Baby Girl

Jorie Faber was hell-bent on throwing a killer party even if it sent her tits-up to the funeral home downtown. Who cared that it was Wayne’s birthday party and she was catering to a house full of eight-year-olds?—she was all in. She made daily trips to Wal-Mart, and in the intoxicating aura of shopping for Wayne, she stretched the elasticity of her Little Rock Bank & Trust Credit Card and picked up stuff for herself. A digital camera to capture pics at the party. An espresso machine for those who want coffee with cake. Wine and beer for moms who need a break.

And there were birthday gifts. Wayne got a new bike, Jorie got a new lime-green dress. He got an iPod, she got teardrop earrings. He got a cordless phone for his room, she got a tiny TV she could watch while taking a bath. Something Larry had talked her out of buying, time and again. But it wasn’t Larry’s bathroom anymore. The house was in her name now. She could toss the TV in the tub if she wanted. Whatever made her happy.

Throwing a party for Wayne made her happy. Renting a bulbous bouncing moonwalk made her happy. Donkey rides for the kids made her happy. Not inviting Larry made her happy.

But the closer it got to two PM the more she invited doubt. Here she was, expecting a house full of kids and their moms she’d never met, who’d be scrutinizing the home of a just-divorced woman, and there, in the living room, mocking her, were the indentions on soft shag where Larry’s Soloflex used to live. She arranged the furniture into an intimate group and rewarded her creativity with a Coors Light.

“I smell beer,” said Rita, walking through the front door and heading towards the kitchen. She stuck her head in the refrigerator, and over her shoulder she said, “I’m surprised you had room in here for the cake with all this liquor.”

Jorie noisily pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat down. “If you want a beer, momma, grab one,” she replied. “I don’t care.”

Rita closed the white box containing the cake and shut the refrigerator. “I was just admiring Wayne’s pretty cake,” she said, before arranging paper plates and cups on a tray.

Jorie sat stiff, staring at her mother’s back, resenting her cloaked criticisms, which were as much a Rita signature as her bottle-brown helmet of hair. She fingered one of her pearl-drop earrings, paused and took a deep breath, then allowed herself to surrender to the woman’s industriousness and enthusiasm, which were essential, she admitted, in helping her create a memorable day for Wayne. “Tits up,” she reminded herself.

“With what I’ve been through, momma,” she said lightly, “A beer won’t hurt.”

Rita carried the tray of cups and plates to the back door. “You’re right, baby girl,” she said. “You’re right.” She maneuvered the knob and stepped back. “Jesus Christ!” her voice rang out into the backyard and up into the trees. “A donkey and a bouncing balloon?” She pulled the door shut behind her with her foot.

Through the kitchen bay window Jorie proudly surveyed her creation. Thumbing through back issues of House Beautiful had paid off—those perfectly crafted parties in playrooms and backyards—for her backyard was now transformed into a scene as festive and fancy. Never mind that the Juan-in-a-Million Moonwalk was cramped in the corner, squished between the back fence and a low limb of the pecan tree, or that the donkey and piñata were both tied haphazardly to the other tree that was losing leaves, for there was Wayne, already in the moonwalk, jumping and laughing and waving at Rita.

When she’d rented the moonwalk and donkey over the phone, Juan had sounded older, but here he was a teenager, dressed in a sleeveless plaid shirt, exposing taught brown muscles, and tight black jeans. To keep the street clear in front of her house she’d asked him to pull his trailer around the corner, to which he replied with a smile and a touch of his cap’s brim, without saying a word. Now he picked a handful of oats from his pocket, and just as Jorie worried that he’d get bit, the donkey simply extended his flat purple tongue and Juan patted his head.

The first kids arrived and Jorie celebrated with a glass of wine. Some mothers joined her and seemed grateful that someone had thought of their needs. These women—realtors, marketing executives, Junior Leaguers, with their husbands and overweight bank accounts—they’d be pleasant to lunch with, to enjoy a Ladies’ Night with, now and then.

Wayne was acting as if he’d been drinking himself, he was so giddy.

A far cry from the night she and Larry had sat him down. Wayne’s eyes had welled to the brim with big, salty tears, yet to their surprise, his tears never crested down his cheeks, as if they refused to breach an invisible wall. The most significant reaction he’d had to the divorce so far was his tendency to sleep. It was difficult to wake him for school, and according to his teacher, to keep him awake during class. He’d succumbed to the land of lethargy. Witnessing him here today, effusing carbonation, Jorie stifled the urge to pull out her old majorette uniform—stacked neatly in a box in a closet with trophies—and twirl and toss her baton into the blue. “Goddamn, baby girl!” her mother might say. “With a little more oomph you could knock out the sun!”

Jorie shooed everyone outside so she could make a big production of the cake. The baker had got her drawing just right: the Juan-in-a-Million Moonwalk on the left, the donkey on the right, popping off the cake in red, yellow, and purple icing. She stuck eight white candles into the green icing of the backyard, making it look like it was bordered by a white picket fence. “Happy Birthday, Wayne!” cut a cursive tornado up the middle.

She remembered the new camera in the plastic sack in the pantry. Camera. Cake. Candles. Matches….She’d somehow forgotten matches.

Jorie searched the cabinets above the fridge, a gather-all nook for homeless objects: cheap florist vases, mismatched candle holders, empty gift tins that had once held chocolates. A Coors Light helped her think.

The guest bath. Yes. She downed her beer and ran down the hall. There, on top of the toilet tank, a silver tray of tea lights. But no matches.

Next, her bathroom. On the lip of the tub, three pine-green candles with concave centers. With gusto she pulled open drawers; brushes, curling irons, lipsticks, creams— debris rained down, creating a cosmetic litter box.

Outside the small bathroom window, framed in her vision, the sun shown too brightly as mothers snuck looks at their watches, and Rita shooed away screamers from a blindfolded girl, too far from the piñata, wielding a Louisville Slugger.

Jorie returned to the kitchen and uncorked a bottle of wine. She was placing the cork in its drawer when it struck her: the junk drawer! Should’ve looked there first, silly girl. She took a congratulatory sip, wiped her mouth, and swatted away coupons, paper clips, pens, batteries, rubber bands, Super Glue, a tire gauge, trash ties, cardboard coasters bearing beer logos, a wallet-sized school picture of Wayne, and a key fob carrying keys that unlocked mysterious doors.

Not a single goddamn match.

But wait… stuck to an exposed flap of pale paper liner…a familiar color and shape. She wedged free a satiny blue book of matches, the size of a business card. Fancy.

Jori twirled the book of matches in her fingers.

The Sunset Marquis it read in gold letters on the cover. Cursive with curlicues. Elegant. Dreamlike. But the gold lettering was too cursive, too difficult to read, as if the name was a code, the hotel a secret.

The pain was sudden and blinding: an invisible hand clawed into her chest cavity, squeezed the magenta muscle, then ripped it free, veins dripping blood from their valuable transitory source, and held it in front of her face.

She thought she’d thrown out the matches the day she threw out Larry.

The first time she’d found them in Larry’s suit pocket. She was at Guthrie Cleaners, with dirty clothes crumpled on the counter, doing what she always did—rummaging through pockets before handing it all over to Mrs. Guthrie. (She’d once pulled crayons from Wayne’s jeans and ball-point pens from Larry’s shirts; it was her job to protect her men’s clothes.) With Mrs. Guthrie staring quizzically, Jorie had twirled the book of matches in her fingers.

That night, a Tuesday, with Wayne across town at her mother’s, she confronted Larry at the Soloflex machine.

“Cigars with a client,” he said, in the middle of a rep.

“At a hotel downtown?”

“At the bar.” He clean-and-jerked, he added more weight.

“You don’t smoke,” she said. And she remarked about how he’d stopped drinking and started exercising, and all of it, every goddamn bit of it, didn’t add up.

He hemmed, hawed, and then brought out the tears. The woman’s name was Melody. Office-temp Melody. Larry loved Melody.

For a year Larry had kissed Jorie good night with the same lips that’d been all over Melody. For a year Larry had hugged Wayne good-bye in the morning with the same arms he’d wrapped around Melody.

And now, to have been reminded of The Sunset Marquis at this time, on this day—during her party—there was no way in hell those matches were going to light those candles. Jorie stuffed the matches into the garbage disposal, cracking the tips of her French manicure, and barely pulled her hand away before flipping the switch. The grinding noise was weak, not the bloodthirsty slaughter for which she’d hoped.

Her eyes welled over. Her world swam. She grabbed the bottle of chardonnay and took a swig. The disposal ground away.

What kind of woman saves those matches? What kind of woman prays that the junk drawer will just make things go away?

The kitchen door opened and she jumped.

“Wayne wants his cake,” Rita said exuberantly. Screams and giggles escorted her through the door. “I keep telling those kids not to take punch in that bouncy balloon, but do they listen?” She juggled an empty plastic pitcher and a stack of dirty plates, then set them down and tilted her head, as if she was trying to catch from which direction the grinding noise was coming. She zeroed in on the disposal, exhaled in a disgusted burst, and slapped the switch on the wall. The metal gears ground to a halt. “I swear,” she said, shaking her head, before barreling on. “I asked that Mexican a million times to clean up after that donkey…”—she mixed a fresh pitcher of Kool-Aid—“and when that piñata broke, you shoulda seen mommas scramble for their kids. Of all places for candy to fall. Donkey rides?! Seriously! But don’t you worry, baby girl, I took care of it.”

Jorie squeezed the neck of the bottle behind her back and looked past her mother, out the kitchen bay window. What should’ve been a golden hue of warm chicken broth pouring through was, instead, a coagulated lump of pancake mix. Where was Wayne? Was he having fun?

“Jesus Christ, look at you,” said Rita. She stood at the back door with a new pitcher of Kool Aid.

Jorie’s lime-green dress was wine-stained and misshapen. She blew hair out of her eyes. “Getting the cake ready,” she said, nodding at the white box on the table.

“Must be a heavy cake.” Rita jiggled the door handle and left.

Jorie closed her eyes, swayed, and prayed for the wine’s fruity warmth to ease her concerns. How in the world did I end up with a mother like that? The lines between mother/daughter/enemy/saint were constantly being crossed, as if they were property lines to the soul, with amorphous demarcations.

She recalled the night she’d rushed home to announce her engagement. Rita had stopped ironing and stared blankly at her across the den. “Larry asked you to marry him? He said those exact words: Will you marry me?” She turned the blouse over and slid it onto the end of the board, then added, “But Larry’s perfect.”

“He is perfect,” said Jorie, her eyes reaching past the ceiling fan, through the roof, into the clouds.

“There’s something wrong with a man like that who wants to marry a girl like you.”

Steam sighed from the iron; hot water spit on the board.

Jorie ran from the den, and over the next months leading up to the wedding, she ran faster, towards love, hoping to hold it, smother it with kisses. A love that fit and felt like the form of her dead daddy.

She opened her eyes, turned towards the living room, and took in the fluorescent packages, unopened treasures waiting to be discovered inside each and every one. Piled among them, on the couch—purses. Yes. Mothers were at the party. Yes yes yes. Surely one of them smokes, somebody has matches.

She set the wine on the coffee table and gripped a green Gucci. Lipstick, tissues, gum, cell, compact, calculator, Mercedes keys. It struck her how little she knew the mothers of her son’s friends; they were nothing more than props that waved from a passing car.

Next, she tore into a candy-apple Louis Vuitton. LV key fob, LV change purse, LV checkbook cover, LV sunglasses holder—the designer’s monogram floated up like a bevy of butterflies. She pulled out an LV cigarette box and plied apart the kissing clasps.

Menthol Marlboro Light 100s. A flame caught in her heart.

The back door sprang wide and Rita stood there restraining Wayne and his friends. Small arms clawed out from behind her—cockroaches all. “They want cake,” Rita said, laughing, “or they’re gonna make me bounce in that balloon!”

“I want my presents!” Wayne squealed.

Jorie froze, staring at her mother and son, with the contents of other women’s purses piled around her like a barricade. There they were, the three of them: past, present, and future. Her mother, a touch of joy softening her hard-knocked demeanor, a face she seemed to reveal only to her grandson. And Wayne, with a furrowed brow (a gift from Jorie), balanced with an angular, confident jaw (a gift from Larry), as if one facial feature was fighting for dominance over the other. Every time I look into Wayne’s precious face will I see a cheating husband? How do you not hate someone who looks like the one you hate? What monumental strength is required for a heart to withstand such heavy misery?

With the candy-apple Louis Vuitton in one hand, Jorie escaped out the front door, down the front steps, and sat down hard between two cars. Up and down the street, parked along the curb, cars gleamed like in a parade, waiting to whisk mothers and children back to their wonderful lives. She splayed her legs and dumped the purse’s contents onto the hot street. Mixed in with all the LVs were an orange prescription bottle of tiny pills and gum. She wedged her face into the bottom of the bag and inhaled leather and Juicy Fruit. No LV lighter holder. How can you smoke without a lighter?

She withdrew a handful of cigarettes from their rectangular LV home and twisted the dry tobacco into a mangled mess, then watched them float, dreamily, on a burnt breeze that sent them into the shade beneath a car.

A bird squawked. Sweat stung her eyes.

The solution was easy, Jorie admitted, finally—at last—giving in to sensibility: the party could proceed as planned, if she could swallow her pride and present the cake with unlit candles. Yes, Wayne might be upset. Yes, Rita might roll her eyes. Yes, Jorie could be the butt of their jokes—How can you have a birthday cake without lit candles? Rita would say. So what? She could be a big girl.

God, she wanted a cigarette.

When was the last time she’d smoked?

Why did she ask herself such a silly question when she knew the silly answer?

Last winter with Ray Darby. He’d flown down from Memphis when his own dad had succumbed to cancer. A sudden snowfall had turned boring Little Rock into a place of promise, a small Southern city in which, for the time being, one didn’t mind being trapped. Larry was on a business trip, so she drove across town in a black dress and push-up bra to Ray’s parents’ house—the one he used to sneak out of in high school—to pay her respects. A funny feeling overtook her when he approached in his grey suit and brown sideburns. Ray hugged her warmly, smelled her hair, and whispered in her ear, “God.” They rode in her Suburban with the windows down: Ray drove and Jorie sang to old songs. They bought a twelve-pack and cigarettes, and away from the mourners, behind the football stadium, in her back seat, she let him lift up her black dress.

They smoked from a smashed pack. The fog on the windows diffused the light pouring in from the street lamp, bathing them in a swimming pool green. Ray took a final puff and tossed the cigarette out a crack in the window. He pulled up his plaid boxers.

“Where’s your husband?” he said, half joking.

Jorie retrieved her bra and panties from the floorboard and stuffed them in her purse. “Where’s your wife?” she said.

Ray zipped his pants and buckled his belt. “I’ve never done this,” he said.

“Let me refresh your memory,” she said. “Loverboy concert.” Jorie unscrunched her dress from under her arms and smoothed out the wrinkles.

Ray lit another cigarette. “Loverboy. I’ll never forget that.” He took a puff and handed it to her.

“Or the woods behind your parents’ house.” She took a drag, blew, then added, “Or the Jacuzzi.”

He smiled, turned away, then gazed back at her, gravely, as if trying to force a point. “No, I meant I’ve never cheated before.”

He took the cigarette from her and smoked it. Jorie popped the top of a beer.

Ray continued to stare.

“What?” she said.

“In high school you could drink every guy under the table.”

She took a swig and extended the can.

He sent the cigarette out the window and accepted the beer.

“Those were the best days of my life,” she said.

Ray drank and gave her a long, incredulous look.

Their magical moment had passed. Within his eyes she saw a man who pitied her, and she immediately resented him, itemizing his midlife paunch, unruly chest hairs, and vanished muscle tone—a man to whom she’d just given a blowjob because he’d left the condoms on the counter at the KwikieStop.

Why had she called high school the best days of her life? It was untrue. Those were debilitating days that contained only two emotions: dread or joy. There was the death of her daddy, whose life had been cut short by cigarettes. And sex. Her first sex.

Lying to Ray had been a way to end the night. Afterwards, she’d lain in bed crying, confused. If Larry hadn’t been traveling she wouldn’t have done it. And then to be made a fool of, later, in her own home, by a satiny royal blue book of matches. She refused to believe that she and Larry were two peas in the same two-timing pod.

Peals of laughter erupted from her house. The sun was a greasy skillet on fire. Gasoline and tar fumes swirled in front of her. The Louis Vuitton yawned from the street. She reached for the orange bottle of tiny pills and crunched two between her teeth.

A woman and child stood over her on the sidewalk.

“Jesus Christ, shit,” Jorie gasped.

The woman clutched her chest. The boy stifled a laugh.

With violent effort Jorie pushed up from the curb. Her knees popped, vision slurred sideways, and she landed hard on the sidewalk. She erupted in a snort. This really was the funniest thing that had happened to her—ever.

In the curved bumper of an SUV she caught her image in chrome: stretched eyes, ballooned lips, cratered chin. She imagined this is what Melody looked like.

“This is Wayne Faber’s house, right?” said the woman.

Jorie blinked hard, bent to retrieve the Louis Vuitton, then rose slowly, careful not to tumble over the curb. The purse’s paraphernalia remained on the street to bake, while her mind gradually registered the fact that the woman didn’t bother to help her up.

“Do you live here?” the woman said with exasperation, nodding at the house.

Jorie brushed away concrete pellets that stuck to her dress. “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me,” she replied.

The woman spoke to her son. “Let’s drop off the gift and go.”

The woman wore a pale linen short-set, with a brown leather purse that hung long from a strap. A diamond wedding ring glinted like a white hot asterisk. The boy was handsome, even in his grass-stained soccer uniform and sweaty blond hair, and his masculine demeanor seemed at odds with the polka-dotted package he carried.

“What’s your name, son?” Jorie asked.

The boy shuffled his cleats and looked at his mother. The woman bore a striking resemblance to her son when she produced a flat smile and said, “Nathaniel is his name.”

Jorie winked at the boy. “Nathaniel. That’s a nice name. NA-THAN-YAL. Where’s your dad, Nathaniel? Is he at work, Nathaniel? On a business trip? Is he alone—or with a female associate? An office temp?”

The woman expressed a startled anger that made her face appear starched.

“Dads never come to these things,” Jorie said bitterly, before the woman could interject, and then thought of Larry somewhere, anywhere but here, because she never invited him, and it gave her a wicked satisfaction.

The woman pinched a piece of her son’s shoulder, an action that seemed familiar to her. “We’re going inside,” she said, then turned up the walk without saying goodbye.

“Your funeral,” Jorie said loudly, and watched them go up the steps quickly and ring the bell. Pretending they were friends parting, she turned in the opposite direction with a pleasant disposition and the purse in the crook of her arm, a show for the neighbors who might be watching behind shrouded windows, and then walked heel-toe down the sidewalk. At the edge of her property line she stopped, and as if a school bell had rung, she suddenly bolted to the side yard, her arms and legs akimbo. She halted at the air conditioner; a whirring motor caught her attention. She touched the big, gray metal box, but it wasn’t running. Stepping on tiptoes she peered over the wooden gate of the back fence. A generator echoed loudly as a fan fed air into the Juan-in-a-Million Moonwalk. The backyard was empty except for the donkey and Juan, leaning against a tree. Juan pulled something from his front shirt pocket. He lit a cigarette. He took a puff.

Jorie let the purse drop to the grass and opened the wooden gate. The donkey’s ears snapped to attention.

With a burning purpose her sandals led her past the kitchen bay window, across trampled gumballs and Bit-o-Honey wrappers loose in the sunburned grass. The mutilated piñata, barely resembling its soccer ball design, swung from a branch. Juan brought the cigarette to his lips and blew. Seeing him up close, Jorie was reminded that despite his thick eyebrows he was only a teenager. She startled him, and his full lips spread into a feeble grin; he held the cigarette awkwardly as if he’d just been caught smoking by his mom. She smiled, jabbed a fingernail into her left breast, and nodded at his shirt’s left pocket. He froze, not knowing how to react to this woman who hadn’t paid him yet. She pantomimed again. He raised a thick eyebrow, nodded, and pulled the pack from his pocket. “Por favor,” said Jorie. She hoped to find a book of matches tucked inside, but she found only cigarettes. Frowning, she took a cigarette anyway and returned the pack. With his free hand he retrieved matches from his pants pocket, struck the fire, and held it up to her. Jorie burst into a beautiful smile. She accepted the light, puffed, and burrowed into his brown eyes. He shifted them sheepishly, which she found endearing. She took a long drag, then exhaled toward the sun. Juan tossed the match into the grass and stamped it with his boot. He was returning the matches to his pocket when she grabbed his hand. This lady was confusing him. “Matches,” she said. And then she spoke slowly, loudly. “Birthday. Cake. Can. Dles. Little. Boy. Por. Favor.”

His innocent composure evaporated. “No problem, lady,” he said in clear, un-accented English. She was drunk.

Jorie took three matches for good measure. The donkey brayed.

She laughed and surprised herself.

Carefully turning, she craned her neck and took in all of the Juan-in-a-Million Moonwalk, the words emblazoned in bubblegum letters across the top. The hulking balloon bulged red with fishnet windows on all four sides.

Jorie set her sandals by the doorway, laying the three matches delicately in the heel, before hiking her dress, gripping the red rubber door flaps, and taking a lunging step inside. Her bare feet sank into rubber, her equilibrium exited her body, and the floor came up and smacked her in the face. On her back she giggled, rolled and glared at the ceiling, fixating on a knot in the center, doing her darnedest to assimilate with the undulating room. Noxious sweet vapors hovered.

She rolled to the moonwalk’s edge and slipped her fingers through the threads of a mesh window. With terrific energy she pulled herself up and felt a tear in the armpit of her dress. She took careful steps to the center. With tickling apprehension, Jorie bounced like a beginner.

Her stomach fluttered. A poof of joy. Laughing gas.

Up up up—frozen, weightless for an instant, her tear-drop earrings immobile in mid-air—then down down down.

Higher and higher she flew, with each jump providing a glimpse over the fence into the neighbor’s back yard.

A kidney-shaped pool.

A girl’s pink bathing suit.

Flat at the edge.

Drying in the sun.

A girl freely nude in the heat?

Or enveloped inside in the air-conditioned air?

Jorie dipped to her knees, bounced off her back, dived and flipped and cart-wheeled and soared. She was a bird. A kite. A baton.

This lightness, this dizziness, had a dislodging effect on her brain. Her memory became malleable, her mind a mess of scrambled puzzle pieces. A heady sensation, a new perspective, erupted.

I set them free. Larry and Melody. Possibly, perhaps. I was complicit in their crime. I knew, in my gut, at the most basic level. Didn’t I? I sensed a shift, a fractured foundation. And I did nothing about it—not even an attempt to repair it. I threw myself away, into the pathetic arms of Ray Darby. Now Larry and Melody are free. Free of me—and I of them.

She felt lighter, and soared higher, faster, farther, alone. Jorie touched the top of the balloon with the tip of her nails. Once. Twice. Thrice.

Children’s hands and faces pressed sticky and flat against her kitchen window. Wayne was pointing and laughing, his mouth smeared with cake. It struck her, from this viewpoint, how Wayne didn’t look like Larry at all—and not even like herself. He was uncontrollably, unabashedly Wayne. His exuberant eyes followed her up and down. Mothers huddled with their mouths agape. Rita hid her face behind the new camera, pointing and clicking, and the flash emitted a strobelike warning. Kids flooded into the yard, screaming, clambering to be the first to bounce with Wayne’s mom.

Jorie’s insides tickled and rose through the center of her stomach. The back of her throat burned. Gravity gripped her ankles, her head regained its former weight, and her burdens reconnoitered against her. Her belly lurched. Jorie swallowed hard.

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