from Box City
1983, Houston, Texas
October. According to the Colonial Americans, this was the Hunter’s moon. Trip found a big swath of velvet tucked away in Judy’s closet. It was midnight blue. “This is what the guy meant when he sang about blue velvet,” Trip told Nora. They cut stars from cardboard and wrapped them in tinfoil, attaching them to the cloth, and sang By the Light of the Silvery Moon as he cut the crescent moon. He could never sing on key, but his voice was ragged like an old outlaw country singer’s, and it made Nora laugh. “Just hold your arms out,” he said, “when you want the full effect.” She was to be the Halloween Night Sky. They weren’t going to the festival at school. Nora knew without being told what the other girls would wear; if they wore costumes at all it would be something ordinary or bordering on sexy. They’d be pop stars and princesses.
Their plans were to go trick-or-treating across the city. They might even go to the beach; last Halloween, Trip drove through the shallow waters and let Nora stand in the back of the pick-up. Sea foam glowed in the moonlight. Trip drove all night, windows down, full of coffee and sticky donuts from the gas stations. Nora had fallen asleep somewhere along the journey, and woke up the next morning, feet hot under the blasting heater, taste of chalky candy bars in her mouth, the elastic band of her Casper mask itching her chin. They’d had pie and black coffee in a diner and called Judy from the road.
There was a sparkle to everything that fall. Trip said you could feel it, a crackle when you reached up into the cold night air.
And then it happened. Not a date, exactly, but perhaps something better than a date. Trip and Nora had dinner with Tamara. Dick couldn’t pick her up, the details were fuzzy, and Tamara said she felt glum. That was her word, glum. She sat behind the reference desk with a pretend scowl on her face, cupping her pointy chin in the palm of her hand. Her hair was so shiny that night Nora could swear it was laminated, and she wore it caught up in a loose bun at the nape of her Audrey Hepburn neck. Trip was putting away equipment and he said, how about some moon food. And she laughed. Okay, she said.
“This is the perfect night for mooncake. You’ll see, when you go outside, that Jupiter is nestled right beside the moon, brighter than any star.”
“Is this true, Nora?” she asked with one perfectly arched eyebrow raised.
It was. Even with the city lights, you could see Jupiter right there at three o’clock. They stood, the three of them, moon gazing beside the old Gremlin.
Trip was handsome that night, saying all the right things and never going too far. They went to a Stop and Go, and the three ate their Moon pies, and Tamara laughed and said she’d never had anything so satisfying.
They ended up at a restaurant clear across town, one Trip and Nora had never been to but they didn’t tell her that. They sat outside next to an orange heat lamp. There was an umbrella and floating candle for every table. The waiter brought chips and salsa and green glasses of iced water. Tamara drank two beers and Trip, four. They talked about moon cakes, NASA, and coffee. Coffee was their word of the day.
“Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and as sweet as love, “ Trip said.. It was one of their games.
“Turkish proverb,” Trip said, “Thank you for your coffee, seignior. I shall miss that when we leave Casablanca.”
“Ingrid Bergman,” Tamara said. She leaned back a little to sip her dark coffee, leaving a red imprint on the rim of her cup. Trip and Nora had watched Casablanca on the late-night movie marathons more than a few times. That’s who Tamara was that night, Ingrid Bergman, with her intelligent eyes, her crisp white shirt under a navy blue sweater.
On the drive back, she sang to them. Her voice was a fragile soprano. “I see the moon, the moon sees me, under the shade of the apple tree. Oh let the moon that shines on me, shine on the one I love.”
“That was lovely,” Trip said.
“Thank you. My Grandpa Paul used to sing that. My Paw-paw.”
Which seemed like the perfect thing for her to say, almost. Nora didn’t like to think of Tamara with a paw-paw. Tamara should have a grandfather.
They walked her to her condo door and she said, “I’d ask you in for more strong coffee but it must be past Nora’s bedtime,” and blew them kisses from her kitchen window.
“Did you notice,” Trip said, as they drove away, “how she doesn’t smell like perfume? She smells like fresh flowers.”
“Her nails are shiny but not polished,” Nora said.
“She buffs them,” he said.
Trip began locking the garage door on Nora. Nora came home from school one day and waited for him to come out, but he never did. The door to the garage opened into their kitchen, so Nora and Judy could hear him in there as they ate a tuna casserole. It was almost nine already; Judy had messed up with the casserole. She wasn’t used to cooking, but Trip was taking less interest in domestic tasks.
Nora sipped her sun tea. Trip was moaning.
“Pipe down in there,” Judy said, and then it was quiet.
“I forgot to put the Ragu with the casserole,” Judy said.
“It tastes okay Mom.”
Judy smiled, close-lipped. She tapped her fork against the plate. “Do you mind doing the dishes?”
Judy stood up and walked to her room. After clearing the table Nora followed her. Judy was lying on her back in bed, still in her heels, staring at the ceiling. Her arms were folded at her chest.
“I’m just tired, Nora.”
The next Saturday Trip missed work. The library was within walking distance, so he sent Nora to tell Tamara he wouldn’t make it that day.
“Bring her this,” he instructed, handing Nora a chain necklace made out of primrose petals. She doubted it would hold up over the long walk. It would probably wilt before she got past the wrecked Zider Zee.
“Am I supposed to tell her anything?”
Trip was sitting Indian-style on his sofa, and his eyes weren’t on her.
“No. No message. Just the jewelry.”
Tamara smiled when she saw Nora but seemed annoyed when she handed her flower chain. “He should call in if he’s sick, Nora,” she said, “tell him not to send you in like this again. I guess this once is okay.”
Nora couldn’t look at her. She gazed at the papier-mâché worms hanging from the ceiling instead. One of the bookworms was wearing horn-rimmed glasses and reading a book about the planets. She grabbed something off the shelf without looking at its cover and went to one of the reading carrels. They were the only two people in the library. She sat there for about ten minutes, but her eyes couldn’t focus on the words.
“Bye, Tamara,” she said. “I’ll tell Trip what you said. I think he might have food poisoning or something. He really is too sick to call, you know.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, “I hope he gets over it soon.” She looked down at her hands. The tips of her middle fingers were ink-stained.
“In fact, he has a migraine. A crippling migraine. Probably exacerbated by food poisoning.”
Nora thought she doesn’t believe me. Or, she does and she really doesn’t care that Trip might have been poisoned. It struck her that sending your twelve-year-old niece to tell your supervisor that you can’t come to work was not the sexiest move on his part.
But Tamara rested her hand on Nora’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Nora,” she said.
“What did she say?” Trip asked when she returned.
“I told her you had food poisoning.”
“Did she say anything about the flowers?”
Trip nodded. He was still in the same spot of the sofa. He hadn’t changed his clothes from the day before.
“I don’t think she really understood,” Nora told him.
Trip looked at her, finally. He smiled. “Oh, she did, Nora. Some things just go unspoken. You see, we had sexual relations. And when a woman of Tamara’s breeding and elegance has sexual relations, it means something different than it would to you or to me. She did.”
But Tamara was leaving, he said, moving to California, with Dick Bandle. Nora and Judy came home to find the wall in between the living room and the kitchen sledge hammered, sheetrock in crumbles at the foot of the hole.
“What is this?” Her mother asked.
“I thought it would give us more space, create an open family dining area,” Trip said. “But now, I’m thinking, I like this effect. How about a mural, ruins, or a rocky cliff?” Trip was lying on his back, looking up with beseeching eyes. Sweat trickled down his forehead and he started rubbing his face. His arms and hands were dusted with plaster.
“I knew it.”
“Don’t test me, Trip.”
“I want to know, what did you know? I’m talking about home improvement, Judith. We can go to Handy Dan’s and for a few bucks, and some Sherwin William’s paint, I can make this look like the moon. A moonscape.”
That was when Judy bent down and spit on him. He wiped the spittle as if he were rubbing it into his skin.
“Trip, you make me want to hit you,” she said.
Nora went to her bedroom to look up at the fairies her uncle had painted for her. Tonight their wings seemed obscene, ugly – blood-tinged. They looked like something girls should cover up, like titties.
Trip needed a job, Judy said. So he went over help wanted lists, same as he’d done every couple of seasons in Nora’s memory. “I can’t find anything,” he told Judy.
“What do you mean? You have a high school education. Your limbs work. You can deliver pizza. You can answer phones. Just get out there, okay?”
The day they took the baby started out just like any other day, with Trip driving her around, asking her to wait in the car while he popped in to get employment forms. They pulled up a the Stop And Go, the same one where they’d bought moon pies with Tamara not long ago. Before getting out, they saw a woman step out of her car with a cigarette in her mouth, pumping gas.
“She shouldn’t have a cigarette around gasoline,” Nora said.
“No,” Trip said, “She could kill us all.” He started to drive away and then he paused.
“Nor,” Trip said, “look at that. She has a baby.”
There she was, in the back seat of the woman’s red car. The baby was gorgeous, maybe the most beautiful baby Nora had ever seen. This baby had lots of black curly hair; it was wearing a stained onsie with a fat Strawberry Shortcake character on front, so the baby must have been a girl. You could see, even from a distance, that the baby had amazing violet blue eyes. Movie star eyes.
“It’s a baby so those can’t be colored contacts,” Nora said.
“A woman like that has no business with a baby like that,” Trip said.
The woman stumbled a little bit to the garbage can. She wore very short cut-offs, so short you could see some butt cheek. Her hair was long and blonde and when you looked at her face, it didn’t match her hair. It looked old. She walked away, like she might be going to the bathroom.
“Wait, she is just leaving her baby?”
That was when it happened. Trip said, “Stay in the car.”
“Are you going to call the police?”
“No,” he said. “Do what I say. If someone sees me, I’ll get arrested.”
He looked one way, then the other. Then he walked over to the woman’s car, opened the door, and took the car seat out with the baby inside. He smiled at the baby as if he knew her. Then carried it and put it right in the back of the Gremlin. The baby was smiling right back at him; Nora could see she had several dimples.
Trip got behind the driver’s seat and pulled out.
“Trip,” Nora said, “we are taking a baby.”
“Yes we are.”
Nora looked back as Trip drove through neighborhoods, as if everything were normal.
Trip was ruffing up his hair in the back. “Quiet, Nora. I’m thinking.”
“But Trip. The car seat isn’t even secured. That isn’t safe.”
They pulled into a public school parking lot, and Trip got out to buckle the baby in.
“That woman is going to miss her baby. We are going to be arrested!” Nora said.
The baby started saying “Nanananana.”
“How old is this baby?” Nora asked.
“How should I know? Maybe like five months. Or eight months. I don’t know,” Trip said.
“I’m scared.” She said it but she wasn’t sure if she was or not. What they had just done was wrong. But it felt okay. It felt kind of nice, actually. The baby was even cuter up close. Nora clapped her hands. “Pat-a-cake?”
The baby smiled.
“That woman is going to” – Nora said.
“That woman was a crack whore, Nora. Do you know what that is?”
“I don’t know what she was but if she was a prostitute, she might still miss her baby. We just broke the law,” Nora said.
“We liberated this baby. How do we even know that was her baby? Get back in the car, Nora.”
Nora did. Trip started driving.
“We could have called the police. For her leaving her baby like that,” Nora said.
“This is our baby,” Trip said.
He pulled onto Telephone Road. Nora knew where he was going.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I think we could get in a lot of trouble for this, Trip.”
“As soon as I saw her, I knew. You did too. This is Lucy, Nora. You know it. This is our Lucy.”
Nora felt a shiver pass through her, and it was the feeling, she thought right then, men and women must feel when they suddenly know they are in love. When they see that things are what they should be, feeling their own special place in the universe. And years later, holding her daughter Elizabeth, she would shudder at the memory of it, of the rightness she felt back then.
“But Lucy would have golden hair. Like Tamara,” Nora said.
“No,” Trip answered, “she must have dark hair. Like yours, Nora. It has to be like yours.”
It had been at least twenty minutes and the baby hadn’t cried, hadn’t pooped. She didn’t seem hungry. Trip drove around neighborhoods with flower trees in front, with sidewalks. These were the kinds of neighborhoods where you saw joggers and little bakeries. As Trip drove, Nora climbed into the backseat to watch Lucy. The baby was twirling her fingers, gazing at her hands with her brow wrinkled.
“Hey Trip, this is a smart baby. She’s looking at her hands like, hey, how do these things work?”
“She is learning how to manipulate them. I’d say she is about seven months old,” he said.
“But with so much hair!”
“Yes, she does have a lot of hair,” Trip said. “She’s perfect. An excellent baby. There is no way that baby girl came out of the woman we just saw.”
He drove them to Safeway where he parked the car and told Nora to wait with the baby. He said he needed to think about the right way to do this.
“Hey, Lucy,” Nora said and as she did Pat-a-Cake with “L” for Lucy the baby stared at her intently. Her eyes were the most beautiful eyes Nora had ever seen outside of a magazine.
He came out with a bag of diapers and three jars of baby food.
“Bananas,” he said, “your first food, Nora.” He turned around and spoke to the baby, “It’s too bad you have to wear that garish outfit. But you will have some proper clothes soon enough.”
They drove to a park, spreading the afghan over the grass. It was a good day for the park, not too cold, although Lucy only had the onsie so they rubbed her arms and legs a bit. Trip changed Lucy’s diaper expertly; she lifted her legs up for him, and he handed her a stick to hold while he did. The diaper was very wet so he let her bottom air out a bit. She made circles in the air with the stick.
“Can’t she choke on that?” Nora asked.
“Of course, but we’re right here, watching her,” Trip said. He rubbed the soles of the baby’s feet, and then her palms. He touched her nose.
“You have a nose,” he said and the baby laughed. He did it again. “You have a nose.”
“Trip,” Nora said, “I think we should bring her home. We can say we found her.”
“We love her, of course,” Trip said, “that is how it had always been, how it always will be. But she belongs with Tamara.”
“How do you know that?”
“You know it,” Trip said. He was squatting down in front of Lucy, making spiders in the air with his hands. It was surprisingly graceful, beautiful really, with his long fingers. His voice was soft, contemplative.
“But she might just call the police.”
“We have to trust that she will know what to do,” Trip said without skipping a beat. “Just as I had to trust that your mother would know what to do when you came.”
“I wasn’t left in a basket by her door,” Nora said. But for a moment, she wondered. They never had talked about this.
“No, you weren’t,” Trip said. He ruffed up Lucy’s bunches of dark hair and she opened her mouth wide. You could see two teeth pushing through her gums. Her eyes were sparkles.
“The last time I saw a baby with eyes like that, it was you,” Trip said.
“I see what you mean,” Nora said, touching Lucy’s hands with her fingertips, “I wasn’t with a crack whore but I was a bastard.”
Lucy rolled over on her belly; the afghan was bunching up under her as she started to scoot.
“She likes us,” Nora said.
“She likes it outdoors,” Trip said, “Babies always do.”
He took Lucy up in his arms and stood, lifting her up high. It must have felt like flying.
They drove to the townhouse. It was Saturday, so Tamara was most certainly at home. Trip pulled over when they were about a block from the house.
“It has to be you,” he said, “you have to be the one to bring her.”
Nora nodded. She unbuckled the car seat. “We’re going home,” Nora told Lucy, “okay honey?”
She walked with the baby on her hip. Lucy fit there just right, like a piece to a puzzle. Nora hugged her tight, and then released. The baby rested her head against Nora’s breast.
The only time Nora had been here was the night of the mooncakes, and she had never been inside. If felt important. She rang the bell. She tried to remember if she had met Lucy the dog that night, or only seen her when they were spying.
The dog didn’t bark. Tamara answered the door right away. She was wearing jeans and a fuzzy cream-colored sweater. She looked angelic. Like Grace Kelly.
“Come in,” she said, opening the door wider. “And who is this?”
Nora stood for awhile, once in the doorway, holding Lucy. The room was kind of dark. There was a pile of dirty clothes beside an old television in the corner. The sofa was beautiful though, soft orange shot through with golden threads.
“Sit down, Nora,” Tamara said, “Do you want a coke?”
But Nora kept standing. Lucy was twirling her fists and making siren noises now.
Tamara walked to the kitchen, which was open to the living area, and poured two glasses of ice water. She hadn’t really looked at the baby yet.
“Where is the dog?” Nora asked. She sat down on the sofa with Lucy in her lap. Tamara hadn’t looked over at the baby much at all. Lucy leaned forward, reaching for something on the coffee table. Nora held her tight. She didn’t want to let go of her.
“Oh,” Tamara said, “she died. She died two days ago. I buried her in the yard.” She sipped from the glass of water, looking over the rim at her guests. “Well,” she said, and sighed. “She was old.”
“Yeah. And too fat,” Nora said.
“She came to me that way,” Tamara said. “I guess you could say she found me.”
They sipped their ice waters, and finally Tamara said, “Why are you here Nora? Without your uncle? And why did you bring this baby?”
Nora took another sip of her water. It wasn’t hard, with Lucy in her arms. It was like she belonged there, and Nora could feel when the baby was going to reach for something. But then Lucy reached for the glass and when Nora pulled it away it spilled cold water down her arm. Her hands started to shake, and Lucy made a little cry.
Tamara sat there beside them, her back straight, waiting.
“You look nice,” Nora said, “were you about to go out?”
Tamara didn’t answer, just crossed her legs, settling back into the sofa.
“This baby,” Nora said, “She’s Lucy, Tamara. She is Lucy.”
As if on cue Lucy opened her mouth wide and said “Ahhhahhahh.”
Tamara’s face broke. Lucy looked up at it and started to cry. That was when Tamara took the baby in her arms, kissed the top of her head, stood and bounced her gently, saying “oh, oh, oh.”
“She’s ours,” Nora said, “we found her. Me and Trip. She’s all of ours, she came to us and we found her. We found her.”
But Lucy was crying harder now, burrowing her head in Tamara’s lap. In a moment they were all in an embrace, the soft sweater against Nora’s wet face, and they were all crying, the three of them. The baby was routing for Tamara’s breasts, pounding with her little balled-up fists. When they finally broke apart Nora could see Tamara’s face all screwed up and red, ugly with tears, her nose slightly running. She was crying as hard as the baby.
“You have to take her, Nora,” Tamara said and when she handed the baby back Nora saw that her chest was red and scratched. The baby cried for a long time against Nora before she passed out, all of a sudden, and the crying stopped. Nora kept her eyes down on Lucy; her hair was sweaty, and she slept with her arms hanging straight out.
When Tamara spoke this it was with the well modulated, professional voice she used in the library.
“Nora,” she said. “This baby has been breastfed. Someone loves this baby.”
“I don’t think so,” Nora said. But now, with the baby against her, in this dim apartment with the woman she’d listened for so many hours yet only spoken to a handful of times, Nora knew of course that it wasn’t how Trip said. That you could want someone or something more than anything, but that didn’t mean you could claim it.
They sat down at the table after Tamara brought out a big yellow blanket and rested the baby girl on it, placing a pillow on either side of her. Then she put on some chamomile tea and served them two lemon squares. Outside, it was getting dark. Tamara took Nora’s hand in hers, and they both looked over at the baby.
“Tell me exactly what happened, Nora. Tell me where you found this baby.”
And then it all came out, garbled, all but the part about taking her from the car and seeing the crack whore with the cigarette. Nora told her of how they’d found the baby out by the toilets, in her car seat, by the Stop and Go. Abandoned.
“Terrible, terrible,” Tamara said in her librarian voice. There would be no more embraces. “Maybe a victim of a car jacking.”
She called the police, and they came, and they drove out to find Trip. He said the same, that they had found Lucy by the Stop and Go, in her car seat. No charges were pressed. One of the policemen gave Nora a fake gold badge, as if she were five years old or something.
“Will you tell us? If you find her parents?” Nora asked him and he smiled down at her.
“You did the right thing,” he said, “going to a responsible adult, young lady.” Another car came, and a woman from social services took Lucy into her arms. The baby woke up and looked scared and mad, with all these people and flashing lights around her. She stuck her arms straight out and made her little baby body go stiff as a board. Nora never saw her again.
After the police had gone, Trip stood in the doorway and glared at Tamara. He stood perfectly still, in that way he could be, so that you almost wondered if he were alive.
“Thomas,” Tamara said, quietly, “I’m going to ask you both to leave now. It’s been a long day.”
When they drove back, Trip sang the same tune over and over again. “Oh Lamb of God, that Takest Away the Sins of The World, Have Mercy Upon Us. Oh Lamb of God, that Takest Away the Sins of The World, Have Mercy Upon Us. Oh Lamb of God, that Takest Away The Sins of The World, Have Mercy Upon Us.” He wouldn’t stop singing, and as he sang louder and louder, Nora knew better than to tell him to please stop.
With Trip spending most of his days on the fold out sofa in front of his black and white television set, Nora could stay at school with her mother until five or she could walk home. She walked. After about ten blocks, there were fewer gardens, more burglar bars. A small apartment with punched out windows seemed empty, but obviously wasn’t, because there were a few bicycles parked outside and an overflowing dumpster. That was something else about Nora’s neighborhood; there was a lot of furniture piled behind lots and apartments. There were more dogs tied out and more chain link fences.
The dog across the street didn’t growl, just lunged. “He don’t like white people,” the girl who lived there told Nora. She said her name was Jackie. Nora walked on by and thought about the TV screen.
Trip’s screen. It was smudged, blurred with fingerprints and gunky deposits.
“It’s nice outside,” she lied, interrupting Trip’s television program when she got home. Their lawn was overgrown with mushrooms, fire ants, and primrose.
“Yes,” Trip said, “everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night!”
Claudia Smith’s short shorts have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals. Her flash fiction collection The Sky Is A Well And Other Shorts was reprinted in Rose Metal Press’s book A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness; her second collection of flashes, Put Your Head in My Lap, is available from Future Tense Books. Quarry Light, Claudia’s debut book of short stories, will be available from Magic Helicopter Press in November. Box City, from which this excerpt is taken, is a novel in progress, part of which appears in Quarry Light.