“Luck is a very thin wire between survival and disaster, and not many people can keep their balance on it.”– Hunter S. Thompson
This story orignally appeared in New Plains Review
Jogging in place as she waited for the light to change, Janey blinked into the sunlight. By the time she crossed the street, the toddler had pulled itself to its feet and staggered behind the shrubbery. Just last weekend, after the final six-pack at Melanie’s place, she’d blown out a tire when she grazed the curb because she thought she saw a baby crossing Cahuenga. It was 1 a.m., and a baby was dragging its little white blanket across a busy Hollywood street all by itself. Except it wasn’t a baby. It was a midget or a dwarf — or whatever the hell people were supposed to call them nowadays. A little person. A grown man with a white plastic grocery sack coming from the 24-hour Ralph’s. What the hell? So maybe this wasn’t a baby either.
But it was.
“Yup, you’re a baby,” Janey said, leaping over the sidewalk toward the hedge. The baby was shuddering when she picked him up. Tears had etched streaks of clean through the grime on his cheeks, and snot snaked onto his upper lip. “Poor little man!” Janey said, still thinking of the dwarf as she teetered between revulsion and sympathy. The baby’s bottom half felt like a towel that had just been pulled from a washing machine.
Sunday morning traffic was easing to life, but there were no other pedestrians as Janey stood at the intersection of Wilcox and Beverly with the baby in her arms. So much for her new leaf. She’d managed to jog a block and a half. Well, jogging was a fucking drag anyway. Especially with a hangover. Janey patted her sweatpants pocket. If she dialed 911, the police would come immediately — which, in L.A., meant a good 30 minutes, during which time she would be forced to pointlessly seek shade under a half-dead palm tree. Or she could just take the kid home and call from there.
The baby was whimpering by the time Janey stood on her concrete stoop fiddling with the sticky deadbolt the landlady had sworn she’d fix every weekend for the past two months. After the usual jiggling and pushing, the door opened with a crash, and the baby, wailing anew, nearly jumped out of Janey’s arms. “911, 911,” Janey chanted. But it seemed like she ought to soothe the baby first. And she absolutely needed coffee.
Opening the fridge with the baby in one arm, Janey patted and cooed as she set the bargain-size container of yogurt on the counter. “Mmm, strawberry, Little Man,” she said as she stood next to the sink, spooning it into his mouth between decelerating sobs. Shifting the baby to the other hip, Janey washed one hand and filled the kettle. She scooped coffee into the paper-lined filter cone on top of her largest mug, shaking the soreness out of her arm between each task. Who knew that holding a baby was such a workout? She made toast, and even before she twisted the lid off the jam jar, it was obvious she was going to have to share. “You’re breaking the bank, Little Man,” Janey said after their third slice. With the contented baby on her lap, she resigned herself to the mess of it all when a creeping wetness began to seep through the towel protecting her own pants. Then a muffled rumbling segued into a full-out explosion. “Shit,” Janey said.
By the time she’d peeled off the baby’s clothes and her own sweatpants and T-shirt, the bathroom looked like the hell hole where she’d once stopped for a desperate pee on a misguided road trip. She’d nearly died from the stench and ended up sprinting back to the car and opening both passenger-side doors, crouching between them. But there was no escaping this. “I’m calling the cops on you, Little Man,” Janey said as she peeled off the diaper, stuffed both it and the towel into the wastebasket, and tied the trash bag shut. When Janey lifted the baby into the bathtub, she saw that Little Man was not a little man at all.
An hour later Janey and “Lila Mae” basked in the breezy April warmth in the apartment’s shared back patio. Wound in a batiked cotton scarf, Lila sat in a laundry basket as Janey shifted the second load of laundry into the dryer. Wedged into the front pocket of her jeans, Janey’s phone reminded her of the task she didn’t want to face. She might be considered a kidnapper instead of a rescuer. Maybe she should have gone door-to-door with the kid, but trusting strangers in a place like L.A. seemed naïve. Given the state Janey had found Lila in, how could she have given her back even if someone claimed her? Dirty things from Janey’s own past swirled around her. If mothers couldn’t keep their babies from wandering in the streets; if mothers couldn’t keep their new boyfriends out of their teenage daughters’ beds, well, who could she trust? She was just going to have to keep Lila safe herself.
Ignoring her phone’s keypad, she scrolled to Melanie’s number. Melanie believed just about anything her unending string of boyfriends told her, so she ought to believe her best friend’s story about a baby.
When Melanie arrived with the box of diapers, she had already Bloody Mary-ed herself into a zone that Janey was rapidly losing interest in. “What’s your friend going to think about you keeping her kid in a box?” Melanie asked as she watched Lila pinching up bites of toast and banana, a large dishtowel tied over her clean T-shirt and pants.
“I’m not keeping her in a box, I’m feeding her in a box. She’s like one or something,” Janey said. “She’d fall off a chair.” Janey spoke with authority, surprising herself a little.
“Hey, shouldn’t I have gotten those wipey things for her bottom?” Melanie asked.
“My friend is more broke than I am,” Janey said. “I’m just going to use a washcloth.”
Melanie wrinkled her nose.
“Doesn’t sound exactly sanitary,” she said. Janey shrugged. She’d gone home with Melanie one weekend to the house where her parents lived in Santa Barbara. Swimming pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, a fucking jukebox, and a Coke machine with glass bottles in the fucking pool house. Melanie probably had her butt wiped with silk when she was a baby. “Broke with a baby,” Melanie said. “Bad news.”
“Good baby, though,” Janey said, breaking off another chunk of banana.
“When’s she coming back?” Melanie asked. Janey shrugged.
“Not sure. She said she’d call.” Melanie shook her head and laughed.
By the time Melanie left, Lila was rubbing her eyes. While Lila slept Janey lay beside her in the darkened bedroom, thinking.
Something happens when a person drives out of L.A. and heads for the desert. Hurtling toward emptiness was the feeling Janey had, but there was some kind of promise too. Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley — names like that contained an image of ordered sparseness. But the dead palm trees weren’t what Janey had pictured. The tree trunks were just a few feet high, not at all how Gil had described them — towering and headless. But whenever someone said something like, “You can’t miss it,” whatever “it” was, you could bet had a new paint job, or the sign would be down. And, sure enough, Janey damn near missed Desert Center. The town was the center of the desert, all right, if you thought of the word “center” as an empty bull’s-eye in a target of nothingness. But on a snaking road outside of town, the boat was parked on the sand, just like Gil had said it would be, and Hondo was lazing under a plastic canopy in a crooked lawn chair. “Any friend of Gil’s is a friend of mine,” Hondo said, leaning forward to shake her hand.
“Likewise,” Janey said. Gil had been cool about the whole deal. He had confided in Janey more than once since she’d started working at Gil M.’s Film Heaven. Janey not only knew her boss was HIV positive and that his father had disowned him a decade ago, she was also privy to the entire list of movies that made him cry like a baby. Without even sleeping on it, Janey had taken Lila to the store on Sunday night and asked Gil for help. She’d heard all about how Gil’s mom had walked out on the family when Gil was seven, but Lila’s story put a look on his face that Janey hadn’t seen before. “Fucking right, you should keep her,” Gil had said when Janey pulled up Lila’s shirt.
“I’m still taking this in,” Janey said, trying not to wince as she lifted the Band-Aids she’d taped across Lila’s stomach. “They’re cigarette burns, right?” Gil had gone directly to the cash register. Now, with a little help from Hondo, Lila would have a birth certificate, a Social Security card, and a future as Janey’s very own daughter.
“I’d show you the place,” Hondo said, lifting a leathery arm toward the boat, “but the inside is even worse than the outside.” The PairaDicewas an old cabin cruiser, listing precariously on its sea of sand. Hoping it did not bode poorly for the forthcoming documents, Janey noted that the alteration of boat’s name was less than skillful. Almost Paradise bled through the thin paint job, alluding to a past luckier than its present.
“No problem,” Janey said, nodding toward her Corolla, its A.C. still running while Lila slept in her garage-sale car seat. She pulled the roll of bills out of her jeans pocket and pressed the money into Hondo’s outstretched hand.
“Come back tomorrow,” Hondo said. “After noon.”
Tuesday felt filled with possibility from the moment Janey opened her eyes to Lila’s smile in the lumpy motel double bed. Janey liked how not partying made her feel in the morning. And she liked Lila’s babbling. It sounded like real words — if only she could crack the code.
“Ba-con,” Janey said to Lila as they stretched breakfast into lunch at the Denny’s in Blythe. She tore another strip into pieces while Lila bucked enthusiastically in her high chair.
“Cute little fella,” the waitress said as she refilled Janey’s coffee.
“Thanks,” Janey said, thrilled that Lila could pass for a boy. The urban myth about the kidnapping had been her inspiration. That dumb-ass story had made the rounds again and again the summer she escaped Wisconsin for California. The kidnapper had supposedly snatched a little girl at Wal-Mart, chopped off her hair, and changed her into boy’s clothes, but the mother recognized her daughter just as she was about to be whisked out of the store. Well, Lila was as bald as an egg and, in her thrift store Oshkosh overalls, looked like a little old farmer. As far as Janey could tell, after hours of motel TV and combing through the morning paper, there was still no hunt for a missing little girl from Los Angeles. Lila was safe.
It was forty minutes back to Desert Center and Janey was psyched. Once they had the documents, they could maybe get food stamps, WIC, Medi-Cal, find a free clinic, whatever. She wasn’t exactly sure how all this stuff worked, but if things looked like they were on the up and up, and she and Lila could get some assistance, that would help a lot.
“Hondo?” Janey knocked again, this time a little louder. His motorcycle was there, so he had to be home. She stood for a minute on the concrete block steps with Lila on her hip, shielding the girl’s face from the sun, then turned the knob. “Hey, Hondo,” she called again, lurching backward when she saw the blood. Hondo had been shot. Head, chest, stomach. Flies buzzed in the gelatinous mess, and the hum rang in Janey’s ears as she ran to the car.
A dozen miles down the road, Lila still screamed in the back seat, kicking in a full-tilt tantrum. “Sorry I scared the crap out of you,” Janey told Lila in the rearview mirror. She’d practically slammed the kid into her car seat before tearing down the rutted road. Chances were that Hondo’s dead body was not the first of Lila’s life. Janey had tried to put it out of her mind, but Lila’s palms and fingernails had been dirty with a rusty grime the first day she’d bathed her. Maybe there’d been a killer who didn’t know there was a baby in the house. Maybe Lila had crawled out of her crib and found her murdered mother before toddling into the street.
Finally back in the apartment, Lila went directly to her “feeding box,” so Janey made both of them an early dinner. Afterward the sight of Hondo’s body swam into the wave of fatigue that washed over her. Taking a stack of empty yogurt containers and a handful of spoons into her bedroom, Janey set Lila and this pile of improvised playthings on the floor next to the bed. “Play. Sleep. Whatever,” Janey said as she closed the door and fell onto the rumpled sheets.
It was 11 p.m. when her phone jolted Janey from sleep. After covering Lila, who lay on her nest of blankets next to the bed, Janey tiptoed from the room. “You’re fucking kidding me,” Gil said after Janey told him about Hondo. “Christ,” he said, taking a noisy draw from his cigarette.
“No shit,” Janey said. “Scared the fucking crap out of me. I’m still fucked up.”
“No sign of the money?”
“Right,” he said. “I didn’t mean that. I’m glad you and the kid got out of there.”
Janey did her regular shift on Wednesday and made up for her time off by working seven straight days. It was okay, taking Lila with her to the store. One end of the counter was closed in, and at the other end they wedged the baby gate that one of the guys had used when his pit bull was a puppy. Lila made a crazy mess of the returned movies, and at the end of her shift, it took Janey time to sort that out, but she rolled with it. When she re-shelved, she allowed Lila to roam the aisles, the bells tied to her shoelaces letting Janey know her approximate whereabouts. It was easier to work the porn room. Completely enclosed and smaller with lower shelves, it was a safer environment if you didn’t count the posters on the wall. Gil was coping with the whole arrangement, though sometimes they argued over what was best for Lila as if they were a married couple. If Gil had any interest in women at all, Janey might have entertained that idea for a minute.
Spring transformed into a smoggy summer, then into a cracklingly dry fall, and there was still no news about a missing kid. Janey scoured the Internet from time to time. Nada. In a city with half a dozen murders every weekend, maybe the bloodied corpse of woman on an apartment floor didn’t merit a story. Maybe whoever lost Lila didn’t want her. By the end of the year, Janey quit disguising her as a boy.
It had been April when Janey found Lila, and guestimating her age, she picked a date for her daughter’s birthday. January first — in honor of new beginnings. Gil not only came up with Lila’s documents, he threw her a party too. No doubt Lila wasn’t the only kid on the planet whose second birthday celebration included a keg, a bag of Waikiki Queen, a bouncy house, and a gaggle of pretty boys in leather. With Lila asleep on Gil’s couch that night, Janey joined in the grown-up fun and found out how much she’d missed it. Fucking the new guy in the bouncy house after everyone had either passed out or gone home was the first time Janey had had sex in months. What had she been thinking? Life was passing her by.
Kev was a regular thing for a while. He was great at making both her and Lila laugh. When he broke Janey’s heart a few months later, she thought briefly about taking Lila home to Wisconsin and trying to start over there, but Gil laid Kev off and talked her out of it. Hadn’t those people nearly ruined her? Take Lila there? She had it good in L.A., really.
Janey tried running with the mommies. Thanks to Gil, Lila attempted two different preschools. In one, everyone was Korean; and in the other, a co-op, Janey was supposed to work one day a week, which seemed more trouble than it was worth. They tried a park playgroup that Janey had heard about at library story time, but the moms there were old enough to be Janey’s mother and nearly called Child Protective Services when she peeled back the plastic on Lila’s Oscar Mayer Lunchable. It was easier just to bring Lila to the store, and without the preschool fees, Gil gave Janey a raise. Having a kid was the opposite of what Janey had imagined. Lila was a hell of a lot easier to get along with than any guy she’d spent more than a week with. Yay, motherhood! Janey would never have guessed in a million years that she’d be good at it.
The first time Janey got super loaded at Melanie’s place with the old party crowd, things went well enough. Lila did her nighttime cranky dance as she fought for a second wind, then climbed onto the couch and slept, oblivious to the chaos. Janey, unwilling to drive in an altered state, crashed on the floor next to her.
The next party might have ended similarly if Melanie’s new boyfriend hadn’t relentlessly flirted with Janey. Melanie practically pushed Janey and Lila out the door. “How about taking your kid home to sleep in her own bed? Or are you tired of pretending to be a mother?” Only Melanie tossed these little barbs at Janey’s heart. Well, fuck her, Janey thought. After only a couple of beers and a toke; it would be a pleasure to get the hell out of there.
Driving down Cahuenga, Janie remembered the night she’d seen the little man. Weird how a few days later she’d found a real baby. Glancing into the rearview mirror, relishing her daughter asleep in her car seat, she couldn’t quite fathom how she’d had the balls to keep Lila as her own. But she’d done it. People who didn’t know the whole story even said Lila looked like her. Damn amazing how life could be one shitty thing after another and then shift to working out just fine.
It was at the intersection just past the Ralph’s that the pickup ran the red light. Janey swerved to miss it. In the second before the light pole split the car in two, she thought of how monumentally unfair it was that Lila would lose her mother for the second time. She thought of blood — her own, and Lila’s fingernails, and Hondo.
A week passed before Janey woke up in the hospital with Gil and a uniformed LAPD officer at her bedside. As she looked into Gil’s eyes, she felt as though she’d stepped into a pool of cool blue mercy. The sensation was too much for her, and she closed her eyes again, willing herself back into unconsciousness. But even then, before she opened her eyes a second time, before the words were spoken, she knew that Lila was gone.