Little Bum Bums
I knew the baby was going to arrive on the cusp of an especially awful sick season, her rookie immune system no match for the quadruple-decker bus of cold and flu and RSV and COVID coming down the pike, and in theory I was more than fine with hiding her away until her six-month shots in the spring, but in reality I needed to leave the house.
Neighborhood walks had been our regular habit with the dog before he died last summer, then were neglected in his wake and in the cumbersome final stretch of my pregnancy, but once the baby was born they reemerged as a necessity, even with Joe and I and my pelvic floor all at our most exhausted. I needed the baby to see the world, I needed the world to see the baby, but I needed it too, even when, maybe especially when, my butt felt like it was going to fall out of my butt. Inside I was all rearranged, but outside everything — houses, dog park, Civil War battle plaques, soccer fields, confounding mixed-use redevelopment of former industrial blight, condos, church, elementary school — was more or less where we left it.
Now, four months in, my body and soul are no longer in such acute shambles and the baby’s systems are generally more robust, but the walks are still very important. Half the time she falls asleep in her carrier but when she’s awake she is awake, ooh-ing and ahh-ing, eyes wide, taking in everything and knowing nearly nothing about any of it, the world piecing itself together inside her cantaloupe head.
One afternoon earlier this month, on our way down the sidewalk by the elementary school, we came upon a guy in deep athleisure walking a very small dog. He was trying to tug her along but she saw us coming and dug in, legs making four little 45 degree angles to the ground. “Stubborn!” I said, and the guy said, “Oh yeah, she’s gotta meet everybody.” I bent down to oblige her. She barely cleared the top of my boots. Joe crouched and opened one side of the carrier so the baby could see. The baby looked around at everything except the dog. “What is this creature’s name?” I asked, and the guy said, “Her name is Little Bum Bums.” I gasped. I had so many questions, but the baby was beginning to fuss. Okay, okay, time to go.
All the way home I kept saying, “Little Bum Bums!” and for days I was telling everyone about how we met a dog named Little Bum Bums, and every time we walked past that spot on the sidewalk by the elementary school I said, “This is where we met Little Bum Bums. I will always remember that this is where we met Little Bum Bums.” And Joe was like, “Yep, Little Bum Bums.” And the baby was like, “Ah-goo.”
One afternoon a week later, on our way down the sidewalk by the elementary school again, we found ourselves behind two women pushing toddlers in strollers. We were hanging back, trying not to crowd them, but I was getting itchy. The sidewalk was wide and they were side by side, taking up every inch of it, and they were going slow, so slow I thought Joe and I might fall over, so slow it was like we were walking backwards. I was trying to calculate whether it would be worth it to peel off and loop through the parking lot then scoot out ahead of them, or if we’d end up where we started, stuck sauntering all the way to the corner. Then came the car. It was not going slow, it was going fast, very fast, too fast in the wrong direction. It whooshed through my periphery, some kind of brown midsize SUV, swerved down the center line, then slammed to a stop to block the path of a black Land Rover. The brown SUV driver jumped out, yelling: “You hit my hand!” or “You hit my head!” and “You motherfucker!” and “You piece of shit!” and “You motherfucking piece of shit!” — over and over, rhythmic, captivating. The Land Rover just sat there, tinted windows impassive, a line of cars backing up on the street behind it.
Joe and I stopped, and the stroller women stopped, and we all stood there on the sidewalk, gaping at the scene. The brown SUV driver, possessed of the eloquence of the truly enraged, continued to yell as he threw open his back hatch, yelled as he reached in, yelled as he rummaged around under a pile of stuff. I could think of only one thing an angry man would be searching for in the back of his car while yelling at the car he’d cut off by speeding a block in the opposite lane. A gun, of course it was a gun.
Joe and the stroller women seemed to have the same thought at the same time. Suddenly we were moving again, not running but slowly piloting ourselves and our children away from the street and into the school parking lot. Where were we going? Where were we supposed to go? There was a car in the parking lot and I thought, Hide behind the car. The car will keep you safe from what’s happening. But what was happening? The man, still yelling, had found what he was looking for and was now slamming it against the Land Rover’s driver side window. The window shimmered a little with every blow.
It was a gun, but if it was a gun, why wasn’t he shooting it? Joe and I stood behind the car in the parking lot, not quite committing to a full crouch. I thought of the talk radio DJ in my hometown who road-raged at a guy with a hatchet but the other guy had a gun and shot the hatchet-wielding talk radio DJ. I thought of the road-rage shooting in Midtown and the road-rage shooting in Brookhaven and the road-rage shooting on 285 and the road-rage shooting on 20 and Georgia’s permitless concealed carry law and I thought, If this guy doesn’t have a gun, the other guy does.
And I thought, Hiding behind this car isn’t going to do shit.
The stroller women seemed to have already realized this. A maintenance building sat like a red brick island in the parking lot, bigger than the car, bigger than two stacks of cars, and they were headed towards it. I turned from the car to follow them. A few paces out, I looked over at Joe. He wasn’t next to me. He was still behind the car, surveying the scene up on the street, the baby still strapped to his chest. The baby. Her cantaloupe head. He didn’t know the car wouldn’t save them. I felt a black hole opening up in my chest. I hissed his name and bugged out my eyes: Get over here! He moved one hand slightly: No, it’s okay.
I looked up and saw he was right. The yelling man was no longer yelling and no longer pounding the gun or not-gun against the Land Rover’s window. He was jumping back into his brown midsize SUV and driving away. His back hatch was still open. Stuff spilled into the street. The Land Rover was somehow already gone.
The stroller women emerged from the far side of the maintenance building, wheeling their toddlers towards us. One of them was very pregnant and the other was our neighbor whose husband gave us a stack of their daughter’s board books after we had the baby.
“Are y’all okay?” someone walking their dog called across the parking lot.
“Oh sure, yeah!” our neighbor called back, laughing, something about collective trauma something something.
Part of my brain was still half a block back, trying to figure out how to politely skirt around these women and their contraptions, but now we were circling up in the parking lot and trading introductions like we’d all marked the date on our Google Calendars weeks ago. How sweet, how old is she? Could you tell what he was yelling? When are you due? Could you see what was in his hand? Sixteen weeks, no, next week, no, could you? We were all behaving quite nonplussed (informal definition) while I, for one, was feeling quite nonplussed (traditional definition). The toddlers gaped up at us. The baby grunted in her carrier and opened an eye. She’d been asleep the whole time.
“Do you think he’ll come back for it?” the pregnant woman asked, and we all looked up at the stuff that had fallen out into the street. A series of cars thoroughly flattened a bottle of motor oil. A lady walking her dog waited for a pause in traffic then scurried out to retrieve a bigger hunk of plastic, set it on the curb, then went along her way. It was a booster seat, the kind for kids too big for a car seat but too small to ride unsupported, the kind that did not exist during our childhoods. Too many kids were dying in car accidents, apparently, so someone did something about it. A strange thing to ponder while standing in the parking lot of the elementary school where my daughter will one day learn how to hide from men with guns, just like I did once upon a time, for all the good it’s done me.
Later, once we were home, Joe and I would wonder if the yelling man had a wife and what she would say, and what he would say, the next time she looked in the car for the booster seat.
Later, I would remember he was wearing a blue jersey — a coach from the soccer fields up the street, maybe. Joe would say the midsize SUV wasn’t brown. He didn’t know what color he thought it was but it wasn’t brown.
Later, I would catch myself: wait, what did I think was going to happen? Like, the guy was going to shoot at the Land Rover and then…? Why did I think we were in danger? Well, why not?
Later, I would cry because I thought we were going to die back there, and then I would cry because I knew now I would always remember that spot on the sidewalk was somewhere I thought we were going to die, and then I would cry (I was just generally crying now) because that spot on the sidewalk was where we’d met Little Bum Bums, it was supposed to be where I remembered meeting Little Bum Bums, how dare this man’s rage usurp something so pure as my memory of meeting Little Bum Bums?
And then I would think: I wanted to show the baby the world, didn’t I? Well, so, what is the world if not the spot on the sidewalk, so to speak, where you meet a Little Bum Bums one day and fear for your family’s life the next — all that and everything else, too — a pin dropped at the universal coordinates of terror and joy?
But that was all later. For now we just stood around the parking lot with the stroller women, chit-chatting our cortisol levels back to earth as the daylight faded into a warm, weird night, until the toddlers got squirmy and the baby began to fuss. Okay, okay, time to go.
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