born beneath an unknown
constellation the shape of a whale devouring three
Two nearly identical babies born at the same time on a hot August night. An orderly at the end of a twelve-hour shift, angry and confused by unfair events earlier that day, switches the identities of the children before heading home to a tall Pabst and stale corn chips and a sleeping lover curled on the couch glowing gray from a snowy television. He finishes his drink and leaves his lover in the light. Beneath the glass a trapped star sizzles against the screen.
He has switched three babies in two months. At first he felt guilty treating parents’ children like items on shelves. Switching babies filled some hole deep inside, giving the orderly small power over the fate of tiny lives, compelling him to keep doing it.
Princes formed from all of Leo, half of Pisces, half of
She stands in the white light of the 7-Eleven and chooses magazines, looking at her reflection in the window, a mirror until headlights destroy her image. She walks the aisles among the candy and coffee and condoms with the stack of magazines held close to her chest. She smiles at the cashier, a toothy grin in his smock. She lifts a single finger and waves at him with it. His face reddens and he retreats into the back room.
Drops a magazine into her black bag. Lingers choosing a candy bar, something caramel, and returns the rest of the magazines. Pays for the candy and walks out into the snow and dark.
At home he lies awake imagining the horror of the wrong babies with the wrong families. He thinks that guilt will keep him from falling asleep but imagines his hands extensions of fate that must keep switching babies. He must realign the mistakes of birth for these babies. He is doing these babies a favor. Before he can work this out, he is asleep, and remembers none of it when he awakens the next day. His hands.
She spreads out on the clean beige basement carpet and thumbs magazines, choosing photographs of white boats on crystal water from above, a mass of bicycles, faces like petals on a rooftop against green hills and city lights. She inhales each page, pushing her nose into the seam.
the Big Dipper, two stars in Orion’s belt, and a new star born
whose light has not yet
reached the Earth.
Leads a Leo life while invisible threads tug gently from
The chocolate on her fingers a mess, she idly taps the touch-lamp base, switching on, brighter, brighter, black. She pushes a smear of chocolate into the finish and lifts the empty wrapper to her tongue to lick the last bit.
She feels best in dim light listening to her parents’ footsteps in the kitchen above invisibly tapping their toes to different silent beats. Her parents are always moving away from one another, only circling into proximity by mistake. She imagines each footfall marks a point on a map hidden between the floor upstairs and the ceiling above her. One day she will climb a ladder and remove each tile from the dropped ceiling to reveal the concealed map of some undiscovered place, routes formed from the pattern of her parents’ movement.
She presses her cheek into the carpet and inhales the Mountain Carpet Freshness. She removes the staples from Glamour and peels the leaves of the magazine apart, spreading them around her. She scans them, sitting cross-legged with her finger on her laptop, cropping and pasting herself into other lives. She prints the pages on glossy paper and reassembles the magazine, stapling the pages so perfectly, so practiced, that only she would notice the difference.
Pushes open a window and blows cigarette smoke outside.
unknown images the size of
She returns the magazine to the convenience store, reversing her ritual.
Somewhere a memory. A whale devours three Princes, brothers, a tail
The other baby became a famous television baby, her stardom brief but bright. She maintained a career for some time by being known as that famous television baby.
The orderly arrives late and smokes four cigarettes on the hospital roof before beginning his evening of avoiding whatever it is that he is supposed to be doing, looking into the hazy night sky imagining whatever interesting thing concealed behind the persistent city light.
She is fabulous joking about her B-list status going to B-list parties and acting bit-B parts based on achievements she cannot remember experiencing. She studies her television baby self. She replays the episodes where her character functions like set decoration, not integral to television conflict, but something beautiful like a fancy plant, rewrites in her mind the scenes between cuts in which her television parents must bathe her and wrap her in thick warm towels and sing her to sleep. Writes the scenes that take place after the show’s cancellation: riding with her father to guitar lessons, eating French fries with friends on the deck on the last day of school, skipping school riding in her best friend’s convertible up to Malibu to lie in the sun and read from a favorite book and flip through Glamour; trying out for the swim team. The episode where she is beautiful but no longer cute so her parents adopt a baby brother. Had the show not been canceled, had it lasted another ten years, her adopted baby brother would become the ring bearer at her wedding, a very special two-part episode.
The orderly fantasizes about taking a baby home in the backseat of his blue Subaru to his girlfriend who has become less of a girlfriend and more of a fixture. He finds her most nights on the couch counting down the days until she will muster the energy to leave him. She would love a little baby and him, he, the father. He sits in the nursery in the rocking chair surrounded by cooing and gurgling, sewing bright buttons onto a white blanket with invisible thread.
the size of the sky, the light the tip of the
fin a billion years away.
This is the story of
falling in love with an invented celebrity in a magazine at 7-Eleven. Falling in love with a room full of new babies.
Falling in love with a glimpse of a girl,
falling in love with
Falling in love with
Walking across the park closed for the season and covered by the first snow, sitting beneath a tree to have one more look at her in this cold fantasy, before returning to many fantasies all possibilities: a wife, a son, children, a dog, a cat, cats, daughters, an empty brown apartment, one black room above a cold bar, a private club where a Cuban softball team drinks and dances until dawn every Friday and Saturday, returning to sleep in his father’s Olds, warm for the night.
Returning to a house and a wife and a son, returning to:
This is the story of
Two women and a man, running across the field on the other side of the park passing a bottle, running by a man sitting alone in a chair beneath a tree over the hill and out of sight. He listens to their laughter. Two men, three women, one man running across the field on the other side of the park, passing a bottle, running by a man sitting alone in a chair beneath a tree over the hill and out of sight. He listens to their laughter.
What he falls in love with is a room full of newborns, all possibilities.
What he falls in love with is a woman inserting herself into magazines, fingering a razor blade with her index finger carefully cutting around the heads of celebrities. A woman who special-orders glossy magazine paper, who unsteals magazines from the 7-Eleven, who inserts herself into other lives. What he falls in love with are legs, eyes, lips, hands in images not their own.
This is the story of putting one of the babies in a banana box at the end of the shift and throwing a coat over its sleeping body and walking with purpose into the hospital elevator careful to stand in the back between the gurney and two glazed nurses walking carefully out the back door and into the parking garage running up the stairs to the Subaru throwing the baby in the back situating the banana box between the spare tire and a dead battery to keep the baby safe for the ride home.
This is the story of running over a hill in the park at night through the cold, crisp snow, through a dark arbor to get to an aviary full of gray birds wintering. Running over the green hill past summering geese. Drinking from a bottle of Wild Turkey. Listening to captive owls. Noticing a man sitting in a chair in the snow beneath a tree reading a magazine on the first night of winter.
He curls the magazine and pushes it into his coat pocket and walks home to
something like a house and a family that sometimes he thinks is warm inside and fire and soft lights and plush things and staying up with his son asleep upstairs he and his wife watching a late movie and laughing, enjoying bowls of pretzels and popcorn and peanuts and Diet Pepsis leaving rings on magazines on the coffee table staying up way too late.
He stands in the empty kitchen the sound of the new refrigerator full of food comforting him when he can no longer sleep. He stands in the empty living room his lover asleep in the bedroom a sleeping baby in his arms.
At night when it is late and a nurse stands on the other end of the nursery drawing check marks into a checklist he will imagine all the babies crammed into baskets cooing in his bedroom, he and his girlfriend smiling, overwhelmed by all the hungry things arranged so carefully in his newly blue apartment.
Sometimes home is the desert.
The 7-Eleven employees are on to her but let her do it anyway because she returns the magazines and always buys a candy bar.
In the little room in the back they try to figure out why she would do what she does, flipping through Stuff andPeople wondering if they see her image among all the famous partying people. They carefully remove her pictures and hang them from string stretched wall to wall.
After checking the magazines she finds that all of her images have sold.
He buys every magazine he can find with her image.
In the kitchen at night he pulls his fingers across the granite and tries to remember if he ever touched the stained white counter they’d replaced, tracing his finger across black cracks.
A ball of yellow paper stuck between the counter and the stove twitches with the movements of a concealed insect. Something has stained the grout of the gray floor tile green. Sugar clogs the seam between the granite counter and backsplash, shining trapped in the clear caulk.
He tries to imagine the old cabinets and what they ate and stowed in plastic containers in the old refrigerator, not good enough. On leftover night he will admit that the new refrigerator somehow keeps things fresher. Or maybe it is the microwave.
The orderly’s son: born under a dim star, born to be a baseball player, a guitar player, a horse trainer, a race car designer, a champion. He will wake his lover and put the baby into her arms and without words she will know everything the orderly ever hoped for or wanted.
In the morning at breakfast he will pour cold milk over his son’s Life cereal and won’t be able to focus on the boy’s face. He will hear him crunching and be reassured that everything is as it should be with the boy’s face.
His wife will smile as if she knows what’s going on inside his head.
She cuts across the park at night because
She takes her television father with her and they make out. She feeds him a sandwich square for the cameras while he reaches for her left breast. He has a bit of something on his smiling lips. The photo will make it into several of the better smaller celebrity magazines and become an Internet fixture.
Something about his lips. Something about making out with her television father an image of a real father idealized.
The orderly wraps the baby in the white-buttoned blanket he made, settles him into the rocking chair in the nursery, and walks into the bedroom. Red light from the neon sign hanging above the bar below glowing over them.
She wears disguises designed to make her look like she is somebody more famous. She dances around tables on the way to the restroom hoping somebody’s camera phone will catch her in the background of some more interesting lunch. She kisses people on their cheeks and laughing steals French fries. She doesn’t want to appear desperate, but that is part of her B-list shtick and she would like to be able to afford to keep eating lunches where people will see her. She thinks she will make a good reality series.
new light touches first cold clear space
She pushes her hands into her coat pocket against the cold and walks faster when she sees three bodies running down the hill toward her. She turns toward a park entrance, toward the road, toward street lamps. It’s too late for people in the park even though the light from streetlights reflecting from the fresh snow makes it feel like dawn.
She is between agents.
He dreams of a better microwave, dreams of a daughter, an apartment above a bar, another son, late nights out, another wife, a basement covered in dark purple carpet (on the walls, too) with a pool table, pinball machines, an exotic cat, a wet bar. Dreams of.
Something above the ceiling of the sky.
The drunks catch up to her and say hey would you like some Wild Turkey. She’s not old enough for Wild Turkey, but turns around anyway and sees two men and a woman bundled and red. They offer her the bottle and say hey you look just like that famous baby television star. The one from that show with the baby that was on years ago. I saw her in People and she looks just like you. This flatters her, so she takes a drink from the bottle heavy in her hand.
She has been waiting to be recognized.
The Wild Turkey burns her throat and feels like something her father would drink when he is up too late and can’t sleep, standing in the kitchen pacing. She holds the bottle for a moment and takes another long drink mostly to prove to these people that this is not the first time she’s had something to drink. The bourbon falls around her lips, down her neck, and onto the cotton collar of her red T-shirt.
He sits in silence on the edge of the bed until she stirs and sits up. He’s unable to discern the details of her face as she sees the baby in his arms wrapped in a bundle of blankets. I’m leaving she says. He shows her the baby. Not again she says. The baby begins to cry and the orderly realizes that he’d forgotten to stop at the store. He puts his finger in the baby’s mouth and this for now comforts him.
He sits in silence at meals increasingly unable to discern the details of his son’s face. He has no problem with other faces. His wife still looks the same to him, but his son he cannot recognize, not because he doesn’t recognize his son, but because he is physically unable to recognize the features on his son’s face. He is a blurred photograph. When this started he doesn’t know.
Come back to our house and have a drink, it’s not far. He offers her his hand and when she hesitates he steps beside her and slides his fingers into hers. The cold edges of his sweater are cold on her wrist, but his fingers are warm.
She is cautious because she is feeling drunk but also not cautious because she is feeling drunk. Television baby, come back with us. She melts a bit when they call her television baby so takes another drink when he offers her the bottle and follows them across the snowy park, taking slow big steps through the new snow.
Something like the light of a new star about to puncture the winter sky. She follows paparazzi following better celebrities in her little car, parks where they park and follows behind. She stands in the 7-Eleven flipping through magazines wanting to be recognized, wanting to see her face among the A-list stars. She winces with each flashbulb flashing behind her, the photographers taking photographs of somebody more famous hiding behind a raincoat. She buys a candy bar and a copy of People, walking between the photographers perched in a row and whoever it is they are trying to photograph climbing into the driver’s seat of a blue BMW.
The drunks clear cans from the top of the turntable, put on a record, drop the needle, and turn it up. One of the drunks is cute, she thinks. He’s wearing a red knit cap and a too-small flannel shirt tight over the tiny mound of his round belly. He switches off the lights and pushes the chairs out of the way into the crowded kitchen. He and another drunk carefully remove the coffee table covered in tattered books and bottles and a stack of magazines into which she has inserted her image. They begin to dance moving their hips slowly to the small beats pushing out of the speakers. The other drunks drag something like a vacuum cleaner into the room and flip a switch and the room fills with fog. They turn on red and green lights and a slow strobe and begin to grind on one another in the way that drunks grind on one another in fog and light.
He sits on a stool in the dim kitchen and flips through his magazine, pushing his finger along her pasted-in page, touching her soft paper skin.
The cute drunk takes her hand and they dance, letting the fog obscure first their feet and legs, then their bodies and arms and hands and finally their faces are thick smudges through the smoke. The fog smells like maple syrup. The music from the tiny speakers distorts as one of the drunks twists the volume knob. The wood floor is slick with a spilled beer. It begins to snow outside, the shadows of the slow flakes on the thin white window blinds. They will dance, they will kiss, they will kiss sitting in the park, their hands
His hands are cold.
Where have you been hiding, famous baby?
He hears thumping from outside somewhere down the street.
He sits on the edge of the bed trying to quiet the baby while she puts on her pants. I’ll come back for my things.
The photographers feel violated and they laugh because they are violators. If she can’t be in their photographs, she will ruin their photographs.
The room is so filled with fog and the smell of bourbon. They are arms and hands and fingers and lips and legs and light still in the flashes from the strobe.
He walks outside to identify the midnight thumping. He is small, tonight, beneath the cold sky.
He will return the baby before his next shift.
One of the annoyed photographers is less annoyed and begins to indulge her, taking photographs of her behind the A-list stars because she is beautiful and sad and wearing these insane costumes.
He follows the noise down the block, the thumping becoming more significant as he walks.
In the nursery he will trade the baby for another baby and sit and knit and his lover will have come back and be in bed or on the couch or downstairs drinking in the bar.
But for a moment he holds the thing, waiting for it to stop crying, wrapping the blanket tight around its little baby body. Waiting for
He asks her if she would like to go dancing some time and takes her photograph. She smiles.
She pulls a hand from her waist, pushes a face from her neck.
He knocks on the door trying to thump against the thumping rhythm so somebody will hear him.
They go dancing and he takes her picture dancing and feels self-conscious doing it because they are on a date, but she smiles and flings her head back like she is the most beautiful famous person. After the dancing they drive back to her apartment and she pours them new drinks and turns on the stereo and asks him if he’d like to keep dancing.
He takes a photograph of her dancing. She takes his camera in her hands and takes his picture. She turns him so that she can see both of them in the mirror on the wall. He is shorter than her, his jeans dirt stained hanging low on his waist, his sneakers old and untied.
He comes close to her and takes the camera and kisses her taking her picture with his arm extended to capture them both. He lifts the edge of her T-shirt and touches her waist. His hands are cold. When nobody answers he pushes open the door. Fog rolls out like water onto the front porch.
She pulls his hand onto her ribs and he takes another picture. He takes her picture, moving his finger along her rib cage, kissing her neck. He takes her picture. She will see these images in the back of a magazine, in the front of a magazine, featured in a magazine. She will see his thin lips on her face, see his fingers on her ribs. She imagines captions. She has become. She will be. She will never. She feels him moving his hand beneath her breast. A photograph is light. He takes her picture.
He stands in the doorway waiting to be noticed, waiting to tell them to turn it down. In the clearing fog he can see two men and a woman and a girl he imagines sits alone in her room at night her parents unaware of her cutting her legs, cutting her hands, cutting her face into other lives. He might tell her he is her father and take her home, rescue her from the light and fog and shitty music thrusting through blown speakers.
She takes his camera and lifts it high above her head and takes their picture. He begins to remove her shirt and she gives the camera a toss. The camera cracks the mirror on the wall and falls to the floor.
Don’t go. You look just like that famous baby. The cute drunk shows her: the famous baby sees herself in the magazines as the fog drains through the front door. She is a B-list child star.
Standing over the babies in the dark he’ll take a photograph of the baby and add it to the others hanging from a string stretched wall to wall in the little room in the back of his apartment.
She will ruin cameras.
She turns up the music.
He will kiss his son.
She lets him kiss her.
Light from a new star breaks through the darkness.
One constellation is ruined, but new ones take its place. He takes her home.