A composite sketch drawn from interviews.

Part One:

On gray days like this, Willa hated naked winter trees. As she walked home from the bus stop, she kept staring at the trees. They were so different on sunny days, when the bare limbs poking upward made her think of fingers tickling the tummies of clouds. But today stagnant fog blocked the clouds from sight.

To Willa, the atmosphere was suffocating. It was hard to move in. That was winter, especially on these gray days. She thought back to that morning as she had prepared to go to work. You didn’t just rush out into the open air, free and careless. You put on coat and boots and scarf (like strapping on protective armor), then you went out and the cold wind slapped your face, the dirty slush slowed your step. Winter days could remind you that life is hard, and the universe is not about to lend a helping hand. On these days the naked trees reminded Willa of skeletal fingers. Fingers of death.

But she was home. If you want—if you have—to call it that, she thought. Heaven knows she hated to be living back in the projects. She paused at the foot of her building and stared up. Twelve stories, Willa counted, the place had 12 stories. Then she laughed. It had 12 floors, that kind of stories: But how many hundreds of human stories could those walls tell? What about there, on the second floor, where pillows were stuffed in a broken window—Could the walls speak of a bloody family fight, a wife shoved through glass? She looked higher and saw two other windows framed by black scorches. What awful stories of fire could those walls tell, what screams of man, woman, and child had they heard?

Or could the walls tell stories like her mama used to tell, of a building she had lived in. That one was so full of demented human souls they called it Noah’s Ark—“had every kind of weird person there ever was,” Mama had said. Homosexuals unashamedly coupled behind half-open doors, not caring if anyone watched. The owner of the building was supposed to be a minister and ran a bar downstairs. Once Mama went to get her sister out of the bar and cornered the minister-bartender. “You’re bad,” she told him. “You’re so bad you are going to hell, and bust it wide open.” Willa smiled at the memory. She looked at the dull sky once more, then went inside.

It was not better. At least outside there was some light. Inside, too many bulbs were burned out. She debated about waiting for an elevator, wondering if one was working today. She pushed the button anyway, feeling relief at the sound of a car descending. She was not up to climbing four flights of stairs.

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The elevator doors grated open. Willa stepped in, leaned against the back wall and looked across the lobby out the project door. Children were playing. Their light, true laughter struck her as it had many times before. It differed from adult laughter, which was tired and transparent, with nothing behind it. Her granddaddy, a man with a poetic bent, had said a child’s laugh hangs from a rainbow, but an old man’s laugh scrapes the bottom of the barrel. That had never made sense to Willa until she was 16 and already mothering two children. Now she was 21 and awaiting the birth of a third child.

The doors of the elevator closed and it lurched upward. For a moment, she closed her eyes and imagined she was on an elevator straight to heaven. But the stench of urine assailed her nostrils and suffocated her dream. She opened her eyes. The fluorescent light flickered on and off, its pallid green glow revealing scraps of newspapers, some ant-covered cookies, a tangled pile of coat hangers, and, on the walls, violent graffiti.

The elevator stopped on the third floor. A tall man, with a thin nose and long forehead, shifted his feet. Dear God, she thought for a moment, it’s Aaron. “Hey, sorry,” he spoke. “I need one goin’ down.” The voice was high and squeaky; Aaron’s was a rich baritone (how she would love to hear him sing again). The car jerked to life and she fell back against the wall. Of course it was not Aaron, she sighed. It never would be Aaron.

Sweet Aaron. Mama had thought he’d never count for much. But Aaron dreamed like Willa, and he hated the ghetto like Willa. Aaron got a construction job and worked hard. Then he came home and watched the kids while Willa went to secretarial school. By the time Willa was finished with school Aaron was a trusted member of his crew and got his hours arranged so he could be at home while Willa was at work. Within two years they were looking at homes outside the ghetto, kissing the poor life good-bye and beginning to laugh the way kids do. They were faced with a high mortgage they could handle only if both worked, but they accepted that and escaped the ghetto.

Two months had passed since the girder dropped on Aaron. Since she was little, Willa’s family had called her strong-spirited. Yet too many times in the past eight weeks she had wondered if the girder killed something besides her husband.

Willa knocked on Janey’s door and heard Tommy shriek joyfully, “Mama’s back!” Janey opened the door. She had flighty eyes that never landed long on one spot. But she had been Willa’s friend for years, and friends know at a glance when they are needed. Janey squeezed Willa’s hand. “Come in and have some coffee before you take the boys and go home.”

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Seated at the table, Janey lighted a cigarette and pushed across a cup of coffee. Her eyes shot at Willa through smoke and coffee steam, then bounced to a corner of the room. “Hard day?” she asked.

They did not have to talk at length. Janey knew. She knew Willa had moved back to the projects after Aaron’s accident only because there was no place else to go. She knew day-care rates had risen, so that Willa could no longer afford to send her kids there while she was at work. And she knew that Willa was pregnant with her third child.

On this day, Willa had visited the welfare office. She had more bad news. Willa had mentioned that her brother was lending her $50 a month to get by. The case-worker had promptly decided to cut $50 from her check. “Shoot, gal,” Janey said, only this time her eyes stayed on the corner. “You’re too honest.”

“Yes,” said Willa, and she gulped a bitter mouthful. It was already lukewarm. She followed Janey’s line of sight to the far corner of the room. All Willa could see was blue paint peeling off cement blocks, and a hole in the ceiling. A cockroach started from the hole, then darted back in. “What is that hole, Janey?”

“Don’t know,” said Janey. She sucked a deep breath on the cigarette. “Don’t know. But I know the woman who lived here before us. She hated one of the kids—had him from a no-gooder, you know, and the poor thing always reminded her of his daddy. She used to lock him in the closet. Once she put him in a tub of boiling water. Lately, I been worryin’ maybe that kid’s head put that hole up there.”

Now Willa was fascinated by the hole, but she caught herself and looked away. Tommy and Peter were on a throw rug in front of the television. It was a game show. Willa used to love game shows: buzzers and bells going off, cars and mink coats given away like candy. She started to tell the boys to get off the cold floor, but stopped. They were on the throw rug. Even kids would not lie around on bare concrete in winter.

“Willa, I don’t want to say this …”

“Then, don’t, woman,” Willa said sharply. She knew what was coming.

“But you got to get an abortion, girl, before it’s too late.”

Willa spoke slowly and emphasized each word. “I do not want an abortion. I will not get an abortion.”

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The children sensed the change in tone of the conversation and were looking away from the game show. Their mother saw them. It made no difference. For everything they heard, they had heard worse, and if they had not heard it they would understand too soon.

“Willa, you’re going to lose your job if you have this child.”

“They might give me leave.”

“And if they do, what are you going to do with the baby once it’s born? I’ve got my own affairs. You know I can’t keep your babies forever. How are you going to stay home with a new baby and work at the same time? How?”

“I do not want an abortion, Janey.”

“Got to feed three children, got to clothe three children.”

“Can’t you see, this is Aaron’s child,” Willa screamed.

The mention of their father’s name upset the children. The five-year-old would whimper. Tommy’s reaction was different. He would start humming or singing some blues song his father had taught him. “Sometimes 1 get a great notion to jump in the river and drown,” he might sing. That did not bother Willa, because she knew six-year-olds sang those songs for the same reason grownups did: to keep from jumping in the river. But now Tommy was singing the one song she absolutely could not abide, that horrible thing about the fear that “Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose, and old songs never last too long on broken radios.”

Peter was whimpering. Tommy was singing. Smoke filled the apartment. Buzzers and bells were going off on television. And in Willa’s head. She crossed her arms on the table, put her head on them, and closed her eyes. She thought she felt the baby move, but that couldn’t be—it was too early.

It was there, though. It was alive and warm inside her. The walls to her womb were not cement block. There was no disabled radiator spilling cold there, no couch with springs erupting from it. Willa was doing a lot of wishing these days. At that moment she wished the baby could stay inside her forever, safe and content.

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