Happy Baby is the story of Theo, once an orphan in the Chicago foster care system and now a grown man living in California. Theo, saturated with memories of abuse and heartache, and filled with the simple wish to understand more about himself, returns to Chicago to reconnect with an old girlfriend from his troubled youth. Told in reverse order, this edgy and powerful novel slowly and subtly turns mysterious, as we attempt to recognize the root of Theo's plight and the source for his quietly wavering humanity.
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.47(d)|
About the Author
Stephen Elliott is the author of four novels as well as the nonfiction book Looking Forward to It: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process. A native of Chicago, he lives in San Francisco and lectures at Stanford University.
Read an Excerpt
Maria Has a Child
It's a half-empty early morning flight from Oakland into Midway and the sun is coming up, lighting the plane like the inside of an eyelid. The stewardess asks in a whisper if I would like another coffee and I say OK and she sets it on the tray with a white napkin and a small bag of cheese- flavored pretzels, which I stuff in the pouch with the others. I reach over my head and turn the light off. The plane is glowing, there's so much sun outside. I'm in the back and I have all three seats. I haven't been in Chicago in six years and I've only been on a plane three times in my life. I don t like to fly.
There's a giant sound like a bird has been sucked into one of the jets and the seatbelt light flashes on. I grip the armrests as the plane shakes violently twice then continues its course. The pilot doesn't say anything over the speakers and most of the passengers stay asleep. I turn and see the stewardess in the dark back cabin, sitting in a triangle of light, on a platform against a series of metal cases, reading a magazine, the belt across her lap unfastened. I have blisters on both hands where my girlfriend, Ambellina, burned me with a cigarette when I told her I was going to Chicago for the weekend. I brought just a small bag with me, a change of clothes, a notebook, and an alarm clock. I'm traveling light.
Chicago has changed. Midway is a big airport now and there's a train that rides all the way to downtown. Hallways as long as boulevards lead to a food court offering soaked beef sandwiches and Vienna hot dogs. The new Mayor Daley welcomes me home, his face plastered across a billboard in front of the train station. I want to climb the scaffolding and kiss him and tell him I'm glad to be back here, even for just a little while. There's a look in the mayor's eyes, both knowing and sinister. Chicagoans prefer their politicians crooked and I can understand why. Whatever he has to do, he looks like the guy for the job.
At the Loyola train stop I board the Devon bus and pass Clark Street, where the diners are still painted like Indian casinos, tomahawks and dollar signs over plates full of fried eggs and chili fries. The bus passes Carrie's, which I didn't expect to still be there, but it is, an Irish bar in the middle of a Muslim neighborhood. Then Western Avenue, Hobby Models now a luggage store, the Nortown theater replaced with a Pakistani assembly hall. Little India, traffic pauses. I lay my head against the glass, and the slow rocking of the bus nearly puts me to sleep. Shirnee bob in pans full of syrup in the windows. I get off the bus to walk.
Almost immediately the strap of my bag whips tight against my neck. "Don't I know you, motherfucker?" I turn to face a man six-and-a-half feet tall with enormous sloping shoulders, his head like an anvil with a bald stripe running down the center of it, a necklace of tattoos partially obscured by the collar of his denim jacket. His clothes are torn and his face smeared in acne and weeping sores.
"I don't think so."
"Give me a dollar."
We stand for a second. His nose is like a bull's and pulses while he breathes. His lips peel back to reveal cracked brown teeth and spangled gums. He balls his fists and releases a low growl. The foot traffic continues around us as if nothing is happening. This is where I grew up.
"I'm just kidding," he says, his cracked lips retreating into a smile. "You don't know me, man. Don't look so scared."
And he turns and walks away, the dirty frays on the bottom of his jeans brushing the sidewalk.
After California Avenue the bright colors are gone and things get quieter. Three Orthodox Jews stand in the rubble parking lot of a synagogue reading to each other and swaying beneath the chipped wooden sign of a star and sickle.
Thillen's Stadium is still there, where the Little Leaguers play next to the canal. Brown's Chicken has been replaced by Fried USA. There's the Lincoln Bridge, which I won't cross, but on the other side of the bridge is Lincoln Village and Shadows Nightclub, its sign divided into great black wings spread against the facade. I won't go over there. I can see from where I'm standing that they've built new movie theaters and a car wash. The old mall has been scrubbed and painted into a shiny metropolis and it hides the cheap motels on the other side of it. The bridge is city limits. After the bridge you're not in Chicago anymore.
I knock on apartment No. 10 on the third floor of a three-story rail flat. All of the apartments share a long cement porch and the view is of a closed-down gas station and a deli. One of the apartments has half a dozen pots full of dead plants outside of its door, another a bicycle frame with no wheels. At the end of the porch a man is having a cigarette; he doesn't look at me when I knock. A woman comes outside, her head wrapped in a scarf and says something to the man but he keeps his back to her and she goes back inside. He pitches his cigarette out to the gutter and takes a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and slowly rolls another one.
"Well," Maria says when she answered the door, a little at first and then all the way, a baby cradled in her arm. She laughs, then I laugh. God she's beautiful. She steps out to the porch and the man on the end turns to regard her. The child stretches its arms and squeezes its tiny fists as if waking from a nap. I look past her to see if the apartment is empty. Then her face, which hasn't changed much, long and oval like an egg. A little older and fatter. Her breasts are larger and she has curves I can make out even beneath her baggy clothes. She's wearing a striped shirt, two buttons open, and blue jeans. She's wearing them in a comfortable way, bunched all the way to her ankles and low on her hips, like she doesn't care how they look. Her dark cheeks almost pink but she isn't wearing any makeup. I wasn't expecting her to have a baby. The baby changes everything.
"You show up at the oddest times," she says, which makes me smile even more, thinking about the last time, ten years ago, when her boyfriend threw me out of a bar.
"It's only three o'clock," I say, wondering how it took so long to get here.
"Very funny, Dumbo. You know what I mean."
We're seated at her kitchen table drinking tea. The baby's name is Kyle. It's a small one- bedroom apartment, like a studio with doors, but a lot larger than the place she and I used to live in. There's an enormous box of corn flakes above the fridge, three pans of different sizes dangling over the stove. She has a couch, a small stereo shaped like a jukebox, some toys on the floor, and one entire wall filled with paperback books.
"What happened to your hands?" Maria asks. The blisters are the size of pencil erasers. I had forgotten my burns. I think she would understand if I told her. Ambellina was jealous; she gets that way. I look down at the muscles between my thumbs and index fingers, push my thumbs against my fingers. Ambellina didn't want me to go but I told her I had to so she pulled my hand toward her, locking my elbow between her knees, pushing my palm into her leg. I said no and she said yes, pressing the cigarette into the back of my wrist, making a sound like the sizzle of an opium pipe. I screamed. "Now the other one," she said.
"Bacon grease," I tell Maria. "It's nothing."
"I don't know," she says, patting her child. She lives here alone. There's no evidence of anyone else in this apartment, a small dish of baby food perched on the edge of the sink. The runners are tan and the paint is chipped, revealing an older layer of blue paint beneath it.
When I first met Maria we were fifteen and both living in state homes for wards of the court. All the boys were playing basketball when the van from the girls' home arrived. She was just admitted, wearing all pink: pink shoes, pink earrings, pink shorts and shirt. She looked like an unopened piece of candy. She was shy and stared but I knew something horrible had happened to her because girls don't often end up in group homes. We made a lot of promises then, about staying together and looking out for each other. Or maybe I made all the promises, about protecting her and keeping her safe.
"Don't look at me like that," she says, reaching to the counter for the bottle.
She has an arm around Kyle's waist, her head titled toward the baby's crown. Kyle has his little hands on the bottle.
"He's like a little person," I say.
"Except he knows what he wants." I stare at the baby, a pile of creases between rings of fat. His skin is the color of eggnog; he has enormous ears.
I notice Maria isn't wearing any rings but that doesn't mean anything. I can see the top of her bra where her shirt is unbuttoned. I was married once, before Ambellina. Ambellina has children I've never met. A girl and a boy. But sometimes just a girl. Ambellina's story changes from time to time. I'm sure she has a daughter, because the girl comes up again and again. I've heard the stories change from grammar school to high school in the time I've been with her.
Kyle has little brown hairs, curly and soft, different from Maria's black hair, which has always been straight and dry. The two of them are smiling. I wonder how much time she spends here, speaking with her baby, and if she talks to anyone else. She turns the child around so he faces me, his fat little belly hanging over his diapers, his mouth open, waiting for some more good news, the bridge of her hands under his arms. The baby is directly between us. I lean back in my chair, fingers on the cup handle. I thought Maria would be alone or she would be married but I didn't expect this. Two smiling faces. The pale baby, his mouth the shape of a firecracker with a wick on both ends. Maria, her dark cheeks flushed. That could have been our child. He's not even a year old. I would have named him Kyle too, if that's what she wanted.
"Tell me something," Maria says.
"I live in San Francisco now. Every day it's the same temperature. My girlfriend didn't want me to come here."
"Maybe you should have listened to her," Maria says. "I'm just teasing. You want some more tea?"
"Sure. It's good tea."
"Hold on a second. Let me get this pot going again. And let me change this little guy." Maria keeps Kyle against her as she reaches over the stove light. Maria used to be skinny. She used to starve herself.
There's a couple of clicks as the flame pops beneath the kettle. She leans her hip into the cabinet and lays Kyle on top of a towel on the counter, pulls the pin out of his diaper. Kyle kicks his legs like he's riding a bicycle.
"This isn't a bad place," I say. "Bigger than my place. I live on a busy street and dirt comes through the window from the exhaust. There's a factory across the street where they make fancy chocolates but you wouldn't know it looking at the sidewalks at night. I'm thinking about moving somewhere nicer." I scratch my head.
"Hand me one," she says, lifting Kyle, pointing to a box. I get up and grab her a diaper and then sit back down. The old diaper goes in a sack held with two rods. She wipes Kyle and fastens the new diaper around his legs.
"How about you?
"About me?" Maria begins. "I still live in Chicago."
"Well, there was Joe. That's most of it. You met him."
"I did. I met him the hard way."
"Everybody met Joe the hard way." I bring the cup back to my lips before realizing it's empty. "Hey, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have let him do that."
"It was out of your hands."
"I can't even tell you. I loved him the most."
I feel something drop and put the cup down harder than I mean to. I don't think I ever doubted for a day that I loved Maria the most. My wife knew that. She could sense it. I love Ambellina too, but it's different. On my last day in the group home, Maria and I were in the smoking room waiting for the car that was going to take me to a place called Prairie View. I was almost seventeen and I would have done anything for Maria. My hand was inside her shirt, fiddling with the bottom of her bra, feeling the weight of her breasts. She slid her leg over my legs and then to the other side of me and I was top of her on the couch. We were waiting for that car and it felt like we had all the time in the world but we used it as best we could. I don't know if the staff heard us or not. But no one came to the door.
"Don't look at me that way either," she says. "You look like a wolf."
Kyle starts to cry. I turn away for a second. It's an awful sound. The kettle is ringing and the room is filling with steams. Maria reaches over and shuts the stove off, the pot rattling across the burner.
"Let's give the baby some attention," she says. "Let's all look at the baby. Who's the baby? Are you the baby? Everybody loves the baby. Everybody listens to the baby when the baby cries." She's bouncing Kyle and soon Kyle is happy again. It seems so easy.
Maria pours tea into my cup. She's still holding Kyle with one arm. The cup full, she keeps the pot near to my hand. "I've had burns like those," she says. "They're going to scar. First they'll become like little craters on your wrist. Then, as they heal, they'll leave pale round marks. I have eight of them on my right thigh. Starting on my knee and finishing at my waist. They're like buttons.
I stare at her middle, try to imagine her new scars beneath her clothes. "What are we talking about.?"
"I was telling you my story."
I hide my hands in my lap for a moment until she looks away.
"How did you find me, by the way?" she asks, placing the kettle back on the stove and taking her seat across from me but holding Kyle so his face is just about the table, his tiny hands gripping the edge.
"I see you," I say to Kyle. He grins at me. "People aren't that hard to find. You can find anybody now for fifty dollars. You were telling me about Joe."
"Yes, Joe. I lived with Joe for years. He was always took care of me. This is what I think. That some people, they get what they want, it just makes them want you more. He was a s20violent person."
"That's one way of putting it."
"He never hurt me too much."
"How would you know?"
"Don't joke. They gave him fifty years." She's quiet for a second and the baby is still. In the silence I hear voices coming from the wall. It's her neighbors having a conversation about soup. She smiles awkwardly when she realizes what I'm listening to. "He had two strikes already for some other things. He strangled a man outside the Oak Club. I saw him do it. They had said something to each other. Joe was the bouncer. I never got the full story. Everybody has a different view of the situation. Sometimes Joe would kick somebody out just to have a fight."
She takes Kyle in both hands again and bounces him up and down. I wish she would stop playing with the baby. He yells and claps. I wait for her to continue while she pulls Kyle toward her and he stretches his arm out and she takes his fist in her mouth. Then she opens her mouth and he takes his arm back. She turns in her chair and crosses her legs.
"You're spoiling him," I say.
"That's OK. One of us needs to be spoiled. Makes up for the cheap diapers. Anyway, this guy. You know I would let Joe do anything he wanted. I wanted him to do whatever he wanted to me. I tried to cover the bruises with makeup. My caseworkers wanted to put me in a woman's shelter to get me away with him, so I stopped meeting with her and lost my SSI. I didn't care what she thought. But he needed more. Hence the bacon grease."
Maria reaches across the table to touch the blisters near my fingers. They're raised and yellow with pink halos around them.
"Wait. Don't do anything." She touches the blister carefully. "Joe wanted to hurt people; he couldn't help it." I can feel the bubble of liquid move just a little bit under pressure. Her finger glides along the top of the blister. "He would pierce me with things. He carved his name into my back with a scalpel and covered it with baking soda so it wouldn't heal. I could show you." She waits for an answer.
"No. I'm not interested."
"Fine. People don't think that's love. But listen, this is important. If you pop these you have to cover them with Bacitracin and a Band-Aid. You have to watch out for infection. But you shouldn't pop them. They'll heal better if you don't." I nod my head. "Promise me."
"Liar." Maria continues to look at the blisters. "OK. Joe is standing up and he has his hands around this guy's throat. And the guy is turning blue. And people are pulling on Joe's arms, trying to get him to let go. But Joe worked out six days a week. He only ate red meat. One guy was literally hanging from Joe's arm with his full weight. But nobody could get him to let go. He still had the guy's neck when the police came. There were three cars surrounding Joe. I thought they were going to bulldoze him into the bar. Those police, with their guns, you could tell they were scared."
"A badge doesn't change that."
"I wouldn't testify and they threatened to lock me up for contempt of court. They came around here. They said they had a warrant but I didn't ask to see it and the only place they searched was the refrigerator. They didn't need me-there were dozens of witnesses. Finally they left me alone."
I wonder how she pays the rent here. Maria took our savings with her when she left me, a couple of hundred dollars, but she left her clothes, and the apartment continued to smell like her for the long time. This is a small apartment to have a child in-a little front room, the kitchen part of the living room, a television set with a towel over the front of it. A cable sticking out of the wall not connected to anything. Hundreds of paperback books, the kind you get in a grocery store. A bedroom I can see from here, just big enough for a pine bed and a dresser. But there's no crib. She must sleep with Kyle, so if he wakes up crying she's there right behind him, her breasts and her stomach. I bet he goes right back to sleep. I bet he has no idea how small the apartment is that he's living in because she doesn't let him know.
"He's not Joe's child, is he?"
"No. He's not. He's only my child."
"Can I hold him?"
"In a little while. Not just yet."
Table of Contents
|1.||Maria Has a Child||1|
|5.||Getting In Getting Out||85|
|7.||Where You Could End||115|
|11.||Home Before the Lights||179|
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