The truth was, Mr. Libre felt sorry for his wife. He was very careful to hide it from her, of course, but day by day, through the years, as he saw her watching the shriveled half-black baby in the bottle, he felt more and more sorry for her. She would touch the bottle gently, once in a while, and run her hands fondly over the cold glass; inside, the stiff, skinless body of a four-inch boy now dead for five years, would bob up and down in the green alcohol. And then sometimes, slowly, to herself, she would smile.
Mr. Libre‘s wife was a plain woman with high cheekbones and a sad mouth, who was only twenty-nine years old but whose eyes were no longer young. Mr. Libre himself was thirty-three but graying hair and some thick corded veins on his hands made him look older. He was a small man and thin, and long hours of bending over receipts had given him a stooped posture and made him appear even smaller and thinner.
Very often, whenever he could, Mr. Libre would try to walk to his wife to get her to start talking too, but it became harder and harder for them to find things to talk about. The talk always turned to the past and how different it might have been if they‘d had children. Mr. Libre didn‘t want to talk about those things but his wife did, and gradually, the pauses stretched longer and made them both uneasy. But he was always patient with her; even if he was tired or irritable he never showed it in any way. By now he had learned to put up with many good things.
He was married when he was twenty-two and just out of high school. He had been alone in the city for four months when he met her. She understood his dialect and they got along well together. At first he wanted to go on to college but when he thought it over again, he felt that it wasn‘t fair. That would be asking too much from his wife.
They moved into a rented room which the owner said was the ground floor of a two-story building, but it was just a room actually, with thick cardboard walls to divide it into smaller rooms. They planned to move out after a few years because they thought the room would be too small for the children to come, and they hoped to have many children. But five years passed before they had their first child, and when it was only four months in the womb, it was prematurely born.
It was a boy but it didn‘t even look like a baby. It had eyes and ears and arms and its skinless body had been formed, but it was only four inches long and looked cold and raw as though it was just a piece of peeled flesh that never had life at all. Mr. Libre felt it to the nurses but his wife asked to keep it and take it home with her; he didn‘t know why, until the doctor told him that his wife knew that she could never have any more children. After that neither of them talked about it much and they slipped back to the routine of everyday living. Still he took it on himself to try to make it easier for her through the days.
One afternoon in the last busy week of January, Mr. Libre was looking over some old files in the Recorder‘s cubicle when all of a sudden he remembered that on that day the baby in the bottle was five years and seven months old. He thought no more about it but kept it in the back of his mind to tell his wife that night; she wanted to hear him talk about the baby. He went on checking the old files but when he was almost finished, his eyes hurt again and he had to go back to his desk.
Mr. Libre was a clerk in the freight department of an import-export corporation and all day he had to sit behind a high desk and sort out receipts and record them. At was not a hard job but it kept him constantly busy because there were so many receipts and he was so very careful about his work, he seldom found time to leave his desk from eight-thirty to five o‘clock every day.
He had been with the firm for nine years now and he knew his work well but still did not find it easy. It demanded so much concentration from him and there were days when it all seemed to be painfully hard but it only made him try even harder. May times he would have to focus his eyes on the pink, yellow and blue receipts and make an explicit act of the will to follow the items on them. Usually he would have to strain his eyes excessively so that often the muscles behind his eye sockets tightened and he would feel a smarting throb in his eyes. He would stop work at once and close his eyes as tightly as he could. The he would force a smile until his jaw hurt because, although that didn‘t ease the pain any, it always held back the tears. Tears always embarrasses him. They made him feel helpless.
He did not rest his eyes long because there were many late receipts that he had to go through and he went back to work on them. But after a few minutes he grew restless with the papers and he wanted to go over to the window and get a breath of air. But the window was across the room and the assistant manager was talking to a typist only two or three feet away. He tried to sit still on his high chair. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath and continued to line up the figures on the record sheet but his fingers shook and the pencil point broke under his hand. He grew annoyed with himself for being upset over a little thing like that. He was sure his wife was not having an easy day either.
Concentration always came hard to Mr. Libre because sometimes in the middle of the day he would find it impossible to keep his thoughts off the many unrelated little things that came into his mind. He would catch himself thinking of his wife eating lunch alone every day or the cardboard walls of their room that seemed to close in on them or perhaps the dead baby submerged in its bottle of green alcohol. He thought of his wife a lot but many times he thought of the baby, too.
During the first few months and on to the end of that first year, the bottle had seemed too small for the baby. It looked as though it needed a glass jar with a lid instead of that bottle with a wide mouth; it floated limply on the surface and slumped against the glass sides. But after a while the alcohol seeped through it and hardened it, and it sank stiffly to the bottom. Then little by little it blackened and shriveled up and it would neither float nor sink but bobbed up and down in its green world of alcohol and
glass. And then the bottle didn‘t seem too small for the baby any more because now the baby‘s shrunken body was completely confined. The bottle fully contained it.
Mr. Libre fully noticed too that his wife had changed. In the beginning she was no different at all, although at times she did not fall into brooding. Then slowly for no apparent reason she grew quiet and kept to herself, and that was when the baby in the bottle took a strange hold on her. He tried to understand her and be patient with her. She did not want to be the way she was, he told himself, to live in a small cramped world of her own, to look at the baby, make up daydreams about it all day, to want to touch it, hold it in her hands. She could not help any of it, he knew, and he did not stop her, and day by day he got used to her being that way. But still he felt sorry for her.
The blinds on the west window had been lowered and he knew it was getting late. He shook himself from his thoughts and worked faster because he wanted to finish the last batch of receipts for the day. It would hardly make any difference because he would be back the next day anyhow and there would always be more receipts, but there were things one should do and finishing the day‘s work was one of them. He took everything as it came and he found it possible to lose himself in his work. He wished he could do even more and he felt he owed that much to his wife.
It was almost five-twenty when Mr. Libre got up, locked his papers under his desk and shuffled out of the office. Almost everyone had gone by then except some of the typists and a secretary doing overtime. He did not look at them as he went out. He left quietly and alone.
Out in the street he hoped the crowd would not hold him up for long. Heavy traffic snarled the afternoon rush and cars and buses and people on the sidewalks hardly moved at all. On the pedestrian lanes as he waited for the go signal, it became stickily hot; no wind stirred the inert air, thick with gasoline exhaust fumes. But Mr. Libre did not mind the heat. As he crossed the street he clenched and unclenched his fists and he tried to walk as fast as the crowd would let him. He was getting impatient. He wished he were home that very minute.
He pushed the old narrow door of their room open and sat down on the first chair he saw. He felt very tired btu the chair was hard and rigid and it did not help him any; it arched his back. His shoulders felt heavy and he was breathing hard but did not rest long. His wife was in the other room. He stood up and stretched behind the cardboard wall.
His wife sat on a cat staring at the baby in the bottle. She sat in half darkness a few feet away from the table where the bottle was. From where he stood he could see sharply the hollows of her eyes and thin bloodless lips. Her face was totally without expression. Hew hands were on her lap and she sat unmoving but when he came in and she saw him, she turned slowly to him and her face broke out in a clumsy uncertain smile. It was a slow half-silly smile that twisted the corners of her mouth upwards and nothing else; her eyes remained sad and empty. He has never seen her that way before. He was afraid she did not recognize him.
He could not look at her directly. For a moment he felt it was cruel to watch her. Instead he turned to the baby in the bottle. The tiny half-black thing was drifting and circling as always in the green alcohol. But now he saw that the bottle and the alcohol and the long years had gnawed it and little by little the baby was shredding and peeling off its flesh. The bottle and the alcohol and the long years had choked and shrunk it and now were eating it up. All the time, through the years, as the baby bobbed up and down in its own cramped world, it was slowly being destroyed. And no one could do anything about it.
Mr. Libre felt helplessly hollow inside; he turned his head and shut his eyes tightly. He forced a smile until his jaw hurt because although he felt no pain in his eyes now, he wanted to make sure he could hold back the tears.