A kick. That’s how it started. Charlie Everett slept a deep, snoring slumber. Ten minutes before his alarm went off: thump—a light kick in the stomach. A second stronger one woke him right up: kick-thump-thump. He threw off the covers and looked at his belly—now three times the size it was when he went to bed. He ran his hands over it. Kick-thump-thump. He jumped out of bed stark naked, the way he liked to sleep. He looked in a mirror and inhaled deeply, filling his lungs tight with air. The day Charlie Everett found out he was pregnant, cirrus clouds hung wispy in the April sky. White-on-blue. A bouffant’s upsweep. Cotton-candyish. Fair weather on the horizon. Charlie collected clouds. He knew all the cloud types: cirrus, cumulus, stratus, and nimbus. He knew how each formed and could tell from watching the sky when they would change. From daily weather reports, he determined what kind of clouds were expected. He took cloud photos with his iPhone and posted them to Facebook. His friend count was up to five thousand, mostly other cloud people. They considered him a cloud aficionado.
He taught cloud classes in his head.
Cumuli are big puffy looking clouds; cotton balls on steroids. Strati are low hanging and horizontally oblong shaped; they often have a layered look. Cirrus means “curl of hair” in Latin; these are the wispy way-up-high clouds. Nimbi are rain clouds; dark and violent, shape-shifters.
Dr. Eng acted as if the pregnancy was nothing. He told Charlie he was seven-and-a-half months along. He gave him a list of prenatal vitamins and suggested a Lamaze birthing class. Charlie sat in the exam room wearing a paper robe, his ass exposed, the robe barely covering his stomach; he cried. Dr. Eng asked him what was wrong.
“I’m a guy, and I’m pregnant,” Charlie said.
“Correct,” Dr. Eng said. “Third trimester.”
“But men don’t—”
“Why didn’t you come see me sooner?” Dr. Eng asked. “Very dangerous.
Something could have happened to you or the baby.”
“No excuses,” Dr. Eng said.
He prattled on while Charlie tried to understand. How could he be pregnant? Men don’t get pregnant. It’s impossible. How in the name of Jesus did this happen? He scratched his huge, distended, hairy belly. The baby kicked again.
“I don’t want to keep it,” Charlie said.
“You can’t abort it. You’re too far along.”
The doctor got quite upset. Dr. Eng, a Christian, did not believe in abortion, this Charlie knew.
“Well, what the hell am I supposed to do?”
Dr. Eng suggested he give it up for adoption. Then he asked if he’d ever considered going on the pill. Charlie dressed hurriedly and got the hell out of crazy ass Dr. Eng’s office. Maybe he should switch doctors. Maybe he should get a second opinion.
Outside, Charlie looked up at the sky. The cirrus clouds now replaced by cumulus—puffy, white thunderheads. He liked their playfulness—the way they moved like ballerinas pirouetting around the sky—the sun peeking in and out. He took pictures with his iPhone then sat down at a bus stop bench to post them to Facebook.
“You gotta baby comin’”?
An older woman sat down next to him. She wore a nurse’s uniform, clunky, white nurse’s shoes on her feet. Her hair covered by one of those plastic scarves that unfold like an accordion to keep the rain off.
“Yes,” Charlie said.
“When you due? You far along from the looks of it.”
“Seven and a half months.”
“Boy or girl?”
He showed her an ultrasound. She showed him a wallet photo.
“My gran’baby, DeShawn. He two. Gonna be three next month.”
e HeHer bus pulled up.
She stepped on board.
He watched her take a window seat. He waved as the bus pulled away. A thin, drippy rain fell, but Charlie remained on the concrete bench, hands placed squarely on eruptive belly; the bus shelter barely keeping him dry. Another kick jolted him, frightened him. He stood up and looked around like the thing hitting him had come from behind, outside him. What the hell was going on? From one day to the next the world topsy-turvied. He was a forty-three-year-old man, seven and a half months pregnant, and no one thought it at all odd. In fact, they seemed to believe it was the most normal thing in the world. He posted the last few cloud photos to Facebook and then made a call.
“Mom, it’s Charlie. Call me back.”
Mrs. Everett was not happy that her only child was going to be an unwed father. Not that Charlie expected her to be. She thought she’d instilled good Christian values in him. She didn’t approve of sex before marriage, and she didn’t want to know the details of how he got himself into this predicament. She also hated the idea of being a grandmother. She said it made her sound old. She managed to squeeze all of that into a two-minute phone call. Before they hung up, she told him not to smoke ’cause it wasn’t good for the baby. He didn’t know why she’d said that. He’d never smoked.
The guys at Farber’s, the glass factory where he worked, didn’t seem to notice his newfound girth. Or, if they did they didn’t say anything or assumed he’d just gotten fat. A lot of the guys at Farber’s were big. Charlie didn’t say much to anyone when he was at work. He wanted to get through his shift so he could be home in time for the five o’clock news and the weather report. The thin, blonde woman—a girl really—Lawreen Hoover, who did the weather, annoyed the shit out of him. He couldn’t understand why someone who reported the weather had huge probably fake tits and wore clothes tighter than an Eye-talian sausage in its pig gut casing. He had no choice but to watch her since WHYC was the only local news station in the Defiance, Ohio area. At least she was a meteorologist; he’d checked.
Clouds consist of four classifications: high-level clouds form above 20,000 feet and include cirrus and cirrostratus. Mid-level form between 6,500 and 20,000 feet and include altocumulus and altostratus. Low-level form below 6,500 feet and include nimbostratus and stratocumulus. Vertically developed clouds are the most familiar; called cumulus and cumulonimbus, they can grow to heights of 39,000 feet.
Defiance was Charlie’s hometown. He’d only left it once to attend Ohio State in Columbus which he’d dropped out of at the end of his freshman year. His mother still lived in his childhood home; she lived alone ever since his father died from a heart attack a few years back. Dad was screwing his girlfriend at the Red Wagon Motel out on Highway 60. His mother found him dead in the motel bed with the girlfriend, Nadine Sanchez, crying next to him. Mrs. Everett refused to go to the funeral. Nadine showed up with her three snot-nosed kids. Charlie held her while she sobbed. He was just that kind of person, sympathetic, receptive to those in crisis.
Right after he dropped out of Ohio State, he started working at Farber’s. Over the years, he’d worked his way up to Forming Department Supervisor; now he oversaw ten employees in the “hot end” operation. They worked the bottle machine line where molten glass was formed into clear glass jars for pickles, mayonnaise, and other things Americans put into clear glass jars. That was his professional life; Monday through Friday, eight in the morning to four in the afternoon. Outside of work, his personal life, he lived alone. After his college girlfriend dumped him, he rarely dated, he never married, and now he pretty much considered himself a loner. He didn’t care for most people. He thought they were a bunch of shitheads, and he’d rather just be alone.
The day after his visit to Dr. Eng, Charlie walked the downtown streets of Defiance shopping for maternity clothes. He had to find clothes more comfortable than those he owned. Something that would fit over his pregnant stomach. He remembered seeing a maternity shop once when he was downtown with his mother. He preferred the small mom-and-pop shops to the big box stores. Less chance of seeing someone he knew. The damp streets and sidewalks glistened when the sun emerged from behind dark clouds. A morning shower, about an inch that lasted a half-hour, would be the extent of the day’s precipitation. Clear skies forecast for the remainder of the day; a dismal day for cloud watching. Defiance (“A Great Place to Live”), a small-sized Midwestern town, population 16,494, located at the intersection of the Maumee and Auglaize rivers, was still waking up on this Saturday morning in early April. A chill breeze pushed off the rivers and coursed along the empty downtown streets; most of the businesses housed in one and two story red brick buildings not yet open for business.
Charlie trudged along Clinton near West 2nd Street—moving heavily now, the protruding baby belly causing newfound discomfort, his hairy stomach sticking out from a too tight white-T-shirt—until he found the shop. He stood outside the store and looked at his watch: nine o’clock exactly. The hours posted on the glass front door indicated Saturday’s hours as nine to five. A woman’s face appeared in the glass door, and Charlie stepped back. Turned tumblers clicked when she unlocked the door.
“Looks like you could use some maternity clothes,” she said. “Come on in. Let’s see what we can do for you.”
No shock or even mild surprise that he was pregnant, Charlie noticed stepping inside. Maybe he was actually going insane, and this was all just a dream. Any minute now, he’d wake up, un-pregnant.
“About seven or eight months, I’m guessing.”
“Seven and a half,” Charlie told her.
She stood before him looking at his stomach.
“How did you know?”
“They tend to sit lower.”
She pulled a few smocks off racks and displayed them for him.
“My other male customers like these,” she said. “Not so girly, you know what I mean?”
Solid colors, blue, green, and brown, all cotton, two big pockets in the front, sleeveless or with sleeves. Her other male customers? he thought. There were others like him? He’d never seen any pregnant men in Defiance.
“Would you like to try them on?”
He purchased one of each color, all sleeveless, and two pairs of stretchy maternity pants, blue. He’d try them all on at home; return them if they didn’t fit.
Outside, walking back to his truck, he heard his name. He turned around and Sheila, his ex-girlfriend, approached.
“Why, Charlie Everett, when did that happen?”
She ran her hand over his stomach then hugged him. He attempted to kiss her on the cheek but ended up getting her eye instead.
“I hadn’t heard about this,” she said. “Congratulations. You’re going to make the best dad. I just know it.”
“Uhm, yeah, thanks.”
He moved away from her, a few steps forward; the direction he needed to go.
“I gotta go,” he said. “I have to get home. Good to see you.”
He kept walking away, fast.
“Wait, we haven’t caught up.”
“Yeah, I’m good,” he said.
“Are you still mad at me?”
He didn’t answer. And, yes, he was. Sheila: still a reminder of all the shit that never went right for him. They met at Ohio State, both meteorology majors. He flunked out of the first year science courses, just not smart enough. She graduated and now she worked for the National Weather Service as a meteorologist—a job he’d always wanted. Her most egregious deed, the reason he no longer cared to see her: she dumped him for his best friend, Ted “Nimrod” Niemirowski. He couldn’t forgive either of them. Bygones would never be bygones with those two.
Fast waddling, out of breath, he climbed into the cab of his ’98 Chevy pickup and rolled down the window. He pushed the bag of brand new maternity clothes onto the floor in front of the passenger seat and glanced into the side view mirror to see if Sheila had followed—no sign of her. With his head sticking out of the driver’s side window, he sucked spring air into his lungs. He looked up hoping for clouds. The sky, clear, blue, and empty. The storm clouds from earlier cleared off. He leaned his head against the headrest and closed his eyes; rested for five minutes. Calmer, still wishing for clouds, eyes remaining closed, he gently rubbed his stomach and imagined floating up, into the sky, like a weather balloon, bloated abdomen leading the way. Up, up and away, higher and higher, up into the ether to the places clouds lived. Floating, safe, unreachable, no plans to return. He floated with the clouds as they shape-shifted, up, over, around and through, somersaulting. A bliss unknown on earth. Up, over, around and through, giggling. A loud pop, an explosion, a car driving by that backfired, burst his reverie and plunged him back to earth. Eyes popped open, and he started the truck; he pulled into Defiance’s Saturday morning traffic and headed home.
At eight months Charlie decided to try a Lamaze class. Held in a dingy storefront sandwiched between a Happiness Relax Foot Massage place and a Golden Dragon Take-Out restaurant in a still crappier strip mall called the Sunset Shopping Centre, he almost didn’t go in. Taking a Lamaze class a sign of acceptance: he truly was pregnant, and he really was going to have a baby. Learning how to give birth freaked the hell out of him. Him delivering a full-term baby? How? Where would it come out? He didn’t have the same bodily orifices as a woman. A caesarean? Too horrible to even consider. No, nope, no way, not going to happen. He couldn’t think about it, any of it, he wouldn’t, he won’t. He did his best to put it out of his mind; he pulled the door open and stepped inside.
“Hi, welcome, I’m Joanne.”
“Hi, I’m Charlie.”
“You can take those over there.”
She pointed to two oversized square pillows on the floor. A few other couples sat in a circle waiting for class to start. He could swear he knew Joanne, the instructor. Did they go to school together? Could be. Who could remember? Her bleach blond hair and tanning booth tan didn’t make her look any younger. Or more attractive, Charlie thought. He sat down next to a young couple. The guy looked like a gangbanger; he even had a teardrop tattoo below his left eye. Didn’t that mean he’d murdered somebody? They’re probably Mexicans, he thought. There were so many in Defiance now. At the plant too. A couple of them his work buddies. Good people. Wary of the gangbanger, he gave him the occasional sidelong glance, double-checking to see if he was a bad dude or only dressed liked one.
Since he had no partner, Joanne taught the class while acting as Charlie’s other half, or his “labor support partner” as she called the men. Sitting behind him she struggled to wrap her arms around his midsection. He felt uncomfortable having someone that close to him. Such a long time since sex with Sheila. And Sheila about the only female he’d ever been with. He didn’t like touching other people, especially strangers. Rather than relaxing, the breathing exercises only made him more nervous.
“Breathe in slowly,” Joanne said. “Count to six on the inhale. Then exhale slowly counting to eight, and repeat. You men try to match your wife’s breathing. Six seconds in, eight seconds out. In and out slowly.”
Charlie felt her tits tight up against his back as he breathed. She matched his breaths—her tits going up and down with each mutual breath—like they were one, a unit. He started to sweat from the top of his head. Perspiration ran into his eyes. He wiped his sopping-wet brow and sweaty face on his shirtsleeve. He tried to breathe as she instructed—in and out slowly. She repositioned her hands on his stomach, and it tickled him. Then the baby kicked super hard. He jumped up and ran out the door.
For a long while, Charlie sat in his truck with the air conditioning on high. Breathing like in class: in and out slowly. In-and-out-slowly. His pounding heart finally returned to normal. He pulled the truck out of the Sunset Shopping Centre parking lot, unsure if he’d ever be returning to Joanne’s Lamaze class. Maybe natural childbirth wasn’t for him. Sun visor down to block the late afternoon sun, the cloudless sky was now cerulean blue. He knew most people treasured a clear blue sky, but he didn’t. He preferred a sky with clouds. They gave texture to it. They told a story of what was to come and what had been weather-wise. A sky without clouds didn’t say anything to anybody, as far as he could see.
The backyard of the two-story clapboard house Charlie rented faced an empty field. He chose the house because he could see big sky out the windows. He had neighbors to either side but not behind him. Perfect for cloud hunting. After the Lamaze debacle, he retreated to his safe place only leaving to go to work or run the odd errand. Otherwise, he holed up at home and waited. He didn’t tell anyone else—family or friends—about the pregnancy. The guys at work were a clueless bunch of idiots and still had no idea about his condition, and he left it that way. But his mother warmed to the idea of becoming a grandmother and brought him home-cooked meals. Her tuna noodle casserole, his favorite; dishes prepared with fresh vegetables, soups, roast chickens, healthy food. Stuff that would be good for the baby. She smoked on his porch when she visited.
Charlie didn’t inform his Facebook friends about his new status either. He posted fewer and fewer cloud photos, and his followers protested. The rare times he looked at his page there were hundreds of comments asking him what had happened, where he’d gone, is everything okay. He didn’t respond. When he did post the occasional cloud photo which he always captioned with the location, the date, and the time, it felt like a duty rather than something he enjoyed. A new preoccupation consumed his time and energy. He continued photographing clouds, he would never stop doing that, but sharing them no longer seemed important.
High-level clouds appear in a stunning array of colors when the sun is low on the horizon. Mid-level clouds can also be made up of ice crystals when temperatures are cold enough. While low-level clouds might contain ice particles and snow if the temperature drops sufficiently. Vertical clouds release amazing amounts of energy through the condensation of water vapor within the cloud itself.
One early evening, Charlie sat in a rocker on his back porch and watched the westward horizon, daylight stealing from the sky, cirrus clouds, burnt orange, up high. The baby stirred—a slight bump—he placed his big palm on his stomach, rubbing, soothing, and cooing to it. It just happened—he’d changed his mind. Now at nine months, the baby had been a part of him for six weeks, growing and moving and eating and sleeping inside him. A tiny being much like the clouds he loved, floating and bobbing and weaving—alive, kinetic energy. He liked the idea of a little life maturing inside him, and now he wanted to keep it. He called the baby “Cloud” and told it cloud stories.
And in his free time, he prepared for Cloud’s arrival:
He checked out books on pregnancy and early childhood development from the library. Mrs. Hodgett, the librarian, who must be 102 by now, and who’d known Charlie since he was a boy, congratulated him on his pregnancy. They’re not for me, he told her. They’re for a friend. He could tell she didn’t believe him. He’d always found her way too nosy for her own good. He didn’t want her knowing his business. He didn’t want anyone knowing his business.
He shopped on Amazon and Babies R Us for baby clothes, and for things he’d need for the nursery like a bassinet and a changing table. He spent hours reading reviews, comparing products and prices, making sure to find the best overall value. After the fifth delivery, Vern, the UPS guy, wanted to know who was having a baby. He knew Charlie lived alone. It’s for a cousin, Charlie lied, quickly closing the door.
He followed mommy bloggers, and even joined a few online forums for expectant mothers where he asked a ton of questions, and got a ton of answers back. His handle was AliceExpect1 and his avatar a cartoon of a blonde woman with cat-eye glasses. None of the mommies suspected he was actually a man.
He even converted the second bedroom into a nursery, painting all the cloud types including their names onto a blue ceiling. No son of his would be cloud-illiterate. The Mexican painter he hired to help him kept looking at his belly saying, Hay un bebé? Hay un bebé? Something about a baby.
Dr. Eng gave Charlie a due date of June the twenty-fifth, a Sunday. In the final few weeks of his pregnancy, the cloud dreams started. Every night, Charlie floated up amongst the clouds, all types of clouds: wispy cirrus, puffy cumulus, low-hanging stratus and dark nimbus, somersaulting and pirouetting, head over heels, weightless, giggling and laughing. In each dream, he was no longer pregnant. He was back to his normal weight; no more protruding stomach. After the fifth day of this, he woke up confused and afraid. Why was he pregnant? He shouldn’t be. Men don’t get pregnant. How the hell was it going to come out of him? It wasn’t physically possible. Would it be like a horror film? Like Alien? A messy, bloody eruption from his stomach? His guts sprayed all over the place? The baby kicked hard. Oooph! He expelled air via nose and mouth, and he farted. Yep, still pregnant.
One week before his due date his mother threw him a baby shower. She insisted. He didn’t have the energy to protest. Once his mother set her mind to something, there was no changing it. She invited a couple of guys from work, Jed and Ralph. They chipped in together and bought a case of Coors Light. Free grub and any excuse to drink drew them like flies to cow shit. Mrs. Everett Googled Sheila and invited her; a surprise to Charlie. She told Charlie she was sorry for dumping him. Charlie thought she might be coming back because of the baby. Like maybe they’d get back together, and she’d be the mother. The party lasted an hour and a half, and Charlie couldn’t wait for everyone to leave. He kept the gifts in their original boxes so he could return them. He didn’t want their shit. He already had what he needed. The guys drank all the beer and stumbled down the front steps when they left. His pregnancy now a seemingly normal event to them—like they’d known plenty of pregnant men. Before she left, Sheila told him she was getting married—again. Her third husband. Guess he was wrong about her wanting to get back together with him. Everyone was still a shithead.
The day Charlie Everett was due he woke up early. He was particularly excited as it was going to be a spectacular cloud day. The weather had been so topsy-turvy that he expected to see multiple cloud formations throughout the day. iPhone ready as the sun rose; Charlie sat in the backyard drinking his morning coffee, his bare feet tickled by the damp overgrown lawn. Cirrus clouds mixing with the first rays of sunlight provided a fiery, orange sky like he’d seen in paintings by famous French artists at the museum in Toledo. The wind blew as the sun climbed from the east and cirrus became cumulus; orange gave way to big white, puffy clouds which hung quite still in the sky. Charlie took photo upon photo. The clouds shifted; pirouetting like in his dreams. Over, around and under. Snapping away he stood and followed their movements, iPhone screen up to his face. He added effects before taking the next shot. He moved toward the clouds as they escaped to the west.
Clouds, ethereal and untouchable, float in the Earth’s troposphere, the lowest part of Earth’s atmosphere, moving with the wind; they owe their existence to upward vertical motions of air. The color of a cloud, as seen from Earth, tells a story of what is happening inside the cloud. Visible from space, clouds appear as a white veil surrounding the planet.
Across the lawn; stumbling once on a gopher hole, Charlie followed the visible mass of liquid droplets. Out across the open field behind his house, he felt lighter and lighter, like his feet bounced on gigantic marshmallows with each step, pushing him higher and higher up into the sky, up so high, floating, and when his heart stopped, Charlie watched, in awe, as he floated further up, his inflated baby belly leading the way, lifting him higher and higher, and even higher, like a lost birthday balloon disappearing into the upper ether echelons. Earth retreating below. Smaller and smaller. Gone. With the clouds. Now, the cumulus turned to nimbus, dark-gray, portentous. Laden with precipitation. Cracks of thunder, lightning strikes, and a downpour that turned the daytime sky dark-as-night black.
C. Gregory Thompson, a Pushcart Prize nominee, lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes fiction, nonfiction, plays,and memoir.His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Five to One,Cowboy Jamboree, Full Grown People,The Offbeat,Printers Row Journal, Reunion: The Dallas Review. He was named a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s 2015 Fiction Contest. His short play Cherry won two playwriting awards. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert. Follow him on Twitter.