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Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves

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To Joy

Darling, do you remember

the man you married? Touch me,

remind me who I am.

— Stanley Kunitz

We are not ourselves

When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind

To suffer with the body.

— King Lear

~ ~ ~

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His father was watching the line in the water. The boy caught a frog and stuck a hook in its stomach to see what it would look like going through. Slick guts clung to the hook, and a queasy guilt grabbed him. He tried to sound innocent when he asked if you could fish with frogs. His father glanced over, flared his nostrils, and shook the teeming coffee can at him. Worms spilled out and wriggled away. He told him he’d done an evil thing and that his youth was no excuse for his cruelty. He made him remove the hook and hold the twitching creature until it died. Then he passed him the bait knife and had him dig a little grave. He spoke with a terrifying lack of familiarity, as if they were simply two people on earth now and an invisible tether between them had been severed. 

When he was done burying the frog, the boy took his time patting down the dirt, to avoid looking up. His father told him to think awhile about what he’d done and walked off. The boy crouched listening to the receding footsteps as tears came on and the loamy smell of rotting leaves invaded his nose. He stood and looked at the river. Dusk stole quickly through the valley. After a while, he understood he’d been there longer than his father had intended, but he couldn’t bring himself to head to the car, because he feared that when he got there he’d see that his father no longer recognized him as his own. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than that, so he tossed rocks into the river and waited for his father to come get him. When one of his throws gave none of the splashing sound he’d gotten used to hearing, and a loud croak rose up suddenly behind him, he ran, spooked, to find his father leaning against the hood with a foot up on the fender, looking as if he would’ve waited all night for him, now adjusting his cap and opening the door to drive them home. He wasn’t lost to him yet. 

Part I. Days under Sun and Rain, 1951–1982

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1

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Instead of going to the priest, the men who gathered at Doherty’s Bar after work went to Eileen Tumulty’s father. Eileen was there to see it for herself, even though she was only in the fourth grade. When her father finished his delivery route, around four thirty, he picked her up at step dancing and walked her over to the bar. Practice went until six, but Eileen never minded leaving the rectory basement early. Mr. Hurley was always yelling at her to get the timing right or to keep her arms flush at her sides. Eileen was too lanky for the compact movements of a dance that evolved, according to Mr. Hurley, to disguise itself as standing still when the police passed by. She wanted to learn the jitterbug or Lindy Hop, anything she could throw her restless limbs into with abandon, but her mother signed her up for Irish dancing instead.

Her mother hadn’t let go of Ireland entirely. She wasn’t a citizen yet. Her father liked to tout that he’d applied for his citizenship on the first day he was eligible to. The framed Certificate of Citizenship, dated May 3, 1938, hung in the living room across from a watercolor painting of St. Patrick banishing the snakes, the only artwork in the apartment unless you counted the carved-wood Celtic cross in the kitchen. The little photo in the certificate bore an embossed seal, a tidy signature, and a face with an implacably fierce expression. Eileen looked into it for answers, but the tight-lipped younger version of her father never gave anything up.

• • •

When Eileen’s father filled the doorway with his body, holding his Stetson hat in front of him like a shield against small talk, Mr. Hurley stopped barking, and not just at Eileen. Men were always quieting down around her father. The recording played on and the girls finished the slip jig they were running. The fiddle music was lovely when Eileen didn’t have to worry about keeping her unruly body in line. At the end of the tune, Mr. Hurley didn’t waste time giving Eileen permission to leave. He just looked at the floor while she gathered her things. She was in such a hurry to get out of there and begin the wordless walk that she waited until she got to the street to change her shoes.

When they reached the block the bar was on, Eileen ran ahead to see if she could catch one of the men sitting on her father’s stool, which she’d never seen anyone else occupy, but all she found was them gathered in a half circle around it, as if anticipation of his presence had drawn them near.

The place was smoky and she was the only kid there, but she got to watch her father hold court. Before five, the patrons were laborers like him who drank their beers deliberately, contented in their exhaustion, well-being hanging about them like a mist. After five, the office workers drifted in, clicking their coins on the crowded bar as they waited to be served. They gulped their beers and signaled for another immediately, gripping the railing with two hands and leaning in to hurry the drink along. They watched her father as much as they did the bartender.

She sat at one of the creaky tables up front, in her pleated skirt and collared blouse, doing her homework but also training an ear on her father’s conversations. She didn’t have to strain to hear what they told him, because they felt no need to whisper, even when she was only a few feet away. There was something clarifying in her father’s authority; it absolved other men of embarrassment.

“It’s driving me nuts,” his friend Tom said, fumbling to speak. “I can’t sleep.”

“Out with it.”

“I stepped out on Sheila.”

Her father leaned in closer, his eyes pinning Tom to the barstool.

“How many times?”

“Just the once.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“The second time I was too nervous to bring it off.”

“That’s twice, then.”

“It is.”

The bartender swept past to check the level of their drinks, slapped the bar towel over his shoulder, and moved along. Her father glanced at her and she pushed her pencil harder into her workbook, breaking off the point.

“Who’s the floozy?”

“A girl at the bank.”

“You’ll tell her the idiocy is over.”

“I will, Mike.”

“Are you going to be a goddamned idiot again? Tell me now.”

“No.”

A man came through the door, and her father and Tom nodded at him. A draft followed him in, chilling her bare legs and carrying the smell of spilled beer and floor cleaner to her.

“Reach into your pocket,” her father said. “Every penny you have stashed. Buy Sheila something nice.”

“Yes, that’s the thing. That’s the thing.”

“Every last penny.”

“I won’t hold out.”

“Swear before God that that’s the end of it.”

“I swear, Mike. I solemnly swear.”

“Don’t let me hear about you gallivanting around.”

“Those days are over.”

“And don’t go and do some fool thing like tell that poor woman what you’ve done. It’s enough for her to put up with you without knowing this.”

“Yes,” Tom said. “Yes.”

“You’re a damned fool.”

“I am.”

“That’s the last we’ll speak of it. Get us a couple of drinks.”

• • •

They laughed at everything he said, unless he was being serious, and then they put on grave faces. They held forth on the topic of his virtues as though he weren’t standing right there. Half of them he’d gotten jobs for off the boat — at Schaefer, at Macy’s, behind the bar, as supers or handymen.

Everybody called him Big Mike. He was reputed to be immune to pain. He had shoulders so broad that even in shirtsleeves he looked like he was wearing a suit jacket. His fists were the size of babies’ heads, and in the trunk he resembled one of the kegs of beer he carried in the crook of each elbow. He put no effort into his physique apart from his labor, and he wasn’t muscle-bound, just country strong. If you caught him in a moment of repose, he seemed to shrink to normal proportions. If you had something to hide, he grew before your eyes.

She wasn’t too young to understand that the ones who pleased him were the rare ones who didn’t drain the frothy brew of his myth in a quick quaff, but nosed around the brine of his humanity awhile, giving it skeptical sniffs.

• • •

She was only nine, but she’d figured a few things out. She knew why her father didn’t just swing by step dancing on the way home for dinner. To do so would have meant depriving the men in suits who arrived back from Manhattan toward the end of the hour of the little time he gave them every day. They loosened their ties around him, took their jackets off, huddled close, and started talking. He would’ve had to leave the bar by five thirty instead of a quarter to six, and the extra minutes made all the difference. She understood that it wasn’t only enjoyment for him, that part of what he was doing was making himself available to his men, and that his duty to her mother was just as important.

The three of them ate dinner together every night. Her mother served the meal promptly at six after spending the day cleaning bathrooms and offices at the Bulova plant. She was never in the mood for excuses. Eileen’s father checked his watch the whole way home and picked up the pace as they neared the building. Sometimes Eileen couldn’t keep up and he carried her in the final stretch. Sometimes she walked slowly on purpose in order to be borne in his arms.

• • •

One balmy evening in June, a week before her fourth-grade year ended, Eileen and her father came home to find the plates set out and the door to the bedroom closed. Her father tapped at his watch with a betrayed look, wound it, and set it to the clock above the sink, which said six twenty. Eileen had never seen him so upset. She could tell it was about something more than being late, something between her parents that she had no insight into. She was angry at her mother for adhering so rigidly to her rule, but her father didn’t seem to share that anger. He ate slowly, silently, refilling her glass when he rose to fill his own and ladling out more carrots for her from the pot on the stovetop. Then he put his coat on and went back out. Eileen went to the door of the bedroom but didn’t open it. She listened and heard nothing. She went to Mr. Kehoe’s door, but there was silence there too. She felt a sudden terror at the thought of having been abandoned. She wanted to bang on both doors and bring them out, but she knew enough not to go near her mother just then. To calm herself, she cleaned the stovetop and counters, leaving no crumbs or smudges, no evidence that her mother had cooked in the first place. She tried to imagine what it would feel like to have always been alone. She decided that being alone to begin with would be easier than being left alone. Everything would be easier than that.

• • •

She eavesdropped on her father at the bar because he didn’t talk much at home. When he did, it was to lay out basic principles as he speared a piece of meat. “A man should never go without something he wants just because he doesn’t want to work for it.” “Everyone should have a second job.” “Money is made to be spent.” (On this last point he was firm; he had no patience for American-born people with no cash in their pocket to spring for a round.)

As for his second job, it was tending bar, at Doherty’s, at Hartnett’s, at Leitrim Castle — a night a week at each. Whenever Big Mike Tumulty was the one pulling the taps and filling the tumblers, the bar filled up to the point of hazard and made tons of money, as though he were a touring thespian giving limited-run performances. Schaefer didn’t suffer either; everyone knew he was a Schaefer man. He worked at keeping the brogue her mother worked to lose; it was professionally useful.

If Eileen scrubbed up the courage to ask about her roots, he silenced her with a wave of the hand. “I’m an American,” he said, as if it settled the question, and in a sense it did.

• • •

By the time Eileen was born, in November of 1941, some traces remained of the sylvan scenes suggested in her neighborhood’s name, but the balance of Woodside’s verdancy belonged to the cemeteries that bordered it. The natural order was inverted there, the asphalt, clapboard, and brick breathing with life and the dead holding sway over the grass.

Her father came from twelve and her mother from thirteen, but Eileen had no brothers or sisters. In a four-story building set among houses planted in close rows by the river of the elevated 7 train, the three of them slept in twin beds in a room that resembled an army barracks. The other bedroom housed a lodger, Henry Kehoe, who slept like a king in exchange for offsetting some of the monthly expenses. Mr. Kehoe ate his meals elsewhere, and when he was home he sat in his room with the door closed, playing the clarinet quietly enough that Eileen had to press an ear to the door to hear it. She only saw him when he came and went or used the bathroom. It might have been strange to suffer his spectral presence if she’d ever known anything else, but as it was, it comforted her to know he was behind that door, especially on nights her father came home after drinking whiskey.

Her father didn’t always drink. Nights he tended bar, he didn’t touch a drop, and every Lent he gave it up, to prove he could — except, of course, for St. Patrick’s Day and the days bookending it.

Nights her father tended bar, Eileen and her mother turned in early and slept soundly. Nights he didn’t, though, her mother kept her up later, the two of them giving a going-over to all the little extras — the good silver, the figurines, the chandelier crystals, the picture frames. Whatever chaos might ensue upon her father’s arrival, there prevailed beforehand a palpable excitement, as if they were throwing a party for a single guest. When there was nothing left to clean or polish, her mother sent her to bed and waited on the couch. Eileen kept the bedroom door cracked.

Her father was fine when he drank beer. He hung his hat and slid his coat down deliberately onto the hook in the wall. Then he slumped on the couch like a big bear on a leash, soft and grumbling, his pipe firmly in the grip of his teeth. She could hear her mother speaking quietly to him about household matters; he would nod and press the splayed fingers of his hands together, making a steeple and collapsing it.

Some nights he even walked in dancing and made her mother laugh despite her intention to ignore him. He lifted her up from the couch and led her around the room in a slow box step. He had a terrible charisma; she wasn’t immune to it.

When he drank whiskey, though, which was mostly on paydays, the leash came off. He slammed his coat on the vestibule table and stalked the place looking for things to throw, as if the accumulated pressure of expectations at the bar could only be driven off by physical acts. It was well known what a great quantity of whiskey her father could drink without losing his composure — she’d heard the men brag about it at Doherty’s — and one night, in response to her mother’s frank and defeated question, he explained that when he was set up with a challenge, a string of rounds, he refused to disappoint the men’s faith in him, even if he had to exhaust himself concentrating on keeping his back stiff and his words sharp and clear. Everyone needed something to believe in.

He didn’t throw anything at her mother, and he only threw what didn’t break: couch pillows, books. Her mother went silent and still until he was done. If he saw Eileen peeking at him through the sliver in the bedroom door, he stopped abruptly, like an actor who’d forgotten his line, and went into the bathroom. Her mother slid into bed. In the morning, he glowered over a cup of tea, blinking his eyes slowly like a lizard.

Sometimes Eileen could hear the Gradys or the Longs fighting. She found succor in the sound of that anger; it meant her family wasn’t the only troubled one in the building. Her parents shared moments of dark communion over it too, raising brows at each other across the kitchen table or exchanging wan smiles when the voices started up.

Once, over dinner, her father gestured toward Mr. Kehoe’s room. “We won’t have him here forever,” he said to her mother. As Eileen was struck by sadness at the thought of life without Mr. Kehoe, her father added, “Lord willing.”

No matter how often she strained to hear Mr. Kehoe through the walls, the only sounds were the squeaks of bedsprings, the low scratching of a pen when he sat at the little desk, or the quiet rasp of the clarinet.

• • •

They were at the dinner table when her mother stood and left the room in a hurry. Her father followed, pulling the bedroom door closed behind him. Their voices were hushed, but Eileen could hear the straining energy in them. She inched closer.

“I’ll get it back.”

“You’re a damned idiot.”

“I’ll make it right.”

“How? ‘Big Mike doesn’t borrow a penny from any man ,’ ” she sneered.

“There’ll be a way.”

“How could you let it get so out of hand?”

“You think I want my wife and daughter living in this place?”

“Oh, that’s just grand. It’s our  fault now, is it?”

“I’m not saying that.”

In the living room, the wind shifted the bedroom door against Eileen’s hands, making her heart beat faster.

“You love the horses and numbers,” her mother said. “Don’t make it into something it wasn’t.”

“It was in the back of my mind,” her father said. “I know you don’t want to be here.”

“I once believed you could wind up being mayor of New York,” her mother said. “But you’re satisfied being mayor of Doherty’s. Not even owner of Doherty’s. Mayor  of Doherty’s.” She paused. “I should never have taken that damn thing off my finger.”

“I’ll get it back. I promise.”

“You won’t, and you know it.” Her mother had been stifling her shouts, practically hissing, but now she sounded merely sad. “You chip away and chip away. One day there won’t be anything left.”

“That’s enough now,” her father said, and in the silence that followed Eileen pictured them standing in the mysterious knowledge that passed between them, like two stone figures whose hearts she would never fathom.

The next time she was alone in the house, she went to the bureau drawer where her mother had stashed her engagement ring for safekeeping ever since the time she’d almost lost it down the drain while doing dishes. From time to time, Eileen had observed her opening the box. She’d thought her mother had been letting its facets catch the light for a spell, but now that she saw the empty space where the box had been, she realized her mother had been making sure it was still there.

• • •

A week before her tenth birthday, Eileen walked in with her father and saw that her mother wasn’t in the kitchen. She wasn’t in the bedroom either, or the bathroom, and she hadn’t left a note.

Her father heated up a can of beans, fried some bacon, and put out a few slices of bread.

Her mother came home while they were eating. “Congratulate me,” she said as she hung up her coat.

Her father waited until he finished chewing. “For what?”

Her mother slapped some papers on the table and looked at him intently in that way she sometimes did when she was trying to get a rise out of him. He bit another piece of bacon and picked the papers up as he worked the meat in his jaw. His brow furrowed as he read. Then he put them down.

“How could you do this?” he asked quietly. “How could you let it not be me?”

If Eileen didn’t know better, she would have said he sounded hurt, but nothing on earth was capable of hurting her father.

Her mother looked almost disappointed not to be yelled at. She gathered the papers and went into the bedroom. A few minutes later, her father took his hat off the hook and left.

Eileen went in and sat on her own bed. Her mother was at the window, smoking.

“What happened? I don’t understand.”

“Those are naturalization papers.” Her mother pointed to the dresser. “Go ahead, take a look.” Eileen walked over and picked them up. “As of today, I’m a citizen of the United States. Congratulate me.”

“Congratulations,” Eileen said.

Her mother produced a sad little grin between drags. “I started this months ago,” she said. “I didn’t tell your father. I was going to surprise him, bring him along. It would have meant something to him to be my sponsor at the swearing in. Then I decided to hurt him. I brought my cousin Danny Glasheen instead.”

Eileen nodded; there was Danny’s name. The papers looked like the kind that would be kept in a file for hundreds of years, for as long as civilization lasted.

“Now I wish I could take it back.” Her mother gave a rueful laugh. “Your father is a creature of great ceremony.”

Eileen wasn’t sure what her mother meant, but she thought it had to do with the way it mattered to her father to carry even little things out the right way. She’d seen it herself: the way he took the elbow of a man who’d had too much to drink and leaned him into the bar to keep him on his feet without his noticing he was being aided; the way he never knocked a beer glass over or spilled a drop of whiskey; the way he kept his hair combed neat, no strand out of place. She’d watched him carry the casket at a few funerals. He made it seem as if keeping one’s eyes forward, one’s posture straight, and one’s pace steady while bearing a dead man down the steps of a church as a bagpiper played was the most crucial task in the world. It was part of why men felt so strongly about him. It must have been part of why her mother did too.

“Don’t ever love anyone,” her mother said, picking the papers up and sliding them into the bureau drawer she’d kept her ring in. “All you’ll do is break your own heart.”

2

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In the spring of 1952, Eileen’s mother made the amazing announcement that she was pregnant. Eileen had never even seen her parents hold hands. If her aunt Kitty hadn’t told her that they’d met at one of the Irish dance halls and found some renown there as a dancing pair, Eileen might have believed her parents had never touched. Here her mother was, though, pregnant as anyone. The world was full of mysteries.

Her mother quit her job at Bulova and sat on the couch knitting a blanket for the baby. When she tied off the last corner, she moved on to making a hat. A sweater followed, then a pair of bootees. Everything was stark white. She kept the miniature clothes in a drawer in the breakfront. The crafting was expert, with tight stitches and neat rows. Eileen never even knew her mother could knit. She wondered if her mother had made clothes for her family in Ireland, or to sell in a store, but she knew enough not to ask. She couldn’t even bring herself to seek permission to rub the bump on her mother’s belly. The closest she got to the baby was when she went to the drawer to examine the articles her mother had knitted, running her hands over their smoothness and putting them up to her face. One night, after her mother had gone to bed, she picked up the knitting needles, which were still warm from use. Between them swayed the bootee to complete the pair. Eileen tried to picture this baby who would help her populate the apartment and whose cheeks she would cover in kisses, but all she saw was her mother’s face in miniature, wearing that dubious expression she wore when Eileen went looking for affection. She concentrated hard until she stopped seeing her mother’s face and saw instead the smiling face of a baby beaming with light and joy. She was determined to have a relationship with this sibling that would have nothing to do with their parents.

Eileen was so excited to get a baby brother or sister that she physically felt  her heart breaking when her father told her that her mother had miscarried. When a dilation and curettage didn’t stop the bleeding, the doctors gave her a hysterectomy.

After the hysterectomy, her mother developed a bladder infection that nearly killed her. She stayed in the hospital on sulfa drugs while it drained. Children weren’t encouraged to visit the sick, so Eileen saw her mother less than once a month. Her father rarely spoke of her mother during this period that stretched into a handful of months, then half a year and beyond. When he intended to bring Eileen to see her, he would say something vague like, “We’re going, get yourself ready.” Otherwise, it was as if she’d been erased from their lives.

It didn’t take long for Eileen to figure out that she wasn’t supposed to mention her mother, but one night, a couple of weeks into the new order, she brought her up a few times in quick succession anyway, just to see how her father would react. “That’s enough now,” he snapped, rising from the table, evidence of suppressed emotion on his face. “Clean up these dishes.” He left the room, as though it were too painful for him to remain where his absent wife had been invoked. And yet they spent so much time fighting. Eileen decided she would never understand the relations between men and women.

She was left to handle the cooking and cleaning. Her father set aside money for her to shop and go to the Laundromat. She rode her bike to one of the last remaining farms in the neighborhood to buy fresh vegetables, and she developed her own little repertory of dishes by replicating what she’d seen her mother make: beef stew with carrots and green beans; London broil; soda bread; lamb chops and baked potatoes. She took a cookbook out of the library and started ranging afield. She made lasagna just once, beating her fist on the countertop when it turned out soupy after all that work.

After doing her homework by the muted light of the end table lamp, she sat on the floor, building towers of playing cards, or went upstairs to the Schmidts’ to watch television and marvel over the mothers who never stopped smiling and the fathers who folded the newspaper down to talk to their children.

At school she usually had the answer worked out before the other girls put up their hands, but the last thing she wanted was to draw any kind of attention to herself. She would have chosen, of all powers, the power to be invisible.

• • •

One day, her father took her to Jackson Heights, stopping at a huge cooperative apartment complex that spanned the width of a block and most of its length. They descended into the basement apartment of the super, one of her father’s friends. From the kitchen she looked up at the ground level through a set of steel bars. There was grass out there, blindingly green grass. She asked to go outside. “Only as long as you don’t step foot on that grass,” her father’s friend said. “Not even the people who live here are allowed on it. They pay me good money to make sure it stays useless.” He and her father shared a laugh she didn’t understand.

A frame of connected buildings enclosed a massive lawn girdled by a short wrought-iron railing. Nothing would have been easier than clearing that little fence. Around the lawn and through its middle ran a handsome brick path. She walked the routes of the two smaller rectangles and the outer, larger one, wending her way through all the permutations, listening to the chirping of the birds in the trees and the rustling of the leaves in the wind. Gas lamps stood like guardians of the prosperity they would light when evening came. She felt an amazing peace. There were no cars rushing around, no people pushing shopping carts home. One old lady waved to her before disappearing inside. Eileen would have been content to live out there, looking up into the curtain-fringed windows. She didn’t need to set foot on that grass. Maybe someone would bring her upstairs and she could look down on the whole lawn at once. The lights were on in the dining room of one apartment on the second floor, and she stopped to stare into it. A grandfather clock and


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a beautiful wall unit gazed down benignly at a bowl on the table. She couldn’t see what was in the bowl, but she knew it was her favorite fruit.

The people who lived in this building had figured out something important about life, and she’d stumbled upon their secret. There were places, she now saw, that contained more happiness than ordinary places did. Unless you knew that such places existed, you might be content to stay where you were. She imagined more places like this, hidden behind walls or stands of trees, places where people kept their secrets to themselves.

• • •

When the soles of her shoes wore through, her father, in his infinite ignorance of all things feminine, brought home a new, manure-brown pair Eileen was sure were meant for boys. When she refused to wear them, her father confiscated her old pair so she had no choice, and when she complained the next night that the other girls had laughed at her, he said, “They cover your feet and keep you warm.” At her age, he told her, he had been grateful to get secondhand shoes, let alone new ones.

“If my mother were well,” she said bitterly, “she wouldn’t make me wear them.”

“Yes, but she’s not well. And she’s not here.”

The quaver in his throat frightened her enough that she didn’t argue. The following night, he brought home a perfectly dainty, gleaming, pearlescent pair.

“Let that be an end to it,” he said.

• • •

Mr. Kehoe came home late, but he never seemed drunk. He was unfailingly polite. Despite the fact that he’d been there since she was two years old, it always felt to Eileen as if he’d just moved in.

She took to cooking extra for him and bringing a plate to his room. He answered her knock with a smile and received the offering gratefully. Her father grumbled about charging a board fee.

Mr. Kehoe had a smear of black in a full head of otherwise gray hair. It looked as if he’d been streaked by a tar brush. When he wasn’t wearing his tweed jacket with the worn cuffs, he rolled his shirt sleeves and kept his tie a little loose.

He started battling through fitful bouts of coughing. One night, she went to his door with some tea; another, she brought him cough syrup.

“It’s just that I don’t get enough air,” Mr. Kehoe said. “I’ll take some long walks.”

Even through severe coughing fits he managed to play the clarinet. She’d stopped trying to hide her efforts to listen to it. She sat on the floor beside his door, with her back to the wall, reading her schoolbooks. In the lonely evenings she felt no need to apologize for her interest. Sometimes she even whistled along.

One night, her father sat quietly on the couch after dinner with a troubled look on his face. Eileen avoided him, occupying her usual spot by Mr. Kehoe’s door. Heat rattling through the pipes joined the clarinet in a kind of musical harmony. She looked up and was unnerved to find her father looking back at her, which he never did. She concentrated on her beautifully illustrated copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales . The day before, when she’d told him that Mr. Kehoe had given it to her, her father had grown upset. She’d seen him knock on Mr. Kehoe’s door a little while later and hand him some money.

She was absorbed in “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was” when her father startled her away from the door. She barely had time to step aside before he had thrown Mr. Kehoe’s door open and told him to quit making that racket. Mr. Kehoe apologized for causing a disturbance, but Eileen knew there had been none; you could barely hear him playing from where her father had been sitting.

Her father tried to snatch the clarinet from Mr. Kehoe’s hands. Mr. Kehoe stood up, clutching it, until its pieces started coming apart and he staggered backward, coughing wildly. Her father went out to the kitchen and turned up the radio loud enough that the neighbors started banging on the ceiling.

When she came home the next day, Mr. Kehoe was gone.

For almost a week, she didn’t speak to her father. They passed each other without a word, like an old married couple. Then her father stopped her in the hall.

“He was going to have to leave,” he said. “I just made it happen sooner.”

“He didn’t have to go anywhere,” she said.

“Your mother is coming home.”

She was excited and terrified all at once. She’d started thinking her mother might never come back. She was going to have to give up control of the house. She wouldn’t have her father to herself anymore.

“What does that have to do with Mr. Kehoe?”

“You can move your things over there tonight.”

“You’re not getting another lodger?”

He shook his head. A thrilling feeling of possibility took her over.

“I’m getting my own room?”

Her father looked away. “Your mother has decided that she’s moving over there with you.”

3

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On the Wednesday after Easter of 1953, eight months after she’d left, her mother came home from the hospital. The separate rooms were as close as her parents could ever come to divorce.

Her mother got a job behind the counter at Loft’s, a fancy confectioner’s on Forty-Second Street, and started coming home late, often drunk. In protest, Eileen let dirty dishes stack up in the sink and piles of clothes amass in the bedroom corners. When she got teased in the schoolyard for the wrinkles in her blouse, she saw she had no choice but to continue the homemaking alone.

Her mother began drinking at home, settling her lanky body into the depression in the couch, in one hand a glass of Scotch, in the other a cigarette whose elongated ash worm would cling to the end as if working up the nerve to leap. Eileen watched helplessly as the malevolent thing accumulated mass. Her mother held an ashtray in her lap, but sometimes the embers fell into the cushions instead and Eileen rushed to pluck them out. Her mother fell asleep on the couch many nights, but she went to work no matter her condition.

That summer, her mother bought a window air-conditioning unit from Stevens on Queens Boulevard. She had the delivery man install it in the bedroom she shared with Eileen. No one else on their floor had an air conditioner. She invited Mrs. Grady and Mrs. Long over and into the bedroom, where they stood before the unit’s indefatigable wind, staring as though at a savior child possessed of healing powers.

When both her parents were home, an uneasy truce prevailed. Her mother closed the bedroom door and sat by the window, watching night encroach on the street. Eileen brought her tea after dinner. Her father stationed himself at the kitchen table, puffing at his pipe and listening to Irish football. At least they were under the same roof.

She hated thinking of her mother riding the trains. She saw her mother’s body sprawled in dark subway tunnels as she sat at the kitchen table for hours watching the door. As soon as she heard the key shunting the dead bolt aside, she rose to put the kettle on or wash dishes. She wouldn’t give her mother the satisfaction of knowing she was worried about her.

One night, after she had cooked the dinner and washed the pots and pans, she nestled exhausted into the couch, where her mother sat smoking a cigarette and staring ahead. Tentatively, she laid her head in her mother’s lap and kept still. She watched the smoke pour through her mother’s pale lips and the ash get longer. Other than a few new wrinkles around the mouth and some blossoms of burst blood vessels on her cheeks, her mother’s skin was still smooth and full and porcelain white. She still had those dramatic lips. Only her stained teeth showed evidence of wear.

“Why don’t you give me hugs and kisses like the mothers on television?”

Eileen waited for her to say something sharp in response, but her mother just stubbed out the butt and picked up the pack to smoke another. There was a long silence.

“Don’t you think you’re a little old for this?” her mother finally asked. Eventually she moved Eileen aside and rose to pour herself a tall drink. She sat back down with it.

“I wasn’t like your father,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to escape the farm. I remember I was packing my bag, I heard my father say to my mother, ‘Deirdre, let her go. This is no place for a young person.’ I was eighteen. I came looking for Arcadia, but instead I found domestic work on Long Island. I rode the train out and back in the crepuscular hours. Cre-pus-cular.  You probably don’t know what that word means.”

She could tell her mother had begun one of those sodden monologues she delivered from time to time, full of edgy eloquence. Eileen just sat and listened.

“I used to daydream about living in the mansions I cleaned. I liked to do windows, everyone else’s least-favorite job. I could look out on rolling lawns. They didn’t have a single rock, those lawns. I liked to look at the tennis courts. Perfectly level, and not a twig out of place. They suggested… what? — the taming of chaos. I liked the windswept dunes, the spray of crashing waves, the sailboats tied to docks. And when I went out to run the rag over the other side, I looked in on women reclining on divans like cats that had supped from bowls of milk. I didn’t begrudge them their ease. In their place, I would have planted myself on an elbow from the moment I rose in the morning until the time came for me”—her mother made a languorous gesture with her finger that reminded Eileen of the way bony Death pointed—“to be prodded back to the silken sheets.”

“It sounds nice,” Eileen said.

“It wasn’t nice ,” her mother said sharply after the few beats it took her thoughts to cohere. “It was—marvelous , is what it was.”

• • •

A few days before Christmas, her mother told her to take the train in to Loft’s a little before the end of her shift. When Eileen arrived, her mother looked so effortlessly composed that one would never know she’d become a serious drinker. Eileen walked around the store in stupefaction, gaping at the handcrafted, glazed, and filigreed confections.

When her mother was done, she gave Eileen a box of truffles to take home and walked her over to Fifth Avenue and down to Thirty-Ninth Street, to the windows of Lord & Taylor, which Eileen had seen only in pictures in the newspaper. The scenes behind the windows, with their warmly lit fireplaces and silky-looking upholstered miniature furniture, gave her the same feeling she’d had when she’d stood before that great lawn and peered up into the perfect world of the garden apartments. Gorgeous drapery framed a picture she wanted to climb into and live in. Brisk winds blew, but the air was not too cold, and the refreshing smell of winter tickled her nose. In the remnant daylight, the avenue began to take on some of the enchanted quality visible behind the windows. It thrilled her to imagine that passersby saw an ordinary mother-daughter pair enjoying a routine evening of shopping together. She checked people’s faces for evidence of what they were thinking: What a nice little family .

“Christmas gets the full treatment,” her mother said in the train on the way home. “Mind that you remember that. It doesn’t matter what else is going on. You could be at death’s door, I don’t care.”

That night, her mother tucked her in for the first time since she’d gone into the hospital. When Eileen awoke in the middle of the night and saw the other bed empty, she stumbled out to find her mother sitting on the couch. For a terrible instant, Eileen thought her mother was dead. Her head hung back, mouth open. Her hand clutched the empty tumbler. Eileen drew close and watched her chest rise and fall, then took the ashtray from her lap and the tumbler from her hand, careful not to wake her, and brought both to the kitchen sink. She took the blanket from her mother’s bed and spread it over her. She slept with the door open in order to see her from where she lay.

• • •

The package she received in the mail contained a book on how to play the clarinet and, beneath it, Mr. Kehoe’s own clarinet. A note on legal stationery said that he’d died of lung cancer and left it to her in his will. She slept beside it for several days until her mother found it one morning and told her to stop, calling it ghoulish. She tried to play it a few times but grew frustrated at the halting noises it produced. With an undiminished memory for its muffled, sensuous sound through the walls, she thought of Mr. Kehoe. She could hear whole songs when she shut her eyes and concentrated, as if the music were waiting to be extracted from her by a trained hand. She could never even string together a couple of familiar-sounding notes. Eventually she took to laying out its pieces and looking at them awhile before fitting them back into the soft pink felt that lined the case. She didn’t need to play Mr. Kehoe’s clarinet to appreciate it. Its parts were sleek and expertly wrought, their burnished metal protuberances shining with a lustrous gleam. They filled her hand with a pleasant weight. She liked to press the buttons down; they moved with ease and settled back up with a lovely firmness. The mouthpiece where Mr. Kehoe had pressed his lips came to a tapered end. She liked the feel of it against her own lips, the pressure against her teeth when she bit down.

The clarinet was the nicest thing she owned, the nicest thing anyone in her family owned. It didn’t belong in that apartment, she decided. When she was older she would live in a beautiful enough home that you wouldn’t even notice the clarinet. That was what Mr. Kehoe would have wanted. She would have to marry a man who would make it possible.

• • •

When she was thirteen, she started working at the Laundromat. The first time she got paid, after kneading the bills awhile between her thumb and forefinger, she spread them on the table before her and did some math. If she kept working and saved every dollar she could, she wouldn’t need anything at all from her parents once she was done with high school — maybe even before. The prospect excited her, though excitement gave way to sadness. She didn’t want to think of not needing anything from them. She would save her money for them.

Her mother drank harder than her father ever had, as though she were trying to make up for lost time. Eileen started tending to her needs in a prophylactic rather than merely reactive way. She made coffee, kept a constant supply of aspirin waiting for her, and lay a blanket over her when she fell asleep on the couch.

One night, Eileen came into the living room and saw that her mother’s head was bobbing in that way it did when she fought sleep to hold on to a last few moments of conscious drunkenness. Sitting with her was easiest then. She was too far gone to say something tart and withering but could still register Eileen’s presence with a tiny fluttering of the eyelid.

Eileen took a seat next to her and felt wetness under her hand. At first she thought her mother had spilled her drink.

She was terrified to change her mother’s clothes, because there was a chance her mother might realize what was going on, but she couldn’t just let her sit there in that sopping spot all night. She managed to remove her wet clothes and wrap her in a robe. Then she lay her back down on the dry part of the couch. Getting her to bed would be much harder.

Eileen sat on her haunches next to the couch and guided her mother’s head and shoulders from her lap to the floor, then dragged the rest of her down. Once she had her there, she slid her along by hooking her arms up under her mother’s armpits. Her mother was making murmuring noises. When Eileen got her to the bed, though, she couldn’t lift her up into it. Her mother had stirred to more wakefulness and was trying to stay on the floor.

“Let me get you up, Ma,” she said.

“I’ll sleep right here.”

“You can’t sleep on the floor.”

“I will,” she said, the end of the word trilling off. Her brogue came back when she was drunk or angry.

“It’s cold on the floor. Let me lift you up.”

“Leave me be.”

“I won’t do that.”

Eileen tried for a while and then gave up and lay on her mother’s bed to rest. When she awoke it was to the sound of her father coming home from tending bar. She went to the kitchen and saw him sitting at the table with a glass of water.

“Can you pick Ma up? She’s on the floor.”

He stood without a word and followed her. It occurred to her that, except on Mr. Kehoe’s last night, she’d never seen her father enter that bedroom. In the light streaming in from the kitchen, her mother looked like a pile of dirty sheets on the floor.

Eileen watched him pick her mother up with astounding ease, as if he could have done it with one hand instead of two. One of his arms was cradling her head. Her long limbs hung down; she was fast asleep. He took his time laying her in the bed. He looked at her lying there. Eileen heard him say “Bridgie” once quietly, more to himself than her mother, before he pulled the blanket over her and smoothed it across her shoulders.

“Go to bed now yourself,” he said, and shut the door behind him.

• • •

“Imagine all of Woodside filled with trees,” Sister Mary Alice was telling her eighth-grade class. “Imagine a gorgeous, sprawling, untouched estate of well over a hundred acres. That is what was here, boys and girls. What is now your neighborhood, all of it, every inch, once belonged to a single family  that traces its roots back to the very beginnings of this country.”

A garbage truck in front of the school emitted a few loud coughs, and Sister paused to let it pass. The rolled-up map above the blackboard swayed slightly, and Eileen imagined it unfurling and hitting Sister in the head.

“The grandson of one of the early Puritan founders of Cambridge, Massachusetts, built a farmhouse near this spot, on a massive plot of land he’d bought.” Sister started walking around the room with a book held open to a page that contained pictures of the house. “His heirs converted that farmhouse into a manor house. This manor house ”—Sister practically spat the words—“had a wide hall leading to a large front parlor. It had a back parlor with a huge fireplace, a grand kitchen, a brass knocker on the door. It had an orchard to one side.” The insistent way Sister counted off the house’s virtues made it sound as if she was building a case against it in court. “After a few generations, they sold the estate to a Manhattan-based merchant from South Carolina to use as a weekend retreat. Then, in the latter half of the last century, when the train lines expanded, a real estate developer saw an opportunity. He cleared the estate’s trees, drained its swamps, laid out the streets you walk on today, and carved it into nearly a thousand lots that he distributed by random drawing. He opened the door to the middle class, letting them pay in installments of ten dollars a month. Houses were built. The last vestige of the estate, the manor house, was razed in 1895 to make room for the church, and, eventually, the school you’re sitting in right now.”

Eileen was watching the frowning white face of the clock at the front of the room when Sister came up to her with the book. Her gaze drifted lazily to the pictures, but once she saw them she couldn’t take her eyes off them, and when Sister moved down the row, Eileen asked her to come back for a second.

“The Queensboro Bridge was completed in 1909, and then the LIRR East River tunnel the following year, and they began laying out the IRT Flushing line — the seven train to you — station by station, starting in 1915. The Irish — your grandparents, maybe your parents — began coming across the river in droves, seeking relief from the tenement slums of Manhattan. They wound up in Woodside. Imagine ten people to an apartment, twenty. Then, in 1924—providence. The City Housing Corporation began building houses and apartments to alleviate the density problem.” Sister had made it back to the front of the room. The faint outline of a smile of triumph crept onto her lips as she addressed her final arguments to the jury. “This is the way the Lord works. To those who have little, he gives. Isn’t it nice to think of all of you here instead of it just one privileged family in a mansion in the woods? Wouldn’t you agree, Miss Tumulty?”

Eileen had been daydreaming about the demolished mansion she’d just seen the picture of. Sister’s question snapped her to attention. “Yes,” she said. “Yes.”

But all she could think was what a shame it was they’d knocked that house down. A big, beautiful house in the country with land around it — that wasn’t a bad thing at all.

“And think of this,” Sister Mary Alice said in closing. “Not a single one of you would be here if that estate were still around. None of us would. We simply wouldn’t exist.”

Eileen looked around at her classmates and tried to conceive of a reality in which none of them had come into being. She thought of the little apartment she lived in with her parents. Would it be a loss if it had never been built?

She pictured herself on a couch in that mansion, looking out a window at a stand of trees. She saw herself sitting with her legs crossed as she flipped through the pages of a big book. Someone had to be born in a house like that; why couldn’t it have been her?

Maybe she wouldn’t have been born there, but she’d have been born somewhere, and she’d have found a way to get there, even if the others didn’t.

• • •

Some nights she went up the block to see her aunt Kitty and her cousin Pat, who was four and a half years younger than her. Her uncle Paddy, her father’s older brother, had died when Pat was two, and Pat looked up to her father like he was his own father.

Eileen had grown up reading to Pat. She’d delivered him to school an early reader, and he could write when the other kids were still learning the alphabet. He was whip-smart, but his grades didn’t show it because he never did his homework. He read constantly, as long as it wasn’t for school.

She sat him at the kitchen table and made him open his schoolbooks. She told him he had to get As, that anything less was unacceptable. She said there was no end to what he could do with her help. She told him she wanted him to be successful, and rich enough to buy a mansion. She would live in a wing of it. He just rushed through his work and read adventure stories. All he wanted to do when he grew up was drive a Schaefer truck.

• • •

Her mother’s morning powers of self-mastery, so impressive in the early days, began to dry up, until, when Eileen was a freshman in high school — she’d earned a full scholarship to St. Helena’s in the Bronx — they evaporated overnight. Her mother went in late to Loft’s one day, and then she did so again a couple of days later, and then she simply stopped going in at all. One day she passed out in the lobby and the police carried her upstairs. After the officers left — her father being who he was meant nothing would get written up — Eileen didn’t say a word or try to change her mother into clean clothes, because her mother would be embarrassed, and Eileen still feared her wrath, even when her mother was slack as a sack of wheat, because the memory of her mother taking the hanger to her when she misbehaved as a child was never far from her mind.

The next day, when they were both at the kitchen table, her mother smoking in silent languor, Eileen told her she was going to call Alcoholics Anonymous. She didn’t mention that she’d gotten the number from her aunt Kitty, that she’d been talking to others in the family about her mother’s problem.

“Do what you want,” her mother said, and then watched with surprising interest as Eileen dialed. A woman answered; Eileen told her that her mother needed help. The woman said they wanted to help her, but her mother had to ask for help herself.

Eileen’s heart sank. “She’s not going to ask for help,” she said, and she felt tears welling up. She saw her mother’s darting eyes notice the tears, and she wiped them quickly away.

“We need her to ask for assistance before we can take action,” the woman said. “I’m very sorry. Don’t give up. There are people you can talk to.”

“What are they saying?” her mother asked, pulling the belt on her robe into a tight knot.

Eileen put her hand over the receiver and explained the situation.

“Give me that goddamned phone,” her mother said, stubbing out her cigarette and rising. “I need help,” she said into it. “Did you hear the girl? Goddammit, I need help.”

• • •

A pair of men came to the apartment the following evening to meet her mother. Eileen had never been more grateful not to find her father home. She sat with them as they explained that they were going to arrange for her mother to be admitted to Knickerbocker Hospital. They would return the next evening to take her in.

That night, as soon as the men had left, her mother took the bottle of whiskey down off the shelf and sat on the couch pouring a little of it at a time into a tumbler. She drank it deliberately, as if she were taking medicine. They’d told her mother to pack enough clothing for two weeks, so Eileen filled a small duffel bag for her and slipped it under the bed. She would explain things to her father once her mother was in the hospital.

Eileen spent the school day worrying that, with so many hours left before the men returned, something would go awry. Her mother seemed okay, though, when Eileen got home. All in the apartment was still. The kettle sat shining on the small four-burner stove, the floor was swept, the blinds were pulled evenly across the windows. Eileen cooked some sausage and eggs for them to eat together. Her mother ate slowly. When the men arrived, shortly before six o’clock, both wearing suits, her mother acquiesced without denying she’d agreed to go. The strangely tender, sorrowful look she wore as she shuffled around the apartment gathering the last of the things she needed — toothbrush, wallet, a book — made Eileen’s chest ache.

Eileen rode with them to the hospital. At the end, the two men drove her back. When they reached the apartment building, the driver put the car in park and sat motionless while the man in the passenger seat came around to open her door. She stood outside the car, thinking she might like to say something to express her gratitude, but there wasn’t a way to do it. The man took his hat off. A strange, knowing silence filtered into the air around them. She was glad these men weren’t the kind that said much. He handed her a piece of paper with a phone number on it.

“Call if you need anything,” he said. “Any hour.” Then they drove off.

Her mother stayed in for nine days. When she reemerged, she attended meetings and took a job cleaning grammar schools in Bayside. She complained about being beholden to the Long Island Rail Road schedule, but Eileen figured what actually bothered her was all the time she had to herself on the train to consider how she hadn’t gotten very far in the years since she’d made similar trips.

Eileen dreamed of taking a dramatic journey of her own. When she learned about Death Valley in geography class, how it was the hottest and driest spot in North America, she decided to visit it sometime, even though she wouldn’t be able to leave her alabaster skin exposed there for long without suffering a terrible burn. A vast, desert expanse like that was the only place she could imagine not minding the absence of company.

4

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In the fall of 1956, when Eileen was a sophomore, another round of relatives started coming over from Ireland. How she loved it! Sure, at times the apartment was like a sick ward, teeming with newly landed, sniffling relations who commandeered a bit of the floor or even her own bed, but still: with all those people crowded around, her father came alive, charming them like a circus animal keeping a ball aloft on the tip of its nose, and her mother worked alongside her to keep the peace in cramped quarters.

Over a dozen people passed through their little space: her mother’s youngest sister Margie, who was only a few years older than Eileen and whom her mother had never met; her aunts Ronnie and Lily; her uncles Desi, Eddie, and Davy; her cousins Nora, Brendan, Mickey, Eamonn, Declan, Margaret, Trish, and Sean. Two or three or even four would stay with them at a time, until that group found an apartment in Rockaway or Woodlawn or Inwood and the next moved in. Nothing came close to the feeling Eileen got when they gathered at the table for meals, and when she awoke in the night and heard the gentle snoring and the shuffling sound of their rolling sleep, she was sure she’d never felt happier.

Uncle Desi, her father’s youngest brother, was the first to arrive. He moved into the room with her father. The first time her father wasn’t around, Eileen peppered Desi with questions. It wasn’t hard to get him to talk. It was as if he’d turned a faucet on and the words came pouring out.

“Your father


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loved Kinvara,” Uncle Desi said. “He was the happiest fellow you could imagine. A smile from ear to ear all day long. Then we were made to move to Loughrea when the Land Reform laws came. We went to better farmland, but I believe he never got over the sting of leaving those fields and that house he’d helped to build as a lad.”

The apartment and neighbors and outside noises seemed to succumb to Desi’s charms. All went hush as he rubbed his bristled chin.

“I was much younger than him, seven or so when we moved, so I had a grand time building the new house. We pulled it up out of the land. We boys and our father dug clay, dragged timbers from the bog, and harvested the thatch for the roof. I tell you, it was plumb and solid, still is. Everyone was satisfied but your father. He said that if they could take one house from you against your will, they could take another. He never settled into it. The sky was his ceiling, I suppose. One thing: he never had to be asked twice to work. Jesus, he never had to be asked once. He was always working. The stone walls he built — you would have thought they were a mile around.

“All he ever wanted was a little money to play cards. There’d be poker games that would last five days. That, and a chance to work in the fields. When I tell you he had strength enough to bend a hammer, I don’t know if you’ll believe me. The only thing he wanted it for was to pull up stubborn vegetables. Then, in 1931—your father must have been twenty-four — my eldest brother Willie, he was a beat cop in Dublin, well, he developed a cataract. He went blind in that eye and had to come back to the farm. The plot wasn’t big enough to support two men and my father, and there wasn’t a job to be found on the entire godforsaken island, not even for a man like your father.”

He raised one brow and clicked his tongue dramatically, as if to suggest that the failure to find room for his older brother spelled doom for the country he had left behind.

“The best our father could do for him was buy him a ticket over. It was Willie who’d wanted to emigrate, not your father, but that was out of the question. This country didn’t admit the infirm.

“Our father gave him three months. Your father spent the time plowing, harrowing, and sowing, barely stopping to eat or sleep. A man could be forgiven for wondering if he were trying to die in the fields. His friends threw the biggest good-bye party in memory; it lasted three days and nights. What a time! At the end, your father went directly from the revelry to the crops. People tried to get him to go in and sleep, but he wouldn’t listen. He worked through the night. Our father went out in the morning, the ticket in his hand; I followed behind. He found him ripping out weeds. I’ll never forget what he said.”

Desi paused. He stood up to act out the scene.

“ ‘Michael John,’ he said, handing it over.” He stretched an imaginary ticket toward her. “ ‘You have to go. And that’s that.’ Then he turned back to the house.” Desi faced away, took a couple of steps and looped back. “I stood there for a while with your father in perfect silence. Our mother took him to the boat.”

He sat back down and eyed his empty teacup. She got up to refill it for him.

“I remember the first letter from your father,” Desi said as he chewed some shortbread. “He said the hardest part about leaving was knowing that Willie had no idea what to do with the crops he’d planted, that he’d let them linger in the earth too long. And that’s exactly what happened. He wrote that the whole way over, he saw, in his mind, the crops moldering there, sugaring over, their rich nutrition going to waste. He said he was never planting another seed. My brother Paddy — your cousin Pat’s father, God rest his soul — was here already a couple of years. Paddy referred your father to Schaefer Beer. As soon as they got one look at him, they put him to work hauling barrels.”

She knew how much pride her father took in being able to write, since not everyone he grew up with could, and she watched with interest whenever he slipped on his reading glasses to sign his name to checks and delivery slips, but the idea of him sitting down to write a letter — especially one that revealed his thoughts and feelings — simply baffled her. The closest he got to expressing a feeling was when the foolishness, idleness, or venality of certain men moved him to indignation.

She’d always understood that her father had been young once, but she’d never really considered what that meant. Now she saw him as a young man crossing a sea to start life anew, a courageous man carrying a kernel of regret and heartache that he would feed with his silence. There was more in him than she’d grasped. She wanted to find a man who was like him, but who hadn’t formed as hard an exterior: someone fate had tested, but who had retained a little more innocence. Someone who could rise above the grievances life had put before him. If her father had a weakness, that was it. There were other ways to be strong. She wasn’t blind to them.

She wanted a man whose trunk was thick but whose bark was thin, who flowered beautifully, even if only for her.

• • •

Maybe having all those relatives around had given her father a reason to settle in, or maybe it was the power of a management salary to keep a person in line. Whatever it was, when her father was promoted from driver to manager of drivers, something extraordinary happened: he stopped going out and began to do his drinking at home, where she’d never seen him put a glass of alcohol to his lips. There was such a self-possession about the way he drank at home, such an air of leisure and forbearance, that rather than signal chaos as it had in her mother’s case, it suggested urbanity, balance, a kind of evolution.

He bought nice glasses and stacked them with ice cubes and sipped a finger of expensive whiskey once or twice a night with whichever relative was there, as if it were no more than a salubrious activity to pass the time, an efficient way to filter the sludgy residues out of the engine of his planning. He bought new furniture, a dishwasher, a handmade Oriental rug. He bought a television; in the evenings they all watched it together. The only time the spell of Eileen’s happiness was broken was when she sneaked a look at her mother’s face at a moment of great drama in the program, expecting to see her squeezed along with the rest of them in the tightening grip of a tense plot, and saw her intently focused on the drink in her husband’s hand, like a dog watching for a scrap to fall from a table.

• • •

She went to Anchors Aweigh in Sunnyside with Billy Malague. Billy was a year older. After he’d graduated from McClancy, he’d approached her father for help getting a job at Schaefer. Apparently he’d been in love with Eileen for years, or so her friends said. She wasn’t interested in him; she only went out with him to be able to say she’d given him a chance. A lot of girls would have thrown themselves at Billy. He had thick locks of blond hair that looked strong enough for a person to suspend from. He was rugged and charismatic, and well liked by other men. She could see the appeal in him, but she couldn’t be with a man who didn’t have his sights on anything higher than driving a truck for thirty years.

Anchors Aweigh was dark and a little musty. A band was playing when she and Billy first arrived, but they soon packed up their fiddles and the jukebox came on. A lively energy emanated from the crowd, which was a healthy mix of generations.

She’d never taken a drink before. She scanned the menu and ordered a zombie, figuring she might as well dive in headfirst. Billy raised the ends of his mouth in an appreciative grin.

“I remember my first day. Your father called me a narrowback. He calls anyone born in America a narrowback. I tell you, it feels like an honor coming from him.” She couldn’t avoid noticing the way Billy rattled the ice around in his tumbler, the way he wiped his mouth with the hairy back of his hand after he took a sip. “He gave me a route that went into Staten Island. That means extra zone pay. My first day, an upstart kid like me, and he’s making sure I get some money in my pocket. He said, ‘You have twelve stops. You’ll be done in six hours. You should stay out ten.’ I didn’t understand. I didn’t want him to think I was a shirker. I said, ‘If it takes six hours, sir, I’ll try to get it done in five.’ He looked at me like I was a stone-cold idiot. ‘If you get back here in less than ten hours,’ he said, ‘don’t come back.’ ”

He was so excited talking about her father that she wasn’t sure which of them it was he was supposed to be in love with. She surprised herself by how quickly she drained the tall glass, sucking the sugary drink up through the straw. It made her nervous to look at the empty glass and feel herself begin to lose control, her brain tingling slightly, her lips taking their time to come together when she spoke, her head a little heavier on her neck. She wondered if she’d taken the first step on the road away from her dreams. What scared her was how easy it had been to do it. All she had to do was get the contents of the glass into her stomach. To chase her agitated thoughts, she ordered another drink immediately. The chatter in her head quieted down as she sat drinking and trying to return Billy’s insistent gaze. All she could focus on were his strangely doughy cheeks and protruding ears. She imagined him a couple of feet shorter, in a T-shirt with horizontal stripes, and a bowl haircut. In the middle of a little story he was telling, she laughed to think that what was evidently a boy before her somehow struck the rest of the world as a full-grown man. The bartender, whose age wasn’t in question — he must have been a year or two shy of her father — gave her a look that Billy didn’t see, in which there seemed to be pity for the boy. The first drink had been too syrupy sweet, but she liked the second one so much that she ordered three more after it.

It was after midnight when Billy carried her in, begging her father, she later learned, to spare his life, explaining that she’d been possessed, that she’d smacked his face whenever he’d tried to get her to leave, that he hadn’t wanted to give anyone the wrong idea and get escorted out and have to leave her there with those animals.

Her father woke her early in the morning. She spent a couple of hours on the tiled floor of the bathroom, leaning her head on the rim of the bowl and sitting up straight when the urge to throw up possessed her. When she’d emptied her guts completely, her father told her to take a shower. Then he walked her to Mass at St. Sebastian’s.

“You’re no different from the rest of us,” he said. “You don’t get a special dispensation.”

The air conditioning in the new church cooled her sweat and set her to shivering. Once, she had to get up to go to the sacristy bathroom. When she fell asleep, her father elbowed her awake. When communion came, she had to choke down the host. For a terrible moment up by the altar, she feared she’d have a retching spell. She took deliberate steps and deep breaths all the way back to the pew, and she ended up missing a day of school.

That Friday night, after dinner was over and the kitchen was clean and her mother had retired to her room, her father sat her down on the couch.

“If you’re going to be fool enough to do this,” he said, “you can’t go about it half-cocked.”

He went to the liquor cabinet and brought over a couple of tumblers and set them down on the coffee table. Then he went back and returned with a number of small bottles of different types of whiskey.

“What’s this?”

“You’ll be getting a lesson.”

“I can’t,” she said.

“You will,” he said.

“I’ve learned my lesson already.”

“This is a different lesson,” he said. “We’ll start with the good stuff.”

He told her he would take her methodically through everything there was to drink and everything there was to avoid. Then he poured a couple of fingers of whiskey into her glass. What struck her more even than her revulsion at the idea of taking a drink was that her father had come up with a plan, that he’d thought ahead about all this. He seemed to have bought the bottles for the occasion, as if he’d plotted the lesson out like an actual teacher.

She took a small sip; it burned her throat. He told her to take a bigger one. It smelled like charred wood and tasted like ashes. He poured a drink from each bottle and made her drink it in turn. She could tell there was a difference in quality, but only barely. When he got to the fourth, he poured some for himself and told her to drink with him slowly. It went down easily and left no trace except a warmth in her belly that spread out and seemed to heat her body a part at a time.

He put the whiskey bottles away and brought out several small bottles of vodka. She hated every one. He didn’t drink any. He was wearing his reading glasses. There was something scholarly in it. She couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a master class or a form of house arrest. Then he brought out several varieties of gin. He took the wrapping off each and poured a small amount in her tumbler for her. He had stopped drinking after the whiskey. She wondered if by boring her with a scientific approach he was trying to take away whatever fascination attached itself to alcohol in her mind.

He went to the refrigerator and brought back a bottle of Schaefer.

“Drink this,” he said.

“I don’t like the taste of beer.”

“Drink it down and get it over with.”

He took the cap off and handed it to her. She took a few small sips and tried to push it back toward him.

“Finish it,” he said.

When she’d finished, he told her she wasn’t to be seen drinking any other beer. Then he brought out bottles containing drinks that were fruitier and more colorful than anything she’d imagined him permitting in his house. Cointreau. Crème de menthe. Crème de cassis. Grand Marnier. He made her taste each in turn. She liked the taste of the crème de menthe and he shook his head and poured a full glass.

“Enjoy it, then,” he said.

“I don’t want to drink that much.”

“If you want to stay under this roof, you’ll finish that glass.” He took out another tumbler and filled it. “And this one when you’re finished with that.”

He came in when she was done and poured out another glass.

“What’s going on?” she asked, feeling woozy.

“Drink this.”

She woke in the morning with a headache, grateful it was Saturday.

“You will never again drink anything you can’t see through,” her father said when he saw her in the kitchen, leaning on the counter after taking an aspirin. “You will never pick up a drink again after putting it down and taking your eye off it.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Drink whiskey,” he said. “Good whiskey. Not too much. That’s the long and short of it.”

“I don’t think I’m ever drinking again.”

She thought she saw a trace of a smile cross his lips.

When New Year’s Eve came around, he raised a glass to her, and everyone else gathered did too.

“Here’s to my Eileen for making the honor roll again,” he said to a loud cheer. “God bless her, we’ll all be working for her one day.” He paused. “And let me tell you, there must be something right with her if she can stand after half a dozen zombies. She’s definitely my daughter.”

She’s definitely my daughter . She heard a lifetime of unexpressed affection in the words. She imagined she could go for years on it, like a cactus kept alive by a sprinkling of rain. Still, she was so embarrassed that she decided never to drink anything but whatever the most boring girl in any group she was in was drinking.

5

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From the moment students entered the doors of St. Catherine’s Nursing School, on Bushwick Street in Brooklyn, until the day they graduated, the one bit of knowledge instructors seemed most concerned to impart was that they’d be thrown out for poor performance, but Eileen was used to those tactics after thirteen years of Catholic education, and she knew that even if nursing wasn’t the field she’d have chosen, she’d been training for it without meaning to from an early age. There was nothing these veterans could throw at her that life hadn’t thrown already, and they somehow knew this themselves. There were times she could feel them treating her with something like professional courtesy. She couldn’t help thinking this was what it felt like to be her father, to be praised for something you’d never had any choice about, to wonder if there was a way out of the trap of other people’s regard.

Martyrdom was never her aim, the way it was for some of the halo polishers she went to school with. They might as well have joined the nunnery for all the secret satisfaction she heard in their voices when they complained about the exhaustion and thanklessness of it all. But they wouldn’t have lasted five minutes at a nunnery. They lacked the mental fortitude.

She’d never dreamed of being a nurse. It was just what girls from her neighborhood did when they were bright enough to avoid the secretarial pool. She would’ve preferred to be a lawyer or doctor, but she saw these professions as the purview of the privileged. She didn’t know how she’d ever have gotten the money to pursue them. She thought she might have had the brains for them, but she was afraid she lacked the imagination.

• • •

After St. Catherine’s she went on scholarship to St. John’s for her bachelor’s, enrolling in the fall of 1962. Her plan was to take summer classes, finish in three years instead of four, get through grad school, and begin the path to administrator pay. She earned spending money — and savings for the nursing administration degree tuition to come — as a dress model at Bonwit Teller. Women came to look at dresses and she showed them how they could look if they lost a few inches from their waist, or were taller, or had neat divots by their clavicle, or a galvanizing shock of black hair, or smooth skin, or arrestingly heavy-lidded, owlish emerald eyes. What they had on her was money and the insolent ease that came with it. Despite herself she became the preferred girl in the showroom. She didn’t try to push dresses on potential buyers by slinging a hand at the waist and jutting an elbow out. She simply put a dress on and stood there. She didn’t smile or not smile; make eye contact or avoid it; speak to customers or remain silent; she did whatever came naturally to her. If her nose itched, she scratched it. She turned to show them the dress at all angles when they asked her to, and when they were done looking at it, she went back to the dressing room and took it off. The other girls seemed to linger more, attempting to convince themselves of what they hadn’t convinced the customers of.

She daydreamed that the next person who walked in would be a rich man looking for a dress for his girlfriend, who would see her and change his mind about the drift his life was taking. He would let her forget about nursing, fly her around the world, care for her parents’ needs. She could sleepwalk through life, never changing a dirty bedpan, never batting away an exploratory hand when she leaned over a man in his senescence, never pressing through a fog of halitosis to take an old lady’s temperature, never working another day, never thinking another thought. She would come back to this store and sit in the chair and put the girl through her paces. She’d make it seem as if she was going to leave without buying anything, that she’d wasted everyone’s time, and then she would order one of everything to remind them that they had no idea how women like her really lived. But the only people who showed up were women a little older than her, or teenaged girls with their mothers. They said how radiant she looked, but she could hear them thinking of themselves.

One afternoon in April of 1963, a girl about Eileen’s age came in looking for dresses for her bridesmaids. The girl made apparently random selections, projecting a nervous aura. She looked familiar — alarmingly so; only after Eileen had modeled a handful of dresses did she realize the girl was Virginia Towers, who’d left St. Sebastian’s in seventh grade to move to Manhasset. Eileen prayed she wouldn’t recognize her, but while Virginia was examining the seams she started patting excitedly on Eileen’s shoulder.

“Eileen?”

“Yes?”

“Eileen! Eileen Tumulty!”

Virginia’s voice was all heedless abandon. Eileen raised her brows in silent acknowledgment, perturbed to be addressed so familiarly in a place where she’d worked to keep her distance from the other girls.

“It’s me, Ginny. Ginny Towers.”

“Virginia, my goodness,” she said mutedly.

Kind, sincere Virginia had been the only kid in her class with an investment bank executive for a father. Her father was also a Protestant, though her mother was a Catholic who’d grown up in the neighborhood. No one teased Virginia, even though she’d been shy and fairly awkward; it was as though her family’s means draped a protective cloak across her shoulders.

“What are you doing here?” Virginia asked.

There was no answer that wasn’t awkward, so Eileen gave the dress a demonstrative little tug in the chest and raised her hands in amused resignation.

“Right!” Virginia said. “Dresses.” She had two in her hands and three more draped across the armoire, none promising. “Well, hell. Do you like any of these?”

If Eileen had the money to buy bridesmaids’ dresses this expensive, she would buy different ones entirely — sleeker ones, less vulgar, more versatile. She was convinced she had nicer dresses hanging in her closet than Virginia did. She owned only half a dozen, but each was perfect. She would never buy five dresses for twenty dollars each when she could snag one truly gorgeous one for a hundred. She went out infrequently enough that she never worried about being seen too often in any of them.

“I think the one I tried on a couple of dresses ago is quite nice,” Eileen said.

“The lavender one? I knew it! I liked that one too. I’ll just have them order that one then.”

Standing in the billowing dress, Eileen felt like one of those men in sandwich boards advertising lunch specials.

“Eileen Tumulty ,” Virginia said, as though it were the answer to a quiz-show question. “I’m guessing this is just your day job.”

“I’m doing my bachelor’s,” she said. “I went to nursing school.”

“I figured you’d be on your way to being a doctor or something. You were always the smartest one of us.”

She felt her face redden.

“I’m finishing at Sarah Lawrence this year. And I’m getting married! But you knew that already. He’s a Penn man. Very square — he makes me giggle he’s so square. My father has set him up with interviews at Lehman Brothers. We’re going to live in Bronxville. I’m going to walk to school my last month!”

She knew of the town; it was a wealthy bedroom community in lower Westchester County. “That sounds just lovely.”

“And I know you won’t guess what I’m doing next year.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m going to law school. At Columbia.”

“You were always intelligent,” Eileen said, stifling her surprise.

“Not like you. You were a whip.”

“You’re very kind.”

“You were more of an adult than the rest of us,” Virginia said. “I often think about that day in sixth grade when you took me to Woolworth’s and made me buy a notebook for every class. Do you remember?”

She remembered, but she didn’t relish recalling what an excess of energy she’d had then for grand improving projects, as though she’d thought the moral balance of the world could be restored by a regimen of directed efforts.

“I remember you weren’t the most organized girl, but I don’t remember going to Woolworth’s, no.”

“I think you’d had enough of watching me never be able to find anything when I needed it. You made me separate my notes. That was one of the most helpful things anyone’s ever done for me.”

“I’m glad,” Eileen said, feeling a churning in her gut.

“You should come to law school with me. We could be study partners. I’d get the better end of that deal.”

It was as if Virginia was speaking to her from the outside of a circus cage, clutching a bar in one hand as she absently held a lamb chop in the other. Eileen had to get away before she said something she’d regret.

“Maybe in my next life,” she said, and the awkwardness she’d kept at bay came rushing back at once. The dress’s low cut left her feeling exposed. A new customer had arrived, and the other girl was busy with someone else, so Eileen asked Virginia if she was sure about the lavender dress and left her with the woman who arranged the accounts.

“Please look us up,” Virginia said on her way out. “Give us a couple of months to settle in. Bronxville, don’t forget. We’ll be in the phone book. Mr. and Mrs. Leland Callow. We’d absolutely love to have you over. There’s nothing so valuable in life as old friends.”

• • •

Her mother told her to save her money, to buy used if she had to have a car, but her father was the one to go with her to the showroom.

The new Pontiac Tempest was on the floor, the 1964 model.

“It’s most of what I have saved,” Eileen said.

“You’ll make more. You’ll save again.”

“It’s a bad investment.”

“It’s an investment in life,” her father said. “If this is what you want, this is what you’re getting. It beats the piss out of a beer truck, I’ll say that. Maybe I’ll get one myself. Or I could get one of those convertible types over there. What did he call that one? The GTO? I could drive your mother around in it. Do you think she’d take to it?”

For a moment, he sounded serious, and Eileen wanted to say, Daddy, I think she would , but instead she just said, “Now that  is a terrible  investment,” and asked him whether cherry red or navy suited her better.

She could buy used and save for the future, or she could make a statement about where she thought her life was heading, and shape the perceptions of others about that trajectory, and maybe sway the future by courting it.

“What the hell do you think I’m going to tell you?” her father said.

She went with cherry red.

• • •

She was at the table when her mother got in from work.

“Studying again?”

Eileen barely grunted in reply. In shedding herself of her effects, her mother had dropped her keys on Eileen’s splayed notebook. There were so many keys packed onto the interlocking rings; each represented a room, or several, that her mother had to clean. Eileen slid them off the notebook as if they were coated in pathogens.

“Why don’t you put those books aside for five minutes,” her mother said. “You can drive me and my friends.”

“Drive where? Which friends?”

“My meeting friends.”

Meeting friends , Eileen thought crankily. She almost makes it sound pleasant. 

“Take my car,” she said, not looking up from her book.

“I’m nervous to drive it.”

Her mother had only had her license for a year, and she was shaky on the road. The Tempest was still brand-new.

“I’ve got a test.”

“We started a car pool,” her mother said. “I said I’d pick everyone up this week.”

“And how had you planned on doing this, exactly?”

“Come on,” her mother said. “It’s getting late.”

The first stop was in Jackson Heights. She was surprised to pull up outside one of the co-ops; she’d always imagined that people of means were spared some of the sadder aspects of man’s nature. As soon as her mother left the car, Eileen took out her textbook. She was planning to study at every stop, even with others in the car. There wasn’t time for the squeamish propriety of small talk; the fact that she had submitted to this depressing task was enough.

When her mother returned, there was a brightness in her voice.

“Hiram,” she said to the man getting in the backseat, “this is my daughter, Eileen.”

“So I guess you’re Charon tonight.”

Eileen ,” she said.

“Charon. The ferryman. On the river Styx.”

“Oh,” she said. “Right.”

“Shuttling the dead.”

He had bumped his hairpiece on the doorframe in getting in; instead of adjusting it with a furtive hand, he had taken it off completely and was resetting it with such nonchalance that it seemed he wore it not to disguise his baldness but to bring it out in the open.

“You’re very much alive, Hiram,” her mother said, beginning to titter. “Though I can’t say the same for that rug you’re wearing.”

“I’m supposed to give you a tip,” he said. “How about this: avoid men in borrowed hair.”

“Sound advice,” Eileen said.

“Tell it to my wife. Not that I had this when she met me. You should have seen the locks. I was Samson.”

In the rearview mirror she watched him look contemplatively out the window. He returned her gaze alertly, as if he was used to being watched.

“Beware of women bearing scissors,” he said, chuckling. He was in on some private joke that made even the heaviest things weightless. “Beware of three-drink lunches.”

“One-drink lunches,” her mother said.

“Well


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, if we’re going to hell, at least we’re doing it in style. This is a beaut.”

“Thank you,” Eileen said.

“You’ve got it backwards,” her mother said. “We’re leaving hell.”

“Yes, yes,” he said agreeably. “We’re in purgatory, but we’re hopeful. Or if we’re not hopeful, at least we’re not succumbing to despair. Or if we’re succumbing to despair, at least we’re in this beautiful car.”

Her mother was buoyant as she rang bells and led her meeting friends to the car, where she peppered them with chatter to put them at ease. Eileen couldn’t bring herself to open the book even when it was only Hiram in the car. She ended up having a marvelous time. In even a few minutes with some of them she could see they radiated hard-won perspective. She made three trips; then she parked up the block and watched in the mirror as her mother and the final quartet, a spectrum of widths and heights, disappeared down into the church basement.

On the way home, after they’d dropped everyone off, her mother blew smoke through the cracked window and talked with a quick and ceaseless fluency. Upbeat as her mother seemed, Eileen saw that the corners of her mouth were being pulled down, as though by a baited hook. She could tell that her mother didn’t entirely believe in her own forgiveness. Eileen wasn’t sure she believed in it herself, even though she’d been the one to grant it, through tears, after her mother had sat her down at the kitchen table and unearthed mistakes Eileen had successfully buried and said how sorry she was for them. Her mother had worked hard to kill the past, but it clung to life in Eileen’s mind, in the thought that this apparently solid form might dissolve back into the liquid that had seeped into every corner of her childhood, bringing disorder and rot. The smell of the past, that irrepressible smoke, was spoiling the air between them, where, in the absence of others to filter it, an acrid cloud now hung.

“Roll that down further, please.”

Without a word, her mother did as asked. She stared straight ahead, smoking and avoiding Eileen’s gaze as she used to at the height of her drinking days. Eileen pulled over and got out to roll down the rear windows. She stood briefly outside the car gazing at the back of her mother’s head, which for a strangely exhilarating moment looked as if it belonged to someone else. Whatever her mother was going through, Eileen would allow herself to care only so much about it. She had her own life to worry about. Life was what you made of it. Some of the houses she’d dropped these people off at would have been enough for her, so why couldn’t they be enough for them? If she lived in one of these houses, she wouldn’t need to get into another woman’s car and head to a damp lower church for a meeting. She could look at her fireplace, her leather sofa, her book-lined drawing room; she could listen to silence above her head; she could peer in on empty bedrooms lying in wait for fresh-faced visitors, pleasantly useless otherwise. It would all be enough for her to put a drink down for. And yet there these people were. The fact that they were there, that everything they owned wasn’t enough somehow, disturbed her, suggesting a bottomlessness to certain kinds of unhappiness. She shook the thought from her head like dust from an Oriental rug and decided that a house would have to be enough.

6

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She spent the entire fall of 1963 trying to convince her cousin Pat to apply to college. Then December rolled in and the application deadlines were around the corner, and many of them had already come and gone. She went to him to make one final appeal.

“I’m not college material,” Pat said, his big feet up on the coffee table in her aunt Kitty’s apartment, where Eileen sat with her knees together under the pressed pleats of her cotton skirt.

“Bull.”

“I’ve never been big on school.” He leaned over and tapped ashes into a coffee cup, stretched back again.

“You could have been a great student. You’re smarter than all those boys.”

“You need to give up on this idea of me as a Future Leader of America.”

The truth was, she already had. He was smart enough to make it to his senior year without doing a lick of homework, and he possessed an intuitive ability to make men champion his causes that reminded her of her father’s own. He was pissing away his apparently unbearable promise at underage bars, but she didn’t care about that anymore. All she wanted was to keep him safe.

“You could get As in your sleep,” she said, “if you gave it a tiny bit of effort.” She crossed her legs and played with the pack of cigarettes. She resisted blowing away the smoke that was traveling in her direction.

“I can’t sit and study. I just get restless.”

“I’ll do the applications for you.”

“I need to move . I can’t be cooped up.” He snubbed out his cigarette and folded his hands behind his head.

“You’ll have plenty of chances to move in Vietnam,” she said bitterly. “Until you’re in the ground, that is.”

He turned eighteen that February, 1964, and she tried to get him to marry the girl he was dating, but he wouldn’t do it. When he graduated in June and received the notice to report for his physical, she was terrified, because he was a perfect specimen, big and strong and almost impossibly hale, with 20/10 vision, practically, and great knees despite the family curse, so there was zero chance of his getting declared 4F. She tried to get him to enlist in the National Guard to avoid a dangerous posting, and then after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August she was sure  he’d find some college to enroll in, but instead a couple of weeks later he went to the recruiter for the Marines.

He’d been on the winning side of every fistfight he’d ever been in, so he might’ve thought he could simply stare down whatever trouble was to come. He went to Parris Island for basic, got further training as an antitank assaultman, and was assigned to Camp Lejeune, where he stayed until June of 1965, when he volunteered to go over after the first waves of the ground war had landed in South Vietnam.

He called before he left. She couldn’t picture him in a crew cut at the other end of the phone, wearing that one outfit they all seemed to wear, a polo shirt and chinos, as if they all shopped in the same store. All she could see in her mind’s eye was him standing in his St. Sebastian’s blazer, five grades behind her, shifting impatiently from foot to foot while she fixed his tie. He was the closest she’d ever had to a brother.

“You’d better stay alive,” she said.

“There are some scared-looking fellas I could hand the phone to if you want to give them a little pep talk. This is Pat you’re talking to. Pat Tumulty . I’ll see you in a while.”

“Fine.”

“Tell your father I’ll make him proud,” he said.

Her father had filled her cousin’s head with so much patriotic rhetoric that he thought he was embarking on a noble adventure.

“Don’t you even think  about trying to impress him,” she said. “He’d never say so, but he’s scared to death that something’s going to happen to you.”

“He told you that?”

“He doesn’t have to say it for it to be obvious. He just wants you home in one piece. The bullshit around that man is piled so high you can’t even see him past it.”

“He’d take my place if they’d let him.”

“Even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean a goddamned thing. The only thing he’s ever been afraid of is regular life. Come home and live a regular life and impress me . Forget about my father.”

She could almost hear him straighten up.

“Tell him I’ll make him proud,” he said.

She sighed. “Tell him yourself. He’ll be where you left him, in that damned recliner. He doesn’t go anywhere. Everybody comes to him.”

“I will.”

“Good-bye, Pat,” she said, and then she thought, Good-bye, Pat , in case she was really saying it. She waited to hear him hang up.

7

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She began to look forward to the day when she would take another man’s name. It was the thoroughgoing Irishness of Tumulty that bothered her, the redolence of peat bogs and sloppy rebel songs and an uproar in the blood, of a defeat that ran so deep it reemerged as a treacherous conviviality.

She’d grown up around so many Irish people that she’d never had to think much about the fact that she was Irish. On St. Patrick’s Day, when the city buzzed like a family reunion, she felt a tribal pride, and whenever she heard the plaintive whine of bagpipes, she was summoned to an ancient loyalty.

When she got to college, though, and saw that there was a world in which her father didn’t hold much currency, she began to grasp the crucial role the opinions of others played in the settling of one’s own prospects. “Eileen” she couldn’t get rid of, but if she could join it to something altogether different, she might be able to enjoy her Irishness again, even feel safe enough to take a defensive pride in it, the way she did now only on those rare occasions when her soul was stirred to its origins, like the day just before her nineteenth birthday when President Kennedy was elected and she wept for joy.

She wanted a name that sounded like no name at all, one of those decorous placeholders that suggested an unbroken line of WASP restraint. If the name came with a pedigree to match it, she wasn’t going to complain.

• • •

It was mid-December 1965. She was in a master’s program in nursing administration at NYU after getting college done in three years, as she’d planned. Between classes, she met her friend Ruth, who worked nearby, under the arch in Washington Square, to head to lunch together. It was an unusually mild day for December; some young men had on only a sweater and no jacket.

“Well, it’s not that he needs  a date, necessarily,” Ruth was saying as they walked toward the luncheonette on Broadway. “He just doesn’t have one.”

Eileen sighed; it was happening again. Everyone always believed they’d found her man for her, but more often than not he was a blarneying, blustering playboy who’d charmed her friends and the rest of the bar and whom she couldn’t ditch fast enough.

“I’m sure one will turn up,” she said. “Tell him good things come to those who wait.”

The men that stirred her — reliable ones, predictable ones — were boring by other girls’ standards. She didn’t meet enough of these men. Maybe they couldn’t get past the guys who crowded around her at bars. If they couldn’t at least get  to her, though, they weren’t for her. She’d rather be alone than end up with a man who was afraid.

“You are impossible !” Ruth said. “I am trying to look out for you here. No — you know what? Fine. That’s just fine.” Ruth fastened the buttons on her coat.

Eileen could feel Ruth burning. In front of the luncheonette, Ruth stopped her. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “Frank asked me to do this favor, and we just started, so I want to come through for him. I don’t care what you do on New Year’s. You want to miss the fun, that’s fine by me. You want to be alone the rest of your life, that’s fine too. I’ve tried. I even set you up with Tommy Delaney, and look what you did with that.”

“You think you’re safe with a West Point man,” Eileen said, as though to herself. “You think he’ll have a bit of class.” She watched a cab stop at the corner and a man with a newspaper tucked under his arm pay his fare.

“Tommy’s a fine  man,” Ruth said.

“Oh, I’m sure he’s swell,” Eileen said. “I have no way of knowing. He couldn’t sit still long enough to say two words to me. He spent the whole time making sure every back in the place got slapped.”

“Tommy has a lot of friends.”

“He bought everyone a round and said I didn’t know it yet, but he was my future husband. There was a big cheer. The nerve !”

The man with the newspaper got out of the cab. He was tall and handsome, with dark cropped hair and striking eyeglasses. She imagined he was a visiting professor, Italian or Greek. She took her eyes from him before he turned in her direction.

“He liked you. He wanted to make an impression.”

“An impression!”

“Look, this one is different,” Ruth said lamely. “He won’t be trying to win you over. He doesn’t want to be there any more than you do.”

“What’s the problem with him? Is he queer?”

Eileen didn’t know why she was still resisting. She would normally have done her friend Ruth this small favor, but she wasn’t in the mood for disappointment, not on New Year’s Eve. She watched the taxi launch off from the curb, only to stop again up the block to let a young couple pile in. The sun came back out from behind a cloud. Ruth unbuttoned her coat.

“He’s a grad student at NYU. A scientist. Frank’s in an anatomy class with him. He’s obsessed with his research. He never leaves the library. Frank is worried about him. He wants to get him out.”

Eileen didn’t say anything. She was trying not to believe in the promising picture she was forming in her mind, for fear of disappointment.

“So what Frank told him is that I was nagging him to find a date for my friend for New Year’s.”

“Absolutely not!” Eileen said. “I will not pretend to be somebody’s charity case.”

“He’s a gentleman. He couldn’t resist a woman in need. It’s the only thing that would have worked.”

“Ruth!”

A pair of girls pushed past them into the luncheonette. Eileen could see the counter seats filling up and could make out only one empty booth.

“Would it help if I told you he’s handsome? Frank even said it himself. He said all the girls they know think he’s very handsome.”

“Let them have him,” she said, not meaning it. She couldn’t believe she was feeling defensive about this man.

“Just do this for me and I’ll never bother you again,” Ruth said, putting her hand on the door to open it. “You can go become an old maid after this.”

“Fine. But I’m not going to pretend to be grateful he went out with me.”

• • •

In the interval between the setup and the date, she’d convinced herself that this was nothing more than a good deed she was doing. When the bell rang at Ruth’s, though, she was seized by nerves. She ran to the bedroom and locked the door.

“Come on! I have to answer the door.”

“I’m not going. Tell him I got sick or something.”

“Come out  and say hello !” Ruth whispered forcefully as the bell rang again.

She heard Ruth invite them in. She liked his voice: it was soft, but there was strength in it. She decided to open the door, but not before resolving to give him the hardest time she could. She wasn’t going to have any man thinking she needed him there, certainly not some spastic recluse she’d have to lead around the room by the sleeve.

Before she had a chance to say anything sarcastic, Ed rose to his feet. He was indeed handsome, but not too pretty; neat and lean, with clean lines everywhere, including those in his face that gave him an appealing gravity when he smiled.

He leaned in and whispered in her ear. “I realize you didn’t have to do this, and I promise to try to make it worth your time.”

Her heart kicked once like an engine turning over on a wintry afternoon.

• • •

He could dance like a dream. When he pressed her close, his substantiality surprised her. The glasses, the neatly combed hair, the chivalry on the sidewalk and at doors made an impression, but the back and shoulders let her relax. The girls at their table thought him the most polite man they’d ever met. When she first heard him speak in his articulate way that was oddly devoid of accent, she thought he was like the movie version of a professor, but without the zaniness that emasculated those characters. Still, he was refined in a way that might have raised eyebrows among the men of her set. He could discuss things they didn’t understand. He didn’t so much drink a beer as warm it in his hand as an offering to the gods of conversation. She fretted over how he’d get along with her father, and so she brought him around earlier than she would have otherwise, in case she had to cut him loose, but something in Ed’s carriage disarmed the big man. Eventually she had to feign annoyance at how well they got along. She shouldn’t have been entirely surprised. He’d been a neighborhood kid, the kind who knew how to throw a punch when a friend was in trouble and could talk everybody’s way out of it before it started — the kind men listened to because the way he spoke suggested he wasn’t telling them anything he thought they didn’t know already.

He was a natural athlete. They went to the driving range with her old friend Cindy and her husband Jack, who was into golf. Ed teed up and smacked the ball so soundly that when she saw it next it was a tiny pea at the end of its parabolic journey.

They headed out to Forest Hills one weekend to see her friends Marie and Tom Cudahy. There was a tennis court near the Cudahys’ townhouse. They borrowed tennis whites from their hosts and the four of them hit the ball around in doubles, no keeping score or serving, just volleying. Ed returned shots he shouldn’t have been able to get to in time. At the end, Tom asked him to play him solo, and Eileen turned and saw the embarrassed look on Marie’s face. They both knew what was coming. Tom had been a letterman at Fordham and had a powerful serve, and though he mostly kept his competitiveness in check during mixed doubles, he liked to throttle his counterpart for a while afterward.

The two men took their positions and Tom fired a blistering smash. The ball raced up Ed’s body off the bounce, as if it was trying to hit him more than once. The second serve came in on Ed’s hands. He flicked his wrist at the last second and deposited the ball just over the net. Tom hustled but the ball died, bouncing again before he got to it. They traded points and games. Ed’s serve was careful and reliable, his returns determined and vigorous. She liked the way he whipped his racket across his chest, dismissing offerings with sudden ferocity. He tucked the ball into corners and moved it around the court. Tom won the set, but Ed made the contest closer than anyone in their circle had.

They walked back to the Cudahys’ to shower and change. She had one hand in Ed’s, while the other held down the hem of Marie’s mod minidress. On the court she’d felt protected by all the activity, but off the court she felt almost naked in it. Ed looked terrific in Tom’s spare whites, as if he was born to wear them.

“When did you get so good at tennis?”

“I’m not that good.”

“You looked pretty good to me.”

He bounced a ball as he walked. “I cleaned up trash one summer in Prospect Park. I stuck around after work a few times and played at the Tennis House. I was always running after shots, trying to catch up to them. There was a pro who gave me some free advice. ‘Go where you think the ball’s going,’ he said. ‘Beat it there.’ ”

“I have a good strategy too,” she said. “I don’t move at all. I let it go past me to you.”

He laughed. “I noticed.”

“I’m flat-footed.”

The smell of honeysuckle wafted up at them from a garden. Ed put the ball in his pocket. “Well, we can’t exactly have you sweating through this white dress.” He pulled her to him and gave her hip a squeeze. “This little  white dress.” They took a few stumbling steps together. “It just wouldn’t be decent.”

“The term is tennis whites , Tarzan,” she said, shoving him playfully. “And they’re very proper. So behave yourself.”

Tom was walking ahead with Marie, his racket slung at his shoulder like a foxhunter’s spent rifle. His clothes were casually disheveled, his shirttail hanging out in a way that suggested he’d never had to worry about money, but Eileen knew he was wearing a costume, trying to blend in. He worked for J. P. Morgan, but he was from Sunnyside, his father was a laborer like hers, and Fordham was Fordham, but it wasn’t Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.

When the waiter came over, Tom wrinkled his nose up and pointed at something on the wine list, and she knew it was because he didn’t want to mispronounce the name. He ordered for the table without asking what anyone wanted to eat. Ed gave her hand a little squeeze, and it felt like a pulse passed between them. For a moment she knew exactly what he was thinking, not just about Tom, but about her, and himself, and all of life, and she liked the way he saw things. She could spend her life tuning into the calming frequency of his thoughts.

He wasn’t a stiff, and he wasn’t a weakling either. What was the word for it? Sensitive  was the only one that came to mind, amazing as that was to consider; he was a sensitive man. He soaked up whatever you gave him.

His name was Leary, as Irish as anything, but she decided she could marry him anyway.

8

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Ed’s family had been in New York since just before the Civil War, but their sole claim to distinction was that his great-great-grandfather had had a hand in building the USS Monitor . Ed said his father liked to suggest by a looseness in his wording that his ancestor had been some sort of naval architect, but the truth was he’d punched the clock with the grunts at the Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, where they fashioned the hull.

Ed’s mother, Cora, had a soothing voice and a velvety laugh. Friday nights, Eileen sat with her and Ed, drinking tea and eating oatmeal cookies in the kitchen Ed grew up in, in a railroad flat on Luquer Street in Carroll Gardens, near the elevated F tracks. Cora kept the window open on even the coldest days, to drive off the steam heat. Eileen liked to watch the lacy curtains kick up in the breeze. Cats stalked the adjacent lot, curling into old tires. When they hopped onto the windowsill, Cora swished them away with a dish towel. Trains rumbled by at intervals, marking the passage of time. Whenever she rose to leave, Eileen found herself pulled into Cora’s bosom for a hug. She never got over her surprise at receiving maternal affection, and she returned the hugs awkwardly, with an abstracted curiosity, though she welcomed them all the same.

Ed’s father, Hugh, had been dead for a few years. Eileen knew little about him; Ed released that information in a trickle, and Cora never brought him up. The only evidence of him in the apartment was a framed picture, on one of the end tables, of him wearing a hat, an overcoat, and a slightly furtive half smile. Eileen knew he’d played the piano to accompany silent movies; that he’d sealed up paint cans in the Sapolin factory, once earning a small bonus when he suggested they paint a giant can on the water tank on the roof; that he’d worked as a liability evaluator at Chubb; and that World War II had given him his only real feeling of purpose.

Ed seemed to feel safest talking about his father’s experience during the war years, though he had no memory of that time. It was all just stories he’d heard.

“You could get him going for hours if you asked about the war,” Ed said.

The government had urged civilians to pursue activities essential to the war effort, and Hugh landed on the docks, in Todd Shipyard, sticking bolts in steel plates in the bulkheads and hulls of damaged ships. The work itself wasn’t stimulating, save for the mild danger of hanging out over the water, but he liked toiling under the sun alongside other men, breathing in the salt air and thinking of what his labor led to — never mind the irony that after three generations in America, the Leary line was still working on ships.

Ed said his father and the other men modified ships from regular freighters into tankers, adding a second layer to the hull. They converted luxury liners to barracks for troop transport. The peak of their activity, in terms of both industry and importance, was working on the Queen Mary . They stripped her of her furniture and wood paneling, replaced her bars and restaurants with hospitals, painted her a dull gray to confuse rising submarines, and gave her smoke suppression. She could go as fast as a destroyer, reaching speeds of thirty knots where an average submarine could only go ten. At the height of the conflict, in 1943, she carried sixteen thousand men from London to Sydney without a gunboat escort.

One night, Eileen stayed late at Ed’s house. Cora had gone to sleep. They were sitting on the couch, which was worn along the seam by its skirt, some of the filling rupturing through. Eileen picked the picture of Hugh up off the end table.

“What was he like?”

“I suppose he was like a lot of fathers,” Ed said. “He went to work and stayed out late. He wasn’t around a lot.”

“What about as a man? All I see when I try to picture him is this coat and hat.”

A pair of end table lamps provided the only illumination in the room, which was like a parlor in a shabby club. Cora had installed cute statuettes in every corner, but personality only went so far in making an apartment feel like a home. Eileen had a new appreciation for how her mother had kept things neat and in working order, how her father had paid to replace the furniture whenever it got run down. Ed had grown up with less.

“He liked to laugh,” Ed said. “He told raunchy jokes. He always had a cigar dangling from his mouth. It made him look like a dog hanging its tongue out on a hot day. He was always hustling, working angles.”

“What else?” she asked, putting the photo down. She sensed he was on the verge of candor. “Tell me more.”

“He liked to drink,” Ed said. “It wasn’t pretty when he did.”

“I know a little about that,” she said, and they shared a moment of quiet understanding.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You deserved better.”

She felt her emotions catching in her throat. “You can tell me anything, you know.”

“I wouldn’t know how to say it if there were anything to say.”

“Just say what comes to mind.”

He was silent, and she worried she’d pushed him too hard. In her nervous state she had picked off the material that covered the sofa’s arm, and now she tried to fit it back into place with one hand while keeping her eyes on Ed. She should have left him alone, rather than risk angering him and making him shut down, but she didn’t want to revert to the surface-level interactions she’d had with other men. She had never wanted to talk to anyone more than she wanted to talk to Ed. She wanted to tell him things she’d never told anyone, and to learn more about him than she’d learned about anyone else. She used to think a bit of mystery was a prerequisite to her feeling attracted to a man. For the first time, her attraction didn’t diminish the more she knew, but actually grew.

“You remember Charlie McCarthy?” Ed said after a while. “Edgar Bergen’s dummy? My father used to say I looked like him.”

Eileen folded her hands in her lap and held her breath, trying not to look too eager to hear what he had to say.

“I figured out early on I could make him laugh if I did a Charlie McCarthy impression. So I practiced. I got to the point where I could do the voice pretty well. When my father got in from the bar, I’d hop up on the couch and twist up my mug for him.” Ed showed her, forming a rictus and opening his eyes wide, looking from side to side with an eerie, doll-like blankness. “Sometimes he laughed. Sometimes he told me to cut it out and said I looked nothing like that doll. I never knew which it was going to be. I remember the last time I did it. He laughed and laughed. Then he smacked me in the mouth, whack! ”—Ed brought his hand down on the coffee table—“and told me to stop embarrassing myself.”

Their hands migrated toward each other on the couch. After their fingers sat intertwined for a bit, she clasped his hand in both of hers, pulled it to her, and gave it a little kiss, then shifted closer to him.

Ed said he and his mother had never discussed his father’s drinking, but it was his understanding that his father hadn’t been a drinker before the war. “If the war had gone on forever, or if he’d been a park ranger or done something outdoors, maybe things would have been different.”

When peacetime returned, Hugh went back to Chubb and sat at a desk all day. He didn’t have any hobbies. “I think the only way he knew how to drive off the anxiety in him was to go to Molloy’s,” Ed said. “Everybody raised a glass when he walked in. They laughed at his jokes. They let him buy rounds.”

By the time Ed was nine, he said, his mother was sending him by train on pay Fridays to pick up his father’s check. If he didn’t get there in time, they were stuck for the week. If he did, his father wasn’t necessarily stuck. With his beautiful singing voice, he could make twenty-fi


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ve dollars, or two-thirds of his weekly salary, as the cantor at a single funeral Mass at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea. Ed only knew his father did this because he served funerals during the school day as an altar boy.

“The first time he sang,” Ed said, “I walked out of the sacristy with the cross to start the funeral and there he was, standing off to the side with this sheepish grin on. When the time came, he walked up to the lectern. He gave me a nervous look, like I’d caught him in something. Maybe one of his friends knew what kind of voice he had and set him up with the gig. I remember knowing  he’d been drinking beforehand. It’s just something you can tell.”

She nodded.

“Then the organ started up, and he started singing, and it was like he was surprised by the sound of his own voice. Like he was hearing it for the first time. I couldn’t believe how good he was. He sang his heart out. There were tears on some faces in the pews.”

“My father can’t sing,” she said. “But he thinks he can.”

Ed gave her a warm smile. “He came to collect the cash afterward. I was in the rectory changing out of my alb. He put his finger to his lips. ‘Don’t tell your mother.’ ” Ed’s face took on an intense expression. “I already knew enough not to say anything, you know?”

She nodded again. Sometimes, she thought, life makes you grow up early. And some people never grow up at all.

“He started showing up often. I don’t know how he did it without getting fired at Chubb. It was a pretty decent round-trip on the train. He must have been gone two, three hours at a time. He did it for years. I doubt a penny of that money made it home to my mother. To think that he was a block away from her all that time. She would have loved to have lunch with him.”

• • •

Once Ed started talking, the dam broke. They went out once a week to eat in Manhattan, and the conversation turned often to their early years. She found out that in grammar school Ed was a model student, but by the time he reached high school he’d turned his back on his studies. After he was kicked out of his second school, Cora used her influence in the parish to get him admitted on probation to Power Memorial in Manhattan. The long train rides settled him down enough to get him graduated. He took a job mixing paints and dyes at the Kohnstamm factory on Columbia Street, a short walk from home. He brought his paychecks home to his mother.

At Kohnstamm’s, Ed said, he found someone to look up to — the scientist who directed the mixers. The chemical processes awoke a scholarly impulse in him that had lain dormant. He got to know the chemicals so well that soon other men began coming to him instead of checking the manuals. He moved over to Domino for a better paycheck, turning slag into sugar, paying attention to the reactions, the reagents, the products. He began taking night classes at a community college, then quit Domino to enroll full-time at St. Francis College, where his younger brother Phil was a student. Cora paid both their tuitions with the money she’d saved from what Ed brought home.

Their flat had no hallway. To get from the kitchen to the living room, you had to brush against the foot of every bed, one of which Ed shared with Phil until he was twenty-one, when his sister Fiona got married and moved to Staten Island. Until the day Hugh brought a desk home from his office, Ed and Phil studied together at the kitchen table, the only good surface to spread out on. Cora never had to call them to dinner; she only had to tell them to put their books away.

Friday nights, when his friends were out, Ed waited for the bartender’s call. He would pull up in front and honk, and Hugh would keep him waiting while he had another. Ed wouldn’t go in, because he didn’t want to watch his father drink. Once, he waited so long that he woke up slamming the brakes, thinking he’d nodded off while driving and was about to plow into the car in front of him. He started beating on the horn; a few guys came out to see what was the matter. Hugh joined them and stared as if it were somebody else’s crazy kid. Ed kept slamming on the horn. When he finally stopped, his father screamed at him. After that, Ed said, when he drove up he gave a quick toot and shut the car off.

Ed was named to the Duns Scotus Honor Society, like Phil the year before. They were the first pair of brothers in St. Francis’s history to receive the honor.

• • •

They were at Lüchow’s on Fourteenth Street, eating Wiener schnitzel and sauerkraut, when Ed told her about the day his father died.

“A few days before I graduated,” he said, “my father had a heart attack on the couch. I drove him to the hospital. I must have flown through every light. I had my arm on him to keep him from slumping forward”—Ed pressed it against her to show her—“like I did when I picked him up at the bar. I was burning through intersections. When I got there, I saw that he’d died. I slapped his face a few times. Then I threw him over my shoulder and ran him in.”

Only after Ed had heard definitively that his father was gone, while he sat weeping in the waiting room area, did he realize he’d wrenched his back. As he alternated in spasms of grief and pain, he understood that he loved all the things he’d always thought he’d hated about carrying his father’s body home all those nights: the weight of him hanging on him, pulling at the sockets of his arms; the drunken heat that came off him; the roughness of his beard against Ed’s neck; the soft sound of his voice as he mumbled; the sickly sweet smell of whiskey.

“There are things you feel that you can’t explain,” Ed said. “You know other people won’t understand them.”

“I know just what you mean.” She was thinking she was referring to how she’d felt at times about her own parents. Then she realized she was feeling something like it just then for Ed. You had to hope the love you felt would get recorded in the book of time. “You don’t have to say another word,” she said.

9

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She wanted to buy her husband-to-be a luxurious wedding gift. It happened that her father’s best friend, in addition to regularly occupying the stool next to him at Hartnett’s — where her father had shifted from Doherty’s when he’d started going back to pubs — was a vice president at Longines, which distributed LeCoultre in North America. For six hundred dollars, Eileen purchased a prototype of the next line of LeCoultre watches. It was slung with a beautiful eighteen-karat gold band and would have retailed for two thousand dollars. She paid in three installments.

She tried to think of a creative inscription that would encapsulate her feelings for him, some intimate notion to commit to posterity, but everything she came up with sounded too fanciful by half. In the end she settled on his full name, middle included, and hoped he’d hear a rough sort of poetry in the lack of embellishment and a tenderness in the identification of him as her man.

They went to Tavern on the Green a week before the wedding. They emerged from the subway and took a horse and carriage up to the entrance. She had never been to the Tavern before. She loved the banquet tables, the big picture windows, the austerity of the trees in winter.

She presented the watch to Ed after the salad course. He undid the bow, neatly removed the green foil wrapping, opened the box, and held the watch.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. Without trying it on, he put it back in the box. “I can’t take it, though. I’m not the kind of man who’s ever thought of wearing a gold watch. You should return it to the store.”

In an astonished instant she’d gone beyond words, beyond anger, to a disappointment so deep it made her stomach ache.

“It’s a prototype, Ed. I can’t.” She refolded the napkin in her lap, smoothed down the silk of her dress.

“Why not?”

“It’s unique.”

“I’m sure they’d listen—”

“It’s engraved , goddammit.”

Ed was still talking, but she didn’t hear him. Quickly, dispassionately, she ran through the mechanics of how she would exit the restaurant. She wouldn’t say a word. She would of course leave the watch on the table. She would go home and tell her parents that the wedding was off. She was disappointed that she wouldn’t get to see her father in a top hat and tails. A busboy stacked and removed the salad plates, and now another stopped to replenish their water glasses, taking his time to keep too many ice cubes from tumbling out of the pitcher. His conscientious presence was the only reason she hadn’t risen yet.

“Maybe you could have them take off this gold band and put a leather one on it for me instead, if you don’t want to take it back,” this man to whom she’d sworn her devotion was saying in lordly ignorance of how far from him she’d flown in her mind, how almost absurdly vulnerable he was to her at that moment. “I’m a regular guy. I don’t know how to wear a watch like this.”

She saw how unfathomably easy it could be for her to walk out on her own life. She was awash in sudden sympathy for Ed. Then the cloudburst passed, and she sat in a little puddle of resentment over how benighted and pinched her future husband was.

They endured a tense dinner, even managed to make it through dessert. After they’d risen to leave, a surge of spite compelled her to fish the watch out of her pocketbook and make him read the engraving on its back.

He looked at it quietly. For a moment, it occurred to her that he might be moved enough to change his mind, and she grew unaccountably nervous. Then he handed it back.

“I’ll give you love and devotion and work hard all my life,” he said. “And I appreciate your getting this for me, more than I could say. It’s the nicest thing I’ve ever gotten. But I know I’m not going to wear it. If you take it back, we can put that money in an account to send our kids to college. I’m sorry. I can’t help the way I am. I wish I could. It’d be easier sometimes to be someone else. Right now, for instance. You look so beautiful tonight. I hate that I’ve disappointed you.”

A couple of days later, her father saw Ed and asked where the watch was. When Ed told the truth — it was home in the box, he didn’t feel comfortable putting it on — her father didn’t react with the fury she’d anticipated. Ed’s answer put him in a contemplative mood.

Later that night, her father called her into his room. “There’s a reason he can’t accept nice things,” he said. “His family’s been in this country a hundred years, but they never owned a house. That’s a sin. If you’re not in a house by the time I’m dead, I’ll haunt you from my grave.”

• • •

They got married a little over a year after they met. They spent a honeymoon weekend in Niagara Falls. It wasn’t what she’d dreamed of — France, Italy, Greece — but Ed was researching a paper that would synthesize part of his dissertation work, and they couldn’t afford to go away for long.

The Maid of the Mist  didn’t run in the off-season, so they had to experience the falls from the viewing areas. Large blocks of ice had gathered in sections of the falls, and the cold spray made it hard to stay long. They went to restaurants and took scenic walks.

On their final day, as she stood in the Prospect Point Park observation tower wrestling with the thought that all bodies of water were part of one larger body, Ed announced that when they returned home, there would be no time to go out while he did his research, which would take the better part of a year. She didn’t take this threat too seriously. She figured he believed  he needed that kind of sequestration, but more likely he was just trying on the role of head of household — making a show of arranging his affairs with an exaggerated masculine correctness. He’d been doing the same research in the run-up to the wedding, and pretty much the whole time they were courting, and he’d managed to make himself available to her. True, they’d only seen each other on the weekends, but she’d been busy with work herself.

They got back in late March 1967 and moved from their parents’ apartments into the second floor of a three-family house on Eighty-Third Street in Jackson Heights. She was elated that part of the dream she’d conceived for her existence had been fulfilled. For years, the neighborhood had exerted a powerful pull on her imagination, and now it was the one she came home to and slept in at the end of every day. The details were familiar, but they burned with a new intensity. Flowerpots at intersections announced the birth of new life, and the smell of spring through the windows lingered in the pillowcases.

She was happy to put the turmoil of life in her parents’ apartment behind her. She wanted to be conservative, if not in politics — her father would disown her if she made that shift — then in comportment, in demeanor. She’d always behaved a little older than her age, but now she found herself making extremely prudent choices, like dumping expired milk down the drain, even when it didn’t smell, and driving more slowly on curves or in the rain. She bought Ed a beautiful new tweed jacket and made him get rid of all his old shoes, replacing them with wing tips and oxfords.

There was still a little lingering restlessness in her spirit, though. It hadn’t been her dream to live in an apartment like the one she and Ed had ended up in, sandwiched between two ends of a family. The Orlandos, the owners, lived on the first floor, and Angelo Orlando’s older sister Consolata took up the third by herself. Angelo worked for the Department of Sanitation, and Lena was a housewife. They had three children — Gary, ten; Donny, nine; and Brenda, seven. The Orlando home was full of the sort of ambient noise she associated more with apartment buildings than houses. She had convinced herself that moving into a house, even a multifamily one, meant diving into a pool of blessed silence. The Orlando boys played tirelessly in the driveway with a small army of neighborhood kids. When it rained, they roughhoused indoors for hours, crashing into walls, and Lena’s voice rang out in shrill rebukes. The insistent murmur of a radio rose at night from Brenda’s room, which was below Ed’s office. Ed wore earplugs and possessed advanced powers of concentration, so the radio didn’t faze him, but it incensed Eileen. And Angelo and Lena’s fights, though infrequent, were of the screaming, door-slamming variety. The noise came at her from both sides. Most nights, Consolata made a restless circuit of her apartment, pounding between rooms with oddly heavy steps for a woman so thin, turning the television off in one room and on in another, leaving it on until programming ended and sometimes beyond, so that the rasp of a lost signal harassed Eileen to sleep.

• • •

Three months into the marriage, Eileen was astonished to realize that she hadn’t entered a bar, restaurant, or party with her husband. She’d grown tired of making excuses to her friends; when they called and she had to say she couldn’t go, she wanted to hand the phone to Ed to have him explain. She showed up alone if she went at all when they got together at each other’s houses, and after she’d faced enough inquisitions about where Ed was, she decided it wasn’t worth it to go. She’d envisioned playing euchre with him at the Coakleys’, or watching him save Frank McGuire from grilling disasters, or seeing his entertainer side come out at the piano after everyone downed a couple of banana daiquiris at Tom Cudahy’s place. She’d envisioned her own dining room, which was finally appointed hospitably after Ed had agreed to let her spend the money on furniture, thronged with friends around the table, Jack Coakley clapping his hands and dramatically sniffing the roast chicken’s lemon-pepper aroma as she carried it proudly past him, but instead what she had for company were the dog-eared pages of novels as she sulked in the armchair. The only reason she even had that damned chair was that her mother had shamed Ed into buying it so she’d have somewhere civilized to sit when she came over. Her mother flatly refused to sit on their ratty couch, which they’d inherited when Phil left for Toronto. As long as Ed had a place to rest his head — and it could have been the floor for all he cared — he was content to go about his work as though the body’s needs were nuisances and the soul’s demands, illusions. The only thing he seemed to consider authentic was his work — not work in the abstract, because he hardly listened when she spoke about her day, but his  work, his precious, important work that was going to make a contribution to science. She would pause in the doorway for a moment before she headed out for solitary walks around the neighborhood, looking at his back hunched over his infernal notebooks, his hand not even rising to give her a perfunctory wave good-bye.

She walked the path her youthful self used to tread on dates, when Jackson Heights was the neighborhood to be seen in. She’d pass Jahn’s, where she used to have a burger and a shake after the movie, and remember how whatever hopeful young man she was with would escort her up and down both sides of Thirty-Seventh Avenue before returning her home on the train. Sometimes she’d take them on detours onto side streets, not to find an alley to make out in — though she did that too — but because she liked to look at the co-ops and houses and imagine a future in which she lived in that privileged setting.

Sometimes, she would feel that sense of possibility reenter her chest, and then she’d keep walking until it had worn off and the blocks looked strangely unfamiliar. She would stop at Arturo’s and gaze in at the couples dining in neat pairs, or the families passing plates around, and wonder when things would settle down long enough for her to enjoy some of that hot bread with him, buttered to perfection, a glass of red wine warming the stomach, the two of them in no hurry to get anywhere, choosing from an inviting menu. There needed to be time for that kind of leisure, or she didn’t see the point in living.

One day, the heat was unusual for early spring, and Ed was at his desk in his underwear and T-shirt. She’d begun to resent that desk, beaten up around the legs and stained a dull brown. She knew she’d never be free of it, that it would follow her wherever she went.

Getting that desk, Ed had told her, had been one of the few happy times he’d shared with his father as an adult. His father walked in from work one day and told him to get up and come with him. They drove into the city; his father wouldn’t say what it was about. They went to the Chubb offices. “The place looked like it had been cleaned out,” Ed said. “He led me to a storage closet. There was a desk and chair in it — his desk and chair. He’d had a handyman buddy hold them for him. They were getting new furniture for the whole office the next day. ‘Sit down,’ he said. ‘Pull out the drawers. Pretend to work.’ It was strange to have him watching me. My mother was the one who peeked over my shoulder when I worked. ‘Can you get your work done at it, or what?’ he asked. I said, ‘Who couldn’t get work done at this desk? It’s beautiful.’ My father, being my father, said, ‘Good. Now I can read the paper at the table.’ But I knew he was glad to do something nice for me.”

The story had touched her when she’d first heard it, but now the ugly desk seemed a symbol of how little her husband would ever be equipped to see beyond the limits his biography had imposed on his imagination.

She watched him work, his pasty legs sticking out absurdly from his briefs, and waited for him to swivel in his chair to face her, to be a normal man for a moment. Angry, disappointed, she walked over and turned the air conditioner on. Ed rose without a word and turned it off again, then went back to work. He didn’t even look in her direction. They went back and forth like this several times. She couldn’t believe she’d signed on to live with a man so committed to his own pointless suffering. They weren’t poverty-stricken by any means; they were even able to put aside a bit of money from every check for a down payment on their future house. But Ed thought even minimal indulgences were best lived without.

When they were courting she’d seen his eccentricities as a welcome change. There was a bit of continental flair about him. Certainly he was more charming than the doctors at work. He was as smart as any of them; he only hadn’t gone to medical school because he was too interested in research to stop doing it. There was something romantic about that, but living with him made his eccentricities curdle into pathologies. What had been charmingly independent became fussy and self-defeating.

The heat broke her. She told him she’d had enough and started walking to her parents’ apartment in Woodside. She sweated through her blouse, her resentment spurring her forward. Ed could have all the heat he wanted in that apartment by himself. She wouldn’t be cooped up for another minute with him.

When her father came to the door and saw her fuming and drenched, he knew what was up. “That’s your home now,” he said. “Work it out with him.”

In her rush to leave Ed, she had neglected to bring her purse. She asked for change for the bus.

“You walked here,” her father said. “You can walk back.”

By the time she got home, she had grown so angry at her father that she’d forgotten all about being angry at her husband. Ed didn’t say anything when he saw her, but after she showered she emerged to an apartment bathed in the cool of a churning air conditioner.

They made love for what felt like forever that night. She didn’t mind the sweat at all.

• • •

She was in Woodside visiting her parents when she saw a sign taped to the window of Doherty’s: “Big Mike Tumulty vs. Pete McNeese in a footrace. Friday, July 21, 7:00.”

She knew Pete, and she’d never much liked him. He was tall and skinny, and he always seemed to speak a little louder than came naturally, as if he were imitating another man’s voice.

“What’s this about a race?” she asked her father as she walked into the kitchen. He was sitting sideways at the table with a cup of tea, looking out the window. He wore a new white undershirt and slippers.

“He was running his mouth off about how fleet of foot he was.”

“You’re almost sixty years old.”

“So what?”

“Pete is barely thirty.” Her father put the kettle back on.

“So he’s half my age,” her father said. “He’s also half the man.”

She thought the whole thing ridiculous, but on the race’s appointed day, she couldn’t help dropping by Doherty’s on the way home from work. The bar was fuller than usual, almost visibly crackling with static energy, as if a prizefight was about to take place instead of an absurd pissing contest. Happy shouts rose over the din, and everywhere she looked, men huddled and clapped their palms to the backs of each other’s necks. Someone asked her father how he planned to beat Pete. “I’ll blind him with the tobacco juice,” he said through a cheekful of chaw, to a round of hearty laughter. Guys were taking final book. “Two dollars on Big Mike,” she heard one say proudly, and she imagined that if all the money her father’s adherents were willing to lose to support him were piled on the bar, it would be enough to buy the establishment from the owners, or do something worthwhile.

The course was set: they would start in the bar, at the back, run out to the sidewalk, circle the block once, and return to the bar. It wouldn’t be easy to watch. Pete and his horse-long legs would come around the corner upright and easy, and her father would follow with his cheeks puffed, his face carmine red, his legs churning. Everyone gathered would watch an era end.

“Give me a glass of Irish whiskey,” her father said, gently rapping his knuckles on the bar. “I’m warming up.” He took his shirt off, then his undershirt. He resembled a bare-knuckled fighter. Pete tried to smirk, but he looked unnerved. Her father put his foot up on a stool. There were packs of muscle shifting under his skin, and when he leaned over to tie his shoe, his back looked broad enough to play cards on.

“Jimmy,” he called out with mock sharpness. “Get those kids out of the street. I don’t want to run any of them down.”

Guys laughed, exchanged looks. Her father and Pete toed a line in the back of the bar. The bartender counted down from three and they headed through a crowded gauntlet on either side, reaching the door at the same time. Her father shifted his massive body laterally like a darting bull and crushed Pete in the doorframe. They never made it outside. Pete staggered, out of breath before he’d even begun.

“They broke at the gate,” her father said as he returned to his stool, heat radiating visibly off his naked skin, a slight glower to him, a hint of violence in his eyes, the pride of a clan chieftain in his heavy step. She watched his friends retrieve their money and felt their eyes on her long, lean body, which her work suit clung to in the summer evening heat. They regarded her appreciatively, with a slightly wistful longing. She was the chieftain’s daughter, and she’d married outside the clan.

They hadn’t won anything, but they hadn’t lost anything either — neither money nor their idea of Big Mike. Her father had played Pete’s game, but by his own rules. It was a Solomonic solution, and she thought sadly of the difference he would have made with his gift for inspiring men if he’d been born into another life.

10

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Ed was an expert on the brain. His subspecialty within the field of neuroscience was psychopharmacology, specifically the effects of psychotropic drugs on neural functioning. While doing his dissertation research, he ran an experiment in the aquaria of the Department of Animal Behavior at the American Museum of Natural History, studying the relationship between the neurotransmitter norepinephrine and learning in the black-chinned West African mouthbrooder fish, whose female laid eggs and whose male spat sperm at them and gathered them, then heated them under its tongue. Ed housed them individually in small aquaria in a greenhouse whose temperature was maintained at 26 °C, and performed experimental tests in a separate room at the same temperature, injecting them with drugs that either enhanced or depressed action. The fish saw a red light, and if they didn’t jump over a barrier in five seconds, they received a shock. He was testing the effects of drugs on an organism’s ability to augment its decision-making abilities — in short, to learn.

The subject of learning fascinated him. He told Eileen it was because it had happened almost by accident in his own life. “If I hadn’t run into that chemist at Kohnstamm’s,” he said, “I don’t know what would have become of me. I think about that narrow escape.”

He experimented on the fish faithfully six days a week for almost a year, going in even when it was supremely inconvenient to do so, missing family functions and dinners with friends, leaning on colleagues for favors when she put her foot down and demanded a sliver of his time. He never slept enough, he seldom ate enough, and his back always hurt because he sat too long at his desk, but the way the work was coming together gave him so much energy that he glowed as he neared the end, so much so that she went shopping without him and put a coffee table, two couches, a pair of end tables, and some lamps on the American Express, thinking he’d be too happy to complain. Still, she was so nervous about the cost that a few weeks later, on the Saturday when the furniture was supposed to be delivered, she still hadn’t told him it was coming. She was relieved when he left early for his lab to gather data, and after the men delivered the pieces and hauled the old couch to the backyard until the Monday pickup, she sat on one of the couches, fretting over what she’d say. When the front door finally opened, she leapt to her feet, ready to spar, but Ed stepped in from the vestibule wearing that tranquil expression he wore when he was deep in his work, that made it look as if he’d just come from meditating. As he took in the room, she waited to see his face fall and readied to say she’d send it all back, but all he did was sit on the couch and say how nice and firm the pillows were compared to the lumpy ones they’d been living with. She’d never even thought he’d registered the lumps.

He was about two weeks shy of having gathered all the data he needed when the heating plant broke down and the aquaria froze, killing his specimens.

He didn’t smash equipment or hurl insults at the plant manager. He didn’t come home and make life miserable for her. He ate a quiet dinner and lay on the floor in the living room, between the glass-topped coffee table and one of the couches. She lay on the other couch reading to keep him company. She understood he didn’t want a pep talk. When it was time to turn in, she leaned over him and saw in his eyes not sadness but extreme fatigue. She knew enough not to tell him everything would b


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e fine. She gave him a kiss on the lips, told him to come in soon, and shut the light off. He remained behind in the silent dark. He came to bed very late, and the next day he began again from the beginning, with new fish, because he needed a full set of data.

When he finished a year later, he had worked on the fish for so long that the species’ scientific name had changed twice, from Tilapia heudelotii macrocephala  to Tilapia melanotheron  to Sarotherodon melanotheron melanotheron .

“You never get anywhere worthwhile taking shortcuts,” he said when she asked how he’d gotten through that difficult time. She couldn’t have agreed more. Not taking shortcuts — not settling for someone inferior — was the only reason she’d been free to marry him.

• • •

They started going out again. Ed got them a membership at the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Once, when they were heading to the symphony, he picked a wounded fledgling off the sidewalk and carried it in his handkerchief for a few blocks, until he bowed to her protestations and deposited it in a planter. He gave her the silent treatment until they got home. When she was shutting off the light she said, “Good night, St. Francis of Assisi,” and he laughed despite himself and they made love and fell asleep.

• • •

In December of 1970 she headed to the city with Ed to see the window displays on Fifth Avenue. She was excited to see them, despite how corrosively ironic Ed had been about them the year before, when at one point in his jeremiad he’d called them “altars to consumer excess.” She wasn’t about to let his grousing spoil her enjoyment of a tradition she’d observed whenever she could since she’d first gone with her mother as an eleven-year-old.

Ed refused to pay for a parking garage. It took them half an hour to find a spot, and they ended up on Twenty-Fifth and Seventh, almost a mile from Lord & Taylor. He refused to let them take a cab, even though she was wearing heels and it was twenty degrees out, with a wind that whipped up the avenue. The sun was setting, and store gates were being pulled down as if in protest of the cold. The sidewalks of Seventh Avenue were unusually empty. She noticed that most of the cabs that passed were occupied.

As they neared the store, the sidewalks grew more crowded, the bells of the Salvation Army collectors jingling on each corner. They saw a pack gathered in front, which quickened her step and made Ed sigh and slow down.

She had been delighting in the scene of a golden retriever pulling at the corner of a wrapped gift when Ed — who had been munching his way toward the bottom of a little bag of roasted nuts — broke the spell.

“These things seem here for the purpose of entertainment,” he said, “but really they’re here to get you to come in and part with your money.” He spoke in a breezy, careless way that suggested he believed a new understanding had sprung up between them. “They’re like organisms that have evolved elaborate decorative mechanisms to lure you in. People fall for it. It’s fascinating, actually.”

“Listen to yourself.”

“The bee orchid, for instance, has flowers that look like female wasps. Males try to mate with it, and in the process they get pollen on their feet and spread it around. It’s not about the window. It’s about pulling you into the store. It’s about getting you to leave with something.”

She was attempting to concentrate on the little animatronic girl whose hand was traveling slowly to cover her mouth, which had fallen open at the sight of Santa Claus’s ebony boots disappearing up the chimney.

“It’s a stupefying, hypnotic loop. It puts you in a suggestible state.”

“Do you have to be so heady about everything? Do you have to analyze everything to death?”

“What’s amazing is that they’re exactly the same every year.”

“That’s an ignorant  remark,” she spat. “They’re not the same at all. They put a lot of work into these. Months of planning.”

She wouldn’t have minded his objections so much if he hadn’t insisted on drawing her into a dialogue about them. Was it too much to ask to share a moment of joy?

She looked around at the other husbands. They didn’t look any happier to be there, but they stood back dully, hands folded behind them or scratching their noses. They couldn’t have been as cleverly cruel about it as Ed if they’d tried.

“And the battling of tourists,” he said. “Every year it gets worse. The jostling, the jockeying for position. They’re descending on the imperial city for their bread and circuses. I wish we didn’t have to do this.”

She started walking to the train. A couple passing in the other direction gave her curious looks, as though they could see the intensity of her disgust in her expression. She found herself unaccountably smiling at one man, giving him a manic sort of grin full of the slightly breathless ecstasy of being unmoored, and he returned it with a delighted blush. By the time she felt a tug on her elbow, she was at the next corner.

“Don’t be hysterical,” Ed said. “I was just making a few observations.”

“The world isn’t a lab.”

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go back and look.”

In his worn jacket with the frayed sleeve ends, he looked like a war veteran about to ask for change for the subway.

“You’ve ruined it.”

“Don’t say that. Listen, I can’t help myself sometimes. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“I do,” she said. “You didn’t have enough fun as a kid.”

He pulled her arm, but she wouldn’t budge. She watched steam rise from a manhole cover and felt in her chest the rumbling of a passing bus. She was keenly aware of the limits of the physical world. She wanted to be in one of those scenes in the windows, frozen in time, in the faultless harmony of parts working in concert, fulfilling the plan of a guiding, designing hand. It would be lovely not to have to make every decision in life, to be part of a spectacle brought out once a year, for the safest of seasons, and put to work amusing people who stared back in mute appreciation. The real world was so messy, the light imperfect, the paint chipped, the happiness only partial.

“One of these years,” she said, “we will come here and you will enjoy it and not make me feel miserable about it. I dream of that.”

“Let’s let that be this year,” he said. “Let’s go back and look at those windows. Please, honey. Let me make it up to you.”

“It’s too late,” she said.

“It’s never too late,” he said. “Don’t say that.”

She hadn’t been looking at him; now she stopped to. Streams of people flowed past in either direction, rushing toward obscure destinations. This was her life right here, petty as it seemed at the moment, and this was the man she’d chosen to spend it with. He was holding his hat in his hand as if he’d taken it off for the purpose of beseeching her, and she saw that he would always have flaws, that he would always be a little too intense in his objections, a little too unbending when it came to the decadence of the world. She thought, We can’t all wear a hair shirt all the time . But there he was, trying to pull her back to the scene he despised, and she saw that he couldn’t live in a way other than the one he thought was right, and when he saw what the right thing was, like now, he cared about it as if it were the only thing that mattered. Everyone else around seemed as insubstantial as the air they moved through, the shopping bags they carried the only things anchoring them to the ground.

“Did I tell you I love what you did with your hair?” he said, and she let herself be mollified, because she’d thought he hadn’t noticed. She took his hand. They retraced their steps, the street around them thrumming with life. She saw that there was something perfect about the imperfection of her husband — her mortal, living husband with his excessive vigilance about the effects of capitalism and his unmistakable pair of bowed legs that she watched carry him forward. She kept her eyes on his shoes hitting the pavement and let him guide her wherever he was going.

11

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Shortly after getting his PhD, Ed came home with the news that he’d been sought out by an executive at Merck, who’d read an article of his in a journal. Eileen was in the kitchen cutting vegetables for stew.

“He said I could have my own lab, with state-of-the-art equipment, everything top of the line. I’d have a team of assistants.”

“Did he say how much you’d be paid?” She pushed the peppers into the stewpot and rinsed the knife in the sink. She could smell something fried and sickly sweet coming up from the Orlandos’ apartment below.

“He didn’t have to. More than I’m making now. Let’s just say that.”

“How much  more?” She began to cut the beef into cubes. It was a thick cut with veins of fat. Ed would not have approved of how much she had spent on it.

“We’d be very comfortable.”

He didn’t appear terribly enthused to be able to make such a statement.

“Honey!” she said, hearing herself squeal as she put the knife down. “This is amazing!” She threw her arms around him.

“We’d have to move to New Jersey.”

“We could live anywhere we wanted,” she said, letting him go to take a few steps and get the motor started on her thoughts. She was already envisioning a house in Bronxville. “If not New Jersey, then Westchester County, for instance.”

“That’s too far to commute.”

“Then we’ll move to New Jersey.”

“Not me,” he said.

“How do you want to do this, then? What would make you comfortable?”

“Staying where I am,” he said.

She looked at him. He was seriously considering not taking the job. If she had to say, he had already made up his mind. She picked up the knife and cut the last slab.

“You love research. Think of the lab you’d have. I’d have to drag you home.”

“It’s not research. It’s making drugs.” Ed paced toward the living room and back.

“Drugs that help people ,” she said, pushing the meat into the pot.

“Drugs that make a lot of money,” he said.

This opportunity looked like their destiny. There had to be a way to get him to listen to reason. She added salt and pepper and two cups of water and turned the burner on. “You research drugs already. What’s the difference?”

Ed stood in the arched doorway between the kitchen and living room. He stretched his hands up and flexed his muscles against the doorway. “Researching drugs and making them are not the same,” he said. “On my own I can be a watchdog. For them I’d be a lapdog. Or an attack dog.”

“What about when we have kids?” She put the caps back on the oil and the spices. “Don’t you want to be able to provide for them?”

“Of course I do. I guess it depends what you mean by providing .” He gave her a meaningful look, let down his hands, and peered through the glass lid of the stewpot. He switched the radio on and played with the antenna to relieve the static. The kitchen filled with the violins and flutes of a classical orchestra.

“I could make you do it,” she said. “But I won’t.”

“You could not.”

“I could. Women do it all the time. I could find a way. But I won’t.”

He straightened up. “You’re not like that.”

“Lucky for you, that’s true,” she said, though what she was thinking was that she was more like that than Ed understood. If her husband wasn’t going to fight to secure their future, someone had to. “I just want you  to know that I  know what I’m not doing here. What I’m not making you  do.”

“Don’t forget I’m on the fast track to tenure,” he said, and she could tell it was a done deal in his mind.

Ed was an assistant professor at Bronx Community College, where he’d started teaching while in graduate school at NYU. One day soon he would be an associate professor, and then, probably soon after that, a full professor.

“There’s nothing fast about the track you’re on,” she said bitterly, looking at him in the window’s reflection in order not to have to look right into his face. “I don’t care how quickly you get there.”

• • •

Five years into their marriage, when Eileen was thirty-one, they decided to stop using birth control and try to conceive a child. At Einstein Hospital, where she worked, she had established a reputation as a head nurse and was confident she’d be able to return to the field after a short absence. She would have to go back to work eventually, something she wouldn’t have had to do if Ed had said yes to Merck.

Seven months passed with no results and she started to worry. She wasn’t too old yet by any means, but she also knew the time for rational calculations had arrived. They’d been going about it haphazardly, having sex when they felt like it and leaving it to chance. She decided to make getting pregnant a conscious project, turning her attention to managing it as she’d managed so many others. She drew up ovulation charts and held Ed to a schedule. They both went in for tests. Ed’s sperm count was normal, his motility strong. Nothing was wrong with her ovaries. Every month, she cried when her period came. Every month, Ed reassured her.

Then, finally, after another six months had passed, she got pregnant. A new lightness entered her spirit. Things that had once annoyed her hardly registered with her anymore. She laughed more easily, gave Ed more rope, and was practically a pushover with the nurses she supervised. She surprised herself with how serene she felt. She never thought she’d be one of those egregious earth mothers, but there she was, tired all the time and yet still making meals and keeping the place in order and smiling through it — laughing, even, at the comedy of being alive. She didn’t get angry at the evening news. When she got cut off on the highway, she shrugged her shoulders and shifted over a lane and hoped everybody arrived safely where they were going.

• • •

Her mother was over at her apartment, reading the newspaper. She grunted in appreciation and handed it to Eileen.

“Here,” she said. “Read this. You might learn something.”

It was an article about Rose Kennedy; one paragraph discussed how the Kennedy children used to hide the coat hangers so their mother couldn’t deploy them on their backs. Eileen seldom thought anymore about her mother using the hanger on her, both because the memory was so unpleasant and because it was woven so thoroughly into the fabric of her childhood that it barely merited conscious thought, but even this many years later, as she pictured her mother cracking her with that little metal whip, she could almost physically feel it on her body.

“See?” her mother said proudly when Eileen handed it back. “I’m not the only one. If Rose Kennedy can do it, I can too. You should do it yourself, but you won’t. You’re too soft.”

If Eileen hadn’t been pregnant, she might have said something about how all that money doesn’t necessarily buy you class, you can still act the same as a cleaning lady from Queens, because it would have cut to the quick, but she just said, “I guess it takes all styles,” and decided then and there that she would never lift a hand in anger at her child.

• • •

A few months into the pregnancy, she suffered a miscarriage. The sadness she felt was ruinous, unspeakable. Almost worse was the awakening in her of a dormant foreboding that went back, perhaps, to her mother’s own miscarriage and the effect it had had on both their lives. She’d never acknowledged it consciously, but in the blind alleys of her mind she’d feared that if she ever did manage to get pregnant, she’d have difficulty bringing the child to term.

She tried not to let Ed see how distraught she was. She needed to keep him on task trying to get her pregnant again, and she didn’t want him thinking it would be gallant to take the pressure off her for a while. Another year passed with no results. She started having an extra glass of wine at restaurants. She took to suggesting wine with nearly every home-cooked meal. She began buying cases of wines she liked and storing them in the basement to have something on hand when company came over, and because buying in bulk was cheaper. She felt she was acquiring a little more insight into the way her mother’s life had played out. She was still in control, though; she kept going to work every day, kept depositing money into her savings account.

Ed no longer made efforts to reassure her. He seemed to have resigned himself to not having children. At times she wondered if he weren’t relieved. Despite his protests to the contrary she imagined he wouldn’t terribly mind preserving for himself some of the time that fatherhood would claim. Once, when he said he was too tired on a night they were scheduled to try, she accused him of sabotaging their plans. She knew she was being hysterical, but she couldn’t help herself.

Her friends ran into no trouble having babies. Cindy Coakley had three girls in five years until she finally delivered Shane to Jack. Marie Cudahy followed up Baby Steven with the twins, Carly and Savannah. Kelly Flanagan’s Eveline was born with a cleft lip, but then Henry came out a couple of years later looking like the Gerber baby. One after another, the calls came in with the cheerful news, and the cards arrived celebrating fecundity. The only holdout among her close friends was Ruth McGuire, who had raised the last two of her seven younger siblings herself. When Ruth told her she was done raising kids, Eileen felt herself drawing even closer to her. They would greet the childlessness together.

Whenever they gathered around to watch whichever of her friends’ kids was celebrating a birthday open presents, Eileen bit her nails down to the quick. She was sure everyone could read her thoughts in her mortified grin. She always spent too much money and bought too many gifts. She felt a nervous expectancy whenever the kid began to tear the paper open. She needed to have gotten the essential gift, the inevitable gift.

Having no kids freed Ed to pursue his professional interests without the burden of nighttime feedings or diaper changes or pediatric visits. He did important work on neurotransmitters, gave talks at conferences, and was named full professor faster than his peers.

She stopped thinking of each menstruation as a referendum on her femininity. She threw herself into her work with a compensatory vigor and was promoted several times. She sensed that her bosses and coworkers saw her as one of a new breed of women — it was 1975—willing to sacrifice motherhood on the altar of career. The men deferred to her and the mothers hated her, and there was an opportunity here if she was willing to pursue it fully.

Still, the miscarriage haunted her. She had dreams of sitting on the toilet bowl and hearing an unusual plop and finding in there a tiny baby who’d open its eyes at her — she couldn’t tell its sex — and look at her angrily, blinking slowly, and she would wake with a start and shake Ed awake. She avoided looking into the bowl when she went to the bathroom. Eventually, she and Ed settled into the rhythms of a childless life, which offered undeniable compensations: they could go out with other couples without having to arrange for child care; they could indulge in the leniency reserved for aunts and uncles; and they were free to nurture their careers in the way they might have nurtured offspring. Maybe this was why she was so upset when Ed was offered the chairmanship of the department and turned it down to devote more time to teaching and research. It was as if he was telling her he didn’t love their child.

• • •

To make up for the money he’d left on the table in passing up the chairmanship, Ed started teaching night anatomy classes at NYU. He’d pop home for dinner and head into the city by train. On dissection nights, he came home smelling like a pickled corpse himself. She couldn’t stand to have him touch her after he’d been handling dead bodies, and when he teasingly ran his hands over her anyway, she squealed and squirmed out of reach.

A tenure-track position opened in NYU’s biology department. One of Ed’s advisors was on the search committee. He said Ed would be given serious consideration if he applied.

She urged him to do it. NYU would be an obvious bump up in prestige.

“They need me at BCC,” he said. “Anyone can teach at NYU. What’s important to me is having my students leave knowing they got a real education. I want to help them get into NYU. I want them prepared to meet the demands that will be placed on them when they do.” There were other reasons to stay: the city had an airtight pension plan and great health benefits; there was no guarantee of tenure at NYU; he had a pretty good lab at BCC and could do the same research there that he’d do at NYU; there were grants out there to be procured. “It’s all about having the right ambition,” he said.

In the end, he never applied. To all the people she’d excitedly told about the NYU possibility, Eileen defended Ed’s choice by saying that when the opportunity arose, which was bound to be sooner rather than later, he would be a natural choice for dean of the college. That prospect, she said, wasn’t something you just flushed. That was the sort of career experience that could be parlayed into a parallel administrative position in a more prestigious institution.

He kept teaching the night classes. Now when he came home stinking of embalming fluids, not only wouldn’t she let him near her in bed, she made him shower before she’d even hug or kiss him hello. Dinner and dishes would intercede after that, and often she could get to bed without having to touch him at all. She didn’t feel bad withholding herself from him. He had made his choice. He shouldn’t have expected to have everything he wanted, not if she had to give so much up to keep him happy.

• • •

The tall tree in the backyard, whose crown eclipsed the apex of the Orlandos’ gabled roof, blocked much of the light in their bedroom. They were into their midthirties, and hints of seniority crept into their thoughts; they held them off by making love. Sometimes the activity was tinged by anger. Neither of them was going anywhere, even if in the middle of fights that lasted for days she entertained thoughts of divorce and suspected he did, though neither raised its specter aloud. They knew they would never sever their union, and this knowledge opened a door to the basement of their psyches. They became familiar enough to each other to begin to feel like strangers in bed, which infused their love life with a new potency. She wondered whether her friends had wandered down similar alleys, but she never had the courage to ask.

• • •

When she was thirty-five, after she’d long since given up worrying about it, she conceived a child and carried the pregnancy to term, delivering at dawn a couple of days before the ides of March, 1977. She and Ed had been struggling for weeks to come up with something to call the baby if it happened to be a boy, and by morning of the second day they were no closer to an answer, to the consternation of the girl with the birth certificate paperwork. Ruth took the train in to visit and accidentally left her book behind on the hospital nightstand. When the girl came around again on the morning of the third day and said Eileen could always take a trip down to City Hall to file the documents herself, Eileen’s gaze landed on the name of the author of Ruth’s book, Mrs. Bridge , which she had never heard of. She had a distant relative named Connell, but the real reason she chose it was that it sounded more like a last name than a first name, like one of those patrician monikers the doctors she worked for often bore, and she wanted to give the boy a head start on the concerns of life.

When Connell was a couple of months old, she realized, as though she’d awoken from an extended slumber, that his coming into the world had been a matter of grave importance. She had escaped a trap without knowing she’d been in it. For a while, she pushed Ed to conceive another child, until she stopped for fear of what misbegotten creature might result if she succeeded at her age. She would build the future on the boy.

• • •

It surprised her how much she enjoyed bathing her baby. She suspected it would have surprised anyone who knew her. As soon as she put the stopper in and opened the tap to fill the sink, a remarkable calm settled over her. She held his neck and head with one hand, her inner forearm cradling his body, and cleaned him with the other, pressing the cloth into the little creases in his skin. He smiled mutely at her and she felt a terrible unburdening of pent-up emotion. A little water splashed up in his face and he coughed and resumed his uncanny placidity. When he grew bigger and could sit up in the sink, she handed him a sopping washcloth to grip and suck on while she washed him with another, and she delighted in the sound of his draining it, the sheer vital pleasure he took in pulling it in his little teeth.

When he was old enough to be bathed in the tub, she loved the sight of him leaning over its lip, standing on tiptoe as he reached for the water with his swinging hand, his little back muscles shifting in the effort. In his enthusiasm he nearly fell in headfirst. He splashed waves out of the tub with a succession of quick slaps at the water’s surface. He giggled and gurgled and pulled at his penis with exploratory joy as she rubbed shampoo into his black hair. He grabbed the rinse cup and took a long draft of the soapy water before she could seize it from him. She loved to wrap the towel around him when she was done, powder his little body, secure the diaper, and work his limbs into pajamas, sensing the calm and ease he felt when snug in the garment’s gentle pressure. Snapping the buttons gave her an unreasonable pleasure. She would breathe his baby smell and wonder how she could ever have lived without it. Her heart swelled when she bathed him, when she dressed him for bed, when she combed the last wetness out of his washed hair, when she gave him the breast, when she gave him the bottle, when she lay him down, when she went to check on him at night and felt his chest rise and fall under her hand and his heart beat through her fingertips. She thought of him as she lay awake, and though she was always exhausted, and though there were nights she imagined she’d rise in the morning and the enchantment would have worn off, the well of her affection filled up in her sleep and she plucked him from the crib and pressed him to her, kissing his soft neck. There were some things that couldn’t be communicated, and this was one — how much pleasure a woman like her could take in the fact and presence of her beautiful baby boy. She knew it wouldn’t be like this forever; soon she’d make demands on him, expect the world of him. She was going to enjoy this part. She was going to fill up her heart with it enough for years.

12

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After Eileen’s mother got sober, sitting idly took more out of her than working long hours, so she continued to haul herself out to Bayside to clean up after grammar school kids even into her midsixties, long after Eileen’s father had taken the watch and pension and tossed the truck keys to the younger bucks. When her employer lost its contract with the schools, though, her mother didn’t look for another job. She had talked for years of putting money down on a beach home in Breezy Point, but Eileen suspected she’d realized she couldn’t make a vaulting leap forward in the time she had remaining. She started reading the Irish Echo  instead of the Daily News  and making trips to Ireland using the savings she’d accumulated. The line of her allegiances began to blur, as if her time in her adopted homeland had been an experiment whose hypothesis had proved unsound.

Eileen had long been able to tell her mother about the fights over Ed’s career and know that she would click her tongue and shake her head in censure of his lack of drive. Some change was occurring in her mother, though, to make her less pragmatic. She seemed less bothered by her station in life. She stopped complaining about politics, or the idiots on the subway, or the ugliness and stench of city life. She read novels and met with a group to discuss them. Eileen couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed. She figured part of this transformation was her mother trying anything to avoid taking a drink. “Negative thoughts back you into a corner,” her mother said to her, smiling, one afternoon after returning from a picnic with the baby in Flushing Meadow Park. “They multiply and surround you. Don’t think of what you don’t have. Try to focus on the simple pleasures.” It was rich, this spouting of shibboleths, this late-stage wisdom-mongering. It was the tactic of a woman who’d played her hand and lost, or worse, never played it to begin with. But her mother had picked the wrong audience for her speech. It may have gone over well with down-and-outers at A


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A who’d wrecked their lives and slipped into a spiral of regret, but Eileen’s problem wasn’t negative thinking, it was too little positive thinking on the part of everyone around her. She had a vision, and she wasn’t turning away from it for a second, even if her husband, and now her mother, saw some ugliness in it. At least she had her father on her side — though God bless him, he supported anything you threw your heart into. She was going to do that, no question about it. What waited ahead, if only Ed would walk the path she’d laid out for him, was a beautiful life, an American life.

“One day at a time,” her mother said, and Eileen thought, And everything all at once. 

• • •

Christmas of 1980 Eileen bought Ed a VCR. They’d looked at them together, but when he’d seen what they cost — about a thousand dollars — he had decided they could live without one. Eileen hadn’t worked hard all her life to sit on her hands when she could afford to buy something. She was making decent money now that she was the nursing director at Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville. It was the perfect gift for him, considering how much he loved old movies. Starting in August, she paid for it on layaway.

When he unwrapped it, he looked horrified, as if it were a relic unearthed from a sacred burial ground that would bring a curse down upon their heads.

“How could you do this?” he asked, seething in front of the three-year-old boy. “How could you think of buying this?”

A few days later, she came in from the shower and saw him on his haunches putting a tape in the machine. She gave him a sardonic look.

“All right,” he said. “I was wrong. It’s a great gift.”

“Save it.”

“I mean it. It was thoughtful of you.” He was clutching the empty sleeve of the VHS tape to his chest. “I appreciate it.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“Look, I know I get set in my ways.”

“You’re telling me.”

“Doesn’t mean I can’t learn a thing or two.”

He wheeled the TV cart over, so that it was right next to the bed. PBS was on, the fund-raising appeal between programs. Ed patted the bed. “Get in,” he said.

“I’ve got to brush my hair out.”

“Come on,” he said. “I want to make sure I get this whole thing on tape.”

“Anyway, I’m happy you’re using it.”

“What can I say?” He threw his arms out in amused resignation. “You’re good for me. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Really?”

“Really and truly. I’d be lost without you.”

Sometimes it felt like all the difficulty he put her through was worth it. It was a rare man who’d admit so thoroughly that he’d been wrong.

“Honey,” she said, and she dropped her towel and stood naked before him the way he was always trying to get her to do. At first she hunched a bit, and then she stood tall, her hands at her hips, feasting on his gaze and letting him drink in her body. The movie was starting, but Ed didn’t take his eyes off her. She felt herself blush. “You’d better hit record,” she said. Ed didn’t stop looking at her. She climbed on him and hit the button.

“We can watch it later,” he said, kissing her neck. “That’s the genius of this thing.” He moved his hand down her back, squeezed her butt, touched her sex.

“Anytime we want,” she said breathlessly.

She rolled off him and ripped the sheet away. He lowered the volume and yanked his underwear off. She reached across him to switch off the bedside lamp and he thrust up into her, flipped her onto her back. The tape whirred rhythmically. The television pulsed, filling the room with light and plunging it into darkness, outlining their bodies in the lovely deep of night.

• • •

In January of 1981, her mother was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.

A nurse came to the apartment, but her father did his share of nursing too. Eileen would go over after work and find that he’d given her medicine, bathed her, changed her clothes, made her a liquid meal — she could no longer eat solid foods — and tucked her in. He’d moved into her room, and slept in the other twin bed.

The day her mother entered the hospital for good — November 23, 1981—her father mentioned some pains in his chest. They admitted him and found that he had been concealing his own cancer, which had spread throughout his chest cavity, colonizing the organs. They gave him his own room, down the hall from her mother. They rolled them out to see each other once a day.

Her parents had slept in separate rooms for thirty years, but a few days before Christmas, when the doctors rolled her mother away from her father for what would turn out to be the last time, she called to him from down the hall.

“Don’t let them take me away from you, Mike, my Mike!” she said, for all on the floor to hear.

• • •

What they didn’t hear was what she asked Eileen later that night, with the tubes in her.

The curtain was drawn. The lights were off except for the one above her bed. Eileen had filled two cups with ice water, but both were left full and the ice had long ago melted.

“Was it worth it?”

Eileen leaned in to hear her better. “Was what worth it, Ma?”

“I didn’t touch a drop for twenty-five years. Did it make a difference?”

She felt an uncomfortable grin forming on her face. She wasn’t at all happy, but she couldn’t keep this ghoulish smile away. She didn’t want to show her mother how much she was hurting. Through the open door, she heard the distant beeps of call buttons and voices in intercoms. She had worked in a hospital for twenty years, but somehow she felt she was in a place she’d never been before. Under the green glow of the fluorescent lamp, her mother looked like a wraith, her skin so thin you could count the veins.

“How can you ask that?”

“I’m asking you.” Her mother shifted her head on her pillow with great effort. Her cheeks were two smooth hollows beneath large, alert eyes. “Was it worth it?”

Eileen had thought of the time since her mother had gotten sober as the happiest of both of their lives. There had been a quiet thawing of the glacier in her mother’s heart, with occasional louder crackings-off of icebergs of emotions, until, after Connell was born, it had melted so thoroughly that all that remained in an ocean of equanimity were little islands of occasional despond. Her mother appeared almost joyful at times. But perhaps it had been a performance.

“Of course,” Eileen said, taking her hand.

“I wish I hadn’t stopped.” Her mother didn’t look at her but gazed at the folds of the curtain, her other hand palm down on the blanket.

“Think of all the things you wouldn’t have had. Think of all the lives you touched. We had some great years.”

Her mother pulled her hand back, folded it into her other one. “I would have given it all away for a drink.”

“Well, you didn’t.”

“I still would.”

Eileen took her hand again and held it with force. “It’s too late. You did all that. You can’t take it back. You had a great life.”

“Fair enough,” her mother said, and in a little while she was dead.

• • •

Her father died two weeks later. In going through the papers, Eileen learned that he had cashed in the bonds and sold the life insurance policies decades before. Maybe that was how he’d gotten her mother’s ring back from the pawnbroker. Or maybe he’d incurred bigger debts than she’d ever suspected. She knew he’d always played the horses, but it had never occurred to her that he’d had an actual gambling problem. If so, he’d been good at keeping the consequences from her. She remembered something she’d witnessed when she was ten, at her friend Nora’s apartment after school. Nora opened the door to a man in a dark suit and hat who told her to give her father the message that he should pay what he owed. Eileen was standing behind her. “You kids will pay if he doesn’t,” the man said, pointing at Nora and herself. “Tell him.” Eileen went home frightened, and when she told her father what had happened, he said, “He didn’t mean you. He thought you belonged to that girl’s father. But you don’t. You belong to me.” It was impossible to imagine any man having the courage to show up at her father’s apartment that way, not when her father counted every Irish policeman in the city as an ally, and many of the non-Irish too. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t in someone’s debt. Maybe that explained why they’d never lived in a house. And maybe it explained why he’d been so adamant that she own one herself. In any case, she had to dip into her savings to pay for her parents’ funerals.

The wakes were so close together that she worried few relatives would be able to return for her father’s, but those who’d flown in for her mother flew back, and if they hadn’t there would still have been standing room only at the parlor.

She was staring at his coffin trying to understand how he could fit into that little box when a black man about her age came over and introduced himself as Nathaniel, the son of Carl Washington, her father’s longtime driving partner. Nathaniel asked if she knew how their fathers had come to drive together. With all the stories told about her father over the last couple of days, she was amazed there was one she hadn’t heard.

“My father was the first black driver Schaefer ever hired,” Nathaniel said. “The first morning my father showed up for work, none of the other drivers were willing to be paired with him. There were rumblings of a walkout. My father wondered if he was going to have to go find another job. Your father walked into the warehouse after the others and took one look at everyone back on their heels with their arms across their chests and said, ‘Get in this truck with me, you black son of a bitch.’ Then he hopped up in the truck without another word.”

She cringed, but Nathaniel was smiling.

“His language could be rough,” she said.

“My father heard worse,” he said. “Your father wouldn’t drive with anyone but my father after that. For twenty years. I don’t know if you remember, but he used to hold a Bronx route.”

She nodded.

“Once he had my father with him, he insisted on being switched to the Upper East Side.”

“I remember when he switched.”

“ ‘There’s enough blacks in the Bronx,’ he told my father. ‘Let them see a black face in that neighborhood for a change.’ ”

She put a tissue to her eyes and handed him one as well.

“Big Mike this, Big Mike that,” Nathaniel said. “Growing up I heard your father’s name around the house more than the names of people in my own family.”

He waved his wife and children over and she greeted all of them in turn.

She was embarrassed to learn that Mr. Washington had died a few years before. She was even more embarrassed to see in Nathaniel’s face, when she said, “I wish I’d known,” that he never would have dreamed she’d show up at his father’s funeral.

13

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In February of 1982, Bronx Community College announced that the dean would be stepping down at the end of the semester. They offered Ed the job and even mentioned the possibility of his becoming president someday. She felt like a chess master who had seen several moves ahead. Taking the deanship would mean the end of Ed’s teaching career, but there was no question of his refusing: he would strap the boy and herself to his back and carry them further up the ladder of respectability.

Working at Lawrence had opened her eyes to how people lived on a higher rung of that ladder. She found herself walking or driving around Bronxville after work, to marvel at the manicured shrubbery, the gorgeous houses set back from the street, the shining plate-glass windows behind which every table looked set for Christmas dinner. From time to time her car was in the shop and she had to take the Metro-North, but it was almost a pleasure to do so, because the Bronxville station was quaintly beautiful, with no graffiti in sight and the lambent glow of the station house and cars idling amiably as they dropped people off. She waited in the strange serenity of the platform’s airy expanse, and when the train came around the bend, it bore the dignity of another era. Drowsing riders slipped past sleepy towns on the way to Grand Central Station. She began to dwell on the idea that she could finally begin to really live her life if she came home to an enchanted place like that, but they would need more money to live there. Ed’s job offer had come just in time.

She thought she’d made her feelings clear to Ed, and that he’d understood and agreed, but one day he came home and told her he’d turned the deanship down. “The classroom is too important,” he said. “I want them getting the education they’d get at elite schools, and I know that, at least in my classroom, that’s what they’re getting. I can control that much.”

This about-face infuriated her — the caprice in it, the self-indulgence. This wasn’t the sober man she’d thought she’d married. Sure, he had his arguments: his ambition had never been for fancier titles and fatter paychecks; he was after something unquantifiable, philosophical, the kind of aim never properly rewarded in earthly terms. She grew increasingly impatient with his disquisitions, but she found herself parroting them to her friends, wrapping herself in the chastening rhetoric of sacrifice and duty.

She wanted Ed’s idealism to trump her pragmatism, and for a couple of weeks it did, until one night at dinner she said that she was tired of living in their apartment, and that after fifteen years it was time for a change, time, even, to own a house. Ed made his case for the low rent the Orlandos charged and the fact that they were socking away money for Connell’s education and avoiding the expenses and headaches of ownership. Another day Eileen would have let herself be appeased, turned the temperature down on the conversation, but now she allowed her anger to boil up at Ed and his unbecoming lack of courage. She felt herself on the verge of screaming one of those unforgettable phrases that could alter the dynamic of a relationship forever, and so she told him to put the boy to bed and slammed the door on her way out the room.

After work the next day, when that regular crowd that were never in a rush to get home to their families went to a bar in the vicinity of the hospital, Eileen for once accepted the invitation to join them. She was determined to stay out until God knew what hour, even with the young boy at home, and do whatever these people did as they watched their numbers dwindle to a determined few, but she was only halfway into her first glass of wine when a memory rose up of one particularly lugubrious episode during the period when her mother went out after work. She reached for her wallet to settle up, but the others wouldn’t let her pay. As she drove home, she decided that she couldn’t just pretend to Ed that nothing had changed. She felt a timer ticking on the way they were currently arranging their lives. She was getting restless. She had thought they were walking a mutual path toward greater stakes in a shared dream, but the more he insisted on staying in their apartment, the harder it was for her to see him as a fully vested partner in her future. She needed him to be her partner, because she loved him terribly, despite the difficulty of living with him sometimes, and so she was going to save him from himself, and save their marriage if that was what it was coming to, by insisting that they leave. He had always been good at listening to her. As he got older and more fixed in his fears and habits, she had to shout a little louder to be heard, but once he heard her, if he could stomach what she was asking for, he did what she asked. She did what she could do for him as well. He needed a real home no less than she did. His mind had grown smaller as he’d bunkered himself in his ideals. He needed space for his thoughts to breathe. He needed to regroup, to see new possibilities, to think bigger than ever. If there was anything she could help him with, it was thinking big.

• • •

She’d almost reached her landing with the basket of folded clothes when she heard the doorbell ring. Ed was teaching his night class. She groaned in frustration and elbowed the door open, hustling to the front stairs to get down there before the bell rang again. The boy had always been a light sleeper, but in the months since he turned five he’d seemed to awaken at the mere suggestion of activity. This constant up and down — two flights to the laundry room, a long flight to answer the door — was driving her crazy.

When she saw Angelo standing there, she wondered if she’d forgotten to slip the rent payment under the door. She found the whole exercise so humiliating every month — stooping in subservience, struggling to slide the envelope past the stubborn insulating lip — that she might unconsciously have followed her desire to forget about it and see how long it would be until they said something.

“Is this a good time to talk?”

“Sure, come in.”

She was in a form-fitting sweat suit, which made her a little self-conscious walking up the stairs in front of him. When they got upstairs, she asked him to have a seat at the dining room table, but he chose to stand in the doorway, leaning against the doorjamb, holding the knit cap he’d taken off his head.

“Can I get you some coffee? Water?”

“No, thank you.”

She sat.

“I’ve run into a little financial trouble,” Angelo said.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, and because she didn’t want to hear the details, she began to worry the upholstering on the chairs.

He inhaled deeply, cracked his swollen knuckles. “I don’t want to burden you with the whole story. Long story short, I’ll have to sell the house.”

“All right,” she said.

“I wanted to see if you had any interest in it.”

Recently, she and Ed had begun to seriously discuss the possibility of buying a house. She’d campaigned to sway him to the virtues of home ownership by appealing to his practical side. Owning would mean an added financial burden, but they’d be building equity instead of flushing rent money, and they had already put enough aside for a down payment. The only things holding them back were his conservatism about expenses and general fear of change. She hadn’t been thinking multifamily, but the rental income would offset part of the mortgage, and it struck her that it wasn’t going to get any easier to convince Ed to buy a house than telling him she wanted to buy the one they were already in. They wouldn’t even have to get a moving truck. This was her best chance to capitalize on his recent softened stance; the longer they waited, the more time he’d have to convince himself that they shouldn’t tie their money up in a home. And when he heard that Angelo was in trouble, he would want to help him out.

It didn’t hurt that her father, who had promised to haunt her until she and Ed owned a house, would be appeased. She’d been thinking of her father’s curse more and more lately. She could make the case that she’d been in a house long before he was dead, and that it was just a matter of signing a few papers to make it officially hers. He would appreciate the neatness of such a solution.

“This is all very sudden,” she said.

“I’d sell it to you at a discount,” he said. “I’d only ask that you keep my family on at an affordable rent.”

“I’ll talk to my husband about it.”

“Please do,” he said. “I’m going to have to move quickly, one way or the other.”

Her mind was churning. She didn’t like being on an upper floor, especially after Ed’s cousin’s kid in Broad Channel, playing Superman, had climbed out onto a second-story roof, jumped, and broken an arm and a leg. And she was tired of not having a driveway of her own. She used to consider herself lucky that Angelo allowed her and Ed to park in the driveway at all, but that gratitude had worn off, and now it nettled her to have to walk around the house to get to her door, or to have to ring Angelo’s bell when she was blocked in.

“There’s one thing I would want,” she said.

“You name it.”

“I would want to switch apartments. I would want to be on the ground floor.”

“It’s your house,” he said.

“And one other thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I would ask you to park your car on the street,” she said. “I would want the driveway clear for our use.”

He seemed to chew on what she’d said. His mouth rose at the corners in a forlorn smile at the concessions his situation — she realized that she didn’t care to know the first thing about it, not the first thing — had forced upon him.

“No problem,” he said, regaining the momentum he’d briefly lost. “There’s plenty of parking around here. Worst case, I walk a block or two.”

“And we’d need the garage cleaned out.”

“Everything will come out of there.”

“And the cedar closets in the basement. You can have the ones we use now.”

She thought she heard him whistle. She couldn’t tell if he was taken aback or impressed by the bargain she was driving. “All of these details can be arranged,” he said. “We can work together on this.”

“I just needed to get these things out in the open.”

He picked up her keys from the bowl on the mule chest and let them twirl in his fingers. “I got you.”

“I’ll talk to Ed.”

“And you’d keep us on?”

“Yes.”

He dropped the keys and straightened up. “At affordable rents?”

“I wouldn’t charge an arm and a leg,” she said. “You folks are like family now.”

“Even if I die?”

“Angelo! My God.”

He gave her a look that suggested he saw her not as a woman but as another man. “I’m asking: even if I die?”

“Even if you die. Of course.”

“I just want to know my family is taken care of,” he said. “I’m not looking to break the bank. I just want to take care of my people.” He backed toward the stairs.

“I understand,” she said, stepping toward him.

“Why don’t we find out how much houses like this are going for, and then you can give me less than that.”

“I need to talk to my husband,” she said again. “We’d have to qualify for a mortgage.”

“Don’t worry.” He had taken a step downstairs and he turned, smiling fully now, so that he almost appeared mirthful. “People like you, with all your affairs in order — you can have anything you want in this country.”

Part II. The Salad Days Thursday, October 23, 1986

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Eileen was understaffed again, so she had to stay late filling out charts and writing notes, and when she went around to dispense a final round of meds in little paper cups, one patient crashed his fist into his mouth in that way stupid people did when trying to look cool taking pills or eating peanuts, and he missed and sent the pill skittering across the linoleum floor. Pharmacy wasn’t picking up the phone, and she was out of that medication, so she got down on all fours and searched for it. A quarter of an hour later she found it covered in dust under the far bed. She reached her arm up with it from under the bed in a gesture of mutual victory, but as she crawled out backwards on her hands and knees, she saw that he was staring idiotically at her rear end, which she’d left hovering as she focused on the task at hand. She wanted to cram the pill in his mouth and slam his jaw shut, cracking his teeth, but she wasn’t about to let a useless fool like this defeat her poise, so she just placed it back in the little cup. In her chosen profession (in fact she felt it had chosen her, in a kind of malevolent possession) even administrators weren’t spared feeling like pieces of meat.

It was almost six thirty when she hit Eastchester Road. The Hutch was moving, thank God, and the Mets were in Boston, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad on the other side of the bridge. The traffic during the playoffs had been a nightmare: mindless, endless, pointless; very nearly proof of the randomness of the universe. Her sciatic nerve was throbbing and her feet were going numb, and she didn’t have it in her to sit there inching along.

As she approached the Whitestone and the road sloped up toward the start of the cables, she felt her mood lift. Her time on the bridge was the only part of her commute she didn’t mind. She loved the way the cables shot up in a triumphant curve as the first arch neared and then plunged down immediately afterward. Sometimes — it was happening now — the music on the radio matched the rhythm of the bridge. The cables climbed toward the second arch, and she felt herself in the uncanny presence of beauty. Nothing else in her day stirred her to the contemplation of abstract ideas. The bridge was making an argument for its own soundness as she drove over it. High above the East River, the sharp focus of ordinary life gave way to hazy impressions as the eye worked to contain the vastness it beheld. Then the cables rolled into anchor, the landscape resumed a human scale, and that hopeful notion she’d conceived for the evening at the peak of the span began to recede.

At least the traffic was flowing. She’d be home by seven at this rate. She had called at five to say she expected to be quite late and to ask Lena to feed Connell, and then she’d called again before she left and said not to feed him. Lena had assured her it was no trouble, and Eileen had heard the touch of sharpness in her own voice when she’d said she wanted to have dinner with the boy herself. She had put chicken in the fridge to defrost it, and if she didn’t cook it, it was going to go bad.

That morning, she’d decided that they were going to have a family meal, even though Ed wouldn’t be there with them. If he was forcing her to compromise on her ideal of family time by continuing to teach these night classes, then a compromise was all she could stand anymore, not the complete capitulation she’d made lately on nights he taught, when she let Lena feed the boy and took a restless bubble bath before she went up to get him. She and Connell were enough to make up a family; in fact, they were plenty. In some families, mother and child was all there was. She didn’t need Ed to be happy.

She was angry at Ed for the class that met two nights a week, and she was angry at him for staying late another night to attend to his research. If he was going to be away this much, at least he could be making good money doing it. His turning down the job at Merck still bothered her, and the fact that he’d spent these years taking on extra instruction only served to make him seem more irresponsible somehow.

At the exit for Northern off the Whitestone Expressway, she took pleasure in seeing Shea Stadium empty. Soon enough — it couldn’t come soon enough — this endless season would be over. At 114th Street, she headed over to Thirty-Fourth Avenue, because she didn’t like driving through Corona on Northern. It depressed her to live next to a neighborhood that run-down, though things closer to her end of town weren’t all that great lately either. Some of the reliable old stores were becoming junk shops, and the number of signs with Spanish in them was on the rise.

She wasn’t looking forward to fetching Connell from the Orlandos. It used to be, when he was in kindergarten or first grade, he’d come running when she appeared at the back door, but lately she’d had to fight to get him out of there. They always had the television going, that was part of it, and the place was comfortable in a way that appealed to a kid, with knick-knacks everywhere and interesting clutter. Brenda’s four-year old daughter, Sharon, was usually there. The number of Orlandos present never seemed to dip below three. It reminded her of her apartment during the happy period in her teens when a new wave of relatives came over from Ireland. There were differences, of course: the Orlandos were louder, more physical, certainly more affectionate. She’d dealt with smoke as a kid, but there were more smokers in the Orlando house; everyone but Sharon seemed to have lit up at some point in Eileen’s presence. She suspected that whatever fun Connell had up there paled in comparison to the afternoons she’d enjoyed with all her cousins around, but he didn’t know the difference. Or maybe it was like when she went up to the Schmidts’ apartment to watch television as a girl. She always felt she was escaping the reality of her life. Was that how Connell felt? If so, he had no reason to. She and Ed provided a calmer home than she’d ever had. Still, these days he never wanted to come down. She had to admit that for the first few minutes after they got downstairs, until she put the kitchen radio on and started cooking, her house felt empty by comparison.

She parked and went inside, took her shoes off, and changed quickly out of her stockings. She put her slippers on and went up the back stairs. Lena answered the door in a smock and said, “Come in, come in,” with the carefree informality of a wom


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an perfectly comfortable in her own home. Behind her, Angelo sat at the table in the dining room that had once been Eileen’s own, smoking a cigarette and flipping through the Post . He still had his Sanitation Department shirt on, unbuttoned and untucked, with an undershirt beneath it. His hands were thick, and his fingers were stained from cigarettes, but there was an elegance in the way his hair was cropped and the longer strands on top were slicked back. He gave her a warm smile and welcomed her with a small gesture of the hand. The only books in the house were a few dusty volumes in the glass case behind him, and he hadn’t finished high school, but still he gave the impression he could summon up reliable answers to almost any question put to him. She watched him luxuriously turn the pages of the newspaper, licking his finger and sliding his hand behind the page to flip it as though it were a leaf in an illuminated manuscript. Since Consolata’s death a few months back, he was less quick to yell, and he sat at the table and talked to Connell more, which the boy delighted in. The family was still paying the rent for Consolata’s apartment, presumably out of whatever small inheritance she’d left them. Lena and Angelo were planning on moving upstairs with Gary, to give Donny, Brenda, and Sharon room to breathe. The kids were grown, but it was evident they wouldn’t be striking off on their own anytime soon.

Gary and Brenda were on the couch, Sharon between them, resting her head on her mother’s lap while her uncle held her feet. Donny was in the easy chair. Connell had the smaller couch to himself. They were watching Jeopardy . Connell barely looked up when Eileen walked in. Donny waved; Gary looked embarrassed to be noticed. He was wearing corduroy pants and a T-shirt that was too tight in the gut. He wasn’t fat so much as the shirt was a shrunken relic of his youth.

The question at hand was about which president served the shortest term in office, thirty-two days. Eileen couldn’t remember the name.

“Harrison,” Gary called out, just before the contestant buzzed in with “William Henry Harrison.” Connell said “Yes!” with gusto and Donny grinned proudly at his older brother. The next question in the category asked for the name of the man who shot James Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station.

“Charles Guiteau,” Gary said quietly, and a moment later the contestant did too.

It was easier for her when Gary stayed in his room. She didn’t like to think about him. He was the oldest of the siblings, but he’d never held down a job. He had an air of resignation about him, as if he’d already given up on life. At the same time, he had a good deal of intellectual ability. She didn’t like to acknowledge that people with real ability might not arrive at comfortable stations in life. Her cousin Pat had been a bad enough disappointment; she didn’t want to consider the possibility that Connell might fall through the cracks like Gary. She certainly didn’t like to think that something similar had happened to her too, on a smaller scale. She had achieved professional status, but her existence wasn’t ideal, and hard as she tried to hack her way through the thicket of middle-class living, she couldn’t find a way out to the clearing. It would have been easier to see Gary as a savant with an overdeveloped capacity to absorb trivia, but the truth was he was a complex, intelligent individual. She’d heard him discussing issues of the day and couldn’t help agreeing with him, even being enlightened by observations she couldn’t have made herself. And yet there he was, living in the margins, talking to a television, dying half an hour at a time. A claustrophobic sensation swept over her. She needed to forget that people like Gary existed, to forget even the possibility of failure. She needed to spirit her son away or Gary would suck him into the black hole of his life.

Connell rose and slapped Donny five across the coffee table. Then he looked up at her.

“It’s time to go,” she said. “I’m making dinner.”

“Can I come down when it’s ready?”

No ,” she said sharply, then collected herself. “You’re coming down now. They’ve had enough of you up here. Let the Orlandos have their evening in peace.”

“He’s no bother,” Angelo said over his newspaper. “He can stay as long as he wants.”

“Thank you, but he’s going to help me get dinner ready.” She hadn’t had any intention to ask Connell for help, but she needed a good excuse.

“We were discussing politics before,” Angelo said. “He said you wanted him to be a politician. I asked him if he knew what a politician was.”

Eileen offered up a little embarrassed laugh. “What I mostly want is for him to get downstairs right now,” she said, loud enough for Connell to hear.

She said her good-byes and walked to the door. Connell lagged behind, standing and watching the show. Gary got another question right, and Donny and Connell broke into hysterics.

Connell ,” she said. “Come on .”

He took his time getting his schoolbag and followed her down the stairs. She got him set up chopping lettuce while she grilled the chicken. She was going to make salad for dinner, with the chicken spread over it. She’d given in to pizza too often recently, and the nights Ed cooked it was grilled cheese in a lagoon of butter, or cheeseburgers, anything with cheese. The boy was too chubby for her liking. It was true that he hadn’t hit a big growth spurt yet, but it was also true that the tendency toward physical largeness on her family’s side could edge into overweight if it wasn’t watched scrupulously. In the absence of worldly cares, Connell stuffed his face with candy and ice cream. She hadn’t had time to get fat as a kid. When she was only a few months older than he was now, she was planning meals, shopping, keeping the house — things she couldn’t imagine him doing. When she sent him to the store, she had to write a list, and he still inevitably forgot something on it.

She was going to start mapping some order onto his life. Ed wasn’t a big help in that area. He loved the boy so much, was so permissive, seemed delighted by everything he did. Connell brought home a ninety-five and Ed beamed; she was always the one forced to ask where the other five points went. She resented the way Connell walked around oblivious of how carefree his existence was, how little responsibility he had.

She put some cherry tomatoes in the salad and cooked the chicken quickly in the pan. She grabbed some dressing, tossed it all together, and told him to sit down. She served him salad and put the chicken over it.

“This is dinner?” he said.

“You need to eat more leafy greens. Some  leafy greens.”

It was seven thirty. Ed was just half an hour into his class, with an hour to go. She spent a few moments of pique in wondering if she and Connell were crossing his mind at all. Connell was eating too fast, as usual. He didn’t even like salad, and yet he was rushing to eat it. There was something irrepressible in the way he ate. Maybe he was trying to speed through dinner so he could get to dessert. He knew the rules: no dessert until his plate was clean. It had been a couple of years since she’d had to stage one of those nightlong sit-ins to get him to eat his meal. She’d figured out what to avoid, and he’d stopped trying to slip it in the garbage when she wasn’t looking and just ate what he was served. Dessert held that power over him. She always kept something in the house, for herself as much as for him, but she took only a little portion, nothing like the heaps he wolfed down. He was going to have to learn restraint if he ever wanted to make a success of himself among serious people. It was unseemly to behave with that kind of abandon. She told him to slow down and he nodded at her and kept on eating at his pace. “Slow down ,” she said, annoyed. “You’re going to choke.” She got up to refill her water glass. She stood at the sink drinking it and filled it again. When she turned around she saw him waving his arms, his fork on his plate, and then she saw him leap to his feet, his hands on his throat. She told him it wasn’t funny, and then she saw his face and began screaming, “Are you choking?” but she already knew he was. It had happened a few times when he was a toddler, but it had always been a mere scare, some dense foodstuff, tuna fish or peanut butter, compacted in his esophagus, and he’d been able to breathe through it, but now he wasn’t making a sound. It was time to grab him coolly and dislodge the food with one fist to his abdomen and the other shoving up, but she couldn’t do it.

She’d dealt with choking a number of times in her career. You got your hands in the midsection and gave the diaphragm a healthy shove and out the food popped. A couple of seconds and it was over. You had more time than people thought, a lot more, four full minutes until brain damage set in. But this was her son and she had no room for error.

She had him by the shoulders. She began to panic. She knew she shouldn’t panic, but she couldn’t help herself; she loved the boy so much. She was thinking Please don’t die, please don’t die  and she started screaming for help, and then she was shoving him out the door and pulling him toward the back stairs. She got to the stairwell and screamed, “Angelo! Angelo! Angelo!” and ran upstairs and banged on the door and screamed, “Come down!” and then she ran back down, because she had left the boy alone. Her hands were shaking. “He’s choking!” she screamed. Connell was turning blue. She heard someone flying down the stairs, and then Donny was shoving her aside, and then he was standing behind Connell, giving him a muscular approximation of the Heimlich, and then something flew out of Connell’s mouth onto the carpet. He started coughing and wailing a terrified wail that sounded more like a cat’s than a child’s. It was a cherry tomato. He must have swallowed it whole. She picked it up and crushed it angrily in her hand. She sat him at the dining room table. Angelo, Gary, and Brenda came in. Connell kept coughing, though the wailing subsided. She went to get him a glass of water. In the kitchen she saw the plates and slammed them into the trash with their contents. She could feel the feelings rising up, getting ready to wash over her, take her over. He took the water down quickly. She would never get angry at him for eating fast again. It was Ed she was angry at, for not being there, for exposing Connell to this danger by his absence. She was grateful the Orlandos were reliably present in the evenings, and mortified that she, a nurse, hadn’t been able to save him herself.

“Are you going to slow down now?” was all she could think to say when she went back to the dining room. Then she burst into tears. Connell seemed too dazed to cry.

“If you’d been Gary,” Donny said, “I would have let you choke. What do they call that, Gary? Euthanasia?”

Connell gave a little chuckle through his coughs.

“Don’t you do that again,” Angelo said. “I don’t need another heart attack. Two is plenty.”

“You good?” Brenda asked, putting her hand on Connell’s shoulder. He nodded. “Slow down. Your food’s not going anywhere.”

“Well, my work here is done,” Donny said. “I better go find a phone booth to change in.”

“Why don’t you go pick up your dirty drawers from the bathroom floor instead,” Brenda said. “I don’t think the hamper’s made of kryptonite.”

The laughs were welcome, but she could see that Donny had been affected by the brush with disaster. He was wide-eyed and shaking his head. The whole Orlando family seemed unnerved. Connell spent the afternoons up there, but it had never occurred to Eileen that they might in some way have thought of him as being part of their family too.

Wheel of Fortune  is on,” Gary said. They made their way up the stairs. She sat at the table with Connell.

“Are you okay?”

He nodded.

“Shaken up?”

He nodded again. “I couldn’t breathe,” he said.

“I know.”

“I couldn’t talk.”

He couldn’t know how hard on her he was making this.

“Horrible,” she said. “I froze up.”

“Donny saved me.”

“I don’t know what happened. I’ve done it before. I guess it never meant as much to me.”

“Thank God they were here,” he said.

“I would have done it eventually,” she said. “My training would have kicked in. I think because I knew they were here, I didn’t have to go into lifesaving mode.”

“He saved my life,” the boy said thoughtfully.

“Let’s not go overboard,” she said. “You were going to be fine. We had time.”

He looked like he was in shock. She went to the freezer and scooped some ice cream into a bowl for him.

“Here, have this,” she said. “I don’t think you can choke on this. Maybe you’ll find a way.”

Ordinarily at this time of night she would have made him sit down with his homework, but she didn’t say anything about it. At the moment she didn’t care if he never did his homework again. Maybe this was how Ed felt all the time.

She told him he could take the ice cream to the couch — another first — and she went to get the television for him. The only set in the house was the little black-and-white one in their bedroom. They had been wheeling it out to the living room during the playoffs and the World Series. She cleaned up the pan from the chicken while he watched Entertainment Tonight , and joined him when she was done. The games usually started at eight, or before eight, but when he got up to change the channel to NBC, The Cosby Show  was on. It took only a moment to understand that preempting The Cosby Show  would have cost the network ad revenue. They lay on separate couches. It wasn’t easy to see the set from that far away. The girl, Vanessa, was trying to wear makeup to school, against her mother’s wishes. The boy, Theo, was attempting to organize his family to do a fire drill. It could have been Leave It to Beaver , except that everyone was black. The world was changing fast. It was hard to fit her son’s America into her memory of how the world had been ordered when she was a child. She felt like a member of an in-between generation, straddling sides in a clash of history. Her life was as remote and ancient to Connell as the stories of the pilgrim settlers had been to her when she was his age.

The Cosby Show  ended and the game was about to come on. She told him she was going to the bedroom to lie down, and he gave her a stricken look.

“You’re not watching the game?”

She could tell he was disturbed by what had happened to him, that he didn’t want to be alone. “I’ll watch for a little while,” she said, relenting.

She didn’t blame him. Over and over she had been reliving in her mind the moment when she’d watched Donny pop the tomato out. She wanted to sit next to Connell, to hold him close to her, but she had no idea how to do it. She had no interest in watching another of these games she’d had to sit through so many of in the run-up to the playoffs, so after a few minutes she rose to get Lonesome Dove.  She flipped through it distractedly, reading and rereading the same page several times. The Mets fell behind early, and by the end of the fifth inning they were down 4–0.

She knew she wasn’t the softest mother in the world. She worked a lot. She worked, period. Other mothers stayed home, baked cookies, talked to their kids all the time, knew everything their kids were thinking. It had never occurred to her to try to be Connell’s friend. She did her best to encourage meaningful conversations at dinner, the three of them talking as a family, and not only because it would be constructive in lubricating Connell’s future advancement among people who judged a person by how he spoke, but also because she liked to hear what he was thinking. She had worked hard to give him a comfortable life. That was as valuable as providing emotional sustenance. Life wasn’t only about expressing feelings and giving hugs. Still, she couldn’t figure out how to break through the defenses her son had put up, and it bothered her, an intellectual problem as much as an emotional one.

She placed her bookmark in the page and held the book in her hands. “I’m thinking of turning in,” she said.

“Can you stay here and read?”

So, he needed her there. He couldn’t say it in so many words, but he had more or less admitted it. She opened her book again and started in on the first page of the chapter she’d been reading.

Ed walked in before ten. They heard the door, and then they heard him hanging his coat in the vestibule, and then they heard him dropping his briefcase on his desk in the study before he came into the living room.

“Still four — nothing?” he asked when he walked in.

Connell nodded. “Gooden got smacked around.”

“They were saying on the radio his velocity is down.”

“El Sid has been great in relief. But the bats are ice cold.”

“Something happened,” she said, interjecting. “Connell choked.”

“What?” Ed turned to her, then back to him. “What happened, buddy?”

“I was trying to concentrate on not choking, and then the next thing I knew I was choking.”

He looked at her. “Really  choking?”

“It was in his windpipe.”

“What was?”

“A cherry tomato.”

“You got it out?”

“Donny did.”

He pointed upstairs. “You ate with the Orlandos?”

“Donny came down,” Connell said.

“To eat with us?”

Her blood ran cold at the thought of discussing the particulars around the boy, who would see on her face how unsettled she still was.

“I’ll explain later,” she said.

“Come here,” Ed said, and he sat on the couch and put his arm around Connell, who leaned into the lapel of his father’s tweed jacket. It was so easy for Ed to connect to him. She always had to be the scold. Maybe Connell had hardened his heart to her. He leaned in further, so that his chubby belly pressed against the waistband of his sweatpants. He had his face in Ed’s flannel shirt and started sobbing. Ed kissed the top of his head and rubbed his back. Connell kept his face buried there for some minutes. Ed was looking to her for a mimed narrative of what had happened, but she kept waving him off. After a while, Connell lifted his head.

“Will you do what your mother has asked you to do a few times now, if I’m not mistaken,” Ed said in a firm but gentle voice, “and try to slow down when you eat? Can you do that for me?”

Connell nodded.

“Good.”

And then, without another word, they had transitioned out of that conversation and were watching the game. She stopped reading Lonesome Dove  and directed her attention to them. It was something to behold, Ed’s physical comfort with the boy, who had his leg draped over his father’s. She’d been affectionate with Connell when he was very young, up until he was about three, but then something had interceded to make it subtly harder for her to connect to him. She knew Ed could do it, so she’d never spent much time worrying about the boy being deprived, but now she had the sensation that she was on the other side of something important. She wasn’t angry so much as hurt and darkly fascinated.

The Mets scored a run in the top of the eighth inning, and then, in the ninth, after Ray Knight grounded out and Kevin Mitchell popped out — she’d sat through so many playoff games of late that she knew the players’ names by now — Mookie Wilson doubled, and then Rafael Santana singled him in. Ed said this team had a knack for getting two-out hits. Lenny Dykstra came to the plate as the tying run, but a few pitches later he struck out swinging and the game was over. The Mets were down three games to two in the World Series. Another loss and their season, which seemed to have united New York for a while and which even someone like her, who paid little attention, knew had been an extraordinary success, would be over.

“Complete game for Hurst,” Ed said. “Impressive.”

“They couldn’t get to him,” Connell said.

Ed rose and shut the volume off but left the screen on, and they watched the Red Sox players celebrate as the credits rolled and the news came on. Then he shut the television off and pulled the plug on it to prepare to roll it back into the bedroom.

“Clemens is up next,” Connell said, foreboding in his voice.

“Yes, but they’re in New York.”

“They have to win two.”

“They’ll do it.”

“It’s Roger Clemens.”

“What did Tug McGraw say?” Ed asked Socratically.

“ ‘Ya gotta believe,’ ” Connell answered.

“Well, then.”

It was after eleven thirty, much later than Connell’s bedtime. They said quick good nights and the boy headed off. Ed wheeled the television in front of him as if he was piloting a projector cart. She got into bed, and Ed came in a few minutes later, after he’d tucked Connell in. She told him the story of how the boy had choked and how she’d responded to it, or failed to respond, and Ed nodded and said it was over now and everything was fine, and it calmed her to hear it; Ed was good at putting her at ease. He gave her a kiss and she rolled over and lay thinking about what had transpired, with a clarity of thought the clamorous broadcast hadn’t allowed. Why had she frozen? As Connell had stood there not even gasping for air, but silently motioning toward his throat, a feeling for him more intense than love and more mysterious had risen up from the depths of her mind. She felt that he was part of her own flesh again, as he’d been once, and that she was on the brink of dying along with him. Nothing would be the same if he died. She would go on, but her life would lose its meaning and purpose. This kid who annoyed and infuriated her so often was walking around with her fate in his hands. She didn’t trust him with it. She felt fragile, exposed. She was going to make him be more careful going forward.

At one thirty in the morning, she was awakened by Connell nudging her, asking if he could come into the bed. She was too sleepy to object. She moved aside and let him slide into the space between them. She couldn’t remember the last time he was in bed with them. She had policed that boundary well when he was younger, not wanting to become one of those couples whose marriages were held hostage by a child in the bed every night. Forget about sex: she just wanted to get a good night’s sleep. Eventually Connell had stopped trying to join them.

She began to groggily recall the events of earlier, and it made sense that he was there. She could hear him nudging Ed awake, the two of them talking.

“I almost died,” Connell said.

“You’re fine,” Ed said.

“I was scared. I’m still scared.”

Ed rolled over. “You are completely fine. You’re safe. You have a long life ahead of you. A long life.”

“I didn’t want to die,” Connell said.

“Well, now you have to remember that feeling. Go out there and make the most of life.”

“You really think they’re going to win?”

“The Mets? Yes.”

“Both games?”

“Both. You’ll see.”

“You’re sure?”

“Have faith,” Ed said. “They’ll pull it out. Now go to sleep.”

As she listened to them talk, she was taken back to the row of beds she slept in when Mr. Kehoe was still living in the other room. She had no memory of any conversations taking place among the three of them once the lights were out. Both her parents faced away from her. She remembered wondering what it would have been like for the two of them to sleep in the same bed. Now she wondered whether she’d have had the nerve to crawl between them and feel their heat radiating on either side of her. Maybe if they’d slept in the same bed, she would have grown up as the kind of girl who had that nerve. Maybe your imagination stopped at the boundaries that contained it. She had taken comfort in the placement of her bed between theirs. Maybe you took what you could get. She could have reached out and touched their backs. That had been enough for her. It wouldn’t be enough for her son. She was glad, on this night when she hadn’t been able to save him herself, to have one bed they slept in and to be able to give him this opportunity. She hadn’t had it as a girl, but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t have it. She wondered if he’d lost some of his trust in her tonight. So much of life was the peeling away of illusions. Maybe she’d only hurried that along. Maybe that wasn’t the worst thing. He was going to have to fend for himself at some point.

She felt Connell roll away from Ed and nuzzle up to her in a way that she hadn’t anticipated him doing. His forehead was pressed against the top of her back. Within a minute, he was asleep. She couldn’t move without waking him, but she also couldn’t sleep without moving him. She decided to wait. She felt oddly touched having him there. Still, it was going to be a long night, and she’d be exhausted in the morning, so she’d eventually have to move him off her.

She lay there thinking, I almost lost him. I’m never serving goddamned cherry tomatoes again. Ed better be right about the Mets, or this kid is going to be more disappointed in his father than he is in the Mets. Then again, he has to learn that things don’t always work out the way you want them to. 

She went back and forth between thinking it would be nice if Connell got the outcome he wanted and thinking it would be character-building for him not to get it. Fatigue from a long day at work and the effects of adrenaline withdrawal must have been enough to overcome her need for space, because she felt herself drifting off, even though he was still attached to her.

The kid would be thrilled , she thought. Let them win .

The next thing she knew she was waking up. Somehow in the night she had gotten herself to face the boy, who was still sleeping, and Ed behind him on his back, out cold. Connell breathed in and out softly. His lashes were long like his father’s, and in the muted sunlight peeking through the blinds his cheeks looked sweet and full. As if he could sense her looking at him, he opened his eyes and blinked a few times in that half-conscious, slightly perturbed way he used to as a toddler when he hadn’t yet fully come to. He gave her a slumber-drunk smile; then he was back asleep. She didn’t know what to do with everything she was feeling for him, even for her husband, so she got up to take a shower and left the two of them to wake up and find each other there.

Part III. Breathe the Rich Air, 1991

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15

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After Connell turned in, Ed surprised her by not moving to the study to grade lab reports or read journal articles. He lay on the couch with the newspaper listening to Wagner. She didn’t have to know music to recognize that it was Wagner, because the swelling crescendos and singer’s deep voice gave it away. Ed often listened to Wagner when he was in a contemplative mood.

She sat on the other couch with her book, happy to share with him the beaten-back chill of a February night, which made itself known in the frost on the windows. She switched the light on in the artificial fireplace, pausing briefly to rattle the glass coals and hear them clack against each other. It pleased her that the man she’d married, in addition to possessing an erudition that impressed even worldly friends, read the sports section in its entirety. At one point he rose and went to the study, and she thought she’d lost him for the night, but he returned with a pen to do the crossword. She loved the carefree way he called on her for help when flummoxed by a clue. It suggested an abiding faith in the soundness of his intellect that he could meet head-on those swells of ignorance that might capsize another man’s confidence; they were wavelets lapping against his hull.

“I’ve done everything I can do,” he said, as he lay the quarter-folded newspaper on the coffee table. “I want to be realistic. Maybe it’s time for me to relax.”

She glanced up from her book to catch his eye, but he was looking at the ceiling.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she said.

“I’m turning fifty soon. I’m slowing down. I’ve earned a rest.”

“Nonsense,” she said.

“I’m going to become one of those guys who come home and call it a night. Maybe I’ll watch some TV.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“I can start right now.”

Her heart leapt a little. It was pleasant to imagine him spending more time in their bed. He had finally given up the night classes, thank God, but he still worked so hard, often coming in from the study long after she was asleep.

“I don’t know how long you could keep that up,” she said. “You’d get bored.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Well, if it makes you happy,” she said.

He’d already moved to the stereo to change the record. He plugged his headphones in and had them on before she could hear what he was listening to. He lay back down and closed his eyes.

She waited for him to a


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cknowledge her gaze. He liked to lie like that and slip into a reverie, but he usually opened his eyes between movements to give her a little review with his raised brows. She wondered if he were sleeping, he was lying so still, but then he began tapping his foot rhythmically. When the side ended, he lay there, arms crossed across his chest, impassive. She shut off her light and stood to head into the bedroom. She called his name, but he didn’t reply. She watched for some kind of acknowledgment of her departure, but he only shifted his glasses. She went to him and stood over him. He must have imagined he could outlast her in this game, but she was starting to grow disturbed by it. She leaned in to kiss his cheek good night; before she reached it he had opened his eyes and was staring back at her in a kind of horror, as if she’d interrupted him in a reflection on something monstrous.

“I’m heading to bed,” she said.

“I’ll be right in.”

After a few bouts of fitful sleep — she never slept well without him beside her — she headed to the living room. She found the end table lamp on and Ed still wearing the headphones. A record was spinning, and he’d set up a stack to be played by the autochanger. She shut the stereo off and called his name. He put a hand up to silence her.

“I’m just going to lie here a minute,” he said.

“It’s four in the morning.” She switched off the lamp, but ambient light still filtered into the room from the coming sun. “You need good, quality sleep. You’re always saying that. Don’t lights interrupt sleep? You need REM sleep. Restful  sleep. Come on inside. You have to teach in a few hours.”

“I think I’m going to cancel class,” he said. “I’m not feeling it.”

“Huh?”

He hadn’t missed a class in twenty years. They’d had fights about it. You can miss a single class , she would say when something came up. They can’t fire you for it. They can’t fire you, period. 

“I think I’ve earned a day off,” he said.

“Well, either way, just come to bed. It’s late.”

She stood over him until he got up. They shuffled down the hall together. In the morning when she woke he was sitting at the foot of the bed.

“Maybe you’d better call for me,” he said.

After she’d made the call, she showered and dressed. When she headed to the kitchen, she saw him lying on the couch again, as if he hadn’t moved from the night before, the only difference being the cup of tea on the table.

“You’re taking this whole ‘taking it easy’ thing pretty seriously,” she said.

“I’m just gathering my energy,” he said. “I’ll be all right tomorrow. I’ll go in tomorrow.”

He let himself be kissed good-bye. She went to work. When she returned she was surprised to find him in the same spot, wearing the same clothes. She hadn’t really believed he’d stay home all day; it was unlike him. His record of never missing work was a matter of somber pride. Connell’s bag and jacket were slung over a chair in the dining room.

Ed’s eyes were closed. His feet beat the time. She stood over him, tapped him on the shoulder. As she spoke, he motioned to the headphones to indicate he couldn’t hear her. She mimed pulling them off her ears.

“I’m listening to music,” he said.

“Plainly.”

“How was work?”

“Work was fine,” she said. “Did you stay there all day?”

“I got up to eat.”

“So this is the new thing?”

“I’m trying it out. I’m feeling enormously refreshed.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” she said.

“I’ve been meaning to spend more time attending to my needs,” he said. “This is step one. I’ve had a cloudy head for a while. I’m trying to get back to basics.”

“What about work?”

“I’m going to need you to call in again for me tomorrow.”

In the big mirror in the other room she saw herself in the coat she’d been meaning to replace. She had once thought of thirty as a terribly old age, but now she was turning fifty at the end of the year, and thirty seemed impossibly young.

“How long do you plan to do this?”

“I hadn’t formulated a plan.”

“Shall I expect you to eat with us tonight?”

“Of course,” he said, waving her off and putting the headphones back on.

As she began to prepare dinner, she reflected on what this thing could be. It was clearly some kind of midlife crisis. Something was spooking him: getting old, probably. She was confident it wasn’t another woman. They were coconspirators in a mission of normalcy. A stronger deterrent to infidelity even than love was the desire to maintain a stable household, a stress-free life. She knew he was reliable, and not only because he wasn’t going to miss work to sleep off a drunk, or gamble his paycheck at the track, or forget their anniversary. He was, in a subtler way, reliably knowable. Some women yearned for a hint of mystery about their men; she loved Ed’s lack of mystery. It had shade, depth, texture; it was just complex enough. His heart contained too little passion for him to attempt a grand affair, and too much for him to endure a scurrilous one. He was too preoccupied with his work to love two women at once; he lacked that tolerance for superficial interaction every successful adulterer wielded.

A few days later he returned to work, but the headphones ritual persisted in the evenings. One night he returned to his study, and she felt relieved. She assumed he was grading lab reports, but when she went in to bring him a plate of cookies she found him writing in a notebook, which he took pains to block from her view. When she went back later that night to look for it, it was gone.

• • •

Their dinners began to feel strange to her. Ed looked away when she tried to meet his gaze, and he never wanted to talk about his work — or about anything, really, but Connell’s day and the happenings at school.

“And then,” Connell said, “they lifted him up to grab the rim, but they didn’t give him the ball to dunk. Somebody pulled his shorts down. And then they pulled his underwear down! He just hung up there until Mr. Cotswald ran over and got him.”

“Ha!”

Ed laughed with just a bit too much gusto. She’d expected him to condemn the boys’ behavior. It was as if he hadn’t really absorbed what Connell had said. Something in the warmth in his voice, the distraction that flickered in his eyes, made her wonder if she’d been too hasty in ruling out an affair. A listlessness had come over him lately that seemed at times like a species of dreaminess.

“Well.” Ed pushed back his chair. He gave Connell a perfunctory pat on the head and retired to the couch and the privacy of his headphones. Connell looked embarrassed, as if he’d extended a hand for a shake and been rebuffed. She knew enough not to compound it by speaking to him.

She went to bed feeling frowsy. She squeezed the deposits of fat at her hips and wondered how they had managed to sneak up on her. She knew the doctors at work still turned to look at her in the halls, but if Ed didn’t see her that way, then the interest of other men felt less a vote of confidence than a shabby habit that in its mindless lack of differentiation — she saw the way they looked at so many of the girls — called into question whether she had ever been beautiful at all.

Ed came in after midnight. He stood over her, gazing oddly. She could feel herself stiffen.

“Anything you want to tell me?”

“Not really,” he said.

“What are you listening to, anyway?”

“Wagner’s Ring Cycle . I have so many records I haven’t even cracked the plastic on. It makes me anxious to see them all sitting there. I’m working my way through them.”

She was surprised by how relieved she felt to hear this. It was sufficiently particular to actually be plausible. It was the kind of thing she imagined people did when they came to a point where the roads to the past and the future were equally muddy — retreat to the high ground of a major project.

• • •

She had long measured a meal’s success by the range of colors arrayed on the plate, but it felt hopelessly middle-class now to conceive of food in this fashion, and she looked askance at orange carrots, bright green beans, white mashed potatoes, the dark pile of meat and onions, picking at it with her fork in the way she resented in her child.

She used to love to sit at her kitchen table and watch the drapes kick up in the wind, to look through the window across the little divide and see the Palumbos gathered in their dining room, but now the house next door felt far too close. She hated its plain brick face and the shabby décor visible within. She had long tolerated this vulgarity because she felt privileged to have a house at all, but now she found it too disappointing to bear.

Lately she couldn’t stop thinking about Bronxville. When she’d left Lawrence in 1983 for the nursing director job at St. John’s Episcopal in Far Rockaway, she’d missed going to Bronxville every day. When she returned to Einstein a couple of years later to be head of nursing, she’d begun to think the timing might finally be right to move to Bronxville. The commute would be shorter for both of them, she was making good money now, Ed had gotten into a decent pay class himself, and they’d made a few good investments. They had put eight thousand dollars into oil shale stock on the advice of one of Ed’s colleagues, a geologist at NYU, and it had climbed to forty-four thousand. But then in ’85 the shale oil company went bankrupt. That year, they also lost twenty grand on a penny stock scam with First Jersey Securities. The final nail came in 1987, when her boss left for a government appointment, and the new head of the hospital fired those he could and appointed his own leadership team. Though she landed on her feet at North Central Bronx, she had to take a pay cut to do so.

She couldn’t look across at the Palumbos’ just then, with their dreadful chandelier glowing like margarine and the two of them looking all their years as they sat down to a cheerless meal, so she got up to close the drapes. Ed took her rising as a cue that the meal was over and headed for the couch.

• • •

When she and Ed moved in, the neighborhood was Irish, Italian, Greek, and Jewish, and they knew everyone on the block. Then families started to trickle out, and in their place came Colombians, Bolivians, Nicaraguans, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis. Connell played with the new kids, but she never met the parents. When an Iranian family — they called themselves Persian, but she couldn’t bring herself to refer to them as anything but Iranian — bought her friend Irene’s place up the block after she moved to Garden City, the son, Farshid, became a classmate of Connell’s at St. Joan of Arc and started hanging around the house.

It wasn’t hard to feel the pull of the suburbs, because the neighborhood was half suburb already, arranged around mass transit but also around car travel. There were driveways next to every house, and gas stations and car dealerships at regular intervals along Northern Boulevard. LaGuardia Airport was a short drive away, and Robert Moses’s highways, and the massive parking lots at Shea, and the husk of the World’s Fair, which had left detritus like a glacier.

Most of the stores she loved were gone, replaced by trinket shops, T-shirt shops, fireworks black marketeers, exotic hair salons hidden behind heavy curtains, over-the-counter purveyors of deadly martial arts paraphernalia, comic book stores, karate schools, check-cashing places, Korean-run Optimo-branded cigar and candy stores that sold cheap knockoffs of popular Japanese toys, taxi depots, sketchy bars, fast food, wholesalers of obscure cuisines, restaurants suggestive of opium dens, bodegas stocked with products she would never consider eating. The Boulevard Theatre on the corner was now a Latin dance hall with neon lights flickering late into the night and an insistent beat that hectored the remaining old guard to leave. Cars piled up outside it and the cops were always breaking up fights. The gloomy little Irish bar was the last stand against the invasion, but she couldn’t take some specious pride in it now after avoiding it all these years.

The memory of wealth haunted the nearby garden apartment buildings. She imagined gaunt bachelors presiding over dwindling fortunes, long lines coming to a silent end. There were remnants of the way it had been, like Barricini’s Chocolates and Jahn’s, but stepping into them only reminded her how few of the old places were left.

She knew it was possible to see the changes as part of what made the city great, an image of what was to come, the necessary cycle of immigration, but only if you weren’t the one being displaced. Maybe even then you could, if you were a saint. She had no desire to be a saint, not if it meant she’d have to blunt the edge of her anger at these people. It certainly wasn’t saintliness that led her to attempt to get past her resentment at the break-in that occurred a couple of years back, while they were on a cruise in the Bahamas. Rather, it was a desire to continue living in the neighborhood without boiling over into outright vitriol whenever she stepped into the grocery store, where anyone she laid eyes on, worker or customer, unless they looked respectable, could have been one of the offenders. She had returned from that cruise to find her jewelry box rifled through and her drawers turned inside out. Luckily, she’d long ago overridden Ed and spent the money to rent a safe deposit box at Manufacturers Hanover, where she stored Ed’s LeCoultre watch and her mother’s embattled engagement ring. All the bonds were in the box as well. She took a certain satisfaction in thinking of how little the thieves had made off with; for once it seemed an advantage that Ed had never been the sort to buy necklaces and bracelets for her birthday or their anniversary. The degenerates had pinched Ed’s stereo, that was true, but he’d needed a new one for years, and this was an excuse for her to buy one for him. She was angry too at the Orlandos, who’d been home at the time. She couldn’t imagine how they hadn’t heard anything, or done anything if they’d heard. What kept her awake some nights, though, fantasizing about revenge, was the fact that they’d taken Mr. Kehoe’s clarinet from the bedroom closet. What could they possibly have wanted with a clarinet? How valuable could such a thing have been on the secondhand market? There was no way they were keeping it for themselves, because the swine wouldn’t know what to do with such a delicate instrument. She pictured them back in their sty of an apartment, surveying their loot, sniffing it, looking at the clarinet’s pieces in stupefaction and dropping them into a garbage can.

She couldn’t blame everything on the latest waves of immigration. Her immediate neighbors had been there longer than she had and both had fallen on tough times. Both houses used to look respectable, if a little dull, with dingy lace curtains in the windows and bleached paint on the trim, but now a rusted-out car sat on blocks in the Palumbos’ backyard, next to a rain-filled drum, and Gene Cooney’s house was under permanent construction, with ugly scaffolding marring the facade and a garden box full of crabgrass and construction debris. Gene stalked the perimeter all day with an edgy intensity, wearing a tool belt around his waist. Wild rumors had sprung up about him and his family, spread by newer residents. He was said to be an IRA arms smuggler lying low. There were whispers about his daughter, who wore short skirts and fishnet stockings and kept nocturnal hours. Eileen knew the truth: he’d gone off the rails after his wife had been killed on Northern Boulevard by a hit-and-run driver, and his daughter wasn’t a prostitute but a girl who had fallen victim to the fashions of the Hispanics she’d grown up around — though one could be forgiven for confusing some of them with hookers.

When she’d first moved onto the block, the garden boxes in front of the houses were lush with flowers in bloom and respectable attempts at horticulture, but many had since returned to the wild, with giant weeds poking up over their walls. She was committed to making hers an oasis against decay, although she hadn’t inherited her father’s sympathy with all manner of vegetable life. Angelo had helped her keep things alive, and she’d picked up a bit of knowledge working alongside him, but ever since his third heart attack had killed him a few years back, she was constantly buying new plants to replace the ones that wilted in the middle of the night.

She overspent on furniture. She had the rugs cleaned and the walls painted every two years. She’d found a beautiful crystal chandelier on sale on the Bowery. The house wasn’t fancy, but it had a certain luster. The one thing she couldn’t escape was the sound of the Orlandos’ footsteps above her. The fact that she owned the whole building didn’t make it any more pleasant to hear them.

• • •

Ed was seated at the table as she fixed the tea. His back was to her, possessed of that solidity that so delighted her the first time she put her arms around him. Now she wanted to pound on it. He was hunched over and rubbing his temples. She put a hand on his shoulder and he flinched at her touch. She thought, Who the hell does he think I am? 

• • •

She considered flinging herself on him before he could get the headphones plugged in. She thought of ripping the plug out once he’d settled into his pillow and filling the room with sound, screaming over the music the invectives she’d held in. But she didn’t do that. She sat in the armchair and read a book until she headed to bed.

• • •

She wondered whether she was being hard on her husband. He had, after all, more than earned a rest after teaching for so many years. She hadn’t heard anything from Connell yet about it, and she expected that the boy, who was becoming a more sullen presence in the house as he slunk into adolescence, would be oblivious enough to his father’s new routines to allow her to conclude that it was all in her head.

Connell noticed, though. “So what’s with all the record listening?” he asked one night, snapping his gum in that insouciant way that usually annoyed her. Now she saw that the attitude gave him the courage to speak.

Ed looked up but didn’t respond.

“What’s up with the headphones?” he asked again, stepping closer to his father.

Given the strange way Ed had been behaving lately, she thought he might fly into a rage, but he simply took the headphones off.

“I’m listening to opera.”

“You listen to it all the time now.”

“I decided I didn’t want to die not having heard all these masterpieces. Verdi. Rossini. Puccini.”

“Who’s dying? You’ve got plenty of time.”

“There’s no time like the present,” Ed said.

“You don’t have to use those,” Connell said, pointing to the headphones.

“I don’t want to disturb anyone.”

“You don’t think you’re disturbing anyone this way?”

• • •

Another night, when she picked him up from track practice, Connell asked her in the car if his father was unhappy.

“I wouldn’t say that,” she said. “I think he’s quite happy.”

“He always says, ‘You have to decide in life. You deliberate awhile, you think of all the possibilities on both sides, and then you make a decision and stick to it.’ ”

She’d never heard this particular line of reasoning from Ed. This must’ve been one of those things he and the boy talked about when she wasn’t around. She could almost feel her ears pricking up.

“Like with girls. He says, ‘When you’re getting married, you make a decision and that’s it. Things aren’t always perfect, but you work at them. The important thing is that you decided.’ ”

Her stomach tightened.

“But what I don’t get is, if it’s such a chore, if you’re talking about having to stick to it because you decided it, why do people do it in the first place?”

“They do it because they’re in love,” she said defensively. “Your father and I were in love. Are  in love.”

“I know,” he said.

It occurred to her that perhaps he didn’t know. Overt affection had always been uncomfortable for her, but in front of the boy it felt impossible. Ed used to squeeze and kiss her when Connell was a baby, but she would wriggle out of it. Certainly she didn’t reach for him herself, but he knew when they married that he’d have to take the lead. She wasn’t like the women a few years younger who wore miniskirts. What she offered instead was the negotiated submission of her fierce independence. She was different in bed with him than she was anywhere else, but this wasn’t something her son could have any idea about.

“Your father is happy,” she said. “He’s just getting older, is all. You’ll understand someday. The same exact thing will happen to you.”

It didn’t feel like the best explanation, but it must’ve been good enough, because the boy was silent for the rest of the ride.

16

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His father was always on the couch now, but that morning he came to Connell’s room and told him he wanted to take him to the batting cages. They drove to the usual place, off the Grand Central Parkway, in back of a mini-mall.

Connell picked out the least dinged-up bat from the rack and tried to find a helmet that fit. His father came back from the concession stand with a handful of coins for the machines. Connell headed for the machine labeled Very Fast. He put the sweaty, smelly helmet on and pulled his batting glove onto his right hand. He took his position in the left-handed batter’s box and dropped the coin in. The light came on on the machine, and then nothing happened for a while, until a ball shot out and thumped against the rubber backstop. Connell watched another one pass and wondered if he was going to be able to hit any of them. They were easily over eighty miles an hour, though they weren’t the ninety miles an hour they were presented as.

The next pitch came and Connell timed his swing a little too late and the ball smacked behind him with a fearsome thwack . The next pitch he foul-tipped, and the one after that he hit a tiny grounder on, and then the next one he sent on a line drive right back at the machine. It would have been a sure out, but it was nice to hit it with authority. His father let out a cheer behind him, and Connell promptly overswung on the next pitch, caught the handle on the ball and felt a stinging, ringing sensation in his hands and hopped in place, then swung through the next pitch entirely.

“Settle down, son,” his father said. “You can hit these. Find the rhythm.”

The next pitch, which he foul-tipped, was the last, and he stopped and put the bat between his legs and adjusted his batting glove. There wasn’t a line forming behind him, so he could take his time. Balls pinged off bats in nearby cages and banged off piping or died in the nets. His father had his hands on the netting and was leaning against it.

“You ready?”

“Yeah.”

“Go get ’em.”

He put a coin in and took his stance. The first pitch buzzed past him and slammed into the backstop.

“Eye on the ball,” his father said. “Watch it into the catcher’s mitt. Watch this one. Don’t swing.”

He watched it zoom by.

“Now time it. It’s coming again just like that. Same spot. This is all timing.”

He took a big hack and fouled it off. He was getting tired quickly.

“Shorten your swing,” his father said. “Just try to make contact.”

He took another cut, a less vicious one, more controlled, and drilled it into what would have been the outfield. He did it again with the next pitch, and the one after that. The ball coming off the bat sounded like a melon getting crushed. The whole place smelled like burning rubber.

When the coins ran out, he held the bat out to his father. “You want to get in here?”

“No,” his father said. “You have fun.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I don’t think I could hit a single pitch.”

“Sure you could. You’re selling yourself short.”

“My best days are behind me,” his father said.

“Why don’t you take a few hacks? Come on, Dad. Just one coin.”

“Fine,” his father said. “But you can’t laugh at me when I look like a scarecrow in there.”

His father came into the cage and took the helmet from him. He took the bat, refused the batting glove. He was in a plaid, button-down shirt and jeans that fit him snugly, and Connell thought that he actually did look a little like a scarecrow. His glasses stuck out from the helmet like laboratory goggles. Connell stepped out of the cage and positioned himself where his father had been standing. His father dropped the coin in and took his place in the batter’s box, the lefty side, Connell’s side.

The first pitch slammed into the backstop. The next one did as well. His father had the bat on his shoulder. The next pitch came crashing in too.

“Aren’t you going to swing?”

“I’m getting the timing,” his father said.

The next pitch landed with a thud, and the following one went a little high and came at Connell. His father didn’t offer at any of them.

“You have to swing sometime,” Connell said. “Only three left.”

“I’m watching the ball into the glove,” he said. “I’m waiting for my pitch.”

“Two left.”

“Okay,” his father said.

Dad . You can’t just stand there.”

The last pitch came and his father took a vicious cut at it. The ball shot off like cannon fire and the bat came around to rest on his father’s back in textbook form, Splendid Splinter form. The ball would have kept rising if it hadn’t been arrested by the distant net, which it sank into at an impressive depth.

“Wow!”

“Not bad,” his father said. “I think I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.”

Connell went in and took the helmet and bat from his father, who looked tired, as if he’d been swinging for half an hour. He dropped the coin in and found the spot in the batter’s box. His father’s hit must have freed his confidence up, because he made solid contact on all but one of his swings, and then he put another coin in and started attacking the ball, crushing line drives.

“Attaboy,” his father said.

He hit until he was tired, and they drove to the diner they liked to go to after the cages. Connell ordered a cheeseburger and his father ordered a tuna melt. They shared a chocolate shake. Connell drained his half and his father handed him his own to drink.

“That’s okay, Dad.”

“You drink it,” his father said.

The food came and his father didn’t really eat. Instead he seemed to be looking interestedly at Connell.

“What’s up?” Connell asked.

“I used to love to watch you eat. I still do, I guess.”

“Why?”

“When you were a baby, maybe two years old, you used to put a handful of food in your mouth and push it in with your palm. Like this.” His father put his hand up to his mouth to show him. ‘More meatballs!’ you used to say. Your face would be covered in sauce. ‘More meatballs.’ You had this determined expression, like nothing was more important in the world.” He was chuckling. “And you ate fast! And a lot. You used to ask for more. ‘All gone!’ you said. I used to love to watch you eat. I guess it was instinct. I knew you would survive if you ate. But part of it was just the pleasure you took in it. A grilled cheese sandwich cut into little squares. That was the whole world for you then. You getting it into your mouth was the only thing that mattered. You couldn’t eat it fast enough.”

His father was making him nervous watching him. He hadn’t eaten any of his sandwich.

“You going to sit there and watch me the whole time?”

“No, I’m eating.”

His father took a couple of bites. Connell called for more water and ketchup.

“I wish I could explain it to you,” his father said after a while.

“What?”

“What it’s like to have you. What it’s like to have a son.”

“You going to eat those fries?”

“They’re all yours,” his father said. Connell took some. “Eat as many as you like.” His father slid the plate toward him. “Eat up.”

17

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She decided to scrap the intimate dinner they’d agreed upon for his fiftieth birthday and throw a full-scale surprise party instead. One thing it couldn’t fail to do was get him off the couch for a night, but she wanted more than that: she wanted to wake him up, set him on the course to recovering his lost enthusiasm. He’d spent so much time alone lately that it would be good for him to be forced to mix with others.

Until she was drawing up the list for the party, she’d never noticed how weighted toward her side their social group was. So many of the friends they’d lost touch with were Ed’s. When she considered her friends’ husbands, she saw the same thing — a withdrawal, a ceding of the social calendar to the wife. It was her responsibility to ensure that her husband didn’t get domesticated entirely. She would go beyond the usual crowd. She decided to track down some of the guys who were his regular b


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uddies when they first got married and reach out to the cousins he never saw. She would remind him how much there was to look forward to.

• • •

She gave her garden box a full makeover, even though she knew the early-March chill would kill everything right after the party.

As she finished patting the soil down around a rosebush, a car zoomed past at a murderous clip bound for Northern Boulevard, salsa music pounding from its four-corner speakers. If she were a man she would have spat in disgust. She hated the driver; she hated the drug cartel he likely worked for; she hated worrying that people taking the train to the party might run into some kind of trouble. God forbid any of them got propositioned by the prostitutes that had begun to walk Roosevelt Avenue. One of them had approached Ed while Eileen and he were coming off the stairs holding hands.

She hoped that the NCB executives she’d invited wouldn’t judge her for her current situation. Her career depended on their seeing her as the kind of person who belonged in their midst. How could she ever explain to them the way Jackson Heights used to be?

She didn’t think of herself as racist. She was proud of her record of coming to the aid of black nurses who’d been unjustly targeted by superiors. She enjoyed an easy rapport with the security guards at NCB, most of whom were black.

She loved to tell the story of her father’s stepping forward to drive with Mr. Washington when no one else would. She also enjoyed recounting the tale of how, when none of the old Irish guard would shop at the Chinese grocer up the block, and the new store was on the verge of failure, her father had paid the man a visit to take his measure. Satisfied that the man, Mr. Liu, was a hard worker and an honest proprietor, her father had stood for a few evenings on the corner near the grocer with the suspect vegetables and stopped people and said, “Go spend some money at the chink son of a bitch’s place,” and they’d listened. Now the whole of Woodside was Chinese grocers. She wondered if the newer generation would do for an Irish immigrant looking to make an honest living the same thing her father had done for one of their own years before. She wondered if some of the black nurses she’d helped along the way would lift a finger for a white woman in need. She’d watched the Bronx spiral downward over the years, and she hadn’t flinched. The security guards marveled at her driving into the neighborhood alone every day. They never let her walk to her car unescorted at night.

No, she couldn’t be called racist. That didn’t mean she had to like what they were doing to her neighborhood. They were making it into a war zone.

• • •

The day of the party, her house had never seemed so small. An hour before Ed was supposed to arrive, there was barely room to pass in the halls; she had to ask her cousin Pat to carry a side table down to the basement. Still, as soon as people began assembling in the kitchen, she felt their presence as a kind of armor around her. She tended to the ham and the broccoli casserole in the stove and the separate duty of each pot on the stovetop. She had made nothing to offend anyone’s palate, and so she presented it without anxiety. When the caterer arrived with trays containing more food than could possibly get eaten, she told herself it was safe to begin to relax.

When Connell called from a pay phone and said they were ten minutes away, she was surprised to find herself seized by terror. She passed the news to the living room, which filled with that clamor particular to a crowd silencing itself. A quiet grew louder than the din that had preceded it; she could almost hear her pulse in its murky depths. She moved through the wall of people to be near enough for him to see her when he entered.

As Ed stepped into the room, Eileen closed her eyes, obeying a strange compulsion not to look at his face. A frenzied chorus rang out around her. When she opened her eyes, she saw him beaming and being passed from person to person, shouting as he encountered every new face — shouts like war whoops that could have been either exultant or lunatic. He was red with excitement, and sweat was gathering on him. As she moved close to hug him, she heard him whoop the way he had for the others, as though he hadn’t seen her in years. His whoops went on; they wouldn’t die down. He greeted each successive person with the same ecstatic disbelief.

She was afraid to leave him, afraid to stay. She saw him engulfed in friends’ arms and ducked into the kitchen to get him a drink. When she returned he was miming his own shock for them over and over. She didn’t want anyone else to notice the unconvincing mirth in his performance. She shouted to Connell to cue the stereo. Ed was ushered into the dining room. In the mirror she tried to look at other people’s reactions but was inexorably drawn back to her husband’s expressions. When he saw his brother Phil in from Toronto, he let out a howl that sounded like that of a dying animal. She reached for a tray of hors d’oeuvres to pass. The food smells were mingling successfully; no trace of dust came off any surface she touched; nothing was out of place. The only messes were the ones guests were making themselves — someone bumped into the punch bowl and sent a couple of crystal mugs crashing to the floor — and for those she had great patience.

She poured herself a glass of wine and drifted into the living room, where she gave herself over to conversation. Behind the timbre of any individual voice lay the lovely murmur of the group, but she couldn’t distract herself from the thought of her husband’s frenzied surprise, and she went in search of him.

She went out on the stoop with Pat and the smokers and the kids, but no one had seen him come outside. The bathroom was locked, but after a little while her aunt Margie came out. She went down to the basement and searched its recesses, where she found no sign of him.

When she got back up to the landing at her back door, instead of heading inside she called up the stairs. There was no response, but she had an instinct to proceed upstairs anyway, and she found him sitting on the flight between the second and third floors, just sitting there, looking directly at her as she approached, in a way that unnerved her, as though he’d been waiting for her to find him. The music and talking muffled through the intervening flight rose and fell in waves, following the rhythm of its own respiration. There had been no dip in the revelry yet.

“Frank wants to take your picture,” she said. “Fiona just got here. I don’t know if you saw her.”

He sat in silence, though he didn’t look away.

“Pat’s only here to see you. He doesn’t go to parties anymore. You should have heard him when I finally got him on the phone. ‘For Ed?’ he said. ‘Sure. Anything.’ ”

“Keep him away from the bar,” Ed said.

“He won’t even come inside,” she said, chuckling. “He’s on the stoop.”

She could feel her eyes watering, though she wasn’t consciously sad. “We’re having a real party downstairs,” she said. “It’d be even better if you were there.”

He patted the spot beside him. The gentleness of the gesture touched her, and being moved when she was also angry confused her, so that she wanted to go back down alone, but she gave in, gathered her skirt under her and sat.

“I’m getting old,” he said. “I can feel my body breaking down.”

“You just feel that way because it’s your birthday,” she said. “Everyone gets old.”

“I didn’t expect to see all these people. I thought we’d have a quiet night.”

She looked at him wryly. “Haven’t we had enough quiet nights lately?”

“I don’t even know half these people.”

“You know almost every single one of them,” she said. “There are maybe four people that you’ve never met.”

“Then I don’t remember them.”

“Of course you do. I’ll go around with you and start conversations and you can hear who they are that way.”

He looked away.

“You love parties,” she said. “You grumble and complain that I entertain too often, but once the party’s going, no one enjoys it more than you. Those people are here to see you. I don’t know what to tell them when they ask where you are.”

“Tell them you saw me a second ago in the other room.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m tired. I can’t tell you how tired I am. I’m tired of standing in front of a bunch of people and being the center of attention. Do you have any idea how much energy that takes? You’re never off. Never . You can never have a bad day. I feel like I’ve been trying to keep all these juggling balls in the air, and I can’t let them hit the ground or something bad will happen. I’d love to just lie down right now.”

“Well, you can’t. Everyone’s here. We have to make the best of it. I’m sorry I did this.”

“You don’t need to be sorry.”

“I am. This was a stupid idea. Stupid, stupid.”

“I just need the school year to end,” he said. “That’s it. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to vacation. No summer classes for me this year, that’s for sure. I’m just going to stay put.”

Another day, she might have hissed at him to get off his ass and get down there, but something prevented her. She was about to say she’d come back and get him in five minutes when he slapped his knees and stood.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Before they reentered the party, she ran down to the basement to grab a bottle from the rack.

“Wave this around when we get in there,” she said. “In case anyone noticed you were gone.”

Frank McGuire had the camera around his neck and called Ed over, as relieved as a retriever reassembling the pack. She watched him arrange the guys in a row in the dining room, the group waiting for him to focus, and then a moment of stillness that seemed to expand and breathe. She tried to memorize the scene — not the visual details, which she could recall later by looking at the photograph, but the mood, the nimble camaraderie, the way they clutched each other, the hint of annoyance at having to pose, the way afterward they laughed off the brush with intimacy. Every picture of men in a row, she thought, ended as this one did, with them expelled as if by force, dispersing into separate corners to get a drink, a plate of food, to smoke a cigarette. Ed looked vulnerable standing there in the lee tide. She decided not to leave his side for the rest of the party, and ushered him around with a subtle steering of her arm. He was a perfect sailboat, responding to the slightest tug on the line, tacking when she wanted him to tack, coming about when she wanted him to come about. She could feel him relax with her there, and soon she was having fun again. She had to resist her impulse to leave him and head to where the good conversations were taking place. She’d always considered it a luxury that she could count on her husband to entertain himself at parties. From across the room they would check in with each other with a wave, a nod, a wink, and a charge of desire would run through her as she watched the way women’s eyes danced when they were near him. It was hard to see him as well up close; something was lost in the foreshortening.

Cindy Coakley brought the cake in. They sang “Happy Birthday” and Eileen put her hand on his back as he blew out the candles with a remarkable lack of wind, so that a few stray flames survived his second and even third attempts. The lights came on and Cindy passed him the knife. He stood for a moment brandishing it before him, and Eileen couldn’t help finding something menacing in the image. She put her hand over his in what she hoped would look like an evocation of the gesture of unity with which they’d cut their wedding cake, and she pressed his hand down into the thin layer of frosting and the forbidding brick of ice cream beneath it. When she released her hand he struggled to free the knife from that frozen denseness and, failing, threw up his palms in defeat and took a step back from the cake. She laughed with an expression she hoped said something universal and vague about the uselessness of men and took his face in her hands and gave him a big, unrestrained kiss. To do so in front of all those people went against every ounce of culture she’d ever absorbed. He stiffened at first, but then he relaxed and let her kiss him. People began hooting and cheering. She let him go and pulled the knife from the cake and started serving little slices.

• • •

She hated to wake up to a messy house; it felt like paying a bill for something consumed without being savored. Still, when the last guest left, she went straight to bed. Ed slept on his back, inexorably flat. It was nearly her favorite thing about him. She’d read that it took confidence to sleep on one’s back, because it exposed the internal organs. He’d always been confident in bed. She loved how small he made her feel, how she could nestle up to him and be enveloped in his reach. She thought of the first time they’d danced, her surprise at his size, which he had hidden in his overlarge jacket. He had a rangy athleticism that put him at ease in the company of men who made their living with their hands. He allowed her to bridge two worlds, the earthbound one she’d come from and the rarefied one she aspired to. And he was the only man in whose arms she’d ever been able to fall asleep.

In the morning, she fixed herself tea and got to work dispatching the pots and pans. When she’d cleaned the countertops and cabinet doors, she ran the mop over the kitchen floor, but her usual feeling of pride at the glossy shine and the piney scent didn’t come. How had she tolerated the floor’s permanently dingy linoleum this long? The wallpaper had bubbled up in places, and the joints in the window frames were so slack that the glass shifted like a loose tooth when the window was lifted. In the dining room she felt better for a while as she ran the rag over those stately pieces and breathed in the easy astringency of Murphy’s Oil Soap, but soon the tarnish along the bottom edge of the wall-length mirror was all she could see. In the bathroom, she noticed places where the enamel had worn away in the tub, exposing the black beneath it.

She began to obsess over the details of her guests’ attentions. Had they seen the stains on the rug under the ottoman? The evidence of rot on the vanity? She imagined them picking up objects and finding a layer of dust beneath.

She moved to the basement to clean the laundry room. She would have to have a talk with Brenda about the dryer sheets she always found in the machine and the empty detergent boxes she ended up throwing out herself. These little quality-of-life infractions added up to a diminishment of her happiness on the planet. When she was done, she moved to the storage shelves to organize those and decided she’d have to talk to Donny about keeping his tools better organized. Then came the cedar closets. This time she chided her own inattention, because a few of her favorite sweaters had been eaten through by moths. Then she went upstairs and started to give the grout between the bathroom tiles a proper scouring. When she looked up, Ed was standing in the doorway, Connell behind him. They were wearing their Sunday best.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“We’re going to Mass,” Ed said. “Isn’t that what we do on Sundays?”

“What time is it?”

“Four forty-five,” Connell said.

She had missed every Mass except the five o’clock service. She felt them regarding her strangely and looked down at rubber gloves on hands that seemed to belong to someone else, one of which held a crumbling green sponge.

“Wait for me,” she said, as she peeled them off and closed the door to freshen up.

18

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Connell dreaded when the teacher left the room, because in that vacuum of authority he was subject to a tribunal of his peers. And so when Mrs. Ehrlich went to the bathroom during geography class and brought Laura Hollis up to the board to take names, Connell knew the general contours of what was coming. That day, Pete McCauley ran up to the blackboard and grabbed an eraser, missing badly when he threw it at him. Somebody in the rear made up for this errant toss by throwing a pencil, then another, the latter of which hit him in the back of his impassive head. The laughter in the room clattered like shutters in a howling wind. Even his nerd friends chuckled a little. Laura wrote nothing down, as Juan Castro stood by the door keeping the real watch. Pete retrieved the eraser and ran over and stamped it on his back. He couldn’t get the chalk splotch off his blazer, though he rubbed at it the rest of the day.

He used to hang out with these kids. Most of them lived in apartments, so his backyard made him useful. They’d meet there, drop their bikes off. He’d go with them to Woolworth’s to steal Binaca. He never stole it himself, but he went on the expeditions and spent the whole time fretting that he’d be grabbed by a guard. When they were just outside the front door, they’d pull it out conspicuously and spray it into their mouths like it was some kind of drug. They said they needed it for their girls. Shane Dunn and Pete McCauley claimed to have already had sex, and Connell had no reason to doubt them. Every summer at CYO camp there was at least one pregnant seventh- or eighth-grade girl riding the bus.

Then, in the spring of fourth grade, something happened that changed his life. One day they rode over to Seventy-Eighth Street Park because of some dispute Juan’s older brother had gotten into. Connell found himself walking with his classmates and a bunch of older kids in a line, toward another group coming at them. He saw one of the kids on his side take out a knife, but he kept walking forward as though powerless to do anything else, and he was sure he was going to get stabbed in the melee to come. Then he heard sirens and everything slowed down and he could see it would end with him in the back of the squad car, his future ruined. The lines atomized in all directions. He ran with his friends to the bikes. They rode down Thirty-Fourth Avenue to his house. He pedaled furiously, his heart pounding in his chest, feeling like a crocodile was snapping at his heels.

After that, he hung out with the nerds in his special math group. Starting in fifth grade, he never got less than ninety-five on anything. He won the math bee twice, the spelling bee, the science fair. He didn’t show people up when they were wrong the way John Ng did; he didn’t crow about his accomplishments the way Elbert Lim did; but still he was everybody’s favorite target, probably because he acted like a wooden soldier, sitting stiffly upright and barely ever turning his head. He wouldn’t respond when kids tried to get his attention, because he didn’t want to get in trouble with the teachers. He didn’t let kids copy off his tests anymore. It didn’t help that he was chubby. Starting when he was in third grade, the fat came on stealthily, as though in his sleep. Now, in eighth grade, he’d grown several inches, and the fat was hardening into muscle, but that didn’t matter: he was the fat kid. Being the only one in his class to get into the best Catholic high school in the city made matters even worse. It felt like it’d be years before he ever got to kiss a girl. It was like the other kids smelled something on him. He used to talk to his father when he’d had a bad day. Now he just went to the basement and started lifting weights.

• • •

At lunchtime, he served a funeral Mass. He’d started serving funerals whenever he could, to avoid the cafeteria. He wasn’t eating lunch anyway. When he did, sometimes he threw it up afterward. He wanted his muscles as tight as the skin on action figures.

The church was tall and long, and dark everywhere except the altar, which had spotlights and floodlights on it, especially the tabernacle. He liked to look at the faces in the pews. He was the best altar boy they had. He arrived early and knew the ceremony as well as the priests. He didn’t sway the way other kids did when they stood holding the big book. He was a human podium. He offered the cramps in his legs and arms up to God.

Gym was his least favorite class, despite the fact that his athleticism made him a temporary asset to whoever his teammates were on a given day. Changing for gym was a nightmare. Someone sadistic had decided that they should wear their gym clothes under their uniforms and shed their outer layers in a proto-striptease. They peeled their uniforms off in front of each other, girls on one side of the auditorium, boys on the other. He made sure not to look across at the girls, because the fallout of being caught doing so by one of the other boys would be unspeakable. He couldn’t look down or to the side either, because then someone might call him a fag. So he looked at the high ceiling, almost as tall as the one in church, and the high windows up at the ground level, which were always open and which made the outer world seem tantalizingly near.

There were a couple of minutes of milling around before Mr. Cotswald blew the whistle to start class. He kept to himself the way he had ever since the day he’d allowed himself to be hoisted up to the basketball hoop by Pete and Juan, who’d interlocked their fingers to make a step for each of his feet. Other kids had been getting lifted up there and getting the ball passed to them, and then dunking and dropping off, and since it looked like fun he’d let his guard down when Pete and Juan waved him over. Instead of passing him the ball, Shane had pulled his shorts and underwear down. He still felt weird about telling his parents it had happened to someone else. He still had no idea why he hadn’t just dropped off the rim when they’d done it.

At the end of the day he sat in homeroom waiting for the bell. He wanted to spring to his feet when it rang, but he knew better than to let that happen again. Last week he jumped the gun on the okay-to-rise sign and the class erupted in laughter.

Mrs. Balarezo gave the signal for everyone to stand. Then she gave a second go sign to John Ng to lead the ordered procession out. Connell was at the head of the second row. He slid in behind Christina Hernandez and waded out into the sea of kids heading down the stairs. Thank God Ms. Balarezo sat him up front. It gave him a fighting chance to escape. It was the one good thing that had come of being singled out. A while ago she’d switched his and Kevin’s desks. She didn’t have to say why she was doing it; everybody knew he was getting murdered back there.

He got down the stairs and out to the street, no lingering, no talking to anyone. Passing through the gate he exhaled deeply. He loosened his tie, undid the button. He couldn’t relax entirely. It was a long couple of blocks, each house feeling slightly safer than the last. The route was a fist slowly releasing its clench.

The first block was the avenue that ran along the school. It was a short stretch before he turned at Eighty-Third, and it should have been the safest one, with all the cars and adults around, and the church on the corner, but it wasn’t; it was the worst. He walked past the rectory. Somehow they had all gotten there first, as if by teleportation, and were sitting on the steps. He felt them deciding his fate: Tommy, Gustavo, Kevin, Danny, Carlos, Shane, Pete. Danny lived on his block; that meant something — after school, anyway. At school, Danny was like everybody else. When they cracked jokes, he laughed louder than the others. He never hit Connell, though. He’d push him, but he wouldn’t fight.

As Connell passed the church, his mind was afire. Did he do anything today to get their notice? Did he talk to a girl? Did he talk to anyone at all? Did he offend anybody by not  talking? Anything was possible. He wanted to be invisible. If he could get to the corner unnoticed, and across the street, the chances of their following him home dropped, but then it was one and a half long side-street blocks, narrow ones, less busy, and he had to hurry. If they wanted to get him in that stretch, he was a man in the desert without a horse.

He crossed the avenue. Out of the corner of his eye he could see them following him. When he reached the other side, they were upon him. They surrounded him quickly, a phalanx closing its gaps. There was a moment of indecision, in which the fact of their outnumbering him seemed to hang in the air like a question. He thought they looked vulnerable in this in-between moment, as though they saw something absurd in the ritual of his submission. He imagined them calling the whole thing off, Danny saying, “Hey guys, let’s forget about it,” and then the group breaking up and walking home.

Sometimes lately he looked at them, even at times like this, and saw not bullies but lost children and, down the road, lost adults. He didn’t know why he thought all this stuff, why he did laps around the block after dinner, saying hello to strangers and waving at old ladies perched on their stoops.

The hiccup of indecision passed. As though propelled by an electric wind, one kid shot out of the circle. Today it was Carlos Torres, quiet Carlos, disappearing Carlos, and the role was bigger than him, so he puffed himself up to fit it. He approached Connell awkwardly, jabbing at the air. Connell did his best to avoid the blows. He felt his shirt riding up on him, the buttons straining as he darted around. It was only a matter of time. The circle grew smaller and smaller. A stinging slap landed on his ear and he heard a deafening pop. The one thing he needed to do was hold on to his bookbag; God forbid they should get that from his grasp. Another smack landed hard on his face. The kids gaped in a kind of amazed half respect as they watched him take the blows. Then it turned to anger: why wouldn’t he defend himself? He wondered too. He was bigger than them, stronger too. Maybe it was the fact that some of them carried knives to school. He saw them show them off. One recent graduate, whose older brother was in the Latin Kings, had become a legend for bringing in a gun. It would be nice to have an older brother, Connell thought sometimes: to be in a band of brothers that took on the world, instead of getting his solitary ass beaten to a pulp. It wasn’t always fear that he felt, though, when he didn’t fight back. It was something else, something mysterious.

His hands went up to cover his face and he felt a thud in his side. He was winded, and he focused on keeping his feet. If he fell he would have to cover his body with his arms, leave himself to their mercy and hope they didn’t kick him in the head. Something about his keeping his feet kept them civil. He staggered around, Carlos screaming at him, growing in confidence with every blow he landed.

“Fight back!”

He looked to the blurry group for help. It was the same way he always looked at them, and he sensed something like sympathy in the way some of them looked back, but they were also revolted, and they joined Carlos in hectoring him.

“Fight, maricón !”

They pushed him into Carlos.

“Oh, snap, Carlos, you gonna take that?”

He kept his hands up.

“You wanna fight, huh? You wanna fight?”

“No,” Connell said. “No.”

He felt a fist explode in his gut and he doubled over. His stomach was burning, but the tears didn’t come. He wasn’t afraid for them to come. He had wanted to cry for a while, but he just couldn’t.

Carlos was grinning maniacally. For a second he looked like he was sharing something with Connell, letting him in on a joke. “Fight back!” he screamed. “Faggot!” Connell saw the hatred in his eyes, tried to watch his hands. Carlos smacked him so hard that Connell could actually hear it resound, as though it had happened to someone else. The kids were startled. Connell staggered, and an adult, a stranger, came to break up the fight. Everyone scattered.

Connell let himself in with his key. He collapsed on the couch and awoke to the sound of his father coming home. He could hear him in the study, where he always stopped to drop his briefcase. Soon he would move to the living room. Connell didn’t want to be on the couch when he walked in. He didn’t want him to see any marks or bruises and start asking questions, but more importantly, he didn’t want to deal with the weird negotiations that could ensue if he were there, his father hovering over him, waiting for Connell to move so that he could resume his headphoned isolation.

He thought of how he used to tell his father anything. His father knew how to make him feel better about things. He would hang on his father and cover his face and neck in kisses. It embarrassed him to think of it. He knew it wasn’t as long ago as he liked to pretend.

He stood up. “I’m going out,” he said to his father’s back, which was bent over the desk. His father nodded wordlessly. He started walking up the block. He turned up Northern, heading toward Corona. He had started taking longer trips into areas he didn’t feel safe in, but it didn’t matter. He would walk until it was time go home and eat. He could feel the fat on him burning up with every step.

• • •

They sat through another dinnertime silence, every clinking fork magnified as though by a set of speakers. His parents’ former


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banter had given way to remorseless, efficient eating, like that of lions after a hunt. A vague unease hung in the air, localized for Connell in the spot above the doorway where a pair of plaster doves sat perched on a heart, locked in a kiss. The doves were a wedding present from friends his parents had since lost touch with. They hung loosely on the nail and were dislodged by the slightest bump or bang. A year ago, one of those falls broke off a chunk of the heart. His father had Krazy-Glued it back together, and there were white cracks in the broken places. Connell wanted to take it off the wall, thrust it up under their noses, and say, “You see this! This is supposed to be you two! Lovebirds!”

The silvery clinks grew more frequent as the meal progressed, as though his parents were hurrying to dispatch the business of eating so they could return to the more complete nourishment provided by their private thoughts. His mother hadn’t noticed that he’d slipped most of his fatty steak into the napkin in his lap. He would deposit it into the garbage when she wasn’t looking.

His mother slapped her hands on the table. “Since when does this family have nothing to say to each other?” His father kept chewing, so Connell did too. They had a nice little solidarity going. His father was looking down at his plate. Connell tried to do the same, but he could feel his mother’s eyes on him.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll start. What about school? Any interesting assignments?”

Lately he’d felt called upon to drive the silences away. Never before had his comings and goings generated so much fodder. He felt perpetually on the verge of blurting out something embarrassing.

He shook his head.

“Okay,” his mother said. “I’ve had enough of the both of you.” She stood up to clear her plate.

“I’m writing an essay about Uncle Pat,” he said. He hadn’t wanted to mention it, because he resented the responsibility of keeping conversation alive in their family, but the assignment was real, and if it could bring his mother back to the table, it would take some pressure from his father.

“Why Uncle Pat?” his mother asked, resuming her seat.

Uncle Pat wasn’t really his uncle. He was his mother’s first cousin. He put Connell on stools in dark saloons and introduced him as “the Dude.” He had a scar on his face from the time he stopped the mugging of an old lady. Wherever they went, Uncle Pat knew everyone.

“I have to find someone in my family with an interesting job,” Connell said. “Go where this person works if possible, and write five hundred words about it.”

“I’ll tell you who has an interesting job. Your father does. You can watch him teach.”

His father put down his knife and fork and looked up. “He doesn’t want to watch me teach,” he said firmly. “Let him follow Pat around the cages. He can learn some valuable lessons.”

“Ed,” she said.

“He can ask him why he’s cleaning up canary poop after owning one of the most successful bars on the North Fork. He can ask him why we had to write a check to pay his state taxes last year.”

“I’d rather you watched your father,” his mother said.

“I can’t watch Dad,” he said. “It’s due tomorrow.”

Tomorrow ,” she said, snorting. “That’s just great. And when exactly were you planning on getting out to the Island?”

“I’ve seen the farm,” he said. “I can just make it up.”

“No, you can’t. I won’t let you avoid the research.”

“Jeez.”

“I’ll call the school in the morning and say you’re sick. You’ll turn it in a day late.”

“Cool! I’ll take the train out to Uncle Pat.”

“You’re dreaming,” his mother said. “You’re going to the college with your father.” She threw her napkin on her plate. “I’m going for a walk. I cooked, you two can clean.”

He and his father exchanged glances as the front door slammed. His father didn’t notice him emptying the napkin into the garbage.

Normally he needed a raging fever to stay home. People died on his mother’s gurneys; a guy once died in her arms.

“Tomorrow’s your lucky day,” his father said flatly. “I don’t teach until eleven.”

Connell did a victory dance. He expected his father to laugh, but his father kept his head down and his hands plunged in the filmy water.

• • •

Connell awoke to the odd sensation of a motherless house and stumbled out to the study to find his father leaning over his desk writing something. He started to speak, but his father put up a hand to cut him off.

“Get in the shower.”

He hadn’t finished his cereal when his father told him to start the car. Connell loved to sit in the driver’s seat when the engine was running. The rumbling under him spoke of power and freedom, as well as great potential for danger. If he shifted the gears incorrectly, he could go crashing through the new garage door, or back into a pedestrian on the sidewalk.

“Move over,” his father said. “This isn’t the time. And keep that thing off.” He snapped at the radio knob before Connell could.

“Let me tell you about my students,” he said after some silence. “They’re tough.” He had that look in his eye that he got when he was moved by something. “They’re proud. They can spot a faker a mile away. They don’t tolerate being treated like children. There’s too much at stake for them.”

Connell had no idea what his father was getting at.

“When we get to the lecture room, I’m going to introduce you, and I want you to sit in the back and listen. I don’t want you to distract anyone. I won’t be able to talk to you, so you can’t ask any questions. Please don’t interrupt me, because I have to concentrate.”

They arrived at the campus and parked in the garage. His father shut the engine off and sat still. He had his eyes closed and was taking deep breaths. Connell waited for something to happen. His father started rubbing his temples. After a while he opened his eyes and looked at him.

“You ready?”

“Yeah,” Connell said.

His father reached to the back seat for his briefcase. “I was just doing a little relaxation ritual I have before I go in to teach.”

It was hard to believe his father needed such a thing. He’d always projected such easy command, and there were plaques on the wall attesting to his excellence as a teacher.

He was looking for something in his briefcase, not finding it, and growing agitated. He pulled a pile of papers out in a panicked frenzy and rifled through them. In the close quarters of the front seat, Connell could almost hear his father’s heart pounding. When he found what he was looking for, a legal pad, the heaving in his chest and the kinetic fury of his hands settled into an eerie stillness that overtook his whole body. Connell had no idea what to say. His father was staring straight ahead.

“It’s nothing,” his father said. “It’s that you’re here. I want everything to be perfect.”

They walked through the campus, passing people his father knew. His father introduced him quickly, barely stopping to do so, even though the people sported those deliberate expressions of instant delight that all people, however curmudgeonly, were required to produce upon meeting the progeny of their colleagues. He was walking so fast that Connell had a hard time keeping up with him, and eventually he broke into a little trot, which prevented Connell from taking in the sights as he would have liked. It looked like one of those fancy campuses in movies, with buildings with august columns and stonework, not like a place for people hanging on by a hair.

“This is nice,” Connell said.

“This campus was designed by a famous architect named Stanford White,” his father said automatically. “At one time, it was the Bronx satellite of New York University.” His voice sounded distant, as though he were delivering a lecture. “When NYU built this campus, their chancellor said he wanted it to look like the American ideal of a college. In the early seventies, after it had gotten too expensive to maintain, NYU sold it to the State of New York, and we moved over here from the old Bronx High School of Science.”

“Dad,” he said.

“Yes?”

“Are we late?”

“No.”

“Then why are we running?”

Something in his voice must have given his father pause, because his father stopped and put a hand on his shoulder.

“This isn’t how I would have wanted this to go,” he said. “Believe me. There’s a lot here I wanted to show you. There’s a beautiful overlook point called…” He rubbed his nose. “The Hall of Fame for Great Americans,” he said after a few seconds. “You can see for miles up there. It has a lot of statues arranged in a circle around you. Maybe if everything goes well I can take you there after class.”

They arrived at the building, but instead of marching directly into the lecture hall to a throng of expectant students, as his father’s pace suggested they might have to do, they headed to his lab, where he closed the door behind him. His father told him to absorb himself in whatever he might find interesting, so long as he didn’t break anything. He waved at a human skeleton suspended in the corner, a row of rat cages along the far wall, and a lonely assemblage of beakers and petri dishes. Then he took out his legal pad and paced back and forth, quietly reading aloud.

Connell left the beakers huddled in their fragile little gathering. He avoided the accusing eyes of the rats and hurried past the hollow ones of the skeleton. Finding nothing more promising, he circled back to tap on the glass of the rat cages and listen to what his father was reading.

“You can feed them if you want,” his father said, gesturing to the rats, which almost seemed to listen along over his shoulder. “There’s a bag of pellets in the drawer behind you.”

“I’m okay,” Connell said.

“I’m trying to focus,” his father said, “and it would help if I didn’t have to worry about you listening to every word.”

His father searched around. “Here, take this,” he said, tossing him an issue of Scientific American . Connell didn’t like that magazine; they had a lot of them at home. His father was always drawing his attention to articles on black holes or glaciers or acid rain, but Connell stuck to Sports Illustrated  and the “People” page in the back of Time .

“Why don’t you sit outside and I’ll come get you when I’m done?”

Connell wanted to tell him he didn’t have to come to his stupid class at all if he wanted him gone that badly, but he held back. He did have to write the report. But something else told him not to make a big deal of it. “I’ll just go to the class and wait for you,” he said.

“Great,” his father said, visibly relieved. “Two flights up. Room four forty-three. Introduce yourself.”

As Connell left, his father was splashing water on his face in one of the sinks at the end of the long tables.

He took the stairs three at a time. The classroom door was open; he walked past it as casually as he could. The room was more full than he’d expected. How was he supposed to introduce himself to a room full of college students? He could barely get up in front of kids his own age without worrying about his voice betraying him with squeaks and squawks.

He mimed absorption in a bulletin board, then doubled back, passing the room again. The floor sloped upward from the front, so that the people at the back stared down from a lofty perch. A box on the wall taunted him: In Case of Emergency, Break Glass. The words took on a sudden poignancy; he would’ve been helpless even with an axe in his hand. He was beginning to see the wisdom in his father’s having prepared a speech.

He stepped into the room and hustled to one of the empty seats in the back. He waited for the thumping in his chest to subside. They could figure out who he was for themselves if they cared so much.

When his father walked in, he didn’t look up but headed for the podium and started reading from his pad.

“Today we are going to begin our discussion of the central nervous system,” he said. “I have quite a bit of material to cover, and it is crucial that you assimilate this material for the final exam, so I would ask you to take careful notes, because I will not be able to repeat myself or interrupt the lecture to answer questions. Should you happen to find yourself confused at any point, please write your questions on a sheet of paper to hand to me at the end of class, and I will provide you with a written response when we meet on Thursday. Additionally, I am sorry to report that, due to the demands of a long-term research project, I will be forced to cancel office hours for the remainder of the semester.”

The room erupted in incredulous groans. His father didn’t look up but only held his finger on the page and waited for the furor to die down.

“At the end of each remaining class session, I will collect your questions. After I do so, I will pass out the detailed responses I have written to your earlier questions. Writing these responses will come at the expense of a considerable amount of my time, so I hope you will rest assured that any lost office hours will be more than adequately compensated for in this fashion. If on occasion I appear sluggish or distracted, or seem to need a second to compose myself, be aware that I am likely exhausted from the busy schedule I am keeping.

“One other point of note. Beginning today, I will be reading exclusively from prepared lectures and leave off answering or posing questions. In recent class sessions, we have covered comparatively less material than we did in the earlier part of the course, as you are all no doubt aware.”

There were murmurs of acknowledgment, though his father didn’t stop to notice them.

“I ask your forgiveness for the relatively inert nature of my presentation of the material from now on, but I assure you that a certain briskness is vital to your being adequately prepared for the final examination. And so, without further ado, I would like to begin.”

When his father walked in, an indignant chatter had percolated throughout the room. At the beginning of his speech, a few students scanned the room for the reactions of others, but now several who didn’t have notebooks out before took them out, and many pens were poised over pages.

He began.

“The central nervous system,” he said, “represents the largest part of the nervous system. It consists of the brain and the spinal cord. Along with the peripheral nervous system, which we will learn about later, the central nervous system plays an essential role in the control of behavior.”

All around Connell, people were writing down everything he said.

“The central nervous system is contained within an area known as the dorsal cavity, which can be broken down into two subcavities, the cranial and the spinal. The cranial cavity contains the brain, while the spinal cavity contains the spinal cord.”

A few hands went up; it was evidently a hard habit to break immediately. If his father saw them out of the corner of his eye, he didn’t give any indication. He flipped pages in his pad as he read.

“The central nervous system is protected by an elegant, two-tiered system. First, both the brain and the spinal cord are enveloped in a sheath of membranes known as the meninges. The meninges are three continuous sheets of connective tissue. From the outside in, these sheets are known as the dura mater, the arachnoid mater, and the pia mater.”

The students seemed confused. Most had stopped writing. They were looking at each other and adding their hands to the gathering chorus in the air.

“The second tier of protection of the central nervous system is provided by bone. The brain is protected by the skull, while the spinal cord is protected by the vertebrae.”

Now most of the class had its hands raised. His father had said he didn’t want questions, but Connell was sure that if he knew how many hands were up, he would want to clear up the point so everyone could move along.

“The brain receives sensory input from the spinal cord as well as from its own nerves — which we will name and discuss later. It dedicates most of its capacity to processing sensory inputs and instigating motor outputs.”

He had to think of something. His father obviously couldn’t hear the grumbling that had overtaken the class. He was in some kind of zone. No one was taking notes anymore. Connell didn’t want to anger him, but he knew his father would thank him later if he helped him solve this problem now.

His fingers tingled as he stood and felt everyone turn to face him. All he wanted to do was get his father to look up from the page. He cleared his throat.

“Dad!” he said sharply.

His father must not have heard him, or if he did, he must not have understood the seriousness of the situation. Connell wanted to sit back down, but now he couldn’t. He felt short of breath.

“The spinal cord serves three main functions,” his father went on. “It conducts sensory information from the peripheral nervous system to the brain. It conducts motor information from the brain to various effectors. And it serves as a minor reflex center.”

“Dad!” he said again, this time more emphatically. “Dad!”

His father looked right at him. It felt as if they were the only two people in the room. All the hands in the air fell at once. His father looked around at the faces staring back at him. Everyone seemed to wait to see what would happen next. His father bent over the pad again. As he did so, hands shot up all over the room. Voices called out.

“Professor Leary!”

“Professor!”

But he didn’t hear them. “The second tier of protection of the central nervous system,” he said, to a round of groans, “is provided by bone.” One man hopped in his seat, as if he were about to run up and tackle him away from the lectern.

“The brain is protected by the skull…”

Connell knew he had heard this already.

“What is this shit?” the hopping man asked.

“Hello!” shouted a lady a few rows up. “You can’t just ignore  us here.”

Connell had seen his father determined before. When he wanted to do something, when he really wanted to do it, he put his head down and got it done.

A growing outcry was filling the room, so that you could barely hear him reading.

“Dad!” Connell shouted. “Dad! ”

His father stopped again. This time he backed away from the pad and the lectern. Connell saw the pages he’d folded under the bottom flip back onto the pad. His father looked at him again in that uncanny way, as if Connell was the only other person there. He backed up to his briefcase and squeezed the handle as though to keep it away from someone trying to snatch it from him. Then he seemed to recover a bit and approached the podium again. Connell sat down.

“Today we are going to begin our discussion of the central nervous system,” he said. He stopped talking and looked around at the room. They were eerily quiet. Connell was desperate for someone to say something. He knew he couldn’t do it himself.

After a few seconds, his father gestured to a woman in the front who had been taking notes through the chaos.

“Karen,” he said. “Karen? Is that right?”

“Yes, Professor Leary.”

“Karen, if you don’t mind, would you tell me where I left off?”

“You had just finished telling us that the spinal cord serves as a minor reflex center.”

“Okay,” he said. “That’s good. That’s good. Thank you. That’s exactly what I needed. The spinal cord as a reflex center.”

He flipped through the pad furiously. When he had gone through all the pages, he flipped back through them again so hard that it looked like he might rip them off.

“You see,” he said. “I’m tired. I’ve been working hard. And there’s a lot on my mind. In fact, there’s something specific on my mind that’s distracting me, and I hope you’ll forgive me for letting it get in the way today. If you’ll all turn and look, you’ll see my son at the back of the room.”

Connell could feel the blood rush to his cheeks.

“My son came along with me, as you can see,” his father said. “Today is an important day for him.” His father was looking directly at him. “Isn’t it, son?”

He was going to make him talk about the project.

“Yes,” Connell said.

“Today’s his birthday,” his father said.

Everyone was staring at him. It had been almost a month since his birthday. He could see it all: the metal bat, the batting gloves, the high-end tee, the netting, the boxes of balls, the bucket to keep them in; heading out into the cold and the whipping wind after dinner and setting up at the back of the driveway; under the moon, in the quiet of the evening, slamming balls into the net and delighting in the ping  produced by a ball squarely struck.

The faces smiled. He heard a volley of clucking. One lady near him asked him how old he was.

“I’m fourteen,” he said.

“Fourteen today,” his father said. “And he’s been such a good kid, waiting for me. You see, we’re going to the Mets game right after this class. Opening Day. And I’ve had that in the back of my mind. I’ve been worried about the traffic. We’re going to be cutting it a little close. So I apologize for not being all here today. Really, if I’m being honest with myself, I should ask you all if you wouldn’t mind if we just ended class early and made up for it next week. I realize some of you have come from far away. Would you forgive me if we canceled today’s class and made it up next time?”

The students looked around at each other. Some grumbled; one man slapped his desk in frustration, yelled “Bullshit!” and walked out. Others shrugged.

“Good. Good. That’s great,” his father said. “Then we’ll end class now.”

They started packing up their stuff. “I’ll draw up a handout explaining in depth what I was going to go through today, and I’ll spend a little time at the beginning of next class taking you through it point by point.” He picked up the briefcase from the floor and began gathering his things. “Thank you all,” he said, over the rustle of bags and jackets. “This is kind of you. I apologize for imposing on your time like this.”

Some of them wished Connell a happy birthday as they left. His father waved them out the door. Connell remained seated until everyone had gone. He walked up to the front of the room. His father stood facing the blackboard, his hands on the chalkwell. Connell could see his shoulders rising and falling.

“I have to pee,” Connell said, though he didn’t really have to.

In the bathroom, he looked in the mirror. He lifted his shirt up, then took it off and flexed with both arms. There was more mass and definition. He brought his fists to his ears and squeezed his muscles like Hulk Hogan. He smiled a big, crazy smile with lots of teeth. He drew close to the mirror, leaned his forehead against it. His breath collected on it and evaporated. He slapped at the little bit of baby fat still on his stomach, hard enough to leave a red mark.

“Go away,” he said. “Go away!” Then he started to worry that someone would walk in on him.

He put his shirt on and went back out. They walked to the car in silence.

“I don’t have tickets to the game,” his father said after they’d been driving awhile. “We can still go. We can try to get in.”

“We don’t have to.”

“It might be hard to get tickets.”

“Yeah.”

“I was thinking we could go watch some planes.”

Connell turned the radio on and the volume up a few clicks. He watched his father’s face for flickers of anger, but his father didn’t seem to notice the change in volume. Connell turned it up even more. His father’s hand shot to the knob.

“That’s too loud,” he said. “Not too loud.”

It was lower now than it had been before he raised it the first time, but he didn’t want to chance it. He looked out the window.

“Hey, Dad?”

“What?”

“What was all that about?”

“I just didn’t feel like teaching today.”

“Why did you say it was my birthday?”

He could see his father’s face reddening, his hands gripping the wheel tighter.

“Don’t you think I know my own son’s birthday? It’s March thirteenth!” His father took a deep breath. “I just wanted everything to go perfectly. I wanted you to have good material for your project.”

“You seemed confused.”

“I was fine!” he shouted. “That’s the end of it! I wanted things to go well while you were there. I’ve never had you in the classroom with me before. End of discussion!”

The pitch in his voice rose along with the volume, and his words became a kind of shrieking. Then he stopped and his breathing settled down.

“I didn’t want to be cooped up inside today,” he said.

They drove in silence.

“I’m sorry about your project,” he said. “Maybe you can come back and watch me sometime.”

“It’s all right,” Connell said. “I can make it up. I already know what kind of teacher you are. You teach me every day.”

They drove back to Queens, heading to the strip of grass they’d come to call their own, along a road that led to LaGuardia Airport. When they parked, his father turned to him.

“Can you do me a favor? Can you not tell your mother about this?”

“Coming here?”

“No. The other thing.”

“Sure. Sure.”

“She won’t understand it the way you do.”

They walked to the fence near one of the landing strips. In the distance, Connell could see planes coming in in a line, separated by long intervals. Planes took off around them; engines roared. They stood there dwarfed by arrivals and departures. His father’s arm was around him, and his own fingers clung to the chain-link fence.

They listened to the game on the way back. When they got home, instead of putting a record on and breaking out the headphones, his father put the game on the radio and they sat on the couch listening to it. The Mets beat the Phillies by a run, Gooden throwing eight solid innings and Franco nailing down the save.

• • •

He thought about telling his mother how weird it had been, but so much about his father was weird that it was hard to say where the weirdness began and ended. It wasn’t a generation gap so much as a chasm that had opened up and swallowed a whole lifetime. Instead of hanging out with the flower children, his father had haunted laboratories and listened to Bing Crosby. He loved foreign languages and corny puns. How often, when Connell reached for another helping at breakfast, did his father stop his hand and ask him in mock earnest if one egg wasn’t un oeuf ?

Who could forget the events of that past Thanksgiving? They went to the Coakleys. The Coakleys used to live a few blocks away in a three-family house like their own; now they lived on Long Island, in a house with plush carpets and a low-lit den that had a couch on all sides and a large television perfect for watching the game. Cindy Coakley had been his mother’s friend since first grade at St. Sebastian’s.

His parents were getting ready in their bedroom. Connell was lying on his bed reading. The radio was on in the living room; his parents must have thought he was out there listening to it, because his mother started laughing in a girlish way that made him feel as if he was hearing something he wasn’t supposed to be hearing. He crept to his door.

“Oh, Ed,” he heard her say. “Don’t do it!”

“Why not? I think it’s a great idea.”

“It’s a terrible  idea,” she said, but the delight in her voice said otherwise. “I insist — no, I demand —that you not do this.”

“I’m doing it,” he said. “Here I go.”

“Ed!” she squealed. “That’s brand new!”

It wasn’t strange to hear them laughing, but this was different; this was playful. Around him they laughed like parents, with a certain restraint. He had never heard his mother sound so young.

“How does that look?” his father asked.

“You are not going to show that to anybody. Do you hear me?”

“You’re afraid the women won’t be able to handle it,” he said. “You think they’ll swoon.”

A few seconds passed in silence. He went right up to their closed door, his heart pounding in his chest. He heard some muffled sounds.

“We don’t have time,” his mother said, but she sounded as if she was saying they had all the time in the world.

She made little moaning noises. Connell’s blood ran cold. He had never seen them kiss on the lips, and yet there they were, kissing and doing God knew what else. He thought of all the times he’d watched Jack Coakley pull Cindy to him in brute affection, the times he’d silently urged his father to sweep his mother up in his arms in front of everyone.

“We’d better get going,” his mother said. He heard the sound of the zipper on her dress.

“Maybe I’ll give Jack a laugh. He needs a laugh.”

Connell dashed back to his room. When his parents emerged, he watched for some sign of the mischief he had heard them discussing, but there was nothing.

They drove in a pleasant silence to the Northern State Parkway and the Coakleys. The men watched football in the den while the women talked and transferred food from pots to serving dishes. The dining room table was set with good silver and wineglasses, salt and pepper in sterling silver shakers, and two layers of tablecloths. As everyone trickled in, Connell was already at the table, looking forward to the painful bloat about to overtake him. After the meal, he would sit on the couch with the rest of the men and pat his swollen bel


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ly, burping quietly.

Jack carved the turkey. Everyone began passing dishes.

“Ed,” Jack said. “Why don’t you take your jacket off? Join us awhile.”

Everybody knew what was coming.

“I can’t,” Connell’s father said. “There’s no back to this shirt.”

A little wave of laughter passed over the table. Connell felt his face redden. They played this routine out every year. Connell didn’t care if everyone else was amused by the line; why did his father have to be so weird? He was the only one in a suit; everyone else wore sweaters and khakis. Even on the hottest days of summer he wore long-sleeved shirts and pants. Connell didn’t care about his warnings about skin cancer and the shrinking ozone layer. All he knew was his father looked like a dork.

“You know, Ed,” Jack said. “You always say that. What does that mean? What are you trying to tell me?”

Jack was six-four, two-fifty, an ex-Marine. When they watched the game in Jack’s den, it wasn’t hard to imagine Jack on the field protecting the quarterback. In a booming voice, he told stories that ended in uproarious laughter; Connell’s father spoke gently and people leaned in to hear him. Jack’s face lit up whenever Connell’s father talked, but Connell always wanted his father to finish quickly; he was nervous that Jack would see how strange his father really was.

“Just that the shirt I’m wearing happens not to have a back, and so I can’t take my jacket off.”

“Now why would a shirt not come with a back?”

“It’s cheaper this way,” his father said. “Less material.”

“I don’t think anyone here would have a problem with seeing your back,” Jack said with an odd edge in his voice. He turned to Frank McGuire. “Do you have a problem with seeing Ed’s back?”

Frank looked back and forth between Connell’s father and Jack, like he didn’t know what the right answer was. He broke into nervous laughter. “Come on, guys,” he said. “He wants to wear his jacket, he wants to wear his jacket. It’s Thanksgiving.”

“I realize he wants to wear his jacket, Frank. But I’m asking him to take it off. He’s making me nervous.”

“Is that what you want? You want me to take my jacket off?”

Jack was giving Connell’s father a hard look. Cindy, who had only belatedly caught on to the tension in the scene, as though it were occurring on a frequency only dogs could hear, put a hand on Jack’s arm in a silent plea.

“Yes,” Jack said. “That’s what I want.”

“Well, it is your house.”

“Last time I checked it still was.”

“Jack!” Cindy said.

Even Connell’s mother, who had been smiling at the outset, looked concerned. Connell wasn’t supposed to know what his parents both knew, which was that Jack’s airline was planning major cuts and Jack was worried about getting laid off. At night Connell stood in the darkened door of his room, listening down the hall to his mother on the phone in the kitchen.

“It’s okay, Cindy,” Connell’s father said. “This jacket is really bothering you, huh?”

“Nobody else has a jacket on.”

“Okay,” his father said, rising. “I understand. I’m sorry to have caused a disturbance.” He took one arm out of his jacket slowly, then the other. He had cut the entire rear panel from what looked like an expensive shirt. The sleeves clung to the shirt’s outline like windsocks in a strong gust. His skin was a blank, ridiculous canvas flecked by freckles and scraggly hairs. For a moment, the room seemed suspended in time.

“Is this what you wanted?” he asked. “To see this? Does this make you happy? Behold, then!”

Then Jack let out a bark of laughter so loud and sudden it could have been a death rattle; another followed to punctuate it; then his laughs came quick and plentiful, like the little skips a stone makes on the water’s surface after the first big few. The laughter was passed around the room like a contagion.

“Sit down at this goddamned table and eat some of my turkey, you goofy son of a bitch,” Jack said after he’d composed himself. The look on Jack’s face said he’d charge into battle for Connell’s father if he had to. Connell had seen people give his father that look before. Maybe you had to be an adult to really appreciate him.

That fall, he had made Connell do a project on habituation for the science fair. They tapped a bunch of roly-poly bugs a number of times with a pen. Some stopped rolling up quickly; the rest just kept getting annoyed. Eventually they all quit responding. This was supposed to be extremely significant, the fact that they could learn to ignore millions of years of inherited instincts after five minutes of pointless irritation. Connell gathered the data; his father helped him draw up the findings on a couple of poster boards — charts, graphs, everything low-tech. When he arrived at the auditorium, Connell knew he didn’t stand a chance. Other kids were setting up huge working volcanoes, radio-controlled cars, and full ecosystems with convoluted loops that ran the length of two tables. He didn’t even have a box full of bugs. When the teachers came around for the presentation, he started sweating. He explained the way they—he —had gone about it, as best as he understood it, which was less than he should have.

In awarding him first prize, they cited the project’s elegant simplicity and its careful application of the scientific method. Other parents hooted and hollered when their children’s names were announced. His father kept his seat and gave him a cool little nod and pumped his fist. Connell was never more impressed by him in his life. It was as if his father had known all along that they were playing a winning hand.

• • •

When his mother got home, she pulled him aside. “What was it like at Daddy’s school?” she asked. “How was he?” Her expression was strangely intense, and she was practically whispering. Connell was so unnerved that he almost said something. Then he remembered his promise.

“Dad was Dad,” he said. “I didn’t understand a word he was saying.”

19

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An article in a nursing journal said that a fixed routine had a deleterious effect on the mind of a person prone to depression and that shaking up elements of a depressive’s environment could be a productive way to introduce treatment. She didn’t know for sure that Ed was technically depressed, but she knew she’d never be able to get him to a psychiatrist to find out.

What Ed needed — what they all needed — was to climb out of a rut. She started to wonder whether a move to another house might not be just the thing to jolt him out of his torpor. The timing was right: Connell was starting high school next year and could commute into the city from almost anywhere; the value of their home, given the encroaching neighborhood decay, would only go down. In a few years, they’d be trapped.

A house could make all the difference. Things improved for the Coakleys after Jack got promoted to director of cargo for SAS and they moved out to East Meadow. Jack had shown some signs of depression himself when they were still in Jackson Heights, but in East Meadow he started making furniture in his big garage and got into gardening and landscaping. He established an idyll in their backyard for all to enjoy: the echoing pool, the radio raised to drown out the rattle of distant mowers, wet footprints drying on hot concrete, the ubiquitous smell of sunblock.

It had been five years since she’d raised the rate on the already far-below-market rent she charged the Orlandos, and even then she’d raised it only a pittance. The knowledge that her son was safe had always offset in her mind the revenue she’d lost by floating the Orlando clan. Connell went up to one or the other of their apartments after school and stayed until she and Ed came home. Now that he was getting old enough to take care of himself, though, the protection they offered meant less than it once had.

“I’ve been thinking about this house,” she said. Connell was having dinner at Farshid’s, and they were alone at the dinner table. Ed didn’t respond. She’d gotten used to these one-sided exchanges. She’d learned to read different meanings into his silences. That night’s silence was auspicious; it lacked the heaviness of other varieties. It was like a sheet she could project her thoughts onto.

“I’ve been thinking that it might be nice to have a place of our own, where we don’t have renters. I’m tired of being a landlord. Aren’t you?” She filled a plate with chicken, potatoes, and steamed green beans and handed it back to him. It looked bland, but it was just the two of them, and Ed never seemed to care either way.

“This is our home,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “I was just thinking we could look for a place that would be… more  ours.”

“We’ve done a lot of work on this house.” Ed cut into his chicken. Rather than cut a small bite, he sawed it in the middle until it was in two halves.

“You’re happy here?”

“I am.” He began cutting the halves in half, his head into his work.

“You’re not happy,” she said. “You’re miserable. You won’t get off the couch.”

“I’m happy.”

“We could move to the suburbs. Get a nice house.”

“We have a nice house right here.” He looked up at her for the first time. His chicken was arranged in a neat mosaic of bite-sized pieces, but he hadn’t begun to eat.

“This neighborhood is going to hell.”

“I’m a city boy,” he said. “All those empty streets. All the space between houses.” He gestured dismissively with his fork.

Space between houses was all she wanted in the world.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to get out of here? Start somewhere else? The timing is perfect. Connell’s starting a new school next year. We’ve saved so well.”

“This place is a lot better than what I had growing up,” Ed said.

“Yes,” she said. “You’re right about that.”

She hated being made to feel churlish. She wasn’t looking for a palace, just a step up from where they were. It was for him that she was thinking of all this, but how could she talk to him about it without alerting him to her line of reasoning?

“I don’t want to have anyone walking over my head anymore,” she said.

“We’ll switch apartments with Lena. She’d jump at it. Those stairs probably kill her.”

She gave him a withering look. His green beans were all cut in half now too.

“Our life is here,” he said.

“Wouldn’t you like to get to know another neighborhood?”

“I don’t want to be isolated,” he said. “I don’t want to have to get used to a whole new way of life.”

She bit her tongue, then said it anyway. “You already have a whole new way of life.”

She watched him finally begin to move some food into his mouth and chew it slowly, as if considering the mechanics of chewing anew. It was driving her crazy. She put her knife and fork down and waited.

“We can’t afford to move where you want to move,” he said, but it was as if he wasn’t in the conversation anymore, so caught up was he in bringing small bites to his mouth, gnashing them between his teeth, and swallowing.

“You don’t know the first thing about where I want to move,” she said bitterly.

• • •

She had long ago stopped concerning herself with the details of their money management. They had a common bank account that he balanced fastidiously. He also handled their investments. Since he was conservative in his portfolio choices (the First Jersey Securities investment had been her idea, based on a tip she’d gotten from a doctor at work; Ed had reluctantly agreed to it), they’d seldom suffered the effects of overexposure, and they were in a strong position relative to peers of similar or even greater income. This was one decision, however, that she couldn’t afford to let him control. If she couldn’t get him excited about this project, she would have to generate enough excitement for both of them.

She began searching through the listings in Bronxville.

“This place looks perfect,” she said, as she showed Ed an open house notice in the newspaper.

“You know how I feel about this.”

“Humor me. It’s on Saturday. We’ll make a day of it.”

“I’ve got something lined up for us for then.”

He almost never made plans. She couldn’t help but smile at the obvious ploy.

“Do tell,” she said.

“Mets tickets,” he said.

“You’ve bought  these tickets? It has  to be this Saturday?”

“Somebody at work is holding them for me. I said I had to check with my wife’s schedule.”

Such a hopeful look came over his face, as if he really thought she hadn’t seen through his ruse, that she couldn’t bring herself to argue. The next night he showed off the tickets, undoubtedly purchased at the stadium on the way home from work. He’d even bought four, the unnecessary fourth there to lend verisimilitude to the bit of theater.

Saturday came. It was a sunny, mild day in early May, and, she had to admit, a perfect day for a game. With the other ticket, Connell brought Farshid. On the 7 train, adults in the infantilizing garments of fandom buzzed with an adolescent excess of energy. When the doors opened at Willets Point, she felt carried along by the buoyancy of the crowd. Instead of following the switchback ramp to the top as they usually did, though, they stopped after a single flight. When they emerged from the corridor and were flooded with light, they saw that the players looked unusually life-sized.

The boys took their seats with palpable pride at being envied from above. Batting practice was still going on, and they got their gloves out. Connell never failed to bring his glove to games and wear it for hours in an uncomfortable vigil, despite having never come close to snagging a ball; they were always in the wrong seats. On the lower level, though, having a glove was good planning.

Ed took their orders and went for refreshments. In the absence of his moderating influence, the boys fired fusillades of obscure terms at each other: hot smash, can of corn, high and tight, round the horn, hot corner, filthy stuff, the hook . As she listened to them speak, a meditative calm came over her. She did some of her best thinking at ball games, or while Ed was listening to them on the radio. She’d always understood the basic mechanics of baseball, and Ed had successfully explained a good deal of the more complex aspects to her, but she’d never cracked the code of the priestly solemnity her husband and son greeted the game with, in which old bats and split-leather gloves were revered like relics, as saints’ fingers and spleens had been in earlier centuries. In truth, she was impressed by the range of her son’s knowledge. It was an arrested form of scholarship he was practicing when he allowed his brain to soak up these facts. It was really history men craved when they fixated on the statistics of retired athletes — men who hadn’t been to war, in a nation still young enough to feel dwarfed by the epochal moments of its onetime rivals. The rhetoric of baseball was redolent of antiquity, the hushed tones, the gravitas, the elevation of the pedestrian into the sublime. Connell and Ed would read write-ups of games they’d watched or listened to on the radio, even ones they’d attended. The narrative that surrounded the game seemed as important as the game itself. Ed raved about the descriptive power of some sportswriters, but she never saw what he was talking about; it seemed like boilerplate stuff, dressed up as the chronicle of an epic clash. She focused on the visceral particulars of the stadium experience instead: the smell of boiled meat, nestled under sauerkraut; the thunder of the scoreboard exhorting them to clap; the feel of her son’s hand as he slapped her five.

Ed had been gone a long time. She panned around for his Members Only jacket. After some restless searching she spotted him a section over, leaning into the railing, staring around with his hand over his eyes like a lookout in a crow’s nest. She had his ticket stub in her pocket, so he couldn’t show it to the ushers, one of whom was trying to move him along. She could see Ed growing agitated as he swatted a second usher’s hand from his shoulder. She hated making a spectacle of herself, but any second now the guards would be called, and that would create an even bigger scene. She stood and shouted his name, waving her arms. He finally saw her and broke free of the ushers, who gave no chase, seeing order restored. He made his way down the aisle encumbered by trays; she distributed the quarry to the boys.

He stood in front of his seat. “Where the hell were you?”

She stole a glance around to see who was listening. “I was right here,” she said, trying to urge him toward calm. No one had cocked an ear yet, but she and Ed were on the border of a full-on commotion.

“I couldn’t find you,” he said sharply.

“I realize that, honey. But you’re here now.”

“I was looking all over for you.”

“Ed,” she said. “I’m here. You’re here. Enjoy the game.”

The boys were too caught up in the food to notice Ed. He still hadn’t taken his seat but was standing looking into the crowd as if the answer to what confounded him were projected on the backs of their heads. Farshid listlessly fingered a waxy-looking pretzel. Connell wolfed down a hot dog in two bites and started in on his own pretzel. When she picked up on annoyance behind her, she tugged on Ed’s sleeve and he fell into the seat and began to smooth out his pants with an insistent repetitiveness, as though trying to warm himself or clear crumbs from his lap. He had bought nothing for the two of them to eat.

“Where’s the food for us?”

“I didn’t get us anything.”

She shook her head in disbelief. “What are we going to eat?”

“You didn’t ask for anything.”

“I have to ask  to eat now?” She took a piece of Connell’s pretzel.

“Hang on,” he said. A hot dog salesman had entered their section, and Ed flagged him down.

“I feel like you don’t think  anymore,” she said when they were settled in with their dogs. “I need you to get with it, Ed.”

“Let’s just enjoy the game,” he said.

A couple of innings later, a Met lifted a high foul ball toward their section. She could feel it gaining on them. As it approached, time seemed to slow; an awful expectancy built. It shifted in the wind, so that it appeared to be headed elsewhere; then it was upon them. People all around reached for it, but it was headed right for Ed. He stabbed at it clumsily and it bounded out of his hand, snagged by a man behind them in the ensuing scrum.

For a moment, Connell appeared stunned. He had been brushed on the neck by the hand of destiny. His body seemed to shiver with contained nervous energy, and he hopped like a bead of oil in a saucepan.

“Wow!” he said, to her, to his father, to Farshid, to anyone who would listen. “Can you believe it?”

The victorious fan stared into empty space with a determined expression as he received the forceful backslaps of his friends. His studied lack of fanfare had the effect of holding the note of his triumph longer.

Ed was miserable. “I’m sorry, buddy,” he said. “I tried to get it for you.”

“No problem, Dad.”

“I’m really sorry.” He looked bereft. “I feel terrible.”

“Maybe if you’d had a glove,” Connell said sweetly, extending his own. Ed turned and asked if the boy could see the ball, which the man handed over more warily than Eileen thought appropriate. Connell held it covetously. She worried that he might ask to keep it, but after a few moments in which he seemed to communicate wordlessly with it, he gave it back, and the man secreted it into his jacket pocket. Something about these talismanic objects, spoils of an ersatz war, reduced men to primal feelings. Connell pounded his glove every time a foul ball was hit in their general direction, no matter how far away it was, and she could think of nothing to say to stop him.

20

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She sat beside Connell on the top step, wondering about all the fuss people made over the constellations. The webs of light poorly described the forms they were meant to evoke, and even if she’d known what those forms were, she doubted she could have suspended her disbelief enough to see them characterized there.

On an average night the stars glimmered weakly, if they were visible at all, but that night they were unusually prominent. This was another reason to move — maybe in the suburbs he could see the stars well all the time.

“What do you see?” she asked.

“A lot of stars,” he said. “What about you?”

“There’s the Big Dipper,” she said.

“And the Little Dipper.”

“Yes.”

“And the North Star.”

“Yup.”

They had come to the limit of their knowledge. She was relieved to have a son who didn’t spew forth a stream of facts about the sky when he looked up at it. One fear in marrying a scientist had been that her children would be ill-equipped to live in the world of ordinary men.

“I like to imagine people thousands of years ago looking at the same stars,” he said.

She smiled at his philosophical tone.

“And people in the future long after we’re dead,” he said.

A shudder came over her. She was the one who was supposed to put it into perspective for him, not the other way around. She had lived through the loss of two parents and witnessed death nearly every day at work, and yet she was spooked to hear him invoke their inevitable finality.

“Come inside,” she said. “It’s late.”

“I want to see if the stars get brighter the later it gets.”

“It’s a school night.” She felt her grip on her temper begin to slip. The males in her life refused to cooperate with her. “You can investigate this in the summer.”

She stood in the hallway watching him trudge to his room. Then she found herself stepping back onto the stoop and looking again to the night sky, trying to divine what ancient people might have seen in it — animals, hunters, maybe kings. Nothing came into focus, except when she thought she saw a dog with a long leash around its neck. When she looked up again it was gone.

That night, when she couldn’t sleep, she concentrated on the steadiness of the stars, their transcendence of human sorrow and confusion, the reassurance offered by the unfathomable scale of geologic time.

21

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On Sundays, they went to one o’clock Mass. Ed was never the driving force in their church attendance. When Connell was a baby, Ed had loved to usher him out the back of the church at the first hint of a meltdown.

For someone whose responsibility it was to get everyone to Mass, she didn’t feel confident of her own belief in God anymore. It had been years since she’d thought of the world as the product of a divine plan. Maybe working as a nurse was too much for belief to fight against. She’d seen people expire on the table in every way — noisily, quietly, thrashingly, completely still. Death had come to seem no more than the breaking down of an organism: the last exhalations of the lungs, the final pumpings of the heart, the brain deprived of blood.

That didn’t mean she was going to stop going to Mass. She liked the moral lessons for the boy, and the good works the Church did were the most important reason to attend — God or no God. When alone with her thoughts she couldn’t help detecting some frequency she was tuning into, and she prayed to that frequency after communion when she knelt alongside her pew mates, though most of the time she felt like she was talking to herself.

The previous Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, at the end of the last Mass he would celebrate at the parish, Father Finnegan, who had been there thirty years, had introduced his replacement, Father Choudhary. Everyone registered the new, dark figure up there preparing the gifts as a harbinger of the future. Over the last decade, the priests had gone from being mostly Irish to mostly Hispanic; now, apparently, they were coming from India too.

Every year, there were more Indians around her at church. A few months ago, an Indian family had bought the Wohls’ house up the block, and because she’d assumed they were Hindu, she’d been surprised to see them at Mass the following week. She’d lingered a bit so she wouldn’t have to walk down the block with them, something she hadn’t been proud of when she lay in bed thinking of it that night. The next Sunday, she made sure to catch them on the way out and walk with them. It had felt good to make amends for a slight no one knew she’d committed, and thereafter she felt comfortable letting them walk home alone.

Ed was more open-minded about other cultures. When they walked through Greenwich Village, he marveled appreciatively at the stratospheric Mohawk haircuts of the punk rockers, while she felt only disgust. So when they found themselves at Father Choudhary’s first Mass, she wasn’t surprised that Ed seemed extra attentive. To her, Father Choudhary looked spooky under his stark-white vestments, with the effigy of Jesus behind him on the altar. He spoke in a trilling accent. Even the Hispanics looked around as if to say, This guy isn’t one of us . Ed just sat with his arms folded in amusement, or tapping the church bulletin against his thigh.

During the reading, Ed was usually good for a flip to another section of the liturgy — he was more into the literature of the Bible than the sacred text aspect — but with Father Choudhary at the pulpit, he held the book open to the reading. At least she could understand Father Choudhary better than Father Ortiz, who she wished would give in and speak Spanish with an interpreter beside him.

It was a reading from the book of Proverbs, on how the wisdom of God was born before the earth was made:

When he established the heavens I was there,

when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;

When he made firm the skies above,

when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth;

When he set for the sea its limit;

so that the waters should not transgress his command;

Then I was beside him as his craftsman,

and I was his delight day by day,

Playing before him all the while,

playing on the surface of his earth;

and I found delight in the sons of men.

When Father Choudhary closed the book to begin his homily, Ed settled in to listen. Father Choudhary began preaching about matters wholly unrelated to the reading: the idea that if we are all made of dust, then the same dust, cosmic dust, he called it, could be found throughout the universe; that this cosmic dust might have been created by the Big Bang; that somehow our sharing in this dust called us to responsibility to each other. Ed looked positively enthralled. Father Choudhary spoke of the smallness of man in relation to the vastness of the universe, and how that smallness was instructive, how it reminded us that part of our humanity was a sense of humility. He exhorted everyone gathered to allow themselves to feel wonder and awe in the face of all creation, big and small. Then he quoted from a French Jesuit named Teilhard de Chardin: “He recognized with absolute certainty the empty fragility of even the noblest theorizings as compared with the definitive plenitude of the smallest fact grasped in its total, concrete reality.” She had never seen Ed more enthused at church. He slapped his hand on the back of the pew in front of him, and for a moment, as she watched him shift in his seat in restless indecision, she thought she would have to reach over and keep him from standing and applauding.

After Mass, a crowd gathered outside the church. Eileen worked her way to the curb, but when she turned, only Connell was behind her. Ed was on the steps, waiting in the receiving line to greet the priest like a well-wisher at a wedding. This was too much.

She reached him just as he was extending his hand for a shake.

“Great speech,” he said absurdly, as though congratulating a politician. “Where are you from?” She was mortified, but Father Choudhary seemed delighted as he pumped Ed’s hand. They talked at length, the receiving line at a standstill.

She waited until they had gotten far enough away.

“What was all that about?”

“All what?”

Connell had produced a tennis ball from his pocket and was bouncing it to himself.

“Since when are you so interested in the lives of priests?”

“He did a good job,” Ed said.

Connell lost the ball and Ed fetched it from the street, flipping it in his hand as he walked, infuriating her. In her anger she twisted the bulletin into a baton that she smacked into her open palm like a nightstick.

“You really needed to ask where he’s from? He’s from India.”

“He’s from Bangladesh.”

“You needed to know that?”

“I like to learn new things. If we don’t learn, we die.” Ed threw the ball to Con


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nell. “Isn’t that right, buddy?”

When they arrived home, Ed stood rooted to a spot on the sidewalk in front of the house. She waved Connell inside, and the boy hesitated, then went in. Ed didn’t budge. She began to climb the stairs, hoping Ed would follow.

Ed bounced Connell’s ball on the ground and caught it. “I saw the paper,” he said. “The houses you circled.”

She tucked up her skirt and sat on the top step. She felt as if she’d been caught canoodling with a boyfriend. The ball went thwunk  as it hit the sidewalk; Ed cradled it back into his cupped palm.

“I don’t want to leave,” he said. “We have a perfectly nice house. We know the neighborhood. Doesn’t that count for anything? Plus, we have this new priest.”

“He’s Indian ,” she blurted out incredulously before she could catch herself. “Look around you. Look at what’s happening to this neighborhood. What’s already happened.”

“It’s home,” he said.

“How about that?” she asked, pointing to some graffiti at the base of the big apartment building across the street.

“That too,” he said.

“How about when you walked in covered in eggs on Halloween?”

“Kids horse around everywhere.”

“How about when Lena got mugged?”

“You can’t live in a bubble,” he said.

“How about what happened to Mrs. Cooney? You want that to happen to me?”

“Of course not. But that was an accident.”

“I’d say it was closer to murder.”

She paused, feeling herself shift from anger to resolution. She didn’t need to argue with him. She could do this without him if she had to.

“I want us to look,” she said. “Just to know what’s out there.”

He shook his head. A tiny patch of bald was forming, but she could only see it from this angle. He stopped bouncing the ball and put his hand on her foot and gave it a squeeze. The touch electrified her, as if he had channeled all his energy into his hands.

“I can’t explain why I can’t give you more in this,” he said. “I just really don’t want to go anywhere. Have you ever felt like life was getting away from you, and people were lapping you and you couldn’t catch up? And if you could just stop the world and take it all in, and nobody would go anywhere for a little while, you’d have enough time to understand it? I wish I could do that. I don’t want anybody or anything to move an inch.”

“People move,” she said. “That’s life.”

“I’m lodging my protest,” he said, and he put the ball in his pocket and rose to go inside, leaving her alone on the stoop.

22

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The first house she saw cost nine hundred thousand, at least twice what they could afford. She had to see it, though, to have a basis for comparison.

She wore a nice gray suit, a ruffled blouse, and heels. She drove up a long driveway that turned into a circle in front of the house, along whose perimeter a few cars were parked: a BMW, a VW, an Audi. She was embarrassed to be driving a Chevy Corsica. She was glad that Ed’s torpor hadn’t led to an attenuation of his car-washing habit; at least she had neatness on her side.

The door was open. She entered a capacious vestibule with marble floors, oil paintings on the walls, and an enormous chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling. She took in the sweep of the place for only a few moments before an effervescent real estate agent descended the stairs, trailing behind her a young couple who were dressed more casually than Eileen and looked more comfortable there. She had made a mistake. She removed her jacket — it was too warm for one — as they took the final steps of what seemed an endless staircase.

“Welcome,” the agent said, extending both arms as if drawing her in for a hug. The couple had to be ten or fifteen years younger than Eileen. She felt she was intruding. She wanted to turn around and head to the car.

“I saw the door open,” she said.

“Of course! Of course! We were just about to look at the back patio. Join us, or take a look around yourself if you like.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I think I’ll walk around.”

She stood there while they made their way outside. She thought again about leaving but couldn’t bear the idea of their talking about her after she was gone. The inevitable simmering potpourri wafted in from the kitchen. She didn’t want to fall for it, but she couldn’t resist the mood it put her in. She headed upstairs. In the bedroom at the top she was surprised by another couple who looked closer to her age and had two girls in tow, the younger of whom was bouncing lightly on the bed. When the mother saw Eileen standing there, she told the girl to stop. The husband was admiring the craftsmanship of the window. He took Eileen in with an appraising glance from top to toe, as though she were part of the house, and smiled. The wife ushered the girls out, but the husband lingered behind, making pronouncements about the bones of the house as though he imagined being trailed by an audience of onlookers.

After they left, she drifted to the window the man had been admiring. Her car looked like a miniature version of itself. Birds and acorns had taken a toll on its roof; it needed a paint job.

She fluffed up the pillows the little girl had leaned against. She tried to resist the impulse to sit but felt suddenly tired and didn’t know what else to do in the room, which she now felt trapped in, as she didn’t want to face the young couple and the agent downstairs. She heard the low murmur of voices and labored to slow her breathing. She hadn’t noticed until this moment that her heart was racing. She tried to calm herself by gazing at the beautiful sunlight coming through the window and feeling the lace of the duvet, but what put her at ease eventually was the quiet of the house. There were no horns honking outside. She breathed deeply and remembered that these people did not know she was an impostor; for all she knew they were impostors themselves. Maybe no one visiting the house really belonged there — including the agent, who had to project an air of aristocracy to blend in with her surroundings, but when it came down to it was working a job like anybody else.

She had almost willed herself into equanimity when she noticed three photos, each nicely framed, standing sentry around a bedside table lamp. Nothing in the photos could have explained the twisting in the gut she felt. She saw a tableau of a family, possibly from the holidays; a wedding portrait in black and white; and a picture of an elderly couple on horseback, the husband wearing a grin of effortless control. The house was probably being sold so they could move to an inviting snowbird locale or else as an inheritance after the death of one or both of them. It seemed they had lived a full life. The husband possessed a heartiness that belied his years. She felt a surge of nerves that verged on nausea.

What Ed didn’t understand was that in a house like this she would finally be able to breathe enough to put things in order for both of them. Here, she could make herself into the kind of wife who wasn’t always rushing to get lunch made before he walked out the door in the morning. She didn’t even mind thinking that the next place she lived could be where she died.

She gathered the courage to head downstairs. She found the agent and the young couple outside on the patio, the husband taking in the sweep of the yard, the wife inspecting the grill. She straightened her blouse before she slid the glass door open.

“I’ve got to run. I don’t have much time to stay and chat.”

“Of course!” the agent said. “Did you pick up a brochure?”

“It’s a lovely house, but it may not be exactly what we’re looking for.”

“Everyone has a checklist, right? Otherwise it’d all be one big house!”

“My husband and I would like to look at other properties in the area.”

“Please! Take my card. Where are you now?”

“The city,” Eileen said. Queens was technically the city, but she knew that wasn’t what she was conveying.

“I’ll be happy to show you other properties.”

“Thank you.” She turned to the couple. “I wish you the best of luck in your search.”

“And you in yours, wherever it leads,” the young man said in a grand way that struck her as ungracious.

• • •

When she got home Ed was on the couch with his eyes closed and the headphones on. She stood there waving both arms, trying to draw the gaze of his inner eye. Then she went into Connell’s room.

He was lying on the floor in his baseball uniform. It touched her to see how cute he looked in it. It was small on him; he had grown a lot over the past year, and his arms were wiry and long. He had begun to fill out in the upper body. She wondered how concerned she should be about how much time he spent in the basement lifting weights. She’d heard it could stunt his growth, but there was so much else to worry about lately, and she was just glad he wasn’t getting into anything really destructive.

He’d had the sense to take off his mud-caked cleats, but the rest of his uniform sported a layer of that clayey dirt that never came off in the wash.

“How did it go?”

“We lost. I stink. I walked nine guys.”

He was flipping a ball to himself and catching it; it was coming close to hitting his face. One toss would have crushed his nose if he hadn’t turned away at the last second.

“You’ll get better.”

“I threw pretty hard, though,” he said, a proud smile spreading across his face.

“Just don’t dent the garage door,” she said. “I don’t want to have to spend money on yet another one right now.”

He nodded. “Dad came to the game,” he said.

“Really?”

“He did something weird.”

She felt herself begin to panic. “What happened?”

“He wigged out on me after the game. I had to stay and help with the ball bag and bases and stuff. Dad went to get the car. When I got in, he started screaming at me. I’ve never seen him like that before. He kept yelling, ‘You kept me waiting! You kept me waiting! ’ ”

“Well, it’s not good to keep people waiting,” she said halfheartedly, wondering if he could hear how tenuous her solidarity with his father was at the moment.

“I couldn’t leave all the bats and stuff. My coach asked me to help. And I wasn’t that long, I really wasn’t. He screamed all the way home.”

“Your father’s going through a hard time right now,” she said. “You can’t take it personally.”

“I didn’t ask him to wait for me. I didn’t ask him to come.”

“He loves going to your games.”

“Whatever.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Mom, you weren’t there. He was crazy.”

A careless toss caused the ball to roll out of reach and he sat with his hands on his knees looking like a little man, already beleaguered by experience. He was a smart kid; he knew some kids had fathers who beat them or simply weren’t there. Still, it was hard to see him disillusioned. Normally she was jealous of the bond between the two of them, but now she wanted to defend it.

“Daddy has a thing about being made to wait in the car,” she said. “You can’t take it personally. I’m sure he’s sorry.”

“He made us sit in the driveway for half an hour so he could apologize.”

“See,” she said. “There you go.”

In bed that night, though, she confronted Ed.

“Connell said you flipped out on him.”

“I lost my temper.”

“He’s just a kid, Ed.”

“That’s not going to happen again.”

“It had better not. I don’t give a damn what your father did to you. That boy’s not him.”

• • •

She parked a few blocks away and walked to the realty office on the chance that the agent hadn’t seen her car the first time. The ruse would be exposed eventually, but she liked being taken seriously as a contender for these places. It was like when she was younger and would ask that a certain item be placed on hold at a store. The cashier would write her name on a slip of paper, and she would be granted time for consideration. The mere idea of possessing it in that allotted limbo was sufficient to quench the desire for it and she would almost never come back to complete the purchase. Perhaps it could be like that with the expensive houses; a few minutes in them could inoculate her against the need to live in them.

The office was in the center of Bronxville, and though it was sandwiched between two boutique shops, it had the feel of an old dentist’s office. There was paneling on the walls, a thin blue carpet, and a few worn desks on either side of an aisle that ran through the center. The desk chairs didn’t have wheels. The office made Eileen feel she was not completely out of her realm. One other agent talked quietly in the corner.

Gloria wore her brown hair cut short, like a politician’s. There were ghostly remains of blond in it. She wore a navy business suit with what looked like a silk blouse. Her teeth were bright white, and level and straight enough that they could have been caps. She was around Eileen’s height.

Once again, Gloria extended both hands in greeting. Eileen wondered whether this was something she had learned in a real estate textbook. And yet, she found herself succumbing to it as she had to the potpourri. They sat at the desk.

“Why don’t we start by talking about what kind of house you’re looking to see? Is there a style you’re particularly interested in?”

Eileen had no real grasp on the terms of art that governed houses. Colonial? Edwardian? Tudor? These were terms she’d heard. As much as she’d always wanted a house in the suburbs, it was an abstract desire. It was about what the house represented: polish, grandeur, seclusion, permanency.

“I liked the house I saw last week quite a lot,” she said.

Gloria looked surprised. “I thought it hadn’t appealed to you.”

“Well, yes, that’s true. In some ways it didn’t. But in many ways it was a perfect house.”

Gloria looked like she was weighing whether to let her off the hook or not. Then she smiled. “It has to be a perfect house in every way,” she said. “That’s what I want for you.”

“Thank you.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, was it a matter of price?”

“Not at all,” Eileen said. “Money wasn’t the issue.”

Gloria raised her brows. “Okay,” she said, clicking her pen into action. “Well, if I’m going to find your future home, I’m going to need certain guidelines.”

“Of course,” Eileen said.

“Why don’t we just start from the top, Eileen. It’s Leary, right?”

“Yes.”

“And you live in the city, you said?”

“We do.”

“Which part?”

“Queens.”

“Parts of Queens are so lovely, aren’t they? I actually have a brother in Douglaston.”

Douglaston was another world entirely. Eileen paused. “We’re in Jackson Heights,” she said.

“One of the garden co-ops?” Gloria asked, raising her brows again in what looked like a hopeful manner. “I hear they’re quite beautiful.”

“We own a house,” she said. “A three-family house.”

“Okay.” She was writing things down. “And you’re looking to move to Bronxville specifically? Or is it this general vicinity you’re interested in?”

“Bronxville.”

She looked up from the pad, beaming. “Isn’t Bronxville just beautiful? When my husband moved us here I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

“I used to work at Lawrence Hospital,” she said. “Years ago. I remembered loving it.”

“So you liked the house you saw. What did you like most about it?”

“The size.”

“How many bedrooms do you want? Three? Four? Five?”

“At least four,” Eileen said, feeling like a drunk picking the figure in the middle.

“Okay! That’s a start. Now, what’s your price range?”

Eileen thought for a minute. “It depends,” she said, “on whether you’re asking me or my husband.”

Gloria laughed. “But that’s why we love them, isn’t it? Men will lay their heads anywhere. I’m always trying to get my husband to consider moving to a bigger house, to tell you the truth. There’s nothing wrong with living up to your means. Does your husband work on Wall Street? The train ride down is so easy.”

“He’s a college professor.”

Another silence ensued, another appraisal from Gloria.

“So, four bedroom. Close to the train, or no? Does he teach in the city? NYU? Columbia?”

“We’ll both be driving,” she said flatly. “He teaches at Bronx Community College.”

“Do you want to be in the school district?”

“It’s not necessary. My son Connell will be going to school in the city.” She paused for effect, then added, “To Regis,” expecting the revelation to inflate a protective balloon of prestige around her, and indeed the agent raised her brows.

“Well!” Gloria said. “He must be a bright young man!” Then she punctured the balloon. “My husband went there. It’s all he ever talks about. I get tired of hearing about it. I have all girls, but if I’d had a son, I would have sent him there myself.”

Eileen had to fight to suppress her urge to correct the woman. You didn’t “send” your son to Regis: your son took the scholarship exam in November and you prayed for a letter inviting him to the interview round; then, after the interview, you prayed again that he’d aced it — actually prayed, no figure of speech, even if you never prayed otherwise. Then you gathered around your son as he sat at the dining room table and opened the letter that informed him he’d been admitted, and when he said he didn’t want to go to an all-boys’ school that was full of nerds, you told him he was going and that he’d thank you later, and you saw a little grin flash across his face, though he was trying to pretend to be annoyed. And when you said, “Your grandparents would have been so proud,” you felt something in your spirit lift, because you had a responsibility to them that you’d carried for years, and now you could hand off part of it to him. And you saw that he understood somehow what it meant for this to have happened, that he wasn’t the only person involved. You imagined your father looking over your shoulder, nodding silently, and your mother, that enigma, was there too, and you could almost see her smile at the thought of what might become of the boy, of all of them, the living and the dead.

“So what’s a comfortable range? Over a million? Under a million?”

She had been thinking she could afford as much as four hundred thousand. Once they sold the Jackson Heights house and paid down the taxes and commissions, they’d have enough for a good down payment, but four hundred thousand was the upper limit. It was a long way off from “under a million,” but that was her reply.

“Anything else I can work with?”

“I want a house that makes an impression from the street,” Eileen said. “A house that almost pulls you up into it. A big, impressive house.”

• • •

Sunday after Mass, instead of taking to the couch, Ed packed a picnic lunch for the three of them and drove them to their spot near LaGuardia. She spread the blanket and they ate the strangely spartan sandwiches he’d prepared: turkey on bread, no mayo, no mustard, no lettuce or tomato; they weren’t even cut in half.

It was the first hint of repose they’d had in who knew how long. She wanted to enjoy it as a family, but Connell took out the gloves, bounding around like a buck, and Ed rose to gratify him.

The sun was out after a sojourn behind some clouds. Planes glinted in the sunlight and gradually diminished in the distance, leaving a trail of noise. A light breeze took the edge off the heat. The moment struck her as perfect, in the way that quotidian moments sometimes did. She tried to freeze it in her mind: the acid sweetness of her apple, the crunch of it against her teeth, the smell of the grass. It was cheating, in a sense, to circumvent the natural sifting process of memory, but she found that those moments when she stopped and thought I’m awake!  as though in the midst of a dream, were ones she remembered with an uncommon clarity.

Ed stood sturdily, a bit stodgily, as he waited for throws to arrive, though a surprising spring entered his step when he had to move laterally. His button-down shirt and dress slacks weren’t conducive to the activity, but he adjusted gamely. Connell’s accuracy suffered in his enthusiasm to return the ball almost as quickly as it landed in his glove. They started out close together. Connell seemed to want to spread out and drifted steadily back. Ed arced his throws in broad parabolas, and Connell threw on a line, though in his zeal he would sometimes overshoot and send Ed scurrying to retrieve the ball before it reached the street. A row of parked cars flanked them on either side. The last thing she wanted was for the pastoral quality of the moment to be shattered along with a window. Ed began to call Connell closer. The boy resisted at first but crept forward when Ed held the ball in his mitt and waved him toward him. They were back to a distance not much farther apart than they’d been when they first started throwing. Ed signaled to him to slow it down.

“Not so fast,” he said. “We’re just having fun.”

“I’m not throwing that hard, Dad,” Connell said.

But she could tell he was. He seemed to be reaching back and giving the throws all his strength. Ed was catching them, but he looked almost frightened at their speed.

“Slow it down,” Ed said, his voice skirting anger.

“Why? Can’t catch it?”

Connell unleashed a throw that came at Ed like a fist. Ed stepped aside and let it sail past. He gave the boy a look and went to retrieve it.

“That’s enough,” she said when Ed was out of earshot. “Your father asked you to stop throwing so hard.”

“I’m not! I’m not throwing my hardest.”

“Just listen to him.”

“Okay,” he said. “Relax, Mom.”

Ed looked more defeated than angry. He was at the mercy of the Darwinian logic of an adolescent, and he stood for a minute, seeming to consider his options, then threw the ball to Connell, who snatched it out of the air midhop.

She could see it before the ball left his hand, the coiled fury in Connell’s body. There was something majestic about the physical changes that turned a boy into a man, the inexorability of the need to advance, to clear away the previous generation and make room for the current one. There was also something terrifying about the impending clash between the males in her life. Neither would come out unscathed.

Maybe he was angry with his father for yelling at him in the car. Maybe he was upset that his father was having a hard time corralling his throws. Maybe it was that his father had always been a step behind some other fathers. Ed wasn’t just older, he was also old-fashioned, but he and Connell had always had baseball in common. Maybe it was too much for Connell to withstand aging’s incursion into his father’s ability to carry out this ritual. Whatever it was, he put everything he had into the throw, so that as it left his hand she let out a little involuntary gasp.

It came so fast at Ed that he seemed to freeze in anticipation of it. He didn’t even try to get out of its way. She could see, as time slowed for her observation, that sometime since she’d married him there’d been an attrition in his motor functions. His hand was no longer as fast as his mind. Even from that far away, she could see his eyes widen. The ball struck him square in the chest. He staggered and fell backward, first on his rear, then on his back.

She shouted and leapt to her feet and started running. Connell did the same. He was on his knees talking to Ed when she got there, and she pushed him aside. Ed was clutching his chest as though he’d had a heart attack. Connell was stammering apologies. He kept trying to get at Ed as she shoved him away. Then Ed was stiff-arming her as he rose to his elbows and looked at both of them.

“I’m fine, goddammit,” he said. “Let me stand up.”

As Ed stood, Eileen raised her hand at Connell and held it there, poised to smack him. She could feel the way the three of them were suspended in the moment as though in the relief of a sculpture. Her hand throbbed with the need to connect. Her son almost quivered in anticipation of the blow. She smacked him once, hard, on the face.

“The boy doesn’t know his own strength,” Ed said, taking hold of her ringing hand. He picked up the ball from the ground. “Get back out there.”

“Let’s go back to the blanket,” she said quietly.

“We’ve got a few more throws left.”

“We don’t have to play anymore,” Connell said to Ed. He wouldn’t look at her.

“We’re not done,” Ed said.

“Ed,” she pleaded, uncomfortable with every possibility she could imagine.

“Have a seat,” he said, pounding his glove. “Get going,” he said to Connell.

Connell walked out halfheartedly. Ed threw it to him and he lobbed it back.

“Harder!” Ed said.

Connell threw again with less force than he could have.

“Harder!” Ed yelled. “Air it out!”

• • •

That night, as they lay in bed, Eileen could see, at the V of his undershirt, the mark the baseball had made on his chest. She ran her hand over the spot; he picked her hand up in an oddly vertical way, as though lifting the cover to a butter dish, and moved it away in one swift motion.

They lay in silence, both flat on their backs, not an inch of their bodies touching, their arms flush against their sides, as though they were mummified. Her hand against her own thigh still registered a ghostly vibration of the smack she’d given Connell.

No matter how much they’d fought, the bedroom had always been an inviolate space. She could express things there that she couldn’t express elsewhere. She could cuddle up to him in a way that would have surprised the nurses she supervised. There was something old-fashioned, she knew, in the way she waited for him to take the lead. He’d never had a problem doing so. Touch was their high ground when the slick cliffs of words proved treacherous.

“I have a confession to make,” she said. “Yesterday, when I said I was with Cindy, I was really looking at houses.”

He gave her an irritated look and then shut his eyes as if he were sleeping. “I don’t know why you’re obsessed with leaving,” he said. “I like it here.”

“How can you say that? You’re not even here . You spend all your time on the couch. You could be in a sensory-deprivation chamber. You put those headphones on and don’t hear the horns honking or the car stereos pumping. I do all the grocery shopping, so you don’t get jostled in the aisles of Key Food and you don’t have to deal with the checkout girls not speaking English. You’re not a woman, so you don’t have to fear for your safety after dark.”

“Now’s not a good time,” he said.

“It is too  a good time. Connell’s done at St. Joan’s. Haven’t we been in this hellhole long enough?”

“Jesus,” he said, finally opening his eyes. “Who are you all of a sudden?”

“I was fine with it until recently. But now it feels like some pressure is going to cave my head in.”

“I’ve been engaged in a project of recuperation, of rejuvenation,” he said, as if he’d been having a different conversation entirely. “I’ve become preoccupied lately with things I haven’t done. I didn’t want that pile of records staring at me. So I decided to take action, even if it wasn’t popular with you, or Connell, or the chattering classes of your friends.”

She burned to hear him talk of her friends. She hadn’t said a word to them about how he was behaving, afraid as she was to hear what they might have to say.

“It’s time I did some things for myself,” he said.

She should have been furious. Do things for himself?  What about all the sacrifices she’d made to get him through graduate school? But his speech sounded vaguely rehearsed. Something rattled around in it, like a dead tooth that hadn’t fallen out. Was it that he didn’t believe it himself?

“I can’t live like this forever,” she said.

“It’s almost summer. I’m going to have more time to fix this place up. I’ve got projects in mind. I can revamp the garage. I can paint the house.”

“Can you bring back our old neighbors? Can you drown out the noise?” She smirked. “For the rest of us, I mean. You’re doing a fine job of doing it for yourself. Can you give us a lawn in front?”

“You need to relax.”

“Don’t tell me what I need. And don’t patronize me. Not when you’ve been half-crazy yourself. This all started when you started going crazy, come to think of it.”

“Things are going to get better now.” He reached to stroke her hair. Now it was her turn to recoil from his touch.

“I want you to go with me. Just come to look at them with me. I hate going alone.”

“What’s the point of looking if we’re staying put? I’m going to fix this place up.”

It was like talking to a child. She felt something in her snap. “You may be staying here,” she said slowly. “But I can’t.”

“And I can’t leave. I told you.”

“You can’t go back in the womb, Ed.”

“Don’t be a bitch.”

He’d never called her that in all their years together. She looked at him savagely.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean that.”

She ground her teeth. “Don’t talk filth to me,” she said, practically hissing. “You want to talk that way to a woman, get a girlfriend. Is that what this is about? This mooning, this philosophical mumbo jumbo? Is the


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re a girl in the neighborhood you can’t bear to leave? A chiquita ?”

Ed rolled over. “Good night,” he said.

She wasn’t going to be the one to break the silence. She lay there turning her ring on her swollen finger, chafing at the discomfort of its digging into her skin. The salty corned beef she’d cooked for dinner had made her fingers expand as if they’d been inflated. She wanted the ring off, not so much because of the discomfort but just to have it off, just so that Ed wouldn’t have any claim on her at the moment, even if he didn’t know he didn’t, but she couldn’t get it past her knuckle.

“You’re all wrong,” Ed said after a while. She felt his hand between her shoulder blades. “There’s no girl. You’re my only girl. You know I adore you.”

She didn’t turn over. She stared at the handles on the chest of drawers. “Then why won’t you do this for me?”

He slapped at the bed in frustration. She felt it shake. “I can’t right now,” he said. “I just want to stay in place.”

“That’s what the suburbs are for —staying in place.” He didn’t respond. “Honey, listen. Is everything all right with you? Really? You don’t seem yourself lately.”

“I’m fine. It’s just been a long year.”

They lay in silence again. Finally she turned to him. “We wouldn’t be moving right away,” she said. “It takes months to move. Maybe even more than a year.”

“I just can’t!” he said, pounding the pillow. “Don’t you hear me?”

She fooled with the little raised flower at the front of her camisole, to disperse the humiliation she felt at being spoken to that way.

“I’m not going to stop looking, and I’m not going to sell the house out from under you, Ed. I need your consent.”

“I’m going to work on the house this summer,” he said. “Maybe you’ll want to stay after that.”

“Do it if it makes you happy,” she said. “But don’t go thinking it’ll make a difference. You can’t put out a fire with a thimbleful of water.”

23

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Eileen went in Gloria’s car. One house had six bedrooms, more space than she’d ever imagined in even her most lavish dreams of dinner parties and extended visits, and she wanted Gloria to leave her there to sleep on the floor in the master bedroom and wake in the night to roam the dark spaces like a watchman in an empty office building. She registered her approval of touches Gloria pointed out, the beauty of which she needed no vocabulary to understand. It was impossible not to be enchanted by the exquisite good taste of the wood running everywhere, the quiet granite of the countertops.

“I want to see as many houses as I can,” she said giddily as they left. “I want to take them all in.”

Gloria was a willing enough conspirator that Eileen allowed herself to relax. She’d been afraid of wasting the agent’s time, but Gloria did such a good job of projecting professional aplomb that Eileen decided to believe in the durability of her patience. Gloria would tell her the price on the way and what she thought they could get them down to. Eileen could see Gloria watching her for some reaction that would establish benchmarks to strive for, and she gave her none; she merely marveled indiscriminately at the gorgeous interiors, the manicured lawns, the impeccable patios, the huge kitchen windows that might look out, in the future, on grandchildren at play. Every time, Eileen said the same thing: “Wow!” or “Gee!” or “Beautiful!” or some other blandishment that kept Gloria off the trail of what she really felt, which was terror. She dispatched that terror with manic exuberance and affirmation. They would sit in the car for a few minutes talking, then head up to begin another simulation. The afternoon passed in a haze.

After perhaps the fifth house, Gloria paused before turning the key in the ignition.

“This is fun, isn’t it?”

“Enormous fun,” Eileen said. “I could do this all day.”

“Yes. Well, at some point we have to settle on some parameters.”

“It’s so hard to say. They’re all so beautiful. Who could ever leave some of these houses, except to move to the others?”

“I’m pretty sure you’re going to love this next one,” Gloria said determinedly. “I’m not even going to give you the fact sheet. I just want you to react. I want to see what tickles you.”

They drove to the house, which turned out to be the most impressive yet. It was a gray brick center hall colonial — she knew that term now — set high off the road, with a front lawn that sloped gently downward. It had long black shutters, a gorgeous front porch, and a room off to the side with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. It must have had three times the space of the floor they inhabited in their house. After they’d walked through it, Eileen studiously wide-eyed the whole time, Gloria led her to the porch.

“Do you mind sitting for a minute?”

“Not at all,” Eileen said, and took a seat in one of the tall white rockers. Gloria sat on the top step and faced her. It felt as luxurious to sit on the porch as it had seemed it might from the curb.

Gloria took out a pack of cigarettes. “Care if I smoke?”

Eileen shook her head.

“I don’t normally smoke around clients. Believe me, it’s not easy not to.”

“Please feel free.”

“I feel comfortable around you,” Gloria said.

Eileen looked down. Gloria was a working girl, like her. Her shoes were slightly scuffed, and Eileen could tell she painted her nails herself. She wondered what her father would have thought of this performance of hers. Her lip began to tremble.

“When I said under a million, I think I wasn’t being entirely realistic.”

“What’s a better number?”

“You’re not going to like it,” Eileen said.

“I can work with any number. I just need to know where to start.”

“I don’t even know if I can convince my husband to move.”

“Look at you. You’re a beauty. He’ll go wherever you want.”

“You’re sweet,” she said. She could feel sadness gathering in her chest, as though scattered shards of it were being pulled from her extremities by a powerful magnet.

“What are we talking about? Eight hundred? Seven?”

Eileen felt anxious talking about money this explicitly; she felt as if the agent had held a bright light up to her face and could see the imperfections on her skin.

“More like four,” she said. “Five at the most.”

“Hoo-wee!” Gloria exhaled a deep puff and stabbed the butt out on the step. “Do you have any idea how much this house is listed at? Take a guess.”

“Eight hundred thousand.”

“Nine fifty ,” she said with a flourish, like she was calling out someone’s weight at a carnival. Gloria laughed. “We’re going to have to change our strategy.”

“I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time,” Eileen said miserably.

“Look, I’ll be straight with you. We’ve wasted some time. But I don’t really mind. I like looking at houses. I’ll find you a good one. One your husband won’t be able to resist.”

They agreed to go looking again the following week. As she returned Gloria’s hug good-bye, it occurred to her how grateful she was that this woman who weighed her fate in her hands hadn’t humiliated her.

• • •

She had an electrolysis appointment scheduled at her regular place in midtown. She didn’t feel like going, but it was impossible to get an appointment, and she had begun to obsess over the little hairs that poked through her top lip and dotted her jawline. She wondered if they were harbingers of greater changes to come. Lately her skin tingled and itched a little more than usual. She felt warm at odd times; she wasn’t ready to call them hot flashes. Her breasts seemed slightly less full. She’d always had irregular periods, so there wasn’t anything to read into those, but she did have more headaches lately, though it was hard to imagine anyone not  having headaches under her circumstances. She wasn’t going to bury her head in the sand when the change began, but she also wasn’t ready to conclude that it had begun before she had firmer proof. In the meantime, she was going to fight to hold on to her beauty as long as she could.

To avoid the traffic snarl, she took the train. On the way back, the crowd on the 7 platform pressed close, and the train offered no relief. At every stop the car got more crowded instead of less, until at Seventy-Fourth Street the train bled riders making connections to other lines. The walk home from Eighty-Second Street thrust in her face the horrors of the change. The street had once been the jewel in the neighborhood’s crown. The white stucco storefronts were crisscrossed with wooden planks to give it a Tudor charm — Tudor was another style she recognized now when she saw it — and the streetlamps were made of ornate iron, but now gangs clotted its great arterial expanse, and the mom-and-pop stores had given way to bodegas, check-cashing places, and dollar stores with cheap signs that obscured the old facades. The globes that used to adorn Eighty-Second Street’s lamps were gone. Similar ones could still be found on Pondfield Road in Bronxville, which might have been part of why she was so drawn to the town: it was like a time capsule of Jackson Heights before the collapse.

As she made her way down the street, a group of young men in sweatshirts and baseball caps — they looked Hispanic to her, but she couldn’t always tell — were heading in her direction, taking up the width of the sidewalk. One of them walked backwards in front of the others, gesturing wildly with his arms outspread as the others clapped and hooted. A collision would ensue unless she went into the street, and she wasn’t about to do that; they should all be able to share the sidewalk. The one with his back to her wasn’t turning around. She decided to stop and hope they would filter around her, like water around a branch lodged between rocks. She held her hands in front of her protectively. The young man reacted too slowly to the wide-eyed looks of his friends and bumped into her.

“Excuse me!” she said, more shrilly than she’d intended. He spun around in a defensive posture, as though in preparation for a karate chop. When he saw her he dropped his hands.

“Sorry, lady,” he said. The others snickered. She knew she should just keep moving and not say anything. She had an instinctual fear of groups of young men like this. She’d heard stories of ugly incidents. Still, she felt a wave of righteous indignation pass over her.

“This sidewalk’s for everyone, you know.”

“Sorry,” the young man said. “It was an accident.”

She had wrung a second apology from him; she knew this was probably the time to stop. They could run off and have a laugh at the crazy white lady. Maybe they’d shout curses at her as they receded from view. The perfunctory way he’d apologized irked her, though. She was going to teach this young man how to comport himself, even if no one else was bothering to take the time to do so.

“You should watch where you’re going,” she said. “It’s hard enough to get down this sidewalk. There was no room to get past any of you.”

“Whatever you say.” There was a restrained quality to him, as though he were a tiger waiting to pounce.

“It’s my neighborhood too,” she said. “Just because you’re taking over doesn’t mean I’m leaving.”

One of the boys standing behind the one who had bumped her moved forward. She knew what was coming: Fuck you, white bitch!  But the other put up his hand to restrain him. “Hold up,” he said. “I’m sorry for running into you. I didn’t mean to crowd the sidewalk. Nobody’s taking over your neighborhood. I was born here. There’s room for all of us.”

His articulateness shocked her. He parted the group to make room for her and indicated with a pacific gesture that she should pass. As she hastened to leave she replayed the incident in her mind, trying to make sense of the inscrutable turn it had taken. She had expected hate to be directed at her and had almost been disappointed not to face it. The kid had been raised well, there was no denying it. She wanted to forget the encounter. It unsettled her more than a brush with violence would have. A vision of the future loitered in it, an intimation of her obsolescence.

That night, when she told the story, she substituted for the young man’s oddly delicate apology a bowdlerized version of the slurs she’d anticipated hearing — which was, in any case, closer to the truth of her lived experience than this inexplicable aberration. “I wouldn’t repeat some of the vile things I heard,” she said, “even if Connell weren’t here.” It was a venial sin, she knew, but she didn’t have to labor to justify it to herself, because it was in everyone’s interest that they move to the suburbs. Ed, though, offered up only a muted version of the chivalric indignation she’d expected to hear, which stoked the fire of her anger at the gang members. Within a few days, she’d begun to consider the possibility that they’d actually said some of the things she’d put in their mouths, and there was a decent chance they had, memory being such a slippery thing.

• • •

When she went back to the realty office, she parked in front this time, and Gloria greeted her in a more familiar and less overtly warm way. A bridge had been crossed, a confidence shared. There was perhaps a greater investment on Gloria’s part in finding a house for her.

They began their rounds. On the way to each house, Gloria enumerated the positives in what Eileen was about to see but also addressed certain ineluctable realities, a little confidentially, as if to allow her to encounter these realities in a mood of mutual trust. Then they went inside. If the memory of the previous visits hadn’t been fresh, Eileen might have found the houses appealing; they were, after all, in a neighborhood more desirable than her own. But what a falling off! Where there had been five bedrooms, there were now three; where marble, now linoleum; where wood, some sort of composite, or else actual wood in a state of such severe neglect as to necessitate its wholesale removal and replacement. Expansive atriums became foyers not much larger than the claustral vestibule in her current house. And the magisterial light that pervaded the earlier houses, born of high ceilings and plentiful windows, gave way to a darkness that was all too familiar. Eileen’s expectations sank with the price of the houses.

Gloria saw the shift in mood and tried to bolster her with recitations of hidden advantages, but Eileen would have none of it. She could live down the road from the houses she coveted, she could make friends with their inhabitants, but she could not live in them, not in this life she had with Ed. She had enjoyed years of intellectual partnership, and she’d raised a happy, healthy child, and this was far more than some women ever came close to having. She felt churlish even beginning to wonder what life would’ve been like if she’d married someone else. And yet as she sat outside the latest disappointing house, she couldn’t help thinking that these were the wages of self-respect, sitting in a car outside a house she couldn’t afford anyway, turning her nose up at it.

A baleful air hung in the car. She wanted to reassure Gloria, to express her gratitude for the kindness and patience she’d been shown. “I had unrealistic expectations,” she said. “I can’t get what I want with the money I’m capable of spending.”

“Some of these houses are pretty nice, actually,” Gloria said.

“Some of them remind me of where I live now,” Eileen said. “The neighborhoods are on the border. They could go either way. I’m looking for this next house to be the one I settle down in. I don’t want to have to look over my shoulder. I might as well stay in Jackson Heights if I’m going to do that.”

The houses Gloria had shown her were in areas like Yonkers and Mount Vernon, where poor and comparatively wealthy populations — they happened to be drawn along black and white lines — abutted each other. It wasn’t that she wanted to avoid black faces. She wanted to avoid black anger, black retribution, black vigilante justice. She wanted a buffer from the encroachment of crime. She didn’t want to have to watch a neighborhood go to ruin again and preside over the memory of it like a monk guarding the scrolls of a dwindling people.

“Don’t give up yet,” Gloria said. “Give it some more time.”

“Of course,” Eileen said.

24

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On days Connell didn’t have games or practice at Elmjack Little League, he went to Seventy-Eighth Street Park, even though it scared him to go there sometimes. They played softball there — no league, just pickup — and during the games he felt protected. The older white crew came around, guys in their twenties who wore bandanas and sweatpants, blasted classic rock on boom boxes, and played roller hockey when they weren’t playing softball. They drank beer out of bottles in paper bags. Somehow they didn’t have to be at work in the late afternoons. The girls his age swooned over them.

He liked to throw with the high school kids who sometimes came around, because they didn’t complain if he gassed it up. He was playing catch with one of them when Benny Erazo sauntered up in a way that looked like he was carrying bricks in his pockets. Benny had gotten kicked out of St. Joan’s the year before. He went to IS 145 now. Connell had helped Benny through fifth-grade math by letting him copy his homework and look at his tests. Benny’s little brother José was still at St. Joan’s and was sometimes in the group that jumped Connell after school.

“You need to worry about your rep,” Benny said.

“My rep?”

“Your reputation on the street is that you’re soft.” Benny was wearing a Bulls jersey. He had a light mustache and smelled of cologne under several layers of clothes.

“I didn’t even know I had a rep on the street.”

“I’m just saying.”

“I’m not soft,” he said.

“People say shit. You need to take care of your rep.”

“Thanks for telling me.” Connell slapped the ball into his glove.

“Come with me and tag up later. You need to have a handle.”

“I already do.” He didn’t know why he was saying this.

Benny looked at him dubiously. “Yeah? Really?”

“Yeah.”

“What is it?”

He thought quickly. “PAV,” he said, because they were the first letters that came to mind.

“I’ve seen that shit,” Benny said.

He hadn’t thought he’d stumble on a tag that easily. “Don’t tell anyone it’s me,” he said nervously.

“What does it mean?”

He thought again. “People Are Vulnerable,” he said.

Benny considered it for a second. “Deep.”

“Thanks.”

“Somebody hears you claiming his tag, that’s it for you.”

“It’s mine.”

“Draw it for me later,” Benny said. “When I come back from my moms.”

“I don’t do that anymore,” he said, trying to sound cool.

“Why?”

“I almost got caught once.”

“You really are a pussy-ass white boy.”

“No, I just have to worry about my reputation.” He paused. “With my parents.” He was trying to make a joke of it. Benny pushed him and he staggered back a step. The guy he’d been playing catch with walked away.

“I’m not fooling with you,” Benny said. “Your rep is that you’re soft. I was telling you to tell you.”

Connell knew what he was about to do might look crazy, but he did it anyway. He rolled up the sleeves of his T-shirt. “You think this is soft?” he asked, flexing. Benny reached into his pocket and took out a switchblade.

“Tell me again you’re not soft,” Benny said quietly. “Tell me again.”

Connell stood there in silence.

“Tell me you tagged up.” There was menace in his voice. “Tell me, Connie.” Benny switched the blade out for a second and showed it to him, then popped it back in with the heel of his palm. He kept it in his hand.

“What do you want me to say?” Connell asked, his terror confusing his thoughts.

“Say, ‘I’m a pussy-ass pussy motherfucker.’ ”

“I’m a pussy-ass pussy,” he said, and paused. He wasn’t comfortable saying that word. Benny laughed like he’d read his mind.

“Motherfucker!” Benny corrected. “Pussy-ass pussy motherfucker .”

“Pussy-ass pussy.”

Benny showed him the knife again. “Say it! ”

“Motherfucker,” Connell said, his stomach tightening.

“Say the whole thing. ‘I’m a pussy-ass pussy motherfucker.’ ”

“I’m a pussy-ass pussy motherfucker.”

Benny howled with laughter. “You want to take care of your rep, you better not go around telling people that!” He put the knife in his pocket. “Man — I wasn’t going to use this shit on you.” He motioned to push him, and Connell flinched. Benny laughed again. “You want to stay alive, you better not go around claiming someone else’s tag. They’ll end you. That’s it for today’s lesson.”

The whole way home, Connell replayed in his head what he’d said. I’m a pussy-ass. I’m a pussy-ass pussy.  When he got there, his father was on the couch with the headphones on. Connell stood over him and watched him. He watched his hand going back and forth, the index finger raised. His father’s eyes were squeezed shut, as if he was trying to see something he needed absolute dark to see. When the dull murmur coming from the headphones rose to a crescendo, the upward thrusts of his arm lifted his body off the couch. When the symphony lulled, he lay there, eyes still squeezed shut, and his chest rose and fell with his breathing.

Connell dropped his bookbag on the dining room table and headed to the basement. He added a ten-pound plate to either side of the bar and then lay on the bench. Lift it, pussy-ass , he thought, but he couldn’t make it budge. He took the plates off and did a couple of sets of ten.

While he was lifting, he thought of something he could have said to Benny to make him laugh. When Benny asked, “What does it mean?” he could have said, “Pussy-Ass Virgin.” But he only ever thought of that kind of stuff after the fact. He even knew a French expression to describe coming up with witty things too late; that  was the kind of pussy he was. His father had taught it to him: Esprit d’escalier , the spirit of the stairs; the thing you think of when you’re already gone. The kids who thought of snappy things on the spot never had to worry about being fat or smart or pussies. You had to have a little meanness in you to do it. You had to be willing to embarrass other people sometimes. He didn’t want to have to embarrass other people. Deep down, or not even that deep, he knew he was a pussy-ass; maybe that was why it hadn’t been that hard for him to say what he’d said to Benny.

Maybe it was partly his father’s fault that he was such a pussy-ass. His father was a nice guy. Not that he told Connell not to fight back. The last time Connell had come home with a swollen eye, his father had said, “You have my permission to fight back. You’re not going to get in trouble with me.” But Connell hadn’t wanted to risk it. He hadn’t wanted to get a JD card or suspended or worse. He’d been thinking of his permanent record. He hadn’t wanted to ruin his chances of getting into a good high school or having a good life. He’d needed the teachers on his side, the principal. He’d wanted to get out of the neighborhood. Well, now he was going to a fancy school in Manhattan on scholarship. You couldn’t get more out of the neighborhood than that. Maybe he was a total pussy-ass, but at least he wasn’t an asshole like Benny.

He put the plates back on. He thought, Lift it, motherfucker , and then he said it aloud, like he was uttering the password to a new club. He got the bar up once; it came crashing down with a loud bang. His father didn’t come running down to see whether he’d hurt himself, because his father couldn’t hear anything with those headphones on.

Pussy-ass pussy , he thought. Motherfucker .

25

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Ed had been working in the garage since she woke up. He had emptied much of its contents into the backyard, which now bore an uncomfortable resemblance to those of their immediate neighbors. It was a hot May morning, and sweat was pouring off him.

“I’m taking Connell,” she said.

“Okay.”

“You sure you don’t want to come?”

“I’m a little busy.” He gestured to the clutter. She felt bad taking the boy, who probably should have been helping him with whatever this project was, but she couldn’t face those houses alone again.

In the car, Connell found Z100 and turned the volume up.

“How come you’re not telling me to turn it down?”

“It’s not that loud,” she said.

“Dad doesn’t let me turn it up when he’s driving. He says he needs to concentrate.”

“I don’t mind.” She started tapping the fingers of her free hand on the door. It was a song she’d heard while driving to work. Connell smiled at her, and she felt like the favored parent for a change. He’d always gravitated toward his father — a consequence, she suspected, of her having returned to work so soon after he was born. It probably wasn’t just that she was out of the house so much; it was also the way she got on the phone with her friends after dinner as though punching the clock at a second job. But some of that, she saw now, had been the need for escape. There would be less of that when they moved. She could begin to be more of the mother he wanted.

“Your father’s got a lot on his mind,” she said generously.

“He’s the most uptight person in the world. He grips the wheel with both hands the whole time. You can’t say anything  to him.”

When they first met, he would pick her up with one elbow hanging out the window, like a cool guy in a movie.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be an adult,” she said. “There’s a lot to think about all the time.”

“He wants me to have the change ready for the tollbooth about a mile in advance. He gets all weird about it. He freaks out if I don’t have it in my hand, counted out. And then he throws it in that bin with all this force, like he’s throwing a baseball. It’s so awkward. What’s up with him? Why is he so weird?”

She had been a passenger of Ed’s herself. It was as if he was doing brain surgery instead of driving a car. “Fathers are just weird sometimes,” she said. “Don’t think too much about it.”

“It’s so embarrassing.”

A song came on that he liked and he bobbed his head up and down and tapped his hands on the dashboard.

“I want your input,” she said. “I’ve been looking at all these houses and I can’t tell what I think anymore.”

“What about Dad? What does he say?”

“Your father and I have a difference of opinion right now about whether we should move,” she said. “I’m going to have to ask you to be a man about this. I might need you to keep quiet about it for a while if we find a place we really like.”

“Sure.”

She felt her foot falling heavier on the gas pedal as they hit the Grand Central Parkway. A new spirit entered the car. She had a conspirator. She could feel it making a difference already. She felt freer than Ed as she drove. She was cool enough to appreciate her son’s music, to pick up a little speed on the highway, to let the coins wait until they got right up to the booth. She had enough energy to make important changes in her life, to pull her husband out of a pit, to yank her whole family out of the maw of a neighborhood that threatened to swallow them whole.

• • •

Gloria gave Connell the full open-armed treatment. She seemed inordinately glad to meet him. At first Eileen thought it was a salesperson’s come-on, but then it occurred to her that by existing, Connell might have been confirming that his mother wasn’t a fantasist.

“I’ve found the perfect place for you,” Gloria said. “It’s gorgeous. It’s slightly out of your price range, but only slightly. I want you to consider it. It’s as close as you can get to your perfection with the money you can spend.”

They drove up Palmer Road toward Yonkers, past the stately complexes of condos and leafy gardens, but turned off it before they’d gone too far. She had studied the area enough to know that this was an outpost of Bronxville with Bronxville post office boxes and Yonkers schools. But the schools wouldn’t matter with Connell heading into the city in the fall. A sign announced — either proudly or defensively, it was hard to tell which—“Lawrence Park West.”

The area was promising. It was a mixture of old and new homes, but the road was curvy and lined with enormous oaks, and between the wooded plots, she caught glimpses of stucco Tudors with carriage houses, and even what may have been a tennis court. They turned onto a wider street and the road flattened and the houses were all easy to spot but majestically elevated above the road. They stopped in front of a gray colonial with overgrown hedges and columns that linke


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d the porch on the first level to one on top. Stone pillars flanked the driveway, and next to the front walk was a jockey holding a lantern. His red coat had been chipped and bleached to pink in the sun. The house looked as if it had been built sometime in the first half of the century, but built well, and it was twice as large as the houses she’d seen the week before. She was hopeful.

Gloria led them up the driveway to a staircase at the back entrance. A patio of moss-covered brick, framed by a stone wall and a terrific amount of growth, resembled an English garden gone to seed. It opened up onto the craggy slope, which contained an enormous stone blanketed by ivy. Atop the hill were houses accessed by another street.

The kitchen looked like it had been despoiled by squatters. Cabinet doors didn’t close right, the wallpaper bubbled, and the brick floor was coated in a thick, dingy skin of polyurethane. Everything on the rear side of the house — the kitchen, the den, the dining room — was dark as a catacomb, but she could tell that light would penetrate its depths on a good day, particularly if she trimmed some of the bushes, and while the dining room had a matted rug and a rickety-looking chandelier, she could envision the grand meals she’d serve there, and the living room was practically bleached by light. Next to it was the brick-floored foyer and the entrance proper, and a flight of banistered stairs leading to the second floor. Off the landing at the bottom of the stairs was a little flight down into what could be a reading room, next to what would be Ed’s study, with a bay window and built-in bookshelves.

Gloria went to the two front doors and threw them open with a flourish. Light flooded in. Looking left from the front porch, which was fringed by a rotting wooden fence, Eileen could see where the road curved and headed down to Palmer Road, the main artery into the town that lent this house its respectable mailing address.

Eileen stood on the porch, imagining people opening the big metal gate at the bottom and making their way up the gently winding path. The thought of their approach thrilled her, the moments of anticipation, the embraces, the handing off of wine bottles, cakes, presents. And then she turned and saw Connell looking out the window in the living room, an ethereal light flooding against him, so that he resembled a figure in one of those portrait paintings of the children of nobility from centuries past. These days and years would act as a crucible in which his fate was distilled. The closing down of possibilities had begun, almost imperceptibly. She had to act quickly to preserve her image of the life she imagined, in which Ed toiled happily in his study, turning over ideas until they yielded fresh hypotheses, and she was a grand hostess and the matriarch of a respected clan. This house would be the backdrop to the second act of their lives together. It was Connell’s contemplative gaze that gave her that assurance.

“What do you think?” Gloria asked rhetorically as she drifted into the room. She was a maestro of timing: there was no need to respond. She led them up the stairs like a groom guiding his bride to the bower.

“I’ll show you the other bedrooms first,” she said, “and then the master suite.”

She led them to a room so massive it could have swallowed Connell’s current bedroom whole, along with the spare, with room left over.

“This could be your bedroom,” Eileen said.

“Sweet!” He darted into the room and walked its perimeter like a cat marking its territory. He opened and closed the closet doors and then lay in the center of the room and stretched his arms and legs as far as he could. She laughed out loud at his exuberance.

“Come on,” she said. “Get up now.”

“It’s okay,” Gloria said. “He can be excited.”

“You could land a plane in here,” he said.

“Maybe a helicopter,” Gloria allowed.

“There’s no doubt it’s a big enough house,” Eileen said cautiously. How “slightly” out of her price range was this house? This might be another tease, only this time she wouldn’t have done it to herself.

“You haven’t even seen the master bedroom.”

“I’m a little worried about the price.”

“You’re prepared to spend four hundred thousand,” Gloria said. “Five at the most.”

“The uppermost,” Eileen said.

They were in the hallway now, their voices low.

“This house is five sixty.”

“That’s a big difference.” Eileen tried to hide the panic and disappointment that had already set in.

“Not when you think about the fact that when it’s fixed up, it’s a three-quarter-of-a-million-dollar house. Minimum. Minimum .” Gloria spoke coolly, a little impatiently, as if they were discussing an artwork she didn’t want to sully with considerations of money. “There are some catches, though.”

“Catches,” Eileen said.

“Not necessarily deal breakers. How handy is your husband?”

She thought of Ed at home in the garage, tools strewn around him in a blast-radius circle, trying to make the house presentable enough to entice her to stay in it. Everything he knew about home improvement he’d learned from how-to books. Whenever he made a study of something, though, he could do it at least passably well. “If I can earn a PhD,” he’d said when they’d had a short in the hallway light, “I can figure out how to fix some faulty wiring.” And he had. The handiness came at the expense of great effort. Doing a big project around the house always left him exhausted.

“He’s pretty handy,” she said. “Why?”

“This house was on the market for over a year, then taken off and relisted. They just dropped the price.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s suffered some water damage. It’s a twofold problem. It’s at the bottom of a hill, so there’s always runoff. And it’s built on a rock, with a rock behind it, so everything just flows into it. On top of that, the pipes burst this winter. There’s a lot of damage in the basement. A lot of it needs to be ripped out and rebuilt. Plus there’s no guarantee the water won’t come back. You’re going to need a new roof in a couple of years. It’s an expensive proposition to fix this place, but it’s a steal if you can do any of the work yourself.”

“My husband can do it,” she said.

It would be good for him. He could sweat this thing out through manual labor. She could see him drinking a beer in jeans and a T-shirt, wiping his brow and holding a baseball cap at his hip.

“Let’s make our way to your room,” Gloria said. They left Connell and stopped briefly at each of two average-sized bedrooms and a bathroom with matching sinks below bulb-lighted mirrors like those in dressing rooms. A toilet hid demurely behind French doors.

The master bedroom suite contained a closet as large as her current guest bedroom. She pictured a sitting area in the corner of the bedroom proper. The same light poured in as below but unencumbered by tree cover. It would be impossible to dwell on sad things in that light.

In recent years, a tentative mood had obtained in their bedroom. They fumbled over each other’s bodies. It was as if they’d entered a new phase of life and had to get reacquainted. She needed light for play, discovery. Something could be gained if they saw each other naked in the bright light of day.

The wallpaper was all seams and bubbles, and something would have to be done about the stain on the ceiling in the corner of the room. There would be time and money to worry about such particulars in the proper order.

She made her way to the window. She’d heard all about suburban ennui, but she couldn’t imagine feeling it in a house like this. If the abundant space and light failed for a moment to confirm for her how far she’d gotten from what she’d left behind, and a shadow of uncertainty drifted over her, she needed only to throw open the curtains on this window, gaze out onto the empty street, and wait for a car to drive down the block, and then another. In the substantial interval between them, she would feel a calm settling in: there was no reason to be there unless you had someone to see; there was no way to stay there long unless you had a reason to stay.

“I think you like it,” Gloria said.

“I do,” she said quietly. “I like it a lot. I’m trying to figure out how I can afford it.”

She was in the middle of the sort of reverie that invented the future by imagining it. The spell would be broken in a moment, but she lingered in it, telling herself to remember the details.

They wouldn’t be able to put as big a percentage down. They’d have a much higher monthly payment. They might not be able to immediately do all the renovations she had in mind. They’d have to work in stages. They’d have to live lean, not go to restaurants or shows.

“What about you?” Gloria asked Connell.

“Can we put a hoop in the driveway?”

What a simple thing , Eileen thought. What a different set of concerns he has .

“I don’t see why not.”

“Yes!” He pumped his fist.

“Someone’s excited,” Gloria said.

“I’m excited too,” she said, “but the person we need to convince is his father. Provided the structure is sound and the repairs are possible and the finances are in order, I think this might just be the perfect house for us.”

Gloria clapped her hands. “That’s the spirit,” she said. “You wouldn’t get this house at this price except under some very specific circumstances. Now, having said that, why don’t we go take a look at those circumstances.”

They headed downstairs. Gloria pointed out some flood marks that Eileen hadn’t seen earlier, and then she took them into the house’s bowels. Eileen passed her eyes over everything Gloria pointed to, but she did her best not to register it. Connell poked at a section of rot. When he pulled a piece off, she barely mustered enough indignation to scold him. She heard, as though from underwater, the litany of troubles the house had endured. She nodded when she needed to nod and pulled long faces to demonstrate concern. She even heard herself sigh when Gloria showed her a section of foundational wall in the garage that had been soaked through and was threatening to collapse. She was determined to let these subterranean details remain subterranean. They could be handled in due time. The issue now was preserving her vision. The base of the house might be rotting, but the visible portion was commanding enough to chase any qualms away.

“It’s not an inconsiderable amount of work,” Gloria said.

“We could make it work.” Eileen turned to Connell. “You and Daddy could take this on, don’t you think?”

“No way.”

“He just doesn’t want to have to do anything around the house,” she said to Gloria. “But they could handle it. I’m confident.”

“If you say so, Mom.”

“Maybe we’ll pay you like a contractor. Maybe it’s time you earned your allowance.”

“There are things he can’t do. There’s the roof, as I said. You’ve got a little time on that. The electrical wiring is old. You might not have enough amp service. You might blow some fuses. Some of the outlets don’t work. Am I scaring you yet?”

“I’m just listening.”

“There’s asbestos around the plumbing and ductwork. That could make it hard to resell. So could the underground oil tank.”

“I’m not worried about selling it. I’m worried about buying it.”

“Water gathers in the fireplace. Some of these are expensive jobs. Thankfully there’s no mold from the flooding. That we know of.”

“It sounds like we need a plumber. And a roofer.”

“And a general contractor,” Gloria said. “And an electrician. And a willing husband.”

“I can live without a few outlets for a while. I don’t know if I can live without this house.”

• • •

They stopped for gas on the way home. When she went in to pay, she bought a couple of scratch-off tickets, something she’d thought she’d never do, and scarfed a pair of Twinkies while she rubbed a quarter on the tickets. She didn’t win, and she bought five more. Then she got two more with the free tickets she’d won, and those were losers too. She bought five to take home with her and another package of Twinkies to split with Connell and headed out to the car, where the boy sat oblivious of the turmoil she was in.

She drove with an anxious feeling in the pit of her stomach, fidgeting with the button for the electric window. When they pulled in, she saw one of her good sheets strewn like a makeshift tarp over whatever tools Ed had left in the driveway. Cinderblocks held the sheet down at the corners, and the garage door was closed. The stark whiteness of the sheet put a chill in her.

Ed was sitting at his desk. The vestibule abutted his office, a glass-paneled door between them. He had a pleasant habit of wheeling around in his chair whenever he heard her come home, but he didn’t turn this time. “We’re home,” she said. When he didn’t respond, she went over and stood behind him. He was calculating his semester grades. His desk was cluttered with tests and lab reports; little piles of them abounded. He jotted notes on a legal pad as he did his calculations. She’d never seen him do his grades with such elaborate exactitude. He had written the last name of each student, along with the roman numerals from the test sections, in a long row. She watched him meticulously check each number against those he’d written on the exams. It was double work, and moreover it was the kind of task he usually dispatched in his head.

When she placed a hand on his shoulder, he almost leaped out of his seat. He didn’t turn around to her.

“What’s the matter with you?” he exclaimed.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Don’t bother me when I’m doing my grades.”

“Since when?”

“I want to get these right. It’s a big class, and I’ve graded a lot of assignments in the last few days, so I feel a little fuzzy, as you can imagine. I don’t want to make any mistakes in my calculations. When I look at this stuff long enough, I feel like I’m seeing double.”

“What’s up with the sheet?”

He took off his glasses, the way he sometimes did when he was going to give thoughtful consideration to a question, but then he just dropped his shoulders.

“Sheet?”

“Outside,” she said. “The bed sheet.”

“I wanted to leave things there.”

“Why did you use a good sheet?”

“Good sheet?”

“There were other sheets you could have used.”

He slammed his pencil down. “What’s the difference?”

“You used one of the sheets I put on the bed. There are about ten old sets in that linen closet that you could have used.”

He spun around in his chair. She backed away from him instinctively. His face was red and his mouth contorted. “I took the first sheet I could find!” He was on his feet now. “I didn’t have time to work out which sheet was which. I just grabbed a sheet!” He had begun to shout. “I took the first sheet!” He had his hand in front of his face, as if to strike her or bite it. “People walk by the house all day long, peeking back there. I needed to cover everything up!”

She had intended to let it go, but now she had to ask. “Why did you leave it out in the first place?”

“I didn’t want to have to set it up again,” he said. “Is that okay with you? God damn it! God damn it!”

She was quiet. She wondered whether Connell could hear.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure on me to get these grades right. Dealing with these kids has upset me. This younger generation has no respect. It’s disgraceful.”

“What do you mean? What’s happened?”

“What’s happened,” Ed said, “is that with everything going on lately, I’ve been distracted.”

She wanted to know what he meant, because it seemed at times as if nothing was going on, hence the big pile of ungraded papers, but she held back.

“In my distraction, I’ve made a few calculation errors. And they’ve raised a stink about it. That’s all. These kids today feel entitled to everything instantly. You say you’ll review the grade, and they say they can’t wait until the next class. They go berserk! I like to take my time with things, give them an honest going-over. That’s impossible with a crowd of people at your desk. Especially when they speak in such a fresh and disrespectful way.”

So much of what he was saying was odd. He was one of the most popular professors in the department, a status made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was no pushover in the grading arena. They wanted to work for him, to impress him. His belief in them made them want to believe in themselves. It also made her want to kill him sometimes, because she didn’t believe they deserved it.

• • •

After taking an old sheet from the linen closet, she went out to the driveway and picked up one of the cinderblocks holding down the good sheet. Beneath the sheet lay two-by-fours that had been sawn in an irregular fashion. Ed had been attempting to construct something. She couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be ornamental or structural. What it resembled more than anything was a pile for a bonfire. There were none of the heavy tools she’d imagined Ed hadn’t wanted to move several times, only this inert, enigmatic heap. She folded the good sheet up and replaced it with the old one in a way that would discourage his noticing she had done so. When she had finished, she hurried away as she sometimes did when she got spooked in the basement and felt something closing in on her.

She considered saying something to Ed on the way back in. Then she decided the time for checking things with him had passed. If he noticed it was a different sheet tomorrow — by no means a certainty — he would just have to deal with the fact that she had messed with his arrangement.

• • •

She awoke to find herself alone in bed. She stumbled out to the living room and saw Ed’s light on in the study. He was hunched over, as if so many hours of sitting at the desk had sapped the energy in his back. His hair was wild. The desk lamp radiated tremendous heat. The smell of sweat mingled with the mushroom odor of old books to give the room a greenhouse quality.

“Come to bed,” she said.

“I’m working.”

“It’s three in the morning. Come to bed.”

“I have to finish this.” His voice sounded weak, as if he’d fallen asleep in the chair, but his expression was oddly alert. His eyes were sunken and dark, like he’d reached the end of a long fast.

“Can you finish it tomorrow?”

“I can’t.”

“Let me see,” she said.

She leaned over him. He shifted his body to block her view, but she could see the piles on either side of him on the desk, the calculator between them. She picked up the pile of tests and flipped through them. They all had grades on their first page, which surprised her, because what was Ed doing if not grading these things? She put the tests down and picked up the lab reports, over his protestations. The same was true of those: grades had been assigned, red numerals in distended circles emblazoning their upper right corners.

“These are all graded,” she said. “Why don’t you come to bed?”

“I’m still working.”

“You have more to grade?”

“I do.”

He covered a pad on the desk with his hands. She could see it was the set of names and numbers he had been working with earlier. Yet another pad lay next to it.

“What’s that?” She pointed to the second pad.

“Will you leave me alone? Will you go back to sleep? I’ll be in when I’m done.”

She picked up the second pad, fending off Ed’s hands. On it were written all the same names and numbers as on the first pad. They appeared to be identical.

“What is all this?”

She answered her own question by looking at the first test. Each number listed on the pad corresponded to the student’s performance on a section of the exam. His grade book lay splayed open at the back of his desk. She picked it up to check her hunch; indeed, the grades weren’t there. Was he that nervous about making a mistake? Just how fresh had the kids become that a teacher of his stature could be moved to such excessive scrutiny of his no-doubt flawless math well into the night? He should have been resting and quelling the psychic demons that were draining his confidence in the first place. All of this had become far bigger in his sleep-addled mind than it ever should have been allowed to be.

“Let me help you with this,” she said, careful not to describe what “this” was. He surprised her by capitulating quickly. She gathered his things and led him to the kitchen table. “You keep the grade book,” she said. “I’ll tell you the number to enter.”

He held his pen poised over the book. She took the first test off the pile. Edwin Alvarez had earned an 84. She flipped through the test, making sure the subsection grades added up to the indicated total. Eighty-four it was. This was probably the kind of kid Ed was proudest to see achieve, a kid from the neighborhood.

“All right,” she said. “Edwin Alvarez.”

“Wait!” Ed said, suddenly panicked. “Wait! Wait!”

He stood up and bolted out of the room. Before she could follow he reappeared holding a long ruler. He squared himself in the chair and lined the ruler up under Edwin Alvarez’s row of boxes. She had to laugh at his intensity. He didn’t share the laugh, though; he didn’t look up at all, as though he had to stare unblinkingly at the name in front of him in order to prevent it from disappearing.

“Okay,” he said. “Go.”

“Edwin Alvarez.”

“Edwin Alvarez,” he said hesitantly, as if cross-referencing it with the names in the list, an odd thing considering it was the first.

“Eighty-four on the test. We’re only dealing with the test right now.”

“Yes,” he said. “The test only.”

“Okay? Can we move along?”

“Eighty-four?”

“That’s correct,” she said, biting her tongue. As disturbing as this drill was, now wasn’t the time to discuss it. She had to get them both back to bed.

“Okay,” she said. “Lucy Amato. Give me one second.”

She flipped through the test, adding the numbers in her head. She saw how this could get to a person; late at night, numbers ran together. Ed had added them correctly again. She could see it would play out as an exercise in redundancy. It was the kind of thing you signed up for when you got married, idiosyncrasies that bordered on obsessions at times, quirks that became handicaps if allowed to thrive. It could have been worse: he could have had a wandering eye, a gambling habit.

He had located Ms. Amato’s name; his ruler was brought to a sharp congruency with the line underscoring her performance for the semester.

“Seventy-three,” she said.

“Seventy-three.” The desperate edge had left his voice. Despite her tiredness, she was touched by the feeling of working together with her husband on a project; it beat being adversaries. Maybe she’d even be able to tell him about the house.

They went through the stack, she calling out the name, he orienting himself in the ledger, she checking his addition, which grew quicker the more she saw he’d been accurate in his math, she calling out the number like a bingo caller, he repeating the number before committing it to paper, he confirming it again with a rising intonation, she reconfirming it in a tone that made her feel uncomfortably like a teacher with a student. They got to the end without incident, Ed never wavering in his focus, his laser-like application of the ruler’s metal edge. He was sweating; he paused to wipe his forehead while she did her quick math, but didn’t look up from the page.

The last name, Arash Zahedani, also happened to be attached to the highest grade, ninety-seven, a happy coincidence that might send Ed to bed in a better mood. It was getting on four o’clock; she had to be up in a few hours. She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep; she was far too awake now to drift off again. Still, she could lie there and rest her muscles. Tomorrow was an important day at work. The Joint Commission was examining North Central Bronx Hospital, bringing with it the usual headaches. Her people were well prepared, but she would have to dig deep to perform well on little sleep. She was already exhausted from the previous week of late nights getting ready for their arrival. She’d had ten nurses call in sick Friday, and she was going to have to fire some of them, because they’d known better than to do that at the start of the weekend. Since she’d been understaffed, she’d had to struggle to handle a room full of gang members who’d burst in after visiting hours, demanding access to the ICU to see one of their own who’d been shot in the stomach. They pushed past the security guard and through the double doors in front and were advancing on the room. It could have been two dozen of them. She ran to block their way. “You’re not allowed in there,” she said. “You can come back tomorrow.” One of them asked, “Aren’t you afraid of us, white lady?” She didn’t have the energy to be. Security backup arrived, two more guards, all three of them black. If the gang members didn’t stand down soon, the guards might draw their guns, and who knew what would happen then? She was the only white person in the room. The guards told the gang members to leave. There was a young girl among their number; she must have been the injured man’s girlfriend. She held a baby in her arms. She gave Eileen a pleading look. “I will let a few of you in, one at a time,” Eileen said, “and we will all be civil to each other. And then you can come back tomorrow. And I promise you he will be in good hands, and we’ll let it rest at that.” The guards relented. They had the gang members line up against the wall. She could see the leader of the gang calming everyone down. He gave her a look that said, Lady, you are all right . It had stuck with her, that look. It had meant something to be recognized, even by this thug. She wanted that young man to give her that look in front of her husband the next time Ed was half-crazed about some absurd infraction. There was more to life than Ed’s petty grievances.

She wanted to end on a high note, but a spirit of excess caution had crept into her own thinking. “Let’s go through the numbers again,” she said, and from his look she got the feeling he hadn’t planned for it to be any other way.

“We’ll switch,” she said. “I’ll read down the column. You call out the grades.”

They proceeded through the tests, Ed dispatching his task with a new alacrity. Four tests from the bottom, La Shonda Washington, she asked Ed to repeat the grade he’d just read out.

“Eighty-six,” he said.

But the number he’d entered for Ms. Washington was sixty-seven, which also happened to be the score received by Melvin Torres, the student above her in the grade book.

“One second.” She rose to look at the test in his hands. The glow of the sun was filtering into the air outside. It felt more like the remnant light at dusk than the herald of dawn.

“What? What is it?”

“I just wanted to check something.”

“I told you,” he said. “I told you. Eighty-six.”

“That’s what I thought you said, honey.” Her throat constricted. “I wanted to double-check.”

“Is there a problem? A mistake?”

“I just need to change one thing,” she said. “Give me a second.”

She reached for the pencil and he slammed his hand down on it. “What is it?” He was seething. “What is it?”

“The number for the student directly above La Shonda Washington has been repeated,” she said matter-of-factly. “That’s all. I’m going to erase it and write in the correct number.”

“Ah, Jesus!” He threw his hands up. “Jesus Christ! It’s all wrong! It’s all wrong!”

“Just hold on while I make this one change.”

“Forget it,” he said. “What’s the use?”

“It was an honest mistake,” she said. “You wrote the number above it. It’s late.”

“Yes, yes,” he said dismissively. “That’s it. Now let me finish this. I’ll be in when I’m done.”

He took the book away and closed it, then held his head and rubbed his eyes.

“We have three more to go,” she said.

“It’s fine ,” he said firmly. “We’re finished.”

She should have made the switch without saying anything. She should have come out and done it after he’d fallen asleep. Now she had to convince him to leave off his vigil.

“If we’re done,” she said, “then come to bed.”

“I’ll be in in a while.”

“Come now.”

“I said I’ll be in. I’ll be in.”

“You need some sleep.”

He slammed his fist on the table. “I’ll be in when I’m in! What the hell else do I need to say to you? Will you leave me alone, God damn it?”

She snatched the book out of his hands. “Don’t say a word to me,” she said slowly, giving him an icy stare. “Not one word.”

She opened to the page with the grades and looked at the last three numbers. Whitaker, seventy-three. Williams, fifty-eight. Zahedani, ninety-seven. She checked the tests and slammed the book shut.

“That’s it,” she said. “They’re all correct. I’m going to bed. You can come, or you can stay here. I don’t care either way.”

She felt her hands making fists as she walked down the hall to the bedroom. She’d already wasted too much time on him. She imagined he’d spend the whole night out there, going over the numbers endlessly.

She lay in bed, counting sheep for the first time since she was a child. She bit the pillow in frustration. Then she heard him walking down the hall. She rolled over and he climbed in bed alongside her. She moved as close to the edge as she could. Even an accid


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ental touch might enflame her so much that she’d have to go to the couch. There was no point in trying to sleep; she would lie there until it was time to get up and shower.

She felt the slight shaking of the bed but didn’t register the sound as what it was until the shaking grew more forceful. Ed was doing a good job of keeping it in, but the springs of the bed gave him away. The sound of gasps followed. She had trouble identifying it at first because she had formed an image in her mind of Ed as a man who didn’t cry. It wasn’t macho posturing; he simply didn’t shed tears, not even at his father’s funeral.

She turned slowly in the bed. She was tentative with her body; there was no telling how he’d react if she touched him. It wasn’t impossible that he’d get violent, like an animal in a cage. They were in a new territory, with new rules.

She shifted closer to him. When he didn’t stir, she reached out to touch his shoulder, expecting him to slap her hand away; he let it rest there. She gave the shoulder a consoling rub; he sobbed a little harder. She pressed her whole body against his and he folded into its curve. She brought her other arm up against him so that she was hugging him fully. She found herself holding him to her as though he were a child. She’d always resisted cradling him in such a manner, fearing it would diminish her attraction to him, but attraction was the last thing on her mind at the moment. He sobbed as she held him, and she soothed him by making shushing sounds, long and slow and quiet, until he turned and sobbed into her nightgown.

She knew what it was about, even if he didn’t. It was about getting old. She felt it too, but somehow she knew it was different for men. They got spooked when they lost their hair, when their backs gave out. Women were better prepared to deal with death and old age, especially mothers, who, having delivered children, saw how tenuous the line was between life and death. And as a nurse she had seen so many people die, people to whom she’d grown attached. Ed had taught anatomy and physiology. He’d been in the museum of death, not on its front lines. It was irrational for him to react this much to a bit of misentered data, but what was rational about a midlife crisis? Weren’t they always a little absurd?

They were beginning the next phase of their lives together. She was not afraid of it. Let it come , she thought. He’ll be in good hands .

Within minutes he was sound asleep, the crying having exhausted him. She lay awake until the alarm clock went off. He slept through her getting dressed. She made a neat stack of the papers on the table.

• • •

The Joint Commission sent eight people to do the inspection. She and the other administrators went into a conference room to make their presentations. She was glad she’d taken some extra time doing her hair and makeup that morning, and that she’d worn her gray skirt suit, which clung enough to give her some sex appeal while still looking professional, because the team was mostly male.

She was exhausted, but she felt confident about her staff’s preparedness. She’d been readying the nurses for a year, training them in how to answer questions. They were up to date on all the standards: pharmacy, equipment, staff knowledge, patient care. It was the patient interviews that troubled her. Usually the patients were generous in their comments. Still, one disgruntled patient was all it took to get the commission sniffing around. “How is the service?” “Terrible.” “How is your room?” “The place is filthy.” “Are you getting the medicines you need in a timely fashion?” “I can never get anyone around here to answer my call.”

She gave a rundown of the state of affairs in nursing and took a seat. She struggled to stay awake through the other administrators’ presentations. Then they loosed the team.

She wasn’t allowed to follow them around. It made her feel like a criminal. Accreditation was at stake; there were standards to uphold. Still, they were so damned humorless about it. They stalked the place like stormtroopers. They went through labs, making sure everything was cleaned and stored properly. They looked at every chart in the place. They pored over paperwork like district attorneys looking for a break in a prosecution. They grilled staff members. No one knew exactly how long they’d be there once they showed up. It could be three days; it could be the whole week.

Her staff could have withstood a press conference after all the paces she’d run them through. Still, things don’t always go as planned. One inspector found an expired IV solution while interviewing a patient. That got the others digging. They found an expired medicine in one of the carts. The expirations killed you. You could have nurses trained to say all the right things, but if they found one bottle a couple of weeks past its prime in a lineup of fifty good ones, it negated weeks of coaching. A crash cart wasn’t in the locked cabinet it was supposed to be in. They didn’t tell her where it was, of course, only that it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. That one hurt. She prided herself on running a tip-top ER. No one in her hospital was ever going to expire after cardiac arrest because the cart didn’t have the proper medications on it. If the cart wasn’t where it was supposed to be, though, it didn’t matter what was on it.

Before they left for the day, they gave her a list of citations. Too many and the accreditation could be compromised. They gave her a chance to follow up the next day. It was a simple matter of a few fixes — switching out the old medicine, changing the IV, putting the cart back where it belonged — but it also served to tell her that she was on notice. She’d get through it; North Central Bronx would retain its accreditation. Nothing about it promised to be easy, though. They seemed like the kind of crew that wouldn’t give them a pass on anything. It was going to be a long week. In the meantime, life continued at the hospital. People didn’t stop getting sick. People didn’t stop having heart attacks. One kid came in having blown off his hand with a firecracker.

She dozed off at a red light on the way home. When she pulled into the driveway she saw the sheet still over the pile in the back. In the tumult of the day she’d forgotten about it. She walked over to it and lifted a corner. It was all there, untouched. She didn’t have the energy to spare Ed’s ego. She whipped the sheet off. If it was a bonfire he was after, he’d have to find another way to exorcise his demons. She gathered up the pieces of lumber and put them in the garbage can; they stuck out jagged and tall. She dragged the can to the curb for pickup the next day. Ed would flip out when he saw it; in fact, that was the point. Fatigue was hardening her toward him. His vulnerability last night, and her tenderness — it felt as if it had happened a year ago. She hardly remembered it at all; it could have been a dream. It was all so stupid; how could she have indulged him in it?

She marched inside and found him hunched over the stack of lab reports they hadn’t gotten to the night before. She felt she’d fallen into a film loop.

“I took your wood to the curb,” she said. “I’d appreciate it if you could keep the backyard from looking like a junk heap.”

“Okay,” he said without looking up.

“That’s it? Just ‘okay’? No rage? No telling me not to mess with your stuff?”

He kept working as though he hadn’t heard her. She could smell a musky odor coming off him. He hadn’t showered. He had changed his clothes, thank God, but he hadn’t washed before he left for work. Ed hated not to shower. He felt a layer of grime sitting on him all day when he didn’t.

“What were you trying to make, anyway?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, swiveling in his chair. He gave her a look that said he was only trying to get an honest bit of work done. He was one of those aggrieved husbands who had to deal with the not-always-sensible ravings of wives who meant well but made things so difficult sometimes.

“I’m talking about the pile out back,” she said pointedly. “Your little Stonehenge.”

“I really have to focus,” he said. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry.”

“You don’t remember the sheet you put over the pile of wood in the backyard?”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes.” She could see that he remembered it, possibly for the first time since he’d done it; he was that absorbed.

“Okay, fine,” she said. “Just tell me something, and I’ll let you work all night. What were you making?”

“What?”

She knew this gambit; he was pretending he hadn’t heard her, stalling for time.

“What were you making?”’

“Oh, you know.”

“I don’t. That’s why I’m asking.”

“I was making something. I told you what I was doing. You know this.”

“When I left on Saturday you told me you had some projects in mind. Home improvement projects.”

“Yes! Yes. I was making something for the house.”

His answers sounded like those given over the phone by kidnapped people being watched for signs of betrayal.

“What exactly?”

“Well, it was a surprise.”

“I don’t need any more surprises.” She looked at him for a few moments. “How did it go today?”

“Fine.”

“No problems?”

“No.”

“No students complaining?”

“No.”

She hesitated for a moment, then came out with it.

“Do you want some help with that other stack tonight?”

“Yes,” he said in an instant.

• • •

She had no energy to cook, so they ordered pizza. At the end of the meal she took a long, hot shower. Afterward, she wanted to rest for an hour before she helped Ed with the lab reports. She didn’t feel like drowsing in the musty air of the bedroom, so she availed herself of the couch. It was one of those times she wished they had a television in the living room. It had been a principled stance of theirs — of Ed’s, mostly, though she went along with it. At the beginning of their marriage, Ed didn’t hate television, precisely; he just didn’t like what it was doing to American life. It wasn’t always convenient to be without a set in their living room, but there were benefits. Actual conversations took place when people came over, unlike at Ed’s sister Fiona’s house, where the all-seeing eye made any exchange a series of distracted monologues. And when the three of them crawled into the big bed on Sundays to watch Fawlty Towers , it was an event. Recently, though, Ed had grown more severe about it, insisting she shut it off when she tried to watch Johnny Carson at night. It was part of a general trend in his thinking. He was becoming more reflexive, more reactionary. She was becoming the opposite. When they moved to the new house, she would get a big television for the den.

She went to the bedroom and wheeled the little television out to the living room. She wanted to shut her brain off. She didn’t care if the noise bothered him. He couldn’t be doing anything of consequence, and it was only a matter of time before she’d be sitting with him at the kitchen table, running through the grades.

She woke to Ed pounding on the television set.

“Keep that off,” he said. “I’m trying to work.”

She was too sleepy to take umbrage at what he was saying. She waited curiously for the next thing.

“Take it inside. Take it away.”

“I happen to live here too,” she said, her blood rising.

“Get it out of here! I can’t concentrate.”

She stood and fixed the pillows behind her. “We don’t talk to each other like that in this household. I didn’t let my father talk to me like that, and I’m not about to let you do so. You’ve been a complete jerk for I don’t know how long. I’ve had it. I can’t take another day of it. Either you stop this behavior right now, or I swear, Ed, I’m leaving. I won’t make a big production of it. I’ll just take our son and go. Do you have any idea how tired I am? How long my day was? Because I stayed up to help you. You want to do everything yourself, fine. Do it. It’s easier for me to have nothing to do with you.”

He dropped into the armchair and sat looking at her. It almost unnerved her how intent his look was. Against her will, she felt herself warming to him. There was something in his gaze that could make her embers catch fire, even when they were buried under layers of ash.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“You said that yesterday.”

“I’m under so much stress at work.”

“I am too,” she said.

“I know.”

“Since when are you under this kind of stress? I thought one of the perks of your job was how low-stress it was.”

“Lately it’s not.”

“Your head’s not in it,” she said. “I think your mind’s not right. But you won’t talk to me. You won’t let me in.”

“I’m dealing with a new generation,” he said. “I need to be perfect.”

“You’re having a midlife crisis,” she said. “I don’t mean to diminish it, but that’s what it is.”

“I just need to get through the next couple of weeks,” he said. “Then I’ll be fine. I need the summer to recuperate. I put a few things off, and now I’m dealing with them. I’ve tried to shield you from all this. I’m tired. I’m making mistakes. I haven’t been sleeping well. I just need to recharge my batteries.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

“I know the feeling,” she said as she yawned. “When do you need to return those lab reports?”

“Tomorrow is the last day of classes.”

“Go get them and we’ll check them together. Then we can both get some sleep.”

She put on water for tea. She felt as if she was moving through a thick soup. She stood by the stove, watching the kettle boil. She fixed her tea and with languid movements joined Ed at the table. She wanted to insist on a little ceremony. She was going to sip her tea, not gulp it. But she needed Ed to calm down first. His knees were jackhammering up and down in that way that sometimes overcame him.

“Let me drink this before we start.”

“Fine, fine.”

She tried to let the warm liquid have a tonic effect, but she had put too much milk in it, and it wasn’t a good cup. It was foolish to make tea in order to stay awake; all her years of drinking it before bed had turned it into a soporific.

“Let’s get started,” she said.

He focused on the open grade book with the unwavering attention of a runner about to start a race. She thought back to the chaos at the end of the previous night’s efforts, the way a spirit of collaboration had devolved into a shouting match. If only there were a way to avoid the altercation that would ensue if — when — Ed made a mistake. She could feel it as a certainty for some reason, perhaps because of the barely contained mania in that pumping leg. He was in a place mentally where she couldn’t follow, where an entry error was a harbinger of doom. She thought of the bum rap women got: as hormonal as she’d been after delivering Connell, she’d never been certifiably nuts.

An idea occurred to her and she saw right away that it was the correct one, the only one. It should have occurred to her last night, but she was on Ed’s terms then, and tonight he was on hers. Still, she hesitated. Any deviation from the pattern, however short-lived that pattern happened to be, promised to unleash in Ed a disproportionate fury. She had a vision of his overturning the table like a card cheat before a shootout.

She cleared her throat. “I have an idea,” she said tentatively, and he didn’t respond. He was tossing aside, one by one, the gestures of nicety that accounted for much of conversation. “It can save us some time. Of course, if you want to do it another way, it’s up to you.”

He nodded to indicate he was listening — an improvement. She sipped her tea.

“I can just enter them directly into the book,” she said. “You can check it over when I’m done.”

“Yes,” he said, lightning-quickly. At first she thought he hadn’t heard her. Then he looked up and said it again. She felt her body relax. She hadn’t realized it, but she had been bracing for a shock — a blow, even.

“Good,” she said as she took the gradebook from him, but she didn’t mean it. He was so quick to relinquish control of the project, it was as if he had been hoping all along that she would take it over.

She filled in the grades. It took no time at all. It almost made her laugh. She had let herself be convinced that this was a task that required the gravest concentration. In fact it would have been difficult to make a mistake once the first few were in place. They were already alphabetized. She shuddered to imagine how much time Ed had spent checking the alphabetization.

“Done,” she said, closing the book. She hoped he wouldn’t insist on checking it himself.

“Thank you,” he said, to her surprise.

“Let’s go to bed.”

They made love; it was a frenetic affair. Ed seemed to take his stress out on her body, but she enjoyed it anyway. They hadn’t made love with vigor like that in a while. There was something less than terrifying about his anger; it was that of a man in chains. He finished with a grunt; she climaxed along with him. As they lay in silence afterward, their bodies coated in sweat, Ed looking at her intently, she felt an invisible barrier between them had been breached. It would be easier now. She would be able to tell him about the house.

26

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On Saturday she drove up to Bronxville to meet Gloria. No bids had been placed yet, and she wasn’t interested in seeing any other houses. Still, she drove up. The clutter on Gloria’s desk infused her with a feeling of unease.

“What do you say we walk and talk.” Gloria gestured outside. “Take a look at the town.”

Outside, Gloria extended the pack; Eileen demurred.

“You don’t mind if I do, right?”

“Of course not.”

“Good. ’Cause I have to anyway!”

Gloria laughed a raspy laugh and began to cough. She lit the cigarette and took a long drag.

“Talk to hubby yet? What’s his name?”

She didn’t know when it had happened precisely, but Gloria had dropped all pretense of formality with her. A hint of coarseness idled in her voice. At first their familiarity had been bracing. Now that Eileen was a step closer to living there, though, she felt conflicted about it. It meant a small diminution of her ideal. She thought of all the people Gloria probably knew in town. A real estate agent could wield a lot of power if she wanted to. She could control the narrative. She knew people’s secrets no less than a psychiatrist or priest did.

“Ed. Ed’s his name.”

“Have you gotten the thumbs-up from him yet?”

“We haven’t discussed it. He’s been busy.”

Gloria took a drag. Eileen could feel her gaze on her.

“You’re afraid if you bring it up, you’ll hear a no, and then there’ll be no negotiating from there. I get it. I’ve been there — believe me.”

Eileen bristled. It was far more complicated, and even if she had time to explain the subtleties of it in a way that did them justice, she wasn’t sure Gloria was the kind of person who could appreciate such subtleties. She wondered how she had managed to let her guard down with this crude woman.

“I’m going to talk to him about it soon,” Eileen said, “and I’m confident we’ll be in a position to make an offer.”

“You have a bit of time,” Gloria said philosophically. “But I wouldn’t wait forever. This house is under market. You can’t afford to get into a bidding war.”

She had been thinking of the house as protected by the invisible bubble of her interest in it, and she felt a seed of panic take root. They did a loop around the block, Gloria waving to owners and salespeople, a few of whom came out to chat. Eileen felt edgy and ill-equipped to win anyone over. It was safer when they were in the car; it was safer to walk around alone.

• • •

She didn’t admit to herself where she was really heading until she had passed the on-ramp to the Bronx River Parkway. She kept driving until she came to the street with the two stone pillars at either side that Gloria had turned onto when she’d taken her there. She felt her way up a couple of turns until she saw the house. She didn’t have a plan. She just knew she had to be near it, to confirm her feeling about it.

She parked in front, figuring the driveway was too conspicuous. She sat in the car for a while, looking at the stone wall that girdled the front yard, working up the courage to walk the grounds. She knew what she intended to do was technically trespassing, even though whoever was selling the house wouldn’t have minded if it helped to firm up her resolve to buy it. She walked up the driveway to the back stairs. No table and chairs sat on the patio, but she saw them in her mind. Someone was being paid to care for the plants and shrubbery. She saw where she could add a few flowers. In a house like this she would be inspired to learn to keep them alive. A path of stone stairs led up the hill in the back. She followed it to a flat area halfway up that had been left untended. She could put another table there. It could be the aerie from which she looked down on her domain.

The property ran all the way up to a wall that abutted the yard of an Italian-style villa at the top of the hill. It dwarfed this house in grandeur and size, but there was no shame in being outstripped by a house that majestic.

After a little while she saw a worker turning over soil in the backyard of the house next door. He hadn’t seen her, but all he had to do was look up. She hid behind a tree and watched till he disappeared inside. Then she scampered down the steps. The bush cover on the patio gave her courage to try the screen door to the den. It slid open, as did the glass door behind it, and in an instant she was in the house.

She didn’t turn any lights on. Sounds echoed in the big empty spaces. She hesitated going deeper into the house, but a rustling of the leaves outside sent her scurrying into the living room.

She headed upstairs. The place smelled different than it had; she picked up a faint hint of mildew, perhaps wafting up from the basement. It might only have been the close air trapped in the house. She went to the bedroom where Connell had lain on the floor. The room felt imposingly empty with no one else there, and she couldn’t stay in it long. She went to the guest bathroom and ran both taps. She looked at herself in the mirror, then looked away, afraid that something would appear behind her. In the quiet of the house every sound was magnified.

She went to the master bedroom and sat leaning against the wall, by the windows. The longer she sat, the more nervous she grew, but she couldn’t bring herself to get up. She was waiting for external circumstances to dictate her next move. She felt like a mountain climber who had reached a longed-for summit and couldn’t bear to return to normal life.

She didn’t know how long she’d been sitting when she heard the voices. She shot to her feet and looked for a place to hide. She gave no thought to walking downstairs and forthrightly greeting them. She didn’t know who they might be: the owner, other prospective buyers, a neighbor, the police. She thought to hide behind the shower curtain in the master bath, but there was no curtain, and even if there were one, how would it look if they pulled it back and found her there? They’d call the cops for certain. She thought of the attic stairs hidden in a ceiling panel in one of the closets, but she didn’t know if she could pull them down quietly enough, and where was she going to hide up there?

She stood by the doorway to the bedroom. Lights were being flicked on downstairs. She heard enough to tell it was a couple looking at the house and a real estate agent who wasn’t Gloria. She decided to stay in the bathroom until she had heard them start up the stairs. If she heard them go left at the top, she would slip out and head down. If they stopped her, she would burble something and keep moving. They weren’t likely to follow her or keep interrogating her. And if they turned right and headed into the master bedroom suite, she would say she had stayed behind after looking at the house.

She listened to this foreign agent enumerating the house’s virtues. Hearing them presented to another couple curdled the joy she took in their particulars. They were taking forever down there. Anxiety and impatience combined to produce an unexpected boldness in her. She flushed the toilet for a bit of theater, then thrust herself out on the landing and headed down the stairs.

“Oh!” the agent said. “I didn’t know anyone was here.”

“Pardon me. I stayed behind to use the bathroom.”

“Not at all.”

“Don’t let me interrupt you,” she said as the couple appeared from the kitchen. “It’s a great house.”

“It is,” the husband said.

“Well, we know the toilet works!” she said, and felt instantly foolish. The agent looked as uncomfortable hearing it as Eileen felt saying it.

“Yes — ha!” the agent said, a little belatedly.

“Do you mind if I leave through the front door? Could you lock it after me? I’d like to get a look at the front porch.”

“Not at all!” The agent looked relieved. “Please!”

Outside, Eileen’s frenzy subsided. She caught her breath leaning against the railing, feeling its smooth but bumpy paint. She smelled the mown grass and the lavender scent of the lilacs in the tree, and she listened to the birds, the shuffling leaves in the branches. The manicured bushes shook mildly in the wind. No police or ambulance sirens battered her ears, nor any thunder from souped-up cars. A little girl rode by on a bicycle and offered her raised hand in a wave. Eileen waved back, completing the illusion of ownership. And then it hit her, the peace she had sought in going up there, the ineffable something she’d been chasing. Then she heard the agent and the couple enter the foyer and felt the peace slip away. Their voices were muffled through the door, but she knew they were speculating about the house, weighing it, considering it. In her mind it already belonged to her. She would do whatever she had to do.

27

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Connell wasn’t sure why he’d told his mother he wanted to move. Maybe it was because he’d seen how much she wanted him to want to. The truth was, he didn’t want to go anywhere. It felt like leaving right now would be like quitting, like saying, I really am the pussy you think I am . And he was heading to a new school. He’d make friends there, but if he moved, he’d lose the ones he had now; he was pretty sure of that. Farshid, Hector, and Elbert had stuck with him through all the teasing he’d endured. Farshid was going to Brooklyn Tech, Hector to St. Francis Prep, Elbert to Molloy.

When they moved, he was going to leave part of himself behind. Even the ex-friends who gave him so much trouble were part of his life. Maybe they’d all look back on it and laugh when they were adults, drinking wine around each other’s kitchen tables, throwing their heads back and remembering how they were as kids. You had to stay in the same town to get that kind of rich history with people. You had to have ties that ran pretty deep.

He wasn’t going to have a home anymore, not in the same way. His mother didn’t seem to mind that idea. But his mother had stayed in Woodside until she was in her twenties. Her best friends were people she’d known since first grade. He saw the way they enjoyed each other’s company. She said it wasn’t like that anymore, that people moved around, that there weren’t neighborhoods anymore like there used to be, but he knew it could be like that. All you had to do was not go anywhere.

• • •

He was playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!  at Farshid’s. He tried twice to get past Piston Honda, but his heart wasn’t in it. He handed the controls to Farshid and watched him work his way through Soda Popinski and Bald Bull. Connell couldn’t even get to the place Farshid started from. Farshid’s fingers on the buttons looked like the beating of a hummingbird’s wings.

Kids pretty much left Farshid alone. He’d come to St. Joan’s in sixth grade, by which point everybody had settled into cliques. He was kind of a free agent.

“My mother’s going to move us,” Connell said.

“Yeah?” Farshid sounded like he’d heard him but not heard him. He was moving the controller around in the air as he slapped furiously at the buttons.

“She wants to get us out of here.”

“Where to?”

“Westchester.”

“Where’s that?”

“The suburbs.”

“That’s cool.” He cursed and threw the controller, though it landed softly on the rug, and he retracted it by the cord and restarted the game.

“I don’t want to go.”

“Why not?”

“I have my friends here,” he said.

“You’d get a backyard. Maybe a pool.”

“Yeah.”

“I’d do it.”

“What about your friends?”

“What about ’em?”

“You wouldn’t care about leaving?”

“No offense,” he said, “but yeah — no.”

“I’d miss you and Hector. Even Elbert.”

“You’re not gonna see us anyway, even if you stay. You’re gonna be in the big city with


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all your nerd friends. You’re gonna jerk each other off in the locker room.”

“Maybe you have me confused with yourself,” Connell said.

“I’m going to have girls do that for me, thank you very much.”

“Everything’s going to change all at once.”

Farshid finished the level and paused the game. “You just need to reinvent yourself. That’s what my mother said to me, ‘Reinvent yourself.’ In Farsi, though: ‘Khodeto az no dorostkon .’ I didn’t want to come here, man. There was some political shit with my father. We had to leave fast. Talk about everything changing.”

“You couldn’t go to Brooklyn Tech if you moved.”

“I don’t give a shit where I go to high school, man! Here, there, I don’t care. I care about what’s after that. College! Living on my own.” He slapped his hands together. “Beautiful girls in my dorm room! Hah!”

Connell knew why the other kids didn’t tease Farshid. He wasn’t vulnerable to them; he already had a plan.

“This is home,” Connell said.

“Home?” Farshid said. “What does that even mean? I’m going to work on Wall Street. I’m going to have a hot wife like Alyssa Milano that I bang a lot in my big bed. I’m going to have a big house and a big pool. That’s home.”

Connell felt like a child; all he cared about was getting to hold a girl’s hand someday, and Farshid was already thinking of what he would do with his wife.

“Sounds good,” Connell said.

“Reinvent yourself!” Farshid said, handing him the joystick. “You can start by not sucking so bad at Punch Out!! ”

“I have to invent myself before I can reinvent myself,” Connell said.

“Aw, don’t say that,” Farshid said. “You’re already somebody. You’re the biggest nerd I ever met in my entire life.”

28

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It started in math class. Gustavo Cruz was tapping him on the back. Connell had been resisting all year, but Gustavo hadn’t given up. It was the time of year when every point counted for some kids. Usually Connell just framed his test more tightly with his arms, leaned over it more to obscure it with his body. He didn’t care if it made him look like a hopeless nerd; he wanted the teachers to know he had nothing to do with cheating.

Gustavo was slapping him on the neck now. Connell couldn’t turn around to tell him to stop without risking looking like a conspirator.

He thought about what he must look like to the others — a stiff kid incapable of acting normal, a former fat kid still awkward in his body, a nerd with no style or balls who would never, ever kiss a girl. He’d been insulted and made fun of a thousand times, and he’d hung from the basketball hoop, desperate to shift his hand down to cover his privates but too afraid to fall, but he hadn’t suffered the truest humiliation, because his parents always told him he was worth more than other kids could see. He wasn’t sure he believed that anymore.

He sat up straighter, leaned to the side, and gave Gustavo full view of his paper — the top part, at least. It was a multiple-choice test with a couple of show-your-work problems at the bottom. The multiple-choice alone was enough to get Gustavo to pass. Connell was nervous. He would have been even more nervous if Miss Montero ever even looked his way during tests, but he’d put up such staunch resistance that it must have seemed to her as if the fight on that front had been permanently won.

In the lunchroom Gustavo exulted.

“Man, that was the shit . Cuh-nell! ”

“Shh…” Connell tried to play it cool, but he felt exposed. “Keep it quiet.”

“I get you, man.”

A couple of days later, when they had a surprise quiz, Connell waited until he’d finished and then leaned to the side a little. This time Miss Montero snapped, “Eyes on your own paper!” but Gustavo had probably had enough time.

“Cuh-nell !” Gustavo said again, and Connell thought, Con- null. Con- null.

• • •

That afternoon, instead of hustling home, he found himself sitting on the rectory steps with them. Some cosmic sleight of hand had deposited him in their midst. He hoped none of them would notice he didn’t belong.

They went to Shane’s apartment to make prank calls. They called Gianni’s and had a pie delivered to the address in the phone book for one of their teachers. They called Antigone Psillos, a good-hearted, untouchably homely girl who had been given the unimaginative nickname of An-pig -o-nee. Pete asked her out, and when she cautiously agreed, he said, “Psych!” and hung up the phone.

“What’s that Chinese kid you hang out with?”

“Who?”

“Your friend,” Shane said. “Elbert. Elbert Lim.”

“He’s not my friend.”

“Whatever. What’s his number?”

“I don’t know,” Connell said.

“Here,” Shane said, passing him the phone. “You dial it. Order some Chinese food.”

The guys were sniggling and slapping their knees. They were in Shane’s living room. His mother worked late, and his father wasn’t even in the country. He was a Marine who’d been in the Gulf War. He was supposed to have come back in March, when the war ended, but he’d been sent to Bangladesh to do relief work after a cyclone. There was a picture of him in his uniform on the wall right above the phone.

“I don’t know the number,” Connell said.

“Bullshit,” Pete said. “You talk to that kid every day.”

“Hang on,” Shane said. “I had to call him once for homework.”

Shane got his address book and dialed the number. He made excited faces as it rang.

“Hello?” he said into the phone. “Is this Chow-Chow Kitchen? I want to order some fried rice and spare ribs.”

The other guys were hooting. Connell tried to smile. Shane had his hand over the receiver. His father , he mouthed.

“No, I said I want to order spare ribs. For delivery.”

Shane slipped into laughter and hung up.

“Call back!” Pete said. He handed Connell the phone. “You call.”

Connell pretended to look at the paper and picked up the receiver. He dialed slowly, made a mistake on purpose and started again. Then he made a genuine mistake, from nerves. Shane grabbed the sheet and dialed. Connell was still holding the receiver. It rang a few times and someone picked up. It wasn’t Elbert’s father. It was Elbert himself now.

“Hello?” the voice said.

Connell was too nervous to speak.

“Hello? Who is this? Can you stop calling, please?”

Elbert hung up.

“He slammed the phone down,” Connell said, hoping that would be enough.

“Call back!”

“Don’t you want to call someone else?”

“Call back!”

Connell took the sheet and dialed the number. The phone rang for a while. He was relieved to have been spared. Then the line clicked on. It was Elbert again.

“You assholes need to leave us alone now. Isn’t your break over at McDonald’s? Oh wait, I forgot. Even McDonald’s wouldn’t hire you. I bet they’d hire your mama, though. By the hour. I hear she comes pretty cheap.”

He’d always appreciated Elbert’s adult air, his razor-sharp intelligence. Now it made him feel ashamed. They were looking at him intently, his new, old friends.

“Say something,” Shane urged.

“I want to order spare ribs and fried rice,” Connell said in a fake voice deeper than his own.

“That’s really funny,” Elbert said. “Original. I’ve never heard that before. Not even once.”

Connell didn’t know what to say. He felt an idiot grin spread across his face. He could feel himself getting dumber. He saw the other faces looking back at him with — could it be? — appreciation. All he could think to do was order more food.

“And some egg rolls,” he said in a fake Chinese accent that made his friends laugh even louder. “And wonton soup.” It made him feel sick to do it — his father would have lost his mind if he knew — but it also felt good to be one of the guys.

“Shane Dunn? Is that you? Pete McCauley?”

He was praying Elbert wouldn’t say his name.

“We’re not even Chinese,” Elbert said. “Not that you idiots would know the difference. We’re Korean. I don’t even like Chinese food. Why don’t you ask for some kimchi? Maybe my mother would make some for your ignorant asses. I could come over and throw it in your face.”

Elbert was like that: pugnacious. Usually it was awesome; now it just scared Connell. Elbert’s mother’s kimchi was delicious. The first time Connell had had it, he’d felt like his mouth was on fire; he’d never had anything so spicy at home.

“Come on, Connell!” Pete shouted. “Say something.”

A hush fell over the guys at this transgression of protocol. They feigned shock and started cracking up.

“Connell? Is that you?”

Connell hung up before he could answer. He knew Elbert wasn’t going to talk to him anymore, so when they told him to call Farshid, he just took the phone and dialed.

“Give me that,” Shane said. “I want to talk to this sand nigger myself.”

Standing beneath his father’s stern portrait, Shane shouted a stream of insults into the phone. He didn’t bother trying to disguise his voice.

• • •

When Donny went to the bathroom, Connell stood by the hall door and listened for the sound of a flush or footsteps. He grabbed handfuls of coins from the big bowl on the breakfront, filling his pockets. He had an allowance, but he took the money anyway. It made his stomach ache to do it.

He bought food, comics, baseball cards. At a store on Roosevelt Avenue, he watched some guys buy nunchuks and throwing stars. Then he bought a curved-bladed knife that snapped with a violent click into its protective handle. He brought the knife to school and unzipped his backpack to show his new friends.

“Put that shit away,” Shane said. “How can you be a nerd and so stupid at the same time?”

• • •

He didn’t have a game at Elmjack, so he went to the park. All his new friends played hockey. He didn’t have any hockey gear, so he played catch with one of the older guys for a while and then sat and waited.

Afterward they walked up to Northern to Dance Dynamics to watch through the blinds while the girls danced. All the girls he’d ever had crushes on were in that class, and every guy there but him was dating one of them. The class took a break for a few minutes and some girls came outside. He was the only guy not in hockey gear. He tried to hold his glove behind his back. “Baseball’s gay,” he’d heard Shane say, and even though he’d seen how awful Shane was in the field whenever he played softball with the older guys, he still felt like a kid carrying that glove, while the others wore protective padding and towered over him on skates and rollerblades. The girls only glanced at him quizzically, as though waiting for one of the guys to explain why they’d let Connell follow them there.

They headed to the Optimo store to steal. It was coming on evening; he knew he was supposed to have gone shopping for his mother before dinner. He should have left a while ago, but he wanted to preserve his legitimacy by doing everything they did.

The plan was for each of them to take something while the rest distracted Andy the Korean guy behind the front counter and his mother back by the storeroom. They fanned out around the store. Connell stood up front, by the baseball card display case. It wasn’t hard for him to pretend to be interested, because he went in there a lot for comic books and cards. He kept Andy busy by asking a lot of questions, but he didn’t steal anything. He was sure he’d be congratulated anyway for helping the cause, but when they got down the block and showed each other their loot — candy, soda, a thermos — and his hands were empty, they called him a pussy.

They went to Pete’s house a few blocks away. Pete got some liquor bottles out of his parents’ closet and passed them around. Connell wouldn’t take a sip.

“You are such a nerd,” Pete said. “I can’t believe what a nerd you are. What is he doing hanging out with us again?”

Pete looked to Gustavo, who shrugged his shoulders. “My man Connell is helping me out,” Gustavo said, and then he shot Connell a look that said, You have to help yourself out .

They went back out to meet the girls after their dance class. He could imagine what it would feel like to be able to relax, to talk to them as if he had a right to. Once, in seventh grade, he’d called up Christin Taddei at Farshid’s urging and asked her out. The call had ended in humiliation. Now Christin was standing right there. She said something he didn’t understand. He felt like he could barely hear anything, the way the excited blood was coursing through his system.

“You reek,” Christin said again.

“What?”

“You need to use deodorant. Or cologne. Or take a shower.”

The other girls tittered. “I will,” he said. In his embarrassment he could feel his toes curling.

“Damn, yo!” Shane said. “My girl just dissed you hard .”

Shane peeled off with Christin, Pete headed home, and Connell walked down Northern with Gustavo and Kevin. They neared the Optimo store.

“You should have taken something,” Gustavo said. “Everybody else did.”

Dusk was coming on. The store would be closing soon. Andy had his back to the window. He was in college; Connell had seen him wearing an NYU sweatshirt. Connell bought cards from him every day practically, and comics once a month at least. Andy put together a regular bag of comics for him. Sometimes he threw him a free baseball card pack, just for being such a good customer. He liked to watch Connell open packs and find rookie cards.

Gustavo was saying something, but Connell had stopped listening. He walked into the street to get a little distance, turned, and threw the ball he’d been carrying as hard as he could. The big pane shattered with a terrific crash. Sheets of glass fell like icicles.

Gustavo shouted “Holy shit!” and he and Kevin ran down the Boulevard. Connell ran across it into traffic and kept running until he stood in front of his house, alone, his chest pounding. The front door was unlocked. He stood in the vestibule looking out to see if anyone had followed him. He wanted to switch skins with someone else, switch bodies.

His father was on the couch, wearing his headphones, and his mother was in the kitchen cooking what smelled like broccoli and ziti, which was what she whipped up when there was nothing left in the fridge. He said he was home and didn’t answer when she asked where he’d been. He headed to his room. He heard a cop siren outside and started biting his nails. He went into the bathroom and stripped naked and smelled his armpits.

She was right; he did smell. Maybe he was getting ready to stop being such a damned baby about everything. He got in the shower and turned the knob for hot water all the way, with only a little cold to balance it out. The water scalded his skin and he started turning red. Steam billowed out into the room, filling it up.

He couldn’t stop thinking of that window breaking. He could see it happening over and over, the glass caving in, the one big piece dangling and falling off with a crash. They would find the baseball. They would have it dusted for fingerprints. They wouldn’t need fingerprints, because he went in there every day carrying his glove and a baseball. Once, he’d even left his glove there and called in, and they’d held the store open late for him to come get it. He could see Andy shaking his head in wonderment at what the hell had come over this crazy kid. He’d always enjoyed Andy’s sarcasm whenever somebody said something less than intelligent or acted like an ass. Andy was in college but he had to spend all his time entertaining these little kids. Connell could see him banging his fist on the counter. He could see him locking the door and consoling his mother, and then the two of them sweeping up the shards. He pictured him emptying the window display of cards, picking pieces of glass out of boxes of packs, pulling the gate down with a muttered curse. They deserved better than what he’d given them.

He scrubbed himself with punishing quickness, but he could not calm down. He kept thinking of Christin Taddei telling him he reeked. Christin used to date Gustavo before she dated Shane, and some people said she and Gustavo had had sex. She hiked her skirt higher than the other girls did, and her blouse was always a little tight. He had an erection. He grabbed it in that steamy cloud, and after a few quick strokes he brought himself off and watched the viscous stuff disappear down the drain. He rubbed at his hand, trying to get the gluey residue off. He felt even worse now, even more scared. He was guilty, guilty. He would have to get caught. It was only a matter of time. He wanted to get out, get away. High school couldn’t come fast enough, but it would not be sufficient. He wanted to get far away. He never wanted to see Andy or Andy’s mother again. They would carry around the truth about him wherever they went.

He heard a knock at the bathroom door. “Dinner,” was all his mother said, but he felt like he’d been called up before a judge.

29

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The night before he posted his final grades, Ed didn’t even grunt when she asked what he wanted for dinner, or lift his head; he just put his hand up in an imperious dismissal.

She retreated and pounded her frustration into some hamburger meat. She chopped the carrots with savage thwacks, relishing the sound of the knife crashing into the cutting board.

After dinner, as she was cleaning up, he brought all his papers into the kitchen.

“Sit with me until I’m ready for you to enter the numbers,” he said.

“I’ll be reading in the living room,” she said. “Come get me when you’re ready.”

“No,” he said. “I want you here. I want you ready. I’ll give you the signal.”

He was acting like the head of an ER team waiting for an ambulance to arrive. It was absurd that she had to be on such high alert. She didn’t raise a fuss, though. She made tea and got her book and sat at the table with him.

“No,” he said, looking up. “No.”

“What?”

“No reading,” he said. “I need you ready.”

“You can’t be serious,” she said, and returned to the book.

“No!” He grabbed the book out of her hands.

The testy ER doctors who took their nerves out on the nurses sometimes apologized later; with the ones who didn’t, you learned not to take it personally. But these men were saving lives. Whose life was Ed trying to save?

“Honey,” she said. “Is it really hurting anything if I just read here next to you while you work? What’s the harm in it?”

He slammed his pen down on the stack of papers. “We have a system!” he shouted. “We have a system that works! We need to follow it! Just follow the system!”

She had already figured out that they had a “system,” one of his doing whatever he wanted as she looked on his work silently, benignly, unblinkingly.

“Okay.” She closed her book and looked at him. His hair was graying at the temples, but otherwise it retained its deep-black hue. His lashes were still long enough to be the envy of any woman, and his crystal-blue eyes softened the sharp impression his nose and strong jaw made. It still took her by surprise how handsome he was.

She sat and waited, sipped her tea slowly. It seemed that tea drinking was something he could tolerate as in-system. She reached for a pile he’d finished with, thinking to get a head start on it. He stopped her hand and told her to wait. She stood up, just to stand, and walked over to the sink. He told her to sit down. She could feel herself messing with him. She peppered him with questions at short intervals. He ignored them and kept his head down. Eventually he looked up at her, breathing through his teeth, his eyes flashing with hate.

“Be quiet,” he growled. “Sit there and be quiet and wait till I’m done.”

She wanted to say something acid, to humiliate him the way he’d humiliated her. The only thing that stopped her was the vague sensation that this was not the man she’d married, that some metempsychotic transfer had occurred. She sat in the chair with one hand on the table and one embracing the mug.

When he was done he slapped the pen down and took a deep breath, rubbing his eyes. He sat back in the chair pointedly, with as much presence as if he were studying her for the first time. She was surprised by his suddenly intense look and blushed. She wanted to touch him, to dispel her nerves. She took the pile of essays and began entering the grades in the book. She made short work of it. When she was done, he produced another sheet, with numbers on it and blanks next to them.

“Now this,” he said.

“What is it?”

“The final grade sheet.”

“What do I do?”

“You find the student number next to the names on this other sheet.”

He had everything ready for her. Considering how organized he was about all the papers, how much he seemed to have the situation in hand, it was a wonder he was asking her to do this at all.

When she was done she closed the book with a thump. Ed clapped his hands together and raised them above his head exultantly. The gesture embarrassed her — seeing him celebrate so quotidian an accomplishment. She looked for signs of irony, but there were none.

They had another bout of lovemaking. He went at her purposefully, giving her deep kisses and holding her down by the wrists. It reminded her of the way he had made love to her during their brief attempts to conceive a second child: both of their bodies moving as one; the thrust of his hips compact, rhythmic, and deliberate. The only thing that kept it from feeling perfect was her nagging worry that Connell would hear the headboard knocking against the wall.

In the middle of the night — a groggy check of the clock revealed it to be four in the morning — Ed was shaking her awake. It took some effort to figure out what he was saying, but eventually she understood that he wanted her to follow him to the kitchen.

The sheet from earlier was laid out before her, along with another that appeared identical. She looked at him, confused. Her eyes were adjusting to the kitchen light, but she could see that the grades she’d written next to the numbers had been crossed out, with new grades written in their place.

“I need you to make these changes.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I made some changes. I need you to transfer them to this clean sheet. I have to tape it to the wall outside my classroom.”

“Why are you making changes? We were done.”

She wanted to put her head down on the table. She felt that if she did, he would be standing there in the same position waiting when she woke up.

“Changes!” he barked. “I made some changes! I need you to transfer them.”

She couldn’t make sense of it. She would simply have to submit to the logic of this inquisition. The pattern in the grades became obvious quickly: Ed had taken every grade and kicked it up a full letter, irrespective of pluses and minuses. A C— became a B; a C+ became a B; a B became an A. Ed had long held the line against rising grades. He gave out As sparingly; getting an A from Ed still meant something.

“What’s this about?”

“There were other things I had to factor in. Participation. Et cetera.”

“You were very generous,” she said sardonically.

“There’s nothing wrong with being generous.”

“Not at all.” She smiled. “But you were very  generous.”

“I reconsidered a few grades. It’s not your concern.”

“Fine,” she said. “I’m tired. I don’t know why I said anything.” She filled in the grades next to the corresponding numbers in the new sheet and put the pen down. “There. I’m going back to sleep.”

In the morning she found him on the couch. On his desk the grade sheet had been revised upward again. Now there were only two categories, A and B. Below it was another blank grade sheet. She saw that it was her duty to transcribe these trumped-up scores to the final grade sheet. Or could there be another one in store, with all As?

Standing there, she remembered how, in the years after her father retired, when she was still living at home, she would slip cash in his pants pocket for him to find when he was out at the bar, to spare him the embarrassment of not having money to buy other people’s drinks. If she did this, it would be to spare Ed embarrassment.

He was curled on the couch, which was too small for his frame. It was hard to be worried about him when he was sleeping. He looked like a child, like a larger version of Connell. His hands were folded up near his face, as though he had been arrested in the act of praying. It seemed that all men were the same in the few vulnerable instants after they’d been awakened, as though they’d been called back from some universal state into the particulars of their lives. For a moment she stepped out of time and all of existence made sense; then the moment passed, and Ed returned to being her husband.

30

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She sat on the stoop, listening with a new equanimity to the sounds of the neighborhood. She heard the rumble of a plane in the distance and watched it course across the sky. As a car rushed past toward Northern Boulevard, she could hear music faintly thumping within it. The laugh track of a sitcom echoed in the little valley between the two houses. It was easier to tolerate the flaws of a place when the promise of release from it loomed. Whoever bought the house would know what they were getting and willingly embrace it. If she wasn’t quite going to feel nostalgic for the neighborhood, she could at least imagine that once she’d signed the papers relinquishing the deed to the house, she’d feel the rage slip from her, and she’d be able to return to survey it with detachment. She could always come back to get her hair cut; no one tamed her cowlicks the way Curt did, and his price was reasonable. And she could imagine coming back to Arturo’s, though the truth was, Arturo’s was a good neighborhood place, the kind that made it bearable to live there, but it wasn’t anything more than that. There would be other places, better places.

• • •

Connell did a dance to avoid the back-swinging car door, pinching a plastic-sheathed comic book carefully between uplifted fingers as if holding aloft a key piece of evidence. In his other hand was a shopping bag.

“Big day at the comic book store,” she said dubiously to Ed.

“He did well this year. He’s a good kid.”

“Looks like he did well today too, big spender.”

“It’s an investment,” Ed said. “He knows his stuff. He didn’t get junk.”

She went to Connell’s room. He was slotting his new comics into his long boxes with the quiet gravity of a special-collections librarian.

“Did you take advantage of him?”

“No! Why?”

“He’s happy to be done with the school year. You must have seen that.”

“It wasn’t my idea. He just came home and said, ‘We’re going up the block to the comics store.’ I told him I didn’t want to go. He kept insisting. I kept telling him I don’t go to that store anymore. I don’t like those people in there.”

“Why?” she asked. “What did they do to you?”

“Nothing,” he said. “They’re just not nice. Anyway, I don’t go there anymore. He said, ‘Then let’s go to that store near where your orthodontist’s used to be.’ He drove us all the way out to Bayside. I didn’t want to get all this stuff. I mean, I wanted to, but I felt bad. He just kept saying, ‘Get what you want.’ ”

“How much did he spend?”

“A bunch.”

She moved closer to him. “How much ?”

“Two hundred. Over two hundred.”

How much  over two hundred?”

“Two forty-eight,” he said. “And seventy-eight cents.”

She couldn’t believe the number. She would have thought it impossible to spend that much on comic books unless you brought a wheelbarrow into the store.

“You took advantage.”

“I did not,” he said, indignant. He was slipping cardboard backings into the comics’ plastic sleeves and ferreting them into the archival boxes he kept his collection in. If it really was an investment, she couldn’t accuse him of not tending to it. “He kept saying, ‘I want you to feel like you can have anything you want.’ He was telling me to fill up my basket. I didn’t get any really expensive ones.”

Eileen shuddered, as if a cold breeze had blown through the room. She sensed a sadness at the heart of Ed’s largesse. The boy seemed to have sensed it too; it had tainted his happiness at his haul. She felt a powerful sympathy for her husband, like one of those synchronized pains experienced by people miles apart, even though he was in the other room.

• • •

With a dignified informality, the ancient maitre d’ directed them to a table. Arturo’s hadn’t changed since it opened years ago: white aprons over black ou


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tfits; napkins draped over forearms; tinted, marble-patterned wall-length mirrors; mild music; steaming sliced loaves; a reliably robust house red. There were neighborhood Italian restaurants like it all over the city — strong in the specials, respectable otherwise — but she’d always felt this place represented a bit of refinement. Sandro, Arturo’s son, ran it with a seemly reserve. Still, she was looking forward to putting it behind her for places of real distinction.

Ed smiled and looked benignly at his menu, as if written in its pages were the answers to diverting but trivial questions.

“Are you happy the year is over?” she asked.

“Very happy,” he said.

She fidgeted with some sugar packets. “So, Ed,” she said, after what seemed like an interminable pause. She tried out a smile. “We saw a nice house. One we liked a lot.”

“You found a house?”

He was looking at her with a strangely blank expression.

“Well, we didn’t find a house, exactly,” she said. “We did see one. It may not be perfect. There’s no saying we can even afford it.”

“You want to move? We can move.”

“What?”

She felt a little light-headed. She put both hands on the table to steady herself. His capitulation was so instantaneous that she had to think it was because the boy was there and they were in a public place; once home, he would give full vent to his displeasure. Another thought gave her greater pause, though: that she actually believed him. It was as if he’d never truly been opposed to the idea in the first place.

Ed turned to Connell. “This is what you want?”

She took a deep breath. Her stomach was in such a knot that she felt she might throw up.

“Very much,” the boy said, with a strange gravity. “I’m ready to leave.”

“You are?” Ed asked.

“Right away.”

“Why?”

“Well,” he said, “I’ve been thinking it over a lot.” She wouldn’t have guessed he’d thought about it once since the day they’d seen the house. “And what I’ve come up with is that I’m starting high school in the fall, and that’s a fresh start for me, and I think we should all get a fresh start.”

The boy had come to her aid. She had no idea where he was getting this poise. Perhaps her dream of having a politician in the family might come true after all. Ed looked to her. She shrugged her shoulders.

“Plus,” Connell added, “the house we found is great. The driveway is wide enough for almost a half-court game.”

She had no need to sell it to Ed when Connell was doing so much of the work for her.

“You want to move?” Ed asked again, as he shoved more bread into his mouth.

Connell nodded.

“Why not?” Ed said. “Let’s move.”

“We don’t have to rush into anything,” she said, disturbed by the quickness of his about-face.

“You found a house, you say?”

“Yes, but—”

“We can move.”

“Really?” Connell asked.

“Yes.”

“Well,” she said, “I’m glad to see you’re open to the idea. We’ll discuss it more later.”

“It’s a fine idea.” His grin was so wide as he buttered a slice of bread that Connell broke into a goofy one of his own.

“Someone’s in a good mood,” she said, but Ed didn’t hear her. “I said, someone’s  in a good mood.” The pair of them chomped lustily. Ed signaled for another bowl of bread. When the waiter brought it, Connell ordered another Coke. “Save some room for dinner,” she said, unsure which of them she was addressing. She had ripped a sugar packet open without realizing it; its contents deposited into her lap. She rubbed the crystals until they formed a grainy film on her fingers, but she refused to get up to wash her hands.

“All right,” she said. “Connell wants to move. You want to move. I want to move. Does that mean we’re all in agreement?”

Ed nodded as he slathered butter on a new piece.

“You don’t mind if I go ahead and get some plans in motion. You’re on board.”

“Sure,” he said.

She felt herself growing angry. “Just back up a second,” she said. “Do you not remember saying you didn’t want to move? Do you not remember saying it wasn’t the right time?”

“I know we talked about it,” he said.

“And do you or do you not remember telling me in no uncertain terms that you didn’t want to — you couldn’t —move?”

He was nodding, but once again it wasn’t clear he was actually listening.

“All of a sudden it makes perfect sense to you?”

Her voice had been rising without her permission. People at nearby tables picked up their heads.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He wasn’t just trying to quiet her down; there was a note of real contrition.

“Hey, Dad!” Connell said. “It’s okay. This is a good thing!” The boy had moved over to put an arm around his father.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just wanted to have some of this bread.”

His apologies were making her uncomfortable. “Just tell me one thing,” she said. “What changed your mind? What’s so different today?”

“I just feel good today. I’m so happy to be done! I don’t have to go in there for weeks — months!”

He was almost giddy. Maybe this thing wasn’t depression. Maybe it was manic depression.

Now that the year was over, now that he could look forward to three uninterrupted months, he’d sign off on anything she wanted. It wasn’t that he hadn’t wanted to move; it was that he hadn’t been able to deal with anything extraneous at all. He’d had to spend so much energy managing his depression, his midlife crisis, his students, his research, that formerly ordinary tasks like doing his grades had become insuperable burdens. The strain had caused him to short-circuit. He had lost his mind over a few calculations, some entry of data into a book, some transposition of that data onto a sheet to tape to the wall. He had falsified the record for it, lost sleep over it, screamed at her because of it, cried in her arms about it. All he’d wanted was to be alone to lick his wounds, and his job never let him be alone. As long as he lay on the couch with his eyes closed, shutting out his thoughts with music, the demon couldn’t get to him.

Ed and Connell scarfed their meals. Eileen stared into her plate to avoid conversation and took her time eating. After the plates were cleared, Sandro approached grandly, the waiter behind him bearing a dessert platter.

“With my compliments,” he said. “I’d like you to choose one each.”

Sandro had chosen this of all moments to allow his circumspection to falter. “You don’t have to do that,” she said.

“We’re celebrating tonight,” he said. “Believe it or not, we’ve been here thirty years. You’re one of our oldest customers.”

He must have seen her stiffen.

“I don’t mean oldest,” he said. “Longest-standing.”

“We don’t need three .”

Sandro turned to Ed. “You see?” he said, a hint of pique in his voice. “This is why she still has such a nice figure.”

Ed smiled warmly, registering no tension, though Connell squirmed in his seat. Sandro left.

“Here’s to the end of the year,” Ed said, raising his glass and taking the little bit of wine left in it down in a gulp.

“Here’s to finding a house,” she said. Ed held out his empty glass. Connell raised his water and the three of them clinked.

“Here’s to high school,” Connell said. They clinked again.

Ed looked at her. “Good luck,” he said.

“With what?”

“Finding the right house.”

“I told you I found the right one.”

He turned to Connell. “Good luck in high school.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“Good luck to all of us.”

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His mother yelled for him to come outside. When he did, he saw her leaning on a shovel in the garden box, where she’d spent a lot of time lately. Anytime he left for a game on the weekend, she was hunched over a plant, flashing a spade in her gloved hand, or spreading enriched soil from a bottomless bag.

“I want you to bury this for me.” She handed him a statue that looked like the ones on the breakfront in Lena’s apartment. It depicted a man in a red gown holding a baby, probably Jesus, dressed in pink. She pointed to a space between rose bushes. “Put the hole here,” she said.

“How far down?”

“Start digging. I’ll tell you when to stop.”

“Why are you burying this?”

“St. Joseph is supposed to help people sell houses,” she said. “You have to bury him upside down, facing the street.”

“Do you believe that?”

“It can’t hurt,” she said.

He felt the shovel strike something hard. He cleared some dirt away and saw a large rock. He trenched around it and pulled at it. It came up slowly, like a recalcitrant root. He took off his shirt, hung it on the railing, and kept digging. He was enjoying his new physique. He had grown about four or five inches that year. He watched his muscles tighten and release as he worked.

“This is the second one I got,” his mother said as he dug. “The first one cost four dollars. It didn’t feel right. It was white plastic. Just Joseph; no Jesus. I brought it in to the girl at the religious store. I told her, ‘I need a good one, not this chintzy one.’ She showed me this. She said it wasn’t intended for burial.”

“How much was it?”

“Forty bucks.”

It seemed like a lot of money to bury in the ground. When he had cleared the space of backsliding dirt, he dropped the statue in headfirst, covered it up, and stomped the mound to make it flat again.

“What if it doesn’t work?” he asked.

“It’ll work,” his mother said.

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She gave the listing to Cindy Coakley’s sister Jen, who was with Century 21 in East Meadow. It might have been easier to go with someone local, but she wasn’t about to leave any money in the neighborhood that she didn’t have to.

The next thing she had to do was tell the Orlandos. She went up the back staircase to the second-floor landing and listened without knocking. She could hear them all in there — Gary and Lena too, from the third floor — watching Wheel of Fortune  and laughing. Donny was good-naturedly yelling at the set, calling out answers and cursing the contestant.

Selling meant throwing them out on the street, or at least putting more burden on Donny, who wrote the checks for both apartments. Brenda didn’t make much money at Pathmark; Gary’s odd jobs never lasted; and Lena was past the point of being able to work.

She went back downstairs. The next day, after steeling herself, she headed up again. She heard some murmurs of conversation and knocked. Brenda opened the door onto the dining room, where Donny and Sharon were sitting at the table.

“This looks like a bad time.”

“Not at all!” Donny gestured to an empty seat. “You want to join us? We have plenty.”

She felt herself drift into the apartment. Brenda disappeared into the kitchen.

“Did you eat?” Donny asked.

“I don’t want to trouble you.”

“Sit down,” Donny said. “I’ll get you a plate.”

The truth was, she was hungry. Ed and Connell were going to stop at a diner on the way home from Connell’s game; she’d been planning to heat up leftovers. A big pasta bowl sat in the middle of the table with huge, gorgeous meatballs under a blanket of deep-red tomato sauce.

Sharon regarded Eileen with elfin eyes over a glass of soda. Brenda came in with steaming garlic bread wrapped in tin foil.

“Are you joining us?” Brenda asked.

Donny grabbed a big forkful of spaghetti and ladled out a few meatballs and poured a little lake of sauce around them. Before Eileen could answer, he handed her the plate.

“I guess I am,” she said.

Sharon’s plate was taken and the girl smiled silently across the table at Eileen. She had beautiful straight hair and striking features. She was nine years old, shy and gentle, the compensation for all the dead ends and suffering in the family, and remarkably unspoiled, though they all doted on her. Her radiance was like a recessive gene come to life after generations of hibernation in the bloodline.

Brenda said grace, a habit Eileen had abandoned at her own table after trying it out for a while after Connell was born. Her conscience rumbled as Brenda spoke the familiar words and added a makeshift prayer.

“This looks amazing,” Eileen said nervously after everyone had crossed themselves.

“Thank you very much,” Donny said, winking at her broadly. “I try.”

“That’s rich,” Brenda said. “You can’t even boil an egg.”

Donny caught Eileen’s gaze and gestured theatrically with his eyebrows as he spoke to his sister. “What do I need to boil an egg for,” he said, “when I have you to do it?”

“Keep it up,” Brenda said. “You’ll find poison in your coffee one morning.”

Donny smilingly bit his outstretched tongue and shivered in triumph at having provoked her. Sharon giggled through the whole exchange.

“Did you want to talk about something, Eileen?” Brenda asked. “I was trying to get everything on the table; I forgot why you came.”

“Would you let the poor woman eat? Look, she has a mouthful of food, and you’re asking her questions.”

Eileen held a finger up while she chewed. Donny looked at her with placid interest. He had a kind, broad face with exaggeratedly fleshy features, like those of a prizefighter. He had a boxer’s broad back and meaty hands. He could have become a depressive like his brother or a gambler like his father but he had sought to make a life for himself instead. He used to run with a tough crowd, the kind that in retrospect was almost wholesome in comparison to the drug gangs that roved the neighborhood now. She stopped seeing them around the house after Donny’s best friend Greg from up the block wrapped his motorcycle around a streetlamp. Donny got a job as a sanitation worker through his father. He still worked on cars, but now only on his days off and more as a hobby than as a source of income. The Palumbos let him park whatever he was working on in the back of their driveway.

“What I really want to know,” Eileen said, “is how you make this sauce. Mine never tastes this good.”

“The key is to use fresh sausage. Spicy or sweet, whatever you like. Good stuff, nothing cheap. You have to burn it in the saucepan.”

“On purpose?”

“When you have a nice charred coat, you put the tomatoes in. The acid eats the burnt part off the pan. It gets in the gravy. I’ll show you sometime.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Donny said. “Our mother’s is better.”

“For once this idiot is right,” she said. “No one’s is better than my mother’s. I’m okay with that. I have time to perfect it.”

“She’s gotta perfect it,” Donny said. “She needs something to bait the hook.”

“That’s enough out of you.” Brenda smacked him on the head. It was impossible not to get caught up in the high spirits around the table. It was no wonder Connell didn’t come right down when she came home from work, why she had to go up and fetch him.

“I’ve been hearing your car make some noises I don’t like,” Donny said as he pulled on his chin. “You know what I’m talking about?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Let me take a look at it. Maybe I can catch something before it turns into a problem.”

“You don’t have to do that,” she said. “I can take it to the shop.”

“They’re gonna charge you an arm and a leg. I’ll do it for nothing, and I’ll do a better job. I can keep that thing running forever.”

“Thank you,” she said guiltily. In her nervousness she had put her finger through one of the lace stitchings on the old tablecloth and broken it. This was going to be even harder than she’d thought. How could she tell him that the first chance she got she was going to buy a much nicer car? She placed her napkin in her lap and pushed herself back from the table.

“You okay?”

“I ate a bit quickly,” she said.

“Brenda’s cooking will do that,” Donny said. “You want to get through it as fast as possible.”

Sharon chuckled.

Eileen wanted to abandon the plan, go downstairs, and come back when she’d be more collected, but there were signs to put up, and she was going to need access to all the apartments.

“Who wants dessert and coffee?” Brenda said after the clinking of forks on plates had died down.

“I don’t want to put you out any more.”

“Nonsense. Have a seat inside. I’ll make a pot.”

Donny led her to the living room. She sat on the yellow floral couch, which had a pattern she’d always found garish and worn areas by the skirt and armrests. She’d considered it a telling detail that they’d bought a big new television and kept this sofa. Now, as she sank into it, she was taken by its softness. The room, which she’d always thought of as a model of how not to decorate, radiated the warmth of shared usage. In the corner sat a small, beaten piano that looked like it might have survived the ransacking of an old saloon. At times she could hear someone practicing up here, and she’d never realized until that moment that it gave her pleasure.

Donny sat on the opposite couch. Sharon came and sat next to Eileen. The television was on, muted; Donny glanced at it out of the corner of his eye.

“Are those yours?” she asked, pointing to the framed artworks on the wall. Sharon nodded.

“I don’t know where she got it,” Donny said. “Nobody in this family has any kind of talent like that. You should see how she does in school. Tell Mrs. Leary how you did on your last report card.”

The girl demurred.

“Go ahead. Tell her.”

“Straight As,” she said in a quick burst.

“I didn’t even graduate high school,” Donny said. “Gotta be proud of this kid.” He had a faraway look in his eye. “I try to help her at the table, but she don’t need it. My little daughter is the same way. She’s like a whip. Not even two years old and she can count to ten. She don’t get it from me, that’s for sure. I tell Sharon to watch you and Mr. Leary. You folks are on another plane. I tell her to be like you. I never knew what an education really meant. I tell her to look at me and just do the opposite.”

“Don’t say that,” Eileen said. “I bet she’s proud to have you as an uncle.” As she spoke, she realized to her surprise that she believed what she was saying. “And you’re going to be a great father to that girl.”

He smiled wearily, accepting the verdict without objection. Brenda came in with a plate of Duplex cookies, followed by mugs of coffee. Eileen searched about for a coaster.

“Don’t worry about it,” Brenda said. “This table’s older than me. It does the job.”

Circular embossments emblazoned the table’s surface like trophies from all-night conversations. They were suddenly so appealing that Eileen wondered for a moment why she’d always been concerned to preserve a pristine surface on her own table, which looked almost as new as the day she bought it, no history engraved on its face.

“I have to tell you something,” she began, as Brenda settled into the couch next to Donny. “It’s not easy to say.”

Brenda, who seemed to have a radar for danger, shifted in her seat.

“Ed and I have decided to move. We’re going to have to sell the house.”

Donny’s eyebrows rose. Brenda took a sip of coffee with two hands.

“That’s great, Eileen,” Donny said. “Where are you moving?”

“To Westchester,” she said. “Bronxville.”

“That’s up by Yonkers, right? It’s beautiful up there.”

It unnerved her a little to hear Donny place it so quickly, though she wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he knew every major road within a hundred-mile radius.

Brenda took out a cigarette and flapped the arm of her robe out to sit more comfortably, a gesture that made Eileen unaccountably uneasy. It was then that the smell of smoke, which ineluctably pervaded the apartment, came to her all at once. It was in everything; Connell came downstairs smelling of it. She hated to think of him sitting in it, or of Sharon sleeping in a cloud of the settling vapors. It also angered her that it might be a detracting factor in the minds of potential buyers.

“When is this happening?” Brenda leaked a small stream of smoke as she spoke. Her cigarette dangled at the end of her lip, just as Eileen’s mother’s had so often. She felt her heart hardening toward Brenda, and by extension Donny and Sharon. Brenda was making it easier on her without meaning to.

“Soon. I’m not sure.”

“How soon?”

“I found a house. We’re ready to make an offer.”

“What happens to us?”

“I don’t really know. The buyer can choose to let you stay. He can ask you to go. It’s up to him.”

“There’s a buyer ?”

“I’m just thinking out loud.”

“I don’t care if they raise the rent,” Brenda said. “I’ll make it work. I just don’t want to move.”

“You’ve been very kind to us.” Donny stretched an arm out as if to hold his sister at bay. “We appreciate it.”

They sat in silence, Brenda taking deep drags.

“It’s going to be strange not having you around here,” Donny said.

“It’s going to be strange not being  around here,” Brenda said.

“What do you need us to do?” Donny asked. “How can we help?”

He was broad-shouldered and game, and the warm roundness of his face admitted no despair.

“I’m going to need to show the apartment, and the one upstairs. There’ll be an open house. A few of them. I’ll let you know when.”

“Okay,” he said.

“You can’t be here during them. The Realtor asks that. The same is true for your mother and Gary.”

“Got it.”

“She might want to bring some things in. Candles, comforters, et cetera.” She paused and then added, “She’s doing the same thing in my apartment.”

“Not a problem,” he said.

“When is all this happening again?” Brenda asked, jabbing her cigarette out forcefully.

“Soon. We could start next week.” Brenda called Sharon over. As the girl took a seat between her mother and uncle on the couch, the moral balance of the room seemed to shift. “I’m sorry it’s so sudden. We just decided. I came to you as soon as I could.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Brenda said. “I’m happy for you. I don’t blame you. I’d get out of here if I could.”

Eileen looked down at her interlaced fingers.

“How much time do we have after you sell?”

“It depends,” she said. “Thirty days. Sixty. Ninety. I don’t know.”

“Don’t we have some kind of rights as tenants?”

“I’m not sure, since we’ve never worried about a lease. I can ask the Realtor.”

“That’s bullshit,” Brenda said. “Put us on a lease. Buy us some time.”

Donny stood up. “It’s hot in here,” he said. “Anyone else want a beer?” He left the room.

Eileen cleared her throat. “That might make it harder to sell the house. Especially because your rent is substantially below market.”

“Then increase the rent. I don’t care. Double it. Whatever it takes.”

“Let’s not worry about that right now,” Eileen said. “Maybe I’ll have a buyer who would prefer to have the house fully rented. I’ll see what I can do when I know more.”

“Maybe we’ll buy it ourselves,” Donny said as he returned with a glass of ice water. She saw that he had meant for the beer comment to lighten the mood. “It’d be nice to have a room for my daughter when she comes over.” He checked his sister’s face to see what she thought of the idea. Brenda’s expression hardened, as if to say, Who’s got that kind of money?  Donny sighed. “Don’t worry about us,” he said. “I’m sure you have a lot on your mind. I’ll see what we can come up with on our end. Whatever we can do to help, you let us know.”

She thought about Lena. She knew Lena should hear the news from her, but she didn’t know if she had it in her to go upstairs and go through it again. Lena was upright in everything she did; decency and morality were her default positions. She was one of those heroic old women who sat in church all day taking on the burden of saving the sinners around them.

“There is one more thing,” she said.

“What is it?” said Donny. “Just ask.”

“Will you tell your mother for me?”

• • •

A week later Jen had an open house. The thought of all those people gawking at her furniture, her possessions, her bathroom annoyed Eileen, but then she thought, Let them come. Let them see the oasis we made.  Jen came an hour early to put duvets on the beds upstairs — where they’d all cleared out, as requested, despite Eileen’s visions of them haunting the stoop, hangdog or angry looks on their faces — and decorative items on the tables and breakfront. She’d warmed pots of potpourri on the stovetop. It already felt like someone else’s home.

She wondered who would show up. This was the time to leave the neighborhood, not discover it — but perhaps some intrepid breed of young person might fancy themselves enterprising and patient enough to secure an outpost in the neighborhood of tomorrow. It wasn’t her responsibility to tell them that this neighborhood’s best days were in the past.

Eileen left to get her hair done. When she returned, half an hour after the open house should have ended, she saw a tall Indian man on her stoop, talking with Jen. She stopped in front of the Palumbos’ house and watched him for signs of interest. He was gesturing around and nodding at whatever Jen was saying. A woman who must have been his wife was standing on the sidewalk, along with their son and daughter, both of whom leaned against her. Eileen resisted the urge to introduce herself and feel them out. When they left, Jen told her she thought they might bid on the house. The man had said he would need it empty to make room for his extended family — brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, grandparents. So that’s how they live , Eileen thought.

A couple of days later, the Indian man offered the full asking price—$365,000, which Jen had originally thought a little high. Eileen called Gloria to find out whether the Bronxville house had sold. Then she called Donny to let him know there was an offer.

“How much?”

She told him. Donny whistled into the phone and there was a long pause. Did he know how much less she’d bought it from his father for?

“That’s a lot,” he said. “That’s great, good for you.”

“Thank you,” she said.

He paused again. “How long do we have?”

She explained that it would be soon, a week or two at the most. She wanted to sell as soon as possible.

“Can you wait a little longer?” he asked. “I might have some options, but I could use more time.”

She didn’t know whom Donny was going to ask for the money, or what kind of trouble he would be exposing himself to in order to get it, but that was his concern.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said, and as she hung up she understood that there was nothing she was willing to do. She had to get out while she could.

She called Gloria and told her to make an offer on the Bronxville house.

The next day — she forgave herself in advance for the lie — she told Donny there had been a competing bidder and the first bidder had gone above asking, but it was his final offer, and he needed an answer immediately.

He was no closer to having a down payment, he said.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m going to have to take it.”

Eileen had bid below asking for the house in Bronxville, but they hadn’t had another bid, so they took it without parrying.

The Indian buyer insisted on a thirty-day closing, but Eileen was able to extend it to sixty when she pled the case of her tenants. That was the most she could do for them.

Donny still fixed her car.

33

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Connell woke up to his father screaming at him and wagging his finger in his face.

Christ!  Do you know what you’ve done? Do  you?”

Connell’s mind raced, but he could recall no hanging offenses.

“You left the jelly out all night!” his father said. “You left the cover off!” Connell stammered an apology, but his father waved him off. “How could you do  such a thing?” He stamped his feet, one after the other, as though smashing grapes. Connell had never seen him make such a childish gesture, and it disconcerted him more than the yelling had.

Ten minutes later his father was back in his room, sitting on the bed. “I don’t know what came over me,” he said.

All that summer, he was on an energy crusade. He said they didn’t need to shower every day, that every other day was sufficient. If you walked away from a stereo for a second, he hit the power button. If you ran the hot water too long for dishes, he reached across you and pressed the handle down. If you turned on the air conditioner in the car, he told you to open the window instead. When he turned off the air conditioning in the house, Connell’s mother threatened to leave and turned it right back on. That got through to him; nothing else did. He let the air conditioner run, but unplugged the coffeemaker, the toaster,


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the stereo, the TV, the Apple IIe.

One night, while they were sitting at the kitchen table, his father howled in frustration after breaking the point off a pencil by pressing too hard. “This goddamned thing’s no good,” he said as he snapped it in half. “It’s no good at all.”

His mother took them on scenic drives in the area they were moving to, but when they parked and got out, his father just stood by the car with his arms crossed. They went peach-picking once, in Yorktown, and his father stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned against the enormous wheel of an idle tractor while his mother filled a basket with the most shapely peaches she could find. When they walked back to the barn to pay, his father reached into the basket in his mother’s hands and began tossing peaches to the ground. “We don’t need all these!” he said.

“What the hell is wrong  with you?” He’d gotten about half of them out before she fended him off. She was looking around to see who had noticed the outburst. “Have you gone crazy?”

“We don’t need this many!” he said, squashing them underfoot as he followed Connell’s mother. “We can’t eat this many!”

“I was just going to make some pies,” she said to Connell, as though appealing to his fairness. The only thing he felt safe doing was shrugging.

“Not for me!” his father said. “I could go the rest of my life without another bite of your pie.”

Then his mother herself turned the basket over, dumping out the remaining peaches. She dropped the basket and they walked to the car in silence. They drove home all the way like that, half an hour at least. Connell put his earphones in, but he didn’t turn his Walkman on. He waited and waited to hear the silence end, but it never did, and a queasy feeling grew in his gut. The only thing he heard was a little quiet sniffling from his mother in the passenger seat when they were almost home. He hit play on his Walkman after that.

34

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It was the end of August when they moved, as hot a day as she could remember, the kind of heat that made a person happy to escape the city. She had packed boxes for weeks, and the walls were lighter in color where the pictures had hung and the furniture had stood, as if a slow-exposure photograph had been taken of their lives. The ghostly outlines of their things, together with the austere emptiness of the space and the dirt and dust gathered in the corners and wedged under the molding, increased her eagerness to get out of there. The movers came and loaded up the truck.

“Do you want to do a last walk-through with me?” she asked Ed, who was sitting on the stoop with Connell.

“I’ve made my peace with it,” he said.

She resented the private ceremony Ed’s statement implied. She’d pictured them opening a nice bottle of wine when they started filling boxes, or a celebratory bottle of champagne on their last night, but they’d had neither.

“You don’t want to take a final look at it?”

He didn’t respond. Connell looked as if he preferred to sit there too. Rather than squeeze past them, she went around to the side door and up the back stairs to the second-floor landing. Peeking in, she was overcome by the emptiness of the place. A spasm of anxiety rooted her to the spot; she couldn’t enter the apartment. She’d half expected to see Donny and Brenda and Sharon there, but the previous week, Donny had moved them to a three-bedroom apartment — Brenda and Sharon in one bedroom, he and Gary in another, Lena in the third — in a monolithic structure around the corner that possessed none of the charm of the garden co-ops, with a cramped, concrete common area instead of generous grass. She called “hello” in the echoing dining room and stepped inside. She stood where she’d sat and told the Orlandos of her plans — which was where she and Ed had eaten when it was just the two of them, and for the first few years after Connell was born — until she got spooked and left.

She hurried down the stairs to her own apartment. She could see it that way now, as an apartment. The whole time she’d been there, she’d preferred to think she lived in a house with floors she didn’t use.

When Angelo Orlando sold her the house in 1982, he’d done so in distress. Just shy of a decade later, his heirs had had an opportunity to buy back their childhood home, and they’d failed to secure it. The story of their line in the house had come to an end. They were adrift in temporary shelters: someone else’s apartment, someone else’s building. The great churning never stopped. Spackle was placed in the holes where nails had held family portraits, paint covered the dirt marks of shoes left by the door, a coat of varnish leveled the worn hallways, and it was ready for a new family.

The family who’d bought her house was making a stand against obscurity. It would be their nail holes puncturing a fresh coat of paint, their cooking smells sinking into the upholstery, their shouts of laughter, pain, and joy bouncing off the plaster walls. They would use all three of the house’s floors. In enough time they would forget the structure had ever belonged to anyone else. It was a thought that worked both ways: it would be as if she’d never lived anywhere but Bronxville.

• • •

At the closing, she’d met the Thomases. She was surprised to learn that the husband’s first name was also Thomas — though the middle name listed on the contract was something closer to what she’d expected, a tangled thicket of consonants and vowels. When she couldn’t stifle her surprise at such an odd name as Thomas Thomas, the husband, who was exceptionally tall and wore tinted glasses, explained to her that he wasn’t even the only Thomas Thomas in his hometown, that the name was extremely popular there, due to the fact that St. Thomas had gone there in the middle of the first century to spread the faith among the Jewish diaspora. She dismissed this idea as ridiculous; St. Thomas might have visited India, but there was no way he or any other apostle had reached there before Western Europe or Ireland. Thomas Thomas seemed like an intelligent enough man, but his dates had to be incorrect.

The fact that Indians had bought her home and were going to fill it with their entire extended family, floor to ceiling, was another reminder that Jackson Heights was a big cauldron and that it was spitting her out in a bubble pushed up by heat. Supposedly it was the most ethnically diverse square mile in the world. Someone more poetically inclined might find inspiration in the polyphony of voices, but she just wanted to be surrounded by people who looked like her family.

The only thing left to do was walk through her own apartment for anything left behind. In the guest bedroom she spotted a solitary die on the floor and went to pick it up but pulled her hand away right before she touched it.

In the kitchen pantry she found a broom leaning against the wall like a forlorn suitor at a dance. Ed and Connell were waiting outside, but she couldn’t resist the urge to sweep up the dust bunnies and bits of debris on the floor. She remembered sweeping the kitchen floor in Woodside as a girl, methodically, covering every inch of that fleur-de-lis-patterned linoleum in an invisible geometric march. Back then, she’d dreamed of a house like the one she was now leaving. Somewhere along the way, she’d adopted a higher standard. Her new house was large and full of light and made an imposing picture from the street, with a sloped driveway, slatted shutters, and stone pillars to mark the front walk. It was everything she wanted, and she tried not to wonder if the new house would one day feel as old and heavy as the one she was leaving.

She stared at the pile in the center of the floor. There was no dustpan, not even a scrap of cardboard to sweep it onto. It would be dispersed by the footsteps of movers, or the Thomas family themselves. It wasn’t her responsibility anymore. This was another woman’s kitchen now. There’d be a victory in leaving it there and heading outside, in allowing something niggling to go unattended to, but she’d been cleaning messes all her life. She’d heard Ed tell Connell once that skin cells constituted the majority of dust. If that was true, then there were microscopic bits of her in that pile. She got down on her hands and knees, carefully because she was wearing stockings, and scooped the dirt with one hand into the cupped other. She dumped it in the sink. When she saw a little raised ridge of residue where her pinky finger had passed along the floor, she wet her hands to mop up the last remnants of her life in the house.

She went outside. Ed and Connell were already in Ed’s Caprice. She had driven the Corsica up the previous night after work and parked it in the driveway. The house had been dark, and she’d started for the train in a hurry, not wanting to linger too long there alone.

Ed didn’t look angry at having to wait. He looked simply blank. Blank was fine by her right then; she could map something onto a blank. There was a roiling complexity to Connell’s expression, though, an untidiness that she wanted nothing to do with at the moment. She took a seat in the back. With their Caprice in the lead and the moving truck behind them, the caravan of their belongings set out for the Triborough Bridge.

It was a clear day, and as they headed toward Northern, the sun cast a warm eye on the block’s houses. Connell waved to an old man who didn’t look familiar to her. The neighborhood itself hardly looked familiar anymore; it was as if she were slowly stirring from a dream. The faces she saw through the window looked benign in the heat. Pairs and trios, even solitary amblers, were carried along by an unseen buoyancy. She was no longer afraid of these people; she’d cleared that infection from her bloodstream. The previous day, when she’d realized she’d never again have to attend one of Father Choudhary’s Masses or walk on the Boulevard, she’d laughed in relief.

She spotted a clerk stacking cans in a bodega and leaned back against the headrest to stare at the ceiling foam. When she looked out again, they were a couple of blocks from the turnoff for the BQE. She knew the trip to Bronxville by heart; she could see one highway turn to another, then another, until they reached the surface streets and the house where they’d begin their second act as a family. There was still this short stretch left of her present life to go through, though. She felt no stirrings of nostalgia as she took in the Boulevard for what might be the last time. She shut her eyes to put it behind her the sooner. There was a blessed nothingness behind her eyelids; the darkness there could have been the peace of death. She’d spent her whole life working toward this moment, and she was exhausted. She felt she could sleep for years without waking.

The sounds of the streets, muffled by the air conditioning, grew less and less distinct, and the next thing she knew the car was pulling into the driveway. Her first thought as she took in the house through the window was that it didn’t look the way she’d remembered it. It was smaller somehow, more ordinary. She thought to tell her husband to pull back out, that this was not their house, that they’d find their real house if they kept looking. Then she saw the truck with their belongings coming around the bend.

She stepped out and stretched her long limbs to shake off the drowsiness. Ed and Connell were standing looking aimless. She remembered that she had the only set of keys in her pocketbook.

The driveway, which had baked in the heat of a dry summer, was scored with cracks that would only expand as the weather got colder. The forecast called for clear skies for a couple of days. If Ed and the boy got started first thing in the morning, there would be time for a new layer of blacktop to dry. In a little while she would send Ed to the hardware store for push brooms and buckets of asphalt.

She let the three of them in. They drifted to different corners of the kitchen and stood looking at each other in silence, frozen by the unknown future awaiting them in other rooms. She opened a cabinet door held on by only the top hinge, and it swung like a pendulum in her hand. She had seen the chipped paint, the peeling paper, the old cabinets, the ugly lacquer, the Formica countertops missing edges and chunks, but somehow she had forgotten just how bad it all was. It struck her now that this kitchen was worse than the one she had left behind. She was beginning to understand how much work everything was going to be and how much it would cost.

She considered saying something to christen the house, but she didn’t want to think about how inept her words would sound. Instead she just sent them out to unload the car. There would be time later to savor the reality of their altered lives, to appreciate having arrived where they’d arrived.

She opened the front doors and stepped out onto the porch, leaning cautiously into the rickety railing. She watched the couch sway slightly as it rose up the lawn, the heavy hickory dresser behind it undulating as the movers took their halting steps. For a moment the furniture seemed borne on invisible waves, like flotsam from a sunken vessel, and she imagined she’d been hauled up from the wreck of her old life to stand on the deck of a ship bound for an unfamiliar shore.

She stepped inside and made way for the wide arcing path the couch took through the expansive foyer. She examined the bricks. The finger-thick lacquer on them would have to go immediately. She felt she was coming out of a stupor.

The movers held the couch up in the living room and looked to her for instructions, but the simple question of where it should go baffled her utterly. She told them to put it down while she thought it over. She directed the men with the dresser upstairs. She wanted the next phase of her life to remain forever potential and the rest of her things to stay in the truck. When the movers were finished, they would drive off, leaving her and her family behind in the empty spaces she’d fought so hard to procure.

She told them to place the couch flush against the wall, under the windows. She didn’t get the jolt of pleasure she’d expected from making her first decision in the house, because aside from the fact that nothing would have a home for a while, certainly not the kind of permanent home that could put her restless mind at ease, she also had a nagging feeling that it was only the first of many more decisions to come, that she was the ship’s captain now.

The men with the couch were heading back to the truck, but she asked them to wait a second. They stood on the steps looking up at her. They were all, herself included, waiting for the next thing she would say. She tried to freeze the moment in her mind. She knew it would be one she’d want to come back to later. The future stretched out before her like a billowing fog, nothing about it distinct. All she had was her vision for the house and their lives in it. The house itself, as it was, was not what she wanted. It could be what she wanted, but it would take time and money, and she was afraid that both would soon run out. The reality of how their lives would be lived was waiting at the bottom of that hill, in the dark of that truck. These men, on the other hand, were clearly in focus. They pulled at their damp T-shirts, leaned on the railing. She would have to say something; there would have to be something to say. If only she had another minute, she could come up with the perfect thing. She could see them growing impatient. All they wanted to do was move her things from one location to another. They had no idea that everything they placed in a definite spot brought her one step closer to disappointment.

Part IV. Level, Solid, Square and True, 1991–1995

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35

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Connell passed through a long, dark tunnel and emerged into an enclosed courtyard, where he joined a buzzing mob of boys waiting, as per mailed instructions, for someone to usher them in. There were no adults present, so they were exposed to each other without buffering — boys used to being at the top of their class, each now merely one of many. One head towered over the others, and Connell heard speculation about the big guy’s basketball prowess, the city championships he might lead the team to by dunking on helpless opponents. It was thrilling to think of the havoc he’d wreak on their collective behalf, the revenge he’d enact for the years of slights and indignities they’d suffered as grammar school nerds. His size was a metaphor for the greatness promised to them. He would reveal the past to have been a prefatory period, a chrysalis of awkwardness.

In a sudden access of courage, Connell drifted across the courtyard toward the tall boy, who up close had a childlike face. When Connell introduced himself, a startlingly deep, though gentle, voice emanated from the boy, whose name was Rod Henni. He learned that Rod also rode in from Westchester, from a town called Dobbs Ferry. They were ushered into the auditorium, where they listened to speeches, filled out forms, and collected books, before heading to the cafeteria to continue buzzing through an excited lunch. At the end of the day, Connell and Rod took the 6 down to Grand Central together, steeped in the newness of everything they’d heard. They agreed to meet in the morning by the clock.

The next day, as Connell approached the clock, Rod waved to him and leaned his crane-like form down to pick up his backpack. Connell felt the nervous stirrings of new friendship, which offered the potential for mutual understanding but also for disappointment. He didn’t want to start out on the wrong foot and be unable to recover.

“What’s up, man,” Connell said, looking away to affect casualness as they slapped five. He tried to drain his voice of any character whatsoever.

“I’m so excited to be heading to school!” Rod said. “I never thought I’d say that!”

As Rod looked to him for confirmation, Connell realized that this boy was not going to be his salvation. Rod’s eyes were bright, his body hunched in an awkward question mark. Connell wanted him to stand up straight.

When they gathered in the gym that day for a free hour of play, Rod confirmed Connell’s suspicions. He couldn’t catch a pass or dribble. He certainly couldn’t dunk. He could barely hold the ball and jump in the air at the same time. The only damage he could do on the basketball court was to himself.

That first week of school, Connell couldn’t shake Rod, who came to the cross-country meeting with him. It was an open call; there weren’t any tryouts. If you came to practice regularly, you were a member of the team.

Cross-country wasn’t a cool sport. Waking early on weekend mornings to run for miles, running every day after school, and enduring the ribbing of “real” athletes kept people away. Connell prided himself on being a “real” athlete, a ballplayer, but no one would know it until spring came around. He joined the cross-country team to strengthen his legs for baseball, to increase his velocity and stamina. He learned to care about the sport and his performance at it, though, and to feel frustrated by his limitations. He had long, lean muscles and was trim and fit, and he was good enough to know what it felt like to hang with the really good runners for long stretches. As they pulled away, he could feel in his body what it would take to stay with them, to be great.

In practice, Rod was deadly serious, a grinder, Coach Amedure’s example for everyone else. Coach always talked about how he was going to make a hurdler out of Rod come winter. It was obvious that Rod lacked the coordination necessary to leap over a single hurdle, let alone a series of them.

Rod’s times in practice never fluctuated, no matter how hard he worked. He was always a minute behind the slow pack. He excoriated himself for his slowness. The source of this ruthless self-criticism became clear early in the season, when Rod’s father came to a meet. As Rod crossed the finish line, Mr. Henni screamed at him in full view of everyone else. Connell and his teammates gathered around Rod, patting him on the back, but that week at practice they took up the charge themselves, sensing Rod’s weakness. They made fun of Rod’s gait, his heavy breathing, his profuse sweating, even his shorts. Connell didn’t refrain from joining in. He knew it was wrong, and Rod knew it too. When he laughed at Rod’s expense, Rod searched him silently with his eyes. A modicum of natural ability was all that separated Connell from Rod; that and maybe the fact that Mr. Henni was sort of insane. It wasn’t easy to have a father like that, but Rod didn’t help his cause by walking around with an innocent, vulnerable look on his face. That was the kind of look that made people nervous, made them want to do something to make it go away.

• • •

When Connell got home from practice, his father was on his hands and knees in the kitchen, scratching at the brick floor with a metal brush to strip away the dingy varnish. He was making his way from the kitchen to the den and into the foyer, one brick at a time. Connell changed into an old pair of jeans and joined him. Hunched and silent, they worked side by side. As Connell pushed his weight into the metal bristles, he felt the ache of the five-mile run descend into his muscles.

“At this rate, we’ll be done in the year two thousand,” he said.

“Keep working.”

“The fumes are killing me.” All the windows were open and there were fans set up on the kitchen counters, but it was a hot day in September, and the solvent-smelling air barely moved. “I have a headache.” Connell sat up and rubbed at his hands, inspecting them for raw patches.

“You don’t want to help, don’t help.”

“I’m helping.”

“Then do it without commentary.”

They dug at the crannies in the bricks. The solvent ate at the varnish, but he had to work hard at each brick. He thought there must be a machine to do this, but his father was determined to do it this way, his way. He refused to rest, as if he was trying to make some kind of point.

Connell scrubbed another half brick clean of varnish. “I have a Latin quiz tomorrow,” he said.

His father waved him away without looking up. “Do your homework,” he said.

“I can help,” Connell said guiltily.

“Do your goddamned homework.”

• • •

That weekend, his father took him to Van Cortlandt Park for a cross-country track meet. The sunny morning, the expanse of sky, and the brisk winds all filled Connell with a feeling of possibility dampened only by his dread of what would come once the gun went off: a mile-and-a-half run through hell; acid respiration and an agony of fatigue. A little distance away on the meadow, locals chased after a soccer ball, indifferent to the impending torture.

Parents and siblings stood around in a groggy pack. On the edge of the group, Rod was bent over double, palming the ground with his long planks of hands, as diffident a presence as a six-and-a-half-foot-tall boy could be. One of Connell’s teammates, Stefan, who kept everyone on edge with sarcasm, snickered in Connell’s direction at the spectacle of Rod’s ungainly lankiness curled up in an awkward, striving stretch. The only one of Connell’s teammates who didn’t laugh was Todd Coughlin, whose natural dominance on the course allowed him to be generous.

Connell’s father took pictures of the team as they stretched. Lately, his father had taken pictures of everything. In protest, Connell looked away from the camera, tunneling into his stretches, concentrating on the useful burn in his hamstrings and the territorial defensiveness he felt at the fact that another team had started stretching nearby. They were hopping and flapping their thigh muscles out with an aristocratic ease.

After the gun there was some rough jockeying for position — elbows, furtive shoves — as the mob converged on a point in the middle distance. The pack winnowed quickly into a grim line; a natural order emerged. A long, flat expanse led to grueling back hills, where, except for human trail markers stationed at bridges and overpasses, he was on his own, taunted by the leisurely scrawled graffiti on the rocks, dodging horse manure, and trying not to twist his ankle in the jagged ruts in the path. The hills culminated in a precipitous downhill, which he took at a breakneck clip to avoid giving away too much ground. At the bottom, near cars whizzing by on the Henry Hudson Parkway, came a quick turn and a shock of open space, a quarter-mile straightaway flanked by spectators and hollering coaches, where he wearily approximated his best sprint to the finish, his heart and lungs in pure revolt.

He saw the distant mob at the finish line as though through the wrong end of a telescope and wanted to step to the side and vomit. A large pack of runners passed him, calling on some mysterious reserve. He could hardly keep his head up.

He heard his father’s voice before he saw him. “Come on, Connell,” his father shouted gently through cupped hands. “Come on, son.”

He took deep breaths and flung his legs out before him as though they didn’t fit and he wanted to return them to their rightful owner. He gained on the pack a bit. A wall of cheers rose up as the finish line neared. He wanted to come through with the others. There wasn’t much time left to catch them. It wasn’t the first pack; those guys were resting already, turning over spray-painted gold in their hands. What it was was a little cluster of competitors. There may or may not have been medals left to fight for. They always gave out so many: thirty, fifty, God knew how many. The top quarter, the top third. Gold ones, silver ones. Then bronze. Then nothing. Coach Amedure got annoyed if anyone asked how many would be handed out that day. “Why do you care?” he’d say. “Why do you want to feed off the bottom?”

He caught up to the cluster, barely. They were funneled into the rope cordon. Plenty of medals remained. Hunching over, trying to catch his breath, he watched the officials hand them out. Each subsequent medal cheapened his own a little. When the medals ran out, runners came in to less fanfare. Individual voices could be heard in the din. The crowd at the finish line began to thin.

The laggards came trickling in. Among them was Rod, upright and stiff, like a totem pole come to life. Rod’s reedy father screamed at him in frustration and the other voices around hushed at once. The harangue continued after Rod had crossed the finish line. People looked away, embarrassed for the boy, and Coach Amedure tapped his pen at his clipboard in impotent censure.

“What’s that boy’s name?” Connell’s father asked.

“Who, him?” Connell said. “Rod.”

“Stay here.”

Connell nervously watched his father go over to where Rod and his father were standing.

“It’s Rod, right?”

Rod nodded.

“What do you want?” Mr. Henni asked sharply. “I’m talking to my son.”

“I was wondering, Rod,” Connell’s father said, ignoring him, “if you wouldn’t mind posing for a picture with me.”

Rod looked surprised but answered “Not at all!” while Mr. Henni was stunned into silence. Connell’s father handed the camera to Stefan, who looked around in embarrassment before getting ready to take the picture. Connell couldn’t believe what was happening, how much awkwardness could attach itself to a single moment. He rushed over and took the camera from Stefan and framed the shot as fast as he could. His father and Rod were smiling; you’d never know what had been going on moments before. Connell pressed the button once; then he went to Coach Amedure to find out what place he had finished in. The coach looked away in disdain as he showed Connell the clipboard.

• • •

A kid from Connell’s grade, Declan Coyne, rode the train down from Bronxville with him. He started taking Connell around with him on the weekends.

“You look like a guido,” Declan said. “You need to look like a prep.”

“Okay.”

“That mock turtleneck, for one. You need to wear a different shirt. Something with an actual collar. Rugby shirts are fine. Polo shirts. Button-downs.”

Declan had grown up in town and had gone to St. Joseph’s. He knew all the Fordham Prep and Bronxville High kids in the area, and he fit in with them easily. They didn’t care that he was a distinguished piano player; what they cared about was that he’d been the goalie on the Empire State Games soccer team during eighth grade. They probably also noticed the MG Declan’s father parked in the driveway on sunny days.

“That spiky haircut — no way,” Declan said. “All that hair gel. Let your hair grow. Part it on the side.”

Declan’s unruly curls peeked out from under his cap, which said U.S. Open. Even Connell’s Mets cap didn’t make the grade; it was the height of naï


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veté to wear a baseball cap that represented an actual baseball team.

“And those pants. You look like you’re jumping out of a plane. Do you see anyone else around here wearing Z Cavaricci or Bugle Boy? You don’t want all these pockets and loops. You could be a construction worker in that outfit. Just buy jeans, regular jeans, not those acid-washed atrocities.”

Connell’s mother had bought him the jeans Declan hated. Connell couldn’t help noticing how Declan’s mother seemed to get every detail right: pressing his school pants neatly; wrapping his sandwiches tightly in wax paper so that they resembled Christmas presents; lining up, alongside a bright bag of mini carrots that practically screamed good health, two perfectly round, homemade chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies. She even folded his napkins into neat triangles. And it wasn’t just when Declan was at school that no seams were visible: Connell couldn’t believe how neat and perfect-looking everything at Declan’s house was. His own house had never looked like the Coyne house. Then again, his mother had always had a full-time job.

“And don’t tight-roll the bottoms either. That’s totally guido.”

He imagined he looked to Declan like a member of an indigenous tribe that had just come into contact with civilization.

“Throw out those Reebok Pumps. Get some deck shoes. Bass is fine. And nobody wears tighty-whities. Boxer shorts. Only  boxer shorts.”

“Boxer shorts.”

“No exceptions. I can’t be emphatic enough about this.”

“I’ll get them.”

“And get some soccer shoes. Adidas Sambas.”

“I don’t play soccer.”

“That’s because you don’t know what’s good for you,” he said. “Everybody plays soccer. Get some soccer shoes.”

“Won’t I look like I’m trying too hard?”

“Would you rather look like you’re not trying at all?”

• • •

The park ran alongside the Bronx River. Its western border was the Bronx River Parkway. Palmer Road lay to the south, Pondfield Road to the north. Trees lined its major path, and broad stretches of grass made up its main terrain. At night kids gathered in it to drink.

There wasn’t much crime in town. The police were always driving up onto the lawn from the Parkway to take the kids by surprise, sending an under-aged exodus toward Palmer Road. He’d seen them leaving the park in a hurry and wondered how he would ever hang out with these kids.

Declan led him to a large group gathered a little ways from the path. Most of the guys, Declan said, went to Fordham Prep; a couple went to Iona; a few went to Bronxville High. The girls went to Ursuline, Holy Child, or Bronxville. There were older guys too: college students, dropouts, guys who had never gone to college and were working jobs.

One guy held a flashlight up to his own face as Declan introduced Connell, so that his features jumped out spookily. He had a fleshy face situated atop a pink-and-white-striped Oxford shirt. His eyes looked bloodshot. Declan said he was a senior at Fordham.

“Here,” the guy said. “Have a beer.”

He pulled a bottle out of a six-pack sleeve and handed it to Connell, who felt he couldn’t refuse. He tried to twist off the top.

“Let me get that for you.” The guy popped the cap off with an opener on his key chain. Declan waved over a guy who looked about Connell’s age.

“Brewster, Connell,” Declan said.

“So you go to school with this kid?” Brewster pointed to Declan.

“Yeah,” Connell said, “but I’ll probably fail out. I’ll probably wind up at Fordham. I don’t want to work all the time.”

These kids didn’t need to know that Connell was pulling good grades. He didn’t want to start out in this town having everyone think he was just a nerd.

“You want another one?” the older guy asked, taking the bottle from Connell’s hands. Connell had drained it into the ground when no one was watching. With Declan looking at him with a slightly buzzed warmth, Connell felt the need to actually drink this one. He took a sip; it tasted bitter.

“You see that girl over there?” Declan was talking louder now. “The blonde? Her name’s Rebecca. She’ll suck your dick. You ever have your dick sucked?”

Connell hadn’t ever even kissed a girl. “Nah,” he said. “Not yet.”

“She’ll fool around with anyone.”

He couldn’t understand why a girl that pretty would fool around with just anyone.

“Did you ever fool around with her?” Connell asked.

Declan’s face spread in a slow smile. “It was great,” he said. “Feels awesome.” He finished off his beer. “Why don’t you go and talk to her?”

Declan pushed him in her direction. She was standing near the older guy who’d given him his first beer, and he chugged the bottle in his hand and went over and asked for another.

“My man,” the guy said approvingly. “Plenty to go around.”

He felt a burp coming up through his chest and let it out as the guy opened his beer for him. Rebecca had a cherubic face and a sweet smile. It was hard to imagine her being easy. Somebody made a joke and she laughed in a giggly way that made a wave of warmth pass over Connell’s body. Declan came over and introduced him to a couple of nearly identically dressed guys, and Connell returned their desultory handshakes. He could feel the alcohol settling in. He felt a strange boldness steal into him.

“Is it always this dead around here?” he asked, and felt Rebecca look interestedly at him.

“Pretty much,” one guy said.

“If I ever brought my boys from the city up here,” he said, “these cops would shit their pants.”

“Hard guy,” one guy said derisively; Connell saw him look at another guy and smirk.

“I used to be in a gang,” Connell said. He saw Declan shake his head. “I wonder what these cops would do if anything real ever happened here.”

The guy made a remark Connell didn’t hear, and the other guys started laughing. He wanted to say something witty, but nothing came to him. Rebecca walked off toward the trees by the river. Declan shifted his body, so he had his back to Connell as he talked to his friends. Connell couldn’t hear them. When the others walked off, Declan stood there with him.

“Please tell me that was ironic,” Declan said. “Please tell me you’re not that corny.”

Connell just drank his beer. When he was done, he went back to the flashlight guy for another.

• • •

People around him began to scatter before he realized what was going on. He was at the outskirts of the group closest to the cop car, and there was time to run and join the pack of kids leaving the park, but for some reason he just stood there. He was drunk, that was certain. He’d never been drunk before. The next thing he knew, an officer was removing the beer from his hand. “That’s evidence now,” the officer said. Another officer told him to stand against the car with his hands behind his back.

He’d played with handcuffs as a kid, but these were more substantial. They dug into his wrist bones. He felt himself being urged down into the car, and he sat back with a wince, the metal digging into his skin. The officers climbed in and they drove off. Through the grating he studied the impressive backs of their heads and felt strangely calm. The revolving lights illuminated the muddy grass outside. He knew he should probably be more upset, but something about this felt inevitable somehow. His parents were going to kill him.

They drove to the station house. One of the officers led him to a little room. “I’ll bring you a glass of water,” he said. “Have a seat.”

Connell sat in the desk chair the officer pointed to, his head pounding. Above him, a framed print depicted a seafaring mission. The officer walked in with a glass, and Connell drained it.

“What I’m interested in hearing is where you got the alcohol. Did you purchase it yourself?”

Connell shook his head.

“I’m going to need verbal responses from you.”

“I don’t know who gave it to me,” he said. “It was an older kid.”

The other officer stood. “This is going to be in the paper, you understand,” he said. “Your school is going to hear about this. Your parents are on their way here.”

“They are?”

“What was the kid’s name?”

“I just moved here, Officer,” he said. “I don’t know anybody’s name.”

“Do you remember anything about him?” the other officer asked.

“He was an older kid. A nice guy. He had on a collared shirt.”

“This kid is wasting our time.”

“You’re going to go to juvenile court,” the first officer said. “We take this kind of thing seriously around here. You should know that right now. This isn’t wherever you came from.”

“Jackson Heights.”

“Wherever the hell.”

• • •

A little while later, his parents arrived. When his mother walked in, she smacked his face. His father looked more concerned than furious.

He was grounded from everything but cross-country practice. At the juvenile court in Eastchester, the DA offered a plea deal: thirty hours of community service. Connell had to stand before the judge. “If I ever see you in my courtroom again,” the judge said, “you’d better have a toothbrush with you.”

On the way out, his mother added her own threat. “If you ever disgrace me like that in this town again,” she said, “don’t come home. And don’t even think of taking another drink until you turn twenty-one. You’re not even close to man enough to handle it.”

“Sorry, Mom.”

“Not even close to man enough,” she said again.

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Because Ed’s floor project had taken over most of the kitchen except for a narrow path between the refrigerator, sink, and stove, they ate their meals in the dining room. She was going to have to give up the dining room when Ed turned his attention to the rotted-out floor beneath it, but in the meantime she was determined to enjoy it. She had pinned up a bed sheet to separate it from the living room, which was packed not only with its own furniture but also with the pieces destined for the den and the foyer when Ed was done with the bricks. The dining room was her sanctuary. She had brought it to such a fastidious level of completion that it looked like a little theater in which a nightly drama was staged. The china leaned against the back of the cabinet, the polished candlesticks stood sentinel on the breakfront, the crystals sparkled in the chandelier after a chemical bath, and the white field of the lace tablecloth suggested a pristine altar.

Ed took a seat, rivulets of sweat still running from his head. He dropped his drenched forearms on the table and wiped his brow with the napkin she’d folded neatly.

When the kitchen floor was finished, the new cabinets and countertops could be installed.

“I don’t know why you don’t let me bring a contractor in for the floors,” she said. “We have money for help.”

“I’m doing a fine job,” he said.

“I don’t want to live like this. We didn’t buy this house to live out of boxes. I want a real kitchen.”

They had some money to work with. After they’d paid the depreciation recapture tax (she regretted the low rents she’d charged the Orlandos all those years; the house had hardly generated “income” to speak of) and put 50 percent down on the new house, they’d pulled over forty thousand dollars out of the Jackson Heights house to make improvements with.

“You’ll have your precious kitchen,” Ed said. “The floor will be done soon enough.”

“We’re already two weeks from November, Ed. We could bring guys in and have this done in a day. They probably have machines that could do this in a couple of hours.”

He grabbed her by the wrist, leaned into her.

“One guy touches that floor — one single  guy that’s not myself or Connell — and I’ve had it. Do you understand?”

She wrested herself free. “Have it your way,” she said bitterly, rubbing at her wrist. “But don’t expect any help from that boy. You’re going to be the hero on this, be the hero. He’s not helping you. He has too much work at school.”

“I don’t need his help.”

She could almost taste the disgust she felt. A curd of sarcasm gathered in her mouth.

Good ,” she said. “This is just beautiful. This is everything I dreamed it would be.”

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At the gas station, when his father went inside to pay, Connell’s mother whipped around to him in the backseat.

“I just want you to know,” she said, “how much this means to your father. I would have preferred to stay in a nice bed-and-breakfast by the mountains and look at the foliage. But your father wanted to do this for you. You remember that, and be grateful. Do you hear me?”

“Fine,” he said.

“And I have a bone to pick with you. What did you say to upset him before we left this morning? He said it was between the two of you, but I could tell he was bothered by it.”

“Nothing,” Connell said.

“I’m sure it wasn’t nothing.”

“He’s right. It is  between us.”

“Don’t get testy with me,” his mother said. “You live under our roof. Don’t you forget that.”

He didn’t want to tell his mother what he’d said. It would confirm that he was just the sort of brat she’d been implying he was. He didn’t know why he’d said it; it had just come out. He and his father had been standing near the sink together. Connell was rinsing his dish before he put it in the dishwasher, and his father reached across him for a hand towel, and as he did so, Connell said, “You have bad breath.” His father looked at him quizzically, and Connell said it again, a little differently this time: “Your breath stinks.” His father put his hand up to his mouth to blow some air into his nose, and then he looked at him with a look that could have been hurt, confused, or grateful, Connell couldn’t tell which. “Thanks,” his father said, again inconclusively, and he left the room and headed to the bathroom. He didn’t come out for almost an hour. Connell heard him brushing his teeth endlessly in there, the tap running while he brushed, and then silence, and then the tap running again.

His mother’s mood brightened when they got to Cooperstown, which was full of nice little stores. They parked and walked to the Hall of Fame, a red brick structure that looked like a university building or a large post office. Outside, at his father’s request, his mother took a picture of the two of them in front of one of the rounded doors. Then she left to go shopping. They arranged to meet back in front in two hours.

Inside, Connell and his father walked past the parade of plaques. His father pointed out players he’d loved in his day — Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese. He complained that Gil Hodges, his favorite player, hadn’t been elected along with the others. He stopped at the plaques of players he’d admired for their personal characteristics who hadn’t been Dodgers: Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Roberto Clemente. It was cool to read the plaques and see how the writers of these brief biographies condensed players’ careers into a handful of statistics and a few pithy lines, but Connell would have liked it more when he was about twelve. He couldn’t get enough of this stuff then.

After a little while it felt like they’d seen a lot, and Connell was thinking about lunch and wondering whether his mother might have had a point about the foliage, which, boring as it was, at least wouldn’t have required him to spare his father’s feelings by pretending to be as interested in this stuff as his father wanted him to be. They were passing through a big room with glass cases on all sides and people crossing in every direction when his father stopped short.

“The next time we come here,” his father said, “they’ll be inducting you.”

Connell waited for an ironic chuckle, but it didn’t come. “Sure, Dad,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Okay.”

He was good enough to make his high school team, but he wasn’t going to get scouted; his father knew that as well as he did.

“I want you to listen to me,” his father said. “I’m going to talk to you seriously for a minute.”

A cute girl was standing with her parents and her little brother, looking at some old mitts in a case.

“Here?” Connell asked. “Does it have to be here?”

“I’ve noticed something in you that worries me,” his father said. “Maybe because it reminds me of me at your age. I made life harder for myself than it needed to be. I see you hardening yourself. That isn’t you. I see you closing your mind. You are open and beautiful.”

“All right, Dad,” he said, putting his hands up to stop him.

“Do you understand what I mean by that?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I’m okay, Dad. I’m good. You don’t have to worry.”

“You are  okay,” his father said. “You’re more than okay. You’re wonderful. I know that, believe me. But there’s something in you that is closing up.”

“Dad,” he said, “is this about me saying you had bad breath?”

His father laughed. “Listen. I’m going to ask you to do something you might find a little strange. Will you do it for me?”

“What is it?”

“You’ll have to trust me.”

“Is it going to be embarrassing?”

“Nobody but us will know about it.”

“All right.” Connell slapped his hands on his thighs in defeat. “Okay. Sure.”

“Life is going to give you things to be angry at. I don’t want you to be consumed by that anger or forget how much you’re capable of. So we’re going to do a little exercise right now.”

“Are you okay? I mean, is everything all right?”

“I’m fine,” his father said. “Are you ready?”

“Sure.” Now Connell was genuinely curious.

“What I want you to do now is to feel in your bones that the next time we are here, they will be inducting you.”

This was too much. “What does that even mean ?” Connell asked as the cute girl passed him, meeting his gaze.

“Shh,” his father said. “Close your eyes.”

Connell closed them.

“I am telling you that we will be back here when they are inducting you. I want you to feel the reality of that for a moment.”

“Okay,” he said, relenting a bit. There was something sort of exciting in the way his father had said it. He sounded so sure. Connell wanted to believe his father could see the future or something.

“Feel it. Let yourself. You pitched for the Mets your whole career. You heard your name over the loudspeaker thousands of times. You heard the cheers. You heard the boos. You played on grass. You played on Astroturf. You killed your shoulder, you blew out your elbow, you mangled your knuckles, but it was worth it. You set aside seats at every home game. Your kids were in those seats. Your wife was. Now you’re looking at a plaque with your face on it. You’re thinking the portrait makes you look like someone else, but it’s you — those are your numbers, under your name.”

The way his father said it was like he’d been talking about more than baseball, more than the Hall of Fame. He meant it to mean whatever Connell wanted it to mean; he meant it to mean he believed in him.

And then, somehow, Connell did feel it: what it was like to have brought joy to people and done something extraordinary. He never let himself imagine outcomes like that. He didn’t want to open his eyes.

“I want you to really feel it,” his father said. “And I want you to remember that feeling, because it is as real as any experience you will have in your life. Will you remember?”

Connell nodded with his eyes closed.

“You have to use your imagination,” his father said.

Connell could feel his mind opening like a flower in bloom. If he wasn’t afraid to consider the impossible — that he would be a Major League ballplayer people would talk about for years — then in imagining it, he would not need to live it; he could have it, along with whatever else he wanted.

“Okay,” Connell said. He could hear people passing by. He didn’t peek, but he could see them going past, what they were wearing, the looks on their faces.

“Do you feel powerful?”

“Yes,” he said, and he did; he had stepped outside time.

“Are you angry right now?”

“No.”

“Are you afraid?”

“No.”

“Do you know that I love you?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Open your eyes,” his father said, but Connell waited a bit, because something told him they would never be back where they were. “Let’s go find your mother.”

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The kitchen cabinets were installed on a Friday. When Eileen came home from work after a week that had threatened never to end, and saw their pristine white surfaces, she stood leaning against the island she’d always coveted, looking around in frank amazement. Then she began opening doors and running her hand for pleasure over the sanded interiors. She couldn’t wait to head to the Food Emporium. Ever since she’d emptied out the cabinets in preparation for their dismantling, she’d anticipated with great relish this restorative trip.

The next morning, she waited for the countertop man to arrive with his enormous slabs. She had settled on Corian, because granite was too expensive and she’d be damned if she’d live with Formica again. Then at the last minute she’d called and changed the order to granite.

She had thought she might like to watch them put the slabs down on the cabinets, but as the fabricator and his assistants hauled them up the back steps she realized she preferred that magical feeling of seeing the job complete, which she’d gotten as a child whenever she’d come home from school and seen the lines her mother had put in the carpet by vacuuming.

She snaked her way up and down the aisles of the supermarket, filling her cart with anything she could think she’d ever need. She hadn’t even gotten through dry goods before the cart was so full that she had to check out, bring the bags to the car and start over. After this second round of shopping, not only was the trunk full, but also the back seat, the passenger seat, and the floor areas. She couldn’t see in any direction except straight ahead and in the driver’s side mirror. She felt the engine laboring to get her home.

She pulled into the driveway and honked for Connell to come down and carry the bags. She went upstairs and gaped at the glossy countertops. She walked their length, running her hands over their cool surfaces, amazed at how they kept going and going.

Connell came up with the first bags and lay them on the island. “What gives?” he asked.

“What?”

“You planning for a disaster?”

“I bought some things,” she said defensively.

She started putting them away. Connell made an endless circuit from the garage to the kitchen. When he had nearly finished, and bags were arranged in a ring around the island, Ed walked into the kitchen and flew into a frenzy. He started grabbing items from the refrigerator and throwing them into the trash can.

“We eat too much!” he yelled. “This is too much food!”

“Would you please control yourself?”

“We need a new regime around here,” he said. “We’re getting fat. There are going to be changes. One meal a day! No more than one!”

“This should last us about a decade, then,” Connell said.

“Get rid of it!” Ed shouted as he left the room. “All of it!”

Eileen followed him out. “You can throw it all out if you want,” she called up the stairs, to his retreating back. “That’s fine by me.” She was trying to stay calm, not to sink to his level. “All it means is I’ll have to spend more to replace it. I want every inch in that pantry filled.” He disappeared into the bedroom. “I don’t care if you starve to death, the rest of us in this house are going to eat.” He didn’t answer. “Like kings!” she shouted. “We’ll eat like kings!”

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In recent weeks, Ed had taken a hammer to places of rot in the drywall all through the basement, so that it looked like a target in a shooting range. In the minefield of the living room, he’d made a bigger mess, ripping up floorboards almost indiscriminately. The drainpipes were clogged. The garage door had stopped working. They’d suffered another flood in the basement after a heavy storm. And now that the cabinets and countertops were in, Ed refused to hire a single contractor to help.

He sat beside her at the wheel, seething in the mismatched outfit he’d passive-aggressively donned after she’d barked at him for half an hour to change out of his dirty undershirt and get a move on. They were going to the McGuires’. Ed was beset by distraction as he drove, drifting between lanes and slamming on the brakes to stop just short of stalled traffic.

“Would you pay attention? You’re all over the road.”

“I know how to drive,” he said. “I’ve been driving for”—he paused—“since I was sixteen.”

They’d left late and hit a bad jam, and by the time they arrived they were quite late indeed. Ed sat in the car after he’d shut it off. She stood outside the car, waving him out. Then she opened her door again.

“Are you coming?”

The light in the foyer went on; one of the McGuires would soon be at the door. She climbed back in the car. Maybe she had to try another approach. She drained the impatience from her voice. “What’s wrong?”

“Just give me a minute,” he said. “I can’t think straight with you talking.”

“Honey,” she said as gently as she could, “we don’t really have  a minute.”

“Who’s going to be there again?”

“Just us. Us and Frank and Ruth.”

“That’s good,” he said. “We see too many people.”

They hadn’t seen anyone since they’d moved, but this wasn’t the time to argue. “You’re right,” she said. “I’ll scale back. We’ll just focus on the house for now.”

“Thank God.”

“Now, can we get inside?” She handed him the bottle of wine. Ruth opened the door and gave them both kisses. Ed’s hand was shaking as he handed the bottle over; she saw Ruth notice it.

Dinner was ready and they took their seats right away as Ruth shuttled dishes in. Eileen tried to help her, but Ruth told her to sit. Frank opened the bottle to let it breathe. She felt herself begin to relax.

“How’s the money pit?” Frank asked. “You find where they buried the bodies yet?”

This was where Ed would say something snappy and the two of them would be off.

“It’s fine,” Ed said flatly. “Coming along.”

“Ed’s been busy trying to get rid of the rot from the flood.”

“Funny enough, I’ve been taking a continuing ed course in the history of water,” Frank said. “Irrigation, water transport. We haven’t gotten to floods yet. I’ll let you know when we do. Maybe I can give you some tips.”

Ed didn’t say anything.

“It must be nice to get back in the classroom and learn something new,” Eileen said.

“We’re not getting any younger,” Frank said. “We have to keep the brain going. Am I right?”

Again, Ed didn’t speak. Ruth came in just in time with the platter of roast beef.

“Please,” she said, gesturing to Ed. “Help yourself.”

Eileen felt an instinct to serve him, but he was sitting between her and the platter. Ed stabbed at a piece with the serving fork. The tines didn’t get a good purchase on the meat, which fell back to the platter with a juicy splash that sluiced grease onto the tablecloth. He went in again, stabbing with too much force, but managed to get one piece onto his plate, and then another. The third dropped into his lap. Ruth and Frank shot each other looks. Ed picked it up and put it on his plate. He didn’t try to wipe the marinade from his pants. The three little strips huddled on his plate. He handed her the fork, though protocol called for him to serve her or pass her the platter. She had to stand up to reach the meat. When she was done filling her plate, she put two more pieces on his. She looked up and realized that both of her hosts were watching this transaction intently.

“You want me to serve you?” she asked Frank.

“That’s fine, I’ll do it myself.”

“This all looks beautiful,” she said, handing over the utensils. She stayed on her feet. “Let me have your plate,” she said to Ruth. She felt like a chess player thinking several moves ahead. “I’ll serve the potatoes.” She spooned some out for Ruth; then she put some on her own plate, and then, as though it were a matter of course, on Ed’s. She did the same with the vegetables.

Ed looked skeptically at his plate. After having trouble gathering food onto his fork, he started pushing it on with his finger. He transported a few bites successfully to his mouth before one dropped on his shirt.

This was a good time for Frank to make a joke about Ed being drunk. It was impossible for Ed to take offense at anything Frank said. They ribbed


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each other all the time, and nothing was sacred; they fell into hysterics while she and Ruth wondered what was wrong with them. Tonight, though, Frank just sat there, looking at Ed until he saw that Eileen saw him looking and looked away.

They got through the meal with some effort. “You sit with them,” Ruth said, as Eileen tried to follow her into the kitchen to help clean up. “Sit in the living room and have a drink. Make sure they don’t get into any trouble.”

Eileen brought them drinks. There was less awkwardness in the living room. Frank helped by talking at length about the class he was taking. She was never more grateful for his long-windedness. Ed interjected here and there, and the exchange resembled an actual conversation. Ruth came in and they sat holding their glasses in the comfort that follows dining with old friends, the engine of one topic running down as the engine of another revved up.

“So how’s Connell?” Frank asked.

“His grades are good, but he’s struggling in biology, if you can believe it.”

“I was a horrible student in high school,” Frank said. “If it had mattered then the way it does now, I wouldn’t have had a prayer.”

“Me too,” Ed said.

“It’s a different world,” Ruth agreed.

“He’s in his second year already,” Ed said. “He’s got to settle down soon.”

Eileen flinched.

“I thought he was a freshman,” Ruth said. This was the danger of having friends like Ruth and Frank who paid attention when you talked about your kid.

“Yes, freshman,” Ed said. “That’s what I said.”

“He likes English,” Eileen said quickly.

“That’s great,” Frank said. “I love literature. I’m going to take a Shakespeare course next semester.”

“Ed’s disappointed,” she said. “He wants him to love science. He wants him to go to medical school.”

“Speak for yourself,” Ed said. “I want him to follow his bliss.”

“Maybe he’ll come around,” Frank said. “Listen, we were thinking of having him up for a weekend. Do you think he’d like that? Or would it be more of a drag for him?”

“He’d love it,” Eileen said.

“Maybe while he’s here you can talk some sense into him,” Ed said. “He’s having a hard time with biology, if you can believe that. He’s not applying himself, is all.”

“I don’t know how much help I’ll be,” Frank said. “I failed bio the first time I took it.”

“That sounds like Connell, I’m afraid. His biology grades aren’t the greatest. He’s focused on literature.”

“Is there an echo in here?” Frank asked, laughing. “I might have to cut you off.”

“Please do.” Eileen tried to sound authentically relieved. “For all our sakes.”

“Or maybe what he needs is not less but more.” Frank stood up and took her glass, then Ed’s, which was still full. He looked at it for a moment.

“Let me freshen this for you,” he said.

The business of getting drinks occupied a few minutes, and Ruth refilled the cheese and cracker plates.

“So tell Connell to think about what weekend he wants to come up,” Frank said.

“You’re having Connell over?” Ed asked.

“If he wants.”

“Do me a favor and talk to him about giving more of his time to science,” Ed said.

“Before I forget,” Ruth said abruptly, “I have to tell you the funniest story.” She embarked on a narrative about having had her car towed the last time she went into the city. It wasn’t funny at all, and it wound up being far shorter than Eileen had hoped, but she felt her eyes well up in gratitude.

Soon it was pumpkin bundt cake and coffee. The rituals of meals had never been more of a comfort. Ed ate his cake without trouble and they sat in the pleasant ease of digestion. She could see the distance to departure beginning to narrow. They might very well escape without further incident.

Ruth gathered the coats, and they said their good-byes in the hallway.

“Remember,” Frank said. “Ask Connell when would be good for him to come up.”

“I will,” Eileen said.

“Maybe you can talk some sense into him,” Ed said. “He’s slacking in science.”

Frank’s eyes widened. He broke into an awkward grin that looked more like a grimace. “Don’t let this guy drive,” he said.

Although she had had more to drink than Ed, she got behind the wheel. She felt exhausted, and more than once she had to blink away sleep. Ed snored the whole trip, like a child, oblivious of the danger he was in every time she let her mind wander.

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The floors in the living room and dining room were still a mess. Not only hadn’t he begun to lay down wood, he hadn’t even bought any, and it was now the second week of December. He had put the floor job on hold to focus on the basement. It drove her crazy to have the most important rooms in the house be off-limits. She had given up on the dream of entertaining the first Christmas in the new house (when the Coakleys agreed to host, she was afraid she might have lost dibs on Christmas Eve to Cindy forever), but she wanted to be able to finally sit in her living room. He was kidding himself if he thought he was going to be able to handle it alone.

The noises of destruction and toil emanating from below made it sound as if he was overseeing a torture chamber. She never approached him when he was down there, and when he came up covered in plaster dust and dried concrete, he sat and ate in remorseless silence. When he was asleep she went down to check on his labor. The space was coming together somehow. A do-it-yourself home improvement book sat perpetually splayed on the floor, its dog-ears attesting to the concentration that had gone into making things flush and square.

• • •

She found a disposable razor on the coffee table in the den, sitting in a streak of shaving cream. She told herself that Ed had come downstairs to answer the phone while shaving and gotten distracted. When she picked the razor up, though, and saw that the book under it was his beloved fifth-edition copy of The Origin of Species , she let out a shriek. No one but Ed ever touched that precious volume, and it never left his study. The fact that it was on the coffee table at all was amazing enough, but for its front cover to be stained by a filmy dollop of Barbasol was simply unfathomable. Her first thought, her only thought, was to leave the razor alone so he could see he had ruined the book himself.

• • •

She’d written him notes lately — gentle reminders she would leave on his nightstand before bed, like a secretary laying out the next day’s agenda for the executive she was secretly sleeping with. We’re going out with the Cudahys tonight , or Don’t forget parent-teacher conferences at 6:00 . There had been something pleasant about writing the notes; whatever tension still hung in the air after a given evening’s misunderstandings evaporated like a cup of water on a hot afternoon.

One note struck her as odd when she read it over. It grew more opaque the longer she looked at it, like one of those unfathomable koans. She couldn’t escape the sensation that she’d written the note to tell herself something as much as to get a message to Ed. Christmas is six days away, Edmund , the note said. Please don’t forget to get Connell a new baseball glove. I’ve asked you three times now. I’d take care of it, but I don’t know the first thing about them. It seems like the kind of thing a father should pick out. That is still you, right, a father? 

How had they gotten to the point where she could write him a note like this? She thought of the hours he spent grading papers every night, how he never came to bed before eleven anymore, how just recently she’d spent a night helping him tabulate the grades for a lab report, as she’d done during the crisis at the end of the last academic year. She thought again, as she couldn’t help doing lately, of that inscrutable pile of wood with the sheet over it in the backyard in Jackson Heights. She recalled the scene with a strangely heightened clarity, as if it were an installation in a museum dedicated to preserving the unimportant details of her old life. She panned around it in her mind, studying it from every angle, attempting to understand why this nettlesome image hadn’t receded into the ether of the past.

The dawning came all at once, though it felt as if it had been heading her way for a while, like a train she’d heard whistle from miles off that was now flying past and kicking up a terrible wind.

Still, she couldn’t pronounce the sentence in her head, Ed has…,  because it was impossible that he had it. He had a demanding job that kept him stimulated. Until recently, he had read constantly, done the crossword puzzle almost every day, exercised four times a week. He was still the fittest man in their circle.

Maybe it was a tumor. Maybe it was a glandular problem, a dietary deficiency, a failing organ.

Whatever it was, she would get him checked out.

It wasn’t going to be easy to bring it up. He was going to tell her she didn’t know what she was talking about, that if something was wrong with his brain he’d be the first to know, being a brain expert , she could hear him saying. And part of her wanted him to dismiss her fears with an imperious wave and tell her she was behaving hysterically. But she couldn’t allow him to overpower her on this topic. She needed to find out if something was wrong with him.

She waited for an opening. She wanted him to forget something or say something demonstrably strange, but he just went to work and came home and started in on the basement like an indentured servant paying off his debt. He made runs to the hardware store and returned with Sheetrock, cinder blocks, and bags of cement that he hauled piece by piece from the car. She worried his body would give out on him.

When she called Ed’s doctor and suggested worry about Ed’s health, he told her she was crazy, that Ed was as healthy as a horse. “I just saw him, what is it, six months ago,” he said. “He’s got the lungs of a swimmer. Not a whisper when I put the stethoscope to him. Only thing is his blood pressure’s a little high. Let him put his feet up on the weekend. Give him a glass of iced tea and put the game on for him. And his cholesterol could be lower. Maybe no cheeseburgers for a while. No more shrimp.”

It sounded like an indictment of her, somehow. “We don’t eat any shellfish,” she said. “I’m allergic.” She tried to rein in her annoyance. “Did he seem fuzzy  to you at all?”

“Fuzzy?”

“In the head. Slower on the uptake.”

“Maybe you’re expecting too much of him. Men aren’t perfect creatures. We get miles on the engine. We need repairs. The warranty runs out. Ed’s got a good engine. He’s got a lot of road left ahead of him.”

She watched him and waited for the mishap, the big slipup. He continued to make incremental progress, continued to refuse outside help, but every day, as he beat himself harder and harder to finish the work, as she watched patiently, intently, she could feel the ground shifting in her favor, Ed’s resilience weakening. As much as she needed to bring the work on the house to completion, as much as she couldn’t wait to have a team of workers laying down boards in her living room and dining room, and as much as she was glad to see the ground ceded to her, she found herself rooting for Ed and feeling sorry for this man who spent every night hammering away. She saw him on his haunches, head in a manual, hammer poised, his back a rounded stone, and she willed him to brilliance, though she knew she was willing the impossible.

She watched Ed grow more weary at each dinner, look more disheveled, push away his plate after a few bites.

One night he didn’t come when she called him to eat and she sent Connell to get him.

“He says he’s not coming,” the boy said when he returned.

“Tell him I said to get in here.”

“Maybe you should go in, Mom.”

“What is it?”

“He’s just sitting there.”

She went into the dining room and saw Ed surrounded by planks of wood. He had half a plank in his hands. Nails were sticking out of it, and its end was a comb of shards. She could see the other half nailed into the floor. He must have tried to rip it up in his hands.

“Get up, Ed.”

“I’ll be in when I’m done,” he said. He was hunched over, breathing hard. He looked like he’d been whipped. He lifted himself up onto one knee in a vaguely supplicating manner, and the sight of him there put her uncomfortably in mind of the Stations of the Cross. She wasn’t going to give him the chance to make some kind of poetical self-sacrifice, if that was what he was after. The only person who’d feel sorry for him if he did that would be himself. He’d had all the chances in the world to bring someone in. They had enough money for at least the floors and the kitchen. He was too damned stubborn.

“You’re done.”

“I have to finish this section.”

“You’re done,” she said. “Come and eat.”

But he didn’t follow. After she and Connell had finished, she brought a plate of cold sausage and beans in to him. She could barely stand to look at him as she left it on the floor by his feet. He hadn’t moved in half an hour. He was in the same place in the middle of the room, a perfect vantage point from which to survey the mess he’d insisted on making.

• • •

She made the phone calls and settled on a general contractor who could finish the kitchen, do the floors, put in high-hats, and plaster and paint all the walls on the first floor.

The night before the workers were scheduled to start, she told Ed they were coming, and he didn’t put up any kind of fight. She wondered whether she should have forced his hand sooner, but they gave out no manual when you got married, no emergency kit with a flashlight for when the power went out. You had to feel your way around in the dark for the box of matches.

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The work began a couple of weeks after the new year, 1992. The bustle in and out of her kitchen was exciting. She offered them drinks and set out platters of cold cuts on the island, rolls, tubs of potato salad, bags of potato chips.

She brought home a couple of six-packs for them one day. Ed took one and threw it to the floor. One of the cans landed with a thud and shot a stream of beer all over the cabinets. A floor installer who had been using the bathroom stopped in the kitchen on the way back to the living room.

“Everything all right?” he asked.

“Mind your fucking business,” Ed said.

She hadn’t heard Ed utter that word in years. Maybe she’d never heard him say it.

“You okay?” the worker asked her, ignoring Ed.

“Get the fuck out of here,” Ed said.

“Whatever you say,” the worker said. “Whatever you say.” He backed out of the room, his hands up in bemused resignation.

Eileen followed him in, carrying the unexploded beers on the plastic yoke. “My husband has been under a lot of stress,” she said. “I’m sorry he spoke to you like that.”

“No worries,” the worker said. “We come across all kinds of people in this line of work.”

“He’s not the kind of man he seemed like back there.”

He gave his head a sage tilt. “Some guys just don’t like other guys in their house, doing work they think they should be doing.”

She felt a need to protect Ed. “It’s just that he’s losing his job,” she said, surprising herself with the lie. “Layoffs.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s going to be fine. We’re going to be fine.”

He and the other worker looked at her as if they were waiting to see if she’d make another revelation.

“Please drink these,” she said, holding up the beers.

“You don’t have to tell us twice,” he said. “But we have to wait until we’re done for the day.”

It reminded her of her father, to hear him responsibly defer having a drink. They returned to laying in the boards, and she went to the breakfront to find the red velvet-lined box that held the set of crystal glasses with “Schaefer” etched into them that her father had received upon his retirement. She took them out and ran a cloth over them.

At the end of the day, when she laid the six-pack on the dining room table, she set out the glasses too, on a Schaefer bar tray she’d saved for years.

“Please use these,” she said.

“Oh, we don’t need glasses, ma’am,” he said politely.

“It would make me happy if you’d use them. They were my father’s. I’d like to see them filled with beer for once.”

• • •

The roof could wait for a couple of years. The rot in the basement would have to remain for now. The tile floors she’d pictured down there were a project for another time. So was renovating the half bath between the kitchen and den. So was moving the laundry room to the first floor from the basement. There was old wallpaper on the second floor that couldn’t come down, and there were walls that needed to be painted. She had pictured fresh paint and white tiles wherever she looked. She had flipped through design magazines for elaborate ideas, but in the end, white had seemed appropriate, the cleanest option, the only one she could deal with right now. She would have to wait for everything to be white. She would have to deal with gray and yellow and brown and a sickly mauve. She thought that a lot of her house looked like a waiting room. The path from kitchen to dining room to living room, though — the path that company would travel — this path was ready to go. She could keep them from going upstairs or downstairs. And as soon as she had a spare few thousand dollars, she was going to put a better half bath in for them and spruce up the den.

There was, on the other hand, the question of the furniture. She simply wouldn’t be able to live with the things she’d brought from the old house, not if she couldn’t fix this one up the way she wanted. Her furniture squatted shabbily and hardly filled the room. The scratched dining room table, the worn armrests on the chairs, the boxy end tables, the permanently depressed couch cushions: they were like placeholders for the real pieces to come. She saw now that she would need to replace nearly all of it. She would put it all on credit cards. Upstairs, she would create a sitting area, buy the desk she’d always lacked, and outfit each guest room with a stereo, an armchair, and a beautiful reading lamp. As soon as she got these bills paid off, she would replace Connell’s childhood furniture.

She knew she lacked the aesthetic sense necessary to give the house the ambiance it deserved. She would bring in an interior decorator. There would have to be new art everywhere, and the little touches that put one in mind of real discernment. She could pay for that with credit cards too. Ed would veto these expenses if given the chance, but he was past the point of possessing veto power. He was simply going to have to place his fate in her hands. They would pay it off. Ed would get another grant. Their salaries would rise. Once everything was in place, they would live frugally, sensibly, like Boston Brahmins. They would even find a way to build their savings back up. There was always a little more money to be had every year.

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If nothing’s wrong with him,” Eileen told her own doctor, when she went in about a shortness of breath she’d been experiencing, “I’m going to divorce him. I can’t take it anymore.”

Dr. Aitken told her to bring her husband in. She sold it to Ed as his annual checkup, that she’d like him to try her doctor, and when he didn’t object in spite of having gone in for a checkup less than six months before, she knew she was doing the right thing. They sat in the discordant placidity of the waiting area before she led him into the examining room and went back out. She’d blustered about divorce, but now she saw that she would put up with anything in exchange for hearing that her husband had simply become an asshole.

After spending half an hour with Ed, Dr. Aitken came out to meet her.

“Don’t divorce him yet,” he said, handing her a referral to a neurology team he trusted.

• • •

She braced for the fit she expected Ed to throw once they got to Montefiore, but he sat docilely again on the papered, padded table, waiting for the doctor to arrive. His big, fleshy back looked like raw dough.

First came blood tests and a physical exam. Dr. Khalifa, the lead doctor, wanted to eliminate anything that might cause memory loss, so he checked Ed’s thyroid levels, as thyroid problems had run in his family. They gave him a CT scan.

His thyroid was fine. The CT scan showed no sign of a tumor.

She took him back for diagnostic exams. Dr. Khalifa sat Ed at a table and took a seat opposite him. She sat in the extra chair and felt nervous for Ed, as though she were about to watch his debut in a theatrical production that had limped toward opening night.

Dr. Khalifa told Ed to count backwards from one hundred. Ed got to ninety-seven before pausing. “Eighty-six,” he said, then ran off a few other numbers in accurate succession, until he jumped another decile, at which point Dr. Khalifa stopped him.

The obstreperousness she’d anticipated was starting to seem like a fantasy. Ed looked vulnerable and small. He was smiling, trying to ingratiate himself with his examiner, perhaps in unconscious pursuit of mercy in the diagnosis.

Dr. Khalifa told him to draw three concentric circles, and Ed put a good one down on the page, then drew another that was ovoid and attached to the first like a chain link. The third, a shaky line meeting finally in something more like a quadrangle than a circle, sat apart from the first two.

“Great, that’s great,” Dr. Khalifa said dully when Ed was done. The doctor was a picture of imperviousness. She watched his eyes: he betrayed no sign of surprise, gave away no clues as to whether this was a normal result or not, the product of mere aging or something more sinister. She didn’t know whether she herself would have been able to draw the concentric circles. Certainly it would be difficult under this kind of scrutiny. She had a sensation that she was watching a child take a test, and she felt a sympathy with Ed that made her question her decision to expose him to this. What right did she have to subject him in the quiddities of his middle age to a man who would be looking for any sign of deviation from a norm that was probably arbitrary in the first place? She wanted to whisk him back home and let him go at things in his own way. A category existed to describe men like him, a time-tested, venerated one at that: absentminded professor.

“I’m not an artist,” Ed said, laughing. “You should see my drawings of the digestive system.”

The doctor chuckled.

“This could be something abstract,” Ed said.

Dr. Khalifa looked at it and shook his head. She didn’t like his attitude. He was too glib, too detached. His hair was too perfect, his teeth gleamed too white. She had long wished Ed had pursued medical school, but now she felt she’d been too hard on him in her mind. She knew doctors like this at work; they thought they walked on water. The work Ed did might not have been as lucrative or flashy, but it laid the groundwork for guys like this to come to their conclusions. If Ed said nothing was wrong, then most likely nothing was wrong. She had insulted him by bringing him before this cipher who didn’t deserve to carry his briefcase, let alone pass judgment on him.

“We’re almost done with this part,” Dr. Khalifa said. “One more question and then I’m going to have you do some physical things.”

“Okay.”

“Tell me something. Do you know who the current president is?”

If he wanted to insult him, this was a perfect way to do it. She almost wanted Ed to answer sarcastically or deliberately incorrectly, but she didn’t want the doctor to have the satisfaction of writing it down on that little pad of his.

Ed sat with it; maybe he was coming up with a witty riposte.

“I know it’s a Republican,” he said. “I know that.”

“Can you tell me his name?”

Ed pulled on his chin. “Reagan?” he asked. “Is it Reagan? I can see his face. It’s not Reagan, is it? This is embarrassing.”

“You know this, Ed,” she said. The doctor gave her a look; she wanted to smack his face.

“I can see him,” Ed said. “I just can’t recall the name.”

Dr. Khalifa wrote something down. She wanted to call the answer out. The whole thing was so stupid. She couldn’t believe he was letting him dangle there like this. Ed looked ruined, as if he had failed a test not merely of memory but of character.

“Give it a second,” Dr. Khalifa said. “Sometimes it’s hard to think of a given thing when you have to. Think of something else. It might come to you.”

“White elephants,” Ed said.

“Something like that.”

Ed rubbed the top of his head, as if to massage the answer from his scalp. He let out a deep sigh. “I can’t remember,” he said. “Who is it?”

“Bush,” the doctor said. “George Bush.”

“Yes! That’s it! I knew it. God, I knew it! I could see his face. Of course! His running mate. It’s easy to confuse them.”

The doctor said nothing, just continued to write on his pad.

She thought of the time she’d had to memorize the presidents and their dates of service. She remembered Sister Alberta calling them up one by one to the front of the room to answer one question each, Sister asking her which president followed Teddy Roosevelt. So many W  names surrounded Roosevelt — to this day she could remember them: William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding. Though she had memorized them conscientiously, at that moment they ran together in her mind. She was terrified of being called stupid in front of the class. Her heart began to race; then her mind went blank, so she could picture only the hazy outlines of names. “Now, Miss Tumulty ,” Sister said, and when Eileen said,“William Wilson,” laughter exploded in the room.

“You’re right,” she said. “It is easy to confuse them.”

Ed looked guiltily at her, as if she were on Dr. Khalifa’s side and not his. She shifted her chair closer to him. The doctor seemed to write endlessly.

“Just one more thing I have to get down here,” he said, holding up a finger as he wrote. “Perfect. Now I’d like you to change into shorts. I’m going to have you do some exercises for me.”

They went into the next room and she helped him change. It felt like she was getting him ready for gym class. She wondered what humiliations awaited him. Dr. Khalifa came in and had him touch his toes from a standing position and rise from a seated one. He had him jog in place. He took notes throughout. Ed looked to her between exercises. She tried to give encouragement. When Dr. Khalifa told him to touch his finger to the tip of his nose, Ed had a hard time doing it.

“I’m not drunk,” he said. “I promise. Although I might get drunk after this.”

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They were waiting for his father to pull the car up after Mass. It had snowed, and his mother didn’t want to walk in it. Another light dusting was coming down, and his mother held an umbrella over both their heads while they waited.

“You’re going nowhere with baseball. You know that.”

The comment might have stung more if Connell hadn’t known it was more about debate than baseball. His mother had been on him lately to join the debate team.

“I like baseball,” he said.

“Liking it is one thing. Spending your time doing it is another. You don’t have to like everything you do. Besides, you’d like debate. You’re naturally competitive. You get that from my side.”

“Why do you want me to do debate so badly?”

“I want you to make the most of your advantages. I want to see you use your talents wisely.”

“You want me to be a senator,” he said.

“I want you to be happy.”

“President of the United States.”

“Don’t try to make me out to be some fire-breathing dragon. So I want to push you a little. So what?”

He stood in silence, thinking about it. So what, indeed? The shoveled driveway across the street was getting recoated in a sheen of snow. It might be nice to own a house like that someday, to be able to hire someone to shovel. But he had no interest in joining the debate team. Those guys were always on the verge of cutting your throat.

“What does Dad say?”

“Your father and I both want what’s best for you.”

“What does he say ?”

“What does your father say?” She laughed. “ ‘Leave the kid be,’ he says. ‘Let the kid do what he wants. Let him have some happi


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ness. Let him have some innocence while he still has time.’ ” She was getting worked up. Some people walking past on the way to their car jerked up their heads. “ ‘All that matters is that the kid experience joy.’ If you must know, that’s what he says. And you know what I say?” There was a fierce expression on his mother’s face. “I say give the kid a chance to make a real mark. Those debate kids are the ones who get the best grades in the school. Get him among them, is what I say. Those are the kids who go to Ivy League colleges. Let him get into a topflight school with them, become a lawyer, a politician. Those are the kids who take home awards and scholarships. What’s wrong with his being one of them? What’s wrong with his making a nice living? Being comfortable?”

“It’s just debate, Mom.”

“They’re the best. You should be the best with them. Otherwise you’re wasting your time.”

“I like baseball,” he said.

“You’re not going to be a professional player.”

“Probably not.”

“Definitely not.”

“Fine. Definitely not.”

“Look,” she said, “there’s your father. Don’t tell him we talked about this. He just wants you to play baseball and not think about anything complicated right now. Or maybe not ever. He wants you to be like a horse in the fields or something. Unfettered.” She said it with a sharp little laugh. “I don’t think that’s real life, though. Maybe I want to tame you. Make you useful. I guess that’s just who I am. But I know one thing. You listen to me, you’re never going to want for anything in this life — not with your ability. I could guide you to the good life. If I’d been born a man, I’d be there myself.”

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They went to several more appointments. Dr. Khalifa repeated some tests and added new ones. Six weeks after the first appointment — it happened to be St. Patrick’s Day — they went in for the results.

She was more nervous than she’d been since her wedding day. Ed seemed past nerves. He radiated an odd calm, like a man about to receive a lethal injection.

They waited in the room for the doctor to come in. She held Ed’s hand, but he patted hers as if she were the one getting the news.

Dr. Khalifa entered with a folder, giving off a vaguely metallic smell, and Ed bristled. The doctor walked quickly, without sufficient gravity. She thought, A turnip conveys more emotion than this guy .

“Well, I have good news and bad news,” Dr. Khalifa said. “The good news is, physically you’re healthy as a horse. A great specimen.”

She felt a jolt of excitement, then one of fear. “What about the bad news?”

He turned to her. “The bad news is your husband likely has Alzheimer’s.”

She gasped; Ed’s hand in hers seized into a fist.

“I take no pleasure in saying this, but from now on, it might be best to think of every day as the best day of the rest of your life. If I were you, I’d try to make the most of every day while you can.”

Ed squeezed her hand so hard she winced.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“If he didn’t have Alzheimer’s, he’d probably live to ninety-five. Heart, lungs, kidneys, circulation — all tip-top. But he’s got it.”

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“There’s little doubt,” the doctor said, with all the detached finality of one of those enormous computers in old movies that spat out answers on punch cards.

“I knew it,” Ed said grimly. She realized in an instant that he probably had known it, that he might have known it for years.

“How can this be? He’s barely fifty-one.”

“It’s early, but it happens,” Dr. Khalifa said. “I’m sorry.” He did look sorry, but not for her particularly, rather for himself for having to be the bearer of bad news. “I wish there were something more I could say.” She looked to Ed to explain it to her better than the doctor had. “I’ll leave you two alone.” The doctor slapped Ed’s folder on his thigh as he rose. “I’m sure you have a lot to talk about. I’ll come back in ten minutes to answer any questions and talk about our game plan.”

When he was gone, they sat mulling over the news. It was a paradox of sorts: nothing made sense unless it were true, and yet it made no sense whatever for it to be true. It was so obvious now that he had Alzheimer’s. The news felt old already, somehow.

“What are we going to do?”

“We are going to get a second opinion,” she said.

“We don’t need a second opinion. He’s the second opinion.”

“He could be wrong,” she said.

“He’s not,” Ed said, with an authority that made her heart pound in her chest. She felt such love for him that she had to look away.

They sat in silence. Ed’s grip on her hand hadn’t loosened since they’d heard the news, but now she could feel his fingers beginning to uncurl.

“What the hell,” he said. “What the hell.” It struck her that it sounded like both a lament and a promise — a promise to make the best of things. “What are we going to do?” he asked again.

“We are going to carry this with dignity and grace,” she said. “That’s what.” One point of his collar was upturned, and she flipped it down and pushed the button through the buttonhole for him.

• • •

They drove to Nathan’s on Central Avenue. Ed had grown up taking the train out to Coney Island, and she wanted to give him a little comfort. This landlocked outpost on an undistinguished stretch of local road was a pale copy of the faded original on Surf Avenue, but its young patrons seemed to project an aura of possibility onto it. A troupe of heavily cologned, spiky-haired Albanians in collared shirts and high-top sneakers preceded her in line, flirting with the counter girls. They hooted and clapped and spoke with great anticipation of the big night ahead. Through the window she saw a tricked-out Camaro dart into a spot in the lot, tailed by a Trans-Am.

She led Ed to the open expanse of the seating area. With a steady hand, he brought the hot dog up to his mouth and bit into the tower of sauerkraut, onions, relish, mustard, and ketchup that sat atop it. A squirt shot out and landed on his shirt. He wiped it off without a word. It used to kill him when even a fleck of ketchup fell onto one of his dress shirts, but it was as if he now saw through the ordinary frustrations of living.

They pulled into the garage. In the basement, she had him take off his shirt, then his undershirt. She sent him upstairs and went in to the laundry room. Passing the shelves along the stairway wall, she realized that someone had stolen his power tools.

Whenever the workers had been there and he’d been home, Ed had stayed in the study — working or sulking, she’d stopped caring which. They must have seen him as an easy target. In Jackson Heights, whenever they’d had workmen in the house, he’d watched over his tools with a diligence she’d always considered paranoid.

There had been two different crews in her house, the floor and kitchen guys and the painting crew, and it was impossible to ascertain exactly who had done it. It was the lowest form of knavery to steal a man’s tools, especially — the thought ruined her — when he couldn’t use them anymore.

She didn’t tell him they were missing. Instead, she left work early the next day and bought all new ones. She threw away the packaging and nestled them into place on the utility shelves. With their unscuffed surfaces and sharp corners, they possessed a newness that seemed unlikely to escape his notice, and yet his noticing now seemed equally unlikely. For the first time in their marriage, she found herself longing to be caught in one of her gentle schemes.

• • •

Ed was adamant about not telling the boy. They weren’t going to tell anyone at Ed’s work either. They wanted to stretch it out to the thirty-year pension. Including the job he’d held at the Parks Department while in college, Ed had been working for the City of New York in one form or another for twenty-eight and a half years. If they could get him to thirty, they’d have twelve hundred more dollars coming in every month than if he retired now. She was going to have to squeeze as much out of the system as she could, because someday the cost of caring for Ed was going to rise dramatically.

In the days after the diagnosis, Ed grew quiet and still. Overnight, the black-Irish touch of olive coloring in his face retreated, replaced by a gaunt, dusty pallor. His odor changed; she could almost smell the fear coming out of his pores. He had already been showering less frequently; now he stopped showering entirely, and he only brushed his teeth when she forced him to stand there next to her doing it. They both went to work as if nothing had changed. She wondered if the funereal air had settled in for good.

One night, in bed, he asked her if he was dying.

“Not yet, you’re not,” she said. “You still have plenty of life left in you.”

“I’m scared,” he said. “I am  dying.”

“We all are, in a sense.”

“I have a clock on me.”

“We all have a clock on us.”

“Not Connell,” he said. “Not yet.”

She wanted to say, Connell too , because it was the truth, but she saw how upset Ed looked.

“No,” she said. “Not yet.”

“I don’t want him to get this,” he said. “I want him to live in peace.”

She couldn’t help herself. “He may not get this and still not live in peace. There are no guarantees.”

“He’s not going to get it. Tell me that.”

“He’s not going to get it.”

Her answer reassured him enough to allow him to fall asleep. She lay awake for a long time thinking of the clock ticking toward its terminal moment.

Maybe Connell would  get it. Maybe she  would.

One never knew.

Now that  was the truth.

• • •

Even the hospital wasn’t safe enough for some of the Alzheimer’s patients she’d seen over the years. Getting lost in the hallways or wandering naked out of their rooms was just the beginning. One man fell down the stairs and broke his back. Intake could be tragic. They came in with gashes, burns; once, a severed finger. She wanted to delay the onset of real symptoms as long as she could. The answer for that was drugs. There weren’t any approved drugs on the market, but there were drugs in clinical trial that might be helpful. She needed to get him into a research study. He would be helping the industry he had balked at working for, and he wouldn’t get a dime for it. She had once imagined getting a luxury car, foreign trips, and antique furniture out of the pharmaceutical industry; now all she wanted was a less-rapid diminishment of Ed’s besieged brainpower. She had to hope some clear-eyed pragmatist not immune to earthly rewards had expertly carried out the investigations Ed had refused to take up himself.

She called around to people she knew. She found an open study at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, in Orangeburg, forty minutes away across the Tappan Zee Bridge. The study was to evaluate the long-term safety, tolerability, and efficacy of SDZ ENA 713 in treating outpatients with probable Alzheimer’s disease, and it guaranteed Ed a supply of the drug as long as he wanted it, until it was either commercially viable or abandoned in the United States.

After the initial evaluation she was given a stack of official forms, one of which was a “Capacity Assessment for Participation in a Research Study.” It indicated that the examining doctor had determined that Ed lacked the capacity to understand the purpose, risks, and benefits of the research and make an independent decision about participation. She knew it was a pro forma thing, that they needed her to sign with his power of attorney, which she had secured, but it rankled her, because Ed so clearly understood what they were telling him, probably understood it better than they did themselves.

Her heart ached when she signed the “Assessment of Capacity to Choose a Surrogate Decision Maker” form, because during the evaluation, the doctor had asked Ed who she was. “My wife,” Ed had said, as if there were nothing plainer.

“Do you want your wife to have the power to make decisions on your behalf?” the doctor asked with exaggerated deliberateness, as if to convey the gravity of what Ed was signing over.

Ed laughed and asked the doctor if he was married. The doctor nodded.

“Then it won’t surprise you to hear that my wife has been calling the shots as long as we’ve been married,” Ed said, and the doctor chuckled in husbandly sympathy before checking the box beside “This patient has the capacity at this time.” It amazed her how winning Ed had been able to be even at a moment like this.

She signed with a certain stoicism a form consenting to participate on his behalf, but it was the “Record of Choice of a Surrogate Decision Maker” form that nearly made her lose her composure, because it was the only one Ed had to sign himself, and he started his signature an inch above where he should have and angled it down and through the line in a way that made it look as if he was falling down as he did it.

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Eileen keenly missed Curt, her hairstylist, and not just because he knew how to handle her cowlicks. She missed Curt’s entertaining conversation, the way he indulged her interest in politics and made her keep a toe dipped in the ocean of popular culture, the tide of which receded from her as soon as she stopped seeing him. Every time she checked out at the Food Emporium, it seemed, she recognized fewer of the faces on the covers of celebrity magazines.

She wasn’t about to go back to Jackson Heights for Curt, though, so she couldn’t avoid the hairstylist in Bronxville, even though it intimidated her to go in there. The salon was fancier than Curt’s place, with a miniature Japanese pond and leather seats in the waiting area. She was afraid to get into political conversations there, as she never knew who felt what, or who was listening, and she wouldn’t read any of the offerings on the coffee table—People, Us, Premiere, Entertainment Weekly —because she didn’t want to give anyone a reason to look down their noses at her, even though everyone else flipped through them with guilt-free relish. She couldn’t escape the feeling that there was a different set of rules for her that she’d never had properly explained.

The Bronxville salon was practically a full spa, offering nail care, massages, facial treatments. As stylists, they were skilled technicians, giving her what she asked for and leaving her a little cold. Her hair would look great for a couple of days, with a chilly perfection to it, the cut preserved so unchangingly that it looked as if she’d been fitted for a wig. Then, one morning a few days in, it would refuse to fall in line with the brush, and she would have to wait long enough until she could justify going in.

Curt gave her what she didn’t know she wanted. His cuts were understated; sometimes she wondered whether he cut much at all or just stood there talking and making snipping motions with the scissors. He always swept the shorn locks away before he took the smock off her, so she never got to examine the evidence. Weeks after an appointment, though, people were still asking her if she’d just had her hair done.

• • •

One day in the last week of March, when she was waiting to have her hair cut, she heard the woman before her — who despite being a little older than her was wearing stiletto heels and had alternating streaks of chocolate, caramel, and butterscotch dye in her hair — tell the hairstylist about the miracle they’d performed cleaning her mink at Bronxville Furrier after she’d leaned against some wet paint. Eileen saw the fur hanging on the hook. It looked shiny and full, as if it had just gotten a cut, shampoo, and blowout itself. The way the woman discussed her fur, it was as though she were actually discussing something else, speaking in a secret code that Eileen could decipher only if she had the corresponding key. She’d had the thought before that a fur might just be the thing to make her feel she belonged in this town.

A week later, when she walked past Bronxville Furrier and saw that they were having a spring sale, she went in and purchased a mink. It was so plush and full and enveloped her so thoroughly that she felt as though she had shrunk down to her teenaged size just by putting it on. In some quarters, it wasn’t so fashionable anymore to own a fur coat, what with all the work PETA activists had done to stigmatize the wearers of them, but fur seemed to still have a foothold in Bronxville. She had the two important things — money to buy it with, or at least a still-viable line of credit, and someone to go out with in it. Who knew how long either would last?

“What about our rainy day savings?” Ed asked when he saw it.

“If it rains any harder than this,” she said, “not even Noah’s Ark would save us.”

• • •

The weather was too warm for her new coat, but the Saturday after she’d bought it was chilly, and she decided that this might be the last chance she’d have to put it on for half a year. She made a reservation for seven o’clock at Le Bistro on Pondfield, the fancy place across from the post office that she’d been wanting to go to for months. She and Ed parked a few blocks up, where Kraft met Pondfield, because she wanted to take a little stroll through town and be seen. As soon as she started walking, though, she felt overdressed. No one else was in fur, and the truth was that she hadn’t seen many women her age in fur since she’d moved.

By the time they reached the restaurant, she’d worked up such a sweat that she took it off before she went in. She’d had a vision of the maitre d’ taking it from her shoulders slowly, one arm at a time. It was heavy enough in her arms to feel like a sleeping child. She handed it over, hoping no one would see the transfer. She would have to try again next winter.

For as long as she could remember, she’d wanted to wear a mink coat. Women in minks always looked as if they had no problems in the world. She’d spent her own good money on it — the credit card payment, in the end, came from her own money. She’d pay it off as soon as the bills settled down. She was almost proud to think of how much the total had come to, even after the off-season discount had been factored in.

46

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Connell’s uncle Phil was in from Toronto. After dinner, Connell’s father began telling a story everyone had heard before about the summer he’d spent in college doing service work in Peru. The punch line involved the drastic height differential between himself and the priest in charge.

“There I am, all six feet of me,” he said, “and—”

“You’re not six feet,” Connell interrupted. “You always say you’re six feet. You’re like five eleven.”

“I’m six feet tall,” his father said with dignity.

“You wish  you were six feet.” Connell had just measured himself, and he knew he was five ten and that his father wasn’t much taller. He went over and squared up against his father back-to-back. Then he made him take his shoes off. He took off his own Doc Martens.

“Son, I’m six feet.”

“Maybe you were once,” he said. “Maybe you’re shrinking.”

“I’m not old enough to shrink.”

“Maybe you are,” he said. “Maybe you’re losing it early, Dad. It would explain a lot.”

His father gave him a quick, deadly stare. “Enough ,” he said, and turned away. “Do you need a drink?” he said to Uncle Phil.

“I’ll come with you,” Uncle Phil said.

Connell followed them into the kitchen. “If you’re six feet,” he said, “then prove it.”

“Let it go, son,” his uncle said.

“Here,” Connell said. “The door’s right here. We’ll mark you off against it. Like we did for me in the old house.”

His father looked annoyed, but he stood against the door. Connell made him take his shoes off again.

“Five foot ten and three-quarters,” he pronounced as he made a deep score in the side of the door with the pencil.

• • •

Connell was emptying the dishwasher. He pulled up the handle of a knife whose blade had been broken off near the base. It was nothing but a stump.

“This has seen its last day,” he said, holding it up to the light. “I’m getting rid of it.”

He threw it out; his father walked over and quietly fished it from the garbage.

“That knife is guaranteed for a lifetime,” his mother said with matter-of-fact triumph. “That’s a high-quality knife.”

“I can tell,” Connell said archly.

His father rubbed the handle between his fingers like a worry stone.

“I’ve been meaning to call that company for a while now,” his mother said.

Connell was incredulous. “Can we just get rid of it? You’re not going to call the company. What could you possibly do with that knife, Dad? Seriously.” He strained for a tone he would take with a father he could spar with, a tone he knew would hurt him.

“You’d be surprised,” his father said. “I use this knife to stir my sauces.”

“I am too going to call that company,” his mother said. “They’ll honor their guarantee.”

“We have plenty of other knives. Why do we need this one?”

“Your father bought that knife when we got married. He spent a lot of money on it at the time. Is that enough of an answer for you?”

She looked on the verge of tears. He knew he shouldn’t have anything more to say.

“Doesn’t mean you have to keep it forever,” he said.

47

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Eileen had helped Ed with his classwork here and there throughout the year, but as the end of the spring semester approached, she found herself grading more and more of his lab reports and tests. He looked over her shoulder, explaining things. They each took a stack and went through them, and she checked his work at the end.

For a year, he’d been gathering evidence toward a paper based on his government grant research, which he was going to present at a conference. After the diagnosis, he redoubled his efforts, staying late at the lab many nights. She knew she should have been proud of him for continuing to follow the faint trail of a fleeing ambition, and she was  proud, sometimes, but she knew it would come to nothing — no new grants or appointments, no extra prestige, not even a completed paper — and she wished he were home with her instead. The nights were lonely, and it was a small compensation to imagine him sharing that loneliness with her from afar. She pictured him in his poorly lit lab, digging at his scalp as he scrutinized data skunked by faulty observations.

• • •

Ed took the study drugs twice a day. She wasn’t willing to risk his missing a dose, so she watched him swallow one every morning and every evening. After thirteen weeks, she brought him in for his first evaluation.

“I feel like one of my rats,” he told her as they sat in the attached orange chairs in the waiting room. She gave him a quizzical look. “In the lab,” he said.

“It’s not the same.”

“It is,” he said. “It’s okay, though. I can be the rat after all these years.”

“Stop that, Edmund.”

“Maybe it will help someone,” he said.

“Maybe it will help you .”

“I’m not the point of this. This is a trial. Other people are the point of this.”

“That’s not true,” she said.

“It’s fine. It’s science. I’m here for science.”

She was silent for a while.

“I’m the rat,” he said, more definitely now.

“Fine,” she said. “You’re the rat.”

“They all died eventually,” he said. “I never liked finding them stiff. It never got easier.”

She imagined the stench from the cages, the dead eyes, the reduced bodies looking like cat toys. “It must have been unpleasant,” she said.

“It was sad. It was a thankless job they had.”

• • •

They weighed him and took his vital signs, drew his blood and collected his urine, gave him an electrocardiogram and performed memory tests. They monitored his ability to do certain tasks. They had him play with blocks. They had him cut meat. They had him write things. Writing was the hardest thing to get him to do. He hated his own handwriting. It was more proof than he was willing to look at.

At the end, they handed her enough drugs to last Ed the thirteen weeks until his next scheduled visit. There was a jolt of promise in the bag of medications. She wondered for a moment whether, if she gave him the whole bag at once, he would be his old self for a few days, an afternoon, a couple of hours. It would be worth it, even if the rest of the time he was a mess. She knew it didn’t work like that, though. His real self wasn’t hiding in there waiting to be sprung for a day of freedom. This was his real self now.

48

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It was a Tuesday in early July. They were lying in bed with the windows open. She tried reading a novel but felt jittery and distracted until she gave up and retrieved one of her Alzheimer’s books from the pile she kept hidden under the bed. Ed was supposed to be reading, but he had his hands folded across his chest and was looking at the ceiling.

Four months had passed since the diagnosis. She had gotten swept up in the strange logic of that moment—Don’t tell a soul —but it was clear that Ed couldn’t be counted on to know when enough was enough.

She couldn’t just tell people herself, because she knew Ed wouldn’t forgive her for betraying his trust.

She closed her book and propped herself on her elbow to face him. “How about if we have a dinner? Invite our closest friends over. We can tell them all at once.”

“I’d prefer if we didn’t.”

“It would be easier than telling everyone individually.”

“Who says we have to tell them individually?”

“A nice dinner party,” she said. “It would make it feel like a team effort to tackle this thing. I’ll see if I can get it together for Saturday.”

He gritted his teeth. “You sound determined.”

“We’ll have to tell Connell.”

That’s  where I draw the line,” he said, almost growling. “I’m not telling him yet. I don’t want him to see me that way, reduced like that. I still want to be his father.”

“You’ll always be his father,” she said, but instead of soothing him she only disturbed herself with thoughts of what that “always” implied — the time when the disease would have tangled his synapses and hobbled him, when he would no longer be all there.

“In any event,” Ed said, “I want to wait.”

Connell was often playing baseball or in the city or at a friend’s house. When he was home, he stayed in his room. If she was extremely careful, she could keep it from him a little longer.

“Fine,” she said. “We’ll hold it back a bit. But you’d better prepare for it. We can’t keep it from him forever.”

I  could.”

“Honey, no offense — you couldn’t.”

“If I’m not alive,” Ed said darkly, “then he doesn’t have to see me like that. He can remember me as I was.”

“That’s nice. That’s just lovely. You get that goddamned thought out of your head this instant. You’re not going anywhere .”

“If it could just stay like this,” he said, his tone changing, “I could live with it.” He pulled the sheet up under his chin.

“Maybe the drugs will start working,” she said. “Or if these drugs don’t work, there’ll be others that work better. The science will catch up to this disease. And we’re going to do everything we can in the meantime. We’re going to be very busy. You’re going to stay alert. You’re going to read a lot.” She looked at his book on the nightstand, which he hadn’t picked up in days. “We’ll do the crossword together, we’ll go to plays and operas. We’ll go on trips. We’ll keep this thing at bay.” She took his hand; it felt stiff, a little cold. She put her other hand on his chest to feel his heart beat.

She didn’t know how much of what she’d said she believed, but it felt good to say it. She went back to her book. The chapter she was reading discussed how the disruption of context might accelerate the patient’s decline. Familiar settings and people, it suggested, could have a prophylactic effect on memory loss.

She thought of how strenuously Ed had fought leaving Jackson Heights. Had she exposed him to harm in moving him to Bronxville? A guilty feeling took root in her thoughts and blossomed into panic.

“We can’t afford to wait to tell Connell,” she said. “What if he finds out for hi


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mself? What if he overhears me on the phone?”

“Don’t talk on the phone.”

“We have to tell him tomorrow,” she said.

“Give it another week.”

“Fine,” she said. “This Saturday is the dinner. The one after that, we tell Connell.”

“He has a game that day.”

“You have his schedule memorized?”

“He plays every Saturday.”

“After his game, then. Trust me. It’s the best thing.”

“Okay,” he said. “I trust you.”

She was strangely disappointed to hear him give in so easily. She understood that this new relationship of theirs signaled the beginning of the end of the old one. He would have to become something like a child to her.

• • •

The afternoon of the dinner, as she was running around getting the last things ready, Ed came in and told her to call it off.

“It’s not true,” he said. “It’s a lie we’d be telling them.”

“Honey,” she said.

“It’s a lie.”

It was too late; the Cudahys, possibly the McGuires, were already on their way. Dishes were simmering on the stove.

“These are our friends.”

“It’s a lie.”

“Would it be easier for you if I told them myself?”

“Do what you want,” he said, waving his hand at her in a way that called to mind an angry old man.

“They’ll be here in a little while. Tell me what to do.”

“This is your affair,” he said. He ran the tap and put a glass under it. Water filled the glass and spilled up over the sides. He held it under for a while. It looked as if he was making a little fountain out of it.

“I think we should do it the way we discussed.”

“No!” he said sharply. “They don’t need to know anything. It’s all a lie.”

“Do you think they can’t tell anything?” she found herself shouting. “You think they can’t figure it out? You think they don’t have eyes and ears?” She paused. “And brains?” She regretted it as soon as she’d said it.

“They won’t see anything,” he said, seething. “There’s nothing to see.” He left the room.

She found him stewing on the front stairs and took a seat beside him. “We have to tell them sometime.” She reached to touch him, but he flinched away. The neighbors across the street were pruning their flowers. She hadn’t met them yet. She had wanted to wait to introduce herself until she felt herself to be operating from a position of strength, but that time hadn’t come, and she felt too self-conscious to go over there now that they had looked at each other so many times across hedgerows without waving.

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“Would you rather nobody knew?”

He didn’t answer.

“Because if you want to do this alone, just us and Connell, I can’t. Maybe I’m not as strong as you. I thought I was, but I need all the support I can get. Now more than ever.”

He turned and looked at her.

“I won’t say anything tonight,” she said. “We can do this when you’re ready. On one condition.”

He was blinking intently.

“Until then, don’t make me feel like I’m alone with this. Connell needs to know. Let’s deal with the reality of this. Other people, fine. But I need to know we in this house are going to deal in reality.”

“Fine,” he said.

“You have Alzheimer’s.”

“Don’t say that.”

“This is what I’m talking about,” she said. “We need to stick together on this.”

“Fine,” he said. “Good.”

“I know you know,” she said. “But I need to hear it from you.”

“I do know.”

“Say it, then.”

“Say what?”

“Say that you have Alzheimer’s.”

“You’re crazy,” he said. “I’m not saying any such thing.”

• • •

She almost didn’t care if he didn’t join them. She could tell them he was sick, and if he chose to wander in, she could joke about a miraculous recovery. Maybe they’d think it strange; maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they’d notice things; maybe they’d have blinders on. She couldn’t worry about managing impressions anymore. She almost couldn’t care anymore whether they wandered upstairs and saw the state of disrepair her house was in, outside the carefully curated area for hosting guests.

Frank and Ruth, Cindy and Jack, Tom and Marie, Evan and Kelly: they arrived all at once, as if they’d rented a bus for the occasion. She tried to distract them with drinks and a flurry of hanging coats and shuttling dishes. She was trying to think of an alibi for Ed when he appeared in the door to a round of salutations.

She directed everyone to the dining room. She had decided to say that the occasion for their gathering was no occasion, that they simply wanted to see close friends and didn’t want to wait until Christmas to do so. It wasn’t a lie, exactly; she was very happy to have them there. For months now, she’d had to make excuses for not seeing them.

She used the proximity of Frank’s birthday as an excuse to stick him at the head, Ed’s regular seat. She sat Ed next to her. If Frank figured it out, she could count on him not to say anything. When the chatter was at its loudest, she filled Ed’s plate.

She was angry at Ed for putting off the telling of their friends. She didn’t care if he spilled food on himself or knocked his drink into his lap. He was on his own. She tried to absorb herself in conversations, but for the first time she derived little relief from the gathering of all these people. She ate distractedly enough to move even Jack to ask between courses if anything were the matter.

Deep into the main course, Ed tapped on his wineglass. She squeezed his knee instinctively. He struggled to his feet.

“There’s something I want to tell you,” he said as the voices lowered. She stood as well, to be beside him. “I wanted to have all of you here,” he said. “My good friends. It’s good to see you.”

He paused for long enough that it seemed he had stopped. She rubbed his back encouragingly. No one knew how to react. It was sort of funny, what he’d said; it was anticlimactic. She almost expected Frank or Jack to say, “Good to see you too. Now have a seat so we can eat.” They couldn’t, though, because Ed looked so deadly serious.

“I wanted to tell you that we’ve had some news,” he said. “It isn’t good news.”

Nobody moved; nobody said a word.

“We’ve had some tests done. And talked to some good doctors.”

It amazed her to hear him talk about Dr. Khalifa with such equanimity. Something deep in him was surfacing, some essential fiber in his character. Then he stopped again. His leg was shaking. He was steadying himself on the table. It struck her that he had tried his best. He had tried to spare her from having to tell them, but she would have to do it regardless. She put her hand on his shoulder to urge him into his seat.

“It looks like I have Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

A second of stunned silence, then a round of gasps, hands held to mouths, looks of concern. Frank pounded the table and peppered Ed for details. Jack questioned the diagnosis. Evan and Kelly moved their seats closer together and pledged their support while holding hands. Cindy cried. Marie sat morose. Ruth made attempts at jokes. Tom drank whole glasses of wine in long quaffs and kept pulling his napkin through the circle formed by his thumb and forefinger. Nobody touched their food. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to serve dessert. She asked everyone if they’d like to move into the other room to sit with the news. They came up and hugged Ed one by one. He seemed more physically confident, quicker on the uptake, as if he had lanced a malignancy that had been draining his essence. She shuddered to imagine how much of his mental energy had gone into keeping everyone in the dark. In its own way, it had been a feat of fortitude.

Jack came up to her in the kitchen, chewing around his words as though they were a shell he was trying not to swallow.

“How could you do that? How could you embarrass that man like that?”

She had to hold her hand down to keep it from smacking his face. “This was Ed’s choice,” she said firmly.

“No man would choose that.” He turned and headed to the other room with the stiff uprightness of a former military man.

She had to remind herself that men took news like this differently than women did. She’d seen that for years working in hospitals. The bigger they were, the more uneasy they acted around revelations of disaster.

“It’s a matter of plaque deposits,” Ed was saying when she returned to the living room. Talking about the diagnosis had empowered him; he sounded professorial.

“Plaque deposits,” Frank repeated, a stunned vacancy in his voice. “I take care of plaque deposits.”

“Synapses get rerouted,” Ed said. “Brain mass decreases. Functionality suffers.”

Whatever had happened to his short-term memory, Ed’s long-term memory was, at least for now, an impregnable fortress. The clinical detachment with which he discussed what was happening neurophysiologically might have made you forget he was talking about himself. He seemed to welcome the chance to talk in this abstracted way. The faces of the people around him registered an appreciation of his aplomb, and a somber awareness settled into all of them of how terrible it was that such a fertile mind had been subject to this perverse accident of biology.

“Early-onset is the most virulent kind,” she said to Marie in the kitchen. “It dismantles motor functions and speech as it erases the memory.” She paused. “It’s the true Alzheimer’s,” she said, with something like pride at the thought that if her husband were to be destroyed by a degenerative neurological disorder, it would be the undiluted article, the aristocrat of brain diseases.

• • •

Everyone stayed later than usual. No one seemed to know when it would be okay to leave. Maybe they didn’t want to face the road yet, their dark thoughts, the reduced company of their spouses. Eventually Ed got cranky. “Is this thing ever going to end?” he asked, and went up to bed in a huff without pausing to say good night. Ruth raised her eyebrows, and Eileen raised hers back, and then Ruth started herding people toward the door.

After the other guests had said their good-byes and were making their way down the back steps, Ruth and Frank were all that remained. Frank filled a thermos with coffee for the trip back.

“I knew something was wrong,” he said.

“It must have been obvious.”

“I don’t know how to process all this. It’s like it isn’t real.”

“I feel the same way.”

“It scares me,” he said. “I think about it myself sometimes. When I lose my keys, when I forget where I parked my car.”

Frank did look scared. The pallor on his cheeks gave him a vaguely cadaverous look.

“You can talk to him, you know. He’s still your friend. He’s still here.”

“I don’t know how to talk to him about this.”

“Just open your mouth and see what comes out.”

Frank shuffled out the door with his thermos held like a lantern, and Ruth gave her a long hug, and then Eileen was alone in the kitchen. Dishes and glasses were scattered everywhere, and food had to be covered in plastic or scraped into the garbage. She had never before been relieved to see her house left in such a mess. She wouldn’t have to turn the lights off and head upstairs for an hour at least.

• • •

The following Saturday, they ate in the languid silence that followed games in which Connell pitched. His exhaustion passed to the two of them through some invisible membrane.

“How did you do?” she asked.

The gleaming newness of the kitchen hadn’t yet faded; it still felt like someone else’s room.

“Fine,” Connell said.

Fine ,” Ed said, amused. “He did more than fine. He struck out — what?” He looked to Connell.

“Thirteen.”

“And not one batter made solid contact,” Ed said.

“I also walked eight guys.”

“His control is an issue, there’s no denying it. He was pitching out of jams the whole game. He threw a ton of pitches.”

As if on cue, Connell rubbed his shoulder.

“But the sky’s the limit. A lefty with this kind of velocity? If he keeps working at it, he’s going to be a force.”

She waited for Ed to transition into the discussion of the disease. She caught his eye; he shook his head to say the plan was off. She tried to indicate displeasure, but he looked down at his soup to avoid her gaze.

“Ed,” she said, coughing. He looked up.

Connell’s eyes were heavy with fatigue. Ed stood up and put his hand on Connell’s head for a second and tousled his locks affectionately. He walked over to the sink and gazed out the window.

“What’s up? You guys fighting again?”

“No,” Ed said, still looking out the window. “Just listen to your mother.”

“You’re getting older now,” she said. “You’re getting to the point where you can hear adult things.” Connell sat up straighter in his seat. “The things adults talk about. What your father and I talk about.”

“Please don’t tell me this is about the birds and the bees. I’m way too old for that.”

She couldn’t hold back a thin, sad smile. She felt a lump in her throat. “We’ve got some bad news,” she said.

The boy’s jocular expression faded. “What is it?”

“It has to do with your father’s health,” she said after a bit.

Ed turned around and walked back toward the table. He sat. “What your mother is trying to say is that I have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.”

“Do you know what that is?” she asked.

“Yeah.” He looked back and forth between them. “It’s where you forget things.”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t that what old people get?”

“Sometimes,” she said. “Most of the time. But sometimes it happens to younger people.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

“There’s not a lot of medicine out there,” he said. “I’m on some experimental drugs. We’ll see. But it’s going to get worse.”

“Are you scared?”

This was the first time she’d seen anyone ask Ed how it affected him personally. It had always been questions about the illness. She hadn’t even asked him herself.

Ed straightened up. His eyes got a crinkly, philosophical look in them. “Sometimes I am, sure,” he said. “That’s part of it, no question about it.” He looked at the sugar bowl, the top of which he’d been clacking like a cymbal. “I like my life. I love  my life. I don’t want to lose it.”

“Aren’t you too young for this?”

“If you’re asking me, yes,” he said. “If you’re asking the disease, no.”

“How quickly will it get worse?”

“Honey,” she said to him, “don’t pepper your father with questions.”

Ed put up a hand to quiet her.

“It could be quick,” he said. “It could be years. Every case is different.”

Connell seemed to chew on what he’d heard for a little while.

“Is there going to be a time when you don’t know who I am?” he asked.

Ed’s face took on a fierce expression, as though the question had angered him. She thought to intervene, but then he rose from his seat and leaned down to put his arms around the boy.

“I will always know who you are,” Ed said, kissing the top of his head. “I promise you that. Even if you think I don’t know, even if I seem not to. I will always know who you are. You’re my son. Don’t you ever forget that.”

“You neither,” he said, rising to hug his father.

She started clearing the dishes.

“Mom,” Connell said. He held out his gangly arm to her.

She walked over and stood near them. Connell seemed to urge her to join them in some sort of embrace. She had wanted him to hear, and now that he’d heard, she wanted him to come to terms with it and carry on stoically, but he was a different kind of creature from her. She and Ed had worked to give him an easier life than they’d had. Sometimes she wondered if she’d erred in not making him tougher.

The idea of a group hug embarrassed her and she couldn’t comply. There was going to be more darkness than hugs could begin to dispel. She thought of this embrace he was offering as the come-on of a huckster selling a spurious remedy. She gave him three quick, sharp pats on the back, as if to punctuate some unstated conclusion, and headed upstairs.

49

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After they’d finally told Connell, she could talk openly with her girlfriends about Ed’s condition. She called them every night — Ruth, Cindy, Marie, Kelly, Kathy, her aunt Margie — going through the lineup, dialing a new number the instant she’d hung up with the first. She didn’t want to be interrupted once she’d started, so she waited to make the calls until after dinner, when Ed was in his study grading lab reports and writing out lectures. Her friends invariably ended whatever calls they were on when she rang through. She didn’t always know what she was going to talk about when she picked up the phone, but the conversations followed their own rhythms, and they always had to do with Ed. She didn’t even try to talk about other things. She thought if she talked it out enough, she could make it more familiar, less overwhelming, less frightening.

Whenever she called the McGuires and Frank answered, he handed it right to Ruth. Once, about a month after the dinner at which they’d told Ruth and Frank and the others about Ed, Frank annoyed her with the way he rushed off, and she asked Ruth to hand the phone back to him.

“Where the hell did you go?” she asked. “Why haven’t you called? Why hasn’t he seen you? Why haven’t you taken him out for a beer? Why haven’t any of you goddamned guys taken him out? He’s in that study night after night.”

“I’m having a hard time dealing with it.”

“He knows that. Just call him and say hello.”

“I will,” Frank said.

Frank didn’t call, though, and a week later she got Ruth to put him on. She pretended Frank had called and handed the phone to Ed. She was afraid Ed would notice that the phone hadn’t rung, but he just took the phone and started talking to Frank like a teenager, his excitement palpable. She listened to Ed’s end of the conversation, which lasted an hour. Nothing about the disease came up. That was one difference between men and women. Men got along fine without revealing anything. She almost admired them for it. The downside was that they retreated to their islands.

When she took the phone back from Ed, she made Frank promise to call Ed again soon, but Frank didn’t call, and the next time they went to the McGuires’, Frank hardly spoke at dinner, and they left right after dessert.

• • •

Eileen had been telling Ruth about the anxiety dreams she was having about all her teeth falling out and her skin peeling off her body, when Ruth surprised her by suggesting she see a psychologist. She was amazed to hear Ruth speak of the positive experience she’d had in therapy. She didn’t even know Ruth had ever been  in therapy. It was nearly impossible to imagine. It wasn’t that Ruth was a stone; she was in fact tirelessly empathetic when listening to the troubles and pains of others, and she always made time for her friends. It was just that she herself never gave anything away. You wouldn’t catch her crying if you tied her up and strangled her cats before her eyes one at a time. For years, Eileen had taken at face value Ruth’s assertion that, having more or less raised her younger siblings, she’d decided she was done bringing children up. Then, late one night when the men were asleep, Ruth admitted she’d been terrified to wreck a kid’s life with drink the way her mother had done. Ever since, when Eileen saw Ruth looking at Connell with affection, she knew there was more in Ruth’s heart than she’d admit to anyone, including Frank.

Eileen had dismissed therapy as an indulgence for those with too much time and money and too few friends. Besides, Catholics didn’t go to shrinks; that was what the confessional booth was for. What were you supposed to do, though, when you hadn’t been to confession since your early twenties? She pictured herself enumerating her sins for an hour and a half, being handed an inexhaustible list of prayers to recite, and leaving with no more clarity than she’d had going in.

Ruth’s therapist was named Dr. Jeremy Brill, and his office was near Ruth’s, a block from the Flatiron Building. He greeted Eileen at the door and directed her to an armchair. Eileen looked around for the couch she’d been expecting, but there was only a mahogany desk, two armchairs, and a trio of reassuring diplomas — Harvard, Cornell, Yale — on the wall above a little bookcase. The room was dark except for a floor lamp and the little light that came through the slatted blinds.

Dr. Brill sat in an armchair and asked her to speak. She found it easier to begin than she had expected. She was talking about her mother and father, her youth in Woodside, her life in Jackson Heights, her career, even Mr. Kehoe, and after she’d been speaking for a while, she felt the first sprigs of unburdening bloom in her chest. After she’d subsided into silence, it gratified her to hear Dr. Brill — he insisted that she call him Jeremy, but that wasn’t going to happen, even though he was at least ten years younger than her — say that Ed must possess superior intelligence to preserve outward normalcy for as long as he had.

“A less intelligent man might have given himself up long ago,” Dr. Brill said. “Who knows how long he’s been keeping this hidden?”

He prodded her to speak about the way Ed’s illness made her feel, and though she’d vaguely decided beforehand to parry such questions, she began to speak with a pointedness and clarity that surprised her, until, many minutes later — it amazed her how silent Dr. Brill remained, how he seemed to draw the words out of her as though hypnotizing her with his eyes, which narrowed and widened to some hidden rhythm — she felt the engine of her thoughts wind down, midsentence. He told her their time for that session was up.

The next time, she didn’t feel comfortable talking. After an initial greeting, Dr. Brill didn’t say anything either. A long silence settled into the Oriental rug. It put her in mind of the silent treatment Ed sometimes gave her, or the standoffs Connell would enact as a little boy, when he stubbornly refused to speak.

“What’s your biggest fear?” Dr. Brill asked after a while.

“I’m not quite sure,” she said. “Probably being alone.”

Another silence.

“And why is that?”

“Who wants to be alone?”

“Some people might.”

“I don’t,” she said.

“Do you feel that your husband is leaving you alone?”

“Sometimes I do, I suppose. Yes. I guess I do.”

“I understand,” he said. “This is a disease where you never win. It doesn’t just take down the sufferer. It takes down the spouse, the children, the friends. It can feel tremendously isolating.”

It was feast or famine with him; either he didn’t say a word or else he said more than she wanted to hear.

She understood that she wasn’t going to win, that she couldn’t beat Ed’s illness, and yet she wasn’t about to sit there and let someone tell her she was going to lose. She decided right then that she was never coming back. That made it easier to speak, and she spent the next half hour holding forth on all sorts of things she had no idea she was thinking about. In the end she felt relieved for having had a chance to get them out. It was almost a shame to have to cut this experiment short, because she was beginning to see value in it, though only in small doses, and for someone very different from herself.

• • •

She could see the day coming when Ed would have to stop working, and she wanted to be smart. She went to the Alzheimer’s Association to find out what kind of resources might be available. The social worker told her to wait until she was impoverished and they’d be able to help her get assistance.

Impoverished? ”

“Medicaid only kicks in once you’ve spent down to the threshold. You can keep your salary, up to a certain dollar amount. Not your husband’s. That goes straight to Medicaid. You’ll have to liquidate investments. You can put your money into home improvements, even update your wardrobe. Buy medicines in advance, staples for the house. Set aside burial expense money for both of you. Necessary things. Not jewelry. Definitely not jewelry. Except for your wedding ring and your engagement ring, and his wedding ring. You can keep those. If you spend the money down quickly, the government can come in and ask where it went, and you might not get Medicaid. You can keep the house no matter what. And the car. The upside is, when you’re nearly broke, there will be assistance available.”

“You’re telling me that short of — going broke , as you put it — there’s nothing I can do to defray the cost of a nurse — or a home, if it comes to that?”

“At this point, no.”

“Everything in my savings account goes?”

“Yes.”

“All the stocks?”

“Indeed.”

“The retirement accounts?”

“Them too.”

“Let me tell you something,” she said gruffly, feeling pride rise in her like a fever. “I worked hard my entire life.”

“I’m sorry.”

The costs would be enormous; their savings would dwindle quickly. The cost of at-home nursing care (she refused to consider a nursing home until she absolutely had to) would be the equivalent of taking out a second mortgage, which would be expensive enough on two incomes, but when Ed’s pension kicked in at about 40 percent of his salary, it would be virtually impossible for her to pay it without dipping into their retirement money, which would shrink quickly.

“I should have done the cabinets in cherry,” she said.

“Come again?”

“I was too prudent. I should have had the bricks ripped up and marble tiles put down. I should have bought three mink coats instead of one on sale. I should have gone to Europe every year. I should have spent my money like a drunken sailor in my twenties and thirties when everyone around me was doing it. This all would have been a lot easier to swallow if I were poor.”

• • •

She went to see Bruce Epstein, a tax lawyer and the husband of her friend Sunny from work.

She sat across from Bruce in his Upper West Side office. Law books lined the shelves, as well as classic works of literature. “The best thing you can do is divorce him,” he said, offering her a bowl of chocolates. “Strictly financially speaking, of course. Separate your finances. Put everything in your name. Take all the money.”

Eileen fiddled with a loose string on the hem of her suit jacket.

“I know you don’t want to hear it,” Bruce continued, “but that’s the best thing you can do. If you divorce him, he gets Medicaid right away. It might be better to be unsentimental about it. You don’t have to actually divorce him in your heart. You can take care of him. Just get a different place.”

“What would I tell my son?”

“Your son doesn’t have to know until later.”

“What do I tell Ed?”

“Tell him you’re trying to be smart. Tell him you’re doing this for all of you. Nothing will fundamentally change, except that you’ll get assistance from the state.”

“I’m supposed to divorce my husband because he has Alzheimer’s?”

“I know it sounds bad,” he said, “but you wanted to know. From a financial perspective, divorce is the best thing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t apprise you of your options.”

“How exactly would this happen? How would I divorce him and get all the money?”

“You’ve got a minor child, so that helps. Make up something about infidelity. There are a lot of ways to get this done. You’ll get the house, so that’s taken care of.”

“I don’t think I could do it.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said warmly. “But I think you should give it serious consideration. My concern here — so that you avoid regret later — is that you make a deliberate decision and not let your emotions get the best of you. Or if you’re going to make an emotional decision, do that in a rational way. Decide that you want to weigh the emotions as greater in value than the financial particulars. If you were able to overcome some of the mental obstacles to proceeding in the way I’ve advised you, it would be the most sensible alternative. But then pure rationality isn’t always the compass we’re guided by. I can tell you this much: I would want Sunny to do this if she were in your situation. It would help both you and your husband. And remember: in the eyes of God you are married forever.”

What he was advocating was the exertion of radical control over one’s own life, even if it meant flouting cherished ideals. She had long prized the notion that she would have made a good lawyer if given the opportunity, but she realized now, as she listened to Bruce’s dispassionate appeal to the facts, that she lacked the ability to see things in the unstintingly logical way he did. She didn’t think she could divorce Ed just to preserve their stake. She’d rather spend the money down. She was going to have to work forever anyway.

50

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Connell was in his girlfriend Regina’s basement. He wanted to lay her down on the soft carpet and get on top of her, but the best he could do was squeeze close to her on the couch, which sat flush against the paneled w


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all. He picked at one of the grooves between panels, preparing to make his move and drape an arm over her. He’d done it twice already that day, but it still made him nervous. The first time, after they’d made out for a while, the door at the top of the stairs opened and her mother shouted down, “Everything okay?” They sat at opposite ends of the couch after that, until he worked his way back over to her, inch by inch. Just when he got there, her mother — as if she had a special sense — called him upstairs to reach a serving platter from the top of the cabinet. Regina had said her mother only let them stay down there alone because she’d heard boys from his school were nice boys.

Regina’s family was Lebanese. Her father was so intimidating that Connell could barely speak to him. Connell didn’t like to be alone with Regina when her father was home; it wasn’t worth the anxiety.

He couldn’t remember the name of the movie they were watching. He couldn’t concentrate on anything but the way her hair brushed against him when she flipped it, or the way she pushed against him slightly with every intake of breath. She had kissed him dutifully for a few minutes, and now she was insisting on watching this movie, with an annoyed air that suggested she was trying to seem disciplined and mature and beyond petty lust, but really he could tell that she was just as nervous as he was.

He put his arm around her and let his hand settle on the knobby ball of her shoulder. He let it move a little lower, so that it rested on her collarbone. She was wearing a polo shirt, munching from a bowl of popcorn in her lap. He moved his hand to the triangle of skin her collar exposed and let it rest there. It was good that he had long arms, because the position was awkward. After a few seconds she shifted closer to him, leaning into his flannel shirt, but he knew it was only to move his hand away.

He had never put his hand up her shirt. He’d felt her over her shirt, but she’d always stopped him after a few seconds. One time he’d put his hand on her thigh and she’d picked it up and moved it away.

He’d told her about his father once because he hadn’t had anything else to say. As soon as he saw the sympathetic look that came over her, he knew he would have that topic to return to when he needed it. It might be useful for more than filling silences.

She was watching the movie so intently that he wouldn’t have been surprised if she had to give her mother a report on it afterward. All he could think of was how much like spring she smelled and whether she could tell he had an erection.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey yourself.” She glanced at him and then looked back at the movie.

“I’m feeling sad.”

“What’s up?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing.”

She turned to him fully now. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Let’s watch the movie.”

“You tell me right now.” She had a deadly earnest look on her face, and he couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. He felt bad when he realized she was serious. Her father’s bar, and his ghostly presence at it, looked on in silent disapproval.

He put his finger to his lips in a shushing gesture, which inflamed her.

“Either you tell me or I’m not kissing you anymore tonight,” she said.

“Don’t make fun of me,” he said. “I just don’t know how to talk about it.”

She put the popcorn bowl on the coffee table and sat on her legs, drawing her feet up under her. “Now you really have to tell me. What? What? ”

“I was just thinking of my father. It makes me sad to think of him.”

Her features arranged themselves into a look of concern.

“Tell me,” she said. Her hand was on his knee.

“Just that he’s not going to be here. He’s going away. He’s going to forget me.”

She started shaking her head. She looked like she was about forty years old. “He won’t forget you,” she said in a way that was both dismissive and reassuring. It was like she could see what was actually going to happen.

“He will. Everyone’s going to go away eventually.”

“Not me. I’ll be here.”

“You’ll go away too.”

“I will not ,” she said.

She went to hug him. He kissed her neck and moved up to her lips. The movie kept playing in the background, but now she wasn’t watching it either. She was kissing him long and with a different level of feeling. His erection now pressed painfully against his pants. He was running his hands all over her body. He put his hand under the bottom of her shirt and moved it up quickly when she didn’t shove it away. He ran his hand over her bra and slipped his hand under it. He felt his breath coming short. He moved his other hand up under her shirt, so he had one of her breasts in each of his hands. It felt like he had made it to the other side of some great divide. He started kissing her neck and ears, and eventually he had lifted her shirt up and was kissing her breasts. He would not try to do more than this. There would be other opportunities. He would keep something in reserve. His father had helped him. It was a powerful thing that he would have to use sparingly, what was happening with his father; he didn’t want to get addicted to it. But there was nothing wrong with letting some good come from it.

The room seemed to get darker. He sucked at her nipple like he was trying to draw something out of it, which he knew was all wrong. She winced a few times at the pressure of his teeth.

The door upstairs came open, and she rushed to pull her shirt down, which was just as well, because his kisses on her breasts had turned into something he was practicing doing, and he had begun to feel guilty about losing his innocence. There was no going back for it now.

51

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Virginia was in the phone book, as she’d said she’d be so many years before. Or rather her husband was: Callow, Leland. Eileen had been meaning to reach out to Virginia since the day she’d closed on the house. She’d gone for the phone several times, but the idea of fumbling through the initial conversation gave her an anxious pit in her stomach and she always hung up before dialing. She didn’t want to degrade herself any more than she’d have to. She decided to show up instead.

She chose a Saturday. If they weren’t home, she’d leave a note and try again the next day. She put on a nice blouse and skirt and did her hair. Virginia’s address was in the town proper, up the hill, on one of those winding streets with houses set far back from the street on enormous lots.

When she was a block away, Eileen felt so jittery that she had to pull over and calm herself down. This was the encounter she’d been anticipating for years, though she hadn’t realized as much until she was on its threshold. The visit Virginia had made to the dressing room planted a seed in her mind that had broken through the surface and survived long winters. She wanted Virginia to see the tree in its full flowering. Would Virginia recognize it for what it was? She hoped it would seem to Virginia like the most natural thing in the world for Eileen to be standing there, a neighbor of sorts, even if she lived across town, dropping in unannounced, an old friend, a surprise visitor.

There were so many trees on the front lawns. They seemed older than the nation itself. It was early October; the leaves had started to turn, and the sight of the street in the lightly misty air made her stop and pull over for a minute before she could continue.

She pulled up in front of Virginia’s house. There was a car in the driveway. She put her own car in park and turned off the engine, and the old vehicle settled heavily. She regretted not stopping at Topps for a box of cookies, or at Tryforos for some flowers, but on the other hand it would have been strange to come bearing a gift after thirty years. She imagined handing over the rattling box of cookies and Virginia receiving it with a skeptical look, as though it were a store of keepsakes from an intentionally forgotten past.

She stood in the street, gazing at the house. It was almost perfectly beautiful. There was nothing about it she would change, nothing she could imagine anyone — even those tasteless people who ruined old houses by updating them — would ever dream of changing. The landscaping alone looked expensive enough to break a bank account. The house wore its affluence easily, though. There was a quiet about it, broken only by the low hum of a distant weed whacker. She imagined an old man roving the grounds in a pair of gloves, dragging a heavy garbage bag and filling it with weeds.

She couldn’t convince herself to approach the front door. The thought of sitting over tea with Virginia had gotten her through some lonely afternoons after everything had been unpacked. She had been waiting for the moment when her house looked polished enough to show it off, when everything had settled down long enough to allow her to operate from a position of strength, but that moment hadn’t come. She had kept alive the idea of a steadfast friend capable of great enthusiasm on her behalf, even after years of silence. She knew that seeing Virginia again might rob her of a consolation that had been more important than she wanted to admit.

She started up the stone path that transected the lawn. She had only taken a few steps in when a dog came running up, barking and freezing her in place. It looked harmless enough, a little Jack Russell terrier, but it barked so insistently and with such a strange, alert intelligence that she began to hear a message beyond a simple warning to stay away. The dog marked a half-moon around her, then left off its clamoring and stood with nose up and eyes narrowed, assessing her in a manner that unnerved her. She tried to hide her fear — not of the dog but of what the dog was thinking, what it saw and understood — because she thought it absurd to feel apprehension before such a diminutive creature. No one emerged from the house to call the dog off. The compact thing had an almost impossible solidity to it; its thick coat seemed to stand at permanent attention.

When the figure of a woman appeared from behind a hedgerow at the side of the house, Eileen felt her heart stop in a fear that made her forget about the dog. She thought to turn and walk away, but after she didn’t immediately take the first retreating step, she knew she couldn’t do so without seeming to scurry guiltily. The woman — it had to be Virginia — walked briskly to retrieve the animal, which hustled with a chastened dutifulness to meet her halfway and circle back by her side. Watching the woman approach from the middle distance, Eileen had trouble recognizing her as the gamine girl she’d last seen trying on bridesmaids’ dresses. She was nicely attired, in a pair of brown slacks and a mustard-colored blouse whose sheen glinted in the sunlight.

“Can I help you?” Virginia asked from a few feet away. Her hair had gone an ashen shade of gray that somehow looked sun-bleached and healthy. She wore it pulled back in a neat, attractive bun. She’d grown thinner with age, so that she appeared almost military in her bearing. She looked inquisitively at Eileen, and Eileen thought for a moment that Virginia had recognized her, until she realized Virginia was probably simply wondering what this woman was doing on the perimeter of her lawn.

“I hope so,” Eileen said. “I seem to have gotten a little lost. The road took a few turns, and I got off it somehow. I have to get back to the highway.”

“Where are you looking to get?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Where are you looking to go?”

“I was visiting a friend, you see. I just need to get home.”

“Where’s home?”

“The city,” she said, afraid Virginia would hear the nervous lump in her throat. “Queens. I believe I need the Bronx River Parkway to the Hutchinson Parkway.”

“Queens? What part?”

Her heart pounded. “Douglaston,” she said, the dryness in her mouth choking off the end of the word.

Virginia gave her very specific instructions, down to the approximate number of feet after the light till she’d encounter the turnoff to the Bronx River. She radiated none of the scattered, frazzled energy Eileen remembered, and Eileen felt a sudden crushing loneliness at the thought that she hardly knew Virginia at all.

She listened to Virginia describing the familiar route. She had bought herself time to catch her breath. She would never come back now, never be able to reveal herself to her or sit in her living room without a great deal of uncomfortable explaining. She searched Virginia’s face for clues to the story she’d never get to hear — whether she’d had kids, whether her husband was still around, whether she’d had a happy life.

“Thank you,” Eileen said when Virginia was finished.

“It’s my pleasure.”

“You have a beautiful house,” she said. “A very beautiful house. I really can’t help admiring it.”

52

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After they left his grandmother’s apartment, they drove through the neighborhood, up Smith, along the Gowanus Expressway, and looped around to come down Court. When they hit Lorraine, they turned right and crept along.

He knew all the street names by now. This was the third weekend in a row his father had taken him to his old neighborhood to show him around. His father was trying to squeeze it in before he forgot what everything was.

They reached the Red Hook Pool. “This is where we swam when I was a boy,” his father said. “It’s hard to believe it’s been so long. Everybody was naked and nobody realized it. It was great. We spent the whole day here and at the end we were like prunes. It’s still being used today, you know.”

Connell nodded politely; he was missing a Halloween party for this.

“Not today,” his father said. “I know that . It’s too cold today. Today in general.”

His father stopped the car. There was an honest, open look on his face. Ugly thoughts flashed through Connell’s mind.

Do you know, really? What do you know anymore? You never really were like a normal father in the first place, were you? You were always more of a dork than the others. You and your obsessively catalogued cassette and VCR tapes, your long-sleeved shirts in the summer, your never wearing shorts, your old movies, your corny jokes. You and your lab coats and sharpened pencils. You and your insistence on perfect grammar and enunciation. You and your spazzy sneakers, your sweat-stained baseball caps, your ear hairs. You and your never exceeding the speed limit by more than a couple of miles an hour. You and your beakers, your clipboards, your briefcase. You and your boring stories of the old neighborhood. I could break your heart right now if I wanted to, you big dork, you nerd, you spaz, you geek, you herb, you Poindexter. 

Then his father faced the road again and they turned onto Columbia. They came to a derelict building with a long, faded sign that spelled KOHNSTAMM in capital letters. “This is what’s left of the factory I worked at,” his father said. Graffiti dotted its surface, and weather had worn off much of the paint, so that the ghostly outline of the words MANUFACTURING CHEMISTS could just barely be distinguished below the name. “There used to be so much manufacturing in this city. Now those jobs are gone. Factory work was a — how do I say it? It was an incubator for the middle class.”

His father was having one of those extended moments of lucidity in which he could hold forth about some topic and it wouldn’t seem like anything had happened to his mind. Connell always got a little charge of hope from them, a sense that some part of his father might be able to make it back from the other side of the creaky rope bridge.

“I wouldn’t have gotten where I did if it weren’t for a manufacturing job. We don’t make anything in this country anymore.”

“We make missiles,” Connell said. “Movies. Hamburgers.”

His father seemed not to have heard him. “I worked here at your age,” he said. Then he looked at him searchingly. “No, a little older than you. In my early twenties. I keep thinking you’re older than you are. You look so much like my brother Phil.”

Connell turned the radio on, found WDRE. The beginning notes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were playing and he turned it up. He didn’t even care if his father told him to turn it down, because in his mind he wasn’t really there. Maybe he wasn’t really there in his father’s mind either.

53

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I need you to help me prepare for the tournament tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

“The resolution has to do with whether euthanasia is morally justified. I have to develop both a pro and a con argument. Do you know how this works?”

“I think so.”

“I’m going to come at you with pro. I want you to be con. Then we can switch it up. I’ll make my first affirmative. Then you do a cross-examination. We’ll go from there. I’ll talk you through it. Okay? Ready? My first contention is that euthanasia is justified because every human being has the supreme right of self-determination. We uphold an individual’s right to determine where he lives, where he works. If we consider those  rights to be sacred, then there is no more fundamental right a person can hold than when he chooses  to die. Patients should have the right to maintain control over their own situations. By allowing people to make their own decisions, we preserve free choice and human dignity. Dad, you’re supposed to be taking notes.”

“I’m listening.”

“You’re supposed to take notes, so you can come at my contention and try to take it down. Here. Write down what I say. You’re supposed to be scribbling fast. Come up with a counterargument. Try to find chinks in the armor of my argument. Challenge its underlying assumptions. You can argue that many people desirous of euthanasia who survive apparently terminal illnesses would wind up grateful they hadn’t been euthanized. Hit me hard, Dad. I need to practice evading without seeming to. It needs to look artless and artful at the same time. I need to stay calm and confident. Try to goad me into saying something stupid and mean. Last week I was a jerk, and even though I totally destroyed my opponent, the judge gave me a twenty-four — twenty-three, which messed up my seeding in the octofinals. Girls can be as aggressive as they want, which totally sucks. That Stuy girl couldn’t have been nastier, and she got a thirty — twenty-three. Then again, if I were a better debater, I could be really nice and get points for being so damned sweet. So that means practice, practice. I’m coming at you, Dad. Anyway, you can say, ‘It’s unfeasible. It’s impossible to put it into practice equitably.’ ”

“It’s unfeasible. It’s impossible to… what was that?”

“Never mind. Listen, conversations about efficacy are banned. So I say, ‘My opponent is making a policy argument that has no place in Lincoln-Douglas debate.’ Boo-yah! ”

“What? What happened?”

“I need to come up with some better hypotheticals. Something from Plato, Jefferson. Those fluency whores at Stuy aren’t going to eat my lunch over a goddamned metaphor.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Stuy is running Locke on aff. I want to be neg. I’m practically begging  for neg. Let them play their strong hand. I’m taking that girl down this week. I can taste it. My second contention: the ‘social contract’ argument. The individual sacrifices certain rights and liberties to live under the protection of society. If an individual sacrifices the right to harm other people in exchange for the protections of living in society, euthanasia is justified because it is an act that has no harmful effects on others.”

“I don’t believe in euthanasia, son.”

“This is why you should affirm the resolution that euthanasia is morally just.”

“It’s not  just, son. It’s not just or right at all.”

“Dad! I’m talking to the judges. I can’t look at you. Eye contact with the judges is crucial. You need to rebut me. Make a ‘slippery slope’ argument. If we allow euthanasia, it creates a slippery slope where suicide is justifiable. There would be rampant eugenics. Coerced euthanasia. It would have a disproportionate racial and economic impact. People might be pressured to euthanize others for positive gain or else to avoid an economic hardship.”

“Nobody is pressuring anyone to commit euthanasia. Not in this country.”

“Say that it’s not within the rights of the medical field to help patients die. Say that it’s their responsibility to help them improve or at least continue life, no matter its quality. Because if you say that, then I can argue that many terminally ill patients suffer a great deal of pain and no longer wish to have their lives artificially prolonged.”

“You lost me.”

“My third contention is that at times of extreme pain for the patient, euthanasia is the most humane alternative.”

“People get through pain.”

“Argue that new and improved pain-relieving medicines are being discovered all the time. That the timeline for such decisions must be extended to reflect the speed of technological change.”

“All I know is I don’t believe in euthanasia.”

“My opponent never responded to my third argument, so you should carry that through and affirm the resolution.”

“What argument? Son, can we stop this? Can we just talk?”

“You want to know what’s the best neg example you could have, Dad? You  are. With your Alzheimer’s. Think about it. If we euthanized people at will, maybe you would have been taken out already. For the good of the herd.”

“Or maybe you would, son.”

“That Stuy girl is going to wish I had  gotten taken out when I run into her in the finals this week.”

54

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Early in the spring semester, Ed’s chair, Stan Kovey, called her at work to let her know that they’d had several complaints from Ed’s students, including, though he assured her it wasn’t credible, an anonymous death threat.

“A death threat ?”

“Not death,” Stan said mildly. “I shouldn’t have said death. Just injury.”

“Well, isn’t that a relief.”

“I’m not calling so much about the threat,” Stan said. “We’ve dealt with them before from disgruntled students. Some of these kids have learned not to trust institutions, due process, and the redress of injustices. What we need to discuss—”

“They were going to beat  him up , Stan.”

“More likely they were going to hire someone to do it,” he said, an odd reasonableness in his voice.

“A hitman!”

“More like a thug,” he said. “Ed would have gotten a warning first.”

“The goddamned ingrates,” she said. “The filthy, degenerate sons of bitches. He gave the best years of his life to these animals. They don’t deserve him.”

“They’ll be disciplined,” Stan assured her.

“They should be expelled,” she said, and she wanted to continue, to say, They should be tarred and feathered. They should be run through with swords. They should be brought before a firing squad .

“They probably will be,” Stan said. “Listen. This isn’t about the threats, this is about Ed.” He paused. “And his work.”

Her heart was racing. It was the call she’d been fearing for a long time, and they still needed a year and a half to get to his thirty-year mark.

“Why are you calling me ?” she said, thinking it safest to mask her anxiety as incredulity. “Wouldn’t it be better to talk to him directly?”

“I’ve wanted to talk to Ed for a while, but he’s stopped talking to anybody. He pops into the department office to check his mailbox and leaves immediately. He shuffles through the halls with his head down. I left a note in his box, but he’s ignored it. I tried to stop him in the office to ask him to sit down, and he just brushed past me. I wanted to talk to him as a friend before I have to talk to him as his department chair. So I thought to call you.”

“I appreciate that,” she said, though she burned with resentment at the thought of this thoroughly average man, whom she’d hosted for dinner several times in Jackson Heights when he was a junior faculty member, claiming to speak as Ed’s chair, when the only reason he held the position in the first place was that Ed had refused it.

“It seems,” Stan said, “from what we’ve been able to reconstruct, that Ed was assigning the wrong grades to students. I saw the papers. Something was definitely going on. His fall grades were a mess.”

She didn’t know how the semester grades could have been a mess, because she’d supervised their tabulation. Maybe Ed had lost the sheet with the grades and had made a new one up at the last minute.

“I’m calling you,” Stan said, “because, well, did you know anything about problems he was having? Did Ed say anything?”

She felt cornered. “No,” she said. “I had no idea.”

“I need to know, Eileen. We’ve been colleagues, Ed and I, for over ten years. You know that Ed’s like family to me. What’s going on with him?”

He might have thought himself a friend, but he was calling as the department chair. “He’s had some headaches lately,” she said instinctively. “Migraines. He’s going in for a brain scan next week. They want to check for a tumor.”

“A tumor? Jesus, Eileen. I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said. “We’re hoping for the best.”

After she hung up the phone, she called Jasper Tate. Jasper was Ed’s protégé and partner on the grant research. His four-year-old daughter was Ed’s goddaughter. She told Jasper about her conversation with Stan but left out the part about the brain tumor.

“You must be shaken up,” he said.

“Can I trust you with something, Jasper? I mean, can I trust you not to speak to anyone about something?”

“Of course.”

“Ed loves you like a son,” she said.

“I feel the same way about him.”

She left a long pause on the line. “He’s got Alzheimer’s.”

“My God.”

“We don’t want anyone in the department to know.”

“Okay.”

“We want to keep him going a little longer. He wants to keep teaching.”

“Of course.”

“I lied to Stan.”

“What about?”

“I told him Ed’s being tested for a brain tumor.”

Jasper chuckled warmly. She felt the compression in her chest lift.

“I don’t mean to laugh,” he said, trying to pull the gravity back into his voice. “It’s just — Stan. He’s so… Stan .”

“No,” she said. “I needed that. This whole thing has been so unreal, so crazy.”

“I can cover for him,” Jasper said. “I’ll help him prepare for class. I’ll grade his things. His students can come to me for help.”

She knew what Ed would say to Jasper’s offer: I can’t do that to you, Tatey. You have important work to do.  She felt at times as if she was on a long trek and had lost her compass many miles back. She knew she should probably not involve this lovely man in the dissembling.

“Maybe you can help for a little while,” she said.

“Yes. Great.”

“Do me one favor,” she said.

“Anything.”

“Play dumb. Don’t tell Ed we spoke. Just help him. He won’t notice the difference. With the grading, yes, you may have to say something. Let him feel like he’s doing you a favor. Maybe you want to compare the quality of work in different sections, I don’t know. I don’t need to explain Ed to you. So far as he knows, this conversation never happened.”

• • •

A week later, she called Stan and told him they had ruled out a tumor but had no lead yet about what else might be causing Ed’s sluggishness. She said she would get back to him as soon as she had a better sense of what was going on.

The next morning, she grabbed Ed as he was headed to work. “You leave there as soon as you’re done teaching,” she said. “You understand?”

He nodded.

“Don’t get into conversations with anyone. Not your students, no one. Only Jasper Tate.”

He nodded again.

“If you do find yourself in a conversation,” she said, “under no circumstances are you to tell anyone that you’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”

“What’s Alzheimer’s?” he asked, and she felt her spirit breaking, until she looked at him and saw the outline of an impish grin forming on his face.

“Don’t you start with me,” she said, but she was thinking, Lord, don’t let this part of his personality die just yet. If you need ideas for other parts to take away first, I can make a list. 

55

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Ed was already asleep when the phone rang. She’d been dreading the call for a month.

“Things have gotten worse,” Stan said. “He’s got to come out of the classroom. For his sake, for the students.”

She put a pot of water on to try to calm herself down. The wind howled and rattled against the kitchen window.

“If you think that’s best,” she said. “What’s the administrative protocol? Do you have some rubber room you’ll put him in?”

“I was thinking he’d retire.”

“He has no interest in retiring,” she said. “He has fifteen years before he even thinks about retiring.”

“He can’t do the job anymore, Eileen.”

“He has rights as a tenured professor. He’s supposed to be given time to take corrective action, isn’t he?”

“It would be good for the department if he retired.”

She felt herself begin to shake, more in fear than in anger. She couldn’t help wishing she could turn to Ed for advice; he was always clear-sighted at times like these. She knew it would be hell for him if she forced him to keep going to work. He would be in an adversarial relationship with his department; they would be looking for signs of incompetence.

“I don’t give a damn about the department,” she said. “He’s given enough to the department. I’m interested in my husband.” Her mind was working feverishly. Every passing second would erode her bargaining position. She tried to think like Ed. Ed would have worked out some algorithm in his deep subconscious to produce the right answer. He would have seen it from the beginning. “He could probably sit there for two years,” she said. “That’s how long the review process would take, especially for someone with as exemplary a record as Ed.”

“Nobody wants to hurt Ed here,” he said.

Then it came to her, as if Ed had whispered it in her ear: a palatable option for both sides that would forestall a protracted fight. His preoccupation with getting to work every day no matter what shape he was in, which she’d always found frustrating and even a little insane, would benefit her in the end. It would get him to thirty years.

“I’m not asking for a review process,” she said. “He has over a year of sick days coming to him. Let him finish this year and then give him the sick days.”

• • •

Stan called back the next day to say that Ed’s colleagues had volunteered to fill in his classes for the remainder of the semester. The school would keep him on the payroll through the summer. The sick days wouldn’t start counting down until the fall.

“I wanted to do that much for him,” Stan said. “He won’t have to teach. He won’t have to come in at all.”

“You say that like it’s a good thing,” she said. “Like you don’t know how much he loves his job.”

“Everyone knows how much he loves teaching.”

She wanted to believe that, in his heart of hearts, he had never really loved teaching. That would bring them closer, somehow. She wanted to believe he’d pretended to love it, pretended to be patient in reviewing material endlessly with imbeciles, in order to get his students to respond positively and ultimately make a distasteful job easier on him. The truth, she knew, was that none of it had been a sacrifice. He’d been happier with his career than anyone she knew. It was she who had made sacrifices for his happiness.

“None of those kids will ever know how much he gave up,” she told Stan.

• • •

On February 13, 1993, Ed went to work for the last time. A week later, she went in with him to sign some HR paperwork and learned that she’d miscalculated. She’d been correct about the amount of unused sick time coming to him, but she hadn’t understood that it wouldn’t count toward his pension. By then it was too late to reverse course. She tried to call Stan about it, to feel him out about procuring Ed some kind of time credit, but she got nowhere. She signed off by telling him he was a jerk and slamming down the phone.

Ed would finish in June with twenty-nine years of service to the city instead of thirty, which meant he was due a lower percentage of his salary. And since he’d be retiring before the minimum retirement age, he’d see that number drop even farther. The fourteen hundred dollars a month or so he’d receive from Social Security disability would make up part of the difference, but they were going to have to adjust to new means.

Ed hadn’t had a raise in four years, due to a budget freeze. There was rumored to be a raise coming in the next year or two that would have bumped him up to where he should have been all along. He’d never see the raise he’d already earned. He hadn’t been holding on for just one raise, though. He’d been about to enter the period in his career in which he would make real  money. He’d have taught until he was seventy or older, his salary rising every year.

He was also losing his grant from the government, which budgeted thirty thousand dollars a year for his efforts and was up for renewal for four more. The loss of the grant was the keenest blow for her. It was the surplus, the comfort fund, the dream of luxury, the symbol of his status.

As long as Ed was on the payroll, she’d be covered by his health insurance, but once the sick-day checks stopped coming and he started receiving his pension, that would cease.

When he’d chosen a benefits plan, a few years after they’d gotten married, he’d chosen the plan that would deliver them — and her, in his absence — the most after-tax money per month. The trade-off had been that this particular plan didn’t confer health coverage on her in the event of his retirement or death. They’d made that decision with conviction, anticipating that she’d get health insurance in retirement through some job or other. They hadn’t known then that something would keep her moving every few years: the promise of more responsibility; a better salary; a higher-up who took exception to a strong-willed woman; her inability to keep her mouth shut when she found something ethically questionable.

In order to retain health benefits, she was going to have to keep a full-time job, any full-time job. Thinking longer term, she was going to have to survive at NCB, or at another city hospital, for ten years if she wanted to qualify for the basic New York City pension and have health insurance in retirement. That wasn’t going to be the easiest task at her age and pay scale.

She wished she and Ed had foreseen the health-coverage issues that would arise later, but who could predict the future to that degree? They’d thought he was staring at decades of work ahead. They’d bet on the bigger payout and lost. The cost to her was going to be that she would have to hold on to her job at a time when Ed needed her there most, to care for him.

If she lost her job before she’d been at it ten years, and had to buy insurance, there wouldn’t be enough money to go around, because not only would she no longer have her salary, but now there would be insurance bills in addition to the mortgage payments, utility bills, food costs, Connell’s tuition coming up in a couple of years (Ed had made her promise early after his diagnosis that she wouldn’t let his illness stop Connell from going to the college he wanted to go to), and whatever nursing costs she’d eventually have to pay for Ed while she was at work (six hundred bucks a week at the going rate), not to mention the cost of putting him in a nursing home (four grand a month and going up), the idea of which she wasn’t willing to entertain but which she knew was a possibility. And that was if  she could buy anything like an affordable plan. The reality was that because of an episode of cellulitis that had caused one of her calves to balloon up to nearly twice its size a few months back, she might not be able to buy private insurance without spending every available dime on it — if she was insurable at all. And if she got sick without benefits, she’d be looking at losing everything. She’d worked her whole life and diligently socked away, from the age of fifteen on, 10 percent of every paycheck she’d ever gotten, and still her family’s fortunes could be ruined overnight because the American health care system — which she’d devoted her entire professional career to navigating humanely on behalf of patients in her care, and which was organized in such a way as to put maximum pressure on people who had the least energy to handle anything difficult — had rolled its stubborn boulder into her path.

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For years, Connell had heard his father talk up how much he looked forward to teaching him to drive, but when he turned sixteen and got his learner’s permit, he had to cajole his father into letting him behind the wheel. They drove through a whipping March wind to the parking lot in front of Macy’s in the Cross County Shopping Center. His father got out, went around to Connell’s side, and waved him to slide over.

His father sat calmly as Connell practiced accelerating, braking, turning, parking in a spot, and backing up. Once Connell worked up the nerve to venture from the lot onto the streets, though, his father looked terrified. As they approached the first intersection, he hit an imaginary brake. “Slow down!” he shouted.

“But it’s green!” Connell shouted back, though he applied the brake anyway.

At the next light, Connell signaled, slowed, and turned left.

“Watch the building!” his father said, his leg pumping the floor.

He accelerated, and his father jumped back; he touched the brake, and his father gasped; he passed a car, and his father clutched the handle in the ceiling.

• • •

The next time they went out, his father screamed at him practically from the moment they pulled out of the garage until the moment they pulled back in. He then sat there miserably, apologizing, saying he couldn’t help himself.

They went out a couple more times. The results were the same, and eventually Connell stopped asking to drive. He decided to wait until his junior year, when he could take driver’s ed through school.

• • •

One night, at ten o’clock, his father appeared in the doorway of Connell’s bedroom wearing his Members Only jacket.

“Come with me,” he said.

“Where?”

“Just come with me.”

His mother was drinking tea in the kitchen. His father headed past her to the basement.

“Where is he going?”

“I don’t know,” Connell said, and walked past her too.

His mother called down after them. His father didn’t answer, so Connell didn’t either. He followed him to the garage, climbed into the passenger seat. As they were backing out, his mother appeared in the doorway of the garage. His father didn’t lower the window, and Connell just shrugged. She followed the car out into the driveway, a look of mild concern on her face. She had a teacup in one hand and her robe clutched in the other to ward off the chill of the spring night.

His father backed slowly down the driveway and his mother turned and headed back to the house. The driveway was curved and bordered on both sides by hedgerows anchored in stone walls that ended in stone columns. It was difficult to negotiate forward, never mind backward, and his father had scraped the car so many times that his mother had given up fixing it. His father took it slowly and made it onto the street without touching the hedge, the stone walls, or the pillars.

They didn’t head down the hill toward town, but went the other way, taking back roads until they came to the entrance to the Cross County Parkway. They continued past it, turning under the overpass and taking the ramp up into the shopping center. The stores were all closed. His father pulled into a spot far from the entrance to Macy’s and turned off the engine.

“You’re going to drive.”

They both got out and passed in front of the car. The lot was mostly dark, the lighted store signs combining with ambient light from the highway and the low glow of the light poles to provide a mist of illumination. A few cars were scattered about, but otherwise the lot was empty. He had never driven under cover of night before. He knew the lot from his fledgling efforts behind the wheel, but there had never been so much open space, so little against which to establish a sense of perspective, and it was with a slight rush of breath that he turned the ignition over and put the car into gear.

“I want you to drive out of the lot, make a left and then a right at the light.”

He drove up Midland Avenue, which ran parallel to the parkway.

“Go through the first light. After the following light, you’re going to make a left to get on the Cross County East.”

“I’m not allowed on the parkway.”

“Do as I tell you,” his father said calmly. There were no spastic jerks or fake pumps of the brake. Lately his father drifted in and out of being his old self, like a wraith passing through dimensions.

The light before the entrance to the parkway turned red as he approached it, and Connell checked to see that his belt was securely buckled. When the light turned green and he inched forward and made the left to merge, he felt like the car was running away from him.

“I want you to build up speed as you merge. We’re going to head to the Hutch.”

“The Hutch? What if I get pulled over?”

“Hutch north,” his father said. “Get in the left lane. Don’t be nervous. Just relax. There aren’t many cars now. If you relax, you’ll be a fine driver. Just get up to about fifty, fifty-five.”

Connell pressed the accelerator. The speed was exhilarating, and he pressed it deeper, watching the needle climb to fifty, then sixty. He eased off. His father had his eyes closed.

“We have to get you used to real-world conditions,” his father said. “Stay left. We’re going to merge onto the Hutch north. I want you to look for signs for Mamaroneck Avenue, twenty-three north.”

It felt like all the highways in the country could be reached from this one, that he could go anywhere from here. He wanted to drive through the night.

“It’s coming up,” his father said. “Twenty-three north. When you exit, you’ll be on a ramp. As long as there’s nobody behind you, when you get to the light at the end, I want you to slam on the brakes. Anything can happen at any moment, and you need to stay alert.”

57

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Before she could leave for work she had to get herself and Ed showered and dressed, fix breakfast, and cobble together a lunch and dinner for him.

She highlighted the start button on the microwave in pink magic marker. To the front of the microwave she taped an index card with an arrow pointing to “start” and a note that read “Press here.” The last thing she did before she left was put the plate in the microwave for his lunch and then set the cook time. She waited until the last minute, because she was hounded by the thought of those dishes sitting out for hours and spoiling.

She spent all morning worrying about him screwing it up. He needed perfect accuracy to pull it off. If he hit any button other than start, he ended up gnawing on frozen manicotti or choking down cold beef stew. She came home to the time unchanged on the microwave, half the meal on the floor, a broken plate under the table, the Times  intact in its sleeve. He had stopped reading.

The microwave routine could work only once a day. She left a plated, covered sandwich in the refrigerator for his dinner. He ate dinner early, before she got home, due to the sundowning. It would have been easier to prepare him two sandwiches, but there was something disgraceful in the idea of his eating more than one cold meal in her absence. Connell always came home too late to heat anything up for him.

She couldn’t count on him to attend to a churning in the gut or notice the time on the cable box, so she called to remind him to eat and talked him through the steps.

In the morning she set the television to a channel that showed dependable series in syndication in mini-marathons. It was easier to pick a halfway-decent channel and make him stick to it than let him range off the reservation. When he wasn’t looking, she slipped the television remote and the one for the cable box into the end-table drawer.

He made chaos out of everything he touched, but she continued to let him handle the bills; it was a part of his masculine identity. Some bills he paid twice, others he threw out without opening them. The phone company called to say they had five hundred dollars of her money and she shouldn’t send any more for a while. When the next bill came, she squirreled it away, but the following month he beat her to the mail and wrote a check for the outstanding amount of their credit. They were almost a thousand dollars in the clear.

She couldn’t leave lists everywhere explaining how to do everything in excruciating detail, because it wasn’t clear how well he read anymore, and anyway, where did helpfulness end and absurdity begin? Was she going to lay out how to wipe his ass, how to aim his penis at the bowl? The easier thing was to clean the piss off the floor when she got home from work.

When they walked into town together, he avoided the bank with phobic deliberateness. He wouldn’t even go in with her when she went to withdraw money from the ATM. Maybe it was because he often heard her talking nervously about money, how it was a besieged resource in their household. She knew it was hard for him to feel so out of control. He didn’t realize that she would have loved to continue ceding responsibility to him, that she would have wanted nothing more in the world, but that had become impossible.

She decided to cancel the newspaper delivery and asked him to pick it up from the newsstand in town. It gave him some dignity to have a task to accomplish. He also picked up a quart of milk. She didn’t always need the milk, but routine made life easier; things got burned into his long-term memory. Most of the time the milk made it into the refrigerator. Sometimes it spoiled on the countertop. Connell ate cereal at all hours — it seemed to be the only thing keeping him alive at times — so she seldom had to dump it.

Ed also came home with a box of doughnuts every day. She didn’t know why he’d alighted on this fixation. She threw a lot away, but she also ate her share. She’d been eating more lately in general. Stress was driving her to it. She’d gone up a couple of dress sizes in less than a year. Ed ate half a dozen doughnuts a day, but all he seemed to do was get skinnier.

When the summer came, they walked into town together on the weekends. She couldn’t believe how many people he knew along the way. She learned that he liked to camp out on the bench up the block from the Food Emporium. It satisfied her to have been right in the end about the move. He would not have been able to live as freely in Jackson Heights.

She slipped money into his wallet when he was sleeping, as she’d done with her father after he’d retired, to keep him flush for his nighttime bar crawls. Most of the storekeepers knew him, which helped when he was at the register. He handed his wallet over and they fished out the right bills and put the change back in. She hoped they were patient with him. The guys at Gillard’s were kind enough to simply keep a tally. Once a week, she stopped on the way home from work to settle his debts.

He liked going to Topps Bakery for coffee and a bun because they had a table and a chair. Diana, the proprietor, brought it over to him personally. “If you never paid,” she told Eileen, “he’d still get it.”

Once, he came home from the Food Emporium looking distraught.

“I don’t think they gave me the right money,” he said.

She checked his wallet. The amount there didn’t match the change on the receipt.

“Did you stop anywhere else?”

He shook his head vehemently. The theft must have been obvious if he’d noticed it. Still, she didn’t know if she could trust his perceptions. She could never be sure anymore if what he was saying conformed to reality.

“Let’s go back,” he said.

She considered the scene that might result, the whole store craning their necks, the mortifying attention, the lack of proof. Her voice would get shrill; she would need to find another place to shop.

“It’s not worth it,” she said. “We’ll leave it alone. Don’t worry, that kid will have bad luck after stealing from you.”

Then she imagined the kid’s sniveling, triumphal expression, and she worked herself up into such a pique that she put Ed in the car and drove him back to the store. Ed peered into the plate-glass window, hands and nose pressed like a child.

“That’s him,” he said, pointing.

She stood staring in at the kid. He was black, and he wore his shirt untucked in the back. He moved gracefully, economically, his quick hands passing items across the scanner from the logjam at the end of the conveyor belt. He looked like someone used to moving faster than others, escaping undetected. He had probably had Ed in his aisle a few times. Maybe Ed had handed him his wallet and asked him to take the money out. Maybe this was the time the kid had taken advantage. Her blood pumped hard; there was a metallic taste in her mouth.

“Sit on that bench,” she said to Ed.

She went inside. The crisp, air-conditioned air in the store clashed with the muggy thickness of the August evening outside, and the shiver that overtook her inflamed her anger even further. She thought of going directly up to the kid’s aisle, but she didn’t want to appear hysterical; better to get the drop on him. She walked as casually as she could to the dairy aisle, where she picked up some eggs. When she got to the kid’s register, the man in front of her was paying. She plucked a pack of gum off the rack and set it on top of the eggs. She held up a crisp twenty.

“I want all the change,” she said as quietly as she could while still conveying the extent of her displeasure. “All  of it. And I will have your job if you ever do that to my husband again. And if you think you can come into this town from wherever the hell you come from and steal from people, you’re mistaken. I will have the police on you.”

The kid gave the wad of gum in his mouth a few slow, aggressive chews as he slid the bills into his hand, gathered the coins, and snapped the receipt off the roll.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, handing them over and looking past her to the next customer, whose things he started to scan. She made a show of counting the change in front of the kid. She caught a glimpse of the customer behind her and resented the look he was giving her, which suggested it was she who was in the wrong.

She didn’t move, though. She felt like she was just getting started.

“I hope you live long enough to feel the shame you made him feel,” she said. “I hope you are a haunted, lonely old man someday. I hope you are sitting in a nursing home somewhere wondering where everyone is.”

• • •

He told her he went to church between Masses, when the doors were left open, and sat in the back. “It’s quiet,” he said. “Calm.”

She thought about all the tangled noise in his brain. What did it sound like in there? She imagined it to be like the static on a radio tuned between stations.

“What do you think about?” she asked.

“You,” he said. “Connell. I don’t want things to be hard for you when I’m gone, and I don’t want him to get this. I’d do anything to avoid that.”

The thought of Ed alone in that big church oppressed her.

“If I write a prayer for you, will you use it?”

“Sure,” he said.

He might have been telling the truth.

“Dear God,” she wrote, “I will offer this up to you without complaint, but please protect all I know and love.” She copied it out neatly onto an index card that she folded and put in his wallet.

She never heard Ed ask, “Why me?” but she couldn’t help asking it for him. Why Ed? Why now? Why so young? There was the obvious answer — it was random, senseless, genetic, environmental — but she didn’t like that one. She also knew she couldn’t sign on to any system that said it had all happened for a reason. So she took a third path, the pragmatic one. It hadn’t happened for a reason, but they would find something to glean from it anyway. There didn’t have to be a divine plan for there to be meaning in life. People’s lives will be better because of his illness , she told herself. They’ll appreciate life more. He’ll remind them that their lives are better than they think.  It was as good a story as any, and it had the virtue of often seeming plausible, though never when she lay awake at night, when the public life faded away, and other people vanished, and she was left staring at the back of her hand and thinking, All of this is an illusion, even the consolations . She was taken back to her bed when she was a child, when she would lie awake listening to her parents in the living room rehearsing their fixed roles after her father had returned from the bar, and she thought, No time has passed since then. I’m there right now.  She remembered examining her hand then as well, and the only thing to differentiate this moment from any of a hundred in the past — the only thing that reassured her that the loop of her life wasn’t about to start over again — was the crenellated landscape of wrinkles around her knuckles, which she ran her fingers over, feeling their washboard knobbiness.

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They were staying home on New Year’s Eve for the first time in the twenty-eight years since they’d met. Last year all they’d done was drive to the McGuires’ to watch the Times Square telecast, but at least they’d left the house. This year she couldn’t face all the work involved in getting him out. She knew she’d spend the whole night minding him and wouldn’t have any fun.

New Year’s, being the anniversary of the night they met, meant extra to them. When they lived in Jackson Heights, they’d go to balls, Ed in a tux, she in a shimmering gown with pearls. She’d rush around in her slip, blow-drying her hair and applying makeup, and come up short when she saw Ed wrapped in a towel, staring into the mirror as he shaved. They’d leave Connell with Brenda Orlando and come back very late. She’d be contentedly exhausted the next morning as she got the three of them out to Mass.

She sat at the kitchen table in her housecoat and slippers, her hair pulled back in a plastic clip. Connell sat across from her, reading the sports pages.

“What are you doing for New Year’s?”

“Going to a party with Cecilia.”

“Where is it?”

“Somewhere in White Plains. I don’t know.”

“How were you planning to get there?”

“I thought I’d take Dad’s car.”

“Have you asked him yet?”

“I didn’t think I had to. I thought you were staying home.”

Something in his tone irked her. “We were,” she said. “But I’ve changed my mind. I think I’d like us to go out as a family.”

“I have plans.”

“The three of us are going to go to dinner. You can go out after that.”

“I’m supposed to eat with Cecilia and her parents before the party.”

“You’ll simply call her and tell her you’ll see her later.”

“Whatever. Fine.”

Connell left the room in a huff. She called to Ed in the den and told him to go shower. She went up and laid out a sports coat, dress shirt, tie, and neatly pressed pair of pants for him. She put on an evening gown and zipped the plastic sheath off her mink.

• • •

It was snowing out. The Caprice was in the driveway, blocking her car in the garage. Ed headed for the driver’s side door. She pulled on his arm.

“You have your car key?” she asked Connell.

“Yes.”

“You drive. Your father and I are tired.”

There was no way she was letting Ed drive in this weather. Even when it was perfect out, lately he gave her a heart attack any time he was behind the wheel. Backing out of the driveway once, he’d hit the stone wall, torn off the side-view mirror, and dragged an ugly streak down the length of the car. Outside church, he’d have run over an old lady in the crosswalk if Eileen hadn’t shouted and thrown her arm across his chest. She’d been trying to think of a way to take his car away from him without turning him against her. She didn’t want to be the one to tell him that that part of his life was over. She couldn’t just take away his keys or sell the car, but she couldn’t just let him crash it either. Someone could end up dead. Ed  could end up dead. She would have to figure something out soon.

Connell hopped in. Ed got in the shotgun seat, she in the back. She watched him fumble with the belt buckle until Connell reached over and snapped it in.

Connell turned to her. “Where are we going?


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“Surprise us. Take us to the city. Someplace you like to go.”

“You wouldn’t like the places I go,” he said. “Diners. Pizzeria Uno. I went to the Hard Rock Café once. Ed Debevic’s. You’d hate that place.”

“Just drive. I’ll tell you where.”

The snow was heavier than she’d expected. The roads had iced over. Connell drove carefully, gripping the wheel with both hands. At one point he slid a couple of car lengths and stopped just before he hit a hedgerow-lined stone wall.

“We’d better not risk it,” he said. “We can go out in the neighborhood. The Tap. Town Tavern.”

“Keep driving,” she said. “You’ll be fine.”

“Tumbledown Dick’s.”

“We’re going downtown,” she said firmly.

“Buckle up, please,” he said.

She saw him glancing in the rearview mirror. “You just worry about the road,” she said. When he looked away, she fastened the buckle.

He crawled for another block before he lost control of the Caprice again. They slid a good distance and bounced, hard, off a BMW parked in the street.

The seat belt was squeezing her ribs; she got it unbuckled. Adrenaline made her feel as if she’d touched an electric outlet. “Everyone all right?” Ed looked shocked, but he wasn’t hurt. Connell was fine. So was she.

When she got out, she saw the other car’s rear end had been demolished, along with most of the front of the Caprice.

“Shit, shit, shit,” Connell said.

“Watch that low-class language,” she snarled, and then she softened her tone. “Oh, hell. ‘Shit’ is right.”

She picked her way carefully around the car, holding on as she walked from passenger-side door to the front fender, which was smashed into the wheel well. The frame on the chassis had buckled where it met the door. Ed sat shivering in the car, his hand fishing for the door handle.

“I knew I shouldn’t have driven,” Connell said.

“It’s not going to open, Ed!” she yelled, and shook her head at him. She turned to Connell. “Do you think it’s drivable?”

“It looks pretty bad,” he said. The right front wheel was bent sideways as if kneeling toward the snowy ground. Connell scratched his ear. “I don’t know how the wheel got so bent. I wasn’t going fast.”

“I’d say it’s done, wouldn’t you? A car this old?”

“Probably.”

“Go up there, tell them what happened. Ask them to call the police.” She pointed toward a house, atop a mound and recessed from the street, that looked like a mansion.

She slid into the driver’s seat and reached across Ed — who was slapping at the top of his head with the grim determination of a mortifier of the flesh — into the glove compartment. She pulled out the envelope they’d used for years. It said “Insurance and Registration” in Ed’s old handwriting. It was hard to imagine the man who now communicated in thunderous block letters writing in this fluent script.

She watched Connell disappear with the paperwork up the sloping stairs and started the car. The light from the one working headlamp diffused into the snow and reflected off the mangled BMW. She blasted the heat. When Ed reached to turn it off — it had to be unconscious, the force of habit, because no one, not even him, could be that  absurd — she smacked his hand away and turned it up again.

• • •

She and the boy stood in the snow waiting for the tow truck to arrive. Ed was in the car.

“What a disaster,” Connell said. “This is going to be expensive.”

She’d fought endlessly with Ed over keeping collision on the Caprice. Time and again she’d said it was a waste of money on a ten-year-old car, but Ed had insisted.

“Maybe not as expensive as it looks. Anyway, that’s what insurance is for.”

“I’m sorry, Mom.”

“Nobody got hurt,” she said. “Nobody died. Cars can be replaced.” Or not , she thought. She felt a hint of a smile cross her lips but stifled it. “Well,” she said under her breath. “That’s one way to get rid of a car.”

“What’d you say?”

“I said, ‘That’s one way to ring in the New Year.’ ”

“Happy New Year,” he said glumly.

“Happy New Year.”

• • •

The AAA guy offered to drop them off at home before taking the car in. She sat on Ed’s lap in the seat, Connell between them and the driver.

When they pulled into the driveway, Connell asked the driver if he’d mind giving him a lift to the train.

She was flabbergasted. “You’re not still planning on going out?” He must have known that once inside, he wouldn’t be able to leave. The driver and Connell both looked to her for approval. “Go,” she said, annoyed, waving him off.

She climbed off Ed and helped him out of the truck. The snow was now a few inches thick. She held his hand as he navigated the fluffy terrain. She punched in the code for the garage door and watched the truck pull out.

Upstairs, she took off her string of pearls and changed out of her evening gown into a sweat suit. She got him ready for bed, in case he wanted to go up early.

She pulled a half gallon of ice cream out of the freezer and took two spoons from the drawer, though the second spoon was a fig leaf for her own guilt. Ed would have two spoonfuls, tops.

They sat through the lip-synched entertainment, waiting for the countdown. Ed fell asleep with his head back and his mouth open, hours before the New Year. She didn’t wake him.

As midnight approached, she thought of the night they’d met, the way he’d leaned in to kiss her when the hour struck. She’d been waiting for him to do it all night. They’d been in the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by hundreds of couples. When he kissed her, she experienced a sensation she’d heard described a thousand times but always dismissed as malarkey: that everyone around had disappeared, and it was just the two of them. And now it really was just the two of them, and everyone had more or less disappeared. The ball made its languorous drop; “1994” lighted up onscreen. She tried to remember what it had felt like to kiss him that first time. All she could remember was that he had begun simply, almost politely, and then he had taken her face in his two hands and kissed her with a sudden intensity, as if he had been waiting to do so for longer than the few hours he had known her. She knew right away that she would marry him. So many years had passed since that night that it was almost a different man she was looking at now. Hairs poked up over the neckband of his undershirt. His chest rose and fell weakly, as if he were not really breathing. She leaned over him, touched her lips to his. His eyes were closed now, as hers had been that night. She was afraid he’d startle awake and scream, or throw her off him, but he just started to kiss her in his sleep.

• • •

The Caprice was declared a total loss. She took the insurance payout and added it to their checking account.

Maybe, she thought, she should use the money for a new car for herself. She was tired of buying American cars. Maybe she’d buy herself a sporty two-door BMW like the one Connell had crashed into, or one of those E-Class Mercedes that looked perfectly enameled and invincible. She wouldn’t have to cringe at the paint peeling from the roof, the felt bagging around the center light in the ceiling, the rusty creak and thunderclap of the door closing. She could get a car she wouldn’t be ashamed to park in the church lot.

The boy could be expensive, but there were times he returned something on the investment.

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People came from all over for the funeral for Ed’s mother. It was the first time Eileen had seen Fiona leave Staten Island since the surprise party for Ed. Phil and Linda flew in from Toronto. Having Phil around seemed to add to Ed’s grief, not diminish it. It was as if Ed had finally realized that all the years they’d spent in different countries couldn’t be gotten back. The night before the funeral they’d sat at the kitchen table together for hours, Phil talking and Ed listening. Every time she went in there, Ed was crying big, unrestrained tears.

Cora had been a force in the parish, St. Mary’s Star of the Sea in Carroll Gardens, and so the church was packed with a lot of people Eileen had never met. Ed didn’t seem any more at home than she felt in his childhood church. His face was so red during the services that she kept reminding him to breathe. Cora had been ill for a while, and she’d had a good, long life, but it looked as if it had never occurred to Ed that his mother would actually die.

Eileen had always thought of Ed’s conscientious presence at his mother’s apartment, his willingness to go and change a bulb for her or pick her up groceries, as the fealty of a dutiful son, but the way he was responding to her death suggested a depth of feeling for her that Eileen hadn’t imagined. It might have had something to do with his condition. He was a step closer to death than an average person.

Afterward, as everyone hurried to their cars — it was a frigid day in February — her aunt Margie asked Ed for directions to the cemetery.

“Well,” he said, standing in front of the church, “where are you parked?”

“Around the corner.”

“Okay,” he said. “Okay.” He was kneading his hands together as if they might release an answer. “You need to take the highway.”

“Which one?”

“The highway around here. God, what’s the name of it?”

“You mean the BQE?”

“Yes! That’s it.”

“Where can I pick it up?”

They were a block away from the building Ed had grown up in. He might have driven a few thousand times to the BQE from where they were standing.

“It’s not far,” he said. “It’s only a few blocks.”

She cut Ed off and gave Margie the directions. She waited until Margie was out of earshot.

“You don’t know where the BQE is?”

“Of course I do,” he said. “It’s right around here.”

She looked at Connell huddling by the car waiting to go, then back at Ed, and she was overcome by the difference in age between father and son. Ed looked more like a contemporary of his mother’s than a husband to her. His shoulders hunched forward and his face was scored with new wrinkles, as if the trauma of his mother’s dying had aged him. She knew she would have to play nursemaid to him eventually, but she wanted to hold that off as long as possible.

That night, although they were in mourning, and although Phil and Linda were in the guest bedroom, Eileen got on top of Ed, leaning close to him as she moved back and forth. Afterward, she lay wondering how long he’d be able to perform in bed. The thought of the loss of consort kept her awake most of the night, and it was only toward morning that she realized it wasn’t the idea of physical loneliness that had been bothering her but an incipient awareness that she herself was going to die someday.

• • •

She kept a log of the first times he failed to do things. It was like a diary of a child’s development in reverse. Certain failures correctly augured great changes in his mental powers. Others were false alarms, momentary hiccups.

02/19/94: Couldn’t find the BQE after Cora’s funeral. Losing his sense of direction. 

At Karen Coakley’s wedding, she turned her back on Ed to get a plate of hors d’oeuvres. When she next spotted him, he had joined a group arranged along the far wall for a picture with the official photographer. It was the groom’s family, and she didn’t recognize any of them, and yet Ed was smiling gamely among their number, as if he’d watched them all grow up. He was ruining the photo by his presence. When the photographer was finished, she whisked him away with a quick, pitiless jerk, hoping no one had noticed him, though there was nothing she could do about Karen and her husband seeing him there when they examined the matte prints.

A provocative beauty emerged from the group, looking flustered. “I got felt up,” Eileen heard her say indignantly. “This man put his hand on my ass.”

“Who?” the boyfriend asked. “Point him out.”

The girl motioned in Ed’s direction. The boyfriend, packed like a sausage into his suit, started punching his palm in a manner both absurdly unoriginal and genuinely frightening. Eileen shifted instinctively in front of Ed, holding up her hand to halt their advance like a crossing guard protecting a child.

“It’s not what you think,” she said as calmly as she could. “It’s not what you think at all.”

04/16/94: Grab-ass at Karen’s wedding. Be there when he meets people. Stay by his side at parties. That time he held onto Susan’s breast when saying good-bye? No accident .

They were invited to a party in Chelsea at the home of the chief of staff. They parked several blocks away and walked, soaking up the energy of a Manhattan evening. Ed had on a beautiful suit, she an expensive dress she’d bought a year ago and hadn’t had occasion to put on. She was enjoying wearing it. It fit a little snugly, with all the stress she’d been under lately, but it still framed her shape nicely.

She didn’t notice until she was a few paces ahead of him that Ed had fallen back like a recalcitrant dog on a walk.

“What is it?” She went back and tried to pull him along. “What’s going on?”

“You go without me.”

“This is absurd,” she said. “We’re a block away.”

“I’ve never met these people.”

“So what? They’re nice people.”

He shook his head.

“You’re going , Ed. I RSVP’d. I can’t mess around here. This guy, the chief of staff, he didn’t bring me in. He’s younger. I need to make a good showing tonight. I need you to rise to the occasion. Okay? I need to make it to ten years.”

“They’ll never know the real me,” he said.

It hadn’t occurred to her that Ed might think this way, but then they hadn’t spent much time around people who didn’t know him before.

“Half of you is better than ninety percent of people with a whole brain,” she said, and was surprised to find she believed it. “Even now, you’re funnier and smarter than most of those people in that room will be. Don’t forget who you are. Stick by me and they won’t notice a thing.”

He was at her elbow all night and no one was the wiser. The good thing about parties was that no conversation had to go that deep. If Ed didn’t answer a question right away, it fell back to the questioner. He only seemed more interesting the more time he took to answer. She held the plate and gave him only one-bite morsels. The dim lighting, the noise, and the crowd all helped. In his suit, Ed cut a dashing figure. He gave her an advantage with the chief, who talked with him for a long time about the research he’d done.

When they reached the street on departure, Ed was shaking so much that he could have been having a seizure. She saw that he must have exerted superhuman will to keep it together for her.

For several days, he seemed drained, and not long after, his conversation began to suffer.

05/20/94: Slurred speech after Chelsea shindig. 

A few months after Frank had his stroke, they met Ruth and Frank at the Metropolitan Museum. Frank was in a wheelchair.

They’d only been there a few minutes when Ruth insisted she needed a break from her husband. Eileen understood; Ruth had Frank to herself round-the-clock now. They told Ed and Frank to wait at a bench and slipped away to a costume exhibit. Even though she was thoroughly utilitarian in her attire — a powder-blue cardigan was an extravagance for her — Ruth performed delighted astonishment at the beauty of the elaborate dresses. Eileen’s gaze lingered on the cascading folds of finger-thick fabric, which seemed almost big enough for a person to hide away in.

When they returned to the bench, their husbands were gone. Eileen felt panicked, but a hunch led her to the main gallery, where she saw Ed standing, hands on the wheelchair handles, in front of his favorite painting, David’s Death of Socrates . Between him and Frank they barely had a whole working body.

She and Ruth walked up silently behind them.

“This one in the middle is Socrates,” Ed was saying. Eileen and Ruth looked at each other. “And this man with his hand on his knee. I forget his name.” She wanted to say “Crito,” as she’d heard him say before, but she kept quiet. “And the man at the end. I forget his name too.” Plato , she thought. “You know the story?” Frank was nodding along. “They’re making him take the cup.” Frank’s head was nodding like a piston. “They’re afraid of the influence he’s had on people.” She was amazed at how much of this he remembered. Ed wheeled Frank closer to the painting, and she felt the guard’s eyes on them.

“Look at his finger pointing up,” Ed said. “He’s saying, ‘I know there’s more after this.’ The cup is filled with… with…” Ed grappled for the word. Frank started to say it but couldn’t get it out. He stammered a couple of syllables.

“Hemlock,” Ruth said tersely, but not without emotion, as she took the handles of Frank’s wheelchair and began the march out of the room.

6/11/94: Went to Met. Ed forgot Crito, Plato, hemlock. 

He was haunting her in the kitchen. She could tell he wanted to feel useful. She told him to chop a turnip. She had her back to him cooking and heard a lot of noise. When she turned he had lodged half the turnip on the knife and was banging both of them, turnip and knife together, on the cutting board. Connell, who had been sitting at the table looking through philosophy books for quotes for the upcoming debate season, leaped up and seized the knife.

“Give me that!” he said. “Jesus! What the hell are you doing?”

She pulled Connell into the dining room. “I will smack your face,” she said, “if I ever see you talk to your father like that again. I don’t care how old you are.”

Ed sulked in front of the television until he went up to bed — at three thirty in the afternoon.

08/03/94: Bedtime today broke the 4:00 barrier. 

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His father stood bowlegged before the coffee machine, looking at once like a baby with a load in his pants and an old gunslinger who had walked through the desert and been struck by lightning. He was wearing a tie but it was backwards, the thin part in front of the thick part.

He shook the filter out what seemed like a hundred times, smoothed it against the swing-hinged filter holder, righting and rerighting with animal vigor what was already in place. Connell watched uneasily. His father worked as though everything depended on this, looking the way he used to look when sanding edges or sawing boards. He’d crumpled the filter, so it didn’t fit properly. Connell took a new one out of the box and put it in. He took the tie off him and retied it on himself while his father laughed meekly and looked at the floor.

When his mother came home, Connell went down to the car to help with the groceries, his father following closely behind. He could see his mother evaluating the bags she handed to his father. She made sure he only had cans, lunchmeats, and boxes, nothing that would roll too far away or break.

His mother pulled out a box of Ritz and opened it before the bags were even unpacked.

Connell tore open a bag of potato chips. “I can’t stop eating lately,” he said to his mother. Both their mouths were full.

“Don’t catch my disease,” his mother said. “I eat to fill the void.”

It occurred to Connell that the void was the house itself. It was too big, too empty; he could imagine eating himself into obesity in it.

• • •

He needed to go far away for college. The farther he went, the harder it would be to come back. The cost of plane tickets would be too high to make flying home a regular possibility.

He went through the list of colleges he and his mother had come up with together: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Williams, Amherst, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown, along with a couple of local safeties, Drew and Fordham. Every school on the list was less than five hours away. He decided he wouldn’t apply to any of them except the safeties. He made a new list: Chicago, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Stanford, Rice. Nothing small or that she hadn’t heard of or whose virtues he’d have to explain. Nothing, in short, that she wouldn’t pay for. He was going to force her hand. She’d never let him go to either of the safeties if he got into one of the better, farther-flung schools, even if the safety gave him scholarship money, which there was a chance they would: he had the grades, the SAT scores, and he had finished third in the state in Lincoln-Douglas debate. She would rather pay full freight and put a Notre Dame sticker on the car. She had explained how she was going to pay for his schooling: something about borrowing against the equity they had in the house and taking out private loans. All he knew was she’d told him she was going to make it so that he wouldn’t have to worry about paying the loans back. And if it didn’t work out, he would put the Drew sticker on the car himself — because what right did she have to be disappointed in him for going to Drew, when she’d only gone to St. John’s?

He felt like he could see the whole world, clearly, all at once. He was going to leave everything behind. He was about to be born again, but this time complete with all the defenses he would ever need. He would invent the world as he went along. He would pass through a thousand years in the blink of an eye.

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Connell ran to catch the last train out of Grand Central, the one-thirty, but it was pulling out as he arrived at the platform. He sighed and kicked the big metal newspaper recycling bin. He had already seen that when you lived in the suburbs and you missed the last train, you entered a netherworld, a night town. It was going to be a long time until the five-thirty train.

He decided not to call to say he’d missed the train, even though his mother had told him to call no matter how late if he wasn’t coming home, because he felt too guilty to hear her voice. He had left that morning and hadn’t checked in all day. There wasn’t room in his mother’s overtaxed mind for her to enforce curfews and restrictions. She just counted on him not to get into trouble. He kept up his end of the deal, but he knew she wished he were around more. She had grown accustomed to his coming home late, but she hadn’t stopped feeling hurt by it. When he came in at half past two, after walking a silent path from the station, he sometimes heard her call to him quietly as he passed his parents’ room at the top of the stairs. Lately, though, she had learned to sleep through the night. Tonight he was going to take his chances that he’d get in before she awoke in the morning. It was easier to avoid conflict of any sort.

He walked across Forty-Second to the B, to head down to West Fourth. A girl he’d briefly dated had told him about a place on West Tenth called Smalls, where she’d stayed literally all night once. They let underaged kids stay as long as they didn’t try to order alcohol. It was a jazz club. He didn’t know anything about jazz, but it was better than sitting in a diner and having to fight to stay at a table.

He handed over the cover charge. The place wasn’t full. He sat at an empty table near the stage, under the lights, and ordered a Coke. The set was a mellow trumpet backed by drums, a piano, and a sax.

Faces in the crowd smiled warmly at him. The waitress didn’t seem to mind that he wasn’t running up a bigger tab. When the trumpeter finished blowing a solo, the audience drizzled him with applause — a comforting pitter-patter, like a summer shower glancing off an air conditioner.

The crowd could have been anyone. He decided they were important people, decision makers. He imagined they were pleased to see a young person in their midst — that they endowed him in their minds with maturity and grace. He tried to look as keen as he could, though he didn’t understand the music. He performed the arousal of a true aficionado, twisting his face in agonized appreciation of a long-held note.

As the set wound down, the crowd dwindled. The performers seemed to relax. They nodded to people seated near him, spoke to a few. They took more time between numbers. He sensed that a different jazz was being cooked up, one that needed to marinate longer.

As four o’clock approached, people spread out on banquettes behind him. The players on the stage changed. His Coke glass kept getting refilled. The night felt full of possibility. Time was on his side; he could be anything he wanted.

His family, asleep at home, seemed a world away. He was ready to commit himself to the strivers, the lovers of life — these would be his new guides.

At five, the waitress began bringing out some trays of food. She left them on a long table by the front entrance. He watched a couple of people head over to them.

“Is this for us?” he asked the waitress.

“It’s for whoever.”

He’d never seen anything like it. First they let him stay all night. Now they were feeding him breakfast. It wasn’t anything special, but it was so strange and unexpected that it felt like a feast to him.

He piled his plate with rolls and butter, spooned out some eggs, and filled his cup with orange juice, looking forward to the little ritual of ceding his place in line, the brief exchange of shared enthusiasm, but the guy behind him just grabbed a roll and sat back down, and no one else followed. Connell hovered awkwardly, pretending to contemplate the spread, until he got self-conscious and walked back to his seat with his head down and ate a lonely meal.

• • •

When he walked in at seven, his mother was asleep at the kitchen table. Tins were piled up on the island; powdered sugar dotted the floor. He and his mother were supposed to have made Christmas cookies together that night. It was a little tradition they had. He’d gone out with his friends in the afternoon and never come home, so he’d forgotten all about it.

He counted the tins; she’d made as many as always. He lifted the wax paper in one and saw some cookies missing sprinkles, some misshapen ones.

She was hunched over the table, her head in her folded arms, looking as if her back would ache in the morning.

He shook her lightly. “Ma,” he said. “Go upstairs. Go to bed.”

It took a moment to rouse her. She rose slowly and began to head for the stairs. She stopped in the doorway, turned.

“I will never wait up for you again,” she said calmly, and his heart stopped for a moment. “I will never worry when you don’t call. I will never again worry about you. I promise. You are free.”

• • •

Connell drifted into his parents’ bathroom, the smell of Swedish meatballs giving way to lavender soap. It was Christmas Eve. The radio in the bedroom was tuned to the same Christmas station as the radio downstairs, as though his mother couldn’t be away from “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” for long enough to change her clothes.

His father had applied the shaving cream in a grotesquely liberal dose. He picked up a blue plastic razor, one of those bulk-pack, single-blade jobs he insisted on using and with which even a dexterous man could injure himself. Connell watched him raise the torture implement to his face and begin to make groping stabs at his jaw. He had to leave before the carnage began.

He went downstairs. His mother was checking on the turkey in the oven.

“Your father has informed me that he doesn’t like Christmas, that he never has, that I go overboard, that things are out of control.” She doused the bird with a baster and the juice that escaped from the tray sizzled on the bottom of the oven in loud hisses. “Do things seem out of control to you?”

All around were trays of prepared foods, folded napkins, polished silver, washed crystal, proliferating decorations, cookies she’d baked alone, scores of gifts she’d bought and wrapped herself.

“Not on your end,” he said.

“I try to preserve niceties like Christmas because it’s going to be hard no matter what I do or don’t do. The mind needs to be tricked sometimes.”

He had no idea how she withstood the deluge of inanity that flowed from his father. Connell couldn’t even be in the same room with him. He brutalized her, and when you confronted him on it he denied it like a scheming boy. He wanted her ready to attend him at a moment’s notice, yet he showed no sign of gratitude.

When his father came downstairs, bloody bits of tissue clung to his face like a swarm of exploded mosquitoes.

“You should use another razor,” Connell said. “The ones you use are cutting up your face.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my razor,” his father said.

“You should try the Mach Three.”

“Mine are perfectly fine,” his father said through gritted teeth, kneading his hands angrily.

“Or maybe an electric razor.”

“Why is


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everybody picking on me?”

“No one’s picking on you,” Connell’s mother said. “He’s trying to help you.”

“I don’t need any help. I do fine by myself.”

“You use too much cream,” Connell said.

“Goddamned ingrate!”

“Edmund!”

His mother followed Connell into his bedroom. “You should just love your father,” she said.

“I do,” Connell said. “I know.”

“These fights you’re having now — they won’t mean anything in twenty years.”

Connell cut her off. “And whatever I have to put up with is less than anything you had to put up with, I know.”

His mother seemed to be considering what he’d said. He couldn’t remember the last time she waited before reacting to him. It made him feel worse than when she just blew up.

“You need to think long and hard about what kind of person you want to be. That’s all I’ll say. Did you get your father anything for Christmas?”

Connell looked away.

“Here,” she said, and went to her pocketbook. She handed him a pair of twenties.

“What’s this for?”

“Go to the mall,” she said. “Get him an electric razor if you care about his face so much.”

• • •

On Christmas morning, after he’d given him the razor, Connell heard his father shaving with it. His father came down holding a Bic in his hands.

“This time, as it happens,” his father said, “I didn’t cut myself.”

“Good,” Connell said. “How do you like the electric razor?”

“I didn’t use it.”

“I heard it going.”

“You heard nothing of the sort,” his father said indignantly.

“I heard  it.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He jabbed the Bic in Connell’s direction. “This is what I used.”

“No way. I heard it.”

His mother sighed, then abruptly snapped, “Would you leave your father alone?”

“Fine, fine.” Connell got ice from the freezer. “No, you know what? That’s bullshit.”

“Watch it!” his mother said.

“I heard  it. Why won’t he admit it? Why won’t you admit it, Dad? It’s stupid.”

“I used the Bic.”

“You didn’t!”

“I used it like this.” His father put the razor up to his face and started digging at his dry cheeks. He winced, kept going. “Like this.”

“Stop!” Connell’s mother screamed. “Stop, stop!”

Connell went to take it from his hand. A dewdrop of blood clung to his father’s chin. His father shifted and lunged the razor at him. Connell reared his head back.

“Ed!” his mother screamed.

“Okay!” Connell said. “You used the Bic!” He tried to wrest it from his father, but his father dropped it and grabbed him by the wrist, twisting it.

“I did use it.”

Connell was in pain. “Will you use the other one for me, Dad? Because it’s Christmas. I got it for you for Christmas.”

“Sure.” His father released his grip. “What other one?”

“The razor I got you.”

“I used it already,” his father said, smiling. “Works like a charm.”

Connell eyed the razor on the floor. It looked like a piece of bloody evidence. His wrist throbbed. He thought of picking the razor up and holding it at his father himself.

“I’m glad you like it,” he said quietly.

“It’s a great gift,” his father said, rubbing his chin and looking curiously at the blood on his palm. “A great gift. You’re a good kid.”

Connell saw his mother’s face twist up as she turned to the dishwasher. She seemed to be fighting back tears.

“Now can we please have a nice Christmas, please?” she asked. “Can we all forget everything and have a nice Christmas?”

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In the middle of a Valentine’s Day commercial, his father stood and went out without his jacket. He was halfway down the driveway when Connell caught up to him.

“Where are you going?”

“It’s Val, it’s Valen, Valtine’s. I’m going to get a Valen-en-tine’s card for Mom.”

“We can go when Mom gets home with the car. It’s freezing.”

His father turned and headed down the street. Connell called after him, then ran inside, grabbed their coats, and caught up with him. His father was shivering as he walked with purpose. Connell could barely stop him long enough to get the coat on him.

“I’ll go with you,” he said. “Slow down.”

They walked into town, buffeted by wind. Connell took his father’s elbow and led him into the stationery store and to the aisle of Valentine’s Day cards. His father picked up card after card and made a pile of them in his hands.

“Wait, Dad.” Connell laid a hand on his shoulder to calm him down.

“I need it,” he said, panting.

“Let me help you.” Connell wrenched the pile of cards from his father’s hands. He led him to the cards for wives. “Everything from here to here,” he said, drawing an imaginary rectangle with his finger.

His father quickly made another pile. Connell tugged them from his hands.

“Do you want me to pick out a good one for you?”

“Yes!” his father shouted joyfully.

Connell found one embossed “To My Beloved Wife” in cursive above a bouquet of flowers. Inside was one of those generic sentiments that made him wonder how people ever brought themselves to purchase these things. It looked the part of the cards his parents had exchanged in the past, though, and he didn’t want to get too particular. He handed it over.

“That’s very nice,” his father said quietly. “Very nice.”

As long as he was there, he figured he might as well pick one out for Kaitlin. He found one that, oddly enough, more or less captured how he felt about her, and he knew he was going to have to undercut the sincerity of the message with a little humor, to make it less awkward, so he bought a joke one too.

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She liked the Starbucks by the train station. She’d heard some grumbling when it opened; Häagen-Dazs had been the lone exception to the town’s embargo on chain stores. But she saw no reason not to patronize it. She liked the Italianate style of the building, the tiled roof, the real wood. The patio and its tables reminded her of one of the piazzas she’d seen on her trip to Italy with Ed. Sometimes she took her coffee out there and watched the professionals heading to the train and the purebred dogs pulling their owners forward, though usually she sat indoors.

She went on Saturdays, to get away from Ed for half an hour. She didn’t gravitate there for any caffeinated talk. She went because it was acceptable to sit alone among strangers and because order prevailed: the line moved quickly, pastries were stacked neatly behind glass displays, the pleasant smells of frothed milk and espresso grounds suffused the air, the music never hurt her ears, and the overheard conversations never devolved into table-slapping self-indulgence. She liked that it lacked the ambience of smaller cafés, with their intimate conspiracies. There wasn’t that feeling that she was missing out. People were islands even when they sat together. She liked that no matter how often she went in, the staff never seemed to recognize her. She wanted not so much to be alone as to be left alone. They let her stay as long as she wanted.

She sat inside, reading the Times  she had brought from home. When she let her glance drift from its splayed pages to the neighboring table, she saw that the woman seated there had begun to cry. The woman was younger, perhaps in her midthirties; she was not unattractive, with her hair pulled back in a neat ponytail and a close-fitting business suit. She was sitting with her hands tucked under her knees, and her whole torso was heaving with sobs. Eileen tried to read but couldn’t stop looking over in embarrassed amazement. The sobs got louder. The people seated at nearby tables shot each other looks. One man raised his eyebrows at Eileen, as if to say, Can you believe it?  It felt as if the calm waters of her reflecting pool had been disturbed by the entrance of a wild animal.

She thought about getting up to leave but sat, transfixed. She had all of five more minutes before she had to get home to Ed. She wondered what this woman expected anyone to do. Was Eileen supposed to say, “Whatever it is, it’s going to be fine”? Was she, a total stranger, supposed to press her to her chest and say, “There you go, that’s it, just let it out”? Maybe that was the right thing to do, the only thing. But how did she know it was going to be fine? Could she make those assurances?

She decided to bury her head in her newspaper again. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the woman stand up and leave, heading toward Pondfield. She had an impulse to go after her, but she didn’t want anybody to think she knew her. She waited a minute and then walked out slowly, throwing out her half-full cup.

Outside in the fresh air, she felt her resolution wavering. She headed toward her car in the train parking lot and got as far as the first row of cars before she turned around and started running toward Pondfield. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d run like this. She didn’t know if the woman would still be visible anywhere, but she had to at least look for her. As she ran she saw herself reflected in the shop windows and thought she looked ungainly and ridiculous flinging her tired body after so foolish a person, especially when she had no idea what she was going to say if she managed to track her down.

She got to the corner of Park and Pondfield and looked in all directions. She spotted the woman up past the drugstore, walking in the direction of the train station. She knew what she would say. She would stop next to her and ask if she could help in any way. She would say, “You’re not alone in feeling like this.”

She hurried toward her, feeling her heart pound. When she got within a few car lengths of the woman, who was past Cravens by this point, she slowed down so as not to seem hysterical when she started talking. She was only a couple of feet behind her now. She took a deep breath.

As she passed the woman, she picked up her pace and followed the curve of the block back around toward her car. She walked all the way there without turning around. When she got to the car, she had second thoughts and decided to drive around the block and see if she could find her. She could pull into a parking space and get out and walk up to the woman and just stand there in silence if she had to, if she couldn’t bring herself to speak. She could just stand near her and that might help a little. She saw the woman not far from where she’d passed her. She hesitated for a second and then kept driving. In her shame and embarrassment she found herself driving the back way home instead of her usual route. Whatever it was, the woman was going to have to work it out herself. That was just the way life was sometimes: you had to handle your own grief. There wasn’t any sense pretending otherwise.

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Connell was leaving for college soon. His mother told him to take his father out for the day. Batting cages and driving ranges, their go-to spots for years, were out, and there wasn’t a game at Shea. He brought him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, because he couldn’t think of anything else to do with him.

The lobby was aswarm with refugees from the rain. “It looks like a waiting room for a train station,” his father said, and the remark’s aptness took Connell by surprise. He was taken back to another time, years before, when the two of them stood at the top of the Met’s steps, about to go in. “This is what makes our country great,” his father had said as he rubbed two quarters together. “This is more than enough to get us in.” He had handed Connell the coins. “Bygone philanthropists, men of vision and character, gave something back to the people. To see all this priceless art, you pay what you feel you can.” His father had paid the suggested rate anyway.

Connell led him up the endless flight from the lobby. They stood in front of a painting called “The Gulf Stream” that depicted a lone man on the deck of a small, broken-masted boat in a little plateau between substantial waves on the open sea, sharks circling. The man leaned back against an elbow, looking like a champion of calm, or else like a man resigned to his circumstances.

“Homer,” his father said.

“You know him?”

“He’s one of my favorites. When I was a kid, I picked up a book on him in the library on Union Street. I didn’t know who he was. I just liked the picture on the cover. I kept that book for months.”

“I didn’t know that.” Connell was taken aback at the thought that his father remembered aesthetic preferences. He thought with a pang of the many afternoons they’d spent on different floors of the house. He wanted, one day, to be a person who went out of his way to find out what made other people happy.

“This looks like dire straits,” his father said. “I wonder what he did when he was in dire straits.”

“Who?” Connell asked. “Homer? Or the guy in the boat?”

His father only nodded. “Thank God all these artists did what they did,” he said, “or we’d have nothing.”

Connell laughed. “Maybe not nothing,” he said.

• • •

The rain was coming down in sheets when they left. His father’s hands were shaking. Connell put a hand in his armpit and guided him down the wet stairs, rain whipping at them from all directions.

At the bottom, his father stopped short, and Connell was annoyed. He wanted to get out from under the stinging droplets. In the thick gray of the avenue he could hardly see his father’s face behind the rain slicker’s hood and his wet glasses.

“You all right?” he asked, and then he saw the bright flash of a toothy smile.

“It’s so beautiful,” his father said.

“What is?”

“This,” he said, gesturing around. “Everything.”

• • •

He went looking for some tape in his father’s study and found him sitting there staring up at his diplomas. Some books on the ends of shelves had fallen over, and Connell stood them up. A fine layer of dust covered everything.

A couple of hours later, he brought the tape back and found his father in the same position. At first he thought his father must have fallen asleep, but then he saw that he was awake and staring at the wall. Connell asked him what he was thinking about.

“It must have taken a lot of work to get these,” his father said.

• • •

Connell’s mother was at work when it was time for him to head to the train to go to the airport to leave for Chicago for the first time. He wished she’d taken the day off. He slung an army duffel bag over each shoulder and got his backpack on and started walking. His father was walking into town to go to church, so they walked together.

When they crossed the overpass that stretched across the Sprain Brook Parkway, Connell saw cars streaming by in both directions and thought of how much a map of roads and highways, when it included all the little ones like this, looked like a map of rivers, or an illustration of the circulatory system. He stopped and watched for a while. He was having another of those inchoate ideas that he couldn’t entirely articulate to himself. He knew that these cloudy notions would come into sharper focus when he was away at college, where he would divest himself of the stultifying habits of personality and the false conclusions of biography and shine the light of pure reason on experience.

When they reached the bridge over the Bronx River a block from the train, his father was the one to stop. He leaned over the stone wall. At first Connell thought his father’s mind was just wandering, but then he wondered whether his father might not be imitating him from a few minutes earlier, so he put one of the bags down and tugged on his father’s sleeve as cars sped past. “Dad!” he said, more exasperated than he had intended. His father shook his head and pointed down at the water. “What is it? What’s up?” Then Connell saw a frog on a rock, lazing in the sun. Maybe this was the frog’s habitual spot. Maybe his father had seen it before and remembered to look for it. He seemed pleased that Connell had been there to see it too. He clapped, and it jumped into the river and left a ripple on the water.

He was half a block away when he saw the 12:23 train pull into the station. If he ran, he could make it. His father looked stooped and pale from the heat and uneasy on his legs. Connell could take the next train, at 12:55, or even the one after it; he had plenty of time to make his flight.

He led him under the tracks to Slave to the Grind, the coffee shop he had haunted all summer.

“Two brain freezers,” he said when they got to the counter. After he’d said it, he felt like a fool. If his father noticed, he didn’t seem to care. Connell bought a corn muffin for them to split. He led him to a table in the back, where they drank and ate slowly.

“I’m sorry to be going so far.”

“Have fun,” his father said. “Study what you want.”

“I’ll miss you.”

“Forget that. Live your life.”

Outside, heat radiated off cars, and the sun pounded through a severely clear sky. The town thrummed with end-of-summer energy. He had another twenty minutes until the 1:23.

“You okay getting back by yourself?”

His father nodded. They walked to the station.

“You didn’t make it to church.”

“That was just as good,” he said, pointing toward the coffee shop.

He watched his father walk off to get the newspaper; then he took a seat in the shade on the cool concrete bench and pulled a book out of his backpack. Thoughts of his father walking home alone to the empty house kept distracting him, so that he had read only a single page when the horn announced the approaching train, but in his flurried efforts to put his book away and get his baggage settled before the train arrived, he was able to forget about his father entirely.

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One morning in October, she went to turn the television on for him and found that there was no picture. The repairman couldn’t come in right away, and she had to go to work. She left Ed on the couch, knowing he’d have nothing to do but sit and think. She couldn’t imagine how he’d pass his day without television to distract him from his thoughts.

She hardly got anything done. She must have called him half a dozen times. Every time she called, he hurried off, saying very little, as if he had to get back to something.

When she came home, she found him sitting in exactly the spot she’d left him in on the couch. She wondered if it were possible that he’d sat there for nine hours straight. She checked the microwave and the refrigerator. At least he’d risen to eat. Evidence of urine on the floor of the powder room gave her spirits a strange lift. She was glad she’d called and made him get up.

Another day passed in the same way, and then the repairman finally came on the morning of the third day, before she went to work.

It turned out that all he had to do was reprogram something on the television and the cable box. She gave him a forty-dollar tip on top of the fee his company charged.

“If I ever need you again, please put me at the top of the list.” She tried to affect a breezy manner to hide the desperation she felt. “We simply can’t get on without television in this house.”

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Connell stayed up all night trying to finish Crime and Punishment  in time for class. In the predawn hours, as he battled fatigue and a fractured consciousness that felt, appropriately given the book in question, something like “brain fever,” the story took on a diabolical urgency, and his experience of it became more personal. It felt as if it could have been the story of the mental collapse of any college-aged kid under pressure, or at least any kid far from home, huddled under a Siberian chill.

At nine o’clock he put his head down to rest his eyes for five minutes. The next thing he knew, the clock said ten fifty and he was scrambling not to be late for his eleven o’clock class. He was once again grateful he’d put in for a single room, because the dorm with the most singles, while being a Brutalist eyesore, also happened to be close to campus.

He threw some clothes on and dashed down the stairs, jumping five or six steps at a time and coming down hard on the landings. He ran through the courtyard of the structure — which was designed by a prison architect and seemed to be made entirely of concrete — and marveled, as he did every day, at how violently it clashed with the neo-Gothic elegance of so much of the campus. He had missed breakfast again. With two classes back-to-back, he would miss lunch as well. He had wasted so many meals in his plan that he could hardly tell the difference anymore between hunger pangs and pangs of guilt. He ate often at the Medici, the Florian, or Salonica, because the theater people he hung around with went to those places before and after practice. They staked out a table and sat at it in shifts all night.

He ran past Rockefeller Chapel and onto the quad. The sprint across the length of the campus to Cobb took his breath away, and by the time he arrived he was panting hard. There was a time when this run would have been nothing to him, but when he decided to pursue the life of the mind, he stopped taking care of his body. He considered it a noble choice, except when he examined the evidence that he was falling apart. His muscle mass had melted away considerably. He was long and lanky and now almost certainly too thin. Instead of gaining the traditional fifteen pounds, he had probably lost twenty. He figured he looked like he was taking drugs, though in fact he was scared to try any. It would have been enough that his father had been a drug researcher, but on top of that, in his father’s Alzheimer’s he had an up-close example of the effects of haywire brain chemistry. He didn’t want to do anything to damage his brain. Of course, he understood that sleep deprivation was as ruinous as many drugs. The strongest drug he ever took was caffeine. He drank coffee throughout the day, enough to make him faintly jittery most of the time. He had a thick eraser of fifties-style hair, and his glasses were big, plastic, and chunky and looked like a stage prop. Once October bled into November, the weather provided the model for the persona so many around him cultivated: brisk, astringent, clarifying, with intermittent flashes of manic warmth.

He paused in front of Cobb to catch his breath and gaze at the indefatigable smokers, who stood in the mouth of the big stone C-Bench in any weather, puffing at Galoises and Lucky Strikes, anything unfiltered, to hurry the heat into their lungs. In the winter, with puffs of condensation escaping lips, everyone on campus looked like a smoker.

• • •

In class, he took a seat at the round table, and then he was snapped awake to see the class all looking at him. The professor had called on him to speculate about what motive Raskolnikov might have had for the killing, beyond his stated philosophical one. Connell replied that he wondered whether Raskolnikov might not have been struggling through some kind of Oedipal problem. His father was dead; there was tremendous pressure on Raskolnikov to succeed, to provide a life for his sister and mother. He had his landlady at his back, a surrogate mother figure. Maybe the pawnbroker was herself a surrogate for those unresolved feelings.

The professor, a Russian American with a Mephistophelian goatee, had an amused smile on his face. This had happened before — slumbers of Connell’s punctuated by sudden outbursts of insight. Connell figured either that the professor possessed that elusive quality, the so-called Russian soul, or else that he had been similarly sleep-deprived at one point in his career himself. Something had allowed him to understand Connell’s bizarrely derelict behavior as an expression of authentic scholarship. Certainly it would have been harder on Connell if he didn’t do the reading. But to fall asleep like that in class, in brazen view of the instructor, and spring awake to provide a take that the other students seemed to chew thoughtfully on, even if they wore looks of scorn or pity: this seemed to strike the professor as being a natural mode for the study of Dostoyevsky.

Connell couldn’t help it. He never got enough sleep. He would drift off standing up, sometimes midconversation. If he leaned against a wall too long he would lose his legs and nearly topple over. There was so much to read, and the conversations he found himself in often lasted deep into the night. He watched the night owls go to sleep and pressed on.

Class let out and he went outside for the few minutes between classes to stand in front of the building. He spotted that professor he always saw with his son, a redheaded boy about four or five years old. He watched them walk across campus hand in hand, the professor gesturing around at something, the two of them stopping to watch a squirrel slip down the sloped lid of a garbage can and land in a crash of plastic containers.

He wished he had his own father with him. They could share an apartment off campus. His father could wander the grounds all day and they could meet for dinner. His father could trail him to classes. He would love the state-of-the-art labs, the brilliant students, the sense of higher purpose. His father had never gotten to hang out on a campus like this, though he’d always maintained that all campuses, in spirit, were essentially the same, that the differences between classes of institutions were more in degree than in kind.

After his second class, Connell want back to the dorm and did a little work. Then he went to dinner and rehearsal. He had gotten the part of Orlando in As You Like It , because his experience as a debater had lent him a certain rhetorical polish. The problem was, he didn’t know how to be anybody but himself, and he wasn’t sure what that self was yet, so he studied other people for traits to grab and fashion a personality out of. He liked to think this was what all college kids did, but when he ran into one of those hale, relaxed young men whose character, in the Heraclitean sense, seemed carved out at birth for him, he felt foolish and guilty. It helped that the character he was playing in As You Like It  was a little naïve, because he could be breathless and overwhelmed up there and it would just about make sense.

They had spent a week choreographing the fight scenes, which were the only parts of the play he had any mastery of. He hadn’t exercised in months — was it a full year now? — but he still had a wiry energy, and he executed the flips with an ease that made him embarrassed about the rest of his performance. His father would have enjoyed watching him practice the fight scenes. He loved swashbuckling movies about adventures on the high seas, and World War II flicks with buddies fighting side by side and striding into danger.

The cast went to the Medici afterward. He found himself in the middle of a spirited conversation about the nature of free will. Several people packed into the booth, jamming him against the wall. The girls, Jenna included — Jenna whom he’d made out with a few times and who was on the verge of agreeing to make it exclusive — doted on a stage crew member whose carpentry skills lent him a virtuous concreteness in the abstracted arena of campus life.

Hopped up on an endless series of coffee refills, Connell was eating a plate of baked ravioli and idly playing with one of the sugar packets in the little tray when he was overtaken by an insight into the nature of time and space that made his mind fairly crackle. All at once, he could see the whole chain of hands through which this packet had passed on its journey to him. He could see the sugar cane growing, being gathered, being refined. He could see its manufacture. He was about to enact its consumption. He could see the future too: the packet heading to the landfill, decaying in the earth, disintegrating. In one moment, the packet in his hands didn’t exist yet, and in another he was holding it, and in another its remnants were sitting in the trash bag waiting for pickup. He knew he wouldn’t be able to explain it to anyone if he tried. The other actors were now carrying on some kind of debate about Williams, O’Neill, and Miller, and Connell was there and not there. He thought, Domino Sugar. Dad made the sugar that went into packets like this. He is holding one of t


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hese now, in the past.
  He could see his father looking into the future and seeing the blurred outlines of a life, a wife, a child. His father would be dead and in the ground. Connell would be too. The sugar would keep getting made.

He wanted to call his father and tell him his fevered thoughts, but he knew that even under the best of circumstances it wouldn’t have made sense to anyone, and it surely wasn’t going to make sense to his father now in the state he was in. Still, he wanted badly to share this insight, and he could feel it slipping away. There wasn’t even time to turn to the guy next to him and try to get it across, so he just formed a mental picture of his father as a much younger man, standing in a white smock, holding a clipboard, as he squeezed the sugar packet and sent the thought to that young man in his image, wherever he was in space or time. He ripped the packet open, poured it in, and watched it dissolve.

The director of his play had seen his polish and misunderstood. She hadn’t realized that polish was all he had. He could stand before people and make stentorian declamations, but the only reason he could project a convincing air of youthful ignorance was that he was stuck inside himself, and he knew he was — it was the one thing he could say with real conviction that he knew about himself — and he wasn’t playing a part.

• • •

The next morning, he woke up late again and bounded down the stairs, but this time he came down too hard on the landing and felt something snap. He hobbled to class and then to the hospital, and that night, when he showed up at rehearsal on crutches, with a broken foot, it was as if the director had been waiting for this to happen all along. There was no understudy, of course, so Connell had to play the part himself. They had to rechoreograph the fight scenes, which he and his counterpart had brought to such a high level of polish that someone suggested that when he recovered they should put on an avant-garde show that would consist exclusively of them playing out their grapplings over and over. They turned them into arm-wrestling scenes instead.

Connell felt safer, somehow, up on crutches. He had to practice walking around onstage in them, and the new physical demands of the part took the urgent edge off his desperation to remember his lines, which allowed him finally to get off book right before the show went up. It was pure chance that he’d broken his foot, but it was lovely to imagine that it wasn’t merely chance, that there was a higher order working in life, that the mystical flashes of insight born of staring at a packet of sugar in a noisy restaurant might actually connect to a truth of the universe. It was lovely to consider the possibility that he’d been somewhere else with his father, in another neighborhood of time and space, just because he’d been able to conceive of it while watching some crystals dissolve into a coffee cup.

He had to remember to give the old man a call.

67

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After the eleven o’clock Mass, they took a walk through the neighborhood, then went to the Food Emporium. They were having the Coakleys over for dinner, and she needed to pick up a few things. As they passed through the first electronic door heading out of the store, Ed came to a halt in the vestibule and started yelling “No! No!”

“Not now,” she said. “We have to get home.”

“Not with her!” he yelled. “Police!”

She yanked his hand. He grabbed on to the sliding door to pull back. Somehow he managed to hold on to the bags.

“We have to go,” she said. “Please!”

“Not with you! Police! Police!”

She pulled harder. He stumbled two steps and threw himself to the ground. The cantaloupe he was carrying spilled out of its bag and rolled into the street. She couldn’t budge him. At first people gave her curious looks as they passed, but then a few stopped to gawk, and then a crowd gathered as Ed continued to call for the police. She offered them sheepish smiles as they thronged around her. Workers from the store came out. Someone must have called 911, because the next thing she knew two officers were parting the crowd.

“Police!” Ed shouted frantically when he saw them.

“The police are here ,” she said desperately. “Shut up .”

The flash of anger didn’t help her cause. She told them she was his wife, but Ed’s continued shouting made them question her. A neatly dressed woman in a shearling coat whom Eileen had never seen before came forward from the crowd and said she knew who she was. “I see her around,” the woman said quietly, as if to downplay the connection. “In church. She takes care of him. It’s not abuse.”

Eileen was relieved, but she felt a profound gravity come over her at the thought of what a spectacle she’d become. The police were mollified by this character witness; one of the officers told the crowd to disperse, while the other asked what was wrong with Ed and whether she had anyone to call for assistance. In her confusion she could think of no one, not a neighbor, not a single friend.

“You don’t have anyone to call?”

“I don’t know anyone around here,” she found herself saying, to her own amazement. The officers looked heavily at each other, as if they had been conscripted into helping her move a roomful of books. They hooked arms under Ed and led him to the car.

When they got home, she called the Coakleys to cancel. He was raving about how he wasn’t going to eat anything from her, he wasn’t going to eat a single thing she gave him. Eventually she convinced him to go upstairs to the bedroom, and he fell asleep.

“Wasn’t it wonderful?” he asked a few hours later when she woke him to give him his medicine. “We had such a nice day.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Didn’t we have a wonderful day?”

After dinner, Ed went right back to bed. She returned to the kitchen and opened the wine she’d bought for the Coakleys’ visit. She’d consulted the salesman to make sure it was a bottle to satisfy an exacting taste. For the last few years, Jack Coakley had been educating himself about wine. He was becoming — he’d taught her the word — an oenophile . The salesman had handed her a Bordeaux whose label she didn’t recognize and said it had big mouthfeel, with strong but creamy tannins, a blend of fruity aromas, and a smoky finish. She’d nodded and tried not to seem lost. It had been more money than she’d planned on spending, and she’d thought about getting a cheaper bottle she was familiar with, but the way he’d looked at her, seeming to evaluate her, had made her carry it up to the counter.

When she was nearly done with the bottle, she called Cindy.

“I almost went to jail,” she said. “And he’s saying, ‘Didn’t we have a wonderful time?’ ” She drained the last glass. “This is the best bottle of wine I’ve ever tasted.”

She hung up and began eating her way through the food in the refrigerator — the hors d’oeuvres she’d bought for dinner, leftovers, the cake she’d made that morning.

She felt the tremors of an incipient headache. The headaches were the reason she stayed away from alcohol. She could see the appeal of it, though: the obliteration of the day’s concerns, the loosing of the reins of control, the preoccupation with something as simple as the next drink, the forgetting. The forgetting could be wonderful.

68

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Eileen knew facing the crowds and the cold might not be a good idea — Ed was more sensitive to cold than he’d ever been, and the excess stimulation might put him in a frenzy — but she couldn’t help herself. Though they’d gone every year they lived in Jackson Heights, she hadn’t been to see the Christmas windows on Fifth Avenue since she’d moved to Bronxville. She was loath to miss them again.

She parked in a garage close to the strip of stores. She expected him to gripe his way through the wall of humanity, but he didn’t pull against her as she led him by the hand.

They started at Lord & Taylor. “Jingle Bells” poured down from the hidden speakers above, and in the first window, figures revolved and bobbed mechanically in a mute and tireless tableau of Christmas morning. A boy moved up and down with his arms spread wide as though in a Cossack dance as he beheld the miracle of his new bike; a girl swung her new baby doll back and forth as if it were a model airplane; and their father forever pulled a stocking from the mantle above the fireplace. Ed jabbed her shoulder.

“Isn’t it the greatest thing you’ve ever seen?” he asked in a surge of enthusiasm more unlikely than any she’d seen from him over the course of their marriage. “Look!” he said. “Look!”

It was the same at the next window, and all the windows from Fortunoff to Macy’s. His childish wonder never abated, and his expression was blank with anticipation as she led him to the next garland-wrapped queue.

Later, in bed, she was disappointed not to be able to recall any of the scenes. Instead, all she could see was Ed’s huge smile and his glasses reflecting the lights of the displays.

Connell called the next day to let her know he wasn’t coming home for Christmas. He had decided to spend the holiday at the house of his new girlfriend. He’d had the same excuse at Thanksgiving.

“Who is this girl? Thanksgiving and now Christmas? Sounds like someone we need to meet.”

“You will,” he said, to her dismay.

“Well,” she said. “Your father will certainly be disappointed.”

She decided to cancel the little Christmas Eve party she’d planned. Ed wouldn’t know the difference; they could eat frozen dinners and watch television. She’d have followed through if her cousin Pat hadn’t called shortly after she’d gotten off the phone with Connell and said he and Tess and the girls were going to be able to make it after all. Pat was as close to a brother as she had. He used to come over to her parents’ apartment every year, starting in her late teens, to put up the Christmas tree with her father. He reminded her so terribly of her father. When he heard how upset she was that Connell wasn’t coming home, Pat said they’d come on Saturday the twenty-third and stay through the long weekend.

“The girls will help you get ready,” he said. “They’ll cook, they’ll clean, they’ll do whatever I tell them to.”

She knew she should have been touched, but it wasn’t as she would have planned it, and she wanted something, anything, to go exactly as she’d planned it.

• • •

Ed was there to greet Pat and Tess and the girls when they arrived, but a few minutes later, when it was time to eat the big lunch she’d prepared, he had disappeared upstairs. She found him sitting on the divan at the foot of the bed, looking confused.

“Are you planning to join us?”

“That lady downstairs,” he said. “I know I should know her. Who is she?”

“You mean Tess?”

“That’s her name?”

“Tess,” she said. “Yes.”

“Okay,” he said, rising. As they got to the door and were about to head downstairs, he stopped her. “Don’t tell her I don’t know her.”

“But you do know her.”

“Don’t tell.”

“I won’t,” she said. “Believe me.”

“Good.”

“Do you remember her name?”

“Don’t test me.”

“It’s not a test,” she said. “I’m trying to help.”

He stood there thinking. “What is it?” he asked after a bit.

“Tess.”

“I said don’t test me.”

“No,” she said, laughing. “Not test. Tess . Tess is her name.”

He repeated the name a few times. “And how do I know her again?”

“She’s Pat’s wife.”

He looked annoyed. “Pat, your cousin  Pat?”

“Yes,” she said, unable to keep from laughing.

“Well,” he said, “why didn’t you say so?”

“You know who Pat is?”

“Your cousin Pat,” he said, as if she were being obtuse. “Of course I do.”

“Of course you do,” she said, chuckling. She straightened his glasses on his face and led him downstairs.

• • •

In the morning, Ed went for the paper. She was relieved to get him out of the house for a while. She had a lot to do for the party, and her nieces were there to help her. It was unseasonably warm, so she imagined he might take a seat on the bench by the Food Emporium.

Elyse helped her chop potatoes and Cecily polished the silverware. She showed the two of them how to make quiche. The Christmas music gave her movements an upbeat, cheery punctuation, and as she directed the girls she remembered the joyous way Ed, in the days before he switched over to headphones, would stand in the living room conducting along to the symphony recording with an invisible baton. She enjoyed watching him work himself into a frenzy. She loved how he laughed at his own ridiculousness.

She was happy enough that she could almost forget that Connell hadn’t come home. Watching Elyse and Cecily work in their purposeful way, she wondered what it would have been like to have a daughter instead of a son. Daughters didn’t leave the way sons did. Her friends’ daughters never seemed to move more than a few miles away from their mothers.

Ed had been gone an hour and a half. With his slow gait it wasn’t unreasonable to think he was still in transit, and anyway she was enjoying herself. A little while later, though, Tess asked, “Where’s Ed?” and Eileen began to worry: not that anything bad had happened to him, but that he’d gotten lost. She had allowed herself to get complacent.

“Topps,” she said. “The local bakery. They spoil him there. I’d better go and save the counter girl from him. He’ll haunt that place all day if they let him.”

She drove slowly down Palmer, stopping at storefronts to peer inside, feeling like a criminal casing them out. She did a circle of the town. He wasn’t on any of the benches. It had grown colder since he’d left; the wind had picked up. She regretted giving in to vanity, both his and hers, in not getting him a MedicAlert bracelet. He was wandering the streets with nothing to explain his situation.

She drove down Kimball Avenue to double through the back streets where he might have gotten turned around. When she got to Midland, she saw a man approaching a car at the stoplight under the Cross County overpass, waving his hands, and it took her a second to realize that he was her husband. She threw the hazards on and walked toward him, and when he saw her he started clapping his hands. She pulled him back by the sleeve. A blue Mercedes honked and slowed as it passed. At first she thought it was her neighbor from up the block, but she was relieved to see a gray-haired man she didn’t recognize. Still, had he recognized her? Would he recount the scene over dinner?

She was too angry to speak. She tried to imagine the melee Ed had caused since he’d gotten to the intersection. How long had it been? She was lucky the police hadn’t gotten to him yet.

She buckled him into the passenger seat and returned to the driver’s seat before saying anything. “What were you doing so far from the house?” she asked finally.

“You found me,” he said. “Don’t make a big deal of it. Let’s go.”

“Did you get lost? Were you disoriented?”

Ed looked at his feet. She noticed that the soles were separating from the leather of his shoes. He needed a new pair, or at least a resoling. She had been leaving details like this unattended to. Her secret thought, the shameful thought she’d been harboring more frequently lately, was that Ed wouldn’t notice anyway.

“I was trying to get to the mall.”

“What in the hell!” she shouted. “Tell me the truth. Did you get lost trying to get home?”

“No.” He shook his head.

“I need to know, Ed.”

“I wanted to get you something.”

“We decided  about this. Remember? You and I aren’t exchanging presents this year. It’s just easier that way.”

“Not for Christmas,” he said.

“For what, then?”

“Our anniversary.” He stretched out his hands and poked at his ring. “New Year’s Eve,” he said.

“We got married on January twenty-second, Edmund.”

“But we met on New Year’s Eve.”

She was quiet. She pictured Tess’s concerned look when they got home. The look would say, in the most well-meaning way possible, Why did you let him go out in the first place?  Ed sat heavily in the passenger seat. “We need to get back,” she said. “Everyone is worried sick.”

When they were nearly home, she looked over and saw him holding his wallet.

“I didn’t have any money anyway,” he said.

She hadn’t put any in his wallet in a while. She’d also taken the cards, to prevent someone from taking advantage of him.

She turned the car around and drove back to the mall, parked in front of Macy’s. She fished her own wallet out of her purse. A hundred-dollar bill flashed up at her, along with a couple of singles.

You stirred up emotions in a man when you gave him cash. She’d practiced defusing that ticking bomb during her father’s retirement years, when she still lived at home. When Ed handed her his wallet, she folded the hundred in briskly, economically, as though she were giving a flu shot.

They went inside. She told him she’d wait in the purse section and watched him amble off. He stopped to talk to a salesgirl, who pointed him toward the escalator. As he began to rise, clutching the thick rubber rail with both hands and looking over the side as though it were the edge of a ship, she decided to follow him from a distance. She trailed him into the women’s section. She had a vision of him throwing dress after dress over his shoulder in a frenzied spree, but he walked the aisles deliberately, like a big cat stalking its prey, looking at dresses without touching them. He moved from rack to rack, evidently making quick decisions, and stopped in front of a row of dresses along the far wall. He appraised them as she pretended to look at clothes across the aisle. A salesgirl came over and he waved her off. As if he had read Eileen’s mind about the dowdy-looking dresses in front of him, he headed to an adjacent rack and, after a sweep of those offerings with his eyes, held up a dress. She could see it shimmering in the light. The pattern was tasteful, the cut elegant. He waved the salesgirl over again with a frantic hand, holding the dress in front of him as though it were a banner in a parade.

She watched a strange exchange between Ed and the salesgirl. A look of patient confusion crossed the girl’s face as he passed her his wallet. She held it dubiously as he jabbed at a pocket behind where his credit cards would have been. Frustrated, he took the wallet back, removed a slip of paper, and handed it to her.

The girl nodded and returned with an identical-looking dress. He must have written Eileen’s size on the slip of paper. She couldn’t imagine the effort he’d expended in memorializing this detail. Still, there was little chance the number was correct. She needed a ten now.

As Ed approached the cash register, she realized that the dress must have cost well over a hundred dollars. She rushed over. She knew Ed would be furious, but she couldn’t worry about that now. She tapped him on the shoulder. He sprang forward, startled, and let out a little cry. When he saw it was her, he yelled her name a few times in manic excitement, the trapped heat of emasculation radiating off him.

“Funny meeting you here,” she said.

“You like this?” he asked. The girl, who had arranged her features into a beatific grin, handed it over for inspection.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. She glanced at the dress size: eight. He was closer than she thought.

“I like you in blue,” he said. The simplicity of the declaration put an ache in her chest. He directed no animosity at her for having rescued him in the transaction. He seemed to feel only a naked desire to please. He was being stripped of pride, of ego, ruined, destroyed. He was also being softened.

“We’ll use this.” She handed her credit card to the salesgirl before Ed could reach for his wallet, which was sitting on the counter. The girl passed her the index card Ed had written on. It said, “Eileen’s size,” with a big “6” crossed out and an “8” written in its place. When Ed turned away, she took a pen and crossed out the “8” and wrote “10” next to it in as close a hand to his as she could manage. She would come back and exchange it for a ten. She slid the paper back in his wallet and put the hundred into her own. There was no reason for him to be walking around with a bill that large.

• • •

The McGuires and Coakleys couldn’t make it that year. They had excuses — the Coakleys had been talking about heading out to Arizona to see Cindy’s brother for years, and Frank’s niece in Maine had just had a baby — but she couldn’t help being annoyed at their not trying harder to be in town. They’d been so strange around Ed lately, the women tentative, the men garrulous and impersonal, that she imagined they were relieved to have a reason to get away. It seemed to her that she had graduated from the ranks of ordinary wives into a rare stratum inhabited by widows whose husbands were still alive.

At one in the morning, she and Tess sweated to get the mess cleaned up. Just when it looked as if she might escape the evening without a major disturbance, Ed woke and wandered out of the bedroom. He paced back and forth in the upstairs hallway, screaming and flailing his arms violently. She couldn’t silence him. One by one the houseguests gave up the pretense of sleep and emerged from their rooms — Pat, Tess, the girls, her aunt Margie, who had also decided to stay. Pat tried to intercede, puffed up by macho gravitas, but she held him off and allowed Tess to help her corral Ed.

The morning saw no enthusiastic ripping open of presents; the girls handed them around with a perfunctory languor. As Connell had grown older, she’d worked hard to keep alive the Christmas morning ritual, and she tried to pump some life into the girls, but their exhaustion won out. They put in a lackluster effort at breakfast as well, nursing cups of coffee and leaving heaps of food untouched. She thought, Connell was right not to come home .

As she scraped scrambled eggs into the trash, she resolved to have one more real Christmas, with all the trappings and ceremonies of the occasion. Next year, the big green star would make its way to the top of the tree. She hadn’t felt safe when she’d been on the top step of the ladder, leaning over the branches, and she certainly wasn’t about to ask Ed to get up there and do it, and by the time Pat arrived she’d moved on to other tasks for him to do and had forgotten all about it. When she’d sat at dinner, though, all she’d been able to focus on, other than her anxiety about Ed’s embarrassing her, was the treetop sticking up like a tumor, even though it was out of sight in the den. It was in plain view in her mind’s eye. She hadn’t realized how important that star was in rounding out the scene she so carefully constructed. When the lamps were off, it winked with a hazy, emerald loveliness that seemed to pull you toward it. Next year, she would need Connell there to put it up for her. After that, he wouldn’t have to come home for another holiday if he didn’t want to. She was going to wring enough perfection out of next Christmas to last her the rest of her years on earth.

Part V. Desire Is Full of Endless Distances, 1996

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69

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When Paula Coogan, who had hired Eileen at North Central Bronx, moved to another hospital, Eileen was surprised and dismayed to learn that Paula’s replacement was Adelaide Henry, whom Eileen had supervised at Einstein many years before. Adelaide promptly put Eileen on nights, claiming she needed someone of Eileen’s stature watching over that shift, but Eileen guessed she was trying to get her to leave, maybe out of insecurity, maybe out of revenge. She remembered being tough on Adelaide, but only because she’d noted her potential and hadn’t wanted to see her waste it, especially as executives making promotion decisions were going to be more exacting with Adelaide because she was black.

If Adelaide wanted to get rid of her by putting her on nights, though, she would fail. Eileen would’ve held on in the midst of a flaming apocalypse to last the two more years she needed to get health benefits. And it was actually a blessing to be put on nights, because with the sundowning, Ed was going to bed early, and he mostly stayed in bed, and the dark of night had begun to frighten him, so that even if he got out of bed he would never leave the house. Short of his filling the place with gas from the stovetop burners, there was very little she had to worry about if he went unsupervised at night, so she would climb into bed with him in the late afternoon and awake at ten to report for duty at eleven. It was working out better than she could have hoped for: she didn’t have to pay anyone to be there; she could take care of him when she came home in the morning and still get adequate sleep.

Maybe she spoke to the wrong person about being comfortable with the night shift, or maybe she didn’t affect a sufficiently beleaguered air, because within a month she was switched back to days. She had made it work with Ed home alone for a good while, but the idea that he would get lost worried her, and he was now a known quantity at the police station. She wanted to keep him home with her as long as she could.

She asked around at the hospital to see if anyone knew a good in-home nurse who worked off the books. She found a girl to stay with him, a robust Jamaican who wore her hair in a tower, radiated ease, and seemed perfect for the job until she made Eileen late for work one morning when she showed up late herself, claiming bus trouble. The girl’s commute involved two connections and a longish walk, so Eileen didn’t dismiss the excuse immediately; besides, she wasn’t in a position to act rashly, not without a backup in place. She gave the girl a warning; it happened again; she gave her another warning, one more than she would have given any of the nurses on her staff. The third time, she fired her, but by then she already had her replacement on call.

The second girl got to work on time, but Eileen came home early once and found Ed in the armchair in the living room, where he never sat, picking at his hands like a chimpanzee while the girl stretched out on the couch in the den watching a soap opera and talking on the cordless phone. Eileen told her that part of her job was to sit with Ed and make him feel like a human being. She came home early again the following week and ran into the girl on the phone again, this time on the patio. She paid her for the full week, even though four days remained in it, and told her not to come back.

It would have been easier if she’d been able to stay home and watch Ed herself. Even thirty years into her career — twenty-five in management — she was still better than all of these kids. When she was coming up through the ranks, the care of the patient had been the paramount concern. Now they had other things on their minds.

She had a bad feeling about the third one during the trial hour, when she saw how difficult it was for her to calm Ed’s flailing long enough to feed him, and how she could barely lift him from the toilet, but it was hard to find great help when she couldn’t pay a tremendous amount, so she hired her anyway. Then she got a call at work saying Ed had fallen and she couldn’t pick him up.

A nurse was supposed to be capable of outsized feats of strength, like a lifeguard or an ant. The girl had looked hale enough, but there lurked in certain people a softness you couldn’t see.

She’d gone through three nurses in four months. She didn’t have the patience to try another. Instead of replacing the third girl, she gave Ed strict instructions not to answer the door for anyone he didn’t know. She told him not to leave the house. She prayed he’d listen, at least until she could figure something out.

She gave in and got the MedicAlert bracelet. If people wanted to look at him as an invalid, she didn’t have the energy to stop them anymore.

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Somehow Eileen’s old friend Bethany had heard what was happening with Ed, tracked down her new number, and called to offer her support.

Bethany had been a fellow nurse at her first go-round at Einstein. Shortly after Eileen met her, Bethany married a corporat


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e executive and quit working, but for a few years they’d stayed in touch, aided by the fact that Bethany’s daughter Teresa was Connell’s age. Every summer, Eileen, Ed, and Connell went out to Bethany’s beach house in Quogue for a handful of days. In the mideighties, though, when Walt took a position at Pepsi, they moved to Purchase, sold the summer house, and dropped off the map.

Bethany told Eileen she was living nearby, in Pelham, and that she and Walt had gotten divorced. Teresa had dropped out of high school in her junior year and moved to Los Angeles with her boyfriend, an actor.

“Walt is heartbroken,” she said. “I tell her I only want her happiness. I’ve been trying to convince her to let me come out and visit. Maybe I’ll just show up.”

Bethany called every day that week to check in. Eileen welcomed the attention, as many of her friends had receded. She had always gotten along with Bethany, who had a frank, Jamaican sense of humor and could take the stuffing out of anyone. Eileen needed a little more frankness in her life. The friends who had stayed close tiptoed around conversations about Ed.

She invited Bethany over for tea. Bethany told her she’d become a spiritual guru in the years since her divorce. “I guess I began before the divorce,” she said, laughing. “It might have had something to do with our getting  divorced. Walt wasn’t exactly clamoring for me to get enlightened.” She took out a photo of Walt, a gesture Eileen found strange. She couldn’t understand why Bethany was still carrying it around. Walt looked like he hadn’t aged a bit, as though the Jamaican food Bethany had fed him kept him young. Bethany also showed her a photo of Teresa, taken before she’d left. She was just a kid; she still wore braces.

She’d gotten involved with faith healing, she said. Her healer channeled a spirit named Vywamus. “You should come with me sometime. You might like it.”

“I’m not interested in any voodoo religion,” Eileen said.

“It’s not voodoo,” Bethany said. “And it’s not religion.” She laughed. “I’ll let you off easy this time. But I’m very persistent when I want to be.” She laughed again. “I’ll pursue you to the ends of the earth.”

Eileen laughed too, though she couldn’t help feeling a little unnerved. She poured another cup of tea to cut the tension.

• • •

Bethany made friendship easy by always driving over to see her. One Tuesday evening, just as Eileen was about to fix a quick dinner, Bethany appeared at the back door and told her she wanted to take her somewhere.

“I have Ed,” Eileen said. “I can’t leave.”

“He’ll be fine. Come.”

She called up to Ed, who was in bed with the television on, and then followed Bethany down the back steps.

“Where are we going?”

“It’s a surprise.”

She was happy to get out, and touched by the thoughtfulness of a friend who knew she needed a break. She imagined a packed restaurant, a coffeehouse buzzing with conversation.

Bethany looked happy. She wore a poppy-colored blouse and light rouge on her brown cheeks to match, as well as lipstick. She put her hand on the back of Eileen’s headrest and backed out of the driveway.

“Where is it, though?” Eileen said, as mildly as she could. “Now you have me curious.”

“I want you to keep an open mind,” Bethany said.

As they pulled onto Midland Avenue, it occurred to Eileen that Bethany was not taking her for a gourmet meal or on a shopping spree. They were driving to her cult. “Oh no,” Eileen said. “No, no.”

Bethany grinned. “I know,” she said, and let out a hearty laugh. “But it’s not like that. It’s going to be relaxing and fun. You’ll like these women, I just know it.”

“I told you I’m not interested in that,” Eileen said, but Bethany kept driving, and they passed through towns, and soon they were parking the car in Pelham.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Bethany put her hand on Eileen’s. “You don’t know what you think about it yet.”

She took a long look at Bethany’s narrow face and close-set brown eyes, her skin that hadn’t aged in the ten years since they’d lost touch. She felt sorry for her for needing all this hocus-pocus. She decided she would go in, just this once, as a favor to her friend and an exercise in openness, like sitting through the character breakfast at Disney World when Connell was four, because it was the right thing to do.

Inside, a circle of women rose to greet her. She sat and joined them, and a woman walked in from another room, evidently the psychic channeler. She was small, no taller than five two, and her hair had a sort of deliberate unkempt quality, as if in demonstration of her ascetic bona fides. She sat without ceremony and looked serenely around at the group until her eyes fell on Eileen. She held Eileen’s gaze awhile, smiling in a way that forced Eileen to smile back uncomfortably.

The woman called them to order with a breathing exercise. Eileen took part in it, stifling her laughter.

“I’d like to welcome Eileen Leary to our midst tonight,” the woman said. “Bethany has brought her to us. Thank you, Bethany. Eileen has been going through some difficulty with her husband. We’re here to help her.”

Eileen felt herself blushing. She hadn’t expected the group’s attention to be directed at her so soon or so completely. “Please don’t worry about me,” she said. “I’m just here to watch.”

“Eileen’s husband has Alzheimer’s disease,” the woman said as if Eileen hadn’t spoken, and clucks and knowing looks passed through the room. “But as we have seen so often, not everything is as it seems. We are going to discover today what is happening in her husband’s soul. Bethany tells me his name is Edmund? Edmund Leary?”

Eileen had an impulse to shield Ed’s name from them, as if by incanting it they might affix to it one of those exotic, long-distance curses that could cause a man to drop dead in the street.

“That’s correct,” she said.

“My name is Rachelle. In a minute I am going to call on Vywamus to visit us. He will talk to you about your husband. I will be channeling him. It may appear that I am talking, but I will only be a conduit. There is nothing to be afraid of. We will link hands, so you will only have to squeeze the hand of the person to either side of you for reassurance. My spirit will not be in the room during this time. I will not be able to answer any questions once Vywamus has entered my body. You must direct any questions to Vywamus. But it is advisable to simply let him speak. You may notice a slight change in my voice. That’s a result of Vywamus using my body as his vessel.”

Rachelle started to breath rhythmically and to move her hands in circles. She made guttural chanting sounds, random syllables, like a flautist playing scales to warm up. Then she began speaking. Her voice became almost comically low in pitch.

“I am Vywamus,” she said. “I am here to speak to you, Eileen Leary. I am here to tell you that your husband is one of the most repressed souls in the universe. For many lives, he has been fighting a battle with his spirit. He has been an Atlantean for centuries.”

Eileen knew that Bethany had never really gelled with Ed. Bethany had had a bit of this New Age streak even when they used to spend time together, and Ed had had little patience for it. She wondered how much Bethany had told this lady.

“This time through,” Rachelle said in a painful-sounding husky baritone, “he is fighting for his soul. The battle in his body mirrors the battle in his soul. It is not this disease that is making him obsessed with control. It is the other way around. His obsession with control has culminated in this disease. He needs to learn to open up in this life to save his soul from the battle it has been fighting for centuries.”

She had to hand it to her: once Rachelle started channeling Vywamus, she didn’t break character. Still, Eileen was having a hard time taking it seriously. She had to bite her cheeks to keep from making editorial grunts. It was all meant for someone else, someone weaker of will or less educated. Whatever kind of cult this Rachelle was running, she was mistaken if she thought she had a potential convert in the room. Eileen may have been through some difficult times, but that didn’t mean her brain had gone soft.

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There had been times she’d wanted to kill Ed; now that he was declining so quickly, she just wanted him home until Christmas. It shocked her that her goals had dwindled to one, but that was all she could focus on, even now, eight months away from the holiday. Once Ed left, she knew, he was never coming back.

There used to be so many goals. They’d made a list at one point. Learn some Gaelic together. Visit the wineries in Napa Valley. She couldn’t remember what else was on the list. They hadn’t accomplished any of them.

They hadn’t finished the house. Much of the first floor looked new and appealing, but a good deal of the second floor was dilapidated and run-down.

She hadn’t gone back for a doctorate. She hadn’t learned to play better tennis. They’d never take another trip to Europe. They might never take another trip anywhere.

They didn’t need to go anywhere anymore, though. If she could get him to Christmas, she would take without complaint whatever was coming. A proper send-off was all she asked, surrounded by the regular crowd on Christmas Eve, the kitchen — the beating heart of the house — full to bursting. By midnight, no one would have left. Smiling Ed in his suit on the couch would be incident-free. Then Mass in the morning; then a short drive to someone else’s house, some coffee cake and a modest second round of gifts. Then let it come down. She didn’t need the whole day. Let him have a fit at four o’clock. Let him be raving and dangerous and inconsolable. She’d drive him over to the home herself. She’d always hated Christmas night anyway. It was the loneliest night of the year.

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Eileen agreed to let Bethany take her back to her faith-healing, channeling psychic, whatever-she-called-herself friend Rachelle. She decided to experience it as a cultural phenomenon, like the be-ins and happenings she’d missed out on while she was in graduate school. She didn’t have to keep up a wall of suspicion if she went in knowing these people were doing something entirely weird and that she was going to study them anthropologically.

She joined the others in the circle and waited for “Vywamus” to come out. The woman, Rachelle, walked in barefoot, on the balls of her feet like a cat, gathered her robe under her and sat, Indian-style. Eileen couldn’t have gotten into that position if she’d been drugged and stretched into it by a team of men.

Rachelle/Vywamus started speaking to another member of the circle, the focus of the beginning of the session. When Eileen thought about the actual message Vywamus was delivering, and not the spooky way it was being delivered, she grew almost intrigued at how familiar and unthreatening the ideas in it were. The whole thing was a charade, but there was something quaint about the idea of conveying sturdy old wisdom through the medium of performance art. She imagined many of these suburban wives might be impressed enough by a brush with the avant-garde to actually hear a message they’d have dismissed if delivered by a priest, rabbi, or shrink.

After a while Rachelle/Vywamus turned her/his attention to Eileen. Rachelle had homed in on something essential about Ed right away. Eileen wouldn’t have put it the way Vywamus had, and Rachelle might have had help from Bethany, but she also appeared to be a master psychologist. Under the absurd pretense of this character, she was saying something borderline sensible.

At the end of the session, after Vywamus addressed a few of the other women and Rachelle made a big display of being physically drained, everyone stood in a circle talking and eating snacks. Rachelle returned in a different outfit, having shed the robe she was wearing, and mingled.

When Bethany drove her home, she said that she had covered Eileen for the first couple of visits, but next time there would be a one-hundred-dollar fee, and if she wanted to do private sessions it would cost one fifty.

• • •

For days, Eileen fretted over how to tell Bethany she wasn’t going back to Rachelle, but on Tuesday morning, as she dressed for work, she realized she was actually looking forward to Bethany’s visit that night. Bethany was the only one of her old friends who had gotten more involved in her life, rather than less, with the news of Ed’s condition. Eileen dug through her closet and found a pair of slacks she could still squeeze into, and a loose jacket that would hide the bulge forming at her waist. She hadn’t been indoctrinated into Bethany’s cult, and she wouldn’t ever be, but as she ironed her clothes and thought about which lipstick would work best with her green jacket, she knew she needed to be out in the world.

Ed was already in bed when Bethany rang the bell at twenty to seven. Eileen applied a last spritz of hairspray, shut the powder room light and yelled “Entrez!” toward the kitchen door. Bethany came dressed smartly again, in a turquoise blouse and white jacket. As they got into the car, she pulled down the visor and dabbed lipstick on her top lip and rubbed her lips together to smear it in. Bethany handed her a tissue to blot.

It was satisfying to be in the company of strong women, most of them semiretired professionals. Maybe she was exactly the sort of woman in a vulnerable state of mind that Rachelle sought to target, but these women didn’t seem that way. If they were, she didn’t care. She wasn’t planning to get to know them. She trusted herself not to be bamboozled by Rachelle’s charisma. There was a spiritual vacuum she needed to fill. She’d never imagined she’d find herself in the living room of a cult leader, or sitting unperturbed as she listened to the rates for future sessions.

She wondered what the others were getting out of it. The world, as Vywamus presented it, didn’t seem to matter very much; our real existence was taking place somewhere else as we lived out a shadow existence. She didn’t need to be signing on to a whole new program in her fifties. She was going for the hour it got her out of the house.

At the end of the session, she didn’t even feel awkward writing the check. Bethany took it with a smile and presented it to Rachelle. Eileen knew she was being played, but she was content to let it happen. It was good to have someone thinking of her, and she liked that Vywamus did so much of the talking. It was better than therapy. Eileen couldn’t stand the silence in Dr. Brill’s office, the fact that she was expected to open her mouth and let all the words she’d apparently kept stopped up come pouring out.

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If you’d told her at her wedding that one day, years on, she’d be picking her husband up at the police station on a balmy evening in late May, she would have laughed and said, “You don’t know Ed,” but she’d gotten a page, and then she was nestling into a spot between a pair of squad cars in the quiet lot at dusk. She shut the engine off and sat considering the possibility that fate had finally caught up to her.

She headed toward the sign-in desk and saw Ed sitting in the waiting area with an officer, his shirt untucked, his hair a mess. He wore no anguish on his face, only an aspect of resignation. In his rigid posture he looked surprisingly regal, like a statue of an ancient Egyptian king.

She introduced herself. The officer’s name was Sergeant Garger.

“I’m so sorry about this,” she said.

Seeing her, Ed emitted a low moan that suggested he’d been caught with a prostitute or committed some other unspeakable indiscretion.

“Officer Cerullo will sit with your husband,” Sergeant Garger said. “I’d like you to come to my desk to sign some papers.”

She wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. She didn’t want them to conclude that the situation was completely out of hand, because there was no telling what they might do then. She could endure any embarrassment, as long as they didn’t take him away.

“Your husband was wandering back and forth in traffic in front of the church,” Officer Garger said quietly. “He was stopping cars, waving his arms. Cars were backed up all the way to the train station. When we approached him, he was wild.”

“I’m sorry.”

“If the responding officer hadn’t seen the bracelet on his wrist, we would have booked him for disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. We ascertained that he was trying to find his way home.” He took out a breath mint, asked her if she wanted one. “It’s Alzheimer’s? Is that correct?”

“Yes,” she said.

“He seems young to me.”

“Fifty-four.”

“I understand this is not the first incident,” the officer said. She nodded silently. “He comes into town?”

“He doesn’t,” she said. “This is an exception.”

“What nobody wants is for this to turn into a legal situation. If your husband is deemed a threat to himself or others, or if the home situation creates an impediment to his safety—”

“I’m a nurse. I know the law.”

“Do you let him out alone?”

“We usually have a nurse, but I had to let her go. I haven’t found a replacement yet. I got him that bracelet in case something happened. I have to go to work; I can’t stay with him.”

“Have you considered a nursing home?”

“Not as long as I can help it.”

“Are there any family members who can help?”

“No,” she said.

“Nobody?”

She thought of Connell at school. She had hoped he’d grow up when he went off to college, but he couldn’t even remember to call home on his father’s birthday without a reminder.

“Well, there is my son. But he’s away at school. He’s in a play this summer. I can’t ask him to come home.”

“You know what I think, Mrs. Leary? If you don’t mind my saying?”

“What?”

“You sure can.”

• • •

In bed that night, she thought about the way Officer Garger had looked at her. She’d gotten that look lately from men — repairmen, deliverymen — who came to the house and saw what kind of shape Ed was in. She had a few more wrinkles now, and a hint of crow’s feet, and the other day she thought she’d seen the makings of a jowl. Still, she knew she remained beautiful and that a distressed situation like the one she was in with Ed might bring out the chivalry in even unenlightened men. Lately she had told them the story as soon as she opened the door. She considered it her duty to explain that Ed was incapacitated. He had come to pride himself on his hard-won home improvement skills and would have hated for the professional craftsmen he respected to write him off as another eunuch of a househusband.

They looked at her with pity, some with more than pity. They didn’t like to look at Ed or raise their voices around him. It made conversations more conspiratorial than they might otherwise have been.

She couldn’t avoid admitting to herself that she’d given Officer Garger a look of her own. She knew it hadn’t communicated much but a vague dissatisfaction, but guilt still crept through her. When Ed’s hand explored her shoulder, she rolled over and went to sleep.

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It was the day of their first practice as a cast. He and Jenna had arranged to meet beforehand at the Medici. He walked past the place and circled the block, then steeled himself enough to go in. He found her in a booth in the back.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.

At the first read-through, Jenna had been a revelation as Puck, sexy and feral. Connell had read his own lines in a workmanlike fashion that was accidentally appropriate for the role of Francis Flute, the bellows mender given Thisbe to portray in the mechanicals’ play-within-the-play. He liked to think he would have made a good Oberon to her Puck, but the director knew better. Oberon went to an upperclassman whose magnetism attracted the available attention of much of the cast, Jenna included. When the director announced that Thisbe would be wearing a pink prom dress, the loudest laugh in the room came from Oberon.

“It’s okay.” She leaned down to reach into her backpack, her long red hair shifting forward to block his view of her. “Here, let me give you this. We should get going.”

“Hang on a second,” he said, beginning to panic. “Let me sit down.” He creaked in the joints as he bent into the seat. When he squared up across from her, he felt the nervous energy he had been carrying around in his chest settle with a queasy finality into his gut. She was not going to reconsider. If it had been a moment of betrayal that had driven her away, some passionate carelessness in the predawn hours, perhaps he could have pulled her back to him. She had a peculiar tolerance, even a fondness, for the self-absorption of dynamic young men. There had been no regrettable evening though; likely he had been too ready to offer his devotion. The little sedimentary deposits of his need had piled at her feet until they blocked her view of him.

“I think we have time for coffee,” he said, “and to talk a bit.”

“Let’s have some, then.” She signaled to the waiter, frowning in that lovely way she did when she was taking care of tasks. It was something in the way she gave in without a fight: their relationship had already receded into the past for her. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I just want to talk.” He couldn’t say the undiluted truth, which was that he needed her not to leave him. They sat in silence. He dug his knife into the candle wax poured in one of the many grooves furrowed into the table by generations of undergraduates. He couldn’t look at her.

“How’s your father? Are you going home?”

He drummed his fingers on the table. “I don’t have to, if it would make a difference for me to stay.”

“You should go,” she said. “You need to be there.”

“I miss you so much,” he said, finally cracking. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.”

“You’re running from something. You need to look at that.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Her lips pulled into a little knot. “For what?”

“For not planning anything for your birthday,” he said. “For any mistakes I made.”

She laughed. “The only thing you did wrong was ask me to marry you. The only thing I did wrong was not say no right away.” She looked at her watch and pulled out a sealed envelope. “Can I give this to you now?”

The ring made an airy bulge in the center. He felt his chest tightening.

“We’re too young for this,” she said. “We’re nineteen ! I should never have taken that thing. I was in shock, I guess.”

In his silence he was laboring to deepen the groove, but the dull knife had no effect.

“Let’s not be so serious all the time! Let’s have fun.”

“We could make it work,” he said.

“Let’s get the check. We’re late.” She patted his hand, looked for the waiter. “We’ve had some great conversations here.”

He sat, quietly despairing.

“This wasn’t one of them, Mr. Cat-Got-Your-Tongue. Mr. Eeyore. And any other animals I haven’t mentioned.”

He couldn’t help smiling. “Could you try, for one second, not to be so damned adorable?”

“I’m not adorable,” she said. “You just see me that way. That’s the whole problem. I’m fucked up inside, just like you.”

• • •

They arrived as the rest of the cast was stretching. It was going to be a physically challenging production, so Dale, the director and a theater professor, wanted them limber. Since it would be performed under the stars, outside the Reynolds Club, they would be practicing outdoors to get used to projecting their voices.

As Connell stretched, he rehearsed what he would say to Dale. He hardly knew the man, beyond taking one of his classes, but he’d already come to see him as something of a father figure, and he dreaded disappointing him. He went to office hours and listened to Dale hold forth about plays. He hadn’t read or seen most of the works Dale brought up, but he tried to nod along at all the right moments, and when he left Dale’s office, he marched straight to the Reg to check them out. He scrambled to read them before he saw Dale next, but he was always a discussion behind.

“This is where we’ll be for the next two months,” Dale said as he called them together. “There’s no intimacy out here. It’s vast, echoless. The acoustics are awful.” He gestured to the heavens. “The open air swallows all but the loudest sounds. There will be no microphones. You will have to fill this space with your voices.”

Connell watched over Jenna’s shoulder as Dale spoke. She was alarmingly buoyant. He saw her exchange a few looks with Oberon.

“Now,” Dale said, “I want you to spread out.” Connell tried to stay by Jenna. “Form two rows. Everyone has a partner on the opposite row.” When the shifting of bodies finished, Connell saw that Jenna was his partner. “Get up real close,” Dale said. “Closer. Put your face right near your partner’s face.”

Connell wasn’t an actor; he knew that by now. He was never sure where to look when he was onstage. He had tried out for this play to let some more Shakespeare run through his head and carve out some shared space with Jenna, who now was staring right into him. He didn’t know what to do with his arms, which swayed awkwardly by his side.

“We’re going to do a little exercise. I want both rows to take one step back. Okay. Do you notice a difference? Look into your partner’s eyes. Are they looking into yours?”

They were. She was laughing with what seemed like genuine mirth at the irony of their pairing.

“Now,” Dale said, “I’m going to ask you to do something a little unusual. I want you to tell your partner you love them. Don’t be shy. Tell them you love them now.”

“I love you,” Connell said, separated from her by a few feet. She said it too, her brows raised, a big smile on her face, as though she were trying to get him to laugh along with her. It occurred to him that she had never said those precise words to him before.

“Now take another step back,” Dale said, “a big one. You have to try harder to see each other. Maybe not much, but a little. What happens when you get farther away? What do you have to do to compensate? Out here, you’ll be trying to reach people a long way off. Now, tell your partner you love them again.”

Connell said it a little louder than before. Jenna seemed to mean every bit of it. There was no denying her talent.

“Now take another step back. Forget about the distance. Say it as if they’re right next to you, only louder.”

“I love you,” he said weakly across the expanse. He didn’t know how to use his diaphragm, and his breath ran out too soon.

“Now two steps. This time shout it! This is love that gives a damn.”

He did as asked, coughing as he did. She was a figure in a row of people.

“Two more steps. Again!”

This time he didn’t say anything, only listened. He couldn’t make out any individual voices, only a collective one making an urgent appeal.

“One last step! Give it your best shout!”

Jenna was a blur on the other side. His throat hurt. He threw his arms back and shouted as loud as he could.

• • •

His mother had called and asked him to come home and he had said he had a responsibility to the director and the cast to be in the play. He could hear from her silence that she was shocked to hear him talk of responsibility in refusing to come home and help, and the truth was that he had shocked himself by saying it.

He hadn’t realized how scared he was to see his father until his mother’s call. He hadn’t intended never to return; he just had no immediate plans to do so. Jenna had been the best excuse possible, but now she didn’t seem like much of an excuse anymore. He could say he was staying in Chicago to work on things with her—my future wife , he could hear himself rationalizing later, or at least that was how I thought at the time —but he saw the truth of their relationship too clearly to allow himself to pretend later that he hadn’t.

Had he tried to grow up quickly to cover up feeling like a child? Had he asked her to marry him because he needed a grand unifying theory to explain his absence? The thing was, he himself had been scared of marrying her. He didn’t want it, really, any more than she did. He was more relieved than brokenhearted, but now he had to think about everything he wasn’t doing. He had run out of excuses not to go home.

• • •

He quit the play, crammed his pair of army duffels full of dirty cl


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othes, and got on a plane. His mother said she couldn’t pick him up, so he took the bus and train and walked from the station.

He squeezed through the back door with the bags and was struck by the punishing volume of the television coming from the den. He remembered his mother saying tests had revealed that his father had lost some hearing. He headed toward the den but found his father in the vestibule, balanced precariously on a stepladder, looking through the little windows set into the front doors. Connell muted the television and went back and called to him, but his father only mumbled something, so Connell walked over and touched his shoulder. “Dad!” he said, more forcefully. “I’m home .” The news seemed to leave no impression at all, though he’d been away for almost a year.

“He’s out there.” His father gave Connell a serious, confidential look.

“Who?”

“The man,” he said darkly. “That man. He always comes.”

“Where is he?”

Connell raised himself on his toes and looked out. No one was there except the gardener, who had finished pruning the hedges and moved to the house next door.

“Do you mean him?” he said, pointing. “You mean Sal?”

“No, no, no.” His father’s eyes flashed; his hand twitched; his hushed tone and terrified stare implied that anything was possible. Connell wanted to believe in his father’s continued ability to perceive danger accurately. Had he arrived just in time?

Connell turned again to the window; then he backed away, feeling foolish.

“Come down off there,” he said, holding his father’s elbow, but his father stood frozen. “It’s just a step. Just put your leg forward.” His father offered a tentative foot, then retracted it and tried the other. “Lean on me,” Connell said, and his father did. Once on firm ground, he clapped a couple of times before he seemed to register his son’s presence and looked embarrassed. He went to the window again. He was animated now, his finger jabbing at it.

“He’s there! He’s there!”

Connell darted over. His father was right: the man was  there, and he was famously unstoppable. He might deliver death and destruction; he might deliver circulars for the Food Emporium.

“Dad!” he said. “Don’t you know that’s the mailman?”

The mailman disappeared behind the hedge. “I don’t trust him,” his father said, and then headed for the kitchen with a surprising quickness in his step. He lifted one of the blinds in the window above the sink so high that his whole face would have been visible from the other side.

When his father moved aside, Connell saw that the blinds were bent in several places. His mother must have reconciled herself to living with them rather than replacing them over and over. This one change amounted to a revolution in her thinking.

His father opened the door and then the screen, which swung back hard and crashed into him as he headed outside. When he returned, he was pressing a bundle of mail against his chest with both arms. Some pieces fell to the floor and he released the remainder onto the island like a cascading pile of apples.

“What are you doing?” Connell asked, flabbergasted.

“I get the mail.”

“Just like that.”

“I get it every day.”

“But a minute ago you were saying you didn’t trust him. You were totally spooked.”

“He comes every day,” his father said. “I don’t know who he is.”

“He’s the mailman ,” Connell said desperately.

“I don’t trust him.”

“Dad,” he said, “he’s the mailman .”

“I don’t trust him.”

“But you know he’s delivering the mail?”

“Yes,” he said reasonably. “He comes every day.”

“So why are you suspicious of him?”

“I don’t know who he is,” he said. “I get the mail every day. That’s my job. I have other jobs.”

He shuffled into the den and sat down. Connell followed him and unmuted the television. The volume shot out like a cannon report. Connell retreated to the kitchen and picked up the fallen letters, wondering when the last time was that his father had opened a piece of mail and whether he’d ever open one again. He made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The den was drenched in noisy static, and he went in and found his father watching the electronic snow of a lost signal as though it were a program. His father didn’t stir in that crashing noise. He clutched the remote like an amulet. Connell tried to take it from him, but his father had an iron grip on it. Connell went to the television, lowered the volume, and changed the channel until the picture came up.

“This thing,” his father said disgustedly. “It doesn’t work.” His mouth hung open, and a little drool leaked out. Connell used his father’s own shirtsleeve to wipe it up. His father gave him a knowing look. Connell wondered how much awareness still lurked in him. A faint whining hum emanated from him.

“It’s good to see you,” Connell said, throwing an arm around him.

His father kept looking at the television but patted his own knee. “Good,” he said. “Good.”

• • •

They watched Columbo . Peter Falk’s Beckettian detective wore his trademark trench coat and screwed up his face in his world-weary, gently bemused way — experience and innocence mingling in him. Connell thought, Thank God for  Columbo. Thank God for  Law & Order reruns.  He didn’t know how he would ever fill the time with his father without television.

When the commercials came on, he had no idea what to say. His mother would ride in on a barge of stories about family friends or simply accounts of her day. Connell felt disrespectful delivering reports from the front lines of experience. He felt a little better talking about things his father knew already or that they had experienced together, but it felt awkward to introduce them into conversation. Still, he could feel it coming, the need to revert to the familiar.

“I have to say I like Paul O’Neill,” Connell pronounced academically. His father continued to look at the television. “I’m not one of those Mets fans who hate a guy like that just to hate him. He’s the heart of that team, a blue-collar worker.” The silence on his father’s end of the exchange was growing desperate. “Yankees or not, it was exciting to have a New York team in the playoffs again.” This last remark seemed to have gotten his father’s attention, because his face brightened into a smile, as though it were news to him; and then Connell realized that it was  news to him, even though he’d watched all the playoff games the previous October and Connell had called after every one.

“Yeah!” he said. “Good!”

Connell felt stupid for trying to tread carefully around the old man. It was time to face facts: his father’s short-term memory was shot. He probably didn’t remember anything longer than a few minutes. As soon as Connell left the room, his father wouldn’t even know he had come home in the first place. He wouldn’t have wanted his son to sit around with him on a Friday night; it would have embarrassed him, and Connell didn’t want him to be embarrassed, so he went upstairs to get ready, because there were people he hadn’t seen in a long time.

• • •

He still had his first bottle of cologne, which he had made last a few years by dabbing it sparingly, once behind each ear, once on either side of the neck. He had sweated it out on dance floors and left its trace in heated grapplings on couches. When he’d departed for college, he’d left it behind on the counter in his bathroom, a little offering at the altar of adolescence.

He found the bottle in his parents’ bathroom, down to the dregs. A vague horror crept into him, turning to fury. His father must have scooped the bottle up in his wanderings through the house. He could see him struggling to open it, sloshing its contents around, watching it pour through his fingers into the sink. He imagined him clapping it to his neck and chest in big cupped palms and uncoordinated splashes, trying to steal some of the future that stretched out before his son. How much could he even smell  anymore? And what use did he have for cologne anyway? That part of his life was over.

Connell marched downstairs with the bottle. “Did you do this?” he asked, thrusting it under his nose. “Did you take this? There was more than half a bottle in here.”

“I don’t know,” his father said, looking scared. “I don’t know.”

This time he didn’t soften it for him.

“I get it,” he said. “You don’t know.  Well, you used it. I know it’s just a bottle of cologne. But it was special to me.”

His father’s eyes widened; his forehead wrinkled; his mouth turned down. He sat back in the couch. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Part of Connell wanted to say it was no big deal, but he couldn’t somehow.

“Look,” he said. “Just be careful with my stuff. Okay? Whatever I left in my room. Maybe you could leave that stuff alone.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

He felt his resolve wavering. He had to resist comforting him. His father ran roughshod over everything, and everybody was supposed to go around picking up the pieces. You couldn’t get mad at him; you were supposed to feel sorry for him all the time. Well, forget that. Connell was the son, not the father. It wasn’t his job yet to pick up the pieces.

He went to a friend’s place in the city. They hit a few bars, closed the last one down. He took the first train home in the morning, the five-thirty.

• • •

He awoke to his mother shaking him.

“Your father has his routines now,” she said. “You’re disrupting him. He needs this couch for the TV. Go up to your bed.” The room was dark, but a sliver of light filtered through the sliding door. He smelled coffee and the eggy sweetness of batter on a grill. “Just go upstairs.” A frown flashed across her face. “You didn’t have to come home.”

“What are you talking about? I’m getting up.”

“I need to know what I can expect from you while you’re here.”

“I’m here,” he said. “What do you need?”

“Can you stay with your father? I don’t want to leave him alone today.”

“Yeah,” he said.

She stood there for a second looking him over.

“Can I count on you?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Just stick around the house, make sure he eats, make sure he doesn’t get hurt. Sit with him awhile. Don’t sleep too late.”

“Okay,” he said.

“He’s excited to have you home.” She made it sound hopeful, but a sad note crept into her voice. “You’re all he asks about. ‘Where’s Connell? Where’s Connell?’ ”

His mother had dressed his father in a long-sleeved shirt and slacks. He looked as if he was about to go to work. One detail remained, though: his shirttail hung out. She undid his belt, then hiked his pants up high and rezipped them.

Connell passed through the kitchen. The pancake batter bowl was empty. She hadn’t made enough for him. He threw his thumb over his shoulder. “It’s all yours,” he said, not as gently as he could have.

His mother stopped him on the stairs.

“Are you going to be here?” she asked. “Tell me now. I’ll try to figure something else out. I can’t afford to have you acting irresponsibly.”

“Mom, relax,” he said. “I’ll take care of him. Go to work.”

At the top of the stairs he heard his mother tell his father she was putting on the television, and his father gurgle in response, and then he heard the volume rising, step by step. “If you need anything,” his mother shouted over the television, “Connell is upstairs.” If his father responded, he couldn’t hear it. “I love you,” his mother said. There was a pause. “Can you say it back, honey?” He didn’t know if his father hadn’t responded or if he simply hadn’t heard him over the loud volume, but after a while he heard the garage door opening.

• • •

He thought it important to let his father drink his own soda. His father grabbed the glass by the brim and pulled it toward him too quickly. The glass dropped to the bricks and shattered. Connell picked up the biggest chunks of glass by hand and got the dustpan and broom to sweep the slick shards into the garbage. He toweled the pool from the floor. So it had come to this: you couldn’t give him anything to drink by himself. He had to be in a bib, practically. You had to hold it up to his mouth. You had to give it to him in a plastic cup, maybe even a sippy cup. And he just sat there defenseless as you reached into his lap with a sponge to soak up the spillage. He didn’t even try to brush you away and say he would do it himself. He just sighed and offered himself up. And the fragile, helpless look on his face, the way he didn’t even try to argue that everyone made mistakes, made him seem like a whipped dog, complete with sad, soulful eyes and a desire to please.

“Don’t move an inch,” Connell said. “Not one inch.” But he didn’t know why he’d said it. He had cleaned up every bit of the glass.

• • •

His father was picking at his belt, trying to get it open. He was pumping the waistband up and down like he was trying to fan out a fire. Then Connell smelled it. He went to unbuckle the pants, but his father wouldn’t let him.

“No,” he screamed. “No! No!”

“Dad!” he said. “Calm down. We have to get you clean.”

His father was whimpering as he kept his hand on his backside, trying to hold the stuff in place. In the struggle, some crap soaked through his pants. Connell maneuvered him upstairs somehow and into the shower, still in his clothes, but when he tried unbuckling the belt, his father started yelling and keening again. He undid the button of his father’s pants, then stopped. This wasn’t the time to rush stupidly in. He would get the shoes off first; everything else would follow from that.

“Can you sit down? If you sit down this will go a lot easier.”

“Go away!” his father shouted. “Go away!”

Connell moved behind him and pulled his father down onto him, breaking his fall with his body. His father crashed an elbow into his chest and flailed around like a man on fire. He would have punched Connell in the face if he could have turned around.

Connell held him in a tight grip. “It’s okay,” he said, over and over. He had to slow everything down.

He climbed out from under him, cradling his head. He tugged off his father’s shoes, unzipped his pants, and started pulling them off. His father grabbed at them and kicked at him, but Connell got them past his butt and off his feet. Crap clung to his father’s legs and fell to the tub in clumps. Connell heard it splat and realized he could never be a nurse like his mother. His father was breathing hard and staring at him with an eerie intensity, as if to keep his gaze from drifting to his nakedness.

Connell dropped the pants in a heap on the floor. He didn’t have the heart to tackle the underwear yet, so he went after the button-down shirt. His father was slicked with crap all over and hard to grip, but Connell got the shirt off; only the socks and soiled briefs remained.

“Will you stop, Dad? Will you stop for a minute?”

“Go away!” his father shouted. “No more!”

“You are going to have to listen to me,” he said sharply.

“Leave me alone! Leave!”

As he took his father’s underwear off, Connell looked away, partly so as not to mortify his father and partly because he hadn’t seen his father’s penis since he was a little kid in the shower with him. The smell in the hot shower overpowered him, and he gagged. Some of the crap fell out of his father’s underwear, which Connell cupped like a diaper and dropped into the little trash bin with the grocery store bag in it. His father lay there naked. Connell would have to pick him up and wash him, but he would have to get the tub clean too, or they would both track it around the house. His own clothes were going to get sopping wet, so he quickly undressed. He left his underwear on. He needed all his strength to lift his father up. His father wasn’t resisting anymore, but he was dead weight. Once Connell got him standing, he closed the curtain and turned the water on. The crap stuck to the bathtub began to wash toward the drain. He grabbed a towel from the rack and started wiping the crap from his father’s legs and butt. It seemed that no amount of wiping could get him clean. His father’s head hung down and his shoulders slumped. His chest heaved in deep, mournful sighs. When the towel was too filthy to continue, Connell rolled it up and dumped it on the floor. He grabbed the bar of soap and another towel and made it into a giant washcloth with which he washed his father’s genitals and gave his legs and backside a good scrubbing. He had never touched his father so much in his life. He soaped up his hands and washed his father’s feet and his own. He washed his own arms and legs and scrubbed at his hands, then turned the water off. “We’re almost done,” he said, opening the curtain, taking his father’s hand, and helping him out into the steam-filled room. He ran to the closet and grabbed more towels. His first thought was to wrap one around his waist and remove his sopping underwear beneath it, but something told him it would be a great indignity for his father to be naked while his son was clothed, so he took his underwear off and stood exposed. He toweled his father down and they stood naked together. He wrapped a towel around each of them. He found his father’s cologne in the medicine cabinet, made a little well of it in his hand, and clapped it to his father’s neck. The smell rushed up at him, and he was reminded of when his father showed him how to shave. “Go with the grain,” his father had said into the mirror. “To avoid bumps. Take it easy. Take your time. Don’t go over the same spot twice if you can avoid it.” Afterward, he’d leaned down to let Connell pull at his cheeks and feel the cool, smooth skin of his face.

Connell put some underwear on his father, and a T-shirt, and led him to the bed and tucked him in.

When his father was asleep, Connell left the house to go buy a box of adult diapers. He didn’t know why his mother hadn’t thought of this sooner. It would save everyone a lot of trouble and be a simple fix. He couldn’t think of a single reason not to use them.

• • •

“He wants to leave you his desk when he’s gone,” his mother said at breakfast the next morning, before she left for work. His father was upstairs. “The rest you’ll have to wait for me to die to get.”

“Jesus.”

“You want to be a kid forever? You have to hear this stuff eventually.”

Connell knew that getting that desk had been one of the few happy experiences his father had shared with his own father as an adult. It was of no use to his father anymore, though. Now it was where his mother did the bills. She could use the little desk in Connell’s room for that; he could switch them out.

The desk was five feet wide and three deep and made of solid wood. It wasn’t an heirloom, exactly. The wood was scratched and nicked from the banging by the chair. A set of drawers on either side formed the base on which the desktop rested.

Taped index cards ran along the front and side edges. One card listed the day, month, and year of all three of their birthdays. One had a little family tree branching out from his grandparents to his aunts, uncles, and cousins. Off EILEEN TUMULTY LEARY (WIFE) and ED LEARY (SELF) was CONNELL LEARY (SONN). One card read SOCIAL SECURRURITURY #, as though his father had picked out a syllable at random to keep the thread going. Inside the desk was a card with a pump pin affixed to it and the caption, PIN FOR BLOING UP OF BACKET BALLS.

While his father watched television in the den, Connell lugged the heavy thing up the stairs piece by piece to his room. When he was done reassembling it, he felt energized by a sense of possibility. He would fill in the drawers and get down to whatever important work lay ahead, which would reveal itself to him if he sat there long enough.

His own desk was so light that he could carry it downstairs without removing the drawers. He shoved it into place where his father’s desk had been. It looked miniature beneath his father’s diplomas. He taped the index cards to the desk’s surface.

All that remained was to bring his father’s chair up and carry his own down in compensation. His father’s chair didn’t just swivel and wheel; it pivoted back, to allow for those periodic bouts of idleness deep thinkers required for their important ideas.

The chair, which was heavier than it looked, was anchored in a metal base. Once upstairs, it lent his room an appealing seriousness. He sat in it and picked at the remaining tape on the desktop. He leaned back, to let his mind wander wherever his thoughts would go.

He must have fallen asleep, because he awoke to his father shouting. He went downstairs and found him in the study.

“My desk,” his father said plaintively.

Connell pulled at his shirt’s hem. “Mom said you wanted to leave it to me.”

“Yes,” he said. Tears were streaming down his face. “For you.” He pointed at Connell, jabbing him in the sternum. “You.”

“I brought it upstairs.”

“When I’m dead,” he said. “When I’m dead.”

The weight of a lifetime of kindnesses done him fell on Connell at once.

That night, when his mother told him to take it back downstairs, he felt almost relieved.

For a moment, he hoped that his father might forget it ever happened, but then he realized that the condition didn’t work like that. He forgot things you wanted him to remember. He remembered things you wanted him to forget.

• • •

The next day, he sat at his little desk again and tried to write Jenna a letter, but nothing came. He covered both sides of a sheet of paper with his signature, trying out different styles.

The weather was nice. He decided to try to take his father outside for a catch.

He found the gloves in a tote bag on which his father had written the family name multiple times in permanent marker during the period when he’d gone around labeling everything. The longer Connell looked at those insistent capital letters, the more they sounded like the cry of a drowning man.

His father had bought them both new gloves the year they’d moved in. Connell felt ashamed at how pristine his father’s looked, scuff-free and auburn-lustrous. They’d spent almost no time playing catch since. Connell’s glove was more worn, its leather cracked in places. When he’d quit baseball to do debate, the shift from body to mind had felt final. He hadn’t even considered taking his glove when he’d left for college.

He put a tennis ball in his glove’s pocket and led his father outside. When they got to the bottom of the stairs, he held his father’s glove out to him.

“Let’s play catch.”

His father could hardly hold the glove on his hand, so Connell decided to ditch the gloves. He stood him with his back to the wall and walked a few paces away, then bounced the ball to him, trying to get it as close to his hands as he could. When he didn’t catch it, Connell fetched it and placed it in his hands. His father couldn’t throw, but he could bounce it to him in a rudimentary way. He could tell his father was throwing because he would hold it for a while and then it would leave his hand.

• • •

He felt like he was losing his mind, or at least his intelligence, sitting there watching that much television with his father. He started spending most of his time in his room, reading novels, trying to drown out the noise of the television downstairs, and writing and rewriting a tortured letter to Jenna that got longer and longer the more he realized he’d never send it. He understood he was writing it for himself now, to try to figure out what had gone wrong with him, why he’d asked her to marry him in the first place. She was right: he was  nineteen. He was embarrassed to think of how he’d behaved for most of the last semester — like a child and an old man all at once.

He heard his father cry out and dashed down and found him lying facedown in the kitchen. The runner was bunched up on the floor; he had evidently tripped on it. Connell rolled him over, saw that his mouth was bloody and that he’d broken one of his front teeth. Connell sat him up and soaked a dish towel and put it in his mouth. He saw the piece of tooth lying on the floor and laid it on the island. The quantity of blood on the bricks made Connell worry that his father might have bitten part of his tongue off, but when he forced his mouth open he saw that he had only cut his gums and split his lip. Blood pooled under his tongue. Connell leaned him over the sink and got him to spit, then sat him at the table. A broken plate rested facedown on the floor. He must have thrown it as he’d fallen. Connell gathered its halves and the plastic-wrapped sandwich into a saggy bundle that he deposited in the trash.

The runners formed little rolling hillocks. He had even slipped on them himself a couple of times. He remembered now — how had he forgotten it? — that his mother had asked him to buy double-sided tape to secure them to the floor.

He watched his father’s Adam’s apple rise and fall as his father swallowed blood. He gave him ice in a wet towel to suck on. After a while, he brought him up, got him changed, and returned him downstairs. He mopped the floor of the blood and put the piece of tooth in the little pocket of his jeans, because he couldn’t bring himself to throw it out and was too ashamed to leave it on the counter. Then he sat with his father on the couch and waited for his mother to come home and see what had become of both of them.

• • •

He heard the garage door. His mother came up the stairs carrying some bags of groceries. She handed them to him and slung her pocketbook onto the island. She told him to put them away.

“Leave that chicken out,” she said. “I’m going to make it.”

She called in “Hello” to his father and filled a glass with water. Connell emptied the bags purposefully, trying not to look at her. When there was nothing left to find a spot for, he turned to see her taking down a second glass of water with deliberate sips, as though it were medicine. She was looking at him over the glass.

“I might send you to the store for garlic,” she said. “I forgot to get garlic.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve got to turn that down. I can’t hear myself think. Edmund!” she called again. “I’m home.”

She put her glass in the sink. There was a strange buoyancy in her step.

“Mom, wait.”

“What?”

“Something happened earlier. Dad got hurt.”

She started in his father’s direction. “What is it?” she asked with surprising panic in her voice. “What’s happened?”

She took the remote and lowered the volume on the television.

“What’s happened?” she asked again, sounding more alarmed than Connell had heard her sound, perhaps ever. “Are you going to tell me, or what?”

His father sat there like a statue, looking past her at the screen’s flashing, unaccompanied images.

“He fell down. I was out of the room. He landed hard on the bricks.”

“Let me look at you, Edmund. What did he hurt?”

“He fell on his face. Cut his chin. Broke his tooth.”

“Let me see your mouth, Edmund.”

His father sat stone-faced.

“Open up!” she said, sounding shrilly desperate. She turned to Connell. “How bad is it?”

“There was a lot of blood.”

“Open up!” she said. She sat on the couch and put her hand to his father’s mouth. She pried his lips open. He had his teeth squeezed shut, but Connell could see the space where his tooth had been. His mother didn’t turn and yell at him. She smoothed out his father’s hair and kissed his cheek.

“Oh, Edmund,” she said mutedly. “What are we going to do with you?”

“Nothing,” his father said finally. “Nothing. Leave me alone.”

He hadn’t taken his eyes off the television, but now he took one glance at Connell. There was embarrassment in the glance, but also something like a flash of defiance.

Connell waved his mother into the kitchen. She didn’t follow him right away. He stood away from the doorway while he waited for her, because he didn’t want his father to see him. He was ashamed.

The volume went back up, and a few moments later his mother came in.

“What is it?”

“I don’t think I can do this,” Connell said, his hands against the edge of the countertop.

“Do what?”

“This thing with Dad. I don’t know.”

“What happened ?”

He looked down. “He fell. That’s all.”

“Well, you just have to keep a better eye on him.”

“That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think I can do it. I thought I could do it. But I can’t. It’s too hard for me. It’s too much.”

“I did it when I was ten years old.”

“But I’m not you,” he said. “That’s the problem right there.”

“Well, that’s just terrific,” she said. She motioned for him to move and took a cutting board out of the cabinet below.

“It’s driving me crazy,” he said.

“What do you think it’s doing to me?”

“You go to work.”

“I never go anywhere,” she said. “All day long, I’m right here in my mind.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to disappoint you.”

She sliced through the thin layer of plastic on the chicken. “Don’t worry about disappointing me. Worry about leaving me in the lurch. I need help, goddammit!”

“I can get a job. Bring some money in. You can pay someone with it.”

“Keep your money,” she sai


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d. “You’re going to need it for therapy later.”

“That’s cold.”

“I thought it would be good for him, for you ”—she pointed with the knife—“if you were around. If it’s not, it’s not.”

“I wish I could do it,” he said.

“You can,” she said. “You just don’t know it.” She had started to cut the chicken, but she set the knife down. “Here,” she said. “You do this. You think you can handle it? Or you want me to find someone else to do this too?”

He felt the blood drain from his face. His mother seemed to notice. “Thin slices, across the breast,” she said a little more softly. She went to the refrigerator and brought back some broccoli. “Cut this when you’re done with that. Small pieces. My feet ache.” Then she went into the living room. He cut the chicken and rinsed the broccoli, but before cutting the latter he went to the doorway and leaned into the dining room to look at her. She had her legs up on the couch. She was holding one of the sheer curtains aside with one hand and rubbing at her foot with the other. She was looking out at the street and didn’t notice him there. He had an impulse to tell her he would rub her feet for her. When he was a kid, she would ask him to rub them, and he would grumble his way through it, because she worked all day and her feet were clammy and smelly. Her feet had only gotten more forbidding over the years, the soles tougher, the cracks deeper, but he wanted to rub them and not complain. He couldn’t find a way to tell her what he was thinking, so he just looked at her for a while. It seemed she was watching for something. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her sitting there. When they first moved in, she sat there all the time.

He went back to the broccoli and cut it with heavy chops, because he remembered her saying she found the sound a knife made on a cutting board satisfying. When he was done he hacked at the bare board for a while, rhythmically so that it would sound like the real thing. He went into the living room. She had stopped rubbing her feet. She wasn’t looking out the window anymore but was sitting on the couch. She gave him a weary glance as he approached.

“What is it?”

“Can I help?”

“You chopped the broccoli?” He nodded. She let out a faint sigh. “I’ll be in to cook. Just leave everything there.”

“Can I help with your feet?”

“My feet ?”

“Do you want me to rub them?”

She had a wry expression on, as if she was weighing making a dry remark. Then she seemed to consider it further. “You’re offering to rub them,” she said dubiously.

He thought of the gap in his father’s mouth, the pool of blood under his father’s tongue.

It had been years since he’d touched his mother’s feet. He had half expected he’d never touch them again.

“Yes,” he said.

She raised her brows. “That would be nice,” she said.

He settled into the couch and took one foot in his lap as he used to. He was almost queasy with embarrassment at his proximity to her. He pressed a tentative hand against the ball of her foot. It was all there, the familiar moistness, the tufts of knuckle hair, the burst blisters, the gunky nails.

“Is your father all right?” she asked.

“He’s fine. Just watching TV.”

She seemed to relax, let her head fall against the pillow. He gave himself over to the task, using both hands to apply the proper pressure. Somehow he’d always been good at this. He’d had a certain amount of practice. His father would be busy in the study and his mother would put down the paper and ask if he’d rub her feet. There was something sweetly cajoling in the way she told him that she never sat down at work; it was the only time she ever behaved that way around him. Now, even more than before, he saw the evidence of what she’d been talking about. There was a history of her career in the bulging veins, the cramped muscles, the corns and bunions, the calluses and cracks. She wore neat shoes, but they covered a sprawling account of an overtaxed life, and there was no hiding the truth when she took them off.

He went after the pain, tried to free it up. She gave a muted cry of relief. He would be a disappointment to her later, when she remembered how he had failed her, but for now she was probably only thinking that she didn’t want him to stop. He had more strength in his hands than he used to. He used to ask to quit and she would wheedle another minute out of him and he would say he was tired and she would give in, but now he wouldn’t tire so easily. He would let her be the one to tell him when she’d had enough. The television roared in the other room. He brought her other foot up so that he could move between the two feet. He thought of the tooth in his pocket. There was a chance this would be the last time in her life that she’d have her feet rubbed, because circumstances might not conspire again to bring them together like this. There was a limit to his ability to reach out to her. It was easier with girlfriends. He was always offering to rub their feet. He threw all his affection at them and hoped that some of it would stick, maybe even come back to him, though if it didn’t he gave it anyway, he gave it more, even, because everyone had something that needed to come out.

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She wasn’t going to be able to rely on her son, but she didn’t want to just bring another nurse in. The time had come to approach the problem differently. The fact was, she was handcuffed to Ed. Everything she did when she wasn’t at work, she had to do with him. What she needed was someone who would be there more of the time and in a more unstructured way, who could free her up to have a bit of a life; someone who could effortlessly pick up Ed when he fell. Maybe this person could even help around the house in a handyman capacity. Maybe what she’d needed in the house from the beginning had been a man.

• • •

If she was going to bring someone in full-time, she had to find the money to pay for it. She decided to take advantage of the fact that mortgage rates had gone down significantly since she and Ed had bought the house. She refinanced to bring her rate down from 10.3 percent to just over 8 percent, which gave her a little more to work with every month.

She put out feelers at work and posted flyers, but she didn’t get any promising leads. Then one of her nurses, Nadya Karpov, said her older brother Sergei was reliable and strong — too strong, Nadya said, to be driving a cab nights. He didn’t have nursing experience and he was in his fifties, but she thought he’d be good at it, as he was patient and calm. He didn’t have a car and he lived in Brighton Beach, but he was willing to make the long trip on the A train and the Metro-North. Eileen knew the nine hundred dollars a week she was offering would be a significant raise. The amount was just shy of what Ed’s pension and Social Security payments added up to, after taxes. Nadya said Sergei would probably jump at the chance to spend part of the week in Westchester and get away from her sister-in-law. “She’s Russian,” Nadya said simply, with raised brows, and Eileen nodded back, as if she knew something about the terror of Russian wives.

“We’re having company today,” she said to Ed shortly before Sergei was scheduled to arrive with Nadya for an interview. “A friend from work and her brother. Sergei’s his name. I think you’re going to like him. He’s excited to meet you. He doesn’t have many friends in the area. They’re from Russia. So I’ll need you to show him a good time.” After she’d said this, Ed sat at the kitchen table and wouldn’t move. She wanted him in the den, out of the way, to give Sergei a few minutes to walk around and get acquainted with the place. She could bring him in to meet Ed after he’d seen how nice everything was, what kind of people she and Ed were. But Ed wouldn’t budge. She could already envision the scene — Sergei in the house less than a minute, Ed wringing his hands and wailing, decision flashing across Sergei’s face: this is too much, too weird, too uncomfortable, he’ll find something else, it’s nice to meet you and your husband. Then he would say a polite good-bye, would leave her with Ed again, with Connell drifting through like a ghost until he flew back to school.

She tried to entice Ed into the den with a plate of cheese and crackers, but he just muttered at the kitchen table. She waved to him, patted the pillow at her side. Something must have told him she was plotting a betrayal.

She turned the television off and joined him in the kitchen. She put some potpourri on, as if she was trying to sell the house, and in a way she was. She understood that Russians were big readers. Maybe Sergei would get a kick out of all Ed’s books. Maybe they’d stoke a fire in him to work on his English, make his way through the rows.

She poured a glass of wine and tried to read the paper but kept staring at the same sentence over and over. When the doorbell rang, she leapt from her seat and rushed to adjust Ed’s collar, which was pointed up. Through the glass she saw Nadya smiling broadly, her brother hulking behind her. Sergei doffed his cap as he crossed the threshold, seeming to fill the room. He shook her hand, then walked over and did the same with Ed’s. A bald patch rested on top and gray nibbled at the sides of his head, but otherwise Sergei was the picture of virility: a ruddy glow, hair sprouting out of his collared shirt, a quiet formality about him, even in his jeans and leather jacket. He was shorter than Ed but bigger in the trunk.

“What a beautiful house!” Nadya gushed. “What a beautiful neighborhood! Isn’t it beautiful, Sergei?”

He nodded. Eileen invited them to sit and took their coats into the den. When she returned, Nadya was seated beside Ed, Sergei across from him. Nadya was looking at Ed with sensitive eyes, though Eileen had told her to play it like a regular visit. The relief was how calmly Sergei was carrying it. He too wore a compassionate expression, but he was sitting back, giving Ed space. His bearing said he understood something of what Ed was going through. His hands reminded her of her father’s. She could picture those hands grabbing barrels of beer from a truck, securing a big metal hook to their rings, and dropping them into cellars. She could see Sergei jamming metal rods into barrels to tap them without getting his head knocked off by the pressure they released.

She left Ed with Nadya and gave Sergei a tour of the house. In the spare bedroom she heard the floorboards creak under him, and for a moment she was sure he would break through, that the house couldn’t bear his weight.

• • •

Ed woke up raving at three in the morning. She tried to rub his head, but he batted her hand away and seethed through his teeth. Then she felt the wetness of the sheets. He might have drained his entire bladder into the bed. She was careful about making him pee right before sleep, but maybe she’d forgotten. It wasn’t the first time. It had gotten to the point where she could sleep, and felt comfortable letting him sleep, in a little wetness of the sheets. This was a full-on soaking, though.

For a few days, she’d experimented with putting adult diapers on him before they went to bed. He complained about the way they cinched his waist and the loud crackling noise whenever he moved, but the real problem, she understood, was the humiliation he felt wearing them. One night he took them off and peed the bed anyway. She gave up trying to get him to wear them after that.

Moaning, flushed with agitation, Ed left the bed and began to roam mindlessly, bent on something inscrutable. She alternated between securing a corner of the fresh sheet and shooing him away from the stairs so he didn’t spill down them. When she was done, she tugged the T-shirt off him, but he wouldn’t let her change his underwear. She was too tired to argue, so she let him crawl sopping into the clean sheets. She didn’t sleep the rest of the night; her hand kept drifting over to his underwear to feel if it had dried.

• • •

She cleaned the house top to bottom in preparation for Sergei’s arrival. She felt nervous taking a strange man into her home. It was a Sunday, the start of his work week. She’d never liked Sunday evenings, which filled her with a creeping dread that went back to grammar school.

In the days leading up to Sergei’s arrival, she mentioned him often, casually, hoping through these hints to make his presence in their lives seem natural in Ed’s mind. She felt the way she imagined Ed must have felt when he used to condition his lab rats with tiny, nonfatal doses of pure cocaine. “Sergei is going to help us around the house,” she said. “Sergei is going to take care of a few things for us.” “Sergei will be here on Sunday.” “Sergei might stay the week.”

That morning, after they stopped in at Mass for a few minutes, she walked Ed around town for two hours. He behaved better when he was tired. Still, when she answered the bell and led Sergei in, Ed said, “No, no!” again and again, until he wasn’t speaking anymore but yelling in a high-pitched wail that sounded like a baby’s cry.

“This man is here to help us,” she said. “Can I tell you something?” His face was turning purple. “This man is not here for you. Do you understand? He’s here so I don’t have to worry about you when I’m not here. He’s here for me.”

He began to quiet down, and the violent color drained from his face, and he looked as if he could breathe again.

• • •

She woke in the middle of the night to find Ed half on top of her trying to make something happen. She wasn’t sure if he knew what he was doing, or if he was even awake at all. She lay him down, calmed his pounding heart, and got on top. It was awkward and a little heartbreaking, but the blood still raced through her veins, and it was more attention than some of her friends had gotten in years.

• • •

Sergei stayed until she got home from work on Friday. She might have been able to give him less than nine hundred a week, but she wanted to convey the gravity of the job in the pay, and she was taking this man from his home, his wife, even if Nadya said he was happy to get away.

Sergei’s main job was to cook Ed’s meals and keep him company. Friday evenings were awkward; the transactional nature of the relationship couldn’t be avoided. She counted out a pile of fifties and handed them over in a folded stack, avoiding Sergei’s eyes. Some Fridays he finished watching a program with Ed before departing. Others, he was waiting by the door when she arrived. Even when he seemed content to chat, he didn’t speak much, owing to his poor command of English. In that respect, he and Ed made a good pair. She imagined them grunting at each other like cavemen when she wasn’t there. It wasn’t the worst thought in the world. She may have had to act disgusted if it happened around her, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t take private delight in the idea of it.

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His mother wondered what he was still doing there, why he hadn’t gone back to school. The truth was, he was okay thinking of himself as a screwup, but he wasn’t comfortable thinking of himself as a sociopath. To just leave like that, to turn his back utterly — this would be too much for him to take. He wanted to think he was a better person than that, so he stuck around. He told his mother that he would be there to help when he could but that he didn’t want to be primarily responsible for his father, and she told him not to bother. Eventually he just said he was sticking around because he didn’t want to go back to Chicago for the summer.

• • •

One morning over breakfast he told his mother that he was going to go in to see his old teacher, Mr. Corso.

“That’s nice,” she said in the flat tone she’d assumed for talking to him now that he’d made his decision.

“I thought I could get some direction from him. Maybe he could help me figure a few things out.”

“That’s not something you go to your teacher for,” she said, abandoning her flat affect. “That’s something you bring to your father. He’s still your father.”

“I don’t know what I’d say to him. I don’t know how I’d explain any of it.”

“What are you planning to say to your teacher, then?”

“Mr. Corso knows how to figure things out fast.”

“There’s no one who figures things out faster than your father.”

“Come on, Mom. Dad’s not himself.”

“Your father is still the person to go to with this. I don’t care how great Mr. Corso is. Is he King Solomon? Is he Marcus Aurelius? If not, then you talk to your father. He’s still here.”

• • •

They sat in Mr. Corso’s trophy-stuffed office, surrounded by photos of past teams and Mr. Corso standing with students who’d made good — a prominent attorney, a major Hollywood executive. He wasn’t sure what he was there for — support, direction, or just to be near the man for a while. Connell remembered seeing ex-students in Mr. Corso’s office when he was a student. It wasn’t hard to understand why they returned even decades later. Mr. Corso was the kind of man who knew how to cook a perfect steak at his summer house in Breezy Point and explain why Dostoyevsky beat Tolstoy on points after ten rounds. If all of life was a competition for Mr. Corso, somehow he seemed to draft everyone around him for his team.

“I still can’t believe you quit playing ball,” Mr. Corso said, leaning back into the red leather of his chair with his hands locked behind his head. “An arm like yours. And to join the army that talks you to death.”

Mr. Corso hadn’t stopped needling him since his sophomore year, when, just before baseball season started, Connell decided to switch to debate. Mr. Corso liked to argue over ideas almost as much as Mr. Kotowski, Connell’s debate coach, did, but after school he assisted the varsity baseball coach, strategizing on the bench as he crunched sunflower seeds. He had a friendly rivalry with Mr. Kotowski, who had stamped generations of students with his trademark brand of razor-edged hyperarticulateness, and who, Mr. Corso liked to grumble, mined his freshman speech class for prospects. Between them, they seemed to divide the world.

“I declared an English major,” Connell said. “I wanted to thank you. You had a lot to do with that.”

Mr. Corso laughed and rocked in his chair, the springs creaking beneath his weight. “Don’t come crying to me in twenty years when you look at your bank statement.”

He shifted forward, knitting his hands together at the front end of his desk. Connell could see the pink dots of his peeling tan. His eyes were keen and probing, soft brows hovering above them. His craggy, pockmarked face gave him extra gravity and toughness. Connell spent his sophomore year afraid of Mr. Corso, after he quit baseball, but when it was time to pick his senior elective he chose Mr. Corso’s modernist literature class. After a semester of Ulysses, Absalom, Absalom , and The Sound and the Fury , what Connell remembered best were those bits of fatherly wisdom Mr. Corso slipped into his lessons. One time he explained the impact supply and demand had on pricing by asking them to imagine approaching a hot dog vendor with a lone dog floating in his cart as rain began to fall. “What do you think he’d take for it?” Connell remembered him asking. “You think the price of things is chiseled into tablets handed down from a cloud?”

“Where are you working this summer?”

“I came home to help with my father,” Connell said nervously, “but I don’t think I’m up to playing nursemaid. You know?”

Mr. Corso looked at him in silence for a few moments. “What makes you think it’s okay to drop the ball like this?”

“My mother’s bringing someone in,” Connell said nervously. “It’s the best thing for everyone.”

“Your family is good people,” Mr. Corso said with a slight growl in his voice. “You don’t have a clue yet what that means in life, do you?”

Connell looked away. Another silence followed.

“Those guys you debated with. Do they have summer jobs?”

“More like paid internships,” Connell said. “At blue-chip companies.”

“Do you want to work?”

Connell guessed that was why he was sitting across from Mr. Corso, though it wasn’t clear until now that that had been his purpose. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I need a job.”

“Can you do real  work?”

Mr. Corso drummed his fingers on his desk. The tips were fat, and the nails were neatly trimmed. Another silence followed, in which Connell felt the hair on his arms and bare legs rise in the air-conditioned office.

“Sure.”

“The super of a nearby building on Park called to offer summer relief jobs to our graduating seniors. Doorman, porter.”

He fingered through a pile on his desk and pulled out a piece of paper as if he’d known where it had been all along.

“Does this guy have a son?” Connell asked.

Mr. Corso chuckled. “Poor kid’s only ten. They’re starting the application process early these days.”

Connell tried to hide his embarrassment at being offered this job. “You want me to go break the news to him that you can’t buy your way in here?”

“Better keep that under wraps,” Mr. Corso said, folding the paper into thirds and handing it to Connell in an official manner. “If you do a good job, we should be able to make this a regular tradition for — what — five more summers at least? Maybe beyond if the kid gets in here. We’ll call it the Connell Leary Memorial Fellowship in honor of your deceased athletic career.”

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Connell was stationed in the basement, beside one of four service elevators, where he waited for the buzzer to ring and the indicator to light up and tell him his fortune. Gate shut, he shot up to the proper floor, to shuttle nannies to the laundry room and shareholders to the little fiefdoms of their storage cages.

There were some Albanian guys down there with him — college-aged but not in college, or a little older. Connell saw in the snappy way they spoke to Mr. Marku that they had ambitions to make it up to the lobby. Some of them were rough-looking; others, the more recent immigrants, didn’t speak English all that well. He knew he’d have had a better shot at promotion than any of them, if only he trimmed his unruly hair and shaved his scraggly goatee, but he didn’t care. He was just passing through, and he was pretty sure Mr. Marku had taken one look at him and known he’d felt that way.

He was summoned by a gorgeous au pair. While she moved her employers’ sheets to the dryer, he fantasized about going in and seducing her, then stopping the elevator between floors and having sex in it. After he’d returned her upstairs, he stood on the landing imagining the bedrooms on the other side of the door. He went down to the basement and sat in the chair thinking about her, until he rose and headed to the stall in the locker room. Sadik interrupted him, banging on the door, and he didn’t finish.

He put the garbage can in the elevator and went to the top floor to do a run, dumping the contents of their cans into his own. Ancient Mrs. Braverman on the twelfth floor opened her door and handed him a Coke from a mini fridge filled with them. She seemed to remain alive for the sole purpose of bestowing little gifts on the porters. The strange tenement squalor of her digs disconcerted him, the old abandoned furniture, the peeling wallpaper. There was none of the splendor he saw in other apartments, the slabs of stone stretched across kitchen islands as big as docks on a lake. She had kids but they never visited. Money was not a guarantor of dignity.

His presence surprised Mr. Caldecott in 10B when the latter opened his door to toss his garbage bag into the big can. Mr. Caldecott hurried out of there. Connell felt like a Peeping Tom a flashlight had settled on. The feeling wasn’t unfounded: even the proudest of porters from time to time did what Connell had done the previous day, when, once he’d taken it to the basement, he’d gone through the garbage and paper recycling, in search less of salvageable goods than of documentary evidence of the power the shareholders wielded — bank statements, work memos, eye-popping receipts, all the marvelous details of their lives.

In the afternoon, the building settled into a postlunch siesta and he leaned against the painted brick wall next to the service elevator to read Invisible Man . Instead of a brilliant campaign against Monopolated Light & Power, he was stuck with severe stretches of hallway intermittently punctuated by feeble fluorescence. The elevator car contained the only source of incandescent light, a single exposed bulb. For a few minutes he placed the chair directly in the car, but he lost his nerve the first time he heard footfalls down the hall.

Officially, he wasn’t supposed to be reading at all. The activity was tolerated as long as it wasn’t comfortable. And so he stood for hours on the threshold of the elevator and stashed the book when he heard someone approach. Whenever Mr. Marku passed — he was in a generous mood that day, announcing his presence with a stagy, whistled tune — Connell trained his gaze on the light-up panel like a laboratory monkey waiting for an experimenter’s stimulus. One time, though, Connell didn’t lose the book quickly enough. Mr. Marku didn’t give orders or ask questions. He just announced what Connell would do, as though he possessed powers of psychic intuition. “You’ll go outside and sweep the perimeter,” he said. “Then you’ll go to the store and get me a Marlboro Lights hard pack and a six pack of Heineken.” (The first time Mr. Marku told him to buy beer, Connell said he wasn’t old enough, and Mr. Marku replied — accurately, it turned out—“When they see you in that outfit, nobody asks questions.”) “When you’re back you’ll start on those fire stairs.” No one ever used the fire stairs, but Connell had mopped them three times already that week. There were four sets to mop, sixteen flights each. They never gathered any dust.

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It was an unusually warm night. The musk of the flowers she’d planted rose up as she walked from the car. Sergei was standing at the back of the house, smoking under a clear, star-filled sky. She greeted him awkwardly, unsure of whether to invite him in, as he could come in on his own when he was finished. It almost seemed he had been waiting for her.

She went upstairs. A while later, his quick, hacking cough announced his presence inside. It was strange to hear a man in the house when her husband was in the bed next to her. Since Sergei arrived, she’d been able to sleep through the night. She wasn’t even bothered by Ed’s nocturnal ravings anymore; she just stayed in bed with a foothold in sleep and let him walk around the room.

She heard Sergei climb the stairs. She lay in bed awake listening to the quiet voices and laugh track from his television, and his own occasional muffled laughter.

It was a mystery what happened in Sergei’s room after he closed the door. She’d gone in when he wasn’t around and found little more than was present when she’d first turned the room over to him. There was the television, the radio, the armchair, and the side table. There was a small stack of Russian volumes in English translation, a Russian-to-English dictionary, a bottle of aftershave, and the suitcase he lived out of. And there was the bed, of course.

From deep within her, she felt a tremor of unwelcome desire rumble up. She lay there trying to ignore it, but it seized her attention so thoroughly that she felt a buzzing in her fingertips, the room became stiflingly hot, and the sheets lost their softness and scratched at her skin. Even though she knew she shouldn’t, even though it felt like a betrayal, even though Ed was sleeping next to her, she began to touch herself, something she hadn’t done in years, and she didn’t stop until she had brought herself off with a little involuntary cry that sounded vaguely mournful to her ears, after which she lay taking quick, dry breaths and feeling a tingling lack of satisfaction. An attempt at a second round produced no results.

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Connell hadn’t heard Mr. Marku coming, and when he looked up from the book and saw him standing there, he let out a strangled yelp.

“Come to my office,” Mr. Marku said. Connell rose to follow him. “First, tie up those newspaper


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s.”

When Connell entered, Mr. Marku was staring at the wall-length aquarium.

“You read a lot,” he said.

Connell nodded nervously.

“You’ve heard of Camus’s The Fall .”

He suspected a trap. Mr. Marku always dropped his bombs at the end of a shift, when you had little time to react. Connell was in Mr. Marku’s doghouse for coming in late on a seven-to-three shift on a Saturday. He had thought that Mr. Marku never slept, that he had cameras trained on every entrance and exit, until he figured out that Sadik had ratted on him. The guys built up capital however they could.

“Yes,” he said, “but I haven’t read it.”

Mr. Marku was proud of the year he’d spent at Iona College before family responsibilities forced him to drop out. More than once he’d mentioned that he’d planned to be an English major.

“It’s a parable of hell,” Mr. Marku said. “The devil is this bartender.” He just waved his hand. “It’s too much to get into.” He knocked a smoke out of his pack and lighted it in the windowless office. “You’ll come in Wednesday at six forty-five in the morning.” He handed him a bundle of folded clothes. “You’ll wear this doorman uniform. You’ll shave.”

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As Bethany backed out of the driveway, Eileen saw Connell coming up the hill. Most nights he came home after midnight, and sometimes, when he didn’t have to work the next morning, when the sun was rising. Eileen rolled down her window.

“There’s chicken in the fridge.” She expected him to wave and keep walking, but he stopped.

“Where are you going?”

She turned to Bethany, who took her hand and gave it a squeeze.

“Out for a while,” she said. “There are potatoes too. Just put one in the microwave.”

• • •

When she came home, Sergei was waiting in the kitchen, sipping from a cup of what looked like coffee, but it could have contained vodka for all she knew.

“Hard work today,” he said.

“Is everything okay?”

“In Russia, even, I don’t work this hard.”

“What’s up? What happened?”

“Is no good to talk about it.”

“Is Ed okay?”

“He is asleep.”

“That’s good,” she said.

“I don’t mind to work hard,” he said. “But he is very hard work.”

He said it with a whistle that indicated a certain professional appreciation. She nodded in solidarity.

“He wipe shit on walls in bathroom,” he said. “I clean it up. Between tiles. Is all gone.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“You mind if I…?” He had taken out his pack and already had a cigarette in his mouth. He was flicking the lighter absently.

“Let’s go outside,” she said.

They stood on the patio and he lit the cigarette. She didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. He pulled on his cigarette and looked at her. Behind it his eyes smoldered. He was stocky and his hair was thick where it wasn’t sparse. He stood in the middle of the patio but seemed to take up much of its space.

“You want?” he asked, extending the pack.

“No, thanks, I don’t smoke.”

“Try,” he said. “One time. Is very relaxing.”

She had never had a cigarette. Aside from the pure brain-dead imbecility of subjecting yourself willingly to an avoidable carcinogen, she had always found them vile, noxious, smelly things — except for a brief period in high school when she loved a boy who smoked and she was intoxicated by the aroma mixed with his cologne and sweat, and the taste of it in his mouth and the rush she got when she kissed him just after he’d had one. But the memory of watching her mother smoke had permanently soured her on them. Her stomach turned whenever she saw a full ashtray; she imagined being made to eat it, butt by butt, and gagging on the ashes.

“Fine,” she said, and she took a cigarette from him. Life, she thought, was like that sometimes; for years, things were a certain way, and then in an instant, almost without conscious thought, they weren’t that way any longer, as if all the hidden pressure on their having been the way they’d been had found release through a necessary valve. She reached her hand out for the lighter, but he just took his own cigarette out of his mouth, lit hers from the flaming tip of his own, and handed it to her.

“You have to light it right,” he said.

She took a few breaths without disturbance. Sergei told her to take a deeper puff, and she did so, looking at him for confirmation. He was smiling an amused smile. Her lungs filled with heat and she fell into a loud cough.

“Don’t laugh at me,” she said.

“This always happens,” he said.

“Usually to teenagers,” she said. “Not to fifty-four-year-old women.”

“It happened to me,” he said smoothly. “You are not fifty-four.”

“I am.”

“You may have fifty-four years”—he was gesturing in an inscrutable way that she assumed would have conveyed more to a Russian native—“but you are not fifty-four.”

She blushed. “I think I’m done with this,” she said, dropping it and stepping on it. It was nearly the whole cigarette, and her embarrassment made her kick it behind her toward the house.

“You work very hard,” Sergei said, continuing to smoke. “My wife has no job for thirty years.”

“Thank you,” she said, absurdly. Talking to Sergei made her uneasy. At first she thought it was the language barrier, but now she was beginning to think it was something else, a tension rooted in the strangeness of having a man living in her house.

“I didn’t want to have job past sixty,” he said, finishing his cigarette and stepping on the butt. They went back inside. Sergei sat at the table glancing at the newspaper while she put dishes away.

She didn’t hear him on the stairs, and her back was to him when he entered, but there was no mistaking that Ed had joined them, because her stomach seized in nervous anxiety. She heard the clicking sound he made when he was trying to get words out, like the distress call of a bird.

Sergei put down the paper and gave him a long-suffering look.

“Why don’t you sit and I’ll make you some tea,” she said.

“My,” Ed stammered, and the clicking became more desperate.

“Ed, honey. Please.”

Sergei held up a hand to silence her. He gestured for Ed to take his seat as he rose and passed out of the room. She heard his heavy footfalls on the stairs and unconsciously poured the water out of the kettle she’d been heating instead of filling the cup she’d set out. The steam rose from the sink. When she’d caught herself, there wasn’t enough left for a full cup.

“Look what you made me do,” she said.

Ed calmed down once Sergei had left the room. He sat where Sergei had been and shook his head, continuing to click, but in a softer way, like a cooing bird. “No,” he stammered, quietly.

“It’s okay,” Eileen stood behind him and rubbed his back. “It’s okay.”

“Mine,” he said.

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The summer uniform had short sleeves and no jacket, but the pants were a thick wool-poly blend, and he wasn’t allowed to take off his hat. There was no air-conditioning in the atrium, so they opened all the doors to the enclosed quadrangle and hoped for a breeze.

The one benefit to the heat was that it kept many of the residents away from the city. He ushered their mounds of bags and cartloads of hanging clothes into Range Rovers and Jeeps, and they handed him ten bucks and headed for the Hamptons or Long Beach Island. Even Mr. Marku went out of town for the weekend. He came into the lobby with his golf clubs and polo shirts on Friday afternoons and said to get his car, his sweat fresh with aftershave. Connell loved when Mr. Marku was away, because it was safe to read in the open.

The shareholders who remained in town weren’t much trouble. There was the shipping magnate of Olympian means who spread the last scant lengths of hair across his glossy pate. He hustled through the lobby with his head down, polite and preoccupied, as though he were sorry for trespassing. Then there were the younger sharks who hadn’t yet acquired a house in the Hamptons. They talked sports with Connell, checked out women with him, and as long as he didn’t act as though they were equals, they didn’t pull rank. They hailed their own cabs, told him to stay in his chair when he rose at the sound of their approach, but if he took for granted that they would, they cracked him into action with a chilly look, all camaraderie forgotten.

Mr. Shanahan in 12C was probably the most successful shareholder in the building. He wasn’t the richest — that was the shipping magnate — but he was the one who held the most power. He was in charge of an investment bank. He had the sort of reassuringly large cranium common to movie stars, and perfect teeth, and very little body fat, and he treated the doormen more like regular people than probably anyone else in the building. It wasn’t a shock to learn that he’d been a doorman once himself, in college.

Mr. Shanahan spent a lot of time with his son Chase, who was home from boarding school for the summer. Mr. Shanahan got dropped off in a town car and met Chase for lunch. Sometimes he came home early and reappeared in the lobby a little while later with the boy, both of them in jogging outfits. They stretched in the courtyard before they went out for a run in Central Park, and they did push-ups there afterward. They weren’t technically supposed to be in the courtyard doing that, but everyone looked the other way because Mr. Shanahan was such a good guy and never got to see his kid during the year.

Sometimes Mr. Shanahan and Chase sat on the bench in the lobby while one or the other tied his shoes on the way out or caught his breath on the way back in. They teased each other in a good-natured, prep school sort of way, and Mr. Shanahan took evident pride in the boy, who, at a couple of inches over six feet, was almost as tall as Mr. Shanahan himself, even though he was only fifteen. Whenever they left the lobby in the beginnings of a jog, Connell felt a jolt of yearning.

All in all, Connell liked being upstairs. In the early afternoons, though, when the sun washed the lobby in clarifying light, and the thick, humid air muffled the car horns, he was set upon by remorse. Not only had he abandoned his father to a stranger, he had cost his mother unnecessarily by doing so. She was paying Sergei twice what he was earning at the building, and to do a job that Connell should have done free of charge. There had to be a way of looking at it that wasn’t so dark. There had to be an explanation for his selfishness. Maybe something was going on that was too big for him to see. Mr. Grossman, his junior year English teacher, had lectured one day about how the Oedipal complex worked in Hamlet . Hamlet didn’t understand all the forces that conspired in his own mind, the conflicting desires and obligations. Losing a father early, being given all that responsibility, Mr. Grossman said, had made it hard for Hamlet to act. Maybe something like that was working in Connell’s mind too, something big, something hidden. He was afraid he would never see it clearly.

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She scheduled a solo session. Bethany picked her up and brought her to that too.

To assert ownership of the transaction, Eileen tried to present Rachelle the check when she walked in, but Rachelle cannily brushed it away and told her they could handle that later. Rachelle had her sit in the middle of the living room. It struck Eileen that no sign of Rachelle appeared in the pictures on the walls, that it could have been a house lent for the meetings by one of her acolytes.

They got quickly to work. Bethany sat close to her and held her hand as they listened to Vywamus speak. Eileen could almost physically feel  the web of rhetoric being spun around her, but she relaxed in Bethany’s grip regardless.

“The true story of your husband is more complex than it appears,” Vywamus said effortfully, trailing into a long cough, as if Rachelle hadn’t gotten into character yet. Eileen liked to think she was above superstition, but she could feel herself hoping that Vywamus wouldn’t pronounce anything bad. “You only know him in this life, but your son and he have been struggling for many lives. This time around, your son has the intellect and the emotions. Your husband has only the intellect. He is fighting for his soul.”

“Really?” Eileen said doubtfully. The assessment of Ed was off base, and Eileen wanted to challenge it on principle. Anyone who knew Ed knew he felt things deeply, but how was she supposed to go about reasoning with Vywamus?

“But he is doing good things for himself,” Vywamus said. “He is putting others before himself.”

She thought of how Ed prayed for Connell and herself and not his own salvation. Maybe there was something to what Vywamus was saying. Or maybe Rachelle knew that letting Eileen leave with bad feelings might hurt her business.

“Your son left because he was angry at his father.”

“Funny,” she said. “I thought he left to go to college.”

She tried a smile, but Vywamus would have none of it. “He has been battling your husband for thousands of years.”

The whole act was so absurd, so transparent, but Eileen decided to shut off the critical voice in her head. She chose to let her mind be soaked in Rachelle’s narcotic wash of words. Eileen knew that she was the one actually spinning the web. For a couple of hundred dollars a week, she was being given the gift she needed more than any other: to be taken out of her life.

“It seems like that sometimes,” she said.

“You are guarded,” Vywamus said. “This is because of certain childhood experiences. We both know what these are, and I need not utter them now. You must open a window in your heart. There is a need for fresh air in your soul. You need to reach out to those you care about and give them a loving embrace. Remember that touch plays a crucial role in how we communicate love.”

“Okay.” She had the feeling of listening to a deathbed monologue. She felt strangely poised to carry out whatever Vywamus called for.

“You have a good child. And a good husband. This battle of his has nothing to do with how he feels about you. In this life, you have helped his soul.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you very much.”

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On a slow afternoon in early August, Mr. Marku snapped his fingers as he passed and motioned for Connell to follow him downstairs. They entered the office, and Connell sat on the worn leather couch as Mr. Marku yelled at a contractor on the phone. He watched clown fish and angelfish chase each other through the coral in the saltwater aquarium and had one of those crystallizing insights into the order of things that always seemed less profound a few hours later. The guy wanted weekend access so his workers could finish sooner, and Mr. Marku wouldn’t give it up. The doormen and porters took it for granted that Mr. Marku let his palm get greased for things like this, but as Connell listened to Mr. Marku standing this man down, he considered the radical idea that sometimes there wasn’t a cynical story to uncover, that Mr. Marku was probably just a man of principle.

He thought of his mother and the phone conversations he’d been eavesdropping on. He felt guilty listening in, but he couldn’t help it, because when he was around, his mother was so squirrelly about not talking to whoever this lady was, this friend of Bethany’s. His guilt turned to anger that his mother was getting taken for a ride.

Because Mr. Marku knew everybody, he probably knew the kind of people who could strike some fear in the heart of this lady, make her leave his mother alone. A couple of men would show up at her door, and they wouldn’t have to say much.

Mr. Marku hung up and leaned back in his chair. He lit a cigarette and gave Connell a long look that betrayed no malice, which made it more intimidating. He never prefaced anything with pleasantries; it was always speeches.

“You don’t shave, I give you a razor and tell you to shave,” he said. “You take long lunches, I say he’s a growing boy. You talk too much to the shareholders, I say I’m glad he speaks such good English. But when you don’t wear the hat; when you don’t wear the hat, and you’re standing in front of me…”

“Are you letting me go?”

“Not yet, I’m not,” Mr. Marku said. “I told your teacher I’d keep an eye on you, whip you into shape. You’re coming back down here to work.”

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She added a weekly phone call to the Tuesday night groups and the Thursday night solo session. The rate was cheaper for the telephone session, one twenty-five an hour.

One day Connell sat at the table giving her dirty looks while she was talking to Rachelle. She tried to shoo him away, because she felt too self-conscious with him there, but he wouldn’t leave, and she told Rachelle she’d call back.

“What’s going on?” he asked when she hung up.

“What?”

“What’s up with Bethany?”

“Nothing, why?”

“I saw a show about this the other day. They’ll take you for everything you have. People end up homeless.”

“Look at this kitchen,” she said. “Look at that countertop. Does it look to you like I’m going to be homeless?”

The next time Bethany came to pick her up to go to Rachelle’s, a strange mood hung in the air. Connell came into the kitchen, followed by Sergei, and then the two of them went down to the basement. When she called down to say she was leaving, she got no reply. As Bethany backed out of the driveway, Eileen saw the garage door rising and Connell pulling out with Sergei in the passenger seat. It was something she hadn’t seen before, the two of them in the car together, and she spent the whole trip wondering where they could have been going. She usually enjoyed these rides to Rachelle’s, singing along with Bethany to pop radio, but she was distracted by the thought of Ed in that house alone, even if he was already asleep when she left.

The bell rang as she was settling into the floor. When Bethany opened the door, Eileen saw Connell and Sergei there. Connell started to enter. “Excuse me, young man,” Bethany said as she tried to stop his advance, but Sergei moved her aside with an effortless sweep of the arm and followed him in.

“What are you doing here?” Eileen asked.

“I wanted to see where you went.”

“You followed me?”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said, “but I don’t like it.”

She was oddly comforted to see him there. She felt, for a moment, as if she wasn’t on her own.

“Where’s your father?”

“He’s home. In bed.”

“You need to get back there,” she said.

You  need to get back there,” he answered. There was an unexpected authority in his voice; he seemed to have matured by ten years in an instant. She found herself on the point of heading for the door.

Rachelle walked into the room with a natural, confident air and placed a hand on her shoulder. “This must be your son,” she said. “I’m so glad to meet you.” Her voice was full of disarming warmth. “I’ve been hoping for this chance.”

She put her hand out. Connell took it automatically.

“You’re every bit as spirited as I understood you to be.”

“Thanks, I guess.” He turned from Rachelle. “Come on, Mom. We have to go.”

“And who is your friend?” Rachelle asked.

“This is my husband’s caretaker, Sergei,” Eileen said.

Sergei stood there with his arms crossed, impassive. Connell must have prepared him for his role; the thought of it touched her.

“Come on , Mom,” Connell said.

“Now, I understand you’re feeling a lot of different things,” Rachelle said to him. “Anger. Confusion. A loss of control. And I know your heart is in the right place. I probably know more about what you’re going through than you think. You might like to talk to me yourself sometime.”

“Nope,” he said. “You can keep your snake oil.”

“Watch your mouth,” Bethany said, stepping toward him. Sergei shifted in front of Connell, and he and Bethany looked like a big dog and a little one squaring off. The tension in the room was thick.

“Why don’t we all take a deep breath,” Rachelle said. “Please, sit down.”

“I’m not sitting,” Connell said. “I came to get my mother out of here.”

“Is that why you brought your friend?”

Connell nodded.

“The body is one thing,” Rachelle said. “The body can be held captive. The mind is something else entirely. The mind seeks its natural state, which is freedom. You can’t imprison a mind forever. If your mother seeks freedom, she’ll be back. There’s nothing you or I or anyone else can do to fetter that desire. You can try to put her in chains, but her mind can break them. What we do here is train minds to break chains.”

Connell looked as if he was waiting for her to come to his aid, but she was frozen, partly out of curiosity about how he’d handle this challenge with a year of college under his belt.

“I don’t know what to say about all that,” he said. “I’m sure you’re a nice person. I just came to get my mother.”

“You don’t get to tell your mother how to live her life,” Bethany snapped. “If she’s discovered something you can’t understand, it’s not your place to stand in its way.”

Eileen bristled. “Take it easy, Bethany.”

Rachelle put her hand up in a pacific gesture. “You’re a bright young man,” she said calmly. “Are you willing to consider that there might be a reality beyond the comprehension of your senses? That all might not be as it seems?”

“Mom!” he said, exasperated.

“Why don’t you ask her what she wants?” Bethany strode over to stand behind her. Eileen felt Bethany’s fingertips on her back urging her into the loveseat, and she sat, surprising herself. “She’s had a lifetime of males telling her how to behave, and she’s not about to start taking orders from her own son.”

Connell fell back against the wall, looking spent. Sergei remained standing with his arms folded across his chest. She knew it must have seemed to Connell that she was under Rachelle’s spell. She wished Connell could see the granite vein of skepticism that ran through her, which Rachelle could never mine clean, no matter how long she chipped away.

“I want you to know something,” Rachelle said to him. “Your mother is in good hands here.”

“Can we get out of here, Mom?”

“I’m fine,” Eileen said. “I don’t want you to think anything weird is going on.”

“How much money have you given them?”

“He’s only concerned about his inheritance,” Bethany said. “Typical.”

“That’s not fair to the boy,” Eileen said.

Rachelle took a step toward Connell. “I’m saddened to hear you speak in such simplistic terms about the relationship your mother has formed to the truth of the universe. I may draw a modest fee for facilitating her enlightenment, but it’s only to cover basic administrative costs, nothing more.”

“You’re preying on her in a time of weakness. You should be ashamed.”

“Mind your manners,” Bethany warned.

“Leave my mother alone.”

“You’re nothing but a punk,” Bethany said.

“And you’re a crazy cult lady.” He pointed at Bethany and Rachelle. “You and you.”

Eileen knew she should step in, but she couldn’t make her mouth form any words.

“I’ve tolerated you here out of deference to your mother,” Rachelle said. “You’re no longer welcome. Please leave now.”

Bethany stepped forward; Sergei did as well.

“Mom,” Connell said, simply, plaintively.

“You’ve offended me,” Rachelle said. “I’ve asked you to leave. If you don’t, I’ll have no choice but to call the police.”

“I’m not leaving without my mother.”

“I’m quite sure that’s not your decision to make,” Rachelle said. “Why don’t you go peacefully and let us get back to trying to do some good for your mother, instead of causing her needless anxiety.”

Connell didn’t move.

Now ,” Rachelle said.

“Mom!”

“It’s okay,” Eileen said.

“You heard your mother.” Bethany stepped toward Connell. “Now go. If Rachelle doesn’t call the police, I will.”

Sergei was pleading with her through the dark pools of his eyes. She sensed a controlled fury in him; she could imagine it erupting if anyone so much as grazed Connell with a finger.

“You’re just going to stay here with these people? That’s it?”

She wanted to say, I’ll be home later , but the words still wouldn’t come.

“You’re ignorant,” Bethany said. “You’re an ignorant kid and you don’t know what you’re talking about. I feel sorry for you.”

“Don’t talk to my son like that,” Eileen heard herself say, and the room grew still and quiet. She rose. “He’s not ignorant. He means well. And I’m sorry if he offended you. I’m sure he’s sorry too. Yes?”

“Sure,” Connell said, evidently trying to seize the momentum. “Sorry.”

“I’m going to go home.” Before she knew it, she was paces from the door. “I’m tired. I want to thank you for everything.”

“You don’t have to let guilt rule over you like this,” Rachelle said. “You’re on the verge of a major breakthrough.”

“You’ve helped me,” she said. “You’ve made a great difference.”

“You still have a long way to go,” Rachelle said. “Don’t fool yourself.”

“I’m sure I do.”

“I’ll call you later.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Don’t let him influence you,” Bethany said. “He’s no better than your husband.”

Eileen got very still. “You don’t know the first thing about him.” She dug into her pocketbook for the check and extended it toward Rachelle.

“Don’t be silly.” Rachelle tried to reach for her wrist. Eileen shook her off and left the check on the table. “You’re always welcome here. Take some time to think it over.”

She must have stood there too long, because Connell was calling her over. She walked toward the door. Bethany moved to head her off, but Sergei slid in front of Bethany like a gravestone rolling into place, blocking her with his massive body as Eileen continued out to the street.

“It’s going to be okay,” Bethany called after her, but Eileen didn’t turn around. Connell raced ahead while Sergei led her down the stairs and up the stretch of the block to where the car waited. He opened the door for her in the back. Connell took the streets with the grim purposefulness of a getaway driver.

In the silence that prevailed in the car, she wondered how her son had plotted this thing, how many people knew, how he had explained it to Sergei.

They pulled into the garage and went upstairs. Sergei headed to his room. She and Connell stood in the kitchen, eyeing each other warily.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she said.

“Yes, I did.”

“I wish I could explain this to you. I know it sounds like I’m making excuses. But I was never in any kind of danger. I was in control the whole time.”

He just looked at his feet. She wondered when exactly he had gotten so big. She was having one of those moments she hadn’t had in years, where he seemed to grow before her eyes. It occurred to her that he might have seen her as being as out of control as his father was. Maybe he thought both of them were losing their minds.

“Anyway, I want to thank you for caring. I was fine, but still.”

“No problem,” he said.

“I mean it. You’re a good kid.”

“Come on. You’re my mother.”

She wanted him to hug her, but he just stood there dubious of the way she was looking at him.

“Come here.” She put her arms around him. She felt his breathing against her chest and was reminded of holding him when he was a baby, his laundered pajamas soft and fresh as he was, the whole of him fitting in her two hands, his little behind on her palm. He’d looked at her then as the source and giver of love. She hadn’t had to hide anything from him, and she hadn’t needed anything from him but his presence. And it was that way again now, for at least this day, this moment. His presence at Rachelle’s had meant everything, and his presence now in her arms meant everything too.

When they were done hugging, he looked at her strangely.

“What?”

“Maybe those crazy ladies helped you after all.”

“What do you mean?”

“That was the first time you ever did that.”

“Did what?”

“Hugged me first.”

She shook her head. “That’s not possible,” she said.

“In my memory, anyway.”

She shook it again. “There’s more that’s happened tha


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n what’s in your memory.”

• • •

When she got to the top of the stairs she ran into Sergei leaving the bathroom. He gave her a diffident wave, as though they were schoolchildren passing in the hallway during the change of classes. She stood in the antechamber to the bedroom for a while, hearing Ed’s labored breathing under the sheet.

She walked to the bed and found him lying awake in a spooky silence, looking right at her.

“Where?” he asked, sounding as if he were half dreaming. “Where were?”

“With Bethany.”

“Who?”

“Someone I used to work with. It’s not important.”

Ed had always had quick and accurate instincts about people. She crawled in and lay beside him. He drifted off. She lay awake listening to the unified murmur of televisions, her own, Sergei’s, and the one in the den. She pictured Sergei awake, keeping a solitary vigil like herself.

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Ed had lost faith in the physical properties of things. On the way up the stairs that night, he stopped on every step. She had to follow closely behind him and tap a leg to indicate which one was next, then lift it for him. He was frantic when his foot was in the air. They proceeded at a glacial pace, and then he stopped and simply wouldn’t budge, despite how hard she pushed his leg, which still had considerable strength in it, the atrophy notwithstanding. She couldn’t get him to let go of the banister. This was one of those moments — they had been coming more frequently lately — when she wished Sergei didn’t go home on the weekends.

By the time they reached the top, they were both exhausted. She steered him into the bathroom, where she undressed him with great difficulty. Getting one leg over the high lip of the bathtub was no mean feat; getting the other over seemed an impossibility. He straddled the bathtub wall like a rodeo performer athwart two prancing horses. She upset his balance enough to get his other leg in, but then her troubles started. Laying him down was out of the question: she would never get him up again. Showering him, though, presented the risk of his slipping and cracking his head open. A visit to the hospital for something so severe almost certainly meant he would be taken from her care. While the tub was dry, her anxiety was contained; when the water came on, she began fretting in earnest. Whatever purchase he had on the tacky mat was tenuous, and there was nothing for him to grab on to but her body if he started falling. She turned the shower on and cleaned him, but when the time came to emerge, his anxiety spiked. He simply wouldn’t step over the lip of the tub. She tried coaxing him, forcing his leg up, making feints at him, but nothing budged him. His legs shook from standing so long in that fixed intensity of opposition, and his body quivered under a dew of cold droplets. She decided to turn the water back on to warm him up. He stood wordless in that superfluous rinse until she shut it off. They could not go on like this. She thought to get the cordless phone and call for help, but she didn’t want to leave him alone for even the several seconds it would take her to retrieve it, and besides, she didn’t know whom to call, and she didn’t want an ambulance to come for fear of his never returning. She could shout for help, but no one would hear.

She attempted a few more times to tap and lift his leg, exhorting him to cooperate and be a man about this. She tried luring him into a sense of ease and then going after his leg when he wasn’t expecting it, but he stiffened as soon as she wrapped her arms around his calf. She wished she’d bought the goddamned shower chair. He was in a kind of agony of fatigue now. He didn’t want to resist her, but he couldn’t help h