Before letting our visitors in, my mother bends with a nicotine whisper. “Play nice with Miss Debra’s baby.” I imagine a downy bundle—loaf-sized with curious eyes—benign as a rolled up sock. I’ll shield her from cigarette smoke, build cheese pyramids, and eavesdrop for words like kiss and sex. Except a meaty pudge toddles in—neither baby nor girl—something halfway in-between. She goes right for the pickles, grabs one in her tiny fist, and smears it along the edge of the coffee table. I step back.
“So cute!” Mom pops ice from the tray. Tonic fizzes. Miss Debra’s mascara has run already. I want to hear why, but the waddler is charging down the hall to my bedroom, a green nub in each doughy hand. By the time I catch up, she squats over my rainbow rug. She’s dropped the pickles, drool lopping from her chin.
“Pick those up.”
She lifts one and licks its warty skin.
Back in the living room, between saying He this and His that, Miss Debra cries like bees have stung her. If Dad were home he’d say, Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. Mom says, “Here, drink this.”
The baby stands and wields the pickles with clumsy accuracy, smudging my dresser, my bed, my closet door. “Mom!” I yell, tucking my hands under my arms to avoid the sour trail. “Mom!” I yell again.
My Barbie Dream House is in her path. I grab plastic-headed Ken by the legs and stand guard. She looks at the second-floor nursery where everything is pristine: a mini blanket on the mini rocker, an itsy bear in the itsy cradle. “No!” I prod her shoulder with Ken’s head. “Get out.” She reaches for the bear with sticky fingers, so I swat her knuckles with Ken’s face. There’s an unsatisfying silence and I want her to hurt so I whack again, slamming her forearm. She shrieks and plops down sobbing. I grab her around the potbelly and lift until her feet are off the ground. I grip tighter until her little shoes—weak as wings—kick my knees. Her middle is a ham-sized water balloon. Burst, I want to say, squeezing and squeezing until Miss Debra rushes in and swoops her daughter away. I think I hear Mom coming down the hall. I hope it’s her, but she never arrives. My room is tainted. I use a wad of toilet paper to trash the pickles.
In the kitchen, I find the box of Wheat Thins and stuff five into my mouth. Then I climb onto the couch next to my mother and lean into the mole over her elbow. All her attention is on Miss Debra who is still He this and His that, even as she feeds the baby cheese. Both have stopped crying. I stay limp so every time Mom raises her cigarette, I sway. Flick of an ash, sway. Back and forth.
Ruth LeFaive lives in Los Angeles where she is writing a collection of linked short stories. Her fiction has appeared in Atticus Review, Split Lip Magazine, and is forthcoming elsewhere. More at RuthLeFaive.com.