I was walking to the office even though it was Saturday—this was years ago when I was gainfully employed and hadn’t the time I do now to dredge up incidents from the past and turn them this way and that—when I noticed a woman walking towards me, pushing a baby in a stroller and holding a little boy by the hand. I was surprised to see children in midtown, and thought: What a thought! To be surprised to see children! I reflected upon the unhealthy nature of the city in which I work and live, then allowed for the possibility—the likelihood, even—that children were often in this part of town, and only now was I taking notice of them because I was—I was pretty sure I was—pregnant.
As I passed the woman, I glanced kindly at her and at each of her children. My goal was to show that although I walked briskly and carried a briefcase, I was not disdainful of children, nor of women whose work was caring for them. She surprised me by speaking. “Miss? Excuse me?” I immediately regretted having paid her attention, which seemed to have caused her to expect something from me.
“Can I ask you to make me one telephone call?” She did not look like a drug addict. Her skin was healthy, her teeth were all there. “Please, can you help me call my landlord to tell him we need to get back our apartment.” Colored plastic bags bobbed like balloons against the stroller handles, and I saw they were stuffed with clothes that weren’t new. She held out a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. I felt sorry for her, and for myself, too. A moment ago, I was on my way, feeling virtuous, going into work on a Saturday morning; now I was pinned like a bug under glass.
“My husband had a good job in Queens,” she said as if I had suggested otherwise. “But the job stopped as soon as he brought us up to be with him.” Snow had been predicted, but it was starting to rain. The ink on the paper began to smear. “No more jobs in New York, so he moved to Chicago. His friend said all the good jobs go there.” The baby was in a pink, sensible snowsuit. The boy’s face was clean. The rain was coming harder and he let go his mother’s hand and sidled up against a brick wall to keep dry.
“How long has he been there?”
Four months, she said. “But I worry, Miss! Not one letter, or any phone call.”
I pictured a man in a bar, tipping back a beer.
“Last night I come home to all our things on the sidewalk. The police came and drove us across the bridge, to the shelter.” She pointed to a gray brick building I’d never noticed before. “In this place I cannot stay one more night with my children. Many bad people, and rats. You don’t know!” She called to the boy, saying something in Spanish. I do not speak Spanish but I know she told him to stay where he was.
“Can you please call our landlord, talk to him in good English?” She trained a level gaze on me as if we were friends. Rain clung to her lashes. I saw her chin quiver and guessed it might have been hard to speak out. She pulled a purse from a pocket, scrabbled in it for coins and gestured with them towards the pay phone a few steps away. I made a show of refusing her money. I fumbled with the straps of my bag, pretending that their entanglement prevented me from finding my own coins in a hurry. But really, I was sizing her up. Once, I’d been stranded without cash or a token. I worked up the courage to ask for help on the street and was surprised when a man fronted me cab fare. As I dropped my own quarter into the slot, she told me the landlord’s name and her name and what I should say.
A man answered, “Yo.”
I asked if he was Mr. Spinoza.
“Who is this?” His words sounded wobbly, as if he were speaking underwater.
I said I was a friend of Mrs. Quintana. I said he should let them back into the apartment. I said it was raining, and her children were cold. Before I said more, he started in.
“Lady, sure, I feel sorry for her, but what can I do? If I take her back, my wife, she cut off my cuzzone.”
“Cuzzone!” came a shriek.
“Shut up,” he yelled. Then, “Not you. Frigging parrot.”
When I said nothing, he continued. “We have only one house, only rent one apartment. We need a rent-can-pay tenant to live.”
I considered this.
“Goodbye, good lady. I think this problem’s not yours.” I stared at the receiver, then at Mrs. Quintana, whose eyes were pooling with disappointment.
“How much do you owe?“ I asked, to say something.
“Five months,” she murmured. Then mentioned a sum that was surprisingly low. She crouched suddenly to attend to the baby and her craven posture filled me with indignation at her plight and the plight of all mothers abandoned by men who have promised them things. Swelling with a sense of beneficence, I thought: cash machine. There was one on the corner.
“What if I lent you the money?” I said.
Mrs. Quintana stood abruptly and made the sign of the cross several times. “God bless you, lady.”
I redialed the number on the scrap of paper. “If she pays up the rent, will you let her back in?” I was afraid he’d refuse on grounds that I would have used: how could she pay next month’s rent, and the next? But this thought apparently had not occurred to him.
“Hokay, hokay,” he gurgled, in defeat.
I felt triumphant, but as we made our slow way through the rain to the bank, my triumph gave way to apprehension. I imagined myself in the eyes of people passing us briskly. What a patsy I was! I saw my husband shaking his head at the foolishness of my gesture. We were saving to buy an apartment big enough for us and a baby to live in. We didn’t have money to give away. I began casting about for ways to get out of my promise. I could pretend that I had left my cash card at home. I snuck a glance at Mrs. Quintana, to imagine how she might receive such a lie, but she glanced back at me with a trusting, open gaze and I knew that I could not betray a woman down on her luck, steering all to which she lay claim, in a stroller.
The boy and I helped her struggle the baby and the contraption through the narrow door of the bank. As I approached the cash machine, so did the boy. It occurred to me that he might memorize my password, so I wedged myself between him and the keypad to block his view of the numbers I pushed. The bills came out, fresh and crisp as play money and I handed them to her without counting them. She asked God to bless me, over and over, squirreling the bills under the cloth lapel of her coat, burying them deeply, against one of her breasts. She insisted that I give her my phone number, so she could pay me back. This request made me fearful for reasons I did not understand but I could think of no harm in giving her my office number. I wrote it on the back of a flier, then hurried across the street through the rain. I revolved through the door of my office building, warmed by heat and dryness of the lobby, and the self-satisfaction that comes of being a benefactor.
As I set a hot Styrofoam cup down on my desk, the phone rang.
“I think I must give all your money to Mr. Spinoza.”
Something turned in my chest. “Yes,” I agreed.
“But I forget to tell you. My baby needs diapers. Can you please come back and give more money?”
Overriding every instinct against it, I found myself downstairs in the lobby greeting the bedraggled trio again. They looked even more forlorn, set against the gleaming marble and gilded pillars. A uniformed guard behind a desk glanced at me oddly. I shunted Mrs. Quintana into a dark, distant corner and flashed the twenty dollar bill I’d removed from my wallet on the way down in the elevator. She looked at it, but didn’t say anything, so I opened my wallet and gave her another. “That’s all I have left,” I lied, shifting my eyes to the baby who was staring intently at the reflection we made in the shiny brass panel on the wall behind us. She called upon God to bless me again, although not so enthusiastically as before. I escorted them to the door, conscious of the wet trail they left on the marble. I held the door long enough for her to maneuver the stroller through it and watched them go out into the rain.
I braced myself for the return of Mrs. Quintana. Back in my office on Monday, each time the phone rang, I was sure it was her. But it was Wednesday before she called again.
“I am Mrs. Quintana,” she gurgled. The gurgling was the same gurgling I heard on the line when I was talking to Mr. Spinoza. “I have a new problem.”
“Problem!” came a screech in the background, which removed the small hope I still entertained that she and Spinoza were not in cahoots. I do not remember the details of the complicated tale described to me then, only that it ended in a request for more money. I denied the request gently, said goodbye and firmly replaced the receiver. She never called me again. But I walked to and from my office warily for weeks, expecting her to jump out from a shadow.
I regret being fooled by Mrs. Quintana, but I do not regret giving her money. I think of her children who would be teenagers now. My husband and I, we bought an apartment. We have two kids. Our kids want for nothing, but if they did, I suspect there is nothing I could not make myself do for them.