He’s watching the pregnant girl from 211-D, who’s staring at an empty wooden crib stuck there between his father’s prairie garden and the garbage dumpsters. The crib is white, a knot of little yellow ducks painted at the head. She’s just standing, leaning up against nothing at all, though her posture is thrust back a little as if she really is leaning, short pale hands anchored on her narrow hips, maybe to support the weight of the baby, he thinks, poking out in front. Otherwise, she’s the slick straight shape of a pencil. You’d never guess a baby’s there. In fact, the first time he saw her from the back, that sort of jaunty walk of hers, no hips, sleek hair streaming off her neck, dark yellow arrow of it pointing down at nothing in particular, he had thoughts about her and immediately needed to see her face. It’s in the face you can tell about a person. But her face, when he saw it, was blank.
A cat leaps from out of nowhere into the crib and it startles them both, she jumping back a little, he letting out a sound he should’ve (oh man, why didn’t he?) kept to himself. Because then, of course, she whips around and sees him there, watching her. And it’s not the first time.
She sucks in her lower lip, You again? I’ve seen you before. Whose cat is this anyway? I’ve seen this cat before.
He walks over to her stiffly, a scratchy, uncomfortable sort of walk propelled by something stronger than his shyness, his reluctance, but not too close. He feels his own heart pounding like it’s been unleashed in his chest; don’t look at her! he warns himself. They both gaze inside the crib at the black and white cat, the long ears and golden eyes, lounging about on the plastic mattress with its yellow ducks, its blue daisies, its puffy, cheery red steam engines; the cat lolling on his back like all of this is his, his personal world, white belly exposed. The manager’s son has a sudden longing to be there himself, contained and safe, eyes shut.
That cat keeps turning up here, he says, his voice cracking a little at its own unfamiliar sound. (A quiet boy, his mother always said; Know when to keep your mouth shut! his father’s words.) My dad took it to the Shelter when some people complained, but it found its way back again with a lady who lives here, only then she didn’t want it either. The manager’s son gasps a little, realizing he’s rattling on about this and maybe the pregnant girl couldn’t care less? Anyway, he adds, I don’t know who has it now, but someone’s feeding it. That stomach’s fat as....
The girl rolls her eyes. Oh, great! she says, Just great, I’m happy to make your acquaintance too. So go ahead then, finish your sentence. Weren’t you going to say fat as mine?
The manager’s son’s face burns. He fixes on the girl’s painted fingernails, a sort of purpley-maroon or dark aubergine, something like that, like the blaze of his cheeks. No, he mumbles, shaking his head, this way, that way, anyway but her way; I’d never say that. I just couldn’t think of what to say is all, the best way to complete the sentence.
Her eyes crinkle up, light eyes, not a lot of color, that drained green shallow of the ocean the manager’s son misses like it’s his own blood. Bloodless, he thinks of it this way sometimes, living in a place he never dreamed he would be, no ocean to speak of, how this feels — bloodless. He guesses she’s probably laughing at him, the white flash of her smile, then she turns away, back toward the cat. Who are you? she asks.
He’s staring at the curved slope of her back, and he jumps a little at the nasally sound of this, her voice; though why should he jump? They’ve been talking, haven’t they?
You some kind of English class flunk-out? Can’t complete a sentence? One of those genius math kids, only functions if there’s numbers and a grade? What’s to finish? You just speak.
The manger’s son shakes his head, strands of his dirt brown hair leaking into his eyes. I’m not very good at algebra, he says, But I don’t mind geometry. You can see a world in its shapes. The manager’s son feels a sudden surge of sickness, blaze of his fat cheeks, the inside of his fat stomach hot and heavy as a slab of meat. Why is he telling her these stupid kinds of things? I didn’t mean I couldn’t finish my sentence, he mumbles, I just needed to figure out the best way to finish it and you jumped in. Can’t a person think a minute before he speaks? And anyway, he says, puffing a little, his round red cheeks, his freckles, slouching up next to her, but taller than her — he hopes she’s aware of this, even if he’s not quite fifteen — How the heck did this crib get here? That’s what I wanted to know. My dad’s not going to like it, a crib stuck out in the middle of everything. He doesn’t like things out of order.
The girl leans toward him, an exaggerated sigh, flipping those shiny noodles of hair off her neck. Heck? she says, You say heck instead of hell? Where you from, Iowa? Maybe they don’t have hell in Iowa. I’m from the prairie. Even people in the prairie say hell. You say shoot instead of shit? Jesus! she shakes her head violently, Well, so happens I’ve got a daddy just like yours. Things not in order, a major tragedy you know? She glances around, sweeping out an arm — her too-big nylon jacket is torn at the elbow, he notices. Did you say in the middle of everything? she asks. Looks like the middle of nothing to me. Your daddy’s plot of dead grass he thinks will bring the wild back to the metropolis of St. Louis, and the garbage dumpsters. So what kind of idiot can’t guess this crib’s for my baby?
He stares at her face then focuses down on her feet, embarrassed, then back up to her forehead. He likes her face, short ragged bangs like the fringed bottom of a particular lampshade he remembers, his mother’s antique lamp, used to sit on the table beside her reclining chair; the pregnant girl’s got a forehead that’s wide and pale and soft looking as a slice of bread. OK, he says quietly, his heart suddenly thumping, Then what’s it doing out here with that cat in it instead of inside your apartment?
They look again at the cat. She reaches down her hand to stroke it and he cautions, I wouldn’t if I were you. That cat’s got a reputation, he bites.
She jerks her hand back just a little then grins, full fleshy lips pulling up over her teeth. He notices she’s got a crooked kind of smile, and this makes him like her all the more. The girl drives her hand back down into the cat’s furry white belly and the cat — still lounging about on his back like he’s thinking maybe he’s on a raft in some sea, sailing away instead of stuck in this complex, this city, in the middle of nowhere — lets her do this.
Let me tell you, kiddo, I’ve had worse, she says. I’ll tell you something about being a girl. I’ve never told anyone else what I’m going to tell you. It’s like this: You have dreams, you know, of a time when you can just fly away somewhere. Some kind of place that isn’t in your life now, but then, you think, maybe. Did you ever play the piano? The better it sounds the more you hope for, like the notes are something real. When you stop playing, turns out it’s empty air. She hesitates, sliding closer to him, he can almost feel, almost imagine the touch of her against his arm, his bare wrist where his own jacket has slipped up. Then comes the time, she whispers, When you start to think, so maybe I won’t get to have those wings. You see what I’m telling you here? The girl lifts her hand up off the cat, moving her fingers slowly, uncertainly, staring at them like they’ve become somehow unfamiliar. She pats her big belly. It’s like having your feet nailed to the ground, she says.
The pregnant girl’s name is Neville. He finds this out from his father later that afternoon, Neville Story. That’s not a girl’s name, is it? Neville? the manager’s son asks. I can’t call her Neville.
Call her whatever the Christ you want, his father says. She’s got her father’s name, that crazy Vietnam vet. I’ve considered evicting them, but I can’t come up with the reason why. Just don’t like the man, is all. Has nothing to do with my feelings about that goddamn war, neither. The guy did what he had to do and he got screwed for doing it. So now he’s screwing his family in return. That’s cowardice, if you ask me. Going to the war or not going to the war, it’s all the same to me. It’s how you are the rest of your life that counts.
You mean he’s the father of that baby? The manager’s son’s fish colored eyes grow wide and solemn and slightly crossed. That kind of screwing?
Oh for crying out loud, were you born in a balloon, your mother’s sacred womb? Scratching viscously at his two day beard, the manager mutters, Christ! How is it I remember salt for the goddamn icy paths but no razors for my own face? They don’t pay me enough for the job I’m doing. Real life isn’t what they show on TV, son, you better believe it. I don’t know and I don’t care who the father of that baby is, though I’d bet my month’s income it’s that scabby white kid with the His-Spanic name in Unit C. They were thick as thieves until her stomach pops out. What I’m saying is, the man’s an asshole to his family. Case in point, he’s thrown her crib out. Well I’m not going to stand for it. Do they think I’m running a tenement project here? Most of the people renting from me earn their money the normal way, then there’s the subsidized buildings like the one the vet’s in. Just because he slogged through the jungle for a year and he gets a nightmare now and then, so now he doesn’t have to make an honest wage? There are no dead cars in my driveway and I’ll be damned if a chucked out baby bed’s going to park there instead. You set standards, son, that’s what I’m trying to teach you here. You set standards, and if folks live up to them, even a little, you’ve got yourself a smoothly running deal. Otherwise they walk all over you. You think I grew up wanting a job like this? You think I dreamed of managing someone else’s property? It doesn’t work that way. You make the best of it, and damn what they say about you in the process.
It’s the manager’s son who’s given the task of delivering the pink slip to the girl’s father. His own father said it’s only fair, since the boy’s come from Maine to live here now. It’s about time you took some responsibility, his father said, You think life’s handed to people like us on some goddamn silver platter? His father told him he was being coddled by his mother, living the country life in Maine without a thing to do but go to school, sleep, eat and excrete, is the way his father sees it. My turn to make a man out of you, his father said.
The evening is a washed-out lavender, a thin holdout from the afternoon, the light dying so early these winter days, not the woodsy golden winter light of Maine, he thinks, short as the days are there now. The manager’s son misses Maine. It’s a kind of constant longing, in his stomach, his chest, that aching, and his arms — like something you can hold on to, if only he could! just reach out and it would be there, salt smell of the sea, his mother huddled up in her reclining chair by the window looking toward the sea (you couldn’t see it from their house, but you could breathe it, know it was close); the chair she grew sick in, grew silent in and, eventually, died in. He didn’t know if she suffered, though he thought she must have. Could only guess it, the shots of morphine more and more frequent from the hospice nurse, the set up where his mother could just press a patch of it onto her arm when she needed more. Until she grew too weak for even that. The manager’s son knows this: he hates death for what it takes from the one left living, and he hates St. Louis, because this is the place they send you when there’s nowhere else to go. He has no feelings in particular about his father. He barely knows him at all.
The manager’s son raps lightly on 211-D, hoping the girl’s father won’t answer, that maybe he’s taking a nap or he’s already asleep for the night. The manager’s son knows he’s there because his own father said the man never goes out. When the girl opens the door he’s relieved at first, then embarrassed, pink slip fluttering in his hand like a caught bird. A smell of old onions, or maybe garlic wafting from somewhere.
My dad wants your dad to bring the crib back up here, he says inanely, grinning foolishly as if it’s a funny request. Maybe he could carry it back up for the girl, he thinks, maybe she’d appreciate him doing that?
She shrugs, eying him up and down. He stands up taller, taller than her he reminds himself, does she notice?
Yeah, she says, Well, but it’s complicated. You see, my daddy doesn’t want a baby around here, he doesn’t want me to have a baby, so he thinks if he gets rid of the baby’s things, like its crib my own mother’s church gave me for chrissake! then the baby disappears. Or something like that. Poof! Everything the same as it was. We don’t take charity, my daddy said.
So you have a mother? the manager’s son asks, then immediately regrets this. Why the heck would he ask such a thing? He doesn’t like to say that word, even think it too much, Mother, and now the girl will respond to it, which means they might have to have an entire conversation about mothers. My father just talked about your father, he mumbles, That’s all I meant.
No duh! the girl smirks. My mother says my father is difficult and I should just accept that. Come to terms with it, is how she put it. It’s the price of war, my mother said. Well let me tell you, kiddo, I’ve seen just about every war movie ever made, my father makes my mother rent them seven days a week, pops them into our VCR over and over, same damn ones half the time. I know how they’re supposed to act, the ones who’ve been in some war, even the ones who’ve been totally wasted for chrissake, by some war. There’s nothing about not wanting your own daughter’s baby just because you were in the war; no matter how screwed up they got, not a damn thing about that! Her voice is suddenly shrill and the manager’s son peers about her face anxiously, looking for what, he isn’t sure.
What about the baby’s father? the manager’s son asks, turning a little so he isn’t staring at the girl smack into those pale round eyes, bleary and glassy, like a doll’s eyes. What if the father kept the crib for you? He feels embarrassed about this part of it, since obviously there’s another guy pretty intimately involved. He’s not sure if he should be mentioning this, maybe it’ll embarrass her as much as it’s embarrassing him. She did it with some guy and now she’s got to reap the consequences, his own father’s way of summing these things up. The manager’s son stares into the living room behind where the girl is standing, a plain rectangular room, same shape and the same cheap paint the color of milk in all the units, blinds on all the windows. There’s not a lot of furniture, but he can see the worn green couch at the rear of the room, the back of a man’s balding head lying on it, and the TV flickering its ghostly light. He wonders about those consequences, whether they’d be all that bad if what you reaped was to have this girl with you every night for the rest of your life.
Well kiddo, guess what? Fact of the matter is, my baby doesn’t actually have a father, only Pablo, the one who helped me make it. So, she continues, staring hard at the manager’s son, marble eyes narrowing into clear pale beads like she thinks he’s going to protest, You believe God created us right, the Bible says he’s our Father? So you don’t see him hanging around much, do you? Now there’s an absentee father if I ever saw one. You’re supposed to believe in him even though you can’t see him, can’t hear him, can’t even crawl up on his lap and suck your thumb!
Neville? The bald head from the couch croaks out suddenly, not even turning around, Who the hell you yakking with? That yellow kid? I’m trying to watch something here.
He’s white as rice, Dad! she shouts back. Just the color of his heart is sort of yellow, she whispers to the manager’s son, I’m meaning about Pablo, the baby’s so called father.
The girl places her hand against the manager’s son’s chest, pushing him further out into the hallway and she immediately behind him, shutting her apartment door hard. My father doesn’t really hate Pablo, she says, Not in any kind of a personal way. He just hates everything he doesn’t have control over. He’s not talking about skin color either, you know, He’s talking about a kind of courage. It’s what the war taught him. He says there’s the people who face what they got to face, and then the people who don’t.
That’s weird, the manager’s son starts, then snaps his mouth closed, reddens and looks away. He was about to tell her what his father said about courage then thought better of it. He’s still feeling her hand there against his skin, even though it’s through a layer of down jacket and his flannel shirt underneath; he can feel the touch of her fingers there, near his heart where only his mother has touched before.
You go out with girls? she asks, as they sidle down the metal steps into the January night, a frigid snowless cold. You’re a bit of a baby yet yourself, I guess.
I’m fifteen! he says defensively, which is almost true.
I was sixteen when Pablo started doing me. I was from the prairie, that’s what he used to remind me of. Which is like coming from nowhere, far as Pablo was concerned. Guess he figured people from the prairie didn’t know any better, don’t know when they’re being screwed.
They sit down on the ground under the eaves of his father’s building, crackle of dry, frozen leaves, Unit A, near the concrete wall that separates the complex from the boulevard roaring behind, trying to escape the small wind that has risen, its icy breath whistling out a deeper more burning cold. What will you do? he asks, About the baby, I mean. If your father doesn’t want it and Pablo doesn’t either?
Pablo’s not such a bad guy, the girl starts, staring out into a distance above the manager’s son’s own head, past the other brick buildings arranged in a long rectangle around the zig and zag of the concrete paths, forming an uninteresting courtyard without even a bench to justify its protected space, to sit on, relax, to just be there; only the paths moving from one point to the next, back to the concrete wall that keeps the boulevard from rushing in. He can hear the whine of a truck passing by too fast.
Pablo’s just no kind of a father is all, she says. How would he know what a father’s supposed to be? It’s not like he really ever had one. The girl shrugs, shivers, Anyway, I guess it won’t much matter who wants the baby. It’s going to come regardless.
Where will you live? he asks, suddenly aware of her trembling beside him. He wonders if he should move closer to her, or let her have his down jacket — her nylon one is so thin, and torn to boot. When his mom got the chills in her chair he tried wrapping her in more and more blankets at first, but when nothing worked he climbed right into the chair beside her, under all those blankets and held on.
The yellow eyed cat slides up out of nowhere again, rubbing against the girl’s legs. I can’t believe that cat likes you, he says. I didn’t think it liked a soul, according to my father anyway.
His name is Ernest Hemingway, the girl says, Found that out this afternoon, after you went inside. Probably he likes me because, you know, the baby and all. Maybe he smells my milk brewing or something. Does that embarrass you? Breast milk?
He shakes his head, cheeks burning (breast, she said breast!), but she won’t see this in the darkness.
I might’ve found it embarrassing when I was fifteen. Weird how things change. Well, so anyhow I saw this program on TV, my father had it on, about cats. They said kittens taken from their mothers too soon become permanently antisocial. So what I’m thinking is, maybe Ernest senses I’m about to be a mother, he’s relating to that in some strange way, so he likes me but nobody else. By the way, do you know my name? It’s Neville, Neville Story. I guess we can get that much straight. Anyway, so Ernest hunkered down in the crib like he was my baby, let me pet him and all, then this tall girl comes out from the next building — maybe you’ve seen her, she’s got this really cool mask, looks like a...what do you call those actors that imitate people without using any words? a mime! — and she tells me his name is Ernest. Says that the man she and Ernest and a couple of other cats are living with doesn’t like cats. Especially not Ernest Hemingway, she said. Well, I bet you anything Ernest just needs a mother, I told that tall girl. He just needs someone to love him, that’s what I think.
The manager’s son, cheeks still flaring (can’t quite get free of those words, breast milk), reaches out tentatively to scratch the yellow eyed cat behind his ears. Ernest makes a stifled yowling sort of sound in his throat, swivels his head around and sinks his teeth into the manager’s son’s palm.
Oh, no! the manager’s son howls. And then for no reason whatsoever — the horror of this! — he starts to cry. He feels terribly embarrassed, it didn’t hurt that much, did it? His fat head between his fat knees, his fat shoulders shaking like that icy wind’s blowing through, sheltered as they are, and Neville’s petting him, stroking his neck like she’s petting that cat. Shhhhush, she’s going, Hush now. Did he hurt you real bad? It must’ve hurt real bad.
The manager’s son sniffles, tries to stuff all those gritty, groveling sounds back up through his nose, down his throat, into his gut where they’ve sat for four months like a belly full of stones; four months since his mother’s died and no one’s ever bothered to ask: Did it hurt real bad? Are you all right? How do you feel about this? So embarrassed, he never wants to look up again. He’ll just sit here on this cold ground in the middle of this cold night, the middle of this cold (Christ! he whispers to himself, just like his father; Christ, this cold, cold place!), the middle of nowhere, his fat head between his fat legs, his mother gone.
Hey! Neville says, You want to feel something cool? Want to feel my baby move? He lifts his head just a little, starts to shake it No, but then he sees her jacket is unzipped, her shirt pulled up; he sees her bare glistening skin in the white of the apartment complex lights, the round hump of it tight as a doe’s belly. He’s seen a pregnant doe in Maine, right outside in their own yard, he and his mother peeping from behind the curtains. His mother was permanently in her chair at that point, and he’s perching on the arm of it like they were any mother and any son, a moment in eternity spent together, peering out the window. There’s life for you, sweetie, his mother had said; Got this way of keeping on.
Here, Neville says, taking his frigid hand into hers, This the one Ernest bit? Her hands feel so warm, profound as those blankets he wrapped around his mother, and for a moment he imagines himself back again, under those blankets, tucked away from everything else. But this can’t last, his mother had whispered.
Ernest didn’t mean anything by it, you know, manager’s son, him biting you that way, nothing personal. He barely even knows you. There, Neville says, stretching out his fingers then moving his hand gently back and forth against the bare pulsing warmth of her belly. He can feel it, a flutter here and there under her skin, like a flag waving, staking its claim: hello! I’m here.
There! she says it again.
As if, that’s that.