Wayne doesn’t want to get into a shouting match over a baby again. But beside him the stranger’s baby in the flowery stroller is wearing a white bib and a blue hat. Wayne can’t believe his girlfriend keeps staring at the baby. They are in line for hamburgers at the Gigantic Burger Lodge, it is cold and damp, and winter is in the trees. The Gigantic Burger Lodge is a log cabin with neon green signs and only black people work there. Wayne has a thing for black girls which means he would like to make love to them. When Wayne sees them, at the bus station or the Laundromat, his body hurts and tingles at the same time. But that doesn’t matter until later because Wayne is about to snap if Lizzy says anything about the pipsqueak baby.
Is she going to talk to the baby? Wayne thinks. Is she going to take the baby? Nobody likes it when you touch the baby. Your mind is totally fucked, Lizzy baby.
There is a Home Depot hardware and contractor supply store next to the Gigantic Burger Lodge. There is a liquor store, a cinder block building with no character where two Pakistani brothers work the day shift, mopping the floors to muted soap operas on television. When Wayne pictures the brothers’ greasy bald heads drooping over mop buckets, Lizzy says, “Are you even listening to me Wayne?” Wayne is suddenly very worried she may be an E.S.P. gypsy mind reader with x-ray vision who can see through peoples’ faces, behind their eyes, straight to backs of their skulls where secrets glimmer then vanish like minnows turning in dark water.
“You watch too much T.V.,” says Lizzy. “All you do is watch T.V. and shoot up. You eat popcorn then shoot up again, drink cherry Coke. You don’t take care of me anymore.”
Keep your tentacles out of my mind, Wayne thinks.
The mother of the baby looks at Wayne, who, in response, shakes his head back and forth vigorously to indicate her child is extreme danger of being abducted. The mother’s eyes dim which causes her mood to darken. She pulls a blanket around the baby so he is secure. She tucks the baby and his feet into the stroller tightly.
“Wayne,” Lizzy whispers. “Look at that baby.”
Lizzy has spotted the baby now. She is looking at the baby, thinking about the baby. Stop looking at the baby.
But Lizzy sometimes thinks she has instant spiritual connections with strangers who are always uninterested and polite. Lizzy’s eyes fix on the stroller. She points directly at the baby by the take-out line and says, “It’s so cute, Wayne. Oh, I want to touch it. Steal it, Wayne. Can we steal it? I want to steal that little baby.”
“Stop looking at my baby like that,” is what the mother says to Lizzy. The mother pushes the stroller away towards the cars in the parking lot in the sun. She walks quickly, gets in her minivan and drives down the street.
Wayne says, “I don’t want to steal a baby. Do you know what you are saying? Do you know what that means?”
“Sorry,” Lizzy says. “I just think it would be fun to, like, own a little pink creature like that. We could wrap it up and keep it warm. We could sleep with it between us.”
Wayne dresses in a triple XL parka jacket with Hawaiian shorts, his skinny shins end in brown boots with no socks. The shorts fall down if he takes his mind off them. He pulls up his Hawaiian shorts and walks over the liquor store next to the Gigantic Burger Lodge, curses loudly to himself. The people in line, a few boys with colorful jackets over their pants, stare at him strangely because he cusses to himself. “Monsters,” he shouts. “Babies are tiny monsters.” Inside the liquor store he buys condoms and a six-pack of tallboys with a fake identification card. She wants to be a mom, Wayne thinks. “I can’t handle this one,” he says, shakes his head. “She wants to have a screaming baby around the house.”
The liquor store clerk’s hair looks like a huge cotton ball exploded with firecrackers. The hair is white and burnt gray with black traces, and his eyes, deep blue desert eyes, are cloudy or filled with smoke. He speaks from beneath his beard that funnels into a meager wisp. He says, “Don’t have any babies right now, my man. Baby free, my main man. That’s a good way to be.”
These are the wise Pakistanis who suffer over their mops with dreams of the desert, Wayne thinks.
“How many babies do you have right now?” Wayne asks. He yanks the wrapper from a pack of cigarettes.
“My children were taken away from me,” the clerk says. “They wandered into a minefield in the dark.”
Behind the counter, seated, there is another clerk. He is a balding pudgy man in a bright checkered shirt whose forehead seems to have collected all his worries like a sponge. The forehead, smooth and swollen, controls which way his head leans. He still smiles, and the smile gets bigger as his hands turn a woven wicker basket in his lap. He clutches a roll of weaving yarn between his knees as he gently rocks himself in the chair. He threads the bright red yarn through the brown wicker basket.
“Now all I have is my brother,” the clerk says. He points at the man who weaves. “And he isn’t good for much anymore.”
This is what Wayne knows about Lizzy’s family: Wayne calls her father the Horse Master because of the pony outside with brown hair in the fiberglass barn from Home Depot. The pony is for his daughter, Lizzy. The Horse Master likes to stand by the barn behind his house on the emerald lawn and look at the brown pony. The lawn is emerald green from the fertilizer he uses, also from Home Depot. The Horse Master is outside a lot, drinking after work while admiring the pony. The Horse Master has a name for Lizzy’s mother, his wife, like Wayne has a name for the Horse Master: Bitch on Wheels. The Bitch on Wheels calls the Horse Master a droopy dick. They each, the Horse Master and Bitch on Wheels, work in finance in Atlanta. It is a good life except they never speak to each other. Now the Bitch on Wheels lives in Corpus Christi by the shimmering Gulf of Mexico. The Bitch on Wheels is happy about the gulf. The salt water does wonders for her fifty-year-old skin.
The Horse Master isn’t home so Wayne and Lizzy do whatever they want.
They do it, have sex, in her bedroom. Through the window is the barn with the pony out back. Wayne has Lizzy in her bed. They screw in all the positions. Lizzy screams about how good it feels. Her screams carry over the lawn and past the barn where the pony is busy thinking about carrots or apples and staring at the fiberglass wall of the barn.
“The neighbors only sit in their houses and watch television all day,” Wayne says. “We can do it in the yard.”
This is what he knows about the neighbors: their names are Roy Johnson and Mrs. Johnson. And there is Patricia, Mrs. Johnson’s daughter. Patricia, the spoiled pre-teen, also has a pony. There are two ponies on the street.
Lizzy gets up to get another beer for herself. She pops the silver can and drinks the beer. Wayne is amazed at how much beer she guzzles so quickly. Her black hair dangles on her pale breast.
“Mrs. Johnson just had a new baby,” Lizzy says. “She wants to bring the baby over to ride around the back yard on my pony.”
Wayne laughs hysterically. He thinks very hard about a baby riding around the back yard on the pony.
“Tell her to use the other pony,” says Wayne. “The girl down the road has a pony too.”
But Patricia, the pre-teen with a sour face who also has a pony, is stricken with a gnarly case of dermatitis. She doesn’t let anyone else near her pony because it is her only friend. That is Patricia’s rule and she is very strict.
“You don’t want to see a baby on my pony?” Lizzy asks. “Do you want to see that?”
“I told you how I feel about babies,” Wayne says. “I don’t feel good about them. We don’t kill them because they have large, moist eyes. We can’t resist the eyes. We’d kill them if it wasn’t for that. And what the fuck kind of neighborhood has two ponies in it anyway?”
Wayne is from the rental-only neighborhood where all the black girls live. In Wayne’s neighborhood he has to watch out for people breaking in through the front door and the windows. Nobody owns anything like ponies. Wayne thinks, This boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is about to explode into a billion invisible particles.
“Wayne. It’s cute,” Lizzy says. “I want to ride the baby around on the pony. If you don’t let me do that then you can get out of my life.”
The hunger in Wayne, a stone in his abdomen, is back. He walks past the railroad yard into the cornfield where Lizzy doesn’t go, through the warehouse district where nobody works but ghosts over their shadows in negative light. Down the alley there is a musty room with an electric lantern and a mattress where they press the needles in. The needle back-shoots with a trace of Wayne’s blood, set to boil acid green like the seas of Venus. Right after the woods he finds the bad houses with peeling paint, ply board nailed over the windows, where the man walks down the stairs in his pajamas and a hot yellow wig, he has no hair anymore, Smooth Reece. Reece says, “Straight up dissipated into fucking outer space.” But nine times out of ten he doesn’t know what today is. He says, “Helicopters, man. Fucking helicopters.” And wherever Reece goes, the pig tails on his blond girl’s wig, the brake lights on his motorbike follow him. Where Reece goes he won’t be back.
There is a black woman, who Wayne knows as Keisha Bartlett, sleeping in Reece’s house. She lay in a bare room with frost on the windows and the rugs gone to the pawn shop. In the center of the room, a kiddy kitchen play set is scattered or turned over. A plastic doggy gate in the doorway is used as a baby gate to keep her child in the bedroom. When Wayne enters, Keisha covers herself with a loose purple robe. She looks at Wayne, intensely and painfully, her eyes green and burnt. Wayne ties her off, and they sit on the couch with needle to carry them away. But her hands begin to shake when Wayne takes it out. He tries to calm her down, but her fingers keep jiggering lightly over her lap. “Everything is spinning,” she says. Her feet jut out and her heels scrape the carpet. She lay on her back on the floor, becoming rigid. Her face is shiny and sweating. “Your shit is hammering me,” she says. She reaches and grips his ankles. “I’m going to pass–,” she begins shakily but doesn’t finish. Then Wayne decides to call an ambulance. He takes the phone to his ear and speaks to the emergency dispatcher.
“Take-out or delivery,” someone answers. It is an elderly Chinese man from a Chinese take-out place. “Happy Garden,” he says. But Wayne has never heard of it. He pictures the man working over a steamy wok. “Good luck being a commie dick-hole the rest of your life,” Wayne says, and re-dials 911. He speaks in a nervous burst, “Keisha is on fire and the house is burning in a raging fire with her baby on fire too. You’ve got to send everybody.”
“We’ll send everybody,” the emergency dispatcher says. “But I need to know where you are.”
On the floor Keisha slumps forward so that her head presses the carpet. She touches her lips with her fingers and rolls onto her back. “Where are we?” Wayne asks. But she says nothing because her mouth is wide open, her jaws agape.
“Forty-two Delray Court,” the emergency dispatcher says. “We’re sending the fire team with the ambulance, but it will take five minutes. Do you want me to stay on the line?”
“She’s not breathing,” Wayne says, and chokes on it. “She’s not moving and looks dead. I hate the way she looks.”
Then he hangs up and is silent until he hears someone in the street. He looks, hoping for the ambulance team. It might also be Reece on his motorbike. Wayne wipes the glass but the sleet thickens, blowing harder, and there is a dump truck passing along the road. As Wayne moves toward the door to call out he hears a creaking sound, and the baby gate opens behind him. The walker, in which the baby sits, crashes against Wayne’s shins. The walker is noisy with bells and noisemakers on it. And Wayne doesn’t know how long the baby has been trapped in the walker, or how he takes the baby to his chest.
His sweater says Radcliff in yellow embroidery. On his head is a twist of hair. He has enormous eyes like all babies except these specific eyes are brown. Wayne holds him tightly; the ambulance sirens are coming, but in the distance. He hurries down the stoop into the yard when he feels it; a small hand, a glowing pulsing imprint infused with life, on his cheek. The touch soaks through his muscle to the roots of his teeth.
In this moment it doesn’t matter that Wayne can’t imagine, not even for one second, being the kind of benevolent person skilled at raising a boy. For now, what Wayne knows, the most important thing, what matters to this frightened child, is that he takes him very close under his parka against his thundering heart.