It was a contest to see which of us could inflict the most
horrible death on our babies. Grant and I stood on the soppy shore of Lindo Lake, mud hens
gurgling in the cattails, their little white beaks and black heads, those beady,
undertaker eyes all busying about, more purposeful than the other fowl, I always thought,
the blue-green headed mallards and the white farm ducks dumped off each year a few months
after Easter, the abandoned and hissing barnyard geese. These would be our accomplices in
our last grand effort. The baby was dressed and ready on our raft of plywood and plastic
milk bottles, sleeping, we said of all the victims during preparations.
I met Grant in Ms. Felder's fourth-grade class earlier
that year. I was a transfer student, unhappily arriving in a school where I was one of
three black students. And worse, my father, a hard-nosed, back-to-basics teacher, had
joined the faculty. By the second week, the playground was referring to him as Darth
Vader. I was such a pariah that even the two other black kids wouldn't speak to me.
"Git," they said the first time I talked to them. But Grant didn't hesitate
because he could afford to be friends with a kid like me whose parents made him wear
Catholic-school uniforms in a public school, navy blue Toughskins and white button-up
shirts that didn't tuck in over my fat little belly. Grant was the kind who wanted
everyone to like him and everyone did, though before me, he said he didn't hang out with
anyone. He'd gotten his father's dark eyes and Native-American hair that he feathered back
on both sides, and much of his mother's dewy skin. In school photos, he stood in the rear
because he was five inches taller than the next tallest kid. But it's not his height that
stands out in those photographs, it's his already perfect smile, those straight white
teeth that got him into R movies and allowed him to turn in homework late.
"You ready for this?" I asked him as I
strapped our baby to the raft. We'd both spent our allowances buying loaves of bread to
make the body. This one was a boy and we called him Dextera small burlap sack full
of bread with strategically placed beak-sized holes. For limbs we used tube socks, for the
head, a half-deflated supermarket ball, the ninety-nine cent kind in the tall cages, the
ones we bugged our moms to buy us but which never lasted more than a few days. For
Dexter's face, we drew large eyes and a small blue frown.
"I'm not sure this is going to work," Grant
said. He ran a hand through his perfectly parted hair, stopping in the middle. "Has
he been a bad baby?"
"Guess so," I offered. It was the first time
he'd asked that question. "Aren't they all bad babies?" I finished the last of
Grant took his hand from his head, his shiny hair
floating back to its original position, as if commanded. He bent down next to me.
"We'll have to think about what he's done."
The first baby to go was VeronicaGrant's idea, a
five-pound sack of flour with a red felt-tip smile and two googly eyes plucked out of a
stuffed giraffe's head we found in the Goodwill donation box. We made her in Grant's room,
the only place where we had any privacy. My house was out. Even though, in those days, my
mother was just an echo in my life, always doing something besides being home, and my
father expected me to read, or practice for a recital. There was always a recital. I
stayed out until nearly five o'clock when I knew my father came home from school. I was
supposed to spend that time doing something constructive, but I knew I'd be locked down
once he got home and there'd be plenty of time, too much time, in our quiet house.
But Grant lived in the Pink Ghetto, a low-rent
apartment complex coated with stucco the color of chewed bubble gum. His room was safe to
build babies. His stepfatherGrant called him "Dude"had two jobs, one
as a bouncer at a local cowboy bar, the other selling gas, so he was rarely home. And
Grant's mother never bothered us because she had to lie flat during the last three months
of her pregnancy. At first, I never saw her face, just her creamy white feet beyond the
half-opened door. "Hello, Herschel," the feet said the day we finished Veronica.
"You boys behaving?"
I looked directly at those feet as one scratched the
other with its big, saucer-shaped toenails. "Yes, Mrs. Pope."
Veronica lay peacefully on Grant's floor waiting to be
dressed. "I wish she'd hurry up and have that stupid baby," Grant said as he
slipped one of his old T-shirts over Veronica's square body. "I hate being quiet all
the time. I don't know why Dude let her get pregnant anyway."
I sat Veronica up and held her for Grant's inspection.
He frowned, handing me some markers. "You can't hurry a baby," I said.
"They got to eat 'n stuff before they come out." I plumped her red, kewpie mouth
and filled in doelike lashes over Veronica's loopy eyes, her black plastic pupils swirling
with each jostle.
"What do you think they eat while they're
I paused. When Grant wasn't the expert I took the
opportunity to show him I knew something. "Milk," I said, looking around his
room. The best thing about being at Grant's was his posters, every wall a pipeline wave
with a surfer crouched and peering out. My favorite was the blond guy with the green eyes
that Grant said got killed in Hawaii surfing storm waves. But Grant liked the one of
Farah, head tilted back, a mane of frosty blonde hair scattered around her face, nipples
perked beneath a red one-piece.
"She's a fox," he said for the hundredth
time, noticing I was looking at her. "Milk comes from the boobs," he said,
trying to correct me.
"Oh, women got these tubes inside that the baby
sucks on like a straw." I held up Veronica again and Grant was satisfied.
We discussed how unborn babies ate as we walked to the
bridge that stretched across the dry bed of the San Diego River. Following my tube
principle, by the time we arrived in the center, we agreed that babies had access to
certain foods right after the mother swallowed them. The thought of a baby sucking down
chewed spaghetti grossed us out to the point of laughter.
Grant held Veronica over the concrete railing. The air
was warm and breezy. Forty feet below us was the sandy riverbed, clotted here and there
with bamboo stands. Veronica's indifferent pucker mocked us now and I didn't feel sorry
for her at all as Grant let go and she turned head first, the T-shirt flailing like a
comet tail. She thudded into a big white spray of flour, carnationlike. Not as gruesome as
we hoped, but still worth the effort. Little white puffs blew off her like smoke.
"That's so trick," Grant said. "She's dead and on fire." He looked at
me, the bright sun glaring off his black hair "Your turn, Hersch."
Just then a sheriff's car stopped next to us.
"What are you boys up to?" the man in the car said. He was asking both of us but
looking at me. This was the kind of person I had to watch out for, the kind my father
explained about the day we moved into this town. "You might meet ignorant people here
who are uncomfortable with blacks," he said. He never used words like
"racist" or even "prejudiced." There were a few kids on the playground
who fit my father's definition and let me know, called me Fat Albert or Cosby Kid, but
Grant was always there, so I felt ahead of the game.
The sheriff waited for our answer about what we were
doing. "Nothing," we offered at the same time.
"You from around here, son?" the sheriff
asked me. "Don't recognize you."
"Yes, sir," I said. I hadn't ever talked to
the police by myself. "I live over on Julian." I looked at the ground and then
back up. I turned to Grant who just smiled, and I felt safe.
The sheriff pouched his tongue behind his bottom lip
and shook his head. "Oh, you're part of that teacher's family. Okay then. You boys
better move along. Don't be hanging around on this bridge. Someone's like to come by and
throw you off."
Grant and I ran, relieved, laughing all the way back
to his apartment. It was all we could do to be quiet when we got there. The feet were
sleeping. I'd seen them enough to know, kind of curved in toward each other. Grant went in
his mother's bedroom but I stayed in the hallway. He brought out an empty pitcher and went
to the kitchen, filling it with water and ice. "That was so smooth," Grant
whispered. "We were so smooth." One thing I always liked about Grant is that he
talked like TV people, at least the ones I snuck watching when my parents were asleep or
outside. Grant took the ice water into his mother's room and we met on his bed. We lay
side-by-side, feet to heads.
"I'll come up with something good for next
time," I said, staring at the green-eyed surfer.
"Better be," Grant answered in an unexpected
squeak. And then he said it again so it came out right. "Better be."
Grant wasn't as excited about floating Dexter as he had been. We already had two under our
belt, Veronica, and James, who we hung, twice. Dexter, we planned to shove into the middle
of the lake where hungry ducks and geese would then flock, devouring his insides, leaving
behind his pink, plastic head and burlap skin. Grant and I sat at the edge of the lake,
staring at our bread-plumped creation with his sad blue smile. On the opposite shore, a
late morning bullfrog started its deep call, that drawn out plea that sometimes sounded to
us like a grown man's voice calling for his motherMom
"We should wait," Grant said. He'd been
moody all morning.
I felt the wet earth soaking through to my butt so I
sat up on my heels. "Wait for what? It's all done. We just have to push him in the
"There ain't enough ducks yet, anyway."
"The minute we throw a piece of bread out there
there'll be millions."
Grant offered a soft laugh. "Greedy little
fuckers." He stood up and tapped his sneaker against one of the four milk bottles
that would keep the raft afloat. "I kissed Delia Sanchez. I forgot to tell you."
This was big news and just like Grant to say something
out of the blue like that. Most of the other kids made fun of her, but Grant thought Delia
was the prettiest girl in our class, even with her prosthetic arm with its steel claspers.
She wore the best clothes, usually yellow, which showed off her brown skin, darker even
than mine. One time she wore a green hoop skirt to school for show-and-tell but she kept
it on all day. On the playground, she dared Grant and me to climb underneath. "Is she
a good kisser?" I asked.
"Real good." Grant smiled, the first genuine
one of the morning. "It was so trick, I walked her home yesterday and we went in her
bedroom. She has all these pictures of Mexican singers and stuff. But she just turned
around and kissed me right on the lips."
"What about her arm? Did it poke you or
Grant gave me one of his "You're an idiot"
looks. "Anyway, her mom came home right then."
I was secretly glad that Delia's mother interrupted
them. I knew Grant liked Delia, but I didn't appreciate the idea of my only friend being
taken away. I felt like he was pretty much all I had. And at that age, Grant was already
having feelings for girls I could only pretend at. When I suggested the name Veronica for
our first baby, it was as close as I could get to Delia, I thought, without being obvious.
Grant kneeled next to Dexter, checking the twine I'd
used to bind him. "Anyways, Dude found out. Delia told her dad and he came over. Dude
was screaming at me all night. Mom even got out of bed to make him calm down." Grant
ran a hand through his hair and shook it out.
"He's a jerk," I said, which I always knew
was what Grant wanted to hear about his stepfather.
"A prick." Grant stood, looking straight
down at Dexter. His expression hardened. "Pack some more bread in his arms and let's
do this," he said.
Hanging James from the rafters in our horse corral was my idea. I was smart about it. The
day before, I asked my father in my most polite voice if Grant could play at our house. My
father looked up from the papers he was grading. His small brown eyes were bloodshot. If
my mother had been there, she would have reminded him to put on his reading glasses.
"We want to build a fort in the backyard," I told him.
My father hmmphed and looked at the fat gold harp in
the living room, scratching his temple with his red grading pen. "What about
practice?" He sat straight back in his chair so I had to look up at him. He reminded
me that my grandmother got the harp from a woman whose house she cleaned for thirty-two
years. I focused, as always, on the ridge of pebbly moles which formed dark brown cornices
over his cheeks. "You know, Herschel," he said, "success is all about
execution. You can't have good execution without practice."
I nodded like I always did when he was speaking. My
father had a way of making me feel that I didn't have a clue as to what was valuable in
life. Even years later, when I was long out of the house and just visiting, he'd find some
way of bringing up the dusty harp I couldn't play and the wife I never had. Though I knew
he loved me, when I was young, I often felt my father didn't see me so much as a boy, but
as a kind of dullard robot he was trying to reprogram. That day, when I'd been thoroughly
lectured on how life was a series of wisely and expertly executed acts, we agreed I'd
practice the harp twice as long that afternoon and Grant could come play.
All that string plucking was worth having Grant over
the next day. It was the first time I'd been allowed to have a friend visit and somehow
Grant made my backyard much more interesting. We lived on two acres of eucalyptus trees
and granite rock. The people before us owned a horse and for some reason, even though he'd
never ridden, my father thought we'd own one, too. The corral sat in the very corner of
our property, a dusty, gnawed-wood square with a plywood shed in one corner.
Grant hung by his arms from one of the rafters as I
prepared all the things to make our victimtwo pimento olives for eyes and miniature
marshmallows for the mouth. Grant's corduroys belled slightly over his tennis shoes at my
eye-level, one of them with a hole big enough that I could see his dirty white sock.
"Got the pantyhose?" I asked. He dropped to the ground and pulled from his
pocket a pair of his mother's nylons and an unbelievably long length of twine.
We began filling James' nylon body with dirt, tying it
off in places so it would hold. "What if this were a real baby?" Grant said,
scooping dirt into what would become the torso.
"We wouldn't do it if it were a real baby,"
"No, I mean real like a person." Grant
stopped scooping dirt and crossed his legs. He tapped the ends of his fingers together,
his nails already black. "Like, what if my mom's baby isn't just a baby, it's already
I kept building James, but I was trying to get what
Grant meant. "You don't just come out a person," I said.
Grant climbed back up to the rafter, hanging himself
from his already-long arms, the ones that would end up years later being good for
basketball and baseball and the pole vault. "So when does it happen? When does a baby
turn into a real person?"
"I think they gotta talk."
"No. Sentences. 'I want juice.' Like that."
Grant swung a bit, the tips of his shoes waving in
front of me as I started packing James' head. I could tell he was forming a question.
"But what if it's a stupid baby?"
I was getting frustrated because Grant wasn't helping.
I stood and looked at him. "Then it's not a real person, I guess."
Grant let himself down from the rafter one more time.
"How do we even know if we're people yet?" he said. Pausing in
exasperation, he added, "Surfers don't have babies." Just then, a small
whirlwind kicked up and ran through the corral, and Grant leapt into the middle of it, the
twisting air pulling his black hair all about his face. He stretched his arms out
laughing, following the whirlwind out the corral gate and into the yard until it plunged
through the fence and into the neighbor's property. That night I'd dream that I jumped
into the whirlwind, too, and that it lifted us both up and floated us away.
"That was so trick," Grant said, returning
to the shed. We sat down next to James, and Grant started making his version of a noose
out of the twine while I began toothpicking James' face until he had two pimentoed eyes
and a broad, white, marshmallow mouth. But the oddest part about James was the large nylon
rosette formed by tying off the waistband at the top of his head. This baby, we decided,
"He smiles like you," I said.
Grant stood up and tossed the noose over the rafter.
"I saw Dude with some lady," he said in yet another of his surprise revelations.
"My mom sent me to get some money from him at the gas station and this chick was
sitting in the garage with him, rubbing his shoulders."
"Maybe they were just friends," I said,
though I could tell by Grant's look that I wasn't convincing. "Okay," I said.
"That stinks." I lifted James up so Grant could slide the noose around his neck.
"She had all these rings on her fingers and a
butterfly tattoo on her shoulder. I just stared at him and told him Mom sent me to
get some money for the store. And that chick didn't even flinch. She just smiled and
called me a cutie or something like that and kept her hands on Dude's shoulders."
Grant pulled on the twine, leaving a bit of slack when I lifted James above my head for
the hanging. "You're so lucky you got a good dad," he said.
That almost made me drop James right then. I'd never
heard anyone say that. But somehow I understood why he would. My dad gave me hardly any
freedom and Grant had all he wanted, and it didn't make him any happier But I was also
surprised because I'd often secretly had the thought that I would have liked Grant's
stepfather as my dad, someone who would dip my head in the toilet for pretend
punishment and let me out of the truck to pee just about anytime I had to go. Someone, I
realized, who had no parenting skills at all but did what he could. I thought about
Grant's proposition. "I guess," I finally said. And then, as James began to get
heavy on my upstretched arms, "Ready?"
I let go of James and our makeshift noose tightened,
his head flopping slightly to the side, one eye popping off. But in seconds, the sand
began to ooze through the noose, James' baby-head diminishing, his marshmallow mouth
plunking off as the nylon fabric shifted through the rope, the other eye, with its dead
pimento pupil, failing to the ground just before the now-headless torso flopped on top of
Grant laughed as hard as I've ever heard him. All I
could think of was my father, that he was right somehow. We hadn't been thoughtful enough.
Our execution was poor. "That doesn't count," I said. "It's like if the
rope broke. We got to do it again."
I figured out that we'd let too much slack at the top
of his head where we tied it off. So I worked out the knot and tied it lower, giving James
a broader head, something like a round of cheese. I quickly poked in a face with the dirty
marshmallows and olives. The design was hardly symmetrical but it would do.
"Poor dude looks confused," Grant said.
We went through the process again, and that time James
hung, face intact. He spun slowly in front of us, his dazed eyes coming around to meet
ours, the brownish-white mouth looking suddenly like a frown. There was hardly a sound,
the solitary clack of eucalyptus bark falling to the ground, a dog barking blocks away.
Grant and I stared at James while his gentle revolutions slowed. I think both of us were
surprised at how possible what we'd done was.
The morning breeze blew just as we knew it would. We
were ready to shove Dexter, our white-bread infant, into the lake. He'd been our most
perfectly executed plan up to that Pointbody and flotation design, material
acquisition, shore location, Teacher Prep Day when all the kids were off, the time, it was
all thorough. Grant sprinkled the remainder of the bread around the small raft, placing
the bulk of it so the ducks would find the openings we'd cut in the burlap body. The last
step was tying twine to the back of the raft in order to retrieve the remains.
"That's it," Grant said, pushing the raft
into the water. It slowed to a near halt about five feet from shore. From there we planned
for the breeze to carry it farther. We sat back and watched, the unraveled twine between
us. A redwing blackbird trilled from atop a cattail. Our pink-headed Dexter floated
surely, calmly, on the rippled water with not a duck in sight on this side of the lake.
Grant took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Do you think there's such things as hexes?" he asked.
"Like voodoo? Sure, maybe." I looked at
Grant but he was staring out at the water. A dandelion tuft landed on his head, twirled
for moment on point, like a dancer, and floated off. I turned back to Dexter. He was
exactly the size of a baby, I thought. The raft was making slow but noticeable progress.
"Shoulda made a sail too," I offered.
"Do you think you could put a hex on someone
without knowing it?" Grant had sounded serious all morning, and I could tell by the
gravity of his voice that these also were not lightly asked questions. "Like if you
wanted something to happen but you didn't know you wanted it to happen. But then it
"Voodoo curses and stuff can't work unless you
believe they can."
"I guess," Grant said.
It took about twenty minutes for Dexter to float out
thirty or so yards. Finally, a pair of curious mud hens swam out to the raft and started
nibbling at the bread crumbs, their hornlike calls sounding like defective party favors.
"Won't be long now," I said. Anytime feeding began, ducks from all over the lake
"My mom's not pregnant anymore," Grant said
I turned to him but said nothing. He kept his eyes on
"Dude and I were watching Hawaii Five-O and
Mom yelled from the bedroom. And Dude didn't want to move her so the ambulance came."
Grant stood up and scratched a piece of dried mud off one shoe with the other. He brushed
off the back of his pants, the whole time looking out on the lake. Dozens of ducks from
all sides were headed toward Dexter, the symmetry of their wakes like one imagines D-day
flotillas. A few of the more distant ones took flight.
"What was wrong?" I asked.
"Dude wouldn't let me in the bedroom and I didn't
see her till they rolled her out. She had this air thing over her face. I stayed at the
neighbors' last night. She's okay. Dude called."
"But she didn't have it?"
"Dude talked to the neighbors and they didn't
tell me a whole lot. I get to see her tonight. They just said she lost the baby."
The mud hens and a couple early ducks had finished
nibbling away the extra crumbs and had begun taking tentative stabs at the holes in
Dexter's burlap body. "I guess a brother woulda been cool," Grant said.
"Yeah," I said, and I meant it though I knew
for me that possibility was out. One time, after a round of questions on the subject my
wearied mother told me while we were buying a baby shower gift that she loved me but that
in general she wasn't fond of children and one was all she could handle.
Grant picked up what remained of our twine, the only
thing now that connected us to Dexter, the plattered baby we'd sent out to get pecked and
probed. I stood up next to Grant, the chill of partially-wet pant legs licking the back of
my legs. The bulk of the ducks and a few bulbous geese were about thirty feet away from
the raft and when they arrived they tore into Dexter from all sides. They were callous in
the way that animals are, poking through the burlap where the ribs might be, hollowing out
the kneecaps, tearing at the chest. All of it a frenzy. There may as well have been blood
spurting about because Grant and I looked at each other at the same time and without
saying a word we started yelling at the ducks and he pulled the twine to get Dexter to
shore. But the milk bottles that kept him afloat so well were also like left-on emergency
breaks and he came back slowly. The ducks and geese and mud hens followed, flapping loudly
over one another to get at Dexter's flesh.
Grant pulled the raft in as fast as he could, each tug
whooshing it toward us in an almost predictable rhythm. I kept yelling and throwing what
few sticks I could find. And when that didn't work, I joined Grant on the twine. To us, at
that moment, Dexter was real and human and we had to rescue him. And he wasn't real
because there was anything lifelike about him, nor because later we would bury him and
have a funeral in my backyard. He was real because we were boys and because we said so,
and because with each pull of the line connecting us to him we felt like we were saving