NO BABY 

Originally published in the Mississippi Review

We cross the border to Georgia for barbecue goat. Jelly has a Ford Fairmont, powder blue, and we’re all piled in the front seat. No one dares try the backseat. Jelly throws all his garbage back there--french fries, soda cans, bills--everything except cigarette butts. In the front, though, he’s got a nice pine air freshener, and that, with the windows wide open, makes it bearable, fragrant even.

"I hate barbecue," his daughter says, loud, like she’s not sitting right on top of us. "It smells dead."

"Suzanna, honey," I say, "you eat barbecue every Friday."

"Not anymore. I’m a vegetarian."

"Since when?" This is news to me.

"Since I wanted to be."

"Did you know about this, JoAnne?" Jelly acts like Suzanna tells me everything.

"News to me," I say.

"Well, talk to her, will you?"

"I figure it’s up to Suzanna to decide what she eats, Jelly."

I am a diplomat. I try not to say a word about Jelly’s backseat, or any of Jelly’s other bad habits, in or out of bed, except where they affect Suzanna. I pick and choose the ones that are likely to screw her up the most. I figure that’s my sworn duty as her godmother, her dead mama’s best friend. It’s not always to her daddy’s liking, but that’s okay. Jelly only hit me once, and I hit him right back.

"You figure it’s up to her what she eats," Jelly says. He has a habit of repeating things I say.

"Yup, up to her."

Suzanna’s so close to me, the sweat on her leg clings to the sweat on my leg. The sweat on her other leg looks to be sticking to her daddy’s shorts. Suzanna’s too big to be in the middle of us, but Jelly won’t clean up that backseat. So she’s sitting between us, still as can be. She’s staring hard out the windshield like there’s something to see out there.

"What you looking at, honey?" I say to her.

"My mama," she says.

"Honey," I whisper. "You got to get over that." I’m hoping Jelly didn’t hear.

"Goddammit, Suzanna, your mother’s not on the I-95 and you know it." Jelly heard.

"She’s on the I-95 if I want her to be on the I-95."

"Tell her, JoAnne. Will you tell her?"

"Where do you see her, honey?"

"She got off that exit."

"She was driving a car?"

"Uh-huh."

"Jesus Christ!" Jelly’s getting all red in the face.

"Jelly," I say. "Suzanna’s just playing her game. Right Suzanna? You know your mama can’t come back from where she went." I can hear her mama’s voice, dead out of air--you stick around for Suzanna, JoAnne.

Suzanna’s still staring out the windshield, but her eyes are waxy dull now, like they’re looking at themselves.

"She’s too old for games, JoAnne."

"I’m a vegetarian," Suzanna says.

"Well, you can eat yourself some coleslaw." I pat her knee. She swats my hand away like I’m a bug, and I think I know what she’s all about. I was twelve once too, I tell myself, and my daddy was as dead as her mama. I’d pretend he’d come back for me, just for me. For a while, every man I saw was my daddy.

The parking lot’s full up, so Jelly parks in the back, right near an old oak tree and a great big pile of bones, chicken, cow, goat, pig, all mixed up together, little pieces of half-chewed meat still hanging on some of them. Right next door, they have a farm where they get those chicken and those goats. The cows, they must come from somewhere else. Over the bite of the barbecue smoke, you can smell the goats, like dirty weeds, and the chickens, like rotten eggs. Together, they make one ugly appetizing scent, flesh on fire.

"I’m gonna have me some ribs tonight," says Jelly. "With just a side of goat."

Suzanna sticks her finger down her throat, and makes a pretend retching noise.

"Do you see this?" says Jelly. "I take this child out for a nice Friday dinner, and she acts like I’m killing her. Like I’m goddamn taking a whip to her behind."

He gets out the car, and I get out the car. Suzanna’s still in there, holding her stomach, like she really did just puke, or still might. I think of how I did it with Jelly that first time after Alice’s funeral, how good he was to us all that next day, even with a hangover. How I kept on doing it, now and again, to keep the peace.

"Suzanna, honey," I say. "You coming?"

She slides over to my side and climbs out. She looks kind of pale, I notice. Her pretty blond hair is flat to her head. "You okay, honey?" I feel her forehead.

"One week to the next she gets it in her head she’s too good for barbecue. Ate herself a nice big slab of goat last week, though, didn’t she?"

Suzanna pushes my hand away. "She feels a little warm, Jelly."

"There’s nothing wrong with that girl a good head doctor couldn’t fix up. How do you think she’d like a nice vacation at the state hospital? Then she wouldn’t have to worry none about barbecue."

Jelly’s almost all the way around the front of the restaurant, but we can still hear him like he’s standing right next to us. I try to take Suzanna’s hand, but she won’t give it to me. Lately, she hoards her hands like they’re candy."C’mon, honey," I say. "You can have yourself some coleslaw."

I hurry to catch up with Jelly. Suzanna’s feet are dragging behind me in the dirt. The breeze is catching the sand her feet stir up and blowing it above us in a big cloud. We’re rushing to catch up to Jelly, making a big cloud.

Bobee’s--that’s the name of the barbecue--is shaped like the letter U, only upside down. We finally get around to the front, and Jelly’s waiting there, holding the door wide open with a disgusted look on his face. "Why does it take women longer to do just about anything?" he says.

"’Cause we do everything better," I say.

He doesn’t have an answer for that. He just rolls his eyes.

"Smells like it’s dead," Suzanna says. I look back at her. She’s watching the path the black barbecue smoke is making in the sky. The sun is going down, making colors. The smoke arches over it.

"Looks pretty, doesn’t it, honey? Like a present." I reach back to take her hand, but she tucks it away.

"It is dead! It’s barbecue! JoAnne, would you please tell that girl it is dead!" Jelly’s still holding the door wide open for us.

"I think she knows that, Jelly." I’m trying to move faster, but Suzanna’s stopped. She’s just staring at the sky.

"It’s dead because it smells that way," she says.

Jelly’s barbecue ribs are all shiny. Bo always cooks up a special glaze, with honey made from those bees that only eat clover, or apple blossoms, and he pastes it on Jelly’s ribs extra thick. Bo and his girlfriend Bee know us like we’re related. They cook up things just the way we like them. We’ve been coming to Bobee’s since before Suzanna was born. I remember sitting in this very same booth when it was painted barn-door red--now it’s green, pine. Alice was eating up a whole chicken so fast, me and Jelly couldn’t believe our eyes. We couldn’t eat ourselves, fixed as we were on watching Alice make that chicken disappear. She was just about eight months pregnant with Suzanna. She looked like some kind of bug, what with her skinny neck, arms, legs all poking out of that big belly. I’m remembering how she hardly took a breath, how when she was done, her mouth was glossy with fat, and a piece of chicken skin hung from the corner of her lip. I’m remembering how Jelly stared at her, like she was an alien, and how I loved the way she sucked at the bones, like she wouldn’t have cared if the President of the United States was watching her.

Jelly’s looking at his shiny ribs like he’s proud of them.

"You remember how Alice ate up that whole chicken?" I say.

Jelly glares at me over his ribs, nods toward Suzanna who has her face practically in her coleslaw, she’s looking at it so close. "JoAnne, let’s not get the child started on that again. Next thing you know she’ll see her mother right there in your mashed potatoes." Jelly starts tearing his ribs apart.

I’m not too hungry for my goat now. It’s not, in my opinion, healthy to hold back your feelings. After Alice died of the cancer last year, I read a whole book from the public library. It was on coping with loss. It’s good, it said, to talk about what the deceased was like. It’s good to remember the good things. I read it cover to cover.

I’m staring over my goat at Jelly, trying to think what to say from that book so he’ll listen. The booth table is so wide, he seems a long way away, like he’s alone on his own island. Suzanna could be right on up next to me, but she’s got herself perched on the very edge of the seat, way out, and while I’m thinking about how to get Jelly to hear me, I’m thinking how to ask her nicely not to put her feet in the aisle, where she might trip someone up. "I don’t think it’ll trouble Suzanna any to hear nice stories about her mama," I say. "Right, Suzanna?" She edges away a little farther. She’s got both her feet way out in the aisle. "Suzanna, honey, watch out that someone don’t trip on you, now."

"You got to be firmer than that with her, JoAnne. She’s no baby anymore."

Suzanna’s already pulled her feet back in. She’s stabbing at her coleslaw with her fork, but she’s not eating any. She’s staring out over the aisle. "What you looking at, honey?" I ask her.

"Don’t be asking her that, JoAnne! You know what she’s gonna tell you! My mama! My mama’s in the grocery store, my mama’s cooking barbecue, my mama’s a goat!"

Jelly slams his hand on the table, and his plate jumps up toward him, his ribs flip. He sighs, loud, like a truck. He takes three or four paper towels from the big roll they give us. He wipes all the sweat from his head, sets the wet towels down near his plate. "Look at me, Suzanna," he says. He’s being a good daddy now. He’s using his best daddy voice--firm, calm, dignified--but Suzanna keeps on staring out over the aisle. I lean forward to see what she’s looking at. In the booth across from us, there’s a couple with a little tiny baby that has a face like a kidney bean. The baby’s perched on the table in one of those infant seats. It’s facing at us, and its eyes are wide open little mouths. I start staring at it, too. Jelly yells this time. "Goddammit, Suzanna! You deaf?"

I can feel Suzanna jump, deep in her skin, like her whole body has a muscle spasm, but she keeps on staring. I can’t blame her--the baby’s face has folded in on itself and turned purple. It draws its fists to its wrinkly cheeks and lets out a violent scream, as if someone has yanked off its teeny fingers one by one. The baby’s daddy sits there kind of stupefied, just holding onto a great big rib and staring at the baby’s big mouth, and the mama, she starts digging through her pink pocketbook for god knows what, and the baby keeps on screeching that slaughterhouse scream.

"Jesus Christ!" Jelly pounds on the table. All three of our ice teas tumble over and rush to the floor. I get a lap full of it. Some of it coats my barbecue goat and mashed potatoes like gravy.

"Now look what she did!" Jelly yells. He’s holding his plate up above his head while I sop up the tea with towels. The stream of tea has forced Suzanna right out of the booth. She’s standing at the end of the table, wiping at her shirt with her bare hand. The mama’s got the baby out of its seat now, but it’s still screaming like it’s just seen the seven horsemen of the apocalypse.

"I can’t do anything with this child. Harlan!" The mother’s got a voice like heavy rain. Harlan--her husband or her boyfriend, I can’t see a ring--has gone back to eating his ribs. "Harlan, take this child. You take this child outside. Harlan!" Harlan doesn’t even look up. I suspect the baby’s made him half deaf.

"Sit down, Suzanna." Jelly’s got his plate back on the table, and he’s tucking a paper towel in his shirtfront, getting settled back in. "JoAnne, tell that girl to sit down!"

Suzanna’s still standing in front of the booth, wiping at her shirt, even though there’s nothing on it. With her head bowed, she looks just like Alice--that takes my breath away. I look at her as long as I can, I look at the fingers long and thin like summer green beans, and the eyelids, robin’s-egg blue, and her round nose, exactly like it was when she was born, almost like there’s no bone in there at all.

"Can’t she shut that baby up?" says Jelly.

Suzanna looks right at Jelly. "You did it," she says. Her voice is lost like a breeze in a hurricane.

"What, honey?" I say. "Did what?"

Suzanna stops wiping at her shirt. "Him." She’s staring at Jelly. Jelly’s making an ugly face at the baby.

"Jelly," I say. "Suzanna’s talking to you."

"I sure could find a way to shut that baby up," Jelly says.

I feel like my eyes are going to turn right inside out, the baby’s screaming so loud. I look up at Suzanna. For a minute, she looks like she might laugh, but then her face goes clean white and she leans down, real close to Jelly’s face. "You made that baby cry! You! You did it!" Jelly tries to inch back, away from her, but she gets closer, looks at him hard. I think he’s going to grab her or push her, and I don’t want him touching her, even if he is her daddy. I start to get up, I start to think of ways to save her, when all at once Suzanna backs up, turns herself around and marches up to the booth across the way. "Give me that baby," she says. The mother is holding the baby out at arm’s length, jouncing it up and down. The baby’s almost black it’s got so much blood in its head from screaming. The mother just looks at Suzanna, the father, he sets down his rib and looks too, and the baby turns its little kidney bean head, the bad blood all floods away from its cheeks, and the screaming stops dead. Suzanna leans over and takes the baby in her arms. She’s cradling it. All I can see is the top of its head over her elbow. It’s sweet soft pink.

"This baby needs some air," Suzanna says. "Some fresh air." She slings the baby up to her shoulder. She walks up the aisle, and right on out the door. The baby’s got a fistful of her hair.

Suzanna’s walking back and forth in front of the restaurant, walking the baby to sleep in the dusk. I can see her when she passes the window. She’s got no expression on her face. The baby’s mama--her name is Ella, she tells us--she says she’s never seen a girl with a touch for infants like that. "Ain’t nobody could shut that child up once it started itself screaming," she says.

Harlan’s and Jelly’s plates are almost clean. Their mouths are all full of food and the fresh ice tea I got from Bee.

"That baby did take a liking to her," I say.

"And she don’t take a liking to no one. Been screaming her head off since the day she was born."

"Before you know it," says Jelly, "she’ll be all grown-up, and won’t eat no barbecue, and be half out of her mind." He’s got a piece of rib stuck between his two front teeth.

Harlan’s wiping his plate clean with his fingers. He sticks the tips of them in his mouth and sucks off the sauce. "I tried to tell her it’s no good having a girl," he says. "But she just calls me a pig. She tells me she’ll get her tubes tied off before she has another baby of mine."

"He’s not kidding," Ella says. I notice she’s hardly touched her food. My goat’s still all in one piece. My appetite’s all gone. "You have yourself any other ones?" She’s looking at me. She thinks Suzanna’s mine.

"She don’t have any," Jelly says. "And she’s not gonna." He’s kind of laughing, like there’s no one else but him who’d do it with me.

I kick Jelly hard in the shin. I’d of never done it with him anyway if it weren’t for Suzanna. "Goddammit!" he yells, clutching at his leg. "Shit!"

Harlan pretends he doesn’t notice, and Ella, she just smiles at no one in particular. I slide down to the edge of the booth and hop out. "I’ll go check on them," I say to Ella. "I need some fresh air myself."

"Baby probably needs her pants changed by now." Ella hands me a diaper from her bag.

When I get to the door, I glance back. Jelly’s eating my food. He’s looking over at Harlan, who’s drawing things with his hands, telling a story. Ella’s got a forkful of potatoes, but she’s just holding it up, nowhere near her mouth. I feel glad to leave them behind.

In the dark outside, the diaper glows, reflects the moonlight and the lightbulb over the Bobee’s sign. Suzanna’s nowhere, not on one side of the barbecue or the other.

"Suzanna!" I call. "Honey!"

Even though the sun’s all gone, the sky’s still orange-like, in splotches, and the barbecue smoke still travels all over it, like roads on a map. The air’s turned cool and damp, and clings loose as saran wrap to everything. I think Jelly’ll have to find someone else to take to bed, I think I’m done with him, at least like that. I’m not Alice, not even when Jelly calls me by her name. Suzanna could tell you that.

"Suzanna!" I call again. I’m walking around to the back of the barbecue. I wonder if she’s gone back inside, but in the orange-y light of the moon I see the edge of something pink. It’s at the foot of the pile of bones, and it makes my heart fall down into my gut and sit there. I walk up closer, right to the edge of the bones. It’s the baby’s blanket, crumpled on the ground like a deflated balloon. I pick it up. I swat the flies from it. It smells of old meat. It makes me want to cry, but I tell myself Suzanna’s just fine. She’s gone back in to give the baby to its mama, doesn’t even know she dropped the blanket. Yes, she’s back in the booth, giving Jelly mean looks. I’m so sure she’s safe inside, I squeeze back my crying and start back around with the blanket to my chest. And then I stop. I hear someone talking. I hear a sweet singsong voice, la la-ing. "Suzanna?" I say.

I tiptoe back to the bones, like I should be hiding myself from that sweet voice, like I shouldn’t surprise it. "Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird," the voice sings. "Lala la lala," it says, to the same melody. I’m following it around the pile of bones. I’m not sure it’s Suzanna. I’ve never heard such a sound come from her. It’s like grapefruit after it’s been sugared. "Suzanna!" I say it louder now, so I’m sure I can be heard. The singing stops.

"What’s the rest of it, JoAnne?" About twenty feet from the pile of bones, Suzanna’s sitting under the arm of an oak. The way the moon catches her, she looks lit from within, like a jack-o’-lantern. The little baby’s just a blob against her, a dark mark. "I can’t remember the rest of it," she says. Her eyes are wet. I can see their shine.

"What’re you doing out here, honey?" I’m standing in front of her, blocking the moon. My heart’s still pressing on my gut.

"I was wrong," she says. She cups her hand over the baby’s bald head, and holds it out toward me. "You see? I was wrong."

I step out of the moon’s way. I need its light to see what she’s showing me, but even with the moonbeam on her and the baby, that’s all I see--just her and the baby. "What, honey? What’re you talking about?"

"Come here," she says. "Come sit here." I go sit on the damp dirt, my back up against the tree’s old roots. "Closer," she says, so I move closer, right up next to her. I even put my arm around her shoulders, and she doesn’t swat it away. She holds the baby out straight in front of us. Its eyes are wide open. It looks surprised. "You see?" she says, but I don’t see.

"What is it?" I say. "Is there something wrong with that baby?"

"Look at her. Really look." Suzanna’s voice is singsong-y again, like she’s trying to remember the melody that goes with her words.

I look, hard. I see the same little kidney bean head, pointy on top, and the eyes, they’ve got no color in the night, they’re see-through. I see the little jello nose, soft, all flesh. The cheeks are silvery pink and around the mouth, pursed up like a fish, fine lines fold over each other, as loose as an old lady’s neck.

"See her?" says Suzanna.

"Well, yes, honey, I see her." I still got my heart on my gut.

"You were right! She wasn’t on the I-95!" Suzanna sounds so happy, I forget it’s Suzanna for a minute. Some other girl’s snug up against me, holding out her baby for all the night to see.

"Suzanna, honey, what’re you talking about?" I can’t figure her.

Suzanna pulls the baby in to her breast, wraps her arms all around it. She looks at me. I can’t see the color of her eyes. They might as well be invisible. "You said you saw her," she says. Her voice is close to the ground, like a burr, disappointed.

"Well, yes, I see her, she’s right there in your arms," I say. I’m getting some kind of burn low in my bowels from the weight of my heart. I’m losing my patience.

Jelly’s voice breaks the air. "JoAnne, where the hell are you?"

Suzanna pulls the baby tighter in her arms. Its head is flat up against her chest.

"Suzanna, honey, be nice and quiet," I say. "And don’t suffocate that baby, now."

Suzanna stands up. She throws a long shadow over me. She’s got the baby even tighter to her, like she might be able to pull it right inside herself. "I would never," she says, "I would never, ever hurt my very own mama!"

"Suzanna, you think that baby’s your mama?" I’m hoping my ears have been fooled. I’m hoping Jelly’s looking around the other side of the barbecue.

"You know this baby’s my mama! You said so yourself! I see her, you said!" She’s yelling like a crow. "This here is my mama come back for me!" Her hand is pressing the baby’s face hard into her body, and the baby’s not making a sound.

"Suzanna, you know that baby’s not your mama, honey." I don’t like to ruin her game, but my heart’s pressing even harder on my insides. I’m thinking the game’s gone far enough. "Why don’t you give me the child, and we’ll go on inside. Your daddy’s looking for us, Suzanna."

"Is that you, JoAnne?" Jelly’s around to our side. He’s coming up behind the pile of bones, his footsteps wide apart, like two different one-legged people are walking.

"Suzanna," I whisper. "Don’t say a word now. Just give me the baby." I’m up close to her. I’ve almost got my hands on the baby.

"Don’t you touch her!" she screams.

"What the hell is going on here?" Jelly’s in front of the bones. He’s leaning his head at us, got his hands on his hips. Suzanna’s backing up toward the field behind the tree, the baby still up against her, quiet. Way out, there’s an animal, a goat maybe, standing still with its head pointed up at the sky, solid black in the moonlight.

"Don’t you come near me!"

"Suzanna, what the hell is wrong with you? JoAnne, what the hell is wrong with her?"

"It’s nothing, Jelly. She just likes the baby, that’s all."

"Liar!" she yells at me. "You’re such a liar!"

"We’ll be right on in," I say to Jelly. "You just let me handle this, and we’ll be right on in."

"You bet your ass you’ll be right on in! You’ll be right on in right now!"

He strides up to Suzanna, and she keeps walking backward, away toward the field. "Where do you think you’re going, little girl?"

"Get away!" she screams. "Get away from us!"

"That’s it! I can’t take you anymore!" Jelly lunges at Suzanna. He grabs her arm in his hand.

She struggles like a cat in water, the baby hard to her ribs. "Don’t touch me! I hate you!"

"Jelly, let her alone." I’m pulling at Jelly, but he’s strong. He’s on Suzanna like glue. He starts dragging her back toward the front of the barbecue. She’s stumbling and kicking up dirt. It stings my eyes. I squint to see the baby’s still tight in one of her arms. Her other arm is flailing out, flapping at nothing like a broken wing. "Jelly, you’re gonna hurt her!" I say, but he doesn’t stop. "Jelly, you’re gonna hurt that baby!"

Jelly drops Suzanna’s arm. "Give me the baby," he says to her.

"No! Don’t you touch her!" Suzanna’s screaming is louder than any noise I’ve ever heard, but the baby’s still quiet, silent, like it might not even be breathing. Suzanna’s crouching over the dirt with the baby pinned beneath her. Jelly yanks at her shoulder, clawing his way to her elbow, grabbing it, twisting. I think I see the baby drop. I’m pushing at Jelly. "Leave her alone, Jelly! Get away from her!" Me and Suzanna, we’re yelling the same thing--"Get away. Don’t touch her!"--and I’m reaching under Suzanna’s skinny ribs for the baby. I’ve got my hands on it. It feels hot and dry as sand underfoot, but slippery too, like a shiny coin. "JoAnne, you give me that child," says Jelly. Before I’ve even got the baby clutched to my chest, he shoves Suzanna away with a slap across her head, and grabs at me. He’s got the baby. He holds it out in front of him. Between his two bear hands, the baby’s body disappears. It’s just a head, just below the moon. It’s a miniature moon, with eyes. It looks calm as the surface of a swimming pool. It looks like it hasn’t noticed that the whole world’s been yanking and tearing and hollering at it. But then it peers real close at Jelly, and makes its eyes into little cracks. Before its mouth flies open and that ungodly scream comes out from it, I swear I can hear the very same noise in the belly of the earth, like it’s a sound all of us are making at one time or another. My heart flies up from its perch on my insides, right into the back of my mouth, where it touches my tongue. The scream from that baby takes the skin of your ear off. Jelly looks like he wants to throw the child, or just plain drop it to the ground, but he swings it under his arm instead. Its feet and arms dangle, and its head flops. "Not a one of you knows when to shut up," he says. He turns, and starts to make his way back up to the barbecue. "At least I can give this one back." He sounds tired, like he means it.

Suzanna’s lying on her side, her face in the dirt. She’s holding her elbow. She’s as quiet as the baby’s loud. "Suzanna, honey," I say. "You okay?" I get down on my knees next to her head to get a good look. Suzanna’s eyes are staring out over the ground. She doesn’t blink, but she doesn’t cry either. "Suzanna?" I touch my hand to her face, and then to the elbow she’s holding. She picks up her head, swats my hands away.

"Honey, it’s time to go. Let’s go get your daddy and go on home. Are you hungry? I’ll make you a nice salad. I’ll pick me a big head of cabbage and mix you up some fresh coleslaw. Or macaroni and cheese. I’ll cook you up some macaroni and cheese. Do you vegetarians eat cheese?"

Suzanna doesn’t say anything, she just stands up. Her hair is all pushed to one side of her head. I reach out to smooth it down, but she hits at me. When I start to walk, she doesn’t move. I have to say "Come on, Suzanna!" and then she follows me like a dog on a leash.

By the time we get to the front of the barbecue, Jelly’s inside. We can’t hear the baby’s screaming anymore. Through the dirty glass double doors to the restaurant, I see that Jelly’s on his way back to the booth. I can see the bottom of baby’s feet dangling under his arm as he turns down one end of the upside-down U.

"I hear vegetarians eat themselves a lot of soybeans. Is that true, Suzanna? Now that’s what they make tofu out of, right? Soybeans, right?" Suzanna’s not saying anything, just following behind me like one of the living dead. When we get inside, I stop right near the gumball machine. "Suzanna, honey, it’s not the end of the world," I say, but I myself don’t know what it is that isn’t the end of world. Suzanna doesn’t even stop to listen, she keeps on walking. She walks right back past the cash register to the ladies’ room door. She pauses outside it for a minute. She gives me a violent look, a long one, and disappears into the bathroom.

When I get to the booth, the baby’s back where it belongs, and Jelly and Harlan are laughing about something, I can’t quite figure what. Ella’s feeding the baby from a bottle that has dancing bears on it. She and the baby look unhappy, their foreheads pinched up in the middle. Nobody seems to notice me standing there, waiting. "Jelly," I say. "I think we should go."

Ella looks up at me. "That man damn near killed my baby," she says.

"What did he do?" I say, nervous. I notice that the side of Ella’s right eye twitches, all on its own.

"He held my baby upside down. He slapped my baby on the rear."

Harlan and Jelly are laughing real hard now, like that’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard.

"Well, she stopped crying, didn’t she," says Harlan, gulping for air between his great big laughs.

I’ve had enough. "Jelly," I say. "Give me the keys."

I don’t think he heard me, he’s laughing so hard.

That’s when Bee taps me on the shoulder. The tips of her fingers are so hard, they hurt me, and I jump, straight up. "Jesus, Bee," I say. "You scared the pants off me."

"Sorry, honey," she says. She smells of grease, and has a smear of barbecue sauce along her cheek. "Don’t mean to alarm you any, but I think you should come on back to the kitchen."

"The kitchen?"

"Your girl," she says.

Jelly hears that and stops his laughing. "You mean my girl, Bee? Is my girl giving you some trouble?"

My insides start burning. The heat is awful. I’m already making my way back to the kitchen, as fast as I can without running. I hear Bee behind me, and Jelly, too. I hear Jelly saying "What’s she done now? Good Christ, I can’t take that child nowhere."

It takes all my weight to push through the kitchen door. It swings open on its huge hinge. Smoke and fat are everywhere. They run up my nose like they don’t know gravity. I see Bo standing near the barbecue pit, a great big pair of black tongs dangling from his hand, his stomach rolling over the edge of his pants, almost to his knees. His eyes aren’t looking at me, they’re looking down, so I’m following their path over the hill of his gut, to the filthy yellow tile under his feet. I keep following the aim of his eyes until I see the butcher block, piled high with fresh red meat, until I see Suzanna, crouched down beneath it, almost buried in its shadow. "Suzanna?" I whisper. She doesn’t look up, and Bo, he doesn’t say a word, he just keeps staring at her. She’s clutching a whole side of raw ribs. Her hands and chin are red with runny blood, and the ends of her blond hair are soaked with it. I hear Jelly and Bee right outside the door, but I can’t look at them when they push through it, I’m looking at my girl, I’m moving at her, slow, I’m saying, "Suzanna, honey, are you hungry? I told you I’d cook you up something nice when we get home. Suzanna, honey, look at me," but she acts like a deaf old dog. She doesn’t look up. I hold her hair back from her face. I cup it in my fist, and with my other hand, I stroke her cheek. She just keeps gnawing at the meat, noisy, far away.

"Well, what the. . ." Jelly doesn’t say anything else but that. He says it over and over. "What the. . ." He’s trailing away like air from a balloon.

I can hear the baby. It’s crying again, that high screeching cry. It’s crying like it wants us. "Suzanna," I say. "Hear that? Your mama needs you, Suzanna. Your mama needs you."