- Krin Van Tatenhove
Baby Bridget's Ashes
Adrian Reynosa awaited his final appointment of the day. He was weary of urine tests, paperwork, perfunctory questions with equally perfunctory answers. Some of his clients showed signs of improvement, but in the hollow words and shifty expressions of others he anticipated future incarceration. Sociopathy so often defied change.
After 20 years as a probation officer, he knew his perspective had grown cynical. Honestly, he didn’t know how to recover that original spark of idealism that made him want to help men and women often ground underfoot by the system. His abuela kept working on him to come to church with her. Have you talked to your cousin Eddie? she’d ask. Tienes que reencontrarte con tu fe, mijo. Adrian deflected her questions, knowing that her ironclad religion couldn’t accommodate his stark existential credo. He had no faith in a conventional sense, but his beliefs had always given him a sense of purpose. At least, until lately. So now, with increasing tinges of sadness, he would smile, gently shake his head, kiss her cheek, and say, Te amo, abuela.
He took a sip of tepid coffee, dregs from the last pot in the break room. The probation office was in a strip mall on the edge of the city’s industrial zone. It featured a beauty salon, a taqueria, and a cellphone outlet. A couple shops were vacant, routinely targeted by vandals who broke their windows or sprayed graffiti on their doors. The theory behind this satellite location was to be closer to the people, part of their low-income neighborhood. A version of community policing. Adrian thought it was a misguided notion, more hassle than help.
Through his office window, he saw Sylvia approaching, on foot rather than atop her bike, carrying a plastic shopping bag in her hand. The late afternoon sunlight of a glorious spring day gilded her hair. She looked far healthier than when they had first met following her second bust for heroin possession. The court had sentenced her to mandatory rehab with a year’s probation, and the treatment seemed to have stuck, at least for now. Her Twelve Step talk and relationship to her sponsor had the ring of sincerity.
She knocked on his door.
“Come on in,” he said.
She flounced in and flopped into the vacant chair across from his desk, setting the plastic bag on the floor. The scent of patchouli oil trailed into the room with her. Only 28 years old, Sylvia’s eyes still had a youthful vitality, but the creases around them spoke of a hard history.
“You look energetic,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
“Today is a good day,” she said. “My shift at the motel was pretty light, and I caught a meeting during my lunch break.”
“Any wisdom from the others?” he asked.
“Yeah, definitely,” she said. “The topic was about the uselessness of regret. I needed that. I have this sick habit of looking backward and seeing how my drug use robbed me of so many things. Jobs, opportunities to get some schooling, meaningful relationships. I don’t know if anyone in my family will ever trust me again.”
Sylvia had grown up in a solidly middle-class home. Her brother and sister had chosen the path of the American Dream, going on to college, careers, families of their own. Sylvia, plagued with a disease no relative could fathom, chose to drop out and make a mess of her existence, drifting from one city to another, one job to another, one man to another, and finally, one flophouse to another. She was lucky to still be alive, a blessing she seemed to be taking hold of more each day.
“You know the drill,” said Adrian. “It doesn’t matter if they ever understand you or this disease. You’re not doing this for them.”
“I know, I know,” she said, a flash of her old rebelliousness showing. “Haven’t you ever longed for the acceptance of another person?”
He immediately thought of his father, an intelligent and creative man, a teacher by profession, who nonetheless remained mired in machismo, emotionally mute for the duration of his life. Adrian’s mother had escaped through divorce, sending flowers to her ex-husband’s funeral, but healthy boundaries had come less easily to Adrian. For so many years he had craved his dad’s unconditional approval.
“Of course I have,” he said. “I’m just reminding both of us that some people will always withhold their esteem. We need to know when to let go.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, shaking her head. “Let go and let God, like that sign on the wall at my meetings. Just give me the kit.”
From a box behind him, he removed a plastic bag that contained a specimen cup and a 10-panel test strip that would detect marijuana, cocaine, PCP, amphetamines, opiates, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, methadone, quaaludes and propoxyphene. When he handed the cup to her, she snatched it impatiently.
She got up, went to a restroom across the hall, then returned with her specimen in hand. He set it in a black plastic box on a stand near the wall, dipped in the stick and found it negative on all counts. Not surprising. After 20 years in this line of work, he had a sixth sense when someone was using again. Sylvia was clean.
“Only two months left,” he said. “I’m proud of the progress you’ve made.”
“Thank you,” she said, her face relaxing. “Sorry about getting bitchy there for a second. I’m still a work in progress.”
“I understand,” he said with a tired smile. “We all have our rough edges.”
“Anyway,” she said. “I brought something I need to show you.”
She reached into the plastic bag and removed a small cardboard box about 4 inches by 4 inches and slid it across the desk to him. It was slightly yellowed, secured by frayed plastic tape, and there was a label with spots of water damage affixed to its top. It read: “Identification Number 7592. Cremated remains of Baby Bridget Spell. Date of Birth, 9-10-1988. Date of death, 9-20-1988.” Beneath that was the name of a memorial park in the city, Harris and Sons, a place Adrian was familiar with.
“What the hell?” he said with a bit of shock.
“I know,” she said. “That was exactly my reaction when I first saw it.”
“How did you end up with a box holding a baby’s ashes from 34 years ago?” he asked.
“There was this middle-aged woman in the noon meeting a couple days ago. She claimed to have had a relapse after 20 years of being clean. She was over the worst of her withdrawal but I could see she was still suffering. Something in her story touched me deeply, like a warning sign flashing from the future, reminding me of what could happen if I let down my guard. When I found out she had no place to stay, I told her she could crash at my apartment.”
“I know, I know. And I paid the price. When I got up this morning, my favorite backpack and my bike were missing.”
“You’re lucky that was all.”
“Listen,” she said, “I’m not going to say, ‘once a junkie always a junkie.’ I ripped off my own share of people and look at me now.”
“Fair enough,” he said, “but what about these ashes?”
“Shit, I don’t know. I found them on my kitchen counter when I woke up.”
Adrian studied the box. He’d had a lot of strange experiences in his career; this was one of the weirdest.
“Did you catch the woman’s name?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, she mentioned it in the meeting, but I forget. I think it started with a C. She had blonde hair streaked with gray and pulled back in a pony tail. Her clothes were wrinkled but not dirty. She was nice enough even though she was mostly quiet and withdrawn. She did say that she had grown up here many years ago, but that was about all the info I could get. I did most of the talking. I do like to talk.”
Adrian picked up the box, turning it slowly in his hand, reading the label again as if he might discover something new.
“So why did you bring it here?” he asked.
“I want you to take it,” she said.
“No way,” he replied firmly. “What am I supposed to do with it?”
“I don’t know. But please, will you take it? It creeps me out.”
Sylvia’s eyes seemed genuinely nervous.
“Alright,” said Adrian with a sigh, taking the box and slipping it into the top drawer of his desk. “As a favor to you, I’ll see if I can get to the bottom of this.”
“Thank you,” she said, already standing, anxious to go. “Same time next week?”
Adrian nodded and made a gently dismissive wave of his hand.
“Yes, Sylvia. Same time next week. Buena suerte.”
* * *
Adrian opened the door to his Spanish-style bungalow, kicked off his shoes, and went into the kitchen. After placing the plastic bag with the ashes on the counter, he snagged a Modela Negra from the refrigerator. His long-time girlfriend, Adela, was visiting her family in Monterrey, Mexico, so the house was quiet—only the distant white noise of the freeway six blocks away, a sonic background he normally didn’t notice. He enjoyed his time alone, but he also missed Adela’s warm abrazos y besos at the end of the day.
He pulled out a Tupperware container of pollo y calabaza that Adela had prepared before leaving, stuck it in the microwave to cook, then took the plastic bag with him into the living room. He sat down on the couch, opened the sack, withdrew the small cardboard box and placed it on the low-lying coffee table, staring at it as if willing it to speak. A verse from Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World ran perversely through his mind: “There’s one more kid that will never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.”
“Who are you, Bridget?” he said aloud. “Only ten days. How did you die? Where are your people? What can you tell me from beyond the grave?”
In the stillness of the house, he unexpectedly felt a tear run down his cheek. He had grown accustomed to loss, disappointment, even tragedy in the lives of his clients. The seamy and desperate sides of life were all too familiar to him, held at arm’s length for his own peace of mind. So why do these ashes affect me so deeply? he thought. He ate his meal, had another beer to calm his restlessness, then streamed a crime series on Hulu until he was tired enough to crawl into bed where he could smell Adela’s perfume on the pillows. Sleep came fitfully, interrupted too soon by the old recurring dream, the one his therapist said would likely decrease in frequency but maybe never disappear.
The scene was always the same, the epicenter of trauma that had changed him and his primo forever. Driving his modified Impala, its upscaled pipes rumbling beneath the floorboard, twilit scenes of their city flashing by outside. Eddie in the passenger seat, his window open, laughing as warm night air streamed over his face. Then, suddenly, the car of a rival gang careening around the corner, an escalating feud of senseless retaliations. The other car gaining, reaching Eddie's side, the shotgun blast like a metallic roar, Eddie slumping into the seat covered in blood…
The dream always ended there, as if the trauma of those fearful hours that followed—Eddie’s life hanging in the balance—were too much to relive. Adrian sat up in his bed, reoriented himself, then glanced at the small box of ashes he had placed on his nightstand.
A plan for the next day took shape in his mind.
* * *
In the morning, after coffee and breakfast tacos, Adrian called his office and left a message with Angela, the clerk and scheduler.
“Hey Angie,” he said. “Sorry for the hassle, but I won’t be in today. Could you call my clients and reschedule? Something came up in a meeting with Sylvia that I need to track down. Again, sorry. I owe you a carnitas lunch plate from Nuevo Jalisco. You’re the best.”
He disconnected then looked at the clock. Too early to start his investigation, so he changed into workout clothes and mounted the Peloton bike in his study, a luxury he had given himself for health reasons. He chose the half hour Power Zone Endurance ride, a lithe female instructor challenging him to dig deeply until his body was streaming with sweat. Then he showered, dressed, and returned to the living room with his cell phone.
At 9:00 a.m sharp, he made his first call to the mortuary listed on the box. After navigating a labyrinthine set of numerical options, he finally got a live person.
“Harris and Sons,” said a woman’s voice, “where you are always part of the family. May I help you?”
“Yes,” said Adrian. “I’m a probation officer and one of my client’s came into possession of a box of ashes cremated at your facility in 1988. I know that’s a long time ago, but I’m trying to track down the family.”
There was a long pause on the other end.
“I see,” said the woman. “Let me connect you with our Director.”
Adrian listened through a series of clicks until a man with a husky voice spoke.
“May I help you?” he asked.
“Let’s hope so,” said Adrian. “I have a strange situation here. I’m a probation officer with the county and one of my clients brought a small box of cremains to my office yesterday. She said another woman left them with her. I’m trying to locate the baby’s family if they are still around.”
There was a long pause on the other end.
“I see,” the director finally said. “Does the box have any information on it?”
“It does,” said Adrian, giving him the ID number, Bridget’s name, the dates of her birth and death.
There was another long pause.
“Can I put you on hold for a few moments?” said the man.
“Of course. I appreciate your help.”
The ensuing Muzak made Adrian chuckle, a completely inane version of Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing. Just as it ended, the man returned to the line.
“When you gave me the dates, I was afraid of this,” he said. “Before we digitized our records 20 years ago, we kept some of the files in an underground basement. During a torrential rain, that room had flood damage and we lost a whole section of paperwork. This would be one of those lost records. I’m so sorry.”
“That’s a real shame,” said Adrian, feeling frustrated and annoyed.
“It is,” said the man. “Understandably, we had waves of complaints and some lawsuits. Our company barely survived it.”
Adrian cleared his throat, surprised by the possessive sense of anger he felt over this small remembrance of a child.
“Okay,” he said. “Thanks for your time.”
He abruptly ended the call, then began to implement step two of his plan. He opened his laptop, logged on, then started an online search for the name Spell with an app he used at work. There were four in the city, and though he realized it was a long shot, he wrote down the telephone numbers.
The first number was out of service, the second a voicemail greeting from a young woman. The third call rang so many times that Adrian was about to disconnect when suddenly the line clicked to life.
“Hello,” said a man’s voice inflected by old age.
“Yes, hello,” said Adrian. “I’m sorry to bother you, but is this George Spell?”
“It is. Who are you?”
“My name is Adrian Reynosa. I’m a probation officer with the county, badge number 6667, and I’ve come across something I would like to speak to you about.”
The line went silent for a few seconds.
“I can’t imagine why a PO would be calling me,” said the man, growing defensive. “But go ahead.”
“Sir,” said Adrian, “I could tell you about it, but it would be far better for you to see something in person. First, though, let me ask you, do you have a daughter?”
There was another pause, longer this time.
“That’s a question that makes my head swim,” said the old man. “But the short answer is yes, my daughter may still be alive. Is this some kind of scam?”
“Not at all,” said Adrian. “It’s just that, like I say, there’s something I wish to show you in person.”
Adrian could hear the man’s labored breathing.
“I’ll give you my address, but I’m keeping the glass door locked until you show me both your badge and this item you seem so riled about. If you don’t comply quickly, I will have my phone in hand to dial 911.”
“That works,” said Adrian, writing down the address and tucking it into his shirt pocket.
* * *
George Spell’s home was in a neighborhood of modest ranch houses on the northern edge of the city, a tract from the mid-60s. Most of the homes were well-maintained, with an occasional outlier in need of paint. George's fit the latter variety. While other yards were beginning to bloom with spring color, George’s was overgrown and gray, featuring an untrimmed oak tree and a cement bird feeder filled with dust and leaves.
Adrian walked up the front steps and knocked solidly on the outer glass door. There was no response. He tried again, a little firmer. Finally, he heard a shuffling noise growing closer until the inner door opened.
Spell was tall and lean, with a gaunt face and unkempt gray hair combed over his bald pate. He wore a blue bathrobe and walked with a cane. Despite his elderly appearance, his gaze when he looked at Adrian was strong and penetrating.
“So, show me your ID,” he said, his deep voice surprisingly forceful through the barrier.
Adrian held it against the glass. Spell looked it over.
“And the other item you mentioned?”
Adrian pressed the small box of ashes, label side forward, against the pane. As Spell glanced at it, straining to focus the words, his face slumped. He looked down and slowly shook his head, moving his cane across the floor as if writing a cursive message on the tile. Finally, he looked back at Adrian and shrugged his shoulders.
“I guess you better come in,” he said.
He led Adrian into a clean and comfortable living room that belied the house’s shabby exterior. The air smelled faintly of cooking grease. George settled onto the couch slowly, seemingly in pain, then motioned for Adrian to sit in an easy chair to his right.
“You’d think,” said George, “that after a career of walking multiple miles every day as a mail carrier, I would have some level of fitness in my so-called golden years. Just the opposite. Both knees replaced and arthritis in my back. I know you've heard it before, young man, but getting old is not for the faint of heart.”
He straightened himself as if resurrecting some dignity.
“Now, how the hell did you end up with a box of cremains that probably belong to a granddaughter I never held in my arms?”
“One of my clients,” said Adrian, “brought them to my office yesterday. She had allowed a woman from her Twelve Step group to spend the night, but in the morning she discovered that the woman had stolen her bike and backpack and left this box on the counter.”
Adrian paused, then added, “What do you mean by probably belong to?
“I say that,” said George, “because I haven’t seen my daughter for over 30 years.” He paused and put one hand to his forehead, rubbing the wrinkles as if trying to erase them. “I'm sure in your line of work you encounter many people addicted to drugs and alcohol. When it's someone you love dearly, it can almost kill you. They call it codependency, but in my mind it's just the logical steps any parent will exercise with a child who seems to be destroying herself. My wife Emily and I tried everything. Everything! But Carrie finally left and ended up on the street. She was in her early twenties at the time, pregnant from a man we never met, and I haven't seen her since.”
Adrian’s ears perked up. Carrie, a name that began with C. George picked up the box of ashes from the coffee table where Adrian had placed it.
“That was 1988,” he said. “The same year listed on this box.” He dug his hand more firmly into his brow. “Does your client know where the woman went? Does she know where she’s living?”
No,” said Adrian. “It’s a mystery.”
“No surprise,” said George. “In the end, we could never keep track of her. I’m certain that the accumulated pain from those years is what contributed to Emily’s early death.”
He brought the box closer to his eyes, shaking it as if to confirm the contents within.
“Ten days,” he said. “Ten measly days to spend on this beautiful broken Earth.”
His chest suddenly convulsed as a guttural animal noise erupted from his throat, followed by tears running down his wrinkled cheeks and onto his bathrobe. He hung his head as if slightly in shame and started to sob. Adrian felt uncomfortable at first, but then reached across and put his hand on the old man's shoulder. They sat like that for a few moments as Adrian lifted his eyes to a photograph on the wall. It was a happy scene—a couple in their late 30s or early 40s standing next to a beautiful teenaged girl. Her long hair fell past her shoulders and her smile and eyes seemed to mischievously engage the photographer. They were standing on the edge of the lake at the local county park, a popular place for swimming and family picnics, its short pier extending into the background.
George finally stopped crying and collected himself.
“Young man,” he said, “I obviously have some painfully mixed feelings about you bringing this to me after all these years. Is it always better to know the truth? I’m not so sure.”
His face took on a look of resolve.
“Listen, I'm in no shape to deal with this. Will you do me a favor and find some way to properly bury or disperse these ashes? Something with dignity?”
Adrian had hoped that George would ask him that very question.
“I certainly will, sir, and I will let you know so you can be there if at all possible.”
* * *
Adrian pushed open the door of Set Free Ministries, entered the lobby, then made his way down the hallway toward Eddie's office.
There had been no question about who he would contact next. The night of violence that changed their lives had set them on separate courses, but Adrian's deep ties to his cousin would never fade. Both of them had eventually gotten out of gang life. Eddie had a Christian conversion experience and started an outreach program that specialized in reaching young people on the streets susceptible to gang recruitment. Adrian had taken a path of servitude as well, but he didn't share his cousin's faith.
After many fruitless theological arguments, mostly about the presence of evil in a world supposedly overseen by a benevolent deity, the two of them had come to a truce. Eddie prayed for his cousin daily, but he accepted Adrian’s reluctance to embrace a personal deity. Adrian saw Eddie’s deep devotion, an inner wellspring of faith that informed all his decisions, admiring his cousin’s certainty without judgment. They did not try to convert each other's worldviews, but simply treasured the bonds of their blood relationship.
Eddie was seated at his desk, and when he looked up, Adrian had the same reaction he always had. Eddie's face, still so handsome in its upper reaches but disfigured below by the shotgun blast, reminded him of a Roman bust he had seen in the antiquities section of the county Art Museum. A patrician face with the chin chipped away, as if by the hammer of death and age. Eddie's face lit up when he saw Adrian.
“Primo,” he said, then moved towards Adrian. They embraced for a prolonged period.
“Man, I can't remember the last time I saw you under this roof. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Adrian sat down across from Eddie, took the box of ashes out of the plastic bag, then proceeded to tell his cousin about all that had transpired in the last 24 hours. Eddie listened intently without interruption.
“Can you help me?” Adrian said in closing. “I've been to a lot of the memorial services you’ve conducted, and you always find the right words. Also, maybe you can gather some of your members to attend. I'll ask Sylvia and see if she can muster a few from her home group. I was thinking we could do it down at the shore of the county lake I saw in the Spell family picture.”
Eddie picked up the box and cradled it in his palm reflectively. “There’s a lot of pain, broken dreams, and suffering contained in these ashes,” he said. “It’s interesting that the woman carried them with her all these years, never disposing of them. Makes you wonder what else she is lugging around from her past.”
He shook his head, his eyes filled with sadness. “Since you did your best to locate the mortuary’s records, and because this is the will of the old man, I'd be honored to help. Not just because my favorite cousin asked me, but because this little girl deserves it. We don’t even need to worry about a permit to scatter the ashes since there are precious few. Would ten o’clock on Saturday morning work for you? And will you be sure to get George Spell there if he’s able and willing?”
Adrian smiled, nodded vigorously, then reached his fist across the table to bump Eddie's.
* * *
Adrian watched Eddie and George Spell at the end of the pier as they spread Baby Bridget’s ashes on the water, just the two of them. It was an exquisite day. Early morning light was crystalline, striking small ripples on the lake and shattering into beautiful reflections. The air smelled of algae and new mown grass. After they were finished, Eddie put his arm around the old man's shoulders and they spent some time quietly there, cocooned in the comfort provided by Eddie’s presence
As Adrian had expected, Eddie knew just how to arrange this small service. He had insisted on scattering the ashes alone with the old man. The number of those in attendance surprised Adrian and gave him a deep sense of satisfaction. Eddie had mustered over a dozen members from his church, most of them ex-gangbangers sporting their sleeves of tattoos. Sylvia, as well, had garnered a good response. Members from her support group—young and old, of all racial backgrounds—had turned out. Adrian estimated there were 30 people present to honor this child who had lived only ten days on the planet Earth.
Eddie and George turned and walked back along the pier to the rest of the group, where the two of them took a place in the circle next to Adrian and Sylvia. Eddie called everyone into the moment, then began to share words of comfort and hope. He spoke of the significance of ashes as a reminder of the brevity of our lives. He recited words from Psalm 139, in which David wrote You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Adrian had heard variations of these words from his cousin before, and he found his thoughts drifting. Adela's face came to his mind—her smile, her lustrous dark eyes, the way she would cock her head slightly to the side when teasing him. Lately, she had said something that was still percolating in his soul. Adrian, we've been together for years, but I feel like you hold yourself back from me at some fundamental level. How can I ever get to know you more fully?
As he recalled her words, he thought of his father’s remoteness, the box of Bridget's ashes, the sobbing of George in his living room, the old man’s lament of ten measly days, the shotgun blast that had shattered the window of his Impala so long ago.
He came out of his reverie to find the group reciting the end of The Lord's Prayer, hearing those final transcendent words, For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen. Then, perhaps out of deference to the Twelve Step group present, Eddie led them all in the Serenity Prayer, an incantation that even Adrian, who never addressed God directly, found to be timeless, even eternal. He joined them, closing his eyes and bowing his head, and the word God seemed warm and necessary, stirring something inside him.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
As they closed, Eddie added, “Can we get an additional amen this morning for Baby Bridget?”
The group enthusiastically responded, and as that final affirmation rose into the morning sky, Adrian felt someone tapping his shoulder. He glanced to his left where Sylvia was motioning with her head to look behind them. He turned. Near the entrance to the park was a woman on a bike with a red backpack, her long silvery hair falling to her shoulders.
“Is it...” Adrian began to ask.
“Yes, yes,” said Sylvia in a hushed voice.
Adrian turned to his right and whispered in George Spell’s ear.
“Sir, I believe that’s your daughter Carrie near the front gate.”
George turned to look behind him and Adrian had a clear view of the old man’s eyes. At first they seemed startled, then filled with pain and longing. The whole group had turned now, and Adrian fully expected that Carrie would bicycle away. Instead, she began to slowly pedal towards them.
“My God, my God,” said George, slowly opening his arms as if to embrace both his past and his future.