A Novel by Susan Warren Utley
In the early morning hours of the third day of the third month of the year, at the precise moment the second hand on the round analog clock which hung in the waiting room of Saint Joseph’s Hospital ticked over to 3:33 and 33 seconds, a baby was born. The waiting room in which the clock hung was empty save one pudgy unshaven man sitting in the corner of the room examining a racing program from Buda County Weiner Dog Races & Slots. Shoved in his pocket was a betting slip with Copper to win and Tyson to show. Certainly he could not have been waiting for a baby to be born. No, there was only the birth mother who lay hyperventilating on her back in Birthing Room 201 on a steel gurney equipped with squeaky wheels and sweat soaked linens, her feet up in stirrups.
The doctor, who wasn’t really a doctor, he was only an intern, was weary from pulling a double shift the result of a lost poker bet with the doctor who was not an intern, but a real doctor, the one fully qualified to be delivering the baby, the one who should have been delivering the baby. Of course that was probably for the best as the fully qualified doctor had a bit of a drinking problem and had on occasion nodded off at the most inopportune moments. Not that his presence could have changed the outcome of the events that had already taken place or even the ones that would follow.
The doctor, who wasn’t really a doctor, held the newborn in his somewhat capable hands and looked doubtfully at the young nurse, who coincidentally wasn’t really a nurse. The nurse, who claimed to be a recent graduate from the Westchester School of Modern Nursing and Midwifery, was in fact almost certainly much more qualified to be delivering the baby, however much less legally permitted, as she had much practice in her one and a half years of schooling before being dismissed on account of her slippery hands. She simply could not seem to master the handoff. Once the little crash test babies had been successfully delivered from the crash test mothers-to-be and handed over to her, they inevitably found themselves flying through the air or sliding across the floor of the birthing room. After being asked to leave Westchester, she forged her certificate and came to work at Saint J’s. In spite of her deception, her intentions were good and she certainly looked the part dressed in pink from head to toe in her reversible pink on one side, floral on the other v-neck tunic scrubs, matching surgical mask and scrub cap, and pink shoe booties. Unfortunately, neither her professional appearance nor her forged certificate of completion from Westchester School of Modern Nursing and Midwifery, could prepare her for the outcome of her first real delivery. She looked nervously at the seemingly lifeless baby then met the doctor’s gaze.
“What’s wrong with it?” a weak voice questioned from the birthing table. “Why isn’t it crying?” It was the birth mother, a young girl of only twenty-three, who while in labor took the cross town Number 5 bus from her job as a cocktail waitress at Bailey Brothers Truck Stop, Café and Poker Lounge. Had she taken the Number 9 to Grace Memorial she would have arrived seventeen minutes earlier. The Number 7 would have delivered her to Legacy Health in thirteen. But she had taken the Number 5 by no mistake and endured thirty-seven minutes of labor pains in the back seat of the green and white transit bus with a driver named Barry who glanced nervously in the large rear view mirror hoping beyond hope that he make it in time. Normally the route would have taken forty-two minutes but Barry had intentionally neglected a few stops on the way as the birth mother huffed and puffed at the rear of the bus. He passed up the stop on Fifth and Main where a frazzled day nanny with five children waited eagerly for the Number 5 that would deliver her charges home to their parents. There was no one at the stop on Sixth and Pine so he didn’t even bother to slow down. At the Eighth Street stop a man with a briefcase and umbrella chased the Number 5 for two straight blocks before finally giving up at the stop on Tenth and Oak where three additional riders stared in dismay as the bus sped by, the driver not even glancing in their direction. At the Twelfth Street stop a small dark and shrouded figure stood off to the side of a green slatted bench and as the rain began to fall it simply stood there, its head following the bus as it made its way down the street and around the corner. The driver asked only once if the birth mother would like to be taken to one of the closer hospitals but she responded emphatically that it had to be Saint J’s. What was so special about Saint J’s? Nothing really except that it was furthest from home where no one would recognize a once pregnant woman as she left the hospital without a newborn in tow.
The birth mother never had any real intentions of keeping the baby. She never wanted it from the start. Well, that is not necessarily true. The baby never really had a chance to convince the birth mother that life with her would not be as bad as she thought. Had the baby come as a package deal with a man on the side to love the birth mother, marry her and take her away from the life she currently found herself trapped in to one that she so desperately desired, perhaps the baby would have been something to consider. But the fact of the matter was this, the baby came alone. The way the birth mother saw it, a baby would be a burden and require so much of her time, energy and money. The pregnancy itself had already cut into her tips, tips that she was saving for tuition to Miss Lila’s College of Beauty and Cosmetology, not diapers and baby formula. Of course, it wasn’t long after she started showing that her boss had threatened to fire her. “It’s not good for business,” Benny Bailey had said to her. Standards were high at the Bailey Brother’s Truck Stop, Café and Poker Lounge but because he was a self proclaimed kind and generous man, Benny offered the birth mother a solution to her “little problem.” He said that he had a cousin named Lenny who dealt in delicate situations such as this and for the right price he would hook them up. Seeing as she had no money to spare, and being the upstanding and trustworthy employer he was, Benny said he would take his finder’s fee from the profits of the sale. “The sale?” The birth mother had pondered this only for a moment before realizing it was the baby that would be sold. She was sometimes slow to catch on but considering her plan was to give the baby up anyway she thought she might as well make a little money. She justified it by convincing herself that it was sort of like rent money for subletting her body for nine months. After all, by carrying this child she was providing a service for a couple who could not have children of their own. She prayed that God would help Lenny find a couple who would take this child off her hands and provide her enough tuition money to fund her studies at Miss Lila’s College of Beauty and Cosmetology. She promised that if He granted her this one wish she would bring beauty to the world in the form of foil highlights, paraffin dips and the end of the unibrow.
“What’s wrong with the baby? Why isn’t it crying?” The birth mother’s concerned expression fooled the doctor who really wasn’t a doctor and the nurse who was young and naive. But the young mother’s concern was not for the child but for the profit the child, but only a healthy child, would bring.
The nurse and the doctor looked up at the young woman with mixed expressions of sorrow and comfort. The doctor stood up still holding the newborn. “I’m sorry but the baby isn’t breathing. I don’t know what to do.” He paused for a moment realizing that his comment did not sound very doctorly and followed up with a more convincing tone, “There is nothing I can do.”
The young mother stared blankly for a moment at the doctor and then the nurse. For nine months she had carried this baby inside her and now all her dreams were slipping away. If she had no baby to sell then she would have to return to her life as a cocktail waitress schlepping drinks to letches who had one hand on the one armed bandit and the other on her. Then her gaze fell to the baby. “So close,” she whispered.
“Would you like to hold her?” asked the nurse.
“Her?” the birth mother asked as she felt just the smallest of pains rise inside her. Not a pain of a true physical nature but one of grief, one that threatened to rip through her heart and never leave. It’s a girl, she thought. It was the first time the birth mother had actually given any thought at all to the baby she never intended to keep. Perhaps it was some sort of survival mechanism that kicked in so that she would not find herself changing her mind once the baby was born and thereby giving up a future of dyeing hair at Joanna’s House of Hair and Wax. She momentarily considered this pain that she felt rising within her. Was this what it felt like to be a mother? No, she responded adamantly to herself. This is the pain one feels when their cash cow is let out of the gate. Besides, it was really more of an ache and it was only for a fleeting moment. She quickly recovered and placed a hand in the air, “No, it’s just as well. I wasn’t going to keep it anyway.”
The nurse dressed in pink recoiled in shock from the callous statement and reached out for the newborn who lay lifeless in the doctor’s arms. Just as her hands moved beneath the still warm and wrinkled skin of the baby’s tiny body the smallest audible of a sound, but not a cry, could be heard and she noticed a tiny fluttering of the infant’s eyelids. The nurse, who had only assisted in the delivery of crash test babies at the Westchester School of Nursing and Midwifery, had never actually heard the cry of a newborn before and this was not what she had expected. After all, the crash test babies made no sound at all even when they were dropped on their heads and slid across the delivery room floor. So in truth she had nothing to compare against but still, what she expected was a sound that cried out for its mother, a sound that demanded to be reunited with the only one it had known in all of its life and was recently separated from in a most unsettling way. But this sound, she called it a sound because it could not be called a cry, had a strange quality to it, one that sounded like a sigh, almost an acknowledgment of the circumstances as they existed. The nurse wondered if she had detected an air of acceptance in the sound that came from the infant, one that said, “ I accept the terms of my departure from the birth mother.” It was as though the connection between the birth mother and the infant was severed upon delivery if it ever existed at all.
The young mother heard the sound as well but in her current state she failed to notice what the nurse had noticed. She sat up in the stirrups and screamed at the doctor, “I thought you said it was dead!” She felt joy and hope in her heart once again. Perhaps things were going to work out in her favor.
“Stop it!” screamed the nurse. “What’s wrong with you? She can hear you!” And she was right. The baby was not dead at all. In fact she was very much alive. She was simply a bit more subdued than most other newborns and perhaps that was because of this acceptance of the transition from womb to world and the fact that there really was no connection between herself and the birth mother. And although the newborn could not define the words being uttered by the pod that she had grown inside for the first nine months of her life, she felt and understood their meaning. It was something that she had grown accustomed to, a feeling of neglect and abandonment. Of course, she had not known that these feelings were bad feelings, as she had no knowledge of any others.
At the sound of the voices of the birth mother and the nurse, the baby made her first real decision in her new world. She decided to try out her own voice. What came from the child was a sound that although it started softly, it grew quickly with such force and volume and pitch that it became so ear piercing that the doctor who really wasn’t a doctor and the birth mother who really wasn’t a mother at all, both raised their hands to cover their ears. The doctor who in the midst of the handoff had forgotten he was still holding the newborn. The nurse barely had her hands beneath the baby when the doctor let go. With the sense that she was falling the newborn’s scream evolved and an even higher pitch came forth from her very tiny lungs. Fear had overcome loneliness and the result was deafening. For as long as mothers have been giving birth to their children, never before has a baby made such a cry. But then never before in the history of births has a baby felt so unwanted and alone. As the sound emerged from her lungs, a tiny breath of air came with it. From the moment it departed the baby’s mouth it became an entity of its own. It crossed between the doctor and the nurse and over the birth mother and escaped through the tiny space underneath the swinging doors of Birthing Room 201. Down the hall and through the waiting room, it brushed across the cheek of the pudgy unshaven man and out the door into the street. It passed the Number 5 bus making its way back across town. It brushed over the dark and shrouded figure still standing in the rain next to the green slatted bench at the Twelfth Street stop and then it headed out of town. It crossed the continents and the oceans and the seas. It raced across the sands of Ethiopia to the land of Hadar where the tiny little wind had picked up speed and turned into a small dust storm, which blew like a beast and uncovered what could only be a human bone. The wind swirled around the bone and then inexplicably reversed its course and retraced its path across the seas and the oceans and the continents and returned to its origin back in Birthing Room 201. It reentered the newborn’s lungs and brought with it bits and pieces of knowledge from the objects and people it touched along the way.
The nurse who really wasn’t a nurse flashed back to the multitudes of crash test babies that she had dropped in the handoff between doctor and nurse. She vowed at that moment not to let it happen again. She dove to the ground and caught the newborn just in the knick of time but the scream ensued. The observation mirror that hung above the birthing table began to crack. It cracked in two and then in four and eventually shattered into a million tiny little pieces. A shower of reflective glass rained down upon the four of them. When the last of the shimmering pieces fell to the floor only one shard remained in the oval frame that once held a mirror that had witnessed a thousand births. It was then that the baby stopped crying and silence filled the room. The baby was reflecting on mountains and seas, pyramids and sand, green and white buses and little dark things that waited at the side of the road.
The nurse, the doctor, and the birth mother looked from one to the other in shock and then checked themselves over for wounds. Surprised they had all made it through unscathed, the birth mother whispered, “Isn‘t that some sort of bad luck?” Suddenly, the swinging doors of Birthing Room 201 flew open and the pudgy unshaven man who sat in the corner of the waiting room, rushed into the room. The nurse, the doctor and the birth mother yelled in unison, “Who are you?” Without missing a beat, the pudgy unshaven man replied, “I’m Lenny, the birth father!” The nurse looked to the doctor, the doctor looked to the birth mother and the birth mother, who was now not so slow to catch on responded, “He’s the birth father!” The young mother fell on her back on the steel gurney and the birth father, who really wasn’t the birth father, rushed to her side and whispered in her ear, “Good job sweetie. You just earned yourself five thousand clams.” These were his final words as the last remaining shard of mirrored glass fell from the oval frame, plunged into his back, piercing his heart and killing him instantly. The birth mother leaned over the side of the gurney looking down at the body of the pudgy unshaven man. “Five? I thought it was ten! How am I supposed to pay for top quality beauty school on a measly five thousand dollars,” she said aloud not caring if anyone heard. Then she flopped back down on her back realizing that her bad luck had only just begun, “It had to break a mirror. I just knew that baby was bad luck from the start.”
To be continued…
© 2008 Susan Warren Utley All rights reserved.