American Literary Review
- Spring 2010 - Fiction
First Prize: ALR 2009 Fiction Contest
Final Judge: Molly Giles
IN PREVIOUS SUMMERS, the break from teaching had never seemed long enough, but this summer felt like it would never end. Her blouse still damp, a bra chafing her skin, Anna Ringaard splashed through puddles on Prague's Charles Bridge. A dozen sooty saints scowled down from the balustrades. Cowering like a mom who'd let go of a toddler's hand only to have him disappear, she offered her missing-person's flyer to Czech street artists in olive drab. The flyer's picture looked a little menacing; her son's eyes glowered out from under his mop of hair. Peter hadn't liked being photographed. No biggie. Art was more truthful. It spoke from the soul, her soul, at least. She had drawn him as she remembered him: a troubled young man.
Across the bridge in Lower Town, she caught a tram. Every day after lunch, she went to the station to wait for the Thalys, the international train. Unless her son was hitching, he'd have to be traveling by rail. Sometimes he did hitch, though. According to Peter's friends, the day after graduation, he had left Boulder, hitched to Denver, and flown to Amsterdam. He'd sent her an email.
Sorry to cut out without telling you. Don't worry, Mom. I'm not hitting the
Red Light District. Ha! Ha! Sketching tourists in squares. Looking for others
of eastern European descent, same physiognomy. Lots of people in Holland
look like you. Didn't realize how many blonds were in the world until I landed
here. Plan to head south, then east. Finding my dark-haired clan.--Peter
For a while, she'd tracked him by his ATM withdrawals. Then, those had stopped, and she began to panic. A postcard from Florence had reassured her that he was still in the land of the living, though not anywhere he could be contacted.
Museums closed. Frescoes behind scaffold. Italians fun--bella, bella Italia!--but so far Amsterdam and Prague are where the action is.--Peter
Standing on the platform, she looked at the big, round clock. Only minutes until the Thalys arrived. If Peter's money ran out, he'd come back here. Prague was the bean-bag chair where all young, cash-strapped travelers eventually landed. She could picture him, an easel bungie-corded to his backpack, stepping down and looking around. The platform wasn't crowded today: five American college girls, assorted Germans with big suitcases, and two little girls traveling with their parents. It would be easy to spot him. A whistle blew. The train, chuffing and hissing, bucked to a stop. From behind the snack bar a young woman, early twenties, stepped out. A nest of hair was loosely pinned to her head, and she wore a diaphanous blouse and a long, brown skirt with three tiers of ruffles. "Are you English-speaking?" she said.
"Yes," Anna said, standing on tiptoes. The tall girl blocked her view. "Excuse me. You're in my way."
The girl moved aside. Disembarking passengers, none with Peter's slouch, spilled down the train's steps.
"If you're leaving, you might have some spare change," the girl said, "or perhaps a phone card?"
"What?" Anna said.
The girl repeated her request.
"I'm not leaving," Anna said.
"I'm sorry to trouble you," the girl said.
"Oh, you're Dutch," Anna said, catching the accent. One of those nice Dutch girls with the wide lips and high cheeks, like the ones in Amsterdam. She'd spent ten days there and not once visited the Rijksmuseum. She took out a flyer. "I'm looking for my son. I wonder if you've seen him."
The girl held the flyer in both hands. She looked from Anna's face to Peter's.
Even when Anna had pushed Peter in his baby carriage, passersby had looked up, back, up, back. The difference in hair and eye color was the first thing people noticed. Anna could see the girl studying the S-curves of Peter's eyebrows and the intense dark eyes.
"Oh, he's a Peter!" the Dutch girl said. "My son is a Peter."
"Have you seen him?" Anna said.
The young girl looked up and frowned. "Maybe."
It was the first "maybe" Anna had heard. A man in uniform came toward them.
"I have to go," the girl said. She turned and started down the litter-filled subterranean passage that led to the station's exit.
Anna ran to keep up. "Where did you see him?"
The girl was outside already, heading toward the tram stop.
"Can I buy you a coffee? Or strudel?"
"I must get home." The girl looked over her shoulder. The uniformed man spoke into a walkie-talkie. "You can come with me if you wish," the girl said.
"I will!" Anna said. "Is that man following you?"
"Probably," the girl said. "I come here a lot."
"Me, too," Anna said.
They arrived at the tram stop. A tram rang its bell. "Hurry!" the girl said, looking over her shoulder. "We must take this one." She sprang onboard.
Anna's way was blocked by an old Czech woman with heavy ankles and worn shoes. Anna pushed her aside and fingered her sweat-crumpled pass, trying to force it into the punch. Finally, it clicked. The penalties for riding without a ticket were stiff. She couldn't afford to get in trouble. The police were sick of seeing her at the station. The Dutch girl took Anna's hand. In the back of the tram was an empty seat.
Anna put her hand on her heart. "My goodness," she said, stepping around shopping bags in the aisle. "That was close." At first, the police, who could barely speak English, had been sympathetic. Now, they treated her like some kind of nutcase. She was a mother with a lost child. Under the circumstances, hysteria was normal. It had taken her a while to figure out that Peter had cashed his student loan check, not put it in his bank account. For all she knew, he could have been robbed and lying in some morgue.
"Sit." The girl motioned for Anna slide in. Their hips touched, and Anna caught the sickeningly sweet smell of patchouli hovering like a cloud around the Dutch girl. The smell was familiar. In Amsterdam, Anna had passed out flyers in coffee houses that reeked of pot and patchouli; she had been shocked to see young mothers buy marijuana like bulk granola scooped from plastic bins. In Prague--and Amsterdam, too, of course---the police told her drugs were rampant. But, perhaps the Dutch girl was merely covering up body odor. No one showered the way they did back home, and on the trams, there was always a sour, underarm smell. From frequent washings in the hostel's sink, even Anna's white blouse smelled strongly of mildew.
The Dutch girl hadn't said so much as peep.
"Have you really seen my son?" Anna said.
Jiggling in her seat, the girl said, "Yes, of course. I said that once, didn't I? Just give me a few minutes to think."
The tram sped away from Old Town and rumbled alongside the Vlatava River, where a barge moved slowly through the languid, green water. In the window, Anna caught a glimpse of her blue eyes, as blue-white as the overheated sky, and wondered when Peter had become so fixated on his looks.
The first hint of trouble came when he started hanging out with the stud-wearing dope-smokers who gathered in the mini-park across from school. While her students worked at their easels, she had looked out the second-floor windows and seen him, big as life, a cigarette in his mouth. She still didn't know what kind.
Students at Centennial had to commit to the six Ps: they had to be prompt, polite, and prepared; they had to participate, have a positive mental attitude, and produce. Peter, despite his P-name, had never bought into the school rules, or the rules she tried to enforce at home. Listening to his iPod, he painted after dark, and turpentine fumes, supposedly odorless but toxic nonetheless, circulated in the heating ducts. One morning, headachy, still in her bathrobe, Anna came into his room and asked him to open the windows. He put down his brush and came toward her. She thought he was going to give her a hug. Instead, he put his hands around her neck and stared at her throat, squeezing it softly. "That's how a python kills," he said. She backed out of the room and slept with a locked door, wishing her husband had not moved out and that she had not been so preoccupied with the paperwork of the divorce.
Something was wrong. The school psychologist recommended a therapist, the best in Boulder--Dr. Tanner, a specialist for troubled youth. Peter began seeing him, and a month later, Tanner invited Peter's parents to attend an appointment with their son. Peter's father had not been able to come, but then he had never really shown up for his son. More and more as the years progressed, it had become clear to Anna how much Peter had been her project and not her husband's. Later, she thought her husband's departure might have made Peter feel abandoned. But maybe not. She suspected the demons had been there all along.
She and Peter had sat silently in the waiting room. Peter, circles under his eyes, examined his fingers, but when Tanner opened the door, Peter, allowing the doctor to grasp his hand and pull him into the office, had actually smiled. Tanner asked her to take a seat and get comfortable. She sat. The room was barely large enough for two office chairs plus Dr. Tanner's desk, piled with manila folders. A painting hung above it: a woman with orange eyes and a blue face crowded her pink-faced son out of the picture. Anna wondered if this was some sort of Rorshach test to see how teens felt about their mothers. If not, then Tanner had terrible taste in art.
Dr. Tanner had dressed in layers--wool slacks, vest, and sport coat--as if he were eager to present an image of rumpled authority despite the oppressive closeness of his office. She peeled off her black sweater and smoothed her electrified hair, wondering if it was appropriate to ask him to turn down the heat. Through the doctor's trifocals, she could see his magnified eyes.
"Peter?" Dr. Tanner said. "Would you like to start?"
Aside from his jiggling foot, Peter was sitting absolutely still, his arms crossed. The fluorescent light made his skin look jaundiced. He stared up at a corner of the room, his eyes bugged out like a lemur's. Now, Dr. Tanner would see what it was like at home: Peter clamming up, not telling her what was bothering him. Just like her ex.
"Yes, Peter," she said. "Please tell me what's wrong."
"You know," Peter said, "sometimes I don't feel like I belong here."
"Belong where?" she said, feeling a clutch in her throat.
"Boulder. All the outdoor types. The snowboarders. The guys who live for rock climbing. I feel like I'm suffocating."
"Where do you belong?" she said.
"I don't know," he said. "I want to travel. Maybe I'm a gypsy at heart."
"Excuse me, Peter," Dr. Tanner said. He held his pen like a corn-cob. "Do you mean a vagabond or a real gypsy?"
"I dunno," Peter said. "A real one, I guess."
Anna took a deep breath. Tread carefully, she thought.
Peter pushed back bangs that covered his eyes.
The dark hair, often greasy, the body hair on his chest, unlike anything she'd seen in her fair, Danish family--it was remotely possible some gypsy girl had deposited a little blanket-bundle on a church step. Over there in Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria or Romania or Hungary or wherever he came from.
"I suppose it's possible you could be Romany," she said.
"Now, we're making progress," Dr. Tanner said.
"I've never seen a single other person who looks like me." Peter touched his high cheekbones. "Sometimes, kids at school call me 'the Indian,' but I'm not, because American Indians don't have this much facial hair."
His beard had come in thick. He needed to shave twice a day, but didn't.
"You're becoming a man," Anna said. "That's all."
"But what kind? I'm certainly not a jock."
"Most artists aren't," she said.
"Peter is having a hard time finding a mirror of himself." Dr. Tanner glanced over at the picture.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Anna said.
"A mirror. You know, a mirror?" Dr. Tanner jotted a note to himself. He looked down at his scratch pad then raised his eyebrows. "When you look in the mirror, don't you see your ancestors?"
"Well, of course," she said. "I'm Danish, and proud of it."
Peter leaned forward, his hands on the chair arms as he if might spring to his feet. "But I'm not Danish! When I was a kid, my friends' parents were always saying stuff like, 'He looks like his mom or dad or my side of the family or yours.' I never heard that from you, not once."
"We know you look like someone," Anna said. "We just don't know who."
"So, Peter," Tanner said. "Can you say more about how you feel about being adopted?"
"I feel like I'm supposed to be grateful she rescued me from the trash heap."
"You don't have to feel grateful," Anna said, reaching for a Kleenex. Honestly, he could be so self-dramatizing. "You were an adorable baby. I was thrilled."
Peter swiveled around to face her. "You wanted someone who'd look like you and be like you, but I'm not like you at all."
"Of course, you are," she said. "You're an artist, just like me."
"I wish you weren't an artist," Peter said. "I don't want my art to come from you."
"Thank you, Peter," Dr. Tanner said. "Let's give your mother time to process this information."
"I'm processing it all right," Anna said.
Tanner looked at her and raised his eyebrows. "All right, then." He turned to Peter. "I wonder if you could share more of what being adopted is like for you."
Peter sat back. He seemed more relaxed than she'd seen him in a long time: less sulky teenager, more man. He looked down at his stomach. "I have this hole inside."
"What kind of hole?" Dr. Tanner said.
"A hole." Peter held up his hands. The circle his fingers made was the size of a pie pan.
This new revelation about the hole was more than Anna could bear. Peter had no idea what it felt like to lose three babies, babies with heartbeats, whose turnings reminded her of miniature gymnasts. The last had died at eight and a half months, a blond-haired boy born covered with wax, a cord wrapped around his neck. She didn't even have a name for the longing that had grown more intense, year by year, for the pleasures of motherhood that these deaths had denied her. And all that time, she'd thought, if I'd only been able to carry those babies to term, it would have been different. Peter wasn't totally unlike her, but a child with her genes might have had an easier adolescence. She wouldn't be sitting here trying to come up with answers to unanswerable questions.
"How are you feeling, Ms. Ringaard?" Dr. Tanner said.
None of your goddamned business, she thought. She was here to talk about Peter, not herself. "I feel fine," she said.
"Is our discussion giving you some empathy for your son?" Dr. Tanner said.
"Yes, of course," she said. "He feels a void."
Dr. Tanner glanced at Peter, then back at her, blinking and frowning as if puzzled. "You do understand, he's asking your permission to search for his birth mother."
Anna remembered how Peter's eyes looked: black, angry, watchful. Her face turned hot. "When he turns twenty-one, he can do what he wants."
Looking back, she could hardly believe how blindsided she'd felt, or how stupid she'd been to react so negatively. If he'd just waited until he was out on his own, he could have brought whomever he wanted into his life, and she wouldn't have had to know about it. Not that finding his birth mother was even possible. His adoption had been private, handled by a lawyer who specialized in babies from former Soviet satellites. Peter's biological father and mother worked in a factory, that much she knew, but the most the lawyer could tell her about his ethnicity was that he was "of eastern European descent."
He had been four months old.
Twenty minutes outside the city, the girl stood up. "My stop."
"But you haven't told me anything specific," Anna said.
"I'm trying to remember." The girl moved to the tram's door.
Anna had never come this far from the center of Prague, but it would be an easy matter to cross the tracks and return. The girl was waiting. Sighing, Anna stepped onto the platform, introduced herself, and offered her hand.
The girl shook it. "I'm Neeltje."
"Neeltje," Anna said. "It's hard to say."
"Not if you're Dutch," Neeltje said. "We learn the 'cghh' sound as babies." She looked across the tracks at a white, concrete apartment building where fire had scorched a balcony. Windows were boarded up. She pointed. "That's it."
"Where are we?" Anna said.
"Home," Neeltje said. "The Soviets built this."
Neeltje led the way through a tunnel beneath the tracks. It reeked of urine. Graffiti covered the walls. Coming up the stairs, Anna took a deep breath. Above ground, steppingstones led through dry knee-high grass. There was one plane tree with a thick trunk and low, horizontal branches. As she walked beneath it, Anna noticed how much the leaves resembled the maples on her wooded lot back home. In Boulder, she was surrounded by trees, and she wondered if there had once been more landscaping. If so, the trees had died or people had cut them for firewood. The building was in worse shape than the yard. The building's concrete corners were chipping off. Orange rust in vertical and horizontal streaks showed through the concrete. The place looked like an early Mondrian.
"I never imagined life in such a place," Neeltje said, waving an arm. "We don't have such places in Holland."
"It's hideous," Anna said. "Welcome to the gulag." Neeltje lifted her long skirt and started up the stairs.
Anna felt squeamish about touching the dirty handrail. Painted and rusty and utilitarian, it looked like a handrail in a warehouse. "Does Peter live here?"
"Americans have better places."
"What does being American have to do with it?"
"Americans have money." Neeltje turned, looking down. "I'm sorry. I have a lot on my mind. If you want to know more, you have to come with me."
"What floor do you live on?" Anna asked.
"The fifth," Neeltje said.
"Is there an elevator?"
"Unless you know Peter, I'd rather not," Anna said.
"I have a good memory for faces."
"Okay, then." Anna put her head down and climbed to the second landing.
"But you're sure you met my son."
"Yes, of course," Neeltje said. "I can picture his face."
When she reached the fifth landing, an open-air space that was fifteen feet wide and dark at its far end, Anna felt lightheaded and leaned against the wall.
Neeltje unlocked a door.
"I want you to see how I and my baby live," Neeltje said. "Then, maybe you agree to help us."
"But what about my son?" Anna said.
"You are offering a reward for information, aren't you?"
"Yes, of course," Anna said. "Three hundred dollars."
"The exchange rate is bad," Neeltje said.
"Three hundred Euros, then."
"Okay," Neeltje said. "I will try to remember."
Anna entered a room with a rose-colored couch and a high-backed, wooden chair. An old woman sat on it. Her knees were spread and her stockings rolled. She wore a kerchief that covered her forehead, and her lips sunk in, like one of the poverty-stricken, sickly women in Käthe Kollwitz's prints. Behind the woman, Anna saw a futon mattress on the floor. White sheets were jumbled. There was a worn, figured carpet, but the colors had bled. In the middle of the carpet sat a drawer. Neeltje gave the old woman money, and the woman left.
On her way to the couch, Anna glanced in the drawer. Inside was the kind of doll the school nurse used for teaching CPR. The doll's head moved.
"My God!" Anna said. "There's a baby in there!"
"Yes, of course," Neeltje said. "That's what I told you. I live here with my son."
The baby had a round head and fuzzy, blond hair that stuck straight up like a baby chick's. He was sleeping on his back, and his arms were thrown up in a pose that reminded Anna of Laughing Buddha. Despite the heat, a blanket covered the baby's legs, and Anna fought an urge to uncover him; he must be hot. She was. Hot and thirsty. Forcing herself to take her eyes away from the child, she looked around.
Behind the door, Anna saw the rest of the dresser. Neeltje had arranged a sort of kitchen on the dresser's top, and she was wiping the rims of two teacups with a rag. "I never wanted a baby, but..."--she snapped her fingers--"...you miss your period and think, it's just because you don't eat, and then, you have no money, it's a Catholic country you're stuck in, and it's too late."
Neeltje put down the cups, opened the apartment door, and went out to the hall. There was no water in the room, as far as Anna could see. There must be a common bath and kitchen. Maybe Peter's biological mother had lived in a place like this.
In the early nineties, white babies flooded out of eastern Europe. There were big problems with Romanian orphans, kids with attachment disorder because they'd spent so long in cribs and never been held or comforted. A lot of the Russian babies had fetal alcohol syndrome because their mothers were drunks. Anna stood, looked down at the baby, around at the room, then moved the chair closer to the drawer and sat down.
Neeltje returned with a plastic jug of water. She plugged a wire coil into an outlet and plunged it into two cups of water until they steamed. She brought Anna a cup of tea, and Anna wiped the rim with her handkerchief. "I'll be right back," Neeltje said. She went out again, leaving the door wide open. Flies buzzed in, and Anna got down on her hands-and-knees to brush them off the baby. He stirred, eyelids fluttering. He had complexion so pale that, between his eyes, she could see a tiny, throbbing vein. His ear was a cowry shell.
"Hello, little Baby. Look at your hair." It was almost white. A blanket covered him, and Anna pulled it back. His faded snappy-suit was soaked. She pressed his bottom. His diaper squeaked.
Closing the door, Neeltje held up a diaper. "I begged a neighbor for this. Until you came, I wasn't having a very good day, but you have changed my luck."
The man Neeltje lived with had left that morning and taken her money. She'd hidden it in the sugar jar, where her mother always hid her household money. Wanting sugar for his tea, he'd raised the lid and found it. Not a lot, just what she earned at the station.
More like begged, Anna thought.
Sitting on the floor beside the baby, Neeltje sighed. She lifted him out and placed him on the rug to change his diaper.
Anna leaned over. "How old is he?"
"Three months," Neeltje said, "but he's not big like a normal Dutch baby. Some are giants."
"Is his father Dutch?"
Neeltje shrugged. "I don't know." Living like this, she said, wasn't the same as having a settled life with a husband and women friends who would have a baby party. And the Czechs didn't help. They'd help their own kind, but not a foreigner. The woman who babysat was Bulgarian. "As you can see, she does nothing for my son except sit in that chair."
Anna got to her feet. The girl needed money. She wanted the reward. It was very unlikely she knew Peter. Anna decided to put her to a test. "Maybe you've seen my son's work in a gallery," Anna said. She had been to all Prague's galleries. None of the owners had recognized Peter's face.
"I don't go see art," Neeltje said. "It's false."
"False!" Anna said. "Why do you think that?"
"Art bores me. No one can tell me what it means." Sitting with her feet tucked beneath her, Neeltje unbuttoned her blouse. She picked up the baby. He rooted blindly, his nose bouncing against the breast. Neeltje pinched the brown aureole of her nipple and slid it in his mouth.
Anna sat down again, resting her elbows on her knees. The baby sucked noisily.
"He's taking the last ounce of my energy," Neeltje said.
"Oh, yes! I remember that feeling," Anna said, "but even though I was forty-five when I got my son, I was lucky because I've always had ten times more energy than the average person."
"You were old to get a baby," Neeltje said.
"He was adopted," Anna said. She told Neeltje about Boulder, right in the heart of the Rockies. It was the perfect place to raise a child: year-round, outdoor activities and excellent public schools, not just academics, but art.
"That's how my son developed as an artist," Anna said. "I taught him."
Neeltje frowned. "Are you a painter?"
"I teach high school art," Anna said.
"Oh," Neeltje said, her face relaxing. "I thought you might be a painter. They're awful."
"Was the man who left a painter? A friend of Peter's perhaps?"
"No," Neeltje said. "He was just someone who lived here."
Neeltje shifted the baby to the other side.
Anna, sitting rigid, a hand on each knee, leaned forward to see if there was milk in the other breast. Not much. As the baby sucked, the balloon deflated.
Neeltje looked up. "You must be very proud of your son." Her knee began to jiggle. "His name was Peter, wasn't it? An artist. It might have been in Wenceslas Square that I talked to him. Only for a few minutes. I am always asking Americans for change, and I can't remember them all specifically, but he seemed very openhearted."
That would be Peter. Anna could feel the question she did not want to ask coming out like a soap bubble. "Was he high?"
"High?" Neeltje reached up to stabilize her unruly nest of hair.
"Yes, high. You know what I mean."
Neeltje's eyes turned to slits. She pulled the baby away from her breast and held him out. "Would you mind burping him?"
Anna took him, gasping with pleasure to hold a baby after all these years. Pressing his cheek against her shoulder, she thumped his back. While Neeltje was looking for a spit-up towel, a sweet little burp erupted. The baby had his fingers inside his mouth. His lips were wet.
"I need to buy diapers before the store closes," Neeltje said. "Would you mind staying with him for half an hour?"
"Not at all," Anna said. "I don't get to hold babies very often."
"It is good to have someone I can trust." Neeltje explained that she needed other things--milk, eggs, yogurt. She was very hungry, and the baby was taking all its nourishment from her body. "If I could fix a meal for myself, I could think of the next step to take, for myself and the baby. I don't need much." Neeltje stood there waiting.
"How much do you need?" Anna said.
"A hundred Euros?"
She probably should say no, but holding the baby, whose skin smelled so sweet, even unwashed as he probably was, feeling his back arch and his floppy head bang rhythmically against her shoulder, Anna thought, why not? This little boy looked like the blond babies her body had rejected and the grandchildren she might have had. She opened her purse. "I can let you have fifty."
Neeltje counted the money and went to the door. "I'll be back in half an hour."
"Fine," Anna said. "I'll amuse myself."
Holding the baby on her hip, she sprang up and opened drawers until she found a saucepan. She poured in water from the plastic jug and warmed it with the heating coil, then, remembering an old trick, flicked a few drops on her wrist. Not too warm. There was a dishtowel to dry the baby with and a clean suit to dress him in. She assembled all the ingredients for the bath and carried them to the drawer, pausing a moment to look at the little boy on her hip. His eyes were so intelligent and blue, an alert personality already evident. She unsnapped his suit and removed his diaper, laying it carefully aside. Seeing his pipe-cleaner legs, she realized the truth of what Neeltje said. The baby was not getting enough to eat. The child's ribs looked like wishbones. He was uncircumcised, the tip of his penis showing through the foreskin like a tiny, pink thumb. While she bathed him, he looked at his hands; his eyes were on the verge of focusing. She wondered if he could see her. She clicked her tongue. His eyes turned toward the sound, and he smiled. Probably only a reflex, she thought, pleased nonetheless.
"Hi, Baby," she said, drying him with the dishtowel. "My name is An-na."
She retaped the diaper and put on a clean outfit. "An-na rhymes with Ma-Ma."
His eyes followed the sound of her voice. The corner of his mouth flickered.
There was a little person in there. Then, she remembered. His name was Peter, Neeltje had said.
"Hello, little Peter." Anna picked him up and held him against her breasts. He smelled like Herbal Essence, the shampoo she used at home.
The first week of July, Peter's last communication, and the one she most wanted to forget, had come in the mail. She had immediately gone on Priceline to find a cheap fare to Europe. Inside the envelope he had sent, she found a pen-and-ink drawing of Alois Dryak's Hotel Europa in Wenceslaus Square. There was none of the abstraction of Peter's usual art, nor of the diagonal lines that often slashed through his paintings. This was purely representational, a drawing for tourists.
Forget I ever existed. Okay? Don't come looking for me. I'm learning the
language. I have friends. I have enough money to get by. I feel at home
She had no idea why he'd crossed out his name. That implied a complete erasure of self. If she could just talk to him and get some reassurance he was still alive, then maybe, yes, he could put college off for a year while he did his European walkabout. He was barely eighteen. She didn't see how she could return to Boulder and leave him here. The baby tensed, and his knees drew up. She remembered the spasms of a colicky baby and the hours from 4:00 to 9:00 that were Peter's fussiest. With a hand on the chair, she pushed herself up. My goodness, she thought, the old knees sure have gotten creaky. Sitting in the chair, she reached down and, laying the baby across her lap, rubbed his back.
"There, there little Peter," she said. "You're going be okay."
He whimpered, and his whimpers turned to cries. The cries grew angrier. He was like a porpoise, arching his back, then curling over her knees to let out another scream. She put him on her shoulder. His mouth opened wide. His screams echoed off the walls. Wahhh! Wahhh! Wahhh! Wahhh!
All right, now, all right, she thought. We're going to be just fine. She walked in circles around the room, bouncing him and cradling his head. "There, there, Peter. Don't cry."
Peter arched his back and tossed his head. His fists pounded her shoulder. He was heavier than he looked. She'd been walking on cobblestones all morning, and her back ached. She wished she hadn't had that tea because now she had to go to the bathroom. The toilets were those squat things. She couldn't very well take him with her. Bending down, she put him in the drawer. His drew his knees up, then his feet shot out. His fists were tight. Tears tinier than raindrops squeezed from his eyes, and a rage-cry rang out.
"Oh, dear," she said, looking around. Maybe he would calm down if she gave him some sugar water. On the dresser, she lifted the top of the sugar bowl. She moistened her finger and tapped the white powder, touching it to her tongue. Yes, it tasted sweet; she would not be poisoning him with some sort of powdered drug. She picked up the plastic jug. Not even a teaspoon of water left. First, she needed a baby bottle. She opened a drawer. Two little outfits. In another, Neeltje's underwear. In the bottom drawer were wool socks. She might use a sock, moisten it in sugar water, and let him suckle. He was used to a teat. Anything to make the crying stop! It was frightful how a crying baby could eat at one's nerves.
Propping open the door with the chair, Anna looked out in the corridor. Although Neeltje had said she'd gotten a diaper from a neighbor, it didn't seem possible that anyone other than the desperate Dutch girl would pay rent to live here. If she did pay rent. Maybe the building was occupied by squatters. There were two doors across the way. She knocked at one. No one answered. She put her ear to the door. Nothing. She stood at the second door. Inside, she heard voices. "Hello?" she said, rapping loudly. "Can you tell me where the kitchen is?" Peter's screams were surely audible to the people behind the door. Maybe they were calling the police to complain about the noise. She tried the door. The voices went quiet. She banged her fist. "Open up! Please! I just need to know where the water is!"
Then she noticed the peephole. A shadow darkened the lens. Standing on tiptoe, she put her eye right up to it. "I know you're in there," she screamed.
"Open. The. Door." Backing away, she held up the jug and mimed drinking a glass of water.
Behind her, Peter's cries were dying down. Thank God, she thought. Maybe he'd just cry himself to sleep, and she could sit on the sofa and not worry about feeding him. But she did still have to go to the bathroom. She put the jug on the chair, and seeing the peephole, thought, I must be crazy because anyone could be living in there, the Russian Mafia or gypsies. The hostel's desk clerk had warned her not to go out at night alone. Gangs of gypsies roamed the subways, attacking like feral dogs and robbing unsuspecting tourists. She thought of her son Peter, wondering if he had inherited criminal tendencies, and what kind of people he'd fallen in with.
Heading toward a dark alcove at the end of the hall, she discovered that the corridor jogged to the right, forming an open balcony that faced the hills. She walked down it, hoping to find a door that said W.C. Instead, there were half a dozen identical doors, spaced like those in a hospital. Suddenly, she knew: the building had been a dormitory, a place to warehouse factory workers. That meant there had to be a communal toilet. She looked over the balcony. Down below, she saw cans, bottles, and bags of garbage. The humid air formed an opaque glaze that reminded her of Monet's atmospheric light and turned the scene of squalor into something almost beautiful. Then, she heard slow, deliberate footsteps above her head. The footsteps halted. She held her breath. Smoke drifted down.
The people who lived here must be the dregs of society--ruffians, beggars, and thieves--but even lowlifes needed a bathroom. It had to be in that shadowy alcove she'd avoided. That would make sense, a bathroom right there at the end of the hall. Returning to the alcove, she saw a door. She twisted a knob. It fell off in her hand. "Ew!" she said, letting the knob drop to the floor. The space smelled like every drunk in the building had used it as a urinal. The corners were black, and there were white rivulets that reached all the way to a center drain, where the door knob had rolled. Breathing through her mouth, she hiked up her skirt and squatted. Pee spattered her shoes. She stood part way up, said, "Oh, well," and wiped herself with her skirt. She wasn't going to be able to stand herself if she didn't get back to Prague soon.
A puppyish whimper echoed down the hall. She hurried back to the apartment, picked up the jug, and pushed aside the chair. Peter had wedged himself into a corner of the drawer. "Poor little fellow." She picked him up. Unsnapping his suit, she stuck her fingers in his diaper. Fluorescent-green shit squirted out. It smelled like ammonia.
She placed Peter on the dish-drying towel, still damp from his bath. Anna saw the used, rolled-up diaper by the door. A wet diaper was definitely better than a poopy one. She used it to clean his bottom. It had turned red. His stomach was concave. Looking back at the dresser for something she could use as a diaper, she noticed the hand towel beneath the tea things. She moved them to the floor. Then, down on her knees, folding and refolding, she tried to tuck in the towel so it would stay closed; the frantic gestures of Peter's little arms frustrated her efforts. With her free hand, she lunged for the dresser and pulled out his clothing drawer. She found another outfit, fastened him into it, and put him back in his bed. His eyes rolled back and his eyelids closed. For a moment, she thought, Oh no! he's dying on me, but he was just going to sleep. She was tired, too. Dead tired. She was desperate to get back to the hostel, wash her hands, and throw her skirt in the garbage. Old Town was twenty minutes away.
She got to her feet again.
Adjusting the straps of her knapsack and putting it on, she looked down at the drawer. Peter's eyes were closed, and his hands were as loose as the paws of a sleeping cat. He should be okay for a minute. She checked her watch, then opened the door and listened for footsteps. Neeltje had been gone an hour. Surely, she'd come home soon.
Anna looked around at the open drawers, the tea things on the floor, and the disheveled sheets. She couldn't very well leave him here. Sighing, she bent over and spread the baby-blanket on the rug. Folding down a corner, she placed Peter in it, then bundled him tight as a burrito. Going downstairs would be tricky. He was heavy, and she worried she might trip.
She grabbed the sheet off the mattress, put Peter in the middle, and made a sling. Maybe Neeltje had decided to take advantage of the free babysitting to go back to the train station, Anna thought, closing the door behind her. She felt guilty leaving the place a mess, but then Neeltje had promised to come back, and she hadn't. The best thing was to meet her on the platform. Neeltje would have diapers and food. Anna could tell her about the diarrhea. The baby needed to see a doctor.
With the sling around her neck, holding the baby tight in one arm and clutching the handrail, Anna descended the stairs. The third landing jutted out like the prow of a ship. She stopped to rest. On the boarded-up windows, someone had spray-painted three, fat blue letters: LUV. Anna stood and looked at them, feeling the baby's weight on her arm. He shifted and whimpered. In the distance, a tram was coming toward the suburb. Commuters were packed like sardines. Probably Neeltje had had to run around to several places to buy what she wanted. It wasn't convenient to shop here, not like in America. Anna hurried down the remaining flights, picturing Neeltje, with her long determined strides, coming through the tunnel and up the steps.
At ground level, out of breath, Anna stopped and looked around. The tram was speeding away. Across the tracks, she saw a woman in a pink, spring coat. The woman walked quickly along the gravel embankment beside the tracks and dropped out of sight. There must be stairs, Anna thought, and possibly another housing development on land that sloped down to the river.
In the shade of the tree, she took off her knapsack and, cradling the baby in his sling, crossed the steppingstones to the platform. Looking back, she saw that the building next door didn't have boarded windows. Beyond it was a two-story, salmon-colored house with a vegetable garden. Beans grew up poles. There were fruit trees. This wasn't a totally bad neighborhood. She shifted the sling to her back. The knot had rubbed a raw spot on her skin.
She returned to the tree, untied the sheet, and retied it around a branch. She looked in. The baby's eyes were open. He was turning his hands and staring at them. She held out a finger. His hand moved slowly; then his fingers grasped her index finger. He looked at her, his bright, blue eyes focusing on her face.
"Are you okay?" she said.
He held tight, a death grip, as he moved her finger toward his mouth.
"No, Baby." She pulled her finger free. "I need to wash my hands." He was such a lovely baby, but he wasn't the baby she loved.
She gave the sling a push and stepped back. It swung like a hammock. The breeze would cool him. She picked up her knapsack and returned to the platform. A tram was coming, heading back into Prague. The headlight flashed. Brakes screeched as it came to a stop. Through the windows of the tram, Anna saw Neeltje just coming up the embankment that the woman in the pink coat had earlier descended. The conductor barked out something in Czech and motioned impatiently.
Anna stepped onboard and punched her ticket. The tram picked up speed. She bent to look out the window, and in the distance she saw Neeltje emerge from the tunnel beneath the tracks. Neeltje stopped, dropped her grocery sacks, and ran. She reached the tree, where a branch arched like the neck of a stork, holding a triangle of white. Sitting down, Anna sighed. Fingerprints streaked the glass, and her mind rattled like the tram's unsteady wheels. Really, she thought, you can only do so much, and then you have to quit.
MARYLEE MACDONALD is a retired carpenter who went back to writing fiction after many years as a "how to" writer for magazines such as Carpenter and Old-House Journal. Her work has appeared in New Delta Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, StoryQuorterly, Ruminate, and North Atlantic Review.