This post was written for inclusion in the Soulful Summer Creative Writing Challenge hosted by They Are All of Me. As bloggers, we love to write. But in blogging, we focus on informative or opinion style pieces, which have a more direct, conversational tone. Creative writing challenges us in many ways and allows us to pull out all of our literary tricks to spin a riveting, humorous or heartfelt story, and express a part of deeper self that we may not frequently share.
She knew she shouldn't have left the window open. Not in this place. But last night was hot as hell-fire and Queenie couldn't sleep. The child ran hot and the mid September temperatures peaked in the evening. It took hours to cool the small second floor bedroom Queenie and Martha shared. Martha was grateful to sense winter coming, though it was a few weeks away.
She needed to get up. Reggie might have work for her today but if she wasn't quick down the stairs he'd leave without her and she needed money badly, as always. There were other ways to make money, she knew, and she had done those things a time or two but she hated it. She didn't want to consider it now.
Slowly, she opened her eyes and yawned. Queenie would sleep while she dressed and got some breakfast if she could manage to slip out of bed carefully. Oh so quietly, she slid to the side of the mattress and set each foot to the floor. Sitting and then standing in a single fluid movement, she glimpsed the tiny creature in the bed who gave a loud gasp but continued her deep and heavy breathing.
Queenie was her world. The tot was only a year old, yet Martha could scarcely remember a time without the little girl. Queenie's father was No One. Martha didn't know his name and she couldn't recall his face. The baby was a souvenir of a carefree life spent dancing and drinking and getting high. She had a lot of men in those days and enjoyed herself immensely. When she realized she was pregnant, she fell in love immediately and left that world behind.
She crept towards the dresser, careful to miss the numerous floor boards that would squeal and wake the baby. The laundry was backing up because she hadn't had the money to wash it. In her mothers house, laundry was just laundry. A chore that she hated but did because she was made to. Here, in this place, it was a luxury that caused her guilt on many fronts. Laundromats aren't cheap when you barely have an income. Spending money to wash a weeks clothes meant less of the other things Queenie needed to get by, but she could get in trouble if she let Queenie run around in clothes that stank and had food spills on them. Sometimes when she would look over at Queenie and see the food running down her shirt, she wanted to scream at the little girl. She sometimes felt overpowered with helplessness and anger.
Pulling a twice worn shirt from the middle of the pile, and a pair of shorts that could pass, she dressed quickly. There were crackers on top of the wardrobe and she lifted them down, flipped them over in her hand and checked the clear wrapping for any sign of bugs. She munched them as she slid open the dresser drawers to examine Queenie's neatly folded outfits.
Martha walked to the bedside and stared at the girl. She knew she needed to hurry, Reggie wouldn't wait all day. But the tender cheeks, fluttering eyelids, and soft easy rhythm of Queenie's breathing lulled her into momentary ease which she loathed to interrupt. Finally, she reached out and softly patted her back. Queenie grinned before she even opened her eyes and Martha scooped her up and hugged her tightly. Whatever happened today, she knew she could get through it because when it was all over, there would be Queenie. As long as she had Queenie, the rest of the world could burn around her and she would still be okay.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Old Ma was sitting at the table in her stained yellow night gown. She had a cigarette in one hand and a celebrity magazine in another. “Awe, baby!” she said, and put down the article and the smoke.
Martha gently set Queenie on her lap and started pulling cereal-making items from the cupboards.
“Reggie still here?”
“Uh-yah,” yawned Old Ma, “you'd better hurry though. He ain't gonna wait around all day.”
“You got her?” Martha nodded at Queenie.
“You know I do! Get out of here, go!”
Martha set the bowl of cereal down in front of Queenie and kissed her cheek, then she kissed the top of Old Ma's head. “Love you both! Thanks!”
Reggie was standing by the front door. “Girl, you late! Get yo ass in the truck!” She was startled, but he was grinning. She bolted out the front door and climbed into the passenger seat of the beat up seventy-two Chevy. Looking back at the old house hoping to see Old Ma and Queenie at the doorway, she was suddenly heart sick at the state of the rambling old place.
It was a large house, to be sure. It could almost qualify as a mansion. Some of the houses on this street certainly were mansions, but you couldn't pay most people to live in them. Some had been converted to small apartments. Many were abandoned and falling apart, home now to drifters and a haven for people wanting to get high.
Reggie and Old Ma's house faired better than most. Reggie kept up with it the best he could, but he was old and so was his wife. They bought the house in the 80's when the prices were dropping and couldn't believe their luck. They soon learned that it wasn't luck at all, but a neighborhood on the decline. Martha knew that the place she lived in – the place her little girl was growing up, was a place most people went out of their way to avoid. She felt the rage again. The hopeless anger, born in a place called fear. Fear of what this place would turn her child into, if it allowed her to grow up at all. And guilt. My, my, my, that guilt – for being so damned poor.
Driving through the neighborhood did nothing to lift her spirits. Every house she passed looked hopeless. She sometimes wondered what it looked like in it's prime, when the hundred year old houses were new. They were once, for certain, and full of rich people. She wondered what made the rich people leave, so that houses which were once homes to the elite upper class were now only fitting for the poverty dwellers.
“Where are we going, Reggie?” She asked.
“Old house, up here on Ninth. Said it needs roofing.”
Martha thought that sounded like a good job. At least it wasn't inside where the smell of waste and old crack had permeated the carpet and wallpaper and the cockroaches no longer feared humans. The smell of an old house like that will get stuck on you.
“Did they say how much we'll get?” she asked tentatively. Reggie always stiffened when anyone brought up money.
“Fifty for the day. I take thirty, you get twenty.”
Martha nodded. It was what she was expecting, but not what she wanted to hear. She was lucky, she knew, and she was grateful. Without Reggie, she would have no way of making money – except that other, terrible way. But half of that would pay for the laundromat and Queenie needed new socks and shoes. She was also nearly out of cereal and her state funded food benefits ran out a week ago. Besides, Martha knew she couldn't last the day on a few stale crackers, she would have to get a cheeseburger for lunch and that would take a quarter of the days earnings.
Martha met Old Ma and Reggie just over a year ago. She had been out on the streets for several weeks, sleeping in abandoned houses or under bridges – anywhere she could. She made money the only way she had available to her at the time, and it was enough to buy herself some food and clothes and take care of her most basic needs. She could have made more if she wanted to, enough to get herself an apartment and maybe even a car. But she worked minimally, just to keep from starving. If she hadn't been pregnant, who knows. Perhaps she could have embraced that life.
Sitting at the bus stop one day, she saw Old Ma. The crone was staring at her in that knowing way that told Martha she knew everything about her. Right away Martha was aware that Old Ma could see her entire story written all over her face and her uncombed hair.
“Yo Mama kicked you out?” asked the gritty old voice. Martha clenched her teeth and nodded.
“You don't have no home?” came next. Martha shook her head, staring at the ground instead of looking at the dark, thickly lined creature who knew more than she wished.
“You been to the doctor?” Martha felt her face burning. Of course she hadn't been to the doctor!
“Girl, you in trouble.”
And Martha broke. She fell apart right then in there in front of that old woman and the old woman had not one ugly thing to say about it. Her voice was soft and cooing as she stretched her arms wide and wrapped them around Martha who was shaking with sobs. “There, there, girl. There, there. I'm gonna help you out. Don't worry.”
When the bus came to take Old Ma back to her house, Martha went with her. Her throat burned with swallowed pride, every step of the way. But Martha knew what would happen if she didn't go. They don't let homeless mothers walk out of the hospital with their brand new babies.
Old Ma and Reggie could not have been sweeter or better people. Martha soon learned that taking in sad, poor, desperate people such as herself seemed to be their personal mission in life. Sometimes the people were worthy of their help and other times they weren't. But Martha vowed from the minute she passed the threshold to show these fine people that she could be fine too. She knew she would never be able to repay them for what they did for her, but she would try.
Old Ma took Martha around town the next day and got her identifying paper work. She wouldn't even let Martha pay her own bus fare. Soon after, she went to the department of family services to get set up with medical and food benefits, and any other assistance she qualified for. That swallowed pride nearly burned straight through her throat. In the end, Martha was able to go to the doctor and to her relief, discovered that she was carrying a perfectly healthy child. And she realized after being told so that she had nearly convinced herself that her baby was sick and deformed due to her lack of medical care and prenatal vitamins.
Martha was able to give some of her assistance money to Old Ma and Reggie, just to cover their expenses of keeping her. After that, she needed to earn some sort of income to break even on. She didn't own a car and the bus isn't free; she found that getting a steady job was pretty much impossible, even at a McDonalds. Those jobs were in high demand in this place and usually went to people who could afford to take better care of their appearance, and didn't walk around with baby vomit on their clothes.
As soon as she was recovered after the birth, Reggie started taking her to job sites with him. Reggie knew people who would pay good money “under the table” for workers to patch up those crumbling old houses and that was the way he made up the difference between getting by in the Modern World and his social security checks. The other workers didn't think much of Martha in the beginning and made some cutting remarks about a “little girl” getting paid the same as them when surely she couldn't do half the work.
Reggie agreed to split his earnings with her just to shut them up. But the owners of the houses always gave them a fair share anyway. Martha straightened her back and dove into the work without pause. She never complained or claimed there was a task she was incapable of. She went home night after night, sore and tired and beaten bloody, but the minute Old Ma put Queenie in her arms, she felt relief wash over her.
Even if the baby was fussy, Martha didn't mind. Motherhood is never easy and Martha had her moments like everybody else. Those intense, rage-filled moments that sometimes came right out of no where. But Martha is a wise mother and she knew that most of the time, her anger was the result of her ever present fear. She spent most of her pregnancy knowing that when the baby came it would be taken away and she would be punted back out onto the streets. Now, living in a dilapidated inner city neighborhood in a falling-down house with an elderly couple and some other questionable tenants, not to mention living on public assistance, she felt she was under the eye of Child Protective Services at all times. She believed they were just waiting for a reason to take the baby. The condition of the house alone caused her worry. The look of the people out walking the streets in the evening gave her chills. She didn't dare put a toe out of line. And she didn't dare do anything at all that would darken Queenies world more than it already was.
Every time Queenie needed something that she couldn't afford; when Martha would see other children with new shoes, a new bicycle, toys of any sort, fresh hair cuts, it felt like a reflection of her own failings – evidence of her inability to care for another person. How dare she have this child and not be able to give her the things that every child deserves! Like a second name on her birth certificate or a nice air conditioned home in a peaceful neighborhood – one that wasn't riddled with gun fire night after night and decorated with gang tags.
Reggie pulled up outside of a massive victorian house. It was clearly older than most in the neighborhood and Martha wondered briefly what the landscape might have looked like when it was new. She also wondered for a minute who used to own it. What did that family look like? Certainly nothing like hers, a young unwed mother, a baby and a couple in their seventies. For Reggie and Old Ma certainly were her family – far more than any blood relative who could have claimed her.
There were already several workers on the roof, peeling off shingles and throwing them down to the ground. Marthas stomach lurched. The house was three stories tall. They didn't mean for her to climb up there, did they?
Reggie saw the look on her face and picked the thought right out of her head. “You stay down here. I toss the shingles down, you carry them over to that dumpster right there.” He pointed a crooked finger towards the corner of the house.
Martha exhaled and smiled gratefully. Reggie grinned back at her, shook his head and ambled towards the scaffolding to make his way onto the roof. After a moment, she walked up to the house. The other workers had already started and there were shingles all over the yard. She picked one up, noted that it wasn't heavy, and set to work picking each one up and tossing it into the dumpster. This was an easy job compared to a lot of the others she had done. She wondered how long it would take the men to pull the shingles off and what she would be asked to do after she picked them all up.
Looking up, she saw Bo talking to a man who was obviously the homeowner. He waved and winked at her. Martha flushed and smiled back. She had a crush on Bo, he was always so nice to her. But she wasn't interested in a relationship or men at all right now. She had Queenie and Queenie was her world and that's the way Martha wanted it. Bo was adorable and maybe one day many years from now she would consider dating but right now the thought made her feel sick.
Old Ma and Reggie tried to set her up on a date with their nephew shortly after Queenie was born and it was a fiasco. It led to some really awkward and hurt feelings all around. Martha wasn't the least bit attracted to the boy, who had just graduated from high school and was just accepted to the state university. Why Reggie or Old Ma thought setting him up with a young mother was a good idea, Martha couldn't figure. But when the boy found out Martha had a baby, he lost it. His fresh, sweet demeanor was replaced suddenly with vile disgust. He cut the date short, called Martha a ghetto rat and nearly dragged her out to the car. Martha spent the rest of the night holed up in her room. She didn't tell Reggie or Old Ma what happened, but, they knew. They heard what he called her.
Martha was deeply humiliated. She swore off dating indefinitely because the last thing she wanted was a man to come in and save her from her life. She'd do that herself. She didn't know how she would do it, but she knew she would. Life wasn't going to give her much of a choice.
She could get by as she was for a little while, but Reggie and Old Ma were... old. They weren't going to be around forever. Reggie was already twice as old as anybody else clamoring around on that roof top. How many more years did he have to supplement his social security checks with “under the table” work? How much longer would Martha be allowed to tag along?
Besides, Queenie was growing so quickly. Old Ma kept saying it was time to get a plastic potty seat. Martha looked at them the last time she was at the store. They cost an entire days work! And that was just the beginning. Soon, that baby wouldn't be a baby anymore and she would start to notice those things that other kids had that she didn't. She would expect toys on her birthday and clothes that weren't stained before she even got them. She would want and need stuff, like all kids do. The condemnation rang through her head in her mothers screaming voice, “What are you going to do, Martha?! What are you going to do!”
Martha felt that searing, stinging despair and pushed it back. Those thoughts were defeating and she knew it. She had no answer but she knew one thing: twelve months from now won't look like today. Something will happen to change the circumstances because that's what life does. It changes your circumstances whether you like it or not.
The social worker at the welfare office had Martha on a list. There were grants available to young single mothers such as herself to go back to school. Martha had her GED: her mother had helped her that much before kicking her out for keeping the baby. When her name came up to the top of the list, she could go to college. College! For her! It was almost unimaginable. Almost. Ghetto rat, indeed. Martha humphed and went on working while envisioning the classes she would take and what kind of career she wanted to prepare for when Some Day came.
Her stomach grumbled loudly just as Reggie climbed back down the scaffolding. The shingles were off of the roof and she had just thrown the last one away. They would go get some lunch from the burger stand up the road and then the home owner had more work for them inside the house. Martha cringed when Reggie told her. She was perfectly happy to stay outside, but she wouldn't complain.
Martha and Reggie were always the demolition and clean up. Carpenters would come in after to put up drywall, install showers, sinks, tubs and cabinetry, new floors, light fixtures and paint. She never got to see what the houses looked like when they were prettied up again. She tried to envision them without the grime and dust or the stench but it was always impossible. If she hadn't dreamed of getting out of the neighborhood Some Day, she would imagine herself living one of them, all fixed up.
After lunch, Martha, Reggie and the other workers spent a few hours picking up chunks of plaster that had been pulled off of the walls and carrying them out to the dumpster. The house didn't have a foul odor like she'd feared, and no sign of roaches. She was advised to walk along the walls, however, as the middle of the floor was weakened and the owner didn't trust it with so many heavy boots tromping around on it. They would come back tomorrow to pull up the parts of the floor that needed to be replaced. If there were any bugs, that's where they would be hiding. Martha shivered.
Exhausted, aching and covered in sweat and plaster dust, Martha and Reggie finally climbed into the cab of the pick up truck to head home. Martha couldn't wait to hold her baby. What she longed for most was a relaxing soak in the tub with her little one merrily playing on her lap. But the idea of finishing such a bath by putting on dirty clothes quickly ruined the romance. She supposed she would have to put off buying Queenies shoes and socks and wash the laundry at the laundromat instead. She sighed heavily and Reggie mimicked her with a yawn.
It was a short drive home and when Martha walked through the front door, she was comforted immediately by the smell of Big Ma's fried potatoes and sausage and the delightful squeal of Queenies laughter. She and Reggie washed up in the sink. Martha hugged Old Ma and lifted Queenie out of the highchair, plastering her with kisses which Queenie returned exuberantly. She sat at the table with Queenie perched on her hip. Old Ma pursed her lips and tutted, but didn't tell Martha to put Queenie back in her highchair. The dinner was delicious both in flavor and in conversation.
Old Ma was a talker and she had a colorful way of speaking that Martha thought felt like music. Listening to her recount the entire day which in truth was completely uneventful, sounded perfectly fascinating. The baby ate all of her breakfast; the postman came and went; Charles Who Lives Upstairs fixed the gutter that had fallen off the back of the house last week; the baby had lunch; the baby crawled around the house; the baby nearly climbed up the stairs by herself; the baby needs to start potty training; the baby, the baby, the baby. Everything Old Ma said had a ring of cheery laughter behind it and Martha knew that Old Ma's days were happier with Queenie than they had been for a very long time. Queenie was almost as much Old Ma's baby as she was Martha's and that suited Martha just fine.
After supper, Martha helped Old Ma with the clean up while Reggie had his bath. As the sun was setting, the old couple staggered off to bed, the both of them so tired they could scarcely stand upright.
“Don't be up late. We gonna leave early agin tomorrow,” Reggie declared. Martha promised she wouldn't, toted Queenie up the stairs to grab the laundry and headed back out to the laundromat.
She hated being out in this place after sunset. She hated bringing Queenie with her. She wondered momentarily if child protective services would try to take Queenie away if they saw her walking through the streets at night in the midst of these scary people with the baby sitting in the basket on top of the smelly clothes. She kept her head down and walked quickly up to the corner.
She didn't dare set Queenie down inside the filthy laundromat. She didn't want to anyway. Even though her back was on fire from the day of bending and lifting and carrying, the soft squishy human bouncing around in her arms was the best feeling she had ever known. She fed her dollars to the quarter machine one handed, loaded the washers and put in the soap. She then sat down to play with her baby while the machines whirled and spun away.
Queenie was a bundle of giggles tonight. Martha hoped she would stay that way. She hoped Queenie wouldn't want to be put down to explore, that she wouldn't get too sleepy or hungry or cold or hot. It was a race with the machines to get out of here before Queenie decided she wasn't having fun anymore.
When the clothes were dry, Martha sat Queenie on the table beside her and hastily folded them. She then checked the babies bottom to see if it was safe to set her on top of the clean laundry and marched out the door. She walked quickly – but not too quickly, all the way home.
Inside, she locked the doors and climbed the stairs. Charles Who Lives Upstairs was just leaving for his night shift. He nodded to Martha as he passed her. He was the only other resident on this floor at the moment and she was glad. Sometimes Queenie had a hard time falling asleep and would cry because she was too tired. Those nights were frustrating enough without worrying that there were others in the adjacent rooms who were unable to sleep because of it. She used to fear that those people would be so mad at her they would call Child Protective Services and tell on her for not being able to calm the baby down.
Martha decided it was too late for a long soak in the tub and decided instead to take a quick shower. She stripped the baby and carried her in with her. She didn't know if Old Ma had given the baby a bath today or not, but it was easier to always keep the Queenie at her side. She soaped them both up quickly, rinsed off the same way and stepped out again a minute later.
All she wanted was her bed. To crawl into it with Queenie beside her, leave the day behind and picture how bright their future would Some Day be. The pictures were already forming in her head as she dressed herself and the baby lightly and opened the window to collect the cool outside air. She couldn't just put Queenie in bed beside her and expect her to fall asleep. She needed to dance first. Queenie loved this part of the day as well and started rocking in Marthas arms.
“Ohhhhh! Dance?” Martha trilled ecstatically.
“Da! Da!” said the baby, bobbing up and down.
Martha wrapped her arms around Queenie and hugged her tightly to her chest. And then she danced in wide, exaggerated movements. She skirted left and then right and dipped and lifted. It was a ruse, but Queenie did not know. She started it off fast and fun with spinning and much excitement. Queenie laughed and laughed. Then Martha calmed it down. Gradually, her movements became slower and smaller. The baby began to settle down and soften in Marthas arms. When Queenie gave a deep shuddering yawn, Martha calmed it down even more and allowed it to become monotonous. Soon, she was just swaying gently back and forth. She felt Queenie give into sleep. It was a sudden collapse of all tension. Martha knew she had to give it minute longer or the sleep wouldn't stick. Queenie would pop her head up as soon as she set her down.
Slowly, Martha danced towards the bed, flipping off the light as she went. She gently laid Queenie down, and in one fluid movement, she laid down beside her. She rolled over and looked up at the blackness that was the ceiling and listened to the sounds of outside. She heard cars squalling passed and people laughing and shouting. The frequent rat-tat-tat-tat was there too, of course. “Oh Martha...,” came the weary inner voice. “What are you going to do?”
She pictured herself in college again. Carrying her books from one class to the next, sitting in lectures, studying in a big library. The thought thrilled her and terrified her. She still didn't know what kind of career she would study for. She thought about becoming a nurse or perhaps a school teacher. Maybe. She didn't know what the process would look like, but she could see the end result. She imagined Queenie at age five, just old enough for kindergarten. They lived in an old victorian house, all fixed up with new walls and floors and kitchen appliances. Old Ma and Reggie would live there too and Reggie didn't have to work “under the table” anymore. They lived in a nice neighborhood where the neighbors were friendly and kids of all ages could play outside after dark. Martha had a job as a business woman and earned a salary. She wore fancy lady suits to work and paid a house keeper for Old Ma and a nanny for Queenie.
As she drifted off to sleep, she knew she could have these things Some Day. And who knows... maybe tomorrow she would get a letter in the mail telling her that her name was at the top of that list. Maybe... Maybe tomorrow would be Some Day.
(Links will be updated by August 9th).
- Destany from They Are All of Me has written a fictional story about the hope of a young mother on tough times, titled "Some Day."
- Amrita Goswami presents Invisible posted at The Mobius Strip.
- Diane Mottl, MSW presents The Hummingbird’s Gift posted at Being Truly Present.
- Amrita Goswami presents The Irregular Painting posted at The Mobius Strip.
- Jessica Clark presents 10 Creative Geniuses Named Ken posted at Kenney Myers.