The round toes of her sensible shoes were barely visible among the fallen leaves. The sidewalk beneath autumn’s litter was smooth and level, but her pace slowed as she neared the backyard on the corner. Her thin gray coat ruffled in a gust of wind, its mismatched buttons barely holding it in place. Will she be outside? Will I get to see her face? If she’s indoors I’ll just walk on by, like so many other times. Thoughts whirled through Augusta’s mind as she neared her destination.
She was glad the sidewalks were empty. It was no secret she used to have four children and now had only three, but people who knew her story never spoke of it. She was ashamed of what she’d done, but, as a farmer’s daughter, she’d learned early on about the harshness of life. It hadn’t felt like she had a choice, even as she made it.
A waitress raising four children on her own, in 1920s Detroit, was but one of many sad stories. A regular customer had heard of Augusta’s situation and they became friends, or at least friendly. Over the course of many meals they got to know one another, though they never sat down together. They chatted as Augusta brought sandwiches and soup, and Judith always left a healthy tip.
Augusta told family and friends when Ottis left. She’d thought her husband may have gone back to Alton, Illinois. He’d talked about that town like it was a slice of heaven, and had chosen Alton for his son’s middle name. Augusta contacted people in Illinois she’d heard Ottis mention, but they denied knowing where he was.
She was afraid her children would end up in an orphanage, all of them. She’d had to work to feed them all, which left them home alone. The two older girls, Ivon and Thelma, twelve and thirteen years old, looked after their little brother, Buddy, and the baby. Sometimes, exhausted at the end of a workday, Augusta watched her daughters deftly changing diapers and wished their lives were easier. She could provide care or she could provide food, but it seemed impossible to provide both.
Lottie was an infant when her father walked out of their lives, young enough to perhaps be unharmed by an adoption. It wasn’t clear to Augusta exactly how she’d let it happen. Judith and her husband had always wanted children, but after many years they’d given up trying. They promised to love and care for Charlotte. They could give her a good life and would provide money for Augusta to care for her family, what was left of it.
Augusta strained to remember how the question had been asked. We were friends. No, we were never friends, we exchanged friendly words. I said too much and heard more than I should, feeling sympathy for someone who had so much more than I’d ever have. Sympathy sailed both ways in those conversations and now, since the adoption, we rarely speak.
She shuffled through the leaves, hoping to see her little girl in someone else’s backyard. There she is. She’s wearing a white pinafore I could never afford. She looks happy and healthy, but what could I do if she wasn’t? I couldn’t pick her up and take her home. And what if I did? What if I reached over that fence and hugged my sweet Lottie to my chest and ran away with her? I can’t do that. I can only glance over as I walk by, like any stranger on any sidewalk, and hope to hear her laugh.
The little girl in the perfect pinafore jumped up from her toys and toddled toward the sidewalk.
I know I shouldn’t be here, but I can’t stay away. Lottie has seen me too many times and her voice pierces me.
“Hi.” Augusta ignored her, her throat spasming with the effort.
Tiny hands touched the woven-wire fence. “Hi.”
Augusta looked away, as if the voice had come from across the street. The last time she’d seen that face was the day she handed over her sleeping baby. She thought she’d felt the worst pain of her life on that day; she didn’t know the ache would persist, that it would stab her in the night and torture her days.
A voice called from the house, “Charlotte, come inside, dear. Come along, come along.”
I named her Charlotte but called her Lottie. Now she is someone else’s Charlotte.
Augusta’s sensible shoes headed for the other side of town, where the leaves fell on cracked, uneven sidewalks.
Arrangements Were Made
Augusta’s parents encouraged her to continue helping Cookie a few days a week. Mama said, “There’s a lot ta do fer one young girl.”
Simon liked Augusta’s cooking and even complimented her gravy, which was getting better with practice. Augusta came in the afternoon when her work at home was done, and stayed through supper. She could see how tired Cookie was.
One night when Augusta started toward home, Simon said, “I’ll be walkin’ ya home tonight.”
She was surprised by the offer and answered, “That’s okay, it ain’t nearly dark out.”
He took the bag from her hand and said, “I’ll carry this fer ya. We got some talkin’ ta do.”
They walked in silence until they got to the creek, where Simon cleared his throat and started in. “Yer papa an’ me been talkin’. Ya been handy ’round the house an’ I’m not used ta bein’ alone so much.”
The back of Augusta’s neck went cold. What was he talking about?
“Ya know ’bout men an’ women, an’ I’m a man. Yer just barely a woman but yer one fer sure.”
Her neck turned hot and her stomach churned. They walked in silence until he asked, “Ya got nothin’ ta say?”
The silence followed them to her door, where she hoped to escape to her room, but Simon walked into the kitchen behind her.
Her parents sat at the table like they were waiting for her, and they weren’t surprised to see Simon. Simon gave her father a questioning look and her mama stood up and said, “Come along, girl.”
They went out the door and walked to the bench near the vegetable garden. Mama sat and patted the seat beside her. Augusta didn’t want to sit, but when Mama patted the bench again she did, her spine so straight it almost hurt. Mama began, “Did Simon ask ya ta marry him?”
“If that’s what he meant, it ain’t what he said.”
Mama took a breath. “Some men have trouble sayin’ things like this. It don’t mean he don’t mean it. Did you answer?”
“I didn’t know he asked.”
“Don’t be silly, girl. Simon is a good man, he works hard, he’s honest, an’ he wants you as his wife.”
“But, Mama . . .”
“Don’t but, Mama me. A man like Sim—”
“But Mama, he’s so old. He’s older than Papa. He’s—”
Mama wouldn’t let her finish. “He’s fit an’ strong, an’ if you outlive him you’ll have children ta take care a ya, an’ in the meantime you’ll have a home an’ a family. Yer papa an’ I can’t be feedin’ ya ferever.”
“But, Mama, he don’t go to church an’ he never let Cookie or her mama go, neither.”
After another deep breath, Mama said, “Betty an’ I were longtime friends. That’s the only problem she ever had with Simon. She said he was a good husband an’ father, an’ he earned the respect a church-goers ’round here by bein’ a better man than most a them. She told me she never regretted marryin’ Simon.
“No more buts from ya, girl, or ya could just but yourself into dyin’ alone.”
“Mama, I don’t love him.”
Mama took another long breath. “Love ain’t all it’s cracked up ta be. A home an’ food an’ family’re more important.”
“Ya think I should do this?” Augusta couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“Look at yer choices. No young’ns gonna have a house an’ farm ta offer. They won’t have a life a hard work ta show ya what they can do. Ya’ll be pickin’ a pig-in-a-poke an’ lucky if ya find anythin’ close ta what yer bein’ offered.”
“Mama, I’m thirteen.”
“My mama was twelve when she got married.”
“But ya said Cookie’s sister was too young ta be runnin’ off ta marry, an’ she was fifteen.”
Mama straightened up for another breath. “It was the runnin’ off that was ’er trouble. She knew ’er papa wouldn’t approve a that boy. Yer papa approves, I approve, an’ ya need ta think ’bout what yer choices are. A good, honest, hardworkin’ man ain’t easy to come by.”
They sat in silence, each waiting for the other to concede. Mama spoke into the darkness. “Ya think about this, really think bout yer life, how ya think ya could do better. We’ll talk again in the mornin’. I’ll go tell the men they’ll have their answer tomorra. Yer papa won’t be near as easy on ya as I been.”
She walked away, leaving Augusta alone in the dark.
The Garbage Truck
Mel held the receiver out to Augusta from the kitchen pass-through. “It’s your daughter.”
“It couldn’t be, we don’t have a phone.” She put the phone to her ear and Thelma blurted, “Buddy was playing in a cardboard box in the alley and the garbage truck ran over him the police came and they took him to the hospital and I don’t know what to do.”
When Augusta handed the receiver back to Mel, her hand was shaking. Mel rushed around from the kitchen. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
Jim and Ben burst through the door like they were on a police raid. “Did Thelma call you? We told her to use the neighbor’s phone.”
“She called. How bad is Buddy?”
Jim kept talking while Ben guided her to a chair. “If the amount of noise he was making is an indicator, he’s going to be just fine.”
“He was crying?”
“He was screaming like a little banshee, and that’s a good thing. When little ones get hurt they make noise. If I get a call where an injured kid is quiet, it means they’re too hurt to cry. I hate those calls.”
Ben knelt in front of her, holding her hands in his. “We can’t take you to the hospital in our squad car, Tony and Patty may be in trouble for taking Buddy. We get off in an hour and we’ll come back and get you. You won’t get there any faster on the bus.”
Mel walked around the lunch counter. “I can get you there right now.” He called over his shoulder. “Jane, put the closed sign on the door and stay here until everyone finishes up and leaves.”
Jane walked toward the door. “Once I close up, I’ll go check in on the girls.”
Mel took off his apron and smoothed his forever-messy hair. “Close up the kitchen, be sure to turn everything off, and take whatever you want for the girls’ dinner.” He had his jacket on, held Augusta’s coat for her, and spoke over his shoulder to Jim. “You said they took him to the Children’s hospital?”
“Yeah, it’s not the closest but it’s the best for kids.”
Ben added, “And it don’t cost a fortune.”
They stood in the hospital hallway, Augusta, Mel, and the doctor. The doctor was tall and lean with dark hair and dark eyes. According to his white coat, his name was Wayne. Augusta wondered whether that was his first or last name. She couldn’t remember what he’d said when he introduced himself. “Your son has multiple bruises and lacerations, none of them serious. But his right femur suffered multiple fractures and we’re prepping him for surgery.”
“Can I see him?”
“We can let you see him in a few minutes, but he’ll be sedated. I don’t want you to be alarmed by that.”
“Have you filled out the paperwork?”
“Yes, that’s all done.”
“Your son is one lucky seven-year-old.”
Mel spoke up. “What’s so lucky about being hit by a truck?”
“To have major injury to a single limb, a single bone, is rare in a case like this. And the surgeon operating on your son is one of the top orthopedic surgeons in the country.”
“Kind of proud of yourself, huh?” Mel smoothed his hair.
“I’m not performing this surgery. If his injuries were to his hands, I’d be your guy. The Children’s Hospital . . .” Augusta couldn’t believe Mel and the doctor were having some male contest here in the hospital hallway. She heard the doctor mention the surgeon studying with a doctor named Bircher in Sweden, “renowned worldwide in Pediatric Orthopedics,” whatever that meant. The doctor looked from Mel to Augusta. “Your son is in good hands.” Finally, something I can understand.
Buddy looked so tiny on the gurney. Augusta knew he was sedated, but he was too quiet and she fought back panic. There were cuts and bruises on his face, but that was all she could see, and they looked pretty serious to her. She touched his hand beneath the sheet. “Buddy, how many times have I told you not to play in the empty boxes in the alley? After all those warnings, you’re not getting any sympathy from me.”
A nurse walked in. “We’re ready for him in surgery. The waiting room is at the end of the hall.”
Augusta squeezed her son’s hand. “I’ll be here waiting so I can bawl you out when your eyes are open.”