In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh

Spirit Babies
Phyllis Barber

[p.189]Delta patted her lips with a paper napkin, crumpled it, and swished it into the basketball net clamped to the top of the wastebasket. She pulled her hefty arms off the counter, eased off her stool, and rinsed her bowl under the tap. “Give me your cup, J. L. I’ll rinse it out.”

He drained the bottom, handed her the mug, and then leaned against the kitchen counter, his arms folded. “Okay, tell me one more time. What happens when you see him?”

“Well, the first dream, he looks like he might be a gymnast when he comes down at least a thousand stairs, little old baby, half crawling, half rolling down those stairs. He’s laughing all the way, though. In between the crawling and the rolling, he’s reaching his arms up to me and saying, ‘Mama, Mama.’ He’s wearing a little white robe, but it barely covers him. That’s how I can tell it’s a him, you know. Then, instead of finishing up with those thousand stairs, he starts to fly and roll like an airplane. He cruises over my head, close to my hair so I can feel some of it lifting up with the electricity, and says, ‘I’m waiting, Mama.’ I mean, what can I say? I can’t sleep for all the things this child says to me in the night. Sometimes I think he might even be a prophet.”

“Why doesn’t he come see me?” J. L. pulled up his Levis by the [p.190]belt loops again and tucked his shirt in the back. “I’ve got something to do with this, I think. I’m the man of the house.”

Delta turned her glowing face to her husband. “You sure are, honey.” Her auburn hair was backlit by the square of morning light in the window, a pale fire smouldering on top of Mt. Delta.

Suddenly, he smiled like a sunning snake, happy with the first day after winter. “Delta,” he said, looking at his wife with that bashful look he sometimes had. “You sure are pretty when God talks to you. Seven kids, and I still feel my blood rising in me. You just here in the kitchen in your sweats and high tops. I did a good thing when I chose you.”

“You didn’t choose me, Johnny Lester Bradford. We chose each other before we ever came to this earth. Don’t you remember?”

“Well, sort of.” J. L. squinched his left eye and puckered his lips in thought. His straw brown hair was tinted pure sunlight, his eyebrows too. “Tell you the truth, Delta, I don’t remember seeing you before that night at the Milton Ward’s potluck dinner, eighteen years ago, you pouring water in glasses and wearing the brightest yellow like sunshine.”

“Johnny Lester,” Delta said, cozying her backside against his belt buckle and tucking her 72-inch body under his chin. “Put your arms around me, honey. Just hold me and believe with me.”

He wrapped her tightly against his body and rocked her with a little Motown. “My girl, talkin’ bout my girl … ” He stroked the letters on her purple sweatshirt, most especially the “O” that covered her breast.

“You better get your body off to work, J. L. Night’s a better time for taking care of dreams.” Reaching over her shoulder, she flipped his ear, then turned and applied a half nelson, something he’d taught her once when she wanted to break into high school wrestling. She wanted to be called Delta Dawn, the Rumbler, or better yet, Thunder of the Morning.

J. L. jabbed a mild elbow into her ribs and bridged out of the hold. “I’ll think about you on my long haul to Vegas today. I’ll be back tomorrow night, then we’ll talk about this baby in your dream.” He popped the Zion’s National Park cap on his head and settled it just so, pulled on the rim, then curved it between two hands. “Why don’t you dream a little dream of me?” he whispered and winked as he pulled the door closed behind him.

Delta Ray Bradford untwisted the orange-covered wire on the [p.191]bread bag. “Dream a little dream of me,” she half-sang underneath her breath, lining up ten pieces of whole wheat bread on the counter, slathering each with canola margarine, light Mayo, tuna fish, and topping with pickles, sprouts, and Bibb lettuce. She counted out five brown paper bags, shook them open, then peeled ten carrots and sliced them into sticks. Fruit rolls. Cran-apple juice in a box with the straw attached to the side. A piece of homemade carrot cake made with whole wheat flour Delta had ground herself.

She sat at the kitchen counter and pulled a worn box of magic markers out of the cluttered drawer. In her best Palmer’s penmanship, she wrote out five notes—one for each of her school children, each one slightly different from the next. “Keep a smile on your face,” she wrote with a green felt tip pen. “Remember who loves you,” she wrote on another piece of paper. “Love one another.”

She lined the notes up side by side and, using the yellow marker, made her secret mother symbol on each one: the figure-eight sign for infinity. Then she plucked the red pen out of the dog-earred, gray-cornered box. Uncapping it with a flourish, she patiently drew the outline and filled in the contours of five pairs of generous lips, then sealed each note with a kiss of her own.

When Delta Ray arrived at Midtown Mart that afternoon, she told her three-year-old, Tara Sue, to sit quietly in the basket while she secured Jared in the seat of the grocery cart with the pink nylon strap provided by Midtown. He was a climber of the first order and she knew if he escaped the cart, there was no telling what he’d find on the floor. Squashed grapes. Ignored pennies. Dirt, plenty of it. His little hands would reach up to the lip of the produce shelf and pull tomatoes and oranges in a shower upon himself. Then he’d squash those ripe tomatoes in his hands, red pulp dripping down his plump arms, and laugh like he’d invented laughing.

Secretly, Delta Ray was proud of him and his ways, but she knew better than to show this joy in public. As she pulled the buckle tight around Jared’s pudgy waist, she heard whispers behind her.

“Do you think Delta Ray’s pregnant again?” she heard good old VerJean whispering to Sandy, one of the check-out girls. “She always looks as if she might be pregnant.” Delta Ray busied herself with pulling a coloring book and crayons out of her gigantic Mexican straw bag. “You color those animals any old color you want, Tara Sue,” she said, handing her the book and the yellow box with green stripes, “but just [p.192]stay put in that basket. No standing while we’re in the store. Get the message?”

Tara Sue shook her head vigorously with a good-girl yes. But then Delta Ray heard busybody VerJean again. “Delta’s got a lentil for a brain.”

Usually, Delta tried not to use her strength in public, but today she almost shot a threatening look in VerJean’s direction. Delta could be imposing, being exactly six feet tall. Her chest was, after all, except for her breasts, a close replica of her father’s. He’d been a linebacker in the regional high school all-star game once upon a time. But Delta repressed the impulse, pretending to be more interested in the front page of the newsprint advertiser in her hands. It featured a picture of a swordfish with a broad-bladed pirate’s sword drawn in place of its snout. Then she sucked in her stomach muscles and lifted her chin.

”I’m pregnant with the spirit,” Delta Ray said slowly with emphasis as she glided the grocery cart toward Sandy’s check-out stand and VerJean. “Blown up like a dirigible, flying for God.” She stopped in front of the two women, smiled as if she were the Mother of Cosmic Content, and held Jared’s chin in her hand. “My blessed ones,” she said as she kissed his eyebrow and patted Tara Sue’s blond curls. “Angel babies.”

VerJean didn’t look up. She scribbled a note on her shopping list, all the time acting as if she didn’t have a mouth on her. Sandy acted busy as a bee. Dressed in a red-check Western Days shirt with a red-fringed yoke and wearing a cut-out cowboy hat badge with “SandyO” written across the hatband, she plumped open a paper bag and waved politely at Delta Ray pushing her cart into the pasta aisle.

Muzak was playing “Let It Be.” Delta Ray hummed. She plucked a thin box of fettucine from the shelf and tried to balance it on Jared’s head. He laughed. “Speaking words of wisdom, let it be,” she sang.

At that very moment, however, she happened to see one of the laws of the land being shattered like a stone tablet against rock. At the end of the aisle, right by the expensive nuts, she saw Jeff Jex’s hand dart out of his pocket and grab a handful of cellophane tubes of cashews. Then another handful. Then some pistachios. Like lightning, he hid them in the deep pockets of his baggy beige shorts, faster than Delta Ray could sing the last “let it be.”

“Hey you,” she shouted. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Delta Ray’s cart sang down the aisle, the lopsided wheel adding [p.193]its own rhythm to the Muzak. She whizzed past long grain rice, Chinese noodles, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots. Ca-chunk, ca-chunk, the wheel, the spaces between the floor tiles. Ca-chunk. Let it Be. God’s own chariot winging out of the sky, landing on Aisle 6, catching young Jeff Jex in an unsavory act.

“Okay,” Delta Ray said, her voice booming out of her expansive chest. “What’s going on here?”

Young Jex gave Delta Ray the finger. “Fuck you,” he said, his lips lingering over the “f” of the fuck, his delivery slow and impudent.

Delta Ray’s eyes grew wider than a full moon on a clear night. “You don’t say that to me, young man,” she said, her fists on her generous hips. “Nobody speaks that way to me, especially not a thief.” “You cretin.” Jeff Jex stood there with fists jammed into his thighs, his voluminous shorts low on his hips, his black hair jelled Elvis-style. “If I were you, young Jex, I’d be getting my running shoes on and fast.”

“You’re a joke, Mrs. Bradford, just like all your snot-nosed kids. Don’t you care about pollution?”

Delta Ray hit faster than a jet. God’s jet arrayed in purple sweat pants, a purple sweatshirt that said “Milton Boosters” across her broad chest. Kamikaze. Ke-yi. She tied up Jeff Jex with something close to a full nelson, though she kept it this side of legal. “I won’t break your neck, you pompous little shit, but you better understand one thing.”

Jeff Jex was white. Sweat poured down his temples and pooled underneath the lobe of his ear. His slick black hair fell like two commas over the sides of his face—two hanks of hair shaken out of place by Delta Ray Bradford, uncrowned Milton Wrestler of the Year. In one quick motion, he pulled the three packages of cashews out of his pocket, dropped them on the floor, and kicked them with the toe of his scuffed black cowboy boot. “Sexual harassment,” Jeff screamed. “Get this nymphomaniac off me.”

Jared was chanting “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” Tara Sue was climbing up and over the edge of the basket to help her mother. Somehow, Delta Ray’s maternal antennae could feel her daughter climbing, balancing, one leg on the outside of the cart, her chin scraping over the hard metal rods of the basket. Releasing the young man, she whirled around to see Tara Sue falling, landing, her chin red. She whirled just in time to hear the sound of Tara Sue’s head on the hard floor, the cherubic face still and doll-like and china-painted on the [p.194]floor of the Midtown Market. Tara Sue: A picture of serenity framed with pieces of tile smudged with the dirt from people’s shoes, their black heel marks, the crushed berries falling out of carts, to the floor, bruised beneath someone’s careless heel.

“Tara Sue. My strawberry princess. My apple.” Delta Ray kneeled over her daughter.

“Mommy, Mommy.” Jared never stopped.

“Call 911,” she yelled to a stock boy carrying a box down the aisle.

“Right away.” The boy slid the box to the floor and ran toward the store’s office. Then Delta checked Jared. A stranger with black rimmed glasses had parked her cart next to Delta’s. She was trying to comfort Jared. “Don’t worry,” she called to Delta.

Delta Ray rolled onto her hips and cupped Tara Sue’s face in her hands. She closed her eyes and ears to all the sounds around her, and in her mind watched her own body rise up out of the pasta aisle to the safe place where nobody could ever be hurt. She watched Tara Sue rise with her as she pushed aside the walls of the clouds. “You’ll bless my baby, won’t you?” she asked the first angel she saw, who happened to be carrying a trumpet. “You’ll bless and protect my littlest angel girl and make her hair keep curling and her eyes keep shining like stars, won’t you please?”

Sitting smack dab in the middle of Aisle 6 of Midtown Market, Delta rocked her baby love in her arms and finger-combed her fine-spun hair all the time she talked to the angel. ”’Delta,’ she used to call to me before she was born. ‘Please let me come to your house, Delta Ray. Please.'” Delta looked up into the crystal-like eyes of the angel who lifted his trumpet to his lips and blew a long mournful sound that filled the heavens. It was one long, sad note. He blew and blew the same blue note as tears streamed out of Delta’s eyes and someone handed her a linen handkerchief and told her to blow her nose.

And then the paramedics were there, the gray stretcher, the sound of velcro ripping apart after the blood pressure check, dark blue shirts with gold patches on their sleeves, serious looks on their faces, Jeff Jex standing beside them, eyes blank like post holes, the commas of his hair still hanging forward over his ears.

“She’s got a weak pulse,” one of the paramedics said. “Concussion, probably. Better get her over to General.”

Delta Ray followed the dark blue shirts into the red and white [p.195]ambulance, into the wide-open back doors, gauges, timeless clocks, upside down bottles of clear fluid.

As the doors to the ambulance were closing, she saw Jeff Jex standing in the doorway of Midtown Market, surrounded by pots of pinkish coral geraniums, lobelia that was bluer than the angel’s trumpet solo, and the gray leaves of dusty miller. She saw the dark blue and the gray more than anything at that moment, until they became ribbons of color draping across Tara Sue’s white face. Tara Sue, the only thing her five senses could recognize. It wasn’t until two blocks later, as the ambulance pulled underneath the awning of the hospital, that her brain finally registered the whole of the picture she’d seen. Jeff Jex had been holding Jared by the hand. Jared was crying. “Mommy, Mommy.” Jeff Jex was reaching into his pocket, pulling out a dollar bill, handing it to Delta’s two-year-old, kneeling down to beg Jared to stop crying. VerJean was watching through Midtown’s glass door, leaning forward, her neck stretched, peering.

The night was filled with crickets rubbing their legs—crickets and the smell of the stockyard and the irrigation water on the outlying pastures of hay tall enough to mow. The moon silvered the aluminum frame on the bedroom window and made the almost asleep Delta Ray think of stripes. The flag at the post office. Beach towels through the wire fence of the town pool. The black and white of the neighborhood’s picket fences as the ambulance sped by. The red stripe on the hospital floor, gUiding her to the emergency room. A brown stripe on the wall. A green stripe above the brown stripe. Tara Sue. Her angel baby. Stripes of light through the venetian blinds across Tara Sue’s face as she lay in the hospital room, barely breathing.

And she saw Bishop Sohm entering the room with his two counselors, his blue and white striped shirt, his farmer’s tan face with the white stripe where his hat had been. The anointment. The rubbing of the oil in Tara’s curls. The stripes of all the men’s fingers gentle on Tara Sue’s head. “By the power of the Holy Melchizedek priesthood,” Bishop Sohm was speaking, “I lay my hands upon your head for the purpose of giving you a blessing.”

Little Tara. Life low in her. Poor in body. Bishop Sohm calling earnestly to God, “Save this baby. Give her life.” The men lifting their straw hats back on their heads, smiling contented smiles, shaking hands. “God bless you and Tara, Delta Ray,” the bishop was saying. “The spirit tells me she’s going to be fine. Say hi to J. L. when he gets [p.196]back from his run to Vegas. We need him out on the welfare farm when things are right with Tara here.” The men leaving. The door closing. Delta Ray staring down at Tara Sue, life still shallow in her. Delta Ray, mumbling prayers, intoning her child’s name, “Tara Sue, my baby,” as if the sound, the calling, would bring Tara back. Tara Sue, still quiet, Delta Ray placing her own fingers on Tara’s head, “By the power of Jesus, who I love, I bless you, Tara Sue Bradford. Blast out of this Chicken Wing the Reaper’s got you locked in. Bridge out. Break free, my angel baby.” Tara finally stirring, finally turning her head to the left side, finally holding Delta Ray’s finger in her hand.

And now, her head crushed into a pillow, her eyes staring at the ceiling, Delta Ray listened to the crickets and smelled the irrigation water and waited for J. L.’s rig to pull into the yard. She held Tara Sue in her arms. Tara, still alive, still a three-year-old full of delicate life, still the same Tara Sue Bradford who tomorrow would be laughing and coloring butterflies on everyone’s lunch sacks and watching her older sisters taking dancing lessons at Miss Jean’s Studio for Acrobatics and Tap.

And as Delta Ray held Tara as closely as possible and felt her curls under her chin, the sound of the crickets hypnotized her. Their steady rhythm walked her into the world of dreams. She slipped through the dark tunnel of sleep and into a place with hundreds of children dressed in white, tons of children, seas of children. “Delta Ray,” she heard them singing. “We’re coming. We’re coming. Won’t you let us live with you, Delta Ray?”

The children were dancing, shaking their hands in the air, some of them slapping the skins of ghost tambourines. “Give us bodies, Delta Ray. Let us be.” Delta saw a familiar one doing a few flips and balancing on a beam of light. “My turn next, Delta Ray.” And then J. L. danced into the dream. He arched his back, spread his arms, and grinned at her as Motown amped through the heavenly dance hall. “My girl. Talkin’ bout my girl.” Music filled every nook and cranny of her dream until she felt something on her shoulder.

“Delta,” J. L. whispered, tapping her shoulder. “Delta. I’m home.” He sat carefully on the bed, tossed his Zion’s National Park hat on one of the dresser mirror’s spindles, lifted his wife’s hair off her ear, and kissed her cheek.

“That you, J. L.?” she asked, groggy. “I just saw you dancing in my dream.”

[p.197]”Forget dancing. I’m ready to wrestle, Delta Ray, woman of my dreams.” He smiled, his lips chalked white in a stripe of moonlight, and put his arm underneath her head. “If God says we should have more babies, then I’m willing to do my part. You’re a good woman, Delta, and when I prayed last night, God told me he’d provide if we helped him out. I even saw that gymnast baby in my dreams. He did a few flips and said, ‘Hi, J. L. Sure hope to be seeing you soon.'” J. L. was smiling large and wide. “I felt real good about him talking to me. Came just before I went to sleep. Cute little tyke.” “There’re so many,” Delta Ray mumbled and rolled her head from side to side. “I saw hundreds and thousands of them.”

“That’s a lot of spirit babies, I’d say. But maybe we can assist one more of them, my honey love. Let me put Tara Sue to bed and then, maybe, we can come up with a new hold of some kind.” He wiggled his eyebrows like Groucho.

Delta Ray tightened her hold on Tara. “I just want to hold Tara Sue for now, J. L. Feel her hair against my Adam’s apple, glossy like it is. We almost lost her yesterday. Grocery cart. She fell. But, just as bad, I forgot all about Jared. Left him in the cart. We were lucky Jeff Jex was there to unbuckle him and VerJean was there to take him to her house. Even if he did call me a cretin and a nymphomaniac.”

“A what? He always was a smart-assed little kid. A what?”

“Maybe he’s right, J. L. Maybe I’m foolish about these spirit babies. Maybe I’m only a dumbcretinympho … ” She pulled the pillow out from under her head and pushed it into her face to drown her words.

“Is my Delta Ray losing heart?” J. L. lifted the corner of the pillow, then the pillow itself. “Come out of there. Escape time. Have I ever seen my Delta Ray back down under pressure? Nosirree.”

“I wish he would have called me something different,” Delta said, curling fetal.

“But people don’t understand the higher law like you do. They don’t understand there’s always room for one more. Let me take Tara to bed. Let me love you, Delta. Don’t feel bad.”

J.L. lifted Tara Sue into his arms, rocked her side to side as her chin rested on his shoulder, and kissed the tip of her ear.

“People could be right about me,” Delta said staring up at the ceiling. “Let me hold her a little longer.” Delta stretched long on her back and held out both arms like two stumps of trees in the dark [p.198]shadows of the room. “Nobody can take away our Tara, can they J. L.?”

“No, honey.” He eased Tara Sue back into her mother’s arms, Tara limp with sleep. “I don’t like seeing my warrior with the blues, though. Bridge out, like the wrestlers say. Nobody else but God knows anything worth remembering.”

And J. L. climbed into bed, put his arms around both Tara Sue and Delta Ray, and the three of them fell asleep like that.

PHYLLIS BARBER has published five books, including How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir, which won the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction in 1991 and the 1993 Award for Best Autobiography from the Association of Mormon Letters. Her next book, Parting the Veil: Stories from a Mormon Imagination, is forthcoming from Signature Books. She teaches in the Vermont College M.F.A. in Writing Program, and has three grown sons and an Australian shepherd named Ivan the Wonderful.