How can you even begin to describe the ways a parent affects a child's life?
So there I am driving down the highway, she's beside me in the front seat making little baby noises, strapped into the kid-driving-seat thing I bought special for the occasion, and I see the sign and I think, all right, this is still New Hampshire... here comes Massachusetts... state line, automatic federal case. You're in it all the way now. I mean, it's not like I didn't know what I was doing, but I'm thinking, well, here I am, deep shit again.
All I wanted was to be with my baby girl, that's all. There was no sense in mulling over consequences at that point. When a thing's done, it's done, and you deal with it strictly on those terms. Any other way of looking at life just makes you crazy.
For custody the court was gonna side with Donna, naturally. All it would take was one look at my sheet. Done time twice, numerous arrests. Assault with a deadly weapon. Repeat offender, career type. Yep.
He said I have a low boredom threshold, one of the prison shrinks. Hyperactive, starting when I was a kid. Too smart to be content with a normal life, basically insecure, and needing to prove myself on a large scale, like, with society in general. Problem with authority, stemming from a bad relationship with my old man. Yeah, you might say that.
So his advice was, when I got out after my eight months or whatever, if I wanted to change, I'd have to find a proper outlet for my excessive brainwave activity. Higher aspirations, loftier goals, maybe think about returning to college, take up philosophy, dentistry, archeology. Become a lawyer. Then, after I finish, pay off all the loans, by the time I'm fifty, I can start earning a decent living. This is advice he gives to a guy they know has a low boredom threshold. This is an expert.
Hey, everybody carves their own niche in life, you know? You make it however you can, put together what works. I don't say I'm a prize, but I'd never do anything to hurt my little girl. I want the best for her. But you think any judge is going to see things that way?
Yeah, sure, I'm dangerous. Christ, I know it, I've been around myself longer than anyone else, right? Yeah, get in the way, wrong day, wrong place, and I'm dangerous. But does that mean I'd hurt my daughter? Fuck no.
So I'm driving, feeling good enough, Jennie sitting there looking out the window at things going by. I turn on the radio, a slow country heartbreaker comes on, weepy steel guitar, and she just beams at the sound of it. My heart leaps and I think, well, she's got her old man's good taste in music, anyhow.
See, people paint you all one color. Oh, he's a criminal, pushes drugs, shot a guy in a 7-11. It sure was lucky for Bobby the guy didn't die, or he'd still be up the river and not out on the street.
Well, yeah, okay, I did it. I got reasons. Maybe I came into this world a little bit bent out of shape from the start. Try living through what my old man did to me, when you're a kid and don't know shit, get smacked on the back with a two-by-four, ten years old, 'cause you didn't clean up the garage good enough. Get locked in the cellar for a weekend for talking back. Watching him do worse shit to your Mom. Then tell me how you feel about the world in general.
So when you're someone like me who never had, what you'd call a fair shot, you find out something else. People can smell it on you like dog shit on shoes. They can see it in your eyes, the fear you have just saying hello to an adult. They just say you're an unbalanced individual, but you're more like a scared animal. And people make judgements, say things behind your back about you, and this is when you might still have some vulnerability left, full of pain, hurt and hatred, maybe, but still got them tender young feelings, right?
So what do you get? Understanding? Nah. Judgement.
Do you know what judgement is? Judgement's a stone wall. You can hit it with a rock, you can bash it with a baseball bat, you can run up against it with your head until your brains are on the floor and that wall will stay there just like it was, not busted up even a tiny bit. That's when you start getting the idea the only thing that will knock Judgement down is something big enough to get everybody's attention. Something like dynamite.
You meet a new neighbor kid's mother who shuts her door in your face after saying go home and don't ever come back because you're one of them Gilkins and she heard about you and she don't want you playin' with Jimmy and you run away crying but secretly in your heart agree with her that you're no good. Or there's some chick, when you're a little older, and she flirts you along until you're half crazy and when you finally get to her front door for a date and her old man who tells you screw, he's heard things about you from the cops and there's no way in hell he'll ever let you alone with his daughter. Slam.
See, it makes you feel testy, makes you sort of surly. Anything good that ever happened to me happened because I pried the lid off the sucker with a crowbar and stole the goods. So. Now that I got a bit more leverage in this world, I'm supposed to let my baby girl be taken away, just like that?
Who would've known how much Donna would change after having Jennie? I mean, it used to be I'd come home with five grand and a quarter key of coke, she'd be as happy as me. Well, first few times, she'd be acting nervous, talking scared and sensible, whine about the risk, stomping around, but in the corner of her mouth there was a little curl-up, you know? She was itchy and into the danger, I could tell, the thrill, the money, Jesus, of course the money, and the "dangerous-but-smart man doing dangerous-but-serious money-making things" turn on, and before you could say boo we'd be knocking the chairs aside and doing it right there on the kitchen floor, she'd be so wet and open I'd be sliding in and out like a schoolboy and I'd grab her cheeks and go slapping her on the linoleum until we both screamed like someone was cutting our throats. That's when it was good, me and Donna, that was our honeymoon time.
Then, for some reason--"Because of Jennie," she said--it all had to stop. Okay, Bobby, you have to get a real job and cut this shit. Huh? Am I hearing you right? I have to get another job? Since when are you in charge of me? Oh, for the sake of the baby. Okay, well, let's look at this. I have a prison record, so that leaves out politics. And just about everything else. Okay, how's about me working as a bouncer someplace, breaking my knuckles for chump money, never have enough to be able to really save anything, like for college for our girl, probably not even enough to afford health insurance, for Christ's sake.
This is Donna being sensible.
I know! I can ask down at the McDonald's if they have any local outreach programs and maybe give me a whirl at burger flipping. A couple of years, and it's straight on up to manager, then maybe ten more and I buy the place and they make us into a rehabilitation story on 60 Minutes. Jesus.
It's like, we have a kid and reality suddenly goes flying out the window. Can't have this stuff going on around the baby. Okay, Donna, relax, I agree, hey, no problem. Honest. I keep everything away from home, won't even talk about it, when she gets old enough I'll tell her I have a number of different businesses. We'll make something up. I'm in construction. How's about that? I can see no trouble there. And maybe sometime in the future I will be able to go straight, but not just yet. I got to keep working out these various angles I'm into. The timing's wrong.
She won't settle for that. She says something's changed. She says she sees things differently now. She says I got to get straight. Real soon. For the sake of the baby.
Then one day she's gone. And Jennie's gone. I go out, come home, they're gone. My wife. My kid.
My kid. See, the important word here is my kid. Donna, she's like everybody, she's got me all one color. She thinks I'm gonna corrupt Jennie, like I'm gonna make her into a monster, as if anything could sour that sweet baby, least of all me who loves her. Hell, I want to spoil her awful. But Donna thinks I got to drain all the color out of me that she don't like, all the old Bobby, that's what I need to do to fix things. Like after I do that I'm still gonna be me. Fuck that. I'm what I am. One piece. Good or bad, like it or don't. I won't be cut open, gutted like a fish, stuffed and sewed up and told I'm better now. That's a dead man. That's nothing. That's what all the good people would like me to be.
So I stole my baby back. One good turn. I'm driving and thinking and Jennie's looking around, flexing her little hands the way kids do, smiling, happy. Thirteen months old and I haven't even seen her for ten. Man, it's still like she just jetted in from some place where they go on Star Trek, you know? Her eyes, those eyes, right from some deep sleep, fresh out of the universe, man, it's like they were washed in a magic pool that gives them a shine nothing on this earth could ever take away. Yeah, sure. But, like, this here is my kid, man, that's the difference this time. She's gonna keep that shine in her eyes if I have any fucking thing to do with it. Damned if I'm not going to make sure she's treated right and gets everything a little girl should have and doesn't ever want for a thing, never ends up holding the short end like yours truly.
Donna's not always too bright. I wouldn't trust what kind of guy she might end up with. I didn't care about her leaving me, I mean, I was already getting sick of her. So that I didn't really mind, though it pissed me off she was the one breaking it off. After she took off with Jennie, she calls, finally, a couple of days later. Okay, you want to split up, fine, I say. Oh, you say you've got a restraining order and you're going to court for custody and are going to keep me from having any contact with my baby? Ahhh. Not so fine.
So we wait and wait and then we go to court and they say I can't see her, can't see my baby girl. I'm deemed an unfit parent. Not that I had any arrests or violations lately. The past was enough. She talked about cocaine in the house and some other deals I was involved with recently. Allegedly.
So the judge judged me guilty. What else is new?
And at first I let it go, said fuck it, even though I'm burning inside, I let it go, for months and then one day I say no, I can't let it go no more.
Jennie's not crying, even after an hour on the road. I figured she would be, but she's not, seems happy as hell, cooing and looking around out the window interested at things, guess she still remembers and likes her Daddy, fuck you, Donna.
All I'd figured out at this point was I'd sneak her with me into a motel someplace and then think about what to do next. What I didn't think of was her shitting her drawers so quick. Then she started crying. Okay, I find a CVS. Get the Pampers, pull into a Burger King on the highway, check the lot out for State cops, bring her with me into the men's room with the box of the things, everybody smiling at me, nice daddy. Change her in the stall, she's bawling and it's not real easy and it stinks, but we do it, dump it, clean her up, put a new one on and she's happy now, I get her a soft ice-cream cup, and we drive out safe.
I'm in a rental. I'm not worried about being spotted because I took it out on the primo credit card I'd been saving for just such an occasion. It's a card copy, valid magnetic tape, cross-checked social security number on the matching I.D., forged signatures, the whole bit. This inside guy at the credit card company does them. I got turned on to the racket by a mafia friend of mine. They do things right. Clean. With them it's strictly business. My kind of people, except for the paisan thing. They're a little bit... what I'd call exclusive.
Anyway, the card holder never has his card stolen, so he doesn't think there's anything wrong, has no way of knowing I've got a little vacuum hose attached to his account until the charges show up at the end of the month. It's perfect. Plenty of lead time. Just don't make any strange withdrawals. So I wasn't worried about being tracked.
I'm pretty sure no one saw me going into the apartment Donna was holed up at. That was a beauty too. This cop I'm friends with found out about her case, got into the file and checked where they relocated her. He owed me. I bailed his ass out of a touchy matter once, eliminated a certain problem. He was sympathetic besides, has kids and knows what cruel bitches women can be. I cased her house from a hill half a mile away with binoculars. I felt bad about tying up the old lady who was taking care of Jennie while Donna was out, but it was just duct tape and clothesline, and she wasn't all that old. I'm sure she was all right. I wore a gas company hat and that fooled her. Jesus. Some people are so dumb it's criminal.
Jennie sleeps, wakes up, cries a little, I give her this pacifier I bought and she's happy again. I drive, and when it's night I find a Red Roof Inn and rent a room. I got on glasses and I'm wearing a Red Sox hat to cover my hair, I got my fake I.D. and credit card, I'm not doing anything high profile, so far so good, we're still okay, I'm feeling all right. I carry her around to the room without anybody seeing us.
I put her on the bed--she'd peed her diaper. I change it, and she's real sleepy and not sure what's going on, so I put her under the blanket and she seems happy about that and she's out cold instantly, sleeping like a goddamned baby, you know, and so I go out quick, just down the street to the liquor store for a fifth of Jack Daniels. I'm gone only, like, less than five minutes, and coming back I'm jumping out of my car running up to the room, my hand shaking putting the key in, thinking she woke up and is touching the electric outlet, smashing the little glass in the bathroom cutting herself even though she couldn't reach it. She's strangling herself choking under the covers.
I flip on the light and she's just like she was, little sleeping face. I put out the light, turn on the bathroom light, take the paper off the glass and pour a good long shot.
I sit there on the chair beside the bed looking at my baby girl. She doesn't know what any of this means. She's innocent, beautiful, a blank slate. I'm considering that I was probably something like that before my old man got to me. I'm staring at her and I know it's just me thinking but it's suddenly like she's worrying in her sleep, and then I'm thinking tomorrow sometime she'll look at me wondering what the hell's going on here, and she's gonna wonder where her momma is and start crying. And we'll be moving all the time, driving, I'll be changing her diapers and trying to keep her quiet with McDonald's and eventually she'll be crying all the time 'cause her momma isn't there and I won't know what the fuck to do.
A streak of anger shoots up, from the liquor I guess, but I'm suddenly feeling real mean about this whole thing. Something flips over like a card you weren't expecting in a poker game, a loser card. It seems no matter what, I can't ever get it to work how I want, that's how it hits me. This anger rages red hot, and I want to hurt her bad, hurt the baby, just for what I know it would do to Donna. I hold myself in check then the room goes dark, I don't know for how long. When it comes back into focus, I'm afraid to look down, actually, for what I might see. But she's there sleeping, peaceful, just like before.
That split second, I know something about my old man, about him drawing the loser card, always, about the things he couldn't ever beat or understand, and suddenly I get this weird rush of sympathy, warmth for the bastard. At the same time I can feel him inside my gut twisting it, telling me how good I'll feel, trying to force me to do something I absolutely don't want to. I'm shaking hands with the devil and I know it. He smiles. Winks. My body's shaking. I suck in some air, sneer at him, say "Fuck off, old man, I ain't you. Fuck off and die," and I drink another one. Then I'm all right, I get back my control.
I stroke her head and pretty soon I fall asleep.
In the morning before dawn I call the cops from the phone booth outside the motel, tell them where my baby girl is, tell them she's fine, sleeping, then I beat it quick right out onto the highway, drive west, try not to think. A thing's done, it's done. Go. Just go. I love my baby girl. That's worth something. I know it is.
William Routhier (email@example.com) lives in Boston and has written for Stuff Magazine, The Improper Bostonian, The Boston Book Review, and Living Buddhism; his fiction has appeared in Happy and atelier. He is currently working on a collection of stories and a book of essays concerning food.
InterText stories written by William Routhier: "Graceland" (v7n3), "Fun World" (v8n4), "Baby Girl" (v9n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 William Routhier.