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Today's Story by Michael Henson

“If the Board of Health comes, hand that baby off real quick to a customer.”

The Paradise Cafe

“What’s this?”

Alan Mabry pointed to the egg crate in the corner of the kitchen. It was a rainy, seven in the morning and the wind drove pellets of rain against the window.

“That,” said Donna Mallicoat, “is a cradle.”

“Well what the hell is a cradle doin in my restaurant?” He peered inside the crate. “And who the hell’s baby is this?”

“It’s Jenny Goode’s baby.”

“Who’s Jenny Goode?”
Donna nodded toward the front.

“The one you just hired? The one that lives in your building?”
“It’s been a week already. And she’s workin out real good.”

“And did you hire this baby too?”

“She don’t have nobody to watch him.”

“Donna, we can’t have no baby here.”

“Who says?”

“The Board of Health, for one.”

“Show me where it says.”

“They can show us right on out of here if they want.”

“It’s just ‘til she gets somebody to watch him.”

“And how long will that take?”

“My sister gets back in a couple days. I bet she’ll watch him.”

Alan shook his head. “Is it a boy or a girl?”

“Didn’t you hear me call him a him?”

“And what’s his name?”

“Tommy. Tommy Perdue. Cute little thing, ain’t he?”

Alan Mabry studied the baby a moment. “Scrawny little thing. Like a little squirrel.”

“He’s a baby. He’s supposed to be little.”

“Whatever happened to baby fat?”

“He’s just fine.”

“And what happens when he wakes up?”

“The last time, she fed him and put him back to sleep. He’s a real good baby.”

The baby growled and gurgled in his sleep. He grimaced and fidgeted, but he did not wake.

“He’s a twitchy little thing,” Alan Mabry said. “It’s like he’s havin a bad dream.”

“He’s got a little touch of asthma.”

“And has he been workin’ here for a week too?” He shook his head and crossed to the front without waiting for an answer. He nodded or spoke a word to everyone out there, to the new girl taking orders at the counter, to the third shift men from the barrel plant with their odor of burnt paint, to the pair of women in their Wal-Mart smocks smoking cigarettes and gazing at the rain through the neon in the front window. He stood a moment at the cash register to talk with a fireman waiting for coffee to go.

But Donna knew that, the whole time, he was alert to any stray gum wrapper on the floor, any hint of a cobweb, any empty plate not yet hustled up and bussed back to the kitchen.

But he seemed satisfied. He should be satisfied. He stood a moment in the door to survey the street. Then he came back to the kitchen, “These dope boys has about took over that corner,” he said. Then, without waiting for her to respond, he said, “It looks real good in here.”

“I told you,” she said. “That girl’s workin’ out fine.  A stocky, coffee-toned man had just come in from the alley. “Hector,” she said, with her voice slightly raised. “Looks good.” She made a motion to imitate mopping. “It’s bueno.”

He was a young man with a scar on his cheek and tattoos down his arms. He nodded briefly, then turned to the stack of dishes next to the sink.

“I got to go,” Alan Mabry said.

“I’ll need you to take over at four,” she said. “I need to watch my girls.”

“Might as well get a couple more egg crates.”

“Don’t start,” she said.

“I’ll be back,” he said. “If the Board of Health comes, hand that baby off real quick to a customer.”

“If the Board of Health comes, we’ll be fine.”

Then Alan Mabry pulled his hat down and his collar up and plunged into the rain.

Bueno?” the young man at the sink asked. “Good job?”

She nodded. “Yes, a good job.”


“Who was that?” the girl asked. Donna had followed Alan Mabry to the door. Sure enough, there were a pair of boys on the corner, standing in the shelter of an awning.

“Who was that?” the girl asked again.

“Who was what?”

“That man that come in here actin like he owns the place.”

“He’s the one who owns the place. Plus the building you live in, plus half a dozen more places around this neighborhood.”

“Why don’t he come around more?”

“He don’t need to,” Donna said. “He owns it, but I run it.”


When little Tommy Perdue woke at the tail of the breakfast rush, every woman in the place had her turn to dandle the baby and to coo over him. And Donna Mallicoat thought, Child, you don’t want just anybody to hold your baby cause you never know. But she kept her thought to herself. The girl was doing fine, all alone with a newborn baby and all, none of her people around to tell her what to do.

Donna tried, but she could only do so much. The girl listened sometimes and sometimes she didn’t. She lived down the hall and when this job came open, Donna hired her so she wouldn’t have to farm the baby out to strangers,

One of the Wal-Mart women had him perched on her shoulder while the other cooed at him and called him pet names. He wheezed and twisted and Donna thought she should tell the women to put up their cigarettes. But gradually, his face shrunk and soured and he slumped on the woman’s shoulder and slept. He slept in little fits and twitches and Donna took him and settled him in his nest of blankets that lined the egg crate.

She stood over him and watched him. He twitched and fiddled, but he did not wake.

Then Donna turned to the pans she had laid out earlier on the table. Today was the day for the meat loaf special —Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans. She had a lot of work to do.


When the lunch rush was over, the girl said, “I need to get some cigarettes. Do you want anything from Parkview?”

Donna was resting at the counter over a cup of coffee. The only customer in the place was a man in painter whites sunk into a back booth over his own cup of coffee. She could hear Hector drowning the meatloaf pans at the sink.

She asked, “What about the baby?”

“Can you watch him? It won’t be but a minute.”

The clatter of the pans stopped for a moment. Hector paused in mid-swipe.

“I reckon,” Donna said. “I reckon it’ll be okay. We’ll be fine.” Her own girls would arrive shortly. Then, another hour and Alan Mabry would be back from working on his buildings and they could all leave.

Hector sank his pan into the dishwater and scrubbed at it hard.

“I’ll be right back,” the girl said.

The bell behind the door jingled and shut behind her. Donna called to the house painter, “Did the rain put you out of work this morning?” But he did not answer. Slowly, his head dropped and slowly his eyes closed. It made her sleepy just to watch him and slowly her head grew heavy and slowly her eyes grew heavier yet.

But it was just too quiet.

Something in that silence made her snap herself awake. She looked around her. The baby! Was he okay?

“Hector,” she called. She did not yet trust her feet. “Is the baby okay?

She thought he would at least stick his head in the door. If he didn’t understand Is the baby okay? in English, at least he should come to the door.

“Hector,” she called again. “Come here.” He let on like he didn’t know English at all,  But she knew he knew come here.

But he did not step to the door and there was no banging of the pans.

The terrible thoughts that came to her then came too fast for her to name them. She got up off her stool —wide awake now— and rushed to the egg crate cradle in the kitchen.

The little baby, Tommy Perdue, snuffled and twitched in his dream. Where was Hector? He was gone out the back door, quiet as a cat.

The suds still danced in the sink.


Half and hour, forty five minutes, and Jenny still had not come back. And Hector’s dishwater had grown cold. A woman came in to sit at the booth with the house painter. She ordered coffee and they argued. The baby slept on.

The dope boys from the corner came in, ordered the meatloaf special to go, and went back to their rainy place under the awning. They knew she didn’t want them there. She glared at them so that they knew she didn’t want them there.

After almost an hour, the baby woke. He cried, fierce and fitful. He sucked in air with his little, asthmatic lungs and hacked out an angry fit of cries. They were small cries because he was such a small baby, but as she held him up, it seemed he was nothing but a cry, that each half-strangled hack came up from his toes, that he had clenched bowel and lung and brain to make each cry. He kicked and clenched and cried as she tried to talk him down and changed him and tried to fix his bottle. And once she got the bottle together, she gave it to him and held him close. He sucked and whimpered as she rung up the  coffees for the house painter and his woman. And he continued to suck sullenly until her girls came in and she could hand him over.

The girls dandled him and cooed over him just as the Wal-Mart women had. They wanted to stay, they wanted to take him home. Donna told them no, they had to get themselves home and changed out of their school clothes and get their homework done, so they complained but they went. She stood in the doorway and watched until they got past the dope boy’s corner and she looked up and down the street for any sign of Jenny and Hector.

She would have hard words for the girl when she came back. She might come back high. She probably would come back high. She would have hard words for her and for Hector too. If they did not come back until after four, Alan Mabry would have his own hard words. There would be hard words all around.

It would do no good. She could see that already. She had thought she might be able to give the girl a hand in life. People had given Donna a hand when she was alone with her own small children. But this girl seemed determined to live the hard, sad story.

Donna raised the baby to her shoulder to burp him and felt, against her shoulder, the soft rise and fall of his struggling lungs.

What chance, she wondered, is this kid going to have? She held him close and patted his small back and spoke soft words to him and kept the hard words in her heart.


Michael Henson is author of Ransack, a novel, and A Small Room With Trouble on My Mind, stories, as well as three collections of poetry. He lives in Cincinnati.


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