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Toast

A real life adoption story I couldn’t believe. Mine.

A single lonely slice — Sharat Ganapati

Author’s note:
I previously published this story in seven parts. One reader suggested somewhere in the middle that when it was complete I should put them all in one spot. This is that.
This was a draining story to tell. For most of my life these memories hung in purgatory where they waited patiently while I assumed a new identity. I initially thought removing myself and telling it from the third person would be easier. As you’ll see, there came a point where my memories were validated such that I am able to change to first person. I’m not big on editing once the words are out there, so I’ll leave it that way.
At the core, I hope you’ll see that children are listening more than we know. That they are capable of forming memories from a very young age. That they may carry our comments with them for life and
that our words will shape them.
I also hope you’ll see that children are resilient. For as hard as some of these things were to say out loud, I am thankful for those whose kindness carried me through to the adult I am today. I try my best to be sure no child feels what I felt, and that those who have been kind to me know the depth of my appreciation. I wrote another piece on adoption with some tips for those considering it
here.
I know that many kids had it far worse than I did. I’ve been and continue to be more fortunate than I likely deserve.


Part One

Yann Cœuru — Les blés

Too little to climb the front panel of wavy galvanized metal, she needed a boost. They had no other choice than to bring her along as they checked off all the things they were forbidden to do in all the places they were forbidden to go.

They never actually had many eyes old enough for crow’s feet keeping watch, and their hunger for adventure and curiosity won out over the repercussions they knew well could come if they got caught. No eyes either were interested in claiming responsibility for a toddler, so they were stuck with her, which only slowed them while they dragged her along their teetering and dangerous path.

She wiggled her pudgy toes as her feet sank further into the grain. It felt smoother than it did standing in the field, its whiskers scratching along her shoulders when she walked to the end of the fence to wait for the bus delivering her sisters back home from school. Already warmed on the surface by an Indian Summer sun, it quickly cooled as the kernels shifted under her weight with every step. She wrapped her fingers around as much as she could fit in her tiny fists, bits spilling out between her dimpled knuckles like sand at the beach.

She missed the beach. What of it she remembered, except the part where she had toddled into the water and slimy seaweed entwined her ankles and she had cried out for a rescuer, and certainly not the part where they warned her not to go too far, lest she be eaten up by sea monsters or crashing waves. No sea monsters here, where they had managed to climb much higher on the pile than her, their long tanned legs digging in and the echoes of three giggles turning into acoustic chaos.

Staccato snapping alternated with panic stricken screams as they scrambled to keep their feet up while coming back down the mound, creating miniature wheat avalanches in front of them and not looking back. She saw the fright in their faces and knew she had to get out, but she needed them. They each grabbed one of her arms and hoisted her over the sharp ledge. She looked back into the bin, grain still tricking down in trails, sad because she knew they couldn’t do that again. It was fun, like putting your toes in the mud except they didn’t get in trouble for coming home filthy this way.

Stupid mouse traps.


Part Two: Peter

Jeepers Creepers — jimmy brown

Mouse traps, she guessed now, were to catch little girls. Little girls who were supposed to be getting grain to feed the cows. The only dead mouse she ever saw wasn’t in a trap at all.

Where a padlock should be, they untwisted a rusty wire on the run down shed behind the trailer. They were just going to look in there and that was it, no reason for anyone to get in a fuss about them going inside. “The roof and the walls aren’t safe,” they said.

The trio defied the warning, but were careful with the wire so nobody would need a band-aid — those coveted fleshy stickers they’d only seen at other kids’ houses. Houses that you couldn’t drag down the road with a truck. Houses that stayed there forever, and probably the people in them, too. She got one once from the old lady next door, but had to hide it in the trash when the blood stopped.

The homemade door was stuck from years settling in, moss cementing its joints, wobbling and splintering off bits of decay as they pried it open. They poked their heads inside but did not step in. She wedged her head between their knees as they crowded the doorway. All she could see when her eyes adjusted to the darkness was a single coffee can on a hay scattered floor, filled to the top with rancid rain water. Floating there in eternal sleep, a mouse.

Her bare chest heaved with grief, straining the buckles on her overalls. She immediately named it Peter.

She cried incessantly over Peter at night. She couldn’t be alone. The others tried to console her because they knew if the adults found out about Peter they would be in trouble for going in the shed — and worse — for taking her with them. They were already on thin ice, unwanted here, and it never took much to get the anger brewing.

There were rules.


Part Three: Crazy, not crazy - Patrick

Sleep — James

Today I learned that I’m not crazy. At least not crazy in the ways others have tried to convince me.

“That never happened.”
“You must have dreamed that.”
“She has such an active imagination.”

Toast isn’t over, but I’m pausing for Patrick.

Patrick — and Toast, if you’re patient with me long enough — are the reasons I’ve never underestimated the memories of children.

Patrick had dark wavy hair and a pickup truck and kind eyes. My sisters both had a crush on him. It’s likely that I only remember his name because of their secret way of replacing “Elvira” with “El-Patrick” in the song when he wasn’t around.

He would pull up to where we were walking and offer a ride wherever we were headed. He was around a lot. Maybe they went to school together. Maybe he was bucking bales on the farm. I was scared of the truck engine and of men in general, even though he was really just a kid. He would kill the motor for me. My sisters would remind him.

“It’s not you, she hates men.”
“I’m not a man. You know me. I’m just Patrick.”

We’d climb in his truck and head down the dirt road. Once we went to his house for lunch or ice cream or for the air conditioning. I remember walking up the path to the glass-paneled front door. It opened into a proper foyer with rugs over a hardwood floor and a grandfather clock. Everything sparkled. I froze. We didn’t belong there. His momma stood there in her store-bought hair cut and rich lady clothes pouring lemonade into glasses that weren’t jelly jars with ice cubes from a freezer that made them all by itself.

I realized then that my dirty bare toes were wrong here. I only ever did have shoes on my feet when the neighbor lady brought me rubber boots to help her milk the cows, or when her granddaughter lent me her dress up sandals to go to church with her.

Had I imagined it? Dreamed it? Was I crazy?

I found him. I found Patrick. He still lives in that little town. He still has those kind eyes. He is older but that kid is still in there. His family was never as rich as I thought, but I’d grow to realize that things like store-bought haircuts and wearing shoes outdoors on the regular weren’t just for rich people.

I wrote Patrick a letter to be sure. He wrote back. He remembered everything. He remembered me. His momma with the store-bought haircut remembered me, too.

Patrick exists. He has existed all this time.

That means so does Toast. And Peter, and the shed, and the grain, and most of all the little girl at the center of the story, which is what this is about, I guess:

Proving I’ve been here all along.


Part Four: Grasshopper

Grasshopper

Mr. B went first down the stairs. One tug on the string in the center of the room lit up that cool basement. A cellar, really. Along the cinder block wall was shelves upon shelves of Miss B’s canned goods. I recognized the peaches from the cobbler she let me help with.

The walls in the middle of the room weren’t walls. They were just those sticks that hold up the ceiling. I stepped my small body through, ducking to not touch the wires strung through to admire the stacks of empty chew cans he stored in between. Like he was waiting to plaster the walls until he filled them with these paper cylinders with their tin lids.

Treasure, maybe. Or not.

How was it that one man could have chawed this much chaw in a lifetime? I guessed he was a hundred or so anyway, but still…that was a lotta chaw.

“Those damn grasshoppers are eating up my crops, girls.”

He handed us each a can and promised a penny for every jumper we brought back to him…dead or alive.

I didn’t know why he kept up this game. He knew and we knew that even if we came back empty handed, he’d pay us. Usually he’d pay us more than we deserved, and payday always came when the Schwan’s man rolled his cream rectangle truck up the gravel road with some pushup pops.

Truth told, the only time I’ve ever had a pushup pop in my whole life was when Mr. B bought me one.

Still, we three headed out into the swaying fields, determined to earn our treats this week.

Annabelle bet Stella that there was more grasshoppers over by the creek, and soon they were in a footrace to get there first. I followed in the smashed-down stalks in their wake.

Giggles were followed by screaming. Screaming the like I’d never heard before.

Then the blood.

“GO GET DADDY!!”

Finding my way home wasn’t hard…we’d done a good job of leaving a trail to follow. When I got there, out of breath I stood frozen at their bedroom door.

The rules.

“Don’t come in our bedroom. Don’t knock on the door. Don’t wake us up. Don’t wake the baby. Don’t bother us unless it’s an emergency.”

I sat with my back against the door, crying. Chew can in my hand, empty. I cried until I couldn’t make out the pattern on the mossy green linoleum floor under my pudgy, filthy feet. The door fell open behind me.

“What in the Hell are you bawling about?!”
“Sissy. She got hurt. They were running. And the barb wire. She’s cut up and bleeding.”
“Why didn’t you knock on the door?”
“I didn’t know if it was an emergency enough.”

I stayed in the house while my sissy was scooped up, washed off, and bandaged. I stayed as silent as possible, hoping that they would just forget about me, hoping I wouldn’t get in any more trouble for bothering them. And for not bothering them. I laid stiff between my sisters, the three of us sent to bed early with no supper for causing a such a ruckus. I finally faded off to sleep.

And then I peed the bed.


Part Five: Motel

Motel — Sam Howzit

Annabelle slid her gentle hands under my armpits and lifted me out of the crib. She didn’t have to tell me to be quiet — I knew what would happen if we woke them up. Instead I took my place back in our bedroom on the floor in front of her between the bed and the wall and settled in against her chest.

I stared at the dust bunnies under the bed, awash in the full moon streaming through our window, naked now that we borrowed the blanket from the rusted curtain rod. Her breathing slowed, but I knew she wasn’t asleep.

“I miss momma.”

“Me too, Gigi.”

I closed my eyes and thought about the last time I saw momma and fell into her squishy arms and boobies. It was late at night at the motel where she worked. I walked across the road toward the flickering light in the half-empty parking lot. The pavement across those six lanes wasn’t near as hot under the moonlight, and the waves crashing made it so I had to listen harder for cars since I knew my short legs couldn’t outrun their head lights.

She wasn’t as happy to see me as I thought she’d be. She put me on the couch in the office and locked the front door, heading off to find the babysitter she’d paid good money to keep an eye on us for the night.

Someone had seen me. Probably that lady across the way that needed to mind her own bidd-niss, momma said. That’s why we had to come to this place, with the mean momma that wouldn’t even squish you in her fat boobies where we had to be quiet all the time.

Last time I stayed at the motel my sisters stayed too because the bathtub was full of a gator daddy found in a ditch on his way home and decided to wrestle. Now it played possum with a rope around its business end and momma said my sisters tied better knots in their shoes. Sailors tied good knots but he was in the Air Force, she said. He laughed and flexed his arms and closed the door on us.

We laid on the fold-out couch in the back office in the motel that night and I heard momma pray to Jesus to let that gator eat daddy up.

It didn’t.


Part Six: Sunshine

Image — Pinterest

I spent most of the next day hiding in the shade. It was Miss B’s go-to-town day or I would have gone to her house. It wasn’t lunch time yet but I was sweltering in my sister’s yellow sweater. I grabbed it from a garbage sack in the bottom of our closet before sneaking out the side door. It was too big, but it covered up my bottom, which was good because I didn’t have any pants.

“You think I just got all damn day to wash your clothes and your pissy sheets just because you wanna act like a damn baby? No. Go naked for all I give a shit. But get your ass out of this damn house and don’t come back until your daddy gets home.”

The sweater was Annabelle’s favorite because it felt so sunny and happy to her. I thought it was only like the sun because it was so hot. The tag said “wool” but I don’t think it was because I’ve never seen a yellow sheep. Either way, she hadn’t worn it since there was snow, so I thought she wouldn’t care.

I circled the property to wherever the shadows went. When I got hungry, sissy’s tennis racket helped me swat down a pear in the orchard. It also scared a bird up top and it pooped on me. White goo dripped down my shoulder as I made a bigger mess trying to wipe it off with a rhubarb leaf.

I started getting sleepy around the time darkness crept out on the yard just outside the corral. The barn was tall and it made a just-right shade patch to lay in on the clover-filled grass on the safe side of the fence.

They called it the safe side. I figured that meant safe from stepping in cow poop but they meant safe from the bulls. They said they were mean.

What did they know?

I spread my little crazy quilt with the purple side down right next to the fence and started picking clover flowers, determined to develop the same taste for them that my sisters had. When I had a nice pile, I grabbed two handfuls of blackberries to round out my snack.

Sunshine came to see what I was up to. He was the meanest of them all, I guess, but not to me. He used to have a yellow earring that looked like daddy’s plastic keychain, the one for the keys that he never took out of the ignition. It got tore out and now his right ear looked like a soft, furry mitten. I wondered if the extra flap helped him swat at flies. Even with it gone, I remembered he was Number 42.

“Hello, Sunshine Number Forty Two,” I called out.

A hot burst of snot shot through the bottom of the fence and coated my scavenged lunch. I pulled a fist full of tall grass near the post and held it out for him. I stood and flicked my blanket, launching my bite-size berries and flowers out of the way. While he chewed and huffed, I gathered replacements.

I scratched and rubbed at the flat spot on his forehead until all the mud was gone and his fur was soft again. My eyelids got heavy at each of his long, slow blinks until we both fell asleep, my arm resting on the unsafe side of the fence next to his giant wet nose. I awoke when he did, and I decided it best to find another place to hide out before I got my hiney tanned for playing with him.

I shimmied between the broken boards that skirted the side porch. There was just enough light there to not be scared, and the busted up parts let the air under there circulate a bit. I curled up and wondered how long until either my sisters or my daddy would be home and I could go back in the house.

I felt something sharp under my bare legs. After a little digging, I’d unearthed a small rusty toy bulldozer and half of a lower jawbone. I figured the bones were either from a coyote or somebody’s lost dog, but decided coyote just so I wouldn’t be sad. I drove the bulldozer in a lazy figure-eight and then realized the blade moved.

I wondered if some little boy was looking for it. I figured so long as I left it where I found it when I was done, it wouldn’t be like stealing. I pushed the blade up and felt searing pain in my pinky as it got stuck in the hinge. I quickly pried it off, but not without an obvious blood blister forming. I bit my lip and tried not to cry, but hot tears were already streaking salty mud down my dirty face.

Daddy got home at the same time as my sisters and I followed them up the steps and into the trailer, box fans blowing at full-speed. Everyone stopped and stared at me. The sheer ruffled half-curtains over the kitchen sink were the only things moving.

I was a hot mess. I was covered head to toe in dirt (and bird poop). My fingers were stained from the blackberries. My pinky throbbed.

“What in the Sam Hell have you gotten into? And where’s your britches?”

My father’s stare seared into my chest. What could I say? He didn’t know she booted me out while he was at work. While my sisters were at school. He didn’t know how mean she was.

He couldn’t, could he?

No words would come out. I choked back more tears.

“Jesus H. Christ. Do you see the kind of shit I have to put up with when you’re gone? She gets into everything.”

There was only one thing to do: apologize.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I got dirty and I’m sorry I scared the bird and it pooped on me. I’m sorry, momma.”

She swiveled to face me, The Baby on her left hip pawing at the drawstring on her blouse. All the air got sucked out of the room. Even the fans blowing on high didn’t make it any easier to breathe.

“WHAT did you just call me? Did you just call me…MOMMA? Let me tell you something, missy. I ain’t your momma. I ain’t NEVER gonna be your momma. Don’t you EVER call me momma again.”

She drew one big breath as she turned away from me again, this time spitting at my daddy in her rage.

“I can’t take this anymore. You have to decide. Them or me.”

I thought maybe he’d tell her to settle down a little bit. That maybe she was just tired or hungry or needed to poop, all the things he told me when I got overly emotional. But he didn’t. He didn’t even take the time to sit down and take his boots off. Nothing. He looked at me and my sisters and without further discussion, he issued his decision.

“Well girls, I guess you best pack up your stuff and go find you a place to live.”

Part Seven: The End

The Sun rose nine days later. I know it was nine because the day after we had to leave, Miss B took us to church with her. That was Sunday. Yesterday was another Sunday, and today I opened my eyes to see my borrowed church dress hanging up in the closet on the low bar that I could reach by myself.

It was pink with checkers and a crochet collar, and I was careful to not spill any juice on it at the fellowship hall after the service. Miss B’s whole family was nice to let us use their clothes and whatnot since we didn’t have much to pack and no suitcases to put nothin’ in.

It sure was nice waking up at Miss B’s house, where the Sun greeted you through the window and there was always breakfast. I didn’t mind helping to collect eggs or scrape the honeycombs or milk the cows because even when I did things wrong, Miss B never yelled. I loved Miss B and Miss B loved me. She loved my sisters too, but they didn’t need as much watchin’ as I did.

Mr. B caught me peeking around the corner and asked if I wanted any hot cocoa this morning. I said yes please and thank you and I made my way around the table to my seat — the one by the window where it was too hard for grownups to get to, but just-right for me.

Daddy was sitting at the table. I kept my eyes locked on him, waiting for an apology. Waiting for him to say what a mistake he made or that it was all a big joke and that we should come back home now.

Miss B made toast in the oven. She didn’t believe in toasters because hungry families couldn’t wait for two pieces at a time, and there were chores to do. She set a stack up tall as the glass milk pitcher in the center of the table. I noticed her eyes were red and puffy like that time the bee stung her. She said it wasn’t the bee’s fault, but that’s why we don’t be mean or swat at them. I wondered if she went to scrape the honeycombs without me.

Daddy grabbed the top piece and went at it with his butter knife.

I didn’t know why daddy didn’t just eat bread, the way he scratched away at all the golden-brown crisp until it yielded like a worry rock. He always read the paper while he scraped — he relied on sound alone to tell him when he’d gone far enough. I heard some people saw the face of Jesus there, in their toast, and maybe he was afraid he’d see it too, if he looked. I never seen nobody’s face in my toast but it would probably scare me pretty bad if I did.

I climbed up in the chair in my borrowed night gown, and it rode up my legs just as I sunk my bottom to the wooden seat. The crumbs from daddy’s toast dug into the baby fat still clinging to the backside of my legs. When I shifted, they burrowed deeper. The burn and itch started spreading as my daddy let out a long sigh.

“I already talked to some of my kinfolk in Texas, and they’re gonna take those big girls. But Gemma’s too little to remember anything, so you can go ahead and take her.”

I realized then that there were two other people at the table. A man and a woman. They looked like a grandma and a grandpa. I hadn’t paid much attention to them at first, but now he was swirling the coffee around in his cup and she sat with her hands folded around her napkin, thumb flicking at an applique flower.

He was talking to them. Not to Mr. and Miss B. He was telling these people that they could take me. My vision started going dark. I couldn’t feel anything.

Except the crumbs. The crumbs were cutting my legs. They must be. I must be bleeding because I feel like all my blood is gone.

I slid down under the table and bolted for the bedroom. I burrowed head-first into the Bugs Bunny sleeping bag I’d spent the last nine nights in, hoping they’d forget about me. Annabelle followed me and curled up next to me. I could hear her soft voice steady through my sobs. She rubbed my back, trying to calm my chattering and convulsing with every jagged breath.

“I can’t go with them. I need you. Please don’t let them take me away.”

It was a burden I had no right to foist upon my sister, who at the age of 13 had been more of a mother to me than any I’d been dealt, or any I’d ever have. But she didn’t have the authority to stop this train from leaving the station.

I couldn’t even wave good-bye. The pickup’s canopy blocked my view of the house. We drove and drove and drove some more. I saw lots of kids in other cars and I wondered if they had to leave their families and go with strangers, too. We stopped at a store and they got me orange juice and then I threw up because orange juice makes me car sick but they didn’t know. I tried to tell them but they thought I was just sad and that a little orange juice would make me feel better.

Throwing up made me feel better.

I fell asleep half way through the drive. I woke up thinking I’d see them again soon — all of them — but I wouldn’t. Because that’s not how it works. I would spend almost the rest of my life being bothered by crumbs on my chair and not knowing why.

Every time I thought I knew, my mother — the one whose worried hands picked and rubbed at that appliqued napkin — would tell me it never happened. And for a long time I believed her. After all, how could it?

It’s unimaginable.