"hey lady, wanna buy a baby?"
He lurched forward outside Walmart, tall and bony, with large hands and a prominent Adam's apple. There was a sprinkling of snow on his shock of brown hair and worn flannel shirt. He shifted from foot to foot, looking around furtively, and repeated, "Wanna buy a baby?"
Louanne wondered if it was so obvious that she didn't have one, whether she looked too homely, too old to hope for a baby of her own. "Louanne, Louanne, she ain't never gonna git no man," her cousin Mae used to taunt her, and it was true, she was 42 and still alone.
His head jerked to the side, gesturing toward a teen-aged girl on the sidewalk about eight feet away, clutching a small infant wrapped in a soiled beige blanket. The girl looked wan and scared, her lank, yellow hair wet with snow, the bundle silent in her arms. Louanne couldn't really see the baby. Its mother was dressed too lightly for the weather, and her faded cotton blouse was plastered to her skin. Her worn jeans were oversized and torn. She looked away from the two of them as Louanne stared.
A heavyset woman in a maroon velour sweat suit burst out of the sliding exit doors with two security guards.
"There he is. He's the one."
The woman was pointing excitedly and Louanne sidled away from the boy, her heart beating fast.
"I don't know anything about this," she said to the security guard who strode up and roughly grabbed the boy by the arm. "I don't know him at all."
Homely. "She's a homely one, ain't she?" Aunt Irma had cackled, and Ma had nodded when Aunt Irma said that. Louanne must have been six or seven, unsure what "homely" meant. It had a warm sound, like "home," like she was a girl Momma wanted to keep close by her at home. She'd sucked her thumb and hung her head, clinging to Momma's skirt. "Louanne, you go out and play with the others. Shoo now."
Soon enough, she knew the meaning of homely. The sniggers and taunts. Boys who'd steal her glasses and toss them around the room. "Are they broken again, Louanne? You know we can't afford another pair. We ain't got the money to patch 'em up." And later, the awful groping and spasm under the football bleachers, the wet stain on her dress. "I just done it on a dare, girl. You sure is ugly." The hoots of laughter from his friends when they saw her in the halls.
She'd wanted to die. All those years she'd wanted to be invisible. Coming up on middle age, starting to gray, she was pretty much invisible now. Close enough. In her drab, polyester pants suits, working in the K.C. Insurance office for more than twenty years, a dependable employee, Miss Phipps.
The girl with the baby didn't look but fifteen. Tears were sliding down her face when the police arrived and took the baby from her arms. Did she love that baby? Was it all his idea?
Three police cars had pulled up outside of Walmart, red and blue lights flashing, radios crackling with static. A crowd had assembled to watch. "Animals," one woman spat, "ruttin' and breedin' and who knows what. There's folks shouldn't be allowed to have children."
The boy in cuffs looked down at the ground, like he didn't hear. "No sir," he was saying, "that ain't what I said." His skin was blotched and red, and he was missing some of his teeth. Louanne hadn't noticed that when he approached her, she'd been so startled by his question: "Lady, wanna buy a baby?"
"Meth addicts. Put 'em all in jail and throw away the key, I say. They'll be the ruination of Cedarville and these parts. The whole state." It was another woman in the crowd, nodding self-righteously as she looked for agreement.
She should have known. She hoped the baby was okay, born to meth addicts. She wondered if the girl was an addict too. So young.
She was "Miss Phipps" at work and "Aunt Louanne" the rest of the time, with nine nieces and nephews, always another on the way, a jumble of loud, clamoring, sticky kids, with constant birthday parties, it seemed. Aunt Louanne was always good for a present, a dollar bill here and there. She'd just bought a gift at Walmart for Rae Jean's youngest, a Mr. Potato Head for his sixth birthday. She'd look over her stash of wrapping paper and choose some tonight.
She wondered if it could have gone another way. What if she'd tried drugs back in high school instead of going to typing school? Maybe she would've found somebody who didn't really care how she looked. Maybe she'd be Louanne who went bad instead of Aunt Louanne. Course maybe she'd be dead.
Louanne sighed as she unpacked the groceries from Walmart in her dark efficiency apartment. She slid a stack of Lean Cuisines into the small freezer compartment, set one on the counter, then put the carton of orange juice on the shelf inside the refrigerator door. "Efficiency" was an odd word for it, she'd always thought. Maybe it was efficient because it was just a few steps from the fridge to the sofa, from the sofa to the recliner, from the recliner to the bed, from the bed to the tiny pink bathroom that smelled of damp and mold.
The apartment building was a lot like a motel, with its rows of doors and sagging outdoor second floor walkway. She kept thinking she'd find someplace nicer and figured this was temporary anyway. Course it had been temporary for quite a while now.
"Wanna buy a baby?"
Maybe he'd just been asking every woman who walked out of Walmart and hadn't really seen the hunger in her. The sadness and disappointment and unrealized dreams.
What if she'd said yes? She had almost $800 in the bank that her brothers and sisters didn't even know about. "They're gonna turn off the phone, Louanne," her little sister Betty had whined. "Can't you spare us a little somethin' this month? I'll pay you back, I swear it." They never paid it back, none of them, and these days she just said, "I'd like to help y'all, but I can't. I got those dental bills you know." In fact the insurance had paid for her teeth, but they didn't know that.
$800. What would a baby cost? Maybe less. Those two kids obviously had nothing.
Maybe $200, and she could've used the rest to move somewhere else, just pack up and go. Lord knew there was little enough to pack. Buy diapers on the road and one or two of those little terrycloth stuffed animals with bells inside that you shake, some of those little T-shirt suits with all the snaps, a warm blanket.
Just like that, up and go. She could find another job, another efficiency apartment. Some place sunny, with neighbors who had kids. She'd be one of them, standing outside on the walkway, complaining that the baby'd kept her up all night, talking about how much the baby weighed, its first words, how smart it was. She wasn't sure where the baby'd be while she worked, but plenty of women did it, didn't they—raised a child by theirself? Irma Johnson seemed to manage. And Ramona, her brother Timmy's ex. Her sister, Ginny, had been alone for a couple of years, with a lot of help from family, though. Maybe a babysitter'd be right there in the apartment complex. Someone with a kid of her own, who needed the extra cash.
She didn't know if it was a girl or a boy, but she wouldn't care. She'd favor a girl maybe, but not if she turned out like her. But if she was pretty, what could Louanne tell her about fashion and boys? A sturdy boy might be better, who'd help her out when she got old. Boys took care of their mommas, at least some of them did. Girls married out. Some, anyway.
Probably the baby would never know she weren't its momma, wouldn't remember that strung out, skinny teenager with her meager breasts and stringy yellow hair and bad teeth and shell-shocked eyes.
Louanne set the timer on the microwave for her Chicken Cordon Bleu, screwed the cap off the Gallo Chablis jug, poured a tumblerful, and turned on the TV. When the microwave pinged, she took out her dinner, peeled off the cellophane, and placed it on the TV tray in front of the plaid couch. She didn't used to eat in front of the TV. At first she'd been impressed to be living in an apartment on her own, and she'd used a fancy place mat, listened to music as she sipped from a new wineglass. But there wasn't much sense in sitting on the stool at the counter. The apartment was so quiet, so dim. She liked the company of the voices on the TV.
Nothing on the news about the boy and girl at Walmart. Too early of course. Maybe there'd be something at 10:00, if she stayed up that late. Or maybe there'd be nothing at all. Lots of bigger crimes, even around here. Carjackings, muggings, drug busts, a brothel right off the interstate discovered just last year, robberies at the 24-hour E-Z Mart. Somebody robbed the night clerk at the Motel 6 at gunpoint in September. Never got caught. She remembered because one of the mothers at her nephew Billy's birthday party knew the night clerk's cousin who told her that Janey, the clerk, had quit the job on the spot. "I don't need this for $12 an hour," she'd told them, "I don't need this at all." "Can you imagine?" the mother said, shaking her head. "Something like that."
Sometimes Louanne wished a man in a ski mask would come into K.C. Insurance waving a gun, just to break the monotony. She wouldn't want anything bad to happen, but just something, something out of the ordinary, a story she could tell. "My heart was in my throat," she'd say, "I was that scared."
She'd been on jury duty once, for a DUI, but it wasn't much of a story.
Probably family court would take away the baby. Surely they weren't fit parents, trying to sell their baby outside of Walmart. Maybe it would go into foster care or get adopted. She tossed the plastic dinner tray into the garbage and washed her fork, poured another glassful of white wine. They'd never let someone like her adopt a baby probably. And how everyone would laugh and flap their gums. "You'll never guess what old Louanne's got it in her head to do."
Better to move away.
She tilted her black, like-leather recliner back and sipped the wine. The TV blared during the commercial for Princess Cruise Lines and she turned down the sound. One of those dating shows now, a young, good-looking guy choosing between girls for a first date. They were all young and bouncy. It was always the pretty girls got chosen, especially the ones who were forward. She could hardly believe what was on cable TV these days, girls in string bikinis poking their breasts at men in hot tubs, saying things like, "I gotta say I give good head. I mean," and then a coy giggle, "not all girls enjoy it, but I truly do."
Louanne knew what a blow job was, of course, but she couldn't imagine doing it. Not that she didn't have sexual fantasies, but they pretty much ended with romantic kissing and cuddling. Once, she'd had a crush on K.C.'s office supplies vendor, Bert Offenbach. He used to sail into the office to see her boss and say breezily, "So how's our favorite Miss Phipps?" Nothing had come of it, of course. Last she'd heard he was married and living across the state line in Twin Lakes.
Louanne dozed off in the chair before the ten o'clock news. The light from the TV flickered in the dark room. On the edge of sleep, she imagined the warm weight of the baby in her arms, the good smell of Johnson's baby powder masking the faint stink of pee, the baby's body hot and sweaty against her stomach and breasts. So tiny! One arm alongside her neck, the other tucked at his side, breathing deeply, once in a while with a snort. She should get up and put him in his crib, but she was so sleepy herself. So sleepy. And she wanted to hold him close just a little while longer.
Jacqueline Doyle's creative nonfiction, flash fiction and memoir have recently appeared and are forthcoming in Blood Orange Review, elimae, flashquake, LITnIMAGE, Monkeybicycle, Pear Noir!, 5_trope, and elsewhere. She teaches at California State University, East Bay.
"Our Depression-era, Northern Californian, sort-of farmhouse (probably a former chicken ranch, and none too affluent) doesn't exactly have a porch. There's a raised, patio-style walkway to the front door though; and one summer, when our kitchen was being remodeled and our back yard was filled with tools and lumber and sawdust, we put two chairs out there and discovered the perfect spot for watching the sunset over the distant hills. Some evenings, the sky flushes pink and lavender. Others, it burns a fiery orange and violet. As twilight falls, you realize that there's a view of the San Francisco Bay, barely visible as you look through the trees during the day, just a glint of sunlight off the water, clearer at night when you see the twinkling lights on the Bay Bridge."