By Christopher Major
If Chari let his birth certificate tell it his fate had been printed in black ink on a document destined for obscurity. Name: Chari Richardson. Race: Black. Mother: Angela Richardson. Mother’s Age: Twenty. Mother’s Race: Black. Mothers Occupation: Student. Farther: Blank Space. Let the coroner tell it Death had been banged into being in blinding light, subzero temperatures, and with fresh corpses in the opposite wing. Although Death was a bastard he’d be a persistent one. Chari’s voice was already drowned in the howling of winter winds, crying out to a universe that required a song of him. Medicare ensured that his mother carried him from the hospital in spite of his birth while he sucked out her life for sustenance.
Life died in the winter, the season of holy days. Where other than America does a country joyfully celebrate, pump more life into an already lively commerce, and rejoice in participating in a form of charity that would only be trendy once a year? As such, Chari’s survival outside of those hospital doors had angered gods that’d hedged their bet with a few crack rocks and one
measly war; they’d dared him to experience life. His mother felt his pain three times over—Southern, black, a woman (struggling daily to slip in and out of the last two to survive), and in a Southern debacle persistent in efforts to preserve an outdated class system.
“Bless her heart,” Angela overheard one of the nurses say as she checked herself out of the hospital. Those three words had been code, yet she couldn’t the complexity of regional linguistics because it’d take her changing busses two times to get home; busses that zigged and zagged and zipped to the only code that mattered. 35233. What greater comedy was there than to be born so close to health, to happiness, to life—real life—than to be born and live seven mammoth miles from it? None of that mattered, though, once a premature baby was healthy enough to be held by his mother; her life also saved by medical staff. Such their mutual burden, life in the midst of death. Chari’s white counterpart had been born in the right zip code, though, and on the right date—the one the doctor had predicted.
Angela had her W.I.C appointment after six months of motherhood. She’d been sitting in that waiting room too long, spurred by the instinctual, God-like selflessness of motherhood. The parasite’s loose bowels had communicated to its host that he was malnourished. Angela waited in that room looking for relief for her sleep depraved body and weary spirit, both broken and held together by that bundle of something; her near-death experience personified. That New York Times article would go unread on her lunch break, when she was a temp debating on starving her son by going back to work or losing her job, and consequently the roof over his head—then starving him.
The waiting room, saturated with melanin, empty pocketbooks and—was packed. The gloom wouldn’t hit until the pressures of Christmas time expectations.
“Number Seventeen,” Janet, the woman looking down at her clipboard, called out. “Seventeen?” Nothing. “Number seventeen!” Janet scanned the room full of women too exhausted to answer to numbers but too desperate not to. Number Sixteen had long come and gone, unassisted. In the sixty minutes of lunch no woman in that room had a break. Unless, that is, it was down. Much further down, and through the gaping holes of the social safety net. Even further down still, into the abysmally dark depths of a childhood hunger that proved yet again to carry on economic tradition. Number seventeen had already gotten up, secured her daughter on her hip, and walked out of the waiting room and down the steps of American Classism as the door to help—opportunity’s conjoined twin—ensured the fate of her and her newborn daughter. She’d already walked down those cement stairs because lunch was almost up and she’d have to account for traffic. “Okay, then. Eighteen!”
Chari’s slumber ended once Angela’s number was called. “Number nineteen,” Mr. Robert, or Bob as they called him on a segregated Sunday in the South, called out. Angela’s temporary job assignment had been lost but her son would eat. Chari’s humor, his newborn sense of it, was oblivious to the grotesque difference between gross and net pay, oblivious to its purpose. His humor was oblivious to infants or mortality or rates. Yea, though he walked—was carried—through the valley of the shadow of Death, he’d cried so hard that it made him laugh, which in turn made him cry again. It was his shit that’d finally settle him.
Nobody asked children why they stank, only their parents—their mothers. Angela hoped the people in the cubicle maze—a left, a right, up three stairs, a left, then down two more—assumed that she’d farted and, not that she was carrying a baby with a sagging diaper. Mothers always preferred a world irritated by their own stench than that of their sons. Angela braved the trek anyway, nonverbally excusing herself and daring folks to think her son smelled anything other than baby powder and cocoa butter.
They’d walked by folks running copies of paperwork, faxing paperwork, and copying paperwork; all of them, she’d thought, with government pension and vacation time. One of them was deterred by the sound of Chari spitting himself and giggling, logging a quick mental and personal note on babies in that office—one of the public, of public assistance. The children were loud, messy, and by their very presence in that building, poor. He shook his head at the workload they’d had the year before and how it seemed it’d be the same for that one, too. Then he scratched the brown spot on the crown of his bald head. It’d formed the previous summer while playing with grandchildren that had the benefit of being young and immature and healthy, the benefit of being children.
Mr. Robert opened his office door and pointed his pen at a chair. She sat, afraid that Chari’s stench would make her seem irresponsible, which would disqualify her from the olive branch. After four months, olive branch or not, the shame of poverty had finally crusted over. She had half an hour until Chari’s diaper did too.
“Did you bring everything? Birth certificate? Social security card?”
“Yes, sir.” Angela reached for her purse, it’s golden buckle—plastic painted gold—had fallen off weeks ago. Another shame that was. A Michael Kors knockoff, sure but it’d still been out of the budget she should have had. She’d bought it to feel sophisticated, to feel like she was making progress, like the two of them would be ok. It made her feel like she could still become the mother, from the time she’d pissed on that stick, she’d hoped she’d be. Jason be damned. His son, preparing to wail, be damned. The tears of first born children were always selfish, always possessive. Leave it to that damned baby boy to inhale, dramatically—his body forgetting its asthmatic handicap—before screaming bloody murder. She hadn’t learned how to manage anything as foreign as currency. This is to speak nothing of time or affection, of ensuring that Chari had all he needed. It’d only taken three full weeks and two days before she could tell what kind of cry was coming from the his mouth. A parent doesn’t become a parent until they’ve been trained in the pitches of crying children. Whether he was hungry, tired, angry, or in pain was knowledge an ear had to have its hairs finely tuned to. After all, cacophonies are only tolerable to ears classically trained to appreciate coos and laughter, to ears that’d never again be familiar with silence.
“Here it is.” She handed Mr. Robert Chari’s documentation; the proof that he had, indeed, been born. She handed him proof that Chari had been born as legally as black American children could be before being funneled into government-funded boxes. Angela provided enough proof of Chari’s right to being American that Mr. Robert, bored with the panic of impoverished women—or girls not yet understanding how much of themselves they’d singlehandedly have to give up for their children—begging for the same thing, swearing they’d be the anomaly to a reality as cold as the cubes diluting his Dr. Pepper.
“No, I meant yours.”
“Mine? I’m grown. I don’t need milk.”
“Ma’am, we have to verify stuff. We already have Mr. Richardson’s information. Why don’t you come back when you get yours?” The ink on “Mr. Richardson’s” birth certificate hadn’t even dried yet. His social security card not even in the mail yet. The mushy holes in his head hadn’t closed yet. Yet, he was already “Mister,” already a man.
“I have my birth certificate. Would that work?” Angela unfolded the birth certificate she’d had to search both high and low for; the one not dissimilar from her son’s. To see Jacob Richardson’s name scribbled on it looked like he’d been proud that after his loins produced enough boys to populate planet Earth, he’d been granted a girl. She’d seen the handwriting of the man that had looked her squarely in the eyes—drunkenly, of course—when she was twelve years old and playing in her mother’s oversized clothes, before telling her that he’d loved that empty vodka bottle more than her, that he’d loved that bottle more than anyone. She’d known he’d meant anything.
“No, ma’am. There’s a way we do things. We need that social security card.”
“But there are real live people here! Do you know how hard it is to even get an appointment? What if I brought it up here later? I could give you the number. I have it memorized”
“It’s not hard at all. You just call and set one. Like everyone else does.”
“Everybody don’t have the time to do that.”
“You had the time today.”
“Mr., sir, what I’m saying is that I can’t afford to lose a day’s pay to wait in this office.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” Angela couldn’t help the salty rage dripping down to her chin. Bob had become too relaxed about everything. He’d been too removed from the shock he’d felt years ago, before the desensitization of poverty. He’d been too comfortable in his cursive scribbling on Angela’s paperwork.
“So my son can’t get what he needs?”
“He most certainly can. But in the state of Alabama we feel like it’s your responsibility to provide, not the state’s. Where’s the father?” The father had been off giving Chari a little brother, an even littler sister, and marrying a woman whose life he’d ruin with his own drinking.
“I don’t know. But what that got to do with anything?”
“Go ask him to feed that baby. I don’t understand you girls. You come in here with babies you can’t take care of because you laid down with men who you shouldn’t even have talked to. That’s nobody else’s fault but your own. Didn’t your daddy teach you how to pick a man?”
“So there’s nothing we can do?”
“There’s nothing I can do.”
“Call Monday morning, schedule another appointment, and bring all the required materials.”