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linda bilodeau

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by Linda Bilodeau

      Friends whisper about my wasting time. Who are they to say? I wait on this bench in Lafayette Square for my son. And just because I haven’t seen him in a week doesn’t mean he won’t come today. He sometimes comes and sometimes doesn’t. His comings aren’t timed by the rising or setting sun or the hourly chime of the church bell. He comes when he wants or if he happens by, on his way to nowhere.
      I wipe the sweat from my brow. It’s just past seven thirty and already stifling hot. In the nearby houses, mothers are cooking eggs, oatmeal and toast. We used to do that too, me and my son. I’d hand him lunch money, and he’d put it deep into the pocket of his dark-blue backpack. Then we’d sit and eat; sometimes scrambled eggs, sometimes cheerios. But his favorite breakfast was two jelly donuts filled with raspberry jam, fresh from our bakery just below our small apartment off Broadway. Remembering things is never a waste of time. You never know when a memory might help someone.
      The diesel engine of a Mercedes purrs as it rounds the square. A horse-drawn carriage follows. Savannah is made of bits and pieces, odds and ends, the old and the new: cobblestone streets, century-old buildings, young folks, elderly souls, families, singles, the old Southern guard, and transplanted Yankees who’ve lived here for thirty years, like me. Spanish moss thrives on southern oaks. The river rises and falls with tides. The perfume of magnolias and jasmine floats on the breezes. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, builders and brick layers share benches with the homeless. My son is one of those.
      I’m attuned to the rhythm that never falters. The sacristan opens the doors to the Cathedral at twenty minutes to seven. Five minutes later, people file inside for morning Mass. The fountain starts trickling as the church bell chimes the seven o’clock hour. At quarter to eight, school girls race by, their blue plaid skirts swirling in a breeze. They’re followed by a parade of men and women with their laptop cases and cell phones plugged into their ears.
      Four streets merge into this circle, surrounding the park where I sit from morning until sunset. I watch each corner, each passerby, fearing I might miss him. It’s important that I see him right away so I can wave him over and make my son feel welcome in the only home I can give him anymore.
      My heart splits in two every time I think how my brilliant son blankets himself with newspapers, begs for pocket change and warms himself by a fire made from twigs. Sometimes, I imagine him as self-sufficient and cunning. He can get by, I tell myself. But he cannot. He doesn’t know enough to eat, to wash, to change his clothes. He shuffles when he walks and barely meets my eyes. He blends in, my little paranoid chameleon, afraid of being seen.
      I want to help him, but I can’t. I’ve tried interventions. Miss Leanne Perkins, the social worker specializing in the homeless, knows me by name. Her desk is stacked high with folders. Jeremy’s file lives at the bottom of that pile and is stamped as hopeless. Miss Perkins has memorized my story. Some people choose to be homeless, she says. You can’t help those who don’t want to be helped. You can’t stop someone from being homeless. I worry most when she says these things. What will my son eat? Where will he bathe? What happens if he gets sick? Mostly, I worry about not being able to help him at all.
      I blame myself for his predicament. What mother wouldn’t? Yet, I can’t think of one thing about me or what I’ve done to bring such a curse on my boy. I’m an average woman, neither rich nor poor, fresh from celebrating sixty years on earth. I can’t sing, or dance or paint. I did make jelly donuts in a bakery here in town before I started sitting here waiting for my son.
      When you sit here as I do, day-after-day, you try to remember one little thing that caused your boy to take to the streets. But I only recall what doesn’t seem to matter. After he was born, Jeremy cried for two whole days. Only colic, his pediatrician had said. Maybe all this happened because I didn’t love Jeremy’s father and only married because I was pregnant. He left us two days after my son was born, saying he didn’t know how to be a dad. That’s when we moved here. We packed up, me and Jeremy, to escape our northern roots. I opened the bakery, and in four tiny rooms above it, I made us a home. Perhaps his troubles began that first night I noticed he wasn’t sleeping just after his ninth birthday, or the time his fever spiked to one hundred and five when he was three, or the day he broke his arm, skiing. Did all this happen because of the concussion he got after crashing my car on a slippery road? Perhaps it was the chicken pox, or the flu, or that one strange stomach ailment that took two months to clear. Maybe his problems started because I lost patience with him one too many times. It doesn’t seem to matter now that he didn’t get an A in algebra, or that he came home two hours later than his curfew allowed, stinking of beer and cigarettes. I shouldn’t have yelled or slapped his face when he sassed me. Oh how I regret that slap. I wonder now, deeply wonder, if that was the moment that changed him.
      I pat the paper bag beside me. Inside is a turkey sandwich on whole wheat, two jelly donuts and a can of coke. I never know if he’ll eat the sandwiches I bring, but he’ll always eat those jelly donuts. And when he does I think how we used to make the donuts together. How we said there should be whole days dedicated to nothing but eating donuts. I was the princess of dough, who would hand out our sweet treats on a silver tray lined with a lacey doily. I dubbed Jeremy a musketeer. He was to protect our kingdom of donuts from those who said we should only eat broccoli and peas.
      A car horn toots, the church bells chime. Maybe Jeremy will come by today. Maybe he’ll come home with me and take his medication and see his shrink and be like every other thirty year old man. Perhaps he’ll find a job, finish his last year of college and fall in love and live happily ever after. It’s a wish, I know. But I’m the Princess of Dough, after all.
      A few kind friends stop by. Their concern is sometimes nosy, sometimes sincere. Elise, what can I do? Elise, how can I help? I think about you all the time. If you ever want to talk, have lunch, dinner or a drink. Father McGovern comes by after saying mass and sits beside me sometimes. He’s says there is power in prayer. I tell him I no longer believe. He shakes his head and says a woman whose heart is filled with hope as sweet as mine has faith.
      They are all well-meaning but they don’t notice my eyes darting about the whole time they’re talking. I search the four corners of my square, watching for a glimpse of him. If I should see him I would ask the person sitting beside me to leave. My Jeremy won’t stop and sit beside me if someone else is there. He doesn’t trust strangers because of me. I’ve tried to intervene, to get him off the street. Once, I convinced Miss Perkins to help me get a court order. Jeremy was found and poked and prodded in the local emergency room. I helped the nurses bathe him. We dressed him in clean clothes. I rushed down to the cafeteria for a cheeseburger and milk then ran to the bakery for two jelly donuts. They asked me for his medical history, the list of drugs he’d tried, the names of doctors he’d seen. When did it all start? Jeremy only stared at them with hard cold eyes. I told them he had a mental illness. I handed them his story. I had written it out in a loose-leaf binder with page separators, denoting months and years of who, what and wherefore, everything but why. I told them about the late night phone call from MIT where Jeremy was studying computer engineering. They had said he had had an incident. It was there I had found him in a hospital bed, looking flustered and tired. He wouldn’t talk. Jeremy had thrown a fit in the library, I was told. He had shouted and cursed as if he’d been possessed. Most likely drugs, they whispered. But it wasn’t. They defined him with words: cyclothymia, bi-polar, conditions that spurn mood swings like tornados coming out of nowhere.
      At first Jeremy cooperated. He wanted to get better, to finish school, to get past this thing that made him unpredictable. He saw doctors, took drugs and went to therapy. A year went by. Nothing seemed to help. He became discouraged. He couldn’t sleep. He would go nonstop for three days, happy and euphoric, then end up crashing for three more, hardly able to move. A private clinic was suggested. I said yes. Jeremy said no. He and I argued. I told him if he wanted to stay with me, he had to keep trying. He lost all will to do anything and spent whole days in his bedroom, blinds drawn, watching old movies, letting hour-by-hour slip by, oblivious. Tears dripped from my eyes when I told Jeremy I couldn’t go on seeing him like that. Then one night I came home from work and found him gone. I hired a detective. It took days for me to find that his new address was a street corner right here in Savannah.
      All those medical folks listened to my story. They read through my notes. They wrote prescriptions and released Jeremy to my care. I drove him home, wondering why doctors can transplant a heart or a kidney or cure thyroid cancer, but not my son. I trimmed his hair, clipped his nails, told him to rest in his room while I cooked his favorite meal, fried chicken and mashed potatoes and jelly donuts for dessert. I watched him eating the donuts. Every time he skimmed the last of the jam and powdered sugar from the plate with his fingers, I hoped. I should have told him it was impolite to lick his fingers, but I was too happy to have my son home. Sometime after I had fallen asleep, he ran off, the way he had when he was two, when I forgot to latch the door.
      The next day I tried to find him. Where could I look? I went inside the old cathedral and lit vigil lights and prayed, beseeching angels and saints in a silent chant. I had been raised to believe that if your prayers are sincere, if you are pure of heart, did good deeds, helped others less fortunate than yourself, then you would be helped, too. So I knelt in the quiet of the church until it came to me that God helps those who help themselves.
      I walked all over the city for days. I asked the police for help. But I didn’t find him. I sat in squares named Madison, Orleans, Pulaski, Crawford, Ellis. I picked one daily, brought a cooler filled with water bottles and under the shade of southern oaks and that freaky breeze that tries to cool if only for a moment, I waited for a week, then a month.
      It was on one of those sweltering mornings, the kind when you’re damp before ten, when I saw Jeremy coming toward me. I could hardly move, didn’t know what to say or do. I didn’t want to lose him. He looked gaunt and tired and didn’t seem to recognize me. His blond hair was greasy and matted, his shoe laces were gone. His jeans were torn right by his left knee. He stared for a minute and when a light of recognition glowed, I waved him over, motioning for him to sit beside me.
      He eyed my water.
      He nodded and I handed him a bottle from the mini cooler.
      He gulped it down and smiled coyly. “Got anything to eat?”
      “Back at the apartment.”
      His expression changed to that look people get when they can’t decide something. Then suddenly he jumped up.
      “Let’s go to the bakery,” I said.
      He rose and followed. We walked in silence. I was afraid to say the wrong thing. When we got there, I ordered a turkey sandwich, a coke (no comma) and jelly donuts. I sat opposite him. My son smelled of Savannah musk and stinky mold. What magic words would coax him back to my apartment? Then I noticed his questioning look.
      “What is it, sweetheart?”
      “You’re not working anymore, are you Mom? What have you been up to?”
      He was right of course. I had worked little since selling the bakery. I spent my days waiting for him. Didn’t he know?
      “Jeremy, come home with me. At least get some clean clothes.” His gray green eyes were full of something I never understood.
      “Mom,” he said. “I’m wired different than you. Haven’t you figured that out? Just let me be me. I’m okay. Really.”
      I was mad and frustrated I wanted to hit him, to slap him back to reality. But I didn’t. Instead, I started to cry. “Jeremy, please.”
      I reached for his hand, but he pulled away, and gathered up his food.
      “I gotta go,” he said.
      He was heading out the door. I stood and called after him, rushed over to him. “Jeremy wait, I’ll bring food every day. To Lafayette Park. Just come there when you want something to eat.”
      He nodded and left.
      That’s how my waiting here started. I’m trying to feed my son. Isn’t that what a mother is supposed to do?
      It’s hard to leave this bench on the days he doesn’t come. I tell myself just five more minutes, just one more hour. I stay until I’m too tired, or too hungry, or until the lights in the nearby houses come on. I know when the moon rises that it’s time to go.
      Someone told me how Pandora let all evil escape from her box except for one beauty called hope, that man has worshiped hope for centuries, sometimes to his undoing. I don’t understand what she’s trying to tell me. All I know is that I’ll be back here tomorrow with jelly donuts, hoping.

A lifelong dream of writing full time came true when Linda Bilodeau moved to Southwest Florida. She penned three novels, The Olive Branch-A Tale of Resistance, Stepping Through Seagrass, and The Wine Seekers, and always interested in improving her craft, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University. The author also holds an MBA from the University of New Hampshire, Kelly School of Business.

Linda has written nonfiction articles for The Champlain Business Journal. She won an Honorable Mention in the Writer's Digest 74th Annual Short Story Competition. She continues to write from her home in Southwest Florida where she treats family and friends to good French food. Her biggest fear is to wake one morning and find she lives in a world without stories.

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