The baby was crying again.
The sound roused her from a dream about a castle
on a cloud, and set her teeth on edge. It had been a good dream, and in
it she'd been young and slim and her hair had been the color of the summer
sun. It had been a dream that she'd hated leaving, but the baby was crying
again. Sometimes she regretted being a mother; sometimes the baby killed
her dreams. But she sat up in bed and slid her feet into her slippers because
there was no one else to take care of the child.
She stretched, popping her joints, and stood up.
She was a big, heavy woman with broad shoulders, and she was six feet tall.
Amazon Chick, she'd been called. By whom? She couldn't remember. Oh, yes:
it came to her. By him. It had been one of his pet names for her, part
of their secret code of love. She could see his face in her mind, like
a blaze of beauty. She remembered his dangerous laugh, and how his body
felt hard as warm marble atop hers on a bed fringed with purple beads....
It was torture; thinking of what used to be.
She said, "Hush, hush," in a voice raspy
with sleep. The baby kept crying. She loved this child, better than she'd
loved anything for a long time. but the baby did cry a lot. He couldn't
be satisfied. She went to the crib and looked at him. Tears were rolling
down his cheeks in the dank light from the Majik Market across the highway.
"Hush," she said. "Robby? Hush, now!" But Robby wouldn't
hush, and she didn't want to wake the neighbors. They didn't like her as
it stood. Particularly not the old bastard next door, who knocked on the
walls when she played her Hendrix and Joplin tapes. He threatened to call
the pigs, and he had no respect for God, either.
"Quiet!" she told Robby. The baby made
a choking sound, flailed at the air with fists the size of large strawberries,
and his crying throttled up. She picked up the infant from his crib and
rocked him. while he trembled with baby rage. As she tried to soothe his
demons, she listened to the noise of eighteen-wheelers rushing past Mableton
on the highway that led to Atlanta. She liked it. It was a clean sound,
like water flowing over stones. But it made her sad, too, in a way. Everybody
was going somewhere but her, it often seemed. Everybody had a destination,
a fixed star. Hers had burned brightly for a time, flared, and dwindled
to a cinder. That was a long time ago, in another life. Now she lived here,
in this low-rent apartment building next to the highway. and when the nights
were clear she could see the lights of the city to the northeast. When
it rained, she saw nothing but dark.
She walked around the cramped bedroom, crooning
to the baby. He wouldn't stop crying, though, and it was giving her a headache.
The kid was stubborn. She took him through the hallway into the kitchen,
where she switched on the light. Roaches fled for shelter. The kitchen
was a damned mess, and anger burst in her for letting it get this way.
She swept empty cans and litter off the table to make room for the child,
then she laid him down and checked his diaper. No, it wasn't wet. "You
hungry? You hungry, sweetie?" Robby coughed and gasped, his crying
ebbing for a few seconds and then swelling to a thin, high keening that
razored her skull.
She searched in vain for a pacifier. The clock
caught her eye: four-twelve. Jesus! She'd have to be at work in little
more than an hour, and Robby was crying his head off. She left him flailing
on the table and opened the refrigerator. A rancid smell drifted from it.
Something had gone bad, in there amid the cold french fries, bits of Burger
King hamburgers, Spam, cottage cheese, milk, half-empty cans of baked beans,
and a few jars of Gerber's baby food. She chose a jar of applesauce, then
she opened a cupboard and got a small pot. She turned on one of the stove's
burners, and she drew a little water from the sink's tap into the pot.
She placed the pot on the burner and the jar of applesauce down into the
water to heat it. Robby didn't like cold food, and the warmth would make
him sleepy. A mother had to know a lot of tricks; it was a tough job.
She glanced at Robby as she waited for the applesauce
to heat up—and she saw with a start of horror that he was just about
to roll off the table's edge.
She moved fast for her one hundred and eighty-four
pounds. She caught Robby an instant before he fell to the checkered linoleum,
and she hugged him close as he squalled again. "Hush, now. Hush. Almost
broke your neck, didn't you?" she said as she paced the floor with
the crying infant. "Almost broke it. Bad baby! Hush, now. Mary's got
Robby kicked and wailed, struggling in her arms,
and Mary felt her patience tattering like an old peace flag in a hard,
She shoved that feeling down because it was a
dangerous thing. It made her think of ticking bombs and fingers forcing
bullet clips into the chambers of automatic rifles. It made her think of
God's voice roaring commandments in the night from her stereo speakers.
It made her think of where she'd been and who she was, and that was a dangerous
thing to lodge in her mind. She cradled Robby with one arm and felt the
jar of applesauce. Warm enough. She took the jar out, got a spoon from
a drawer, and sat down in a chair with the baby. Robby's nose was running,
his face splotched with red. "Here," Mary said. "Sweets
for baby." His mouth was clamped shut, he wouldn't open it, and suddenly
he convulsed and kicked and the applesauce spewed onto the front of Mary's
plaid flannel robe. "Damn it!" she said. "Shit! Look at
this mess!" The child's body jerked with fierce strength. "You're
going to eat this!" she told him, and she spooned up more applesauce.
Again, he defied her. Applesauce dripped from
his mouth down his chin. It was combat now, a battle of wills. Mary caught
the infant's face with one large hand and squeezed the babyfat cheeks.
"YOU'RE GOING TO MIND ME!" she shouted into the glistening blue
eyes. The infant quieted for a second, startled, and then new tears streaked
down his face and his wailing pierced Mary's head with fresh pain.
Robby's lips became a barrier to the spoon. Applesauce
drooled down onto his sleepsuit, where yellow ducks cavorted. Mary thought
of the washing she was going to have to do, a chore she despised, and the
frayed thread of her temper broke.
She threw aside the spoon, picked up the infant,
and shook him. "MIND ME!" she shouted. "DO YOU HEAR WHAT
I SAID?" She shook him harder and harder, his head lolling and the
high-pitched wail still coming from his mouth. She clamped a hand over
his lips, and his head thrashed against her fingers. The sound of his crying
went up and up, a crazy spiral. She had to get ready for work, had to put
on the face she wore every day outside these walls, had to say "Yes
ma'am" and "No sir" and wrap the burgers just so and the
people who bought them never knew who she had been, they never guessed,
no never never in a million years did they guess she would rather cut their
throats than look at them. Robby was screaming, the apartment was filling
up with screaming, somebody was knocking on the wall, and her own throat
"YOU WANT TO CRY?" she shouted, holding
the struggling infant under one arm. "I'LL MAKE YOU CRY!"
She knocked the pot off the stovetop, and turned
the burner up to high.
Still Robby, a bad seed, screamed and fought against
her will. She didn't want to do this, it hurt her heart, but what good
was a baby who didn't mind his mother? "Don't make me do it!"
She shook Robby like a fleshy rag. "Don't make me hurt you!"
His face was contorted, his scream so high it was almost inaudible, but
Mary could feel its pressure sawing at her skull. "Don't make me!"
she warned, and then she held him by the scruff of his neck and slapped
Behind her the burner was beginning to glow.
Robby would not bend to her will. He would not
be quiet, and somebody might call the pigs, and if that happened....
A fist was hammering on the wall. Robby flailed
and kicked. He was trying to break her, and that could not be tolerated.
She felt her teeth grind together, the blood pulsing
in her temples. Little drops of crimson ran from Robby's nose, and his
scream was like the voice of the world at the end of time.
Mary made a low, moaning sound, deep in her throat.
She turned toward the burner and pressed the baby's face against the red-hot
The little body writhed and jerked. She felt the
terrible heat rising past him, washing into her own face. Robby's scream
went on and on, his legs thrashing. She kept her hand pressed hard on the
back of his head, there were tears in her eyes, and she was sick at heart
because Robby had always been such a good baby.
His struggling ceased, and his scream ended with
The baby's head was melting.
Mary watched it happen as if she were outside
her body looking down, a remote bystander cool in her curiosity. Robby's
head was shrinking, little sparks of flame kicking up, and the pink flesh
running in glistening strands. She could feel the heat beneath her hand.
He was quiet now. He had learned who was in control.
She pulled him up off the burner, but most of
his face stayed on the hot coils in a crisp black inside-out impression.
Robby was dead.
"Hey, you crazy freak!" A voice through
the thin wall. The old man next door, the one who went out on the highway
collecting aluminum cans in a garbage bag. Shecklett, the name on
his mailbox said. "Stop that hollerin' or I'll call the cops! Hear
Mary stared at the black-edged hole where Robby's
face had been. The head was full of smoke. Plastic sparked on the burner,
and the kitchen was rank with the sickeningly sweet smell of another infant's
"Shut up and let a man sleep!" He struck
the wall again, and the pictures of babies clipped from magazines and mounted
in dimestore frames jumped on their nails.
Mary stood looking at the doll, her mouth half
open and her gray eyes glassy. This one was gone. This one was ready for
heaven. But he'd been such a good boy. She'd thought he was the best of
them all. She wiped her eyes with a sluggish hand, and turned off the burner.
Bits of plastic flamed and popped, a haze of blue smoke filming the air
like the breath of ghosts.
She took the doll to a closet in the hallway.
At the back of the closet was a cardboard box, and in that box were the
dead babies. The signature of her rage lay here. Some of the dolls had
been burned faceless, like Robby. Others had been decapitated, or were
torn limb from limb. Some bore the marks of being crushed under tires,
and some had been ripped open by knives or razors. All of them were little
boys, and all of them had been her loves.
She peeled the sleepsuit with its yellow ducks
off Robby. She held Robby with two fingers, like something filthy, and
she dropped him into the box of death. She shoved the box into the back
of the closet again, then she closed the door.
She put away the wooden crate that had served
as a crib, and she was alone.
An eighteen-wheeler swept past on the highway,
making the walls creak. Mary went into the bedroom with the slow gait of
a sleepwalker. Another death freighted her soul. There had been so many
of them. So many. Why didn't they mind her? Why did they always have to
fight her will? It wasn't right that she fed them and clothed them and
loved them and they died hating her in the end.
She wanted to be loved. More than anything in
the world. Was that too much to ask?
Mary stood at the window for a long time, looking
out at the highway. The trees were bare. Bleak January had gnawed the land,
and it seemed that winter ruled the earth.
She dropped the sleepsuit into the clothes hamper
in her bathroom. Then she walked to her dresser, opened the bottom drawer,
reached under some folded-up sweaters, and found the Colt Snubnose .38.
The shine had worn off, and in the six-bullet cylinder there was one shell.
Mary turned on the television set. The early morning
cartoons from TBS were on. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. In the blue glow,
Mary sat on the edge of her rumpled bed and spun the cylinder: once, twice,
and a third time.
She drew a long, deep breath, and she pressed
the Colt's barrel against her right temple.
"C'mere, ya cwazy wabbit!"
"Ahhhhhh, what's up, d--"
She squeezed the trigger.
The hammer clicked on an empty chamber.
Mary let her breath go, and she smiled.
Her heart was beating hard, driving the sweet
adrenaline through her body. She returned the pistol to its place beneath
the sweaters, and she slid the drawer shut. Now she felt so much better,
and Robby was just a bad memory. But she couldn't survive long without
a baby to care for. No, she was a natural mother. An earth mother, it had
once been said. She needed a new baby. She'd found Robby in a Toys 'R Us
in Douglasville. She knew better than to go to the same store twice; she
still had eyes in the back of her head, and she was always watching for
any sign of the pigs. So she'd find another toy store. No sweat.
It was almost time to get ready for work. She
needed to relax, and put on the face she wore beyond these walls. It was
her Burger King face, smiling and friendly, no trace of steel in her eyes.
She stood before the mirror in the bathroom, the harsh incandescent bar
of light switched on, and she slowly let the face emerge. "Yes ma'am,"
she said to the person in the mirror. "Would you like fries with that,
ma'am?" She cleared her throat. The voice needed to be a little higher,
a little dumber. 'Yes sir, thank you sir! Have a nice day!" She switched
her smile off and on, off and on. Cattle needed to see smiles; she wondered
if the people who worked in slaughterhouses smiled before they smashed
the skulls of cattle with big wooden mallets.
The smiley face stayed on. She looked younger
than her forty-one years, but there were deep lines at the corners of her
eyes. Her long hair was no longer as blond as the summer sun. It was a
mousy brown, streaked with gray. It would go up in a tight bun when she
got to work. Her face was square and strong-jawed, but she could make it
look weak and afraid, like a cow who senses the breaking of skulls in the
long line ahead. There wasn't much she couldn't do with her face if she
wanted. She could look old or young, timid or defiant. She could be an
aging California girl or a backwoods hick with equal ease. She could slump
her shoulders and look like a frightened schmuck, or she could stand at
her full Amazonian height and dare any sonofamotherfuckingbitch to cross
her path. It was all in the attitude, and she hadn't gone to drama school
in New York City for nothing.
Her real name was not the name on her Georgia
driver's license, her library card, her cable TV bills, or any of the mail
that came to her apartment. Her real name was Mary Terrell. She remembered
what they used to call her as they passed the joints and the cheap red
wine and sang songs of freedom: Mary Terror.
She had been wanted for murder by the FBI since
the spring of 1969.
It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper
taught the band to play...
Sergeant Pepper was dead. G.I. Joe lived on. George
Bush was president, movie stars were dying from AIDS, kids were smoking
crack in the ghettos and the suburbs, Muslims were blowing airliners from
the skies, rap music ruled, and nobody cared much about the Movement anymore.
It was a dry and dusty thing, like the air in the graves of Hendrix, Joplin,
and God. She was letting her thoughts take her into treacherous territory,
and the thoughts threatened her smiley face. She stopped thinking about
the dead heroes, the burning breed who made the bombs full of roofing nails
and planted them in corporate boardrooms and National Guard armories. She
stopped thinking before the awful sadness crushed her.
The sixties were dead. The survivors limped on,
growing suits and neckties and potbellies, going bald and telling their
children not to listen to that satanic heavy metal. The clock of the Age
of Aquarius had turned, hippies and yippies had become preppies and yuppies.
The Chicago Seven were old men. The Black Panthers had turned gray. The
Grateful Dead were on MTV, and the Airplane had become a top-forty Starship.
Mary Terror closed her eyes, and thought she heard
the noise of wind whistling through the ruins.
I need, she thought. I need. A single
tear coursed slowly down her left cheek.
I need something to call mine.
She opened her eyes and stared at the woman in
the mirror. Smile! Smile! Her smile ticked back on. "Thank you, sir.
Would you like an ice-cold Coke with that burger?"
Her eyes were still hard, a chink in the disguise.
She'd have to work on that.
She took off her plaid robe, stained by the applesauce
that a convulsive jerk of her wrist had spilled upon it, and she looked
at her nude body in the mean light. Her smile faded and went away. Her
body was pale and loose, flabby around the belly, hips, and thighs. Her
breasts sagged, the nipples grayish-brown. They looked empty. Her gaze
fixed on the network of old scars that crisscrossed her stomach and her
right hip, the ridges of scar tissue snaking down into the dark brown nest
between her thighs. She ran her fingers over the scars, and felt their
cruelty. What was inside her, she knew, were worse scars. They ran deep,
and they had ravaged her soul.
Mary remembered when her body had been young and
tight. He hadn't been able to keep his hands off her. She remembered the
hot thrust of him inside her, when they were both flying on acid and the
love went on forever. She remembered candles in the dark, the smell of
strawberry incense, and the Doors—God's band—on the record player.
Long time past, she thought. The Woodstock Nation had become the Pepsi
Generation. Most of the outlaws had surfaced for air, had served their
time in the cages of political restitution, put on the suits of the Mindfuck
State, and joined the herd of cattle marching to the slaughterhouse.
But not him. Not Lord Jack.
And not her, either.
She was still Mary Terror down beneath the soft
fastfood-puffed flesh. Mary Terror was sleeping inside her body, dreaming
of what was and what might have been.
The alarm clock went off in the bedroom. Mary
silenced the jangle with a slap of her palm, and she turned on the cold
water tap in the shower and stepped into the bitter flood. When she had
finished showering and drying her hair, she dressed in her Burger King
uniform. She'd been working at Burger King for eight months, had reached
the level of assistant day manager, and beneath her was a crew of kids
who didn't know Che Guevara from Geraldo Rivera. That was all right with
her; they'd never heard of the Weather Underground, or the Storm Front
either. To those kids she was a divorced woman trying to make ends meet.
That was all right. They didn't know she could make a bomb out of chicken
shit and kerosene, or that she could fieldstrip an M16 or shoot a pig in
the face with as little hesitation as flicking a fly.
Better that they stay dumb than be dead.
She turned off the TV. Time to go. She picked
up a yellow Smiley Face button from atop her dresser and pinned it to the
front of her blouse. Then she put on her brown overcoat, got her purse
with its credentials that identified her as Ginger Coles, and opened the
door into the cold, hated outside world.
Mary Terror's rusted, beat-up blue Chevy pickup
was in the parking lot. She caught a glimpse of Shecklett, watching her
from his window, pulling back when he realized he'd been seen. The old
man's eyes were going to get him in trouble someday. Maybe real soon.
She drove away from the apartment complex, merged
with the morning traffic heading into Atlanta from the small country towns
around it, and none of the other drivers guessed she was a six-foot-tall
time bomb ticking steadily toward explosion.