The house cannot hold one more person. Grace and Robert live in this 3-bedroom foursquare with their four children. Robert’s mother Bridget has lived with them since she was widowed in 1931. Grace’s older brother Patrick moved in after the Crash, the same brother who lost an arm in the Great War and used to drive a red Packard up to the house, bearing cigars for Robert and a sterling silver rattle and a mahogany crib for her first baby. In the terrible summer of 1936, her sister Patricia and her husband and two children also lived here, the four of them sleeping in their double-bed set up on the front porch. After a rainy night, Grace would find them curled up on the living room floor, and she and Patricia would hang the sheets on the line to dry, but by the end of the summer, the mattress was ruined.
They are always bumping into each other, on the stairs or coming out of the bathroom or all getting up from the dining room table at once so that even her growing belly will be in the way, much less the child itself. Her teenage sons share a bed with Uncle Patrick, and her daughters share with Bridget. When she brushes the girls’ hair in the morning, they smell like their musty, decaying grandmother.
Grace is 42, slack-bellied and graying at the temples. Every day, eight people must be fed on one railroad bookkeeper’s salary. The house cannot hold one more person.
On this December Saturday evening, she has the bathroom to herself. Robert is at his lodge meeting. Patrick is at the bar where he works on Friday and Saturday nights. An old war buddy was willing to hire a one-armed veteran who drinks up most of his pay. She told Bridget that she wasn’t feeling well and asked her to mind the kids. Bridget will sit at the kitchen table and play Hearts with Dotty and Shirley. Donny and Davy will slouch on the living room couch, reading comic books and listening to swing music on the radio. And Grace can do what she needs to do.
She tiptoes into the bathroom with her tools and turns the lock quietly. She undresses, fills the enema bag with carbolic soap and hot water, lies in the tub.
Her hands tremble. She can insert the nozzle into her vagina, but can’t find the entrance to her womb. Then she finds it but can’t insert the nozzle. Then the nozzle scrapes her cervix. Her hands tremble more. The house cannot hold one more person.
The scraping of the nozzle against the inside of her cervix is nauseating. Her stomach cramps. She squeezes the ball and feels the hot water wash inside her. She squeezes again. She thinks she will vomit. She squeezes again. She is sitting in water now, cold. She squeezes again.
She will have to skip Mass tomorrow, claim illness again. She will have to confess first thing Monday, go to a church downtown, where the priest doesn’t know her. She will do any penance: pray the Stations of the Cross, climb the steps of Immaculate Heart on her knees. The house cannot hold one more person.
The bag is empty, and the bath water is clear, no blood. She dries herself, pins an old diaper inside her pajama bottoms, and goes to bed. She thinks she won’t sleep, but she doesn’t hear Robert come home.
The next day is overcast. It might snow.
Grace excuses herself from Mass and asks Bridget to cook lunch, citing severe “woman problems,” which is not exactly a lie. She stays in bed and keeps checking the diaper for blood. When she finds none, she tries to convince herself that it is for the best, that God must want this child to come into the world. But she knows in her heart that she will try again next Saturday if she gets the chance.
She decides that something might happen if she gets up and moves around. She rises from bed, dresses and goes downstairs to help Bridget wash the dishes and start Sunday night supper. They will have meat pie, made with leftovers from last night’s roast, and some of the peaches she and Bridget canned in August.
Bridget is rolling pie crust with her loose-skinned sinewy arms, and Grace has just come up from the cellar with three jars of peaches. The radiators are hissing warmth, steaming the kitchen windows so that it seems they are cocooned from the world outside.
Donny and Davey come into the house, banging, the screen door slams shut behind them. “Dad! Mom!” Donny yells, “Turn on the radio quickly!”
Robert has been sitting in his easy chair in the living room, reading the newspaper and dozing off, as he always does on Sunday afternoons. His newspaper rattles, and he asks sleepily, irritably, “What? Why should I turn the radio on?”
“The Japs attacked Hawaii! It’s on the radio!”
Grace and Bridget sleepwalk, gape-mouthed, into the living room. Dotty and Shirley look up from their Parchesi game. Patrick wanders down from his bedroom, his afternoon nap disturbed. Robert is turning the radio dial. She hears static, and then the urgent, staccato tone of a news announcer’s voice.
Grace finally feels the gluey warmth between her legs and her gaze rests on her sons, bent avidly over the console radio. They are fifteen and seventeen, pink-cheeked from the outdoor cold, irreplaceable.