1 The summer runs through us. My cousin Lyle, a few years older. Me, about to enter high school. We go to the shed when we can’t carry the heat any longer, the sun’s stare ruthless on pale shoulders. There’s curled photographs of our mothers together tucked in a cigar box. They don’t look alike in the way of sisters. They don’t look alike to us at all. Lyle is seventeen and on his way to something. His mother is proud. My mother is gone like the day at the end of it.
We used to read. I sat across from him, ankle over ankle. Lyle on the floor, knees up. I’d read the brokebacked and dusty romances from Grandma Cherry’s bedside. He’d steal dirties from the Rite and Ready. I closed my eyes when he showed me the slick shaved pusses. He said every woman had one. I said I wasn’t so sure.
But this summer Lyle doesn’t want to read. He says we should do better things with time than kill it, so we fixate on the pictures.
“I’ve been thinking,” he says. Traces a finger over my mother’s face. Pauses so long I forget about him and go back to my book. “Maybe we ain’t related after all.”
I laugh without looking at him but then he’s in front of me. Closer and closer. His lips sudden, warm on mine. It takes my breath clear out. The sun comes in under the door. It comes in overhead through the skylight Grampa Jackie put in years before. The skylight used to leak when it rained, but it doesn’t rain anymore.
“There’s other girls in Peaches,” I say. I cover my hot cheeks with my hands. I face the door. “Why can’t you make it with them?”
“How do you like your life, Lacey May? Anyone really ever care for you?”
I don’t answer him, but I know.
He straddles me, his knees a hard press. My dress goes up, his knees pin. I watch my own self crawl the walls, leave through a crack in the wood slats. What’s left of me tries to sit up but there’s not going to be any of that.
In the romances men hold women in soft caresses. They are hard with muscle but their insides are made of sweet taffy. The men voice their love feelings loud. The women dip their heads back, necks arced and pale. They love the love and it showers them. They return from the love cleaner than before and wear it like aura, a pastel rainbow above soft curls. Me, I had worn white last year when I turned thirteen in a church preservation ceremony where the other girls married their daddies but I had no daddy to marry so I married God alone and now this. Pinch and push. My lower back scraping against the dirt floor. I think I must not be not married to God anymore.
After, the sun hangs where it was before. The small dead wind pushes at the flimsy door. The smell of the garlic train passes into the next county. Lyle arranges himself and looks the same as ever. I smooth my hair and brush off the dirt that seems to be everywhere on me.
Later that night alone at Grandma Cherry’s, I look at the pictures one more time. Maybe we aren’t related, he had said. I almost decide to agree, but then I see their likeness. The same tick upward in the eyes. The same chin pointed to the packed dust ground. Knees knocked in, the same. And to confirm, Lyle’s mother gripping my mother’s young wrist like a warning.
My mother leaving was the first bad thing to happen to me. This all spooled out from there. My mother didn’t force Lyle over me, but it feels like she did. For its fall now and I know what makes what. It’s pushing me out from the ribs down. My face is a moon with it, bloody river dry. I feel it move, heel and palm, the pop of hip, the roll of new spine. I found a book at the school library. It says right now it’s the size of a zucchini. I strap down tits and tummy under Ace bandages I steal from the Rite and Ready. It kicks me again. The book says,now your pregnancy is starting to feel real. It says, now you are almost halfway through.
I try to imagine my mother in her new life, with the man she met over the phone. Just a man who started calling one afternoon and never stopped. You can tell everything you need to know about a person by the sound of their voice, Lacey. That’s what she said to me after they’d hang up each day. I never thought he’d come for her, but I was wrong. I never thought she’d go with him and leave me, but I was wrong.
Grandma Cherry watches her televangelists all day. She tapes them and watches them over and over, mouthing lines. Sometimes I wish God would give me a Holy Ghost machine gun. I'd blow your head off! She loves color on the skin and has collected at least twenty pots of drugstore glitter for her eyelids. The shinier the eyes, the more heavenly the messages she will attract. “I want Jesus to spot me in the darkest room,” she says, fluttering fake lashes. And she bakes until her feet swell, dozens and dozens of flavorless scones. Taking care of me will get her to the highest ring of heaven. “It’ll be worth it when I’ve got diamonds on each toe, cream puffs in my mouth.”
She is good and loves all her grandchildren the same. She is good and cannot listen when I tell lies.
“Lyle’s been after me,” I say to her when I can’t pretend to have the bloat anymore, when I can’t say I’ve eaten myself out of all my school pants.
“On about the devil all the time. Can’t you just focus on getting you a husband and moving out of here?”
“I was just minding my own.”
“Don’t tell me you’re on about the funny business. You got to say no. You said no, didn’t you?”
I don’t answer. I was there with him but then I wasn’t. I was saying no but then. My stillness.
“Here’s a lesson, and listen close,” she says. “A man is a lot of things. Cousin, brother, butcher, father. Shit, salesman, preacher, check-out man. Even police-mans.” She takes off her glasses. She pinches the bridge of her old nose. “But first he’s a man.”
I suck my stomach in. She glances at it and starts to say something, but stops. She goes to the bathroom and a few minutes later comes out with purple lips, radiant blue shadow up to her brows. She twirls before her chair before sitting down for the night, lets her programs take her away. I think of how at school our class almost had someone come talk to us about sex from the city, someone who was rumored to bring condoms and strangle bananas with them, but enough parents raised a fuss. Instead we got a twenty five year old girl in a pressed blue frock giving a speech about abstinence. The way her cheeks reddened when she peered out at all of us and said she was a virgin. It had made perfect sense to me then that since she was not married she would be a virgin. But now her words seemed unlikely. How she could have made it twenty-five years without someone taking it from her?
The book says to consider how you’d like to announce your pregnancy to others, so I decide it’s time to tell Lyle about the zucchini, like he might care, like he will feel my stomach and become someone else and we will run off where no one knows, and make a crib from the wood that falls from an unknown forest. Far from this droughted valley, we will dance in a river and drink. Make blankets from tufts of cotton. Grind almonds into butter, nourish ourselves with the smooth paste.
I vomit into three trashcans on the way to meet him. The vomit gets on my clothes, it tries its way out through my nose.
“You ain’t full up,” he says, jaw clicked into place. His arms are browned with sun. His hands are thick, raisin meat under his nails from working the vines. We are behind the church. We are standing in the field of perennials, where I used to make flower crowns at the feet of my freckled mother and sing to God above. He stands a head taller than me now but there was a time when we were children we were eye to eye and I stood on his chest and declared myself a queen while he laughed.
“I am,” I say. “This is what happens. Bet you wish you just left me alone.”
“Can’t you just take something? Isn’t there a pill?”
The book says, now your little one can hear you. Read him or her a story. Play some music. Your little one can dream. What do you suppose she dreams of? I see the zucchini quivering into my side, hiding, the pill dissolving and covering it. Nausea fills me, bile rises to the top of my throat.
“According to the bible, you know, we’re already one flesh,” I say.
“I got my whole life up ahead.” He puts his head in his hands. “Why don’t you go on and see them witches up the road about it. They’ll know what to do,” he says. He slumps against the church. “Figured you wouldn’t let something like this happen. How stupid can you be?”
“The witches? What are they going to do for me?” I say.
We had all heard since childhood like a fable before bed, about the witch women in the fields a few miles east, their long hair wild, their dresses frayed and loose, but I had never seen them. I barely believed they existed.
“They have about a million babies and not a one is holding hands with the Lord,” Lyle says. He sits up like he’s just seen the most amazing sight. “They ain’t living in the fear. They’ll be apt to do anything. You can come back once it’s all taken care of. No one will ever need to know.”
“How do you know?” I ask.
“I really think this is the best way for both of us.”
“Don’t touch me ever again,” I say. He looks at me hurt, like I’d imagined wildly that he’d ever touched me in the first place.
There’s a burn in my chest and my portions aren’t enough. I wolf Cherry’s braids of bread, butter slick and salt crusted. I drink cream in swollen gulps. Perhaps I will go like my mother. Disappear to another world. Somewhere for me where Lyle isn't around. Where I won’t have to see him and remember it all again and again.
But first, tonight.
Cherry has prepared pot roast. Carrots so soft no need to chew. There are flecks of glitter floating with hunks of beef. I point them out to Cherry and she sucks her cheeks. Holds the air back like a surprise. A small smile.
Lyle is here. His mother is here, my mother’s sister. She hardly talks to me but when she does she looks a few feet to the right of my shoulder. I am nothing to her, I know. At Christmas I am in no one’s picture. But tonight, I think, maybe something will glow up from somewhere. It will come from this new thing in me. A change.
“Lacey,” Lyle’s mother says. “Since you ain’t got no momma, I’ll be the one to tell you you’re getting fat.”
“You should see her eat,” Cherry says. “It’s like pig to trough.”
“She is fat,” Lyle says. “Planning on being a fat woman? Don’t we have fat family somewhere up the line?”
Cherry nods. “Hell’s bells. Wanita my sister, candy in a bowl right when you open the door. Leg already cut off because of the dibeedis. Some just don’t know when to stop.”
“Guess Lacey May don’t know when to stop,” Lyle says. “Or when to go.” He kicks me under the table.
“No one wants a fat bride,” Lyle’s mother says.
“Maybe I’m pregnant,” I say, eyes on his.
“Heavens to Betsy,” Cherry says. “The last thing we need is a baby.”
Lyle’s mother snorts. “Trust me honey,” she says. “A baby won’t bring your mama back. It won’t fix nothing.”
After dinner Cherry digs plastic nails into my arm. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but you better be ready for a visit to Pastor in the morning. We’ll have him sort you all out.” She pokes my stomach.
“I’ll be gone by then,” I say, and she sighs.
I wait in my room and once I am sure she is sleeping I creep to the bathroom. I turn the shower on and sit on the tub floor and let it rain down on me. I watch the drops cover my weakness. The way they bead off my skin. How Cherry would scream if she saw me wasting water this way. How alone I feel in the shower, how alone I’d felt since my mother left. But now my breasts were larger. The way they feel in my hands, different. Now my stomach is a sick stone, my eyes tired and my cheeks flushed. I am no longer alone, I realize, and it strikes me a beautiful realization. I am two. I’d said to Cherry I’d be gone, but now I mean it.
I wait for the sun like a companion and when it arrives I walk for a far way. My sack is filled with Cherry’s Johnny cakes, dense flour patties with orange honey glaze. Pecans, a canteen of metallic water. Anyone watching would think I’m headed to town, to sit on a bench and sweat behind my book. To peak up at the girls from my class, passing with their mothers, passing with their girlfriends, heading to see a show, try on A-line dresses, match creamed pink cheeks to lips. Share a pack of floral panties, or the Monday Tuesday Wednesday kind. What you staring at Lacey May?
I tell myself if just one person asks what I’m doing out so early, asks where I’m going, I’ll turn myself in over all of it. I’ll take whatever punishment there is for a girl like me.
But there’s no one in the streets and I’m not on my bench in front of the Ag One Hardware. I’m walking into the field and beyond. By my calculation it will open up into something. And it will be better than all I’ve ever seen. First the witches about this baby. Then, the city. Fresno. Then, maybe one day, my mother on the street looking at a rack of postcards, thinking of sending me one. I’ll come up behind her. Say, Here I am.
The heat sits high and sweat streams under my white cotton dress. My nipples have grown twice over and are prickly to my touch. This is where your baby will get his nourishment. Feel proud of your changing body! I see burnt necked boys in the fields tending vines, one whistles, his chain link tattoo around his bare neck glinting like a mirage, and then I’m past.
I eat some of what I brought and realize it’s not enough. I drink the penny water from the canteen and lie on my back. The book says not to lie on your back but I do it anyhow to look up at the sky. It’s so wide and clear my eyes are overcome. The zucchini in me kicks and I turn to my left, the good side for circulation, and press against its limbs. When it comes out will it be full of the worst of me? Will it smile up at me knowing nothing at all? Children are nothing but a gift, I’ve been told at church. So this is mine.
I nap in the grasses with my head on my pack. I pass into dreamful places. I see Lyle behind the church, waiting. A head of purple cabbage is coming from between my legs, the fullness glossy with my own. I deliver the cabbage myself, and blood pours from me. My mother races by in a car, eyes whirling in their sockets. I think I dream I am in a barn being patted down with warm washcloths, my dirty hair swept from brow. There are babies crawling all over the floor in charge of their own days. A plump mass crawls over my body and I grasp a fat foot.
“Deary,” a voice says near to my face. “It’s time to wake up now.”
A woman is peering down at me. Her skin is tanned with sunspots, smooth. Her eyes are young but lines spread from the corners. Her teeth are crossed every way and her body is long and folded in toward me.
“Are you a witch?” I ask.
“I’m Hazel,” she says. It is about as pretty a name as I’ve ever heard. There are daisies over her two eyes, but when I blink they’re gone.
“Who else is here?” I can’t see other faces but I can sense the presence of many people breathing and moving.
“There you were slumped over yourself like a tired Raggedy Ann. Thought you was dead,” she says, rubbing my leg. “Tulip figured you was on some kind of death mission, all pregnant and starving, burnt pig pink.”
“I brought johnnycakes but ate them too fast.”
“We have some dinner here for you.”
“I need some help,” I say.
“I felt you right up, and in there’s a growing babe. Kicking, too.”
I sit up and a small red haired child with no shirt comes and places a plate of bread and vegetables on my lap. Everything on the plate has a similar taste, like deep roots and earth, a light dusting of pepper and salt. When I finish, a pie comes and a large wedge is put before me. Strawberry rhubarb in a bath of cold vanilla cream.
Hazel helps me up by the armpits. “Sure a pretty little thing, ain’t you,” she says. It doesn’t sound like a question, but I say, “no.”
“How far am I from Fresno? From the city?” I ask.
“Only about six more miles, I guess. Depends on where you’re headed. Fresno is what we call a sprawl. Could be six miles or fifty depending on which end you’re hoping for.”
“Will someone be going there?”
“We don’t make our way there much unless we absolutely have to. We like life out here where there’s no one bothering about.”
“I need to get to Fresno,” I say. I look around and in my delirium, hope to see a bus.
“You’re one of them Pentecostals, am I right?”
“Everyone in our town is of the Lord if that’s what you mean,” I say.
“You all think we’re out here doing hoodoo but there ain’t nothing special over using the land,” she says. “Over lavender oil on your temple. I myself love God too, but my God wears his hair clipped and slick like my daddy did.”
“I’m starting over,” I say. “I’m gonna have this baby and then get a job and eventually find my momma.”
“You ever been to Fresno, deary?” She looks at me with real concern.
“No,” I say. “But people I know been, and they make it sound like a nice place.”
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen years, nearly.”
“Eighteen?” she says. “Okay, eighteen. If you’re eighteen then I’m twenty-one again. I’ll show you your bed here, unless you want to take a bath.”
“Bath,” I say and she pulls me into a hug and I can’t name the last time I’ve been hugged proper. I can’t remember it at all and it makes me want to cry but I’m too tired to cry. I press my face into her hard chest. Cinnamon.
The house is small and every cranny has something in it. There’s a warm smell of clean bodies, or dirty in clean ways from the land. Sweat lingers but it’s a deep cardamom and vanilla. I breathe. Something citrus, rotting fruit skins. There is no door on the bathroom. The archway where the door would be looks carved from clay and left to dry. It opens to a tiny room with a tub and sink crammed into one another. Everything is slightly dirty. I glance back at the kitchen, a table of shirtless boys playing cards, men drinking cloudy tea from glass bottles.
Hazel kneels and fills the tub with steaming water. “Since you’re a guest, you get the clean water, but just this once.”
I try to imagine standing before Lyle naked, my paleness a parade, my belly a small but stretched balloon. How relieved he would be I was gone.
“Don’t be shy,” Hazel says. “We all have the same bits.”
She wears a beautiful and filmy embroidered top, her nipples visible through the thin material. Poking out above her cut-off men’s dungarees are tanned hipbones. I’ve never seen a woman dressed like her. Her hair is long and auburn and clings in little knots at the back of her head. She could have starred in one of my romances, because of her strength but also the delicate bones of her wrists. The soft underside of her arm. I step into the water and my knees give way. Hazel soaps my hair and scrubs my head. She reaches in and washes me.
“I want to wear what you’re wearing,” I say.
She smiles. “I sewed it. Do you sew?”
“I’m really fourteen.”
Her eyebrows raise a little. Her hands massage my belly and she presses deep into my sides.
“Do I feel okay?” I ask. I want to know if she can tell what’s inside. Can she sense its wrongness? I want to know if Hazel can tell if the zucchini is a great mess.
“Here, give me your hands,” she says. She guides me around the map of my belly and I feel the zucchini squirm. We come to solidness and she says, “butt.” We round down a curve and she says, “back.” She presses my hands deep into the place above my parts, deeper than I knew we could go. “Head.”
“Head down, halleluiah,” she says.
She guides me under and I hold my breath. Until this moment I imagined the baby would never actually come out, just that I would grow and grow forever until I stopped existing. Her hands hold me down. I try to lift my head from the water but the pressure is firm. I wait. I open my eyes and see her above me. Just when my lungs begin burning she lets me up. I gasp.
“Have you thought of how you want to have the baby?” Hazel asks, patting my back.
“I thought maybe you all could tell me how to do that.”
Hazel nods. “I’m sure that’s why you were brought here.”
“No one brought me.”
She smiles and looks up. “We’re all guided.”
Nights become days and on and on each the same. I tend vegetables in the garden. I paint with thick pastels with the other girls. I watch the sun fade behind the flat of land, Hazel always watching. Making sure I eat enough, making sure I don’t sit too long in any one position. She herds me around the property like a prize horse to get the baby to settle down into my hips. She tells me stories of birth, tells me some women at the farm have orgasms when they push, hold their lips pressed and silent and reach down and pull their babies up and earthside.
“Orgasm,” I say, searching. My books had never said that word.
“Oh, deary. You’ve done this ass backwards.”
At night, I can’t sleep. I roam the house and step careful over the still bodies on the floor. I search for trinkets, belongings. There are few. Owning here is frivolous. But the moon glints across something shiny on Hazel’s nightstand. A silver little pocketknife. My hand snatches it before I’ve thought it through, but I can’t put it back. It stays pressed to my palm and I let it.
The next morning Tulip, a young woman who has mostly kept away from me sits by me at breakfast. She leans in and I can smell her. Like oats and cinnamon and a sting of sweat. “You’ve been here too long,” she whispers. She raises her brows at Hazel who is cooking at the stove, making a bone broth for me to drink. “She’s grown attached.”
When the time comes, I wake with a low ache I’ve never felt. It pushes out into my hips and scorches down my thighs. I sway and squat. Lean against Hazel with all my weight, turn, and let her press my hips together. She cheers me, wipes my sweat and stands behind me, wraps me in a strip of sheet. She calls this rebozo. Drapes cool peppermint cloths across my back, over my face and reminds me to breathe. Hazel repeats like a song, your body is not a lemon. Your body is of perfect design. I will push the baby out, and no I’m not too small. Why would you be able to make this child, then be too small to push it out?
She says to picture a golden thread coming from my mouth, winding its way to heaven. The pain rocks me. I am shocked by it, overcome, and I inhale in great swallows, dying and coming back. I see my mother brushing her hair, falling from a cliff. Time is nothing, and just when I think I’ve truly passed, I crawl onto the bed and bury my face. Golden threads wrap a cocoon around me and then break. Hazel lifts my leg over her shoulder, and my body begins to push. My waters give way in a hard collapse. I tell her I can’t do it. It’s more a breath downward, she reminds me. Less in the face. Don’t strain, don’t scream. Keep that pitch low. Reach and feel the baby’s head, she says. There’s so much hair. I touch. I think: Peach.
The girl is pink and Hazel places her on my chest where she is sweet taffy and her sharp cries are sugar. She bobs her head, rooting, and finds me with her little cat tongue. Eyes closed, she latches. It’s all happening. I’m all poured out. Hazel pushes my belly and the rest, alive and red, comes like she told me it would. She holds the placenta up so I can see. “A beaut,” she says.
Then, “What should we call her?”
“Peach,” I say.
“I like it,” Hazel says, picking the baby up, holding her lips to Peach’s head. “Sweet Peach.”
Hazel does it all for me. She bathes Peach and diapers her in clean white linens. She sings to her, and holds her to her own naked breast.
“Hazel’s trying to bring on her milk,” Tulip tells me.
“Does that work?” I ask.
Tulip shrugs. I look at Hazel and she’s massaging her chest with eyes closed. “She’s imagining a waterfall,” Tulip says. “Don’t worry. She ain’t got no milk in there. Not now, not ever.”
I look at the ease in Tulip’s body, her soft arms and big low breasts. “Do you have sex just for fun?” I ask her.
She smiles and nods. “Sure. Wasn’t it fun that got you in this mess?”
“No,” I say. “I been thinking. I’m gonna tell the police.”
“Hate to be the one to break it to you,” she says. “But men don’t get in trouble for taking just what they want.”
The next day, a knock at the door. I didn’t think it usual for visitors to come by, so I close myself in the hot pantry. From the crack, Pastor.
“How can I help you?” John Carly asks.
“Good day. I’m here on two accounts. The first I hope you’ll hear me, for it will surely save your life eternal.”
“We have a set of beliefs here already,” John Carly says. “Thank you but no thank you.”
“I understand. I hope you will read this pamphlet, though, and try to consider a heart change. Or maybe the Lord will come to you unexpectedly. My mama always said each sinner would have the chance to come over to the divine side, so this could be yours.”
“What’s the second matter?” John Carly asks.
“I’ll be needing to know if you’ve seen our daughter in Christ’s castle, Lacey May Herd and possibly a small baby, name unknown. We believe she sinned and ran away full of shame.”
Hazel runs to the door. “We don’t have anybody here.”
“Well, I’ll say,” says John Carly. “I do remember seeing a young girl walking toward the city some long time ago.”
“How long has she been missing?” Hazel asks.
“Oh, a few solid months,” Pastor says.
“And you’re only on about her now? Shame on you and your castle,” Hazel says.
“If you see her,” Pastor says. “Tell her her cousin did the right thing and told us of her sin. Told us of the way she was loose with her body and made the school boys stumble.”
At night Hazel tells me to sleep, that she will bring the baby to my chest. And she does. I have more milk than I need. Another mother asks if her sick toddler, Farrow, can have some and I let her. How can I say no? Farrow drinks from me without breaking eye contact and feels better by morning. Something about me is working well, I think. A small relief.
“Can I hold her now?” I ask Hazel.
She has Peach in a sling, her tiny eyes slits of sleep.
“Don’t you know you never wake a sleeping baby?”
I go to the bathroom. My belly is puffed but I am beginning to look not like a self I once knew, but like a new self. Someone I am just starting to know.
Weeks pass and I am only a milk cow for my Peach, and maybe this is how it is, I think. Maybe there is always a nursemaid to help like this. I think of Cherry, unwilling to help at all. I should be grateful, but I want to wipe Peach’s small body with a warm cloth. I want to hear her squeal in my ear.
“You’re disturbed, ain’t you?” Tulip asks me looking over at Hazel watering plants and holding Peach. Leaf, look at the leaf. Green, so green, she says in a voice reserved for my baby. “I would be.”
“I’m nothing,” I say. Something seemed too greedy about the way Hazel held her. About the way she looked at me with narrowed eyes.
“You could leave that baby here and she’d never notice you’d gone. She’s in love with the thing.”
“She needs my milk,” I say.
Tulip pops her breast out of her tank top and squirts a white stream in my face. “There’s milk enough to go around. You ain’t special.”
“Why doesn’t Hazel have any of her own kids?” I ask.
“It’s a long sad story just like you’d imagine,” Tulip says.
“Tell it to me,” I say.
“Nothing ever survived in her. She tried with nearly every man here thinking it was the seeds at fault. Nope. Same result every time. Enough to drive any woman crazy.”
“That’s why she wanted me to stay so bad.”
“Think of it as a blessing. You didn’t want that baby anyhow. Young little chicken.”
But I do want that baby, I think. I walk over to Hazel. “I’m going to hold her now,” I say.
“She’s just winding down,” Hazel says.
“Give her to me,” I say.
Hazel looks at me with a face I’ve never seen on her. All her light gone out. Mean.
“She’s not yours,” I say.
She hands me the baby and walks out the door. Peach doesn’t stop crying for what feels like hours. Nothing I do works. I try to give her milk and she latches and pulls off, thrashing. I rock her and she pours frothy white from her mouth down my back. My hands feel heavy and clumsy. Finally I lay her in the bassinet and walk outside myself. Hazel is sitting under a tree eyes far and dead.
“She wants you,” I say.
“It’s best I’m not near her. It’s too hard, Lacey, for a woman like me, to see you with her. So easily blessed. So careless.”
“I didn’t ask for any of this.”
“You’re a child,” Hazel says. “And you’ve been given a child. It doesn’t make any sense in this universe.”
“I guess it doesn’t,” I say.
“You need to take that Peach and get out of here. You don’t belong. You’ll leave us soon as you can, anyhow. You’ll go on and break my heart.”
We leave in the moonlight, Peach in the sling. She’s gotten fat already with my milk. The roll of her ankle, I am proud of. I stand for a moment in the dark waiting for my eyes to adjust. Lyle once told me of phones people kept in their pockets with tiny maps and detailed directions. We don’t have any of that. The devil’s distraction, Cherry says. But suddenly I want a little phone in my pocket. I want to take pictures of Peach and carry them around. I’ll print them out and put them all over our new place. Wherever that is.
Hazel had pointed so many times in the direction of Fresno, I know in my heart where it is. So we walk. When Peach wakes I sit in the dandelions and place her on my breast. She drinks and sleeps on and on. She doesn’t realize we’re away from the only place she’s ever known.
When the sun rises, it presents a gas station at the edge of a skinny old road that I can only hope leads to Fresno.
The man behind the counter at the Lickety Split gives me cups of ice water. Two hot dogs with mustard. He asks me where we’re headed.
“Fresno,” I say. “Maybe there’s a home for women and girls.”
He nods like he knows of such place well. “I get off in thirty. I can take y’all there.”
I look around the empty store. The bags of potato chips, the cooler full of beer. This is a normal place, I think. This is a normal man who knows the city. I try to calm my mind’s fluttering. There’s no one else around anyhow.
“Thanks,” I say. Peach squirms and I pat her. “Or maybe you could call us a cab or something.”
“Truck’s out there,” he says like he didn’t hear. “I ain’t got a baby seat, forgive me,” he says, crossing himself.
I wait for him outside on the curb in the heat. I look at the distance before me. My legs shake. I’ll never make it. I nurse crouched over so he can’t see and pop her off before she’s done when I head the clanging of the door close.
“It’s unlocked,” he says.
I sit on the bench seat, Peach asleep. Hazel said that newborns just want to sleep, and I’m thankful for it now. I don’t want her to see this truck or this man. I don’t want her to see my feet among the crushed beer cans on the floorboard.
At a stoplight, he looks. “I bet when you’re all cleaned up you’re something else. But you’re strange. You’re one of them Amish from out there, ain’t ya?”
“I don’t quite know what an Amish is,” I say. I try to think instead of the sun burning the tops of my thighs. Remember the drops of water on my skin in Cherry’s shower.
Out the window more and more businesses come into view, single level buildings, banks and crops of identical houses. Each block things look the same, beige and stucco, quick stops and grocery stores seemingly every mile. Armenian delis and nail spas, Thai massage. Countries I have seen only on maps, all around.
“Anyone gonna be looking for you?” he asks. “Some crazy daddy I bet out there hunting you down.”
“Sure,” I lie.
“Well,” he says. “People are harder to find than you think.”
“That’s the old life now.”
He drums his long fingers on the wheel. He turns down the country on the radio. “You know,” he says. “I’ve been sitting here thinking. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” His nails are long and clean. “It’s what my daddy used to say. TANSTAAFL.”
“I can mail you some money once I start working.”
“I can’t be waiting for no envelope in the mail.” He turns down a small street only wide enough for one car.
“You can let us off then. I told you I didn’t have money.”
“When’d you have that baby?” he asks.
“Month or so ago,” I say.
He cuts the engine in front of a doublewide trailer house with pool toys and patio furniture outside on sharp yellow grass.
“This morning when I woke up I asked God to bring me something new,” he said. “I ask that every morning. And today he answered me. He brought me you.”
“Listen, man,” I say. “I’m in a bad way. I’ve been through it. I’m trying to do right.”
He looks at my chest. My legs are blotched with cold and rough with hair. I stare at the handle on the door and he reaches a hand to my knee.
“I feel for you, honey,” he says. “But you have to pay the toll,” he says. He has long light denimed legs. I can’t tell how old he might be. He looks fried like the men in the fields, but there’s a hollowness to his face, a slack of muscle in his arms, that makes me doubt he’s worked hard labor. “Now take that baby off for a minute and show me just how pretty you are.”
I reach for the handle and turn it. Nothing happens.
“I don’t know why you’re all in a fit, here,” he says. I look at the roof, burned in places by cigarettes. I think of what kind of romance this could be. But no. That’s far from me now. This isn’t any kind of romance. “I could turn you upside down,” he says.
“I’m a mother,” I say. “Have some respect.”
“Just take off that blouse so I can see your tatties a little.”
I think of the shed and Lyle. How I did say no. I said stop. I said it over and over and over. How he told Pastor I was loose with the school boys, how he’d lied and been so easily believed and how I could scream the truth and no one would hear me.
Peach must feel my heart take off and starts to cry.
“Shut it up,” he says.
I remember the pocketknife. It’s in my back pocket. I take it out and point it at him. My only weapon. It feels silly in my hand, too small and light. He grabs it and points it back at me. He holds it right to my throat.
“That baby,” he says. He lowers it. “Is saving your life today.” He walks around the front of the truck and opens my door. I get out and he holds his face close to mine. “You know I’ve never a kissed a girl,” he says. He blocks me and waits.
My body leans forward and I kiss him on the cheek. He sucks his breath in and palms my elbow like we’re friends. Finally he gets back into the truck. I watch him until he disappears around a corner, and I don’t move until I can’t see him anymore and then I’m alone with Peach surrounded by identical houses, not an orchard to be seen. She’s stopped crying and her eyes are locked open, balls of dark blue glass. Up ahead I see the lights of a shopping center with real walls and phones and people I can talk to.