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Terese Svoboda

A Mama

Morning it's the same. Break in, search the place, take the kid and some kid's clothes and dress him. Then off to the home. And every morning, it's the same, the parent or parents lock the doors and/or hide in the coat closet and/or claw and kick at me while I pry away their kid. Their kid that is probably cut or bruised or burnt from anything, even a hot comb—every so often I see it, some regular ridges, and the parent saying he fell against a radiator. A lot of radiator action in these places.

So the court says take them. The court says take them and then bring them back every day at night because we can't keep them. The law. See, just because you want to kill a kid doesn't mean you're not entitled to free daycare.

I don't get it.

But they pay me. So I get them every morning, my partner and I, my partner who sits in the car waiting just in case. It's harder than you think, going in and getting little ones just born and bigger, big enough they get mean like their folks. But it's really the folks that are the problem. It's not like the kids don't want to go. No, two squares and somebody to cry to—that's the life for them. They're not going to mess that around.

Why, this one I got in the car here already barely moves its legs, this one, and every day I can see in the eyes why. So I don't get too attached. Get attached and they'll weep all over you every night and beg not to go home, and I've seen grown-up executives who volunteer and break down and bawl when they start begging and then the schedule gets all screwed up and I have to drive back late. I got a life, too.

The kids will eat yours up.

I got my own kids. My own kids cry. When they do, I wallop them, but not hard, not hard like these. These other parents, well, they go too far in the discipline department. Sometimes a little straightening out is good, kids appreciate it. But you have to realize that they do not like it to death or every day or when you just feel like it. These kids, for instance, I can't lay a hand on even if they beg for it.

The law.

For this one I open the door with a jackknife. I go into the bathroom where I know this joker likes to hide them. I turn off the hot water that steams up the place and the kid is bright red but no burns. Good. I take it into the bedroom where there's clothes, or if not, a blanket.

There's nothing in there but rags.

A ton of rags, and nothing too clean. I got extra blankets in the van anyway. I put the kid, who's not too hot anymore, into my jacket and head out.

But this parent makes me nervous. This one is not a first offender. This one last week put the kid in a sling over the door so it would drop on my head when I opened it. I am wary. I go quick for the knob.

This is where they always turn up, if they are not totally out of it. And, sure enough, there the parent is. This is when parents stand around like they want to do something and slow me up and, of course, make the kid cry. This one's been crying Mama for some time and then screaming and then quiet. When it sees the parent it's quiet again, this one, and it buries its—what do you think?—eighteen-month-old head in my chest and practically stops breathing.

This parent smiles like it is normal, like it is going to receive a nice kiss and a wave. See this smile? is what this parent's face says. I whip out a pen for the signature on the form as a sort of defense. I bring this form daily, the one that says I took the kid, checked it out like a book, and that I promise to bring it back later, because this usually distracts them when they start to scare me.

But not this one. The parent gives a big kiss to the baby's neck and I am afraid for the baby when I see the big red lips left there. We get out as soon as the parent signs, though I see by the outfit there's going to be more to pick up in some months.

In the late night I have my eyes open, looking at something. And it turns, maybe. My fingers check this out, and it is true, I touch what is turning and to my touch it says Mama. But not to me, to the black hollow spot in the spread.

I relax. There is some point where I take a Mama and feel okay about it, usually in the dark when the cars outside stop going on. Anyway, I know a Mama isn't so bad a thing for me to think it says when it turns, all upset in its rags.

I've got a lot of them, old diapers, skirt bits, half a sock set, a whole pile of stuff just about dust. Rags is what I put it in, if it deserves them. Does it deserve them? Maybe no. This one I haven't hurt for a long time, and I mean time stretched out, gum-like time. See, there's no blood, not even a Band-Aid, no water from a lot of tears. Still, I am surprised that it turns and makes its Mama.

For a treat at light, I let it rock in the car seat which I like to place on the table while I eat, sit the seat with it inside right up on the table where the roast would sit, its small leg dangling over cereal.

It usually cries what sounds like, Where are you going? when I step into the back room for more. Or, What about me? Today is not the same, it is, Hurry—I think. I think this one is too young for grudges.

But I experiment. You are given children when they are too small, but if you wait, your chance is up for experiment. For now, it fits good inside the car seat on the table and says nothing if I leave the room, even when I put on salt.

This disappoints me. Salt should get a noise out of it. I make some new redness and give it more salt. They say salt is antiseptic, that salt cleans. And lets you know it.

From now on, when I make more, I'll pick them up later, you know—board them. The hospital has this service that I saw at checkout—the place where they clip off the bracelets when the insurance looks good enough—rows of boarders in gray beds, no special tubes, no lights, all of them just lying around, looking up, waiting. You know they'll take to you quick, no problem. You could even pick up spares. There was one girl standing around who wasn't even a nurse, just church-like in the way she looked at the boarders. She was just waiting for a turn at the rocker with one of those, and I saw she could be me, I could do that. I could come by later and say, What a baby this is, whose is it? and just pick it up. This would be a lot easier than having one come down the canal. That is a lot of bother, plus screaming. And you feel lousy tired for weeks after. Giving you reason. Good reason. They try not to tell you this at these classes. I guess they figure it will be Love at First Sight when it squeezes out. I must say love is not the first feeling I have, after. Not to mention how all my hair falls out six weeks later.

In all the classes I go to, there aren't more than five who really want one. I can see this in their eyes when they are breathing fast, all puffing and puffing, that they want a new car the same way. If they just spent a good week together with one, night as well as day, they would quit and not puff again and get out. But most of them hire someone to take over and so never do night plus day, just once in a while an afternoon. So the only hard part is the puffing and a little at the end.

I could also follow the ones with the cloudy wanting and wait. Some would not notice. Really. They are too tired with their new arrangements, their painting the broom closet blue and finding out about diapers that can be collected, their cancelling whole seasons since they will be busy.

Before the hair falls out, always before then, you must start with the experiments. Otherwise, it will make such a crease in its face, a smile, from gas or whatever, that there's no moment right again for getting even. I give them up then if I miss. Why not? Too soon they talk, they say and point Mama. Like, for example, last night.

The screen door bangs. I think first, Fix it, then I think, this is a person, knocking. You could think the person wanted in, you could think, Open up in there. I take it into the bathroom, the room without a window, and turn on the hot and leave it. I go into the bedroom and still I hear that screen door. What a lot of noise, it and the screen door and the someone. I move to the place behind the door.

Someone will come and say, What's the problem? like they do every day, screen door or window or front-door knocker. And I'll say I'm just the sitter. I haven't seen the parents for days, I will say. I'm a sitter and I'm not supposed to open the door. They will look at me and my old teenage hair and face and believe me.

I'm the girl, grown. When I look at the bathroom mirror, I see the parent's face. I ask it often, How did it get there with its Mama all over it? I have scars that show my face should be the face of anyone else, not the reflection, not the face in the shininess of those scars that matches.

My boyfriend says so, too. He is the one who dips into me when there is an occasion, who says he will be Parent like he means it. Someday. On my birfday, he says, pretending to be a baby to get a baby. But I say, This is early, I say, Let's you and me play baby for us, together, on your birfday. I will sit deep in the beanbag chair, sit lolling, and you will—

He knows how this is supposed to go. I try this often. Often I need to do this, not just on his birfday, and him too, he likes it. What he does is he picks me up and holds me, with my limpness dripping my head and legs and arms all over his arms. He holds me in his white clothes, the ones he wears every day, and puts his big hand on my hair and moves it toward my face, slow, then lifts, and then moves. About halfway I make sounds. I am only allowed to make small sounds like you hear in dogs when they sleep, and never a Mama.

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