Short Fiction ~ Jackie Bayless
She had never done anything like this before. She felt reckless and reprieved, saved from the stifling air of the little room at the highway checkpoint. Two hours, they had told her, two hours until the bus would arrive to take her home to West Berlin. Two endless hours of shifting sweaty thighs on an inadequate plastic chair. Two hours to spend either outside, in the draining sunshine or inside on that sticky chair.
How she longed for a shower and clean clothes, to stretch out on her bed, propped by pillows, to sip a cool lemonade, to revel in frigid air conditioning. She could feel perspiration trickling down her back, under her breasts and arms, into the crack of her bottom. Her dress clung to her enormous belly. The baby lay quiet within her, seemingly as enervated by the heat and humidity as she was.
It was her belly that had given her the courage to smile at him. She was a pretty woman. Dark haired and voluptuous. It made her normally shy with men, always hesitant to smile or to speak, afraid her intentions would be mistaken. But her bulk protected her. This great belly allowed her to smile and to speak to the man with the smiling eyes who had come into the checkpoint to purchase some sodas. She’d looked up from the week-old newspaper she’d been thumbing through and her blue eyes met his brown ones.
He was a small man, dressed neatly and for the weather, in tan pants and a pale blue oxford cloth shirt, with the sleeves rolled carefully to the elbow. He offered her a soda, the can beading with perspiration seconds after it left its cold womb.
They chatted. They spoke of the heat of the day and what a shame that her car had broken down, and yes, she certainly was eager to get home. A husband waiting, of course, and two little girls? He flashed a pleased smile at her, three and five, how very nice.
And he? Traveling home as well. A German businessman and, what a coincidence, he, too, had two daughters waiting at home. And she was surely an American? Yes, and living in Berlin for two years.
And when he offered escape from this oppressive little room and the interminable wait for the bus, it seemed natural to follow him out to the relief of his navy Mercedes, parked in the deep shade of an oak tree. He watched her settle herself against the cool, dark leather and closed the door with a solid, expensive thud. They would be in Berlin in one hour, he said, leaning forward to click on the radio. American rock and roll flooded the car. He turned the air conditioning to maximum. The cold air rushed out at her, lifting her hair from her shoulders and billowing her maternity dress to a greater fullness. She could feel the perspiration drying on her body, her limbs relaxing as the cool air blew away her tension and her exhaustion. The glare of the sun on the windshield suddenly disappeared as large, dark clouds piled one upon the other. She could faintly hear the low growl of thunder through the thick glass of the Mercedes. The tops of the trees that lined the roadside were beginning to toss in the stiffening breeze.
Home. She closed her eyes and thought about what the girls would be doing now. She missed them. She’d flown out of the house on Friday morning, desperate to escape domesticity. Michael had urged her to go. She should visit her friend Barbara, he said; soon enough she would be inundated by the demands of a new infant. She was to spend the weekend pampering herself. And she had checked the electrical system in her car, hadn’t she? She had avoided a direct reply. It was working fine she had assured him and it had been. She just hadn’t had time to have it properly checked before her trip, but it hadn’t stalled in over a week—she was quite sure it would be all right.
She opened her eyes. The sky was getting darker. Flashes of lightning illuminated the bellies of the rain-filled clouds. She started as he touched her bare arm.
“Would you care for another cold drink?” he asked. He pointed to the cooler on the floor behind her seat.
“Thank you, maybe a little later,” she said. “You know how we pregnant ladies need to stick close to the bathroom.”
He smiled and acknowledged that he certainly remembered that aspect of his wife’s pregnancies.
The music stopped. They were only about twenty minutes from West Berlin now. The news came on. Absently she listened to the drone of the reporter’s voice. She was saying something about the Bader-Meinhoff. Another explosion. As the reporter began to provide descriptions of the suspects, the radio abruptly clicked off and the car began to slow.
She looked at his hand on the radio controls. It was trembling slightly. He was staring intently at the rearview mirror, his smiling eyes gone suddenly flat. Startled, she twisted in her seat to see what he stared at.
“Smile,” he said.
“What?... What’s wrong?”
“Smile,” he quietly repeated. “You are my wife. We are returning home from a weekend visit. You are tired and near your time. Everything will be fine.”
She was going to be sick. She could taste bile rising in her throat. The car ground to a halt. He pushed a button and the window slid smoothly open.
The wind in the trees was deceptive. Hot, humid air struck her face. In the sideview mirror, she could see a policeman walking toward the car. She couldn’t breathe. The air was so close, it was like trying to breathe underwater. The baby pushed against her diaphragm. Suddenly she was angry. How foolish to assume that the power of her maternity would protect her like some sort of amulet. The policeman was almost at the car. She couldn’t speak normally. She couldn’t.
“Guten Tag,” she said.
“Guten Tag, Fraulein,” the officer responded, then glancing into the car, stiffly corrected himself. “Frau.”
He barked a question at them. She feigned exhaustion, closing her eyes. She could hear them talking back and forth, all of it incomprehensible, her knowledge of German suddenly gone. Dimly she realized the officer was telling them to wait. She watched in the mirror as he marched back to where he had parked his motorcycle. He wore high shiny black boots and a gun was strapped to his thick waist. She could see him talking into a radio.
A sudden gust of wind rocked the car, a gust so strong it threatened to tip the heavy motorcycle behind them. The sky darkened perceptibly. The air felt cool and smelled deliciously wet. Fat drops began to fall, sizzling as they hit the hot pavement.
The officer looked up from his radio and hesitated. Then shrugging, he signaled that they could proceed.
The drops became a torrent, hitting the ground with tremendous force, splashing back up at her. He hit the button and the window slid shut, enclosing her with him. The rain drummed on the roof. Inside the car the silence reverberated. She felt a sharp urge to urinate and sweat poured from every crevice of her body. The baby turned within her.
He turned the key and steered the car back onto the highway.
It was five o’clock. At home, her children would be having quiet time before dinner, either reading books or coloring with crayons as they waited for her to come home from Barbara’s. Michael would pour himself a single, icy glass of Reisling and read the newspaper, absentmindedly monitoring the squabbles between the girls until the level of shrieks got his full attention. Then he would down his paper and very seriously choose a page to color with his little girls.
“It’s not what you think,” he said.
She looked at him. His eyes were smiling again.
“I can see that you are frightened and I am sorry. There was nothing wrong, you see, just a routine and random car check. You must know that happens in East Germany. You’ve traveled on this road before.”
Yes, that was true.
“My name is Levine. Did you not note that when we met? Unfortunately there is still anti-Semitism here so sometimes when I travel, I use altered papers. It’s just to avoid the hassles, you understand?” He smiled. “We’re close to Berlin and bathrooms. Would you like that cold drink now?”
She smiled back, eager to be reassured. And she was. She was foolish. How could she think this businessman on his way home to his own little girls was anything but what he seemed.
She reached awkwardly behind the seat, feeling for the clasp of the cooler, her fingertips
brushing the lush carpeting of the floor mat. She twisted in her seat so she could reach the cold drinks, leaning more heavily on her fingers buried in the thick carpet. It was unmistakable—her fingers pressed into something long and rigid, hidden beneath the floor mat. She sat very still, but he must have sensed her sudden tension. He looked at her, the smile in his eyes suddenly flickering out again.
She didn’t say a word. He leaned over and gently rested his fingers for a moment on her belly.
“You’ll be home in a few minutes,” he said.
Jackie Bayless is a writer living in Laguna Niguel, CA. She has written newspaper and magazine articles for publications ranging from the Washington Post to Mission Critical Communications. Her short story, “The Red Suit,” was published in The Wall, a literary publication of Saddleback College.