“Fourteen Shakes the Baby” by Susann Cokal

A story about consent and the danger of yes


Susann Cokal’s “Fourteen Shakes the Baby” compels me through its pages in a way that’s both profoundly uncomfortable and unlike my usual mode of reading. Last night, for instance, poling through this brief piece of perhaps four thousand words took five sittings — or, rather, unsittings, since again and again I found myself wandering the house in a fever of empathetic anguish.

It’s a raw, harrowing story: A young girl is out with friends at a southern California beach, meets some surfers, shares an illicit and thrilling beer, says yes to their invitation to a party — and then discovers, in ways increasingly horrifying, what the young men there take and take and take that yes to mean: “Her spine is a chain of sore, swollen eggs, her lips are sore though they haven’t been kissed.”

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Once these men complete their metamorphosis of her from girl into prop, plaything, mere receptacle, no one notices her anymore: not her humanity, not her age, not her ever-deteriorating physical and emotional state. It’s a story one can’t look at directly for long — but can’t look away from, either, without feeling devastatingly implicated; without being yet another friend who’s abandoned her not only to her fate, but to her forlorn and awful sense that “what they’ve done to her . . . is what she’s done to herself.”

Cokal’s nimble narration combines deep sympathy with an unsparing eye. It insists that if a writer contemplating such pain is to be compassionate, she must not flinch — and it challenges the reader to do the same. And so last night, as in each of my previous readings, I set the story down, walked into another room, washed a dish, sectioned a grapefruit for my daughter, all the while trying to keep these realms, the fictive daughter on the filthy linoleum floor and the real one hungry in front of the TV, separate, separate, SEPARATE. And then, forced back by Fourteen’s terrible vulnerability, her mangled innocence, I picked up the story again, returned to her side, and found myself at the moment when the invitation on the beach has been extended but not yet accepted:

The winter light poured over them, and the beer made their tongues tingle and their bellies flop. They said they didn’t know, they’d have to get home by eleven or maybe twelve, their parents would freak . . .

The blond guy said, C’mon. What are you afraid of?

They giggled again, clutching each other and denting their cold cans of beer. They were brave, these girls. They were a little bit tipsy and very ready to see what was next.

“Fourteen Shakes the Baby” is the kind of story that dares — defies — one to quit it. I can’t. I don’t think you’ll be able to, either.

Michael Griffith
Fiction Editor, The Cincinnati Review

“Fourteen Shakes the Baby” by Susann Cokal

“Fourteen Shakes the Baby”

by Susann Cokal

The first one is not so bad, hurts, grinding on the sticky floor with the others watching. He and she are drunk. Everyone else is drunk too, all the guys standing around and watching, all the girls in the other rooms.

Something bangs. It’s a cabinet door. It’s her head against the cabinet door.

The other girls are in other rooms, clothes on, trying to get attention from these men with their bleached and brittle hair, their ski sweaters, though December is mild in San Diego. Surfers wear ski sweaters when they’re not in the water, isn’t that weird? The wool scratches her chest as he bangs both her and the cabinet. He said her tits were too beautiful to leave in a bra. He called her babe. He likes the way they wiggle and shake as he rocks her. They hurt; they’re still growing, covered in streaky red stretchmarks that will turn white as she gets older. Poor breasts. She is both proud of and nervous about them. They feel better in her little black bra, cradled like eggs in a carton, but the bra is in her armpits and her hands are pressed against the cabinet, trying to protect her head.

At least he doesn’t take long, it’s over in less than five minutes. Minute minute minute minute minute, and done. The radio barely got through one song. He’s gone, and she can roll to her side and free her backbone from the cruel floor. Someone tosses her a roll of paper towels. It takes another minute to realize what she’s supposed to do, the blood, the sticky wetness.

The men cheer, and she breathes deep. These moments determine who a girl is. A girl decides who she is at these moments. How she acts afterward.

She is very drunk. She’s been a teenager for a year already, but there’s nothing clever about fourteen.

Did you ask her? Did you ask her anything?

Shake this night, shake her life hard and see what comes out. Child of a broken home, child of television, video games, shopping malls. A teen. Whatever.

At the party, soon as she walks in, she notices that though the men are older the girls are in their twenties, and they aren’t pretty, not like you’d think. Gravity and alcohol have already beaten them. No wonder the guys whistled at fresh meat when it showed up on the beach with two friends and a tiny skirt. Baby baby baby.

The friends are gone now, they left almost as soon as they got here. It was her idea to come, her decision to stay. Hers. Now she’s here and there is no no.

One becomes six, all in the same place, hurts all over now. The men (boys?) watch each other doing it, they don’t watch her. They get beers from the fridge and the ice chest. They talk to each other but not to her. They say the girls are pissed about what’s going on in here and they’re threatening to leave.

Her spine is a chain of sore, swollen eggs, her lips are sore though they haven’t been kissed. Her hands are sore from protecting her head, and her head is sore because every last one of them inches her across the floor with each thrust, till no matter where she’s scooted she ends up banging against that cabinet after all. Drumroll, please. A lump has risen on her skull, and her breasts are two knots of fire.

The seventh complains after less than a minute that the floor hurts his knees, he won’t do it like this. There’s talk of moving to a bedroom or sofa. She sits up and leans against that punishing cabinet door (clanging pots and pans) to pull the lacy bra down over her red breasts and pinched nipples. Then her tank top, white so her bra shows through. She feels the ticklish trickle between her legs and knows she’s puddling on the filthy linoleum. She begins to cry.

What’s wrong, what’s wrong. Nobody asks. She sits there crying over what they’ve done to her, which is what she’s done to herself. Her friends, after all, left long before this. Her mother, her father, would be furious.

Will somebody give me a ride home? she asks. Sounds to herself like a pathetic little bitch. I want to go home now.

Nobody answers, nobody speaks, until number four or five puts down his bottle and says he guesses he’ll do it.

She is actually grateful.

Is anyone representing your family today, ma’am?

Hands clutch a purse, knuckles yellow and veins purple. Fourteen’s mother gave herself a fresh manicure. Her long red nails are ugly under fluorescent light.

One of these horrible hands clutches Fourteen’s malleable fingers. No.

Fourteen has been instructed not to speak for herself. The other girls are at home, told to stay away from her.

Where do you live?

El Cajon.

Damn, that’s far.

The sound of the ocean crashes outside, where the party has spilled onto the lawn. What there is of a lawn. It was irresponsible of the landlord, renting to this crew of valet parkers and furniture movers, men who do only what it takes to pay the rent and taste the waves. Because everyone wants endless summer, wet life tangled up in kelp and chemical spills and foamy, broken waves. She met the landlord someplace inside, yes, the bathroom, he had a paunch and was wiping his dick on somebody’s bath towel.

She walks careful, each step a stab in insides still dripping. She walks brave. If you’re fourteen and you let this happen you have to act proud, even if you started feeling no after number two, even if you are scared right now and alone, you know you have to walk brave to get away. She and her little black bra and white shirt and red skirt and no more panties cross the dead yellow grass.

The drinkers out here, sweater-wearing girls, either don’t know about the kitchen or don’t think it’s important. A clump of old girls have an earnest conversation under a half-dead tree, and a short girl swings a punch at a taller one.

Are you going for beer? somebody calls over. He ignores her, just as he ignores Fourteen at his side.

The girls don’t notice her at all, she’s invisible to them. Maybe one of them has a boyfriend who was in her just now. Maybe they’d all hit her if they knew. Or maybe they just wouldn’t care. It could have happened to all of them before. Maybe it happens all the time.

Hop in, he says, swinging himself into the seat of a jacked-up pickup truck. Number four or five. She can’t remember what he was like.

The night is a long math problem.

858 is the area code. The phone number of the guy who invited her and her friends — the first guy who took her, the tall guy back in the kitchen high-fiving his friends — it had a lot of fives in it, like a phone number from TV.

She watches the neighborhood go by but knows she’ll never be able to find the place again. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe memory is only a hazard, not a protection.

Can I use your phone? she asks on the way inland. I lost mine at the party.

Me too. That’s all he says. So neatly, the problem is solved. No phones.

She lost her whole purse, in fact, left it behind because she’s not used to having much to carry around. Her phone was a disposable.

I really ought to make a call, she says.

But to who, is the question. Her mom would be mad and her dad probably wouldn’t be home. Her friends will be asleep. She just wants to feel her fingers on the numbers.

Later, in the apartment with number seven (or is he eight?), she focuses on the young mother in the Citgo mini-mart where the surfer dropped her so she could use the payphone. There was no payphone. What there was was a mother buying milk and cigarettes and a lottery ticket, and she was holding a baby, and the baby was crying. The mother jiggled him up and down in his dirty diaper, saying, Hold on, hold on a minute, over and over. It reminded her of a time she’d been babysitting and the lady told her specifically, Don’t shake the baby, whatever you do, and how she’d thought that was a strange thing to say until the door closed and the baby started crying and wouldn’t stop just about the whole time its mother was on her date, and the only thing she could think was, I want to shake this baby, I wonder if it will stop crying if I shake it.

But she didn’t shake it. She walked it back and forth across the crumby apartment floor, back and forth, patting its head as if she had all the patience in the world. And when the mom came home and asked how everything had gone, she lied and said the baby had been good, because by that time it had cried itself to sleep and she didn’t want to get a reputation as a bad sitter.

Back and forth, back and forth. At least this time it’s in a bed. A smelly bed with unwashed sheets, but she can almost ignore the bruises on her spine. Not the pain down there, though, that’s pretty bad.

The clock above the dresser shows it’s late, and now she’s afraid to go home. She’s still drunk. She didn’t expect the surfer to leave her at the mini-mart, to just drop her off and keep driving. She should have made him drive her all the way. She should have planned on sneaking in through a window, into her own bedroom. But she just wanted to talk to somebody, somebody nice. Somebody her age with a phone. A friend.

The clock is old fashioned, with hands and an old Pepsi logo under the numbers. She thinks that’s sort of cool, the symbol is a circle anyway.

This guy takes twelve minutes, seriously, as if he really means it. He’s barely hard enough to get in her, though, his penis keeps sort of folding itself, and then he grunts in her ear and really rams against her.

Don’t tell anybody, he says. It’s the rubber.

She’s all prickly and burny and it feels the way her mouth feels when she has chapped lips. She should put something down there, like when you change a diaper.

She wishes she hadn’t thought about diapers.

When he’s finished, it’s his roommate’s turn. A guy who doesn’t take off his turned-around hat. She wonders what it says on the front. She wants to think about that.

You need a place to crash tonight? the guy asks before he goes into her.

She nods, then says yes out loud. It’s too late to go home, she’d wake her mother.

Midway through, she realizes she’s agreed to something like a business transaction. He’s not just being nice, he wants more of her. At the Citgo the college boy bought beer and chips and her.

She wonders if she’s going to throw up. That would be embarrassing. She lets her arms fall, they’re tired and the bed has good traction so she doesn’t need to protect her head anymore.

So that’s eight, or maybe nine. She wishes she could decide about that last guy at the party.

It was a warm day, Sunday, and she went to Bird Rock with her friends. Their favorite beach. Her best friend’s brother used to surf it before he went to college up north.

The surfers whistled and called baby baby and gave her and her friends beers from their coolers. Cans, no glass on the beach.

Want to come to a party? asked a guy with long blond hair. One of those guys. Number two on the kitchen floor.

It is almost Christmas.

The boys with the place near Citgo call some of their buddies. They’re younger than the surfers, they’re in college and excited. This clearly does not happen for them often.

I just asked, Want to use my phone? And she said yes, the first guy reports into that greasy black cell, which he hasn’t offered to her. He says, She wasn’t even wearing underwear! She’s going to stay all night, but don’t be a douche and take forever. No, it doesn’t cost anything, you douche.

So that’s ten-eleven-twelve-thirteen. Unlucky number. She throws up somewhere in the middle of it, and they let her wash her face and then give her more beer so she doesn’t get a hangover. She’s limp and tired and aching. The last two take their turns.

Finally, she passes out, or passes into a daze where nothing seems real. The guy who picked her up lets her stay in his bed, and he gets in it too. Sometime later, she realizes his arms are around her waist and his knees t behind hers and he is snoring. The window is deep blue with approaching dawn.

She hates him.

She’s afraid to pull away.

The Pepsi clock still shows the same time as last night. She sees its cord dangling, unplugged. She thinks she remembers tripping over it on her way out of the bathroom, and number twelve catching her.

Every one of them says the same thing. Surfers and college boys, no difference at all. They say, I thought she was older. I thought she was eighteen. No, I didn’t ask. Why would I? Look at her.

Her bruises are fading. She wears no makeup, and she sits like a lady as she’s been told, but she knows she will never look like her old self again. She will be what they see. She will never be fourteen.

The college kids have brought their parents. They wear dress shirts and ties. One of them has a lawyer of his own. The surfers are just themselves, a bunch of guys in jeans, no women, no parents. The college families glare at them.

The boys say she stole a phone from them and that she asked for sex. She wanted it. They say the police humiliated them by pulling up with flashing lights, frisking them in front of neighbors. They insist they thought she was eighteen. They repeat that she stole a phone. And that she told on them, ratted them out like a crybaby.

When at last she slides out of the bed and away from the Pepsi clock, she finds a phone and takes it down to the street. Her fingers are trembling, they don’t work well. She presses the numbers for her best friend, the one whose house she’s supposed to be sleeping at. A lot of sixes and a fourteen. A real number. What will she say?

Nobody answers.

She has to leave voicemail. She reads the address on the apartment building. Long squat two-story, gray with blue railings, and the Citgo sign behind the cinderblock wall. She repeats it in a shaky voice. Her friend will be able to guess she’s drunk but maybe nothing else.

She says she’s going to start walking down the E-C Boulevard, public place, and please call as soon as you get this message.

She’s not the only one on the Boulevard, even with the sun just coming up. Other girls: her age, younger, older, much older. Everyone looks tired in winter light. Groups of girls in bright skirts with their bras showing. Cars stop for them, and they get in, two, three, four at a time. It’s Monday morning, time for some to go to work and others to go to bed.

Traffic is already thick, six lanes, the roar of an ocean.

Half an hour or so and her feet are covered in blisters from shoes not made for walking. Some of the blisters pop and stick to the vinyl. She comes to a bus stop with a bench and three plastic walls. It smells terrible, urine and alcohol and filthy bodies, but not as bad as she smells. She wishes she had panties. She wishes she could sleep, forget everything, start over. She sits down and calls her friend again, another message. Please, please get your sister to give me a ride. I have to clean up before my mother finds out.

The phone shakes. A call coming in; not her friend, she cancels it.

The phone.

She feels stupid, and then she feels smart. All those numbers, all of that boy’s life stored in a flat black box. Number nine or number ten, maybe twelve.

She scrolls through his contacts list to read the names. A different set of names than the ones she and her friends have. Just five years’ difference and an Amber becomes an Isabella.

She begins calling them, the girls. Each time one answers, she asks, Do you know what your boyfriend does to little girls? Then she hangs up, because she has no word for what happened to her. Or she has a word but doesn’t want to use it.

That afternoon at Bird Rock was yesterday, so giggly and crashy with waves and gulls.

I’m just warning you, she says. I just think you should be careful. You don’t know what this guy will turn into. You don’t even know what he is now. Promise to be careful?

She feels better, just a little. In a minute she’ll get up and walk again.

Buses stop, blow diesel fumes, ruffle her skirt. The passengers stare out the window at her, and she knows how she looks, her black bra and white top and red skirt and no panties. She probably has makeup smeared around her eyes and mouth even though — didn’t she? — she washed her face last night. She washed her face after she was sick.

And he can’t even get it up all the way. She makes another call so she can say that.

She waves each bus away. She has no money to pay for a ride, she has only this thing to do with the phone. Over and over, waking up college girls in their dorm rooms and apartments, telling them to ask themselves what they really know about the boys they go with. She says, Take a minute and think about it. You sit there and think a minute, young lady.

If a girl is frightened by this phone call from someone she doesn’t know, she might stammer out, Ye-e-es? And, I promise. Just to get off the call.

But Fourteen says, Don’t ever say yes.

Every single girl hangs up. Sudden silences, lined up like bones on a spine.

When she runs out of names she phones her friend again, third time now. How can you go to sleep and leave your phone turned off? Are you mad at me for staying? Because . . .

She taps a picture on the screen and gets a stopwatch. The seconds roll by like cherries on a toy slot machine.

There should have been an earthquake. Things should have been shaken off the bookshelves, the counter, out of the cabinets and off the wall. In the kitchen, the bedroom, the Citgo. Seven point five on the scale. It should have happened that way.

She doubles over and is sick on the sidewalk. It smells bad, but not as bad as she smells. Burnt rubber and old blood.

This is when a car stops. A red sedan slows in front of her, hesitates, starts again, stops. The driver, black guy, stares. The rear windows have been tinted, as if someone important rides in the back, or someone dangerous.

He gets out of the car. Lanky but with a paunch, like the landlord at the party, like her father when she goes to visit him. She’d step away, she’d run away if she could. The walls of the bus stop trap her, and she is still vomiting.

You in trouble? he asks from the other side of the car, the side with the door open. You need some help?

She gasps and heaves and says yes, no. She’s afraid. She can’t again, no, she just can’t. She’s too sore. She’s afraid. She waves the greasy black phone at him. I have this.

Damn, girl. The motor is running, but the driver shuts his door and comes around the back of the car to her. He wears sneakers and walks stiff, like he has back trouble. His jeans are pressed but his shirt is getting wrinkly. He could be somebody’s dad.

That might be a shadow moving inside the tinted windows, someone might be with him. A lady. Maybe this other person told him to stop and get her. But you never know.

He produces a handkerchief, a real cloth handkerchief, and holds it out. When she doesn’t take it, when she cringes away, he steps up slowly like she’s a wild animal and then grabs her chin and wipes her mouth.

Girl, you got messed up. He keeps wiping her, and she’s too tired not to let him, her body isn’t her body anymore.

Look at you. You’re a nice girl from somewhere.

It feels good to have her face wiped, like he’s taking away the skin that she lived in last night and giving her a new one. But only on the face, not where she really needs it. That’s still swollen and too wet, but it feels like it’s burning.

He says, Who did this to you, baby girl? I can tell you’re somebody’s nice little girl. You want me to take you to your mama?

She starts crying because she’s alone and he is so kind and she still can’t trust him. She leans in, and he helps her blow her nose. It inflates the handkerchief to the round fragile shape of an egg.

She cries because she can’t call her mom and must not call her dad and her friend isn’t answering. She cries because in her crying she just howled, probably scared this man. Or maybe she only imagined howling. Realizes she should have howled so he never had a chance to touch her.

He has stopped wiping her face. Now she has to catch her tears with her hands. She remembers the baby crying last night in the store and this makes her finally stop.

You can get in my car, the man says, though he’s backing away. Go on. I’ll take you where you want. Where you need to go. You can trust me, baby girl.

No, she screams. No. Screams it over and over till he jumps in his red car and drives off.

She was there with the first, number one, standing by the fridge and leaning against the counter and crossing her legs at the ankles, a long way from the hem of her little red skirt. She was skinny, is skinny, looks just okay in a bikini, but it’s not bikini season. She might fill out by summer. Her best friend is the one with breasts, but she already left.

They were sharing a can of whipped cream. Passing it back and forth. He and his friends complimenting her skinny body, her young metabolism that can live off fat and sugar and not gain an ounce. They said she could be a fashion model. She put her head back, and number one shook the can and squirted airy wet whipped clouds into her mouth.

He told her to keep her mouth open, and he put his lips on hers and licked half the cream out of the deep pink hollow.

He said, You want more?

And she said, Yes.

It would take all night to understand what yes could mean.

Her parents sit together.

They say the word she does not want to think. They made her come here, they are going to make her confess. To a roomful of people. Arbitration. She knows, she can tell, that they blame her. Especially her mom, who was drunker than Fourteen when the police car pulled up and the girl got out and Mom thought they were being arrested, both of them. Mom is mad that policemen saw her that way. She emphasized that it was her daughter’s disappearance that drove her to drink.

The man in the car was the one who called the police. He did it when he drove away. He must have thought it was the only thing, he must have been decent. He didn’t think how much trouble he’d be getting her into.

Now Fourteen and her mother both wear nice dresses. Her dad wears a tie. Their hair is clean, and they wear no makeup, nothing to draw attention, only her mother’s long red talons that are supposed to look classy.

Fourteen makes herself very, very still inside and does not cry. The men are watching her. They say she fooled them into thinking she was older. She sings a counting song inside her head, numbers circling around the lump where her scalp got bruised on the kitchen cabinet.

A lawyer points at her. He says she humiliated the college boys with her phone calls. All these terrible things she has done to herself, to everybody. Little girl, little slut, loose on the world.

They might sue her family.

She wishes something very bad would happen. To all of them, but especially to the one who cuddled her through the night.

He smiled at her when he walked in. It’s his family that wants to sue.

She sits very still, as she has been told to do. Told forever. Knees crossed. Fingers quiet. She’s been informed she’ll never have a phone of her own. The worst punishment her parents can think of for a girl her age. To start with, anyway.

And her head bangs and bangs and bangs. The pots in the cabinets clatter, the guys looking on cheer. The Pepsi clock stops ticking, the hats are front to back, and everybody’s phone rings while she throws up. She’s held over and over, by surfers and students and counselors and family.

A hug makes her head rattle and shake and slosh like coddled egg; a hug is like a gavel striking down.

It was bright, warm, a gorgeous day. Everyone else was at a mall but the three of them, Fourteen and Best Friend and Older Sister came to the beach. A big white sheet to lay across the sand, chips and sodas and gossip about the girls at school.

The seagulls ducked and dove and grabbed their food. Bird Rock belonged to the birds. The girls shouted and waved and kicked, wiggling on the sheet and the sand, protecting their Doritos and Twinkies.

There were surfers in the water and some on the sand below the bluff. The ones on the sand watched the ones in the water until they were distracted by the girls’ shrieks, their legs kicking in tight jeans and little skirts that flipped up to show their panties.

They had girls with them too. More precisely, there were two, and one of these was pregnant. Hugely pregnant, as if she might give birth any minute. She didn’t look old enough, but she was going to. She headed into the water and stood there a while, and the girls realized she was peeing.

Best Friend’s sister said, When our cousin was pregnant, she went to the bathroom all the time. It was so gross.

Fourteen just rolled and kicked and laughed. It felt like ditching class, ditching chores, being here today in December, but it was Sunday and winter break besides. She reached for another soda.

Hey, girly-girls! called one of the long- and light-haired surfers. He’d just come out of the water and set his board on its end. His wetsuit flopped around his waist, and his chest was drying in the sun and the breeze while he drank a beer. The top half of him was golden. Hey, you want something a little stronger?

They approached cautiously, giggling. They clutched their purses and felt grown up. They hadn’t been spoken to this way before, by grown men on a beach, grown men with beer.

Best Friend’s older sister took the can the guy handed her. When she cracked the tab, the contents exploded.

The surfers laughed as if this were riotously funny, as if they were all in junior high and pranking each other. Even Older Sister smiled and made a polite ha-ha sound.

Hey, said a short guy. He was Mexican, maybe number seven or eight. You want to come to a party tonight?

The winter light poured over them, and the beer made their tongues tingle and their bellies flop. They said they didn’t know, they’d have to get home by eleven or maybe twelve, their parents would freak . . .

The blond guy said, C’mon. What are you afraid of?

They giggled again, clutching each other and denting their cold cans of beer. They were brave, these girls. They were a little bit tipsy and very ready to see what was next.

Fourteen thought, I want to shake this can right up. I want to shake it and crack it and see what happens.

She shook. It fizzed. The others screamed with delight.

Fourteen laughed too, her fragile head flung back and hair tangled in the breeze, skirt blowing against her thighs, beer making her top transparent and herself feel adult with its bitter smell.

Everywhere she looked, there was nothing but future.

She said yes.

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