LIFEBOAT THEORY by Katherine Higgs-Coulthard

by Katherine Higgs-Coulthard

I FIRST HEARD ABOUT LIFEBOAT THEORY WHEN TINA TOOK ECONOMICS. She stayed up late arguing with Daddy about it. The way she told it, this guy—Garrett Hardin—used it to explain why rich countries couldn’t bail out the poor ones. He said rich nations was like lifeboats full of rich people, with the poor people in other lifeboats. As the poor fell out of their overcrowded lifeboats, they tried to get into the richer lifeboats. Hardin said that created something called a moral dilemma, which is when the people in the rich lifeboats gotta figure out what to do about the people in the water.

Daddy said Hardin’s fulla shit, that he don’t see what Lifeboat Theory has got to do with real life. And I thought it was over then, ‘cause most times when Daddy says something’s fulla shit, it is and that’s that. But then one night we saw a lady on the news that was arrested for keeping 105 cats in her trailer. She was crying that them cats would have died if she hadn’t took them in. The camera crew walked through her house showing litter boxes overflowing everywhere. There was dishes of cat food with flies buzzing round them and them upside-down popbottle-things that keep water fresh—right up on her kitchen table! The police used a pole to catch some of them cats ‘cause they had turned mean. That lady’s whole bed was covered in yacked-up hairballs. There wasn’t one thing in that trailer that didn’t have so much cat hair on it, you half expected it to meow.

When the news was over, Daddy turned his mouth down and asked how somebody could live like that. Tina said, “Maybe she ain’t got a choice” and Daddy said, “We all got a choice.” Tina said, “Not according to Hardin” and Daddy said, “Not that lifeboat shit again.”

I felt bad for that lady, though. I’m sure that lady didn’t wake up one morning and think “Maybe I’ll get me 105 cats.” I figure it’s like somebody who collects things, like figurines or stamps. She might start with just one, real pretty stamp, clipping it careful off the envelope and putting it away in an old shoe box. Then people notices she likes stamps, so they start giving her theirs. Before she hardly knows it, her whole shoe box is brimful of stamps. And she still wants more. That cat lady probably started with just one real cute cat—now she got 105.

Momma’s like that lady, collecting things. Only she collects children. Daddy says it’s on account of her big heart. All of the church ladies call her an angel, but Momma just looks down when they say that. I think she knows it is an addiction, just like cigarettes or booze or cats.

Momma loves all of us kids. Even though she don’t have time for hugs, or homework, or brushing our hair real pretty, like other mommas do. Some days she don’t even brush her own hair. It’s those days I feel sorriest for her. Her big heart might tell her to take all of us in, but it don’t pump near enough blood to take care of ten children. I’ve snuck back downstairs some nights and watched her staring round the kitchen at all of them dishes, looking like she just don’t have the energy left to get herself to bed, let alone do the cleaning up. I’ve tried to help her but it’s always the same: Momma shoos me up to bed. “I’ll just leave them ‘til morning,” she says. But I know in the morning that kitchen’ll be all shiny and reeking pine cleaner. And all of our bowls will be lined up on the table, full of oatmeal.

One night when Tina and me was setting the table I asked her about that lifeboat thing. That’s how I said it: “What about that lifeboat thing?” So she wouldn’t get suspicious about why I was so interested. Her eyes got all squinty and she looked at me real hard, probably trying to see if I was fixing to pick a fight. I just kept putting forks next to all the plates, like it didn’t really matter none if she told me or not.

After a few minutes she asked what I would do if I was floating in a lifeboat with plenty of food and water and I saw a bunch of people drowning in the water. “I’d pull them in my boat,” I said. I knew that was the right answer ‘cause that’s what they said in church, but Tina just looked real sad then. I asked her why that was so bad and she asked me what I would do when the boat filled up and we ran out of food and water. “You’d die right along with the people you tried to save,” she told me.

After that I used to sit in church surrounded by all my brothers and sisters, all of us dressed in our scuffed-up shoes and patched-up hand-me-downs, sandwiched between Momma and Daddy, and watch them white-pressed church ladies holding hands with their one or two natural-born children—all hair braids and shiny shoes—and think about what Tina had said. I watched them ladies nod when Pastor read the parable of judgment in Matthew 25:34-45:

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?

And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?’

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
“Amen,” they’d all said.

Momma did not say “Amen.”

Instead she’d squeezed the two hands she held—Jack and Rachel, on account of they was the littlest—and let just one tear roll out of her squeezed shut eyes. I’d watched that silver tear float over the soft down on Momma’s cheek and cling to the cliff of her jaw. It paused there, pregnant with the weight of all our lives, and the lives of the children Momma still wanted to rescue—babies orphaned by tsunamis, discarded China dolls, them twins whose parents died in that house fire. I’d known then in my heart if Momma was in charge of our lifeboat, we’d all drown.

We’re a big family and I loved all of my brothers and sisters—the cousins and the fosters—but Tina, she was my one true sister, and I lost her last spring.

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of running water. Tina was standing at the sink, wearing the top to one of Momma’s purple nighties over her favorite pair of black jeans, a box of L’OREAL # 3 on the sink next to her. I sat on the toilet watching her scrub the blondeness out of her hair. When she was done, I followed her into her room and watched her pack Momma’s laundry bag full of tattered jeans and holey underwear. She dug her old cowboy boots out from under her bed, the ones with the low heels and leather fringe, and threw them in the bag. Then she stopped still and looked at me real hard.

“What size’re you?” she asked.

I shrugged.

She reached into the bag and pulled them back out. “These here are 6 ½’s. They’re too small for me,” she said. The boots clumped on the floor at my feet.

She slammed her door real hard on the way out of her room and dragged that heavy bag down the stairs all the way to the kitchen. She hauled a chair across the floor, its legs scraping so loud Jack fell out of bed upstairs and padded into the kitchen, all wide-eyed and scared. The two of us watched Tina stand on that chair and feel along the top shelf behind where Momma kept the sugar bowl. She pulled out Momma’s coffee can, ripped the lid off, and dumped it upside down, right there—the coins Momma had scrounged away for Christmas spilling all over the counter. Tina smoothed the piles, sifting through the slippery silver with her too-thin fingers for the meat of a folded bill, but there wasn’t none to be had. I thought she’d grab up all of them coins and take them with her, but she didn’t. She just stared down at them for a minute, then turned and walked out of the back door, her laundry bag dragging in the dirt behind her.

Me and Jack followed her around the side of the house. We stood with the trash next to the curb, my one natural sister and my foster brother, waiting for only Tina knew what. The trashman’s big green truck rumbled up next to us and he hopped down, scooping up them cans like they was nothing and dumping them in his big front basket. He banged the empties back down, ignoring us like it wasn’t nothing to see three kids standing by the curb before the sun even woke up. Just more garbage.

When a car jerked up to the curb Tina finally turned and looked at me. I seen in her eyes she wasn’t coming back, but I seen more, too. She was leaving for us, ’cause she thought one less mouth to feed would really mean one less mouth to feed. I wanted to tell her that her seat would fill right back up, Momma would yank some other kid out of the water, but the girl driving the car leaned over, all purple hair and sparkly earrings, and kicked the passenger door wide open, hollering for Tina to get in. And she did.

After Tina’d been gone awhile Momma took in another baby. His God-given name was Michael, but he was Mickey D to us, on account of he liked McDonald’s French fries and would holler ‘til you shared yours. After he came, I began a list. In black I wrote down our natural family: Momma, Daddy, Tina, and me. Then I crossed Tina’s name off. No sense counting her—they’d found that purple-haired girl in a ditch near Tucson. They ain’t never found Tina. Momma said she’d be back, but I knew the truth: Tina was already in the water.

I snuck two of the colored pens from Daddy’s desk and used the green one to write the names of the cousins Momma took in after Daddy’s sister killed herself. We called the other kids “fosters,” but it wasn’t legal or anything. The ladies at the church just knew who needed help and that Momma couldn’t say no. I wrote them in red, starting with the oldest and going down to the littlest: Gabby, Cecil, Aleesha, Casey, Caleb, Jack, Rachel, and Mickey D. Then I drew a circle round Mickey D.

I tried to think like Mr. Hardin. I stood next to the crib looking down on Mickey D, sucking his two middle fingers, probably dreaming they was French fries. I pictured us all on a crowded lifeboat; Mickey D clinging to Momma’s leg. He was dragging Momma into the water, it was up to me to save her.

I didn’t know it would be so hard. He kicked and hit at the pillow, his breath coming in deep, hard-fought puffs. It took a long time, and I kept expecting Momma or Dillon to come down the hall, but they didn’t. When I took the pillow off, Mickey D looked peaceful, like he was still sleeping, but his puckered fingers lay forgotten next to his little dead face.

I kept expecting someone to ask me about Mickey D, but they never did. They just kept saying how sad it was that he died. After the whole summer passed, I decided they wasn’t never gonna ask, and I waited to be alone with Rachel. When school started back up, my chance finally came.

Momma was walking us bigger kids to the bus stop, but I lagged behind. She hollered back over her shoulder at me to mind that Rachel didn’t follow, but I held out the sucker I’d stashed in my jacket pocket and called Rachel out of the house, real quiet. I waited by the road ‘til she was almost to me, then dashed across. ‘Course she followed me.

For a moment, I was God in size 6 ½ cowboy boots, holding the red lollipop of our family’s salvation in my fist, and I watched as Rachel flew up and up and then… down in a crumpled heap. I watched the van driver—a young woman—scramble out and scoop up my foster sister and race to the side of the road. I watched Momma running, a wail of denial rising in her throat. I stood trying to swallow my own scream like it was the white body of Christ, while Momma tried to straighten the angle of Rachel’s neck. Rachel stared at me, her mouth working.

“She’s trying to tell us something,” Momma said.

But I knew the truth: Her mouth was trying to eat that bright red lollipop I still held in my hand.

Momma watched us all real close after that. Gabby and Cecil kept saying CPS was never gonna let Momma keep all the fosters. But the lady from the church told Momma that the good Lord worked in mysterious ways. When Momma asked about another baby, the lady cleared her throat and said they’d have to wait on that. Before we could get another baby, Jack drowned in the pond down behind Pastor’s house.

Momma told the police he must have got out after we was all asleep. It would have been declared an accident, except Sheriff Blum found another set of footprints in the mud by the pond. It didn’t take long to match them up. In our county there wasn’t too many low-heeled cowboy boots size 6 ½.

My room at the Betty Gainer Juvie Center is bigger than my room at home, and I got it all to myself. I sit on the bed and listen to the air conditioning echo off the yellow concrete walls like the ocean. I sit and wait for my lawyer. I keep telling her that if I hadn’t done it Momma would have gone in the water. She tells me to keep quiet and smile at the psychiatrist, the social worker, the judge. She sneaks in them Double Stuf cookies that I like, and on court days brings me fancy dresses with shiny shoes, dark as the rubber patches on lifeboats.


Katherine Higgs-Coulthard is a freelance writer and novelist whose work has appeared in WOW: Women on Writing Ezine and Jack and Jill. As founder and director of Michiana Writers’ Center she leads workshops for writers of all ages, Katherine is a member of the National Writing Project and provides school visits and teacher inservices. Visit her website at

Image credit: Johan Larsson on Flickr



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