|A Prize in Every Box
By Jessica Wallin Mace
It was day two of our two-woman road trip. Fields--more fields. Shanna actually knew this area, though. We were getting into the radius near her folks'.
Ahead, I began to see a field that was not like the others--some kind of metal in it, here and there, glinting.
"It's modern art," Shanna told me. "Grocery carts around the field like cows."
Indeed they were, as we neared. There was something almost eerie about the true-animal feel in the scatter and positioning of these metal stand-ins. It was like other fields really full of cows, other fields we'd passed. But here, instead carts--I guess that was the point.
"They're not real carts, though," she said.
She was pulling off the side of the road into the grass, a few yards before the field in question. Judging by other ruts in the dirt, this was a customary thing to do.
"Yeah," she said, as we got out, slamming the doors, walking toward them all. "You'll see."
As we approached the first cart, I did see. It was not stolen from a real store, not bent in the perfect curves of mass-manufacture. Someone had made it all by hand: the spacing of those rods that made the cart's grand basket was not exactly even, and the soldering betrayed--almost endearingly--human work.
I didn't envy making a grocery cart, each one at a time. The difficulty alone seemed to warrant 'art.'
"Pretty cool, huh?" Shanna was glad, it seemed, to surprise me, to have something to show off around here. I wondered about the larger meaning of the whole thing, what exactly it was trying to say about consumer culture and the ways cows were used by people like us.
I walked through the grass, glad to stretch my legs. The next cart I approached was on its side, like a cow down sunning on the ground. I thought back to a time visiting a county fair, seeing the big building full of cows. They'd been prize contenders of some kind, each with unique patches of coloring. It had been the end of the day, dark through the industrial-size mouths of the doors, but inside there it was bright. Cows were all lying down on the smooth cement floor, their udders extremely swollen. I could see veins in those udders, and it had looked almost painful: just before milking relief. But it was a moment of joy to see, too--young wonderment--to see what looked like 'bursting with life.' I remembered stepping among those cows, every one swollen like that--mesmerized.
The carts in the field now were spread farther apart. I had to walk a bit, cover a little ground, from one to the next, to get close enough to examine the unique twists and imperfections of each. I rather loved how they weren't all quite the same--and the exhibit was big--carts situated quite a ways off. We could pause here a while.
A little swoop of movement caught my eye at one of the farthest carts. I put my hand over my eyes to make sure, but sure enough.
"Hmn?" She was standing with her arms across her chest, looking absently in the other direction. "We should probably get going before we're driving into the sun."
"Does this installation have moving parts?" I asked.
She shrugged, looking almost annoyed, like now I expected too much of an expert out of her--or like now I was asking a silly question, like if the wheels of a side-lying cart could catch the wind and spin.
But it wasn't that: I was moving now, feeling tentative, toward that farthest-off cart. The more I looked at it, I knew my distance vision wasn't the best, but I was pretty sure.
It was a child--a large baby, really--sitting in the front basket of this far-off cart. The way the little feet dangled through the holes was almost too convincing--the way they moved.
It could add something to the statement of the piece, having a baby riding in a cart like any day at the store--but the realism, the perfection of the human movements seemed out of synch with the lovingly imperfect craftsmanship of the carts. The baby looked like real flesh--a real, idling dangle-kick--real tufts of curly hair on his head blowing in the wind and sun.
"Oh my God!" Shanna said, striding up alongside me now.
"He's not part of it?"
"Gosh, I think I would remember that," she said. "He looks real."
We were getting closer and he looked chubby, just old enough to sit up comfortably. He looked happy enough-- not crying--not like he'd been baking and dehydrating alone in the sun all day.
It could be incredible art that he looked so real: could be. The artist could've put all his finesse and realism into that lone baby, in contrast with the carts, just to make us jump. Just to make us walk up catching our breath in the field otherwise empty of others' breathing.
But as we got closer, it was undeniable. No robotics, no three-dimensional likenesses were this good. Not in any movie or museum I'd ever seen.
Shanna passed me, trotting up fastest to the baby with her hair fanning back and tapping against her shoulders with each step. When she got to him, she immediately put her hands under his little arms, hoisting the baby up and onto her hip. Then she looked out, around.
The land was flat enough we would've seen it if there was anyone else nearby. Would've felt it. The grass even seemed to get mowed frequently enough on this work of art's ground, no space for someone to disappear even if he or she were lying down.
Like Shanna, though, I looked around, to be sure: out to the road and past, then around the field, toward a small line of three cottonwood trees in the distance.
"Well, shoot," Shanna said.
The baby had little overalls on, latched in front of the shoulders, but no shirt underneath.
His round hand reached up and started pulling on the one super-thin braid of hair Shanna kept braided near the front. I never quite knew why she did that, but now it seemed like a perfect handle, like it had been waiting for this moment.
I'd heard of performance art--with real people in it--but never with a baby.
We stood, as the wind rolled around. Just us.
Maybe the artist lived nearby, and sat the baby here just for a minute to impress us? But where could that artist have gone? Ready to pop out of some trap in the earth? And why would someone who's trying to make a statement about consumerism and cows abuse a baby?
"Well, shit," Shanna whispered, leaning away from the baby's ear.
The instincts of a mother were strong in her.
We waited a bit, leaning on one of the carts. We knew you shouldn't sit against art, but this was a special situation. The cart was sturdy.
My cell phone got no reception here. I remembered choosing my plan, a map with gray shading covering most of the whole US with everywhere I'd get coverage. There were tiny holes over some very remote-looking places. Places I'd figured I'd never go.
But here we were.
The road was empty.
Back in the car, heading toward the nearest town and law enforcement, Shanna started talking. It was only about three miles, she said. She was driving, and the baby was in my lap: I the closest thing to a car seat, arms around the baby like a seatbelt.
"My grandmother was a social worker out in Dakota in the '30s," Shanna said. "Matched kids with families. I remember her stories of driving as fast as she could closing those empty spaces, all by herself, rustling up big clouds of dust. I picture it billowing out all thick behind her--I always liked that image, right? Of course--a woman working at that time, going fast and alone, making waves--literally--you know?"
We were on a paved road, no dust. Cars went faster now, but we were speeding by only one mile per hour. It felt almost fugitive to have the child in my lap before any law enforcement knew about it--especially without a legal car seat. Yet, at the same time there was a lack of emergency to things when seeing the calm of that baby. He had such an earnest little face, content just looking around.
I'd never seen a baby master the art of not crying like this.
"We found this baby," Shanna said, going up to the first desk.
At first, no one reacted, really, because he looked so happy and natural on her hip.
"He's not yours?"
"No, of course not, we found him. Back out at the art installation? Or sculptures, whatever you'd call it. Off the route. The carts. He was in a cart."
"He was in a cart?"
Now the officer's voice sounded like he thought maybe Shanna was a crazy lady--except, besides the little braid, there was nothing about her that could make you think so. She was so firm and full-handled on everything, you couldn't doubt her for more than a beat.
"In a cart, you say?" He was more serious, now, probably convinced under Shanna's gaze.
"Well--of all places. Lucky you came along." He jotted something down.
"Was he right by the road?"
"Naw, about furthest from it," Shanna said. The baby was pulling her little braid again.
"I'll be damned," he said. He turned to the officer behind him. "You hear that?"
"Baby in a cart out in that field a few miles from the interstate."
"You don't say?" The second officer was looking now, taking in the happy baby sitting down into the sturdy crook of Shanna's arm.
A third officer in the station walked up, leaning against the first man's desk. The second man started looking things up on the computer, probably seeing what babies went missing just recently.
"Can't have been there long," Shanna said. "Full sun. He's fine."
The first officer started taking my information, mine and Shanna's. Had me show I.D.
"Got any kids yourself?" he asked.
I shook my head, but thought about the one I should have. Sometimes I got the weird feeling babies shared a community mind, like they all knew somehow one of them was supposed to be mine. The way they looked, those fixed and following eyes.
Shanna nodded, though. She had two kids back home who lived half-time with her ex.
Shanna didn't like the idea of leaving a baby alone here with just these men--they weren't the most fatherly. She thought the boy should be on her hip.
So we waited, for someone who dealt with this kind of thing to show up.
"Wish he had a little shirt," she said.
There was something a bit bumpkin about his bare shoulders and the loose overalls.
"Jesus Christ." Two hours later a new man was coming through the door. "Jesus Christ," he repeated, loudly, rushing toward the baby.
I'd had two snacks--first cookies, then crackers, from the snack machine. Then I'd had my eyes locked with the baby's for a while, and had started to forget we might ever be relieved of our shift here with the little guy.
One of the officers seemed to know this new man, like a shop owner knows his regulars.
"It's okay," the officer said. "It's his kid."
Shanna looked up. "So what's going on here?" She challenged.
"The neighbor was watching him--" The man extended his hand, "I'm so grateful to you for finding him."
Shanna didn't take the hand, keeping it instead around the baby. A bit of her grandmother in her, maybe--first and foremost the child's advocate, and a tough one.
But, of course, it didn't matter what we said. Someone had a claim to that baby, and at the end of the day it got to be none of our business.
Driving home, a few days later, I saw the carts coming up on the left in the field.
We hadn't talked about it, but Shanna said, "Stretch," with a little shrug, and we pulled off, getting out of the car across the road from the carts.
I paused before crossing the road--a fake stretch.
Then I stalked over one step after Shanna. We split up, heading deeper into the field.
I ran my hand all along the top rod of a cart, fingers bumping a little over every soldered rod intersecting. I gripped the edge, gave the cart a pat, then walked on.
The installation was kind of beautiful today. Good in every light, it seemed, before and now. Still impressive in size, one cart and another and another one. I wondered this time how the artist could bear not to really personalize a cart, never giving one a special theme or big, incorporated shape, never making any like a truly different make-and-model of a car, or a pimped one.
One, and another.
I looked through each cart as I strolled past, almost circling one before moving to the next.
Shanna was strolling too, trying to act all casual.
I don't know when I admitted to myself, that we were looking. Looking through the hulks of twisted metal, around and through--bending, and covering the field, making sure we saw every square foot.
We both neared the ends of the installation, opposite ones, and I started looking a little faster- more purposefully: down that way--then halfway again, over my shoulder.
I wasn't one for the double-check, normally. When I checked my blind spot, I never checked twice.
But I could feel myself getting weird. Don't know what I thought we were going to find among all these positioned stand-ins, among this herd of grazing and sunning skeletons suspended in their metal motion.
I headed back over to Shanna, combing my fingers onto one side of my hair, holding it down against the breeze.
No baby today.
Back in the car we both stared ahead after closing the doors, in that quiet of the car not started yet.
"Well," Shanna said.
I fidgeted with a peeling corner of the air bag panel.
She tapped the steering wheel, once. "Just when you think there could be a prize in every box."
I opened the glove box, then shut it again.
I knew there was a disfigured old piece of candy in there, but didn't want to insult either of us by pretending it could be the prize.
Jessica Wallin Mace holds an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA with a concentration in Creative Prose from the University of Pennsylvania. Apart from finalist status with Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers, this is Jessica's first formal recognition for her fiction. She currently lives and works in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where she continues to hone her short fiction and novel craft.