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Beginning from a life of nothing, Baby finds his destiny becomes him.
The city was abuzz all around, colours blending together in a patchwork of sensory overload as he closed the door on his ramshackle room. It was actually sunny today in this little slice of hell he called home and today he would have breakfast thanks to the kindness of strangers. A sandwich caught his eye last week in a window advertisement at the corner store and it was destined to be his. The buildings to either side pressed in on him as he strutted down the alleyway, knee high boots tapping dully at the cobblestone walkway under foot, puddles lapping forced waves at the tail of his long coat. The air was heavy with the odor of exhaust, rain-wet streets and garbage forming a perfume he hardly noticed anymore. Cautioning a glace both ways, he jogged across the street and pushed through the swinging door to the mom and pop market, the bell tingling above his head to announce his arrival. He rounded the magazine rack that sat just inside the door at the end of the deli counter and bobbed around the front, looking for the sign he had seen before.
“Ah, Baby! How good to see you again!” The wiry old shopkeeper hobbled out from the back room and stood behind the counter, rubbing his hands in a clean white towel. “I was worried. I haven’t seen you for a few days.” Baby smiled up at him cheerily, scanning the counter with starving eyes.
“Do you still have the sandwich I saw here last week? I think you called it a steamboat.”
“Yes, yes. Are you wanting one?”
“Mmm, yes, please.” Baby chirped, clutching his hands to his chest. “I’ve been waiting for it since I saw someone eating one outside. They look delicious.”
“So I have heard,” the old storekeeper muttered as he began work shaving the meat for the sandwich. His expert hands moved quickly and nimbly over the meat cutter and the knives as Baby stepped behind the counter to watch. He had been endlessly fascinated with watching the shop master work. Even as a child he had come here to watch the elder man while his mother waited tables at the restaurant down the street. It was much more entertaining being here and watching than sitting in the back room of the little diner playing with rag dolls and old wooden cars.
Baby shifted uncomfortably at an even passing remembrance of his mother. He preferred to keep her a decent distance from his mind. Every time he thought of her, he always…
“Get out from behind my counter, boy. You don’t work here.” His attention snapped back to the little man standing in front of him who held the fresh sandwich in front of his nose. Their eyes connected for a moment, amusement dancing within the watery blue depths Baby peered into. “Three seventy five, please.” Baby fished into his pocket, pulled out a five dollar bill and pressed it into the outstretched palm. He chuckled and shuffled behind the counter, ringing up the purchase. “For this five you also get a bag of chips and a soda.”
His speech may have been drawled, but the old man was sharp as a whip and Baby giggled despite himself. “You can’t take a tip, can you, Old Man?”
“Of course not,” he replied with a laugh. “Especially when a growing boy needs food.” Mister Takaya carried a bag of chips from behind the counter with him and shuffled to one of the two-seat tables lining the wall where Baby was sitting. “Don’t make an old man fetch you a drink.”
Baby reached over his shoulder and pulled a soda from the cooler behind him, the door nearly closing on his hand. He set it in front of him, barely letting it touch the Formica before chomping a big bite out of the sandwich. The sandwich was wonderful! Baby tried to chew slowly and savor every bite but hunger was nearly overruling him. The old man laughed.
“Go on and eat it. I’m not going anywhere any time soon. Besides, I can use you as an excuse to sit down and take a break. I’m not as young as I used to be.” He paused for a moment, looking intently at the swirling pattern in the table top before him and ran a finger over the thick silver trim around the outside edge. “Were you thinking of your mother again, Baby?”
Baby nearly choked on his sandwich.
“I ask you this because I remember you as a child and no matter how long you were away, your mother still haunts you here. Besides, you only look so serious when we are talking about her.”
Suddenly, Baby had found an excuse to chew slower. Unfortunately, the sandwich didn’t taste quite as good anymore. He swallowed hard, very glad he had the soda in front of him. His movements were deliberate as he set the sandwich on the tray, picked up the soda, unscrewed the cap and took a drink. All the while, the soft eyes never once looked away from him. Baby cleared his throat as he refastened the cap and set the drink before him.
“I don’t really like to talk about her,” Baby murmured, his eyes dropping to his hands twisting in his lap. In his usual way, the old Asian man sat and waited patiently, the soft smile playing at his lips. He sat perfectly still and waited. Baby sighed heavily. “I only thought about coming here and watching you work when I was little while she was working at the diner. That’s all.”
The old man nodded and said nothing. Baby squirmed, knowing he wanted him to go on, but he didn’t really want to discuss his mother. She was a subject best left unsaid, untouched and unwanted. His eyes shifted to the aging face before him, waiting until the he spoke, the silence stretching between them.
“Do you resent your mother for sending you away, Baby?”
“For sending me away?” Baby repeated the words, thinking hard. At first he hadn’t resented her. He had three meals and a snack per day, he was taught to read and to write, learned about the world and history, and had clean, dry clothes to wear every day. No, at first he was glad to be free from the market district and the drafty ramshackle living space he had been in his entire life before. No, he didn’t resent her until much later. “Not until later.”
The old man nodded and stared at the half-eaten sandwich.
Baby couldn’t really even say he hated his mother now; he just didn’t understand how a mother could sell her only child to a family she didn’t know. At first he believed she had sold him to provide for him since they were barely scraping by with her wages and tips from the restaurant. What she made there only covered her drug habit and rent most of the time. If she hadn’t have gotten free meals at the restaurant, they wouldn’t have had food at all until Baby was old enough he could skim cash from the register when his mother got the manager distracted with one menial thing or another. After that it was no short work for Baby to slip into other stores at night and take a five or a ten out of the cash register when no one was looking and his disarmingly cute smile got him out of more trouble than he could get himself into. It also helped being small for his age because he could play the silly child routine and it his mother would chastise him publicly for being a bad boy and taking money from people, then on the way home jerk him along behind her because he managed to get caught. He never bothered telling her he got caught on purpose. When they were lulled into a false sense of security he could get away with more.
His mother had never been the sharpest knife in the block. That was what led Baby to the conclusion his mother hadn’t given him to the wealthy family out of a desire to take care of her son; it had been for money and drugs, or, more succinctly, money for drugs. Either way, Baby knew now what he didn’t know in his innocence: his mother didn’t want him because he was expendable, disposable, and unless it was for money, no one, not even his mother, would want him. While he didn’t exactly blame his mother for being just like everyone else on the street, he had hoped she would have at least been willing to look out for him the way he had stuck his neck out to look out for her. Although he knew sentiments weren’t always reciprocated, he had found people worthy of his help on rare occasion.
Did it make him a bad person because he didn’t want to see or talk to his mother, the one who had brought him to life? The person who… He stopped himself. His mother had done only what she did for herself and drug Baby along for the sympathy factor. A young waitress in a restaurant with a baby sitting and coloring in a booth in her section got her more tips. A young mother in line at the food pantry got admitted sooner. A young woman seeking assistance got more help if she had a child in tow. Then once the child was older, she could send him to shoplift clothes and money from people. It was a wonderful system she had devised. Baby wondered if her pregnancy had been intentional.
The overhead jangle of the bell announced a new customer. Mister Takaya stood from the booth with a bit of difficulty and took his place behind the counter. A blue suit clad elbow caught Baby’s attention as it peeked around the standing rack of wrapped bread. He cringed inwardly. The last thing he needed was the police to arrest him, having narrowly escaped being arrested last week and thanked whatever might be listening that the cop was easily bought off. The downside was Baby had lost his entire savings to line the cop’s pocket so he didn’t get hauled off to a detention center.
“Baby, come up here and help me, will you?” the elderly voice cracked over the counter. Baby rose and walked up to the counter, eyeing the old man warily. “I didn’t hire you to be lazy. Get to work on those dishes.”
He blinked hard and nodded, darting into the back room. He wasn’t sure what had transpired, but he knew better than to not follow the lead the man had offered him. He listened carefully from the back to what the officer was saying.
“As you can see, Baby works for me. He’s my washer boy. How else is he supposed to make a living?”
“I had really hoped to talk to Baby myself,” the officer stated, his voice rather sultry. “When does his shift end?”
“Not until after he finished those dishes.”
The officer sighed heavily and shuffled. “Here’s my card. Could you please tell him to call me when he’s finished? I have a matter to discuss with him.”
“Of course. Can I get you anything to eat today?”
“No, thanks.” The officer was obviously disappointed. “I’ll be on my way.”
As soon as the bell jangled, Baby came from the back room and questioned Mister Takaya. Instead of replying, the old man handed Baby the card. Baby read it over and tucked it into his pocket.
“I have to go get ready for work now, Mister Takaya.” He gathered up his sandwich and tucked it into the pocket of his jacket to take home with him and headed out the door, watching carefully for police as he journeyed the short distance back to his one room apartment in the market district.
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