So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13 ESV)
Yesterday, I posted the tenth installment of my first story in The Cereal Bowl Series. Up until today, I did not have a title for the story. As I mulled it over, I came up with the title, “No More Babies.” Sometimes, short stories can end with out a sense of completion. I realize the jump in time may seem abrupt, but I think if you read the story as a whole, it works. That said, please feel free to give me your honest response and feedback about the ending. I am posting the whole story here today, so you can read it in its entirety at your leisure.
No More Babies
by Kel Rohlf (All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2016.)
She never had any babies in St. Louis. The babies she did have were all born. And now all she could remember was that none were born in this city. This city where she now lived and hoped to die.
She sat on the exam table, perched like an overgrown chicken on a roost, wobbling forward catching her reflection in the window overlooking the entrance ramp onto I-40 East. Where if she drove a few miles, she’d be able to roam Forest Park, to roam and remember all her babies. Babies that entered this world from an emptied womb, crying for breath. Clamoring for attention, nurture and even discipline. To her discipline marked the way to minimize the pain, the hurts of life. Through order and control, she wanted to insulate them.
Isolated in an exam room, wishing she was there to see the obstetrician, rather than the gynecologist. Wrapped in a paper robe, undressed from the waist down. The routine, the annual exam, which always came back negative and lifeless. No need for a pregnancy test. Her ovaries were shriveling, her uterus shedding less and less. No more babies.
She would never wake with nausea again or be elated by fluttering in her abdomen. No more swelling to the size of a small watermelon, no more kicks inside her belly. She was empty.
Death crept in. Growing older and older, questioning how she would live with no more babies to be born. To birth something else felt so trite. To write a novel or play, or even a poem seemed like too much effort. Effortless life she ached for–but that was a lie.
A ripe lie. A luscious lie. A lie she could wrap her life around, but she was too worn with experience and facts. This lifeless lie was as elusive as all those babies she bore elsewhere.
In her head, she was lithe and supple and fertile and capable. In her head, she could bear up under any loss or supposed obstacle. In her head, she believed in a miracle.
She gazed out the window. How far would her credit card take her down I-40 East? How long before she tired of hotel rooms and fast food? How long before she remembered that she would never have any babies in St. Louis? She wondered if she could write a novel or a play or even a poem about this one thought. Could one sentence set a plot into motion? Did she need a stronger conflict? A more interesting character who thought about darker solutions to life and its lies? Or could this one sentence lead to another and another.
After about thirty minutes on the exam table, the nurse knocked. She told the woman to get dressed. The doctor had to deliver a baby that afternoon. “You’ll have to reschedule,” she told the waiting woman.
Truth be told she had more babies than she could count. As many as the stars in the sky, as they say. Or was it grains of sand on the shore? She could never remember which metaphor was more apt. But either way she had a lot of babies. And the babies had more fathers than she cared to recall.
She had a father once. But he was never the daddy she wanted. She wanted a daddy, who would carry her on his shoulders. A daddy who kissed her mommy ever day after work. A daddy who would give her a baby sister or baby brother. But no, she was his one and only child. A child he hardly knew existed. She could be a stray cat for all he knew. A little kitten mewing for attention, which he ignored or on a really good night kicked to her bedroom because he couldn’t stand her. Or so she thought.
Her mother was a stout woman, who scrubbed their wooden floors on her knees every Saturday morning, pulling out the chairs from the kitchen and corralling them with the couch and end tables. She would push all the furniture from one side of the room to the other to do the floors in sections. She never did clean under the TV console, too heavy to move.
The house was a two bedroom cottage with an eat-in kitchen, a living room and a full bath with an old claw-footed tub. Out back on a small enclosed porch was the mother’s prized possession, an electric wringer washer. Clothes were dried on the collapsible drying lines on a pole in the backyard. Summer or winter, didn’t matter, her mother hung the clothes outside. Her mother was quite proud of her washing machine. It was the only automated machine in the house besides the console TV, and the kitchen appliances, of course.
The little girl liked Saturdays. It was a day that she imagined the chairs were a long train taking her far into the countryside. She ignored the living room furniture, those pieces weren’t going anywhere except back and forth across the cramped living space. Her mother’s chess pieces that she moved about the room each Saturday. Never once did her mother rearrange the furniture, when she was done cleaning. Back each piece would go to its resting place on her chess board floor.
The little girl would gather her doll baby into her arms, and climb aboard the train. “All aboard!” she would call quietly to herself and the baby. She would hold the baby close cooing to her with endearing words: “Your momma’s little tweety bird, aren’t you?” “Such a sweetie pie.” “You are the cutest little bug, a momma could want.” “Dontcha ever forget who you are my plum pudding girl.” “Your momma won’t ever forget you; no she won’t, no she won’t.” And the girl would giggle and the doll would stare blankly at her. But the girl didn’t care, they were going to see the world. She was going to leave the little country cottage and live in a big city.
On Saturday nights, her mother and father went out. The neighbor lady came over and snored on the couch while the TV played reruns of “I Love Lucy.” The girl crept out the back door with her doll baby in tow, she’d lie down under the empty clothes line and stare at the stars. “Too many to count,” she whispered to her baby. “One day I’m going to have more babies than the stars,” she declared to the attentive night sky.
It was a dark and rough night, and all she could remember was the taste of cigarettes in her mouth. She always thought her first kiss would taste like spearmint gum, but these kisses left a bitter aftertaste. She knew she would kiss him that night, she had wanted to for weeks, but she didn’t know how to start. He seemed so much more experienced. She had spied him necking with the girl next door, who was three years older than her. Even though he was three years older than her, too, he would still chase her around the yard and play tag. They grew up together climbing trees, building forts in the back woods and playing any kind of ball game. She especially liked it when he tackled her during football.
One night he asked her to play flashlight tag. And one thing led to another and he chased her into the woods. She could run or walk to the fort in her sleep, so she headed there without a thought. She ducked in and hid in the far corner. They had dragged a discarded mattress out there for a makeshift couch years ago.
The beam of the flashlight penetrated the darkness. She stifled a giggle. Before she knew what was happening, he had grabbed her arm. She shrieked out of surprise. He put his hand over her mouth, and pulled her to the mattress, where they collapsed together. She liked being handled by him. She impetuously kissed him on the cheek. He brushed it off, but then grabbed her face and the smoky, bitter kisses came faster than she could handle.
The next morning at the bus stop, she stood alone. She never saw him again after that night. Oh, she thought she glimpsed him leaning against the back of the tavern smoking a cigarette, when her mother drove her to town. But it wasn’t him, his hair was darker. Weeks went by and no one ever mentioned the neighbor’s son.
The nausea came religiously every morning for weeks. She secretly ate saltines in the bathroom before school. She noticed that her period had disappeared, too. She knew something was happening to her body, it felt like she had butterflies in her belly.
The mother noticed that her girl was gaining weight despite her birdlike eating habits. She also noticed that the box of saltines was missing from the pantry. She kept close account of her pantry. The evidence was adding up, but the mother didn’t want to believe the possible answer. Should she confront her daughter, then she would have to disclose her knowledge to her husband. Maybe if she just waited, things would work themselves out. But, to be sure, something was amiss.
The girl was working out some of her own calculations. If she told her mother about her situation, then her father would be included in the discussion. If you could call it a discussion; he still regarded her as a nuisance to be avoided. The only time he paid any attention to her was when he was good and drunk.
Then he would get semi-interested. He would come into her room and watch her sleeping. She knew this because she wasn’t really sleeping; just pretending. She would hear him sigh, and sometimes she thought she heard him quietly sobbing. But that couldn’t be true, he could care less about her. Or so she thought.
Anyways, she couldn’t tell her mother. She would try to talk her out of keeping the baby. And she didn’t believe her father would care one way or the other. She had a better plan. She would escape.
The railroad was south of their property. As kids, she and the neighbor boy, used to hike down through the woods and across the county line to flatten pennies on the track. They would carefully place a few pennies on the rail, and then wait. And wait. The train never did come while they were waiting.
They would get bored, and then go play hide and seek in the woods. The next day, they would hike back and the pennies were gone. They speculated that the pennies were stolen by Indians or the train was so fast that the pennies stuck to the wheels instead of the track. Either way, their penny flattening adventures were always a bust. But this time her adventure was going to be grand, she just knew it.
With a baby on the way, and a train to hop, she was going to the city. She would pack her knapsack with saltines and fill the old army canteen with water. Her mother kept some cash in an old tin can in the back of the pantry. She would just borrow it, and then someday pay her mother back.
She had heard of hobos traveling across the country to get work. Maybe some hobo would help her, she could at least hope so. She figured she’d go east towards the Big Apple. If she couldn’t make it that far, there had to be a lesser city where she could start her new life. She had a plan. She would leave Saturday night, after her parents returned from the tavern, and when the train most likely would be going through the woods.
But before she left, she had one more thing to do.
The red flashing lights washed over the wall of her empty bedroom.
After her parents had fallen asleep, she crept out the back door. She wore her father’s wool army jacket with the canteen slung over one shoulder, and the knapsack over the other. The fifty-six dollars she borrowed from her mother’s tin can, she secured inside a zippered pocket inside the jacket.
Her next stop before the railroad tracks was the shed, where her father kept the lawnmower. She jimmied the latch, and quietly stole inside to take the gasoline can with her. A box of matches from the pantry were in her jeans pocket. She closed the shed door, and started towards the woods.
Once at the fort, she set aside her travel gear and started pouring gasoline around the perimeter. She stepped inside searching the dark night air. A fiery memory singed her throat. She took a breath, and doused the mattress with the remaining fuel. She ran back outside gagging from the fumes. She threw the can into the underbrush. She struck a match and whoosh the fire engulfed the fort in minutes.
Running with her gear slung over her shoulders, with the night vision of a cat, she made her way to the path that led to the train. To the train that would take her to the city. The crackling sound of the brush catching fire behind her tempted her to stop. But she kept going. No looking back now.
At the railroad tracks, she thought she heard the faint sound of an approaching train. A whistle in the wind or was the train retreating? She sat on the damp grass beside the tracks to catch her breath. She waited and waited, but no train. She still could heard the sirens of the fire trucks; she almost looked back to watch the flames devour the trees. Instead, she hefted herself up from the ground. Looked to the west. Looked to the east. Not even a hint of a train anymore.
She knew the tracks would lead her towards her destination. She stepped over the rail and started walking east, stepping from railroad tie to railroad tie. Smoke filled her nostrils with a strange hope, a newfound fascination with her own power. This ability to burn the past, propelled her forward. A flutter in her belly reminded her that a new life dwelt within her.
She startled awake. In her dream, Laverne and Shirley were singing the opening song to their show and doing their shlemiel and shlemaziel dance, circling around her as she tried to take a step on the tracks. Since they wouldn’t stop dancing, she joined them on the verse,
Nothin’s gonna turn us back now
Straight ahead and on the track now
We’re gonna make our dreams come true
Doin’ it our way
After that she remembered, Archie Bunker hollering to Edith, “God don’t make no mistakes, that’s how He got to be God.” When she woke, the last thing she remembered was Archie frowning at her across the kitchen table, while Edith cajoled her into eating some Raisin Bran cereal.
She stretched her limbs, and then pushed herself up from the pile of leaves, her makeshift bed. Her saltines and water had lasted the first day. Thankfully, she brought a can of sardines from the pantry, but they made her thirsty. On the second day, she was on the lookout for a creek or a farm where she could fill her canteen.
It was the third day, and she was still waiting to site a train. She wondered if some big catastrophe stopped all the train traffic along this route. She chewed on a piece of damp grass to keep her mind off the hunger and thirst. She knew she could eat dandelion leaves, but it was early November. Dandelions were scarce. She didn’t even look for mushrooms, because she was afraid she’d choose the poison ones. And anyways, she couldn’t stray too far from the tracks, and miss her opportunity. She walked outside the tracks for some variety.
A twig snapped under her foot. And then she heard a faint wa-waaa sound behind her. It repeated and seemed to be getting closer. Could it finally be her train? She looked back down the track to the west, and the light of the engine out-shined the early morning light, just enough to confirm her hopes. It seemed like it was at least a half mile away, so she searched for a good spot to jump on.
The spot she picked was fairly flat, with a shallow ditch a few yards parallel to the tracks. She would crouch down in the ditch and then run toward one of the boxcars after the engine and several cars passed her. WA-WAAAA! She hummed the chorus from Laverne and Shirley, and imagined them crouched there with her. The engine passed. Her heart beat faster. One, two, three, four cars swooshed past. Five, six, seven, eight tankers blurred her vision. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve boxcars, but she couldn’t move her feet. She thought she heard Laverne yell, “Run!” And as she started toward the fifteenth boxcar, she realized, all the doors of the boxcars were closed tight.
Stunned, she stood watching car after car rumble on. Closed up tight, and no way to get aboard. After the last string of tankers, she sunk to the ground. And not even a caboose.
Tong. Tong. Tong. Tong. The railroad crossing bell kept rhythm with the red alternating signal lights. She could keep walking east or she could turn south on the rural route, perhaps finding a small town, where she could replenish her supplies. Hunger and thirst made the decision for her.
As she entered the small town, she looked for a QuikMart. She would buy some snack food and fill her canteen in the bathroom, maybe even splurge, and buy a Coke. She kept her head down, so as to not attract attention.
While she was in the bathroom, she washed up a little and then filled her canteen. A policeman pulled up outside the QuikMart. She spotted the policeman parking, as she exited the bathroom. She ducked behind the snack aisle. The bell above the door rang, as the policeman strolled into the store. She had nowhere to hide, so she busied herself looking for CornNuts. Maybe he would just get his coffee and donut and leave.
A tap on her shoulder. “Hey kid, what’s your name?” She busied herself reading the ingredients on the CornNuts bag. He cleared his throat, “I asked you a question, young lady.” A thought popped into her head.
“Shirley Verne,” she lied.
“Well, Shirley Verne, we don’t abide having vagrants hanging around.”
“I’m no vagrant,” she sputtered. “I have a right to be here. I got money. What’s it to you whether I’m here or not. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Well, strange, unkempt girls are bound for trouble if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ASK you. Leave me alone. I’ll be out of your way soon enough. I’m heading to New York City.”
He stifled a laugh. “Alright, how about I give you a lift to the bus station, Shirley girl.”
“Uh. No, that’s not necessary. I’m enjoying the hike.”
He laughed outright. “Well, that will be some hike, seeing that New York City is two states away and at least another thousand miles from here.”
She tried to hide her disappointment from the nosy policeman. She wanted to curl up in the corner. Her mother loomed in her mind, frowning and counting out the money in her tin can. The girl stumbled forward and knocked the row of Pringles cans to the floor. The policeman caught her just as she fainted.
Her mother was not surprised, but relieved, when the policeman informed her that they had found her daughter in a town about thirty miles from their home. She dressed in her best outfit, a tweed jacket with a matching skirt that she bought from the Sears catalog. The first time she wore the suit was at her mother’s funeral ten years prior. The suit was a bit snug, but it fit her well enough to keep her from investing in a new one.
She sat on an uncomfortable plastic orange chair next to her sleeping daughter. The doctor confirmed what she had suspected, her daughter was pregnant. About three months along, and he assured her that as soon as the IV fluids did their job; daughter and baby would be just fine. That was all well and good, but as far as her mother was concerned everything was not fine.
She did some research soon after she suspected her daughter’s condition. She knew that some bigger cities still offered homes for unwed mothers. She went to the library to look up articles on the microfiche collection. She wrote down her findings in her spiral notebook.
By coincidence, the topic of these type of homes came up at her weekly coffee klatch with the neighborhood ladies. She didn’t really need the ladies, but she did enjoy the local gossip, and how the women loved her coffee cake. They all thought she made it from scratch. She didn’t think it necessary to tell them that she used the recipe on the Bisquick box. And that her secret to success was pure vanilla combined with buttermilk, as a substitute for the water. The ladies just raved about the moistness of the cake balanced with the crunch of her cinnamon crumble topping.
Their conversation turned to the homes for unwed mothers, after Ida Cochran cheerfully handed around the newsletter from her parish. Ida was always trying to get her neighbors to convert. The mother had no interest in religion, but she did believe in logical progressions. Ida droned on with information about the Sisters of Charity in Kansas City, Missouri. The sisters apparently ran one of the last homes for unwed mothers.
The popularity of the homes had decreased with the rise of the sexual revolution. Ida reported that the home used to house around seventy young girls, but in the past couple years had fallen to a census of about twenty. Ida insisted that these homes were much needed, and it was a damn shame that they were becoming extinct.
Ida’s information combined with the library research piqued the mother’s interest. If and when her daughter came home, she determined that she would enroll her daughter in the home. In fact, she had already sent a letter requesting an application for residency. It would be simple enough to convince her husband that their daughter was troubled. She would tell him that a cousin of hers out west was willing to take their daughter in, until she could finish high school. He would agree, and that would be that.
The fact that her daughter was returned to them solidified her resolve. The only obstacle left to her plan was the daughter herself. How would she convince her daughter to go along with her determination? It would take a little more calculation, but it was not an insurmountable problem.
The bag of M&Ms sat on the bench seat between her and her mother, while they drove to Kansas City. When she was a little girl, her mother always let her buy a candy at the grocery checkout. It was a small luxury allowed by an exacting woman. Besides, the mother was pleased that the little girl chose the M&Ms, for they were also her favorite. But the girl never knew because they didn’t talk about favorites. They talked about education, after school chores and curfew. For the most part, she followed the rules of the household to keep the peace. Except for this recent runaway business.
And her condition, that’s what her mother called the baby, opened up conversations she never expected to have with her mother. Her condition led to the unexpected gift of M&Ms, a sort of peace offering, she supposed. She was relieved when her mother suggested a change of scenery. Obviously her dream of hopping a train, and making a new life for her and the baby was short lived. She didn’t want to admit it to her mother, but living outdoors, and being by herself was lonely. Before she never minded being alone. But now that a second life was within her fifteen year old self, she was scared of being alone.
She was brave when she burned down the fort, but facing the policeman and the hospital people, and eventually her mother, drained all her courage. She felt like she was shrinking inside, instead of expanding like a normal pregnant person. She reached over to touch the candy package. She wanted to sort the candies by color, the way she always did. Then she’d eat the green ones first to get the grossness of green over with. For some odd reason she hated the color green. Then she’d eat the dark brown ones, followed by the yellows and then the reds, saving the tans for last. As a little girl, she pretended the tan ones tasted like caramel covered chocolate. Now, she believed they all tasted the same no matter what color you ate first or last. How did her mother convince her this was the best option?
The option to go live in a home with other girls in her situation seemed reasonable a couple days ago. Some days she felt like the adults in her life knew best, but most of the time she lacked any confidence in their ability to truly love. Maybe this home in Kansas City knew how to love her and her baby. She picked up the M&Ms, tore open one end and poured the unsorted candies into her mouth, chewing as many at once as she could, until she emptied the bag.
A lattice screen separated them.
Mother, I don’t want to confess today. I’ve confessed the same things for over fifty years now. I just came because you asked me to, remember? Can I ask you a question, Mother? Did you ever want to have children?
Do you remember that I almost had a baby? I lost her in Kansas City. I buried her deep inside me after that. Soon after that, I ran away from that place you sent me. I hitch hiked to St. Louis, and lived under the bridge with other lost babies.
Compassionate women would bring us soup and socks in the winter. One of them offered me a job at an adoption agency, as a housekeeper at their home for unwed mothers. She helped me apply for aid, and I went to school to become a counselor. And eventually, I helped other mothers, either keep their babies or give them to another mother who couldn’t have her own babies.
Mother, I’ve saved so many babies by helping them find homes of their own. But I never did have any babies in St. Louis, not of my own.
Can I tell you something else, Mother? Every baby I ever held in my arms, I pretended they were my own, before I gave them away.
Mother . . . I miss you.
She knelt next to the lattice screen and placed an old tin can next to the back porch, where her Mother used to sit snapping green beans on a summer night. There was exactly fifty-six dollars in the can.