What is Mine
I will be plain. I have stolen a child. I simply scooped him up and carried him away. It was in the newborn wing, late at night. A candy striper in the preemie unit was desperate to go rub herself against her pimply boyfriend. I was working reception. She absolutely begged me to help her out. “Watch ’em a minute, would ya?” she popped. I took over for her. I stood among the half-formed minis and tried to breathe. There was very little air in the preemie unit. Something was wrong with the vents—not air enough for all of us, and me with my oversized lungs. A child stood outside the room, winning in seersucker. Nose pressed against the glass. Our eyes met. He stood out in golden plumpness against the throngs of graying larvae, wholesome as a bread loaf. It was a guiltless union. We were meant to be. My darling looked up at me and we both knew. He took my hand and that was it, the dog Blue trailing. The corridor lighting illumed our way . . .
It is beautiful here. Peaceful. Everything is so calm and quiet and near to death. The remnants of elegant ends are everywhere. Outside our camper, two hummingbirds lie impaled on a single cactus. We have come from Portland, Maine, to Quartzsite, Arizona. We came by train. We began the journey in our first days together; it took three weeks. We cruised by taxi to our final destination. At first, the cabbie thought I was completely mad, but the $200 tip had him praising wide open spaces by the time we parted. We had to get out of Maine. We did not run so much as sensibly leave. It was not an unpleasant trip although probably best forgotten. We have set up house in a trailer. The next house is miles away. There is a dirt road that sits beside it. Teddy-bear cacti line the drive. Inside, the walls are crimson. Everything is covered with a crimson fabric. It is perfectly comfortable. I bought the thing for $750 at a roadside stand. The stand featured a prominent billboard that caught my eye. free gasoline with purchase, it read. car parts sold. The trailer is practically brand-new. It is shaped like a bullet. We are perfectly content.
The town is filled with old people—a whole tribe. There is no one here under the age of seventy. There are so many of them. Enough to outfit an army. Truly, they would make great soldiers, in that they would be both willing and disposable. But alas, they have no one to organize them. My hands are full.
Sometimes one of them creeps awkwardly by on a rusty bicycle. I am friendly. I give him my pageant queen wave. I try to make them laugh, but they smile, only. They don’t wave back. Time has rendered them keenly aware of their capabilities.
Technically we live in this town, Quartzsite, filled from start to finish with retirees. It is such a strange place, so morbid. There are bullets everywhere, scattered. They are just there on the ground.
The child and I rarely go out. When we do, he thinks it’s a big adventure. Sometimes we walk to the Roadrunner mini-mart—the child, the dog, and me. The child is delighted. He sings as we walk. “Doodadoodeedee,” he says. “Mommymommymommy.”
At the mini-mart, a woman in a printed muumuu squeals, “What a beautiful child!” It is always this way. The same woman, every time. I wait for him to answer. He has only a little trouble choosing what to say. It takes him a little time. Of course, there is the fear that soon he will be talking, questioning, demanding to be told some things, told what’s going on, but it is all right at the moment. At the moment, he knows only a few words. He looks up at the lady. “Fat dog,” he says. This is my fault, of course—it’s what I have taught him to call Blue. The woman looks at me. “Thank you,” I say. We back away quietly.
Our trailer sits at the edge of a wash. The child is always there. He plays all day among the silty rocks. The rabbits are his favorites. He thinks when a rabbit jumps away it is playing a game. He does not yet understand fear. He turns on the world an innocent eye.
I am sitting at the window, watching the dog and child run amuck. Both of them are teething. Rather, the dog is pretending to be a puppy, and the child is pretending to be a dog. My seat covers lie torn and tattered beside a shredded throw rug. They are ruining my pillowcases. They are having a smashing good time. They have torn up everything. I am disappointed in Blue. She is years too old for this. She is seventy-six. The child is newly two, I’d say. At least for him this is semiappropriate. I am a joke of a disciplinarian. I let them get away with it all.
Outside, in the dirt yard, they are sniffing at each other’s poo.
In the yard, old Blue is chewing on a tumbleweed and giving me an Evil Eye. Before the child, we spent our days gloomily, mutually pupless. We came together one winter when I found her on the roadside, huddled hopelessly over a pile of frozen pups. I took her in as a fellow failure. Now we are in competition. Suddenly she is a fun-loving gal—always up for a game. She has devoted herself fully to entertaining the child. If she had her druthers, she would have him all to herself. And yet I don’t despise her, haven’t it in me to kick her out. I understand how she feels too well, I guess.
It is afternoon. Someone has followed us home. A man. He arrived yesterday morning. At the moment, I am staring at his four-wheel drive vehicle, which is blocking my view. Normally I have a perfect shot of the local “Q” mountain, of which I am now straining to catch a glimpse. There is a white, spraypainted “Q” at the very top. Everyday I check to see if someone is climbing it. No one ever is. If I were to come across a worthy candidate, I would pay them to do so. I crave such a display that much.
He says he followed us here directly. That he stayed in the old folks camp for a while, too nervous to come over. Was he on the train? I don’t recall his face. I certainly have never seen it. He says his name is Edgar. Well, I have known many men named Ellis in my life, but never an Edgar. I do not say this, though, so he hasn’t a chance to refute me.
He says he has been out of work and that he needed this, an opportunity, to get away from Portland. He says we knew each other once.
“Each to his own,” I say. “We must not deny the truths of others.”
He smiles. “Is that Gandhi?” he asks.
I sniffle. I want to pat his arm, he’s so dim. However, I must not insult my guest.
That he has come here is not all that astonishing, really. People are crazy on the whole, and their craziness makes them desperate. I am attractive. Fair. I am tall. The full extension of my legs could span the circumference of any man. Certainly my form harks back to a better age. It is practically a fact that I resemble a famous 1930s movie actress. Associations have been made. I possess a certain air of bonnie innocence. I can giggle on cue. Bat my eyelashes. In my irresponsible youth I was a girl made for languorous bubble baths . . .
Now, we are sitting on the divan, knees touching. I am twirling a golden lock with my pinkie, politely rapt. The man is very animated. His face contorts amiably, chatting about something. He is reminding me that we were once lovers.
“And I love you still,” he says. “With all of my lonesome heart.”
I nod and smile politely. It could easily be the case. Just because I don’t remember it does not mean it didn’t happen. There have been such a number. I can’t remember everything. It is true I recall a romance, but with different players. What I’m saying is there have been many; he is just one.
He looks at me expectantly. He is waiting for me to say something. I, on the other hand, am feeling slightly claustrophobic. I am thinking about how tight the camper is, how small. With just one more here, it is almost unbearable. It is as if the world has collapsed into miniature. If we take a breath now we will fill up the last tight spaces.
I try to regain my composure. I run my fingernails along the edge of the coffee table, turning the conversation.
“Would you like something to drink?” I ask. “I’ve a jug of grape Kool-Aid, freshly brewed.” He nods.
“Were you ever involved in the sponging industry?” I ask. I am thinking that the solitary life of a fisherman would account for some oddness. Also, that I have slept with a lot of fishermen. “Perhaps you were acquainted with some fellows I knew down at the docks,” I continue. “Were you in shipping?”
He shakes his head. From the kitchen, I eye him shrewdly. He could be a murderer, there is no telling. I don’t know any of the signs. Still, I do not tell him to take his leave. He has a sweet, bland face. The blandness is heartening. If he had secrets, where would they hide? Behind what?
I eye him. He thinks I am being coy. He takes me in his arms, taut as sausages. He smells of turpentine. If ever we did have a love affair, I suppose this alone would have ruined it. He wraps his arms around me. I am defenseless. If he were to suddenly produce a knife blade, I would have nothing to wield.
Of course, I ask him to stay. I am not of the generation who find it imperative to renounce the presence of a man. They are useful, of course. The garbage is waiting to be taken out. There are cans that need opening.
Immediately, I lie down with him. Why not? We all have our requirements. There is no reason not to please. My legs part easily. I sleep with him only to get a moment’s peace. Afterwards, he sleeps soundly. His exertion leaves him looking scrubbed clean. I, on the other hand, probably smell awful. He rolls over. I lick his arm. Every man deserves encouragement.
Afterwards, Edgar is up and raring. He and the child go out to play. In the wash they are chasing lizards, picking them up by their tails and dropping them. Often the tails come off in their hands and then they have to stop and celebrate. They do a little dance. It seems a cruel pastime to me, but they are getting a kick out of it. They are giggling crazily. They are instantly attached.
The child’s normal diet consists of candied corn, the whites of bread, Fruit Loops. Our tastes are the same. Rather, his cravings are mine also. I have no backbone. He is my little prince. I eat with him. He dictates our intake, and I agree.
Edgar voices his concern. He fears for our kidneys, our livers. “We must get something of value down you,” he says. He prepares an extravagant Campbell’s kidney meal for us. He urges us to keep eating. We are as stuffed as hams. Our bellies pulse to swelling beyond our buckled belts. He beams, liking the look of us. I watch his face. It is as happy and bland as a sweet potato.
Edgar and I are in bed. He is telling me that I used to love him. He turns, asks me, “Why have you stopped?”
I have no answer for him. I can think of nothing to satisfy.
He waits. He puts his head between his legs and sighs. “Oh, Angie,” he says. “Angie, Angie, Angie.” He sighs. “Angie, my heart. Where have you gone?”
I do not sleep well. A mother worries. A mother’s worries . . . they keep me awake. I am plagued with fears that the child will be taken. Who will come for him, I am not sure. I worry it will not be so long before he is able to ask about our situation. He is learning to talk so quickly. It is only a matter of time, and there is nothing I can do. Still, I spend my time obsessing. I cannot help it. I let my worries run their course. I pass the time looking up at the night sky. It is black and full of stars. Basically, I am alone. Things scurry and slither in my sight, but all at a distance—the desert offers a companionable buzz.
Now, in the night, things are returning to me. It is the quietness that sparks them. I am remembering how Edgar and I met. I have already rejected the scenario he presented. According to him, we met in the hospital when he came to inspect the ic wing for a potential overhaul. However, this is ludicrous, in that I do not speak to contractors, ever. The truth is that we met in line at the hospital cafeteria, where we both ordered the chicken sandwich. He stepped on my foot and commented on my choice of condiments: green relish, for indigestion. He was wearing a blue jumpsuit, uniform of the working class. If I had known he was in charge of the operation, of which I disapproved, I never would have spoken to him. I mistook him for someone else. I thought he was the janitor. It was a brisk, reasonably timed love affair. He took me twice behind the sixth-floor nurses’ station and that was it.
Now they are off hunting jackrabbits. Their cardboard contraption (loading box and carrot) has not yet been successful—no catches yet—for which the child is desperate. He is mad for rabbits, now. He would like to be a rabbit! The dog, poor Blue, has fallen by the wayside.
I, myself, am alone in the trailer and would rather not be. I turn on the tv. A commercial for ion-free deodorizer is on. Blue sniffs by the couch, looking for snacks. She jumps up to sit beside me. We are on a truce. Edgar has taken my place as One to Watch. I have to agree. I turn the channel. I am bored and drinking. I give her a little bourbon, but she doesn’t seem to react. Who could know what shocks her? There is no telling. At five o’clock they are back. Blue and I look up sleepily, our eyelids lifting halfway. We are drugged with too much television. It takes us a minute to figure out what’s going on. They are dressed up as the two of us, one on the other’s shoulders.
“Ta da!” Edgar cries. He is wearing one of my dresses and has a mop on his head, our babe balanced round his shoulders. “We thought we’d see what it’s like to be you ladies.” And then the big reveal: Edgar lifts up his skirt and a rabbit hops out, their bunny prey. Triumph! My little one shouts and claps his hands. His outfit is made entirely of newspapers pilfered from the mini-mart. He makes a darling puppy. He pats Blue, who barks with enthusiasm. She must be delighted. It’s her bloody dream come true.
Flattered, Blue and I allow them to join us on the couch, and we all cuddle up cutely. Edgar puts his arm around me, beaming at everyone. He is practically tearing up. I can see the wheels turning, fashioning us as a little family. He is picturing us at Christmas on a Hallmark card. We are framed in holly, cozily arranged. I’m embarrassed to admit I’m charmed. He is so earnest and looks so ridiculous—a lethal combination.
Edgar and I sit on the porch like two old people, watching the sunset. We are like two of the retirees, huddling together, waiting to go. I have given him the good chair, the one with the sunken middle. The one I have fallen into has the propensity to snap shut. I admit—I feel a little bad—I have gotten him drunk. He is such a tiresome companion, and I am so upset. I slipped a little bourbon into his coffee. At dinner, I offered it straight. I admit I pressured him. You see, he is so much lovelier when drunk, silly and spontaneous and actually amusing.
I top his glass and mine too. We need it. Inside, the child is playing with his train set. He moves the same car back and forth along the windowsill, spitting profusely—the revving of its engine. Through the glass I hear the sounds.
I suggest a walk. Edgar is delightfully intoxicated. He literally jumps up at the mention of it. We head for nothing. Towards the sun, I guess. We head in that direction. Edgar walks beside me, swinging his arms.
On the ground, bullets are everywhere. They look shocking on the sand, like things from space. As we go along, I gather them up. I am collecting them for good luck. It is a charm that comes with a certain danger. One day I might be standing by a water heater and they could just explode. But it won’t happen. The child was born under a lucky star. I am his guardian. There is no one else. It is impossible to harm me without harming him.
Edgar jumps in the air and stumbles. He is waving his arms. He thinks he has seen something—a snake maybe, or a really big lizard. “There it goes!” he shrieks. He’s drunk, pointing at nothing.
We have reached a clearing. Edgar jumps again, reeling forward. Looks at me and grins. It is only for attention. There is nothing to see. If there were truly something it would have nowhere to hide. There are no cactuses and the place is free of brush—there are only the bullets. It is a wonder. I suppose some old man put them there. My most promising idea is that he sprinkled them across the desert as a sort of game, perhaps for his grandchildren to find.
The sky is getting pinker; it is almost red. The “Q” on my mountain is a rosy pink. As we walk, the bullets in my pocket rattle together, each step accompanied by a definitive clink. They swing back and forth with the rhythm of my stride. I fondle them with my fingers. I am thinking that they might make suitable playthings. Might they not make darling little rocket ships? I drop them into my pocket, pinching my wrist accusingly. I am horrible, horrible—this rabbit incident has me raving mad. I am so hungry for his devotion I would like to hurt him. However, the powder is old and useless, probably. I could give them to my child and there would probably be nothing to worry about.
In the night I wake up, gasping. I have shuddered myself awake. I have wrested myself from an awful dream. In it, I was watching my little one playing in the yard, and he ran straight into a cactus. By the time I reached him, he was covered in spines. His baby body was a bloodied pulp.
I rush to his room, crying, begging for mercy. I get into his little bed, burrowing under the covers. Still, I do not wake him. He is mumbling dreamily.
“Shhh, Mommy,” he says. “Coyotes.” His eyelids flutter.
I am standing up, now. I have composed myself. I bend over him. I cannot help but sniff him. His baby head smells of Skittles. He pats my hand, sweetly. Even in sleep he comforts me.
It is early evening and Edgar is leaving. I am sending him away. I have betrayed my beloved and I’m blaming it on him. I know it isn’t right, but it is what I am doing. He really must go. He is not one of us, nor will he ever be. It cannot happen. He is of the outside—he belongs there. He has been here too long already. Three weeks! I should have cut the cord before now. His being here is not good for the child. If he can get so attached to a bunny, how fond must he already be of this man? Their time together has been lovely. It is cruel to prolong it. In regard to my own selfish concerns, I am not worried about him telling anyone about us—he wouldn’t. He would never betray me in that way, utterly devoted as he is.
I have to get down to business. It is no longer proper to continue waiting. Remaining passive is no longer kind. However, I say only what is needed, use only the phrases necessary to make him go away. I tell him I do not love him, that all my devotion belongs to my son.
He laughs, not getting it. He is so slow. “You were always so witty,” he says.
I give him a look to show my gravity. I am clear as a ghost.
He gets it. He collapses in tears. He buckles over and hangs his head between his knees.
Feeling badly, I pat his torso. I stroke his sweaty hair. “There, there,” I say. “Isn’t there some other girl you’ve gotten me mixed up with? One that you were meant for, born to love?”
He looks at me and cries harder. He is blubbering like a baby. He will not stop crying. I continue to pat and coddle, but I am running out of patience. Still, I do not show my frustration. My annoyance is cloaked in calm.
“Surely there’s an explanation to what happened here,” I say. “This is simply a case of mistaken identity.” I go on. Surely this is helpful. Still he blubbers. His face has collapsed and he is drooling, but I keep going. I push through. I really turn on the dramatics. “Go to her!” I cry. “Go to her now!”
Something terrible has happened. Edgar has been bitten by a brown recluse spider. Tonight he went out to the shed for a shower and then came back, poisoned. It happened quickly, only a few hours after I told him to go. He went for a shower and then returned, raving about how he had been attacked. It was under the toilet seat.
I don’t see anything yet. It has been ten minutes.
Now Edgar throws himself on the divan, collapsing dramatically, limbs sprawled. He holds his arm over his head to drain the blood. Blubbering, he thrusts his arm in my direction and demands an inspection. I humor him, bring an ice pack and blob on the Neospor-in. I see a little circle, maybe, but not much. A teeny bruise.
An hour passes. He is moving in and out of sleep. I am beginning to see what he is talking about. Although the actual bite is just a dot, his bitten arm appears sunburnt. His face is pale. He is see-through. In the lamplight, the skin on his face seems to undulate. His cheeks hang limp; all the liquid has left him. He looks like an aquarium somebody tipped over.
I know some things about spiders. It is important to be aware of one’s enemies in a new place. I have done my research. The desert recluse attacks only when provoked. Of course, I do not say this, for it certainly wouldn’t help things. I hold back. On the other hand, I’ve read that the sap inside a barrel cactus makes a sufficient salve. If asked, I will seek it out. I am more than able. I tell him this. He shakes his head, rolling his eyes. He is not impressed. He has given up being impressed by me, it seems.
He spends the night vomiting. In between upchucks he glares at me. He seems to think I am the one to blame for the attack. He thinks I planted it there. In the night, he whispers his accusation, primly beneath the sheets. This seems an extreme reaction to me, but I keep in mind that he is possibly dying. I have tried to convince him otherwise, but it is of no use. Between vomits he berates me. He spits out bile and harangues in equal measure. I have never seen him so energetic. He is brave and hot-looking, spitting up with such flair. I am worried about him, but also aroused.
“Edgar,” I say. “I’ve never seen you this way! This illness is revealing a whole new side!”
Again, he is less than amused. He does not smile. He spits in my direction.
It is the morning. Edgar is really going now. He is off to the hospital in Phoenix. The bites of brown recluse spiders are almost never lethal but, of course, one should take precautions.
The bite mark is now a hole. It is about the size of a pencil eraser. It is black and bloodless. I have to try and not shudder. The lack of blood is unsettling, for some reason.
Now he stands at the door, shivering. “It’s all your fault, you know,” he says.
Edgar has left us, and with him, old Blue. It is my fault for not knowing. Men don’t deal well with rejection on the whole. They don’t know what to make of it.
I do not blame the dog. It is not her doing. She would no sooner leave him than her own pup, still yoked to the umbilical. Of course, Edgar took her. This is not a case of runaways, but a napping. The coiled rope outside the shed is gone, in its place a pile of wadded hair. Good girl; she did not go without a struggle.
Of course, it is not me that minds so much, but the child is inconsolable. He has learned to speak, but only in longing. Where and What and Why. I have no answers. I am at a loss. He calls out not for me. “Da,” he whimpers. But children soon forget. Their memories are slim. This is what I am hoping.
But we do not need to wait for it. We must leave nothing to chance. We go to the desert to find them. Hand in hand, we walk for a time, but the child tires quickly.
I lift him up. I wrap my arms around his little torso, and he puts his head on my chest. Reluctantly, he sleeps. He clings to me and yet, already, I can feel him pulling away. He will blame me for this. Edgar . . . we must find him. I have no doubt that we will succeed, for he could not have gotten far. Love keeps him close.
I can see him already, we are so near. I know just how it will be. “Angie!” he’ll cry. “You’ve come.” For he loves me still. He has not stopped. Oh, and I will love him, too. Throw him down upon the darkening sands and love him, lick the wound to reopening. Drain him. Take him and go, carrying my charges, releasing him to the night. I will leave him to the desert, its judgment, fathomless in its order and law. I trust it. It knows just what to do.