SHORT STORY

Joe’s Baby
by Joyce Faulkner

     “I knew you would come.”  A cigarette dangled from the left side of Alvin Moran’s smile.

     “I appreciate you seeing me, Mr. Moran.”

     Tobie Grant sat down across from him, laying a small voice recorder on the table.  His phone call came out of the blue.  It was an incredible stroke of fortune—the last interview with the most famous arsonist of all time.  If she did a good job, there was a good chance she’d get that offer from Court TV.

     “I wanted to take a gander at Joe Grant’s kid before I walk the mile.”

     Tobie looked up, her lips parted in surprise.  “Why?”

     “Because Joe was sterile.”  He leaned back in his chair, watching for her reaction.

     Tobie rummaged through her briefcase, avoiding his eyes.  “How could YOU know something like that?”  She knew the rules.  Never let these crazies know they’ve hit a nerve, but the words slipped out anyway.

     “Didn’t you ever wonder why you were the only one?  Joe and Sherry were married almost twenty-five years.”

     “I never thought about it.”  She tossed a yellow legal pad onto the table, playing for time to gather her thoughts.

     “Your mother was forty-two years old when you were born.  Joe had been dead eight months.”

     “So?”

      “Doesn’t that strike you as strange?”

      Her cheeks flushed, all sense of professional objectivity gone.  “Who ARE you?” 

      “You’ll find out soon enough.”  Alvin cackled and slapped his knee.

      “I’m leaving.”  Tobie stood up, buttoning her suit coat.

      “I die tomorrow.  If you don’t find out now, you never will.”  His dark eyes glittered. 

      “I thought you were going to give me a story.  An interview.  I didn’t expect you to talk about MY family.”

      “Oh I’m going to give you a story all right.”  His bare gums glistened in the harsh overhead lights.  “What’s the matter, don’t you like what you see?”

      “I thought I would feel sorry for you.”

      Alvin snorted.

      “You are so…”

      “Unrepentant?” he laughed.  “I’m sorry they are going to burn me tomorrow, but I’m not sorry I did what I did.  I loved it.  I LOVED it.”  Alvin rolled his eyes in a grotesque mimicry of ecstasy.  “There’s nothing I regret. There’s just one piece of business left to finish.  Joe Grant’s baby.”

      “Did you know my father?”  She sat down, her hands palm down on the table between them.

      “Intimately.”

      “Joe Grant was a great man.  How could he know someone like you?”

      “Ha!” Alvin barked.  “We were classmates back in the fifties.  I was a scrawny little dude, but Joe was a star.  He won every thing from spelling bees to essay contests.  He played all kinds of sports.  Made me want to puke.”

      “You were jealous of him?”

      “Jealous?  Ha!  He lived in a nice home with a frilly old woman who adored him and gave him everything he wanted.  I lived in a trailer with a drunken clod who beat me when my stomach growled.  Joe was brawny and good-looking.  I was skinny with bad skin.  He got the prettiest cheerleader, I slept alone till I went to prison the first time.  Then I wanted to sleep alone.” 

      “What’s this all about, Mr. Moran?”  Her voice wavered.

      “It’s about setting the record straight.”

      “What did he ever do to you?”

      “Nothing.  He didn’t know I existed.  We went to school together for twelve years.  He never knew my name.  Isn’t that something?”

      “I suppose.”  Tobie’s eyes flitted to the door. She wondered if the guard could hear.

      “He never knew you existed either.”  Alvin blew ragged smoke rings, his eyes emotionless black holes.

      “That wasn’t his fault.”

      “It was Sherry, you see.  I fell in love with Sherry when we were eight years old.  She had a long orange-gold braid that hung down past her butt.  It glowed like liquid fire.  I sat behind her in the third grade and played with that braid all day, wrapping and unwrapping it around my arm.  She didn’t even notice most of the time.  Once in a while, I’d get too rambunctious and she’d turn around and glare at me.  I just grinned, my heart pounding until she turned back around.  After a few minutes, I’d be at that braid again.” 

      “She still wore a braid when she died,” Tobie murmured.  “Wrapped around her head.”

      “The kids at school called her ‘Rapunzel’.  That would have pissed me off.  Not Sherry.  She just twinkled at them and they all liked her for it.”

      “Everyone liked Mom.”

      “You are nothing like her, you know.”

      “They say I take after my dad.” 

      “Ha!”  That barking laugh again.

      Tobie glanced over her shoulder.  The guard was a mere shadow on the tiny window in the door.  “So you knew my parents in school.  So what?”

      “I followed them to make-out point.  I had a nice perch in an oak tree overlooking the turnaround.  Joe parked his big caddy convertible not twenty feet from where I sat.  I watched when he first kissed her.  We were sixteen.  I saw him touch her breasts when we were seventeen, but she was much too good a girl to screw in the back seat of a yellow caddy, he had to marry her for that.  I can verify she deserved to wear white on her wedding day.”

      “I don’t want to know this.”  Tobie put the lid back on her pen. 

      “Nonsense.  It fascinates you, Tobie.”  Alvin winked. “I set my first fire on Sherry’s wedding night.  I remember it clear as day.  I wasn’t invited to the wedding, of course.  I worked the reception as a valet for Joe’s grandmother.  I picked up some mighty fine merchandise out of those cars.   In fact, I was nosing around in a Lincoln when I heard them go scampering past, giggling like little kids.  Of course, they were kids—younger than you are now.  I followed them out to a secluded gazebo on the grounds of Grandma’s estate, crouching behind a bush, listening to them whimper as they made love. 

      “I waited until they left and crawled into their special place, dreaming.  Later, I came back with a can of lighter fluid and torched it.  The whoosh of the flames devouring the gazebo raised chilblains on my arms.  It was a revelation—the first time in my life I felt whole.”

      “You hated my father and lusted after my mother.  What has that got to do with me?”  The old man’s lurid confession disgusted her. 

      “I went my own way after that.  There was a stretch in prison when I was twenty for firebombing a car dealership.  There were six spanking new caddies inside that building.  It was worth the time spent with the perverts.  I checked up on Joe and Sherry when I got out.  Joe had taken over his grandmother’s business and doubled the sales.  Quite a clever boy, our Joe.”

      “He was a genius when it came to marketing,” Tobie agreed.

      “Sherry had changed from a pretty girl into a beautiful woman.  I followed her for a couple of years.  She dabbled in the civil rights movement and marched to protest the Vietnam War.  I prayed she would burn her bra, but I missed it if she did.  The cops picked me up for torching the ROTC building over at the University.  That was my first foray into politics.”

      He used his first cigarette to light the second.  He laid the butt in an ashtray.  The filter ignited.  Alvin’s eyes reflected the flickering light.  Sighing, Tobie poured coffee into the ashtray creating a mushy sludge.  Alvin grinned.

      She stiffened.  “Finish your story, Mr. Moran.  I have a deadline to meet.”

      “It’s not you that has the deadline.” 

      She accepted that truth and nodded. 

      “When I got out the second time and went looking for Joe and Sherry, they had moved.  Joe got elected state senator.  They kept grandma’s house after she died, you understand, but they lived at the state capital.  Sherry went to law school full time.  She was still a good catholic girl, but Joe started taking a little extra on the side.  Nothing serious mind you, just a couple of one night stands—big tits and big hair.  None of them held a flame to Sherry, of course. 

      “I thought Joe’s passion for Sherry might have waned, but they were hot as ever.  She often stopped by his office in the middle of the day.  He locked the door and they’d have a go at each other.  Joe wanted it all.” 

      Tobie covered her ears.  “You bastard, he was my father.  Why are you telling me these things?”

      “Because I want you to know how it was.”  He slammed the table with his fist and she jumped. 

      The guard tapped on the window with his baton.  Alvin held both hands palms forward.  The guard looked at Tobie and raised his eyebrows.

      Alvin’s voice was smooth.  “You can walk out anytime you want, Tobie.”

      She sat for a moment before nodding to the guard.  Alvin was showing off.  She wasn’t sure he was telling the truth, but despite her discomfort, she was intrigued.  “I’m listening.”

      He leaned forward, leering.  “I went to the Pen for torching an abortion clinic.  Everyone thought it was a message or that it was directed at the ‘evil’ abortionists.  Hell, I fired the place because it was next door to my parole office.  I destroyed my own records, but of course, the whole building went up.  Got a few dead babies in jars.  I loved it.”

      Alvin seemed disappointed in Tobie’s lack of response.  “By the time that sentence was over, Sherry was an assistant D.A. back in our hometown.  Joe was a US Congressman.  He traveled back and forth to see her.  His extra ladies in D.C. were young and dull.  At home, he only had eyes for Sherry.  Out of curiosity, I went up to D.C. helped myself to one of his leftovers—Miss Candice Johnson.  She was twenty-two.  She was sleeping her way up the ladder starting out with Joe’s secretary, then an adviser, and then finally Joe himself.  Joe lasted one night, much to her disappointment.  I told her that I was Joe’s campaign manager and kept her for almost a year, but I’ll get to that soon.        

      “That was the year Joe had his accident.  He came home to Sherry at the end of the spring session.  They had a great time together.  I don’t pretend to understand it.  They went to the theater.  They cuddled on Grandma’s couch in front of the fire.  They made love most nights.  It was as if they knew this was the end, you know?”

      “You watched them?”  Tobie was offended at the continuing invasion of her parent’s privacy.

      “I had my hiding places.  When he got on his Cannondale one early morning and pedaled off down the hill,  I watched Sherry through the open window.  She danced around the room in a sheer little nightie.  Her hair flowed down her back, loose and shiny.  I guessed they got it on the night before and it infuriated me.  I was still in love with her, you know.  Then she answered the phone, screamed and dropped the receiver, falling across their bed sobbing.  Joe had lost control of his bicycle and smacked head first into that tree.  His luck finally ran out.”  Alvin smiled with obvious relish.

      “So what did you do?  Park cars at his funeral?”  Tobie wanted to get back at Alvin, but how does one hurt a psychopath?  Sarcasm was such a blunt weapon.

      Alvin ignored it and went on with his story.  “Sherry was distraught.  Her mother decided that she needed a nurse.  It was my great opportunity.”

     “You were her nurse?”

      “It’s easy to acquire a fake name.  A resume is just paper.  I began working for Sherry Grant a month after Joe bashed his brains out against that tree.  Sherry wandered around the place like a zombie.  She didn’t recognize me without hair.  I wore a goatee and glasses by then.  I touched her in little ways.  Every night, I brushed out her hair as she stared out the very same window I’d stared into for so many years.  The brush glided through her crackling copper waves.  It still tugs at my heart.  That hair.”

      “You were obsessed,” Tobie scowled, trying to understand.

      The old man roared with laughter.  “Obsessed, eh?  That’s a good one.  We are coming to the heart of the story now, Tobie.  Be patient.  I heard from Candice a few days before Joe died.  She was pregnant.  I told her I wasn’t about to support a kid.  Who knew whose baby she was carrying?  I sent her money and forgot about her.  She was nothing, you see.

      “Sherry, on the other hand, was everything.  This was the best time of my life—taking care of her everyday.  She was so frail, it twisted my hard old heart.  Two months after Joe died, she announced she was pregnant.  The doctor said it was impossible.  Joe and Sherry tried to have a family for years.  Now, Sherry insisted Joe had left her little piece of himself.  The doctor was patient.  She was grieving after all.”

      “But she was pregnant.  I’m here!”  Tobie cried.

      “Sherry didn’t have her period for seven months.  Her stomach swelled up and those beautiful breasts got milky.  She sat in a wooden rocker, all belly and boobs, crying over Joe.  Her legs got so skinny I thought they would break if she stood up.

      “I had to do something.  A woman is pregnant only so long.  Even hysterical pregnancies end at some point.  I worried for her sanity.  She lived for Joe’s baby.”

      “She just thought she was pregnant?”

      “Sherry’s body went through the whole process, but there was no baby.”

      “But, I’m here, Mr. Moran.  I exist.”  Tobie stamped her foot.

      “After seven months of this nonsense, I gave Sherry a sleeping pill.  She was snoring when I left.  I went to D.C. to see my old friend Candice.  I brought chocolates and flowers.  I took her to dinner.  She was thrilled to see me, the stupid bitch.  She showed me baby clothes and furniture.  I asked to brush her hair—a romantic gesture.  I stood behind her with the hairbrush.  After two strokes, I exchanged the brush for a knife.”

      “My God!”  Tobie gasped, her hands covering her face.

      “Now you understand, don’t you, Tobie?  I cut her throat from behind and let her bleed out until she lost consciousness.  Then, I dragged her off the chair.  I laid newspapers beside her before slicing her belly from sternum to the top of her pubic mound.  It was a shallow cut at first, I didn’t want to hurt you.  The uterus was tougher than I thought.  I had to use some strength there.  When I got her open, there you were—all blue and bloody.  I reached inside and pulled you out.  You had some muck in your mouth and nose.  I scooped it out with my fingers.  I laid you on the newspapers and tied the cord.  Then I cut you free from her, and you were mine.  To give to Sherry.”

      “No! I don’t believe you.  I won’t listen to this,” Tobie sobbed.

      “Yes, you do.  You believe every word of it.  I took you out to Joe’s old yellow Caddy and laid you on the back seat wrapped in a white blanket.  Then, I went back into Candice’s apartment and poured gasoline on her body.  It ignited with a loud, sexy whoomp.  The flames raced up across the bloody carpet and up the curtains.  I closed the door.  I had other things to do.  Five people died and sixty others lost their home.  It was a good night.”

       “How did you explain the baby to my mother?  She wasn’t stupid.  She would know whether she gave birth.” 

      “I laid you in her arms while she slept.  You were a big healthy kid.  Sherry woke up and fell in love with you.  I told her that she’d been in labor for ten hours and that I’d given her something to put her out.  She wanted to believe so she did.  She thought you looked like Joe.  I had a good laugh over that one.  You were named Tobie Marie after Joe’s grandmother.  You were her miracle baby.  She kept Joe alive through you.”  The old man’s voice was low and breathy.

      “Surely someone noticed?  The doctor knew Mother wasn’t pregnant.  How did she explain me to him?”

      “That night was the last time I saw Sherry.  I took the Caddy down to the clinic and waited until morning.  The doctor got there about 9:15.  I waited a few minutes until the place filled up, then I threw three firebombs.  One would have been sufficient, I guess, but I wanted to be sure.”

      “The Maitland Clinic fire!”  Tobie shrank from him, her mouth agape with horror.

      “The fire got fifteen people that morning, including the doctor.  I was on the lam for almost five years.  I torched at least ten more buildings before they caught me, but they are frying me tomorrow for the Maitland Clinic.  Ironic, isn’t it?”

      “My poor mother.”

      “Which one?”  Alvin lit another cigarette and winked at her.

      “All this time, everyone thought I was…”

      “Joe’s baby?”

      “I don’t believe you are my father.  I won’t believe it.”

      “Accept it, Tobie Grant.  You belong to me.”

      “You said Candice slept with a lot of others.  She slept with Joe Grant.  Maybe I’m …”

      “Dream on, Tobie.”  He took a picture out of his pocket.  A skinny young man with dark, greasy hair stared into the camera.  “That’s me when I was your age.” 

       The resemblance was unmistakable.

      “Do I have any relatives?” Tobie asked.

      “Until tomorrow.”

 END

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