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Short story

by John Panza

The old couple next to us fell asleep three minutes into Mahler’s Symphony #6. Is it cruel that I was awaiting with a sick glee the hammer blow that would shock them both, maybe kill them instantly? My wife held my hand, squeezed it gently. She saw me staring at them instead of the conductor. She knew what I was thinking. Her grip hardened. Her dress, my suit, Mahler, this old couple. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t immensely turned on. ‘Tragic’ is right.

That morning, we headed to the hospital to try again. It had been three years of trying.

Despite outward appearances, she lived with the disappointment weighing on her more heavily than anything she and I lifted each week at the gym. You can look perfect, treat your youthful bodies with care, eat well, drink moderately, work out regularly, but if your loins are imperfect, you’re barren. By extension so is your world.

The ones with families don’t get it. Everyone else just fucked and made kids and then that was it. Or at least that is how they present it when we have dinner with them.

My sister, three years younger than me, who had three kids raw dogging it with three different guys, once piped in after Easter dinner. We sat on the porch overlooking the lake that we’ve been visiting each holiday since we were kids. The Adirondack chairs’ peeling paint reminded me that dad and mom died years ago.

“Are you sure you’re doing it right?”

“I think so. She tells me I am, but–”

“You’re an idiot.”

“–she craves butt stuff like a champ and biologically those tubes aren’t connected.”

“Oh my god. What is wrong with you?”

An egret sailed past and landed on the muddy shore. They will stand patiently for half an hour in one spot if it means they can spear a blue gill for lunch.

“I’m pretty sure that you stole your three from the mall, sis. They don’t look like you or Don or Phil or Robert.”

“Shut up. Always degrading. You know that’s not their names.”

“It’s not?”

“I’m just trying to help.”

“You can help by not asking me if we’re aware of the mechanics of intercourse.”

“I didn’t mean it that way. I meant, are you timing it right?”

“She’s had a thermometer on our nightstand for months. And stockpiles of ovulation kits. She even has me analyze the viscosity of her vaginal–”

“Ok, that’s enough. I’m going inside.”

“Thin is good,” I yelled at her as she fled, her requisite glass of Chardonnay sloshing. “Thick is bad!”

I remember the first night we decided to make a baby. Consciously, actively make a baby. Just me inside her. No barriers, physical or medicinal or emotional. She held my ass tightly as I came, like she was holding me in place to keep it all in. We locked gaze. As my throbs subsided, she buried her tongue in my mouth. I think that was to help get that last little bit out. She’s that good.

“I hope that’s it,” I said, and regretted it immediately.

“Me too,” she said.

It wasn’t. Neither were the next ten, twenty, fifty.

And then here I was. She was in the lobby.

The first three tries we arrived at the clinic together, hand-in-hand. The last two times we drove separately and met in the lobby, each coming from other errands. I tried not to read into it too much. Twenty minutes later, I pathetically finished with my dick in one hand and in the other the sterile plastic cup with a couple millions me-s swimming in it, my name and clinic ID number in handwritten script wrapped around the side. And the current date. The “freshness date” I once joked to her once after I did my own walk of shame down the corridor to the lobby. This hospital system didn’t let her help me generate the sample, although if we did it off-site we could use a condom – no spermicide! — and bring that to the lab in a provided travel cup within twenty minutes. At the time, we lived thirty minutes away. Short of boning in the back seat of the Mazda in the clinic parking lot, we opted again to have me choke a soda in the hospital’s pseudo-boudoir third-floor brothel.

“Be sure to keep it warm afterward. And bring it to the lab tech at the end of the hall.”

“Gotcha, doc. I’m not triple-A anymore. This is the Bigs. Do you clean up spills? Or should I?”

“Good one.”

“I’ll do my best.”

My urologist, tall, strong, near retirement, had the right attitude about this business. He teaches at the local medical college now. Retirement has been good for him from what I’ve heard.

“Nine times out of ten, it’s the guy’s fault,” he told me months ago. “Women take on too much here. Sperm count and motility are the key. Low in either category means no luck. She’s ovulating regularly, almost clockwork. It’s not her fault for sure.”

“She blames herself.”

“She will. Don’t let her.”

“Easier said than done. I’ve told her it’s me.”

“I’ve been married thirty years.”


“Do your best. But know this, if you two aren’t getting pregnant, it’s your fault.”

“Maybe I should call for a relief pitcher.”

He slapped me on the back.

“You’re going to need a closer, son.”

Twenty minutes later I finished. As I rearranged my suit pants, I reminded myself aloud, “Don’t rush or you’ll zip your dick.” I knew that from the first session way back when. We laughed about that when we got back to the car and rushed off to lunch. Rushing to get out of there reminded me of the first time I kissed a girl. Fifth grade. Both of our gut responses were to get away. Not because we didn’t like it. We were just feeling redness creep up from our necks and didn’t want the other to notice. The cup – top screwed tightly – sat on the now familiar rust-colored bedspread. I straightened my tie. Despite its corporate face, massive contemporary art collection, and white walls-ceilings-floors-doors everywhere, the hospital tried to make this space passably comfortable. It was dark, there was a bed, and copious lube and porn mags in the side table. Not good porn. The kind of porn doctors buy in med school, not to jerk off to but to study. All silicone-filled balloon boobs and pseudo-lesbian posturing. A fraction of those doctors disapproved and went on to become plastic surgeons. The rest didn’t. I’m not into porn, but it was something.


I cupped the cup as instructed and, like the layfolk holding the bowl of hosts and carafe of wine, processed down the hallway.

After the first couple times of practically throwing the cup at the tech and fleeing, I decided that making direct eye contact with her was an assertion of autonomy. Or just a way to say to her, “I’m not embarrassed here.” Or, “See? I’m trying.” Minus one time, I’ve had the same tech. She wore that white coat like a boss. I found her on social media once. She had three kids.

“Here you go. Make merry with them.”

“Tell your wife it’ll be–”

“–Ten minutes. Yep. We know.”

“Old pro already.”

“Not by choice.”

That’s a lie. I did this for us both. I just didn’t know at the time if the same applied to my wife. There comes a time after a year or so of failure where you can’t but think her maternal disappointment wedded with her hot-as-lava mating instinct, that I wasn’t turning out to be the caveman she felt could drag her away and close the deal. It was my imagination working on me, I know. She loved me. No, she love-loved me. But consider my sister. It’s not love that makes babies.  

That tech, in her white coat and severe bangs, washed and sorted my sperm, checking for amount and movement, making sure I haven’t just choked up a whole scrum of headless tails whipping each other in a frenzy.

Unlike my seminal act, done in near darkness, alone, and with porn crouching nearby like a letch in the bushes, the insemination was about as clinical as it came. People joke about “the turkey baster method.” That’s so crude. The tube was way thinner than a baster and with this precision piece of medical equipment there was no chance of the slappy-squishy sound of the jellied cranberry as it released from the aluminum can onto the plate. The process was quick but not painless. My poor wife’s legs were perched in stainless stirrups. With more stainless steel, the doctor clamped open the cervix like a hellish pap exam and then worked the straw-like end up each fallopian tube, assuming he is unsure which tube has the released egg waiting for my boys. Then he depressed the syringe and that was it. Consummation was now more likely than the caveman method.  

If my process was humiliating, hers was excruciating. It blew for me; it sucked for her. The doctor left the examination room after telling her to stay put for five minutes. But we knew despite our instinct to flee what we needed to do. I kissed her on the forehead.

“Was it as good for you as it was for me?”

A bead of sweat ran down her forehead and into her eyebrow. “You had porn.”

“All the girls were ugly.”

“This one hurt.”

“I’m sorry.”

“My cervix keeps taking a pounding.”

“I know it’s not from me. I can barely reach.”


We went home afterward and rested. Despite the cramping, it was the most sleep she had in three days. The anticipation is always sleeplessness and saving me up so the quality is higher. Later that day we headed to the orchestra. We’ve been getting out more these days, trying to distract ourselves, I think. It’s just nice not to be taking temps and testing fluid viscosity.

The hammer blow struck. Beginning in the woodwinds, a wave of heads came to attention as the soundwave rushed through the orchestra, then the dress circle, on to the mezzanine, and finally the nosebleeds. The old couple didn’t budge. She snored lightly. Her head rested on his shoulder. A lock of her gray hair curled under his nose like a mustache.

About the Author

John Panza lives in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, on the shore of Lake Erie. He is a professor, musician, music producer, and president of a music foundation. He also sleeps sometimes. Find him on IG @jp1lung.