CHAPTER 23: THE GIRL CHILD
There were only two seasons in Chicago: winter, and construction. Construction season was in full swing along Route 41 where the pavement had been ground down to a tooth-rattling sub-layer in preparation for re-surfacing. By the time I passed the Botanic Gardens, my arms were numb from the vibrations. I waved as I passed, thinking about Evelyn: I hadn’t seen her since Mom’s big news and I wondered how she was taking it. Since I had to go through Evanston on my way home anyway, I figured I might as well stop in and say hi.
Evelyn’s house was a Chicago bungalow with a glassed-in porch. I recognized her Honda Accord parked in the driveway with a Northwestern sticker in the back window. I climbed the steps to her front door and beat on it until I heard footsteps approaching. A bolt turned and Evelyn’s face appeared at a crack in the door. The aroma of baking cookies drifted out.
“Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” I said.
“Damen!” her astonishment was real. “What are you doing here?”
“I was in the area. Thought I’d stop by. Can I come in?”
Evelyn hesitated. “I’m babysitting…”
“I’ll be on my best behavior.”
Reluctantly, she stepped aside to let me into a living room furnished with Ikea furniture and botany textbooks. Eclectic. Cozy. The living room was decorated with Georgia O’Keefe prints and illustrations of various plants. I recognized the print of a cow skull Evelyn had once sent to me as a postcard. I had it tattooed on my back. A pair of cats, one golden and tabby, one all black, watched me from a sunny spot in the middle of the floor, sprawled out luxuriously. The two of them blinked golden eyes in my direction, deeming my presence acceptable.
“Nice place you got here.”
A timer went off in the kitchen, followed by the piping of a child’s voice.
“Evie! The timer went off!”
“I’m coming,” Evelyn shuffled toward the kitchen.
I kicked off my flip-flops beside a miniature pair of Converse sneakers and followed her into the kitchen in bare feet.
The kitchen was on the sunny side of the house. Evelyn was bent over the oven helping a five-year-old lift out a tray of steaming cookies. With intense concentration, the girl guided the cookie sheet onto the stovetop, both arms embedded in oven mitts up to her elbows.
“Good job.” Evelyn closed the oven door and shut off the gas. The little girl turned to stare at me, unabashedly.
“Why is your hair blue?” she wanted to know.
“It’s my favorite color.”
“Blue is okay. I like yellow better,” she grinned, showing a gap in her bottom teeth where a baby tooth had fallen out. “What’s wrong with your face?”
I looked at Evelyn. “I like this kid.” I made myself comfortable at the table to get closer to her height. “So, this one time I went fishing, right? And this biiiig fish started biting and it just took off! And I fell over face first in the tackle box.” I demonstrated this, bashing my face toward the table and slapping the tabletop with a bang. The girl jumped and squealed in delight. I brought my face up, eyes crossed. “It’s been like this ever since.”
“No!” she squealed. “That’s not true!”
“Yes, it is!”
“No, it’s not!”
“You callin’ me a liar?”
“Yes!” She scrambled up on a chair next to me and put her hands over her head. Evelyn retrieved the oven mitts and began scooping cookies onto a cooling rack.
“I have my ears pierced,” she said, showing me two tiny baby studs, one in each earlobe.
“Oh yeah? Well, I have my tongue pierced.” I stuck out my tongue to show her. She giggled and stuck out her own tongue.
“Oh yeah?” she said. “Well, I can do this.” She stuck out her tongue and touched it to the tip of her nose.
“You win. If I could do that, I’d have a girlfriend.” The implication of this went over her head, but I heard Evelyn choke on her coffee.
“What’s your name, Girl Child?”
“Vico. It’s short for Victoria. What’s your name?”
“Damen. Short for Damen. Evie’s my sister.”
“I like Evie.”
Evelyn put a plate of cookies down on the table and I helped myself to one. They were still warm.
“When did you become so domesticated?” I asked.
“Please, it’s store-bought dough.”
“Can I have one?” the Girl Child asked her.
I pushed the plate toward her. “Don’t listen. Have lots.”
Girl Child gleefully snagged a second cookie.
“That’s how the world works, Girl Child. You gotta take the stuff you want.” I snatched the rest of the cookies away from her. “Mine!”
Evelyn watched this in exasperation.
“I’m surrounded by children.” She took the plate out of my hand as I held it high out of Girl Child’s reach. She snagged a cookie for herself and came inches from shoving it in her mouth, sniffed it longingly, then put it back on the plate. “Her mom’s gonna kill me. You’re a bad influence.”
“Just doin’ my job.”
The doorbell rang.
“Shoot, that’s probably her now. You gotta go.” Evelyn gestured for me to get to my feet.
“Because I don’t want her mom to see you and freak out,” she said. “Vico, get your backpack.”
“Words hurt, you know.”
“Yeah! Words hurt!” Girl Child had my back.
“Backpack! Now!” Evelyn pointed to a bag of scattered library books on a bench by the back door. Girl Child obeyed.
“Stay here,” Evelyn ordered me. She made her way into the living room and I heard the door open and a muffled exchange of words.
“You would not believe the day I’m having,” Vico’s mother’s voice was familiar; I tried to place it. “I needa come in. You got anything to drink? I need a fucking drink. Victoria! Get your shoes!” I heard the loud, hard pops of high heels on the wooden floor as she approached the kitchen. I considered hiding; but then she appeared in the doorway and my heart leaped into my throat.
I stared at her dumbfounded.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded. Her face was swollen and it looked like she’d been crying. Under her jacket I could see the collar of a blouse that was buttoned all the way up to her throat as if she were trying to look conservative, except it was in a bright color that no normal person would wear.
“Uhh, Evelyn’s my sister?”
“Him?!” Melody pointed at me, scowling at Evelyn as if she had betrayed her somehow.
“Yeah…?” Evelyn looked uncertainly from Melody to me and then back again, trying to figure out what she was missing. Something seemed to click in her head and she made a gagging face. “EEUURGH! God! Him?! This was the ‘rockstar’ you slept with?” She gouged the word ‘rockstar’ out of the air with her fingers.
“Harsh, Evil, harsh,” I said.
Evelyn was unrepentant. “There were details,” she said. “I can’t un-hear that—” she paused as a mental picture danced across her mind. “Oh, God, make it stop.”
Melody just glared. “You didn’t tell me he was going to be here.” She grabbed Vico by the arm and yanked her toward the door.
“She didn’t know,” I said. “I just dropped in.” I sprang to my feet and blocked her path. “You didn’t tell me you had a kid.”
“Cuz it’s none of your goddamn business.”
“OOowww, Mamaaaa,” Girl Child whined, twisting her arm in Melody’s grasp.
“Hey—don’t be like that—it’s not her fault.”
“Go put on your shoes, Vico.” Melody gave the Girl Child a shove toward the front door and then grabbed me by the arm to march me out the back. Once outside, she pushed me down the back steps until we were eye-to-eye with each other. I stared at her, still reeling.
“Whose kid is she?”
“None of your business.”
“It’s gonna be my business real quick when baby daddy comes looking for the tool who’s porking his baby mama.”
“He’s not in the picture.” Melody dismissed this with a wave of a hand.
“This is why you never come out,” I said, putting it together. “Why you didn’t want me to give you a ride home—why you only wanted to see me at the club—”
“I’m not gonna introduce my daughter to everybody I hook up with,” Melody said through bared teeth.
“Is that all we are? A hookup?”
“Why, you want more? You want a relationship?”
“Goddamnit, don’t do that.”
“Answer a question with a question. Just answer me!”
“You don’t get to tell me what to do.” She turned to go back inside the house. I grabbed her by the wrist, desperate to stop her.
“Melody, wait!” I wasn’t sure what I was doing. My feelings were suddenly tangled and agonizing. “C’mon, don’t go, please? This doesn’t have to change anything—I don’t care if you have a kid: she’s a pistol—I love her, don’t—just…give me a shot.”
I was begging. I was desperate.
“I don’t gotta give you anything,” Melody growled. “You don’t own me.”
Then she turned on her heel and went back into the house, slamming the door in my face.
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