The thing that I liked best about my father was that he drove a long white limousine. He put a sticker in the back window that read “This limousine is not for hire,” which I enjoyed because it meant that the car was all ours and no rich person would come tottering over, calling my father “Driver” and trying to bum a ride. His name was Ed, not Driver. Who knows where they needed rides to anyway, if they were so rich what did they need Ed for?
Ed was like a grouchy doctor that kept telling me I was well even if I felt sick. Once I asked him why he was so quiet and he said, “Tyger, I use talking how it’s meant to be used.”
Ed told me I was named Tyger after a special poem that my mother had liked in particular but nobody could remember anything except the first line: “Tyger Tyger burning bright.” I whispered that to myself when I got scared, which was often.
I was only ten but my big sister Bitsy was sweet sixteen. I don’t know why they called it sweet sixteen, there was certainly nothing sweet about Bitsy.
When we were driving around, Bitsy and I would study the women we saw on the street because what if our mother was among them? She’d run off before I could remember so she could have been going incognito now, disguised as a stranger walking in a crowd of people we didn’t know.
“I’m that one,” I said, pointing at a woman with red hair and a dark blue one-piece thing all wrapped around her. Her whole body was a set of legs. “Which one are you Bitsy?”
“This is stupid,” she said, rolling her eyes. She wasn’t even looking.
“Come on, you have to. If you had to choose. Like life or death, like if you didn’t choose you would be thrown from the car!”
“I wish,” she grumbled. Bitsy could only say things under her breath these days and every time she was compelled to speak she had to roll her eyes along with it. “Okay, I’m the fat one.” She nodded at a round woman dressed all in bright pink with fuzzy blonde hair. The lady looked like a bubble of gum.
We were all balled up in our ratty quilts in the back of the limo while Ed drove around. He was always driving to different places and running inside and then going somewhere else. He probably did this a hundred times a day and he called it his Errands.
“A lotta errands to do today, girls. You wanna ride along?” Sometimes we would, because the car made us pretty lazy. It was cozy to curl up in the backseat with all our effects, our books and blankets and little piles of clothes and be ferried all over New York. It was like being in your own private parade. When I was in the quiet cradle of the limo, I had my own private television show. I could see everyone and I felt powerful and safe like I knew all the secrets in life.
I also liked to look at all the cute dogs and try to guess who on the street was an escaped convict or a famous artist. These days, Bitsy never wanted to play our games. She was on the make for rich men.
“I’m telling you, all you gotta do is marry rich once,” she liked saying. “You don’t even have to stay with him. Marry him, divorce him, whatever. Then you’re in the big leagues.” I didn’t understand what the big leagues were or why you’d want to go through all that trouble, but I nodded knowingly so Bitsy wouldn’t think I was a baby.
Ed didn’t want me telling people we lived in a limo. But limousines were glamorous and everyone wanted to ride in one, so I didn’t bother trying to understand that. Grownups were uptight about the weirdest stuff. The car did get cramped though and during the day Ed preferred to turn us loose on the streets. He called it Having Structure.
“You gotta have structure, you kids. You gotta have a routine.” And he’d drop Bitsy off at The Door on Broome Street, a community centre for kids who came from original families. I begged Ed to let me go too but I think he was afraid Bitsy would turn me into a sarcastic eye-roller like herself.
There were always the coolest kids hanging around The Door. Sometimes they’d put down a side of cardboard box and spin on their heads to music that they played from a little CD player or they’d go march in parades, and once Bitsy said they acted out a play where everyone got free condoms. It all seemed pretty exciting to me but Ed made me go hang out with his friend, Shoshauna.
Shoshauna lived in a tall narrow brick building that reminded me of a finger. She hung her laundry on the fire-escape. Even though she did laundry every day, she always wore the same flowered dress. Shoshauna had a small boy named Terry who was probably seven but was more like five. He was the grossest of all the kids I’ve ever been made to hang around. Terry was one of those kids who forever had a dirty nose, it was chock full of chunky green snot. He was usually mucking around alone in his tiny bedroom, doing depraved things like perfecting his armpit fart or tracing the breasts of the women from his comic books. I refused to step foot in there on principle.
Shoshauna didn’t give us much supervision, mostly because she was too busy with the laundry or cooking something from a box that you had to add a lot of meat to. If she wasn’t doing that she’d be yammering away on the phone to her friends. “Get out of my hair now,” she’d say. We were always getting in her hair. And then she’d give us both a quarter and say, “Go treat yourselves.” But nobody could buy anything in New York for a quarter, didn’t she know that?
Shoshauna loved to watch those shows where the people sit around a table interrupting each other and drinking from mugs that had nothing in them. When the news would come on Shoshauna would sigh so heavily it almost blew us over and she’d say, “It’s a tough time to be an American.” Once Terry said back “It’s a tough time to be a human!” which made his mother start sobbing and saying how wise her son was and how deep. Of course it went right to Terry’s head and he’d been insufferable ever since. He got Shoshauna to buy him a Bhagavad Gita from the people in the orange bed sheets that went around chanting Harry Christian over and over again. I saw right through him.
That morning, Ed said, “Lotta errands today girls, you comin’?”
Bitsy climbed in the back of the car and sprawled out, green in the face. She told me she was hungover, which meant she’d drank a lot of beers and wines and the hard stuff. When Ed had dropped her off at The Door, she’d sneaked off with a harmonica player who was busking in the street. Bitsy loved her trouble to sound cool. “He was Barbara Streisand’s great step-nephew,” she boasted, her eyes all narrow from headache. She only wanted to be around people with connection. I was dubious about this great step-nephew’s connections though, because Bitsy still wound up back here with me.
Ed rolled up the limo’s dividing glass and we hit the road. He smoked a lot of cigarettes, Ed did, until his fingers were all orange like burnt plastic. Whenever he smoked he’d raise the glass. Because he smoked so much, that glass was almost always raised. I wondered sometimes if the smoking was just an excuse for him to keep the glass up. I think we might have frightened and exhausted him. Ed was too old to be a dad I thought. He was older than a lot of dads I had seen at Central Park, who would run with their strollers and tiny dogs or grow long beards and wear fancy torn jeans. Ed had white hair that was thin and stuck up in the back. His eyes were puffy and sometimes he would shake his head over and over, like he was disappointed in a bunch of things that were invisible to everyone but him.
Bitsy said that us not having a mother could explain almost all of our problems. We drove across town that morning, the ugly white sun fighting its way through the clouds, the pigeons falling from the trees like feathery trash in the wind, the horns singing their impatient songs. I curled up against Bitsy’s long leg and said, “Talk about our mother.”
“We have no mother, Tyger,” she muttered, flipping through a fashion magazine. The women in the pictures had too many teeth and their faces looked like spider monkeys. Bitsy knew how to dye her hair in the bathroom sink of a McDonalds. She knew how to wear ugly things in a beautiful way. She used to love me, but now I had nothing to offer her.
Bitsy said she could look at any man and tell right off the bat if they wanted to sleep with her and she said if they didn’t, she knew what to do to change their mind. “You gotta blink your eyes really fast and bite your lip,” she told me once, while we were waiting for Ed to come out of the laundromat. She started frantically blinking so that her blonde eyelashes were a blur over her swimming pool-coloured eyes and then she gnawed on her lip like she was high on drugs.
“You look like you gotta go to the bathroom,” I said.
Bitsy got mad and left the car. “You’re a little baby and don’t know anything. Tell Ed I’m in the CVS getting tampons.” And she slammed the limo door, running across the street even though there were cars coming. When they honked she gave them the finger. She looked like she was in a photoshoot.
Bitsy told me I was a baby almost every day. The older she got the younger I seemed to be. Steven didn’t help my cause. If I had to give Steven an identity, I would say he was a stuffed frog but that was only because he was green. And had a kind of round-ish head. Ed told me that Steven had belonged to my mother. Bitsy said Steven had been found in a pigeon nest on 1st and 1st.
Even though she gave me nothing but grief about him, I held onto Steven for sentimental reasons, which Bitsy used to understand but didn’t anymore.
When the car was quiet I sat there remembering everything I knew about my mother. Bitsy said she was blonde like us, and mean. She lived in Paris right beside the Eiffel Tower and didn’t like limousines. “That’s all I know,” Bitsy would say and shrug. She shrugged when she talked about our mother because she didn’t care, she didn’t need her the way I did.
Every morning we had bacon and eggs at our spot. Everyone in New York has a spot, that’s what Ed said. Bitsy and Ed were drinking coffee and I was drinking hot chocolate because Ed said it would have the same effect on me but not taste as unpleasant. The waitresses called me Sweet Heart in their accent that made it sound like Sweet Hat, and they gave Steven a glass of milk with a red and white straw which I drank on his behalf.
We were sitting there like usual when Ed spoke up. “Girls, we’re gonna go on a long vacation. I gotta get outta town for a bit. It’ll be good for us, family vacation. Whaddya say.”
Bitsy’s head jerked up and she gave Ed a scowl so scary it made my skin crawl. Ed didn’t flinch. “No way! I don’t wanna go on some stupid family vacation.” She crumpled up her napkin and threw it on her half-finished breakfast. A smashed flat feeling hung in the air over our booth.
“I don’t need any lip right now, Betina.” Ed ran his fingers savagely through his hair and stared out the plate glass window where our limo was safely parked. A seagull gave us the evil eye and strutted around the corner to commit a crime.
I watched their exchange like a game of ping-pong, trying to find out what was happening and what it meant for me.
“I don’t wanna go. I’ll stay with friends.” Bitsy said it like it was half a threat, half a negotiation.
“We’re gonna go away, Ed?” I asked. Ed turned and gave me the kind of glance that said he’d forgotten I was there.
“Drink your milk.”
“It’s Steven’s milk,” I reminded him even though it made Bitsy laugh meanly at me.
Ed ignored this. “I will do what I gotta do right now and that means you all are coming with me. We’re family. This is what family does. We need a goddamn summer vacation.”
“It’s September,” Bitsy snapped and crossed her arms over her chest, her face like sour candy.
“What about the limo?” My chest felt tight and panicky.
“We will be driving outta here in the limo. The errand business is going national for a little while okay? Okay girls?” Ed kind of looked like he might cry. I patted the top of his hand.
“I want to stay.” Bitsy snarled from gritted teeth. She put her hands on the table in fists and nodded her head in this very definitive way as if that was that.
Ed gave Bitsy a look I’d never seen before. She got really quiet, and a half hour later we were leaving New York.
Bitsy was going to have a baby but we weren’t supposed to talk about it. Ed didn’t like details, he always said the Devil was in them. Maybe he liked the idea of being a grandpa but I don’t think he wanted to know that a boy had put his penis in Bitsy’s vagina. I didn’t want to know that part either, I wasn’t mature enough to handle it. Ed was always saying that about me. In this case it might have been true.
For the last six months Ed had rented us a cabin in the woods of Virginia. There was a tiny town school and I had some nice friends from class. I could go visit their houses but Ed didn’t want them coming to our place, he called it The Den of Solitude. It was right by a lake and there were a lot of trees. I liked to go down to the water and pretend like I was waiting for my grand New York City yacht to come and take me back and the yacht would have the waitresses from our spot on it and even Terry would be there. I even missed him and Shoshauna which must have meant I was really homesick.
Bitsy kept getting fatter and fatter but only in her belly, which is how Ed found out I guess. We were sitting around the little kitchen table in the cabin eating ham sandwiches and Ed said, “So when were you going to tell me, Bitsy?” and looked pointedly at her round belly. Bitsy shrugged. “You know this is impossible, right, kid? You know there are plenty of people who will adopt that little critter out. We can’t have some newborn baby running around here. That is not a reality.” I sat there with Steven, making him drink from a cup because we didn’t have straws. I would have loved to have a little tiny baby to play with, but that was just me.
Bitsy jumped up from the table, bursting into loud, ugly tears. “I’m a prisoner in my body!” And then she ran out of the cabin.
Ed put his face in his hands. “What a goddamn mess,” he muttered. Then he remembered I was still sitting there with him. “Please grow up and be a lesbian, Tyger. It will save me a lot of trouble.”
“Okay, Ed,” I said. I knew what that meant, it meant liking ladies instead of men. I was fine with that because the girls in my class were pretty and smelled nice and the boys were all doing depraved things like drooling and farting all the time. I knew you were supposed to feel sexy things for them, but I sure didn’t.
“Wanna go check on your sister?” he asked. He looked so defeated that I said I would, and headed outside.
The sun was setting through the woods so that you could barely see the little road that led to town, and everything was orange and red like melting crayons. I could see Bitsy sitting down on the dock, dangling her pale feet in the lake. Her shoulders were going up and down so I knew she was still crying.
“Hi Bitsy,” I said and sat down beside her. My legs weren’t long enough to get my feet in the water so I just kind of let them dangle. The crickets were all singing sad songs. Bitsy looked over at me and wiped the snot and tears from her face. “So where’s the dad of the baby?” I asked, thinking maybe we could go find him. Then we could all go back to New York City and live in the limo together. We couldn’t stay here in the cabin, it didn’t seem practical at all.
“Fuck if I know,” Bitsy snapped and squinted her red eyes out at the water. I didn’t get after her for swearing, I knew things were too serious for it to matter. The water kept winking at us, almost like city lights. “He’s probably still with the carnival, in some podunk town.”
“That carnie guy is the dad!” I gasped. Before we had come to the cabin, we’d driven around for a long, long time. I remember we had stayed outside of a carnival for about a week, parking on the ugly side with the trucks and machinery. And there’d been some skinny guy in blue coveralls that pushed the buttons on the ferris wheel. Ed had told her to stay away from that guy, while he did the few errands that he could do around there. But of course Ed telling her to stay away only made Bitsy not want to, he should have known that. “Does he know? Maybe we can find him and then you guys can move into the cabin and Ed and I can come visit from New York!”
“You live in a fucking fantasy, Tyger,” Bitsy said angrily and stood up, storming back off to the cabin where she could go hide away in her little room again like she’d been doing since we got here.
“Stop swearing!” I shouted over my shoulder at her as she stomped around the trees. It was the only leg I had to stand on.
I came back to the cabin and Ed was still sitting where I’d left him, but he was on the phone. He was all twisted up in the cord, the receiver jammed up under his chin, and he was smoking furiously. “Uh huh. No I know, we probably wouldn’t have stayed much longer anyway.” He paused, frowning. “Mhm. When?” Pause. “And then we can come back, right? Say a few weeks?” His frown got so deep that there were shadows in the creases. “Listen Lou, I didn’t sign up for this.” There was a long pause, where Ed made a lot of “mhm,” noises. He squeezed his old eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. The whole room was dark except the one lamp in the corner, so I hid around the door knowing he couldn’t see me. “Okay. Then it’s settled right? Good.” Long pause. “Oh no you don’t, I’m coming back tonight.” He slammed down the phone and I came up to him. He jumped like I had made a loud noise. “Tyger, it’s rude to spy!” And then, “Shit, I’m sorry. Come here.” He opened up his arms so I could come over and crawl in his lap, which he never let me do anymore.
“Was that a good phone call or a bad phone call?” I asked.
Ed scratched the white stubble on his cheeks. “Both. You wanna go back to New York, kid?”
“Yes! Steven has been very homesick.”
“Okay. Get packed and tell you’re sister. We’re leaving right now.”
“I am officially in hell.” Bitsy was shaking me awake. It took me a minute to realize that the car was cold and quiet and Ed was gone.
“What happened? Where are we?” I was suddenly wide awake, chilly, and wanting answers so that I wouldn’t be afraid.
Bitsy’s voice was jagged and strained like she couldn’t breathe. “I think we’re outside of New York. I can see the bridge, and there’s…” and then she interrupted herself with one long shriek. My hands flew over my ears, it was such a horrible noise. She was holding onto herself like she had to go to the bathroom.
“Where’s Ed?” I asked, trying not to cry. I reached for Steven but he was no comfort. I suddenly realized how useless he actually was. I flung him across the limo seat. There was a little note taped to the black glass. It said, Be Right Back. “What does that mean?” I pointed to it but Bitsy ignored me, rolling all over the seat in what looked like a lot of pain. “What’s wrong with you?” I pulled my blanket tighter around me. The windows were so dark with night that it looked like they were crowding in on us.
She said, “Oh no oh no oh no I’m going to die.” She was sitting in a puddle, her blanket was all wet.
“No you’re not,” I said in my most sensible voice. The Sensible Voice was what grownups always used to try and make things less crazy but I don’t think it worked because Bitsy just kept moaning.
And then I saw a baby book peeking out of the soggy blanket and the pages were folded and highlighted. Bitsy was so full of secrets, I didn’t even know she’d been lugging it around. I flipped it open, trying to find out what was happening to poor Bitsy. When I turned to the back, where Bitsy had drawn a bunch of stars and unhappy faces, I saw that it didn’t look good.
“I think you’re gonna have the baby,” I told her.
“You don’t say,” Bitsy yelled. “You gotta get a garbage bag from the trunk, Tyger, or we’re gonna ruin the seats. Go!”
I hated going into the trunk. But Bitsy had flung a limp hand over her eyes and was making the most terrible faces I had ever seen in my life. I grabbed the screwdriver from under the seat and opened the door.
The highway was lined with a forest so black and scary that I sucked in my breath and held it. Noises were coming from the trees, winds and rustles and tiny evil birds. There were no lights, there were no cars. Maybe in the distance was New York, but the only bit of it I could see was the light pollution in the far off sky.
I left the door of the limo open so the light would shine out into the road and I went around to the trunk whispering, “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright. Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,” over and over. I could hear Bitsy howling and swearing from inside the car. It sounded like we had caught a wild animal. I wasn’t sure if it was scarier inside or the outside of the limo now.
Ed said he kept his office in the trunk and we were never allowed to go in there unless it was a matter of life or death. This had to be one of those times. I hoped Ed hadn’t gone off into the forest. I made myself not look at the blackness in the trees.
Bitsy let loose a scream so loud it echoed across the entire highway. “I’m going, I’m going,” I said, even though I knew she couldn’t hear me. I popped the trunk open with the screwdriver and began pushing things out of my way, an old tire, some cardboard boxes. There was a gun that looked like it was from a gangster movie but Ed had told me that if I touched it, I would die. I pretended I couldn’t see it. The scariest thing in the trunk though was an old mannequin, her tan body in segments like a magician had cut her up and forgotten to put her back together. Bitsy had named her Puta which I thought was kind of pretty, but Ed hollered at us whenever we said her name so I figured Puta, like everything else in the trunk, had to be kept a secret.
I had to reach around Puta’s head to get at the slippery stack of garbage bags and I tried not to look into her eyes, where most of the paint was scratched and made her look like a monster. I grabbed the bags, slammed the trunk, and made a running diving leap back into the safety of the limo, crashing into Bitsy, who barely noticed. She was in a world of pain, panting and sobbing. She reached blindly out for the garbage bags and slid them under her butt. “I’m not gonna make it,” she bawled. “I’m gonna be ripped open like in the Alien movie!”
This made me shudder with cold fear. Alien was the scariest thing that I knew about in life. Bitsy and I had watched part of it in the television store when Ed was trying to sell them a TV. Only he called it Unloading. Whenever I was most desperately scared I saw that alien. And Puta. And right when I dug to the bottom of my dark cold fear, I realized that one of us would have to take charge of the situation. I studied Bitsy, panting and clenching her fists, her eyes rolled up into her head like she’d finally rolled them one too many times. She was in no shape to lead us out of here.
“Listen up, Bitsy, you’re going to be fine!” I clapped my hands for emphasis and grabbed the book. “You gotta breathe, like this!” I started panting to demonstrate. I was about to read some more, but there was a weird wet noise. I looked down and there was a little red thing coming out of Bitsy, kind of like the alien. I was going to scream but then I remembered it was probably the baby. She was also pooping at the same time but I decided not to tell her because Bitsy was already having a bad enough night.
I held out my hands and the baby went slopping into my arms, all bloody and congealed in white stuff. As I was trying to hang onto the wet little baby, a bunch of chunky water came gushing out of Bitsy’s vagina like chowder all over the carpet of the limo. The baby was attached by a thick rope that led back inside Bitsy. He had a very tiny penis that I tried not to look at too much because he was absolutely shrieking in embarrassment and rage, the indignity of his first day being so uncool.
The sun finally came up over the trees, as red and crazy as everything inside the car.
“Fuck,” groaned Bitsy and took the meowing little baby from my arms. She pulled out her boob which was like a big ball of dough and tried to get the baby to suck on it. This took a long time. “Come on already, figure it out,” Bisty told her kid.
I just sat there crouching on the seat and hugging my knees, glad I had gotten the garbage bags.
And then there was another squelchy kind of noise. “Bitsy, are you having another baby?” I gasped. There was a big red veiny thing coming out. It kind of looked like an omelet. Maybe it was the alien at last. I couldn’t help it, I screamed.
“Shut up, it’s the placenta,” Bitsy said weakly.
“Who’s that?” I wailed. I guess I was starting to feel a little hysterical.
“It’s not a who, it’s a what, dummy. It was the baby’s bubble that he was living in this whole time. It’s gotta come out too.”
“What do we do with it?” I said, wringing my hands. I did not want to touch that steaming stingray thing.
“Just leave it alone for god’s sake, Tyger. We can’t really go anywhere right now, okay?”
I decided to open the car door and let in some fresh air. It looked like someone had puked strawberry yogurt all over the floor. And there was also Bitsy’s number two lying there on there garbage bag, which we were both pointedly ignoring. “It’s getting a little messy in here,” I said.
“Yeah well, if Ed ever comes back he can drive this car off a fucking cliff for all I care.”
“He’s coming back,” I said. Ed wouldn’t leave us. The baby was making greedy smacking noises. It wasn’t fair that he got food and I didn’t. I sat on the edge of my seat and stared at him, resisting the urge to lean over and give him a pinch.
Bitsy slowly nodded off to sleep and the fat little baby fell asleep with her. I almost fell asleep too, but a noise made me sit up straight. Footsteps were crunching across the road. I peeked my head out the door and saw Ed running straight for us. He was pale and dazed like he’d been shot out of a cannon.
“Hey kiddo, you awake already?” His eyes looked like something awful had happened to him in the night. I wanted to tell him to join the club.
“There’s been a birth,” I informed him.
“What?” He poked his head into the backseat of the car. “Jesus fucking Christ!” Ed pulled his head back out, paler than before.
“Shhhh, you’ll wake them up.” I climbed out of the limo and stood beside him, giving him my sternest look. The lazy sun had come up halfway then quit, slouching around behind the clouds and making everything gloomy. “Where did you go, Ed?”
Ed shook his head down at me, sad and tired. I grabbed his big old hand and held it. He cleared his throat, a dry scuffing sound. “I had to meet with my boss last night, emergency meeting. But we’re going to go back to New York City, okay? Right now.”
“And we can live in the limo again?” I quickly began cooking up a plot to make the baby live in the trunk with Puta.
“No, god no. It’s all settled, we’re gonna get a real apartment. No more errands. No more limo.”
“Oh,” I said, trying not to sound too disappointed.
“Trust me kid, you’ll appreciate it later.” Ed glanced into the limo again, scratching so hard at his hair I thought it might all fall out at once. Then he reached inside the car and delicately pulled out as many of the garbage bags as he could manage. “I’m just gonna leave these here…” He tucked them discreetly behind the car’s back tire. “Jump in, Tyger, let’s get the hell out of here.”
I climbed in beside Bitsy. She opened one eye at me. “Thanks Tyger. You’re not a baby, you know, you did a good job with Steven.”
Bitsy nodded down at her chest, at the baby. I broke into a big grin.
Ed was in the front seat and I noticed that he’d rolled down the glass for once. Bitsy fell back to sleep and Ed started driving. The alien-placenta-thing was still lying on one of the garbage bags and Bitsy had taken the cord out of it, so that it looked like a jellyfish washed up on the beach.
When no one was looking I bundled it up in the garbage bag and threw it out the car window, where it landed onto the flying white highway below. We were free from the scary things.
Ceilidh Michelle is a queer indigenous writer and musician based in Montreal. In the summer of 2016, she won a scholarship to the literary program Disquiet, held in Portugal, and studied under New York writer Maaza Mengiste. Ceilidh has had portions of novels and poetry published in Broken Pencil, Matrix Magazine, McGill University’s Scrivener Review, Victoria, B.C.’s Island Writer, Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Heroes and Villains, national journal Cactus Press, and has achieved semi-finals in The Walrus Magazine’s 2007 short fiction contest.