Number Four and Number Twelve by Chris Bauer
arisol in number sixteen smiles a mouthful of baby teeth, the front two missing. The newspaper's where she dropped it on the motel walkway, out of the sun and opened flat next to me in my lawn chair. Her hands and what's in them go behind her back. We could do this with her hands in front of her but she's never caught on.
She rocks forward on her feet then backward, forward then backward, toes-heels, toes-heels on the parking lot blacktop, waits for my first guess. The little bugger's counting her chickens.
"Blueberry," I go.
"Strawberry." It's June, the season for it. Should have been plenty of strawberry.
"Nope. Last guess."
Better not be lemon. I can't stand their lemon. "Peach."
I hold out my good hand, open it and wait. She drops the pie in. I wish they put pictures on the packages.
"It's lemon," she says. "Lemon's all they had. The lady in front of me got the last strawberry." She throws a leg over the crossbar of her bike, a tag sale special with some rust on the rims and three missing spokes. Her words whistle through the space in her teeth. "I asked her to trade. She said nope, she hates their lemon. Sorry, Butch." She puts out her hand. "Six and a quarter."
I know my numbers, I remind her. Two coffees, a small pie and the newspaper, plus her errand fee, everything doubled for not guessing right on the pie. It's worth it, to me anyway.
The Veranda Motor Court Hotel is a pickle-tickle highway stop on route 309 that wouldn't keep food on the owner's table if it weren't for government housing supplements. Day rates, disabilities and a few folks who think they've got the inkblots figured out, other water-treaders like them, me included. A diner on one side, Bert's Smoke Shop and Package Store on the other, a convenience store just past Bert's. Pretty much centrally located. I sip my coffee and finish the pie. The newspaper is for number twelve. The second coffee is too, if she can keep it down. I tuck the paper under my arm, walk a few doors up and knock. The wait is always difficult.
Ellen says to come in, winces while she pulls herself up in bed. I tuck some pillows behind her, between her back and the headboard screwed into the wall. Ellen is twenty-four but looks much older, an age she will never see, often says she's thankful for the small favor. A torn up wisp of a woman, all except for her milkmaid boobs. Them boobs and her cute overbite near got me into trouble soon after I met her, but she never held a grudge. It was the Bushmills talking I'd said by way of an apology. Yes, the Bushmills talking, that's what it was, had been her answer. Loudest liquor I know, I went, and don't I know most of them. You should think about quitting, she went. We both dropped it.
I'm twice her age and I don't think about her that way anymore. Ellen rubs sleep out of her eyes.
"Newspaper delivery," I go, a smile behind it. "Rise and shine."
Ellen coughs a greeting that turns into a hand wave halfway through. Her eyes are more ghoulish, her roots darker today. Looks worse in general, but I hold my smile. Her husband kicked her out of their double-wide and never let her back in, not even for her AIDS meds. He'll deeply regret that, the holding onto her meds part, she's told me. When they come looking-and they will come looking, Ellen says-they'll use the meds against him, the pervert.
It's been five months since their separation, her husband granted custody. She'd whored around for a living before they met, had one lapse afterwards, except she's sure it was a set-up. Had to be, since her husband had a videotape of it. A tape the court now has. But he's a pedophile, she'd pleaded, something she didn't know until after her daughter was born. So where's the videotape of that, the court asked. The video is in her head, she told the judge. In there and she can't get it out. Him with her baby. Heard it all before, the judge said. A common allegation. He said, she said, blah, blah, blah. Custody to the father, visitation to the mother, case closed.
"How's Miss America today?" I go. Ellen's got no one to do for her except me.
"Fine," she goes, a pat answer. We don't discuss her sickness much. It is what it is, like the missing fingers on my left hand. A stevedore accident. Part their fault, part my fault, part the Bushmills.
Ellen walked out of her last foster home at fifteen, was on the street till nineteen, quit the whoring and the drugs by twenty-one. Got married, got pregnant, had the baby, thought her life had turned around. Got full-blown AIDS. That's Ellen's story.
Her story, my story, we never went much more into either, except she won't be getting better and wants to be cremated. There's papers to make this happen, in a drawer in her nightstand. She has me check on them every day to make sure they're still there. And every day I say to her, where would they go? Then I take them out and show them to her like she's asked.
She sips her coffee and runs her tongue over her upper lip. We both hold our breath. She sips again, more this time, nods an okay. It's how we know if it will be a good day, if she can drink her coffee without puking it back up. I've joked with her about it, said if there was a Dunkin Donuts nearby she'd have better days and more of them. They make better coffee.
Ellen reaches for the newspaper on the nightstand. She raises her eyebrows playful-like and tilts her head. "So?" she says. She knows where the paper came from.
"Lemon," I go. "Struck out again." This gets a small grin out of her. I grin, too. The way I see it, little Marisol gets a new bike sooner. A girl's bike, one without a crossbar. I've learned to like their lemon. Kids don't need to stick out.
Ellen has visitation with her baby daughter twice a week, half days, unsupervised. She feeds the baby her bottles, changes her diapers, cuddles and talks to her like moms do, comforts her when the pain of the disease hits, cries with me afterwards. She calls my place when she gets tired and I watch the little darling for a bit so Ellen can nap. I wake her up in time for the pick up. Except they know. The husband, the court, the social worker, they all know how weak Ellen is. This is why the visits are being terminated. It would be bad for the baby if Ellen died during one of them, the court decided. I told the social worker I stop in every day, explained to her it wouldn't go down like that. Who the hell are you, the social worker said.
The last of the visits will be next week. If her sickness doesn't take her by then she'll go soon after, when the visits stop. This I can guarantee.
She unfolds the newspaper. "Headlines or sports page?" she says.
The Pope's picture is on the front page. I want to know what's up.
"Headlines first," I go.
The Pope is sick. Gas prices are up. I listen as I grab a tall glass from the drying rack and turn on the kitchenette spigot.
"First the white bottle," she goes. "A teaspoon."
The President is in New York. There was a shooting at Maxie's Tavern last night. I put a teaspoon of her prescription into the glass. A few stirs turn the water a milky white.
A rock and a hard place is how she's explained it. Wasn't never much of a life for her, the abuse she endured, and it went on in more than one of the homes where the courts put her. There are fates worse than death and that's one of them; far worse, she believes. A real sticking point with her, that the life after this one will be better, and that for some, the sooner the passage, the better. A mother, had there been one for her, would have known this, Ellen says. Would have known the misery in store for her, the misery Ellen has lived, the misery Ellen is living now. A mother would have done something about it. Whatever it took. Ellen says a good mother makes the tough decisions.
The happiest day of her life was the day her daughter was born. Ellen finally had the world by the ass and was set to give it a good shake, was how she put it. They both would, she and her daughter. Then everything went to shit. Soon as she and the baby came home. To shit. Now he's got her and there's not much she can do about it in her condition. Nothing different than what she's already doing.
A rock and a hard place. Frying pans and fires. Ellen wants to be the mother she never had.
"Square blue bottle, orange stripe. A teaspoon." The chalky water turns orange.
She gets to the sports page. The local baseball team is hanging onto first by a thread.
Ellen's harped about what should happen when the day comes. The mortician gets the legal papers. Her belongings get burned. Everything, she said. Don't keep anything, you hear me, Butch? Nothing goes to charity, nothing gets recycled. Burn it all and forget about me. I care for you a great deal, she said, and I'm grateful our paths crossed. You've got the rest of your life and you need to live it. Promise me you will do these things, she said; please promise. So I promised.
"Two white pills, three red pills," she goes.
I remember the doses, I tell her, and I shake them out. I'm good at numbers.
I go for a smoky-brown jar with a wide mouth that contains a special mix of powders, the dose, according the Ellen, whatever she wants it to be. To rid her of the pain. She watches me stir in a few pinches, has me add a few more, the jar nearly empty, no expression on her face, gives me a weak smile when I'm finished. She nags me until I wash my hands, has me wash them a second time. In case you're, you know, allergic or something, she says. She tells me again how lucky she is to have me living four doors away and doing for her. I'm taking advantage of you, she says, and I feel terrible about it. No, you are not, I say. She opens her mouth, wants to say more, draws in air and holds it. Wants me to know but doesn't want me to know. Wants me to understand, is afraid I won't, is maybe more afraid I will. All this from one breath, one look.
I don't give her a chance to explain. "How about the travel section?" I ask. "Anything good today?"
She exhales, lifts the newspaper and reads to me about Alaska. Land of the midnight sun. I could never handle Alaska. I'm a morning person.
She finishes taking her meds and wants to use the toilet; I carry her there and back. She asks me to mix up some powdered baby formula for her daughter and we go through the same routine. A spoonful of this, a few pinches of that. Vitamins in powdered form, according to Ellen, but some of it don't look much different than her pain medication. The need to confess freezes her again; I coax her into reading from the personals. She has me wash my hands. Ellen is a good mother. One of the best.The phone rings. I hand it to her and listen. It's her husband.
Her daughter can't keep anything in her, is vomiting, has diarrhea, may be dehydrating. What have you done to her, he says. No, what have you done to her, she says. He takes a few more shots at Ellen. She hands the phone back to me. No visit today.
Ellen starts nodding off after a decent cry, fights sleep as she goes over things with me again, me sitting next to her and holding her hand. My papers go to the mortician, she says, my stuff gets burned. Everything. No mementos, leave nothing behind, no traces outside of what's in that perverted bastard's trailer. In the back of his medicine cabinet, she'd like to add but doesn't. Please, please, please don't forget, she says. You agreed, Butch, remember how you agreed. You are my Butch. My dear, sweet, simple Butch.
She's asleep now and I see the comfort a morning nap can bring, the slight rise and fall of her chest, her breathing slow, calm, restful, through her nose and through her mouth. I lean in close and kiss her on the forehead.
I whisper yes, I do still agree. To all of it.