Fiction · 09/23/2015

Purse Baby

We are squatting on the outskirts in a house with black walls and a black hearth, where we eat and drink whatever we can get for free. For the real stuff Lover goes back into the city. He never comes home empty handed.

Other people drift in and out, carried by waves of desperation and defiance. Time passes in ounces of liquor and puffs of smoke, while Lover and I hold steady as lord and lady of the manor and refuse to leave. I wonder whose house this is and where those people are right now. Lover is skilled at procuring goods and I am an expert at keeping the peace. Whenever a fight breaks out, over drugs or sex, I redirect the offenders by encouraging them to take a walk in the woods behind the house. The trees are sparse, a veil through which you can see more houses in the distance, a row of foreclosed dreams.

“This place was probably never inhabited,” says a girl whose name I can’t remember. She is wearing a floppy hat. “You can see where they stopped in the middle of the job.” She points at the wires in the ceiling where light fixtures should be.

There is one big room upstairs, an open loft without a door. Lover and I roll around up there on a rancid mattress in the shameless joy known only to children. I haven’t had a period for so long that I almost stop believing in pregnancy.

In this dark house we manage our shit very well but I still become anxious. Before long I want to take off. I think of running away in the middle of the night, or jumping out the window to see what happens. My fear of physical pain is too great for me to leave my body to the thin air and treetops. I can’t manage the window exit, and I can never get as high as Lover, so high that something catastrophic could easily happen.

But it happens anyway.

One morning I wake with a start. I’m worried something bad is going on downstairs, which is a problem in every squat since people can never be cool for very long. There’s always some kind of fight, and then you either have to throw the offender out or take your stuff and leave. But this time the whole house is silent. At first I think I must have been having a nightmare, and then I feel something rocking on the mattress between Lover and me. It gives off warmth.

I sit up, afraid of rats or worse, and take a look. It’s a simple little crocheted purse, white, with a drawstring at the top, something a child would have. As I reach for it, Lover wakes up.

“What’s going on?” he asks. I can see him struggling to focus his eyes in the soft light of early morning. “What is that?”

“I don’t know.” I turn the purse over in my hands. “Wait — I think I had one of these when I was a little girl. You open it and then you can fold down the sides to make a bassinette. There’s a baby inside.”

“A baby?”

“I mean a doll.”

Lover starts snoring before I can explain. I set the purse on the ground next to me, and then I fall asleep as well, into the weirdly lucid dreams I tend to have in the morning. The thing is, these dreams are always set in a dilapidated house like this one. I am a squatter even in my dreams.

When I’m fully awake I toss the purse out the window in the hope that a raccoon will run off with it. I spend the rest of the day with the memory of the purse, which Lover seems to have forgotten, nagging at me. I try to isolate myself in the kitchen pantry, but it’s no use: every few minutes I hear a baby crying. I think I’m going crazy, and just when I’m ready to share my fears with Lover, he appears before me with the white purse dangling from his shaking fingers.

I step back until I am pressing against some empty shelves. “Where did you get that?”

“I thought you were fucking with me,” he says.

“Wait — what?”

“I keep finding it in weird places. It was in the oven this time.”

“Have you opened it?”

“I thought maybe you should.”

“Me?”

Lover looks perplexed. “Isn’t it yours?”

“No! I don’t know where it came from.”

“Seriously?”

“Of course.” I hear a cooing noise coming from inside the purse and I immediately get nauseated.

“What do you want to do with it?” Lover asks me. “Shouldn’t we open it?”

“No! Don’t do that.”

“Okay,” Lover says in a controlled tone that pisses me off. I can see our little team just beginning to fray at the edges.

“Toss it in the fire,” I tell him. “It’s a piece of junk. I don’t want it.”

“In the fire?” For a second Lover looks like he might open the purse. “You want to burn it?”

“Do whatever you want. Just get rid of it.”

“Okay. But you shouldn’t burn it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to burn something plastic — or electronic.”

I ponder this as an undeniable baby noise assaults us. I grab the purse, tell Lover not to be such a pain in the ass, and march out to the living room, where there is a fire burning, as usual, since the place has no heat. A little trio of crouching smokers looks right through me. As I toss the purse into the fire, I expect screaming or a horrible smell, but there is nothing.

Lover scolds me for burning the purse. “It’s really dangerous to breathe in those toxic fumes.”

“What fumes? What the hell are you talking about?” I study my trusty junkie lecturing me about health matters. He is probably no more than two minutes from slipping away to take care of himself. I punch his arm and he shoves me back, and then we slap each other, melting into our favorite dance as everything else recedes. We end up on a sagging velvet loveseat, the only piece of furniture downstairs, where we roll around, creating our own ocean waves. The others have disappeared.

I forget about the purse for a few days. An old friend, Carla, shows up and stays for a while. And then something dangerous happens: we talk the past into a tapestry I can live with, one that allows me to imagine the future. But Carla is only passing through. Her type never squats for long. When she leaves, I can taste the better parts of my old life — because it’s never all bad — and I even think of staying sober. Lover studies me with dark, threatening eyes and tells me he doesn’t like my friend.

Carla, riding on some magic carpet I cannot access, takes the others with her when she leaves. Alone with Lover, I am uneasy, although this is what I thought I wanted.

Lover is out trying to make money the next night when I hear crying coming from behind the loveseat. The purse. The baby. I know what it is right away yet I can’t believe it. At first I try to pretend I don’t hear it. I wait for Lover to get back. After a few minutes of enduring the noise, I reach behind the loveseat and grab the purse. It is a radiant white and shows no sign of having been in a fire. My life splits into two distinct phases, Before the Purse and After the Purse. Everything changes as I untie the drawstring and look inside.

The baby has a conspiratorial grin and sharp claws. I don’t know which bothers me more. I try to close the purse with a neat square knot that will seal it shut, but the baby claws its way out. I am on my knees attempting to corral the little charmer into a dustbin when Lover comes home. For a while he says nothing, and then he spouts the defining question of our generation: “What the fuck?”

“I don’t know where it came from. I swear.”

Lover’s eyes avoid me. I can sense him wanting to take flight, and the threat of abandonment, the cold feel of it, unleashes ancient anger. It is in my blood, my bones, my DNA. I can’t help it. My head fills with images of being alone and unwanted, locked outside, where even the trees can seem malicious. These are the bedtime stories of the squat.

There can be only one pair of wings in this romance: I want to be the one to leave. I fly to my feet and stop short of throwing the dustbin at Lover. Then I try a different approach, begging, “Please help me get rid of it. It’s your turn this time.”

“My turn?” Lover’s response is so slow I could scream. I want to shake him and then he says, with all the care of someone trying to form a sentence in a foreign language, “You have got to understand. I don’t know what it is, or where it came from.”

“Me neither.”

“And you want me to kill it?”

“I guess so. Yes. I want you to make it go away. Forever.”

“But it’s a baby. Maybe you shouldn’t have let it out.”

“You left me all alone. What was I supposed to do? I don’t know how to make it go away.” The baby crawls out from wherever it’s been hiding, spits out a huge quantity of cotton stuffing, belches, and then immediately falls asleep. I realize it has been eating the loveseat, which upsets me because I don’t like to damage a good squat. I want it to look like I was never here.

Lover somehow picks up this train of thought. “Maybe we should take off, as long as you’re sure it’s not yours.” He runs a hand through his greasy hair, and before I can scream I was never pregnant, as he must surely remember, he says, “I hate to leave this place. I really like it here.”

Then the slow trickle of need begins, for both of us. Lover needs his fix, as I can tell, and I need to get the hell out of here. I know he’s already trying to ration what he has. We’re both tired. It’s like we’re wading through dark sludge that blackens everything, even memory. We don’t know how we got here.

Lover tries to be my knight. He kicks the baby and sends it flying, which should be funny, but it’s not. I know he had to dig into his own bedtime stories to summon the strength. In any case I’m glad we’re still on the same team.

Crying, we fall into each other’s arms. We follow this up with a newlywed punk dance of pounding fists and stomping feet, our bodies slamming together until they find the one place where they always fit. We collapse on the destroyed loveseat for what I want to be five minutes, but the sun on my face, hours later, says otherwise. Lover is asleep on the floor, on his side, facing me. His body twitches every few seconds, like he’s feeling little electric shocks. There are traces of black powder around his nostrils and on his fingertips. I know he must have gotten up to take care of himself because he has never slept through a full night with me.

I panic and look around for the baby. I don’t know if I’m worried it’s dead or afraid of its roaming destruction.

The empty purse is on the floor between us. I pick it up and play with it. I was right: it does fold down into a bassinet. This is where the baby doll is supposed to sleep. And when you want to go somewhere, you tie it back up and it looks like a purse. (Nobody has to know you have a baby in there.) What happened to the doll I had when I was little? I carried it everywhere, to restaurants, to school, and to church. I wonder if I can somehow trick the baby into climbing back inside. I could tie a knot and throw the thing in the street, or bury it in between the dead sod strips that surround the house.

“We’ll never be able to catch that thing now that you’ve let it out,” Lover says, surprising me. I thought he was asleep.

I can hear something scratching inside the walls of the house. The plaster begins to crack all around us. The baby’s cries are so shrill they shake the foundation. “Why would we want to catch it?”

“Think of it as a pest. You want to know you’ve taken care of it. You can’t trust that it’s dead and gone until you’ve seen the body.”

The baby reappears. Maybe it knows we’re talking about it? It is fatter now and there are bits of house clinging to its teeth and claws. Its color is good though I am trying not to care. It flies at Lover’s ankles before I can feel anything for it.

Lover and I join hands and run into what must be a guest bath, a small room with only a toilet and a sink. We slam the door behind us and burst out laughing, a couple of little kids who have won a game.

“You’re sad,” he tells me.

“What? No. I’m laughing. You’re high.”

“You’re sad. I can see it in your eyes.” He strokes my face before producing a little baggie containing just enough black powder. “I want you to be happy,” he says, offering to take care of me. I do not resist. The powder burns my nose and throat and makes me weep. As I drift I tell him it’s weird we don’t know if the baby’s a boy or a girl. It moves so fast I can never see the genitalia.

“What difference would that make? We don’t want to name it.”

“Right. We should never name it.” I’m really feeling it now. It was a big deal for Lover to share the last of his stuff. This means he’ll have to go back out to the city for more.

“You shouldn’t worry so much,” he tells me. “We’ll beat this.”

“The baby, you mean?”

Lover hushes me as he takes my dress off. Through a window that doesn’t exist, I can see children standing in the yard. These must be the kids this place was built for. I start tripping on the idea that houses are for children, not adults. We have been squatting in children’s territory. Is that a crime? I want to ask Lover about this but he is so far away.

And then I achieve the big release, better than orgasm and the closest I can get to freedom. I won’t die but I get to leave my body for a while.

I feel myself floating. It’s like I’m not even here as Lover does this thing we do all the time, our one dance. But I’m not in my body anymore. I’m not me.

We’re on the floor now. Lover is pumping away on top of this flesh that isn’t mine. I turn my head to the side and see a little hand trying to grab me through the crack under the door. The fingers are fat and hungry, insistent. It’s a part of me, even more than this woman’s body Lover is using.

The little hand grabs a strand of my hair and I know it won’t ever let go, even if we beat it to death. I clench my teeth and try not to scream.

+++

Jan Stinchcomb’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Strange Little Girls, A cappella Zoo, Happily Never After, Bohemia, Rose Red Review, Luna Station Quarterly, The Red Penny Papers, and PANK online, among other places. She reviews fairy tale-inspired works for Luna Station Quarterly. Her novella, Find the Girl, is now available from Main Street Rag. She lives in Southern California with her husband and daughters. You can find her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.