Posted on March 27, 2023
Mudlark by Chelsea Peters
The girl in front of him was skinny, the large, round bump of the belly beneath her hoodie evident even from behind. He’d been waiting behind her for at least ten minutes, and had drawn up a whole story for how she’d gotten herself into this situation: young, pregnant, and alone at the blood clinic. Absent parents, a rotten boyfriend — he was sad for her. For all their troubles, at least his girls had both escaped their teens without getting themselves knocked up.
As they finally approached the doorway into the actual waiting room, where they’d get to sit on chairs instead of standing in the hall like chumps, the girl stepped briefly out of the line to look intently at the grandfather clock that stood incongruously against the peeling white walls of the clinic hallway; probably donated by some magnanimous patron, who’d imagined it ending up somewhere grander than it had.
The girl had a long black braid and large ears. He tried to picture his girls’ ears, how they wore their hair these days, but couldn’t. When the girl was done looking at the clock — an action that endeared her to him — she returned to staring at her phone and twirling the braid around and around her wrist. She seemed bored, had none of the serenity about her that Sally had always had when she was expecting. He’d always loved her the most when she was pregnant, and when she was newly un-pregnant; her body all soft in an attractive, forgivable way; the new baby all pink and peach-fuzzskinned against her milk-filled chest.
He’d left Sal alone at home, stroking her hot water bottle in its velvety red cozy like it was a baby’s back. She’d been shopping for pyjamas, the cursor hovering over satin sets in luridly bright jewel tones, a red heart blooming in the corners of the images she clicked on. He thought of the heaps of ballooning, silky material she already had to envelop her from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day, and wondered what she needed with any more.
She’d been so vain before the babies that he was always surprised, and a little disappointed, that she no longer seemed to care much about how she appeared when it was just the two of them. She’d never fully lost the weight from either of her pregnancies; never even seemed to notice when he occasionally gave her pouchy stomach and puckered thighs sidelong looks as they got ready together in the bathroom, hoping she’d see as he flicked his eyes back to whatever he was doing, a measured shadow of mild disappointment crossing his face.
The curvy nurse finally took his blood, declared him free to go. It was a routine checkup — “Good to keep an eye on things at your age,” as the nurse said; his doctor would call him in a couple of days if anything was off this time. He passed the pregnant girl, still waiting in her chair, on his way out, and tried to smile at her, but she remained gazing resolutely at her phone. As he shoved open the door to the outside he remembered that girls didn’t really like men to smile at them anymore — Sal had told him this recently, during a particularly fraught shopping trip — but surely he was getting old enough now for it to be permissible.
He was fifty years old today, born less than five kilometres from the clinic he now exited. The ground would have been frozen that day, fifty years ago; the river swollen and covered by three or more feet of solid ice. It had been one of the worst winters — shortly to be followed by the worst flooding — that the city had ever seen, the winter in which he was born. This year, by contrast, they’d had hardly any snow, and just a handful of days that hit a seasonable minus 30. He could go to the riverbank and squish his boots in the mud as if it were springtime, and after his appointment he did just that, indulging himself because he’d overpaid the meter, and the river was just a handful of blocks from the clinic.
Once he got down to the bank he scoped the ground casually for glints of silver or gold, or the bright of white ceramic against the grey of the clay-like mud. He didn’t usually come down randomly like this; this was a bonus visit, an indulgence he allowed himself because of the day. He didn’t have any of his mudlarking equipment, and didn’t expect to find anything much in the hour or so he had before Sal was expecting him home, but he selected a long and sturdy stick from the bank, trained his eyes on the muck and began to poke at it nonetheless.
— Chelsea Peters
lives and writes on Treaty 1 territory. She is a recent graduate of the MFA program at UBC’s School of Creative Writing. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in This Magazine, The Fiddlehead, CV2, and The Dalhousie Review.