Jessica Richardson


Nougatine. There is nothing else for the moment but this Charleston Chew I found this morning. I hadn’t seen one of these in ages, but in the borough of Brooklyn’s eclectic range of shops – anything is possible. I put it in my bag for later and later is here. It’s probably from 1983, but I am still eating it, with considerable trouble. I am looping the long strappy strips around my fingers cutting off their circulation. Pink chubby swabs stick out of their mummification. It’s difficult to complete. Fat tulip fingertips stroke the foundling. She’s lying on my legs, drifting. Given a child, what does one do but chew and mummify?

No tag, no note, no basket, or even a blanket swaddling her. Just these darting eyes like golden fish, reaching neck, rolling tub. Little licking mouth, chops. Where did that expression come from, the lips as chops?

The bridge of her nose is flat and wide, her golden fish eyes like a bird from hieroglyphs. Egyptian raven eyes – only cute. Sort of. An idea of cute. Forced to be seen as a gift, how cute can you be? I am a refugee camp.

Provisions. I eat the nougatine finger mummies. The blood drains back. I’m sticky. Why am I alone?

Food, diapers, blanket. The rest can wait until tomorrow. I remember how to do this. When all else fails, sing. Burnt sugar skin, banana’s foster skin, or chocolate. That edible baby thing, what did I read about that? Where is the instinct to phone a friend? In its place is this sighing feeling. A passive glitch in the matrix of my gut. I just want to wave my hand and say no bother. It’s just me with a baby. No big.

But this is wrong. I will phone a friend. Put away the candy bar remains. Disassociate the baby from it. Call Gretch, Nyssa, Mom. Not Mom. Mom will make it a production. Mom will flip, her wig will curl despite her not having a wig, she’ll muffle the phone on her shirt and make wide eyes and hand motions at the boyfriend. Nyssa will count blessings, Gretch will judge. There is a little Charleston Chew left, briefly missing payphone days for their limited time, I take it back out and stick it in my mouth.

The Babies-R-Us in Union Square is closed. I stare at the greens and reds of Barnes and Noble and Virgin Records. I want to go to a bodega but there aren’t any here so I decide to go back to Brooklyn. I take the subway. Through the turn style she grunts but does not cry. I discover that she can hold her head up. I take the cue from her.

I stare at her the whole way, splayed again on her back on my knees. My hands sweat, still sticky. My breath is short. The train goes above ground in Fort Greene and the golden spray of industrial buildings looks like a party. I imagine leaping from rooftop to rooftop, riding a trapeze, swinging down to grab joints out of people’s mouths through the windows. I am not fit to be a mother.

But of course I won’t be. There will be a procedure. Paperwork. It will be a hassle and sad, but that will be it. You don’t just get free babies and keep them. This doesn’t happen.

What would I teach her? I am a clay bowl. No soup. Only ridges smoothed down. I missed something along the way. I didn’t learn whatever I was supposed to learn, and it goes deeper than gaps in my understanding of European History, or not having read enough Wittgenstein. I’ve learned nothing. Perhaps I’ve just forgotten. Being a Mother requires something. Something swollen. Something that if it were visual would appear like flickering lights over the ocean that would be made of truth. A belly of open hands. The kind of pictures greeting card artists paint. Or at least it requires a savings account. I clutch her feet. A lift in my body. I am flipping out, that’s what I’m doing. It’s our stop. I grab her up too quick from her supine position on my legs and there it goes. She begins to cry.

She cries as if she could write a new world if she is just loud enough. My heart thumps. What if I get arrested? She doesn’t even look like she belongs to me. We don’t match. Babies, do they scream like this with their real Mothers? The wails are striking at me right in the solar plexus. I shake and she shakes. My bag is slipping off of my back but I can’t adjust it. I apologize to the local homeless man with my eyes as we flip through the turn style. He smiles as always. Mouths the words “thank you” even though I haven’t given him anything.

She’s going to go hoarse. She punctuates the ends of each scream with a startling absence of breath, pushing hard against empty lungs. She craps. I hear it and feel the warmth. There was too much pressure bearing down. Instead of being grossed out I sympathize.

In my bodega, oddly, Usha is in and Mike is out. She doesn’t often do nights. I sigh audibly when I see her and in the same instant, my eyes start streaming. I scold myself, but it’s no use. I try to hide myself behind the baby, fixing my eyes on a stack of Fancy Feast cans.

Here is the beautiful thing about Usha: She says nothing. She picks up her long grabbing lever to grip a package of diapers from the top shelf, rips the pack open with one hand and grabs the baby from me with the other. It is experienced by the viewer, me, the rest of the store is deserted, as a single action taking all of three seconds. She lays a blanket down that has probably belonged to all eleven of her children. This is not hyperbole. Usha has eleven literal children. A Muslim thing I suppose. A belief in babies.

She lays her down and makes open mouth smiles. She shakes her head while she smiles. She coos up and down her vocal register. All the while she does this she does not break eye contact with the baby except once to check for shit stains on the last couple of wipes. The cries are getting softer. The diaper is changed. She picks her up and bounces her softly.

Now she looks at me.

She still says nothing, but her eyebrows ask the question.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Honestly. I don’t.” I shake my head and back up. Consider leaving the baby. I consider leaving the store and forgetting about her. Exactly like Vic had done to me in the auditorium. Like her Mother had done. Her Father had done. The school security guard who just snapped her gum and sucked her teeth when I told her that someone had left their baby at the show. Shook her head. Agreed to wait with me to see if she came back. Imagine: “Oops I forgot something.” But then she just buried her head in her NY Metro. Ignored us both until everyone was gone and then stared us down. “You’re gonna have to take her,” she said.

As scared as I am, it occurs to me that there is nothing else. There really isn’t anything else. So I just say. “I need formula and diapers.” She pushes the opened pack toward me like she’s moving a chess piece. She maintains eye contact and grabs an Enfamil.

“It’ll be Okay.” She says.

This is a Mother.

I am a fire spinner and theatrical coach. By day I’m a trainer at P.N. Derns. I boycott everything but I take my trainees to an unnamed chain restaurant that we secretly love. They don’t know I work circus circuit parties at night. I’m rarely home before three am.

Why didn’t I go to the police station? V. and I hit the bat outside during intermission, so I guess I was mildly stoned. I had imagined big gruff arms holding her all wrong, fingerprinting her, fluorescent lights – the opposite of holding her quietly breathing. But this is further proof: I just listened to the security guard. She said take her and I did. It seems like such a manic move now that I’m almost home. Where will I even put her?

I want to stay with Usha but it seems inappropriate. “Can I pay you tomorrow?” I ask. She waves her hand. She talks to me about sterilizing bottles. My breathing becomes a little short and I bolt out of there nodding.

Keys, baby, bag, table, light. I look at her. She smiles and I return it, automatic. Her lips and eyes are so glossy. She must be hungry. The bottle is new so I don’t sterilize it. I open the package with one hand. I am trying to hold her with one arm while I pour the formula but it isn’t working and I’m getting hot around the collar. She starts squirming and making little noises. I lay her on the couch, but I’m nervous she will fall off so I pick her back up, I tell myself to breathe but I don’t. I figure it out. Coffee table. I’ll make the formula on the coffee table while my body blocks her from falling off the sofa.

She sucks and sucks at the plastic nipple like it’s the only and last plastic nipple that will ever be manufactured. She rubs the fabric of my sweater and stares into my eyes while she sucks. I am afraid she can see how dead certain corners of me are. Babies and animals seem to know too much, unhinged as they are from newspapers and e-mails and social networking. Instead, though, I feel alive in my corners. Her eyes are little suns. Jugs of positive energy or some such imaginary love seem to seep from her and pour over my face and down my head. I’m calm. She is too, her little suns are drooping, rolling back. Her lids come down and her mouth stops moving. Then she suddenly gulps air and startles herself, sucking and staring again. Repeat. She sleeps. Her hand comes undone from my sweater. Her fingernails are the prettiest pink drops I’ve ever seen. She vomits on me. Somehow this doesn’t really wake her up. She falls back asleep.

There is no choice but to lay her in my bed, though this does not seem like a good idea. The goal is not to get attached. The goal is to be all Buddhist about it. First thing in the morning, call out of work, figure out where to bring her. I want to cuddle her and play with her toes, and this is not good. This is alarming. Why do babies do this to us? Where does this power come from? I mean, I’m not easily moved by smooth talking men, and I can resist chocolate when I want to. Why am I unraveling so soft? I want to call my Mom but I don’t want to wake her. I decide enough has happened for the day. I lay her in the center of the mattress and watch her while I remove the spit up sweater and slip a ripped t-shirt over my head and slide into my sweats. I move her to the corner by the wall so she won’t fall off. I remember no pillows for babies, but I put her under the blanket. I lay on the other side of the bed. Just a baby guardrail, nothing else. Not a cuddler, mommy, or a friend even. But then she makes this noise in her sleep. It’s ahahehoo, and I’m half in dream. It’s a breathing sweet sound, sound. I go to her. I put my arms around her. Relaxation such as this has not happened since childhood maybe. I fall deeply asleep.

And then she wakes up screaming.



By morning we are good friends unfortunately. There have been bottles, there have been songs. But I get dressed and wrap her up. I call my Mother over cereal, but decide not to tell her. I chew innocently. Tell her I love her. No tears, time to go, the day is brisk.

Why did I expect marble floors? The lobby is cramped, white walls, crappy linoleum, security behind bullet proof glass. I look at the board to the left, the directory. There are categories. There is not a category for lost and found babies. There is no baby drop-offery. I go with child services. Fourth floor. I present my ID. The baby is swatting my face. I bite her hand with my lips absentmindedly. The big dude signing me in smiles at me. “She’s not mine,” I say.

“She’s cute,” he says.

I agree with my eyes and lug the package of us into an elevator.

There is a sign in sheet here too. I sign in. We are both lulled by the television while we wait. My breathing gets soft. I wish to take a nap. She falls asleep for me. Our name is called. I get up carefully so she doesn’t wake.

We enter an office, small, ugly, one window looking into an alley, fluorescent strip lights. A frizzy haired woman, a sesame street safety maker with a blond spiral perm leans forward, again and again, looking up at me over her glasses as I tell her the story. She is who you go to if you have a splinter. Or need help organizing your bill book. A good woman, I think, I hope. I bite my fingers. My eyes bounce around the room while I tell her. I don’t want to seem suspect, I don’t know what the rules are regarding free babies, but I’m sure I have broken them. I don’t want the baby to end up in the wrong place. I am irrationally afraid that this woman will just snatch her out of my hands in a sudden move. My throat pulls like bent violin string. Jeesh, I better not cry.

The woman keeps rock-nodding, eyes wide, permanent smile. Fine hairs line her chin. Her nametag says Diane Lach.

“Um…Ms. Lach?”

“Oh, and what is your name sweetie? I didn’t get that did I?” She pulls a post-it off.


“Ok, Chloe…?”


“Great. Yes, Chloe.”

“Can I be involved in her adoption process, do you think? Can I, do I have any rights…”

“Why don’t we measure her? Huh? Get her finger prints.”

“Because I don’t want her to go to just anyone.”

“Oh there are just lovely families. So many lovely families waiting to adopt. They like newborns, but she’s still very young. She’ll go. She shouldn’t need a foster.”

My stomach flips. I expected something else. I expected to be told to go to at least five different offices, the police station, fill out scores of forms, be subjected to questioning. The lack of beaurocracy I’ve come to expect is frightening. Do people really flip free babies like this? Pass her on, no big. She’ll go. Ms. Lach reads my mind.

“Of course she’ll have to be brought down to the clinic, get blood work. Make sure everything checks out.” Something at least. But “checks out” rings, repeats in my mind. They mean drugs, they’ll check her for drugs.

“What if her mother comes looking for her? What if she changes her mind?”

“Oh they don’t, Hon. They don’t,” she says.

I don’t like this woman’s mouth. It’s square. Everything about her seems like it could just peel off like a zipped costume to reveal an inside that is something else entirely. I stand up.

“You know on second thought, maybe I should take her to the police,” I say. She blinks three times. “I just don’t feel right, I mean, I teach at that school, What if the Mother comes back?”

Diane rock-nods and square mouth smiles. “You could do that if it makes you feel better.” She hands me a tissue. “They’ll just send her back here eventually, though. And I don’t like those cribs there at the police station. Dingy.” They have cribs at the police station? Everything is swimming. I discover that I want to keep her. I fall back into my chair.

“What if I keep her for now, you know, like a foster. Just for now.” I am shocked by myself. The baby is looking up at me sucking her lips and fingers. I don’t ever want to be away from her, ever, but then for just a half of a second I want to drop her on the ground for causing me this anguish.

“There’s no need. She’ll go. She’s pretty. If she was fostered for too long it would ruin her chances.” I blow my nose. Squeeze her. She burps. “Chloe, you’re young. What did you say it was you did for a living again?”

“I’m a fire spinner. And I juggle too.” I see her eyebrow and want to punch it. “But I also work for P.N. Derns.” I’m not a fuck up, I want to say. I remember that I hate these people. These spinster desk ladies with their framed pet photos. Safety maker my ass. Bill book my ass. I stand up again.


Another waiting room. Nya I’ve started to call her, Nya is lying on my knees and I’m teaching her to clap hands. I’m holding her hands and clapping them for her. Every time she smiles my eyes and throat drip and clench, burning. But I smile back. These government buildings, they have everything. We are in some sort of clinic now. Other women are waiting and I can’t figure out their positions. Are they giving babies up or getting them? Are they just people without health insurance? Is this like a planned parenthood for babies? I can’t tell. Everyone is quiet with their magazines. CNN is on mute. I am here to give away a baby, that’s all I know. She’s been measured and printed. Lach has promised that they will do a search for her mom, check if her prints match any local hospital records. I am unclear on the instructions. I don’t know where we go next after the doctor. I suppose they will tell me. This is all very confusing. Yesterday at this time I was rehearsing with my 10th graders. They were not spitting out their gum and cracking on each other and I was telling them a Helen Keller quote. “It’s ok to have butterflies in your stomach. The trick is to get them to fly in formation.” They were staring at me either blankly or with the high-octane teenaged love that during stage fright busts up eyebrows normally locked in the raised position.

Nya starts fussing. I give her the bent knuckle of my pointer to chew on. It’s ok because I’ve sanitized my hands three times today out of boredom and an abundance of Purell pumps on desks and counters intended for social service. She grabs my hand with both of her tiny ones. She shakes her head a little, like no.

Our name is called. I grab our paltry stuff and follow the woman with red streaks in her twist who has come to gather us. I watch her gold hoops swing against her neck. She turns her head.

“I’m Asia,” she says.


“Pleasure. She’s cute isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I say and put my head down on the thin hairs that coat her skull. She smells like formula. I feel her soft spot pulse beneath my closed lips.

Asia leads me into a tiny cramped room with a desk. It looks like it was once a custodial closet. She reaches out her hands and takes Nya from me.

“I’m gonna go ahead and take her to the examining room. You can wait here.” My arm shoots after her and I am embarrassed so I fix my hair with it and sit. It is a long time before Asia comes back. I watch a tiny digital clock. Probably the most boring activity in the world. There are no books in the room, just some pamphlets about various health concerns like SIDS and AIDS. The desk is messed up. It’s got stacks and stack of papers on it. There are dust bunnies next to the green garbage can, like someone missed. My ass starts hurting from all of the day’s chairs. My arms feel light and my chest a little too cool like it’s naked without Nya. I notice my knees. I think they are kind of cute. I’m in the mood to have fire in my hands and mouth. I wonder what other people are doing right now. I sing a little, in the quietest octave above a whisper. I have a memory. My back on a table and my legs in the air, performing the hisses of childbirth with my friend Moira spitting flames from underneath, between my legs. We called the act “Baby” and everyone loved it. Now it seems profane and also true. I taste ethanol in my mouth, smoke pain in my lungs, the undeniable desire to hurt a little bit, as if enough little bits of hurt will stave off the big chunks that hunt from the horizon. I imagine little cups in a line of wire along my shoulder blades running down both of my arms. The cups are filled with kerosene and spotters torch my back and arms, the flames shooting high as I flap. Angel I’ll call the act. Or Nya. Night.

Asia comes in.

“Okay, that’s it,” she says and makes a motion like dusting off the hands.


“You can go home now. The baby is fine.”


“Everything checked out, she’s perfectly healthy, no addictions, we checked her into the nursery.” Like the Ritz. Or the Carleton. I cry. I just finally cry.

“I want to say goodbye,” I barely get it out. I’m drool crying. “Can’t I say goodbye?”

“It’s better if you don’t. It’s better if you don’t.” She said twice. Twice.


Jessica Richardson is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in We Are So Happy To Know Something, Zine Scene’s The Reprint, and Hobart, among other places. She’s from the Jersey Shore and is still sending her love there.