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Thursday, February 24, 2005

 

A JOURNEY TO HAND-OUT CITY

JOURNEY TO HAND OUT CITY
by
Milton Trachtenburg
copyright 1997

The drive from the Michigan Peninsula to the Texas Plains is long and boring. The only breaks in the utter tedium of flat landscape and the monotony of endless highway signs are the occasional clusters of ubiquitous roadside restaurants and service stations, often one and the same.

I needed the time and distance the drive gave me just to think - to be alone. And cry. And feel sorry for myself. And miss Jo-Ellen. Jo-Ellen . . .

Freckles. That's the first thing that comes to mind when I think of her. Freckles. Not just on her face. All over her. When she was a kid, she hated to wear shorts or short sleeved blouses in the summer. "You'll all laugh at me," she'd say. "I'd never," I'd answer, as serious as a nine-year old can get. She knew I wouldn't -- but as for the other kids . . .

I don't know when I realized I was in love with Jo-Ellen. Maybe it was at her fifth birthday party shortly after I first met her in kindergarten. I wasn't the kind of kid who got many invitations to parties. Jo-Ellen invited me first - and in front of the whole school class. It didn't help my popularity any in the long run, but for that week, I was king of my own mountain, that's for damn sure! When they sang happy birthday to her, I started to cry. When I was a kid, I didn't know why I cried so much. I do now. Because I was so happy for her I could bust. The kids teased me but she came right out to defend me.

"You, Junior Gentry,” she said, as sharply as a five year old can make her words. "Don't you dare tease Randy. He's my. . . ," she paused.

My heart nearly stopped. "Her what?" I thought. I'd never been anybody's anything before - except for my ma, of course, but she doesn't really count. She had to love me.

"My friend," she added, and the look she gave me wasn't any five-year-old's, that's for certain. I felt the heat rise in my face. I must have been the color of the wine-apples my ma grew out back of the trailer.

I believe Jo-Ellen was born an adult. She had a way about her of just knowing. Sometimes it scared me. But, when you're a lonely kid and crazy in love, you can overlook anything. And, when the love of your life acknowledges your existence, you can go straight to heaven without so much as dying.

"I've got to get my head out of the past. It doesn't do any good to wallow in it," I said to the empty car. I'd been driving for a half a day and felt no closer to Texas than when I left. The digital clock on the dash read Seven PM, time for a meal, though I felt no hunger - at least not for food. I decided to take a break anyway. It's not the best notion to drive too many hours; the road starts dancing in your face and there's no telling where you might find yourself when reality raises its ugly head.

`Chicken Fried Steak.' That's what the menu said. I thought, It won't be like down home cooking, but, what the hell, it beats the yuppie crap that passes for food up north. I was right. It wasn't like home. Come to think of it, home, most of the time, wasn't like home. Sometimes, ma couldn't even afford chicken fried chicken, and in those days, chicken was almost as cheap as bone soup.

I thought about those times; I had first-hand experience at dirt-poor living. The townees called our part of town, Hand Out City. We all lived in a disarrayed trailer court on a windswept lot out back of the town where the nice folks didn't have to see it -- or us. Trailer trash was about the nicest thing they called us. Funny, I never thought of ma and me as being poor. Nobody had much and everybody would share what little there was. Most everybody in `Hand Out City' was just down on their luck, is how I saw it. A lot of ladies were raising kids without a man. Some that had a man would've been better off if he'd just up and left. But, one thing that there wasn't much of in Hand Out City was good luck.

My ma raised me to be proud of who I was. "Your daddy didn't run off like some of them others. And don't take that as any reflection on them, you hear me, Randolph?" She'd point to the lamp table in the living room. There, in a silver frame, was a picture of my daddy in his marine dress blues. He was so strong looking; when I was little I thought he should have beaten all them - ma called them Ko-reans - all by himself. I was only a little seed inside ma when he volunteered. He was one of the first to go, ma told me. Ma got a few letters from places that were blacked out on the envelope and then one day, while she was cooking supper there was a knock on the door. If you've ever lived though a war, you know what came next. Official condolences, military funeral with marines firing rifles into the air -- you'd think if they made it through the war, it would be the last they'd ever want to see of guns, or flags folded into triangles. They handed the flag to ma; even though I was just a toddler, I remember she never even looked at it. When we got home, she put it in her bottom dresser drawer. The next time I remember seeing it was when ma died; uncle Billy suggested that we should bury it with her. It was all she ever go back of my father. I told him to do whatever he felt was best. It wasn't what I wanted to be thinking about that day.

"And, funerals aren't what I want to be thinking about now," I said to myself as the waitress brought my chicken fried steak.

"Anything else I can get you, hon?" she asked in that flat, Midwestern accent I never could get used to.

"Not hardly," I answered, slipping into a Texas twang I hadn't consciously used in a lot of years.

"Texas!" she said.

I observed her for the first time. Usually, unless a man's on the prowl, he really doesn't notice waitresses -- except when they don't come to take his order. She was a milk-fed blond type -- attractive, if you like the down-on-the-farm look.

She tilted her head to one side and smiled. "Something wrong?"

"Just a long road behind and ahead."

"Well then, you better have yourself some dessert and coffee before you get on with it, mister."

"Yeah, I think I'll do just that." I gave her my order - I think more to get rid of her than because I was in the mood for Mrs. Smith's apple pie. I wasn't ready to talk to anybody more than absolutely necessary.

"Here you are, doll," she said, being careful not to slosh the coffee into the saucer. When she saw I had no further interest in conversation, she moved unobtrusively to a station in the corner. I couldn't help but notice she kept looking over at me. I thought, Maybe she's feeling like I felt just before Jo-Ellen invited me to her birthday party." I wasn't in any mood to rescue anybody that afternoon. She would have to find some other knight in shining armor to take her away from the featureless, rectangle, wood-slat building with a giant "EAT" sign on the roof, and a dirty picture window with an accumulation of grime and dead insects on the narrow sill.

I finished the meal. It wasn't much as chicken-fried steaks go. Just a lot of grease and breading. The meat was tough and colorless, like a serrated, used shoe sole. It always happens when you try to go back to the past. It's never the same. Except how I feel about Jo-Ellen. That will never change.

I got up and tried the best I could to wipe off the remnants of the meal, but in the end, I was still wearing gravy, ketchup and apple pie crumbs on my cardigan. I looked at the mess and smiled for the first time in two days. Come to think of it, I was never much of a smiler, except around Jo-Ellen - and that was a long time ago.

I left the waitress a fiver for a tip to add to her escape fund. I guess I felt more guilty about ignoring her than I thought. At least that was the excuse I gave myself. Real reason was probably that I was grateful I didn't have to talk to her, and guilty because I knew what it was like to be on the other side of that coin.

By the time I got back into the car, I'd put it at the back of my mind. The sun was beginning to tilt to my right. I decided to put in another good shift of driving and knock off whatever cow and corn state I was passing through before stopping for the night. I was beginning to feel the push-pull of home. . . .

Home. Maybe my memories were shadowed by all the things that happened since I left Hand Out City. Maybe it's best not to remember too much about reality. Memories, like old photographs, eventually take on the same tone. I guess the only thing that differs among us, when you get down to it, is that what's happened in our lives will give a different shading to how we remember things. One thing is for certain, it sure is easier to remember being poor when you're looking at it from above and it's far behind you.

As I negotiated the empty road, I allowed my thoughts to drift back to Hand Out City. In the summer, it was hotter than a picnic in hell, with dust thick enough that you'd need to keep your mouth shut or you'd be swallowing a peck of it a day. In the winter, it was colder than a frog's ass on an ice covered lily pad and the snow would blow so hard you'd better have on a bullet-proof jacket or you'd end the day with more holes than ma's colander. Maybe that's why I smiled so rarely. Who knows anymore.

The farms surrounding the highway looked like a multicolored chess board. Fields of corn followed by fields of vegetables followed by pastures. Haystacks piled up like so many pawns on the chessboard. And the smells. That was like down home. The sweet vegetable smells and the sulphur-y animal smells. Made me want to kick off my shoes and . . .

"Kick off your shoes, or are you planning to go in the water with 'em on?"

"Huh?" I snapped out of my reverie. It was almost thirty years ago and it was like it was just happening. Jo-Ellen stood there, with her hands on her hips, like a trail boss. She was nine, skinny as a rail, and small enough so she was called `Mutt;' but there wasn't a boy in our class she couldn't flatten -- or one in the class before ours, for that matter. From the day of her fifth birthday party, we were inseparable. Our mamas were always joking about how they better learn to like each other seeing that they were going to be in-laws someday. They would laugh and we would blush, but deep down, I think we had about the same idea.

It was hot. I mean you could see the steam coming out of the ground. The grass in our part of town had long since given up the ghost and I guess us kids really believed that the tumbleweeds were our yard plants.

There were only two ways to get cool in Hand Out City. One was to come up with twenty-five cents to go to the Rialto, the only movie in town. Most of the time, you might as well have asked us to come up with twenty-five thousand dollars. The other way was to go jump in the lake. That was for the older kids. The water was deep and there wasn't anybody to pull you out if you went under. The folks from the front end of town never came back to the lake. I guess they figured poverty was catching.

The lake had no name. Now that I've seen Lake Michigan from the shore, I guess ours wasn't much of a lake. It was surrounded by woods and was maybe a mile around. It was big enough so you could have your own swimming spot. Jo-Ellen and I weren't allowed to go without our mamas. But that day, my ma wasn't feeling so well and Jo-Ellen's had one of her ‘uncles’ over. When I was a kid I thought she must have a huge family. There was always a new uncle coming to visit. I think Jo-Ellen knew what it was all about from the time she was old enough to sit up in her crib. She had those knowing eyes from the day I met her.

Normally, we wouldn't have disobeyed our mothers, but we were both good swimmers and it was so hot, we only wanted to cool off for a few minutes. I stood inert, holding my shoes. Jo-Ellen was unbuttoning her blouse. "Well, what are you waiting for?" she asked.

"I thought we'd just swim in our clothes."

"And when we get home, how are you planning to explain wet clothes to your ma?"

"But you're a girl!"

"Well, I thought you'd never notice!" She had finished removing her blouse and was taking off her jeans. "What is the matter with you? You've seen me without my shirt before. 'Til last summer I never wore a shirt in the hot weather."

I couldn't take my eyes off her face. She was right, but all of a sudden I was overcome with embarrassment. She kicked off her jeans and stood facing me. She had on only her briefs.

"Randy? Look at me. There ain’t nothing either of us has to be ashamed of. It isn't like we're goin' to do anything we would regret. You and me, we couldn't be closer if we was siamese twins."

She still had freckles all over. Once I looked at her body, I felt a little better. I was relieved to see that she still looked the same as the past summer. Hesitantly, I took off my own jeans. We stood, like two skinny statues, our white briefs contrasted starkly with our Texas tans.

"Turn around," she said. I heard a splash and when I turned back, her briefs were lying on the shore and she was ‘woo-in’ to try to beat the chill. The lake was fed by an underground stream, so it was always skin-puckering cold. In a moment, two pairs of briefs lay side-by-side and I was in the water, feeling like a big goosebump. We swam and played, and when our bodies touched I got a strange, yet wonderful, feeling all over me.

I never knew much about man-woman things. Growing up, it was just me and ma. Sure, I knew what her body looked like. Living in a one-and-a-half room trailer, you can't help but run into each other naked. Don't get me wrong, ma wasn't the type to parade her body in front of me or anything like that but when you share a bedroom, you can't help seeing each other sometimes. It was no big deal. She was an adult, and somehow in my nine-year-old mind, that made it different.

Ma never allowed any man to court her. She told me, "Your daddy was my first and only man, and I don't need any more in my life. We wasn't together more'n ten times before he went off to Ko-rea, and it wasn't that great. You know what I mean?" I didn't, but I nodded like a wise man. "Don't get me wrong," she continued, "I loved your daddy like parched land loves rain, but that part of it . . ." It was several years before I understood what ‘that part of it’ was.

"I'm cccccold," I said, after we had been in the water for what seemed like three hours, but was really no more than twenty minutes.

"Let's get out and dry off in the sun. C'mon." Jo-Ellen took me by the hand and we emerged from the water like a couple of wood nymphs. For a few minutes we looked at each other -- I mean really looked. It was like two kids playing `you show me yours, I'll show you mine,' except it wasn't a game. We were very careful not to touch. For whatever reason, it was okay in the water, but not on the land where we were completely exposed.

"I like your body," Jo-Ellen said looking at me with those serious, knowing eyes.

"And I like yours. You really do have freckles all over, don't you?"

She knew the way I said it, that it was something good. She stretched out on the grass with her hands behind her head and closed her eyes. "I never felt so . . ." She couldn't find the word, but she didn't need to. I felt the same way and didn't have to say anything.

We kept our innocence for five more years, even though we went skinny dipping every opportunity we got from then on. It was our secret and it was enough for two poor nine-year-olds who never saw any of the world but Hand Out City and once in a while a downtown that was one whole block long and had maybe twenty stores and a town hall. I guess being free, having a friend, having a secret, and knowing somebody really, really cared was enough to get us by the hard times and the taunts of others.

NEXT EXIT
2 MILES
Food, Gas, Lodging, Phone

The road sign snapped me out of my reverie. My eyes burned and I needed a night's sleep. The motel was your standard highway variety. Small office, clerk who was probably also the owner, rack of tourist attraction pamphlets like the ones for the annual milking contest, the state fair and a display of Indian artifacts, probably bought from a wholesaler in Kansas City.

"Howdy, friend! Be needin' a room for the night?"

I knew by the greeting I'd crossed over into the Southwest. "Yeah, and a nice rough towel to wipe off the road grit."

The room wasn't bad by motel standards - clean, neat, a shower you didn't have to keep your shoes on to stand in. I threw my overnighter on the bed and unzipped the zippers. As I removed a pair of fresh pj's to lay out on the bed, two letters fell out.

Two letters. My whole life was tied up in those two brief letters. The handwriting was straight up and simple - just like the writer. One letter was old, written on loose leaf paper; it now looked like it had been read a thousand times. It had been read many more times than that. The other letter was still in its envelope -- a business sized one with a lawyer's return address in the corner. It was written on lined, yellow paper.

I picked up the older letter. I had long since memorized it, but keeping it had been my only connection to Jo-Ellen. I could still hear the childlike, scratchy voice of the nine year old Jo-Ellen as I read it, despite the fact that she was eighteen when she wrote the letter.

My Dearest Randy,

You know I'm not much for writing, but I got to say
some things and they just can't wait. I think of you
all the time and you know I'll love you forever. I
have so many sweet memories of us that I don't know
which one's the best.

I guess what I remember most is the wonderment in your eyes
when you looked at me. You're the only boy in the
world who could make me feel pretty and special.
Everybody else either made me feel like shit or wanted
things from me -- yeah -- in their dreams.

Damn, this is tough. How do I tell my best friend and
only love that I can't see him no more? I know you'll
be hurting when you read this, and I'm so sorry. You
just hold on, Randy. You're going to be ok.

Randy, dear, I have to do this. You got yourself a
new life and it's out there in the world. You earned
that scholarship to the University of Chicago. You're
the first person ever left Hand Out City who wasn't in
handcuffs, a pine box or a pimpmobile, and I'm not
about to do anything to mess that up.

I know you keep telling me in your letters that you
want to come home and be with me. I can't let that
happen. You're going to be somebody important. I
know it. I knew it when you was in first grade and
the teacher always turned to you for the answers to
everything. That's why you didn't have no friends –
except for me, of course! You was just too smart for
everybody and they was scared of you.

Being near to you was the closest I'm ever going to
come to getting out of this miserable place. And the
memories of what we were to each other are enough to
last me the rest of my life.

Randy, you listen to me now. You finish your
education. If you quit because of me, I'd hate myself
the rest of my life. You follow your dream and be a
doctor, or if you can't, be whatever the best you can
be. Did I say that right?

Please don't write, don't call, and don't try to see
me. It will be better for both of us that way.

I can't write no more or I'll start crying and you
know how I hate to do that. Life is tough enough
without seeming weak to people around this place.

God bless you and keep you. You find one of those
college girls and treat her same as you treated me and
your life will be just fine.

And don't you worry about me. I'll be ok, you hear
me?

With all my love,

Your Jo-Ellen

I held the letter to my face to extract any last remnant of her that might still be in it. After nineteen years, all I had were my memories. I didn't even have a picture of her, yet her image was as clear as it was the last time I saw her . . . .

We were going to celebrate my acceptance to the University of Chicago on a full scholarship. We scraped together all the money we had and planned a weekend in Houston. We were going to stay in a real hotel and be together for the first time someplace where nobody could walk in on us, or where we had to pretend that nothing was going on, even though everybody knew we were together.

Jo-Ellen had never been to Houston, and I'd been there only once when I was little. It was so big, Jo-Ellen got scared and wanted to go home. I reassured her that it was the same as anyplace else, only more so. I took her hand in mine and she squeezed so hard I thought she was going to crumble my bones.

The hotel was the grandest place we'd ever seen. Later, when I got out into the world, I learned to my disappointment that it was a second-rate establishment. But to two kids from Hand Out City, it was heaven.

A uniformed bellboy carried our bags up to our room. Jo-Ellen whispered to me in the elevator, "Why's he have to carry them for us? They think we can't do it for ourselves?"

"That's the way they do it in hotels. Didn't you ever see it in the movies?"

"Oh, yeah!" she said, her eyes sparkling like a little kid who just discovered ice cream.

When the bellboy left the room, Jo-Ellen pointed at the bed and said, "What the hell is that?"

"That is what the elegant folks outside of Hand Out City refer to as a bed."

"Why's it so big?"

"Maybe they knew how many things we wanted to do in it and wanted us to have movin' around space."

"Hey, you got sex on the brain, today, mister?"

"And in several other places."

"Yeah, I can see that...."

Much later, I lay there, totally exhausted. Jo-Ellen, who had been lying next to me, rolled over on top of me. "No more, I beg you," I said.

"Me neither. I just want to feel you through ever pore in my body." She lay silent, her head tucked into my neck. I fell into a deep sleep and awoke to find her sitting on her knees, next to me on the bed, just gazing at me and appearing to be far away. I smiled at her. When we would lie on the grass by the lake I used to do that to her all the time. Once, I even tried to count all her freckles while she slept. I lost my place somewhere in the four hundreds. I got distracted by something more interesting about her.

Jo-Ellen was crying. "What's the matter? I thought you were happy to be here?"

"This is the happiest moment of my whole life, Randy. I'm just . . . afraid I'll have to make it last forever, is all. You'll be leaving next week and . . ."

"I'm going to college, not to Mars, silly. There's no way I'm going to be away from you for a minute longer than I have to."

"I'm just afraid it'll never be the same."

"Don't be a silly. You think I'll ever stop loving you?"

She looked at me with those knowing eyes of hers. "It ain’t always about loving. There's a lot you have to learn about life."

"And you better remember, that you have to be there to teach me."

She didn't answer, instead, she leaned over and pressed her lips to my stomach. I could feel her tears. I said nothing while I held her, feeling her chest rise and fall, her breath coming in ragged bursts.

We didn’t say another word about that conversation for the remainder of the weekend. Laughing and playing like two kids turned loose in a toy store, we went window shopping in some of the fancy stores the likes of which we'd never seen before. We ate in restaurants, and we even took a taxi back to the hotel. We slept in each others arms for two whole nights. In the mornings, I watched Jo-Ellen sleeping. I never knew before that she sucked her thumb in her sleep. Seems she has secrets she keeps even from me.

I watched her as the rays of the early morning sun entered through the space between the drawn curtains, tracing patterns across her body, and making her freckles look like sparkling spots of gold. I never realized before that moment how tiny and delicate she was. When she was awake, she gave the appearance of being big and strong. Asleep, she looked more like a twelve year old, held together by the galaxy of freckles covering her like a sequined blanket.

Our remarkable weekend in Houston was to be the last time I would ever see Jo-Ellen alone. She came to the bus station the day after we got home from Houston to see me off to college, but my family and her ma were all there. We barely had a chance for a hug and a brief kiss. Less than a month later, I received her letter.

Years passed. I did finish college. I did go on to become a doctor. By the time I'd finished residencies in pathology and immunology, I was almost thirty years old. So many times I thought of going back home, but after ma died and uncle Bob sold her trailer, there wasn't really a home to go to. Ma had told me shortly after I got Jo-Ellen's letter that Jo-Ellen and her ma had up and moved. She didn't know where. I guess I figured she really didn't want me to find her or she'd have made sure I had her address. There's more than one Hand Out City in the world. There's lots of places poor folks can go. They're treated about the same in all of them.

After I completed my studies, I took a job with the University of Michigan teaching and doing research. My colleagues advised me that I could make a lot more money going into private practice, but growing up the way I did, as long as I had an extra shirt in case the one I was wearing got dirty, I felt like a millionaire.

I thought about Jo-Ellen a lot, but I got used to the fact that she wasn't going to be there with me. I had a few opportunities to get married, but always made some excuse why the woman in question wasn't right for me. Some of the women I met were very nice people, but I guess when you get stuck on one someone, it's tough to see anybody else taking her place. Maybe because ma had felt the same way about my daddy, it made it easier for me.

When the special delivery letter arrived the day before yesterday, I thought it was from a foundation regarding a grant we were applying for. I didn't read the envelope carefully. "It's from some lawyer," I said aloud.

My stomach jumped into my throat. There was no mistaking that straight, no-nonsense handwriting. I was laughing and crying at the same time.

My Dearest Dr. Randy,

I guess you must be surprised after almost nineteen
years to hear from me. I've never forgotten you, nor
have I replaced you in my heart or in my life. What I
did, I did because I thought it would be best for both
of us. I'm so proud of what you've become. It's much
too late to deal with the "what ifs." And, you know
what they say about regrets. Regrets and twenty-five
cents will get you . . .

It seems I only write to you when I have something
that's difficult to say. But, when you grow up like
we did, what isn't difficult, right?

By the time you receive this letter I will be in the
ground and I hope at peace. You get old fast in Hand
Out City. Yeah, we moved back a few years after
we left. You know the old saying, you can take the
girl out of the town but . . .

I've been very sick and I just feel I don't have much
time. I left instructions with the lawyer that he
should send this to you after the funeral. I didn't
date this, so in case I live for a while, it'll still
be good.

I have a special favor I have to ask of you, and I
hope you still care enough about what we were to each
other to do it without asking any questions. I want
you to go to my place right away. When you get there
you'll understand why I'm asking you to do this. The
address is at the end of the letter.

I will love you forever.

Your Jo-Ellen

The next morning, I completed the long drive. Hand Out City was much worse than I remembered it. Everything was smaller, dirtier, uglier. I found the address with no difficulty. There are only three lanes in the trailer park. The trailer was like the others, yet not like them. There were planters outside filled with flowers and the paint was fresh and colored gold - almost like Jo-Ellen's freckles in the sunshine. I walked up the three steps to the aluminum door and knocked gently.

A pretty teenager, who appeared to be about fourteen, answered the door. Her hair was the color of rust in the sunlight and there was a spray of delicate freckles across the bridge of her nose. She smiled and said, "You're Randy, right? Come on in. I'm Jaime. Sit down. Let me get you a cool drink."

There was something about her. She had the same rawhide tough, cactus flower softness that Jo-Ellen had when she was a kid. Maybe she's a relative, or even her kid, I thought. A lot can happen in nineteen years.

"I made lemonade. I hope you like it."

"It's fine."

We stared at each other for a few minutes; neither of us seemed to know what to do or say next. It was her eyes. She had that same knowing look, except her eye color was different from Jo-Ellen's. I couldn't figure where I'd seen those eyes.

It was as if she anticipated my first question. "She was my ma."

"I thought so. You look so much like her. I don't know if you know who I am. I haven't seen your mother in a long time."

"She told me all about you -- many times. We managed to keep up with your career. You're pretty famous, you know."

I had never thought about it. I'd been written up in the papers a few times for my work in the development of a vaccine.

"I'm flattered," I said. "But, it really is no great thing. I'm one of hundreds of people all working toward the same goal." I struggled to make conversation. "What are you going to do?" I asked, after an inordinately long pause. "Do you have family you can go to?"

"I'll be leaving for college in a couple of weeks. And, grandma lives here with us -- me. I'm going to be okay." Despite the pain in her eyes, she smiled.

"College, I took you for about fourteen."

"Nope. I'm past eighteen. I know I look young. I was born June, 1980."

"That was only nine months after I . . . Oh, God!" I looked at her more
carefully, now certain whose eyes she had -- mine. They had the same brown
with gold flecks that Jo-Ellen said she loved to look into. I reached out to her, my eyes filling with tears -- this time, tears of joy.

If I had known, I would have come home to marry Jo-Ellen; I would have taken care of my family. Now I knew why Jo-Ellen had kept me out of her life. In the end, she made sure that the two people she loved most in the world would escape from Hand Out City. She hoped, of course, that Jaime would have a parent who would learn to love her. If I had come back when I wanted to -- who knows. We might have become just another Hand Out City statistic.

I wiped my eyes. Folks don't cry in Hand Out City. They all believe it's a sign of weakness. Jaime smiled, and looked at me with those knowing eyes.

"We have a lot to catch up on, don't we?" I said, looking at my daughter with a sense of wonderment, the same sense of wonderment I might have felt if I'd met her on the first day of her life.

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