I drive a cab in a town where no one needs a cab but plenty of people need rides. I've been paid with casseroles, lip gloss, plumbing advice, beer, prayers for my immortal soul, and promises to mow my yard, but this is the first time I've ever been offered something living.
The girl's around eleven or twelve. About twenty years too soon, she already possesses the self-centered, self-destructive attitude of a survivor of a string of bad relationships, failed diets, a drinking problem, and the realization that life is just a bunch of confusing, painful stuff that fills up the time between your favorite TV shows.
Her outfit looks like it's been picked out by a pedophile with a penchant for banging hillbilly girls, but more than likely her mom bought it for her. She's dressed in a pair of tight denim shorts with eyelet trim, a pair of clear plastic platform sandals encrusted in silver glitter, and a skimpy halter made from red bandanna material. Her exposed midriff sports a unicorn tattoo which I hope is water soluble.
She wants a ride from Jolly Mount to the mall and wants to pay for it with her four-year-old brother.
"I'm not doing this for my health," I explain to her as I put the nozzle back into the gas pump. "This is my job. I have to make a living. I can't pay my mortgage or my heating bill with a toddler."
"You could sell him," she suggests.
"That's against the law."
"The law won't ever find out."
I screw my gas cap back on. She watches me while she stands with all her weight positioned on one skinny leg, one nonexistent hip thrust out with her hand resting on it, the bent angle and sharp point of her elbow making an almost perfect triangle of bony flesh against the yellow custom paint job of my Subaru Outback.
Her other hand holds the hand of her brother, not tightly but not casually either, the way a daisy holds on to its petals.
"Maybe he doesn't want to be sold," I tell her. "Maybe he wants to stay here."
"Then you could keep him. He can't do much now but when he gets older he could be like a slave for you."
I look down at the little guy. The spray of freckles across his nose and the hand-me-down jeans with rips in the knees and the cuffs rolled up several times remind me of my own son, Clay, when he was that age.
He turns twenty-four today. I have to remember to give him a call later. I don't make a big deal over his birthday now that he's grown. I don't let myself get emotional either, since the emotions surrounding his birth have always left me feeling torn up inside. I guess that's what happens when the best thing in your life is the result of the worst mistake of your life.
I wasn't all that much older than this girl standing in front of me now when my dad dropped me off at the entrance of the Centresburg Hospital, already two hours into my contractions, and told me to call him when I was "done."
Shannon was with us, sitting in the cab of the pickup crushed between the enormous globe of her sister's belly and the silent, hulking presence of our coal miner father who'd been pulled out of the damp, black earth midway through his shift in answer to my emergency call. Since he was going right back to work, he hadn't bothered to clean up or change out of his dirty coveralls. His face and hands were coated with rock dust: the crushed limestone sprayed inside mines to control the combustible coal dust. It gave his skin a bluish-white pallor, like someone who'd been frozen solid and dug out of a snowdrift.
Shannon was this girl's age and full of the same sort of generalized contempt and misplaced confidence in her ability to not care about anything as long as she told herself nothing was worth caring about, but I remember she looked worried that day as I climbed down out of the truck wincing and breathing funny and cradling the baby still inside me. I couldn't tell if she was afraid for me or afraid for herself because she was going home with dad alone.
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