Page 33

While I was downtown I also looked for a late Valentine's card to send Mama. I still felt kind of awful about leaving her, and changing my name just seemed like the final act of betrayal, but Mama didn't see it that way. She said I was smarter than anything to think of Taylor, that it fit me like a pair of washed jeans. She told me she'd always had second thoughts about Marietta.

I found just the right card to send her. On the cover there were hearts, and it said, "Here's hoping you'll soon have something big and strong around the house to open those tight jar lids." Inside was a picture of a pipe wrench.

Lou Ann, meanwhile, had bought one of those name-your-baby books in the grocery checkout line. When I came home she had it propped open on the stove and was calling out names from the girl section while she made dinner. Both Turtle and Dwayne Ray were propped up at the table in chairs too big for them. Dwayne Ray's head was all flopped over, he was too little to hold it up by himself, and he was wiggling toward the floor like Snake Man escaping from his basket. Turtle just sat and stared at nothing. Or rather, at something on the table that was as real to her as Snowboots's invisible poop was to him.

Lou Ann was banging pot lids to wake the dead and boiling bottles. She had stopped nursing and put Dwayne Ray on formula, saying she was petrified she wouldn't have enough milk for him.

"Leandra, Leonie, Leonore, Leslie, Letitia," she called out, watching Turtle over her shoulder as though she expected her to spew out quarters like a slot machine when she hit the right combination of letters.

"Lord have mercy," I said. "Have you been doing this all the way from the Agathas and Amys?"

"Oh, hi, I didn't hear you come in." She acted a little guilty, like a kid caught using swear words. "I thought I'd do half today and the rest tomorrow. You know what? Lou Ann is on the exact middle page. I wonder if my mother had a book like this."

"The book our mothers had was the Bible, not some fifty-cent dealie they sell from the same rack as the National Enquirer." I knew very well that none of my various names had come out of a Bible, nor Lou Ann's either, but I didn't care. I was just plain in a bad mood. I put Turtle over my shoulder. "What do you really expect her to do if you say the right name, Lou Ann? Jump up and scream and kiss you like the people on those game shows?"

"Don't be mad at me, Taylor, I'm just trying to help. She worries me. I'm not saying she's dumb, but it seems like she doesn't have too much personality."

"Sure she does," I said. "She grabs onto things. That's her personality."

"Well, no offense, but that's not personality. Babies do that automatically. I haven't worked in a hospital or anything, but at least I know that much. Personality has to be something you learn."

"And reading off a list of every name known to humankind is going to teach her to have personality?"

"Taylor, I'm not trying to tell you what to do, but all the magazines say that you have to play with children to develop their personality."

"So? I play with her. I bought her a book today."

"Okay, you play with her. I'm sorry." Lou Ann ladled soup out of the big pot on the stove and brought bowls over to the table. Her bowl held about two teaspoons of the red-colored broth. She was starving herself to lose the weight she'd gained with Dwayne Ray, which was mostly between her ears as far as I could see.

"This is Russian cabbage-and-beet soup," she announced. "It's called borscht. It's the beets that turn it pink. You're supposed to put sour cream on top but that just seemed like calories up the kazoo. I got it out of Ladies' Home Journal."

I could imagine her licking her index finger and paging through some magazine article called "Toasty Winter Family Pleasers," trying to find something to do with all that cabbage I kept bringing home from Mattie's. I fished out a pink potato and mushed it up in Turtle's bowl.

"It's good, Lou Ann. Nothing personal, I'm just in a crappy mood."

"Watch out, there's peas in there. A child's windpipe can be blocked by anything smaller than a golf ball."

For Lou Ann, life itself was a life-threatening enterprise. Nothing on earth was truly harmless. Along with her clip file of Hispanic bank presidents (which she had started to let slide, now that Angel was talking divorce), she saved newspaper stories of every imaginable type of freak disaster. Unsuspecting diners in a restaurant decapitated by a falling ceiling fan. Babies fallen head-first into the beer cooler and drowned in melted ice while the family played Frisbee. A housewife and mother of seven stepping out of a Wick 'N' Candle store, only to be shot through the heart by a misfired high-pressure nail gun at a construction site across the street. To Lou Ann's way of thinking, this proved not only that ice chests and construction sites were dangerous, but also Wick 'N' Candle stores and Frisbees.