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by Gay Bost   
Her feet hurt. Her back hurt. She had a severe case of sinusitis,

which she was sure had been precipitated by the rain of typical LA basin summer sun, a semi-solid substance composed of billion-year-old snark dust. The thought of putting on that damned Spandex outfit and hitting the twilight streets of hell turned her empty stomach.

She sagged, a bag of bones and aching calves, into an equally sagging 

sofa her son, James, had just recently purchased with his hard earned pay. Poor kid. He worked so hard, such long hours, for what little he made, and then he spent it on a soft spot for his mom to rest her weary bones.

The thought of him, out on those filthy streets after school everyday, 

moving other people's furniture, revitalized her enough to look at the suit she'd nicknamed "EZ Off". That had been Capia's idea, that ridiculous woman! Her crazy old neighbor had looked at the grainy black scrawl on her front walk, shook her head at the spelling of 'Hoe' and said, "This here city is an oven! Out of it comes half-baked spelling that spills all over the walls! What we need is an oven cleaner!"

Two days later Gloria had found herself sitting on the worn linoleum

in her kitchen, a can of oven cleaner in her hand, staring into the depths of her own private piece of hell. She'd looked at the can in her hand and started laughing.

A week after that she'd found herself staring at two bolts of Spandex,

one black, one yellow, wondering if there was a needle in her sewing machine.

The whole thing didn't seem so funny anymore. Tonight, with her corns

throbbing like "The Beast That Ate Detroit," she spoke to the blank screen of her 10 year old television. "What we need is a self cleaning oven!" She grunted as she heaved her body out of the depression she'd made in the cushions. It helped, somehow, to make those sounds.

  • * *
She was back on the streets just like when she was a kid. Except 

she wasn't a kid and her feet hurt. "And that, Mama," she said to her reflection in the store front window, "is why you got to have a good pair of shoes." She looked down at the bright white Nikes that threw her whole outfit off and made her feet look like size 12s. "If this job paid any money, I could have two pair of tennies; one for Gloria P. Jones, and one for EZ-Off, Grime Fighter!" She jumped and posed before the window, legs spread, knees bent, a threatening crouch contemplating itself, on the deserted late night street. "Um, um, um,!" she commented, momentarily coming to her senses.

The figure staring back at her from the window was, she had to admit,

not your average-middle-aged, lower-middle-class, church-going, coupon- clipping, working-single-parent. Bright yellow Spandex covered her from throat to ankles, clung snugly to her well muscled arms and molded to her over-developed calves. Black Lettering read "EZ-Off" against a red and blue background spread in a diagonal lightening bolt pattern from her right shoulder to her waist. She noticed a loose thread at the tip of the bolt and willed her self not to pull on it.

"Those shoes gotta go!" she reiterated, shaking her head from side

to side. "Pitiful! Just pitiful, girl!" She hefted her tote bag over her shoulder and strode off down the darkened sidewalk, eyes cutting down allies and into shadowed doorways, an automatic response as set as putting one foot in front of the other to get somewhere. She cut through an empty lot that had once been a parking lot; was now weed choked at the edges and in large cracks from poorly poured cement; the cracks filled with broken glass shards and styrofoam ghost tatters.

Something low-built and fast flattened itself against a stucco wall 

at the limits of her vision. She hoped it was a small cat, 'cause she sure didn't want to think about what else it could be. She shifted the weight of her tote and picked up speed. Headlights angled at one end of an alley ahead, throwing chain link fence into sudden relief. The beams scuttered across a wall and disappeared. She slipped into the alley and broke into a trot. At her age she wasn't good for long runs, but a quick sprint once in a while got her where she was going. The neighborhood park, tonight. There was work, there, waiting for EZ-Off.

A few years ago the city had put up a fence, hoping to give the

illusion of safety to the people who utilized the small park, which acted as a boundary line between the run down residential area and the local businesses.

Another fence had gone up to enclose the basketball courts and keep 

the balls where they belonged. The gates had come as an afterthought. The locks had never come. Gloria trotted around to the only truly solid structure in the park, a retaining wall that protected the toddler's sand box from skate boarders and the thundering hoards of wild kids that ran the city streets. Years ago someone had started a mural. An attempt at black history had begun, cut short and ragged by who-knew-what real life event. Maybe the artist had been killed in a street fight. Maybe he'd gotten smart and taken himself somewhere else. Maybe he was painting pictures on a wall in a jail somewhere.

The real time result was a huge blank surface that begged to be

filled. Over the years it had been, time and time again. Even she'd given up on the side of the wall that faced outward into the city. The other side, the side that faced inward, the side that the toddlers saw as they built their tunnels in the sand and wiped gritty snot across their faces . . . that side was kept clean. It had been, at least – until recently.

If there had been an unwritten law, cherished deep in the childhood

memories of the toughs and punks who'd grown up here, it had been broken. She had her work cut out for her, several nights worth, at least.

She set her tote down and removed two spray cans of oven cleaner.

"These children just can't spell!" she exclaimed, finally figuring out what one line of lettering must mean. "I don't think that's anatomically possible, anyway." She bent to retrieve a pair of bright yellow Playtex gloves, thinking she should have stuck to small patches of graffiti on random buildings. A can in each hand, she began the weary job of removing the filth from the wall.

She was humming, industrious, making surprising progress on the east

end of the wall, when they came around the corner and saw her. Three jean clad kids in stylishly ripped T-shirts and crusty tennies. They howled and hooted, "EZ…EZ…EZ, we come to off-you, mama!" Two of them dropped and rolled in the sand, overcome with themselves. The third propped himself against the wall and grinned. That one she'd watch.

"Ain't you a little old for sandboxes?" she asked, reaching for a

fresh can. She popped the lid and faced them.

"Ain't 'choo?" the one against the wall said. He pushed away, then,

and took a couple of steps toward her. "We heard about you. Heard about some crazy old woman runnin' the streets like some big yellow bird. What's wrong with you?" He seemed sincere in his query, angry brow a dark shadow against darker skin. "Don't you know what you look like, runnin' around with your black-self in that . . . that . . . thing?"

"Your racial pride hurt, Boy?" she taunted.
The two in the sand sat up and menaced her from their ludicrous

position. Their eyes cut to their leader. One began to pull himself up into a crouch. The leader's torso shook in a silent chuckle.

"I'm not talkin' racial pride with no crazy old woman. That," he

jabbed a finger at the wall, "is a statement."

"So's this," she replied, holding aloft a can of oven cleaner.

"You ever look at the other side of this wall? You ever see anything on the other side of this wall but your bad-self and your attitude?"

"Old woman, there ain't nothing, on either side of this wall, I give 

a Damn about!" There was nothing but hate on his face. She'd honestly thought, for one moment . . . .

The two in the sand sprung, then, muscled young legs propelling them

across the distance. One on either side of her, they reached and grabbed, laughing. She raised her can and filled the open mouth of the one on her right with oven cleaner while she brought her right knee up and planted it in his groin. Surprise delayed the one on the left long enough for her to throw her upper body weight into a fore-fist thump to his xyphoid process, effectively taking the wind out of him. He doubled-up while his partner dropped to his knees and spewed burning foam onto the sand.

She turned to run, ready to abandon tote, wall, and the dangerous

situation she had gotten into. If she survived, EZ-Off would be a target. Either way, tonight was the end of her crusade. The leader was on her before she got three steps, crouched before her with feral eyes gleaming. This one was deadly.

"You old cow! It's your turn!" he said.
She backed up against a section of the wall she'd just sprayed,

praying the fabric of her suit would shield her skin from the lye based compound. This one was coming in close, knife wavering back and forth between agile fingers.

"What?" She stalled for time, or tried to. It suddenly occurred to 

her that if she died before she made her usual call to the parks department and warned them about the caustic substance and possible lawsuits, some innocent might get burned. "What?"

"I said, `Off the couch. It's my turn.'  Your break's over, Gloria.
"We just got two newborns in from OB and I think one of them's a

cocaine baby," Sharon repeated.

Gloria blinked. Fluorescent light filtered through her sleep-heavy

lids. She blinked again, her eyes straining to focus. Sharon Jefferson loomed over her, all five-foot-three balanced on the balls of her feet, peering sideways at a super-hero comic book in her co-worker's lap.

"What?" Gloria repeated, still half in the dream. "Where . . . ?"
"Work. Break is over. Get out of that couch. My feet hurt." Sharon

continued to smile, anticipating at least thirty uninterrupted minutes of nap for her dinner break.

"Work. Yeah. I'm on it." She flung the comic book at the break table

and straightened her tunic.

  • * *
Gloria gowned and scrubbed while she peered into the nursery through

the nurses observation window at three babies; one wrapped in blue, the other two in pink. The new girl, Kathy "something-or-other", Gloria would make an effort to remember her name if the girl stayed more than two weeks, stood next to the first incubator, her gloved fingers resting on the domed cover.

"Hey," Gloria said, by way of greeting, tugging her own gloves over 

the cuffed sleeves of her smock as she moved across the room on brand new Nike street shoes.

The girl turned suddenly, shaken, whether by Gloria's silent approach

or startled out of her own thoughts, Gloria couldn't tell. She looked a little gray around the eyes.

"Its mother's an addict, " the girl said, scorn written in the frown,

the confusion, the pain on the pale freckled face. "The urine report just came back on the baby. The mother's still lying about it and her own blood test says she must have used in the last 48 hours. I don't understand . . ." her head moved from side to side, angry tears welling up in her eyes. "Don't these people care? Somebody has to do something. We have to do something! We have to . . . ."

"Look, honey. We ain't' here to save the world. We ain't here to wipe

out drugs and we ain't here to clean up every hooker and dope head on the street." Gloria took the girl's hands in hers, gently, trying to calm her. "They got programs for pregnant addicts, they got programs for mothers, they got programs for the kids . . . ."

"What does this baby have to live for?" the girl wailed.
"This baby can look forward to a life of neurological disorders;

seizures, abnormal sleep patterns and learning disabilites. This baby is ultra sensitive to stimulation. This baby don't need no screaming nurse trying to resolve her social conscience while it's trying to sleep!" Gloria hissed the last out. "Right now we have to keep it quiet, we have to watch for respiratory distress, we have to be alert to tremors and we have to be ready to deal with all that blowing loose at once. They're going to ship it. It's standard procedure on a positive drug test. Reservations have been made. This one's going to spend some quality observation-time uptown."

Kathy looked from Gloria's face to the infant's. The tremors had

started. It's legs had stiffened within the confines of the blanket. The sweet little rosebud mouth had drawn into a puckered quiver. A shrill cry quavered, seeking the eeriest sound pattern it could find and settled on merely nerve jarring. Kathy's stomach must have heaved. She grabbed at her abdomen, turned, slammed into a door-facing and stumbled out of the nursery, heading for the restroom.

"Hug that porcelain god, honey," Gloria said, to herself. "Hug it real 

tight. Say your prayers. Then get your butt back down here and go on to the next one."

The high pitched wail stopped. A chill went up Gloria's back. She turned 

to find the cocoa and cream face already turning ashen. She grabbed the handset off the wall and called a respiratory code.

Then she went to work.
                          #  #  #
  1. ——————————————————–

(For further information on Perinatal Addiction contact

     National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research and 
     Education (Napare) at 312-541-1272 or write to Napare at 
     200 North Michigan Ave, Suite 300; Chicago ILL 60601.)

Copyright 1994 Gay Bost

Gay is a Clinical Lab Tech with experience in Veterinary medicine. From NORTHERN California, she's resided in S.E. Missouri with her husband and an aggressive 6 year old boy, since 1974. Installed her first modem the summer of '92 and has been exploring new worlds since. Her first publication, a short horror story, came when she was 17 years old. The success was so overwhelming she called an end to her writing days and went in search of herself. She's still looking. Find Gay's great stories in the best Electronic Magazines.

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