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A Girl in the Dumpster
By Jack Apfel
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Jack Apfel
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Chapter OneThat Same Thursday
Sleep didn't come easily to Anne Hedlin anymore; at age sixty-seven, she couldn't remember when it had. And on hot, clammy nights like this one, in a bedroom with only one window for ventilation—ten feet across from which was that infernal Consolidated Supplies warehouse that blocked any chance of a direct breeze—falling off was even more difficult. For more than an hour she'd been lying in bed reading, trying to tire her eyes, with little success.
Her apartment above the Bit O' Everything Resale Shop—of which she was sole proprietor, sole employee, and, on too many occasions, sole soul within—had been built at the beginning of the twentieth century, back when small-town shopkeepers more commonly lived above their establishments. The room in which Anne was reading and squirming, trying to get comfortable, was the larger (but only by a quarter) of two bedrooms in the five- room flat. It was to the back, away from the traffic of Main Avenue, which at the time the building had been constructed would still have been mostly horse-drawn. Though the traffic was much heavier and noisier now, it was still mostly ignorable at that time of night. And there was that scandalous blunder across the way, the enormous warehouse built in the 1980s when traffic congestion was already jamming the narrow downtown streets, leaving little room for an increase in truck traffic. In addition to blocking the wind, it also blocked all of the noise from the east, small consolation for the loss of the view of the quaint Candlesberg residential neighborhoods that had been visible from Anne's window when she'd moved into the building twenty-seven years earlier. The quiet the building provided was a blessing of sorts—but one among many that Anne, by lifelong habit, left uncounted, the opposite of the way she kept mental account of the accumulated merchandise in her store down to the last rusted wrought-iron door hinge, Depression-glass pickle dish, and brown-stained quilted Victorian tea cozy.
So it had been mostly very quiet as she lay there reading an ancient, water-stained, musty hardcover edition of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis that she'd grabbed from a box of books that someone had dropped off at the door to her shop (in spite of the sign in the front window that warned against such unsolicited deposits). A vehicle in ill repair had chugged and coughed through the alley a quarter-hour earlier at 10:57. (In her sleeplessness, Anne had been frequently looking at the brass-plated windup alarm clock on the nightstand beside her bed, and for no reason other than frustration with her insomnia, the time of the vehicle's intrusive passing had stuck in her head.) Some hooligan who'd gotten lost coming home from one of the bars a few blocks to the north, she'd surmised. But now, even with the thick summer air to amplify the tiniest disturbance, the night was again eerily still. So much so that, having finally drifted off into a half sleep, her first thought on hearing the pounding that came up from the shop below was that it was a ghost banging beneath her bed. The notion came out of nowhere but seemed so immediately real that, when the book that had dropped from her hands to her chest in her doze fell to the floor with a ka-lump, she nearly went apoplectic. She grabbed the flannel blanket that she'd earlier kicked off and awkwardly covered herself up to her chin with it, her fingers crushing its satin edge with the force of eagle talons gripping a rabbit, though in her distress she felt more like the rabbit.
Her heart had just begun to slow from its pounding when there came another round of banging. It took a third round for her to realize that the disturbance was not a spirit or even a prowler, but someone rapping on the back door of the shop below. She struggled with the blanket as she got out of bed, outrage at the intrusion and at being so foolishly frightened making her clumsy as she stumbled to the window. She gave the bottom of the brittle yellowed shade a yank. It retracted with a floop and a cacophonous rattle. Scrunching her cheek flat against the pane, she tried to get a look at who or what it was that was causing such a racket down there. She saw only darkness. Another knock came. She checked the clock: 11:17. "Middle of the night," she grumbled as she stabbed her feet into her slippers. She headed out into the living room toward the stairs, punching her arms into a well-worn terry-cloth robe as she went.
The single bare incandescent bulb high in the stairway ceiling had burned out again back in June. With the summer's long hours of daylight and her early retreats to her apartment each evening, Anne hadn't been inconvenienced enough by the lack of light to ask anyone to bring a ladder and change the bulb for her. Now, as she felt her way down the steps in the dark—the sag of each worn, creaking, and cracking fir tread a new threat to her balance—she wished that she'd asked a neighbor or even that worthless bum George (for three years now the "new" husband of her late brother's widow, Alice) to replace the bulb. She clutched the handrail to steady herself, but with its mounting brackets insecurely moored in the ancient plaster of the wall, its wobbling and rattling only added to her insecurity and annoyance.
Knocks sounded twice more as Anne made her way down the decrepit stairs, the interval between bursts of rapping getting shorter each time, the impatience of the knocker agitating her just that much more. "I'm coming, I'm coming," she grumbled.
Even in the dark, you could tell that the Bit O' Everything dealt in old. It had the stale smell of an attic or an infrequently opened closet. And it was cluttered, stacked high and dense with every sort of potentially reusable, and thus potentially resalable, item (except underwear, socks, and shoes, which Anne did not believe could by any means be made sanitary enough for resale). The light from the street coming through the windows that spanned the front of the store didn't make it a third of the way back into the interior before being swallowed up by the shop's accumulated wares. There was a switch for the ceiling lights by the back door, but that was fifteen feet from the bottom of the steps, five yards of stuff away. Anne ventured through the flotsam with little hesitation, but only because the same things had been in the same places at the back of the store for so long that she could have found her way through them blind. And there was that persistent knocking compelling her forward.
She found the switch and flipped it up. The shop flickered into light from six fluorescent fixtures screwed to the fourteen-foot stamped metal ceiling, blinding Anne for an instant and further disorienting her. She was in such a dither by then that it didn't occur to her to ask who was at the door or what he or she wanted. Even if she had thought to ask, she probably wouldn't have bothered. This was Candlesberg, after all. Though it wasn't the charming small town she remembered from her youth, its crime rate remained the lowest of any town its size in a five-state area. Her trust was based on long experience, not on any belief in the inherent goodness of people, a faith she certainly did not hold. She wriggled the door's stop-chain out of place, snapped open the dead bolt, and yanked at the knob of the ancient six-panel wooden door. Swollen from the summer humidity, it resisted her first attempt, but swung open wide with her violent second yank.
Expecting to find only the wind to have been knocking after all of her fuss, and already short of breath from her trek downstairs and her fight with the door, Anne nearly stopped breathing at the sight of the shadowed figure in the doorway. It took her visitor's strained plea of "Help?" to bring Anne back to her senses.
"What?" Anne asked, still not entirely convinced of what her eyes were telling her—that the figure in the faint light was flesh- and-blood human. From the skirt and general shape of the visitor, Anne assumed the figure was female (a teenage prankster was her first guess, which riled her even more).
"The baby ... it needs help," the person said in a deep, raw, scratchy voice, indefinitely feminine and certainly not that of a young girl.
"Baby?" Anne asked, puzzled by the voice and even more so by the woman's assertion.
The woman held out a bundle that until that moment Anne had not noticed she carried. Just as Anne looked down at it, the package emitted a weak but insistent mewl. At the cry, Anne's reason, only barely gathered, scattered like leaves blown by the wind she had earlier suspected would be rattling the door.
Recovering a little, one hand clutching her chest, she fumbled for another light switch, the one next to the door. The sixty-watt bulb above the doorway on the outside didn't illuminate much, but it was enough to bring Anne around to the full reality of the situation: At her back door was a short woman, maybe in her thirties or early forties, with long black hair matted to her head with sweat, stuffed into dirty clothes that Anne would have thrown out if they'd been illicitly dropped at the shop's door. The intruder's pale, puffy face was twisted with what Anne interpreted as urgency as she held out an old olive Army blanket folded up on itself. From within the bundle a cry emitted like that of ...
"A baby?" Anne said, her wits straining at the idea.
"Yes," the strange woman said, holding her package out further toward Anne. "A new one. Just born."
Instinctively, Anne stepped into the doorway and reached out for the bundle being offered to her. She felt the weight of it, though it was slight, come into her hands. She looked at the visitor and then down at the bundle she now held. Cradling it in the crook of her arm, she folded back the edge of the blanket to reveal a tiny face, patchy with dried blood and mucus. Offended at the exposure to the night air, the infant let out a cry, weak as a hatchling's in a nest, but clear in its insistence.
Anne looked back up at the woman and, words failing her, asked for an explanation with her expression. But the woman only nodded, just once, as if she assumed she had already been understood. She turned around and started off up the alley in the direction from which she had originally entered it.
"Wait!" Anne cried. "You can't just leave a baby here." The newborn wailed its peep of a wail again as if to second the sentiment.
The woman stopped but did not turn back. Anne saw her shoulders drop and thought she heard a sound like a deflating tire come from her.
"If you need help, I'll be glad to call someone," Anne said, more softly, the presence of the child in her arms dissolving the anger she had built up at the woman's intrusion on her solitude.
The woman only shook her head.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" Anne asked, more to keep the woman from running away than out of any sincere desire to be of assistance. The woman took another few steps away down the alley. Covering the baby's face with the blanket again and stepping out into the night, Anne said, "Your baby needs to be seen by a doctor. You should be too."
The woman moved faster, though not in what anyone would mistake for a run. She was already twenty pained steps farther down the alley when Anne, from some unexplainable inspiration, called out, "Are you hungry?"
Her words echoed off down the alley like a shout off the walls of a canyon, surrounding the woman, stopping her cold. Yes, she was hungry. Starving. Her only full meal of the day had been interrupted before it'd begun by that bawling little creature. And she knew that when word got out about the baby, it wouldn't be safe for her to return to the dumpster that night or many more nights to come. There would be police around the neighborhood. And social workers. Her mind whirled at the prospects she came up with, without questioning the reliability of their source. Her shoulders shook and her stomach growled, which forced her to the conclusion that, risky as it might be, if the older woman was offering her food, it might be her only chance to eat that night.
She turned back to Anne and said, quietly, "Yes. I'm hungry."
Gently, as if she were talking to an invited guest or a patron in her shop who looked willing to buy, Anne said, "Well, let me get you something to eat ... and then maybe ..."
But the woman, anticipating Anne's suggestion, cut her off with, "But I won't see a doctor." Doctors were evil, that much of a belief she could put together in her shaky mind. Evil and mean.
"But you really should ..." Anne insisted.
The woman looked Anne square in the eye and said, "No doctor for me." Then turning away toward the warehouse, she added softly, "But maybe for the baby."
"But ..." Anne started and then nodded her head in concession. She was usually not one to back down from a point, but she certainly didn't want to chase the woman away and be stuck with a baby either.
The woman took a couple of lumbering steps back toward the resale shop, steps that seemed painful or fatigued, which Anne attributed to the infirmity of having just given birth. She'd noticed the wet area of the woman's skirt, assumed it was from her water breaking in labor, and from that could think of no other source for the baby than from this odd little woman's womb.
The woman stepped up past Anne into the resale shop and stood looking warily toward the front of the store.
"I can make you a sandwich," Anne said, stifling her urge to scrunch up her nose at her visitor's distinct aroma of body odor and garbage. Then more sternly, she added, "But you'll have to eat it on the way to the hospital."
The woman shot a brief glare of irritation at Anne and then dropped her gaze to Anne's slippered feet. Her impulse was to turn and run off into the night. But again, hunger got the better of her. In a whisper, but still insistent, she said, "Just for the baby. I won't let any doctor touch me." Doctors would try to lock her up again and give her drugs, pills that gave her headaches and made her joints scream, pills that gave her awful dreams even when she was awake, pills that paralyzed her, pills that ate at her insides and closed her soul. She was remembering things now, and they weren't pleasant.
"But ..." Anne started and then gave up again. "Just for the baby," she conceded, wondering why she was bothering at all. She wasn't a social worker or a nun or any other sort of do- gooder. What was it to her if this intruder got medical attention or not? Why was she troubling herself at all? The baby in her arms squirmed then and let out another cry. "Up that way then," Anne said, indicating the stairway with a nod of her head.
The woman looked at the piles of merchandise between them and the bottom of the steps, the narrow path through them. She shook her head no.
It was Anne's turn to sigh, with an undertone of a deep groan of frustration. I'm too old for this sort of nonsense. She felt the baby squirm within the blanket in her arms and said, "Okay. You hold your baby, and I'll go get dressed and get you something to eat." She held out the bundle toward the woman, who accepted it as if Anne was handing over a ticking bomb.
Anne made her way back to the stairs, grumbling as she climbed them, "Call the police. Let them handle it. Gracious, middle of the night ..."
But in a few minutes, she was back downstairs in gray slacks and a pleated pale pink blouse, her gray hair hastily brushed so that in the back it was still pressed flat against her skull. The woman, to Anne's half surprise, was still there, holding the baby in one arm, swaying from side to side and mumbling to the child or to herself. Anne held out the sandwich she had thrown together and said, "Here."
The woman took the sandwich and stared at it. After a long moment, apparently deciding that Anne was not trying to poison her, she sunk her teeth into it.
"Now let's go," Anne said, closing the back door, locking it, and leading the woman—who was busily gnawing on the sandwich she held in her right hand with the baby tucked into the crook of her left arm—to the front of the store and out the door onto Main Avenue.
Excerpted from A Girl in the Dumpster by Jack Apfel Copyright © 2011 by Jack Apfel. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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