Sunday, February 22, 2009


She drove a little further down Highway 61 and turned off in the area known as Pierpont. She waved at Timbo, the Peanut Guy, selling his peanuts on the corner. The neighborhood she drove through was a mish-mosh of all different types of houses in all different states of repair. She turned in to a little parking lot. She and Wyatt lived on one side of two duplexes that faced each other across a weedy, leafy yard. Parking was on the end and a sidewalk ran down the center of the yard, bisecting out to a patio on the front of each unit.

There was a row of azalea bushes lining the parking lot, opening only for the sidewalk. Mr. Granger was out in his little patch of front yard. He was the only person who really had a yard. While everyone else accepted the inevitable lack of grass beneath the litter of several sweet gum and oak trees, Mr. Granger had made it his retirement’s goal to make grass grow.

He was raking, a daily chore. His shorts flopped around his bony knees and the sleeveless tee-shirt showed Maddie more gray hair and saggy old man muscle than she ever wanted to see. He had a straw hat on his mostly bald head.

"School out already?" he asked as she walked by.

He knew full well it wasn’t. Maddie shook her head. "No air conditioning. It was making me sick."

"Making you sick. Maybe if you got out here and learned to do some real work, you’d know what hot was."

Maddie sincerely wished that saying, "Fuck you old man," was socially acceptable. She just smiled. They didn’t have the social worker swooping down on them for surprise visits anymore, not since she’d turned seventeen, but old habits died hard. Keep quiet. Keep out of trouble.

Mr. Granger looked away at the sound of the sliding glass door on his side of the duplex rattling open. Purlee, Maddie wasn’t sure she could remember her last name, stepped to the edge of the patio and lit a cigarette. Purlee was only in her forties, but she looked to be closing in on sixty.

"Don’t throw that nasty thing in my yard," Mr. Granger said, shaking his rake in Purlee’s direction.

"Don’t threaten me with that. I’ll get the po-lice on ya, I will. Crazy old man."

Maddie slowed down as she reached her front door, pretending to search for her keys.

"You’re going to burn this entire place down one day, tossing them things around."

Purlee took a long, deep drag off the cigarette. Maddie could see the tip glow bright red from across the yard.

"That’s why I use your yard, no leaves to catch fire," Purlee said, sending the butt flipping end over end to land almost directly at Mr. Granger’s feet.

"You crazy bitch! I ought to call the police on you!"

Maddie went inside her house, closing the door on the almost daily argument, forgetting it once she felt the cool air hit her skin. She meant to put her things away. She meant to get started on the breakfast dishes. Instead, she dropped her book bag at the head of the hall and flopped down on the couch. When she closed her eyes, the light from the sun peeping through the swaying trees played black and red against her lids. Mr. Granger and Purlee had stopped yelling and she could hear the steady scratch of his rake. It only took a moment to fall asleep.

She awoke with a start, not sure how long she’d been out, only sure that she’d been sleeping by the remnants of an old dream echoing in her head: her hands holding her mother’s head at an angle, her own voice, high pitched and full of teen-age disgust squealing out, "Eeewwww, what is that?"

She sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the couch, waiting for it to fade. "That" had turned out to be the malignant melanoma that took her mother away forever only seven months after Maddie had spotted it on the tender flesh behind her mother’s left ear. It had once robbed her of sleep and peace of mind, that little bit of a moment replayed over and over in her dreams, that moment in which all their lives had changed. It used to be huge, a giant crushing mix of anger and sadness and grief and self-pity that would take her hours to distract herself from.

As she stood and made her way to the kitchen, Maddie couldn’t quite figure out when those feelings had turned in to a mild throb of nostalgic sadness. She supposed some counselor would tell her that it was all right, that her mother wouldn’t want her to grieve forever. It may be true, but it still felt a little like betrayal, that she wasn’t still devastated by the loss of her last parent, her mother, the one that had always been there for her.

She doused the dirty dishes in the sink with soap, then turned the faucet to hot and stared out the tiny window. Mr. Granger had gone back inside. Purlee was standing outside, smoking another cigarette, her grandkids faces and hands pressed up against the glass of the sliding door, watching her. They were still little, two and four years old, with the colorless blond look of shallow gene pool on their slack jawed little faces. Maddie reached down and rubbed her belly and for the first time wondered what it might look like.

She looked down. "Are you a girl or a boy?"

A cold start of fear ran through her. She picked up the sponge and began to wash the dishes. She was going to have to tell someone soon. Someone who could help her figure out how to tell Wyatt. God, she’d fucked everything up. Why hadn’t she just gotten an abortion? It was like this more and more often. She would completely forget about it and when she did remember, the problem ran round and round in her head until she thought she’d go insane. She supposed that in a few more months, there would be no convenient forgetting. Once that belly was out there, there’d be no more hiding.

She had a book, a month by month pregnancy book, hidden under the mattress on her bed. She’d babbled like a lunatic when buying it, sure the cashier didn’t really give a shit whether she was buying it for herself or for the fictitious aunt having her first baby. It all seemed like a subject she was researching for a school project.

A thump on the window startled her. Her eyes refocused and she raised a soapy hand to wave at Tilly, who had thrown a sweet gum ball to get Maddie’s attention.

"Hey girlie girl," Tilly called, loud enough to be heard clearly through the closed window. "Whatchoo lookin’ all serious for?"

Maddie jerked her head, indicating that the front door was open.

Tilly lived next door. She was a tall woman, close to six feet and hugely obese. Maddie and Wyatt had tried to estimate how much Tilly might weigh, but they couldn’t agree. She had a round, pale face that didn’t show a hint of age, but her coarse brown hair, usually secured in a ponytail with the thick rubber bands that came on the Sunday newspaper, was shot through with grey. Even in the hottest days of summer, Tilly wore long sleeved, high collared, ankle length dresses in vast expanses of bright flowery fabric. Maddie had thought for the longest time that it was just to covered her bulk, but one evening the previous winter when Tilly had been cutting Wyatt’s hair, a sleeve had slipped up to the elbow, revealing a forearm criss-crossed and hatched with dozens of thin white scars.

Maddie knew that Tilly’s real name was Chantilly Lace, that her parents had died when Tilly was young also, that Tilly had been married at one time and there was a man who came and went on his motorcycle, bringing the scents of alcohol and marijuana with him. He also brought loud words, muffled tears and once, a bruise high on Tilly’s cheek. Maddie knew that Tilly was on medical disability and cut hair for extra cash. That was about all.

As soon as Tilly entered the kitchen, she began to open and close cabinets. She wasn’t looking for herself, she was taking inventory. Ever since she’d learned that Wyatt, at age twenty, had been given custody of his little sister, Tilly had made it her mission to be sure that he didn’t starve Maddie to death.

"Why’re you home so early today?" Tilly asked as she bent to peer into the refrigerator. "Your milk’s expired."

"No air conditioning."

Tilly was rooting around in the fridge. "Mmm-hmm," she murmured. Maddie wasn’t sure if it was in response to what she’d said or some thing Tilly had found in the fridge.

Tilly held up a potato that was alive with sprouts, one big enough to have leaves unfurling from it. "What the hell is this?"

"A science project?"

Tilly let out a disgusted snort as she dropped the potato in the trashcan. "It’s a wonder you ain’t died of ptomaine poison or that other one, what’s that other bad food poisoning?"

Maddie finished up the last dish and pulled the plug. She leaned one hip against the edge of the counter, watching the soapy water swirl away.


"Yeah, honey?"

Maddie glanced over. Tilly was reading the expiration dates on every item in the fridge. "I’m pregnant."

Maddie felt a white hot shock run along her nerve endings, followed by a wave of dizziness. That’s not what she’d meant to say. She’d meant to say that the yogurt was good a couple days past the stamp date and not to throw out the Yoplait because she would eat it tonight.

Tilly straightened up from her task and turned around. It seemed to Maddie that it took her forever to turn. It didn’t look slow motion, but rather felt slow motion.


Maddie turned on the faucet and began washing soap suds down the drain. Tilly crossed the room and took a hold of her elbow.

It took everything Maddie had in her to force the words out again. "I’m pregnant."

"Well holy fucking shit, girl! How’d that happen? Did you tell Wyatt? What about school? Oh my God, what are you going to do about college?"

Maddie took her time, rinsing out the sponge, twisting the water out, putting it up on the window sill so the sun would help dry it out. She felt a surge of relief at Tilly’s matter-of-fact questions.

"Well," she said, "I guess I couldn’t call it an accident, more like a momentary lapse of reason. No, I haven’t told Wyatt. And I don’t have a clue what to do about school."

Tilly took a step back and her face became so neutral that Maddie knew she was making an effort to appear so. "What are you going to do, honey? Are you going to keep it or, you know?"

Maddie shook her head. "Too late for an abortion. I couldn’t do it. I thought about it. I talked to the clinic about it. I just, I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t do it."

Tilly reached out and pulled Maddie into a hug. She patted at Maddie’s shoulder. Maddie could feel Tilly’s discomfort in the physical contact, could feel it in the tense arms, the slight leaning back. The knowledge that Tilly had made the effort to comfort her in spite of her own discomfort made Maddie start to cry.

Tilly had moved back a step, but she patted Maddie’s arm. "It’s okay, honey. We’ll think of something. It’s not the end of the world, just a speed bump along the way."

Maddie nodded, the lump in her throat too big to allow for speaking, and wiped hard at her eyes, trying to force the tears back. "I need to tell Wyatt, but I don’t know how. He is going to be so mad. I was supposed to go away to school this fall."

Tilly tugged Maddie over to the kitchen table and they sat down. Tilly kept patting at Maddie’s forearm from time to time.

"Okay. Here’s the thing." Tilly said. "What are you going to do? What are your plans?"

"I don’t know."

"When are you due?"

"In October the doctor said."

"So you’ve been going to the doctor? Getting your check-ups?"

"I have medical insurance, until I’m eighteen."

"That’s good. Are you going to keep the baby? Give it up for adoption? What?"

Adoption! The word exploded in Maddie’s brain. Why hadn’t she thought of that? Oh, Jesus. And she was supposed to be so fucking smart? She brought her hands up to cover her face, closing her eyes and rapidly running this new angle through her mind. Delay entry to Duke until January. Figure out how to do a private adoption. Pick out a couple. They could help pay for the delivery, because she would be eighteen by then and out of health insurance.

"That might work," she whispered.

"What might work?"

"Adoption. Tilly, what do you know about private adoptions?"

"You need a lawyer. I know that."

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