Laurie Bow Kerchee marked the twenty-third big red X on her calendar and was just about to sit down for a good cry when the phone rang. It was the secretary of Del Valle Elementary School telling her that Annie Kay was in the nurse’s room with a fever. Laurie set her crying time aside, got into her truck, and drove slowly down the dirt road, muddy from a storm the night before, until she reached the highway that led to the school three miles away. She parked and hurried up the cement steps, poking her head into the office and waving at the secretary to let her know she had arrived to pick up her daughter.
Zibah Rascoe checked on Annie Kay Kerchee then sat down at her desk in the nurse’s office and filled out a job application. Several months ago she had received her Master’s in Nursing from the University of California Medical School. Living for two years in San Francisco had made her return to the little community of Del Valle, New Mexico especially difficult. She missed the restaurants and shops and museums, but more than anything, she missed living in a city where she could walk, have a chat with neighbors, and listen to music in nightclubs filled with people who looked like her. But her sister’s recent death left her a nephew to care for. Zibah loved Downey like a son, but she didn’t want to get stuck in a job she could have gotten without her degree because she now had a boy to raise. She had dreams. And she wanted him to have them, too.
Laurie knocked on the wire mesh glass of the door to Zibah’s office. Through the murky distortion of the thick gray window, Zibah read the distress on Laurie’s face.
“It’s just a fever,” she said, opening the door. “I gave her an aspirin about ten minutes ago.”
Laurie slumped down hard into the chair next to the desk and wept. Zibah couldn’t remember seeing Laurie cry more than a handful of times: when she was seven and got bucked off a horse and broke her arm; a couple of years ago when her grandmother Estelle died; and the day she was expelled from high school because she was pregnant.
“What’s going on? Be quick. I need to give a menstruation talk to the sixth grade girls in about ten minutes.”
“We use protection. Foam. I have a diaphragm. When I can convince him to, Dan wears a rubber.” Mindful of Annie Kay in the nurse’s room across the hall, Laurie whispered all the ways she had tried to prevent the pregnancy as though she needed to earn Zibah’s approval before asking, “Can you help me?”
“I can try.” Zibah belonged to an underground network of nurses, activists, and nuns who found doctors in Mexico to provide safe abortions. The group she had worked with in California was larger than that in New Mexico, but she got reliable information out of El Paso. “I can’t take you, though. We might attract attention. The Border Patrol keeps an eye out for women of childbearing age crossing into Juárez. A Black woman with a white woman.” She shrugged off the look Laurie shot her. “I know you’re Comanche and Cherokee along with white. But you can pass.” She shook her head. “I don’t want to get stopped. People around here are already stirred up because the school hired a Black nurse. Some of them would just love a reason to get rid of me, and sending me to jail for helping women get abortions would add an extra dose of pleasure.”
“I understand,” said Laurie. “I can go alone. Just tell me where. I’ll get a room in El Paso and spend the night if I need to.”
“That’s not how it works. We follow the rules, no exceptions. If there are complications, and you have to go to a hospital, or if you get stopped at the border and look sick or are bleeding—and believe me, they can pull you over for no reason other than being a young woman—they can call a doctor to examine you and put you in jail, Laurie, on either side of the border. And the doctor and nurses, too, if they find them. You need to have someone with you who knows what to do. There are two doctors in Juárez whose facilities we’ve approved. They’ll perform the procedure if you are not more than fourteen weeks pregnant.”
“I’m not. My periods are really regular. It’s how I know I’m…“ She choked off the word pregnant. Laurie pounded her fists on her thighs. “I feel so stupid. I’m twenty-nine. I thought I knew how to avoid this.”
“You’re not stupid, Laurie.” Zibah sighed. “It might take me a while to find a driver. I don’t know of anyone within a hundred miles to work with. You’ll probably have to drive to Las Cruces, maybe El Paso. It was easier in California, to find volunteers to drive. It’s much harder here. And more dangerous. Especially for me. To be asking around.” Zibah checked her watch.
“I’m sorry Annie Kay is going to miss your talk. She knows about periods. That I have them and she’ll get them. But I know you have so much more to tell these girls. Things she needs to know.” She managed a smile before going into the room where her eleven-year-old daughter lay on a cot, her cheeks flushed, her long dark hair matted with sweat around her face. “Hey, there,” she said, gently rousing her daughter with hand on her shoulder and a kiss on her forehead. “Let’s go home. You got all your stuff here?”
Zibah met them at her office door with a paper cup of cold water for Annie Kay. “Drink this,” she said. “And lots of fluids when you get home.”
“Ginger ale?” Annie Kay asked, her eyes glassy with fever.
“Of course.” Laurie pressed her daughter close and squeezed back tears.
Laurie changed the red crayon for a purple one to mark the days until Zibah called. In the seven that passed, Annie Kay recovered from the bug that had kept her home. “Are you getting sick?” Annie Kay asked Laurie on the day she went back to school. “You don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine,” Laurie assured her daughter. “I’m just behind.” She pointed to her sewing machine where the alterations she did for several clothing stores in town sat next to a pile of the ironing she took in.
“Sorry,” said Annie Kay.
Laurie kissed the top of her daughter’s head. “I’ll get caught up real quick.” She knew her daughter worried about her work. How much she had. If it was enough. She had been the same way as a child. Raised by her grandmother in the same little house where she and Annie Kay lived, Laurie and her grandmother had supported themselves by taking in laundry and delivering eggs from their chickens. They also sold their beadwork at powwows and fairs. When her grandmother got sick, Laurie stopped taking in laundry, so she’d have more time to help her out. When she died, Laurie gave up the chickens and began taking in ironing and alterations. She made time for beading when she could. And if she really needed money, she sold some of her grandmother’s old pieces. She rubbed the surface of the bracelet on her wrist: a turtle design beaded in orange and green. Estelle gave it to her on the day she arrived in Del Valle, shortly after her mother’s death. It was a piece she’d never sell, no matter how broke.
When Laurie got back from taking Annie Kay to the bus she heard the telephone ringing and raced to answer it.
“Next Thursday morning,” said Zibah. “A driver will meet you at La Posta restaurant in Mesilla. If there’s a spot under the trees near the service entrance, park your truck there by 11:00.” Zibah hesitated. She knew Laurie was sensitive about her old International Harvester panel truck. It still bore the ghost of Estelle’s business—Comanche Egg and Wash. As a girl, Laurie had been ridiculed mercilessly about her Comanche eggs and her dirty Indian laundry when she made deliveries and pickups in town.
“I know it’s conspicuous. I thought about borrowing Dan’s for the drive, but then I have to make up a story about why I can’t drive my own.”
“I could switch with you for the day. But that might raise questions, too. It can’t be helped. You should be able to drive it to the motel afterwards. And if not, we’ll make arrangements with the driver.”
“Thank you, Zi. So much.”
“You’ll need to take seventy-five dollars with you. I know that’s a lot, but it’s about half the fee. The organization picks up half the cost. I can loan you some if you need it.”
“I’ve got it,” said Laurie. Money was always a problem, but she had an emergency fund, which was also her college fund. She didn’t touch it unless she had to.
“Annie Kay can stay with me and Downey.”
“Thanks,” said Laurie. “She’s comfortable enough with Dan, but I don’t think she’d want him to babysit her. And I don’t how I’d ask…” Laurie had been seeing Dan for a couple of years, and she didn’t want to lie to him about where she was going, but she would not tell him the truth.
“They’ll probably drive me crazy. I’ll just let them watch TV all night.” Zibah laughed. “So, you’ll need to dress like a housewife. Like town women on Sundays but not too fancy. I know this sounds paranoid. But you must not attract attention.”
“Everything by the book,” said Laurie. “Promise.” She imagined herself in different well-dressed housewife roles. Laura Petrie, Donna Reed, Samantha from Bewitched, but she didn’t own pearls or pencil skirts or tight capris. In the pile of other women’s clothes that needed to be ironed, she found a belted, front-pleat dress with a scoop neck and shirred skirt in an aqua and pale pink splash of cabbage roses, something she’d never choose for herself. She could wash and iron it when she returned. No one would know. Hair in a French twist. Pale lipstick. Respectable housewife.
On Thursday it rained, so Laurie drove Annie Kay to the end of the road and waited with her for the school bus. She reminded her to go home with Zibah and Downey after school. Once her daughter was on her way, Laurie changed into her borrowed clothes, put a compact and lipstick in her purse and an overnight bag with her own clothes in the back. In the passenger seat next to her sat the girdle and nylons she could not imagine driving two hundred miles in.
It rained lightly all the way through the mountains of the Lincoln National Forest, but stopped by the time she reached White Sands. Laurie rolled down the window of her truck to let in the desert air sweetened by an early spring bloom of velvet mesquite and desert lavender. She noted a billboard that advertised the Agricultural College at New Mexico State University, one of the schools she’d applied to. She’d gotten her GED not long after Annie Kay was born, and she’d taken correspondence and community college courses to finish her first two years of college. Now she waited to see who would accept an almost thirty-year-old college junior. She didn’t look forward to telling Annie Kay they’d have to leave Del Valle. But she’d deal with that once she found out if she’d been accepted anywhere.
It was almost 11:00 when she arrived in the little village just south of Las Cruces. She parked near the service entrance of the restaurant and went inside to use the restroom and put on her nylons. Back in the parking lot, she saw the light blue sedan Zibah had described parked next to her truck. Laurie tapped on the driver side window. A woman who looked about forty rolled it down, and Laurie greeted her with the code Zibah had given her, “I hope they have obleas con cajeta at the panadería today.”
“They should be fresh.” The woman gave the response Laurie expected, so she walked to the passenger side door and got in. “Thank you.”
“When we get there, I’ll drop you off and then go buy a few piñatas and some party favors so we have something to show for our trip across the border in case we get stopped on the way back. Have you been to Juárez?” the driver asked.
“Oh, sure, lots of times. I used to go with my grandmother and usually at least one of her friends when they went to the dentist. I guess old women with a car full of kids don’t have to worry about attracting attention.” She remembered how much fun she and Zibah had on their own at the market on Av. 16th de Septiembre. “My daughter and I go several times a year.”
“Good,” said the woman. “Because some women I drive haven’t been, and I don’t like listening to them talk about how dirty they think the city is. Or worry about getting mugged or attacked by a Mexican. Never mind that the doctors and nurses who are risking their reputations and freedom are Mexican. I’m going to listen to the radio.”
Laurie nodded and stared out the window. Zibah had told her there would be no need for polite conversation with the driver. The less they knew about each other the better. When the woman came to a stop at the border crossing, she rolled down her window and replied to the Border Patrol officer’s question about her reason for entering Mexico. “A day of shopping, sir, planning my husband’s surprise party.”
Laurie hoped she looked calmer than she felt. He waved them through, and they drove to an area of the city Laurie was not familiar with. For several blocks it was residential until they reached a row of offices. Doctor Acosta. The name was on a list of doctors with practices in the building.
“When I get back, I will only go in to ask after you if I don’t see you waiting on that bench.” She pointed toward the plaza in the center of the offices. “Your appointment is for Anna Marina.”
“Anna Marina,” Laurie said the name aloud to the receptionist and heard how it could sound Italian as easily as Spanish and wondered if it was Zibah’s creation for a woman who could pass. “Tengo una cita.”
“No hay cita disponible,” said the receptionist.
“Anna Marina.” Laurie repeated the words again, hoping they would work this time. “I have cash.” She slipped back into English and heard the desperation in her voice. She reached into her purse for the bills.
“Put that away,” the receptionist said, her tone harsh. “I can’t help you.”
“Maybe one of the nurses…” Frantic, Laurie looked around the waiting room. “Can’t someone contact him?”
The receptionist glanced around to make sure no one was in earshot. “Dr. Acosta had to leave. Quickly. Yesterday. No doctor here will see you. There are other…”
Laurie shook her head and stumbled out of the office, shoving the money back into her purse. She knew the receptionist was referring to one of the places downtown where she could get an abortion without an appointment. She’d heard of women who had gotten that kind. Some were damaged. Some were fine. Some died. She couldn’t risk it. She was Annie Kay’s only family. She composed herself and walked back outside to the small plaza. She followed the scent of little purple flowers growing near the fountain and sat next to a planter filled with dazzling orange dahlias beneath the shade of a large Montezuma cypress. She reminded herself not to attract attention and bit her lip to keep from crying.
When the woman arrived, Laurie hurried to the car. “The doctor was gone. The receptionist said he left in a hurry.”
“Someone must have reported him. Get in.” The woman prompted Laurie, who stood next to the door as though an alternative plan might emerge. “We have one other doctor here. But you’ll need an appointment.” She thought for a moment. “And he’ll probably stop doing abortions for a while once he learns about Dr. Acosta. Get in. Now.”
The woman drove slowly away from doctor’s office as Laurie put her face in her hands and wept.
“We can look for someone else. There’s Tijuana. But that’s quite a trip.” She stopped at a red light. When it turned green, she said, “Some doctors will do the procedure up to twenty weeks. You know who to talk to when you get home.”
Laurie nodded and slouched against car door, pressing her face against the window like a homesick child.
“Border just ahead,” said the driver. She’d driven slowly to give Laurie time to adjust to the facts. “Brush your hair, powder your nose. Put a smile on. Touch up that lipstick. We’ve done nothing illegal, but I’ll drive again, and I don’t want to give anyone cause to remember me or my car.”
Laurie nodded and did as she was told. From the backseat a colorful burro piñata smiled at her in the mirror of her compact. They crossed the border without incident and returned to the restaurant.
“I guess I’ll just drive on home. No reason to stay overnight.”
The driver nodded and drove away.
Laurie returned home along the same route she’d travelled earlier in the day. Uncomfortable, she tugged at the bodice of the starched dress. The buckle of its belt dug into her stomach, the garters pinched the flesh on her thighs. She needed to change. She pulled over in Tularosa—City of Roses, the big Chamber of Commerce welcome sign read—and stopped at a diner, its peeling stucco walls decorated with images of bright red flowers. It was the place she’d always stopped with Estelle, who knew the geography of Comanche Territory and told her the town was named for the red reeds that grew along the banks of Rio Tularosa, not for roses, the thorny bush planted by settlers.
Laurie grabbed her overnight bag from the back and went into the diner. At the counter, she ordered a hamburger and a coke then went into the bathroom, where she put the small suitcase on top of the sink and kicked off the uncomfortable pumps. She unfastened the garters and rolled the false skin down her legs. Pulled off the stiff confining girdle. She unbuckled the belt, then unzipped the zipper that ran from beneath her left arm to her waist. She peeled out of the dress and stood in her bra and underwear, the respectable housewife in a heap at her feet. She sobbed, no longer caring about the attention she might attract. She wiped her eyes and pressed the buttons that released the levers on the suitcase. She retrieved the beaded bracelet that had clashed with the colors of her borrowed dress and put it on before slipping into her soft jeans and pulling on a tight knit shirt Annie Kay had informed her was called a poor boy. They’d each ordered one from a Sears catalog, Annie Kay’s blue with black stripes, Laurie’s maroon and beige. She picked up the woman she’d shed and shoved her into the overnight bag, went back to the counter, ate her burger, and drank her coke.
As she neared Del Valle, she told herself she could get used to being married to Dan. She had to start thinking that way. When she told him she was pregnant, he would want to get married. That’s the kind of man he was. Annie Kay’s father was rich and white and could afford to pretend he didn’t know that fifteen miles south of town, down by the Pecos River, deep in the country, Laurie Bow Kerchee raised her daughter with the help of the grandmother who had raised her. He graduated from the New Mexico Military Institute, went to college, and never returned. Dan Barlow was poor, white, and religious, and of those three things, it was the third that bothered her the most. He had ideas about a woman’s place. He was judgmental and could be harsh. But he could also be fun. He worked hard. She couldn’t love him the way she had loved Annie Kay’s father. But she could not afford to raise another child on her own. And she would not turn her 11-year-old daughter—the child who lived in the world with her, the child she’d do anything for—into a babysitter, a mother’s helper. And it’s what would happen. How could it not? She’d have to work even harder to provide for two children.
Just a few miles outside of town, Laurie read the billboard advertising the New Mexico Military Institute. Established 1891. Duty. Honor. Achievement. Men only.
When they were girls, she and Zibah had played going away to college the way some girls played dolls. They had to use their imaginations. Playing dolls meant feeding and diapering, dressing and undressing, spanking and teaching the baby how to be good. They did not know the routines of college life. Her grandmother, Estelle, graduated from Haskell Indian School where she learned poultry science, but she refused to talk about Indian School, a place she had been sent. Zibah’s grandmother Minnie chose to attend Bible College before she established her own country church. But Laurie and Zibah didn’t ask about it. They heard enough about the Bible from Minnie as it was. From Zibah’s cousin Wayman, who went to the University of San Francisco on a basketball scholarship, they learned about college when he came home for holidays. But by then Annie Kay was three months old, and what she’d learned from Wayman didn’t matter. Not yet, she’d told herself then, not yet.
As she drove down out of the mountains into the farmland of the Pecos Valley, Laurie put her foot on the clutch and shifted gears. Her college fund would become Annie Kay’s.
She remembered Zibah’s words: you can pass.
She would pass for a woman who wanted another child, for a woman happily married to a man she didn’t love.
She knew women who did.
She could, too.
Jane Hammons taught writing at UC Berkeley for 30 years before returning home to the Southwest to write and to practice photography. Her fiction is included in the anthology Hint Fiction (Norton) and appears in numerous magazines such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Contrary Magazine, and Tupelo Quarterly. Three of her photographs were included in Taking It To the Streets: A Visual History of Protest and Demonstration in Austin, an exhibition of the Austin History Center. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.