Deep breath in. And out. I’m okay, Ada whispers. Butter-and-sugar on white bread toast. Cambric tea inside where it’s warm, and outside, snowdrifts ploughed into glittering walls. Momma’s cool hand on her forehead.
Now no one would ever know. Come spring, she could graduate and get married, unpacking the cardboard box she kept under her bed: the lilac suit Momma wore when she stood up with Daddy all those years ago, the silver pin John pinned on Ada’s cardigan last Valentine’s Day, and a tulle veil on loan from the church organist. Afterwards, Ada would pack her things into John’s old battered truck and leave the cottage for good.
“Cottage” was how she described it to the nuns but that was, Ada knew, like putting Sunday clothes on a scarecrow. Their place down in the Cove was more of a shack—tarpapered, roofed in green fiberglass, sided in weeping plywood, and separated from the neighbors by a width of muddy driveway. On summer nights Ada could smell what the Hewitts were having for dinner and hear every word they said while forking it down.
“Dog Patch,” was what Momma called the Cove, curling her lip, but never when Daddy could hear. Ada had never seen a real cove, let alone any ocean. Her Cove was a little town set smack in the middle of the Allegheny Mountains that heaved up diagonally through central and western Pennsylvania. The closest big city was Pittsburgh, and to get there the train out of Altoona had to climb half a mile and skirt the edge of a deep, wooded canyon. When the wind blew from the west, Ada and her sister Sara could hear the whistle’s long, low plaint rounding the Horseshoe Curve.
Thirty-two dollars each for train fare, then another fifty after they got to Pittsburgh. That was how much they figured they needed. “We’ll just keep going west,” Sara said, “hitchhike when we can. College is free in California. We’ll find a place to live, get waitressing jobs. Then you can learn geology, and I’ll be an artist.”
Anything to get out of the Cove, a ramshackle trailer park landlocked by mountains whose high limestone ridges—sometimes thick with trees, sometimes scraped raw—blocked the sun on all sides and cast a shadow so ancient and deep that lawns grew nothing but mud-slicked yellow crabgrass. Just one road in and out, through Homer’s Gap. As for the Juniata, what once was a river was now a dredged ditch, so fouled with mill runoff that no one dared to eat its fish, or even land one without a good pair of work gloves.
“When I was your age,” Momma said, “that river ran clear and jumped with trout sweet as candy.” She puffed on a Marlboro, the end pink with her lipstick. “We ate it for breakfast sometimes, cooked in tin foil over a fire.”
The memory of the fish she’d never tasted makes Ada’s mouth well up with hunger even stronger than the nausea. Her last meal, oatmeal slopped on a divided tray the color of lima beans, was hours ago.
To get her mind off her empty stomach, Ada thinks about the river her mother once fished and swam in, following it in her mind as it flowed southeast along banks heaped with coal dust sculpted by the wind into sharply-angled pyramids. Everything—trees, even the dirt—gummed gray, and coal tipples built right at the water’s edge. Mostly unused now, but in a few mines still being worked, coal clattering down the chutes into the river barges.
Ada rouses and sits up. The racket is from a row of industrial-size dryers lining the back wall. Because it is winter, eight rows of clotheslines stretch the length of the large cellar laundry room. Her bed is between them, a nest of bedsheets pulled down from the lines.
She enjoyed her shifts in this room whose high ceilings and cool cement floors remind her of the caves she used to play in, small rooms opening into huge, vault-like spaces, silent and dry as bone. “You’re crazy to go down there,” Sara scolded when Ada came home with her hair powdered with dark dust. “Daddy will tan your hide! And what about those miners up in Claysburg last year? It’s not safe, Adie.” Sara was only a year older, but she took charge when Daddy was on a bender and Momma in bed with one of her sick headaches.
Ada tried to explain. “It’s nice down there, Sare, real quiet and clean.” When she found the dead dog tied to the tree in the woods—people did that, Momma said, when they couldn’t spare the table scraps anymore—the cave was where Ada went to cry it out, and to think on what Momma said about the choice between bad and worse. The high scraped ribs of the rock ceiling opened up a tightness in her chest, the same space that bloomed anytime Daddy showed her something “purty”—a red geranium in a white plastic pot, the bare branches of a tree glowing against sunset like fingers cupped over a flashlight. Sometimes Ada found fossil clams that when licked, gleamed like black marbles.
The cave opened out into the stripper pits, moonscapes of loose scree that Cove kids joyously surfed to the bottom. While Sara built elaborate sculptures and collages from bits of slag, Ada collected slate chunks mickled on the edge like great, fat dictionaries that, when banged with another rock, separated into layers stamped with tree bark and ferns. And once, the imprint of a fish skeleton the size of her thumb.
Maybe I’ll end up a fossil, too, Ada thinks now. Just lay here till I melt and seep my shape right into the floor.
The pains are easing, letting up under a thick heavy quilt of drowsiness. Ada shifts her weight, remembering that lying on the left side helps ease the afterbirth.
It was Momma told her that. Momma, she thinks. After her water broke, she panicked, calling out for her mother as contractions wracked her in waves of blurred, sealed implosions. No one left in the building, but she crammed a corner of sheet into her mouth anyway, shocked by the sounds coming out of her mouth. And by the blood—she’d have to get those linens into a tub, fast, before the stain set.
Like Momma taught her when her first period came: “cold water soak, then bleach.” She put down the brush she’d been using to scrub Ada’s underwear, then looked her daughter full in the face. “You know what this means. You can get caught, now, if you go with a boy.”
The first time Ada stayed out past her curfew on a date with John, she came home to Momma sitting on the porch step, the round circle of her cigarette glowing like a red eye.
“I know where you been and doing what.” Her voice was more weary than angry, and Ada could feel the effort it took to make it hard and loud. “It comes down to this, missy. You put a for-sale sign on it, or you give it away for free.”
Her mother didn’t exactly apologize the next morning, but what she did say—“the only way out is not have to rely on a man”—made Ada understand that the Friday night trips to the bookmobile were not just for fun.
“Momma,” Ada whispers into the dark. “Sara.” But they were gone. After their mother died, Sara ran off to make good on her vow to hitchhike to California. Except she only made it as far as Arizona where, last Ada heard, she was living with her drug dealer boyfriend. The last letter held a photo of Sara up on a ladder against a two-story house, the words “Still painting!” scrawled diagonally across the back. Her head turned away, so Ada couldn’t know if what was whispered in town was true, that Sara had lost all her beautiful teeth.
While their mother was still alive things were good enough. In the morning Ada got hot pancakes before walking the mile out of the Cove to catch the yellow bus. She liked her teachers and especially liked the school itself, how the lights always worked and the doors clicked tightly shut, the neat rows of pencils and notebooks stacked inside her desk.
Even though town kids were sometimes mean. “You stink!” a boy would hiss when the teacher couldn’t hear. “Don’t you ever warsh?” Ada did, even when the hot water heater wasn’t working and the tap water came out cold enough to make her gasp. The jerry-rigged bathroom with its wobbly toilet and tiny tin sink was supposed to be temporary, but the new fixtures sat in damp boxes under a tarp in the driveway and never got put in.
When Ada came home crying, Momma handed her a steaming mug of hot water and lemon, along with a piece of toast slathered with butter and white sugar.
“Don’t you worry, sweetie,” she said, smoothing Ada’s bangs back. “That boy’s teasing means he likes you, is all.”
They sat together afterwards under a crocheted afghan, reading books checked out from the bookmobile. Sara read with them. She loved Hans Christian Anderson, poring for hours over the delicate water-color plates, but Ada found fairy tales too grotesque and true. She preferred books whose orphans were scrubbed and well-dressed, who lived in houses with large gardens that put space between them and their neighbors.
Their mother died a year to the day after Doc DeJacobie told her, gently, it was in both lungs and there was nothing he could do. “I like the taste,” Momma said when Ada and Sara begged her to quit smoking. “It’s a pleasure to me.” A pack a day right up till she died, even in the last weeks when she had to ask someone to switch the oxygen tank off before she could light up.
Ada’s father was drunk when he hopped on a neighbor’s tractor and drove it to town to buy beer, and drunk when he took the big sledge hammer and started swinging it at the walls the night Momma died. “Gotta rough in the pipes,” he told the girls when they tried to stop him. “I promised her.”
They took turns cooking his dinner, making the foods he liked, vegetable stock thickened with canned lima beans, corn, carrots, and potatoes, kielbasa with pork and sauerkraut over mashed potatoes. But he just drank more and spoke less, the smell of fruit and ferment coming off the back of his neck and the palms of his hands.
After Sara left, Ada studied hard, aiming for nursing school. The cottage got more and more rundown, and one night the lights went off and stayed that way. When she finally found herself in the neat brick dormitory at Mercy Hospital, it felt like some kind of clean, bright heaven, and Ada said a knock-on-wood thank you Jesus every day for the scholarship and laundry room job that paid her tuition and board.
“Thank you,” she says now, out loud. “For letting the head come first.” She knew about breech births, women dying with the baby wedged inside, just one foot pushed out into the world, or a tiny supplicant hand. But Ada’s body was built for childbearing and once the head crowned, the bones in her pelvis opened like out-swinging doors.
She’s grateful too that her water broke when she was alone in the laundry room, locking up for the long holiday weekend, the other girls already gone to their parent’s homes on streets with sidewalks in town. Grateful she made it this far, carrying high under the loose student-nurse smock and apron so no one guessed, not even the sharp-eyed nuns.
And John not asking any questions when they went parking, just holding her and stroking her forehead like Momma used to do.
It’s hot, so hot. Hearing the steam pipes hissing, Ada squirms the sheet aside to cool her skin against the cement floor. Outside, tree branches glitter with ice from the last storm. To Ada, it is a vision. If only she could get out for just a minute to stand in the quiet dark, listening for the chinkle of ice bits splitting off the limbs and falling to the ground.
Looking down, she sees the blue cord kinking from between her legs, still tethered to some recess deep inside her. When the afterbirth begins in earnest, she bites down hard, tasting starch, bleach and blood.
The dryers finish, and Ada lies in the quiet trying to catch her breath before glancing down again. All a lie, she thinks. Even the placenta—nothing like the rubber model passed around by her giggling classmates, all candy-colored and shiny and smelling like a new pencil eraser. More like the deer guts she dumped in the woods every fall. Momma was gone. Sara would never be a famous artist, never come back to load Ada into a truck bound for California. John was as simple as everyone said he was, and the best Ada could hope for was him putting up with her schooling for a job that someday might earn her the ability to leave him behind.
In the hush, she hears the whistle of the night train rounding the Horseshoe Curve. Everyone said it couldn’t be built, but then it was. Daddy told her how the engineers plotted the best line over the Allegheny Mountains only to find it went straight through a canyon too wide and steep to bridge. How, to lay the track to go around it, four-hundred and-fifty men worked hand drills, pickaxes, and shovels to pack the dirt out by mule. When it was done, the Horseshoe Curve was called the Eighth Engineering Wonder of the World, and people came from all over to watch the engineer tip his cap across a quarter-mile chasm to the brakeman working the caboose.
“The wonder of it,” Daddy said, “a mile-long train making that climb.” Turning 180 degrees to get where it had to go, pushed along by helper locomotives that would, at the summit, be uncoupled and left behind.
Ada sits up and frees her legs from the tangle of sheets. Something flares up inside her, a thin flame like a knife-edge, bright as glass.
“I’m getting out,” she says out loud. “I might have to take the long way around, but I’m going over that mountain.” She turns to her side and begins to pack between her legs with strips of clean, boiled cotton.
Later—after the small, flannel-wrapped chrysalis is taken from Ada’s dorm room, after the panel of ax-faced nuns decrees that she may finish the term and graduate but will never work in their hospital, after the public defender bargains to get her released int
o John’s “marital custody”—comes the day in the high-windowed courtroom.
“We know you put the baby in the drawer,” the judge says. His voice is patient, almost kind. “We know it came early.” He looks down at the thick, stapled sheaf of papers in front of him. “The question for these proceedings is when did death occur? Before the birth, or after? He looks up from the papers. “Take your time, now. Try to remember. Was there a cry?”
The long wooden benches are packed, and Ada feels the town’s eyes on her. Seeing John solid as a wall in the front row steadies her.
“I remember pipes hissing,” she says. “And the dryers going, then stopping.” She pauses. Takes a breath. Then raises her head to look straight back at the judge. “And that’s all, until the alarm clock woke me up for my Tuesday shift.”
It’s the truth. She can’t recall hearing anything else. The rest is just image strobe-flashing the backs of her eyelids like the signal light on Wopsy Mountain. Sheets soaking in a big double soapstone tub. The starched white wings of her cap, bobby-pinned back over her hair in the morning mirror. Columns of figures toted up in her head, how much for the ticket to Pittsburgh, how much for the next train, then the next. How many months working the graveyard shift at the VA Hospital to save up. What she’d wear to get married, the first step: Momma’s old lilac suit. The silver pin from John. The borrowed veil. Boy parts, a face. Something blue.