Nobody’s- child Chapter One
The presenter spread his fingers in front of his face. His nails were varnished purple.
“Ten couples,” he said.
He held a single forefinger between his eyes and stared at the camera.
“One baby,” he said.
He pointed the finger.
Rob Roy McClean had practised this routine a thousand times before his mirror during the week. He had not experienced the full excitement of words and gestures, until this moment, when he issued his challenge live on air.
“Stay tuned for Nobody’s Child at the top of the hour. You’ll meet ten childless couples, all of them desperate to have a baby. And we have a baby for them. Just one.
“You, the viewers, are going to decide who gets to adopt that child. He’s a boy, a beautiful healthy boy, but right now he’s Nobody’s Child. You’re going to change that.
“Tonight, once you’ve met our ten couples, you will pick the three that you judge can make the best parents. And then our cameras will follow those three couples through every minute of their lives, during the coming month.
“You will see them in their homes. At work. With friends, alone, eating, sleeping, laughing, living. You will see everything. Our internet site will reveal everything. Every single second. Plus, of course, we’ll bring you bulletins all through the day and night right here on this channel.
“After 30 days you’ll have all the information you need to be the judges. You will vote. And it will be your votes, and your votes alone, that decide who gets the right to adopt that child.”
Rob Roy McClean silently spread his fingers once more, then raised one forefinger and slowly pointed.
“Right now,” he repeated, “he’s Nobody’s Child. You, the viewers, are going to change that.”
Mouse Beck threw back the last of her drink and kept the empty tumbler at her lips as she stared across the bar. In three minutes the show would start. Blue and yellow blurs from the widescreen TV flashed in the bottom of the glass.
“Hey girl!” her father roared, “you shouldn’t be drinking! You’re expecting a baby!”
Her family and friends, packed around the table, bayed with laughter. Jim Creally, father of little Mouse, whooped at his own joke. He was standing behind Mouse’s stepmother, Jim’s third wife, and his Stetson was pulled down hard on his head, so the brim seemed to rest on his sideburns, as bushy as racoon tails.
Mouse said, “I ain’t expecting, Pop. Just hoping.”
Jim’s wife shouted back at him, “She’s not drinking alcohol, anyhow. That’s just fizzy water and some limes. To wash out your cigar smoke.”
Creally plucked the glass from Mouse’s hand, held it to his nose with a flourish like a wine-taster, and made wide eyes as he inhaled. “Hey, my daughter’s signed the pledge!”
The table bayed again.
At the bar, his back turned on Mouse and her family, Andy Beck looked over his shoulder. “Mouse was never no drinker,” he said loudly.
Mouse looked at her husband. She knew he didn’t like to see her baited by her family. She wished he understood that the baiting couldn’t hurt her. She’d been used to it forever.
Andy wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were on Jim Creally. The silence between them lasted less than a second, long enough for the room to hear it. The silence said, “You don’t laugh at Mouse, not now she’s my wife.”
What Andy said was, “I aim to do the drinking for both of us tonight.”
He raised a laugh, but Creally raised a bigger one: “Guess that means you’re buying, son!”
Mouse gave her brother at the side of her a shove. “You go buy, Rickie. You know we’re bust.”
Rickie leaned his chin to her shoulder and whispered, “If I gotta buy beer for Pop and your Andy, you know pretty soon I’ll be bust myself.” But he went to the bar and made certain the next $20 bill that went behind the bar came out of his own wallet.
“Shaddup, shaddup,” yelled Jim’s wife, “all of you shaddup! It’s starting!”But as the show titles rolled Mouse’s family and neighbours and friends raised a holler that burst out of Philly May’s bar and out across the trailer lots, howling between the trucks with mattresses in their cabs, and over the highway to the derelict cars that hung on the river’s edge.
Andy didn’t turn to look at Mouse. He squinted at the screen as he kissed the neck of a Bud.
Her father was singing the words with the theme tune: “I’m Nobody’s Child, I’m Nobody’s Child, Just like a flower I’m growing wild! No Momma’s arms to hold me, no Daddy’s smile. Nobody wants me, I’m Nobody’s Child!”
He was still singing after the music faded. “Shut that hole in your face, Jim Creally,” somebody yelled, and he sang louder.
On the screen the long-haired host was running between the rows of the audience, grabbing hands and shoulders, punching the air to pump their cheering and screaming to maximum pitch. In the bar, the cheers swelled too.
Rickie was back at his sister’s side. “I know you want this baby, Mouse.”
“Any baby’ll do me,” she shouted back, but she kept her eyes on the big TV high in the bar-room corner.
“I mean, this show, it probably ain’t for real,” he said. “It’s probably fixed, you know? Maybe they don’t have no real baby to give away. And even if it is the real deal, they ain’t gonna pick you, cause that means picking all of us. This family, look at us,” he laughed, “we’re America’s worst nightmare!”
Mouse just said, “I know.” She knew something else – out of ten couples in this show, the audience had voted her and Andy into eighth. And only the top three were going to make the final round.
Andy believed they were already out of the game. That was why he wouldn’t come sit with her. He didn’t want to give Mouse false hope by pretending to care. Andy was going to treat this as a lousy party, and get good-and-lousy drunk.
But Mouse knew they would make the final three. She didn’t hope it, she knew it. She knew it like she’d known when her mother and her grandfather were killed in a road wreck 90 miles away in Illinois – not just a fear or a bad feeling but truly known that they were dead, at the same moment the truck hit their car.
She’d known it the first night she got pregnant, even before the egg got stuck somewhere outside her womb and swelled up in what the doctor called an ectopic. That hurt so bad she thought she was going to die, but before the pain had ever begun Mouse knew she would lose her baby and, with it, every hope of conceiving a child naturally.
“There’s my little girl,” bellowed Jim, and Mouse’s face filled the picture. Her brown eyes flickered sideways to her husband, off camera.
“Couple number three,” the TV host declared, “these are the Becks.” He turned his narrow face to the camera and stared down from the screen into the bar. Fifty drinkers yelled back at him. Even Andy managed a growl.
With the volume on the set turned way up high, the host whispered, “I hope you’re making notes out there. Don’t get confused over who is who, because this matters. A lot of people’s futures are hanging on your decision, because it is you that casts the votes. So write this down: couple number three, Andy and Mouse Beck.”
He stopped. He did his that’s-so-weird sidelong look at the audience and they shrieked with laughter. He said, “Mouse? Mouse? Mousey-mousey??”
In the bar, Mouse watched herself on screen saying, “Yeah, it’s what my Pop called me. I was a real little kid.”
The host held up his fingers to his teeth and nibbled, wriggled his nose, preened his long imaginary whiskers.
The Andy Beck on screen said, “Man, that’s no mouse, that’s a rat-face.”
The audience heard it, and they howled. The camera homed in on Andy as he shifted in his seat, defiant and embarrassed and pleased with himself. The host stopped dead in imaginary shock, and turned slowly to Andy. He stretched out one long finger and flicked it up, as if it meant, “That’s one point to you. Don’t think I’ll forget it.”
In the bar they were punching Andy playfully on the shoulders and the arms. Jim’s wife reached back and slapped his butt. , you ought to be on TV,” yelled a neighbour.
Rob Roy McClean, the rat-eyed host with the dyed black hair down to his shoulder-blades, moved along to the next couple. The cheap, tubular chairs were so low that most of the men and women had to stretch out their legs on the studio floor. Only someone as small as Mouse could sit upright in chairs like these.
Rob Roy McClean stood several inches more than six foot, and he stared down on the contestants.
“Couple number four, you are Nat Monroe and Denny Monroe. Good sensible names. No animal names. Monroe, was there a President named Monroe? I mean, don’t ask me, I was sick the day they did American history at school. But wasn’t Monroe … wait, it was Monroe who slept with the President. And the President’s brother.”
Nat and Denny Monroe were just grinning. No smart ripostes. You can’t try that and win against a man who made his career on getting the last word.
“Now that picture is in my mind,” McClean said to Denny, “and boy, it’s one arresting picture, I am always going to think of you as Marilyn. Except Marilyn Monroe was blonde.”
Nat and Denny kept smiling. They were both black, well dressed, with prominent wedding rings. Nat’s skin was much darker than his wife’s, and his hair was cropped short –Denny’s was tightly braided and beaded and hung to the back of her neck where it was knotted in a diamond clasp.
“Where’re you guys from?”
“LA,” said Nat. His face was round, but strong, not fat.
“You in movies?”
“Personal financial management. There’s more money there than in movies.”
The audience caught their collective breath in a chorus of “whooooo”s but they liked the answer.
At Nat and Denny’s dining table, more than 4,000 miles from Philly May’s bar, Nat’s brother-in-law said, “Good confident reply. I always say, let them see you feel good about having money. People get impressed that way, and not so threatened.”
Nat just smiled at him. His brother-in-law drove a nine-year-old Toyota, that was how good he felt about having money. Or not having it.
Nat drove a new Lexus. He’d bought Denny a little Subaru, but when they won the show, he’d promised her, he would be buying an eight-seater with room for all the baby’s equipment. A Chrysler, maybe.
He carried on serving the after-dinner wine. Denny saw her older sister put her hand over the clean glass and mouth, “I’m driving.”
The smile on Nat’s round face never wavered – he just carried on round the table, right to left, to Caroline’s husband, John. John had his back to the 40-inch screen, and he wasn’t trying to turn around to watch, but Nat poured his sweet wine to the correct level in the glass. He wore his smile, too, at just the correct level.
“So this couple,” said Martin, “Number Five, how do they score?”
“Watch and see.”
“You know, you won’t spoil our enjoyment if you give away the ending.” Martin drawled the word ‘enjoyment’ like he meant the opposite.
“We don’t know the ending,” said Denny.
For just a fraction of a beat, Nat’s smile dissolved.
“What Denny means is the studio audience votes don’t count in the final score. What matters is how the viewers vote. How America votes. And the phonelines don’t open for …” He checked the clock in the corner of the screen against his own Rolex Oyster: “For another 36 minutes.”
“So why did the audience vote?”
“They’ll screen that result,” Nat told him, “before the lines open. As a barometer. Maybe to help viewers make up their minds.”
“So the polling of a non-voting sub-section of the electorate will have a crucial effect on the outcome.”Martin had a diploma in market research. “That strikes me as highly undemocratic.”
“It’s a gameshow,” Nat smiled.
“But you do know how the studio audience voted, don’t you?” Denny’s older sister pressed her.
“This show was recorded Monday night. Now it’s Saturday,” Nat said with laboured patience.
“Tension’s kinda getting to you?”suggested John.
“There’s no tension. Apart from the fact that I can vote for myself – ourselves – there is nothing I can do to influence the outcome. We were nervous on Monday, I think you’d admit that, Denny. But I went in and I gave the very best performance I believe I could have given. I was well rehearsed, and I played my part. This was like a bigtime poker game for me, John.”
“I’ve played a few,” John grunted.
“And you’ll know what I mean about selecting which emotions you let show. My emotions were under control. I played the best possible hand, I let the audience see what I wanted them to see. And my emotions are well in control now.”
“Ginette,” Denny prompted her second sister, “do you want wine? This sweet one, I mean? It’s nice, a bit like syrup …”
“Thank-you Denny,” smiled Nat, “I was coming to Ginette.”
“Still haven’t answered the question,”said Martin. “Where did you score on the barometer?”
“We were sixth,” muttered Denny into her glass.
“How many go through?”
“Top three,” said Nat lightly.
“And you’re confident?”
“Maybe. Watch and see.”
Ginette asked: “Denny, do you really want to win?”
“Ginette. You of all people should know how much Denny wants a baby.”
Ginette answered back. She was the only one of the sisters who ever dared contradict Nat, Denny thought. She also happened to be the only one who didn’t work for him.
“I’m not talking about winning the whole show,” said Ginette. That’s weeks away, as I understand it. I’m talking about winning tonight. Winning a place in the last three.”
“It isn’t possible,” said Nat, and his patience was sounding even drier now, “to win the whole show, unless – unless we finish in the top three tonight.”
“But all that entails. They’re talking about putting cameras in every room. On every angle. Didn’t you tell me,” she asked Denny, “that when the technicians came around, they were even working out how to run cables to spy cameras over your shower, and in the bedrooms?”
“Does that mean,” John asked, “next time we’re here round the table, the whole country is going to be watching us on TV?”
“The whole world, live, via the internet,”corrected Nat.
“You want the entire planet to gawk at you taking a shower?”
“I have nothing to hide.”
Martin and John broke up laughing. Ginette’s husband, who had been studying the TV to stay out of the discussion, got the accidental joke a couple of seconds late and started to guffaw.
Nat was still smiling. “I’ll rephrase that. I have nothing to be ashamed of. If some guy, or woman, in some other country, happens to tune in when I’m freshening up, I don’t know who they are. How many people are watching. I’ll never meet them. So why should I be embarrassed?”
“Denny, is that how you feel?”
“Guess I’ll just be going to the gym a lot. No cameras in their showers.”
“So far as you know,” snorted Martin.
“My point exactly,” said Nat. “You can’t scratch your ear in LA without being caught on closed circuit TV. You never know about it, so you never care.”
Ginette and Caroline were shaking their heads.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable, sitting here talking, if the whole world was listening in.”
“Might encourage you to yap a little less,”her husband said.
“But it’s not going to happen,”insisted Martin.
“For one thing, the audience voted on Monday and there were five other couples more popular than you. Sorry, Nat, however good you were, however clever with your emotions, they didn’t like you best. Fact two, Denny can’t have her own kids because she had a cancer, and cancer is a big TV turn-off.”
“According to you,” said Nat.
Tears had started into Denny’s eyes, and she could see her husband’s smile only as a blur.
Martin glanced at his sister. “You really think it’s a great idea to put her on TV and talk about that stuff?”
“I happen to think Denny’s cancer will be the factor that carries us to victory. She’s healed. we coped, it’s a positive story.”
“OK, fact three,” persisted Martin, “large portions of this country are still hung up on race.”
“I’d say all this country’s racist,” chipped in John.
“Not all. But there are plenty of states where you won’t find one white man or woman, Nat, who’d vote to put a little white baby in your black hands.”
Denny looked at Nat. He wasn’t smiling now. He looked genuinely sad. She knew he hated her brother’s crass way of talking.
“You’re stuck in 1967,” Nat said. “This is 21st century America, and we believe in brains and hearts. Not skin.”
“That’s just what you said on the show,” Denny praised him.
“I spent a couple of weeks, thinking about that phrase. Polishing it up. I knew McClean would ask me.”
“What’s he like?” asked Caroline.
“He came over the same as he sounded on radio.”
“You surely weren’t a fan of those horrible talk shows? Not the shockey-jockey stuff?”
Nat’s smile was back in place. He shook his head.
“Rob Roy McClean,” said Martin, “Radio Outlaw! Kickin’ and Screamin’ on WINZ! Yeah, I loved him. Wouldn’t pick a fight with him though.”
“He trampled up some trailer park boy,” said Nat. “They were sitting just right of us. McClean was taking a shot at his wife, and the boy called him rat-face!”
“I saw that, they showed that already.”
“So later on he comes back and he really goes in hard on this kid. You watch, it’s this bit now. No, not now, coming up in a few seconds. I think. OK, this is it.”
Even John turned around to watch Rob Roy McClean savage Andy Buck, who had called him rat-faced.
“I guess you’re the youngest man here,”McClean was saying. “I mean, you’re barely more than a boy. Right?”
“I’m 21 years old.”
“In your teens when you got married? And that was two years ago. What I’m asking, do you feel you’ve got the maturity to be a father?”
“The wisdom? Because wisdom is one of those things that comes with age. And we all know I don’t mean age 18. Or maybe 21. Do you feel you’ve acquired wisdom?”
Andy, confused, said nothing.
Mouse said, “I trust him to be the father of my child.” There were cheers and applause.
“Glad to hear it. We’d kick you off the show so hard if you said anything else, you’d land in Ontario. And I understand that’s a bad place to land up!”
Mouse knew that was a running Rob Roy joke. He hated Canadians, he said, because they tuned into his radio show without paying US taxes. And they kept tuning in, however much he insulted them, and he said that made him hate them more.
“I also understand,” said McClean, “that you live in a trailer, on a trailer park. Now I don’t use the word ‘trash’. I consider that demeaning, to me as well as you. You are a trailer park human. Is that right?”
Andy nodded. Said nothing.
“Trailer park human isn’t quite as low as trailer park trash. I mean, humans aren’t trash. Not all of them. But 21 in your neighbourhood – I mean, far from being too young to be a father, haven’t you left it very late?”
The audience roared.
“You sure you don’t have any kids from previous relationships? Like when you 14?”
“I don’t have no other kids.”
“You sure of that? Because if they pick you tonight, out in ViewerLand, if they pick Andy and Mouse! You bet we’ll find out if you’re hiding another kid.”
Mouse said, “Andy and me have known each other since we were 10. I know everything about him. And I know he don’t have no kids by no other women.”
“Ten years old,” repeated McClean. “What would you think if you had a kid and he started going steady at 10 years old?”
“Like Mouse said, we knew each other. And her family’s real close. But they welcomed me in when we got wed, and that’s when I was 19 years old. Mouse, she was 18.”
“We know you tried for kids, things went wrong –badly wrong – you lost the baby. Mouse, it’s medically impossible for you to have kids now, yes? But I’m going to ask you again, because you live on this trailer park, and it’s a fair guess that the trailer park is where you would be bringing up your child, if the viewers vote for you ahead of everyone else. Are you really telling me that none of your brothers, sisters, neighbours’ kids, that no one you know on your trailer park had a kid at 14?”
“I never said that.”
“So what are you saying?”
“My brother, he was a father when he was like, 15.”
“Was that 15? Or 14? Or what?”
“I don’t recall.”
“What’s his name?”
“You go babysitting for the kid?”
“Don’t never see them.”
“Jeff split from his girlfriend?”
“I don’t know. They left and went to Arizona.”
“Arizona! Long way from Buffalo. Ever hear from Jeff?”
“Not in a long while.”
“He was split from the mother, last you heard?”
“You guess. What makes you think you’ll act different from your brother?”
Andy stared up at Rob Roy McLean. Mouse’s hand was over his. She felt it bunching into a fist.
Andy said, “Like you said, I’m 21. Got me some wisdom now.”
It was a good answer, Mouse could tell that. The audience were cheering them. McClean just nodded and strode off, heading for the gay men across the set.
Martin, Denny’s brother, leaned across the dinner table. “He’s one smart-alecky guy. Made that boy look dumb.”
“That boy was dumb,” said Ginette.
“I think he simply lacked the vocabulary to speak his mind,” said Nat. “You can’t defend yourself when you’re struggling for the words. Now, any child of mind will be taught to express himself. To be articulate.”
“If you win,” Martin slipped in.
Martin had three kids. He was divorced, and he drove that decrepit Toyota, but he had three kids. And he knew how to turn the knife. As early as Denny could remember, Martin had known the right words to crush her. He’d got that from their father.
She wasn’t looking at Martin, or Nat. She kept her eyes on the screen. She knew Nat would still be smiling, and she didn’t like the way his face looked when his smile went cold.
And that dig had made him angry. “If you win.” She sensed his breath quickening.
Nat said, “I will win. First, I don’t accept failure, not from myself. Second, this is a prize worth winning. I want Denny to have that baby. And third, you’d better believe I am tough enough to win it. Whatever it takes. Yes, there will be pressure, but I will survive it.”
“And Denny?” demanded Ginette.
“Denny will come through because I will lend her my strength and my toughness.” He wasn’t looking at any of them, just staring at the screen. “That’s what I was projecting out there on the show. That’s what the viewers are seeing tonight, and that’s what they will vote on. I don’t need to prove it to you, the vote will prove it. Less than half an hour from now, they’re going to go for my resilience and my toughness. And I don’t see those qualities in any of the other faces. Do you?”
Martin didn’t answer. Denny knew he’d give in because he was beaten. Nat could always beat him in an argument. But Martin would save his spite for later.
Nat repeated, “Do you?”
“I’ll tell you something,” Martin managed to say, “it won’t be those queers that win it!”
He gestured at the two men, couple number nine, who were grinning and bantering with Rob Roy McClean. The bigger man was square-jawed with thick hair swept back. His partner’s eyes sparkled and he drew pictures with his fingers as he spoke.
Silence hovered round the dinner table. Denny broke it:
“Actually … when the audience voted, those two men came out top.”
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