t know.
Marty looked out the window and back at me. “It’s been exactly one year, a week from Friday.” The date of the lost walnut.
I wrapped my hands around the hot ceramic cup. Dad appeared in the doorway in an army jacket. On the lapel, the Purple Heart gleamed in the light.
From then on the house turned into a war zone. Dad began attacking the roaches, a one-man infantry. He filled an orange, plastic squirt gun with pesticide and carried it around in a pocket at his hip. He wore army pants with many pouches. When he’d see a brown bug he would pull it out of his pocket and spray: squirt squirt squirt.
All day he did this. I would hear it from the living room while sitting and reading a book: squirt squirt squirt. At night while Marty and I quietly and secretly had sex upstairs, we could hear it, faintly, down the hall: squirt squirt squirt. And a triumphant yell, “Gotcha!”
He began stalking them with a tiny flashlight in the dark, crouching and moving around the edge of the counter. I walked into the kitchen one night at four in the morning and flipped on the light. Dad stood from his crouched position and gave a satisfied nod. “I got twenty-five tonight. The night raid was a raging success.” He twirled the plastic gun at his replacement hip.
It was during the second week that things started to escalate. He climbed up a ladder and chipped a hole in the wall with the awl tool on his penknife to get a better look at what was going on. Standing up there, he peered into the plaster maw.
“What the hell are you doing?” Marty asked him. I knew better than to ask. I just sat and watched from the broken table and nodded.
“I’m getting a bird’s eye view,” he replied.
“A bird’s eye--what?”
“Just let a man do his job. Why don’t you do yours?”
“You heard me,” Dad said, tapping a knuckle at the plaster. “Your job. I’ve been waiting twenty-eight years for a grandson. What are you, shooting blanks?”
Marty stopped in his tracks. His body jerked one way, then the other. “Blanks? You think this is my fault?”
Dad twisted his neck around and looked him in the eye. “Are you saying there is something wrong with my daughter?”
“No, I just--”
“Then you’re shooting blanks.”
Marty stuttered. His mouth opened absurdly. He stood there. Finally, he left the room. Dad chipped happily away at the plaster.
Upstairs that night, Marty paced the bedroom in a rage. His dark hair drooped over his forehead. “What the hell does he think he’s doing? He’s cutting a hole in the damn wall.”
“He’ll patch it up,” I assured him, secretly hoping that he would. “Dad has a method. No one knows what it is. I’ll ask him not to cut holes anymore.”
Marty looked at me in disbelief. “He told me my dick was shooting blanks.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “Your little fellows are strong. Mighty.”
“Blanks. From the guy with a Purple Heart won by a glorified twisted ankle.”
“Tibia,” I said. “It was a piece of shell.”
“Whatever.” He threw up his hands, then took off his pants and walked around muttering in his underwear. “I’d be surprised if these things can even swim anymore with all that pesticide in the house.”
I smiled, but didn’t let Marty see. I held up a sheet.
Marty took a breath. “Tell him to stop insulting my sperm.” He put his hands on his hips. “They’re having a hard enough time with him around, crouching and spraying.” He imitated him, pretending to crouch and spray around the dresser. I took the sheet down and openly laughed.
The next afternoon, I caught Dad in the kitchen eating a banana when I came home from work. He wore a pale green shirt. His belly jutted out under the yellow peel. “Isn’t Mom going to want you back home soon?”
The orange dusk eased across the kitchen. “She doesn’t care. She’s got her Boot Scootin’ Boogie night down at the lodge.”
“I’m sure she’s wondering how you are. I’m going to give her a call.”
“You do that. She won’t give a damn. Probably be glad I’m out of her hair. She’s probably dancing in new boots and yucking it up with those hippies down there.”
“I doubt that,” I said, but I really didn’t know. I couldn’t picture Mom in her old Ronald Reagan tee yucking it up with hippies.
A female roach with an orange egg sack attachment scurried up the wall. “Get it Dad! There she goes.” Dad stood there, watching it scurry. “Why aren’t you shooting it? Shoot it.”
Dad closed his lips, clasped his hands behind his back, and just watched. “Women and children are spared,” he said. The roach made a brief mad dash and stopped, pausing, looking back at Dad. He pointed up at it. “It looks like she’s carrying a bright orange purse. You can’t just sneak up and take a lady’s purse. It’s not right.”
Brave, she sauntered the rest of the way up the wall and disappeared into a crack carrying fifty future roach children.
“It’s not a purse, Dad. It’s roach eggs.”
“Still,” he said. “You can’t kill a lady’s children.”
I watched him, silent. After that, he collected the ones with egg sacks in a jar. Every day he drove them a mile down the road to Seal Beach to release them in a field.
It was working. His diligence was startling. The bug population diminished. You could see it when you snapped on the light. Only one feisty roach would scamper across the counter before dropping, commando, behind the trash can to the linoleum.
Hopeful, I scoured the kitchen until it shimmered and opened the windows wide. I made a zucchini lasagna at Dad’s request to reward him for his hard work. Marty was wiping down the counter, swiping zucchini strips up in his sponge when Dad walked in. He shook the plastic gun at him. “Got weak sperm.”
“What?” Marty looked up but kept wiping.
“Eat some eggs,” Dad said. He opened the refrigerator, his hand gesturing around. “Meat. Put some spunk in your junk.”
Marty stopped dead in his tracks. His face purpled in mortification. I had never before seen him flush, even in the sweltering dead of summer.
Dad gripped his belly. “Man, I’m hungry.”
Stunned, Marty walked out of the room, shaking his head. He disappeared behind the doorframe. “Spunk,” he muttered. “In my junk.”
Dad looked at me and raised his thick eyebrows. “Guess some people can’t take a little advice.”
Marty reappeared in the kitchen. His face was still purple. “Advice? You think blaming our problems on me is advice?”
Dad looked from him to me and shrugged. “Advice never hurt anyone.” He pointed at him. “Be a man about it, why don’t you. Take your lumps.”
Marty stood, his thin legs propped apart. “I don’t need this,” he told Dad, shaking. “I don’t need this.” He leaned forward awkwardly and knocked the squirt gun out of Dad’s pocket. It clattered to the floor.
Dad looked at the plastic gun on the linoleum, fluid slowly spreading a giant pool around it. I looked too. I remembered the date. It was Friday, the one year anniversary.
I knew there was no reason to fight or mourn. It couldn’t be wished back into our world.
Looking up, I shouted, “There goes the queen!” Dad’s eyes searched the ceiling, his head twisting this way and that. His hands grabbed the air.
“She must have slipped in a crack,” he said.
Marty left the room. “Sweetheart,” I called, but he stomped up the stairs.
“Let him go.” The sergeant stood there in the kitchen, his arms hanging at his sides.
“Dad.” I took him by the elbow and lead him to the table. I poured a glass of heavy red wine and pushed it towards him. “It’s not Marty’s sperm.”
I straightened his napkin. “I had a miscarriage,” I told him. “I can’t hold the fertilized egg. My womb spits it out.”
Dad sat with his big hairy hands resting on the tablecloth. He blinked.
“It’s not the end of things. They say we have a fifteen percent chance.”
He stared out the dining room window. In the tiny garden, a crow sputtered and landed on a rock. Dad pushed himself back in his chair and stood. Facing the kitchen, he hiked up his belt. “I’m going to get the last of those critters.” Water filled his eye sockets. He went up to the guest room and didn’t come back out.
“Dad,” I said, knocking on his door a little later and pushing it open. It was dark. He fell asleep on his side in his clothes. His shoes, side by side, looked like docked boats on the blue comforter. “There’s lasagna in the fridge,” I told him.
“Ok,” he said with his wrinkled eyes closed.
The next few days he sprayed weakly. As he walked around, searching, the fluid dribbled from the gun. He lay on the couch for a few hours at a time. There wasn’t much sign of life in the walls of the house anymore.
“Mom,” I whispered on the phone. “Please talk to Dad. Ask him to come home.” I handed the receiver to him, and I guess that she did.
The next day he began to pack his bag. I asked him if I could help, but he said no. I waited and watched while he stacked his undershirts up on the bed. “I hope it wasn’t the chemicals from the war.” He folded his boxers. “It could have effected you.”
“I don’t think so,” I told him. “These things just happen.” Outside the door I heard Marty walk by the tiny sky-blue room. Dad paused, listening to him pass. I heard our bedroom door close.
Unpinning the metal heart from his lapel, Dad said, “My job here is done.” He placed the medal back in its velvety box and left it on the dresser. A small coffin of the past. Then came down to eat breakfast.
When he walked past me to the table, I stopped with a pan of eggs in my hand. I looked around the kitchen. There was a huge hole still in the wall. The table had three broken legs, now propped up with two books and a sneaker. I wondered what happened to the tuna. Despite the open windows, the kitchen was a light cloud of insect spray: Agent Orange for little fellows.
Marty came in and sat down, reluctantly. I did too.
At the table, Dad stuffed a triangle of buttered toast in his mouth. “Did you feel it last night?” he asked. There had been an earthquake in the very early morning. The house trembled. Moldings creaked. The red wood floors shimmied under the legs of our bed. After a moment the house was still.
I looked at him and nodded.
On the kitchen walls, tiny new cracks appeared. Inside of the cracks a hundred still roaches lay curled into their shells.
“More?” I said, offering him my toast, all the food on my plate. Anything I could give.
Dad shook his head. “It’s enough.”