Traveling to Pridesup

Otilla cooked up the water for her morning tea and opened a carton of ricotta cheese. She ate standing up, dipping cookies in and out of the cheese, walking around the enormous kitchen in tight figure eights as though she were in a gymkhana. She was eighty-one years old and childishly ravenous and hopeful with a long pigtail and a friendly unreasonable nature.
She lived with her sisters in a big house in the middle of the state of Florida. There were three of them, all older and wiser. They were educated in Northern schools and came back with queer ideas. Lavinia, the eldest, returned after four years, with a rock, off of a mountain, out of some forest. It was covered with lichen and green like a plum. Lavinia put it to the north of the seedlings on the shadowy side of the house. She tore up the grass and burnt out the salamanders and the ants and raked the sand out all around the rock in a pattern like a machine would make. The sisters watched the rock on and off for forty years until one morning when they were all out in their Mercedes automobile, taking the air, a sinkhole opened up and took the rock and half the garage down thirty-seven feet. It didn’t seem to matter to Lavinia, who had cared for the thing. Growing rocks, she said, was supposed to bring one serenity and put one on terms with oneself and she had become serene so she didn’t care. Otilla believed that such an idea could only come from a foreign religion, but she could only guess at this as no one ever told her anything except her father, and he had died long ago from drink. He was handsome and rich, having made money in railways and grapefruit. Otilla was his darling. She still had the tumbler he was drinking rum from when he died. None of father’s girls had ever married, and Otilla, who was thought to be a little slow, had not even gone off to school.
Otilla ate a deviled egg and some ice cream and drank another cup of tea. She wore sneakers and a brand new dress that still had the cardboard pinned beneath the collar. The dress had come in the mail the day before along with a plastic soap dish and three rubber pedal pads for the Mercedes. The sisters ordered everything through catalogs and seldom went to town. Upstairs, Otilla could hear them moving about.
“Louisa,” Marjorie said, “this soap dish works beautifully.”
Otilla moved to a wicker chair by the window and sat on her long pigtail. She turned off the light and turned on the fan. It was just after sunrise, the lakes all along the Ridge were smoking with heat. She could see bass shaking the surface of the water and she felt a brief and eager joy at the sight—at the morning and the mist running off the lakes and the birds rising up from the shaggy orange trees. The joy didn’t come often any more and it didn’t last long and when it passed it seemed more a part of dying than delight. She didn’t dwell on this however. For the most part, she found that as long as one commenced to get up in the morning and move one’s bowels, everything else moved along without confusing variation.
From the window, she could also see the mailbox. The flag was up and there was a package swinging from it. She couldn’t understand why the mailman hadn’t put the package inside. It was a large sturdy mailbox and would hold anything.
She got up and walked quickly outside, hoping that Lavinia wouldn’t see her, as Lavinia preferred picking up the mail herself. She passed the black Mercedes. The garage had never been rebuilt and the car had been parked for years between two oak trees. There was a quilt over the hood. Every night, Lavinia would pull a wire out of the distributor and bring it into the house. The next morning she would put the wire back in again, warm up the Mercedes and drive it twice around the circular driveway and then down a slope one hundred yards to the mailbox. They only received things that they ordered. The Mercedes was fifteen years old and had eleven thousand miles on it. Lavinia kept the car up. She was clever at it.
“This vehicle will run forever because I’ve taken good care of it,” she’d say.
Otilla stood beside the mailbox looking north up the road and then south. She had good eyesight but there wasn’t a thing to be seen. Hanging in a feed bag off the mailbox was a sleeping baby. It wore a little yellow T-shirt with a rabbit on it. The rabbit appeared to be playing a fiddle. The baby had black hair and big ears and was making small grunts and whistles in its sleep. Otilla wiped her hands on the bodice of her dress and picked the baby out of the sack. It smelled faintly of ashes and fruit.
Inside the house, the three sisters, Lavinia, Louisa, and Marjorie were setting out the breakfast things. They were ninety-two, ninety, and eighty-seven, respectively. They were in excellent color and health and didn’t look much over seventy. Each morning they’d set up the table as though they were expecting the Governor himself—good silver, best china, egg cups and bun cozy.
They settled themselves. The fan was painted with blue rustproof paint and turned right on around itself like an owl. The soft-boiled eggs wobbled when the breeze ran by them.
“Going to be a hot one,” Lavinia said.
The younger sisters nodded yes, chewing on their toast.
“The summer’s just begun and it appears it’s never going to end,” Lavinia said.
The sisters shook their heads yes. The sky was getting brighter and brighter. The three of them, along with Otilla, had lived together forever. They weren’t looking at the sky or the empty groves which they had seen before. The light was changing very fast, progressing visibly over the table top. It fell on the butter.
“They’ve been tampering with the atmosphere,” Lavinia said. “They don’t have the sense to leave things alone.” Lavinia was a strong-willed, impatient woman. She thought about what she had just said and threw her spoon down irritably at the truth of it. Lavinia was no longer serene about anything. That presumption had been for her youth, when she had time. Now everything was pesky to her and a hindrance.
“Good morning,” Otilla said. She walked to the wicker chair and sat down. The baby lay in her arms, short and squat like a loaf of bread.
Lavinia’s eyes didn’t change, nor her mouth nor the set of her jaw. Outside some mockingbirds were ranting. The day had gotten so bright it was as if someone had just shot it off in her face.
“Put it back where you got it,” she said slowly.
“I can’t imagine where this baby’s from,” Otilla said.
The baby’s eyes were open now and were locked on the old woman’s face. Lavinia spoke in a low, furious voice. “Go on out with it, Otilla.” She raised her fingers distractedly, waving at the baby as though greeting an old friend.
Otilla picked the baby up and held it out away from her and looked cheerfully at it. “You’re wetting.”
“My God,” Marjorie said, noticing the affair for the first time.
Otilla shook the baby up and down. Her arms were skinny and pale and they trembled a bit with the weight. The baby opened its mouth and smiled noiselessly. “You’re hollow inside,” Otilla said. “Hollow as a bamboo. Bam Boo To You Kangaroo.” She joggled the baby whose face was static and distant with delight. “Bamboo shampoo. Bamboo cuckatoo stew.”
“My God,” Marjorie said. She and Louisa got up and scraped off their plates and rinsed them in the sink. They went into the front room and sat on the sofa.
Otilla held the baby a little awkwardly. Its head flopped back like a flower in the wind when she got up. She had never touched a baby before and she had never thought about them either. She went to the drainboard and laid the baby down and unpinned its diaper. “Isn’t that cute, Lavinia, it’s a little boy.”
“You are becoming senile,” Lavinia said. Her fingers were still twitching in the air. She wrapped them in her napkin.
“I didn’t make him up. Someone left him here, hanging off the postbox.”
“Senile,” Lavinia repeated. “Who knows where this baby has been? You shouldn’t even be touching him. Perhaps you are just being ‘set up’ and we will all be arrested by the sheriff.”
Otilla folded a clean dishtowel beneath the baby and pinned it together. She took the dirty diaper and scrubbed it out in the sink with a bar of almond soap and then took it outside and hung it on the clothesline. When she came back into the kitchen, she picked the baby off the drainboard and went back to her chair by the window. “Now isn’t that nice, Lavinia?” She didn’t want to talk but she was so nervous that she couldn’t help herself. “I think they should make diapers in bright colors. Orange and blue and green . . . Deep bright colors for a little boy. Wouldn’t that be nice, Lavinia?”
“The dye would seep into their skin and kill them,” Lavinia said brusquely. “They’d suffocate like an Easter chick.”
Otilla was shocked.
“You accept things too easily, Otilla. You have always been a dope. Even as a child, you took anything anyone chose to give you.” She got up and took the distributor wire of the Mercedes out of the silverware tray. She clumped down the steps to the automobile, banging the screen door behind her. A spider dropped from the ceiling and fell with a snap on the stove. Otilla heard the engine turn over and drop into idle. The screen door banged again and Lavinia was shouting into the darkened living room.
“We are going in town to the authorities and will be back directly.”
There was a pause in which Otilla couldn’t hear a thing. Her arm was going to sleep. She shifted the baby about on her lap, banging his head against her knee bone. The baby opened his mouth but not his eyes and gummed on the sleeve of his shirt. “Excuse me,” she whispered.
“No, no,” Lavinia shouted at the living room. “I can’t imagine how it happened either. Someone on their way somewhere. Long gone now. Pickers, migrants.”
She came back into the kitchen, pulling on a pair of black ventilated driving gloves. Lavinia was very serious about the Mercedes. She drove slowly and steadily and not particularly well, looking at the dials and needles for signs of malfunction. The reason for riding was in the traveling, she always said, for the sisters never had the need to be anyplace. Getting there was not the object. Arrival was not the point. The car was elegant and disheartening and suited to this use.
“Where are we going?” Otilla asked meekly.
“Where are we going,” Lavinia mimicked in a breathless drawl that was not at all like Otilla’s voice. Then she said normally, “We are going to drop this infant off in Pridesup. I am attempting not to become annoyed but you are very annoying and this is a very annoying situation.”
“I think I would like to keep this baby,” Otilla said. “I figure we might as well.” The baby was warm and its heart was beating twice as fast as any heart she had ever heard as though it couldn’t wait to get on with its living.
Lavinia walked over to her sister and gave her a yank.
“I could teach him to drink from a cup,” Otilla said, close to tears. “They learn how to do that. When he got older he could mow the lawn and spray the midge and club-gall.” She was on her feet now and was being pushed outside. She put out her free hand and jammed it against the door frame. “I have to get some things together, then, please Lavinia. It’s twenty miles to Pridesup. Just let me get a few little things together so he won’t go off with nothing.” Her chin was shaking. She was hanging fiercely onto the door and squinting out into the sunlight, down past the rumbling Mercedes into the pit where the rock had fallen and where the seedlings, still rooted, bloomed in the spring. She felt a little fuddled. It seemed that her head was down in the cool sinkhole while the rest of her wobbled in the heat. She jammed the baby so close to her that he squealed.
“I can’t imagine what you’re going to equip him with,” Lavinia was saying. “He can’t be more than a few months old. We don’t have anything for that.” She had stopped pushing her sister and was looking at the car, trying to remember the route to Pridesup, the county seat. It had been five years since she had driven there. Somewhere, on the left, she recollected a concentrate canning factory. Somewhere, also, there was a gas station in the stomach of a concrete dinosaur. She remembered stopping. Otilla had used the rest room and they had all bought cold barbeque. No one ever bought his gasoline, the owner said. They bought his snacks and bait and bedspreads. Lavinia had not bought his gasoline either. She doubted if the place was there now. It didn’t look as though it had five years left in it.
“Oh, just a little apple juice and a toy or something.”
“Well, get it then,” Lavinia snapped. She couldn’t remember if she took a right or a left upon leaving the driveway; if she kept Cowpen Slough on her west side or her east side. The countryside looked oddly without depth and she had difficulty imagining herself driving off into it. She went into a small bathroom off the kitchen and took off her gloves and rinsed her face, then she went out to the Mercedes. She sat behind the wheel and removed some old state maps from the car’s side pocket. They were confusing, full of blank spaces. Printed on the bottom of the first one were the words Red And Blue Roads Are Equally Good. She refolded them, fanned herself with them and put them on the seat.
Otilla got into the car with the baby and a paper bag. The baby’s head was very large compared to the rest of him. It looked disabling and vulnerable. Lavinia couldn’t understand how anything could start out being that ugly and said so. His ears looked like two Parker rolls. She moved the car down the drive and unhesitatingly off onto the blacktop. They drove in silence for a few minutes. It was hot and green out with a smell of sugar on the air.
“Well,” Otilla said, “it doesn’t seem as though he wants anything yet.”
Lavinia wore a pair of enormous black sunglasses. She drove and didn’t say anything.
“Look out the window here at that grey and black horse,” Otilla said. She lifted the baby up. He clawed at her chin with his hand. “Look out thataway at those sandhill cranes. They’re just like storks. Maybe they’re the ones that dropped you off at our house.”
“Oh shut up. You’ll addle the little bit of brain he has,” Lavinia yelled.
“It’s just a manner of speaking, Lavinia. We both know it isn’t so.” She opened the bag and took out a piece of bread and began to eat it. The baby pushed his hand into the bread and Otilla broke off a piece of crust and gave it to him. He gnawed on it intently without diminishing it. In the bag, Otilla had a loaf of bread, a can of Coca-Cola and a jar of milk. “I couldn’t find a single toy for him,” she said.
“He’ll have to do with the scenery,” Lavinia said. She herself had never cared for it. It had been there too long and she had been too long in it and now it seemed like an external cataract obstructing her real vision.
“Lookit those water hyacinths,” Otilla went on. “Lookit that piece of moon still up there in the sky.”
Lavinia gritted her teeth. There had not been a single trip they had taken that Otilla had not spoiled. She talked too much and squirmed too much and always brought along food that she spilled. The last time they had driven down this road, she had had a dish of ice cream that had been squashed against the dashboard when the car had gone over a bump. Lavinia braked suddenly and turned the Mercedes into a dirt side road that dropped like a tunnel through an orange grove. She backed up and reversed her direction.
“Where are we going now, Lavinia?”
“We’re going to the same place,” she said angrily. “This is simply a more direct route.” The baby burped softly. They passed the house again, planted white and well-to-do in the sunlight. Embarrassed, neither of them looked at it or remarked upon it.
“I think,” Otilla said formally, “that we are both accepting this very well and that you are handling it OK except that I think we could have kept this baby for at least a little while until we read in the paper perhaps that someone is missing him.”
“No one is going to be missing him.”
“You’re a little darlin’,” Otilla said to the baby, who was hunched over his bread crust.
“Please stop handling him. He might very well have worms or meningitis or worse.” The Mercedes was rocketing down the middle of the road through hordes of colorful bugs. Lavinia had never driven this fast. She took her foot off the accelerator and the car mannerly slowed. Lavinia was hot all over. Every decision she had made so far today seemed proper but oddly irrelevant. If she had gone down to the mailbox first as she had always done, there would have been no baby to find. She was sure of that. The problem was that the day had started out being Otilla’s and not hers at all. She gave a short nervous bark and looked at the baby who was swaying on her sister’s lap. “I imagine he hasn’t had a single shot.”
“He looks fine to me, Lavinia. He has bright eyes and he seems clean and cool enough.”
Lavinia tugged at the wheel as though correcting a personal injustice rather than the car’s direction. “It’s no concern to us what he’s got anyway. It’s the law’s problem. It’s for the orphanage to attend to.”
“Orphanage? You shouldn’t take him there. He’s not an orphan, he has us.” She looked at the pale brown veins running off the baby’s head and faintly down his cheeks.
“He doesn’t have us at all,” Lavinia shouted. She started to gag and gripped her throat with her left hand, giving it little pinches and tugs to keep the sickness down. There had never been a thing she’d done that hadn’t agreed with her and traveling had always been a pleasure, but the baby beside her had a strong pervasive smell that seemed to be the smell of the land as well, and it made her sick. She felt as though she were falling into a pan of bright and bubbling food. She took several breaths and said more calmly, “There is no way we could keep him. You must use your head. We have not had the training and we are all getting on and what would happen is that we would die and he’d be left.” She was being generous and conversational and instructive and she hoped that Otilla would appreciate this and benefit from it even though she knew her sister was weakheaded and never benefited from things in the proper way.
“But that’s the way it’s going to be anyway, Lavinia.”
The air paddled in Lavinia’s ears. The Mercedes wandered on and off the dusty shoulder. The land was empty and there wasn’t anything coming toward them or going away except a bright tin can which they straddled. “Of course it is,” she said. “You’ve missed the point.”
Lavinia had never cared for Otilla. She realized that this was due mostly to preconception, as it were, for she had been present at the awful moment of birth and she knew before her sister had taken her first breath that she’d be useless. And she had been. The only thing Otilla ever had was prettiness and she had that still, lacking the sense to let it go, her girlish features still moving around indecently in her old woman’s face. Sitting there now in a messy nest of bread crusts and obscure stains with the baby playing with her dress buttons, Otilla looked queerly confident and enthusiastic as though at last she were going off on her wedding day. It disgusted Lavinia. There was something unseasonal about Otilla. If she had been a man, Lavinia thought, they might very well have had a problem on their hands.
Otilla noisily shook out one of the road maps. Down one side of it was a colorful insert with tiny pictures of attractions—fish denoting streams, and women in bathing suits, and llamas representing zoos and clocks marking historical societies. All no bigger than a thumbnail. “Why this is just charming,” Otilla said. “Here we have a pictorial guide.” The baby looked at it grimly and something fell runny from his mouth onto a minute pink blimp. “This is the first time we have had a real destination, Lavinia. Perhaps we can see these things as well.” She rested her chin on the baby’s head and read aloud, “⤆‘Route S40 through Pine Barrens. Be sure to see the Produce Auction, Elephant House, State Yacht Basin Marine View Old Dutch Parsonage Pacing Racing Oxford Furnace Ruins.’ Why just look at all these things,” she said into the infant’s hair. “This is very helpful.”
The two regarded the map carefully. “See this,” Otilla said excitedly, pointing to a tiny ancient-looking baby with a gold crown on his head. “Baby Parade. August. That’s for us!” Then she fell silent and after a few miles she turned to Lavinia and said, “This is not for our region at all. This is for the state of New Jersey.”
Lavinia was concentrating on a row of garish signs advertising a pecan shop. She’d been seeing them for the last half hour. Free Ice Water one said, Lettus Fill Your Jug. Neat Nuts one said. Ham Sandwiches Frozen Custard Live Turtles. She thought she’d stop and discreetly ask the way to Pridesup. Pecan Clusters Pecan Logs Pecan Pie Don’t Miss Us!
Otilla was picking through the remaining maps when the baby tipped off her lap and into Lavinia’s side. Lavinia stomped on the brakes and beat at him with her hand. “Get away,” she shrieked, “you’ll break my hip!” She tried to pull her waist in from the weight of his head. His smell was sweet, fertile, like an anesthetic and she felt frightened as though someone had just removed something from her in a swift neat operation. She saw the dust motes settling like balloons upon the leather dashboard and white thread tangled in the baby’s fingers. Slow Down You’re Almost There Only 2000 Yds. The baby’s face was wrinkling her linen and his hand was fastened around the bottom of the steering wheel.
“Lavinia, you’ll frighten him,” Otilla said, pulling the baby back across the seat. She arranged him in her lap again and he instantly fell asleep. The Mercedes was almost at a standstill. Lavinia pressed on the gas and the car labored forward, out of gear, past an empty burnt-out shack. Six Lbs For $1 Free Slushies For The Kiddies. The door to the place was lying in the weeds.
“That’s all right, that’s all right,” Lavinia said. She took off her sunglasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. The fingers of her gloves were wet. The engine was skipping, the tachometer needle fluttered on 0. She stopped the car completely, shifted into first and resumed. You’ve Gone Too Far! a sign said. She felt like spitting at it. Otilla had fallen asleep now too, her head slightly out the window, her small mouth shining in the side-view mirror. Lavinia picked up a piece of bread, folded it into an empty sandwich and ate it.
When Otilla woke, it was almost dark. The baby had his fingers jammed into his mouth and sucked on them loudly. Otilla unscrewed the top of the mason jar and pushed the lip toward him. He took it eagerly, sucking. Then he chewed, then he lapped. Enough drops went down his throat for him to think it was worthwhile to continue. He settled down to eating the milk that was slapping his cheeks and sliding down his chin back into the jar.
They were on a narrow soft road just wide enough for the car. Close on either side were rows and rows of orange trees, all different shades of darkness in the twilight.
“It’s like riding through the parted waters, Lavinia.”
Her sister’s voice startled her and Lavinia gave a little jump. Her stylish dress was askew and her large faded eyes were watering.
“You woke up to say an asinine thing like that!” she exclaimed. All the while Otilla and the infant had been sleeping, she had driven with an empty mind and eye. She had truly not been thinking of a thing, and though she was lost and indignant and frustrated she did not feel this. She had driven, and the instructions she had received cautiously from the few people she had seen she wrote down on the back of a pocket calendar. When she left the people, they became bystanders, not to be trusted, and she drove on without reference. And the only sounds she heard were the gentle snappings somewhere in her head of small important truths that she had got along with for years—breaking.
She had not looked at the car’s equipment, at its dials and numbers for a long time because when she had last done so, the odometer showed her that they had driven 157 miles.
“How long have we been traveling, Lavinia?”
“I don’t know.” She remembered that when she had bought the Mercedes, the engine had shone like her silver service. She remembered that there had been one mile on the odometer then. Sitting in the showroom on a green carpet, her automobile had one mile on it and she had been furious. No one could tell her why this was. No one could explain it to her satisfaction.
“Well,” Otilla said, “I suppose Louisa and Marjorie have eaten by now.” She looked out the window. A white bird was hurrying off through the groves. “This is an awfully good baby,” she said, “waiting so long and being so patient for his meal. And this being not the way he’s accustomed to getting it besides.” She looked behind her. “My, they certainly make these roads straight. It seems like if we had intended to, we could be halfway to New Jersey by now, on our way to seeing all those interesting things. We could stay in a New Jersey motel, Lavinia, and give the baby a nice bath and send out for supper and I’ve even heard that some of those motels are connected with drive-in theaters and we could see a film directly from our room.”
The soft sand tugged at the car’s wheels. The stars came out and Lavinia pulled on the headlights.
“Lavinia,” Otilla said softly, “I have twelve hundred dollars sitting in the teeth of my mouth alone. I am a wealthy woman though not as wealthy as you and if you want to get there, I don’t understand why we just don’t stop as soon as we see someone and hire us a car to Pridesup.”
“I have no respect for you at all,” Lavinia said.
Otilla paused. She ran her fingers over the baby’s head, feeling the slight springy depression in his skull where he was still growing together. She could hear him swallowing. A big moth blundered against her face and then fell back into the night. “If you would just stop for a moment,” she said brightly, “I could change the baby and freshen up the air in here a bit.”
“You don’t seem to realize that I know all about you, Otilla. There is nothing you could ever say to me about anything. I happen to know that you were born too early and mother had you in a chamber pot. So just shut up Otilla.” She turned to her sister and smiled. Otilla’s head was bowed and Lavinia poked her to make sure that she was paying attention. “ I have wanted to let you know about that for a long long time so just don’t say another word to me, Otilla.”
The Mercedes bottomed out on the sand, swerved and dropped into the ditch, the grille half-submerged in muddy water and the left rear wheel spinning in the air. Lavinia still was steering and smiling and looking at her sister. The engine died and the lights went out and for an instant they all sat speechless and motionless as though they were parts of a profound photograph that was still in the process of being taken. Then the baby gagged and Otilla began thumping him on the back.
Lavinia had loved her car. The engine crackled and hissed as it cooled. The windshield had a long crack in it and there was a smell of gasoline. She turned off the ignition.
Lavinia had loved her car and now it was broken to bits. She didn’t know what to think. She opened the door and climbed out onto the road where she lay down in the dust. In the middle of the night, she got back into the car because the mosquitoes were so bad. Otilla and the baby were stretched out in the back so Lavinia sat in the driver’s seat once more, where she slept.
In the morning, they ate the rest of the bread and Otilla gave the baby the last of the milk. The milk had gone sour and he spit most of it up. Otilla waded through the ditch and set the baby in a field box beneath an orange tree. The fruit had all been picked a month ago and the groves were thick and overgrown. It was hard for Otilla to clear out a place for them to rest. She tried to fan the mosquitoes away from the baby’s face but by noon the swarms had gotten so large and the bugs so fat and lazy that she had to pick them off individually with her fingers. Lavinia stayed in the Mercedes until she felt fried, then she limped across the road. The sun seemed waxed in the same position but she knew the day was going by. The baby had cried hard for an hour or so and then began a fitful wail that went on into the afternoon.
Every once in a while, Lavinia saw Otilla rise and move feverishly through the trees. The baby’s weeping mingled with the rattle of insects and with Otilla’s singsong so that it seemed to Lavinia, when she closed her eyes, that there was a healthy community working out around her and including her in its life. But when she looked there was only green bareness and an armadillo plodding through the dust, swinging its outrageous head.
Lavinia went to the Mercedes and picked up the can of Coca-Cola, but she couldn’t find an opener. The can burnt in her hand and she dropped it. As she was getting out of the car, she saw Otilla walk out of the grove. She stopped and watched her shuffle up the road. She was unfamiliar, a mystery, an event. There was a small soiled bundle on her shoulder. Lavinia couldn’t place the circumstances. She watched and wrung her hands. Otilla swerved off into the grove again and disappeared.
Lavinia followed her giddily. She walked hunched, on tiptoe. When she came upon Otilla, she remained stealthily bent, her skirt still wadded in her hand for silence. Otilla lay on her back in the sand with the baby beside her, his bug-bitten eyelids squeezed against a patch of sky that was shining on them both. The baby’s mouth was moving and his arms and legs were waving in the air to some mysterious beat but Otilla lay motionless as a stick. Lavinia was disgusted to see that the top of Otilla’s dress was unbuttoned, exposing her grey stringy breasts. She picked up a handful of sand and tried to cover up her chest.
The baby’s diaper was heavy with filth. She took it off and wiped it as best she could on the weeds and then pinned it around him again. She picked him up, holding him carefully away from her, and walked to the road. He was ticking from someplace deep inside himself. The noise was deafening. The noises that had seemed to be going on in her own head earlier had stopped. When she got to the car, she laid him under it, where it was cool. She herself stood up straight to get a breath, and down the road saw a yellow ball of dust rolling toward her at great speed. The ball of dust stopped alongside and a young man in faded jeans and shirt, holding a bottle of beer, got out and stared at her. Around his waist he wore a wide belt hanging with pliers and hammers and cords.
“Jeez,” he said. He was a telephone lineman going home for dinner, taking a shortcut through the groves. The old lady he saw looked as though she had come out of some Arabian desert. She had cracked lips and puffy eyes and burnt skin. He walked toward her with his hand stretched out, but she turned away and to his astonishment, bent down and scrabbled a baby up from beneath the wrecked car. Then she walked past him and clambered into the cab of his truck by herself and slammed the door.
The young man jumped into the truck and smiled nervously at Lavinia. “I don’t have nothing,” he said excitedly, “but a chocolate bar, but there’s a clinic no more’n ten miles away, if you could just hold on until then. Please,” he said desperately. “Do you suppose you want this?” he asked, holding out the bottle of beer.
Lavinia nodded. She took the chocolate and put it in the baby’s fist. He cried and pushed it toward his mouth and moved his mouth around it and cried. Lavinia pressed the cool bottle of beer against her face, then rolled it back and forth across her forehead.
The truck roared through the groves and in an instant, it seemed, they were out on the highway, passing a sign that said worship in pridesup, 11 miles. Beyond the sign was a field with a carnival in it. Lavinia could hear the sweet cheap music of the midway and the shrieks of people on the Ferris wheel. Then the carnival fell behind them and there was just field, empty except for a single, immense oak, a sight that so irritated Lavinia that she shut her eyes. The oak somehow seemed to give meaning to the field, a notion she found abhorrent.
She felt a worried tapping at her shoulder. When she looked at the young man, he just nodded at her, then he said, an afterthought, “What’s the baby’s name? My wife just had one and his name is Larry T.”
Lavinia looked down at the baby who glared blackly back at her, and the recognition that her life, and her long, angry journey through it, had been wasteful and deceptive and unnecessary hit her like a board being smacked against her heart. She had a hurried sensation of being rushed forward but it didn’t give her any satisfaction, because at the same time she felt her own dying slowing down some, giving her an instant to think about it.
“It’s nameless,” she whispered.