It was another mandatory in-service. It seemed lately he spent half the days in the hospital at meetings about new rules and regulations and procedures, and Roddy Korch wondered why should he, someone from the toilet bowl patrol, have to sit in a room with blaring lights and nurses and administrative figures, when all he wanted was to do his job or wither away into the carpet. He squiggled his sweaty, itchy ass on the hard plastic seat. The dreaded sign-in sheet was making its way around. Please, he prayed, don't let me have to stand up and give my name and department and be quizzed. He felt his gut rumble, and knew that soon would come the most nearly silent and deadly farts known to man.
He couldn't stop it – he let out a tiny squealer which mimicked the whine of the chalk on the board. SAFE HAVEN, wrote the administrative figure, a narrow woman in a man's suit. Roddy had seen her around, clipping purposefully down the long hallways. Maybe it was a man, hard to tell. In any case, her head with the short hair moved quirkily, and Roddy was spellbound by its teasing golden color, which reminded him of the Molson that awaited him in his fridge. She was writing some important points and saying something about babies, but Roddy could only see himself crossing the fine porch of his double-wide, beneath the red and white awning, slipping through the screen door and pecking the top of Marlene's head where it rested near the TV tuned to Judge Judy, shaking hands with his old friend the fridge handle, finally caressing the cool golden bottle neck.
His fingers stroked the cold sweat on his own skinny neck, which balanced a round head with the red-gray hair of an aging leprechaun. His fingers were already warped, semi-permanently curled to the shape of beer bottles and brush handles. He held cigarettes pinched between thumb and forefinger, sometimes elegantly, when managing to stretch out his pinky.
A handout slid from his left, echoing the things the person was writing and pointing at. Steps to be taken if someone hands you a baby. Hands you a baby? Roddy had his hands on a baby once, one of his sister's. It was fairly enjoyable for a short time, while the baby was quiet. Then the baby had seen something in his eyes and started to bawl. That baby was older now and rolled in dirt and bit the cat's tail, so Roddy avoided it at all costs.
The gist of it was that now the hospital was officially a place where someone could drop off their baby, if they couldn't care for it, and they wouldn't get in trouble. "You, as the employee, should be prepared to receive the baby, and prepared also to ask a few questions." Me? Roddy squeezed out a string of baby firecrackers. The person's head bobbed like a chicken's, and Roddy thought of a time at the petting zoo when he'd imitated the chickens for a circle of gigglers, Marlene's library group. He could be fun. Maybe a baby would think he was fun. Then he thought of how a couple months ago Alvie Stump, from the supply room, had stepped out for a smoke and been handed that baby from a woman who then bolted. Alvie had no directions then as to what to do or say, but he ended up taking that baby to the ER, which turns out is what you're supposed to do. Alvie said that baby looked like it was made of marshmallows with a tiny cherry for its nose, good enough to eat. Roddy thought he might have some marshmallows at home, and maybe some cherries. One time he and Marlene had put a marshmallow in the microwave and it grew like a loaf of bread. The baby of his sister had felt like a warm loaf of bread in his arms. He looked around the room to see if they were serving any refreshments. Not a damn thing.
The Admin person was high-lighting the questions.
Were there any complications at birth?
Roddy remembered his mother saying how his head was too big, and how he got stuck and nearly killed her. He thought he remembered the squeezing, too, the red under his eyelids. Sometimes he still saw that red when he got his headaches, and still felt his mother clamping down on his delicate brain. He had a vague memory of her also trying to put him through a washer-wringer once, but that might have been a dream. He pictured the cherry-red juice dribbling from his mouth. If he had a baby, he'd be kind to it, not squeezing it to death.
Did the mother have any history of drug use?
There was a period, after Roddy's father took off, when his mother had smoked marijuana cigarettes, the stuff she grew in their garden. Roddy remembers the smell and how she had gotten so hungry afterwards and taken him to the store where they bought tons of chips and candy bars and everything that was bad for you. Roddy wondered if eating all that junk had stunted his growth and given him the weak teeth and made his bones prone to curling. And was it the marijuana or the bad treats that gave his mother that giant tumor later in life, the one that seeded her brain and tricked it into believing it was a baby? After they removed the tumor his mother had flipped out when they didn't bring her baby. "What have you done with her?" She had even chosen a name: Suzette, like the French pancakes.
Speaking of pancakes, Roddy's stomach now made a weird loud pinging sound as he thought of the Big Slam breakfast: Two eggs, stack of four pancakes, bacon, sausage, hash browns, donut, and OJ. $5.49. The Admin person halted in the middle of some blurry words to look right at him.
"I'm hungry," Roddy said. Then he slipped and said out loud what he was thinking: "I could eat a baby. Big Slam Baby." He giggled.
The Admin's mouth hung open. She didn't know what to say, but she wasn't thinking it funny, either. Some people around the room chuckled and shook their heads. Roddy the Retard. A little scary. Probably would eat a baby.
Roddy's face burned and his sweat broke out. He stood suddenly, and like a schoolboy with an urgent turd blurted, "May I please be excused?"
The Admin made a short laugh like the drop of a blade. "By all means. There were cookies slated, but apparently something's gone amiss."
In the hallway Roddy wiped his brow with his hanky and let one that ricocheted like a ping-pong ball. His leg muscles twitched. He made it to the break room, where his boss sat reading the paper, and with a confession of sickness won some sympathy or apathy, and punched out early.
Instead of going straight to his truck, Roddy decided to go across the street from the ER, where a group of hospital employees had gathered to smoke. There was no longer any smoking on hospital grounds; it had become a Smoke-free Campus, as they liked to say. That was the subject of the last inservice. What was the world coming to, with rights and choices taken away every day? Roddy liked the idea of joining the protest group, but as soon as he got there and fired up, it seemed everyone else's break was over, and he was left to smoke by himself.
The car chose then, when he wasn't even on hospital property and no one was left to see it, to bump up onto the curb and almost plow into him. He jerked back and dropped his cigarette. The back door opened and the starved-looking figure of a girl, like a version of his mother when she was young, placed a baby, complete with car carrier, into his smoky arms. "It's a girl," she said simply, her small, hoarse voice like something from a lonely planet.
Roddy opened his mouth and said, "Uh..." He tried to think of the questions, but was blank. What he ended up stammering was, "Can I name her Suzette?"
But the girl was already back inside the car, which even in the bright daylight held a deep shade of anger, a sense of darkness and panic and an absence of soul that Roddy could never comprehend. The tires spun and skipped from the curb and they were gone. By the time he looked for the license plate it was already too far away.
He looked around. This would be just like Alvie, to set this up as a practical joke. Or maybe it was a test given by the hospital, like a final exam. No, what he had felt from that car was no joke or test, just desperation.
Then he looked at the baby. She was not a newborn, even he could tell that. And maybe she was over the limit for being dropped off without prosecution, but again he couldn't remember anything from the meeting, and he hadn't taken the paper with him. This baby was filled out in the marshmallow way, well fed. She already seemed to have a personality, looking into Roddy's face and burbling and almost laughing, working her chubby arms and legs like crazy as if trying to swim to him. And her eyes were a clear violet color. "Maybe I'll call you Violet," he said, looking across the street to the ER entrance. Her car seat was worn and chipped like it had been salvaged from the dump, and it made his heart ping like his stomach had earlier, filling him with such an empty sadness. Who would do something like this? He scanned with his eyes, trying to figure out the best way to get to his truck without running into anyone.
He headed down the sidewalk and crossed at the KFC. Then he took the bike path along the creek and came up behind the parking garage. Violet watched him, bumping rhythmically off his leg. Luckily he was parked in the very back corner of the lot.
He struggled with the carrier and seat belt, willing his stupid hands to work for once, his head swiveling every few seconds with guilt. Violet seemed mesmerized by his twisted fingers and cursing red face. "We'll get you somewhere," he promised her. "But first, there's someone I want you to meet. What can be the harm?" He finally had her strapped in, although half-assed, so he also promised her he'd drive carefully. "It's not far to go," he said.
She watched him shift and steer and grunt like he was the center and operator of her new crazy universe, which he supposed he was. Her limbs never stopped moving and every now and then her face would flinch, but she didn't look scared. He hoped she wasn't one of those crack babies he'd heard about, the poor things jerking uncontrollably, perpetually startled. But those babies were also always irritable and crying, and Violet was a saint. He concluded that she was just happy.
He felt he had to entertain her, like a clown, so he lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings, which she watched with growing excitement. Then he cursed himself, remembering some old phrase from an inservice: 'Second hand smoke is no joke.' He tossed the butt out into the passing blue puffs of his exhaust. "Look," he said. "Clouds. Have you seen clouds?"
Clouds made him think of scoops of ice cream, so he pulled into the Mcdonalds drive-thru for a chocolate shake. "What a cute baby," the woman said.
Roddy beamed. "Her name is Violet."
The woman looked back and forth between Roddy and the baby and her look said, How could this happen? Poor kid. There must be some mistake. Roddy turned his face away, ashamed, and asked her for a spoon.
He pulled into a parking space and touched a tiny bit of the shake to Violet's mouth. Her lips sputtered and her whole body shook. He dabbed her chin with a napkin. "Of course, I'm such an idiot. It's too cold."
He felt himself sinking suddenly, with all the stuff he didn't know and didn't know how to get, like diapers and formula and bottles. He wasn't sure Marlene would know, either. They hadn't wanted children because their own childhoods were unhappy, and as it was they could barely get each other through a day. And then Roddy's sperm had been killed off by the chemical accident where he used to work, so that made it official. Any other way to get a child would be added to the list of things in life they felt too dumb to reach. But now this. Handed to him.
At the first light a state trooper pulled up behind him, and Roddy started sweating. But wait, wasn't Alvie's cousin a state cop? Roddy smiled into the rear view mirror and shook his head. Crazy Alvie. Now the lights of the cruiser flashed and Roddy eased to the shoulder. He practiced his speech, which he would deliver with a straight face: "Certainly this is my kid, officer. Her name is Molson, like what I've been drinking the last couple hours, while I let her sit out in my truck with the bad exhaust pipe, which was running the whole time. I even let her drive for a while." He chuckled. But the cop swung around him and was gone.
"Wow," said Roddy, glancing at Violet as he would a buddy after a close call. He had felt the rush and now was let down, and she too had stopped moving, her eyes closed and her face holding a little frown, which made him panic. "Hello," he said, slipping his curled finger inside her tiny fist, which seemed limp. "Violet?" He put his hand on her chest and felt it throbbing rapidly, like that of a wounded bird he'd once held. The bird had flown into their big front window one evening, and Marlene had freaked about it, like it was a sign. Then, strangely enough, the bird was instantly better. It stood up in Roddy's hand and flew away. Roddy recalled that fluttery feeling that went with its freedom. Marlene started calling him the healer, a little joke, but even so, he felt that he had grown somewhat in her eyes because of it.
Violet jerked awake and started her limb-waving again, like an upside-down bug. "I'm so sorry," said Roddy. "You were sleeping. You missed the excitement." He placed his crippled hand on her again, and she went back to sleep. "Back to your dreams," he said gently, and then wondered if babies even had dreams. He remembered dreaming about being inside his mother, but did those dreams come to him right away, or when he was older? He sighed about how complicated everything was.
He thought he should at least stop and get some diapers, but that too was complicated. If he went into a store he would have to take Violet with him, and he wasn't sure that was a good idea. Besides that, he had no idea what size diapers, so he would have to ask someone, and wouldn't they find that suspicious? Plus all these stores had video cameras now. He broke another sweat just thinking about it.
To calm himself he focused on the little purring sound Violet made in her sleep. That had to be one of the most perfect sounds in the universe, and as he concentrated the world outside his windows melted away and he could see only the bright road that was taking him in a straight line. The blurs on each side of the truck, when he refocused them, were not the images of this town, but the trees and fields where he grew up. He looked to see his little house and his mother in the garden, but it never came. He blinked his eyes.
He reached to touch Violet again, and when he did she woke up and latched onto his finger. She trusted him completely. When he touched her again she slept. He was in control of her, or the other way around. He was convinced she was more than a baby -- maybe the embodiment of his mother, or his mother's imaginary baby, his sister. What did she want to show him?
And maybe it was his imagination, or his excitement, but as he made the difficult turns, heading towards his place on the mountain, his hands stopped hurting. He glanced at Violet and said, "It won't be long now."
Her eyes were open just a slit. "But I guess you already know that."
As he swung into his driveway the windshield washed red and he felt the pain in his head clamping down. He didn't remember stopping the truck. He dreamed of bees stinging his face, and when he opened his eyes there was Marlene hanging in the window, smacking his cheek.
"Good god," she said. "What the hell is this? Are you crazy?" She took a handful of his hair and shook his head. "Whose baby is that? Roddy!"
He felt his jaw slacken. He couldn't speak at first. He looked around the world outside and then around the cab of the truck, his eyes finally resting on Violet. "Oh...this is Violet."
"What? Where did you get her?"
"That's the funny thing. I was standing on the sidewalk near work, and a girl handed her to me. And on the very day we were learning about what to do if that happens. I think it's a test, or something. And I probably flunked, because I ran off with her."
Marlene's brown eyes and neck cords and ribs above her blouse were bulging in disbelief. It saddened him that she looked like someone whittled down by lack of hope or wonderful surprises. To make her feel better he said, "Isn't she something?" When her mouth just hung he added, "Surprise."
She snapped out of it. "Jesus! You just can't make a present of a baby!"
"Well...someone gave her to me."
"It's against the law." She twisted his ear.
"But it isn't. That's something they said today."
"Stupid. It's still against the law for you to take her."
Roddy hung his head. "And I wasn't even on the hospital grounds."
"Dumb ass." She poked the side of his head, right in the soft spot where his pain often began. "What have you done? Now when you bring her back they'll ask all kinds of questions."
"I just wanted you to see her," he whispered.
"Roddy." She shook her head.
"And watch this. We have a special connection already."
He placed his little hand on Violet's chest, and immediately she woke up and worked her limbs. She moved her big eyes onto Marlene. Roddy slyly watched his wife's face and knew that already her cold heart was melting. Violet held Roddy's finger and worked it like a lever controlling their strings.
"Well," Marlene said, her mouth forming a grim line, "at least get her the hell out of that stinking truck." She turned and walked towards the porch.
Once again Roddy fumbled with the seatbelt as Violet studied him. "She's coming around," he told her.
Marlene was right – the truck reeked. The seats were stained with coffee and smoke and yes, even beer, from the nights when Roddy took a six-pack and drove over the back roads until the storm in Marlene's head had blown over. "Sorry to put you through that," he told Violet. "Come and get some fresh air and see the view from our porch."
He carried her up the steps and the awning cast its red stripes across her face. He put her down on the table so she could look out at the hilltops, but then wondered how far babies could actually see. Probably not any farther than their immediate circle of need. That was a shame. If not for this view, Roddy's immediate circle would have closed in and strangled him long ago. This view and his shed out back and his beer were the things that kept him going. He asked Violet, "Can you see out there? That's a thing of beauty, isn't it?" She seemed excited.
Roddy could hear Marlene inside, talking to Judge Judy, or whatever judge was on TV right now. She seemed to be defending him, at least, in the case of the mysterious baby. "Judge, my husband, he's not right in the head. He lived through a terrible chemical accident. He wasn't supposed to live. Now his own judgment, well..."
He was touched, but not for long. She changed instantly. He heard her tipping furniture and cursing. Something smashed against the floor or a wall. There was a scream of frustration: "There can't be any children!"
"Uh-oh." Roddy picked up Violet's seat. "Better come with me." He carried her off the porch and around the side of the house to his little shed at the corner of the backyard. This was his own safe haven, just big enough for a comfortable chair and a cooler and a tiny table that could only hold an ashtray and beer bottle. He set Violet on the plywood floor in front of his chair and sloshed through the cool water for a Molson. He plopped into his chair with a grunt and opened the bottle and took a long swallow.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You must be awfully hungry."
But she didn't seem so. She just watched him, waiting to see what he would do next.
"Don't mind sitting with me awhile? Marlene'll be okay. She just takes a little pill. She'll be sweet as you in a bit, and then we'll see what happens. If you have to go, she'll at least say good-bye in a civilized manner."
He closed his eyes and sighed. He wanted to think deep thoughts, to make sense of things, but whenever he tried the brain-squeeze would start. He wanted to write in a little notebook, a book dedicated to Violet, one he'd send her someday, wherever she ended up. But his thoughts would just become jumbled and reel out into their dangerous patterns. Thinking of babies would make him think of marshmallows and of microwaves and of Alvie eating babies with cherries on top. It wasn't fair what life could do to you. He wanted his brain cells and sperm cells back. He wanted Marlene back and his mother and his imaginary sister. He wanted Violet.
His head was in the vise, and the bad thoughts were coming. He tried to replace them with something good. It was hard work, and he had to thrash his head from side to side like a man possessed, but because he knew she was watching he was able to do it.
He thought of the bird waking up, fluttering between his twisted fingers, and how for that moment there had been a purpose to his life.
About the author:
Gary Moshimer lives near Lancaster, Pa. ,where he works in a small hospital. He has contributed stories to Eclectica, TQR, Antithesis Common, Sybil's Garage and others.
© 2011 Word Riot