Aimee Henkel
Aimee Henkel

The Second Christie

It was July when I took residence in the abandoned house on Hayward Street. The ceilings leaked, the walls sweated, the floors oozed; the heat and humidity conspired to cook us in a pungent, watery soup. I watched the junkies battle gravity while crack heads ran up and down the stairs. Sweat and mildew grew in the dim corners and greasy puddles gathered in the corner of my room where the floor had heaved like waves on a placid sea. In my room, burned clothes lay curled in the back like a girl, wretched and starving – waiting - her battered dresser leaning toward the far side of the room. Little Debbie cake wrappers, empty plastic barrels of juice, cans of Michelob, tiny plastic bags and glass littered the floor. The doorway, which had once been sealed with police tape and an iron door, stood open. Over time, squatters and junkies - in that order - had come to stay.

I counted the mice and the rats and the crawling things as they slunk past, or raced by, or carried something. Morning crept up over the windows shedding watery light, making the damp walls shimmer. I thought about the weather. Would it rain or would the sun break through expectant clouds, tempting the crazies? Staring, I watched roaches run, copulate, eat and rest; their society more organized than mine. I was hungry, tired.

My labor began like a note heard from far away. The skin around my eyes felt thin, my face stretched. My pupils were as wide as nickels and the light began to hurt. Once again pain bubbled and stayed. I felt filthy. My ‘Jamaica’ T-shirt – a place I’d never been – was tattered and worn and hiked up over my belly; this grimy skirt pushed around my hips.

Crack was eating the baby alive; I could feel cocaine gnawing at it like a fiendish gangrene. Soon it would emerge with arms detached, head rolling free, legs and torso tumbling into a pile on the floor. The nurses would jump back - another crack baby coming apart. They would collect the parts wearing plastic gloves and surgical masks and disgusted expressions underneath. Someone would throw my baby into a black plastic bag; toss it out with the trash.

I had to wake Barney after a while. “It’s coming,” I panted. I nudged him. ”The baby’s coming.”

Barney waved me away. I pushed him. He sat up finally, rubbing his stubbled head, lipstick still fresh on his lips. He looked around the room, blinking. “What the hell?” He staggered to an empty hole in the wall, stuck his weathered hand inside, but there was nothing in it. “Shit. Thought I had more rum? You drink it?” He turned to me.

I ignored him, walked the floor and when the pain came I bent over. I prayed for the first time in my life. Why I called on God then I could only speculate, but the prayer bubbled up from my center, from the soil where my baby grew and from the desert my life now was. The prayer was a song. It came from the pain breaking like rough water over rocks. I couldn’t say who I was praying to, or the content; the prayer was unspoken. I wanted to kneel and say it properly, but I didn’t have the words.

“I’ll go find a taxi.” Barney said putting on his sticky Marilyn Monroe wig. He wore a blood red miniskirt and halter top smeared with rainwater and mud. His mules flopped.

“You’ll never get a taxi looking like that.” I said. “Call an ambulance.”

“If I wear my good bag I will.” Barney grinned, an imitation Coach over his shoulder.

The contractions were draining the fight from me bit by bit; soon I couldn’t walk. I was ready to have the baby now, leave it on the nest of clothes like a baby bird, or a rabbit abandoned in its burrow. I knew my baby would be found by some helpful soul. I wasn’t afraid for the baby, but for myself. The drugs had run out and so my memories would return.

I remembered my life like a play watched long ago. My daughter fell through a flight of stairs. My first thought waking up, my last going to sleep, a mantra as I walked, ate, drank, and breathed: my daughter fell through a flight of stairs. The memory stole my breath; I was never alone. I’d been okay once. I had been clean and sober, dragging the kids along. But the end of the play was Christie dying, then losing Stephanie to the State. By then I didn’t care.

“Don’t have that baby yet,” Barney called, barreling up the stairs in platform heels. “I got smokes, rum, something extra, plus new shoes.” He stuck out a gnarled foot, the nails thick and grimy.

“All that in fifteen minutes?”

“Girl, I did more. Plus I called the ambulance.” I heard sirens in the distance.

I made no move, suddenly afraid. “They sent a squad car, and an ambulance.” I stepped back. “What if they take the baby?”

“Girl, that’s the first thing they gonna do. I thought you didn’t want it anyway.” He pulled my arm. “You don’t know what you want, all that crack.”

“I just don’t want her to end up in some foster home, living with a family that doesn’t care about her.”

“How you know it’s a girl?” Barney faced me, his eyes hard.

“I just know.” I put all my weight on him as we limped outside. Eyes peered from the shadows, the broken windows, the walls.

A tall ambulance driver stood by his truck, while a ginger faced cop waited on the curb, watching Barney keep me on my feet. “These fucking crack heads will have babies anywhere,” he said.

A short technician appeared from around the back and took my other arm while the driver yanked out a gurney.

“How many minutes apart?” he asked. Together, they pulled me onto the gurney like a boat being hauled to shore.

Barney shrugged. “She’s been having a lot.” He took a swig from his rum bottle.

“Hey you,” the cop complained, but Barney stared at him as if he were a barking dog.

The technician cut my skirt down the middle then wiped my legs clean with antiseptic. He covered me with a white sheet, opened my legs and put his hand right inside of me, feeling around. I squirmed while he pressed and prodded.

“Don’t do that.”

“The good news is you’ve just got to hang in there for a few more minutes. I think we’ll have a baby pretty soon.”

“Can’t you put me in the ambulance? I don’t want to have my baby on the street.” I clenched my teeth when the pain escalated.

“Just hang in there.” He patted my hand, then hooked an IV and slid a stethoscope around my abdomen. The police officer watched idly from the curb, his eyes flicking between the tech and Barney, who was inching away.

I remembered the day Christie died. It had been a day full of sunshine. We planned a picnic at the park. I just had to visit social services, only had to walk three flights. I could never remember why I wanted to take the stairs. Had I been late? Wasn’t there enough room on the elevator? I dragged them up the stairs, not paying attention. Then Christie pulled out of my grasp, slipping through the hole in the middle of the stairs; she was so tiny. She lived for a few hours, but she wasn’t strong enough to survive.

The technician held my legs open, ready for the baby to crown. I pushed, pushed again, a scream tearing from my throat. When the baby emerged, its tiny head and shoulders erupting in a gush of blood and fluid, I could feel it had come out whole.

The tech cut the umbilical cord and swathed her in a clean white blanket. He handed the baby to me, and I kissed her and snuggled her close. Her eyes were wide and blue, her mouth pink; she was perfect in every way.

“It ain’t gonna be my baby for long, but I’ll call her Christie. Just for now.” Without looking at the baby again, I closed my eyes.