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Southwest Heading South

A serial short story. Updates posted weekly.

Eighteen-year-old Veronica Gordon begins a search for her long-lost father.

Part 1

“You’ve got type-two diabetes,” the harried-looking physician’s assistant told me, at the emergency room. “Probably,” the PA amended. “To find out for sure, I’d have to send you for lab work. But I’m guessing you won’t go. No insurance, I presume?”

I nodded. Any fees for lab tests were probably way out of my budget. I suppose I could have acted insulted at her insinuation of my low-class status. But this hospital wasn’t in a great neighborhood, and I figured probably most of her customers were uninsured. Besides, she was right.

“You have all the symptoms, and the random glucose level test I just gave you is 360, so I’m going to give you an insulin IV right now.”

“Is diabetes genetic?” I asked, fearing, but sort of already knowing, the answer.

“Sure, most of the time, it runs in families. Any of your people have it?”

“Ah … I’m not sure. I’m adopted.”

“I see.” She squinted at me, not sure if she should sympathize or not. Instead, she dug around in a drawer in the kitchenette-looking bank of sink, small fridge, and cabinets next to the examination table and handed me a thick brochure.

“Go ahead and read this while you’re sitting here,” she said, as she stuck the IV in my arm.

And then a gunshot victim was rushed in by the ambulance medics and it was all hands on deck. She never returned. I waited and waited. The bag was empty. Still, nobody came. Finally, I carefully pulled the needle from my arm, pressed a ball of cotton into my elbow, and walked out into the roasting July-in-Phoenix street with the leaflet that would define the rest of my life. Great.

I did feel better, though. As soon as I peeled back the windshield protector and started up my junker of a car, my mind returned to the “your people” comment the PA had made. Maybe, now that I’d reached the age of majority, it was time to quit speculating and find out who and what I was related to. Diabetes, probably, but surely there was more than that. Craziness, for sure. I knew that part of it.

Although I was no longer an orphan after being duly adopted by the foster family who’d taken me in when I was eight, I did remember my mother. A few of the memories were even good. She used to call me her “baby doll” and I remember her stroking and brushing my hair and braiding it into two long plaits down my back. I remember she had a beautiful smile and her deep brown eyes had long, thick lashes. She hugged me tight and when she did, the nape of her neck smelled like peaches or apricots warmed by the sun.

Those little-girl memories ended by the time I went to kindergarten. By then, Child Protective Services had come for me, the only child of a woman who was profoundly mentally ill — when she wasn’t also drunk. Even at that age, I knew something was seriously wrong with Mama. She laughed maniacally, then burst into tears, she told me people were after her and made me scared, she said the bottle of mescal, its smoky smell wrinkling my nose when I whiffed her drink or her breath, was her best and only friend.

The authorities were alerted when I showed up for the first day of kindergarten with no vaccination records, mismatched shoes and a dress fit for a Latina girl’s Quinceañera, not for a five-year-old on her first day in a run-down and crowded public school. I remember strangers knocking at the door, my mother swearing at them in Spanish and English as the cop showed her badge and the CPS lady examined our tiny studio apartment. Mama ended up going for the social worker, fists flying. I remember the shiny handcuffs, flashing like the silver hoop earrings Mama often wore, the sturdy dark-skinned cop put on her. And her screams. “Baby doll! Baby doll! Not my baby doll!” I was taken away by the CPS social worker, who had gotten some ice from the freezer and a kitchen towel to put on the black eye my mother had given her. The fridge was bare — another mark against my mother — but we always had ice. I never saw that place again. At the last minute, the social worker grabbed a stuffed wolf I called Lobo and put it in the hand that wasn’t gripped in hers. He’s never left my side since. I glanced over at the scruffy little guy on the passenger seat as I slowed for a red light.

There were a few attempts at visitations after I’d been placed with a gringo family. But sometimes she showed up drunk, sometimes she didn’t show up at all, and once she showed up and tried to kidnap me — if you can kidnap your own child. She didn’t make it far — drunk, crazy women don’t make the smartest criminals. And I was a reluctant hostage, screaming my head off so loudly the neighbors called the police. A few months into the placid life at the Gordons’ house, even a five-year-old could tell peace from chaos, regular meals from infrequent fast-food pit stops. I chose the Gordons.

I never heard from her, never saw her again. And when I was nine, Mrs. Gordon, who by then I called Mom, as she’d wanted me to, told me gently that my mama had gone to heaven, and maybe she’d find peace and happiness now. Before I left the Gordons’ to share an apartment with some girls from high school days who were attending the same community college as I was, Mom sat me down and told me my mother had committed suicide, or maybe overdosed accidentally. She’d gotten into some sort of illegal drugs, Mom said, a little sketchy on the details. “Your mama was never able to live in this world because of her illness,” she told me, taking one of my hands in hers. “So, we can hope she’s happier now in the next world.” I sat there taking in the news, not crying, not feeling much of anything. It had been a long time since I’d thought about her at all, longer still since she’d been Mama to me.

It seemed a safe bet that the other side of my family, my white side, would be an improvement over Mama’s sorry history. So, after the diabetes diagnosis, I decided to look for the man who made me. Big mistake.

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