‘What It Is To Be Empty-Handed’ by L.M. Brown

soft cartel april 2018

I didn’t sleep much because of the article. I couldn’t stop thinking of the bus station with the high ceilings and hard wooden benches and the woman sitting with her baby, only she wasn’t really a woman. She wasn’t much older than I was and that made me feel empty inside. I hated to think about what happened and how everything turned so badly for her and her baby. The woman had three other children since. The article said she lived in Ohio, but I imagined her somewhere warm, Florida or California, with sunshine streaming through the window. She was not in a grey place like Boston with snow on the ground and freezing weather that had a knack of finding you inside.

Her husband held her hand while she was being interviewed and said he didn’t blame her for what happened, though she was stupid and naïve and I couldn’t help hating her a little for it. But I wasn’t really angry until I heard Jean come in. It was starting to get bright when she opened my door.  She whispered my name and I closed my eyes and I was afraid of what I might say if she came any closer. Some nights, she liked to sit on the bed and talk about the customers from the diner. Sometimes one of them would be waiting for her in the living room. Once, I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night and I ran into one of those men. I was in my underwear and he blocked the bathroom door. Jean woke to me crying. Ever since then, she shook me awake if she had company and warned me to put on some clothes if I wanted to go to the bathroom.

I was still getting used to calling her Jean. Days after our last move, she’d decided she didn’t want to be called Mom anymore. The first I heard of it was when she said the boy’s next door introduced themselves to her. She told them her name was Jean and she lived with a roommate. She said there was no reason for them to question her since she looked young and I looked older than my years because of my height and my serious way of looking at the world. It felt as if she was getting smaller and smaller when she was saying this. If I reached out there would be nothing but air.


“They seem nice,” Jean said about the boys next door. “They said we could visit for a drink any time.”

I said no way. I was not going next door with Jean, to be ignored while the boys fumbled around her. A few days later, when the next door neighbor knocked on our door, I assumed he wanted Jean. I said she was looking for a job and then I wished I hadn’t volunteered so much information. It made me sound childish.

“I didn’t come here to see her,” the neighbor said. He wasn’t much taller than me and had narrow shoulders. He was wearing stained jeans and a cap that was low on is head so it was hard to see his eyes. He seemed shy. After a few seconds, he smiled and asked if he could come in. I said no and he nodded and said okay in a way that made me feel sorry for him.  He came back a few times after that. When he was on his way to get some food, he stopped to ask if I wanted any and he arrived with a packet of biscuits from the store across the street, always when Jean was out, but he didn’t ask if he could come in again.


The morning after reading the article, I kept thinking of that girl and her baby. I was waiting for Jean to wake so I could talk to her, but she was sprawled on her bed in her clothes. It was already 4pm, and she was probably missing work but I couldn’t wake her because then she’d be angry. I’d have to listen to her talk about her annoying customers or how hard it was to stay on her feet all night and how she deserved to go out and have a life. I’d want to tell her about that woman in Ohio, who said she’d lost her heart in the middle of a bus station and no-one could do anything, but Jean would just say what the fuck does that mean, and I wouldn’t be able to tell her the whole story.


Outside was cold. The pavement was sprinkled with snow and the wind cut my cheeks. I didn’t know where I was going until I closed the door and  I remembered my neighbor bringing me gifts and asking if he could come in and I imagined he’d smile when he saw me.

He was older than I thought he was. Without the cap, I noticed his hair was getting light and his forehead was broad. He was surprised to see me and it took a second before he smiled so I had an urge to run, but I didn’t want to look like a baby. It was me who rang the bell, though now I had to concentrate to remember what I wanted to say.

“Hey there,” he said. “Come in.”

He stepped back and I followed. The dark hall was cluttered with boots. I nearly tripped. He said sorry for the mess. He meant to clean it up, but…and then he stopped talking. He might have shrugged, but I didn’t see. He was around the same height as me with narrow shoulders but his arms were wiry and strong looking. He was barefoot.

“I thought you might be working today,” I said.

The living room was gloomy. Clothes were on the couch and the floor and he picked them up and threw them into one of the other rooms without stepping inside. An ashtray was on the table. The television was on with the volume muted. There was a car chase going on. He said he was owed a few days holiday and he decided to take it today. He said it was hard working outside in the cold. I asked what he did and he said I was a curious bee, which made me nervous because I didn’t know if I could ask any more questions. I wished he’d open the blinds and that he’d left the movie on. Without the distraction, I felt too big in this room. It was hard to move, as if I’d crawled into a cave. He was watching me with a smile and I said it was very dark. It was a relief when he apologized and opened the blinds half-way. The living room was at the back of the apartment. There were two doors on the left which were probably the bedrooms. We’d passed the kitchen on the way. I’d glimpsed dishes in the sink and the corner of a table. I didn’t think his room-mate was in.

“My name’s Robert, did Jean tell you that, most people call me Bob.”

“Hi Bob.”

I was not sure why he laughed, but I felt proud that I’d made him. When he asked my name, I told him Ashley.  I hadn’t realized I was going to lie until it came out. Lying was like that; it surprised you sometimes.

“Sit down Ashley, make yourself comfortable.”

He pointed to the couch. The seat was so low and soft, I felt like I was being sucked in. He offered a drink and I said yeah sure, thanks. There was a smell of cigarettes and musty clothes. I asked if he had any vodka and he said sorry no vodka, but he had some gin if that was ok.

I say yeah thanks.

The drink was strong. I tried not to make a face when I took a sip. He sat down so close our legs touched. He’d put on some music before he got the drinks. There was guitar and a male singer but I didn’t know what he was singing.  I didn’t want to ask who it was, because he might have said something like where have you been the last ten years and ten years ago I was four.

Bob started talking about the band. He asked if I liked them and I said yeah sure, and he said he saw them in concert not long ago and that they were great and had so much energy. He didn’t know how they did it. He asked what music I liked and I told him I listened to anything but I liked jazz, which wasn’t necessarily a lie.  I’d heard jazz once or twice and it was okay, but I said it because it sounded good. He smiled in a weird way and said that I’d have to shoot him before he’d listen to that, which didn’t make sense because if I shot him he’d be dead, though maybe he meant wound him badly.

He was drinking a beer out of a can and he drank deeply. I could have probably counted to ten and then he wiped his lips and got up and asked if I wanted another.

“Not yet,” I said.

He said, “Don’t be a light-weight.”

His hard stare reminded me of Jean and I wanted him to stop so I drank the gin down. I coughed afterwards and he laughed. The ice clicked against the side. My head felt woozy and light. I sat back and closed my eyes. I heard the fridge open and close and then nothing and I woke to his hand on my leg. He was handing me the drink and I had a sense of floating that I wanted to hold onto for as long as I can.

The gin felt thick in my mouth.  Bob was probably the same age as Jean. It was hard to tell in this light. He tapped his foot to the music and asked if I have a boyfriend.

I said no. He said, “Good.”


The babies name was Emma.  I’d tried it out that morning. I’d looked in the mirror and said. “Hello I’m Emma,” a few times, but it didn’t fit me. Emma suited a fragile girl with blonde hair, a girl who was shy and worked in an office.  Emma didn’t drink. She was offended by the bars and the people she saw propped up inside. I used to be scared of those places as a kid.

Once a woman stopped to ask if I was okay and I still remember her round cheeks and soft eyes. “I’m waiting,” I told her. She was looking behind me. The door was open so we could hear voices. She asked who I was waiting for and I didn’t want to answer her. I didn’t like the way she was looking through that door. I wanted to grab her to stop her from going inside but I couldn’t move.  There was shouting and then Jean stormed out of the bar and nearly yanked my arm from it’s socket when she pulled me down the street.

“What did I tell you about talking to strangers?” she said.


“You’re very lovely Ashley,” Bob said.

I felt the weight of his hand pressing into my leg. He said he hadn’t stopped thinking of me since the first day he saw me. The gin made me a little sick. He asked where I used to live and I told him I came all the way from Ohio. I imagined that woman with the sad eyes writing me a letter, asking how everything was. I imagined she’d say how much she missed me and that she’d never stopped thinking of me, and I told Bob about my younger brother and two younger sisters who were coming to visit soon.

“Are you in college,” he said. I say yeah. I didn’t know if I liked the way he was looking at me.  It was too fierce. He had a scar on his eye that I touched and he flinched as if it was raw, and said something about an accident.  He changed the subject quickly and said something about school or studying that was hard to catch.  He downed his beer before asking if I wanted another and it was hard to think straight. There was gin in my glass but he was taking it again. I wondered what kind of accident he’d had, but by the time he’d gotten to the door I’d forgotten what I was wondering about, and I was thinking of Jean waking in the quiet apartment with a sore head.

My phone was off but I imagined her pressing the call button again and again getting angrier by the minute. Jean hated being alone, that was why she insisted on home-schooling, though our bursts of work never lasted long.  Whenever I disappeared before she woke, I had to stay out long enough she was so relieved with my arrival she forgot to be angry.

“It’s an anniversary,” I told Bob when he got back.   I noticed he’d spilled some beer on his jeans and his nails were dirty. He looked confused. “Today, that’s why I didn’t go to classes. My mother nearly lost me.”

He said yeah in the way people did when they weren’t interested or weren’t really listening.

“I listened to you talk about that stupid band,” I said. His jaw got tight and his hand pressed on my leg. He leaned closer so I smelled his sour breathe and unwashed hair.  “What did you say?”

“It happened in a bus station,” I said.

His eyes narrowed. His neck was loose, like a chickens squawking neck. I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t, because the bus station was in my head again, and the woman with the baby swaddled up nice and warm.  I wanted to tell Bob that the woman was only eighteen and it was her first time travelling a long distance. I couldn’t remember where she came from, a family home? Loads of sisters and brothers? But I knew she was going to the baby’s father. He’d gone ahead to settle them into a house, not the house they were in now, a smaller house, but one with a garden where the baby would have played, if the baby had arrived with her.

Bob was saying something but it was hard to focus. His mouth was hard and red. His arm went around me and I pulled away. I had to rub the tears from my cheeks.  He sighed.

“She lost me,” I said. “I was a baby and she lost me.”

He asked what the fuck I was talking about.

“Her husband says it wasn’t her fault but how can anyone be so stupid. He says she was tired after her long journey and still had another ten hours to go. She was young too, nearly as young as I am now. Could you imagine me with a baby?”

He didn’t answer.

“A woman called Melanie came and sat beside her. At least that’s what she called herself. Melanie sounds like a nice person, doesn’t it, a person who takes care of herself.”

Bob’s hand was moving on my leg.

“But she wasn’t a nice person, though she must have looked like one then. When I was a baby she wouldn’t have been twenty yet and she probably didn’t drink too much. She sat down and asked my mother’s name and where she was going and what her husband did and she talked about her own family, and then she asked if she could hold the baby.”

Bob was watching me with that fierce gaze and I didn’t want to look at him.

“The woman, Melanie, that’s what her name was, she stood and said the baby needed a nappy change and my mother said no, wait, because she was worried, but just for a second because she was so tired.  It’s okay, Melanie said, you need to rest.”

Bob told me to finish my drink and I did. He took the glass off me and I waited for him to ask what happened next.

I wanted to say that the woman saw Melanie going for the door of the station and she screamed ‘she has my baby’ and everyone jumped into action and stopped her, that Melanie didn’t make it into the dark street where she and the baby were swallowed up and lost because thirty years ago there were no videos to show what the woman looked like. There were no internet or Facebook posts going viral. She just disappeared and probably moved from one crappy apartment to the other and home-schooled the girl so no questions would be asked, but I couldn’t finish the story. I couldn’t get beyond the bus station and the woman sitting there empty-handed.

L.M. Brown’s novel ‘Debris’ has recently been published.

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