Do You Want to Hold the Baby?

by Valerie Vogrin

Not really, no thank you, not one bit.

About ten years ago she'd given up on the idea of babies for herself, after three miscarriages and a divorce. Their noteworthy leakiness and stickiness and tendency toward dramatic mood swings was alarming when you spent your time almost exclusively in the grown-up world. If you couldn't have children you could have order, a cream-colored couch, a collection of porcelain teapots, the thick silence of a well-insulated house.

"Do you want to hold the baby?" As if she hadn't heard the first time.

They have never once waited for an answer, so confident of infant irresistibility. Always, one more pudgy green-swaddled he or she heaved toward her. How appalled they'd be if she kept her arms pinned to her sides!

Her young colleagues kept having babies, and Claire admired how well they maintained their professional strides, although she could do without the bulging bellies to be maneuvered around in narrow corridors and the mechanical hum and suck of breast pumping in the conference room. And then there are these evenings into which she's lured by the promise of well-chosen wine and savory morsels and adult conversation, a promise betrayed by the seemingly inevitable last-minute babysitter cancellation or spousal emergency (generally surgical or litigious), and the baby is part of the festivities after all.

"Here you go!"

The mother is holding the baby at the waist. Claire pastes on a smile and accepts the baby. She has no choice but to grab it beneath its arms. Her thumbs feel huge in those small hollows.

Usually she doesn't focus on the drooling face, the cartoon-wide eyes, the cowlicks and multiple chins. Babies are too much like caricatures to hold her attention. But this one reaches out to her, tips up its wide open face, cheerful as a daisy, as if expecting something from her. So she looks.

Its cheeks are round and blushed and delicate as a perfect teacup. Its skin is plush and nibbleable. A dumpling—she understands the endearment now. The baby is a fat, pink, dimpled dumpling. Claire doesn't know its age or name or gender. While these facts had been dispersed, no doubt accompanied by details regarding developmental benchmarks, percentiles, and sleeping and defacatory habits, she'd been redecorating her hostess's living room. The architecture is modern but the sofa and chairs are bungalow-plump and the side tables might be grandma's hand-me-downs. The bottom shelves of the white melamine bookshelves, holdovers from student apartments, perhaps, have been cleared.

The baby is beatific, something to inspire Italian masters—that golden glow of curls. Or maybe it's the plump arm, still reaching poignantly toward her face. The baby's other hand grasps her forefinger so tightly the fingertip is darkening.

Now those outreached fingers dart forward and seize her necklace—just something to grab, or irresistible, the intriguing lustre of the pink pearls. The hard round surfaces of individual pearls press into the skin on the back of her neck. The baby's fingers grasping, tugging, such a beautiful tension, the pull as the silk thread stretches and the tiny knots are tested.

Then, half the necklace breaks away. Pearls tumble over her chest and legs and drop to the floor. The baby bleats in surprise, releases the pearls in hand, Claire's finger. The rest of the necklace hangs limply, those pearls whose knots held. Claire's fingertip throbs.

The baby's mother blinks hard. Her voice is distraught. "I'm so sorry. I should have warned you." The other women fall to their knees to gather the pearls. The mother rummages beneath the picture books strewn on the coffee table. She pulls out a pacifier, wipes it on her pant leg, and jams it into the baby's mouth. The baby beams and sucks. Claire hears the mother's words, but can't make sense of them. She is so pleased for the baby—all the fuss this little person is capable of making! Yet a howl seems to rise up against the bars in her chest. No—she must retain her poise. If she cried now, she would be the ridiculous middle-aged woman weeping over a broken necklace and that isn't it at all.

The women are still on their knees, heads low to the blonde laminate flooring. Now the mother's arms are reaching to take the baby away.

Instead, she will be the woman who didn't raise an eyebrow when the pearls scattered like marbles. So cool, impossible to rattle. Still, it seems she must make a sound. This thing in her chest is rising, a disastrous pressure. At the very last moment she remembers—she could laugh. She lets loose a giant buoyant laugh as she watches a lone pearl meandering down the long hallway, perhaps on its way to the baby's room. Startled, the mother laughs in relief. The other women look at themselves, hip to hip like sheep in a pen. They open their hands, revealing a pearl or two in each palm. They laugh. How silly we are! They push themselves to their feet. Claire and the women gasp for breath as their laughter subsides. This long moment of breathing hangs open: it's been such a long time since anything has seized her.

Valerie Vogrin is the author of the novel Shebang (University Press of Mississippi, 2004). Her short stories have appeared in The Florida Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.