The Zero Mile Post marked the meeting of two railway lines and possibly the beginning of the city of Atlanta. Zero Mile is a series of fictionalized stories based on real life in Atlanta, Georgia.
By Nicki Salcedo
Benjamin walked into the clinic behind his mother. They walked everywhere. Having no car or license, she claimed she liked walking. She did. They walked every day, everywhere. They walked to school and church and the grocery store and the mall and his uncle’s house. They lived on the MARTA bus line for a reason.
His father drove them when he could, but he rarely made it home until well after dark. He drove all day making deliveries, circling the big perimeter of Atlanta called I-285. He drove the radius. He drove the X of I-75 and I-85. His forearms were thick from gripping the steering wheel. His chest a warm place to embrace them. A quick hug for Ben. A hug for Ben’s mom that would last much longer.
Ben was nine, the luckiest number of childhood. The world began to make sense at age nine. He could be left alone in the waiting room at the clinic because he was thoughtful and quiet.
They’d been in the office regularly over the years. Ben remembered being younger and having to stand in the corner while his mother lay on an exam table with footrests in the air. He assumed all adults were examined this way. Even his father.
They called his mother back to see the doctor. He reorganized the items on the table next to him. There were books on taking care of babies. Relationship books. Magazines on motherhood and parenthood and fitness and cooking. There was a big red book called “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Revised edition. It flopped open like a book without a spine, but it stayed together as though it had one. He’d never seen a book that big in his entire life. Later, when Ben was in college he would see a book of similar size. Inside it contained everything Shakespeare wrote, and he would think of his mother.
There were pamphlets with sketches of the female anatomy. There were flyers about examining your breasts. He liked to look at breasts. Maybe because they looked back at him like eyes without eyelids. They made him feel warm and some other feeling he did not have the words for. Maybe deep in his memory they reminded him of his birth and life so carefully planned. If his memory was perfect, he’d remember how breasts had once sustained him.
The books told him words he didn’t understand yet. Menstrual cycle (was that a kind of bike?) and orgasm (sounded like a type of flower). He saw pictures of hair on different body parts and babies emerging into the world.
He closed the books when he heard anyone approaching. One day as they walked to the bus, his mother said, “Those books contain things that are private. Don’t be ashamed of being curious. It is good to understand our bodies.”
His mother would always say something positive when they left the clinic.
“They told me to keep taking the vitamins.”
“They said all the walking didn’t cause it.”
There had been a baby that didn’t make it. When you walked with your mother, even age nine and a boy, you became a confidant. The baby went away in something called a miscarriage. A carriage was a coach or a car that Cinderella rode in to the ball. Ben figured the baby was no longer in the carriage.
When they got home, Ben’s father hugged her until tears began to fall and her breath turned into a ragged sob. Worried, Ben approached.
“I love you, Benji Boy,” his dad said. While keeping his mother close, his father reached out and touched Ben’s shoulder. His parents stood in the kitchen in a slow dance without moving.
Ben made three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their dinner. It was the first, but not last, time that he would prepare a meal for his parents. He liked his peanut butter thin and jelly heavy. For his mother he spread the peanut butter thick to comfort her and it did. He waited until his parents let go of their embrace before he poured the milk.
Later his father would explain that a woman’s body is powerful and fragile. As men they had to respect the power and protect the frailty of her.
It was another year before his mother walked out of the exam room smiling.
“They all hugged me,” she said. Her eyes crying with happiness. This baby would survive. The vitamins and walks continued. The visits to the doctor became more frequent. Ben learned the names of all the female body parts and definitions to the words that previously baffled him. He learned that pregnancies were risky and rare for both baby and mother.
His mother sensed his worry.
“The body is beautiful and dangerous. Having a baby is like mixing science with faith. It’s not for everyone.”
Eventually, there was a day when the staff at the clinic put his mother into a taxi. They were all happy for her. They sent her to the hospital. They wanted her to be safe and the baby to be safe. They cared for his mother.
Ben liked seeing the city speed by. They could have walked. She was strong, but they wanted to protect her. His father and uncle met them at the hospital.
“Another Grady baby,” his uncle said. They had a long lineage there. His father and his uncle had been born there. Ben, too.
His uncle took him home and made chicken stir-fry. They waited for news of the baby. His sister. A planned baby, like the name of the clinic. His mother liked to plan in an unpredictable world. Benjamin would have a sister. He would have to trust and protect her like his mother.
Nicki Salcedo knows the loops and the backroads of Atlanta. She is a novelist, blogger and working mom. Zero Mile stories will appear on the Atlanta Loop on Wednesdays.