Jake sat across the booth from Little Bit and watched as she toppled the salt and pepper shakers with the menu. Decide on something, he said. And knock that off.
It seemed as if everyone in the restaurant was glaring at him over their grilled cheese sandwiches for talking loud to a four-year-old kid who sure enough looked like an angel with freckles. All that springy blonde hair and eyes like big, green moons. What did they know. You take her, he wanted to shout. He wanted to get his demo vacuum out of the trunk of his car and suck their faces into Electrolux-land.
What looks good to you? he asked.
Don't know yet. Her voice was sulky.
It had snowed hard yesterday, leaving a power line down. The company had their trucks parked along the road, and the men in their hard hats and cups of coffee stood in the street.
Want a burger?
Don't know yet.
You're the one wanted to come out, he reminded her. You wanted a burger joint. I got you all cleaned up and in your new overalls.
She clenched a string of dime-store Christmas bells they'd found in a closet, the kind you hang on a front door. You pulled my hair on purpose!
Hey, what do I know about fixing a girl's hair? You were screechin' like a parrot.
You were gonna leave me! She was showing off for the crowd, and she was damn good at it, he thought. And you tried to run me over with the car, she added.
I did no such thing, he whispered. Put a sock in it. Who locked who out of the house? Now lower your voice. You've got these people thinking I'm a child abuser. She looked so much like her mother, China Gay, it put a steel clamp on his heart.
Someone who takes kids like you into alleys and beats the crap out of them.
A pair of church-types sitting behind them tilted sideways, trying to hear. Wouldn't dare! she shot back, shaking her bells. Those eyes of hers were narrowed to slits.
Jake pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket, lit up, threw his head back, and exhaled a plume of blue smoke. The waitress walked over, tapping her pad with a pencil. There's no smoking in this establishment, she said. See that sign? She pointed in the general direction of the soda fountain. Maybe you folks wanta order?
The little lady's still deciding. Right, hon? Little Bit had gone silent, so the waitress moved on. Look, I'm going to the can. You figure out what you want. Okay? He pulled a ten out of his pocket and threw it on the table. On the way to the men's room, he heard her behind him; her phony, four-year-old-voice. Why'd you bring me here? I wanted pizza.
He made it to the stall in time to lean over a stained toilet bowl with the dry heaves. His hangovers were getting more intense. Looking at his image in the mirror- the watery eyes, the thick, dark hair going gray and falling out, hard to believe he was just thirty-five-he wondered what kind of mother could get out of bed one morning and decide to split before breakfast, forgetting she had a kid. Weren't there supposed to be wires or something, like telephone lines crossing a field, binding flesh to flesh? How can all that get disconnected in one minute flat? China Gay was a magic wonder, all right.
Heading out, he found the door to the kitchen. No one paid any attention when he walked through; they were busy yelling, Pick up! like they had something really important going on, and those were the two weightiest words in the universe. The exit led straight through to the alley, where heaps of snow covered the garbage cans. He made his way back around to where he'd parked the Pontiac and, once in the car, reached under the driver's seat and pulled out his bottle of Southern Comfort, removed the cap, and took a long pull, peering in at the pretty little girl sitting by the window where he'd left her. He wondered what the heck had happened to the man he thought he'd be. All those high school dreams of making good, maybe going to college, proving to himself he wasn't a loser like his old man. His father hadn't been a bad man, just scared of his own life going a way he didn't like. He hadn't heard his father's voice now in a long, long time. Jake slipped the key in the ignition, the engine turned over, and the radio kicked on. It was Tony Bennett singing, You . . . stepped out of a dream . . . He switched stations, then China Gay's voice sliced through the airwaves, . . . you are too beautiful to be what you seem . . . He cut the motor, slamming his fist into the dash. Shut up!
Back in the restaurant, he took a seat across from Little Bit. She'd taken the wrappers off the crackers and was stuffing them in her mouth. You decided yet?
The morning China Gay told Jake she was leaving, he held on to the doorknob of the bathroom so that she couldn't leave. What do you mean you're leaving?
Let go of this door, she demanded, her voice fierce and choking.
Not until you tell me what's going on. He heard a rustling, then the creak of the window opening. You still there? When he realized she'd gone out the window, he ran through the house and out the front. She was charging down the walk, and he charged after her, trying to drag her back into the house. She turned on him like a combat veteran, punching and slugging, both of them in a body-lock until, together, they went down in the icy grass. Her robe fell open, and she was butt-naked underneath. Laid out like that, breasts falling to the side of her chest, she looked at him, not just with a look that wasn't a loving look, but like she'd never known him. And he knew it was over.
Mrs. Hedley's fluffy-haired mutt padded over from next door to sniff their ankles as they sprawled on the ground. Jake could see the old lady peering out from behind thin curtains. They struggled to their feet and followed one behind the other back up the walk. Once inside he watched from the bedroom doorway while China Gay, naked in front of a mirror, carefully applied green-colored goop to her eyelids.
I'll take you to Coney Island, he told her, eyes on her ass. Walk the boardwalk, buy some mustard dogs, some of those cherry limes. We'll ride the Ferris wheel, make a wish from the top. Her ample breasts swung as she moved.
Don't have time. She painted her mouth the color of pomegranates.
Where you going, girl? God, if she didn't drive him crazy.
She hung pretty earrings from her ears, shook out her silky hair.
Disturbed by the sight of her, he stepped closer but was stopped dead by her next words. I didn't tell you any lies, she said, her eyes unfocused as a dog's. You knew who I was, that I can't stay in one place. I've been with you longer than most guys. She stepped into her clothes, the tight sweater and short skirt, and pulled on the coat with its sad fox collar.
I don't want you to go.
Flimsy suitcase in hand, she hit the front door with an open palm, her high-heeled boots sinking into the slush of the sidewalk. Someone waited at the curb in a black Mustang. The door on the passenger side opened, and she slid in. Hey, baby, Jake heard her say before the door closed.
They were half-a-block away before he realized she'd left her daughter. Christ Almighty! he shrieked. Hang on. He ran to get Little Bit, hoping it was a mistake. The kid must have been hiding; he couldn't find her, and, by the time he got back outside, the Mustang had disappeared, along with China Gay. You forgot something, he muttered to himself. In defeat he sank to the ground, and, when Mrs. Hedley's little dog reappeared, he buried his face in the dog's stinky hair.
Inside the house he found Little Bit wedged between the fridge and the kitchen wall, sucking her thumb with her eyes closed. Jake wanted to go over and offer some comfort, but he didn't know what to say. He didn't know anything anymore, just that China Gay had left, and her four-year-old was hiding in a space no bigger than his arm.
Little Bit settled on an order of French fries and ate them slowly, with a child's deliberation. It was during their meal that he remembered his old friend Madge. If anyone knew what to do with a kid, it'd be her, and so, a little while later, they'd driven over to her place.
I think I've got cancer or something, he told Madge. She was smoking and staring at him through her screen.
You don't look so good. Madge had lived with Jake's brother, Eddie, before he got caught crossing the desert between Mexico and Arizona with half-a-ton of grass in a horse trailer. Now she lived with Travis in a house surrounded by a wire fence. Wanta come in? She held the door open. Due to her hair looking fried, plus she'd shed far too much weight, Madge looked worse than he felt.
You look real good, he lied.
Sure I do. Come on in, she said again.
He pointed towards the Pontiac. I got me a kid out there.
Madge stepped onto the porch and peered out at Little Bit, who'd moved behind the steering wheel, pretending to drive.
Don't mess with the car, he called out.
You gotta kid now?
Just come and meet her. You like kids. You always said you wanted kids. Jake raised a hand in the direction of the Pontiac, then noticed his fingers were trembling. He needed a drink.
Yeah? Well, wasn't that a hundred years ago?
A hundred years ago, Madge had been a looker, and the two of them had some fine times together til she gave up the bottle. Maybe he should have married Madge back when he was still hopeful, settled down like she wanted. Had a kid of their own.
Madge inched forward toward the car, apparently curious. Let's take a look-see.
As soon as Little Bit saw them coming, she climbed over the seat and hid on the floor.
Hey, honey. Madge poked her head through the window. Whatcha doin' down there?
Call the police. That man stole me from my momma.
Madge drew back. Good Lord, Jake, what's going on?
This is our friend, Madge, he said, trying to sound friendly. Be nice and maybe you can stay over with her.
Now wait one minute! Madge sounded nervous. I can't keep some kid. I got Travis to think about.
I want my momma, Little Bit screamed, shaking her fist with the bells.
Get out of the car and meet Madge, Jake yelled. Out of the car! Out of the car!
Madge started to retreat. Where's her mother?
She's gone, man. Believe it? She left me and left the kid for some other guy. Kept talking about going to Nashville, break into the music business.
Can she sing? Madge asked, as if it mattered.
You got me. He scratched at a rash that was beginning to creep up his face toward his ears. I just need you to sit the kid a couple of days.
Listen, Jake. The county'll take her. Especially since you're sick. Take the tyke and turn her over. I can't help you out on this. Now I've gotta get back. You know how Travis gets.
You still with Travis?
She was gone. In the house with the door closed. Feeling as if a shade had been drawn over the day, he walked behind the car, leaned on the trunk, and threw up.
Are you the father? The lady at the Children's Protective Services smoothed her hair in a way that made Jake want to smack her against the wall. She had skinny arms and a name tag that read Myra King. She seemed to have a lot on her mind besides him, the way she kept tapping the phone with her long, red nails.
If I were the father, would I be here? he asked.
Myra glanced at Little Bit, who sat on the floor by his feet. This your dad?
Now wait one minute. He stood and leaned across the desk. Myra's chair had wheels, and she propelled herself backwards. This is not my kid!
Can you prove that? Myra glared from a safe distance.
He sat back down. I guess I can't.
Myra pulled back to her desk. Here's what we can do. You fill out these forms. We send an investigator to your home, conduct a search for a parent. Seeing as you're not the parent. She rolled her eyes. Then, if no one is located, the child is placed in temporary foster care until a court hearing is set.
That's the way it works. It's not fast. She handed over a pile of forms. You might as well get started.
He looked over the forms in his trembling hands and knew he needed a drink to tackle so much paperwork. He was about to ask her if he could return with the forms later when her phone rang and she turned her back to him. After a moment's hesitation, he grabbed Little Bit by the arm, and they left, her shoes clicking along the floor.
Jake sat in the kitchen staring at the papers spread out on the table, feeling as if a light had gone out in his heart. Little Bit sat across from him, drinking cola from a cup and clutching her bells, her moon-shaped eyes on his face.
Yesterday he'd been pink-slipped for too many missed days on the job. They'd cleaned him out, taking the demo vacuum from his car, along with a box of attachments and a power nozzle. Hallerby had clapped him on the back and called him son. Things always work out, son. It's not the end of the road. Jake had to be removed from the office because he was hanging onto the lapels of Hallerby's jacket. Hallerby finally just slipped out of it, and, after Jake was thrown out of the building, it was still in his hands.
He held the pink slip, batting it against his forehead. This time last year he hadn't even known China Gay; now he couldn't remember back before her.
There was a package of ham in the refrigerator, along with a jar of mayonnaise, lettuce, and a loaf of bread. He took his time and made a real nice sandwich, wrapped it in wax paper and set it back on a shelf in the refrigerator. He took a ten out of his wallet, then exchanged it for a twenty, and wedged it under Little Bit's cup. Now don't go and spill cola on that. I made you a ham sandwich. You saw me make it, and you saw where I put it. If you get scared, go on next door to Mrs. Hedley. You like Mrs. Hedley. He didn't know why he said that; Mrs. Hedley was mean as a snake. I've got to go out now, but I'll be back to get you as soon as I can.
For once Little Bit didn't run after him. She just sat in her chair with her thumb in her mouth.
He drove with the windows down, figuring the cold, winter air would sober him up. Pushing back in the seat, he thought about how great it would be to go to Nashville. Nashville sounded good. Who knew, maybe he'd run into China Gay. Then again, she could've landed in Vegas. She was like some kind of magnet, picking up whatever bullshit was floating over the horizon.
Halfway across the Green River Bridge, the Pontiac cut out and rolled to a stop. The river, flanked by skeletal trees and a dead fringe of reeds, looked forbidding. He got out, raised the hood, saw he had a broken gas line. Gasoline spilled into the manifold, and fumes hit him in the face. He pushed the car into the emergency lane, setting the handbrake. The flashers didn't work, and so what.
Time passed. He stood at the railing with his bottle of Southern Comfort and watched a boy in a rowboat, paddles flashing in the depleted sunlight, dip and rise, dip and rise. As the sun went down, it registered that, on the other side of the bridge, a woman without a coat had climbed the railing and was removing her shoes. He saw her set them down carefully, brushing them off, then smoothing the creases from her bright-colored dress. Jesus, he said to himself.
He started running, yelling, Hey! Hold on! but the traffic had picked up, he had to dodge two lanes of cars, and he got there just as she pushed off in a perfect dive, and something, maybe her dress, caught the light as she arced through the air like a rainbow trout. He watched her go under and that was that, she didn't come up. His eyes closed. The pulse he heard inside his ears, the hum of his blood, was the sound of time passing. He finished the bottle of whiskey in his hand, then ditched it in the river. He wondered how far down it was to the bottom, how it would feel to be pulled under by the gray jaws of icy current, lungs filling with freezing water, clothes pulled away from one's body.
The shoes she'd left behind were nice, like Sunday best. Soft, brown suede with fat heels like pillars. He figured she'd put on her best, but she'd left her nice shoes. She just went off and left everything and everyone behind. Shivering, he fit a hand inside each shoe and stepped into a motorist's lane with his arms flung straight out, whipped by the wind from the passing cars. Finally a Chevy pickup pulled over, two black Labs in the back. The driver lowered his window and leaned out. Need a ride?
It happened right as the sun was going down, Jake told the police officer over the phone. No, sir, I never saw her before. No, I didn't notice any car. Sure, I'll be around.
Behind him Little Bit was asleep on the sofa, the tv on, part of a ham sandwich next to her on the cushion. He finished up on the phone, wondering how he was going to get his own car, then scooped her up in his arms and carried her to bed. She still held the bells in her hand. He slipped off her shoes and pulled the covers up, tucking them under her chin. He rubbed his forehead. I guess I'm gonna be your pa. He didn't think she heard him. He'd tell her again in the morning.