That April, Marvin Gaye was murdered. Maurice Greene, the father of Iris's six-month-old baby, went to his old shooting den at the Linville Projects. In mourning, he bought a spike and three hits of dope for the weekend. He came home fully schmecked. His shoulder brushed the doorjamb and pitched his torso the opposite way.
"You're gooned," Iris said. She watched him lift his feet to fanciful elevations before dropping them down, picking his way over to her as if he were negotiating cross ties in a switching yard. His spinal column was unhinged, and Iris knew he had put something in his arm, but Maurice exhibited a new and mystical flex, a curious exoneration: Gaye was dead and Maurice was released from all his routine duties. His part-time job at Benny's Home and Auto, his fatherhood responsibilities, all his tasks were shirked, while he paid whacked-out homage to the murdered singer.
For two weeks Iris had watched Maurice crucify himself on piggyback needles, trying for a copycat ascension to mimic Gaye's transformation. High on tar, he spoke to her only in snippets from Gaye's discography, quoting lyrics completely out of context. "I ain't got time to think about money or what it could buy, and I ain't got time to sit around and wonder what makes a birdy fly," he told Iris that morning as he walked out the door.
While Maurice was supposed to be working at the Home and Auto Supply, Iris left the older women in the apartment and instead of taking a cab, wheeled the umbrella stroller to the clinic. The clinic was nine blocks into town. Iris remembered to stretch a plastic dry-cleaning bag across the handles of the stroller for a windbreak, but even so, the baby's eyes were tearing from the cold when she arrived.
Her baby wasn't gaining. The clinic wanted to get a blood sample before Terrell could get his DPT shot on schedule like the normal babies waiting outside with their mothers in the Well Baby Room. Iris was never asked to wait in the cozy, divided area, which was well-stocked with bright toys and ladies' magazines. Iris heard the happy jingles and buzzers of a Busy Box, the cascading notes of xylophones and taut plunking beats of skin drums. Above this din was the high warble of infants and toddlers amusing themselves and the occasional singsong of their mothers. Iris was pulled into an examining stall as soon she arrived. Her baby was scrawny. A nurse pricked his heel with a disposable stylet, which she then discarded in a bright red cylinder for needles and hazardous medical refuse. Next, the nurse wanted to test Iris and get her numbers. Terrell was fussy during the procedures, discomfited by the noisy sheet of crinkled paper on the examining table, and Iris lifted him off.
Afterwards she wheeled the stroller to Classical High School where she tried to catch her old girlfriends when they came outside to switch classes. In the first months, the girls had huddled around Iris and the conspicuous lemon-lime baby stroller. They chatted on the walkway between buildings for ten minutes. When the bell sounded, the girls ran off in different directions. Sometimes, one of her friends brought Iris a drink from the cafeteria, where Iris wasn't permitted to sit down. Iris fancied a local Rhode Island dairy item called Coffee Milk, and her friends brought Iris an eight-ounce carton. They peeled the straw for Iris before trotting off to typing or advanced algebra class. Iris sipped the drink slowly, trying to make it last forty-five minutes, until the bell clanged and the girls reappeared from the classroom building. Several Classical students had had babies in a wave the year after Lady Di had hers. When Iris's baby was born, her teenaged friends stood at the foot of the hospital bed and remarked upon his skin color. Iris held the infant in her arms and blushed at the contrast between them. The baby's skin was a deeper shade than her own. Someone said he looked just like the familiar sweetened coffee drink. Her classmates teased her. How many cartons of Coffee Milk had Iris consumed those nine months she was carrying Terrell? Their teasing reassured her - and she was pleased that they could still find the humor in her situation. Her friends told her that there was a big difference between Terrell and the other mixed babies at the high-school day care. Terrell was lighter. Iris didn't mind listening to their speculations as long as she was still accepted in their circle. But when Iris and Terrell weren't admitted to the high-school day-care program, her friends started to avoid Iris during their chaotic lunch period and at the city bus stops, where she sometimes waited for them after school was dismissed. The novelty of being outcast wore off. She wheeled the umbrella stroller up and down the curbstones, bumping the nylon sling and startling the infant; the plastic dry-cleaning bag whipped in a mean wind, until he started bawling. By spring, Iris was totally abandoned by her high-school friends, and she no longer tried to intercept them.
Maurice crossed the linoleum as if he were testing an ice pond. His jeans were slipping off his hips and bunched at his unlaced Cons. Maurice prowled toward her; his weight lagged behind or tumbled ahead. His legs couldn't align with his trunk.
"You're cranked," she said.
He twirled around and fell on the couch. They had been forced to move in with Maurice's mother, Vicki, and Vicki's sister, Estelle. This arrangement was to be temporary. Iris was tender meat for that pair of harpies, and when Maurice was like this, he couldn't protect her.
Iris asked Maurice, "Answer me this. You give up everything just because Marvin Gaye bought it off his own father?" Her eyes were burning. She noted that her tears were not the everyday drips but new and unplanned for, brimming in huge and pitiful droplets. She wiped her face with the heel of her hand and stared at her moist palm. Its shiny residue did not directly reveal the exact nature of the new disaster she faced, and she rubbed her hand on her knee.
Maurice crumpled to one side of the sofa. She stood over him and raised her voice. "So what about me and Terrell? This is our life, you know. It's not just your life."
She bit her lip, trying not to say it again.
Maurice fluttered his eyes, trying to follow, but he never met her level of conjecture, which was a steep threshold and he couldn't pull himself across its difficult lip. "My bro is gone," he told her.
"Fuck that. That's yesterday's news."
His eyeballs were tight. He flopped over on the sofa and stretched his legs out. He told her, "We're all sensitive people with so much to give - "
"What's this?" Iris said. "Is that Marvin Gaye? Is that him? You make me crazy."
" - Understand me, sugar," Maurice quoted the murder victim.
She smacked him. Maurice rolled onto his stomach and groaned with pleasure, which made her strike him again. His comic whimper alerted his mother and aunt. Iris started tugging his floppy arm and the whole household came apart.
Estelle pushed Iris away and she took off Maurice's shoes, which should have been Iris's chore. Maurice's mother, Vicki, yelled at Iris, grabbing her white wrist, pinching a pleat of translucent skin between her sharp, lacquered fingertips.
"You fixed him," Vicki hissed at Iris, blaming Iris for Maurice's nod.
She said, "It's your mother's money that buys his dope."
"That's cash for diapers," Iris said.
"Shit. I guess he's goofed on Pampers."
"If he could, he would."
"He's had a shock and you're no help," Vicki told her. Vicki was willing to link Gaye's sudden demise to Maurice's relapse, as if they were a chain-reaction phenomenon. "I've seen this for years. White girls enticing black men and making them crazy."
Iris decided against the stroller and she went to get the baby into his plastic safety seat. Weeks …