I wanted Annette out of there. I wanted her here. My child. My third child. I could help her. I would be better for her. Because Neva was either crazy, or a whore, or both. Not a mother. God bless the child that’s got his own. -- Billie Holiday When Bill came home, he found no dinner. The house was a mess. I was hiding in the closet from the children. It was after seven. The time, where had it gone? We had played hide-and-seek for three hours. Bill’s feet were wet, had been all day. He was painting a maintenance-free house out east, and he and the other painters’ feet were sprayed every day by a sprinkler system that went off at the wrong time like clockwork. He took off his shoes, kissed Frankie and Sarah, said hi to me and Annette. He went to the kitchen, made and ate five peanut butter sandwiches and drank a quart of milk. Then he went into our bedroom and fell asleep with his clothes on. Of course, when the children saw him eating, they jumped around the table begging for food. Bill just ignored them, staring at his newspaper. I led them out with the promise of making dinner. I boiled water for macaroni and cheese. That, and peanut butter, was all we had. I found myself wishing. I knew better than to wish. As the children ate their macaroni, I felt wishes knotting my stomach, just the same. All there was for breakfast was cornflakes. Bill would want more than that, but at least it would be Friday. If he didn’t have to work late, we could grocery shop right after he got off work. When you fill your stomach with worry, eventually you burp. The children laughed as though gastric problems existed only for their entertainment. I had been keeping Annette every day for two weeks by then, but her mother hadn’t paid me yet. When Bill asked last Friday, I said I wouldn’t get paid for another week. He rolled his eyes, but said nothing else. He predicted this would be an act of charity, which he didn’t mind, I don’t suppose, but it couldn’t go on forever. I wanted to earn some extra money, but money wasn’t the only reason I kept Annette. And money wasn’t my only worry. I was worried I’d have to report Neva, Annette’s mother, to AFDC. Neva and Annette lived down the street in one of those garage apartments that looked ready to lean over and die. I noticed Neva right after she moved in, because Neva was a woman you had to notice. Every afternoon she strutted down the street to walk Annette home from school. I mean, she rolled and ambled to the full force of her weight. She looked like Mae West in tight blue jeans and her makeup arrived five minutes before she did. She always had fancy combs in her short blond hair and wore large dangling earrings. Often she talked loudly to herself. But on her way back with Annette, she seemed to shrink to her daughter’s size. They were always engaged in laughter and chatter. Every day, as I sat on the porch watching my children, I marveled how the conversation with a child made that woman’s garish face so pleasant. When they passed in front of our house, Annette’s chatter quieted and she stared at my children and their toys. One day, she just stopped and begged her mother, “I wanna play there, Mommy, please, Mommy, please.” “Can Annette play with your kids here?” her mother yelled to me. “Uhh, yeah,” I answered. “Okay. Make her be good,” she said to me, and winked. The mother eased down the street, the daughter scampered into my yard. At the time, I didn’t even know their names. Annette was one of those strikingly beautiful children that are sometimes born to interracial couples. Her hair was white blond and hung in soft kinks past her shoulders. Her skin was a milky brown. She had almond-shaped gray eyes and soft African features. I was embarrassed that the first adjective I thought of to describe her was sensual. Yet she possessed that lanky, carefree grace that models affect through camera angles and strict diets. “What’s your name?” I asked her. “Annete Juanetta Morgan.” “Hold are you?” “Eight.” I remembered the requests of men, uncles, and friends of my father, the smell of beer spilling out with their laughter, “Pretty girl, let me touch your hair, come sit in my lap. Have some candy.” “Be nice to your uncle,” my mother said, gesturing at me with her beer can. Pictures that never get taken from the wall. Annette played well, asked for candy and fought for toys. Her mother never came for her. When it was almost dark, I walked her home. She didn’t want to go and insisted her mother wouldn’t mind if she ate with us. The door to their house was open; I could hear a woman’s laughter. Her mother was dancing by herself to synthesized music, turned down low. She was surprised to see us, stopped dancing, arms in mid-air, and glared, momentarily. She dropped her arms and said, sweetly, “Was she bad?” “No, not at all, she was fine. What’s your name?” “Neva. Neva Morgan.” “Well, my name’s Katy Thomas. Annette can come to play with my kids anytime,” I said, leaning close to her to check her breath. It was an old trick. I used it on my parents. If there was alcohol on Mom’s or Dad’s breath, I could better predict the future. Neva smelled only of perfume. I said good-bye and left. I felt bad about suspecting her. Bill says I can’t go around suspecting everyone to be like my parents. But what kind of mother would leave her child all day with someone she didn’t know? Perhaps she is naive, I thought. Neva left Annette with us almost every afternoon. On Saturday and Sunday, Annette would show up in the mornings and not leave until sundown. “I guess we got our third child,” Bill said, sitting on the porch with me on Sunday. She wore her welcome quite thin. When I told her we were going somewhere, or that the children couldn’t play, her lip would poke out and she’d drag her feet home. Once, she just sat on the porch, glaring at us as we drove away. About a week after school was out, Neva came over with Annette just after Bill left for work. “Can you keep Annette today? I gotta find me a job. Them folks down there are tryin’ to move me outta my house. I ain’t got no food! The school used to give Annette breakfast and lunch. Now I gotta do it and I cain’t. She ain’t ate since yesterday. That ain’t right.” Not since yesterday! I looked at Annette, hugging her knees in the easy chair, sucking her thumb. “Neva, have you tried to get food stamps?” “Yeah, I got them damned food stamps. AFDC too. It ain’t enough. It don’t last ‘til the end of the month. I got to find me a job. If I cain’t I’m gonna have to sell my pussy. I don’t wanna haveta sell my pussy again. But that what they want. That’s what everybody want is for a woman to be down so low she gotta sell herself. That’s what welfare want. Want to keep you hungry so you sell you pussy. Get a job, they take that welfare away so you still gotta sell yourself. I don’t want to. I don’t want to do that again. But I cain’t let this baby starve. I gotta find me a job.” There wasn’t one thing I could think of to say. I felt dazed watching her pace around the living room, her arms flying in all directions. Sarah and Frankie were quiet, mesmerized by this large, raving woman. Annette hugged her knees. She was going on and on. Her language was getting fouler, her voice louder. I had to yell to stop her, “Yes, Neva. Yes. I’ll keep her while you look for a job.” She looked around as if she didn’t know where she was. Then she smiled, “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you as soon as I get a job. Gotta. Gotta find me a job.” “I’ll feed Annette,” I said. “Huh? Oh, yeah. Thank you. She don’t eat much. Skinny thing. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.” When Neva left, Annette sprang back to life. Her thumb came out of her mouth, and she said, “Let’s play red light green light.” Stirring batter and putting together sandwiches controlled some of my fear of what Neva had said. Annette ate like a horse. Then she laid on the couch and slept. I looked at her stretched out in sleep, listened to the rhythm of her soft snores. Who was her father? Was he a John or a trick or whatever they call those men? I wanted Annette out of there. I wanted her here. My child. My third child. I could help her. I would be better for her. No, she shouldn’t have to live with that woman. Because Neva was either crazy, or a whore, or both. Not a mother. Watching Annette sleep, I barely paid attention to my own children. I noticed how well she fit on the couch. I was in love, noticing only her, not the holes in the couch, the unpainted walls. I was slicing potatoes when Bill came home. He was shocked by what I told him. “She said that? In front of the children?” “Yes.” “Do you think, is it possible, that she’s, uh -- off?” “Yes. I suppose it’s possible and likely. But she could be off and have been a prostitute too, right?” He stood there with his hands in his pockets, his face dusty with blue specks. He had been scraping a blue house. Blue was out of fashion. “Maybe you should ask John about her.” I had already thought of that. I would talk to John. Before I got married, John, Bill, and I shared a floor in an apartment building. I had gotten out of my parents’ house. I went to Shelby State during the day and waited tables at night. The tips were tremendous. I felt so lucky, the men taking their unwrinkled bills from their smooth leather wallets. This is for you, honey. I smiled. They swallowed the last of their wine. Thank you. It seemed like so much money. It was my first job. I was on top of it for a while. Something happened to me, though. I started to feel the weight of the past was pinching off my nerves. Sometimes it felt as if my arms would drop off, or my head roll away. I was eighteen. I began to envy the customers, their fine fabrics, glossy nails, and perfect white teeth. They smelled of soft colognes. There was too much ugliness in me, I thought. I imagined the past seeping out of me, marking me like a skin disease. I dropped a tray. I couldn’t hear their orders. “What? What did you say?” They left smaller tips. Left while I wasn’t looking. I couldn’t remember what key opened my apartment door. I couldn’t remember why I had so many keys. The past kept blurring the present. There was no reason to cry. I was out of my parents’ life. John Maxwell found me sitting on the hall floor, practically incoherent. He invited me to his apartment, brewed some thin yellow tea, and put it in a thin china cup in front of me. He said he did the entry counseling at the Methodist Mental Health Facility. “What’s the matter?” he asked. He suggested I join Adult Children of Alcoholics. I went to meetings and clung to the stories of others who were cast out like lifeboats. Our parents had marked the tempo of the room, the beat of the pain, then we each had our chance to improvise, like jazz musicians who close their eyes and tell. The next time I couldn’t find my key, I just waited. That time I met Bill. I lived between a counselor and a lover. In a way I married them both. When Bill found the right key, he opened the door, then took the key chain back to his apartment, where he wrapped the key in bright red tape. “My mother had trouble with her eyes, too,” he said. I had never had my eyes checked. Sure enough, I was farsighted. Bill never tried to solve my other problems. I was talking and talking about the past, splintering the story into its infinite variations, when he said, “Just stop. You know you can have a happy childhood any time you want. Have one now. Take it. It’s right there. Imagine any damned childhood you want.” Bill’s eyes were the deepest brown, almost black, almost a bed of earth, his eyes. Then, he wore the face of a man who saw the world as a challenge. He was going to walk through the week knocking days out of the way. After marriage and children, at times he looked stunned, by his empty wallet, our empty accounts. Yet each night, the children asleep, he checked them, studied their peace. “I guess it’s not about money,” he’d say, pushing his hand through Frankie’s hair. Even in his sleep, Frankie pushed that hand away. Soon they’d need separate bedrooms. Soon we’d need a bigger place. I didn’t want to tie up the present in wishes for the future. It was nine at night before Neva came for her girl. “I got a job,” Neva announced. “I got a job at the IHOP. I’ll be a night waitress. Uh, can you keep Annette, three to eleven? I won’t get paid for two weeks, but they give me meals and I get tips.” “Yes, I can.” Neva hugged Annette. Immediately they talked of what they would buy with the money, a fantastic list of I-wants as if the IHOP paid you real wages. With a face flushed like a child telling secrets, Neva asked me, “You won’t tell, will you? “Tell? Tell what?” “Tell nobody at welfare I got a job.” “No. No, I won’t tell.” Neva pushed her hand through the kinks of Annette’s hair. “Their hair’s a mess,” she said to me. Annette closed her eyes. “She the only one I got left,” Neva said. “I just hope someday I can get my others back.” “You have other children?” I asked. She withdrew her hand from Annette’s hair. “I had me 10 children. All of ‘em dead, so I thought. My husband told me they was born dead. Never let me see the bodies. I heard ‘em crying. I’d go to sleep. He’d say they was born dead. Didn’t get no pictures, nothin’. No funeral. Said the hospital disposed of ‘em. Now I know they wasn’t dead. He was sellin’ my children. I talked to the folks at the hospital. No way I could have had 10 children they said, cause they were in on it. He paid em off. I know he did. I told him to get me back my children, get ‘em back. At least let me know where they are, but he beat me up and left me. Don’t know where, but I’m gonna hire me somebody to find him, when I get me some money. I had to do something for money. Sell my ass, but I knew I wasn’t no mother of dead babies. Five girls, five boys -- a mother knows!” Her face was red. Her breathing was heavy. She spat the words. I stepped back from her, lest her waving arms strike me. “But I had Annette, by God. Alone. She popped out screaming, alive. Annette was God’s message that my babies wasn’t dead. I’m gonna get ‘em back, I been lookin’ around for children that look like me and I’m just gonna tell em that I’m their real Momma. I’m the one that bled and screamed . . . “ Bill walked into the room. Neva’s face changed to a smile. “Excuse me. We’ll be leaving now. Thank you for letting Annette stay, thank you for helpin out. You’re real good people.” “Uh, no problem,” said Bill. The door closed. The house was quiet. I tried not to wish for an unfettered life. Annette was there at 2:30 the next day. Her mother waved from the sidewalk, her tight uniform decorated with smiling pancakes. I waited until after I fed Annette to ask, “Where is your father? Do you know your father?” She took a strand of her hair and began to curl it around her finger. “We don’t know my father,” she said. “My father was someone who raped my mother.” She watched the shock on my face. “But my mommy loves me anyway. She says I’m a gift from God. Can I go play now?” “Yes, yes, go play.” Who would tell a child of eight her father was a rapist? I felt ill. I felt the illness that medical students must feel, learning the truth of the body. What was the truth of Neva? I played running games with them. Freeze tag, hide and seek, anything to keep moving. I could find both Frankie and Sarah easily, but Annette hid well. Often I had to give up. I didn’t want to face what was required of me. There was a free concert at the park that night and we walked there with the kids. Bill pulled Annette, Frankie and Sarah in the wagon. Once they all tumbled out. Annette cried a little, then decided only she should be in the wagon. “No, we have to share,” I said. She looked at Bill. “You’ll let me ride by myself, won’t you?” She smiled, licked her lips and batted her eyes. Bill grabbed the wagon handle and told her, “You heard her, got to share.” She turned, stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes at me. She walked beside the wagon rather than get back in with the other kids. The crowd made her forget her bad mood. It was the first time I’d been in public with her. People I knew asked about her. “Who is this beautiful girl? This is the prettiest child I ever saw. Whose pretty girl is this?” Annette smiled, closing her eyes with pleasure as the compliments rained down on her. Men I didn’t even know asked, “Is she your daughter? She’s so beautiful.” Their hands reached toward her as they asked. I pushed her behind my back. I called John when I got home. I slept with Sarah in her bed that night, after Neva picked up Annette. Sarah’s body rolled toward me, then away. John was there when Neva came with Annette the next day. It was easier to get her to go off than I imagined. “Any news on your other children?” I asked. She looked into my eyes, puzzled, as if she was trying to figure why I was asking. I kept my face still, hoping no guile would show. “No, damnit, no . . .” and she was raving. She showed no modesty in front of John. I wonder if she saw him, quietly smoking, watching her. Foulness punctuated her rage like thunder punctuates a storm. Trying to stop her was like trying to stop thunder. “Yes, but . . . yes, but . . .” I said, but she didn’t listen. I found myself with my arm on her shoulder, then she was easy to turn. I turned her and led her to the door. “You’ll be late for work,” I said loudly in her ear. She looked at me as if she had never seen me before. “Work, shit,” she said hoarsely, “Bull shit, that’s what.” I watched her as she walked toward the bus stop, slowly with her head down, muttering. You want anything to eat?” I asked Annette. “No. Can I go play?” She joined Frankie and Sarah in the backyard. Squeals from them filled the silence Neva left. “Looks like schizophrenia, to me.That stuff about the hospital plotting with her husband to steal children. That stuff about a message from God, sounds real familiar. She hears that stuff in her head, all those plots and things. It’s a disorder. You can say something to her and she’ll read some paranoid message in it. You can report her to AFDC. They’ll get her with Memphis Mental Health Center. They have to use drug therapy. That’s the only way.” “What’ll happen to Annette? Will they give her to the state? Can they give her to me?” “Well, if she goes in voluntarily, they’re very supportive. They like to keep the family together.” The family? Were Neva and Annette a family? I had thought of them as an accident, a mistake, even. “I don’t really know. If she wanted you to keep her while she went in for treatment, that might work. But chances are if you report her, she’s not going to want you to keep Annette. A lot of times, they’re hostile, even after treatment they’re hostile. Of course, you can wait. Looks like she’ll blow up at AFDC eventually. AFDC’ll probably find out on their own.” He stubbed out his cigarette, got up, kissed me on the cheek and left. You can always tell who is having that treatment, those drugs. The way there is no spirit in their walk, the way they roll their hands around an invisible ball, the way they look at you on the street, confused and embarrassed. I rubbed the spot where the memory of John’s kiss lingered on my cheek. I could wait. I could wait for someone else to report Neva. Someone else would, surely. Then Annette wouldn’t remember me as the one who broke up their family. I remembered how I loved my parents at eight. How even though they were lost to me and I needed out of there, how I loved them, when, occasionally, they let me close. Sarah ran in screaming, “She hit me, she hit me!” Annette and Frankie ran in after her. “She did hit her,” Frankie said. “She said a nasty word,” Annette cried. “She said the s word and the f word.” “She was just sayin’ what Miz Morgan said. She was just sayin’ what your mother said,” Frankie yelled at her. Annette’s face went pale. She put her thumb in her mouth. All I could do was give them cookies. They forgot all about it with the sweets in their hands. I tried to hug Annette but she turned from me. That night, Neva said she was fired. “You know know,” she said, “they said I could eat a meal every night, then they said I ate too much. Hell, a woman needs to eat. Won’t give me my check for another week. They hold it back. I’ll pay you then.” She sat on my couch, her body sagging inside the smiling pancake uniform. Annette put her hand in her mother’s lap. “What we gonna do now?” Neva said. She took a brush from her purse and brushed Annette’s hair. She took barrettes and pinned the child’s wild hair into place. She put little gold earrings in Annette’s pierced ears and made up Annette’s eyes. “There,” said Neva. “She looks better.” Annette looked at me, the makeup exaggerating her eyes. “Am I pretty, Miz Thomas?” Yes, yes. Then they were gone. I didn’t see either of them for a week. I walked by their house and it was dark. I imagined terrible things. Would Neva walk the streets? Would she sell Annette to a good offer? I went to the phone several times, but I never dialed the AFDC number. I never did. I kept seeing Annette’s face. I heard her crying alone as they took Neva away. I wished for money. Wished for big charitable bankrolls to handle private hospitals, the expense of another child, the cloistering of a Neva in a miracle. Foolish to wish for money. I had happiness, my family a dream come true. Bill and I could imagine our lives 50 years from now tinged with the same happiness. I saw my past as a murky pond and my children the water lilies nourished there. Useless to desire more. Greedy. Yet, it seemed my only option with Annette was to push her into the jaws of a system I could see, I could see was composed of shortcuts and convenient solutions, gray walls and overworked social workers. Nurses doing double time, doctors in training, on their way up, on their way up to a maintenance-free life. Wish for money, wish for better systems. It’s the same knot. Where could we put a third child? Wouldn’t Neva be forever attached to her? I remembered how they talked on the walks home from school. When they came to visit again, Annette was wearing bright red lipstick. Neva chattered to me. I couldn’t listen. I watched Annette organize my children into games. She played so well with them, though she was eight and they were five and three. “Are you listening to me?” Neva demanded. “Look, Neva,” I blurted, “you need help. You’ve obviously got some mental problems. Everybody can see it. Why do you think you got fired? You’re off, not a lot, but off. They can help you. Why do you think people stare at you? You’ve got to get help. AFDC will help you get medicine. Do you understand what I’m saying? You got to do it for Annette, or something bad is going to happen, something awful.” Neva was still smiling, just as she had when she was chattering what I didn’t hear. “You sound like you been talkin to my husband,” she said softly. She put her hand on my throat, her thumb pressing against me in a way that made me realize my mortality. “If you try to take my child,” she said in a low, sultry voice, “I’ll kill you.” She pulled her hand down, shook it out and examined the red paint on her nails. “Besides,” she said, “we gonna get public housing.” Her eyes shone with happiness. “That’s what I been tellin you, we gonna be movin.” I rubbed my throat. “Annette Juanetta, come on, we gotta finish packing.” Annette’s face had the same look as it did when she found out about Neva’s IHOP job. “We can come back to see Miz Thomas, can’t we?” Neva looked at me with slitted eyes. “Yeah,” she said.” Yeah we gonna come see her some time. You wanna play with her kids, right?” Then to me she said, “I don’t got your 40 dollars now, counta I got fired and I gotta pay this man to move me. But I’m gonna bring it to you. I don’t like to be in debt to nobody.” Annette hugged me while Neva smiled as if her face were made of ice. They walked home. That afternoon, from my porch, I watched them leave. An assortment of odd boxes, a radio, a TV, and one rocking chair were in the back of an old pickup. Neva sat next to the driver, talking and laughing at him. Annette sat next to the window. She waved at me. I haven’t seen her since then. Is it okay? I remember that child. I try to remember her as strong. One day, when she stayed with us, a large flock of migrating birds roosted in the back yard. I’ve always been one to keep the doors open, something about the air in a closed house -- I can’t breathe it. Even in winter, sometimes, I have to open the doors. It was a black bird that swooped in through the front door. The windows, walls and sudden darkness of the house panicked the bird. It screeched like no bird I’ve ever heard. I tried to chase it out, then the children started running around after me. I was trying to throw a towel over it, capture it so I could put it back out. I suppose we terrified the poor thing, but it was fun chasing it. We were slow and it flew around knocking things over, banging into the windows. I finally got it, though. It pecked me through the towel. When I let it go, the birds roosting in the yard followed it away from our house. Annette had sat on the couch the whole time Frankie, Sarah and I chased the bird. She sat there, her feet crossed, kicking back and forth, studying the movement of her feet, humming a tune I didn’t recognize. She didn’t seem to notice when the chase stopped. She just kept kicking and humming. I sat beside her on the couch, out of breath. Slowly she lifted her gaze from her shoes to me. She looked afraid. I smiled. She smiled back. “We got the bird out,” I said. “I know,” she said. Then she got up and organized a game of bird. Frankie and Sarah flew around the house with her, flapping their arms and chirping the songs of cartoon birds. Perhaps she can always make a game out of chaos. I wonder sometimes if I should have done something different. Since she has been gone, I find myself looking in every crowd for her. As surely as Neva looks for her stolen children, I look for Annette. If I see her, I don’t know what. Joy Tremawan now goes by her married name, Joy Allen. Her work has appeared in such publications as Oxford American, Sassy, and American Fiction: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Authors. She works at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. Click here to find more information on this year's contest.

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