Joana assumed that there must have been someone before her who had been more tired than she was at this moment—A mother, though, she thought, it had to have been a mother—and she felt very sorry for whoever that woman had been.
She stood on the train platform wishing her hip would grow outward to give her boy more of a ledge to sit on. Cocking her hip to the side strained a nerve in her lower back, something she thought only happened to women who were ninety rather than nineteen. Her most recent job was not glamorous, but it did provide a monthly MTA card. The trade-off was chronic back pain from the sweeping.
As she waited for the 4 to arrive, her son’s meaty leg kept slipping through her clammy hand, and her arm fell asleep from flexing to keep him pinned to her chest, as he liked. When she’d first taken him home from the hospital, she tried every position short of hanging him by the feet to calm him before pushing him like this against her heart. She was all too familiar with his body now, his flesh becoming less and less shocking. Now, in the middle of August, he was cumbersome and hot. He loved to be held, to be glued to her with their mixing sweat as adhesive. He clutched at the back of her arm as if to prevent her from moving away. Even he had sensed her eagerness to touch him had waned.
She began to hum a lullaby her mother would play for her on a boom box when she was young. The tape always ran out long before her mother would return, without first checking on her before falling into bed. That was back when her mother still spoke to her, before Joana had “gone bad from the seduction of men.” A phrase she found melodramatic to use toward someone who’d only had one sexual partner with over-eager sperm. With her mind preoccupied by her mother, she forgot how the song ended and switched instead to some guttural purring. She was too tired to sing anyway. Chico squirmed impatiently.
Today was her long-awaited day off. Her first day in so long to just be out, not cleaning floors at the college, not rushing to the grocery store before the lines piled up, not having to apologize to the neighbor for being late again to pick him up. Thank God the neighbor woman was religious. Joana believed in God solely because he placed Bible-thumping do-gooders in affordable housing units next door to young, single mothers. That was worth a half-hearted prayer every night before bed at least.
She had dreamt about a day alone for weeks, her fantasies managing to push her son to the peripheries. She was going to go to the nice grocery store and finally make it to the taxes place her cousin’s boyfriend worked at in midtown. She was going to return the shoes she bought for herself for her birthday, the shoes she almost had a chance to wear, but then Chico came down with an earache. Of course, she shouldn’t have bought them in the first place. She was going to pick up the check from the temp job that hadn’t worked out because she was always late. The temp job that sent her final check to the wrong address. The check she had to choke down her pride to call and ask about. She didn’t want to admit how much she needed their money.
The receptionist who answered at the temp agency had giggled when she heard Joana hadn’t received it. That tiny laugh made a ball of frustration constrict Joana’s throat. The girl had assumed 10454 was a mistaken zip code. She’d never heard of it before. As if that meant it simply didn’t exist. Why was it, to everyone else she was imperceptible, but to her son she was all too visible?
“I send out all the mail, and I’ve never in my life, literally, in my life seen that one before, so I second-guessed myself, ya know? I thought that must not be right, come on, Courtney, it must be 10045, duh, cuz that’s way closer to us.”
“I see your confusion.” Joana wondered if Courtney was nineteen, too, and visualized the light-years between a 19-year-old mother and a 19-year-old like Courtney. She probably got to keep the strappy Steve Madden heels she bought. Maybe they could have been friends even, if Chico hadn’t forced her into the deep end of womanhood.
Joana had stood in front of her open freezer that day and fanned herself with sealed envelopes, which inevitably contained more bad news. The super still hadn’t fixed the window unit, but at least the utilities were included. Chico slammed his hands against his highchair tray. He hated it when she was on the phone. Or when she talked to anyone else in general. “10454 is in the Bronx.”
“Oh well, shoot. I’ve really screwed you up here, haven’t I?”
“No, no, it’s fine really….”
“I’ll send another out ASAP. I’ll have to cancel the others obviously, but as soon as I get confirmation I’ll reissue the one for you, ‘Anna, in the Bronx not New York,’ and you should be seeing it in just a few weeks.”
Joana flipped nervously at the corner of her rent bill, which had been printed in red ink. She owed $550. The job owed her somewhere around $600 after taxes.
“Maybe it would be safer if I just came to get it to avoid another mail issue. And it’s Joana, actually.” She pronounced the name without the soft J this time. Her name confused everyone, even Spanish speakers. The mystery of her paternal origins made her unwanted by everyone. Not brown enough for the Bronx, not light enough for downtown, with a name no one knew quite how to pronounce. Sometimes she felt certain her mother chose it to spite her.
“Joe-anna. Well of course, that’s much prettier than plain old Anna, much prettier than Courtney, too. Isn’t it?” The receptionist paused as if waiting for Joana to answer.
“So, I’ll just come pick it up then?”
“Yes, come by sometime early in the afternoon at the end of next week. Ought to be here by then.”
Joana checked the time on her phone’s sticky screen. It was far past “early afternoon” and nearing quitting time. She should have known the day would be harder to get through than expected, as everything seemed to be now. When the train arrived, there was no one in the last car, which was what Joana always hoped for when she lugged her things down to the end of the platform. She was alone—it was a New York City miracle. She sunk into the bench next to the door and removed the bags from Chico’s stroller seat, tossing them beside her. Chico wailed, anticipating their separation. She peeled him away from her and shushed him as she had seen other mothers do, as if to say, “Hey, everything’s all right,” even if it wasn’t. Was she doing the job of mothering if she was only imitating other mothers rather than actually being one? She doubted Courtney ever felt she was pretending to send out checks.
Joana was mostly a borrower, picking up tips from the nice-looking moms she saw around the city, the ones who always looked at her out of the corners of their eyes as if to avoid catching her misfortune. She would study their kids’ clothes, their pace, their fancy equipment as they passed each other. Even the stroller was ratty compared to theirs. The new ones had rain resistance and shock absorption like an expensive car. She’d found hers on the sidewalk with a note that said, “Take me.” It still smelled like the Fabuloso she doused it in months ago, hoping to kill off any bed bugs.
This was not the time for giving up though. She was down to seven dollars in her account. She had to get to her last stop of the day to pick up the check before Courtney went home at 6:00.
When the train began to rumble forward, Joana lowered Chico into the cleared-out stroller seat. He fussed and flailed his limbs, as if dropped into the sea without a life jacket. She let her head roll back against the poster on the wall behind her seat. With her eyes closed, she saw a glorious flash of Chico not being there when she opened them again. She imagined walking off the train without anything but herself, her purse, her fresh oranges. For that split second she could feel relief tingle inside every aching muscle in her body. It was cruel to think—isn’t a child’s only hope to be wanted? That’s what Joana had dreamed of as a child. But in the privacy of her eyelids, the idea of leaving Chico for somebody else to go home with, somebody with a rain-resistant stroller, did seem sort of nice. And maybe that would be best for both of them anyway.
When Joana looked down at her son again, he had rolled away from her. As she sprung up to grab him, the poster she was leaning against pulled out a few of her hairs. She clutched at the back of her head with one hand and tried locking the wheels with the other. The two on the right snapped fine, but neither of the left two would budge.
“God damnit, ay, Dios la maldiga!” she muttered, breaking a nail off too close to the bed as she tried to pry the lock down. She sucked air through her teeth and shoved the afflicted finger into her mouth. Chico began to cry, and the oranges she had picked up from the nice store, the one all the way on the Upper East Side, started to drop out of the flimsy grocery bag. One by one they rolled and bounced like pin balls from one side of the train to the other. She scrambled to grab them. Her knees, which were already bruised from crawling around to pick up toys, grinded against the hard linoleum. She had never felt so desperate for citrus, she found, as when it was rolling away.
She returned to the bench and waved the bear keychain enticingly in front of Chico, who was now in hysterics. The keychain that he had refused to let go of in the line at FedEx. The one that cost four dollars. Now he whacked it from her hands, knocking it to the ground. It lay there, face down on the subway car next to a Rice Krispie treat glued to the floor. A bottle full of some yellow liquid rolled down to the keychain, dripping some of its contents on the bear’s fur, contents that looked, and yes, smelled, a lot like urine.
Chico began to scream again. She wiped away a few fat tears, drying her fingertips on her jeans, but he kept rolling them out faster, harder. He reached his arms out to her until they looked as though they might stretch out of his little sockets like the dolls she suddenly realized she only stopped playing with seven years before. The dolls that she always named something simple like Blondie if they were blonde or Buck if they had those two teeth painted in as a smile.
As she searched her bags for something else to appease him, she looked up to see that they were there, at the Fulton Street stop, 10054.
Frantically, she gathered the bags into her arms and stood, straddled between the platform and the train car. This time the grocery bag caught on her broken nail and tore open. Again, oranges spilled out everywhere and slipped, one after the other, under the train to the tracks. She jumped out of the way of the falling fruit just as the doors began to close. With her only two free fingers, the others busy gripping groceries, she clamped onto Chico’s stroller to pull him out, but she forgot that the two wheels were still locked and her sweaty fingers slipped from the stubbornly stable stroller. Her hand shot back, and the steel doors shut in front of Chico. As they closed in on him, Joana got a final view of his dangling tonsils in the back of his pink, wailing mouth.
“Wait!” she shouted, as if that was all that needed to be said, but it was no use. The conductor was too far down from the last car to hear. Her hands went limp. For the first time in months she was alone, and for a moment she stood there as if this were merely the inside of her eyelids playing tricks on her again, as if she could just blink a few times, clear the dream away, and there he would be. The sound of a distant horn coming from the opposite tracks returned her to reality. There she was alone, really and truly, her arms feeling light enough to float away, her jeans still wet with his tears.
The train gave a lurch, and Joana began to scream, but the sound of the southbound train stole her voice, the wash of air seemed to tell her to hush, and the passengers climbing the stairs dismissed the echo of her cry as just another city disturbance. She felt the way she did when her mother wouldn’t hold her hand in public, would tell her “be quiet” or “go stand over there”—like a kite without a string. Her oranges lay macerated beneath her, but she did not care to even glance at them. She kept her eyes on that last car, trying to stay tethered to it, to pull it back to her, but the train picked up speed, and there went Chico with it, eaten by the darkness of the tunnel.
She spun, pushed through the emergency door, and slapped a hand onto the Plexiglas. The woman behind the enclosed window looked up from filing her nails lazily. “We closed,” she said.
“My baby is in the train! Alone! My baby is alone in the train! I left my baby.”
“Could you please speak into the opening. And I told you, I’m off the clock.”
A man with smudge-less circular glasses and his own smiling baby came to Joana. “Miss, use the emergency phone! They can stop the train by the time it gets to Wall Street.” All Joana could process was “Wall Street.” Only five blocks, she thought, and ran up the stairs onto the street to get downtown, slamming into shoulders of passerby who sighed out insults or dismissed her entirely. Without her boy she was a ghost. All day she wanted to be without him but had forgotten the alternative. The erasure. She had always thought it was the children who needed their mother, not the other way around. All the moments she wished she could be one body again rather than two stared back at her, and she realized they were ugly. She saw ahead the subway light like a beacon through the late afternoon dusk. People poured out of the station, stepping out their own anger. She threw herself into the mob.
“No downtown trains,” “Delays,” “Don’t bother,” they warned.
Between the tangled legs, through the doorway to the station’s ticket office, there he was, still crying in his stroller, crying for her, because of her. A woman was crouched by his side, shaking her head as if to say, “Shame on your mother.” A policeman stood beside them in the cramped room—a bizarre nuclear family.
“Who could leave you?” Joana could hear the woman say.
Chico spotted her approaching and suddenly ceased his cries. His dark, shining eyes locked on hers, validating her where she stood. The doubting voices, the other mothers’ glances, the endless tally of numbers in her head had all obscured what only Chico knew but could not yet say. Even with all her mistakes, when he was near her, there would always be triumph.
As she approached him the woman stopped her with a hard hand.
“This is my son,” Joana said.
The woman was twice Joana’s age, twice her width. She put her hands on her hips and stood to block Chico. For an instant, something eerily calm inside Joana appraised the woman’s blouse: Target, $26.99. So many numbers, so many voices.
“I could have this child taken from you, girl, do you know that?”
“We received an emergency call from Fulton Street, about a boy deserted on the train.” The policeman was trim and short and young. He was writing her a summons for court. “Abandoning a child is a serious crime, which could end with incarceration.”
“Do you know what you could have done to him, girl?”
The officer explained that she’d need to make a desk appearance the following week. That he would need some sort of proof before he could allow her to take him home. That he could arrange for a caregiver if she was unfit. She stood there mute, receiving his thinly veiled distrust of her like she did for everyone. For Courtney, and the woman calling her “girl,” and even her own mother. “If you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, now is the time to tell me.”
Her mouth fell open as she shook her head. What did one owe for giving a life to another? For making a child so tender and helpless? she thought as Chico’s hand shot out from behind the woman’s leg, searching for her. Almost as quickly as it appeared she realized the answer: everything. She owed him everything she had. Her youth. $4 for a keychain he didn’t even want. To hold him when it was hot out and so was he. Who knows how many first dates. A late fee on her rent bill. Another joyless temp job. She owed him all that and more. But if she had to be indebted to anyone, she would choose her boy any day. He was a gracious collector and would let her try again, no matter how badly she messed it up. He would let her try and try and try as long as she held him.
“A clamshell,” she blurted loudly. “He has a birthmark on his collarbone. It’s pink, about the size of a quarter, shaped like an open clamshell.”
She pushed the woman to the side and took Chico in her arms, before the two could protest. She tugged on the neck of his t-shirt gently to show them the mark. “And this shirt,” she remembered aloud. “It’s Old Navy brand, but there’s a dark green Sharpie mark on the tag because it was on dollar sale at Out of the Closet.” She softly pulled out the tag to show them.
She took the ticket from the policeman, who was still explaining to her what would happen next. The woman continued to punctuate his sentences, expressing her own unwelcome concerns. Joana concentrated only on Chico’s breath in her ear.
Outside on the sidewalk, it was hot like only a city can be at dusk. Black asphalt spilling heat out, spreading a stifling muck over commuters. But Joana held Chico tight, pushing the empty stroller in front of them. She walked uptown with him fused to her chest. She forgot the oranges, the paycheck. For now all she needed was herself, her boy, and the heat between them.
Primarily a fiction writer, Sammi LaBue’s work has appeared in [PANK] Magazine, Hobart, Glamour, Permafrost Magazine, and beyond. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is seeking representation for a second novel. When not working on her own projects, she’s writing with others through her small business, Fledgling Writing Workshops, which was listed as one of the Best NYC Writing Classes last year by Time Out New York.