by James D. Wright
She can forget I said anything—that’s what I’m gonna tell her. When I called asking to take Marquez off her hands, all she could say was how dare I wake her up so early. But it ain’t ever late enough to call around her house these days. Baby Girl got it all figured out. She and that no-good boyfriend living together, mocking the Lord with their sin. Now she having another little one. It’s supposed to be my job to tell her about it, but she ain’t trying to hear it.
It’s gonna be a hot one today. I pull off the interstate to Tampa and cross into the wrong side of Fort Myers. With all the wealth down here, you’d never believe it if all you saw was colored town. Boarded up storefronts, ramshackle houses with beat-up cars parked in the yards—like every ghetto movie you ever saw, and our young men standing around flashing gang signs and wasting what God gave them. How’d Baby Girl end up here?
Marquez comes running out to the car as soon as I pull up. Her tumbledown shotgun house with its peeling paint and the yard thick with weeds. A box springs mattress leans against the chain link fence in the front yard. I get out slow, my hips creaking. I unfold the walker and hang a plastic shopping bag with the baby’s shoes in it between the handles. The doctor says my arthritis is the aggressive kind; that I’m lucky to still be up and around. The only comfort left to me is driving my car. Thank the Lord and Lincoln Continental. She’s a big bossy two-door number with sky blue paint so bright it shouts. You can’t miss me.
Marquez is squalling like a scalded dog, wanting his grandpappy. He hotfoots it across the scorched sidewalk on those little bare feet. Sweat beads on his top lip. “What’s the trouble, little one? Grandpappy’s here. Come to take you out of this heat.” His striped t-shirt hangs tight across his belly. “We going to the water park Marquez? Is your grandpappy taking you to the water park?” He’s clapping those baby hands like he know what I’m saying. “Where’s your momma, young prince?”
I take it slow as I wrestle that walker over broken chunks of sidewalk. The breeze cools me some in my guayabera shirt and sandals, but my trousers are way too heavy for this heat. I’m just too stubborn to pay for new ones. Little Marquez scampers up onto the porch. One step is rotted away in a gap-toothed grin. I press up against the screen door and cup my hands over my eyes to see inside. I know better than to just walk in on her boyfriend. You don’t get as old as me without knowing things like that. Rashonda is sprawled across the couch asleep. Her titty is peeking out the top of that threadbare housedress that stretches across her pregnant belly. Baby Girl, I start to say, but I then I’m coughing like a diesel engine. Thirty years of Salems won’t let me forget I quit on them.
“Hey, Daddy,” she says, tucking in that stray titty and waving me in. She plucks an ashtray full of rolling papers off the coffee table and slides it under the couch like she was clever.
Marquez scrambles up on the couch by his mother. The screen door catches on my walker. Rashonda don’t get up to help. A lazy metal fan moves the stale air around just enough to keep a body sane.
“Hey, Baby Girl, where’s Worthless?”
She waves me off like she’s shooing a fly. “What you doing north of Colonial?”
“You forget already? I’m taking the boy to the water park.”
“Pawk!” says Marquez, clapping his hands. He jumps up off the couch and hops in place.
“You’re too sick to be out in this heat.” She says. She right about that.
“Who else is going to take him?”
She rubs her belly with one hand. “I’m pregnant. Anyway, you don’t know how to take care of no baby.”
I untie the plastic bag. “I got Marquez some shoes.”
“He already has shoes.”
“I never see him wearing any.”
She don’t deny it. I make Marquez sit while I put the white canvas shoes on his dusty little feet. It’s too hot for socks anyhow.
Rashonda’s watching me out the corner of her eye. “Them’s girl shoes.”
“Marquez don’t know the difference,” I say. “Listen, are them Jehovah Witnesses still coming around?
She squints. “Are you talking ‘bout the lady from Early Head Start? The one that takes Marquez to the Y?”
“Whoever. Seem like everybody else has to raise your boy for you.”
“Daddy, you need to mind your business. And you better get out of here before Tyrel wakes up, or he’ll throw you out.”
“He can try.”
She peers down the narrow hall, her mouth open like she’s listening, and then she lights a cigarette, but she don’t go for the ashtray under the couch.
“You shouldn’t be smoking with a baby on the way.”
“What’d I tell you?” she says, but she’s still not looking at me. I lean hard against my walker. I’d have a seat, but I ain’t been invited. Thudding sounds from the back of the house and Rashonda’s jaw gets tight. Marquez freezes and looks down the hallway.
“So can I take him to the water park, or not?”
She screws up her forehead like she gives a rip what the boy does. “Ain’t it too hot?” She’s still looking down the hall.
“That’s why I come over here, to get Marquez out of this swelter. We can cool off in the kiddy pool.”
“Go on and take him, if you want. He underfoot anyway.” I hear Tyrel grumbling from the back room, something about where’s his goddamn work boots. Rashonda shouts, “Look in the closet!”
Tyrel shouts back, “Get up off yo’ fat ass and help me look!”
I can’t help myself. “What’s he need work boots for?”
Rashonda shushes me with one long-nailed finger across her lips. I motion Marquez toward the door, but he stays frozen in place, staring down the hall.
Tyrel storms out of the back room wearing nothing but cut-off sweat pants. “What’d you say, cripple?” he demands, his yellow eyes wide. He’s a strapping big SOB. If he was a dog, he’d be a Rottie. Bulging muscles and legs like tree trunks. A scar twists across his abdomen like a night crawler. His eyes burn into mine. Then he turns to Rashonda. “What the fuck’s he doin’ here?”
“Don’t you talk to Baby Girl that way!” I draw my twisted hands up in front of me—they can’t even make proper fists anymore. “I oughtta teach you a lesson. Three-time boxing champ in the Navy. Twenty-two KO’s. How about it?”
Rashonda pulls herself up off the couch with her belly leading the way. “You all go on to the park now.” She pulls Marquez by the elbow toward the door. “GO!”
Tyrel comes toward me. I smack myself in the forehead. “They called me the Hammerhead. Head so damn hard I could break your nose if I was of a mind to.” Rashonda is still talking, but we’re not listening.
He kicks the walker away from me across the wood floor, wraps his meaty hands around my neck and pulls me close like he gonna kiss me, his hot breath in my face. “She ain’t your baby girl no more. She mine now.” I glare at him as mean as I can. He smiles. “You’re just a crazy old man.” He lets go and slaps me on the cheeks with both hands.
“Tyrel, leave him alone!” Rashonda pushes in between the two of us. Her voice quivers, panicky, but she ain’t the type to cry. She shoos Marquez and me out the door and onto the porch. “You all go on now. Ain’t no reason to start trouble.”
Tyrel laughs from inside the house. “That’s right. Go on before I bust yo’ crippled ass.”
My heart is pounding. I point through the screen door. “I told you he was no good. He’s gonna hurt you someday. And yo’ babies.”
“You all go on, now. Go on.” Rashonda slings a diaper bag over my head.
Marquez follows me to the Lincoln. The walker is heavy in my hands, and my knees feel like they could go out from under me. I told her that Tyrel was trouble. How many times did I tell her? Rashonda talking about how he loves her. I should’ve taught her better when she was small. Lord knows.
I belt Marquez in as best I can. Baby Girl’s watching us. There’s no expression on her face at all, like what just happened ain’t nothing new ‘round here.
She says, “They let diapers in the kiddy pool?”
“He can swim in his short pants. We won’t be in the water long.”
She smirks. “I was talking about you.” I wave her off and get in. Like I said, my Lincoln is the only comfort I got in this world, and I’m needing that comfort now.
You know, Rashonda had none of that tone in her voice the day Marquez was born. I hadn’t seen her for months, ever since she moved out. She called me up out of the blue one day, blubbering about the pains was coming every little bit and she didn’t have no insurance and could I please take her to the free clinic, could I please? I done told you she wasn’t one for crying, so this was big. I ran every red light on the way to her house. She stood on the porch with her little bag and a look of relief on her face. That Tyrel lay in the yard passed out with puke all down his shirt front. Baby Girl and I made a sad pair as we limped out to the car, clasped around each other’s middle with one arm and gripping that walker with the other.
The nurse took one look at this pregnant teenage girl and then at me, and she rolled her eyes real big. “I know he ain’t this baby’s daddy. You paying the piper today, ain’t you little girl?” She snatched Rashonda by the elbow and walked her into the place like she was showing off a prize poodle.
Marquez didn’t come till the next morning, so I spent those twenty hours with my daughter shuffling up and down the halls with her learning hard on my shoulder for support, us stopping every ten minutes when the pains come, then every five, then every two. When they finally decided to give her the epidural, it was too late; my grandbaby was on his way, and there wasn’t no stoppin’ him. Rashonda gripped my hand and hollered and cried, looking only at me, the only face she knew, begging me not to leave her, not to ever leave her. And I didn’t. And I won’t.
Baby Boy runs his hands over the Lincoln’s leather seats. You can tell he ain’t ever been in no hot rod before. The AC blasts through our sweaty hair. Marquez looks out the window with his mouth open, his lips pooched out like he’s blowing kisses. I can’t help rubbing his little head. He curls his hand around my wrist. “Paw-Paw!”
“That’s right, Baby Boy. Your Paw-Paw is fixing you up with a trip to the water park.”
“Pawk,” he says.
“I bet that daddy of yours never took you to no water park. He’s lucky I didn’t drop the Hammerhead on him.”
“Daddy!” He smiles as he arches his back and tries to look over the dash.
“You’re right. I guess he is your daddy.” I rub his head again, seeing the difference between my rough old hands and his smooth baby skin. “He is your daddy, isn’t he?”
Now, it’s entirely beyond me how that Baby Girl of mine got her life so messed up. Naturally, her momma leaving us shook her up some, but Rashonda and me had five good years before she took up with that good-for-nothing. Now look at her. She don’t even know the potential she has. Pregnant again and living with that crazy man, she may never find out. If she’d only let me help her. I can’t help unless I’m asked. I look over at Marquez. “Young Prince, I hope you listen to your old Grandpappy.” He’s pulling at the seatbelt. He don’t know what I’m talking about.
The water park emerges from behind a billboard. I park behind a wooden building in the shade of the overpass. Passing cars roar and clatter along the highway above us.
I shove the heavy door open and swing my legs over, grunting as I stand up. The car is full in the shade in this spot, but it’s already getting hot in there. I help Marquez out of the car. I can’t hold his hand and use my walker too, so I shout at him to stay close. He stops once to point at a distant water slide, a blue tube stretching and twisting up into the sky. I say, “Keep up, Baby Boy.” He hops excitedly, like he might run across the parking lot and leave me shuffling along after him.
A bored-looking white girl sits in the ticket booth smacking her gum. She’ll be glad to see us. A cripple and a toddler. Discounts all around. But it still costs eight dollars. We don’t care how much it costs, do we, Marquez? Eight dollars is a bargain for a day out with my best boy. Marquez darts behind the counter. He pulls a mop out of its bucket like his grandpappy used to do on those ships in the Navy. Murky water slops out everywhere. “Marquez, come here boy.” My tone is sharp, and he starts slowly back, watching me good to see what I might do to him. His new shoes are stained a gritty black.
The girl stops smacking her gum. “Can you control him in the park?”
“We’ll be OK, young miss.” I say politely, like I didn’t hear that snap in her voice. “Come on boy.”
We head for the lockers. Herding toddlers around is just like playing pinball, ‘cept you don’t need no flippers to get them started.
Marquez kicks his legs while I pull off his shirt and shorts. He’s got on one of those throwaway diapers, and it’s fuller than I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be. I rub the dried boo-boo off of him with wet paper towels, and pull his shorts back over his naked little bottom. Baby Girl talkin’ ‘bout I need diapers too. I may be stove up, but I can still hold my water. The day old Hammerhead needs a diaper…well, I just don’t know. I pull off my trousers and sandals. My guayabera shirt stays on—I don’t want to take too much sun. Wearing them shirts, the people down here always think I’m from Cuba or Haiti or somewhere. Talking to me in Spanish or Creole, even strangers on the street. I’m from Buffalo, I tell them. The shirts are to keep me cool, like I’m lying in sherbet. I pull on some cut-off sweat pants and a pair of flip-flops, and I’m ready.
We’ve nearly got the place to ourselves. Marquez is too small to get on most of the good stuff yet, but I ain’t trying to take my only grandbaby to no free public pool. All that urine and sweat from them hundreds of little poor kids in there. Grandpappy got eight dollars, so we coming here. Marquez wades right in like he comes here every day.
That Gulf Coast sun is sliding across the sky like a pat of butter on a frying pan. It’s the reason Baby Girl and me got out of Buffalo when I left the factory, tired of all them blustery gray days up north. This sun warms the bodies of us old men, till the day that nothing warms them no more.
Marquez jumps and giggles, sloshing around like he in a rainstorm. The blue cotton of his shorts goes black. My walker’s so grimy I’m ashamed to take it in the pool, so I shuffle along the bottom in my flip-flops, holding onto the side. Marquez sees some big kids over in the deep part of the pool, and he lunges towards them, shouting and splashing, and my heart nearly stops, but a gull picking at French fries gets his attention, and he turns back from the drop-off just in time. In spite of the little scare, we keep playing, splashing, laughing, pointing at airplanes and birds and whatever else catches our eye. Just my baby boy and me.
He gets fussy after a good long while, so we climb out of the pool and shuffle towards the shade of lounge chairs set up under canvas umbrellas. Sit down next to a white woman about my age, a plump lady wearing gold hoop earrings and rings on all ten fingers. She has on dark sunglasses and one of them floppy straw hats that nice ladies wear in the garden. I get some crackers out of the duffel bag that I packed for Marquez. He eats them like he’s in a hurry. Then he lays his head down on my shoulder, sweet as sugar.
The woman pulls up the brim of her hat, smiles. “Goodness,” she says, “He’s adorable.”
“Why thank you. He’s my daughter’s baby.”
She takes off her sunglasses, and her eyes smile. Prob’ly thinking I look too damn good to have a grandson. Crow’s feet feather out from the corners of her eyes, and her face is tanned deep, tan on top of tan.
She reaches over and strokes Marquez’s arm with white-tipped fingernails. “Where’s your grandmother, little one?” But he’s asleep.
“He never knew her.” I say, knowing good and well this lady don’t want to hear it.
“I’m sorry, is she deceased?”
“She left me a long time ago, back when I was still drinking.”
The lady smiles her tight-wrinkled smile, and coughs like something is tickling her throat. She don’t know what to say.
I smile. “He still sees his old Grandpappy though.”
“That’s the important thing. Kids need their elders. Those are my grandchildren over there.” A boy and girl maybe ten years old are splashing around in one of the bigger pools. “They’re visiting from Oklahoma.”
“They’re fine children.” I say.
“Their mother doesn’t bring them down very often anymore.”
I stroke Marquez’s damp hair. “You just got to love them all you can while you got ‘em here with you…teach them and love them.” She nods. We’re just a couple of old people watching children play on a hot summer’s day.
Marquez wakes up. His head leaves a wet spot on the shoulder of my shirt. He watches the lady with wary interest. She fawns over him a while, then her daughter comes by with the kids, and she says goodbye and goes off with her family. I gather up the walker and Marquez’s diaper bag, and we head for the locker room.
Back in our street clothes, we make our way across the parking lot. It’s gotten even hotter, and I’m wishing now I had parked closer. The legs of my walker stick in the gummy pavement with each step. Marquez shuffles along behind me, the walk of tired little boys. The Lincoln is in full sun now. The overpass roars just over our heads. I can’t hear a thing. I unlock the passenger side door, and a blast of superheated air hits me as I swing it open. It feels like looking into the top of a volcano. Marquez’s shorts are still damp, so I put my towel under him and fasten him in, careful not to let his little legs touch the hot metal buckle. The keys jangle in my hand. “I’ll get that AC going, and we’ll be in business, little one.”
I go to close the heavy door, trying to scoot the walker out of the way as I do, but it sticks in the gummy pavement, and starts to tip over. With a sick feeling in my stomach. I spin with the door, the walker going out from under me. The door slams shut. It feels like getting sucker punched. Everything whirls around me. My keys go flying. I hit the ground hard on my hip, a sickly cracking sound, and I don’t need no doctor to tell me I broke it.
The pain knocks the wind out of me. A bolt of searing pain pierces my pelvis as I try to roll over. I can’t breathe to holler, and with the cars whizzing by on the overpass, nobody would hear me anyway. I can’t see Marquez over the door. I knew I should have turned on the AC before I put him in. Jesus, Lord, what was I thinking? The pavement blisters my back through my shirt. I could lay here all day before anyone came by, but my grandbaby hasn’t got all day, not in this heat. The pain is a searing ache deep in my groin, just bearable so long as I don’t move an inch. I strain to reach the door handle, my hand trembling so hard I can’t get a grip. The handle slips up and down in my sweaty fingers. It’s locked up tight. I can’t see my keys anywhere. They must have gone through the chain link fence and I couldn’t reach them now even if I had two good legs. I lie there frozen by pain and fear. Marquez’s little hand presses flat against the window. Darkness seeps across my mind, threatening to take me away with it. But I ain’t going anywhere until I give that baby a fighting chance.
My walker is on its side. I grip it with white knuckles and pull myself to a sitting position. My hip twists with the effort, bone on bone. I’m trembling. My hands are slick with sweat, my leg numb all the way down. I can’t breathe, and I know I’ve only got a moment. With a lion’s roar, I curl my fingers around the windowsill and pull myself upright on my good leg. Marquez is looking at me. He’s awash in sweat. His mouth is open, sucking at the air. He’s too intent on breathing to cry. I smile at him. Fear not, Baby Boy. Grandpappy’s here. Hammerhead to the rescue. I center my forehead on the window as darkness falls over my vision, then I draw back. I’m going to give it all I’ve got.
James D. Wright’s works have appeared in print in Mikrokosmos and Heist Magazine, and in several online publications, including Pindeldyboz, flashquake, and Elbow
Creek, among others. He lives in Kansas.