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This from Lou Ann, who viewed most of life's activities as potential drownings, Windings, or asphyxiation; who believed in dream angels that predicted her son would die in the year 2000. Lou Ann who had once said to me: "There's so many germs in the world it's a wonder we're not all dead already."

I didn't want to talk to her about it. And she was furious with me, anyway, saying that I had practically abandoned Turtle since that night. "Why didn't you go to her and pick her up? Why did you just leave her there, with the police and all, chasing that dumb bird around for heaven's sake? Chasing that bird like it was public enemy number one?"

"She was already good and attached to Edna," I said.

"That's the biggest bunch of baloney and you know it. She would have turned loose of Edna for you. The poor kid was looking around the whole time, trying to see where you'd gone."

"I don't know what for. What makes anybody think I can do anything for her?"

I couldn't sleep nights. I went to work early and left late, even when Mattie kept telling me to go home. Lou Ann took off a week from Red Hot Mama's, putting her new promotion at risk, just to stay home with Turtle. The three of them-she, Edna, and Virgie-would sit together on the front porch with the kids, making sure we all understood it was nobody's fault.

And she stalked the neighborhood like a TV detective. "We're going to catch this jerk," she kept saying, and went knocking on every door that faced onto the park, insisting to skeptical housewives and elderly, hard-of-hearing ladies that they must have seen something or somebody suspicious. She called the police at least twice to try and get them to come take fingerprints off Edna's cane, on the off-chance that she'd whacked him on the hand.

"I know it was probably some pervert that hangs out at that sick place by Mattie's," Lou Ann told me, meaning Fanny Heaven of course. "Those disgusting little movies they have, some of them with kids. Did you know that? Little girls! A guy at work told me. It had to have been somebody that saw those movies, don't you think? Why else would it even pop into a person's head?"

I told her I didn't know.

"If you ask me," Lou Ann said more than once, "that's like showing a baby how to put beans in its ears. I'm asking you, where else would somebody get the idea to hurt a child?"

I couldn't say. I sat on my bed for hours looking up words. Pedophilia. Perpetrator. Deviant. Maleficent. I checked books out of the library but there weren't any answers in there either, just more words. At night I lay listening to noises outside, listening to Turtle breathe, thinking: she could have been killed. So easily she could be dead now.

After dinner one night Lou Ann came into my room while the kids were listening to their "Snow White" record in the living room. I'd skipped dinner; I wasn't eating much these days. When I was young and growing a lot, and Mama couldn't feed me enough, she used to say I had a hollow leg. Now I felt like I had a hollow everything. Nothing in the world could have filled that space.

Lou Ann knocked softly at the door and then walked in, balancing a bowl of chicken-noodle soup on a tray.

'You're going to dry up and blow away, hon," she said. 'You've got to eat something."

I took one look and started crying. The idea that you could remedy such evil with chicken-noodle soup.

"It's the best I can do," Lou Ann offered. "I just don't think you're going to change anything with your own personal hunger strike."

I put down my book and accepted her hug. I couldn't remember when I had felt so hopeless.

"I don't know where to start, Lou Ann," I told her. "There's just so damn much ugliness. Everywhere you look, some big guy kicking some little person when they're down-look what they do to those people at Matties. To hell with them, people say, let them die, it was their fault in the first place for being poor or in trouble, or for not being white, or whatever, how dare they try to come to this country."

"I thought you were upset about Turtle," Lou Ann said.

"About Turtle, sure." I looked out the window. "But it just goes on and on, there's no end to it." I didn't know how to explain the empty despair I felt. "How can I just be upset about Turtle, about a grown man hurting a baby, when the whole way of the world is to pick on people that can't fight back?"

'You fight back, Taylor. Nobody picks on you and lives to tell the tale."

I ignored this. "Look at those guys out in the park with no place to go," I said. "And women, too. I've seen whole families out there. While we're in here trying to keep the dry-cleaner bags out of the kids' reach, those mothers are using dry-cleaner bags for their children's clothes, for God's sake. For raincoats. And feeding them out of the McDonald's dumpster. You'd think that life alone would be punishment enough for those people, but then the cops come around waking them up mornings, knocking them around with their sticks. You've seen it. And everybody else saying hooray, way to go, I got mine, power to the toughest. Clean up the neighborhood and devil take the riffraff."