Authors: Claire Vaye Watkins
Ray nodded. “There.”
“What are they doing?”
“The same thing. Sitting.”
“Do you see her?”
Luz knew instantly that something unspeakable had happened to the baby, and that it was her fault. She resisted the rising urge to turn around.
Ray’s eyes raked the chaos of the canal beyond. “Wait,” he said. “There she is.”
“What’s she doing?”
“She’s playing. Running around.”
Luz could not stop herself from turning now. She spotted the child stepping softly in the hot silt, alone. Beyond her, the Nut and the fleshy girl who was not her mother and all the rest were back in their
circle, taking rips from the bong, playing roughly with the dog. The thin girl was kissing a different man.
Luz and Ray watched the child—this strange, coin-eyed, translucent-skinned child. She approached a young woman with a ragged Mohawk who sat cross-legged on the concrete slope. The woman wore a crinkly purple skirt and a canvas backpack. She was topless, her breasts painted as two drooping purple daisies, her nipples the polleny yellow cores. The child hopped forward now and waved her hand emphatically in the young woman’s face.
“See,” said Ray, “she does that. Goes up to people.”
The topless woman said something and the child solemnly rose up to touch the woman’s Mohawk. She pancaked the inky flattened wall of hair between her two hands. The woman laughed, perhaps uneasily. Ray put his hand between Luz’s shoulder blades, where the Nut had first touched her. “She’s just a weird kid,” he said.
The child brought her hands to the woman’s face and rubbed it all over, as she had done to Luz, and Luz was betrayed, somehow. “You’re right,” she said.
Ray stepped toward the bonfire, urging Luz in that direction with his large hand. But after a few yards Luz shook him off. “You saw the way she grabbed me,” she said. “She was afraid.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I have a feeling. I don’t want to ignore it.”
“What do you want to do?” he asked, kindly. He was handling her. He thought she was drunk and sliding toward hysteria, though he knew better than to put it that way. They had been here before, the culvert only the most recent episode. An impromptu party at the complex where she’d sat on the waxed lip of the dry pool, tight, smoking and arguing about the drought with some of Ray’s nomad friends. They were shouting really, and Luz was shouting loudest. It was late
and someone asked them to keep it down. Someone else asked them to take it somewhere else. Luz refused. Everyone there pretended to be so bohemian and radical but really they were all worried about offending everyone else and she was fucking sick of it. She informed the others that they would not be keeping it down, that they would not be going anywhere, that there were entire towns dying of arsenic poisoning and if they thought they were so hard-core, so of the earth, maybe they should forego their trips to the ration truck parked on Pico. She called her beleaguered audience, among other things, cunts and fascists and bores. One weary comrade went back to where Ray was camped, and by the sonic magic of courtyard echoes, Luz had heard her asking Ray to intervene. “She listens to you,” she’d said.
Ray’s response: “If you want Luz to do something, you have to make her think it’s her idea.”
Another time—things with the friends souring, just before they’d left for the canyon—Luz had approached the gate after a ration trip and someone said, “Luz is back. Don’t make any sudden movements.”
“Can we move our stuff over here?” Luz asked now.
“They don’t have
, Ray? What does that
“I’d just like to know what you hope to gain here. Your goal.”
“They’re taking her rations.”
“You don’t know that.”
“That’s why I want to watch.”
Ray yielded. “If it will make you feel better.”
They fetched their things and rearranged them on the other side of the footbridge, where they could see the girl and her people. Luz could not take her eyes from the child flitting through raindance, darting around fires and garbage heaps, collecting sticks and stalks of shimmering trash into a bushel in her hand. She approached more
strangers, farther and farther from her people, sometimes latching onto them as she had to Luz. She was a weird kid. She just went up to people. Yes, but it was also true that some evil was going down here and Luz knew she was the only one who could see it. For the first time in her life, she was absolutely essential. “I am acutely engorged with purpose,” she whispered. Ray told her to have some more water.
The Nut did not come after the child again. Another man with another dog had joined them and the group was now captivated by the two dogs, who often erupted in snarls. Without anyone’s noticing, the child ventured farther and farther. Luz eavesdropped on the group shamelessly and caught some of their words—
—words Luz herself used, and whose explicitness had always delighted her, but which seemed now repugnant and unequivocally
, a word she never used.
“Did you hear that?” Luz asked after one of these affronting words reached them. But Ray was making a show of eating almonds. He was, he said, through spying on people.
Luz was not through. Not hardly. She was spellbound by the group’s filth and their relentless youth and their drug-depleted gazes—indeed, the more she watched them the more they embodied stories she’d heard of vile things happening in the Valley. Traffickers charged quadruple for children, and many hosts refused to take them, so toddlers were left to cook in cars, older kids locked in the apartments parents fled. Or the children became the currency. These tales, along with the group’s obvious and unforgivable neglect of the child, confirmed for Luz their malevolence.
Then, the child spotted Luz once more. She smiled a crooked smile, but it wasn’t until she came toward Luz, at an all-out tottersome run, that Luz recognized how she ached to hold the girl again. The baby bowled into Luz and toppled into her lap.
“Hi,” said Luz.
The girl said nothing, only stared up at Luz. With dusk her chameleon eyes had gone a milky heather, her hair dull pewter. She smelled strongly of urine.
“Are you thirsty?” asked Luz.
The child opened and closed her mouth like a carp.
“Want some water?” Luz tried, dangling her jug over the girl.
The child squealed and lunged for the water. Luz unscrewed the cap and the baby drank heartily and with some difficulty, spilling down her bare chest and letting out big wet gasps between gulps. Ray watched, trying and failing to hide his alarm at her intense thirst. Luz fetched the can of blueberries from the backpack.
“You hungry?” she said. Ray gave Luz a look and Luz said, “What?” He looked over to the Nut and the others. Luz looked, too. The Nut saw them. Luz wilted, expecting him to retrieve the girl again. Instead, he waved. It was not a friendly wave, not to give Luz permission to hold the girl or to feed her, but an ambivalent flash of the hand to signal that he didn’t give a damn what she did.
So Luz shook some blueberries out of the can and offered one to the girl. She longed for the child to take it between her corpulent thumb and index finger, but instead she jabbered something and Luz stared at her, baffled.
The girl slapped impatiently at the blanket and jabbered again.
“‘What is it?’” said Ray. “She’s saying, ‘What is it?’”
“What is it?” the girl said again.
“Blueberry,” said Luz.
The baby did not know
“Here.” Luz took the fruit and split it in half with her thumbnail. The child looked on in amazement. Luz offered the vein-colored, butterflied meat of the blueberry to the girl and she took it into her small
mouth. Immediately the child grimaced, squenched her face up in revulsion and opened her mouth. Luz cupped her hand beneath the child’s chin and the girl let the spitty fruit drop out. Luz tried a berry and found it a tasteless mucus. “Sorry,” she said. Ray chuckled a little and the girl told him to shut up. Ray balked. “Shut up!” the baby said once more, gleefully. Luz said, “Be kind,” her own mother’s line.
“What’s your name?” Ray asked.
The baby regarded Ray suspiciously and he asked her again. Then the girl made a sound like
“Ig?” asked Ray.
The girl chugged amusedly, “Ig, Ig, Ig,” like some small engine.
“Ig,” said Ray, laughing, and the girl laughed too. She dismounted from Luz’s lap and began to roll around on the concrete, saying, “Ig, Ig, Ig, Ig,” her face still flecked with black bits of blueberry skin. Ray and Luz laughed and the girl, little showboat dynamo, little ham, rolled more furiously, going, “Ig, Ig, Ig, Ig.” They were having a good time, the three of them.
Then, sudden as a ghost, the child stopped rolling and popped up and bounded back to her wretched encampment. Luz felt a great reservoir of joy drain from her.
Ray watched her go, too, saying finally, “She’s sweet.”
“I don’t like those . . . people,” said Luz.
“What’s wrong with them?”
Luz scowled at her Ray. “They’re high—”
“Everyone here is high. They’re letting loose.”
Luz knew he didn’t believe this. “Something’s wrong with them.”
“Don’t do that to me. Having a drink doesn’t make me an idiot. I know what I feel.”
“Stop,” he breathed.
“Look at them. Please.”
Ray turned, finally. They watched the girl skipping and hopping irregularly between her people. “Keep looking,” Luz whispered, urgent with the fear that Ray would not see what she saw, burdened with the weight of his waiting. This was the last chance, she knew, the last he’d humor her this evening.
The girl got on all fours and crawled to the new dog, pressing her plank face dangerously close to the mutt’s. Ray was unfazed.
Then the child lost interest in the dog and crawled along the silt crust to the young man who had been serving as steward of the water bong. He sat cross-legged in the dirt. The girl put her head in his lap. Ray shifted and Luz felt his attention fading.
Just then, the Mojav brought his hand down on the back of the child’s head, not a blow but a grip. Palming her head, he pumped the baby’s face into his groin twice, three times. His friends chuckled and he did it again. This time he hoisted his free hand into the air, a bull rider’s pose. The group howled raucously as he mashed the baby’s whiteblond head into and out of his crotch, then released her.
Ray recoiled. “Jesus.”
The gesture sickened Luz too, because it was sickening, but also because it was so wholly validating that she felt she had somehow asked for it, willed it into being. She said, “See?”
“We should get someone.”
“There’s no one.”
“They won’t come down here. Even if they did. They’ll talk to them and they’ll tell them some story and Red Cross will leave and they”—she flung her hand toward the wretched gang—“will leave.” Her hand hung in the air, trembling as if the last barrier of resistance against the force threatening to pull this child back into the endless
asphalt maze of the Valley. “They’ll take her away and we’ll never see her again.”
Ray began to speak. “Listen,” he might have said, but beyond Luz the Nut came toward them. The little girl followed, stumbling to keep up.
The Nut stopped at the edge of their blanket and pushed the girl in front of him. He spoke without looking at them, chewing the raw skin around his thumbnail. “Could you guys watch her a sec?” He gestured back toward his group. “We have to do something.”
Ray began again to speak. Luz feared what was coming:
Where are you going? How long will you be gone?
Ray always asked the questions that needed to be asked and suddenly, fleetingly, she found this quality of his unbearable.
“Sure,” she answered before he could. “No problem.” Luz extended her arms to the girl. The child regarded the pose a moment, then leapfrogged instead onto Ray’s outstretched legs. Ray released a sitcom groan, which delighted the girl and sent her up and leaping again.
And so another nonsense game was in full swing as the Nut and his jaundiced entourage receded, bong, dogs and all, along the corridor, disappearing into the swell of the raindance.
Ray chided Luz—“‘Sure! No problem!’ You were so creepy.”—but he entertained the child with unchecked joy. The three of them played at piling little anthills of sand in one another’s hands and then played at blowing them into oblivion. They played at Ray lying still then popping his eyes open and saying
and the girl squealing and hiding behind Luz. They played at arranging all Luz’s hair to cover her face like a curtain. The girl was a fiendish collector and loved nothing more than scouting the canal for like things and depositing them with the adults. Thus Ray’s pockets filled with pebbles and dead sticks, while Luz’s backpack became a repository for dust-chalked plastic bags and small shining sails of garbage. During her depositing
the baby would sometimes do her dynamo chant:
Ig, Ig, Ig, Ig, Ig.
And when the child set off, Luz and Ray chugged it to each other, “Ig, Ig, Ig, Ig,” laughing in their old easy way.
An hour passed, then another, all the while no sign of the Nut or anyone from his group. Ray went responsible periodically, looking around and asking, “Where
Beneath the silliness, they noticed an eerie adult quality about the girl. She touched. She moaned to herself. Her speech lurched forward and back, progressions and regressions. Sometimes she spoke like a miniature adult, skeptical and weary.
Don’t tell anyone, okay?
Other times it was only alien syllables, sending her into a rage at her own incomprehensibility. But she swung easily from tantrum to slapstick to affection, her bulbed brow leading the way. Her torso was taut as a balloon, some pressure inside, and her pale arms dangled from it like vestiges when she ran. Depositing a specimen she often paused to lay her hands on Luz or Ray. She pinched as often as she pet, though her unwashed hands did seem to favor stroking Luz’s throat, a disquieting stroke described by nothing so truly as the word