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Chapter 5

It was all grown-up stuff, what Miz Smitcher was talking about with the people at the desk.

Meanwhile, there sat Ceese, holding the baby on his lap.

The kid had a diaper now, which it got right after its bath. Miz Smitcher did that herself, in about an inch of water, not ever scrubbing very hard, but still getting all the stains and dirt off the kid, right down to pulling on its little pud and washing it all over. Ceese was embarrassed at first, and Miz Smitcher must have seen how he felt, because she said, "As long as it ain't yours I'm washing, there's nothing to be embarrassed about."

Which embarrassed him way more than he already was—no doubt that's what she had in mind.

But he didn't go away, he kept watching, right through the diapering. Ceese had never seen anybody diapered before, being the baby of the family. It looked easy enough. He said so.

"That's cause we have these little sticky tabs on a paper diaper," said Miz Smitcher. "Not all that long ago, diapers were made of cloth, and you had to pin them into place, and like as not you'd stick the baby or your own finger and then there'd be screaming and cussing like you wouldn't believe. And then when the diaper's all covered with feces or soaked with urine, you got to take it to the toilet and rinse it off and then load it all into the washing machine. Up to your elbows in piss and poop, that's what it was like to have a baby in the old days. Up to about thirty years ago."

"Man," said Ceese. "Was that back when they still fed babies out of bottles, or did they already invent the tit by then?"

Oh, the glare she gave him. But he could see from the way she clenched her lips to keep from smiling that she wasn't really mad.

And when the baby was clean and diapered and in a little undershirt that looked like doll clothes, back he goes into Ceese's arms while Miz Smitcher sees to the paperwork about getting the baby turned over to state custody.

Ceese couldn't hear much from where he was, but he could see that Miz Smitcher was getting angrier the longer it took. Not only that, but three times somebody came down from wherever it was that Miz Smitcher was supposed to be on duty, telling about how they needed her up there right now.

So he got up and walked over to her, holding the baby. "Miz Smitcher, I can stay here all day if you just call my mom and tell her I'm with you. That way you can go do your shift and then they can get all their paperwork done and we can take the baby home then."

Miz Smitcher looked at him like he was insane. "I'm not taking this baby home."

The woman behind the desk said, "They'll find a foster home in a few days, it just takes time."

"Then the baby stays here in the neonate unit," said Miz Smitcher.

"But the baby isn't sick and the baby wasn't born here, so as I've told you, Ura Lee, there ain't no way in hell the hospital is going to admit that baby because who's going to pay for it?"

"Well if you're going to pay hospital rates for babysitting," said the desk lady, "why don't you just take the baby home and let this boy here babysit for you? Just till they get a foster family for it."

"Him," said Ceese.

"What?" said the desk lady.

"Baby's a him, not an it."

"Baby doesn't understand a word we're saying, so I doubt that I have offended it or negatively affected its gender-role identification process," said the desk lady.

"He's a boy," said Ceese. "He's alive. I found him."

The desk lady pursed her lips and looked at the papers on her desk.

Miz Smitcher jabbed him in the arm, but not so hard as to hurt. Ceese looked up at her. She was doing all she could to keep from grinning.

"Seems to me," the desk lady said, "this stubborn young man here has offered you the best solution. You might as well get paid for part of this day, and he seems to be quiet enough."

"Baby's going to need feeding," said Miz Smitcher.

"You're bound to be right about that," said the desk lady.

"They got bottles and formula up in neonate," she said.

The desk lady sighed. "Miz Smitcher, now you're just trying to make me tired. You know perfectly well that I can't admit that baby. But you also know perfectly well that if you take that boy up to neonate and let those nurses coo over that baby for a while, a bottle or two is bound to fall off the cart at feeding time. Along with a few clean diapers now and then."

Miz Smitcher grinned. "I always like hearing practical advice."

The desk lady went on muttering as they walked away. "Make me say it out loud. Knew it perfectly well from the start. Stubborn..."

"I hope you were serious about what you offered," said Miz Smitcher, "cause everybody in this hospital got work to do, and you just need to hold that baby and don't bother nobody unless the baby's wet or stinking or crying."

"This baby don't cry," said Ceese.

"Give him time," said Miz Smitcher, "he'll figure out how."

She barked out a laugh. "Now, that'll be a first. Teaching a baby to cry. What you want to do next, teach clouds to float? Teach the sun to shine?"

"I just want to do right," said Ceese.

She gave him a quick one-armed hug as they walked along, which almost made him drop the baby, since it took him kind of by surprise. "I know you do," she said.

The rest of the morning and all afternoon he spent in neonate. The desk lady was right—the neonate nurses were all coos and babytalk, as much to him as to the baby. And by the end of the day, Ceese felt like an expert at diaper changing and baby feeding. Not only that, but one of the nurses bought him a sandwich out of a machine and a carton of milk for his own supper. And then later in the evening, a Coke.

Along with a warning not to try to give any of that Coke to the baby. Till she said it, Ceese never would have thought of feeding any to a baby, but after the warning, it was the only thing he could think of. How easy it would be to pour half the can into one of those formula bottles. Maybe the bubbles would tickle the baby's nose. Or make him burp. Babies were supposed to burp, weren't they? And except for the bubbles, wasn't Coke just sugar water? Well, and caffeine, but a few swallows of caffeine might be just what this baby needed, to wake him up.

So Ceese did the only thing that made sense. He drank the rest of the Coke right down, so there wasn't even a drop left. Then he burped so hard it made his eyes sting. But he still felt like a hero.

A really stupid hero, since the only danger the baby was in was from the hero himself. But hey, he thought of a bad thing and he didn't do it, and wasn't that what it meant to be good? Wasn't nothing good about not doing bad stuff you didn't even think of. Pastor Sasquatch never mentioned anything about how you can't be good unless you have bad thoughts. But it was true just the same, Ceese was sure of it. And now he was kind of proud of himself, because he had bad thoughts all the time, and he didn't do anything about any of them. Well, almost any.

Ceese got up every now and then during the afternoon and walked the halls with the baby, partly so his butt didn't get so sore from sitting, and mostly because it was something to do, and there wasn't many things as boring as sitting there holding a quiet baby while your arms went to sleep.

Only when he got up after finishing the Coke, he didn't go down the halls. Or to the elevator. He went to the door with the exit sign over it and pushed through it and found himself on a landing, with stairs going up and stairs going down.

At the railing, there was a gap between the flights of stairs that went right down to the bottom. It wasn't very wide. Ceese figured that when he dropped the baby, it wouldn't go straight down, it'd bounce off one of those railings and then land on the concrete stairs somewhere instead of smacking into the basement floor.

I'm not dropping this baby! Ceese told himself. What put an idea like that into his head?

He could just set the baby on the top step and give him a little push and let him roll down.

Maybe he'd go right down to the bottom, but probably it'd be like when Ceese rolled down one of the grassy hills in the park, he always veered off till his head was pointed down the hill. Baby'd probably do that and end up bouncing down the stairs on his squishy little head. Ceese could say he dropped it. Nobody'd be too mad at him. It's not like the baby belonged to anybody, and people expected kids to be clumsy.

Ceese snapped out of his concentration. Down at the bottom of the next flight of stairs, and coming up toward the opposite landing, was a big woman in black leather and a motorcycle helmet.

"I'm talking to you, boy," said the motorcycle woman. "I'm saying, you really want that baby dead?"

"No," said Ceese. "What you talking about anyway? Who are you?"

She stopped at the landing ten steps below Ceese, her head haloed by the light from the window. "I'm just saying, before you kill somebody, you need to think real careful. Because when you change your mind, they're still dead."

"I ain't killing nobody."

"I'm glad to hear it," said the motorcycle woman. "Killing people is a serious responsibility. I hardly ever do it myself, and it's my job."

Ceese didn't doubt for a minute that she was telling the truth.

A thought occurred to him. "You this baby's mama?"

"Baby like that got no mama," said the motorcycle woman. "And a good thing, too. He'll be nothing but trouble, you'll see. Dark trouble for everybody around him. Give him to me, I'll send him home."

"No," said Ceese.

"You can tell them that a sexy-looking woman in black leather come and kissed you and you couldn't tell her no."

Kiss him? She was going to kiss him?

She laughed. "Or you could say an evil-looking alien with a space helmet came and carried the baby off to heaven in a UFO."

"Like they'd believe that."

"I'd make sure the nurses saw me running with the baby. They'd believe you all right. I'm not here to cause you trouble. I'm here to save you from a lot of sadness and woe."

"You're one of them wacko women that steals other people's babies from the hospital cause they can't have any of their own."

She was halfway up the steps, and he hadn't even noticed she was climbing. All he had to do was stay there, and she'd come and take the baby out of his arms.

For a moment, that sounded to him like the most natural thing in the world.

Then he knew that it was the most terrible thing he'd ever thought of. Because if she ever got control of this baby, she'd stuff his tiny body down the drainpipe in that little park and he'd never be seen again. Maybe she meant to do that all along, and the only reason she couldn't was that he found the baby and carried him away.

"I saved this baby," said Ceese. "I don't want him dead."

"You don't?" she asked. "Not even a little curious about what it's like to watch the life go out of something?"

She was two steps down, and her head was almost even with his, and if she wanted to take the baby from him, she had only to reach out. But she didn't reach.

"I don't like you," said Ceese.

"Nobody does," she said. "It's a lonely life, being too cool for this world."

And at that moment, the baby started making noises. Not crying. Little soft cooing babbling noises. Like he was trying to talk babytalk to them.

"Except this little baby," she said. "He likes me fine. He knows me."

"You are his mama," said Ceese.

"Maybe I'm his girlfriend, you ever think of that? Or maybe he's my papa. You just never know how people are going to fit together in this world. Give him to me, Cecil. Your mother would tell you to do it."

He wanted to. He could feel it, this longing to hand the baby to her, rising in him like hope. And yet he knew it was wrong, that it would be the death of the baby to hand him over. "I won't do it," he said. "Don't you worry."

"I wasn't worried," she said. "Just hoping."

"I was talking to the baby," he said. "I'm not going to let you have him."

The door behind him opened. It was one of the neonate nurses. "Who you talking to out here?" she asked.

Ceese was going to say, Her, but when he turned back around the motorcycle woman wasn't on the second step down anymore. For a second he thought she was entirely gone, but then he looked down and she was at the bottom of the next flight of stairs, where if he called to the nurse to come and see, the motorcycle woman would be gone before she could get there to look.

"It's dangerous by these steps," said the nurse. "What if you dropped him?"

Below him, the motorcycle woman held out her arms. But despite her promises, Ceese knew that if he tossed the baby to her, she would step back and let the baby hit the stairs and spatter his brains everywhere and she'd be gone and they'd think Ceese went crazy and killed the kid and they'd lock him up until he admitted that there was never no motorcycle woman holding out her arms.

"I won't drop him," said Ceese.

"Still, come away."

"Sure," he said. "Wanted to look out the window is all."

"All that's out that window is a parking lot and a lot of hot asphalt trying to cool off in the darkness," said the nurse. "Want another Coke?"

Yes he did. So he could get the baby to drink it.

"No thank you," he said.

Was this what it was like for everybody? Did they all keep thinking of ways to poison or drop or otherwise kill their babies?

Not my baby, he reminded himself. Not mine at all. But that means, not mine to hurt, either. Not mine to give away to motorcycle women. Not mine to kill.

He belongs to himself, that's what. And nobody's got a right to steal his whole future from him.

Am I crazy, to think of ways for this baby to die? Was there really a motorcycle woman on those stairs? How would she know my name was Cecil? She called me Cecil and she didn't make a sound when she went down those stairs in a couple of seconds when my back was turned.

He sat on the bench between the elevators for the rest of the shift. When Miz Smitcher came to him and woke him, the baby was still in his arms, and still alive. And sure enough, even though a different desk lady had lots of things to sign at the desk when they got there, none of them gave Miz Smitcher permission to turn the baby over to the hospital. She had to take the baby home.

"All right then," said Miz Smitcher, "if I'm going to be his foster mother, I'm going to name him."

"Might as well," said the new desk lady. "Got to call him something."

"Mack," she said.

"First name or last?" asked the desk lady, poised to write something on a form.

"Short for something?"

"That's the whole name. The whole first name."

"Last name Smitcher?" asked the desk lady.

"No way in hell," said Miz Smitcher. "Bad enough I'm stuck with Willie Joe's name, I'm not going to impose it on a poor little baby who with any luck will never meet him. Last name Street, that was my name when I was growing up. My daddy's and mama's name."

"Mack Street," said the desk lady.

"Just like that?" asked Miz Smitcher. "Don't need permission?"

"There's countries where you can't give a baby a name without the government's okay, but here, you just pick a name."

"What if this baby already had a name?"

"The person named him went and left him in a field somewhere," said the desk lady. "I'm betting there's no birth certificate. He still had amniotic fluid on him, the doctor said. He was born and laid in that grass and that was it. So this is the first name he ever had, count on it."

Miz Smitcher turned to Ceese. "What do you think? Mack Street okay?"

"Mack's an okay name," said Ceese. "Better than LeRoy or Raymo," he said.

"I agree with you there."

"Way better than Cecil."

"Cecil's a good name," said Miz Smitcher. "Every Cecil I knew was a fine man."

Not all. Not if you knew the sick crap that was going through my head this afternoon.

"But we got a Cecil in the neighborhood," said Miz Smitcher. "Near as I can tell, we got no other Mack."

"Mack Street is a good name," said Ceese.

And then it was done. Papers signed. And in a few minutes, Ceese was sitting in the car beside Miz Smitcher, holding little Mack Street in his arms.

They went home by way of a Kmart, where Miz Smitcher bought a baby seat and some cans of formula and some baby bottles and baby clothes and disposable diapers. "Stupid waste of money when the baby's going to live with somebody else in a couple of days," she said.

"What you say?"

"Nothing," said Ceese.

"I know what you said."

"Then why did you ask?"

"Wanted to see if you had the balls to say it twice."

"Keep him," said Ceese. "You know you want to."

"Just because you want to doesn't mean everybody else does. He's an ugly little baby anyway, don't you think?"

Ceese just stood there watching while she finished belting the car seat into place. By the time she was done, she was dripping with sweat. "Give him to me now," she said.

Ceese handed the baby in to her.

"More trouble than you're worth, that's what you are," she cooed to the baby. "Use up all my savings just to put food in one end and out the other."

Ceese looked out across the parking lot toward the street. Under the bright streetlights there was a homeless man standing on the curb, watching him, or at least looking toward Kmart.

Ceese heard again the thing that must have made him turn and look: the sound of a motorcycle engine revving.

A black-clad woman bent over the handlebars of a black motorcycle that rode along the street.

She wasn't looking where she was going, she had her head turned toward Kmart, and even though there was no way to see her eyes, Ceese knew exactly who she was and what she was looking at.

The homeless man stepped into the street in front of her.

She screeched to a stop, the front wheel of her bike between the homeless man's legs.

The homeless man flipped her off.

She flipped him back.

He didn't move.

She walked her bike backward a couple of steps, then revved up and drove around him, flipping him off again.

He double-flipped her back, then strode back to the sidewalk.

"Home with you," said Ceese.

"Then get in the car."

He did. By the time they got to the street, neither the motorcycle nor the homeless man were anywhere to be seen.

At home, Mother was strangely nice about his being away all afternoon and half the evening, and when Dad got back late from work, he didn't say much, either. "Well, it's nice that Miz Smitcher will have a child to look after," Dad said.

"She didn't sound too happy about it," said Ceese. "I'm going to be helping her by tending him during the day."

"That'll keep you out of trouble," said Dad, laughing a little. And then it was on to other topics with Mom, as if finding a baby happened every day in their neighborhood.

It was all sort of anticlimactic. There was nobody to tell about the motorcycle woman or the homeless man. Nobody who even wanted to hear more about finding the baby. It was all just... done.

Over with. It'll just be Miz Smitcher's little boy growing up next door, and everybody will forget that I found him and diapered his little butt and fed him and didn't throw him down the stairs.

He ate a late supper and went to bed and lay awake for a long while. The last thing he thought was: I wonder if Miz Smitcher is going to smother little Mack in his sleep.

Chapter 4 | Magic Street | Chapter 6