I take pictures of pretty clouds because it’s easier than photographing what’s at eye level. I don’t want to put a camera in that woman’s face. She isn’t me, so she wouldn’t understand that sometimes I feel like I am her.
I parked my minivan in the Wal-Mart parking lot and stepped out, the hot wind rippling through my black sundress. It was really pretty – the dress, I mean – cut like a long sari with gold embroidery and feathered white panels. Sometimes a $30 dress can inoculate you to all the problems of the world, even with clashing plaid platform flip-flops, at least for three minutes or so.
I strode toward the bakery entrance; I was here to purchase light bulbs for a fish tank, and maybe a bag of oranges because I’d been fighting the flu. As I watched me and my flowing shadow pass over the oil stains like a low-lying cloud, I brushed too close to a car I thought was empty – a tiny gray coupe in the worst shape possible, something driven out of a nightmare or a junk lot, half its pieces missing and broken. It was double parked on the diagonal yellow stripes.
I didn’t know it was full of people until I was already upon it. Above the busted headlight I glimpsed the driver and realized she’d been watching me and my self-satisfied amble for quite a few car lengths. I diverted to give respectful distance to the nub of her rearview, but I was close enough to smell the stale upholstery, to touch duct tape holding her door together, the rust and the gashes and the mismatched paint. The engine was turned off, and the back window was closed. The glass reflected the passing orb of my T.J. Maxx purse, and also the faces of three babies inside – one sleeping in a hot car seat, two curly headed toddlers squirming in the sun beside her, an older one in the passenger seat. So many little bodies, like a pile of kittens nesting in trash, so trusting of the shitty world that apparently gave them life and nothing else.
The woman’s dark ponytail was gathered like a sheave of burned wheat. Maybe there was meth in her wiry arms, or desperation, how else could she let them all sit there in the baking sun, not going in the store but not leaving it either, not seeking shade or relief, just stalled out over a black puddle, hanging by a thread because death had not yet showed up. I didn’t just walk by her; I walked through her. I could feel her what the fuck, her must be nice, bitch and I entered the automatic doors of Wal-Mart still clinging to the squalor of those babies like a right hook in the gut. I slowed, as if to go back, but my heel wouldn’t turn.
What do you need? I would ask her. But I couldn’t ask her that.
It was this dress, my dress made it all wrong. It wasn’t the uniform of a fellow warrior, it was the beacon of naiveté, of free time and hobbies, of a non-addicted white girl who just paid $45 to have her oil changed AND her interior vacuumed.
Do you need any help? said the imaginary me, leaning in her car window with a sack of McDoubles and a mesh bag of Florida oranges. Here ya go, this should solve all your problems.
Who were they waiting for anyway, and would he kill me if I interceded into his demise? Maybe he’d follow me and rob me for drug money? Maybe she’d spit at me for daring to assume they were doing anything but being just fine, thank you.
But couldn’t I do something? I had $20 in cash.My minivan was clean and the AC worked and I had newish tires and a full tank. She could sleep in my bed and I could fill up the bath for her babies, I could pour their favorite cereal in the kitchen and make them feel what I sometimes felt when everybody was clean and fed and I had a quiet space to stir my tea: It’s all going to be alright.
But I kept walking straight, because it wasn’t going to be alright. I let her snap off behind me like a slingshot, out into the dusty broken-down distance, to a place I wouldn’t ever have to see or live in, because for some unknowable reason I was born here and she was born there, and that was a fact not made better by unwanted charity or free cheeseburgers. I bought a bag of oranges for myself instead and peeled one as I drove home. They smelled sweet and fresh, like forgiveness from a beautiful dying world.
At home, I hung up my dress, screwed the bulb in my daughter’s aquarium lid and watched her fish swim indifferently around in their dirty tank, their world now a much brighter shade of decay. I flipped the TV channels, pausing to watch a mother run to hug her small children, her edited happiness somehow coercing my tears– how good that must feel. I’ll take a happy feeling wherever I can get it, even a canned version. My life is full of dirty creature comforts, but my arms are well accustomed to a sterile kind of emptiness. A mother separated from her children is the cruelest kind of pain; a mother with no money to care for them is just as bad. A careless and cruel man well, he’s just par for the course. I’ve lived the former and grazed the latter, and my scarred up heart has a hair trigger response to the sound of a crying child, to a woman whose eyes tell you she is teetering at the end. I haunt the trenches where she is taking fire.
On a different evening, another young woman stood outside a different Wal-mart. I noticed her because her baby looked like my son— those fat little legs trying to stand, tiny hands grasping the edge of the cart like a captain on a sinking ship, it reminded me of those days back then, how hard it was. This was just a passing thought, and then I was onto the next thing.
But an hour and a half later, as I wheeled my weary bags back out the automatic doors, there she was. She was still there. Still there.
I slowed to do a double take. How could she still be here? It was almost 11:00 at night. The baby was wailing on her hip, poor tired thing. She was screaming into her cell phone, pacing, crying, while onlookers withdrew and whispered. In her cart was a new car seat wrapped in plastic. It was one thing to see an irate woman; another to see one so obviously desperate and struggling with a baby. Her distended stretch-marked belly hung over her jeans and drew my heart like a shield; the wounds of her birth were fresh and no one was protecting her, no one caring for her. I found myself staring at these bystanders, at their complete apathy and judgment, their pale unmoved faces like sacks of flesh in the sallow light, and suddenly it was just a microcosm of the entire earth, of humans who pick their teeth in amusement while a woman slides down the edge of a knife.
“Can I give you a ride?” I asked, pulling my cart alongside hers. My voice was submissive, offering no more than a sister in crime.
“No ma’am,” she sniffed.
She was so young. Not more than 19.
“You sure? I have a car seat. I have two.”
“Yes ma’am, no thank you. I just had to go and buy one.”
So I turned my back reluctantly, and retreated.
“Ma’am?” I glanced back to see her catching up with me, and my relief was palpable. “Actually, if you don’t mind?”
While she dried her tears we loaded my van and I cleared the junk off the passenger seat. I cooed to her son, though he would have none of me.
We drove in silence for a while, and she explained that her boyfriend took off with the groceries and the car, leaving her and the baby with nothing, and no way home.
“Why would he do that?” I asked.
“I went in the dressing room to try on some pants,” she said, dabbing at her eyes. “And he said I went in there to cheat on him.”
“What, with the baby?” I scoffed.
“I know right?” she laughed. “I love him, but he can be so…”
“Yeah, well,” I sighed, or growled, and then tried to soften it to a whisper. “Just so you know, he’s abusing you. Leaving you and the baby like that with no ride? That’s abuse.”
She said nothing, and I hoped it sunk into her arm like a needle. I pulled into the Best Western like she asked me to, and waited outside with the baby while she dragged the car seat into the lobby. I bounced him in my arms, trying to calm his crying. But he strained away from me, reaching his arms to the door where his mother’s shape had disappeared. He wanted her, only her. Only his mommy.
Sometimes I have a rabid need to to save every mother, to soothe her baby for her, to fix what can’t be fixed, to make right what can never be made right; I am besieged. But the babies don’t need my arms, they need hers, and her battle isn’t mine to fight. The only thing I can really do is see for her, to bear witness to every black stain underfoot in a Wal-mart parking lot, because each one is a mother’s leaking lifeline. I am beholden to her pain, but can only illuminate it from a distance. All I can do is know what it’s like. And in knowing, understand that I’ll never know how hard it really is.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016