Buick DeGaulle did not turn his head in time after he belched.
“Babe, please,” Glory complained from the kitchen floor underneath him. After six months of marriage, she was almost immune to the stench of bratwurst and white onions. But almost only counts in horseshoes, and now, with a child on the line, she was playing to win.
“Sorry,” he panted. “Here I come.”
Once he finished, Buick muscled out three quick push-ups, kissed her nose on the last one, and sprung up to grab the pretzels and pub cheese. Glory lay supine, willing her body to work like it should. When he returned to the floor with his snack, her legs were in the air, helping their unborn baby find the way home.
“What are you doing?”
“Just stretching my back,” she said.
Buick mopped his forehead. “I didn’t hurt you, did I? You’re getting so dang skinny.”
“Thank you, honey.” Truth was, she had halved her calorie intake during the last six months to prepare her body for a child. She ate only two meals a day now and one of those was a nonfat latte for breakfast. Sometimes, just to keep her mouth busy, she’d snack on ice cubes, a trick that made her feel full without adding any extra calories. In fact, the very motion of sucking on them burned calories. It was like cleaning the house for a new guest: The less she ate, the more inviting it would be for newcomers.
Glory remained on her back, curled on the sliver of checkered linoleum in their kitchen. Like their Milwaukee one-bedroom, it was what they could afford, especially since they’d finally started trying for a baby. Well, technically they hadn’t hashed out the specifics yet. Although they both wanted children, they’d never agreed on the timing. Buick insisted on health insurance, which his job at Radio Shack and hers filling in at the salon didn’t provide, while Glory craved the whole brood (plus a chain of congratulatory parent-teacher conferences and a Christmas card with everyone grinning in jeans and white turtlenecks) right now.
During her weekly inspection on their honeymoon in Honolulu, she’d tweezed eleven wiry grays from her scalp and it was as if all the clocks in her body had struck, a loud and public tolling. Her bridesmaids already had at least one child each; her maid of honor had three.
“Before we turn thirty,” she’d pleaded with Buick after bowling league the week they got back. “We don’t want to run out of chances.”
Of course, he had never said that he was ready, but his brown eyes implied it, she knew them well enough. They stood there that night, just like they’d done during high school, swaying in the lake breeze, their bodies twined in a wordless pact that echoed the deepest beats of her heart.
Buick dunked his pretzels and stared at the black gash where the front door always slammed. “We’ve got to patch that hole already. It’s embarrassing.” Behind the plastic ficus, the hole gaped, a stale yawn into the drywall, their lives.
“I know.” She began the Lamaze breaths she’d finally perfected—in through the nose, out through the mouth—to calm her excitement. Their baby could be inside her right now. She had to stay relaxed, so she imagined how she’d decorate the nursery: all greens and browns, a woodland scene with two wide-eyed fawn decals sipping from a sparkling stream. The soothing came like a cool hand to the forehead.
Bringing her legs down, Glory clenched her pelvic muscles in quick sets to make sure her son—or daughter, but hopefully a son that they would name Hershel after her dead father—would get to where he needed to go. Hershel DeGaulle. It sounded better than blue-collar. At every barbeque, the DeGaulle aunties teased Buick about his moniker (“Because that’s where you were made, baby boy”), and he’d vowed to give his own kid a better one.
“Thirsty?” he asked, hunching in front of the refrigerator.
He poured himself a glass of milk and then a glass of tap water for her. “I’m liking this frisky new you.” After downing his milk in three gulps, he let out a long sigh at the end.
Glory sipped her water silently.
Later that morning at the card table they used as a dinette, Glory and Buick surveyed their piles. By keeping their bills right out in the open, they hoped that the visual presence would be a nagging yet effective reminder to make more money. Masking tape divided the table into two heaps: to be paid and past due.
Glory flipped through the receipts, tapping numbers into the calculator without even looking. Her bookkeeping skills were impeccable, which was one reason she knew she’d be a great mother. She also liked to organize, make lists, and map out each week’s social plans on the calendar. She was at her best when she was in control.
“Are we going to make rent this month?” Buick asked while his cell phone buzzed.
“It’ll be tight.” Glory sighed. “Answer it already.”
“Sterling!” He scurried into the bedroom to talk to his younger brother.
According to her calculations, they would have fifty-three dollars for the week after they paid rent, two Discover bills, the lease for their dented Kia, Buick’s parking tickets, and the rest of their wedding vendors. Glory smoothed her palms up and down her legs, her fingers sliding along the sharp shin line, noting the prickly parts where the Nair had missed. She snuck in a few leg lifts under the table to relax. Each movement burned one calorie that put her closer to her child. Soon enough, she’d find out if this month’s efforts had paid off. Just the thought of baby powder gave her the energy to do twenty more lifts.
Buick ducked back into the kitchen. “Sterling’s coming over for dinner.”
She glared at him. “Do we have enough food?”
“He’s blood, Glory.”
“And you can’t deny blood.”
Sterling arrived at the apartment with automotive fanfare. Although Buick loomed at six foot four and had to duck under doorways, his younger brother was squat, which he made up for with a monster truck and a steady diet of protein shakes. The truck was a rolling showcase of gold airbrushed flames and bobbling devil heads mounted to the dashboard; tucked in the center console was a box of lambskin condoms. Sterling had worked day and night construction jobs to get his frame raised so he could look down on traffic, even though he had to use a crate just to get in the cab.
“Come here often?” Sterling drawled.
“Did two hours ago, if you know what I’m saying.”
Glory closed her eyes. “I can hear everything.”
Sterling strode the three steps from the front door to the kitchen table. “Hey, little mama.”
“You smell like whores.”
“Sounds about right.”
As soon as he kissed the crown of her head, Glory panicked, worrying that he’d mussed the strategically placed strands covering the thin sections. She had lost some hair lately, catching stringy brown clumps that dropped like waterlogged mice when she was in the shower. And that was another reason they had to have a baby soon.
Sterling groaned. “You would not believe my night.”
“You actually remember it this time?” she asked.
“Not really. But this helps.” He pulled down his collar, exposing a cluster of hickeys.
Buick laughed and high-fived his brother. “So it’s Planned Parenthood for the second date then?”
“Always.” With the foam cheesehead from the back of their couch, Sterling strutted like the Packers had just scored. Then he took the milk carton from the refrigerator and helped himself to a pint’s worth.
Catching knife-eyes from Glory, Buick slammed the refrigerator shut. “Sterling, save some for us, will you?”
“You guys are idiots.” She stormed toward the bathroom.
Buick smacked his brother. “Don’t make it worse.”
Shaking, Glory gripped the bathroom sink. She kept a bottle of baby shampoo in the shower as motivation, so she took several calming inhales of it. Once she was certain Buick and Sterling were busy watching motocross in the living room, she started in with her weekly inspection.
Her thighs had fluctuated over the years, leaving plum-colored claw marks along the curve of her hips as if her body was trying to escape itself. She removed her shirt. Then her pants. And then her bra, and once she was topless, she jiggled. What was the point of having this equipment if she wasn’t going to use it? If they didn’t act quickly, it would all go to waste. She sucked in, noting how her body still dimpled in places other than her cheeks, as if she were just a thin plastic bag stuffed with too many groceries. She did four reps of calf-raises, four sets of wall-sits, and then she hooked her fingers onto the sides of her panties, tugging them to her ankles to see if she could find anything else that needed work. Glory paused.
In her underwear was the wrong answer to all her questions. She reached for the tampons under the sink.
Glory let Buick play with her hair in bed that night. Moonlight seeped through the skylight and when he noticed her crying, he cradled her, proving he wasn’t afraid of tears, which would come in handy if they accidentally had a daughter. She let herself get scooped. Since she’d been more prone to the chills lately anyway, it felt good to nestle herself in his chest hair, to smell him and be so small.
“I know this is a tough time for you right now,” he said.
She nodded. Six months of trying with nothing to show. Plus, she’d tweezed another nine gray hairs.
“We’re working so hard for this and it’s just not happening,” he said. “But it will, don’t worry. We’ll just work harder.”
“Okay, baby.” Glory liked when he became husbandy and powerful, another reason he’d be a good father. She pictured Hershel as a teenager sneaking out of the house, Buick reprimanding him with a stern voice and a firm hug. Forgiveness warmed her as she sunk into his brawn, his breath.
“I mean it,” he said. “I’m really going to try. I want this.”
“Definitely. I’m tired of penny-pinching and having holes in the apartment and not being able to bowl anymore. It’s time for us to get serious. For me to step up and be a man.”
It was as if he had read and memorized the secret script inside her. “I’m so happy you say that, Buick. I didn’t realize how much I wanted a child until recently.”
“Well, that’s a whole other topic,” he said. “Let’s just focus on this first.”
“Money. I had a chat with Sterling while you were in the bathroom and it’s time I put my best asset to work.”
“Nothing’s working out like we thought it would,” he said. “I can’t find a job that makes me happy and you aren’t making a ton filling in at the salon, so why waste more time? I decided to do what I’m good at and give competitive eating a real go. And not just stupid county fair challenges, either. I’m going pro—for you, me, and our future.” He patted the firm barrel of his abdomen.
“And you think that’ll get us where we want to be?”
“Why can’t you trust me?”
“I do, Buick. But time’s ticking.” She imagined his body going soft, his focus going to the left of her. And more waiting.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Besides, you think this dump is ready for a baby?”
Sterling showed his support for Buick’s new career by coming over every night to talk strategy. He also ate all their food, watched their cable, and inevitably used their last clean towel—so many extra costs that could have been avoided if he just chipped in forty-five dollars each month. But Buick wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he made a big deal thanking Sterling for the frozen pizzas or gas station sandwiches he brought for dinner.
“You have to do it just like Kobayashi,” Sterling said one night, showing Buick video clips of the Japanese eating champ. “That guy’s a third your size and can eat your entire body weight in burgers. You’re better off not chewing. Just swallow things whole.”
“Maybe he’s not ready for that yet,” Glory said, frowning from the kitchen.
“Buick’s a big boy.”
So Buick started small with plain donut holes, dunking them in water before shoving them toward the dark horseshoe of his throat. Once he could control his gag reflex, he began training without water, and when he was comfortable swallowing unchewed pieces, he moved on to chicken wings. Because bones and hot sauce were involved, though, the wings were his biggest challenge, so he expanded his stomach to fighting size by loading up on shredded cabbage between sessions. “If I’m facing twelve thousand calories in one sitting,” he’d say, “I’ve got to stretch this gut to the size of a football.”
Glory watched him practice, his lips opening wider than his smile, his tongue wet and welcoming. The stress of money and babymaking and being the perfect mother had stifled her appetite, like someone had shoved a dry napkin down her throat. No more casseroles, or cheese curds, or even State Fair cream puffs. No more nachos grande for lunch. And worse, no more Friday night fish fries. They couldn’t afford these luxuries anyway, though the cravings would spike with such fury that she once considered using her bumper to nudge a paraplegic through the crosswalk so she could buy fudge-covered cookies before the Piggly Wiggly closed. To support her husband, Glory ate shredded cabbage dinners, too.
“That’s not much, hon,” Buick said one night before Sterling arrived. “Don’t you want something more?”
She glanced at the way her tank top clung to her flat stomach. Then she caught her watch: 6:51p.m. She just knew she was ovulating and realized her intuition was yet another reason she’d make a good mom. Glory could sense when a rainstorm was coming and when the pork roast was done before the timer even buzzed. Hurrying to the couch, she started undressing. “I do.”
“Can’t I finish my dinner first?”
Glory stripped off her pajama shorts. “We can do it standing to mix it up.”
“I’m not really feeling it right now. Maybe later?”
“How much longer would you like me to wait, Buick?” Remembering she was topless, she sucked in her stomach.
His silence shouted.
“I just meant you haven’t entered any contests yet.” Thankfully, she had on her good bra, so she angled her breasts toward him to salvage the moment. “Come on, baby. We can add the living room wall to our list of places we’ve done it.”
Sighing, Buick plucked the cabbage strands from his lips and trudged to his wife.
As they bounced against their wedding portraits, she remembered the cellulite that must be rippling across her thighs. If he could see the ugly stuff, he probably wouldn’t want to touch her anymore. And then she wouldn’t get pregnant, and then all her aunties and cousins and neighbors, who were always six months and glowing, would secretly look down on her as less than a woman, or worse, as That Woman Who Can’t Have a Baby, Poor Thing. Glory lowered her hips to make the dimples less noticeable.
“Can’t get a good grip on you,” Buick said, squeezing her tighter.
She imagined his fingers disappearing into the pitted skin of her thighs until he was knuckle-deep in all her fat, too disgusting to touch. Buick’s body had turned doughy lately, but he still felt dense and strong, like a sack of rice. He could wear his extra weight as a medal of manhood—it was so easy for men. She wondered how many calories she’d burned.
Head back, mouth slack, Buick was close to finishing. Glory always liked to watch his climax because she wanted to remember exactly what his face looked like at the moment they made their baby. It would be her private snapshot.
He pulled out of her. “I can’t do this.”
“Don’t waste it.” Wiggling back into her pants to hide her nasty flab, Glory then dropped to the floor so she could get her legs in the air. There had to be a little inside her still. She rolled back even farther than usual, ensuring Hershel had plenty of opportunity to make himself comfortable.
“We were almost there.”
“I wasn’t. You’re getting so weird about sex nowadays.” He frowned at her contorted body. “And why do you keep doing that? Does your back hurt again?”
Staring into the gash by the door, Glory wondered how cold it was inside and if it reeked, damp and moldy. “A bit.”
“You should get that checked out.”
Sequestered in the bedroom that night, Glory reread chapters of What to Expect While You’re Expecting while Buick and Sterling studied Joey Chestnut’s eating technique and drank in the living room. She looked at her monthly tally: so far, they’d had intercourse nine times, seven of which had been missionary, just like all the baby books had said was best for insemination. She’d been taking her prenatal vitamins, watching her weight. She googled male infertility.
After a good hour of research, she crawled under the sheets, fuming. Obviously Buick was deliberately sabotaging his sperm production by acting like a fat boy who’d snuck into a mall buffet. Why would he go to such lengths to ruin all her plans? Unless he was shooting blanks? The thought sent her back to the internet and a diagnosis that fit. When Buick eventually stumbled to bed with his boots on after midnight, she pretended to be asleep.
Between his snores, she could hear Sterling rifling through their fridge. She slid out of bed and, grabbing the vial of ylang ylang oil, dabbed it in her cleavage.
“Hey, little mama,” Sterling slurred when she joined him at the table. “Did I wake you?”
“Yeah.” She eyed the Tapatío scramble in front of him. “But it’s okay. I smelled the eggs and got hungry.”
He pushed his plate toward her, the stale stink of whiskey clinging to him. “Help yourself.”
She took a bite. “You want another beer?”
They cheersed. Leaning back in her chair, she stretched her legs between his.
“So what’s up?” He took a long sip from his beer, his blue eyes bloodshot. The sibling resemblance was most obvious in their faces, a fact that comforted Glory as she hurried through her beer. “Does it smell like a funeral in here?”
“I need a favor,” she said.
The beer tasted bitter, but she drank quickly. “Something’s off with Buick and I’m hoping you can fix it.”
“Look, if you’re pissy about his new job, alls I can say is have some faith in the poor guy.”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Well what? You’re acting weird, even for you.”
She dropped her voice. “I think Buick’s broken.”
“You’re crazy. He’s a machine.”
“Not like that.” Glory finished her beer and rested her hand on Sterling’s thigh. His leg felt narrower than Buick’s, but more muscular. “In a different way.”
He squinted down at her fingers and then at her face. “Is everything okay?”
“With your help, it will be.” Taking his hand, she pulled him to standing, steadying him as he wobbled.
“No.” He knocked into a chair.
She righted the chair, listening for Buick’s drunken footfall.
“Stop. This is wrong, Glory.”
“I know.” She guided him to the couch and lowered the straps on her nightgown. He looked small on the couch. “Which is why we can’t tell him. I don’t want to embarrass him.”
Pushing himself from her, Sterling slipped on a cushion and fell back. “He’s my brother.”
“But you know he’s too proud to ask for help.”
He relaxed his grip slightly.
“Please?” she asked, stepping out of her crumpled nightgown. “For Buick?”
Fifteen days passed. During that time, she’d picked up several shifts at the salon while the waxer had jury duty. Glory spent her days grooming eyebrows and legs, even giving three Brazilians. A nice distraction from the next round of pregnancy tests, waxing also gave her an excuse to dodge Sterling, who’d been moping around the apartment like a summer-stuck delinquent.
When her period was officially three days late, she offered to do the week’s grocery shopping, something Buick usually handled.
“You take a load off,” she said one afternoon during lunch. Sterling stood behind Buick, engrossed in his cell phone. “I’ve got this.”
“That’s sweet, babe,” Buick said, kissing her cheek. “Thanks.”
As she hurried to the supermarket, Glory critiqued her reflection along the storefront windows. She tried to catch herself in natural poses, like when she was striding down the sidewalk or waiting for the light to change, just to see how other people saw her. Her hip bones had started jutting out, which looked good with the low-rise jeans she’d bought from the teen section at Kohl’s. But even though she weighed the same as a high school junior, or maybe even a sophomore on a good day, she was, in fact, almost past her peak babymaking years. She pictured baby Hershel coming out in a puff of dust.
With forty dollars to spend, she bought Buick a roast beef hoagie and grabbed a loaf of white bread, a packet of string cheese, three Yoplaits, some kielbasa, and two cans of garbanzo beans. Then she beelined to the pharmacy and threw in a box of pregnancy tests. She’d been cleaning house for so long, she deserved a reward.
The supermarket had a single-stall bathroom with plenty of room to pace. She could also burn some anxiety doing tricep dips on the sink’s ledge. Her hands shook while she sat on the toilet, activating the tests.
Someone knocked on the bathroom door. “Will it be much longer?” a woman asked.
“I’m going as fast as I can,” Glory called.
More than anything, Glory wanted to be a good mom, the kind with a hockey photo pinned to her purse, who would let the scouts camp overnight outside in a tent, and maybe, when Hershel was older, drink. But only inside the house and only one hard cider. She imagined all the photos they’d frame from summers up north and Hershel’s first ski lesson on the bunny hills. They’d be happy and giggling and the twenty-seven hours of labor that she’d been in, without an epidural because she wanted to prove she could do it, would be worthwhile.
Glory wadded her purse under her T-shirt, admiring her reflection in the mirror. On instinct, her left hand rested atop her lumpy belly while her other hand curved underneath. The pose came naturally to her, yet another sign she’d be a good mom. And she knew what kind of pregnant she wanted to be: the cute kind, where her body stayed small and the baby was just a round ball that looked darling under maternity shirts. Strangers would want to rub her belly and she’d glow from all the attention.
The lady knocked again.
With the test sticks in her hand, Glory turned from the mirror and did one, two, three tricep dips, the calories just blowing away, far from her clean house that was all ready for a new guest. She added fifteen seconds to the suggested wait time, inhaled, and then looked.
On the walk home, Glory felt like she was starring in her own romantic comedy, a sunny backdrop with flute music and chirping sparrows. She was tempted to skip all the way back, but she wanted to take it easy and do everything right. Her hard work had paid off: Glory was bursting.
At the apartment, Sterling had shoved his monster truck into a compact parking spot, just like he had probably shoved himself onto their ratty couch. She grit her teeth. Didn’t he have to go hunting this weekend? Maybe there was a Brewers game on at the pub? When she arrived at the apartment, however, their living room was jammed with construction workers.
No one noticed as she entered. At her height, she could only glance through the rowdy spaces between men. The air smelled of lumber and dirt and nickels. Buick manned the table facing two platters of orange-stained chicken wings.
“Buick, what the hell is this?” she asked, jostling her way to him.
He glared at her.
“Don’t play dumb. I know.”
Glory wanted to tell him that she knew too, that she had the answer tucked away and it was growing as they spoke.
“Sterling told me everything you said.”
“You disgust me.” He tightened the bib around his neck. “You think I’m broken?”
Her hand skimmed her belly. “I don’t know.”
Sterling, two inches taller than normal in his construction boots, slid into the chair next to him avoiding her eyes, while their childhood friend Tony cupped his hands like a megaphone.
“Food warriors to the table.”
Buick and Sterling high-fived and sat down. Both had bibs tied around their necks.
“Contestant number one is a force of his own. Part man, part machine, all stomach. He skids into this competition with the pedal to the metal. Let’s welcome Buick DeGaulle to the table!”
The crowd hollered. Someone threw a balled-up paper towel at Buick.
“Contestant number two, stronger than the jaws of life, is Sterling ‘The Mouth’ DeGaulle!”
Everyone booed. Sterling pouted and pretended to cry.
“Today, we eat with Picnic Style Rules. Winner gets three hundred bucks. Brothers, start your enzymes.” Tony took a dramatic inhale. “On your mark, get set, eat!”
Through the crowd, Glory saw Buick grab the tiny wings, dragging the bone along his front teeth, his tongue shoving the meat down the back of his throat. He’d been practicing that for weeks, his “chew-free” technique from the Internet videos. Sterling ate the same way. Both men had orange fists and smeared cheeks.
“Looks like Buick is double-parked in first place at fifteen wings with The Mouth chomping close behind at thirteen.”
Glory hadn’t eaten anything more than cabbage in three days. So many men crammed into the apartment. Her house. Her clean, neat house.
“It’s wing-to-wing between brothers. Buick is at forty-two, but The Mouth is snapping away at forty.”
“Stoke up, bitch!” someone yelled.
Glory caught a glimpse of Buick concentrating, his face red and straining.
“Push through those meat sweats, man, you’re almost there,” Tony sang.
Unhinging his mouth wider than ever before, Buick locked eyes with Glory as a belch slid out. She couldn’t look away in time, galvanizing her husband in a memory she knew she’d always have.
“Who wants this?”
She stumbled into the kitchen. A milk carton, half-opened, sat on the countertop. Glory stuck her nose inside, the stink sharper than she expected. She inhaled, over and over, until she couldn’t tell if it was fresh anymore, the sour tang invading her kitchen, her life, her world.