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Story — From the May 2017 issue

My First Car

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Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

The common room was dominated by an enormous washer-dryer and a large refrigerator. Pallets and cribs were scattered about. There were few toys. Mrs. B was not an advocate of structured play.

When she saw me walking by, looking all around and obviously a stranger to the community, she hurried out to ask if I would be willing to provide some assistance at her establishment. When I said I had no experience with babies Mrs. B said that was all right, I’d had the experience of being one myself once. Mrs. B explained she hadn’t been doing this forever, just for the past five years after she’d been abandoned by Mr. B and had to find employment. Mr. B had liked to say he wouldn’t ever leave her because he didn’t want to have to kiss her goodbye, though he’d always said this in a jolly manner. She’d never felt that they had any more problems than the next couple but he’d taken off anyway, become a missing person. Mrs. B said that while she could run her establishment with one arm tied behind her back she was beginning to resent the babies and that wasn’t fair to them. She had been praying for her resentment to cease but she felt she needed a little time off so she could pray more powerfully. She didn’t think it would take long if she could concentrate fully outside the babies’ presence.

Mrs. B said her feelings of resentment and despair had begun when she learned that her dream of visiting the Great Barrier Reef to see the corals releasing their trillions of swirling and dancing eggs and sperm under a full moon would never be realized. She said she imagined that a young person like myself might find it unusual that an old woman who hadn’t once left this tough, humble, actually quite squalid town would harbor such a wish, but she’d wanted to witness this phenomenon, this blizzard of aqueous stars, this mysterious rite of dazzling affirmation, ever since she’d read about it in a magazine. It wasn’t long ago they’d discovered that corals even did anything of the sort and boatloads of people were paying to go out there and bear witness. Mrs. B’s dream was to fly to Australia and take a seventy-two-hour scuba certification course and descend into the glory of it all. It was supposed to be a sight pretty much to end all sights.

Then someone told her that the Great Barrier Reef was dying. She could have strangled this person. She still would cross the street rather than greet her. The situation was that the Reef was still there but wasn’t alive. It was no more interesting than a kitchen countertop that stretched for hundreds of miles. All the little eyes on the surface of the coral — they didn’t call them eyes but that’s what they were — that knew when the full moon was bathing the sea in a blue voluptuous light had been extinguished. They were still keeping a few pieces of coral alive in an undisclosed location in the hope that they could graft them onto something hosty and, over time, on a smaller stage, re-create the spectacle that once had been, before sewage and pesticides had had their way with it. Those little bits of coral, which Mrs. B had read were actually colonies of individual organisms, had no idea they’d escaped death but were no longer alive in any significant way, but Mrs. B did know this and it made her mad.

She pressed the magazine into my hands.

“We are in a permanent state of destroying the world,” she said. “I wouldn’t harm a single hair on any one of these babies’ heads, but I’ve grown indifferent to them, and indifference leads somewhere, you know. It always does.”

As she spoke, the babies were crawling around on the carpet, paying her no mind.

One of the babies, she said, never cried.

“There’s got to be something wrong with that one. You gotta be able to cry. Eyes need tears to work right. I should pray for that one and I should pray for little Alice too, the quiet one there in the blue crib. Her heart beats only sixty times a minute. When her father, Rocky, told me that, I said, Why that’s awful, but how many times is it supposed to beat? And he said a hundred so you can see there’s concern there. It’s a heart valve concern. The mother’s practically made herself an invalid with worry. Doesn’t do anything but worry, in fact — that and keep the heat up too high in their apartment. Rocky works hard to keep her in that kind of heat.”

Mrs. B held Rocky in high regard. He was the only parent who actually had a job, riding shotgun in a helicopter, herding wild horses. He was generous but had an impractical streak. One week he brought an expensive box of heart-shaped chocolates to the Baby Village, and the next, little shirts and pants in a camouflage pattern for all the babies. His employer had required him to purchase tinted glasses, a necessary work-related expense — he already had a gun — because in certain circumstances on bright days, the rotor blades would strobe the sunlight so relentlessly that a fellow would get confused, disoriented, and wonder what he was doing up there herding horses and shooting the ones that stumbled and fell.

At each day’s end, Rocky would arrive promptly at the closing hour. He’d pick up his quiet tiny Alice and nuzzle her and cover her flaccid puppy tummy with kisses. He was always the first to retrieve his baby, just as the parents of Mateo and Fresco and Jordan and Kali took turns being the last.

I agreed to watch the babies while Mrs. B prayed. There was no reason not to. She once again assured me it would be a week at most, though maybe longer because she wasn’t praying for herself alone but for all humankind, for what if more and more people started finding babies not worth the candle? What if such disinterest spread?

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has published nine books of fiction, most recently The Visiting Privilege (Vintage).

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