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The mysterious baby son 

An emotionless child in an empty fish tank

A fish tank is no place for a baby, but it wasn't my baby -- though it was my fish tank. It was sitting empty on the floor of my apartment, and John's mysterious baby son was climbing into it as I watched him. That was what John had asked me to do, after all, was watch his child.

Or actually, he had asked Julie to watch his child. That had been the day before, and John was still not back from his trip to Colorado to procure a manila envelope full of cocaine. It was his monthly business trip, he said, so he left his curious white-headed baby with my roommate Julie, who had all the mothering instincts of a hungry pterodactyl, who in turn had left him with me.

I was 17, a college freshman. The fish tank was empty because someone had put a penny in it and killed all the fish, or so I was told. Julie had come home a few days prior to find all the fish floating eyeball-up at the top of the tank, which caused her to cover her face and scream until someone came running to see what was wrong.

"Someone put a penny in the tank and killed all the fish," she wailed. It was determined, somehow, that that someone was me, and as punishment I was to clean out the tank and restock the fish. I don't remember putting a penny in the fish tank, which came as part of the professionally decorated apartment that Julie's parents had procured for us to share, but I was young and easily convinced of things. Other things I'd been blamed for but didn't remember doing were eating all of Julie's canned tuna, jeopardizing Julie's job by insulting the son of the man who owned the Mexican restaurant where Julie worked (I'd asked him to move after he'd passed out in my bed), and drinking all of Julie's tequila.

I was also, evidently, on the verge of making the place unlivable for Julie's drug-dealer friend John and his mysterious baby son.

John and his son had moved in with us upon their return from Hawaii, where they had left John's wife, who presumably was the mother of his boy. Julie had opened our home to John before introducing me to him, so I simply came home from class one day to find a bunch of people in my living room doing drugs and a stranger once again asleep in my bed.

I was no stranger to finding strangers in my bed since moving in with Julie -- who herself was such a huge whore it was a common assumption that the quality would leak out onto anyone living with her -- but this was the first time the stranger turned out to be 16 months old, so I could not just jostle him awake and ask him to move.

He was a large child, naked but for a diaper, with no discernable markings on him except his lips, which were uncommonly big and red, like a little sea anemone sitting on his face. His hair was parted on the side and combed as though ready for a family portrait, and he lay in the center of my bed on his back with arms outstretched, like a little crucifixion. "There's a baby on my bed," I told the small crowd in my living room. They ignored me. Two days later, John introduced himself.

I'd seen him around, sleeping on my couch, his baby in his arms. The baby never cried, either, not once. Traditionally, the baby would lay in his father's arms with his eyes open, calmly assessing the morning activities, which consisted of me making coffee before class. John had dark, oily hair and two huge fake front teeth, but they were not the two right in the middle, but the two off to the side. His son had white hair and dark brown eyes, whereas John's eyes were as green as pond scum. At 25, John was already rickety, it seemed to me, with gray skin and sallow eyes, and the fake teeth really didn't help. They were discolored and looked like what you'd find among the dismembered remains of a long-murdered person.

I guess that's what a gram of cocaine a day will do to you, and to your mysterious baby son who never cried, not once, and who studied people with the weighted resignation of an ancient person.

Soon John would complain to Julie that my morning activities were disruptive to his son, so Julie took me aside to explain the depth of my crime. "How is the baby supposed to sleep with you banging around in the cupboards?" I didn't tell her the baby was always already awake before we were, calmly watching the wreck around him as though it were something sensible.

I moved out soon afterward, almost simultaneous to John's discovery that his manila envelope full of cocaine had disappeared from its hiding place under Julie's bed and turned up empty in the kitchen trash. I was blamed for it, of course, but this time I remember very well having dumped John's cocaine down the sink, and John's mysterious baby son sitting in the fish tank, watching me do it.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood (Harper Collins). She was recently named one of "Seven Breakout Authors of 2004" by Writer's Digest. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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