In Lesterville, we know the phrase Recycle, Reuse, and Reduce, we just choose to ignore it. Not because we’re against saving the planet, or don’t understand the plastic problem. We do. But when we hear or see that slogan, we think of Merin McCallister. And shiver.
She doesn’t live here anymore, and the house never sold. Removers came — a yard sale was never gonna work there — but there’s still stuff inside. I knew Merin, we weren’t kin-close, but we walked our babies together and talked like new moms do. She told me it was Martin who found the chair. I’m not saying it’s his fault what happened, I’m just saying it started there. Though, it must‘ve started long before.
They were the outdoorsy type, Merin and Martin, taking baby Ollie hiking nearly every weekend. She said the chair was a fair distance from the trail, lying on its front, deep in weeds and undergrowth, as if someone had tried to bury it. Covered in cobwebs, streaked with dark slime and wet leaves, two of its plastic white legs tilted skywards. The tray laid a short-flung distance away, half-sunk in bog ground. Martin, a handyman, proclaimed the chair in perfect condition.
If Merin felt uneasy reusing an abandoned highchair dumped miles from roads and homes, she never said. I’d like to think she was unsure. That when Martin said they’d take it home and clean it up, she shivered. But maybe as Martin wiped away a spread of slime, the baby gurgled and reached for it, making Martin say, “Two against one,” and she told herself the chill was just a passing cloud covering the sun.
She gave me a photo of the three of them. Ollie’s strapped in the chair while they stand on either side wearing big, stupid grins. I burned it.
Merin used an entire bottle of disinfectant on the chair, said it sparkled when she finished though plastic doesn’t sparkle. They all fell in love with that chair. Preferred it to the wooden one they got from her parents that cost $500. Especially Ollie. He cried when they took him out of it. He didn’t want to be in his playpen. Or his car seat. Or his bed. Or held in his mother’s arms. He just wanted that highchair.
“Teething,” Merin told me, “is rough.”
But it seemed like more than teething. Any toy with a face the boy chewed away.
Then there was the banging. Ollie with a spoon, or his sippy cup, against the tray. A jackhammer that went on for hours, giving Merin a headache and making Martin yell, then pound the counter. When Merin took away the spoon or cup, the look of pure hate on Ollie’s face chilled her blood, made her hands and head shake. He’d scream the scream of foxes in heat, a sound that made Merin think of babies being skinned alive. She’d give him back his jackhammer with trembling fingers.
She tried talking to Martin, to whisper-ask as they lay awake if he heard the noise even while Ollie slept. Was that why neither of them slept anymore though they were both beyond exhausted. But Martin had become brusque. Rarely showered, shaved or changed clothes. Their sex was rough now, painful and barely with consent. When she asked if he remembered to bring home milk, he threw a plate that smashed inches from her head.
The last time I saw Merin, she looked like she’d just emerged from Hell. Eyes bugged and bloodshot, mascara and lipstick smudged and smeared around her face, hair dishevelled. I was sure she’d slept in those clothes and didn’t know she wore mismatched slippers.
Standing on my porch steps swaying, Ollie swaddled in a blanket and pressed tight against her chest, words rat-a-tatted from her mouth. Martin was missing. Three days now. He’d lunged at Ollie. Punched her out. She’d woke to find the chair knocked over, empty. Discovered Ollie in his bed, silent, his head a funny shape.
“Like Lumpty Dumpty,” she said cry-laughing.
I invited her in, but she wouldn’t come. Said she and Ollie were gonna take a little vacation. I asked to see Ollie but she shook her head, stepped back.
“A bad baby’s better than no baby,” she said.
A watery cry came from the bundle. There was an earthy smell. A spider scuttled from the blanket, then another, then a cluster burst from beneath the folds and scattered. Merin brushed them all away without blinking an eye.
For a moment, the blanket slipped. I saw Ollie’s face. And a forked tongue flick.
Merin saw me see, said it was time for them to go. Added the highchair was on the curb if anyone wanted it, still in perfect condition. It’d comforted Ollie after his fall, but Ollie didn’t need it anymore. He was—
I couldn’t catch her last word. It didn’t sound like ‘better’.
I watched as she walked to her minivan, ignored the car seat, and placed Ollie on a pillow inside a dog crate in the back, then drove away.
We found her vehicle in a ditch, a short distance outside town. Just her purse and the blanket inside. We speculated of course. Word went ‘round about her showing up on my porch. I held back from telling all I saw. Maybe I shouldn’t have.
Nobody heard from Merin again. The highchair sat outside their house for a week, too big for recycling or curb-side pick-up. Then it started appearing around town in odd spots: the bushes next to the community centre where new moms meet. Lined up alongside the park swings. In front of the Goodwill thrift shop. Eventually the chair disappeared. We all knew not to touch it, but we get out-of-towners passing through. They wouldn’t have known any better.
Since then, other pieces of furniture have popped up around town — there’s a bookcase leaning against a disused shed near the library over on Elm and a mirror standing coquettish in the alley next to the gym. The stuff is always in pristine condition. Always tempting to take. But I leave them. We all do.
This place is never going green. People have it firm in their minds why. At least I think they do. But I’ve started hearing something at night that sounds an awful lot like foxes.