ESQUIRE
One Point of Light
What happens when a homeless woman meets a Christian soldier?
October 1989
By David Finkel
Picture Editor: Temple Smith

Wait a minute, can I talk a minute? Nigel, sit in the brown chair, please. Stop. Okay. Stop. Right now."  It is morning in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, population 5,100, and on West Street a woman named Sheila Braun can only wonder where she'll find the time to do what needs to be done. She has a job to get to, a sink filled with dishes, a car that needs gas, a dog that needs food, prayers to recite, church members to phone, and four children to get off to school, two of whom are now jumping on the couch.  "No. No. Stop," she says. "Put that knife in the kitchen, please. MaryGwen. MaryGwen, why don't you go look in the dryer for what you need?"  "For what?" says MaryGwen, who is six.  "You know," Sheila says.  "Cookies?" MaryGwen guesses. "Cookies?" Sheila says.  She laughs at this and gives MaryGwen a hug. This is how Sheila Braun is. She laughs a lot, hugs her children all the time, and almost never loses her temper, even when she's running late, and the phone is ringing, and it's someone from the animal shelter wondering for the third time in as many weeks when she is going to get the dog spayed. "When I have the money," she says, without a hint of exasperation. "When I can catch up with the bills." She hangs up. "It's a matter of priorities," she says with a shrug.

To Sheila, the children come first. No, make that God. God comes first, the children come second, helping others comes third, and everything else follows. The dog is way down there. So, for that matter, is she, but that's okay. She is comfortable with her order, merry in the blur.


213B-011-002
Faith, hope, and charity: At the center of Sheila's world are God and her children.

On this day, though, as she fixes breakfast and whips up some cupcakes for MaryGwen to take to school, she pauses just long enough to glance at the front page of the local paper. The headline that catches her eye says, HOMELESS WOMAN GIVES BIRTH. The article, only a few sentences long, reads: "A twenty-six-year-old pregnant subway rider declaring, 'I am ready,' gave birth to a baby girl Tuesday in the toolroom of a bustling midtown Manhattan subway station with the help of two Transit Police officers. The woman, Martha Davis, who is homeless, left a subway train during the morning rush hour and approached a token-booth clerk in the Rockefeller Center station to say she was ready to give birth to her sixth child... Mother and child were taken to Roosevelt Hospital where both were reported in good condition."

It takes Sheila just a minute to read this, but by the time she is done, something inside her has clicked. She knows what she wants to do.

She gets the children off to school, makes some calls, and stops by her church to tell some friends what she has in mind. "Are you crazy?" they say. "What if she robs you? What if she hurts you? What if she kills your children?" She thanks them for their advice, hurries home, makes some more calls, tells her children of her plans, loads them into her aging Chevrolet Citation, and heads out of Honesdale-away from the shops on Main Street and the parks on Park Street and the churches on Church Street-toward New York City.

She is about to do something wonderful, and as the miles go by she is so happy that she and the children begin to sing.

Meanwhile, in a Manhattan hospital room, Martha Davis is told that a woman from Pennsylvania is coming to give her a home. She is woozy from birth and anxious because she has now gone three days without cocaine.

"Where's Pennsylvania?" she asks.

The nurses bring in a map and show her.

In Sheila Braun's world, which is to say the world of most of us, there are doctors and nurses and prenatal care when somebody gets pregnant. In Martha Davis's, gestation typically occurs on the streets, and babies are frequently born undernourished, underweight, and mentally deficient. In Sheila's, food means three meals a day. In Martha's, nutrition comes from whatever food panhandled money can buy. For Sheila, each time labor began, a hospital room was waiting. For Martha, as she sat in the subway station waiting for help, a stranger cursed at her because he thought she was defecating.

This is how life goes for the million or so homeless people in America, and it has been Martha's life since she was seventeen, when she gave birth to her first child and her mother told her to leave. Nine years later Martha has lived in parks, abandoned buildings, welfare hotels, emergency shelters, and the doorway of a church.

To meet Martha for the first time is to have a hard time believing she could survive this kind of life. She has a long, smooth face that suggests a certain innocence, a face more reminiscent of the child she was than of the old, tired woman she is becoming. Her eyes -steady and clear- don't give her away, and neither does the way she talks. "I'm not crazy," she says in a tone both measured and persuasive.

What is she, then?

A person with high standards, she says.

For instance?

"I never eat out of the garbage."

It's a standard of the absurd, but to see the place where Martha spent much of her last pregnancy panhandling brings an understanding of how she could hold such a thing dear.

It is another subway stop in midtown Manhattan, this one at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Thirty-fifth Street. When a train pulled in there on a recent afternoon, dozens of people moved quickly off one car, trying to get away from a bruised and sagging woman, no doubt one of the city's homeless, who was in the midst of a discourse on her life. "Believe me, I don't want to do this," she had begun screaming as the car's doors had closed at the previous stop, "but I don't have any other choice. I must tell you my story."

That same afternoon, up on the sidewalks where Martha used to wander for hours on end, there was a parade of leopard-skin loafers, silk suits, Reeboks, Ray Bans, yarmulkes, turbans, and limousines. A man walked by wearing a little boy's clip-on tie. Another man carried a pink plastic gun; his right index finger curled around the trigger, pulling, pulling, as if he had a twitch.

There are plenty of stores near this intersection, and outside one, which sells nothing but socks, a man held up a sign that said, PLEASE HELP. AM HOMELESS AND I DON'T DRINK. HUNGRY. He was begging for money, and if he ever got to eleven dollars, he would be able to go into the sock store and buy a pair imprinted with the words WORLD LOVE.

Of course Martha could find dignity in such a place. Who couldn't?


213B-037-006
Martha with Rondu Thompson, the father of four of her children. “I do love her,” he says, “but I just don’t know what to do.”

In Honesdale, there were maybe a half-dozen drug arrests in all of 1988. "Ten at the most," says Police Chief Frank Rosler.

There has never been a baby born addicted to cocaine. "None," says Ellen Bradbury of Wayne County Memorial Hospital.

There are two black people, according to the 1980 census. "Two?" says Sheila when she hears this. "I wonder who they are?"

There are no homeless people. When night falls, all the town is tucked in.

Sheila Braun moved away from Honesdale a few times in her life, once to Brooklyn for a few years and once to California, but each time she returned, glad to be back home. She knows the people, knows their habits, knows the back roads. Up one road is where she got married the first time, pregnant, dressed in brown and with a star painted on her cheek. She was a bit of a free spirit then, and when the baby was born, she named him Freedom. Up another road is where she lived with her second husband -that was when she began believing so strongly in God; up another is the house where her parents live. Sheila phones her mother three times a week. Her father, now in his late sixties, worked as a butcher. He is a quiet man, but Sheila knows how important he has been in her life. Years ago, for instance, when Sheila was fresh out of high school, someone gave her some drugs. For a few hours, she thought she was looking at everything through a kaleidoscope, and in every facet, there was her father, standing in his butcher's apron in front of the grocery store.

That was it for drugs.

Now thirty-seven, Sheila lives with her four children on the top floor of an old house just off Main Street. Her son Freedom, seventeen, has his own bedroom, as does her daughter, MaryGwen. The two other boys, Nigel, eight, and Easton, nine, share a room, and Sheila sleeps either on the living-room couch or upstairs in the unfinished attic.

The house rents for $375 a month. It is tiny and cramped for a family of five, not at all what Sheila wishes she had. That house, the one she dreams of, is large, everything in it is white, from the ceiling to the walls to the curtains. The only color comes from the blue of the ocean, just outside the livingroom window, and perhaps from a vase filled with flowers. The flowers are freshly cut, the colors are pastel.

In reality, there is almost no white in Sheila's home, and the view out the window is of other houses along a curving street. Parts of the carpet are worn to threads. The couches, bought secondhand, look as if they were designed to hide stains. "Ugh. Browns and beiges," Sheila says, looking around. "I think I never made this house home because I've never wanted to be in it."

But it is what she can afford. Years ago, she decided that she would rather be poor and home for her children than rich and never around. So she works part-time wherever she can, cleaning houses or painting signs for businesses, and on school days, when the front door bursts open at 3:30 P.M., she is waiting.

She ends each day by reading the Bible aloud to her children, and she begins each day alone in prayer. While her children are still sleeping, she kneels on the floor, clasps her hands, bows her head, and prays for the lost souls of the world.

6:30 A.M. "Dear God," Sheila begins...

7:00 A.M. Prayers are done. The children are awake. Easton can't find his shoes.
"Have you asked God to help?" says Sheila.
"Oh gosh, no," says Easton.

He prays, and then he finds his shoes.

Martha's first child weighed seven pounds, the only one whose size approached normal. Her second one weighed just over five pounds. The third, weighing four pounds, ten ounces, was born on a stretcher as Martha was being wheeled into the emergency room at Bellevue. The fourth weighed two pounds, six ounces, and was born addicted to drugs. The fifth, also addicted, weighed four pounds, fifteen ounces, and was born on a couch in the home of the baby's father. The couch was new, and the father spent an hour trying to get it clean.

All of the children are now living either with relatives or in foster homes. After the fifth one was born, Martha decided she'd had enough babies and asked about methods of birth control. An IUD was suggested, but she thought she would have to be cut open. The next suggestion was for a diaphragm, but she was scared of that too. The last suggestion was the pill. She took it for a few days, wondered if it was making her sick, stopped.

Soon came baby number six, the one Sheila read about in the paper.

When labor began, Martha was in an office building on Park Avenue South, trying to get some sleep. More specifically, she was on the building's roof, in a shed perched atop the elevator shafts.

This was where Martha had been sleeping for the last months of her pregnancy. She would panhandle and walk the streets until 5:00 in the morning, and then she would make her way to the building, where the superintendent, George Troisi, would let her in as he arrived for his shift.

First she would go to the basement. She would bathe in an industrial sink in the boiler room and dry off with machine rags. Then she would climb to the roof, go into the elevator shaft, bolt the door, and sleep on a foam pad laid out between the pulleys. It was dirty but quiet. The sound of the putteys was soothing. If she looked down the shafts, she could see the elevator cars rising and falling, and the people getting on and off, their hair combed, their clothes pressed, their briefcases at their sides. Usually, she didn't bother to look. She would lie down and sleep for hours, and when she awakened, she would go back to the basement to tell George goodbye.

"You're my friend," she would say.

Sometimes he'd give her a tin of sardines to take with her. "A good source of calcium," he would explain.

Now, this day, at 6:30 A.M., as Martha lay in the elevator shaft, a sudden tightening sensation caused her to sit up. Then came a wave of pain. She hurried to the basement to tell George. She told him her mouth felt dry. He gave her a cup of ice, and ten dollars for a cab.

Out on the street, it was still dark. Doubled over, she tried to wave down a cab, but none would stop. She had no choice but to walk to a nearby subway station, where she boarded the first train that came along. She sat alone in a car, chewing the ice, hoping to make it to the hospital she knew of in Queens, but the cramping became so severe she got off at the next stop, beneath Rockefeller Center.
She moved slowly along the platform, not quite sure where to go. She stumbled up some steps and drifted along in the tide of commuters, until she saw a Transit Authority police officer in the distance. She slid to the ground.

"I'm ready," she called.

"For what?" the police officer, Patrick Ginty, called back.

"To have a baby."

Ginty walked over to look at her. She was dirty. She was wearing two pairs of pants, neither of which could be buttoned over her stomach.

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Martha Davis."

"What's your address?"

"I don't have one. I'm homeless."

Ginty radioed for aid, and a few minutes later Keith Rivers, an emergency medical technician, helped Martha into a locker room for transit workers.

"Hey! What are you doing?" a worker yelled.

"This woman's gonna have a baby," Rivers said.

"Unh-unh," the worker said, blocking the way. "I gotta call my supervisor."

Rivers pushed past him and spread out a sterile sheet on the concrete floor. Martha couldn't wait for him to finish. She stripped off her pants and lay down.

"Help me," she said.

"You don't need any help," Rivers said, trying to encourage her. "Push."

She did. Another officer held out his hands, and Martha grabbed them.

"Push," Rivers said.

Martha screamed.

"Push."

Then: "I see it."

Then: "It's a baby girl."

The baby was tiny and undernourished, and a urine test showed she was full of cocaine.

The officers wrapped her in a blanket and took her to St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, where they are used to such things. About five homeless babies are born there a week, and the majority of them are addicted to drugs.

Nurses who care for these babies say the ones addicted to methadone and heroin are the worst off. Like any addict, the babies have to go through withdrawal, and for several days they are in agony. They shake so much they are given anticonvulsants,
and their hands have to be wrapped so they won't scratch themselves bloody.

Cocaine babies, the nurses say, are easier. They require no medication, only steady human contact until the drug is gone. To help in this, the hospital has a program called Baby Holders, in which volunteers are recruited to cradle a stranger's infant for hours at a time. "I'm rather overwhelmed," Virginia Crosby, who began the program three years ago, says of the effects that holding an infant can produce. "Babies start to flourish, to blossom. You can see their faces changing, going from a tightness to a relaxed look."

This is the program Martha's baby was assigned to. Martha, meanwhile, was put in a semiprivate room where social workers stopped by to tell her of her options.

She could take her baby and move in with relatives.
She could take her to a welfare hotel.
She could put her in foster care and do whatever she wanted.
Then Sheila called.

"Who are these people?" Martha asked a social worker.
"I don't know."
"What do you think I should do?"
"You're an adult, Martha. It's your decision."

George Troisi stopped by with a bouquet of flowers. Martha told him of the offer and asked him what he thought.

"This could be the break you need," he said.

Rondu Thompson, the baby's father, came by. He is the father of four of Martha's children. He is the one who had to clean the couch.

"You might as well go," he told Martha. "Ain't nothing happening for you here."

Sheila arrives at the hospital. Martha is there waiting. They say hello and go out to the car. All the way to New York, Sheila had imagined that Martha would want to sit next to her in the front seat on the drive back, but when Martha gets in, she climbs into the backseat and soon she is asleep.

Well, okay, Sheila thinks.

They get to New Jersey and stop for a bite to eat. Martha looks around the restaurant. "You know," she says, "there's not one black person here."

"No," Sheila says.

"I'm beginning to feel strange," Martha says.

It is almost midnight when they arrive in Honesdale. The only sound in town seems to be Sheila's car slipping along the streets, and when she turns the car off, the silence is complete, like the quiet after a nighttime snowfall. Martha walks into her new home and asks where her bed is. Sheila shows her the living-room couch, busies herself putting the children in their rooms, comes back to see if Martha wants to talk.

But Martha is asleep.

"Goodnight,” Sheila says anyway.

She gets into bed in the attic, lies down, and begins to cry. "What have I done?" she wonders.

The next day, Martha is still quiet, as if Honesdale is a place that can only be lived in on tiptoe.

"How are you?" Sheila asks her.
"Scared," Martha says.

Sheila looks at Martha and realizes this is true.

"Of what?" she asks.
"I never came to nobody's house like this," Martha says. "I'm three hours out of New York. I don't know you. Maybe you want to kill me."
"I want to help you," Sheila tells her, suddenly flooding with emotion. "I'm going to help you."

And just like that, in her mind, she can see Martha becoming a different person, blossoming in the same way babies do when they're cradled in someone's arms, even the arms of a stranger.

For the first few days, Martha stays mostly in the house, but once she gets her strength back, she begins venturing out into a town unlike any she has ever seen. "It's so quiet," she keeps saying, astonished that there could be such an absence of sound. "Where are the people? Where are the sirens?" Initially, she goes no farther than the street in front of Sheila's house, but soon she is taking walks, shopping at thrift stores for clothing, even attending services with Sheila at her church.

She gets a job, her first ever, cleaning houses for $4.50 an hour.
She enrolls in a community drug-rehabilitation program.
She opens a bank account, plays games with Sheila's kids, talks about bringing her own children to see Honesdale. Day by day, it seems, the hard place Martha comes from grows more remote.

Maybe this will work, Sheila starts to think.
Martha is thinking it, too.

"I want to stay off drugs, Martha tells Sheila one night. She has been here two weeks. They are in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Sheila is cutting up vegetables, and Martha is frying chicken. "I want an apartment, and I want my children back."

Sheila hugs her. Martha hugs back.

Outside, two of Sheila's children are in the backyard. MaryGwen is playing with a doll, and Easton is digging for worms.

Inside, Martha begins to talk about one of the welfare hotels she once stayed at with one of her babies.

"There was a ghost in there," she says matter-of-factly. "It used to bother me when I'd be asleep. It used to smash my head against the wall. That's when I really used to get high -because nobody would believe me."

"I believe you," Sheila says.

"Yeah, push my baby out of bed," Martha continues. "For no reason, I'd see my baby fall. I said, 'I gotta get out of here.' I went downstairs and said, 'Either change my room, or I'm getting the hell out of here.' I said, 'Did somebody die in that room?'"

Dinner is ready.

The next day, Sheila and Martha go for a drive in the country. It is a landscape Martha has never seen. The day is warm; and the car windows are down as Sheila drives by a cow pasture. "You got sewer problems way out here?" Martha asks.

Another day. Martha washes the dishes and forgets to turn off the water.

"I'm on a budget," Sheila says, explaining why the water needs to be shut off. "When I run out of money, I can't go out on the street and ask someone for more."

"You should," Martha says.
"If I did that, I'd be in trouble in this town," Sheila says.
Martha is incredulous. "Yeah?"

Later, Martha walks into town and comes back with a card for Sheila. "Thank you for caring about me and my family which you have never met and helping me with the situation that I'm in," she writes. "I will never forget you. This is a promise from my heart sincerely."

The next day, Martha, Sheila, and the children drive to the top of a cliff that overlooks Honesdale. The town is spread out beneath them, bathed in the perfect light of late afternoon.

"Look at it," Martha says. "It's nothing but a picture book."

That night, Martha telephones Rondu Thompson. She makes the call in the kitchen, but her voice, even when it's a whisper, can be heard in the living room.

"She's blended into this so easily," says Sheila, who is sitting on the couch. "Somewhere in her life, there must have been a season when things went right. Somewhere she learned good things."

Now Martha can be heard laughing.

"I never hesitated," Sheila goes on, explaining why she wanted to take Martha in. "Here's a person who was going to go back out on the street, and I knew what was going to happen. Maybe here she can see it can be done, that you can feel good about yourself."

Now Martha can be heard walking back and forth.

"I would like for her to stay here awhile. For months," Sheila continues. "If she went back in a month, what would she have? She wouldn't have an apartment, she wouldn't have money, she wouldn't have a job. She wouldn't have seen enough of the other side. I want her to have a life like anyone else. I want her kids to grow up and become healthy adults who have healthy kids. I'd like to see the cycle broken. What God has planned, I have no idea."

Martha has been on the phone twenty minutes. At last she hangs up, comes out to the living room, and says she'd like to go to New York to see her baby.

She goes by bus.

It is a Friday. Martha is supposed to see the baby Saturday, but there has been a mix-up. The baby, a social worker explains, has been moved to a new foster home, and there isn't enough time to reschedule the visit, not this weekend anyway.

Martha considers the idea of going straight back to Honesdale but decides that as long as she has come this far, she might as well stay a few days.

She goes to see Rondu, who works as a messenger for a graphic-arts firm. She goes for a walk past some of the places where she hung out.

"This is the haunted mansion where I used to live," she says, standing outside the Hotel Martinique, a homeless hotel that has been closed down by the city. "It was hell. People used to get stabbed, babies used to die in their cribs, people used to fall out of windows. It was never quiet. Sometimes it was all right, laughing and stuff in the hallways, but most of the time it was fighting, because somebody owed somebody money, or somebody was knocking on your door begging for food, something like that. I lived here eighteen months."

She goes past another homeless hotel called the Prince George, where she learned to smoke crack.

"I was paranoid," she says. "I'd think, 'Everybody is looking at me,' and 'Everybody wants to touch me.' Or a guy might be wanting to talk to me, 'How you doing, baby?' If I wasn't high, I wouldn't want no part of him, but I'd talk to him calmly. If I was high, I'd say, 'Get away from me! Stay away from me!' The expression on my face changes. I look totally different. You have to see it. I'm walking like a zombie."

At the subway station where she panhandled, she says, "All you have to have is a cup and just stand there, any kind of cup, like a coffee cup, plastic cup. You could have a bag, you could have a plate, a little aluminum-foil plate. Sometimes I had to ask: 'Could you spare any change?' I don't tell them the purpose, the reason, anything. Young kids could be rude. Like, you know, teenagers, they'd walk by and put a dollar in front of me and snatch it back and laugh. Something like that. Little cruel things like that. But it didn't bother me. I knew I was gonna get what I wanted anyway."

As Martha is saying this, one of her regular contributors, a balding, hunched-over man, hurries by.

"Hey, Yo-yo," she hollers. "Hey."

The man looks up and sees Martha. "I'll be back," he mumbles.

Martha smiles. "He's going to get me a dollar," she says.

She waits for a while, then leaves. She mixes easily into the street. She is so at home in New York, moves so effortlessly, it's as if she is absorbed.

On Sunday she returns to Honesdale and tells Sheila how different everyone said she looked. "They said I looked beautiful."

"I'm so proud of you," Sheila says.

Martha goes outside. She looks up and down the street. There are no cars moving, no people walking, only houses and trees and a breeze. She shakes her head. "This is a boring town," she says.

Later, Sheila shows Martha a phone bill that has come. It covers Martha's first twenty-one days in Honesdale. It is sixteen pages long, and it shows eighty-nine calls to Rondu. Nine of the calls were made on one day alone. One call, lasting eighty-eight minutes, is for $9.27. Another, for sixty-five minutes, is $13.35. The total is $235.62

"I don't have the money to pay this," Sheila says.

A sullenness sets in. Martha stops talking, stops smiling, starts keeping to herself. Sheila isn't sure why, but her home becomes so thick with tension that she begins going directly up to her bed in the attic after putting the children to sleep.

The children feel the change, too. One night, Easton slips out of bed. He goes past the living room, which more and more seems to be a bedroom for Martha, and climbs up to the attic. "You know, Mom, she's not being fair to you. You didn't have to go get her," he says.

Martha's boss phones. It seems Martha has begun smoking on the job, leaving ashes in houses that are supposed to be left clean.

"I don't know what's going on," Sheila says. "She's changed."

Maybe it's that she asked Martha to help pay for the phone calls, she thinks. Maybe it was the trip to New York. Maybe Martha got back into cocaine.

One morning, they go to a thrift shop for some clothing. MaryGwen comes running over, so excited she is jumping up and down. "Mommy, look at this bear," she says. She pulls Sheila over to an enormous, pink, stuffed bear. "Can we get it?"
Martha comes over. "I want it for my baby," she says.
"But I want it," MaryGwen says.

Sheila stands between them, at a loss for words. Both are looking at her.

"MaryGwen," she finally says, "you can have it."

Not long after, on a Wednesday, Martha announces that she has to go back to New York for a court hearing on foster-care arrangements for her daughter.

"When is it?" Sheila asks.
"Next Tuesday."
"I'll drive you," Sheila says. "I'll stand up for you in court."
"I'm going Friday," Martha says.
"Friday?" Sheila says. "Why so early? Why not wait until after the weekend?"
"I'm going!" Martha snaps. "Nobody's gonna tell me what to do."

The next day, everyone is at home when Martha, bag in hand, brushes past them and goes wordlessly out the door.

This time she is gone ten days. She comes across some marijuana and gets high. She buys a bottle of Cognac and drinks it. A few days after arriving in New York, she is at Rondu's when the phone rings.

"Hello?" she says.
"Hi, Martha. It's Sheila."
Silence.
"How are you doing?"
"Fine."
"Did you see the baby?"
"No."
"No?"
“No”
"How come?"
"It's raining."

The relationship between Sheila and Martha lasts four more days.

The first day is Sunday, when Martha returns to Honesdale. She arrives late in the evening, and the first thing Sheila notices is how unclean she looks. "How'd it go?" Sheila asks. "Okay," Martha answers. She doesn't elaborate, and Sheila, fearing a fight, doesn't press her. "Well," she says, heading for the attic, "I better get to bed."

The second day, the fight comes. It is between Martha and Freedom, and it lasts most of the night.

"You're a bum," Freedom yells at one point. "Your kids lived on the streets."
"My kids never lived on the street," Martha yells back.
"You had babies on the street and you begged for money on the street."
"I'm a whole lot smarter than you," Martha says.
"Oh yeah? How come you quit school!"
"I quit school to have a baby!"
"Oh, that's smart. Having a baby when you're in school..."

The third day, when everyone is out of the house, Martha tries to explain what is happening.

"I knew there would be problems," she says. "They're trying to get me to do things against my will. She wants me to give her my money in the bank. I already gave her ninety dollars. I left my bankbook out, she knows I have another hundred. She said, 'Give me the other hundred.' I told her, 'I'm not gonna give you another hundred. Drop dead.” I'm not gonna give her all my money. What if something happens to my baby? What if she needs an operation or something? What if I can't take a bus and I have to take a cab or something? Why should I give her all my money? You know why she wants me to give her my money? So she can buy her son a pair of pants. So she can make her son happy. I know things. I know the deal. They can't live the life of luxury on my money. No. I'm gonna leave. She wants my money, I'm gonna leave. I'm gonna leave tomorrow. Maybe I'll go back to the street. I don't know. I'm gonna be miserable if I do that. I'm gonna be miserable. I don't know. I don't know what to do. What should I do?"

Day four. Martha leaves.

That morning, while Martha is still asleep, Sheila writes her a letter that is a page and a half long. Among other things, it mentions that the phone bill is way past due and that it would help the family if Martha could sleep up in the attic rather than on the living-room couch. "I know you had a nightmare up there, but my kids have nightmares and they have to sleep in their beds," she writes. She signs it, "Love, Sheila," and, after thinking about it, she underlines the word love.

She folds the letter, seals it in an envelope with Martha's name on it, leaves it on the kitchen table, goes to work.

She comes home at 3:00, just before the children are due from school. The letter is gone, and in its place is a note, written on a piece of cardboard.

"I'm going back to the city," it says. "That way, there won't be no arguments. I can make it on my own. Martha."

Sheila reads this and stands in the middle of her living room, not quite knowing what to do. She wonders where Martha is, if she should go after her or let her be. She walks through the house and sees that Martha's things are gone, her clothes, her magazines, everything except some photographs, taken by Rondu, of her children. What a strange thing to leave, Sheila thinks. What is the message here? She is looking at them when she hears her front door open and footsteps on the stairs. Martha!

It is her children.

"Come on," she says to them.

She loads them into the car. She makes a left turn at the hospital and a right at the hotel onto Main Street. She passes the gas station, the pharmacy, the bank, the diner, and then she sees Martha, sitting on some steps in front of the fire station, surrounded by white plastic trash bags filled with clothes.

Sheila parks. Martha watches her as she approaches. Sheila sits next to her, short of breath and on the verge of tears.

"Are you really going?" Sheila asks.
"Yes," Martha says.

It's late afternoon, a busy time on Main Street. The kids from high school are out in their cars, and the two factories in town are changing shifts. There is a slow, steady line of traffic moving along, including, in the distance, a bus.

Sheila begins to cry.
"Don't do that," Martha says.

She tries to stop but can't. She puts her arm around Martha's shoulder, and Martha lets it stay there.

"I'm gonna get a job," Martha says. "I can be a maid for George or a messenger with Rondu."
"Will you find a church?" Sheila asks.
"No."

The bus comes.

"It's too hard," Martha says. "I didn't realize it was so far away."

Two weeks later, eight weeks after she first read of Martha in the paper, Sheila's life is back to what it was.

The days are busy, the nights are quiet. In the living room, Nigel has a pair of pliers, and he's coming at MaryGwen, pretending to be a dentist in search of a tooth.
"No, no, no," Sheila says.
Easton, meanwhile, is looking at a fish in his aquarium. "Hey, this one's eyes are popped out," he says.
"Easton," Sheila says. "Please."

The children haven't mentioned Martha's name since the day at the bus when they saw their mother crying.

Sheila hasn't mentioned Martha, either, at least not to the children. But she thinks about her constantly. She wonders where she is and how she is getting along. In the morning, when she kneels by the livingroom window, Martha is in her prayers, and at night, when she drifts off to sleep, Martha is in her dreams.

The dreams: "I had one last night," Sheila says. "She came back, and she was yelling at me."

The prayers: "I say different things. Sometimes I pray, 'Lord, every time that she looks at something, somehow make her think of You.' Because Martha, for three weeks, she found Him. She would tell me all kinds of things. She told me about when she would lie in bed and pray, it would become like a white light in front of her. She came in the kitchen one day, and she said, 'Do you think that's God? Do you think that's Jesus?' She said, 'When I close my eyes, I see this light, and I feel peaceful.' She found something. That's why I know she's either going to return to what she saw here, or she's going to have to harden her heart in order to run from it.

"God is helping her," Sheila says. "Do you understand? Some people would say, 'That's why you don't take people in. What happened was bound to happen.' I see it as Martha's beginning."

In New York, it turns out, Martha is not thinking of Sheila at all. She is thinking of the baby. After weeks of trying to make arrangements, a visit has been scheduled for 1:00 at the Botanical Gardens in Brooklyn.

"I'm so excited," she says.

Since her return to New York, Martha has been living with Rondu at his mother's. Now, at noon, she stops by the place where he works as a messenger, and he tells her he has been given the afternoon off.

"Let's go out there together," he says. "I just have to stop at one place on the way."
"You go ahead," Martha says. "I'll meet you there."

At 12:30, the baby is brought by her foster mother to a spot outside the entrance to the gardens. She has doubled her birth weight, and the effects of the cocaine are long gone.

At 1:00, Rondu arrives. "Look how pretty you are," he says to his daughter.

At 1:30, Martha has yet to show up. "I don't know where she could be," Rondu says.

At 2:00, she is still nowhere in sight.

"Well," Rondu says, "I don't want to wait anymore." He goes into the gardens with the baby. He holds her in his arms, and he takes some pictures, and at 3:00 he gives her back and leaves on a subway headed to Manhattan.

"I love babies," he say's. "I think they're the most important thing on earth." Then, of Martha, he says, "I do love her, but I just don't know what to do. I can only do so much. If I keep beating my head against a wall, I'm gonna end up with a migraine headache."

He gets off at Thirty-fifth Street to go back to work. He walks through the station, through the turnstiles, toward the exit. It is hot in the tunnel, and the smell of garbage is strong. "Man oh man," he says.

He turns a corner. And there is Martha.

She is standing with her hand out. She is filthy, and her hair is matted with sweat.

"Martha?" Rondu says.
She doesn't see him for a moment. Then she does.
"Oh, Rondu," she says. Her eyes go wide. She begins to shake.
"I didn't make it," she says.

David Finkel's last piece for Esquire, "Presumed Guilty," ran in the March issue.

END