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“Here,” she said, when he got close. “Take her,” and she thrust Michelle into his arms. “Keep her head out of the sun. She’s still sleeping.”
Nick couldn’t see Michelle’s face, but when he rested her against his shoulder, her hands instinctively clutched the cotton of his T-shirt, and her cheek fell neatly into the cup of his shoulder. She felt heavy and hot. “Over here. There’s an empty spot in the shade right near the rock waterfall.”
“Fine,” Sheila said.
“It’s a great spot, Sheil.”
“I believe you.”
“We’re lucky no one’s taken it,” he said when they got back to the spot by the waterfall. The shadows of leaves formed squiggly lattices on the pool’s shallow bottom and spotted the cement edge. Spray from the waterfall clung to Sheila’s pale, unshaven legs. Michelle tried to lift her head, and Nick supported it with his palm. But before she even opened her eyes, she began to wail, her face rapidly turning bright red, and he was reminded of a Jane Goodall film he saw in grade school of gorillas being born. What helpless, hairless little blobs, he’d thought, though Jane Goodall fondly compared them to human children. Even Michelle’s neck was bright red, her eyes pinched shut. The scream reverberated inside him, striking his pulse like a flare of panic. He looked helplessly at Sheila, who held out her arms.
A woman folksinger was playing on the stage behind them, and there was a long line to get into the beer garden. Nick didn’t want to even try, though the thought had crossed his mind more than once. Michelle’s screaming rattled inside his head; it made him feel so weary, it might as well have been three o’clock in the morning and still deadly hot in the studio, Nick curled up on the mattress, naked and sweaty despite the window fan, watching Sheila pace around the mattress because there was nowhere else to go. He’d glance at Rusty and Madrella, Rusty always dramatically covering his head with a pillow. Madrella would eventually get up and stomp to the bathroom or get a glass of water, as if to make sure they knew Michelle had woken her. He’d lie awake the rest of the night wondering what they’d do if they were kicked out; then he’d worry about work. The restaurant had cut back his hours, and he couldn’t find the time to search for another job. He’d bummed around Pike Place Market asking friends, but nobody had anything that would pay as much as the restaurant or that would work around his hours. He’d lie awake at night listening to the occasional outbursts of arguments in the streets, watching the lights of cars on the wall of the building across the street through the studio’s grimy windows, panicked inside; still, the extent to which things had to change, not by default but by intention, hadn’t yet completely occurred to him.
Sheila walked slowly back and forth while Nick sat on the edge of the pool, his elbows over his knees, his chin in his hands, and watched. Her palm moved in slow circles across Michelle’s back while Michelle choked into her shoulder. It was early evening, and even though the sun was still hot, soon it would sink below the perimeters of the park, and night would descend on the festival; people would be twirling glow sticks and dancing barefoot. The Space Needle would be lit up, and the Ferris wheel lights would circle like stars. Maybe he could still catch the drum circle. A drunk woman clung to a tattooed man, and a dog on a rope rested his nose on the cement behind a booth selling tie-dyes.
“Nick, the bag. I need a diaper.”
“Oh, sorry.” He stood up and took the bag off his shoulder and began to riffle through it.
“The quilt, I need that too.”
“Here’s the diaper.”
“I need the quilt first.”
But when Nick couldn’t find it right away, Sheila pulled the bag away from him, Michelle weeping into her other shoulder, and, without even looking, pulled out the thick baby quilt his aunt and uncle had given them. It was one of the few generous gestures anyone had made since Sheila had gotten pregnant. It came with a $100 bill and a plea to bring the baby for a visit. But Nick put the money toward rent—Sheila’d held it momentarily, as if she’d wanted to object. She’d only met his aunt and uncle once, when they’d visited Seattle, before Nick and Sheila were even dating. Sheila and his aunt had launched into a long discussion of The Once and Future King, a book Nick, at fifteen, had had no interest in, although admittedly the fact that Sheila had carried around such a fat, dog-eared book had been one of the things that had impressed him about her. Sheila was the realistic one—even if she had wanted to go visit the coast, she wouldn’t have said so. Instead, she’d stared wistfully at the bill. As for Nick, visiting his aunt and uncle in Port Angeles had ceased to be an escape hatch years ago. After all, he’d grown up and spent less and less time at home and more and more time exploring the city with his friends—it was too late to be rescued. His aunt and uncle had called regularly over the past five years inviting him to visit, but there was always a concert he’d miss, a club opening he had to be at, or a party.
The last time he visited, he’d spent most of his time sneaking around so he could get stoned. He’d wander up and down the shore staring at the slow and rhythmic waves thinning on the sand, wind echoing in his inner ear as if there were no other sounds. He could see the disappointment in their faces when he hadn’t been back on time for his aunt’s dinners—dinners in the past he’d relished, Northwest dishes with wild mushrooms and venison and mussels. Fresh vegetables from their garden. They must have known he was stoned, and he suspected they saw him just as his parents saw him—trouble.
“Sorry,” he said as Sheila handed him the quilt.
“It’s fine. Lay it out.”
He spread the quilt across the cement, and Sheila lay Michelle on her back. She grew instantly still, surprisingly accustomed to the routine.
“She’s gotten really good at this,” Sheila said.
“That’s my Gilligan.”
This time, Sheila didn’t even look up.
He stood awkwardly over the two of them, watching a patch of light slip across Michelle’s leg.
“It’s okay, Nick, you can go check things out if you want. We’re fine here.”
“I can stay.”
“You’re making me nervous,” Sheila said as she taped the last Pamper wing to the front.
“Oh.” Since when had she become the boss? He shuffled away from them, his hands in his pockets, then turned back for a moment. “I won’t be gone long.”
“Take as long as you want.” She dipped a hand into the water and wet the edges of Michelle’s face and neck, then turned her over on her stomach on the quilt. A boy in cutoffs stood up on the cement ledge behind Sheila and shouted, “You little whore!” and a tank-topped girl with glitter on her eyes screamed back from the other side of the pool, “Fuck you, asshole!”
“See you, Sheil,” Nick said weakly, but she didn’t seem to hear him.
He knew he should stay close, so he wandered through the book fair, browsed at the comic book tables and the zine tables. He watched five film shorts, but when he walked out, he couldn’t recall what they’d been about. In the first art room was a display of slashed and bloody Barbie dolls encased in a mixture of glass and wooden boxes. In one, Ken was raping Barbie with a white plastic picnic knife. So what, he thought, and left.
The next room was so dark Nick felt suddenly thrust into a blind world. He walked slowly, his palms behind his back touching a black curtain that helped the room seem as if it had no end, as if it were some infinity in space, except for five circles of color projected onto one wall. He couldn’t see the projector. The circles were cut with lines and seemed to open and close like geometric representations of eyes. They spun and moved to the rhythms of atonal noise, the computerized plucking of strings, percussive and irregular, like the sounds in a German industrial club. Nick, being drawn to industrial noise and easily hypnotized, sunk into a corner and watched. The shapes floated in a darkness so visceral even the shapes of people sitting on the floor around him or leaning against the wall were hard to make out, and he was so drawn to the shapes that he didn’t even try to see them. He stared at the spinning circles, jolting and stopping and spinning again, opening and closing; he saw them multiply such that if he looked away a new one would appear momentarily hanging in the blackness and then disappear. His breathing slowed so that his entire body became aware of the breathing. And then everything fell away from him; he had no girlfriend, no child, no parents, no life. Even his body lost its tightness and floated away from him. There was a new space inside him, a dark, quiet space where he could lay his mind, take off his shoes, forget the crashing impossibility of getting through every day, the heavy boredom, the worry, the building fear: in pushing away from their parents they’d ended up worse off. He breathed this knowledge out of him. It was as if for months he’d simply forgotten to breathe. And now the sound of his breathing synchronized itself with the spinning of the circles and the off-kilter pinging of atonal rhythm. When he closed his eyes, he saw the discs as if forever after he’d see those discs every time he took a deep breath and looked inside himself, and he’d feel comforted by that.
When he stepped out, blinking and floaty, the sun had gone down, and a thin moon hung in the darkening sky. A jazz band with a crazy electric bassist played discordant music on the stage where the folksinger had been, and smoke from smokers in the beer garden rose in shafts of light. Sheila was leaning against the wall, the baby bag supporting the small of her back. Her shoes were off, and Michelle rested against her shoulder. For a moment, Nick imagined a different world: they live in a cabin on the Olympic Peninsula, and in the daytime Sheila and Michelle sit by a mossy waterfall, Sheila occasionally diving into a bright green pool while Michelle sleeps on her stomach on a mossy bank. Nick, having just split wood for the woodstove, stands at a distance, watching them, enamored and at home. Behind Sheila’s peaceful face he heard the tinkling of the waterfall; he pictured a little red bed for Michelle in their cabin, and the stars at night forming a wide belt of light across the sky cut only by the jagged tops of cedar and fir and hemlock. All of this he saw in her sleeping face.
“Sheil?” he whispered finally. Far off, he could hear Bumbershoot’s nighttime drum circle. It was like a pulse beneath the jazz band and the busy chattering of the people.
Sheila’s eyes fluttered open, and she stared at him a moment, as if waking up from a dream. “Where am I?”
He sat down and rested his chin on her knees which were drawn up toward her body.
“She’s sucking her thumb,” Nick whispered. Just like the baby gorillas.
“Can we go home?” Sheila asked. Her face seemed to change, from the peace of sleep to an expression of veiled angst that was new to him, either because he was seeing it for the first time, though it may have been there all along, or because she was closer to the point of breaking than he had otherwise suspected.
“Sure,” she said. “It’s just, my shoulder hurts.”
Nick took Michelle as Sheila put on her plastic jelly shoes. Then she took Michelle back, and he took the bag, as usual. The crowds had thinned. Sheila didn’t speak to him. They passed a juggler and a clown, the clown wandering precariously under the juggler’s bowling pins, then squeaking a handheld horn and acting like he hadn’t noticed how close he’d come to being knocked out. A woman in a tank top, her eyes red from crying, stood and watched shyly, and a fat man paused, bit the top off a corn dog, and walked on.
“Got a cigarette?” asked a magician sitting on a low cement ledge, his legs crossed at the knees, his hat crumpled. He looked drunk and mean.
“Sorry, man,” Nick said. “Just out.” Which was true. He hadn’t had a cigarette for hours, which made it easier for him to think about going home. There was at least an old, dried-up package of Drum in the studio, if Rusty hadn’t gotten to it.
A giant dragon on the back of five unicyclists snaked down the sidewalk past the food booths. Nick held Sheila’s arm, and they stepped aside and watched the blind unicyclists pedal by, silver spots like mirrors along the dragon’s side reflecting the lights of concessions stands. A reggae band played and the sound merged with the sound of drumming, which got louder the closer they got to the exit. Papier-mâché monsters hung on sticks beside a small acrobatic stage where a woman spun horizontally in circles on a man’s back, and a ring master clapped from the wings.
They were walking straight toward the drumming circle. Nick gazed at the silhouettes of twenty or thirty people leaning over their drums and imagined their pulses jumping out of their crazy rhythms and steadying, pressing away the rest of the world with their collective beat. They turned at the corn stand, passed the Bagley Wright Theatre, and passed the boy who was still playing “Dust My Broom.” Just looking at him made Nick weary. A man at the gate asked to stamp their hands; Sheila said no, but Nick held his out.