Storyglossia Issue 34, July 2009.

The Rhetorician's Baby

by Jaime Karnes


My rhetorician and I had difficulties getting pregnant. It turned out to be fertility problems on my side; a genetic defect as common as the rose colored birthmarks on my left thigh.

Oh, Doctor H had said, it's definitely you, definitely not your rhetorician. Here, he said, here's a pamphlet on adoption, really a very nice alternative in these situations.

I put the pamphlet in my purse and left it there until after dinner. Halibut and asparagus; I had been eating healthy for the baby.

Nourish yourself and he will come to you, my rhetorician said.

Here, I said, producing the pamphlet. He's not coming. May I have cheeseburger now?

At first my rhetorician found the idea of adoption preposterous and kitschy.

Asian babies are kitschy, I said.

He asked about Irish babies. Wondered if Irish babies were often up for adoption. Surely, if they were, there would be no more deserving a couple than a rhetorician and his wife.

I wanted to tell him that even with a little Dubliner there would be no guarantee of red hair, but he was set on red hair, green eyes, a freckled nose bridge and the presupposition of poetic tendencies.

And what about a predisposition of alcoholism?

Genetic evaluations would be made, he assured me.

I thought genetic evaluations were vulgar. That is vulgar, I said. We can't get one just like you.

He pushed his asparagus around the plate, elbows on the table and said, Then what is the point?

What was the point? The point was. The point is. There is no point. A baby was the point. I wanted one and I couldn't have one, so it was only proper that my rhetorician buy me one.

This isn't Williams Sonoma, he said, there are no catalogs.

Actually there were. I'd met a woman at the fertility center with chewed fingernails and big bangs; she'd given me a copy. Look, I said holding open a three-ring binder of adoption ads.

Oh, he said, turning the pages, there are a lot of options here.

I told him to flip to the back, so he flipped to the back. The back had middle-American baby mommas. (I learned to say baby momma at the fertility treatment center. It felt awkward in my mind, but flowed sensibly from the mouth.) The pictures were of hard bellies, buttons protruding, and page after page of darkening linea nigras; the markings of a boy.

I chose the biggest belly; the fullest, fattest, happiest of mommas. We agreed my choice was the best. And although we didn't know the color of the woman's hair, we determined it would naturally, for us, be perfect.

But my rhetorician decided we should interview a few. More than one would be necessary. We must pilfer the ads, find only the best. He would set-up interviews.

That night I brought a permanent black marker to bed with me. Come to bed, I called to him. The sheets were icy and I curled into a corner waiting for him.

He wore his plaid flannel sleep pants. No shirt. His chest was hairless for an orator of his maturity. He cuddled up to my backside and slid his arm beneath my pillow. His breathing was heavy, and smelled of cinnamon toothpaste.

I have a confession, he said. I was thinking about our baby momma. I was thinking about her just now in the bathroom. I couldn't help myself. I've determined our baby will be an exciting person with an affinity for social raucous.

Like me?

Like the two of us, he said, kissing my cheek.

Would you do me a favor? I asked. Would you please give me a beautiful dark line along my belly? Here, here's a marker, I said, lifting my t-shirt.

How far up would you like it to go? he asked.

Stop where it seems sensible.

The tip felt cool, and goose pimples textured my legs and arms, hairs standing up all over my body. I imagined conception felt like that very moment; the entire physical body at attention, all the teeny nerve endings celebrating together.

We should celebrate, he said.

I worried it was too soon for a party. I worried the baby mommas wouldn't like us. Would hate us. Think we sucked. Too stupid. Too structural. They could even think it strange that I already had a rhetorician and now wanted their baby.

It's too soon, I said.

Hogwash, my rhetorician said. Tomorrow, we celebrate.

I made poached eggs and whole wheat pancakes in the morning. I poured syrup beneath mine. I'd developed tricks to hide excess from my rhetorician. He did not approve of gluttony, or self-aggrandizement.

I've phoned the neighbors, he said. They'll need provisions from us in the coming weeks. I've informed them the property line is not baby proof.

How could we baby proof it?

Padding, he said, we'll pad the picket fence.

I thought that was exactly why I married him. I thought no one had ever decided on such a simple, yet brilliant solution. Brilliant.

Were the neighbors anticipating our new baby? I asked.

They send their congratulations and Maria wants to bring us a roast later in the week.

A roast. My ankles wobbled. A delicious, drunken, fatty roast. Dry pancake stuck in the back of my throat. I lifted my blouse to show my beautiful baby line.

It's growing, he said. It looks swollen a few centimeters more than last night.

Exciting, I said drenching my plate with more syrup. I expected him to scold my indulgence, but he didn't. He smiled, mouth brimming with wheat and egg. I quit worrying whether the baby mommas would accept us. No one could say no to my rhetorician.

He spent the rest of the morning in his study. It was originally called a den. A simple step-down from the living room, but he insisted we call it his study. I will be in my study, he said. He compiled a short guest list. The important people: Dr. H and his wife, the dental hygeniest; Creeley, the librarian; Louise Silver and her on again off again partner, Maureen; and others.

It is last minute, he said, but they'll come. They are filled with hope and celebration for our baby.

They are? I asked, stunned. These are the people who invite us to everything. Every briss. Every mitzvah. Every excuse to drink in the middle of the week. And we never go. We say we have a bacterial virus. Food poisoning. Bad Chinese. We say thank you for the invitation and best of luck with the foreskin, and then we always send a card. My rhetorician writes these things because he is better with words in a small space. He makes them mean more. I write like I'm trying to find something important to say. It gets bigger than the card.



I had dreamt about a party in bed so many nights rubbing my hands together with excitement. Pretending to be shy when friends would ask to touch my belly. She's a bit conservative, my rhetorician would say, massaging my shoulder.

I imagined our friends together in the kitchen with wine, toasting me in the final month. To a healthy boy! Cheers. The clinking of glasses. Mouths filled with stuffed baby portobellas and artichoke hearts. Olives. Pate. There would be the dialectic of Cicero. My rhetorician would insist Cicero as a middle name. I would, of course, say yes. Our friends would say no. Then he would say something funny and appropriate. In the end, our baby's middle name would, in fact, be Cicero. Because no one says no to my rhetorician, not even me.

I'd tried to say no to him on our first date. I said no thank you, and I've got it, and its okay, and don't worry, and no, no not this time. And then I went home with him like a smutty teenager. In the morning he gave a speech. It felt like a speech intended for a big audience, in a park someplace with reefer and muddy-footed picket holders. TO THE RHETORICIAN, their signs would say. He spoke about love. To love is to die, he said. He had died. He hoped to die over and over again. He recited poems about death and love, and one poem in Portuguese about a cat who'd survived a fall from a forty story building. Interminable love, he said.

By the end of the speech I'd calculated numerous ways to stay in his life forever.



I suspect the Carlson's will want Grey Goose, he said. And the Keelty's will want white wine. The Davenport's, what do the Davenport's drink?


Yes, well, we'll need a bit of everything, he said.

And avocados, I said. I'll make guacamole with the tomatoes from the sill garden. They're ready, you know.

He glanced at the window sill and scrunched his nose. Then he went back into his study.

I wet my face in the bathroom. I considered my pores and plucked a few hairs from between my brows. I decided I was a good looking mother. A mother whose son would be proud to say, when she arrived to fetch him from school, look there is my mother, always on time.

Two things really twist kids up: when mothers are late to pick them up, and when mothers or fathers, usually mothers, spit into a hanky to wipe their faces. During trying to get pregnant sex I'd suggested we never use our saliva to clean the baby. My rhetorician licked his thumb and ran it along my cheek. I'm almost there, he said, tugging on my hair.

I wondered how sex would be with a baby in the house. I worried. We'd had so much trying to get pregnant sex, and for so long, I couldn't remember what we did before, except the one time we did it upside down, inverted, lopsided, backsided, caddy-corner across the bed, bureau, linoleum, cement, hardwood, with the Ramones, Buddy Holly, the Clash, the Cure, and the Pixies, on wine, rum, weed, speed, and Oxycodon, but neither of us finished, so I've never been sure that time counted.

Remember that time? I said, leaning on the door of his study. Remember how good we were?

Which what?

You know, I said touching my mouth. That time.

I called the baby mommas, he said. Their voices were splendid. Articulate without trying, practically a group of linguists. I'm just so pleased. Are you pleased?

Of course, I said.

I've arranged for a few to join us this evening.

That soon?

They're due anytime now.

I struggled with the new time frame. How had my rhetorician managed this? He was convincing, yes, but not impervious to rules, not exceptional to systems; though he had, in less-similar situations, manipulated time to our advantage. Bent it. Squeezed months from it, if it were months we required. Sometimes more or less. With little effort.

Effort, he once said, is no more a defining characteristic than an inverted belly button. People either have it or they don't. Gay or straight. Blonde or Brunette. My rhetorician did not believe in gray. He did, however, believe in rapidity.

How is this happening so quickly? I said.

Don't you want this now?

I do.

I'm not one to waste time. Are you anxious?

I am.

You shouldn't worry. Worrying is weak, it reflects poorly on you.

I'm sorry.

You shouldn't feel sorry either.

How should I feel?

He motioned for me to come closer. He tapped on his lap and I sat on him. He poured two sips of brandy. Drink this, he said. It will calm your nerves. He had cajoling hands.

If he rubbed my back vertically, it meant he supported me. Horizontally, meant he pitied me. When he rubbed in circles it was that he wanted to have sex. These cues hadn't changed over the years. They, like him, were systematic. Clear and deliberate actions. So when I sat on his lap and he patted my belly, I didn't know what to think.

What happened next feels like a tickle in my memory. I keep returning to it, but it's foggy, and smeared with charms of my rhetorician. Charms I'd like to forget but can't.

I thought of something, he said, rubbing my shoulders. I had a thought that you were probably definitely not the right woman for me.

The sins of the mother will be visited upon the son, he said.

I think it's the sins of the father.

Either way, he said.

What was he saying? I stopped breathing. I noticed he did too, and this made me feel better, made me feel less alone, until I started to feel like a little girl in a man's lap who was about to smack her around. Bruise the only control she knew. The safe place in her where she hid her regret. I went in that place. Stopped up my ears with my thumbs and hummed. He tugged on my elbows.

It's okay, he said, I'm not trying to punish you.

It hurts, I said, coughing a little blood into my palm. It hurts in my stomach.

Look at you, he said. Our guests will be here soon and you're already spitting up blood.


No, he said. This is not controlled. You cannot act this way. You are not the right woman.

I am. I promised, wiping my palm on the edge of his desk. I'm not concentrating, I said.

You never do. You are failing us again. I don't think you can handle this screening process. You aren't fit for it.

I think I am.

No, you're not. What kind of baby do you want?

Healthy, I said.

Let me see the baby, he said.

There is no baby. There is no baby. Open up the binder. Look at those bellies. I am not pregnant. I wish. I mean I would rather. I mean if I could. I mean, I mean I would. But, we can't.

No, he said. You can't. You are the problem. It is your sin that will transfer to our baby. Our baby will suffer a life maligned by your weaknesses. Your inabilities. Your gluttony. This is why you are incapable of carrying one for us.

But, I said, lifting my shirt. You liked it last night, you said it was rapturous, and earlier that it was growing.

It is, he said. But not fast enough. The baby is coming soon. And you're not ready. I've offered a lot of money. I've offered to pay more money than we have for this baby. It's the only way to guarantee I adopt the right one.

I couldn't convince him otherwise. I couldn't sell myself. I couldn't win. It was over. His bloodied desk was proof. My breasts swelled and my thighs itched. The back of my neck. Soon, I was scratching all over. Hives. My eyelids closed most of the way. My throat too. I tried to get off his lap. He wrapped his arms around me tighter. Holding on. The doorbell. Two rings. Three.

I should have wiggled free. I should have stood, straightened my blouse, brushed hair from my face, licked my teeth, wet my lips and answered the door. I couldn't, the den smelled of cigar; my rhetorician's cinnamon breath and shark like grip put me to sleep. My head fell to his desk.



When I woke up the den doors were shut, the lights out. I could hear voices in the kitchen. The clinking of glasses. The party had started. Mazel-tov!

I'm in here. Wait, I whispered. My legs slept.

Let's play a game, my rhetorician announced from the other room.

Let's, they said laughing. I didn't recognize our friend's voices. They sounded strange, all high-pitched, in unison.

Let's start with you, he said. And then you. And then you. Let's see how fit you are for labor?

Everyone laughed. They sounded like a television audience. My throat was thin, narrow, hard to swallow. I punched my thighs. My legs still slept. I dragged myself across the carpet. I pulled myself up the three steps and cracked the door. I could see only tanned calves, swollen ankles, some in very low heels, most in flats, varied skirt lengths, circling the center island. More laughter. These were not our friends.

Let's all take a seat, he said, in the living area on the floor. I've set up pillows for us.

I looked at the living room. The furniture was gone, our sofas, the chaise, my armoire. There was, instead, a circle of pillows, all of our bath towels, and two duvets. My rhetorician had dimmed the chandelier lights, and turned on the electric fireplace. The tanned calves came at me, entering the room. I closed the door, leaving it barely open, just a slit of light. I could see their faces, their burgeoning bellies. These were our baby mommas. I recognized them like they were family. What was he doing with so many? I counted seven.

He helped each one down onto a pile of pillows, one at a time, like a gentleman.

He gave a speech. He said a toast to all of you, to your beautiful babies. He circled the room, touching glasses with each of the mommas. To life. It's okay, he said palming the blonde woman's head. It's cider. It's good for you and for your baby. They giggled, emptying their glasses.

My rhetorician fooled with the remote. He turned on the flat screen above the fireplace. Soothing music, he said.

I wanted to come out of the den. To say, I'm here, over here, on the floor. I'm the rhetorician's wife. I want your babies. But something about the look on my rhetorician's face stopped me. He seemed different. He had on a shirt and tie I'd never seen before. His pants were longer and cuffed; the leather of his shoes without creases. He'd slicked his hair back, exposing a widow's peak. Even his teeth seemed whiter, his shoulders broader, his hands bigger.

He flipped through the satellite stations. He stopped on a French opera. The woman's voice was not soothing. It had energy. It had tension. I didn't know my rhetorician listened to this music. I thought I should've known that. Strange, what I remember now, and what I choose to forget.

The baby mommas cooed, two at first and then all together. Oh my. And, oh whoa. And, I feel dizzy. Then, their almost lilting moans of ecstasy turned sharp. Fuck, said one of them. Fucking-a, said another. What's going on? Said a third.

Shhh. My rhetorician slow danced around them, holding one arm into the air as if he had a partner. This is the game, he said. Whomever is the best wins the money. My water broke, said the fourth. Holy fuck, said the fifth, call a doctor.

My rhetorician explained he was there for them, each of them. This will be simple, he said.

I coughed blood onto the front of my blouse. No one heard me. I remembered bleeding and falling asleep. You are not the right woman for this, he'd said. I had no way of knowing what he was planning. More blood, more coughing. I took off my shoes and socks. I pinched my toes. Nothing. The opera climaxed. The mommas screamed. I wanted to scream too. To scream no, you mustn't, you shouldn't.

My rhetorician yelled at one to wake up. I watched him shake the third at the shoulders. She'd fallen asleep, or died. I couldn't tell.

Get out here, he yelled. It's time. I need help now.

Dr. H and Creeley appeared in the corner of the living room. How had I missed them?

I'll get these two, Creeley said, kneeling between six and seven.

They're not ready yet, Dr. H said.

My rhetorician introduced Dr. H to the mommas. See, he said, nothing to worry about. A doctor is here to help with all of your babies.

The fifth momma was the first to give birth. A brown baby covered in blood, the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. Creeley cut it loose and brought the baby with him into the kitchen. I dragged myself to the desk. I knocked the cordless phone off its hook. No dial tone. I wondered why my rhetorician hadn't checked on me.

Another baby, more screams; it had a familiar cadence, it sounded like an assembly line. A moment in time covered by hard hats and safety glasses. Ear plugs, and face masks. The babies came slowly after the first two, with pounding fists, vomiting, and body spasms. Get this outta me, make it stop, you fuckers. You fucking fuckers. I covered my ears. I didn't see Creeley behind the den door until he swung it open exposing me.

Knock her unconscious, my Rhetorician yelled. I turned my head and Creeley's boot caught the left side of my face. That's the end of my memory.



When people call me now for interviews I say I don't remember. I say it's all a bit murky and smeared. Smeared? They sometimes press it. Yes, I say, smeared and greasy. People don't care much for greasy memories. Murky either.

They want details. They want to know what my rhetorician did as a child. Was he a bit off? Were there signs? Did he collect strange things? What television shows did he watch? Books he read? I always say I can't remember. Don't remember anything. I don't like having my photograph taken, or my voice recorded and recounted and distributed. I don't like the events of that night attributed to my memory. So, I am ill, they say. I have no recollection of helping him, they say. He couldn't have done it alone. I was covered in blood, they say. In placenta and afterbirth from seven women. My rhetorician did not operate singularly, they say. Admit it, they yell and spat in my face. Admit what you've done. You were a desperate woman. You'd have done anything for a baby. You'd have killed for one. You killed for him, didn't you?

For my rhetorician?

For the baby.

What are you talking about? Where is my Rhetorician?

They say he is dead. They say everyone died. All except me. That I did this, somehow. That my memories are smeared, I'm not lucid. But I know what I saw. I watched him with them. One by one. He did this, my rhetorician. They don't believe me. No one does.

You lost your baby, that's when it happened, they say.

I can't have babies.

You could, but you lost it.

Liars. All of you. Liars.

I show them my belly. The line is a scar now. How did this happen?

It's from your c-section, they say.

I never had a c-section.

They assure me I did. Their memories are glossy, clear. They tell me not to argue. They say its okay, and wipe sweat from my forehead. Good, they say. Take all the pills. Did you swallow? Show us your tongue.

Now when I sleep I don't dream about parties. I don't dream about my rhetorician or the baby mommas. I dream in white, bright white hallucinations, with black permanent marks over people's mouths. I dream they can't speak. No one speaks to me. I plug up my ears in case they try.

I wake up in sweats. Cold or hot. It doesn't matter. My breasts lactate. It's coincidental they say. They have pills for that, too. I swallow solutions three times a day from a white paper cup.

The sins of the mother will be visited upon the son. The sins of the mother will be visited upon the son.

They say I had a son. A beautiful son with red peach fuzz. That he died. That's what they tell me when I wake in the middle of the day and ask for the rhetorician's baby.

Copyright©2009 Jaime Karnes

Jaime Karnes is originally from Burlington, VT. She writes and teaches at Rutgers University. "The Rhetorician's Baby" is her first online publication. She can be reached at cellardoorcopy (at)

Interview with Jaime Karnes