Baby’s All Right
by Patricia Russo
The two of them still
smiled at Peggy when they ran into her in the lobby or in the laundry room
or on the street, that girl with the eyes of a surprised calf and her husband,
or at least her man. The father. A little, wiry guy, shorter
than her, who grinned readily despite broken front teeth, but whom Peggy
could not recall ever speaking. The girl was chattier. “Hi!
How are you? Nice day!” Smiling. Happy. Peggy would
nod. “The baby’s all right,” the girl would say. Always. Every
time they ran into each other. And Peggy would clench her jaw, and
look away from those surprised eyes, and nod again.
Babies cry. That’s
what babies do. Peggy knew that. On an airplane once, about
to go mad from the unrelenting cacophony of a dozen howling infants, she’d
noticed the serene countenance of the woman seated next to her. The
harried flight attendants grew more haggard and snappish by the second;
the other passengers scowled like demons and muttered sulphurous curses.
Peggy felt a great urge to stuff her fingers in her ears, but she was still
young enough to cringe at the thought of appearing childish in public.
Though she didn’t usually talk to strangers, after a couple of eternities
she blurted out to the woman next to her, “How can you stand it?”
That’s what they do,” the woman murmured, placidly. “That’s normal.
It’s when they don’t cry that you should worry. Remember that when
you have one of your own.”
Peggy never had had
any of her own, and it had been twenty years since she’d last seen the
inside of an airplane, but she’d remembered. Inscribed it as an item
on the list of truths she carried around in the back of her brain, along
with club soda gets out wine stains and objects in the mirror are closer
than they appear.
But the baby down the
hall cried all the damn time. Day and night and evening and afternoon.
The child never eased up; never drew in a breath without letting it out
as a screech. The downstairs neighbors pounded on their ceilings
and the upstairs neighbors banged on their floors; Peggy could hear each
percussive complaint through the thin walls (thin floors, thin ceilings)
of the building. She didn’t want to be like that – selfish, heartless
people with their mop handles and boots, just making things worse.
Whenever she glimpsed the couple in the hall, a girl so young she should
have been worrying about algebra quizzes instead of diapers and a not much
older man, they looked drained, exhausted. The girl would smile shyly.
Frequently the man’s face seemed puffy, as if he had been crying, too.
The first two weeks
after the couple and their howling baby moved in, Peggy thought she would
go crazy. The third week, she knew she would.
Looking for work is
a full-time job (another truth on her list) and for the first couple of
weeks of the sound wars Peggy was neck-deep in the quest, out of the apartment
twelve, fourteen hours each day, filling out every damn application in
existence within the city limits, writing and rewriting resumes at the
public library’s computer lab, interviewing, emailing, faxing, pulling
all-nighters at the one 24-hour copy center. She came home to eat
and sleep and wash up, and the shrieking baby and the banging neighbors
made her head whirl and her blood pressure spike; she slept with headphones
on and heavy metal stabbing into her ears. In the mornings she couldn’t
hear the sound of the toothbrush running over her teeth, but she could
still hear the baby wailing, ceaselessly, relentlessly. Needles in
her brain; nails scraping the underside of her skin. Brambles roiling
in her belly. Didn’t it ever sleep? Maybe it bawled in its
sleep, too, the way some people talk. Or walk. What did they
call it when babies refused to stop crying? Colic, or something,
Peggy thought. Or maybe the poor little thing was teething.
In any case, the crying couldn’t last forever. It had to stop sometime.
It didn’t. Peggy got taken
on as a long-term temp at a tax-preparer’s office, which meant night hours
sometimes and Saturdays every week, but she was still home a lot more than
when she’d been looking for work.
It never stopped.
Day after day, week after week. The pounding and the banging by the
irate ones upstairs and down escalated as well, as if in competition.
For every wail, a whack with the mop handle, for every shriek, a bang with
a shoe. For a while, it was an all-out battle of noise, but the baby
outlasted them all. The bangs and thumps and pound-pound-poundings
on the ceiling became intermittent, erratic, with less force behind them,
as if the neighbors had more or less given up and were frankly just going
through the motions now, their hearts not really in it.
The baby continued
to cry whole-heartedly. Peggy fantasized about pillows, fat, fluffy
white pillows pressing quickly down on a small red bawling face.
On the bus to work, her mind was full of images of fingers squeezing a
doll-sized neck. It wouldn’t feel like a doll, though. Mushy,
that’s how it would feel. Warm. Soft… On the bus home, her
reverie was of guns. No, one gun. One single big black gun,
and one bullet. One last noise, like a door slamming, to end it all,
terminate it, bring peace to the building. The other tenants would
give her a freaking medal.
The parents were in
the lobby when she reached home, both of them, the short silent father
laden down with grocery bags, the eternally surprised-looking mother struggling
with the mailbox key, jabbing it at the keyhole, repetitively, patiently,
Peggy opened her mouth
to say, You’ve got it upside down, when it struck her – both of the them.
Out here. Back from shopping. “Where’s the baby?” she blurted.
“The baby’s all right,”
the mother said, smiling shyly.
“No, where’s the baby?”
But Peggy could tell for herself, as soon as she got the front door open.
The wails echoed down the stairwell, bouncing off the grimy walls, reverberating
like shrieks in a canyon. “You left it alone?”
“The baby’s all right.”
The girl was still smiling. Still jabbing the upside-down key at
The father nodded.
Peggy swore and shoved
the heavy door wide, banging it off the wall. She shouldered past
the father and his shopping bags, seething. “What’s wrong with you?”
the girl said. “Everything’s all right.” Finally she stuck
the key in the right way, twisted it, and grinned hugely as the little
mailbox door opened up.
The mail is here and
all is right with the world. Jesus Christ, Peggy thought. Meanwhile
the baby cried, and cried, and cried. The batteries on her Walkman
gave out, and it was too damn late to go buy new ones; the only places
open in this neighborhood at this time of night were places you could get
a whole variety of stuff, including trouble, but not including batteries.
Peggy lay in the dark and fumed. Then she switched on the lamp, sat
up, and fumed.
At 4:37 a.m., she lost
Threw her head back
and screamed. Bolted out of bed, shot out of her apartment barefooted,
in ragged sweats, left her own door wide open. Lunged down the hall,
hit the parents’ door with both fists, a thunderous overhand slam.
Yelled at the top of her lungs. “What the fuck is wrong with you?
Shut that baby up, shut it the fuck up!”
Peggy beat on the door
again, and again. The bullshit lock popped and the door jumped open.
Crap, Peggy thought,
her arms still raised. Her fists tingled, then throbbed dully.
A thread of warm liquid trickled down her left arm.
I broke the goddamn
It was dark in the
apartment. The baby cried, and cried, and cried.
Slowly, Peggy lowered
her arms. Her hands flashed sharp, jagged stabs of pain in rhythm
with her heartbeat. Maybe I broke more than the goddamn door.
A shadow moved in the recesses of the apartment, and then a light came
on, yellow and not too bright, one bulb in an unshaded lamp perched precariously
on a bulging cardboard box.
The place was a mess.
Garbage all over the floor, heaps of filthy clothes, no furniture beyond
boxes and a couple of chairs that had obviously been dragged out ofthe
trash. The stench of piled-up diapers whumped into the hall.
The baby wailed, but Peggy couldn’t see it. Couldn’t see a crib,
either, or a bassinet. Where the hell was it?
The girl with the too-wide
eyes was standing next to the shaky lamp, wearing jeans and a zipped-up
jacket. "Hello,” she said.
The warm liquid running
down Peggy’s left hand felt thick. Heavy. She didn’t want to
look. I must be dripping all over the floor, she thought, but still
she didn’t look.
She took a step into
the apartment. As she entered, a movement near the dark, shadowy
far wall caught her eye. The husband, sitting up. They sleep
on the floor, Peggy thought. Why am I not surprised?
The man rubbed his
eyes. The baby kept bawling.
“Could you do something
about that baby?” Peggy shouted. “Could you keep it quiet for once?”
She still couldn’t see where the baby was. The crying was coming
from somewhere to her left, deep in the shadows.
“The baby’s all right,”
said the mother.
“The hell it is.
It never stops crying. Come on, people!” Peggy was yelling.
She hadn’t meant to yell. But then she hadn’t meant to bust the door
down, either. “Your kid’s crying all the time. You’ve got to
The girl blinked at
Might as well be talking
to the goddamn wall. Peggy took another step into the apartment,
kicking aside a discarded t-shirt. A wildness possessed her: she
didn’t quite know what she was going to do, but she was going to do something,
and whatever that something was, the baby was in it, central to it.
Directly ahead of Peggy,
smack square in her line of sight – the window. Singular. Only
window the apartment had. A naked window, without a blind, without
a shade, without even a rag of a curtain. The light from the lamp’s
dim bulb reflected dully off the dirt-smeared glass. Knowing this
building, the damn thing was probably painted shut. But she’d broken
a door, and broken her skin…it wouldn’t be too much more to break a window
as well. Fitting, actually. Complete the triad. All things
come in threes, after all. Like Momma, Poppa, and baby makes...
“Where is it?” she
snapped at the girl, who just blinked at her again. “The baby.”
The baby cried and
“The baby’s all right,”
the girl said.
“No,” someone said,
quietly, the word dropping into the short spasm of silence between the
baby’s inhale and next bawling exhale. At last, Daddy speaks up,
Peggy thought, looking over at the husband, but the man was still sitting
as he had been, his head leaning back against the wall, passive, silent.
Though a hint, a dash, a tiny smidgen of surprise was spreading across
his dead-fish face.
“The baby’s not all
right,” Peggy said, the wildness still roiling within her. She was
afraid, coldly afraid, of herself.
“No, it isn’t,” said
the quiet voice, a man’s voice, behind her, and she turned.
It was a young man,
younger than the father though not as young as the mother, and he stood
in the open doorway – or, actually, just a fraction outside the open doorway.
He ran his hand over the splintered edge of the frame where the cheapjack
lock had torn out. Damn, it’s the super, Peggy thought, and then
the young man knelt, looked down, then looked up, and Peggy saw he had
the identical surprised-calf eyes as the girl, and thought, damn, even
worse, it’s her brother. But the girl was gazing at the young man
Steadiness was returning
to Peggy, a little. The baby wailed and wailed; she waited until
it paused for breath, and started, “I didn’t mean --- “ Her timing
was bad, unpracticed; the stab at apology was cut off by a fresh howl.
To break the door.
“I’m glad you did,”
the young man said. Touching his fingertips to the floor, he moved
his hand around in a slow, intense circle. Rubbing. Wiping?
Gathering up. He rose, and put his fingers, darkened now and dripping,
on the broken wood that had held the lock bolt. Then he stepped across
The baby cried and
“Hello,” said the young
man, to the girl whose face was a mirror of his. “Hello,” he said,
to the man sitting in the dark, his head leaning against the wall.
His voice was sad.
Neither one of them
answered him, though the girl smiled her shy smile.
“Mom,” he said.
“Dad,” he said.
He said, “The baby’s
not all right.”
He had the woman’s
oval, sharp-chinned face; he had the man’s curly dark hair and slight build.
His clothes were nondescript, old jeans, old jacket, old sneakers.
They could have come from almost any place, almost any time.
“Who are you?” Peggy
said. Her hands ached. The blood on them had gone all sticky.
“John,” the young man
said, and the girl with his face smiled broadly.
“John is a good baby,”
she said. She clasped her hands together and squared her shoulders,
as if awaiting congratulations. The father nodded jerkily, smiling
Though the one window
was closed, in all probability painted shut, Peggy felt a cold breeze on
The young man stepped
over crumbled paper sacks and empty soda cans, stepped over pizza crusts
and a tangle of colored wires that appeared as if they belonged inside
an old lamp post. He skirted a pile of used diapers, loosely heaped
up atop a spread-out plastic bag. Pausing at a stack of cardboard
boxes, frowning, he laid his hand – the stained hand – on the top one,
then moved on. To another cardboard box, its top closed, the four
flaps flat, criss-crossed and overlapped. The young man tore up one
end flap, then pulled back the others. He reached deep into the box,
and came out with the baby in his arms.
So small, Peggy thought.
That was her first, instant reaction, before even Oh shit, I don’t believe
this. The baby was tiny, almost new-born size, and wearing nothing
but a grimy disposable diaper sagging halfway off its butt. His butt.
Bald, red-faced, his skin wrinkly and his ribs showing, the kid looked
more like a tiny old man than an infant.
“In a box?” Peggy burst
out. “In a goddamn cardboard box?”
The young man turned,
the baby nestled in the crook of his elbow, his other arm also surrounding
him, embracing him, cradling him.
The baby was quiet.
The baby wasn’t crying
“Who are you?” Peggy
“John,” he said.
“Right,” she said,
and didn’t know what she meant by that. Because after all, every
Tom, Dick, and Harry in the world was named John.
The young man did not
look at the parents. He walked out of the apartment, the quiet baby
hugged tightly to his chest. The baby was so small and the young
man’s embrace so enveloping the child’s form was almost hidden, but as
they passed her Peggy caught a quick glimpse of his face, eyes closed in
peaceful sleep, still red, still tear-streaked, but smiling. Unmistakably,
The young man was not
smiling. He still looked sad.
The young man did not
touch the doorframe as he left the apartment. Crossing the threshold,
he took a long step, a measured, stretched-out stride. Stepping over
the blood on the hallway floor.
Peggy waited a few
minutes, giving him time to get to the end of the hall, then to make his
way down the stairs and out the front door. Three minutes, four minutes.
It was a long time to stand there, silently, in the dark after the girl
switched off the lamp and lay down beside her husband again, murmuring
something over and over that might have been All right, but this way when
Peggy emerged into an empty hall, she could tell herself the hall was empty
because the young man had walked down to the end of it, and walked down
the stairs, and walked out into the street, and walked on to wherever it
was he was going. Whatever place in this world was his.
They still smile at
her when they meet, the girl with the surprised eyes and her slight, silent
husband. “The baby’s all right,” she says, but now she says it with
her hands pressed hard to her swollen belly. As her belly’s grown,
the rest of her has thinned; the girl looks like a stick-figure who’s swallowed
a balloon. A rapidly expanding balloon. She’s going to have
the baby any day now. The size she is, it might even be twins.
Whenever Peggy sees
them, she looks away, even though looking away is useless; she has seen.
She knows. And a pain spreads through her and settles down in her
own belly, a mean, raw gut-ache that bites deep and stays for days, for
while the unlikely may occur many times, Peggy is much too old to
believe that the flat-out impossible could ever happen twice.