I don’t ever want to have to say the words, my grandbaby’s daddy.
Linda had told her friend Tricia that a week before. The words had swollen in her mouth as she’d spoken them: grandbaby’s daddy. Not son-in-law, which implied a morsel of affection toward the person who’d impregnated her daughter. Grandbaby’s daddy sounded contemptuous every time she uttered it. She forced herself to stop thinking about it because she had to prepare. The boys would arrive that afternoon.
Boys. She was loath to call them that.
Linda had never hosted a meeting to force two teenage boys to sign away the rights to their unborn child. For days she’d agonized over minute details. Should she offer refreshments? Should she place flowers on the table? How should she arrange the chairs? Now, she stood in her dining room and assessed where she wanted to seat everyone, in the same way she had last Thanksgiving when her uncle Sammy and aunt Sheila were at odds over something so inconsequential it had been forgotten by Christmas. Soon she would have to devise a new seating plan for Thanksgiving because Taylor would be showing.
The sound of the back door creaked as Tricia slid through from the garage. She’d volunteered to help arrange the seats and paused to smoke a cigarette.
The women had already hauled all the chairs into the den so Linda could survey the dining room. All that remained was the walnut-finished table that seated twelve. Linda had gone through eight dining room tables in the fifteen years her family had lived in that home—each one was larger and possessed a sturdier table top than the last. Her husband, Ricky, had said she wouldn’t be satisfied until she hauled in a slab of marble and pulled chairs around it.
After ruminating, Tricia and Linda decided to place three chairs on one side—for Linda, Taylor and Tricia—and four on the other side. If the boys brought more than one family member or their own lawyer to this meeting, they would have to stand.
“Where’s your husband? Where’s Ricky? And Kevin? I haven’t seen him yet.” Tricia huffed as she carried one of the extra chairs through the kitchen. “We could make them do all this.”
Linda set down her chair to open the door that connected the house to the garage. To convince her husband and her son to leave that day, she’d purchased them tickets for the rodeo.
“I didn’t know the rodeo was in town. Does Ricky even like the rodeo?” They left the chairs along the wall in front of Linda’s Ford Taurus.
“He likes anyplace that serves funnel cakes.”
When they returned to the dining room, Tricia pondered whether moving the table closer to the windows would create a menacing effect.
“We will be backlit. It’ll give the impression that we are the hand of God.”
“I like that.” Linda grabbed an end of the table and gestured for Tricia to do the same.
They heard a rustling sound and turned to see Taylor standing in the door frame. Since she had announced her pregnancy, Taylor would walk into rooms and watch her mother. Often Linda wondered if Taylor wanted to be yelled at, like a dog that had pissed on the carpet. She disregarded her daughter’s presence, but Tricia couldn’t bear the tension and waved. “Hey, hon.”
Taylor lifted her hand then slunk away.
Linda sighed. Dumb-ass. They were all dumb-asses.
The cleaning lady, Christina, had found the test in Taylor’s garbage. Linda felt bad for the woman. Poor Christina, with her long hair that she was always touching like she was in love with it, who scrubbed toilet bowls wearing a long denim skirt and Keds tennis shoes. That pitiful woman stood a month before in Linda’s kitchen gripping the early-detection-test box.
Linda didn’t associate the test with Taylor at first. Misreading Christina’s nervousness for excitement, she thought her cleaning lady was the one pregnant. Christina had presented the box to Linda like an offering. “I found this.” When Linda didn’t accept it, she placed the box on the counter between them and then returned her anxious fingers to combing the ends of her hair.
The plastic shifted inside the cardboard, and Linda finished Christina’s sentence in her mind: in Taylor’s bathroom.
“What did it say?”
Linda began to sweat, a cold frigid sweat that left her skin clammy. Her heart smacked against her breastbone. She was amazed she remained upright. Underneath her skin, she’d been assembled like a doll, her ribbon joints now becoming unraveled, threatening to tumble her limbs, torso and head into a heap of parts on the linoleum.
She thanked Christina for bringing this to her attention and paid her for the day’s work. She then called the bank and told her supervisor that she wouldn’t be returning to work that day. Her nearly 20 year tenure as office manager at First Associates Credit Union allowed Linda certain privileges. She thought about how Christina cleaned the homes of their neighbors, several of whom attended the same church, linking a short chain from her daughter’s uterus to the ears of Brother Billy Anderson of Living Rock Baptist Church.
Linda circled the kitchen like a dog locked inside, uncertain where to go or what to do. Cardboard box now clutched in her hand, she found her way to Taylor’s room.
Who’s the daddy?
The question echoed in her mind. Her daughter had never dated. As far as Linda had noticed, Taylor exhibited none of the tale-tell signs of boy-craziness. Taylor wouldn’t wear dresses, couldn’t stand pop music and refused to wear makeup. She had no crushes that Linda knew of, and, for a time, Linda had thought maybe her daughter was a lesbian. Considering the circumstances, she would have found that to be a blessing, at least then she would have gone to college. Above the bed, Linda observed the multitude of ribbons and trophies, team photos and summer camp medals for everything from archery to swimming. This was what she knew of her daughter. As if waking from a dream, she realized she was sitting on Taylor’s bed. I guess we could put the crib in that corner.
The test waited for Taylor when she came home from school that day. After Linda rushed her son Kevin upstairs for homework, she invited Taylor into the kitchen for a chat. The box rested under glass like a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.
“Who’s the daddy?”
Taylor sat across from her mother, her arms folded tight against her chest. The pregnancy test box—shocking pink and white, covered in plus and minus signs—glistened under the dome of the glass cake plate. Linda had trouble reading her daughter’s face. She didn’t see shame or fear, which was what she’d wanted. At best, she thought, her daughter looked resigned.
“I don’t know.”
The balmy stickiness returned to prickle Linda’s skin, and her mouth lost all moisture. “What in the hell do you mean, you don’t know?”
Taylor somehow made herself smaller. Some time ago, Taylor had passed Linda in both height and width, making Linda feel as if she needed to stand on a chair to scold the girl for not picking her dirty softball uniform off the bathroom floor. At that moment, however, Linda felt the right height.
“Really?” Linda leaned back in the chair. “Try me.”
“I’ve got it narrowed down to two, maybe three boys.”
Linda’s head bobbled on her neck and her eyes widened. “You have been having sex with three different boys?” Her voice dropped low, then rose high, then dropped low again. “Why . . . why . . . why?”
“I told you, it’s complicated.”
Linda peppered her with speculation: she liked three different boys? No. Was she attacked? No. Had she been drinking? No. “For crying out loud, Taylor, you’ve got help me out because I don’t understand the situation!”
“It was a contest.” Taylor’s eyes focused on a scratch-mark in the center of the table. “Some girls on the softball team were talking about whose had the most sex and then, I don’t know, it became this joke . . . ” She paused and Linda wanted to choke her and scream, SPIT IT OUT, TAYLOR! “We called it The Tournament. We wanted to see which girl could have the most sex with the most boys.”
Linda absorbed what her daughter said, and then questions flew through her mind. “So you all got together and did it, like in a pile?” Her nose crinkled in disgust.
“Ew, no. Gross.”
“I don’t know, Taylor. It all sounds pretty gross to me.”
Taylor tucked her hair behind her ear and began to explain the rules. “You got points for what you did with a boy, and the one with the most points at the end of the month won.” Taylor relaxed, describing the system in the same tone she used to explain what games her team had to win to make the semi-finals. “You get 50 points for a blow job, 75 points for regular sex, you get a 5 point bonus for each different . . . ”
Linda jumped from her chair. “Oh my God, stop telling me this!”
“But you asked me!” Taylor’s voice squeaked, then it dissolved into weeping.
Linda walked to the kitchen island and placed her hand on the cool granite to steady herself. She took a deep breath and saw Taylor wipe her eyes with her T-shirt collar. They were quiet for a moment, but one more question nagged Linda. “What do you have to do to get 100 points?”
Taylor’s eyes returned to the spot on the table. “Anal.”
“JEE-sus, Taylor!” Her exclamation leaned toward hysteria. She didn’t know what to do with the information. “Okay. You need to go upstairs and just not be here in this room anymore. And take that pregnancy test with you.”
Taylor obeyed and lifted the glass to snatch the plastic test. She shoved it in her pocket and stood to leave, but Linda stopped her. “No, wait. Sit back down.”
The questions: one question led to the next, which led to the next, and on and on like an unwinding spool of ribbon.
Linda sat across from her daughter.
She instructed her eyes to focus on Taylor’s face. Otherwise her instinct was to look over her daughter’s shoulder, at the wall, at the table, anyplace that was not her child. Linda felt tears gather in the corners of her eyes and struggled to keep her voice from quaking. “Why did you do it?”
“No.” Linda popped her fist on the table. The mental dam blocking her tears had burst. “That is not an answer.”
“All the girls were doing it, Momma.” She said this in a tone that accused her mother of being old-fashioned and silly.
“That doesn’t explain why you did it, and I want to know why.”
Taylor threw her hands in the air. “Because they didn’t think I would do it. They were all like, ‘Taylor, you’re so good and sweet and you’d never let a boy do that.’ or ‘You don’t want play; you’re not the type.’“ She crossed her arms. “I decided I did want to play, and I wanted to win.”
Linda thought of Taylor on the field. How many times had she witnessed her daughter sliding into bases and plowing down catchers who hogged the plate? “Did you? Did you win?”
Taylor set her jaw in the same way she did when she missed a pop fly on the field. “No. Millicent Hayes beat me by 100 points.”
By the time Linda released Taylor, she had learned that only four girls participated in the contest. Four girls had played; 16 girls had totaled, tallied and cheered on. God, teenage girls were stupid.
Linda stewed on that thought for a week. She had to take an afternoon off work to shuttle Taylor to the OB/GYN, who confirmed that Taylor was eight weeks pregnant. Linda gawked at the little heartbeat as it thumped in double-time. After that, she left Taylor at home with an ultrasound picture to keep her company. Linda had intended to make an appearance at work, but instead she rambled around town, avoiding both her coworkers and being alone in the house with Taylor.
She pulled into the Sonic Drive-In and ordered a Diet Coke without realizing what she was doing. As she stared at pictures of burgers, shakes and hot dogs, she thought about all the things she did right: college degree, career, good husband. Linda had been the first of her family to go to college. She thought about her wild days before she met Ricky, running around with Tricia and their crew of nasty girls. Linda’s first week of college, she had scurried to health services for birth control. It was free. Why the hell not? There had been girls in her dorm, on her hall, who found themselves pregnant. Linda had never judged them for being slutty, but she’d always wondered how they could be so stupid.
She couldn’t believe she had raised such a stupid child. They were all stupid; those girls, who thought they were so grown-up and wild. Those little liars who had signed a school-wide abstinence pledge for their human development course. She remembered the afternoon Taylor had come home and said she had signed a piece of paper in class promising that she would wait until she was married to have sex. Linda had assumed her child was thinking about her future, but lingering underneath Linda’s pride was the awareness that it was only a piece of paper.
The words stupid and liars and girls repeated themselves in her head over and over until she found herself leaving the Sonic without receiving the Diet Coke she’d ordered.
Linda drove the 50 yards to the high school, wheeling into the lot and parked her car at the fence. The girls on the team stood in their positions on the field. From the mound, Allison Smallwood lobbed the softball across the plate to Amanda Henderson, who swatted strikes. Linda stepped from her car and waved—”Hello, girls!”— as if she were seeing them at one of their championship games. Walking through the open gate beside the dugout, Linda recognized the looks on their faces when she took that first step on the dirt: they were scared shitless. Millicent Hayes whipped her head around as if trying to locate the best exit to run through.
“Well guess what girls? You all lost. So sorry, but Taylor gets the BIG PRIZE of your little tournament. Let’s tally up. Who got the most points? Oh, wait, where are our contestants?” Her voice took the tone of one of the game announcers. “Number 7, Allison Smallwood, Number 44, Mia Knox, and our big tournament champion Number 12, Millicent Hayes! Come on girls, don’t be shy.”
Linda walked straight to home plate. Amanda dropped her bat, and she and the catcher Lauren Edwards moved out of the way. The rest of the girls on the team stood dumbfounded in their spots. Linda could see some of the girls in the dugout whispering behind their hands. The outfielders crept closer. Linda’s presence on the field solidified the rumors of Taylor’s pregnancy.
“I must know, how many boys did it break down to overall? Did you cut a swath through the whole male population? What do you get for a teacher or a coach? I already know what you get for anal. Millicent won by 100 points, so I think we all know what she was willing to do for this title.”
Millicent wept from shortstop. None of the other girls left their bases to comfort her.
Linda seized a stray bat and held it like a cane. Coach Wilcox and Coach Hanson approached her with questions, but she ignored them. She pointed the bat at each girl. “What was your score, Mia? Allison? I want to know. Taylor got 900 points and a baby. I guess she got the consolation prize in the end. Yep, a baby.”
Coach Wilcox asked her to stop and gestured toward the gate as if he was trying to herd Linda from the field, but she wouldn’t budge.
“How many of you dumbasses knew that if you nail every boy in school, that you can get pregnant? Well, except you, Millicent. Unlikely to get pregnant from anal. I guess taking it up the ass wasn’t listed on the abstinence-only pledge?”
Coach Hanson placed his hand on her arm, but she jerked from him. “Don’t you dare touch me Lloyd Hanson! Don’t think you are so innocent. You were nailing Janie Watson a few years back and that girl was barely 18.”
“Damnit, Linda! That’s uncalled for!” Coach Wilcox pulled himself into the same stance he used when he challenged umpires. “If you don’t calm down we are going to have to call the police.”
Hysterical laughter bubbling inside her. “How could you not know what these girls were doing? They are in your care. We trust them with you for tournaments, overnight trips. Do you know how many afternoons my daughter has spent with these girls? And here they have been plotting and scheming behind everyone’s back. How could you not know about this?” She was aware her questions were more for herself than these men.
“Can we at least move this inside?” Coach Wilcox lowered his voice, and Linda conceded, knowing she would have more to say in the privacy of his office. In fact, she would insist all the parents be called.
As she stalked away, bat limp in her hand, she caught the eye of the pitcher, Allison Smallwood, with her blonde hair pulled tight in a French braid. Allison popped her gum and set her square jaw at Linda. At that moment, Linda decided Allison was the one who’d orchestrated the sex tournament. Whether it was true or not didn’t matter; she never liked Allison Smallwood.
After Linda’s softball field spectacle, the rumor mill churned. Linda endured phone calls from concerned and nosy friends. One night Ricky entered the house with a determined look on his face, breezing past Linda who assembled dinner in the kitchen. “Don’t go nowhere. We’re gonna talk.” Quick as a cat, he slipped into his old holey T-shirt and basketball shorts and returned to the kitchen.
She could tell her husband had been contemplating this discussion all day. Holding the lid of her Crockpot, she poked the beef roast with a plastic spoon, then put the lid back on the pot and turned to face her husband with one hand on her hip. He sat in a chair at their breakfast nook table. “What are we going to do about this baby?”
She was certain she gave him the bewildered look of someone who had watched a horse trot through her kitchen. Choosing not respond to dumb-ass questions, she pulled plates from the cabinet. She loved how he announced this like she hadn’t been asking herself that same question over and over, every day and every night, since she found out. She set the plates on the counter and faced him.
“Oh, so now you want to be a participant in this dilemma? Okay, fine. What are we going to do about this BA-BY?” She walked to the silverware drawer and jerked it open, snatching forks from the drawer one at a time and slapping them on the counter. “You been hiding in your man cave while I been carting her pregnant ass to the doctor. What are we gonna do?”
“Hey.” He rapped his knuckle on the table, “I been processing while you’ve been making an ass out of yourself on the softball field. So what’s the plan?”
Linda leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. “Ain’t no plan. She’s pregnant, about eight weeks now. She don’t know which of those little assholes is the father. Oh, and I am pretty sure the steak knives she won for coming in second place in that ridiculous contest should get here any day now.”
“God, Linda. I’m just trying to get a straight answer.”
She whipped the bread knife from the wood block and sliced a French loaf she’d purchased from the Kroger bakery that afternoon.
He knocked a rhythm on the kitchen table. “Have you and her talked about her . . . options?”
She eyed her husband, and wished he possessed the balls to say the word. “Options? You mean her giving it up for adoption?”
“Or the other thing.”
She stopped slicing. She hadn’t thought her husband had ever considered that Taylor had options, but now he opened this door of possibility, and her heart rat-a-tated in her chest like a snare drum. She narrowed her eyes at him, “Are we really going to discuss this?”
“I don’t see why not?”
She had one hundred reasons why not: one hundred white crosses that were planted in their church yard that she passed every day on her way to work, one hundred white crosses planted for children who were aborted. She felt her hypocrisy weighing on her. The night before, after everyone had gone to sleep, she had sneaked on the Internet and researched Taylor’s options. They could tell people Taylor lost the baby. When she’d finished researching, she cleared her computer’s history, as if she had been searching for porn.
“We could drive to Nashville. It’s the closest. I would have to give consent anyway, so I would take her and when we were done, we would just drive home.”
“What’s it gonna cost?”
“Why?” She snapped. “You think it’s going to be cheaper in St. Louis? It costs what it costs.” Linda ignored his ugly look because the argument was futile. “Doesn’t matter. I don’t think she’ll do it.”
“Maybe she don’t get a choice.”
“We can’t force her.”
She then crossed her hands on her chest and linked her thumbs, a gesture to ensure she wouldn’t strangle him. “Because that is the kind of shit that gets you on TV! My parents made my abort my baby!”
He raised his hands. “Alright, Smart Ass. You know everything. Did she tell you she wanted to keep this baby? Have y’all even talked about it?”
Linda paused to consider, but dismissed her doubt. She knew she was right. To prove it, she bellowed for her daughter across the house. “Taylor!” Linda returned to the Crockpot, repeating the call and pause until she saw her daughter round the corner.
Linda dished a portion of pot roast onto a plate. “I was wondering, hon, have you picked out a name for the baby, yet?”
Taylor hesitated, as if she sensed the setting of a trap. “I was thinking River because it would work for either a boy or a girl.”
Linda did not look at her husband. “Well, that sounds real nice.”
Ricky slapped his hand on the table. “Shit.” Linda and Taylor winced as he burst from his chair like a bear on its hind legs and stormed out the back door.
Linda forced a smile. “Dinner’s ready. Go get your brother.”
The boys would arrive soon.
Linda placed a pitcher of water and a quartet of clear glasses on the table. Her dining-room now looked like a boardroom. She hoped the sterility of the room would deter any emotional outbursts.
Linda heard Tricia’s car pull into the garage. She had run home an hour ago to change clothes. Tricia wasn’t the type to wear a power-suit—too petite and stubborn to fall into lawyer clichés—but her department store ensemble was sharp enough to cut glass. “This looks great.” Tricia smiled. “I guess you have everything ready.” She placed her attaché on the table, and slipped her keys and cigarettes into the front pocket. She touched Linda’s arm, who met the gesture with a wan smile. “Hey, it’s going to be okay.” She pulled a wad of legal documents from her case, which reminded Linda of the roll of curled paper in children’s illustrations of Santa’s “Naughty and Nice” lists. By Christmas, Taylor would be six months along.
“You’re sure they will sign?”
“Yes.” Tricia spoke with the certainty of someone who had been asked if they would like a glass of sweet tea.
The agreement had been Tricia’s idea. Linda had prayed over the dilemma, and like a bolt of lightning the answer had come to her while she’d vacuumed her car. The words had manifested like the voice of God calling to her, and she felt stupid for not hearing it before: Get Tricia. Tricia would have the answer. If anyone could construct a decent compromise out of this situation, it was Tricia. The morning after Linda heard her daughter announce the potential name for the baby, she’d rushed to her friend’s office. No appointment needed for Linda, whose job in college had been to secure Tricia’s hair while she puked.
While Linda cried, Tricia repeated “I know . . . you’re right . . . I know . . . you’re right . . . ” After Linda was wrung dry from tears, Tricia changed course from sympathetic friend to problem solver. “What is it that you want?”
“I don’t want to have a conversation that begins, ‘My grandbaby’s daddy.’“ For years Linda had listened to her coworkers at the bank whine about their children’s biological fathers and mothers. She’d found interfering grandparents challenging enough while raising her own kids that she couldn’t process the idea of having another parent undermine every decision due to romantic bad blood.
“What does Taylor want?”
“Apparently she wants this baby.”
Tricia leaned forward and lowered her tone. “You know I am going to have to talk to her, and that she is going to be my client?” Linda nodded. Tricia straightened a stack of folders on her desk. “Does she love either of these boys? Does she want them in her life?”
“She’s pregnant because she was in a sex contest. I don’t know where her head is at!”
“Then, this should be simple.” Tricia said. “We can have them sign a contract. As long as they refrain from contact with Taylor and the baby, you never really have to know who the father is. If they want to know whether they are the father or not, then we can draw up a paternity agreement, child support payment schedule . . . ”
“But I don’t want them in our life.”
“That’s the thing, Linda, they don’t want to be in your life either. Especially when they find out how much it’s going to cost them in the long run: child support, lawyer’s fees, cost of the paternity test . . . Yeah, they’ll cut and run.”
The boys had arrived at the same time and Linda was relieved. She hadn’t wanted to make conversation with one of the little shitheads while they waited for the other one to appear.
Taylor crept downstairs in an oversized University of Kentucky sweatshirt and an old pair of jeans. Her hair was pulled into a frumpy ponytail. Linda wondered if this sad outfit was an attempt at an apology. She could save it. Besides, Linda knew this dumpy fashion choice was not for her benefit, but for Ricky, who hadn’t looked Taylor straight in the face since the story broke. Even though Ricky was gobbling funnel cakes with Kevin at the rodeo, Taylor was still trying to show penance.
The night they became certain that Taylor planned to keep the baby, Ricky never returned to the house for dinner. Linda made him a plate of pot roast then found him seated on the lawn mower in the garage. She handed him the plate, a fork and a paper towel. Ricky balanced the plate on his belly while he ate.
She didn’t want him to be alone, but she didn’t want to talk, either. She walked to the deep freeze and retrieved a Popsicle, then slid onto the top of the freezer, allowing garage dirt to stain her jeans. They ate under the florescent light, the blue-black tones of dusk visible from the garage windows. For them, rifts could be repaired by sitting together in the same room, but tonight Linda sensed they needed more. “Hey, babe?” Her words were muttered from around the chunk of cherry ice in her mouth. He looked at her as she swallowed. “You want to build a fire in the backyard and burn her softball glove?”
He wiped his mouth with the paper-towel and pursed his lips in contemplation. “Yeah, I do.”
Once the flames took, they reconsidered their original plan. Neither had the courage to be that cruel. Instead, they stood together and watched the orange flames. Linda tossed a handful of dry leaves into the fire to allow the fall smell to envelop them. Standing side by side, Ricky reached and took Linda’s hand. She felt calm wash over her.
“Do we have any marshmallows?”
“I think we do.” She turned to walk in the house, but he wouldn’t release her hand. When she looked back, he gripped her fingers. “It’s going to be all right, right?” His question sounded like a plea.
“Yeah, babe.” She squeezed his hand back and nodded. “It’s going to be fine.”
It was going to be fine.
The sound of Taylor opening the front door pulled Linda from the memory. As she listened to their footsteps approach the room, Linda smoothed down her blouse and conjured her game face. Linda thought ahead to the upcoming evening once the boys had signed: what she would cook for dinner, removing her bra and slipping her nightgown over her head, lying on her pillow next to Ricky. She thought tomorrow she would make pancakes before church and convince Taylor not to name the baby River.
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