I hate babies. I always say the wrong thing around them. But I agree to do it anyway. I need the money. The mom, all brunette bangs and no make-up, opens the door for me, and returns to her seat on the couch with her magazine, says over her shoulder that the kid’s in the kitchen, and Jeffrey is upstairs taking his sweet time. She rolls her eyes at me, as if to say, Boys will be boys, but I don’t know how this is an example of that, so I scrunch my nose like it itches, even though it doesn’t. I peek to see that the magazine is some Modern Organic Woman crock of yoo-hoo. Her clothing is made out of a rough natural fiber that I imagine monks might wear as part of their practice of self-inflicted torture. She seems like a lesbian.
I was never babysat as a child. My mom painted fresh make-up over her stale make-up and hosted dates in our home. I wander towards the sticky stink of a kid-ruined kitchen and find Roberta making a mess of soggy peas and carrots on the tray of her high chair. I sit and stare, morbidly bored immediately. Roberta stares back for a minute, then returns to destroying everything in arms’ reach. I watch, keeping my mouth shut, until the dad comes in, close-shaved and perfumed, to leave me his cell number and the number for Mimi’s Bistro, in case of emergency he says, in a solemn tone. I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic. I wait for a wink. I nod as he lists the care instructions for his baby, the details of bedtime. He says, Look at me, Mr. Mom! and laughs. He tells me that there is leftover sushi in the fridge. I decide that, in his pressed pink oxford and dressy jeans, he looks pretty gay. I know his type. He’s comfortable because he is rich, and that must make up for the lie he and his wife are living. I vow for the billionth time to never have children. How are you supposed to even talk to babies anyway? The grown-ups leave in a hurry.
“I love you, Baby Robbie,” the dad says.
“Be good, sweet girl,” the mom says. She looks at me, like, You’ll be fine. Babies are easy. I make no effort to assure her that I agree.
“Bad daddy, bad mommy,” is what I hear the baby say, though I assume she means “bye.” Her parents wave and laugh. Then it sounds like the baby says, “Homos!” her grin all wet gums, and her parents shut the door. Me and Roberta are left alone trying not to breathe through our noses as the aftershave fumes fade.
“You think there’s any beer in the fridge?” I ask Roberta. Her answer is an indecipherable gurgle sound, so I find the sushi and help myself to a can of Schlitz. I sit to join the baby for dinner. I lift the sweaty lid of the plastic tray to reveal a vulgar smorgasbord. It all looks a bit too bodily under the kitchen’s yellow light. I am hungry, though. One of the glistening rolls bears an intriguing resemblance to genitalia, so I pick it up between thumb and forefinger. Roberta laughs.
“What?” I say. “You’ve never seen a grown woman eat pussy for dinner?” I wrap my mouth around the slick soft meat and smile with bulging cheeks.
“Pussy!” she parrots. When the sushi and Schlitz are gone, I crack another beer and head into the living room to snoop. All the paisley and decorative throw pillows have a dizzying effect. There are framed photos of Jeffrey windblown on boats and shiny-faced holding neon cocktails with many male friends. There is a framed certificate with the mom’s name on it. It officially declares her certified to administer “vision quest animal tracking hikes” in the state of Massachusetts. I lean in to inspect a display case of knives hanging high on the wall. Next to the knives, there’s another case. This one boasts bright, bristly fishing flies pinned dead still in their frame. An uncolorful feather collection flowers in a scentless spray from a ceramic vase on an end table. Various other tools made of leather and fur and tooth interrupt the muddled teal and purple upholstery throughout the living room. I look over my shoulder at Roberta. She is chewing on her hand. I give serious thought to a sudden hunch that she’s adopted. I drain my beer, and run my finger along the edge of a faux-mahogany breakfront. It showcases the glistening jewels of glass booze bottles. I tap the glass at a bottle of expensive-looking brown liquid, and help myself to a squat glassful of it. I bring my beverage back to the kitchen, thinking I may be getting loose enough to exchange a few words with Roberta.
“Daddy juice!” is what her toothless mouth appears to mumble when I sit. I just sit there taking big, painful gulps. The daddy juice is mostly gone when Roberta pauses, looks at me like the meaning of life has just occurred to her, and shits her diaper. I burp and tell her it’s bedtime. I finish my beverage, pour myself another, and carefully make my way up the stairs, balancing baby and drink like a pro.
Upstairs, I change her diaper and put her in her crib. She stands up and lifts her arms to me, begging “Up. Up.” I lift her and she wiggles wanting to be put down on the ground. It occurs to me that she’s more like a puppy than a person. She rushes to the corner with surprising coordination. She hugs something dark and loose-limbed. She grabs it by the nub-hand and drags it towards my feet. It looks like a demented Goldilocks. She looks up at me and says, “Big Daw!” Big Doll was part of Mr. Mom’s instructions. I crouch too fast to join Roberta and Big Doll on the floor and, at the sudden change of altitude, a few blunt beats swell against my skull from within. Once my brain adjusts, I take a better look at Big Doll. She is too big, really. Bigger than Roberta by about a head and made of rough cloth (not unlike the mom’s tunic) stuffed with something heavy. The thing is not cuddly. Roberta is sucking on Big Doll’s nub-hand. Roberta can tell I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, and she gestures at Big Doll’s other nub-hand. I do as invited and fit the stiff fabric into my mouth. Roberta smiles through her nub. The cloth tastes sweet and salty the way skin sometimes does. We keep at this for a while. Soon, my jaw is tired and I’m just holding the thing in my mouth, letting it soak up my boozy saliva, breathing impatiently through my nose. Roberta makes a sound that has the impatient ring of imminent ecstasy. I remember Mr. Mom emphasizing the importance of Big Doll. He had spelled the words, rather than uttering them before his daughter, as if their utterance would wake a demon. He had assured me Roberta wouldn’t go to sleep without it. The baby snatches the nub from my mouth, does her best to gather Big Doll’s cumbersome body in her arms, and stands, ready for bed now. I lift the heavy pair into the crib clumsily. Big Doll falls in after Roberta, and for a moment I fear Big Doll has injured the baby, but she’s just stunned for a moment, and Roberta simply blinks before fitting her thumb into her mouth and spooning her body against the firm mass of her companion. “Sorry,” she slurs through her thumb, presumably apologizing to Big Doll for handling her so roughly. Roberta rolls her eyes towards me, and repeats herself with more emphasis. “Story,” is what I hear this time. “Sorry story scary,” her eyebrows furrow with the effort of communication. Scary? I think, and I look around. Is she scared? Or does she want a scary story? There is no way of knowing, so I let her have it.
“My bedroom was haunted,” I say. I get as comfortable as I can on a saggy bean-bag. I wrap a hand around one of the bars of the crib. I want Roberta to know I’m here. I suddenly feel I should assure her.
“This,” I trace a circle in the dark air between us as if we’re on opposite sides of a sideways halo, “is the circle of life.” My stomach groans something cranky.
Roberta humps Big Doll gently from behind.
I know I was a mistake baby and I try to explain. “My mama has this big scar smiling across her belly, and it marks the place where the doctors grabbed me out of her. I was slimy as sushi meat and screaming and soft and not yet haunted,” I look over at Roberta and her wide eyes meet mine. I draw another slow, invisible circle in the air. “Kind of like you.” I reach my finger between the crib bars to touch her nose and she snuffles cutely on cue. She is a mistake baby and the opposite of a mistake baby. Discarded by her real mom and then thoughtfully selected by her gay parents. I sip my warm drink and lick my stinging lips. I’m losing my train of thought. I try to get to the point. “Except, unlike you,” I burp. “I had a haunted bedroom.”
The hallway goes dark without a sound. A cool rash of fear starts up my spine and I swallow hard. I remember Mr. Mom bragging on the motion sensor lights he’d just had put in. The itch quiets.
The words find their way through my now-clumsy lips, and my voice sounds roughened, like I’m reciting a lullaby I’m sick of: “Too much sugar water will turn a baby rotten, too much shade, and the baby won’t grow. This is not proper care.”
Roberta makes a gurgle-whimper sound through her pacifying thumb. I blink and swallow. I must have dozed a little. I wipe something wet from my cheek and see that I’ve spit up a little on the bean bag. I wipe it with my sleeve, but the stain stays.
I pick up where I left off, “With her eyes wide and bright from too much TV in the dark, my mom would come up to my room for the company of my sweet sleepy heartbeat, she’d say — up the shag-soft stairs on her sugar-swole feet, she’d say.” I realize my voice is rasping into a ragged whisper, channeling her. “She'd creep right next to my bed and sit there, and she’d tell me over and over again, so I’d know it by heart, her breath like a roman candle in the dark: This story is about you and me. It’s to teach you to never open the door. When I began to open the door, he forced it open, and my hand burned and he was inside, and that’s when I knew I was fucked. Yes, fucked. A grown-up word for a grown-up lesson. He didn’t care that my hand was hurt or that I knew I was fucked. He cornered me into the bathroom. His slammed his hand over my mouth. It tasted dirty. He didn’t care what his hand tasted like. My scream died before it was born, like I sometimes wished you would do. I know it’s a depraved thing for a mother to say, but it’s true. Not like the lie my mama told me about babies coming from the blood-brown mud of the Mississippi River. I sometimes wished for that, too. He hissed shut up just to spit in my face and he was holding both my hands tight, so I felt the warm saliva of this stranger roll down my cheek, and the river of his mucus, joined my stupid tears, and the stream of pearls hitting the tiny white floor tiles like baby teeth. He told me to stop my ugly crying and he slammed all his weight against me, and my head hit the mirror, and while I fell I thought of my soft-faced mama who gave me that necklace when I graduated from college and how she never even graduated high school and when I opened my eyes my own soft face was pressing into the slippery tiles. And this is where babies come from.”
I fill my mouth with the last of the sweet stinging nightcap. I swallow it hot and whole. “And then she'd start again from the beginning,” I hear my wet voice say. “And keep going like that.” Roberta’s breath whistles a soft steady song. “Until I fell asleep. Sometimes she was still there when I woke up.” I hear the front door open and Mr. Mom saying shhh to his wife’s stomping boots. I whisper the end of the story to Roberta and Big Doll, “Sometimes gone.”
Polly Duff Kertis's work has appeared in The Agriculture Reader, BORT Quarterly, Tin House's Flash Fridays, The Collagist, elimae, The Fiddleback, and other journals. She's the author of two chapbooks of radical translation, OLD GUS EATS (Publishing Genius, 2012) and MIRROR POEMS (O'Clock Press, 2012). She teaches writing and lives in Brooklyn.