by Susan Dugan
Susan Dugan lives in Denver, Colorado, and writes everything from newspaper and magazine articles to advertising copy, radio scripts, fiction, and poetry. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines including eclectica, JMWW, Carve, RiverSedge, Prosetoad, Amarillo Bay, The Saint Ann's Review, River Oak Review, and Echoes. She writes about her journey practicing the spiritual psychology A Course in Miracles in her blog: http://www.foraysinforgiveness.com/. A book of her personal essays, Extraordinary Ordinary Forgiveness, has been accepted for publication by O-Books.
In the alley, just past a bed of daffodils squashed by melting snow, Bathrobe barks and tugs on her leash, nearly strangling herself in a fruitless effort to launch her loaf-like frame. And then I hear it, too: little chirping sounds emanating from somewhere inside the dumpster. I yank on my dog's leash and peer over the metal rim, expecting to see a stranded starling. A bundled-up baby stares back at me. In my peripheral vision, the high hedge protecting the Sherman's yard absorbs a life-size smear of dark fabric, the snap and rustle of limbs.
"Holy Christ," I say, because things like this do not happen in my neighborhood. The baby—perhaps responding to the look of horror on my face or sensing its impending guest appearance on the nightly news—opens its tiny beak and wails.
I rush inside with it nestled against my forearm, an unlikely quarterback, Bathrobe yipping at my heels. I lay it down on the couch and peel away the plaid woolen car blanket to reveal a beautiful white satin gown tied with red ribbon. It takes me a moment to recognize it as the same American Girl costume (part of Kristen's Santa Lucia outfit) I gave my granddaughter Catherine the Christmas she turned eight. Beneath the doll clothes the little girl has been wet a while. She has not yet lost that scalded, cone-head look.
"Jesus Christ," my son, Timmy, says, hovering over us.
"I need you to run out to Safeway." We would need diapers and formula, a couple of plastic bottles.
"Aren't you going to call the police?" he asks, sounding for all the world like the sane one in the family.
I can't say why I have no intention of calling the police except that I have asked as I am wont to do the question that has kept me placing one foot in front of the other this past year: What would Hank do? I have asked my recently deceased, retired philosophy professor lover, and he has answered. Hank can still read my mind and already grasps the suspicion growing there.
In my lap the infant has stopped crying. Her fist latches onto my index finger, vice-like.
# # #
It's like riding a bike, I think, as I change the wet diaper and squirt a drop of milk on my wrist before plunging the plastic nipple in her mouth.
Timmy watches, biting down on his unlit cigarette.
"I can take it from here," I tell him.
But he just rocks back and forth like the autistic boy who used to live next door. The baby sucks at the empty bottle in her sleep. Her eyelids are scribbled with tiny purple veins and fringed with black, show-girl lashes. She doubles in weight in my lap. Her thighs fall open, frog-like.
My mind uncoils like the reel of a movie. I am descending the steps of a nondescript Brooklyn brownstone with my best friend Alice. She leans against me, asks if we can stop for a roast beef sandwich. I am thinking about burning in hell for my role as accomplice and the thought brings with it an unexpected whiff of freedom. Stroking this baby's head, I cannot help but delve back further still to the baby I lost all those years ago—ironically the only pregnancy Gerry and I had actually planned. I was only four months along but the doctors said it was a girl. I planned to name her Sylvia, after the dead poet. She had always reminded me of Alice. So beautiful and talented, so impossibly lost. (Fortunately Gerry did not read poetry.)
"Sylvia?" Timmy repeats, edging toward fetal position.
"I've always liked that name." Now I am thinking about the day I learned I was carrying Colleen. There was this doctor in Albany the girls in my dorm whispered about over little nips of rye whiskey from a tin flask. I have never told anyone this: I thought about it.
"We can't go around naming her," Timmy says.
"Sylvia," I mouth.
As if in solidarity, the baby spits out the nipple and beams up at me, a ribbon of formula inching down her neck, arms flying up in a kind of cheer.
"What's that noise?" I ask, sitting at my mother's kitchen table squishing crumbs of banana bread with my fingers.
"Noise?" My mother rises to refill my coffee.
I cover the mug with my palm. "I've got to knock out the caffeine. I'm not sleeping at all with these night sweats. Did you have them, too?"
Mother sits down and cocks her head in that way of hers, as if consulting an invisible attorney. "I really don't recall," she says, as usual taking the fifth.
At my feet, Bathrobe stands up and shoots me a penetrating look, as if she, too, would like to give her a piece of her mind. She executes a series of twirls before settling back down and resting her muzzle on my crocs.
It is just hormones talking, stirring up all I have left unresolved these many years, recently exacerbated by my ex-husband Edward's decision to finally marry his twenty-something former student and my twelve-year-old daughter's decision to forever exclude me from her life. My mother does not plan her day around ruining mine, I remind myself. And then I hear it again, a muffled whine emanating from the ceiling. Bathrobe's ears lift.
"Excuse me a minute," my mother says. She rises and disappears upstairs.
Timmy shuffles up from the basement, same filthy sweats riding down around his narrow hips, his resemblance to our father momentarily shocking me anew with a little jolt of grief for us all.
"Where's Mom?" he asks, opening the refrigerator, unscrewing a bottle of cranberry juice, and knocking it straight back.
"Upstairs. What's up with her?"
He shakes his head and plucks his security cigarette from behind his ear.
I head upstairs to mother's bedroom. She presses a finger to her lips, sitting in the Shaker rocker she bought along with a lot of other spindly excuses for furniture after she and my father separated years ago. She holds a tightly swaddled infant in her arms. "What?" I mouth.
My mother inches up out of the chair, a movement reminiscent of Hank, the paramour we'd all come to love despite our best efforts. He introduced us to the Unity Church where nobody went to Purgatory or Limbo. We held hands and sang. I felt like one of the Who's in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I follow her into the guest room where she lays the sleeping bundle down in the little bed she has fashioned from a dresser drawer.
"Whose baby?" I ask, when we have seated ourselves once more at the kitchen table.
Timmy pushes his half-eaten cereal away and leans back in his chair, chomping on his unlit cigarette, the smoke of something hot and unspoken smoldering between them.
At times Colleen resembles that Edvard Munch painting, The Scream, horrified by the madness of this world. It has never met her expectations and yet she somehow can't stop believing it will. I swear to God she came in this way; I refuse to accept responsibility for this particular trait.
She sits beside me on the couch now, chewing on her knuckles, eyes widened into perfect Cheerios. News of Sylvia seems to have left her speechless, an unprecedented turn of events in our decades together. Her silence leaves me clamoring to fill it.
I decide to be honest, Hank on my shoulder. "Really, Colleen, I know this looks pretty outrageous but I just have a strong feeling about this child."
Colleen pinches the seam she has pressed into her jeans between her fingers, as if fearful they will revert to their natural state without constant vigilance. She irons her God-damn jeans, my daughter. I mean?
Anyway, I also have a hunch I know who abandoned this baby, the person who disappeared into the Sherman's yard near the weathered Bush for President sign. A girl I'd seen many times shooting hoops in the alley with Catherine. The Sherman's oldest—two girls and two boys who moved across the summer days as a kind of unit, tossing water balloons and sucking Popsicles. Home-schooled, someone said, religious zealots. I had not cared to further our acquaintance.
It could not be, I told myself, but Hank just shook his head. If my neighbor's child had given birth to this child, it was not just a crime, but two crimes. It wasn't too late to make up for my failure to protect my own children from the blows life had dealt them as a direct result of my highly ambivalent mothering.
"I think I saw something last year on Channel 9 about some kind of new law that lets mothers abandon their newborns without getting prosecuted," I say.
At last, she speaks. "They can't throw them in dumpsters, mother." There are some six-letter words that can really sound like four.
"I think I know who the mother is." I say. "You know those kids across the alley Catherine sometimes plays with—their oldest girl?"
"I think I saw her running away when I found Sylvia. I think she was watching to make sure somebody responsible would rescue her."
Colleen presses her index fingers against the spot where the bridge of her nose meets her brows and draws a breath on the verge of a wheeze.
"I know this has been a difficult year for you, Mom," she says, after a while, in that flat voice she uses when she has absolutely had it with you. "Maybe we should have gotten you some kind of support."
"This is not about Hank." I can see him materializing across the room, limbs twisted into one of those pretzel tai chi positions. "This is not about you," I long to say; but that would not help my case.
Colleen runs the iron of her hand down my forearm. "Are you sure about this, Mom? That girl's like Catherine's age."
Like you can be sure of anything in this life; I mean, really. "I saw her running away."
My daughter winces; my daughter was born wincing, I swear. Then she yanks a cell phone out of her pocket and stabs away, asks Edward to pick Catherine up at soccer.
"Maybe there's a way that law you were talking about can help," she says, snapping the phone shut. "I can't remember the details but I'm thinking I could call Don Garcia."
She nods. "Remember that piece I wrote about him for the Post? He told me to call if I ever needed anything."
I draw Sylvia into my ribs, tears I did not shed even at Hank's service suddenly backing up in my throat. "Please don't give her to the police."
As if at the word police Sylvia's eyes pop open. She starts making those little breathy groans that mean she's ready for a change.
"Hold her a minute." I hand her to Colleen and head upstairs for a diaper and some wipes, stopping a moment to compose myself in the mirror. "Please, Hank, please help us, please," I whisper. Because wherever he is, he is a whole lot closer to getting God's ear than I will ever be.
Downstairs, Colleen, clearly smitten, has the baby propped up on her knees. "Patty-cake, patty-cake, baker's man, bake me a cake as fast as you can," she recites, making tiny cymbals of Sylvia's palms.
Timmy drifts out the door, raised hand opening and closing over his head in a wave.
Colleen will know what to do.
It is like a mantra for my mother and my brother, I think, backing into a parking space on Logan and feeding a handful of quarters into an insatiable meter. I tug my rain jacket hood up over my head to try to stop my recently blown-straight hair from swelling up.
I hurry downhill to the City and County Building, dodging the backsplash from barreling SUV's, pass through security, and take the elevator up to the D.A.'s Office. A secretary calls me honey and brings me a cup of decaf as I sit waiting for Don Garcia, gazing out the tall windows at sheets of rain that leave me feeling displaced; it never rains day after day like this in Denver.
I sometimes think I traded the west coast for these land-locked mountains not so much for Edward but to wipe my slate clean. To release the burden of the mortal sin I had committed as a young girl. Not a child like this mother, but not a grownup either, just scraps of cloth in a still unassembled quilt. Not that I believe in mortal sin. Not that I'm a hundred percent sure I believe in anything at all even after bouncing from church to church when Catherine was little. Involved for a while with a leftist Christian group still fond of chaining themselves to things. Spending a whole week at a Buddhist monastery in the mountains training to qualify as a "Friend of Zen." Nevertheless unable to master the complexities of walking meditation or refrain from squashing spiders and sneaking bacon.
My boot taps against the hand-woven Indian area rug—a habit I inherited from my father that no amount of meditation has been able to quell. I survey the neat towers of manila folders on Don's desk, the framed professional certificates and vintage ski posters, the glaring absence of family photos. Married to his job, he confessed in the interview.
And how did this girl get pregnant in the first place at twelve freaking years old? I cannot stop my brain from leaping to Catherine. My daughter started middle school this year and suddenly veered from teaching her American Girl dolls haiku to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with suggestive messages: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE! Writing passionate love letters (I do not pry but, Jesus, she leaves them everywhere—that means she wants me to find them, right?) to so-called "boyfriends" she never sees outside class except on the long bus ride home from her magnet school. (My imagination has a field day with that!)
I press my fingers to my gritty eyelids, careful not to dislodge the swipe of mascara I'd given my lashes hoping to divert attention away from my fatigue. What on earth will Don Garcia have to say about my failure to notify the authorities immediately? I can't help picturing myself and my seventy-three-year-old mother and this alleged peer of Catherine's sharing one of those horrifying cells at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility I wrote a series of articles about last year.
I will just have to make Don realize we are mothers ourselves, grownup mothers who want nothing more than to spare this baby and her child-mother.
He strides into the room lankier than I remember, slightly hunched over as though to soften the blow of his full height.
"What an unexpected pleasure," he says, grasping my hand.
He has wide-set, triangular-shaped eyes. Years of smiling have gauged deep parentheses around the corners of his mouth. His skin is the color of the Soy Chai Lattes I have become secretly addicted to. I remember asking him why he decided to become a prosecutor since he didn't look or act the part.
He'd steepled his hands against his mouth. Even as a child he had tried to make things right with other kids. It was like staring at my missing piece, the male counterpart I never knew I had.
"To make things right, one person at a time," he said, the quote my editor pulled out. A mantra I myself had come to live by, having traded the battles of my youth for the far more challenging cause of making peace with my family day in and day out.
He gestures for me to sit and settles into his leather chair. "You're looking well, Colleen."
He called to ask me to lunch after the article came out. The ink hadn't dried on the separation papers Edward and I had filed and I couldn't entertain the idea of anything remotely resembling a date.
Well, times have changed, I think, noticing his eyes briefly skimming the buttons of my silk blouse before refocusing on my face. I sit up straighter in the chair, finger an earring. "Restless hand syndrome," my last date had dubbed my penchant for fiddling with things.
"You said to call if I ever needed anything."
He leans forward and listens intently as I relate my mother's story, a little too reminiscent of a priest in a confessional for comfort.
"There's that law," I say.
"Safe haven. You can abandon a baby in a safe place—a police station or a firehouse—within seventy-two hours of birth without prosecution."
"My mother thinks the girl intentionally slipped the baby into the dumpster when she heard my mother coming."
"The law is really clear on this, Colleen."
"She knew my mother would take care of her. She can't be more than thirteen years old."
He rubs his forehead.
"To make things right, one person at a time," I say.
# # #
Mother fusses about the kitchen, nervous about delivering the greatest performance of her illustrious career. Sticking to the script we have agreed on after my meeting with Don. She hands me cups and saucers, the bone China with flamboyant pink roses she inherited when Grammy died, and peels store-bought molasses cookies off their parchment squares.
Catherine folds the linen napkins the way I taught her to make a little pocket for the flatware—the way I learned in Girl Scout camp.
I stopped by home after I left Don's office and told my daughter the whole story. She was quiet for a long time. "Her name is Vanessa," she said, at last. "She's in seventh grade at Metro Christian."
My daughter started really talking then. There was a sixth-grader in her school that got pregnant and her parents made her have the baby. Another "very Goth" eighth-grader slit her wrists when she missed her period.
Senses aroused by the commotion, Bathrobe paces the length of the galley kitchen until the doorbell rings, and she charges the front door.
Don has brought a social worker named Mariah Trujillo and a detective named Tony O'Brian straight from central casting. I lead them into the kitchen. Catherine, with a poise that makes me proud, takes orders for tea and lemonade. Mother slips into her chair and Don clears his throat.
"Your daughter filled me in, Mrs. Shea," he says. "But detective O'Brian and I need to hear the story from you, to take your formal statement. We have a report to file, an official report, you understand?"
Mother glances at me before straightening her shoulders. "The child, Vanessa Sherman, brought me the baby early this morning," she begins.
I listen to my mother warming to the fabricated story Don advised us to deliver with a pang of admiration I have not felt since watching her stand up at a Vietnam antiwar rally and unfurl her banner. Not since hearing the slap of her sandals behind me the day I walked out of church for good when Monsignor McGowan decided to bless us with a slideshow of fetuses in case the church's position on legalizing abortion had slipped our minds.
"Did she say it was her baby?" the detective asks, rubbing his shiny pink face that does not yet seem to require a razor. A complete rookie—Don is no fool.
The social worker watches skeptically, chest heaving with every breath, cleavage battling a floral, boat-necked top.
"She was very upset and I didn't press her on it. It seemed most important to take care of the baby. I tried to get in touch with my daughter but couldn't reach her for a couple hours."
Catherine has dissected her cookie into bite-size pieces. Listening to our lies, she methodically begins to reassemble it, brows furrowed, as if working a puzzle.
# # #
We retire to the living room, a sleeping Sylvia in mother's arms. Timmy wanders in explaining it has been a slow night at Sam's, but we all know he cannot bear to miss the ending of this story. He turns on a Law & Order rerun and we all curl up on the horseshoe couch with the multiple, lap-size quilts mother is fond of rescuing from garage sales.
Lying on her side, Catherine rests her bare feet against my hip. Timmy presses ever so slightly into my ribs the way he had during thunderstorms when we were little.
When the program has finished and they're still not back, Timmy gets up, rummages in the refrigerator, and returns with a carton of Rocky Road ice cream and four spoons. Even mother takes a dip, and we launch into a collective fantasy that we will raise Sylvia ourselves—our own little village.
"I could quit my job," I say.
"And how would you live?" says mother, setting Sylvia on the couch beside her. "I don't have a job. I can take care of her."
"We can all help," says Timmy.
"You have me, Mommy," Catherine says, in a small voice without a trace of sarcasm. And it seems more than enough, being called Mommy again, to actually consider rising to the challenge.
Don raps on the side door and Bathrobe, asleep at our feet, goes ballistic as the children say. Timmy rises as I tuck the blanket tighter around a snoozing Sylvia.
The girl tried to deny it at first, Don says. Finally the story came gurgling forth. They were at a barbecue at her uncle's house. Her cousin Robert jumped her in the garage. He was head of the church youth group, top of his class, star quarterback on the freshman football team. Who would believe her? Her parents planned to send her and the baby away to live with maternal relatives in Nebraska.
Catherine, who climbed into Colleen's lap midway through the story, rests her head on her mother's shoulder.
"I'm sorry," says Don. "We need to take her now."
"Timmy, can you please go gather up her diapers and formula," I say, gazing down at Sylvia and trying to prevent my mind from conjuring up a childhood involving evangelicals and the state of Nebraska.
The Shermans stumble in, the parents' faces dazed and ashen, Vanessa's blotchy from crying. She hangs her head, hiding behind a drape of asphalt-colored hair. As if at a wake her parents inch toward the couch for the viewing of Sylvia. Her grandmother nibbles at her hand. Her grandfather rubs his eyes as if to dislodge the shameful sight of her.
Don rests his hand on Vanessa's shoulder. "Is this your baby?" he asks.
"Did you give it to Mrs. Shea?"
The child hesitates.
"Vanessa, did you ask Mrs. Shea to watch your baby for you?"
"Yes," Vanessa says, fitting the final piece down into the deceitful puzzle we have crafted for ourselves.
"We'll take her now," says Mrs. Sherman.
For a moment I imagine seizing Sylvia, sprinting outside, jumping into my Outback, and racing off into the sunset for a figurative touchdown on a goal line far, far away. She might have been a poet, after all, a poet. Across the room, Hank winks at the thought.
"I wanted to thank you for taking our grandchild," Mr. Sherman says, after a while.
"I can't believe you're going to make Vanessa keep the baby," says Catherine. "She's only a child herself." She stands grimacing, fists clenched at her side in her defensive fullback soccer position.
Mr. Sherman's perfect wasp face, marred only by a pebbled history of acne, swivels toward her.
"I'll take her now," says Mrs. Sherman.
I stand, easing Sylvia's bundled form toward Vanessa's mother.
"This just totally sucks," says Catherine.
Mrs. Sherman's eyes roll back in her head at my granddaughter's foul language.
Timmy returns with a shopping bag and hands it to Mr. Sherman. "She's a good one. She hardly ever cries. My daughter cried all the time. Colic."
I take it as a good omen, this sudden interest in someone other than himself.
"She likes to play patty cake," Colleen offers. She is pressing her fingers to her eyes. Allergies, she would tell you, if you were ever brave enough to call her on it.
Don beams down at my daughter as if he has never heard anything so adorable.
Across the room, Hank raises an eyebrow.
I shrug, but I am secretly rooting for them.
"Really she's very advanced," says Colleen. "You'll need to sing and read to her. I could ship you some of Catherine's old books and toys if you like."
"Thank you but I have four children," Mrs. Sherman says. "We have plenty of educational materials."
"I bet," says Catherine.
I loop my arm around my blessedly irreverent granddaughter and draw her rigid form to me. My arms seem so empty, so light without Sylvia.
Hank blows me a kiss and is gone. Hank.
"She makes this little breathy sound when she needs to be changed," I say, but no one seems to hear me.
What do you think? Please send us your comments, including the name of the work you are commenting on.