Chapter no 10

Little Fires Everywhere

This was why, while Pearl and Mia were eating dinner Tuesday evening, the doorbell rang followed by a frantic knocking. Mia ran down to the side door, and Pearl heard a murmur of voices and

crying, and then her mother came into the kitchen followed by a young Chinese woman, who was sobbing.

“I knock and knock,” Bebe was saying. “I ring the doorbell and they don’t answer so I knock and knock. I can see that woman inside. Peeking out from behind the curtain to check if I go away.”

Mia guided her to a chair—her own, with a plate of half-finished noodles still in front of it. “Pearl, get Bebe some water. And maybe make some tea.” She sat down in the other chair and leaned across the table to take Bebe’s hand. “You shouldn’t have just gone over there like that. You couldn’t expect them to just let you come right in.”

“I call her first!” Bebe wiped her face on the back of her hand, and Mia took a napkin from the table and nudged it toward her. It was actually an old flowered handkerchief from the thrift store, and Bebe scrubbed at her eyes. “I look them up in the phone book and call them, right after I hang up with you. Nobody answer. I just get the machine. What kind of message I am going to leave? So I try them again, and again, all morning, until finally somebody answer at two o’clock. She answer.”

Across the kitchen, Pearl set the kettle on the stove and clicked on the burner. She had never met Bebe before, though her mother had mentioned her once or twice. Her mother hadn’t said how pretty Bebe was—big eyes, high cheekbones, thick black hair swept up into a ponytail—or how young. To Pearl, anyone over about twenty seemed impossibly adult, but she guessed that Bebe might be twenty-five or so. Definitely younger than her mother, but there was something almost childish in the way she spoke, in the way she sat with her feet primly together and her hands clasped, in the way she glanced up at Mia helplessly, as if she were Mia’s daughter, too,

that made her think of Bebe as if she were another teenager. Pearl did not realize, nor would she for a while yet, how unusually self-possessed her mother was for someone her age, how savvy and seasoned.

“I tell her who I am,” Bebe was saying. “I say, ‘This is Linda McCullough?’ And she say yes, and I tell her, ‘My name is Bebe Chow, I am May Ling’s mother.’ Just like that, she hang up on me.” Mia shook her head.

“I call her back and she pick up the phone and hang it up again. And then I call her again and I get just a busy signal.” Bebe wiped her nose with the napkin and crumpled it into a ball. “So I go over there. Two buses and I have to ask the driver where to change, and then I walk another mile to their house. Those huge houses—everybody over there drive, no one wants take a bus to work. I ring the front doorbell, and nobody answer, but she watching from upstairs, just looking down at me. I ring the bell again and again and I calling, ‘Mrs. McCullough, it’s me, Bebe, I just want to talk to you,’ and then the curtain closed. But she still in there, just waiting for me to go away. Like I am going to go away when my baby is in there.

“So I keep on knocking and ringing. Sooner or later she have to come out and then I can talk to her.” She glanced at Mia. “I just want to see my baby again. I think, I can talk with these McCulloughs and get them to understand. But she will not come out.”

Bebe fell silent for a long time and looked down at her hands, and Pearl saw the skin, reddened and raw, along the sides of her fists. She must have been banging on the door for a long, long time, she realized, and she thought simultaneously of how much pain Bebe must have been in, must still be in, and how terrified Mrs. McCullough, locked inside the house, must have felt.

The rest of the story poured out haltingly, as if Bebe were only now piecing the scene together herself. Sometime later a Lexus had pulled up, with a police car right behind it, and Mr. McCullough had emerged. He had told Bebe to leave the property, two police officers flanking him like bodyguards. Bebe had tried to tell them she only wanted to see her baby, but wasn’t sure now what she had said, if she had argued or threatened or raged or begged. All she could remember was the line Mr. McCullough kept repeating—“You have no right to be here. You have no right to be here”—and finally one of the officers took her by the arm and pulled her away. Go, they had said, or they would take her down to the station and

charge her with trespassing. This she recalled clearly: as the policemen pulled her away from the house, she could hear her child crying from behind the locked front door.

“Oh, Bebe,” Mia said, and Pearl could not tell if she was disappointed or proud.

“What else I can do? I walk all the way here. Forty-five minutes. Who else I can ask for help but you?” She glared at Pearl and Mia fiercely, as if she thought they might contradict her. “I am her mother.”

“They know that,” Mia said. “They know that very well. Or they wouldn’t have run you off like that.” She nudged the mug of tea— lukewarm now—toward Bebe.

“What I can do now? If I go over there again, they call the police and arrest me.”

“You could get a lawyer,” Pearl suggested, and Bebe gave her a gentle pitying glance.

“Where I am going to get money for a lawyer?” she asked. She glanced down at her clothing—black pants and a thin white button-down—and Pearl understood suddenly: this was her work uniform; she’d left work without even bothering to change. “In the bank I have six hundred and eleven dollars. You think a lawyer help me for six hundred and eleven dollars?”

“Okay,” said Mia. She pushed the remains of Pearl’s dinner—glazed now with a white sheen of fat—to one side. All this time she had been thinking; in fact, she’d been thinking about this ever since Lexie had mentioned the baby: about what she would do if she were in Bebe’s position, about what it was possible for anyone in Bebe’s position to do. “Listen to me. You want to fight this fight? Here’s what you do.”



Wednesday afternoon, had any of the Richardson children been paying attention to the commercials during Jerry Springer, they might have noticed the teasers for the Channel 3 evening news, with a photo of the McCulloughs’ house. If they had, they might have notified their mother, who was hammering out a story on a proposed school levy and would not be home to watch the news—or to alert Mrs. McCullough.

But as it happened, Lexie and Trip were so involved in a spirited argument over which guest had better hair, the drag queen or his embittered ex-wife, that no one heard the commercials. Pearl and Moody, looking on in bemusement, didn’t even glance at the screen, and Lexie had interrupted before Trip was halfway through his case for the drag queen. Izzy, meanwhile, was at Mia’s in the darkroom, watching her pull a new print from the developer and hang it to dry. So no one saw the teasers for the nightly news or watched the news that evening. Mrs. McCullough was also not a news watcher, and thus, when she answered her doorbell early Thursday morning with Mirabelle on her hip, expecting a parcel from her sister, she was alarmed to find Barbra Pierce—Channel 9’s bouffanted local investigative journalist—standing on her front steps with a microphone in hand.

“Mrs. McCullough!” Barbra cried, as if they’d run into each other at a party and it was all a delightful coincidence. Behind her loomed a burly cameraman in a parka, though all Mrs. McCullough registered was the barrel of a lens and a blinking red light like one glowing eye. Mirabelle began to cry. “We understand that you’re in the process of adopting a little girl. Are you aware her mother is fighting to regain custody?”

Mrs. McCullough slammed the door shut, but the news crew had gotten what they’d come for. Only two and a half seconds of footage, but it was enough: the slender white woman at the door of her imposing brick Shaker house, looking angry and afraid, clutching the screaming Asian baby in her arms.

With a vague sense of foreboding, Mrs. McCullough checked the clock.

Her husband was en route to work downtown and would not be there for another thirty-five minutes at least. She called one friend after another, but none of them had seen the news story the night before either, and they could offer only moral support, not enlightenment. “Don’t worry,” each said in turn. “It’ll be okay. Just Barbra Pierce stirring up trouble.”

Mr. McCullough, meanwhile, arrived at work and took the elevator up to the seventh floor, where Rayburn Financial Services had their offices. He had just extricated one arm from his overcoat when Ted Rayburn appeared in his doorway.

“Listen, Mark,” he said. “I don’t know if you saw the news last night on Channel Three, but there’s something you should know about.” He shut the door behind him, and Mr. McCullough listened, still clutching his overcoat

against himself, as if it were a towel. Ted Rayburn, in the same measured, slightly concerned tones he used with clients, described the news segment: the outside shot of the McCulloughs’ house, shaded in the evening light, but still familiar to him from their years of hosting cocktail parties, brunches, summer barbecues. The anchor’s lead-in: Adoptions are about giving new homes to children who don’t have families. But what if the child already has a family? And the interview with the mother—Bee-something, Ted hadn’t caught the full name—who had begged for her baby on camera. “I make a mistake,” she said, every syllable carefully enunciated. “Now I have a good job. I have my life together now. I want my baby back. These McCulloughs have no right adopt a baby when her own mother wants her. A child belong with her mother.”

Ted Rayburn had nearly finished when the phone on the desk rang, and Mr. McCullough, seeing the number, knew that it was his wife, and what was happening, and what he would now have to explain to her. He picked up the receiver.

“I’m coming home,” he said, and set it down again and picked up his keys.



Mia, who did not own a television, had not seen the news segment either. But Wednesday afternoon, just before it aired, Bebe dropped by to tell her how the interview had gone. “They think this is a good story,” she said. She was wearing her black pants and a white shirt with a faded soy-sauce stain on the cuff, and from this Mia knew she was headed in to work. “They talk to me for almost an hour. They have very many questions for me.”

She broke off at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. It was Izzy, just arrived from school, and both of them fell silent at the sight of a stranger. “I better go,” Bebe said after a moment. “The bus coming soon.” On the way out the door, she leaned close to Mia. “They say people really going to get behind me,” she whispered.

“Who was that?” Izzy asked, when Bebe had gone.

“Just a friend,” Mia had answered. “A friend from work.”

The producers at Channel 3, as it turned out, had good instincts. In the hours after the segment aired, the station had been flooded with calls about

the story—enough to warrant a follow-up, and enough for Channel 9, ever competitive, to deploy Barbra Pierce first thing the next morning.

“Barbra Pierce,” Linda McCullough said to Mrs. Richardson Thursday evening. “Barbra Pierce with her stilettos and her Dolly Parton hair.

Showed up on my doorstep and shoved a microphone in my face.” The two women had just watched Barbra Pierce’s segment, each on her own couch in front of the television holding the cordless phone to her ear, and Mrs.

Richardson had the sudden eerie feeling that they were fourteen again, Princess phones in their laps, watching Green Acres in tandem so that they could hear each other laugh.

“That’s what Barbra Pierce does,” Mrs. Richardson said. “Ms.

Sensational Action News in a skirt suit. She’s a bully with a cameraman.” “The lawyer says we’re on solid footing,” Mrs. McCullough said. “He

says that by leaving the baby, she gave up custody to the state and the state gave it to us, so her grievance is really with the state and not us. He says the process is eighty percent complete and it’ll only take another month or two for Mirabelle to be ours permanently, and then this woman will have no claim on her at all.”

They had tried so long, she and her husband, for a baby. After their wedding, she’d gotten pregnant right away. And then, a few weeks later, she’d begun bleeding, and she knew even before they consulted the doctor that the baby was gone. “Very common,” the doctor had reassured her. “Half of all pregnancies end in the first few weeks. Most women don’t even know they’d conceived.” But Mrs. McCullough had known, and three months later, when it happened again, and again four months after that, and again five months after that, she had been painfully aware each time that something alive had sparked in her, and that somehow that little spark had gone out.

The doctors prescribed patience, vitamins, iron supplements. Another pregnancy came; this time it was nearly ten weeks before the bleeding began. Mrs. McCullough cried at night, and after she fell asleep, her husband cried beside her. After three years of trying, she had been pregnant five times, and there was still no baby. Wait six months, the obstetrician recommended; let your body recover. When the waiting period was up, they tried again. Two months later she was pregnant; a month later, she was not. Each time she told no one, hoping that if she sealed the knowledge tight inside her, it would stay and grow. Nothing changed. By then her old friend

Elena had a girl and a boy and was pregnant with a third, and though Elena called often, though she would happily have taken Linda into her arms and let her cry—as they’d done so often for each other growing up, over big things and small—Mrs. McCullough found this was something she could not share. She never told Elena when she was pregnant, so how could she tell her the pregnancy had ended? She did not even know how to begin. I lost another one. It happened again. Whenever they had lunch, Mrs.

McCullough could not keep herself from staring at Mrs. Richardson’s rounding belly. She felt like a pervert, she so badly wanted to touch it, to stroke it, to caress it. In the background, Lexie and Trip babbled and tottered, and it became easier, after a while, to simply avoid it all. Mrs.

Richardson, for her part, noticed that her dear friend Linda called her less, that when she herself called, she often got the machine—Mrs.

McCullough’s cheery voice singing, “Leave a message for Linda and Mark, and we’ll call you back!” But no one ever did.

The year after Izzy was born, Mrs. McCullough became pregnant again. By then it was exhausting: the plotting of her cycle, the waiting, the calls to the doctor. Even the sex—carefully scheduled for her most fertile days— had begun to feel like a chore. Who’d ever have believed it, she thought, remembering high school, when she and Mark had fumbled frantically against each other in the backseat of his car. The doctors put her on strict bed rest: no more than forty minutes a day on her feet, including trips to the bathroom; no exertions. She made it to almost five months before she woke at two A.M. with a terrible stillness in her belly, like the silence after a bell has stopped ringing. At the hospital, while she lay in a drugged fog, the doctors coaxed the baby from her womb. “Do you want to see her?” one asked when it was over, and a nurse held out the baby, swaddled in a white cloth, in her cupped palms. To Mrs. McCullough, she looked impossibly tiny, impossibly rose colored, impossibly glossy and smooth, like something blown from pink glass. Impossibly still. She nodded vaguely, shut her eyes again, spread her legs to let the doctors stitch her up.

She began to walk the long way around to the store to avoid the playground, the elementary school, the bus stop. She began to hate pregnant women. She wanted to slap them, to throw things at them, to grab them by the shoulders and bite them. On their tenth wedding anniversary, Mr.

McCullough took her to Giovanni’s, her favorite restaurant, and as they entered, a vastly pregnant woman waddled up behind them. Mrs.

McCullough pushed the door open and then, as the pregnant woman came up behind, let it shut in the woman’s face, and Mr. McCullough, turning back to take his wife’s arm, for a moment could not recognize this woman, so callous, so different from the endlessly maternal woman he’d always known.

Finally, after one last doctor’s appointment full of heartrending phrases

low-motility sperm; inhospitable womb; conception likely impossible— they’d decided to adopt. Even IVF would likely fail, the doctors had advised them. Adoption was their best chance for a baby. They’d put their names on every waiting list they could find, and from time to time an adoption agent would call with a possible match. But something always fell through: the mother changed her mind; a father or a cousin or a grandmother showed up out of the blue; the agency decided another, often younger couple was a better fit. A year passed, then two, then three.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted a baby, and demand far exceeded supply. That January morning, when the social worker had called to say that she’d gotten their name from one of the adoption agencies, that she had a baby who was theirs if they wanted her: it had felt like a miracle. If they wanted her! All that pain, all that guilt, those seven little ghosts—for Mrs. McCullough never forgot a single one—had, to her amazement, packed themselves into a box and whisked themselves away at the sight of baby Mirabelle: so concrete, so vivid, so inescapably present. Now, at the thought that Mirabelle might be taken as well, Mrs. McCullough realized that the box and its contents had never disappeared, that they had simply been stored away, waiting for someone to open the lid.

The news had cut to commercial, and through the line Mrs. Richardson could hear the tinny jingle of the Cedar Point ad on the McCulloughs’ set, a fraction of a second behind her own. She watched an elderly woman stumble, fall, fumble for the transmitter around her neck, and Barbra Pierce’s voice-over echoed in her mind. This couple wants to adopt her child. But she won’t let her baby go without a fight.

“It’ll blow over,” Mrs. Richardson said to Mrs. McCullough now. “People will forget about it. It’ll pass.”

But it did not pass. Improbable as it seemed, something about the story had touched a nerve in the community. The news was slow: a woman had had septuplets; bears, the New York Times reported with a straight face, were the main cause of car break-ins at Yosemite. The most pressing

political question—for a few more weeks, at least—was what President Clinton would name his new dog. The city of Cleveland was safe and bored, and eager for a sensation a bit closer to home.

On Friday morning there were two more camera crews at the McCulloughs’ door, and three segments that evening, on Channels 5, 19, and 43. Footage of Bebe Chow holding a picture of May Ling at one month old, pleading for her baby back. Shots of the McCulloughs’ house with its curtains drawn and front-door light off; a photo of Mr. and Mrs.

McCullough, dressed in black tie at a benefit for leukemia, that had run in the glossy society pages of Shaker magazine the year before; footage of Mr. McCullough’s BMW backing out of the garage and driving away as a reporter jogged alongside holding a microphone up to the window.

By Saturday all the camera crews were back, Mrs. McCullough had locked herself in the house with Mirabelle, and the secretaries at Mr.

McCullough’s investment firm had been instructed to decline any calls from news sources with “No comment.” Every night Mirabelle McCullough—or May Ling Chow, as some pointedly chose to call her—was a featured story on the evening news, always accompanied by photographs. At first there was only Bebe’s snapshot of May Ling as a newborn, but then—on the advice of the McCulloughs’ lawyer, who wanted to provide a counterpoint

—came more recent portraits from the McCulloughs, taken at the Dillard’s photo studio, showing Mirabelle in a frilly yellow Easter dress with bunny ears, or in a pink romper standing beside an old-fashioned rocking horse.

Supporters were emerging on both sides, and by Saturday afternoon, a local lawyer, Ed Lim, had offered to represent Bebe Chow, gratis, and sue the state for custody of her daughter.



Saturday evening, at dinner, Mr. Richardson announced, “Mark and Linda McCullough called this afternoon to ask if I’d work with their lawyer.

Seems he doesn’t have a lot of court experience, and they thought I might be a good backup.”

Lexie nibbled at her salad. “So will you?”

“None of this is their fault, you know.” Mr. Richardson sawed off a bite of chicken. “They just want to do right by the baby. And the suit isn’t

directed at them. It’s at the state. But they’ll be dragged into it, and they’re the ones who’ll be affected by it most.”

“Except for Mirabelle,” Izzy said. Mrs. Richardson opened her mouth for a sharp remark, but Mr. Richardson quieted her with a glance.

“This whole thing is about Mirabelle, Izzy,” he said. “Everyone involved

—we all just want what’s best for her. We just have to figure out what that is.”

We, Izzy thought. Her father had become part of this already. She thought of the image the newspaper kept running of Bebe Chow: the sadness in her eyes, the palm-sized photo of baby May Ling in her hand, one corner creased, as if it had been kept in a pocket (which it had). Right away she’d recognized the woman she’d seen in Mia’s kitchen, who had fallen silent as soon as she’d come in, who’d stared at her as if she were afraid, almost hunted. “Just a friend,” Mia had said when Izzy had asked who she was, and if Mia trusted Bebe, Izzy knew where her loyalties lay.

“Baby stealer,” she said.

A shocked silence dropped over the table like a heavy cloth. Across the table, Lexie and Trip exchanged wary, unsurprised glances. Moody shot Izzy a look that said shut up, but she wasn’t watching.

“Izzy, apologize to your father,” said Mrs. Richardson.

“What for?” Izzy demanded. “They’re practically kidnapping her. And everyone’s just letting them. Daddy’s even helping.”

“Let’s calm down,” Mr. Richardson began, but it was too late. When it came to Izzy, Mrs. Richardson was seldom calm, and for that matter, Izzy herself never was.

“Izzy. Go to your room.”

Izzy turned to her father. “Maybe they could just pay her off. How much is a baby worth in today’s market? Ten thousand bucks?”

“Isabelle Marie Richardson—”

“Maybe they can bargain her down to five.” Izzy dropped her fork onto her plate with a clatter and left the room. Mia should hear about this, she thought, running upstairs and into her bedroom. She would know what to do. She would know how to fix this. Lexie’s laugh floated up the stairwell and down the hallway, and Izzy slammed the door shut.

Downstairs, Mrs. Richardson sank back into her seat, hands shaking. It would take her until the next morning to think of a suitable punishment for Izzy: confiscating her beloved Doc Martens and throwing them in the trash.

If you dress like a thug, she would insist as she opened the trash barrel, of course you act like a thug. For now, she pressed her lips together tightly and set her knife and fork down in a neat X across her plate.

“Should we keep the news quiet?” she asked. “That you’re working with the McCulloughs, I mean.”

Mr. Richardson shook his head. “It’ll be in the paper tomorrow,” he said, and he was right.

On Sunday, the Plain Dealer ran the story on the front page, just below the fold: LOCAL MOTHER FIGHTS FOR DAUGHTER’S CUSTODY. It was a good

article, Mrs. Richardson thought, sipping her coffee and skimming over it with a professional eye: an overview of the case; a quick mention that the McCulloughs would be represented by William Richardson of Kleinman, Richardson, and Fish; a statement from Bebe Chow’s lawyer. “We are confident,” said Edward Lim, “that the state will see fit to return custody of May Ling Chow to her biological mother.” The very fact that the paper had run it so prominently, however, suggested that the real coverage was only beginning.

At the bottom of the article, a single sentence caught Mrs. Richardson’s eye: “Ms. Chow had been informed of her daughter’s whereabouts by a coworker at Lucky Palace, a Chinese restaurant on Warrensville Road.” Even so carefully and anonymously phrased, she realized with a jolt who that coworker must be. It could not be a coincidence. So it was her tenant, her quiet little eager-to-please tenant, who had started all of this. Who had, for reasons still unclear, decided to upend the poor McCulloughs’ lives.

Mrs. Richardson folded the paper precisely and set it down on the table.

She thought again of Mia’s disaffection when she’d offered to buy one of Mia’s photos, of Mia’s reticence about her past. Of Mia’s—well, standoffishness, even as she spent hours a day in Mrs. Richardson’s own home, in this very kitchen. A woman whose wages she paid, whose rent she had subsidized, whose daughter spent hours and hours under this very roof every single day. She thought of the photograph at the art museum, which now, in her memory, took on a secretive, sly tinge. How hypocritical of Mia, with her stubborn privacy, to insert herself into places where she didn’t belong. But that was Mia, wasn’t it? A woman who took an almost perverse pleasure in flaunting the normal order. It was unfairness itself, that this woman was causing such trouble for her dear friend Linda, that Linda should have to suffer for it.

On Monday, she sent the children to school and dawdled at home until Mia arrived to clean. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but she needed to see Mia in person, to look her in the eyes. “Oh,” Mia said as she came in the side door. “I didn’t expect you to be home. Should I come back later?”

Mrs. Richardson tipped her head to one side and studied her tenant. Hair, as always, unkempt atop her head. A loose white button-down untucked over jeans. A smudge of paint on the back of one wrist. Mia stood there with one hand on the doorway, a half smile on her face, waiting for Mrs.

Richardson to respond. A sweet face. A young face, but not an innocent face. She didn’t care, Mrs. Richardson realized, what people thought of her. In a way, that made her dangerous. She thought suddenly of the photograph she’d seen at Mia’s house that first day, when she’d invited Mia into her home. The woman turned arachnid, all silent, stealthy arms. What kind of person, she thought, would transform a woman into a spider? What kind of person, for that matter, saw a woman and even thought spider?

“I’m just leaving,” she said, and lifted her bag from the counter. Even years later, Mrs. Richardson would insist that that digging into

Mia’s past was nothing more than justified retribution for the trouble Mia had stirred up. It was purely for Linda’s sake, she would insist—her oldest and dearest friend, a woman who’d only been trying to do right by this baby and now, because of Mia, was having her heart broken. Linda did not deserve that. How could she, Elena, stand by and let someone ruin her best friend’s happiness? She would never admit even to herself that it hadn’t been about the baby at all: it had been some complicated thing about Mia herself, the dark discomfort this woman stirred up that Mrs. Richardson would have much preferred to have kept in its box. For now, the newspaper still in her hand, she told herself that it was for Linda. She would make a few calls. She would see what she could find out.

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