Title: Ninth-Month Midnight
Genre: women’s fiction
Author: Marie Bacigalupo
Purchase on Amazon
About the Book
Ninth-Month Midnight is contemporary women’s fiction with a paranormal twist. The novella focuses on Dolores Walsh, a bereaved mother who, hiding a guilty secret and verging on mental breakdown, defies her husband and her religion to get what she wants. With another pregnancy highly improbable, she wants the seemingly impossible: she wants her baby back. The loss has transformed Dolores into a zombie-like chain smoker who stays unwashed and unnourished until her husband, Joe, bathes and feeds her.
Enter Salvador Esperanza, a charismatic psychic who helps the grief-stricken communicate with their dead. Dolores cannot resist this new hope or the man who offers it. But in order to attend Sal’s séances, she must do battle with her jealous husband’s hard-core rationalism. When Sal decides to move on, only a miracle can save Dolores from the numbing despair that threatens her sanity.
About the Author
When Marie Bacigalupo was nine, she read Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins and was instantly hooked on fiction. She grew up to teach high school English before focusing exclusively on fiction writing, studying under Gordon Lish at The Center for Fiction, taking classes at the Writers Studio, and attending a number of university-sponsored craft workshops.
Marie won First Prize among 7000 entries in the Writer’s Digest 13th Annual Short-Short Story Competition with her entry, “Excavation.” Her other works have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Journal of Microliterature, The Examined Life Journal, Romance Magazine, and elsewhere. Ninth-Month Midnight is her debut novella.
The author is a native New Yorker who lives and writes in Brooklyn. Visit her at www.mariebacigalupo.com.
Connect with the author on the web:
A year has past, and still Dolores hates waking up to another day. The morning light pours, unwelcome, into her bedroom. Dolores feels her husband shift position behind her on the king-sized bed, his lanky six-foot frame extending only four inches beyond hers. She looks outside the open window where the first buds peek through the dogwood branches that front her Fresh Meadows Cape. April again. She fumbles for her pack of Salems on the dusty night table and knocks over the ashtray teeming with butts. Ashes scatter. The odor of stale smoke clings to the carpet, the linens, the furnishings, her clothes. No matter. She props herself on her elbow, lights up, drags deeply, and exhales with a raspy cough.
Dolores turns to her husband. “I can’t find her, Joe,” she whispers in his ear. “Today’s her birthday, and I can’t find her.”
Joe, his sandy hair tousled, faces his wife and draws her close. “I’ll run you a warm bath,” he says, then pushes himself off the bed. He walks barefoot in his jockey shorts to the bath that adjoins the bedroom. When the tub is half-filled, Joe walks back to Dolores, who allows him to draw the faded gown over her head and lead her to the tub. When her husband leaves, she reaches for the pack of cigarettes and lighter on the bathroom vanity. She has scattered cigarettes and lighters around her house and her person—on counters, tables, shelves, and niches, inside handbags and pockets—so they’re always in easy reach.
Ten minutes later, water streaming down her torso and legs, Dolores throws on a white terrycloth robe, and towels the dripping strands of her shoulder-length hair. She walks back into the bedroom, tripping on an area rug and knocking over a night-table photo of three-year-old Bertie at the beach, the child’s hands reaching out, hungry for all the wonders that life promised to serve up—rolling waves, billowing sand, boundless sky. She wears a powder blue playsuit. The wide-brimmed straw hat that protects her face against the high-noon sun has no power to shade her smile. Dolores runs an index finger over the plump cheek.
The sun no longer shines for Bertie. Now it’s always midnight.
Dolores loved being pregnant, and in labor she welcomed the searing pain and pounding pressure that pushed her baby home. She loved being a mother. Who is she now? she wonders. If both her parents were dead, she’d be an orphan, but her mother isn’t dead. If Joe were dead, she’d be a widow, but Joe isn’t dead. Her baby is dead. What does that make Dolores? There’s no word for her because mothers aren’t supposed to outlive their babies.
“Did the bath help?”
She replaces the photo on the table and shuffles into the kitchen, where her husband waits for her, as always willing her into his meaningless world, his eyes full of fear that she might slip away from him.
The white wood cabinets and yellow walls once made the kitchen warm and sunny; now they mock her grief. She sits at the white-tiled table under the pricey pewter chandelier, a relic of the time when she devoted a lot of money and most of her energy to making a home for her family.
A damp curl hangs over her cheek, obscuring one brown eye and a new pimple on her once flawless olive complexion. Joe winds the curl around his forefinger and tugs gently. He’s calling her back.
“I’ll be okay. Please stop worrying.” Dolores checks her pocket for a cigarette and finds one, bent but serviceable.
Her husband opens a window.
“Your mother called me at the office yesterday, said you keep pushing her away.”
“She spent weeks here a year ago. I couldn’t bear it, remember? All she did was follow me around the house and yak, yak, yak.”
“She loves you. She wants to help.”
“Let’s not talk about my mother.”
He waits a beat. “Okay. Let’s talk about our four o’clock appointment with Dr. Kaur. I’ll leave work early, meet you there.”
She says nothing.
“Dee? You were walking in your sleep again last night.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be all right.”
“Don’t worry? It’s been a year, and it’s not getting any better. You don’t even go to Church anymore. You used to find strength in your faith. I’m telling you, we need help. Give Dr. Kaur a chance, please.”
“I’m not ready for a shrink.” She flinches when he cracks a knuckle.
“It’s time, Dee, time to pick up the pieces. Maybe go back to teaching.”
“I have no interest in other women’s children.”
“Please don’t give up. You have to go on living.”
Dolores is sorry as soon as the word leaves her lips. Joe looks stricken. She knows it’s guilt, not empathy, she feels. No surprise, considering Catholic nuns used to be the voice of her conscience. Dolores can still hear Sister Ann’s last-chance admonitions before she entered a secular high school: Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost; keep it pure for the man you marry. And remember, a good wife supports her husband. She stopped listening to that voice when the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, all three of them, let Bertie die.
Maybe Joe’s pain should move her more than it does, but right now, she needs him to stop nagging. “Okay,” she says, “I’ll see Dr. Kaur.” Even though it’s pointless, a certainty she leaves unsaid.
When Joe leaves for work, Dolores remains at the table and thinks about her mother’s last visit. She recalls the time her mother was washing dishes, blocking her cigarette drawer. Dolores, standing behind her, addressed her by her given name. Did she mean to goad the woman? She’s not sure, but the reaction was instantaneous. Her mother spun around. “Don’t you call me Roseann!” she said, her voice rasping. “I’m your mother, so it’s Mom when you talk to me!” Dolores took a step back and mumbled an apology.
A week later Dolores put her on a plane back to Florida, though her mother resisted. “It’s better if I stay,” she said. “Your heart is heavy. Let me take care of you.”
“Joe’s made that his job. You’d put him out of work if you stayed.”
The truth is Dolores can’t overcome her bitterness toward Mom. The rift widened when her father died, though her mother saw to all his final needs and, she has to admit, was always an excellent caretaker. Dolores remembers when she caught the chicken pox and wanted to scratch her skin raw. Her mother dabbed calamine lotion on the rash and read Dolores’s favorite fairy tales again and again to distract her. After the stroke, she kept watch at her father’s bedside day and night, assisting the nurses, coming home only to feed Dolores and catch an hour or two of sleep. Still, as far as Dolores is concerned, the loving attention to her dad came too late.
Her head is starting to hurt. When her four o’clock appointment worms its way into her mind, Dolores has had enough. She gets up, returns to bed, and wills herself to sleep.
The taxi gets caught in traffic halfway over the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge. Hopelessly immobilized in a cab reeking of pot, Dolores regrets her decision to keep the appointment with the psychiatrist. She’s stuck in a bumper-to-bumper lineup. Frustrated drivers crane their necks, step out of their cars, fling epithets, but accomplish nothing. The cabbie, taking it all in stride as the meter keeps ticking away, hums along to lilting West Indian music.
It takes half an hour to cover the short span of the bridge. Dolores decides to get some air by walking the last few blocks to Park Avenue. The gentle breeze, though, does nothing to lift her spirits. And why should it? April is the cruelest month, the poet said. It promises life and warmth forever, but before you know it, the darkness and cold return. She forces herself to focus on the street numbers. The doorman greets Dolores as she approaches the Park Avenue building that houses a half-dozen high-priced doctors, including Kaur. She hesitates in the lobby. Just get it over with.
Exiting the building elevator, Dolores finds the door marked Afifa Kaur, M. D., and enters an office with upholstered period chairs and a rich walnut coffee table displaying late issues of Architectural Digest and Forbes Magazine. She recognizes a print of Hopper’s Cape Cod Afternoon on the wall. Inside the sitting area, Joe is waiting and greets her with a kiss. Dolores leaves her name with the puppy-eyed receptionist, who looks fifteen but is probably closer to twenty-five, young enough to make her feel old. Joe hands Dolores the partially completed paperwork.
She steels herself for the tedious task of completing multiple forms. Opposite her, a wan middle-aged woman reads a hardcover edition of “The Metamorphosis.” She looks up from her book once, dead eyes meeting dead eyes, and returns to Kafka. “If I’m not called in fifteen minutes,” Dolores says to Joe, “I’m out of here.”
She barely has time to complete the questionnaire when a strikingly attractive woman, black tendrils escaping a tight bun, calls her name. Under a white lab coat, the doctor wears a black skirt-suit that is custom-tailored to downplay her full figure. Dolores grabs Joe’s hand, and she walks into a room where a floor-to-ceiling bookcase shelving medical texts, their spines neatly stacked, lines the back wall, and period chairs posture like peacocks on either side of a fireplace. If the doctor is striving for a homey look, she isn’t succeeding. Brass andirons straddle the fireplace, and a gorgeous mantelpiece of ivory filigree frames it. Behind the doctor’s over-sized mahogany desk, eight-foot French windows open inward.
“I hope, for your sake, the insurance picks this up,” she whispers to Joe.
“Sit, please,” says the doctor, pointing to the chairs in front of the desk. She takes a seat behind it. “We spoke briefly on the phone, Mr. Walsh, when you called on behalf of your wife. Tell me again how I can help.”
“My wife and I lost Bertie, Roberta, our little girl, a year ago,” says Joe. “My wife needs help picking up the pieces of her life.”
The psychiatrist fixes her black eyes on Dolores, whose own eyes dare the doctor to comment.
“Do you agree with your husband, Mrs. Walsh?”
“I guess so.”
“You are not sure?” she asks, using the precise diction of a non-native speaker.
“I don’t know.”
The doctor turns to Joe. “Mr. Walsh, since your wife is the patient, I will ask you to leave the room.”
Joe, about to protest, looks to Dolores for a reaction. When he gets none, he squeezes her hand. “I’ll wait outside,” he says, and closes the door behind him.
Again Dr. Kaur fixes her penetrating eyes on Dolores. “He seems like a loving husband.”
“The two of you obviously share burdens. Do you make time for leisure activities?”
“Joe tries, but he works long hours.”
“How do you spend your time when Joe is working?”
Dolores is confused. “I don’t know. Waiting for it to pass, I guess.” She runs her fingers through hair the color of bitter chocolate, then checks the spaces between her fingers. At least it’s stopped falling out.
“You look tired. Do you sleep nights?”
“Night and day. The sleep of the dead, at least for a few hours.”
“Are you taking sleep medication?
“Mrs.—May I call you Dolores?”
“Seconal is a dangerous drug. How long have you been taking it?”
Since . . . no . . . a couple of months after . . . I forget. I need another prescription. Can you write me one?”
“No. It is not good for you. Tell me, please, do you dream?”
Dolores hesitates. “Maybe.”
“I’m not sure it’s a dream. Sometimes I sleepwalk.”
“Please describe what you say may or may not be a dream.”
“I hear my baby crying, but I can’t find her. I search through the house, but I can’t find her.” Dolores bends over in her chair, her knees at her chest.
“How did Bertie die?”
“Yesterday was her birthday. She’s . . . she’d be five years old.”
“How did she die?”
“She had a cold.” Dolores almost giggles, but catches herself in time. Whenever she laughs or cries, she can’t stop until Joe talks her down.
“She died of a rare cancer. The tumor was in the sinus cavity. At first we thought she had a cold.” She clears her throat. Maybe if we had caught it earlier . . .”
“Did you want a child?”
“I wanted nothing more out of life, but we waited till Joe’s career got started–he’s a CPA–and then till his school loans were paid off. In the beginning I suggested we use the rhythm method—that means abstaining from sex during fertile cycles. The Church condemns all other forms of birth control as mortal sins. But Joe made a joke of it. ‘Know what they call people who practice the rhythm method? Parents!’ he said. So I went on the Pill, and every First Friday eve I confessed to Father Tom, my parish priest. I’d say the usual ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys till the next time, when I’d make the same confession. Pretty soon I realized I was making a sham of the sacrament. A person has to be truly penitent to be absolved of sin; you can’t keep committing the same sin and expect God to forgive you. So I stopped going to Confession. And then came the payback: by the time it was okay to conceive, I couldn’t get pregnant . . . eight precious years wasted. Finally, we went to a reproductive specialist.”
“What was the problem?”
“My cervical opening was too small.”
“Please go on.”
“I had an operation to correct it, but the improvement was minimal. Next came injectable hormones followed by endless temperature monitoring, the rhythm method in reverse: wait till the fertile period, then rut like animals. The sex was joyless. Every month the blood flowed. Finally someone decided to test Joe. Turns out he has a low sperm count.”
Dr. Kaur keeps her silence.
“The Almighty seemed to be punishing us for our arrogance. We had waited too long. Already thirty-two years old, I would never have a child. But then the miracle happened. I thought God had forgiven me.”
“Do you feel responsible for your daughter’s death?”
“Oh, God, Doctor! That’s so glib! Of course, I feel responsible. I’m her mother. I’m supposed to protect her.” Her broken nails cut into her upper arms. It feels good.
“What did you do wrong?”
“We shouldn’t have waited so long. My eggs got old.”
She can’t continue. She takes time to get herself under control.
“Sometimes I hear her calling me . . . she was talking at two, so bright, my baby, so smart . . . I see her in her Hello Kitty romper. I smell her sweetness. It’s like she’s almost a ghost. I want her to be a ghost. I want her to haunt me, but she’s gone before she fully materializes.”
Dr. Kaur stirs. “Right now you miss your child acutely. You will never forget your child, nor should you, but you can learn to live with your loss, and even in time to take satisfaction in what the world offers.” The psychiatrist ignores Dolores’s twisted grin. “Grief is a process that the bereaved must undergo in stages in order to heal. The danger is getting stuck in one of the stages, in your case despair, and never recovering.”
Dr. Kaur underscores her words with hand gestures, her fingertips adorned by an elegant French manicure. “Right now you are convinced beyond a doubt that you will never be happy again. But if you are patient and kind to yourself, and cooperate with those who would help you, you will one day value life again.”
Dolores hates the doctor’s facile lecture. She rises from her chair. She needs to get out of the office.
Dr. Kaur looks up from her seat behind the desk. “Before you bolt, may I ask what made you come to see me today?”
“Joe. He’s worried that I’m losing my mind, that I’ll do something desperate.”
“Does he have reason to worry?”
“You’re the psychiatrist, you tell me.”
“Those scars on your wrist are not too faint for a doctor to read.”
The antique wall clock ticks off the passing seconds. Kaur’s words have conjured a lurid scene: Only half conscious at the time, Dolores remembers the blood spurting from her wrists, swirling in the bath water, spilling over onto the tiles as she lay face up on the floor. Joe, blue eyes bulging, racing into action, wrapping her wrists, sobs racking his body. Then a shrieking ambulance, jouncing bumps, probing needles, blackness swallowing her.
The doctor breaks the silence. “Those scars tell me your husband has cause for concern. I advise you to get off the Seconal. Barbiturates may be causing some of your symptoms. Sleepwalking and vivid dreams are documented side effects. The drug has even been known to trigger hallucinations.
“I’d like to see you again soon, say in a week. You can make an appointment with Miss Bell at the desk, or call the office at your convenience. For now I am going to prescribe medication to ease your depression.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. My feelings are all I have left of Bertie.”
Kaur writes the prescription and, rising, hands it to Dolores. “Think about filling this. It will make you feel better.”
The psychiatrist continues speaking as she escorts Dolores to the door. “Dr. Kindry tells me he gave you a list of bereavement groups in Queens. I urge you to choose one that is convenient and join.” With her hand on the doorknob, she gives Dolores a final piece of advice. “Build up your physical strength. You need at least another ten or fifteen pounds to support your tall frame. Eat regularly, exercise. The body and the mind work together in the healing process.”
As far as Dolores is concerned, she’s done her part. She has seen the psychiatrist. With a formal handshake, she thanks Dr. Kaur and walks out, ignoring Miss Bell and leaving Joe to make a more gracious exit.
Dolores regards Joe’s decision to take a taxi back to Queens as a second exercise in futility. This one forces them to endure the screeching decibels of angry horns and the unintelligible curses of a cabbie brandishing his middle finger.
Joe sits quietly beside Dolores. She knows what’s on his mind and steels herself to ward off his appeals. His final goodbye to the psychiatrist involved an inaudible exchange. Sure enough, even sooner than expected, Joe speaks up.
“A bereavement group makes sense, Dee.” He lists the benefits: she can find out how other people cope; she can talk to mothers who understand; she won’t feel so alone and hopeless.
“I don’t need other people. I need Bertie.” The hurt look on his face annoys her.
When they finally arrive home, Joe wants to talk, but Dolores needs a nap. He helps her out of the worn black coat they picked out together in another life and follows her into the bedroom. Dolores stands motionless as he unbuttons the coffee-stained white blouse and draws it off her arms.
“Dee, please. We need help; we need to learn how to live again.”
“I’m so tired, Joe. Let’s not talk now.”
“We have to talk. You want to give up, and I won’t let you!” He sits her down on the bed, and kneels to remove her scuffed loafers and peel off wrinkled jeans. She smells his pungent after-shave as his lips brush the nape of her neck, and she feels his swelling need against her thigh. She allows his hands and tongue to probe the mounds and recesses of her body in search of comfort; she herself is beyond comfort. He enters her, then heaves his body in desperate lunges. A final frantic thrust brings release. His muffled words moisten her neck. “Dee, Dee, I can’t lose you both.”
“Okay, Joe,” Dolores says, “we’ll try the support group. But, please, don’t expect too much.”