Janet stood on the steps of her apartment building, fumbling in her purse, hunting for her keys and shivering. A thin cry halted her search. At first, she didn’t believe her ears. There couldn’t be a baby here. There was nothing here except brick walls and glass windows and concrete sidewalk. And the dumpster. There wasn’t usually a dumpster in front of her building but one of the apartments was being renovated. The dumpster was for construction materials. There couldn’t be a baby in the construction dumpster.
"It's a kitten. It has to be a kitten." She said the words out loud, but she didn't believe them.
If it hadn’t come again, just then, as she stood hesitating, keys finally in hand, Janet might have gone into the building and up to her eleventh-floor apartment and convinced herself she hadn’t heard it at all. But it did come again. An angry little wail, firmly objecting to current circumstances, and this time Janet didn’t hesitate.
Hanging onto the frigid handrail with one hand and clutching her purse with the other Janet made her way down the steps and approached the ugly green bin. She could just see over the edge by standing on tip toe, but she thought the sound must have come from a cardboard box sitting on top of the heap of broken drywall inside. She tried to reach but it was too far. Gripping the edge of the bin she managed to get the toe of her patent leather shoe into the metal protrusion on its side. She boosted herself up until her hips rested on the edge, her toe just managing to hang on for balance and, releasing the edge, she reached out with both hands, grasped the box, then let herself slide back until she stood on the sidewalk again.
Dumpster grime had smeared her suit pants and the front of her coat but she didn’t notice. Setting the box carefully on the sidewalk she automatically adjusted her purse strap more firmly on her shoulder before crouching down. Her hands shook slightly as they pushed the flaps back and she recoiled, almost falling backwards, when she saw what was inside.
It was an infant, certainly, squalling and red faced, tiny fists waving uncontrolled, but from the waist down it was covered in a thick clot of dark blood. Janet gagged as she reached in to slide her hands under the baby’s armpits, supporting the head with her fingertips as she lifted it free of the box. The clot slid away and she realized it was attached by a chord to the baby’s navel. She had to search her memory for a moment. Placenta. Hadn’t Clarissa talked about the benefits of eating the placenta before she had her first? Seeing one for the first-time, Janet wasn’t surprised that this particular fad hadn’t stuck. Fumbling open the buttons on the front of her wool coat she tucked the infant inside, against her right breast, placenta and all. Scooping her keys up from the sidewalk where they had fallen she stumbled back up the steps and finally got the door to her building open.
Standing in the brightly lit foyer next to the bank of mailboxes, she finally looked the newborn in the face. It had stopped crying now, and it blinked tears out of dark blue eyes as it looked blurrily back at her. They couldn’t see very much at first. Janet was sure Clarissa had told her that, and she bent her face closer to ask, “What am I going to do with you?”
The baby didn’t answer, just blinked some more. Janet realized that she was staring with her mouth slightly open and closed it with a snap. “There has to be someone to call. Do you constitute an emergency? You don’t look like you’re dying... I suppose you’re a crime.” The baby vented a brief cry and Janet chuckled. “What, you don’t like being a crime? I can imagine it’s not very comfortable.” She looked around at the bare, tiled space, searching for a solution to her predicament. “Well, let’s make you more comfortable while I look for a number.”
Riding up in the elevator she wondered how she was going to do that. Her blouse was now thoroughly begrimed with dirt and blood, but she didn’t think that it, or any of the other clothes in her closet, were suitable for wrapping an infant. Maybe if she cut up a t-shirt?
She was two steps inside her own front door when she began to laugh. Thank god for Clarissa! Fertile, fecund Clarissa. Was she having baby number four? Or five? At the moment Janet couldn't remember. Either way, her cousin now had enough of them that Janet didn’t feel obliged to buy carefully selected, personal gifts for each new arrival. This time she had ordered a "diaper cake" from a company that made gift baskets. It had come blessedly early, and there it sat, in the exact center of Janet’s round, polished dining table. Her laugh was slightly hysterical as she stood staring at the lumpy tiers.
It was larger than any wedding cake Janet had ever seen. And it wasn't just diapers. She had chosen the "assortment" option, and the result was a mix of pale yellow and green jumpers, booties, hats and receiving blankets, twisted to look like flowers atop the Pampers layers, tied round with ribbons and topped with a bouquet of bottles supporting a mass of yellow minky that might have been intended for daffodils.
Pulling at the ribbons with shaking fingers, she set aside the blanket and counted three baby bottles, with little frogs and ducks printed on them.
“Food first, then we’ll get you dressed.” Janet pulled open the fridge door and stood staring at its meager contents.
Almond milk. Almond milk wouldn’t do any harm, would it? She managed to fill the bottle one-handed, and put it in the microwave to warm. The baby was fussing, making little whimpering sounds in its throat. “Sh, sh,” Janet murmured, bouncing gently as the glass turntable revolved. She remembered to shake a few drops onto her own bare wrist, as she had seen Clarissa do. “It’s warm, not too hot, what do you think?” she asked, putting the nipple in the baby’s mouth. It must have been a healthy infant, for all it was cold and dirty, because it only took a second for the taste of milk to penetrate and it began to guzzle greedily.
Janet stood in the center of her stainless steel and porcelain kitchen, still wearing her heels and coat, and watched the infant drink. Her chignon was starting to come lose in wisps around her face, and the crisp outlines of her makeup were beginning to blur this late in the day. Her usually erect posture curved inward to support her arms encircling the tiny bundle.
Hunger abated, the baby’s sucking slowed. At least half the contents of the bottle were gone. Sitting down at the table Janet pulled a polka-dotted receiving blanket out of the first cake layer and threw it over her shoulder. The wool of her coat might be scratchy. Cautiously she positioned the slender arms over the fabric, so that the baby’s face was clear to breath. With one hand she cupped the baby’s bare bottom, with the other she gently patted manicured fingers against curving back. The umbilical cord hung past dangling pink toes, the placenta puddled in her lap. Abruptly the baby spat up. The force was enough to clear the cotton and leave a trail down her back.
“Well thank you very much for that.”
Janet laid the receiving blanket across her knees and balanced the baby on top of them long enough to shrug out of her coat and suit jacket. Had it only been a day since she stood in her closet deciding whether to wear a pantsuit or a skirt to the conference? She had avoided anything that might look at all festive. She didn’t want to remind any colleagues attending of her birthday. She usually avoided the office around birthdays, especially these days.
The baby stirred and whimpered in her lap. “Oh, I’m sorry sweetie,” Janet leaned forward at once. “Did I zone out on you?” It was a girl. She hadn’t noticed that before.
Tucking the receiving blanket more closely she lifted the little bundle, still attached to the dark mass of placenta and carried her across to the kitchen sink, laying her on the drain board. What was she going to do with that placenta? She couldn’t just leave it hanging there, not if she was going to get her dressed before calling social services. She was pretty sure you couldn’t just pull it off.
Clarissa’s babies always had clips on their umbilical cords, she remembered. “Clips, clips,” she muttered to herself, hunting through the kitchen drawers, one hand still on the baby. She ended up using a chip bag sealer, gingerly attaching it a couple inches from the full, round belly and cutting the cord with a pair of kitchen shears. “Sorry baby, sorry,” she muttered as the tiny legs kicked, sending the cord and placenta sliding into the sink.
Dropping the shears back into their drawer with a clatter she hunted some more, until she found the softest cotton dishcloth from the ones her grandmother had knitted. Running the water and the garburator simultaneously she disposed of the placenta. The fleshy bloody smell made her gag again, and she poured some disinfectant down after it. When the water seemed warm enough she began to carefully wipe away the muck covering the little body.
The baby squalled again at this procedure, but quieted once Janet put one of the diapers on her and wrapped another receiving blanket, striped this time, tightly round her body, arms and legs. Cuddling the baby in the crook of her right arm Janet dug her cell phone out of her purse and walked over to where her laptop sat on the coffee table. Waking it up she wondered out loud, “Social services? The police? The non-emergency help line?”
But she found herself searching for adoption information instead. The number of older children in the system waiting for homes was heartbreaking, but statistics on infant adoption were worse. The process sounded long and complicated. The odds of a single woman her age being approved didn’t look good. And there was a waiting list. A long one. She wasn’t really surprised, she hadn’t even meant to look, but she found her eyes stinging, all the same.
Finally, she typed “what to do with a baby found in a dumpster”. The results weren’t very useful. Instead of instructions she found a series of news stories where babies had been abandoned in dumpsters. Some included pictures of dead infants, frozen or starved. Janet’s stomach churned and her shoulders hunched as she hugged the baby in her arms closer to herself. The little one had dropped off to sleep now, her breathe coming gently through parted lips. Safe and warm and fed. Janet stared down at her for a long time.
When the phone in her hand rang she nearly dropped it in shock. A pang of guilt stabbed her. She was supposed to be making a phone call, damn it!
"Happy birthday!" Her mother's voice rang down the line. "How does it feel to be thirty-nine? Any different than it did yesterday? At least you can be grateful it's not the big four oh! But tell me, what did you do for your birthday? Did you go out with friends? You didn’t have to go in to the office, did you? You should have stayed home and gotten your nails done or treated yourself to a nice massage. Something like that.”
“No, Mom, I had a conference today. It ran late, I only got home an hour ago.”
Had it only been an hour? Her clock said so but she couldn’t believe it.
Her mother was still talking but Janet wasn’t listening. She was gazing down at the small face nestled against her blouse, at the surprisingly dark fuzz covering the round head, at the balled-up fist on top of the blanket.
“Mom,” she interrupted a description of her Aunt Trudy’s gall bladder operation, “Mom, I’ve got something to tell you.”
Her mother, abruptly worried, asked, “What is it?” rather sharply.
“I’m going to have a baby.”
“What, at your age?” still sharp.
“You always say I’m not too old,” Janet retorted, stung.
“Well, I know you’re not, but I didn’t even know you were seeing anyone these days. Did you and Dan get back together?”
“No, I’m not seeing anyone. I’m going to have it rather soon. Any day now.”
“Oh my good lord! And why am I just hearing about this now?”
“I didn’t know if I was going to keep it. I didn’t want to start a fuss until I was sure.”
“Does Dan know?”
“It’s not Dan’s. Actually, the father is the reason Dan and I broke up. But he’s not in the picture either.”
Janet couldn’t believe how easy the lies were. They couldn’t have been smoother if she’d practiced for a month.
“You don’t mind, do you? About me being a single mum.” She knew the answer before she asked the question, knew it was the quickest way to win her mother over. Her mother had always been so proud of raising her girl on her own. Janet knew what she would say.
“Of course not! Do you want me to come out there? Be with you when you have it? Or you could come back here. We could arrange for Sylvia to do the delivery.” Janet’s younger cousin was a midwife.
“No Mom, I’m fine and I have everything arranged here. I’ll come out next month like I planned. I just wanted to give you the heads up.”
Her annual visit to her home state and the small town she’d grown up in. A week with her mother and her aunty and her cousins. A week of home and she was always ready to get back to her solitary city life, her apartment and her work.
“Heads up? Honestly,” her mother’s voice was losing its sharpness, beginning to sound pleased despite herself. “We could do a joint baby shower for you and Clarissa. Clarissa wouldn’t mind.”
As her mother began making plans for being a grandmother Janet went back to watching her baby sleep.
“What am I going to call you?” she asked softly.