The Screening

The Screening

The temperature had dropped since the nighttime, when I’d almost burned my dress with the iron and my hair curlers had fallen in the toilet. Now in the cold morning, my stomach was aching, but I brewed coffee anyway. The steam billowed into the brittle air like wisps of cotton.

 The hens were still laying, so I went out to gather the eggs. They were warm from the heat lamp, and that day I held them for a moment, imagining them fertilized, as if through an x-ray, the soft, curling skeleton inside, the lace of red veins weaving into the yolks. I fried two of them, just enough for Tom. I wasn’t hungry.

I could already hear the shower running, and I was grateful he hadn’t made me wake him up. I decided he deserved bacon and cut a few strips from the slab. He came out of the bathroom with a neat, schoolboy part in his hair. His starched shirt had wilted from hanging next to the shower, but he looked sharp, and I told him so. We sat quietly at the table, with only the soft patter of the rain on the roof and Tom’s silverware clinking against his plate as he sawed through the eggs, letting the yolk seep.  “Careful,” I blurted, reaching out with a jerk when I saw yellow oozing off the edge.

 He cut me a look, unfolded his napkin with a sarcastic flourish, and dabbed his plate.

Maybe his nerves were a little tight, too. I was instantly sorry. We had to get along today. “It’s just that your shirt is just supposed to be clean,” I said, making my voice small.

 “Been wearing shirts my whole life, remember?” He scooped up a forkful of yolk, which made it to his mouth before it could slip through the tines. Satisfied, he smiled, gentler now. He laid his hand on mine. “Aren’t you excited?”

I was more nauseated than excited, but I nodded anyway. In the last few weeks, Tom had been careful about steering me toward positive thinking. Now he winked at me, and I washed with warmth. I thought about our love, imagined it too like yolk in an egg, waiting patiently for its destiny, whether it would founder, stagnant and congealed inside its shell, or whether it would incubate and grow infinitely, eventually beginning new cycles.

We put on our wool coats and drove to the train station. We were quiet on the way into town. When I’d imagined this ride, I thought we’d practice, go over the questions again. But the jostling of the train and the oily smell from the tracks weren’t helping my queasiness. Tom distracted me by pointing at things he thought I’d like outside the window: ducks flying in a V-shape over a marsh, a roadside store that sold colorful baskets. I noticed a kid, maybe eight or nine, all on his own, pulling a wagon full of rocks next to the train tracks, but Tom didn’t mention him.

The city, as we approached, was already running like clockwork. People in suits were crowding at bus stops, news agents were opening the gates of their storefronts, bike messengers were careening past traffic. The municipal office was a tall, glass building just a few blocks from the train station. Tom took my hand and led the way. He gave our names to the desk clerk, and they let us inside.

Then we were on a bench under white, fluorescent lights, looking at the fogged glass of an office door marked SCREENING. Inside, I could see only shadows, hands gesturing in front of an inside light source, silhouetted heads rising as the people stood. A wall clock hung nearby, taunting us with its ticking. It was five minutes past our scheduled time, and my stomach had made no improvement. By now, Tom’s hand had also gone cold and clammy in mine.

When the door clicked open, it echoed like a gunshot. My senses heightened and my brain exploded into readiness, taking in every detail. Suddenly, I felt like a Stone Age woman on a savannah, stalking some dangerous prey. Now was the time for action.

A smartly dressed couple emerged smiling from the screening room. They were ushered out by a woman less smartly dressed in a purple suit and a misbuttoned green blouse, the right panel carelessly untucked. Her curly hair was pushed away from her face by a thick pair of glasses and secured into a bun with a pencil. A classic civil servant, I thought. That must be her. She wore a lanyard around her neck with a key card attached, and as she talked, she marched the couple down the hall to another room, bent over to let her card swing in front of the censor, and showed them the way to go.

“Don’t worry,” she was saying, “I’ve already let the doctor know you’re coming. You’re just gonna go in there, you’ll have a quick checkup, and then you’ll be out of here. We’ll see you again in a few months.”

I felt Tom squeeze my hand. “Seems like she’s in a good mood,” he whispered. Frantically eavesdropping, I shushed him.

The man nodded, but his counterpart, a woman with bright, neat lipstick, looked dubiously into the white light emanating from the opened door. “But we have been approved, right? I thought our family doctor had already sent in our blood work.”

The purple woman’s smile turned down with impatience. “Yes, I told you you’ve been approved,” she said. “But, with all due respect, our doctor is the Surgeon General of the state. We’ll need to do his own tests. It’s a security measure.” Her voice was reassuring, but she narrowed her eyes in warning. This seemed to shut the woman up. She started nodding too, and obediently followed her husband through the open door, which closed with a whooshing airlock and the click of an automatic latch.

The civil servant looked at her watch and decided then to notice us waiting. “You’re up next, folks!” she sang and returned to the Screening Room, holding the door open as an invitation.

 I heard Tom gulp. He stood first and I followed. As I entered from the light of the hallway into the dark office, the world seemed to constrict around me. The room was windowless. Inside, there was a standing lamp and a desk, adorned only with an oscillating, tabletop fan and a thin manilla folder. Her high-backed leather chair sat behind it and then two smaller chairs in front for us. Tom and I politely took our seats.

She closed the door behind us and launched into a flurry of activity. She removed her blazer, situated herself in the chair, fiddled with the fan. With a sigh, she finally got the manilla folder opened and scanned it while greeting us in a practiced, bureaucratic manner.

“Okay, thanks for waiting,” she droned, her eyes down. “I appreciate you coming in today. I’ve got your application right here. I see you filed in September. So, this must be Tom and you’re—” she searched the page.

“Alicia,” I supplied. I put out a hand for her to shake, suddenly desperate to draw her eyes away from the file and towards my face. “Thanks so much for meeting with us. We’re very excited.”

I was not excited. I was trying not to puke. The months of worrying, the hundred run-throughs, the practice questions, all felt like inadequate preparation. I didn’t know what would happen next.

When she reached across the desk to receive my hand, her glasses fell down onto her nose. “Alicia, that’s right. Very nice to make your acquaintance. You can call me Judy. I’m the Director of the Screening Team, and I’ll be handling your case today.”  She recited the next bit fast, like she was sick of saying it, her eyes flicking indifferently between Tom and me.  “As Director, my job is pivotal to the governing policies of the Ministry of Population Control. This screening process is essential to future plans for our compromised climate and finite natural resources, and indeed the health of the human race. As a potential reproductive unit, I appreciate your participation in this important process today.”

A potential reproductive unit. I saw Tom’s eyebrows rise, and I resisted the absurd urge to laugh. Judy didn’t notice. Her eyes had already dipped to the file and found a detail to grab onto.

“I see you two make your living farming. Tell me a little about that.”

Tom took my startled silence as a cue for him to do the talking. He cleared his throat. “Yes, that’s my family farm. We’ve got about ten acres out on the island.” I could tell he was remembering the guidelines, trying to stay on message. “We’ve been in operation for over forty years. We’ve got electric gates with passcodes and storm lights, on-call vets. I grew up there myself. It’s incredibly safe.”

Judy opened a desk drawer and removed a pencil, identical to the one she’d clearly forgotten was poking out of her hair. She made rapid, sloppy notes in our file. “And your living arrangements? Are they also on the farm property?”

I heard the implied criticism, but Tom jumped in, lightning fast. “Yes, we live in the house I inherited from my grandparents. It’s actually in the local registry of historic places.”

Her pencil stopped. “An old farmhouse?” she asked, her jawline tensing. “And when was the last time it was inspected?”

“A year ago,” Tom answered, looking into her face with a flash of defiance that worried me. Luckily, Judy only nodded and started writing again.

“We have it professionally cleaned once a month.” I added, hoping that she would take that down too. “I’m also a pretty meticulous housekeeper.”

Judy’s pencil stopped, and she looked in my direction this time. Her face was impartial, but there was power behind her eyes that betrayed a depth of thought and sharp judgment. She folded her hands on the desk and pointed her next question at me.

“And what are your plans for education?”

“I believe we’ve sent in our provisional acceptance letter from an online school.” Tom said, leaning to peer at our file. “You should have it there. It’s a very reputable institution.”

Judy looked surprised. Tom had won a hit. Her thin lips pressed into a line as she shifted through the pile of papers. She found one with the official letterhead and scanned it attentively. “Yes, this is the school we usually recommend,” she said, almost to herself. She didn’t seem pleased. She reflected for a moment before an idea struck her, and then she volleyed back to Tom. “And what about socializing? Are there other children one could potentially play with?”

Tom and I exchanged glances. A question we had not prepared for, though we probably ought to have.

Judy watched us gaping and gave a half-smirk in victory. “A difficult one, I know,” she said. “There haven’t been that many approvals going around the last few years, especially not out on the island.”

“Well,” I began, not yet knowing how I’d finish. “Tom knows another farmer out in Winchester who got approved a few months ago, so I thought about planning play dates there. Plus, our farm is full of animals.” I trailed off when I heard how stupid I sounded. My mind raced for more ideas, unwilling to cede defeat.

But Judy had already changed course. She leaned back to open the bottom drawer of her desk. “We usually find new parents have this problem,” she said. She took out two laminated cards, one pink and one blue. She handed them to Tom. “Contact info for all the recently approved families in your area. The local parents started a kind of phone tree to arrange social contact. You can use those when you need them.”

The bubble of tension popped, and Tom and I both laughed a little in relief. “Thank you so much. This is very helpful. We’ll do that,” Tom said, and when he turned to shove the cards into his coat pocket, he caught my eye. I returned his sly look. This was a good sign.

Judy took another note and then, with blessed mercy, closed the file. She added the pencil to the collection in her bun and glanced at her watch. “Well, folks, everything is looking pretty good. You’ve met the basic criteria. I also have the results of all your bloodwork here and everything looks normal.” She ran her tongue over her teeth. “I’d just like to get to know the two of you a bit better, on a more personal level. Just want to get an idea of the type of parents you’re planning to be. That sound good?”

“Sure,” Tom said, more at ease now. He leaned back and crossed his legs. “What would you like to know?”

She shrugged. “Anything you’d like to tell me. How about what your daily life is like?” She made it seem unimportant, like friendly chitchat. But I didn’t relax. I suspected that this technique was part of her training, and the interview was still on.

“It’s a really peaceful life,” I told her. “I love it. We get a lot of fresh air and sunshine on the island. We get up at sunrise and do our chores. We eat home-cooked meals from food we grow ourselves. We’ve decided not to get a TV, so we mostly read books together in the evenings, or we’ll go to our neighbors or Tom’s parents for a visit.” I squeezed Tom’s hand, suddenly overcome with gratitude that he had given me so much.

He chimed in then. “A few months before we got married, Alicia came to the farm and started working there, just to get the swing of things. She learned the ropes really fast.”

Judy gave me another approving nod but turned back to Tom. “And what kind of farm is it?” She posed the question as if it were simply out of curiosity, like she had a personal interest.

Still, Tom answered shrewdly. “We’re an organic vegetable farm, but Alicia’s taken over care of the animals. We’ve got chickens, geese. She even built a hatchery. Besides that, we’ve got a couple of horses, a few sheep, and some pigs. Oh, and two dogs. Alicia’s great with all of them. All the animals love her.”

Judy was studying Tom’s face now. She seemed to know his angle, but I suspected that as a screener, she heard a lot of self-promotion. She wouldn’t be easily convinced. “And what about you?”

“I’ve got a team of about five hands,” he said. “We’ve got some corporate partners, but we also sell our product at a local farmer’s market.”

“Oh, are you at the one on Oakley?” Judy asked, her voice pitching higher with intrigue.

Tom smiled. “We are.”

“Oh!” She clapped her hands. “I thought I recognized your name. I go to that one all the time. Haley Farms, right? You sell those mason jars of sheep’s milk. I love those.”

“That’s us!” Tom was shifting into his customer service persona. “I thought I recognized you.”

“Well, that is just wonderful. You must be so proud.”

 Tom nodded heartily. “I am. I think our farm is the best place in the world for any kid to grow up,” he agreed. To me, this editorializing was clumsy, but the interview had gone so well, and Judy didn’t seem bothered. She turned her charmed smile back to me.

“And Alicia, what were you doing before all that?”

“Actually,” I said, “I was finishing my master’s in child development.” I was suddenly shy. It was true, but it seemed like an ingratiating lie.

 “How nice. That’s what I studied, too.” Judy’s eyes flashed. “You could get a job here, if the farming thing doesn’t work out.” A kind of pleasure was rising in her, an affirming approval. “I assume you were planning to go into the education field. Or were you hoping to be a screener? What happened there?”

In my periphery, I saw Tom go rigid, but I was used to this question. People had all kinds of unflattering opinions when educated women got married and started families. “Actually,” I said. “I had a job offer to teach kindergarten at that online school before I graduated. But then my mom got sick, so I had to go home and take care of her.”

Judy’s smile fell. The judgment in her eyes faded, and I felt a silver thread of understanding grow between us. “I’m so sorry,” she said sincerely, and my defenses softened.

“Thank you,” I replied.

“Can I ask what happened?”

A protective instinct made Tom flinch towards me. But this was our screening, so I put my hand on his knee and tried my best to answer.

“My mother had a lot of problems.”

Judy brow furrowed. “What kind of problems?” she asked, not unkindly.

My eyes flicked toward my file, suspicious that she might already know the answer. I decided to be honest. “She was always a hard person to be around. She’d had a rough childhood herself, and her own parents weren’t so great.” This context was always important for me to include first. “A few years ago, she overdosed and was in a coma for eight weeks. She had been a drug addict for most of my life.”  Hearing myself say it, I was suddenly proud. In younger years, the facts of my upbringing had been difficult for me to even think about, let alone say out loud. But I’d grown out of my grief and shame. I had taken care of the hardest person there was to take care of, and I had survived to love again.

Tom seemed proud, too. “Alicia was in the hospital every day, right up until the day she died.”

We radiated toward each other, but the growing warmth was hindered by a fresh chill from Judy. Her expression became tense and inscrutable. She tossed her glasses off her face and onto the desk, pinched her nose and rubbed her temples, intimating a sudden headache. With her eyes pressed closed and her teeth clenched, she said, “That sounds just terrible. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. You must be a very strong girl.”

“She is,” Tom agreed, though he was peering at Judy sidelong, his forehead creased with concern. “And, if I may, that’s why today is so important to us. Alicia’s never had a normal family. I think if anyone deserves that kind of love, she does.”

Hearing him say it so plainly, my heart swelled. I am so lucky to have found him, I thought. He noticed the tear on my cheek and brushed it away. I pressed against his hand and felt our connection take an even stronger, more durable shape. If we hadn’t walked into the office as a unit, we were one now.

Then, to my horror, Judy put her glasses back on and reopened the file. “I didn’t see anything about your mother in your family history here.”

“Well, I was legally emancipated from her when I was a teenager,” I explained, straining my eyes to read the tiny font in front of her. “She and my father were never married, so we have different last names.” I thought this explanation was reasonable enough, although my breath was still catching in my chest. My stomach was pure acid.

She said, “I guess that must be it,” and closed the file again. Tom was still, following her every move with hawk-like attention. She crossed her arms and leaned in toward us, the way I imagined parents broke bad news to toddlers.

“Well, Tom and Alicia, while you are a lovely couple and it’s been a real pleasure to meet you, I have to disappoint you.” She sighed. There was no more pleasure in her victory. “I’m not going to be able to approve your application today.”

The space thudded with quiet. I felt like I fell a thousand stories. The stuffy air began to rush past my ears, rendering the room into blurs of color. My heart raced, begging me to find some ledge to grab onto. Tom coughed a few times, and once he managed to swallow, his voice came out hoarse with rage. “But why?” I shot him a look, warning him not to make a scene.

“Well,” Judy said, placating, used to being challenged. “We’ve got to consider every factor. Not just the current life that is being provided for the potential child but possible outcomes. We can’t take any chances. I’m sorry to tell you this, I really am.”

“But what’s wrong with us?” Tom was still seated, but just barely. His spine stood straight like he’d been electrocuted. “You said we had all the requirements. We’d be just as good parents as anybody. We’d love that child as much as anyone else would.”

“Unfortunately, Tom,” she said with rising impatience, slinging his name like an insult. “A baby is not responsible for making up for a lack of love in your own childhood. In this screening office, we don’t find love a convincing argument for a license, not when resources are so scarce.” She opened the drawer again and withdrew a rubber stamp. She marked our file with an angry, red [REJECTED]. I stared at it, traced the letters with my eyes: a defining decision, each curve and angle a condemnation. I couldn’t look at her, but she spoke to me all the same. I saw her mouth moving, her hands gesturing in the fog that was gathering around me.

“The psychology of addictive personalities is still not fully understood, as you may well know,” she said. “But what we do know is that these problems can be inherited. They are intergenerational. Just like you said, your mother’s parents hurt her, and she perpetuated that hurt. The cycle of abuse often finds a way to continue. You’re what they call a ticking time bomb of trauma. Who knows what behaviors may arise once you actually have a baby, what patterns you’re liable to repeat? That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid in the screening process. So, whether you like it or not, your past makes you an ineligible candidate, Alicia. We can’t take that risk, not when the next generation is so important.”

The pain was so acute that I couldn’t move. I had revealed my secret, and she had thrust a knife into my heart. She had killed me, and the state had found the killing justified. It wasn’t us as a couple, as a unit; it was just me. Dear, sweet, wholesome Tom was hovering somewhere over my shoulder, smoldering with anger, and it was because he had made the mistake of loving me.

The last time I saw my mother, she had been ignoring my calls, and so I’d driven to the run-down trailer out by the highway where I heard she’d been staying. She’d come to the door, looking like shit, and wouldn’t answer any of my questions about how she’d been doing. Instead, she asked me for money that I didn’t have. When I refused, she called me a brat. “You think you’re hot shit now, but you just wait till you have kids. Then you’ll know what it’s really like.”  I’d left crying and driven straight to Tom’s house, where he’d reassured me that her problems were not my fault. Mom overdosed a few weeks later. The cops called my number first because they’d seen all my missed calls on her phone.

Judy escorted us into the white room the other couple had disappeared into. Inside, the doctor asked me to lie down and gave me two blue pills in a paper cup. The next thing I knew, Tom and I were back on the street, the letter certifying my abortion printed and notarized in Tom’s pocket. Tom was still trying to be positive, telling me about rumors he’d heard about an appeal process, about the friend of a friend of a friend who worked in the state office, how they might be able to have the decision overturned. But I was dizzy, my stomach still wavy with nausea, and I couldn’t listen. I suggested we just get a bite to eat and go home.

Heroically, he took my hand, and we strolled downtown, passing a few cafes, where people sat drinking wine by candlelight. Tom thought he remembered an Italian place nearby that he’d liked as a kid. As we approached, we saw the couple from earlier seated at the booth by the window. They were on the same side of the table, nestled against each other. The man had lipstick smears on his neck and cheek. The woman was twirling spaghetti onto a fork, and when she lifted it to the man’s mouth, he gave it such a comical chomp that they both dissolved into laughter.

They were cast in a kind of sparkling, golden glow. They looked hypnotized, drunk with a love too great for just the two of them to hold. I told Tom that suddenly I wasn’t so hungry, and that maybe we should just catch the next train.

Tom didn’t talk much on the ride home. The sky had clouded over and gone dark early, and sleet spattered the windows, making everything gray again. Although we usually filled the animal’s water tubs or mucked out the stables together at night, Tom decided to go straight to bed. I stayed up late in the hatchery, watching the chickens as they went to roost, laying their eggs for the following day.

About the Author

Daryl Ellerbe

I’m a writer, English teacher, and current MFA candidate based in Philadelphia. My short stories have appeared in The Showbear Family Circus and The Sad Girls Club. My first novel Amazons was shortlisted for an Ozma Award

Read more work by Daryl Ellerbe.