Look out for the determined ones. Holly, for example, who is sixteen-years-old and dreaming of babies already. Only slept with a boy once. They aren’t an official thing yet, but fantasies of home and inflatable swimming pool root in her brain. The boy’s named is Deuce and his type filters in and out of this world all the time. You’ve seen him drink coffee at the Formica counter, stare at his reflection in the pawn shop window, and beat the rain under an ice cream parlor awning. They are more different than alike. Him typical, and her a natural phenomenon, a rarity, a concoction of spare angel parts.
Wishing to hold a baby in her arms, Holly strikes off. She bypasses the shower, stubs her toe, and throws on dirty clothes. She clips a silver beret in her hair, a honeybee that used to remind her of actual bees, flirting with a world of color. Now it makes her think of Deuce’s penis, which he calls the ace of hearts, and his sudden honey. Nothing about her appearance is flashy. Holly is modest by nature, but her parents worry about their daughter being called a slut. They grimace in the makeup section of the grocery store. “Lord God,” they pray in unison, “maintain the innocence of our little Holly. Take the sluts of the world and throw them in spin cycle until all the mascara washes away.”
She is no slut, only a girl realizing her desire of family for the first time.
A natural thing.
Blue morning light seeps into the kitchen. Fuzzy church hymns play on the radio, warm piano and tender voice. Holly’s parents sit at the wooden table. Bill and Nanny have good hearts and know as much. They are blanched by a white-hot sense of devotion.
Holly refills her father’s coffee cup, smiles at her mother. The chair barely sighs when she sits down and revels in the soreness from receiving Deuce. How lucky to be alive and know the feeling of things. The Fibonacci proportions of a pinecone or creek water trickling over bare feet. All those sensations, the ones of nature and the ones of human beings, previously seemed separate in her mind, but now they have fused. Condensation passing from one body to the next. Hair like moss. Mouth like a hot spring. Tongue of man, she can get used to.
“I like the idea of a baby,” she tells her parents. “I’d like to have one, and I thought I should let you know.”
Lord, they think. Have we done something wrong? Tomorrow she’ll probably wear a thong.
Nanny asks, “Who with?”
“His name is Deuce Miller and his genes are excellent.”
Bill’s bloodstream deposits plaque in the expressways to his heart. He shifts his weight forward and says, “I don’t care if he’s a good dresser. Well, maybe I do.”
Holly says, “I would like to thank you for making this home. I love it, I really do. I only want to build something like it for myself.”
This flattery doesn’t distract Bill and Nanny from graphic images of high school promiscuity. Of course, their daughter wouldn’t unwind in the backseat of a Ford or under football bleachers, which they know in their hearts, but it’s easy to imagine. The nightly news reports an increase of teenage pregnancy and gang activity and marijuana trafficking. Cats meow with different accents and can’t understand each other. Steeped with loneliness, they prowl early in the morning. The Chinese restaurant serves cheeseburgers. One of the news anchors has been traded to another station. Everyone strains to catch up with the Earth’s leaning axis.
She says, “I will check on the pipe,” and goes into the basement, allotting time for her parents to absorb the information. A leaky pipe must be monitored at all times and without supervision, a geyser could burst free and turn the basement into a murky swamp. She examines the pipes running across the ceiling and hears the normal metronome of dripping water. Slimy music plays in her head, the melody born of a guitar strung with umbilical cords. The mother hand, tireless, strums.
As a child, Holly never received harsh punishments. Not even when she turned on the stove while nobody was looking. Bill and Nanny would sometimes lean against the hot eye, the phase marked by antibacterial spray on singed elbows. Instead of whipping her legs with a switch or spanking her with a wooden paddle, they took her to the zoo. They bought pink flourishes of cotton candy and looked at napping lions, and whisked her into the reptile house, a pitch-black tunnel with lizard condominiums on either side. Holly stared into the leaves, not noticing any forms of life at first, and then those orange-rimmed eyes appeared, so many dilated pairs, and her parents quietly slipped out. Holly got so disoriented in that corridor of flickering tongues and scales and albino wonders that it took her half an hour to find the exit, and after returning to the lit world, one of her eyes skewed like the purple chameleon’s. That was the only so-called punishment. It wasn’t a bad idea.
Holly developed her gumption in the dark.
It doesn’t strike Bill and Nanny as a good idea to punish her now, either. Not in the traditional sense. She hasn’t done anything wrong yet and her honesty is Christian. But the thought of grandchildren is nipple-hardening and they advise Holly to wait.
“How long would you recommend?” she asks.
“Thirty-five sounds pretty good,” says Nanny. “I read that older mothers have smarter children.”
Bill crosses his arms. “Maybe I’m painting with a broad stroke here, but I’d prefer you be married first. A nice set-up never hurt anybody. You’ve got to think about money and the size of your backyard, acreage and pear trees. There’s just no reason to get hasty about a thing like this.”
Holly says, “I agree with your suggestions but I cannot make any promises.”
“And what does that mean?” asks Bill. “I hope Deuce is more reliable than his name lets on. His parents must be gamblers. Maybe you should flush him––or not. I guess he could have a scroll of virtues.”
“Fold, you mean.”
“Didn’t I say that?” he asks. “A baby isn’t all fun and games.”
Holly says, “I’ve signed up for a pre-parenthood class at the YMCA, which starts tonight.”
“Well, that’s a mature decision.”
Bill pats his stomach. “If this makes you a slut, I don’t like it one bit.”
“No,” she says. “I cross my legs when I sit.”
The trouble with Holly is scope. Her determination results in a narrow way of viewing things. If she could look at the larger picture, she might be able to prevent her unraveling. The wonder of her occurrence in time and space comes with a price. It isn’t easy being Holly and perhaps this is why she rarely thinks of herself. Her head is a nursery full of unborn babies and she’s grown dozens of arms to take care of them. Nurturing tentacles with bottles, pacifiers, and diapers. Already her gums are receding.
That is why we appear. Three lean vultures. Not to sound vain, but our leathery Mars-red scalps can be seen a mile away. We are not a mirage. No. We are beacons of hope. Some call our speech old-fashioned, all because of the California vacation of 1935 when we hid in the dark corner of a sound stage and saw the filming of Top Hat, a dancing picture with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Our blood pounded in time with the heel clicks and toe taps. We might sound too old to have any useful warnings for a sixteen-year-old, but the spirit of that production has kept us spry, understand. We have traveled far and witnessed enough of the past to know the future.
Holly takes the bus to school, and we fly outside her window at a constant thirty miles per hour. The bus muffles our voices but we are introducing ourselves, saying that we can help, but Holly barely notices us for all the newborns crowded in her eyes, much less read our beaks and understand the message, the warning.
Someone says, “Shit fire, do you see them ugly birds?”
The bus driver has a grocery bag in her lap, overflowing with used cotton swabs and candy bar wrappers. She’s working on a goatee. “No cursing on my route,” she says.
“They’s some sexy creatures.”
The bus stops in front of the school. Students funnel outside. We wait for Holly on the curb, hunched and catching our breath, and a varsity wrestler throws a notebook at us. We can’t afford injuries, not at our age, and must take off. We’ll get her attention soon. We must.
Holly sees the baby inside every one of her classmates. The desire to powder their privates is strong. She sits beside Greenway during physics, even though he struggles with basic concepts and formulas. Nobody else is willing to work with him. They break into small groups to solve problems of velocity. Greenway babbles to himself, and she sticks her thumb in his mouth. He sucks and sucks until the babbling fades, and his pencil grip relaxes.
She whispers to Greenway, “You are a darling.”
He says, “Mmm.”
She rubs his back and Greenway stiffens.
The physics teacher wants to suck on Holly’s fingers, too, and everybody can see it in his arched, horny eyebrows.
There is so little focus in the high school, especially during lunch. Students make their way to the line, and get distracted by the Army recruiter whose table is against the wall. The recruiter does fifty push-ups with a flabby boy sitting on his back. The boy looks happy, and somebody brings hotdogs for him to swallow while rising up and down. The Army is an impressive institution.
Overhead lights flicker. Shoes squeal against tile. Knives hide in lockers. Holly walks past this and finds Deuce eating lunch outside. He is her pillar, her Grecian soldier whose sperm form phalanxes and march up her canal like good old boys.
She says, “I would like us to have a baby.”
“Hey, whoa,” he says. “I’m just trying to eat my fries in peace. Can you bring me some ketchup?”
“Don’t you want a family?”
“My older brother was right. Man, was he right. Nail a girl, and she takes it as a marriage proposal.”
“You said I was pretty.”
She thinks of Deuce calling her “baby” while they were having sex in his room. He offered her a ride home from school, then invited her to his house. They watched television for a while and he asked, “Do you want to go upstairs?” Flannel sheets were still on his bed, despite it being April, and static electricity stung her face. Holly knows that he wasn’t thinking of actual babies, but it triggered something in her own mind that has become the most comforting, pleasant thought of her life. Even if it is sudden, who cares? How lucky to feel something real. And when Holly was about to walk home, she couldn’t open Deuce’s bedroom door. His mother was in the hallway, leaning against it, and she said, “Leaving already?”
Then she barged into the bedroom. Her glass of wine nearly spilled as she dug through the trashcan, looking for the spent condom. She pinched it with two fingers and said, “I’m going to put this on the fridge next to your A.”
She patted Holly’s back and asked her to stay for supper. Holly was the one who ended up baking the casserole and warming green beans. She wiped the counters as if they were her own. Mrs. Miller watched everything from her perch on a stool, making sure that her glass was never empty, and offering no help. Occasionally, she chased Deuce around the kitchen, smacking his butt with a spatula. She smiled like she’d just landed on the moon and kept saying, “Look at my handsome son, the salty dog!”
Outside the high school, blinking in the sunlight, Holly has never felt such disappointment. She says, “You presented yourself as a winning hand, Deuce.”
“Who said I’m not?”
“I might slap you.”
“There’s a change of plans,” he says. “Not that we had any real plans. I’m dropping out of school and moving to Florida for a while. My cousin works at the races and he’s going to teach me the ropes and try and get me on a pit crew.”
The Daytona dreamer. He wants to rise early on the morning and walk through mist, curving with the track, and listen to the quiet caesura before crowds arrive and engines rev. That makes him sound like a NASCAR philosopher, which he is not. He likes races for the earplugs and speed. He likes sponsors. Mobil 1, Old Spice, Arthritis Foundation, Coors Light, Coca-Cola, Arctic Cat, Bandit Industries, Bush’s Beans, Mama Lucia Meatballs, Big Red, Ruby Tuesday, Bass Pro Shops, Quaker State, Quick Lane, Tire Kingdom, Green Smoke, Grime Boss, Dollar General, Head & Shoulders, Sprint, Mars, Visa, Rip It, Tide, GoDaddy, DuPont, Reynolds Wrap, Fedex Freight, Valvoline, Tito’s Vodka, Energizer, Pilot Flying J, Aaron’s Dream Machine. Logos slapped on everything. He likes to be reminded of the things you can buy with hard-earned money, and he wants to buy all of it once he’s on a respectable pit crew. His only experience has been summers at the Calhoun County Speedway. There were always a few pitched red tents, selling popcorn and funnel cake, and the smell of deep fryers mixed with hot asphalt made him nauseous. He unhooked one girl’s bra in a Porta-Potty. Clumps of toilet paper squished beneath their shoes and gnats tried to crawl in their tear ducts. She worked concessions and smelled like liquid butter. He hasn’t mentioned that girl to Holly. He doesn’t think he owes her anything.
The problem is in his very posture at the picnic table outside the school, the cocky shoulders. He orders cheeseburgers at Chinese restaurants. In twenty years, he might be a nice man. But that is twenty years away.
Holly asks, “When are you planning a return from Florida?”
“We had a good time, but I don’t want anything serious. Comprende muchacha? Hasta luego. Had to practice some Spanish. I’ve got a test after lunch.”
“You will have to come back next Christmas to be with your family. We can be together then. I would not mind moving to Florida if you find success.”
“Did I screw your brains to mush or what?”
“I’m going to a pre-parenthood class tonight. It would be nice if you attended.”
“I’m packing for Florida.”
“You will try to make it?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Whatever.”
People like Holly are ultimately alone. They do not encounter others with such phosphorescence of spirit. Her story, although graced with a few happy moments, is doomed. Her parents couldn’t have known. They watch bluebirds from the kitchen window, go to separate jobs, come home bone-tired, and always say they are going to fix that pipe. One day. The television plays in the background but they do not listen to the news stories about economic crises, new strands of disease, or irradiation of chicken breast. Ancient land mines are hidden and waiting to explode.
Deuce does not show up at the YMCA at six o’clock. He remains at home, sitting on his bed and picking sock fuzz from under his toenails. He doesn’t know the mechanics of disappointment. So Holly walks down that chlorine-smelling hallway alone, her greasy hair reflecting dirty light. She pauses in front of the daycare room and looks through the windows. Babies stack blocks, tug on pull-ups, and stare at cardboard books like the message is coming through loud and clear. She wants to feel splitting body and crowning head. She wants to strum the umbilical cord while her baby cries. Gather around folks. This is the new genre of music to fill church and atmosphere, and the cells multiply, multiply. The colonel in the sky made it this way. Lord God, here is your beloved petri dish. Forgive the caution tape.
There are six couples in the class, a single girl, and Holly. The other girl, Mimi Dubois, has curly blond hair and scabbed knuckles. She takes up the roll of comrade.
Mimi whispers, “I like domination.”
Holly says, “I was dumped today, and I only just admitted it to myself.”
Mimi pulls up her sleeves, revealing rope burns on her wrists. She says, “My friend Raphael tied me up the other night. We were pretending it was the Salem witch hunt all over again and I was in big trouble, you know, because I’ve got this crazy hair. He runs his own business from home, so everything is real flexible with him.”
“I thought it was going to work out, but my plan has failed.”
“Everybody goes through rough times,” says Mimi. “How many pairs of handcuffs do you think I’ve got in my duplex?”
“This is a minor problem. I will not let it stop me.”
“Eight pairs and believe me, that’s just right. You remember Goldilocks? Everybody called me that when I was little because of my hair.” Mimi scratches flakes of dark polish from her fingernails. Her jacket is velvet. She says, “You seem like a plain fucking Jane. I bet you like it straight-forward.”
The classroom is neat. Posters of endangered species are taped to the walls. The instructor’s clasped hands rest in her lap, and to keep from falling asleep she tries not to blink. She used to shoot up. During those days, her eyes rolled back in her head and she saw skeletal angels gnawing on her brain stem. After some jail time, she is re-entering society and proving her worth. Her qualifications include six kids who don’t trust her and a business certificate from an online college. She wears a pink turtleneck to project harmlessness. She has everyone sit in a circle and asks what stereotypes they’ve heard about parenting.
“It’s like the hardest thing ever.”
“Diaper runs at three in the morning.”
“Yeah, you become a total zombie.”
“You don’t get any rest.”
“Everything shrivels up.”
“Your world shrinks.”
The instructor asks, “Well, does anyone have anything positive to add?”
Holly says, “You become the witness of miracles.”
“Is that from a book?” somebody asks.
Holly glances around the room, realizing that these people are not like her. “No,” she says. “I just think it is true.”
The instructor pulls the collar away from her neck. “Now, let’s go around the room and say why we’re participating in this class.”
“We want to take this to the next level.”
“She made me.”
“I’m sick of birth control. It makes me fat.”
“My best friend’s having a baby, and I wanted us to have best friend babies.”
“Mama says I’ve got to take this class or I’ll have to put my kids up for adoption.”
“Yeah, who wants to face the imperial void alone?”
It is Mimi’s turn and she is playing with her split ends. She says, “I want a kid who throws rocks. A kid who shoots BBs at neighbors and salts slugs and says he hates me. He’s got to really hate me. He’ll run away and come back with broken ribs. Beat up pretty bad, you know. He’ll blame it all on me but he’ll know that I took care of him. How I supported his head when I held him, and knew whether he was supposed to sleep on his back or his stomach. Flintstone vitamins, that kind of thing. He’ll always come back to me, though. I want somebody who’ll always come back.”
A girl across the circle says, “That’s not love.”
“What do you know?”
“If your kid loved you, they wouldn’t run away.”
“I’ll fuck you up.”
“Some mother you’ll make.”
Mimi walks to the other side of the circle. She pushes the girl’s shoulders and the chair flips backward, smacking against the linoleum floor. Mimi kicks her ribs. She slaps the girl’s mushy face. We watch this through the window, motionless except for wind shaking our feathers, and we say, “Holy smokes.”
Mimi takes a deep breath and exhales slow. “You have a shitty aura.”
The class thinks she’s going to leave, but Mimi only takes a few steps toward the door before pausing. Nobody says a word, afraid of what she might do next. The guys never thought the meeting would be so exciting. There is no focus in Mimi’s eyes. She’s looking everywhere and nowhere. No flicker of consciousness. Her face relaxes, eyebrows lower and the corners of her mouth droop, everything thawing and melting. Outside, the grass is getting trampled on the soccer fields behind the parking lot and we hear young champions celebrate goals. Youth teams play in the first spring tournament, and the stadium lights slice through darkness, but Mimi sees something else. After fighting, when adrenaline floods her system and her blood pressure rises, she hallucinates. In that YMCA classroom, Mimi sees a snow flurry. Gray clouds rake the ceiling and snow falls to the mopped floor, turning and turning. Flakes cling to her curly hair. She can feel the universe expanding.
Every galaxy is a stretch mark. Congratulations, it’s a boy. The way is milky.
The beat-up girl whimpers and sits back in her chair. The teacher touches Mimi’s shoulder, asking her to leave, and that contact with the physical world causes the snow flurry to dissolve. Her face tightens again and she is gone.
The class breaks for ten minutes. Everyone recounts what just took place, wondering what came over Mimi when she took that long pause. Holly does not help herself to lemonade or cookies. She does not partake in gossip. Someone runs into a kitchen down the hall and brings ice for the beat-up girl’s ribs. Holly is unsatisfied with the class so far, and feels no connection with the others. They don’t seem to want a baby like she does, and are only preparing to deal with an inevitable accident. Is anything in their lives intentional?
Holly sees a cardboard box filled with life-like baby dolls. They lie in a pile, foreheads pressed together. Girls have bows in the coarse nylon hair. Boys wear powder blue. Holly picks a doll from the box and walks out of the classroom. Her stride is long and her shoes are silent against the floor and the daycare rooms are empty, all the children at home now. She is thinking about how it will feel to give the baby a bottle for the first time, the tidal pull of a milk-ready mouth.
She hugs the doll to her chest with both hands. There are no footsteps trailing behind her, no shouts, no followers. The doll is hers. The parking lot is lit with yellow lights. Someone scores a goal on the field. Our old eyes follow her and we descend. For a moment, our bodies are perfect missiles and we think we’ve got her, swooping over the ground, but she runs across the street and steps on a city bus. We hate buses and subways and airplanes. We admire the buggy from Top Hat, and spent many nights talking with the working horses and taking long drinks from the water trough. No other form of transportation is so elegant. Fred drives up to the gazebo in the rain. Ginger wears equestrian boots under the pitched roof. The word lovely was invented for moments like that, for tap-dancing and good looks.
Isn’t this a lovely day to be caught in the rain? You were going your own way, now you’ve got to remain.
The bus doors wheeze shut and we don’t have the energy to pursue. As it pulls away, we see the faces of passengers flash by. One man wears three hats stacked on top of each other. Fedora, visor, stocking cap. A woman wears gold hoop earrings you could stick a fist through. The air is pungent with everyone’s past, present, future. Beer from the bar he just left. Perfume for the man she is going to meet. Sweat under the warm jacket. Holly is glad to be en route with these people and her baby. She takes her bumblebee clip and pins the short dark hair out of the doll’s face. The baby girl is made of peach-colored plastic, with the kind of eyelids that open when held upright.
An old woman looks at Holly and says, “That’s a little baby.”
Holly feels warmth spread between her legs. “She is a good girl.”
“Mighty quiet. That won’t last, mind you.”
Holly takes the baby home, closing her bedroom door. Her parents assume the pre-parenthood meeting was a sour event and has probably caused second-thoughts to crop up. Just give her some time. Holly cracks her window to let the breeze in. She takes off her shirt and holds the doll as if to breast feed. Eyelids closed, peaceful. This is pre-motherhood without the charade of ice-breakers and fistfights. Nanny opens the door with a mug of hot chocolate for her daughter, and she is surprised to find a plastic baby’s lips grazing her daughter’s nipple.
Eventually, we arrive at the next-door neighbor’s roof. We’re exhausted from the day’s travels and lean against the brick chimney. Once our hearts calm, we light cigarettes and blink away the bright spots in our vision. There aren’t antennas on this roof but we hear the laugh track of a late-night comedy coming from below. How does that work? We still remember the beginning of television, a few basic channels, and the blank screen that appeared after the evening programs ended. Smoke curls above our heads. Fitting for our deliberation is the starless hour.
“She’s a delight.”
“Absolutely, but the girl is too quick on her feet.”
“What’ll we do? We’ve got to figure something out. She’s such a sweet girl, I’d hate for this to come to a bad end.”
“She’s not going to leave the house until tomorrow night.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“There’s no helping her father’s heart, but we can catch her leaving the hospital.”
“That’s the only chance we’ve got.”
The three of us grew up together. We learned to fly on the same morning in late March and gorged on a dead rabbit’s belly. Our world was leafy, boundless and blue. We broke the hind legs of mice and watched them drag through the dirt and pine needles and bits of quartz. Everyone has a capacity for small cruelties. The power of foresight came with a bottle of moonshine. That was 1932, the last leg of prohibition, and we came upon a still in the woods. We found a jug resting on a tree stump and being quite adventurous in our early years, gulped the clear fluid, which pooled in our stomachs, lakes of searing fire, and sent us flying in corkscrew paths upward, bumping into each other and sleeping in a dilapidated squirrel nest for the night. We awoke to low clouds and knew the future.
She holds the doll in her bathroom sink and shampoos that mess of coarse hair. It feels like sudsy weeds, thick curls between Holly’s fingers. Her own hair is flat against her head and flecks of dead skin make a constellation around the crown. She wraps the baby in a pilled blanket and massages the plastic arms and legs, whispering, “Darling baby,” and the tune she hums is a small rockslide, low and then lower, the humming of ages, a conglomerate of eroded notes, and the doll remains lifeless. Nanny and Bill listen, too, and it feels like a song hummed from the top of a mountain, carried to a valley below, swept into the kitchen by thoughtful wind. Their daughter is a being unto herself. It has taken so long for them to realize this.
Their hearts are overturned stones.
Holly tells the doll about Deuce, how he has deserted them. She pulls old books from her bottom shelf, the stories she read as a child by the window, and relays them to the doll. To see Holly look at the kidnapped toy is to see motherly instinct in full blossom. She overflows with affection. Her uterus quivers. Even her small breasts begin to swell with milk. Look at this miracle of flesh, smell the two hemispheres of brain revving, touch the place where Holly’s skin twitches. She is willing to give herself away.
“Baby,” she says. “My parents have done good for me, and now I will do good for you. For the past few years, I have wondered what my purpose is. The guidance counselor says this is a soul-searching time for everyone, but that time is over now. I am going to nurture.”
She sits on the faded rug in her bedroom and makes a stuffed monkey talk to the plastic baby in her lap, which was a gift for her sixth birthday. One paw hangs from a few threads. The face is dirty and there is a hole in the stomach where a feeding tube could go. Holly’s high-pitched monkey voice goes hooo hooo ha ha hooo hooo ha ha. This monkey call drifts downstairs and finds Bill. Blood is not getting through. Hooo hooo. He feels sharp pains and grabs his chest. Ha ha. The monkey eggs him on, that chant radiating from a ruthless jungle. Hooo hooo ha ha. He tries to call for Nanny but only a sour puff emerges. He knocks a lamp on the floor to get her attention.
Nanny has been in the world for fifty years, but she has never been so firmly present as she is right now, holding her husband’s face in her soft hands and wondering if he is about to die. She shouts for Holly to stop that damn hooting and get the car keys. Bill is having a heart attack, hurry.
Holly clutches the doll to her side with one arm, and moves down the stairs slow enough that the baby is not jostled.
“Hurry up, you’re driving,” shouts Nanny, holding up Bill and leading him toward the front door. She struggles with his lanky figure and begins to cry. “Let’s go, let’s go.”
Keys, door, car.
We wait in the gutter. The family moves to the car and we circle above them, shouting in our raspy voices.
“Listen, we beg of you!”
“Give up the doll!”
“There’s still time!”
Bill watches the us and thinks how unusual it all is. Our frantic behavior, his heavy pain. He gets in the backseat when his wife opens the door, hands pressed to his heart, and wonders if vultures are escorts of the Lord. He would not mind being carried in our dark claws, watching the world shrink beneath him as he rose into an endless yawn of sky. He could die happy knowing that his wife still loves him and his daughter is no slut. Those are things to cherish. Divorce rates are going up. Slut rates are going up. Nobody believes in true love anymore. How lucky to have lived this particular life, he thinks. A man welcomed by the universe, comforted on sleepless nights by owl, cricket, coyote.
Everything has opened to his touch.
His wife unfolds like a paper swan.
Nanny looks at the hawks and says, “They must be diseased. The hospital, let’s go.”
Holly doesn’t listen to anything we say. She sticks her head out the window and begs, “Stop following me!”
She sits in the driver’s seat. Her parents are in the back. Holly realizes that she cannot put the doll up front because it’s too dangerous. She cradles the doll, looks in his plastic eyes, and asks her mother to hold it and support the neck.
“Your father’s having a heart attack,” she says. “Forget it.”
“But it is safer in the backseat.”
Nanny grabs the doll and says, “I’ll throw this out the window if you don’t start driving.”
We land on the hood of the car and peck the windshield with our curved bills. We don’t like to scare anyone but something had to be done. A chunk of glass breaks off and we keep chiseling the windshield until there’s a crack. Our wings are flapping blankets. When Holly reverses and speeds down the road, two of us are slung off the hood. The third presses his body against the windshield, but he’s no match for the high-speed wipers. We hit the ground hard, our old bones rattling and bald heads scraping against pavement.
It’s a short drive to the hospital and Holly drops her parents off in front of the emergency room, then finds a parking space. She crawls in the backseat and hugs the doll, explaining that its grandfather is in pain and his heart is having problems. The doll gives no response, which makes Holly feel sick. She asks the woman behind the front counter where her father is. The woman gives her a room number and points to the elevator.
She says, “Is that your baby?”
“Yes. I think she is very tired right now.”
“Did you deliver here?”
Holly can barely muster the strength to smile. Her hair is clumped together and her teeth are foul yellow tiles. She lifts the doll’s little plastic arm, as if to wave goodbye to the woman, but it’s completely stiff and the fingertips have a synthetic sheen. She walks away without saying anything else. In the elevator, there is a tall, young orderly. Chemicals in his head spurt and bubble. He looks at the swaddled baby in Holly’s arms.
“I know what it’s like,” he says.
“To feel totally artificial like that. Nothing more than a product of some assembly line.”
“I am sorry,” says Holly. She asks him where her father’s room number is, already having forgotten, and he tells her.
“You know,” he says, “I dream in black and white.”
The elevator doors open and she says, “I have to go. Bye.”
The orderly leans across the threshold of the elevator and kisses the doll on the forehead. He sticks his tongue inside the plastic ear, and sniffs the clean hair that smells of tropical wind. The young man takes a tuft into his mouth and tries to pull the doll away from her.
Holly says, “That is my baby!”
With a mouthful, he says, “Mine.”
She pushes him away and the doors begin to close, and he stares out at her with black hairs stuck between his teeth. An animal in a white uniform. Forces are against her. Things aren’t going as she expected. The comfort of a baby has not lasted very long. The baby itself won’t respond to her touch. How many things will turn out like this? How many things wind up a disappointment? It’s harder than she expected.
Bill is hooked up to a heart monitor. His lips are dry and he’s exhausted. The heart attack was mild, the doctor says. It could’ve been worse. Now, he thinks we were a dream. He figures a trio of vultures must have been a figment of his strained wormy mind. The thought of death is far away now. He is hungry for meat and touch. That unfolding, where is it? Holly kisses his cheek and holds his hand.
She asks, “How do you feel?”
“I feel alright. Actually, that’s not true. I’m embarrassed to be in the same room with that doll.”
“Deuce will not have anything to do with me,” she says, looking at the floor.
He pushes himself up in the bed. “You don’t need him. On the other hand, I need you.”
He asks Holly to go back home and lock the front door, which was left wide open in their haste. “When things get hectic,” he says, “it’s easy to forget.”
“Of course,” she says.
She takes the stairwell instead of the elevator. All of this movement and action. Needing to be in so many places at once. The dream is false. The one where Holly sits in a white wicker rocking chair with a baby in her lap, and the moonlight stretches across the floor. Soft breath fills the room. What’s real is the road. If she follows it all the way, she could end up in Florida, the state where Deuce wants to change tires and wear company logos, the state where Bill was stationed in the Navy as a young man. The doll’s ear is wet with saliva.
The front door is open. From inside the house, a guttural noise reaches out and grabs Holly. She jogs inside with the doll. It is the basement, the pipe. A terrible screeching noise. How long since someone looked at it? Holly has been so busy with the doll that she forgot. She sits the baby in a chair at the kitchen table, runs down the basement steps, and turns on the lights. Water gushes from the pipe and fills the basement like a bathtub. On top, there’s a layer of brown cappuccino froth.
A lone rat dog-paddles in circles. No ark would take this creature aboard.
Holly doesn’t know what to do. There’s almost two feet of water in the basement. At this time of night, she doesn’t know if a plumber would arrive for the emergency. She grabs a towel from the bathroom and tries to tie it around the pipe. The force is strong, but she manages to get the thing tied, which barely helps. Her clothes are soaked heavy. This is the water’s celebratory escape. The mission is to spread, expand, convert every dry inch to wet. Here is a force with equal determination.
She hears something in the kitchen, and thinks it might be a neighbor wanting to see what is going on. Maybe even Deuce ready to make an apology and take her for a drive. Pioneers, frontiers. The body has it all. The ecotone is breath between. She would accept his apology if he gave one, but there is no person waiting for her upstairs. The door is still open. A cat meows down the street somewhere, speaking its own private language.
Glow streetlights, glow.
We stand on top of the kitchen table, claws pocking the wooden surface, our heads pointed toward Holly. We must look terrible.
“There’s our girl.”
“You really enjoy playing hard to get.”
“We’ve been trying to inform you that this doll is nothing but trouble. You can’t hold onto it any longer.”
The doll rests on the table and we gather around it. Who knew something so small had the potential to ruin a girl’s life. If she keeps this thing, she’ll bring it to school and be attacked by her peers and teachers, awkward conversations with the school counselor. She’ll drop out. Her skin will fade to gray and sag from weak bones. She’ll become completely absorbed with the doll and grow distant from her parents. Their home will become a tomb and all the joy in her life will disappear and she will rot from the inside out. That is the truth. We cannot blink it away.
Holly feels hopeless as a mother. She wants to nurture and protect a baby, but the doll has been under her care for a short time and has already been violated by an orderly, had hair ripped out, and been pecked blind. We jab the plastic fluttering eyes. Two black holes remain. The death of something that never lived should not be so remarkable.
“I am the one who is trouble,” she says. “The baby did nothing wrong. It is me. Kill me.”
“Gosh,” we say. “We aren’t looking to kill anybody.”
“If you keep this doll, only bad will come of it.”
Coughing up blood, we say, “Nothing good.”
The gaze of a scavenger is the deepest in all of nature. We find a use for the dead and abandoned. We look into a person’s heart and see the scraps worth saving. With the best intentions, we pick up the doll, each of us holding a limb, and fly through the open front door. One day Holly will realize it was for the best. An occasional black feather will remind her, or the sight of someone hunching under the weight of their burdens.
The doll is gone and here she is, our sixteen-year-old Holly, alone. Water gushes below. This is how things work. Something flows and something clogs. It makes no sense unless you step back, see the tricks a ruthless world plays, and it makes no difference whether you are born human or vulture, because the nightly news speaks to all and to all this breaking news alert: A tropical storm knocks open the cages of exotic animals. They are on the loose, slithering through dog doors and humping city trashcans. Zebra in town square, poisonous frog in the sewer system. Animals pair up. African pythons are moving into your crawlspace and making love.
Holly looks in the phonebook and calls four plumbers before one answers. An emergency, she says, please hurry. It will be an hour before he can arrive. She feels that everything has collapsed around her, and there’s only one thing she wants to do, one thing that will restore her sense of power. She finds the turkey knife in the kitchen, only used on holidays, and walks to Deuce’s house. It takes less than thirty minutes. The penny test proves his the tires on Deuce’s truck are new. Slashing them is hard but Holly manages. The hissing quartet releases warm air on her ankles, escaping and re-entering our world. There is no crescendo.
Meanwhile, Deuce sits on his bed, shirtless and enjoying the cool air on his chest. He flips through a racing magazine with articles about drivers, renowned pit crews, and cutting edge cyclone technology. Advertisements wink. Deuce likes carburetors almost as much as jeans accentuating a girl’s wide hips. Even the words for engine parts sound sexy to him. Oil sump, cylinder head, crankshaft, piston, pushrod. But oh, Lord God, who can forget the muffler?
We drop the doll over a glassy pond. It floats for a while, then water creeps into the plastic body and fills the hollow. The baby sinks beneath the black surface, ripples disrupting the dark reflection of trees. All of us ache, but one of us already stinks like death. He was swept by the windshield wipers. His insides feel soft and runny. Something is punctured, leaking. The lungs are heavy as punching bags.
“How are you feeling, friend?”
“I need rest.”
He falls on a patch of clover, wings trembling. His eyes can’t decide whether they want to open or close. Woods surround the pond. They contain the nests of young and old birds alike. Even if our souls wings into another world, we will have a last flight on earth and it isn’t easy to accept. Around our injured brother, we spread our wings to keep him warm. How lucky to be surrounded by bodies, this fellowship that saved us from lonely lives. We all knew it was coming, knew the date of the first death among us, but that doesn’t make it easier. For one of us, so many years behind and nothing in front.
“We put on a good show,” he wheezes.
“You were very brave.”
“A girl like that, she’s worth it.” A bubble of blood rises and pops in his throat. He says, “We had a good time in Hollywood, didn’t we?”
We think of that wonderful year, 1935, and how big our lives were. Now, we sense the shrinking. That’s exactly what it’s like. When you have been lured into a cinematic world, held tight the whole way through, and the ending comes too soon. Weightless. That’s it. This is it. The ending being pure silver.