She doesn't respond when I babble, nor repeat the names of the various foodstuffs I name, nor does she point and make demands as I observe the other children doing. She watches, however; her senses are alert. I tell myself she's a member of a tiny subculture of Americans, one in which the parents murder their children, usually before the age of five, and so I can't really expect her to respond as these others do, any more than I would expect an adopted Korean child to speak English right away or use a fork.
We pay for the food, $94.86, which seems like a lot, and is probably more than I used to spend on food in six months. The checkout clerk is a man and is not interested in cute little girls; a good thing to remember- avoid motherly-seeming checkers.
Back at our place, I stow away the foods, I cook, we eat. She stays with me while I prepare the meal, watching, on a chair. Since I took her, we have not been out of sight of each other. We even leave the bathroom door open. A bit like life in an African village. I cut up her fish and squoosh her potato up with butter and salt. She seems unfamiliar with any implement other than a spoon. I suspect finger foods and cereal have constituted the bulk of her diet, when she got a diet at all. I demonstrate the use of the fork, and she imitates me. She eats slowly and finishes every bit on her plate. Ice cream seems to be a revelation. She finishes a scoop, and when I ask her if she wants more, she nods solemnly.
After dinner, I wash up and I place her on a chair and show her how to dry and put the dishes on the wooden dish rack. While I wash, I sing a little song the Olo women sing when they pound karite nuts. The words are quite naughty, as might be expected in a song associated with a process that involves thrusting a long thick pestle into a deep mortar about a million times. It has an almost infinite number of verses; I suppose I learned a few hundred in my time there. I often run through them in my head at work, as I have found nothing better to pass the time during a necessary but tedious occupation. I work as a medical records clerk, a job that compares in many ways to pounding karite nuts.
The child drops a cup on the floor with a clatter. I stoop to retrieve it and I see that she has thrown her arms over her head and is cringing, bent-kneed, awaiting the blow. I approach her carefully, speaking softly. I tell her it doesn't matter, it's just a cup, the handle has broken off, but we can use it as a flowerpot. I rummage an avocado pit from the trash and suspend it by toothpicks in the cup. I let her fill the cup with water. I describe how the new avocado tree will grow, and how it will be her tree. She lets me stroke her hair and hug her, although she's stiff in my arms, like a store mannequin.
There is a scratching at the door. I open it and Jake strolls in, as if he owns the place, which in a sense he does. I put the broiling pan on the floor and he licks the fish grease out of it and then goes over to the child and licks her hands and face. She grins. This is the only situation in which she smiles, a tiny sunrise. I get out a ginger snap and give it to her. She feeds Jake. I kneel down beside the two of them and hug Jake and the child together.
Enough of that. I finish the dishes while Jake tries to teach the girl how to play. Jake is a German shepherd-golden retriever mutt, one of several miscellaneous beasts supported by my landlady, who lives with her two kids in the house of which my garage is an outbuilding. Her name is Polly Ribera. She is a fabric artist and designer. The house is a divorce settlement from Mr. Ribera, who lives in L.A. and never appears. He is something in media. We are cordial, but not friends. Polly believes everyone can improve themselves, starting by listening to her advice, and she was put off when I did not welcome her attention. I pay my rent on the first of the month and fix what breaks in my apartment and am very, very quiet, so she is glad to have me as a tenant. She thinks I am a sad case, like the abandoned animals she shelters. When we happen to pass, or when I come to pay my rent, she tries to cheer me up a little, for she thinks my problem is men. That is her problem. She makes risqué comments, and I pretend to be flustered and she laughs and says, "Oh, Dolores!"
The foregoing is excerpted from Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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