When Robert came into the bar with Naomi, they had between them a baby, maybe two years old. The baby wore what looked like one of Robert’s undershirts, which billowed around him, the bottom of it sweeping his chubby ankles. Mel had heard about his brother Robert’s grandkid. People in town had taken to calling it “that baby of Cherry’s” or just “that baby.” This was the first time he’d seen the child.
Robert and Naomi drove into Ely from McGill every couple of weeks, not so much to see Mel as to sit at his bar and drink for free while they elaborated on their plans to move down to Vegas. Mel had heard versions of this plan every time he’d seen them for the past four years, and he’d stopped encouraging them to go. McGill had been rated Most Economically Depressed Town in Nevada by the Nevada Chamber of Commerce just the year before, and Mel figured if that wasn’t going to jump-start their move to Vegas, nothing would.
Robert and Naomi swung the baby between them as they walked, and the child squealed, his mouth wide and wet between cheeks like two fat peaches. The couple looked pale and brittle next to the baby, dried husks of corn. They swung him high, his feet swaying above their heads. The baby laughed with delight, and the cooing seemed to encourage them to swing faster and higher. Mel cringed as he imagined the sharp pop of a little shoulder socket sprung loose. He tensed up as if, in a moment, he might be expected to catch the baby, flung accidentally from the careless hands of his grandparents.
Robert sat the baby on the counter in front of Mel, who was tending bar. The diaper crinkled and squeaked over the Formica as the tiny boy dug his dirty heels in and tried to scoot himself over to the mess of straws, napkins, and ashtrays piled up at the edge of the bar. Mel remembered the way his daughter, Kate, used to scoot herself around the kitchen the same way. He felt his body tense up, as if at any moment the child might scoot himself off the counter and into Mel’s arms. Kate was now an adult and had long ago left town, and what Mel remembered most about her babyhood was the low-level anxiety that surrounded him when she first attempted the most basic of things: sitting up, crawling, and those wobbly first steps.
The baby’s cheeks were red from sunburn or rash, and in places his blond hair tangled into little clumps, like he’d been in burrs. When the child looked up at Mel, his eyes were glassy and blue. Something that looked like dried mustard caked the bottom of his chin. Underneath the grime was the kind of face baby food companies wanted plastered across jars of pureed carrots and peas. The child let out a bored-sounding sigh and grabbed at his toes, still staring at Mel.
“Mel, meet Tin.” Robert grabbed one of the baby’s fat little hands and thrust it toward Mel, who lightly grasped the boy’s soft, warm hand with the tips of his fingers. “Hey, guy.” Mel bent down and leaned on the counter to look the baby in the eyes. The baby smiled, his tiny teeth pearling up through pink gums.
“Tin?” Mel asked Robert and Naomi, who sat leaning against the counter. Their hands formed empty circles waiting to be filled with whatever Mel would give them.
“Cherry said she liked the sound of it,” Robert said.
“Cherry is crazy,” Naomi piped in and sipped from the bottle of beer Mel had set down in front of her. The only thing Mel had ever heard Naomi say about Cherry was that she was crazy. Or ungrateful. Mel wondered what Cherry had to be grateful to Naomi for. The baby smacked his palms down on the counter as if demanding a drink, and Naomi pushed a straw at him.
Mel’s wife and daughter had been after him to quit drinking for as long as he could remember, but he hadn’t: not when Kate moved to California after high school and not when Gayle followed her there three months later. That was two years ago. Mel had let them go, almost easily.
After they left town, Mel had stepped up his drinking. He’d never been a violent drunk—never beaten up Gayle or Kate. Instead, he’d treated them as if they were strangers. When they left, there was no reason for him to pretend he had his drinking under control. And it had been a relief, really, when they left and there was no more pretending. For a while he’d felt more alive than he had in years. He’d been at least a little careful about his drinking, circumspect and cautious when Gayle and Kate were still around. At the bar he’d tipped back with customers, but he still had to run his place. At home, he’d start drinking at dinner and would stop when he fell asleep in his chair in front of the TV. This would happen to a cacophony of sighs and cupboard slams—Gayle had long ago given up lecturing him, but she registered her anger in her own small way. Kate was gone long before she officially left home: forever at a friend’s house or behind her bedroom door, always closed.
But when Gayle and Kate had really left, he’d taken to staying at his bar and drinking after the night bartender took over. There wasn’t much change in Mel when he was drunk. He didn’t get aggressive and loud, didn’t go after women, though he looked more. What happened to Mel was something small and wondrous. When he was drunk he felt content. He didn’t question himself and what he’d done or not done for his wife and daughter, with his bar. He simply was. At times, the drinking brought Mel bright bolts of possibility and hope—that he’d become a different sort of man, that his daughter would look at him in some other way than as a stranger. He wasn’t fooled by his sobriety, once he found it. If he’d been able to sustain this feeling, this strange combination of contentedness and hope, he’d have kept on drinking forever. But like anything else that someone does for kicks, for relief, for the rush of happiness or possibility, it took more and more, and the feeling became increasingly elusive until it was finally gone.
Last year, the day after Kate’s birthday, he quit. It wasn’t something he’d planned; it wasn’t that he’d talked to Kate or Gayle and decided to finally clean up. He’d simply lost those moments of elation, that feeling of contentment. One day, he had opened the bar and was washing glasses, looking at his hands, the bony knuckles and cracked skin. They didn’t seem a part of him, as if he had nothing to do with them at all. The longer he stared down at them, the more he felt like he had nothing to do with himself, with the physical him that stood behind a counter pouring drinks for his customers and himself. He was somewhere else, floating around outside his body, up near the ceiling fan.
That’s when he checked into the hospital in Elko. He spent a month there detoxing, an utterly humiliating combination of watching his body turn on him and hearing himself explain how and why he’d arrived at this place in his life. When he got back home, Mel figured if he could stay sober at his bar he could stay sober anywhere. When he’d been sober more than a year, people stopped taking bets on when he’d fall, and they stopped making the jokes about the bartender who wouldn’t go near a drink, except to serve it.
Robert and Naomi rattled their bottles against the counter and Mel replaced the empties. Naomi had set the baby on the floor, and Mel watched him trundle over to the wooden Indian he had standing by the door. The bar’s motif was Western: pictures of cowboys, teepees, and horses. It had once been a stop on the Pony Express, so Mel and Gayle had decorated accordingly. Old black and whites of the messengers on their horses were framed on the walls, and Gayle had insisted that Mel hoist a pair of saddlebags up above the bar.
He talked to Gayle every once in a while, when she called. She never offered her new number or address, and she let him know he wasn’t supposed to ask for it. He hadn’t talked to Kate since she left. She’d sent him three postcards with cryptic, one-line messages. He knew that they were the only form of communication she was interested in at the moment. The first card Kate had sent him was a picture of a scarecrow, dried grass and cornhusks sticking out from its knotted-off shirt and ripped jeans. Its head was a stuffed pillowslip, violently tilted to the right with a scare face painted across it—a big V between the two eyes and a mouth that turned down in a grimace. Next to it a girl of about ten stood imitating the scarecrow: her arms splayed out at her sides, her head jerked to the right, her eyes narrowed and lips drawn down. She wore a red-checkered dress and no shoes. Written on the back in Kate’s neat handwriting was one sentence: Dad, they broke me. Mel both dreaded and wished for the arrival of these postcards. He understood that the cards were born out of anger and sadness more than anything else, but Mel also understood that it was better to get anger and sadness than nothing from his daughter. The cards seemed to herald the possibility of something more one day.
The afternoon customers were starting to come, and Mel glanced questioningly toward the baby.
“Oh, he won’t bother anyone,” Naomi said. “He’s as quiet as a mouse. Hasn’t even said his first word yet, and he’s almost two. Not a peep, Cherry says.”
“Kid needs to be checked out, if you ask me.” Robert looked over at the baby, who was poking at the wooden Indian’s feet with his straw. “He’s cute though, huh?”
“Where’s his mother?” Mel asked.
“I think she made a trip up to Reno. Something to do with his daddy, I guess. She didn’t really say. We came into town to stay with the baby.”
Mel wasn’t sure that Cherry hadn’t completely lost her mind. Robert and Naomi weren’t fit to take care of a cactus. He opened a packet of crackers, took them over to the baby, and squatted to hand him one. The baby gnawed on the edge of it, his fist balled around the cracker so that half crumbled onto the floor.
“Has he eaten yet?” Mel called over to the bar. Naomi and Robert didn’t answer him, engrossed in conversation with some of the locals who came in at lunch. Robert had helped himself to a third beer. Mel reached for the baby, waiting for him to screech or squirm at his touch. But Tin let himself be scooped up without a sound. He settled against Mel’s side and craned his neck around, surveying the room from his new position. Tin reached for the longhorns mounted above the door, and Mel lifted him up so he could touch them. The child ran his hand, stubby and perfect, over the dry, chipped bone. He did it gently, with concentration, the way some kids pet a cat that others would bat or squeeze. The baby slapped his palm lightly on Mel’s shoulder when he’d had enough of the horns.
Mel set the baby on the counter by Naomi and Robert. “Have you fed him yet?”
“Baloney. Tin loves it, don’t you, baby?” Naomi squeezed the baby’s little toe, and Tin pulled both his feet toward him, grasping them in his hands. Smart kid, Mel thought.
“Is that the baby I’ve been hearing about?” Rick, from the Chevron station, leaned back on his stool to get a look at Tin.
“That’s him,” Robert said, with a certain touch of pride that surprised Mel. He never would have taken his brother for a doting grandpa.
Rick walked over to the baby and tickled him under his dimpled chin.
“I don’t believe the little guy can do it.” Rick looked over at Robert and Naomi. Mel didn’t like the echo of a dare he’d heard in Rick’s comment.
“Oh, he can do it,” Robert replied and grinned down at the baby.
Mel watched his brother light a fresh cigarette off his old one and hold it out in front of the baby’s mouth. The baby leaned forward a little bit, the neck of Robert’s undershirt hanging off his small round shoulder, down to his elbow. He puckered his lips around the filter and waited, fists in his lap, for Robert to pull the cigarette out. The baby let out a wide rush of smoke and smiled. No sputtering or coughing, just a stream of smoke. Rick roared and slapped Robert on the back. Robert and Naomi clapped and grinned at the other customers who had gathered around the baby. Tin clapped his hands together and laughed, a wet gurgle of a laugh, encouraged by those around him. Mel grabbed the cigarette from Robert’s hand before he could offer the baby another drag. Mel had pretty much known it would come to something like this when he saw the two of them walk into the bar swinging the baby between them. He picked up the baby and backed away.
Mel didn’t have to twist any arms to get the baby. Naomi and Robert had friends to visit and wanted to hit Little Patch Casino while they were in town. They’d planned on taking Tin with them, but seemed more than glad to leave him with Mel.
Outside, the dry afternoon heat hit hard, and Mel squinted in the bright sunlight. Tin turned his head to look over Mel’s shoulder, as if he longed to return to the dark coolness of the bar. He didn’t squirm or cry, just sat in the crook of Mel’s arm as if used to being toted around by strangers. When Kate was a baby she’d have screamed if anyone besides Mel or Gayle even so much as looked at her. Across the street, Mel saw Patty, who owned the Duds ‘N’ Suds, peering out her door. Mel waved and then jiggled the baby, since he knew Tin was the only reason Patty had gotten up from the plastic orange chair that seemed as natural a part of her body as her legs. She acted surprised, pretending she wasn’t even looking right at him, before she waved back.
When Kate, and then Gayle, had taken off to California, he’d gotten those same oblique glances from people all over town. He’d felt their eyes on him, but they always seemed surprised when he looked back, as if they’d been looking at a certain piece of blue sky right past his shoulder. After a couple of months people stopped staring, stopped wondering how, exactly, Mel drove his daughter, and then his wife, out of town. It wasn’t any secret in town that Mel drank. But that wasn’t the question. He knew they suspected there had been something else, something especially awful to top things off: violence or cheating. But there wasn’t. The truth—that his drinking had simply and steadily blotted out his wife and daughter—wouldn’t have been enough.
Mel had come home from work one night to find Gayle sitting in the kitchen. “She’s gone, Mel, and as soon as I get things in order here, I’m going, too.” She’d said it matter-of-factly, like it was a trip they’d been planning. He had always known Kate would take off as soon as she could swing it, and he hadn’t ever tried to make it so she wouldn’t. But Mel had believed Gayle incapable of leaving, until the day she did. She’d been born just outside of Ely, and going to Reno had been a big deal when he first met her. Now she was living in California, was a secretary for a rental car company, and judging from the way she would sometimes mention a man named Jack—without explanation—was likely on her way to a second marriage.
Mel hitched the baby higher up on his chest and crossed the street toward the Save-More. The baby rubbed at his nose fiercely so Mel set the child on his feet, took a handkerchief out of his back pocket, and knelt down beside him.
“Looks like you’ve got yourself a runny nose, huh?” He swiped at the baby’s nose, pinching a little. Tin looked up at him dazed, slightly offended. Mel was afraid the baby might cry.
“There you go. Better, huh?” Mel smiled wide for the baby, hoping it would convince him that there was nothing to cry about. Tin just rubbed his nose again and made for the street in an unsteady lurch, fast, like if he slowed down he might lose his balance and fall. Mel grabbed him and swung him back up. Broken glass, cans, and wrappers littered the curb. When Mel had first moved out to Ely, the town had barely existed: just a few stores and bars, places the ranchers frequented. Now it was an oasis of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, quickie marts, and motels.
Tin whimpered softly and pointed to a dirty yellow tennis ball that lay among the litter by the curb.
“We’ll get you something better, okay?”
Mel looked at the baby as if he might answer.
Inside the store, Mel pushed the shopping cart past the aisles, peering down each for diapers. He settled on a big plastic bag of Huggies. He added a bottle of powder and some lotion, a drop of which he rubbed onto the bumpy redness that spread across Tin’s cheeks. The baby bounced around in his seat, squeaking and swiping at Mel’s hands for the bottle of lotion.
Mel slipped a small hooded jacket on Tin and threw the matching track pants into the cart. He sorted through a bin of cheap canvas kid sneakers and coaxed a few pairs onto the baby’s feet before he could find a pair small enough. It crossed his mind that somewhere in Cherry’s apartment the baby had these things: diapers, powder, T-shirts, and shoes. But then he’d showed up at the bar in Robert’s undershirt. He tossed a lime-green Nerf ball in beside the baby.
“Looks like you got quite a handful there, Mel.” He looked up to see Patty staring down at the baby from behind her empty cart. She’d probably followed him, torn her fat ass from her plastic chair in the Laundromat, just so she could harass him about the baby.
“He’s easy enough.” Mel tried to push his cart forward but Patty headed him off with her own.
“He’s Cherry’s baby, right?”
“That’s what they tell me, Patty.” Rudeness never worked with Patty, but it was habit.
“Well, he’s a cute little guy.” Patty heaved herself over Mel’s cart and patted Tin on the head absently. The baby leaned forward as if to escape her, and Mel wheeled the cart back a bit so Patty couldn’t keep petting him like a dog. “Where’s your mama and daddy, baby?” She looked at Mel.
“They’re house hunting up in Reno,” Mel lied.
“House hunting, huh?” Patty gave Mel a smile that made him want to plow his cart right into her, smash through her pillowy folds and pin her to the shelves of macaroni and quick spuds stacked behind her.
“Why you always worrying about other people’s business, Patty? Especially when you already know it? You know as well as I do this baby hasn’t got any daddy around.”
Patty started to open her mouth and then stopped. She wheeled her cart around and headed down the aisle a few steps before she swung back to face Mel. He knew she wouldn’t be able to leave without getting in a last word.
“Well, good luck, Mel,” she hissed at him. “It’s never easy, is it?”
Mel watched her leave and looked down at Tin, who was staring up at him with watery eyes. Three deep grooves marked his forehead, little worry lines, as if he knew that things were wrong in the world.
They drove out past the edge of town, past the little clusters of long one-story houses, boxes painted pale shades of yellow and green, like lemon and lime sherbet. Mel’s house was out by the Lund ranch. He and Gayle had bought the place from the Lunds when they got married. It was bigger than he needed now, but when Gayle and Kate had been around it was a good fit. The baby stirred next to Mel, rubbing his eyes and sighing lightly.
“You tired, Tin?” Mel looked over at the baby, who turned his head and rested his chubby cheek against the seat, staring up at Mel. “Huh, you tired? Sleepy? You know sleepy, right?” The baby closed his eyes and then opened them back up at Mel. “That’s right, Tin. Sleepy.” He reached out and brushed the baby’s hair back off his forehead. He kept waiting for the baby to cry, or fuss, make some sort of demand, but the child remained quiet. Mel wondered if too many afternoons with Robert, Naomi, and Cherry had taught the poor kid that it would get him nowhere. His fingers tightened around the steering wheel, the skin over his knuckles stretched dry and white.
Outside the late afternoon sun hovered over the road, and the sagebrush bent in the wind, a few of them, broken free, tumbling about. Mel’s truck passed through the jagged wedges of dusty red rocks. They weren’t mountains, or even hills, just walls of rock that rose up only so high, leftover slices of something bigger that had disappeared long ago.
Mel carried the sleeping baby inside, set him on the couch, and propped a few pillows to keep him wedged in. He’d wanted a smoke since the bar but had been afraid to smoke in front of Tin, as if the baby might ask him for one. He went out to the porch and moved a chair by the window so he could look in on Tin. Normally around this time, he would walk down the road to the Lunds’ and watch the ranch hands work for a while. Then, sometimes, he’d go up to the house and talk with Dan and Karen. Mel watched the baby sleep, his little body taking up just one square of the couch. He slept with his arms thrown over his head, his plump legs propped up. When Kate was a baby, she’d slept on her back, her feet sole to sole so that her tiny legs formed a diamond. He and Gayle used to watch her, amazed that she could sleep that way. From where he was sitting, Mel could see Tin’s potbelly rise and fall.
The sun blazed closer to the Sierra Nevadas. He wondered what his daughter, somewhere on the other side of those mountains, was doing. He wondered where Cherry was, and how she’d rationalized leaving Tin with Robert and Naomi. They were her parents, after all. She should have known better.
The wind swept across Mel’s yard and rattled the chimes Gayle had hung from one of the porch beams many years ago. In the distance he could see the huge semis that came off the interstate for gas or food or just so the drivers could get out and stretch. Most came out of California, heading east toward Omaha and Chicago. Maybe they’d even passed through the town Kate was living in. The last card he’d received from her had been postmarked Bakersfield.
Inside, Mel glanced at the baby, who hadn’t changed positions. He hated to think about those postcards, to look at the strange scenes on the front sides of them. But he kept them, like souvenirs from a sunny vacation, pinned to the fridge by chipped magnets. The second card Kate sent him had a picture of a gigantic beached whale on the sand with a man standing by it to show just how huge the whale was. On the back she’d written: Tiny glimmers. The last one was a black and white of a field of oil derricks: tall, skinny steel structures with propellers whirring in the wind. Standing on the ground, between the rigs, were men dressed all in white with their hands crossed over their heads like the propellers. On the back, Kate’s neat, rounded script announced: I’ve been in love one hundred times.
This last postcard had seemed a little more optimistic to him until he started to think about the various things the line could mean. He imagined what Kate felt when she’d picked out the cards and picked out those words. He could feel the anger, the sadness, the resentment, and knew that his whip-smart daughter understood that now that he was sober, now that he could and wanted to hear her and see her, there was nothing he could do to respond to her. After the first postcard Mel had tried to get in touch with Kate. But Gayle wouldn’t give him Kate’s number. She said Kate knew he would ask for it, and had told her mother that just because she sent a postcard didn’t mean she wanted to talk. Mel had taken to waiting for her postcards and taking the scraps of information Gayle volunteered. He imagined one day receiving a postcard—of a beach or snow-capped mountains—which would carry with it a return address or a number. When Mel looked over at the baby, Tin was sucking his thumb and staring at him.
“You hungry yet? Hungry?” Mel motioned at his mouth, prompting the baby to answer him. The baby reached up and pulled his plump lower lip. “Hungry?” he asked again, and this time the baby murmured softly and very clearly mimicked Mel’s movements by lightly touching his small fingers to his mouth. “Let’s get you some food then.” Mel picked up Tin, and the baby’s wet diaper squished against his arm.
He changed the baby’s diaper, brought him to the kitchen sink, and ran a damp towel over his face, neck, hands, and feet. Mel tried to smooth out the tangles of the baby’s wispy yellow hair, and then he zipped him into his new sweat suit and slipped on his tiny sneakers.
“Now you’re ready to take on the world, huh? Just get some food in you, right?” He fed the baby some crackers with baloney on them because it was the only thing he knew the baby liked for sure. Mel tried out some applesauce on him, and the baby ate it obediently. He cut up an orange and the baby sucked at the pieces, reaching for a new section every few minutes. Occasionally, the baby let out a soft babble—what sounded to Mel like baaa or biggle. Mel wiped the juice that dribbled down Tin’s neck, chin, and arms, and caught the pieces of food that slipped out of his hands. The baby gulped at the cup of milk Mel held to his lips, straining his small neck forward, his hands busy with a piece of orange rind.
Later, they headed down the driveway and up the road toward the ranch. Mel thought Tin would get a kick out of seeing the sheep and horses. He made an effort to walk slowly, pacing himself to the child’s uneven steps. Mel’s back started to ache from stooping forward to hold his hand so he swung Tin back up into the crook of his arm. The baby laughed when Mel lifted him. The sun was red over the mountains, and Mel pointed for the baby to see. “Sun.” Tin pointed the way he did but didn’t say a word. “And mountains. And over those, California. And the ocean.” The baby kept pointing even when Mel stopped.
The bottom of the sun grazed the tops of the mountains and Mel felt the warmth of Tin against his chest. Dust swirled up in the wind now and then, and the child turned his head to Mel’s shoulder, pressing his nose in lightly. Mel thought of waking up in the morning and attending to the baby: the diaper change, the scrambling of eggs for his breakfast, a bath. The sky, still glowing softly with the fading orange of the sun, rolled out above them.
At the ranch, Mel waved to the workers and held Tin out so he could pet the horses. The baby reached, trying to get closer to the animals, and ran his hands down their noses, gently, like he knew not to scare them. Mel thought of Cherry disappearing, taking off with the baby’s father to some distant town, never to be heard from again. He imagined Robert and Naomi shaking their heads and agreeing that Mel was the one who should take care of Tin. Mostly, he thought of Kate coming home to find him rearing a healthy baby boy. She would sit on one of the kitchen stools, her feet hooked under the bottom rung. She would watch Mel deftly feed little Tin scraps of chicken and baby spoonfuls of mashed potatoes. Tin would squeal and grab, and Kate would smile and laugh along with him.
Mel tightened his grip on the baby. He shifted Tin so that he could run his small hands along the mane of one of the horses. The animal stood still, patient, maybe enjoying the child’s tugs. Tin stretched out for more, while Mel watched him and listened to the light babble of pleasure that occasionally slipped from his lips
Yasmina Madden teaches fiction and creative nonfiction writing at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. She has published work in Carve Magazine, Orchid: A Literary Review, LA Miscellany, and Revolver. She is currently working on a collection of personal essays about cancer survivorship and advocacy.