Page 69

Lou Ann just listened.

"What I'm saying is nobody feels sorry for anybody anymore, nobody even pretends they do. Not even the President. It's like it's become unpatriotic." I unfolded my wad of handkerchief and blew my nose.

"What's that supposed to teach people?" I demanded. "It's no wonder kids get the hurting end of the stick. And she's so little, so many years ahead of her. I'm just not up to the job, Lou Ann."

Lou Ann sat with her knees folded under her, braiding and unbraiding the end of a strand of my hair.

"Well, don't feel like the Lone Ranger," she said. "Nobody is."

Chapter 13 Night Blooming Cereus

Turtle turned out to be, as the social worker predicted, resilient. Within a few weeks she was talking again. She never did anything with the anatomical rag dolls except plant them under Cynthia's desk blotter, but she did talk some about the "bad man" and how Ma Poppy had "popped him one." I had no idea where Turtle had learned to talk like that, but then Edna and Virgie Mae did have TV. Cynthia was concerned about Turtle's tendency to bury the dollies, believing that it indicated a fixation with death, but I assured her that Turtle was only trying to grow dolly trees.

Cynthia was the strawberry blonde social worker. We went to see her on Mondays and Thursdays. Of the two of us, Turtle and me, I believe I was the tougher customer.

It was a miserable time. As wonderful as the summer's first rains had been, they soon wore out their welcome as it rained every day and soaked the air until it felt like a hot, stale dishcloth on your face. No matter how hard I tried to breathe, I felt like I couldn't get air. At night I'd lie on top of the damp sheets and think: breathe in, breathe out. It closed out every other thought, and it closed out the possibility of sleep, though sometimes I wondered what was the point of working so hard to stay alive, if that's what I was doing. I remembered my pep talk to Esperanza a few months before, and understood just how ridiculous it was. There is no point in treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, There now, hang on, you'll get over it. Sadness is more or less like a head cold-with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer.

Cynthia had spent a lot of time talking with both of us about Turtle's earlier traumas, the things that had happened before I ever knew her. The story came out of me a little at a time.

But apparently it was no news to a social worker. Cynthia said that, as horrible as it was, this kind of thing happened often, not just on Indian reservations but in the most everyday-looking white frame houses and even places a whole lot fancier than that. She told me that maybe one out of every four little girls is sexually abused by a family member. Maybe more.

Surprisingly, hearing this wasn't really what upset me the most. Maybe by then I was already numb, or could only begin to think about the misfortunes of one little girl at a time. But also, I reasoned, this meant that Turtle was not all alone. At least she would have other people to talk to about it when she grew up.

But there was other bad news. During the third week of sessions with Cynthia she informed me that it had recently come to the attention of the Child Protection Services Division of the Department of Economic Security, in the course of the police investigation, that I had no legal claim to Turtle.

"No more legal claim than the city dump has on your garbage," I said. I think Cynthia found me a little shocking. "I told you how it was," I insisted. "Her aunt just told me to take her. If it hadn't been me, it would have been the next person to come down the road with an empty seat in the car. I guarantee you, Turtle's relatives don't want her."

"I understand that. But the problem is that you have no legitimate claim. A verbal agreement with a relative isn't good enough. You can't prove to the police that it happened that way. That you didn't kidnap her, for instance, or that the relatives weren't coerced."

"No, I can't prove anything. I don't understand what you're getting at. If I don't have a legal claim on Turtle, I don't see where anybody else does either."

Cynthia had these tawny gold eyes like some member of the cat family, as certain fair-haired people do. But unlike most people she could look you straight in the eye and stay there. I suppose that is part of a social worker's training.

"The state of Arizona has a claim," she said. "If a child has no legal guardian she becomes a ward of the state."

"You mean, like orphan homes, that kind of thing?"

"That kind of thing, yes. There's a chance that you could adopt her eventually, depending on how long you've been a resident of the state, but you would have to qualify through the state agency. It would depend on a number of factors, including your income and stability."