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Stepping Stones


Carrie Michael


             Angela’s cough is getting worse. It started with a small tickle in the back of her throat and turned into a full-fledged hack overnight.  The honey and brandy tea I fed her last night didn’t do its trick.  I am starting to get really worried, which anyone could tell if they looked at my chewed-to-the-quick fingernails.  It was a terrible habit.  I didn’t know I had been gnawing on them so much until I caught a glimpse of my bleeding fingertips when I looked down at my pitiful, coughing, rosy-cheeked daughter.  Poor Angela. 

            I didn’t have insurance anymore, not for either of us. When my husband Tommy decided to take a road trip and not return to his job or his family, the warehouse where he worked cut us off completely. I showed up at the main office, begging them to keep us on insurance until I could find a job myself, but they literally shut the door in my face.  I swear I heard them laughing as I walked away, too.  Who cares about some shop rat’s wife and kid who left them with five days of work uncompleted?

            “Here, honey,” I sigh, scooping Angela up and holding her limp, two-year-old body to one shoulder, “Let me give you a cough drop.”  I read somewhere that kids shouldn’t suck on those things, but it’s all I have at the moment.  We are standing on the corner of Gilland and Forseman streets, waiting for the bus.  She looks at me with dull eyes and lets me feed her another menthol lozenge.  Her head falls to my shoulder heavily.

 I know she is really sick.  That’s why I’m taking her to my sister Marilyn’s house.  We stand on the corner with our suitcases and duffel bags, amongst men in business suits and women dressed for success.  The way they look at us is not with admiration or envy.  It is pity, and it is forming a tight, hot knot in my stomach and pissing me off.  Angela’s cough resembles the barking of a seal, and I notice a few of the ladies moving a little further away.  I want to tell them that she doesn’t have the plague or TB or anything.  It’s just a cough!

            “Momma, where bus?”  Her meek little voice and the smell of mentholyptus helps me forget the others around us.

            “It’s coming soon, sweetie,” I whisper in her ear.  That’s when I notice the heat coming off her face.  She is burning up. 

            “Where going?”  She asks.

            “Far away, baby, far away.”  I hold her tightly to me, rocking back and forth.  I’m not sure whether I’m comforting her or me.  The thought of going to Marilyn  and asking for her help is killing me.  It has been so long since I’ve seen her…

            The bus screeches to a halt and people are lining up to get on.  I sling one of the duffel bags over my other shoulder, nearly knocking down a guy carrying an expensive looking briefcase.  In my one free hand, I grab my suitcase and the handle of Angela’s Barbie suitcase I bought for her at a second-hand shop.  She has it stuffed with her favorite beanbag skunk, two of her dolls, and paper and crayons.  I had to put her clothes in my suitcase.

            “Bus,” she murmurs.  I get in line behind the others, struggling with my bags.  We have to get to the station downtown and buy tickets to Louisville.  I have to call Marilyn, too, and let her know we’re coming.  I’m taking the risk of assuming we still have an open invitation.

            The bus driver looks at us disapprovingly.  “Don’t know where you’ll put those bags,” she snaps. 

            “I guess we’ll have to make room,” I snap back, slamming the change into the box.  Her glare sickens me.  I’d like to shove that door-opener stick up her….

            “Momma, I no feel good,” Angela whimpers.  I readjust her on my aching hip and make my way to the back of the bus, intermittently hitting passengers on the arms and legs with our bags and apologizing over my shoulder.  I hear one woman say to her friend, “You’d think those people could take a cab.” 

            Cabs aren’t an option, considering the $30 I’d drop.  I need that money for the bus and train tickets

            We sit in the very back, where there is a long seat to pile our belongings and sit next to them.  I search my jacket pocket for Angela’s little rubber Smurf and give it to her, trying to sooth her somehow.  She grabs it and holds it in her little fist, closing her eyes. 

Please God, let the cough drop get us through this bus ride.

            I start to silently rehearse what I will say to Marilyn when I call her.  Hello, this is your sister, Caly.  I know it’s been a while, but I need your help.  I know, I only call when there’s a problem….no, Tommy didn’t beat us again.  He left us.  Angela is sick and I don’t have a cent.  I thought you could spare some room in that five-thousand square foot house of yours for your poor sister and her sick kid.  No….I didn’t think you might have company right now.  Yes….I know you are a busy woman.  But we need you.  I can’t do it all myself.  Yes….I remember when you warned me about him.  Yes….I remember your lecture on leaving the family and giving up my inheritance for a dirtball factory worker with no future.  No, I didn’t call Mom and Dad.  They will never forgive me.  They told me never to call.  No, I can’t swallow my pride that much.  They have never wanted to meet Angela, let alone take care of her when she’s sick.

            I was starting to feel nauseous. Marilyn would definitely give me a hard time.  And I only hope she will remember her “southern hospitality” and welcome us.  It has been over a year since I’ve spoken to her, and the last time I called was for money.  Tommy was in jail for hitting me and causing me to drop Angela on the driveway.  I had to bail him out so he didn’t lose his job.  Marilyn sent me the money and I never even bothered to call her and let her know what happened.  It took everything I had to call and ask her for the money.

            Angela is sleeping on my lap now, her cough drop on the edge of her lip, drooling onto my faded jeans.  I stroke her hair, and notice her fever has gone down some.  I’m just glad it is May, and not January.  Chicago can be brutal on a sick child in the winter.  This way, we don’t have to lug our coats around, wrap up like Eskimos, and pray her cold doesn’t turn into pneumonia. 

I close my eyes and imagine what my sister’s house in Louisville looks like.   I know the neighborhood, an old historical area set above the park, so the monstrous houses loom above the sidewalks where children play, people run, walk, and roller blade, and cyclists ride in packs along the two-lane road.  Her house probably has the classic pillars in the front, a solarium over looking the park in the back, and a beautiful rose garden on the edge of the overhang.  She got the gardening skills from our mother, who consistently won awards for her roses. 

            We grew up in that neighborhood.  To hear my story, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that I grew up in a prestigious neighborhood and went to a private school for girls.  My future was set out for me:  college, marriage, and wealth.  Everything changed when I met Tommy the summer before I was to start at The University of Kentucky. 

            The bus lurches to a stop for the tenth time, this time at the train station.  I sigh, both from relief and nervousness, and gather Angela back onto my shoulder.  She doesn’t wake up, which is a relief, so I balance her there and position our bags on my other shoulder and in my spare hand.  I wait patiently as the passengers in front of me get off the bus, and carefully stand up.  Angela lets out a seal bark that turns the ornery bus driver’s head with disgust.  I make sure to hit her flabby upper arm with my suitcase when I pass her.

            The station bathroom smells like ammonia, so strong that I am holding my breath.  Angela wakes up and leans hard on my shoulder, asking where we are.

            “We’re at the station, Angel.”  I drop our bags on the grimy floor and set her down on an old chair with a ripped seat.  She starts coughing again, and the sound echoes against the tile walls and metal stalls.  I look into the mirror and hate what I see.  My brown hair is a curly mess on my head.  It was a pretty cut at one time, but I haven’t been able to afford another since, and months have turned the pretty cut into a pretty ugly mop.  My eyes have dark half-moons under them, and without makeup, I look old and worn.  I hand Angela a tissue from my purse for her to cough into because a few ladies have come in and disappeared behind stall doors.  I wet my hands and run them through my hair, and do the same for Angela.  She groans as I try to detangle her curls with my wet fingers, but her protest is weak.  She looks up at me with the eyes of a tortured prisoner, and I force a smile for her and kiss her on the forehead.  I look in the mirror again, wanting to look good when I call my sister.  I know that sounds crazy, but somehow I feel that if I look good, I’ll talk better and she’ll understand.  I guess it’s from my upbringing.  Mother never let us leave the house looking bad.  She would hate how I look now.

            I decide to rent a locker for our stuff while I take care of getting the tickets and calling Marilyn.  Out in the station, we find a row of lockers and drop coins into one, only to find that it won’t open.  I only have fifty cents in change left, so I pray that the next one opens.  Angela leans on my leg with her arms wrapped around my thigh.  I find one that opens and start stuffing our bags into it.  They barely fit. “Come on, Angel.  We have to find a phone.”

            “Call Aunt Marilyn?”  She asks, looking up at me with the same blue eyes as her daddy.  I nod in reply and take her hand, leading her to a quadrant of phones in the middle of the station. 

            “I’d like to make a collect call,” I tell the operator.  I tell Angela to sit on the little triangle of a seat while I lean on the cubicle wall. 

            “Number with area code first, please.”


            “Name of caller, please.”

            “Caly Winters.”  The sound of my own name is odd as I hear myself say it.  I almost said Caly Radamacher, which is my maiden name, but caught myself  right away.

            “Hold on while I connect you,” the operator replies.  God, do they send these operators to school to learn the same exact voice? They all have it…a very nasally, bland voice with no inflection. 

            I hear my sister answer on the other end, and the operator announces the collect call from Caly Winters.  There is a pause, which is actually just a few seconds but seems like an eternity on my end.  “I’ll accept,” Marilyn replies in a soft voice.

            “Hello, Marilyn,” I say, my own voice too high and squeaky.

            “Caly, is that you?”

            “It’s me.  I’m here with my daughter, Angela.”  My throat is dry and scratchy, and Angela is coughing again.

            “How are y’all,” she asks, “The two of you?”  Marilyn sounds afraid, or nervous, or something.  Like she’s afraid I’ll ruin her life over the phone.


            “Has Tommy—has he—are you—“

            “Marilyn, we’re okay.  No, he hasn’t hurt us again.”

            “Oh.  That’s good.  I didn’t mean…”

            “I know.  That’s alright.”  I swallow hard.  “Marilyn, I need a favor.”

            “I see.”  Her voice sounds tighter.  Colder.  Like she sees, like she figured I only wanted something from my rich sister again.  Not a relationship, not a sisterhood, just something for myself.  My stomach tightens inside, and I lean in closer to the phone.

            “Listen, I wouldn’t call unless I was desperate.  I am pretty desperate.  Tommy took off three weeks ago, left us alone with nothing.  Emptied our bank account and took off.”

            “I see,” she says again, making my heart flutter and my hands shake.  “That’s too bad, Caly.” But there isn’t pity or remorse in her voice.

            “Yes, it is.  Especially since we couldn’t pay our rent this month, they shut off the water yesterday, and there is no insurance—“

            “Caly, what is it that I can do for you?”  She says every word with a clarity that tells me she is not amused.

            “I wouldn’t bother you, but it’s Angela.”  Tears fill my eyes as I turn to see her curled up in the little triangle seat, sucking her fingers and sleeping soundly.  “Angela is sick.  I can’t get afford a doctor or medicine—“

            “What about social services?  Can’t you get free medical services?”  This pisses me off.

            “Those doctors they send you to could care less! They prescribe the same antibiotic for everything, and it never works. Besides, I’m not a welfare case.”

            Marilyn sighs.  There is a pause in which I have to blow my nose, as much as I don’t want her to know I’m crying.  “Look, Caly, I’m sorry your daughter is sick.  But I have to tell you, I don’t appreciate you calling me once a year when you need money or help or something.  And what do you call coming to me for help?  Isn’t that welfare?”         

            I contemplate hanging up on her and her high and mighty attitude, but know I can’t let my pride get in the way of Angela having a chance in this world.  I let her nasty comment pass.

            “Marilyn, I need your help. We are at the bus station, and I already have two tickets to Louisville.  I know for a fact that your house has six bedrooms, three of which aren’t being used.  You told me that when you made that offer to come stay with you last year.  I am hoping that you still hold that option open.  Otherwise, I have no one, no where to go. And we are family.  I know we’re not close, but I’d like for that to change.”  Ah, the lies one can tell for their child.

            “Caly,” and Marilyn paused for a long moment.  I could just see her with her finger on her temple, her eyes rolled to the ceiling.  “What can I tell you?  Have you called Mom and Dad?”  Didn’t I rehearse it that way?

            “No way.  They don’t want anything to do with me.”

            “And they’re in Tahoe right now.  Skiing at their age.”

            “Marilyn, we are going to be there in eight hours.  Our bus comes in at 6pm.  Will you be there?”  This is killing me, practically begging her.

            “Well,” she replies, “Y’all will have to take a cab over here.  I don’t like to drive in that part of town at night.  But I guess you’re welcome.  I’ll have to cancel my Women’s League meeting tomorrow.”

            “Thank you!” I cry, ignoring her irritated tone.  “We’ll see you later then.”

            “Yes.”  And she hangs up.

Angela is softly snoring through her congestion.  I scoop her into my arms and let my tears fall into her sweet curls.  She forms to me, wrapping her little arms around my neck, and I let the tears fall for a couple of minutes.  Tears that are a mixture of love for my daughter, pride, shame, and fear.  

**Look for the next installment of Stepping Stones on 12/3/00**

Copyright©2000 Carrie Michael