by Elizabeth Heald | Portland, Oregon, USA
Originally published in Issues 003 & 004: November & December 2017
Two people are walking together when they find an abandoned baby. Their names are Seth and Elise. The baby isn’t actually a baby, but it looks like a baby to them because they have no experience with these things.
The baby, a boy who’s just turned four, is playing with garbage on a patch of grass at the end of a bridge. He is a handsome boy with rosy cheeks and a sweet disposition. He is dressed in a dirty white diaper and perhaps this explains their confusion in calling him a baby. But really it doesn’t. When it comes to kids they don’t know much.
“Look, Seth,” Elise says. “It’s a baby!”
“Adorable,” Seth says. He chucks a nickel at the boy and keeps walking. “Look at those cheeks, so pink and so rosy!”
“Hold up, Seth. Don’t give him that money. He’s a baby, he’ll choke.” Elise reaches down and picks up the nickel.
The boy stares up at them from his place in the grass. He plays with the lid of a pickle jar and an empty can of tuna. He thinks these people look pretty nice. He says, “My name’s Joe.”
Seth and Elise look at each other in awe.
“Seth, the baby just talked.”
“Now that’s a smart baby,” Seth says. “Give him back the nickel. He’ll know what to do with it.”
Elise watches Seth and sees he’s eager to get moving. Onto the next thing, that’s her man, Seth. They’ve been together six years—six years of committed non-commitment. He doesn’t believe in marriage because of his mother’s eight divorces. He had to endure seven no-good stepfathers, a deadbeat dad, and a lifetime of disenchantment. Elise wants more, however, and she’s been trying to find a way to say this. She thinks this might be her chance.
She asks, “Where’s your mother, little baby? Do you have a mommy or a daddy?”
The little boy scratches his belly. “Mommy had other commitments and Daddy said, No Dice.”
“Wow,” Seth says. “This baby has quite a range. Listen to all those words.”
Elise gasps. “They’ve left a little baby by a bridge, with water running under? Garbage and strangers all around?”
“My mommy’s loose and my daddy’s slaphappy,” the boy says.
“Whoa,” Seth says. “Now I’m really impressed. This kid has a lot to say.”
Elise has this look on her face—her eyes are wide, her mouth misshapen. “Seth, I want to keep this baby.”
Seth looks at her for a long moment. “You want this baby right here?”
The little boy looks hopeful. “Do you live in a house?” he asks. “Can you afford to buy a few toys?”
“Yes, of course,” Elise says. “We’ll buy you whatever you like. Everything you’ve ever wanted.”
Seth holds up his hands, says, “No fucking way. We’re not taking this baby home.”
The boy’s face falls. He sits back in the grass and examines his toes.
“Look what you’ve done to him,” Elise says. “Look how you’ve broken his heart.”
“I didn’t break this baby’s heart,” Seth says. “His heart was broken long ago. Look at his filthy diaper. No one’s changed that thing in at least a week.”
“You’re just like your mother,” Elise says. “You can’t commit to anything.”
“Don’t you talk about my mother,” Seth snaps.
“It’s okay,” the boy says. “He doesn’t have to commit.”
“You stay out of this, Baby,” Elise growls.
“This is someone else’s baby,” Seth shouts. “And you know how I feel about marriage and kids!”
Elise is crying. “I’m taking this baby and I’m going to raise him all on my own. You’ll be sorry. One day he’s going to be famous! And I’ll tell everyone how his almost daddy left him but he made it anyway. He’ll be an actor or a quarterback, you watch!”
“Oh! Like Joe Montana!” the boy cries.
Seth smiles. “Nice one, Baby. You like sports?”
The boy nods and they begin a conversation about football and soccer. The kid really knows his stuff.
“Let’s keep him,” Seth says. “I like this little guy.”
Elise looks disgusted. “You’ve only changed your mind because of sports. Some father you are, putting conditions on things.”
“What?” Seth says. “You don’t want him now? I’ve committed and now you back out?”
“You’ve committed for all the wrong reasons,” Elise weeps.
“Miss wishy-washy. You’re just like your father,” Seth says. “And you have his flat ass, as well.”
“It’s okay,” the boy says. “She can change her mind.”
“Hey shut up, Baby!” Seth shouts. “Stay out of this, alright?”
“Fuck off, Seth.” Elise flips him the bird with an angry, upright finger.
“Right back at you,” Seth says. “And nice work cussing in front of the baby. What sort of hope does he have in this world with you and your mouth as his mother?”
The baby is sitting on the grass looking back and forth between them. “Do you want me or not?” he asks. “I’d just like to know so I can make plans.”
Elise looks at Seth. “I think we’d better just go,” she says.
Seth nods. “Sorry I lost it. You know I get hot under the collar when you talk about my mom.”
“It’s alright.” Elise wipes a tear from her cheek. “It just means we’re not ready. I mean how can we take care of a baby when we can hardly take care of each other?”
“Yeah,” Seth laughs sadly. “Each other or ourselves.” Seth takes her hand and they turn and walk over the bridge.
The baby returns to his lid and empty can of tuna, already on his way to forgetting these two people, his almost parents. He adjusts his diaper and looks out across the water, having higher hopes for the next couple that comes by. ■