“Mamaw don’t want to lock you in a cage, but I got no choice,” she apologized to her wailing granddaughter as she extricated herself from the overwrought child, both covered in spittle, snot, and tears, an ectoplasm of bodily fluids. The child desperately reached for her, arms stretched, fingers twitching, head thrusting.
“Please at least take this?” she begged, thrusting a colorful rubber giraffe on a ring at the flailing child. The tyke slammed her hand at the teether, knocking it into the towel that covered the bottom of the cage.
Lori snapped the lock closed and thanked God she hadn’t discarded Bruno’s kennel after he disappeared. She figured he had either runaway or had been struck by a passing car, by one of the crazy people who drive like maniacs on 34th Street. Nearly overwhelmed by anxiety, shaking and nauseous, she trotted to the bathroom, lowered her head into the toilet bowl and retched, her stomach convulsing, stray gray hairs plastered to her cheek. Then she sat on the floor in a daze, her hands at her stomach, and attempted to regain her bearings as a wave of warmth enveloped her and then subsided. She grabbed a nearby hand towel and wiped herself off, rose, and splashed water onto her face, glaring venomously in the mirror.
Little Jylee continued to scream, a banshee on the prowl, sometimes infusing her wrath with deep ghostly moans and howls. When her breath was exhausted, her body quivered as if seizing, then she began the lamentation anew.
Lori stepped into the kitchen; her apartment so small everything was but a few steps away, and grasped her cigarette package from the counter. She attempted to quiet the child with her finger to her lips, “Shhhh, baby, please quiet down and let Mamaw think,” but the bellowing only intensified. She stepped onto the tiny balcony and fired a cigarette. She drew deeply from it and let the magic smoke fill her lungs. She felt a sense of developing calm filter through her body, which was largely inside the apartment, her arm extended so that the cigarette’s smoke was outside in the chilly air. The nausea had briefly subsided, but she felt a tsunami of tears cresting to the surface, which the friendly nicotine kept at bay, and she contemplated just how she had come to be in this predicament.
Summer had phoned earlier that day out of the blue, a shock to say the least. Lori had not heard from her daughter in months, not sense Jylee was born, and Lori had arrived at the hospital with a big pink balloon and oozing gin. Her daughter swore she would never let Lori near the baby again. But Summer sounded desperate on the phone. Said she needed someone to watch the baby for a couple of hours. She had a job interview, “For a genuine real job with benefits,” she said. “I called everyone I know. You’re my last hope. Do you think you can stay sober long enough?” she asked tentatively.
And so, Summer had arrived, Jylee on her hip, with nothing but a recycling tote stuffed with a few diapers and the giraffe teething toy in a pocket made from scrap material and safety pins. “Please, Ma, don’t let anything happen to her. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Summer pleaded. Lori moved to her end table and retrieved a red coin with an embedded triangle on the face. Around the edge the words, “To thine own self be true” were raised in gold. She held it up with pride.
“One month,” she declared. “I’m on the road, and this time I mean it.”
“Well, we’ll see. I’ll be back in two hours, two and half tops,” Summer promised and reluctantly handed over the child, kissed her on the forehead, and departed. That’s when the onslaught had begun, the moment Jylee realized her mother had vanished.
“It’s all right, sweetheart,” Lori cooed. “We’ll have fun together, just the two of us.” But the sobbing continued. “We just need to get to know each other. That’s all. You just don’t know me yet. I’m your Mamaw and I’m trying my best.” Lori paced around the room bouncing the little blond doll, patting her back, smushing her cheek to the baby’s, but the child would not settle.
“Let’s look out the window at the birds,” Lori suggested. “Your mommy loved to look at the birds when she was little.” But Jylee would not participate. She smeared her snot and slobber on the sliding glass door and beat on it so that Lori feared she would break it. “Why won’t you look at the birds?” she asked. “See them, just flitting around without a care in the world.” She waited a beat, but the shrieking continued. “Look at the damn birds!” She shouted then caught herself. “Oh, no! Mamaw didn’t mean that. I’m just a bit nervous, a little jumpy these days. And I’m mighty sick sometimes. It’s alright now, just calm down.” Lori strolled to the kitchen, switching Jylee from one hip to the other, and grabbed a tissue to wipe that little angelic face. She opened the cabinet next to the refrigerator and stared for a moment at the sticky ring on the shelf paper. She touched her finger to it and traced the ring a couple of times, then brought it to her lips: peach schnapps. Her tongue moved around imbibing, remembering.
Jylee rested her head on Lori’s shoulder and rubbed her eyes, her hysterics taking their toll. Lori relaxed, slammed the cabinet shut, and suggested,
“What about a bath? That will calm you down. Your mommy loved baths.” She fished a plastic cup and bowl from a drawer and carted her full load into the bathroom. She leaned over to turn on the bathtub faucet but could not reach. She set Jylee on the floor, using her legs as jail bars. The little nipper clung to them, pulling Lori almost to the floor. Suddenly a wave of queasiness washed over her, and she felt warm. She tested the water temperature and tossed in the plastic dishes. Despite Jylee pulling down her on her Mamaw’s pants, Lori managed to open the door under the sink and retrieve a bottle of lavender. The smell, her favorite scent, made her fear she might retch, and she felt bile gushing up her throat.
“Come with me, baby,” she called and grabbed Jylee under the arms and raced her into the living area. She glanced around, realizing there was no crib, no playpen, no highchair, no baby carrier. Only long-lost Bruno’s dog cage. She swallowed hard and grit her teeth. As the contents of her stomach shot into her throat, she moved toward the cage to do the only thing she could think to do, all the while hating herself.
After the vomiting subsided and she felt strong enough, she retrieved Jylee from the cage and held her tight, squeezing the child, nearly suffocating her in her bosom. The cries, the screeching, the sobbing subsided and converted to whimpers. Lori carried Jylee into the bathroom, finished running the water, added in the lavender, and undressed her. She sat her gingerly in the tub, one hand firmly on her back. It felt natural. She felt human. Her motherly instincts pumped through her body. She introduced the plastic cup and demonstrated how to scoop up the water and then pour it out, thus creating a cascade that delighted the child. She submerged the cup and brought it up to the crown of Jylee’s head and gently poured it over her, the water streaming like a gentle waterfall. “Look, we washed off your tears,” Lori pointed out. “We made the bad go away.” The child giggled, her voice like a chipmunk, her eyes lighting up, her cheeks opening into dimples. “Oh, my!” Lori delighted. Jylee took the cup and filled it with water and raised it up in her chubby hands. “Is it Mamaw’s turn?” Lori asked and leaned forward, allowing the water to flow from the top of her head and down her face, flecking from her nose, dripping from her eyelashes. “Look,” she chirped, “you made Mamaw’s bad go away!”
After several minutes, Jylee’s head began to droop like a deflated tire. Lori gathered her from the tub and wrapped her in a towel, gently rubbing to dry and warm her. She plucked a romper from the bottom of the makeshift diaper bag and diapered, powdered, and dressed her granddaughter. “Let’s have a snack,” Lori cooed in a sing-song voice. In the kitchen she scanned a near-empty refrigerator and the sparse cabinet contents but finally located a box of Nilla wafers. She set the child on the counter and held up a wafer then plopped it into Jylee’s mouth just far enough for her to taste it. Jylee took it and sucked on it, gumming it into mush, then reached out for another. Lori drew another from the box and handed it to her happy playmate. Jylee took it and then held it up to her grandmother’s mouth and grunted as if to say, “You eat this one,” and Lori did, chewing as she remarked, “Yummy, yummy.”
Three Nilla wafers later, Lori brought her darling into the living area, grabbed an afghan from the back of the sofa, wrapped Jylee in it, and plopped into her easy chair. The girl snuggled up against Lori’s chest, one hand reaching up to finger her face. Lori began to hum a lullaby. “My angel, you have no idea what this means to me, how much you have calmed my nerves. My stomach don’t even hurt no more. I do believe you’ve saved me from myself.” She hummed a few more bars. “You have no idea how many bad decisions I’ve made in my life. Dropped out of school, married a man what beat me, messed up with your mama so bad she cut me out of her life.” Jylee wiggled her way farther down into the blanket like a caterpillar scooting back into her cocoon. “I just kept digging ma-self into a deeper and deeper hole. I don’t know why. It’s like some part of my brain didn’t work, didn’t get the message to grow up. Like I was afraid that if I thought about my life, it would be too ugly, too painful to handle. So’s I just found ways to avoid it. But that ain’t no answer, my precious. No answer at all.” She realized the baby was snoring, soundly off in dreamland. Lori sat still for a long time and contemplated the afternoon’s events, how she’d panicked but persevered and not only survived this trial but triumphed. She chose to savor this little victory, this moment of clarity in an otherwise dumpster fire life. She would tuck it away in her memory like a mental photograph that she could pull out later and cherish.
After a while, a gentle knock recalled Lori to reality and her daughter opened the door. Lori smiled and placed her finger to her lips to ensure quiet.
“How did she do?” Summer inquired. “How did YOU do?”
“We were just fine,” Lori declared. “She was an absolute lamb.”
“I’m so glad,” Summer reached down to collect her sleeping daughter.
“Can I keep her again sometime?”
“I don’t know. We’ll see. I’ll just grab her things.”
Summer collected the diaper bag from the dinette table and glanced around the room.
“Mom, is that Jylee’s giraffe in the dog’s cage?”
Lori’s eyes darted and she began to mumble. “No, it’s not what you think.”
“You put my kid in a cage! You bitch! You monster!”
Summer reached down and pulled Jylee away from Lori’s chest and the child began to cry. “Is that booze on your breath? It is! It’s peach schnapps. You are such a liar! And to think, I trusted my baby with you!”
“Please, Summer, let me explain! It’s not like that. I ain’t been drinking, I swear.”
“Well, it don’t matter ‘cause you’ll never see either of us again. Ever!” I knew it when I was a little kid and you ‘had accidents’ all the time. I knew it when I was in high school, and you mysteriously lost your driver’s license. I knew it when you almost burned down the goddamned apartment when you ‘fell sleep’ with a cigarette in your hand and me and Brian were sleeping in the next fucking room. Why would you change now? Why would you care anymore for Jylee than you ever did for me? You’re pathetic. There’s a special place in hell for people like you.” Summer grabbed the diaper bag and, clutching Jylee to her bosom, fled the apartment.
Lori sat in her chair as if in a trance, too stunned to cry. After a time, the evening sun cast a slant of wan light across the room, across her lap, across her face. She thought about her life, like little shards of glass scattered on a floor, one a lovely perfume of summers on her grandparents’ farm, wild daisies, and day lilies, running barefoot with her siblings and cousins to splash in the creek. Another of dark nights hiding in a closet from her husband, his belt buckle jangling in the hallway. One shard gleamed as she rocked Summer in her arms, both dressed in virginal white. Another was drenched in blood smeared all around her beat up station wagon, Summer and Brian dazed in the back seat. The largest shard reflected Jylee in the bathtub laughing, filling that cup, and pouring the water down Mamaw’s face.
She rose sometime late in the night, flipped a light switch, and opened the kitchen cabinet. She stared at the empty space, at the ring of glossy poison. She closed the cabinet and reached for her cigarettes to find the pack was empty. She chuckled a trifle at her retched luck. She moved to the sliding glass door, noting Jylee’s finger smudges, and stepped out onto the balcony. More like a railed ledge really, not large enough to be called a balcony. She could jump, but that would only reshape her agony, not likely end it. She could walk down to Rojo’s Liquor store, but she didn’t have enough money. She could call her sponsor, a gruff but well-meaning woman named Jennifer who had her own troubles. She knew this day would come. The day of no options. The day of reckoning. The day she had no one to turn to. So many times, as she raised that bottle, raised another glass, ordered another round, she would catch herself glimpsing this bleak future. She loathed it, but not enough to stop. Not enough to control herself. That was always for tomorrow and now it was tomorrow.
A miasma of memories whirled in her head. She remembered one day when she was playing hide and seek with her cousins in her aunt’s garage. She needed a perfect spot to hide, so she foolishly climbed into the chest freezer, only for a moment, when her cousin Rusty came along. Out of sheer evil, he sat on the lid and refused to let her out. For several minutes that felt like hours, she was trapped in this black cage, shivering into numbness. She could feel her breath evaporating, crystalizing. She couldn’t feel her fingers or toes and the numbness, like insects, ran up her arms and legs which ceased to exist. She could sense her heart giving out, the thumps growing further and further apart, dragging, waning. Finally, her sister freed her, pushing Rusty off and flinging the lid open while he ran to hide. But that feeling of life drifting off, transforming into frozen vapor, had never left her. She had carried it with her always, tucked into a shadowy corner. And so, Lori found herself again trapped in a freezer, her own dark cage, her life drifting off and vaporizing into nothing. And so it did.