The sink is mint green, broad enough to be a wash basin, broad enough to dip his head, broad enough to hold a child. The faucet is chrome like a dream. It’s not running but he hears water. The sink tapers to pale yellow tiles. The sink is full of blood. He’s surprised by the dark color of droplets spread like constellations across the floor, some big as pupils. Rorschach violence. Rivulets crawl from puddles to the drain. Lines drip down the tub. He thinks of legs. How much alcohol in wine. Sip and watch legs run down the glass. He assumes the tub is also filled with blood. Clumps of red toilet paper hang from the trash bin. There are clumps of something in the blood, too. He sees a blue coat with black patches on the floor, next to a tattered pair of shoes. He kicks one and its sole comes loose. A memo on the sink offers toiletries, toothbrushes, and shower caps, if you forgot yours. He turns off the light. In the dark, everything looks normal. He sees a little blood by his feet and turns the light back on. The shower curtain is crumpled in a pile. He props his shotgun against the doorframe and enters, careful not to slip on the blood. He looks into the sink. Jesus fucking Christ, there’s a baby in there.
The 60s are over, Toniver tells himself. No time for mistakes anymore. Toniver tries to sleep in the backseat of an Oldsmobile rolling into Oakland, though his long legs don’t fit. They pass grocery stores and parking lots flooded with white light. Squat motels, like the one they were in earlier, before the hospital. Rain rolls against the windows. Toniver pulls his leather collar up and massages the bags forming under his sloping eyes. He wrings his slender hands. The 60s are over, their time is running out, they can’t make mistakes like this. They can’t run into the wrong motel room anymore.
Jamal: It’s weird.
Toniver: What’s weird about it?
J: I changed my name to Jamal Shabazz for a fresh start. I shed my old self and made something new. It was like...being reborn. Like a phoenix. You know?
T: Not really.
J: When a phoenix dies, it bursts into—
T: I know. But I don’t understand why you need to be reborn. How’s that better than changing?
J: I changed. I used to be Michael W. Smith. A new name brings you power.
T: I changed my name.
J: No, I changed mine to Jamal Shabazz. Shabazz is Malcolm’s real name. There’s history there. The ancient scientist who led the first tribe to Africa.
T: You changed your name to what Malcolm changed his from?
J: The name’s got power. What the hell kind of name is Toniver?
T: I thought we could choose whatever name we wanted. I thought it was cool. Now everybody’s giving me shit.
J: I just don’t want us to look bad. We’ve got enough of that. People waving guns around, I mean, Jesus. It’s the Party for Self-Defense. We’re just trying to hold our own.
T: I agree, Jamal.
J: Speaking of looking bad. Why do you spend so much time with that white baby?
T: What are you talking about?
J: Come on, man. The baby from the motel room. I know you know what I’m talking about. Why do you keep visiting that baby? People are gonna start talking.
T: Why’s it your goddamn business?
J: I’m just saying it’s weird, Toniver.
The punching bag is heavy at the bottom, full of sand. Toniver pushes it as he walks by, feeling its leather cave under his hand. The other two men walk past, to the ring, where they engage a man with a heaving chest and wet forehead. Toniver makes fists and bounces in front of the bag. He’s quick, but too pigeon-toed. He thinks of the baby. The men point to a fourth, at the door, holding a shotgun. Community Protection. Toniver throws a fist, but it hurts.
By now, the nurses know him. Hey Tone, can I get you anything? He asks for an orange juice cup, every time. They wouldn’t let him see her at first. Who’s gonna let a 6’4”, 200 pound black man in a leather duster hold a white newborn to whom he doesn’t claim relation? He’s also got crooked teeth, and in his experience, people with bad teeth lose trust. After no one claimed the child, they gave up. He comes at night because the night nurses have different rules. He did bring her there. And the first time he held her, he showed such tenderness they had no trouble trusting him. Like she was his. He gets a look in his eyes when he’s over her crib... like fear, but good fear. There’s a whole room of white babies but Toniver always knows where his girl is. Angela, he calls her. Pretty name.
He cried the first time he held her. Big man in a room full of babies, cribs all around him like headstones, cradling a little package and weeping. She was wrapped in white blanket, and his big hands, not moving. Angela—no other name—has more hair than most babies, orange as a creamsicle, clashing with her turquoise eyes to make her a colorful child. Those big-little eyes connected with his, and in a curious reversal, she stayed calm while he broke down. Like she was comforting him, visiting him. They stood for an hour, that night and every night after. He sits at the end of the hall and bottle-feeds her until he can’t keep his eyes open. Then he goes.
Toniver has a dream where they catch him stealing a car, but it’s his car. They toss him onto the ground and cuff him. He’s fifteen in the dream. The cuffs are too tight and hurt his wrists. The men arresting him—who he can’t see—put him in his backseat. You’re the ones stealing, he says, but his voice doesn’t work. They drive him to the edge of the woods and tell him to go. Follow the moss. The trees are birch and their paper bark peels up high, fluttering like moths onto the trail. When he walks, moss eats his feet like mud, and he has to pull hard. It’s a white day. Night, with a moon so bright he can see everything, which is nothing, nothing but birch. He hears Angela cry but can’t find her in the underbrush. He tries to leave the moss trail but the trees are too thick, so he keeps going. At the end of the woods is a parking lot. He crosses and walks into a Woolworth’s. Inside, where there should be a check-out station, is a noose. The executioner wears a mask but he knows it’s J. Edgar Hoover. It’s inevitable, rehearsed, calculated. When he gets there, he doesn’t even care. That’s the worst part. He climbs up and J. Edgar puts the noose around his neck. He doesn’t pray or anything. When the lever is pulled, the noose falls free and tumbles to his ankles. Toniver looks down, where the rope has become a snake. The snake bites him and he dies anyway.
Malea: Don’t you understand how this puts me in an uncomfortable situation, Toniver? Toniver: What does?
M: Where were you just now?
T: I don’t know, in my car?
M: Don’t play games with me, Tone. Were you at the hospital? Don’t you see how that puts me in an uncomfortable situation?
T: Honestly? No.
M: How long have we been dating?
T: Malea, don’t—
M: Six months. Do you think that’s long enough to have a child together? It’s not. What do you expect me to do? Let you adopt it? What am I supposed to be? Its mother?
T: Her mother. And I never said I wanted to adopt her.
M: Why the hell else do you spend every night there? What’s your plan, Tone, if you aren’t gonna adopt her?
T: I don’t know. She’s so alone... If I don’t come, nobody comes. I knew we had a connection when I pulled her from that sink. She was barely alive, you know? Barely breathing. Blood in her lungs. Born an hour earlier, is what they said.
M: What the hell happened there?
T: I don’t know. The doctors think someone wanted to have her in secret, and when the blood wouldn’t stop coming, they rushed the mother to the hospital and left the baby behind. Poor thing. All I know is that I gotta take care of her.
M: And why were you there?
T: I told you, we had the wrong room number. I don’t have to adopt her.
M: Don’t you think the real father will come back?
T: After seeing that place, I don’t think her parents give two shits.
M: I’m taking no responsibility.
T: She’s starting to make noises. Boop boop boop.
T: That’s the noise she’s making. Boop boop.
M: Whatever, Tone.
Handmade letterpress, two-color. One of six thousand. Toniver levers the press plate down. Thick black border. Blue trim. Blue circle, black crosshairs, blue trim, black cat. Prowling. Black title: MOVE ON OVER OR WE’LL MOVE ON OVER YOU. Impact Bold, centered, all caps. Black body, Courier Bold, centered.
If you listen close, you’ll hear the rumble of Highway 101. People driving out there have no idea. You can’t hear the ocean, which is three miles away, unless you put an ear to the cup on the defendant’s table. You can’t use the prosecutor’s cup because it was knocked to the floor and its shards are an impossible puzzle. The ceiling fan’s thatched blades swing at the same pace as yesterday. Sirens mix with screams puncturing the large room. Everybody’s screaming except for you. A lawyer is losing his mind because it could have been him. A journalist is losing his mind because the story is so rich. A peacenik is losing her mind, either because she’s waited so long for action or because it’s too real. They cluster in the back of the courtroom and hug each other, weeping, shaking. Strips of crumpled duct tape are scattered on the floor like snakeskin, next to the glass, spent shell casings, and bent piano wires.
You remember the piano. Your grandmother used to play Scott Joplin on her baby-grand. You hated ragtime then, but now its popping notes carry a warm breeze. Her delicate hands jumped like crickets. Maybe the strings from her piano where the same kinked and rusty strings tied around the wrists of four hostages in the hall. Maybe not. There’s blood on the floor, but not much. You hear a gunshot outside, followed by more, like knuckles cracking. They fire in bursts, then a hollow boom. The sawn-off shotgun, muffled by tape and a body. The crowd rushes for the door. There’s not enough blood in here. They want more.
Toniver thanks his purple sweater when it’s over. It’s served its purpose. Made him look harmless in the courtroom. His duster would’ve gotten him locked up, so close to the holding cells, or shot, so close to other black men being shot.
Huey: Brother, I appreciate your contribution. The flyers you make are beautiful. I keep a copy of every one, for my records.
Toniver: Thank you, Sir.
H: I wanted to ask you about the Mossberg in the courtroom. Was it yours?
T: Mine’s at home under the bed.
H: Since ’67, when a gun shows up in a courtroom, it comes back to us. So if it’s your Mossberg, you should tell me. You’re an asset to our community, Toniver.
T: Thank you. Not my gun, sir.
H: This lifestyle requires commitment. I don’t mean to call yours into question, but this is a time of serious change. It’s important we keep an open dialogue.
T: Is this about Angela?
H: No, it’s about the baby. I caught wind from my man at the Chronicle. He wants to write a piece on it. Heartwarming shit. Panther Bursting with Love for White Baby He Saved. It has a tug-at-the-heartstrings factor.
T: What are you saying?
H: This isn’t how I want to operate.
T: But she’s got no one else.
H: It’s not a good look. I like the posters, Toniver. Find a black baby.
Toniver puts his beret on the baby. It sinks over her face and she swats with her balled-up fists. He smiles, but sensing she’s about to cry, takes the hat off. When she sees him again, her face untwists and smiles. He smiles back and moves his arms a little, rocking, something her crib can’t do. That’s why he’s here. To provide a little motion, a little rock. He brushes a hand against his waist and feels a curious empty space.
He cradled his Mossberg when it was new. He’d oil it up, shine its barrel with a microfiber rag, and polish its grip. A gun is different than a vase, or even a woman, because it’s something you can’t drop. Not just shouldn’t. The hospital doesn’t allow guns, which makes Toniver feel weak, which is not bad. Weak can be gentle, or beautiful. He can’t hold the Mossberg and the girl. Not enough room in his hands. He worries about who comes in here. She can’t have too much motion, or too much rock. There are bombs going off every day. It’s difficult to find a still place, let alone make one, and she is so fragile. Maybe it’s himself coming in here. Maybe that’s what he’s worried about.
Toniver wakes at home and wrinkles his nose. Smells like demolition. Like his empty apartment is coming down. He feels heat by his ear and swats at his face. A burning cigarette tumbles onto the carpet. He feels the side of his hair. The follicles are balled up, rough, like a dog’s coat. Jesus. Where’s his mind at? Can’t keep doing this or he’ll burn his goddamned house to ashes.
Malea: I can’t keep up.
T: You’re leaving me?
M: No, I’m not leaving you, Toniver. But I’m not joining you. You’ve been weird. Spacey. I feel like you’re asking me to take care of you. I can’t keep up with your changes. You feel like a different person each week.
T: I’m the same person, Malea. Swear to god.
M: Do you notice what you’re doing? When I ask you a question, you suck your teeth instead of answering. It’s weird. What do you think about when you suck your teeth?
T: I suck my teeth? My face hurts, like, behind my cheekbones. My muscles feel tense. My head hurts.
M: What’s up with you?
T: I feel... like I’m being pulled. You know? Like I’m tied to things moving in two directions. I don’t know. I feel my body pulled.
M: I wish I could help, Tone. I can’t take care of a baby. I can’t take care of you.
T: It has to be now, Malea. The nurses say there’s someone been coming around the hospital. Suspicious-looking white guy. They say he might be her father.
M: Well good. Maybe she’ll have a family after all.
T: No. This is bad news. These people can’t be trusted. Not after what I saw. The nurses agree. They say if I come and get her tonight, she’ll be in my custody. Don’t you see? I’m her real family. We can be her family. We have to protect her.
M: I can’t be responsible for another life, Tone. I can’t take care of you, let alone her. One extra life is too much. Two lives? Sorry.
T: I can.
T: I can be responsible for a life outside my own.
M: Baby, you can’t handle yourself right now.
There, Toniver hits the second floor button, but the elevator isn’t going fast enough. He darts between the doors before they close and sprints towards the stairs. His lungs are filling deeper than ever.
The lights at the end of the hall are dark. The linoleum there looks blue, instead of yellow like the rest. The rooms lining the hall are also dark. In them, Toniver sees a few small blue lights where life support systems blink, and he hears quiet beeping. Vents overhead hum, a noise only present when everything else is quiet. The faint ringing he hears when he tries to sleep is there, too, like crickets. He thinks of what comes with crickets. Constellations, wet grass, cigarettes, warm wind, and other things that aren’t now. The little blue lights are lightning bugs.
The end of the hall looks like a mouth. There, outside the nursery, is a white man holding a baby. Holding Angela. He’s got a ratty mane, a blue coat with black patches. Brown loafers that look eaten up. Toniver’s throat makes a noise and the man turns his mangy head. Angela’s eyes light up. The man looks at him, spins, and runs into the dark, towards the exit, swallowed by the hall. Toniver hears a loose sole flapping, echoing in the dark.
Luke Muyskens lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. His fiction has appeared most recently in the Baltimore Review, Arts & Letters, and New Madrid. His poetry has appeared most recently in CutBank, New American Writing, and a Pact Press anthology on the opioid epidemic. He has earned an MFA in fiction from Queen’s University of Charlotte and scholarships from the Tin House Summer Workshop and the New Orleans Writer’s Residency.