Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saturday Musings, 27 February 2010

Good morning,

I walked over a muddy patch of yard yesterday, sinking in my soft leather boots to a half-inch below sidewalk level. As I shifted the load of my briefcase to my left hand to flash the key fob in the direction of my dingy Saturn, I drew in a long breath of the morning's coolness. Surely I felt an undernote of spring?

A client sat in front of my desk, two hours later, earnestly clutching a plastic bag in which she had carefully placed a velvet embroidered blanket. This is from home, she told me. I brought it for you, because I was so hard on you. I stared, unthinking, at her pale smooth face and the high arch of her delicate brows. I said I hated you, she gushed. I shouldn't have told the judge that. I sighed.

She had made her sister bring a bundle of things from storage, including the mauve expanse of bead-fringed tapestry that she now held out to me, the only peace offering she could afford. I thought about her home, about an under-nourished eleven-year-old foster girl walking in the streets of a Kansas town, meeting her first Mexican immigrant. He needed something, she recalled. The others were afraid of him, but I wanted to know what he was saying. I begged him to teach me and I just learned, and I stole food from my aunt's kitchen for him, and then others came.

She walked along a train track with her new friends. They chattered in Spanish, gesturing to the strange, foreboding world around them. She gazed at what they saw, the familiar, drab Midwestern contours. They met in winter, and walked along the train trestle high over the old streets of the dingy town, along the concrete overpasses. They scrambled down the sides of culverts, the young girl speaking English, pointing, gesturing, a cluster of children behind, the tall young man beside her. Above them, birds soared with timeless ease, and she said, Hawk, and he said, Halcon. As they raised their faces -- his a dusky gold, hers ivory -- a winter wind kissed their cheeks, and he said, viento, and she laughed, a long, high trill. He stopped; she stopped; and the gaggle of chattering little ones behind them stopped. He lifted one hand, slowly, and touched her mouth, and said Que bella.

She had her first child three years later, fourteen, thin, living in her sister's small frame house. He had left while she still carried the baby, moving west to a bigger city, looking for work. Before getting into his old Toyota, he had placed his hand on her belly, and said, bambino, and she had put her own frail hand over his and said, baby. He smiled at her then, and told her, in his smooth, practiced American, I will send for you. And she believed.

He did not return until the child was walking, and his stories of struggling to earn money appeased her. She sat at his feet, in her sister's living room, while he raised a can to his mouth and took a long pull of cheap beer. It stinks, bella, he muttered. Nobody hires Mexicans. From another part of the house came the sound of laughter, as her sister bathed the boy and sang to him. She closed her eyes, and from far away she swore she could hear her mother's voice, singing the same words, carrying the same gentle melody, Little boy kneels at the foot of his bed, droops on little hands, little gold head. Hush, hush, whisper who dares. Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

The man did not stay. Another day, another walk, another tall, brown boy speaking in rapid Spanish. Her child had the same smooth dark hair, the same golden complexion. She talked to the child as she talked to all the children, in rapid Spanish with the dialect of his father's Torreon. And the child grew, and the new baby inside of her grew, and the English of the new lover grew, and this time, he held her as they lay on the twin bed at the back of hersister's house, the boy in his trundle, her silent disapproving sister in the one bedroom next to them. And he said, Que bella, and this time, he walked one day to the pawn shop on the main street and bought a thin gold band for her finger.

And then they went to the city, because he could not get work, and she was twenty-one with two children and had nearly forgotten how to speak English. Standing at the counter in the local state office, begging for WIC and food stamps, she peppered her speech with rapid Mexican. Her children went to a free program for the children of immigrants, and they lived in one room with a hot plate, a cracked sink, and a small grimy toilet in a cupboard that the landlord had called a washroom.

The darkness first descended upon her when the little one was six months old. Her husband had vanished by then, leaving one day with a promise to return while the infant still nursed at her breast and the older boy stood beside her chair, seven years old and uncertain to whom he belonged. She smiled with the painful pretense that all women have worn as their men departed, for all time, in all countries, in all ages. When the black moods overtook her, they all huddled under the bed, or in the closet of the room to which she moved when she could no longer stand their old landlord's hungry stares. The baby cried, the boy pleaded, and still she drew them close to her, with their filthy clothes and empty bellies. And when the fury passed, she felt weightless. She scurried around the room, bagged their trash to throw onto the back stoop, and scrambled eggs in a battered pan on the grubby, two-burner stove.

She never knew who called the state. Leaning forward, towards me in my office, months later, she speculated. I wouldn't let the landlord touch me. He might have called. Her eyes darted around the room, searching for a secret listener. My baby's father wouldn't call, but the older boy's father might. He never trusted me. I ran my finger across the pictures of the room as the police had found it, on the dank December day when the arrested her for child neglect. The older boy had come to the door of their apartment holding a bowl of Ramen noodles. He had told them, in his peculiar mix of Spanish and English, that he was making spaghetti for the baby. Where is your mother, they asked. He went away and returned with a note in her delicate, spidery hand. Call my cell phone, it asked, and gave a number. Open the door, they told the child, and he did.

She had been piling trash on the back stoop for a month. I had a toothache, she explained. I shook my head. We didn't live there, she told me, and I asked if anyone could corroborate her story. I was moving out. We were just there to pack. I spread the pictures out in front of her. Nearly empty rooms, a cradle in one corner, mouse droppings on a thin, soiled mattress. Stacks of empty cans. Strips of cloth hanging from the windows, duct-taped to the wall. See? she begged. I love my children, we would not live like this. I was just there to pack. I am not a bad mother.

Her rapid speech. The fragments of Spanish. The frenzy in her eyes. The soft, urgent whisper. Por favor, guardar mis beb├ęs. I did not need a translator. I knew what she meant.

Sitting now, at my computer, in my warm home, with the dog lying at my feet glancing at me occasionally to make sure that I am not displeased with her, I hear my client's voice, echoing in my mind forever. In the background, just behind her lilting, urgent queries, I hear other sounds -- a crying child, an angry man. The eager cries of a beautiful, tall boy, calling to his lover. The noises of a city street, far below the iron rail on which a young girl walks, free, unprotected, unafraid. The lyrical voice of a tired young woman, soothing her child, telling him that everything will be all right when Papa comes home.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.