On the way home from the office, Brownfield stopped at Publix to pick up some fruit for the kitchen table. He liked having fresh yellow bananas and a few red and green apples in the big bowl he brought back from Sicily as he sipped iced grapefruit juice and read the New York Times. Also, it would be nice to have a cold beer during the baseball game that would be on television that night, so he considered picking up a six-pack of Heineken. But then Eleanor would raise hell about how he drinks too much, which was true, but did she have to be such a bitch about it? He decided it wasn’t worth the fight so he let it go. No beer tonight.
He was a few steps inside the store when he saw a tall man pushing a shopping cart with a baby in the child seat. The baby’s big, curious eyes wandered from a towering display of blue and red Pepsi 12-packs to a huge wooden bin full of big green watermelons, up at a gleaming red bicycle that had been suspended from the ceiling as a reminder of summer fun or some such notion, then finally stopped on Brownfield.
She stared at Brownfield intently, and when he made a funny face at her she reacted immediately, laughing and kicking her feet. She looked to be about a year old, maybe eighteen months. She had dark, almost black eyes and curly dark hair that could use a trim, but too much hair on a baby seemed like a good thing. She was dressed in yellow overalls and those square white shoes they put on babies for first steps.
The man pushing the cart turned to Brownfield and said, “I think she likes you.”
“She’s very friendly,” Brownfield said, smiling. “But I think it’s the hat.” Brownfield wore a navy suit and tie and a black hat with a brown leather band and wide brim, which was routine for him but was more or less formal wear, and even at that had not been the style for many years. It made him stand out in a crowd.
“She is friendly, but I agree the hat helps. It is very cool,” the man said.
“Thanks,” Brownfield said.
The man turned his cart up the spice/flour/baked goods aisle and Brownfield kept on toward the deli department and lost track of him, but after a few minutes he found himself behind him again, this time in the produce department. The man was inspecting tomatoes, turning them this way and that, the way one might check out a diamond in a jewelry store.
“How can they sell these vine ripened tomatoes so cheap? They’re a dollar less than the Beefsteaks,” he said, gesturing at the lavish variety of red, green and yellow tomatoes.
Apparently satisfied, the man began placing the vine ripened tomatoes into a plastic bag. Brownfield had again engaged the child with funny faces, blinking his eyes, lifting his eyebrows and smiling, an act she was enjoying immensely.
Blanche Eden, who was busy stacking bags of spinach, escarole and romaine into a refrigerated display case nearby, watched him interact with the child for a few minutes then said, “I didn’t know you had a baby, Mr. Brownfield.”
“I’m keeping her occupied while her father shops for tomatoes,” he said.
Brownfield looked toward the tomato display, but the man was gone.
“He must have walked around the corner,” Brownfield said.
Blanche peeked around the end of the aisle into the organic foods section and shrugged.
“I don’t see him,” she said.
“He’s around here somewhere,” Brownfield said, and looked back at the baby, who was still smiling and making soft sounds.
Blanche finished packing the greens and with some strenuous effort flattened the empty cardboard boxes onto a cart and wheeled it toward the back of the store. She pushed the cart through swinging doors and disappeared into the dark warehouse.
Brownfield looked at the baby again, smiled and blew out a breath. The child was still smiling and kicking, although with somewhat less exuberance. The novelty of the funny stranger might be wearing thin.
After a few minutes, Brownfield took a few steps back and looked down the aisle next to the produce department, which consisted of two long frozen food cases. A pretty blonde woman who did not look up was the only person in that aisle, so Brownfield took a few more steps and looked down the next aisle, where six-packs and twelve-packs of beer were stacked in a long, tall cooler. Still, he did not see the child’s father. He repeated this in the next two aisles, soaps and cleaners then paper towels and tissues, but still did not see the man.
Brownfield retraced his steps back to the produce department, where he found the child engaged with an older, matronly woman who had stopped to chat.
“She’s so friendly,” the woman said.
Brownfield nodded, smiled and said, “Yes.” The child smiled at him and he took it as a sign of recognition, as though she was glad to see him.
The woman moved along to a display case of cantaloupes, where she ran her thin fingers over the rough, tan skin of one of the melons. She took a few steps and inspected a mountain of peaches that had been stacked into a pyramid. A few other people walked by, some of them glancing briefly at the baby before they went on shopping.
Brownfield looked at his watch. It was 6:35. He’d been alone with the child for about ten minutes. He thought it a bit odd that the child’s father would leave her alone that long, so he decided to walk up and down each aisle to look for the man. It didn’t seem right to leave the child alone though, so he took her with him.
“We’re going for a little ride, sweetie,” he said to the child, and she smiled and kicked her feet. “I’m glad you approve,” he said, and turned the corner into the soap, detergent and cleaners aisle, where two other shoppers were checking prices and did not look at him. Brownfield walked up each aisle, passing quickly tissue paper, pet foods, canned vegetables, coffee and tea, soft drinks and chips, spices and baked good, fruit juices, cereal and cookies, vegetable oils and salad dressing, then back to the produce department. As he walked he spoke softly to the child, small talk about how neatly the boxes and jars were stacked on the shelves and how majestic the displays looked on the end of each aisle. She seemed content to hear this constant chattering, and did not once complain or act worried about the whereabouts of her father, which was good, but seemed a bit odd.
He looked at his watch. It was 6:48. Standing in front of a display of corn on the cob still in the husk, Brownfield opened his cell phone and called home.
Eleanor answered on the third ring.
“Are you at Publix? Because I can hear the noise,” she said.
“Yes,” he said, looking at the child. “This is kind of crazy. A man sort of left a baby with me and now he’s gone. I can’t find him.”
“Oh, God, Charles.”
“One minute he was putting tomatoes in a bag, the next minute he’s gone. I can’t find him anywhere.”
A few seconds passed, then Eleanor said “Charles, this isn’t more baby stuff, is it? Tell me it’s not more of that.”
“Eleanor, I’m telling you what happened.”
“Charles, please. The man must have had to call his wife or something, or maybe he had to run out to his car.”
“That’s what I thought, too. But I’ve been here twenty, thirty minutes.”
“Charles, please stop.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Charles, please. It’s not as though you’re responsible for the child. If this is more with the baby stuff, I’ll go nuts.”
Brownfield blew out a breath and touched the baby’s hand with one finger. She grabbed his finger and gripped it tight.
Brownfield shrugged and said, “Tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
“Charles, you’re an adult, a lawyer, for God’s sake. All that education and yet sometimes you’re like, I swear, I don’t know what.”
“Well, I can’t just leave her here.”
“Charles, just stop this. You’re not responsible. Take the child to the office and tell them she’s lost, or her father’s lost. They’ll take care of it.”
The office. There was a fat woman who worked at the office who smiled but never said a word. Her strong suit was calling the grocery clerks up to bag groceries when the lines grew too long. There were also two or three empty-headed young women who hung around in the office, but nobody who looked remotely like they were prepared to handle an emergency. He did not want to leave the child with those people. Still, he had to tell her something.
“Okay, I’ll take her up to the office.”
“Of course,” Eleanor said, and abruptly she was gone.
Just then, Blanche emerged from the doors through which she had passed a few minutes before, this time pushing a cart loaded with oranges and grapefruit and started loading them into display cases a few feet away. He watched her carefully removing the big shiny oranges from the box one by one, as though each fruit was fragile and valuable.
After a few minutes, he said, “Listen, Blanche, why don’t you and I keep this baby?”
Blanche laughed out loud and shook her head.
“No really, Blanche, it looks like the father’s not coming back. We could, you know, keep her.”
Blanche said, “Oh, Mr. Brownfield, stop kidding.”
Brownfield smiled and said, “Look what a pretty child she is. And so friendly.”
Blanche looked at him a bit more seriously.
“You don’t think the father really left her, do you?”
“It’s been almost an hour, Blanche. What do you think?”
She looked around, a bit worried. “It’s such an odd place to leave a baby. You hear about people leaving them at fire stations, or on somebody’s doorstep. Never a super market. And never a child that old. I’ve never heard of anybody leaving a baby this big.”
“I suppose,” Brownfield said. “Still, here she is. Why can’t you and I take care of her? I’ll pay for everything, day care and everything.”
Blanche said, “Oh, Mr. Brownfield, stop,” she said. Brownfield did not respond and after a few minutes, Blanche said, “If you’re serious, why don’t you talk to your wife about it?”
Brownfield stiffened. He closed his eyes. He looked at Blanche, but did not answer. After another few minutes, he leaned close to Blanche and said, “You know, Blanche, my wife had an abortion.”
Blanche stopped loading oranges and her face fell.
“It was against my wishes,” Brownfield said, no longer smiling.
“I see,” she said with a pained expression.
“You can’t talk to her about children.”
He hesitated, then leaned closer to her.
“Can I tell you something else?”
Blanche leaned an inch closer to him.
“I hate her,” he said, almost a whisper.
“Oh, Mr. Brownfield, no. Don’t say that,” Blanche said, her eyes wide.
“It’s true,” he said. “There was a time when I loved her.” He paused, then said, “Now I wish she were dead.”
“Oh, my God,” Blanche said, and shook her head. “I’m so sorry.”
He nodded, “I know,” he said. “It’s all right.”
After a few seconds, Blanche said in a halting voice, “Why? I mean, what happened?”
Brownfield smiled and looked around the produce department. Dozens of people had come and gone since he had arrived, and it occurred to him at that moment that each of them had their own secrets.
He shook his head and said, “I don’t know, Blanche, I’m not sure.”
They were both silent for a few minutes.
After a few seconds, Blanche said, “It’s so sad. But if you really feel that way, maybe you should leave her. I mean, you must have thought about it.”
“I mean, you’re like a lawyer or something, right,” Blanche said.
Brownfield hesitated, then, in a soft voice he said, “Have you ever started to do something big and important, your taxes maybe, and it just seemed like too much? You say to yourself, ‘I just can’t do this. It’s too much.’ You know that feeling?”
Brownfield added, “And then, of course, how do you tell a person you don’t love them after so many years of telling them that you do? Were you lying all that time?”
Blanche shook her head, heaved a sigh and looked at him. “It’s hard, I’m sure it’s hard. Then, too, she’ll probably take you to the cleaners.”
Brownfield laughed out loud and Blanche laughed with him.
“Oh, well, of course she’ll do that. That’s the way it goes, isn’t it, Blanche?”
Blanche said, “Well, that’s what you hear, right? Take ’em to the cleaners. You can’t afford to leave her, right?”
Brownfield said, “That’s what you hear. Not me, though, Blanche. That’s no problem for me. I’ve already lost everything that’s worth anything.”
Blanche looked a bit puzzled at that, but said nothing else.
Neither of them spoke for a few seconds while the baby looked on, as though she had been following their conversation and knew exactly what they were talking about. Blanche said, “Do you think the father’s really not coming back?”
Brownfield scanned the shoppers who had filtered into the produce department and he suddenly got the idea that it was a perfect place to leave a baby. The man could have looked for somebody the child seemed to like, a person who might easily become attached to her, somebody who wore a suit and tie, and a hat for god’s sake. Maybe the man saw Brownfield drive up in a new Mercedes. A plan like that may have been coming together for days or weeks.
Brownfield said, “I think he’s not coming back.”
Blanche shook her head and said, “God almighty, can you just imagine it?”
“I know. Listen, Blanche, if I leave the child with the people in the office, what do you think they’ll do?”
“God, Mr. Brownfield,” Blanche said. “Eventually they’ll call the cops, I guess. Don’t you think?”
“Yes,” Brownfield said. “Of course they will.”
Brownfield knew how the cops would handle it. They’d turn the baby over to the welfare people, who would put her in a so-called emergency shelter. The trouble with emergency shelters was that they were usually the homes of people who took in children in order to get the money the State of Florida paid for such things. Disease, injury even child abuse were common.
Brownfield said, “You’re sure you don’t want to raise this child with me? Last chance, Blanche.”
“Oh, Mr. Brownfield, quit that, just stop,” she said.
“Okay, then,” Brownfield said, and he reached in his hip pocket for his wallet. He removed a business card from the wallet with his name and office telephone number on it and handed it to Blanche. “If anybody comes looking for a child, have them give me a call,” Brownfield said. “Or the police. If the police come, have them call me.”
Brownfield turned to leave and Blanche said, “I’ll give it to the people up front.” He waved to her and headed for the door. He was pretty sure nobody would call.
Brownfield pushed the cart out of the store and to his Mercedes. He lifted the child and held her in his arms and she hugged his neck briefly. Then he laid her down on the front seat, walked around and sat next to her behind the wheel. This really was his last chance.
Brownfield started the Mercedes and drove out of the parking lot, toward the ocean.
Joe Registrato is editor of AliveTampaBay.