Authors: Cynthia D. Grant
Something heavy was leaning against her arm. It was Tom; he was sleeping. She pushed him off and staggered to her feet, almost stepping on people. The windows were dark.
“What time is it?”
Kimmy held out the baby. “You better change her. She's soaking wet.”
“I gotta get to the clinic. She's supposed to see the doctor.”
“It even got on the bed,” Kimmy said.
“Where's the clock?”
“We don't got one. Will you take this kid?”
She pushed past Kimmy and into the kitchen where people were talking. Nobody had a watch. Someone said to dial popcorn. She found the phone. A robot voice told her it was ten o'clock. The clinic was closed. She'd missed the baby's appointment. And the shelter was locked; she'd lost her bed for the night.
“What's the problem? You can take her tomorrow.” Kimmy handed her the baby, who was crying so hard her face was blotchy and her arms and legs were twitching.
“I can't feed her,” Raina said.
“I used.” Shame made her feel like she was going to throw up.
“It's not gonna hurt her just this once. You can stay if you want but you gotta shut her up. She's getting on people's nerves.”
Raina clutched the baby tightly so she wouldn't drop her and stumbled into Kimmy's bedroom. She made it to the bed and tried to pull herself together but she'd gone too far away; she could not get back. Everything looked smeary and underwater. There were two howling babies in her lap.
She lifted her shirt and began to cry. The baby's hungry mouth found her breast. She sobbed as if she would never stop, as she watched her baby drink the poisoned milk.
The teacher was in the back room, getting ready to go home. When she came out the letter was on her desk.
Dear Miss Johnson
I wanted to let you know how things were going, but I didn't know if you'd want to hear from me. Which is why you're reading this, not seeing me in person
The baby's fine. She's doing great. It's hard to believe that she came out of me
I've been around little kids all my life but never realized, until I had the baby, how truly vulnerable they are. It's like they're sitting in the backseat of the car and they just have to go where the driver takes them. Even if the driver's drunk or crazy or driving down the wrong lane
I see these kids. They're with their parents, but they look lost: dirty clothes, no coats. Left in cars outside bars, faces pressed to the windows. Waiting and waiting. I want to save them. But where would I take them?
We stayed in a shelter for a while. Usually the longest you can stay is a week so we stayed with friends but the baby cried and that got on people's nerves. The doctor says it's colic because her stomach's immature. She'll outgrow it soon. She's nursing good. She gained three ounces last week
It's funny not being alone anymore. Mostly it's good, but it's scary too. Before, it didn't matter what I did. Now I have to think about what's best for her, and figure out stuff like how to get diapers. They give out disposables at the shelters, but they say: These cost too much; use cloth. Well, that's just fine, but how do I wash them? Some Laundromats charge two bucks per load
I was supposed to get a place then things got all screwed up, so we're staying in a shelter now, over on Davis. They won't let you stay there during the day; you're supposed to go out and get a job. But it's not like people are dying to hire me. Anyway, what would I do with the baby? I know this girl who baby-sits. She parks the kids in front of the tube and splits. I go over there one time; the place was a wreck. Babies lying on the rug, crying. The kid in charge was ten years old, so that's out
My social worker told me about a program for teenage moms. The babies stay in a daycare center while the girls finish high school and get their diplomas. They teach you stuff like nutrition and budgets and how to use computers so you can get a job. But there's a real long waiting list to get in, and she says the program might get dropped, so I don't know
The other day my sister Lyn tracked me down. She said my mother was willing to take the baby because she doesn't want her living on the street, with me. She plans to run the baby through foster care. That pays a lot more than AFDC
Bullshit, I said; she only cares about the money and taking away the only thing I got. She doesn't care about anyone but herself. Not you, not me
My sister got hot. She said, That's not true! My mother loves me! Standing there, looking so huge and pathetic, hiding behind a wall of fat. You've always been mean and nasty and ungrateful! My mother's hate spilling out of her mouth. Screaming at me, right there on the sidewalk, people walking by staring. She don't care. She said: We'll call CPS and take the baby away
You do that, I said. I want to talk to them too. I've got some heartwarming stories to tell them
Since I had the baby, lots of guys come around, smelling welfare money and a free apartment. They tell you you're a special lady and they love the baby and on and on. It reminds me of those old cartoons where the wolf acts like the chicken's friend but there's a plate of steaming drumsticks over his head. It's hard not to laugh in their faces sometimes
My mother's always had men like that. Gets rid of one and gets another even worse. When I was a kid I couldn't figure out why. I think she needs someone to despise, to blame for the way her life's turned out
She said I made her nervous, always hopping around, acting silly and singing. I was trying to make her smile. She didn't want my hugs. I tried to talk to her sometimes, waiting until she was in a good mood; had had a little booze but not too much. I told her my father touched me. “You're a goddamn liar. Just making trouble.”
I never told her about the others
Once, I heard her tell a friend that if she had to do it over again, she wouldn't have kids; she'd get a job and travel. Her real life wasn't real to her at all. She didn't wash our clothes or help us with our homework, or join the PTA. She never voted. What difference does it make? she'd say. In the midst of all those kids, she lived alone
It wasn't always that bad. But after Bobby died there was no turning back. The worse things got, the more drugs she took. The more she took, the worse things got. She tried to quit but she'd get so mean, we were almost relieved when she used again. Then she'd feel so whipped and trapped and stupid, she'd take it out on us. Mostly me
She hated me because I knew what she'd done and she hates herself because she feels so guilty. So she tries not to think. She won't wake up. Her life is nothing but a long bad dream
I tried to wake her up
It's Bobby, Mommy. He's acting funny. He got into your pills
She drank too much; she's passed out on the couch. The big kids are gone. Willie's playing with his truck and Bobby's asleep and I can't wake him up and I can't get the neighbors or call anybody because my mother always says don't call the cops. No matter what. She'll beat our butts. If the cops come around she might get in trouble. Then who'll take care of us? Granny? Are you kidding?
Don't you dare tell no one what goes on in this house. Not the neighbors, not the cops, not your teachers, not your friends. Don't even tell yourself. Get loaded. Pretend
Mommy, wake up
She finally opens her eyes. But Bobby never wakes up again
I go over and over it in my mind. This time I'm running down the hall to the neighbors, or dialing all like they taught us in school. An ambulance comes, and my mom's not mad; she's glad I saved her, and Bobby too. Then everything gets better and she's smiling all the time. Smiling at me, like I'm her precious jewel
If I hadn't been so scared of her, he wouldn't have died. He'd still be alive. So it's my fault too
My mother hated Granny but turned out just like her. I don't want my baby growing up to be me. I love my baby. Too much to keep her
That's why I want you to take her
I know this is probably blowing your mind, Miss Johnson, but I swear I'm not playing any games this time. You always wanted a baby. There's nothing wrong with her. I don't know how, but she turned out fine. Don't take my word for it; you can ask the doctor. She said the baby might have some problems later, like being hyper, but she thinks she's going to be okay
If my mother gets the baby she'll screw her all up, and I don't want her going to strangers. Some people seem fine, but inside they're weird. You're not. She'd have a normal life. That's all I want. I won't make trouble. I'll never change my mind and try to take her away. She doesn't even have to know about me
She'll be all yours. I swear, I promise. Take me to a lawyer. I'll sign the papers
I know this is asking a lot, Miss Johnson, but I don't know what else to do. She can't stay with me
If you want to take her, or think you might, and would like to talk about it, we're waiting outside. If you like your life the way it is, I understand, that's okay too
Whatever happens, you treated me good, and I'm sorry I let you down
The teacher finished reading and sat at her desk. A pool of sunlight slowly faded on the floor. She could hear her watch ticking. She could feel her heart beating.
Then she crossed the room and opened the door.
For years I hoped I'd find a baby, like this woman in a movie I saw one time. She's jogging along, then she hears a sound; a crying baby in the bushes. No one else is around. The baby's been abandoned, but she's perfectly fine and the woman gets to adopt her.
It was almost enough to make me take up jogging.
All around me, kids were having babies, one or two students every year. When they finally have to tell you they're pregnant, their eyes plead: Don't be mad at me.
What can you say? Congratulations? To some fifteen-year-old and her nitwit boyfriend? I kept thinking that one of those girls would say, I know I'm too young to be a mother, Miss Johnson. Please take my baby.
That was years ago, when I believed in happy endings. Now some babies are born addicted, their little limbs twisted with withdrawal pains. Or the mothers drank, and the babies' brains are stunted. Sometimes you can't tell at first; the babies seem normal.
My cousin adopted an infant someone found in a car parked outside a drug house. The mother was inside the house, dead; she'd overdosed. The baby seemed fine, but as she grew older, they couldn't control her. She'd fly into rages. She'd hit and bite, put her fists through windows, smiling as she held out her bleeding wrists. The doctors diagnosed a neurological disorder. They tried to subdue her with medication. Eventually she was placed in a group home.
My cousin's guilt has almost killed her.
Raina looked thin and dirty and sick. She sneezed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. The simple misery of a cold without Kleenex. I couldn't see the baby; she was wrapped in a blanket tucked against Raina's shoulder.
“Come in, Raina. Sit down.”
“Would you like a tissue?”
“Yeah.” She blew her nose.
“I don't know what to say, Raina.”
“That's okay. Do you want to see her?”
She folded back the blanket. The baby was sleeping, a lovely little girl, dark lashes brushing her cheeks.
“Isn't she pretty?”
“She's beautiful, Raina.”
“I'm sorry to kinda barge in like this, but things haven't been going too good lately.”
“Yes, I gathered that from your letter.”
She looked at me, waiting. What did she expect? That I'd say, No problem, I'll take your baby?
“What's her name?”
My body stiffened. “I've always liked that name.”
“You're not just saying that to make me take her?”
“No.” She looked disgusted and hopeless. “I thought I was gonna get to keep her.”
“What's her middle name?”
The baby squeaked, her fists unfurling then curling into shells.
“Well, that's a very pretty name.”
“She's a real good baby. Ask my doctor if you don't believe me.”
“I believe you, Raina.”
“There's nothing wrong with her. They've done tests and stuff. But she can't stay with me. Something bad might happen.”
“You didn't kill your brother, Raina.”
She looked at me, shocked, then tears began to roll down her cheeks.
“You were just a little girl. It was your mother's fault.”
“Yes, but Bobbyâ” She couldn't speak.
“I'm so sorry, Raina. You must've loved him very much.”
She nodded; tears dropped on the baby's face. She brushed them off. I handed her a Kleenex.
“He must've been a lovely little boy.”
“He was. He always”âshe struggled for controlâ“He always loved me best,” she said.
“I'm so sorry, Raina. I wish I could help you.”
“I know it's kinda sudden.” She dried her eyes. “But you wouldn't be sorry. She's a real good baby. I know I could trust you, Miss Johnson.”
“Well, that's very nice, butâ” Picturing the two of us at Back-to-School Night, or in checkout lines at the supermarket. What a beautiful child. Is this your granddaughter?
“I won't try to get her back. I'm not lying, Miss Johnson. I'll go away, I promise. She'll be your little girl.”