“Dumpster Pearl” – Amanda Hays

I wring out the mop in the brackish bucket and drag the mop’s tendrils across the gray tile floor. I scrub at a sugary spot of cola. In my mind, I replay what the doctor said, about how what I had wanted for so long would never be possible for me, and how my eyes fixated on the short stack of manila folders on his desk, at the dusty colored rubber bands cinching the folders together.

The parking lot outside the gas station is empty except for my bruised Buick and Celeste’s pickup. A few of the lights next to the pumps are burnt out, and have been for a while. The night sky spits down on our cars. If I stare at the windows, I can see myself hunched over the bucket, my hair frizzy from the moisture in the air, a jacket zipped up to my throat.

As I drag the bucket to the next aisle, Celeste’s phone blows up, and Chet Faker’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate” screams from the tiny speakers. She answers, talking too loud for the middle of the night. I watch her twirl her pink gum around the end of her finger.

“I can’t ditch until Ollie gets here,” she says into her phone. “Because of the robbery?” She laughs.

Eight months ago, the gas station was robbed by a new age Bonnie and Clyde. The girl working the register said they were a handsome couple: a pretty girl, a model type, and a man with a tattoo behind his ear and spreading like a rash on his neck. Now, the manager, Dee, said there always has to be two of us working the graveyard shift. I don’t mind the company, but today I can’t seem to snap out of the daze fogging my head. When Celeste and I work together, she always yaps the whole time, either to me or to one of her boyfriends on the phone—she always seems to be talking to some new guy, and the same information assails my ears like a bad record. My mom’s house is a launch point for my greater success; I’ve got an idea for a hot new product, the likes of which QVC hasn’t seen, but I can’t tell you, I’ve heard patents are hard to come by. She’s always working on some product or another, and leaving the skeletal mock-ups and flyers she makes around the station when she leaves.

Headlights careen across the store and the car halts in one of the spots in front. Exhaust huffs against the glass doors. Celeste comes around the side of the counter, her station shirt bunched tight around her post-baby squish. Her dark hair is braided down the nape of her neck. Piercings cling to her ear, too many to count. I remember when I used to be 22 and jaded and beautiful like her.

“Why so quiet, Leigh-Ann? You’ve been walking around here like a zombie,” Celeste says as the bell dings over the front door and in walks Ollie with his hood over his head, his parka slick with the rain.

“Acting the part for the graveyard shift,” I say. Ollie unzips his jacket and shakes it over the mat near the door. I want to hand him the mop, see how he likes mopping up dirt and disgusting wet things.

“Nothing ever dries here,” Ollie says. “It’s so damn wet.”

Ollie’s a transplant, originally from Minneapolis, but he’s been here too long to use comments about Bellingham’s weather as conversation fodder. His backpack is slung over his arm, the strap tight on his shoulder. He’s a student at Whatcom County Community college, and I know from the heft of his bag that he’s got his textbooks in there.

“Bye, losers,” Celeste says and darts out the door before we can say anything. I can barely concentrate, but I’m not tired. My shoes squeak when I move.

It takes me two hours to mop because I’m procrastinating. I know when I finish I have to clean the bathrooms, and I don’t even want to see the horror that’s in store for me. Ollie is reading some glossy covered book at the register, sipping out of a thermos.

I take my break early, ducking out back by the dumpsters. Because of the wet, it doesn’t reek like it usually does. I fish a pack of cigarettes out of my pocket and light one, thankful that it’s mostly just misting now. I remember what it felt like in Dr. Flores’ office, the chair’s wooden arm hard under my elbow, the feeling that my ass was falling through the chair, all the way to the ground.

I watch smoke puff from my mouth. Aidan’s face springs into my mind. I see him as he left: his hair in a ponytail tucked into the neck of his shirt, his hands nervously clenching the straps of his duffel bag. I feel his mouth on mine, and I smell his cologne, dripping with bergamot. Since he left, I have slept poorly, waking to the feeling of his hands on my waist, his back against mine, but when I open my eyes it is dark and I can’t feel him anymore.

A baby’s cry peals through the night. The sound is probably in my head; I wonder how long it has been since I last slept well. I stumble forward and grind my cigarette under my boot. It has begun raining again, the droplets splattering my forehead and neck. I peer over the side of the dumpster. Next to a Nestle Crunch wrapper and a used condom, there is a baby, crying its head off, cheeks and skin pink from the cold. I step away from the dumpster.

My head spins. It is the middle of the night, and there is a baby in the trash. A lump jumps in my throat, and I almost cry. I press my hand to my lips and inch forward. I can’t believe this.

Sitting amongst the black trash bags, toilet paper rolls, and food wrappings, a tiny child, with downy brown hair, and a slip of pink tongue in a black mouth. I lift the baby up, feeling the cool skin damp from the weather. The child touches my hair, reaches for my breasts. I give her my finger instead.

I stare at this baby, press her close to my body. Her eyes are the blue of the chlorinated pools I swim in at the Y. She is light. She does not seem scared of me at all, or unhappy that she was just in a smelly dumpster with used napkins and plastic twist-off soda caps.

I can’t leave this baby here. I won’t. I try to think quickly, but each thought stutters, and my hands shake. I pull out my phone. Half past three; I have two more hours until my shift ends. But this baby might get pneumonia, or some disease burrowing in the trash bags or clinging to the side of the dumpster. I put the baby back in the dumpster, and I take one last look at her. We’re both nothing. 

I run back inside. Ollie glances up from his book.

You’re excited,” he states.

“I’ve got to go,” I say.

“Okay,” says Ollie. “Where you going?”

“It’s an emergency. Don’t tell anyone I left early.”

Ollie laughs. “Who cares? As long as we don’t get robbed, no one will notice.”

I grab my purse from the back room. Ollie doesn’t look up as I leave. I root through my car for the crushed cardboard box Aidan and I used when we sold his cousin’s puppies off the highway. I tuck the box in the space between the passenger seat and the front of the car, and I take my jacket off and stuff it inside.

She feels lighter this time as I reach for her. Her diaper is heavy and smells, but maybe it’s from the trash. She wears a pale pink onesie spotted with delicate crescent moons. I reach out to touch the floof on her head, which reminds me of the day I went over to my mom’s house and she nuzzled a chick into my hand. The thrum of life, she said. I reached out a finger and petted the chick softly on the back; I was afraid to press down too hard. She’s hardier than you’d think, my mother said, her eyes on mine. All small things are. When my mother died, she left behind 50 chickens, bobbing their heads and running around and kicking up their own shit.

I name her Pearl. I place her in the box, and wrap the sleeves of my jacket around her chubby legs. She doesn’t make a sound on the way back to my house. I hold the edge of the box with the tips of my fingers as I drive. At the stoplights, the windshield wipers beat against the glass and I look down at her, and she smiles at me, like she’s just learning to do it. I wonder what Aidan would say. I imagine him tucking Pearl into his flannel shirt, kissing the top of her soft head with his stubbled mouth.

At home, I throw out her old diaper and her onesie. I wet a washcloth with warm water and run it over her skin, cleansing the stink of garbage from her. I cut an old towel into strips and tie it around her in the crude shape of a diaper. I do some research while she gurgles in her box. I look in the kitchen for something she can eat. I find a browning banana and I mash it in a bowl with a fork. I sit her up in my lap and push the spoon toward her mouth. I inhale the smell of her soft hair, which still smells good, like baby soap. She kicks her legs. She doesn’t eat much of the banana, but she takes a few bites and does not choke.

I call Aidan, even though it is too early for him to be awake. He doesn’t answer. Pearl falls asleep in my arms watching cartoons. There are no babies reported missing according to the news and amber alerts. No one is missing this baby.

I take Pearl into my bedroom where I lay her down on the rumpled bed. I lie next to her. I have read somewhere not to sleep next to babies, because you might crush them, but I don’t sleep much so I am not afraid of falling asleep. I watch her chest rise as she breathes.

Thank you, I tell the ceiling. When I was little, I taped a picture of God on the ceiling so I could see him before I went to sleep and always know who I was praying to. The picture showed an animated version of God, with long white hair like Santa Claus and his arms outstretched, light pouring from his fingertips. I can’t help but think Pearl is a miracle, although I have not prayed in years.

Every fifteen minutes, I call Aidan again. At 5 a.m. he picks up, his voice fuzzy from sleep. I rush out of the room so I won’t wake Pearl, but I stay in the doorway so I can keep an eye on her.

“You said to call if anything changed,” I say. I laugh.

“Are you high?” he asked. “I’m in the middle of something.”

“Get rid of her,” I say. I try not to think about the slender figure in his bed. “Get over here. Bring formula.”

“Are you babysitting?” he asks.

“Better,” I say. I hang up.

I pick her up and settle her in my arms. She doesn’t wake. I stroke the back of her head. I head to the kitchen and burn the papers the doctor gave me, a bunch of mumbo jumbo certificates of inadequacy. They don’t mean anything now. I throw the papers in the sink and listen to the paper crinkle as the flame devours it. The smell is gratifying. I run the water and mash the ashes down the drain with the end of a spoon.  I look out the window and wait. I am not sure if he will come. Longing rises in my throat. I stare at the driveway for what feels like a long time.

When I see him, I fight the urge to run to him, to throw myself at him, to say, take me, take me or throw me away. If I can’t be yours I don’t want to be mine. As he climbs out of his truck, I return to the bedroom and set Pearl back on the bed. She hasn’t rolled over yet, but I pile pillows around her just in case.

His face looks stern when I open the front door, but he’s carrying the jar of formula under his arm.

“I’m no mule,” he says, shoving the jar of formula at me.

I tell him to follow me to the bedroom, and he doesn’t make any jokes. He must know something is different. He walks easy through my house, like he did when he used to live here, like the world owes him something. He is quiet when he sees her on the bed.

“Is this a joke?” he asks.

“A miracle,” I say. “I found her in the trash. No one is looking for her.”

He falls on his knees next to the bed. He reaches out a hand and strokes her hair, the top of her hand. He is more gentle than I thought.

“Okay,” he says, and I know that this moment is special, that he has agreed to something. My heart swells, and I want to embrace him and breathe in his smell, but we haven’t spoken in six months. I’m not sure how to be around him anymore. I don’t know what I am to him. But I know what he is to Pearl. A father.


Dee has me restocking the candy aisle, stuffing slick Hershey’s bars into their box on the shelf. Last night, we stuffed Spirit into the DVD player, and Pearl smiled and squirmed like she was trying to dance. “Here I Am” is stuck in my mind, and my hips sway as I stuff the packages of fruit rings onto the hook. Ollie’s working the register and playing a computer game. If Dee knew, he’d be angry, but we don’t get many customers anyway.

Sun streams through the windows, illuminating the film of dirt and pollen on the glass. Potholes spot the parking lot, and a poster someone attached to one of the pumps flaps in the wind.

Pearl has been with us for two days. Yesterday, I scuffled around, keeping my eyes down. I checked the news incessantly. But no one has reported a baby missing, and if they haven’t yet, I doubt they will. Last night, I started clearing the room full of all my Mom’s old crap: her golf discs, her collection of baseball caps, her old tax returns and boxes of receipts. When she died, I moved into her house, and stuffed a lot of her belongings into one of the bedrooms. One of her friends took all the chickens, and now the coop lays vacant in the yard. 

A pale man with a head of corn-colored hair enters the gas station and the bell over the door jingles faintly. He wears tight gray jeans and a baggy T-shirt with holes on the shoulders. His arms are tatted up; I spot a dragon, a cross, and a compass, all in colorful ink, like a box of markers exploded on the pale paper of his skin.

 “S’cuse me,” he says. He rubs the back of his head. “Where’s your trash dumpster?”

My heart stutters. I hope this man is just another addict, come to shoot up in the bathroom.

 Ollie glances up. “Around back,” he says. “It’s employees only.”

The blond man touches a Bellingham Bay postcard on the carousel. One flits to the floor and he kicks it with his sneaker.

“Listen, I’m looking for my kid,” he says. He clears his throat. “My ex said she got rid of her.”

I drop a bag of pretzels on the floor. My hands tremble as I pick it up.

“So you’re looking in the dumpster?” Ollie asks incredulously.

“She said she put her in the dumpster here,” the man says. “Please, you’ve gotta help me. She’s my little girl.”

“I’m calling the police,” Ollie says. He reaches for his cell phone.

“No, wait!” the man says. “I’ve got a little charge. It’s nothing, but I can’t get custody. Those fucking lawyers are sharks, always trying to steal your kids from you.”

“Did you kill someone?” Ollie asks. “Isn’t it that you walk past like 60 murderers in your lifetime?”

“I’ll take you to the dumpster,” I say.  I gesture for him to follow me, and I push out the employee exit.

He looks in the dumpster, uses his bare hand to sift a couple of bags back and forth. He rubs his hands on his jeans, sighs. I watch him carefully. From the way he is swallowing, hard, I think he might be trying not to cry.

“You got cameras here?” he asks. He points to one fixed to the side of the building.

“Just for show,” I say. Dee is too cheap to fix them, even after we were robbed.

“I’ll give you my card, in case you hear anything,” he says.

 A tatted up man in a t-shirt with a business card?

 He hands me the card. Miles Blake. Consumerist and Philanthroper.   

“You’re rich?” I ask.

“You sure you haven’t seen a baby around here?” he asks.

 “I’m sure.”


When I get home, Aidan is sitting on the floor with Pearl, watching as she wiggles around on a polka dotted blanket. She burbles, and Aidan talks to her in a soft voice, the corners of his mouth smiling. I kiss him and he smells like machine oil and spice.

I consider the man with the tattoos, and I wonder how I will bring him up in conversation with Aidan. Aidan has snapped picture after picture of Pearl as if making up for lost time. When I tell him about the baby’s father, he will pack up his things and leave. And once again, the house will be quiet and I will be afraid of the sound of my own voice.

“I’ve missed you,” he says. I’m not sure who he is talking to. He swings the baby up and into the car seat he’s already bought her with his nearly maxed out credit card. I stare at the pink embroidered flowers on the bottom of Pearl’s new socks. Aidan straps her into the seat and the buckles click loudly.

He tastes like jasmine tea, his tongue steeped in it. He lifts me and carries me into the bedroom, and his hands feel like water, dissolving into my skin. I try to remember everything about this moment: his hands on my waist, the tiny hairs on the back of his neck, his kisses like petals on my neck. I sense a drought is coming, so I soak everything up.

Everything was different when Pearl and I were both nothing. But now I know that someone is out there looking for her. If I keep her, I will remember she is not mine everyday.

I have to do what’s right. I will dream of her powdery skin, her soft baby smile, her deep blue eyes.

In the bathroom, I sort through my purse for the card. I look underneath the sticky wrappers closed over hard lumps of gum, the receipts for gasoline and Ritz crackers. I search my pockets, and that’s where I find the card. I think about dropping it into the toilet, watching it glug down the drain.

I ask Aidan to head to the Chinese restaurant across town, because I know it will take him at least forty-five minutes to get our Kung Pao chicken and return. Pearl is heavy in my arms as I stand outside in the driveway, the soles of my feet pressed into the moist sidewalk. She tugs on my necklace. I watch as Aidan adjusts the radio and backs down the driveway. He gives us a little smile before he drives off.

I put Pearl in a new diaper and set her in the battered cardboard box. I change into my work clothes and carry her to the car. She babbles the whole way to the gas station. I park around back and clutch Miles’ card in my hand, crushing it into a ball. The sides of the card jab into my skin. I unfurl the card and dial the number.

“Miles, it’s Leigh-Ann. Your baby is here. How soon can you get here?” I try to speak slowly, so my voice doesn’t quiver.

I lean against the car and bob Pearl on my waist. I can’t look her in the eye anymore. I want to remember every last moment of her, but I keep going back to Dr. Flores’ office. I’m so sorry, he said. But he wasn’t. I was a name on a form. Every day, I go back to that moment and replay it in my mind. Each time, I hope something different happens. But even my mind can’t imagine a different outcome. It would always be the same—I would ask Aidan to meet me for a drink at his buddy’s bar, and I’d tell him after I’d had a few drinks; he’d say that it didn’t matter to him, but in a few months he’d leave anyway, pretending the two things had nothing to do with one another. Only later would he admit the real reason he’d left.

Miles pulls up in a rusted Honda Odyssey and kills the engine. He leaps out of the car, a big grin pasted to his face. His arms reach out for her, not even seeing me. It is surprisingly easy to let him pluck Pearl out of my arms and encase her in his own. The weight of her disappears. I pretend a lump is not forming in my throat.

“Oh god,” he says. He crumples to the ground and holds her. My feet will not walk around to the driver’s seat, even though I know Aidan will be home soon. Miles stands.

“Where was she?” he asks.

“In the dumpster,” I say.

“She wasn’t there. We looked—you and I,” he says. “Where’s her onesie?”

“Maybe someone returned her,” I say. “She smells bad.”

He smooths her hair away from her face. He is holding her tight. Although I know I should feel happy to have reunited them, all I feel is this deep pit inside of me. Miles studies me. For a second, my heart stumbles, and I wonder if he will call me on my shit.

“Thank you,” he says.

I watch him load her into a disheveled car seat and slide the door closed. I watch him until he backs away and peels out of the parking lot, until there is nothing to do except go home.


When I get home, I toss the cardboard box into the yard, next to the chicken coop that is peeling and falling apart. The house is quiet inside, but I know Aidan is here. I follow the smell of Chinese food to the kitchen and find him waiting next to the kitchen table with his arms crossed, the food untouched in white boxes in front of him.

“What did you do?” he asks, although he already knows.

“Her father was looking for her,” I say. “She wasn’t ours.”

“She could have been ours,” he says.

“We were deluding ourselves.”

“Don’t lecture me,” he says.

“Are you going or what?” I ask, and my voice rises. “You’re always gone or about to be gone. I can’t take it anymore.”

He gathers up the food and packs it into the paper bag. He tucks it under his arm. I glare at him and try not to cry. It is better to force him to leave now than to wonder how long he will stay until he leaves again.

“Don’t say I didn’t try,” he says.

“Tell it to some other girl,” I say.

He reaches forward, grabs my wrist, and squeezes it tight. “You never understood anything,” he says. “I don’t want this with anybody else.” He breathes hard. “But I have to try to want this with someone else.”

I don’t say anything. I wrench my wrist free. I want to punch him, to hurt him. But I don’t need to—he’s hurting enough as it is. We never talk unless he is leaving.

He stalks toward the front door, leaves, and the door slams shut. I run after him.

“Don’t fucking come back!” I yell as he starts his engine.

He backs out of the driveway. My body feels light without her. I want to crumple to the ground, but I don’t want him to see. When the exhaust is the only part of him that remains, I drag myself into the backyard. I stand in front of the coop, raging, unsure whether I want to kick the wood and pull at the wire until it breaks, or whether I want to clear out all the bird nests and spider webs and fix it up again. I sit down with my back to the wire. Birds chirp from the nearby trees. I close my eyes and remember Pearl beside me, kicking her feet and extending her arms out to reach me. She laughs, and smiles up at me. I remember taking her into my arms, holding her like I would never let her go.