Perfect Order

Michele M. Feeney

My little sister Kelly once told me a ballerina will fix on an object so she won’t spin out of control. I fix on the smoke alarm in the middle of the ceiling. Then, the call button for the nurse. Then, the plastic glove container right next to the bathroom door. Finally, I fix on the tiers of drawers on the ledge behind Lyssa’s head. Those drawers promise order for small objects. Make me feel everything would be okay if I owned those drawers and sorted my small stuff. Those drawers invite planning. Nothing like my life right now.

Lyssa called me five hours ago. “Mike,” she said. “Baby’s coming. Aubrey’s coming. You’d better get here.”

I hadn’t spoken to Lyssa for a couple of months and hoped not to for a few more. I hadn’t known how we’d handle the delivery but figured I didn’t need to know since it wouldn’t be until Thanksgiving. Now I’m in this room seeing more of Lyssa’s privates than I ever saw before, given that we were only together a time or two for what I’d kindly call a grope in the dark.

She’s outside her head, swearing and sweating. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she grunts. “What did I do to deserve this? Why is God punishing me?”

Glory be, I think, hearing my grandmother’s voice in my head. Then I think of that old movie, Glory, my dad likes so much, and the feeling anything bad could happen next from the beginning to the very end. The minute to minute feeling. Then I think I’m thinking too much and go back to naming objects around the room, one after the other, spelling their names frontwards and then backwards. I’ve circled the room a time or two before I have a real thought again.

Aubrey, which is what Lyssa wanted to name the baby, might already be dead by the looks of things.

“Way too soon,” the doctor said when he popped in a few minutes ago. “Little chance.”

I watch the strip. Its tracings are mostly a mystery to me, but any boy scout who reads Morse code knows an almost flat line means the message is all but finished. The phrase “dodged a bullet” pops into my head, then I curse my shameful self.

“Mike,” Lyssa moans, and holds out her hand from across the room. At least six feet separate me from that hand. “Come here, help me.”

I do not want to cross that room, but will do so because I was raised right. But I do try to find a pleasant thought to hold myself out of the scene. A man isn’t responsible for what he thinks about. Again, I choose Kelly, my little sister, the ballerina. My tiny dancer back in Florida. I see Kelly pirouetting down the sidewalk, then lift her clumsily, next to my mother’s best hydrangea. Then, I start a pretend video of her last dance recital in my head. Interminable, light, and distracting.

After a few minutes of holding Lyssa’s hand, her grip limp then brutal, the decent but clueless nurse who’s been getting on my last nerve all night with her pretend-Valium calm, says, “Dad, would you like to see the baby? Hold her for a minute? She’s still breathing.”

“What baby?” I say, not aware that the few seconds of respite from Lyssa’s grip meant something had passed.

“Here,” the nurse says, handing me a towel with a small weight inside, seemingly about the size of newborn puppy. This frees her hands to help repair Lyssa. The nurse guides me to a position where Lyssa, too spent to reach out, can see too.

I peel back the corner of the towel. I see a purplish-brown, bloated human form, which, if she’s breathing, is barely breathing. The eyes aren’t open, but the hand I can see opens and shuts, almost imperceptibly.

What am I supposed to feel right here? I remember the day I tried to talk Lyssa into an abortion, despite all my daddy’s best Baptist teachings. She refused, full of hope and desire for a healthy baby, quite willing to move forward with or without me. I take one more look at the form in the towel. I don’t really want to get to know this baby any better. It seems she’s stopped moving anyway. I cover her face with the towel and hand her back to the nurse.

“Can I see her?” Lyssa reaches out. “Before she passes?”

“I think it’s too late,” I answer, and Lyssa sobs before my words are fully spoken. The nurse takes the towel and hands the bundle to Lyssa.

I hear the rumble of thunder, muted in the hospital, but still audible, and cross to the window. I push back the curtains. The window is fixed in place, no chance for fresh air in here. I smell blood and sweat and a smell I can’t identify that I first fear is formaldehyde but then realize is strong antiseptic. Lightning cracks through the sky. I haven’t seen a storm like this since I left Florida.

My family doesn’t even know where I am right now. Probably think I’m home watching reruns. It’s three hours earlier here in Denver; they’re probably sleeping. Not thinking about me at all. Technically, my mother was a grandmother tonight, for just about ten minutes, though she’ll never know it. Why should I tell her this whole, sad chapter? I invite Kelly back into my head and she twirls from my mother’s pantry, Corn Flakes at the very end of her outstretched arm, then crosses the kitchen in a single graceful leap.

“Time of death?” the doctor asks.

“11:45 p.m.,” the nurse answers.

The doctor makes a note.

“Sweetie,” the nurse moves to Lyssa, “Are you ready to give her up?”

“A few more minutes,” Lyssa answers. She looks into the towel without flinching, then says to the nurse, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Sure is,” the nurse says, then looks at me expectantly.

I don’t say anything. I think I expected a hard workout, like at the gym. I expected a smooth landing, like an airplane. I expected a waxy china doll, like in the movies. I didn’t expect this.

“Would you like to take a picture?” the nurse asks Lyssa.

“Would you take it?” Lyssa answers the nurse, hopefully. “I have a camera in my bag.”

Is she kidding? The baby is dead. Lyssa looks like hell. I’ve never seen her, or any woman, for that matter, look this bad before. At least not up close. She wants a picture with the dead baby?

“Would you like to be in the picture?” the nurse asks me.

“No,” I say, already backing out of the frame. “No, thanks.”

Then, I bolt. I leave the room, the baby Aubrey, the nurse, the doctor, the room. I try to remember the way out of the hospital, down corridor after corridor, like reconnaissance. I find the parking lot and try to remember where I left my Jeep, afraid to use that little button that makes the horn honk because they might come after me and I’m way under cover now.

The Jeep’s exactly as I left it, which seems impossible. How could the same CD be in the stereo, still on track 8, when I feel like my head’s moved to track 2,000,000? I consider driving a different route home, because the route I came is sure to feel surreal.

My momma always said you only get to do your firsts once. First dance, first car, first kiss, first job, first love. “So don’t rush things,” my momma said. Well. Now I guess I’ve had my first child and I’ve got my first big secret, too.

My apartment door opens with the same old key, and my apartment, like everything else, is just like I left it. Pillows just so on the leather couch, remote on the top of the TV, artsy books positioned just so on the coffee table. Kelly, framed in silver, twirling on the table. Just the way I like it. Perfect order.


“I have taken many creative writing classes and participated in many conferences. This story was written at the Hassyampa Conference in Prescott, Arizona in July 2005.” E-mail: mfeeney7[at]

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