Photograph by Rus Bowden
Nothing seemed to move except the car. It was as if the dark, moonless landscape was frozen in time. Milagros and the driver were plummeting toward a shifting future, unknowable and stark. There was no noise save for the crackle of the radio. Occasionally, garbled phrases interspersed with static passed by her ears. She closed her eyes, settled into the easy motion of the road, waiting for a kick or flutter from inside. It was at least 30 minutes since she had last felt a reassuring ripple or push from her baby's lively body. She wanted the sensation, the comfort of life to energize her sluggish flesh so she could push away the pictures of this morning and last week and last month and get through the night.
Yesterday's visit to Welfare forced its way into her mind as if painted on the back of her eyelids. She recalled the letters "TANF" but couldn't remember what the letters stood for or anything else about the place except the crocodile lady's face. It stayed with her like a cold hand on her chest. Mrs. Mulvern. The lady's brown hair was the color of road dust. Hard and ungiving, like her face, it covered her head like a cement cap. Her front teeth protruded slightly over her bottom lip and were shades of both white and yellow, causing Milagros to stare at them as she was questioned.
"Are you sure you have no relatives or friends you could stay with?" the lady asked. Teeth first. That's all Milagros could think, and it made her want to laugh and cry at the same time.
"Well, young lady? You certainly must have been staying with someone all of this time."
"My boyfriend. I was staying with my boyfriend, but I cannot stay with him anymore."
"I just cannot. It is not safe." Milagros couldn't turn him in. It went against her way with the world.
Ms. Mulvern tucked her front teeth behind her lower lip and sucked air between them as she crossed her arms and rested them across her ample bosom. "Was this man hitting you?"
"No. Not hitting exactly, but yelling and fighting and hanging out with bad friends. I want a safe place for the baby when she is born."
Ms. Mulvern stared at Milagro's large belly as if she had just noticed it.
"And is this man the father, or do you know who the father is?"
Her tone was full of accusation, and Milagros didn't want to talk anymore. She couldn't tell this woman about Justo's string of illegal jobs at restaurants and gardening centers and parking garages or the late night knocks to their door and the passed packages and her desperate desire to get herself and her unborn baby away. And anyway, talking to this lady made her feel cold inside. She was cold with dread and fear and a sensation she couldn't yet name, some sense that even though she couldn't imagine it being worse, it would get worse.
Still the woman's face with its angry lines and drawn mouth filled her mind, and she tried to shake free from its hold.
"You cannot stay here in Wilton. All of our shelters for families are full right now."
Milagros' voice was little more than a whisper. "But my doctor is here, and I know people here. Where will I go?"
The woman's mouth curled in response but did not smile.
"If you have friends, then they should take you in."
Milagros felt herself losing resolve. "They are too crowded as it is. My friend Liana has four children in two rooms. It is not enough for them. What can I do?"
With each word the woman seemed to distance herself further from Milagros in the small, hot cubicle. Milagros noticed a picture of Jesus taped to the beige wall above the computer.
"You should have thought of that before you got yourself into this mess. The closest shelter space we have is in the western part of the state. It's about 250 miles from here. You need to get yourself out there within the next 24 hours to secure it."
"What does it mean, 'secure'?"
The woman glared at her then.
"You know more than you pretend, missy. Secure means to get and hang onto."
She shoved a paper in front of Milagros.
"Here's directions. You'll have to come up with the transportation—a bus, a friend, a taxi. You can get a voucher to be partially reimbursed at the other end."
Milagros clutched the address in her hand and felt the paper soften from the moisture of her palms. She didn't know the word "reimbursed" but she would find out. Justo would be at work.
Last night was the worst. When he came home from the garden center, she was lying down and he pulled roughly at her shoulder. "Hey panzon. Where's my meal?"
She had been sleeping deeply on her back, the only option left to her these days.
"On the stove. I made lasagna." She said it softly, her voice still full of sleep.
"Did you put meat in it this time? Or is it more of that Dominican style shit?"
She took a quick breath. "Justo, I didn't have enough money to buy meat. But it's good. I tasted it."
That is when he slapped her across the face. It left a mark, but by morning the redness had faded and she slipped out the door for Liana's. She could at least be there until she'd made a plan for the night.
"Are you paying attention, missie?" Mrs. Malvern's tone was harsh and dry.
"Refugio," she whispered softly to herself as a single tear traced the curve of her cheek.
Mrs. Mulvern clapped her hands together suddenly, and the sound filled up the small cubicle and reverberated through Milagros's now pounding head.
"That's enough of that, young lady. Whatever the circumstances are you've gotten yourself into, I'll have no crocodile tears. None. Do we understand each other?"
"Si, yes, Ma'am," Milagros answered, trying with all her strength to steady her emotions, to feel hatred or anger toward this woman so she could stop the tears and get away from her awful presence. So strange. She knew the word "crocodile" but couldn't understand why they would cry and how that connected with her current predicament.
Lulled by the rhythm of the road and somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, Milagros found this reverie so intense, her hands were clenched. She had unconsciously drawn her knees up to the bottom of her belly. She was always amazed so much of her thighs and her stomach could make contact, like a meat pie, she thought, cheering herself. Just as she began to smile, an odd sensation dominated everything else and she drew her breathe in quickly and exhaled a small sound of surprise. Underneath and around her, water was leaking out. There was nothing she could do to stop the gush of warm, musky liquid. As the bath slowed, it soaked her jeans all the way down to the bottoms and creeped up the back of her shirt. She sat up, blinking quickly. "Ay dios mio," she whispered like a secret passed on to someone who wasn't there. A small noise rose in the back of her throat.
"Ay madre mia. My water has broken." The smell of the fluid was strong and familiar and strangely sweet. She knew this smell somehow, the way she knew the smell of damp earth and wet grass. She remembered her mother in their bedroom holding Milagros's little sister, still pink and wrinkled from birth, with the same smell overpowering the room.
Her Mother had given the newborn to Milagros. "You see how perfect when we start out?"
The scent filled the cab. Milagros was awash in it, and despite everything—the late hour, the drive into nowhere, the fear of her aloneness—she felt an overpowering calmness. Well, she thought, taking a face cloth she had packed in her bag and patting herself and the seat as dry as she could, this is how everything changes. She started to sit forward, thinking to make herself heard by the driver.
Peter never referred to himself as a taxi driver. He was an artist, a student, a part-time worker, a music lover, so much more than two hands on a wheel or a foot on the pedal. So what if he was temporarily stuck in the single, illegal room in the basement of his brother Tony's three-decker in Wilton? Tony's "income property." Tony was a giant douche. But the room was convenient to school, he could park the cab there when needed, and Tony only charged him two hundred a month. Also part of the deal was a small stove, a student fridge he'd rescued from a dumpster outside the university, and walls outside his room by the furnace where he could attach drawings and sketches. He used the work bench for cutting designs in linoleum tiles with an exacto knife and scattered the slivers on the ground like post-industrial sawdust. What he liked best was the bare white-washed cement where he displayed his paintings of creatures from the mythological past, full of swirling primal colors and ferocious beasts.
He was working on a series depicting creation myths, the Aztec jaguar and the coiled snake, the Hindu lotus blossom, and the Huron falling women, his most recent venture.
Last week his father showed up looking for Tony, never looking for Peter. His father glanced at the brightly colored paintings arranged on the basement wall the way you might regard bird droppings on a car windshield. Peter could smell the beer from five feet away.
"What a load of shit," his father muttered. "Why do you do this with your spare time when you could be making money?"
"It's for school, Dad. I'm taking some art classes along with accounting."
"Art, art. What the fuck can you do with art? Can you eat it? Will it heat your house next winter?" He sneered at Peter. "Take a page out of your brother's book, dickhead. You need to get something going for yourself."
He went up the basement stairs with his back to Peter and never looked back. Peter kicked an empty wooden crate across the floor.
"Like you? Get something going like you after I've had ten beers?" Peter wanted to make images so beautiful, people were forever transformed by seeing them.
Peter brushed his hand across the print, tacked onto his dashboard, he had created of an Aztec crocodile representing the earth: the combination of light and dark, day and night, even perhaps good and evil surrounded by quadrants of primordial, colored water. Other drivers hung rabbit feet. He had his own idea of luck. Then he heard a sound from the back, a gasp of breathe, maybe even a moan. He tilted his head toward the opening in the middle of the transparent partition.
"Are you all right back there?" He looked in his rear view mirror, trying to remember the girl's name. Millie-something. It was pretty, exotic. He thought it was a name with a separate meaning in Spanish. Yeah, Milagros, miracle. Like this fare. This was a 300 dollar trip for Peter, partial reimbursement to be had at the end of his drive. Just in time to help pay the rent and put some money toward his student fees.
"Hey, Milagros. Are you okay back there? Do you need something?"
Milagros finally struggled into an upright position. "Yes, sir. I am fine, but I am not sure about going to the shelter now."
"Crap," Peter muttered to himself and wondered why she would be calling him "sir" since he was only a little older, three years maybe.
"What's the problem with the shelter?" he asked. "We should be there in about an hour and change."
She wondered what he meant by "change." Things were already changing enough.
"I think I am going into labor. My water broke. It's early. I mean, my due date is two weeks from now, but..."
She didn't sound too freaked out to Peter. Her voice was calm, even matter of fact, with that nice musical quality to it. She was bringing her face into the open space of the divider. It was a pretty oval with high cheek bones, skin the color of toffee and her eyes large and dark and fully fringed. He was starting to feel shaky and afraid of what this all meant.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked with a quiver in his voice revealing just how nervous her predicament was making him.
Instead of answering, she gestured toward the dashboard and laughed as she pointed to the crocodile drawing. She told him her story, about Mrs. Mulvern's teeth and her admonishment of crocodile tears. "But why is the crocodile there? Isn't he a bad creature? Doesn't he bring bad luck?"
For the smallest particle of time, the impending events in front of them stopped moving forward. Only the taxi surged ahead as Peter told Milagros his name and described the story of creation as told by the Aztecs, including the role of the fierce but all important crocodile.
"In some versions, the crocodile is the entire earth, and around him is all of existence, dawn—you can see where I have used yellows and oranges. The underworld where nothing grows, I've made that brownish with red. There is also the region of thorns I colored mostly white with shades of grey, and finally the region of women, where you see the blues and greens of fertility and warmth."
"So crocodile tears could be powerful, no?" She was playing with him, but she wanted to know.
"Yes, yes, I think they would be very powerful."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Peter, do you know any other stories, maybe about humans and not just scary creatures?"
He could hear something new in her voice, not fear, but strain and perhaps a constricted sound as if she'd just burned her hand on the stove.
"Are you having pains, Marisol?"
"Si. You should go to the hospital for sure. I have an insurance card. I think we'll make it. I'm sure we'll make it. I am not going to count between the contracting pains yet."
"Do you want me to stop?" He couldn't imagine why he had asked that since it made no sense.
She grunted a little and flopped back on the seat. "No, just go fast enough but not too fast."
Peter's heart was pounding in his chest. "Do you want me to stop for water or juice or something to eat?"
Her voice was calm and even again. "Just tell me another story about the way the world started."
"Well, there's the story of the falling woman from the Hurons." As he told the story he felt a sense of rightness and power, as if telling this tale was the only important thing he had done all day, all week, all year.
"She falls from a tear in the sky. She is pregnant, and when she falls to earth, she actually becomes earth, and later the moon cradles and cares for her baby. "
"What is her name, Peter?"
"Umm, I think it's something like Aataentsic."
"That is too hard to say. I've decided I am having a daughter, and I will name her Aeta. Whatever happens, remember that." She let out a groan of pain and placed her palm against the window, and she noticed the moon was bright and fully risen in the sky.
That moment seemed to stop time, to place them between earth and the stars, between hardship and the good feeling of something accomplished—something well done and complete. He pulled the tile of the crocodile off of his dashboard and passed it behind him, not turning but knowing she would grasp it like a lucky coin drawn from his pocket.