The exhaust envelops me, leaving an acrid, metallic taste on my tongue. I gather saliva and spit on the patchy blacktop, wishing I had a glass of water. It’s not raining, but it should be. Thick, humid air presses against my flesh, a sheen of sweat erupting on my forearms, instantly soaking through the checkered gingham shirt I have rolled up to my elbows. I shuffle the backpack on my right shoulder, step gingerly around a dead bird and climb over the concrete construction barrier to the sidewalk before Chad or Jaxson or Jaden runs me over while checking their Instagram feed.
It’s Tuesday, which doesn’t mean anything other than that I’ve just doubled my hours out of the house for the week and still have three days to go. Tuesdays are terrible.
I amble toward the crosswalk, press the stiff yellow button attached to the dented silver pole, and wait for traffic to stop. It doesn’t, so after a CRX with duct tape holding the passenger door shut streaks past, I jog across the street, backpack held tight against my rib-cage. Never can be too careful.
On the safe side of Bellmont Ave, I take a deep breath and prepare for the mile-long trek up the hill, but something catches my eye. That doesn’t sound particularly dramatic, I know, but keep in mind that I do my best to avoid looking at anyone or anything outside of an immediate two-foot bubble around my person from Bellmont to my apartment. So it’s not common that anything catches my eye, and there are far worse things to trip on than dead birds around here.
But, no matter how well I’ve trained my brain to mind its own fucking business, I can’t help but take a closer look at the empty stroller leaning precariously against the light pole on the north side of Bellmont. It’s not new, which I know because there is a sippy cup with something pale and sap-like in one of the cupholders and a small brace of diapers and snacks in a net underneath the seat. A blue and purple ribbon hangs from the handle, looking freshly tied with none of the telltale grit and grime of the city caked into it. I peek around the side and realize just how quickly the muscles in my neck had wrinkled and tightened at the thought of a child sitting there. Mercifully, it’s empty.
It’s okay, I think, staring at the stroller for a few seconds. I start to walk away, but then I think, is it okay?
It’s empty, so there is no unattended child here, but it was clearly not empty long ago. There’s fresh juice in that cup, and where is the kid now? And why would they leave it here, next to the road alone? Where are the parents?
It can’t be alright because, by its very definition, a stroller is meant to be attached to a child. Where is that child?
I look around because I don’t actually know what is on this block of Bellmont, but it’s largely empty. The gaping chasm on the far side of the street used to be an apartment building but neglected for years, it eventually caught fire, as old buildings owned by wealthy slumlords tend to do, and they have been “rebuilding” for nearly three years. The pit has as many empty Wendy’s takeout bags as it does construction materials at this point.
Behind me is a stout stone wall surrounding the trailing end of a cemetery, long since vandalized into near oblivion. Stout stone remnants of headstones dot the empty patch of grass, but no one keeps it anymore. The church that it belonged to has long since shuttered. There are no homes here. No apartments. Nowhere that a parent rushing to soothe a crying baby or change an overflowing diaper would run off to.
Maybe someone picked them up. Maybe they were walking too far, and everyone got tired, and they called for a ride, and they couldn’t fit the stroller in the car. Maybe the stroller was stolen from a porch not far from here by feral teenagers, left here when they got bored. Maybe…
I stare at it, the polished silver handle gleaning in the murky midday sun. I wipe at my forehead, then dry my hand on my khakis and put it in my pocket. I should do something, right? What, though? It’s fine. It’s probably fine. Someone else would have done something by now if it wasn’t fine.
So I walk home.
It’s a brisk fifteen-minute walk if I move quickly, but for the first time in the two years since I moved here, I observe my neighbors. For every tightly kept porch, recently swept, fenced in, and populated with a protective pet or a pack of unruly children fighting over a box of sand, there are half a dozen porches packed with garbage bags, overflowing planters, and stacks of plastic chairs. I don’t see any strollers on this block or the next. The next block over, there’s a cluster of strollers tangled in the small patch of grass in front of 5327 Westmoreland. But they are the cheap umbrella strollers you can buy at Rite Aid for twenty bucks, not the Rolls Royce buggy on Bellmont.
I find myself drifting away from my normal route. Toward Lensicom, near the nicer houses behind the park. But those houses have closed porches, often with gates and glass. They don’t want the rest of the neighborhood to see what they own or to come up and take it. Not that anyone would. Everyone knows the pale old people in these homes own enough firearms to fend off the third battalion. You don’t steal from crazy old white people.
I circle toward the river, telling myself it’s a nice day for a walk. It is not.
The sun beats down on the back of my neck, and the sheen of sweat that started as a thin froth has boiled over and soaked most of my torso. My soggy t-shirt rubs against my side, and I’m soon doing a bit of a crabwalk to avoid fresh chafing on my inner thighs. I haven’t walked this far in years.
I realize quickly that I’ve done a loop. An awkward, oblong, incredibly inefficient loop, but I’m back on Bellmont and moving toward where I found the sticky stroller an hour ago. It’s still there, and I can feel my heart pick up a beat. Where the hell are the owners of this thing?
I turn in a tight circle and see almost no one on the sidewalk, but it’s not the end of the world or anything. There are people out. Lots of them; they just don’t want to see me or run into me, have a conversation, or make eye contact if they can help it. I know the feeling, but right now, I need someone to tell me that this stroller belongs where it is, and I realize that I can’t go home until I know that. Until someone tells me, this is okay.
That’s how I end up standing on the corner of Bellmont and Signal Ave for two hours. I finish the half bottle of warm Sprite in my backpack and eat the crumbs of jerky in a foil package in my pocket, but it doesn’t take long before I’m starving, thirsty, and exhausted.
My phone rings and I almost let it go to voicemail before I realize that maybe whoever it is could bring me dinner.
I tap the AirPod in my ear to answer without checking the phone.
“Where are you?” It’s Nancy, my girlfriend, or something like that. It’s complicated.
“I’m waiting for someone,” I answer, keeping it simple.
“Who?” She’s immediately suspicious, which is why things are complicated.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“There’s a stroller on Bellmont. Full of stuff and just sitting here next to the light pole. I didn’t want to leave it.”
“So you’ve been standing there for three hours?”
“Just two. I was walking around for a bit first.” It sounds insane as I say it aloud, but I have no desire to leave. I need to know where this stroller goes. Who it belongs to.
“So you’re going to stay there until whoever ditched the stroller comes back?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you’re not coming home now?”
“Jesus fucking Chris, you’re a piece of work.”
I don’t respond to that. As I said, complicated.
“Alright, well, whatever. I’m going out tonight. I’ll leave the key under the mat.”
“Thanks, Nance. I’ll see you later tonight.”
“Whatever, man.” She hangs up.
I should probably be mad. She was an ass, but also, I’m being a little nuts. I mean, what if someone really did just leave the stroller here with no intention of ever coming back? I’m standing here for no reason, then, right?
I continue to do just that for another hour and twenty-three minutes, listening to two more episodes of 99% Invisible. A friend of my brother recommended it if I’m planning to go to design school. It’s boring as fuck, but I keep listening, hoping to find something that makes sense in the mess of pretentious nonsense. This is what I want to do someday, right?
The sun is almost down, and it’s still hot as hell, and no sign of the owner of the stroller. I consider what this might mean, and a litany of possibilities run through my mind, all of them ridiculous and extreme. Kidnapping. Arrest. Theft. Drugs. Mostly crimes.
At 8:52 pm, I decide I’ve been here long enough. It’s a funny story, right? I stayed long enough that it’s no longer weird. It’s valiant. My mom will say I’m a good citizen. Nancy will snort and call me an idiot. My friends will ask a bunch of dumb questions about what was in the stroller. It’s worth it. I can go. But I don’t want to. I can’t figure out why, but I don’t want to go. Not yet, anyway.
Ten minutes later, my stomach gurgles angry demands for sustenance. I haven’t eaten anything but the jerky since 11:15. Tim made me take my half two hours early and then work six hours afterward. I’m starving.
There’s a 7-11 across the street, the hum of fluorescent lights sizzling and popping in the summer heat. The bars across the front windows are pulled down tightly, but I can see two guys inside having a conversation, both wearing red visors and name-tags. No other customers. I could be in and out in two minutes. Get something to eat, and come back here. Just another 40 minutes. At 9:30, I’ll walk home, before it gets too dark.
I jog through sparse traffic, buy a cherry slushie, a Kind bar, and two bags of M&Ms. The taller guy gives me that shitty look that the cashiers on Bellmont sometimes give me and takes the twenty I hand him, taking great pains to slash at it with a counterfeit checking pen and holding it up to the light twice. For fuck’s sake! I keep it to myself, but I’m buzzing at the counter. He can see my impatience.
“Thank you, sir,” He says with an Eastern European accent and a disapproving smirk.
“Thanks!” I shout and jog back out the door toward the corner of Bellmont and Signal. In two aggressive pulls on the chemical-laden red straw, I down a quarter of the Slushee midway across the intersection. I turn toward the corner, and I nearly collapse as a brain freeze hits me squarely between the temples. Everything pauses, and I want to gnaw my tongue off as my brain vibrates from the cold.
It lasts ten seconds but feels like a year, one finger pressed tightly to the side of my head and another rubbing gently at my left temple.
When it clears, I look up and narrow my eyes, attempting to adjust to the reduced light, but it’s gone. The stroller is gone.
What the actual fuck?
I jog to the corner and turn in a tight circle, hoping I’ll see someone with it somewhere. The sidewalks are empty. Completely, dead ass empty. I couldn’t have been gone for more than three minutes. Five maybe. That cashier was being an ass.
I look up the hill. Down the hill. Across the street. Where the fuck did it go?
I stand there for another ten minutes, finishing the Kind bar and half of the Slurpee as I watch traffic zip across the extra-wide Boulevard. It’s fully dark now, and I really shouldn’t be out here, but I can’t believe it disappeared. In less than five minutes. Where did it go?
Eventually, the Kind bar is gone, my Slurpee is empty, and I’ve eaten half a bag of M&Ms, and no one has walked by, so I start up the hill.
My phone rings as I get across Bellmont and start up Aiken toward my apartment.
I tap my ear and hear Nancy’s voice hovering an octave or two above the din of a restaurant. “You home yet?”
“Yeah, just about.”
“You’re fucking nuts, man. Who cares about some rich people’s stroller?”
I think about it for a minute. Why did I care so much about the stroller?
“You still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. Listen, I’m going to head to Kenny’s place tonight.” It sounds right, as I say it. “We should talk tomorrow.”
“You breaking up with me?”
“Nancy, enjoy your dinner. I’ll call you in the morning.”
Yup, it feels right. Something needed to happen. This will work.
About the author
Anthony Chatfield lives in Philadelphia and recently completed his M.F.A. at Drexel University. He teaches composition at Drexel and Thomas Jefferson University, and his work has been published in Bricolage and Hare's Paw. You can find more information on his website at www.anthonychatfield.com.
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