Out of the unconscious lips of babes and sucklings are we satirized.
Neal Becker was standing on a building ledge, a baby in his arms, the wind blowing through his hair.
Nineteen stories below, police cars and mobile news crew vans were surrounding the front of the hi-rise. A fire truck rolled up with a long extension ladder—all the rescue workers were running around like little bugs, looking up at him. Out in the dawn sky, a couple of choppers flew lazily back and forth, keeping their distance but ready to move in on command. Police radios crackled every now and then.
Neal tried not to look down. Sometimes the gusts of wind were strong enough to make him teeter on the ledge. Mostly he just looked out at the rising sun, keeping baby Natasha pressed up against his chest. He thought she was asleep now.
He couldn’t believe this was happening to him. Over a matter of a few days, his life had become a nightmare. The fact that he was causing the movement of all these big, expensive vehicles and all these important people was hard to fathom. He was almost sure he was on TV now—down below, he could see large cameras with zoom lenses aimed at him.
He felt ashamed and humiliated. But also panic-stricken.
He had no idea why he was up on his building, or what he really wanted.
“How’s it going?” a voice said from the right.
Neal turned his head. There was a skinny guy in a blue windbreaker leaning out the window. He gave a relaxed smile, then slung one jean-clad leg over the windowsill and straddled it. He was wearing Docksiders and olive-colored socks. There was a little headset on his right ear, a small microphone curving up to the corner of his mouth.
“Nice view from up here,” he commented, leaning back against the window frame, gazing out at the sunrise. He might have been sitting on a log admiring a tranquil lake somewhere in the mountains.
Neal stared out at the sun. It had turned a bright orange, some long, thin pink clouds stretching out on either side.
“Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Becker? My name is Stan, by the way. Stan Saunders.” He paused. “May I call you Neal?”
“There’s nothing you can do for m-me,” Neal said, a gust of wind buffeting him on the last word.
Stan watched him for a long moment. “I’d really like to help you, if I can. Is there something you want me to get for you? Or your daughter?”
Neal felt tears forming in his eyes.
“There’s nothing I want,” he said, fighting to hold his composure.
Neal heard a low grinding noise and glanced down—the fire truck was raising its ladder.
“Tell them to put that ladder down!”
One of the helicopters was moving closer.
“Get that helicopter out of here!” Neal shouted, thrusting Natasha out over the edge. “I’ll drop her, I swear to God!”
He could hear frightened shrieks from down below.
“Back off,” Stan said calmly into a microphone, gesturing to the chopper. “And tell the firemen to lower the ladder.”
Neal looked into little Natasha’s face. She was awake now, turning her head this way and that, but she didn’t seem to realize she was hanging over 19 stories of empty space. How could she? She was only a baby.
“Mr. Becker, why don’t you come inside and we’ll talk for a few minutes.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“No. But I think you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. I don’t believe you really want to hurt your daughter. Do you?”
Neal felt hot tears running down his face. Of course he didn’t want to hurt little Natasha. He loved her. She was his daughter.
Natasha started crying.
That sound caused a lot of commotion down below.
Neal pulled her back in and hugged her to his chest. “Shhh.”
“Neal, why don’t you hand her to me, so at least she’ll be safe.”
He hesitated, looking down at all the people, all the cameras.
“Come on, give her to me,” Stan said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Neal could see Stan reaching out for her. They were only a few feet away.
“I didn’t kill my mother-in-law!”
“I don’t know anything about that. I’m here because I’m concerned about you and your little girl. Why don’t you just hand her to me?”
Neal turned and looked at Stan. “Don’t you get it? She’s bad, she’s evil.”
Stan looked confused. “Who’s evil?”
“She is!” Neal said, thrusting the baby out again.
Natasha cried louder.
“Take her!” Neal suddenly shouted, offering her to Stan.
As soon as Neal felt the baby being pulled from his hands, he squeezed his eyes shut.
And he jumped.
It all started one sunny April morning, when Neal was standing in the microscopic kitchen of his and Annie’s apartment, waiting for his coffee water to boil. Only a few minutes earlier, he had picked up baby Natasha from her crib and carried her into the kitchen. If it had been up to Neal, he would have been just as happy to let the infant stay where she was and continue to sleep. Annie had an obsessive fear of crib death and insisted that Natasha be watched at all times. She had gone across the street to buy some formula at the supermarket, but she did not leave until she personally witnessed Neal picking up the baby.
He was standing near the stove, the baby cradled in his left arm, staring absently at the little bubbles that start to swirl and dance when water is close to its boiling point.
Natasha made some small movement that caught his attention.
Neal glanced down at her face. Her dark brown, reptilian-looking eyes opened suddenly. In fact, they almost snapped open—this was the only way Neal could describe it later.
The baby stared at Neal with an eerie, almost angry expression, one that he had not witnessed before.
Then, without any hesitation whatsoever, she spoke.
It was as if she had been formulating the short but shocking sentence for some time and had merely been waiting for exactly the right moment to deliver it—a moment in which her young, inexperienced father was still half-asleep.
“I looooove youuuuuuu,” the infant said.
Neal was so taken aback that he almost lost his balance, as well as his grip on his daughter. Staring at her little face with a combination of fear and disbelief, his first impulse was to get the hell away from her. He half-set and half-dropped the child on the counter, then backed up against the kitchen wall, shivering.
“My god,” he muttered in a tremulous whisper, Natasha’s words still whirling in his mind. This wasn’t normal, it couldn’t be. She was only five months old...that was impossible. Neal wondered if he could have imagined the entire incident.
I love you.
Near shuddered again, the words still reverberating in his mind. Her voice had been so strange and creaky-sounding, almost sarcastic. And the image! He could still see Natasha’s inexperienced, infantile mouth crudely twisting out the words. Something about it made his skin crawl.
He gawked unblinkingly at the baby, unable to get a grip on himself. The hair on his arms was standing on end.
But Natasha didn’t say anything more. The angry expression on her little face vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
She lay on her back on the countertop where Neal had hastily deposited her, staring up into space, kicking and wiggling the way babies do. It was as if the entire episode never happened.
When Neal heard Annie coming in the front door, he finally snapped out of his paralysis. He glanced in the direction of the living room, then quickly stepped over to the stove and turned off the burner. He wanted to pick up Natasha before Annie came into the kitchen, but he could hardly bring himself to look at the child, let alone touch her.
As soon as Annie entered the room and saw Natasha, she gasped.
“Don’t put the baby on the counter!” she snapped, scooping Natasha up into her arms. “What’s wong, sweetie?” she cooed in baby-talk. “Did Daddy leave ooo on the counter while Mommy went bye-bye?”
Annie turned towards Neal, her black eyebrows furrowed together.
“What’s the matter with you? She could have fallen on the floor!”
“I...she...” was all Neal could manage to say. He ran his hand uncertainly through his sleep-corkscrewed hair, debating whether or not to tell Annie what had happened. But he decided against it—he was sure she wouldn’t believe him.
He pulled a mug from the cupboard and prepared his instant coffee, then sat down in one of their flimsy, vinyl-covered dinette chairs. It squeaked as he did so.
“Well, Neal?” Annie said. “I’m waiting for an explanation. Why did you leave her on the counter?”
Neal did not answer.
Annie made a growl in her throat. “You know better than that. She could fall on the floor and break her neck, or some other bones. Babies have extremely delicate bones, and even the smallest fall can result in a fracture—my books say so. If you’re not careful, she could easily break...”
Neal gazed down at his cup, no longer listening to his 19 year old wife. Some of the instant coffee hadn’t dissolved. He watched the brown grains swirl around and around, like Annie’s lecture.
“She talked,” Neal interrupted, at no point in particular.
Annie’s mouth was still open, mid-sentence. She closed it and stared blankly at Neal. “She what?”
“She talked, Annie.”
Annie glanced down at Natasha, then back at her young husband.
“I know it sounds strange,” he said, “but it’s true.”
Even though such a notion was crazy, Neal could tell she at least wanted to believe him. He knew that some part of Annie was convinced she had given birth to the next Messiah, or, at the very least, a child prodigy who would grow up and change the world. He supposed all mothers held such hopes.
“You mean, ‘ga-ga, goo-goo’?” Annie asked.
“No. I mean words. Real words, Annie.”
She laughed. “I hate to tell you this, Neal, but five month old babies can’t talk.”
“I know.” Neal took another sip of the lousy instant coffee, wishing he had spiked it with a shot or two of whiskey.
Annie watched him for a moment, then apparently decided maybe it wasn’t such a far-fetched notion after all.
“What did she say?” Annie said, with hushed excitement. “What words, exactly?”
Neal let out a laugh, but it sputtered to an uncertain halt. “I love you.”
Annie’s face went slack. “‘I love you?’”
Annie let out a cackle that sent chills up Neal’s spine. She looked down at Natasha. “Did ooo tell Daddy that ooo wuv him?”
The baby looked back up at her mother with a vacant expression.
Neal took another sip of his coffee and stared at the floor. He felt like a fool. Over the past few months, he had grown quite accustomed to the feeling.
Cradling Natasha in one arm, Annie open the formula she had bought and began to heat it on the stove. “You need to stop daydreaming, Neal, and get your mind back on your work.” There was a nasty undertone in her voice, one he had not known before they had gotten married. Or had been forced to get married. Neal certainly would not have married Annie under his own free will.
Neal got up and dumped the rest of his coffee in the sink, glancing one last time at Natasha’s little face.
For an instant, their eyes locked. Then, the baby gazed past Neal and flailed her arms around.
“Guhhh,” she gurgled at the ceiling.
As Neal walked out of the kitchen, he vowed to forget what had happened that morning, or what he thought had happened. And he might have, had he not taken that one last glance at Natasha.
When he saw the look on her face during that fleeting instant, his heart had jumped into his throat.
It seemed to be a look of hate.
* * *
Neal pulled his aging Toyota into the parking lot of Snell’s Flowers and sat for a moment with the engine running, savoring his last few moments of freedom. By his watch, it was only 7:57. That meant he still had three precious minutes left before he had to succumb to another long day of ass kissing. He had worked at Snell’s for less than two weeks, but it already seemed like months. He despised every second of it. Here he was, almost a degreed chemist, spending all his time behind the wheel of a white Chevy van with the words “SNELL’S FLOWERS—LET US MAKE SOMEONE’S DAY FOR YOU!” cheerily printed across it. He delivered roses and chrysanthemums and jonquils to people all over the city, happy people who had not taken a wrong turn in their lives, like he had. If Neal had just pulled out of Annie just a millisecond earlier—just one lousy, goddamn millisecond—everything would be different now. Annie wouldn’t have gotten pregnant, Neal wouldn’t have felt obligated to marry her, and she wouldn’t have had the baby. And instead of driving a damn flower truck all over the city, he would be completing the last year of his college degree. After that, medical school.
But, of course, Neal hadn’t pulled out of Annie in time. He had hesitated a fraction of a second to enjoy a little extra pleasure...and boom! His entire world had been turned upside down. Annihilated. One fleeting moment of extra pleasure in exchange for a lifetime of success and happiness.
It just wasn’t fair.
Neal dragged himself out of his car and, just as he locked the door, old man Snell rolled into the parking lot in his big blue Cadillac. He gave Neal a fatherly kind of nod as he glided the huge vehicle into the reserved parking space next to the front door. Two crimson pom-poms were visible in the car’s back window. Buford Snell had been some kind of football hero back when he’d attended University of Georgia. Based on his age and values, Neal figured it must have been back at the time football players wore knee socks, striped shirts, and those thin little leather helmets that looked like bathing caps.
“Early bird catches the worm,” Snell said approvingly as he got out of his car. Neal cringed. Snell and the rest of the his “fambly”—his condescending mother, known as “Grammy,” his matronly sister, his loud-mouthed brother-in-law, all his bratty nieces and nephews—disgusted Neal. However, the feeling was not mutual. Neal was well-liked by all the Snells. This wasn’t surprising, considering the caliber of most of the other delivery boys. Even though the old man claimed to want to hire college students for these jobs, “to hep ‘em out,” most of the other drivers were pathetically poor, inner-city blacks. The reason, Neal had soon discovered, was that Snell refused to pay anyone with a last name different from his own a salary above minimum wage. Most college students just weren’t that desperate.
As a result, most of the drivers were the type who stopped between deliveries to smoke dope, have “quickies” with their girlfriends, and god only knew what else. The entire clan, particularly Grammy, was amazed by Neal’s speed and efficiency. In fact, the first few days his promptness in returning to the shop made Grammy so suspicious that she called a few people on his list to make sure that Neal had actually made the deliveries. Ordinarily, this would have irritated Neal, but it only amused him. He was glad the other delivery boys had a good time while they worked and were taking full advantage of the obnoxious—and oddly naïve—Snell family.
Neal followed old man Snell into the center of the shop, the sickly-sweet aroma of flowers at once making him nauseous. He approached Grammy and started to say good morning, but hesitated when he saw the sour look on her face.
Grammy glanced at Mildred, Snell’s aging wife, and looked back at Neal. “Where’d you go yesterday when you were supposed to be deliverin’ the bouquet to Miz Foster?”
Neal looked from one Snell face to the other. “Why? Is something wrong?”
Grammy glanced at her daughter-in-law again, giving her an I-told-you-so look. “You might say that. She never got ‘em.”
“Well, I delivered them,” Neal said defensively. “I left them on the porch, by the front door.”
“Why’d you go and do that fool thing?” Grammy snapped.
“Because that’s what the order slip said to do.”
“No, sir, it did not. Mr. Foster never wants his wife’s flowers left outside his house—he’s real particular about that.”
“I don’t mean to contradict you,” Neal said carefully, “but I’m almost sure the delivery slip said to leave them on the porch.”
“We’ll just see about that,” Grammy said. She began to shuffle through the mountain of delivery slips from the day before. “You can’t just deliver ‘em any way you please, sonny—you got to look at the slip.”
Mildred gave Neal a doubtful glance and resumed work on a bouquet.
“What’s the problem?” old man Snell said, stepping up behind Neal.
Wonderful, Neal thought, glancing over her shoulder. Not only had the screw-up come to the attention of the old man, but all the other Snells in the shop seemed to be listening.
“Arggh,” Grammy groaned, waving a wiry arm at Neal as if he was a troublesome schoolboy. “Miz Foster called up in a tizzy this morning ‘cause her flowers didn’t get delivered.”
Neal started to say something in his own defense, but then thought the better of it. He would wait until Grammy located the evidence. He was almost certain that the box on the slip that said IF NOT HOME, LEAVE OUTSIDE DOOR was checked with one of Grammy’s precise little X’s, but after what had happened earlier with his baby daughter that morning, Neal wasn’t completely sure of anything.
“The Fosters are one of our best customers, son,” the old man said.
“I know,” Neal said.
“I went to school with Dan Foster—he was one of my fraternity brothers. He’s one of the most successful lawyers in town.”
Neal only nodded. He had heard this at least three times the day before. The whole family seemed to pride themselves on how many people—important people—they knew in the Atlanta area. Neal found this a bit ironic, because he had a hard time imagining anyone in high society having much respect for the Snells, especially the old man. Neal rated himself at least twenty rungs above Buford Snell in terms of intelligence, integrity, and overall class. Regardless of Neal’s current dilemma, he was certain that he would be in charge of something a lot more significant than a flower shop when he was sixty years old.
“Here it is!” Grammy said victoriously, holding the delivery slip in the air. But when the old woman squinted at the yellow piece of paper through her glasses, her expression went flat. “Well...I’ll be. I could have sworn I...”
The old woman glanced at Mildred, miffed, and then a broad, toothy grin broke across her leathery face. She beamed at Neal as if he were her own son. “You were just as right as you could be. I’m so proud of you!”
Neal forced a smile. They were amazed that he actually had the brains and reliability of a ten year old. What do you expect? he wanted to say. I’m not a moron—I can read English.
Old man Snell placed a warm hand on Neal’s shoulder. “That’s good work, son.” He winked at Grammy, clearly pleased that his latest U of G hire had proved to be so remarkable.
Neal began to load up the van with his morning deliveries, only vaguely aware of the meaningless chatter of Grammy and Mildred and the other Snells while he worked. He had to get another job, a real job, as soon as possible. He not only needed to make some decent money, he needed to be around some halfway intelligent people. And as soon as he found a better position and accumulated a little cash, he would start knocking off some night classes and finish his chemistry degree. Maybe he could still swing medical school, if he could stabilize life with Annie and the baby.
But as he drove to his first delivery, his optimism faded. He was still troubled by what had happened with Natasha that morning.
I love you, he thought.
He remembered the long, heated battles he and Annie had over what to do about her unexpected pregnancy, with Neal arguing adamantly for an abortion. It was hardly an ideal solution to the problem, but to him, it was the only one that made any sense. Neither one of them were prepared to start a family. In Neal’s mind, it was better for him to finish all his education and get his medical career started before they had any children.
But Annie wouldn’t have it. Once she found out she was pregnant, she seemed hell-bent on giving birth to the child and keeping it, no matter what the price. She had finally told Neal that she would have the baby and raise it herself, and he could just do whatever he pleased. And, if not for his own history, he might have done just that. When Neal was 12, his older sister, Rhonda, had gotten pregnant, and he had spent his entire teenage years listening to what a “selfish prick” the father of the baby had been, some slick insurance salesman who disappeared as soon as Rhonda had missed her first period.
How could Neal do the same thing to Annie?
The answer was, he could not, and live with himself. If his family hadn’t known about the situation, he might have gotten away with it, but he had made the mistake of consulting his mother about the matter. “You need to do the right thing, Neal,” she had told him, and it was quite clear what she had meant by this. When he had turned to his father, whom he hadn’t seen more than a half dozen times since elementary school, the advice Neal got was, “Do whatever the hell you want, boy. But if you’re gonna screw up your life by getting married, you’re on your own.” That meant that he would no longer help Neal with his college tuition.
In the end, against all Neal’s better judgment and his deepest wishes for his own life and his future, he had finally married Annie. No fancy wedding, no honeymoon, not even any wedding rings—he couldn’t afford them. Just a little ceremony downtown at the Justice of the Peace. Afterwards, Neal went back to his dorm room and slept by himself, since they didn’t even have their own apartment then. He figured that he could make it all work, somehow.
But he had obviously been wrong.
He regretted that extra millisecond of pleasure more than he had ever regretted anything in his life.
“I love you,” Neal muttered, as he pulled the Snell van into the parking lot of his first delivery. “I doubt it, Natasha. I doubt it very much.”
A little after eleven, in between two of his deliveries, Neal stopped at a bookstore to see if he could ease his mind about the incident with Natasha. No matter what Annie said, Neal still couldn’t believe he had imagined it.
He found a pretty young clerk working at the front desk. He asked her where the baby books were located.
“This way,” the girl said, with a knowing smile. As Neal followed her across the store, Neal puzzled over this. But by the time they reached the Family and Parenthood Section, he understood.
“The pregnancy books are right here,” the girl told him, with another little smile.
“I already have a baby,” Neal said irritably. “I just need to look something up.”
“Whatever,” she said, and briskly walked away.
“Stupid,” Neal mumbled, more to himself that to her. Why was he so embarrassed about having a kid? He was young, but so were a lot of fathers. But maybe he wasn’t embarrassed. Maybe he was just angry about it. Still angry.
He picked up a book called You and Your Newborn and flipped through the glossary, scanning for any entries that might point him to information about speech development. Annie had a whole library of similar books at home, but Neal had hardly glanced at any of them. He and Annie had completely different opinions about the basic nature of children and their process of evolving into adults. Annie was of the “blank slate” school of thinking—she regarded babies as nothing more than human computers, born ready and waiting to be programmed by their parents and by society, with no prior personality or ability to think or act on their own. As a result, she had an almost paranoid attitude about every little interaction she had with Natasha, afraid that the slightest “mistake” would screw up the poor kid for life.
In contrast, Neal believed that children come into the world already possessing a certain level of mind and spirit, with their personalities at least partially formed, and therefore are much more self-sufficient—and self-directed—than many people thought these days. His own mother had convinced him of this fact. Neal and his older brother, Kevin, were total opposites. Neal was quiet, intellectual, and somewhat introverted, whereas Kevin was rambunctious, outgoing, and barely made it through a two-year college. Their mother had always said this difference was evident long before either of them were born. Neal barely moved inside his mother’s womb, while Kevin kicked so violently that, at times, she was afraid he might do some internal damage.
Neal finally located a section in the book on speech development. He read it carefully. Most babies, it said, begin to “vocalize” between 8 and 10 months, and usually after 12 to 14 months begin to form “meaningful word combinations.” The book went on to say, in a very reassuring tone, that many children begin speech much later than this, and that such tardiness is not a reflection of a lack of intelligence, potential for success, or any other measure. Some children simply begin the speech process later than others.
Neal picked up a few other books and read essentially the same thing in them. He soon realized that he would not find the information he was truly after. It was clear that all of these books were written to pacify the Annies of the world, mothers and fathers who were worrying about when their babies “should” start talking and then what to do to correct a tardiness problem. None of the books addressed the subject of unusually early speech. And why should they? Most parents would be delighted at this development. Instead of consulting their baby books or their pediatricians, they would rush out to brag to all their friends.
Neal sighed and picked up the first book again, rereading the beginning of the passage on speech. Most children begin vocalizing at 8 to 10 months and putting together meaningful word combinations at 12 to 14 months.
“Eight to ten months,” Neal murmured.
His kid had already put together a “meaningful word combination” at five months.
What the hell did that mean?
Neal put the book back on the shelf, contemplating this question as he walked out of the store. He finally decided it could only mean two things. Either he had imagined the entire incident with Natasha, in which case he probably needed to make another trip to the bookstore, but this time to the Self Help section. Or, it meant that his theory about children coming into the world with a certain level of mind and spirit was much more accurate than he thought.
* * *
Mother and daughter were lying side by side in bed, sleeping peacefully. Annie drifted in and out of consciousness, relishing the quiet, but still disturbed by what had happened that morning with Neal. If it wasn’t so sad, it would be funny. A five-month old baby saying “I love you!” How ridiculous!
Annie raised her head and peered at Natasha’s little face. “It’s just silly, isn’t it thweetie?” She barely whispered the words, not daring to wake the child. Annie had read that it wasn’t good to interrupt an infant’s normal sleeping pattern, that it might cause insomnia or other sleeping disorders later in life.
Annie gave a quiet sigh and lay her head back down on her pillow, staring blankly out the window. A part of her wanted to believe what Neal had told her. She supposed that was normal, that every mother probably wanted to think of her baby as extraordinary or gifted. But she just couldn’t believe that Natasha had spoken. The very idea of it was ludicrous! It was only Neal’s over-active imagination, fueled by his guilt over his own attitude and behavior towards Natasha. That was the sad part. It was clear from the very beginning that Neal hated Natasha and blamed everything on her—his decision to get married (what do you expect when you get someone pregnant!), having to quit school (temporarily, so he could get a job and work for a living a support his family, like most people!), and being cut off from his father (no great loss!). The thought that he imagined Natasha telling him that she loved him was...well, just pathetic.
Annie wasn’t much of an intellectual, but she had an intuitive sense of psychology, even Neal admitted that. She had learned a lot from reading magazine articles. There was one article, called Projecting Our Hidden Selves, that had stuck in her mind, mainly because it made her think of Neal so many times while she was reading it. Today, after he had left for work, the gist of it had come back to her. The article had explained that when a strong part of your personality was repressed, it would grow more and more powerful until it forced you to look it right in the face. Annie didn’t fully understand it as she was reading it. But now, it seemed crystal clear to her. And she was certain that the process it described was exactly what had been happening to Neal.
Somewhere hidden deep down inside of him, there was another Neal, a Neal who was vulnerable and caring and loving, a Neal who desperately needed her and Natasha just as much as they needed him. She had glimpsed that part of him only a few times, mostly at the beginning of their relationship (how could she have fallen in love with him otherwise?), but now it had almost disappeared, buried somewhere inside him. And now, that hidden part of him had gained such strength that it had projected itself onto Natasha, making him believe that the little infant had actually told him that she loved him!
Annie started to feel sick. She sat upright in the bed, afraid she might throw up. The room seemed to spin around and around.
This wasn’t a marriage...it was a nightmare.
Annie touched her hand to her queasy stomach. She needed some Pepto-Bismal. Natasha was still sleeping peacefully, so Annie quietly got up out of the bed. She paused at the door and gazed at her lovely child again, then looked up at the telephone. It was only inches away from Natasha’s head, on the night stand, but the receiver was still off the hook, so it couldn’t ring and wake her up.
Satisfied that all was in order, Annie padded through the living room and into the kitchen. She took a swig of the pink stomach settler out of the bottle. It had become her breakfast of choice during the first few weeks of her pregnancy, when she developed morning sickness and didn’t want Shellie, her nosy roommate at that time, to know about it.
Annie wiped her mouth and put the bottle back in the cupboard. In a matter of minutes, her stomach had stopped gurgling. Then he realized she was hungry. She opened the refrigerator door. There was a half-full carton of chocolate milk on the middle shelf. Annie eyed it with such lust it felt almost sexual. What had happened to her willpower?
She glanced down at her flabby figure, hidden underneath her tattered yellow housecoat. Her appearance now was disgusting, she knew. It was no wonder that Neal didn’t seem interested in having sex with her anymore. Her breasts were shriveled and sad-looking, from constantly nursing Natasha. But they had never been very big. This not only made her feel unattractive as a woman, it made her feel inadequate as a mother. They were so small she had to use store-bought formula as supplement most of the time.
Before she had gotten pregnant, though, she had felt comfortable with her body—she was in almost perfect shape. She had even won second place at a “best suntan” contest at the Buckhead Beach Club. In fact, if she hadn’t participated in that fateful contest, she and Neal probably wouldn’t have met. Neal had approached her afterwards and made some small talk, obviously trying to pick her up. One thing led to another, and she’d ended up spending the night with him. This was something that she had never done before, sleeping with someone so quickly, but with Neal, everything just “clicked.” Until she had found out she was pregnant, at least.
Annie stood in front of the open refrigerator for several minutes, trying to control herself, but finally grabbed the carton of chocolate milk and took a few hungry gulps. As soon as she took the carton away from her lips, she was angry with herself.
She plopped down on one of the squeaky dinette chairs. As she did this, she noticed that her hind quarters seemed to cover a little more of the seat than it had a month ago. Annie had always been a little pear-shaped, a fact Neal seemed to like (he used to say he liked her “bubble butt”). But now, she looked a little like her mother. No, that wasn’t true—Annie couldn’t insult her mother like that. Her mother looked better than she did. At 48!
But what could Annie, or anyone, expect? Now she was living her life for her baby daughter, not for herself. She had no time for nightly workouts or Weight Watchers or spending any time making herself “beautiful.” The most important thing in her life was Natasha—her precious baby was all that mattered. She wanted to make sure that her daughter grew up in a healthy environment and didn’t get messed up like so many other kids she had known. And like she’d been messed up herself.
Annie glanced down at the chocolate milk carton in her hand. There was no doubt in her mind that her weight problems were her mother’s fault. Who wouldn’t have problems with obesity, growing up in a house like that! Her mother drank chocolate milk like it was water, packed the kitchen full of potato chips and cookies and crackers and all kinds of other fattening (but oh so tasty!) goodies. She honestly didn’t know how her mom managed to keep her weight halfway under control eating like that all those years.
Unable to resist the urge, Annie finished off the last of the chocolate milk. Maybe she had weight problems, but Natasha wouldn’t. She would be careful not to set such a bad example for her own daughter.
When she got up and opened the cabinet under the sink to throw the empty carton away, she gasped.
A little brown mouse had darted past her and then disappeared under the refrigerator.
“Damn!” Annie hissed, clutching the empty milk carton to her racing heart.
She glanced uneasily around the tiny kitchen, her skin tingling. What a poor excuse for a home! She had called the apartment manager twice already about the mice, but the lazy woman hadn’t done a thing about it. Neal had bought some little boxes of rat poison at the grocery store and left them out under the sink and behind the refrigerator, but they didn’t seem to do any good. Living in these conditions was just plain unacceptable. She would call the manager again as soon as Natasha woke up. And she would give the lady a piece of her mind!
Annie sat back down in the dinette chair, shaking. Through the doorway to the living room she could see her broken up reflection—her fat reflection—in the tile mirrors some previous tenant had glued to the wall in a vain attempt to make the tiny apartment look bigger. The tiles were supposed to look fancy—they had fake gold veins running through them to give a marble-like effect—but she thought they just looked cheap. Like everything else in the depressing place.
Annie crossed her arms on the little dinette table and set her head between them, the way she used to back in high school.
And she began to weep.
Neal returned to the flower shop just after one o’clock to pick up his afternoon orders. Grammy was still out to lunch, but she had left his stack of delivery slips on her desk. On top was a pink WHILE YOU WERE OUT telephone message sheet, as usual. Annie called him at least once each day to tell him what to buy at the grocery store on the way home. It always humiliated him to receive such messages at work—he would never be comfortable with this “young husband” routine.
Neal didn’t bother to read the message, quickly shoving it and the rest of the stack of paper into his jacket pocket. As he began to load the van with the deliveries, Mildred appeared at her desk and gave him an odd little smile, as if they shared some juicy secret.
What was that all about? Neal thought, as he carried his next load of flowers out to the van. He glanced down at his shirt, then his pants, wondering if maybe his fly was open.
Then he remembered the pink message slip.
Maybe it hadn’t been from Annie after all. But who else could be calling him at Snell’s Flowers? He hadn’t worked there long enough to give anyone but Annie the phone number.
He dug the pink paper out of his jacket pocket. His eyes were immediately drawn down to the MESSAGE portion of the note.
As he read the words that were written there, his eyes widened.
I love you.
Neal looked back up at the FROM line.
Baby Natasha, it said, in Grammy’s precise little script.
“Holy Christ,” he said, half-choking on the words. All at once, his legs felt rubbery.
“You allright, son?” a deep voice said from behind him. It sounded far away. Neal teetered, dropping the entire stack of delivery slips on the pavement.
Old man Snell watched closely as Neal scrambled to collect the slips before the wind got hold of them. Neal snatched up the pink one and pushed it into the middle of the stack.
“I thought you were going to keel over there for a second,” Snell said, with a casual chuckle. But when Neal looked up at him, he could see that the big man looked genuinely concerned, and suspicious.
“I lost my balance, that’s all.” Neal shoved the stack of papers back into the pocket of his jacket, then managed a relaxed laugh and patted his stomach. “I guess I ate a little too much at lunch.”
“That’ll do it sometimes,” Snell said, but his pale blue eyes told Neal he didn’t believe the excuse.
Neal turned back to the van, but Snell remained behind him.
“You aren’t on any kind of...medication, are you son?”
“No sir,” Neal said quickly, turning to face him again.
“You know it would be very dangerous for you to operate a ve-hi-cle like this under the influence of any kind of drug.”
“I know. I’m not on drugs.”
“Well, I didn’t mean to say you were,” Snell said, though he seemed glad that Neal had been so direct. “I just thought you might be takin’ anti-histamines or somethin’ like that.” He paused. “See, I’m an ex-athlete, and I know somethin’ about this sort of thing...”
“I’m not taking any kind of drugs, prescription or otherwise.”
“Well, that’s good, son. Drugs don’t do a man a bit of good. Not one bit.”
Snell gave one of his fatherly nods. He eyed Neal for another short moment, then walked back into the shop.
Neal finished loading up the van as quickly as he could, avoiding eye contact with anyone. He became more and more angry. By the time he finished and drove the van away, it took all his self-control not to screech the tires at every turn. That goddamn Annie! Her stupid joke had almost cost him his job! Not to mention making him look like an idiot, having his little girl calling him at work, leaving gooey messages. Thank God they didn’t know much about his family—he had only told the old man that he was married and had a child, nothing more specific than that. If they knew Natasha was a five-month old infant, Annie’s little joke would have blown up in her face. He was sure that the Snell’s weren’t the type of people who would approve of telephone pranks, especially coming from an employee’s wife.
Boy, Neal would let Annie have it when he got home!
(end of sample)
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