St. Margaret’s Hospital for Women in Dorchester had been delivering babies for over a hundred years. Gabby, a young woman in the shelter I founded and managed had four of her children, all of them eventually taken away by the state. If it’s a girl, I want to call the baby Hope because this might be the baby to turn Gabby around, get her off stealing and the white stuff, and jumping into cars to get the money so she can buy it. Gabby will name the baby just what she pleases. The rumor on the streets is that a baby born addicted will send its mother to jail. She bats those big blue eyes, wraps me in those long lashes, and whips me in another attack of the gimmes.
“Please! They’re going to induce me. My fluid is drying up and the poor thing might not be peeing or there’d be more. The baby has nothing to wear…some of those body suits with snaps they call onesies because those T shirts end around its neck when I try to burp. And one of those little stuffed animals. I like to put them in the crib.”
Gabby got me in a lot of trouble at the place she was when she called. I’m listed in the Yellow Pages. She lied and said they were forcing her to have an abortion, with a belly so bloated she couldn’t zip up her jeans. Me and another pro-lifer practically kidnapped her, with the safety sirens going off at the door. If the other girls hadn’t rifled her luggage, I never would have known that this wasn’t her first baby as she claimed. I had to call her foster mother for more information.
“Gabrielle always delivers healthy babies. I know she has a problem with drugs but never when she was pregnant. Her mother had 12 different husbands and all of them sexually abused Gabby. That’s all I have time to tell you. I’m on my way to mass. Good luck!”
I was ready to scream, but this is a powerful and prayerful lady. Husband’s some kind of biggie. I wasn’t even Catholic. And even though I had taken fund-raising courses at Harvard, I wasn’t good at asking for money. Some probably thought I was one of those bleeding-heart liberals, but I lived in Brookline where there were four abortion clinics, and I felt that God had called me to save a few, teach these women how to survive, how to take care of their babies in a world gone crazy. I had a donated Smithfield ham in the freezer and didn’t know whether to raffle it off to pay the electric bill, or to eat it. Gabby would disappear for days and then come back, begging for forgiveness, blubbering, on my waterbed, feet all blisters, eyeliner smeared in the hollows of her eyes, tired of running.
Gabrielle never stays in one place for long. “I’ll be good. I promise. Just one more time. Please.”
“Can it, Sarah. The bus is leaving on schedule and I’ll buy you a ticket if you leave without trashing my place.” The egg-crusted breakfast dishes lay in the sink while she’d been primping in the bathroom mirror. Her face lights with some kind of feral genius, facing me. “Oh, you’re good.”
Once she had me thinking she was having a miscarriage on my living room floor. And though she seems to sleep peacefully, she claims to be tortured by nightmares. Especially about the youngest baby tumbling from a third story window when a screen was loose. She’d been giving a bath to another child at the time. Sometimes she climbs into bed with me, after the nightmares, and she lets me hold her. Gabby is like a quilt someone started and gave up on. As much as I try to piece it together, confidentiality laws prevail. I have psychiatric consultants, always ready to help. “She’ll bury you,” said one.
Gabby loves it when I call her my Number 1 Girl to make her feel special. She hums in the kitchen. Hates her legs. Sleeps in her pantyhose, yet Ivory soap upsets her skin. She says her mother is a junkie, sends her out to steal. When they fight over welfare checks or drugs, Gabby sleeps in doorways, scared to death. When she comes down from the coke, she calls me to come get her from the darkest, scariest street corners. Most of the time she arrives like royalty in the front seat of a cab, conning some poor jamoke from Haiti, how her “mother” will pay the tab. She will run and hide in the farthest corner of my place, until the knock at the door and I write a check. Sleuthing, I go to South Boston to meet her mother. “Gabby just pops these kids out and leaves them as if they were puppies.” One of her sons had killed himself.
I figure Gabby has been pregnant since she began menstruating. Something’s wrong with her plumbing, she says. She can’t take the pill. Or if God didn’t want her to be pregnant, she wouldn’t be. She gives me the number of her social worker, who violates protocol by telling me the last time Gabby visited the child who’d had brain surgery after the fall from the window, she stayed all of ten minutes with “someplace to go.” This turns my heart into beef jerky. I tell her to take the T after that. I can hardly believe any mother could be so cold-hearted.
But the Catholics are big on forgiveness. Some of their goodness has rubbed off on me. I wasn’t the perfect mother either. Once I screamed and screamed at my little boy because he forgot the ketchup for the fries at McDonald’s. So, I know the guilt Gabby carries. Hard to forget a little body tumbling over and over, even if you weren’t a witness. And I am no stranger to rape and the nightmares.
There’s been plenty of pot helping me keep it together. I can’t stop loving Gabby, even though there are other girls who need me. In my heart, though she often threatens to report me to the authorities for running an illegal shelter, Gabby is really my Number 1 Girl, the daughter I never had.
Somewhere the boundaries between us blur. Gabby comes in and crabs about the slobs I take in, fluffing the pillows on the living room couches, tightening the sheets that cover them so the wrinkles don’t show. Sweeping the floor, she lectures how I should take better care of myself. We trade roles, Gabby and me. Shoes. Nightgowns. Tears. Everything but underwear.
When I grouse about some purist who thinks I’m unholier than they are, Gabby gets real, runs her cheek against mine so I can smell the Home Shopping Network perfume someone donated. Too cheap to steal and sell, she lets the bottle sit on the side of the scruffy tub. I leave to go to the store and when I come back, my VCR is gone and so is Gabby. From the foster mother I learn Gabby’s gone to New York to live in a mobile home with a married man. Gabby calls it Paradise. The woman took her to the Greyhound, gave her money for a bus ticket, and a diamond chip for her neck. Gabby uses the money for coke and calls me.
She shares letters from one of the babies’ daddies in jail. Murder, perverse sexual acts, tongues and bodily fluids. A cocaine poem so moving, she copies it and sends it as her own to another one of her daddies in a detox. “When Carlos is bad, they make him sit on a log for hours at a time,” she says. Detox is where she belongs, but she worries they’ll take this baby the way they took the others, “They have a great place for women, so I won’t need you anymore.” The little jut to her chin tells me she still has some pride.
The prenatal nurse at St. Margaret’s Hospital for Women tells me that Catholic Charities will be my biggest obstacle. I’m not sure what she means. I just know that when I brought my very first girl to them, all they gave was a $20 voucher for formula. My hope for this baby is growing dim. Most times I’m successful in reconciling my charges with their families after the baby is born. I follow the eerie sound of a loud thump thumping to Gabby’s room where she is strapped to a machine, connected, for once, to something. Gabby smiles wanly, her lustrous black hair looks unwashed for days. The nurse watches a print-out from the machine, with a hand on Gabby’s distended middle near a naked brown birthmark. A red heart blinks above the window on the contraption. I put my pink plastic sack of baby goodies on the radiator by the window.
Gabby’s voice is husky. She’s been fighting flu and under her nose is raw and red. “I wish I told you to bring a hair dryer and some make-up. I look a mess. The latest ultrasound indicates a five-pound baby. Her heart is beating strong.”
“I’ll bring you anything you want tonight,” I say. But when I call in the afternoon, I’m told she has checked herself out. A few weeks later, when the baby girl is born, I visit the nursery window with one of my volunteers who is good at phone soliciting. Despite his predilection for wearing women’s clothes and lipstick, we both get a little teary-eyed at the sight of the little pink bundle. She had a tiny elf cap on her head.
“Makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?”
“I guess so,” I say. Gabrielle had exhausted me and I had another girl waiting, threatening suicide if I didn’t take her in. Phone calls to make. At least this baby didn’t end up in a snowdrift or stashed in a dumpster. Gabby had plans to go to her sister’s. I was grateful as I never get enough sleep. Thank you, Jesus. I am still a little miffed Gabby didn’t call the baby Hope. What would we do without it?
A few months later I got a call from Gabby’s social worker. If I didn’t tell her where the baby was, I could go to jail. So, I ratted her out, coward that I am. And I wasn’t surprised when Gabby showed up where I lived in a dilapidated old car driven by one of her henchmen. He was asleep in the front seat. Gabby met me on the sidewalk.
“We came to kill you,” she says, face clouded with grief. “You’re the only one who knew where we were. So, I know it was you. Don’t deny it.”
My legs feel so weak I have to lean on their car. All I’d had to give her was my love and that hadn’t been enough. The balm for pain is stronger. “I won’t,” I say, reaching for words beyond my fear; “I had no choice.”
Rachel Cann has been writing stories since 1991 upon receiving an MFA from Emerson College. Her bio and some stories can be found at rachelCann.com