Traveling through darkness, the bus I ride inside speeds past the city’s empty buildings. I’m exhausted and watch a woman slouching on the bench opposite me who is seated next to five small children dressed in colorful knit sweaters and stacked like a pile of books, one on top of the other. The smallest child, just a bundle in a yellow knit tumbles off the top as the bus slows and starts with a jerk. I catch the baby before she lands on the floor of the bus. The woman doesn’t react, but looks straight ahead through long, black bangs that cover half her face.
It’s late, almost midnight when the bus stops at the next intersection, and the children peel themselves off each other, stand, and walk behind the woman. I’m left holding the bundle in yellow and fall into step at the back of the parade. The woman walks into a diner nearby. All of us follow her through the door and sit on red plastic covered stools at the counter. A harsh light fills the diner, and I grab a menu stuck between the napkin holder and the salt and pepper to shade my eyes. The server places a cup of thick black coffee in front of the woman. The children are spinning fast on the stools, their feet flying outward, until the woman clears her throat. As the stools stop turning, an abrasive metal on metal sound bounces off the shiny chrome walls of the diner. Heads wobbling and dizzy, the children’s hands cling to the countertop in an attempt to be still and face the server who is now pouring them cups of coffee.
Fingers fly as each child rips open five packs of sugar to add to the coffee in front of them. In unison, they lift the cups to their mouths, and make a slurping collective sound, so loud and annoying, it wakes the baby in my arms. She cries and her cheek brushes up against my jacket activating her rooting reflex. I’ve seen lips pursed like that before. She can’t be denied. I unzip my jacket; lift my sweater and the baby latches onto my left nipple. It’s a futile gesture as my milk dried up years ago. After a few minutes, she begins to fuss again.
I try to pass the baby to the woman, but she is focused on the coffee, mesmerized by her reflection off the diner wall and the blurry image of the four other children, who having finished their sugared caffeine, are spinning faster on the stools. Desperate to calm the baby, I take a creamer of half and half, pull back the seal, stick my pinky finger in the tiny cup, and put drops of the liquid on the baby’s lips. She finishes three creamers and spits up all over the counter. I take a handful of napkins from an aluminum dispenser and wipe up the mess. I want to go home, but don’t know what to do with the baby. The woman stands up and the spinning children fly off the stools and land on the tile floor grinning at each other, until they look up to see the fierce look on the woman’s face, the corners of her mouth turned downward. With quick movements of her hands cutting through the stale air of the diner, she directs the children to stand. Tallest to shortest, they form a wedge and appear to be fused together in a vertical formation as they follow the woman out the door. I zip my jacket and carry the yellow bundle with me, noticing a sock with a satin bow has fallen to the floor by my feet. After I pick up the sock and slip it back on the tiny foot, I remember another infant who had identical socks. Longing stings my heart. Outside the diner, the woman is sitting on the ground in front of a store window, the four children beside her.
“I have to go home,” I say.
Once more, the woman is unresponsive. Bending over, I hold the baby, with my hands under her arms, her feet dangling in front of the woman’s face. Now she will take her, I think, but her hands remain fixed in her lap, and her heavy eyelids slowly close. When I straighten up, the infant squirms and whimpers before she quiets and settles on my shoulder. No longer jazzed by the coffee, the four children are asleep, supported by each other’s bodies from side to side, their backs up against the storefront. Together, their heads fall forward, snap back, and fall.
I begin searching for stairs to take me down to the subway and home. I walk for hours carrying the yellow bundle trying to find my way, but there are no stairs down, no openings, no underground, no way.