The Baby at Cardboard City
The Louisiana gulf sun burned her face, and sweat dripped into her eyes. If she could make it to the little covered bus stop, Mary could get off her feet that hurt so badly she barely noticed the pain in her back. Ahead of her, lean Charlie, muscled out from construction work and legs long for his tall frame, was moving away. “Quit straggling along, or you’ll make us miss the train,” he called over his shoulder.
“I’m not straggling. I’m tired, and my feet hurt.” Even with the shoelaces untied, her swollen feet felt like rocks holding her back. “If you’d help me carry this bag, I could hurry.” She untangled her blond hair from the strap of the green bag letting it slide off her skinny shoulder. It hit the sidewalk with a thud.
He moved on. “I’m carrying my share, and it’s heavy,” he called. “Quit complaining, and come on!”
Mary froze. Not once had she complained when Charlie lost his job, or when they lost the lease on their small apartment. Not once had she complained when her parents slammed the door on them. Mad maybe, but not once had she complained. The anger of just remembering her parents made her fume. “We warned you,” they had said. “This guy will get you into trouble. But no, you said it was love. So now live on love. You can’t live here.” Slam.
“Oh come on, Mary. Quit being a slacker. Pick up the bag, and let’s get a move on.”
“I’m not a slacker.” Mary shouldered the bag and trudged toward the graffiti covered bus stop with its bright green plastic roof.
From the shadow of a rusted out warehouse emerged a broken down grocery cart filled with jumbled plastic and clothing, its wheels squeaking with every turn. Pushing it was a grimy, disheveled woman with sun darkened skin, stringy hair and tattered clothing. Her companion, a tough looking tall man wearing camouflage clothes with holes in the knees, looked Mary over up and down. She tried to hurry away from his stare, but her feet seemed frozen to the concrete.
“Hey you, teenagers,” called a raspy female voice. “What are you two doing in this bad neighborhood? Look around you at the damn dangers!”
Mary ignored the question, but she could smell the woman’s sweat and grime as the cart came closer,
“Be careful. Ragtown area is full of damn thieves who will take your money,” said the voice.
She couldn’t help herself, Mary laughed. “We have no money to steal. Why do you think we are walking this shortcut to the train station instead of taking a taxi?”
“Just be careful,” said the voice as she and the ramrod straight bodyguard looking man disappeared around the corner of an empty factory. Their passing startled birds who came flying out a broken window.
Only a few yards to go, only a few feet to go. Mary panted, heaving herself forward imagining the feel of the bench at the bus stop. At last, her hands groped the beam holding up the roof, her hands followed the plastic to the seat, and she finally, with clumsy effort, lowered her seat on to the dirty but cool bench. Already there drinking from his worn water bottle, Charlie handed it to her, and she poured water into her parched mouth finally finding her voice. “Do we have enough money to take the bus?”
“No, silly. Besides it’s late Christmas Eve, and no buses are running.”
The way he said it, made her feel stupid. She stared at the graffiti on the ceiling. Snake loves Alison. Lots of swear words. Down with government. LSU Rules. Peace signs, many peace signs. Someone had added, “Where is the peace?”
Mary closed her eyes remembering how peaceful Christmas Eve had been at her grandmother’s house five years ago with its pretty little Christmas tree and the plastic nativity scene that lit up the small window of the living room. There had been a plastic nativity scene on the dresser in the small room where she slept. She guessed that she and Charlie would sleep on the couch now, but where would the baby sleep? Grandma would know how to deliver a baby, and certainly would plan for where it would sleep. She opened the green bag, and fingered the little baby gown her neighbor had given her.
“Zip the bag, and let’s get going, Mary.” Charlie took the water bottle and offered Mary his hand up.
“I don’t feel so good, Charlie. I have to sit here a little while. Everything hurts.”
“Okay, that’s it, woman. We already paid our train tickets, and it will leave us stranded here if you don’t get moving. Quit complaining, and come on.” She watched Charlie’s back move away, his long steps leading toward the train station a few blocks away.
She felt twinges of his frustration over the whole situation from job to having a baby he didn’t want. She felt his pain in her gut. She felt aches in her middle. Like a child opening a Christmas box, tearing the paper away but finding something she didn’t want, Mary uncovered the pain and realized the hurt was real, not frustration. The hurt was the baby coming early. Charlie’s baby that he didn’t want. Fear paralyzed her, stopped her mind from thinking except for wishing for the mother who had turned her back to her.
Charlie’s back moved farther away. She called his name, but he didn’t stop. “Charlie, you come back here,” she screamed. “I don’t know how to have a baby. You come back here!” She held her breath. Finally, he turned back. She exhaled. He sat beside her. “Oh, come on. It’s not time.”
“This must be labor. I’ve read about it. I’m not complaining, Charlie, but we are in a mess. This neighborhood is full of thieves and dirty, ugly homeless people and probably druggies. There’s no one to help me have this baby.” Except for a groan now and then, they sat a long time side by side in silence figuring what to do. “ I’m scared,” Mary whispered. “I’m scared to death.”
Charlie reached over and put his hand on her belly. “The little tyke wasn’t planned, but now we have to do something about it.”
“I’m sorry, Charlie.”
“Quit apologizing, and think what we should do next?” Wrapped in a new cramp, she couldn’t answer.
A creaky grocery cart pulled up behind them, and a woman’s raspy voice cut the air. “You guys going somewhere for Christmas? The buses aren’t running.”
“We were going to Renton, but my girlfriend is sick.”
“She looks fat-sick to me. Is she having a baby?” The raspy voice walked to the front of the bus stop to better inspect Mary’s size and shape. “Get out your cell phone and call an ambulance.”
“Lost our coverage last month.” Charlie looked down at his shoes with the toe worn through, guilt simmering in the look.
“Well, give me money, and I will go to the coffee shop in the next block and call an ambulance.”
“I give you money, and you disappear,” said Charlie.
The raspy voice gave a disgusted grunt. “Suit yourself. But you are in a Hell of a lot of trouble if you think she can have a baby on the bus bench all by herself.” The squeaking grocery cart moved away.
“Wait,” called Charlie. “I see you can’t take us home since you don’t have one, but we need help. Mary is scared, her parents won’t help, and I think we can’t get to her grandmother’s house. We can’t even get to the train.” He considered the skeleton buildings in the dangerous neighborhood and the dirty woman in front of him, but looked at Mary in pain on the bench. “Is there a way you can help us?”
The raspy voice held out its hand. “I’m Monica.” She shoved her friend forward. “Meet Dan.” Dan held out his hand encased in a dirty glove with ragged edges and no fingers. Charlie hesitated. “Afraid to touch dirt, are you? Go on shake it,” said Monica. Charlie shook the hand, feeling the grit in the fingerless gloves.
“No ambulance?” Monica asked. “Damn. She could use help.”
Charlie emptied his wallet. “I have six dollars. Does that answer your question?”
Mary groaned. “Is there a hospital?”
“In this area? Nothing. Let’s think. What in Hell can we do, Dan?” Monica rocked on her worn orthopedic shoes.
Dan smiled at Mary. “Don’t you worry, honey. We will like think of something.”
“It better be fast,” said Charlie.
Dan and Monica huddled together talking in confidential tones, finally coming to an agreement. “First, we need a place where you can lie down. What’s your name?” Monica leaned close to Mary’s ear.
The smell made Mary’s stomach churn. “Mary,” she said weakly.
“Around the corner there is a place, but you might not like it. But it is a place to lay your head. You’ll have to walk some more.”
“Okay. Anything. I don’t feel so good.” Slowly Mary hoisted herself from the bench, and they headed toward a group of old buildings.
With Charlie supporting her, Mary struggled to the corner of a rusty warehouse, and was amazed when Dan leaned against a metal panel, grasped its edge and pulled it aside. Before them between two old buildings, Mary saw a narrow alley with industrial sized cardboard boxes nudged up against the buildings on both sides. Sheets of blue plastic covered some of the cardboard roofs, and large, black numbers were scrawled on most of the box-houses. Grocery carts spilling tumbled belongings seemed hiding in the black and grey shadows along the alley. As they passed through the shadows, people poked their heads out to find out what was happening. Dan grabbed Mary’s other arm to lift her weight off her swollen feet. “It’s like called Cardboard City,” he said. “Most are friendly, all are like curious but don’t trust strangers.”
From a deep shadow emerged a tall man and a short woman. Both wore dark clothing and the woman had a slouch hat crushed down, her face barely visible. They spread their feet apart, held their palms outstretched in front of them. “No guests allowed. That’s the rule,” said the man.
“Get out of the damn way, Alvin. We’re working on a project,” said Monica pushing her way past the persistent couple who again blocked their way until Dan turned loose of Mary, opened his fists and placed them squarely in front of the couples’ faces. They didn’t move.
“You are not welcome here. We do not allow outsiders who steal from us and tear down our houses.” Alvin pulled himself up to look taller and tougher.
The woman tilted her head back to make her face visible under the slouch hat. “Go back home, kids.”
“This lady is like having a baby. Get out of the way,” said Dan.
They stepped out of the way only after Alvin repeated, “You are not welcome here.”
“Don’t pay any attention to those two. You are, are, are, er, like welcome,” said Dan.
But Mary did not feel welcome, and she noticed Charlie taking inventory of how they could escape. A groan escaped her lips through clenched teeth. “Down there, the last house,” said Monica. “You’re almost there. You can do it.”
Then what? Wondered Mary. What do I do next in this squalor? It’s no place to have a baby. She thought of her grandmother’s couch and a clean box for the baby, maybe even a dresser drawer with a pillow. She felt the tremor in Charlie’s supporting arm, a tattooed arm that had fearlessly muscled his way through life but now reflected her fear. They had found their way into a den of dirty thieves. But the dirtiest of them all had said, “We will find a way.” At least Monica’s bodyguard has a kind heart.
When she felt she couldn’t go another step, Mary found herself gently lowered onto a blanket in a dark place. Monica groped for a lantern, turned it on, and replaced it on a hook. Then Mary could see the eyes of the helpers leaning over her, discussing her as if she was on a different planet. Charlie’s eyes met hers with a look of fear she did not understand, and he seemed to have handed her over to Monica. She longed for him to do something or say something. Dan suggested going to the coffee shop for clean towels and some water, maybe even some coffee for Charlie who he said looked very pale. Monica countered that the damned owners of the coffee shop had banned them because of the use of their restroom as a wash up place.
“Even so,” said Dan, “We have to have help.”
They came to the same name, Ramon, a recent resident, clean and polite, and an unknown face at the coffee shop. He could go for help.
First they had to convince Ramon who refused talk until he finished the bowl of soup he had warmed on a little solo canister. After he met Charlie and Mary, he spoke to Monica in the doorway. “These are two rich white kids who should have stayed home. These kids don’t like us. Ask for help for them? I won’t do it. ”
“Come on. It’s Christmas Eve. Do for someone else,” chided Monica. “I’ll walk down there with you and be your moral support.”
“Please don’t go.” Mary called. “You have to tell me what to do.”
Mary’s pleading voice made Ramon change his mind, but he would go only if someone went with him.
“I’ll go,” said Charlie.
“ Don’t abandon me in this place. No,” groaned Mary.
Dan and Monica exchanged glances. “This place? You’re a damned ungrateful kid,” said Monica.
But they let the insult go as they recited a roll call of candidates to go with Ramon. There is Lynda, the corporate assistant. No, too bossy. Or Alex the musician without his band. No, too broken. Or Rick, the recently laid off corporate executive. No, too depressed. Or the alcoholic farmer, or Jim the lifeguard, or Bugsy the PSTD veteran. Yes. The perfect candidate to stay in the shadows, but with strength. Dan hurried off to bring back big Bugsy, bulging with muscle, eager to please and full of encouragement after he saw Mary on the blanket.
Bugsy and Ramon hurried down the alley of Cardboard City, opened and closed the sliding metal panel, and ran toward the glowing, blue neon light of Mildred’s Coffee Shop. A sign in the window blinked coffee and specialty biscuits.
Bugsy stopped at the edge of the street, the blue blinking sign making shadows on his big face. Ramon nudged him. “Well come on, Bugsy, I’m not doing this by myself.”
“No way,” said Bugsy. “What if?”
“What if, what?”
“What if they yell, and I go off on them? You know my PSTD. Big trouble.”
“You don’t have to go inside, just sit by the big blue sign next to the door.” Ramon nudged him again. “Hurry. She needs help.”
Bugsy crossed himself as God’s kings-X for fear of what might happen if he went off, hoisted his big frame up the steps to open the door for Ramon. Music of Joy to the World wrapped itself around them. “I forgot Christmas,” said Bugsy.
Three customers at a table drinking coffee in silence barely glanced at Ramon as he went straight to the cash register and asked for the manager who appeared from a door behind the counter. She wore a chef’s hat over her short red hair, and her flowered dress and checkered apron hung loosely to cover her many generous curves. She wiped her hands on the apron and shook with Ramon. “I need your help,” said Ramon. The manager withdrew her hand. “Oh, it’s not for me. I’m not looking for a handout. It’s an emergency.”
“Emergency?” She listened to Mary’s story, but before he finished, she walked away. “I hear hard luck stories every day.”
Ramon, a shy person by nature, felt his heart sink, and turned toward the door.
“Wait!” The manager turned. “It IS Christmas Eve, and I have this peace on earth music playing in the shop. What could it hurt?” Ramon hurried back to the counter, retelling what they needed at Cardboard City, finally adding that Charlie, the prospective father, really could use a cup of hot coffee.
“Hey, Mildred,” called one of the glum customers, “Let me buy the coffee. In fact, I remember when Monica and Dan came here. I’ll buy coffee for them, too.”
Mildred shook her head. “Those two dirty bums who want to mess up my restroom when they clean up?”
“Well, yes, it is Christmas for clean folks and dirty folks.”
Another customer, who had viewed Bugsy cross himself before coming to the door, chimed in, “I will buy the coffee for you and your big companion outside.”
Mildred collected bottled water, towels, a big tablecloth, and soap and hand sanitizer. “Don’t suppose any of you guys know how to deliver a baby, do you?” Silence answered her. “I never even had a baby, but I don’t suppose it could be that hard. Maybe I better go along to help out.”
Ramon led the way to Cardboard City with Bugsy and Mable, the cashier, carrying the supply box and the customers carrying coffee trying to keep up.
Ramon had a good feeling this was an important job just from the pleading way Mary had looked at him. And Dan had introduced Charlie as Mary’s boyfriend, so they weren’t married, and they hadn’t planned to have a baby, maybe didn’t want this baby. Still it seemed important. Besides, his parents never married, and, except for his late tragedy, he turned out okay. Proudly he led the way. Bugsy heaved his big body against the metal panel, grasped its edge and opened the way to Cardboard City. Waiting in front of him stood a tall man who held up his hands to stop them. “No intruders. No guests. Those are the rules.” His woman companion from under her slouched hat yelled, “You can’t come in.” Ramon and Mildred stopped in their tracks with the customers carrying coffee balancing it not to spill.
“You are not in charge of who enters,” said Ramon. “Monica asked us here. Besides, I live here.”
Slowly what the woman said seeped into Bugsy’s head. There had been enforcers in Afghanistan. There had been bombs and threats of bombs. His friends had died trying to escape, but the enforcer urged them forward and blocked their exit holding them back. His anger boiled to the surface, transferred to his fists, and he was ready to “go off” in favor of entrance to Cardboard City. Leading with his right fist, he moved forward, his big frame dwarfing the tall man.
“Wait,” shouted Mildred. “Peace on earth doesn’t mean smashing their faces.” She caught the full impact of Bugsy’s fist with the palm of her hand then stood shaking the hand as if it were shattered. Bugsy stood his ground by stomping his feet and yelling, “Out of our way.”
But the duo stood their ground, too. “No intruders. You can’t steal from us, laugh at us, or make us move, or mess up our houses,” said the woman.
“Look stupid, we aren’t going to do any of that,” said the coffee customer.
“Wait,” said Mildred. “Look, friends, we aren’t going to do any of that.”
“It’s Christmas. Let us go help that little teenager who is having a baby down at Monica’s house.” Ramon pushed ahead. “You don’t have to like it. Just allow it.”
“Yeah, like he said,” yelled Bugsy as he pushed the tall man aside. “You, too, little lady.” He lifted her off her feet, physically setting her aside like a keg of beer.
Mary looked at her room. It was tall enough to stand, and rusty open safety pins held newspaper clippings and old photographs to the ceiling. Monica explained them. “See, I can lie in bed and look at my brothers and sisters. And I can keep up with the damn government through newspapers. Old news, but news.” Bent coat hanger hooks held a coat, blanket and a clear plastic case holding a toothbrush, soap and clean body stuff. Mary wondered why Monica smelled so foul with all that good cleaning stuff.
Mary clutched Monica’s hand tightly as another pain gripped her. When it subsided, she said, “I don’t know about this kind of stuff. Do you think being born in this awful place will affect this poor tyke?”
“That’s just the pain making you not think dam straight,” said Monica. “You’re in a safe place where no one can hurt you. And aren’t you lucky to have a place to lay your head down? And look, Ramon has brought supplies from Mildred’s Café, even brought Mildred to help out.“
Bugsy followed Mildred through the cut out door dumping the supplies inside. “I’ll guard the door. No one will hurt you or the baby.”
Mildred swatted at his fist. ”Just make sure YOU don’t hurt anyone. If you have to hit something, go find a tree. If the enforcers show up, don’t hit them, just tell them they have to stand in line to see the new baby.”
From a small calm place, Mary said, “Why does this place have enforcers? There is nothing to guard or steal but a bunch of boxes. No electricity or water.”
Mildred and Monica sucked in breath. Mary noticed Monica’s grim mouth line as she said, “That’s not the pain talking anymore, Mary, that is your damned judgment talking. If you judge me and the way I live, you will take the joy out of joy.”
“Joy? Its just pain in a bad place.”
“Bad place!” yelled Monica. “I took you in when Charlie said your own damn parents slammed the door on you! I’ve been walking alongside you, holding you up. This bad place is my damned space, and I brought you in. Shame on you.” Monica leaned down in Mary’s face. “Look at who people are. See me. See this place different!”
Mildred leaned across the pile of Café supplies to take Mary’s hand. Softly she said, “Maybe you can forget where you are right now. Forget your parents. Before that next pain, try to find joy for yourself and for the baby.”
Mary’s eyes filled with tears. “This is not how it was supposed to be.”
“Nothing is how it is supposed to be, darling. But his baby will bring you joy.”
“Tell that to Charlie. He doesn’t want this baby.”
Do you want this baby?”
“Not at first.” Mary sucked in her breath as a new pain engulfed her. “Yeah. I do now. Wish he would hurry up.”
“A he is it?”
Mary squeezed Mildred’s hand. “Maybe.”
Time for talking and judgment gone, Mary watched the two women organize the supplies from the café glad that someone knew what to do.
But the baby was in no hurry, and while Mary dozed, Mildred and Monica had time to wash their hands in the bottled water, lay out the towel, and, when things were calm, Mildred said, “Would you mind if I am curious about how you all live here?”
“Curious?” said Monica. “You just got here. Damn, I don’t know you.”
“But you just told Mary to look at people and see who they are.”
Moments passed, and a smile crossed Monica’s face. “You’re right! Damned if it doesn’t work both ways. Ask about my friends, but my life is private.”
“Who is Ramon, the one who came to the cafe? He seems shy, but he spoke up to me.”
““Ramon lost his wife and baby in a drive by shooting. He lost his footing and his job. Now he has his footing back, and is looking for a job. It’s damn hard when he has no phone or address.”
“Does he have a box, er, house here?”
“Not yet. Bugsy lets him sleep just outside the door of his house.”
“Who are the enforcers?”
“They were here when I came. Keep totally to themselves. I don’t know them, only their names. Unwritten rules keep the place together. They can interpret the rules to suit their selfish interests. Count everyone every night though, so I guess in a way the census keeps order, and they know everyone is safely in.”
“I know you’re private, but you seem very smart, smarter than me, and I run a café. Bet you went to college.”
“Something like that.”
Outside the house, Charlie paced, stopping every few minutes to gulp coffee. He leaned against Monica’s jumble-filled grocery cart. He sat down. When he heard groans, he got up. He walked to the entrance and back. Ramon and Dan walked with him. Lynda poked her head out of number seven to tell everyone to be quiet, but soon she joined them in walking. Before long, Alex and Jim joined them just out of curiosity about the strange event. Mabel got bored sitting around, got up and walked with them. “Why are you all walking up and down?” asked Alvin, the Enforcer stepping in line with them.
“Just walking with Charlie. He’s havin’ a baby,” said Lynda.
The Enforcer remembered he’d been scared to death
at the birth of his first child.
At first they talked about Charlie and his job as an apprentice cabinetmaker and his search for a new job. A few traded job stories, each person revealing only so much. Gradually silence settled, and only the shuffle of their feet on the old pocked asphalt made swishing noises. Everyone waited and walked.
Apart from everyone but waiting and walking, paced the woman Enforcer feeling powerless without her co-dependent partner. She eyed the group, longing to become part of it, but with years of practice she once again shoved the longing down where it couldn’t hurt her.
Inside the house, Mary with encouragement from Mildred and Monica worked on and on wondering if something was wrong, and the baby just didn’t want to come. Mildred came out of the house and sent Mabel to the café for all their biscuits with instructions to make them hot and bring butter and jam, and some knives for spreading. Word passed through the houses that The Enforcer had joined the walkers, and someone was bringing hot biscuits. Lamps and flashlights were hung outside each house. Kristi set her tiny battery lighted Christmas tree out in front of her number 9. The expensive LED lantern Rick timidly set out cast dancing shadows with it’s bright light. Charlie became a celebrity joined by his pacing friends. It seemed they were sharing his burden of concern for Mary. They had no idea of his terrible concern of the future.
The baby wailed. It cried on. The walkers hurried down the lighted alley to Monica’s house hoping for a glimpse of the new baby. When no one brought the baby out, they gathered, asking each other if the baby would be a boy or girl, and who it would look like, and would it be healthy being so early, and why couldn’t they see it?
Inside the house, Mildred congratulated herself. She had done it. She had delivered a baby, and was so awestruck with the new life, she was reluctant to hand the baby to the new mother. Mary had done it, and she didn’t know how she found the strength, but when Mildred finally put the baby in her arms, it was so tiny, and blue, and wrinkled that it stirred a new fear in her. Could she take care of this teeny thing? But fear vanished as the little fingers curved around her finger and tender warmth seeped through her whole body, a delight she had never felt, and she wanted time to stand still so the feeling could last forever.
‘Let me hold the baby,” said Monica. “After all, I sort of mothered it in.”
As Mary handed the baby to Monica, their eyes met. “Is this the joy you meant earlier?”
“What do you think?”
“I never knew this feeling before. Thanks for naming it.” Mary thought a minute. “Thanks for rescuing me.”
“You’re very welcome. But right now we better hurry to get this baby warmed up,”
“But it’s hot in here.”
“Has nothing to do with here. Can’t you see the baby is blue?”
“Is that bad?
“Can’t be very damned good.”
Mildred took off her apron and handed it to Monica for a wrapper as Mary took on new worries. She never heard that a baby could be cold and blue. She never thought the baby could be early and look so wrinkled, but she had heard that early babies had huge problems. What if their precious new baby didn’t make it? The thought made her dig her fingernails into her palms until they hurt.
A call went out for warm wraps for the fragile baby. The walkers dispersed looking for fleece or fur or soft pillows. Lynda handed Ramon a hot water bottle, and he heated water for it on his little butane canister. Jim turned up a clean pillow and case. Finding nothing in her cart for the baby, the woman Enforcer’s shoulders slumped with guilt, and she watched from a distance. Alvin found a sturdy wine box for the pillow making a little bed, and others brought scraps of clean clothing of all colors.
Mary felt herself floating between excitement and sleep not wanting to miss the excitement, but her tired body gave in to sleep, and it was Monica who diapered the baby in a scrap of lavender flowered cloth then dressed the baby in the neighbor’s little gown, and laid it snugly in the warm box covered by scraps of cloth.
Charlie, for the moment overlooked by the walkers, sat outside the door in the shadow of a bulging grocery cart watching the people who had helped him. His concern for Mary now replaced by his gnawing fear for the tyke’s life, he couldn’t wait any longer. It had to live. He wanted it to live. He jumped up to see for himself.
Mary’s dark smudged eyes were closed, and even in the dim lantern light she looked pale. Huddled in the corner, Mildred and Monica eyed the response of the father who didn’t want his child. “Mary is okay,” said Mildred.
“What about my baby?”
“Very tiny, but perfectly formed, and with our care I think will be okay.”
Mary opened her eyes. He kissed her cheek. “You did it, honey.”
“It’s a girl,’ Mary whispered.
“We only had boy’s names.”
“I hope you’re not disappointed.”
“I was hoping for a boy.”
“You were? I thought you didn’t want the baby.”
Charlie leaned close to Mary’s ear. “I was scared.” He looked at Monica and Mildred. “You all have helped us, and I guess maybe others will, too.”
Mildred got the baby from the wine box and pushed back the swaddling cloths to uncover her face and hands. Gently she laid the baby on Charlie’s big hands. Tiny fingers with perfectly formed miniature fingernails wrapped themselves around his finger as he gazed at the miracle that was his. Her scrawny face with its wrinkled blue skin and too-big eyes looked up at him. “She’s beautiful,” he said. His eyes sparkled, and a glow came over his stubble-covered face. “Oh, my, my. She is wonderful.”
Mary knew what he was feeling. “Let’s call her Joy,” she said.
The hot biscuits arrived, and Cardboard City, population 14, erupted in celebration of their new citizen. Proudly, with help from the cashier and customers, they had helped deliver a real baby. They cheered and shouted with their mouths full of biscuits. They clapped and stomped and laughed louder and louder in their joyful celebration almost forgetting the reason for their celebration
Until at last, Charlie brought the wine box out, and revelers stepped back creating an open path in front of him. More cheers went up as he set the wine box on the pitted asphalt. “Quiet. You’ll disturb Joy,” he shouted to be heard. The noise made the baby jump. “Shh, shh,” everyone said. Quietly everyone crowded around to peer down at the baby, and when the woman Enforcer slowly came out of the shadow, they made a place for her. “Joy,” she whispered.
Charlie felt ten feet tall. He felt that his whole body glowed. “Meet Joy,” he said.
Nestled under a colored mix-match of clothing scraps peered too-big eyes from a wrinkled and scrawny but now slightly pink little face. They gazed in silence. Never had anyone seen any Christmas present look so beautiful.