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Joan Wilking


Baby No. 14 arrives in the middle of the night. The social worker stands in the doorway with the carrier in one hand, a green plastic trash bag in the other. She’s wearing pink flannel pajama pants printed with ice cream cones and a Michigan State sweatshirt. Her hair is a sleep-tangled mess.

"Mom’s being transported," she says, which is DSS lingo for "The baby’s mother is on her way to jail."

I take the baby. Patsy takes the trash bag.

"I’ll call you in the morning, Meg," the social worker says.

The baby opens its eyes. It sensed the change of hands. They always do. It looks from the social worker, to Patsy, to me with an expression as blank as a slice of potato.

I sing to the little face, "We’re gonna love you like nobody loves you come rain or come shine."

The social worker laughs and leaves.

I walk the baby into the kitchen and set the carrier down on the counter. The baby’s eyes are dark but of no discernable color yet. It blinks as I start to undress it. It doesn’t make a sound. Patsy dumps the contents of the bag out onto the table.

"Not too bad," she says. "Stuff is clean and folded."

I pull the sleeves of the green sleeper suit off each of its arms and legs. The diaper is sodden. I peel the tapes back and open it up.

"It’s a girl," I say.

Patsy says, "I know."

She holds up a white onesie printed with tiny pink and green rosebuds. I slip a fresh diaper under the baby’s bum before she can let loose with a surprise. Her thighs are plump, like a pair of fat pink sausages, creased in the middle. Patsy sighs and I feel the familiar pull in the middle of my chest whenever she does that. It always makes me take a deep breath. I let it out slowly. The baby begins to cry.

"Nalini," Patsy says.

The rule is they come without names. It's Patsy's turn to pick. There's been Asia and Bree, Carlotta, Daphne, Elissa, Francie, Greta, Hana, Imani, Jewel, Kayleen, Lorelei, Mona, and now Nalini. I can feel the loss already, a day or two or three away. Patsy reads my face. She’s the tough one. She walks over to us and cups her hand to the top of Nalini’s head.

"Hush little baby." she says and kisses me on the lips.


We lie on the king size bed that Billy and I used to share. I’m on one side. Patsy’s on the other. Nalini snoozes in the middle. It took a while to calm her down. Now that she’s been changed and fed she’s out cold. I figure we’ve got at least a couple of hours before she’s up and screaming again. Asleep she looks like a little angel. There’s no telling what she’ll be like when she wakes up. We’ll just have to wait and see.


Patsy lives in the big old colonial next door. She lost her Hank around the same time I lost my Bill. We were both kind of at loose ends. Her kids were gone and my daughter, Adrian, was grown. It was Adrian, who suggested I start taking them in. She knew someone, who knew someone in Social Services. I ran into Patsy at the Stop and Shop one day and I happened to mention that I was thinking about doing it. The next morning she was right on it. Called me up wanting to know if I wanted some help, seeing as she was just next door and I said, Come on over, and she did. We called DSS and I signed up for the classes. She studied the book I brought home like she’d been sitting next to me in that musty church basement downtown. It’s not like we were the best of friends before. Hardly knew each other. Strange that you can live next door to people for so many years and know almost nothing about them. Fourteen babies later we’re tighter than I ever thought I’d be with anyone again.

Nalini shrugs in her sleep and Patsy pulls the blanket up to cover her little shoulder.

"What were you going to do tomorrow?" I whisper.

"Nothing that can’t wait. You?"

"Oil Change. Maybe some weeding."

The rule is that because we have them for such short periods of time, everything else has stop. Because we only take the newborns we treat them like they’re our babies, coming home for the very first time. We stay home with them, knowing they won’t be with us long, but wanting to share the love all the same. Adrian says I’ve really found my calling.

"I knew it Ma. You were always great with babies," she says.

Patsy she’s not so sure about. I’ve caught her watching us, wondering. We’re the odd couple all right. But we make a good team. And the last thing Adrian wants is to have to worry about me. She’s heard Patsy’s story. From her reaction I’ve come to suspect that my daughter has turned into one of those people who thinks that misfortune only falls when it’s invited.


Patsy and I doze off holding hands on the pillow above Nalini’s head. She wakes up around ten with a peep of a yawn and stretches her arms up, fists balled like she’s spoiling for a fight. Her eyes open and Patsy and I both say, Awwww. Patsy heads to the kitchen to fix a bottle. I give the diaper the finger test. She’s soaked.

Patsy stands in the doorway while I change her. Nalini doesn’t flinch at my touch. That’s a relief. We’ve seen it all. Black and blue marks. Burns. Broken bones. Diaper rash so bad it looks like ground beef. Private parts oozing with venereal disease. Nothing surprises us anymore. Not even Nalini. Some of our babies come to us well cared for, loved. Who would do something stupid enough to lose something so precious? That surprises me. Not Patsy.

"There’s no end to the idiocy in this world," she says. "Some women will do anything for a man."

Patsy says she’s a case in point. A wild woman in her salad days she hooked up with some pretty creepy characters before she met Hank. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. More "like at first sight" which was more than she could say for any of her other losers. Hank was a cop who walked the beat downtown for what must have seemed like a hundred years. All spit and polish he was. When Hank was alive you could putt golf balls on their front lawn. Patsy’s kept things up, but she’s not nearly as fussy.

I hold the baby. Patsy holds the bottle. We watch the little sweetheart drain it dry. I lift her onto my shoulder and pat her back until she gives up a milky burp. The phone rings and Patsy answers it. I listen to her say hello, uh huh and good by.

"They’re holding Mom for arraignment," she says. "She couldn’t make bail. The father-of-year is nowhere to be found, and the grandmother hung up on DSS, so she’s ours for the time being."

While Patsy rolls the stroller out of my garage, I dress Nalini in a clean onesie and a sweet little white sweater that came with her. Ours is a fine neighborhood to go for a walk. The sidewalks are in good condition and shaded by trees I’ve watched grow from seedlings into towering maples and oaks. It’s turned cool. Patsy runs home to pick up her windbreaker. I pull a hooded sweatshirt over my head. We meet halfway between her house and mine.

"Got the cellphone?" she says. I pat my pants pocket.

Outside in the daylight I can see how pretty Nalini’s skin really is. What I thought was white last night, turns out to be more like café au lait. She got quite a head of hair. Silky. Thick for a baby her age. Before we make it half way down the block she’s konked out. We keep a close watch on her for signs. Baby No. 4 turned out to have allergies. The poor thing’s eyes and nose ran when we tried to sit out under the trees on Patsy’s patio. We’ve been careful since then. You never know what you’re going to run up against. Patsy took infant CPR. So did I. Not that we ever want to have to use it.

We stroll around once, waving to neighbors along the way. Most of them know about our babies. Some have donated diapers, formula and clothes. We don’t take money from DSS, although, if there are medical bills, they pay.

No. 1 was with us for two weeks. No. 2 for two years. After that Patsy and I agreed it was too hard. Giving Bree back felt like having a knife plunged into my heart. Adrian talked me out of trying to adopt. I gained ten pounds. Patsy lost fifteen. We barely spoke to each other for six months. Since then it’s been short term only. A day or two here and there. Sometimes only a matter of hours. You never know.

Patsy’s the pragmatic one. She has no expectations of anything. If we last, that’s fine with her. If we don’t, that’s fine, too. The babies come and the babies go. We tend them. We give them back. Bree is ten now. Her adoptive family is nice enough to send pictures from time to time. No. 12’s aunt sent a thank you note through DSS. As for the rest? We have no idea. This one will leave the way she came, in the arms of a social worker, frazzled, trying to juggle too big of a caseload.

Everyone thinks that Patsy’s tough. I’ve gotten to know her softer side. She’s lived a harder life than mine, which may make her seem to be brusque sometimes. With babies she has the magic. A gentleness they feel the instant that she touches them. When she calls me Baby I feel it, too. So when we get back to the house and Nalini wakes up whimpering, I hand her over and she quiets right down. Our babies are so predictable. They snooze for a long stretch when they first arrive. Patsy thinks the trauma of the separation tuckers them out. I think the relief of being out of the situation relaxes them enough to be able to sleep. The worst of them cry all of the time when they’re awake. The scariest are the ones that don’t cry at all. Nalini is a welcome relief.

Patsy settles Nalini in the crib I keep set up in the guest room. There’s some meatloaf left from last night. Adrian calls and I invite her over for lunch. I get three nice thick slices out of what’s left of the loaf. They’ll make good sandwiches. Patsy turns the light on under the kettle. She gave it to me last Christmas. It’s a pretty thing with a blue whistle shaped like a bird. She leaves the spout open. If we don’t, when it whistles the boiling water spurts all over the place. I set the kitchen table with placements and my everyday china. When it’s only Patsy we usually eat our lunch off paper plates. The doorbell rings and I send Patsy to let Adrian in. They’re cordial to each other but I wouldn’t exactly describe their relationship as warm. I’m sure Adrian would prefer to see me settled in a condo in Florida cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for some rich widower. Adrian’s fiancé Roland manages the Ford dealership downtown. They keep trying to fix me up with one of the salesmen. He just lost his wife – pancreatic cancer, the same type that took my Bill. I think Roland thinks that’s enough for us to have in common.

Adrian walks into the kitchen heaving a deep sigh. She detoured at the guestroom to take a peek at the new baby. She’s tall. Reminds me of me at that age. She used to straighten her hair. Now she’s let it go curly again. She’s dressed in gym clothes. No makeup. Since she quit her job to plan the wedding she spends a lot of time at the gym, and more time than I like, visiting me.

"Pretty little thing," Adrian says.

I watch Patsy’s expression. She’s never said it but I know she thinks that Adrian is shallow. All style and no substance is what she’d say. She’s been planning the wedding for months. The whole enchilada. Limo’s, a big fancy reception at Roland’s club. I’m kicking in for her dress and the band. Roland is springing for the rest. His father owns the dealership, so unless he really screws something up, it’s only a matter of time before it’s his.

"Coffee or tea?" Patsy asks both of us.

"Only water for me," Adrian says." I just had my teeth bleached."

She pulls the corners of her mouth back with her index fingers to bare them. They’re as white and straight as a movie star’s thanks to the bleach and some pricey orthodontics when she was in her teens. The diamond on her finger flashes. It’s the size of my thumbnail.

We eat fast. Adrian has a nail appointment to get to. Patsy, as usual, doesn’t say much when Adrian’s around. Adrian keeps up a steady stream of dumb chatter about the wedding, and one of Roland’s personnel problems. It’s been obvious from the start that she doesn’t approve of Patsy’s connection to me. She thinks Patsy is uncouth, that she lacks class, which is reinforced when, after Adrian complains about the cost of the caterer, Patsy suggests we make trays of lasagna. That sets Adrian to checking her watch. The baby wakes up and Patsy goes to get her.

Adrian says, "Oh, let me hold her." Patsy carefully lowers Nalini into Adrian’s arms. I might not be crazy about some things about my daughter, but she’s good with babies. "Pretty soon," she says, "I’ll have some if my own." She’s made no secret of the fact that she and Roland intend to start trying right away. She’s talking right into the baby’s face. Patsy hovers behind her. "Then you won’t have to do this anymore Ma. Once you’ve got grandchildren." I watch Patsy stiffen. Adrian holds Nalini out and I take her. Adrian stands up and lifts her handbag off the back of the chair. "So what’s the story with this one."

"Not much to tell." I squeeze one of Nalini’s little fists. "We’re just waiting for the call."


The call comes about an hour after Adrian leaves. Mom’s neighbors have put up her bail. The neighbors all say she’s a good mother. No question of neglect or abuse. The social worker will be by around four to pick the baby up. We get Nalini fed and diapered and dressed in the prettiest outfit we can find in the bag.

"I’ve got to go feed the cats," Patsy says. We go with her.

I can hear them mewling before Patsy slides the key into the lock. The two tabbies wind themselves around her ankles as soon as she steps inside. Since Hank passed, no one has been in the house except Patsy and me. She goes into the kitchen to open tins of food for the cats. I carry Nalini into the living room. It’s nicely decorated with antiques that were passed down through Hank’s family, stuffy, old fashioned things that don’t seem to fit Patsy at all. She looks like a stranger in this house. The only hint of who she could have been is in the photo on the mantle. Patsy. Young and full of it. Defiant. You can see it in her eyes. She’s wearing a bright green dress, and the girls sitting on either side of her are also dressed in bright green. It was St. Patrick’s Day. One looks to be about three, the other five or six. Jenna and Justine. They’re both smiling big fake smiles around clenched teeth. Her husband took the photo two weeks before she got up the courage to finally leave him and he tracked her down at her mother’s, waited until she left for work, broke down the door and shot her mother and her little girls before turning the gun on himself. Hank was the cop who was sent to pull her out of work that day.

Patsy walks into the living room and stands beside me. I turn the baby over to her and put my arm around her shoulder. She holds Nalini up and turns her towards the photo. The baby stretches her arm out as though she’s reaching for it.

"They were such good kids," Patsy says. And I say, "I know." It’s the same ritual we’ve performed fourteen times these last twelve years. We stand together. She’s resolute. I’m strong. There’s no changing the past. We lock up and walk the short distance back to my house, holding hands. In forty-five minutes we’ll lose another one. This time though, we’re prepared.

Joan Wilking's short fiction has been published in The Atlantic, Ascent, The Bellevue Literary Review, The MacGuffin, The Barcelona Review, Other Voices and several previous issues of the the Blip Magazine Archive.  She is a four time finalist for Glimmertrain's Very Short Fiction Award, twice in the top 25 and a finalist for Glimmertrain's Open Fiction Award. Her short short "Proper Dress" was published in the first Politically Inspired anthology edited by Stephen Elliott. Her short story "Wild Thing" is downloadable for 49 cents at She lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

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