fiction by Bonnie Peters On her first birthday, Marah couldn’t sit up, or roll over, or say “mama.” Her head wobbled like one of those dash-board dolls.
“We could suction cup her butt and stick her right over your glove box. Kinda like that Hawaiian Hula girl Dave used to have in his old Chevy.” Karol, Anna’s mom, laughed as she kissed Marah’s toes.
Anna had to hold her daughter’s chin while she spoon fed her a piece of the birthday cake, mashed up with the white and pink icing and a little milk. Marah’s left eye looked at her nose whenever she tried to focus on a face. Drool and pieces of cake pooled in the left corner of her mouth and returned there within seconds after Anna wiped it away.
At her twelve month check-up, the pediatrician gently pushed and stretched Marah’s legs into strange frog like positions.
“Marah needs surgery to correct the scissoring.” Dr. Allen looked at Anna and must have seen her confusion. “The tightness and crossing of Marah’s legs makes it hard to position and clean her properly. After surgery, you’ll be able to take care of her easier.”
When Anna didn’t say anything, the doctor continued. “We’ll wait on the surgery, but I’m writing a prescription for physical and occupational therapy that she should start right away. Lacey, at the front desk, will give you some paperwork to fill out so you can get help with all the services Marah is going to need.”
When Anna still didn’t respond, Dr. Allen put his hand on her shoulder. “Anna, do you realize that Marah is never going to grow up normal? Her cerebral palsy and probable mental retardation are going to require a lot of extra support.”
Anna smiled, nodded her head, and after paying the bill and sliding the therapy prescriptions behind the last twenty in her wallet, she put Marah in her car seat and drove back home. Words kept repeating and echoing in her head—cerebral palsy, mental retardation, surgery, therapy, not normal.
A couple of months ago, Anna had been given a pamphlet explaining the medical term cerebral palsy, but it was confusing. So, Anna had looked up each word, first cerebral and then palsy in the library dictionary—intellectual tremors, cerebrum shakes? Marah didn’t shake; she jabbed. She could push out her arms and legs so hard they could pierce through you if they were swords.
Was she going to start shaking like that old man at McDonald’s who sprinkled coffee all over his sweat shirt? Will she be so retarded that she can’t talk, or even understand what people say to her? Will she always drool? Will she ever be able to walk, or swim, or dance, or spin around in circles so fast she falls down dizzy in the soft grass like Anna used to do?
Anna had been ignoring the doctor’s words, words he had been warning her with every visit since Marah was born. She was good at ignoring bad things. When she was six she had found a way to ignore her dad and his belt. If she sang a song and closed her eyes, it didn’t hurt as much. Sometimes, after one strike across her legs, he would call her a crazy canary and walk off. She covered the marks with long sleeves and pants so the beatings would be easier for everyone else to ignore.
At eleven, she didn’t need to ignore her dad’s death; she celebrated it. By the time she was thirteen she became a real pro at cooking and cleaning, working around Karol’s drunken form on the couch or the men that trailed Karol home from the local bar where she bartended.
At sixteen Anna pretended to not care when her first and only boyfriend acted as if he didn’t know her when they crossed paths at school. Instead, Steve came to her house through the back door and groped and fondled her until she got tired of moving his hands away. A few months past Anna’s seventeenth birthday, while Karol paid attention to her beer and the game shows, Steve had her in the bedroom, on her twin bed.
“You make me feel so good, Anna.”
He fumbled around until Anna helped guide him, then pushed his stiff part into her, and with a few pushes and grunts, it was over. But he was so grateful, and Anna craved that gratefulness. She needed to own what someone else wanted, and be able to give it away as she chose. After a few months, Steve no longer seemed appreciative of the one gift she could give him, and he moved on to a new girl. She ignored that too.
When her period stopped and her vomiting started, Anna didn’t go to a doctor. She wore her mom’s boyfriends’ forgotten shirts and her own low rise jeans that fit under her growing belly, unzipping the zipper as she entered the seventh month. She went about her life as she always had. But, from the time she was born, Marah was impossible to ignore.
Back home, Anna carried Marah and her diaper bag inside, placing both in Marah’s crib. Filling a glass of tap water, she swallowed three chalky aspirin from the plastic bottle in the bathroom medicine cabinet. Her head hurt from the pressure of memories. She returned to their bedroom and watched Marah as she lay quietly, reaching out with her right hand to touch her favorite toy, “Ted.”
Ted was a shell of a teddy bear. The stuffing had been removed years ago, and fingers had worn the fur off in several places. One of Anna’s regulars at the restaurant had given Marah the bear a month after she was born. He said it had been his son’s, the one who had died in a motorcycle accident.
When Marah couldn’t reach Ted, she whimpered then turned her head and reached out for the closer purple and pink ducks on her diaper bag. She managed to tap the colorful ducks with her clenched left fist, and was satisfied.
Anna began to undress Marah, starting with her socks. Her feet were tiny and pointed like a ballerina. She pulled off the pink cotton pants. Marah’s legs looked like the legs children might draw on their stick figures. She kicked them and they crossed in the process, tight and stiff. Maybe that was not so normal. Anna ran her finger from Marah’s right knee to the end of her big toe. Her baby’s skin was as soft as the inside of a puppy’s ears, very normal.
She took the diaper off and kissed the button that perched in the middle of Marah’s flat little belly, a scar where they had once been connected. Marah cooed and kicked harder. That belly button looked like all the belly buttons on all the babies she had ever seen.
Anna took off the long sleeved cotton shirt with the pink and brown bunnies. The nipples matched, two little brown pricks of future womanhood. Marah held her arms bent at the elbows, her fists pressing into her cheeks, as if she were ready to box. Her arms were taut and wrenched in like the pulley and chain on the tow truck her dad once drove.
“Relax, Marah, relax.” It hurt to see a body so tiny, working so hard.
Anna continued with her inspection. The chin looked like the Steve’s chin (or at least what she could remember of it), narrow and a little pointed, giving her face a heart shape. Marah’s nose was small and up turned, like Anna and her mother’s, and her ears were tiny seashells, their pink spiral to the center, nothing abnormal about them. Marah’s eyes had long lashes, thick and purple black, like a crow’s feathers, more luxurious than the average baby’s. Even with one eye crossing to the center, her daughter’s hazel eyes were the most beautiful Anna had ever seen.
But therapists and surgeries weren’t normal things, and Anna wanted normal. She craved normal. Marah should have normal too, a mother and father that stayed together like a real family, and kissed sweetly, several times a day, never hitting each other or their child. She deserved a grandmother that baked cookies instead of getting drunk or bringing men home from the bars.
Marah sat in her swing, the motion soothing her. Anna thumbed through the phone book until she found places that might have the information she needed. The woman at one pregnancy center had her call another agency, and then, after pushing about ten keys on the phone pad, she was finally able to talk to a person who could help.
“I want to put my daughter up for adoption.”
That person passed her on to another one, who called over her supervisor, who set up an appointment for Anna and Marah in two weeks.
Although she knew better, Anna slipped and told Clay Eaton, her restaurant manager, about the adoption. Clay was one of those people who loved to quote things from the Bible and invited Anna every week to come to his church. Anna never knew how to feel about the man. On the one hand he was irritating with all the religious stuff, but on the other hand he was too damn nice to get mad at.
As soon as they knew Marah had been born, Clay and his wife, Alice, brought a brand new car seat to the hospital. It was the fancy kind that you could lift out of its base and use to carry the baby around. When Marah finally came home, they brought over enough diapers to last a month (the little bitty kind for preemies), a crib they had found at a yard sale, tons of clothes their granddaughter had grown out of, and one of those folding umbrella strollers someone from church had donated.
“Be careful of those two,” Karol had said when Clay and Alice had left from dropping off the gifts. “Anybody that nice has got an agenda.” Apparently their agenda didn’t keep Anna’s mom from eating two helpings of the homemade macaroni and cheese, honey baked ham, and green beans they left along with the baby things.
A few days after Anna told Clay her secret, she had a visitor at the trailer park. A man knocked on the door real loud.
“Anna Harris, this is Pastor Dan Folley of the Central Baptist Church on Second Street.” He shouted through the closed door. “Clay and Alice’s church.”
Anna invited the preacher in and had him sit on the only nice piece of furniture, a practically new sofa Alice and Clay had given her the first month she started waitressing.
Pastor Dan wasn’t so confident or loud once inside. He sat on the edge of the pretty green and blue striped cushion, his back straight, his feet pressing into the stained carpet, his palms gripping his knees, both of his thumbs held up. It looked as if he might have buttons on his knee caps, and if he pressed on them with those thumbs, he could thrust himself through the air and out the door for a quick escape.
Anna sat in a lumpy, maroon recliner across from her visitor, holding Marah in her lap like a shield. She kept watching the door, hoping her mother wouldn’t come home drunk from her afternoon shift, or with a man, or just plain in a pissy mood.
“Clay and Alice told me you worry about being a good enough mom to your daughter.” The preacher let go of one of his knees and reached over to touch Marah’s clenched fist, uncurling her fingers and lingering one of his own in her palm. “I want you to know that God will help you through the tough times with Marah.”
“So far, that God of yours has been about as much help as my own father ever was.”
“Have you ever asked God to help you?”
Anna remembered all the nights she cried in her bed, when she was hungry, scared, hurting from her father’s belt. She had called out to someone under those covers, but no one was listening. “Do you want a Pepsi, Dan? I’ve got a couple in the fridge.”
“No thanks, Anna.” Pastor Dan sucked in his breath and sat up another couple of inches higher. “God works in mysterious ways, Anna. We don’t know the plan He has for us.”
“That’s a coincidence. My father was pretty mysterious and I never knew his plan either. I didn’t know whether he’d be drunk in the morning, or drunk at night, or drunk all day. I didn’t know if or when he’d show up with any money to help pay the bills or buy some food. My life got better when they found him dead in his own vomit.”
“I’m sorry about your physical father, Anna, but our spiritual Father in Heaven is not like that.”
Anna didn’t say anything. Her face was pulled tight as she bit the insides of her cheeks and clenched her lips together. She didn’t turn away, but kept her eyes pierced on Pastor Dan’s, all the while bouncing Marah on her knee.
The pastor had gained back some of his door banging confidence as he continued talking. Each sentence got a little louder. “Trust God, give yourself up to Jesus.” Dan let go of Marah’s small hand and grabbed Anna’s. He held on tight with all the fierceness of his beliefs, practically crushing her knuckles together.
Another man wanted her to give herself up, imagine that. She took her hand back and rubbed the knuckles back to life.
Dan didn’t seem to notice the rejection. He kept talking, completely relaxed by that time, and leaned back in the couch with his leg bent and his ankle resting on the other knee. A gap between brown sock and tan slacks showed the man had little hair on his legs. For some strange reason, that bothered Anna.
The pastor folded his hands in his lap and smiled. He wasn’t half bad looking, in his early forties, blondish hair with small, deep brown eyes, a soft looking body. “I want you to come to our church and become part of our church family. Together we can help you raise this child.”
Anna groaned inside, but realized the visit might end sooner if she made the man happy. “OK, Dan, Marah and I will see you Sunday, but right now I have to give my baby her bath.” She was able to usher the man out the door soon after.
When Sunday came, Anna didn’t want to go. It would have been so much nicer to crawl back in bed after feeding Marah and settling her in her swing. But, afraid of a second home visit, she decided to make the effort. Besides she owed Clay and Alice something.
By the time Anna left for church Sunday morning, she was feeling pretty and fresh, new, not all used up like she usually felt. Maybe it was the new outfits. Anna had found some outfits on sale at Wal-Mart, right after the Easter holiday. Marah’s sundress was white with yellow, pink, and purple butterflies, matching ruffled yellow bloomers to cover her diaper, and a thin yellow sweater to keep her warm in air-conditioned buildings. She wore little white sandals that were held tight to her feet with Velcro. Anna wore a short white denim skirt and a hot pink tee-shirt covered with a large white peace sign, and pink flip flops.
Clay and his wife, Alice, their son, his wife, two small grandsons and one granddaughter were also dressed up, and slicked up, with hair gel and collared shirts on the guys and lip gloss and easy moving skirts on the girls. They stood waiting on the curb in front of the church parking lot. Clay waved like a traffic cop when he saw Anna’s green truck pulling in, as if she could have missed that group.
She rolled her window down and waved back.
“Praise God, you are here! And little Marah too!” Clay’s voice caught like he had something in his throat.
Anna put the gear shift in reverse for just a short minute, rested her forehead on the steering wheel, took a deep breath, then moved back in park and turned the engine off.
When they got out of the truck, Alice hugged Anna and kissed Marah on the forehead. “Glad you could join us this morning, Anna.”
Anna had seen church services on the television before. One of her mom’s boyfriends, Sam, made her and her mom sit in front of the TV every Sunday morning for the two months he stayed with them. While the preacher hollered from the television screen, Sam read the Sunday paper and Karol did her word searches. Anna would be thumbing through her Teen magazines (she was fifteen at the time and in love with Zac Efron), but she still remembered hearing the rhythm of the preacher’s words and the strength of the choir’s voices.
Sam also made them say grace every time they ate, even in restaurants. He also praised God real loud almost every night from Karol’s bedroom. That was the extent of Anna’s religious experience.
Clay and Alice’s church didn’t look anything like the big fancy one Anna saw on television. The outside of the church was cream colored block, with a simple wood door at the front and windows all along both sides of the shoe box shaped building, no stained glass anywhere. The only thing that made it look like a church was the wood cross standing on the roof, right on the edge of the peak, above the door. Anna inadvertently cringed as she pushed Marah’s stroller through the entrance. She imagined the cross crashing down on their heads.
Inside, metal folding chairs were lined up in rows facing a wood lectern. Behind the lectern was another large wood cross, this one securely fastened to the center of the back wall. Left of the cross, Anna saw a drum set and a young, long haired drummer, a guitar and an older, bearded guitarist.
A man in a suit and tie stood in front of the people and talked about a picnic, and then everyone stood up from the folding chairs and sang a song, reading the words projected on a white screen below and to the right of the cross.
“This is the day, this is the day, that the Lord has made. We will rejoice, we will rejoice, and be glad in it. This is the day …” The sound coming from these church people sounded nothing like the music on channel 77, but it was easier to follow.
Dan got up after the singing and told them a Bible story. Anna wondered if he picked this story because she and Marah were going to be there. It was about a paralyzed man who couldn’t get in a house where Jesus was. His friends lifted him up to the roof and down a hole so he could see Jesus and get a miracle. The man ended up walking out of the place.
After the story, people asked Dan to pray for different things like husbands with cancer and people going through divorces. Clay asked him to pray for a miracle for Marah. Dan put a hand on her head while he talked to God. Marah tried her best to grab his jacket sleeve waving in front of her face, but her arm kept missing the target.
A basket was passed around for people to put in money; Dan talked some more, and then it was over. Anna’s butt hurt from sitting on the hard metal.
“We’d love it if you and Marah would join us for lunch. Both the boys and all the grand kids will be over, and I’ve got plenty of fried chicken and potato salad.” Alice adjusted the waist band of her skirt as if loosening it for the feast to come.
“You can’t miss Mom’s fried chicken or Dad’s Key Lime pie.” Clay’s son, she thought his name was Dylan or Dustin or some D, put his arm around his dad’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
“Thanks,” said Anna. “But my mom already has lunch ready for us.” Boy, if God punished liars, she’d better watch out. Karol hadn’t fixed her a meal since she was eleven, and then it was a peanut butter or bologna sandwich.
Anna and Marah’s appointment with social services was a Monday afternoon at four. Anna didn’t have a shift that day so she walked Marah to the park in the morning. She laughed the most when she was smack in the middle of commotion and Anna loved to watch her laugh.
Marah’s gaze tried to find the source of excited screams coming from the playground. She jumped, then laughed when the red Frisbee went whizzing in front of her. She giggled when the beagle licked her fingers and tried to hold her head up to see what was making the thumps on the basketball court.
After a couple of hours of people watching, they walked back home for lunch. Anna changed Marah’s diaper and put her back in the stroller, cramming rolled up baby blankets on either side of her to help hold her up.
Anna spread peanut butter and honey on slices of bread for herself and warmed some pureed chicken and noodles for Marah. She scooped a bit in her baby’s mouth, scraping a mashed noodle off her bottom lip and returning it to its place.
Anna tried again to push in another spoonful of noodles and keep it in Marah’s mouth long enough for it to be swallowed. It rolled right back out.
“Shit.” Anna tried another spoonful and managed to keep half of it in long enough to be swallowed.
“I guess I shouldn’t be cussing around you, should I? Good mothers don’t do that. Your new mom isn’t going to want to adopt a kid that says bad words.”
Then Anna slapped her knee with her free hand and laughed out loud.
“If you learn to talk, maybe nobody would care what the hell came out of your mouth.”
Another spoonful of pureed chicken and noodles was scooped and poised for entry. Marah opened her mouth and tried to move her head closer to the spoon. She was hungry and not enough food was making its way to her stomach.
Marah head slipped sideways until it found the end of the blanket roll. Her tongue worked to move the food to the back of her throat. Instead it only managed to push the food in the opposite direction. The entire spoonful of chicken and noodles rolled back out of Marah’s mouth. The little girl’s jaw tightened, her legs kicked out straight, and two little fists clenched in front of her chest. She screeched.
Marah’s eyes watered up and then the cries started.
“Shut that kid up.” Anna’s mom yelled from her bedroom.
“You’d be screaming too if you had to put up with a body like hers.”
“Just keep her quiet so I can sleep.”
Anna held Marah’s head up straight with one hand, and managed to feed her the rest of her lunch with the other hand. Finally feeling full, Marah stopped crying. By the time lunch was over, she looked exhausted, her eyelids dropping shut. Anna carried her to her crib and put Ted under her right arm, now loose and relaxed in sleep.
In the living room, Karol sat on the sofa smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer.
“She finally finish eating?” Karol asked.
“Took so much out of her, she fell asleep.” Anna sat down next to her mother and slid a cigarette out of the box, lighting it with the small plastic lighter on the coffee table. “You believe in God?”
“Maybe, sometimes, though I’m not sure how much good he is.”
“Is he good?” Anna turned sideways on the sofa to face Karol, tucking her legs underneath her.
“Could be he isn’t good or bad, just entertained.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Maybe this world is just one big gambling place, people races instead of horses or dogs, casinos with people instead of cards. God rolls the dice and a baby is born to some parents. Then God and the angels bet on who they think is going to survive depending on their odds. They are entertained that way. It’s probably pretty boring in heaven otherwise.”
“That’s crazy.” Anna put her feet back on the floor and put her cigarette out in the ash tray.
“Don’t waste my damn smokes.” Karol put the barely used cigarette back in the box, and then laughed. “God and the angels probably didn’t bet much on us making it with the fathers we were dealt.”
Karol stood up. “Shit, girl, maybe that adoption agency will have a lucky deck of cards and deal Marah a great family.” She drains the Budweiser can. “My shift starts in an hour. I gotta go get presentable.”
Anna sat on the sofa rolling Karol’s empty beer can between her palms. In Dan’s story the man’s friends upped his odds by cutting a hole in the roof to get to the miracle. Anna knew she could find a way to cut the hole and up Marah’s odds, if she only knew where the miracle was hiding.
“See you.” Karol walked out her bedroom wearing shorts that would show her ass if she bent over, and a tee-shirt so tight on her it might fit Marah.
“That outfit will sure increase your chances of getting good tips.” Anna shouted as her mom left.
Karol stuck her head back in. “You’re damn right it will. Those men will be begging to give me more money.”
“Take their money, just don’t bring any of them home.”
The fumes from Karol’s beer can started to make Anna feel like she wanted to puke up her lunch. Her insides ached, right in the spot where she had stuffed bad memories, hurts, and anger. All those feelings felt suddenly and terrifyingly close to overflowing. They bubbled up her throat, pushing upwards to her mouth and tasted of bile. If they emptied out of her, she’d be limp, left with no real form, another gutless toy, like Marah’s “Ted.”
Anna took three deep breaths, pushing everything back down to a safe place. She tiptoed into her bedroom and crawled into bed next to Marah’s crib. Every time she closed her eyes she pictured things she didn’t want to see—dice, a hole in a roof, her father’s belt. She wanted to dream about hugging, pie baking fathers, and mothers who wear soft, pastel skirts.
Anna reached her arm from underneath the sheet and fumbled for her cell phone on the bedside table. She found the saved contact and pushed send. It took several minutes to reach the right person. By that time, Anna’s pillow had a circle of damp sweat, and her hair lay plastered to her skull.
“Can I help you?”
“This is Anna Harris and I’m canceling my four o’clock appointment today.”
“Do you want to reschedule?”
Anna cleared her throat and pushed herself up on her elbow. “Not yet, I have to figure out where to place my bets.”
“The Hole in the Roof” is a fictional account of a teenage pregnancy resulting in the birth of an infant with severe disabilities and the young mother’s struggle in meeting her child’s needs. Having adopted a child with similar disabilities, Bonnie Peters has always wondered about the pain her mother, or any mother, would go through in making that choice.
Peters teaches young adults with moderate to severe disabilities at a center school. Most of her leisure time is spent reading, kayaking the beautiful waterways of Florida, practicing yoga, and writing fiction. She has been published in True Romance and various children’s publications, such as Kidz Chat, Discoveries, Story Friends, Discovery Trails, and Stable Kids.