My days were chaotic and upside down. It wasn’t until 9pm when the kids were asleep that I got around to drinking coffee and reading the morning newspaper. The Wednesday edition was thick with grocer advertisements. I was at the Metro section when the phone rang. It was the woman from the agency. She asked after Brittany and then Alicia.
She had my youngest daughter’s name wrong. I corrected her. “Ashley’s fine too.”
“Oh, I’m sorry; I meant that.” I heard the shifting of papers. “How are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?” I asked her.
Next, there was deep blue silence. I sipped my coffee and glanced at the end of section B, the obituary page.
“Their mother had another, Miss Phillips. Another girl. It was born two days ago. It has all ten fingers and all ten toes.”
From the living room, I eyed the door to the girls’ room. My eyes then lowered. “How did she get pregnant again? I thought she was in jail.”
“She’s in jail and pregnant?” I asked.
“She gave birth. I really hate calling you. I hate telling you this.”
“How could you let that happen?”
“I’m really the middle man,” she explained.
“I can’t take on an another child,” I told her.
“You don’t have to decide this minute. Why don’t I call you in a few days?”
“Where is she now?”
“No, the baby.”
“The facility has temporary housing for –“
A chill went through me. “That’s a sin. The baby is in custody?”
“Miss Phillips, this is the way things work.”
“How could you let this happen?”
“Please, I almost didn’t call, but I thought you should know. Miss Phillips, I’m giving you too much at once. I’ll call you back in a few days.”
“Her tubes should be cut, and they should be fried,” my sister told me the next day.
“The child is already here.”
“Then let Steven Spielberg adopt it. He likes our people. He’s a millionaire. You’re a secretary, barely making 30 a year. He has an estate. You have a lousy apartment.”
My sister was in finance and dapper like a cat with large made up eyes and a new outfit every week. She always railed at me about my cramped 700 square foot apartment. Helen was self-oriented, so naked in her hedonism, so singular, so opinionated. But there are advantages to being a deadbeat. She sat as I unpacked the groceries and sat as I put away the groceries and sat as I began making supper.
I was making steak sandwiches just like the sub shops do with all the fixings: tomatoes and peppers and fried onions and grease. I placed the frozen meat portions in the pan.
I work in a gray building filing papers. There, when phones ring I answer them.
We look alike, my adopted children and me. The rich mocha and cocoa hues of my skin matched theirs. They look like childhood pictures of me and my sister with our wide brimmed noses, rust colored plaits, and genetic trademarks.
Four could live as cheaply as three, right? Right? What’s another pair of school shoes, more money for milk, another college fund? I should take in that child. I have to.
I kept my hair short, but I do straighten it. I wear slacks most days, not skirts because I don’t have the time to fuss with leg shaving and panty hose.
I haven’t had a date in two years, but it’s not my kids’ fault. I never dated much before them.
“Stop trying to save the whole goddamned world.”
“Do you have to put it like that, Helen?”
“What, you want to be like everyone else? So PC that I’m not saying anything. Look, I voted in the last election. I serve on juries. I pay taxes on time. I’ve even given the Red Cross a whole freaking, fraking pint of my blood. I’m a good person.”
“They aren’t the kind of girls where a lot of strangers would coo over. I don’t think Steven Spielberg is the answer,” I said. Brittany came addicted: underweight, about as heavy as a shadow, shaking, ashy complexioned. I sat up with her many a night trying to undo what had been done to her while she lived in someone else’s womb. I didn’t choose to have Ashley one year later. If it was up to me, I would have spaced them in a three years span. I got Ashley at two weeks and even then, she looked stunted and underdeveloped.
So, now six years later, there’s an addition.
Ashley has trouble sleeping. What would it be like with a crying baby in the house?
“Why didn’t this woman have an abortion?” Helen asked. “At least with an abortion, you know it’s over. Shit, doesn’t it bother her not knowing what happened to this little girl?”
Babies are so easy to love. They are so small and helpless looking and have limited emotional range: they laugh and cry easily and are entertained with animal quilts and balloons and monotonous music.
What would a boy be like? But it’s already a girl.
I could recite “twinkle, twinkle little star” to her.
“I can’t leave her in there,” I said in a clear defeated voice.
“Why not? She’s not yours. You keep messing around and you’re going to be like those people on 20/20,” Helen said with dull bluntness. “They got a kid from each country. Shit. It’s not your problem. Have them call up one of those Scientologists. Are you crying?”
“No, I’m just slicing onions.”
Helen got up and took the knife from my hands. She began chopping, without tears or remorse.
“Jesus is sitting around the table with the apostles and he asks Paul, "Paul, what do you bring?" Paul says, "Sorry, Jesus, I forgot." Then Jesus turns to John and asks John, "What did you bring?" And John says, "I'm sorry, I didn't bring anything." So Jesus says, "Okay, apostles, you have done this to me time and time again: This is your last supper."
The girls laughed. The joke was a little long for the pay off, but I was grateful that Helen had told a clean joke.
“You see, even Jesus had His limits,” she said, winking at me.
Now, I got it. I never figured my sister as a wit.
The sandwiches had come out well. The bread was juicy with beef grease.
“T-t-tell us another joke, Aunt Helen,” Brittany said. She stuttered when she got overexcited.
Helen basked in the attention. She leaned back and thought hard.
The phone rang. I went to pick it up.
“Miss Philips?” The voice on the other end was the agency woman.
“You said you would give me a few days,” I reminded her.
“Mommy, who is it?” Brittany asked me.
I put my hands to my lips gesturing for her to shhh.
“Is it -- ” Helen began but stopped herself. She nodded knowingly, and her eyes burned into me.
“Miss Phillips, I know, but I really want to move on this. We can arrange to have you take the child –“
“I’m not going to do it. Find another home for her.” I kept a hard face as if she could see it though the receiver.
“W-w-who’s h-her, Mommy?” Brittany asked.
“Brittany, be quiet,” Helen said and gave me the thumbs up.
“Are you sure you don’t need more time to think about it?” the agency lady asked me.
“Who’s Mommy talking to?” Ashley asked.
“I can’t,” I told the lady. “Helen, could you take the girls into the next room?”
Helen took their hands and lead them away, looked back at me and said, “You’re doing the right thing.”
“You can name this one,” the social worker told me. This dangled like a charm. Adoptive mother don’t get to make many decisions. My mind went heavy for a moment. I did hate the names Brittany and Ashley. I know of no famous women in history with these soulless, polo club names. I would like to name a daughter after my great-grandmother Bessie or maybe even something afrocentric.
“Miss Phillips -- ”
With dry tearless eyes, I hung up the phone before I had a chance to change my answer to yes.
Children want and want and want and I give and give and give. I was never so torn half warm with pity/half cold with rage. Maybe I’m crazy but I worry that I worry less and less about the needy about everything. It all gets kind of obtuse. How could I face my girls knowing that I didn’t help their sisters?
I sipped from my cup. This time I had tea. Soothing chamomile. I wonder what was worse a toddler having her head slammed against a radiator and dying or a having that same girl miraculously surviving the attack only to mature into the type of guardian that would mimic that same horrifying response to stress toward her own children?
I’ve seen it myself and did nothing about it. I talked myself down. Maybe they will work it out within the family. You don’t come between a parent and a child. You don’t understand the workings of a family. What’s the alternative? Horror stories about foster care. Long investigation and inconclusive. Apathy melting into my bones. Sink into the sand of inductiveness.
Say nothing until you really, really see something. Silence is golden.
Identify a stranger, examine our own family. Both extended and immediate. Examine our own lives.
In our media where whole comedy routines. Relish in the good old days of whopping. A switch from a tree limb or wire brush or an extension cord.
In this world where even peacekeeper carry machine guns. Because of the close quarts walking around are downtown and you’ll see it. Children being yelled at, cussed at, slapped, pulled, punched, shoved. Philadelphia is not special to this. There is nothing in the water. Voice jagged as splintered glass. Jerky as a puppet. Short run in my stockings. Jerked my shoulders nervously. Soft blue of the sky that fringed the horizon. Four could live as cheaply as three. Coore was just coming into the sky. Hollow restfulness. The first one I got was 17 years old. They were like buds. They did fun things together enjoying our company talk for hours. Drink coffee from fancy houses. Go to the movies or bike riding.
Hopscotch on the marked ground. Double dutched. Monkey bar swinging by their knees. Things they couldn’t do unless they were wearing slacks or else people will see your underwear.
Got at two months and two weeks.
Called after two days.
Who is going to make sure they have galoshes and wear them?
The clanging metal
“Come on girls, let’s go home.”
They both ran toward me calling me Mommy.
The front page was dominated by an account of three-year-old’s death. The cause was child abuse. It said she had happened on to see her mother and her mother’s boyfriend having sex. The article was written with a tone of outraged and conclude with a vow from politicians to change the “system”.
The bread of bitterness. At least, they are alive. Each day I see homeless people. Yet, I don’t see them anymore. Often I walk over them. They are watercolor, they wash off my memory. After this season’s first snow, I saw a sleeping, homeless man cramped over a steam grate in front of the INS building. Someone had set a soft pretzel and five-dollar bill on his shoulder. When he woke, if he woke, it would keep him for another day. Her soulful eyes just took in the surroundings without commenting. Ashley’s the one with the mischievous smile. Brittany is the shyer one. Her uncertainty. No one would think they were adopted. Our skin color matched.
If it was for the girls, I won’t have cookies in the house, not even fig newtons.
Allison Whittenberg: "I am a Philadelphia native who has a global perspective. If I wasn’t an author I’d be a private detective or a jazz singer. I love reading about history and true crime. My novels include Sweet Thang, Hollywood and Maine, Life is Fine, Tutored and The Sane Asylum."