Art by Jon Timmons
I had a dream about James before she arrived. Here’s what happened: I am in a small, empty farmhouse, with no walls or furniture, in the middle of the Kansas prairie. The windows are open, and the deepening sounds of evening get louder with every inch the sun loses behind the horizon. Either I can only see in black and white, or that’s how it is. The air has a dusty fog to it. I am alone and know I am dying. A dying Kansas woman in a Kansas house. There is no life running through me—my molasses-blood wrapping my bones like snakes.
After looking around, I decide the house is Dorothy’s house from the Wizard of Oz. I try to sing, but as soon as I start, there’s a knock at the door.
A young girl with serious eyes looks up at me. She has blonde hair twisting down to her shoulders. She holds out her hand to introduce herself. Her mouth is moving, but the sounds of the approaching storm cut up her voice in a dazzle of sparkling pieces that turn over our heads. A tornado is very near, thickening with dust at the base. The young girl blows me a kiss.
* * *
My husband Gerry filled out the application for us to be foster parents a day before he left me for our neighbor, Diane. Diane wears a lot of hairspray and large silver earrings that cover her lobes. She laughs a lot, curses a lot. They moved somewhere else, another town, another state, I can’t be sure. But I imagine her hair gets bigger and his gets thinner each year.
I never attended the foster prep classes. The phone seemed to ring one pitch higher when the agency called for follow-up. I didn’t answer it.
* * *
I eat a lot of shrimp. I have since Gerry left. The cold kind. The platter kind. I buy these platters of shrimp for parties that never happen because I don’t make them happen. Unlike an apple, or any other food that requires a quick study before you bite into it, shrimp is something I can grab for and eat without looking at. They’re all the same—cold, soft, swallow, done.
* * *
I’m a mail carrier. I like my job. I like to pretend my mail truck leaves behind it a string, like a spider, that webs my route and connects me to every house I deliver to.
* * *
When I think of a foster child, I think of a crescent moon with roadrunner legs and Mickey Mouse hands. I imagine dozens of them waiting on my front lawn, their big-gloved hands outstretched and pleading. Their crescent moon cores shake—what isn’t a yellow C is heavy black. I wonder if that darkness would feel cluttered or empty—propel me out, or suck me in.
* * *
The foster agency hadn’t called for over a year. I still found myself watching the phone. I still waited for that pitchy ring because, though I’ve never answered, it represented the possibility for me to be a better person.
I decided one day that I must reactivate the phone calls by making contact. The woman on the other line had a voice that was sweet, breathy, and turned like a carousel around my ear.
“You see,” I said, “my husband, he’s no longer in the picture. I needed time to recover, but I do really want to be of service. I want to help a child in need.”
“Actually, Mrs. Lipton, I’m glad you called. We have an overwhelming number of children needing placement right now. All we would need to do is fill out a new application and complete the prep class and get a case worker assigned to the case.”
“We?” I asked.
“Well, actually.” She laughed like a squeaky gear. “Just you.”
* * *
I had another dream about James before she got here: I’m back in that dim and dusty black and white setting—Dorothy’s house. There’s a bang on the door this time. The young girl is once again on the porch, but this time a tornado is directly behind her, so close that I can’t see where it ends, whirling the earth in beautiful, frightening ribbons. The girl’s blonde hair is held straight up by the wind, and her mouth is open in a scream I cannot hear. Above her is a crescent moon, and beside that crescent moon is another, smaller crescent moon, a line of crescent moons descending in size until the last moon is only a blinking dot.
* * *
The foster prep class was ten weeks long. I wasn’t going to take it, but I did after that second dream. Like pollen, I was blown to occupy an old wooden chair in the classroom. I learned that the child assigned to me may be difficult at first, but they should see soon enough that I can be trusted. I learned I should form a special bond with the child, but be able to sever that bond when it’s time for them to go. Get close, then back off.
The phone starts ringing again. This time, I answer it.
There’s paperwork. Occupation: Mail carrier. I’m not a fan of this question. I want to be evaluated on who I am as a person, not what I do. Besides, I recently cashed out all of the vacation and sick time I have never used, to potentially stay home with my foster child for just under three months, which should give that child enough time to acclimate.
My caseworker’s name is Judy Moody.
* * *
Judy Moody brought James over in the evening. The setting sun illuminated the outline of things, making life appear as a sketch. James’ right hand was balled at her side as if waiting for the right time to release what was inside—a butterfly, a thousand little spiders, a puff of toxic air she’d collected at her last home and carried around ever since.
James was seven years old.
I showed James her room after Judy Moody left. I smoothed the quilt on the twin bed I’d slept in for months after Gerry left. I wanted to tell James this, tell her that the old mattress coils sounded like cartoon toadstools when a cartoon character hops on them, tell her not to mistake that and any other noises for her own crying, but I didn’t because I wanted her to claim the bed as her own. And she did. She climbed in and lay face-down in her new pillow. I sat next to her. I put my hand on her back.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’re safe here.”
In a brochure somewhere, there’s a comic version of me with a blurb containing the exact same text extending from her mouth. In that same brochure, the child to whom the comic version of me is speaking is smiling in the next frame and has scooted closer to the speaker. James did neither, so I trashed the script.
“Have you ever seen the Wizard of Oz?” I asked.
* * *
James likes to sit on the front porch and listen to the summer rain. She likes to jump rope in the street, alone. She likes to feed unwashed carrots to the family of wild bunnies in my backyard. She likes to stay up late and draw pictures of skunks. She says she keeps dreaming that a skunk is following her and that the dream is silent, but she can hear the insides of the skunk screaming with that spray that could come out at any moment, get her, make her stink. She thinks drawing the skunk enough times will rid it from her mind. I tell her about my dreams. She starts looking me in the eye. She likes to write me messages on the dry-erase board in the kitchen, messages like, “I’m playing in the backyard,” as if taking extra care to make me feel like she didn’t abandon me will make her feel like I won’t ever abandon her. James plays in the backyard every day. She breaks dead sticks in half and lifts the newly exposed ends to each eye, as if to search for any remaining force, or to try and view the world from death, subjectively. A few weeks ago, I asked her why she did that (after telling her several times that it wasn’t the safest thing to hold snapped ends of sticks less than an inch from your eyes). She seemed embarrassed and has left sticks alone. However, I still catch her holding feathers and bits of bread and scissors and orange peels and many more things close to her eye, her tongue out to concentrate, her other eye closed to any distractions from what she might discover.
* * *
“She’s strange as a bird,” Nettie says.
Nettie is my friend. She compares everything to birds. Her husband left her, too. We became friends six months ago when Nettie dialed my number randomly and, when she found out it was a wrong number, that she didn’t know me at all, asked if she could say anything. We spent three hours saying anything and everything. She calls me Tea because my last name is Lipton.
I put a platter of cold shrimp out after Nettie stops watching James in the backyard and sits down at the kitchen table.
“How long before they find a family for the girl, Tea?” Nettie asks. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable around her.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I hope not for a while. We like the same things.”
Sirens create a rollercoaster of tones down the street. I look out the side window at Diane’s empty house and imagine Gerry walking by, mowing her lawn, leaving a patch around a sunbathing Diane whose earrings reflect the sun’s stinging glare. I look back at Nettie. She wants to know what kind of things we have in common. I have started to not enjoy her company. I look at the living room, at the VCR—“The last working VCR,” Gerry used to say—the VCR that holds the Wizard of Oz for James and me so we can re-watch it other evening, enjoy the movie bouncing its colors around the darkening room (we fast-forward through the black-and-white beginning).
“She makes me feel like I’m being watched, like I’m a step behind someone who knows where I’m going next,” Nettie says.
“That’s two different things,” I say.
“No, it’s not,” she says.
* * *
James can’t stand shrimp. The first time she tried one, she ran to wash out her mouth. She won’t even look at it now.
* * *
Judy Moody stops by to tell me that James’ mother wishes to regain custody of her daughter. I ask what she did to lose custody in the first place, but Judy Moody can’t tell me that.
I put myself in James’ mother’s place to try to understand. I’m her for the moment. I’m outside. I look up. The clouds look like tire tracks; they remind me of the trails I’ve (she’s) left behind, how every bad decision has added to thick layers I can feel breathing behind me. I can remember how it felt to be pregnant with James, the weight of her leaning me forward and away from guilty things. I remember her birth, a C-section because of the things I could pass to her, things that would be a giant pair of hands holding her down. I still feel exposed under my dirty shirt, as if the doctors didn’t stitch me up, as if they left my gut open like a mouth that never gets fed. The only thing I want is to hold my child. The longing for her is like breathing through a straw, the stiff open flaps of my gut flutter like a moth.
* * *
I wait in the living room, cross-legged in the middle of the floor, for what I learned in the prep class to catch up with the sprinting pairs of legs in my chest, but it doesn’t. James is now gone. I’ve put on the Wizard of Oz and have eaten half a platter of shrimp. I keep rewinding to the part when Dorothy sees color for the first time, when she first opens the door. I can feel the shrimp piling in globs inside me. Before eating the next one, I decide to look at it, really look at it, figure out what about it repelled James. It doesn’t take long. The transparency—the pale pink of it is a little too real. The vein that hasn’t been removed curling with the body, the last indication that it was once alive, flickering with its own small purpose.
I rewind the Wizard of Oz to the beginning and feel the unease of the black and white, the roar of the tornado. There is no distracting melody of colors and warmth. I put the shrimp back. I can’t face it.
Amy Scharmann lives with her husband in Long Beach, CA. Her work has recently appeared in TriQuarterly, Green Mountains Review, Atticus Review, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere. She occasionally tweets @amyscharmann.