A week later when the quilt arrives at the Second Chance Thrift store, a sorter hangs it by a large metal specialty hanger on a rack against the far back wall, pressed between a stained blue comforter and a yellow afghan with fraying edges and a fist-sized hole in the center. It hangs undisturbed but for the occasional brush of a child’s hand, moving down the aisle and touching everything on the rack. A faint and stale odor combination of sweat, dust, and mothballs soon coats its surface, and by night it glows weakly in the red-orange light from the rear EXIT sign twenty paces away.
For five weeks nothing happens, but then a sentimental movie premieres in theaters across the country. The protagonist is pursuing her Ph.D. in Women’s Studies, writing a thesis about the women who gather in her mother’s house to make quilts for their daughters’ weddings and childbirths. It happens that one of these quilts, a gift to the daughter in celebration of her degree, almost perfectly resembles the quilt on the thrift store rack, and it is in the second week of this semi-successful movie’s run that a woman, a mother, clutches her hands together in excitement when she finds the quilt on the rack and buys it for twenty-seven dollars and seventeen cents.
On the following Sunday she invites her daughter and boyfriend to dinner and watches from the window as they pull into the driveway in their small and battered car. It is after dinner, sitting on the living room couch, that the daughter reveals she is pregnant, and the mother is so surprised that she breaks into tears. Soon the daughter is crying too, while the boyfriend, long-haired and narrow-boned, sits hunched on the couch and tries to contain the shivers he keeps feeling by crossing and uncrossing his legs and compulsively rolling his neck.
Sometime later, after much discussion about practical details, and in the conversational lull that follows, the mother suddenly remembers the quilt and jumps up from the couch to retrieve it from the adjacent room. While she is gone the daughter and boyfriend exchange a wide-eyed glance and take a simultaneous deep breath. For her it is a gesture of relief. For him it is a expression of awe at the intensity of the moment, though both imagine the other’s meaning is their own. As the mother returns she is caught off-guard by a small twinge of embarrassment, accompanied by a mental image of the thrift store, a clear memory of the place’s smell, the sound of the cashier saying “Twenty-seven, seventeen please,” juxtaposed with the scene in the movie when the mother gives her teary daughter the quilt she has labored over for months, and so with barely a flash of deliberation she steps into the room and says “I finally finished this a month ago and I can’t think of a better occasion to give it to you.” She unfurls the quilt right there on the living room floor, and they all stand above the quilt with faces both expectant and tired—much as they will stand above a small wooden crib in a little more than seven and a half months, looking down at the new child curling and uncurling tiny fists in sleep.
“You made this, Mom?” says the daughter, a hole of sadness opening inside her, because one thing she has never understood is her mother’s tendency to tell inconsequential lies, as if the simple truths of their lives were never good enough.
It is at this moment that the boyfriend notices the two dime-sized milky-white spots on the quilt’s brown border. He’s seen this kind of stain before and he smiles briefly, thinking to himself that there could really be no better gift than a semen-stained quilt on this occasion which owes itself entirely to the unpredictable power of sperm. Right then he decides to keep the spots a secret, and in the months that follow he’ll often crane his neck in bed to find the them, offer a short nod in their direction, saluting them, and feeling somehow confident that they are returning the gesture.
But for the daughter, the quilt is a problem. The stars on the quilt remind her of a bad tattoo, like the one she almost got at the base of her spine when she was nineteen, but thank-god didn’t have enough money for, the kind of tattoo that certain women wear half-showing and half-concealed by the waist of their jeans, and that men sometimes call tramp-stamps. She doesn’t tell her boyfriend this. She’d prefer not to talk about this quilt her mother so obviously didn’t make for her, and there’s so much else to worry about as her body swells and her boyfriend works double shifts so they can save money in the months before the baby arrives.
The quilt drapes across their bed like a windless sail. It is the correct size for their mattress but somehow never seems to fit, always too long on one side, too short on the other. In her mind she names it the slut-quilt, then hates the name but can’t stop repeating it silently every time she looks at it, realizing that it’s not her own voice but her mother’s that keeps pronouncing the words in her head. She remembers that once when she was sixteen her mother, in the flurry of an argument, used that word—“slut”—in reference to her, not calling her one exactly, but warning her not to become one, as if she were on the dire verge of it if she kept up her current behavior, and this memory is painfully present now when the woman and her boyfriend make love, so that not only are the words slut and tramp-stamp recurrent in her mind, but they are also immediately answered by the sight of the quilt’s stars. Afterwards she feels helpless and dirty, furious at herself for feeling dirty, and furious at her mother for planting the seeds of this feeling when she was sixteen.
And it’s all compounded by her boyfriend’s evident appreciation of the quilt. She’s seen him stroke it at night before they fall asleep, and he’s taken to making the bed every morning, though he never used to before, each time dramatically shaking the quilt into the air and letting it float down onto the bed. Sometimes he does it three or four times until it falls to his liking. Then he smoothes each of the rumples and folds back the top so a foot of its pinkish underbelly cuts a straight line beneath the pillows. And still the quilt is awkward there, slumped and drooping like a wilted flower.
Her mother has begun showing up unannounced at the apartment, her arms laden with supplies from the thrift store: receiving blankets, bottle warmers, dog-eared baby manuals ten years old, and piles of bright clothing, nearly all of it pink or lavender or printed with red cupcakes and hearts. They have no idea what the sex of the baby will be, and the mother’s certainty of a girl makes her daughter uneasy. Even as she holds each delicate outfit and senses with growing pleasure the small body that will fill it, her tenderness is tinged with resentment, a sense of being crowded and pushed aside. In all the mother’s visits she has never once brought the daughter a piece of maternity clothing. When they discuss vitamins or stretching exercises the mother’s glance always drops to the daughter’s belly, and the very last thing the mother does before leaving, even after their hug, is to place her palm on the rounded belly and close her eyes, as if waiting for a direct communication from the baby that circumvents her daughter entirely.
At night the daughter can feel the quilt tighten around her belly, piling itself into a heap on top of her, sucking at her, desperately clutching at the unborn life inside her. Occasionally her boyfriend starts awake, shivering on the far end of the bed, petulant and resentful in his grogginess. He jerks the quilt back over top of himself and turns away, burying his face into the fisted cloth while the daughter in her dreams becomes suddenly gloriously free and unburdened. Sometimes she remembers she can fly, or that she can breathe underwater, or that she has the ability to make wonderful objects appear at will. But as the night continues the quilt seems to bunch on top of her again like a slug, her dreams turn sour and abused, and in the mornings she wakes up certain something is wrong with the baby. The baby is dead. The baby has wrapped itself around the umbilical chord. The baby isn’t kicking enough and this is not normal and she needs to go to the doctor immediately.
One morning she calls the mother on the phone.
“How’s my baby doing today?” says the mother.
“Why did you lie about the quilt?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said you made it. Why did you lie?”
The mother is silent on the other end of the line. Finally she replies, “But I never said that.”
For the first time in her life the daughter understands that her mother is not entirely sane. The understanding comes with relief, because now it is clear that the mother is less a threatening force, but a part of life that the daughter must learn to manage and control. “I love you,” she says before hanging up the phone, conscious that it has been years since she spoke these words to her mother.
Meanwhile her clothes don’t fit. She has no money, and she spends hours every day trying to alter her favorite pieces just to give them a few more weeks of use. She’s never sewn and doesn’t know what she’s doing, laying everything across the bed and making long, reckless cuts down the seams, sliding through the fabric with a smooth ripping sound that is music to her ears. She is astounded at the waves of pleasure this simple act of cutting provides. It’s a kind of rushing pleasure, too, that she feels on the morning when she not-quite-accidentally cuts a two-foot slash into the quilt’s patchwork top as she slices a pair of jeans, and she stands above the bed looking down on the quilt almost as an unrepentant killer stands above a corpse, admiring the particular quality of ruin she has brought to this object that she has never really wanted nor loved.
Her boyfriend, that night, is furious. They fight for the first time since she told him she was pregnant, and both are shocked at the hidden stores of hurt and rage suddenly available within them, how accessible is their bitterness and well-stocked are their mental catalogues of slights and injustices. All the while the quilt lays slashed and forgotten, crumpled at the foot of the bed. In the midst of their fighting she attempts to gather it in her arms and storm out to the trashcan before the boyfriend stops her, blocks her way, ripping the quilt from her arms and throwing it back down on the bed so that the two-foot slash pulls apart to reveal the deep brown walnut of blood-spotted batting, like the flash of a dark tongue in an open mouth. It is this stain that the boyfriend finds himself staring at late that night, extremely drunk, after the daughter has run crying from the apartment and driven away in the car, presumably to her mother’s house, though perhaps to roar off a cliff somewhere or smash into a telephone pole. “I couldn’t care less,” he says out loud to the empty room.
He jerks in shock when the rip in the quilt flutters slightly and an unearthly voice whispers in his ear: Yes, you could.
Tomorrow he will tell himself that he was only drunk and delirious, but tonight he trembles and feels the need to retch or moan or cry—something to expulse the truth that is welling within him. It is not that a quilt has spoken to him, rather it is the puzzle of its words—for did it mean simply that in fact he does care, despite his anger? Or does it know what he won’t admit to himself? That he is capable of caring less, that with a little effort he could forget about the woman and the unborn baby entirely. That if he is honest he should admit he wants nothing more than to run away. He gazes at the quilt, his body beginning to shake, then snatches it at the corner and drags it outside to the apartment building’s communal dumpster, swinging it inside and shuddering one last time before he stumbles back to the apartment for cold and restless sleep. The quilt spends the night gathering dew, absorbing the odors of trash and rot that rise steadily from the dumpster’s contents and make a permanent home in the damp and spongy batting.