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.