2013 Contest: A Look Back at Fiction Winner Mari Christmas
Mari Christmas is pursuing an MFA at the University of Notre Dame. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Canary Press and Paragraphiti.
by Mari Christmas
“I didn’t agree to do this.”
Let’s try this again. Let’s take it from the street corner. No, let’s take it from the top, without all the negativity.
“You could say I didn’t agree to do this, but okay, here I am, and out, over there,” I point, “is Tanner’s fat, baby nephew.” I look at the lump, sitting in the outfield, like a scoop that fell out of an ice cream cone and I start to cry.
It’s not even really an outfield either, just a large plot of weeds and clovers, and all these tiny blue flowers spreading across like bread mold and this baby, sitting out there in the middle of it, this baby in the middle of a dying flattened field, sitting and eating gnats like snowflakes, and the whole scene’s making me depressed. And I’m wishing for a different reason, a different season, a ride home, something. This isn’t the afterlife I was expecting.
I’ve been feeling so bummed about the whole situation for a while now, sitting under this billboard, watching him. Being dead, it’s a thing to consider, and if that’s not enough to break you, I’m sitting here wondering if there’s like some kind of postpartum depression that happens to people who wind up in heaven with a baby that’s not even theirs.
“I’d like to meet the support group for that,” I tell the billboard. “And while you’re at it, the other thing I’ve been going back and forth about, sitting under this goddamn billboard is, not that I’m in the mood to start blaming a baby, but, you know what, what the hell, I am, because who really got us here in the first place. Let me tell you, it wasn’t me. Let’s just make that clear: no one came and asked me if I wanted to be this baby’s plus-one.”
Here I am, setting the record straight.
Soon I will go out into the outfield and pick him up.
I’m not sure how seriously they take their babies out here. The whole billboard is filled with children, so if that’s not a hint, I don’t know. I don’t know how far you’d get around here starting off on the wrong foot. I’ve had enough lessons today.
When I pick him up he’s completely dazed like he’s been stoned the whole time and – and does this baby actually notice any difference between this place and the world we were both just kicked out of? Is there really is a difference between these two places, or is it just the difference between riding in a bumpy stroller one moment and being planted in this dying baseball field with its billboard of two-dimensional children the next?
Maybe the initial shock is just starting to wear off, but I have to admit, I’m already starting to feel a little more than responsible for this dead thing, more responsible than I did when I pushed the stroller out of the way when it was still alive, which, as it turns out, is the last thing I remember before showing up on this baseball field like a card being flipped over.
I guess its safe to say we both know how that turned out.
Now everything’s settled and we’ve made it back to the shade, I put the baby down under the billboard and imagine this whole scene with Tanner’s sister here instead. I wonder if that’s what it all comes down to: her and her wet nail polish and me and my untied shoelaces, the stroller in between the two of us. Eeny meeny miny moe. Some of us are not so lucky.
The baby is gumming my shoelaces. He looks at me like, so this is called a baseball field. It’s a learning curve.
Does he think us related?
I tell the baby, not to get any funny ideas.
“The only thing we’ve got to go on is this billboard.” I point to the children. The baby smiles, and I’m not going to let this get to my head, but I figure he’s happy to see me.
I admit I expected a different place. I think we all do, maybe with the exception of this baby, and I’m starting to get the feeling that, despite those happy faces on the billboard, somewhere I must have drawn a short straw. I’ve stopped asking myself, “Are you really all that surprised you’re dead?” Even though, when I think about it under these circumstances, I sort of am. I guess that comes with the territory, though I’m not so sure how the company of this lousy dead baby will ever make up for it.
I pick him up and start walking away from the baseball field thinking about how tomorrow will be Sunday and how on Sundays I usually go with Tanner and sign his old man out the Fogies Home for the afternoon, and how the last time we took the old man out, he started taking off his clothes in a grocery store.
He told me he felt like watching a movie.
He looked so sad sitting there when we found him, like he tried to take his clothes off but somehow missed a turn through an armhole and got lost, and when we came back, there he was, pant-less with both arms inside his shirt, like one of those football tackling dummies swinging wildly. Tanner just stood there, holding a block of cheese, taking in the sum of the situation like a cheap calculator while I held onto his other hand.
The baby and I have made it into town, if you can believe it, and in these last few days I’ve learned a couple of things about this place’s real estate. One is that the neighborhoods are really street-by-street. Go down a block and there’ll be broken plastic furniture on the curb and bowling balls in the ground, but turn the next corner, and you’ll find this six-foot concrete gate with a three car garage and tiki torches sticking out like birthday candles.
The second thing is that Nina Simone is always on the radio.
I can accept the second thing.
The baby and I are staying with this brother and sister pair. They live across the street from a gas station and this falafel shop owned by an old Egyptian man that doesn’t ask questions and trades vouchers for batteries. Everyday a couple of bored, shot-up cops sit outside the falafel shop, drink coffee and play cards. I let them smile at the baby. It must be tough for him, they aren’t a lot of other babies around.
In any case, the baby and I have a place for now. The boy’s name is Rob and the girl calls herself Candy. I’m not sure if it’s short for Candace. I don’t think I’m going to ask. Candy’s the first kid I’ve seen here. She’s about eight years old. We sit around all day with watching girls vacuum their cars and listen to Nina Simone warbling. When “Sinnerman” comes on, sometimes Candy says she can’t take it anymore and goes out and whacks the chain-link fence between their house and their neighbor’s with a baseball bat.
“You should leave,” was the first thing Rob had said to me. I was sweaty and tired from lugging the baby around on my hip all afternoon and that is what he said: That I should get a car and go. He couldn’t recommend a direction, pointed both ways and recommended a Dodge. “I thought about getting a Dodge,” he said biting down on his lip, “getting it and just leaving,” he said.
Candy and Rob have been living in their house for a few years now. He says she never really got over the accident.
Each Wednesday our vouchers come in the mail. The vouchers are shiny and cheap, printed on the same quality paper you’d expect a You’re Just One Step Away From Winning ONE MILLION DOLLARS announcement to be printed on. Candy and Rob get significantly less but I receive a pretty decent amount on account of trying to be a Baby-Saver. Rob wants to set some aside for a bigger place, one with a functioning fire place and a paved driveway, but Candy is convinced even if their parents show up in say twenty years, they’ll still not want to see her.
She wants a puppy.
I’m doing my very best to watch out for this baby. Here you don’t have to worry if it’s sleeping on its stomach or what it’s been putting into it’s mouth. When this baby pumps its legs at me, I get this feeling that we’ve avoided another major emotional setback, that we’ve been placed together for a reason, just like Candy and her brother.
Rob is about my age, he’s quieter than Tanner, but I appreciate his company and soon he starts coming along with us to the park. Today, Rob and I watched Candy slap some kid around after he got her in dodge ball and if that wasn’t totally humiliating, as soon as everyone huddled around him like a campfire, she kneed him in the groin. The poor kid came down with a real bad case of the shit-fucks then fainted right on the blacktop. It was all an act, since none of us can actually feel physical pain anymore. But the kids around him stood there real quiet, and for a second you’d think they’d forgotten that the kid on the ground was already dead. Then it hit them, you could almost see it when they realized that they could do that too, the fainting thing. Candy spearheaded it by getting limp first, and now there’s a piece of gravel from the blacktop stuck in her forehead. That’s about it. What I mean is, she’s still dead.
It gets dark and the baby has crawled away to the edge of the park. We head home.
When we get back, Candy goes inside and now she’s back out with this hamster that’s coming apart like a Mr. Potatohead. Probably a cat had gotten to it before it showed up here. This thing’s intestines were coming out of its butt and when she hands it me, she tells me to hold it by its little armpits, shrieking, “Stop squeezing it, dumdum, that thing’s like a tube of toothpaste.”
My work here is done.
“She could have gotten two hamsters with that kind of money,” says Rob, “ones that died from heart attacks or heat stroke. But she wanted this broken one.” We are sitting inside the screened-in porch. Candy feeds Doritos to the hamster on top of the washing machine and pushes its intestines back inside using a q-tip covered with Vaseline while Rob and I pass the baby back and forth like a joint and watch their neighbor pick trash up off his AstroTruf.
Rob tells me that this neighbor used to have two sons, twins his age. Amos and something not Amos and not A-minus either, but similar. I’ve learned that it’s not common for families to arrive together like that. Rob’s best guess is that they all died in a fire or a car accident since the twins always looked like they were ready to make a run for it.
“They’d just sit on the steps, all day, like there was a pimple on their ass,” Rob said. Something must have happened to them because they aren’t around anymore to watch their dad push golf balls into soup cans. “It’s not right,” Rob says, “to get here and then to run out on your dad like that.”
I don’t know. We’ve been out here almost a month, watching Neighbor practice his golf swing, and he seems kind of dumb. I mean, he leaves his golf balls outside until someone swipes them. A few days after the baby and I got here, he left his club outside and someone swiped that. He said he wasn’t too torn up about it because he had found it in the local dump a week later. Rob doesn’t think it’s the same club though. Says it’s too short.
“See how he stoops over to swing it?” he says.
Anyway, in the end it doesn’t matter. It gets stolen too. Neighbor spends a few days waiting for it to show up at the dump again and doesn’t give up. He keeps up the routine too. Smokes a cigarette with his lips hanging off of it, holding on like he’s riding a miniature seesaw with his mouth. Barefoot of all things. Rob thinks at one point he must have left his shoes out. Candy adds, “And his kids.”
When it gets late, we go to bed. I lay awake for a while, my hand rocking the baby’s body until it’s breathing drops off, and for the first time all day, it starts acting more like a dead baby, which still surprises me.
Today I’m passing out juice boxes, walking kids to the restroom. We’re back at the field with the billboard, the one with the daisies. I figure it’s like the storefront to this place. There’s baseball practice today, one of the angels arranged it to boost morale. A whole school bus of children had just arrived and most of them were already crying.
There’s an angel who even brought ice cream in one of those plastic gallon containers and all the kids wanted vanilla so now there’s a ton of strawberry left and twice as much chocolate, but she won’t let anyone have seconds. If they try, she pinches them. When I asked her where she got it, she said, “None of your stupid ass business.”
What’s the use.
I feel bad for the bus driver. He’s still pretty shaken up over the whole thing. Keeps squeezing the toes of his sneakers.
I should say something but instead take this short freckled kid with torn up shorts to the bathroom. When we get back, the angel is encouraging another kid to throw the ball to Candy.
Already the kid’s offering Candy a sea monkey if she promises not to rip his arms off. She’s shrieking at him, saying she’s going to shove the bat down his throat like a toilet plunger if the ball hits her or whatever. An eight year old calling another eight year old a little shit is one thing. An eight year old calling another eight year old a little abortion is something else.
Was I surprised when I looked up and saw Tanner’s sister walking an empty stroller over to us? She’s this bottle blonde with a sharp bob, so I could tell it was her from about a mile away, the way the whole thing glared like a cut diamond moving across the field. Her nails were dry. She must have been in a coma or something because she looks super rested and pretty great. Candy comes out of the bathroom. She’s changed into a blue tube top and has on this frosted pink lipstick like she’s ready to serve Buffalo wings to some middle aged men.
“Huh,” Candy says, “so that’s the real mom.” I nod. “Well, shit on a deck,” she says and puts her hands on her hips.
The angel throws the plastic ice cream container into the backseat of her Subaru with the rest of the equipment and drives off.
“Jesus,” says Tanner’s sister, walking all wobbly. They all do that for the first few days. You can always tell the new arrivals because they walk like they’ve just come off a trampoline. “This place is a real dump,” she touches my face as if she remembers where the bumper must have hit me. I take a step back. “I had no idea I’d see you here,” she says. Then she tries to hug me like someone holds a load of laundry that came straight from the dryer, patting to check what’s still damp.
When we get to the house, Rob is sitting on the porch holding the baby. They are playing this game where him puts a stick in the middle of the porch and lets the baby crawl towards it. As soon as the baby is within an arms distance of it, he picks him up and brings him back to the edge of the porch. The baby keeps going after the stick, like he’s a retarded dollar bill at a change machine or something.
Neighbor is out too, holding his invisible golf club, his eyes growing small like raisins following each pantomimed swing. When he follows through and I almost expect to hear something hit a garbage can or take out the front windshield of a beaten car down the block.
Candy immediately starts bartering for the kid.
I’m not in the mood for this, is what I tell them.
Tanner’s sister hands over a sample-sized deodorant for Candy, Chiclets, hand sanitizer wipes and a packet of birth control missing two weeks. In the end, she also has to throw in her headband, her nose ring, and a cellphone charger. I go inside and when I open my eyes Candy’s got her hand on her hipbone and blood’s cruising out one nostril where she’s shoved the stud in.
“Aren’t you gonna say goodbye to it or what?” asks Candy. She would do this for me.
In the morning, I lean against the doorframe. Candy’s squatting like a baboon in the sun. She’s wearing a swimsuit, collaging on the porch. The hamster is sitting on top of the washer in a pile of shredded newspaper.
“Are you sure that was the mom?” says Candy, not looking up, still on her haunches. I want to tell her, “Look, I never cared for Tanner’s sister when she was alive and honestly, I like her a whole lot less now that she’s dead,” but instead I say,
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Really? Cause the way she was looking at the baby was like, I dunno, like it just came from Guatemala and not, you know, down there.” She points to her crotch, and how does she know? Candy adds a Butterfinger wrapper to the collage.
There are three boys sitting on the picnic bench in front of the falafel shop, fiddling over a broken cellphone. This place really reminds me of some shitty summer from my childhood.
“Do you want a baby?” asks Candy, using her elbow to get at an itch.
“I don’t know. Was the pool closed or something?”
“You know you can’t.” Wow. She picks up the birth control packet and chews on Day 18, gives Day 19 to the hamster.
“I see your point,” I say. Candy shrugs.
“It keeps the numbers down.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
I go get the baseball bat from the backyard.
“You better watch what you’re doing,” Candy warns, following me like an alley cat over to the neighbor’s house.
I don’t know. I start beating on the metal screen door. What kind of stupid thinks it’s a good idea to come out at a time like this, but Neighbor does with an expression you’d expect on a worried dog, wearing a backpack of all things. And just as he realizes how feral I’m being, I’ve grabbed one of the straps and I’m throwing him down the steps.
When you learn about earthquakes in elementary school, the teacher will say that if you’re ever in an earthquake, you’re supposed get out of the car and crouch next to it. He’ll explain that once, in an earthquake, the whole top of a two-decker bridge fell on the lower level. The way Candy is trying to jump on me, I’m thinking that were no bridges out here, no fancy double decker bridges. No roads that go anywhere, only Candy and Little Baby, and the bus driver and what’s happened to all those people who didn’t crouch.
Oh, Neighbor’s crouching now, behind his car with no tires and I’m thinking of the epicenter. I’m thinking I’m the epicenter. I’m hopping around meaner than a flea. I’ve knocked out a couple of the screens in his porch already, and when all the fights beaten out of me, they drag me inside and pin me to the couch.
Neighbor’s quiet. He’s tonguing at his lip and his jaw’s swelling up real bad already, already turning a little blue like he’s been out in the pool too long. I must have cut him clean across the cheek with this junky ring I’ve been wearing. I look at the gravel stuck in Candy’s forehead then back at Neighbor and think, this whole place is bringing me down.
Candy is holding the hamster out when I wake up and it’s biting my finger. They are all there: Candy, her brother, and Neighbor. The first thing she tells me is how I’ve broken her baseball bat and that she should be riding my ass for it, but considering I just lost this baby she’ll cut me some slack.
I’m not ready to talk to Neighbor. I am not ready for him to talk Absolute Understanding with me or to hear him say something about how life after death is a challenge etcetera.
Rob helps me find my shoes. “It’s no small thing, losing a baby,” says Rob and for a moment we are quiet on our porch, listening to Nina Simone sing “Mr. Bojangles” while Candy and Neighbor sit on a cinder block, eating hotdogs together and showing some goodwill. All I can think about is walking, walking and walking from here for miles. I used to feel this way when Tanner and I would go to the Fogies Home. I thought it was the most depressing place on earth. One of the patients would always be dying. Everyone there starts getting a little excited, like they’ve been expecting it and have been planning a big send-off for months. You could say they look forward to that sort of thing like it was a holiday, even the nurses. So of course they would get annoyed when it kept getting delayed and the catering had to be postponed, which is what happened in the case of Hank. This old Nazi, Margaret No Peas, even started wheeling over to his room in the middle of the afternoon to scream, “WALK THE PLANK, HANK!” for no reason except that she was anxious to get things started. She wanted the ball rolling. Didn’t want to miss any of the action. Of course there was a big hoopla about where to hang the banner as well, So-long Hank!, but the guy wasn’t even dead. You should have seen it though when Hank finally died. Margaret acted like they had won the war or there was a marathon of Elizabeth Taylor movies on HBO or something.