In the empty clutter of her matchstick two-room flat she spun me like a starving planet.
“I’m trusting you,” she said, and pressed her lips onto the flap of a cardboard pizza box, leaving a red blot of lipstick the shape of a spleen. “You have a trustworthy face. I can see that.”
“I don’t know babies,” I said. The infant sagged asleep on the kitchen table in a pink plastic seat that bounced automatically, clicking up and down like a small, failed catapult. My nerves were old tinsel.
“Everyone knows babies,” she said. “You were a baby once.” Her laugh was a bellow.
Something at the center of my body wound tighter. Step one, I said to myself: I am helpless in the face of my addiction. At my Narcotics Anonymous meeting the night before, I had set up the folding chairs, brewed an urn of coffee, and dusted the surfaces with my jacket until I felt my desperation subside. Service to my fellow human beings, I knew, was all that could save me. I couldn’t say no to this woman.
“I’m nervous,” I said, each word itching through my head, “I’d like to help. . . .”
She was not beautiful, but physically strong in a way that I admired. Neither her crimson lipstick nor her purple hat went with the earthy brown of her hair, but they seemed to be all she had, and at least downplayed the tremendous scar on her lower lip: the first thing I’d noticed the night two weeks earlier, when I’d met her at the bus stop in a rainstorm. I didn’t have enough change to board the bus that would take me to my first-ever NA meeting, and she lent me a dollar. She seemed so perfect at the time: enough brawn to support a dozen junkies. I had no idea she was a mother — she stood childless under her yellow golf umbrella. When I asked how I could repay her, she provocatively wrote her address on the bottom of a chicken-potpie box that she’d pulled from her purse.
Now I’d crawled back and found her address in Gastown, the drug-sick Vancouver neighborhood I was trying to escape. I admit I had come not only to repay the dollar but also to involve myself with this woman. That morning I had fought through the swamp of my sickness to the Salvation Army for new dark pants and a shirt; had stood in front of the mirror there and worked to transform my weasel-like appearance — combed my sad, dark hair over the bald peaks at either side of my forehead, tried to rub away the ten years that the last eight months had parked in my face. If it worked out with her, maybe I’d stop going to meetings. I hungered for some excuse not to have to flay and crucify myself on the Twelve Steps of Recovery.
“I needed a sitter, and you arrived,” she said now. “It’s cosmic. Do you trust that?”
I wanted to badly, wanted to trust something. I nodded, keeping my shaking hands out of sight. I needed her to like me.
She picked up an orange vinyl handbag and somehow bound it to her torso — everything about her was a slight mystery. She grabbed the limp dollar that I’d placed on the kitchen table and held it out to me. “You pay me back by staying with the baby, OK?” A smile slid over her face. “If I get the job, we’ll all go for dinner.”
I reached for the bill, but she snatched it back, the worn paper hissing dryly through my fingertips. Her laugh shot straight through my bones.
“Oh!” she said, halting on her way out; all motion stopped except for the baby’s seat clicking up and down. “You do not refer to my baby by any name. Do you hear me?”
“Roger,” I said. “No name.” This didn’t seem unusual; in fact, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
“I’m waiting for the Spirit to bring the right name,” she said without smiling, then headed for the crooked door, floorboards shouting under her shoes.
“What do I feed the baby?” I yelled, wooden with panic, thinking of all the ways something as small as this baby could die or be killed.
“I pumped some milk; it’s in the fridge,” she said, and worked the door open and shut around her solid body.
I knew about breast pumps from the time I’d lived above the meeting hall at the Norman Street Mission. The La Leche League would hold meetings below while I fixed upstairs. So she was breast-feeding. I tried to picture her suckling the baby, but could not. My heart thrashed inside my ribs, and sweat soaked my clothes. The apartment smelled of leeks.
Clearly, this woman was a monstrous judge of character, twice failing to identify a drug addict in the most blood-hungry of states. But, standing in the empty room as her heels jackhammered down three flights of stairs, I sensed the baldness of my own judgment.
Somehow the baby had remained asleep through the yelling and slamming. I approached it, praying my chemical-sick heart would not seize, or fray, or do whatever hearts do at the end. With its mother gone, the baby appeared much larger, like an uncooked holiday roast, completely filling its plastic seat. Hair misted about the pulsing soft spot on its head, and its mouth hung open, revealing red, vacant gums.
“Baby,” I said, and the eyes opened; the arms and legs jerked like frying sausages.
“Nice baby,” I said, hoping it would turn off. But it made a noise that sounded like “Nixon,” and slid out a tongue as orange as its mother’s purse. Impossibly, the tongue kept sliding out farther and farther. I backed up across the organ music of the floorboards until the tongue parted and dripped off the baby’s chin. Vomit.
For a moment I feared what I might have done had the child continued becoming a demon before my eyes. Those days were tenuous; reality was always shifting, erasing walls, making toothbrushes or phone booths suddenly unfathomable and frightening, giving voice to my internal organs. I took a satiny shirt from the table and wiped the orange broth from the folds of the baby’s small neck.
“My name is Keiron. Your mother has left us,” I said, just to confirm the basic facts, to hear my own voice.
It screamed at this — a demonic wail too anguished to be coming from something so bulbously minute and unfinished; the sort of scream that fills a room like car exhaust, makes you touch your own mouth. By the time it settled down to a painful cry, I was eyeing the door, the shape of the crooked white handle beckoning to my palm.
I am helpless in the face of my addiction, I said in my head. I am helpless in the face of my addiction. A friend who lived only a few blocks away was almost always holding, ready to save me. I had moved to a distant suburb to avoid that exact temptation.
“Oh, please,” I started to say to the Higher Power that I’d skimmed ahead to find in my NA manual — but I stopped myself, realizing the foolishness of the effort. The Higher Powers in my life brought only tormented visions, a thousand nagging bodily rashes, and a shoe to the kidneys from otherwise nice people: piano-teaching senior citizens and fast-food cashiers taking out the trash. I am a cosmic disaster, I thought, a plague of toads, pestilence.
The baby’s shrieking demands pierced my skin. “Baby,” I said, and reached to touch the pulsing patch on its head. This did not stop the crying, but I felt the force of its blood snapping against my palm. Service, my brain said to me.
I was about to look for the breast milk when the smell got into me, a smell full of terrible life. I knew better the smells of dying, of sleeping in the same clothes for a week after standing waist-deep in a cargo hold unloading dead salmon, of the patch on my leg that festered from needles and neglect. This smell staggered me back, woke me, slapped and braced me with the squalid facts, with the function I was there to serve. Like a drunk I undid the adhesive tape on the plastic diaper. A glowing green paste ran onto my fingers with a hot suction. My scream drowned out the baby’s as I ran to the sink.
“I have to leave,” I said out loud. “This is not natural. Any other animal in my condition would have devoured this baby by now.”
I held my hand under the water and listened to the indignation screaming behind me. Clearly, it was even less happy than I with this situation. I took a sponge from the sink and, returning to the kitchen table, quickly did what had to be done, careful not to look more than necessary. The sight of her miniature genitals shamed me.
The mother had said nothing of diapers. I carefully checked the kitchen and found none. All through this the baby gurgled — not crying now, just gurgling, like the throat sounds of an overdose, the sound my friend Ruby had made when she’d died on the floor of a hotel room three weeks before.
“Stop,” I pleaded. The gurgling cranked back up to crying. “Please stop. Please stop.” The crying fired into a thin torch of screams that set flame to the veins in my temples. “Stop!” I yelled, and moved away from the baby, not trusting myself. “Where’s the fucking diaper?” I screamed. The flames penetrated to my brain, burning dark holes inside. In the bedroom, I yanked the drawers onto the floor, kicked at the socks and the support hose, the T-shirts and the professional-looking enema bag. I pulled every box from the closet and tore open its sides, desperate. Back in the living room, I fell over the couch. I slammed open the cupboards in the kitchen, and two plates shattered on the counter. The screams continued, rising and falling again and again, working up to what I imagined would be the inevitable blue-faced finish.
I hit the bathroom, no longer thinking of diapers. The medicine cabinet held a rainbow of tubed ointments and fifteen or twenty useless blue capsules of antibiotic. My heart broke like a car dropped from a great height. I slumped against the sink, weeping for what I could not have.
The crying quieted back into gurgling as I hunched there in the sick meat of my head. I let it gurgle Ruby back onto her morgue gurney, into her welfare coffin. It was a happy gurgling, unlike any I’d heard before, the opposite of my gagging, steel-jawed Ruby. All junkies should hear this sound, I thought. I should make an album.
I took a red-tasseled bathmat from the floor and staggered back to the kitchen. The mat was far too big, but I doubled it up, bunched it cunningly around each leg, and bound the whole thing with a roll of black electrical tape I found in the wreckage of the bedroom. The sight of my handiwork flooded me with a sense of usefulness and hope so large that I knew it could only lead to immediate disaster.
The apartment was ruined. I sat down on the table and thought about how I might explain the damage. I could say some desperate junkie broke in, which was not altogether a lie. I decided to take the baby for a walk around the block — to authenticate the alibi.
I found the baby’s jacket, a fuzzy blue number with straitjacket-like buckles that made me pleasantly nervous. There was a detachable hood, which I attached, and bright purple mittens joined by a long string threaded through the sleeves of the coat. The knitting job on the mittens was amateurish, and the string between them far too long, as if the knitter had gotten mesmerized and kept going past all reason.
It was June and so warm out that the used veins of my groin itched, but who knew what insulation a baby might need? And besides, it seemed a shame not to use the outfit. So I suited her up, the red tassels of the makeshift diaper ringing her pink legs and dangling nicely from the bottom of the blue coat. Then I grabbed the key from the table and, cradling the baby in one arm like a sack of stolen fish, opened the door and pulled it shut behind us.
In the hallway, I went to lock the door, trying to fit the key with my free hand, but without luck. So I laid the child on the floor and steadied it with my foot to discourage it from rolling off the landing. It immediately began hacking and grabbing at my boot laces with its chubby fists. Even with both my hands free, the key would not fit — it wasn’t even the right shape — and the doorknob had locked behind us. On the back of the key was a piece of tape with the words safety deposit box and a number penned in childish numerals. Panicking, I drummed the door with my fist, cursing — until I heard noise down the hall and pictured the sort of sentence this would get me, regardless of my explanation. The baby wheezed like it had a hairball, but still played happily with my laces. The noise down the hall got louder: some old and suspicious person muttering and working the locks of her door. I snatched the infant from the floor and made a break for the stairs. Jerked around like this, it began screaming into my chest — a siren alerting all authorities to the location of the baby snatcher. (People have even told me I look like Peter Lorre.)
On the street, I slowed to a normal walking pace, the wailing package bouncing against my stomach. “Please be quiet, Jojo,” I whispered. The name just came to me — more from a feeling than anything about her appearance. To me she looked like any other baby, slack and healthy from sucking the vigor out of its mother. When I thought no one was looking, I put my thumb lightly between her slick, moving lips. This quieted her for a moment, but the sensation was so unexpectedly suggestive I had to stop.
Five blocks later she abruptly stopped crying and drooped there in my arms, staring at passersby, who scoped us with barely veiled disbelief at my possessing a baby.
I ducked into a cheap sandwich shop to survey the situation and buy a loose cigarette. The counterman eyed the baby nervously, never looking away, as if she were a gun I was holding on him. Even as he took my handful of nickels, he kept staring. The set of his hand on the counter said, Call the police. I had to do something.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “You never seen a baby before?” I hadn’t intended it to snap out with such hostility.
The man faltered. “Sure I have.”
“Then what are you staring at?” I asked, giving in to the hostility. “You want to give my baby a complex?”
“That’s your baby?” he asked.
I worried he might have recognized me as the man who used to sleep in his alley. “ ’Course it’s my baby. Can you imagine anyone else having a baby this ugly?”
The man laughed. “I guess not.”
I stepped up to the counter, feeling all fear magically drop away. “Are you calling my baby ugly?”
His face collapsed. “Listen, you said —”
“It doesn’t matter what I said. You concern yourself with what you say.”
He looked down at whatever weapon he kept behind the counter, then back at the baby. I let him look a few seconds longer, then walked out with my cigarette. Outside, I gave the baby a parental squeeze for the benefit of the counterman’s face in the window.
Down the street, the park hummed with activity — a game of baseball on the diamond, light dealing in the deep outfield. In far right, against the green grass, I spotted the dyed-orange hair of a dealer to whom I owed a few favors, so I headed in the opposite direction, down toward the water, intending to double back to the ruined apartment, where I would wait by the door until the mother returned. If she appeared dangerous, I could always leave the baby in the hall and run. I walked slowly, killing time. The cigarette dangled from my mouth, unlit, as I’d forgotten to get matches. Jojo just stared at the passing sidewalk, hanging there like a growth on my belly. Seagulls shrieked through the air between us and the water. Suddenly, she jerked in my arms, an impossibly strong movement that suggested possession. I broke out in a sweat until I saw the mitten hanging down on its string and caught under my foot. She gurgled as I picked it up and tucked it into my trouser pocket.
As I continued down Water Street, a man came at us from the doorway of the Handicapped Welfare Residence. He was approaching fast, with a chrome Zippo lit and extended in front of him. Both the baby and I saw him at the same time; her little head turned right along with mine. The lighter rode clear up into my face. “Whoa,” I said, twisting to evade the flame. I was helpless, my arms busy holding the child.
“For your cigarette, you putz,” the man said, his voice badly damaged — a deep, shattered croak.
I stopped weaving and lowered the cigarette to the flame. When I had it lit, he snapped the lighter shut like a tiny coffin, staring into the closing lid as the flame disappeared. He had a German-looking hat on, like you might see on a yodeler, green and fuzzy, with a little brush stuck in the shiny band. His nose was like a bag of cooked rice. I disliked his eyes immediately: dark, depraved. He was on a worse jones than I was, I guessed.
“It’s a sign that we’re still animals,” he said, continuing to stare at the lighter.
“What?” I asked, then immediately regretted it. He knew he had me.
He snapped the lighter open, ground the flint, and thrust the flame back into my face. “Blow it out,” he said.
I did, puffing around my cigarette. I thought he might be playing an old bar trick I vaguely recalled, only nothing about him seemed playful.
“Why didn’t you blow it out in the first place?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I instinctively spat out the cigarette.
His lips soured. “It’s because you’re an animal, you ponce, and an animal’s first reaction to fire is to run.” He stooped with nightmare grace to retrieve the cigarette. The back of his oily brown pin-stripe jacket was torn wide, revealing skin like vomited bread dough.
“Oh,” I said, backing away.
His depraved eyes dropped me and found the baby. “That baby is not yours,” he said immediately.
I didn’t say anything.
“I can tell by that baby’s features and fair skin that it is not your own.”
“How do you know my wife isn’t fair?”
“This,” he said, stepping too close, “is a stolen baby.”
I looked around quickly. Up the street a curious suit with a fancy briefcase stared back.
“This is a stolen baby,” the man said again, louder.
“Jesus, shut up. It is not.” Under better conditions I might have been able to control the situation, but as it was my body threatened to drop the baby and run. Jojo whimpered.
“What happens if I say it again?” He stretched his neck until the bones cracked. The smell of him took me back to a time I awoke in an alley under a pile of cardboard boxes upon which someone had emptied a barrel of cool deep-fryer grease. He looked both ways down the street and, working a few of the worst corners off the unpleasant shape of his voice, asked, “Would you allow me to handle the baby?”
I must have shivered. “No.”
“For twenty-four dollars would you let me hold it for just a moment?”
The inside of my brain went silver. “No, sir.” I tightened my hands on her hot, baggy shape. Her whimpering picked up, a small, squeaky handle turning.
I backed away faster, still unwilling to turn my back on him. His eyes worked the baby, my hands around the baby, calculating.
“I have eighty-seven dollars here.” He pulled the greasy bills from his pocket and straightened them in front of my face, lurching to keep up. He limped badly, but I sensed he was capable of great speed.
I saw three twenties, a ten, several twos, and a five. Without thinking I turned into the alley, glancing sadly at the dumpsters. Trying to distract him, I said, “You just want to hold my baby?”
“Yes, yes,” he said, but I observed a tightness in his chest and arms that made me think otherwise.
We were no longer moving. His face screwed up, darkening and bulging like a photograph burning. “I have feelings,” he said.
His face contorted further — an attempt at a smile. It chilled me more than anything yet. I felt sick, all the way through each starving cell. Someplace in this city there was a black market for babies, I’d read. Fifteen thousand apiece. I am helpless in the face of my addiction, I thought.
I looked at the money. The baby’s body heat made the itching in my left arm fiercer. He rustled the bills together, their paper voices multiplying. My mouth opened of its own accord. Suddenly, like a miracle, warmth spread across my belly, a sensation like a good fix coming on. A thin religion visited my brain. The warmth spread to my crotch. It ran down my left arm and dripped from my fingers. I realized what it was, but that didn’t matter. I pushed past the extended wad of cash, shouting, “This baby is not for sale, you fiend!”
“You’ve misinterpreted my offer,” he said behind me, unable to move quite as fast as I’d thought. “I only wanted to hold the little angel.”
We were nearly running now, Jojo’s legs waving, narrowly missing my genitals with each forward swing.
“You stole that baby!” the fiend yelled behind me. “Baby stealer!”
One little leg swung hard against my testicles. People on the street turned, and Jojo twisted in my arms.
“I am helpless in the face of my addiction!” I screamed.
I’m not sure what happened: perhaps the string from the mitten had snaked down and entangled my legs, or maybe the fiend hooked me as I ran, or possibly I just lost my balance, but we went down hard. I managed successfully to shift the bulk of Jojo’s weight away from the pavement as it rushed up at us. Even as I felt the bones of my forehead flex against the cruel sidewalk, I held her clear.
Some part of me registered the strangers trying to help us off the wet concrete. Although I may have imagined the tugging — that pincer grip wrestling me for the squalling knot of baby — I prided myself on the fierce yet cradling hold I maintained. Even when the police and the ambulance arrived, and the burly, yogurt-smelling paramedic stemmed the blinding flow of blood down my face while the thin, dancey one struggled to strip her from me, I refused to give Jojo up, yelling, “This baby is not for sale!” all the way through the rescue and the struggle into the ambulance. I stopped only when the big paramedic brought out a needle and popped it into a vial of liquid. I stared hard. “I can’t have that,” I said. “I’m a recovering drug addict.”
“You’re hysterical,” the paramedic said, tapping the syringe with a finger the size of a French bread. “Let go of the infant and we’ll talk.”
I eyed the fantasy broth he’d mixed in his syringe and took a breath so deep it burned. Jojo wailed in my arms, her fuzzy blue coat wet with my blood. “You’re absolutely right,” I said. “I was hysterical. But I’m not anymore.”
He looked up from the needle. “Will you let go of the baby?”
“Fine,” I said. “Roger.” I held Jojo out, and he dropped the works back into a box.
“Her name’s Jojo,” I told him.
I sat on a chair at the hospital. In the next room, a nurse was trying to calm Jojo’s crying. I felt heartsick, and my head ached where the doctor had stitched it up. The mother had reported Jojo missing. My hands and clothes still smelled of her velvety urine. Now she was at the mercy of overworked strangers who were probably holding her the wrong way. I wanted to go and comfort her, but a mean-faced cop was guarding my door.
Looking out the window at the steam rising from the hospital laundry, I thought how they misunderstood her cries, and before I knew it I was crying, too. It was the most sorry for myself I’d ever been. Who will look after me? I thought, and nothing and no one presented itself. Five stories below, the pavement called. On the street a police car pulled up and the mother got out. Her shiny orange purse gleamed. Maybe she will understand, I thought.
She came straight to my room, must have glimpsed me through the little window in my door as she went to her baby. It happened so fast, I don’t think anyone could have stopped her — even the cop, had he been paying attention. As the doctor restitched my head afterward, he marveled at the power of her one punch.
Perhaps it was only the endorphins that pulled me through in the end. I don’t know. But when the dying brain cells finished their foggy dance and cleared the stage, all that was left was me: I would have to look after myself.
As they were taking the mother’s statement in the next room, the words came to me, perfectly formed: “If she tries to press charges, I’ll press for assault and have Human Services take her baby away, for hiring junkies to baby-sit.”
I heard her yelling a bit, and then it was quiet. When the cop came in, he said I could go.
Filthy and stitched together, I stood in front of the other members at my NA meeting. “My name is Keiron,” I said. “I am a heroin addict and an abuser of everything, narcotic and otherwise.”
At meetings, I was always the comedian, the guy whose stories got the big laughs, even from the most plaster-faced Jesus in the crowd. So when I said, “I had a baby today,” not even intending the humor, the room was suddenly filled with their misshapen laughter.
“I mean,” I explained, “I had a baby to look after today. Some lady gave me her baby to mind.”
They laughed at this, too, but nervously.
“She trusted me, thought that I was trustworthy. But now I see she was blind and stupid. Still, why should I expect anyone else to recognize my limits, when I myself don’t know what they are? I could have sold that baby for a fix today. I didn’t, but I wanted to, I confess.”
They stared at the floor. Many nodded. I thought I saw some tears. I was walking a high wire, every principle of the program slowly disintegrating beneath my feet, only a rotting net below to save me. I continued:
“I feel like you’re all my brothers and sisters. We’ve lived in the same places.”
A few smiled.
“But I’d sell anyone here for a small bag, you know that.”
There was silence. Then the nervous laughter started up again, as if I’d relieved some awkward tension.
Afterward, the one-armed organizer thanked me kindly for my dramatic speech, but urged me to find a sponsor, someone with whom I could address certain issues before I shared them with the group.
Somehow, six weeks later I was still clean and still going to meetings, but struggling with Step Three, which goes something like, “I will turn my whole life over to God, as I personally imagine God to be.” Despite the open-ended definition, there was a heavy, collective Protestant energy that quietly tried to kick me into line. This did not groove with me. I told my sponsor that I had a sense of God as a part of myself, the part that looks after me, or maybe a giant hand stuck right up to my duodenum, making me work like Howdy Doody — but ultimately the hand was my own. My sponsor, whom I chose because he wasn’t a Jesusy sort of guy, seemed happy with this idea, so I went on to Step Four, which involves making a long list of the good and bad deeds you’ve done. This struck me the wrong way, too. I felt like Santa Claus, checking my list, and pelting my own face with big lumps of coal.
Each night, in my rotting basement room, I read my Manual as if it were my own miraculous creation, but over time it seemed less and less miraculous until, finally, reading that book was like trying to decipher my phlegm or piss — useless. The whole idea of NA started to enrage me: all these broken people hanging on desperately. Even the ones who’d “made it” seemed whipped, as if they’d decided to live life like an apology, as if they’d already lost out on all the big prizes. This rage was the purest thing I owned.
I called in sick at the cardboard-box factory, where I was pulling a graveyard shift checking the operation of the robot stapler. Then I called right back and quit. I headed straight for Gastown, thinking about a lot of things, my dealer friend and the needle-exchange lady among them, but also flashes of Jojo. I’d found the chicken-potpie box with the mother’s address on it in my knife drawer, right where I’d left it.
Riding the Sky Train into the city, I thought only of the needle’s hit, the links of the slack balance chain inside me pulled tight again. Across from me some dirty kids carved “Piss Drinker” into the seat with a big blue hunting knife. No one else was in the car. The biggest kid kept staring across at me with his glue-sniffing eyes, daring me to do something. He made me remember the fiend in the alley, the punched-in nose and sink-drain eyes. I hadn’t thought of that face so clearly since it happened, and now it seemed like just a junk dream. The more I remembered that face, the more it looked like my own. Maybe he was a hallucination, I thought. Maybe I’m the one who knew about selling babies. Maybe I was all alone in that alley. No one but me. And the baby.
Then I saw it: a vision of me easing the needle full of shit into the vein on Ruby’s upper thigh. I’m killing her. Dead. I cried — at least that’s what I thought I was doing. I cried for Ruby, whom I didn’t love enough, whom I loved less than junk. My mouth dried out.
My brain veered into some dark place. I could save Ruby, I knew it. I had to save her before the junk dragged her away. I knew it was crazy — that she was dead — but some part of me had to run. I don’t understand the workings.
The train rushed into a station and I shuffled toward the door. The glue-sniffers yelled to me with their sickly adolescent voices, like little castrated poodles. I didn’t turn around. When the train stopped and the door opened, I began to run. The stairs leading down from the train platform rushed past, people’s faces a blur.
Under the tracks, I heard a train wing overhead, sending cold air down over my skin. I ran toward Gastown. I thought I was going to my old room at the hotel. I imagined Ruby, blue on the floor. It wasn’t until I was at the door that I realized where I was. I hadn’t even needed the potpie box.
When she came to the door I stood solid. She stared for a second, not recognizing me. I tried to straighten my jacket, fix my hair. A lot had changed in six weeks, but it must not have shown.
“Jesus, God,” she said.
“I’ve come to make amends,” I said.
“Holy shit,” she said, but didn’t move to slam the door, or to let me in.
“You can hit me again if you want, but I came to make up for the mess I made.”
She leaned on the door in a way that highlighted the curve of her left biceps. “You’ve got balls,” she said.
“It wasn’t what you thought.”
“You don’t know what I thought,” she said and stared me down, as if reading the crumpled text of my face.
I stared back, teetering like a bug at the door of a Roach Motel.
“Get in here,” she said.
“Roger,” I said and stepped in, my legs twitching with adrenalin.
We sat on opposite ends of the couch, a full cushion between us.
“You have some weird karma to work out here?” she said.
“No, ma’am,” I said. “Not anymore.”
“You need some kind of help?” She swung her arm nervously.
“That isn’t why I came.” I put my hand out for her to shake, and it hung there between us, pale and pathetic, but steady. “I’m sorry for the worry I caused you, and I’ll pay for the damage.” My hand hung there like a dead bird, like the moon. Silence swirled around us, and I heard a steady click, click from the back bedroom.
She took my hand in both of hers, like a huge, fleshy clamp. She seemed incapable of tenderness, but I felt the rough care in the gesture, and it was the best I’d had in a long time.
She nodded to the scar on my forehead. “Your head looks like a baseball.”
“Sense was knocked into me,” I said.
She pulled her hands away. “I’m not proud of that.” Her face revealed hidden reserves of sadness, and maybe I saw the shame that her strength caused her.
“Hey,” I said, “I would have done the same thing if it were my baby.”
She smiled and slapped my shoulder with a solid sound, like I was firm, sturdy. “Do you want a salad?” she asked.
“Could I see the baby, just for a second?”
“Jojo’s in the bedroom,” she said. Her saying that name chilled me, as if I’d walked into a dream. I stood and the blood drained out of my head; the room went pale, then sharp again.
I walked into the bedroom. She was asleep in the plastic seat, the mechanism clicking and whining with the strain of each jerking bounce. She had grown only slightly, but she seemed more dense. The soft spot on her head had started hardening, or growing over, or whatever it does: I could barely see her pulse.
“Jojo,” I said, but she didn’t wake. Pain and longing flushed through my system like sewage emptying from a thousand different apartments inside me.
“She swam all day, so she’s tired,” the mother said from the doorway.
I kept my eyes on Jojo. Dependency, I thought.
“She’s a water baby, you know? She was born in a cattle-watering trough that my friend set up in her living room and sterilized. There’s a video.”
“I’d like to see that,” I said, meaning it in a purely honorable sense.
“I don’t have a VCR.”
My hands itched to pick Jojo up. I wanted to do nothing but look after her, protect her. And the mother, with her enormous, trusting strength and terrible color sense — I wanted to look after her, too. I’m not ashamed to say it: I felt love for them both. Had I stopped there, I’m sure I would have dropped to my knees and asked her to marry. But my soaring brain winged right through that possibility, saw the tenuous happiness it might bring, and rushed on.