Baby Michelle slept like a kitten against Sheila’s chest, Nick’s white crew hat completely covering her face so it was hard to tell she was anything other than part of the baby sack. Nick lifted the edge of the hat with his thumb, but all he saw was the hat’s arcing shadow; even her tiny red fists had disappeared into folds of cloth. “Hey there, Little Buddy.”
“Stop calling her that,” Sheila said.
The air smelled of butter and corn and meat, and the cacophony of twenty or so bands playing at once stirred Nick, the rhythm like a pulse. He wanted to jump up and down in a crowd close to the stage and the speakers which thumped like his insides thumped, to hold his arms in the air and shout above the deafening sounds of a grunge or punk band, to bash his body against the bodies of others.
“But that’s my Gilligan hat,” Nick said, stepping in place so as not to get ahead of Sheila. He’d gotten the hat on a trip to the coast to visit his aunt and uncle. They were always giving him gifts. As a child he’d loved them more than he’d loved his own parents, a love that eventually turned to shame the more he grew to dislike his parents. He’d grabbed the hat along with the one small duffel bag of stuff he cared anything about—his coolest shirts and surfer shorts, some books Sheila’d given him, and a couple of giant moon shells—when his parents had “recommended” he move out. “We just can’t take it,” his mother had said, meaning, we don’t want to be responsible for your baby. He should have been glad his life with them was over, but instead he’d hated himself for not leaving sooner, hated himself for waiting until he’d gotten his high school girlfriend pregnant and moved out only by default.
“Hey, Gilligan,” Nick said to the hat.
“She’s a girl.”
A clown man on stilts, his face divided into four squares, each painted black or white, stalked toward them, three small children running around his wooden legs.
“I bet he falls,” Nick said.
“I need to sit down.” Sheila stopped and waved her hand in front of her red face.
One of the children grabbed at the clown’s pant leg, and the clown struck the child in the side. Stunned, the child backed away, holding one arm against the spot, shocked perhaps by the solidness of the leg inside those airy, spotted pants.
“But Super Deluxe—”
Sheila wandered off the sidewalk and into the shade of a tree. Nick followed and stood over her as she lifted Baby Michelle out of the sack and drew her up toward her shoulder. The baby bag hung off his shoulder as if it were a new appendage to his body. The baby’s mouth was opening and closing and her arms were bent up toward her face, her fists slightly clenching and unclenching. She was like someone’s science project, a larvae with eyes shut tight. “She’s hungry.”
“How can you tell?” He heard a faraway crowd screaming and clapping, and he knew Super Deluxe had just been introduced in the outside arena. Sheila opened her shirt, and Baby Michelle latched onto her breast—it was like something out of the Animal Kingdom. Nick looked behind him, at the path to the outside arena. Some people were walking fast and others were running. He stood with his hands in his pockets.
“Nick,” Sheila said.
He looked away from the suckling at the trampled grass, at a corndog stick and a paper plate. The ground hummed with the sound of an electric bass—Super Deluxe. If he answered her, she might want to go back to the studio, and that was the last thing he wanted, to spend another day in the hot studio while Michelle and Sheila slept on the mattress, or walk aimlessly around Pioneer Square with no cash, bumming cigarettes from the junkies in the park, and finally coming home to Sheila and Michelle, their faces red and glistening with sweat. Or, if he were lucky, he could sit on the curb smoking with Rusty and Madrella and laughing as Madrella chastised people on street: “Get a life, man,” she’d said to a guy whose spotted dog wore a bandanna and a harmonica around its neck while the guy shook a can of change.
“Why won’t you just sit down?” Sheila asked.
But he couldn’t sit down. He watched a boy, waist high, playing “Dust My Broom” on a small metal guitar; a woman in a long paisley skirt dropped a dollar in his open guitar case.
“Can I get you something?” he asked, thinking he was supposed to do something. After all, he was the father, though this fact didn’t make him feel any different than he’d felt three months ago, before Michelle was born, except that he no longer lived at home. Home was a funny word. To some people, he supposed, it meant a place where two people could raise a child—toys buried in the backyard, coins hidden behind the radiator, a window filled with a giant oak branch, the sound of lawnmowers on the weekends, and the smell of fresh cut grass; maybe for others a cabin in the woods with a sturdy front porch and curling black-and-white photos of generations of children tacked to the walls and a neatly stacked woodpile outside covered with a blue tarp. But home had never been any of these things, not for him, and not for Sheila.
For Nick home had been one tiny square house after another, cardboard houses, he called them, the early ones on the south side of Seattle nailed together when Boeing had first come to the city promising jobs for all. This “promise” was lost on his father who’d long been laid off and hadn’t been able to hold down work nearly all of Nick’s life so that each year his parents moved farther and farther out: Federal Way, SeaTac, White Center. For Sheila, home had been crappy apartments her mom kept losing—she’d grown too old for the temporary labor pool. Even if Nick could hope for some sort of home in the future, he couldn’t actually imagine it. What he knew of home now was a mattress on the floor of a friend’s art studio, although it wasn’t actually an art studio—there was no artist. It was a place he and Sheila and the baby and his so-called friends Rusty and Madrella could stay for cheap, and it wasn’t like it was permanent.
“Just sit down,” Sheila said.
“How about some corn?”
“We’re broke, Nick.”
“It’s only two dollars.”
“Stop it.” Sheila tried to pull Baby Michelle off her nipple. “She’s got some strong gums.” But Michelle dug her hands into Sheila’s chest and hung on tight with her tiny mouth.
“You want something to drink?”
“Do what you want,” Sheila said.
He fingered the bus change in his pocket and clasped and unclasped the single key that opened the studio. “It’s worse at home,” he said finally. “Don’t you want to see Super Deluxe, Sheila?”
Michelle shook herself loose from Sheila’s breast, and Sheila held her against her shoulder and patted her back until she belched. A woman in a tie-dyed skirt and white T-shirt was painting a vine of flowers on a small girl’s arm. When she finished, she pulled out a tube and sprinkled sparkles on the wet paint. The girl, white blonde hair falling across her forehead and into one eye, examined the arm. “I like it,” she said finally. He tried to imagine Baby Michelle turning into this girl, but could not. She was a mole with Xs over its eyes, a kitten still slick with the wet from its mother’s uterus.
The first night back from the hospital, he’d lain on his back, Michelle sleeping in the curving space below his collarbone. When he closed his eyes, he couldn’t tell the difference between Michelle and Mittens, the family cat who used to curl up on his chest and purr. He’d listened to the whir of the window fan and felt the heavy weight of boredom.
“These tickets are really expensive,” Nick said. His friend Kyle had given them the tickets to Bumbershoot because he had to go to his grandmother’s funeral in Massachusetts. “We’re really lucky to have them. Kyle’d be bummed if we just left.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Sheila said.
“Okay, I know. Sorry.”
Last year Nick and Sheila had gone to Bumbershoot together, and the year before that, and the year before that, and even, he thinks, the year before that. Some years they’d gone as friends, and then they’d gone as boyfriend and girlfriend, and then they’d gone knowing. Last summer they’d sat on the edge of the giant fountain, an upside-down cement dome as big as a basketball court where water sprayed out of thousands of holes. In the daytime, kids ran around it as if through a giant sprinkler, and at night teenagers hung out around the edges. Nick and Sheila had run through the water and soaked their clothes then sat on the cement lip, and he’d gotten stoned. Sheila’s thin lips, purplish from the cold, quivered, and Nick held her against his wet body. She said, “I do believe in a woman’s right to choose, and I choose a baby.” He’d loved her then, as much as a new high school graduate could love the girl who’d been his best friend for years.
Now he wondered as he watched her long, tight face rimmed with sweat. She was wearing his polka dotted button-up shirt because she didn’t have any button-ups. Sheila wore mostly tight shirts with frills on the edges and denim skirts. He’d always thought her sense of style was so awful it was charming. His friends, though, hadn’t found it so charming. “Frumpy,” Rusty had said when Nick first told him he and Sheila were going out. That broke everyone up—who says frumpy? “She’s gonna drag you down, man,” Rusty had said. “You’re gonna be hanging out around the high school like some letch when you graduate and she’s still finishing up.” And when he brought Sheila around his friends, he could see them close up, shut him out. Except for Kyle. Kyle thought Sheila was all right. He didn’t care if she didn’t have any friends besides Nick, if she had bad acne and liked medieval role playing. “It’s all different in college,” Kyle’d said. “Smart girls like Sheila get to be cool.” Maybe that was true, he thought now, but any ideas about college had disappeared a year ago. Not that Nick had any real ideas about college, although now it sounded like some great escape.
“I got an idea,” Nick said.
“Great.” Sheila’d mastered sarcasm quickly, a wit that had been foreign to her until she started hanging around Nick.
“No really, Sheil, you’ll like it. We could go back by the art rooms and hang out by the wading pool with the rocks. There’s a stage back there, so we could listen to music and you and Gilligan—”
“Stop it, Nick.” Her voice quivered.
Nick withdrew. “Michelle, could hang out in the shade. You could put your feet in the water.”
“Fine,” she said. “Just don’t walk so fast, okay?”
“Sure, Sheil.” He wished she’d acknowledge the fact that he’d given up the Super Deluxe concert; instead, she got up slowly, as if she were following him for his sake, as if he wanted to hang out by the kiddie wading pool. “You could check out the art rooms and the book fair.”
“I said okay.”
In the hour they’d been there, the crowds had gotten increasingly thicker, and walking took most of his concentration. Nick pushed ahead, as if parting the crowd for Michelle and Sheila, but more often than not the crowd closed up after him, and next time he’d look back Sheila would be lost. Passing a four-way intersection, food vendors in all directions, was the toughest, but Nick moved through the crowds like an expert, sliding his body sideways and pressing around people as if he had someplace important to be, refusing to be caught still among them all. It was a game with him, how quickly could he move? Soon he was touching old ladies on the back, ’scuse me, ’scuse me, winding his way out of the intersection and up the wide steps away from the food vendors and the center of the park, through a crowd circling a mime, and into one of the back corners of the festival.
By the time he got to the wading pools, he’d lost Sheila completely. He claimed a shady spot at the end of the pool and against a wall from which a small waterfall fell. Large rocks were strewn about the pool. A toddler in red shorts waded in the knee-deep, white-green water, and a little girl in a Big Bird bathing suit sat on a rock, her hair slicked back with water, her knees drawn up into her body. Nick looked down the outdoor corridor lined with vendors selling jewelry and flowing patterned skirts and wooden instruments from Eastern countries. The air smelled of incense. The crowd, still at least ten people wide, snaked out like a forked tongue into the masses of people pressing up against the food vendors he’d just left. Sheila was in there somewhere. He searched for Michelle’s white cap, for Sheila’s polka dotted shirt but could see neither. He stood up on the edge of the pool and looked over the tops of the heads and finally spotted the little white Gilligan cap as if it were a hat on a doll pressed against Sheila’s stomach. Sheila’s head was down; she was moving slower than the people around her. Two young girls pushed past her, and a boy in shorts came after as if chasing them. Nick hopped down from the rim of the pool and pushed through the crowd toward her.