I spend my days in shade and water.
The people who lived here before us must have left in a hurry. In the middle of the hottest summer on record, they forgot to take their new green garden hose and their plastic pool. The pool still had the price sticker. I worried for a while that they might come back and claim it but now I sometimes think I remember buying it myself.
When the baby starts rolling and stretching, I pull up my wet tank top to see the shifting beneath my skin. A small lump pops up right in the middle, just above my belly button, and then rolls to the left. That’s a knee or an elbow, a folded limb shifting in the warm dark space.
When my feet are pruney from sitting in the water, I reach for my camera. Bending my leg is the hard part. The baby is in the way, sitting high and tight in my stomach all day every day. All the things I took for granted, all the things I used to do, are now impossible. I can’t bend. Like a chimpanzee, I use my toes to grasp things and lift them off the floor. I can’t sleep on my stomach, obviously, but I also can’t sleep on my back. The baby’s weight is too much on my spine. If I can sleep at all, I sleep on my side where I can set my belly down on the bed next to me as if the baby were already here, taking a nap beside me.
I hear Clay inside banging around the kitchen just as I am photographing my feet. The digital camera was a gift from my best friend Brandi, a happy pregnancy present given the week after the test came up positive. I was still crying about it, still turning the words adoption and abortion around in my mouth. Brandi was happy for me because she was pregnant too. Now she drags her four-week-old daughter Destiny everywhere with us.
The screen door slams behind Clay and I watch him cross our small backyard with a burger he must have brought home from work last night. It’s flat, as if it has been weighed down with something.
“You eat today?” he asks, holding the crinkled greasy wrapper out to me.
“You must really think we’re hard up to offer me that,” I say, taking the burger.
“We are,” Clayton says.
“No shit. Why do you think I’m about to eat it? ”
He watches me trying to bend my swollen leg enough to shoot a photo of the bottom of my wrinkled toes.
“Here,” he says. “Let me help you.”
He lifts my leg and sets my foot on the side of the plastic pool. He gets the camera and sits down on the grass with my foot in his face. He snaps a few pictures and shows me what the shots look like.
“When will you stop with the pictures of stupid things?” he asks.
“I’m documenting our life for the baby.”
“Summer,” Clayton says. “You really think our kid will grow up and want to look at pictures of your toes?”
When Clayton goes to work, I finally climb out of the pool. The sun has just started to back off but it’s still so hot that I sweat even as the water from the pool drips down my legs. I say a little prayer that Clay doesn’t get fired for being late again. He’s one of only two managers, I tell myself, and they need him for most of the dinner shifts. My father says being late for work is proof that a man cannot rise to the occasion of fatherhood. I tell him the occasion isn’t here yet and I’ll be the judge of who is rising or not rising.
Clayton and I argue about whose family will be a worse influence on the baby.
My mother left me when I was 17 but she’ll be back. Clay’s father left him when he was six and even back then, Clay knew he wasn’t coming back.
My father was a skinny meth addict with rotting teeth but now he’s just an old fat guy with dentures. Clayton’s mother was a chain-smoking fast food addict and now she’s an obese, diabetic, chain-smoking fast food addict.
Clayton’s main argument is that meth is a far worse thing to be addicted to than cigarettes and biggie fries. True enough, I tell him. But my father is reformed.
The other part of my argument, the best part, is that I never became a meth addict like my father while Clayton scarfs down onion rings, popcorn chicken, and chalupas in the car late at night on his way home from work, even though he already works in a fast food restaurant, and sneaks cigarettes every chance he gets. Like his mother.
My dad walks into the backyard. I feel hot just looking at him. He’s wearing jeans and boots and a long-sleeved shirt, as if fabric is the thing that will save him in a motorcycle crash. He’s here to take me out to eat, something he does often. If he knew how to spend an afternoon cooing over and then buying me cute baby things, I probably wouldn’t dine out so much. When I needed a prom dress last year, he bought me a steak dinner and then dropped me off alone at the mall.
I first told my father I was pregnant over the phone. I held my breath. He sighed, long and deep.
“Now you’ll never leave this place,” he said. “The heat and the same small people year after year, everyone letting everyone else down by doing exactly what you thought they’d do. You’re the town hall, the post office, the asphalt. You might as well pick out your cemetery plot and call it a day.”
I wanted there to be a part of him that might be happy that I wasn’t leaving, happy that I might never leave.
We pull into the parking lot of Ray Ray’s Bar-B-Q. There is a red neon sign in the front window that says, “CAN YA SMELL WHAT I’M SMOKIN?”
We follow the hostess to a booth and then have to ask for a regular table when my stomach won’t fit. I have two weeks left to go. Is it possible I might get bigger?
Dad starts talking about his new girlfriend. I haven’t met this one yet but so far I know that she’s a natural redhead but chooses to dye her hair brown, has a college degree in horticulture, and just got a new tattoo on the inside of her wrist.
“The only good place for a tattoo on a woman is the groin area,” Dad says. “Like the upper upper inner thigh.”
Because I always wanted to know how my father felt about sexy ink.
I order pulled pork, fried cabbage with bacon, BBQ beans, cornbread, greens, sweet tea with unlimited refills, banana pudding for dessert. I always order what I want, as much as I want, and Dad just waits until I am through.
“What I don’t finish, I’ll bring home for Clayton,” I say.
“If you want that boy to stick around, you should learn how to cook,” he says.
I knew it was coming. No one thinks Clayton and I will last; we’re too young to have a baby, too young to get married. The difference between my father and everyone else who is waiting for us to cheat, fight, and get restraining orders is that my father actually believes that if he coaches me enough, he can single-handedly keep Clayton around. I might find this sweet if not for the fact that Dad has fucked up every relationship he’s ever had, including the one with my mother.
Does he think I don’t remember? He’s lucky Mom stayed as long as she did. She finally left last year when he sawed off his own thumb. The day of my homecoming parade, he decided our porch railing was an inch too tall so he got to work on each spindle holding it up. He stopped sawing because he never finished anything when he was in that condition and instead made his way over to the high school to watch me march on by with my clarinet. He was so high he never even realized his thumb was gone or that he was covered in blood. I spent the rest of my senior year buttoning his shirts and tying his shoes for him, wondering why she waited so long and wondering, like a little kid, what I had done to make her decide to leave me too.
“That baby will need parents who sleep in the same bed every night,” he says.
“Mostly, this baby’s just going to need me,” I say.
Tonight in our childbirth class, the teacher begins by telling us how hard birth is on the baby. This is not what I want to hear. I have myself to worry about. I have to worry about contractions and back labor and leg cramps and the possibility that an operating room full of people will end up staring at my guts as they pull this baby out of me.
The teacher picks up a replica of the pelvis, the fake bones forming a lopsided circle, and holds it up for us to see.
“Your baby has to somehow fit through this small space,” she says.
She turns to Clay and me, holding the pelvis in front of her face like a picture frame, and says, “How am I gwonna get outta here?” She says it in a tiny shrill voice, her eyes wide and surprised, her bottom lip sticking out in a pout. She repeats herself, sticking her head in the center of that old pelvis as if Clay and I can’t understand without the visual.
“I’m telling you right now,” Clay whispers. “If our baby talks like that, I’m drowning it in the bathtub.”
I shush him and try to pay attention. I want to sit with the right look on my face, a look that says I will be a good mother. I care. I will do everything right for my baby. I don’t want people to think that Clay and I are like Danny and Jessica, the other young couple in the class. Danny giggles whenever the teacher says the word vagina and Jessica turns bright red. We are not them. We are not children. Clay goes outside during the break to smoke cigarettes with Danny but I let Jessica sit by herself. I help myself to the ice water or the lemonade and then I stand at the table where it is set up for us, glancing at the piles of handouts left there. I take one of each every single week. Handouts about how to select a pediatrician, how to take care of your baby’s umbilical stump, how to tell if your breastfed baby has thrush, a common yeast infection in nursing infants.
The other pregnant ladies don’t make small talk with me or Jessica the way they do with each other. They never come up to me with their big smiles and ask if I have a name picked out. They don’t want to know the color of my nursery or if I want a boy or a girl. I don’t have answers to these questions but if they asked, the lies would come easily enough.
When Brandi pulls into the driveway, I go out to help her unload the car. She is bringing me all of the things Destiny no longer uses. Pacifiers the baby spits out, lotions and soaps that aggravate her eczema, receiving blankets Brandi can’t be bothered to wrap around her.
We cart everything inside and collapse on the mustard colored shag rug in my living room. The rug is my reason number nine for wanting to find a new house to rent. Reason number four has to do with the missing wall in the kitchen from when it used to be a makeshift meth lab, one of the problems of living in the meth capital of the south. Reasons number one, two, and three are no air conditioning, no air conditioning, and no air conditioning.
“I just saw your future mother in law pushing a buggy full of junk food through the aisles of Dollar Dreams,” she says.
“You know her,” I say. “Never misses a snack cake sale.”â€¨
When Destiny starts crying, Brandi sticks a bottle of formula in her mouth, propping it up at the right angle by stuffing a towel beneath it. If I told her that I thought a four-week-old baby should be eating in her mother’s arms instead of in her car seat, she would smile smugly, roll her eyes at me, and say, “You’ll see.” This much I know: I will be holding my baby when I feed him.
Clayton left his cell phone behind when he went to work. I get it and tell Brandi that an old friend of ours, Amber, has been texting Clayton about hooking up. I go through the messages, counting. Clayton says he never responds but I check when I can anyway, just to be sure. Brandi thinks Clay just deletes his responses so I can’t see them.
“Seven since yesterday,” I say.
Brandi whistles, long and loud. The baby’s head turns in our direction, her eyes wide in her tiny face.
“Text her back like you’re Clayton,” Brandi suggests.
Brandi grabs the phone, punches a text, and hands it back to me.
How big you gon get, it says.
Amber spent her high school career worrying about her extra pounds and how they might affect her love life.
I push send.
For a moment, we forget about Destiny. We don’t just forget that she’s in the room with us, we forget that she exists.
We go to Dollar Dreams because we always go to Dollar Dreams. We go to Dollar Dreams because it’s 9:00 and everything else is closed. Everything being J.C. Penney, Winn Dixie, Pizza Shack, Ray Ray’s, and Aunt Ruby’s Diner.
Brandi likes to hold Destiny in front of the fish tanks because the watery blue light and the bright moving fish keep her quiet, even putting her to sleep sometimes.
“You might not want to do that when she’s older,” I say. “Half the fish in all these tanks are always dead.”
“I’ll just tell her they like floating motionless at the top like that.”
We walk towards the electronics department and check out all the things Brandi plans to steal. She only steals the small things when I’m with her. That way, I can pretend I don’t even notice. I want to feel bad about my new digital camera, really I do, but I just can’t.
Brandi worked here before she was pregnant with Destiny. She knows where all the store cameras are, she knows everyone who still works here, the ones who live to catch a shoplifter, the ones who would help a shoplifter screw the store. It turns out that it’s more lucrative to steal from Dollar Dreams and go to the pawn shop than it is to actually work at Dollar Dreams.
“No big surprise there,” she says.
We walk toward the baby department. I push Destiny in her stroller, leaning on the handles because my back hurts so much. No one told me I could hurt like this at the end of my pregnancy, not even Brandi.
We walk up and down the baby aisles, looking at binkies and bottles and baby spoons, bibs and diapers and wipes, cans of formula, jars of muted colors representing pears or carrots or pureed chicken. We check out lotions and diaper rash cream, baby sun block, shampoo, teething drops, gas medicine, gripe water for colic. Pajamas and dresses, tiny little bikinis and swim trunks, socks, sandals, t-shirts, jumpers. I look at Destiny and wonder how one tiny person could need so much stuff.
I hear the zipper of Brandi’s diaper bag and I pretend to be intrigued by a tiny pair of infant nail clippers.
“You need anything?” Brandi asks.
“God, Brandi, no,” I say. “Shut up.”
I look over my shoulder to see her stuffing onesies into her bag. Destiny yawns, opens her eyes, and looks up at me as if she is mine. Brandi walks over to us and sticks two large cans of formula beneath the seat of the stroller. I don’t want to be here right now. But I know when we get home, I’ll accept the things Brandi offers and put it with the rest of the stuff waiting for my baby to arrive.
“Done,” Brandi says. “Let’s go look at shoes.”
I am pushing the stroller, Brandi is beside me, Destiny is looking into my face, the orange and gray squares on the floor are shining up at me, gleaming, clean, hopeful, and then it happens. I feel a hard tap between my shoulder blades and I turn slowly, perfectly, like a ballerina in a music box.
“Ladies, you need to give me everything you just stuffed into your bag.”
“Shut the fuck up, BJ,” Brandi says. “Go stock your fucking shelves.”
I can’t stop staring at his name tag. Beneath “BJ,” it says “Employee of the Month.” In high school, the only words that were ever attached to BJ were the words Fucking Fag.
Brandi turns her back to him and starts to walk away. She looks casual, as if she is actually still shopping. BJ barks into his head set, “I have a code 53 in progress, repeat, code 53 in progress. Request backup ASAP.” His voice shakes as if he has just interrupted a homicide. He’s still a loser, still waiting for something to make him important and right now, he thinks this is it.
I bend over and puke all over the clean linoleum. I haven’t thrown up since my first trimester. I stare at the floor, wondering what to do. I have made such a mess.
Brandi is suddenly by my side, rubbing my back, speaking sweetly and softly into my ear.
“Summer, you’re not having contractions, are you?” she says. “You’re okay, you’re fine. I’m right here.”
We wait in the Dollar Dreams office for Child Protective Services to come and pick up Destiny because Brandi has no one to call who can take her. I am Brandi’s person to call. We wait with two uniformed police officers, BJ, and a manager who keeps telling us about her six grandchildren.
“You’ll get that baby back lickety-split,” she keeps telling Brandi. “It’s just a formality. Hell, my daughter left my three-year-old granddaughter alone in a park to go buy cigarettes and she got her kid back.”
I look at Destiny, droopy-eyed and content, resting her head on Brandi’s shoulder as if this is supposed to be her life. As if every month-old baby has to go through a trip to CPS, like a well baby visit to the pediatrician.
I drink the ginger ale that the manager brought me, calling me “Sugar” as she handed it to me. She has already forgiven us. I’m starting to think that she has done her own fair share of shoplifting in her life.
Brandi rubs Destiny’s back in the same circles over and over again. She stares straight ahead, looking at no one, thinking about nothing. I’ve seen her do this before. Her face is exactly the same as it was when people called her a whore in high school. When did she learn how to do this? Was she five or six or ten? What was the thing that taught her this would help?
“If you can’t afford to pay for things at Dollar Dreams, what makes you think you can afford an entire person?” BJ asks, shaking his head and looking at Destiny and then at my belly. “Babies are expensive.”
“Yeah? How would you know, Dick Smoker?” Brandi says. “I don’t see anyone getting in line to have your kid.”
“That’s enough now,” one of the officers tells her.
“Besides,” she says. “Who says we can’t afford to pay for things?”
Destiny is taken away by a woman in a suit and pearls and we are led through the store in handcuffs. People we know, and some we don’t know, stop shopping to stare at us as we walk by. I want to be like Brandi. I want to hold my head up and even smile at some of them but instead, I feel my cheeks flushing and my eyes tearing. I can only concentrate on each step forward. It’s hard enough to walk in the last month of pregnancy but without the use of my arms for balance, I struggle even more. I need to hold my stomach, to wrap my arms around the baby inside. I feel afraid for him without my hands to cover him in front of all these eyes.
At the police station, after the fingerprints and mug shots, after the detective tells me that they’ve been trying to catch Brandi for a long time because she has stolen thousands of dollars in merchandise, after sitting in a tiny holding cell for three hours, I am finally able to walk outside with Clayton.
He won’t talk to me or touch me.
“So you think the baby needs a binky that bad, huh?” he finally says.
“I didn’t take anything,” I tell him. “Brandi stole that stuff, not me.”
“Too bad you didn’t have your camera for all of this,” Clay says. “Now that was something to document for the baby all right.”
The sun is barely back up in the sky and it’s already too hot this morning. The baby’s hardly moving and neither am I.
Last night, when we got home, we dragged the futon out onto the back porch again, this time in silence. I snapped the sheet up above the mattress, watching it flutter back down as I made the bed. Clayton kept his back to me, hunched over his cell phone texting something.
“Who are you texting?” I asked.
“My gang,” he said. “We’re planning a holdup at the bank next week.”
He snores next to me, his back still facing me as if he hasn’t moved since we went to bed.
There’s a cold egg sandwich on a biscuit left on the counter from the stop we made on the way home from jail last night. I grab it and walk outside. I drag the garden hose in my other hand and head toward the kiddie pool. While the pool fills up, I photograph my biscuit. First with the wrapper, then without.
I wonder if my arrest will be in today’s paper or tomorrow’s. I try to picture myself in court next month without this belly, with a baby on my mind and away from me at a sitter’s. I wonder if Clayton will be standing beside me, waiting for the judge to call my name.
I think of Destiny. Who has her this minute? Is she looking up at them with those big eyes? Is there a hand holding her bottle for her or just a rolled up towel?
I climb into the pool in my only maternity nightie. The thin pink cotton fabric floats on top of the water at first, surrounding my belly like a tent. I push it beneath the surface until it sticks to my skin.
I wake up in the pool as Dad is strolling towards me, carrying his helmet in his hand and tilting his head the way he always does when he’s sorry for someone.
“You seen the paper today?” he asks.
I cover my face with my hands.
I think of everyone I’ve ever known leaning over that newspaper this morning, coffee in hand. I picture Clayton’s mother already planning her I-told-you-so speech. She never liked me and now she never will. I picture Ashley Hanson and the other cheerleaders laughing about this, calling each other while packing suitcases for college, asking, are you bringing any dressy dresses and oh by the way, did you hear about stupid Summer. I imagine my friend Sarah’s mom, smugly reading the news out loud at the breakfast table as a lesson for Sarah. Maybe she’ll tell Sarah what she said to me when she was pouring my coffee at the diner last month, pointing to my growing stomach. You know what causes that, right? You don’t HAVE to have sex, you know. I wonder if Travis saw it before leaving for work today and thought about all of the things we said to each other about traveling the world and waiting ten years to have kids, all of those things we said before I decided Clayton was what I really deserved. I wonder if Miss Rintoul’s heart is broken, if she wonders if maybe she wasn’t as good a teacher as she thought she was if her best student could go ahead and turn down a scholarship, get pregnant, and take up shoplifting all in the space of one year.
Wherever my mother is, I imagine her reading the paper today and wondering if I would have done this if she’d never left.
“If you say ‘I didn’t raise you like that,’ I swear I’ll put my head under this water and never come back up,” I tell my dad.
“Look who you’re talkin’ to,” he says. “I can’t say shit to you or anyone else.”
It’s true. He’s still on probation, still taking random drug tests and visiting his probation officer once a month.
“Dad, I never even had a detention in school,” I say.
“I know, Summer.”
Suddenly, I’m crying. I cry so hard I imagine overflowing my pool with my own tears. I cry until my shoulders shake and I can’t catch my breath. I make horrible sounds I didn’t know I could make. I cry harder when the baby starts moving, his sleep disturbed by all the noise. I cover my wet face with my wet hands and decide to cry forever. I’ll cry until I go into labor, then I’ll cry while the baby’s coming. I’ll cry when I bring him home and I’ll cry when he takes his first steps and says Mama and goes off to kindergarten.
But I stop crying when my dad steps into the pool with me, sinks down into the foot and a half of water and holds me against his wet flannel shirt.
When I go inside, I find a note on the counter from Clayton.
Dear Bonnie, I’ve gone down the street to play basketball with the guys. Love, Clyde.
I peel off my wet nightgown and drop it on the floor. When I pass the mirror in our bedroom, my head spins for a second look. Is that me drowning in that big body? When my hands find my stomach and rest there, I take a deep breath and picture my boy.
If a man can see his daughter through sadness all by himself while dreaming about drugs, a woman can raise her boy alone even while he’s wondering if he might have been someone better without her.
I grab my camera and turn on the overhead light. There is a self-timer on this camera that I’ve never used. I set the camera on a box of baby things and take my place in front of it. I smile at the lens and wait for the flash.
I will photograph myself all day long if I have to, as long as it takes to see what I want to see.