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Nancy Stone

No Baby

We cross the border to Georgia for barbecue goat. Jelly has a Ford Fairmont, powder blue, and weíre all piled in the front seat. No one dares try the backseat. Jelly throws all his garbage back there--french fries, soda cans, bills--everything except cigarette butts. In the front, though, heís got a nice pine air freshener, and that, with the windows wide open, makes it bearable, fragrant even.

"I hate barbecue," his daughter says, loud, like sheís not sitting right on top of us. "It smells dead."

"Suzanna, honey," I say, "you eat barbecue every Friday."

"Not anymore. Iím a vegetarian."

"Since when?" This is news to me.

"Since I wanted to be."

"Did you know about this, JoAnne?" Jelly acts like Suzanna tells me everything.

"News to me," I say.

"Well, talk to her, will you?"

"I figure itís up to Suzanna to decide what she eats, Jelly."

I am a diplomat. I try not to say a word about Jellyís backseat, or any of Jellyís other bad habits, in or out of bed, except where they affect Suzanna. I pick and choose the ones that are likely to screw her up the most. I figure thatís my sworn duty as her godmother, her dead mamaís best friend. Itís not always to her daddyís liking, but thatís okay. Jelly only hit me once, and I hit him right back.

"You figure itís up to her what she eats," Jelly says. He has a habit of repeating things I say.

"Yup, up to her."

Suzannaís so close to me, the sweat on her leg clings to the sweat on my leg. The sweat on her other leg looks to be sticking to her daddyís shorts. Suzannaís too big to be in the middle of us, but Jelly wonít clean up that backseat. So sheís sitting between us, still as can be. Sheís staring hard out the windshield like thereís something to see out there.

"What you looking at, honey?" I say to her.

"My mama," she says.

"Honey," I whisper. "You got to get over that." Iím hoping Jelly didnít hear.

"Goddammit, Suzanna, your motherís not on the I-95 and you know it." Jelly heard.

"Sheís on the I-95 if I want her to be on the I-95."

"Tell her, JoAnne. Will you tell her?"

"Where do you see her, honey?"

"She got off that exit."

"She was driving a car?"

"Uh-huh."

"Jesus Christ!" Jellyís getting all red in the face.

"Jelly," I say. "Suzannaís just playing her game. Right Suzanna? You know your mama canít come back from where she went." I can hear her mamaís voice, dead out of air--you stick around for Suzanna, JoAnne.

Suzannaís still staring out the windshield, but her eyes are waxy dull now, like theyíre looking at themselves.

"Sheís too old for games, JoAnne."

"Iím a vegetarian," Suzanna says.

"Well, you can eat yourself some coleslaw." I pat her knee. She swats my hand away like Iím a bug, and I think I know what sheís all about. I was twelve once too, I tell myself, and my daddy was as dead as her mama. Iíd pretend heíd come back for me, just for me. For a while, every man I saw was my daddy.

The parking lotís full up, so Jelly parks in the back, right near an old oak tree and a great big pile of bones, chicken, cow, goat, pig, all mixed up together, little pieces of half-chewed meat still hanging on some of them. Right next door, they have a farm where they get those chicken and those goats. The cows, they must come from somewhere else. Over the bite of the barbecue smoke, you can smell the goats, like dirty weeds, and the chickens, like rotten eggs. Together, they make one ugly appetizing scent, flesh on fire.

"Iím gonna have me some ribs tonight," says Jelly. "With just a side of goat."

Suzanna sticks her finger down her throat, and makes a pretend retching noise.

"Do you see this?" says Jelly. "I take this child out for a nice Friday dinner, and she acts like Iím killing her. Like Iím goddamn taking a whip to her behind."

He gets out the car, and I get out the car. Suzannaís still in there, holding her stomach, like she really did just puke, or still might. I think of how I did it with Jelly that first time after Aliceís funeral, how good he was to us all that next day, even with a hangover. How I kept on doing it, now and again, to keep the peace.

"Suzanna, honey," I say. "You coming?"

She slides over to my side and climbs out. She looks kind of pale, I notice. Her pretty blond hair is flat to her head. "You okay, honey?" I feel her forehead.

"One week to the next she gets it in her head sheís too good for barbecue. Ate herself a nice big slab of goat last week, though, didnít she?"

Suzanna pushes my hand away. "She feels a little warm, Jelly."

"Thereís nothing wrong with that girl a good head doctor couldnít fix up. How do you think sheíd like a nice vacation at the state hospital? Then she wouldnít have to worry none about barbecue."

Jellyís almost all the way around the front of the restaurant, but we can still hear him like heís standing right next to us. I try to take Suzannaís hand, but she wonít give it to me. Lately, she hoards her hands like theyíre candy."Címon, honey," I say. "You can have yourself some coleslaw."

I hurry to catch up with Jelly. Suzannaís feet are dragging behind me in the dirt. The breeze is catching the sand her feet stir up and blowing it above us in a big cloud. Weíre rushing to catch up to Jelly, making a big cloud.

Bobeeís--thatís the name of the barbecue--is shaped like the letter U, only upside down. We finally get around to the front, and Jellyís waiting there, holding the door wide open with a disgusted look on his face. "Why does it take women longer to do just about anything?" he says.

"íCause we do everything better," I say.

He doesnít have an answer for that. He just rolls his eyes.

"Smells like itís dead," Suzanna says. I look back at her. Sheís watching the path the black barbecue smoke is making in the sky. The sun is going down, making colors. The smoke arches over it.

"Looks pretty, doesnít it, honey? Like a present." I reach back to take her hand, but she tucks it away.

"It is dead! Itís barbecue! JoAnne, would you please tell that girl it is dead!" Jellyís still holding the door wide open for us.

"I think she knows that, Jelly." Iím trying to move faster, but Suzannaís stopped. Sheís just staring at the sky.

"Itís dead because it smells that way," she says.

Jellyís barbecue ribs are all shiny. Bo always cooks up a special glaze, with honey made from those bees that only eat clover, or apple blossoms, and he pastes it on Jellyís ribs extra thick. Bo and his girlfriend Bee know us like weíre related. They cook up things just the way we like them. Weíve been coming to Bobeeís since before Suzanna was born. I remember sitting in this very same booth when it was painted barn-door red--now itís green, pine. Alice was eating up a whole chicken so fast, me and Jelly couldnít believe our eyes. We couldnít eat ourselves, fixed as we were on watching Alice make that chicken disappear. She was just about eight months pregnant with Suzanna. She looked like some kind of bug, what with her skinny neck, arms, legs all poking out of that big belly. Iím remembering how she hardly took a breath, how when she was done, her mouth was glossy with fat, and a piece of chicken skin hung from the corner of her lip. Iím remembering how Jelly stared at her, like she was an alien, and how I loved the way she sucked at the bones, like she wouldnít have cared if the President of the United States was watching her.

Jellyís looking at his shiny ribs like heís proud of them.

"You remember how Alice ate up that whole chicken?" I say.

Jelly glares at me over his ribs, nods toward Suzanna who has her face practically in her coleslaw, sheís looking at it so close. "JoAnne, letís not get the child started on that again. Next thing you know sheíll see her mother right there in your mashed potatoes." Jelly starts tearing his ribs apart.

Iím not too hungry for my goat now. Itís not, in my opinion, healthy to hold back your feelings. After Alice died of the cancer last year, I read a whole book from the public library. It was on coping with loss. Itís good, it said, to talk about what the deceased was like. Itís good to remember the good things. I read it cover to cover.

Iím staring over my goat at Jelly, trying to think what to say from that book so heíll listen. The booth table is so wide, he seems a long way away, like heís alone on his own island. Suzanna could be right on up next to me, but sheís got herself perched on the very edge of the seat, way out, and while Iím thinking about how to get Jelly to hear me, Iím thinking how to ask her nicely not to put her feet in the aisle, where she might trip someone up. "I donít think itíll trouble Suzanna any to hear nice stories about her mama," I say. "Right, Suzanna?" She edges away a little farther. Sheís got both her feet way out in the aisle. "Suzanna, honey, watch out that someone donít trip on you, now."

"You got to be firmer than that with her, JoAnne. Sheís no baby anymore."

Suzannaís already pulled her feet back in. Sheís stabbing at her coleslaw with her fork, but sheís not eating any. Sheís staring out over the aisle. "What you looking at, honey?" I ask her.

"Donít be asking her that, JoAnne! You know what sheís gonna tell you! My mama! My mamaís in the grocery store, my mamaís cooking barbecue, my mamaís a goat!"

Jelly slams his hand on the table, and his plate jumps up toward him, his ribs flip. He sighs, loud, like a truck. He takes three or four paper towels from the big roll they give us. He wipes all the sweat from his head, sets the wet towels down near his plate. "Look at me, Suzanna," he says. Heís being a good daddy now. Heís using his best daddy voice--firm, calm, dignified--but Suzanna keeps on staring out over the aisle. I lean forward to see what sheís looking at. In the booth across from us, thereís a couple with a little tiny baby that has a face like a kidney bean. The babyís perched on the table in one of those infant seats. Itís facing at us, and its eyes are wide open little mouths. I start staring at it, too. Jelly yells this time. "Goddammit, Suzanna! You deaf?"

I can feel Suzanna jump, deep in her skin, like her whole body has a muscle spasm, but she keeps on staring. I canít blame her--the babyís face has folded in on itself and turned purple. It draws its fists to its wrinkly cheeks and lets out a violent scream, as if someone has yanked off its teeny fingers one by one. The babyís daddy sits there kind of stupefied, just holding onto a great big rib and staring at the babyís big mouth, and the mama, she starts digging through her pink pocketbook for god knows what, and the baby keeps on screeching that slaughterhouse scream.

"Jesus Christ!" Jelly pounds on the table. All three of our ice teas tumble over and rush to the floor. I get a lap full of it. Some of it coats my barbecue goat and mashed potatoes like gravy.

"Now look what she did!" Jelly yells. Heís holding his plate up above his head while I sop up the tea with towels. The stream of tea has forced Suzanna right out of the booth. Sheís standing at the end of the table, wiping at her shirt with her bare hand. The mamaís got the baby out of its seat now, but itís still screaming like itís just seen the seven horsemen of the apocalypse.

"I canít do anything with this child. Harlan!" The motherís got a voice like heavy rain. Harlan--her husband or her boyfriend, I canít see a ring--has gone back to eating his ribs. "Harlan, take this child. You take this child outside. Harlan!" Harlan doesnít even look up. I suspect the babyís made him half deaf.

"Sit down, Suzanna." Jellyís got his plate back on the table, and heís tucking a paper towel in his shirtfront, getting settled back in. "JoAnne, tell that girl to sit down!"

Suzannaís still standing in front of the booth, wiping at her shirt, even though thereís nothing on it. With her head bowed, she looks just like Alice--that takes my breath away. I look at her as long as I can, I look at the fingers long and thin like summer green beans, and the eyelids, robinís-egg blue, and her round nose, exactly like it was when she was born, almost like thereís no bone in there at all.

"Canít she shut that baby up?" says Jelly.

Suzanna looks right at Jelly. "You did it," she says. Her voice is lost like a breeze in a hurricane.

"What, honey?" I say. "Did what?"

Suzanna stops wiping at her shirt. "Him." Sheís staring at Jelly. Jellyís making an ugly face at the baby.

"Jelly," I say. "Suzannaís talking to you."

"I sure could find a way to shut that baby up," Jelly says.

I feel like my eyes are going to turn right inside out, the babyís screaming so loud. I look up at Suzanna. For a minute, she looks like she might laugh, but then her face goes clean white and she leans down, real close to Jellyís face. "You made that baby cry! You! You did it!" Jelly tries to inch back, away from her, but she gets closer, looks at him hard. I think heís going to grab her or push her, and I donít want him touching her, even if he is her daddy. I start to get up, I start to think of ways to save her, when all at once Suzanna backs up, turns herself around and marches up to the booth across the way. "Give me that baby," she says. The mother is holding the baby out at armís length, jouncing it up and down. The babyís almost black itís got so much blood in its head from screaming. The mother just looks at Suzanna, the father, he sets down his rib and looks too, and the baby turns its little kidney bean head, the bad blood all floods away from its cheeks, and the screaming stops dead. Suzanna leans over and takes the baby in her arms. Sheís cradling it. All I can see is the top of its head over her elbow. Itís sweet soft pink.

"This baby needs some air," Suzanna says. "Some fresh air." She slings the baby up to her shoulder. She walks up the aisle, and right on out the door. The babyís got a fistful of her hair.

Suzannaís walking back and forth in front of the restaurant, walking the baby to sleep in the dusk. I can see her when she passes the window. Sheís got no expression on her face. The babyís mama--her name is Ella, she tells us--she says sheís never seen a girl with a touch for infants like that. "Ainít nobody could shut that child up once it started itself screaming," she says.

Harlanís and Jellyís plates are almost clean. Their mouths are all full of food and the fresh ice tea I got from Bee.

"That baby did take a liking to her," I say.

"And she donít take a liking to no one. Been screaming her head off since the day she was born."

"Before you know it," says Jelly, "sheíll be all grown-up, and wonít eat no barbecue, and be half out of her mind." Heís got a piece of rib stuck between his two front teeth.

Harlanís wiping his plate clean with his fingers. He sticks the tips of them in his mouth and sucks off the sauce. "I tried to tell her itís no good having a girl," he says. "But she just calls me a pig. She tells me sheíll get her tubes tied off before she has another baby of mine."

"Heís not kidding," Ella says. I notice sheís hardly touched her food. My goatís still all in one piece. My appetiteís all gone. "You have yourself any other ones?" Sheís looking at me. She thinks Suzannaís mine.

"She donít have any," Jelly says. "And sheís not gonna." Heís kind of laughing, like thereís no one else but him whoíd do it with me.

I kick Jelly hard in the shin. Iíd of never done it with him anyway if it werenít for Suzanna. "Goddammit!" he yells, clutching at his leg. "Shit!"

Harlan pretends he doesnít notice, and Ella, she just smiles at no one in particular. I slide down to the edge of the booth and hop out. "Iíll go check on them," I say to Ella. "I need some fresh air myself."

"Baby probably needs her pants changed by now." Ella hands me a diaper from her bag.

When I get to the door, I glance back. Jellyís eating my food. Heís looking over at Harlan, whoís drawing things with his hands, telling a story. Ellaís got a forkful of potatoes, but sheís just holding it up, nowhere near her mouth. I feel glad to leave them behind.

In the dark outside, the diaper glows, reflects the moonlight and the lightbulb over the Bobeeís sign. Suzannaís nowhere, not on one side of the barbecue or the other.

"Suzanna!" I call. "Honey!"

Even though the sunís all gone, the skyís still orange-like, in splotches, and the barbecue smoke still travels all over it, like roads on a map. The airís turned cool and damp, and clings loose as saran wrap to everything. I think Jellyíll have to find someone else to take to bed, I think Iím done with him, at least like that. Iím not Alice, not even when Jelly calls me by her name. Suzanna could tell you that.

"Suzanna!" I call again. Iím walking around to the back of the barbecue. I wonder if sheís gone back inside, but in the orange-y light of the moon I see the edge of something pink. Itís at the foot of the pile of bones, and it makes my heart fall down into my gut and sit there. I walk up closer, right to the edge of the bones. Itís the babyís blanket, crumpled on the ground like a deflated balloon. I pick it up. I swat the flies from it. It smells of old meat. It makes me want to cry, but I tell myself Suzannaís just fine. Sheís gone back in to give the baby to its mama, doesnít even know she dropped the blanket. Yes, sheís back in the booth, giving Jelly mean looks. Iím so sure sheís safe inside, I squeeze back my crying and start back around with the blanket to my chest. And then I stop. I hear someone talking. I hear a sweet singsong voice, la la-ing. "Suzanna?" I say.

I tiptoe back to the bones, like I should be hiding myself from that sweet voice, like I shouldnít surprise it. "Mamaís gonna buy you a mockingbird," the voice sings. "Lala la lala," it says, to the same melody. Iím following it around the pile of bones. Iím not sure itís Suzanna. Iíve never heard such a sound come from her. Itís like grapefruit after itís been sugared. "Suzanna!" I say it louder now, so Iím sure I can be heard. The singing stops.

"Whatís the rest of it, JoAnne?" About twenty feet from the pile of bones, Suzannaís sitting under the arm of an oak. The way the moon catches her, she looks lit from within, like a jack-oí-lantern. The little babyís just a blob against her, a dark mark. "I canít remember the rest of it," she says. Her eyes are wet. I can see their shine.

"Whatíre you doing out here, honey?" Iím standing in front of her, blocking the moon. My heartís still pressing on my gut.

"I was wrong," she says. She cups her hand over the babyís bald head, and holds it out toward me. "You see? I was wrong."

I step out of the moonís way. I need its light to see what sheís showing me, but even with the moonbeam on her and the baby, thatís all I see--just her and the baby. "What, honey? Whatíre you talking about?"

"Come here," she says. "Come sit here." I go sit on the damp dirt, my back up against the treeís old roots. "Closer," she says, so I move closer, right up next to her. I even put my arm around her shoulders, and she doesnít swat it away. She holds the baby out straight in front of us. Its eyes are wide open. It looks surprised. "You see?" she says, but I donít see.

"What is it?" I say. "Is there something wrong with that baby?"

"Look at her. Really look." Suzannaís voice is singsong-y again, like sheís trying to remember the melody that goes with her words.

I look, hard. I see the same little kidney bean head, pointy on top, and the eyes, theyíve got no color in the night, theyíre see-through. I see the little jello nose, soft, all flesh. The cheeks are silvery pink and around the mouth, pursed up like a fish, fine lines fold over each other, as loose as an old ladyís neck.

"See her?" says Suzanna.

"Well, yes, honey, I see her." I still got my heart on my gut.

"You were right! She wasnít on the I-95!" Suzanna sounds so happy, I forget itís Suzanna for a minute. Some other girlís snug up against me, holding out her baby for all the night to see.

"Suzanna, honey, whatíre you talking about?" I canít figure her.

Suzanna pulls the baby in to her breast, wraps her arms all around it. She looks at me. I canít see the color of her eyes. They might as well be invisible. "You said you saw her," she says. Her voice is close to the ground, like a burr, disappointed.

"Well, yes, I see her, sheís right there in your arms," I say. Iím getting some kind of burn low in my bowels from the weight of my heart. Iím losing my patience.

Jellyís voice breaks the air. "JoAnne, where the hell are you?"

Suzanna pulls the baby tighter in her arms. Its head is flat up against her chest.

"Suzanna, honey, be nice and quiet," I say. "And donít suffocate that baby, now."

Suzanna stands up. She throws a long shadow over me. Sheís got the baby even tighter to her, like she might be able to pull it right inside herself. "I would never," she says, "I would never, ever hurt my very own mama!"

"Suzanna, you think that babyís your mama?" Iím hoping my ears have been fooled. Iím hoping Jellyís looking around the other side of the barbecue.

"You know this babyís my mama! You said so yourself! I see her, you said!" Sheís yelling like a crow. "This here is my mama come back for me!" Her hand is pressing the babyís face hard into her body, and the babyís not making a sound.

"Suzanna, you know that babyís not your mama, honey." I donít like to ruin her game, but my heartís pressing even harder on my insides. Iím thinking the gameís gone far enough. "Why donít you give me the child, and weíll go on inside. Your daddyís looking for us, Suzanna."

"Is that you, JoAnne?" Jellyís around to our side. Heís coming up behind the pile of bones, his footsteps wide apart, like two different one-legged people are walking.

"Suzanna," I whisper. "Donít say a word now. Just give me the baby." Iím up close to her. Iíve almost got my hands on the baby.

"Donít you touch her!" she screams.

"What the hell is going on here?" Jellyís in front of the bones. Heís leaning his head at us, got his hands on his hips. Suzannaís backing up toward the field behind the tree, the baby still up against her, quiet. Way out, thereís an animal, a goat maybe, standing still with its head pointed up at the sky, solid black in the moonlight.

"Donít you come near me!"

"Suzanna, what the hell is wrong with you? JoAnne, what the hell is wrong with her?"

"Itís nothing, Jelly. She just likes the baby, thatís all."

"Liar!" she yells at me. "Youíre such a liar!"

"Weíll be right on in," I say to Jelly. "You just let me handle this, and weíll be right on in."

"You bet your ass youíll be right on in! Youíll be right on in right now!"

He strides up to Suzanna, and she keeps walking backward, away toward the field. "Where do you think youíre going, little girl?"

"Get away!" she screams. "Get away from us!"

"Thatís it! I canít take you anymore!" Jelly lunges at Suzanna. He grabs her arm in his hand.

She struggles like a cat in water, the baby hard to her ribs. "Donít touch me! I hate you!"

"Jelly, let her alone." Iím pulling at Jelly, but heís strong. Heís on Suzanna like glue. He starts dragging her back toward the front of the barbecue. Sheís stumbling and kicking up dirt. It stings my eyes. I squint to see the babyís still tight in one of her arms. Her other arm is flailing out, flapping at nothing like a broken wing. "Jelly, youíre gonna hurt her!" I say, but he doesnít stop. "Jelly, youíre gonna hurt that baby!"

Jelly drops Suzannaís arm. "Give me the baby," he says to her.

"No! Donít you touch her!" Suzannaís screaming is louder than any noise Iíve ever heard, but the babyís still quiet, silent, like it might not even be breathing. Suzannaís crouching over the dirt with the baby pinned beneath her. Jelly yanks at her shoulder, clawing his way to her elbow, grabbing it, twisting. I think I see the baby drop. Iím pushing at Jelly. "Leave her alone, Jelly! Get away from her!" Me and Suzanna, weíre yelling the same thing--"Get away. Donít touch her!"--and Iím reaching under Suzannaís skinny ribs for the baby. Iíve got my hands on it. It feels hot and dry as sand underfoot, but slippery too, like a shiny coin. "JoAnne, you give me that child," says Jelly. Before Iíve even got the baby clutched to my chest, he shoves Suzanna away with a slap across her head, and grabs at me. Heís got the baby. He holds it out in front of him. Between his two bear hands, the babyís body disappears. Itís just a head, just below the moon. Itís a miniature moon, with eyes. It looks calm as the surface of a swimming pool. It looks like it hasnít noticed that the whole worldís been yanking and tearing and hollering at it. But then it peers real close at Jelly, and makes its eyes into little cracks. Before its mouth flies open and that ungodly scream comes out from it, I swear I can hear the very same noise in the belly of the earth, like itís a sound all of us are making at one time or another. My heart flies up from its perch on my insides, right into the back of my mouth, where it touches my tongue. The scream from that baby takes the skin of your ear off. Jelly looks like he wants to throw the child, or just plain drop it to the ground, but he swings it under his arm instead. Its feet and arms dangle, and its head flops. "Not a one of you knows when to shut up," he says. He turns, and starts to make his way back up to the barbecue. "At least I can give this one back." He sounds tired, like he means it.

Suzannaís lying on her side, her face in the dirt. Sheís holding her elbow. Sheís as quiet as the babyís loud. "Suzanna, honey," I say. "You okay?" I get down on my knees next to her head to get a good look. Suzannaís eyes are staring out over the ground. She doesnít blink, but she doesnít cry either. "Suzanna?" I touch my hand to her face, and then to the elbow sheís holding. She picks up her head, swats my hands away.

"Honey, itís time to go. Letís go get your daddy and go on home. Are you hungry? Iíll make you a nice salad. Iíll pick me a big head of cabbage and mix you up some fresh coleslaw. Or macaroni and cheese. Iíll cook you up some macaroni and cheese. Do you vegetarians eat cheese?"

Suzanna doesnít say anything, she just stands up. Her hair is all pushed to one side of her head. I reach out to smooth it down, but she hits at me. When I start to walk, she doesnít move. I have to say "Come on, Suzanna!" and then she follows me like a dog on a leash.

By the time we get to the front of the barbecue, Jellyís inside. We canít hear the babyís screaming anymore. Through the dirty glass double doors to the restaurant, I see that Jellyís on his way back to the booth. I can see the bottom of babyís feet dangling under his arm as he turns down one end of the upside-down U.

"I hear vegetarians eat themselves a lot of soybeans. Is that true, Suzanna? Now thatís what they make tofu out of, right? Soybeans, right?" Suzannaís not saying anything, just following behind me like one of the living dead. When we get inside, I stop right near the gumball machine. "Suzanna, honey, itís not the end of the world," I say, but I myself donít know what it is that isnít the end of world. Suzanna doesnít even stop to listen, she keeps on walking. She walks right back past the cash register to the ladiesí room door. She pauses outside it for a minute. She gives me a violent look, a long one, and disappears into the bathroom.

When I get to the booth, the babyís back where it belongs, and Jelly and Harlan are laughing about something, I canít quite figure what. Ellaís feeding the baby from a bottle that has dancing bears on it. She and the baby look unhappy, their foreheads pinched up in the middle. Nobody seems to notice me standing there, waiting. "Jelly," I say. "I think we should go."

Ella looks up at me. "That man damn near killed my baby," she says.

"What did he do?" I say, nervous. I notice that the side of Ellaís right eye twitches, all on its own.

"He held my baby upside down. He slapped my baby on the rear."

Harlan and Jelly are laughing real hard now, like thatís the funniest thing theyíve ever heard.

"Well, she stopped crying, didnít she," says Harlan, gulping for air between his great big laughs.

Iíve had enough. "Jelly," I say. "Give me the keys."

I donít think he heard me, heís laughing so hard.

Thatís when Bee taps me on the shoulder. The tips of her fingers are so hard, they hurt me, and I jump, straight up. "Jesus, Bee," I say. "You scared the pants off me."

"Sorry, honey," she says. She smells of grease, and has a smear of barbecue sauce along her cheek. "Donít mean to alarm you any, but I think you should come on back to the kitchen."

"The kitchen?"

"Your girl," she says.

Jelly hears that and stops his laughing. "You mean my girl, Bee? Is my girl giving you some trouble?"

My insides start burning. The heat is awful. Iím already making my way back to the kitchen, as fast as I can without running. I hear Bee behind me, and Jelly, too. I hear Jelly saying "Whatís she done now? Good Christ, I canít take that child nowhere."

It takes all my weight to push through the kitchen door. It swings open on its huge hinge. Smoke and fat are everywhere. They run up my nose like they donít know gravity. I see Bo standing near the barbecue pit, a great big pair of black tongs dangling from his hand, his stomach rolling over the edge of his pants, almost to his knees. His eyes arenít looking at me, theyíre looking down, so Iím following their path over the hill of his gut, to the filthy yellow tile under his feet. I keep following the aim of his eyes until I see the butcher block, piled high with fresh red meat, until I see Suzanna, crouched down beneath it, almost buried in its shadow. "Suzanna?" I whisper. She doesnít look up, and Bo, he doesnít say a word, he just keeps staring at her. Sheís clutching a whole side of raw ribs. Her hands and chin are red with runny blood, and the ends of her blond hair are soaked with it. I hear Jelly and Bee right outside the door, but I canít look at them when they push through it, Iím looking at my girl, Iím moving at her, slow, Iím saying, "Suzanna, honey, are you hungry? I told you Iíd cook you up something nice when we get home. Suzanna, honey, look at me," but she acts like a deaf old dog. She doesnít look up. I hold her hair back from her face. I cup it in my fist, and with my other hand, I stroke her cheek. She just keeps gnawing at the meat, noisy, far away.

"Well, what the. . ." Jelly doesnít say anything else but that. He says it over and over. "What the. . ." Heís trailing away like air from a balloon.

I can hear the baby. Itís crying again, that high screeching cry. Itís crying like it wants us. "Suzanna," I say. "Hear that? Your mama needs you, Suzanna. Your mama needs you."

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