The advertisement, as they ran it on Craigslist:
Used crib and crib mattress For Sale. Slightly chipped. $30 O.B.O.
Next to it: pictures of the crib, dents, scrapes, stains and all.
Waiting for a response, Richard continued packing the car. He had been on a ten-month research fellowship in Las Vegas, on sabbatical from his job in Pennsylvania. He had rented a furnished condo, and when they’d arrived last summer they had bought this crib, on Craigslist, for thirty bucks. Over the year they’d tried to keep an even balance sheet between what was acquired and what was scrapped, with the goal of squeezing everything back into the Subaru for the return trip to Pennsylvania. Their two children (daughter 4, son 2) had been acquired prior to the trip and presumably could not be scrapped, though the subject occasionally was broached.
In full packing frenzy, Richard had begun loading the station wagon and X-Cargo. An hour after posting the advertisement, when he next checked e-mail, he had a reply: Is Your crib Still avalable? Would you take 25 $ For it? Mindy
Richard wrote back:
Yes, the crib’s still available, though we need to get rid of it this morning, as we’re leaving early tomorrow. We’ll take twenty, but you’ll have to come and get it as soon as possible, or we’ll be open to other offers. Please give a call if you’re interested at the number below.
He made another three trips outside, down the stairs, along the inefficiently winding path, around the garages, to the car. Their rice cooker, an overstuffed duffel, two heavy cartons of books. Back upstairs Sandra was cleaning the fridge, the kids scrambling around her, making messes on top of messes. He needed to go out for a replacement wireless headset and extra pull-up diapers for the trip, and just as they were getting the kids into their shoes (always an impossible task) his phone shrilled out. It was the worst possible time – each kid with one shoe on.
Sandra answered it. “Yes, we still have it. Richard, it’s a Mindy. Did you write a Mindy about the crib?”
“Tell her she has to come and get it now if she wants it,” he called. He was wrestling his son’s foot into the second sneaker, but while he did this Sasha had managed to kick the first one off.
“We live in Legacy Legends,” his wife was saying. “It’s a condo unit, on Wigwam and Green Valley. No, Wigwam and Green Valley. Do you know where that is? Are you in this part of the city? That’s right. Do you have a truck? You don’t.” Sandra grimaced, and then eying Richard, she smiled, those eyes glowing with mischief. “No, it shouldn’t be a problem. My husband will be more than happy to break down the crib for you.”
On the couch he cursed beneath his breath, and let Sasha, now shoeless, squirm out between his knees. They didn’t have time for this shit. They had half-a-million things to do; the apartment had to be cleared out by this evening to steam the carpets. Sandra knew the only thing he hated more than disassembling children’s toys and games and furniture was assembling them. He would have paid twenty dollars not to have to tackle this.
They were the crib’s second, maybe third, owners. Over the last few nights they had argued about what to do with the damn thing. It probably no longer met the ever-shifting child safety standards, and Richard was all for just tossing it into the dumpster. “But someone can use it,” Sandra had insisted, “Just like we used it. Someone might need it.” She had become obsessed in recent months with Freecycle, with breaking out of the consumerist trap she had seen on a video entitled “The Story of Stuff.” Yes, she was right; she was always right. But he just wanted to pack the damn car and get on the road already; ditch this cramped condo and the late-spring Mojave heat. He’d posted on Craigslist imagining that someone with a truck would come, hand them 30 bucks, and haul off the crib in one piece.
Back in Pennsylvania Sasha would be transitioning to a toddler bed. It was the end of these excruciating infant years. Two children, soon both soon out of diapers. Able to brush their own teeth, drink from an open cup. Things were finally easing up on the parenting front, and getting rid of this crib had seemed a significant milestone. Consumerist trap or no, it would have given him much satisfaction to toss it into the dumpster, above the NO FURNITURE sign.
Sandra, still on the phone, was rolling her eyes at what she was hearing.
When she hung up she told him that this Mindy couldn’t seem to make up her mind, even for twenty bucks. The whole time on the phone she’d been screaming at her daughter, “You want it?” and the daughter kept yelling “What?” “The crib!” “What crib?” “I showed you the picture!” “I don’t want that crib.” “What are you going to do then?” “I don’t fucking want that crib?” “You need a crib!” “Fine.” “You ask Mike if he can bring the truck round?” “I’m not asking Mike, that prick.” “How you gonna get the crib?” “Not with Mike!” And then Mindy had come back on the phone and said, politely, “We’ll be there very soon.”
So now Richard set to work disassembling the crib, trying not to strip screws or break anything (further), trying to keep the hardware together and out of the prying hands of the children, who danced around him, eliminating any possibility of concentration. For them a nervous excitement charged the apartment: their toys boxed, clothes suitcased, fridge emptied, bed-sheets stripped, crib now turned upside down like some giant TinkerToy assemblage. Through it all Richard expected this Mindy to show; but this Mindy didn’t, and he was just about to check e-mail to see if there was any other interest in the crib, when the phone rang.
Through lousy coverage a woman’s voice was simultaneously breaking up and echoing. He couldn’t make out what she was saying. “Do you need directions?” he guessed out loud. “Are you lost? Are you in the apartment complex? I know it’s confusing.” He’d found he was yelling. On the other end the voice was mumbling something he couldn’t get, followed by what he finally realized sounded like, “think…at this…your door.”
Could it be? Richard opened the front door and yes, there they were, a crowd of women, milling in a group on the second floor landing. Why hadn’t they just knocked?
There were five of them. The oldest, presumably Mindy, looked like a grandmother, though it was difficult to be certain. She had that indeterminate quality of age somewhere between 45 and 60. She was bespectacled, bedraggled, slightly hunched, her defeated breasts hanging low towards her stomach. A tough-looking woman, but some intense confusion now colored her face. She clutched the cell phone in both hands, her thumb hovering, searching for the off button and not finding it. Her hair, part sandy-blonde, part gray, clung to the back of her neck in sparse, greasy strands.
Around her stood four younger women – girls really. The youngest (and prettiest, Richard tried not to notice) was a thin teen with smooth pale skin and long straight brown hair. She was wearing a tight halter top tucked tightly into tight cut-off shorts. She, too, was talking on a cell phone; and when she looked up at Richard she wielded an expression of intense scorn, as if by opening his front door he had rudely interrupted a private conversation.
Her three sisters – or cousins? friends? – surrounded her like courtesans. One was a chunky blonde, and it was she who would, wordlessly, offer the only help Richard would get in the trials to come. Another of the girls, snapping gum, seemed in some kind of rush, stepping on one foot, and back on the other, leaning over the landing to look out at the golf course. Maybe she needed a bathroom? The last girl had something wrong with her: her face wasn’t exactly symmetrical: one side was bloated, the other cheek had a small patch of acne, so it was like two faces grafted together. She peeked into the apartment and gawked openly at the chaos.
Richard thought: five women, coming for a crib. Not a father, not a husband, not a boyfriend in sight. And there seemed to be a generation missing here: no mother, either.
“This is it,” he said, waving a hand at the parts fanned out on the floor and leaning up against the loveseat. “Look ok?”
Mindy turned to the pretty one in the halter top. “You want it?”
“I don’t CARE,” she said, pressing her phone between her bare shoulder and ear. And she went back to chattering on the cell. “Don’t tell me he said that about me…”
If she were pregnant, there was no clear sign of a child yet – just thinness, and ripened sexuality, and bitter teenage denial of this, the rest of her life, disassembled before her in the flattened mess of railings and brackets. She couldn’t be bothered with this. She had been dragged kicking and screaming into the purchase of a twenty dollar used crib.
One by one the group stepped in. What else was this teen seeing when she walked into their condo? Suitcases and shopping bags and training potties, and his two children staring up in curious expectation at the unfamiliar faces. His kids, naturally, were adorable, bright-eyed, long-banged, and anyone else might have said hello, or crouched down and asked their names, returned their smiles. Anyone else may have praised the starfish made out of Tooberz his precociously creative daughter had constructed and was now holding up to show them. Anyone else may have admired his son’s line of Matchbox cars fighting their way through traffic across the apple-juice-stained carpet. The pregnant girl and her minions, standing in the front doorway, acknowledged none of it.
The crib broke down into railings, headboards, mattress, sideboards, support beams – about fifteen separate parts. “Let me help you get some of this,” Richard offered. He expected the grandmother would say, “We got it,” have each of her girls grab a piece or two, and that would be that. Crib gone, he’d be free to tackle pressing errands.
But only the overweight blonde moved to grab a single railing by the loveseat. The grandmother reached into her wallet. Her hand emerged from a change purse with a worn twenty, limp and soft, surprisingly droopy in the dry desert heat. Sandra took it and thanked her warmly. Richard’s daughter Sophia asked what that money was for, and when Sandra explained that they were selling her brother’s crib, Sophia broke into tears. “Sasha’s crib? You can’t!” she wailed. “What will he sleep in?”
“In the hotels he’ll sleep in his Pack’n Play. Once we get home he’ll have a bed, just like you.” Patience, clarity, words properly enunciated, syntax precisely calibrated down to a four-year-old’s level. Sandra’s mother voice usually filled Richard with pride, but at this moment he felt she was overdoing it, playing it up for a hostile crowd.
“No, no, no,” his daughter was saying, “I don’t want you to sell Sasha’s crib.” She wagged a finger at them. “No, no, no.”
“Sophia,” his wife said, her voice stern and rising, “please don’t speak to your mother like that. See how big it is. It wouldn’t even fit into our car.”
“If you sell Sasha’s crib,” their adorable daughter said, “I’ll hate you forever.”
His wife smiled up at Mindy. “Girls!”
Mindy, watching, did not smile back. Her expression went blank, and she asked, “It’s still for sale then?”
The chubby blonde, meanwhile, had disappeared down the stairs with her railing. The other teens and the pregnant girl had followed, taking nothing. Richard grabbed the two heaviest pieces, the sideboards, and lugged them downstairs himself, holding them up close to his ears so they wouldn’t drag across the rough pebbled stairs. He squinted into the noon desert sun; the heat prickling his bare arms. Out front it was an infuriating, poorly-planned, thirty yards around the manicured rock path to the parking lot. Turning the corner past the garages, Richard came upon the truck.
$29.99 In Town! proclaimed the U-Haul rental. It was a 17 footer; they’d parked it at an angle in the fire lane, one front tire crushed against the curb. The chunky blonde was handing her single piece of wood up to someone in the cargo area, and the Pregnant Princess, as Richard suddenly thought of her, was sitting up in the passenger seat, with the door open, still talking on her phone, long bare legs crossed, a flip flop dangling off a black-polished toe.
“If he doesn’t want to give me any money, he’s not going to see the damn thing. It’s his too. Tell him that! No, you tell him!”
Richard knew he should have felt only sympathy, but at that moment he hated the girl.
The cavernous back of the truck was large enough to fit fifty cribs; and inside it the gum-chewing sister leaned the pieces he gave them against the side wall instead of stacking them down. Even to Richard, a Humanist, not mechanically inclined, it was clear that once they drove away the particle-board frames were going to fly everywhere, rattle around the empty truck, possibly break. He wanted to correct what the girls were doing, but an assertion of paternal authority seemed inappropriate, considering the circumstances. It wasn’t for him to get involved. In a situation like this you had to maintain your distance. He’d never see these people again. Only on the walk back did it occur to him that the truck cost more than they were charging for the crib itself. For that price, plus tax, they could have just found a brand spanking new crib somewhere, safely boxed.
Upstairs his wife was still talking to Mindy, who was saying, “Not enough space. We want to get out of here, go back home near Sacramento. California’s better than Nevada. But can’t afford it yet.”
“Oh, we honeymooned in Santa Barbara a few years ago,” Sandra told her. “We went whale watching! We saw dolphins. It’s a beautiful state. It really is.”
“Whales?” the grandmother said, falling silent at the sight of Richard. Sasha had run over and was grabbing Richard’s legs and yelling, “You come dance! Daddy, you come dance.” His daughter emerged from her room dressed as a Rainbow Fairy, wings strapped on, looking for an audience.
He saw that Mindy had been confiding something to his wife, woman to woman, and that he had interrupted the beginning of a disclosure. Mindy remained silent now, watching him suspiciously as he dragged out the crib mattress for his second run downstairs. Richard smirked at her, and made his sweating way back out the door.
Not one of the girls, not even the chubby one, was on her way back up from the truck to help. He huffed around the cacti, caught the mattress on the branches of an overgrown Palo Verde, and at the rental found that, for no apparent reason the kids had moved all of the pieces that were previously leaning on the right side of the truck to the left side. “Here you go,” he said, lifting the mattress up for them. The overweight blonde grunted something that would be the closest to a thank you he’d get this afternoon, and dragged the mattress across the filthy truck floor.
By now the pregnant one had hopped down off the passenger seat, come around, and instead of climbing in and lending her sisters a hand, asked Richard, “That all yet?”
She couldn’t have been ruder. But she was so damned pretty, so assured – so tragic, in her condition – that her acknowledging his existence, her deigning to speak to him, disarmed Richard. He found himself falling in line. “I think there’s, um, a few more pieces.” He pointed lamely upstairs, and shook out his gray T-shirt, which was clinging to his torso. Batches of sweat had darkened his chest in patches; they were dripping down his stomach like leaking breasts. “One or two more trips,” he conceded.
The Princess grimaced, dismissed him with a turn, and jabbed at her cell again, dialing. He was inconveniencing her. Chastened, he made his way back upstairs. The heat was pounding off the pavement, the air above the cement walkway glimmering white. The wing on their neighbor Maureen’s shaded hummingbird thermometer pointed to 109. A dry heat, they called it.
He trudged up the steps once again. This time when he entered the condo it was his wife who fell silent. Sandra looked at him accusingly and said, “How’s it going down there Mister?” She had turned on him too.
It took two more trips to get the baseboards, pegs, and bags of screws down to the truck. On his second to last trip out of the condo he heard his wife speaking in a hushed voice to Mindy. “It’s gonna all work out for those girls. It’ll be hard, but I promise you, it’ll work out.”
Mindy was backing towards the door. “Might work out,” she said, shrugging. “I, for one, don’t see how.” She attempted her first smile. Her teeth were misshapen and bent in painful directions, and Richard couldn’t hold her eyes.
He glanced at his wife. He could tell Sandra was upset. Mindy followed him out empty-handed. The baseboard he was carrying wasn’t heavy, but it was wide and awkward, and dancing it downstairs Richard tripped on the third to last step, on a pinecone Sophia had assembled as part of her ‘treasure collection’ and had placed here for the world to admire. At the last moment he caught his balance, but landed on his ass. He’d scraped up his elbow against the stone landing – but the baseboard, as it turned out, was unharmed.
Behind him Mindy didn’t ask if he was all right or lend him a hand. She waited as he clambered to his feet, and she followed his now careful steps through the boiling gardens at a funereal pace.
At the truck he showed the girls that the directions for putting the crib back together were still pasted on the bottom of the baseboard. He told them to have a look, and if they had any questions to let him know. He was merely being polite, merely filling the silence as they finished loading the crib pieces, but the blonde took him seriously, and started reading the instructions then and there, out loud, with a puzzled, myopic look. “Required pieces…”
Richard realized only as he listened to her that he had forgotten something: the sideboard for when the crib converted into a day bed. They’d never used it, and he’d left it up in Sophia’s closet. He told the women to hold on, he’d be right back, and ran back up to the condo to retrieve it, cursing each step.
Inside, in the shock of the air-conditioning, Sandra grabbed at his elbow. “She’s seventeen,” his wife said. “And this is her second time. She had one just nine months ago, and now she’s pregnant again. Mindy’s her grandma. Those are all her grandkids. When I asked if the mother’s around, she just shook her head.”
“It’s awful. Isn’t it awful?”
On his way out he looked at the counter where the wilted twenty dollar bill was curled atop his wallet. He grabbed it, and went back downstairs, the side railing under his other arm. Mindy was still standing outside the truck, gazing into the brutal sun, eyes closed, as if she wanted a severe tan. The youngest girl, the one that looked mildly-retarded, was sitting in the driver’s seat, apparently ready to drive away.
“Look,” he said to Mindy, holding out the twenty and gesturing to the truck. “It cost you some money to rent this thing. Why don’t you take this back.”
He might very well have been insulting her. Maybe she didn’t care for his charity. He half-expected her, with the steely pride of the poor, to skewer him with a look, to insist on paying exactly what they’d agreed on. Instead her hand shot up at him, and she took the rolled bill into her palm, fingers curling tightly around it.
“Looks like it all fits,” she said, indicating the nearly empty 17 foot truck.
He went around one last time to make sure the girls were OK, and inside two of them were still puzzling over the directions, while their pregnant sister blathered away on the cell phone. The girls were still trying to match the pieces to the instructions, and beginning to argue.
“This gotta be part A. Maybe this looks like B.”
“No this is part A. There’s three of ‘em.”
They were already far off the mark, hadn’t even noticed that the wooden parts were labeled. It must have been 150 degrees inside that truck. He was going to wish them luck. His Subaru needed to be packed, their cable box returned, a wireless headset purchased, the kids fed lunch, his son put down for a nap. Bank accounts needed closing. Mail needed forwarding. A half million things needed doing before they rolled out of town the next morning.
Instead, he hopped up into that 17 foot oven, found the Allen wrench, grabbed a leg of the crib, and got to work, assembling what had just been disassembled, this time without complaint.
Flagstaff. Albuquerque. Amarillo. Oklahoma City. A nine day trip across country, driving in five hour days – as much as they could push the kids and stand it themselves. America was rushing by, the majesty of the nation reduced to bathroom breaks and fast food pit stops. Richard hadn’t thought much of Mindy or the Princess.
Then, between Oklahoma City and Missouri the wind picked up. Warnings on the radio; but they made it to Springfield before any tornadoes hit town. That night, after a dinner of the town’s bizarrely famous Chinese cashew chicken, the sirens began blaring. At the Best Western the walls of their first-floor room shook with the noise; the children grew frightened. Richard stepped out to double-check that the X-Cargo luggage carrier was securely bolted to the Subaru. At the edge of the parking lot the trees were bending and swaying around him in an eerie twilight. Back inside Richard moved Sasha’s Pack’n Play away from the window, into the center of the room. Sandra muted the television while the kids tried to sleep, and from the bed they watched the Weather Channel’s radar. Every twenty minutes or so the sirens wailed outside; but the children slept through it. Even when the sirens cut off, the noise continued to ring through his head, a high-pitched hum, the sound of impending, ceaseless disaster.
Two tornadoes touched down that evening, one outside a convenience store barely a mile from the Best Western.
In the morning after breakfast Richard went to the desk to check out. There was a pricing issue with the motel room: they’d been charged twenty extra dollars for two double beds. The discount website guaranteed only a single queen bed – but nothing had been mentioned the night before, when he’d checked-in. They hadn’t had this issue in any other hotel he’d booked online. Clearly it was some kind of scam. Richard asked to speak with the manager. The manager was not in yet. He’d only get in after breakfast was over.
Outside, Sandra said he should drop it. They had six hours driving until St. Louis; they needed to hit the road. It was only twenty bucks. Principle, Richard said. He couldn’t.
While he waited for the manager to show, Sasha and Sophia played on an ancient swing-set, under an oak tree, on a weedy island in the center of the motor-court. This was old-school metal playground equipment from the 60’s or 70’s. A slide with sharp edges, poles with jagged rivets, ill-positioned handles waiting for his son to smack his head against them. Sophia was busy tangling the rusty chains of the swings, twisting, twisting, and then letting herself unwind back around. “Tornado!” she screamed in delight. She’d just scarfed down two frozen waffles at the breakfast buffet. Richard expected they’d see those waffles again.
Sasha, meanwhile, was making his determined way high up the perilous slide. Richard hovered at the base, wanting his son to explore independently, but not wanting him to get hurt, remaining close enough to scream, “Watch your head! Feet first down the slide, buddy.” The necessary paternal warnings.
He’d only taken his eyes off his son momentarily to look for the hotel manager, but it was too late. Sasha had found something up there, and was cupping it in his hands. “Daddy?” he called down, concerned. “Daddy, what this?”
Richard climbed the ladder two steps at a time. Resting in his son’s palms was a dead baby bluebird, the size of a thumb, its neck twisted at a crazy angle.
“Put that down,” Richard started to yell. “Don’t touch that. Put that down.”
“What’d he find?” Sandra called up.
“What’d he find?” Sophia echoed from the swing.
Frightened, Sasha dropped the carcass. It fell softly, lightly, all the way back down to earth, and landed in the grass without a sound. Their daughter was off the swing, exploring what had fallen. “Stay away,” his wife was calling beneath the slide, while Richard helped Sasha down the ladder.
They stepped over, as a family, to investigate. There, beneath the oak, caught in the weeds, was a fallen nest. It must have blown down in strong winds the night before. Richard saw four or five baby birds, scattered dead amid the high grass. “Mom, there’s another,” Sophia called, bending into the weeds. “And another.”
“Birds!” his son was shouting, pointing with growing excitement at each carcass. “Bird. Bird. More birds!”
Seven. Eight. Ten.
“Why?” Sophia asked, coming up out of her crouch. “What happened to them?”
Richard could see the tears welling up, the questions mounting. There’d be hours of interrogation in the car that day, glances passed between him and Sandra as they tried to explain that nothing could be done for those bluebirds. They dragged both children towards the car, away from the playground, which had come to seem like a cemetery: the bumpy metal slide, the sagging swings, the weathered monkey bars missing handles, some cruel monument to a fallen family, doomed before it ever had a start.
Robert Rosenberg is author of the novel “This Is Not Civilization” (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). His fiction and reviews have recently appeared in Witness, West Branch, The Miami Herald, and The Moscow Times. He has previously held a Teaching/Writing Fellowship at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop; and last year was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship. He currently teaches creative writing at Bucknell University.