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The Arrival

February 23, 2010 by · 1 comment

Whitney Groves

Photo: aturkus

“Things will be different when Tequila’s baby gets here.” For the last eight months, Amber had reminded herself of this fact whenever she was bored or worried or upset. She soothed herself by itemizing the baby’s parts as she imagined them: big blue eyes, specks of fingernails, first gummy smile, the powdery smell of its body nestling against her neck.

Amber knew that having a baby around would be hard work, too. She had tried to get a feel for life with a newborn by watching TV movies about mothers and babies, but when Tequila was home, she made Amber change the channel.

It was Amber’s private opinion that Tequila did not want things to change. She certainly hadn’t done much to prepare for the baby’s arrival. There had been no big trips to Wal-Mart or the Goodwill for baby supplies, no showing-off of ultrasound images like other girls at school did when they were pregnant. But Tequila would come around when she first laid eyes on her baby; she would fall in love with it. Mothers always did.

Amber glanced out the window, her eye caught by the tiny purple flowers that had sprung up outside the trailer overnight. It struck her as strange that something natural could be so outrageously purple. She wondered if Tequila had even noticed the wildflowers. Her sister lay on her back on the couch, reading a book that was angled sharply against her swollen belly. She had not moved from the couch since Amber had trudged in, still in her pajama pants, and turned on the TV.

Amber was not sure she had moved at all. She appraised Tequila objectively and decided that her sister’s body looked like that of a pale, truncated spider: the enormous lump of her belly that dwarfed her torso and dark head, and protruding from the central mound were those skinny arms and legs, now bent at jagged angles to fit on the couch. She immediately felt guilty; despite her impassivity, Tequila was probably quite frightened.

“How long has it been since you called him?” Amber ventured.

“About an hour.”

“Do you think you oughta call him again?”

Tequila ignored her.

“Have you felt the baby kick at all?”

Tequila turned a page.

Amber repeated the question, a drill-bit whine in her voice this time.

Tequila twisted her neck to fix Amber with a look as deliberate and narrow as threading a needle. “No.”

“Do you think you ought to call 911?”

“He’d be pissed off if he got here and we were gone. Besides, I got enough money to go to the clinic. But I can’t afford to go the damn hospital.”

Amber shifted her haunches deeper into the yellow-green easy chair, settling stiffly onto a spring gone awry. She began flipping through the TV channels, trying not to think about what might have happened to Tequila’s baby. Her sister was eight and a half months pregnant, and since her twenty-third week – Amber had marked the day on the calendar — the baby had been squirming and kicking like a would-be soccer player.

Two days ago, though, Tequila had reported a little bit of bleeding, and ever since, the baby had been still. Amber had patted her belly, talked to the baby, and insisted that Tequila stand with her belly pointed at the radio while the Black-Eyed Peas were on. All with no reaction from the baby.

Amber’s attention was briefly captured by the sun-white flash of cameras on Paris Hilton’s tanned visage. Looking at the heiress always made Amber feel a hot little thrill, as though she were in the presence of a supernatural being. With a tan like that, she looks like she’s warm all the time, Amber mused. She admired Paris’s delicate features, the thinness of her arms – thinner even than Tequila’s. She must feel so light, like she’s about to step off the earth in those shiny black heels.

Sighing, Amber reached over Tequila’s head and grabbed the bag of Doritos from the back of the couch.

“Jesus, are you eating again?” Tequila snapped.

Amber brushed orange dust from her fingers. “Just a couple chips.”

“You just had PopTarts a half an hour ago.”

“What do you care?”

“I don’t.” Tequila sat up, or at least inclined her torso more sharply. She plunged a twig-like arm between the cushions and pulled out a squashed pack of cigarettes. The other arm lowered toward the floor with the precision of a tiny crane, seizing a lighter. A moment later the cigarette slid between her lips.

“Are you sure you should be doin’ that?” Amber inquired.

“Doin’ what?”

“It’s bad for the baby.”

“I’ve smoked every day for the last eight months. What’s different about today?”

“Today there’s something wrong with the baby.”

“Well, then, what’s done’s done, and I might as well have a damn cigarette.”

Amber wanted to throw the bag of Doritos at her sister. Instead, she rolled it up and trudged into the kitchen, where she stuffed it into the already overflowing trash can. Several pinkish tinted coffee filters fell to the floor. Amber picked them up and carefully fitted them into crevices in the trash mountain.

The kitchen smelled funny, not just trash-filled funny, but more fundamentally wrong, as though the cabinet, the faucet, and the blotched linoleum were themselves spoiling, curdling, turning, and otherwise going bad. Amber would have to give the whole trailer a good cleaning before the baby arrived.

The living room now smelled like a smoky cough. Amber had trained herself not to see the fist-sized hole in the dry wall, and she easily overlooked the cigarette burns in the upholstery, the plates smeared with soup beans, and the plastic Coke bottle filled with Bobby Lee’s tobacco spit.

As Amber thudded back into the yellow-green chair, she wondered if those little purple flowers had any smell. Probably not. They looked like they should smell like incense and grape bubble gum and fresh laundry. But they probably just smelled like paper, like nothing at all.

“What are you reading?” Amber asked.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

“Is it good?”

“Yeah. It’s sad.”

Tequila seemed more willing to talk now that she had had a cigarette, Amber noticed. She asked, “What’s it about?”

“It’s about this colored girl and all the bad stuff that happens to her because she’s colored and she’s a girl.”

“What kind of bad stuff?”

“Her parents dump her with her mamaw, then when they come back and get her, she gets raped by her mama’s boyfriend. That’s how far I’ve got.”

“It sounds real depressing. If you’re gonna read, you oughta read somethin’ with a happy ending.”

Tequila scowled. “I’d rather read about somethin’ true.”

Amber noticed a neat white label on the book’s spine. “Tee, is that a library book?”

“Yeah. I checked it out before I signed out of school.”

“You should’ve returned that to Mrs. Waters. That’s stealin’.”

“She knows I got it; she can come get it if she wants it back. I done turned in all my textbooks, anyway.”

“Well, why’d you keep this one?”

“I wanted to read it, stupid. That, and I didn’t want to go see Mrs. Waters when I was signin’ out.”

“Why not? You always said she was nice to you.”

“She was. That’s the problem. She woulda been upset and told me all this stuff about how I was smart and I should stay in school. Back when I first told her I was pregnant, she told me she’d be disappointed in me if I dropped out of school. She was so upset she about started to cry.”

“She did not!”

Tequila lit another cigarette and nodded.

“She shoulda been happy for you, not cryin’.”

“Mrs. Waters asked me was I goin’ to have the baby or git an abortion.”

Amber’s mouth dropped open. “She did not!”

“I told her Bobby Lee wanted me to have it.”

“But you wouldn’t have gotten an abortion anyway, would you?”

Tequila managed to shrug in her prone position.

“I don’t think you would have,” Amber pronounced. “I don’t see how anybody could kill their baby; it’s not its fault that it got created. It’s a blessing from God.”

Tequila eyed Amber, the red tip of the cigarette pointing at her as though it were an unblinking eye gauging the sincerity of her sister’s remark. Amber squirmed as her sister took in her gentle brown eyes, her doughy face with the strawberry birthmark smeared down her right cheek, the way she kneaded her white hands in her lap. “Yeah, you probably believe that,” Tequila surmised.

“Well, don’t you?”

Tequila rolled onto her back and directed a plume of smoke at a crack in the ceiling. She opened her book and said, “Your daddy took one look at your spotty face and got the hell out. What kind of blessing were you?”

“God, Tequila!” Amber stood up and turned her back on her sister. She unlatched the trailer door and descended the two-by-four steps, squinting in the midafternoon sun, wet eyelids fluttering like moths against the light. She consoled herself with the thought that Tequila would have to stop being such a bitch when the baby got here. Babies pick up on everything you say; he would turn out hateful if they didn’t stop fighting.

Bobby Lee’s fighting cocks, chained in pens by the end of the trailer, scratched and squabbled as they spotted her. She crossed the dusty yard, checked on the cocks’ water, then walked around the back of the trailer. Here there was grass the ripe green of late spring, covering a slope that led up to a stand of oak and pine trees. Today, the grass was blanketed by those purple flowers. As Amber walked among them, she could tell that they had tiny yellow centers, and that when the breeze blew, they all waved together, and sure enough, they emanated a soft scent like the powder from a butterfly’s wing.

Amber thought about picking a bunch of them, peeling the label off of a Bud Lite bottle, and turning it into a vase. She took a deep breath, and their smell was as clean and sweet. Those petals, lighter and more delicate than bruised eyelids, their faint, gentle scent drifting by almost at the limits of her sense of smell, could never overcome the smoke and grease and acrid stench that seemed to emanate from the plywood walls of the trailer. Better to leave them be than to tear them out of the ground and bring them inside to certain doom.

The late afternoon sun soon raised a sweat on Amber’s thick skin. She circled around the trailer and, shading her eyes, peered down the dirt road. A truck was barreling up the hill, one with pipes loud enough to wake the dead. It was loud enough, in fact, to be Bobby Lee’s. Amber waddled down to the edge of the road, but as the truck neared, it turned out to be a green Ford, not Bobby Lee’s black one. The driver pulled over as he spotted Amber and hung his head out the window. She recognized Bobby Lee’s friend Travis.

“Hey, Amber,” he hollered over the roar of his truck. “I guess Bobby Lee ain’t home yet.”

“No, he ain’t.”

“Son of a bitch left work an hour before me and told me to come by here when I got off. Now he ain’t here himself.” Travis gestured to the bed of his truck. “I got some supplies to drop off for him. Okay if I bring ‘em in so I don’t have to come back later?”

“I guess.” Amber’s mind was making sense of Travis’s previous statement. Her hand shot out and grabbed his arm as he walked past her carrying a cardboard box. He turned and stared at her, and his scruffy face was not unkind.

“You said he left work an hour ago?”

“More like two hours, now. What’s wrong?”

“Listen, Travis, something’s wrong with Tequila’s baby, and she called him to take her to the clinic, and he said he was leavin’ work to come git her, but he ain’t here, and he don’t answer his cell phone, and I don’t know where he is. Can you drive us to the clinic?”

Travis licked dry lips. “Hang on, let me put this stuff inside.” Amber opened the trailer door for him and followed him back into the dim stench. Tequila directed him to put the box in the kitchen. When he had done so, he stood over her, eyeing her belly with trepidation as if he feared something would tear out of it at any minute. “What’s wrong with your baby?” he asked.

“It ain’t kicked since last night,” Tequila replied.

“Is it supposed to kick a lot?”

“It has been for the last couple weeks.”

“Is it hurtin’? I mean, are you hurtin’?”

“Cramps. And my back hurts.”

“You ain’t bleedin’ or nothin’?”

“Not anymore.”

Travis removed his cap, scratched his head, smoothed the hair down, and replaced the cap. “Tequila, if you ain’t dyin’, I can’t take you nowhere. What do you think Bobby Lee’d do to me if I took you somewhere in my truck? What do you think he’d do to you?”

Tequila sighed. “I know. He’s a possessive prick.”

“I think you ought to call him again, though. Ain’t no reason for him not to be here by now.”

Tequila glanced at Amber, who nodded vigorously. Travis handed her the phone. After a few seconds she said, “Bobby Lee, it’s me.”

A loud garbled voice emanated from the receiver.

“No, it still ain’t kicked. I need you to take me to the clinic now. They’re gonna close in less than an hour.”

A metallic snarl.

“If you ain’t here in fifteen minutes, I’m callin’ 911.” She slammed down the phone.

Travis was already at the door. “Well, good luck, Tequila,” he said. “Tell Bobby Lee I’ll be back tomorrow to help him get everything set up.”

Amber closed the door behind him. When she turned back to Tequila, a shiver passed over her skin. Tequila was bent over, or curved, rather, over the boulder of her belly. A strand of her wheat-blond hair hung fell forward like a peel of old wallpaper. Her hands, tipped with pink-flecked nails, covered her face. A shudder racked the thin body, as though her bones were fighting against being torn asunder.

Amber took it as a sign of something seriously wrong when Tequila scooted over to make room for her to sit beside her. Moving slowly, the way you move when you’re trying to approach a fierce little animal you want to help, Amber began to stroke Tequila’s limp hair. “Are you okay, Tee?” she asked nonsensically.

“Yeah.” Tequila sat up and ground a fist against dry eyes, smudging the thick mascara she always applied to her dusty lashes. She submitted quietly to Amber’s petting. This gave Amber the courage to ask for what she had wanted to do all day.

“Can I put my hand on your belly?”

“Yeah, all right. You ain’t gonna feel nothing, though.”

Amber placed a chubby hand on her sister’s belly, feeling the tight flesh under the tank top. Her hand rested lightly, not pressing, not stroking. She hoped to sense a pulse from that acorn-sized heart, or a defiant kick from the awakening hope in her sister’s womb. It was a strong, powerful life, a life that could change everything. It was absurd to think that it had just stopped, turned into a corpse without ever drawing a breath.

Tequila saw the listening look in her sister’s eyes. She removed Amber’s hand from her belly and kept hold of it. “Amber, have you ever thought about what would happen if the baby died?”

The bluntness of the word plunked into the room and hovered, like a wood block dropped in a pond. “Don’t talk about that, Tee.” Amber pulled her hand away. “Bobby Lee’s gonna get here, and everything’s gonna be okay.”

Tequila’s lips had been working as Amber spoke, and she continued as though her sister hadn’t uttered a word. “Because I have. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. If the baby’s dead — I been thinking about our lives. I could go back to school. We was readin’ this story about a kid with a crippled brother, and he was trying to teach him to walk. But he kind of hated his brother for not being normal. I keep wondering how it turned out.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I could maybe go to college, too. I’d like to work in an office, maybe. We could get an apartment together in Morehead and….”

Tequila pinpointed the moment when Amber comprehended her meaning, for her gentle moon face drained of color.

“You don’t want your baby to die, Tee; that’s crazy. You’re just scared. But it’ll be okay. This baby’s gonna be so good for us. It’ll love you and love you, and it won’t care that you dropped out of school or that we don’t have much. You’ll be its mama, and I’ll be its aunt, and we’ll love it. That’ll be the only thing that matters to it.”

Tequila dropped Amber’s hand. She braced her wrists on the edge of the couch and pushed herself forward. “I have to take a piss.” Amber stood, offered her hand, and pulled her up. Again she caught sight of the flowers. They had made her feel better; they might do the same for Tequila. She pointed at the window. “Look, Tee, look at the flowers out back.”

Tequila shifted her weight carefully and followed Amber’s finger. “Wow, where’d they come from?”

“They were just there this morning. I ain’t never seen a color like that.”

“They’re too purple to be real, almost. Betcha they won’t be there tomorrow.”

Amber sighed. She clumped back to her chair and turned up the volume on the TV.

After Tequila reemerged from the bathroom, neither girl spoke for a while. By a tacit agreement, they did not look at the time. But the graying of the room told them that the clinic was about to close. Tequila did not seem to be making good on her threat to call 911 in fifteen minutes, despite the fact that the phone rested beside her hip. Amber closed her mind to the possible reasons for her delay. When the shadow from the TV antenna hits Tequila’s foot, she told herself, I’ll ask her to call. And if she doesn’t, I’ll take the phone away from her and call myself.

Tequila didn’t even make a pretense of reading now. Her gaze seemed somehow faded, as if her eyes were training their light inward, searching for God knew what.

The antenna’s shadow, a thin black arrow, had almost pierced Tequila’s pale foot when a roar and rattle arose outside. The girls’ eyes met a second before the door banged open. A moment passed before Bobby Lee entered and shattered the permeating gray silence with the force of his presence. Tall and wiry, his limbs twined with stringy muscle, he wore a stained white T-shirt and mud-smeared jeans that fell frayed around his steel-toed boots.

Under his filthy Ford baseball cap, his face shone red, as if his bones were burning through the tanned skin. His scraggly black mustache and goatee was fading into three days’ growth of beard, as though he were wearing a mask over the lower half of his face. His eyes increased the impression that he was staring out from behind something or from somewhere. They were an odd blue that usually gave Amber a shock whenever she met them, but now the pupils were dilated so much that the blue was almost dissolved in pools of ink.

He took a single rolling step toward Tequila. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

Tequila crossed her legs and crossed her arms across her belly. “I done told you fifteen times already. I ain’t felt the baby kick for two days.”

Amber went to her room and changed from her pajama pants into jeans. Then she returned to the living room and started gathering up Tequila’s things, ticking them off in her mind: flip-flops, purse, brush. She glanced occasionally at their faces, barely hearing their words; the words didn’t matter now, for Bobby Lee was here and they would take the baby to the doctor and everything would be all right.

It took another minute before Amber realized that the conversation was not going as expected. Whine, yell, curse, throw something: that was what always happened with the two of them, although who played what role might vary. This time, however, Tequila was talking quietly, grimly, as though reciting an incantation. Bobby Lee was shouting, not as he usually did to get through to her, but as though he were trying to drown out what she was saying. “You crazy bitch!” he was shouting. “What the fuck have you done to my kid?”

Then he was looming over Amber, seizing her shoulders, digging in those fingers like wooden pegs, screaming, “What did she take? Tell me what the fuck she took!”

Amber was so shocked that she burbled and gagged on her words, finally managing, “I don’t…what?”

Tequila had planted her feet and risen upright. She was ordering Bobby Lee to let go of Amber. He did so, but, Amber realized, only because Tequila now afforded him an easy target. His piano-wire sinews had drawn back his arm to strike when she let out a yelp and sat down hard, as if she had been pushed square in the midriff. At first Amber thought that Bobby Lee had struck so fast she hadn’t seen it, but his arm was still poised in midair. And Tequila’s hands were clenched on her belly, not over a gushing nose.

As Amber watched, Tequila gasped again, her hand moving to a slightly different spot.

Amber cannoned over to her sister’s side, jostling Bobby Lee from his stance. She knelt beside Tequila, and this time she did not seek permission before laying hands on her belly. A mighty punch landed inside Tequila’s body, as if shoving Amber’s fingers away, causing Tequila to grunt in pain.

“It’s kicking!” Fingers still pressed on her sister’s belly, Amber turned to look up at Bobby Lee. It’s gonna be all right!”

Bobby Lee’s fist dropped to his side but did not unclench.

Tequila emitted a noise between a grunt and a shriek. She pushed Amber back and struggled to her feet. The crotch of her shorts was soaked; liquid ran down her legs, soaking into the gray carpet. “Holy shit fuck!” cried Bobby Lee, stumbling back from her.

Amber, knocked back on her haunches by Tequila’s motion, stared up at her sister in awe. Tequila’s legs were trembling, and her hands were rubbing her shorts as if hoping to dry up the evidence. Tears melted her mascara and inked down her face. As Amber hoisted herself to her feet, she felt her own eyes fill with tears, too. It was only fitting, she thought, that Tequila should cry today for the first time in memory. A new life was about to come into the world.

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