Heartense has already traded off her new World of Beauty Kit for the used baby socks, cloth diapers, and butt cream. She is bound and determined to keep her baby, even if Zella and her halfcrazy daughter Adell have different plans.
Zella pokes her blackish-gray mopped head in between the doors and says "Can't you hear it grinding?"
"I do," Heartense says, practicing her wedding vows.
Zella follows her head in, barging through both doors, and pushes the coffee cups through to the rinse cycle. The kitchen is loud with spraying water and spewing steam, and the smell of baked garlic, onions, and lemon disinfectant swirl everywhere. Heartense's chapped hands work quickly over the greasy lasagna pans, as her swollen belly presses against the cool metal edge of the sink, making her want to pee.
When Heartense has dish duty, Zella pulls the pots. In the big icebox, Zella's white breath rolls as she pours gallons of tomato sauce with tiny meatballs and curled Italian sausages from bigger pots to smaller ones. She combines half-empty pans of lasagna. The puffed, dough-ball pizza crusts flatten as she pushes and pokes them together with her fat, stubby fingertips.
Hot water splashes up the front of Heartense's apron. In the region of her navel she feels a flicker, and then again a fluttering like the great-eyed wings of a butterfly. She smiles wide, opens her hands flat, massaging, cooing, making love to her wet big-in-the-belly apron. "Baby Vinny moved. He felt me spraying."
Zella stops the vigorous stacking and banging of the dirty pans. Her mouth twists, "There ain't no way. You've got gas," she sputters and spits. "You're good at laying lies."
Heartense smoothes her hands over her damp apron and then sets her shoulders back in heavy entrée-balancing posture, before going out front past the empty tables through the dark poolroom to the bathroom.
When she returns, there's a towering stack of greasy lasagna pans, sticky dough pans, and sauce-splattered pots smelling of musty oregano and basil. Zella wheels around the cutting block muttering under her breath, cussing. She hoists up on one foot and pulls the spaghetti-strainer down off the iron hooks that sway above the raw meat Adell left on the counter overnight to thaw. Zella slams it down on the butcher block and says, "Miss Gripey Gut, after you wash the pots drain the meat." The ring of the colander still hangs in the air, as the two doors swing closed behind her. She pushes her head back in, "Don't cut that sausage too long."
The sausages are long, real long—fifteen-feet of packed glistening pig intestine, coiled like a sluggish, skinless snake. The box pictures a prancing pig tipping his hat. Vinny wears a hat, a little wool cap everywhere he goes. After unfolding and positioning the sausage on the butcher block, Heartense lightly presses her fingers down the firm, cold length of the meat. She loves to run her fingers over the smooth top of his head, the soft hair over his ears, the stubble on his neck. She inserts her knife and slickly slides it down, carving the sausage into six-inch Vinny-size sections.
The chicken and beef are wrapped in oblong white packages labeled with a permanent marker. Heartense settles the colander over a deep platter and rips open the paper. The blood ping, ping, pings through the tiny metal holes.
It's different than she thought it would be, living with Zella and Adell. Heartense remembers when they'd both come to her grinning, happy after eavesdropping on her telling Vinny. Zella was quick; Adell was quicker. Before she could get the receiver back on the wall-hook, mother and daughter tooled around the corner of the empty poolroom, maneuvering between the dark pinball machines, smiling, cooing, begging, "Stay with us. Work here like you've been doing except now, your board will be free. Eat all the pizza, salad, lasagna and spaghetti you want." Both smiled with one hand on each of Heartense's slumped shoulders; Zella, short, thick-necked, and potbellied reaching up; Adell, tall, broad-shouldered, and powerful reaching down. They took turns speaking their lines like a well-rehearsed school play.
"Go to beauty school."
"Get yourself a little car."
Adell stepped back first, trying to set the deal. "You can even sleep in Vinny's room, in his bed."
Zella flipped her overfed face up and under Heartense's to get into her eyes, "You want Vinny to see you as a lady don't you?"
Adell bobbed her broad-face in agreement and said; "He won't see you as a piece of ignorant white trash waitress running the streets anymore."
Heartense saw things after that. She saw herself going to beauty school, carrying curlers, hairdryers and brushes around; she saw a lacy wedding dress; a new name and herself lying in Vinny's bed. She saw Zella and Adell picking and shopping through racks of tiny shirts and pants. She saw them all four, her babe in arms, attending Mass on Sunday morning dressed in clean, crisp clothes, taking communion with nothing to confess. She saw herself walking down the street, her head held up, pushing a blue stroller, everybody peeking in saying sweet baby things. She felt the weight of a shiny gold wedding band, and imagined how people would like her, and how strange ladies on the street would stop to talk to her about permanent waves, casserole recipes, gardening, and what the priest said on Sunday.
At night when she lay close to sleep she'd see herself propped up in Zella's padded chair, gliding back and forth over the polished rockers in front of the window. Zella would drape the white crocheted afghan that she'd brought Vinny home from the hospital in over little Vinny to keep the sun out of his baby eyes. Vinny would come in and see her sitting in the sun, rocking, nursing his baby, and he'd say, "I love you."
"Future," Heartense laughs out loud. She stands the half-frozen chicken on its headless neck bone, and reaches up its gaping behind. Deep under the breastbones she pulls out the heart, liver, gizzard, and kidneys wrapped with purple congested veins in one glistening clump. She pats her belly with her bloody palm, "We've got to make our own future." She sings low "Hush Little Vinny don't say a word," as she swipes the gooshy innards off her sticky fingers into a bowl, "Mommy's gonna give you a third chance."
Wiping two umber streaks down the front of her apron, she peeps back out the swinging doors to the dining room. Zella sucks hard on a thin cigar, phone pressed tight between her shoulder and ear, pulling her lips in with each draw as she hunches over the cash drawer counting every dollar, dime, nickel and penny, whispering and cackling deep in her throat, to Mickey, her bookie.
The dishwasher starts to grind again. Heartense quickly backs up and runs to the monstrous steel machine and pulls the cups from its gaping mouth of rubber flaps to dry. Then she starts through a load of salads bowls, and sprays hot soapy water into the pots to soak. She checks back out the door. Zella still has the receiver clenched between her ear and shoulder, the cigar wagging on her lip, but this time her body leans close to a pad of paper, and with a pencil she scratches through a list of team names and numbers.
At the butcher block with a tiny baby spoon, left over from when Adell and Vinny were children, Heartense delicately scrapes out the pink crumbly inside of a six-inch sausage. She fishes around and catches the rubbery chicken gizzard, the reddish purple heart, and the thin blue veins and packs them inside the empty, translucent casing. She sits a small pan on the stove and when the grease pops and sputters violently, she plops in the casing. It swells like a jellyfish. She crimps the ends closed with a fork. She scoops the sputtering, opaque bubble from the heat and lays it on the dish of blood under the colander to cool.
"Clean the pizza table!" Zella howls from the dining room, not bothering to get up. "We're closing."
The pizza table wasn't dirty, because Heartense had tossed only one pizza. The business has slowed, almost completely dropped off since Vinny was sent away. For five months, regulars have slowly stopped coming and phone orders no longer request Vinny specialties. Looking at the dusty table, Heartense feels his thick hands, talc-soft pulling at the white dough, gently stretching, molding it into the most perfect circle. She thinks of his hands tugging, the slick of olive oil, the spicy taste of oregano and garlic on his fingertips, tiny curled hair holding specks of flour, the smell of yeast rising.
Heartense lets out a light-breathless moan, then dresses the little silver pans of green peppers, onions, hamburger, and mushrooms with foil. She puts them away into the refrigerator and removes a can of condensed milk. She leaves the long shallow pan of mozzarella to be put away last. Sitting on the freezer across from the pizza table and oven, she stuffs soft thin strands of cheese into her mouth, followed by long gulps of the thick, creamy milk. The stainless steel oven door mirrors every bite. She asks her reflection, "Remember the night I told Vinny I wanted to name the baby after him? Remember when he made us a pizza with the words, 'Baby Vinny' spelt out with little diced green peppers?" She smiles at her flat, widening reflection and nods her head yes. "I remember."
~ ~ ~
After Heartense thoroughly cleans the butcher block, sweeps the floor, and puts the last dry pot swinging from its hook, she cuts off the lights and hangs up her apron on top of Vinny's. A week after they'd eaten their pizza was the last time she'd seen him. Zella and that crazyass girl of hers, Adell, made double sure of that. Heartense rechecks the oven, turns out the lights, and goes out front.
Zella is still on the phone, tapping her pencil at the tablet, muttering something so low Heartense can't make it out, but her face twists and her teeth grit so Heartense is sure it has something to do with her and her situation. Zella looks up, watching, then stops tapping and says a couple of hoarse whispers into the mouthpiece and then hangs up. "It's about time you getting done in there," she says, scratching through the teams a little harder, a little darker before pushing the pencil behind her ear. She lights a fresh cigar and narrows one eye from the smoke curling up.
"The hamburger was turning brown, so I went ahead and cooked it up," Heartense says.
Zella scratches her dry scalp, looks at her fingertips, "Don't forget, me and you are going to Doctor Wheedle's tomorrow night."
"The one who likes anchovies and onions?"
"Never mind what he likes."
"Y'all have hired a murdering shady pizza-loving-take-out doctor to peel and slice my baby from me?"
"Get away from me with that talk. Everybody knows it ain't a baby yet."
"That's not what the church says."
"How would you know about that seeing as you never go?"
"What if a take-out pizza doctor scraped Jesus from Mary?"
"Blasphemy! Blasphemy! Comparing yourself to the Holy Virgin Mary Mother of the Living God!" She gives her cigar another desperate suck, then finishes, "Anyways there was no pizza in Jesus's time."
Turning back to the kitchen Heartense speaks loud over Zella's rambling as she pushes through the swinging door, "I forgot and left the cheese out." Heartense can hear her still ranting and raving, as the door swings shut.
This wasn't their first little murdering trick. They had tried secret, less intrusive measures first. Zella had gotten a clump of green salt-smelling seaweed to push up Heartense's vagina, and stinky, chewable seaweed tablets to draw out the baby, but Heartenese crushed the seaweed and the tablets and made a facial mask. The next day her face was smooth, pretty, and bright, without one zit. That was when she decided that she no longer needed her World of Beauty Kit, and traded it to a plain-Jane mom who had a toddler. They gave her warm caster oil to drink to cause her to cramp, but she blended it with some dried rose petals, from a bouquet Vinny had sent her, and poured it into her bathwater to soften her elbows and knees. It worked.
Zella and Adell had plotted and planned on how to get Heartense away from Vinny, and to get the baby out of Heartense, ever since they both eavesdropped on the phone. Asking her to move in with them was a part of the plan to keep Vinny away. Night and day, day and night, they keep their big, black, agate eyes on her. Heartense can never see a pupil in their eyes, only a cold unpenetratable blackness that runs to the core.
Opening the refrigerator, Heartense takes out the bloody bowl and pours it all—blood, liver chunks and gizzard bubble—into a plastic bag, ties it with a rubber band, and puts it in into her pocket. She stops at the pizza oven again, and winks at her gleaming reflection. Just as she comes out of the kitchen, Zella turns out the dining room lights.
~ ~ ~
During the middle of the night, Heartense creeps down the steps, staying close against the inside wall so she doesn't make one creak, and goes to the bathroom with the plastic bag. She raises the fur covered toilet lid and drops the quivering liver and veiny gizzard bubble into the water. She shakes the bag around like she's preparing Shake and Bake, and throws blood over her legs, underwear, floor, wall and commode seat.
She rinses the plastic bag clear and hides it between the rolls of toilet paper and the Virgin Mary votive candles. She'd get it tomorrow. Sitting down hard on the toilet seat she kicks off her sopping underwear and throws them sticky red into a corner. Dropping her head, watching her bloody toes, she screams. She screams for unborn babies. She screams for babies that will never be. She screams for Vinny. She screams for herself.
Adell's heavy feet plod down the hall and Zella's lighter steps catch up. Heartense hears Zella's labored breathing and her own heart pounding as they come closer. As the door jerks opens she buries her head into her bloody hands and wails, "It hurts!"
"There is a God. There is a God," Zella blubbers over and over again, grinning a white-lipped smile as she grabs their matching harvest gold monogrammed bath towels and soaks up the blood.
"Get up and let's see!" Adell says, pulling Heartense by her arm.
The color and glee fades from both their faces. Zella finds it hard to stand; she leans against the tiled wall.
Adell's lips distort and stammer, "It's, it's a little boy." The bloody gizzard bubble buoys up and down in the toilet like something alive.
"God up in heaven what are we to do?" Zella shrieks, squeezing her eyes shut and flying both outstretched arms toward the ceiling.
Adell slowly, ceremoniously puts the commode lid down so Zella can't look anymore.
"We've got to bury him, we can't just flush him," Heartense blubbers. "We need a casket to put my baby in."
Adell looks around the blood-smeared bathroom with her eyes big and wild, like there might be a baby coffin sitting amongst the toilet paper, shampoo, and soap.
"We could use a shoe box," Heartense whispers, forced and low.
Both Adell and Zella dangle their heads down wobbly and limp like they're fastened to their necks with dry rotted string.
Adell says weakly, "I'll go get a box."
"I want something soft and snuggly to wrap him up in. He's so cold and wet," Heartense cries. And then adds, "Get me something white like a christening gown."
Zella sputters out through trembling lips, "I'll go get the little white afghan I crocheted."
Adell turns back into the door and screams, "Who's gonna get him out of the water!"
Heartense slings open the blood matted furry lid, freckling Adell's face with rosy dots. "I don't want nobody's hands on him but mine and God's!" Heartense says, pointing a bloody finger to the gizzard bubble rolling over and over in the pink water.
Zella goes to her rocker and removes the draped, white afghan. Adell goes to get a big spoon. Heartense sits alone in the bathroom. She looks around at the blood-splattered walls and smeared floor and starts to cry genuine tears.
Adell comes running with a big slotted spoon and Zella follows her in fast with a Buster Brown shoebox and the little white afghan. "Is that Vinny's old shoe box, the one he keeps his baseball cards in?" Heartense says, wiping the tears from her face, pointing one finger at the box.
Zella whispers low, shaking all over, "It's the only one I could find."
Heartense takes the warped, yellowed box picturing a little boy in knickers and says, "Maybe we should use a pizza box instead."
Adell starts crying, "We can't bury him in a pizza box. It might be bad for business."
Heartense slants her eyes and says, "I guess you're right. Anyhow he might like the little Buster Brown Boy for company."
Adell hands over the slotted spoon. Heartense stoops over the commode with the spoon, stirring like it's a giant soup tureen. Zella murmurs something about last rites. Heartense gets quiet, stops stirring, then stands and screams with the spoon pointing hard, dripping on the bloody floor. "My little Baby Vinny is going to burn in Hell's hottest fire, because you're saying them after he's dead and gone! Call the priest! Call my old preacher! Call Vinny! Call somebody! she yells, falling to her knees, wrapping her arms around the toilet bowl.
Zella starts pleading, kneading her thighs, "We can't call a priest into all this."
Adell says, "He's already baptized."
"He's already baptized?" Heartense screeches. Zella and Adell don't answer. They just silently stare at the toilet bowl before dropping their heads and slumping out to wait in the hall.
Slamming the door shut after them Heartense scoops out the liver, then the sausage casing, and puts them dripping pink into the Buster Brown box. She watches the greasy pink water spiral away.
"Y'all can come in now," Heartense says, working up another cry. They both come in the door at the same time and get stuck. "We've got to put him in the ground tonight," Heartense bellows, looking at the shoebox on the counter. "Call his daddy, call Vinny!" Heartense keeps on bellowing and wiping her hands over Zella, leaving red trails down her cotton, bouquet-printed nightgown.
"Lord Jesus Christ, Mary Mother of God," Adell whispers.
"You know Vinny's in New York working with his cousins," Zella says, patting Heartense for the first time.
"Then we will just have to bury him ourselves, make our own funeral," Heartense says, "but we've got to call a priest."
"Lord have mercy," one of them whispers.
Zella wrings her hands, careens back, bumps her head against the wall and then slides to the floor. Adell pulls her hair and yells, "Mother, Mother!"
Heartense smiles and cuddles the box, pats Buster Brown and says, "I'm a mother now too." Adell looks at her through wide black watery eyes and shrieks from the room. When Zella finally comes around, Heartense stoops over, helping, grabbing. Zella screams, batting at her gore-coated arms. Heartense smiles sweetly and says, "Mom, don't go to sleep here. Let me help you."
Zella pulls up on the wall, weakly, still crying. "Where's Adell?"
Heartense goes down the narrow hall, looking. She hears incomprehensible mumbling from the hall closet. She opens the door and finds Adell huddled on her knees rocking back and forth, praying among the umbrellas and galoshes.
~ ~ ~
They all decide, although Heartense comes around much slower, that they don't need to call a priest. Heartense stands quiet for a moment watching them, clutching the box to her chest and then says, "We'll bury Baby Vinny in the flowerbed. But, we have to change clothes. It's bad enough not having a priest but we can't have a proper funeral in our nightgowns."
Adell and Zella turn around simultaneously and go straight up the stairwell, holding tight together like mismatched Siamese twins, to get their black dresses. Heartense calls up the steps, "I ain't got one. Let me borrow one of yours." Adell turns and looks back once, with tears streaming down, and nods. Heartense says to their backs, "And bring flowers to make it pretty."
They all meet solemnly in the foyer. Heartense looks like a little girl at a make-believe, tea-party birthday, clutching her box, dressed up in Adell's faded black silk dress and lace collar. The wide square-shoulders hit at her elbows; the hem sits on the floor, trailing behind her shoeless feet. Adell and Zella grip hard yellow plastic flowers that came from Adell's special ordered flower arrangement in her room, gripped so tight in their fists that their knuckles are white. They line up, Heartense in front, and march outside like a band of witches.
Blood soaks and drips through the box onto Adell's dress and the door stoop. Adell drops her plastic flowers onto the polished red drops. She fingers the rosary hanging around her neck, praying," Mary Mother of God," over and over again under her breath.
Heartense leads the march to the spot of Zella's prize-winning tulips. The moon hangs full and low over them. Its light falls slanted over the scented yard and the dusty path, as if lighting a way to the pretty garden.
"Here," Heartense says, pointing her finger, pulling a mournful face. The sweet perfumery of flowers hangs in the air.
Zella looks over the nodding heads of her yellow and lavender tulips, then to Heartense. Heartense's face puckers. Zella turns and goes to the garden shed and brings out the little green spade. She squats and then falls forward on her knees, kneeling penitent among the rows. Her square knotty hand opens and closes over the spade twice before she shuts her eyes and sinks it into the soft black dirt, turning tulips under, splitting bulbs. The spade makes a vicious, slicing sound. Zella's breath comes so ragged and deep that she could have been digging her own grave. Adell doesn't hear a thing because of her own chanting and fingering. The smell of fresh shaled earth rises and sticks in the small hair of their noses.
"The ground is so cold and wet for a baby," Heartense shudders heavily.
Zella digs faster, slinging dark webbed clots onto Adell's shoes. The thin white roots lay like tiny fingers gripping Adell's velvet toe. She screams and dances among the tulips, shaking her feet. One giant shoe goes airborne and falls with a brushy thud into the neighbor's boxwoods.
Heartense reaches down and brings a fistful of clotted grave dirt to her lips, and then puts it into her pocket. "I'm saving a little bit of something for Vinny when he comes home."
Adell's eyes roll back in her head, showing only their blind, red streaked whites. Her lips froth with foam as she keeps the chant, "Hail Mary full of grace," standing with one foot bare.
When the hole is deep enough, Zella falls back off her knees to the grass and nods to Heartense. Heartense lowers the box into the hole and says, "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust." They all cluster around the box, crying in a rising babble of unheard prayers. Heartense wedges the box, contorting it to fit. Zella crawls over to Adell, pulling up on her bare legs to stand. Each of them, Heartense leading, reaches down in silence and takes up a handful of dirt and sprinkles it over the box.
"You finish covering him. I can't," Heartense tells Adell.
Adell falls to her knees, and with her quivering hands she pulls the loose dirt over the box. Heartense plucks the remaining tulip heads from their stems and lays them on top of the grave. Overhead, a swooping mockingbird trills out what he knows of the night. Zella wails and gasps, hanging onto Heartense. Heartense pats Zella's back, looks over both their heads, and winks one knowing, tearless eye at the moon's face.
They move single file to the kitchen as if strung together in one black shadow—Zella out front this time, Heartense last. Zella makes coffee and Adell brings out a light-yellow, lemon cake and fresh bread. Heartense asks, "We're having a wake?" Heartense wasn't brought up Catholic; she doesn't know all their ways. They both look at her like they have never seen her before. "I want a rosary," she adds, "and I'm going Catholic." Adell stops cutting the cake, Zella holds the pot of coffee midair.
It is very quiet in the kitchen. Heartense lips smack as she daintily nibbles wedge after wedge of lemon cake and slice after slice of thick buttered bread. Adell and Zella don't eat one bite. They sit at the far end of the table with their fingers interlaced, palms tight together like glass praying hands over the lace tablecloth. They sit like that for at least an hour, as the sun comes up and light fills the kitchen.
Zella and Adell get up stiff and slow, patting Heartense on the head, and make their way down the hall just as Rags, Vinny's cat, comes prancing through the house, covered in dirt, with her tail and head held high. Hanging down on either side of her mouth is the sausage casing, waxen and dirt speckled, ballooning opaque blue with the gizzard bulging. Adell screams, "Mary, Mother of God! The cat is eating Baby Vinny!"
All the caterwauling and fluttering arms sends Rags slinking back out her pet door, down the hill to the woods, with Baby Vinny in her teeth. Zella and Adell stamp their feet and shake their hands and heads, making the sign of the cross, praying out loud for God to have mercy. Both fall hard to their knees in their black dresses and soak themselves in tears.
"This is a sign!" Heartense yells, her mouth full, her fingers stretched toward heaven. "You should've let me call the priest!" Flecks of wet lemon cake spray from her mouth. "You should've let me call Vinny!"
The praying, shrieking, and burbling gets so frenzied that Heartense takes the last of the cake and starts up to Vinny's room. As she gets up the first three steps she turns and says, "I might be able to forgive you for not giving Baby Vinny a proper funeral, but I'll pray hard for your souls that God will forgive you!"
Zella closes her feverish eyes and sways from side to side. Adell rocks back and forth praying in loud hard whispers, "God love you child. Yes, God love you!"
Lying back on Vinny's bed, with the last of the lemon cake resting on her rounded stomach like a yellow half-moon on a pitch-black sky, Heartense thinks of tomorrow and how she'll talk humbly about how God gives life and how He takes it away. She'll speak of miracles and the Blessed Virgin Mary. She'll pray out loud every morning and night that God may see fit to have mercy and fill her womb again. She'll threaten confession every Saturday morning cause the sin of denying Baby Vinny a proper funeral is weighing so heavy. She'll dab at her eyes, staring back and forth at Zella and Adell, and talk about how Rags ate Baby Vinny.
A month from now, she'll tell them of the true-life story she read in a magazine at the beauty shop about a girl pregnant with two babies, and how she lost one and was still able to birth one healthy baby. She'll tell them how every little baby is a flower in God's garden. She'll tell them anything, because soon it will be too late for Doctor Wheedle. She'll call Vinny and he'll come back home.
~ ~ ~
In less than four months from now Heartense sees herself pushing a stroller down the street, neighbors ooh and aahing. They'll talk about diapers, baby stages, and feedings at night. She'll exchange recipes and talk about the latest hairstyles, gardening, and being married.
Heartense's life yawns before her. She sleeps and dreams of Beauty School, Vinny's soft floury hands, and chicken casseroles.