By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
"They had a nasty fight over that," recalled Marjorie. "She slapped Helen when she was pregnant with baby Mary Jane. Barbara screamed at Helen that she was too young to become a grandmother."
Barbara's three other kids, all of whom are now lodged with foster parents, lived the good life compared to Helen's struggle to make ends meet.
Today, Helen and Alex, both without high school diplomas, deliver fliers a few hours every day for cash, a job his father lined up for the new parents.
Despite slapping Helen and flipping out over her new status as a grandmother, Barbara pines over the infant. In fact, she drowns in emotion every time she visits the apartment.
Barbara had lived in the same complex as a teenage bride. Those better times still glistened in her eyes.
"I lived here when I was pregnant with Richie," said Barbara as she waited, subdued and tearful, in Marjorie's office, hopeful of a visit with kin.
"Only baby shower I ever had was in this apartment. It's the happiest memory of my life. My mom and dad lived here when dad was still alive. This is where everything happened. I grew up in this neighborhood."
In the old days, a pool sparkled in the courtyard. Now, dirt covered the hole. But Barbara remembered a photograph of her husband Lennie jumping into the water, grinning to beat the band.
"He's all I think about, he's the only man I'll ever love. He was my first love, the father of my kids. I was a virgin when I married him."
Barbara said the moment she saw Lennie, she knew he was the man for her.
"He was kind, generous and humorous. No fronts, always himself. Everyone blames me, but his family had their problems, too. His mother ended up marrying his uncle. Only time I saw his father was 16 years ago, when we was hitched.
"My husband, God rest his soul, he's the one that turned us on to crack. He put us in this place. That was three years ago.
"'I hate you, you fucking bitch,' those were his last words to me."
Barbara had emptied out a good portion of the tissue box in Marjorie's office.
"I wish it were me that died. I'd like to see him in this position. Would he be any better at doing what needs doing? Why was it me that had to live?"
Barbara eased her tragedies with happier memories from a childhood that preceded the apartment complex.
"We lived on the go, picking olives, strawberries, loganberries, whatever. It was fun. Mom and Dad would be up in the trees, and all us kids were on the ground picking up. It was their way of keeping us busy. We'd be up at four in the morning for the strawberries. You want to pick them when it's still cold. When the sun gets on them, they get soft. I liked doing it. I liked the cold weather.
"Then we'd get up in the middle of the night. Let's go. We'd leave everything behind 'cept what could fit in the car. Then it was down the highway."
The family's luck ran out down South.
"There was an auto accident. My dad went to jail, and my mother was in the hospital six weeks in a body cast. The state of Arkansas took the eight youngest kids away from my mother. It's deja vu all over again."
Barbara's downward spiral now propelled itself. Crack, once a problem, was now an answer.
"Crack's been my handicap, my crutch, my mate. It's all I have to lock out ideas. It doesn't cost any more than anything else."
And when Barbara was high, or when she was strung out, Marjorie barred her from the apartment's gates.
"Sometimes I run in fast, like a spy, when my kids are in my mom's place. But sometimes I have to watch from a distance. They can't see me.
"It kills me, it tears me up. My kids are running up to Marjorie and hugging her. It could have been me; it should have been me."
Shortly after her granddaughter was born, Barbara tried to visit Helen and Grandmother Annie, but Marjorie hovered over the scene.
"I watched Barbara with three different johns. She'd jump into their cars, trucks, drive off, come back. She didn't shower, clean up, and she wanted to go in around the newborn and demand money from her elderly mother. I watched all this, and I told Barbara I wasn't letting her in through the gate," said Marjorie.
Before very long, however, Marjorie relented.
On July 14, on the second anniversary of Lennie's suicide, Barbara was allowed in.
Lennie's ashes sat in an urn upon a shelf in Grandmother Annie's apartment. Four generations of the family huddled for a photographic portrait: great-grandmother Annie, grandmother Barbara, Helen the newest mom and infant Mary Jane.
All of the Blandon women in the photograph had given birth at the age of 16.
The very next Monday, Barbara was back at the gate looking to come in.
"She wanted money from Annie," said Marjorie. "I told her to forget it."