A young man sat on a darkened stoop with a small child in his arms. There was lamplight at the head of the street and lamplight at the end, but the stoop where the young man sat was at the middle of the block. Only a bit of the light stretched down to where he watched with the child.
The young man was slender, with long slender hands and a spare frame and a slim jaw and a sparse beard and eyes sunk deep into their sockets. He wiped his nose with his sleeve.
“Hush now,” he told the child, a boy of a year or so. The child had begun to whimper,
“Hush,” the young man said again. But the baby fidgeted; he wanted to get down, so the young man let him stand on the stoop. The child looked up the street and down, but clung to the young man’s shirt with both fists. He screwed up his face as if to cry, but the young man said, “Hush, little buddy,” once more and rubbed the back of the baby’s head. This seemed to calm the child and he settled against the young man’s shoulder.
“That’s it, little buddy,” the young man said. “You gonna be all right, little buddy.”
The child looked warily out at the street around him; there was little to see but a few parked cars and a dented van, some boarded buildings and a few curtained windows. He soon lost interest and began to whimper again until he perked up at the sound of footsteps.
A man had entered the street and the young man watched until he was sure he knew the man, then called, “Hey, Preach.”
The man paused a moment, then asked, cautiously, “Randy? What’s up?”
“Preach,” the young man said. “Give me some money so I can get some milk for this baby.”
The man named Preach was not a preacher. It was just a name people called him. He was a big, sway-shouldered man with a good right eye and a left eye that drooped and gazed from under a half-closed lid.
“What’re you doing with a baby?”
“It’s my sister’s baby.”
“What’re you doing with your sister’s baby?”
“Man, somebody’s gotta watch it.”
“So you’re babysitting.”
“You could say that.”
“Is she hustling again?”
“She’s got a trick up there now.”
“So she asked you to watch the baby?”
“Man, I took the baby.”
“You took the baby?”
“Man, I don’t want him around that shit. When she’s fiending she don’t care what happens to him or anybody else.”
“What about you?”
“What d’you mean, what about me?”
“You still shooting up?”
“Man, I give that up long ago.”
The man called Preach nodded skeptically.
“Man, you gonna give me the money or not?”
“I just want to know where my money’s gonna go.”
“I don’t believe this shit.”
“It’s a fair question.”
The young man went quiet. He stared out to the street. The baby fidgeted into the young man’s shoulder and the young man rubbed the child’s head again to calm him.
“It’s a fair question,” Preach said. “Considering your track record.”
“I just want some money to get this baby some milk.”
“And what do you plan to do with this baby?”
“Fuck, I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I just picked him up and took him out of there before the shit started.”
“And what did she do when you took him?”
“Far as I could tell, she don’t even know.”
“You can get in some major trouble taking people’s babies.”
“Not no junkie’s baby.”
“Man, she too blizzed out to even know this baby’s gone.”
The baby looked up. He clung to the young man’s shirt with his small fists and he carefully watched the man named Preach.
“He’s a good-looking kid,” Preach said,
“She takes good care of him when she ain’t all bitch-eyed.”
“I reckon she does.” The big man settled himself down on the stoop. The child climbed back up into the young man’s lap and snuggled in, staring at the big man all the while.
“So what’s up?” the young man said. “This baby’s gonna get hungry soon.”
“And she’s gonna come around looking for her baby soon.”
“She gotta finish with dude first.”
“Fuck, I don’t know. I just don’t want him around her no more.”
The big man thought for a moment, then pushed himself up off the stoop. “What you got for a baby bottle?” he asked.
“I ain’t got no damn bottle.”
“So how did you think you was gonna feed this baby all the milk you thought you was gonna buy on the money you thought I was gonna give you?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking about none of that.”
The big man nodded. “Reckon you’ll be here?”
“Man, why don’t you just give me the money and I’ll go get it?”
Preach looked down at the young man’s forearms.
“Naw, man. I’m clean.”
“So what’s up with the long sleeves?”
“Go on, man. Do what you gonna do.”
“I’m gonna bring you back a baby bottle and some milk. You gonna be here?”
Preach went off toward the wider street where there was a store. The baby began to fret again and the young man began to pat the baby’s head and to jiggle him on his knee. He rocked the boy back and forth and rubbed his back. He told him to hush and wait, sang him little snippets of lullaby. He cooed and reassured, anything to calm him. Finally, the baby dozed; he lay his damp head on the young man’s shoulder and his fretful breathing slowed. His muscles spasmed once as if he were afraid of falling, then relaxed and the body of the child went limp so that the young man had to lean back against the door behind him to hold the baby up.
Preach done forgot all about me, the young man thought. It had been long enough, he reckoned. Long enough to run to six stores for milk and a bottle. The weight of the baby pressed him uncomfortably against the granite of the stoop and his back against the wood of the door and he was not sure how long he could stay in place.
But in a minute, Preach appeared with a sack of groceries in his arm. “I see you’re still here,” the older man said.
The words woke the baby. He rose up, startled, and looked around. He balled up his face to let loose a howl and the young man tried to stop it. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” the young man whispered to the baby, but the baby wailed away. On such a quiet street, the wail of the child seemed enormous.
The young man tried to talk the baby down as Preach settled back onto the stoop with his grocery bag in front of him.
“Took you long enough,” the young man muttered under the wail.
Preach ignored him. The baby’s wail settled down to a whimper and he watched as Preach stripped the bottle from its plastic wrapper, pulled a quart of milk from the bag, opened it, and filled the bottle from it. “That ought to do it,” he said.
The baby left off whimpering and reached for the bottle. He raised it up and sucked desperately.
The young man peered into Preach’s bag. “What the fuck else you got in there?”
Preach pulled out bread, lunchmeat, and a jar of peanut butter. “Your choice,” he said.
Preach pulled a big folding knife from his pocket and used it to spread peanut butter over the bread. “Jelly?”
Preach pulled a jar of preserves from the bag and, with the same knife, spread them over the sandwich, closed it with another slice of bread, and handed it to the young man. The baby reached, so the young man tore off a piece. The baby lowered the bottle and jammed sandwich across his face.
Preach asked, “What’s next?”
“Like I say, damn if I know.”
“That’s just the problem.”
“What’s the problem?”
“You pick up a girl, you get tired of her, no big deal. You pick up a baby, you get tired of it, you ain’t putting that baby back down for another eighteen years. It’s a big commitment.”
“So what do I do now?”
“You give that baby some food.”
“I already did that.”
“Well look at him.”
The baby had finished the first bit of sandwich and now reached out for more. The young man tore off another bit of sandwich and fed it to the baby.
Preach made another sandwich and handed it to the young man. “You lost that first one,” he said. The young man took the sandwich and ate.
Then Preach pulled a box of diapers out of the bag. “He’s probably about due for one of these.”
The young man scowled. But the man called Preach told him how to place the baby on his back, undo the pants, and change the diaper. The baby continued to gnaw at his sandwich and suck on his bottle in turns until the young man set him back on his feet.
From behind, footsteps trundled down the stairs and the door opened. A man, a stranger, a stocky, square-set man, stopped short; Preach and Randy were blocking his way.
“Fucking Mexican,” Randy muttered. Preach moved aside to let the man pass, but theddfv young man would not, so the man stepped around him. The young man glared at the stranger’s back all the way to the battered van and might have glared the van all the way down the street, but for the sound of a woman’s voice –an angry woman’s voice—that moved from room to room upstairs. “Oh fuck no,” the woman called. “Fuck no. Fuck. Where’s my baby?” The voice came to the front room and the window flew open and a young woman looked out. She saw the baby on the sidewalk below and the two men on the stoop and said, “You motherfucker.”
She slammed down the window and stomped and cursed down the stairs. This time, Randy moved out of the way.
The sister was slender in the same way her brother was slender and her eyes and nose had the same blue tint in the lamplight. She snatched up the baby and pressed him close and glared at the young man with the same angry glare the young man had given the stranger.
“You motherfucker,” she said. “You scheming motherfucker, you damn near scared me to death.”
“So I’ll cut out your liver the next time you pull something like this. Why didn’t you tell me you was gonna take my baby?”
“Fuck you. I come in the house, you’re in the bedroom fixing to do some illegal immigrant motherfucker . . .”
“He’s not an illegal.”
“What the fuck ever he is. And there’s the baby in a play pen all by hisself.” “So?”
“So I’m, like, fuck this. They’ll be in there rocking and rolling and this baby’ll be hearing it all, so I’m, like, this is fucked. So I took him.”
“You didn’t need to take him.”
She swung the baby back and forth with his head pressed to her shoulder and turned her glare toward Preach
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Oh, that’s great. So you come around to tell me how wrong I am too?”
“Ruby, he ain’t like that. He ain’t that kind of a preacher.”
“Cause I don’t give a fuck what you think about me.”
“Ruby . . .”
“I don’t give a fuck what you think about how I raise my baby.”
“ . . . he don’t do like that.”
“So get the fuck away from me and my baby. Cause I’ll call the cops on the both of you for kidnapping. I don’t give a flying fuck if I am a whore and I don’t give a fuck if the whole world knows it.”
“He didn’t have nothing to do with it.”
“So what’s he doing here?”
“He got some milk and diapers and shit for the baby.”
“I got my own milk and diapers. I got every fucking thing I need.” She turned back toward Preach. “I don’t need none of ya’ll snatching my baby and getting in my business.”
“He just come here cause I asked him.”
“Well, I fucking don’t need him, so . . . “
“It’s all right,” Preach said to the young man, then with a nod toward the sister. “I got to go anyway.”
“Well, good. Cause I don’t want you around my baby.”
Preach cast his good eye on the young man and the woman with her child and went back the way he had come. She glared him down the street until he turned the corner. “Who the fuck is that?”
“He’s some old man. He helps people.”
“He’s probably some kind of pervert.”
“He ain’t no pervert.”
“He just wants to get on your good side so he can suck your dick.”
“Ruby, everybody ain’t like these motherfuckers you trick with.”
The young woman was silent. She rocked the baby while the young man picked up the bread and diapers and put them back into the bag.
“That’s the wrong size diaper,” she said.
“Ruby,” the young man said. “We got to stop this shit.”
“I don’t want that fucking lunch meat,”
He put it in the bag anyway. “I mean,” he said. “This is crazy.”
“What the fuck am I gonna do with that lunch meat?”
“You know what I mean? You feel me? We gotta get some help.”
“Fuck help. Ain’t nobody tried to help me when I got started in this shit. Ain’t nobody gonna help me now.”
“They might. Preach could find us some help. We could kick, man. We wouldn’t have to be living like this.”
“He’s some kind of pervert. I know he is.”
They argued for several minutes more in the place between the lamps. The young woman continued to rock the child against her shoulder and the young man rubbed his hands on his knees. Their eyes became steadily paler. Finally, the sister said to the brother, “So you gonna go score for us?”
“We got to quit this shit,” the young man said. But he rose from the stoop.
She shifted the baby to the opposite shoulder and reached inside her shirt. “This is all I got, man. Don’t let him short you,”
The child raised his head and looked from brother to sister.
“And don’t let him give you that skank shit he give you last time either.”
The young man nodded. “We got to quit this shit,” he said once more.
The young woman pressed the money into his palm. It was still warm from her breast.