Jennifer Pashley

Nine

Only the babies will look you in the eye. Your father told you, when you go into the city, don’t look any­one in the eye. You don’t know what they want. Keep your head down, he said, and don’t look up at the build­ings like a tourist.

But you have to look at the build­ings and the babies and the women. The build­ings are yel­low brick with grates on the win­dows. At night, the babies crawl out in the cages, their paci­fiers tight and pump­ing, their lit­tle hands, dim­pled at each knuck­le.  One waves to you. They have curls, and pink cheeks and some of them, the most gor­geous red hair you have ever seen.

You rise up from a cul­ture of fear, and run­away to anoth­er. When you look at the women, they look straight ahead, like you’re not even there. They have per­fect hair, and even more per­fect faces, with clean, ivory skin. Fine eye­brows and lips. The moth­ers, push­ing strollers with two babies, while two more lit­tle ones walk ahead. Kids are every­where, tod­dling toward the street, where pro­duce trucks roar by. They ride bikes and scoot­ers in crazy cir­cles down the side­walks. Singing. Playing danc­ing games in their tights. The boys, with curls past their chins. The girls, with pony­tails, cardi­gans. The lit­tlest ones in col­ors. The babies, in the cages out­side the win­dows. No one seems afraid for them. No one seems to watch them. They are every­where, on their own.

Your father always gripped your hand like it would fall off, like let­ting you go was let­ting the air out of a bal­loon, and you’d fly around the ceil­ing, exhal­ing, expir­ing, but god­damn fly­ing. If it hurt, his hand hold­ing, and you said so, he’d get mad. So most­ly, you just held on, you held your breath, and let the bones ache.

On the cor­ner, you look at the men on the bicy­cles and they look back, they ask your name and where you’re from. The one, with hair like a wave of black glass, looks back, over his shoul­der, rid­ing into traf­fic.  His bas­ket, full of paper bags for deliv­ery.

On the sides of build­ings, inlaid brick with words like dairy, spray-paint­ed with words like shit­fuck and pussy­weed. On the side­walks, garbage, blow­ing, and gath­er­ing in cor­ners, in the cement, the forked prints of pigeon feet. It smells like burnt Chinese food and pop­corn. On some cor­ners, it smells like piss.

You nev­er see a man with a child, they way you were always with your father. His hand, a big warm dry paw. His cor­duroy coat, soft on your cheek.

The men are alone, or they are togeth­er, in groups. You see a whole group of them inside a trail­er, parked on a side street. There are so many, you can’t imag­ine what they’re doing in there, or how it doesn’t tip. On the cor­ner of one build­ing, it says Women’s Entrance.

The men you knew were like your father. They worked like he did, they drank beer like he did. You couldn’t imag­ine hold­ing their hands, and he wouldn’t have let you any­way. He kept them out of the house, away from you.

The women you knew were neigh­bors, teach­ers. They brought you flow­ers. One paint­ed your nails for the first time, but you chipped it off play­ing in the dirt. Your father said nail pol­ish was for girls who weren’t like you, but you didn’t know what that meant.

You still don’t. What kind of girl am I?

You meet your friend at a café that has beer and cof­fee and you order beer and he orders cof­fee. He’s try­ing to sleep with you.

What kind of girl am I? you ask him.

The kind that asks that ques­tion, he says.

Answers like that are the rea­son you’ll nev­er sleep with him, even though he’s tall and wears shirts that are like a sec­ond skin on his already beau­ti­ful skin.

Outside the women walk togeth­er, they talk and they push their babies along the side­walk. Their legs are cov­ered in opaque stock­ings that have a faint seam up the back that’s sub­tly sexy. Their arms, cov­ered with jack­ets and cardi­gans. Their heads, cov­ered with hats. The babies kick and gig­gle. You smile at a baby with beer on your breath and she wrin­kles her nose at you. Her eyes are brown, and her hair, the col­or of a fall leaf.  You wait with them to cross the street, and when the baby los­es her green, rub­bery paci­fi­er, you pick it up, and hand it back.

Nein, the moth­er says to the baby, and takes it. She toss­es it in a pud­dle.  It doesn’t bounce. It just lay in the stag­nant water. Right there, it smells like cot­ton can­dy, heavy, like a car­ni­val.

You would go to the field days with your dad, and then you stopped. It would set up next to the fire­house, in the mat­ted down grass. A rinky-dink carousel, a Tilt-a-Whirl, a Scrambler. Some games where you break a bal­loon or ring a milk bot­tle, or land a dime on a glass dish. It was dark, and it got chilly. You had a sip of beer like watery milk and held onto a stuffed fox that your dad won by pop­ping a pur­ple bal­loon.

He want­ed it. The guy who took tick­ets at the Scrambler. He had a blur­ry blue tat­too of a tiger, creep­ing down his arm, to his hand. He snatched the fox when you went to get on, and he kept it, sit­ting on his shoul­der. He made like it was talk­ing to him, whis­per­ing in his ear.

He says you should go on the ride with me, he said to you.

Give it back.

On the ride, he said. He held the fox like it was alive, pet­ted its back, which made its snout appear to rise up in response.

Your dad and his bud­dies were in the beer tent, eat­ing steamed clams and wait­ing for fire­works at ten. You were sup­posed to be with your girl­friend Tammy, but she was out of tick­ets. You were nine, both of you. The sum­mer before fourth grade.

You don’t need no tick­ets, he said. I’ll let you ride with me, he said.

But who will stop it? you said. If you’re on, who will be out here, to stop it?

My bud­dy, he said, and point­ed to a guy with hat and a bel­ly. You will, won’t you Rich?

The sec­ond time was faster and longer, and you felt your head lift­ing from your shoul­ders. You sat on the inside, which meant on his lap almost, his long ropy arm across the back of the seat, the fox, clenched between his thighs. You held onto the gate so tight the bones of your knuck­les ached and showed through the skin. Every turn crashed you fur­ther into him. He smelled heavy, like the grease from the ele­phant ears, and like tobac­co. His bones were hard where you pushed into him.

Later, you watched fire­works with your dad, against the rail fence, the col­ors just over the trees. At home, you took the fox, whose head was loose now, his neck, emp­ty of any stuff­ing from being squeezed so tight. You took the head and pushed it through the emp­ty neck, inside out, and down, into the body so that all that was left was a hole, a space to stick your thumb into, warm, fur­ry, inside the fox body, the tail, still hang­ing off the end.

A few years lat­er, in the base­ment at Rudy Blinker’s house, where you went with your dad to watch the World Series, you remem­bered the fox. You got high in the base­ment with Rudy’s broth­er. And the shape, the feel of his fin­gers, inside you, made you think of the hole you made in the fox, where you put your own fin­gers, for com­fort. Sometimes you would fall asleep there, with your fin­gers tucked inside the hole, the tail, which was real rab­bit fur, under your cheek.

Here, in the sum­mer, you see a man with a fur hat, round like a lamp shade. His coat, black silk, pat­terned like a bathrobe.

In the drug­store, more moth­ers. Their babies in strollers, the walk­ers, tod­dling the aisles. They don’t hold hands. The moth­ers take what they need from the shelves, they pay at the counter, they con­sult with the phar­ma­cists. In the pri­vate aisles, you are side by side with a woman look­ing for preg­nan­cy tests. She reads the back of one box, holds it, puts it back. When you look at her face, you swear she is only nine­teen, her skin, so milky clear, his eyes, a clear blue grey.

Shit is going to hap­pen to you. In the base­ment, in a car, on a ride. But you’re walk­ing around with your head free, with beer on your breath.

You put your hand on her shoul­der. She parks her babies in the aisle in a dou­ble stroller, one, flat out and sleep­ing, the oth­er, sit­ting up front, and reach­ing for things off the shelves. Nein, she whis­pers to him. He has dark curls, her clear grey eyes. You look at her stom­ach, her cardi­gan, her skirt, her flat shoes, and rub the upper part of her arm, to feel the flesh under­neath. She hangs her head. Right then, you’re just women in the phar­ma­cy, just women buy­ing what you need. She shakes her head, and press­es her lips into a line. Nein, she says.

Jennifer Pashley is out­lawed in 44 states. She is the author of two sto­ry col­lec­tions, States (Lewis-Clark, 2007) and The Conjurer (Standing Stone Books, May 2013) Learn more at www.jenniferpashley.com.