Fiction by Anthony Neil Smith
Izzy already had the baby when Jackson met her, but he didn’t know if it was her baby – they looked nothing alike. Izzy was dark, tall and thin. Honduran. The kid? Blonde, chubby, white. Jackson guessed he was about a year old, but Izzy said he was younger. And she never called him by name, so the kid probably thought his name was “Hey.”
She said the father was dead but not how.
She said the kid had an immune disorder, but never told Jackson what it was, how it made him sick. Rashes, sore throat, asthma.
She kept him in a stroller most of the time, one he’d grown too big for. Jackson didn’t even know if the kid could walk. It was either Izzy holding him or strolling him or setting him on the ground on all fours.
If he asked too many questions about Hey, Izzy changed the subject, found something new to be mad about instead. Always annoyed, never smiling, never laughing or crying or feeling at all. She’d get to going a mile-a-minute and make Jackson forget the question and hurry to catch up as she pushed Hey down the sidewalk, toward the next mark.
A chain pharmacy. Izzy and Hey went in and made a big deal out of needing a prescription for the baby – “My son, look. My son is sick.”
My son this. My son that.
She pulled him out of the stroller and bounced him on her hip, made him cry, and that was when Jackson snuck in – as much as anyone could sneak anymore with cameras everywhere. While Izzy tried for the pills with a phony scrip and a stolen credit card, Jackson stocked up on anything else he thought they could sell or trade.
At least it wasn’t for meth or Oxy. Anymore.
Just, like, food and stuff. Things for the kid – clothes, baby food, diapers. Their share of the rent at the house – one room they shared with another girl who slept most of the day, probably after selling herself all night. They had an old queen mattress on the floor. The girl had a sleeping bag. Fourteen people living in the house at last count. It was falling apart, but was the owner going to fix it? The landlord? Jackson was pretty sure the guy who took their rent money was neither, and could care less if the walls collapsed.
Izzy went, “I need the manager. Is the manager here?”
Meaning the fake scrip didn’t work. But that was okay. Sometimes she ran up against some hard-ass who rolled their eyes at her story, but she could wear down the managers almost every time.
Showing them Hey’s rashes helped. Non-stop itching. Izzy called it dermatitis. Red cheeks, red arms, little blisters, cuts where he scratched.
Jackson slipped allergy pills into his cargo shorts. Not the bottles. They rattled. He got the flat boxes with the foil you popped the pill from. He resold them as Xanax. Sometimes he made up names and called them “generic.” Or, tacked on a few bucks, “organic.”
In the children’s section, he took a small box of crayons for Hey. No room in his pockets for a coloring book, but once Izzy turned it on for the manager – “You want me to go all the way back there? You want me to wait for the buses, with the stroller and all? I’ve been up since five.” – he slipped a Let’s go to the Zoo book down his waistband.
Izzy kept bouncing Hey on her hip, the kid’s crying bumpy, screechy.
Jackson looked around again.
Dude at the counter, his work shirt two-sizes too big, his pants dirty, stared right at him from the register. Mouthbreather.
“Half an hour? I can’t wait. I’ve got to get some fresh air first. I feel claustrophobic.”
Jackson watched Izzy turn the stroller around, one-hand it down the center aisle while bouncing Hey in her other arm. He waited a few minutes before following. He bought a fizzy strawberry water from the mouthbreather, and when the alarm went off as he passed the scanners, he held the bottle up to the employee, and said, “I already bought it. I just paid you.”
The guy nodded. Waved him off.
Jackson stepped out into the heat of the day and wiped cold sweat from his face. He walked to the edge of the parking lot and waited for Izzy. She wasn’t far behind.
“Wouldn’t bite?” Her jaw was set tight. “I think this one’s burned. I think the night manager told them about us. We should’ve waited longer before hitting it again.”
She didn’t stop. Kept right on pushing Hey up the hill to the next block. It was at least a twenty-minute walk back to the house, downtown.
Weird that they called it downtown.
In Duluth, you had the Lake, then you had the hill, both coveted by the rich. The shore itself, or the view from the top.
In-between was everyone else. Middle-class, working-class, thieving-class, with the old downtown strip like some sort of museum exhibit. Used to be classy. Now it was, like, ugh. A handful of outdated shops, restaurants, even a cheap-ass casino. But one-by-one they were closing. Lost the record store not long ago, the Electric Fetus, been there forever, but nobody Jackson knew listened to CDs, let alone real vinyl.
Go far enough down the strip, you hit an industrial wasteland. Burnt out, rusted out.
Jackson had shin splints by the time they finally stopped walking, far enough from the shop to not worry about cops being called. Izzy knelt beside the troller, shoved Hey into it. Took some effort, kid growing too fast. Jackson had said they should get him a bigger one, at least.
“He’s not old enough yet.”
“He’s plenty old. Stuffed like a sausage in there.”
“He’s not old enough.”
Got a chill off that. Jackson thought she was a sociopath.
So how did she hook Jackson?
It was like this:
Jackson had gone cold turkey off meth because the last time he’d been railroaded into rehab, all the patients had plenty of it stashed and didn’t mind sharing.
So no, Jackson thought, he was going to hole up at his ex’s apartment until he’d kicked it on his own. He gave her all his meth and she did not want to share, while he sat against the bathroom door and strong-willed his way to getting clean.
If his own Mom could do it once, twice, three times before, he could notch one win. One day at a time.
When he was ready to rejoin the world, he stepped out to find Izzy watching TV on his ex’s couch, bouncing Hey on her lap. The ex was passed out on the recliner, looked like she hadn’t eaten for weeks.
Izzy smiled, “You Jackson?”
Bouncy, bouncy. “She said we should meet. Thought we might hang out.”
Jackson sat on the couch, a little nervous. He’d only felt well enough to emerge in the last twenty-four hours, and here’s a woman with a kid wanting to hang with him?
He made a few funny faces for Hey, and he laughed, and Izzy joined in, and they got to talking about the boy.
She made it easy, like she really wanted a boyfriend. Just assumed he’d follow her like a puppy and he did.
On second thought, was she a sociopath, or was Jackson really that gullible?
“I need a real man. Fun can wait. I need support. I need something solid. Skip the small talk and get serious.”
She had a nice smile and eyes and dark lips.
The first time they had sex, right there in the ex’s apartment, the baby was sleeping on the bed while they took their own sleepy, lazy time on the floor. Izzy on top. She kept her t-shirt on. She kept quiet. She clamped her hand over Jackson’s mouth when he started to ramp up the volume.
The first time, no condom. Pretty stupid, Jackson, yeah, he knew, but after that she insisted on them. One of their first drug store boosts – drugs for the kid, condoms for him.
Since then, his ex got evicted, so they moved into the barely-nailed-together house.
Then, the sex dried up. She was too tired, and made sure – made sure – to pour on the guilt, Jackson taking advantage of a single mother. Being with Izzy felt like a job now, one with crap pay and brutal hours. He held on, though. He still felt everything for her.
And the kid, yeah, he’d never had much use for kids before. But Hey was a cool little guy. Jackson liked to make him laugh, liked trying to get him to talk. But what’s a kid’s first word going to be if not “mama” or “daddy”?
They got a couple of Cokes from the SuperOne store, started for home.
“You never told me his name.” Jackson spun the top off his bottle.
“You forgot his name?”
Jackson looked up. Sun blinding him. “I didn’t forget. You never told me.”
“And you think now is the time to tell me this? Get up, let’s go.”
“Just tell me his name.”
Izzy laughed her mad laugh. “Idiot. Shithead.”
He flinched. Always cussing in front of the boy. “His name?”
“It’s Isaac, alright? Isaac. Can you remember this time? Forget my son’s name and blame it on me, real cool.”
Isaac. Sounded like Izzy. First thing she could dream up? “Never heard you call him that.”
“Never. Sure. Like you’ve been paying attention. Can’t even remember his name.”
“What’s the name on the scrip?”
“That doesn’t – dude! It’s got to be different each time, don’t it? So they won’t catch on?”
She picked up her pace, going to spin the wheels off the stroller.
Jackson sat on the sidewalk, watched her determined, tight ass walk. He wondered what would happen if he stayed put. Would she come back? Would she not? Would she start over with another man to groom?
Had Jackson been groomed?
He pushed himself off the concrete, nearly burned his palms, and jogged after Izzy and Isaac.
She sent him for more scrip pads. Easy enough to lift if you distract the staff. They don’t treat scrip pads like gold. When he got back, she was cross-legged on the floor of their room, feeding Isaac something green and mushy.
“And carrots. Stirred up.”
Jackson had seen teeth in the kid’s mouth, so why wasn’t she feeding him something solid? His poop was a stream, barely held in by the diaper. He should’ve been potty training by then.
He needed to learn more about kids if he was going to stick around.
Beside the bowl of peas and carrots was a small pile of something, like lint, maybe. Fuzz.
“Peas and carrots. I just told you.”
“Not that, I mean next to it. What’s that fuzzy stuff?”
“Nothing. Nothing to worry about. Some calcium. He’s not getting enough milk.” Back to Isaac. Another spoonful. She didn’t really do baby talk with the kid. Pretty terse overall. “You’re not done. Two more.”
Isaac bubbled green spit and snot.
Izzy wiped his mouth. “Two more. Little ones.”
“It’s okay to give calcium to a baby?”
She rolled her eyes. “Duh. What do you think babies eat? Milk, lots of milk.”
“Or formula. He’s past that, though.”
“You ever breast feed him?”
“One more.” She managed to get Isaac’s lips around the rubber-tipped spoon. He made a face. “It doesn’t work for every woman, you know. It just didn’t feel right. I didn’t make enough. So it’s okay to mix calcium into his food.”
He sat on the bed. Watched her finish feeding the boy. He did seem sick an awful lot, even though Jackson knew the pill scam was not for the kids’ medicine. The past few weeks he’d been around, he’d never seen her take Isaac to a doctor, but the kid was pale, patchy, and full of phlegm. So maybe he needed calcium. How would Jackson know?
Izzy held out her hand to him. “The scrips?”
He’d been able to swipe some at a larger clinic. Scored some sample reflux stuff, too. She checked the doctors’ names at the top. Flipped one over her shoulder. “Can’t use these, from an eye doctor. Jesus, Jack.”
“Hey, language, watch it in front of…Isaac.”
“Don’t correct me in front of my son. No man will ever correct me in front of him like that again. Get it?”
“Wasn’t correcting you –”
“Or scold or tell me I’m wrong. It’s not your place.” She stood, tossed the other pads beside him on the bed. “You know what? I need fresh air. I need to be away from you for awhile.”
“I’m sorry. Don’t be like that.”
“I need me time. I’ve got to go outside a while. Watch him.”
Jackson’s teeth were tight. Had to keep control. “Why can’t we talk this out? Why can’t we have a normal conversation?”
“I’m trapped in this room. I feel trapped.” Hands on her hips, pacing. Isaac stared after her, hand in his bowl of peas and carrots. “I need air.”
Jackson got up, walked across to the door, and opened it. “Go.”
She did. She would go outside, smoke a cigarette. Smoke two cigarettes. Swore she didn’t smoke. Like he couldn’t smell it.
There was a word for it, what he felt. The way Izzy twisted him this way and that. Flashlighting? Firelighting? He ought to steal a phone, look it up. He knew Izzy had one, somehow. No idea how she paid for service. Parents? Old boyfriend? Was she getting a child support check he didn’t know about?
Jackson plopped down on the floor beside Isaac. Both hands covered in peas, and peas smeared all over his clothes and the floor.
“Geez, kid. Like them peas? Do you? What a mess.”
He picked up the bowl. Smelled it. Gagged.
He pinched the fuzzy stuff, like fibers. Rolled them in his fingers. Calcium? Jackson was no genius, but he knew calcium was more like chalk.
Izzy’s story didn’t make sense. If he needed milk, give the kid milk, then. Why not? She gave him juice and pop, why not milk?
Isaac sneezed all over the bowl. A cloud of it, drifting towards Jackson.
Where he’d pinched and rolled the fuzz, his fingertips started to itch. A lot. He scratched and scratched. Ye-OW. The hell was this stuff?
Isaac sneezed again, squirmed.
Jackson took the rest of the pile of fuzz, looked at it. Jesus, that burned. Held it close to his eyes. Kind of pink? Was it pink?
Like when he was doing work for his dad, back before meth. Construction work in the summer. Laying insulation, a big sheet of pink fluff they rolled out, stapled down. Made him and his brothers itch like hellfire. Their mom made them slather calamine lotion on each other. It was also pink, and it dried up on their skin, flaked all over their sheets, their clothes.
Izzy was putting that pink fluff in Isaac’s food?
He’d heard the word before, somewhere, stuck in his craw. Wished he was smarter. Munching Housing? Much Howser?
His fingertips burned. The itch was deep. Issac’s face was all puffy, hot.
By the time Izzy came back, the stink of cigs trailing her, he’d made up his mind.
That night, he’d talked her into sex. Or smoothed her into it. The girl with the sleeping bag hadn’t come back the past few nights, which made Izzy less shy. She didn’t grumble when he pressed against from behind as he spooned her. Kissed her neck.
She snugged her yoga pants down to her knees and told him to be quiet. Jackson could barely get the tip in from this angle, but once he got started, Izzy spread a little more and adjusted her hips.
It didn’t take too long. It had been months since his last. After, they laid real still, real quiet.
Jackson dozed. He kept catching himself, but he’d jerk and that would rouse Izzy so he’d have to hold his breath until she settled again.
When she was asleep for sure – deep deep deep – Jackson eased out of bed. Slowly.
Isaac was asleep on a nest of blankies.
Jackson scooped him up, supporting his head. Damn. Kid was heavy. How did Izzy make it look so easy?
He laid Isaac’s head on his shoulder. His dirty diaper smelled, but that wasn’t important right then.
Somewhere, Isaac’s real parents were feeling feels Jackson didn’t even know existed. A sort of hurt he didn’t know if he could handle.
Tiptoed to the door. Creaky, old, heavy wood. Right outside in the hall was a window letting in the moonlight. He managed to open the door enough to keep it from groaning.
One look back at the bed.
Izzy’s eyes were wide open.
Expected the next sound to be Izzy screaming, My son! My son! You can’t take my son!
Put on a good show for the rest of the house. Snatch Isaac – Hey – back from Jackson while the methheads and burnouts in the other rooms answered the call and beat the ever-loving daylights out of Jackson.
He closed his eyes. Waited.
He opened them again.
Hers were still wide. Her mouth curled. “You bastard.”
Not shouted, but mumbled, barely loud enough for Jackson to hear, let alone the house.
His mouth was dry, but he managed, “I can’t let you keep doing this to him.”
Izzy sighed. After a long blink, she rolled onto her other side, facing the wall.
“Just go then. Leave.”
And that was that.
They don’t ask questions at the hospital ER if you leave a baby, especially newborns. They’d seen it all. They get it.
With a child Isaac’s age, they wanted to know more. Kept him going roundabout with Where did you find him? What’s his name? What’s your name? How old is he? Where are you from? Can you fill out this form? Can you stay with him?
He just answered, “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry,” and wrangled his way through nurses and residents and EMTs and and and…
Outside again. Still hot as the day, but the breeze off the lake helped.
Hands in his hoodie pockets, he wanted as far away from the hospital as possible, but the sirens were in the air, strobing closer. He knew there were cameras all over the hospital, like at the drug stores. If the cops caught him, he’d fight, let them beat him to a pulp. Felt like he deserved it.
Not going to give up Izzy, though. What was the point of that?
First he wanted a smoke. Not a cigarette. He wanted to fry his head. A good feeling to replace the crappy one in his gut.
Kinda wished he’d gotten to hear Hey’s first word.
Kinda wished it had been “daddy.”
Anthony Neil Smith
Anthony Neil Smith is a novelist (Hogdoggin’, Slower Bear, Worm and others), short story author (Cowboy Jamboree, Tough, Jake, Connecticut Review, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, and Best American Mystery & Suspense 2023) and professor at Southwest Minnesota State University. In addition to his love of Mexican food, tequila, and beer (the red wine was giving him stomach cramps), he likes British noir flicks, twangy alt-country, and his road bike. He abandoned social media to save his sanity, but can be found at anthonyneilsmith.com.