Although acquainted from the previous season’s Take Back-Occupy Wall Street / 99 Percent protest encampment, the two fellows were not particularly tight when they started caring for that little baby at the Hobo Camp. That’s the name that evolved for the overlook part of the city’s outer neighborhood park where the bums, ragamuffins, and street kids who hung out and partied and fought and slept up there called it. There was a campfire up there sometimes. Discarded beer, chili and soup cans and stepped-on Nerf gun darts littered the area. This was where hipster activists who didn’t return to school or other comfortable situations came when the tents were razed at the satellite ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests in the downtown mini-park. They were no longer protesting, just camping out. The original pioneer beer-drinking teenagers and winos and drug-addled inhabitants found their mini-village in Patriot Park being gentrified one morning by hippie kids with mountaineering equipment, but each week the number of interlopers dwindled over the mild winter. So fuck-it, it’s a free country, and anyway, the homeless were not an evicting tribe.
The grass was worn bare. Dog shit was everywhere, broken glass and cigarette butts in the dirt, scrubby little bushes, and weird ancient gnarled cypress stumps growing in and around cement slabs, steps, blocks, and knockouts. This part of the park was the highest bit of land in the neighborhood, one of the tallest in the city, second only to the balconies of the apartment building just across the street. Years ago when there was money, some mad architect was set loose to design a jungle gym labyrinth sculpture garden that was never finished and immediately neglected, except by the bums. Kids up from the boring asphalt playground extended the range of their Nerf gun wars up on the hill. Cryptic spray paint marked the concrete cubes and rectangular rubble and half-broken benches. It smelled of urine.
Known as Shambeau and J.D. to the other denizens of The Hobo Camp, they started to call each other by their real names once they assumed the guardianship of the little baby girl. Baby-Girl became the infant’s name, for a time, but the two interim fathers knew it would be temporary. This was about the same time they stopped associating with the other street people and it coincided with their abstinence from alcoholic beverages, cannabis, and tobacco.
“You can’t just feed her the squash, James,” Sean said.
“I know, I don’t, I know, I give her that spinach shit too, that spinachy stuff, sorry.” The young men were making an effort to speak softly and not use obscenities when holding the baby.
A group of skateboarder speed freaks clambered uphill, intending to bust a fatty and pound a couple forties, so J.D., AKA James, who was a big man and did most of the feeding, handed the child over to Sean (formerly Shambeau). Brandishing a thick finger like a weapon, he stomped down the embankment into the group of skate punks.
“NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO.” Once divided, he scattered them completely away from their perch by aiming his big index finger individually at each punk’s face and said, “GO GO GO GO GO” until the dirty drug addicts fled, dragging useless skateboards cockroach style down the rough hillside to the central plateau of Hobo Camp main street where the busted water fountain dripped a quart a minute into an algae-filled five-gallon Home Depot bucket, the town pump.
One of the city’s tallest pinnacles was the ‘70s era apartment building due northwest just across the street from Patriot Park, where, if you had a south-facing balcony like Norman did, you could look down onto the Trippy Hill high side of the park and the long vista of the port and dirty mid-Atlantic harbor beyond. Through his peeping-tom toyshop telescope, Norman observed the odd familial trio jealously. Why did those trust funder jerkoffs get to have such a cherry situation, that pretty little Chinese baby, a supportive partner, no rent, with a view just about as good as his own? These no-counts didn’t have a shitty job to deal with, no crap car with a rack of parking tickets forever threatened by the boot, no dumbass boss, none of the burdens and responsibilities of a grown-up, just each other and that amazing baby.
“No-counts.” He said to no one.
Norman had no girlfriend. No any kind of friend. No family except an old widowed aunt. It seemed to Norman that these no-counts had it going on, they got to live a life of meaning and adventures, companionship, connection, youth, hair. But the baby most of all, something about the kid, It wasn’t fair. No-counts, his Aunt Julie’s word, but slacker, bum, drifter, jerk-offs would have been interchangeable descriptors if Norman had had a single interlocutor to interlocutate with.
“I’d like to smoke pot all day and roast weenies and contemplate my navel too, for fuck sake. Get a job, faggots.” And hearing his own voice reminded him to fume again about his workplace. Those assholes at the Italian specialties warehouse where he was a dispatcher, how the dago owners paid him crap and made fun of him because he mispronounced all the items and couldn’t believe he preferred normal food to all that wop spaghetti shit they were always bringing in from home that their fat wives and mommas made. The Benedetti’s held the Forklift Brothers on the floor in higher esteem because they made a big deal about the cannolis and pig’s feet, and enjoyed being called eggplants by those greasy guineas. He knew the union white-boy truck drivers called him Norm instead of Norman as a joke no matter how much he’d correct them because they really thought he was a freak and not normal at all. Old boys Teamster fucks. At work he belonged to no group, not the customers he filled orders for, or the black men inside, or management-the Italian-American family men, or even the racial group he most resembled, the Caucasian truckers, some of whom he’d been acquainted with since grade school. He had nothing, none of the stuff any normal guy should have, and he wanted so much, something, Ya fuck! He couldn’t even put his finger on what he lacked. Money? A broad, a family, kids, respect, status? A Harley? A miracle… Through the ten times magnification of his toy telescope he could see that that was a magic baby down there with those douchebags, a mystic Chinese magic baby, he could tell. Little special baby doll.
The piano lesson started at 7:30 and as usual, the father was a few minutes early. He was always early, pathologically.
“Tell Miss Loraine that your dad’s in the car reading. Tell her if she asks that I don’t want to come in because I’m reading my book and I’d rather wait for your lesson out here, and that I’m dirty, covered in mud from work.”
The ten-year-old boy said, “Why would she ask if you’re dirty?” That was rendered even funnier by the kid’s timing and pitch-perfect faux incredulousness.
“The lesson starts in seven minutes. You can stay out with me and listen to the radio or go right in.”
“I’ll go in, Dougie”
“It’s pronounced, Dad.”
The funny little shit reminded Dougie of his younger brother, Sean. The same tempo, the bouncy fleet-footedness, identical facial expressions were shared by the uncle and nephew. His youngest son was kind of a genius of motion. He bopped and weaved around to the back patio slider door of the piano teacher’s brick home. The kid danced everywhere. His wife Colleen was more serious, as was their older son, the big boy, Dougie Jr.
The older boy was darker. He had a kind heart, past half grown-up, 15, peach fuzz, no longer a child, simmering always in his pubescent torments–not really, he was just uncomfortably pimply. But compared with his younger brother Beauregard, who had always been known simply as Bo, Douglas Junior was a cloistered monk.
Their father sat looking at but not really reading his historical biography, spacing out. Tired after an epic and satisfying work day snaking sewers, he switched off the radio and removed the key from the ignition, remembering how the old hunk-a-junk Buick’s battery had died when he left the key in for like half an hour just the other day. He only kept it because Caesar the mechanic said it had a good motor and it came so cheap and it fit his lifestyle: tradesman, family man, suburbanite. Whodathunk a 20-year-old woodie station wagon could define a failed artist so completely?
The sun was going down and neighbors he recognized from around town were coming home. “So that’s where the bike shop guy lives,” he said to himself and, “Hunh, and that guy lives there next to the fireman with the retarded daughter, well well well, what a quaint neighborhood.” Sportscasting his own life.
His wife Colleen usually dealt with all the music lessons. The expense was subsidized by her parents, who lived just up the street from the piano teacher’s house. They paid for Dougie Jr.’s flamenco guitar lessons too. “Vicarious artistic aspirations bequeathed to the progeny,” he thunk again, still editorializing. “Jesus Christ in a garter belt, oh what a phrase maker am I.”
A French horn doing scales and other annoying exercises was drifting out of the piano teacher’s house–she must have a kid in orchestra, “OK, OK, we get it, yours is a very musical family.” Again silently, but with lips moving this time. And then aloud, “How’s my kid supposed to concentrate on his chopsticks and Twinkle Twinkle with that sick dog sound coming outta the upstairs anyhow?” These were lighthearted complaints, optimistically sarcastic, whispered to himself.
It got too dark to even pretend to read and he didn’t want to use the dome light because of the hinky battery. The fireman, who was actually the fire chief for the municipality, kept coming out his front door acting like he forgot something in his Honda, but really checking out Dougie the Dad sitting in his car, who didn’t look like a suburban father at all with the dried mud and statement eyeglasses and facial hair, then the fireman’s developmentally disabled daughter came out, dragged by a fluff ball dog on a leash. “Great, just terrif, Mr. Rockwell are you getting this” Dougie Sr. said to himself.
“Buddy, Buddy. No no boy, Bud-bud boy, you can’t do that,” she said, following behind as the small old dog trotted in time to the French horn down past Dougie Sr.’s open window, looking just exactly like he owned the sidewalk. “Well, that’s all pretty cinematic.” He caught a close-up glimpse of the oblivious daughter, who was no child, happily nagging her oblivious pup and changed his whole opinion of the fire chief. Maybe even softening his position on firemen in general, considered abridging his attitude of ‘first responders suck’ to ‘not all first responders completely suck.’
He was lost at sea, landlocked here in suburbia. Raised up as a city kid, these last past 15 years adrift in the burbs still felt weird. Repressed. He ran for mayor a few years back. His platform was that if elected he would not serve. He mainly tried to use the race as an adjunct advertising campaign for his now closed-down pizza parlor. He’d also known the frontrunner to be a flagrant dickhead who ought to be stopped, but mostly a vague adolescent anti-government rebelliousness made him act out like that. Was that why he still considered himself an artist? He was always doing something stupid and public like running for mayor. Writing letters to the editor. Mouthing off at school meetings. He could be a real proclamation proclaimer.
His wife and kids thought what they thought about it, but they were pretty self-assured, secure in their own skins, and being less needy and extroverted, they didn’t understand him. So he was isolated from them, yet he still sought their approval. But they couldn’t approve because they didn’t understand or agree. Actually, as he thought about it, the only person who really understood him was his brother Sean. Despite the moralistic responsibility lectures he’d always subjected Sean to, Dougie totally loved and respected how his younger brother could just act on all his anti-establishment impulses completely fearlessly. Hitchhiking to Alaska at 16, hopping on that moving freight train when they were kids, leaving him staring in awe. Taking that ass-kicking like a man after calling Robbie Baldocchi a bully and a prick right to his face in front of everybody in the schoolyard. It had been over a year since he’d seen Sean; his kid brother was overdue. Bo and Dougie Jr. loved their Uncle Sean.
“I’d like to report a child endangerment thing at Pat Park, and don’t gimme Park and Rec again, it’s a dire thing ‘cause these two bums got a baby they’re living in the park with… No, why you gotta transfer… Shit… -yeah I already just told the other lady, yes a human baby, that’s why I called child services… No, I’m not gonna give you my name, just go get the baby from the bums. Yeah, I told you already, well whomever, on the hippie mountain part at Pat Park, up top, yeah, no, yeah, northwest part, on the hill… no right on top, they’re living up there and they got a baby, what?… Well, I don’t know, bring a cop. No! Don’t transfer me, you call a cop or whomever, I don’t care. Damn. Goodbye.”
Norman hung up and got some snack crackers and a rum ‘n coke in a can from the fridge and set up a TV tray on the balcony to watch through his toy telescope and see what would happen, which was nothing for 45 minutes. Then, finally, about fucking time, when the cop car rolled up and around the bike path, all the bums on the hill moved around to the other side. Then, fucking idiots, when the cop car rolled around to that side they all migrated back.
“What the hell are they doing?” One cop eventually got out of the car after another 15 minutes and walked up the dirt path towards the busted drinking fountain and hallooed and waved at some skate punks, who ignored him and shifted out of the officer’s sight to the opposite side. Norman observed that Sean and James could see every move the cops and the other bums made, so when they picked their time just perfectly to stroll down the back path out of the park with their junk and the baby disappearing into the neighborhood he decided to call in sick for his shift and follow them on foot.
They must have stopped to consolidate their bundles, babies required a shitload of equipment apparently, so Norman had no trouble catching sight of them when he emerged from his apartment building. He tailed them all the way to the commuter train and surprised himself by riding with them 45 miles south to a kiss-and-ride commuter parking lot junction in deep suburbia. The place could have been called Caucasia.
“Boy, that Samoan is sure gonna stick out round here, what the fuck?” Norman was trying to peg James–J.D.–whose ancestors were of aboriginal derivation. “Maybe a feather Indian, too big a fella for a dot Indian.”
The scruffy white kid—Sean–handed off the baby to the giant Pacific-Islander-looking dude and made a call at the payphone as underutilized suburban cab drivers of all races started drawing too much attention to Norman by bidding down door-in-the-face quotes in hopes of catching him as a fare. He hopped into the front passenger seat of the last cab at the taxi stand and showed the turban a twenty saying, “Just let me sit here a minute, will you Abdul? ‘K?”
“You are spying on the gay couple with the bebe, I see. You may sit here and I will even drive you to places, but the cost is fifty dollars because you are up to something that is not good. Not so very good, eh? Bald head?”
Norm thought he sounded like he had maybe learned English in Canada, “What the fuck? –gypsy sambo mother fu…– and then he saw the pistol.
“I’ll be your tour guide tonight, but the price is now $100, cash Americain,” punctuating with a little wiggle of the gun the way people from the Indian subcontinent communicate affirmative by shaking their faces sideways. “No?” The cab driver, whose name was Rajneesh, asked with another gun and head wiggle. Money changed hands quickly and quietly, Norman trusting this greedy cab driver instantly. They watched as the pair of younger men spelled each other bouncing and patting the baby.
“Maybe not gay.”
“Maybe not gay.” Norman agreed. “That baby is special.”
“It is magic, no?”
Time passed and all the commuters who were going to catch a cab did, so the United Nations taxi fleet left for dinner, leaving Rajneesh and Norman staring through the windshield at Sean, James, and that baby, 100 yards down the way. James clocked them back, communicating to Sean wordlessly his observation of the observers. In another 20 minutes a Jiffy Plumbing and Rooter van pulled up and the frowning driver stepped out to talk with the two men and the baby, his body language shifting by degrees from closed-fisted crossed arms to smiling and hand shaking until he was bouncing the baby in his arms.
“That’s the dirtiest fucking plumber I’ve ever seen.”
“He looks like a schoolmaster in laborer’s clothing. See, the two are brother and brother yes?”
“Wha… what two?”
“The Caucasians. You are not a smart man.”
“Said the Paki cabdriver.”
They noted the service van’s phone number and license plate and followed it through an artificial new-olde-timey downtown business district and into an authentic historic residential neighborhood with ancient trees and sweet, well maintained Cape Cods and Sears bungalows. The dirty plumber and the long-hairs and the golden child pulled up to the curb at the rattiest house on the block. There was a dented blue woodie station wagon with packing tape holding the tail light lens in place. Norman took dictation from the driver, noting the address and car’s tags. Norman wrote–‘A good looking broad with a pair on her and two boys’–when he saw Colleen, Bo, and Dougie meet the quartet at the stoop before they all went inside.
“They have no dog, I think there is not a dog,” Rajneesh said.
“Good, I hate dogs.”
“Yes, they taste terrible. All gristle.”
In the cozy kitchen Colleen, Dougie’s wife, flanked by her two boys bounced the darling drooling baby on her lap.
“Wow, look at this picture, Sean. They look like a Bruegel painting,” Dougie said.
“Nope, too pretty, more like Emile Munier.” Damn, he was right. Sean had not tried to shame his big brother with the art history correction.
“She’s a pretty baby huh mom, she’s really pretty, she could be our sister, princess sister baby monster! Haha,” Bo said, and the happy ten-year-old played with the baby’s toes.
“No honey, her mommy will want her back.” And she looked at her brother-in-law Sean, but his big friend answered.
James said, “Her mother doesn’t love her, she was abandoned.”
This upset the big boy, Doug Jr. He said through his bangs, “How could her mother not love her?!”
“Her Mommy’s a crack addict who don’t love nothing, she sick in the head, she dead just about, she don’t count no more.”
The big boy’s tears fell on his brother and his mother and the baby as they rocked together. The woman la-laed a tiny nursery rhyme. The adult brothers, Dougie and Sean, held hands watching, delighted. James, the big man squoze the adult brothers necks as he turned to the kitchen part of the dinette. “I fix us something.”
The high cabinet shelf where all the strange foods from the ethnic aisle were kept was significantly depleted during James’s dinner preparation. Dougie Senior brought home colorful packages from his infrequent grocery shopping visits printed with strange letters and hilariously ironic pictures. The kids, including the baby, ate every bite.
Bo asked, “What’s this dinner called, Mr. James?
“Garbage day. Good hunh? I make garbage breakfast good too.”
“Garbage food! ‘S funny. I like you Mr. James, are you a Indian?”
Dougie Junior cringed. “Bo!” Even though he too wanted to know.
“I love you, little man. Are you a ghost?” James asked, “European ghost? Yeah, I’m Indian, First Nations, Aleut, Inuit, Eskimo. Alaska-merican. Mebe shome French-Canadian.”
Bo said, “Cool, you’re a lot. We’re just American… and Irish.”
James said, “That means you’re prolly’ plenty German, too. Hey, big boy, Dougie, lookie-lookie, washum dish.” And he grabbed the big kid quicker than a large man should be able and bear-hugged him over to the sink, startling their mom until she could see that all the boys and men liked the rough horsing-around, “No fair cheating with the dishwasher, by hand. On garbage plates, ancient Eskimo ritual, you Bo, help Dougie boy. Us big kids talk with baby. Put on the teapot–good boy.” The boys obeyed immediately, working together on the housework. “They good boys.” He sat at the table.
Sean patted James on the shoulder and, placing the baby in his arms, said, “We were saved by this special baby. She made us brothers, me and James. That means he is your brother too Dougie, and we’re your brothers too, Colleen. We are your boys’ uncles.”
“Okay,” Colleen said. “You are.”
“Baby girl needs a mommy Colleen, and a daddy, and big brothers.”
” And you all should get a dog, too,” Sean said.
“Can we have her?” Bo piped up from the sink.
“Here, take her, Colleen, she’s yours.” And James passed the baby around the table and they all touched her and their hands all lingered on her as she tucked her little head between Colleen’s breasts and James made a wild Eskimo seal holler that caused Bo to drop a dish and then everybody laughed together the sweetest family laugh that sounded like a song.
Dougie Junior, holding a dish scrubby, said, “What’s her name?”
Time stood still.
Bo said “Shelby.” and they were all quiet and still for a bit until Shelby gurgled out plain as an infant ever could “Shauww- be-be-be-be-be-be.”
“Listen, man, I paid you the hundred bucks as a retainer, an’ ’cause you got a cab and a piece and you’re a crafty little skeeve, not ’cause I’m a’scared a’ you. You’re working for me, Okay? You wanna make a couple thousand bucks doing this thing you can, but shut up when I tell you to.”
Mr. Rajneesh Gupta, the cab driver, sat across from the bald nincompoop in the new Denny’s booth waiting for the fool to offer up another morsel of personal information that could be used against him. His own plan was unspecific but his goals were clear. Get that baby to the shrine for his equally nincompoop wife and secure the blessing and, God willing, the miracle to follow: His wife Shakuntala’s sanity restored, God willing. Keep the idiot Norm from harming or even touching that sacred infant while simultaneously allowing and encouraging the beast through the maze of illegal dirty work and heavy lifting required to kidnap a child in this modern backwards country. He was rather sure it could be accomplished with his costume jewelry replica pistol without impinging on his regular cab driving income, like doing the crossword puzzle, easy as sudoku.
“Are you married, Roger?”
“Please, again, Raj. I am not a bachelor like yourself, Norman. My wife is from Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.”
He watched the repulsive Caucasian eat fried meat. Pork. He was a caricature.
“I have tried to explain that my first name is Rajneesh and you may call me Raj for short because it is easier for your tongue to pronounce even though it is not my name, but please, again, do not call me Roger. You may even use my surname which is the ratherly common Gupta, but please, my friend. I don’t call you Norm, do I?”
“You better not. If I want to call you Roger I will, Okay? Roger, Roger, Roger.”
“Maybe you had better not, Norman,” he said, smiling a bad waiter smile and patted his sports coat pocket.
“Oh man! Or what, towelhead, you gonna shoot me in broad daylight in a Denny’s? That pea shooter don’t even work, I betcha.”
“Hey there maan, I am your friend.”
“Oh really? You’re my friend hunh, Maaaan-ah?”
“Yes, yes, maan, of course I am, naturally.” And then he did the sideways headshake because he knew it rankled the fool.
“Well then, I’m well fucked.”
This child made Rajneesh Gupta’s head hurt.
“Oh the gun functions, I assure you. And one other thing, it is not broad daylight, it is in fact midnight. I could shoot you now through the heart and walk out of this empty restaurant unchecked, but then, the magic baby would, well, you know.”
“When I get back to the city I’ll call you about getting the motor home. Now really dude, I’m trying to think, please, Raj, Just, you know, shut the fuck up”
He was trying to think, indeed. Meatball.
Big Dougie who was a modest five feet, ten and a half inches, and his taller younger brother Sean, were able to parlay the long holiday weekend’s side jobs of neighborhood sewer cleanouts into a 52 hours straight marathon. They worked like snow-plow operators, using Dougie’s employer’s equipment to its fullest, putting to bed the punch list of names and addresses Doug had compiled of clients he’d unearthed during his shift work. He could lowball his phone book-advertised rooter service employer, with its licensed, bonded, taxed, and over-regulated overhead. He wasn’t really stealing. The boss knew he took side work, the clients were mostly broke neighbors with drainage problems, it was primarily clearing waste pipes for old-farts, grandmothers on fixed incomes. He didn’t rip people off. He was ensuring the sanitation of his own community more ethically than any doctor. His brother Sean could use the dough; they had another mouth to feed. Doug was so happy to make money off shit. Working for cash allowed him to avoid paying taxes, the highest moral responsibility of a concerned citizenry. There was such dignity to this labor. As it turned out, younger brother Sean never actually spent any of the money he earned with Doug. He left all the cash Doug foisted upon him that sweltering month of August under the pillow of the neatly made camping cot in the garage. But he, too, had a rewarding time fixing dirty plumbing with his brother. A labor of love. The fact that it was shit somehow made it all the more pure. Funny, that.
Big James typically stayed home with the baby and fixed meals and cleaned house, rarely venturing outdoors, aware that he might draw attention to the household because of his size and color and fright wig of a hairdo.
At her first job, Coleen had a little bump in her yoga class teaching schedule, filling in for associates from the dance studio at the community center. At her second job, she was even offered a raise with the house cleaning company she sometimes freelanced for, scheduling, supervising, bookkeeping, and other clerical duties. She spoke Spanish, loved her girls–the ladies who did the cleaning work, and had a spotless driving record.
Even big boy Dougie Junior got a little yard work, and one night out of the blue bought the whole happy clan pizza dinner from Z.Z. s, an independent shop like his dad used to run. He understood the unspoken betrayal a chain fast-food purchase would demonstrate. He chose Z.Z.’s over Dominoes, even though it was farther away because those corporate stooges cooked fake factory-dough pizzas on hair dryer conveyor belt ovens.
Absolute abundant love, wealth, meaning, prosperity, and health blessed the joy-filled adoptive house of Little Shelby Princess Baby Monster’s new family. The dog came home from the park with Bo and Uncle Sean after Little League one day and never left.
“He just followed us, can we keep him?” Is what Uncle Sean instructed Bo to say to Colleen while they coaxed the powerful dog back to the house with Slim Jims from the 7-11.
He was a large knot of muscles, at least part mastiff, unneutered, slobbery, and had what looked like a pair of bullet holes in his flank, fully healed, no limp. He possessed a scary countenance despite his happy eyes. The collarless dog was protective of the family as if he’d been raised with them since a pup. He seemed to smile, and the tongue and tail had minds of their own. The boys liked to put Shelby atop his back and balance her around the living room; she looked like an Asian Saint Joan of Arc on a warhorse. Everybody enjoyed this game, especially Brutus the dog.
“Shelby, wanna go for a ride? Sister Princess Baby Monster wanna ride the dog? Shell-Shell ride on Brutus?”
“SHEWBEE-be-be, Bru-Bru, YAAAAaaee!”
“WOOF- OW-WOOF.” Loud and low enough to rattle the china, like a freight train, the dog’s barking made the kids blink.
Three and a half long, pre-urban-planner blocks away, across a cement bridge spanning an Army Corps of Engineers drainage ditch, in the driveway of a similar but ugly lot, quite the opposite interpersonal experience was transpiring. The Guptas’ house backed onto a Kentucky Fried Chicken slash Taco Bell parking drive through blacktop. The crooked single-story dwelling smelled of coriander and incense and Bed Bath & Beyond vanilla candles. The wall-to-wall was vacuumed threadbare, all hard surfaces bleached with antiseptic. There was a singularly unappetizing graphic crucifix dominating the kitchen, another in the bathroom, Jesus suffering on the cross looking down on you while you tried to take care of bodily functions. In the driveway Norman’s Aunt Julie’s borrowed-without-permission camper van, a 1978 Dodge Ram 250 El Capitan conversion, was parked. Fumes from a broken soil pipe, gurgling greenish yellow toilet paper, oozed across the asphalt separating the causeway they shared with their neighbors. A glop of the filth dammed up against the vans mismatched used driver’s side tires. Norman, seated in the broken passenger’s swivel captain’s chair, Aunt Julie’s copilot spot, was dictating commands to Raj, who was having no small degree of trouble getting the piece-of-shit pawn shop laptop to connect to the Google. They were about out of range of their neighbor’s internet service, the Redskins football fan hillbillies with the busted sewer main, and unsecured internet service.
“Just go to the little radar icon thing and punch in password again. Goddamn, Roger.”
Having divined that the password was indeed “PASSWORD,” and that the major problem was a battery which wouldn’t take a charge, requiring the yellow extension cord snaked out the Guptas’ basement window, Rajneesh was navigating his wife’s church’s infuriating website.
“I am continuing to ignore you, Mr. Norman. You are no help. Silence is golden, please.”
The unhappy brothers in crime talked past each other. It’s all they ever did. Like an old married couple, one would pose a question or instruction and the other would respond with a non sequitur or answer from a previous conversation. Ostensibly the pair was trying to figure out the work and school schedules of the family members where the baby was staying, and speaking aloud the formulation of the “Scheme.” But there was no plan, not really, nothing that could be explained. Norman started off wanting to just gain possession of the child and take off with her. He knew not where or why, or how he would ditch his conspirator and that crazy wife of his. Just as Norman was transfixed by the baby, Rajneesh knew he, too, must have her, for his wife, but even though Norman was confoundingly annoying, he was also the glue that kept Raj focused. Gupta knew that he could get this meatball to take all the risks involved with a kidnapping, that details would present themselves, that if it was meant to be, it would be, and wresting the baby away from Norman would be an improvisational cakewalk. He knew the odds were long but to try his best was the least he owed himself. The child was clearly a miracle, and although Raj Gupta was not a religious man he knew he must have her, to cure his wife. The baby was like gold; people who never owned a piece of the precious metal might steal, or kill for it. Freeing himself of the burden of his insane wife’s grief or loss or ancestor worship would take some magic, but adventures were never easy. Besides, Shakuntala told him this is what he must do. He was more afraid of his fierce little wife than Norman and that giant Eskimo combined. Regardless of fear, there was no backing out. He was compelled.
Swoosh-chunk went the door to the van and there stood the terror in a sari holding aluminum lunch pails steaming delicious smoking curried chicken and rice, or maybe it was goat. The men attempted to downplay how startled they were by feigning pleasure over her cooking. It’s possible she was slowly poisoning them.
“Mr. No-man, time to eat,” (and then to her husband, a tumble with way too many syllables to express merely “lunchtime”).
“Aw, thankey, Shakuntala, smells great. You’re too good to us, Ladybird.”
How the meatball could pronounce his wife’s name, let alone know it meant “bird” in Hindi, was astonishing to Rajneesh. The Google, no doubt, but Norman’s old, crappy, porn-clogged laptop could hardly maintain its bouncing bubble screensaver. Norman was clearly playing dumber than he appeared. This chess game required diligence.
Following her flirty subservience to the foul bald man in the van, Shakuntala unloaded another barrage of sounds at her husband, to which he grunted an affirmative in Hindi: “Yes, yes my nagging magpie, my shrieking crow, I am sending the data to your electronic mailbox at the church, leave us, woman, stop making your honeymoon eyes at this brute, he’s not so dumb as he pretends.” She slid closed the door and flitted up the crooked steps back inside the house. Acting on his wife’s instructions, Rajneesh copied, pasted and sent an email attachment of Norman’s online banking information, his browser history, and recent recognizance photos of The Darling, as his wife called the magic baby. The TIFF file contained blurry photos of the child being swung in a backyard play set by the enormous Eskimo, taken from the ragtag van the previous afternoon. One particularly disturbing shot pictured James staring directly into the lens, as if he was aware of the surveillance–which he was.
The two women sat hunched down on the floor cross-legged, talking quietly, their knees almost, but not, touching. The baby was between them, facing her newly adoptive mother. The claws of the smaller woman grasped her chubby little healthy thighs, causing the child to artificially stand. Colleen listened with an open heart, at first, but the facts of the story were so repellently bleak that all she could focus on was how to get her squirming baby away from Shakuntala’s bony lap.
Many of the well-to-do young moms from the township had babies along for yoga class at the community center. They would corral them up and circle the strollers and car seats on the tumbling mats, leaving the designated nanny du jour to tend to them as the other postpartum ladies exercised away their pregnancy pounds. Colleen, in her role as Yoga for Mommies! instructor was the last to leave because she had to lock up the boom box she played her calming flute music CDs on. The women were all younger and wealthier than Colleen and Shakuntala. Probably. Shakuntala Gupta was ageless.
Shakuntala was visiting the center to use the computer at her “church,” the charismatic Christian hybrid amalgam that took advantage of the municipality’s community resources. Essentially the city council, at the direction of a self-appointed community development officer, had acquired a neglected historic building in the town’s decaying old business district and developed this previously underutilized office building into a nutty, disparate community center. Three churches, an A.A. group, the yoga ladies and a community theater troupe shared the space. The local police force used the building for K-9 training, hiding contraband in the cellar or on the roof and, dressed up in army combat clothes, chased King around the facility as he dutifully played hide-and-seek games with his humans. Faulty lighting flickered, toilets overflowed and fire alarms squeaked and blipped so frequently that the small volunteer fire department inspector served alarm and escape infraction citations on the city administrator.
“So, you left your town when you were 13?” Inscrutable, unfathomable nonresponse. Colleen was sure she had been heard. “What was the name of your home?”
“It was the village, I do not know that it had a name. You ask why? Do you know the geography of east India? West Bengal? The Hooghly River basin? No?
“Oh, no. Um, I was gonna say… Sorry, you were only 13, wow.”
“I have told you already two times, I do not know, I may have been 11, I may have been 14, we did not have birthday parties with balloons and cakes, you see?” And then she did that sideways head nod that Colleen found difficult to respond to.
“Why did you leave?”
“Ah yes, why indeed? It was not for holiday, I assure you. My family was gone, they were missing, the ones who had not perished, my little bebe sister was lost, you see? Dead. So I had no reason to stay, you see? I did not leave voluntarily, however, I was taken. I was stolen. If one can steal from no one.
“I was taken and stolen, kidnapped and sold to the brothel, as you say, but it was a Kolkata lust house, unfortunately, for me, ha-ha. My town had no name, I had no one so I was taken on a lorry, in a sack, tied in an onion sack, all day and night to Kolkata. Brothel is too genteel a word. They charged us for water, we had to pay, dirty water, it would make you sick. You would not give this brown water to your puppy dog. You would not wash this bebe in such water.
“One day the Jesus Christians came and gave us bottles of water. So clear, like a diamond jewel. I made them take me with them. The pastor’s son I made to love me, I hyptomize. ”
Colleen was jarred alert at the small woman’s mispronunciation of the word hypnotize, wondered if it might be an actual word for something else, whose meaning she did not know.
“They were not Catholics, the Catholics I do despise. I learned to praise the one true Jesus, our savior, the Son of God, through the American Pentecostals. They were always so impressed with my speaking in tongues, my gift. Hindi nursery rhymes, nonsense. Ha-ha.”
Colleen pulled Shelby an inch closer as she shifted her center of balance so she might rise faster than a mongoose if this cobra chose to strike.
“Virgin birth. Miracles. Ha-ha. The Catholics take the white monies, to help the leper, to help the slattern, cure the disease, paint the slum. And then what do they do with it? The Roman Catholic Jesuit thieves, then they keep all the monies. Ha-ha. Jesus is the one true lord. All is fraud. The clergy. Jesus is lord. Only Jesus is the one true lord.”
Colleen’s maternal predilections, be they ingrained or adopted, caused her to squeeze the baby’s little fists in her hands. She was working subconsciously, incrementally, towards clutching her daughter, wresting her away from this superstitious vulture. The scary little woman prattled on at ten words to every one of Colleen’s. Attempting to lull, Svengali the big woman with her voice, an aural Jedi mind trick.
“Indeed, wow. Avarice motivated the monsters,” Shakuntala said. “The men who ran us, greedy men who killed my childhood, pimped my immature body, sent my own little bebe to hell. Yes, I gave birth, but the bebe, she died. No milk. Too frail. They made me mad. Ha-ha, I laugh, but do you hear, there is no joy in my laugh.” Her constant vacant smile was the feature that was most disconcerting, her smile held the menace.
Colleen said, “It’s criminal, it makes me mad too.”
“Ah yes, but you see prostitution is illegal in India, so criminal? No. And you misunderstand, I think maybe you misunderstand all I say. I am not mad, not maddened, it is not that I am angry. It is that I have gone mad, I have lost a part of my mind, I have a psychosis of some sort. Because of the reality through which I have lived. You know that you practice yoga incorrectly? Ha-ha, here is another thing you do not know, Mother Teresa is a female dog, no one in Kolkata has ever benefited from that she-cur. Of the millions she has collected, all was sent to the pope, in the Vatican City. The pope is a homosexual. This baby must be baptized in the blood of Jesus or she will burn and burn in the fires of hell.” And then that wicked smile again, “Eternally.”
Colleen swiftly twisted the child to her outside hip, more of a jujitsu move than aikido, and spoke loudly. “Well, it’s been nice talking with you,” rising to her full height, purposefully making the smaller woman aware that if she wanted she could snap the witch’s pigeon wrists like a twig. Clomping out of the community center’s front door, she told her daughter she loved her. Her illegally adopted daughter needed to be bathed in hot soapy water, pronto.
Because he had seen the qualified master plumber from his day job tackle an identical problem in this very subdivision, had even been assigned his helper on a sewer collapse like this one just up the road, Doug Senior felt he could handle the broken pipe. Sixteen hundred bucks on a holiday Monday afternoon would be a terrific score, more than his normal two-week paycheck as a cleanout technician. The hillbilly clients would be getting a deal on the job for less than half of what an actual plumbing company would charge. There wasn’t even any concrete to pour, just tamp down some bluestone and asphalt patch, a couple of Ferncos and 30 feet of three-inch PVC, easy peasy. Doug could get his brother friend Uncle James a little work too–surely the man could dig a ditch, he was extremely able at everything. He was a powerful good man, scary kind. True. James and Sean could start the dig as he went to Home Depot for materials, slap it together, bing-bang-boom, can’t shoot a hole in it. It should have been easy, but there were complications.
When they arrived, the hillbilly clients were watching the game and already three sheets drunk, Doug entered the crowded living room, seeking his half up-front cash deposit. Many bars had smaller T.V. sets than the wall of light and sound in that little bungalow. He eventually got the money, saw that the balance was there as well, but he also got an earful of the most rank racial bigotry the yahoo patriarch was spewing at the television screen. A Samoan linesman had sacked his favorite quarterback or something. It seemed a little premature to get so impassioned over a pre-regular season game; who knew how nuts this crowd would act come the playoffs?
The homeowner then started in on his “sand nigger” neighbors and their “stinky” food. Doug realized he’d have to cross these poor people’s drive and front yard, and even dig a little on their property to complete this job. He didn’t think he’d find any neighborly goodwill from his client. It might require the personal touch, he’d better stick around. His plan of using James as the main backhoe for the trenching right outside the front window, James who looked just about like the Samoan ballplayer from the TV, that could be bad, so he decided in a flash to send James off to shop for materials. He and his Anglo-American brother could dig the trench and make any necessary apologies to the Southeast Asian family next door.
The Home Depot was an awful mess on Labor Day, extremely crowded. James had a hard time finding everything on his list. Mostly, though, he was preoccupied with the surprising sight of the El Capitan camper van next door at the job site. At least he’d discovered where the cab driver and the bald-headed goon operated out of. The taxicab was gone so the creeps who’d been spying on him and the rest of Sean and Shelby’s family must be out together. He noticed a little black-eyed woman in traditional Indian clothing through the curtains, but near as he could tell no one else was associated with the house–no kids, pets or other vehicles, just that sinister old rapist van. A regular rolling, smoking Amber Alert.
Whatever they were up to was bad, wrong, rotten in some way. James would need to swing back by the lopsided bungalow in the dead of night, spy on this house, maybe padlock or screw the doors shut and enter with Brutus on a short leash, get some answers. Something needed to be done about these two, and now the woman, the woman was most certainly, if not the brains of the operation, the motivator. You could tell by those soulless avian eyes of hers. Black little beady peepers over a mirthless smile.
The job site was a shitstorm, raw sewage combining in a low spot with the loamy soil. The football revelers, bikers without motorcycles, wannabe hard guys and their broads, forgetting or refusing to piss out their beer into buckets on the sun porch, locked out of the Kentucky Fried Taco Bell, a geyser of effluvia storming into the ditch with each thoughtless flush during commercials and timeouts. Eventually, Sean had to be stationed inside the narrow hallway riding shotgun over the crossroads to the small bungalow’s two filthy toilets. The entire job, beginning to finish, took exactly two hours and forty-five minutes, but coming at the end of the long work weekend and the previous full workweek with a little overtime, and faced with a new fresh workweek, well. Doug was done, somebody stick a fork in me, done.
They raked some straw over the shit-stained turf, sprayed a little water across the burnt sienna and yellow ochre-tinted shared driveway, got paid the balance, and booked. Doug fell asleep in the van on the way home. James carried him into the house and tucked him in on the couch. A brief conference with Sean in their dormitory garage, knees touching sitting across from one another on their cots, James laid out all he’d observed about the cab driver, his spooky wife, and the baldhead. He explained the night’s activities. Sean would take the sister woman and kids out to dim sum and a movie, Doug would sleep the sleep of the dead, while James made a counterintelligence information gathering house call at the crooked little home with the taxi and rape-van parked in front on the feces-stenched driveway.
James was not a good man. That is not how he thought of himself. He knew he was bad. Bad enough to kill. Not theoretically bad enough to one day kill another human being, but literally, actually a killer of men. He didn’t seek out evil, usually; he was very calm, polite and helpful, and he did a lot of good. It was just that what he also did, more than once, happened to be the definition of Bad. One who kills is called, and should be called, and is universally, timelessly, cross-culturally understood to be, Bad. Even, or especially, by himself. He’d killed three men. He didn’t have to, he knew nobody ever had to take another’s life. He killed those guys because he wanted to–or not really, he didn’t really desire to kill, he just wanted them dead. It was true the dead guys earned their own slaughters. All three of them would have gone on to cause more suffering, pain, and menace, would never redeem themselves in the eyes of the Lord or their victims. Killers themselves, they did deserve to die. They were soul crushing total shithooks.
The first two, brothers back home in Nome, disturbed everyone they ever met, small town holy terrors that nobody missed. The lackluster investigation into their deaths yielded a suspect list three miles long in an isolated Arctic mining town with a quarter-mile main drag. The place was better without them. A community service. James had no right or authority to end their lives, so James was simply bad. He presumed this fact and didn’t dwell on it. He took what he knew was necessary action, did what needed doing. That was his nature, to take action. It was because he was a murderer that he continued to take action towards all the good he habitually did. His generosity and selflessness and good fine work, his bravery and charity, balanced his killings. Not guilt or shame or remorse. He did what was required for whatever was set before him. His bad actions necessitated good actions, His good actions required bad actions. That’s the way it was. Is. That was the why of it.
James was not a confused man. He had nothing/everything to prove/do. The last man he killed, James had just met, he barely knew him. The man was drunk or high and had just attempted to push another stranger off a roof at a Brooklyn warehouse party, for no other reason than he was in a black mood and was impulsive and blotto. No one observed this inebriate’s vile attempt but James. James recognized the mad, malicious intent to harm, had seen it in the eyes of self-hating drunks his entire life, among hopeless Indians, enraged bikers, at concerts and rallies, in the eyes of cops and soldiers, even in churchy types and radical leftist political activists and among sturdy men who’ve had way too much to drink in crowds. There was always one who was an authentic psychopath willing to inflict serious, mortal harm upon another, in the heat of a frenzy or loud concert or at a riot or bacchanal. Behind the cloak of anonymity, veiled by thoughtless invisibility, emboldened in a Dutch courage haze, there would inevitably be the jerk who throws the brick or bottle, the one who lights the fire, without a plan, seemingly out of nowhere, causing instantaneous mayhem.
When nobody was looking James simply walked him off the roof onto the rocks five stories below, like a no-nonsense indifferent bouncer. That was bad. James was bad. He wasn’t infuriated, he just wanted the guy to be dead, for the planet.
Rajneesh and Norman were getting drunk in El Capitan, which had become their man room. Turns out the seemingly mismatched pair both enjoyed beer, and as they got drunker, each other’s company. They also enjoyed the clubhouse feeling of the van, as schoolboys would share grape soda and trade secrets in a tree fort. The woman in the house creeped them out, but for different reasons. Roger found her exotic and arousing, the way she plied him with heady aromatic food and sheathed her body in those crazy dresses that were made from a single piece of fabric. He thought about how you could just unwind her like a top and reveal her honey skin underneath. She brought his blood up. The wrongness of coveting his only friend’s wife, her tiny childlike body, stoked his shame with repugnant excitement. Raj was just afraid she might one day slit his throat or feed him rat poison or trade him to the devil.
In their cups was the only time the two men actually communicated with each other, could hold a call-and-response conversation. Raj acted a little fruity when drunk and Norman found this endearing. It wasn’t gay so much as brotherly, and these two lonely men, typically so repressed, when drinking, freely expressed themselves, and listened harder to one another, harder than they listened in any other aspect of their sober lives. It was a tonic. Norman, normally so pent-up, clearly seething under the surface, rather than becoming belligerent when under the influence of alcohol turned lucid, introspective, and philosophical. It’s a rare man who gets smarter and better with drink, not just in his own mind, but is actually improved. Xanax might have helped too, but Norman didn’t do drugs.
“I’m not so sure I want the baby anymore.”
“Oh no no no, my friend, you mustn’t say such things.”
“Rajneesh, what am I gonna do with a baby?”
“It is what that special child will do for you.” This was troubling. If Noman was indeed growing clay feet, Rajneesh’s harpy wife would go postal on him.
“That was then. Yeah, I know, that was the dream, but I think what really got me hooked was those two dudes in the park. I think maybe I was jealous of them.”
“Jealous of homeless beggars from your modern apartment building? But the magic baby,” Raj said.
“Sure, she was the kicker, but yeah, no, the freedom and the, ‘ya know, the connection–they had something, a family or a best friend. It’s like now that we’re friends, ya’ know, hangin’ out, stealing the baby don’t make no sense.” And sitting in the copilot chair with a Budweiser tucked between his knees, imploring Rajneesh to understand, gesturing with open-palmed, sweeping gestures, Norman had a catharsis. “I mean, Raj, Mr. Rajneesh Gupta, my friend, what, I ask you, what are we put here for now? What for, if not love?”
‘Oh we are doomed. Doomed.’ Rajneesh said to himself as big fat alligator tears of rain pinged the roof of the van and wept ruined mascara soot down the windscreen. “Norman, my friend, if we do not steal that baby and deliver it to be baptized at my wife’s Christian fellowship, if we fail to afford her the opportunity to save that baby’s soul from the wickedness and snares of the devil, she may well kill us.”
“Do you love her?”
Hate immediately and robustly came to Rajneesh’s mind. Words did not serve to encompass the depth of his igneous hatred of his spouse. “Yes, yes, Norman, of course, I love her.”
“And would you do anything for her, anything she wanted?”
“Always. Anything.” Because he was afraid she might turn his body into soap.
“Well Raj, that’s pretty profound. I mean, if you find a woman like that, you’re a lucky man. And, AND–you hang on to her. I respect that. I’m happy for you.” He looked like he was about to cry.
“Thank you, my friend,” Raj said in about as dejected a manner as could be, but Norm seized on the words, not the tone.
“That’s right! We’re friends, Raj. We are friends. And friends make the effort for friends. Friends don’t ignore friends!” Decisively he slammed the remainder of his fifth beer, opened another, drank it half down, and shifted over to the driver’s seat. He turned the key and started out the stained driveway.
Raj said, “What are we doing, Norman?” as the van peeled out of the wide three-point turn, stretching the extension cord taut, slamming the decrepit laptop against the vent window before detaching the power cable.
Norman proclaimed with a rebel yodel, “We’re gonna snatch that baby for Jesus! Friends don’t leave friends high and dry!”
Raj was pretty sure the adage was “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” but this was just the improvisatory type of happenstance he’d been banking on since forming the alliance with the meatball. Now was his time to react.
Raj and Norman cracked the van up, skidding off a nothing special turn and slow motioned into the Army Corps of Engineers ditch.
At about the same time, James brought Brutus over to the crooked bungalow next to the Kentucky Taco. Shakuntala befriended the beast and fed James some spicy garbanzo bean dish. They had a nice talk wherein James ascertained, to his relief, that he would not need to be murdering anybody to protect Shelby. Shakuntala was merely crazy, not dangerous.
Big Dougie cut himself at work when a pipe cracked, sending a shard of cast iron through his glove. He called Colleen, who left her brother-in-law alone with the boys and baby to go on one of their epic outings. She took the Buick down to the emergency room to pick up her husband of 17 years, as a kind of a date, keeping the romance alive.
So, to recap: James, the dog, and Mrs. Gupta breaking beans and shooting the breeze. The Dynamic Duo, drunk, wedged tightly in the cement culvert, cozy and bleeding in the man van. The married couple, Doug and Colleen, waiting and waiting to be discharged to the pharmacy. And finally Uncle Sean, the boys, with little Shelby Princess Sister Baby Monster all strapped into her umbrella stroller, going out on rain patrol, down the bike path, over by the levy, next to the creek, to do a little bird watching. Maybe they’d see another eagle, or at least some turkey vultures. Ospreys liked to fish under cover of a strong drizzle, and the boys knew that rain was good for babies, made ‘em grow.
What the fellas and their baby actually saw from the asphalt trail atop the levy was a maroon 1978 Dodge conversion van roll down an embankment next to the cement bridge and plop into the sheer-walled storm water culvert, its nose facing downstream, grill pressed firmly against a wickerwork of discarded Christmas trees, shopping carts, and construction debris. Bo thought the rushing dirty water looked like chocolate milk as he and his uncle and brother raced towards the wreck. Shelby squealed as Bo pushed her stroller through the puddles along the trail. He was the only family member who ever drove her cart, her personal designated chauffeur. This was exciting, with the rain pelting down and rolling thunder rumbling in the twilight, the van’s radiator blowing a strong hissing plume of smoky steam. Bo’s older brother Doug Jr., although also excited, was parroting his uncle’s concerned manly expression, looking to him for instructions, mimicking the thrust jaw, adopting the Thousand yard stare, squaring his shoulders. This was battle, they were about to put out a forest fire, smoke jumpers clipped in at the open fuselage door.
Uncle Sean thought the van looked familiar. “Dougie, grab that hose, unwind it, we need to use it as a rope, Bo we need something heavy.”
The teenager jumped down the embankment and pulled at the smashed oscillating sprinkler head attached to the end of a discarded garden hose. It was crimped and knotted in a ball of rubble and twine but he deftly liberated 30 feet of it. Without further direction, he was able to saw it free against the sharp edge of a rusted 55-gallon drum that was embedded in the bank. Running up the tire tracks in the embankment he handed off one end to his Uncle Sean, a relay racer’s baton exchange, and without slowing, wrapped a fast bowline with the bitter end of the hose around the banister at road level on the bridge.
The water was visibly rising in the open storm drain, echoing through the tunnel under the roadbed, forcing against the spare tire on the outward opening rear doors of the van. Bo, having set the wheel locks on the stroller, managed to drag an oversized cinder block from the dry side of the levy to where his uncle was threading the garden hose through his belt. “Good man, Bo. Flag down a car, get somebody to call 911. Take care of Shelby. Good boy, now we’re cooking,” and the two shared the same lively smile they’d exchange at Little League baseball games.
Inside the van, the stunned occupants silently traded futile attempts at escape. Raj opened a side door until the rushing water yanked it a few more inches, creasing it irretrievably against the sheer stone edge of the culvert. Then Norman, with blood running down his bald pate, attempted the same maneuver on his side, with identical results. They were in a panic, their feet were cold, their shoes filled with silty water. They became immediately fully sober.
Raj, lucid now, held up a finger. Norman’s wide eyes indicated complete attention and communicated his understanding that Raj was the smart one. Raj pointed his finger downward and unclipped his seatbelt. Norman followed suit. The cinder block clunked a loud dent into the roof of the van and was followed by the footfalls of Sean’s hiking boots as he jumped down from the embankment. Somehow the noise scared the near-catatonic pair even more than they already were, with not a whisper of a thought that the din above their heads was caused by an attempted rescue. So when Sean started beating on the safety glass with the block, all the trapped men could do was hold hands. Even if you didn’t really like him, it was better to have a single friend in the world than to have none, but we all die alone.
“Float out, this way! C’mon, right over the dash.” What were they doing, holding hands sitting up to their tits in water? “Guys! WAKE UP! C’mon, make an effort!” Sean grabbed the dark one by the lapels of his sports coat, because he was in the passenger’s seat, then yelling directly into the face of the bloody bald one’s eyes, “Grab your friend’s feet, hold onto his ankles, follow him out, around the steering wheel. GO!”
That’s exactly what Norman did, but he didn’t want to let go, and this caused Raj to submerge more than he was comfortable with, so instinctually Raj kicked him in the teeth, repeatedly, until he lost his grip. Both men flushed down the tributary until the current slowed with the widening of the river, then crawling, sputtering in the shallows to opposite banks, they sat in the mud, facing each other across the ripples, looking upstream into the red and blue rotating lights of the second responders, the dimming doppler sirens whining down, the silhouette of a man standing on the roof of the drowned vehicle absurdly parked under the bridge framed in the tunnel’s darkness, the shadow outlines of two boys and a flimsy baby perambulator on the bridge, lightning flashing beyond, backlit by a Maxfield Parrish cloudscape purple cyclorama. It was beautiful, it was good to be alive enough to shiver in the hot late summer’s dusk. Norman was holding, still holding, Rajneesh’s right sneaker, the Nike Swoosh reflecting a silent lightning flash from 15 miles off in the stratosphere. God was winking at him.
Much was resolved at the small suburban hospital where Norman had 37 stitches installed across his baldpate. This was the same emergency room, the same doctor and attending nurse even who had just stitched up Dougie Senior’s hand. In the cafeteria, the entire constellation of individuals encircling young Shelby’s existence gathered, pretty much by the organization of James and Shakuntala.
Little Shakuntala was visiting with big James and Brutus the dog when she received the call from a helpful ambulance attendant informing her that her husband and his friend had been in a single vehicular accident and that he could use some dry clothes at the hospital.
Because Shakuntala could not operate an automobile and he could, James drove her and Brutus in Rajneesh’s taxi, although not one of the trio possessed a driver’s license. On the way they observed Uncle Sean and the boys and Shelby returning towards their home having finished giving their accounts to authorities and oglers of the sinking of El Capitan into the northwest branch of the engorged tributary. James pulled over and the rain patrollers jumped in as if they had just hailed the cab, as if big uncle James always drove a taxi, and as if Shakuntala was a familiar trusted nanny. With the stroller in the trunk, Sean, and Brutus up front with James driving, Shakuntala, pleased as punch with the Magic little princess atop her lap and flanked by the infant’s brothers, the windows down, the radio playing gangsta rap, the cool late summer night air after a rain, wet pavement reflecting brake lights and a big harvest moon climbing up through the last of the storm clouds, the cab’s passengers would remember this five-mile drive to reunite with their injured loved ones the rest of their days on earth.
In the hospital cafeteria, the entire party of ten humans and Brutus enjoyed red-flavored Jello as Shelby ambled atop the table between the seated family and admirers. The adorable child was at what is called the “cruising” stage of becoming a full-fledged biped, wherein a pre-toddler hangs onto furniture while clumsily making baby steps. As she grasped the outstretched hands of those seated at eye level around her, her infectious joy at walking and being the center of everyone’s attention unified the group as a whole into the understanding that they all wished this child well, not because she was holy, or magic, or even special particularly. It was simply that she was a baby, and babies can bring out the best qualities in people: Love. Caring. Devotion. Protection. They all understood that they all wished this pretty little baby no harm.
“Mom?” Bo asked. “When did me and Dougie Junior take our first steps?”
Coleen, understanding that to report the truth that her eldest son started walking later than the youngest, as is often the case, decided to circumnavigate any sibling strife and split the difference. She said, “You both started walking at 11 months. Exactly.”
At that moment, Norman, at the end of the long line of the baby catwalk to aid the little girl with her walking adventure, sensed that Shelby was reluctant to grab his finger, and was intently staring at the table top before her feet, so he just held his open hands a foot around her ready to soften her fall. She teetered like a drunk, rocked on her heels, spun 180 degrees and ran the full length of the table unaided. She reversed the trip and returned to Norman and squealed with delight into the face of the lonely bachelor with the Frankenstein stitches. He believed he had witnessed a miracle.
Bo, who had lately been very concerned with how Shelby’s birthday could be determined, proclaimed with authority, “Now that she’s walking we know that her birthday is in a month, on Thanksgiving. Can we have a party Mom?”
“Of course, darling.”