There was a picture book Cole liked that told the story of a mother who had a child with accordion-like wings on his shoulders, tiny wings that would carry him into the air if his mother wasn’t careful, sometimes bumping against ceilings or tree branches or clouds. It wasn’t clear to Rachel how much her nephew understood about the story, but he sat in her lap on the bus while she was reading it, touching his little fingers to the page, making sounds that might or might not have been words. Rachel had been terrified of getting caught earlier when she had bundled little Cole in a blanket at her sister’s home, had carried him from the house while the parents were asleep, had walked the half mile to the bus stop. She had worried that, at a minimum, the boy would start fussing for his mother, but it hadn’t happened. He was a beautiful child, everything she’d always hoped for. He was small as a miracle, a perfect child with pudgy legs and cute pudgy cheeks and his first tiny teeth fighting through.
On the bus, they rode past small towns with names Vermillion, Newcomb, Mansfield, Olney, and Pennville. She sang quietly to Cole, songs she remembered from childhood. It was snowing by the middle of the day, the desultory flakes drifting out of the sky without conviction, falling against the window and then evaporating. Much later the bus passed over the Tennessee River. It was a gray river, much larger than she’d expected, a great expanse of living liquid, the current moving on a treadmill or a factory line. Cole began squirming more in her arms, but eventually they both slept, and when she came awake it was the first gray of morning and the land had flattened out. There were trees by the side of the road she’d never seen before, and the color of the grass—if it was grass—was new to her as well. She sat up in the seat and tried to picture finding a waitressing job, walking home at the end of her shift, unlocking the apartment door with her key, handing the babysitter a few dollars, finding Cole playing on the floor and grinning wildly to see her, waving his little pudge arms for her to lift him. It was a perfect dream, and she held him close to her body when at last they arrived at Pensacola, when she climbed off the bus. It wasn’t as warm as she’d expected. A brisk wind was blowing.
There were supposed to be white beaches by the Pensacola Bay, supposed to be a beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico, but all she saw so far were a few dirty streets. She walked them, stopping often to shift the suitcase and Cole into opposite arms. The air smelled differently than back home: she realized it was the bay she was smelling, the ocean. It wasn’t a salt smell but more like old fish and cresting waves. She checked into a cheap motel called The Bayview, paying cash and signing a false name. She fed Cole mashed bananas and strained vegetables out of a jar. She unwrapped a little blue pacifier. He had a mild case of diaper rash but not bad. The television wasn’t showing any cartoons, but she did find a show where two young women were singing, and Cole slapped his little hands on the carpet and seemed happy enough. Later she walked Cole down to the beach—if that was what it was. There wasn’t any sand, just the majestic waters of the bay stretching out like a great slab of dark marble or stone. She could see the Pensacola Bay Bridge reaching out like a straight finger across the water, and she could see the hazy slab of land where the road was headed. There were water birds flying everywhere around the bay, but not one with a name she knew. She sat on a bench and bounced Cole in her lap. She breathed in the air and tried not to think about her sister, who’d once gone to California and had said that swimming in the ocean was like being swallowed by a great liquid beast that was heaven. She was still thinking about her sister when she fell asleep that night and dreamed that it was snowing. She was walking past an outdoor fountain, and in the shallows of the moving water there were stone alligators and stone frogs and even a stone mermaid with naked and unusually large breasts. It was Rachel’s birthday in the dream: she was forty. Above her the clouds were low-slung and the color of stone, but mostly her eyes were on the fountain. Beneath the surface there were stone fish muscling through the reeds. They might have been alive or they might have been mechanical. Then she woke and kissed a sleeping Cole on his forehead.
Two more days passed like that: she spent each one with Cole at the water’s edge, having little picnics with him in the sand. There was a gift shop near the pier and she splurged on a postcard that showed the very same view she’d been staring at all day. She walked to the end of the pier and put down Cole on the weathered wood and sat with him and watched the sun sinking lower in the sky. A few sea birds went flying past. For supper she and Cole went to a restaurant for the first time since they’d arrived in Florida, spending the last of the money she’d brought with her. She ordered more than they could eat and dessert, too. Cole was a little fussy but it passed. Afterwards she carried him back to the ocean so they could see the sun coming down, sinking like a great flame being doused in the gulf to the west. She thought of the sound that a hot frying pan makes when it is placed into a sink of water, but the sun slipped soundlessly into the ocean then was gone. There was a pay phone she’d passed on the corner beyond the pier, and she found it and called collect. Cole was squirming in her arms, so she put him down and let him play by her feet. There were cars going by on the road, people walking by on the sidewalks, as though it were an ordinary night, as though it were no different than any other, as though life would go on like this and never stop. She listened to the phone ringing. It rang four times then her sister answered. “It’s me,” Rachel said. “I’m so sorry. Cole’s okay.” Then both she and her sister were crying, and Bev was talking very fast and in a loud angry voice, telling her that she was going to go to prison, so Rachel hung up and lifted the boy in her arms. He was heavy—in a good way. She stopped so they could look one last time at the ocean, then carried him down the street until she saw the building with tan bricks. She had passed it before, had made a wide berth around it. She went inside and saw fluorescent lights and dark carpeting and a police officer standing behind a desk with a phone against his ear. She walked toward him and scooted Cole’s butt up on the counter. The police officer was talking loudly into the phone and put up one finger to let her know he’d been done soon. She waited. The man had a mustache. There were maybe a half dozen people in the room with them, most sitting and waiting, though Rachel couldn’t have guessed for what. She poked Cole lightly in the belly while they were waiting—a little game they liked to play. She grabbed his little legs in both hands and moved them back and forth like he was running. Cole started grinning. He had little dimples she loved. He started pumping his little legs on his own. The police officer put down the phone. “What can I help you with?” he asked.
Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections. His most recent book, Original Bodies, was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is forthcoming by Southern Indiana Review Press.