Neil and his wife, Connie, sat by the pool. Gerald took the empty seat between them. Connie laughed. "Can you see Lily in a nail salon? 'Oo--I want that color, and that one, too.' God, the one time I let her wear the stuff it ended up in her hair," she said.
Her gold bracelet slid down her thin brown arm as she lifted her glass and sipped her wine. She was still a beauty at fifty-two. Her body had softened with age, but not her heart, thought Neil. She was the same tough-talking product of ambition and poverty he had met thirty years before.
Her father had been a bus driver. Growing up poor made her want a man with prospects, someone she could count on to provide. In his twenties Neil trained to be a research biologist. Genetic mutations fascinated him, the way a species adapted to the changing world. Even so, the system had its flaws. The ability to fend off malaria could, in certain individuals, mutate into sickle-cell anemia. And building an immunity to chicken pox made some people develop type 1 diabetes. But it's all in the name of survival, he said. Isn't that amazing?
Connie looked at the blobby, squiggly things he had under the microscope and thought he'd come around. He had more going for him than this required. A winning smile. A talent for impressing people. And loving her. Wasn't that the key? The key to everything?
She wanted him to go to business school. Afterwards a job at a brokerage firm seemed right. He assumed he'd hate it and didn't. How a particular stock would perform wasn't too different from predicting how fast a cell would divide. And the money soothed the ache of not doing what he loved most.
What Connie loved most was having fun. With Neil working so much, and a hard time making friends, she found it in alcohol and pills.
The pregnancy was a surprise, then an agreement. I'll keep it if you . . . He didn't even remember what she wanted. More of something. Less of something else.
Lily wasn't autistic. She didn't have Downs or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome because Neil had managed to make Connie stop drinking for the duration. There were a variety of terms for her condition. "Backward," "slow," "learning disabled," "challenged," "retarded."
She's a moron, Neil! Christ, look at her! Connie had been beside herself when she realized Lily wasn't normal. Neil had to admit that her wide, vacant eyes were disturbing. And the way she sat for hours and slapped the floor with her plump hands tried his patience, too. But as she grew, it became clear that she could master the basics of daily life, so there was no need of a group home, or any sort of assisted living.
Connie thought she'd do better in a private school where the other students were similarly challenged. Neil wanted to keep her in with everyone else, and make no special accommodation. They tried private school for a while, a girls' academy outside of Baltimore, but Lily hated it there. She said the other kids were all stupid, which Neil took as proof that a public school was better. She was bullied and teased in public school, but gave back as good as she got.
Connie made up for not loving Lily with material things. She bought her pretty clothes and simple, understated jewelry, like the gold chain she always wore. Her bedroom was the largest in the whole house, bigger than theirs by far, with a fireplace and built-in bookshelves that Lily lined with china figurines of rabbits and deer. Right outside her window was a cherry tree that bloomed every March and gave perfect shade in the heat of their Maryland summers. It was an old tree, the last one standing from an orchard that had run all up and down Cherry Lane in the last century. The branches of the tree were thick, gnarled, and bore her weight when she made her way down to the soft spring ground below. Seeing her trot across the moonlit lawn just a few weeks before, Neil suspected there was a boyfriend. The son of a neighbor, a kid about eighteen or nineteen, who had dropped out of high school, tried to join the Army and was rejected, though the reason wasn't entirely clear. Lily always liked him, and said everyone was too mean, too hard on him. It enraged Neil, though he knew that to forbid her would only deepen her desire. Lily was stubborn. And she was of age. Lily was, in fact, twenty-four.
At the doctor's office Lily had gone through the door with the nurse, and reappeared ten minutes later, moving fast, the laces of her track shoes flapping and the nurse saying, Hadn't you better tie those?
No thank you, Lily had said. About the shoes and the procedure itself. Then she stomped right past Ruth, sitting loyally in the waiting room.
Now, in the car, she stared into her open hands.
"You didn't tell me they were going to suck out the baby," she said.
"What did you think would happen?"
"You said it was a doctor's appointment. I thought the doctor would make sure the baby was okay." Lily put her hands on her stomach. She'd find a doctor who loved babies as much as she did, a good doctor who'd keep the baby healthy. It was nicer when babies were healthy. Much nicer.
"You shouldn't decide things for other people," said Lily. "You should have asked me first. I'd have said, 'no way, Josť.'"
Ruth slowed for a traffic light. She should have known Lily would want to keep it. What made no sense to someone else always made perfect sense to her. Maybe that was the upside of being stupid. You had a guaranteed level of confidence in yourself because you didn't know any better.
"Don't you want to have a baby someday?"
"Me? Shit, I don't know. Maybe. When I have time."
You still have time, the nurse said to Ruth last year just before she had her abortion. Just because you're not ready now, doesn't mean you won't be later. It was hard to get mad with the Valium they'd given her, but she did later, at the nurse for making a tough thing tougher, and at her boyfriend for not going with her.
Look, I made the appointment. You can see why it wouldn't be appropriate for me to be there, he'd said on that last day in Cambridge, the new girlfriend's number already in his cell phone. She'd begged him to change his mind, not about the baby, but about her. She'd never begged anyone for anything before, and she still hated herself for doing it.
"You'd be a good mom," said Lily. "Not as good as me, though." She grinned. "I'll teach you everything. All about bottles, diapers, and what to do when they don't feel well." Then she hummed and clapped her hands.
The light changed, and Ruth hit the gas hard. "Super. Just don't ask me to baby-sit."
"Oh, Ruth! You're so funny sometimes!"
By the pool, Connie and Gerald laughed and drank their drinks. Lily still wasn't home. Neil went to the wrought-iron cart and inspected the bottles Connie had brought out with lunch.
"Connie, do you mind if I open this chardonnay?" he asked.
She turned her bony head. Her sunglasses were huge on her face. "What? No. Go ahead!"
He gave himself a large glass of golden wine. He thought of how Lily had been different lately. Happier, quieter. Even Connie noticed, and counted her Paxil to make sure they were all there.
Lily wasn't interested in pills, though. Mommy, you put those down, she might say. I'll bring you some juice instead.
Connie slipped silently into the pool. She swam into the bright empty blue, then turned back and smiled at Gerald. He waved, as you might to a child paddling in shallow waves at the seashore.
Neil didn't like Gerald. He never had. Connie's attraction to him was one reason. Another was that Gerald didn't take anyone seriously, except his secretary, Susan, and only because she slept with him once, then refused to ever again. He didn't take anything seriously, really. There was always the appearance of ease and effortlessness that made other people, like Neil, who struggled with real unhappiness and real disappointment, seem childish.
He was a snob, too, and thought himself a cut above everyone else, especially Neil, whose first love was science, not literature or art. Gerald didn't let his condescension show too much, because Neil brought a lot of money into the firm. He convinced Gerald to steer clients towards some of the better bio-tech companies, and then advised them to get out before the bubble burst. His insight was considered first rate, and people invested with them again and again. They'd been neighbors for ten years, partners for twenty, and on the surface, friends.
Their friendship had grown over the last few months because of Lily. When Gerald's wife moved to California, Lily took charge of the cat she left behind. Lily didn't understand why Wendy hadn't taken Clarence with her. How can she leave Clarence here, Daddy? Clarence misses her. After Lily brought him home Gerald stopped by more often, out of gratitude, he said, though Neil knew it was because he was lonely.
Ruth pulled into the driveway, turned off the engine, and walked Lily inside. She opened the freezer. She took out Connie's tequila, and drank straight from the bottle. Lily watched her.
"You'll get sick," she said.
Lily went and sat on one of the tall chairs placed opposite a black granite countertop. She was humming again.
Ruth removed the cigarette from behind her ear and lit it with a lighter she pulled from the pocket of her torn jean shorts.
"Mommy doesn't like smoking in the house," said Lily.
Lily put her hand to her mouth and giggled. Laughter floated in from the open French doors beyond the family room.
"Shit, my father's here," said Ruth.
"He is? Let's go say hi."
A gray and white cat jumped onto the counter where Lily sat. "Edgar, you can't do that," she said.
"Uh, huh. And his two brothers are Allen and Poe."
Lily set the cat on the floor. Ruth smoked her cigarette for a while.
"I have to go," she said, and stubbed out her cigarette in the sink.
On her way to the door she stopped and turned back. "Edgar Allen Poe."
"My three kitties."
Ruth stood there, watching dust motes waver in a beam of light.
"What is it?" asked Lily.
"When you asked me how to check if you're pregnant, and I bought you that kit, I wanted to know who the father was and you said you didn't know. Remember?"
"But you do know, don't you?"
Lily looked at the floor.
"Does he know you're pregnant?"
Ruth took a long, slow breath. "Then you better tell him," she said.
Lily shook her head.
"He doesn't know I only did it to get the baby. He thinks I did it because I like it."
Ruth laughed, not in a happy way. "So, you didn't like it."
Lily made a face, and twirled a strand of her wavy blonde hair around and around her finger. "It's gross."
Ruth's face was tight. "Do your parents know?"
Lily screwed up her face with glee. "Baby! I'm going to have a baby!"
"Lily, have you told them?"
"Why don't you let me? It might be easier."
"If you want."
When Ruth left, Lily went to the barn. Sandy-B was going to have her kittens soon. She was fat in the stomach, and her teats were out. She lay in her cardboard box, and didn't touch the food Lily put in front of her. Mommy said it was hard having babies, though knowing Mommy, she slept through it all. Mommy was funny that way. She didn't like to feel stuff you were supposed to feel. Lily wasn't going to be like that. She was going to feel every little thing. And when her baby looked at her, she'd look right back. When it smiled, she would, too. They'd be the same person inside, only in two different bodies. Lily ran her hand down Sandy-B's soft fur. The cat lifted its head, and gave a quiet rumble in its throat. "My baby will play with your babies," Lily whispered into the cat's pale pink ear. Sandy-B's nose was the same color pink, a little triangle with two perfect holes. Lily thought, every living thing is beautiful. Even me.
The sun hung low like a bloodshot eye. Gerald and Neil sat on the patio where dinner had just been finished. It had been a difficult meal. Ruth had joined them at the last minute, wandering lazily across the field from her house, with a wicked look in her eye. She'd been drinking, and drank more with dinner. When Connie asked how their outing had been, she said, "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.'" Then she wagged her finger at each person around the table, until Lily got up to wash the dishes, and asked her to come and help.
Now Connie walked through her rose garden, Ruth was out front with a cigarette, and Lily got ready to feed her animals. On the floor of the walk-in pantry were two big plastic bins. One had dry dog food, the other had dry cat food. To keep them straight, she'd taken a black magic marker and written "DOG" on one, and "CAT" on the other. She counted on her fingers how many cat bowls she needed, minus the one for Sandy-B in the barn. That made four, for Clarence, Edgar, Allen, and Poe. She filled four bowls from the "CAT" bin, and put them on the counter. Then she needed four dog bowls. As she filled each one, she said the dog's name--Billy, Georgie, Hubert, and Sam-Sam. She lined the eight bowls up on the floor, and opened the door to the family room, where she'd gathered the animals before dinner. They rushed out, wagging and skidding towards the food. There followed a moment of sorting them out, cats towards cat food, and dogs towards dog food.
Gerald turned his head towards the noise from the kitchen and watched Lily for a moment. He admired the way she adapted to life, and just took it as it came. His wished his own daughter, Ruth, were more like her. Ruth was spoiled, just as her mother had always been. And just as locked in her own little world, that allowed no room for him unless she needed money. He stopped sending it to her when she dropped out of school, so she had to come home. She was furious about that, and said he had no right to run her life. He wanted to get to the bottom of why she'd just quit mid-semester, and hoped with just the two of them in the house she'd open up. She didn't. All he'd gotten from her was silence.
Neil's favorite dog, Hubert, finished eating and bobbed onto the patio. He was a three-legged mutt Lily had brought home from the shelter only a month before. Neil thought she'd done awfully well with him. His temperament had improved a lot, and he played more than the other dogs. Lily could have a future as an animal sitter, or even as a dog trainer, if she could only focus a little more. Her future worried Neil. He and Connie wouldn't be around forever, and though there'd be money, she would be lonely if she didn't get married. He knew it was unpopular to want young women to get married, but Lily's case was different. She had no idea how to navigate in the world, how to see if someone were taking advantage of her. Neil thought of the neighbor boy again. He and Connie would have to sit Lily down and talk some things through, and hope she'd follow what they were saying.
The sun dropped below the far hillside, casting long, slanted rays of light. The men watched in silence. Then Connie came onto the patio and said Ruth had just told her the most incredible thing.
Neil's study was a large, dark room. Original art hung on the walls, mostly abstract pieces with muted colors. At the far end was a photograph of Lily on her sixteenth birthday, wearing a black dress and a string of pearls. Neil liked the picture because it resembled his dead mother. His mother, though, had been a brilliant woman, exceptionally well-read and politically astute. She died long before Lily was born.
Now Connie sat on the leather couch below that picture and stared into her lap. Neil stood before the empty fireplace, palms pressed hard into the mantle piece.
"I'm not going to take the word of some doctor I don't even know," said Neil.
"Fine. Take her to Doctor Franks, then. He'll say the same thing."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Just look at her, for Christ's sake. She's positively glowing. I don't know why I didn't see it before."
Neil had seen it. He just hadn't seen what it meant.
"Who's the god-damned father?" asked Neil.
"I didn't ask."
"How the hell could you not ask?"
"Because I came to tell you right away!"
Neil gazed into the fireplace. "It has to be that delinquent down the road," he said.
"The Canter boy?"
"He'll be long gone the minute he hears about this," she said.
"Too bad he didn't disappear before now."
The door to the study opened, and Gerald leaned inside. Connie motioned for him to come in. He closed the door softly behind him. He stood with his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his khaki pants.
"This has turned out to be one hell of an evening," said Connie.
When no one spoke she said, "Well. I think it's safe to say that we could all use another drink. Gerald?"
"Not for me."
"I'll just be in the kitchen," she said, and left them alone.
At the same countertop where Lily had sat earlier that day, Ruth now perched with a fresh glass of wine. Connie's backless sandals smacked loudly as she came in. She went to the refrigerator, and removed a new bottle, although the one in front of Ruth was only half-empty.
"Quite the bombshell you dropped," said Connie, her back turned as she quickly pried out the cork.
"Would it have been better to say nothing, and let you figure it out when she started waddling around?"
"Don't be vulgar."
Connie sat down at the other end of the counter, leaving two empty chairs in between. They sat, staring through the kitchen window into the night. Connie took a cigarette from the pack Ruth had on the counter, then used Ruth's lighter to light it.
"You took her in for an abortion, didn't you?" Connie asked.
"Why? What gave you the right?"
"Isn't that what you'd have done?"
The smoke from Connie's cigarette rose and twirled away. She remembered how Lily used to dress the cats in doll clothes and cradle them in her arms.
"I don't know. Maybe not. Lily's wanted to be a mother since she was about five," she said.
"Maybe, but can you see her doing it?"
The trouble was, Connie could.
She set the cigarette against the sharp edge of the countertop, and dug the heel of her hand into the hard bone below her eye.
"Did she say who the father is?" she asked.
"No. But I figured it out."
"Perhaps you'd be so good as to let me know, too?"
Ruth's mouth pulled sideways. Then she laughed. Her head dropped until her chin was almost to her chest. She put her hands to her face, and kept on laughing.
"You're drunk," said Connie.
"You'll be, too, when I tell you."
Neil seemed not to have heard what Gerald said, so he said it again. Then flesh of his neck compressed under Neil's fingers in a way that surprised them both. Neil held on, and Gerald, his own hands now over Neil's, staggered backwards. As he tipped into space, Neil let go. Gerald's quick fall to the couch sounded like a slap.
Neil turned away. His skin was warm, and his breath came fast. He felt alert, completely in focus. He poured himself a drink from the cart in the corner by the bookcase. The brandy gave off a scent of sugared earth as it went into the crystal tumbler. It burned his throat when he swallowed.
After a long moment Gerald said, "You should learn to control yourself."
"The way you did with my daughter?"
"It's not what you think. I care for her very much." Neil made a disgusted noise. "I'm not some dirty old man," said Gerald.
"And I never made her do anything she didn't want to do. You need to understand that."
Neil sat down at his desk. He wondered what sound Gerald's skull would make if he were to crush it with a paperweight. The one in his hand had red and purple swirls, with a rush of bubbles rising on one side. It was a gift from Lily a long time ago, bought in part with money Neil paid her to remove twigs from the lawn so the gardener could mow. She'd been such a willing child, always helpful and sweet.
Neil drank more of his brandy. "Tell me it's not still going on," he said.
"No." The unhappiness in Gerald's voice made Neil's jaw tight.
"Too bad you didn't quit before you knocked her up," he said.
Gerald smoothed back his thinning hair. "That shouldn't have happened. They said the radiation treatment would do in my sperm count."
"What God damned radiation treatment?"
"For the prostate cancer."
Gerald had taken a long vacation last year, some fancy cruise to Greece to try and save his marriage, he'd said.
"Why the hell didn't you tell me? I'm your partner, for Christ's sake," said Neil.
"I didn't want any sympathy."
"Don't be so sure I'd have offered it."
"You would have. Even if you didn't think I deserved it." A few years earlier, Gerald had broken a leg skiing. Neil brought him his mail from the office every day. He always asked if there were anything else he could do, if Gerald had everything he needed.
"Are you all right now?" Neil asked. "As in, cured?"
Neil got up and served himself another brandy. A single star hung in the night sky beyond the glass of the French doors.He poured a brandy for Gerald and handed it to him. Gerald drank slowly, as if it were hard to swallow. It couldn't have been easy, keeping his illness all to himself.
"Is that why Wendy left, because you were sick?" asked Neil.
Gerald put the glass on the table in front of the sofa and examined one of his cufflinks very carefully. "She would have gone anyway. She wanted more excitement than I could give her. She thought I was boring. And a snob." He lifted the glass, and didn't drink. His hands trembled. "Things were bad when she left. I don't mind telling you I even thought of killing myself. And then Lily came around for the cat, and I thought, my God, she's grown up, this awkward little girl."
Neil's face grew hot with anger. "So, how did you seduce her? Flowers? Gifts? Did you try to make her feel sorry for you?" he asked.
"Don't be absurd. She seduced me."
Neil returned to his desk. He put his glass down very carefully, and watched its liquor catch the yellow light of the lamp. He knew it was true. Once she'd coaxed a terrified cat from the garage by sitting for two hours with her hand out, cooing, clicking her tongue, even singing to it. Gerald would have thought it was wrong, then given in. But why had she bothered? Not for the sex, surely. Not with an old man like Gerald.
"She wanted to get pregnant," said Neil. Gerald nodded.
They noticed a sudden breeze. Lily had come in through the French doors, with Hubert bobbing along beside her. She got the dog settled on the carpet by giving him a treat from the pocket of her shorts. She sat down with the dog and stroked its head.
"Did Ruth tell you?" she asked. "She said she would."
"Yes," said Neil.
Lily turned to Gerald. He had that sad look he always had. Gerald was the saddest person ever, she thought.
"Are you sad about it?" she asked him.
"Of course not. I just wish--"
The summer crickets filled up his silence until Lily said, "What? What do you wish?"
"That it hadn't happened."
"Oh, Gerald. You can never wish a baby hadn't happened."
Connie and Ruth came into the room. They both looked only at Gerald.
"How very honorable of you," said Connie, and went to the far end of the couch.
Ruth flopped down in the wing-backed chair. When Gerald saw her jagged gaze he said, "I suppose this explains your behavior at dinner. You knew about this even before we sat down, didn't you?"
"Edgar Allen Poe. Your favorite."
Gerald thought back to how Lily had loved his reading aloud afterwards, with the orange light of the fire skipping over her naked skin. So, the bird knows she's really gone, that everything's really gone?
"You think I'm a fool," Gerald said to Ruth. "Go on, you can say so."
Ruth wanted to say he was the biggest fool she'd ever known, but saw Lily looking at her, and knew anything she said against him would be against her in a way, too, so she kept quiet.
Connie drank from the glass of wine she'd brought in with her and imagined what people would say. There'd be the Oh, you poor thing crap she'd had to listen to for years. Concern that wasn't concern. Sympathy that was really both ridicule and relief that it hadn't happened to them. Well, they'd get theirs when the baby turned out fine, which it probably would. Lily's doctor always said there was nothing genetic that would pass down, that Lily was just her own fluke.
Connie leaned back and closed her eyes. When she opened them she found Lily's open face, staring into hers.
"Are you mad about the baby, Mommy?" asked Lily.
"Honey, no. But listen. You have no idea what being a parent means."
"So, I'll learn. I'm not as dumb as you think, you know."
Connie remembered what Ruth had just said in the kitchen about Lily using Gerald to get pregnant, and laughed a hard, bitter laugh that made the dog suddenly lift its head. "You're right, Lily. You're not."
Lily turned back to Ruth. "Can I have a baby party, Ruth? Will you give me a baby party?"
"You mean a baby shower. And I'm no good at that sort of thing," said Ruth.
"Oh, Ruth, you never think you can do stuff, but you can."
"We don't need to worry about it now."
"I don't know, this might be a fast baby."
Ruth couldn't help smiling.
The room had cooled, and Neil closed the patio door. More stars hung now in the night sky. He'd bought Lily a telescope when she was about six or seven. She didn't like to look through it, even after he showed her how. They don't have to be big to be magic, Daddy. They're fine the way they are.
Lily's gaze shifted. She assumed a fierce expression, which meant she was concentrating hard on something. "We'll have an extra special party, because this is an extra special baby. It's Ruth's brother or sister," she said. She counted on her fingers. "And Mommy and Daddy's grandson, or granddaughter, and my little boy or girl, and Gerald's too, and that means that baby belongs to everyone and everyone belongs to the baby!" She squeezed her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth, the way she did when she was happy.
Neil felt as if his heart might break. It was to her they all belonged, and always had.
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