Authors: Mary Beth Keane
“Not really,” Brian said, grinning. “He’s the one who told me about the house. He didn’t say?”
Later, when Francis got home, she wanted to know why he hadn’t told her they were coming. She could have made a welcome party, had food ready. But he had told her, he insisted. He said the house sold, she said, but not that it sold to his friend.
“Well, I don’t know about friend,” Francis said.
“You work with him. You eat meals with him. You’ve known him since academy. Weren’t you partners for a while? He’s your friend,” Lena said.
“I’m sorry,” Francis said. “I forgot. He got transferred. I haven’t seen
him in a few weeks.” He pulled her to his chest. “What’s the wife like? They lost a baby, did I tell you that? A stillborn, I think. Probably going on two years ago now.”
Lena gasped and thought of Natalie’s warm belly rising and falling in her crib upstairs. “How awful.” She recalled with horror the advice she’d offered, how silently Anne had taken it.
Lena paid attention to her neighbor’s belly to see how it was growing, but she wore everything so loose—oversized nursing scrubs on workdays, and on her days off peasant blouses and skirts so long they almost skimmed the ground. Lena often watched Anne hurry to her car in the mornings, keys in hand, and felt a small flame of jealousy for the other woman’s freedom. Sometimes she’d go out to the mailbox when she saw that Anne was outside and try to approach her, to start a conversation, but most times Anne just gave Lena a light wave and went in. A few times, when she saw Anne’s car was in the driveway, she’d gone to their door and knocked but no one ever answered. Once, she stuck a note in their mailbox asking if they wanted to come to dinner some Saturday night—they could name the date—but got no reply.
Francis said maybe they’d never gotten the note. Maybe the mailman had taken it. “Can you ask Brian?” Lena asked.
“Listen,” Francis said. “Don’t worry about it. Some people don’t like to make friends so close. I can understand that, can’t you?”
“I understand completely,” Lena said, then took Natalie into her arms and went up to their bedroom to sit on the edge of the bed.
Summer came and went. Brian was outside raking their yard one Saturday when Lena spotted Francis chatting with him on the narrow strip
of grass between their driveways. Francis was laughing so hard he had to bend over a little to catch his breath. Sara was born, another healthy girl, except this time around Lena couldn’t rest when the baby rested because Natalie was there, too, unsteady on her feet and always toddling toward the stairs. Eventually a full nine months went by since the Stanhopes had moved in, and no matter how early the pregnancy had been on the day they arrived, baby Stanhope would have been in the world by then. Never had Lena detected crisis from next door, the house cloaked with the kind of sadness a lost baby would bring. One day, after arriving home from the grocery store, both babies wailing from the backseat, Lena stood at the open trunk of the car considering the dozen bags she had to get inside when she glanced up and found Anne staring at her from the end of their front porch. Lena had learned to drive but she wasn’t confident about it. The only route she’d dared so far without Francis was to the grocery store and back. She was afraid she’d done something wrong and Anne had seen.
“Hello!” Lena called over, but Anne turned her back and went inside.
When it was almost Sara’s first birthday, Lena observed that Anne’s belly appeared to be growing. She badgered Francis to ask Brian next time he saw him.
“Ah, come on,” Francis said. “They’ll tell us if they want to tell us.”
But one day it must have come up. Lena was sewing a button onto one of Francis’s shirts when he came into the kitchen to wash his hands. Without turning from the sink, he said she was right, the Stanhopes were indeed having a baby. Being a man he hadn’t gotten a single detail, but Lena knew Anne must be close to her due date when her car stayed in their driveway all day and she no longer seemed to go to work. Lena waited for the right time, the right day, and then she put Sara in the playpen, turned on the television for Natalie, folded up the old baby
swing, and trudged across the snow-dusted driveways to the Stanhopes’ front door. Anne seemed taken aback by the gesture, and though she didn’t invite Lena in, she did ask if she wouldn’t mind demonstrating how to unfold it, how to use the straps. Lena, thrilled, took off her mittens to open it on the Stanhopes’ porch, to show her how to unsnap the fabric if it needed to be washed, how to drape it around the frame and secure it. As they talked, Anne, who was wearing only a thin wool cardigan, said she was due the following week, and Lena told her what she hadn’t even told her mother yet, that she was pregnant, too. Since she estimated her own due date was about six months behind Anne’s, she figured the Stanhope baby could occupy the swing for six months—which the manufacturer had printed as the maximum age anyway—and then Anne could pass it back. They could pool what they had and try to help each other. Anne was going to stay home with the baby for a while and then decide about work. She liked working, she told Lena, as if it was a confession, and Lena, feeling an opening, told her that she understood, that being home with a baby was more difficult than it looked from the outside, more difficult than it seemed like it should be.
“If you need anything—if Brian isn’t home when the time comes—or anything at all, you know where to find me.” As she crossed back over the driveways, she thought: It was just that we got off on the wrong foot. She thought: She probably lost that baby and couldn’t face me, having two. She thought: Maybe I offended her somehow, without realizing, and now it’s all water under the bridge.
Peter was born less than a week later, nine pounds ten ounces.
“It was gruesome,” Brian said to Francis.
“As far as I know they’re all like that,” Francis said. And then: “You didn’t see . . . that time when . . . ?”
“No, no. It was nothing like this. They knew, you see, beforehand.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
“Not at all. It’s fine.”
Anne held her son on her lap for the ride home from the hospital,
and when she carried him into the house, the corner of his thick blue blanket flapped in the bitter February wind. Lena had Natalie and Sara scribble “Welcome Home” drawings, then left them outside the Stanhopes’ door, weighted down with a poppy-seed loaf she’d baked that day.
The next morning, while Francis was waiting for the teakettle to boil and Lena was ladling oatmeal into bowls, the sound of the doorbell rang out. The wind had rattled the house all night long, and the morning news said it had brought down tree limbs all over the county. Francis thought the doorbell had something to do with that, someone wanting help, someone alerting them to something, a downed wire, a closed road. Instead, he opened the door to find Anne Stanhope wearing a beautiful ankle-length camel hair coat buttoned to the throat, and holding the baby swing. She was wearing bright red lipstick but there were dark circles under her eyes. “Here,” she said, holding the swing out to him.
“Is everything all right?” Lena asked over her husband’s shoulder. “Is the baby all right?”
“I can take care of my own baby,” Anne said. “And I can bake for my own husband.”
Lena went silent, wide-eyed. “Of course you can!” she said finally. “I just know it’s hard in the beginning so I thought—”
“It’s not hard at all. He’s a perfect baby. We’re fine.”
Francis found purchase inside the exchange long before Lena. “Well, thanks a lot,” he said, taking the swing and beginning to shut the door, but Lena stopped him.
“Wait a second. Just wait a second. I think there’s been a misunderstanding. Keep the swing,” she said. “The baby will nap in it. Really. We’re not even using it.”
“Are you listening?” Anne said. “I don’t want it. If I need something for my son, I’m fully capable of buying it.”
“Fair enough,” Francis said, and this time closed the door. He tossed the folded swing toward the couch, where it bounced off the cushion and clattered to the floor. While Lena stood openmouthed in the middle
of the living room, a wooden spoon in her hand, he shrugged and said: “It’s him I feel sorry for. He’s a nice fella.”
“What in the world did I do to her?” Lena asked.
“Not a thing,” Francis said, already headed back into the kitchen to his tea and his newspaper. “Something’s not right.” He tapped the side of his head. “Just don’t bother with her anymore.”
Six months later, Kate was born into the swampy humidity of August. Lena always said she couldn’t nurse Kate because as soon as they were skin to skin they’d both get so sweaty she’d slip right off. She gave up after only a day or two, and when Francis was on midnights he’d come home, drop his things by the door, and give Kate her first bottle of the day. It was such a break for Lena, and it was so sweet to see father and daughter staring at each other over the bottle while she drank, that Lena wished she’d bottle-fed all three. “You’re a dote,” Francis would say to the baby when she finished, and then flip her to his shoulder for a burp.
Peter, six months ahead, was eating cereal and applesauce while Kate was naked on her belly, learning to hold the weight of her own head. Later, they’d both wonder when their brains first registered the presence of the other. Could Peter hear Kate cry when the windows of both houses were open? When he learned to stand up to the porch railing, did he ever see Kate’s sisters pulling her along the sidewalk in their Radio Flyer and wonder who she was?
For the rest of her life, when asked to recall her earliest memory, Kate would remember watching him run around the side of his house with a red ball in his hand and already knowing his name.
HE SNOW WAS SUPPOSED
to skirt Gillam, was supposed to swing across the Hudson to Westchester County, over Connecticut, and then out to sea. But by the time Mrs. Duvin told her sixth grade class to open their social studies textbooks, they could all smell it coming in the heavy, steel-glinted air. Peter wrote “1988” in his notebook, even though they were fully two months into 1989. The radio left on a low volume in the faculty lounge carried the news that the storm had changed course and now the towns west of the Hudson could expect another twelve inches on top of the nine they’d gotten over the weekend. “Snow!” Jessica D’Angelis said, bolting upright at her desk and pointing to the window that faced the teachers’ parking lot. Mrs. Duvin flicked the classroom lights on and off to remind them to collect themselves. Then, as if she’d forgotten why she’d come over to the light switch in the first place, she stood in the darkened classroom and looked over her students’ heads to the sky outside.
When the PA popped to life, they could all hear Sister Margaret breathing into the microphone. “Due to the coming storm, classes will be dismissed at noon today. Your parents have been notified. Children who take the bus will begin lining up at eleven fifty-five.”
Kate found it difficult to sit still on a normal day but with a snowstorm scuttling the classroom routine—they had to retrieve their lunch boxes from the lunch shelf and return them, uneaten, to their backpacks; they had to go over the vocab words at ten o’clock since they wouldn’t be there at one fifteen—it was as if she’d lost the power of hearing. Peter could feel her frenetic buzzing all the way from his seat, two rows away. Mrs. Duvin was still talking at the front of the classroom, rapping on the blackboard, telling them not to move a muscle until her say-so while Kate was shoving folders and marbled notebooks into her bag, twisting around in her seat to get a better view out the windows. She wanted to make an ice rink in her backyard, she was saying to Lisa Gordon, who Peter could tell was trying to ignore her, or at least not be seen by Mrs. Duvin to be engaging her. Her dad had given her the idea, she said.
“Kath-leen Glee-son!” Mrs. Duvin said, isolating each part of Kate’s name so there were four separate rebukes. But instead of sending her out into the hall like she usually did, she just gave her a pleading look and then pointed at the clock. At precisely 11:55, Kate, Peter, and the other bus kids were walking down the hall. Kate was swinging her backpack, walking on the toes of her navy bucks as if at any moment she might break into a sprint. When they got outside she slid across a patch of black ice, arms wheeling like in a cartoon.
Peter followed close behind her as they bumped down the aisle of the school bus to the emergency exit row. She paused at their seat to let him slide past—since kindergarten he’d been sitting by the window. As always, Peter threw his backpack to the floor and then slid down until his knees jammed up against the vinyl back of the seat in front of them. Kate knelt facing backward so that she could see and talk to everyone.
“You beat John this morning,” Kate said as she settled in beside him. “Was he mad?” The boys played wall ball every morning while the girls clustered in groups to watch. Once, at the beginning of the year, Kate took position alongside the boys, and when one of them asked what she
thought she was doing, she looked around like it was the most obvious thing in the world, like it was a completely normal thing for her to join the game when in fact in all the years they’d been at St. Bartholomew’s no girl had ever played before. She was fast, which kept her in for a few minutes, but the boys were stronger and, of course, gunning for her. She fumbled. She fumbled again. In no time she had three strikes and was standing at the wall with her hands flat against the brick while they pelted her in the butt, one by one. John Dills took a running start and threw from such close range that Peter winced and Kate took one hand off the wall to clutch the spot where she’d been hit.
“You’re such a dick,” Peter said when John returned to his spot, snickering. The girls looking on glanced between Kate and the boys and didn’t know whom or what to root for. When it was his turn, Peter threw lightly, the ball barely brushing the back of Kate’s legs, and they called him on it. “It’s a stupid rule,” he said, refusing to throw again, but strangely, Kate was the one most annoyed about it. “Why didn’t you throw it for real?” she fumed later, glancing left and right to make sure no one could hear them. He was afraid he’d hurt her, he’d stammered. She didn’t speak to him for the rest of the day.