PRETTY FOR BABY
BY RAY NAYLER
“What’s his name?”
Janie looked up to find the voice. Where had she been? Drifting, dreaming. Lost in the sounds of the mall. The clatter of feet, the rising soothing bars of music from invisible speakers. The constant pattern of shoppers—other women with strollers, teenagers in packs. She could sit on the food court and listen to the sounds and look at the sculpted, linear garden of the mall forever.
“Her name.” She placed an affectionate hand on the baby’s honey-curled head. “Her name is Olivia.”
As if in response, Olivia turned and showed Janie her pink smile. She never cried unless she was hungry or needed a change. Somewhere in the mall a child squalled, in contrast to Olivia’s quiet good nature. The man said:
“A pretty name. She’s a beauty.”
The man was dark-haired. Glossy, like a photograph from a magazine in his light blue polo shirt that let you look at his corded forearms and the width of his wrists. He poked a thick finger at Olivia’s tummy.
“How’s it going, smiley?”
Olivia’s head wobbled and she stuck out an ecstatic tongue.
Janie had worn her best dress, violet with white daisies, for their outing at the mall. Her shoes were black, and maybe did not suit the dress, but she had shined their leather up and it gleamed under the artificial sun. It seemed like years since she had been out, since someone had talked to her. Someone real, someone besides Robert. Rust blocked her throat, her voice came out oxidized. Outside the mall, the world was iron-gray with winter. Robert would be at the garage. The tap at home would be dripping water, spat-spat in to the sink. The house smelled of two-stroke, of a fast-food bag with rotting fries somewhere. Right now Robert would be under someone’s car, working at a stuck bolt and wondering: should he call her, was everything all right at home, or had something happened, a knock at the door . . .
“She looks like her mother.”
Janie looked up. She was so spaced out. Gone, like she had taken something that morning. She could hardly enjoy being here, and she wanted so badly to enjoy it—sitting here with Olivia and the people passing. Not like people at all, like moving pictures. Perfectly safe. A group of teenagers stalked by, hair hidden under winter caps, their bodies swallowed by their bulky coats. A few years younger than her, a world away from her. The man’s eyes were the exact blue that you would expect from a photograph. He reminded her of an ad from Health and Fitness Magazine. He should be posed glistening on a beach.
“Oh, she’s much prettier than her mother.”
The man smiled.
Robert could never get the grit out from under his nails. Would he call? Why would he call? There was baby food—they had stocked up just after his check had come in from the garage. There were diapers. She had everything she needed. Monday, it was Monday. Today it would be busy at the garage and even if he thought of calling he wouldn’t have a spare moment, not when he thought of it. And he would forget about it in a few minutes. He didn’t always call. Not when he was busy.
The man was looking at her hands. She made it easy for him, brushing the left through her hair, pushing a curl away from her face. Flirting, showing the ringless finger. After all we aren’t, she thought. But maybe we’re Common Law. After all, what’s the harm? There was a half-empty plate of Chinese food on her table, and a half-empty cup of soup that she had been spooning into Olivia’s smacking lips. I could be a good mother, if I had half the chance. If things were like this all the time, she thought. And a little thought answered: Wake up.
“It must be hard.”
“Raising her all by yourself. That is, if . . .”
“It’s just . . . Yes, it is hard. But she’s so good. We . . . I was lucky. She’s great. She never cries . . . I mean, not much.”
The world of the mall seemed so fragile. At any moment, a shopping bag could explode, showering everything with blood. People would continue to shop while fire licked the walls. The food court was full of young mothers, as carefully dressed as Janie. She wondered if any of them were as false as she, if any of them felt as out-of-place. If they did, nothing in their faces betrayed them. They were all as calm as sheep, their faces blank. Babies stared up at them from their strollers. Babies were either pretty or were not, and Olivia was a pretty one. Babies could be switched, and most of these mothers would never know. But Janie would know Olivia. Folded neatly in the blue Baby Gap bag at Janie’s feet were two new jumpers that Olivia would soon outgrow. Soon, they would be evidence. She had once been that small. Only the clothes would stay small.
The man’s finger was wrapped in Olivia’s plump little fist.
“Can I hold her?”
He lifted her from the stroller. Olivia said “Blat!” and paddled her feet in the air, her mouth a happy O. Most men didn’t like other people’s children. A thought flickered across her mind, projected forward from a high school natural science class. When a male lion takes over a pride, he hunts down the cubs of the beaten male. He shakes and tears them in the grass. He breaks them in his mouth. Sometimes he eats them.
“I’m Mark, by the way.”
The lioness will defend her cubs until they are all dead. But once they are gone, she goes quickly into the heat. She lays down in the hot Savannah grass for the murderer. He holds her by the back of her neck with his bloodied teeth.
Robert would be home in two hours, at the earliest. She still had time. She didn’t have to wake up yet. She wanted to stop thinking about the time, because thinking about it only made it go faster. It slipped away from you. You had to pretend it wasn’t there to make it last.
Mark cradled Olivia in his brown arms and smiled at Janie. Demonstrating what a good father he would be. She wanted to get a new dress before she went home. They would have money soon—enough for a new dress, enough for Robert to get his own machine shop. She could put the new dress on credit. Next week they would have the money. She wondered if, years from now, Robert would still have grit under his nails. Would he ever be clean? Would he ever not smell like the cars he worked on? Olivia aid “Blorp!” and Mark lowered her back into the stroller.
“We’ve got to get going.”
“Of course.” Mark gave her his magazine smile. There was a small embroidered shield against the blue of his shirt.
In Banana Republic she looked at all of the A-line skirts and the Khaki dresses. Simple. Minimalist. They made her flowered dress seem gaudy to her, out of date. She tried on one after another of the mute-shaded dresses in the fitting room while Olivia sat in her stroller rolling her eyes. The dresses made her face look out-of-date, just as they had done to the dress. Her eye-shadow was too blue, her lips too light a red. A hooker trying to look civilized, that’s what she looked like. Well, she could change her face. She would have to study up on the new make-up styles, that was all. She tried to imagine what it would be like to be one of those perfect young mothers, their manicured nails around the stroller bars, their cool-toned lips matching their bobbed dark hair. A group of them was standing around the register, talking idly. One of them had a son with something called ADD and he was “going on Riddlin’.” One of them had a new pair of shoes she had purchased, and she opened the box to a series of “oohs” and squeals of delight. Janie couldn’t see the shoes from where she was standing, a dozen or so feet away. She craned her neck, but all she could make out was a ridge of tissue paper and a tapered black toe.
“I can’t imagine when I’ll have the chance to wear them, but of course it’s good to have a pair around.”
“And they go with everything,” one of the other women chirped. “But god, I must have a dozen pairs of black heels. It’s like an obsession.”
They all laughed. Their laughter seemed wonderful to Janie—genuine and care-free. They belonged here. Her enjoyment of it, however, was interrupted. She found herself remembering Robert. He was leaning against a door-frame, his hands shoved in his pockets.
“It’ll all go smooth. Long as you don’t bitch it up one of a million ways. Just don’t do anything STUPID, Janie.”
She knew she was remembering a particular moment, a few days ago, but it blended in with a dozen other times he’d accused her of “bitching” something up. Maybe it was true that she’d messes a few things up, but everyone made mistakes. Besides, her nerves weren’t so great since Mama had died.
She remembered the sound, the splashing sound, and the bright red across the bathroom tiles. No, not bright. Deep. Deeper than anything.
She was not going to think of it.
The doctor saying: “People like that woman never listen. I said not another drop. Not that it made any difference. It’s useless to even try with their kind.”
Not here. Don’t think of it.
Doesn’t he know she can hear him? She’s just a few feet away, crouched on the living room couch with her legs pulled up. The cat keeps climbing up on the couch, keeps trying to squeeze onto her lap. She pushes it away with her bare foot. Stupid cat.
“Another kid for the state to take care of. At least she’s sixteen.”
I can hear you! In there! Talking over her body! I’m a person!
She wasn’t going to think of this here.
Robert was a lot of things, but at least he was not a drunk. Janie would never have married a drunk. Robert might go out with the guys, he might “stop off,” but he never came home drunk. He had a few, and that was all.
He didn’t drink much, but didn’t he act like he was drunk, sometimes? He got the craziest ideas in his head. Schemes. Plans.
Janie leaned down to Olivia.
“But you’re not a scheme, are you? No, you’re not. You’re an angel.”
Olivia said “abba!” and whacked herself in the forehead with her hand.
What had life before Olivia been? An empty parking lot. A nothing. A waiting. It was so recent, but Janie felt as if before being a mother she had been nothing at all.
“And we won’t let them take you away, will we baby? We’ll keep you and raise you up right.”
The women dispersed with chirpy good-byes and it was Janie’s turn at the register. The clerk smiled at her, a little sliver of white. Grudging. Was it less smile than she had given to the other women? And why? Janie looked nice. She had dressed up. It was probably just in her head. After Mama she’d never been quite right. Jumpy. Nervous. Restless. Robert called her “twitchy.”
What she needed, Janie thought, was a little stability. They were always struggling. Robert lost job after job. Once, he’d almost gone to jail.
They had been lucky. He was always coming home with crazy ideas. For making money. For “fixing” their lives. His eyes would look like they were going to come right out of his head. Pop-pop, roll on the floor. He would be sweating, fidgeting, jangling change in his pockets saying “listen to this, baby . . .” and “I was thinking today . . .”
It was enough to make anyone twitchy. She wanted to shout at him sometimes. “For god’s sake, will you shut up! Don’t you know you’re nuts? Someone could get hurt!” Because he was nuts, when he was like that. The things he came up with. She never said anything, though. And what would happen if she did?
Someone could get hurt.
She passed the plum-colored dress across the counter. Almost couldn’t buy it. She had a stab of guilt, a quick little stick in the chest. Too expensive. Too good for her. Don’t deserve it. The knife went in, went out, went in again. The girl was ringing it up and Janie wanted to scream at her. “Wait! Wait!”
She snapped the Visa down on the counter and slid it across. There. Done. Once something was done, you didn’t have to feel guilty for it anymore. You could only feel guilty while something was happening. She was happy to have the receipt in her hand and be done with it.
Out past the food court again. Sculpted brick, light more natural than the sun. There was the table where they’d eaten. That table. Someone had cleared it. She looked at her watch and saw that it was past time. It was long past. Now her heart hammered, jagged banging in her chest. Robert would be worried. She should be at home.
She ducked into the mall’s enormous bathroom. Did she need to use the bathroom? No. An excuse. Her face fluttered, bird-like, in the flat metallic gleam of the mirror. She didn’t look at it. What was she doing? It was crazy, coming here to the mall. But she’d had to get out. Had to Days. Days in that suffocating house, with that greasy smell of rotted food that she just couldn’t find the source of. Days with Olivia in the dark. The blinds pulled. The flickering shout of the television. Someone could get hurt.
She splashed water from the sink onto her face and wiped it dry with the rough towels.
She was right to come here. Now, she would go home. She could stay behind the blinds a few more days. Be quiet. Wait.
Olivia sat in the stroller, opening and closing her tiny fists, saying “dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo.” A flaky patch of snot was under her nose. Janie bent and, with the edge of the wet towel, loosened the snot to a paste and wiped it away. Olivia did not flinch. Her glossy blue eyes looked straight, trusting, into Janie’s.
“Such a pretty baby.”
She could see, out of the corner of her eye, her movement pantomimed in the big empty bathroom’s mirror. She looked at the two of them in the mirror. The man in the food court, Mark, had been right. There was a mother-and-daughter sameness about them. A connection, although hair and eyes were different in color. It was something else, then. The mirror showed it clearly, but she could not name it.
“Borble,” said Olivia.
“Yes,” Janie said. “That’s it. It’s borble. Let’s go back home, baby. Everything’s okay now. Mommy’s feeling better.”
Outside, the sky was flat white like a fresh-painted ceiling. All the cars looked washed, their brightwork shining in rows. Her car showed brown like a rotted tooth. And there was Robert, leaned against the spotted fenders and staring at her, wide-eyed. He had a knife of black grease down his cheek, and he was not smiling. She wanted to turn and go back into the safe, piped-in world of the mall. But then he would follow her. Then it would be worse. She could see the red of three days’ worry in his eyes. She edged past him and started loading Olivia into the car, adjusting the straps on her new car seat.
“Are you nuts?”
She didn’t answer him.
“I asked you a question. A very serious one. Now answer me. Are you insane?”
“I couldn’t stay cooped up in the house anymore. Waiting. You got to leave, at least. I didn’t. I just wanted to get out and get some air. I . . .”
“You decided to go to the mall. You decided that would be the best thing to do. The smart thing to do. Go to the mall and buy a new pair of shoes.”
He was pressed against her now. He reached down and yanked her out of the car by the back of her dress. She hit her head hard on the frame of the door, stumbled against the Lexus parked next to them.
“You went to the mall and paraded around in front of thousands of people, as if it was nothing. You’re psycho. You’re nuts. What are you doing in that dress? Could you wear anything brighter? Anything more attention getting?”
Her head hurt. She felt numb. A strange thought came into her head: the grease on his cheek had come out of him. It was what he used for blood. It was what he was made of.
“At least I’m not the one making a scene in the middle of the parking lot.” She saw the butt of his revolver sticking from the top of his jeans. “At least I’m not carrying a gun around like a cowboy in some movie.”
He slapped her and she went down on her knees. She was crying now, and she hated it. She hated the tears. They burned her.
“Stop being dramatic. Get in the car.”
She got onto her feet, wobbled, stood up straight.
“I just wanted to get out for a while.”
“And play rich little mommy with all the other stupid . . .”
“You’re whacked. Are you back on speed, or something? I should . . .”
“You should what?”
Mark was standing in the middle of the car aisle, holding her Baby Gap bag from the mall food court. Robert turned and she watched him puff up, stick out his chin like a bird trying to make itself bigger.
“This isn’t any of your business, buddy.”
“Sure it is,” Mark said. He grinned his magazine smile, but now it wasn’t so glossy. His teeth looked sharp. “That’s a nice hand print you left on her face. That makes it my business.”
Mark looked at her, and back to Robert. Then he sprang forward. Robert went for the gun in his belt. They collided, and there was a sharp pop! Robert’s shoe whacked against the white side of the Lexus and clattered to the ground. Robert was screaming. She was in the car, she had the windows rolled up. Olivia was crying, even though she didn’t need to be fed or changed. Robert was on the ground, and his foot looked wrong, turned back wards or gone, the sock small and shapeless. Mark was rolling him over. Handcuffs flashed as they closed around Robert’s wrists. She put her head in her hands and felt the tears come, harder now. Olivia was crying too, and so she said “It’s okay, it’s okay,” over and over, but Olivia wouldn’t stop. She couldn’t stop either.
She could hear Mark tapping on the rolled up window, trying the door, tapping on the window, trying the door. The glass muffled his voice.
“Janie, it’s going to be okay.”
She shook her head.
“I’m a cop. You’re safe now, Janie.”
She could feel hysterical laughter coming up, bubbling its way up, a pressure as it tried to break through her closed throat and come out. She wouldn’t stop laughing if she started. She knew that. She had to keep it down, because laughing always made them angry. She had laughed at Robert once, and the hitting hadn’t stopped that night, he had kept coming at her. Absurdly, she thought she would look up and see Mark and he would be a lion, just like in the documentary they had shown her in high school. And she would see the bloody cub hanging from his mouth.
She looked up, and of course he was just Mark.
“You’re okay now, Janie.”
“You’re going to take her from me.”
Robert was very still on the ground. A thin line of liquid ran from his ruined foot. She knew what it was, of course—but in the flat winter light it was as black as grease.
“Janie, we aren’t going to take her from you.”
Olivia had stopped now, as if she was listening.
“Of course you’ll take her,” Janie said. “She isn’t mine.”