Molly Manwaring, Teen Tragedy Queen, adjusted wide brown eyes when the wino, accidentally cross-dressed in a frilled blouse over pee-stained trousers, sashayed into the community center holding a baby. When he handed Molly a bottle of apple juice, she raised one eyebrow, chewed her pierced tongue and waited for the scene to play itself out.
The wino was an interruption. Conversation buzzed and Molly longed to listen in. Her evening’s monologue, a brilliant interpretation of a pivotal scene from Gaslight, had gone over well. Her name was on everybody’s lips. With a jangle of plastic bracelets, Molly placed a Styrofoam cup under the black spout of an urn and raised the lever. At the Hurdman Street Community Centre, the need for caffeine was assumed. “Creamo?” she said. “Sugar?” Molly added plenty of both.
The wino traded his baby for the coffee and drained the lukewarm liquid in three deep-throated gulps. “Be a pal, will ya?” his dolphin voice whistled. “Watch the kid for a bit.” He added a toothless grin to the request. “Mum’s a hooker. Leaves ‘im with me couple a’ nights a week so she can ease back into work.”
The baby felt like a log of dry Playdough in Molly’s arms. She adjusted her russet curls so that the baby couldn’t reach them. Babies liked to grab things; she knew that much about them. Molly surveyed the definition of its thin body. A wind instrument, she decided. Maybe a flute. “Okay,” she agreed. “Does he cry?” A hopeful question. Molly liked pathos in any form.
“Regular Tammy-Faye Bakker. Jus’ plug its hole if it gets you riled.” A dirty nail jabbed at the bottle in her hand.
“Just for an hour.”
“Now there’s a pal for you.” The wino gave a cheerleader flounce, said “Toodle-de-doo,” and raced any objections to the door. He jumped a city-center-bound bus.
Molly trained her dark eyes on the infant’s cloudy blue ones. She searched them for signs of possible future talent. She placed the bottle on the baby’s stiff stomach and then traced a purple birthmark on his forehead with a finger. She knew the name of the mark, Stork’s Kiss. If the baby had been cleaner she would have wanted to kiss it right there, right on its Stork’s Kiss. But the baby was filthy and stank like vinegar. Molly smoothed her fingers across his personalized book of Braille--bumps, welts, swellings. His diaper squished on her supporting arm. The baby whimpered and Molly realized he hadn’t come with a change of diaper.
Towards the front of the building, Billy Graham’s Backslidden Pianist lifted the lid of the center’s up-right piano in preparation for a musical interlude from the difficult business of extracting money from his whores. Cubic Zirconium’s glimmered on his large, dark-knuckled fingers as they warmed to the ivory keys. Drawn by the promise of excellent music, Molly carried the wet baby over to the piano and slid onto the piano bench. The fur trim of the pianist’s floor-length coat touched her nose as he swayed in time to a gospel tune. “Play something classical,” she requested. “Babies dig it.” The pianist played Brahms.
A wiggle intruded at Molly’s elbow, the one that supported the soft baby skull. “Mols?” It was atonal Lyle, the outreach program’s theatrical director. He rubbed his Charlie Brown scalp with a pudgy fist in a self-administered noogie.
Molly jounced the baby in her arms.
“Whose baby have you got there, Mols?”
“Hmm.” Realizing that she didn’t know, Molly looked around for help. Vernelda, her best friend, was cuddled up with a dreadlock-coiffed white guy on the tiger-print sofa. Though six months pregnant, Vernelda hardly showed, and besides, Lyle didn’t know her. “It’s my friend’s. Vernelda’s. I’m sitting for an hour.”
“Highly unprofessional,” Lyle snorted.
“Yeah, well, professionals get paid. Don’t they, Lyle?”
“That’s right, baby,” the pianist said with a wink.
When Vernelda looked her way, Molly hoisted the baby high and mouthed, Look what I’ve got, Vern!
Good for you, Vernelda mouthed back. Her oval eyes were languid. Molly knew better than to expect encouragement. They had been best friends since first grade when they played together after school with Vernelda’s dolls.
“Not good,” Molly panted. “Not good. At all.” She pressed her face on the cold dividing wall as a tonic against the world-class cramp that fought her for the championship. In the neighboring stall, someone balanced on platform sandals peed in spurts. “Hey,” Molly groaned. “I need some help in here.” The person wiped, flushed and then hurried from the washroom.
“Bitch,” Molly called after her. There was a muffled shriek of female laughter. “Hope you choke on your Big Macs!”
The next cramp squeezed her womb. Push, her body suggested and Molly bore down. Something solid rode a private water slide to the exit between her legs, then plopped with a splash into the toilet bowl. A trickle of warm fluid followed.
Molly attached a pink Always pad to her bikini panties. She resisted the urge to retrieve what she had lost and flushed without looking. She zipped her too-tight jeans and then turned the lock on the stall. When she washed her hands, Molly did not recognize the blur in the cloudy mirror above the sink. For one unpardonable moment, she thought it was her mother, still overdosed but returned from the dead just to say, “I told you so.”
“It happened again, Vern.” Molly eased onto a purple Hamburgler stool and tried to eat a cold fry dipped in ketchup. The fry missed her mouth. Vernelda nodded before she turned to stare beyond the reflective glass of the Macdonald’s window and into the light of oncoming traffic. In Vernelda’s arms, Delvina, her infant daughter, whimpered.
“Vernelda, Vernelda, Vernelda,” Molly said, “and baby Delvina. You’ve come to see your poor Molly!” The neon lights of the Winston Churchill Hotel leached the brown from Vernelda’s skin and hair. Molly’s vampiric lips brushed Delvina’s fat cheek. “You are just so beautiful, baby. You’re going to be a big star one-day. Oh, yes you are.” Vernelda shifted her daughter away. “Or maybe you’ll flip burgers. Just as long as you don’t wind up hooking like your godmother. No, no, no. We can’t have any more of that business in the family.”
“Will you look at that, Vern.” Molly grabbed Vernelda’s arm. She tipped on her stiletto heels and pointed. A stroller was abandoned outside the hotel. In it sat a stunned toddler with terrified eyes and chapped lips. “I hate that,” Molly said. “I just hate it when people do that to their kids.” She charged the stroller, grasped the handles and then maneuvered it towards the front doors of the Winston Churchill Hotel. She yanked open a door. “Hey, people,” Molly projected her voice to the back of the bar. “I’m stealing this kid. Gonna sell her into white slavery. Anybody care to stop me?”
Seizing the opportunity of the open door, a drunken man clumped out on oversized cowboy boots. An empty pocket flapped from his slacks like a panting cotton tongue as he steadied himself against the stroller. The toddler howled. “Some children’s people,” the man said. His words are a spray of flammable spit. He ogled Molly’s short red skirt and added, “That’s what I always say.”
“She’s mine,” said a tall, broad woman with an Elvis hairdo and an incandescent purple parka as she swatted Molly. “Hands off, whore.”
“So, the body-guard says to me, ‘You wanna be an actor? Then break a leg, baby.’” Molly’s spider-leg eyelashes dissolved and then flooded down her cheeks. She sat hunched on a cushion, in flannel teddy bear pajamas. One leg was in an almost-pristine cast which only Vernelda had signed. “That was after he did this and this.” Molly pointed to various parts of her face. “He said my attitude pissed him off. Can you believe it? My attitude!” Molly put Queen on Vernelda’s CD player and scanned to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. As the music added a spin of chaos to the room, she lifted a lit candle from the floor and held it near her face. “Be honest, Vernelda. Is this face star material, or not?” Vernelda rolled a Cover Girl cover-up stick under the rocker with her foot. On her lap, Delvina greedily sucked a bottle of sugar water.
“Okay, don’t tell me. I know what I’m worth and that’s what matters.” When Freddy Mercury argued in song that nothing really mattered, Vernelda rose with Delvina, turned off the single overhead light and went to bed.
“It would have been my biggest role ever, Vern.” Molly passed her fingers over the flame of the candle. “So what if it was just a porno flick? At least it would have been acting.”
Molly watched Delvina sleep peacefully on a soiled mattress beyond a barricade of sleep-dredged junky bodies. The toddler was overdressed for summer in Zeller’s specials: pink-rosebud print pants, pink acrylic sweater, pink nylon socks and pink ribbons that secured heavy black braids. With her on the bed was a pierced and tattooed youth. He was passed out: Vernelda’s call from emergency had come on time.
Molly picked her way across the room. Her plastic sandals were already slick with sweat from the early morning summer heat and her inner thighs chafed beneath her blue-green sundress. As she bent over Delvina, Molly made up her mind. Delvina was the most beautiful child ever born. The most talented. She was born to be a star.
As Molly carried the child from the room, a cold hand grabbed her ankle. “Hey, man,” the owner of the hand said. “You with Social Services?”
“It's me, Jim. Molly. Vernelda's friend.”
“Oh. Cool.” The hand of Delvina’s father released like gelatin from a mold. “Gotta watch over my kid’s all.”
Molly ran past a diminutive Peruvian Indian curled up on his side. On his leg, a yellow cockatiel stretched its beak and shit. The bird’s squawk woke Delvina. “Momma,” she mewled. Molly saw that in the pink mouth two front teeth had black holes.
“It’s okay,” Molly soothed as she navigated the bottle hazard on the stairs. Delvina’s snot-smeared fist snarled in Molly’s hair.
“Hush, hush, baby,” Molly said. “It’s okay.” They entered a waiting Yellow Cab.
“Momma!” Delvina pulled a pink ribbon from one braid. It fell to the floor of the cab where Molly ground it into the rubber mat. “Greyhound Station, please,” she said.
The Pakistani cabby eyed her briefly as she rummaged through a suitcase. Ignoring him, she changed Delvina into a dress that matched her own. Over the radio a nasally virgin, accompanied by a sitar, beguiled a host of possible lovers. Molly dropped Delvina’s clothing onto the floor and then shoved them under the driver’s seat with a foot. She tied green ribbons onto the tips of Delvina’s braids.
“Hollywood!” she whispered into the child’s ear. “Here we come.”
“Momma.” Delvina’s voice was an oboe, deep with despair.
“Silly girl.” Molly held out a handful of jelly snakes as a bribe. “Momma’s right here.”
The cabby glanced back. “Some children’s people,” Molly said. Then she disarmed him with her movie star smile.
Causes Hannah Holborn Supports