The Beast in the Belly

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The Beast in the Belly by Martha McPhee
The Beast in the Belly by Martha McPhee

In honor of Martha McPhee’s National Book Award nomination for the novel “Gorgeous Lies,” Nerve is reprinting the following excerpt, which originally appeared on the site in 1999.


Anton was dead. He died that morning. A rainy misty late November morning. All the leaves off all the trees. Mud in the fields from the fall rains. He lay in the bed, dead. The hospice people arranged him, cleaned the shit and piss that had spilled out of him as he struggled for a last breath. Now his hands fell by his sides, his mouth was open but not moist. Waxy rather. His big blue eyes sank into his big round head. He was a skeleton reclining on a sea of pillows, waiting for his children and Eve’s children to descend on the house.
     All day they would descend. In the kitchen Eve would watch as one by one they drove up the driveway. Tears had swollen her face. As her daughters arrived, Eve would lead them down the driveway through the rain. She would clutch their arms, pulling them close to her as she would tell them about the trip she and Anton took to Italy the year before. The trip to Italy that had its own magnificent photo album that Eve had made, leather-bound, recording all the fun they had had. Down the driveway, the cold rain spit on their warm necks. Eve’s voice was gentle, but determined, unwavering.

     Eve in Italy with Anton. Dinner in a little trattoria in a town south of Rome. Carpaccio and mozzarella di bufalo and prosciutto di Parma and figs and vitello tonato and everything fresh and seasonal. I love the way you eat only what’s in season, Eve says, and Anton agrees.
     They’re in Italy visiting their daughter Kate, the only child they share, but she’s sent them off for a few days on their own. They share a bottle of wine with dinner and finish it before they complete their meal. Anton orders another. Eve doesn’t want him to but says nothing because she understands happiness and understands what happens when he is denied something he wants. He orders it and she smiles and inside she actually feels alive and grand. She loves it when he gets what he wants — an excited expression spreads over his face and he inflates with a king-like feeling. King of the universe. The restaurant is dark and there are a few other couples and only one waiter, zipping around cheerily. Little candles flicker on all the tables. Eve flirts with the waiter when he brings the dessert, tiramisu, which Kate has told her means Pick me up. Eve tilts her head up to the waiter and though she’s fifty-eight, her hair is still blond and still curly and the gap between her teeth still alluring. Her green eyes sparkle as she tries out her Italian. As usual the waiter falls in love with her and they talk about the special things to do in this town.
     When the waiter leaves Anton tries to engage her in a conversation about his book. It’s a philosophical treatise he’s writing on love and sexual equality, and he’s been talking about it to her now for over twenty years. On index cards kept in his breast pocket along with a red ink pen he scribbles notes. His head is big and he is big and the big smile has become a grin of determination, an I’m-gonna-prove-myself-and-you’re-gonna-listen grin. It makes Eve nervous. You could call him a fat man, fleshy and unexercised, bloated from too much alcohol. In a little over a year you could call him a dead man, not much more than a skeleton. Anton toasts Eve and his book and discusses Italian women’s ease with their sexuality. He speculates about virgin women, wondering if the first orgasm births self-consciousness. Eve pretends to listen. She says, Oh yes, and, How interesting, and, Wow. He talks on about banishing the irrational, the beast in the belly, about the male ideologists’s desire to divest himself of all contamination by this irrational urge for the other, the female. Of all illusions the illusion of woman is supreme, Nagarjuna wrote.
     But as he talks, she’s thinking of Ian. A picnic in France when the kids were tiny. Thirty years ago and one country away. A book he sent her for their wedding anniversary, long after they had divorced. It traced wine routes in France — he had highlighted the ones they had taken with an orange marker. She had to look closely to find his marks. But they were there like a treasure. Then she followed the route over the pages and it was as if she were still in the blue Peugeot with him, surrounded by the rolling vineyards of Burgundy and the emerald hills, the fields of heather, the constant blue sky, the infinite number of stone monasteries. When he sent her the book, she knew then he still loved her, and she grew warm inside with a strange kind of hope — not a hope of reconciliation but of permanence. She remembered small roads everywhere, getting lost in the tangle of them, her bright smile, Ian’s frustration with the roads dissipating with her enthusiasm for them. You want a straight road, she laughed, and he laughed too — at himself. She saw Ian at home with his practical wife who used powdered milk and coupons, the wife Eve could never have been. She wished deeply she could have been that wife. She imagined it would have been easier.




Anton’s eyes are red and his mouth dry and he eats more and more tiramisu. For half an instant she wishes he would die. Then she pours herself a very full glass of wine. She’s been doing this for years, drinking a lot to keep him from

drinking too much. She understands happiness perfectly, understands the need to


After dinner they stroll back along the tiny streets to their pensione. Fully dark and late and overcast, no moon or stars in the sky. Anton stumbles, drunk. His hand goes down the back of Eve’s pants and she smiles like a young flirtatious girl and sneaks away. I love your bottom, he says. She thinks, Oh lord he’s going to want sex. She hates sex. She can say that quite honestly. I hate sex. I hate sex with this man. He sneaks up on her again and grabs her from behind and kisses her wet and sloppily on the neck and mentions his book and how women have all the control and power to refuse a man. It’s a gynocracy, he declares. Men are rendered powerless, they’re at the mercy of the female. The beast in the belly. Eve hears this and imagines the devil alive in his gut. The streets are impossibly narrow and the night moist, almost wet. Somewhere, on some other street, a car zooms by. Then silence again. Window boxes with red geraniums and ivy and the smell of the flowers is potent, though not sweet. They can hear their steps on the cobble streets, the echo ringing through the tiny town. Fully dark and everyone else asleep. A fingernail moon appears against the black black sky. Anton wants to discover some dark alley and make love in the open air. Come on, babe, be daring, he insists.


The first time they made love back was in the woods behind the old farm where he practiced therapy, where he taught her how to trust — to fall backwards into the arms of strangers without hesitating or looking behind. He knew each fragment of her vulnerable mind; they had been working together for three

months. It was dusk and he pulled her clothes off gently and she let them come off as easily as the skin off a fruit that wants to be peeled. Then she was entirely naked and they fell into the onion grass and made love for a long time and it seemed there wasn’t an inch of her that he didn’t kiss and she had never been so thoroughly kissed like that before, so absolutely, so positively kissed. Cars rushed by on the road, unaware. Her daughters were somewhere not far away, selling lemonade and picking daffodils. He gripped her butt hard, he loved her butt, and stuck his fingers inside and sucked her nipples and teased her with his cock until she was crying, until she was gasping. She gasped, she’d never gasped like that. Scream, babe, scream. I want the cars, I want the neighbors, I want your daughters, I want the world to hear. And when they were done there was a tremendous silence. Their bodies collapsed against each other and they believed, both of them, that in each other they would find an answer. After a while she thought she heard the laughter of her children. She said to Anton that she had never made love before. That for the first time in her life she understood what sex meant. A second marriage, he whispered, quoting to her from Samuel Johnson, is yet another instance of the triumph of hope over experience.


And here in Italy on the cobblestone street, almost exactly one year before Anton would get sick and die, she does not want him to touch her. She’s known that for years he has had affairs and she does not, never did, give a damn. She wants him to fuck other women. It keeps him satisfied and far away from her. She sighs, resigned. And he reads it perfectly, that sigh. He rips his hand from her pants and his nail catches her skin, scratching it. He walks ahead. She too is drunk, and tired. She wishes she could disappear back to Rome and crawl in bed with Kate and fall asleep. She wishes Ian had never left her for a practical wife.


Anton’s figure falls into silhouette. She hopes that by the time they’re in bed he’ll have forgotten about this.





In the room, a small cozy room with a double bed, a full-length mirror, and windows looking out onto rooftops, Anton lights a joint. His head is suspended sloppily from his thick neck. His lips are thick and fat and wet. It disgusts her to think that he ever gave her pleasure. His eyes are slits and shot with very thin and delicate red threads. He looks at her and offers the joint — almost as a dare. No thanks, she

says and takes off her shirt. I’ve had too much to drink.


No thanks, he says, mocking her. No thanks. She takes a deep breath and sits on the bed. No thanks, he screams, and approaches her with the joint in his hand. She remembers a time in Mexico when he hit two of her daughters. She remembers a time in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York when he hit another daughter — the back of his hand smashing into her jaw, knocking her head against the wall. She remembers a time out West when he hit her, another time at home and another and another. He approaches her on the bed and shoves the joint into her mouth, holding her neck with one hand and pressing the joint with the other. She looks up at him, her head cocked as it had been while she was flirting with the waiter, yet her expression is mangled from the pressure of his hand. He makes her take a deep long smoke. She coughs, choking. Then he makes her take off her bra. Her big breasts dangle there, rolling into the rolls of flesh that are her stomach. She’s like a child with a woman’s body crouched there on the bed, awkward. Her head starts shaking, it does that when she is over-tired and anxious — gentle, steady shaking. Sometimes she holds it to make it stop. She clutches her breasts and wishes him dead. Thank God Kate decided not to come. She catches her profile in the mirror — an old fat lady on a slumping bed. All the wrinkles on her face like scars, scarring the beauty she had been. Tears drip off her cheeks. She thinks of falling in love once when she was nineteen. His name was Luke and he’d picked her up from the train station in London. She’s come from Paris where she was spending her junior year. Luke was an English gentleman with a tobacco farm in Rhodesia, tall and elegant and young with slick black hair and a fine Eton accent. Her skirt was pale blue

and ankle-length and she wore white bobby socks and she was a virgin. His eyes held her, and she saw herself in her skirt and bobby socks shimmering in his eyes and it was as if a box of butterflies had been set free in her chest.

These damn breasts hanging like eggplants, dangling down her chest, hitting her stomach. She feels small and alone. Anton comes toward her, gently now. His chest is bare and she thinks of it slopping against her stomach as he thrusts into her. Her head is still shaking. The room smells of dope. She thinks of his dick entering her. Her face is stinging with the salty tears. She sees his back in the mirror, then turns to his face. An apologetic please-forgive-me-babe look lights his eye. But she has no generosity left. Are you going to force me to have sex? she asks, feeling strong for a moment. The words seem to echo. His body begins to swell as it had a thousand times before.


Anton’s swelling is different this time. It is slower and more complete. It seems to begin at his feet, rise up his body until it possesses him entirely. She thinks about the beast. No longer contained by the belly? The light in the room is dull yellow, low-voltage.


I don’t need you. I don’t need this. As he shouts the swelling increases. It seems this time he might burst. She tries to quiet him, but that makes him yell even louder. He is transforming, becoming something other. Before long he is throwing things. He throws the porcelain water pitcher standing on the dresser. It shatters. He rips the sheets off the bed. I can find love somewhere else. He grabs the pillows, whacking them until the feathers are released and the bedroom is white with down. You’ve never loved me, always wanted something else. He throws chairs and glasses and Eve’s suitcase. Her clothes scatter on the floor. If it weren’t for Kate this would have ended long ago, Anton says. Admit it. I want to hear you

admit it. I want to hear you say you never loved me, that you hate me, I’m not Ian, I’m not good enough. I want to hear you admit you were too afraid to leave.


Her head is shaking and not so gently any more. She begs him to stop, warns him that he’ll get them kicked out. She is not afraid for herself. She is more concerned with the consequences, that they’ll be deported, that Kate will find out and be humiliated in front of her Italian boyfriend. You just shut up, he says. His big hand pulls back for a smack. She notices tears in his blood-shot eyes. His whole face is wet with them. His hand, instead of hitting her, hits the armoire mirror and the glass rains into a puddle on the floor. Blood shoots from his fist. Feathers stick to it. Shards of glass stick to it. Still he continues to destroy everything that is destroyable — the television, the glass in the windows overlooking the rooftops. He won’t let her near. She sits on the floor and picks at the glass. The dull yellow light shatters too. The room goes dark.





When Ian left she went to see Anton Furey at the recommendation of a friend. He was a local therapist come to town from Texas to enlighten women on their

rights. He started the local chapter of NOW and organized sit-ins in pubs that prohibited women. He had five children and a failing marriage. The fifth child was the son of an Italian maid. He was a philosopher, writing a treatise on love and sexual equality. He taught her how to trust and they made love in the cold onion grass. And now she picks up glass in the dark, piece by piece as he destroys the rest of the room. In a few months he would begin to suffer mysterious darting cramps in his abdomen. He’d lose weight, learn that he had cancer and then that he did not and then that he did once again. In a little over a year he’d be dead. Anton collapses on the bed, not hiding the fact that he is weeping. They both know that something very large is over and that it has all boiled down to this.


Walking down the driveway in the cold rain, telling this story to her daughters one by one, she would understand that his life ended there in Italy. She needed to repeat the story to determine the part she’d played. Can’t you say that I’m wrong? he had asked her in the dark room. Can’t you say that you loved me, that you believed in my book, in me, that you weren’t trying to punish me? She continued to pick at the glass, dropping it into the wastebasket. Glass clinking against glass in the midst of a shattered room. There in Italy the beast had devoured him completely. And he could see clearly that he would never write his book, and Eve would never love him. He had hoped, believed emphatically, romantically in the onion grass, that she was his life-long love.


The manager of the pensione opens the door without bothering to knock. Light from the hall fills the doorway. Eve grabs a blanket and covers herself. She’s too humiliated to look at him. In Italian he tells them to get out of his hotel. Eve understands. A few minutes later the police arrive and a few minutes after that Anton and Eve are presented with a bill for damages totaling $1000. Then Eve is left alone with Anton in the full dark night, no moon no stars, in some little town in Italy, with no place to go. Their luggage is heaped over the back seat. Eve thinks of the destroyed hotel room and the second bottle of wine at dinner and the feeling she had as she agreed to give him what he wanted. That feeling of utter happiness that had spread through her because he was happy, spread through her like a stain, like an answer, as it had so many other times, to some question long thought unanswerable.


Back in Rome, Eve would tell Kate that they had had a fantastic time, that she loved Italy. In New Jersey she would have pictures of the trip developed and blown up and she would make an album for Anton for his birthday: ITALY 1993.


With the second daughter, as they walked down the driveway, she would bring a black umbrella to shield them from the biting rain, but otherwise the walks and the story would be exactly the same. A hymn to the dead. Anton in his bed becoming more dead with each minute.


In the car on that Italian night, a little Fiat and everything damp and close inside, they drove around and around and around. They drove until dawn. Wheels on pavement, rain on glass, windshield wipers scraping and something horrid emerging from the depths of Eve’s soul. Her head shaking like a stutterer’s stuttering voice, Anton’s bloody hand bandaged with a sheet. Light cracked through the dark sky. She remembered Anton talking about Freud. We are never so defenseless against suffering, he had written, as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our love object. Eve had no idea what happiness was. And the man who taught her how to trust and the man who taught her how fuck in the long wet onion grass, he was dead and she had been killing him and for such a long time now.



©1999 Martha McPhee and, Inc.