Tuesday
Oct062015

Slower

Sara Levine


 

When Andrea and I were looking for a condo—for the millisecond we thought we might be able to buy—we mentioned the Stinn Park neighborhood to our agent, who pushed her purple glasses up on her nose and said, "Stinn Park? You're thinking of Stinn Park? No, no. It's very noisy."

I'm not sure if we dropped that agent or she dropped us, but after Andrea got her paralegal job and started drinking Mai Tais with lawyers, she explained to me that "noisy" is code for "black." "That was against the law. That's what's called steering. We could have turned that lady into the Better Business Bureau!" Which confuses me, because now that we live in Stinn Park, I know: It is noisy. People holler on their porches, idle their cars, play loud music, and call the police, sometimes on themselves. We moved here in June. But Andrea isn't half as mad at the agent as she is at me. She thinks it's my fault we never bought.

Once we realized we didn't have enough for a down payment, Andrea's uncle offered us the bottom floor of a house.  It's one of Marvin's investment properties. Andrea was eight months pregnant, so it seemed a good idea at the time.

"My last tenants," Marvin said when he gave us the keys, "they mark the walls, they crap the floor, they come and go like crazy. Drugs on the porch, who knows what in the garage. I should pay you for keeping a clean house in the neighborhood." (Almost clean. Since the baby, I've been selling a little weed on the side. Nothing much, but enough to keep us in diapers.) After I pocketed the keys Aunt Lonnie said, "Marv, aren't you going to drive them there? Marv, drive them there."

"They're not kids, they know the address."

He doesn't like to come round much. He has business on the north side, which is why I collect the rents and save him the trouble of coming into the neighborhood. He owns four houses on the block.

So I go door to door with Sylvie in this nifty carrier that you strap on so the baby rides on your chest, a big chunky badge of human. I love that thing. We walk down the cracked weed-tufted sidewalk, our hearts beating as one, and I imagine what it was like for Andrea when she was pregnant.

"Hard to sleep, hard to move, hard to think, that's what it was like being pregnant. And where was my glow?"

"You had a glow," I say, but she insists she had fat, constipation, and acne. Andrea, my lovely girl, why so brittle? We used to smoke a doobie and watch the waves at the lake. She loved that I wasn't a hard-driving Type-A like her dad, but then we had the baby and she was like, wake up, where are we gonna get some money? Her dad made his money in cardiac stents.

She's pissy when I let things around the apartment slide—if I forget to empty the bucket by the toilet (which drips) or don't pick up salad (it's a long walk)— and she says it makes her crazy, the way the baby slows me down. Not that I was ever such a fast-paced person. When the boss at The House of Lights said, "David, say the word and I will train you as assistant manager," I said, "thanks but I'm a sales guy, in at ten and out by five," and later when the boss said, "David, you're a smart guy, please be in charge of inventory for all ceiling fixtures," I said, "Mr. Bahrami, all due respect, maybe just give me flush-mount." I fought for the right to stay easy-going, is what I'm saying. I'm no go-getter.  

But since I became Sylvie's primary caretaker (about five minutes after she was born, when Andrea thrust her to me and said, "Find some fuckin formula, I have had it"), my ginormous love for Sylvie branched out to places I didn't think love could go, and baby love makes me slower and slower. I think the secret to the kid thing, not that anybody asks me, is slowing down your impulses so you don't mind hanging out. Though Andrea says, "Get any slower and you're going to be a puddle of syrup."

It's that kind of comment that make me wonder if she loves me anymore. That and the fact that she's slept with a pillow between her legs since second trimester. Andrea's love is a whisky bottle on which I made a mark, and every day when I check the mark, that whisky is a little bit lower. 

After I put Sylvie to sleep, I smoke a joint, watch TV, and wait for Andrea to come home. Today Andrea comes home at half past two because it's Friday. Fridays she drinks with the lawyers. Sometimes also Thursdays, Saturdays, and Mondays. When she gets in, I'm in my boxers, dipping my finger into a bowl of microwaved mashed potatoes, and she shakes her head.

"What?" I say.

"Just look at yourself."

Saturday we stagger our breakfasts. I wake up with Sylvie at five, but I have a second coffee with Andrea at nine, at which point she says, "What are you trying to prove, not showering?" That's the other thing, the lawyer lingo gives her a new kind of hardness.

"I haven't been trying to prove anything," I say.

She snorts and takes her mug into the bedroom.

We spend the rest of the weekend hanging around, doing errands, and sniping at each other, just like a family. I kiss Sylvie's head so often Andrea says it's creepy, but I'm like, okay, whatever, we can't both be tough cookies. I ask her not to yank Sylvie's legs whenever she changes her onesie, and she tells me to stop "talking down" to Sylvie: "You're a cooer," she says. By Sunday night we're both foul. I put Sylvie to bed and flop down next to Andrea on the futon.

"This weekend was awful," I say. "Why do we fight over little things?"

"It's terrible. You're getting nicer and I'm getting meaner."

She puts her feet in my lap so I can rub them.

"Maybe you should hold Sylvie more," I suggest. "Or put her to bed sometimes."

She snorts. "Yeah, when you loosen your grip."  

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing."

I stop kneading her feet.

"Do you realize," she says with a big shuddering sigh, "nobody else our age has babies?"

I've heard this gripe before: if we'd "planned" it better, if she had the chance to "do it over." She never got her jewelry-making business off the ground, but Andrea had years to learn to solder, and what she really liked was to get high and make the same Celtic necklace over and over. Plus she's wrong about the age of other parents. I just think about the people on this block.

"Except for the Forrests, all the parents are the same age or probably younger. And your cousin Shayna—"

"Oh, geez," Andrea snaps. "I mean real people. At the law firm everyone is thirty at least. And that bitch with the Manolo Blahniks and the Chinese baby girl is forty."

I get out Andrea's favorite bong, the hand-blown fatty we call Billy Bong Thornton, and advise her to relax. "It's Sunday night and why are we bottle-feeding if you're not going to cut loose now and then?"

Andrea says no thanks, she's giving up the dope. Last week when we smoked she just went round and round in her head about everything that sucks about our lives. I'm like, thanks. She's like, you're welcome. Then she's like, Where do you get off acting like I'm a bad mother? I say, When do I act like that? and she says, 'Why are we bottle-feeding,' and 'maybe you should hold her more' and glares at my mouth like it's evidence for the court.  

"You're paranoid," I say. "You're right, stick to the Mai Tais."

"You can hold her all day," she mutters. "Gives you an airtight excuse to do fuck-all else."

That's basically how we say good night.

The next day is Rent Day. I load up Sylvie and go upstairs. I'm on a first name basis with our neighbor, Dennis Borerer, which is lucky since I have no idea how to pronounce his last name. Dennis has a head like a pale luminous egg and a PhD in musicology, which I know because he cornered me once on the stairs and confessed as if the higher degree were a sexual disease.

"I don't use it now!" he said.

He teaches piano and I assume he's a Christian because twice he's said, "Life got you down? Let prayer lift you up!" even though I never said life has gotten me down. Though it has. He regards Sylvie as a gift from Jesus but can't make eye contact with her. Today he answers the door in a yellow shirt and coral pants. Sylvie, who likes shiny things, swats at the cubic zirconium stud in his ear.

"Come for the rent, my friends?" Dennis Borerer and I have a special kind of bond, one I don't like, which is the bond of being the only two white guys on the block.

I nod and try to look gruff.

He hands over a damp check. "May you have a beatific day!"

We escape from the building as if from a bad smell and move down the block.

Eloise Johnson is out front at her house, leaning on a broom. "How come I never seen that baby's mama? You give birth to that baby out your head?"

"A working woman, Eloise."

"I know, Davey. I'm just playing with you."

On her porch is a young man I've never seen before wearing a tee shirt and harem pants printed with Betty Boop's visage.

"That my nephew. He home from college."

What college? I wonder but don't ask. He's screaming into his cell phone, being disrespected, it appears, by someone named Peaches.

"Lovers' quarrel." Eloise fingers Sylvie's balled fist, coaxing out her lovely fingers. "You ever need a break, you know you can leave this baby with me! Baby, you can play with my babies," Eloise coos to Sylvie. "You can play with Troy."

Troy is a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound fifteen year old who sprawls on the porch with a set of headphones on his head and a faraway look in his eye. Since Sylvie was born I see love like a caul on even the angriest creatures. Everybody is somebody's baby, but Troy left his babyhood a long ways back, like maybe in another universe. I sell him weed so I know.

"Thanks, Eloise. I might take you up on it."

She fishes the rent envelope out of her own mailbox.  

"Tell the mister I said the ceiling."

"I will. I did."  

The next three tenants aren't home, only their kids, but they wouldn't pay if they were home. Whatever. I make a note for Marvin. The Forrests I save for last.  Mr. Forrest works at the S & C Electrical Company. I see him early mornings when he's off to work and he always tips an imaginary hat to me and Sylvie. They play Jùjú music nonstop and collect spindly brass sculptures and when Mrs. Forrest opens the door, their place smells like apple candles and Elmer's glue. The girls push aside a mess of crayons, paper, and pipe cleaners to make space for Sylvie on the rug.

"She got bigger!" Asha says. "Don't crowd," Malawi says and she bends down and says hello to Sylvie, looking straight in her eyes. "Aooo," says Sylvie and wags her hands.

Pretty soon the sisters are laughing and elbowing each other, and when they knock into Sylvie, Mrs. Forrest says, "Careful, girls," and Sylvie laughs too. She likes the contact; child is her own species. In fact, I have never seen her so happy as she is at the Forrests.

But the Forrests are three months in arrears.

"Tell them it's outs," says Marv next weekend at his house, over bagel and shmear.

"Uncle Marvin, the Forrests are your nicest tenants."

Andrea casts me a dubious look. She thinks I am going soft.

I try a new tack. "And you know what? You move the Forrests out, you don't know who else might move in."

"Something else." Marvin wipes his fingers on his napkin, produces a crumpled Filene's shopping bag. "I've thought about it and I want you to wear a yarmulke."

"A yarmulke? I'm not religious."

"Just for when you collect the rent. It's harder to say no to a spiritual man."

I almost choke. "Marv, I'm not sure you've thought this through. The Forrests have kids."

"Kids? And I don't have?"

Marv and Lonnie have a son who sells stocks in New York and a daughter who owns a gelato franchise in the suburbs. Last winter they sent their parents on a Windstar cruise in the Caribbean.

"Just get the rents." Out of the shopping bag he takes a shiny blue skullcap and a pleather Torah. "The keepaw does the work."

When we hit the doorstep, Andrea, who's been joking around all through the meal, shuts me out, like she's pulling a shade over a window. She doesn't talk the whole drive home, just throws occasional glances at Sylvie to see if she's asleep. Two minutes before I pull up to our crappy apartment, Sylvie does fall asleep, her sweet head heavy as a poppy drenched with rain.

I volunteer to sit in the car with her while she naps. Andrea doesn't get out.

"Listen," she says, "I want you to wear the yarmulke."

I tell her no way. "I skipped the bar mitzvah, I'm not faking religiosity now. And besides, Sylvie goes with me on the rent run. Babies know things."

"I'm tired of you and your sad sack arguments. What a sweet deal it is to be you!"

"Andrea, what's the argument for the yarmulke?"

"We owe him!" She pinches my arm, then opens the passenger door, throws one leg onto the street, and stops cold. Our neighbor Troy is on the sidewalk in the long-leashed company of a forty-pound pit bull who is scrabbling eight feet up a tree.

"Jesus fucking Christ." Andrea gets back in the car.

I get out and nod to Troy as the dog shimmies up and down the trunk. After it does that about six times, it wriggles into the crown and stays there, kind of nestled in its branches. Rock a bye baby.  

"Shit, Troy, is that what I think it is?"

"Pit bull, yeah," he says with the softest, proudest look I've ever seen on his face.  "Belonged to my uncle."

"Lots of kids on this street. You worried at all? I heard—"

"Dog is trained," says Troy and calls the dog down. It runs halfway down the tree and bounds like a panther into the grass. I trot back to the car and settle down under Andrea's glare. I shrug.

"Okay," I say. "I've never seen Troy stand up, let alone be that excited. This is probably a great thing for him, get him off the porch, out walking. Dogs like that need a lot of exercise."

"You know that guy?" Andrea says.

"It's Eloise's kid. I collect the rent there. And also," I say, trying to sound casual, "he's a client."

She says if I even think about taking Sylvie near that savage dog she will personally have me eviscerated and then divorce me.  

"Divorce my memory?"

"All of you!" she yells. "Your stinking remains!"

In the backseat Sylvie sleeps on, the mucus rattling in her tiny nostrils. Cute as she is, she sounds like a thunderstorm rolling in. I mention my worry about this congestion, which she's had maybe for two weeks, and Andrea says it's probably the mold.  

"This is so fucked up," she says. "If we had two jobs and no baby we could be living in a decent apartment as opposed to a rathole and not be putting our baby's health at risk!"

"But then we wouldn't have a baby—"

"Oh shut up, you wanker," she says.  

 

The next day I put on the yarmulke—"Look, Sylvie, Daddy's wearing a hat"—and still holding the pleather Torah, whose pages I have not cracked, I knock on the Forrests's door.

The door swings open and reveals Mr. Forrest Senior, an old tortoise in a green cardigan sweater and unintentionally hip, oversized glasses. He can't hear very well.

"Hi!"

"All right," he says, grinning, "and yourself? They's all in the back. Come on in!"

"I wasn't going to stay. I'm here for my uncle."

Malawi and Asha sit with the baby on the rug, and take turns holding her. Sylvie smiles and smiles. Then Mrs. Forrest who said once I could call her Grace, but I just can't do it, says she's sorry they don't have the money, and I say I totally understand and pull the satiny hat off my head and chuck it in my pocket. Asha says, "What's your book? Is it a Bible?" and glumly I hand it over.  

"It ain't got no pages! Naw, wait, it's glued shut," she says.

Shame ripples from my feet to the roots of my hair, like that keepaw was on too tight. "You know what? Mr. Cohn can spot you the rent this month. Just get it next month, he said."

Mrs. Forrest nods and sinks back in her chair. "He's a good man," she says, but blankly, without conviction. "He was supposed to fix the toilet last week, can you remind him? And we've got mold in the back bedroom. I've scrubbed and scrubbed."

"I'll remind him."

That afternoon, before Andrea comes home from work, I put six hundred dollars of my drug money in an envelope and mail it to Marvin, marked "Forrest." He calls the next day.

"I have cash in my hands. Did the outfit work, or did the outfit work?"

"The Forrests need the plumber," I say.  

"Don't I know it? I told her, I'd take care of it."

"A few other tenants mentioned things."

"So send me a list."

"Listen, where did you get that book?"

"Why? Is something wrong with it?"

"It doesn't open is what's wrong with it."

"You think I'd trust you with my mother's Bible? I got it at a prop shop," he says and laughs in his throat. 

 

The toilet still drips. A gutter falls. A wet patch appears on the bedroom ceiling, which might or might not bear some relation to the activities of Dennis Borerer, and late night when I'm waiting up for Andrea, a rat slithers under the fridge while I'm rolling joints at the table. The rat is the last straw. What if a rat bit Sylvie? She plays on the floor, and I can't be watching her every minute.

I call Marvin's cell and ask him again for help. I'm very careful not to give him our whole list, just the essentials. "Nephew-in-law," he says, "you live rent-free in my house and you call about repairs? No offense, but what do you do all day that you can't get off your butt and plaster a tiny piece of a free house?"

I see his point. But I have no plastering skills. I can't do gutter repair without going up on the roof and don't want to carry Sylvie up there or leave her unattended. Eloise offered to babysit, but that was before Troy got the dog. Could I leave her on a blanket? What about the rats?

"You work it out," says Andrea. "This is your responsibility. What else do you actually do, besides itty-bitty dealing?"

Sylvie starts fussing and I take her into her room and turn on the clown lamp Mr. Bahrami gave us when I left. Seven dancing clowns whose balloons light up. We roll around and look at the buttery shadows on the wall for an hour. It's a nice hour, though hard to describe.

Slow.

After I give Sylvie a bottle, she conks out and I sit on the futon to check my email. Somebody, with a do-not-reply address, has sent me a digital video of Andrea dancing at the office party. She or someone who looks awfully like her is giving a grey-haired suit a lap dance. I can see the tattoo on her lower back she got when she was sixteen, just to drive her parents nuts. Her friends at the time were getting hearts and butterflies, but hers says 'quitter.' My first thought is, She would die if she saw that movie, because she hates that tattoo, it embarrasses her completely. My second thought is how when Sylvie was born, the anesthesiologist denied Andrea an epidural just in case she got a spinal infection from the ink, but my third thought is that I want to kill myself immediately, so I call her at work and she says, yeah, ha ha ha, she's seen the movie, all the paralegals dance, it's expected, do I think she racked up the big bonus by sitting on her hands and licking envelopes? She says I am naïve about the way the world works and I fail to appreciate the way she has grown as a person and if it were up to me, she would still be selling beads at the String-a-Strand, and then she intimates that for many weeks she may be too angry to fuck me. I say, Okay, that's the future, but what's your excuse for the last five months? She hangs up.

When she comes home, she doesn't speak. She eats salad out of a bag and then goes to bed wearing her fleece sweat suit.

Next day Sylvie and I go out for a walk. We live near Stinn High School, a sprawling, yellow brick fortress of a school, a real prison house, which I make a point of avoiding on account of somebody I know who taught at Stinn for six weeks and had a nervous breakdown. Now he fixes motorcycles in his yard. 

Whenever I think about Stinn I get heavy-hearted and sad, like a man being shot at with a dozen arrows, or like I'm on an island and this message washes up in a bottle: "GET OUT, GET OUT!" I grew up in a small town where we played kickball until it got dark, there were forty-five kids in my high school class, and the only really bad thing I remember happening is in sixth grade Arnie White made everyone smell a piece of poop on a stick. How innocent is that? I just can't imagine Sylvie going to Stinn. I want her to go to a school she can walk to herself, carrying a vinyl backpack shaped like a butterfly.

"High school you're worried about?" says Andrea. "Let's see if she makes it to preschool."

It's three p.m. which is a bad hour to go out, I never do my collections or my own deals at three, but we need bread, so I load Sylvie into the carrier and we make it all right until on the way back, four feet from our own front door, a pack of teenage boys comes roving by. They're like an octopus, gangly I mean, each boy a tentacle snapping out, and I step aside, off the pavement, to give them room, and one of them hollers out "dumb motherfuckin bitch!" and throws a potato chip bag at me. It grazes Sylvie's brow and drops to the sidewalk where it glints in the afternoon sun. The boys glide on.

Eloise sees the incident from her porch.

"No manners." She shakes her head. "No home training."

Throwing garbage at a baby! I'm pretty shaken up. What kind of shit is that? I ask Eloise. What, are they animals? Maybe with this word "animals" I go too far.

Her eyes narrow. "They children," she mumbles and goes into the house. Troy's dog barks like crazy when she closes the door.

Next day, I strap on Sylvie and trudge upstairs and knock on Dennis Borerer's door.

"Is it true?" Dennis says, poking his pink face through the door. "Is your uncle selling?"

I don't know what he's talking about.

"Condos," he clarifies. "I heard condos. But that's a joke, we're too rundown to renovate. Probably he's going to sell all his buildings to someone who'll demolish them. Then he'll build single-family homes."

"Dennis, he hasn't said a thing…"

"Which would explain why he never bothers to repair anything. Run it down and tear it up."

Behind him his apartment looks like the evil twin of ours. Same layout, same mildewy smell. I smell the oatmeal he made in the microwave, maybe his last thirty bowls of oatmeal.

Dennis clutches my wrist. "David, don't lie to me! I've lived here eleven years. People need to prepare, you know. Is he going to throw us out?"

"I'll ask him. I promise. Do you want anything else?"

He shakes his head. "I quit the dope, smoking makes me paranoid. I'm using herbal tea to relax. Don't forget your uncle!"

"I won't, Dennis."

But when I call Marv he isn't in, so I leave a message saying, "Are you selling the investment properties? Some of the tenants have questions."

No response.  

 

On Saturday Andrea's parents drive out from their western suburb. They haven't seen Sylvie for two months, and they've never seen our Stinn Park place. I start stacking newspapers and folding baby clothes, but Andrea shoots me a freezing glance.

"Leave it."

"Aren't you worried what your parents will think?"

"I don't see why you're starting now."

They arrive mid-morning, Mrs. B explaining right away that she skipped her water aerobics class to get here. She takes a class at eight and then has a massage at nine. Mr. B. wants breakfast, even though Mrs. B says they just ate. Andrea wanders into the kitchen, her mother at her heels, and says she'll make coffee. "I hope you like stale bread," she calls over her shoulder.

Mr. B shrugs and sits down on the futon. I'm sitting across from him, holding Sylvie, but he's not really looking, though Sylvie squirms and makes her newest noise, kind of a cross between a pterodactyl and a raspberry. After a while, he focuses.

"Babies," he says.

"They're very interesting," I say.

He nods.

"Do you want to hold her?" I say.

"Later."

I put Sylvie down on the floor with some of her softie toys.

Mr. B picks up a ball and throws it. "Go get it, go get it, girl!" The ball rolls under the dusty coffee table.

"She can't get a ball yet, Harv," Mrs. B says, back from the kitchen. She swoops down and heaves Sylvie into her lap like one of her corgis. She smiles and starts waving Sylvie's arms like a puppet. 

"Oh my, oh my," she says in a squeaky voice. "Look at this room! Do I live here? Is that my daddy! Where is Mommy? Let me say hi to my grandpa! Hi, grandpa! Look up, Grandpa!"

"You missing the light business, David?" Mr. B says abruptly. "Keeping your hand in, anyway?"

"Not really."

Andrea comes in. "It wasn't that kind of business, Dad. He worked sales."

"Excuse me for mentioning the smell," says Mrs. B, letting the baby's arms fall. "But aren't you using the Diaper Genie I sent you?"

Andrea smiles bitterly. "Mom, it's the apartment you smell. You're smelling rental."

"We rented an apartment for two years when we first got married, and it did not smell like this, I assure you."

Mrs. B pokes around and discovers the mold in the kitchen. She notes the bucket under the toilet to keep the water from dripping on the already-warped floor. "Harvey, look at this," says Mrs. B, and he gets up and steps over Sylvie as if she were a shoe. Mr. and Mrs. B scrape around like two detectives and decide that in addition to a serious mold problem, the apartment is painted in lead-based paint: the walls, the doors, the kitchen cabinets. They're furious with me that I never tested it.  

"You need to evacuate immediately," says Mrs. B.

"I can't believe that brother of yours," says Mr. B to his wife. "What is he, a slum lord?"

"Well, basically," says Andrea.

"This is not a favor to the family!" says Mr. B. "This is a death trap!"  

"David, I thought you were looking after things!" says Mrs. B.

"I did call Marvin. He's not returning my—"

Andrea claps her hands over her ears. "Don't even!" she says. "Don't even try to pull that kind of talk on my mother!"

If we were alone I would laugh and say, On who? Andrea's contempt for her mother is geologically layered. She's been persona non gratis for years except for the fact that she buys us stuff. Instead I say weakly, "What kind of talk?"

"Andrea baby," says Mrs. B, welling up with tears, as if someone had just plugged in her empathy cartridge. "This is not all right." She drags Andrea into the bedroom to have a conference.

Mr. B. stays standing.  

He clears his throat.

"You know, David, when Marge and I were first married we lived in a very modest apartment near the railroad tracks and we ate a lot of overcooked hamburgers."

Mrs. B shouts from the bedroom, "Harvey, get in here!"  

He gets.

Sylvie and I play on the rug until twenty minutes later when Andrea, with tear-streaked face, looms into the room, flanked by her parents.

"Clearly you two have some things you need to work out," Mrs. B. says.

"Safe haven," says Mr. B.

"We're all much calmer now I think," says Mrs. B.

They send me out to the hardware store to get a lead test.

By the time I get back, they're gone.

They take the crib, the changing pad, all her clothes. They leave a bunch of small toys scattered on the rug and the seven dancing clowns lamp, unplugged.  

I call Andrea's cell, Mr. B's cell, Mrs. B's cell, their landline in the western suburb. I administer the lead test, do the dishes, dust the baseboards, vacuum the apartment, throw out newspapers, scrub the kitchen sink with my toothbrush, unplug the refrigerator to clean the black grimy rectangle beneath, and find, embedded in a nest of fuzz and hair and crumb, a photograph of some kid with braces and a magnet for a rib place, shaped like a pig. The linoleum is gray and yellow, and the more I scrub it, the more it seems as if I am not removing dirt, only moving it around.

After three hours, Andrea picks up.

"Sorry," she says. "I was going to call you, but we stopped for lunch."

I'm on the floor, next to the fridge, still unplugged, angled out from the wall, my hands wet, my grip slippery on the phone.  

"Jesus Christ, Andrea. Okay, did you give her a bottle?"

"Mr. Mom, count to three: that's how many adults there are here, and two of them have raised a baby."

"But where are you exactly? I hear Sylvie, will you bring her a little closer, so she can hear my voice on the phone? Christ, you had me nervous!"

"Because you're a dishrag," she says.

"Put her on."

"The hell I will."

"I've been cleaning. I did the lead test."

"Oh joy," she says. "You know where I'm sitting?" She tells me: She's perched on a stool in her parents' sunlit kitchen, a Costco tub of hummus on the counter. I hear her chewing pita chips.

"It's nice here," she goes on. "Not that you'd appreciate it. You're oblivious to living in a shithole."

"This is Sylvie's naptime. Did she sleep at all in the car?"

"Never mind where she slept. I'm not coming back."

I dunk my rag into the bucket's gray water. "You want me to come there?"

"Is it pot that makes you slow, or were you always this stupid? I'm going to keep her. I'm saying, you can do what you want . . ."

What I want is Sylvie. I can smell the milky smell of the top of her head and feel the grip of her hands on my thumb—Sylvie, the sweet baking loaf of her, best thing in my day, every day.  

I say magnanimously, "Take some space, if you need it, but don't take Sylvie. We'll wait for you."

She laughed bitterly. "What do you think, David, I want to spend the rest of my life with a dealer? We were supposed to be out by the end of the month anyway. So we're leaving. Don't act like you didn't see it coming. I hate Stinn Park."

"It's not that bad. We could move somewhere better—"

"No, not with you. With you there is no better. I know you think you're Super Dad, but to the rest of the world you're one sick creep."

At that, my leg knocks over the bucket and water sloshes onto the sloping linoleum. I set the bucket upright and watch as the dirty water runs towards me. She is railing now, the words are coming fast and hit me like hail. I kiss the baby too much; I look too long when I change her diapers. It's crazy stuff—sinister and insulting and scary that anyone, let alone Andrea, would think this—and yet it's also weirdly clarifying. Because not even Andrea could believe what she's saying. The whiskey bottle's empty; she's trying to get me to leave.

I sink to the floor and sit in the slick of dirty water. I don't have to listen to this, I could just hang up; my ass is wet and she's not rational; I need dry jeans and a walk to clear my head. But Sylvie's on the other end of that line too, and I realize my strength is patience. Andrea wants to move fast so she can blow it all up.

"Are you listening to me, you shit head?" she shrieks. "Aren't you even going to defend yourself?" 

"I'm listening," I say. "Go on. Explain it more. Go slow."