|Oct/Nov 2018 Fiction|
My girlfriend is one of those new women. She got me into dumpster diving. Dumpsters at high end restaurants, where they throw out tons of fruit and newly expired items. She knows the places that don't have cameras. We dress in black and have flashlights and masks. Gail breaks the surface with melons and apples. Now, in winter, meat is not out of the question. We put the stuff in her trunk, examine it on her living room floor. Sometimes she is so excited by a big take, we make love right there with a bunch of fruit rolling around. She takes stuff to the shelter where she works.
It's snowing. She cuts the headlights, and we glide to Renaldi's. She tosses me stuff. We are working on bettering our times. I catch a plastic package that feels like a steak. I flash my light on it and stand for a moment not comprehending. Melons bounce off my head. Wait! When I register the tiny feet and hands, the purplish body and blurred face, I land on my knees.
She pokes her head over the side.
"Gail, this is a fetus. A girl."
"It's like shrink wrapped. God."
I see a foot move, and a hand. The narrow chest heaves once. It's alive. Because of the cold. She says it happens all the time.
Resuscitation rules: Keep warm and stimulate. Wrap her in my coat and rub her back. Flick her toes. I tear the plastic bag and clear the mouth with mine, gooey slime until I gag. I give tiny puffs.
Gail fills the trunk. "It happens all the time," she says again. She works in that shelter and sees everything. I work in an office and see horror only on the Internet.
Under my coat I feel the baby's chest. It pounds my fingertip! Some more breaths, and she wiggles. We both do soundless cries. Her chest caves. The umbilical cord looks ragged. I feel sick. Gail is just closing the trunk. "Come on!" I say.
"You should have called 911."
"We're one minute from the hospital!" I keep the flashlight on the flaring nostrils.
We slide and slide. I run to the desk, and the triage nurse takes off with my coat—baby and wallet and cigarettes. Gail takes forever. I smell the smoke on her. Her waif-like prettiness has always gotten to me, but now, in these bright lights, it's nothing special. She wants to get home and look through her stuff. I tell her the baby is part of our stuff, and everyone stares. She lifts her shirt and spins slowly so her belly can be seen. Not guilty.
"What the hell is wrong with you? This is exciting."
She has to go home. I'll sleep on a hard bench for a bad person's almost dead baby. It's like I'm on a pew, holy in some way.
Then later she calls. It's 1:00 AM and no one has come to tell me anything. I say I'm not leaving until I know something. Finally a doctor comes and asks if I'm responsible. "I did not dump her there. I got her breathing." He pumps my hand. He says thanks to my actions, this baby has a chance.
I call her back as the dirty winter light seeps in. The whole world feels dirty. I don't know about chances. "Listen, let's get married! We can adopt the baby. I named her Dawn."
She coughs—a smoker's cough. "Poor people like us don't get married. They don't give us crime babies."
Crime baby. I repeat that in my head as I follow a nurse to NICU. While we wash our hands, the nurse says, "All she had to do was drop the baby at any hospital, no questions asked."
"She probably thought it was dead."
She lets me in, and I stare at the little one, hooked to a breathing machine and a bunch of lines, inside an incubator.
The news wants me in front of the dumpster. They won't take no for an answer. I lie and say we heard it cry. Gail is all, "Dude, why did you do it? That was one of our best dumpsters."
"It still is."
"No, you ruined it."
"It's a white baby," one nurse says. "It takes a couple days to tell." Dawn is four pounds now and breathing on her own. She has a touch of pneumonia and trouble regulating her temperature.
I walk outside for a smoke. I have a list of questions. What happens if the mother shows up? How long before she can be adopted? I take out my crumpled pay stub. It barely keeps me alive. On one edge I write, LOSER. And I've taken time from work so I can hang around the hospital. It's starting to creep people out. I haven't shaved. I've been sleeping on the couch, because Gail is mad at me. What happened was this: I showed up at her shelter and started interrogating the females. No one was too young. Most were mentally ill and already traumatized. I didn't care. I was evil. I wanted answers.
Gail doesn't take me to dumpsters anymore. Just as well. I must stay germ free. I move out of her place and rent a room in a nice house across from the hospital. The landlady says, "Say, you're the young man that saved that baby." From my room I have a good view of the main hospital entrance, can see who comes and goes. I invest in some binoculars, and I can barely see into the NICU when the blinds are open.
I work hard at my job in collections. I start telling the losers they could receive a home visit, which is illegal, but I start to get somewhere. I'm one of the new criminals, a crime baby myself. The boss lets me slide. I take a night job at the hospital, sweeping floors, but spend so much time hanging around the NICU, peering in, that I'm politely relieved of duty. They think I might take Dawn, so my visits are limited to once a day for ten minutes, just to see how she is doing.
I jot it all down in a book: Baby's First Diary. I hide it under my mattress.
And she is doing well.
I clean house for Mrs. Danforth, my landlady. I'm a cyclone, she tells me. She cuts my rent in half. Gail calls. I'm out of breath. "What are you doing?" she says.
"Cleaning. Saving money. Getting ahead."
"No, I mean, what the fuck are you doing?"
During one of my visits I overhear the social worker. "This is a couple with means. He's a doctor. A psychiatrist." My mind reels. No psychiatrist! "On the Main Line. We can move Baby Girl to a unit down there to feed and grow until they take her home. I almost yell, "Her name is not Baby Girl!" But I just touch the blanket and tell her goodnight.
"Sir, are you aware of our new debt recovery team? They are not pretty. They know where you live. I'll bet you are one of those deadbeat dads, too. Huh? Deadbeat." This is the call that ends my career, because they are recorded for quality assurance. Luckily my old man is ready to give up his Twinkies route. "I'm dying. Twinkies are dying," he says. He shows me how to drive the truck, takes me on his route. "We go all the way to the Main Line." My ears perk up.
My first day when I load up, I ask for all the dead Twinkies. They point to the dumpster. I'm afraid, but I manage it. I drive all the way to Gail's shelter and unload Twinkies for a year. "Ladies," I say, "please accept my apologies." I show Gail the name on my shirt, which is my father's name.
"Imposter," she says.
"Everything is slightly past expiration," I say. "Except Dawn. She is pure inspiration."
"Get the fuck out of here."
The best part is driving with the door open. Things swish by—voices, horns, slush. There is the steady beat of life, which, when synchronized with the beat on the radio, is pure ecstasy. The cold flying by and the heater blasting my feet. I own no boots, just sneakers.
I deliver to the hospital. People love my uniform and my product. But when I go for my visit, they are upset by my disguise and the wrong name on my pocket. I'm told I must not come back, that Baby Girl is being adopted now and moving away. They are surprised by how well I take it. They don't know about the silent pictures I took on my phone: transport time by ambulance, address of Dr. James Clifford. Papers left sprawled by case worker, violations left and right, no fault of mine.
I tell my landlady goodbye, leave her some Twinkies. "These are a dying breed," I say. I don't tell her I will live in the truck for now.
With my first good paycheck, I go full-out creeper and buy a long lens for my camera. Then comes a decent mattress. I park near the hospital ambulance area. My father had made a porthole to spy on my young mother when she was cheating and leaving him. I don't remember her. I may have been adopted, for all I know. I watch for the transport van, checking my watch. It's late. When it finally pulls up, it's another hour before they wheel Dawn in her little plastic box. I take some pictures. I will put them in the baby book: Miracle Dawn finally leaves the hospital!
I follow them closely. Hopefully the nurse behind the little window can't recognize me, sitting high and confident in my huge window. The sun off the snow is bright. I have my sunglasses.
The Main Line is upper class. The dumpsters are clean. I call Gail. "Guess what I'm doing?"
"In your Twinkie truck?"
"I live in it."
"I have to go. I have real things to do."
"Hey, the dumpsters here are nice."
The place they bring her looks old, stone and ivy, distinguished or creepy. Maybe they experiment on babies. But it has nice big windows, light for her feeding and growing. I park under an old oak and zoom in. The windows are too bright to penetrate. I snap a shot: BABY'S SECOND HOME. I stretch on my mattress and eat a Twinkie. I'm drifting off when I feel something walk on me. Sitting there on my chest—a little squirrel holding an acorn like a gift. He (I don't know if it's a he) hops off and hides it behind boxes. He goes and gets another. And another. He's loading the truck for winter. I wait for him to go back to his tree, but when I start the truck he sits on my shoulder. Why not? "I have some deliveries," I say. "I won't call you Rocky. How about Sam? That goes either way." He stays perched as I drive. I call Gail. "You won't believe this. There's a squirrel on my shoulder."
She sighs and hangs up.
We do the deliveries, me and Sam. Then we find the doctor's house, more stone and ivy. I park and take some pictures. I don't think I'll put them in the book.
We sleep in the truck under the oak tree for two nights. On the third a security guard comes by. He shines a flashlight in my face and shows me a photo. It's me. "Sir," he says, "I'll have to ask you to leave."
We're fugitives! This is how it goes: We make our deliveries, I wash in rest rooms. I clean my uniform in Laundromats. In the park I find oak trees so Sam can replenish his nuts. We park in various supermarket parking lots overnight. I get a thermal sleeping bag for the cold nights.
One afternoon we cruise by the doctor's house and there's a well-preserved blonde on the lawn, doing karate moves. She's wearing just her white karate top and black belt. Her tan and lovely legs are bare. I take a quick shot and we're out of there.
Another day we see the doctor pulling in. The plate of his Mercedes says, SHRINK. I don't like the look of him—big-headed and shaggy and un-dad-like. The garage door swallows him before I can get a shot. "I don't want to be judgmental," I tell Sam, "but there's something about that fucker."
The next day the wife pulls out and we follow. She drives to a Comfort Inn, goes to room 12. A man opens the door and sweeps her in. An hour later she comes out, stops and buys wine, and heads home. I have the photo evidence. "We could be private eyes, Sam."
I call Gail. "The wife cheats! I have pictures!"
"You're going to get hurt. Stop this nonsense."
"I'm thinking blackmail."
"Get your stupid ass home."
"When our work is done."
It doesn't occur to me until that night, drifting off in the Giant parking lot, snuggled in the bag with Sam, who is using my toenails for tooth sharpening. "She said she wanted me home."
I put on a clean uniform and ring the bell. The doctor looks through the peephole at me, and speaks over an intercom. "Who is it?" He sounds unfriendly, the kind that would chase off Girl Scouts.
"I'm the guy that saved Dawn from the dumpster. Ray Hinds. Just thought I'd introduce myself."
"Why does your shirt say Ralph?"
"He was my father. I haven't gotten my shirts yet. The company's dying."
"They warned us about you."
He opens the door and steps out. He is not glad to see me; it's a gun in his pocket. He shows it to me. He ushers me to my truck, three doors down. "You won't have any visiting rights, if that's what you're thinking."
"I just thought you might be nice about it."
"I'm not nice."
"Gail, these people are not fit parents. The wife is cheating on him, and he has a gun. He's not nice."
"Ray, just come home. Please. I have to tell you something."
"You love me, after all?"
She sighs. "We have to talk."
"If you want me to give up my cause, I will. I just wanted to fight for the underdog, like you."
I'm silent for a minute, just listening to the world go by. There's a sunbeam that shows another path and a chance to go straight. I don't take my regular turn. "Mine?" I say.
"I'm not a slut."
I press the gas. "I'm coming, babe. I'm coming." I'm thinking the name Dawn is still not taken. I start to laugh and cry. "Did I mention I have a squirrel?"