The Billboard by Hannah Ratner

A married couple are eager to start a family, but what will it take?

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There's a new billboard up on the Turnpike. "Your Mommy Makeover Awaits!" it announces. "Liposuction, Tummy Tuck. 888.888NJPS" On it is a very blonde and athletic-looking woman in a white bikini, winter scarf, and one of those furry hats with the ear flaps. They're called Ushankas, apparently - I look it up when I get stuck in traffic. Derived from the Russian word ushi, which means ears. It's a strange combination, the bathing suit and the winter wear, but I guess that's how these ads get your attention.

I'm driving home from my job at the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. Wait Wait Don't Tell Me is on. The contestant's doing pretty well, three for three so far. I look up and this woman in her Ushanka is giving me eyes. She looks pretty good, if I'm being honest, and I start thinking about how Denise doesn't have the body she used to. I'm not saying that I want her to look like the woman on the billboard, but a tummy tuck couldn't hurt. For a second I entertain the idea of mentioning it to her. But then I remember the year when I had that mustache which Denise clearly despised, and how it would chafe the skin above her lip when we kissed, and she would never say anything, would even insist that she liked the mustache when I asked. In the twenty-three years we've been together she's never tried to change a single thing about me.

When I pull into the driveway Denise is working on the flower beds next to the porch. She's wearing those awful orange gardening gloves that I bought her for Christmas; I'm terrible at gifts so I made her choose them herself. She hears me pulling in and looks up. I roll down the driver's side window as she gets up to greet me, brushing soil off her jeans.

"I was just thinking about you," she says. She leans in through the window for a quick kiss. "Sweet potatoes in the crock pot, they'll be ready in thirty."

Denise and I married when she was twenty-nine and I was twenty-eight. We were introduced a year earlier by a mutual friend, who thought we might be a good fit, both of us being single, fairly educated, and approaching thirty. Our early relationship mostly consisted of pretending to share each other's interests. A few months after we got married, Denise went through her reptile phase. She checked out library books on exotic snakes and lizards, and eventually decided that we needed a snake, that the illustrations and photos that filled her books were no longer sufficient.

"I've always wanted a snake," she said when I questioned where this obsession had come from. "But I couldn't have one. And just last week I realized that my parents can't stop me from getting a snake anymore."

So we bought a snake. I don't think I would have agreed to it but it was a new marriage and during that period it's so hard to say no. We drove to a reptile expo in Edison - I was frightened to learn that such a thing actually existed - and purchased a new member for our little family. Our first foray into parenthood, Denise said. It was a Dasypeltis scabra - an egg-eating snake - which Denise named Yolko Ono. Once a week, Yolko Ono unhinged her jaw, swallowed a chicken egg whole, and hacked up a neat package of eggshell.

We had Yolko Ono for three months. Then, one day, I glanced into her tank and found it empty. I called Denise, who was at her parents' for the evening. She being a couple hours' drive from home, it fell to me to tear apart the house in search of Yolko. Denise joined me later that night. We never found her. Twenty years later, I'm still wary while cleaning out drawers. The Yolko incident seemed to put an end to Denise's reptile phase, and I chose not to mention that our first foray into parenthood had been disastrous.

I melt a generous amount of butter into the flesh of my sweet potato. Denise has hers plain. We must look strange, sitting across from each other with single potatoes on large white plates.

"I knew I should have gotten a baguette," Denise says.

"We have the end of a sourdough loaf in the freezer," I say. "But I'm fine without."

"Well I think it needs something." She doesn't move to get the sourdough.

"Did you know," I say, "that those furry hats with the ear flaps are called Ushankas? Derived from the Russian ushi, for ears."

"I didn't."

"In Norway they're called Bjørnfitte, which means bear's vagina."

"My mother had a hat like that. I was always so mortified when she wore it, because it was real beaver fur and I was worried some animal rights activist would throw pig's blood on us. But they never did. Do you think they ever really do? Throw pig's blood, I mean."

"Well, it's never happened to me."

"Nothing happens to you."

"Not true - today on my way home from work I saw a new billboard. Plastic surgery, lady dressed like she doesn't know if she's in Alaska or Hawaii."

"Well isn't that something," she says.

"It's like my body has an expiration date," Denise said to me. We were lying in bed on a lazy Sunday, a week after Denise's sister had her first baby. "I'm past my best-by date. Pretty soon I'll be spoiled completely."

"Not you," I said, "just your ovaries."

"I'm older. I was supposed to be a mother before her."

"I don't think it works that way."

She sighed and stared up at the ceiling, examining a spot that wasn't there. "I bet the baby ruined her stomach," she said, "I bet it won't ever look the same again."

"You're probably right," I said.

Less than a year later, when Denise was 35, we found out that she was infertile. In the months that followed, she spent almost all of her time gardening. Most nights she was still pruning and weeding when the sun set. She didn't seem to notice. Around eight I would come outside to get her; she was so focused when she gardened that she often didn't hear me approaching, and would flinch at my hand on her shoulder.

"Come inside," I would say, or, "It's getting cold." She would get up and follow me into the house in silence.

During those months I knew that any intimacy was out of the question, and I didn't ask. She retreated into the bathroom just to change her clothes. It was as if she could not bear for her body, which had failed her so fundamentally, to be touched or even seen. I observed to a friend that, when she gardened, Denise did not seem to touch the plants so much as she allowed the plants to touch her.

I found a therapist nearby with excellent reviews. I printed out information on the adoption process. Denise didn't want any part of it.

"Next year," she would say, "After you get your promotion. After we remodel the kitchen."

I gave up on the idea of having children very gradually. Eventually our friends' kids were headed into middle school and I realized that we were old.

"Why don't we get another pet?" I said to Denise. "Another snake. Or a hamster."

"We could look into it."

"Maybe even a dog. A big one, a Saint Bernard or a Newfoundland that could sleep at the foot of our bed."

"A dog is a lot of work, you know," she said. "You'd be sick of it the minute it started pooping everywhere and chewing up your shoes."

"I wouldn't mind."

She sighed. "Once we clean out the spare room. Then we can look into a hamster."

Denise is still asleep when I leave for work the next morning. As I shut the bedroom door behind me I notice that her mouth is hanging open, drool pooling on her pillow.

Outside, the air has the distinct smell of morning. In the car I tune the radio to a classic rock station and let my thoughts drift. I picture Denise asleep in our bed, her nightshirt sliding from her shoulder to reveal the top of a fleshy, dimpled arm. Her mouth still open, slack. I want to reach over and close it for her.

I reach the place on the Turnpike where the new billboard is, and look up, expecting to meet the eyes of the blonde model. But of course, I'm coming from the opposite direction, towards work instead of from it, and I realize that the billboard, from this side, is one that I've seen countless times before.

"Beyond Reasonable Doubt JESUS IS ALIVE! 855-FOR-TRUTH"

It's incredible, I think to myself, all of these people waiting around for Jesus to show up, constructing their lives around the idea that one day Jesus might arrive to reward them. What do they feel, when they realize that they've spent their lives waiting?

I drive past the billboard and catch a glimpse of blonde hair in my rearview mirror.


  1. This comfortable fiction has the complexion of a tired sigh; looking back over a life spent together, one of the partners remarks nonchalantly on such things as his wife’s “Reptile phase” and her withdrawal when it is medically confirmed that she is infertile. I most liked the moniker of said reptile – an egg-eating snake: Yolko Ono. The tempo is a little buoyant, the attitude a bit wry; this story is a just somewhat melancholy bit of fun. It also shows how couples cope with society’s unfulfilled expectation that they bear children. Nice one, Hannah.

  2. I really like this story. There is a kindness to the narrator, and yet they are human and flawed. It is wistful. It captures a lot about marriage, at least mine. Well done!

  3. I enjoyed this quite a bit. There's a wry tone to it, poignant and funny plus great dialog. It draws on so many everyday things and also scores so many points along the way. Terrific.

  4. I enjoyed the first two thirds of the story in anticipation of some sort of payoff, but I was disappointed to find no endearing or comical (or both) ending in the last third. The narrator sets an excellent tone of someone married twenty-plus years - there is a casual, comfortable and comical familiarity - and love - with his wife.

    I first considered the snake as an image from the Garden of Eden, but rather than any temptation, he just seems to have disappeared. There is a melancholy beauty to the piece. My favorite such line was:
    “I gave up on the idea of having children very gradually. Eventually our friends' kids were headed into middle school and I realized that we were old.” We all know couples exactly like this!

    I hope to read more of your work!

  5. Perhaps quiet desperation. Definitely respect and kindness. Mr. Mirth

  6. I enjoyed especially the peculiarity of the details, such as snakes and hats. Maybe these comments will be read by potential financial investors in your work in future.

  7. I loved how the slices of life in the details gave color to the main story of an imperfect but satisfying relationship--my favorite was the matter-of-fact translation of Bjørnfitte, which I'll trust to be accurate since I'm still chuckling. I just hope they have a secure cage if they go for the hamster ... who knows when that runaway snake might pop up again!

  8. Loved this piece. It was honest and real and just right in every respect.

  9. I enjoyed this story. The humor mixed with melancholia is so true to life. Well done, Hannah!