Handbasket

By Ted McCagg

Cartoons

We were somewhere in Colorado after driving the day through Nevada and Utah, and we had miles ahead to go. The sun had set only a few minutes before, the twilight dimming over racing lengths of the Colorado River that we raced in turn, and the blue-edged black of early night was swiftly flooding the sky; we pulled into a gas station below a ridge lined with fast-food restaurants. Their signs were electric and bright against the deepening dark of the winding hills we’d driven behind us, and the plastic yellows and reds made the clean white and green panels of the gas station look more natural, somehow.

We were the only customers until a young couple in a black SUV pulled in across the empty lot. They stood close together on the other side of their car while they filled up, and talked in low voices. They both wore jeans and dark hooded tops; he put out a hand and touched her shoulder, awkwardly.

The distance from horizon to horizon above us, above the buildings and the highways, was vast, in its size, in its overwhelming impartiality. Dust from the road blew across the concrete beneath us; it settled and then passed as the breeze picked back up, and swept out into the shadows and the emptiness of the mountains and the valleys.

*

We were somewhere in West Texas and the man with the gut overhanging his belt was smiling as he spoke. Sweat beaded at his temples and he wore expensive-looking sunglasses under the white brim of his faded baseball cap. He was looking at Zara so I assumed he was talking to her; through the thickness of his accent I had no idea what he was saying. I kept the handle down and watched the numbers on the pump gauge race higher and higher. We’d come too close to running the tank empty. We’d been driving with the fuel light on for the last few hundred miles of old derricks and faded red soil and scrub. The orange LED had become increasingly apparent with every cresting hill that revealed nothing ahead but more of the same wide flats.

The air-conditioned convenience store of the gas station was a world away from the harsh dry oven heat of the morning outside. I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from the fridges and a pack of jerky from the display hooks and walked to the counter.

I paid with card and as soon as I’d signed the receipt and handed it back the lights flickered once and shut down. With a last despairing whine, the air conditioning choked into silence. Instantly the interior fell into shadow and the air turned still.

Customers groaned. The counter staff, a trio of women between fifty and sixty, fluttered to the computer and tried helplessly to turn it on.

‘Sorry,’ one of them called. ‘No gas. The pumps have gone too.’

Another minute and we would have been stuck here until the power came back. I made my way to the backroom bathrooms using the light of my phone’s screen to light the windowless corridor. When I came back out the power was still off. We got back into the car and drove away, leaving behind us the powerless gas station and the waiting customers, waiting still.

*

We were somewhere in Mississippi and we’d just crossed over both the state line and another one of the endlessly long bridges across the water. It was afternoon and I’d texted a photo of the road ahead of us to Joe Daly in San Diego. I was writing a text to someone else when I pressed a wrong button on my phone and it deleted the three weeks’s worth of conversation we’d been having.

The sun was over the sea and behind the ragged ghosts of clouds it was in glory; Zara reached down into her bag for her camera and passed it over to me.

Soon the long green marshes and waterways gave way to concrete sidewalks and suburban buildings and we found a low-roofed gas station circled with pickup trucks, with mothers in pulled-back ponytails and busy walks, with teen basketball players and laughing men in singlets holding beer cans. As we stood by the entryway a man with a head of tangled brown hair and a thin, scratchy beard walked up to Zara with carefully deferential steps. With all politeness, in a voice like road gravel and iron filings, he said hello.

‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ he asked. ‘Do you suppose I could buy a cigarette from you?’

Zara smiled and gave him one, waving away his offer of money.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and held it up to us happily, almost as if brandishing a prize. ‘First one I’ve had since I got out of jail this afternoon.’

*

We were somewhere in New Mexico and Zara was inside the gas station, buying something to drink on the road. I was leaning against the rough stone rear wall around the corner from the automatic doors, smoking. I’d barely lit up when the big Native American standing next to his truck straightened up and walked over to me.

‘Hey man,’ he said. ‘How are you today?’

He looked like he was somewhere past forty years old. He had a battered black cowboy hat and his face was solid and scarred and round. He wore a weathered denim jacket and a t-shirt that was rumpled and old over the size of his torso, all slack with fat and slouching muscle.

‘Well, thanks, man,’ I said. ‘How about you?’

He nodded once or twice at that, looked away, looked back.

‘Pretty good,’ he said.

He looked away, looked back.

‘That’s some accent you got there,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’

His voice was slow and deep; melodic within a single register and unfettered by any trace of emotion.

‘Australia,’ I said. ‘Melbourne, Australia.’

‘An Aussie,’ he said, pronouncing the middle sibilants with hissing American esses, rather than buzzing Australian zeds. ‘Wow, you’re far from home.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling. ‘I’m on a road trip with a friend of mine.’

‘OK,’ he said, and looked away, looked back.

‘Chester Healy is my name,’ he said, and he stuck out a hand. We shook, and his grip was even in its strength.

We spoke, and I started to notice his speech fell into a pattern free of any of the flowing syntax I associated with conversation. He broke his replies apart with that curious look away, look back, wordless every time. Our talk fell into question, response, pause. Question, response, pause.  And Chester Healy casually, unthinkingly, dropped curses where they seemed out of place, further breaking the rhythm of his words.

‘So where have you been to?’ he asked, and he lit a cigarette.

‘Oh, everywhere,’ I said. ‘We started in LA, we drove out to New York across the north, then came down South through Washington and through Louisiana and Texas, and now we’re headed back to LA.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Washington,’ he said, saying the word as if it had some further importance than any other. ‘So did you get to see that fuckin’ nigger they got there, the one who keeps throwing his weight around?’

‘Of course,’ Chester Healy said, after a pause, look away, look back, ‘My wife is a black lady, so I can’t say too much. She gives me a hard time when I say fuckin’ things like that.’

Zara came around the corner then, and I introduced her. Chester Healy looked around at the cars at their petrol pumps and rubbed a hand across his chin.

‘I better be movin’ on,’ he said. ‘Things to do.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Say, do you have a spare couple bucks?’ he asked.

I only had a five in my wallet, and I handed it over. He shook my hand again. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘If you’re going near Flagstaff, watch out for smoke. I heard it fuckin’ over the radio. That whole place is fuckin’ on fire.’

His face, for the first time, split into a grin.

‘It sure was nice to meet you though,’ he said. ‘Never met a real live Aussie before.’

*

We were somewhere in Nebraska and I was drinking Red Bull. Zara had never tasted it and she sipped from the can and pulled a face.

‘Is it always that sweet?’ she asked, and shook her head. ‘I’ll stick with coffee, I think.’

I smiled and tipped the can up to swallow the last of it. The sweet, faintly chemical taste of energy drink was cold and sharp. A tingling wave ran over my scalp and I resisted the urge to run my hand through my hair.

For no apparent reason, the gas station garden beds were dotted with cheerful plastic dinosaurs. In lime green they stood watch over the roads leading into and out of the place, wet with the faint haze of rain that gently soaked the air.

*

We were somewhere in South Carolina and we’d been driving through a morning of thick, sweet-smelling warmth on our way to Charleston. The roads were overgrown and verdant at the sides, and pleasant in their dense miles of dark and leafy green. The night before we’d pulled in to the deserted parking lot of a small and modern-framed church to plot our route and the air had been awash with the scent of cinnamon.

It was sunny and the highway was lined with white honeysuckle. The plants were reaching and alive; long, long vines strung the trees further back into the woods. We drove into a gas station and when I got out of the car the sunshine was a gentle heat on my back. A flock of birds flew overhead in a long V and one of them called out a whistling arpeggio. Away in the foliage, another bird, unseen, called back.

Zara went inside while I worked the pump, and we passed each other at the doors as I walked in to get something to eat. I wandered through the aisles and the attendant kept a curious eye on me as I walked back to her with a handful of muesli bars.

‘So…’ she said slowly, in the first true Southern accent I’d heard on the road. She was pretty, in a plump, flushed way, and her sharp-collared white shirt was open two buttons at the neck. Her hair was streaked blonde and she wore golden rings. ‘Where are you all from?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m from Australia.’

‘Well,’ she said, and she smiled and leaned in towards me, ‘That lady out there in the car? I don’t know who she is to you, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.’

‘Ah,’ I said.

I returned to the car and as I was pulling my seatbelt on I told Zara what the woman inside had said.

‘Right,’ Zara said. ‘That explains why she was smiling and nodding so much.’

*

We were somewhere in Iowa and the storm had finally broken. The rain had come down in pounding torrents as we crossed the swollen Mississippi, and it had thrown hard across highways where the only guides through the blattering screens of water across the windshield were the fading red brake lights of the cars ahead, but for now, the clouds were exhausted, and holding back their recovering strength.

The turnoff to the gas station took us up a winding spiral road that wrapped around a hill in the middle of nowhere, nothing more than a place for people who need to refuel. The lot was busy with traffic, so we filled up and then moved the car to park by the embankment around to the side.

People bustled inside, talking to each other across the racks of road stop clothing, filling up cups of coffee at the dispensers, poring over the dried-out convenience foods in heating cases. Zara was fascinated by the hangers full of Jesus t-shirts emblazoned with psalm numbers and sorrowing pictures of the Saviour on the cross. She searched through them while I went to the counter to pay.

A bald man in rimless round glasses was there, talking to the clerk, and the two of us struck up a conversation. He’d been the principal of the local school for twenty years – appropriately, he looked like James Tolkan, the principal from the Back to the Future movies.

He was friendly, and we spoke a little about how long he’d lived out here, in this quiet space far away from the cities. He asked if I knew much about Iowa, and I mentioned Field of Dreams. He laughed at that, and we traded lines back and forth. He saw a lot of truth, he said, in the one about Heaven.

When I got back outside the air was cool and damp. Down below the top of the hill, soft green land stretched out, far into the distance. The sky was a rolling patchwork of light greys, and close. The breeze blew, only slightly, and I looked out to the smoky wisps of rain on the horizon, away on the edge of seeing, and then back to the peace of the place at hand.

I should say that I have never thought of myself as Christian. Even before my Catholic mother definitively settled the running custody battle by leaving the state without warning, I had spent enough time and high holy days with my father’s urbane, agnostic, Jewish clan on Long Island to establish firmly my identity as a New York Jew. Now, married to a Jew and raising my kids Jewish, I am the one who stands firm against assimilation, saying no to Christmas trees and telling my boys unequivocally that Santa does not come to our house. I don’t tell them, but Christmas exists for me, in a way.

There was a time when my mom wasn’t around, the stretch when cocaine addiction and other demons caused everything to fall apart, sending her back to the reluctant care of her mother in Iowa. When that happened, I was seven years old and New York City was my whole world. Iowa was a concept without substance, a sort of void you could call on the telephone and fill up with notions. Since it was Fall when my mom disappeared to there, and December when she started calling and telling me about the snow and the country quiet she could see through the window from her bed, Iowa turned into a sort of abstract Christmastime wonderland in my head.

After she left, my mom also told me why she had left. It was an absurd, horrible story, about how some enemies of hers from the Portland, Oregon, branch of the mafia (I know) had hired my father and grandfather to break into her apartment in Brooklyn and inject a huge amount of cocaine into her nose with one of those four-pointed needles they use to give tuberculosis vaccines, so that her inevitable death would look like an overdose (I know!). But of course, my mother’s flinty midwestern grit was too great for them, and though she collapsed and hit her head on a typewriter and didn’t wake up for days, she survived and fled to Sioux City. I didn’t know what to make of this narrative, which, among other things, apparently placed me in the care of a shlumpy, overweight computer programmer who moonlighted as a mob hitman. I loved my dad too much to believe that he really could have done this, but I loved my mom too much to think she was lying. (Also, I was seven.) So the story settled into a nebulous region of half-truth – true insofar as an injustice had been visited upon my mom, but inaccurate as to my dad’s involvement.

One way or another, I needed my missing mom desperately. She had turned rather suddenly from a six-foot-tall, combat-boot-wearing Brooklyn superhero to a frail voice from out of the snowy void, describing old-time country Christmas traditions and bizarre criminal conspiracies, alluding cryptically to her illness and her recovery. So I grabbed onto Christmas as a lifeline. I picked out a delicate glass ornament to send her as a gift, off into the snowy nothingness of Iowa, a life preserver tossed to a castaway unseen amid the waves. I imagined that ornament sitting on my mom’s bedside table, giving her strength to get better and come back to Brooklyn, to me. Since then, I have always associated Christmas with hopeful struggle, with a distinctly Iowan chin-up optimism in the face of cold weather and poverty and December’s crowding darkness.

The next year my mom came back and found an apartment on Ocean Avenue, and my dad grudgingly let me spend most of December with her. She was jobless and weird and government cheese-poor, and I spent most of my school vacation with the other kids in the building, tearing up and down the fire escapes and across the roof and through the basement, or in my mom’s little apartment doing arts and crafts, baking bread in old cofee tins, and stringing popcorn and cranberries on thread to decorate the Christmas tree my mom had gotten free from Our Lady of Refuge.

Our trips out of the house could generally be divided into three categories: going to church, going to local charities for food and other handouts, and walking Jackie, a runty terrier mix my mom had adopted and imbued with a dubious back story of neglect and survival. I didn’t really understand the import of the food pantries and the free gift grab bags at the church, but I could sense the desperation of my mom’s situation. At one point, a gap-toothed Jamaican in painter’s coveralls came to the apartment and gave my mom a bag of weed, then argued with her about money while I pretended to draw in the bedroom. Later, a jittery crackhead friend came over and my mom sent him away with a loaf of bread. My mom explained to me that the only “fancy” presents we would have would come from the church, but that we should spend our time in the week before Christmas making gifts. She would sit in the window with a cup of tea, holding a big magnifying glass to the winter sun to burn patterns into blocks of wood she’d found in the trash.

On December 23, it was cold with flurries, and we stayed in for most of the day baking bread and cookies and painting Christmas cards for each other with watercolors. We had corned beef hash on toast for dinner (“In the army,” my mom said cheerfully, “they call it ‘shit on a shingle’”), lime Jell-O for dessert, then a joint for my mom while I sipped sweet, milky tea. Before bed we took Jackie out for a walk, away from the bustle of Ocean Avenue and into the quiet blocks of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood that abutted the busy thoroughfare. As we headed out, my mom reminded me to keep my eyes open as we passed garbage cans, as people were likely to dispose of old but still useful items when new things came as Hannukah gifts.

My mom and I took turns surveying the trash by the kerb and holding Jackie, who strained energetically at the leash and barked at the distant rumble of trucks. I found a pair of running shoes, used but in decent condition. They were much too big for me, and too small for my mom, but she tucked them under her arm anyway. Later, she found a box full of decorative tin medallions, which would ultimately join the popcorn and cranberries on our old-time, unelectrified Christmas tree. Finally, as we were nearing Avenue K and the end of the block of single-family houses, my mom veered from the sidewalk onto a snow-dusted lawn, toward nothing in particular that I could see. Without breaking stride, she swept her hand low like an infielder charging a slow grounder and snatched something there, a leaf or a crumpled piece of paper, I couldn’t tell. While Jackie pulled obliviously against my grip on the leash, my mom turned to me with a triumphant grin, her left arm still clutching our bundles of found items. In her right hand she held a twenty-dollar bill.

The next day, with that twenty snuggled safely in the pocket of her old army jacket, my mom and I began our one lasting Christmas tradition. We took a long walk to the Salvation Army on Flatbush Avenue, a mighty, multi-story repository of the cast-off things of Brooklyn. My mom had the cashier give us two tens, and we split up, each of us with our found fortune and half an hour to buy the perfect gift for the other. We agreed that I would go to the upstairs checkout and she would go downstairs, and we would make sure to have our purchases well swaddled in shopping bags before we met at the front door.

I remember that I got her a set of lemonade glasses and a tray, etched with a 1950s space-age pattern that matched the linoleum top of her little kitchen table. We took turns wrapping the presents in the back room of her apartment, and because my present to her was five pieces (four glasses and a tray), the patch of white fabric that my mom had fringed around our little tree seemed bountifully laden with presents. We ate chicken soup and fresh bread in round, coffee-can sized slices, and my mom let me have a cup of coffee so I could stay up for midnight mass. The church was on Foster Avenue, over a mile away, and I ended up falling asleep slung over her big bony shoulder on the walk back, waking up in the lurching, foul-smelling elevator of our building, groggy and cold and eager to open presents. My mom had bought me a Swiss Army knife and an old army canteen, which seemed like the coolest presents in the world, and we fell asleep together on the couch in the living room with Christmas music playing on the radio.

As I got older, I gained some perspective on what had happened when my mom went away. In my teenage years when I saw people high on coke, I realized how strangely familiar their behavior seemed, how it reminded me of the time when my mom had grabbed me and run away from parked electric company vans, explaining that they were there to spy on us. By then my mom had moved to Philadelphia and I had moved with my dad to Oregon, and I was pretty content never to see her and barely to talk to her. When I went back to New York for college, I saw her once a year out of obligation, and she bailed on my graduation at the last minute, claiming a potential Philly mob hit had forced her once again to flee to Iowa.

By the time my wife and mother met, on our wedding day, I had pretty much edited my mom out of my identity. I had defined myself as a New York Jew, the sort to scoff at Christmas trees and go to the movies on Christmas day. It didn’t matter that my mom was Catholic, that I had probably been to as many Christian religious services as Jewish ones. As our sons got older, I didn’t hesitate to tell them that Christmas, while perfectly lovely, was not for us.

This year, December brings difficult times for our family. A hoped-for raise at my job has been held up by budget concerns, I forgot to submit and invoice for freelance work, and now we find ourselves shuffling money from savings to checking, transferring balances, thinking about moving to a smaller house. And suddenly, on Christmas morning, I realize the holiday is inspiring in me the slightly silly, middle-American optimism that it did when I was about the age that my older son is now. Somehow, I say to myself, this will work out. We will drink sweet tea and eat chicken soup and find twenty bucks on the street. We will do arts and crafts and listen to the radio. We will be OK.

We woke up in Des Moines, home of the infamous Carol and our war-wounded late-night ex-USMC saviour, G. Smith, to the sight of puffy grey clouds flowing sluggishly across the sky through the hotel room window. There was mist rising from the river, and the concrete pavings outside the hotel lobby doors had that thin dampness that speaks of moisture seeping out of the air, rather than rainfall.

The coyote is lying on the side of the road. Lazily, softly, as if it is sleeping. But dead—this is obvious. A dead coyote, the color of maple, with thick, lustrous fur that makes it seem pettable and friendly. My tires whiz by its body with one final indignity: the spraying of filthy sleet.

The air outside is frigid. It is early morning, January, and from the gunmetal sky fat snowflakes fall quickly to the earth. I notice how long the coyote’s ear is, splayed backward and open, now quietly filling with snow.

A little further up the road is another coyote, in similar posture. Then 50 yards later, one more. A trio of coyotes, struck down, I imagine, in quick succession. Perhaps they were a family. Perhaps each was running to the aid of its fallen mother or brother. At the thought of this, I almost start to cry.

The snow starts falling even faster now, in a diagonally blowing wing that howls faintly and whips around my car. I slow my old Saab, make sure the lights are on, but the other traffic, I notice, is moving at its usual highway pace of about 90 miles an hour.

I have a baby in the car with me, just two months old. She rides, well-anchored, facing toward the back. I peer at her car seat in my rearview mirror, and my heart stutters. My baby, Muirgen, sees no dead coyotes; she only hears the music on the radio or the soft cadences of my voice. I take her to the art museum where I work. She lies quietly underneath a baby gym or in my arms as I make phone calls. I nurse her and type with one hand.

But I hate to drive anywhere with my baby. I hate to leave the house. Catastrophe and death, I fear, await us, as if we too were coyotes, scrounging for food in the wasteland of winter fields, dodging speeding semis and Jeeps in our quest for a small puddle of water from which to drink.

I can picture clearly the accident that will kill us. It plays in my mind like a film. I feel the steering wheel spin through my helpless hands as the car flies off the road, flips in the air. There is a pause, during which time we hang upside down, wondering, suspended, What is happening? Is this real?

I can almost hear the delicate whisperings of angels as they hover by our impending wreck. But this is not reassuring—instead, it is terrifying—and then angel whispers are drowned out by a crash, massive and final. Glass and metal crush and smash. I scream and reach out for my baby, but we are both strapped in too tightly, unable to escape.

This is the scene that I picture when I drive or even think about getting into the car. There are more scenes, equally horrible.

I picture my child burning alive, myself overcome with smoke, unable to rescue her. I see her in a tiny coffin, being lowered into the ground. I cannot bear to even imagine this horror.

This pervasive sense of doom and dread, the heart palpitations, nausea, the crushing pains in my chest—it is anxiety, I learn. Just one little word for this terror that haunts me. I am simply anxious.

Am I also depressed? I tell the psychiatrist that I don’t think so. Oh, but anxiety goes hand-in-hand with depression, especially post-partum, I am told. I must have PPD—post-partum depressive disorder.

I bristle at this diagnosis. I have read horror stories about PPD-suffering new mothers who lost their minds and smothered their babies. I love my child; I am certainly not sad that she exists, or that I am her mother. I am not crazy. I would never hurt her. In fact, all I can think about is how to keep her safe.

It is, I learn, hormones that are most likely the cause of the problem. I am seriously depleted, running on empty as far as estrogen goes. Stop nursing, I am told. Take Zoloft. Take Paxil. Go on a vacation and leave your baby behind.

This PPD that I am told I have renders me consumed with worry, even during quiet, happy times. I hold my daughter and rock her, read to her, sing. She gives me a radiant, gurgly smile and looking into her chubby face, I feel joy. A nanosecond later, I am sure that we will be savagely murdered by the repairman who is coming to fix our washer—so sure of it that I can imagine exactly how he will corner us in the kitchen with an enormous knife. I will try to flee, but he will catch us and pull us back, stabbing brutally, relentlessly, before we can wriggle out the window.

I picture all of this while sitting on the couch frozen in terror, clutching my baby. Then I have an idea. I steel myself to get up, lock all the doors and post a note saying we had to run out. I huddle on the couch with the baby, hiding, keeping still, until the repairman gets the note and drives away.

Only then can I breathe normally.

I tell my husband about my horrible daydreams, but briefly, and always with a touch of humor. (“I just thought Satan was speaking to me through our child. Ha ha. I think I’ll go lie down on the couch.”)

I don’t want to scare him, but I just want him to understand that I need help and hugs and comfort. This he offers, but because I am not completely honest, he never understands either the depth of my fear or how close I might be to a breakdown.

**

The word “anxiety” is interesting to me. It slides off the tongue and sounds almost elegant, but is derived from the Latin angere, which means “to choke.” Anxiety is a disorder that is sadly commonplace, and, by definition, frustratingly vague.

Anxiety can be either low-level, or “generalized,” or it can manifest itself into full-blown panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive-compulsiveness. According to psychiatric literature, anxiety is often not attributable to a real or appropriate threat and can be a symptom of other problems, physical or psychological.

The sort of anxiety I have feels like full-blown panic sometimes, but apparently it is only generalized. There are people much worse off than I am, those who actually pass out from fear, those who cannot ever leave their houses.

After consulting a pharmaceuticals textbook, my university-clinic doctor prescribes low doses of Valium because, she says, “That’s the most cost-effective way to treat this.”

I don’t take the Valium because I am still nursing, and because I need to drive. Instead, I make up excuses not to come in to my part-time job in Cedar Rapids. “My car tire blew out,” I say. “I can’t find my keys.” Oops—couldn’t call in sick (had to e-mail; the coward’s way out) because I misplaced my phones.

I buy life insurance—much more than my father says I need. I want to be sure that my child is cared for, in case the worst should happen. I hope she will remember how much I love her, but I know that if I die before she reaches a certain age, she’ll probably retain no memories of me at all. That doesn’t matter, I tell myself. It is now that matters. Do the best you can for her now. Keep her healthy and safe.

While Muirgen naps, I go online and visit the PPD survival group chat rooms. I see a posting from a woman who, it seems, is just like me. She got pregnant on her honeymoon and now is struggling with both PPD and trying to maintain a good relationship with her husband, who claims he hardly knows her anymore.

I write to her. I say, “It’s so hard to be hit with all of these changes at once—getting married, being pregnant, possibly moving house, having a baby.”

Her husband, like mine, probably had about two weeks to look around and say, “Wow, we’re married…” before being faced with a nauseated, exhausted woman, a woman whose pretty face got puffy, whose nice clothes no longer fit. A fat, tired stranger—and then, suddenly, two strangers, one of whom cries a lot and has stinky diapers.

“Of course it isn’t easy for us; we’re the ones actually experiencing all these things,” I write, “But it’s got to be almost equally weird for these men.”

She writes back that we are kindred spirits, in the same boat, exactly. She tells me that her son is named Vegas. I assume, rather stupidly, that she is Hispanic, but then she explains that her baby is named after Las Vegas, where she honeymooned.

“Good God,” I think, “She named her kid Vegas.” I can’t bring myself to send her another note.

I drop out of the chat rooms. I resist the psychiatrist’s reluctant offer of psychotropic drugs. I decide to handle things on my own, to let my body adjust naturally.

There are some women in this online PPD group who are seriously ill. Their children have been taken from them. They cannot get out of bed. They are hallucinating and could be dangerous.

Some are glad that their mothers or in-laws are taking care of their babies. Some desperately long to get their children back. They all have to wait, though, for the drugs to kick in, for their hormone levels to stabilize. This could take weeks or months.

Meanwhile, their babies are growing fast, sadly apart from their mothers, swaddled and alone with relatives who may be forcing outdated, even harmful baby-care practices on them—feeding the newborns “pablum,” insisting that they only get a bottle every five hours on a strict schedule, that they not be picked up when they cry so as not to “spoil” them.

Some women vent about this. I read their postings but keep silent, feeling grateful, despite my own problems, that I am not in their shoes.

The biological point of anxiety, its reason for existing, is to help us run from danger. But if the danger is all in our minds, well what’s the point of feeling “fight, fright, or flight” in response to that?

I understand that PPD is essentially the result of a chemical imbalance, but it seems like a disorder we should have evolved not to have. Post-partum is a crucial time, a time when we need to be fully present and strong for our babies. As a species, how can we afford to have up to a quarter of all new mothers paralyzed by fear, wracked by tears and hallucinations, hearing demonic voices? What could possibly be the benefit of all this?

Does PPD keep us safer by, in a seemingly sexist, eerily fundamentalist way, keeping us at home? Does the very presence of this disorder spur husbands and relatives to help more with the baby? Or, is PPD just a sick example of natural selection—weeding out the neurotics, the especially paranoid?

**

I am driving home from work, south on the Avenue of Saints from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. I remember the coyote I saw the previous summer, when I was heavily pregnant but could not yet even imagine how much my life was going to change. That coyote stood in a field that had just been mown, hay tied in neat bales that dotted the landscape. Her ears were back, and she looked scared, as if thinking, “What happened to everything I knew? Where is the long grass that used to hide me?”

Everyone says that coyotes are smart, that they are brave, adaptable hunters who will eat flesh or fruit, whatever they can. But many farmers see coyotes as nuisance animals, predators that will steal and kill their sheep or chickens. Coyotes are, therefore, unpopular guest on the land that they hunt—and the rest of the land is being taken from them and used for new roads, new subdivisions.

The world is changing for coyotes. I realize that the world is changing for me. Still, the coyote adapts, using its innate cleverness to negotiate the changing landscape. Of course, I will need to do the same.

The image of the anxious-looking late summer coyote is imprinted on my brain.

When I see, months later, the dead coyotes, I wonder if she was with them, if her life is over now, if her presence has been savagely erased.

I don’t believe that my life, with all its blessings, is really anything like a coyote’s. But it is the coyote that reminds me how quickly things can change.