THE DAY THE SPERM arrived I was
pulling a double shift. B-Dog was in Vegas for his brother's wedding so they
had me on Paint and Garden Supplies, unloading a pallet of fertilizer sacks. I
arrived at the hospital still wearing my orange apron. The front dusted with
dirt and powdered chicken shit. We called her Paisley, after Jamie's favorite
singer. I didn't have the heart to tell her it was a rug pattern at the store.
Every time we whispered her name I tried not to think of its ochre swirls, swimming
across the weave like giant sperm.
B-Dog never came back from Vegas, and Nigel came down with bronchial pneumonia after sleeping in his car for a week, so I was back at work sooner than I liked. Jamie said I should hold out for compassionate leave. Compassion had nothing to do with it. They were so short of hands they said the store might have to close. Apart from Nigel I was the only one who knew how to mix the paint.
I worked a six day week. I saw Paisley at nights and on Sundays, when the store closed for Family Day. Most Sundays Jamie was happy to catch up on sleep while I watched Paisley, our tiny sperm. Sometimes she'd squirm or whimper or expel gas from one end or another. Most of the time I had nothing to do but watch. I'd follow the football with the sound down, a plate of microwaved mini pizza bagels going cold on the couch beside me. When she needed feeding I woke Jamie.
It was Jamie's Mom who suggested I read to her. I guess that meant they'd been talking about me. Jamie said she could hear well enough and she'd like the sound of her daddy's voice. That way she'd know I was something more than the lingering smell of paint in the mornings. I've never been much of a reader, but I knew how.
Sure, I said. I can do that.
At first we started with the TV guide, but Paisley didn't seem too interested. I guess the little wriggler didn't know her ABC from her NBC. I tried the funny pages next. After she sicked up all over Garfield we moved on. We didn't have many books in the house. It took me an hour one night to dig up a box of old hardbacks from the basement. I think they were my father's, or maybe his father's. Either way they looked dusty and dried out. Something had nested in the bottom of the box one winter and more than half of them were ruined. Their pages shredded into a rustling ball dotted with tiny brown pellets of shit.
That left a handful to choose from. Despite my best efforts, Paisley settled on the 1932 edition of Hammond's Atlas of the World.
You might think there's not much to read in an atlas, but there's plenty. The first ten pages of Hammond's enlightened us on the major nations of the world. I'd tell her about Angola's reliance on mining and agriculture, or the founding government of the Soviet Union. Sometimes Paisley would point at the pictures. Jamie laughed at us, saying that our little girl would grow up worrying about the other Great Depression. But for the first time in months I saw her smile when she thought I wasn't looking. Most of all, the little pollywog liked looking at the maps. I'd spread the book open on the couch, the spine cracking so violently that it might burst into flames. Paisley sprawled her tiny body beside it. Her face resting next to the page, her eyes drifting unfocused over the Atlantic, or the Midwest, or the plains of central Africa. Sometimes she would rub at one of the cities with the tip of her finger, as if she was trying to smear its civilization across the unconquered heart of the continent. The paper was so dry that her drool collected in puddles on the surface.
I read the place names out loud, tracing a random route across countries and landmasses as if we were inventing new constellations. Bengal, Chittagong, Paletwa, Mandalay. Vancouver, Walla Walla, Spokane, Paradise. In twenty-eight years I'd never set foot outside Washington State, and sometimes their foreignness beat me, tripping my tongue over alien syllables. Tanganyika. Petrozavodsk. Ptuj. Our little cub burbled and gurgled. Between us we came close to creating a language.
It was in the index that I first found Paisley. There were four entries, the page numbers and grid references clustering together like barcodes. It took me a while to work them out. Our baby entertained herself, her fingers exploring ears, nose, mouth, then back to the nose again. Two of the Paisleys were in the US, one of them in Oregon. The others were further away: one in Ontario, Canada, the other in Scotland. The paper crackled stiffly beneath my thumb as I turned the corners down.
Jamie gave me no warning when they left. My Mom has invited us to stay, she said one morning. Me and Paisley. Because you'll be working. I could use the extra pair of hands, and now you can take all the extra shifts you want. We'll be back soon enough. I'll call.
She didn't say she'd miss me, and I didn't say it back. When I got home after my shift they were gone.
The atlas was still on the couch. Before bed I flicked through it, the faded greens and browns blurring together in the weak light. It was the colors that first gave me the idea. I lay awake that night making plans.
When Jamie left a message saying they'd be back the following Monday I swapped shifts with Brad, smuggling a six pack of Coors Light into his locker. They could mix the paint themselves for a day. Sunday night I cleaned the house from top to bottom, stacking plates in the cupboards, vacuuming all the way into the corners. I spent extra time on the nursery. When I finally flopped onto the bed my hands smelled of lemon and pine. I slept through the alarm.
The first thing Jamie noticed as she stepped through the door was the smell. Have you been bringing your work home, she asked, her face passing within inches of mine, sniffing at me like a DEA dog. You reek of paint.
I smiled. It didn't matter that she hadn't tried to kiss me. I know these things take time. I took her hand and led her and Paisley through the lounge to the nursery, our little lady clinging tight to her mommy. I made Jamie close her eyes. Paisley pretended to close hers too, then she giggled and opened them again. She saw it first. After a few seconds of silence Jamie cracked an eyelid. They gave us pretty good discount at the store. 20% on most hardware goods, 30% on paints and wall coverings. The paint still cost me most of a day's wages, but I could cover that with a double shift. I mixed the colors myself. The green was so muted it almost turned brown. The blue shaded into turquoise. Just like the book. My brush skills weren't what they used to be, but I'd taken my time. As we stood and stared I felt something like pride glowing within me.
The map spread across an entire wall of the nursery, seven feet by twelve. America was larger than it should be. Australia was a shapeless blob near the floor. But I'd gotten pretty close. After it dried I'd smuggled a Sharpie from the store. I'd marked four tiny stars on two landmasses: two in the US, one in Canada, one in Scotland. And in the upper left corner of the United States of America I’d drawn a tiny arrow, guiding my girls home.
Dan Coxon is the author of Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand, and is a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown, The Good Men Project and the Monkeybicycle blog. His stories have most recently appeared in Gutter, The Fiction Shelf, and in the ADP anthology Daddy Cool. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he spends his spare time looking after his one-year old son, Jacob. Find more of his writing at www.dancoxon.com, or on Twitter @DanCoxonAuthor.