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Magic Street

Magic Street


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This partial manuscript copy is provided as a courtesy. Anyone who wishes a copy may access it from www.hatrack.com; therefore we ask that no copies, physical or electronic, be given or lent. Any offering of this portion of the manuscript for sale is expressly prohibited.


Chapter One
Bag Man

The old man was walking along the side of the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, gripping a fistful of plastic grocery bags. His salt-and-pepper hair was filthy and hanging in that sagging parody of a Rastafarian hairdo that most homeless men seem to get, white or black. He wore a once-khaki jacket stained with oil and dirt and grass and faded with sunlight. His hands were covered with gardening gloves.

Dr. Byron Williams passed him in his vintage Town Car and then stopped at the light, waiting to turn left to go up the steep road from the PCH to Ocean Avenue. A motorcycle to the left of him gunned its engine. Byron looked at the cyclist, a woman dressed all in black leather, her face completely hidden inside a black plastic helmet. The blank faceplate turned toward him, regarded him for a long moment, then turned to the front again.

Byron shuddered, though he didn't know why. He looked the other way, to the right, across the lanes of fast-moving cars that were speeding up to get on the 10 and head east into Los Angeles. Normally Byron would be among them, heading home to Baldwin Hills from his day of classes and meetings at Pepperdine.

But tonight he had promised Nadine that he'd bring home dinner from I Cugini. That's the kind of thing you had to do when you married a black woman who thought she was Italian. Could have been worse. Could have married a black woman who thought she was a redneck. Then they'd have to vacation in Daytona every year and listen to country music and eat possum and potato-chip-and-mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread.

Or he could be married to a biker like the woman still revving her engine in the other left-turn lane. He could just imagine getting dragged into biker bars, where, as an African-American professor of literature specializing in the romantic poets, he would naturally fit right in. He tried to imagine himself taking on a half-dozen drunken bikers with chains and pipes. Of course, if he were with that biker woman, he wouldn't have to fight them. She looked like she could take them on herself and win -- a big, strong woman who wouldn't put up with nonsense from anybody.

That was a lot to know about a woman without seeing her face, but her body, her posture, her choice of costume and bike, and above all that challenging roar from her bike -- the message was clear. Don't get in front of me, buddy, cause I'm coming through.

He only gradually realized that he was staring right at the homeless man with the handfuls of grocery bags. The man was stopped at the edge of the roadway, facing him, staring back at him. Now that Byron could see his face, he realized that the man wasn't faking his rasta do -- he was entitled to it, being a black man. A filthy, shabby, rheumy-eyed, chin-stubbled, grey-bearded, slack-lipped old bum of a black man. But the hair was authentic.

Authentic. Thinking of the word made Byron cringe. Every year there was at least one student in one of his classes who'd mutter something -- or say it boldly -- about how the very fact that he was teaching courses in nineteenth-century white men's literature made him less authentic as a black man. Or that being a black man made him less authentic as a teacher of English literature. As if all a black man ought to aspire to teach was African studies or black history or Swahili.

The old man winked at him.

And suddenly Byron's annoyance drained away and he felt a little giddy. What was he brooding about? Students gave crap to their teachers whenever they thought they could get away with it. They learned soon enough that in Byron's classes, the students who cared would become the kind of people who were fit to understand Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, Grey, and -- of course -- Lord Byron himself. That's what his good students sometimes called him -- Lord Byron. Not to his face, because he always gave them his withering glare until they apologized. But he reveled in the knowledge that they called him that behind his back. And if he ever let anyone see his poetry, perhaps they'd discover that it was a name he deserved.

Lines from one of his own poems came to his mind. And from his mind, straight to his lips:

Into my chariot, whispered the sun god.
Here beside me, Love, crossing the sky.
Leave the dusty road on which you plod:
Behind these fiery horses come and fly.
No matter how fast we go, how far, how high,
I'll never let you fall.
                          All your life
On earth you've crept and climbed and clawed --
Now, Mortal Beauty, be my wife,
And of your dreams of light, I'll grant you all.

The bag man's lips parted into a snaggle-toothed grin, and he stepped out into the traffic, heading straight for Byron's car.

For a moment Byron was sure the man would be killed. But no. The light had changed, and the cars came to a stop as he passed in front of them. In only a few moments, he set his hand to the handle of Byron's passenger door.

It was locked. Byron pushed the button to open it.

"Don't mind if I do," said the bag man. "Mind if I put my bags in your back seat?"

"Be my guest," said Byron.

The old man opened the back door and carefully arranged his bags on the floor and back seat. Byron wondered what was in them. Whatever it was, it couldn't be clean, and the bags probably had fleas or lice or ants or other annoying creatures all over them. Byron always kept this car spotless -- the kids knew the rules, and never dared to eat anything inside this car, lest a crumb fall and they get a lecture from their dad. Sorry if that annoyed them, but it was good for children to learn to take care of nice things and treat them with respect.

And yet, even though he knew that letting those bags sit in the back seat would require him to vacuum and wash and shampoo until it was clean again, he didn't mind. Those bags belonged there. As the old man belonged in the front seat beside him.

The motorcycle to his left revved one last time and whined off up the steep road to Santa Monica.

Behind him, cars started honking.

The old man took his time getting into the front seat, and then he just sat there, not closing his door. Nor had he closed the back door, either.

No matter. To a chorus of honks and a few curses shouted out of open car windows, Byron got out and walked around to the other side of the Lincoln. He closed the back door, then reached in and fastened the old man's seat belt before he closed that door, too.

"Oh, you don't need to do that," murmured the old man as Byron fastened the belt.

"Safety first," said Byron. "Nobody dies in my car."

"No matter how fast we go, how far, how high," answered the old man.

Byron grinned. It felt good, to have someone know his poem so well he could quote it back to hm.

By the time he got back to the driver's door, the cars behind him were whipping out into the leftmost turn lane to get around him, honking and screaming and flipping him off as they passed. But they couldn't spoil his good mood. They were jealous, that's all, because the old man had chosen to ride in his car and not theirs.

Byron sat down, closed his door, fastened his seat belt, and prepared to wait for the next green light.

"Ain't you gonna go?" asked the old man.

Byron looked up. Incredibly, the left arrow was still green.

"Why not," he said. He pulled forward at a stately pace.

To his surprise, the light at the top of the hill was still green, and the next light, too.

"Hope you don't mind," said Byron. "Got to stop and pick up dinner."

"A man's got to keep his woman happy," said the old man. "Nothing more important in life. Except teaching your kids to be right with God."

That made Byron feel a little pang of guilt. Neither he nor Nadine were much for going to church. When his mother came to visit, they all went to church together, and the kids seemed to enjoy it. But they called it Grandma's church, even though she only attended it when she came to L.A.

Byron turned left on Broadway and pulled up in the valet parking lane in front of I Cugini. The valet headed toward his car as Byron got out.

"Just picking up some takeout," he said as he handed the man a five-dollar bill.

"Pay after," said the valet.

"No, don't park the car, I'm just picking up a takeout order."

The man looked at him in bafflement. Apparently he hadn't been here long enough to understand English that wasn't exactly what he expected to hear.

So Byron spoke to him in Spanish. "Hace el favor de no mover mi carro, si? Volveré en dos minutos."

The man grinned and sat down in the driver's seat.

"No," said Byron, "no mueva el auto, por favor!"

The old man leaned over. "Don't worry, son," he said. "He don't want to move the car. He just wants to talk to me."

Of course, thought Byron. This old man must be familiar to all the valets. When you spend hours a day at the curb in Santa Monica, you're going to get to know all the homeless people.

Only when he was waiting at the counter for the girl to process his credit card did it occur to Byron that he spoke Italian and French, and could read Greek, but had never spoken or studied Spanish in his life.

Well, you learn a couple of romance languages, apparently you know them all.

The food was ready to go, and the card went right through on the first try. They didn't even ask him for i.d.

And when he got back outside, there was his car at the curb, and the valet was inside, kissing the old man's hands. By the time Byron got around to the driver's side and opened the back door, the valet was out of the car. Byron put the takeout bags on the floor, stood up, and closed the back door. The valet was already walking away.

"Wait a minute!" called Byron. "Your tip!"

The valet turned and waved his hand. "No problem!" he called in heavily accented English. "Thank you very much sir!"

Byron got in and sat down. "Never heard of a valet turning down a tip," he said.

"He only wanted to talk to me," said the old man. "He worries about his family back in Mexico. His little boy, he been sick. But I told him that boy be fine, and now he's happy."

Byron was happy, too. "Well, friend, where can I take you?"

"You go right on home," said the old man. "Don't want that dinner getting cold."

"Oh, it'll get cold no matter what we do," said Byron. "At six o'clock, doesn't matter if I take Olympic or the 10, traffic just takes time."

"Take the ten," said the old man. "Got a feeling we zip right along."

The old man was right. Even at the junction with the 405, the left lanes were moving faster than the speed limit and they made good time.

Byron thought of lots of things he wanted to say to the man. Lots of questions to ask. How did you know the valet's son was going to be okay? Why did you pick my car to ride in? Where will you go from Baldwin Hills, and why don't you want me to take you there? Did you make it so I could speak Spanish? Did you speak Spanish to the valet?

But whenever he was about to speak, he felt such a glow of peace and happiness that he couldn't bring himself to break the mood with the jarring sound of speech.

So the old man was the one who spoke. "You can call me Bag Man," he said. "That's a good name, and it's true. It's good to tell the truth sometimes, don't you think?"

Byron grinned and nodded. "Be good to tell the truth all the time."

"Oh, no," said Bag Man. "That just hurts people's feelings. Lying's the way to go, most times. It's kinder. And how often does truth really matter? Once a month? Once a year?"

Byron laughed in delight. "Never thought of it that way."

Bag Man smiled. "I don't mind if you use that in a poem, you go ahead."

"Oh, I'm not a poet," said Byron.

"There you go," said the old man. "Lying. Never show those poems, never admit they even exist, and nobody can say, This is all too old-fashioned, you're not a real poet."

Byron felt the hot blood in his face. "I said it first."

Bag Man laughed. "Like I said!" Then he turned serious again. "Want to know how good you is?"

Byron shook his head.

"Every bit as good as you hope," said Bag Man.

Relief washed over Byron and brought tears to his eyes. "But you've never read anything of mine."

"How could I?" said Bag Man. "Can't read."

"You're kidding."

"I may lie, but I never joke."

"Were you lying just now? What you said about my poetry?"

"No, sir."

"What about right then, when you said you weren't lying?"

"That was a lie, of course," said Bag Man. "But don't let logic spoil things for you."

Byron was aware of a strange feeling in his stomach. Nausea? No, not really. Oh, yes. It was anger. A kind of distant, faraway anger. But he couldn't think why he might be angry. Everything was wonderful. This was a great day. Not a speck of traffic. Not a light against them.

Coming down La Cienega he noticed See's Candies. Still open. But he mustn't stop. Dinner hot in the back seat.

He got out of the car and went inside and got a one-pound box of milk patties, those little disks of chocolate-covered caramel. It took forever for the woman to fill each little crinkled-paper cup. And when he got back to the car, he was really pleased to see how delighted Bag Man was to receive it.

"For me?" he said. "Oh, you just too nice, my man." Bag Man tore open the paper and put two patties in his mouth at once. "I never get this down in Santa Monica."

"They have a Godiva's in the mall at the bottom of the Promenade," said Byron.

"Godiva's? They too rich for my pockets."

There was something wrong with the logic of that, but Byron couldn't think what it was.

Byron drove through the flat part of Baldwin Hills. Modest homes, some of them a little tatty, some very nicely kept -- an ordinary neighborhood. But as they started up Cloverdale, the money started showing up. Byron wasn't rich and neither was Nadine. But together they did well enough to afford this neighborhood. They could have afforded Hancock Park, but that would be like surrendering, to move into a white neighborhood. For a black man in L.A., it was Baldwin Hills that said you had made it without selling out.

Au-then-tic.

"This magic street," said the old man.

"What?"

"I said, this is Magic Street," he repeated. "Can't you feel it? Like standing in a waterfall, it's so thick here."

"I guess that's one of the senses I didn't get when God was handing them out," said Byron.

"Pull up right here," said Bag Man.

They were at number 3968, an elegant white house with a tile roof and a triple garage. It was the last house before the hairpin turn, where no houses stood.

Instead, there was a grassy green valley that stretched about a hundred yards before it ran into the thick woods at the base of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. Not that anybody did any recreating there. It was kept clear because when it stormed, all the runoff from the whole park was funneled down a concrete drainage system to collect in this valley, forming a lake. And right in the deepest part was a rusted tube sticking straight up out of the ground. Must be two feet across, or so it seemed to Byron, and eight feet high. It was perforated at about shoulder height, so water could drain into it when the lake got deep enough.

That's what it was for. But what it looked like was a smokestack sticking straight up from hell. That's what Nadine said when she first saw it. "Wouldn't you know it, up in the park it's all so beautiful, but down here is the anus of the drainage system and where do they put it? Right in the nicest part of the nicest black neighborhood in the city. Just in case we forget our place, I suppose."

"It's better than letting the rainwater run right down the streets and wash everybody out," Byron told her.

That earned him a narrow-eyed glare and a silent mouthing of the word "Tom."

"I wasn't defending the establishment, I was just saying that not everything is racism. The city puts up ugly stuff in white neighborhoods, too."

"If it was a white neighborhood they'd make a playground and that pipe would be brightly painted."

"If it was a playground, then every time it rained the children would drown. They fence it off because it isn't safe."

"You're right, of course," said Nadine. And that meant the argument was over, and Byron had lost.

But he was right. The pipe was ugly, but the meadow around it was pretty, and the tangled woods behind it were the closest thing to nature you'd find in the Mexican-manicured gardens of the City of Angels.

Bag Man sat patiently. Finally it dawned on Byron what he was waiting for.

Byron got out of the car and opened the door for the old man. "Why thank you, son," said Bag Man. "It's not often you find a man with real manners these days. Why, I bet you still call your mama 'ma'am,' am I right?"

"Yes sir," said Byron.

The old man leaned on him as he got out. "I leave my blessing with you, son," he said. "I bless you in the blessed name of Jesus. I bless you for the sacred sake of your mama's mama, who never lived to see your face, but she loves you in heaven all the same, son. I hope you know that. She's up there pestering God to watch out for you. How do you think you got tenure so soon?"

"Affirmative action," said Byron, even though it wasn't true. It was what he always said to other professors when they asked him questions like that. It wasn't even a joke anymore, just a habit, because it was so fun to watch the white professors look at him without a clue how they were supposed to answer when a black man said something like that. He could see their brains turning the alternatives over and over: Is he joking? Or does he mean it? Is he a Republican? Or does he think I'm a Republican? Is he making fun of me? Or himself? Or liberals? Or affirmative action? What can I say that won't make me look like either a racist or a politically correct brown-noser?

But Bag Man just grinned and shook his head. "Here I tell you about your mama's mama and how she love you, and all you answer me with is a joke. But that's okay all the same. I don't take back no blessing once I give it."

"Thank you for your blessing, sir," said Byron. "And for my grandma's blessing, too."

"Well, ain't you the polite one. Now you just go on home and have dinner with that sweet pregnant wife of yours. I'll be all right here."

So Nadine was pregnant -- and hadn't even told him! Wasn't that just like her, to keep a secret like that.

Byron watched Bag Man walk right up to the chain link fence and open the gate and go on through into the meadow. Then he knew he shouldn't watch any more. So he closed the passenger door and walked back to the driver's side and got in.

Not two minutes later he was pulling through the electric gate into his driveway and waiting for the garage door to open. Nadine's car was there, and it made Byron happy just to see it.

And then, suddenly, it wore off all at once, and the anger that had seemed so far away just moments ago now erupted. He beat on the steering wheel with his open palms until his hands hurt.

"What did you do to me? What did you do to me?" He said it over and over again as he thought of that man just getting in his car as if he had a right, and the way he made Byron do things and say things. Making him buy See's chocolates for him! Saying Nadine was pregnant and he believed it! Was Bag Man a hypnotist? In the moment when Byron looked away from that motorcycle mama, was that when Bag Man caught his eye and hypnotized him without him even knowing it?

If I see him again I'll run him over even if they put me in jail for it. Nobody ought to have power like that over another living soul.

Word, his ten-year-old son -- named for Wordsworth -- came through the door from the house and rushed to Byron's car window. The boy didn't look excited, he looked worried.

Byron turned off the engine and opened the door.

"Dad, there's something wrong with Mom. She's really sick."

"All right, I'm on it." Byron headed toward the house. Then he stopped and looked back at Word. "Son, would you get dinner out of the back seat?"

"Sure," said Word. "I'm on it." And without a word of argument, the boy headed right back to get the sacks from I Cugini. That's when Byron realized that whatever was going on with Nadine, Word thought it was serious.

She was in the bedroom and when he knocked on the door, she said, "Go away."

"It's me," said Byron.

"Come in," she said.

He came through the door.

She was lying on her back on the bed, naked, breathing rapidly. Or was she crying? Both. Short sobs.

She wasn't just pregnant. She was as big as she had ever been with any of the children.

"By, what's happening to me?" she said. She sounded frantic, but kept her voice low. "I just started bloating up. An hour ago. I got home from work and I had to get out of my clothes, they were strangling the baby. That's what I kept thinking. Only I'm not pregnant, By."

He sat on the edge of the bed and felt her stomach. The skin was stretched as tight as it ever was at the peak of pregnancy, completely erasing her navel. "You sure feel pregnant," said Byron. And then, without thinking, he blurted: "That son-of-a-bitch."

"Who?" she said. "What are you talking about?"

"He said you were pregnant. He called you my pregnant wife."

"Who? Who who who who?"

"I don't know who. A homeless man. I gave him a ride home. I gave him a ride here."

"You let a homeless man into our house?"

"Not our house, I dropped him off at the bend. But it was crazy. I did whatever he wanted. I wanted to do it. He made me want to. I was thinking he hypnotized me."

"Well this isn't hypnosis, is it," said Nadine. "It hurts, By." Then her body tautened. "Merciful Savior make it stop!"

Byron realized his hand was cold and wet. "Baby, I think your water broke."

"What water!" she hissed. "I'm not pregnant!"

But her legs were parted and when he looked he could see a baby crowning, its head pushing to get through her fully dilated cervix.

"Just hold still, baby, and push this thing out."

"What thing!"

"It looks like a baby," said Byron. "I know it's impossible but I can't lie about what I see."

"It's not a baby," said Nadine as she panted. "Whatever it is. It's not a baby. Babies don't. Come this. Fast."

But this one did. Like popping a pimple, it suddenly squished out right into Byron's waiting hands. A little boy. Smaller than any of their real children had been.

Not that this baby didn't look real. It had the arms and legs and fingers and head of a genuine baby, and it was slithery and streaked in blood.

"It was nice of him to let you deliver this one without an episiotomy," said Byron.

"What?" asked Nadine, gasping as her body convulsed to deliver the afterbirth. The bed was soaked in blood now.

"He didn't tear you. Coming out."

"What?"

"I've got to cut. The cord. Where are there any scissors? I don't want to go clear to the kitchen, don't you have scissors here?"

"Sewing scissors in the kit in the closet," she said.

The afterbirth spewed out onto the bed and Nadine whimpered a couple of times and fell asleep. No, fell unconscious, that was the right term for it.

Byron got the kit open and took out the scissors and then found himself hesitating as he tried to decide what color thread to use. Until he finally realized that the color didn't matter. It was insane to even worry about it. Except what was sane about any of this? A woman who wasn't pregnant this morning, she gives birth before dinner?

He tied the umbilical cord and then tied it again, and between the two threads he cut the springy flesh. It was like cutting raw turkey skin.

Only when he was done did he realize what was wrong. The baby hadn't made a sound.

It just lay there on its back in a pool of blood on the bed, not crying, not moving.

"It's dead," whispered Byron.

Well, what did he expect?

How would they explain this to the police? No, we didn't know my wife was pregnant. No, we didn't have time to get to the hospital.

And something else. Nadine still had her legs spread wide, and she was smeared with blood, but her belly wasn't swollen anymore. She had the flat stomach of a woman who takes her workouts seriously. There was no sign that a few moments ago she was nine months pregnant with this dead baby.

There was a knock on the door.

"What?"

"Man here to see you," said Word.

"I can't see anybody right now, Word," said Byron.

The door opened and Byron moved quickly to hide his wife's naked body. But it wasn't Word in the doorway. It was Bag Man.

"You," said Byron. "You son-of-a-bitch. What have you done to my wife?"

"Got that baby out already? That was quick." He looked downright cheerful.

"I got news for you," said Byron. "The baby's dead. So whatever you're doing to us, you blew it. It didn't work."

Bag Man just shook his head and grinned. Byron hated that grin now. This man virtually carjacked him tonight, and somehow made him like it. Well, he didn't like it now. He wanted to throw the man against the wall. Knock him down and kick his head.

Instead he watched as Bag Man shambled past him and picked up the baby. "Look at him," said Bag Man. "Ain't he as pretty as can be?"

"I told you," said Byron. "He's dead."

"Don't be silly," said Bag Man. "Baby like this, it can't die. How can it die? Ain't alive yet. Can't die less you been alive, fool."

Bag Man held the baby like a football in one arm, while he snapped open a plastic grocery bag with the other hand. Then he slipped the baby into the bag. It fit nicely, with its legs scrunched up just like it must have been in the womb. That was the first time it occurred to Byron that all those grocery bags were exactly womb-sized. He wondered if that's how they decided how big to make them.

"He'll suffocate in that bag," said Byron.

"Can't suffocate if you ain't breathing," said Bag Man cheerfully. "You kind of slow, ain't you, Byron? Anyway, nobody suffocates in my bags." He looked at Nadine's naked unconscious body and Byron hated him.

"Why don't I just kill you right now?" said Byron.

"For looking at your wife naked?"

"For putting that dead baby in her."

"I didn't do it," said Bag Man. "You think I got the power to do this? Drop dead, fool, this ain't my style." He grinned when he said it, but this time Byron refused to be placated.

"Get out of my house," said Byron.

"That's what I was planning to do," said Bag Man. "But first I got a question for you."

"Just get out."

"You want to forget this, or remember?"

"I'm never gonna forget you and what you did. If I see you in the street, I'll run you down."

"Oh, don't worry, you ain't gonna see me, not for a long time, anyway, but go ahead and run me down if you can."

"I told you to get out."

"So ... one for remembering, the rest for not," said Bag Man. "Your order will be ready in a minute, sir." Bag Man winked and went back out the door, carrying the dead newborn in the plastic bag.

Is this where those dumpster babies come from? Not pregnant teenagers at all.

And those really fat women who give birth without ever knowing they were pregnant. Nadine once said, How can they not know? Well, what if it was like this? What if some voodoo man did it?

Or maybe he really was a hypnotist. Maybe none of this happened. Maybe when I wake up it'll turn out not to be real.

Except when he touched them, the sheets were wet with amniotic fluid and blood.

He got Nadine awake enough to move while he got the sheet and mattress pad out from under her. As he feared, it had gone clear through to the mattress. It was never coming out of there. They'd have to buy a new one.

And these sheets? They weren't going in the laundry. He got a plastic garbage bag from the cabinet under the bathroom sink and stuffed the bottom sheet and the mattress pad into it.

As he went back into the bedroom, Nadine padded by him toward the bathroom. "That's a good idea," she murmured.

"What?" said Byron. "Soon as I get clean sheets you can go back to --"

"Washing the sheets. Time to change the sheets," she said. "Did you get dinner?"

"I Cugini, as ordered," he said. Could she really be this calm?

"Mmmm," she said. "I'm gonna shower now, By. Let's eat when I get out."

She didn't remember. She had no idea that any of this had happened.

"You were real sweet, baby," she said.

She thinks we made love, thought Byron.

Well, if a woman can give birth, fall asleep, and wake up five minutes later thinking all she had was great sex, that was some kind of hypnotism, that's for sure.

If it happened at all.

I've got the bloody sheet in this bag, he told himself impatiently.

He opened the garbage bag again just to be sure. Bloody all right. And wet. And slimy. A mess.

He heard the shower start. He tied the bag again and carried it out of the room and through the kitchen, on his way to the city garbage can in the garage.

"Dad," said Andrea, the oldest. "Is Mom okay?"

"She's fine," said Byron. "Just a little sick to her stomach, but she's feeling better now."

"Did she puke?" asked seven-year-old Danielle. "I always feel better if I'm sick and then I puke. Not during the puke, after."

"I don't know if she puked," said Byron. "She's in the bathroom with the door closed."

"Puking's nasty," said Danielle.

"Not as nasty as licking it up afterward," said Word.

Byron didn't tell him off. The girls were saying Gross, Disgusting, You're as funny as a dead slug: the koine of intersibling conversation. Byron only wanted to get to the garbage can and jam this bag of bloody sheet and mattress pad as far down into it as possible.

What was the old man going to do with that dead baby? What was this all about? Why did this witch doctor or whatever he was pick us?

He came back in and washed his hands with antibacterial soap three times and he still didn't feel clean.

"The food's not very warm," said Andrea. "Want me to nuke it?"

"Not the salads."

Andrea rolled her eyes. He could hear her muttering as she heated up the warm dishes. "Think you have to tell me not to nuke a salad, I'm not retarded, I think I know lettuce sucks when it's hot."

Byron supervised the setting of the table. And as they were finishing, Nadine came in.

"Well, I feel a lot better," she said. "I just needed to rest a minute and then wash off the troubles of the day."

She really was clueless. For the first time it occurred to Byron that this meant there was no one on God's green earth he could ever tell about what happened. Who would believe him, if Nadine didn't back him up? Miz Nadine, your husband said you swoll up and gave birth all in one hour and a homeless man come and took it away in a grocery bag, is that so? And Nadine would say, That's just sick, if my husband said that he's making fun.

"By," she said, "you look green as a ghost. Are you ill?"

"Bad traffic on the ten," he said.

"I thought you said only a fool takes the ten, you've got to take Olympic."

"So I'm a fool," he said.

Why didn't the old man come with me all the way to our house, if he was here to pick up the baby? Why did he go into that fenced-off park?

And when did they put a gate in the fence? There was no gate in the fence.

Wait a minute. There's no fence. There is no damn fence around that park.

"Really, By, are you sure you shouldn't just go to bed? You look pretty awful."

"I suppose I just need a shower, too."

"Well, right after dinner, and I'll give you a neck rub to wipe out all that tension, see if I don't."

"I sure hope you can," said Byron.

"Of course I can, darling," she said primly. "A woman like me, I can do anything."

"She is woman!" intoned Word. "She rocks!"

"Now that," said Nadine, "is one well-raised boy."

"Well-raised man," said Word.

"You got a driver's license?" said Nadine. "You got a job?"

"I'm ten," said Word.

"Don't go calling yourself a man, then," said Nadine. "Man's not a man till he earns money."

"Or drives a car," said Danielle.

What a thing to teach the children. That a man's not a man if he isn't making money. Does that mean that the more you earn, the more of a man you are? Does that mean if you get fired, you've been emasculated?

But there was no point arguing the point. Word wasn't a man yet, and when he was, Byron would make sure he got a man's respect from his father, and then it wouldn't matter what the boy's mother said. That was a power a father had that no woman could take away.

While the rest of the family bantered, Byron's thoughts turned again to that baby. If it was real, was it a child of Nadine's, or some kind of magical changeling? If it was her child, then who was the father? Byron? Was it our son that freak toted out of our bedroom in a grocery sack? Word's little brother, now bound for some miserable grave in a dumpster somewhere?

Is he really dead? Or will the old man's magic find some spark of life inside him? And if he does, could I find him? Claim him? Bring him home to raise?

And now Byron realized why Bag Man hadn't given Nadine a choice about whether to remember or not. If the mother didn't believe she had given birth, then how could the father go claiming paternity? Nobody gave maternity tests to mothers.

If that's our baby, that old man stole it from us.

I should have told him to let me forget.

But that was wrong, too, and Byron knew it. It was important for him to know -- and remember -- that such a thing as this was possible in the world. That his life could be taken over so easily, that such a terrible thing could happen and then be forgotten.

And now this man knows where we live. This man can do whatever he wants in our neighborhood.

Well, if magic like this is real, then I sure as hell hope that God is also real. Because as long as Bag Man is walking around in Baldwin Hills with dead babies in his grocery sacks, then God help us all.

Please.

Copyright © 2005 Orson Scott Card


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