When You Look Away

Jennifer Murvin


Outdoor Cafe

By Yoichi R. (Yoichi Robert) via Wikimedia Commons

I always borrow the babies during the last week of September, when it is warm enough to have the children outside in strollers but cool enough for my navy coat, the one with gold buttons and a fur collar that detaches if I want it to, which I never do. I prepare the same way every year, packing a small diaper bag with diapers newborn to eight months, a pacifier, a rainbow chain of plastic teething rings, a copy of Ferdinand the Bull (black and white illustrations are best), an extra onesie and cotton pants, and a card for the parents, special stationery decorated with blossoms of edelweiss, the song I sing to the boys before I give them back.

Today I watch for a baby outside a café where large groups of families gather for coffee and crepes on a patio lined with boxes of spreading petunias. There are many strollers here, many children running around, and the women are drinking white wine and the men are drinking beer or Bloody Marys. I notice a stroller to the side, close to the sidewalk, and the mother is turned away to a table of other mothers. A little boy, he must be hers, too, spills his drink, and when she goes to him to clean it up, I quietly take the stroller and push it down the small alley.

That it is so easy is a sign. The men who fixed the air conditioning at my condominium last summer called me Grandma when I made them muffins and coffee, and after forty years of teaching, I am expert at assuming a quiet authority. The fur collar on my coat makes me feel like Princess Diana. The baby is a little boy, quiet, asleep, half-hidden under a receiving blanket decorated with dinosaurs.

“Would you like to take a trip to the park?” I ask the baby. I find I can turn anything I want to say into a question. “Did you notice I wore a dress for you today? Just for our special time at the park?” No one ever expects a baby to answer, but it is well known that talking to babies is important to their development, maybe like the way they say on television to talk to coma patients. I dig out the rainbow chain of plastic teething rings and tuck them in next to the blanket. He’s far too young, but still, I enjoy that he has something I’ve given him. “Do you like your new toy?”

I don’t try to take only boys; this just happens. This one is very sweet, making little sighing sounds as we move from the café four streets down to the park where we will throw bread to the ducks. My fur collar is tickling my neck pleasantly. The wedding ring on my finger completes my outfit. People are much comforted by the sight of a wedding ring; for most, I’ve found, it’s a kind of voucher: someone has approved of this person, taken her on for life. I could have been married; two men have asked me, and I would have liked to have said yes to one of them. Robert was a history teacher at the school where I taught English literature, and he wore white button-down shirts and rotated three ties. He had a passion for Roman history and would tell me how Romans made wax masks of their ancestors to hang on the walls and lit candles behind them to show their nobility. Every year on Halloween, Robert dressed as Mark Antony and gave the children chocolate coins wrapped in gold tin foil.

“Shall we turn here?” I ask the baby. We are coming up on the entrance to the park. In this small community there are many parks tucked into neighborhoods tucked into areas with cafes and shops. I imagine by now the mother has noticed the baby is missing. Maybe I hear her cries, maybe the wail of a siren. Most likely it is just the wind, which is strong today. It is one of my favorite features of Southern California, these Santa Ana winds. They are hot and constant, and I place the baby deeper into his blanket to keep the eucalyptus dust out of his nose.

“What is this?” I say. The baby’s face is stained. Half of it is dark, the other half light, as if his face is cast in shadow. But this shadow is not moving, and I see it is a deformity. No, a birthmark. It is a giant birthmark, spreading across his neck up to his cheek and along half of his nose. I pull the stroller over to a bench, and I can examine the baby more closely. The stained part of the skin is mottled, and I can see tiny flecks of light patterned ever so beautifully across the brown. It is as if someone has spilled the tea onto a lace tablecloth. I touch it gently, but there is no difference in the skins, just soft, lovely, baby skin like everything is as it should be. What will become of this little baby? Children can be cruel; I have seen it too often. I have watched from my teacher’s desk as the softest, strangest children curl into themselves like shellfish.

My little brother Maddy was a soft and strange child, our mother always said, though the way she said it made us know it wasn’t unkind, but maybe even the best compliment she could give. Maddy was a special boy; he brought us the white puffs of dandelions and then carefully collected all the seeds after we made our wishes. He’d bury the seeds in a special place in the yard where he said they would all grow up together. When he disappeared, at first Mother thought he was lost. “Your brother would follow a moonbeam into space,” she said. “He’d follow a snail into its shell.” After days and days, we both knew he was never coming back. At night I would wave to him as he took a bath in the Big Dipper. I collected snails and painted their shells green and blue and pink and sometimes glued macaroni on them.

Maddy was five years old when he disappeared from our front yard, which sat along a highway road like most of the houses in our small Wisconsin town. I was eight years old, picking tomatoes in the garden behind the house and Mother was in the kitchen making us lunch. Mother had named him Madison but called him Maddy since we lived not far from Madison. Mother’s family had given us the house when Father left after Maddy was born, and Mother said we couldn’t paint the walls yellow because Grandmother wouldn’t approve.

“Is this your grandbaby?” An old woman stops in front of the stroller, and I can see her admiring my fur collar. She wears a jumpsuit made of all the same shiny material, in a bright pink color. Her tennis shoes are bright white and she’s carrying little weights in her hands.

“Isn’t he sweet?” I say.

“Utterly,” she says. “And what’s wrong with his face?”

“Just a birthmark.” This is how it will be, I think. I feel a kinship with this baby’s mother. What does she say to these old women in the park? Women without tact, thoughtless women in garish exercise outfits.

“A pity,” the woman says, lifting her papery hands up and down in alternating motions. I can see large veins under her skin.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” I say. “He’s just a baby, God’s creature.”

“You know as well as I do that in our day a boy like that wouldn’t have made it in this world,” she says.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Have it your way,” she says, and skips away, this time lifting the weights over her head like she’s punching the sky.

“We won’t listen to her, will we?” I tell the baby. “We know she’s a crotchety old bitch, don’t we?” I want him to know I don’t approve of what this woman has said. He will make it just fine, I tell him. He will be special all of his life. I am making it this way, right now. I smile widely into his tiny face.

“Please marry me,” Robert had said after the school carnival the year I turned forty-five. His pockets were full of Roman coins, laminated paper he’d cut out so the children could barter for items at his special Roman market stand. I looked at his kind watery eyes, his rounding body underneath the normal clothes he had worn that day, red tie the only hint that he regretted not dressing in his Mark Antony costume. I thought of how it could be making love to this man, his heavy body on mine, kissing me with his wet lips. He would tell me how Romans ate only with their hands, how they scraped the oil off their skin with dull metal blades. He might wrap me in a toga, drape me in heavy cloth, tie me up with a braided cord like a gift.

“Oh, Robert,” I said, holding his face in my hands. “No,” I said. “Forgive me.”

I was wearing a yellow dress with a pattern of white flowers, and I could feel him watching me as I walked away, and I thought of Cleopatra and how she had been married to her baby brother to keep the royal lineage. I thought of Robert and his little apartment where a month before he had made us twin steaks on his gas stove and showed me photographs of himself from his year abroad to Italy in graduate school, one photograph positioned just so that he was pinching the coliseum between his fingertips. I wondered how many laminated construction paper coins he would have paid for my hand in marriage.

At the park, the ducks are congregating around me and the baby, hoping for more crusty bread. “Aren’t their feathers so green and shiny?” I ask the baby, who is awake now. His eyes are a deep blue, and I wonder what color they will be when he is older. Maddy had green eyes, like Mother’s, like the ducks’ feathers. “Do you like ducks? Can you hear their noises?” I snap in front of the baby to make sure he is not deaf and I am relieved when he gives a little start. He is stained; that is all. Otherwise, he is as perfect as a baby should be. His face looks like one of the globes Robert kept in his classroom, the one with the light bulb inside you turn on with a switch. The birthmark spreads like a landmass, like a conquering army.

“Can we please have some bread, too?” A little girl has come up to us, and I can see her mother smiling from the next bench over. It is obvious the girl has been coached with this question, but I reward her manners.

“Of course! We’d love to share, wouldn’t we?” I say to the baby. I give her some bread and when she takes it I notice her fingernails are painted a glittery pink.

“Cute baby,” she says before she hops away to her mother, who gives a little wave and a shrug as if to say, “Look at who we have become.”

The first baby I borrowed I found outside the supermarket. The baby was in a stroller, sleeping, but somehow I knew that when he woke up he would have green eyes. I pushed the stroller down the street and around the corner to where Mother was coming out of the bank. In the year since Maddy had disappeared, Mother claimed she could hear him calling to her on the wind. Sometimes I’d wake up and Mother would be outside, running back and forth across the yard, cutting her feet on the rocks and thick crab grass. “What if he’s under here?” she’d call to me. “What if he buried himself with our wishes?” Once she dug a hole under the tree and had lain there herself, curled up like a squirrel tail. “Come here, darling,” she said. “Come and sit with me and your brother.”

I laughed at her then, because I knew where Maddy was. I had told her what happened to Maddy the day he’d disappeared: Father had taken him. Father had finally come home in a blue sedan car that was thick in the back, and Maddy went right in the passenger side, no fuss. Maddy had even turned and waved out the window when I called after him, holding a tomato in my hand. He and I had talked about what it’d be like to see Father again. He’d left when Maddy was just a baby, but I was three and remembered he had a beard that would tickle my lips when he kissed me. This man didn’t have a beard, I didn’t think, but a man could shave after so many years, couldn’t he? And wouldn’t he want to look nice when he picked up his son? I didn’t mind so much that he left me behind. Fathers and sons have something between them that daughters can’t understand. Robert later told me that in Rome, kings without sons would leave their fortunes to their nephews rather than their daughters.

I had brought the baby in the stroller up to my mother. “I found Maddy,” I said.

She looked at me for a long time like she was deciding if I looked alright to go to school. I could feel her eyes on my hair and my face.

“Where did you find him?” she said.

“Just right outside the supermarket.” I pointed up to where I’d come from.

“And no one saw you?”

“No.” I shook my head. “He was out there all alone.”

“No one in their right mind should leave a baby outside alone.” Mother was very protective. Since Father had taken Maddy, she wouldn’t let me play in the front yard. She’d sit at the front of our driveway in a lawn chair, sometimes lifting her shirt to get a little sun on her stomach.

“Let’s get him in the car,” she said.

We drove home and packed up everything into the car and Mother took a handful of dirt from the front yard and put it into a flower vase Father had given her when they got married. It was antique, she said. It had raised blue flowers that twined around its neck and Mother usually kept roses in it. I preferred the shallow glass bowls where she’d float gardenias like little boats, so I put some dirt from the front yard in one of those.

“Shall we go to California?” she asked us when we got in the car. “Would you like that? See the movie stars?”

I nodded and kissed Maddy’s forehead. He sat between us in a car seat on the front bench of the car, but I had my arm around him tight. It was very, very good to have him home.

“Did you hear that, Maddy? We’re going to the ocean,” Mother said. She exited the driveway slowly, looking both ways. She was always a careful driver, especially with us kids in the car.

The park is quiet. “Did you hear that?” I ask the baby now. The wind has stopped, and somehow the silence is making a noise all its own. “Would you like to come out of your stroller?”

The baby is heavier than I thought he would be, and I can see little rolls on his upper thighs, sweet baby rolls of fat. He gurgles at me and I can look into his deep blue eyes. I will leave him here in the park, watch from far away while another mother finds him, looks around, takes out her cell phone.

“You’re a special baby, aren’t you?” I like how my gaze travels from his birthmark across to his lighter skin, how the birthmark covers one of his eyes and not the other. It is as if some unseen creature is making shadow animals onto his face, playing around in the candlelight. I peek underneath his shirt; the birthmark spreads similarly across his chest and stomach, even a little onto his upper shoulder. I imagine him grown, his lover kissing along these darker spots, following it to his mouth like a map. Darling, he’ll say to her, whispering against her clear cheeks. Did I tell you about what happened to me when I was a little boy? When I sing to him, the Santa Anas start up again, the whole world joining me in my lullaby. I read him the story of the bull Ferdinand, the gentle toro bravo who instead of fighting the Spanish matadors sits quietly and smells the flowers. The baby smiles, the birthmark like spilled soil on a clean tile floor. In Ancient Rome, women who experienced an easy childbirth were believed to be blessed by the moon goddess Diana.

The parents will never look at their baby the same way after I give him back. This is my gift. There is no greater relief, no deeper gratitude. I have made him more special than he could have ever been on his own. They will cry tears of happiness to pat his hair full of bubbles. The child will be told the story, maybe earlier, maybe later, and this child will always have something interesting to say at parties. He might begin, “When I was a child, I was abducted on a September morning.” He might be lyrical and say, “For one afternoon, a stranger took me for her own.” He will have them enraptured. There might be a book later from one of them, perhaps a cover with an empty swing or a lonely baby shoe. Friends of these parents will be more watchful, will say to each other at night, half naked in each other’s arms, what if and thank God and let us pray. They might make love for the first time in months, and it will be quiet and intense and memorable, a different kind of passion.


Jennifer Murvin’s essays and stories have appeared in The Sun, Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, The Cincinnati Review, Baltimore Review,  Midwestern Gothic, Huizache, and other journals. She teaches writing at Missouri State University and is recurring faculty for the River Pretty Writers Retreat held twice annually in Tecumseh, Missouri. Jen holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Find more of her work at JenniferMurvin.virb.com.

4 Replies to “When You Look Away”

  1. phoebe greathouse says:

    That was very disturbing…

  2. Cathy Mellett says:

    Loved this story! I loved how the author interwove the events of the present with the events of the past, showing the motivation for what the woman has done in her life. Very deft. The author is so skilled that the story is totally believable.

  3. Kenneth Alge says:

    Well done.

  4. Loved this story. Disturbing in a subtle way so that you forget it’s disturbing as you read it. This woman’s logic is so well-put that you want to believe how great a thing it is to be stolen.