What He Took

By

It’s two in the morning on the OB ward. Light filters into our dark room from the hallway, making a dim twilight around bassinet and bed. My first child, Emily, is twenty-seven hours old. My husband, too tall for the creaking recliner, has gone home for a good night’s sleep. No other babies have been born this weekend in our small Iowa town, and so the hall is perfectly quiet. It is our first time alone together.

She’s just finished nursing and her sleeping body lies between my breasts. I am getting used to the sounds she makes, little gurgles and sighs. I can barely feel the weight of her six pounds, but I feel her warmth, the soft puff of her breathing, the occasional twitch of her tiny, curled fist. The curve of her rump fits perfectly in my hand, so also the back of her head. I am so full of love for this creature, this small body, barely human. I am so full of love that it overflows in tears that meander silently down my cheeks. In a few days, when my milk comes in, I will again overflow with love, sweet and white, dripping from my breasts unbidden.

I wasn’t that sentimental during my pregnancy. There was rarely any sighing over tiny pink socks in stores, no letters written to my daughter in utero (as my pregnancy book suggested), no deep meditation on the meaning of motherhood or womanhood. On most days I had to remember to talk to her, remind myself to tell her I loved her—unsure, sometimes, that I actually did.

But on this night, there is no doubt about my love. I would give anything, do anything, for her and her happiness. Every part of me, every humble cell, every higher thought, loves her, wants her. This is the surest truth I know. And it is because of this, this flood of love, that I know, beyond doubt, that my own mother loved me, wanted me. I cry for love of my daughter tonight, but I cry, too, for the love of the mother I have never known.

 ***

Sometimes I imagine my mother in the months before her death. I imagine, for instance, that it was raining when she finally went to the clinic. This is implausible, of course, because she probably went in May or June, months when it doesn’t rain in L.A. But I like the rain, and I like to think she did too, and so I make it rain as she waited at the bus stop. It was 1976 and so I imagine Chevettes and Galaxies driving by on the busy street in front of her, their tires kicking up a fine mist. Her jeans were probably too long for her, as mine are. Their hems were frayed and wet. Perhaps she leaned back against the smoky translucent plastic of the shelter, then touched her stomach. Just a faint, quick touch, as if she were checking to make sure her top button was fastened, but it wasn’t that. She hadn’t fastened that button for weeks.

She rode the bus for a long time; she knew that if she had a car, it would only be a short drive. As she walked from the bus stop to the clinic door, she passed a little store. It was closed, and the only reason she stopped to look through the dusty window was because the things there caught her eye: a painted Virgin of Guadalupe, small candles, glasses and vials, metal implements, figurines she didn’t recognize. The sign painted on the glass of the window was in Spanish, a language she did not speak. She recognized the Virgin of Guadalupe though—no one who lives in L.A. does not—and it made her smile, just a little bit. My mother liked to stop and look at things. I know this about her because I am her daughter.

At the clinic, men and women sat in hard plastic chairs, rustling magazines and talking in hushed voices. A little boy, four or five, was running through the aisles of chairs, but slowed and stared when he got to her. For the first time that day, she felt self-conscious about her torn jeans, her stringy hair, the stain on her shirt. After a lot of waiting, she was led into a room where they gave her a test, and then she waited some more. She already knew what the test result would be, but someone told her that if she got the test, she could get money for the baby. But that isn’t why she decided to keep the baby, just for the money. When the white coat came back in—doctors, nurses, assistants, they were all the same to her—he told her that she was pregnant. He told her they didn’t do abortions there; she’d have to go somewhere else. He told her there were many organizations that would make it possible to bring the baby to term. That they’d help her put it up for adoption. He told her if she was going to keep drinking or doing drugs or sleeping around or whatever, though, she might as well just have an abortion. She stared at the dull metal of his stethoscope while he talked. She wondered why he thought she didn’t know these things already.

He asked her if she had any family.

“Yes,” she answered, then said nothing more.

She took the paperwork they gave her, clutching it in her hand all the long bus trip back, keeping it dry under her poncho. I don’t suppose she carried a purse. She kept her wallet tucked in her hip pocket, perhaps, safer there than in a purse.

Before she went to sleep that night—wherever she slept in those days—my mother thought about her child. She imagined the dark world inside her, the little girl—she had always known it would be a girl—floating in a shaded pool, the cord keeping her from floating away into the darkness. Or was it, she wondered, the other way round? Maybe the cord kept her tethered to the child, like a boat at anchor. She liked to think that, that the cord kept her tied down, stopped her from floating off into some dark who-knows-where. She thought about the child inside her, made a little promise that she’d look after her, no matter what. She wanted to do right by her little girl whom she’d already named and already, long ago, decided to keep.

She’d call her father in the morning, she thought, just before she dozed off. Surely, he’d help.

 ***

One night three weeks after she gave birth to me, my mother left me in a motel room she shared with friends. She wrapped me in a blanket and laid me in a dresser drawer. I always imagine that she kissed me before she walked into the night, that she loved me, wanted me. And now I know how it feels to kiss tiny lips pursed in sleep, the soft curve of cheek; how it feels to say goodbye and leave.

I have the LAPD’s summary of my mother’s case. It’s the photocopy of a typed page. Typed, I imagine, by a tired secretary on an IBM Selectric, then bound with other summaries of other unsolved murders in something the cold case detectives call a murder book. My copy of the summary is crinkled around the edges, the left corner bent.

It says:

BEATING – BLUNT INSTRUMENT – UNKNOWN

STRANGULATION                        LIGATURE

GREY, Michele Ann, F/C, 23, 610 N. Hill Place, 11-28/29-76       

DR XX XXX XXX, Central Division, Coroner xx-xxxxx

Victim is a Hollywood prostitute who was living with three companions at the Hollywood Center Motel. At 2200 hours 11-28-76, she told her companions she was going next door to turn a trick to help pay the rent because they did not have enough[t]money. Her friends thought she meant a motel up the street. They did not see the victim alive again.

The victim was discovered by a gardener in the vacant lot at 610 N. Hill Place. An autopsy revealed the victim had been beaten and strangled with an unknown ligature. She was fully clothed except for her right shoe. There were no witnesses to the body being dumped or the homicide occurring.

CASE STATUS: Investigation continued.

INVESTIGATORS:  D. Varney #10833, Robbery-Homicide Div.,  L. Orozco #11072, Robbery-Homicide Div.

 ***

Sometimes I imagine the two detectives, Orozco and Varney, sitting in the room at the Hollywood Center Motel with my mother’s friends. I imagine the women telling the police detectives that my mother went out to turn a trick that night and never came back. Of course, the detectives already knew she hadn’t come back. Already that morning, they’d examined her beaten body in the empty lot.

I imagine that the women and the detectives sat awkwardly around the small motel room, glancing down at the stained, shaggy carpet, shifting their weight on the sagging beds, glancing at the baby, at one another. Someone had changed my diaper; perhaps one of the women was holding me, trying to quiet me down. Had someone thought to feed me? The detectives asked my mother’s friends questions. I imagine that they shrugged when they didn’t know the answers, shook their heads slowly. Maybe one of them cried, not so much out of grief as fear. Perhaps one of them kept touching the back of my head.

Yes, one of the detectives promised, on their way out the door, when the women asked; yes, they’d be sure to take care of the baby.

 ***

When my mother called my grandfather to tell him that she was pregnant with me and to ask him for help, he said no. He said, “You’ve really fucked up now, haven’t you?”

It was their last conversation.

I like to think that he was just frustrated, annoyed with a twenty-three year old daughter who hadn’t finished high school, who’d run away from home, who’d done drugs and nothing much else with her life. Perhaps that made it understandable, although I cannot understand it. At any rate, he changed his mind a few days later. He tried calling her last known number, but the person who picked up didn’t speak English. He tried calling his daughter’s mother, his ex-wife Spence, but she hadn’t heard from her either. She’d said no, too.

A month after my mother’s death, I went to live with my grandmother Spence. She died when I was four years old. I was raised by my grandfather, the one who said no, and his second wife, Marilyn. I don’t know my birth father.

Marilyn says that my grandfather was devastated by his daughter’s death. For months afterward, he spent nights driving around Hollywood, searching for the man who had killed her. I imagine those nights sometimes, go with him from place to place. He’d drive down Sunset and La Brea and every street and alley in between. He would slow down his car and peer into the dark places behind dumpsters and into doorways, rolling down his window and shining his flashlight on sleeping men, or whores shooting up, or dogs digging through trash. Some nights he would sit in a vinyl booth at a Denny’s on Sunset, drinking coffee and watching. He watched the cops come in for their meals. He watched bums try to come up with change for coffee. Sometimes he bought them dinner and plied them with questions they never knew the answers to. He read the graffiti in the john, names and numbers scratched in the stalls, looking for a clue. He looked for an answer in the mirror while he washed his hands. He saw only himself. And then he would head back into the dark to search some more. He never found what he was looking for. My mother’s case has never been solved.

My grandfather did not speak much about his daughter’s death, but when he did, it was usually to talk about his own guilt or his hatred of the man who’d caused him pain. “If I could catch the son-of-a-bitch,” he told me, even when I was too little to understand what he meant, “I’d throttle the fucker with my bare hands and make him eat his own cock.”

I only remember my grandfather talking about his loss, never hers. Surely he grieved for his daughter’s shortened life, the years that were taken from her, the fear and pain she endured at her death. But I only remember him talking about himself.

I, who never knew my mother, couldn’t grieve for her, but I aped my grandfather’s anger, took it on as my own. I hated the man who’d taken my mother away from me, but it always seemed a hollow hate, an emotion born of loyalty to my grandfather, rather than of any real loss. In college, I decided to forgive my mother’s murderer. I let hatred and anger go. It was an easy burden to put down, probably because it wasn’t so very heavy to begin with.

If my grandfather felt guilty for not helping his daughter when she asked, he probably also felt guilty for never really getting to know her. Depending on whom you ask, either my grandmother left him when she was pregnant with Michele, or he abandoned them both. Either way, my mother saw her father only a few times a year, if that. For most of my mother’s childhood, she bounced between her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother, spending a few months here, a few months there. Until she was a teenager, she did not even know that she knew her father. He was introduced to her as Richard, a friend of the family. In the one letter of hers that I have, she refers to him by the nickname she’d given him, “Treat.” Nobody seems to have really wanted, or been able, to care for her. She never really had a family.

My mother got pregnant three years after Roe v. Wade. She was broke; she was alone. I’ve often wondered why she kept me, and perhaps the answer is in that wandering, unloved childhood. She wanted a baby, to make a family; she wanted someone to love.

 ***

I wonder who was in the room with my mother when I was born. Surely not my father, whom I’ve never known. Surely not her parents. I imagine she was alone. Were the nurses kind when they told her to push? Or did they smile tightly when they said, “It’s a girl,” and judge her with cold eyes? There were no flowers in my mother’s delivery room, no cards or gifts, hand-knitted blankets and hats. There was nothing. Her own worn clothes folded neatly on a chair.

In my hospital room at two in the morning, I imagine my mother nursing me, holding me to her chest afterward. When I feel Emily’s soft breath against my breast, I know what my mother felt when I was born. I know how much she loved me: with every bit of herself, every cell, every higher thought.

I think, too, of how my mother only had three weeks of this: of baby in arms, gurgles and sighs, whispers of smiles in sleep. Only three weeks of this pure, pure love. I cry at the thought of only having three weeks.

All of my life, I’ve thought her murderer’s greatest crime was taking my mother from me. But here, holding my little girl in a darkened hospital room, I know better. The true crime was taking a mother away from her baby, stripping her of the love she’d bravely made for herself, crushing it with the brutal force of blunt fists and tight rope.

And I know, now, what my mother’s thoughts were as she died. I don’t need to imagine them anymore. In her last struggles and shudders, in that terrible moment before she blacked out, when she knew she wasn’t going to get away, my mother thought of her baby girl. My mother thought of me.

***

Rumpus original art by Chelsea Martin.


Kelly Grey Carlisle recently moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she teaches at Trinity University. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Subtropics, The Tampa Review, and River Teeth. Her little girl, Emily, just turned one. More from this author →