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Friday, February 25, 2005

THE HOME.......

The Home

The small office smelled of freshly-waxed wood. A paper weight, calendar, pencils and pens, a black notebook and a framed picture of three small children were carefully arranged on a large, shiny desk. The rest of the furniture took advantage of limited space: a combination end table and book rack filled with out-of-date Ladies Home Journals, a floor lamp, two captain’s chairs, and a tall metal coat stand. It was summer and only a pair of small red rain shoes had been left behind.

Marisa sat next to her mother. Her father stood gazing though the dust-covered window. They had avoided each other for weeks now, but she instinctively knew his expression. Eyes squinted, as if to contain his anger, his jaw muscles pulsed. It was the same look he gave her mother when she pushed him too far. Lately it seemed like he was always on the verge of exploding. His bright red neck bulged around the edges of his starched white shirt. The back of his jacket was wrinkled from the long car ride. He was jingling the changed in his pants pocket.

Marisa’s mother sobbed, rolling a tattered tissue around and around her stubby fingers. A stout woman, her cotton dress stretched across her large breasts. Streaks of gray were noticeable in her once black hair. Deep wrinkles formed around her eyes, tired from crying, found their way to her colorless mouth. Her jaw quivered, ever so slightly, as she glanced again at the back of her husband’s head.

Marisa focused on a faded blue flower in the worn rug beneath her feet. Her long hair was pulled back and hung limply over the back of the chair. She had always been small for her age and even now, no one could tell her secret. She wondered what Gabriel was doing. Did he think about her any more?

“Would you like to stay here, do you think?” her mother asked.

“I guess so,” Marisa answered without looking up. Without feeling anything. She had practiced this non-feeling now for weeks. It was beginning to sink in.

“You know we’re only doing what’s best for you. Isn’t that right, Jack?”

Her father didn’t answer and Marisa shifted in her chair. Her back hurt. She could hear footsteps outside in the hall and the door opened with a loud creak and her father swung around. Her mother stood as though to salute, dropping her crumpled tissue onto the rug.

A tall woman entered quickly, hurrying to barricade herself behind the desk. Her brown wool dress was out of place in the summer heat. Unfashionably long, it was squeezed tightly at the waist by a thin, plastic belt, causing large pleats of extra fabric to drape around her hips. She had made no attempt to cover the paleness of her face with makeup, and her gray hair was styled only with silver-colored bobby pins, cropping the hair oddly above her ears.

“How do you do? I’m Helen Cantac and I’m the senior caseworker here at the Home.”

“Nice to meet you,” Mr. Morey said, lunging forward to shake the woman’s hand. “My wife, Gladys,” he added, motioning toward Marisa’s mother.

“What about this heat?” Miss Cantac blurted out quickly. “My my, it certainly has been a scorcher!”

Marisa wondered if Gabe would write to her. She tried to remember the names of all his brothers and sisters. There were twelve of them, with runny noses and haunted-looking eyes. Gabe and his older brother Mike were the only ones past the age of ten. Last spring she and Gabe had sat on his front lawn while she had memorized all of their names as they ran back and forth, in and out of the house, banging the screen door with each flight. His mother sat motionless in front of the T.V., oblivious to the cries and screams, the endless river of peanut butter, strawberry jam and pieces of tinker toys that carpeted the kitchen floor.

“Marisa! How do you feel about staying with us here at the Home?” Miss Cantac suddenly singled her out.

Marisa didn’t answer and the woman turned to Mrs. Morey, “Have you made a definite decision yet?”

Marisa’s mother seemed to brighten, “We only want what’s best for our daughter, you know.” She smiled and looked furtively once more in her husband’s direction. He nodded solemnly at the social worker.

Miss Cantac beamed, appearing satisfied that these newcomers were on the path to redemption. Marisa wondered why the woman’s father hadn’t put braces on her teeth. Didn’t her love her? Were they poor like the kids who rode the school bus in from the farms?

“Then it’s settled! You two are free to leave at any time, and Marisa can come upstairs with me to see her room and meet the rest of the girls. Do you have your things with you Marisa?”

The girl was silent. Her father volunteered to get her belongings from the car. Marisa’s mother scurried after him while Marisa stood in the long empty hallway and watched through the glass-paned doors. Her father placed her luggage on the porch, the ones that had been meant for college. The social worker marched past her, pushing her slightly aside as she opened the heavy door just wide enough to wave her wrinkled hand in dismissal.

“Visiting hours are on Sundays. In the meantime, Marisa and I are going to get to know each other,” she said smiling.

Marisa started toward the open door, but then stepped back as she saw her father turn toward the car. Her mother waved and squinted into the sun.

Marisa looked up at the woman standing next to her as they waited for the elevator. She noticed that the smile had faded. “Well Marisa, “ Miss Cantac snapped when the doors closed firmly behind them and the car began to rise upward. “I hope that you’ve made up your mind to cooperate with us. Your parents are very worried about you. We wouldn’t want to give them any more reason to be upset, would we now?”

The elevator door opened and the two of them stepped into another long, wide hall. Marisa watched the back of the woman’s legs, the crooked seams that wound around the backs of her calves, as she followed her to the end of the hallway and through a small door where she motioned for Marisa to step inside.

“This will be your home for the next four months! Please unpack your bags neatly into the chest of drawers and Mrs. Stokely will be around to assign your duties. The first morning bell is at 5:30 sharp. See that you are prompt in all that you do here.”

She closed the door and Marisa was alone. The room was dark. She could make out a small bed, a dresser, and a wooden rocker. She walked over to the window and peered through the venetian blinds. It was a nice view of a park. There were rows of neatly pruned rose bushes that faded into lilacs and clumps of tall iris that hung close to the edge of a small duck pond. A woman was pushing a baby carriage along the sidewalk. Marisa closed the blinds and lay down on the bed.

* * * * * *

Two or three weeks passed. The girls at the Home were allowed to sign out on Wednesday afternoon for a jaunt to the zoo, or downtown, or to the corner for a pack of smokes. Of course this all depended on their behavior the previous week, if they hadn’t broken any of the long list of cardinal rules and if the caseworkers could be persuaded to sign the coveted release form.

The brightness of the summer sun hurt her eyes as she stood, still as mouse about to scurry toward freedom, on the front steps of the lumbering stone house. She could hear the sounds of city traffic past a large gate at the end of the circular driveway. She would have to find her way downtown. Buffalo was a large city, and she was used to four corners and one traffic light in her tiny New England village.

The back of her neck felt gritty as she boarded a bus that was headed toward the tallest buildings. Quarter, dimes and nickels stuck to the sweat on her palms and the coins clinked and clanked through the change slot as she ambled to a seat close-by beneath the Marlboro Man. Gripping the seat in front of her she looked up at the cord that she would pull to signal her exit when it was time. People in cars on the street below were honking their horns, impatient and weary with the heat.

As the bus jerked forward an old woman grabbed her arm as she fell into the seat next to Marisa and began shuffling through the contents of a worn out shoulder bag. She was mumbling and at first Marisa tried to ignore her by looking out the windows at the tree lined streets and large homes. People must be happy in there, she thought. “If only they had told me!” the old woman was almost shouting now. “I would have obliged,” she hissed in Marisa’s ear. “Who do they think they are?” Marisa turned at this and the woman looked into her blue eyes. “Just who do you think you are?!” The woman demanded.

Marisa looked down at the tips of her toes and then she smiled at the small and wrinkled woman. “My husband and I are going to have a baby in the fall. If it’s a girl, we’ll name her Sara after his grandmother. Her name was Sara.

The strange woman continued to rummage through paper bags and used tissues that seemed to well over the sides of her dusty, old bag. She pulled out a dark, polished leather photograph case, embossed in gold with someone’s initials, the sort of scrawling lettering on the silverware Marisa remembered from her grandmother’s dining room. The bus swayed as the woman clumsily unfolded the album to reveal a snapshot of a small girl in a flowered dress. Her hair was pulled to one side with a ribbon and she wore polished maryjanes. “This here was my daughter, Anita. She’s all grown and gone now, run off with a fellow on a big motorcycle. Ain’t heard from her in a long, long time.” Marisa studied the girl in the faded picture. She wasn’t cute to speak of and her face was kind of screwed up as through someone had just scolded her, had told her to look sweet for the picture.

“She ran away once when she was only twelve years old,” the old woman gazed wearily out of the window. “Disappeared on a nature hike with the Girl Scouts one Saturday afternoon, her and another girl, Joyce Pruel. I was along as one of the mother volunteers. Those two girls just up and vanished. We called the fire department and the other parents got in their cars and drove all over the countryside until they found them, strolling along happy as could be down an old dirt road that led to nowhere. Said they was runnin’ away to Joyce’s sisters house. I had ta pull Anita out of the Girl Scouts right on the spot and quit myself in embarrassment.”

The bus tilted again as it turned a corner and the woman forced the photo album between Marisa’s fingers. “You just keep that for yourself, ‘cause I don’t have no use for it. Only a lot of heartache. Not even her father could stay put. Not nobody lasts in this world I tell ya.”

* * * * *

City walls closed in around the jostling bus as it finally jolted to a halt and passengers began to make their way toward the opened doors. Marisa followed, turning once as she emerged onto the street to see the old woman grab the coat of a passing tourist.

She began to move slowly along the sidewalk, catching smells of carmel corn and dirty streets. The heat radiated from the sidewalk and for a moment she was back in her grandmother’s livingroom where she and her cousins stood atop the huge heat register in the floor and let the hot air billow inside their flannel nightgowns.

Remembering again where she was she peered into a window display of plastic sandals and red and blue metal sandpails, making her way along the edge of the buildings. She thought she felt the baby move inside her belly as she leaned, exhausted, against the tallest building she had ever seen. Resting her face against the cool of a movie marquee, she strained her neck to see where the building ended and the bright blue sky began. Behind the glass was a picture of a man and a woman in a romantic embrace. Their lips were pressed tightly together as they sheltered themselves from the rain beneath a large black umbrella. Marisa adjusted the old woman’s photo album still riding uncomfortably in her pocket as she approached the ticket office window.

Like the rain in the advertisement that had attracted her, it was cool and damp inside the ancient theater. She sat alone in the back. And as her eyes took hold of the darkness, she realized that she was alone. A melancholy theme song began to play and the faces of a young, blond woman and a strikingly handsome man filled the movie screen and soon, her entire consciousness. Though they spoke in French, Marisa didn’t need to follow the sub-titles to understand the lover’s passions and their stolen kisses. He must return to his wife, yes they were miserable, but the children, and yes, he loved her and would run away with her to the ends of the earth, if only, no, didn’t she understand? There was a constant click clack of the windshield wipers, and Marisa cried as she realized that she wasn’t going to tell him about the baby. He sat with the motor running and smoked a cigarette. The woman said goodbye in a kind of final way and Marisa remembered the time she had called Gabe on a Saturday night and told him the news. He said he would be right over and when he hadn’t showed up hours later she lay down on the bathroom floor and cried, softly so that no one would hear her. The man drove off into the Paris traffic.

And later, after many years had passed, and the sky was filled with snow, the woman pulled into a service station behind the wheel of an expensive car. There he was, with his wife. A young child’s face pressed against the car window watched absently as the stranger filled the gas tank. He seemed familiar with her mother whose face had turned sad. The windshield wipers kept time with the blizzard and the harshness of the man’s features were like her father’s had been that night at the dinner table, the night that everyone finally knew.

* * * * *

The bells were ringing their morning alarm. Her brain pounded inside her skull and her stomach jerked again in a kind of unfamiliar pain. Her back was burning and yet she tried to get up. The toast must be buttered and put on the table, or she would be in trouble again.

No matter, she didn’t move off the bed and suddenly there was a coolness in her spine and she could hear the birds singing their morning song. She wondered if Francine was awake yet. They were going to build a fort today in the apple orchard. No, Francine had moved to Texas years ago. Marisa was alone now, and again, the pain was unbearable.

A light flickered through the blinds and she could barely make out Gabe’s handsome face in the darkness. She smiled and let out a small sigh. “What if it’s a boy? Shall we take him home?”

She couldn’t make out his answer. Maybe he had gone to find the phone, to announce the good news to some of their friends. Jack and Keith and Maggie would be anxious to know what was going on, after all.

“Dr. Fletcher!”

Was her father calling her? Was she later for dinner? Mom?

“She’s not doing so well, Doctor!”

The pain started again at the bottom of her back and ripped across the top of her head. And then, there was a soothing darkness all around her.

* * * * *

A light pierced the room. Someone touched her forehead.

“Do you feel ready to sit up?”

“Can I hold my baby?”

“I have to bind your breast now to stop the milk. And besides, are you sure you want to do that? You remember the agreement, don’t you?”

Marisa’s eyes began to adjust to the dim light of the hospital room. She could see a woman in a very clean, white dress by the side of her bed, holding a baby. Marisa held out her arms, then took the tiny girl close to her heart, all warm and trusting. She looked at her dark, soft wisps of hair, her little eyelashes, her cheeks, and her groping fingers. The only distinguishing feature she could find, the kind that would last through time, was a small indentation on the edge of her miniature ear. Marisa promised herself she would remember.

The two of them cooed and drifted for a long time while the afternoon sun shone through the curtains and silhouetted the young girl and the baby. When the social worker lifted the infant from her arms, Marisa was asleep. The woman carefully readjusted the covers and placed a dark, polished photo album, that had been lying on the bedside table, inside of an open drawer and closed it.
Nancy Louise Cole, 1971

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