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Feed The Baby Of Love

Orson Scott Card

  Feed The Baby Of Love

  Orson Scott Card

  Orson Scott Card

  Feed The Baby Of Love

  When Rainie Pinyon split this time she didn't go south, even though it was October and she didn't like the winter cold. Maybe she thought that this winter she didn't deserve to be warm, or maybe she wanted to find some unfamiliar territory -- whatever. She got on the bus in Bremerton and got off it again in Boise. She hitched to Salt Lake City and took a bus to Omaha. She got herself a waitressing job, using the name Ida Johnson, as usual. She quit after a week, got another job in Kansas City, quit after three days, and so on and so on until she came to a tired-looking cafe in Harmony, Illinois, a small town up on the bluffs above the Mississippi. She liked Harmony right off, because it was pretty and sad -- half the storefronts brightly painted and cheerful, the other half streaked and stained, the windows boarded up. The kind of town that would be perfectly willing to pick up and move into a shopping mall only nobody wanted to build one here and so they'd just have to make do. The help wanted sign in the cafe window was so old that several generations of spiders had lived and died on webs between the sign and the glass.

  "We're a five-calendar cafe," said the pinched-up overpainted old lady at the cash register.

  Rainie looked around and sure enough, there were five calendars on the walls.

  "Not just because of that Blue Highways book, either, I'll have you know. We already had these calendars up before he wrote his book. He never stopped here but he could have."

  "Aren't they a little out of date?" asked Rainie.

  The old lady looked at her like she was crazy.

  "If you already had the calendars up when he wrote the book, I mean."

  "Well, not these calendars," said the old lady. "Here's the thing, darlin'. A lot of diners and what-not put up calendars after that Blue Highways book said that was how you could tell a good restaurant. But those were all fakes. They didn't understand. The calendars have all got to be local calendars. You know, like the insurance guy gives you a calendar and the car dealer and the real estate guy and the funeral home. They give you one every year, and you put them all up because they're your friends and your customers and you hope they do good business."

  "You got a car dealer in Harmony?"

  "Went out of business thirty years ago. Used to deal in Studebakers, but he hung on with Buicks until the big dealers up in the tri-cities underpriced him to death. No, I don't get his calendar anymore, but we got two funeral homes so maybe that makes up for it."

  Rainie almost made a remark about this being the kind of town where nobody goes anywhere, they just stay home and die, but then she decided that maybe she liked this old lady and maybe she'd stay here for a couple of days, so she held her tongue.

  The old lady smiled a twisted old smile. "You didn't say it, but I know you thought it."

  "What?" asked Rainie, feeling guilty.

  "Some joke about how people don't need cars here, cause they aren't going anywhere until they die."

  "I want the job," said Rainie.

  "I like your style," said the old lady. "I'm Minnie Wilcox, and I can hardly believe that anybody in this day and age named their little girl Ida, but I had a good friend named Ida when I was a girl and I hope you don't mind if I forget sometimes and call you Idie like I always did her."

  "Don't mind a bit," said Rainie. "And nobody in this day and age does name their daughter Ida. I wasn't named in this day and age."

  "Oh, right, you're probably just pushing forty and starting to feel old. Well, I hope I never hear a single word about it from you because I'm right on the seventy line, which to my mind is about the same as driving on empty, the engine's still running but you know it'll sputter soon so what the hell, let's get a few more miles on the old girl before we junk her. I need you on the morning shift, Idie, I hope that's all the same with you."

  "How early?"

  "Six a.m. I'm sad to say, but before you whine about it in your heart, you remember that I'm up baking biscuits at four-thirty. My Jack and I used to do that together. In fact he got his heart attack rolling out the dough, so if you ever come in early and see me spilling a few tears into the powdermilk, I'm not having a bad day, I'm just remembering a good man, and that's my privilege. We got to open at six on account of the hotel across the street. It's sort of the opposite of a bed and breakfast. They only serve dinner, an all-you-can-eat family- style home-cooking restaurant that brings 'em in from fifty miles around. The hotel sends them over here for breakfast and on top of that we get a lot of folks in town, for breakfast and for lunch, too. We do good business. I'm not poor and I'm not rich. I'll pay you decent and you'll make fair tips, for this part of the country. You still see the nickels by the coffee cups, but you just give those old coots a wink and a smile, cause the younger boys make up for them and it's not like it costs that much for a room around here. Meals free during your shift but not after, I'm sorry to say."

  "Fine with me," said Rainie.

  "Don't go quittin' on me after a week, darlin'."

  "Don't plan on it," said Rainie, and to her surprise it was true. It made her wonder -- was Harmony Illinois what she'd been looking for when she checked out in Bremerton? It wasn't what usually happened. Usually she was looking for the street -- the down-and-out half- hopeless life of people who lived in the shadow of the city. She'd found the street once in New Orleans, and once in San Francisco, and another time in Paris, and she found places where the street used to be, like Beale Street in Memphis, and the Village in New York City, and Venice in L.A. But the street was such a fragile place, and it kept disappearing on you even while you were living right in it.

  But there was no way that Harmony Illinois was the street, so what in the world was she looking for if she had found it here?

  Funeral homes, she thought. I'm looking for a place where funeral homes outnumber car dealerships, because my songs are dead and I need a decent place to bury them.

  It wasn't bad working for Minnie Wilcox. She talked a lot but there were plenty of town people who came by for coffee in the morning and a sandwich at lunch, so Rainie didn't have to pay attention to most of the talking unless she wanted to. Minnie found out that Rainie was a fair hand at making sandwiches, too, and she could fry an egg, so the work load kind of evened out -- whichever of them was getting behind, the other one helped. It was busy, but it was decent work -- nobody yelled at anybody else, and even when the people who came in were boring, which was always, they were still decent and even the one old man who leered at her kept his hands and his comments to himself. There were days when Rainie even forgot to slip outside in back of the cafe and have a smoke in the wide- open gravel alleyway next to the dumpster.

  "How'd you used to manage before I came along?" she asked early on. "I mean, judging from that sign, you've been looking for help for a long time."

  "Oh, I got by, Idie, darlin', I got by."

  Pretty soon, though, Rainie picked up the truth from comments the customers made when they thought she was far enough away not to hear. Old people always thought that because they could barely hear, everybody else was half-deaf, too. "Oh, she's a live one." "Knows how to work, this one does." "Not one of those young girls who only care about one thing." "How long you think she'll last, Minnie?"

  She lasted one week. She lasted two weeks. It was on into November and getting cold, with all the leaves brown or fallen, and she was still there. This wasn't like any of the other times she'd dropped out of sight, and it scared her a little, how easily she'd been caught here. It made no sense at all. This town just wasn't Rainie Pinyon, and yet it must be, because here she was.

  After a while even getting up at six a.m. wasn't hard because the
re was no life in this town at night so she might as well go to bed as soon as it turned dark and then dawn was a logical time to get up. There was no TV in the room Rainie took over the garage of a short- tempered man who told her "No visitors" in a tone of voice that made it clear he assumed that she was a whore by nature and only by sheer force of will could he keep her respectable. Well, she was used to letting the voice of authority make proclamations about what she could and couldn't do. Almost made her feel at home. And, of course, she'd do whatever she wanted. This was 1990 and she was forty-two years old and there was freedom in Russia now so her landlord, whatever his name was, could take his no-visitors rule and apply it to his own self. She saw how he sized up her body and decided she was nice-looking. A man who sees a nice-looking woman and assumes that she's wicked to the core is confessing his own desires.

  After work Rainie didn't have anywhere much to go. She ate enough for breakfast and lunch at the cafe that dinner didn't play much of a part in her plans. Besides, the hotel restaurant was too crowded and noisy and full of people's children running around dripping thick globs of gravy off their plates. The chatter of people and clatter of silverware, with Montovani and Kastelanetz (?) playing in the background -- it was not a sound Rainie could enjoy for long. And when she passed the piano in the hotel lobby the one time she went there, she felt no attraction toward it at all, so she knew she wasn't ready to surface yet.

  One afternoon, chilly as it was, she took off her apron after work and put on her jacket and walked in the waning light down to the river. There was a park there, a long skinny one that consisted mostly of parking places, plus a couple of picnic tables, and then a muddy bank and a river that seemed to be as wide as the San Francisco Bay. Dirty and cold, that was the Mississippi. It didn't call out for you to swim in it, but it did keep moving leftward, flowing south, flowing downhill to New Orleans. I know where this river goes, thought Rainie. I've been where it ends up, and it ends up pretty low. She remembered Nicky Villiers sprawled on the levee, his vomit forming one of the Mississippi's less distinguished tributaries as it trickled on down and disappeared in the mud. Nicky shot up on heroin one day when she was out and then forgot he'd done it already and shot up again, or maybe he didn't forget, but anyway Rainie found him dead in the nasty little apartment they shared, back in the winter of -- what, sixty-eight? Twenty-two years ago. Before her first album. Before anybody ever heard of her. Back when she thought she knew who she was and what she wanted. If I'd had his baby like he asked me, he'd still be dead and I'd have a fatherless child old enough to go out drinking without fake i.d.

  The sky had clouded up faster than she had thought possible -- sunny but cold when she left the cafe, dark and cloudy and the temperature dropping about a degree a minute by the time she stood on the riverbank. Her jacket had been warm enough every other day, but not today. A blast of wind came into her face from the river, and there was ice in it. Snowflakes like needles in it. Oh yes, she thought. This is why I always go south in winter. But this year I'm not even as smart as a migratory bird, I've gone and got myself a nest in blizzard country.

  She turned around to head back up the bluff to town. For a moment the wind caught her from behind, catching at her jacket and making it cling to her back. When she got back to the two-lane highway and turned north, the wind tried to tear her jacket off her, and even when she zipped it closed, it cut through. The snow was coming down for real now, falling steadily and sticking on the grass and on the gravel at the edges of the road. Her feet were getting wet and cold right through her shoes as she walked along in the weeds, so she had to move out onto the asphalt. She walked on the left side of the road so she could see any oncoming cars, and that made her feel like she was a kid in school again, listening to the safety instructions. Wear light clothing at night and always walk on the left side of the road, facing traffic. Why? So they can see your white, white face and your bright terrified eyes just before they run you down.

  She reached the intersection where the road to town slanted up from the Great River Road. There was a car coming, so she waited for it to pass before crossing the street. She was looking forward to heading southeast for a while, so the wind wouldn't be right in her face. It'd be just her luck to catch a cold and get laryngitis. Couldn't afford laryngitis. Once she got that it could linger for months. Cost her half a million dollars once, back in '73, five months of laryngitis and a cancelled tour. Promoter was going to sue her, too, since he figured he'd lost ten times that much. His lawyer talked sense to him, though, and the lawsuit and the promoter both went away. Those were the days, when the whole world trembled if I caught a cold. Now it'd just be Minnie Wilcox in the Harmony Cafe, and it wouldn't exactly take her by surprise. The sign was still in the window.

  The car didn't pass. Instead it slowed down and stopped. The driver rolled down his window and leaned his head out. "Ride?"

  She shook her head.

  "Don't be crazy, Ms. Johnson," he said. So he knew her. A customer from the cafe. He pulled his head back in and leaned over and opened the door on the other side.

  She walked over, just to be polite, to close the door for him as she turned him down. "You're very nice," she began, "but --"

  "No buts," he said. "Mrs. Wilcox'll kill me if you get a cold and I could have given you a ride."

  Now she knew him. The man who did Minnie's accounting. Lately he came in for lunch every day, even though he only went over the cafe books once a week. Rainie wasn't a fool. He was a nice man, quiet and he never even joked with her, but he was coming in for her, and she didn't want to encourage him.

  "If you're worried about your personal safety, I got my two older kids as chaperones."

  The kids leaned forward from the back seat to get a look at her. A boy, maybe twelve years old. A girl, looking about the same age, which meant she was probably younger. "Get in, lady, you're letting all the heat out of the car," said the girl.

  She got in. "This is nice of you, but you didn't need to," she said.

  "I can tell you're not from around here," said the boy in the back seat. "Radio says this is a bad storm coming and you don't walk around in a blizzard after dark. Sometimes they don't find your body till spring."

  "Dougie," said the man.

  That was the man's name, too, she remembered. Douglas. And his last name ... Spaulding. Like the ball manufacturer.

  "This is nice of you, Mr. Spaulding," she said.

  "We're just coming back down from the Tri-cities Mall," he said. "They can't wear last year's leather shoes cause they're too small, and their mother would have a fit if I suggested they keep wearing their sneakers right on through the winter, so we just had the privilege of dropping fifty bucks at the shoe store."

  "Who are you?" asked the girl.

  "I'm Ida Johnson," she said. "I'm a waitress at the cafe."

  "Oh, yeah," said the girl.

  "Dad said Mrs. Wilcox had a new girl," said Dougie. "But you're not a girl, you're old."

  "Dougie," said Mr. Spaulding.

  "I mean you're older than, like, a teenager, right? I don't mean like you're about to get Alzheimer's or anything, for Pete's sake, but you're not young, either."

  "She's my age," said Mr. Spaulding, "so I'd appreciate it if you'd get off this subject."

  "How old are you, then, Daddy?" asked the girl.

  "Bet he doesn't remember," said Dougie. He explained to Rainie. "Dad forgets his age all the time."

  "Do not," said Mr. Spaulding.

  "Do so," said Dougie. It was obviously a game they had played before.

  "Do not, and I'll prove it. I was born in 1948, which was three years after World War II ended, and five years before Eisenhower became president, and he died at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which was the site of a battle that was fought in 1863, which was 127 years ago last July, and here it is November which is four months after July, and November is the eleventh month and so I'm four times eleven, forty- four."

  "No!" the kids both shouted, laug
hing. "You turned forty-two in May."

  "Why, that's good news," he said. "I feel two years younger, and I'll bet Ms. Johnson does too."

  She couldn't help but smile.

  "Here we are," he said.

  It took her a moment to realize that without any directions, he had taken her right to the garage with the outside stair that led to her apartment. "How did you know where to take me?"

  "It's a small town," said Mr. Spaulding. "Everybody knows everything about everybody, except for the things which nobody knows."

  "Like Father's middle name," said the girl.

  "Get on upstairs and turn your heat on, Ms. Johnson," said Mr. Spaulding. "This is going to be a bad one tonight."

  "Thanks for the ride," said Rainie.

  "Nice to meet you," said Dougie.

  "Nice to meet you," echoed the girl.

  Rainie stood in the door and leaned in. "I never caught your name," she said to the girl.

  "I'm Rose. Never Rosie. Grandpa Spaulding picked the name, after his aunt who never married. I personally think the name sucks pond scum, but it's better than Ida, don't you agree?"

  "Definitely," said Rainie.

  "Rosie," said Mr. Spaulding, in his warning voice.

  "Good-night, Mr. Spaulding," said Rainie. "And thanks for the ride."

  He gave a snappy little salute in the air, as if he were touching the brim of a non-existent hat. "Any time," he said. She closed the door of the car and watched them drive away. Up in her room she turned the heater on.

  During the night the snow piled up a foot and a half deep and the temperature got to ten below zero, but she was warm all night. In the morning she wondered if she should go to work. She knew Minnie would be there and Rainie wasn't about to have Minnie decide that her "new girl" was soft. She almost left the apartment with only her jacket for warmth, but then she thought better and put on a sweater under it. She still froze, what with the wind blowing ground snow in her face.

  At the cafe the talk was that four people died between Chicago and St. Louis that night, the storm was so bad. But the cafe was open and the coffee was hot, and standing there looking out the window at the occasional car passing by on the freshly plowed road, Rainie realized that in Louisiana and California she had never felt as warm as this, to be in a cafe with coffee steaming and eggs sizzling on the grill and deadly winter outside, trying but failing to get at her.