Natural Selection


It was fantastic the way the sun showed all their flaws, the neighborhood women out in the light like something exposed.  Standing around picnic tables like witches at a cauldron, dipping chips into batter that smelled like onions and eggs, drinking iced tea while men drank beer out of sweating cans, women in long fingernails, clickering along the edge of the bowl, feeling around for a napkin while they chattered with bits of chips and celery etched around their mouths.  I didn't know their names, had never seen most of them.  But I knew their men.  I'd seen them looking.  I walked Benny during the evening when the men took the kids to the playgrounds.  I put Ben on my hip and set out walking as the sidewalk blued into night and the houses began to glow orange and yellow against the darkness.
      Somehow that afternoon we ended up at the barbeque.  A flier had gone around and Mike thought it might be nice to socialize.  Benny was almost two and I had just learned I was pregnant with another.  Mike pushed Ben on the swing.  I could hear his little cackle as he hit the high points, his ahs as he rolled through in forward motion.  His blonde hair looked almost red in the sun, I remembered.  I never saw that red again.  I never looked.
      Mike pushed him higher and they were completely absorbed, completely gone.  A solid unit of two small cackling men.
      "Can you watch Joanna just a moment?" some woman asked, thrusting her child in to my arms.  "I have to run home for something and she just gets in to everything.  The terrible twos turned into the dreadful threes."
      She smiled and I tried to place her, if I knew her, where I knew her from.  If we'd ever had a conversation before I could not recall it.  And here I was, the sticky of her child, sweet washing over me.  I thought of the woman in terms of husband as she walked away, tried to picture her with a man.
      I stood halfway between the swing set where Mike and Benny and three or four other children played, stood halfway between them and the rest of the party.  Women in cotton dresses laughing as they fingered food, men sweating into polyester shirts with collars splayed like wings.  I leaned against a tree, feeling the child's weight pulling down on me, her fat legs cradling the new baby lodged inside me.
      "You're heavier than you look," I said into the top of her curlydark hair.  She smelled like lemons; her skin felt like a licked lollipop against my skin.
      "Which one is your father?" I asked her.
      "Pancake," the girl said, clapping her hands then pulling on her hair.
      "Daddy," I said.  "Dada.  Which one is he, sweetheart?"
      The girl made a sound like an engine starting and kicked her legs.  I leaned forward, pushing my back against the tree to leverage myself.  The girl kicked again and I dropped her.  I heard Benny ah-ing in the air, Mike laughing loud out at the world the way he did when he was sure he owned it.  I heard men sizzling steaks and drinking beer.  I heard the women speaking, but could not make sense of anything they said.  I heard a train somewhere far off moving out of town.  Leaves blowing sounded like water on sand.  Someone talked loudly, setting off a chorus of shouts in return.  And the little girl fell.
      I did not try to catch her.  I didn't know I should.  Her leg turned as she fell.  Her curlyblack head hit twice on a thick exposed root.
      She looked shocked for half a minute.  Then she began to cry.
      I imagined men and women rushing in to take her.  To whisk the girl and Mike and Benny away.  But no one noticed.
      After a few good wails a couple of women looked our way.  I set the girl on her feet, felt the back of her head at the lump growing there.  I set her on her feet and she took off running, crying, weaving back and forth as she ran as though she too were trying to dodge a bullet.  I did not see her mother.  Another woman turned and stared, started toward the child.
      "Mike," I called out to my husband, "let's go home."  He reached a hand out, slowed the swing, bringing Ben back to earth, and I held Mike's hand as he led me there.  
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