(First published in Franklins Grace and Other Stories, 2002)
She was gone.
When she slept, she tucked her hands between two pillows and they retained the smell of her perfume. He laid his head on them, trying to remember the name of the scent she used. He was drifting off to sleep when he heard a baby crying or was it a cat, outside, involved in some feline fighting?
He tried to ignore the noise but it was insistent, and getting louder.
Shit. It wasnt a dream or a cat. The bitch had left her baby!
Hed been pissed when Lafayette had arrived on his doorstep carrying the bawling baby.
I know you dont like kids, hon. But shes no trouble, honest to God.
Goddamn it. Wheres it gonna sleep? You expect me to have a crib for it?
I brought blankets. And shes a she, not an it.
Lafayette had three kids, all girls, who shuttled between Lafayettes mom and the kids fathers, losers both. Malc had no idea who was the father of this third, youngest daughter, he just knew it wasnt his. She couldnt hang that on him the kid had black hair and olive skin and he was blond with white eyelashes and pink skin, like a pig.
Bring her on in, then. Lafayette put the baby on the couch, where she snuffled and eventually fell into babysleep.
Honey? Lafayette said, undoing Malcs shirt.
I cant not with the kid around. Its just about killed me.
Lafayette took her hands away and sat down next to her child.
Wanna watch me feed her?
Jesus, no. Lafayette began unbuttoning her blouse and Malc left the room to get a beer from the fridge. Shed got good boobs, Lafayette, but he didnt like kids, she knew he didnt. Moms suckling their babies turned him up, he hated to look.
All done, Malc, she called. The baby brought up a little foamy milk and Malc gagged on the beer. He didnt want Lafayette, not sexually or any way. It had been stupid of her to bring the kid with her.
You shouldve rung, he told her. You shouldve warned me.
Her eyes were those of an eighteen-year-old but she had the lined skin of a woman whod done too much.
How old are you, Lafayette? I forgot.
Twenty-two, she said. The first kid at sixteen by some truck driver shed hitched a ride with. Hed give her a few dollars now and then for his daughter - Itd be more if itd been a boy, hed told her. She thought this was an awful thing to say but Malc shrugged when she told him. It figures, he said. But it was probably just an excuse.
Oh, Malc thats awful!
Malc, in tight vest and jeans, looked enormous slouched in his ripped vinyl chair that hed told Lafayette was leather and shed believed him. A mountain of a man. He was proud of his bulk and his big, gentle hands, but he had this appalling urge to pull a knife on Lafayette and stop her wrecking his life.
The fourth kidll be mine.
She was a tramp, total trash, but no trashier than Marilyn Monroe, he thought. Girls with the dirt still round their mouths, and the peroxide on their hair that soaked through their skulls and turned them stupid.
She was picking at a zit with a red fingernail; it irritated him so much that he wanted to bite off the nail.
Leave it alone, he told her.
What? Her face blank and stupid.
Dont pick your zits. Its disgusting.
Are we gonna eat soon or what?
He heaved himself out of the chair. Two pizzas, shrink-wrapped. He cut through the plastic, imagining it was Lafayettes skin.
Pizza okay for you? he shouted through.
Oh, sure. When is it ever anything else?
It was weird the way you couldnt microwave pizzas. Just about any other box meal you could, but not pizzas.
Getting them out of the oven twenty minutes later, he burnt his hand on the grill pan.
Shitfuck! The son of a bitch! he shouted, throwing the grill pan into the sink.
What is it, hon?
Burnt myself. He stuck his hand under running water, but as soon as he took it away it started burning up again. Lafayette left the baby on the floor, in case it fell off the couch, and found an icepack for Malc.
Here put this on it, babe.
It just about put the lid on things. If Lafayette hadnt come round, he wouldnt have hurt himself and now hed most likely end up with a blister, and it was on an awkward part of his hand where he couldnt have got a Band-Aid to stick. It was all her fault and he didnt want her useless sympathy.
Thats a mighty big blister youll get.
Yeah, well, I could do without it.
Everything made him feel sick, even the beer.
What the hell was her kids name?
Whos her daddy? Shed have to answer: he was injured, she was sorry for him.
Just some guy. She probably didnt even know.
Yeah, well shell be a beauty when shed older.
What was its name?
This things getting warm. Get me a pack of peas, will you?
She was obedient, hed give her that. When it suited her to be, anyhow. He hated the way women wanted to nurture they couldnt just do stuff, they had to make such a big deal of it. She got the peas and then had to change the babys diaper.
Jesus! Dont do that in here.
Theres nothing to it. Its just milk.
He looked away as she messed around with diapers and wipes. The kid cried: Malc couldnt bear that sound. Even if it was his own, he couldnt have borne it.
Shell sleep soon. She takes a night feed but Ill try not to wake you up.
In bed she tried to touch him. He didnt want it.
Why not, Malc?
The hand hurts. Im not in the mood.
He turned over, hating her.
Theyd met in a bar, where he met all his girls. Hed been standing by the jukebox, trying to figure out how best to spend his dollar. He wanted to pick the longest couple of songs better value for money.
He felt her breath on him, flirting with the short hairs on his thick, reddened neck.
I just love that song!
He turned round to look at her. He could tell shed had a kid: it did something to a womans body, some thickening and sagging you didnt get from anything else; not at that age, anyhow.
She wore electric blue cowboy boots, shined-up and unscuffed. Malc liked blondes, although this one looked as cheap as his truck like, it went, but Youd always pick something better if you could afford it.
You gonna buy me a beer? she asked. I dont have expensive tastes, I just want a beer.
He shrugged. Not indifferent, just what the hell?
They sat down and she tapped her nails on the table in time to the song Malc had chosen. Man, I feel like a woman.
Im Lafayette, she volunteered.
Is that so?
You dont talk much, do you?
Nope. In his opinion, women talked too much, and mostly crap. Lafayette smelled the way he remembered his sisters smelling: it wasnt just scent out of a bottle, it was some female smell they all had. He didnt mind it but he was glad he lived alone. A dog would have been okay: dog stink he could bear, it was familiar and honest.
You married? she asked.
Nope. Never have been, neither.
No kids? He shook his head.
Ive got three. Had three, I should say. I only got the youngest living with me.
He didnt have to ask if she was married, it was that obvious she wasnt. If shed talked about her kids hed have been gone, a bullet out of a gun, but she had the sense to shut up.
Man, I feel like a woman.
Malc felt like a woman, in a different sense from the song. You couldnt do without a woman, not permanently. He hated that need in him because you always had to lie. They had to be made to feel special. It was a thin lie, no one was fooled by it, but still it made him feel like a shit to tell it.
Hey where you going?
Mens room. She relaxed: he wasnt going to run out on her.
Coming back from the bathroom he watched her, unseen. She was fiddling with her top, her lips, fluffing up her hair that was beyond help.
Her smile turned her face pretty. Malc didnt like pretty girls: they reminded him how vulnerable they were, how needy. Girls like her
It must be great to be a singer, mustnt it? she said. Everyone looking at you and admiring you, no matter how much of a shit you really are, as a person.
He didnt want insights from her. He didnt want to see evidence of those parts of her he was likely to hurt.
I dont mind. I mean, I just like to talk to you you dont have to buy me a beer, I dont want you thinking Im a gold digger.
Gold digger! That was a good one. He would hardly know gold if he saw it. Dirty, rusted iron was more his line.
Theres no gold in me to dig out, he told her.
Thats okay. I dont mind, truly. Believe me?
Lafayette! he shouted, over and over, and the baby kept on screaming. Hungry, he knew that, but it still made him want to do just about anything to shut it up.
The bitch. Shed left a can of formula milk powder, even a couple of made up bottles. She must have come down in the night and done it. Stupid but sly, she must have had it all planned out.
Not my kid. The fourthll be mine, not this one.
He took one of the bottles and checked its temperature.
Well, kiddo, hope thisll shut you up.
He didnt know how to hold the baby and it felt awkward in his arms, though it sucked strongly on the teat and fell asleep with a couple of ounces still in the bottle. He put it her back on the blankets and sat down, totally flummoxed about what to do and totally mad at Lafayette.
Two hours later, nothing resolved, the baby woke up and started bawling again. She probably needed changing but Malc wasnt about to do that. Shed nearly finished the second bottle when Malc heard someone banging at the front door.
Malc! Let me in, Malc!
Lafayette. He put the baby down and ran to open the door. He grabbed Lafayette by the throat.
Whereve you been?
Let go of me! I was always gonna come back.
Yeah, sure. Hed burst his blister when he grabbed Lafayette and the liquid it leaked tasted like tears.
Ill get you a Band-Aid, Lafayette said.
Check on your damn baby first. How did you know I wouldnt hurt it?
Her. And you wouldnt cos you wouldnt have risked the trouble itd make.
He sucked his busted blister, biting off some of the ragged skin he knew thatd only make it hurt worse but he hated the look of it, a raggy mess.
I couldve killed it, he mumbled. Whod care? Kids that age are barely people.
Lafayette didnt hear, or pretended not to.
Did she take the milk?
Yeah, she took some.
Where had she been? What mother would leave her baby with some guy who didnt like kids?
Do you ever see your other girls?
Nope. She was unnatural. Why have kids she didnt want?
Dont you ever do that to me again, Lafayette.
She was wearing the same clothes shed worn the day before. The same short, tight skirt and a thing she called a bustier.
Your hair looks like shit, he told her. And those clothes: an outfit someone would wear to a bar. I dont even know your kids name.
Shes called Sharleen.
What are the other two called?
Crystal and Tracy. DOBs January 10 and May 4. See, I do know. They get a card from me every year.
Malc was glad he wasnt a woman. A poor man with no education could get by, hed do okay in jobs and respect. It was harder on a woman. Those like Lafayette used sex to get what they wanted but it always backfired on them. Lafayette would look like a hooker all her life. Hed taken up with her not expecting it to be more than a fleeting sex thing, but shed stuck to him and now shed got her baby into his house.
The fourth. When will you drop that one on me, Lafayette? Sharleen: shes got a name, your fatherless third.
That hand looks real sore, Malc.
Hurts like fuck. Your kids quiet is she okay?
Her eyes, Lafayettes eyes: tearful and grateful because Malc showed some concern. In some ways she was that transparent. Other times, she couldve fooled a polygraph.
He could have scared her off but what would have been the point? If not Lafayette, itd be a girl like her. It was easier for a man but he couldnt aspire to a woman better than the trashy type.
Take a shower, Lafayette. Ill watch the kid.
You trusted me all night with her. Her, not it.
Not all night. She wouldnt explain her absence. He didnt much care. He just hoped shed made some money and used a rubber. Whilst she was in the shower, though, he went through her purse, just for the hell of it. Shed got a small photo of him, none of her kids. It shocked him: hed assumed she took him for a sucker, but the photo suggested she genuinely cared about him.
A bottle of pills, a lidless lipstick. The usual female crap, scrumpled tissues and loose tampons. A man travelled so much lighter. He liked the idea of a life without clutter but instead hed got Lafayette and her fruitful womb.
Put it down, Malc, she said. Limp wet hair. Wearing his dressing gown, the one with the rip on one shoulder. She didnt sound pissed, just weary. Not even weary with him, particularly, just life in general.
You got a picture of me?
Dont read so much into that. Its a crappy little thing.
Whered you get it?
Out of your drawer, in the bedroom.
You go through my stuff?
She shrugged, combing out the snarls in her white-blonde hair.
Hed seen photos of Marilyn Monroe without makeup: she looked about twelve years old in them, innocent as a baby. Lafayette didnt have any kind of innocence with or without makeup. She was tougher. She looked a damn sight older than twenty-two, though. Twenty-nine at least, he reckoned.
Which stuff dyou go through, Lafayette?
I dont know. Its just a thing I do. Dont beat me up about it.
It didnt matter, really. There she was, taking loose hairs out of the comb and throwing them on the carpet. There she was, in all her sullied glory, tough as shit, mother of two girls shed never know and another shed most likely abandon.
And that fourth. Therell be a fourth and itll be another girl.
Malc? Whatre you thinking?
Nothing. Nothing much, really.
The fourth. His life. He yawned and snapped the ringpull off a beer.
© Helen Kitson 2010. All rights reserved.