The phone rang, interrupting the last seconds of the 49ers game.
“Shoot,” Jim said. “Final play. Who’d be calling now?”
“Don’t know,” I said from my propped position on the couch.
I was on doctor’s orders for bed rest. My pregnancy had progressed with practically no hang-ups, except for the carpal tunnel and swollen feet, until one week before my due date when my blood pressure skyrocketed. Now, I was only allowed to be upright for a few minutes every couple of hours to accommodate the unavoidable mad dash to the bathroom.
“Everyone I know is watching the game. It’s gotta be for you,” Jim said, stretching his long legs onto the ottoman.
I struggled to lean forward and grab the cordless phone.
“Probably your mom,” he continued. "She probably called your cell and you didn't answer."
I nodded. Mom was checking in quite often now that the baby was two days overdue. An entire five minutes had passed since our last conversation.
I grabbed Jim's phone off the table. “Hello?”
A husky male voice said, “This is Nick Dowling . . .”
Ugh, a telemarketer.
“. . . from the San Francisco medical examiner’s office.”
I sat to attention. Jim glanced at me, frowning. He mouthed, “Who is it?” from across the room.
“Is this Mrs. Connolly?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you a relative of George Connolly?”
“He’s my brother-in-law.”
“Can you tell me the last time you saw him?”
My breath caught. “The last time we saw George?”
Jim stood at the mention of his brother’s name.
“Is he a transient, ma’am?” Dowling asked.
I felt the baby kick.
“Hold on a sec.” I held out the phone to Jim. “It’s the San Francisco medical examiner. He’s asking about George.”
Jim froze, let out a slight groan, then crossed to me and took the phone. “This is Jim Connolly.”
The baby kicked again. I switched positions. Standing at this point in the pregnancy was uncomfortable, but so was sitting or lying down for that matter. I got up and hobbled over to Jim, put my hands on his back and leaned in as close as my belly would allow, trying to overhear.
Why was the medical examiner calling about George?
“I don’t know where George is. I haven’t seen him for a few months.” Jim listened in silence. After a moment he said, “What was your name again? Uh-huh . . . What number are you at?” He scratched something on a scrap of paper then said, “I’ll have to get back to you.” He hung up and shoved the paper into his pocket.
“What did he say?” I asked.
Jim hugged me, his six-foot-two frame making me feel momentarily safe. “Nothing, honey.”
“What do you mean, nothing?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he whispered into my hair.
I pulled away from Jim’s embrace and looked into his face. “What’s going on with George?”
Jim shrugged his shoulders and then turned to stare blankly at the TV. “We lost the game.”
“Jim, tell me what the medical examiner said.”
He grimaced, pinching the bridge of his nose. “A body was found in the bay. It’s badly decomposed and unidentifiable.”
Panic rose in my chest. “What does that have to do with George?”
“They found his bags on the pier near where the body was recovered. They went through his stuff and got my number off an old cell phone bill. They want to know if George has any scars or anything on his body so they can . . .” His shoulders slumped. He shook his head and covered his face with his hands.
I waited for him to continue, the gravity of the situation sinking in. I felt a strong tightening in my abdomen. A Braxton Hicks?
Instead of speaking, Jim stood there, staring at our blank living room wall, which I’d been meaning to decorate since we’d moved in three years ago. He clenched his left hand, an expression somewhere between anger and astonishment on his face. He turned and made his way to the kitchen.
I followed. “Does he?”
Jim opened the refrigerator door and fished out a can of beer from the bottom shelf. “Does he what?” He tapped the side of the can, a gesture I had come to recognize as an itch to open it.
“Have any scars or . . .” I couldn’t finish the sentence. A strange sensation struck me, as though the baby had flip-flopped. “Uh, Jim, I’m not sure about this, but I may have just had a contraction. A real one.”
I cupped my hands around the bottom of my belly. We both stared at it, expecting it to tell us something. Suddenly I felt a little pop from inside. Liquid trickled down my leg.
“I think my water just broke.”
Jim expertly navigated the San Francisco streets as we made our way to California Pacific Hospital. Even as the contractions grew stronger, I couldn’t stop thinking about George.
Jim’s parents had died when he was starting college. George, his only brother, had merely been fourteen, still in high school. Their Uncle Roger had taken George in. George had lived rent-free for many years, too many years, never caring to get a job or make a living.
Jim and I often wondered if so much coddling had incapacitated George to the point that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stand on his own two feet. He was thirty-three now and always had an excuse for not holding a job. Apparently, everyone was out to get him, take advantage of him, “screw” him somehow. At least that’s the story we’d heard countless times.
The only thing George had going for him was his incredible charm. Although he was a total loser, you’d never know it to talk to him. He could converse with the best of them, disarming everyone with his piercing green eyes.
Uncle Roger had finally evicted George six months ago. There had been an unpleasant incident. Roger had been vague about it, only telling us that the sheriff had to physically remove George from his house. As far as we knew, George had been staying with friends since then.
I glanced at Jim. His face was unreadable, the excitement of the pending birth diluted by the phone call we had received.
I touched Jim’s leg. “Just because his bags were found at the pier doesn’t mean it’s him.”
“I mean, what did the guy say? The body was badly decomposed, right? How long would bags sit on a pier in San Francisco? Overnight?”
“Hard to say,” he muttered.
I rubbed his leg trying to reassure him. “I can’t believe any bag would last more than a couple days, max, before a transient, a kid, or someone else would swipe it.”
Jim shrugged and looked grim.
A transient? Why had the medical examiner asked that? George had always lived on the fringe, but homeless?
Please God, don’t let the baby be born on the same day we get bad news about George.
Bad news—what an understatement. How could this happen? I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer for George, Jim, and our baby.
I dug my to-do list out from the bottom of the hospital bag.
To Do (When Labor Starts):
1. Call Mom.
2. Remember to breathe.
3. Practice yoga.
4. Time contractions.
5. Think happy thoughts.
7. Call Mom.
Oh, shoot! I’d forgotten to call Mom. I found my cell phone and pressed speed dial. No answer.
Hmmm? Nine P.M., where could she be?
I left a message on her machine and hung up.
I looked over the rest of the list and snorted. What kind of idealist had written this? Think happy thoughts? Remember to breathe?
I took a deep breath. My abdomen tightened, as though a vise were squeezing my belly. Was this only the beginning of labor? My jaw clenched as I doubled over. Jim glanced sideways at me.
He reached out for my hand. “Hang in there, honey, we’re almost at the hospital.”
The vise loosened and I felt almost normal for a moment.
I squeezed Jim’s hand. My husband, my best friend, and my rock. I had visualized this moment in my mind over and over. No matter what variation I gave it in my head, never in a million years could I have imagined the medical examiner calling us right before my going into labor and telling us what? That George was dead?
Before I could process the thought, another contraction overtook me, an undulating and rolling tightening, causing me to grip both my belly and Jim’s hand.
When my best friend, Paula, had given birth, she was surrounded mostly by women. Me, her mother, her sister, and of course, her husband, David. All the women were supportive and whispered words of encouragement while David huddled in the corner of the room, watching TV. When Paula told him she needed him, he’d put the TV on mute.
When I’d recounted the story for Jim, he’d laughed and said, “Oh, honey, David can be kind of a dunce. He doesn’t know what to do.”
Another vise grip brought me back to the present. Could I do this without drugs? I held my breath. Urgh! Remember to breathe.
I crumpled the to-do list in my hand.
Bring on the drugs.