Excerpts > Spring 2004

Tamara Friedman

Stealing Sherisha

In the middle of dinner, Sherisha draws up her knees, grabs my shoulder, and stands up on her chair, her weight planted firmly between legs the size of my runner’s arms.

“May I have your attention, please.” My mother looks up, startled; my father stares, the alarm in his eyes softening as I reach for Sherisha’s wrist; my older sister, Jenny, home for dinner, beams. Only Tanya, the baby, disregards the request, glancing up in mild surprise before returning to the endlessly amusing pastime of arranging her food: a spoonful of peas scattered around a pile of saltine crumbs, bits of fishstick fallout strewn along the periphery of her tray. “I’m staying here,” Sherisha says, and looks from me to my father, to my mother, to the baby, to Jenny. “Ain’t nobody going to take me away just because I’m brown and y’all but Tanya are orange.” She nods once, sharply, then takes my arm and sits back down with a broad, satisfied grin. Jenny claps because she doesn’t know better. I hug Sherisha’s small shoulders with one arm. My mother smiles sadly, then looks away as her expression deepens to something like anguish. My father’s eyes are pink-rimmed, and he takes my mother’s hand. We’re a good family, still new enough to this that we have the energy for preventing head-banging, fist-pounding, hair-pulling (her own). We’re permanent family material. Sherisha ought to know. She’s been through nine or ten fosters.

The baby makes her noise, a strange sound like metal sliding across glass.

“I’ll get it,” my father says to my mother, who has risen to change Tanya. He walks around the table and kisses Sherisha, squeezing my shoulder, before scooping up the baby and holding her up to his smiling, tear-streaked face.

When Tanya arrived fourteen months ago, my father took his first paternal leave. For three weeks he held her while she shook, gagged, screamed, batted her stiff hands. We hadn’t asked for a crack baby, but my father seemed engrossed by all that she required. He bathed her, fed her when she would eat, took her to doctor’s appointments; he wrapped her in blankets when she shivered and sponged her wrinkled, ribby body when she broke out in sweats. He and my mother slept in shifts, ready for the SIDS alarm to go off. When the shakes broke, my father kept on holding her. She had grown into his arms; she knew the difference, and preferred his to ours—to mine or Jenny’s, even to our mother’s. She knew his smell.

We put in for an adoption (still pending) and he took another four weeks off. He could afford to: my mother was selling her furniture designs faster than he could sketch a broom closet. When Tanya slept—and she did, finally, for short spurts at first—he might work on a plan or log into the office from home. But the balance had shifted; work receded from the center of his preoccupations. He stopped his nervous, absent-minded sketching on his napkins, his foot-tapping near the end of the dinner hour, his “secret” weekend rendezvous in the workshop, our basement. He was always upstairs now, in the kitchen, in the nursery on the second floor. He looked like someone serving penance, haunted and serene.

Mornings we jog together, my father and me. We take Pratt up to Warren Park, where ten-year-old Yolanda Jones was found stabbed to death two years ago in March. On a good day—a warm Thursday or Friday—we take Farwell down to the lake.

I like to start before the day does, which means waking up at five in the spring. We stumble out the door, dragging our feet, then pick up our pace after a couple of blocks.

We don’t speak between “good morning” and daylight; I like the quiet solitude of dusk, the sense of adventure, of possibility. Sometimes I pretend I’m alone, running toward something only I can see, only I can achieve. If I don’t reach it, no one will. It waits for me, like a recurring dream.

Winning is open terrain: anyone can get there, can fill the slot, the mold and qualifications. People win the same ribbons, the same medals and trophies, year after year. Still, I compete, I like being on the team, the easy friendships, and yes, I like winning. My parents like the offers that should come my way next year, a full ride through college, random disasters permitting.

My father is supposed to be bringing my foster sisters to today’s home meet, Lane’s invitational. I watch the stands, stretching, warming up. It’s a perfect day, there’s something close to a crowd up there, students who gather on days like this, oblivious to the events, along with the usual boyfriends and a handful of parents and siblings.

“Kate,” Bethany sing-songs, stretching me flat over my legs, pulling my hands toward her feet. “The family’s here.” She releases me and waves to “the family”: Sherisha in the lead, Tanya trailing, my tall blond father in the middle. (Bethany’s parents, both doctors, haven’t made it to a meet all season.) Bethany, my best friend since eighth grade when we both got into Lane and decided to go out for varsity track, adores the girls. Like me, she’s always wanted a little sister.

“Stretch it out!” (Jackie, our coach.)

I venture a wild wave, no match for Sherisha’s, which borders on urgent, then take Bethany’s hands and pull.

During the one-hundred, I jog up to the third row, take Sherisha’s hand, and kiss my father hello.

“Hi, cuties,” I say, looking from Sherisha to Tanya, who reaches for my other hand. “Thanks for coming.”

“Where’s Benny?” Sherisha asks, swinging my arm. I turn and point her out. “She fixing to run,” Sherisha says, and her eyes widen with excitement.

Bethany jogs in place, then takes her mark. When the gun goes off, Sherisha jumps up and, pitched forward, stamps one foot, chanting quietly, “Go, Benny, go, go, go!” When Bethany finishes—in second—Sherisha cheers and waves, calling her name, and Bethany looks up. Disappointed with second, she manages a smile.

“Got to go,” I say, and run down to Bethany. “It’s okay, Benny, you’ll nail the two-hundred.” And she does. Later, she nails the hurdles, eighty-meter. I take a close first in the eight-hundred, blue tanktop at my elbow, an easier one in the two-mile. Sherisha cheers, clapping her hands high while I try to smile and catch my breath at the same time.

After the relay—which Bethany takes home, in spite of the two-yard lag passed to her with the baton—we get our notes from Jackie, then bound up to the stands.

“Hey, princess,” Bethany calls, picking up Tanya and twirling her around. “Did you have fun?”

“Fun,” Tanya shrieks. Back on the ground, she reaches up for my father, who lifts her into his arms.

“Girl,” Bethany says to Sherisha, “those are some drop-dead braids.” She’s playing with the beads, Sherisha shaking her head to show how they click, when somebody’s mother squeezes by.

“Babysitting?” she says, smiling, to my father. She’s white, my parents’ age (mid-forties) or younger, and she’s dressed just like the yawning pre-teen girl she has in tow, blue jeans and a tee-shirt with a designer brand name printed across the chest.

My father looks at her, his dismay lasting only a second.

“No,” he says, cheerfully, and starts to say something else. Instead he smiles in Tanya’s face, their noses touching.

The woman hurries past. It’s not the usual nastiness, the sneers from strangers at restaurants: do-gooder white liberals. But I am always dumbstruck by people who think nothing of commenting on strangers’ lives.

Sometimes I wish my father were more shocked, more venomous, like Jenny, who has stared back on more than one occasion and said, “Yes, they’re black, I’m white.” But my father lives by a pacifist philosophy that equates anger with war and imbues amiability with revolutionary potential. He’s a kind of conservative hippie, short-haired and soft-spoken.

He kisses Tanya and lifts her over his head, tossing her slightly so she half screams, half giggles on the way down.

Sherisha’s gone quiet so I take her hand and swing it high. Bethany takes the other and we make a game of jumping down the stands, bench by bench.

“Can I have some ice cream?” Sherisha asks, when I return home from practice the next day. We’re in the workshop surrounded by the smell of raw wood, my mother at her table, carving detail into furniture legs, Sherisha sitting across from her with a Sesame Street coloring book and a shoe box of crayons, Tanya sleeping in her nearby crib. My mother’s smile and shrug tell me that she didn’t forget the snack today.

It’s five-thirty and my dad will be starting dinner soon, but I tell Sherisha of course and she follows me upstairs. We never say no to food, not with her; she stashed a heap of nonperishables under her bed her first week here—pretzels, dry cornflakes, Goldfish, fruit roll-ups, even a mound of bird food she must have discovered when someone refilled the feeder out back. When my mother tried to clean it up, Sherisha screamed and threw herself on the pile, pounding her fists, then her head, on the floor.

“How about some yogurt?” I say, opening the fridge.

“Ice cream,” she says, staring up at me–the round-eyed look of anticipation she knows I can’t resist. She still looks half starved, her eyes large in their large sockets, her smile filling the delicate triangle of her cheekbones and chin.

“Cereal?” I try, then open the freezer, giving in.

“Okay,” she says. “Rice Krispies.”

“Kate,” she says, as I pour the milk. “I want to train, to train fast. Like you and like Benny. I want to be the fastest. Ain’t no one gonna catch me.”

She knows we’re losing, the black social workers busy recruiting families who look the part, who know racism first-hand, don’t need to read the right books. That we’ve kept Sherisha a record six months doesn’t sway them. Most of them have never met her, don’t know her well enough to know what an accomplishment it is that today, and most days, Sherisha resembles an ordinary child.

“Caught ya,” I say, and hug her from behind.

Nancy Blevans has been “on Sherisha’s case,” Jenny and I quip, for almost as long as Sherisha’s been with DCFS. Once a week she visits and tells us how well we’re all doing.

“Who did your lovely hair?” She lifts Sherisha’s braids and lets them fall through her fingers, her nails the color of pink Good’N Plentys.

“Hairdresser,” Sherisha replies, shyly, inching behind me.

“That’s quite an investment,” Mrs. Blevans says to my mother in her slow, measured voice.

“We’re invested,” my mother says, her enthusiasm tinged with defiance. Mrs. Blevans is middle-aged, plump like my mother, with sagging shoulders, eyes that seem to squint behind her gold-rimmed glasses, and a way of looking past you, into the wisdom of Human Services’ policies.

“Mrs. Blevans,” Sherisha says, clutching a fold of my sweatpants. “This is my family now.” She looks up solemnly, a hint of a question—or a warning—in her eyes. Mrs. Blevans blinks, pushes up her glasses, and smiles dimly at Sherisha.

“Yes, dear. The Delmores have been very kind.” She looks at my mother, her smile fading. They will go into the kitchen and Mrs. Blevans will remind my mother that any day they’ll find a permanent black family for Sherisha, or they’ll track down a responsible, willing relative in Gary, Indiana. My mother will remind Mrs. Blevans of the state in which Sherisha came to us, of the likelihood of her returning to that state if she’s moved again. She will list her and my father’s black middle-class friends, she will name my biracial best friend, she will remind Mrs. Blevans of the racial and ethnic diversity of the neighborhood she and my father chose to live in, to raise me and Jenny in. And she will tell Mrs. Blevans, again, that we can’t prepare Sherisha for a move that hasn’t even materialized, a move of questionable benefit, one that none of us wants. She will point to the bond, for instance, that has grown between Sherisha and Kate.

But today Mrs. Blevans squints at my mother an extra beat before they go into the kitchen.

I take Sherisha out jogging.

Coach calls me over after warm-up. Before she can say anything, her usual “What’s up?” invitation for girls in real trouble, I tell her, “I know, my energy’s low this week, my time’s been for shit. It’s family stuff. We’re having a bad week, that’s all. Just a really tough week.” I could tell her more if I had to, but she nods grimly. She knows we foster: in addition to the rotating cheering squads my parents have been bringing since freshman year, we had the team potluck last year at my house, Tanya in a baby sling around my father’s neck, Leon and George, brothers, five and eight, entertaining my teammates, George showing off, break-dancing. (A senior girl said later we were “in everybody’s face with it.” “How can we not be?” I said, fists clenched, coming out from behind a row of lockers. Whenever we go anywhere we’re in someone’s face with it. We’re a pale family; even Cecilia, our first, with her dark hair and eyes, didn’t look like a Delmore.)

Bethany hovers nearby, side-stretching, then comes over and puts her arm around me.

“Kate’ll be all right for Young’s invitational, won’t you, Kate?” She gives me a squeeze.

I shrug, nod.

“I hope so.” Whitney Young is the top magnet school in Chicago. It’s way downtown, on the Near West Side, and it’s half African-American and half everything else. If Sherisha’s lucky, she’ll have a new brother or sister who goes there, new black parents who plan to send her there. In the best of worlds. Which will have nothing to do with me.

“Are you getting your schoolwork done?” Jackie checks. I tell her mostly. “Do you want to take today off?” She speaks slowly, seriously, as if my language capacity is impaired.

“No, I need to work out. I’ll be better after the weekend.” Tomorrow we shop. Sunday Sherisha leaves. Life, what remains of it, begins again on Monday.

“Stop if you’re tired,” Jackie says, and releases me with a nod, then calls out three laps slow.

My jogging is rote, mechanical, my sprinting too, but it feels good to move, to think about knees and position and breathing and staying inside my lane.

After practice, Bethany comes over to see Sherisha before she leaves. On the el I warn her—“it’s an emergency zone, total chaos”—but she stays on past Lawrence, her stop, reasoning that she only has a half an hour anyway.

The house is quiet. All week Sherisha’s been crying, screaming, biting (herself and us), pulling her hair—six months’ work undone, like that—throwing beads everywhere, ignoring Tanya’s appeals to play, all of which start Tanya crying. The only thing that calms Sherisha is when I take her out training, and that only lasts until we sit down to dinner. But this afternoon, no noise.

“They must be out somewhere, or asleep.”

We check around upstairs, then find them in the basement, Tanya singing softly to the Grover doll on her lap, Sherisha sitting at the work table with my mother, the calmest she’s been since Mrs. Blevans’s visit. She’s helping my mother with something, holding a plain steady while my mother works in a screw. I want to tiptoe back upstairs, to leave them like this, preciously normal, but my mother sees us and smiles, and Sherisha looks up from the table.

“Benny!” She slips off her stool, runs to Bethany, and hugs her legs, her arms like vines around Bethany’s pale brown thighs. She’s been hoarding food again, but she never seems to eat it. “Kate, look, we making a chair!” She runs back to the table. “I’m helping build me a chair.” She holds up a leg, thicker and darker than her arm, elegantly bowed and tapered. “It’s called…” My mother mouths something. “It’s antique-like. And it’s going to be mine.”

“It’s beautiful,” I say, my hand on the tattered crown of her head.

We stay downstairs, chatting about school with my mother, Sherisha chiming in from time to time—“Benny, Kate is teaching me to run!” When it’s time for Bethany to leave, Sherisha bursts into tears.

“Don’t leave, Benny, don’t leave me!” She clings to Bethany as we trudge upstairs.

“We’ll manage,” I call to my mother, who is busy with Tanya, now also crying.

We do manage—barely—out on the porch, Sherisha wailing each time we try to pry her away. When our neighbor Mr. Tindle, a corporate lawyer who smiles too much, drives up the street in his Lexus, Bethany sits down on the porch beside Sherisha and whispers something in her ear. We wait until Mr. Tindle walks from his car to his house and closes the door. Then Bethany kisses Sherisha, whispers something more, and gets up.

“I’ve got her,” I say, when Bethany raises her eyebrows at me, forty pounds of protest between my knees, against my locked arms.

Bethany backs away, waving, calling to Sherisha not to fight me, not to cry.

Saturday we go to Old Orchard, an outdoor suburban shopping mall where second- and third-generation immigrants living in Skokie and Niles converge. Sherisha’s hand in mine, I follow my mother from one children’s department to the next, ignoring the mall rats, staring back at gawkers, amazed at my mother’s expert navigation, especially when it comes to locating exits (Sherisha’s a shell in the cartridge). We move quickly through the stores, choosing frugally the clothes for Sherisha to try on, keeping in mind her favorite colors (blue, green, and purple), not daring to test her patience. She’s quiet, solemn; she tries on clothes with a tired, resigned air, smiling only dimly when she likes what she sees in a mirror, sighing while we wait in line to purchase shirts, pants, underwear. When we hunt for a dress to replace the one she arrived in, she stops, suddenly, in front of some frilly pink ones, and her face scrunches up.

“I want to go home,” she bawls, and sits down cross-legged on the carpet.

My mother looks at me, then lays the dresses she has collected over the top of a rack. She bends down to help Sherisha up—to lift Sherisha up, if necessary—and speaks softly to her. Sherisha doesn’t seem to hear. She sits elbows on knees, head in hands, pulling her tiny braids. My mother’s lower lip quivers and I begin to panic: We’ll be stuck here, the three of us weeping on the floor of Marshall Field’s. Then Sherisha’s low-pitched cry startles us out of our private grief.

Nothing consoles her. Not new clothes, not my suggestion that we go jogging, not crackers and cheese on her favorite Muppets plate. Not the finished chair my mother brings up from the basement, especially not when she says, “You can take this with you to your new home.” She won’t let us hold her, hug her; she wriggles away from our touch. We’ve failed her. The future is night in a strange labyrinthian place, the mazes into which families disappear—my childhood nightmare. Sherisha rocks herself, hugging her knees. Jenny comes over and we take turns, the four of us, two of us with her at all times.

Asleep, finally, she grinds her teeth, braids loose and ragged at the roots, a purple patch glistening with salve where she’s pulled one out. She’s been through hell. Life has required that she learn these tactics—biting, hoarding, slamming herself around. Once, in line at the Jewel, she offered to suck off a stranger in exchange for a Baby Ruth.

Mrs. Blevans says she’ll watch her, keep close tabs; she promises that the new fosters will be Sherisha’s last. But she hasn’t given us details, hasn’t told us how perfectly they fit the long-term criteria. And Sherisha knows—we all know—the logic of her tantrums.

She wakes me up at three, the morning of the day Mrs. Blevans will come to take her away, maybe forever, maybe—if I’m lucky, if Sherisha’s not so lucky—just until the new family gives up.

“We gotta train, Kate. Come on, we gotta train.”

“Sherisha.” I prop myself up on my elbow. “It’s the middle of the night. We have to sleep now.”

”It is three-o-four a.m. We gotta train—just once more.”

I pat the bed.

“If you sleep now, you can come out later with me and Uncle Bruce”—what she calls my father. “Sleeping’s part of training.”

She sighs and climbs into bed, curls into the spoon I make for her, her head tucked under my chin, hair smelling of the fish oil in A&D Ointment.

“Good morning!” My father crouches on one knee. “Coming out with the big kids today?” He gives Sherisha a quick hug, then stands and sends me a doubtful look.

“We’ll cut it short if we have to,” I say under my breath. Then louder: “She’s got a mile or two in her, don’t you, Sheesh?”

But she doesn’t answer: shoes tied, legs stretched, she’s out the door, down the porch steps, half a block away, small and getting smaller.

“Pace yourself,” I call lightly into the quiet morning. The sound of a train, the Metra commuter train, comes from a distance, but it’s far enough away that I can hear Sherisha’s feet scuff the ground. “Pick up your feet.” She does and slows down, letting us catch up at the end of the block. We cross together under the tracks. The Metra pounds past, above and behind us.

Sherisha stays in front, confident and sure-footed, determined, her feet in alignment, no sloppy kicks to the side, no wasted movement. Every time we cross a street she mumbles softly, and I huff back an assent, camouflaged under my breath. I’m aware of my father beside me—his breathing, his feet light on the ground, the swishing sound of his jogging suit. When Sherisha takes a left on Glenwood, I glance nervously at him. He has that blank, stunned look people get when they’re on the verge of understanding. But he keeps quiet as we run down the narrow, brick street, passing the long mural painted alongside it, bright backgrounds contrasted with an assortment of multicultural faces; he keeps quiet as Sherisha turns in at the el station. We follow her through the swerve of an open entrance, where the turnstile goes up in half an hour, up the stairs, past the smells of urine and Pine Sol and onto the platform. She turns around just as we reach her and announces: “CTA red line, blue Morse,” then jogs back down the stairs.

My father shoots me a look from the corner of his eye.

“It’s just so she feels safe, so she knows… she can come home.”

“I’d like to know what’s safe about the el before dawn.”

“She won’t take it before dawn, she promised.”

Side by side, we descend the stairs. He’s thinking of Yolanda Jones, who lived four blocks away from us in a Seventies apartment building with a littered patch of grass for a front yard. He was out jogging that morning—he ran past her, just a few yards from where she lay, without seeing her. By the time he got into his car and turned on the news, someone’s shepherd mix had sniffed her out.

“She probably won’t take it at all,” I add, as we round the station exit.

“We’ll be in a load of trouble if she does,” my father barks, shaking his head. But I catch a softened look in his eyes: fatigue, resignation.

“Left, Glenwood,” Sherisha calls, heading back the way we came. She speeds up, but I don’t yell after her. Instead I quicken my pace, running just behind her, my father somewhere behind me. The faces on the mural speed by in the early light, large and grotesque, gruesome faces with streaming hair and jeering smiles.

“Right, Farwell.” She breathes hard, tears across the empty street and up the block. Be careful, I want to shout to her back, to the wild flailing braids, the swift elbows, the sharp-tendoned knees. But she has something now—a baton, a blueprint for home—the plan in her mind a secret we chase, breathless, into the opening morning.

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