Rose pushed open the door of the Java Hut with her hip and inhaled the aromas of coffee and cocoa. Steam from the espresso machine caressed her skin like a whisper. Her infant daughter slept wedged into the cradle of Rose’s arms, swaddled in three shabby blankets. Rose made her way to a table at the back of the shop, past people sipping coffee and laughing at private jokes. She shivered inside her faded blue sweater and the brown overcoat she’d taken from a Goodwill bag on 18th Street.
Resting her feet on the rail of her chair, she pulled her hair into the rubber band she’d found on the subway and closing her eyes, dreamed of a pearl-handled silver hairbrush. Then she dug into her pockets and found loose change and a couple of crumpled dollar bills; lifting Louise in her arms, she went to the counter to order something hot and sweet, leaving her coat on the chair to save her place.
At the table, Rose balanced the baby on her lap and set the hot chocolate at a safe distance from the baby’s curious hands. She spooned the sweet warm liquid into her mouth where it lingered on her tongue then melted into nothingness. Dipping her index finger into the chocolate froth, she touched it to Louise’s lips. The baby’s smile did more to warm her than the hot drink or the heat of the coffee shop.
But the smile turned into a whimper as the taste of the hot chocolate piqued Louise’s appetite. Rose could feel the burning pull on her breasts that reminded her it was time to nurse. She gathered her coat, the baby and her Styrofoam cup and found an empty stall in the bathroom where she snuggled into a corner and unbuttoned her blouse. Rose relaxed to Louise’s happy gurgling and the enticing sensations of the baby’s mouth suckling at her breast. She closed her eyes and settled into a daydream.
The sounds of young girls giggling and chattering startled her. She jumped up and struggled into her coat. She settled Louise into her blankets and ran out of the rest room and out onto the street. The winter night air slapped her hard and stole her breath. Louise wailed. Her cries blended with the squeal of a police siren and the swoosh of tires on damp pavement. Wind from the East River flung icy slivers of rain on Rose’s cheeks as she trudged uptown, staying close to the sides of the buildings.
She walked several blocks before she ducked into an alley and hid behind a restaurant garbage bin. When a busboy came out to throw away a garbage bag, Rose slipped through the open door and hunkered under a long table. She heard rushing water and the clamor of dishwashers. The steam that rose from the huge machines soothed as Rose wriggled into the corner and settled against a pocked brick wall. Memories of working in the kitchen of a diner came back to her.
When the voices and energy of the kitchen dissipated, Rose edged out from under the table like a curious mouse. The lights were turned off, leaving a silver blue glow from the narrow windows high on the wall. She snatched bites of food from a bucket of leftover bread, wilted salad and abandoned desserts.
As the knot of hunger in Rose’s stomach loosened, the kitchen door swung open and she watched a pair of black patent leather shoes tap across the tiles. They stopped inches from where she hid. She pressed Louise closer. The baby gurgled and burped and safety evaporated like soup in an open kettle. A firm hand grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her into the light.
“Get out of here, you tramp!”
Rose knew no words could explain to this man with the well-manicured nails and the ruby ring on his pinkie, how she ended up here. He shoved her out the door. Struggling against the wind she headed uptown again. The rows of neatly landscaped brownstones and dark romantic restaurants gave way to boarded-up factories and raunchy hotels. Men in cashmere coats and felt hats leaned against doorways and watched the women on the corner. Women with cotton-candy hair and made-up faces leaned against lampposts, short skirts kissing their thighs.
One woman, her voluptuous figure coated in shiny black Lycra, stepped toward Rose and smiled.
“Hi,” she said.
Rose nodded and kept walking.
“Not too friendly, are you?”
“Sorry, I need to find a place to feed my baby and sleep tonight.”
“Why don’t you go home and feed him?”
“We have nowhere to go.”
“Come here.” The woman curled her red tipped fingers inward, the gesture reminding Rose of the Queen with the poisoned apple.
Rose hesitated. The hooker looked dangerous. But not as dangerous as another night on the street. Rose wanted to run but she stood firm.
“I was once homeless, but not with a baby. Didn’t you ever hear of birth control pills?”
Rose looked to the ground and nuzzled Louise closer.
The woman stubbed out a cigarette with the pointed toe of her black leather boot. She offered her hand and Rose accepted it.
“Name’s Jada,” the woman said. “Look, I gotta work tonight, but if ya meet me on this corner around ten tomorrow morning I’ll see what I can do for ya. I got a soft spot for babies.”
“How can you help me?” Rose asked.
“Look, I gotta get to work.” A tall man in a black topcoat and a white felt hat leaned against a building across the street. “I can’t be standing here talkin’ to you all night. Meet me here tomorrow.”
Jada turned and walked down the street, her boots clicking away the seconds of the night.
Rose walked away in the opposite direction. She turned a corner two blocks further uptown where shop lights glared blue and yellow like an old bruise. When she came to a coffee shop she ducked inside. She darted through the tables of late night customers and headed to the rest room, locked herself into the large handicapped stall and tossed her coat onto the floor and snuggled into the corner.
Rose opened her blouse and positioned Louise at her breast. As the sounds of customers dwindled into the night someone ducked into the restroom and shut the lights. She held her breath but no one came looking for her and she settled into a dream. Rose didn’t awaken until she heard the voices of early morning customers and smelled the aroma of coffee brewing.
She looked down to find Louise awake and smiling.
“Morning, little one. You look rested. We’ll find a way out of this mess, I promise.” But Rose wasn’t so sure she could keep that promise. Her boyfriend had thrown her and the baby out on the street. Her young bones ached like an old woman’s from sleeping on hard floors. Her skin and clothes smelled like old laundry. Tears stung her eyes but she refused to release them. How much longer could she survive this way?
When Louise was done nursing, Rose pulled a wad of paper towels from the bathroom dispenser and wet them in the sink. She used them to give Louise what Rose considered a pauper’s bath. Then she used dry paper towels as a makeshift diaper.
“Once we find a home it will be only cotton for you.”
She walked downtown looking for scraps of food. She held Louise close to her, grateful that the wind and rain had stopped. When she got to the corner where she had met Jada, she settled onto the front steps of a building hoping to find the hooker again. Not knowing what time it was, she could only wait.
As men and women hurried to work, or ran to hail taxis, Rose held out her bare hand hoping for some change or a piece of the bagels people were shoving into their mouths. After a while Rose had a dollar or two in change.
She stood up when she saw Jada coming down the street. Today the buxom blonde was dressed in skintight red pants and a black leather jacket. Her feet were covered in red leather boots with heels that could barely hold the girl up.
“Morning,” Jada called. “How about some breakfast?”
Jada led Rose to a booth in the corner of a diner and ordered two cups of coffee from the waiter who dropped menus on the table.
“So,” Jada said as she took a sip of the hot coffee. “Tell me your story. How did you end up on the street?”
“Well, I was living with my boyfriend and he got me pregnant…”
“You got yourself pregnant, girlie. Women gotta learn to take care of those things themselves. You got to be responsible.”
Rose looked at the hooker and wondered how many levels of responsibility there could be. Look who was giving her advice and judging her.
“Anyway, I got pregnant and Ron got pissed. He wanted me to get rid of the baby but I said no. I had enough money saved to pay for the doctor to deliver the baby, but when I came home Ron threw me out of his apartment. I called my Dad in Indiana but he wanted nothing to do with us.”
“What about your Mom?”
“She died when I was in fourth grade. Dad raised me, but he wasn’t around much. I sort of took care of myself.”
“Listen kid, I can help you. Just listen to me. My man is looking for more girls. If I bring you to him he gives me a bonus. He’ll give you a place to stay and pay for food for you and the baby as long as you hustle for him good. Me and you can work out a deal where I stay with the baby while you’re working. We can take turns being on the street.”
Rose’s throat closed around a swallow of coffee.
“You mean…like be a…like walk the…be a prostitute?”
“Well, if you use that word you make me feel like crap. I provide a service just like doctors and nurses. I got what men want and they pay me for it. Keeps me warm at night and puts food in my mouth. That’s more than you have, girlie, if you wanna be judge and jury.”
“But I’m a mother. I can’t be out walking the streets.”
“Ain’t you walking the streets now? And you ain’t making any money doing it. Why not put a roof over that baby’s head?”
“I don’t think that’s the answer.” Rose tore at her napkin piling shreds of white paper on the worn Formica table.
“You have a better one?” Jada called the waiter over and ordered more coffee and two stacks of pancakes. “Treat’s on me,” she said.
“Thanks,” Rose said. When the pancakes arrived the sweet scent nearly put Rose in a trance.
“Look,” Jada said. “Just think about my idea. I’ll hold the baby while you eat.”
The smell of the pancakes and syrup had a grip on her stomach so she reluctantly handed Louise to Jada, then dove into her pancakes, licking the syrup off her lips after each bite and savoring the sweet stickiness. After she had scraped every last drop of syrup from the plate, she leaned back and sighed.
“Why don’t you come home with me now? You two can sleep on my bed while I get some food for the apartment and maybe a new outfit while I’m at it. When I get back you can tell me what you’ve decided.”
Rose was too tired to refuse the offer; she followed Jada two blocks to a concrete apartment house and up three flights of dank stairs. Her body ached for rest at the sight of the huge bed with its pink satin comforter and piles of pillows.
“Go ahead,” Jada urged. “Throw off your shoes and have a nap.”
Rose walked to the bed and stretched out. She stroked her fingers over the shiny pink satin and slipped off her shoes. Rose gathered Louise close to her and sighed.
So what if she took Jada up on her offer? Maybe it was okay to take a few steps back in order to end up ahead of yourself down the road. But could she do it?
Louise squirmed in her blankets and Rose loosened them. She opened her blouse and Louise rooted to her breast. Peering into her baby’s eyes she found the answer. She closed her eyes and slept.