Stumbling Toward Grace
by Rosalia Scalia
Rosalia Scalia, who earned a master's degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University in 2003, serves as an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baltimore Review; North Atlantic Review; Pebble Lake Review; The Portland Review; Quercus Review; Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore; South Asian Ensemble, Pennsylvania English; Spout Magazine; and Taproot. Her first novel, Delia's Concerto, is nearing completion. An earlier version of the first chapter was one of seven finalists in a competition held by the National League of American Pen Women. She lives in Baltimore, Md.
It was during a particularly nasty ice storm in the winter of 2009 that brought Baltimore to a standstill when Adolph Ott realized, at age 87, that he missed his daughter, Polly, and more deeply than he wanted to admit to anyone. For a brief moment as he trudged through the snow and sleet, walking in the tracks left by the salt trucks, he imagined her walking with him, steadying him under his elbow so he wouldn't fall, visiting him on Sundays with her family. Then, remembering her family, considering what they must look like, he shook the image from his mind. He'd never been the kind of man who leaned on a woman, any woman, no matter the circumstance, and Polly had made her choice—she'd married that black man against his wishes, without his approval or blessing.
Adolph trod carefully, avoiding shiny surfaces that could be ice. Walking the six blocks to the church through the snow took longer than usual, even with his rubber-skidded boots, but he moved slowly forward, leaning on the sides of parked cars to steady himself. The snow's coldness bit through his gloves, and his fingers began feeling numb. The effort winded him. He avoided sidewalks, which his neighbors had not yet cleared. Although Fr. Mark had assured him that the furnace would be fine and had urged him to stay home, Adolph knew that the furnace needed him. He considered it his furnace, and he took pride in keeping it as fine-tuned as a Stradivarius. For 22 years, ever since he retired, Adolph had maintained the church's heating and air-conditioning systems. Thanks to his precision and his keen dedication to detail, St. Elizabeth's Church hadn't experienced a day without either heat or air-conditioning.
Two blocks from his Monteford Avenue house and three blocks from the church, he heard a gang of children. They shouted and squealed with laughter, their voices strong and vibrant, echoing along the narrow streets, breaking the silence imposed by the storm. Then he spotted them, bundled in bright jackets, hats, and gloves. Carrying shovels, brooms, and pickaxes, and pulling a large bag of salt in a wooden wagon, seven or eight kids knocked on every door along Monteford, asking residents if they wanted their sidewalks cleared for a price. Enterprising bunch! Their faces obscured by colorful scarves and hats, the kids appeared giddy from a snow day. When he noticed they were black, his mood soured. Probably cruising houses to rob them later!
"Go on back home," he shouted at them. "Nobody wants you here!" he yelled. They faced him, smiles gone from their faces. "Go on, go back home! Nobody wants you here!" he shouted.
"Speak for yourself, old man," a gravelly voice shouted at him from behind one of the storm doors. Adolph knew it belonged to Mookie, a nigger-loving troll if he ever knew one. "You'd know these neighborhood kids if you weren't so damn cantankerous and ornery all the time."
"If you get robbed, you'll know why. Don't say I didn't warn you," he yelled back.
The kids stared at him, the whites of their eyes matching the icy snow covering the streets. "We want to know if you want your sidewalk cleared," said the oldest-looking child, who couldn't be more than ten. "We're providing a service," one of the bigger ones said. He flashed Adolph a wide gap-toothed smile.
"Spit in the air and it falls in your eyes, Adolph," Mookie shouted at him while she handed them each a dollar. "When you all finish clearing my sidewalk and steps, I'll double that," she told the kids. "Now, how many are you? Seven? You all like hot chocolate? When you're all done, come on in for hot chocolate."
The kids shouted at once, a cacophony singing, "Hot chocolate! Hot chocolate!"
Annoyed, Adolph stopped and watched Mookie with the little niggers, one or two of them already working to clear the icy snow with a pick, a few others smiling, their white teeth shining from smiles bright as high beams.
"You all be careful, now," she said, smiling back at them like an idiot.
Mookie's stupidity infuriated him. What did she know anyway? Nothing but a bar-owning woman her whole life, used to interacting with riff-raff. He thrust his foot forward into the icy snow and moved on, step by careful step, and hoped that Mookie's foolishness would come back to haunt her just so he could say, "I told you so." He shook his head. "Mookie, you're a damn fool!" he shouted.
"Maybe so, Adolph, but you ain't exactly bucking for sainthood, no matter how much time you spend up at the church," Mookie called back. "Maybe these could be your grands for all you know." She laughed at him as she closed her door. Adolph paused, looked closely at the children, examined their faces for a family resemblance, and then decided that Mookie enjoyed tormenting him. As if he didn't already struggle with enough torment.
But Mookie invoked Polly and her family, something he didn't consider a coincidence, and it forced him to wonder about Polly's kids as he walked on toward the church. What were they like? He couldn't help being curious.
In the belly of the church's basement, in the stifling heat behind the giant furnace, exhaustion plagued him, frustrated him, defeated him. His shirt sleeves rolled halfway up his arms, Adolph sat on the metal chair he'd kept for himself in the furnace room and rested. He hated the fatigue. For fifteen years, he'd secretly battled a disease that did not exist when he was young, a disease with its funny, ironic name—HIV/AIDS—a disease which came from a streetwalker named KandyKane. He'd visited her regularly for more than a year when he was 75, until she no longer appeared on Lexington Street. The virus she gave him, a punishment or penance? He couldn't decide, but he'd first sought KandyKane's young, taut body and supple skin in a fit of loneliness and lust. He'd liked her youthful beauty, liked her doing things to him that neither Estelle, his wife, nor Rose, his girlfriend after Estelle died, would dream of doing to his body, in exchange for a clutchful of bills, no questions asked. He kept going to KandyKane as long as he could find her on Lexington Street.
"You sure KandyKane was a woman?" Doc Palmer had later asked, holding the paper with the positive test results.
"What? 'Course she was a woman!" Adolph, shocked and embarrassed, had shouted. "I ain't a fairy!" Adolph had trembled, and the question caused him to doubt himself. Only a fool couldn't tell the difference between a man and a woman.
In the furnace room, determined to air the pipes, Adolph pushed himself off the chair and leaned against the cold brick wall, mustering the energy to drag the large, gray toolbox closer to him. He managed to pull the box a few steps and then, overwhelmed by the effort, decided to simply grab the tools he needed. He took a screwdriver and a can of lubricant, then found the pressure gauges on the pipes to release any air. He removed the large, green manifold and began lubricating the motor and belts. He'd done it thousands of times, the task second nature, and his mind wandered to Estelle. It disturbed him that he now had trouble picturing her face. He saw her dimpled smile and her large, black eyes and her nose, but never together, and he feared he was forgetting what his wife had looked like. He had no problem visualizing Rose's face—Rose, whom he'd liked, but not loved the way he'd loved Estelle—and he missed things KandyKane had done to him. Rose, her late husband, Henry, Estelle, and Adolph had circulated together before they all died one by one. After Henry and Estelle died, he and Rose took up together, but then she joined the others, the trio leaving him behind and off balance.
Adolph attempted to balance the heating system before checking the pilot light, which was not burning a full two inches. He preferred it to be two inches exactly. On his knees, he tightened the thermocouple nut first and then turned the gas valve slightly to adjust the flame. He stood and reached for the access panel leaning against the brick wall. Fighting fatigue and dizziness, he pulled the large, metal panel toward him, lifting it as he'd done many times before, but this time it slipped from his fingers and landed on his foot. A pain radiated from his instep, outward like ripples in a pond, extending up his calve into his thigh. The pain robbed him of his breath.
"JesusChristAlmightyGodDamn it to Hell," he cursed, letting go of the access panel, which fell to the floor with a clang. Adolph staggered to the chair, his left foot throbbing, his head aching; and there, alone in the heart of the church basement, he wept, stifling his sobs in the crook of his arm. He rubbed his foot, knowing not to remove his shoe, which would speed the process if it was going to swell. He worried about the injury, its impact on his body, knowing it would usher in a boatload of difficulties because of the virus.
The virus was slowly sucking life out of him. Adolph swallowed what Doc Palmer called his "drug cocktail"—a handful of red and white pills—daily and on schedule to keep him healthy enough. If it wasn't the virus, something else would kill him, and Adolph, ready to die, refused to fear it, refused to pretend it wouldn't happen to him, unlike so many of his friends at the St. Elizabeth Senior Center. He'd survived the Second World War, all kinds of mishaps at the steel plant, then later on construction sites, where his co-workers had teased him about having a lucky horseshoe up his ass. He'd outlived Estelle, who died when they were both 71, after nearly fifty years together; and they both had outlived their son, a twenty-year-old boy stolen from them by Vietnam and bad politics. Greg's memorial army picture still hung on his living room wall, a reminder of his and Estelle's sacrifice, a piss-poor substitute for the living and breathing son they'd entrusted to the army against their wishes. Damned war draft lottery.
Despite that, Adolph kept the news about the virus to himself. It wasn't anyone's business anyway. And now, insulated from the icy cold of the storm in the hot belly of the church, Adolph wiped his face on his shirt sleeves, wondering if those poor saps from work would still envy the so-called horseshoe in his ass. Pain pulsated in his left foot. Grateful he was alone in the church basement, Adolph pushed himself off the chair, limped toward the access panel, and slipped it easily into place. If only people fit together so well. After thirty years of silence between them, he'd telephone Polly. Soon. Set things right before he ran out of time. He grabbed his coat and boots from the hooks behind the furnace room door and limped up the stairs to the church, his left foot dragging a little.
Adolph didn't pray. His work keeping the church comfortable for everyone in it was his prayer. He nodded at the altar, as he always did, because that was what he was taught to do. He sat in the last bench and pulled on his boots. The constriction of the boot hurt his left foot. Adolph sucked in his breath but put on his coat, scarf, and gloves for the walk home.
Keeping in the grooves carved into the snow by traffic, he limped homeward, each step stinging. The pain in his left foot forced him to stop every ten steps to lean against the snow-covered cars. A red pickup truck with a snowplow attached to the front slowed near him.
"Hey, Grandpa, you okay?" the driver said through the window
Adolph sucked in his breath before turning to see the driver, a young black man wearing a navy-blue hat, a bright yellow scarf, and a blue, nylon snow jacket. He nodded but didn't speak.
"You don't look okay. How far you going?" The man stepped out of his truck and placed his hands under Adolph's elbow to hold him steady, the same gesture he had earlier imagined his daughter doing. "Let me drive you home."
"That's okay. I'm fine," he managed to croak.
"You don't look fine to me, Pops. You look like you're in a world of hurt."
Adolph waved the man away and stepped forward with his right foot, slightly dragging the left one. It'd be a rainy day in hell before he'd accept help from a nigger.
The driver watched him take four painful steps without his supporting hand, and Adolph nearly slipped into the street. The man caught him before he fell.
"I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but it don't take no mental giant to see you're having trouble, Gramps." The man held up his palms to Adolph. "Let me help you, man. It's dangerous for you to be dragging along in the middle of the street in the snow."
Adolph allowed the man to guide him into the pickup. Inside the warm cab, Adolph leaned down to rub his foot, which felt swollen.
"Where to?" the man asked.
"Monteford near Fairpark," Adolph said. "Three blocks north."
The man nodded. "So what you are doing outside in the snow?"
"Went to check the church furnace," Adolph said. "So what are you doing outside in the snow?"
"Four-wheel drive and a snowplow. Made for snow. Actually I got to pick up some nurses near here and drive them over to the hospital on Greene Street," he said. "I'm Marvin," he said, stretching out his hand to shake.
Adolph ignored the man's hand. His left foot throbbed in his boot. "Thank you for the ride," he said.
"You alone?" Marvin asked.
Adolph raised his eyebrow but didn't answer for fear Marvin would come back and rob him if he knew he lived alone. Marvin handed him a card. "In case you need something. My wife's aunt lives up near here. We can check in when we're in the area."
Adolph looked at the card with the university logo which read Marvin Gainer, Development Officer.
"What the hell is a Development Officer?" Adolph asked.
"A fancy-pants word for fundraiser," Marvin said. "The office is closed because of snow, so I'm helping to transport the clinical staff. They don't get off work like us office jockeys."
Adolph's face flushed with gratitude for the ride. His foot definitely ached, but ached less when he kept his weight off it. Somebody who raised money for a university wouldn't seem like the kind of guy who'd rob him. It would have taken him hours to reach home had Marvin not insisted. He slipped the card into his pocket. Marvin crossed Fairpark and continued up Monteford.
"Right here's fine," Adolph said when Marvin reached the middle of the block. He unbuckled his safety belt and unlocked the door, but to Adolph's astonishment, Marvin threw the gear in park, flicked on the blinkers, and made his way around the truck to the passenger side. He helped Adolph climb out of the truck, steadied him as he limped toward the curb, helped him up the curb, and held him tightly when he reached the top of his stoop.
"You okay by yourself now?" he asked and flashed a smile. "If you decide you need a ride to Greene Street to get that foot looked at, give me a holler. And try not to get out too much in this weather," Marvin turned and rushed back toward his truck. Adolph knew he'd never have helped Marvin if the situation had been reversed. He'd have driven by without so much as a thought.
Before Adolph fished his keys from his coat pocket, Marvin had already shut the driver-side door and pulled forward. Adolph couldn't wait to take the boot off his throbbing foot, but he stood on the stoop's top step, watching the red taillights of Marvin's truck until they disappeared around the corner.
# # #
In Adolph's living room, the television's blaring voices bumped into each other and collided with the radio he kept on in the kitchen. The noise gave him a small comfort against the haunting echoes, muffling them. He heard the tick-tock of the grandfather clock, chronicling the slow passage of time, keeping rhythm like a metronome, its reverberation vaulting everywhere in the house as if stalking him, along with all the other sounds that haunted him. The slap of his slippers against his feet echoed and resounded, following him from the living room to the kitchen. His left foot, colored purple by the giant bruise across his instep, had swollen; and Adolph knew that he'd better get to a doctor sooner rather than later, and made a mental note to call Doc Palmer. In the meantime he'd ice it, and so he emptied an ice tray into a plastic bag and sat on the sofa, his foot raised, the makeshift ice pack atop his instep.
He cleared his throat; every noise multiplied, amplified, creating a din that enveloped him, making the house feel larger and emptier than it ever had been. The ice bag chilled his foot and his leg, and he wondered if he should call Doc Palmer for an appointment. Too antsy to continue sitting, Adolph heaved himself off the sofa and toddled to the kitchen. When he set the newspaper down on the kitchen chair, its rustling sound crackled, and Adolph called "hello-hello" to test the echo. Sure enough, the sound of his own feeble voice pinged, jumped off walls, and ponged into his ears as if pealing his solitude. He fixed himself a grilled cheese sandwich. He set the pan and the spatula in the sink and, without a plate or a napkin, shuffled back to the living room, dragging his left foot a bit, which failed to stop the sound of his flapping slippers echoing behind him. He remembered when he and Estelle had to run Polly over to the university hospital when she was four years old, after she'd fallen down the stairs and cracked her head open, her curly, black hair streaked red with blood, the subsequent need for eight stitches. Adolph sank into the sofa, raised his leg onto the cocktail table again, replaced the ice pack, and slowly ate his sandwich in front of the blaring television, careful not to drop any crumbs on his clothes or the furniture.
He wracked his brain over what he could possibly say when he called Polly, but he couldn't think of a single thing. "What the hell do you know?" he shouted at the blaring TV, hurling his slipper at the screen. It fell to the floor with a thud, adding yet another clatter to the haunting echoes.
Later Adolph returned to the kitchen to rifle through the shelf where Estelle had kept her personal phone book. He'd kept it all these years, kept everything the same, though he never looked inside her book. Flipping through the pages, he reveled in the sight of Estelle's handwriting. He'd forgotten her loopy numbers, her Catholic school penmanship, her neat cursive. He perused the list with its names of many people now dead set next to their telephone numbers, the fours and fives with loops, the sevens with slashes through their stems. He'd forgotten them, too, until he saw their names in her book. He touched the names, but he longed to touch Estelle again. He searched under "P" for Polly but didn't find anything. He searched under "D" for daughter and "C" for child as he struggled to remember Polly's married name. He must have blocked it from his memory; the thought of her married to that black man still sickened him.
Both legs hurt from standing, and his foot continued to smart. He tucked the book into his waistband, held onto the shelf briefly to steady himself, and then slowly stepped toward the kitchen table, where he sank into the nearest chair. Determined to find Polly's number, he sat at the table and examined each page, beginning with A and ending with Z without success. "Damn it, Estelle!" he said aloud. Adolph flipped the back cover up and down, struggling to recall Polly's married name. It simply escaped him. He set the book upright and knocked it down, irritated that Estelle must have hidden the numbers elsewhere. Then he noticed a set of curious entries on the second-to-the-last page, written sideways near the book's spine in the tiniest letters. POH and two numbers. Underneath came EMH, followed by a number, and then POHW and KHW, also with numbers. Who or what the hell is POH, he wondered, and EMH?
He started from the bottom with KHW and dialed, letting the extra-long phone cord lie across the table. A woman's voice said, "Henderson and McCready Law Offices."
"Wrong number," Adolph said and hung up. Was Estelle trying to divorce him before she died? Why had she needed the number to a law office and printed so tiny in a hidden place? He pushed the button to get the dial tone and tried a second number, the one listed next to POHW.
"Henderson, here," a woman said.
Too surprised to speak, he grunted. Polly's unmistakable voice, sounding eerily like Estelle's, caressed his ear. It must have been a private line. Just after Estelle's funeral, when he'd been furious and searched everywhere for evidence that Estelle had kept in touch with Polly and her family, he couldn't find a shred of it. He hadn't thought to look at the second-to-the-last page under notes in Estelle's phone book, a reminder of Estelle's stubbornness and wiliness, now something for which he was grateful. A silence dominated the phone line, but Polly, again another surprise, kept the line open, and Adolph listened to her breathe.
"I know it's you, Dad. Caller ID," she said softly, almost a whisper.
His heart pounded. He hadn't thought about what he wanted to say. He hadn't considered Caller ID either. He didn't have it on his phone. He imagined her as a little girl, her hair in thick, onyx-colored sausage curls, her head bent to the right, the knees of her pants torn like that of a little boy, beaming a facsimile of Estelle's dimpled smile.
"It's me. It's me," he said, repeating himself out of nervousness.
"It's been a long time," Polly said.
"Yes," he agreed. "A long time." He paused. Another silence. " I . . . I . . . I would like to see you, if that's okay," he said. He rubbed his forehead with his wrist and listened to her breathing as if he couldn't get enough of the sound of her.
Another long silence. "All right."
"You'll come to the house?" he asked. She sounded lovely. Alive. She sounded like Estelle, and if he didn't know that Estelle had been dead so long, he'd have been tricked into thinking she was alive again. Her voice sounded so soft, an echo of Estelle's, and it thrilled and saddened him at the same time. He tried to picture what Polly looked like now, thinking she'd grown plump with age, probably gray-haired like her mother. Or maybe she looked terrible, like a ruined wreck because of that husband of hers perhaps unable to provide, perhaps pummeling her like a boxer. Maybe she divorced and never told him. His mind raced, wanting to fill in the blanks and fearing for the worst.
"How about that new coffee shop just two blocks from your house? I think it's called Morning Edition. Can you walk there?" she asked. "When works for you?"
He paused. Any other time he'd be able to walk there easily. Except now his injured foot prevented him from walking, especially in the slippery streets.
"I hurt my foot," he said.
Another long silence. "I'll send a cab. When?"
"When's good for you?" he asked. He fidgeted with the long, white telephone cord, squeezing the rings together into a tight ball and letting it go.
"Tomorrow?" she asked.
So soon! Adolph allowed himself to feel a little excited. It surprised him that she hadn't banged the phone down on him, and now she was suggesting tomorrow.
"What time?" Polly asked.
"Before lunch. Ten o'clock," he said. Then he realized she might be working. "Is this where you work? You can get off your shift?"
"Not a problem. See you then?" she said, sounding brisk. Another long silence before Polly hung up. Adolph wondered why she waited, and he listened to the click, but cradled the receiver in his hand, close to his ear, for a few minutes, as if he could recall the sound of her inhaling and exhaling, before he finally set the phone down. Tomorrow, D-day, he'd finally see her and tell her what? He didn't know. He let out his own breath, unaware he'd been holding it.
# # #
In the new coffee shop near his house, one that he'd never been in before, Adolph occupied a small, round table by the window and paged through a tabloid. Too nervous to read it, he flipped the pages for something to do, something to keep his hands busy while he waited. He sipped coffee, annoyed that it had cost so much, annoyed that the store had the gall to charge a right arm for a damn cup of coffee. Adolph didn't know so many varieties of coffee and tea existed. Fancy bags of whole and ground coffee beans, and teas in multicolored boxes, lined the shelves, next to brightly colored boxes of things he couldn't identify, like "flavored chai," next to things he could identify, like small teapots. Did people actually buy this crap? After he flipped through the entire paper, he turned it over and started again, but this time he gazed at the pastries behind the counter, things with odd names: poppy lemon bars, cardamom and fennel cookies, sesame somethings. Whatever happened to plain old apple pie? Or French apple pie with raisins and icing. Pie à la mode with ice cream. Adolph considered getting something to eat, but didn't want to risk becoming sick, vomiting or dry heaving in front of Polly. His foot, still swollen and painful, throbbed and didn't fit into any of his shoes. The slipper on his left foot embarrassed him; the snow outside had wet his sock. He peered at the dressy brown shoe on his right foot, irritated that his swollen foot precluded its mate, and he wondered if the mismatched shoes made him appear senile.
He couldn't remember being this nervous, not even when he'd asked Estelle to marry him when they were both twenty years old, after she'd waited for him to come home from the war. Polly had surprised him, agreeing to see him, not banging down the phone on him. How she had known of this coffee shop baffled him.
The last time he'd seen her was at Estelle's funeral, fifteen years ago, when she brought that nigger husband of hers, the two of them and their mongrel brood—three children—taking up an entire front-row pew at the church. Adolph had turned his back to them, pretended Polly was a stranger. He hadn't told them about the services or wanted them there. He didn't want them in church or at the luncheon that followed, and he made sure they weren't invited, Polly an embarrassment with that husband of hers and those mixed-breed kids in front of all his and Estelle's friends. But Polly and her family, red-eyed and weeping, had sat in the pew holding hands, her husband's arm around her, his brown fingers kneading and patting her waist. It had hit him then, a sucker-punch to his belly: against his will, against his wishes, Estelle must have seen them regularly. These children knew their grandmother, loved her, and wept for her. What else had Estelle hidden from him? He couldn't confront the dead Estelle for defying him. It all left him feeling unsettled.
Taking another sip of his now-tepid drink, he gazed out the picture window at a woman approaching the shop. Tall, wearing a red hat and a black coat and red gloves, she marched directly toward the counter without looking around for anyone. The woman pulled off her gloves, folded them together, stuffed them into her coat pocket, and waited in line. He stared at the back of her head, straining to see if dark, curly hair sat under the red hat.
Adolph looked away from the tall, red-hatted woman to see an unmistakably thinner, younger, and taller version of Estelle standing beside the table. The resemblance startled him, the ghost of his wife appearing suddenly before him. Polly's curly hair still black, still covering her shoulders, a few laugh lines around her eyes, glowing skin. She wore expensive clothes. Not dumpling-like as Estelle. Automatically, he rose. Flustered, he extended his hand to shake hers, but pulled it back. One doesn't shake hands with one's own child. "Thanks for coming, Polly," he said. Certain she intended to stand him up, he felt relieved as he gestured to the empty chair. "Sit."
"You're looking good," he said, meaning it. She didn't appear impoverished. She looked younger than he'd expected and as polished as a TV news woman.
"You're thinner than I remember," she said, her wide eyes careful not to show her utter shock at his gaunt appearance. "A lot thinner."
But Adolph knew the visible ravages of the virus. "Coffee?" he asked.
"No, thanks," she said, "iced tea." She straightened herself in the chair and moved it closer to the table.
"It's winter," he said. "With snow on the ground."
Polly shrugged. Conscious of his unmatched shoes, Adolph joined the line and ordered another coffee for himself and a medium iced tea for his daughter. Polly pulled a $20 bill from her wallet and placed it on the table. Adolph pushed it back toward her when he set the tea in front of her. He watched her use three pink fake sugar packets. A tense silence hung over them. What to say after thirty years? He cleared his throat; he had so many things to tell her, he didn't know how to begin. He stared at her instead, noticing how translucent her skin looked. She glowed.
"So what happened to your foot?" she said.
"Accident. Dropped the access panel to the church furnace on it," he said.
"Maybe it's fractured?" she said.
He shrugged, wanting to avoid the host of problems that would be sure to ensue. "I don't know about that, but I don't like wearing two different shoes. At least they're both brown," he said, staring at his feet.
"You wanted to see me? What's up?"
Adolph nodded. "How've you been?" he asked, starting with the basics. He was startled by how much she reminded him of Estelle. Seeing Polly regularly, he'd never have forgotten Estelle's face. She smiled, and her dimples transfixed him. "I forgot how much you looked like your mother," he said. "It's like you're her, almost."
"I miss her too," she said. Polly played with the empty pink packets, lining them up in a neat row by her cup. She dug around in her purse and then set a photograph on the table. In it, a wide-smiling, dimpled Estelle hugged three brown children close to her, their thin arms wrapped around her, too. Drawn to the image of Estelle, Adolph picked it up and held it closer for a better view. Estelle radiated joy; she was in love with these children. After she'd returned from her all-day Wednesday Bingo trips with Rose, or from her Friday bus trips to Atlantic City, she exuded the same radiant joy; and then he knew—Estelle had never played Bingo or gone to Atlantic City. She'd driven across town to Polly's house.
In the picture, one brown boy, two brown girls, smiled wide, all at the stage where their teeth were too large for their faces. Adolph focused on Estelle's smile, one she'd never flashed for him after Gregory died in Vietnam. Two of the children—one boy and one girl—also shared their mother's and grandmother's dimples. The other girl must resemble the father, but all of them had Estelle's large, almond eyes. Both girls' hair hung long and curly like their mother's and grandmother's. The boy's hair, neatly trimmed wide curls, framed a round, dimpled face, and Adolph noticed his blue eyes, like Greg's and his own. He'd never seen a black person with blue eyes. The children resembled distorted brown fun-house images of Estelle, Polly, Gregory, and himself. Adolph stared at the photo, stared at the image of Estelle before setting it back on the table.
"She looks so happy," he stammered. "She visited you," he said, thinking but not saying: behind my back.
"Mom didn't have the issues with Keith and me like you did," she said.
He bristled. "Don't you remember all the troubles, the riots, the looting? The National Guard patrolling? You could have picked someone better, different," he said.
"You mean, not black," she said. She looked at him without flinching. "Keith and I loved each other then, and now. He is an honorable man, a good husband, a great father," she said. "We're grandparents! Isn't that proof enough for you?"
They regarded each other in an uncomfortable silence.
"I want to tell you something," he said. He set his hands on the table, palms down, as if bracing himself. Anticipation in her face, Polly leaned slightly closer to him. She sipped her iced tea though the straw.
Unable to find the words for everything on his mind, he blurted, "I can't remember things."
"You remember things you want to remember and forget what you want to forget. So convenient." She sounded matter-of-fact, but her eyes flashed anger.
The sight of her eyes—flashing just like Estelle's used to when she was angry—gave him joy. He smiled at the memory of Estelle it called up in him; a calm washed over him. Adolph twirled his coffee cup, drank some, and then set it back on the table. He chewed the wooden stirrer, and then fidgeted with the napkin strips before he methodically began ripping the strips into ever thinner pieces. "I'm dying," he said. "Thought you should know."
"This is what you want to tell me after thirty years of silence?"
Adolph shook his head. "That's not what I mean. I mean, I'm sick. I've been sick for a long time, and now I know my time's running out, and I wanted to see you. Before it was too late. I . . . I'm grateful you did not hang up on me. Thank you."
Polly blinked, but said nothing.
"I've got AIDS," he said, blurting it, the first time someone other than Doc Palmer knew his terrible, shameful secret. "I've had it for a long time. Ten years now."
Polly's head snapped up. She knocked over her iced tea. Adolph stood, pulling away from his chair to avoid getting splattered, and groaned as the pain in his foot shot up his leg. He hurriedly sat back down. She grabbed a pile of napkins from the counter to soak up the spill, and Adolph noticed her hands trembling. She stuffed the wet napkins back into the empty iced tea cup, then tossed it and Adolph's tea-soaked tabloid into the nearby trash can.
When she sat down, Adolph could see questions in her eyes. He held up his hands. "A long story. I've done stupid things. Stupid, stupid things." He shook his head.
Silence again. Polly leaned closer, waiting for something.
"You're the only one left," he said.
She kept her voice low, but Adolph heard anger in her tone.
"You are not alone," she said, pushing the photo toward him.
He balled his hands into fists and then flattened them again. He wanted to reiterate the reasons why he thought Keith was the wrong man, but Polly sat in her expensive clothes, and all his reasons evaporated. He picked up the photo, wanting to cut Estelle out of it, although it meant cutting her arms, which were wrapped around those children, who all resembled Estelle, and even the ghost of Greg's blue eyes in the boy.
Polly gently lowered the photo, pulling her chair closer to him. "This is Keith Gregory Ott Henderson, Junior," she said, pointing to the boy. "Greg's a mechanical engineer known for his precision. Both Greg and Estelle Marie got Mommy's smile. Stellie's a lawyer like her dad and me. And Esther Ott Henderson over here, the baby, is a dentist. They all have babies. You're a mule-headed man with great-grandchildren and a family you don't deserve, like it or not, thank you very much," she said in an even voice.
He wanted to ask Polly what the children knew about him, what they'd been told, but he didn't. He wanted her to stay there in the coffee shop, sitting close to him.
"No one named Adolph?" he asked instead with a slight smile.
Polly laughed. She threw her head back and laughed so loud, it amazed him. The sounds of her laughter bounced around him, echoing Estelle's when she was happy. He considered it a gift. Adolph waited for her to lash out at him, to accuse him of being an ass, a stubborn fool, a bigot, and to vomit all the things he'd shouted at her when he'd refused to attend her wedding, when he'd bellowed that she'd be dead to him forever. Her vitriol never came; he realized it'd be wasted on a dead man. No one would much miss him. Not Polly, her children, or her grandchildren. The weight of decades of unnecessary emptiness distressed him, knocked him off balance more than his mismatched shoes or his injured foot.
In her mirth, Polly reached across the table, and he savored the warmth and softness of her fingers wrapped around his bony ones. He couldn't remember the last time anyone touched him, and the shock of it gave his heart a jolt. He glanced outside. The snow blanket had transformed the streetscape into a Christmas card, but the image of him and Polly sitting side by side, mirrored on the inside window, captured his attention, and that's where he decided to focus.
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