It was on a Tuesday when Babs came into the lives of Harry and Tom. There was a mystery to Babs, that was undeniable. She was fabled and storied, peculiarly wise, but there was also a crassness to her. She walked with a swagger she knew she had and would never lose. And even before she sat down, Harry and Tom wondered if they had all met some place before.
They figured Babs could have been anywhere between forty and sixty years old. Her hair was cut short, bleached blonde, and spiked. She wore jeans that hugged her hips and thighs in the most unpleasant way, and her shirt was cropped low around the neck and chest. She wore enough makeup to blanket a small child, but her skin was still tired and weary. Her hands were cracked and old, the way paper mache looks when left out to dry. Babs was eager to believe she was still 22, but as her days waned, it was becoming harder and harder to accept the lie.
Harry and Tom were sitting on the couch with full glasses of whiskey and a half-smoked joint set between them.
The door pushed open. “Hello, boys!” Babs called from the entryway, sounding a bit like a 1920s lounge singer, the kind with glaring, unapologetic moxie.
“H’lo,” they muttered.
“What a fine evening it is!” Babs was carrying two overstuffed duffels. She dropped the bags on the floor and took a seat in a nearby chair. “It’s Friday and I ain’t got no work tomorrow. I got a half a pack of smokes, and I’m looking for love, lust, luck, or a bit of all three. You boys feeling me?” Babs removed a compact mirror and a tube of lipstick from her back pocket.
Harry was the first to speak. “I’m sorry, do we know you?”
“My name’s Babs.” She applied a thick coat of red.
“So we don’t know you,” said Tom, irritated.
“I gave you my name,” she said. “Seems like you know me now, yeah?” Babs smacked her weathered lips together. “And what fine names do you fine boys have?”
They were just drunk enough to answer. “Tom.” “Harry.”
“And what are you two doing in on a night such as this?”
“Wait,” said Tom. “…Who are you?”
“I’m Babs,” she said plainly. “I’m Carlin’s mom.”
They looked at her with unknowing expressions. The joint continued to burn.
“Carlin’s your next-door neighbor, dear,” she said. “And, technically, I’m not his mom. I’m his foster mom. Well, I was his foster mom.” Babs was rambling. “That’s the thing about being a foster mom: once the kid moves out, do you continue to be their foster mom? Or has your tenure in that department come to an end? Ain’t that something to ponder?”
They blinked at her.
“Do you do this often, Babs?” Harry asked.
“Walk in on two strangers?”
“Only when I’m looking for something.” Babs pulled a pack of Virginia Slims from her front pocket and tapped one out. “You mind if I smoke?”
“I’d prefer if you didn’t,” said Tom, still irritated.
Babs stuck the cigarette in her mouth anyway and lit it. The Slim was so slim it burned away after a few unappealing drags. She lit another one and the room filled with smoke. “So what’s your boys’ story? You two lovers? Brothers? Friends with bennies?”
“None of the above,” said Harry. “This is Tom’s place. I’m from out of town.”
“I lived in Baltimore once.”
“Is that right?” Harry asked, his tone bordering on condescension.
Babs finished her second cigarette and lit another. She inhaled so hard the third cigarette burned off in one drag. She picked a piece of tobacco from her tongue and wiped it on the front of her jeans. Her wheels were spinning, but there was little truth behind her thoughts. “By Camden Yards,” she said finally. “Up on Lombard.”
“How ‘bout that.” Harry was scratching his chin and staring at Babs the way a judge might stare at a witness.
“And what do you do, Harry?”
“I sit in the dark and write things.”
“Mmmm.” Babs inched closer. “I like that.” She set a hand on Harry’s thigh and gave him a playful slap. “And what about you Tom?”
“I do all sorts of things.”
“You ever deliver mail?”
“Sure, I’ve done that.”
“You ever worked as a butcher?”
“Yeah, done that, too.”
“What about a distiller? You ever work as a distiller?”
“Sure. Been doing that for years.”
Babs set a hand on Tom’s thigh, but didn’t slap it. Tom squirmed and drank his whiskey down.
“You boys mind if I have some of that J?”
Tom shook his head and handed it to her.
Babs took a long, deliberate drag then let the smoke escape from her mouth in a fine and sexy billow. “Time is a funny thing, ain’t it, boys?” She took another pull off the joint.
Harry shrugged. “I supposed.”
“I remember when Carlin was just a boy—I don’t know, maybe seven or eight—and he used to run around with this stuffed polar bear. I’d gotten it for him when he was three and he’d take it everywhere. He’d cry if we ever left the house without it. The thing was becoming something of a nuisance. It was always getting dirty and stained, turning rattier and rattier. So, on his seventh birthday, I took it away and replaced it with a new one.” Babs took another drag and her body shivered. “Damn, that’s a good joint!” she declared. “I usually only meet guys who get that dried sage or dried thyme.” Babs took a final drag and finished the joint. She stubbed out the roach on Tom’s desk and wiped the ash on the floor.
Tom no longer cared.
“Anyway, Carlin finds the new stuffed polar bear in his room and just starts to cry. And all these kids are around—I mean, they’re all there to celebrate his seventh birthday—and he can’t stop crying. And then—in front of everyone—he just rips the bear up. I didn’t think it was possible for a seven year old to have that much strength, but he tore up that thing right on the spot. Fabric and stuffing are flying everywhere and all the other kids start crying and I’m just standing there with this birthday cake with these trick candles burning down and wax getting everywhere. Ruined the whole damned cake!”
The room fell silent. Babs took the pack of Virginia Slims from her pocket and popped out another cigarette. She thought about lighting it, but, instead, set it on Tom’s desk. “I don’t know,” Babs said. She hunched over and zipped open one of the duffels.
Harry sipped on his drink but hardly tasted a thing.
Babs pulled a stuffed white polar bear from her bag. The thing was stained and worn by age, and was missing one eye, but, otherwise, seemed to be in reasonable shape. “I’d thrown this in the garbage the morning of his birthday, but fished it out after the party. I barely had a chance to clean the coffee grounds off before he begged for it back.” She bit the skin on the edge of her thumb. “And then, I suppose, everything was fine after that,” she said solemnly.
A gust of wind rattled the windows.
“Hell,” Babs sighed. “My mind sure does wander.”
Harry leaned forward and asked, “So what is it you do, Babs?”
She smiled a smile that wasn’t real and said, “I return stuffed animals. Even if their owners no longer want them.” Babs rolled the Slim back and forth on the desk. She was looking at it with a fondness cigarettes didn’t deserve. Especially Slims. “Well, I think I’ve wasted enough of your boys’ time. I’d better be off.”
“You don’t have to,” Harry said.
“Yeah,” said Tom, no longer irritated. “You can stay.”
Babs smiled. This time it was real. “That’s sweet of you, boys. But it’s my time to get going.” She gathered up her bags. When she stood she barely wavered. Babs didn’t look drunk or stoned or lost; she just looked like Babs. “It was nice to meet you boys.”
“Pleasure,” they said.
“See you on the other side, yeah?”
The boys nodded, but didn’t know why.
“Will you make sure that bear gets in the right hands?”
The boys nodded again, only this time knowingly.
“Good.” Babs turned with her bags and left. She didn’t bother to look back and they were glad that she didn’t.
On the desk sat the stained polar bear and the fresh Virginia Slim. Tom took the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. Harry drank the last of his drink. And the polar bear stared at them glumly.