Their kitchen was scrupulously clean, all white metal cabinets and red-checked curtains. And upstairs there were three or four bedrooms where the children had slept, now guestrooms. Few people came to Tobacco Road on holiday, though, so it is unlikely they had overnight visitors until I ended up as a guest in their house.
They lived next door and had decided that they would like me to be their daughter. Over drinks one night at the round table covered in a plastic cloth in my soon-to-be stepfather’s kitchen, they suggested to my mother that they might adopt me. I was on the nubby couch in the other room, wearing my cap-sleeved yellow nightgown, up later than I should have been, watching “The Love Boat” and breathing in secondhand smoke and stale breath.
I don’t remember what my mother said exactly.
I wonder now if she hesitated, mulled it over. I wonder if she pondered their clean kitchen, their quiet lives, and thought I might be better off having someone to cook me breakfast again, pack me a lunch, tuck me in.
I wonder if she thought for a second that she might do it. Might give me to them.
She had already given away so much. Sold off our old life in an everything-must-go sort of way—bits of clothes jettisoned, jewelry, books, a car, the house on the West Island of Montreal with the pine tree we'd planted in the backyard when I was five.
From the moment Dad died to the moment of the adoption question, scarcely six months had passed and almost everything was gone, except for my mother, except for my sisters, except for me.
My stepfather lived on a back road in a town so small that the four corners had only a blinking yellow light. It was a road I’d passed hundreds of times but never thought anything of. Where locals lived, and we were summer people. Not that we didn’t mix with the locals.
At the bar where Dad would bring us after hiking, Henry, an old miner and now bartender missing all of his top teeth, taught us how to play pool. My eldest sister was the shark. That’s what they said to her with her long blond hair: “You are a shark.”
And then we became locals, and the road we lived on had a real name that no one remembered, so everyone called it Tobacco Road. All of the connotations of such a name applied. The ramshackle, the desperate, the barely-getting-by. In a land of splendor, Tobacco Road took all the ugly and gathered it in one place.
It wasn’t all ugliness. At the top of Tobacco Road was a spot where my friends and I would go as teenagers, to visit the old house on the hill, drive right up to it in someone’s father’s car and drink beers and smoke cigarillos on the lawn. Or, feeling brazen, climb in through one of the broken windows and pretend that we could be inside, in the dark, alone. That it was okay we were there. We belonged.
From that house, there is a view of the lake (the upper part) and the big mountain behind it—the mountain once blasted and mined for its iron ore and now a dormant nub, only prized for its beauty.
As it should be.
The lake is seventeen miles long and made up of an upper portion, a narrows, and a lower section. It is fed by mountain streams and a river—a large, wrong-way river flowing south to north, winding from New York State to Canada, hooking up to the St. Lawrence somewhere, and finding its way, eventually, to the ocean. My family followed this river’s path, but in reverse—moving from Montreal to a cold, forgotten town in the used-up mountains of upstate New York.
In the lake are salmon, trout, perch, bass. On its shores: wild blueberries and strawberries, birches, pines, spruce, sugar maples. In the woods: fisher, deer, black bears, coyotes, foxes, and even, some say, catamounts. Everywhere there are lilies, ferns, and cattails. It is a land of plenty.
A woman, a famous opera singer from New York City, found this lake years back and upon it she built several fine camps, one entirely out of Georgia pine. She gave them names like Foremost, Topmost, Themost, Almost, etc. And then, across the water, she built a school—for singers, those dreaming of a successful career like hers. Today the school is a children’s summer camp, one of three on the lake. On summer mornings and evenings, we would hear the scratchy echo of a recorded bugle waking up the campers or calling them home and to sleep.
Few people will remember that across the road from the opera singer’s enclave, and deep in the woods, through a field, she built a Greek theater—a small stadium built of stone, a theater in the round. My mother would take us there when we were small, on cool summer mornings. Passing through the field we would see deer, still in their fear of us and what we might do to them. And then within the dripping spruce woods we would find the gray stone seats, covered in moss, silent.
I wonder if I could get there today. Wonder if it would still be where I think it is. Wonder if it ever really was.
She worked as a cafeteria cook and he had some sort of blue-collar job—mechanic, maybe. They both wore glasses and were a bit thick around the middle, her hair a permed halo above her whitely sheathed skull, his hair silver about the temples. They would drink schnapps with my mother and stepfather, play cribbage. They were churchgoing.
I think they liked that I was a helpful kid. Liked that I would feed the goats and geese and, though I feared her, bring hay and water to Jenny, the donkey, who lived in a barn up a dirt path behind the house.
Jenny, old, unkempt, had hooves that curled up like the shoes of elves, and piano-key teeth, yellowed and wet, that lingered below her large nostrils. Whenever she saw me, her eyes rolled into her head, exposing a map of bulging veins.
But I helped to feed her, thus earning my position as a likeable, adoptable child.
They had several grandchildren. Those closest to my age were a girl and a boy, hard children, greasy-haired and dirty-elbowed, and the girl said unimaginable things like “fuck” and “shit.” She waited for me in the mornings, sitting on the low limb of a maple tree just outside the sun porch where I slept in summers, hovering over the path, ready to jump down like a greedy monkey. She wanted to be my friend, called me “pal” and slung an arm over my shoulder.
I didn’t want her. She scared me with her bad words and the sweat on her arms. But then she couldn’t have known that I was pining for my old best friend, a small girl with hair the same color as her dusty skin. A girl who ate in tiny bites and spoke with a clean whisper. She would never have said a foul word. Would never have put an arm over my shoulder, would never have called me pal. Even when she moved to Vancouver, we still wrote, though we lacked a common ground. Once, she sent me a long letter outlining how she and one of her new friends had almost been sold into white slavery by an older man they befriended. I imagined her transformed into the greasy, greedy granddaughter, kissing a man as old as my stepfather and then hiding from him in an alley while he searched the streets for his prize.
But there I was with this new girl, the dirty one, who had taken up her grandparents’ cause and made me her adopted cousin. I had no choice in the matter.
They might have seen me at the four corners below Tobacco Road and bought me for their very own.
At some point, my mother let them keep me overnight. The circumstances might have been simple: they were going out for the night and my sisters were not around and a babysitter was needed.
I’d like to think that’s what it was—instead of some trial run, instead of some what-if.
We may have watched television or played cards. We may have sat and read books. I may have stayed out past dark and played Kick the Can with their foul-mouthed granddaughter. We may have spent the night in silence, watching each other, weighing the pros and the cons.
But somehow the night passed and I did not die as I thought I might.
In the morning I had breakfast in that white-and-red kitchen. It was September and I should have been in school but school had started without me. It was that limbo before the wedding of old mother to new father. That limbo of past life lingering and new life not yet begun.
She made me pancakes and orange juice before she left for work. They might have been delicious but I didn’t know. The house my mother slept in was just next door and my mouth tasted of the rushing blood pumping to my heart, keeping me alive and connected to her.
This is the story of how I was not adopted.
Myfanwy Collins is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose writing credits include Swivel, Me Three, Lilies and Cannonballs Review, The Boston Globe, and The Boston Phoenix. (9/2005)