On Top of Everything
by Jason Powell
With a pile of dirty clothes on her right and a half-empty box of diapers on her left, Hanna sat in the middle of the sofa with her eyes closed and felt the tears escape. The bottom half of her jaw trembled against her will, and a knot was forming in her throat. The rim of Junior’s pacifier cut into the inside of her knuckles as her hands formed a fist around it, but the pain in her hand was nothing compared to the pain in her head. She knew she couldn’t take much more of this.
She was conscious that the way she was rocking Junior’s crib was becoming more aggressive than soothing, but she couldn’t control her frustration. Things didn’t seem so hard when John was here. John took her mind off everything that wasn’t fun. But John was taken from her, and now nothing was fun. Now her life, like her apartment, was a mess. Now she wasn’t working; she wasn’t even writing on her own. Now no one was there to support her and Junior. Junior, who did nothing but cry lately.
When the doorbell rang, Hanna let out a long, slow breath and placed the pacifier on the pile of clothes beside her. When she flexed her fingers she was more aware of the pain in her hand, because the pain in her head had gone away. She stood up and adjusted her clothing then picked Junior up from the crib and held him to her chest.
On her way to the door, she caught a glimpse of herself in the hallway mirror. She really was a mess. She shifted the weight of Junior’s body to one hip and wiped the tears from her face with her free hand. She ran her fingers through her hair, combed it behind her ears, and opened the door.
Her close friend Serenity smiled at her from the doorway then shuffled inside, hugged her, and closed the door. The cold air from Serenity’s coat was a shock to Hanna because her apartment was uncomfortably hot. That’s the way things went in public housing. Once the calendar says it’s autumn, the Housing Authority runs the boilers at full blast and leaves it up to the tenants to find a comfort zone. The only way to combat the heat was by opening the windows, which, during a rainy season like this one, became more of a problem than a solution.
Hanna led the way back to the living room while Serenity shed her coat and scarf.
“Sorry it took me so long to get here,” Serenity said while going into the bathroom to wash her hands. “My mom heard I was off today and naturally assumed that meant I was free to help her. We spent the whole morning — the whole morning — shopping for Thanksgiving dinner; going from store to store looking for the best prices, and” — Serenity added, taking the crying baby from Hanna and placing his head on her own shoulder — “sometimes we went back to one store to return something ’cause another store had it cheaper, and we still hadn’t gotten everything. Ugh! Move those clothes so I can sit with you. What’s wrong, handsome man?”
Serenity bounced Junior and rubbed his back. “What’s wrong?” she asked again. “Are you hungry? Are you hungry, my handsome man?”
Hanna sat down on the couch and pulled the pile of clothes onto her lap and watched as Serenity took Junior to the fridge and grabbed his bottle. Seerenity put the bottle in the microwave and then lifted Junior’s waist to her nose and inhaled.
“Mmm. Powder fresh,” Serenity said and kissed his stomach. Junior stopped crying. “Powder fresh, powder fresh, powder fresh,” Serenity said with her face pressed up against his torso as Junior giggled and squirmed. The microwave beeped three quick tones to indicate it was done, and Serenity juggled Junior into the crook of her arm and took out his bottle.
“Hungry?” she asked. She walked over to the couch and used her legs and hips to push the crib out of the way so she could sit. She held the bottle with the hand of the same arm that held Junior and used her free one to grab a towel hanging off the side of the crib. After draping the towel over her shoulder, she positioned Junior and fed him the bottle. His hands grasped the bottle, and his eyes looked into hers.
Hanna watched as Junior feverishly sucked the nipple of the bottle as if he was starving. And maybe he was. Why hadn’t she, Hanna, figured that he might be hungry? She had tried giving him the pacifier; she had tried rocking him to sleep. How did Serenity, who wasn’t even a mother, instinctively know to feed him and the thought never even cross Hanna’s own mind? On top of everything else, Hanna had to deal with the fact that she wasn’t fit for this. She had no idea what she was doing.
“So,” Serenity said, sitting back and making herself comfortable, “what’s the plan for today? Chick flicks?”
Hanna said, “Whatever you want” and looked around. Mess didn’t begin to describe the state her house was in. How did it get like this? How did her life get like this?
“Actually,” she said, standing up suddenly and turning from Serenity, “I’m gonna go for a quick walk. Do you mind?”
“’Course not. You okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s just that it’s so hot in here.”
“Well, there’s nothing you can do about that with all this sexiness in here,” Serenity mumbled with her face buried in Junior’s neck as he giggled and squirmed some more.
Hanna put some sweats over her pajama pants and a long coat over that. She tied a scarf around her neck and grabbed her keys.
“Did you get to pick up your prescription from yesterday?” Serenity asked from the couch.
“No,” Hanna replied, remembering the bad news she had received at her appointment yesterday. “I’ll pick it up now.”
She went into her room and took her debit card and ID from her wallet and put them in her pocket. She said goodbye to Serenity and kissed Junior’s head; he giggled again. Then she left.
Outside, the weather was horrible. It was early afternoon, but it was already dark. The air felt wet, and the heavy grey clouds looked as if they would break open at any second. The pharmacy which held her prescription was across the street to the west.
Across the street to the north of her was the park and the bench where John and she had first kissed. She walked to the curb and waited for the light, then crossed the street to the park and sat down on the bench. The wood was chipped and cold and damp.
Hanna sighed, and her breath rolled in a thin cloud from her nose into nothingness. She tucked her hands into the pocket of her coat and closed her eyes. John sat down beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. He told her to talk to him, and the sound of his voice sent warmth through her entire body.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “It’s not even about me now. I’m becoming a burden to everyone around me. I can’t take care of Junior; Serenity is taking care of him more than I am. And now, she can’t even spend time with her own family ’cause she has to take care of mine! I gotta start taking this medication every day ’cause” — she ran her fingers through her hair — “I don’t even have the money to pay for it; they don’t want me to come back to work at the office. The house is a mess. There’s nothing in the fridge. I don’t have anyone to help me. I can’t live like this.”
John asked her what she wanted to do.
“What can I do?” she argued. He told her that he understood how she felt. He told her that the things she was dealing with were more than anyone could handle. He said that the fact that she recognized it made her a good mother and a good friend. He said that she was right and that they both knew what she had to do. He understood her reluctance, but he felt she was thinking about it in the wrong way. She wasn’t being selfish, he explained, she was being selfless. She was looking out for the ones she cared about, not herself. And, there was an additional benefit: he would be there to support her from now on. There were many ways it could be done. Painless ways.
Hanna opened her eyes and wiped her face. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She stared at the tree in front of her. A broken candle and a dirty bow lay at the foot of it. She felt her eyes begin to tingle again, but she stopped herself. It was time to act like a grownup. She stood up and crossed the two streets to the pharmacy. There was no traffic.
The pharmacy’s door was activated by a pressure plate. Stepping on the black mat in front made the left side of the glass door slide to the right to let you in. When Hanna reached the mat, lightning lit the sky and, for a second, the day was as it should be at that hour. Hanna stepped on the mat, and nothing happened. The door stayed closed. As if I’m not really here, she thought. As if she were already dead. The clouds finally broke loose, and the thunder that accompanied the lightning grumbled. Hanna shook her head.
A woman about Hanna’s age with a boy around two years old activated the door from the inside on their way out. Rain had begun to fall, and the little boy started to run out into it, but the woman grabbed him back. She knelt in front of him and placed her bags down to free up her hands. She zipped up his coat and, as she did, the boy looked up at Hanna and smiled. She smiled back.
When the woman was done, she turned to grab her bags, and the little boy once again took off into the rain. His foot caught on the black rubber of the threshold, and he fell forward. Hanna dropped to one knee and caught him before he hit the ground and, a second later, the woman was beside them.
“Lord Jesus,” the woman sighed as she pulled the boy toward her. Then to Hanna she said, “I’m so sorry.”
Hanna stood up straight, and the woman followed. “Thank God you were here,” she said and touched Hanna’s arm. The sky lit up again.
The pharmacy was empty save for the people waiting at the prescription counter. The weather wasn’t as bad as it was going to be later on, but it was bad enough to keep people in their homes unless they absolutely had to go out. Hanna stood just inside the automatic doors and held her arm where the woman touched her. She stood there and didn’t know what to do.
Just a moment ago, when she had spoken to John she knew what she should be doing. She knew it was right, not just for herself but for her son. But now she had doubts. Would Junior understand when he grew to be that little boy’s age? Would he miss her?
Copyright © 2019 by Jason Powell