“Coffin Birth” by David Simmons
When another person is going on about something you find disagreeable and you wish to make them stop talking, the best strategy to employ is to let them know that they have a little something on their face.
“You got a little something…,” you say. “On your face. Right there,” and you’re pointing to your own chin, right below your bottom lip. Cringing, half-smile, eyes squint condescendingly. This is when they stop talking.
“Oh…” and they’re speaking and making excuses but their sputtering isn’t actual words and they’re dabbing their chin with their napkin in the same spot that you pointed to on your own chin.
“Ah, no, yeah, it’s still there,” and now you’re pointing to a different spot, lower, smiling sympathetically.
“Did I get it?” is what they ask you, anxious, desperately blotting their face.
“Ah, nevermind,” you tell them, your hand waving them off. “Don’t worry about it.”
“No seriously, did I get it?”
“Hey, forget about it,” you reply, refusing to speak about it any further.
They sit across the table from you now, frantically dabbing and blotting at their face. They have completely forgotten what it is they were pontificating about and furthermore, now, they cannot remember why they felt so adamantly about whatever it was.
* * *
Gar is going on and on about something he has recently started referring to as Taco Tuesday. Gar is always going on and on about something.
“The premise is simple. I transfer the mydriatic from the original bottle into this one.”
He is pointing to a vial of eye drops, the label on the front peeled off.
“Atropine,” Gar declares, tapping the vial. “The doctors used to keep Atropine in the office which is way more potent than Tropicamide. A bottle of Atropine will close your throat all the way up. Tropicamide; it’ll do it but it’ll take a lot more.”
He plucks the vial of eye drops between his index finger and thumb and frantically begins to tap it against the gnarled and scratched wood of the tabletop.
“Atropine…” he goes on, “dysphoria, tremors, psychomotor agitation, tachycardia, convulsions…”
Gar is listing off the symptoms of mydriatic eye drop poisoning on his left hand, starting with his thumb, then index, then middle and so on until he has made it all the way to the little finger of his right hand and then he stops and says, “did I say dysphoria yet?”
The Honeywell wireless door chime produces the sound of a digital device attempting to recreate the sound of a natural doorbell and a young woman in yoga pants walks into the restaurant. Gar looks away for a moment, his eyes following the woman as she makes her way to the counter.
The woman says to the man at the counter, I ordered online? and she says it like it’s a question in that distinct way that only privileged caucasian women from places with shiny, new gentrification-names like NoMa and SoHo speak. She scrolls through her phone, finds what she is looking for, shows the man at the counter the image on the screen. The man looks over his shoulder and yells fifty-six, picking up! He looks at the woman, smiles, tells her just a moment.
“Look,” Gar says, eyeing the counter. “Watch him say it, he always says it.”
The man at the counter puts utensils and napkins in the plastic carryout bag, hands it to the woman, still smiling. The woman nods at the man, thanks him.
“Our famous pico de gallo is over there on the condiment table,” the man at the counter says, Gar silently mouthing the words of his speech along with him. “Along with flour tortilla chips—made right here in our own kitchen—and salsa; mild, medium or diablo. Please help yourself.”
The woman nods, makes her way to the condiment table. Gar is watching her, focused. He licks his aubergine sausage lips.
“Fine piece of ass like her probably don’t even eat chips and salsa,” says Gar, sneering.
“Alright, that’s enough,” I say to Gar and that’s all I say. Three words. This will probably be all that I say for the remainder of this engagement. This woman is somebody’s daughter. Somebody’s sister. Perhaps somebody’s mother, although judging from her narrow waist this would probably prove unlikely. Fuck! Here I am, focusing on this woman’s hips like a lecher, objectifying this woman, turning her into an object, all because of Gar’s insidiously skewed perception of women, infecting me like some kind of lubricious virus. Everyday I become more like Gar and less like me.
“What’s the big deal?” he says, playing innocent.
Gar winks at me, uses his eyes to draw a line to the condiment table where the woman is shoveling chips into her takeaway bag. She’s using the tiny condiment cups, filling them up with different kinds of salsa, snapping the plastic lids on top. With the salsa all being the same shade and hue, I can’t help but wonder how she is going to tell the difference between mild, medium or diablo. It’s not like she took the time to label the condiment cups or keep them separated in some way.
“Off you go then,” he says and the Honeywell wireless door chime lets us know that the woman has exited the restaurant.
I watch Gar watch the woman walk out the door, out into the parking lot.
“Did you know,” Gar says, mouth full of masticated tortilla chips, “that in 2007, a 23-year-old woman in India, over eight months pregnant, decided to hang herself moments after her contractions started? A living child was spontaneously delivered, bursting forth from the woman’s body, which—I’ll have you know—was still suspended by the neck, dangling from the ceiling.”
Gar makes a fist and holds it a foot or so above his head, arm bent at the elbow; cocks his neck at an angle, grits his teeth together and pulls his fist up like he’s holding a noose.
“The healthy infant was found on the floor, still tethered to the body of the mother by the umbilical cord, crying and messy with afterbirth.”
I think about the woman, wonder if she has a family.
“I’m Desi. Did you know that?” he says, food particles spraying out of his mouth. “You wouldn’t know it by looking at me. Grew up in Mumbai, right next to the Matunga Road railway station. All my life.”
I’ve never been outside of the country, never left the state of Maryland. I don’t think Gar has either. I think about the woman, not the pregnant woman in India who hung herself, although I think about her often as well because Gar tells this story so frequently. I think about the woman who just left the restaurant. I wonder if she prefers mild, medium or diablo.
When Gar plays Taco Tuesday he prefers diablo.
Gar, with his mouth full of food, says, “2005. Hamburg, Germany. A landlord is always having issues with a particular tenant paying her rent on time. After weeks with no communication he decides to let himself into the unit where he finds a tenant, pregnant with her lips blue and brain dead from a heroin overdose. When officials found her in her apartment, she was in an advanced state of decay. That’s technical mumbo jumbo for the broad was full of insects. During the autopsy, the baby’s head and shoulders were found to be outside the woman’s vagina, the other half still stuck up inside her. That’s what they call coffin birth. Have you heard of this phenomenon?”
I wish Gar would stop talking. Sometimes it feels like his voice is coming from the inside and that the sound I hear with my ears is the echo of his actual words. The inside ones.
“The technical term for this extraordinary phenomenon is post-mortem fetal extrusion. Dead bodies create natural gases as they decay. Precious, corpse-stink effluvium. When a pregnant woman dies the gases enclosed in the upper body and pelvic area exert pressure on the uterus. Then pop! The baby pops right out. Like a fucking pimple!”
Gar takes his thumb and presses it into his cheek to create that wet popping sound—simulating what he believes to be the sound of coffin birth—then cracks up laughing. He’s slapping his thighs, eyes wet and black like two oil spills.
The man at the counter working the register looks over at us, startled by Gar’s guttural laughter.
“I’m German. Did you know that? Ich bin Deutscher. Street tough, raised hard in Dresden. Wir sind ja nicht aus Zucker you realize.”
The door chime goes off and another woman walks in, this one with two young children.
“Aw shit,” he says, eyes following the woman as she approaches the counter. “Prime real estate.”
I hate it when Gar turns people into objects. The woman and her children stand at the counter, order their food, fish tacos and lengua, sides of red rice. She orders something else, pollo con chile guajillo in Spanish.
“Did you know, in 2008, the body of a 38-year-old woman was discovered in Panama? Plastic bag over her head, duct taped wrists and ankles, plus they gagged her. Overkill if ya ask me, no pun intended. During the autopsy, they found a fetus in her undergarments, the umbilical cord intact, still attached to the godforsaken placenta.”
The son—about five or six—is older than the daughter who clutches the mother’s legs, peering at us suspiciously, eye-fucking me then eye-fucking Gar, back and forth. Back and forth. Gar waves at the little girl, winks at her with one of his oil spill eyes and she gasps, hiding herself behind her mother’s legs.
Gar says, “Still intact! Would you believe it?” and then “did you know I’m Panamanian? Soy Panameño. All my life. My family is still in San Miguelito. The fucker at the counter working the cash register? El sigue mirando a mi chica. No puedo soportar ese pelao.”
I watch the man at the counter put plasticware and napkins into a plastic bag. He doesn’t seem to be giving the woman an inappropriate amount of eye contact—not overtly so—at least as far as I can tell.
“Watch,” Gar is saying, his ocean-black eyes sparkling with delight. “He’s gonna say it again. Sweet galactic fuck, he’s gonna say it again!”
He’s violently shaking his right leg under the table, the fabric of his pants audibly chafing the side of the booth we are in, barely able to contain himself.
“He’s fucking saying it!”
The man at the counter says: “Our famous pico de gallo is over there on the condiment table. Along with flour tortilla chips—made right here in our own kitchen—and salsa; mild, medium or diablo. Please help yourself.”
Gar is in tears, his face red and swollen as if he has eaten too much salsa. The woman instructs the older child to go to the condiment bar, stock up on as much of the chips and salsa as he desires. Gar wipes the wetness from his cheeks, still smiling in the corners of his eyes. He follows the boy’s movements with his starving wolf gaze. The boy pauses in front of the salsa, contemplating whether he wants mild, medium or diablo.
“You’re a big boy aren’t you?” he says to the child with a conspiratorial wink. “Then get the diablo. You’re not afraid of a little heat now are you?”
The boy does that deer-caught-in-headlightsthing with his lips parted in an O, anime eyes wide with confusion. I watch him watch Gar; see the boy try to make sense of what he’s seeing. Gar is a very large man. Unnaturally so. The way the child wears shock all over his face you can tell he’s been told never to talk to strangers. Especially strangers who look like Gar. Although he is still young and hasn’t seen the world for all of its chaos and unpredictability, some kind of evolutionary fight-or-flight instinct buried deep inside his bladder informs him that this large man sitting in the booth is an imminent threat. Something about this man is making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Palms clammy, his stomach feels larger than usual and hollow, as if he has too much empty space inside of him. Gar smiles at the boy, sticks his tongue out and crosses his eyes.
“Bryson!” the woman shouts. “Bryson, get back here now. Wait with Mommy.”
The little boy is still frozen in terror; one hand ladling the salsa, the other holding the condiment cup. His tiny hand shakes, spilling tomato mush onto the floor.
Gar leans forward, hisses, “Listen to your mother Bryson.”
Hearing his own name makes the boy come alive. Eyes bright with awareness, he darts over to the woman, joins his younger sister in the safe space behind his mother’s legs.
The woman says, “Do not speak to my child?” and the word child has that familiar insecure question mark at the end of it, turning what should be a demand into a pusillanimous request.
Gar is still smiling with his inkwell eyes. He licks his lips. They look like two fat worms.
“Sir,” says the man at the counter, putting a little bass in his voice, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Alright, alright,” Gar waves off the man at the counter and doesn’t move.
“Now. I’ll call the police.”
“Will you now?” Gar asks, his deep space eyes never leaving the boy at the mother’s legs. “And what will you tell them? Did I not pay for my meal?”
“Sir please,” the man at the counter says, the last hint of bass leaving his voice with the word please.
“Did I run off on my bill? Does this piece of paper with your company name and address printed across the top not indicate receipt of payment? If my money is good enough here to take, then am I not also good enough to enjoy the use of your dining facilities?”
“Please sir, I don’t want any kind of trouble.”
Gar is waving his receipt in the air and the man at the counter is retreating. I watch as his primitive animal brain does the cost-benefit analysis of what would happen if he engaged Gar in a physical confrontation. I watch him measure the distance between Gar and himself, wondering if he can reach the phone in time to call 911. I watch him as the Cortisol floods his brain, watch the moment of realization when he determines that the cost of approaching the threat is too high and that retreat is his only option for survival.
“But it’s Taco Tuesday!” Gar whines. He pulls in one of those thick purple worms that he calls a lip, juts out the lower worm—presses it out—and I realize that Gar is trying to pout.
“Please just leave.”
We get up from the table together, scoot out of the booth at the same time. I take one last look at the salsa; mild, medium or diablo.
“You’ve got a little something,” Gar says, pointing at the man. “On your face.”
The man at the counter’s hand comes up to touch his face, reflex-quick. He’s wiping and rubbing, trying to find that stray piece of whatever it is.
“No, not there,” Gar says, pointing to his chin. His swollen, purple worm-lips spread out into a grin until all that’s left are teeth.
David Simmons lives in Baltimore where he has worked as an optician, electrical estimator and drug trafficker. His writing has been featured in Strange Horizons, Bridge Eight, Snarl, 3 Moon Magazine, Across The Margin and the Washington City Paper.