A nagging smell wakes Aquarnetta Porter from shallow sleep.
She inhales, imagining filth somewhere outside her apartment's walls. The scent must have crept under the crack in the door, she thinks, or through the air vent overnight.
Scratching her skin, she mumbles to herself about the neighborhood, this building, the dodgy characters she often sees skulking in the hallways or lazily smoking outside on the front steps.
Whatever they track in, she won't have it near her now. She works hard to stay clean, takes two showers a day, sometimes three. She straightens and sponges and scrubs her small apartment on Market Street every morning until it shines.
"That riffraff, I don't allow it around me. I don't allow it in my house," she says. "There gonna be some demons out there. I say, 'Go on. I'm not like that today.'"
Where is the mop? The Clorox? The 38-year-old throws her diminutive frame into the wooden handle, shoving the mop along the vinyl floor. Figurines of children and angels, lining the window ledges, rattle from her effort.
And when she is done, when the bite of bleach fills the air and the bed is made, she plods to the bathroom mirror. She runs her hands over a shaved scalp and clips on the gold-colored thrift-store earrings.
Then, the final touch. She reaches for the teeth kept wrapped in paper towels on the sink and wiggles them into place over her gums, hiding the spaces where her own teeth rotted away years ago. She smiles. Her daily baptism is complete.
You see, Aquarnetta must stay clean on the outside, things must stay just so, because she's got to believe she's purged through to the inside, that everything she burned to the ground isn't gone. She'll stay away from those drugs, those men, and she won't go back to jail.
She knows a little boy is waiting, holding his breath and praying she won't become her old self again.
But she won't slip this time. Please believe her. She's begging. She's demanding it. She's changed.
* * *
Classes will start at the community college soon, and Carlous Drake, a sweet-mannered social worker type and a teacher in the Chattanooga State precollege assistance office, is trying to gauge where the students' heads are.
The Project AHEAD program meets every day in anticipation of the college semester and is a constellation of the unschooled, those referred by the Chattanooga Housing Authority, the food stamp office and the state Department of Human Services.
Softly, sympathetically, he asks, "Who is afraid?"
Gordon, a laid-off landscaper who hasn't seen the inside of a classroom since 1966, admits he's scared. And Allen, a bright but debilitatingly shy man who hides behind a duffle bag he keeps on the table during class, says he's worried, too.
"Who's not afraid?" Drake asks. Aquarnetta, sitting on the front row, looks up. Her hand shoots toward the ceiling.
"I am kind of nervous about going to school, but I am a persistent person," she says. "I am going to get my schoolwork done if I have to stay up all night because if it's something I want, I am going to strive for it. I don't like 'no, no' for no answer."
Aquarnetta hasn't always been so certain of herself. Hannah Brewer can tell you about the old Aquarnetta, about the homeless woman she met a little more than two years ago who didn't have $1.50 for bus fare and, according to tests, wasn't any smarter than a sixth-grader.
She came to Brewer, a teacher at the GED program in the St. Andrews Center, dangling on the end of a last chance. She had 17 bouts of rehab behind her and needed to show progress on an education if the state was going to give her food stamps.
"I can't do this," Aquarnetta told Brewer at their first meeting.
Most people who come through Brewer's office aren't ready to flip over yet. Or they come for a few weeks, maybe even a few months, but the grammar, the math, something breaks them, and they disappear.
Aquarnetta came back. Every day, she came back. She came from wherever she found a place to sleep. She rode the city bus and walked in rain, heat and cold. When she failed three out of five subjects on her first practice test after studying for more than a year, she still came back.
She got there early, made coffee for the teachers. She stayed late, picked up scattered papers and pencils.
"Walk by faith, not by sight," Brewer told her.
In a year, she walked. She would pass her final GED test, and Brewer watched Aquarnetta bawl on the stage after accepting her diploma.
"Life is brutiful," Aquarnetta says. "I got me a fruture."
At the graduation, she talks about her plans to attend Chattanooga State Community College and study social work. She watches proud children crowd around their graduating parents.
Her own children aren't there.
* * *
When Frank Newsom sees Aquarnetta through the glass, he looks twice. Then he recognizes her. She is nearly 60 pounds heavier, with apples for cheeks and full around the hips. And her teeth ... wait ... she has teeth.
His long and wrinkled face beams as he hobbles toward the door to let her in to the health clinic where he's working as a security officer.
"How's my baby doing?" he asks.
She fumbles with cards in her pocketbook.
"Look! I got me a Chattanooga State ID," she says. She flashes a fuzzy mug shot on a laminated card.
"I'm fixing to go to college," she says.
"I wish you could have been at my [GED] graduation. The teacher said I had a willpower in me. I didn't complain. I was there every day. They gave me an award for student of the year, Frank. Let me tell you, it made me so proud."
Somehow, Frank always knew he would see Aquarnetta one day, just like this, patched up and new.
Working as a Chattanooga homicide detective for nearly 40 years, Frank met Aquarnetta several years ago when she was a streetwalker on the east side of the city, a place where the clean sidewalks of downtown turned to cracked pavement and window treatments became cold metal bars.
Among the small-time thieves, addicts and prostitutes who moved on and off Dodson Avenue, she became one of the few he liked. When a person got shot or stabbed to death and he couldn't find a lead, he went to her for help with the case. And he watched after her, too, bringing her plates of food nearly every day.
He'll never forget the way she looked back then, ashy and skeletal, her breasts hanging like pancakes, her unwashed skin stained jet black by the sun.
"She looked like a ghost," he said.
And in many ways she was an apparition, living in the body, but worn, dead.
By that time, she had smoked crack cocaine for most of 15 years. She called it her sweet little crack, and nothing kept her from running after it, hit after hit, day after day.
She had stolen for it, lied for it, given her body over to strange men in cars and back alleys over and over again. She bled for it, once trapped in a car with a man who ripped into her skin with a box cutter and dumped her out on the street to die. The scars still crisscross her back and legs.
She went to jail dozens of times for shoplifting, possession, prostitution or drinking too much. She went to prison for sneaking drugs into a jail cell.
She caught HIV from God knows who, and spread it for nearly a decade, without remorse, to the men who would throw her $20 or $30 for a 15-minute go-round.
But of all that, she says, nothing was worse than what she did to her babies.
* * *
At 18, she didn't know how badly off she was. She got her own welfare check and moved out of her mother's place and into a three-bedroom apartment in the projects with her 2-year-old Kiosha and her 1-year-old Baszil.
One night, after she put the babies down to sleep, she started itching, wanting a high. Her mother had bought the children a Nintendo for them to play when they got older. She grabbed it and called a cab to take her to the nearest pawnshop.
She would be back before the babies woke up, she told herself.
At the pawnshop, they paid her $25 for the Nintendo, not enough for the crack she wanted. So she walked to Main Street, stared hollow-eyed and desperate at the cars that passed by.
One crept slowly along the curb, the door opening. She slipped into the car, a tightness, a fear rising in her chest as he pawed her.
He would be the first of three men she would have sex with that night for money or drugs before police spotted and arrested her.
It wasn't until late the next day, locked up at Silverdale Detention Center, that she remembered she had left her sleeping babies. A maintenance man at the housing project had walked past the apartment and heard them screaming. He found them sitting in their dirty diapers, alone and hungry.
Her mother hand-delivered the custody papers to the jail, and Aquarnetta signed without a fight.
"The drugs have you to where you don't care. You will sell your soul," she says. "You will do almost anything, and I did."
A year later, she smoked so much crack she hemorrhaged, losing an unborn baby boy.
Then there was Isaiah, born years later, feeble and cocaine-addicted. When Isaiah was taken by Child Protective Services, his father, Willie Craighead, was the one who cried and fought the court for custody. After sharing joint custody with Aquarnetta's aunt, he was given full custody nearly six years ago.
A former drug addict himself, Willie met Aquarnetta when they were both living in downtown homeless shelters finishing rehab programs through the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. She had just learned she was HIV positive and wanted to get clean of drugs.
The rehab program helped them get an apartment together after graduation. He got a good-paying job driving moving trucks. But she wouldn't stay away from the crack. He begged her not to smoke while she was pregnant with their son.
She didn't listen.
* * *
Willie has a hard time forgiving Aquarnetta, and so does his family. They heard she earned her GED and is going to college. They heard about her nice apartment where she lives with her boyfriend, another former crack addict gone clean, who pays the bills with money from his job at a chicken house. They hope she's changed, but they doubt it.
They wonder if all this good she's doing for herself now will mean any kind of good for Isaiah.
"She has never spent any time with that child," said Margaret McCorkle, Isaiah's aunt. "She don't know him. Those drugs, she chose those drugs."
This tugs at Aquarnetta, the doubt about whether her turnaround can stick. She wants to make amends and be given this last chance to mother someone. Her two oldest children are grown now. Kiosha is 21 and has three children of her own and a baby on the way. Both, like their mother, are in and out of court. Kiosha's been in trouble with the police for vandalism three times this year and Baszil for dealing marijuana and cocaine.
* * *
It's the last week before real college classes start, and in the precollege class the students are trying to brush up on their public speaking skills.
"Why do you want to be a social worker?" the teacher asks Aquarnetta.
Class members turn their heads to look. Aquarnetta's voice lowers, quivers.
I want to go into human services where I can put children back in their homes.
I think children should be with their parents.
My son, he's 10 and he's never been in my custody. He's still with his daddy.
But I feel like I'm ready. I'm not ready financially, but I can love him and he can come to my house and spend the night and we can go some places. I want him to get to know me.
I want it right now, but I have done told them so many times, "I'm through with this, and I am through with that." They don't believe me.
* * *
The young boy's legs pump underneath him as he runs after the bus. It pulls to a stop and he sees his father, 55-year-old Willie Craighead, balancing on a walker as he descends the bus steps. Isaiah rushes toward him, slings slender arms around his waist and lets the man lean against him as they walk toward the door of their brick duplex.
Inside, Isaiah does what he's done most days since his father's kidney failure two years ago. The boy gathers his action figures and toy cars scattered in the living room. He carries trash to the Dumpster, throws clothes in the washer and puts away the dishes.
Traveling back and forth from dialysis three days a week, Willie too often is cloudy, tired, unable to care for Isaiah anymore. At night, Isaiah stays with his aunt, who lives just two houses over in their Alton Park neighborhood. She wakes him for school, checks his report cards and helps him when he gets stuck on his homework.
Isaiah gets all A's at school and last year skipped a grade to become one of the youngest sixth-graders at Orchard Knob Middle School. Willie can't believe it. He collects the proof in a binder he calls Isaiah's Book of Accomplishments.
Pages show years of perfect attendance, star roll, honor roll, math and reading victories, nods to best behavior.
Willie cries when he looks at it, thinking back to how his baby bloomed on the rocky path of his and Aquarnetta's failures. Sometimes, when Isaiah sits beside him on the couch, he folds himself over his son and cries.
"My baby will be 11 years old soon," he says. "Who is going to take care of him if something happens?"
* * *
Aquarnetta pushes through the students bottlenecking in the hallway, flooding in and out of classrooms. She watches the numbers on the doors climb. Nervously, she clutches a textbook to her chest.
"128," she reads aloud. "129."
Today's the day. Her first day at college. She's wearing one of her best dresses, blue with ruffles, and carrying a new purple bookbag. That morning, she left the price tag hanging on the outside for show.
"Where is 130A?" she asks someone.
"It's right here," a girl standing near the door says. "You're looking for the study skills class. Right?"
"Yeah," she says.
She walks through the door and finds a seat in the front row.
* * *
Isaiah knows his father is fading. The dialysis, the advancing diabetes, the breathing with a respirator. So he holds onto his daddy and prays for his momma. He tries to forget the times when he wanted his momma and she wasn't there.
Instead, he runs over the few precious words she's ever said to him, the one Sunday months ago when she took him to church, the one time last year when she was able to take him to the Tennessee Aquarium and they saw the penguins and laughed.
If she calls, they can talk about school, his grades, her college classes. And while he waits, he said he'll ask God to help her make something of herself this time and get a good job and come around more.
"She is my momma and I love her," he says.
"Sometimes she does stuff wrong, but I still accept her apology 'cause, whether she's my momma or not, I still have to love her for who she is."