The woman, eight months pregnant, sat with her friend on the painted concrete steps that extended from the front of her home. She thought of this place as her ‘country house’, or at least she did when she, her husband and three children had moved there four years earlier.
What they had left was a crowded row home in one of South Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods, and what they had gone to was a huge house in the suburbs, on the fringes of the city. There they found large shade trees, lots of uninterrupted grass and a front yard that looked to be the size of half a city block.
Soon, however, sprawl caught up with them. Public water and sewage came, followed by the developers. Then the city plowed most of the front yard into a single massive thoroughfare, three lanes eastbound, and three lanes westbound. By July of 1964, cars shot by like bullets, many not fifty feet in front of the painted steps, and tractor-trailer rigs shook the glass in the house’s windows as they thundered past.
The woman’s friend, Betty Clare, was a year younger and lived two houses up the street, with the woman’s brother, Leonard. They had known each other since primary school, and now that they were neighbors, the two spent many days on the painted steps, talking and sipping iced tea.
Only a month from delivering, the woman was uncomfortable on the concrete steps, and was growing restless. She considered going back inside the house, but the day was typically hot, and the house was sure to be stifling. Instead, she shifted her weight again, and stretched out a little more. Her friend continued to talk.
It was at that moment when she saw it. Across the highway, on the opposite side of the median strip, but definitely in the road, was a cat. But it was too large to be a cat, so it might have been a small dog. As the woman stared at the thing in the road, Betty Clare’s voice became more distant and then it disappeared altogether. The woman squinted, focusing hard on the object in the road. It was not a dog. It was a baby.
With a good deal of effort, the woman pushed herself off the steps, and started walking quickly down the sidewalk toward the street, her eyes scanning the scene. Why was there no mother? Why is the baby alone? My God, why is the baby in the street?
“Where the hell are you going?” Betty Clare was calling out from the painted steps.
By the time the woman was on the sidewalk, her own pregnancy had vanished from her mind. There was no oncoming traffic from the left, so the woman moved quickly, cutting across three lanes of highway toward the grassy strip that split the avenue in two. Shouldn’t someone be looking out for the child?
Stepping up onto the median, she looked up the street to the right, and her stomach tightened. At the traffic light, some fifty yards away, three lanes of accelerating steel had just been released. No one sees the baby, she thought. They won’t stop. They won’t even slow down. By the time they get here, they won’t be able to stop.
The woman pushed her front-heavy body as fast as it could go, glancing nervously to her right again, seeing the chrome getting bigger and hearing the engines grow louder. She thought she heard Betty Clare screaming at her from behind, but she couldn’t be sure. She decided not to look right anymore.
Thrusting herself off of the median and onto the concrete of the highway, the woman rushed toward the child. Without slowing, she bent over and scooped the tiny life up in her arms. Carried by her momentum across the three lanes, she jumped up and onto the opposite sidewalk. As she came down, she felt a rush of hot air blowing the back of her thin summer dress up, and traffic passed behind her, oblivious to the woman and the baby.
Taking a deep breath, the woman noticed that the house she stood in front of had a playpen in its yard, and that the playpen looked empty, save for a few toys. She cradled the gurgling child in her arms and walked to the side of the house where the playpen sat. Seeing a closed metal storm door, she climbed the few steps and wrapped on the glass. A minute or so later, a grandmotherly type appeared behind the pane.
The woman tried to explain what had happened, but the old lady, seeming less than alarmed, took the child, cut her off in mid-sentence with a short “thanks”, and was gone. Stunned, the woman turned and walked back across the highway to her house, where Betty Clare stood waiting on the sidewalk.
A year later, on another hot July afternoon, the woman bathed her eleven-month old boy in the downstairs bath. From the living room came the angry voices of her mother and father. She had allowed them to move in to the big ‘country house’ and she had come to regret it. The problems in their relationship had followed them to her home, and it was making her miserable.
The woman lifted the toddler from the tub and toweled him dry. As she did, her mother and father began to scream at each other, and she could sense the atmosphere turning violent. This wasn’t clairvoyance; there had been violence before, and the thought of it scared the woman. Jumping up from the child, the woman darted into the living room and, for what seemed like the hundredth time, separated her feuding parents. I can’t go on living this way, she thought.
The woman was jolted out of self pity by the screeching of tires on the highway in front of her house. This had become a familiar sound to those who lived there, and they all went to the enclosed porch to see if there had been a wreck.
Looking out from behind the glass of her metal storm door, the woman saw a tractor-trailer rig, stopped dead in the third lane on her side of the divide. Beside it, two lanes over, a sedan sat against her curb. There didn’t appear to have been an accident, but the vehicles weren’t moving either. The woman opened the door and walked out onto the painted steps to get a closer look.
A lady had emerged from behind the wheel of the sedan, and was bending over in the center lane. As the lady rose up again, she was holding something in her arms.
Suddenly, from the driver’s side of the truck, appeared a short, stubby and clearly distraught black man, who paced around the front of the cab with his hands pressed against his face. As he retraced his steps, he kept repeating “Oh my God, I got him! Oh my God, I got him!”
The woman’s attention returned to the lady with the sedan, and the thing that she had picked up. It was a baby. It was the woman’s baby.
Running out onto the highway, she went straight for the lady with the sedan. The child appeared to be unhurt. “Is this your baby?” the lady said. The woman saw in the sedan lady’s face both horror and condemnation. “Yes” the woman said, and reaching out, she took her baby, turned and disappeared inside the house.
Shaking with a combination of embarrassment and rage, the woman put her still nude child in his crib, strode into the living room and told her parents that they were to leave the house immediately. They did not protest.
Later that afternoon, a man in a tow truck removed the tractor-trailer from the highway. “Broken drive shaft.” the man told neighbors. “Broke it trying to keep from hitting a baby in the street.” His face twisted up in the fading sunlight. “A baby in the damned street. Can you imagine that?”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
My mother told me all about it many times as I grew up. She told me about the truck that broke its drive shaft, about the fight in the living room, about the other baby. Not once did she say that my survival was a miracle. The way she saw it, it wasn’t a miracle; it was a payback.
She had saved that other, unknown child, so God had saved me. Good begets good; bad begets bad. To her thinking, if she had let that cat/dog/baby get killed the year before, then maybe God lets the tractor-trailer have me.
I spent a lot of time as a kid pondering the unknowable, wondering if God was really that exacting a judge. By risking herself and her unborn child that summer day, did Mom really save two lives? I wasn’t sure, but I ended up giving the Almighty the benefit of the doubt, figuring that He would have spared me either way. He must have had something special planned for me, so he wouldn’t have just let me die.
But I was sure glad Mom saved that other kid, too. Just in case.