Leah hates Bennie’s, but not because it’s where we first met. Four years of waiting tables and she’s tired of breathing in the stench and decay of rotting dreams.
When it comes to her dreams, Leah pays attention. She lives in Adams Morgan but in a year is heading up the turnpike to take photography courses at NYU. She’s been planning her escape for years, but was robbed one night a year ago while walking home from a bar in DuPont. The bastard put a gun to her spine, marched her to an ATM. She took a couple of swings at him with her bag but the gun went off over her head and she ended up handing over all her savings. I met her shortly after, down at Bennie’s, captivated by the way she wades through the crowd with a tray of drinks held high, grimacing the closer she gets to her customers. I knew just looking at her she’s destined for bigger and better things, and she is.
Tonight, she’s waiting on the usual crowd, college kids from Georgetown who love to slum it up in the Southeast. Bennie hired a new bartender earlier in the week, a nice guy who looks like a movie star, and all the girls are going crazy. I quietly nurse my scotch and soda, study the picture on the wall Leah took of Bennie a while back. In it he’s filling a tap, too busy to look at the camera. But it’s a nice picture because she caught him smiling, as if to himself. Her specialty is bringing other people’s private moments to light.
“Lee-ah!” cries Jake, banging his fist on the bar. Jake is Bennie’s son. He adores Leah, and it’s because of this that he finds jobs for me, part time construction gigs where the boss pays you under the table, earnings you neglect to claim come mid-April. “How about it, girl?” he says, giving her a friendly swat on the ass. “What’s say you and me go behind the bar? For old time’s sake?”
“Fuck off,” says Leah, punching him in the shoulder.
“I thought you loved me.”
“I don’t love anyone. Ask Mick.”
Jake arches his eyebrows at me; I shrug.
“Here, move over,” says Leah, scooting onto a stool between the two of us. The new bartender delivers our drinks and the three of us grow quiet. I watch Leah watch the other customers, her face flickering some kind of private amusement. I pretend not to mind. Leah is like that — her greatest retreat is herself.
Jake tells me about a new job opening up, a housing project in a bad neighborhood. Cheap materials, cheap pay, but steady. It sounds good. I need the work and tell him. He nods, frowning at Leah as she chews on the end of her straw.
“Tonight’s on me,” he says. “No worries.”
“We can manage, thanks.”
I look at Leah for confirmation but she’s gazing out at the crowd, the busy rowdiness bubbling up around us. I excuse myself and go into the bathroom. Above the sink someone has professed their love for their cousin Rita. I take out my penknife and scratch through the words. I hate shit like that.
Walking back to the bar, I see that Leah has moved over to Jake’s lap, her hand creeping toward his crotch.
“Hey, knock it off, asshole!” I shout, lifting him off the stool by his collar. Leah stumbles off, catches herself before falling. I slam Jake against the picture of Bennie. Glass cracks, splinters. Leah tugs my shirt, calling Mick, Mick. Stop it. Mick. Jake looks terrified. His face drains pale and sweat cascades down his forehead. A thread of blood runs from his ear to his shoulder to his shirt.
“Sorry,” he shrugs. “My mistake.”
“Fucking right, your mistake.”
The three of us sit back down at the bar. Jake wipes off the blood with a wet napkin as Leah works on removing the broken glass from the frame, then folds the picture of Bennie into fourths and puts it in her back pocket with a sad little frown.
We end up staying until the bar closes, swapping stories and taking turns making fun of Jake for hitting on Leah; myself for trying to beat the shit out of him; and Leah, for not letting go of old habits. When it’s time to close up, she moves behind the bar and helps the new guy wash beer mugs. While Jake takes the trash to the little alley out back, I push the last college punk into the street and lock up, then come up and hug Leah from behind as she stands with her hands immersed in soapy water. She smells clean, like a kind of perfume someone’s mother might wear. I press her close to my body but she stays stiff. I kiss her cheek, tell her I’m sorry for causing a scene. Her shoulders relax a little. I feel warm, happy.
“Hey! You guys. Fuck.” It’s Jake. He comes behind the bar, his eyes wild with fear, like they’d been when I’d slammed him against the wall. He’s holding something in his arms, a package covered in newspaper. “You won’t believe this.”
Leah squeals and drops a glass before running over to Jake. I don’t get it, not right away. Then I see Leah lift the tiny bundle to her chest and realize it’s a baby wrapped up in all that newspaper. A flash of brown eyes, a wave of curly hair. The baby’s skin is brown, too, a shade lighter than its hair.
“She’s beautiful,” murmurs Leah. “She looks like me.”
“Think so?” The baby doesn’t look a thing like Leah, and I don’t mind telling her so. There’s something in her voice, some kind of happy amazement I’ve never before heard, that makes me jealous as hell. “How do you know it’s a she, anyway? And whose baby is she? I mean, she’s not yours.”
Leah isn’t listening — not to me anyway. Jake has started up with the story of how he found the baby, starting with stepping over broken glass from a dropped trash bag. As he got near the dumpster he heard this pitiful little cry and thought it was a kitten. He walked on, cursing as wet napkins and bloody tampons rained at his feet. Just as he was about to heave it all into the dumpster the crying started up again, this time louder and more intense. He peered over the rim of the dumpster. Lying there on a nest of flattened cardboard boxes was the baby.
“I about shit myself,” says Jake, shaking his head. “What if I’d dumped the trash on her? Jesus. People are sick.”
“Sssshhhh,” says Leah, gently wiping the infant’s forehead with a clean dishtowel
plucked from behind the bar. “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay.”
“We need to call the cops,” I say.
“Obviously,” says Jake.
“I mean right now. We need to call them right now.”
“Call who right now?” asks the bartender, emerging from the ladies’ restroom with a dirty mop.
“My babysitter,” says Leah, turning to face him, the baby cradled in her arms. “She had an emergency and had to bring my daughter here. Isn’t she cute?”
He saunters over, squints at the bundle in Leah’s arms. “I never knew you had a baby,” he says. “How old?”
“Three weeks. Her name is Iris.”
“Iris,” repeats the bartender, leaning on his mop. “Pretty.”
“Thank you.” Leah shudders a deep breath, turns to me. “Shall we go?”
Jake’s eyes are as wide as dinner plates.
“We shall.” I push through the door, hold it open so Leah can cruise through, the baby clutched to her chest.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she hisses. “Not a word.”
I look back at Jake and the bartender. Both stand in the exact same spot, eyeing us — the bartender with an amused smile, Jake like he’s contemplating punching me in the kidneys.
“See you around,” I say, and let the door swing closed. At the curb Leah softly sings, rocking the baby and smiling. I nudge her arm, tell her we have to walk a bit to the car. Waves of heat steam off her body, she’s so happy. It makes me happy, too. Enough so I wonder about keeping the baby — maybe it’s just the thing we need. Maybe this time the happiness will stick around.
I put my arm around her shoulders, whistling. She looks at me and smiles. We’re almost to the car when a flash of black blurs across our path.
“Go!” I shout, shoving Leah in the back. “Run!”
But she doesn’t. She stays right beside me, paralyzed, the baby smashed to her chest. The guy’s got a gun pointed right at Baby Iris’s closed, dream-filled eyes.
“Give me your money or I’ll blow her head off,” he says.
“You asshole,” hisses Leah.
“What was that?” says the guy, stepping closer. He’s wearing one of those cover-your-face masks runners wear in the winter, to keep from getting frostbite.
“I said,” says Leah, louder this time, “that you’re an asshole.”
I stuff forty bucks in the guy’s hands. “There’s more if you walk me to the ATM,” I say.
He looks from Leah to me, then back to Leah. “What about you?”
“I don’t have shit,” she says, not sounding particularly sorry about this. “Not even a bank account, thanks to some OTHER asshole just like yourself.”
Now Baby Iris is coming around, whimpering, tiny fists flailing. The guy starts fidgeting, twitching his shoulders, angling the gun at my chest, back at the baby; Leah.
“Okay,” he finally says, with a curt nod. “Let’s go.”
“What was that, asshole?”
“Leah and the baby stay.”
He looks around, impatient. Baby Iris starts to wail.
“SHUT her UP!” he yells.
Leah takes a step backward; the guy follows her. Sensing my opening, I body-check him from the side. Our hips and ribs collide, the gun clatters to the sidewalk near my feet. I’m able to scoop it up, train it on the guy as he’s coming up to standing.
“Blow his fucking head off,” says Leah, jiggling from one foot to the other, trying to calm Baby Iris.
The guy’s hands are in the air, his eyes wide. “I’m outta here,” he says.
He spins on his heel, takes off running. I feel shaky, like I need to sit down on the curb and sob into my hands for a good hour or so.
“Hand me that, will you?” asks Leah, hand outstretched.
Confused, I hold up the gun. “What, this?”
She nods. I hand it over.
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” she sings, still jiggling the baby, the gun dangling at her side. “How I wonder what you are…”
“You might want to watch it there.”
“The gun. Here, why don’t you give it back? I’ll throw it in the trunk and we’ll go find Iris some milk or formula or whatever it is you give a baby you just found in the dumpster.” I reach for the gun, but Leah draws up short, bringing it chest-level so it’s pointed right at me.
“Don’t come any closer,” she says.
“Jesus! What is it with you assholes tonight?” She shakes her head, but the gun trembles. “Don’t take another step, okay? Just don’t.”
“Leah, what’s going on?”
“You’re going to walk away from here, that’s what’s going on. Get in your car and drive home, climb into bed and pretend none of this ever happened. That’s what.”
“You can’t be serious!”
Her eyes narrow. “Try me.”
“Is this about that shit with Jake? Because really, I don’t care if you guys — “
“This isn’t about Jake, you idiot.”
I stand, helpless, brain churning. What the hell had I done wrong? Then the baby starts up again, this time her shriek so loud I involuntarily raise my hands to my ears. That’s when it hits me: the baby. She wants me out of the picture so she can run away with the baby.
“You have five seconds, Mick. Five.”
“I love you.”
“Move it, okay? I don’t want a cop to show up.”
I lean in, kiss her cheek, then the baby’s head. Despite being left for dead in a dumpster she smells surprisingly sweet, like ripe peaches.
“We could go away together,” I say, as inspiration strikes. “Right now. Drive across the country. I can find work anywhere, you know that. I’ll support us. You can stay home with the baby, work on your photography.”
Leah’s finger curls around the trigger. “Mick,” she says. Her bottom lip trembles.
I step closer, pat Iris’ head. “She really does look like you,” I say, smiling. “Put the gun away. We’ll get in the car, talk some more. Okay? We don’t have to decide anything tonight.”
She looks off down the street, in the direction the mugger took off to, then back at me. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“Leah — please. It’s me.”
She lowers the gun, all color drained from her face. “I’m so fucking tired,” she says.
We walk to the car, the baby asleep on Leah’s shoulder. I start to open my door, then come around the other side of the car and open the passenger side first. I can learn to be a good boyfriend.
Really, I can.