Baby Alone

Tommy Dean

There is a baby, alone, in a car across the parking lot aisle. I can’t quite make out its face or its gender. I concentrate on the flash of red fabric, which I assume is its arm clothed in a shimmering coat. It’s much too cold for a baby to be alone in a car. I tell this to myself, as though, there are a set of perfect conditions where a mother or father might be allowed to leave their child, an infant almost from the look of it’s tiny fingers, in a parked car in the parking lot of one of the largest shopping centers in town.

My own car is running, the slight mumble of my husband’s talk radio station turned down low, competing with the shudder of the engine. We’re here for a pregnancy test, an argument he won, because, like I told him, I’m familiar enough with my own body to know if I was pregnant or not. He kept pointing to the logic, a counting of days since my last period as if that was enough to convince me and my uterus not to bleed.

Right or wrong, I agreed to go with him to the store, but told him that was as far as I would go. The rest was up to him. It’s your time dime, I told him. He gave me a look. He hated when I fell into the pulpy sayings of my father.  When you’ve been married seven years, sometimes that’s all you need to communicate.

Leave the keys, I said as he unbuckled too quickly, the metal striking the window. The sound stilled the air. Can I get you anything else, he asked. I was tempted to ask for a bottle of wine. We’d need it after the failed test, but I didn’t want to push the issue. He hated when I was right as much as I hated it when it snowed. It looked like we would both end up losers tonight.

When I didn’t answer, he leaned in and kissed me on the cheek, a cute gesture, like we were still dating, and I couldn’t help but smile. He opened the door and the cab filled with the smell of fried food. The cold air made the outdated air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror dance.

I watched him walk away and as soon as I thought he was out of earshot, I started the car and prayed we had enough gas to keep it running. I was too afraid to look at the gas gauge. There were a lot of things I was afraid to look at these days.

I sat in the heat, watching the people brace themselves against the cold. I spent several minutes watching a woman in a thin jacket with a short dress, legs covered in tights, walk backwards. She got me thinking about my husband again. I wondered if that’s how he saw me, a frail and huddled bird? The woman shrank between two SUVS, the largest one’s lights flashing as she unlocked the vehicle. That’s when I saw the tiny movements from the car across the aisle. At first I wasn’t sure I’d seen anything, especially with the way the sun was setting over the ridge of the supermarket roof and the way the shadows were starting to roll in like fog. But there it was again like the flutter of a hummingbird’s wing. I turned down the heat and then the radio as if I could also hear the movement from the car. A car rattling down the lane, passed between us, blocking my vision. I craned my neck to the left and then to the right, my cheek resting against the window. As far as I could tell there was no one else in that car, certainly no adults in the front seats, and no other children in the back.

Minutes passed in that state of anxiety where you know you need to make a choice. I played with the heater, turning it up and down, trying to focus all of my thoughts on the rush of the air from the vents. I punched at the radio buttons until my neck began to itch. There was that feeling you get when you wish you could just walk away into another life. The lives you’ve allowed other people to lead for you.

When I get to the car, I expect to see the baby crying, but it quietly looks at me and I wonder what it’s trying to tell me. The baby is a boy, with a shock of light brown hair spilling out of a slanting toboggan hat. He looks away from me and I tap on the glass. He smiles, flails his arms, and gurgles something at me in baby-speak. The wind is at my back, roiling over the back of my legs, chilling the back of my knees. I try the handle, wondering why it’s taken me so long to do it in the first place. The handle clicks, but the door doesn’t open. Small miracles, I whisper toward the glass and it fogs. The baby wags its head, trying to look around the condensation as if I’m something worth seeing.

People drift by, pushing their rattling shopping carts, the wind picking up their voices and the rippling of the plastic shopping bags. Where’s your mother, I say to the window. I wonder where my husband is and worry that he’ll return to the running car and I’ll be gone. Another mystery played out in the shopping center parking lot. Then it hits me. As sure as I am that I’m not pregnant, I know that I locked the keys in the car. I turn to look at it idling, a soft spool of exhaust drifting over the trunk and into the darkening night.

My husband isn’t at the car and he’s not jogging down the aisle either. He always runs when it’s cold outside, though I point out to him that this only makes it colder. He always chooses a shorter, yet more intense experience over a longer mellower encounter with the troubles of this life. I wonder, too, is this how he sees our marriage, an element to endure by sprinting through the milestones until there isn’t anything left?

I don’t flag down any other shoppers. I’m not sure what I could say to them and I’d rather not get anyone else involved. So I wait in the cold, my toes going numb, knowing that one of two things will happen: either my husband will return carrying a single plastic bag with the smiley face winking on the front or the baby’s mother will creep cautiously up to the car. Both promise a confrontation and I don’t know if I can handle either one. It’s bad enough leaving a dog alone in a car in this weather, but a baby is just too much. It’s the kind of story you see on the news. The thought of cameras, being interviewed on live TV, makes me hope that my husband will return first. He’ll be angry I left the car. He’s always worried about my safety, as though the minute I leave the apartment someone will attack me. Tonight, he’ll cite the temperature; tell me he is worried I’ll catch a cold or pneumonia. He’s big on pneumonia for some reason. The entire time he’ll being looking at my stomach, but won’t mention the word baby. I guess we’ve both grown superstitious over the last year. Will we, won’t we, is not a popular game in our home. Maybe, I want to tell him, it’s not happening because our bodies don’t think we’re ready. He’d call that psychological bullshit. I’d call it an excuse I’ve made up to make myself feel better. I’m not sure why he won’t let me lie to myself. That, I want to tell him, makes me human.

I decide then that until someone separates us I’ll only look down upon the baby and wait.

I kick at the ground, trying to warm my foot. It catches the crushed open lip of a Burger King cup. Soda and ice splattered against the stiff fabric of my jeans, the liquid freezing in a sticky spray around my knee. Annoyed, I kick my other foot into an oozing pile of ice. The pieces carom off the tire and skitter across the cement where they come to rest near a pile of candy bar wrappers stuck to the ground by a brown oily substance. What is it about parking lots that people think they can leave their trash everywhere? I’m disgusted enough to want to walk away and cold enough that I know it will take hours before the feeling comes back into my toes.

The baby rocks, throwing his hand in the air in a way that would make any adult feel self-conscious, and smiles. The drool collects in the corner of his mouth, before cascading onto the zipper of his coat. I can’t do it, I say out loud. The whole thing is a mess.

His smile goes away, and his face turns solemn. The sound of feet pounding on the pavement, a gust of wind pulls at the hair tucked into the back of my jacket, the hood flopping back, exposing my face to the elements.

“What are you doing? Get away from there. Get!”

I turn toward the voice, as the end of the cart bumps into my hip, knocking me back a step. I push the hair from my eyes. The woman in front of me is disheveled, her hair black and natty from being dyed too many times. She wears no coat, but is dressed in one of those sweat suits that are all one solid color. It’s much too big for her and the cloth billows in the wind like a tarp taped over a busted car window. Though she’s young, there are lines on her face grooved into the skin like shattered glass. In her cart is a large box containing a space heater and a few shopping bags. A package of diapers pokes out from one of the bags.

“You can’t leave a baby out here.” I point to the window, then draw my arms to my chest, hugging myself, as if there isn’t anything else to say.

“He was sleeping when I left. He is always sleeping.” She leaned over the cart, resting her elbows on the handlebar, resigned to let me criticize her.

“I should report this,” I say. A security truck drives up the aisle, its orange light rotating over the hoods of the parked cars. The woman waits for it to pass, before saying, “Fine report me. Here’s your chance.”

The truck gets to the front of the lane, stops for a couple pushing a cart laden with bag after bag of groceries. The truck turns left and idles down another aisle.

“You’re like everyone else. You don’t want to get involved either. I do the best I can. You want to help? Let me get in the car and take him home. It’ll be warm there now,” she says, pushing cart toward me. I glance down at the baby and I have to agree that he seems fine, that maybe I’m no better equipped to protect him than this woman. I put my hand on the glass, my fingertips the only trace that I’ve been standing there watching over him.

“Go on now,” she says. “He’s not alone anymore.”

“We’re all alone,” I say. I walk around the trunk of the car, head down, pulling tight the strings of my hood, careful to step around what’s left of a run-over banana. 

Author Portrait

During the day, Tommy Dean works as a middle school English teacher. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in Apollo’s Lyre, Pindeldyboz, Boston Literary Magazine, Blue Lake Review, and 5X5.