bellocqsadeleCarriSkoczekTwenty years ago I published my first book with a small press, and it won an award my hometown newspaper described as “the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award.” My father still thinks that’s the award name, though he says The Prestigious Flannery O’Connell Award. All writers hope that getting their first book published will change their lives. It does, variably. I got a teaching job, also firsthand insight that hardly anyone reads a small press book with a good award except writers and aspiring writers—especially an aspiring writer enrolled in your class and perhaps his mother. One day a student a few years younger than me told me his mother had read my book. I braced myself. I was in one of my grim starter marriages, and my grim father-in-law had weighed in. He’d skimmed my book and grimaced. “Trying too hard to be naughty.” He compared me unfavorably to Shakespeare, whom he couldn’t have read closely.  “Why sex?”

At the other end of the house, carpenters cut a hole in the wall. In my bedroom, I tried on clothes, trying to find the right look for the appointment I had scheduled that day. Effort that led to accomplishment was a way of ignoring botched goals, I thought, a Plan B that always evolved when Plan A failed. At the moment, my aimlessness felt like sartorial aimlessness. I had two looks. Professor, black clothes covered with chalk, worn with boots in winter, sandals in summer. Or my Saturday night look, siren. I needed something else for this. My mother’s dictates, long repressed, surfaced. Look inexperienced. If you can’t, look like a matron. I put on a slinky dress, a staid cardigan over it.

I stepped outside, over coiled power cords, to talk to my carpenters. The lead carpenter looked like Gregg Allman. He’d hired his brother, Brent, who looked like Duane Allman. He’d also hired his son, Sean, who looked like a teenage celebrity heartthrob too young for me to register. The lead carpenter who looked like Gregg Allman was named Greg. Greg said, “I’ll set plywood over this hole before I leave tonight.”

I said, “Will you nail it shut?”

“Wasn’t planning on it. You scared?”

He meant scared of going to bed at night, no way of locking up. Something sifted from the sky into my hair. Sawdust. Sean leaned from the top of a ladder, grinning. “Will this hole stay open all summer?” I asked. Greg said, “You can lock up eventually. I need to level everything first.”

“Fine.” I was hard as nails, I meant.

I got my job—low pay till you got promoted—because I’d sold my first book to a small press. I’d sold a second book to a better press and remodeled—turned a dingy cabin into a snug cottage. I sold a third book for a sum so generous I could add on new rooms, buy a new car, adopt a baby, if I spent carefully. What I saved on the house I’d use on the adoption. I paid an ex-contractor who was my ex-boyfriend to teach me to be a contractor since I couldn’t afford one. I gave him $1500 for drawings and a materials list.

First, I’d solicited the carpenter bids.

Greg and his brother had just moved here—a generation-upon-generation, clean-cut town. They underbid everyone. I told Greg I was adopting a baby which might arrive suddenly. He said he wished he’d spent more time with Sean when Sean was little. He lived his formerly-toxic life one day at a time. He quoted Chief Joseph: “I cannot go the old way.” Myself, I drink when I’m mad or tired, but I didn’t have time for it. I’d spent the winter teaching and writing. I wanted a child, a house big enough, a car safe enough.

All summer, I worked.

I painted, inside and out, sanded and finished woodwork. I did electrical trim. I refinished used furniture for new rooms. I loaded the CD player with blues. I made biscuits and coffee. I collected bids from other subcontractors who’d ask about my floor plans, my square-footage, my life. The roofer handed me a bid and said, “Talk it over with your husband.” I said, “There is no husband. You’ll deal with me.” He looked panicked. “No boyfriend either?” The plumber said, “If you don’t mind my asking, is there a reason you won’t be married?” I said, “I’m not opposed to it. I’m divorced.” It’s a small town with a finite number of roofers, electricians—how I answered could affect the quality of work, or price. The tile layer said, “I don’t get it. You kept your figure. You cook like this.” He waved at a tray on the porch rail. I’d made cinnamon rolls that day.

I was past small talk with Greg. Once we unloaded two-by-fours. I’d stopped to call a social worker to schedule my home study. When I came back out, Greg mopped his face with a red bandanna and said, “You get things done, even if you go against the grain.”

But the day he was sawing a hole in the wall, I said I’d see him later. “I have an appointment.”

He nodded. “Let go and let God.”

I got in my new car and sped off, to San Antonio.

An hour later at the adoption agency, case workers came out from behind desks. “Hi, Debra,” one said, “is your semester over?” Another: “How’s construction going?” Another, “Where’d you get those sunglasses?” I said, “New York.” This sounded cosmopolitan. In fact, I’d bought them at a kiosk as I’d changed planes on the way to somewhere provincial. The adoptive parent liaison, Marla, said, “Nice shoes.” I’d worried too much, I realized. In a city, a mother could be gaudy. Marla and I looked at forms I’d filled out. She said I was open-minded about race. “Good home study,” she added.

In the old part of my house, I’d cleaned windows, ceiling fans, closets. I laid out blue-prints for the add-on, barely underway. The social worker had glanced around, cursory, then asked for a specific way my life would change. I’m good at Q & As. She said “specific” so I answered: “I won’t be able to grade papers late at night. I’ll work in the day, with interruptions.” I felt anxious. Waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot. How will you handle a tantrum?” I’d sit near, not too near, wait it out, I said. I wondered when she’d get to my past, the broken homes. I once saw a house split in half by a storm. A tree had landed on the bed. The exposed bedroom looked naked, pink. Would my patched-up past break open? The home study was a test I didn’t want to pass unless I should. I dropped hints. “If a man didn’t drink,” I said, “I never married him and neither did my mother.” The social worker stared. “You’ve accomplished a lot. Stress the positive.”

At the agency, Marla flipped through the photo album she’d asked for. I’d had a neighbor come by with a camera. I’d gazed into the lens, making a healthful salad here, stirring a roaring fire there. I’d culled old photos for every picture of me with a child— children of friends in grad school sitting by me on sofas long ago left for trash. Marla said, “Your letter, nice, the first paragraph.” She meant the letter that begins: Dear Birth Mother. I’d thought about the person reading it. This terrible and difficult time. I’d tried to imagine—carrying a baby, feeling so wrong, so imperfect, I needed a stranger to take over.

Marla said, “You’d be surprised how adoptive parents don’t understand. They think it’s this joyful handover. There’s hardly any press about how birth mothers feel, or suffer.”

I nodded.

Marla said, “You’re interested in babies other clients won’t take. It won’t be long.”

That night, I stared at the door-sized maw facing the add-on. Plywood leaned against the hole. The bottom gaped. Through the years I’d moved so much, rent house to rent house, I got fanatical about locks, doors, windows. I liked window shades—cheap, essential—because I understood the optical fact of lit indoor rooms and outside infinite camouflage. I used to go for walks at night myself, stare at a father in a striped chair maybe, a mother in a red sweater feeding children at the table. Nice wallpaper I’d think. I coveted family life, lamplight fastening down the night. But I didn’t want people looking in at me. I used to dream about my doors or windows being kicked open, and I’d wake, related to no one, the city full of strangers. But the sounds outside here were deer, possums. This hole, no problem, I thought. I pulled the shades down, locked my real door.


Daybreak, Greg’s truck would rumble up. I’d move the plywood aside, step through the hole to the living room-to-be, the child’s bedroom and bathroom adjoining; a stairway curved toward a loft. Then Brent and Sean arrived. And, today, Clem who lived in a tent. Greg had suggested Clem for basic plumbing and wiring. He’d be cheapest. Greg gave me Clem’s ex-wife’s phone number—Clem had plumbed and wired her house. She’d told me to give him a big meal once a day. He was licensed, safe, but a drunk. Tell him obvious stuff like, yes, I want a light there. Use someone else to install fixtures because he didn’t like using a level. I told Clem his ex-wife spoke highly of his work. “She broke my heart,” he said. He handed me his plate. I’d gone through ten pounds of flour in a week. He said, “I don’t see why you’re adopting a baby when you can have me for free. I’d be less trouble.” It was a joke, maybe. He crawled under the house.

Then the guy who’d lay a new line to my septic tank arrived. He was tall and handsome. An old lady once told me that if I look at a man and can’t look away, and he can’t either, he feels the same. Not that instant mutual magnetism is helpful. We surveyed the land, me holding a stick on a string as he stared through a meter. He yelled, “Little to the right. Good girl.” Then he stepped into the old part of my house and glanced at an antique sampler: God Bless This Home. I like its kitsch look. I also don’t mind the sentiment. I mean I can’t tell if my decorating style is an ironic comment on retro domesticity or if I’m retro, domestic. He told me about the winter after his divorce, living in an unheated cabin. He lay on the floor praying. When he got up, his pain was gone. “If that’s not born again,” he said, “what is?” He sat down at my table and did some math.

I went outside, poured paint, climbed the ladder and thought how the idea men won’t talk about feelings is wrong. They won’t talk to a wife or long-term girlfriend because then she knows too much forever. But to a woman a man is alone with a few weeks never to see again, he’d talk. Talking is also permissible during first-phase wooing. Men I hired treated me like a date-substitute, I thought. GFE, girlfriend experience, a prostitution term (it costs more). I was doing the paying, but the dynamic was the same, lonely men talking to a lone women. Greg told me about his divorce. Before he got straight he was useless, and Sean’s mother left him. When Sean was a teenager, she’d called, said: Take him, make him a man. Too little too late. Sean moved out of Greg’s house to Brent’s. “Who am I to tell him not to drink?” Greg said, his eyes troubled.

As I painted, I wondered if pent-up desire is noticeable. Once I saw my old friend, Jack Creeden, at a conference. He’d taken a job in a small town. He hadn’t had sex in years, he said. He looked pale. He stared at women he didn’t know. “This isn’t healthy,” I’d told him. Back then, I had fleeting affairs. Sleeping with men I didn’t want to keep, chattering away afterward, leaving the future undescribed, I felt self-indulgent yet frugal—this moment, like canned beets on the shelf in the time of famine, would last me.

But if you have sex with a man you don’t want, he’ll want you. Economic law. Demand increases as supply wanes. So sometimes an affair lasted too long and ended badly, bungled etiquette—e.g., Dan, the ex-contractor, my “boyfriend” for a few years. We’d run through a list of alternative names for what we’d been to each other. “Partner” wasn’t accurate. “Lover” sounded pretentious or indiscreet. “Gentleman friend” sounded as if I’d depended on the kindness of strangers. At any rate, I couldn’t picture a future with Dan. And yet he wasn’t mean. So I’d procrastinated, waiting for a deal-breaking, tooth-and-nail last fight, which never materialized. We fizzled out, mutually bitter.

Now I’d set sex aside because I didn’t see how I’d have it when I was a mother. Mothers do have sex, but with the baby’s father, not applicable. I could remember meeting only one sexy mother, Ginger who lived next door when I was a kid and suntanned in a black bikini. The baby didn’t smell fresh, my mother pointed out. His head was lopsided from lying in the crib too much. One of my aunts used to wear false eyelashes when she ran for Miss North Dakota. Then she married, toned down. Sex leads to motherhood. And goes underground. I wasn’t about to buck tradition. Or instinct.

The septic tank guy came outside. “What do you do in the evenings?”

Sean and Brent had taken down my TV antenna. A hole was in my wall. I felt tongue-tied.

“Do you always wear dresses?” he asked.

I wore old dresses to work in—stained with paint and polyurethane now. They were cooler. I was about to say as much. Then I heard my phone ring. “I’ve got to get that.”

He nodded. He’d start work Monday, he said.

I got the phone. Marla. She needed another adoption form filled out, I thought.

“A birth mother has selected you, and her due date is soon.”

Where? When?

Marla laughed. “This is the fastest this ever happened. She saw your materials today and said: I like the lady professor in the yellow house. Her baby is due any day. Here’s the catch. She was visiting her brother here. She lives in Philadelphia. The baby wasn’t planned. She was raped. She has children at home. You’ll fly up and bring it back.”

I calculated. Plane ticket, no notice. Hotel. Rental car.

On the back burner, this thought, glowering: rape. The baby could never know. I’d hoped for a birth parent story not so appalling I wouldn’t have to hide it. Too much to want.

“She doesn’t believe in abortion,” Marla said. “She’s been in a deep depression. Finally she called her brother who’s stationed down here. She wants to talk to you. Call her.”

We hung up. I ran outside. I told Greg, “The baby will be here soon.”

He stood, flummoxed. Then smiled. “That’s great.” I noticed a blowsy-looking woman next to him. “This is Delia,” he said. “Delia, this is Debra.” He looked flummoxed again. “Delia wanted to meet you since I talk about you all the time.” I understood. Single, not young, not old yet either, I was used to clarifying I wasn’t the other woman, homewrecker. I said, “Greg always talks about you too.” She nodded, appeased.

I talked to the birth mother that night. Her voice was quiet, careful. After a minute, I said, “What would you like to ask?” She said, “How do you feel about a child of color? Are you racist?” Well, I thought, everyone is a little. Or religionist. Biased toward good looks, or certain nationalities. I couldn’t say that. Everything else was a cliché. I told her I’d taught in North Carolina and had changed the standard textbook to teach more black writers to fit the student body. “When civil rights happened I was a kid,” I said, “so I saw it on TV. My gut feeling was that the cops with dogs were the bad guys.”

Silence. “That’s fine,” she said. I’d sounded oblivious, I thought. Or obvious.

But the adoption was on, Marla told me by phone the next day.

Then my own mother called long-distance. Since her husband died, she felt extraneous. She couldn’t think of anything to say besides she didn’t have friends. But layettes, she understood. Formula, bottles, diapers. “I’ll be there in two days.” When she showed up, we moved the secondhand crib into my study, put a pallet beside it. She went to Target. That night she packed a diaper bag—sterilized bottles in Ziploc baggies, canned formula, size-zero clothes washed in Dreft. She’d bought a pale green tiny sweater because the plane would be cold. She helped me pack my own suitcase for the hospital.

I’d be going to the hospital in Philadelphia

We waited.

She washed curtains. Reorganized the laundry room. Hounded the carpenters. Woke me to look at her scalp. Did she have skin cancer, did I think? She quizzed me about my ex-boyfriend, Don: why I’d liked him in the first place, why we broke up? She kept on—how kind he’d been to draw up the plans for the add-on. I said, “I paid him, Mom.”

One day, she and my neighbor, Clara Mae, sat on the porch, watching a female cardinal build a nest, a male cardinal bringing twigs and string from afar, and Clara Mae said: “That’s like Don in west Texas helping Debra get her nest ready here.” My mother looked delighted. “I wouldn’t have put it that way,” she said, “but that’s it. I like him.” I passed by, carrying PVC pipe. She’d met him once, I thought. He’d be coming in a few days—he had business in town, but he’d look at the add-on. She’d fawn, flirt even. To hell with birds, I thought, the pathetic fallacy, projecting gutless emotion onto the landscape like in the movie Snow White when birds tie ribbons so her dream comes true. Then my mom told Clara Mae, “Tell you the truth, she’s picky.” I gave her a vile look she ignored. It had taken grit to get picky enough. Not that she’d know. Once she said: “We didn’t have the idea ‘co-dependent’ when I was young. ‘Co-dependent’ meant good wife.”


Late one night after swift phone calls—“I know my timing, I’ve already had children,” she said—the baby was imminent. I’d leave the next day. I lay in bed. How would I find the hospital? Where will I sleep? How do I sleep? How do I feed a baby? Finally, knowing there was room on a flight at 5 a.m. and I could worry on a plane as well as at home, I left a note, headed out. I bought the ticket, stood in line. I held the car seat, the diaper bag my mom had packed. The gate was closing. I heard my name. “Come to the white courtesy phone.” I stepped out of line. Message: call home. I did. My mother said, “A man from Philadelphia called. She found a family there with two parents.”

I drove home. Construction—loud, buzzing, yowling. Greg looked at me. “False alarm,” I said. I went inside. My mother cried. She said, “I can’t accept sudden change anymore.” I thought if she were a stranger and I didn’t know how objectionable her dead husband had been, I’d feel pity. I put my arm around her thin shoulders. I convinced her to take a nap. But the next day disgust at the anticlimax replaced her grief, and she drove away.

A new plumber had come to install bathroom fixtures. He told Greg he couldn’t install the bathtub/shower unit because Greg hadn’t built the furred out wall to close it in. Greg said, “Of course a bathtub/shower needs a furred out wall.” He turned to me. “Am I your mind reader? It wasn’t in your plans. I guessed you wanted some old tub, some antique.”

The plumber said, “You two need to work this out. And call me.”

Greg turned to me. “I respect you’re trying to build this house on a shoestring. But I didn’t draw these plans, and I don’t want to be rude, but they’re a little fucked. As long as we’re on the subject, the space for the stairs is too steep. It’s not code. Realize, my reputation is attached here. I don’t want word getting around I don’t know what I’m doing.”

We were fighting. Sean stared at us.

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “Please. I’ll fix everything.”

I wondered that night: Had Don drawn bad plans? Did he always draw bad plans and that’s why he was an ex-contractor? Or was the furred out wall a given—too basic to draw—and Greg didn’t know? Could it be added now? Could I return the bathtub/ shower unit? Where do I get an antique tub? My worries heaped up. What if Greg quit? Housework sometimes helps me purge panic. So, stepping around the old part of my house piled with baby gear I didn’t need yet, furniture for half-built rooms, materials for construction still pending, I swept. Why had I thought I had enough skills to build a house? I washed dishes. Because I took Shop instead of Home Ec. in high school, big deal. I scrubbed a shelf. I needed a real contractor. I couldn’t afford one unless I gave up adopting. But a baby was the reason to build. I wasn’t getting younger. The phone rang.

Marla. “I know it’s late, and I wondered whether to call, but I have to see how you feel. I honestly don’t think this birth mother’s for real. She might be trying to freak someone out, the baby’s father. It’s a two-year-old. She says she wants to put her up for adoption.”

A daughter whose mother doesn’t want you even after she knows you?

“The baby has been with relatives all along. That’s why I think it’s dicey.”

I called the birth mother the next day. The child’s name was Tamarinda. “What does she like?” I asked. The birth mother said: “Tam? Tam likes toys, I suppose.” Be concrete, I thought. I said, “What are her favorite foods?” The birth mother said, “Hmm. That’s a hard one. French fries.” Finally, we hung up. I called Marla, who said, “I was about to call you. We’ll be careful before we contact you now. You’ve been through a lot.”

I went back outside. Greg, Brent and Sean were standing around a truck that belonged to the sheetrocker. He’d come by to get paid, good riddance, this man who’d walked in, hammered a nail in a door to hang his shirt on. I’d taped newspaper over woodwork, the stairway, the banister, everything I didn’t want plaster sprayed on. But I forgot the open fuse box. This guy sprayed it. I told him, “I was in the next room. It would have taken me two minutes to cover it.” He’d answered, “It’s not my fault you don’t know how what’s up.” So I’d flipped off the main breaker, cleaned each fuse with a toothbrush and razor blade. When I was done, I cleaned his mess, sandwich wrappers, Coke cans, Skoal. I found a plastic jug, half-full. I thought it was chemical—I shouldn’t put it in the trash. I took the lid off. Pee. He’d been too lazy to walk twenty feet to the woods.

Brent and Sean were laughing as the sheetrocker fiddled under his truck.

Greg glanced at me. “Rough night?”

Brent told the sheetrocker, “Stick your feet through the hole in the floorboard and run like Fred Flintstone.”

The sheetrocker, “Shut the fuck up, patronizing motherfucker.”

Brent said, “Nice hanging out here.”

Sean laughed harder. He gestured for me to look. The sheetrocker’s torso was under the truck. Hips and legs, not. He wore shorts. “Chrissake,” Greg said. He steered me away. Too late. I was struck by the fact a man’s genitals are attractive if you want to see them, loathsome if you don’t. My mind flits around if I’m tired. I also thought: someone somewhere loved this man at least once, probably. “You,” Greg said to Brent and Sean, “work. You,” he told the sheetrocker, “get this junk heap running or call a tow truck.”

We went inside.

“Every night,” I told Greg, “I scrub and scrub, piles of scraped-off paint and sawdust and whatever in the bath water, and I think I’ll be filthy again the next day. Being clean is temporary. But dirt is without end. Still, I take a bath every night anyway.”

Greg looked at me. “Are you talking about dirt? You sound depressed.”

“Late at night things look bad,” I agreed.

The contractor who’d do the wood floor pulled up in a van with a fisher-of-men logo. He shook my hand. He wore a wedding ring. After preliminary chitchat with me, he talked to Greg like Greg was the husband in charge of dimensions, cost, and I was the wife in charge of aesthetics. Did I like yellow oak? His assistant, standing by while the boss talked to Greg, asked me: Was I married? Divorced? “Misery loves company,” he said. “My ex-wife took everything. She took my horse. I’m a rodeo cowboy. How can I work?”

“Brutal,” I said.

After the floor contractor left, Don pulled up.

He stepped out of his truck. He smiled.

I could smell his aftershave. I’d told him months ago I was done sleeping with him. He didn’t believe it yet, because when I had slept with him he was gone most of the time. He’d say: “I get so much out of a few days I don’t need to see you for a long time. I’ll be the love of your life if you let me.” We did it his way and fought because I wanted time together, and did it my way and fought because we didn’t have enough in common. And broke up. Over and over. “An absent father complex,” my mother had said. “You’re working through the past, dating a man who’s unavailable.” I likely had an absent mother complex too, but she didn’t say that. She’d worked as a bookkeeper for a psychotherapist and had turned into a causality fundamentalist. Every effect had one cause.

I told Don about the bathroom. He went inside. He and Greg faced each other. They’re tall. They shook hands, shifted this way, that. They stepped into the bathroom. Sean and Brent stood in the bathroom door, listening. I tried to listen. All I could hear was muffled scraps, words, tone. I heard them say she, loud, louder. She thinks. Said. Wants.

Don came out. He had to be somewhere, he said. “I see you’ve got everything arranged the way you need.” He got in his truck, gunned it, gravel spitting as he drove off.

Greg said, “I didn’t realize yesterday it was your boyfriend who drew the plans.”

“Ex-boyfriend,” I said. “He’s a little territorial.”

Greg nodded. Then told me he’d build the furred out wall. He’d show me how to sheetrock it myself. He’d put my door on, not the door with plywood that led from the old part to the new living room, but an outside door I’d be able to lock. Soon, next week. “What about my TV antenna?” I asked. Nights alone in my perforated house made me lonely. Greg said, “Have Sean put that up tonight. Pay him a few bucks. Keep him out of trouble.”

Sean climbed out of his beat-up car and handed me a bag. “It’s my birthday.”

I pulled out two bottles and set them on the porch rail. Tanqueray gin, tonic. “Happy birthday,” I said, “but neither of us is having a drink until we’re off the roof.” We put the antenna up, guy wires in position. We went inside and plugged in the TV. It worked, but I’d have to lurch through mazed furniture and baby gear to sit in a chair and watch.

Sean put ice cubes in glasses. “By the way, how’s your mom?”

“Fine.” We talked by phone. She was sad again. Because we’d bonded over the first baby, I’d told her about the second, the two-year-old. She worried I was using a dodgy, desperate agency. I said, no, it was birth mothers who were desperate. She said, “I saw a movie on the Oxygen channel. That girl was proud to give her baby up.” I told her movies aren’t real. But I wondered if adoptive families with two parents found birth mothers in easier situations—girls whose youth minister or guidance counselor helped them decide adoption was noble. She’d said, “I’m too nervous to help you.” And hung up.

Sean pointed at a rocking chair. “Some of your stuff is nice. Some of it is crap.”

I said, “Tomorrow I’ll come over and critique your furniture. And Brent’s.” I could imagine. Sean smiled at me. I said, “I suppose a beer can collection is part of your decor?”

Sean said, “In fact, it is.” Next he paused, on the verge of speech, but he didn’t speak. Then he said suddenly: “So you’re going to adopt a black baby and bring it up in this town. Have you thought that through—what you’re putting yourself and the kid up against?”

I was surprised. Did he think he was some talk-show host? “Does it bother you?”

He looked like he didn’t know the answer. “Probably not,” he said. “But you can’t say that about every person who lives out here. Times have changed, but not that much.”

I’d thought it through as far as I could. We wouldn’t be up against Jim Crow attitudes, but life would be complicated. I’d made my decision, but the child who’d grow up in my mostly white world wouldn’t have a choice. Yet none of us gets to pick our parent, I thought. Was having a mother of another race an especially onerous condition to impose on a child? Raising my child would be hard, but I didn’t know the specific ways, and wouldn’t until I was in the midst of it. “I hope you’re wrong. If you’re not, I’ll step up.”

He shrugged. “That’s just my two cents. Kudos to you for having the balls, pardon my French.” Then he leaned in. “Admit you’ve noticed the chemistry.” Before I could ask—and I did think he meant how he got along with his uncle, or how the three of them worked together—he said, “You felt it too, that day I was on the ladder. Our eyes locked.”

I choked on my drink. I’d tried to be nice to everyone. Except the sheetrocker. Sheetrockers is trash, I thought. Already I was a little drunk. But why? Why smile, cook, soothe ruffled feathers? I needed labor. They needed money. Reciprocity. On the other hand, houses were going up all over. They could refuse to work for a woman with no contractor—likely snafus, missing furred out walls. Or do shoddy work and squander my dream.

“You walk around, pathetic, saying ‘yes this is okay, that’s all right, hope you’re doing fine’.” Sean said this last part, hand on his hip, falsetto. “You have self-esteem problems.”

I was pissed off. Knowing you don’t have enough doesn’t mean you get some. “Where do you get off telling me that?” I said. “You don’t strike me as a self-esteem paragon.”

He blushed. “I lack it. My mother said. So I can see you do too. My mom is a class act. That’s why I’m attracted to older women. I told my uncle you’re hot. He said go for it.”

“He said that? I seem available?” I was furious.

“No. He was supporting me, saying be proud of what I’ve got. You find me attractive?”

“I never considered it. Really. Your dad is cute.”

He slammed his drink down. “I don’t need this.” He stumbled, rushing out the door.

I thought I couldn’t work with an angry man. I ran after him. “Sean, Sean,” I yelled in the dark. He must have stopped. I bumped into him. I smelled his soap, also a human smell, sweat, skin. I sagged into him for a minute, his unseen body a container for any idealized attraction without obstacles, obstacles as in: he’d be impossible to talk to the morning after. In this one-horse town, everyone would be. Yet I’d been alone all summer, carpentering, weathering the news the baby is here, yes, and, no, the baby isn’t, and I thought, if staring at a man and he stares back means this inconvenient feeling is mutual, then both of us hanging on in pitch blackness was worse, and I knew in an instant my plan to live without sex until the baby grew up and left home wasn’t practical, not that I wanted to have sex just then with a twenty-year-old. Sean, smart-aleck, said: “You like me.”

“Not like that.” I ran inside.

I drank gin, another drink, another. I woke in a chair, people on TV murmuring about bilingual education. My head pounded. The real door was locked, window shades pulled down tight, the night sealed away. But the door-hole looked like it had all summer, plywood tilted against it, bottom gaping. For a few weeks in June, a frog had come through—he must have seen light from afar shining on my ivory tiled floor. I’d take him outside. He’d come back. Finally, I put him in a Tupperware dish and drove him miles away. But that night I drank water, went to bed. Lying in the darkness, I got scared the way I did when I’d lived in student housing and never read the paper because there was always a serial rapist somewhere—a paralytic fear, all eyes shining in the dark shine for me. How many near-strange men, subcontractors, knew where I lived with a hole in my wall? I went through the list, methodical, compulsive. Then I heard a careful noise, something being slid. I lay there, frozen. I stepped out of my room, flipped the light on.

A pile of shit gleamed in a clear space on the floor.

Ten feet away a ferocious, fat raccoon, maybe thirty-five pounds, reeled on his hind legs like a baby grizzly, flexing his claws, baring his teeth. I had two options, to stay closed in my room all night and let him roam, or run him out the way he came. I threw shoes at him, every sandal and boot I had. Then I started in with books. The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. The World We Have Lost. Seven Old English Poems edited by John C. Pope. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. He ran out the gap. I cleaned up his shit, his scat, my shoes. I picked up books, bent, battered, and went to bed.

Nice if my courage had arrived that night. But it would take years. I spent the interim faking clout, or poise. A few weeks later I cooked a good-bye lunch for Greg, Brent, Sean—with fifteen years less experience feigning confidence, Sean had been standoffish since his birthday. A subcontractor was laying carpet in the baby’s room, and the three of us sat at a table outside. I served pasta with tomatoes and fresh basil, homemade bread, fruit. Sawdust blew in and dusted the food like sugar or parmesan cheese. “It’ll be around for weeks,” Brent said. “This isn’t the first time I’ve ingested sawdust.”

Greg asked about my weekend. I poured iced tea. “Same old.”

I’d spent it near the phone. Saturday morning a case worker named Nikki had called. Marla was on vacation. Marla had told Nikki not to call until she was nearly certain. A newborn baby boy lay in a hospital thirty miles away. The birth parents were seventeen. Nikki was calling from her car and told me to stand by. I was watching reruns of “Lawrence Welk”—perky yet lulling—when she called again: “Debra, I’m sorry. I got there and I found all three lying together in the hospital bed, mother, father, baby, the mother and father crying. They have nowhere, no home, no money. But they can’t do it.” A new sad story. “That’s fine,” I said. I didn’t want someone’s baby, if she did.

I’d missed the segue into the next part of the conversation, Greg’s weekend. Sean said, “What else did you expect from her, some ex-stripper you met at Narcotics Anonymous?”
Greg stopped eating, fork paused. The look in his eyes—like he meant to ride out his last days alone, everyone else fend for yourself. For some reason, I thought of the Allman Brothers, how Duane died young and fierce and Gregg got old, little. I’d seen a picture.

Brent said to Sean, “Take it easy, dawg. That’s your old man. Respect.”

Then the carpet layer called to me from the new front door which you could lock, but it sat open, windows too, to keep the breeze moving. Then he stopped yelling and stood, resigned, shoulders limp. I said, “Are you hungry? Would you like some lunch?” He shook his head, brown eyes beaming out sadness. I imagined them filling with tears. He was recently divorced maybe. Or he lived far from people he loved and felt homesick. Greg asked him, “What do you want?” He called out, “I am not from here. I am from Ohio. I’m not used to laying carpet without air-conditioning. Turn it on, please.”

Brent said, as we carried my refurbished furniture into the new part of the house, “He needs to take a cue from you who worked in hundred-degree heat all summer. He should have seen you in your red dress, running the power-sander up and down the stairs.” Sean, holding the other end of the baby’s dresser, said, “I remember that dress. Nice change from the black. You had a purple bra strap showing, I recall.” Greg carried a chair with one hand, floor lamp with the other. He shook his head. “I didn’t raise him. You can’t blame me he has no manners.” He thought for a minute. “Maybe you can.” Brent and Sean set the dresser down. Brent slapped Greg’s back. “Lighten up,” he said. I wrote Greg a check. “Call if you need us,” Greg said, staring in the rearview, backing up.

For a few days, I hung curtains, arranged sofa pillows. I unframed an old print, angels carrying babies down from clouds, and used brown watercolor to wash over one of the curly-haired babies’ faces to make it black, and a stylus with ink to make its hair kinky, ethnic, then reframed the print and hung it over the crib. My semester started in a month. Time loomed. I called the book page editor of a newspaper in Austin and told her I was available to write reviews. She promised to send me two books the next day. “Did you hook up with that young man I tried to fix you up with?” she asked. This had been months ago. We’d talked by phone, but I’d been finishing my book, making house plans.

I had time now. I called him. His name was Bill.

We decided to have a date at my place—hour commute, one-way—and swim in the river. I had yearnings about love, fatalistic qualms too. Bill was educated, so we’d likely have something in common besides desire. Yet I worried that while I talk about books for a living, on weekends I talk about screwdrivers, septic tanks, or growing up in the north, going to bars on the back of a snowmobile, waiting for my dad to finish his drink, or the weird shit my stepfather said when my mother wasn’t near. When Bill arrived, we shook hands. I showed him the house, the part that was old, the part that was new. I showed him the baby’s room and said my adoption papers were filed. This must be the weirdest blind date he’s had, I thought. Bill stared at the sixteen-foot living room ceiling and asked, “How did you paint such a neat line between the wall and ceiling up there?”

“It helps not to look down.”

Later that night on the porch we ate mangos. Try to act interested, I thought. I do want a man who talks about books, ideas, but he couldn’t use powers tools, and I could. Bill leaned close as if to kiss me, and I sat up straight. “Do you think the baby’s bedroom, all set, curtains hung, pictures on the wall, seems like some shrine to dashed hopes,” I asked, “like Miss Haversham with her wedding cake?” He laughed. It was nice not having to explain who Miss Haversham was. “No,” he said, “the whole place looks homey.”

We said goodnight.

I took a long time washing up dishes. I finished the wine.


The next day I had a headache. How can I stand this? I thought. I sat in a chair. The phone rang next to my head, Marla. “Debra,” she said, “can you get in your car and come now?” I was confused. It was Sunday. The agency was closed. She said, “To the hospital.” She burst out laughing. “This baby is lucky. I have to confess you’ve been one of our favorite clients. All of us are rooting for you. Your work ethic. You’ve been kind to the birth mothers. Your interesting career.” Me? I thought. She asked, “Are you ready?”

I went to the baby’s room, got the diaper bag my mom had packed for the trip to Philadelphia I never took. I opened drawers, pulled out sterilized bottles still sealed in bags. Diapers, undershirts, blankets. I went out into the world—San Antonio at least, a city.

I came home with my baby.

I unlocked the door and set the car seat down, so weighty now, put to use. The door stood ajar because I was going back out to the car to get my spare case of formula. The window shades were up—black, opaque windows. Nighttime went on and on outside. I looked at the clock. Someone else would have to worry about unknowable catastrophes that might intrude, I thought. My daughter would wake soon, hungry. I stared at her, this flesh, this life, this better chance. My wishes for her enchanted future stacked like bricks and lumber into a sturdy dream. I’d be her mother forever, and this would make her happy, not aggravated. She’d go to work each day, confident. When she became a mother herself, she’d feel prepared, deserving. When she spoke to men, they’d always listen. Her eyes blinked open. I’d be there, she seemed sure. I had to keep her sure.

As a fiction writer who understands the necessity of plot, did you manipulate truth into a plot when you wrote your memoir?

A memoir is plotted, yes.  You sift through life to find the story-shape.  Events in life are often foreshadowed, but the foreshadowing gets obscured by random facts.  Life has recurring motifs, but they too get buried. And sometimes life serves up a central conflict, a crisis, and, afterward, the opportunity to draw conclusions about that crisis.  My point is that you don’t make a plot in nonfiction as much as you find plot. That’s mostly a matter of elision: leaving out the irrelevant. And sometimes it means emphasizing something that wishful thinking or self-protective evasion will make you hurry past. So a memoir is never the whole truth. It’s the distilled, arranged truth. I write about this overtly in the memoir—my need to find a story-shape in the randomness of life. Finding a story-shape is an act of faith, hanging onto that unproven but irresistible conviction that our mistakes and troubles matter.


Is that the hardest part of nonfiction, wrestling it into a story-shape?

It is trickier than writing fiction. Writing a memoir is like cooking for someone on a restricted diet.  You use a recipe, but now you can’t use every ingredient.  You have to make a story, but the ingredients are from a short list: things that really happened.

The other hard part is finding the right perspective, or tone. A memoir requires you to be unflinchingly candid but also measured, restrained. I tended to emphasize what I did wrong, how I’d contributed to my bad luck. I thought that was honest self-scrutiny. I didn’t describe things I’d done well. A few of my first readers and my editor forced me emphasize some of my better moments. In fact, my editor told me I needed to depict a few good moments from my daughter’s childhood, and I told her they’re weren’t any. At the time, I remembered those years as sheer work, serial crises, as a steep learning curve. Then I interviewed my daughter. I didn’t ask her if she had “good memories.” I said: “Do you remember when we lived in the yellow house? What things do you remember?” And she had all of these wonderful memories I’d forgotten. She returned my attention to them, and I am still grateful. I put them in the book. After all, they’re part of the story too.


As the author of five books, what would you tell the Debra Monroe who wrote your first book?

I would tell my former self to let the story-shape emerge before I got so married to my labored-over words and sentences. I used to perfect a sentence, then another, then another, until I had an ideal paragraph. Then I’d do I again and again. By the time I got to the end of a story or, God help me, a book, I was so sick of what I’d written, and I’d been miserable while writing. Yet I was certain I had to write so ploddingly to find my essential images to give my story its form. My writing time is more interrupted now. So I write a first draft quickly and return later to slowly refine the sentences and paragraphs. Interesting images still emerge, some in the first draft, some in later drafts. It’s just more fun writing this way. My sense of discovery is more keen because I’m not worried I’m writing something I can’t finish.


Can you think of other youthful ideas about writing that have since gone by the wayside?

I used to worry about not being original. Now I realize everyone is. Every life is as non-repeatable as evolution: a series of accidents turning into a causal chain. At a certain point, I realized everyone is so unique that maybe a writer’s biggest task is making uniqueness accessible to others. Then I worried about finding commonality. But finding commonality isn’t hard either. We are all born into circumstances beyond our control. We want to make the most of these, to perhaps transcend them, to grow up to give and receive love, and to live a useful life. And we don’t have forever. There’s that deadline, death.

In your memoir, you’re brutally honest with yourself.  How bad did that feel?

At times, writing the memoir was liberating. I was writing about myself, but I wasn’t writing to myself. I stepped into a persona. While I was describing my younger self, the persona helped me remember I’d once had a buoyant sense that the world was somehow enchanted, as if tree branches were forming a helpful canopy above the road I traveled down, even as I puzzled over how to solve my problems; as if the syncopated sound of sprinklers on city lawns as I walked through streets at night, meantime wondering how to change my life, were syncopating just for me. This is not to say that my early years were a piece of cake. My childhood strikes some readers as less than ideal. And I married that man who had what you might call “anger-management issues.” Yet I survived, not unscathed, but hopeful. Yet, when I began to write about the most daunting events—the book’s climax—I was writing about a time in which I’d lost that buoyant, protected sense. That’s when it felt bad to write honestly. I had to revisit what, so far, were the worst moments of my life. But I’d found the voice that carried me through the beginning, and I decided to trust it: the same stance, the sense of humor, the penchant for oddball details.


You were also brutally honest about people close to you. Did that make you nervous?

Of course. But I mostly tell my secrets, not other people’s. I do tell my mother’s. I’m not sure I could have written this book if she were alive. Everyone else in the book is alive, however. But I depict them complexly. No one comes off as malevolent. Maybe my stepfather does. Yet even his worst moments are so incongruous they’re strangely comic.

I know a lot of writers worry about hurting family members. I hear this from younger writers I teach. A student will say his dad is upset about his story. (I answer: So why did you send him one of your two free copies of The Colorado Review?) If your family asks to see your work, then you must tell them: this is fiction, if it is. If it’s a memoir, you say: this is subjective. This is my autobiography, not yours. I’ve been lucky in that my family doesn’t read, and so they’ve never paid attention to any of my books. I never mentioned that I’d written a memoir. But then my niece saw it reviewed in People magazine and was like: “Wow, is that a picture of my aunt and cousin?” So word got out. I’m not trying to downplay this pressure. But if you write well, and that means depicting people with their best intentions and also their best intentions gone awry, you can hold your head up and own what you’ve written. There’s also that other issue—that I signed on to give up my privacy when I wrote the memoir, but people I depicted did not. So, like many memoirists, I changed names and physical characteristics of everyone except family, and I say so in a note at the front. People are free to identify themselves or not.

I’ve also been asked if I feel it’s fair to write about my daughter. I asked her for permission to publish the book. I understand she’s too young to fully understand what that means, but it’s not my first book, and we have many friends who are writers, so she has some idea. Besides, she comes off as the most together person in the book. She was born smart and happy. I don’t feel bad about depicting her—most reviewers note that she steals the show. But she’s ten when the book ends. That was a good time to quit writing about her.


You recall many conversations and people. How comfortable were you recalling specifics from memory?

Right, I use dialogue. Reported books—researched nonfiction—don’t, unless it’s taped first. Of course I didn’t tape my life. Not that taping keeps you honest. Think of Richard Nixon. But I couldn’t write a memoir without dialogue. Dialogue is action. It’s the externalization of conflict. A story can’t be all contemplation and pondering. When I wrote dialogue I just tried to be really true to the person as I remembered him or her, to be true to the tenor of the conversation. It’s a matter of balance. You have to show the person’s best side, also moments when that best side doesn’t suffice. Just as you show your own strength and also the moments when your strength fails, you show other people’s strength and the moments when theirs fails too. You do this because it’s good writing. No one believes a story about heroes and villains. We’re all complicit. It’s a matter of making depictions seem fair to a reader, but the easiest way to seem fair is to be fair.


When, if ever, is it okay to blur details, or leave out things that may take away from narrative shape?

You must leave things out. My memoir zeroes in on eleven years of my life, but also covers related moments from my childhood. If I hadn’t “left things out,” it would be a gazillion pages long. You leave out what doesn’t pertain. What makes a memoir dishonest is leaving out details that would change the content of the story. Leaving out details because they distort the shape of the story but not its content is absolutely necessary.

What has writing the memoir, including its publication and national attention, taught you?

By the time I’d become a mother, I’d isolated myself. I was living my life in a bunker with occasional quick exits for human contact. I was afraid to let anyone in. But I wanted to be a mother. I had high hopes. Then I was overwhelmed with fear—fear of loss, fear of failure. I was continually reminded that love won’t stave off bad luck or even death. What I learned as I wrote is that excruciating fear—because you want your child to always be here, now, so you can see that she’s fine, so you can help her or save her—is part of love. Love costs, and its price is fear. I’ve learned I’d pay the price many times over.

The attention the book got is maybe because transracial adoption is suddenly more common, and it wasn’t when I adopted. But letters from readers I value most are the ones that acknowledge that, even if the letter writer’s life is outwardly nothing like mine (no adopted child, no weird childhood in Wisconsin), the letter writer felt I was telling her story. I learned that a lot of women, not just me, have been socialized to avoid trouble, to go along to get along, to make peace at any cost. At a certain point, life forces us to make a ruckus, to take charge and live better. I built a home and family from scratch—as a carpenter, as an adoptive mother. But many women do the same on a less literal level.


Since the events described in the book, you’ve married and moved to Austin, often called the most liberal city in Texas. Does the “minority’s minority” line still apply? What has become easier? What’s more difficult?

First of all, it’s so much easier being a parent with a good partner. A bad partner would obviously make life harder, which is why I originally set out to be a single parent. But my husband is great—someone with good instincts helping decide how to handle tough moments, also someone to share proud moments with, which used to feel a bit lonely.

As for interracial families being “the minority’s minority” in Austin, even the black population is small here, around 12%, and neighborhoods are pretty racially distinct. So it’s a little more diverse, but not a lot. We do see a few families who look like us. Yet, given when adoption legislation changed, the children are all toddlers, not teenagers.

The big difference between the liberal city and the time-warp country is that racism is coded here. In the country, people blurted out consternation or dumbfounded approval, and we learned to respond. But coded racism means you have to respond in code, which requires a different rhetorical finesse. My daughter has rhetorical finesse to spare—maybe because she confronted questions so early, questions about race, adoption, family. I answered them as honestly as I could in age-appropriate language. It was a crash course I wouldn’t have enrolled her in if I’d had a choice. But she has more clarity and poise than many people twice her age, and a wild sense of humor too. It is easier living here, yes. Maybe our time in country—whether we knew it or not at the time—was a good preparation.