Right before Baby finished ninth grade, Jerry (Baby’s dad) announced that Baby and Carla (Baby’s older sister) would work for him that summer. Baby thought it was a great idea. She would much rather landscape for Jerry than work at one of the three pizza/sub joints in town, or at a basketball camp for kids, which was most of what of her teammates were doing.
Jerry was six-three (two inches taller than Baby) and had a thick mustache and a laugh that rattled fine china. He’d built the house they lived in. In church he sang the loudest and the most out of tune. Six nights a week he did a hundred push-ups. He never took a sick day. It was true what everyone said, that Jerry was the most hardworking, honest man in Waldo County, Maine. The other thing people said was he didn’t suffer fools, but Baby was not one hundred percent sure what this meant, so she couldn’t say if she agreed.
Carla did not think landscaping was a great idea. “Why can’t I nanny instead?” she asked.
“This is not a discussion,” Jerry replied.
“What about Eddie and Andrew?” Eddie and Andrew had worked for Jerry last year. They were bulky and sullen, and Jerry had complained about them all summer.
“I’m tired of boys. They don’t listen and they don’t pull their weight.”
“Dad. I weigh one eighteen.” Carla was always acting offended that she was so small, and then turning around and using her size to her advantage. She had eyes like saucers, neat brown hair, and kid-sized hands with dimples where the knuckles should be. Everyone said she was the spitting image of their mother, or at least how their mother looked before she married Jerry, had two girls sixteen months apart, and then got a really bad flu that turned out to be pneumonia. She died. Her name was Wendy. The fact that Carla looked like Wendy probably explained why Jerry sometimes stared at Carla with a sad and empty look. It probably also explained why Carla was allowed to disagree with Jerry as much as she did. She hardly ever got her way, but Jerry refused her tenderly, and with regret.
Baby didn’t look like Wendy at all. She was built like a two-by-ten: sturdy, blonde, wide from the front and narrow from the side. On the basketball court she drove like a dozer and dove for jump balls. Jerry said she was hands-down the toughest player on the team. She loved it when he said that.
The day after school ended, Jerry drove Baby and Carla almost an hour south, then across a narrow bridge to a strip of land crowded with trees except where big houses sat like helicopters on their flat, wide landing-pad lawns. The yard they were going to work on already looked good to Baby, ten times better than their ragged yard at home. She said so to Jerry, but he pointed out the stray leaves, the uneven hedges, the brush over there, new mulch there and there, and how that big branch right there needed to be cut up and hauled away. And Baby guessed he was right.
After an hour of raking, Jerry tossed Baby and then Carla each a pair of clippers, though Carla shrieked and jumped aside. Baby didn’t see what the big deal was. The safety latch was on. Besides, she loved how Jerry threw things when he was feeling playful. Once, at Wal-Mart, Jerry had Baby go long for a toaster. Another time, on a pontoon, Jerry tossed Baby the second half of a hot dog. His pass was off and Baby wound up overboard. She squeezed the water out of the bun and popped the whole thing in her mouth so she could use both hands to climb back on board. None of the adults knew what to make of this, except Jerry, who was in tears he was laughing so hard. When he could finally breathe again, he said, “Me and Baby always complete our passes.” Then he dissolved again into laughter.
But Carla did not like catching things, especially clippers. “Jesus, Dad!” she exclaimed.
“Don’t you take that name!” Jerry’s tone made Baby’s heart shrivel. Two weeks ago, Baby accidentally smart-mouthed Jerry—it had slipped out, how if it bothered him that she left her basketball shoes on the stairs then he could pick them up—and he’d dropped the shoes in the wood stove. Those shoes had cost Baby all of her birthday money and half her Christmas money from the year before. The nauseating smell of their burning was still in the house the next morning when he took Baby shopping for replacements. They had to go to four places to find the exact same shoes, and on the drives between stores he explained how he wished he hadn’t been so hard on her, but he was a man and reacted when provoked. It was Baby’s responsibility not to provoke him like that. He spent a third of his weekly paycheck on replacement shoes even though she told him five times she could wear her old ones. All the way home she hugged the shoebox to her chest, heart soft and trembly.
Carla had walked a short distance away and was facing a neat line of trees. Baby hated crying, and never did it herself, because it made her feel ugly and incapable.
Jerry stood next to Carla and they talked. Eventually Carla wiped her tears, and Jerry assigned her easy jobs for the rest of the day. That night, he hired Randall Flowers to replace her.
“I thought you were tired of boys,” Carla told Jerry.
“He knows he’s on probation,” Jerry said.
“But Randall Flowers? Bruce’s son?” Carla asked. Jerry played against Randall’s dad in the church basketball league. Bruce was the worst player on his team. He was called Bruce the Bruiser. He wasn’t actually aggressive, just so clumsy he was always injuring people. Also he worked only half-time bagging groceries and watched too much ESPN. “I have no problems with ESPN,” Jerry had said. “Just with watching it before you’ve put in twelve hours of work.”
“I’ll let Randall prove himself,” said Jerry.
Baby knew he meant, If he can.
On Randall’s first day, Jerry had him shovel three loads of mulch from the truck bed before running the push mower across two acres of hills. On their long drive back, Randall fell dead asleep. His head swung sloppily, and he drooled on Baby’s arm. She said “Ew!” and pushed him awake. Randall was mortified. Thirty seconds later he was asleep again, but this time against the window. Past him, tall pines flickered by like telephone poles packed tightly together. Whole stretches of roads out here were just woods. Baby didn’t know how deep they were or what they contained.
Jerry was looking over. “We need to toughen him up.”
“Yup,” Baby said.
It soon became clear that, even if Randall didn’t work as fast or as hard as Baby, he also didn’t do the single thing Jerry hated most: complain. Not when his work boots gave him blisters so bad his socks were crusty with blood. Not on the ninety-two-degree day he forgot a water bottle. And not when Jerry told him he should work harder. In fact, he agreed somberly, like he knew his future was at stake but he hadn’t figured out yet how to fix it.
“How’s Randall doing?” Carla asked, at the end of his first full week.
“Jury’s out,” Jerry muttered.
“Baby said he’s doing great,” said Carla.
“That’s not what I said,” said Baby.
“What did she say?” Jerry asked.
“Baby said Randall is doing great,” Carla repeated.
“That’s not what I said!” said Baby.
“Then what did you say?” Jerry asked.
Baby was trying not to splutter. Carla had asked Baby how Randall was doing, and Baby had said, “Fine,” and then adjusted it to, “I mean, good.” Then Carla had asked, “Do you like working with him?” and Baby had said, “I guess.” Baby understood now that Carla thought she liked Randall. And the girls weren’t allowed to date until they were nineteen (Jerry made occasional exceptions for school dances). Carla had chafed at this rule for years. So Carla wasn’t going to let Baby get away with a crush right under Jerry’s nose.
Except Baby didn’t like Randall! She didn’t! His knees were knobby and his mouth was so dry and cracked that a scaly pink spread toward his nose and cheeks. Randall had informed Baby he had a problem where he’d lick his lips compulsively, and Baby had been revolted by this urge he couldn’t control.
At the same time, Baby remembered with alarming exactness the moment in which Randall had told her about the licking problem. “I just didn’t want you to wonder,” he said, matter-of-factly. But what did it mean for someone to not want you to wonder? For them to give you more about themselves than you’d thought to ask for?
“If you think Randall’s great at his job, you have a lot to learn about what good work means,” Jerry said, and Baby said okay, because she didn’t want to be seen as defending Randall. In fact, she didn’t want to be seen as thinking about him at all.
The Friday of Randall’s second week, they worked at a three-story house on a cove. All morning Baby weed-whacked while Jerry and Randall mulched and mowed. Lunchtime arrived, but Jerry was reluctant to stop.
“We’re behind schedule,” he said. But he had to meet with a client and get lunch and pick up a part for the ride-on mower, which just broke. Till he got back, there was nothing Baby and Randall could do. Jerry climbed into his truck, called, “Hey Baby. C’mere.”
“Yeah?” Baby asked. Jerry’s sunglasses were darkly iridescent, and Baby could see her small, warped reflection in the oily rainbow of each lens.
“No funny business with Randall while I’m gone.”
Baby wrinkled her nose. “Da-ad,” she said.
As the rear end of the truck bobbled away, Randall called, “What’d your dad say?”
“What? Is it some secret?”
“Then why won’t you tell me?”
“Do you want to go swimming?” Randall asked.
“I don’t feel like it.”
“It’s like a million degrees.”
“It’s like eighty-four.”
Randall laughed. “You’re funny,” he said.
It was true that she was funny. At least, that’s what people at school said about her when she danced and kicked her feet or when she lay with her stomach on a basketball with her nose pressed to the glossy wood of the court because for some reason it felt good. For the most part Baby didn’t mind being funny, but sometimes people laughed when she didn’t want to be funny. Like right now.
They walked to a shady spot, where Randall stared at the big silent house, which had shiny arched windows on the upper floor facing the ocean. The windows reflected the sky, which was smeared with a few high clouds. It seemed one of the things rich people paid for was quiet. The feeling of being perched on something great and indifferent. Looking out at the cove, and past that at the faint line of the horizon, Baby felt like a sketch who’d got lost and ended up in a painting.
“Do you think anyone’s home?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Baby.
“Want me to find out?”
“If you don’t go swimming with me, I’m going to go knock on their door.”
“Don’t,” she said.
“I’m going,” he said, starting across the yard.
“Fine!” she said. “I’ll go swimming.”
Randall walked back grinning.
“What?” she demanded. If he said she was funny she would never talk to him again.
“It’s cute,” he said.
Who did he think she was? She would like to meet this other Baby who was cute. Then she thought maybe she was this other Baby and she just didn’t know it. She laughed.
Now he said, “What?”
“Nothing,” said Baby, but she said it happily.
The path they followed to the ocean was narrow and curving. Randall went first, his baggy mesh shorts sloshing at his knees. Baby looked at his hair, which was unevenly buzzed in the back; at his wide shoulder blades; at the little blonde hairs at the back of his neck; at his lumpy dry elbows; at the way his calf muscles bunched while he walked.
The beach was ringed with stubby cliffs. Rocks and shells and bits of seaweed were scattered on the sand like trash on an empty fairground. Little waves slopped gently on the shore.
Randall bent to untie his sneakers, old Nikes whose laces were floss-thin in places. After he had his shoes off, he lifted his shirt over his head, and for a second Baby stared at his wide set of ribs with hairless skin moving over them. Then Randall was looking at her like it was her turn to do something—but what was she supposed to do? Take her own shirt off? Jerry said no funny business. But what was funny business? Was it taking her shirt off? What if she wore a sports bra underneath? But what if Jerry saw her down on the beach with Randall in her sports bra?
“C’mon,” said Randall, and Baby followed him into the water. The end of Baby’s T-shirt swayed like seaweed.
“The water is freezing,” he said.
“I guess,” she said.
He shook his head. “You’re the toughest girl I know.”
“That’s what Jerry says.”
“Why do you call him Jerry?”
“Because that’s his name.” How else could she explain it? She called him Dad to his face, but she called him Jerry to herself and to other people. Jerry’s name was as much a part of him as his bristly mustache, and besides, she liked thinking of him as more than just her dad. It made her extra proud to see him as other people saw him.
“Why don’t you call him Dad? Is he not your real dad?”
“Obviously he’s my real dad.”
Randall squinted at the horizon. He said, “Bruce isn’t my real dad. My mom had an affair with the postman.”
“Oh,” said Baby. “I didn’t know that.” She pictured Bruce yelling for the ball and no one wanting to pass to him. Randall was looking at her like he was waiting for her to say something, but what was she supposed to say? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t want Bruce for a real dad anyway?
“But Bruce adopted me,” he went on. “He’s more like my real dad than anyone else. So that’s what I call him.”
Baby crossed her arms and turned toward the wall of rocks. She pictured climbing them all by herself and then standing on top of them and making up a dance that only she knew how to dance.
“I’m trying to talk to you,” said Randall.
“So talk,” said Baby.
Randall said nothing. Be nice, Baby told herself, but she never said the right things to people—that was Carla’s job. Baby’s job was to work and not complain and complete her passes. And, occasionally and always on accident, to make Jerry laugh so hard he cried.
“Let’s climb those rocks,” she said.
“Are you kidding? We’d die,” said Randall.
“We would not die,” said Baby.
“Yes, we would,” Randall affirmed.
“Let’s catch a whale,” she said. “Let’s dig a ditch and start a fire. Let’s search for a sunken ship. Let’s joust with driftwood.” The possibilities! There were so many things they could do together, things that would take skill and effort and involve only conversation about how to finish what they’d started, not this other kind of talk that asked more than she knew how to give.
“Are you serious?” he asked.
“Obviously,” she said.
“Baby,” he said. “I want to ask you something.”
A stab of fear went through her. Baby said, “Want to fight?”
“Fight,” said Baby. “Hit me. I dare you to hit me.”
“I’m not going to hit a girl.”
“Why? Because I can’t take it?”
Randall shook his head. “I think you can take it,” he said. He licked his lips, then paused when he realized what he had done.
“Then why?” Baby asked.
“I just can’t,” he said.
“That’s what everyone says,” Baby said, because even though she couldn’t remember another time she’d had this conversation, she felt like she’d had it before, like it was the only conversation she’d had with anyone, ever. “Even Jerry,” she added.
“Never mind,” she said. “Jerry doesn’t actually say that.”
“You’re weird,” he said.
Fine, she was weird. She knew it was what everyone meant when they said she was funny. And you know why she was really weird? Because she wanted to wrestle Randall to the ground, show him the extent of her strength, and then find that he was just a tiny bit stronger than her, so that he would gain control of the fight, and then she would be stuck, pinned beneath his hairless chest with the skin that slid like cloth over ribs… She caught her breath. That would definitely be messing around. She started for shore. Randall called, “I just want us to be friends.”
So he pitied her. He’d never think of wrestling her in the sand. Her shame was set to instant boil. He was coming after her now, asking, “Didn’t you hear me?” And she spun and socked him in the gut. He doubled and fell and, for a few choking seconds, didn’t breathe. Then he gasped and said, “Fuck!” Instinctively she checked to make sure Jerry wasn’t around to hear.
“What was that for?” he asked.
She didn’t know. For everything, for nothing. She said, “To toughen you up. So you don’t turn out like useless Bruce.”
His face opened like a crammed cupboard, showed a mess of old things ready to tumble out.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said, and slowly got up. Was that it? She thought of what Jerry said about provocation, but how Randall wasn’t mad in the way Jerry sometimes was. He was quieter; she was not afraid. Baby was really, actually sorry and trying to think of another way to say it. She watched a bird fly low and fast across the water. Randall, I’m really sorry, she practiced in her head. Or how about, Do you really think I’m weird? Maybe they could have an honest conversation about that, more honest than any conversation she’d ever had with anyone about her weirdness, ever.
“What the heck is that?” Randall asked, and Baby turned too quickly to have any chance of ducking away from the path of his fist. The sudden pressure in the corner of her eye started out dull, like she’d been mauled with a pillow, and then surged to a hot hard iron of pain. Baby cupped a hand over her hurt eye while she stared at Randall out of the other one. It hurt so bad. She turned back to face the ocean. The bird—was it the same bird?—was flying in the opposite direction now. Don’t cry, she told herself. Do not cry.
“Oh, my God,” said Randall. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Baby managed.
“No, it’s not. Let me see.” He pulled her hand away from her face. He peered at her eye closely. He made Baby tell him how many fingers he was holding up.
“Three,” said Baby, but Randall kept looking at her sadly. “Am I wrong?” she asked.
“No, you’re right,” he said. “I can’t believe I did that. I’m such an idiot.” He spoke with vehemence.
Baby said, “You’re not.”
“Thanks,” he said. “But you’re wrong.” He looked at Baby’s eye again. He touched the corner of it very softly with the tip of his thumb.
“Does this hurt?” he asked.
“Not really,” she whispered. She was looking now at his brown and gold eyes, his long lashes that were blonde at the ends.
“Jerry’s going to kill me,” he said.
“I’m not going to tell him,” she said.
“I’m done for,” he said, like she hadn’t spoken.
They followed the curving narrow path back to the lawn, Randall sometimes taking Baby’s hand to lead her over the rockier parts of the path. She didn’t really need his help, but she accepted it anyway. Baby’s eye was a little puffy, so she got her visor out of the truck and pulled it low over her face. The two of them sat on the grass in companionable silence until Jerry returned with three bottles of generic orange soda and one large Hawaiian pizza to share.
All afternoon they worked at the three-story house on the cove. By four-thirty it was cooler, but muggy, and the clouds were low and dark. When the last of the brush and the clippings were gathered and bagged, when the ride-on mower was secured to the trailer and the trailer hitched to Jerry’s truck, and when the tools and the rakes and the gloves were sorted and loaded up, Jerry, Baby, and Randall climbed into the cab. Baby sat in the middle. It began to rain, little specks on the windshield which, when they dropped Randall off, turned to hard taps.
“You and Randall seem to be getting along,” said Jerry, as he watched Randall climb three steps to a battered screen door.
“I guess,” said Baby.
By the time they were back on Route 9, the rain was falling so hard the windshield wipers couldn’t clear it fast enough. The sound was like gravel being poured all over the roof of the cab.
“Dad?” said Baby. She had to practically yell. “Did Mom ever provoke you?”
He adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. “Sometimes.”
“Did you ever have to be sorry for something you did when she provoked you?”
“Yeah,” he said.
They drove under a bridge, and the sound of rain flicked off like a switch, then on again.
“That’s not for you to know,” he said.
A few minutes later, Jerry said, “There are things I wish I could go back and change. Your mom and I were young. It wasn’t easy.”
“Did she forgive you?”
Jerry worked his mouth. Baby couldn’t bear it if he cried. No, he wouldn’t cry. This was Jerry. But he could still come apart inside like ripped cloth, and she could feel the tearing inside of her, too.
“Never mind,” she said.
Jerry said, “I know you think of me as a good man.”
“Dad, it’s okay,” she pled.
“But I’ve made mistakes, one in particular that—I hope you never have to live with a mistake like this. Your mom was pregnant with you, and we had a fight about where to spend Christmas. She wouldn’t let it go. I told her to stop pestering me, but—she wouldn’t let it go.” He stopped. “I almost lost everything,” he said. He broke everything into four syllables. “Of course, I lost her anyway. But she did tell me, before she died, that she forgave me.” Then he said, “I didn’t deserve her.”
Maybe, but Baby doubted it. She thought how Wendy was resting in peace but Jerry was living in sorrow, trying to fix something that could never be repaired. It didn’t seem fair. Baby pressed her forehead to the glass and closed her eyes. She should say something to encourage him. But Jerry, because he was who he was, did not ask her to respond, did not say anything at all to her until he came to a stop in the driveway, threw the truck into park, and said, “Let’s get ’er unloaded.”
Baby should’ve looked in the mirror the next morning before going downstairs for breakfast. If she had, she would’ve seen the crescent of purple under her eye, and she might’ve tried to come up with a version of the truth that made the truth not so bad. But Baby strolled into the kitchen, and Jerry pointed at her face. “Care to explain yourself?” he asked.
“I had an accident.”
Carla lifted her head from her cereal. “Look at your eye!” she yelled.
“An accident,” said Jerry. “Was anyone else involved in this accident?”
“No,” said Baby.
“Randall called me this morning to apologize for punching you yesterday.”
“Randall punched you?” Carla exclaimed.
“I’m sorry,” said Baby, but she was talking to Jerry.
“Dad,” said Carla, very seriously, “You need to fire him.”
“It wasn’t his fault!” said Baby.
“I already did,” said Jerry, to Carla.
“Why were you protecting him?” Carla demanded of Baby.
“It was an accident!” said Baby. Then she said, “I asked him to.”
“You what?” Jerry roared, and Baby saw something in his eyes that looked like panic.
“Dad,” said Carla, “There is seriously something wrong with Baby if she thinks—”
“Stop,” said Jerry. He was talking to both of them. “Just stop.” His breath was going in and out of his nostrils. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I don’t know how to fix this.” But now it wasn’t clear who he was talking to.
Because Jerry didn’t replace Randall, July and August were the two most exhausting months of Baby’s life. She and Jerry worked six days a week, usually twelve-hour days. She was tired all the time. Not that she minded. She agreed with Jerry’s saying that a long day’s work was the mind’s best medicine. Also she liked how, on Sundays after church, she and Jerry spent the rest of the day watching ESPN and eating the fat-free frozen yogurt Carla kept in the freezer for herself.
Baby had no time to play basketball that summer, and it’s not like she had the energy anyway. This wasn’t a problem until the new season started and it was clear that Baby hadn’t improved. She was still playing like a promising freshman, not like she’d learned anything.
She had another problem, too—a bigger problem. When the ball came at her from the right side, she flinched, and in that half second she lost her grip on what she was supposed to do next. She went to the school nurse to have her vision tested.
“I think you’re fine,” said the nurse.
But Baby was not fine! She explained about her black eye last summer.
“Some funky things can get wired into you,” said the nurse. “Really, you’re fine.”
But Baby was not fine at all! At their first home game, a doubleheader, Baby was so surprised by a pass—she barely reacted in time to catch it—that she practically handed the ball to her defender. Her coach took her out of the game and didn’t put her back in until after the half. She missed three layups. He took her back out again for the rest of the game.
Baby didn’t see Jerry when she came out of the locker room. He hated it when she played badly, so he either left during the game or right after. Baby was required to stay and cheer for the boys’ team. Jerry knew she could get a ride home with a teammate.
“Baby!” she heard. “Hey, Baby!”
It was Bruce, galumphing down the bleachers toward her and apologizing to people whose drinks he almost knocked over.
“Great game,” he said, leaning over her like a giant bird.
“Not really,” said Baby.
“That pass really took you off guard. But don’t worry. It happens to me all the time.” He laughed. “Hey, you want to sit with me? I’ll share my fries.”
Baby didn’t want to sit with Bruce, but she also didn’t want to sit with her teammates, whose gossip she only pretended to find interesting. So she followed Bruce into the bleachers. Even though the boys were still just warming up, Bruce kept yelling, “Heyyyyyyy Randy-boy!” over and over.
Baby wasn’t hungry, but she ate most of Bruce’s fries anyway. They were fat and lukewarm, and Baby dragged them through the ketchup at the bottom of the paper cup until all of her fingers were oozy red. Carla had once told her that the reason ketchup tasted so good was all the sugar in it. During a time-out, to make conversation with Bruce, she told him about all the sugar in ketchup.
“I’d never thought about it,” he said. “But it makes perfect sense. That’s probably why I put ketchup on everything. Sometimes I put it on my eggs. My wife hates it.”
“I put ketchup on my eggs,” said Baby (it was true, she did). “I even put it on my tuna salad.”
“Tuna salad!” said Bruce. “I’ll have to try that one.”
After the game ended, and as people were streaming down the bleachers around them, Bruce said, “Want to hang out a sec? I’ll give you a ride home.” Then he said, “I want to talk to you about what happened last summer. I am so sorry. Randy was devastated—not that his feelings count much here—and I can’t even tell you how disappointed I was. There is never ever ever ever an excuse for that.”
“It’s not a big deal,” said Baby. “I kind of provoked him.”
“But he wouldn’t have done it otherwise,” said Baby.
“Still doesn’t matter.”
“Why?” The question was so honest it bent her voice at the edges.
Bruce leaned toward her until his nose was inches away. He had blue eyes with sparse lashes and a stare that was too intense. “Because,” he said, “to provoke someone is to test their trustworthiness. That’s what we do as humans.” Bruce’s breath was bad. The gym was mostly empty now. Bruce leaned back as if to get some perspective on whether his words found their mark. “It’s interesting,” he said. “Your dad told me the same thing: that you provoked Randy. He used the same word.” He paused. “He strikes me as a man with a bit of a temper.”
“He’s a good father,” Baby said.
“I know, I know, I’m sure he is. But he can be a good father and still have a temper.”
“He’s never—” said Baby, but she didn’t even want to name the thing he’d never done, not to her, because to name it seemed to suggest its possibility.
“Oh, I’m not saying that. I’m not saying that at all,” said Bruce.
But of course he was. Baby stood. “I gotta go,” she said.
“I’m still giving you a ride home,” said Bruce, and one look around the gym told Baby she had no other option.
Randall came out of the locker room and gave Baby a shy hello. She shrugged back. They walked to the parking lot, three tall shadows. Bruce drove a truck that was even larger and dirtier and older than Jerry’s. This time Baby sat in the passenger seat, Randall in the middle. Bruce turned on some country music and started humming along. Baby looked at the dark woods. The dusty dashboard glowed orange in the streetlights. She drew four intersecting lines in the dust with her pointer finger. She made an X in one corner and nudged Randall. He made an O. She made an X. He made an O. And so on. The game ended in a draw. But you know what? Baby had planned it that way. She wanted an excuse to keep going. They played two more games, both of which ended in a draw. When they ran out of dashboard space, Randall said, “Okay, you win.”
Bruce looked over. “You two are cute,” he said. “I told Randy here he should’ve invited you to the winter dance.”
“Dad,” said Randall.
“I’m just saying,” said Bruce. “You’d make a good pair.”
Randall gave Baby a pleading look.
“But seriously,” said Bruce. “What would you have said if Randy asked you?”
The answer was, of course, that she would’ve said yes, if, that is, she didn’t have to deal with Jerry. So the answer would’ve also been no.
“Dad,” said Randall, “Please shut up.”
Bruce gave a friendly little laugh. “Zzzip,” he said, dragging a thumb and pointer finger across his mouth, then throwing the key away. When Bruce pulled into Baby’s driveway, he said, “Tell your dad I say hi.” Randall mouthed Sorry. And Baby gave Randall one of those smiles that wasn’t really a smile, just a widening of her lips, her whole face, even, as if to show him more of her than he usually got to look at.
“How’d you get here?” Jerry asked, when she came inside.
“Bruce and Randall dropped me off.”
He turned back to the game, but he wasn’t watching anymore.
She sat. He turned off the TV. “Say whatever you have to say.”
“Am I supposed to never talk to Randall?”
“There’s certainly no requirement for you to ride around in a car with him.”
“But I don’t think Randall would hurt me again,” she said. “Besides, Bruce offered the ride.”
“Bruce should mind his own business. I wouldn’t call him an expert on relationships.”
But Baby had liked the simplicity, the vehemence, of Bruce’s never ever ever ever. At the same time, how could Bruce say never ever ever ever and then suggest she and Randall go to the dance together? But you had to forgive some things, didn’t you, so that anything could ever come of anything? And which things were those?
“Can I go to the winter dance?” she asked.
“With Randall? Absolutely not.”
“I can’t believe you would ask that.”
“But I just—”
“Do you think being a father is easy? Do you know how much your nagging costs me?”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do differently.”
“Nothing,” she said, but it wasn’t true.
Carla came in. “What’s going on?”
“Baby wants to go to the dance with Randall,” said Jerry.
“Good luck with that,” said Carla. But later she came to Baby’s room, sat on her bed, watched Baby braid her hair. “I get the impression,” she said, “that Dad and Mom had issues. And I think that’s what makes him scared about us getting involved. It drives me nuts, too, but we just have to wait. After you’re nineteen you can date whoever you want. Even Randall, I guess.” She looked at Baby. “What?”
So Carla knew nothing of the fight before Christmas, did not know that Jerry almost lost everything in a moment, did not know that their mom had decided to forgive what Jerry never ever ever ever should’ve done. Even if Baby didn’t know how to think of all this yet, she did know that Jerry had entrusted her with this, had chosen her over Carla, and she was proud and afraid.
“What?” Carla repeated, but Baby just said, “You’re right,” and went back to her hair.
First thing the next morning, when the air was cold and still, Baby took her basketball out to the rumpled driveway. She dribbled, set, shot. Dribbled, set, shot.
Carla came out. “I can’t sleep with you doing that,” she said.
“Pass to me,” said Baby.
Carla looked at her, then shrugged and came down the stairs. Somehow she was regal in her bare feet and bathrobe. Somehow she made the yard more than the yard, made the house more than the house. Maybe by believing she had a place here. Maybe by never questioning what that place was.
She sent Baby a weak bounce pass.
“No,” said Baby. “Like this.” She threw Carla a chest pass, which she dodged, squealing. Eventually Carla got the hang of it. She would pass from Baby’s right side, barely in Baby’s field of vision, and Baby would try to catch, turn, and shoot without flinching or getting scared. But the more Baby thought about how she shouldn’t be scared, the more scared she got. There had to be a number for how many passes it took to get the funky thing wired out of her. And she had to get to that number, no matter how high. Because the best thing she could do for a person was not leave him hanging or wondering. Was convince him, by her reflexive self-sacrifice, that she wanted to complete every pass.
“My feet are freezing,” said Carla.
“Keep going,” said Baby. “Please?”
Mindy Misener grew up in Maine and is a graduate of Williams College and the University of Michigan. She lives in Montana.