It's picture day at Walmart, and my neighbor, Beth, and I are going to get pictures taken of our babies. I am planning to send one to Jack's parents to show them the grandchild they have never acknowledged. Melanie is crying with hunger, and the phone is chirping at me. Instead of ignoring the phone, as I should, I answer it.
"Gerald," I answer, juggling the crying Melanie. Gerald is a copy editor at the newspaper in Miami where I used to work before I had a baby, before I moved to Tallahassee for graduate school. I sit down in my Goodwill rocker and open my blouse for Melanie, who greedily lunges for my left breast. I'm always amazed by that fierce little shark attack and then her tiny firm hands holding my breast like a big white hamburger.
Gerald is despondent over his life, and it's not exactly the kind of conversation that one can politely end, saying "Look, I've got to go to Walmart," so I listen and commiserate.
"I'm so depressed," he says. "Leonard is in South America on a trip down the Amazon, researching the effects of deforestation with federal grant money while I'm putting commas in obits. Even you're better off."
"It's harder than I thought it would be, Gerald. My neighbor says she'll show me how to get on the WIC program - free cereal and cheese," I say.
As my baby drinks from my breast I'm thinking about the day, shortly after I became pregnant, that Jack told me I had to choose between him and motherhood. His brown eyes, which had always been so full of laughter, had turned hard as brass. I push the thought from my mind and stroke Melanie's pumping cheek.
"I want to face the elements," Gerald says.
"Day to day survival can be an adventure, Gerald," I tell him. Melanie is wet, and I don't know what she should wear for the pictures.
Gerald finally hangs up. And Melanie is now ready for her afternoon nap.
Will I ever get to Walmart? I wonder. I put Melanie in her playpen and hurry to the apartment next door. Beth says she'll be ready in about 20 minutes and hands me a couple of dresses for Melanie.
When Beth comes over, I have Melanie dressed in a pretty hand-made yellow and white dress and little yellow and white socks. I nearly strangle her snapping a bib around her chubby little neck so she won't drool all over the dress. Beth is a large woman with clear pretty skin and cheeks as pink as watermelon meat. She is so pretty, I think, with big liquid eyes and dark hair cut short and full. She's a good 30 pounds heavier than what television has dictated to us as acceptable, but she carries it well, like one of those Hawaiian queens of the past, sexiness spilling from every pore. Her husband, Raymond, is muscular and his skin color is a deep, chocolate brown. Beth calls little Shanda, a rambunctious mocha baby with a head full of soft, curly black locks, her "half-n-half."
"Melanie has such pretty white skin," Beth says. I don't tell her that I think the government should allow people only to have mixed babies like Shanda, that I think the result is so much nicer than either race originally is and that we'd all be better off with a combination of genetic characteristics. I guess I'm a reverse-Nazi like the inside-out sock on Melanie's small foot.
We go in a caravan to Walmart. Beth and Shanda in her car, Melanie and I in mine, and Raymond following in his car. At Walmart we all find parking spaces and head toward the doors. Raymond never says anything to me, which is fine. I prefer husbands who mind their own business and do not try to be my friend just because their wives are.
"Why didn't he ride with you?" I ask as we pass the yellow and red mechanical rocking horse outside the store.
"Because he's only staying for the picture," Beth answers. "He doesn't want to go shopping with me. I hate him."
An old man holds the door open for us. He has been hired just to do that, to be friendly and old and to nod his head at us like one of those dogs that people used to put on the back dashes of their cars. Walmart is so Oz-like, so cavernous and so crowded. I always expect the shoppers to break into song and the workers in their snappy red vests to leap onto their stations and kick up their heels in some Broadway dance routine.
We pass the little restaurant and then the women's clothes - flowered shorts, turquoise dresses, yellow T-shirts, all cheap and bright and new, almost magical. I'm tumbling in a kaleidoscope of color and fabric.
The photographers have set up a little studio in the middle of Walmart next to the lingerie section, and a crowd of people are there, most of them with babies or little kids. Good grief, I think, Melanie will never last this long. We put our names on the long list. Shanda begins to fuss.
"Take her down to automotive and show her the automotive parts, Raymond," Beth says. Raymond wordlessly removes Shanda from her stroller and wanders away. I grab a bag of cloth diapers, not because I am the great environmentalist (though I wish I were). I just think they might be cheaper in the long run
Melanie stares up at me with flying saucer eyes as if it is the first time she has ever noticed me. "What are you looking at?" I ask with a laugh. But she just keeps giving me that look of utter amazement, and a sharp little stab like a steak knife at my heart reminds me that if I were to disappear and be replaced by someone else, she would ultimately not know the difference.
Raymond decides not to wait with us. And so Beth and I gather with the others and watch people get their pictures taken: a young man in an air force uniform, a brown-toothed woman with a wooden smile, and two scowling teenage girls who get their pictures taken together.
I look around at the rest of the crew and think, here we are, people with nothing better to do than wait in line for hours. Again, I acknowledge the fact that I am now a member of the poorest group of people in America: single mothers. I am in my element here at Walmart, and I'm not sure I'd rather be anywhere else. Here no one questions my ringless finger, the absence of a husband.
Two women with a little red-headed girl about 7 years old and a skinny little baby boy sit in the only two chairs. The baby boy is cute, and I'm glad to see another skinny baby. Melanie always looks a little puny next to Shanda, who is two months younger and at least eight pounds heavier.
I wander around in the underwear section, thinking I should buy some new panties. What if I meet someone? I can't fall in love with anyone while I'm still wearing Melanie's father's soft Jockey briefs, which are so much more comfortable than those silly little nylon bikinis I used to wear. One of these days I'll get some new underwear, but I'm not really worried about the possibility of a man undressing me any time soon.
I drift back over to the wait area. Only four people ahead of us now. And somehow I fall into conversation with the two women who have the only two chairs. One of them has oily hair in a ponytail and holds a baby boy. The other has short curly hair and is wearing a blue, terry-cloth, one-piece outfit, exposing most of her legs. She has a long red scar on her chest, and my eyes travel to it whenever we speak. I imagine her cut open by some angry boyfriend with a broken beer bottle in his hand. Then I notice another scar running along the inside of her leg. Her skin folds in toward the fresh pink line. Perhaps she was in a car wreck, or maybe her mobile home caved in during a tornado.
I have a scar like a horizontal zipper from my C-section hidden by Jack's old underwear, another reason I may never make love again. I cannot bear the thought of a new man running his hand across that ridge and asking, "What's this?" But I rather admire this woman who wears her scars so proudly.
"Your baby reminds me of Althea when she was just a baby," she says, nodding to the little red-haired girl who is twirling in circles by the boys' T-shirts.
Melanie has been angelic riding on my shoulder while we wait. The woman with the scars takes her friend's baby boy and follows me back over to Beth. I'm thinking about Jack and wondering if Walmart sells guns.
"I can't have any more children," she says. "I had a heart attack last April."
She has snapped me out of my self-absorbed pool of pain like a yoyo. I have never known anyone who had a heart attack, and she doesn't look much older than I am. I tilt my head attentively, and she loves it. This is real-life Geraldo. Her little girl, Althea, play acts a heart attack on the sidelines.
"I had open heart surgery," she says. "See this scar?" She holds out her leg, and I pretend I had not noticed it before.
"What's that from?"
"It's where they took a vein from my leg."
She has declared open season on herself as far as I am concerned, and I pepper her with questions. Where was she when it happened? What did it feel like? Where was the pain exactly? And lastly, boldly, I ask, how old she is.
"29," she says, and tells me that she had the heart attack at her mother-in-law's house and the pain was not that bad in her chest, but her left arm hurt real bad.
"They misdiagnosed me at first," she says. "I'm still trying to decide whether to sue. The problem is I really like the doctor."
None of us have any advice for her on that issue. Finally, miraculously, it is Melanie's turn to get her picture taken.
"I only want the package," I tell the photographer. The poor woman has been working without a break for hours.
"You have to take all seven poses," she says, "even if you're only getting the special."
"Well, I don't want the picture in the washtub," I tell her. I have already seen one little girl in all seven fakey looking poses. "And I don't want the forest background. The plain blue will be fine."
"All right," the photographer says. "You sit here and reach through the back like this so you can hold on to your baby."
Melanie maintains the poise of a beauty queen and grins toothlessly at the woman as she steps back and snaps the photo. Melanie smiles delightedly in every pose; I think she has made the photographer just a little bit happier, even though I have not.
"Please sit in the chair, Mother," she says crossly when I get up to see what Melanie will look like. I sit obediently. But then I behave badly again after the pictures are taken and her partner tries to sell me some hideous faux-gold charms: a necklace, a key-chain, and some other revolting facsimile of jewelry. I may be poor but I'm not ready to be tacky, too.
"We have a special on these charms, and if you don't get them now, they won't be on special when you come back, and if you decide you don't want them, you can just use the money towards the pictures," she says. All the while I'm shaking my head. The special on the pictures, by the way, is $4.95, but they try to dupe people like me into buying the deluxe package for $125.
"No, thanks," I answer.
"It's only six dollars for three of them. Should I put you down for three?"
"I'm not interested," I tell her.
"How about if I just put you down for one for $2," she says and starts writing.
"I swear to you. I swear I do not want a charm."
"O.K.," she says, sullen. "We'll notify you when your pictures are ready." I cannot help but wonder if my order will mysteriously get lost.
I go to the toy department while Beth gets Shanda's picture taken and I pick up a crib mirror for Melanie. It's $10 and comes with a chime. I can't really afford it, but I want Melanie to be able to look at herself in the mornings. One of the magazines I've read says that all babies like this.
Shanda's lips curl downward as if she is disgusted by the fake fur next to her skin, outraged that it isn't mink or at least velvet. Beth laughs behind her hand and rolls her eyes at me as I come back to the picture booth. The photographer gives up; they got two smiles out of Shanda and that's all they will get.
"Morrison!" the photographer reads the next name from the list and Beth and I gather up our purchases to leave. The woman with the scars stands up and looks around.
"Dammit, where is Althea?" She limps as she tramps toward the toy department.
On the way out, I ask Beth if she's going to give her parents one of the pictures.
"Are you kidding? They don't even speak to me anymore. It's the race thing." Ah, yes.
"I am going to send a picture to Jack's parents," I tell her.
"Do they know about her?" Beth asks.
"I sent them a letter, but they never responded. He probably told them she wasn't his." I picture them in their Nevada ranch home, doting on their legitimate grandchild, the son of Jack's sister. They never even called to see if she came out all right; they couldn't be bothered to send her a lousy little teddy bear. I suddenly realize that I am clenching my jaw again. Relax, I tell myself, petting Melanie's bunny-soft hair.
As we leave the cool air-conditioning of the store, we hear a child crying and both of us look at our babies to see who has let loose her grief of the moment, but Melanie is sleeping and Shanda just smiles at Beth. The crying gets louder, and we notice a couple of frightened and confused little boys standing by the mechanical rocking horse which is gyrating with mechanical menace. On the horse, head thrown back and tears spilling off her cheeks is the little red-haired girl, Althea. We approach slowly.
"She can't get off," one of the boys tells us.
"It won't stop," the other adds. Althea sobs in rhythm with the rocking horse; she looks like a little lost cowgirl. Beth kicks the rocking horse, but that does no good. I try to hold its head and that doesn't work either.
"One of us is going to have to lift her off," I tell Beth. Althea's sobs subside momentarily, but now she has the hiccups. I hand Melanie to Beth and climb up on the platform of the rocking horse. Althea's face is a mosaic of freckles and tears; her brown eyes are the eyes of all frightened children. I insert my hands underneath her arms and pull her up as far as she will go. Her weight, the solidness of her body surprises me. She smells like grape bubble gum and I can feel her blood pumping as her hands reach for my shoulders. Her legs are too long, so I tell her, "Raise your legs, sweetie." She does, and I bring her over the broken bobbing beast and sort of drop her onto the sidewalk. She sniffles once and staggers a little.
"You better hurry if you want to get your picture taken," Beth says to her, handing Melanie back over to me. Althea says nothing, but after a moment she runs back inside the store. The rocking horse continues its frenzied pace.
Back at the apartment complex, a cheap place built about 20 years ago, Beth and I stand at our doors fumbling for our keys. A chinaberry tree rustles in the breeze. The babies are tandem fussing, complaining to each other in their own language.
Beth squinches her eyes and says to me, "They're such babies." We both laugh, wave good-bye and go inside.
That night after I put Melanie to bed, I sit at the table and write out checks. After about five bills are paid, I realize that there is just enough for rent, but nothing left over for food. I am going to have to go down to the county health unit and see whether or not I can get on welfare.
My eyes are tired from staring at my checkbook and willing the figures to come out differently.
I go to my rocking chair and stare out the window into the black night. At the time I left my job at the newspaper and came up here to graduate school, it seemed the right thing to do. I didn't want to put Melanie in some daycare place from two in the afternoon until midnight. When would I see her? What would have been the point of having her? I thought the assistantship at the university would be enough, but I'm going to have to come up with something more from somewhere. Asking Jack for money was out of the question. He said he would move to another country before he would help me out. I feel like Althea, trapped on a machine that won't let me off. I stop rocking, get up and go to bed.
That night I dream that I am in a crater at the top of a mountain, and it is beautiful. The air is nice and cool and the sky is dark but then I try to get out of the crater and I can't. The cool air becomes cold. The dark, oppressive. I try to scream for help, but my throat is empty.
Melanie's grunts and whimpers wake me up. I hear the chime on Melanie's crib mirror and wonder what she is doing. She couldn't have figured the chime out by herself, so I get up and go to the corner of the room where I've placed her crib.
In the soft glow of the night-light, I can see that Melanie has fishtailed around the crib and is kicking her mirror. I move her body and stroke her cheek. She quiets down instantly.
"Melanie, how are we going to make it?" I ask. Her answer is a soft dreamy sigh, and I bend over to let her warm smell baptize me.
As I stand there holding on to the edge of her crib, studying her blemishless body, I wonder if Jack's mother felt this way leaning over Jack's crib. She must have. I realize that it isn't the poverty that has me trapped. Maybe I'm not trapped at all. In spite of the fact that I have little money and no husband, I have never felt the world so solid beneath my feet as I do standing beside the crib, watching this tiny pearl that is my child.
Pat MacEnulty is the author of the novel SWEET FIRE (Serpent's Tail Press, 2003). Picture Day will appear in her short story collection, THE LANGUAGE OF SHARKS, which will be published by Serpent's Tail Press, London, in 2004. She lives with her husband and dau