By Patricia Abbott
Patricia Abbott’s stories have been published in the Potomac Review, Inkwell, Potpourri and Fourteen Hills. She is a writer for the Center of Urban Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she also lives.
Melissa was headed for the food court when she spotted a stringy-haired blonde circling the information kiosk. Wearing a plum-colored coat with matted fur trim, the woman staggered under the weight of a snow-suited baby. A toddler in green overalls dangled tearfully from her other hand. Was the blonde looking for someone, Melissa wondered? Would a muscular father suddenly spring into view, screwing things up?
Melissa's pulse slowed when the blonde finally spotted the ticket windows and stepped into the closest line. The toddler’s fussing grew louder, and heads turned as travelers attempted to locate the source. The blonde also carried a knapsack on her back and a bulging diaper bag on her shoulderdrowning beneath the carapace of motherhood and making her the perfect pigeon as Melissa’s father would have noted. Melissa had a good feeling about this little group. It was the most promising moment in weeks.
The blonde found two lollipops in her pocket, peeled off the cellophane with shaking hands and offered them to her children. The crying stopped, and heads turned away as the arrival of a train attracted attention. Standing behind the family a second later, Melissa drew the baby's interest by putting her hands up for peek-a-boo.
"You got a way with her," the woman noticed. She had a slight lisp, which suited her baby doll looks.
"She's just soooo cute." The word “cute” stuck to Melissa’s tongue like something sticky on a shoe.
"Yeah, but she weighs a ton." To demonstrate, the mother bounced the baby on her forearms.
Melissa clucked her tongue sympathetically as the woman shifted her wiggling burden from one hip to the other. The red lollipop was already stuck to the pile of the baby’s coat and Melissa debated plucking it off.
"I always pick the wrong line," the woman continued. “Grocery store, post office. ” Glancing down at her older child, she bleated. "Cut that out, Jade!" The little girl was twisting her mother's arm as she ducked under it. Jade scowled ferociously up at Melissa.
"My train’s not for an hour," Melissa said, avoiding the child’s eyes and trying to appear as ineffectual as the blonde. "I always get here way too early."
"Well, ours is in half an hour,” the blonde noted, looking at the clock worriedly.
“Half hour’s gonna be tough. The line hasn’t moved.”
“You’re telling me! Jade’s got herself an irritable bladderjust like me!” She flashed the toddler an exasperated look. “We had to change her dress at the last minute.”
“Uh, oh.” The kid caught her eye again and shot her a suspicious look. Uneasily, Melissa turned back to the mother. She couldn’t let ahowever old she was fuck it up!
Slumping with exhaustion, the blonde let the diaper bag slide down her arm and onto the floor. “Thing weighs a frigging ton! I got Christmas presents in itplus all the usual shit.” She pushed the bag dispiritedly with the scuffed toe of her high-heeled boot as the line inched forward.
Jade immediately threw herself on the floor, prodding the bag with a mittened hand. “Mom!” she scolded in an oddly gruff voice. “Nana’s Jean Nate’s in there!” The blonde shrugged, but looked worriedly at the bag. “Its okay, Mom,” Jade said, pulling out a package carelessly wrapped in blue Santa paper and pressing it to her cheek. The baby began to fuss and held out a hand. But, after kissing it lavishly, Jade slid it back in the bag, wrinkling her nose at her sister. “You break everything.”
“Those boots must be murder.” Meslissa noticed. “Look, if you wannaI can sit on that bench over there with the baby and your other stuff.” The words came out in a rush since the line was beginning to move.
“I don’t know if Jade’ll go with you. She’s not friendly like”
"Keep Jade with you," Melissa urged. Picking the diaper bag up and slinging it over her shoulder authoritatively, Melissa stuck a twenty in the blonde's hand. "For my ticket to Wilmington."
The blonde handed over the baby reluctantly, watching as Melissa took a prominent position on the nearest bench. Seating the baby in her lap, Melissa waved the baby's hand at the blonde.
Was anybody watching their little drama? Everyone seemed mired in their own holiday world, toting more packages than usual, overburdened with the heavy coats and accessories that went with wet, December weather.
Beating down a desire to bolt precipitously, Melissa continued to bounce the baby, waiting nervously as the line inched forward. Once or twice, the blonde glanced back, and finding their position unchanged, shifted her gaze. Jade vanished entirely amid the heavily garbed bodies around her.
When the blonde reached the counter, Melissa stood up and made her way to the northern exit. Stepping outside, she hailed a cab. The baby was sound asleep; her head nestled familiarly in Melissa's neck. The turbaned cab driver looked sleepily ahead, scarcely registering the baby's presence, the terminal with its holiday buzz a blur in seconds. Melissa gave him an address on Arch Street, and on reaching the location, paid him with a five. Walking half a block, she climbed into her own car, fastening the baby in the car seat. It was starting to sleet.
Snatching the kid was one thing, but caring for her was another, Melissa realized as she mounted the steps to her apartment, sweating with the unaccustomed weight. Once inside, the crib she'd picked up at a flea market seemed too small. Next to it sat two boxes of disposable diapers and a few changes of clothes. Would six bottles be enough?
It had seemed like such a good idea when she told the lie to Charlie; he'd only been in jail a few days when she wrote the letter. The idea had come when her period was late. "I put off telling you because I was scared," she lied in purple ink.
“When I croak, they’ll never be another Batch,” he had confided boozily one night, stroking his chin in that melancholy manner drinking induces. “Ronnie and I will never have a child.” Charlie kept the infamous Ronnie, often mentioned but never seen, hidden in some distant suburb. Melissa wasn’t really sure Ronnie existed.
"Cool," Charlie wrote by return mail when he got the news of her impending motherhood. Small checks started coming from his grandmother, growing larger when the imaginary baby was born. Sometimes the old lady included advice with the checkodd, little messages scribbled on paper that read Perkasie Hardware at the top. "Keep the baby's feet warm to prevent colic" was one. Another cautioned her to rub the navel area with Vaseline. Both the checks and the notes smelled like apples. Melissa cashed the checks right away, but she shredded the notes and kept them in a jar like potpourri.
What could possibly go wrong with Charlie inside the pen? But two to five turned into less than eighteen months. She shivered, thinking how little time had actually remained for finding the baby she had supposedly given birth to more than a year ago now.
"I named her Madeline," she told him on the phone, looking around for inspiration. As soon as the name was out of her mouth, she realized she should have made it a boy! What man didn’t want a son? It wasn't until the week before Thanksgiving that Melissa began looking for a baby, and she almost landed one that first day. She hadn't guessed the sex until the mother changed its diaper right on the bench in the bus station. "Alvaro," his mother cooed. Looking into Melissa's shocked face, she said something in Spanish, probably thinking she was offended at the sight of her naked son. Melissa backed away from the bench, giddy with relief. After that, every baby she spotted seemed firmly attached to its parents. Until today.
Plopping the kidMadelineinto the flea market crib now, she stripped off the too-large coat and the fur hat that covered her dark hair before switching on the TV, remembering too late that the babyMadelinewas only ten feet away. The camaraderie established at the train station vanished as the baby, up on all fours in a flash, began to scream. Then she rose, like the magical Christmas tree in The Nutcracker, looking accusingly at Melissa, who hadn't even known the kid could stand. When Melissa tried to pick her up, Madeline turned bright red, twisting angrily away. "Mamamamama," she yelled frantically, crying real tears. Her fat, baby hands clutched the crib rail so tightly that her knuckles turned white.
The baby talked! Well, that was good really good. Charlie would expect a child ofwhat was it?thirteen months to speak a little, to stand up. Making comforting sounds, she picked the kid up and found a bottle in the fridge. The baby grabbed it greedily. Later, Melissa dropped exhausted onto her bed in the next room, falling into a deep sleep despite her jangled nerves.
Charlie had asked her to bring Madeline up to Boston several times. Paging frantically through the dated book she'd picked up on infant care, Melissa came up with illnesses to get off the hook.
"Roseola," she told him the first time, wondering if she'd got the name right. "Her temperature's over a hundred." Eventually, he gave up on a visit, especially after he got his early release date. Of course, he'd insisted on pictures and she supplied him with several from a photo album found at the flea market.
"You sure dress her funny," Charlie wrote, noticing, of course, the 1960s era clothing she had overlooked in the snapshot. "She looks like some old hippie's kid with that tie-dyed tee shirt."
"What about a camcorder?" Charlie wrote from Pondville in September. “Is Madeline crawling yet? My grandmother said she’d be crawling."
"You can pick one out yourself when you get out," Melissa wrote, expecting it to be years away. Then his release date came down, sending Charlie to Boston Pre-release and Melissa out in the streets to come up with a kid.
The thing was she never expected it to go this far. Actually, she didn’t know what she expected. She was playing Charlie, like always. They had never really discussed the circumstances of his arrest, for instance. Maybe the baby would prevent his fist from smashing into her face when they met up.
The kidnapping turned up on the front page of the Inquirer with the blonde's pinched face staring accusingly out at her. The picture of Madeline (real name, Sierra) was several months old and her hair was darker and curlier now, Melissa thought, watching the baby bang pots on the kitchen floor. The kid seemed to have forgotten the blonde completely after some initial whining, and now, three days later, her large green eyes followed Melissa's every move as she prepared to leave Philly. Charlie had made arrangements to meet them at a friend's house in Massachusetts, empty for the holidays. She bundled Madeline's things into the diaper bag, never thinking much beyond presenting Charlie with the baby, proving Madeline's existence, and insuring her monthly check. He probably thought he could take the baby home to Ronnie, but that move would demand an astronomical payoff for the grieving mother. If she tried to work it out, her brain went dead with the effort; it was better to just let things unfold.
The place in Sharon was a dilapidated bungalow that looked like a crack house. At some point, its occupants had been optimistic enough to paint it yellow, but now the yellow was streaked with dirt, broken shingles littered the driveway and a shutter swung wildly. She parked the car, briefly watching the activity on the street. Things seemed quiet but it was afternoon, and the same street might scare the shit out of her later. Every street she had lived on had been like that, offering up a benign daytime face that turned out to be fake. After a few minutes, she struggled out of the car with Madeline, who wrapped her legs around Melissa's middle and hung on apprehensively as they headed for the door.
Charlie answered on the first ring. "Hey," Melissa said struggling to find the right words. "You've been doing some lifting. Pondville let you muscle up?" Charlie's prematurely graying hair was short and spiky, and the familiar moustache, a little straggly thing, was gone.
"Yeah. And I put on some weight."
"It looks good." Though she had only slept with him once, a sympathy fuck just before his incarceration, he wasn’t hard to look at.
"Jeez! She’s changed from her pictures," he said, taking the baby out of Melissa's arms. He looked her over carefully, like a new mother might, and finally put her down. She began to crawl around the room, pulling herself up when she reached the coffee table. "Wow, she's almost walking." Hopping over, he moved a pack of Marlboros out of the baby's reach, sticking one in his mouth and lighting it. The twitchy muscles in his cheek relaxed as he exhaled.
"Babies change," she informed him anxiously. "She lost her baby hair a few months ago." Inspired, she added, "With us both having dark hair, it was likely to turn. Whose shit hole is this anyway?"
"Nobody’s. It ain't easy finding an empty place this time of year.” He couldn't take his eyes off Madeline.
"You don't seem as glad to see me as her," Melissa observed, sulkily.
"What's up, Melissa? Do you want to score an old man after all? I thought it was just a one-nighter.”
"I never thought you'd be one to get knocked up. You handed out more rubber than Goodyear."
It wasn’t going well; he was getting her off track. "Look, I'm exhausted, Charlie.”
"Right," he said, almost eagerly. "Get some sleep in the back room. I'll take care of her."
"Well, don't blow your filthy smoke at her. I don't need Madeline getting asthma." He stubbed out his cigarette, waving the dying butt at her.
She found the bedroom and sank wearily onto a stripped double bed, using her coat for a blanket. The mattress smelled musty, and the Spanish-sounding music from a neighboring house was way too loud. But unused to driving so far, she fell asleep at once, waking only when the window began to rattle from the wind. Pulling the dingy curtain aside, she noticed that not a single house on the block was strung with Christmas lights. Not one candle lit a window. It could be fucking February on this street. She wandered into the living room where Charlie sat in the same spot she had left him, staring at the sleeping baby.
"Whose kid is it anyway?" he asked flatly, his back to her.
"Whaddya mean whose kid? She’s your kid. Ours.”
"She's a black baby. Look at her, for God's sake! I've seen enough of ‘em where I've been."
She could feel heat bursting from him, and, more importantly rage, and stepped back. "You're crazy. I never balled no black man."
He rolled his eyes. “Look what someone left behind, Melissa." He shook a folded newspaper at her face, and then spread it out on the table.
In the photograph, Madeline was seated on Santa's lap in a red velvet dress, holding a handful of mangy beard. A picture of the blonde and the baby's father accompanied the Christmas photo. The father was black and wore an army uniform.
"Wait a sec. " she began.
"Shut your lying mouth and let me think!" He began to pace and the chair toppled over, hitting the floor with a bang. Madeline woke up screaming. "Ah, jeez," Bobby said. "Pick her up, will you?" Melissa picked the kid up, searching for the diaper bag. As she reached for it, he grabbed her arm, his hand tightening round her wrist.
“That hurts, Charlie,” she whined and he let go quicklyas if her wrist had burned him.
"I already fed her," he said glumly, righting the chair. “Christ, Melissa. What the hell were you thinking? You duck and the shit meant for you hits me smack in the face every time. I don’t have to tell you where it landed me last year. This is what I get now, I guess. Just reward for screwing a little ball-breaker."
So finally here it was. “Look, I did my part of it right. I got the key, didn’t I? It’s not my fault you got caught. You think it’s easy cleaning houses. Wearing those pink overalls. Lifting all those keys.”
“You told me the old lady was out of town for the holiday. You too dumb to know when Memorial Day is?”
“It used to be the 31st.”
“A million years ago.” He sighed, and she saw somehow the anger had gone out of him. The baby was the color of coffee with milk, she realized, drawn again to the photograph on the table. Why hadn't she noticed it? Both the blonde and the other kid were so white that she never gave it a thought. "What are you gonna do?"
"That's what I gotta decide. At least the cops can't think I was in on this stunt. I was still inside when you snatched her."
"You coulda helped me plan it though?”
“What’s my motive?” He shook his head. “They don’t exactly look like the Trump family, do they? You’ve got to be the dumbest little ”
"Well, you just had to see her, didn’t you?” She jiggled the baby again. "Did you tell Ronnie about it? About Madeline?"
"Ronnie'd freak if ” He grimaced. "Of course, you didn't have my kid, did you?"
"No." Madeline was squirming and she put her down.
Charlie turned away, the chair legs scraping noisily against the linoleum. "Don't even let me look at her," he said, softly. "I don’t know why I don’t bust your face wide open."
"So what should I do now?" Melissa asked, growing surer by the minute that he wouldn’t hurt her.
"I guess the only thing's for you to take off," he finally said. "Count yourself lucky I can't do nothing about it. Can't get a dime of my money back either! What does it come to anyway?"
"Where should I go? You gotta help me figure it out. She's not an infant, you know," Melissa said, ignoring his question. "I can't just set her down on some hospital steps in a basket. She could crawl into the street!”
He grimaced. "Melissa, whaddya think would happen when you brought the kid up here today. You must of had some plan?" He shook his head. “Or were you just gonna dump her somewhere? After I wrote you another fat check." He shook his head. “I can’t bring a black baby home.”
He was still considering it then. Melissa looked at the baby. Sierra. She had located her discarded bottle between the cushions on the sofa and was drinking it, the bottle held at a cocky angle. When she saw Melissa's eyes on her, she held the bottle out. Her unsnapped, overalled legs were wet, the exposed skin mauve from the cold, but it didn't seem to bother her. She was the right kid to pick for a place like this, for a pair like them.
"Where’s her shoes?" Melissa asked. "Look, her feet are black from this filthy floor and it's freezing in here." She wrapped her arms around herself.
"Now there's something to worry about," Charlie said, shaking his head. But he looked under the sofa anyway, coming up with the missing sneakers. Melissa watched silently as he walked over to the baby and put her shoes on, tying each one with a double knot, the baby's feet small in his hands. Then he stood up and patted the baby's head instinctively before going into the bathroom.
Sniggering, Melissa grabbed her coat in a flash, thinking only of the ten feet separating her from the door.
"Mamamama." Madeline rose, holding up her arms.
"No can do, kiddo, but Daddy’ll take care of you." Melissa eased out the door, slipping a little on the icy top step. Then she was off down the street before the baby's cries could bring Charlie out of the bathroom.
At the end of the block, she nearly tripped over a Christmas tree that had already been put out as trash. Its looping necklace of brown needles looked almost festive as she leaped over it. The Fiesta started on the first turn of the key and she was blocks away before she let go of her breath.
Patricia Abbott ©2006
|Webmaster: Tony 'Grog' Roberts [Contact]|