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I froze in the doorway, $10 clutched in my hand, until my daughter wiggled on my hip.
"Bottle," she demanded punching me on the shoulder. That, not Mama, had been her first word, and she used it often. It was eight p.m. and she should have eaten an hour ago, but we'd run out of gas and had to trudge through a blizzard in this bombed-out stretch of neighborhood on the west side of Rockford, Illinois.
"Bebop, be quiet, we'll be home soon," I lied, sliding my own back away from the glass front of the building and across to a rack of roadmaps. I didn't know whether to bend down and try to get a pulse or go back out into the dark, and I kept asking myself, what would my mother do, but she was way too competent for something like this to happen to her in the first place, and this was exactly the kind of situation that made her judge me as inept. There was a pay phone across the lot, but I hadn't seen or heard anyone screeching out into the street, and I'd been staring at the gas station for half a mile as we walked down Auburn Street, willing it to not close before we got there. This meant, to me, that the perpetrator could still be skulking around the building, and if I tried to use the phone, my back would be exposed.
There'd been a series of murders that week, and I knew as soon as I saw this gas station clerk slumped on the floor that I'd walked into another one by the same killer. The day before, an attendant at the EZ-Go Service Station up the street had been murdered, and the day before that, two clerks at Willie Fredd's corner grocery store had each been shot in the head five times. Later that week, two shoppers would be gunned down at a Radio Shack twenty minutes away in Beloit, WI. By the next week, we would learn that the killer's name was Ray Lee Stewart. His own father would turn him in for the reward money, Stewart would get the death penalty, and in 1996, he would be executed.
But that night in January, 1981, I didn't know any of this. All I knew was that I was trapped in a gas station with a dead body and a nine-month-old baby crying for her bottle. I shivered as she squirmed in my arms. She reached over my shoulder with her fat little hand, and I felt the wisps of her hair, light-brown and fine like those on the dead man, brush against my cheek as she grabbed a road map and threw it across the room, where it hit the open cash register. The window rattled as the freezing rain hit the glass and I realized that I could stay in there all night but aside from the weather, we weren't any safer inside than we were out in the parking lot and that sooner or later, someone would show up and at this point, I'd rather it was the police. So I pulled Bebop around to the front of my chest, pushed the door open and staggered back out into the snow.
But the true answer is that I really wasn't ready to be a mother. I was twenty-one when I discovered I was four months pregnant, and while that may not seem criminally young, it had taken me four months to discover this because my husband Greg, a lazy but patient roofer with spiky, dark hair who moonlighted as a drug mule for the Hell's Angels, was bringing home so much speed that I hadn't gotten my periods for almost a year. Right around the time Bebop was born, I had stopped speaking to my mother-a good-looking, no-nonsense brunette who reminded me of Emma Peel from the Avengers: proficient at everything from needlepoint to martial arts, which I was not. She was funny and generous, a great companion for Scrabble games and old movies, and I always felt like nothing truly bad could happen as long as she was around to watch over me, but she couldn't help pointing out how I was to blame when any event in my life went wrong, no matter how trivial the consequences. The last straw was when I asked her for advice on how to get my newborn to sleep through the night and rather than suggest any actual techniques, she'd insisted that I was so completely inept as a mother, that Bebop subliminally understood that it wasn't safe to fall asleep around me. Then she insisted that Bebop and I stay with her for a week so that she could try to undo whatever damage I must have done. To make matters worse, I overheard her telling Greg to keep an eye on me because I wasn't dumb, exactly, I just had no common sense.
So, by the time I discovered I was pregnant, it was too late for a legal abortion and even as self-absorbed as I was, it occurred to me that there was no good reason for a married couple, even Greg and me, to give up their kid for adoption. To my credit, I did give up drinking and drugs and signed up for Lamaze classes as soon as I got the news, but I spent most of the pregnancy smearing my belly with cocoa butter and examining my hips for stretch marks. All I cared about was when I could start drinking again, and how I was going to get my figure back. Greg responded to my badgering about how we were going to afford to raise a child by picking up roofing jobs in Southern Illinois, where it was warmer, making additional runs for the Hell's Angels, and smoking a lot of weed.
But since he was now gone approximately all the time, and I was stone-cold sober and getting fatter by the minute, we did nothing but fight. By the time I was seven months pregnant, I was sick of waddling around with a forty-two-inch belly and he was sick of hearing me complain about how the baby bruised the inside of my ribs and smashed my internal organs flat with her kicking. But still, that was no reason for him to out me to the Lamaze instructor, Martha, a fidgety redheaded nurse in her mid-thirties with plastic glasses and three chins, who was a rabid fan of breastfeeding.
"Does anyone have questions?" she'd asked the eight couples assembled around the long, Formica-topped table with the "Breast is Best" signs hovering over us. I almost stabbed Greg in the neck when he raised his hand.
"My wife drinks a six-pack of Coke a day and I can tell the baby has hiccups," he said to everyone, ignoring my kick on his shin. "And I think that all that caffeine is probably making it nervous and all that carbonation is probably giving it gas."
It was this exact attitude in Lamaze class that led to our eventual divorce, but he had a point. I wasn't about to admit this in front of Martha, though, or the other couples, all of whom were at least ten years older than I was and who had already, I could tell, begun to judge me because they saw me lighting up a cigarette every week as we pulled out of the parking lot. I was a little ashamed that they'd pegged me as trailer trash, but I quietly judged them, too, and their eagerness to join the club of dull moms whose conversation revolved around the feeding, sleeping, and pooping habits of their kids. I was only twenty-two by then, and I'd decided that I wasn't going to change anything about myself just because I was about to be a mother, and that I would never, EVER, use the phrase "going down" to refer to my kid's nap rather than my husband's activity around my vagina.
"You JERK!" I snarled in a whisper that he pretended not to hear. How dare he complain about me when he's out snorting coke with the Hell's Angels?
All of Martha's chins began to wobble as she nodded at me. "You should give up cola now," she said. "You certainly won't want that in your system when you're breastfeeding."
I was debating whether or not to ask Martha if that would be better or worse than the kid getting a contact buzz from her dad's rampant weed-smoking when Greg popped in with, "Well, she's not breastfeeding. She wants to wear a bikini this summer and she's afraid it will ruin her tits."
Martha began zipping and unzipping her sweater as the other couples collectively swiveled their necks to stare at me and my rampant selfishness. "I can't believe you don't realize how much more nutritious mother's milk is for the baby than" -- Martha paused for emphasis -- "CANNED formula."
"She eats Doritos for breakfast," Greg continued, glaring at me, his dark eyes narrowing. "I don't think that's so healthy for the baby."
"And she smokes," chimed in one of the nebbishy dads-to-be from the end of the table.
Martha made eye contact with everyone in the group except for me. "Well, maybe," she said, "in THIS case, formula might be a better choice." It was, I am sure, the first and last time she ever made that statement.
So I was going to get to keep my tits, but as Martha moved on to the next question, I could see the other parents sneaking sidelong glances at me and I knew they already felt sorry for my kid.
I wondered, a week after Bebop was born, what Martha and those other couples would say if they'd seen me almost drop her on her head at three in the morning when I fell asleep on the couch while feeding her a bottle of, yes, formula. And I thought about them again and how they'd judge me the night that my husband and I split up.
Greg had just returned home from Mexico, where he'd brought back something like ten kilograms of heroin, most of which was shoved into our freezer. He had smoked a joint while I unpacked his suitcase and we'd gone to bed at ten, but I'd had to get up at midnight with Bebop, who was nine months old by then and teething. I was crabby because it was my mother's birthday and even though I missed her, my feelings were still too hurt to call her or send her a card. I was also exhausted because while Greg enjoyed playing with Bebop and never lost his temper with her, he was the kind of dad who passed her right back to me as soon as she got fussy. I gave her a teething biscuit to gnaw on, but she just kept whining, so I finally rubbed some Jack Daniels onto her gums, poured a few shots for myself and brought her into bed with us. I passed out and didn't feel her climbing up onto my back like a little possum, where she fell asleep, too. Everything was fine until I rolled over and Bebop flew off my back, screaming through the air till she hit the wood floor.
She was fine, it turned out, as she always was despite me. But Greg, who wasn't happy about being woken up, started yelling.
"I'm afraid to leave town half the time because I never know what'll happen to my kid if I'm not there to watch you," he shouted, stomping in his boxer shorts to the bathroom for a glass of water.
I cuddled Bebop into my chest and kissed her sore head. "You think I'm a bad mother?"
"Look, even your own mother thinks you could use some help."
I jumped off the bed. "You talked to my MOTHER behind my back?"
"She only wants to help," he said quietly, running his hands through his flat-top.
"YOU don't help me," I yelled.
"I'm trying to make money," he said. "And I never wanted kids. And you're the mother. It's your responsibility, not mine."
That did it.
"You know what? I want a divorce," I said. I stomped into Bebop's room to put her in her crib, and it broke my heart when I realized that she was safer alone in her own bed than she was with me.
Greg slept on the couch that night, and when I got home from work the next day, his clothes were gone. He called a few days later to give me his new phone number, but by then, I'd gone out and gotten a second job. He said that he missed Bebop but that he couldn't take her with him, since he was always leaving town for work. I didn't answer my phone for a week, afraid that if I picked up, it would be my mom or Greg. I was trying to prove that I didn't need anyone's help. But I realized that night -- two weeks into our separation-- on my way to the Laundromat, even before I ran out of gas but around the time I discovered I'd forgotten Bebop's bottle, that I was failing.
"I can't talk because I just discovered a murder and the killer might still be here, but I need you to pick me and Bebop up at the Clark gas station at Auburn and Kilburn right now," I told him.
I heard an exasperated sigh. "Christ, Julia, what the fuck is wrong with you?"
I wanted to slam down the phone but I didn't have anyone else to call. My mother? I didn't want to speak to her till I was on top of the world and could rub her nose in it, and tonight was definitely not that night.
"Can you please just come?" I pleaded. "The car's out of gas and the police are on the way but I don't want to walk home with the baby in this blizzard."
My kid had commenced to howling. I didn't want to go back into the gas station -- after all, there was a dead man on the floor and who knew if the killer was hiding in the bathroom? But Bebop needed something to eat, and as we walked back up to the building to wait for the police, I saw through the plate glass window that there were a couple of vending machines I hadn't noticed before, along the side wall across from the counter -- one for cups of pop and coffee; the other for snacks. Bebop didn't have too many teeth yet, so, true to my white trash roots, I bought her a Hostess Twinkie for dinner, which at least seemed less likely to choke her than a candy bar or chips.
She was contentedly gumming her Twinkie when a dozen squad cars careened into the parking lot, sirens blaring, lights flashing -- the first set of cops leaping out and running into the gas station without even slamming their doors.
The detective arrived at the same time as my husband, who snatched Bebop out of my arms, his heavyset frame quivering with aggravation. I snatched her back, handed him my keys and asked him to go get her car seat so that the police I was getting to know wouldn't feel compelled to arrest us for illegally transporting the kid on my lap.
The snow had stopped completely, but the temperature had plunged to 30 below by the time the detective finished asking me questions and Greg returned. Shivering, we strapped Bebop into the back seat and she fell asleep as soon as he started the car, which is when I started crying. It was 1:00 a.m. and I was going to have to get up in four hours to get to work. I was also going to have to wear a dirty, frozen uniform to my second job as a waitress, because the laundry baskets were in the trunk of my car and the Laundromats had closed while I was busy running out of gas.
"Do you think," I sniffled, as we pulled out of the parking lot behind a patrol car that was cruising slowly down the street, "that we could come home with you instead?"
"You've had a rough night," he sympathized, his dark eyes softening as he put his arm across the back of the long bench seat.
"Maybe if you were around a little more, we could have worked this out," I suggested, unbuckling my seat belt to scoot closer to him.
He retracted his arm. "You should have thought of this before you told me to leave."
"Maybe I made a mistake," I offered, and took his hand.
He pulled off onto a residential street and we sat and watched a few squad cars circle around the block while Bebop snored in the back seat, snuffling through what sounded like a dream.
Finally, he let go of my hand and leaned back against his window, shaking his head.
"This sounds like an attempt at regeneration," he said. "And if we learned one thing from zombie movies and Stephen King novels, it's that regeneration is not a good thing."
I know I shouldn't have done what I did next, but I was desperate. I leaned over to put my arms around him, thinking that maybe if we started kissing, I could talk him into taking us home with him, at least until I could figure out what else to do. But he saw it coming and pushed me away with both hands.
"Don't," he said, but he said it with some sadness. "It's too late for that."
And I realized then that he was through with me. But I was going home to an empty house on a freezing January night with a serial killer on the loose. And goddamn it, I was only twenty-three years old. If I was going to get through this and not fuck up completely, I needed help. I turned to my soon-to-be-ex-husband.
"I want my mom," I said.
He nodded his head and shifted the car into gear. And as the snow fell quietly around us, he drove me to her house.
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