Sunlight Underground by Jan Schmidt



I forget the name of the father; I forget the name I gave my son; I forget the name of the spirit that allowed me to walk away from that hospital where my son stayed for the first days of his life before two strangers with a home and jobs took him away to love him as their son nearly thirty years ago. I forget what it felt like to be so careful and deliberate when I should have yelled and screamed and been defiant.
Twenty-nine years later, on the day that President Clinton, under investigation for the lying about, not the committing of, hanky-panky with an intern, aggressively, but not unilaterally, with a hint of magician moving our attention away from his prestidigitation, ordered a bombing in Iraq, the phone call came. I sat at my kitchen table, in Manhattan, on December 16, 1998, and heard a man’s voice say, “My name is Jude, Jude Matthew Hughes. I am your son.” Blood roared in my ears and the hairs on my arm stood up in a frenzy. My body was a country all its own. Other than a social worker, no one had ever uttered the words your son to me.
I wrote Jude Matthew Hughes on the piece of paper and stared at the name. The ink should have jumped off the paper and, in a swirl of Disney fantasy, become my son. But the paper and ink lay on the table inert; the name itself held no meaning. Though I had been aching to hear his name for nearly thirty years, searching for him for the last ten, I was astonished that these words were nothing but empty syllables. The combination of the astoundingly intimate “your son” and the impossibly meaningless name made me vibrate with confusion. It was my first clue that this person who once lived inside me, the person I had been imagining for thirty years, this person I wanted so desperately to love, to be loved by, this single human who was so many fictional people, was one specific person and that person was a stranger. Yet this didn’t dampen the excitement or lessen the desire. It only made it all more unimaginable, and more real. Please, I thought irrationally, climb up on my lap, let me hold you.
“My name is Maxine Kerrigan, they call me Max.” My name must have struck him the same way; his mother, me, was a stranger to him, too. I moved my arm to knock that feeling off the table. I am no stranger, I am your mother, you are my son.
After a few moments, as I figured he was absorbing how inconsequential my name was, he spoke again. His voice deepened, as though in an effort to keep control, but this very effort exposed his excitement to me and my breath quickened. He said, “I’m married; I have two kids. I’m healthy. I had good parents. I had a good life.”
While no information about him was more important than this, it told me none of the individual, singular-ness that was his life, which, of course, I wanted to know all at once, to swallow it whole as a snake takes in a mouse, to have his living breathing history fill that hole left by his exodus. However, his quick recitation of these facts did tell me that he wanted me to know he was okay, which was an enormous bit of himself to give. I never thought he was anything but safe. Of course, that was the story I had to comfort myself with, so his saying what I thought I always knew, which was after all the reason I had given him up–for a better life, for the fiction of a better life–so he damn well better have had a better life. So on the one hand I was genuinely relieved and grateful my son was okay, at the same time a madness awoke: those good-upbringing years should have been with me: me wiping his drool, me wrapping him warm and bathed in a soft blue blanket.
He told me he was five feet eleven, weighed around one ninety; had blond hair and blue eyes. I wrote this on my piece of paper, too. He said he lived in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I wasn’t surprised, I’d grown up in Wisconsin, gave birth there. I told him I lived in New York City for twenty years, in a five-floor Lower East Side walkup and he responded, like an eager kid, “Hey, I always wanted to visit there.”
My words rushed out like water out of fire hydrant, “Any time. I’d love to have you come.”
“We’ll see what happens.” He turned that johnny pump off quick. What if he never wanted to meet me? I couldn’t handle that thought; so I turned it around and decided that his concern was that we take this new knowing of each other slowly. This gave me another insight into his qualities, but I didn’t know if it meant he was a cautious man or a mistrusting one. It only doubled my desire to see him, look at his eyes, feel the soft flesh of his cheeks, to read him by his body, the body that was part of me. Suddenly my breasts ached, as though heavy and full of milk. Thirty years ago they had dripped and leaked into my bra and I had been amazed my body could do that and horrified that I had no tiny mouth to feed. No one had mentioned that my breasts would be full except the moment when the doctor said he was giving me a shot to stop the production of milk. I lay on the doctor’s table, no words, no nodding with knowledge or acceptance, just dumb, animal acquiescence as he injected me with something.
Jude asked if I had any other children. “No, no I don’t have any other children.” I choked, confused again by rushing emotions. This meant something, but I didn’t understand yet. Didn’t understand a lot of things including how deep was my ignorance of emotions, that vital conception of oneself that I had turned off thirty years ago. We continued talking, shyly, two strangers meeting for our arranged marriage, trying to carefully describe ourselves, not sure when some detail might offend the other, all the while searching for the details that would illuminate our connection, our DNA, our oneness. He worked for the city repairing streets. I managed a videotaping editing business. I had a master’s degree; he’d dropped out of college to raise his kids. A hollowness filled the words; they were bald facts, while beneath this raw data, under the conversational tones, tectonic plates of raw emotions slammed into each other, yet we seemed to have nothing in common.
He asked: Do you smoke?
Me: No, but I did. You?
He: Yeah, I smoke Kools. What brand did you smoke?
Me: I smoked Marlboros, then Parliaments.
He: Do you like to hunt or fish?
Me: Nope, you like to read?
He: Its okay. You like guns?
Me: Nope, I’m against ’em. You like the arts?
He: Nah, it’s girlie stuff.
His tone was exactly midway between satire and belief. I settled on thinking it was a joke. I said, “So, we have no mystifying similarities to astonish our friends and to wow the TV talk show hosts.” The silliness in my voice caught him off guard and he laughed, a sweet, light titter that lit up my soul and I wanted only to hear it again and again. I’d found my gravity, my home, my location in the world: it was riding on the waves of his laughter.
I added, “I, we, have Irish relatives,” Then, overcome by the absurdity of having to tell my own son this information, I added, with a note of irony for the obviousness, for us, of the characteristic, “I check Caucasian on applications. Finally something we have in common.”
Of course he didn’t know that this was not such a straight-forward distinction in my life. I had yet to tell him, that I was living with Phil, a black man from Harlem and the south Bronx, who had two kids and four grandkids. One granddaughter, with the ghetto fabulous name D’evian, a twelve-year-old girl who had the innocence and graciousness to chatter away with me in her witty Bronx style, being or acting unconcerned for our differences in age and color.
It had never occurred to me that anything in my life might be disturbing to my son when I found him, only that he might be afraid that something in his life could be disagreeable to me. When I was searching, the social workers had let me put a letter with no identifying information in my son’s file. I’d written it over and over many times, but finally I sent a version in which I’d written, in hopes that I could ease some of what I assumed would be dread for him if he chose to look for me, that I would love him no matter what, gay or straight, Democrat or Republican.
He said in a flat way that attempted to hide his pride and pleasure, “I’m married and we have two kids. My wife’s name is Laura. My son Jared is eight and my daughter Beth is seven. Did you ever think you might have grandchildren?”
He sounded as if he had long considered the day he would tell me about his children. Bowled over by the thought of grandkids and the thought of his waiting to tell me his story, I felt faint. My breath forgot its way to my lungs and I swirled in a vortex that ended with my son’s sweet tones. I was nowhere and everywhere in the midst of the madness that is a new mother. “Yes. When you were about nineteen I started thinking about that possibility.”
“That’s how old I was when Jared was born.” His pause told me he was calculating this significance. I could feel his heart beating right over the phone. I waited, though waiting was not exactly accurate, as it implied a moving slowly through time, while time only existed in a constant state of now that flowed easily with his breath. He added, “So you must be able to guess my sexual preference.” When I realized he wanted me to know he’d read my letter and that he could approach a subject obliquely, with a sense of humor, a rush of pleasure streamed up my spine as though I’d seen my son take his first step.
Then Jude said, also because of my letter, I supposed, “And I am a Republican.” The moment I’d heard his voice, I had surrendered all critical judgment, but this possibility had never entered my imagination. My liberal heart stopped cold. He might think I am some kind of abomination; after all I wasn’t even married to the man I was committing miscegenation with. Someday, I hoped, this would be a funny story, but at this moment, the stakes were too high for me to say anything that could alienate this son I had just found; I couldn’t risk losing him now. A fear gripped my throat, but just as quickly, my paranoia had nothing to hold on to and a trust arose inside me, something that rarely had ever happened to me before. Some unknown inner connection controlled me and I couldn’t help but be honest with him. Jude and I couldn’t afford any kind of untruth; we had no use for prestidigitation between us, not after that original sleight of hand that left him with a different mother. I served the truth straight up to this stranger. “I’m a democrat and I’ve been living with a man for the last ten years and Phil is African American.” In that moment, I felt how much more Phil was than that one characteristic; he was a photographer, a father, a grandfather, the person who held me at night, who made me laugh in the morning, who pissed me off two seconds later. At this point, however, none of us was much more than a single characteristic: son, birthmother, boyfriend.
Jude said, “That’s cool.” I wished I could see his face, to see his expression, to allow my eyes to wallow in his physical presence the way synaptic explosions flooded my brain at the sound of his voice. He continued, “I had a grandfather I was really close to. After his wife died, he lived with a woman for twenty years without getting married. Probably because it made sense financially.”
I didn’t tell him how confused I was with the mention of a grandfather I didn’t know and my father, his grandfather whom he didn’t know. “Yes, Phil and I still can’t figure out whether we’d make out better or worse in taxes if we were married.” This silly discussion of finances was a universe away from the euphoria that overtook me because I realized he’d heard the fear in my voice and he’d tried to soothe me, and I understood that he’d grown up to be a sensitive, caring man, Republican or not.
Jude said, “I was a Democrat till I switched because of the abortion issue.” Then he paused and added, “For obvious reasons.”
He would get no knee-jerk pro-choice response from me to that, after all, how grotesque would it be to argue for legalized abortion with my only child. It wasn’t the political issue that floored me, or the fact that he thought I might not have let him be born, it was his thoughtfulness and his even considering that he recognized that I had something to do with his being here.
Phil came into the kitchen. He looked at me, tried to glean from my eyes how this first conversation with my son was going. For a moment, I saw him, slender, more than a foot taller than my five feet, long neck, long waist, jeans draping stylishly loose, red t- shirt that brought out the brown of his face and arms. His fear of how my son would accept him was real to him; for me, right now, race simply wasn’t an issue, not just because of my white exemption, but because this state of bliss wiped away all that hard reality. I was surprised at his physical presence; I had been so consumed with a world that existed only in my ear that seeing Phil, his shaved head and long neck, and the refrigerator and cabinets behind him brought this world back to me. Astonishing to find another human being in this new world of mine that contained my son. I tried to reassure Phil with a smile, but his proximity both comforted and confused me. Seeing Phil and my kitchen only reminded me of what I wasn’t seeing; I needed to be with my son, to listen to him breathe, to hear anything he might say.
Phil put his hand on my shoulder and I could feel his warmth. Usually I loved his hands, so large and comforting, but I didn’t have time, I had to pull away, get back to my son. Phil shook his head, his eyes smiled and he whispered that I was some mess, and he left. The kitchen disappeared again. All that existed came through the telephone, grew and created a universe in my ear: I listened to my son breathe. This was the only way we’d known each other before, hearing and breath. All time was siphoned into that moment on the telephone; I didn’t travel to the past or wish for the future; I was immediately present in a way I had never experienced before. At that moment I was no longer trying, I simply was, in life, and in love.
I asked Jude to tell me more about his life when he was a child. He said he went to Catholic grade school. He lived in Eau Claire, but spent a lot of time on a lake at his parents’ cabin. He was alone a lot and liked the woods and hunting. His dad had him study Tae Kwon Do. I tried to imagine his little body in the white martial arts clothes. I hated the idea he spent so much time alone, though he repeated that he was the type of kid who liked to be alone. I thought of myself, my alcoholic isolation, and got a flash of fear, but it passed quickly as I continued to listen. “In grade school everyone fought a lot. I got into a fight with the toughest kid in the school. I won because I knew how to fight. Afterwards, the kid I fought, Jimmy Compton, became my friend.”
“That’s great. I like it when a good fight turns into a good friendship.”
“No, we didn’t become good friends, he was into different things than me. But when I got out of grade school, I switched to the public high school. Jimmy Compton had already been there for two years and was still a big tough guy. He told the other kids that the only person he was afraid of was Jude Hughes, me. That settled my reputation in high school. I never had to fight anyone else the whole time.” His tone was matter-of-fact, not bragging, or displaying his strength. He might, I thought, be showing me that he was not particularly involved with the desperation of other high school students. I do know that we were both throwing information out as it occurred in some chaotic brain pattern way, not with malice or compassion aforethought, but with a creative haphazardness.
I could hear the Midwest in his voice, in his phrasing; I could feel the confidence of large spaces, endless roads and the edges of dark wooded areas. Could he hear the city in my voice, the people living close to each other, the sky cut off from view, multiple accents and voices speaking at once, or the remnant of my Wisconsin vowels I’d worked so hard to change?
I was shaking with fear and happiness, a teenage girl on my dream date, gaga at his every word. For thirty years he had remained an infant to me, nothing but possibility, and suddenly, his call changed all that. Out of the infinite world of potentials and options, those billions and terabillions of possible genetic combinations compressed into a single person, with a specific face, hair, muscles, history. I didn’t know how those specifics unfolded in this stranger, but I was learning. In that instant, wild contradictory emotions swept over me, crashed in on each other. My reactions were so vastly over the top, so reckless, yet they were also subdued, or maybe not subdued, more like quieted and warmed by his voice, as though I was the child and he the parent. After all, he was nearly ten years older than I was when we were last together as infant and mother.
He said he was wild in high school, drank a lot, didn’t do so well in school, got A’s in math, nearly failed English. I told him my dad had been a high school English teacher and that he’d be rolling over in the grave hearing that. I gave a little laugh and Jude added a chuckle. He said his folks encouraged him to go to college; he did for a year, but basically just didn’t do the work. He tried technical school, joined the Army Reserves and found his girlfriend Laura was pregnant. First they lived with her folks, then his folks. Then he got the job for the city and began to grow up. He and his wife and then two kids lived in crummy apartments till they bought the house he grew up in from his parents. They got married when they already had two kids.
I was relieved to have my stereotype of barren privilege in a neo-con moneyed life broken down and to see that Jude appeared to be full of contradictions, a complicated person.
In our kitchen in the fifties, there was no sound of technology, no TV or radio, only the rare jarring ring of a telephone interrupting the constant clamor of kids yelling, slamming the screen door. My father nursed his vodka at the table, looked at me cleaning up the dinner dishes and said, “You’re as complicated as I am.” My little twelve-year-old heart burst with pride and pleasure: my dad compared himself to me. He was so handsome, so captivating. I thought maybe I should mention to Jude that my dad had written an unpublished novel and that, of all the kids, I was the one he compared himself to. I didn’t say anything because I’d been sober for ten years and learned that what my dad recognized in both of us was the nature of an alcoholic. I told Jude that I grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin.
Jude asked about my life. I told him. “I was the second oldest of six kids and I always felt separate from everyone. While I was growing up, my mom worked as a nurse in a hospital, while raising six kids. She ran a tight ship, each day of the week had a particular dinner, one night chicken, the next,”
Jude cut in. “Probably hot dish in there one day.”
I laughed. “Oh yes, Friday night, tuna fish hot dish.”
Jude said, “With potato chips on top.”
“Yup. We loved hot dish. I worked a lot, got up in the morning, made breakfast with a toaster that you opened and turned the toast over to brown the other side.”
“We had one of those when I was a kid.”
“Yeah, I remember the great thing it was to get a pop up toaster, then miracle of miracles, in a home with six kids, a four slice toaster.”
He laughed. “Technology is a wonderful thing.”
I continued. “I went to school, came home, babysat, made the dinner, did the dishes, put the kids to bed, and then did my homework. I never minded hard work, but when I left the house, my life was mine, I was in control and no one could tell me anything.”
“I worked a lot as a kid too. I helped my dad build the garage. We redid the basement. Hard work is good for you.”
“Yeah, I agree. As soon as I could, I left to go to college in the big city Madison, Wisconsin. It was 1968, I went to my first class in my little skirt and blouse and found all these kids walking around in bell-bottoms that dragged on the ground. I got rid of my skirts and bought new jeans.”
“So you became a hippy?” Something in his voice said he wasn’t as inspired and delighted with this choice of mine as I thought he’d be. I’d thought everyone liked the sixties, but I had a lot to learn about my own myopia.
“Yup, I became a hippy chick. After you were born, I traveled, moved to California, then to New York City. In the eighties, I played in punk bands at all the hottest spots, like CBGB’s and A7.” I had moved quickly from hippy to punk, I guess in the hopes this might be more suitable for him.
“You were in punk bands? What did you play?” He kept a cool, level matter-of- fact tone, so I couldn’t tell his position on that music either. Maybe he didn’t have one. “I played electric guitar and did a lot of screaming. I wasn’t very good. I never had the fortitude to really give my all to anything.”
“Fortitude. What’s that, courage?”
I was surprised to have him ask for a definition. “Yeah, with a dash of stick-to-it-ness.”
“I like to look words up in the dictionary. I play a game with my kids. Everyday we pick a word at random in the dictionary and learn it and use it in a sentence.”
“That’s a good idea. My dad would like that. I used to tell fortunes that way. Whatever word your finger landed on I would shoehorn the definition into some positive future outcome. Of course, it was all a joke, no one took it seriously.”
“It was just a game.”
“Yeah. Anyway, with the band, I didn’t have the inner conviction to push through my own fears. After I let you go out of my life, I couldn’t do anything fully. I never did go on and have those ‘other children’ that the social workers told me I would have.”
As I gave voice to this thought to my son, a bit of self-truth came into high relief: I’d been saving myself for him, couldn’t have another child till he was back with me. My hands began to shake, my heart raced. I saw the faces of the men I’d been with who wanted to have children with me. I had just refused, not understanding why. Now, the world shifted on its axis; I wanted my baby and I wanted the other children lost to that first loss. I felt swollen and empty at the same time. With hurricane force, a biological imperative struck my heart, but at fifty, my womb was a riverbed gone dry.
There was no stopping to consider this meaning; after I got off the phone I would come back to this, but now I had to keep talking with my son. “I found all kinds of drugs and then got clean and sober in 1988, exactly ten years ago. As soon as my head began to clear I started looking for you. But it took ten years till I heard your voice tonight.”
“You were looking for me for ten years?” There was a note of surprise in his voice, like it was important to him that I had put some effort into finding him, that I had gained some significance.
The intimacy in his tone drilled into my soul and my heart beat like a humming bird, blood sounded in my brain, though I said calmly, “Yes. I told myself I wouldn’t look for you till you were twenty-one; I wouldn’t interfere with your life with your new family, no matter how much I wanted to. But when you were twenty-one, I said I was coming for you.” This was as close as I could come to talking about his birth, the thing that hung there between us.
With those words in the air, all the things I’d been saving up to tell my son got stuck in the rushing to get out. Words piled up in my throat. I wanted to say, though I’d made every mistake possible, I didn’t regret them. I didn’t regret those years lost in an alcohol stupor, but I regretted signing that paper, the ink discharging in clots from the cheap dime-store pen onto the forms, my life my blood my baby leaking away from me with every drop.
A silent scream let loose from where it had been buried deep in my inner most molten core: “Where is my infant? Where is my baby?” I clung to my chair from the force of the revelation. My heart had melted on hearing his voice; it now froze with the unexpected truth. I thought that I’d get my baby back, that I’d be that young woman again and he’d be my newborn, we’d be leaving the hospital together, him bundled in my arms. My breath was suspended again, suspended even more than the way it had taken hold nearly thirty years ago. Though I wanted to hide this disappointment, not in him, nothing about him was disappointing to me, but my disappointment that he was not an infant, I blurted out, “I thought you’d still be a baby.”
During the short silence I wondered what he could feel about me saying that. Did he feel how important he was to me? Did he understand how much I loved him? Jude said, “I was surprised when I read in the file that you were so old. I always imagined that you were about sixteen and maybe pregnant by a college guy. But you were old, twenty- one.” My beautiful baby’s voice hardened as he spit out this hard truth.
Old? This knife in my heart meant that he was the disappointed one. My words, my horrible words I thought you’d still be a baby had meant something completely different to him and he was able to lunge the knife at me: old. Slicing me over and over, old, old, old. I, too, was horrified that I had been too old to do what I’d done. I’d just turned twenty-one when he was born.
But then I thought, he’d misheard what I’d said. He hadn’t heard my love and anguish of loss, he’d heard something else, something that meant I wasn’t completely pleased with him as he was. I felt the hurt in him. Then I retranslated his words to mean that he wasn’t just disappointed that I wasn’t sixteen at his birth, a girl too young to keep a child, but he was disappointed I wasn’t sixteen now. This was the beginning of the withering away of my son’s fantasized mom. I needed to replace this imagined person with me. But how could I compete with a mother who raised him and a mother of his dreams? But competition was as meaningless as any name. I said, “I was an idiot, a moron. I made a unilateral decision without getting real advice. I have no excuse for my action. The hanky panky that made you may have been a stupid mistake; letting you go was the worst thing I ever did and I missed you every day of my life.”
He softened. “I know the times were different. You didn’t have the choices you have now. You probably never knew anyone with a baby who wasn’t married.”
“Nope.” My one syllable answer held a world of joy. For this there was no openness of interpretation: my son, who had just condemned me, now was defending me. I nearly fainted with relief. Suddenly, words failed me, emotions became a jumble, each one canceling the next one out, and I stuttered, “I feel, I feel . . .” Jude suggested, “Happy?” The eagerness in his voice, a child’s note, touched the core of me. I said, “That’s a weak word for what I’m feeling. But happy? Yeah, most definitely, yes. How do you feel?”
“Strange. Okay. Fine.” Fine. This four letter word that could mean nothing or anything, in his mouth, became a word that overflowed with unexpressed everything. Fine, I thought, fine. Yes, this was fine. Very fine.
We said we’d send pictures to each other and we wrote down addresses. I said suddenly, “When I write, what should I call myself?”
“Don’t even go there. I have a mom. Your name is Max and that is what I will call you.” He stopped me cold, firmly, with no room to wiggle. This was my first brush with his resolve; the hurt I felt was softened by my pride in his stubbornness, the first sign of our alikeness, and a respect for his loyalty to the mother who had raised him. I was surprised to find this landmine in our relationship; I’d thought everything was clear.


Jan Schmidt lives and works in New York City. Her work has appeared in The Long Story, New York Stories, Downtown, and American Letters and Commentary, among others. For eight years, she co-edited with J.D. Rage Venom Press and its quarterly poetry and fiction magazine, Curare.