Maddy McCray lives a hard scrabble life, working as a waitress at the Monte Rio Café in a little town on California’s Russian River. Abandoned by her mother when she was a teenager, then by her two worthless boyfriends, she is nonetheless grateful for the rustic cabin where she lives—and for Cheryl, the older and wiser waitress who watches over her while Maddy anticipates the birth of her baby.
Then one night Maddy goes into labor prematurely and loses her precious baby. The loss is almost more than the distraught 22-year-old can bear. A few days later she discovers a tiny infant in a dumpster behind the café. An abandoned baby, a baby no one wants, a baby who will wind up in a string of foster homes. But Maddy wants the baby. She names her Judith.
Maddy resolves to take the money in her tip jar and move to the Bay Area, where she can get a better-paying job and study to become a nurse, to be better than the things her momma said about her. But how can Maddy take care of little Judith, work and go to school?
Maddy wrapped her fingers around the wooden handle of the shovel and slammed the blade into the hard, frost-covered ground. Leaning forward, the shovel held the weight of her limp body. She let out a huge breath of air. I don't know if I can do this.
What had she ever done that was so bad, that God would take a second child from her? Mark left her months ago. A blessing in disguise. What child needed a jobless, homeless, high school drop-out for a dad?
She stood up straight and her abdominal muscles cramped. Inhaling through her nose, she waited for the pain to pass. She could do this. She would do this.
Eyes closed, Maddy turned her face to the sky. “Why?” Tears flowed down her cheeks, puddling along the edge of her scoop-neck t-shirt.
She walked to the farthest corner of the property where a gigantic oak tree shadowed the weeds and dandelions. Maddy loved to sit there in the summer, her escape from the heat. And the view of the Russian River rekindled her spirit.
With each shovelful, sweat dribbled from her armpits, soaking the sides of her shirt. When the hole appeared deep enough, Maddy tossed the shovel to the side and walked to the back door, through the kitchen to her bedroom and picked up the swaddled body of her dead child with one hand and the pink hat box in the other.
Dead at 6 months. So unfair.
Maddy reached the side of the homemade grave and knelt at the edge. The hat box, once the receptacle of all the letters she'd never sent her mama, was the necessary size. She set the box on the grass and cradled her baby against her chest one last time before placing a gentle kiss on her ice-cold forehead.
“We would have made a great pair, little one.” A lone tear dropped onto her baby’s check and Maddy dabbed it away with the edge of the pink blanket. The blanket she’d crocheted months ago in anticipation of this little one’s birth.
“I’ll miss you forever, Monica.” She smiled through her tears. “Maddy and Monica. I thought that sounded so cool, Sweetheart. Whatever comes next, I do in memory of you, baby.”
The hat box fit perfectly in the hole, its four sides nestled within the grave. Within moments she’d filled the hole with dirt and patted it down with the back of the shovel.
The beautiful orange and pink colors of twilight did not soften the harshness of Maddy’s grief.
After a long soak in the claw-foot bathtub, sleep beckoned. Maddy gave in to the unconsciousness of night slumber.
“Hey, Maddy, what’re you doin’ here so early? It’s only six o’clock in the mornin’.” A cold breeze surged through the cafe and fluffed Cheryl’s dyed red hair upward as she slammed the front door. “Man, it’s windy out there.”
Maddy yanked the wool beanie off her head. “Robert said I could get more hours if I come in and mop the floors.”
“Well, ain’t he nice.”
“What's with the sarcasm?”
“I’ve asked him for overtime hours. He always tells me there ain’t no extra money.” Cheryl shrugged. “He likes you, Maddy. He knows you’re young and strugglin’ to make it. He’s just mean as a bear to the rest of us.”
Maddy grabbed the mop and bucket next to the kitchen and swung the wet strings side to side along the baseboard under the lunch counter. “Robert’s harmless. He’s a little odd, I’ll give you that. He just loves the smell of grease and cigarettes. Which makes me want to puke my guts out.”
“‘Cause you’re pregnant, Hon.”
Maddy ignored the comment. “I hate the truckers more than the smells. They’re the worst thing about working here.”
Cheryl chuckled. “Ah, they ain’t so bad once you get to know ‘em. But you’re much younger than me, darlin’. They sure as heck ain’t gonna look at me the same as you.” She reached out to grab the mop out of Maddy’s hands. “You shouldn’t be doin’ stuff like this. You only got, what, two or three months left before you spit out that cute little kid a’ yours?”
Maddy held the mop out of Cheryl's reach. A hot flush crawled from her neck up to her cheeks. She didn’t want to think about her dead baby. “I’m fine. You don’t have to worry. I need the extra money, Cheryl. As soon as I can afford to move, I want out of Monte Rio.”
Cheryl stopped directly in front of her. “Well, this is the first time I ever heard ya’ say that, Missy.”
“I didn’t want you to take it personally. Like my leaving had anything to do with you, you know? Because it doesn’t.”
“Here, lemme do it, Hon. I won’t tell Robert you didn’t do the moppin’, so you’ll still get the overtime. But I’m tellin’ ya, if you don’t wanna lose this baby like the last time, ya gotta take care a’ yourself.”
Maddy let out an exaggerated sigh and handed the mop to Cheryl. She held back the tears and wiped down the tables until every speck of grease and dirt vanished, as if her life depended on it. Well, actually it did. She had a plan. And she needed money to make it happen.
“Why're ya’ so all-fired up to leave here anyways? I thought you like livin’ here. Monte Rio's a nice little town."
“Well, for one, eleven hundred people is too small. Everybody knows your business.”
Cheryl dumped the mop in the bucket and let out a whoosh of breath. “No that much to know 'bout people in this small place, Hon."
“If I stay, I'll never make anything of myself. Just like Momma.”
“Ya’ don’t wanna be a low-paid waitress for the rest of your natural born life?” Cheryl chuckled. “I get it. Never thought I'd be sixty-five years old and still workin' at the Monte Rio Cafe, that’s for sure.”
Maddy put her arms around Cheryl and squeezed her as tight as the could.
Cheryl laughed out loud. "What's this for?"
Maddy leaned back, grasping Cheryl's shoulders. "I'm sorry for saying that, about not making anything of myself. I wasn't trying to hurt your feelings. That’s exactly why I didn’t say anything about leaving before now.”
Cheryl looked Maddy in the eyes. "You're young. Time's on your side. They say ya’ gotta strike while the iron's hot, right?”
Maddy smiled and gave Cheryl another quick hug. "Watch out, Bay Area, Maddy McCray is on her way."
Cheryl’s eyebrows shot up. “You goin’ to San Francisco?”
“Somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m not exactly sure which city yet.”
“Really? I like the sound a’ that, Darlin’.”
“Nothing's going to hold me back, Cheryl.” Wait. Didn’t I just bury my dead baby in the back yard? What if someone finds out? That could keep her from realizing her dream and she couldn’t let that happen.
“What're you plannin' on doin’ there?”
“A nurse.” Maddy plopped down on the nearest chair. “I want to be a nurse. And I can't do that if I stay here.” She was better than any of those things Momma had said about her. What her two babies’ daddy’s said about her, too.
Cheryl wiped off the plastic-coated menus with a sponge and smiled at Maddy. "If anyone can do it, it’s you. You been workin’ here since you were a teenager, just like me.”
“I’ve got more than one tip jar filled with bills and coins. I’m getting close to being able to afford the move.”
Cheryl stood in front of Maddy and took both Maddy’s hands in her own. “I’m proud a’ you, Maddy.”
“Thank you. That means a lot to me.”
“If I were your momma, I’d be yellin’ at the rooftops, ‘my daughter’s gonna be a nurse’.”
“I wish you were my momma.”
Cheryl shook her head. “Now, don’t be sayin’ stuff like that. Your momma wasn’t all bad.”
Maddy’s eyebrows scrunched together. “What kind of person leaves their teenage daughter and runs off with her low-life boyfriend in the middle of the night?”
Cheryl scrunched up her mouth like she’d just sucked on a lemon. “Your momma had no guts when it came to a man bein’ interested in her.”
Maddy rolled her eyes. “Ya’ think? Every boyfriend she had meant more to her than I ever did.”
“She loved you in her own way, Maddy.”
“Pretty sick way to show your love, leaving me all alone to fend for myself.”
“Let’s not talk about this any more, okay? It ain’t good for the baby, you gettin’ all upset.”
Maddy unlocked the front door of the cafe and turned the sign around to Open. “A big eighteen-wheeler just pulled up in front.” She laughed. “You better put on your high heels and lipstick, Cheryl. This dude looks just like your type.”
Maddy could hardly stand up straight by the time her shift ended. Her back hurt. Her stomach muscles hurt. What did I expect? I had a miscarriage three days ago.
She tore the apron off, threw it in the dirty clothes hamper and let out a huge breath. “See you Sunday.” She waved goodbye to Cheryl and walked through the kitchen. “Later, Robert.”
She’d made another step in the right direction for her future escape. A twelve-hour shift and tips had been more than generous. Probably due to the fact the holidays were coming up, which put people in a more giving mood.
Tomorrow was Saturday, her one day off, and she planned on sleeping in then she’d go to the library to do research on jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Her bicycle stood outside at the back of the restaurant where she’d shoved it next to the big green dumpster. She twisted the dial on the combination lock.
A muffled squeak sounded from the dumpster and Maddy jerked backward and smashed her butte on the cold ground.
“What the heck?”
She sat still and closed her eyes, listening. She heard the squeak again then stood, brushed the dirt off her backside, and backed away slowly, cocking her head.
The peeping sound was definitely coming from the big green garbage bin. “God, I hate mice.” Though it didn’t actually sound like any mouse she’d ever encountered.
She tip-toed to the side of the bin. There! A whimper. Should I ask for Robert’s help? Nah. He’d just say she was “makin’ somethin’ outta nothin’-his favorite phrase whenever anyone complained about anything. He’d say he was too busy frying meat or smoking a cigarette to help me anyway, so why bother asking.
She reached out, grabbed the lid and tossed it backward. It clattered against the wall and she stumbled, nearly falling to the ground again. Peering ever so slowly over the edge, the sickening stench of garbage wafted into her face and she instantly pulled back, covering her nose with her hand.
Another whimper emanated from deep inside the bin. What if it’s a puppy? I can’t take care of a dog.
“God help me,” she whispered as she snuck a second glance over the edge. Rotten meat, snotty tissues, chicken bones, moldy bread. She gagged and turned her head to the side, took a deep breath through her mouth, and waited until her stomach stopped pitching and her heart quit thundering against her ribcage.
She poked her head over the edge of the bin again, eyes roaming side to side, searching for something, anything alive.
A pink doll’s hand stuck out from underneath a soiled paper towel. Just like the doll she’d kept from her childhood that still lay at the top of her bed.
The tiny fingers of the doll wiggled. Maybe it was a doll. They made dolls that moved and cried. Even pooped. Maybe some kid left it in a booth and Robert had thrown it away.
It moved again then a tiny cry came from underneath a half-eaten corn cob on top of a large piece of lettuce. Hesitantly, Maddy reached out and touched one of the fingers. Warm. She yanked her hand back and swallowed.
A baby in the dumpster? Please don’t let this be happening.
She looked up and down the alley, making sure she was alone, her heart thumping madly. She delicately lifted the piece of lettuce. The corn cob rolled to the side, revealing an infant in the middle of the waste.
Maddy gasped, staring. “Oh my God, you sweet little thing.” She picked up the child and cradled the baby in the crook of her arm, untied the sweater encircling her waist and wrapped it around the baby. “You’re the prettiest baby girl in the world,” she whispered.
The baby stared at Maddy with wide eyes. Not whimpering or crying. Not making any sound at all.
Maddy couldn’t take her eyes off the infant. “Who did this to you, Honey?”
Maddy’s future hung like a boulder on the precipice of a gigantic mountain. Should she bring the baby to the police station, the fire station, inside the restaurant? A heavy brick lay on her chest.
She took in s deep, cleansing breath through her nose then blew it out slowly through her mouth. I have to calm down. What should I do now?
Whoa, whoa. Wait! Someone didn’t want this gorgeous, precious gift?
“How could anyone throw you away? What is wrong with people these days?”
She paused, blinked several times. “Whoever threw you away isn’t fit to raise a child.” She shook her head side to side. “But I am.”
Maddy slipped her finger between the baby’s clenched fingers. “I’ll be the best momma ever, I promise. And I’ll never, ever leave you.”
She placed the infant in the basket of her bicycle and pedaled as fast as her legs could go, block after block, zooming past houses, trees, and the occasional car, along the backroads to her cabin on the Russian River.
Tears whipped into her hairline and she smiled up at the moon, feeling as if she was in the movie E.T. “I’m taking you home.”