Snazzy pauses at the corner of a brick building at the edge of Moss Park. The ground reeks of pee and puke. Looking upward, she sees the tip of the steeple on the old stone church. The doctor’s office, where her mother had taken her as a child, is located directly across the street from it. Wiggling her nearly frozen toes, she wills her feet to keep walking.
Christmas wreaths, lit by small red candles with yellow plastic flames, hang from lampposts. Their light mutes the stars. Between contractions, Snazzy counts the ornaments, and the city blocks, to her destination. Each time a new pain, sharper than the last, threatens to buckle her knees, she stops, massages her lower back and breathes deeply.
When she steps off the curb and out between parked cars, a driver leans on the horn and swerves to avoid hitting her. She crosses the street, shuffles up the walkway and peers through the glass in the front door of the doctor’s office. Except for a sliver of light in the hall and blinking, multi-coloured Christmas bulbs in the front window, the office is dark. She tries to open the door anyway, but it is locked.
She changed her name from Kari to Snazzy, the nickname Slow Pitch gave to her. It rang just right for a girl whose halter top and short shorts revealed the beauty mark beside her navel.
A crisp December wind stings her ears, causing her to wrap her scarf tightly around her head. Since her jacket no longer meets in the middle, she crouches down as best she can and wraps her arms around her round belly. Then she closes her eyes.
An older woman brushes past her, then stops and digs around in her bag. She pulls out a set of keys and fumbles in the darkness to insert one in the lock. She steps inside but before she closes the door Snazzy wails. Warm fluid spurts down her legs onto the stoop. The woman glances at her watch and sighs. Clutching Snazzy’s elbow, she lifts her and guides her inside to an examining room.
Snazzy tries to picture the woman younger, thinner and without her glasses. But she is unable to determine if this is the nurse who used to give her a sucker. The one who told her she was brave for not crying when she was given a needle.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking. Expecting to find the doctor in at this hour on Christmas eve,” she says. Like Snazzy had purposely timed it this way. The woman dials the phone, covering the receiver so Snazzy can’t hear what she’s saying.
Snazzy stares numbly at the woman’s sparkly red blouse and frilly black skirt; she closes her eyes again. Thinks about warm nights playing ball at the park.
One night back in the early spring, Slow Pitch had whistled between his teeth at her. He knew she could be counted on for a grand slam and wanted her on his team. After she belted the ball clear over the Frost fence, he waited for her at home plate and gave her a high five.
Later in a burnt-out basement apartment, he ran his fingers through her hair and along her cheek. “You’re snazzy,” he said. Then he put his lips real close to her ear and his voice dropped to a whisper. “Your hair is soft and smooth. Your skin feels silky.” His bright green eyes smiled into her brown ones. And quickly they ran all the bases. The sweet rush inside her made her feel as though she was someone else—someone important—like a famous baseball player who scored the winning run before a cheering crowd. She changed her name from Kari to Snazzy, the nickname Slow Pitch gave to her. It rang just right for a girl whose halter top and short shorts revealed the beauty mark beside her navel.
“Mark my words,” Grammy had warned Kari when adolescence first grew small bumps on her chest. “Dressed like that,” she said, and snapped the string to her bikini top, “you’re inviting bo-oys to visit.”
Kari hated her grandma’s drawling of “bo-oys” and how she criticized the bathing suit her mom had given her. But she did mark her Grammy’s words. They resounded in her ears when Slow Pitch accepted the invitation she must have sent him. Bo-oys.
Kari’s mom had always gotten into trouble with boys. And that prompted the fight Grammy started on the afternoon of Kari’s eighth birthday.
“When you get yourself pregnant again,” Grammy yelled, “don’t think for a minute that I’ll raise another one of your kids.”
Her mom hugged Kari close then, pulling her against the cleavage bulging from her dress. She whispered in her ear, “Just do what she says.” Kari could smell her perfume. “You’ll be fine.”
Before her mom could finish packing, Grammy threw her glittering crimson lipstick, silky beige stockings and spicy Opium perfume out onto the front porch. Her mom gathered them up and tucked them in her shiny shoulder bag. Her matching gold stiletto sandals, like that model Sophie Dahl’s, clicked along the walkway to the gate. Her hair gleamed in the streetlight.
“Mom!” Kari called. But her mother did not look back.
“Your mother,” Grammy said, “can’t stop . . .” Kari didn’t hear the rest but when her face grew hot and she hyperventilated, Grammy sat outside with her on the rusty swing in the backyard. The breeze cooled her cheeks.
“Take deep breaths,” Grammy said. “Just look up at the stars.”
Years later, when Kari was thirteen, Grammy didn’t tell her to look at the stars anymore. Grammy just wanted to control her choices. Make her good.
She should have known better than to come home after the street lights lit up. But she couldn’t help it. Her team was coming from behind and Kari could hardly wait for her turn at bat. After scoring the winning run, she and Stuart, the boy who lived next door, walked home together. And Kari laughed at all his jokes.
Grammy wasn’t laughing. She stood dragging on a cigarette as she waited by the gate. Hazy rings billowed above her head in clouds. As soon as Kari stepped into the yard, Grammy grabbed her by the ear and dragged her indoors. The swipe of the willow branch burned and left welts across the back of Kari’s legs.
“Don’t play games with bo-oys,” Grammy told her and switched her again.
The back of Kari’s legs still burned when she sat at the supper table. Her plate of cold liver and peas taunted her. She shuddered. And moved them around on her plate with her fork.
“Eat everything,” Grammy said. “It’s good for you.”
Kari cut her meat in tiny pieces and drowned it in ketchup. She chewed and swallowed, trying not to taste. Ate everything. Said nothing. So she wouldn’t get switched again.
But soon it seemed as though she could do nothing right. Her hair was straggly so, against her wishes, Grammy cut it off above her ears. Her skirt was short, so Grammy let the hem down below her knee. When she lingered on the bridge on the walk home from school, Grammy grounded her and gave her extra chores.
At first Snazzy didn’t mind living under the bridge, at least while the autumn air stayed warm and the night sky stayed clear. She wrapped herself in a dirty old blanket she’d found by the garbage bin. It kept her warm as she lay on a bed of dry leaves that smelled of the earth. Before she’d fall asleep, Slow Pitch would crawl in next to her and pull her close. His soft whispers and brown sugar helped Snazzy forget Grammy’s putdowns and the burn from her switch.
“Put this on,” the woman tells her and hands her a garment. Then she leaves the room.
Snazzy removes her jacket, slips on the gown and pulls off her wet panties. When the woman returns, now dressed in a pale pink uniform, she whisks the underwear away with a broom handle and drops them in the garbage. Then she taps the brown plastic cover on the mattress.
Snazzy steps on the footstool and climbs up, glad to have something to cover up her round stomach, even if her butt is bare. Silently, the nurse places three fingers on Snazzy’s wrist and stares at the clock. Then she wraps a band around her upper arm and squeezes a rubber pump. The band tightens. Then, the pressure subsides. She removes the band and motions for Snazzy to put her legs up. After propping her feet in the stainless steel stirrups, to Snazzy’s surprise, the woman pokes rubber-gloved fingers inside her.
“You’re almost completely dilated,” she tells Snazzy who has no idea what she means. The muscles on the woman’s face grow tense. She grimaces and peels off her gloves.
“How do you expect to care for a baby?” she asks and drops her gloves in a plastic container.
Snazzy chews her chapped lips; the bottom one has already split and now begins to bleed. Her cheeks, chin, tummy and legs still burn from overexposure to the icy cold air. She’d never called the lump inside a baby even when Slow Pitch had sung it lullabies. Her coat pocket cradles the words to the song he’d written on the back of a deli napkin. If only she could hear him sing them now and feel his cheek resting by her beauty mark. See him smile when the lump kicked.
“Aaaaaaaah!” Snazzy cries out with pain.
“Don’t push,” the nurse says, her harsh voice making her sound older. But Snazzy has no choice. She looks at the woman’s mouth, scowling slightly and wonders if her teeth are real.
Grammy had told her it was rude to go out in public without teeth. Every night before bed, her grandma yanked her dentures from her mouth, dropped them in a tall clear glass filled with sizzling bubbly water and left them by the bathroom sink. Kari tried not to look at them while she brushed her own teeth, but her imagination made the jaws in the glass chatter, “Staaaya awaaaya from bo-oys.”
What else had Grammy said was rude?
“It’s rude to eat at the table in your bathing suit.”
“It’s rude to lick the ice cream off your plate.”
“It’s rude to talk with your mouth full.”
“It’s rude . . . It’s rude . . . It’s rude.”
Kari’s legs often stung from the willow switch because she had forgotten one of the rude rules. To keep from crying she’d think about the sweet crack of the bat as she whacked a ball clear over the park fence.
But no ball game can keep her tears back now. In unbearable pain, she starts to push. When the ache subsides, she thinks about Slow Pitch and wonders where he is. Only the day before yesterday, she met him for lunch at the food kitchen.
After wolfing down mashed potatoes, dressing and the turkey she had drowned in gravy, she had stuffed her bag with rolls. When Slow Pitch took her hand and held it, Snazzy pulled away. Pushing aside her empty plate, she stood and shuffled toward the ladies’ room.
“Read the posters on the back of the doors,” Slow Pitch yelled.
In the stalls, she searched for phone numbers, addresses, anything to connect her to where she could trade herself for a hit. But the writing on the wall was covered up with dry wall mud and new paint. The pathetic poster women with “Call for Help” plastered across their frail bodies stared at her while she peed.
From her jeans pocket, she pulled out the powder compact her mother had given her last Christmas. Staring at its mirror, she looked into the eyes of an unwed poster mother—only younger. She snapped the compact shut. Still, her pale face stared back at her from the chrome toilet paper holder. Only distorted. Using a dime, she twisted out a screw and carved Slow Pitch into her arm below her needle punctures. By the time she had finished and returned to the table, he was gone.
A wave rolls across Snazzy’s stomach. Her brow sweats yet she shivers; she grips the plastic cover on the examining table. The old stone church bells ring the opening bars to a Christmas song her mom had sung to her as a child. Ding, ding, ding dong. Ding dong, ding dong, ding ding, dong. O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining. Snazzy presses her soles against the gleaming stainless steel stirrups, closes her eyes and pushes until the contraction subsides. Her breaths come in short puffs.
The bells are closely followed by a siren that grows louder, then comes to a sudden stop. Red lights flash through the window.
The nurse rushes out of the room.
“I was on my way to a Christmas party. I stopped in for the wine I had forgotten in my desk drawer,” she hears the nurse say. “She lay curled up on the welcome mat.”
“Where is she?” A man’s voice asks.
“In here.” The nurse enters the room with two male attendants who are pushing a gurney with black plastic cases on top.
“My God, you’re just a kid,” one man says.
Snazzy’s gown, now soaked with sweat, reveals her enlarged breasts. When he presses his fingers on her wrist, Snazzy sees him glance at her needle marks and scabbed name on her arm. He raises his eyebrows at his partner.
Snazzy clutches dirty, nail-bitten fingers into fists. She screams and pushes. Her skin burns, worse than the switch that stung her legs, then rips. With one last intense stab of pain she pushes with all her remaining strength. In a flood of fluid and blood, her tiny son is born. His shrill cry pierces her heart.