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Mother and Child

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It's Tuesday going on Wednesday, and a woman in a sweatshirt is standing holding a baby in the fog on Kedzie near Fullerton. I'm driving home from Cub Foods following a stop at a tavern with a friend.

I watch her while waiting at the stoplight. She watches me. This isn't a war zone--the boulevard feels almost peaceful at this hour--but she looks vulnerable. Earlier, my friend had told me a woman with a baby was shot by a mugger in broad daylight near his house. He lives in the safest neighborhod in the city.

I'm tempted to ask if she's OK, but I'm afraid I'll frighten her. I tell myself she's probably waiting for someone. She's too far from the corner to be waiting for the bus.

I circle the block looking for a space. When I get back to the corner, she's still there. I watch her. She approaches the car.

She says her baby is sick and she needs to get cough medicine at the all-night Walgreens. She thinks it costs $3.50. I give her a ten and she thanks me. The light turns green. I want to find a parking space, go home, piss like a bear, and go to bed.

I offer to drive her. She gets in without hesitation. I'm surprised to catch the scent of perfume. I hate perfume. Hers smells nice.

The baby is bundled up in a snowsuit. I'm not sure how sick it is, don't know if it's even breathing. I wonder if I should head for Cook County.

I drive west on Fullerton. I think the Walgreens she means is near Cicero, but I'm not sure. I have trouble understanding her. She says she went to the one on Milwaukee but it was closed. She thinks some of that Amoxicillin is what he needs. He caught it-- whatever it is--from her mother when she was watching him. She says something about needing a birth certificate to get on aid but it costs money to get one. Tomorrow she'll take the baby to Cook County. It's free there.

She says to turn left. I tell her this isn't the way to Walgreen's. She says she wants to get the baby's stroller. She left it at a friend's because she had to carry the baby. He's a year old.

She says to turn into an alley. She'll be right back, the stroller is on the porch. Please don't leave. She starts down the dark gangway with the baby, stops, turns, looks at me. I offer to hold him.

He starts to cry. That's a good sign, the first sign I've had that the kid is still alive. I tell him his mother will be back in a minute, but I'm not sure she will be. I can't believe she's leaving him with some white guy who stopped on the street at 1 AM. I rock him and he stops crying.

I wonder if I'm being set up. I check the mirrors. No Latin Kings in sight, but they've put in a lot of time tagging the alley. A few minutes later she returns empty-handed. Her friend must have taken the stroller inside.

We're back on Kedzie, driving north past my apartment. Now she wants to leave the baby at her sister's. Her sister lives in a charming limestone that my wife and I had been admiring two days ago. We wondered if it was nice inside. Now I'm sure it's not. The building is dark. I suggest she bring the baby with us so she can ask the druggist's advice. I shudder at the idea of staking a baby's health on the diagnosis of the graveyard pharmacist at Walgreens.

As she gets out she asks, shyly, if I have a number for her sister. I think she's asking for a joint. By the time I realize she wants my phone number, she's inside the building with the baby. I'm tempted to go to the door and give her my name and address so her sister will know she'll be safe, but if I go inside, I'm not sure I will be. A woman pulls up the shade and waves for me to come in. I stay in the car.

I wait five minutes. I wonder if she's decided to keep my ten bucks and quit while she's ahead. I consider driving to a drugstore, buying the medicine, and leaving it on the doorstep. I consider going home while I'm ahead.

When she comes out, she has one hand in the pocket of her sweatshirt. She keeps it there, holding something, as she gets in. Later she takes her hand out of her pocket, but I never see what she has in there. I wish I had stopped home to tell my wife where I was going.

"One year old," I say, trying to make conversation.

"Twenty-four," she replies, misunderstanding.

We head west on Fullerton. She asks for a cigarette. She says taking care of a baby is a lot of work. His father isn't much help. He drank a lot, and she put up with that. Then he started ogling, and she put up with that. But then he just snapped.

She asks if I have kids. I tell her just nephews and nieces. Maybe one of these days.

At Pulaski, I ask how far Walgreens is. She doesn't know. She thinks there might be one back at Belmont and Kimball. I head there. I don't ask why she was standing at Fullerton and Kedzie.

She says the baby only started coughing today. But it's a bad cough. It got worse because she only had the one Pamper left and it was damp. She might buy some if they have the generic. She thinks they're $3.99. I feel self-conscious about my $17 grocery quick-haul on the backseat.

I'm relieved to learn that there is a Walgreens at Belmont and Kimball. I have a feeling she'd like me to come inside with her to shop for the baby's stuff together. I wait in the car. She comes out and says there's not enough for medicine and Pampers. I fumble through my singles before parting with my twenty. She says she'll bring the change. I tell her to buy cigarettes for both of us.

When she comes out she insists on showing me what she bought-- PediaCare--as if to provide an accounting in case I'm one of those assholes who glare at people who squander their food stamps on steak. She didn't get the Pampers. They cost too much. She knows where to get some cheaper tomorrow. She changed the baby at her sister's, that's why she took so long to come out. She doesn't offer me any change. I don't ask for any.

As we pull away, there's a report on WBBM about a young woman found stabbed to death. She asks if we can stop back at her friend's for the stroller. She doesn't want anyone to steal it.

A car is leaving the alley as we pull into it. As she gets out, another car pulls up. A young woman in a short skirt and heels gets out and follows her up the gangway. I wonder if my change is being spent at another all-night drugstore.

She returns without the stroller. She thinks they're selling drugs in there. She hid her money and called through the slot in the door that she'd come for the stroller tomorrow. She hopes they don't sell it.

She asks if I have an ink pen and writes her name and number on the drugstore receipt. She says to call if I hear anyone's hiring. She'll do anything. When I let her off at her sister's she says I can come in if I want. I say I have to get up early. She tells me to call her. I say I'm sure I'll see her around, but I hope I don't and I'm not sure I'd recognize her anyway. I promise to let her know if I hear about any jobs. She says I should call anyway. I say I'm married and feel sheepish doing it. She says she doesn't mean that. It's hard to meet people and it's good to have a friend.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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