Baby Talk

While they are standing online waiting to jump into the Double Dutch ropes, I overhear twelve year old Margie Golden tell Sarah Lundy about abortion. “What’s abortion?” I ask.

“Never mind,” Margie says, tossing her fat braids that always hit her in her fat face when she tries to make her fat body jump.

“What’s abortion,” I ask again.

“Turn,” she says. I wind the rope tight around my hand.

“Tell me,” I say.

“Okay,” she says stomping her foot and spitting through her rabbit teeth. “It’s when mothers kill their babies.”

“That’s a crime,” I say. “They’d go to Riker’s for that where your old man is doin’ time.” I love saying doin’ time like Jimmy Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces.

“They kill them before they’re born, Stupid, like your old lady did to your three sisters. For a nine year old, you don’t know much.” When Margie jumps into the ropes, I jerk them so she trips.

I didn’t tell Margie that I already knew about my three sisters especially the one who didn’t even have a name. One night when we were telling scary stories as we roasted Mickeys over a fire in a garbage can in front of 615, Ronald Schneider from 2D told me about the babies. “I remember when your mother had a big belly a coupla times but I never seen a baby. My mother told me she brought one home but I ain’t seen that baby neither. That’s pretty scary,” he said. He never mentioned abortion. He’s as old as Margie but he’s not as smart as her especially about girl things. Margie’s a liar. My mother is too gentle to be a killer.

*     *     *

At home my mother held Peter in her lap for hours as though he were the messiah. She slipped baby peaches into his mouth with a silver spoon and sang Where the Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea. “

When my Aunt Tess was with child, I always said my aunt is with child to my friends. I thought it made her seem like Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary was with child. It sounds so beautiful compared to the word pregnant with its hard g and n which sounds like a grunt. Aunt Tess gave birth to twin sons, Francie and Peter, two ginger-haired, roly poly boys. Francie was born with kidney problems. “Nefridis,” my mother said. My mother went to visit him in St. Francis Hospital everyday and she took care of Peter for Aunt Tess when she stayed over at the hospital. At home my mother held Peter in her lap for hours as though he were the messiah. She slipped baby peaches into his mouth with a silver spoon and sang Where the Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea. “That’s so he’ll know where he sprang from,” she’d say. Baby killers don’t sing to babies especially ones that aren’t their own.

*     *     *

When Mama went upstairs to see Francie in the hospital with my Pooh Bear under her arm, I’d wander up and down the marble hallways of St. Francis because kids weren’t allowed to visit patients. Outside, there was a garden with a statue of Francis of Assisi in brown robes and sandals with a bird flying out of his hand. St. Francis loved flowers, trees and animals. He cared for lepers dying in the streets and gave all his riches to the poor. I figured a saint as wonderful as he would keep an eagle eye on a baby named for him.

*     *     *

The day after Francie dies, I have to return A Tall White Sail and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay to the library because they are overdue. I already owe eight cents on them; eight cents buys four squirrel nuts and four red dollars at Shapiro’s. I head straight for the huge encyclopedia sitting on a pedestal in the adult section of the library. First, I grab the display copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gifts from the Sea for Mama. In class recently, Sister Mercedes spoke about it and told us the sad story of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping. She said each chapter was a meditation on various sea shells; each was filled with beautiful thoughts. I think the book might help Mama and having it is a good excuse for me being in the adult section when the librarian sees me. We call her Bela because she looks like a female version of Lugosi’s Dracula and because she acts as though every volume in the library is her personal property. We kids joke that soon we’ll have to give blood to take out a book.

I have no trouble finding the word abortion: Abortion is medically defined as the termination of a pregnancy by the removal or expulsion from the uterus of a fetus or embryo before it is viable. As quickly as I can, I thumb through the thin pages and look up uterus, fetus, embryo, viable. Viable: able to survive outside the womb. But what the encyclopedia doesn’t tell me is how women abortion their babies. As I’m searching for illustrations, I hear Bela stomping across the oak floors in her oxfords, “Go to the children’s section, young lady,” she says, pointing her long, bony finger at me. I slam the encyclopedia shut.

*     *     *

In the sports section, Bobbie Mallon is checking out the baseball books. “Hey, good lookin,’” he says. “I’m lookin’ for a bio of Babe Ruth.” He says bio like he’s so cool. In class when he closes the windows with the six foot window pole, he’s always eyeing me like I’m really impressed with his puny muscles when he hoists the pole up like it’s a spear. His mother should have abortioned him. She has ten kids. When the apartment next to theirs became vacant, the Mallons rented it.

“Hey, Bobbie, I say, are you in 2B or 2C this week? Which bell do I ring?” Mama wonders how they can afford two forty dollar rents. Another funny thing about The Mallons is that Mrs. Mallon is 5’ 8” and Mr. Mallon is 5’3”. We call them Mutt and Jeff.

*     *     *

I never thought you needed money to have babies. The thing is I know my father was out of work during the thirties when my sisters were born. “I sold apples, rags in the street,” he once told me. “We just arrived in the country and the economy collapsed. Immigrants were the last to get jobs.” Maybe my folks had no money for clothes or food for the babies. But Mama didn’t need money to feed her babies. I remember her nursing my brother after he was born.

In National Geographic you see photographs of women holding skinny babies with swollen bellies in their arms. The babies’ noses run and flies buzz around their heads. I wonder if it might be okay for those mothers to kill their babies rather than have them suffer for months and months when you know they’re going to die anyway like Francie.

*     *     *

Tonight after supper my gang is having a Double Dutch tournament in the schoolyard. We’re bringing bags of chips and lemonade for the jumpers. We had to invite some girls we hate because we need extra ropes. Even though we never invite the boys because their arms and legs get all tangled up in the ropes, they show up anyway just to annoy us. Actually our ropes are clotheslines our mothers no longer use. Mama sends me to Levy’s Hardware to replace her worn lines. “I don’t want a line filled with scrubbed laundry to break and fall into the sooty backyard,” she says. My father sends me to Levy’s to buy screws and nails or to borrow a Philip’s head screw driver. My parents are always sending me someplace; they have to nap, they say.

I’m thinking Mr. Levy might be the right person to ask about the how of abortion because he tells everyone in the neighborhood how to fix things plus he goes to a temple, not our church so he won’t run into my folks on the weekend and tell them I’m asking strange questions.

Mr. Levy’s left pinky is missing and his nails are crusted with grease. Sawdust covers the creaky wood floor in his store and a million cardboard boxes piled on top of one another line the shelves. He slides a wooden ladder along a bar to reach the high shelves. Sometimes he lets me climb up and get items down for him. Even if it’s two inch nails or one inch screws, he knows exactly where they are. I’m thinking Mr. Levy might be the right person to ask about the how of abortion because he tells everyone in the neighborhood how to fix things plus he goes to a temple, not our church so he won’t run into my folks on the weekend and tell them I’m asking strange questions.

*     *     *

I think I might become a nun. It’s not that I like getting up at five am but nuns wear those white linen habits so they don’t have to fuss over clothes or their hair or killing babies or if they have a big enough passage for a baby to slide through. In my bedroom last night I bent over to see if I could see down there. I couldn’t so I stood on my head and let my feet fall forward down to the floor like I was a triangle. I still couldn’t see. I stuck my fingers inside. How could a baby slip through such a small space? I wondered. I weighed almost nine pounds when I was born. That’s like two bags of sugar. And how could a mother abortion a baby inside her without hurting herself?

When all the kids were running through the spray of the fire hydrant last night at dusk, I spoke to Dolores Franken from 3C on the stoop. Everybody says she had a baby when she was fifteen. I’ve never seen the baby so I think it’s a lie people make up because she wears tight pencil skirts and angora sweaters like Rita Hayworth. And because she’s German descent. Everyone bad mouths Germans since the war. People are so dumb because Dolores’ brother Richard died in the war fighting on our side. Besides I like Dolores; she’s pretty and she tells me stories about how during the war German soldiers threw Jewish babies up in the air and shot them like clay pigeons. She tells me how sugar and meat were rationed all over the U.S. and how everyone poured out onto our streets on the day the war ended and hugged and kissed each other.

“How does a mother abortion her baby,” I ask as I swing my leg over the iron railing on the stoop and sit on it. Dolores starts filing her Fire Engine Red fingernails fast and shakes her head.

With my hands on my hips, I say, “Tell me, Dolores.”

“They go to secret doctors.”

“What does the doctor do?”

“He pulls out the baby and crushes its skull.”

“Oh my God,” I say. My head begins to spin. I cover my mouth, jump off the railing and run to the gutter. I think I might throw up my guts.

*     *     *

Sometimes when I’m eating dinner and my father insists I sit until I finish my spinach which he should know by now is never, ever going to happen,  I imagine my three sisters all chubby and rosy crawling around under the table tickling my toes and the bottom of my feet. They giggle and mumble and sing songs like Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall and Mary Had a Little Lamb. I can’t help smiling.

“Do you see something funny in all this?” my father asks as he turns the pages of The Daily News, a paper that, by the way, has great photos of killings. At night when I pretend my sisters are in bed with me, they get all twisted in the sheets. They’re so smart they even know how to tickle backs or trace words on my back with their fingers and I have to guess the word. Last night each one traced her name on my back: Patricia, Margaret and Baby. I told you they were smart. When I have sunburn they peel the dead skin from my shoulders.

Sometimes when I’m bored I see them swinging on our clothesline between my father’s overalls and my brother’s Yankee tee shirt. They flip backwards and forwards on the line like acrobats. I want to yell, “Mama, come and see how much fun they are, but something inside me tells me not to.”

When I see Mama staring at the apple green wall in the kitchen and not drinking her tea, I get angry because I know she’s sad over those babies. When I go to bed and they come visit me, I kick them out of the bed or I take a pillow and press it over their faces especially over the face of Baby who never got a real name. I want to see what abortion feels like.

Liz DolanLiz Dolan’s second poetry manuscript, A Secret of Long Life, which is seeking a publisher, was nominated for the Robert McGovern Prize. Her first poetry collection, They Abide, was published by March Street Press. A six-time Pushcart nominee and winner of The Best of the Web, she has also won an established artist fellowship in poetry and two honorable mentions in prose from the Delaware Division of the Arts. She recently won The Nassau Prize for prose. Liz serves on the poetry board of Philadelphia Stories. Her nine grandkids, who live one block away from her, pepper her life.