Mugwah, the Winged Tortoise of Love

 

I

Essex Junction, Vermont, 2006

                       

            The last time she saw Tommy Greene was in a laundromat in downtown Essex Junction, where he gave her $180 in cash in a plain white envelope. She drove her car in to meet him through a cold, drenching, late-winter downpour. The grayness and the raw, chill rain had infected the little college town that morning like a virus; the streets and sidewalks were waterlogged, the stormdrains overflowing, the stores and cafes, with their pale yellow beacons of light,  lost and abandoned in the torrent.             

            Amanda cruised slowly by the laundromat once before she parked. But even with her wipers flapping, she could not see clearly through the front glass windows. She thought to herself: if he's in there, he's doing his laundry. It was a ritual of his that had once amused her, like most everything he did to save money. Amused her and then, long before the end, irritated her. He was unaware of the irony, of course: the rich boy who clips grocery coupons, who buys his shirts and pants for under a dollar at the local Listen center. And then, who, once a week, stuffs those same clothes into pillowcases, dons a faux-raggedy outfit, fills his pockets with quarters, drives his indigo Lexus the six blocks to the Suds-a-Rama and sits inside for an hour or two watching his clothes go around and around. All this effort, all this fuss, when he could have easily bought his own machines, or hired a Chinese laundry to do it for him. Of course the reason most people avoid laundromats, Amanda thought to herself, is because it's such a colossal waste of time. Tommy was 26 years old and he had never held a job. Perhaps he never would. His parents gave him $3000 a month and required nothing of him in return. Most days he had no idea how to fill the long hours.     

              $3000 a month! She hadn't discovered that amazing figure until a year after they had moved in together and when she did, when she happened across his green checkbook on the floor by their bed, and on an impulse opened it and scanned the transactions, it had changed her view of him forever. She had known, of course, that he lived off his parents. Yet he was always broke, always bouncing checks, always pleading poverty. She believed what he had so often implied: that his parents, unsupportive of his artistic ambitions, were cold-bloodedly starving him into choosing a more respectable career. She felt sorry for him, and lent him money, had sometimes even paid the rent herself, without him paying her back. Gradually, like the intrepid Inspector Poirot Tommy admired so much on Mystery Theatre, she pieced together the truth out of the paper trail: the receipts and monthly statements, the letters from lawyers and creditors, strewn carelessly throughout the huge, ramshackle Victorian house they shared and on his laptop that he kept carelessly open for inspection. It turned out that his parents, who lived most of the year in Switzerland, and summered in Nantucket, took care of almost everything for him, over and above his allowance: the insurance, the car, the credit cards, even the cleaning lady who came twice a week.

            These revelations offended Amanda in ways that she found nearly impossible to articulate to him, although she had tried more than a few times, maybe more than a thousand times. She would tell him that she had grown up in a family where money was earned week by week and never wasted. That her father was a mailman in the town where she grew up, East Montpelier, and never had more than two weeks vacation a year. That she herself struggled to keep her own checking account balanced, not just to save on the horrendous service charges, but because writing bad checks was morally wrong, a breach of good faith, goddam it, not to mention illegal. Then she would have to insist that she was not, as he labeled her, a prude about money, exactly. It was just that his own promiscuity and slovenliness was so grotesque. So self-indulgent, so pointless, so unthinking.

            Then six weeks ago, she moved out. The movers, a sullen pair from Starving Students, kept asking her what stayed and what went, even though she had tagged everything that was hers with yellow PostIt stickers. It was perhaps bewildering to them how little was actually leaving the house. Through their eyes Mandy saw frankly how her four years with Tommy had shrunk down to a rather miserable collection of artifacts. The removal of her few pieces of furniture, her clothes and her boxes of books and CDs made no dent in the general chaos of things in all of those rooms. That was what Tommy did, after all: he bought things. He accumulated objects of value that turned into junk the instant they came into his possession, like a kind of reverse Midas touch.

            The car tools still sitting in their wrappers in the double garage were a perfect example. He'd decided one day he simply had to stop paying a garage mechanic to service his Lexus; it was costing him too much. So he bought a set of Chilton repair manuals and all the required tools and parts: ratchets in both metric and American, timing lights, a speed drill, a battery charger, two hydraulic car jacks, an oscilloscope, a buffer, a sander, gaskets, plugs, filters, hoses, something called a timing chain. Every day for a week the UPS truck pulled into their driveway and unloaded box after box after box into the garage, where they remained for years, unopened, forgotten.

            In the living room, on the frayed, white shag carpet across from the big bay window, were piled hundreds of video tapes he never watched, the sum of all of Tommy's daily tapings off of cable, gleaned from TV Guide, carefully stacked and labeled. In odd corners of the room were stacks of unread books, unopened CDs. In the unfinished basement were a myriad of woodworking tools, including a tablesaw and a lathe sitting in boxes unassembled. And in a converted utility closet, his "darkroom", was an expensive enlarger and unopened bottles of costly chemicals.   

            Yet, she believed, if he had had even a fingertip's worth of generosity, her judgment would not have been so harsh, or at least not quite so shrill. But the truth was, the man just would not give, whether it was a dime to the homeless or a ten-spot to a desperate friend in need. His cheapness; that was what astounded and galled her the most.

 

            Amanda spied his Lexus and then parked her blue Escort a few spaces down on Main Street, slanting it in at an angle with the others, a block from the laundromat. She turned off the engine and just sat behind the wheel for a minute. She enjoyed watching the rain flail vainly at her windshield, trying to pound and probe its way inside to her. It was like being enclosed in a bubble, creating a pleasant feeling of security she wished could last forever. It was painful to think of actually opening the door and getting out, of facing the rain and the awful tasks that awaited her one by one, all in a serial row this day, beginning with the laundromat and ending with a string mop in her hands at Rose's Diner, in the near-perfect darkness of 1 AM. Rose made the late-night waitresses wash down the entire floor after closing. Not just behind the counters, but the dining rooms and the bathrooms, too.

            She closed her eyes and tried picturing the white sand beaches of Baja, her one perfect memory, and then opened the door and stepped out into the downpour. She had on her thin tan raincoat but had forgotten both her hat and her umbrella. She was drenched in the time it took to shut the door, lock it, and straighten up again. The drops felt like cold viscous porridge trickling down her neck. She placed her black leather purse on top of her head, although it was absurd to do so, and made for the nearest awning, overhanging a Hair Exclusive beauty salon.

            The interior was lit up luridly, like a gaudy movie set, with mirrors and bright hanging lights and colorful posters advertising exotic shampoos and new hair dyes. Older women in curlers sat in the revolving chairs at various heights, caped and trussed and bibbed like a row of unhappy two-year-olds. An idle beautician with bleached hair, in silver Spandex and an orange tank top sat in one of the chairs filing her long red nails. Tommy's new girlfriend was an aerobics instructor. Tommy helped her fill up tapes with rock music for her classes. He used a metronome, he said, because each song had to be within a certain rhythmic "zone" for it to work. Three weeks ago, he had phoned Mandy and rambled on about it for ten minutes before finally asking to borrow her Anita Baker CD. There was a song on it that would fit the zone perfectly, he said. She'd called him names that time, and then hung up on him, and then was ashamed at her overreaction. She'd wept. He hadn't called back. A few days later, she found out she was pregnant.          

            Mandy looked away from the window, afraid to be seen by the creature in Spandex. She was too broke to have her own hair done. It lay in a lumpy, greasy blonde mass on top of her head. She always preferred to wear it very long, like her mother had before she died, but when waitressing it was simpler just to keep it short.

            "Too many days off lately, Mandy, with too little notice," Rose had said, shaking her bleach-blonde head and waggling her finger, her mouth set in a burgundy pout when Mandy had asked forthe night off. Mandy might have argued, she might have insisted, but she really couldn't afford not to work anyway, not even for a night. And she did feel a loyalty to the other two late-night girls. She and Vickie and Merrill wore identical brick-red uniforms with frilly white change-aprons, were all single, all dropouts from Noble Saints College on Houghton Hill. They complained about the movies and the parties they were missing, complained about the low tips and the lousy hours. They occasionally talked religion and politics and speculated about Rose's sex life, or lack of one. They referred to anyone who came in after eleven as a "Lost Soul." They were comrades, but Mandy didn't consider them real friends. She thought this was her own fault. She would start to tell them something important about her life and then be silenced by a creeping self-doubt, by a disquieting shyness. It was as if in the four years of living with Tommy she had lost the capacity for friendship. Her best girlfriends had vanished in those four years. She realized now that they had all just barely tolerated him from the start. She had thought they were jealous.

            Jealous! Jorie had finally called him a cretin. "I hope his money is worth all the crap you put up with," she had said once and then, "You've become a different person, you know. It's like he has you in a spell. It's kind of disgusting, actually." That was two years ago and Jorie had since moved with her boyfriend south to Raleigh-Durham.          

            How, if she could not explain it to Jorie, could she explain it to others? She and Tommy lived in a kind of free-float. It was a strange, weightless existence. Tommy smoked pot all the time, all his waking hours, and then he would obsess about things. He couldn't sleep, he had panic episodes, he would sometimes scream and cringe at phantoms. He forgot to brush his teeth and so his breath was bad almost all the time. He hated his parents but he wouldn't get free of them.

            It was different at Noble Saints, where he had thrived in the casual, almost anarchic atmosphere of the Art Department, which was open to painters and sculptors twenty-four hours a day. That was where she'd first met him and that was how she first perceived him: as an eccentric, aspiring artist. She was an English major, minoring in art, and she believed his work brilliant. He had a way with moody girls' faces and sunsets. Five pieces, all told, four oils and a collage, by the time they'd dropped out of college to go live together. In the four years since, nothing.

            He had stopped wanting her about halfway through, too, two years before, for long, terrible stretches, while her own desire for him had grown until it had become an almost unbearable hunger, until sometimes at night when his skin would touch hers inadvertently, sparks, like unspent electricity, would fly in front of her eyes.

           

            This rain. The kitchen in her new apartment leaked but she had yet to tell her landlord about it. She had chosen the tiny third-floor one-bedroom on Gladstone Avenue because it was private and available immediately. The rent was outrageous, more than she could afford on a waitress's earnings. She'd had to use her entire savings on the deposit, and lie to the landlord about her income. Now she was three weeks late on the second month's rent. But she had so frantically wanted out, gone from that big blue bughouse, after discovering Tommy's new girlfriend one night in their bedroom, in their bed, when she returned from Rose's.

            "Tommy didn't tell me," the brown-haired girl murmured in passing, after she had dressed and was on her way out the door, dragging her tan sandals, still only half-on, across the white shag rug. "I'm really sorry about this." She was tall and fleshy, with rosy cheeks and a large bust. Later, Tommy referred to her body as "Rubenesque."

            "You mean she's fat. She's not Rubenesque, she's just fat!" Amanda said with venom.

            Tommy was indignant. "She is not fat. She takes great care of herself. What looks like fat to you is really all muscle. She teaches aerobics for a living."

            All muscle. Yeah, right.

           

             She went from awning to awning, doorway to doorway. A Mr. Paperback bookstore, Fanta's shoe shop, Essentials for Men, a staircase to a second floor law office, Aikman's coffee shop. The rain was strafing the sidewalk now, ricocheting off the cement and the awnings like machine-gun fire. A few small explosions of thunder went off overhead. Last night on the phone Tommy had denied the promise he had made to her just the week before, at Rose's, when she had first told him the news and what she was going to do about it.

             At her request, he'd come into the diner late that night. He sat in one of the red Naugahyde booths waiting for her without announcing himself. Vickie mistook him for a Lost Soul and tried to take his order. When he asked for just a glass of water, she slammed her pad into her pocket and stalked off, but he didn't seem to notice. Don't worry, he never notices those things, Mandy told her later.

            She slipped into the booth across the table from him and told him the news.

            "Of course I'll pay for whatever the whole thing costs," he'd said immediately. He looked steadily into her eyes as he said it, and, for a second it was as if chivalry had suddenly, miraculously, washed over him in a great swell.    

            And of course she had to reply to him, "No, forget it, I don't need your money."   

            "Oh," he said, breaking his stare and gazing off just to the right of her head. "Are you sure? Well, okay then."

            What a fool she'd been! Of course she needed his money; she was counting on it. But she had complicated the agenda, which was so stupid, stupid, stupid. She not only wanted his money, she wanted him to insist that she take it. She wanted him to admit his responsibility for this catastrophe, not only for the seed that lay swollen, infected with new life deep within her, but for everything else. Not just the After but the Before. The four years he had tossed aside so easily, so lightly, so frivolously, as if they had never been.

            What an idiot she was! It was too much for his feeble conscience to grasp. Across the booth from her, she watched his fledgling gallantry take wing and then vanish into nothingness. God, he was transparent. Like a 12-year-old boy, with the nutmeg, droopy eyes of an ingenue. And his body language, his tone of voice, changing from solemn forthrightness to giddy relief and pity in a thrice. He was off the hook. He started to chatter, about MTV, about some episode of something or other, she didn't hear a word of it. Christ, it was extraordinary how transparent he was.

            Then last night in her absolute desperation, she had called him from the pay phone at Rose's and begged him for the money.

            "I've never asked you for anything, not a dime," she said, although this was not entirely true.       

            "But you're asking me now!" His voice, refracted by the stratosphere, by sunspots or radiation, perhaps, sounded a dozen time zones away.   

            "This is not just my problem. You're as responsible for this thing as me," she'd told him, struggling not to lose her cool, not to shriek at him.

            "How do I know that for sure?" he'd replied.

            This had so stunned her, she wasn't sure at first she had heard him right. "Wait a minute, wait a goddam minute, Tommy. Are you implying that there's someone else?"

            "How would I know that, Mandy?"

            "Because there isn't and there hasn't been and for you to even suggest such a thing, is really, is really..."

            His disembodied voice went on, as if he hadn't heard her. "But how am I supposed to know that for sure, Mandy?"

            "Because I'm telling you, Tommy." Her voice had become very loud and was starting to tremble in an ugly way. She glanced around the lobby to see if anyone could hear. Nobody was paying attention to her. But the restaurant had filled up with more Lost Souls; she would soon be missed.

            "But it's been over two months since the last time we did it," Tommy said from a long, long way off.

            With a great effort, she forced herself to stay calm and to speak slowly. "It's you, Tommy. There is no question about it. There's been nobody else. I wasn't the one who was unfaithful, Tommy."

            For a few seconds there was nothing but phone ambience.

            Finally, he had agreed to give her the money. Then he had suggested the laundromat. He called it a "neutral ground."       

           

            She smelled the chemical odors of fabric softener and bleach and laundry soap, mingling with the moist, fragrant air from the dryers, even before she opened the swinging glass door and entered the laundromat. The lighting inside was fluorescent and the walls were a muted mustard yellow. Many of the machines were in use but the place looked abandoned. The tiled floor vibrated slightly from the spin cycles at work. There were bright orange signs all around. One read: Please Do Not Overload Me! Beneath the words was a cartoon drawing of a washing machine with eyes like x's and its tongue sticking out, a black squiggle spiraling upward from its interior. 

            He was sitting on a formica counter in the back by the banks of dryers, reading a science fiction novel, one leg dangling over the edge, the other under his butt. The mustard yellow machines gently rattled and hummed around him, as if wrapping him in a cocoon of comforting sound and warmth. He didn't notice her right away. He was wearing the laundry outfit that was a kind of uniform to him: old jeans splattered with flecks of white paint, an untucked light-blue pinstriped shirt, with the front pocket slightly torn, and sandals on his feet.

            He looked small and delicate and elegant, perched up on the plain white counter like an expensive vase. His body had always seemed perfect to her, although he was an inch shorter than her and thin, often looking somewhat underfed. A lock of his dark brown hair fell across his forehead as he read his book. His soft, slightly auburn skin glowed with an almost unearthly sensuality.

            He was so beautiful, so perfectly childlike and oblivious in that moment, there in that artificial light, she felt a terrible pang, as if suddenly all might be, must be forgiven: his selfishness, his insensitivity, his wretched breath. She pressed a hand to her womb and for a long second allowed herself the wild hope that he would once again become more than himself, like the day he had first shocked her with a kiss on the mouth in the college cafeteria, four winters ago.

            Then he looked up as if she had spoken his name aloud. His mouth creased into a guarded, cynical smile and the illusion of grace popped like a soap bubble. He closed the book and jumped down from the table, keeping a finger in between the pages to mark his place. With his free hand he fumbled for the packet of money in his front pocket.

            "I had a hell of a time getting this at such short notice, you should know, Mandy."

            "Tommy, I really don't give two shits about your temporary money problems."

            "The bank wouldn't take my check. I had to cash one at the Red Apple. They almost wouldn't do it, either."

            "But they did, didn't they?"

            "This makes me completely broke, you know."

            "Just till the end of the month, Tommy, which is five days from today."

            "Yeah but meanwhile, what am I supposed to do? I've got to eat. I've got expenses."

            "You can just keep writing those rubber checks. They all know you're good for it. The bank probably looks forward to them, all those service charges. I guess it's too bad you can't write me one, huh?"

            He stopped his fumbling and glared at her. "There's no need to be sarcastic. This is hard for me too."

            She laughed, a short explosion in the poisoned air. "Tell me, Tommy. In what way is this hard for you?"

            "It's hard to see you like this, knowing what you're about to do."

            "You mean you disapprove? You have qualms?"

            "No, no, no. This is for the best, of course. I'm pro-choice. It's your decision and I support it entirely, I really do." His expression while he said this had transformed itself into an almost comical mask of mournfulness, a clown face of exaggerated sadness. His eyebrows were raised, his eyes had widened. The corners of his mouth were turned downward, as if he had to consciously force them in that direction, lest they slipped upward into a smirk. She hated him then with a heat that made her nearly stagger. He had acted so despicably, so dishonorably, so unconscionably piggish. The breadth and depth of his swinishness was so blatant, so insulting, she wanted to slap his face. No, she wanted to bash his skull in with a baseball bat.           

            But she had no bat and right now she needed his money.

            He handed her the envelope with the cash in it. She took the money out and counted it in front of him. There were nine twenty dollar bills. She stuck the envelope in her purse and snapped it closed. They looked at each other in silence.

            His arms flapped upward. His face still had that incredible, pasted-on sad expression. "Well, Amanda, I guess there's not much more to say," he said. His finger was still stuck in the book and she suddenly realized that all he was concerned about at that moment was getting back to reading it.

            She searched his eyes one last time, moving from one eye to the other, as had always been her habit with him, searching, searching, but there was nothing to see beyond their pale brown opaqueness. He had retreated behind the battlements. He was gone.

            "Yeah, there is one other thing I have to say," she said.

            His face fell, genuinely fell, mocking his pretense of sadness. "What?"

            She wanted it to be something that would ruin his day. Ruin his life, if possible. The thing that sprang irresistibly to mind was his breath. Incredibly, she had never mentioned it to him, not once in the four years she had lived with him. Her lips moved as if to say it but then abruptly, unexpectedly, her eyes filled with tears.

            "Nothing, Tommy," she said in a voice that shattered in her throat like glass. And then she turned and fled back out into the rain.           

           

 II

 Burlington, Old North End, 2012

                                   

            Three kids were playing in the sandy front yard when Buzzy pulled up to the curb on his motorcycle. One of them, tan-skinned, chubby, curly-headed, was Mandy's six-year-old son Jody. He and the other two, another boy and a girl, had retrieved an ancient, shiny-black inner tube from somewhere and were arguing how to make best use of it. They were all shirtless in the hot, mid-afternoon sun. They lived in a ten-story apartment building on Poinsetta Drive in the Old North End district of Burlington, the poorest section of town. Their building was made of red brick and cement blocks and housed thirty other families on welfare. The whole street was on welfare, so he had heard. A dozen other Projects, plus one and two story houses with collapsing shutters, dreary shanties and long gray tenements with peeling paint, lined the white concrete road for blocks.

            "Hey, I know that guy! That's my Mom's boyfriend! Hi Buzzy!"

            Jody and his companions dropped the inner tube and ran over to him. Their Keds kicked up dust swirls in the yard. The lawn consisted of individual blades of grass sticking up forlornly among the patches of dirt and gravel. Buzzy parked his Harley and climbed off. He knelt down to chainlock it. Shards of molasses-colored broken glass twinkled up at him near his front wheel. The spot still smelled faintly of sour beer. The kids gathered around him, elbowing each other. He looked up at their solemn faces.

            "Is that your bike, Mister?" asked the boy who was not Jody. He was the tallest of the three, with a triangular wedge of blonde hair on top of his head and buck teeth and thin, drooping shoulders. His voice came out slow and thick; his pale red lips hardly seemed to move.

            "I told you! That's Buzzy! Of course it's his. Whodja think owns it?" Jody slapped the leather seat proprietorially.

            "Buzzy. What kinda name is that?" replied the other boy in the same dead monotone.

            "It's just his name, you idjit," Jody said.

            Buzzy smiled at them and stood up. He deposited the keys in a pocket of his leather jacket. He adjusted his sunglasses. He combed his black hair with his fingers. He unhooked a paper bag from the back of the bike. They watched his every move, silent as monks.           

            "Whatcha got in that bag?" spoke up the little girl, squinting up at the paper sack suspiciously. Long dark blonde bangs came down over her eyebrows and merged with her eyelashes. Her cheeks and chin were tan with dirt.

            "That's none of your business!" Jody replied in an appalled tone.   

            "Nothing, just some stuff," Buzzy said. He was reluctant to reveal exactly what he had in the bag. Mandy had asked him to buy a box of Tampax and vaginal cream. Birth control goop, she called it. Each required a lengthy explanation to a six year old. Together they were almost unfathomable, even to him; the two items seemed to cancel each other out. Buzzy had loitered by the magazine rack in the drug store, waiting until all the female customers had departed before bringing them up to the counter.

            The tall boy and the girl went back to the inner tube, ignoring him. Jody stayed with him up to the stoop. Away from the other kids, Jody seemed twice or maybe ten times his age. His face took on a worried, old man's cast, as if he were puzzling out some vast mystery that eluded him.       

            "Stuff for your Mom," Buzzy told the boy now. "How ya been?"

            "Are you staying for supper?"

            "No. Maybe. It depends. Your Mom and I are going on a date tonight. A movie, probably."

            "Can I go?"

            "I don't think so. It's a date."

            "Are you staying overnight?"

            He ruffled Jody's hair. "I don't know. Could be."

           

            Amanda's apartment always gave him slight vertigo, a sensation of unreality, of having materialized in the wrong place. The ceilings were low, the walls were calcimined and cracked, and it was always a mess. Clothes, some clean, some dirty, were piled here and there. Toys were scattered everywhere. The few oddments of furniture were buried beneath the debris: a sleeper couch with faded orange upholstery, some chairs, a coffeetable. The apartment for some reason always reeked strongly of burnt bacon. He wouldn't get the smell out of his nostrils for hours after a visit.

            Mandy had wrinkle lines on her forehead. Even when she was relaxed, the lines were visible, like ghostly etchings. Her hair was down nearly to her waist. It was blonde with streaks of darker currents. She was thin with slightly big hips, the only outward sign on her that she'd borne a child. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.          

            They kissed in greeting. She never kissed him without looking into his eyes first, shifting from one eye to the other several times in rapid succession, as if she couldn't take them both in at the same time, as if he might be hiding something deep inside of one of them, and she was trying to discover what it was.

            He and she had met at an art class at Burlington College. They were both finishing degrees long delayed. He'd asked her out for a friendly cup of coffee.

            "I have a son," she said straight out. They traded life stories.          

            He had asked her to marry him during their second night in bed.

            "You've got to be kidding," she said and laughed. It was a hearty giggle, and filled the bed and the room while his face was turning crimson. He was always surprised by her capacity for volume. She seemed so small and pale, especially next to his own big, dark body.

            "What's so funny?" He was really wounded.

            "You know a woman for two weeks and you want to marry her? That's crazy."

            "I don't think that's so crazy."

            "Well it's either crazy or stupid, take your pick."

            She was probably right, of course. The week before hadn't he been telling Bob Pringle over a beer that he couldn't imagine ever wanting children? He'd said this in response to Pringle's complaints about his own children. Pringle was ten years older than him, bald with long gray sideburns, a sour, square face. They both worked on the forklift brigade at the ball-bearing plant. They wore hardhats and were in the union and worked all week side by side for very good wages. A beer at the Rathskeller after hours on a Friday night seemed like a good, fraternal idea at the time.

            His little girl needed glasses, Pringle had said. "You have any idea what those fucking jackals charge these days?" he moaned. "But what can you do? I can't let her go blind."

            Buzzy had three beers in him already and had grown confessional. "Kids are a royal screwing. I'll never have any, I know that."

            Pringle looked at Buzzy like all of a sudden he didn't like him. "I used to have your attitude. It ever occur to you that sometimes you ain't got a choice in the matter?"

            "You've always got the choice."

            "What choice? To screw or not to screw, there's your choice, pal."

            "Naah. You've got other choices, before and after the fact."

            Now Pringle was getting hot. His cheeks and forehead and his bald dome had grown pink. The back of his neck was brick-red against his yellow shirt collar. His voice deepened and roughened.   "Listen, Casanova, I'm gonna let you in on something, a true fact of life. If a woman wants to get knocked up, there ain't nothing or nobody gonna stop her. When it comes to their plumbing, forget it. You don't know what really goes on inside there, do you? You just know what they tell you and they tell you what they want you to hear."

            "Are you speaking from personal experience or is this just a theory of yours?"

            Pringle glared at him for a second. "I ain't bullshitting, if that's what you mean. You free and easy guys. Oh yeah, I remember. Without a fucking care in the world. Then all of a sudden one day Boom!" His hands went up from his beer to mime a miniature mushroom cloud, "It happens. Then you're trapped, trapped for life."

            "That's bullshit. You always have options."

            Pringle snorted. "Options! Like what options? Oh sure, you can cut and run, like those welfare scumbags over in the Projects."

            Now Buzzy felt his face get hot. "Listen, there are always other possibilities. For one thing, you could try to talk her out of it."

            Pringle started to laugh. His whole body jerked spasmodically to the sound, like somebody was slapping him on the back. Hyuck Hyuck Hyuck. "Talk her out of it? That'd be one hell of a trick. How you supposed to talk a woman out of being pregnant?"     

            "Well, you could suggest she have an abortion."

            Pringle stopped laughing. His smile retracted into a small, severe pucker. He chewed on the inside of his cheeks for a second. Then he said quietly, "That ain't no solution. Abortion is murder, plain and simple."

            "That's your opinion. I don't happen to agree with it."

            They stared at each other for a few seconds. Then Buzzy took out his wallet and laid a five dollar bill on the bartop. "This'll cover me." He had always been tall enough and big enough to avoid fights, to walk away from them without feeling humiliated. He hadn't hit anyone since junior high school.

           

            They talked that afternoon while Jody was playing in the yard with the tall boy and the blonde girl. Buzzy sat next to a pile of clothes on her couch. She was painting at a wooden easel, a still-life of fruit - a shiny Empire apple, a navel orange and a black and yellow banana in a blue bowl. She used a tiny brush and a palette of watercolors. She put on a light blue smock over her white blouse and jeans.

            "He's never met him, right?" Buzzy said.

            "No." She wrinkled her forehead in concentration each time she daubed with the brush.

            "Do you think he ever will?"

            "That'll be up to Jody, when he's older."      

            "But the guy still lives there, less than twenty miles away."

            "So I've heard." She paused to study her work, making various gestures with the brush, and changing her stance, as if posing in front of a mirror.

            "I mean, don't you think that's weird?"

            "Not really. Not if I don't have anything to do with him." She dipped her brush in water and then into some more paint and continued on. From somewhere beyond the walls came the siren wail of a baby crying.

            "But Jody is his son."

            "Biologically, maybe, but that's it."

            "That's a lot."

            Mandy shrugged. Her eyes never left her painting while she talked. "Not to me. The welfare office, this lady, this old crow named Mrs. Warwick wanted his name. I told her I had no idea who it was. You can imagine what that made me look like to her. I didn't care. I wouldn't take his money anyway."

            "Why not? Money is money. At least you wouldn't have to live like this."

            She stopped her daubing and looked at him. "Live like what?"

            "This." He swept a hand before him. It was meant to encompass everything: the four walls, the floor, the ceiling, the apartments above and below them, the street, the Projects, the city beyond, the odors of sour beer, burning bacon.

            She continued to glare at him. "Fuck you!" she said finally and went back to daubing.

            "Sorry," he said.

            "If you don't like it here, no one's keeping you."

            "I know that, Mandy. It's just that I worry about you sometimes. I worry about Jody."   

            She shrugged her shoulders again and with that gesture, seemed to shed her anger or at least to direct it away from him. She painted in silence for a minute. "You know," she said after a while, "I did get money out of the bastard once. One hundred and eighty dollars, to be exact. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, getting that money from him. It didn't last long. I used it to pay my back rent and my telephone bill and to get my hair done."

            She paused again to reflect on her painting. "Actually, I take that back. it was the second hardest thing I ever did. Giving birth to Jody, that was the hardest."

            Supper that night was tofu burgers and Campbell's Pork and Beans and raspberry Kool-Aid and popsicles. He and Amanda and Jody ate in the small kitchen area around a wooden dining table, surrounded by fading yellow and blue flowered wallpaper.

            The table legs were rickety and the surface shook at the least disturbance. Jody upset a glass of Kool-Aid. They blamed it on the table, although this wasn't quite true. Jody went flying from his chair when it happened, and buried his head in the couch, wailing.

            "It's not your fault, Jody, really," Mandy said irritably, while she and Buzzy wiped up the spill. "For God's sake, it's not worth a hissy fit." He went on crying until, after a while, the sound seemed to inhabit Buzzy's consciousness.

            "Hey Jody," Buzzy said finally. "Knock, knock."

            It took Jody a long time to answer. "Who's there?" he said with great reluctance.

            "Ya."

            "Ya who?"

            "Hey, what're you so happy about?"

            Jody's sob turned into a moan, then a chortle.

            Buzzy pounced from his chair to the couch and tickled the boy until the two of them were rolling on the floor, hooting and howling.         

            The babysitter was late and Amanda and Buzzy were afraid they would miss the movie. Then when she finally showed, a thin, dark-haired teenager from down the hall, wearing a Pearl Jam T-Shirt, Jody couldn't find his favorite bedtime animal, a stuffed turtle. The four of them searched and searched, underneath the beds and the couch and the piles of clothes. Jody got more and more upset. "Mama, where's my Mugwah? I want my Muggie." He whined it over and over again, until Buzzy's head began to ache and his teeth to grind.

            Buzzy came across the ratty, green, four-legged furry object, with two little gray wings coming out of its back, while digging through a basket of dirty laundry. It was frayed and nearly flattened, as if it had been left out in the rain and run over by a truck a few times.

            "Is this it? This can't be it," he said and held up the ragged green doll dubiously.

            "That's him!" the three of them shouted together.

            Buzzy handed the turtle over to Jody. The boy hugged the doll fiercely for a long time before rewarding Buzzy with a tearful smile.

            "Our hero," Mandy said and slapped Buzzy on the back.

 

            "Thank God you found him," she whispered a minute later, when they were outside the door. "He would never have let us go without it. You don't know."

            "What's it called again?"

            "Mugwah, the Winged Tortoise of Love."

            "What is he, an Indian God or something?"

            She laughed out loud, startling him. They were now on the second floor landing and her laugh echoed briefly against the graffiti-streaked concrete walls and metal stairwells.            

            "No, no, nothing like that. I bought him in a toy store when Jody was less than a year old. Then I made up the name and a story to go along with it. Since then, he can't get to sleep without him. You wouldn't believe what I've gone through over that stupid doll. One time I had to drive thirty miles round trip at nine o'clock at night to retrieve him from a friend's house."

            "What was the story you made up about him?"

            "I don't even remember. Just something comforting. Something to help him get to sleep. Who knows? It could have been anything. It worked, that's all that mattered at the time."

            They were outside now. The sun was dropping below the horizon. The first few pale stars were peaking through the violet sky.

             They got to the theatre in time for the movie, but decided not to go anyway. Instead, they went for a long ride on his motorcycle.

            They went north on Shelburne Road, a four-lane franchise strip that, at the edge of town, turned back to a two-lane and paralleled the railroad tracks out to a stretch of land that, with its lush, pale green foliage and its incessant cricket calls, harkened back to something like wilderness. The sky was purple-black now, except for the yellowish glow from the city in the east, and the searchlights that stabbed upwards from the airport landing strips ten miles distant. Amanda pressed her cheek into Buzzy's leather jacket and hugged him tightly around the middle, aware of a multitude of sensations, but none stronger than that of floating just above the ground, and of peace.